The Essential Atom Egoyan Collection

Atom Egoyan is like Dario Argento in at least one key aspect: he really seems to have lost his touch, and his modern films fall embarrassingly short of his earlier, celebrated work.  Has he really lost his touch, or maybe looking back, is it that his older material isn't quite as flawless as we held it up to be?  Maybe it's some of both, though I've been revisiting everything, from his earliest to his latest, and there definitely is a clear drop off, at least in the writing, if not the directorial craft.  Even his latest, 2019's Guest of Honour, which some critics have heralded as a return to form, asks us to accept the premise that a young school teacher falsely accused of having an affair with her teenage students, would fake it (going to the students' hotel room at night and making loud sex noises) just to toy with her accuser.  It's that weirdly self-serious mixture of lurid sex (I think male boomer filmmakers have made more films about teachers falsely accused of affairs with their students than actually taking advantage) and absurdity that gives his work that embarrassing cringy air.  I mean, that had me scoffing at the screen, but it was an admittedly strong improvement over the stuff of Chloe or the nearly unwatchable Where the Truth Lies.  This brought us back to just mild, Adoration levels of goofiness, so maybe there's hope for him yet.  Just like Argento managed to pull off at least a competent, halfway return to form with Dark Glasses.  He hasn't recaptured the magic of Suspiria, but he's getting there.

And to be fair, most of these issues do bubble up even in the early work, just to less disastrous effect.  I'm relieved to report that these movies do largely hold up and are still worth having in your collection.  Most of the early films were previously released on DVD by Zeitgeist Films in 2001, as their "The Essential Egoyan" line.  And most of them still have only been released on blu by Artificial Eye in the UK, first as an individual discs in 2013, which were then grouped together into this 2014 boxed set.  But of course, we'll also cover the more recent and better known features that've had releases on more major labels.  Except, that is, for 1994's Exotica, which I've already given its own page, including its disc in this set, the old Miramax DVD and the competing blu from Alliance.
We start with Egoyan's first full-length feature, 1984's Next of Kin (released by Zeitgeist as a 2-DVD set with Family Viewing, which we'll be coming to next).  Peter is a 23 year-old who's dragged to a modern sort of video-tape based family therapy by his parents because he's unmotivated and likes to pretend.  Peter soon pretends to be a doctor at this clinic and watch some of the video-tapes of other families, in particular an Armenian couple and then insert himself into their lives by pretending to be their long-lost son.  Soon he meets his estranged "sister" played of course by Egoyan's wife Arsinée Khanjian, and finally finds purpose in trying to restore her relationship with her parents, by teaching her some of his dissociative techniques.  Egoyan plays with cinematic techniques in ways fans should expect: what first plays like opening narration turns out to be a recording from the story, and there's a lot about reflecting on one's life through recorded video.  But it's told in more of a straight-forward manner than most of his work.  It's certainly weird, but never alienating, and a bemusing if never truly involving social experiment.  In other words, it's no masterpiece but certainly worth a watch.
2001 Zeitgeist DVD top; 2014 Artificial Eye BD bottom.
It looks like a thin layer of wax paper was covering the DVD image and removed for the blu.  The framing and aspect ratio are adjusted from 1.31:1 to 1.37:1, and a soft murkiness of compression is replaced with sharp, grain-infused HD clarity.  What you're going to see again and again in these comparisons isn't the same master just benefiting from the extra resolution of an HD disc, but all new, far superior remasters.  These are very satisfying upgrades.

