The following articles were previously published on the now-defunct web site Laserdisc Forever between 1994-2004. They should be read in context of the time they were originally written. Technical standards may have risen in the meantime. Writing styles and tastes also may have evolved as the author matured.
- Alien Saga Collector’s Set
- The Baby of Mâcon
- Dolby Digital Experience / DTS Experience
- The Elephant Man
- Hotel Room
- Image Entertainment Laserdisc Catalog Volume 1 – Fall 1991
- Lost Highway
- Map of the Human Heart
- The Matrix
- Pretty as a Picture: The Art of David Lynch
- Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
- The Transformers: The Movie
- Wild at Heart
Alien Saga Collector’s Set (Japanese Release)
Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published May 1, 1999.
Fox Video International has released the Alien Saga Collector’s Set on Laserdisc in Japan. The set comprises the first three films in the series. All three films carry both the THX and Dolby Digital markings. The first two discs are, I’m sure, created from the same film-to-video transfers as the most recent CLV editions released domestically. Compared directly to the otherwise definitive CAV box sets, Alien is noticeably sharper but is also considerably darker. I have heard speculation that some Japanese Laserdiscs are mastered for a 0 IRE black level, which might account for the overly dark appearance. I have not had the opportunity to compare this disc to the domestic THX release to see if it exhibits the same problem. Bumping up the brightness on my television monitor by a few notches while watching the import helps even out the differences between the two discs, but there are still important details lost in the murk. There are also many instances of inaccurate coloring on the new disc. The gleaming white walls of the cryogenic chambers early in the film now have a bluish tint to them which is just plain wrong. Flesh tones are also overly pinkish in a number of scenes. Viewed independently, the THX disc would seem acceptable, but on the whole I prefer the textures of the old CAV disc. Aliens has a sharper and overall better picture transfer than the notoriously grainy Special Edition CAV set, but it is unfortunately only the original theatrical cut of the film and is also slightly cropped on the sides in comparison, though the framing balance is barely affected at all.
Unfortunately, none of the movies contain any supplements directly related to these three films, not even trailers as I was really hoping. I was also expecting a printed booklet or brochure of some sort, which I have found to be a common inclusion in the Japanese box sets I have bought in the past. No such luck in this case.
Now for the good stuff:
On side 4 of the Aliens disc is the only known (to me anyway) full-length release of the Making of Alien Resurrection half-hour featurette. The DVD release of Alien Resurrection contains only a 3 minute excerpt from this special. The program is basically an infomercial for the film, no doubt prepared for cable TV, and not terribly exceptional for its genre. It does have a couple of important highlights, namely some terrific behind-the-scenes footage of the film’s underwater sequence and an interview with the film’s music composer, John Frizzell. During the underwater scene, Ron Perlman describes a near-death experience he had while performing an entire shot like a good trooper even though his eyes were bursting out of his head. Frizzell demonstrates unorthodox methods to create interesting sounds for the musical score. Both scenes are highly entertaining. The program is in English with Japanese subtitles and is hosted by Ron Perlman, who is uncharacteristically hammy as a host.
The biggest advantage to owning this box set, however, is the THX remastered edition of Alien3 which has not been released domestically on Laserdisc. The subsequent domestic DVD release does sport the THX seal and also includes a 20 minute behind-the-scenes featurette which has been released on VHS but is so far unavailable on Laserdisc.
The original Laserdisc for this film is, in a word, terrible. The entire last act of the movie is so flooded with signal noise that it becomes painful to watch. I have long regarded it as one of the worst looking lasers I’ve ever owned. The import, on the other hand, is fantastic and prompted me to dump my old copy immediately. The picture has the exact same letterboxing as the old disc, so the opening EEV crash sequence is still slightly cropped but the film is otherwise fine. Maybe it’s just overscan, but I wish they’d windowbox that portion of the movie anyway. The discs also share the same ideally placed side break, but the new disc has more chapter stops. The picture quality is terrific. It is slightly sharper than the old disc and has stronger colors, and most importantly the last act of the film is ROCK SOLID — No noise whatsoever. It was such a relief to finally view this film in a state comparable to my memories of its theatrical showings. The finale of the movie should look every bit as good as the similar (all right, identical) ending of Terminator 2 which has always looked great on disc. The audio on the domestic edition wasn’t exactly slacking, but the import is even stronger and in addition has a Dolby Digital track, making it the first release of this film to feature one and almost certainly the only Laserdisc that ever will.
Contrary to popular opinion about the movie, I’ve always found Alien3 to be an excellent addition to the series. It’s full of David Fincher’s stylish visuals, a strong script, interesting religious subtexts, and a very fitting sacrificial end for the Ripley character (at least until they brought her back for the next sequel). I saw it twice in the theater on its opening weekend. The movie had me hooked from the very beginning by killing off most of the survivors from the last movie. They could have been written out of the story somehow, or worse yet replaced with new actors, but instead everyone was killed off right in the opening credits. Why? Because there can be no happy ending for Ripley. She’s trapped in a nightmare and can never wake up. Every time she thinks she’s safe, every time she thinks she’s strong enough to win, she’s beaten back down. How did that alien egg get on her ship? Who the hell cares? What’s important is that it is there. It will always be there waiting for her. She can never escape.
Alien3 is a movie that ruthlessly, maliciously, gleefully defies the expectations of all the fans who went to see it. The fans wanted another rock ’em sock ’em action picture like Aliens. Did Fincher give them one? No. Alien3 is moody, somber, grungy, gruesome, out and out depressing.
Yes, it is also a flawed film. Objectively, it is not as perfectly executed as either of the first two movies. Most of the prisoner characters are indistinguishable from one another and the film exerts very little effort building up sympathy for them. But this is unimportant because the film is not about them. It’s about Ripley. Everyone else is just meat for the beast. And Ripley is great in this film. Weaver gives a terrific performance portraying her as a woman beaten down so far that she doesn’t want to get back up, yet has to. She’s got absolutely nothing left to live for, but she can’t stop until the job is done. The movie brilliantly quashes all of the of the optimism at the end of the last film and replaces it with hopelessness and despair.
That’s pretty ballsy, and I respect the movie enormously for it.
Almost everyone else in the world feels differently so I won’t beleaguer the point, but regardless I have long been waiting for this movie to be remastered as nicely as it has been here.
All three films have unobtrusive Japanese subtitles that appear below the 2.35:1 pictures of the first and third films, but within the 1.85:1 picture of the second (probably so that they won’t be cut off on 16:9 monitors). Interestingly, the movies are all close-captioned in English. The captions appear in electronic black bands that are usually positioned to cover up the Japanese subtitles.
The box set itself is attractively packaged. All three films are contained in individual jackets within a sturdy outer box. The jacket for Aliens is even a gatefold. For some reason white was chosen as the predominant color rather than the expected black, but it doesn’t look too bad at all. The standard poster art for each of the three films appears inset on each jacket cover. My only complaint is that they did not leave enough room in the box to fit a copy of Alien Resurrection, which came out separately around the same time.
For those of us still supporting the grand old Laserdisc format, this import box set is a terrific addition to any Alien fan’s collection.
The Baby of Mâcon (Japanese Release)
Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published October 6, 1999.
Peter Greenaway is certainly no stranger to controversy. Yet even among his film works, The Baby of Mâcon may be his most controversial and misunderstood project to date. The picture opened to scathing critical reaction in Europe, and even Greenaway has made some conciliatory apologies for it. Coming from the creator of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, these are not words to be taken lightly.
The film was produced in the period between Prospero’s Books and The Pillow Book, but the visual design is most similar to that of Cook. There are no picture-in-picture montages this time around. The narrative takes place on several levels, the outermost being a vaguely Renaissance period. Within this is the staging of a play, and the story traverses the various levels of reality in a deft manner. The play is a parable about a messianic child born into a barren country, and the greed and religious fervor that surround him. Julia Ormond portrays the child’s caretaker who later assumes the role of his mother to further her own position. Ralph Fiennes is a member of the clergy who questions her motives. They are attractive performers and they both appear completely nude in the picture, so were it not for the controversial parts you could almost say that the movie has a little something for everyone.
To provide a synopsis of the film’s climax would seem crass and would do the film a grave injustice. Put simply, the story comes to a shocking conclusion that is both horrifying and levels a firm accusation against the voyeuristic role of the “watcher” in the audience of any artwork, including the film itself.
The movie was not a popular success.
Regardless, the film is a bold stroke in Greenaway’s career, and in many ways confirms his position as one of the great masters of cinema. The cinematography and production design are often breathtaking, and the execution of the narrative simply staggering. I generally find Julia Ormond to be a bland actress, but here she gives a searing tear-down-the-walls performance that elevates her greatly in my opinion.
My wife, on the other hand, despises almost every aspect of the movie and was repulsed when she discovered that I had acquired it on home video. Please be warned about its polarizing nature before watching.
The film remains unreleased (some would say “unreleasable”) in the United States. Given its controversial subject matter and the general apathy toward Greenaway from the American public, it’s highly unlikely that any distributor would choose to release it in this country now that several years have passed. The most one can hope for is a home video release, but at this point no company has shown any interest in the title.
This is where the Japanese Laserdisc market comes into play.
The Baby of Mâcon has been released on Laserdisc in Japan. This may be the only official NTSC edition of the film available at present. The movie comes in a very attractive gatefold jacket. It runs just over two hours and is spread to three sides in CLV, followed by an interesting Japanese theatrical trailer. The side-breaks are well chosen, and in fact the platter break falls at a nearly ideal pause in the film’s action. However, this leaves barely 10 minutes of content on the final disc and the disc producers have chosen not to present any of the film in the CAV format. The disc also has no chapter encoding, which can be a nuisance.
The picture is precisely letterboxed to the full 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and for some reason has been set high in the screen. The audio is strong and clear. It’s not a showy sound mix, but after seeing the movie it’s sometimes difficult to get the sound of the staffs drumming on the floor out of your head. The image transfer has a sharp focus and very few print-related artifacts other than one particularly worn out section of film. Unfortunately, the colors and contrasts are much lighter than they ought to be, leaving the whole print looking washed out. Pulling the brightness level down on your display helps to compensate a little for this problem, but doesn’t fully solve it.
Even more distracting is the mandatory optical censorship imposed by Japanese regulations. There are strict laws in Japan regarding the presentation of genital nudity in films. Fortunately, there has been no editing done to the content of the picture. Unfortunately, any time an offending piece of pubic hair appears on screen, it’s covered up by a large oily smear. I was expecting a discreetly placed blur-spot, much as appears on American television, but instead the censorship is done crudely and haphazardly. The smearing tends to block out large portions of the frame, and more often than not will miss the dirty bits altogether. Luckily, Mâcon does not have nearly the copious amount of nudity often found in other Greenaway pictures, but this is still a tremendous annoyance. I can hardly imagine what the Japanese edition of Prospero’s Books must look like.
The presentation is flawed mainly by the censorship but is otherwise satisfying. For the only available edition of a film unofficially banned from this country, it could be worse. I for one find this to be an important work from one of the most invigorating of living filmmakers, and am glad to have it at all. My wife may not agree.
Dolby Digital Experience / DTS Experience
Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published January 21, 2001.
There’s something uniquely appealing about a video demo disc. They may have no narrative content, but the act of pushing home entertainment equipment to the limits of its performance can bring a peculiar thrill all on its own. This is a difficult feeling to justify. How do you explain why anyone would watch a series of unconnected video clips, test patterns, and audio tones? Surely no one would put up with such a program on videotape.
Somehow none of that matters once you crank up the volume on the digital surround sound and let the high resolution images show off all they can do. Even a modest home entertainment system can be vastly superior to the low-res VHS crap your friends suffer through. That thought has got to bring a smug sense of satisfaction. And to think of it, what difference is there really between watching this sort of random clip assortment or buying a dumb Hollywood blockbuster just to watch the few special effects sequences on their own? It’s the same form of deconstructionism.
These programs also bring out the obsessive techno-geek in many home theater fans. I often find myself spending a good amount of time tweaking the settings of my video display or audio receiver to get just the perfect picture or sound, only to change my mind a few weeks later and wonder what I had been thinking the last time.
Two excellent examples of such test programs were issued on Laserdisc in Japan, both designed to usher in the new era of discrete 5.1 channel digital surround sound.
The first disc is called Dolby Digital Experience, and the title should sufficiently explain its purpose. Dolby Digital is an enhancement over standard Dolby Pro Logic surround sound. Rather than derive a matrixed surround channel from a stereo signal, Dolby Digital provides five separate channels, one for each speaker, and an individual subwoofer channel for deep bass effects. This allows for more precisely placed sound effects and a deeper bass presence. On the Laserdisc format, the Dolby Digital signal is issued in RF-modulated form from one of the analog audio tracks. In order to convert the signal back to digital form for a receiver to decode it, an RF Demodulator must be used as an intermediary step.
The Dolby Digital Experience disc is spread to two sides in CAV format. The contents of the disc, even the explanatory animated graphics, have been letterboxed to an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1. The program begins with a demonstration of how sound can move discretely through all five main speakers. Voices explain the mechanics of the sound format by walking from one speaker to the next in a circle around the viewer. Each speaker projects in a different language, including one in English. The program then segues to a series of video clips and movie trailers that have been remixed into 5.1 surround. The demonstrations are as follows:
- Gamera 2. This appears to be a big budget 1995 sequel to one of the prominent Godzilla spin-offs. The trailer is entirely in Japanese and the movie looks to be great fun, with many rubber monster suits and miniature city models that are as corny as they are elaborate. The footage is in decent shape for a trailer, but the black level is often washed out and a number of shots are excessively grainy. In theory, it would seem like the audio, filled with screaming monsters, gunshot ricochets and explosions, would be perfect Dolby Digital material. Unfortunately, in practice it’s painfully obvious that the movie’s sound was designed for a more modest presentation and that the Dolby Digital mix has been artificially enhanced. There are numerous discrete surround effects, but they tend to ping-pong between speakers in a distracting manner. There are a lot of explosions, but the bass is overly boomy and unnatural. The fidelity of the entire track is thin and the ADR dialogue is unconvincing and disconnected from the picture on screen. Still, for what it is, the trailer is a lot of fun. It simply should not be used as a “reference” example of what Dolby Digital can achieve, which one might think would be the purpose of this disc in the first place.
- Ghost in the Shell. This trailer for one of the most famous anime films is much closer to being reference quality material. The animated image is fabulous, with strong colors and sharp details. The sound, though a little bright, flows smoothly between channels during the directional pans and achieves a nice kick when it needs to. Oddly, the opening to the trailer features a text scroll and voiceover narration in English, but reverts to Japanese until the voiceover at the very end.
- Tetsujin Returns. Promoting a futuristic video game with extremely fuzzy computer graphics, this commercial looks blurry but sounds great. There’s a lot of force and directionality to the audio. Don’t ask me to explain what the game is about, because it was fairly incomprehensible.
- Fujiyama: King of Coasters. The very definition of wasted potential, this video tour of a roller coaster almost begs to be exciting but completely fails at it. The entire clip is presented from the point of view of the coaster’s front car, and takes us from the beginning straight through to the end of the ride. If only someone had taken the time to foley sound effects, it could have been a thrilling recreation of a theme park. Instead, we are given location sound, undoubtedly recorded from a single microphone in the front car, awkwardly spread to five channels. The audio is primarily rear-focused, but the sound of screaming passengers in the back cars is weak and nearly inaudible. The sound of the wheels on the tracks directionally pans along with the picture on screen in an artificial way that takes the audio out of all the other speakers. In the effort to ensure realism by using only location sound, the audio instead breaks the spell by not adequately capturing the experience of being there. This segment is nothing but a disappointing mess.
- Hi-Vision Las Vegas. This is more like it. A nighttime video tour of Las Vegas which was, I assume from the title, prepared for Hi-Vision HDTV broadcast in Japan, this segment has both exceptional picture and sound. Though the benefits of the Hi-Vision format cannot be duplicated on a standard resolution laserdisc, nonetheless we are given a very sharp picture with a rich black level and vivid neon colors that never break apart into video noise. The soundtrack is composed entirely of a jazzy musical score with rich envelopment and some nice smooth bass.
