There have been some big changes this month over at the home of The Criterion Collection, the prestige DVD company that's been every film buff's best friend since the days of Laserdiscs.
First, there's the new website. Along with the sleek new design, this "online cinematheque" now offers a "try before you buy" option with online versions of Criterion DVD and Blu-ray titles, easy access to essays and other info, the addictive blog-like current posts (such as, say, Martin Scorsese on Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket), new individual film pages with embedded trailers or clips (for example), social networking forums, a free film festival every month at The Auteurs, "stuff" (mugs and T-shirts along with DVDs and Blu-rays), and even a cool "little orientation video."
They kept the best of the old site too, like the Top 10 lists.
And there's more that's new under the big "C" logo. Earlier this year, Criterion thrilled its fans by announcing that they would start upgrading select titles to Blu-ray disc. Originally announced to begin hitting our shelves in October, the first wave of Blu-ray Criterion editions got pushed out a couple months. Finally, this week the first four Blu-ray titles have arrived, and it's a pleasure to report that it was worth the wait.
It's a predictably eclectic mix: a high-definition upgrade of a vintage favorite, Wes Anderson's first film, an arty science-fiction oddity starring David Bowie, and a Chinese pop fave that's new to both Criterion and to Blu-ray. The response from the press and home video aficionados has been universally positive, with Criterion's trademark care and diligence per disc raising the company's already impressive bar to a new level.
Oh, and the Blu-rays are priced the same as their DVD counterparts. In fact, over at Amazon.com the Blu-ray editions tend to be cheaper than the DVDs, just in time for the holiday Blu's, the sort that the home video retail stores are counting on about now.
Available now are these titles:
Wes Anderson has always been a Criterion fan, making the outfit his go-to place for the best representation of his films on DVD, such as the director-approved discs of Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
Now Anderson's debut film, starring "the boys," Luke and Owen Wilson, has finally been buffed and polished and augmented for a brand new release. Supervised and approved by Anderson and director of photography Robert Yeoman, this newly remastered high-def transfer of Bottle Rocket is "like seeing the film for the first time," says our own Laremy Legel (who had actually seen it before, just not on Blu-ray). The disc also rates high as Dave Kehr's latest featured Critic's Choice in The New York Times. Feel like drilling deeper? Check out the reviews of this edition at these DVD specialist sites:
• DVD Beaver -- With full specs, high-res screencaps, and comparison to the 2001 Columbia Tri-Star edition
New to Criterion, Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai's stylish pop urban action-romance-comedy has arrived with both DVD and Blu-ray options. Says Criterion:
The whiplash, double-pronged Chungking Express is one of the defining works of nineties cinema and the film that made Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai an instant icon. Two heartsick Hong Kong cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung), both jilted by ex-lovers, cross paths at the Midnight Express take-out restaurant stand, where the ethereal pixie waitress Faye (Faye Wong) works. Anything goes in Wong's gloriously shot and utterly unexpected charmer, which cemented the sex appeal of its gorgeous stars and forever turned canned pineapple and the Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin'" into tokens of romantic longing.
I had not seen Chungking Express before Thanksgiving weekend, when I was offered the chance to watch Criterion's DVD and Blu-ray editions almost back to back. Visually startling, even beautiful in a whip-fast impressionistic way, the movie is also funny, charming, and completely engaging. While watching it the first time, Wong Kar-wai's shift in the middle -- from the first of his two stories to the second -- was unexpected and therefore a bit disorienting for me, but I went with his groove and Chungking Express has been rolling around in my head ever since. Here and there I was reminded of Quentin Tarantino (who's a fan of the film and whose production company helped distribute it outside Hong Kong), Woody Allen (back when he was on his game), and a dash of David Mamet (God knows why, but there it is).