On the other hand, the back of the blu-ray case mentions LPCM audio, but in fact both discs only offer lossy Dolby stereo tracks, and only the DVD includes optional English subtitles.  So it's not all forward momentum.
And speaking of not winning them all, the blu-ray is barebones, an especially disappointing fact considering the DVD was a bit of a special edition.  This, like the lossy audio, is going to be a running theme through this set.  Anyway, the DVD had an excellent commentary by Egoyan, who's quite a good commentator, roughly thirteen minutes of rehearsal footage with the cast, and a photo gallery.  No fan would want to miss these, but Artificial Eye hasn't got 'em.
Family Viewing takes some of what Egoyan was playing with in the last film even further, depicting our characters on television screens or as surveilled through security cameras.  Half of this movie is shot on 1" tape, and other on 16mm film.  Very early on, a character uses a remote to rewind a scene he's in, a la Funny Games.  The plot follows a young man who fakes his grandmother's death to move his cold father (there's a great scene where he visits the wrong woman at the nursing home), who's recording over all their old family videos to make sex tapes with his girlfriend.  Khanjian is back, this time as a phone sex operator (naturally, as Egoyan's most common recurring theme seems to be sex work), and we're introduced to a couple other actors who would become regular members of his troupe: David Hemblen and Gabrielle Rose.  The young lead is Aiden Tierney, who has no other credits to his name, but is the younger brother of Patrick Tierney, who was Peter in Next of Kin and has a brief appearance in our next feature, Speaking Parts.
2001 Zeitgeist DVD top; 2014 Artificial Eye BD bottom.
The fullscreen framing is pretty close on this one, just shifting from 1.30:1 to 1.32:1.  But the actual PQ is markedly improved.  There's all kinds of compression noise on the DVD, which is also overly blue.  The BD is a much clearer and film-like.  The boost to HD is especially important because the image being crushed down to murky SD helped to obscure the distinction between video formats, which you're supposed to notice as part of the storytelling - a point Egoyan expressly makes in the commentary.  He's frustrated by the DVD he's watching; I think he'd be relieved by this blu.

Once again, both discs only offer loss Dolby stereo tracks, despite the blu-ray case claiming LPCM, and only the DVD includes optional English subtitles.  Also again, the DVD had a great commentary by Egoyan, who explicates on the themes and ideas behind the movie, and gets into all the reasoning behind his creative technical decisions.  It also has another 13 minutes of rehearsal footage, and a photo gallery, none of which are on the blu.  Plus, there are three of Egoyan's earliest short films, which, okay.  Let's do the shorts now.
These shorts are Egoyan's earliest films*: 1979's Howard In Particular, 1981's Peepshow and 1982's Open House.  They're also included as extras in the blu-ray box.  Specifically, Open House is on The Sweet Hereafter and the other two are on Calendar... just in case you're not getting the box but just picking and choosing between the individual releases.  Howard In Particular is a 13-minute student film, shot in black and white with no synced sound, where a man attends a dystopian retirement party on tape.  And Peepshow is a quick 7 minute exercise where Egoyan experiments with placing various color filters over the image as a man visits an "sensual" photo booth.  Both are probably only of interest to serious fans interested in tracking the director's development, though there is a crude science fiction foundation to these films that it's surprising Egoyan has yet to revisit.
2001 Zeitgeist DVD top; 2014 Artificial Eye BD bottom.
The same 1.32:1 standard def master is used on the DVD and the BD, but the blu-ray is interlaced, which the DVD isn't.  So the BD is actually the worse option for these early 16mm outings.  Both discs only have lossy audio and no subtitles, and there are no extras as these shorts essentially are serving as extras themselves.

Open House, however, actually aired on the CBC.  It's 26-minutes long, in full color with naturally captured audio, and could be described as his first "real" movie.  Still a rough, early work for sure, but one you might choose to watch not strictly as a historical artifact.  A young realtor is eager to impress a couple who are in the market for a new a house, but it turns out he has an ulterior motive.  It's ultimately a sweet and sad little story, and maintains a degree maturity even his most recent films would be improved by, though there's some unfortunate, clunky humor at the start.
2001 Zeitgeist DVD top; 2014 Artificial Eye BD bottom.
We're still using the same SD master (though this time it's more like 1.31:1) with lossy audio and no subs for both, so the two discs are virtually identical except for the BD being interlaced.  Meaning once again that the DVD is preferable, and no, there are no extras for it.  Egoyan commentaries on these shorts would've been wonderful, but oh well.  That's it for the shorts; back to the features.
1989's Speaking Parts feels like the first of Egoyan's features with a commercial side.  It's still kind a weird artsy movie, but it plays more like the sort of conventional thriller mainstream couples might've taken a shot at renting from their local Blockbusters.  It's about a handsome hotel janitor who works on the sly as a male prostitute but wants to be an actor.  When a screenwriter is put up in the hotel, he seduces her in an attempt to get cast in her film.  Meanwhile, Khanjian works with him at the hotel and is unaware of his illicit moonlighting, but it's only a matter of time until she stumbles onto something because she's stalking him.  And David Hemblen is a big-shot producer whose changes to the film could ruin things for everyone.  Egoyan swims through his usual themes of secret obsessions and video versions of ourselves.  This film even winds up inventing a prototypical version of cybersex.  Overall, it's an engrossing story, with the seedy elements never getting too goofy or implausible.
2001 Zeitgeist DVD top; 2014 Artificial Eye BD bottom.
Holy cow - what a difference!  First we're going from fullscreen (1.31) to widescreen (1.78), and while the lifted mattes of the DVD to reveal more along the top and bottom, the widescreen reveals more along the sides.  The old DVD source is just full of so much noise and nasty edge enhancement, which the BD sweeps away.  And the color correction is just as critical, as the DVD has gone totally pink, so seeing all the original colors return to the image is really enlightening.