Side 1 ends with a string of the various Dolby Digital logo trailers. We have the train spot (Ghost Train), the helicopter spot (City), the rock formation spot (Canyon), and the temple ruins spot (Egypt). Each is presented at least twice, if not more times, in a host of different aspect ratios and variations. Through this we can see the evolution of the Dolby Digital brand name. When the format was first developed, Dolby Labs experimented with several different names to differentiate it from standard PCM digital audio before settling on the generic Dolby Digital moniker. In the older trailers, it’s also referred to as “Dolby Stereo Digital” or “Dolby Surround AC-3 Digital.”
After the demo material on the first side has ended, Side 2 commences with a lengthy series of test tones and audio signals. Those who enjoying playing around with a sound meter will undoubtedly find this useful. A couple of musical passages from some sort of operetta that I’m not familiar with are also presented to illustrate the effects of the Dialogue Normalization feature. The side ends with color bars and video test signals, but does not provide any instructions for how to use them when calibrating the picture quality of your television set.
For compatibility purposes, the disc also contains a standard stereo mix on the PCM digital tracks. I seriously doubt that anyone who bought the disc would ever use it.
Included in the disc jacket is a foldout pamphlet with a description, in Japanese text, of what Dolby Digital is and how it works. There are a few diagrams and some photos of a mixing room. On the back of the pamphlet is a page of full-color Laserdisc cover artwork for titles that include Dolby Digital audio. There’s another page of tantalizing photos of exotic high-end Japanese electronics, including Laserdisc players, A/V amplifiers (or “amprifiers” as they’re labeled), and a nice 16:9 rear-projection television.
Dolby Digital Experience is an interesting demo and contains useful material for adequately calibrating a surround sound system, but it falls short of being all that it could. The choices of demonstration material are a bit questionable. Of the five demo clips, only two of them (Gamera 2 and Ghost in the Shell) are what I might consider repeatable entertainment, and one of them doesn’t sound terribly good in Dolby Digital. The quality of some of the reference tracks also doesn’t live up to the best that the format is capable of achieving. There’s nothing on this disc, for instance, that can match the power or envelopment of the Dolby Digital track on the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Laserdisc.
Still, the disc is worth having and I recommend it to those who are interested.
Around the same time that the Dolby Digital disc was released, a competitor of sorts came out under the title DTS Experience. The format and packaging of the two programs are obviously designed to be complimentary.
DTS is, like Dolby Digital, a 5.1 channel surround format. However, DTS on Laserdisc is issued through the digital audio tracks and does not require RF modulation. It’s also a less compressed signal, which may lead to a difference in the audio quality. It must be mentioned that this is a controversial matter that often sparks vehement protest from supporters of one sound format or the other.
I do not pretend to be an audiophile, or to have reference quality speakers or sound equipment. On what modest equipment I do have, however, I can’t help but notice a difference. Dolby Digital is fine, and if well mastered can be highly engaging. For my money, DTS usually has a fuller bodied sound with better fidelity, richer bass, and more enveloping directionality. (Dolby Digital tends to bounce from speaker to speaker, while DTS seems to flow from one to the next.) Much of this may have to do with the particular audio mixing and mastering of specific titles, but as a rule of thumb it’s what I find to be true.
The DTS Experience Laserdisc has a couple of minor differences from its Dolby Digital counterpart. The disc is presented in CLV format on one side only, and the disc-exclusive video material is mostly in full-frame format rather than letterboxed. On the other hand, it comes packaged with a foldout pamphlet very similar to the Dolby one, and it also includes an alternate stereo mix (on the analog channels this time) that will likely not be terribly useful to anyone who purchased the disc.
The program begins with a talking-head interview from DTS Chairman Terry Beard. He speaks in English, but unfortunately his dialogue is drowned out by a Japanese voiceover. There are a number of other interviews throughout the course of the program, including musician Alan Parsons, and they are all similarly obscured. From the first interview we transition to an elaborate opening credits sequence with a strong musical score. The music is kind of trite, but it sounds amazingly lush and powerful, and it does wonders to sell the benefits of the audio format.
The first thing one will notice in regard to the DTS track is that it’s set significantly louder than Dolby Digital. Some opponents claim that this variance is what accounts for most people being “fooled” into thinking that DTS is better. I can’t agree. Reducing the volume to a level comparable to Dolby, or even audibly lower, does not change my observations about its sound quality.
After the opening credit sequence, we’re taken on a video tour of the DTS facility. There’s a voiceover that I assume explains the benefits of DTS and how it works. Since the voiceover is entirely in Japanese, this section of the disc may serve limited usefulness to English-speaking viewers.
Following this is a section of test tones, pink noise, and video test patterns similar to those on the Dolby Digital Experience disc.
Finally, we come to the heart of the disc, the demo sequences. The first is a good one called Stealth (Mainshow). This is a computer-animated simulation of a military aerial dogfight. We see the point of view of a stealth fighter plane as it engages in a bombing mission and encounters some resistance along the way. The animation is not photo-realistic, but is impressive for a simulation. The audio track is primarily focused on the rear channels as the pilot and co-pilot chatter behind the listener’s head. There are a number of sweeping sound effects that move through all the speakers, and the sequence provides an immersive audio experience. The program is animated in full-frame format with English dialogue.
Next are four more segments, each presented not once, but twice. At first glance it appears that each clip is shown initially in full-frame format and then again letterboxed to about 1.85:1. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the first seemingly full-frame presentation is actually an anamorphically enhanced “Squeeze LD” image, stretched to the top and bottom of the frame so that a widescreen television may unsqueeze it back to the original proportions with a higher resolution. For those without a widescreen television, the clip is followed by a repeat in standard letterbox format. The content and audio of both versions are identical. I’m not really sure why this was done or whether it was actually necessary, but it makes for an interesting surprise. The demonstrations are:
- Di-Giddy. This appears to be a clip from a video game. I don’t know what gaming platform it’s designed for, but I must own it right away! The game is a futuristic racer with incredible computer graphics and an outstanding audio track that makes the music and sound effects seem to pulse from right inside your head. Just watching this clip of someone else playing is already an adrenaline rush.
- Something with an untranslatable title. I can’t adequately describe what this clip was other than to say that it’s tedious beyond measure. It’s an animated program, but without animation. The program moves from one cartoon still image to another very slowly, like a children’s picture book whose pages are being turned by a narcoleptic parent. It isn’t even much of an audio demo. There’s some dialogue, some subtle music, a train whistle, and a few rumblings from a volcano towards the end. The program has extremely limited use as a show-off sequence, and I can’t imagine sitting through it more than once.
- Gaia’s Daughter. The only live-action demo sequence on the disc, this is what I would describe as a classical music travelogue. There’s no dialogue or plot, just some models or dancers posing in front of exotic and picturesque locations while classical music plays. The program is shot on video and experiences occasional shimmer artifacts, but the imagery is filled with vibrant colors. The musical presence is very lush and well represented by the audio track.
- Perfect Blue. An anime film with nice artwork and animation. The plot of the clip is a bit impenetrable without translation, but it looks interesting and surreal. Part of the scene involves a foot chase, and the music on the soundtrack has a driving beat to go along with it. Picture and sound quality are both outstanding.
Of the two discs, I found the calibration material on the Dolby Digital Experience disc more useful, but preferred DTS Experience for its superior audio demonstrations and generally better selection of show-off clips. They go hand in hand so nicely, though, that someone who can make use of both sound formats really ought to have both discs.
The Elephant Man (Japanese Release)
Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published August 7, 1999.
Prior to his G-rated work on The Straight Story for Disney, The Elephant Man could be considered David Lynch’s most conventional feature. There are no gas-huffing psychopaths, no incestuous child-abusers, no supernatural overtones, no fractured identities, and very little surrealistic imagery. As only Lynch’s second feature film, coming right on the heels of the avant-garde and highly idiosyncratic Eraserhead, the film was accused by some of its more extreme critics (read: Roger Ebert) as being a sell-out, the product of the compromised values of a once-promising young talent.
This is, of course, a load of crap.
Fortunately, the movie was accepted and embraced by the majority of viewers who saw it. The film made a tidy profit and was nominated for several major awards. Even many of those who dislike Lynch’s other works (read: Roger Ebert) will generally list The Elephant Man among the best films of the 1980s.
The narrative is straightforward and somewhat formulaic, but regardless it’s a good formula and works quite well. The script was written with intelligence and the film made with considerable artistry. What shines through here that’s lost even in Lynch’s more personal films is the humanity and sympathy for the characters. Based on the true story of John Merrick, a man so deformed by birth defects and various genetic abnormalities that he was deemed too repulsive even for the carnival circuits of Victorian London, the film’s basic “freaks are people too” theme fits instantly well among the rest of Lynch’s canon. But here the story’s moral is told with eloquence and restraint, and the film manages to bypass much of the controversy and audience-alienation that many of Lynch’s other works are accused of.
Anthony Hopkins reportedly did not get along well with Lynch on the set, and even accused him of incompetence afterwards, but regardless gives a terrific performance as the good doctor who means well but ends up exploiting his famous patient unintentionally. John Hurt is saddled with the burden of extensive makeup prostheses and tries to force out a memorable performance by playing the character as a wide-eyed child. The result is sometimes mawkish, but not significantly enough that it detracts from the drama.
Despite the film’s critical acclaim and enduring popularity, Paramount chose many years ago to release the picture on VHS and Laserdisc only in a badly cropped pan & scan transfer, which they never remastered for either format. It certainly took long enough, but the Japanese infatuation with David Lynch finally paid off in the form of a letterboxed Laserdisc from Pioneer Japan.
And what a fantastic job they’ve done! Those who may be familiar with the film only from its previous home video editions may think of it as a grainy black & white movie with washed-out contrasts, duplicating the image quality of the standard poster art. For years, I assumed that this was the intention of the cinematography, to evoke the turn-of-the-century period with grungy and dated photographic techniques. This turns out not to be the case at all. The new disc is a revelation. The image is extremely sharp and smooth, with vibrant contrasts, an exceptional gray scale, and very little grain. The beautiful black & white photography by Freddie Francis hearkens back to the best studio work of the ‘30s and ‘40s and this disc shows it off with exacting precision. There are very few errant scratches and the source material has been maintained in nearly pristine condition with almost no age-related damage of any kind. Had the movie been produced this year, rather than back in 1980, it could not have hoped for a better image transfer.
Even more importantly, the picture has finally been restored to its original 2.35:1 Panavision aspect ratio. The sense of widescreen composition, an art lost to many contemporary cinematographers, is extraordinary. What gains the most from the additional picture information is the level of detail present in the production design, which better realizes the period setting with the entire picture on display.
The Elephant Man was not designed as a blockbuster action picture, so you won’t be hearing any deep bass explosions or zinging split-surround sound effects. The audio on this disc is, however, strong and clear with a precise detailed clarity. John Morris’ circus-themed musical score sounds great.
The Laserdisc release has Japanese subtitles which appear entirely below the letterboxed image and are not distracting in the slightest. The movie runs just over two hours long and is spread evenly to three sides in CLV. There are unfortunately no supplements (I was really hoping for a trailer) and the disc jacket, sadly not a gatefold, uses the standard grainy poster art on the front cover.
Eraserhead (Japanese Release)
Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published April 5, 2000.
Has another film ever captured the palpable textures of a nightmare so well as Eraserhead? David Lynch’s debut feature is a surreal dreamscape of haunting imagery, intense alienation, and grotesque deformation. The film works on a mostly subconscious level, inundating the viewer with obscure symbolism and half-comprehensible circular logic. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this might come across as pretentious, but Lynch is such a skilled craftsman that the film seems to leap directly out of your unconscious mind onto the screen.
Poor Henry, a working class schlub with a Bride of Frankenstein haircut and not a whole lot of joy in his life, walks through a hellish cityscape of smoke, shadows, rusted pipes, sporadic jets of steam, and an ever-present rumbling in the distance. His prized possession is a mysterious seed that he receives in the mail and places in a mound of dirt near his bedside. His only form of entertainment is a steam radiator that he stares intently into until he has visions of a tiny stage with a squirrel-cheeked woman doing a bashful two-step.
Henry seems to have gotten his girlfriend pregnant, though he doesn’t understand how she could have given birth so quickly. The baby looks rather like a hairless mutant calf fetus, and the creature effect is so convincing that to this day Lynch refuses to discuss how he achieved it. The baby’s constant wailing drives the mother away and it seems to taunt Henry with an evil laugh. To summarize the rest of the narrative is difficult because the film is more about mood and ambience than it is about plot. Events seem to move from one feverish hallucination to the next. Much can be interpreted into the symbolism in the film, but the overriding themes are of emotional disenfranchisement, the breakdown of the family unit, and the terrors of fatherhood. That Lynch was a first time father himself with a failing marriage at the time of the film’s production can hardly be coincidental, though he may claim that the film is not autobiographical.
Eraserhead is a unique film, bizarre beyond words, quite disturbing, and also darkly comic. Lynch’s portrait of the nuclear family is particularly funny, with its lecherous mother, daft father, and seemingly dead grandmother sitting in the kitchen. This is the stuff that cult films are made of, and that is exactly what Eraserhead has become. The movie was made on a shoestring budget over a grueling period of five years, with as little as one shot being completed per night. Upon its eventual release, it ran the midnight movie circuit successfully for several years. Mel Brooks was so amused by its eccentricities that he hired Lynch to direct The Elephant Man, his first shot at mainstream recognition.
Sadly, due to rights issues stemming from its low budget financing, the movie has had a checkered history on home video. It was released on both VHS and Laserdisc in the United States in very limited pressings. Those who actually managed to obtain a copy in either format would find the image composition cropped to 1.33:1 and the picture quality muddy and impenetrable. All was not lost, however. Comstock Ltd. was able to obtain the Japanese video rights and released an exceptional Laserdisc through Pioneer Japan. Having seen the film in all current video formats as well as a 35mm restored film print, I have to say that the Japanese Laserdisc is the best available release version of the film.
The film’s photography is a complex layering of darkness upon darkness. Previous video editions leave you staring at a brownish-black mess with barely a discernible image through the whole running time. Even the re-release film print I viewed was often murky and indecipherable. The import Laserdisc, on the other hand, has been very carefully mastered from source elements in terrific condition. The image is sharp, the gray scale well delineated, and age-related speckling kept to an acceptable minimum. In order to compensate for the dark photography, the disc producers have raised the brightness level on the transfer a bit higher than normal. They have perhaps gone a little overboard. I prefer to pull the Brightness setting on my television down a few notches before watching. This is still a very dark film, don’t get me wrong, and requires your viewing room to be in total darkness for best effect. Any background light or glare can be a tremendous distraction. This isn’t the type of movie you want to watch in the middle of the afternoon, anyway.
The picture has been letterboxed to approximately 1.75:1 and contains additional picture information on both sides of the screen in comparison to the cropped 1.33:1 ratio of previous releases. The addition may be slight but is a significant improvement in several instances. The shot of Henry removing the sperm-like parasites from his sleeping girlfriend and throwing them to the far side of the room had previously ended with the little buggers flying off screen, but now you can see them actually hit and bounce off the wall. The picture still seems to be missing a sliver of information off the right side in comparison to the film print, but nothing of great detriment. The on-screen title at the beginning of the film appears shifted to the left of the screen rather than centered as you would expect, but this is not a mistake or cropping. It was deliberate and appeared that way on the film print as well. There are Japanese subtitles burned into the picture, but there’s so little dialogue in the film that they’re hardly distracting. In fact, for someone unfamiliar with the Japanese language, these strange-shaped symbols at the bottom of the screen seem perfectly fitting with the atmosphere of the picture.
The film’s sound design is a fascinating experiment in unsettling ambient noises. Careful attention was given to the subtle distinction in aural texture between one location and the next. The disc pulls this off with great effect, though it’s essential that the volume be turned up high to truly appreciate and understand the impact that was intended.
The disc comes in a handsome jacket and includes several Japanese theatrical trailers after the end credits. It was rumored that the Criterion Collection wanted to prepare a domestic DVD release for this film, an idea that holds great potential, but apparently Lynch refused to allow them the rights to the movie and the project was scrapped. That’s a disappointment, but an Eraserhead fan could hardly ask for a better presentation for the movie than this previously available import Laserdisc.
Hotel Room (Japanese Release)
Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published June 21, 1999.
Hotel Room is one of David Lynch’s more obscure works and is generally not considered among the top echelon in his filmography. Created at a time when the initial popularity of Twin Peaks had long since started to fade, the program was originally designed to kick off a half-hour anthology series for HBO. Those plans didn’t work out, and the only three stories to be filmed were strung back-to-back into a movie which aired to little fanfare and was soon forgotten. However, actually watching the program, it isn’t half bad and should be of significant interest to fans of Lynch.
The gimmick of the show is that every story takes place in the same hotel room but in different years, yet the hotel seems to be trapped outside of time. The room itself changes very little and the only recurring characters are the bellboy and maid, neither of whom ages. The first and last episode were written by Barry Gifford and directed by Lynch. The middle episode was written by novelist Jay McInerney and directed by Twin Peaks alum James Signorelli, perhaps best known for his years directing Saturday Night Live. Among the cast are several “Lynch Gang” regulars: Harry Dean Stanton, Freddie Jones, Crispin Glover, and the sublime Alicia Witt (who started her career as little Alia in Dune). Glen Headley, Griffin Dunne, and Deborah Unger also appear.
The first story, Tricks, concerns Stanton’s character nervously bringing a prostitute to his room. Before he can get down to business, his old friend (Jones) mysteriously appears to interrupt and dredge up many dark secrets from their past together. The episode opens the door to themes of fractured identity and deconstructed reality that Gifford and Lynch would later explore to greater extent in Lost Highway, but altogether it’s a mostly flat and unexciting piece of drama.
The second story, Getting Rid of Robert, is meant to be the most lighthearted and winds up being the least interesting. Three women wait in the hotel room for Dunne’s character, with whom they have all apparently had relationships, to arrive. They plan to confront him so that Unger (his current girlfriend) can dump him. The whole piece is much more of McInerney’s milieu than of Lynch’s. The characters are yuppies straining to find some deeper meaning in their lives but unable to see past their own shallow desires. There’s a perverse twist at the end, however, which brings a nice Lynchian feel to the proceedings.
The real show-stopper here is the final episode, Blackout. A tour-de-force of atmosphere, nostalgia, and deep emotional resonance, the story concerns two young tourists from the Midwest who visit New York City for the first time and wind up in the middle of an electrical blackout. The girl obviously has some emotional and mental problems, and as the story unravels so does she. The piece is carried almost entirely by Witt, who does a marvelous job bringing a tragic innocence and vulnerability to her character.
The program was released only on videotape in the United States, and I was not aware until very recently that there had ever been a Laserdisc release. I should have realized that David Lynch’s enduring popularity in Japan would open up the possibility of a Laserdisc issue in that country. As soon as I found out about it, I naturally dug up a copy as soon as I could.
The picture is rather grainy. I suppose that’s to be expected from a cable program, though I suspect that the original photography by Peter Deming (later to work on Lost Highway) was less so. The image is otherwise reasonably sharp and stable. There are Japanese subtitles in the frame, though they’re rarely obtrusive. There really isn’t an audio passage in the program that could be used to show off a sophisticated sound system, but it’s an interesting sound design and the audio is clear and strong. There’s only one chapter stop, at the break between the first and second episodes, and the side-break falls naturally after the end of the second episode. The disc was released by Pony Canyon and comes in a jacket with some classy artwork that shows an affinity for Lynch’s work beyond this particular program. (The dominant image is a red curtain.)
Image Entertainment Laserdisc Catalog Volume 1 – Fall 1991
Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published January 21, 2001.
This may well be the shortest review that I will ever write for this web site. The disc’s title describes its contents pretty thoroughly. The Image Entertainment Laserdisc Catalog Volume 1 – Fall 1991 is an 8-inch Laserdisc single recorded in CAV format. The disc contains approximately 3,500 still-frame images of Laserdisc jacket artwork, arranged by category or genre. Each photo is followed by a single text frame with a brief synopsis of the film, the running time, the MPAA rating, and the names of featured performers.
Obviously enough, only Laserdiscs manufactured by Image Entertainment up through the date in question are listed.
The photos are mostly small, and picture quality was not exactly the top concern when compiling the catalog. Many of the images with solid colors display strong chroma noise patterns. The small size and low weight of the disc may also cause tracking problems for Laserdisc players even slightly out of alignment. (It plays fine on one of my machines, but skips randomly on the other.) Still, for what it is, the disc is adequate. It will be of interest primarily to those who are able to download video captures to their computer, or possibly anyone desperate for a reference list of long out-of-print titles.
I find this catalog to be of mild curiosity value, and certainly not worth more than a few dollars. A printed catalog would probably be more useful.
Lost Highway (Japanese Release)
Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published January 2, 2000.
David Lynch was reportedly so hurt by the scathingly negative reaction to his harrowing, astonishing Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me that it took him several years before he was ready to direct again. His subsequent film, Lost Highway, is in many ways one of his most complex, dazzling, alienating, frustrating, and yes brilliant films to date.
It was also received with mixed critical reaction and no box office.
C’est la vie.
The film reunites Lynch with his Hotel Room collaborator Barry Gifford, who had also written the novel that was the basis for Lynch’s Wild at Heart. This film works a little better than that one. The story concerns enigmatic saxophone player Fred Madison, who may or may not have murdered his wife one night (he doesn’t remember properly) after receiving a series of mysterious videotapes showing him committing the crime in advance. He is convicted (they have him on tape, after all) and sent to Death Row, where he may or may not morph into young auto mechanic Pete, who went missing due to an inexplicable event (he doesn’t remember properly either). Pete tries to settle back into his old life but finds pieces of Fred’s life, including his wife’s double, intruding along the way. And oh yes, both Fred and Pete are haunted by a mysterious devil man in paleface makeup who can apparently be two places at once.
The film is as surreal as anything Lynch has directed, but without the forced weirdness that was so detrimental to Wild at Heart. The narrative is almost impenetrably convoluted on first viewing, but so fascinating that repeated screenings are a must. Eventually, things fall into place and you find that the storyline is in fact tightly structured, though figuring out the meaning can be the subject of endless debate. Are Fred and Pete the same person? Is the Mystery Man some kind of supernatural figure driving Fred crazy, or is he in fact a physical manifestation of those aspects of his personality that Fred has been trying to suppress? What the hell is the deal with those freaky people in the hotel?
The movie is loaded with the themes of fractured identity, of the doppelganger, and of false perception of reality that Lynch had been previously exploring in both Hotel Room and Twin Peaks. No one is exactly whom they seem to be, nor does anything really happen the way it appears to. It has been argued by the film’s critics that the story is misogynistic, a charge leveled against many of Lynch’s works, and if read in a certain context it may appear that way. Patricia Arquette’s character(s) are forced into some degrading acts by domineering men. On the other hand, it’s questionable exactly how much power she holds in those scenes, and whose tainted point of view we’re witnessing the events from. I tend to give Lynch credit for being smarter than many of his critics would have us believe.
As would be expected, the film is quite a visual treat. The movie is filled with dazzling imagery (the cabin exploding in reverse, Pete and Alice making love in the car headlights) and intricately complex widescreen cinematography. This was its greatest asset on the cinema screen, but also creates the greatest problem when transferring to home video.
Lost Highway was released on Laserdisc in both the United States and Japan, and the quality of both releases is almost as complicated and controversial as the film itself.
Reviewed in three separate publications, the domestic Laserdisc release garnered wildly different responses. The Laserdisc Newsletter said that, “the framing is exquisite” and “the color transfer outstanding”. Video Watchdog claimed that the image quality was reproduced faithfully, but that the letterboxed framing was atrociously overmatted. Then Widescreen Review stated that the letterboxing was accurate, but gave the disc its lowest possible rating for picture quality, claiming that it “exhibits very ugly, dark scenes that are orange with brownish-black shadow detail” and that “color fidelity never looks natural.” These are all reviews of the exact same disc!
To make matters more confusing, once the film was released overseas, rumors started flying that the Japanese Laserdisc was a substantial improvement over the domestic issue. Video Watchdog reported (before having seen the disc) that it was rumored to be “noticeably brighter, more colorful, and more correctly framed.”
Well, I own that Japanese Laserdisc and have had the opportunity to compare the two releases side by side.
The two discs are most definitely derived from the same film-to-video transfer. The have the exact same 2.35:1 letterboxing, which is tight in a few scenes but faithful to my memories of the theatrical screening, the same weak focus, and the same color quality. They are different pressings, however. If anything, the domestic disc has slightly more light output and a little more detail visibility during especially dark scenes. For example, you can see the Mystery Man put the knife in Fred’s hand on the US disc, but on the import it’s difficult to tell what’s happening. This is a very minor difference, however, and mostly they look identical with the obvious exception of Japanese subtitles (which appear completely within the lower black letterbox bar). It has been suggested that some Japanese Laserdiscs are mastered for a 0 IRE black level. This seems consistent with a few of my other Japanese releases that are darker than their American counterparts, and might explain the differences between the two editions of this film. Bumping up the brightness on my television monitor a few notches while watching the import does seem to even out the variance between the two discs.
Though many people contend that this was a terrible transfer for the film, I really don’t think so. It was shot in underexposed dark areas with warm colors that don’t translate to NTSC very well, and I think the telecine operators did a decent job. The sharpness could use a lot of improvement and these discs are by no means reference quality, but neither are they particularly noisy or grainy. The movie could certainly look a lot worse.
The import was pressed by Pioneer Japan. The US disc was pressed by Sony DADC, which has a notorious reputation for laser rot infecting their discs. I think claims of laser rot are largely exaggerated by those who do not understand what the term really means, and the copy I viewed was speckle-free.
The audio on both discs is also the same. The movie has a wonderfully elaborate sound design, going from periods of total silence to great explosions of noise. The discs capture this with precision, though it’s imperative that the volume be turned up rather high or else much of the whispered dialogue early in the film may be inaudible. The loud portions are supposed to be extra loud, so just go with it. Both discs also contain Dolby Digital encoding.
The domestic disc presents Side 3 in CAV format. There is no CAV on the import, but it has better side breaks. I swear that with my auto-flip player sometimes I can’t even tell that the first one has happened. However, there is one important fact about this that must be noted. The disc has apparently been mastered with a blue frame naming the side number at the end of each side. This is programmed onto the disc after the flags identifying normal viewing content. I have watched this disc on two different Laserdisc players. My Pioneer player has a fast side change and evidently knows enough not to display anything after the program content, because I was never even aware of this blue frame for a long time. A machine with a slower side change, however, does annoyingly display the frame for several seconds. This is something a buyer may wish to take into consideration before purchasing.
The American disc comes in an attractive jacket but the import has an even nicer gatefold. The Japanese disc also contains three theatrical trailers, including a terrific one that uses the Nine Inch Nails song “The Perfect Drug” and gleefully proclaims “LYNCH IS BACK!” The movie is also available on a non-anamorphic DVD in Japan which utilizes the same transfer, but you obviously must have a DVD player whose region-blocking capability has been disabled in order to watch it.
Map of the Human Heart (Japanese Release)
Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published July 6, 1999.
Vincent Ward’s extraordinary Map of the Human Heart is a terrific lost gem of a film that was largely ignored during its brief theatrical run due to weak marketing, and subsequently forgotten on video due to some piss-poor quality control from its distributor. The movie falls into the category of what would be called an epic romance, and is both hauntingly surreal and poetically told. In fact, the best portions of The English Patient are rather reminiscent of the earlier Map. The story spans from the Arctic Circle to the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. Jason Scott Lee, Patrick Bergen, and the lovely Anne Parillaud star. Naturally, there’s a requisite love triangle to keep them at odds. John Cusack also has a cameo role as the mapmaker whose scenes bookend the film.
In short, the movie tells the story of an Innuit boy who befriends the leader of a mapmaking expedition (Bergen). Eventually, the boy leaves his village to follow in his mentor’s footsteps, and joins the Air Force to fight in World War II as a bombardier. Along the way, he falls in love with a French girl but soon finds himself vying for her attention with his idol.
The movie is loaded with themes of race, of identity, of belonging. Although religion is never specifically mentioned in the script, the hero’s journey takes him from a frozen purgatory wasteland up through the dream-like reaches of heaven, and then plummeting down into a hellish inferno.
The film is a magnificent visual treat, and the aerial battle scenes are among the most beautiful sequences ever committed to celluloid. Ward is certainly one of the top visual stylists to work in the medium. His subsequent film was the equally beautiful yet somewhat dopey What Dreams May Come, and both pictures can entrance the viewer’s eye with their striking imagery and vibrant use of color. Who, after watching this film, can ever forget the two lovers on top of the hot air balloon, the mannequin woman papered in maps, or the city of Dresden engulfed in flames?
To that end, it’s impossible to understand how someone watching the film could completely disregard the quality of the cinematography. Yet that’s exactly what happened when it was released to video in the U.S. The movie was unfortunately financed in part by HBO in return for the television and home video rights. They botched the job horribly. Released to both VHS and Laserdisc only in pan & scan format which crops off half of the original anamorphic picture, the image is also terribly washed out and grainy. It’s painful to watch, and robs the film of all its original power.
I’d heard of the existence of a letterboxed Japanese Laserdisc several years ago, but by that time it had already gone out of print. Since this is not a title for which there has ever been much demand, I had to search in vain for quite some time before I finally managed to obtain a copy.
I would like to say that this disc is the dream remaster I’d been hoping for, but I don’t think it quite lives up to those expectations. The picture has been slightly cropped to approximately 2.0:1 and you can see the effect of this when the film’s title appears on screen. There are no letters missing, but the whole title looks a little cramped on both sides. The video master is obviously derived from a print rather than a more pristine source such as an internegative, and there are occasional speckles and dirt-related damage. Dark scenes, especially at the beginning, are murky and the whole film is mildly grainy throughout, becoming worse during shots with heavy color saturation. Some of the rear-projection process shots which looked so fabulously surreal on the big screen now just look a little fake, and even the bombing scenes speak too loudly of miniatures than they should. The disc has Japanese subtitles which generally appear below the image but occasionally intrude into it. There are several short stretches of Innuit-language dialogue in the film which are not translated into English, but for the most part the emotional content of these scenes remains clear.
That being said, this Laserdisc is a dramatic improvement over the domestic issue and most of the film retains some semblance of its original beauty. The image is reasonably sharp and free of signal noise, and more of the picture is present than is lost.
Unfortunately, the audio suffers the most here. Dialogue comes across weak, and the musical score in particular sounds thin and shrill. Using the Cinema EQ function on my receiver tamed some of the brightness, but this will never be a demo-quality soundtrack. Surround envelopment is generally restricted to the musical score until the bombing raids, which become a little more active.
At the time of its original release, there was some talk that between 10 to 20 minutes of footage had been removed at the last minute. You can see clearly where there are gaps in the finished film, especially in the transition from Dresden back to the Arctic, and the concluding act is fairly muddled and confusing. That footage has not been restored to any release of this picture to my knowledge. In fact, the 105-minute running time listed on the Japanese disc jacket is four minutes shorter than the standard listed length of the movie. At first I feared that additional footage had been trimmed or that the picture had been time compressed. Luckily, neither turned out to be the case. The listing on the jacket is merely a typo. The disc clocks in at just over 109 minutes.
There’s no chapter encoding but the side break is well chosen. The jacket artwork is interesting, but I would not go so far as to say that it’s particularly attractive. The front cover has two awkwardly positioned stills from the movie. The upper photo is close-up profile shot of the lead actress that is neither very flattering nor an image one might think would define the movie. The bottom photo comes from the more striking balloon love scene, but is cropped too significantly to make a good cover image. A better choice might have been to use only a wider still from the balloon scene or to use the shining-mirror artwork from some of the release posters. Still, it could not look worse than the cheesy montage artwork that was used for the U.S. video editions.
Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published October 22, 1999.
I try as a general rule to avoid any film starring Keanu Reeves, but The Matrix turned out to be such a surprise treat that it makes ideal fare for repeated viewings. The movie is an entertaining hybrid of cyberpunk thriller, kung-fu action, and Hong Kong shoot-‘em-up. The picture was directed with great visual flair by former comic book artists Andy and Larry Wachowski, whose only previous film was the sleazy lesbian psycho-thriller Bound. I expected in advance that this movie would have some dazzling big budget eye-candy, but I was most surprised to discover that it has a decent script as well.
Reeves plays a computer hacker who goes by the alias Neo. His life gets a little complicated when he wakes up to a strange message on his computer screen and is lured into the company of mythical superhacker Morpheus. He is soon shown that his entire world is an intricate virtual-reality computer program called “the Matrix” designed sometime in the future to keep human beings as unwitting slaves. Morpheus believes Neo to be “The One” who can help him to free humanity from their bondage. The movie makes some overt references to Alice in Wonderland that are played out heavy-handedly, and the idea of swallowing Reeves as a messiah figure is troublesome at best. Nonetheless, the concept is intriguing and the script smartly avoids most of the dumbing-down that plagues the typical Hollywood blockbuster.
No, it is not a flawless picture. There are several gaping plot holes, and a major story contrivance hinges on the necessity of the characters to reach special telephones in order to leave the Matrix, but the reason for this is never adequately explained. Why, I must ask, couldn’t their buddy back in the “real” world simply extract them from the program? And, this being the case, how did turncoat Cypher manage to get inside the Matrix to arrange his secret rendezvous without someone to pull him back out?
The movie wears its inspirations clearly on its sleeve. The story is part Dark City, part Tron, and a good chunk of both The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, not to mention that the ultra-cool slow motion shootouts owe a heavy debt to the entire career of John Woo. Most of the scenes within the Matrix itself are imaginatively envisioned, but for some reason the movie loses focus in the futuristic scenes, which take place largely on the bridge of a ship that seems a generic mishmash of the sets from any number of made-for-cable programs. There are two stunning 12 Monkeys-inspired set-pieces involving the harvesting of human beings for use in gigantic power plants, but otherwise the rest of the future world is shown in nothing but a murky, impenetrable smog, with some vague glimpses of what is said to be a sewer system. Perhaps the money was running thin at that point, but surely they might have come up with something more interesting than a darkened sewage tunnel. References are made in the dialogue to the promised land of Zion, the last human city on Earth, but the movie fails to ever take us there. I suppose the filmmakers are saving that for the sequel.
The Wachowskis’ background in comic books leads to some truly dynamic visuals, but it also manifests itself in one-dimensional stock characters and some painfully awful dialogue. When, early in the film, a policeman is heard to say, “Don’t give me any of that juris-my-dick-tion crap,” you know that Tom Stoppard never laid his hands on this screenplay.
Yet, somehow, the movie prevails over its inadequacies. This is due in large part to the strength of the basic story and a great deal of determination to make this movie fun without lapsing into outright stupidity. That’s a lot more than any of its summer movie competition usually strives for, and I have to give credit where it is due.
The movie truly is fun. The mixture of whiz-bang special effects, adrenaline-pumping violence, and a fetishistic obsession with leather outfits, dark sunglasses, and guns guns guns makes for a kinetic blend. Even the limited range of Keanu’s ability to emote is carefully tailored into the film to make him less annoying than usual. The visuals are sleek and stylish, the action scenes often jaw-dropping, and the narrative moves along at a pulse-quickening pace. Combine that with the generally smart and (dare I even say it?) thought-provoking script, and what more could you want from a sci-fi action picture? The Matrix delivers in ways that many notable big budget turkeys have failed.
The movie was an enormous hit and may well have saved the careers of Keanu Reeves and super-producer Joel Silver, both of whom had been riding a wave of recent flops. Warner Bros. has seen fit to deliver the film to home video in terrific fashion on both Laserdisc and DVD.
I would love to call the picture transfer reference quality, but the film’s original photography leans toward the grainy, overly dark, and occasionally washed-out. Much of this was done to heighten the unreal feeling within the Matrix, but some of it is also just plain ugly. Not that this isn’t fitting for the style of the movie, but regardless it makes for a difficult transfer to NTSC video. The Laserdisc does an excellent job of preserving the theatrical presentation, but there are some scenes where the grain seems to float in unnatural patterns, such as the interrogation of Neo by Agent Smith near the beginning of the film. The DVD has had some artificial grain reduction done, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, I’d like to preserve the intention of the original photography. On the other hand, grain tends to be very distracting on video in ways that it does not in a projected film print. The DVD also has some color correction not found on the Laserdisc transfer. Some of the daytime scenes were photographed using a process that de-emphasizes the color blue and leaves a greenish hue. The Laserdisc presents these scenes approximately the same as I remember them in the theater, but the DVD has added additional green tinting. Again, your preference for this might go either way. I’m sure that these are both minor differences and that either edition of the film will be perfectly satisfying.
The image is fairly sharp and has been letterboxed to a 2.35:1 ratio. The movie was shot in the Super 35 process, and not unusual for this format the framing occasionally seems cramped on the top and bottom. It looked that way in the theater too, and most of the time the compositional balance is fine. Clips from a full-frame edition of the film look much more awkward, and all of the special effects shots are cropped in any ratio other than the full 2.35:1. My copy has a couple of minor pressing-related rolling dropouts, but they are very brief and only momentarily distracting. Some of the night scenes look like they could use a little extra light output from the video transfer, but on the whole the quality of this Laserdisc is top notch.
The audio is crisp and clean, and packs the expected punch during the action sequences. The disc also has Dolby Digital encoding for those who like their explosions extra loud. Despite some of the dubiously-earned awards that it may have won, the film has a fairly standard action movie mix. Dialogue is firmly rooted in the center channel, hard-driving Techno/Industrial music spread to the front mains, and sound effects zooming back to the surrounds. There are some nifty sound effects, but nothing I would call particularly innovative. Cannon-sized gun shots and that metallic tinkling of empty bullet casings on the ground are as cliché as this type of movie can get. I might go so far as to say that the mix is almost subdued for the first half of the movie, and doesn’t really kick in with a lot of power until Neo’s kung-fu training. When it does get going, though, it’s a lot of fun. Surround activity is aggressive even in basic Pro Logic, but the Dolby Digital’s discrete channel placement keeps the bullets whipping back and forth around your head. There are times when you can almost feel them slicing the air in front of you.
The movie is spread to three sides in CLV and the side breaks are very well chosen, with the platter break emphasizing a sight gag at the very end of the biggest shootout.
Let’s not forget the goodies, shall we?
Both Laserdisc and DVD editions of the film contain an audio commentary by actress Carrie-Ann Moss, editor Zach Staenberg, and special effects supervisor John Gaeta. There are three production featurettes and a series of “B-Roll” behind-the-scenes clips. The DVD also contains a music & effects track as well as some DVD-ROM material for those with appropriate computer equipment. Neither are significant losses for me.
The commentary track is largely a waste. Apparently, the Wachowskis could not be bothered to participate and the value of the discussion is extremely limited without input from the writer/directors. Conversation starts off lively enough, but after ten minutes tapers off into a series of long, uncomfortable silences. Moss has next to nothing to say throughout, and there’s almost no discussion about the elements that do and do not work in the movie’s narrative. In fact, at one point Gaeta completely misses one of the most disturbing aspects of the film, the casual manner in which the heroes mow down human bystanders who get in the way. There’s a half-hearted attempt to explain this within the film, but Gaeta seems to think that it’s perfectly fine because, “They’re not real people.” Actually, they are real people. For each civilian killed in the Matrix, a body in the “real” world also dies.
Visual references within the film (such as the rooftop chase from Vertigo) go completely unnoticed by the commentators and even the technical aspects of the production are only discussed fleetingly. Really, there’s not a whole lot of anything being discussed in this commentary track except for the occasional overstatement about the depth of the script or the genius of the directors. The participants were clearly not prepared at all for the task, and you can tell that it was a chore for them to make it all the way to the end. My recommendation is to listen only to the first ten minutes of Side 1, then at the first significant gap you can safely skip right to Side 3, which is where most of the useful information is clustered.
Making the Matrix is a fifteen-minute promotional piece originally made for the HBO network. Typical for this type of program, there are many brief on-set interviews with the cast and crew as well as a number of behind-the-scenes outtakes. The most interesting parts involve the lead actors training to perform their own kung-fu stunts. Clips from the movie are presented in full-frame, and some of the night scenes have more light output in the transfer for a more detailed image. The show is worth watching and you may glean a few interesting pieces of information, but the objective was more to advertise the movie than to document its production, so the value of repeated viewings is minimal. Both Wachowskis are seen at work and speak briefly between takes. After the way they had been mythologized in the audio commentary, I was half-expecting them to be brooding, introspective geniuses. Instead, they remind me of a pair of inarticulate losers that I went to film school with. That may be an unfair comparison on my part, but regardless it knocks them down a few notches in my estimation.
The most interesting of the three featurettes, What Is Bullet-Time?, breaks down the revolutionary special effect process used to create the most eye-catching sequences in the film. In essence, the Bullet-Time process allows the filmmakers to break the laws of physics by fluidly moving a camera three-dimensionally around an object that has been frozen in time. The manner in which this is achieved is quite clever and elaborate, yet makes perfect sense. John Gaeta appears on camera to explain. He’s an amusing, odd little man who dresses in a NASCAR-style jumpsuit for no apparent reason and gushes such an enthusiastic stream of tech-speak that you’re almost better off ignoring him and focusing entirely on the visual demonstration.
What Is the Concept? is the most tedious of the featurettes. A stream of storyboards and special effects test footage played over an incessant Techno-music beat, the program is repetitive and excessively drawn out.
On Side 4 after the featurettes, a series of “B-Roll” behind-the-scenes outtakes has been collected. Some of them are interesting, some amusing, and all brief enough to keep your attention from wandering the way it might during What Is the Concept?. These clips can be accessed on the DVD only by utilizing the alternate angle feature while watching the movie, but the Laserdisc presents them more conveniently in a bundle as part of the supplement section.
The disc jacket has the standard poster art on the front cover, but some of the very worst promotional text I’ve ever read on the back. “Mind-warp stunts. Techno-slammin’ visuals. Mega-kick action.” I honestly suspect that a 13 year old boy may have written it. “The movie flat-out rocks.” Indeed. Were I not familiar with the picture ahead of time, I would be seriously disinclined to take interest after reading the jacket back. Luckily, the quality of the movie and the contents of the disc set a higher standard than the marketing department seemed to realize.
Pretty as a Picture: The Art of David Lynch (Japanese Release)
Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published June 20, 1999.
For fans of David Lynch’s eccentric brand of filmmaking, the Pretty as a Picture documentary is a treat in several respects. We are shown clips from many of his obscure early short films which have yet to be officially distributed, we get to see him at work as both a painter and a furniture designer, and we’re taken behind the scenes of Lost Highway to see the man actually doing his thing. We also get to see Lynch’s hair go through a number of wild transmutations. (He seriously needs to invest in a comb.) Just as importantly, the film gives fans what may be their first chance to attach faces to many of the names they associate with the “Lynch gang.” Among the interview subjects are Angelo Badalamenti, Mary Sweeney, Deepak Nayar, Peter Deming, and longtime friend Jack Fisk with his prominently missing tooth (shades of Dune?). Patricia Norris is jokingly referred to several times but apparently refused to appear on camera.
The movie is full to the brim with amusing anecdotes. We’re given the origin of the “fish in the percolator” from Twin Peaks (it was actually a bar of Lava soap), are told conflicting versions of how Frank Silva stumbled his way into the role of evil Bob, and get to hear Dean Stockwell describe how he met Lynch for the second time without knowing it (“We’ve met before. It was at your house. Don’t you remember?”). Nayar also explains how Lynch’s ingenuity saved an expensive scene on Lost Highway from being ruined by rain when he decided to put a couple of teenagers on screen playing with water hoses. Unfortunately, this stroke of invention was not sufficient to save the scene from being cut from the final release anyway, but we do get to see footage from it and this is the only example of a deleted scene shown.
The best part of the documentary is the Eraserhead reunion. Lynch, Jack Nance (who was murdered not long after completion of this film), Catherine Coulson, and Charlotte Stewart revisit the American Film Institute complex where they spent five years filming Lynch’s first feature one shot per day. The site is now in disarray, but there’s much nostalgia to relive.
On the down side, the film was directed by one of Lynch’s old friends and there’s the overwhelming impression that the whole thing is a puff-piece. No tough questions are asked, there’s almost no mention of the fact that many of Lynch’s films are controversial, and there’s very little real insight into his art or what makes the man tick. Because Lynch does not like to discuss the meaning behind his films, there’s absolutely no analysis or scholarly criticism. We aren’t really even given any kind of social context into which to place his works. The documentary might as well have been about Steven Spielberg for the amount of self-glorification it revels in.
The film runs 80 minutes and has been released on VHS and DVD in the United States, but on Laserdisc only in Japan. The DVD contains a supplemental section with 15 minutes of deleted interviews, including the origin of the Log Lady character. The Laserdisc contains no supplements and has Japanese subtitles in the picture. From a practical standpoint, someone who owns a DVD player would have no reason to buy this Laserdisc. I’ve never been much of a practical person, however, and ordered a copy the minute I heard it existed. It’s well known that there’s a cultish obsession with Lynch in Japan, and most of his films have been released there in Laserdisc editions that are superior to their American counterparts. From a collectible perspective, therefore, this LD is a fine addition to someone’s collection of Japanese Lynch Laserdiscs. I have long since learned to tune out Japanese subtitles anyway.
The jacket is in sleek dark colors with an interesting pixelated photo of Lynch on the front. I will also admit to a fondness for the DVD’s tasteful case art, which contains one of Lynch’s paintings on the cover. Both will serve a collector well.
Picture and sound quality are both quite good. The movie was shot mostly on videotape, so the image has that overly vivid sharpness inherent in direct video-to-video transfers. Naturally, this isn’t the type of program from which you will get a demo-quality show-off sequence, but the picture is sharp and the audio is clear so what more can you ask?
There are a number of film clips shown, and of course they run the gamut in terms of quality. Lynch’s early short films look much as you would expect such material to look, and unfortunately the only Blue Velvet clip shown is from a cropped TV print. The scenes from Eraserhead are letterboxed and look much better than the grungy pan & scan edition released on VHS and Laserdisc in the United States many years ago. However, they’re a little darker than the excellent Japanese Laserdisc release and are matted a little tighter on the top and bottom of the frame, with no added picture on the sides of the image. Most of the documentary is devoted to covering Lost Highway, and so most of the clips are from that film. They’re letterboxed but mostly hazy and overly orange-saturated. They look quite poor compared to both the domestic and Japanese LD releases. I’m guessing that they come from an intermediary print of the film and so cannot be expected to look reference quality, though I doubt anyone watching the documentary would mind or even care.
Showgirls (Japanese “Squeeze LD” Release)
Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published November 12, 2004.
I have a theory about Showgirls that is, to my mind, the only viable explanation for why the movie turned out the way it did. The way I see it, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas sat down to write what he firmly believed would be his magnum opus, a scathing exposé of the dark side of fame and the American obsession with sex, a picture that would be the first truly adult and mature blockbuster success released with an NC-17 rating. Joe Eszterhas is, it goes without saying, a total fucking idiot.
Enter Paul Verhoeven, his Basic Instinct collaborator and a certifiable nutcase (and quite possibly genius to boot), who read the finished script, instantly recognized it for the moronic gutter trash that it was, and decided that the best way to approach this project was to camp the hell out of it. The resulting product is by all objective or rational standards a complete piece of garbage, widely reviled as one of the worst movies ever made, but it’s also a garish, low-brow masterpiece of misplaced intentions. Surely, to qualify as a truly “bad” movie, a picture must have no redeeming virtues whatsoever. That certainly doesn’t describe Showgirls, a movie that is, if nothing else, crazily entertaining and downright hilarious. That’s got to count for something.
Some would argue that the movie is unintentionally funny. I don’t buy it. I believe that Verhoeven knew perfectly well what he was doing. How else to explain the casting of Saved by the Bell starlet Elizabeth Berkley in the lead role, an actress who is neither remotely talented nor even particularly attractive? This girl wasn’t cast because she was best for the part. She was cast solely for her background on a wholesomely innocuous kiddie TV series, and Verhoeven’s lecherous desire to defile that image in front of millions of Americans. God bless that crazy Dutchman!
Berkley’s character Nomi Malone is a rude, thoroughly unlikable bitch in every scene we see her. Throughout the movie, people constantly try to help or be nice to her, only to get spit on in return. Her supposed amazing talent as a dancer is repeatedly validated by everyone she meets, yet when we actually see her in action, the best she can muster is some skeezy pole-dancing in a strip club. There’s meant to be a great revelation of irony when Nomi finally makes it to the big leagues and is cast in a “classy” Las Vegas stage show called Goddess that things there really aren’t very different from the low-rent strip joint she came from. You see, everybody in show business is a whore, get it? Except that you’d have to be a real half-wit (as Nomi is) to ever believe that a topless Vegas dance revue is some sort of pinnacle of artistic achievement. Those girls actually are strippers too, just higher priced ones than those getting dollar bills stuffed into their G-strings, and everybody who goes to see the show knows this. Nomi is apparently the only one who doesn’t get it. That’s not irony; it’s just Nomi being a dumbass. Maybe if the whole movie were set in a respectable ballet troupe or something, that would be different, but of course there wouldn’t be nearly as much nudity at the ballet.
Verhoeven is in directorial overdrive the entire picture, making each new scene bigger, gaudier, and more obnoxious than the last. The major set-pieces on the Goddess stage, with its fake volcano and army of topless dancers writhing in choreographed unison, must be seen to be believed. Nudity is in abundance, and the notorious sex scenes that earned an NC-17 rating look, far from sexy, just kind of silly and uncomfortable. No two human beings have ever had sex the way that Verhoeven stages some of these scenes, and I think he is well aware of that. The Eszterhas script is as idiotic as expected, filled with horrendous dialogue like, “You fuck ’em without fuckin’ ’em,” or this timeless gem: “Must be weird not having anybody cum on ya.” Both of those are uttered by poor Robert Davi, in profound career depression. Also embarrassing himself in the cast is Kyle MacLachlan as one of the many smarmy jackasses who attempts to seduce and use our heroine. The only one seeming to have any fun is Gina Gershon, vamping it up as the star of Goddess and reveling in the utter trashiness of the entire production (both the stage show and the movie itself).
The movie was a huge flop upon theatrical release, earning back less than half of its $45 million budget, even after MGM attempted to promote it to the midnight screening circuit as a new camp classic. Cult popularity it did eventually earn, however, primarily on home video. To that end, it was released on Laserdisc in the United States with a letterboxed transfer and a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (back when such was still relatively rare), plus a short making-of featurette. The same transfer and content were later released on DVD.
Someone in Japan must have really liked the movie, because one of its most notable video releases was the “Squeeze LD” from Pioneer Japan, which came packaged in a fancy gatefold jacket with a wild cover art image of Elizabeth Berkley doing a topless somersault. (Her nipples are unfortunately blurred out.) Squeeze discs were a famous experiment to bring the added resolution of 16:9 enhancement to the Laserdisc format, and only 11 movie discs were ever released.
The movie is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The level of detail is noticeably better than your average Laserdisc, but still only rates as good-to-mediocre in comparison to a typical DVD. Some of the bright scenes are a little noisy, and there’s problematic edge enhancement in many scenes, but overall it’s a fine-looking Laserdisc, if not quite in the same league as some of the truly reference transfers such as Austin Powers or The Fifth Element. The movie makes gaudy use of popping neon colors in much of its production design, which are reproduced with suitable vibrancy, though flesh tones look a little pallid and flat. Deep reds exhibit chroma bleed, as is a common Composite Video artifact. The source elements are fairly clean, except for visible reel change markers, indicating that a theatrical print was used for the transfer rather than an internegative or interpositive source.
Japanese subtitles appear within the movie image, which is particularly annoying given that they could have easily been fit in the lower letterbox bar and still been visible on 16:9 widescreen televisions for Japanese viewers. Even more irritating is the fact that the disc is optically censored in a few scenes, in accordance with Japanese regulations barring the display of genital nudity. Breasts and butts are all fine, and appear in great volume undisturbed. Even pubic hair makes several appearances, but on the rare occasion that a stripper kicks up her leg and shows you that naughty patch of flesh between, a blur spot pops on screen to cover it up. I counted five instances of this, all brief, and for what it’s worth the blurring is precisely targeted and relatively discrete. (Some older Japanese Laserdiscs such as The Baby of Mâcon have giant oily smears covering much of the screen.)
The disc also features an explosive Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack with throbbing bass and plenty of active split surround separations. Although not officially credited as an EX mix, if decoded with Dolby Digital-EX processing the back soundstage matrixes fairly effectively into a rear center channel without collapsing into the middle. The track has lots of body and depth, and reminds me why Laserdisc sound quality is so often regarded as superior to DVD. In addition to its great dynamic range (the difference between the highest high and the lowest low), the mid-range of the signal does not sound compressed as often happens to DVD mixes, and the whole soundtrack exhibits perfect clarity even at lower volumes. (Too many DVDs require you to crank the volume to get any life out of them.) The PCM soundtrack on the digital sound channels also sounds great, but the Dolby Digital is more fun with its directional surrounds.
The disc has no supplements at all, not even the trailer or the short making-of piece that appeared on the American Laserdisc. The movie is split to three sides in the CLV format. The side breaks are well chosen and not obtrusive, though the last side has barely 10 minutes of content, including credits.
The Showgirls Squeeze LD is of course more of a Laserdisc collectible than a reference edition of the movie. Although for quite some time it was the only anamorphic widescreen video release (the initial DVD recycled the non-anamorphic American Laserdisc transfer), it has since been superceded by the superior video transfer of the V.I.P. Edition DVD box set, which also includes a bunch of cheesy bonus features in keeping with the tone of the movie. So a genuine Showgirls fan, unless they’re a completely wacko completist, should just go for the new DVD. On the other hand, a Laserdisc collector with a desire to own one of the rare Squeeze LDs, and hopefully also a high tolerance for schlocky movies, might find a lot more value in it.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (Japanese Release)
Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published May 9, 2000.
Early in The Phantom Menace, one of the alien villains turns to his comrade and says, “Are you brain dead?” The same might be asked of Star Wars creator George Lucas, who has taken the long-awaited prequel installment to his beloved movie series and dumbed it down for the new generation.
The movie’s failings are mostly in the scripting. Purportedly written by George Lucas himself but feeling very much like the work of a committee, the screenplay needed at least three or four more drafts before filming. The basic story is serviceable enough, though hardly the kind of grand start expected to kick off an epic saga. The evil Trade Federation has formed a blockade and wants to take over the peaceful planet of Naboo. We’re never told what exactly this Federation trades in or why they want Naboo, but I suppose the fact that they deal in commerce is enough to make them evil (an odd sentiment this is, coming from the man at the head of a multi-billion dollar merchandising empire). A pair of Jedi knights is sent to negotiate, but the situation quickly escalates and much lightsaber-swinging havoc ensues. A series of convenient plot turns then leads to the discovery of gifted superchild Anakin Skywalker, who as fans already know will grow into the villainous Darth Vader in future installments.
There are several missteps in logic along the course of the plot, the crux of which is the decision by the mystical and wise Jedi Master Qui-Gon to place his important wunderkind directly into harm’s way. He enters the boy into a dangerous speeder race to earn a few bucks so that Qui-Gon can buy spare parts for his ship. I can think of at least a half dozen less life-threatening ways to resolve this dilemma (do the cantinas on Tatooine not need dishwashers?), but unfortunately none of them leads to a fabulous special effects showcase.
I haven’t even gotten to the real problems with the script. For one, the dialogue is atrocious. From Darth Sidious calling his Federation lackey “stunted slime” (I still can’t figure out how this differs from regular slime) to the Queen’s bodyguard telling that same lackey to “kiss your trade franchise goodbye,” the screenplay is loaded with one piece of inappropriate slang after another. I’m the first to admit that the original trilogy had its share of poor dialogue, but not even the worst one-liner (“Laugh it up, fuzzball”) can compare to some of the groaners in this film. (“Yousa in big doo-doo this time.”) Furthermore, it’s simply shameful to see the writer(s) dragging this film down to a level where it would indulge in fart and poop jokes. When I saw this film on its opening weekend, the audience burst into derisive objection at these scenes, as well they should.
All this, and I haven’t even gotten to Jar Jar yet.
The worst crime committed against a viewing audience since Sofia Coppola (who also appears in this film!) single-handedly destroyed The Godfather Part III, the creation of Jar Jar Binks is at once a technological breakthrough and also the single most irritating fictional character in the history of the narrative form. A cross between a hairless platypus and a mutant Roger Rabbit, Jar Jar speaks with the undeveloped vocabulary of the Teletubbies and seems specifically catered for that audience. His presence in this film is a disgrace, and he only gets more hateful with each repeated viewing. Almost as bad is Boss Nass, a slobbering lump of pure idiocy who has less screen time but makes the worst of all of it. Given the amount of special effects work necessary to create these fully-CGI characters, it’s almost inconceivable that no one along the production chain stopped Mr. Lucas in the hallway to ask if he’d had a brain aneurysm.
It seems almost too easy to lay the blame for all the movie’s faults onto the shoulders of one obnoxious character. In fact, if one is looking, there are plenty of other discrepancies to get upset about. The acting is mostly wooden. Young Jake Lloyd is particularly bland as Anakin, but what can one really expect from a child when the script calls for him to yell “Yippee!” several times? Has any real child ever actually said “Yippee!” outside the confines of a Dennis the Menace cartoon? Something makes me doubt it. Natalie Portman has two roles in the film and is thoroughly dreadful in both of them. Aside from the fact that her big plot revelation is the most unconvincing case of mistaken identity ever put to film, her flat line readings and expressionless face are enough to get her SAG card revoked. It’s also never explained why a “democracy” like Naboo would have a queen in the first place. The politically correct replacement of enemy stormtroopers with disposable non-human robots is the type of thing you would expect in a Saturday morning cartoon, not a feature film. The self-described warrior race of Gungans, technologically advanced enough to develop force fields and submersible vehicles, enter battle carrying spears and catapults. There’s a misguided attempt to explain away the mystical and religious implications of the Force by making it the work of Star Trek-style microorganisms, while at the same time overdoing the messiah metaphor in the discovery of Anakin. The film can’t seem to make up its mind which way to go.
Not to mention that almost all the alien characters in the film are depicted with distasteful racial stereotypes. The evil Federation representatives speak with a heavy Asian accent, the conniving junk dealer Watto is obviously Middle Eastern, and the bumbling Gungans are clearly of Caribbean descent. I have heard it argued on the film’s behalf that this was some sort of attempt to diversify the cast, but I still don’t buy it. If this were true, I must ask why Mr. Lucas chose only to portray these ethnic-sounding characters so negatively whereas almost all of the intelligent characters in the film are pure White Anglo-Saxon. Samuel L. Jackson has a bit part on the Jedi Council, but his is every bit a token role as Billy Dee Williams’ was in the previous trilogy. He essentially has only one scene in the film and is never even seen standing up.
This racial bias is especially mystifying given the strong Asian influences in the costume and production designs of the film. It has been long acknowledged that Akira Kurasowa’s samurai film Hidden Fortress was Lucas’ inspiration for the first Star Wars picture. That influence extends clearly to this film, evidenced in the Kabuki-like wardrobe of Queen Amidala and the Japanese-sounding names of the Jedi knights. The Jedi, who wear hooded brown robes and do battle samurai-fashion, are obviously meant to take a warrior-monk role. Why, then, do we have such incompetent evil henchman with Asian voices?
It has been suggested that the Star Wars films were always meant for children and that perhaps those who found fault with this film have simply outgrown it. I must disagree. The original three films have their limitations but they did not condescend to their audience as badly as this one. If Star Wars is meant for children, then The Phantom Menace is aimed squarely at toddlers. This is confirmed by my recent viewing of the film with a three-year-old, whom I noticed was completely transfixed by Jar Jar.
Why do I own a copy of this film?
The answer to that is simple. It is Star Wars, and so cannot be all bad.
The success of the Star Wars series thrives largely on several factors: innovative special effects, thrilling action scenes, and fantasy elements grounded in an elaborate mythological framework. The Phantom Menace does not disappoint in these areas.
On a strictly technical scale, the movie is quite an achievement. Even by impossibly high Industrial Light and Magic standards, the special effects work is staggering in both its quality and volume. Unlike most effects pictures which center around two or three major set-pieces, there’s barely a single shot in The Phantom Menace that has not been aided by extensive digital tinkering. Many of the alien and robotic characters (including Jar Jar) are created entirely out of computer animation, as is a great portion of the film’s production design. Some may see this as a cheat, but it’s hard to criticize when it’s blended seamlessly into such a rich and detailed tapestry. Surely, no one would complain that it stands out as badly here as it did in the misguided Star Wars Special Edition films, which attempted to add CGI work to older movies that were not filmed with such intentions in mind. The CGI animation in this film is a noticeable leap forward for the technique, especially when compared to the crude and cartoony computer effects in many comparably budgeted Hollywood pictures. The Phantom Menace sets a new standard for what will be expected out of movie special effects from this point forward.
The action sequences are plentiful and spectacular. From the space battles that are a hallmark of the series to the breathtaking pod race, the film’s forward momentum keeps it going past the weaknesses in the script. Even the lightsaber duels that might have seemed stale after three previous films here have a reinvigorated freshness when bad-ass character Darth Maul fights off two Jedi at a time with fancy martial arts moves. The lightsabers themselves take on new functions in this film as well. There’s more stabbing and thrusting this time, with Qui-Gon melting through some blast doors at one point. In previous films, we’ve seen the lightsabers used to deflect laser blasts, but in this one they can even redirect the blast back to the person (or droid, as the case may be) who fired it. Yet none of this seems terribly inconsistent with the rest of the series and all makes for some terrific visceral excitement. Naturally, the whole thing is backed by another outstanding John Williams score.
The original Star Wars (now deemed Episode IV) garnered such attention in the first place due in good measure to its creative variety of strange and quirky aliens. That inventiveness has become a trademark of the series and is carried through to this film as well. Not only is there an interesting assortment of new alien weirdos (including one that walks on his hands and performs tasks with his feet), but the film also pays knowing tribute to fans with cameo appearances from previous Star Wars films. There are Jawas and Tusken Raiders, one character that appears to be a young Greedo, and even a Wookie or two. We also see familiar faces from other notable films of importance to George Lucas. Warwick Davis from Willow (he also performed under heavy costuming as Wicket in Return of the Jedi) makes an appearance in a crowd during the pod race. The lovable creature from Lucas-friend Steven Spielberg’s E.T. is vaguely discernible in the background of the Senate deliberations. At one point, we can even spot a statue of the robot from Metropolis, clearly the inspiration for the C-3PO droid.
Reasons like these occasionally make even sub-par movies into great home video. This is where The Phantom Menace truly shines. The special effects and action scenes make repeatability a given, and to be honest some of the movie’s flaws diminish in annoyance after a couple of viewings. Jar Jar will forever be an irritation, but I suppose we can’t have everything.
George Lucas and his THX quality-assurance program have long held a commitment to high-resolution home video. The Star Wars Definitive Collection box set, though overpriced given its lack of extensive supplemental content, remains one of the highlights of any Laserdisc owner’s collection. Knowing this, it’s hard to imagine why Lucasfilm chose to release The Phantom Menace in the United States only on low-resolution VHS tape for so long. Given current market considerations, I understand why a U.S. Laserdisc release might not be profitable, but to also ignore the burgeoning DVD market is foolish to say the least. Yet that’s exactly what happened. It took over a year and a half after the videotape release before Lucasfilm bothered to announce a DVD.
That’s why many of us are thankful that there’s still a Laserdisc market in Japan.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace has indeed been released on Laserdisc in Japan. It is (almost) everything a Star Wars fan and Laserdisc collector could hope for. In fact, I might go so far as to call it the Last Great Laserdisc.
The picture has THX mastering, and is probably the last Laserdisc that will ever receive such treatment. It is of top-notch quality. The image is as sharp as any Laserdisc ever produced and easily holds its own against DVD resolution. The picture is fully letterboxed to the original 2.35:1 ratio. The colors are rich and vibrant, and much of the CGI animation seems better integrated with the film elements on video than it may have in the theater. The special effects really shine through in this presentation. There’s a touch of noisiness evident in the red-lit interior of Amidala’s spaceship, but the noise-reduction in my Laserdisc player keeps it in check. Results may vary with other players and other televisions. One noticeable artifact of the transfer is that the picture is overly dark, supposedly to match the 0 IRE black level common on Japanese televisions. Nudging the brightness setting on my television up a few notches was sufficient to compensate for the difference and it looks fine. This picture is excellent. It rates just slightly short of reference quality in my book.
The audio is also terrific. That pod race scene is a sound designer’s wet dream. Even in standard stereo, the precision, clarity, and force of every sound effect are amazing. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is even better, with constantly active surrounds and an endless stream of perfectly placed directional effects creating a soundfield that will have you ducking in your seat to avoid the spaceships flying over your head. The disc is also the first to be credited with a Dolby Surround EX digital track, backward compatible with regular Dolby Digital but capable of deriving an extra channel in the rear if you have the right equipment. Many audiophiles are calling this the best sounding Laserdisc ever, and I would not dream of contradicting them. Needless to say, it kicks the crap out of watered-down DVD audio.
This Laserdisc simply begs to be the default demo disc in any home entertainment system.
The movie is spread to three sides in CLV. The side breaks are well chosen, but it’s bothersome that Side 2 (which begins with the pod race) was not presented in CAV format even though the movie’s running time leaves plenty of room to accommodate this. There are no supplements of any kind. I suppose that’s fitting given the dearth of bonus material even on previous “definitive” Star Wars collections. The fabulous teaser trailer that built up so much excitement for the film would have been nice, but even that has not been provided. On the plus side, the disc jacket is a very stylish gatefold that opens up to a nice skyline shot of Naboo.
As for the minutiae: the disc has Japanese subtitles burnt into the image, but they appear entirely below the picture in the lower letterbox bar. They are, however, right below the picture, pressed up against it. They are also a little large and somewhat distracting during the opening prologue scroll, but once the movie starts up are easily enough tuned out. None of the English-language subtitles for the alien dialogue scenes are present here, and even though the disc does have English Closed Captioning, those particular scenes are left uncaptioned. The most plausible theory is that the captioning was prepared primarily for the American video releases, which would provide on-screen subtitles to translate. Still, the number of scenes containing such untranslated dialogue is minimal, and the general meaning of each conversation is easily apparent from the on-screen actions. This was not a film renowned for the sophistication of its dialogue, anyway.
The price is quite steep for a movie-only disc. You can blame 20th Century Fox for that. Their Laserdiscs have always been overpriced, and throwing importing fees on top hardly helps. Regardless, a Star Wars and Laserdisc fan can hardly do without it. Its price will certainly drop to more reasonable levels on the secondary market, especially after the much-delayed DVD announcement. Personally, I’d rather have the film on Laserdisc anyway for the sake of consistency with my other Star Wars LDs. Let’s just hope that the LD market in Japan hangs on long enough to see the next two episodes as well, though unfortunately I’m not holding my breath.
The Transformers: The Movie (Japanese Release)
Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published May 6, 1999.
I must begin by stating for the record that I was a huge fan of The Transformers when I was a child. I owned dozens of the toys and watched the cartoon every day after school, even after I hit an age where it was no longer “cool” to do so. When The Transformers: The Movie was released, I saw it in the theater and was traumatized by the deaths of several of my favorite characters, yet cathartically relieved to see a new generation of Autobots take on the old struggle against the Decepticons.
Of course, with time all such childish infatuations fade, or at least most of them. By high school, the social pressure to move on to “older” things like video games, cars, and yes even girls caught up with me, so I boxed up all of my old toys and stopped watching cartoons. These days, I have grown up to the point where it’s all right to play with my toys again. The release of this movie on Laserdisc at this particular point in time seems like it was specially designed with me in mind, as I suspect it will seem to many others from my age group.
I had not seen The Transformers: The Movie since that first time in the theater and had long since forgotten it, so I should probably start with my impressions of the movie itself.
The first thing that struck me upon rewatching the movie was how little logic is applied to the characters’ special transforming abilities. It would seem that the whole point of robots transforming into cars, planes, and various pieces of earthly equipment should be to disguise themselves in human society, to blend in with the other machines on the planet or hide from their enemies. Yet there is no hiding involved in The Transformers. Every character already knows exactly who the others are in all of their modes of transformation, and human beings play such a small part in the story that the only two human characters are already affiliated with the Autobots. While it’s true that sometimes special capabilities are used by transforming (the Autobots can travel faster as cars, for instance) more often than not the robots transform from one mode to another and back again for no apparent reason other than to show off the ability.
The other problem that has always bothered me about The Transformers, even when I was a child, was the lack of a consistent sense of scale. In their robot forms, most of the characters fall into an approximately logical scale. Some are taller than others, some shorter, some thicker, but there’s a believable sense of variety. Yet when they transform, the smallest robot (like Bumblebee, who’s practically the size of a human) will turn into a full size car, or the largest (like Soundwave) will shrink down into a human-scale tape deck. The use of weapons is also inconsistent. Many robots use laser rifles or in fact have them built into their bodies, yet the amount of damage these weapons cause will vary radically depending on the convenience of the scene. Sometimes one shot from a small gun will kill a character, but other times a hundred blasts from a high powered rifle will barely make a dent.
The deaths of Autobot characters so early in the film, which horrified me as a child, I see now as entirely pointless. There is no purpose to killing off those characters other than to make room for the new batch of toys to promote, and their final confrontation is laughably executed. There’s much shooting involved in very close quarters, yet the Autobots can never seem to hit a target while the Decepticons lay waste to them very easily, all played to the tune of a very bad ’80s rock song. In fact, one of the few consistencies the movie does hold is that no matter what the scene involves, the music will be terrible. From the opening theme song (“Autobots wage their battle / to de-feat / the evil / forces of / the Decep-ti-cons”), which is sung much worse here than it ever was on the original cartoon, to the godawful “You’ve Got The Touch” anthem that’s played a dozen times in the movie, the soundtrack is filled with some of the very worst ’80s pop music I’ve ever heard.
Little did the producers of this children’s cartoon realize, but “You’ve Got The Touch” would be put to much better ironic use a decade later as part of Paul Thomas Anderson’s porn-industry opus Boogie Nights.
Now, having said all that, I must admit that I had a fantastic time watching this movie. The overwhelming sense of nostalgia that it brought on was very satisfying, and in fact the kitsch appeal of all that lousy music was quite a kick. The basic story is serviceable enough, with solid moral lessons for the kiddies (take responsibility for your actions, respect your elders), and enough action to keep the whole thing flowing along until the end. Of course, there’s also the knock-down, drag-out, ultimate fight to the death between everyone’s favorite hero, Optimus Prime, and most despised of villains, Megatron. The death of Prime, with his literal passing of the torch to the new generation, is still as powerfully done as I remembered it.
There are even some interesting new characters added to the mix of returning familiar faces. Yes, there are some truly annoying new characters, like the ever-so-bland Hot Rod or the irritating Wheelie, whose squeaky voice can send a person into convulsions. Of much more interest is the grizzled war veteran Kup with a thousand old battle stories he’s dying to tell, the hyperactive Blurr who just can’t stop moving, or Ultra Magnus who wants so desperately to live up to the burden of leadership but just wasn’t cut out for it.
And then there’s Unicron.
Not only do we have a civil war raging on a planet full of transforming robots, but on top of that we have a new planet which is itself the largest, most dangerous Transformer of all, and easily the movie’s greatest invention.
In terms of animation, the quality of the movie varies from the blandness and cost-cutting of its after-school TV origins (the first robot to transform in the movie does so off-screen) to some very nice anime-style battle sequences. Overall, a decent balance is met, but never does it live up to the vividness or striking imagery of, say, a Disney production. Not that it was meant to, of course, but for a feature film one might hope for a significant leap in production values over the television series. I’m told by those who might know that the original color palette used for the movie was richer and deeper than that used for the TV series, but if that’s true it’s hardly evident on this Laserdisc.
The Laserdisc, available only as a Japanese import, was apparently mastered from a television print of the film. One notable line of profanity (“Oh shit!”) has been excised so as not to damage young ears (though “You’ve Got The Touch” still contains a verse with the lyric “When all hell’s breaking loose”), and the opening prologue text has been revised to imitate a Star Wars-style scroll. The movie is presented in full-frame format, which I’m guessing isn’t far off from how it was originally drawn. There are a few brief scenes visibly missing picture information from the sides, but such cases are rare. A slight matting (of maybe 1.66:1 or so) on the top and bottom might have given the film a sense of deliberate composition that it’s pretty much lacking at this point. The picture transfer is solid and reasonably sharp with only brief instances of noise or distortion, but the colors are dull and often bleed. Again, the movie just doesn’t have the polished sheen of the very best Disney animated product released on Laserdisc. It looks very much like the TV cartoon did, and no better.
The most disappointing aspect of this disc is, sadly, the audio. The movie was originally released on LD in Japan several years ago in Dolby Stereo as it was presented in theaters. I have never seen that disc and so cannot comment on either its picture or sound quality, but the new disc is strictly mono and significantly lacking in the audio fidelity department.
Because this is a Japanese release, the disc is bilingual, but fortunately there are no subtitles on screen. The primary digital tracks contain a Japanese dubbed language track while the analog tracks have a noticeably weaker English mix. Right from the opening scene, when the movie should really kick you with the force of Unicron tearing apart an entire planet, the soundtrack wusses out with muffled sound effects and a practically non-existent musical presence. Throughout the movie, whenever that bad pop score starts up and you get the feeling that it should really start rocking, the music just fades away into the background. This poor audio is truly irritating given how important the sound effects are to the film. Can anyone who has ever seen a Transformers cartoon forget the sound that Optimus Prime’s laser rifle makes? Specific sounds, whether of weapons or transformation, are very much associated with many characters in the film. To suck the life out of them as this disc does is a crime.
The poor audio is also unfortunate given that some of the movie’s biggest surprises come from the celebrity guest voices. Leonard Nimoy, Robert Stack, and (can it be true?) Orson Welles in his last film work are among the recognizable voices in the cast. Casting Welles as Unicron was a significant coup of the filmmakers, but unfortunately he died midway through production and it sounds like Nimoy may have had to take over some of his lines. Regardless, the audio is so muffled here that it’s nearly impossible to tell the two actors apart anyway. Particularly hurt is the vocal work of Eric Idle, who gave quite an amusing and memorable performance as the TV cliché-spewing Wreck-Garr, but who is so shrill and distorted now that you can hardly tell what he’s saying without deliberate concentration.
A direct comparison to the digital tracks reveals that they’re clearer and stronger, but still lacking in presence or fidelity. The voices recorded for the Japanese dubbing often sound more appropriate to the characters than the American cast, and it can actually be rather enjoyable to take the movie as a strictly visceral experience by watching it in Japanese once you’ve tired of the plot and some of the worst dialogue passages (“Bring on those Decepti-creeps”). Maybe this is just me, but I find it highly amusing to listen to the Japanese pronunciation of “Transfoaaam!” That alone can carry me though large chunks of the movie. I have also noticed in several instances, most notably the opening scene, that the Japanese tracks have more dialogue coming from characters whose faces are off-camera.
These caveats aside, I still found this Laserdisc to be a terrific addition to my collection. Maybe my expectations were just low from the start, but I have not been sufficiently put off by any of the disc’s (or the movie’s) flaws to prevent me from rewatching it several times since I bought it. I should also mention that it comes in a nicely designed jacket with some very striking black & white cover art (seen above) and has a full color pamphlet inside with stills from the film and the credits listed in Japanese text. There’s also an amusing theatrical trailer from 1985 following the feature which calls the movie “The greatest rock & roll adventure of all time” (I thought that was Streets of Fire!) and pushes the presence of Orson Welles in the cast as if the 10-year-olds they were marketing to would actually care.
Wild at Heart
Reviewed by Joshua Zyber. Published August 9, 2000.
“It’s just shocking sometimes, when things aren’t the way you thought they were.”
– Lula Fortune
Despite being an enormous fan of David Lynch’s other works, I have always had a difficult time making sense of Wild at Heart. Upon first watching it, I instantly hated it. Yet there was something which kept bringing me back, wanting to like it. So I gave it several more viewings, disliking the film a little bit less with each one. By now I’ve seen the film a dozen times and I don’t think I’ve ever had the same reaction twice. My most recent analysis was that the first half of the film is an ungainly mess, but that the second half picks up sufficiently to make watching it worthwhile.
“The way your head works is God’s own private mystery.”
– Sailor Ripley
The story follows the exploits of Sailor and Lula, a pair of white trash kids trying to break free of their pasts and start a new life together. Lula’s mother isn’t so keen on the idea of them shacking up, unfortunately, and sends some shady characters to track them down. As in many of the road movies this picture is trying to emulate, the journey takes a tour halfway across the country through a variety of different situations and unique experiences, all flavored with Lynch’s trademark surreal humor.
So what exactly is wrong with the movie? That’s a difficult question indeed. Wild at Heart is an indulgent film, made by an artist trying to live up to his reputation for “weird” and “quirky” material. It certainly fits those descriptions, but almost desperately so, piling on stranger and stranger affectations until it implodes under its own weight. Much of the film is awkwardly constructed. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, often directly contradicting one another. (Lula tells Sailor that her mother never found out that she was raped, and then we immediately cut to a flashback of her mother walking in on exactly that.) There are a number of tangential subplots that have no correlation to the actual story and serve no purpose other than to increase the weirdness factor. Several pointless cameo appearances by Lynch regulars (Freddie Jones, Jack Nance, etc.) hardly help matters, making parts of the film play like a bad in-joke that only Lynch finds amusing. The performances are often erratic, especially Diane Ladd’s over-the-top wacko mother. Many scenes cut in mid-conversation, as if Lynch couldn’t find a good place to put the scene but didn’t want to lose it. There’s a running Wizard of Oz theme that’s quite overdone and becomes quickly annoying. Many of the important plot turns are illogical (the couple drives out of the way to rural Texas so that Sailor can have a conversation with an old acquaintance, when a simple phone call would have sufficed). Worst of all, the two lead characters are so ignorant that it’s difficult to sympathize with their plight.
The movie inexplicably won the Palme d’Or at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, against the protestations of jury-member and outspoken Lynch-hater Roger Ebert. However, despite this dubious honor and a release date at the height of Lynch’s Twin Peaks popularity, the film was a commercial failure in the United States, as most of his films have been.
That being said, no Lynch film is completely without merit. The film is boldly stylized with vivid colors, striking imagery, and beautifully symmetrical widescreen composition. Lynch is a filmmaker who can bring the textures of smoke, lipstick, flies on vomit, or nylon stretched over a human face all to memorable life. Both J.E. Freeman and Willem Defoe give suitably creepy performances. Much of the dialogue is terrific (“One thing about surviving in Big Tuna, you gotta have an active sense of humor”). There are several dazzlingly moody set-pieces, culminating in Sherilyn Fenn’s appearance as a car crash victim slowly dying while Sailor and Lula stand helplessly by. Her scene is wrenchingly powerful, and brings the film some much-needed emotional resonance. By the time the story ambles lackadaisically into its caper plot in the second half, the movie picks up enough steam to build to a fabulous shootout finale complete with a visual reference to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.
As if the movie itself weren’t enough of a mixed bag, the Laserdisc edition from Image Entertainment is almost a total disaster. Its one redeeming quality is that it’s fully letterboxed to the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, despite the lack of any indication to this effect on the disc jacket. The film-to-video transfer is terrible. The image on Side 1 is rampantly grainy, oversaturated, and flooded with signal noise during the many periods of intense color. Side 2 looks a little more stable, but is also considerably softer. Similar to their equally lousy Laserdisc edition of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Side 3 is presented in CAV and looks fairly decent. Given that style is the one attribute this film really has going for it, this Laserdisc sucks the life out of the original photography and nearly kills the entire experience. If your Laserdisc player and/or television have a considerable amount of noise reduction filtering in use, the disc is watchable, but without such advanced signal processing it’s painful to sit through. Remarkably, both side breaks are very well chosen and are barely disruptive at all. The audio is clear and delivers the film’s interesting sound design well enough, but it’s lacking in punch and often sounds thin.
Columbia Video also released the film on Laserdisc in Japan. The disc comes in a beautiful gatefold jacket that completely dispenses with the hideous smeary artwork used on the North American release. The picture transfer, unfortunately, is even worse. Although less noisy, the image is overly contrasted, a bit faded, and has the appearance of a used theatrical print. Colors are poorly saturated and often seem a shade or two removed from accuracy. Its biggest crime is in the choice of letterboxed aspect ratio. The opening credit sequence and first shot of the film actually appear wider than the domestic edition, with slightly more room around the on-screen titles. After the first shot, however, the film abruptly cuts to a narrower ratio in the vicinity of 2.0:1. The essence of the composition remains but the picture is visibly cropped in many instances. The sign above Sailor’s head as he leaves prison, for example, now reads: “E DEE CORRECTIONAL INSTITUT”. The disc also has Japanese subtitles that appear in the picture, rather than in the lower letterbox bar.
This Japanese edition is worth purchasing for only two reasons. The primary appeal is the jacket art, which shows a respect for David Lynch comparable to the many other excellent Japanese Laserdisc releases for his films. Secondly, of notable interest is the fact that the notorious shotgun death at the end of the movie appears completely uncensored on this release. Lynch added an optical smoke effect to this scene for the American theatrical release in order to appease the MPAA and secure an ‘R’ rating for the film. The foreign release prints, one of which was used for the master to this Laserdisc, do not have any smoke obscuring the gore. Ironically, the scene works much better with the smoke in place. With a clear view of the image, the prosthetic looks rather fake. The smoke hides enough of this to make the effect more convincing, and also adds an interesting texture to the image keeping with the fire and smoking motifs running through the film.
To date, there are absolutely no decent home-video presentations for Wild at Heart. The American VHS tape has workable colors, but is hopelessly cropped to 1.33:1. There’s a DVD available in Japan, but it has apparently been mastered from the same partially letterboxed transfer as the Japanese Laserdisc. Around 1996, Elite Entertainment secured the rights to release a remastered Laserdisc in the U.S. that would supposedly restore 20 minutes of cut footage to the film and would feature an audio commentary by David Lynch himself. Sadly, Lynch repeatedly stalled his involvement with the project (much as he had previously done with Universal’s attempt to assemble a Signature Collection edition of Dune) until Elite’s rights had lapsed and the American Laserdisc market collapsed in on itself. Anchor Bay Entertainment was later set to release a DVD edition of the theatrical cut, but also let their rights lapse. Currently, there are no plans by any studio to remaster the title.
Wild at Heart may be David Lynch’s weakest film, but it’s undeserving of such a sad state of affairs. Even the worst of Lynch’s projects is more interesting than the majority of films cranked out on the Hollywood assembly line.
“Squeeze LD”: The Once Future of Laserdisc
Written by Joshua Zyber. Published November 11, 2004
Longtime Laserdisc collectors may be familiar with the the term “Squeeze LD,” or if they’re lucky may even own a disc or two. Those not as thoroughly versed in the subject may have wondered what all the fuss is about, and why the phrase shows up in many “Most Wanted” Laserdisc wish lists. In short, there was once a time when Squeeze LD was meant to be the future of the Laserdisc format. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as planned, and soon Laserdisc itself gave way to the DVD revolution. Only a small handful of Squeeze titles were produced, most of them in Japan, all of them rare and highly collectible.
So what was it? In the mid-1990s, widescreen televisions were still something of a rarity but were finally beginning to make inroads with home theater consumers. Trying to capitalize on this, Pioneer and Toshiba put into development a new breed of Laserdisc that that would take better advantage of these displays. What Squeeze LDs amounted to were anamorphically enhanced widescreen Laserdiscs with 33% greater vertical resolution. It worked basically the same way that anamorphic enhancement works now on DVD.
Using the same technology as regular Laserdisc mastering and manufacturing, during the video transfer the movie was encoded to be stored in a squeezed format whereby the widescreen movie image fills the entire video frame with less of the video resolution wasted to create black letterbox bars. If viewed on a traditional non-widescreen set, the picture will look tall and stretched out. However, on a widescreen display the picture can be unsqueezed and will appear in its normal proportions, with more resolution in the movie portion of the image.
The major difference between Squeeze LDs and anamorphic DVDs, and also the former’s downfall, is that Laserdisc players are not capable of performing non-anamorphic downconversion for those viewers still watching on traditional 4:3 televisions. This means that Squeeze discs can only be watched without distortion by viewers who own widescreen or anamorphic-capable displays. At the time the discs were released, that was a minuscule niche inside the already tiny niche of the Laserdisc market. The experiment did not catch on, and the Squeeze format died off rather quickly.
To the best of my knowledge, the below list comprises the entire catalog of movie titles produced as Squeeze LDs.
|Free Willy||Dolby Surround||USA||16903|
|The Fugitive||Dolby Surround||USA||16904|
|Grumpy Old Men||Dolby Surround||USA||16905|
|Basic Instinct||Dolby Digital 5.1||Japan||PILF-2192|
|Cliffhanger||Dolby Digital 5.1||Japan||PILF-2188|
|Cutthroat Island||Dolby Digital 5.1||Japan||PILF-2348|
|Showgirls||Dolby Digital 5.1||Japan||PILF-7352|
|Stargate||Dolby Digital 5.1||Japan||PILF-2193|
|Terminator 2||Dolby Digital 5.1||Japan||PILF-2187|
|Terminator 2 (THX Remaster)||Dolby Digital 5.1||Japan||PILF-2555|
I seem to be missing a Catalog # 16902, so it’s very possible that there’s another title out there that has not been brought to my attention. I have heard a rumor that Wag the Dog also exists as a Squeeze LD, however I have never received confirmation and frankly it does not match the pattern of the American discs, all of which were released in 1997 by Warner Home Video. Wag the Dog was distributed on Laserdisc by Image Entertainment, not Warner, and was not released on home video until 1998, after the Squeeze LD experiment had ended in the U.S. Likewise, I doubt it was a Japanese release either, because all of those came from Pioneer, who seemed to be focusing their Squeeze experiment on action and science fiction movies.
None of the American Squeeze LDs were ever sold at retail. They were given away as free promotional items with the purchase of a Toshiba widescreen television. The disc jackets looked identical to their normal non-Squeeze counterparts except for a small blurb of text on the back cover that stated: “This disc is manufactured in a special ‘anamorphically squeezed’ format to be compatible with your new Toshiba 16:9 TV. This disc is promotional and not intended for resale.”
On the other hand, the Squeeze discs in Japan were sold at retail and featured exclusive cover art with a “Squeeze LD” banner.
All of the Japanese releases are presented in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratios. Unfortunately, they are encoded with non-removable Japanese subtitles within the movie image. This is especially frustrating given that the subtitles could have easily been fit in the lower black letterbox bar beneath the movie image and still been visible on a 16:9 television for Japanese consumers. Basic Instinct, Stargate, and Terminator 2 (both editions) contain the original theatrical cuts of each film, not the longer director’s cut versions that were also released on the Laserdisc and DVD formats. Additionally, the Squeeze LD for Showgirls is optically censored in 5 instances where digital blur spots cover up selected pieces of nudity. (I’m not sure whether Basic Instinct has the same problem.)
Beyond this list of movies, a small selection of special interest discs were also released in Japan either in the Squeeze format or with selected scenes that are Squeezed. The below list was compiled by Nicolas Santini, who offers many of them for sale:
Sony: Test disc for wide TV (CAV, 29 min., Dolby Surround). Is Squeezed most of the time, and also has testing for zoom mode and other signals.
DTS Experience (CLV, 55 min., DTS). Has demo clips running twice, once Squeezed and once in standard letterbox format.
01/96 PILW-1221 Tahiti (CAV, 45 min.)
01/96 PILW-1222 Ordinary Europe (CAV, 60 min.)
01/96 PILW-1223 Alaska: The Last Frontier (CAV, 40 min.)
These three discs are letterboxed on side A and Squeezed on side B. Same material on both sides.
|PILW-1202 (Lost Animals) was previously reported as being Squeezed, but was later confirmed not to be. Same goes with some other material released on NTSC from a MUSE master that could be misleading into thinking they are Squeezed, but they are not: the SRLW series from Sony (Okinawa Underwater, Sea of Okhotsk, Ursa Minor Blue) and the COLE series from Denon (Sakura). I believe it is also the case for the F-1 Grand Prix It’s Real discs (PILW-1064, 1102 and 1197), but could not confirm.|
Squeeze LDs definitely had the potential to be a major step forward for the Laserdisc format. The THX Terminator 2 Squeeze disc is often regarded as one of the best-looking Laserdiscs ever produced. Unfortunately, the concept was ahead of its time. Widespread support for anamorphic enhancement on DVD both confirms the merit in the idea, and at the same time makes these particular discs largely irrelevant except as curiosity items. Regardless, they retain excellent collectible value for Laserdisc aficionados who are fortunate enough to obtain them.
Watching Laserdiscs in the Digital Age
Written by Joshua Zyber. Published August 29, 2004.
It’s time to face up to the obvious. Laserdiscs had a terrific run in their day, but they have been surpassed in picture quality by DVD. (Audio quality is still up for debate.) We’re living in a digital age, and watching television is an entirely different experience than it used to be. On the current generation of high-definition digital displays, a well-mastered anamorphic DVD (not to mention real HDTV) viewed in progressive scan on a large screen can produce a remarkably vivid and film-like picture, much better than even the best Laserdiscs in their prime. LD was a great product, but the world moves on.
Still, many of us have strong emotional attachments to our Laserdisc collections. There is also plenty of exclusive content out there on LD that has not and may not ever make the transition to DVD (especially classic movies whose rights have changed hands multiple times). These are still good reasons for wanting to watch a Laserdisc even in the present day and age.
So now you’ve got a fancy new HDTV that has been fully tuned-up and calibrated for a fantastic DVD picture. You plug in your old Laserdisc player, expecting that the better television will also make all of your old discs look their absolute best too. You turn it on, spin up your favorite disc, and….. yikes, massive disappointment sets in. The picture looks terrible. Was Laserdisc always this bad, and we just didn’t know any better at the time? How could we have ever thought this looks good?
To be perfectly honest, your reaction is normal, even expected. However, don’t jump the gun just yet and throw out your player and entire movie collection. There are certain things you should know first, and steps that can be taken to improve the situation. Yes, it’s true that some of these solutions have a cost, some of them are even rather expensive. Only you can decide whether you feel the investment is worth it. How much did you pay for that new TV? I bet it wasn’t free, nor was the new progressive scan DVD player you bought to go with it. You didn’t cheap-out on flimsy video cables, did you? I didn’t think so. If you want to save it, your Laserdisc collection will require a little bit of work to get looking its best, probably more so than DVDs, which are more of a plug-and-play format. Is it worth the time, effort, and money for an obsolete video technology? That’s up to you. Many people will feel that it isn’t, and will kick the old format to the curb. That is certainly their prerogative. Others will want to do everything they can to save their Laserdisc collections, and for them I recommend the following guidelines.
STEP #1: DON’T PANIC!
Just because you get an awful picture when you first fire up the LD player does not mean that’s as good as it’s ever going to be. The dirty little secret with digital televisions is that they’re no longer optimized for an analog video signal. If you were to play a Laserdisc on two televisions of comparable size, an older mid-’90s analog RPTV and a modern HD set, the picture would likely look better on the old TV at first. This may sound counter-intuitive; isn’t modern technology supposed to improve quality? Yes and no. A digital format played back on a digital display looks great. But something has been left behind.
Back in the day, engineers knew all the limitations of an analog composite video signal and designed their televisions to work around them as best as possible, in such ways as hiding low resolution scan-line structure. Today’s televisions are more concerned with getting the most out of a digital Component Video source, which has different needs. Backwards compatibility with analog equipment is barely an afterthought. If you think Laserdisc looks bad, check out cable TV on the same set. The larger the screen, the worse it looks. Of course, we expect cable to look bad. It’s a poor-quality source. Laserdisc is supposed to be better. It is, but it still has some of the same inherent weaknesses, and requires extra consideration that you may not have had to think about when hooking up your DVD player.
So yes, the picture you get right off the bat may look lousy, but don’t panic. All is not necessarily lost.
STEP #2: SEPARATE CALIBRATION
The single most important thing you can do to improve Laserdisc picture quality is hunt down a copy of the Video Essentials Laserdisc and carefully calibrate your television for the LD signal. Laserdisc and DVD require separate calibration. You may have tuned up your set with an Avia DVD or similar and think it looks great, but the settings you’ve chosen for DVD may be radically different than what you’ll need for Laserdisc.
For one thing, Laserdisc players output (and the discs are mastered for) a black level at 7.5 IRE. If you have a progressive scan DVD player, on the other hand, this will output black level at 0 IRE. The DVD picture is by default darker than the Laserdisc picture. Calibrating your set by DVD standards means that you will be raising your Brightness and Contrast values higher to compensate for the darker picture. Therefore, when you play a Laserdisc at the same settings the picture will look washed-out and dull, and will have poor black levels. The image will lack the “pop” you see with a properly calibrated picture. The simple solution to this is to save separate settings for each format, properly adjusted by Video Essentials standards. This should restore a better contrast balance, improving depth and making the picture look a little more vibrant, with better color saturation.
Contrast values set too high will also have the unfortunate side effect of emphasizing video noise and other flaws in the analog signal (just as it would emphasize compression artifacts in a DVD picture if your Contrast was too high for that format), making the movie you watch look really grainy and ugly. Unfortunately, the Video Essentials test patterns for Contrast calibration are geared specifically for CRT displays, which cause blooming or geometric distortion at high settings. These patterns aren’t much use for fixed panel digital displays such as LCD, DLP, or plasma. In this case, you’ll just have to eyeball it. Lower your Contrast so that whites still look pure white, but fixed pattern noise doesn’t jump out at you.
If your LD player offers the control, you will also wind up playing with Digital Noise Reduction (DNR) variables to clean up a noisy analog signal. Composite Video can be inherently noisy, and DNR can be a good thing, but it also has its drawbacks. Adding too much DNR will soften and blur a movie image, as well as cause fine details to smear when in motion. That’s obviously not a goal to aim for, as the DNR artifacts may be more distracting than the noise they were cleaning up. Some people dislike the look of DNR and turn it off entirely, but in my experience almost all Laserdiscs require at least some measure of noise reduction. Just be sure you don’t over-apply it. The better Laserdisc players will offer separate control over the YNR and CNR variables. I find that generally it is best to keep YNR set low to avoid smearing, while CNR can be moved a little higher. The way that noise reduction reacts with a video image will vary from display type to display type, so you will probably have to play around with the settings to fine-tune them for that balance where noise in the signal is reduced without smearing important picture details.