Faye Wong is now an actress and pop singer I'll be looking for anywhere I can find her. Meanwhile, I'm wondering why Kaneshiro and Leung -- both versatile, appealing, and handsome -- aren't bigger names over here. I enjoyed Leung opposite Jet Li and Maggie Cheung in Hero, and in 2046, plus John Woo's Bullet in the Head and Hard-Boiled, and I caught Kaneshiro in House of Flying Daggers. But in Chungking Express -- an altogether different experience -- I really noticed and paid attention to them. Also sticking in my brain, as a double-crossed baddie in the first segment, is the great Brigitte Lin (The East is Red, The Bride With White Hair), whose final small action (this is a film about small actions in big places) puts a perfect little flip on the tail end of Kaneshiro's story.
If you opt for the DVD edition, you won't be disappointed. The restored image and the lively Dolby 5.1 sound are exemplary, just what you expect from Criterion. The extras are slight, with the best being the enjoyable and illuminating audio commentary by Asian cinema critic Tony Rayns.
As good as the DVD is, the Blu-ray is remarkable. That extra def is significant, making an excellent DVD into a superb Blu-ray.
For more about Criterion's Chungking Express:
• Glenn Kenny's Some Came Running
• DVD Beaver -- with screencaps, full specs, and comparisons to previous editions
• DVD Talk
In this clip, the song is Faye Wong's own cover of The Cranberries' "Dream Person":
One of my top favorite movies anywhere, anytime also gets a nu-tech upgrade. The previous Criterion DVD of Carol Reed's 1949 suspense-mystery-comic-thriller was so good that I've been curious about whether this refurbishing would really make enough difference to coax me into springing for a replacement. Well, it did, then I did, and I couldn't be more impressed. (Good thing Criterion now offers a DVD-to-Blu-ray trade-in discount.)
It's exquisite. The amount of detail the greater resolution can pull from a 60-year-old black-and-white print is remarkable. Robert Krasker's rich, deep cinematography has always been famously striking, and this time, when I got to the movie's Big Reveal -- cat, shoes, window light ... if you know the film, you know what I mean -- I hit Pause just to admire the detail, texture, and shadings I'd not really seen before on home video. One of my favorite movies just got better!
As Dave Kehr has also noticed, you can put Criterion's Blu-ray edition of The Third Man alongside Warner Home Video's recent Blu-ray of Casablanca as proof that even generations-old vintage classics can still reveal newfound vividness and clarity "in a way that standard-definition discs just can't manage."
If you don't already have this one in your collection, grab it in either format. It's one of the essentials. Still need convincing? Check out these sites:
• Film.com's Glenn Erickson and his DVD Savant review
• DVD Beaver -- With full specs, high-res screencaps, and comparisons to Criterion's DVD editions.
Nicolas Roeg's hypnotic, sensuous science-fiction allegory from 1976 takes a bleak view of contemporary human nature, and does so through the eyes of an alien (glam rocker David Bowie in all his lithe androgyny) who falls prey to our earthly vices and temptations. Here's one I have a hard time warming up to, but Roeg's imagery, as always, sure has a way of clinging to your memory long after you've experienced it. And it's good to be reminded of a time when "sci fi" movies occasionally strived to be art, something that a certain mega-hit space opera put the kibosh on the year after Bowie's stranger in a strange land arrived to bum us out.
With the participation and approval of director Roeg, Criterion's full uncut version restores nearly twenty critical minutes that had been removed during the original American theatrical release.
• DVD Beaver (a couple images NSFW)
• DVD Talk
For the deep-dyed movie lover whose cravings don't begin or end at the local mall multiplex, Criterion is like a source of fresh water in a drought. The final Blu-ray title in this first wave, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (official page) is slated for January 6. For me personally, I'm hoping that the next wave comes soon, and that it includes the high-def remastering of their Gimme Shelter and one of my Desert Island Discs, Criterion's The Complete Monterey Pop Festival. Man, what this new format's uncompressed, all-stops-out audio can do for a surround-sound concert film ... I got shivers just thinking about it.
From Criterion's The Complete Monterey Pop Festival: