DVD of the Week Extra – Criterion Blu-ray: The First Wave

Criterion's first release
Criterion's debut release: "Citizen Kane" on laserdisc

Criterion’s name is synonymous with the gold standard when it comes to presenting the definitive editions of classic and foreign cinema on home video. The company began in the laserdisc era and essentially defined the “special edition” presentation as we know it with releases like Citizen Kane (their first laserdisc release ever) and the follow-up 3-disc DVD (which expanded the supplements) and the “director approved” collaborations with Martin Scorsese (whose commentary on Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) set the bar for director commentary tracks and inspired many aspiring filmmakers). They’ve carried their loving care for classic and contemporary movies to DVD, finding vintage supplements for classic films and contributing to the critical record with their efforts. What gives the Criterion stamp meaning is not that they create the “best” DVD editions around, but that that they lavish their efforts on films that don’t get that kind of attention from the studios.

Thus, the announcement earlier this year that Criterion was going to start producing Blu-ray discs was considered evidence that the new format was indeed something that serious film folk should consider. It’s not just for The Matrix and Transformers and The Dark Knight, but for The Godfather (Paramount), Casablanca (Warner) and No Country For Old Men (Miramax).

The smeared world of "Chungking Express"
The smeared world of "Chungking Express"

The four titles that Criterion adds to the Blu-ray format limn the span of the gamut of their interests: The Third Man (classics from the canon), Chungking Express (contemporary international), The Man Who Fell to Earth (cult favorites) and Bottle Rocket (American indie). All the supplements from their definitive DVD editions are carried over to the Blu-ray disc, with the notable exception of the booklets (which are represented by smaller, thinner booklets with only some of the essays and interviews of the original DVD offerings), and the films are newly remastered for the 1080p high definition standard. What you get is a sharper, stronger image that is also more sensitive to preserving the textures of the chemical process of film. Yes, I’m talking about film grain, that reality of celluloid that modern films have been so effectively been scrubbing away in the new film-to-digital-and-back post-production process. It dances across the sc screen of The Third Man with such clarity you think something must be wrong. It’s startling, because we’ve seen so little of it on DVD, but the presence also warms the image, makes it a little more organic. Criterion isn’t the first to do this – The Godfather and Casablanca embrace the grain also – but it really jumped out at me in The Third Man and started me reevaluating what constitutes a proper restoration and mastering standard for classic cinema. It’s not quite so obvious in Chungking Express, but then that film, with its smeared colors and stuttery motion and images pushed and pulled to the extremes of film registration, is all about the texture. Criterion’s Blu-ray preserves that texture so well you can’t imagine seeing it without that kind of clarity.

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DVD of the Week – ‘Chungking Express’ – November 25, 2008

Faye Wong
Faye Wong

Wong Kar-wai first burst onto the international scene with this jazzy little cinematic improvisation on a themes of love, loss, connection, and the craziness of emotion. The two stories revolve around cops, but any resemblance to the usual Hong Kong action fare ends there. In the first story, rookie Takeshi Kaneshiro falls for femme fatale in a blond wig Brigitte Lin, and in the second ladies man Tony Leung Chia-wai finds himself the object of the affections of big-eyed pixie Faye Wong (a popular Cantopop chanteuse who make her film debut here and sings a Cantonese version of The Cranberries’ song “Dreams”). A unique peek into the urban flavor of one working class suburb in the crowded island nation of Hong Kong, this a film that sways to its own beat, and those unusual rhythms are infectious, as are the smeary/stuttery visuals of cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Previously released on DVD, Criterion puts their stamp on the disc with a new edition and will follow it up in December with a Blu-ray edition.

Read the DVD review on my MSN column here.

Also new this week is the underrated superhero drama Hancock, starring Will Smith as a superhero by way of an unnatural disaster, a caustic street drunk faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and more impetuous and self-absorbed than a three-year-old on a sugar jag.

But for all the dark humor of Hancock, this film puts a more serious spin on the superhero genre by shifting into myth and archetype. I’m a sucker for the eternal hero and for the tragic ironies of the ancient heroes. Both are here in a strange, sometimes awkward but always intriguing spin on the modern comic book hero movie, an adult drama with fierce conflicts and fatal consequences, which director Peter Berg delivers with an unnerving intensity. Even by the standards of a maturing superhero genre, this is not a film for kids.

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