STEP #3: CONNECTIONS
With DVD, it’s simple: Composite Video is your weakest form of connection. S-video is always better than Composite, and Component is your best option (short of advanced direct-digital links such as DVI or HDMI). These are hard-and-fast rules, and always apply.
The story with laserdisc isn’t so clear. The Laserdisc signal is recorded in Composite Video form, and there’s no such thing as a Component Video connection on a Laserdisc player. (The Component outputs on LD/DVD combi players only work for the DVD portion.) Naturally you’d think that S-video is your best bet if the player has an output for it. Not so fast. It doesn’t work that way in the Composite Video realm. Sometimes the Composite connection is better. In fact, a lot of times the Composite connection is better. Your choice of S-video or Composite cable is dependent on which piece of equipment has the better comb filter built-in, the LD player or your TV.
Here is the rule you need to remember:
If your LD player has the better comb filter, use the S-video output.
If your TV has the better comb filter, use the Composite output.
The sad fact is that the comb filters built into most Laserdisc players are really crappy by modern standards. The best type of filter is a 3D comb filter, which is only found in the top-of-the-line Pioneer Elite CLD-99 and a handful of the really exotic Japanese import machines. The 3-line 2D comb filter found in some of the other high end machines such as the CLD-D704 and Elite CLD-79 are decent but not great. Any kind of 2-line filter found in the mid-range LD players is going to be garbage.
If you have a modern HDTV, odds are good that it may have a quality 3D comb filter built-in. If so, Composite Video is the connection type you want to use for Laserdisc. If you aren’t sure what type of filter your TV uses, try both cables and see which looks better. It could go either way. The Snell & Wilcox zone plate test pattern on Video Essentials is a good starting point to see which comb filter produces the worst artifacts.
STEP #4: BUY A BETTER LASERDISC PLAYER
Let’s be blunt: Many Laserdisc players are crap. Laserdisc picture quality is extremely dependent on the quality of the machine the disc is played on, much more so than DVD. There’s a huge disparity between the entry-level LD players and high-end units. If you have an older or low-end player, you’re going to get a soft and noisy picture. That’s just the way it is. It probably won’t get much better for you. As the saying goes, you can’t get blood from a stone.
Any LD player built before 1990 needs to be replaced. Laserdisc technology didn’t reach the zenith of its quality until the early to mid ’90s. Any Sony LD player should be thrown in the garbage, no matter the year. Sony just had terrible luck with the LD format. Their players all stunk and had poor reliability, and the discs they pressed had a high rate of laser rot. Be wary of anything Laserdisc-related that has the name Sony printed on it. Other hardware manufacturers put out LD players of varying quality (the Panasonic LX-900 is a pretty good one), but by and large the brand name to stick with is Pioneer. Pioneer put the most effort into developing and improving the LD format, and innovated almost all of the quality standards that made Laserdisc the king of home theater movie-watching prior to DVD.
Pioneer’s players are arranged in a heirarchy by model number, from entry-level to high-end. The CLD-S104 and CLD-S201 were the bottom-of-the-barrel entry-level models. They had no dual-side playback, no video noise reduction, no digital memory for still frames on CLV discs, no S-video output, no AC-3 RF output, and no digital audio output whatsoever.
The higher the model number, the higher-end the player:
CLD-D4xx < CLD-D5xx < CLD-D6xx < CLD-D7xx.
The CLD-D704 was the top-of-the-line player for Pioneer’s “blue collar” line. (Pioneer separates its products into a regular sales category and an “Elite” product line that has a more stylish cosmetic appearance and sometimes minor quality improvements.) The D704 originally retailed for a whopping $1,499! Fortunately, these days it can be found on the second-hand market for around $250, a much better value. (How much did you pay for your progressive scan DVD player?)
The D704 is the best “bang for your buck” LD player available, and in my opinion it should be (along with its equivalent, the CLD-D703, which is the same player minus the Dolby Digital AC-3 output) the minimum standard required for LD playback on an HDTV. Anything below that and your quality level will be pretty dicey. If you have a couple hundred dollars available, I highly recommend seeking out one of these players.
The Pioneer Elite CLD-79 is internally the exact same player as the CLD-D704, with a shinier faceplate. If you can get a D704, there’s really no need to upgrade to the CLD-79 unless you happen to like Pioneer’s “Urushi” finish. Though if you can get a good deal on it, the 79 is basically the same machine.
In America, Pioneer only produced two steps above the D704/79: the Elite CLD-97 and the Elite CLD-99. These were both top-of-the-line players in their respective years, and the 99 is the only American LD player with a 3D comb filter. There are significant differences between these two machines, and many LD aficianados debate which is the better unit. In my opinion, the CLD-97 is better suited to analog displays, while the CLD-99 is better suited to digital displays. Both of these machines have excellent reputations and tend to sell for a lot more money than the better-value D704, usually in the range of $800-$1000. The CLD-99 is almost identical to the CLD-D704 except for its 3D comb filter, so if your HDTV has a 3D comb filter of its own, you might as well just buy the D704 and use a Composite cable.
If you’re a really dedicated LD collector with more money to spend, the very best LD players were released only in the Japanese market and must be imported. (You will also need a voltage convertor.) The Pioneer LD-S9 is essentially a CLD-99 with a more advanced 3D comb filter never used in US players. It’s an excellent machine. Then there’s the best-of-the-best, the legendary Pioneer HLD-X9, which has the sharpest, most vibrant and least-noisy picture of any LD player I’ve ever seen. Watching a well-mastered Laserdisc on this player is very close in picture quality to a non-anamorphic DVD. Unfortunately, both of these players are prohibitively expensive for average movie collectors (especially the X9, which was produced in low numbers and has been known to sell for over $4,000 USD). But if you’re dedicated, and want the very best there is, this is what to look for.
For most others, as I said earlier the CLD-D704 is the best LD player value and is the model to seek out.
Regarding Pioneer’s LD/DVD combi units, even though these were the last LD players that Pioneer designed and manufactured, that does not mean that they were the most advanced or best. In fact, as a rule I would not recommend them. Combi players are designed for convenience, not performance. Both the LD and DVD sections are based on mid-level electronics, the LD section from a CLD-D606 and the DVD section from one of Pioneer’s first-generation non-progressive DVD players (which were filled with programming bugs). These combi units are overpriced and frankly not terribly good. The complicated mechanics inside also make them more prone to breaking down. You can do much better for a lot less money by purchasing separate LD and DVD players.
STEP #5: DEINTERLACING
All right, now you’ve got a better LD player, have chosen the right video cable, and have done separate calibration… and the picture is still not great. What’s wrong now?
I warned you this might not be easy. Here’s your new problem:
All NTSC video (whether Laserdisc or DVD) is stored on disc in interlaced format. To be displayed on a progressive scan television, the video must be deinterlaced. For a detailed technical explanation of how progressive scan works, I recommend spending a few hours reading this article.
If you’ve read a couple paragraphs at that link and it feels like your head is going to explode, I’ll boil it down for you. Video deinterlacing is done by chip called, naturally enough, a deinterlacer (sometimes known as a “line-doubler”). This deinterlacing can be done either inside the television or at the source. Some deinterlacing chips are better than others, sometimes much better. Unfortunately, the kind most television manufacturers put inside their sets are usually the bad ones. That’s why it’s recommended to buy a good progressive scan DVD player to do your deinterlacing for you, bypassing the chip inside the TV.
Obviously, a progressive scan DVD player isn’t going to help your Laserdisc collection out much. Unfortunately, there were never any progressive scan Laserdisc players ever manufactured. The format died out before there was much need for such a thing. What to do? Now is the time to start looking for an external line-doubler. You can buy a box that does the deinterlacing for you. You plug the LD player (or, if you want to, the DVD player and other sources too) into the line-doubler, it deinterlaces the signal, then you plug this into the TV.
Like anything, line-doublers vary in quality and cost. The good ones usually aren’t cheap. I recommend the iScan line of products from DVDO. iScan products use the superior Silicon Image deinterlacing chip and are, if not exactly cheap, at least reasonably affordable. Faroudja also produces excellent deinterlacing solutions, but their standalone video processors tend to come at a higher price.
A note of warning: Many HDTV models have a design flaw whereby they automatically lock into 16:9 stretch mode on any incoming progressive scan signal. This is not a problem for an anamorphically enhanced DVD, but any non-anamorphic source (such as a 4:3 DVD or a Laserdisc) will be stretched and distorted, and the TV will not let you correct this except by sending an interlaced signal instead. This basically negates the effectiveness of using an external line-doubler, unless the doubler offers aspect ratio control to counter this flaw. In the DVDO line, the iScan Plus v2 and iScan Pro have a feature that will pillarbox a 4:3 picture in the center of a 16:9 screen, but will not allow you to zoom a non-anamorphic letterbox picture to fill the screen. For that, you would need the more expensive iScan Ultra or higher.
STEP #6: SCALING
You’ve tried a line-doubler, and the results are better but you’re still hoping for more. Now we’re in the hard-core territory. You need a video scaler.
A video scaler, in addition to deinterlacing, will take a standard-definition video signal and upconvert it to a selected resolution of your choosing. If you have a CRT-based set, usually this means your choice of 480p (standard-def progressive scan, the same a line-doubler would give you), sometimes 540p, occasionally 720p, or often 1080i. You want to select the one that works best with your display type. This may involve playing around with the various options until you find the one that looks best.
Please note that scaling does not add real picture detail to a video image. Upscaling a standard-definition picture to 1080i does not make it real HD quality. Instead, by interpolating pixels, a scaler fills in the empty spaces between scan lines with new pixels that blend in with those surrounding them. When done properly, the result is a picture that looks fuller and more stable, with no visible scan lines even when magnified to a very large screen size. But it’s not magic; you can’t plug an EP-speed VHS recording into a scaler and make it look like stunning high-definition, regardless of how many pixels you add.
Other types of digital display such as DLP, LCD, and plasma will have pre-defined native resolutions. Sometimes these can be common computer resolutions such as VGA (640×480), SVGA (800×600), XGA (1024×768), or SXGA (1280×1024). Other times you’ll get oddball resolutions like 825×480, 1366×768, 1365×1024, or 1440×1152. With this type of display, any input signal of any resolution must be scaled to the set’s native resolution. Usually this is done by the scaling chip inside the TV. Just like with deinterlacers, the hardware manufacturers often default to cheap and mediocre-quality chips. A DVD’s digital signal is usually clean enough that you get a good picture regardless, but a noisy analog signal like Laserdisc can trip up the scaling process and give you all sorts of problems. In this case, an external scaler can help. It will scale directly to the native resolution of the display, bypassing the set’s internal chip.
Video scaling is a complicated process and does not come cheaply. Good scalers are expensive. Anything that seems like a really good deal is probably going to be garbage quality. You desperately want to avoid any scaler that will add edge enhancement ringing to a video image, or other artifacts such as pixelation, smearing, or ghosting.
Again, I am partial to DVDO’s iScan line of products, such as the $1,499 iScan-HD video scaler. Lumagen also makes a good selection of scaling products, and their (at the time of this writing, soon to be released) VisionHDP model has comparable features and the same price tag as the iScan-HD.
Another (sometimes cheaper) option is to use a computer to do the scaling for you. Some home theater enthusiasts build dedicated “HTPCs” to do all of their video processing. This can have both advantages (lower price, more flexibility and control over how the image is processed) and drawbacks (a tremendous amount of effort and a good deal of computer programming knowledge are usually required). Personally, I’m a home theater buff who’s had to learn all this stuff from scratch, but I’m not an engineer. The HTPC route wasn’t for me. Your mileage may vary. If you’d like to learn more about how to build an HTPC, start by browsing the discussion boards at AVSForum.
STEP #7: DUBBING TO DVD
When all else fails, you may want to look into the prospect of dubbing your favorite Laserdisc content over to recordable DVD. What’s the point in that, you ask? First, there’s the obvious advantage, that it will allow you to play the LD content back through your DVD player, which hopefully is a good progressive scan model with a quality deinterlacing chip. Beyond that, with a lot of work it is sometimes actually possible to make a DVD copy look better than the LD original.
Since when are copies ever better than originals? Today’s sophisticated video editing software has a number of advanced features and video filters that may enable you to adjust and clean-up a noisy analog signal before you burn it to DVD. You can also use scaling features to stretch a non-anamorphic letterbox Laserdisc into anamorphic proportions; this won’t add real picture detail resolution, but it will allow you to watch the content in progressive scan on a display that locks all progressive signals into 16:9 stretch mode.
DVD authoring can be a terribly complicated process and usually involves a great deal of trial-and-error work.
STEP #8: SETTING EXPECTATIONS
Here’s the bottom line: Even the very best Laserdisc played on the very best Laserdisc player, routed through the very best video scaler and connected to the very best television, will never look as good as a well-mastered anamorphic DVD on the same set. It just isn’t going to happen. The format doesn’t have the resolution to compete, and its Composite Video signal is hampered by the limitations of its antiquated design.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love Laserdiscs and I will cherish my LD collection forever. But we have to be realistic here. DVD just looks better, as it damn well should considering that the technology is 20 years newer. It’s call progress and, as Martha Stewart would say, “It’s a good thing.” We should be, and most of us are, grateful for the advances that DVD has brought us, and we will be even more thrilled when the next generation of high definition video discs finally come along.
That said, Laserdiscs still hold a special place in many of our hearts, and they deserve to be seen in their best light. The above steps should help, but the biggest hurdle to be overcome is in setting our expectations. What it comes down to is that Laserdiscs just look different than DVDs. They have a different look, a different feel, and a different texture. The image may be softer, and there may be a bit more grain or noise, but Laserdisc is still a high-quality format and is capable of producing a pleasant movie-watching experience. It’s like comparing CD to vinyl. Sure, CD is technically the better format in a number of ways, but even despite the occasional pops or crackle, a vinyl record has a certain warmth and richness to it that digital technology has yet to fully replicate. The same can be said for Laserdisc and DVD. Maybe a Laserdisc picture is a little noisy, but no digital compression means no compression artifacts, the bane of DVD technology. It’s all a matter of which type of artifact distracts you more. Digital video when compressed too much also has a tendency to smooth away subtle gradations in color shadings in favor of bolder, more primary colors, which can be appealing on a superficial level, but uncompressed analog video is sometimes able to bring out the whole spectrum with broader range.
It may take some work, but it is possible to get a good Laserdisc picture on a large digital display. For my part, I run a Japanese LD-S9 Laserdisc player through an iScan-HD into my NEC LT-240 DLP front projector, which shines onto a 6-foot wide screen. Well-mastered Laserdiscs are perfectly watchable on that screen size. Sadly, not every Laserdisc is as well-mastered as it should be, and the noisy pressings that look bad even on a small screen are only going to look worse the larger you go. But those that were quality presentations hold up very well. I often like to fool new friends by playing a scene from the Austin Powers LD to show off the projector, then when they are suitably impressed reveal that it wasn’t even a DVD they were watching. It works every time.
It was a lot of effort and no small amount of expense to get to that point, but because my Laserdisc collection is important to me, it was worth the hassle. If you happen to feel similarly, I hope the information presented above helps get you to that same place where you’re satisfied that you have done all that’s possible, and are content with the results.
August 2008 Addendum:
I’ve had a number of people ask me to update this article since first writing it. To be honest, the basics of the piece still apply today. The only things that have really changed are the names and models of the latest hardware. The DVDO and Lumagen lines of video scalers are currently a few generations ahead of the models mentioned above, and they have new competition from a host of other companies with comparable products. The old standalone “line-doublers” are virtually extinct, in favor of all-in-one “video processors.” These days, it’s also more common to find quality video processing technology being built into HDTVs and even A/V receivers, whereas that was incredibly rare a few years ago.
However, the essential concepts laid out in the article are still the same, and there isn’t much more I can add.