On the other hand, the audio is lossy on both discs and only the DVD has subtitles or extras.  The DVD had another great commentary, a brief (six minute) on-camera interview with Egoyan, several deleted scenes (a couple with commentary) and an image gallery.  So on the one hand, the BD is a huge improvement, on the other hand it's a big step backwards.  Argh!
And now we get to the major stuff, and out of The Essential Egoyan collection, because now his films were mainstream enough to be released by the major studios.  1991's The Adjuster was put out on DVD by MGM in 2001, but I went with the Canadian Alliance Atlantis disc because it was a special edition and the MGM was barebones.  And boy, this is a wild one.  Elias Koteas is the titular insurance adjuster who gets way too involved in the lives of the people whose claims he's investigating, mostly sexually.  His wife, Khanjian, is a film censor keeping a secret from her coworkers David Hemblen and Don McKellar: that she's secretly videotaping the dirtiest scenes from the movies they screen for her own illicit purposes.  But that's all nothing compared to the weirdo couple (Gabrielle Rose and another Egoyan regular, Maury Chaykin) they get entangled with who stage impossibly elaborate, sometimes downright comical, scenarios to explore their own sexual fantasies.  This one's as ludicrous as Egoyan's ever gotten, but it's so far afield, it kind of works.  It's kind of Lynchian, and Koteas can ground anything.  The soundtrack and the moody editing go a long way, too; and the trauma of losing your home in a fire is powerfully relatable.
2001 Alliance DVD top; 2014 Artificial Eye BD bottom.
Another massive difference, thanks as much in part to how awful the DVD is as to the strength of the BD.  The DVD is a non-anamorphic and clearly squished 1.94:1, and cropped on the left-hand side, which the BD fixes in an respects to 2.40:1.  The DVD is also interlaced, which the BD fixes, and covered in an orange hue, which is color corrected-away.  Both discs only over the stereo mix in a lossy track, and only the DVD has optional subtitles (and a French dub).

And just like the Zeitgeist disc, the DVD has a bunch of great extras not on the blu.  Egoyan does a commentary and a ten-minute interview, plus the red band (ooh la la!) trailer's on here.  And we also get one more short film, this one called En Passant.  This one's not on blu at all.
En Passant is from 1991, actually a segment from an anthology film called Montreal Stories, and it stars Maury Chaykin and Arsinée Khanjian.  It's a bit of a silly story about a man who only speaks in signs (not sign language, but wordless paper signs) flying to Guess Where and taking a guided tour on audio tape.  It's gimmicky and you could easily call it cloyingly eccentric, but it's still charming enough to carry its 13 minute runtime.  The film is presented in 1.30:1, which I guess... is the correct aspect ratio?  It was shot on 35mm though, so it could definitely look a lot better than it does here.  Curiously, though the feature film was interlaced, this short on the same disc is not.  There are no subtitles except for a few French lines, which are burnt in.
The next one's interesting.  On the one hand, it's pretty great and smartly subtle.  On the other hand, it's the beginning of Egoyan going off the rails.  1993's Calendar is essentially split into two halves that intercut back and forth.  The great part is a trip with Egoyan and Khanjian playing almost themselves (it's not the first time he's appeared in his own work, but it is the first time he's had a prominent role) as a couple traveling through Armenia, photographing their historical churches.  Arsinée is really connecting with their cultural past... and their tour guide, but for Atom it's just work.  It's all seen through Atom's lens, and the subtle disintegration of their relationship is expertly written and performed.  Also the locations are beautiful.  But then that's intercut with Atom in a later period of time, having dinner with a series of prostitutes who he makes reenact the same moment in his past relationship.  It gets sillier and more alienating every time they cut back and he has a new actress.  The movie is strong enough that you can get past it and accept the film on its own terms, but looking back, it was a clear sign of everything to come.
2001 Alliance DVD top; 2014 Artificial Eye BD bottom.
Both discs may be fullframe (1.31:1 v 1.37:1), but they sure don't look alike.  The color correction makes a huge difference in restoring the realism and beauty of the image.  The framing reveals more on the sides, and the HD is much sharper and clearer.  As with all the other comparisons, both discs feature lossy stereo audio, and only the DVD has subtitles.

The DVD also had some great exclusive extras, including a commentary, a narrated photo gallery and an eight minute interview, all with Egoyan.  It also had an excellent hour-long documentary, but that one's not so exclusive.  It's on the BD set as well.
2001 Zeitgeist DVD top; 2014 Artificial Eye BD bottom.
Formulas for Seduction is essentially the only extra in the blu-ray box (on the Exotica disc, again in case anyone's shopping for the individual releases).  It's basically one long, pretty great interview with Egoyan interspersed with film clips.  It's non-anamorphic on both discs, but the DVD is interlaced with slightly crushed blacks, while the BD has neither of those problems, so that's one point in the blu-rays' favor.  The framing is also slightly different: 1.69:1 vs 1.73:1, but it's hard to say which is correct... probably neither.
Finally, we come to what is widely accepted as his masterpiece, The Sweet Hereafter from 1997.  A lot of the credit surely goes to the original novelist Russell Banks, but his writing really plays into Egoyan's strengths, and the way he expertly constructs his story into a time-shifting screenplay has never been more effective.  He's also assembled his greatest cast, a mix of his regulars: Arsinée Khanjian, Gabrielle Rose, David Hemblen and Maury Chaykin, but also gets top of the line performances by great actors like Ian Holm, Sarah Polley and Bruce Greenwood.  The monologue Holm delivers on the airplane alone is Oscar worthy.  Then the photography, the music... everything is operating at peak performance, and the material, about a small town that lost almost all of its children in a tragic school bus accident, is powerful but unsentimental.  You bet this film was too big for Zeitgeist.  Instead New Line released it on special edition DVD in the US, as part of their Platinum Series... you know, with the Austin Powers movies.
1998 New Line DVD top; 2014 Artificial Eye BD bottom.
New Line's DVD slightly windowboxed, but otherwise anamorphic at 2.35:1.  Still the blu-ray is clearly taken from a new scan, now framed at 2.40:1.  It's noticeably brighter and definitely clearer, not least because this disc has some rough compression.  It is a pretty old DVD, after all.  So it's another essential upgrade.

And here's the pleasant surprise - the blu-ray audio is actually lossless!  There are actually two tracks, a lossy stereo mix and a lossless 5.1 DTS-HD.  Still, the only subtitles are on the DVD, which also had a French dub and additional French and Spanish subs.
And yes, this blu is barebones, too (apart from Open House), when New Line packed their DVD even fuller than Zeitgeist and Alliance.  There's a commentary by Egoyan and Banks (they're great on mic together), an over half-hour making of doc, a Charlie Rose television interview with Egoyan, some short EPK interviews with the cast, an isolated music track, and two trailers.  Must have stuff!

So, annoying as it is, you pretty much need all the old DVDs and the Artificial Eye blus.  The prior for the extras (and subtitles, if you need them) and the latter for the respectable HD transfers.  Only Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter are available on blu anywhere else in the world), which are far superior.  The Exotica DVD actually didn't have any extras, but the Alliance blu has an exclusive commentary and lossless audio, so you'll probably want to pick that up, too.  Or wait a couple months, because Criterion is putting out a new special edition in September.  But that still leaves all the other early films, so there's no way around it.  The Atom Egoyan Collection packs each disc in a separate, thin amary case in a cardboard slipbox.  The set was reissued last year in a new box, but the discs' contents are the unchanged.


*The IMDB and similar databases list an earlier short, 1977's Lust Of a Eunuch starring Ed Begley Jr., but I don't believe it.

4 comments:

  1. I agree with you that Egoyan, much like Argento and Van Sant, has lost his way. That being said, I still think "Chloe" is his last good film. Immensely underappreciated, in my opinion.

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  2. By the way, do you ever take requests?

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    1. Sort of! I definitely consider them. I'm not going to run out and buy discs of a movie I have no interest in, but whenever I'm considering what to cover next, I do allow the fact that readers are interested in a particular film/ disc to influence me. 8)

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    2. Well, definitely consider the Criterion release of Welles' "Chimes at Midnight." I can't find a single quality screenshot of Jeanne Moreau in that film anywhere on the Internet. It's insane!

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