Criterion Collected #1: November Titles, New Blu-grades, and is Spine 600 GOJIRA?

Moisés finally picks a name and regular format for his Criterion column and digs into a bunch of recent news, discs, rumors, and idle speculation. He’s also started re-numbering at #1 just like a comic book reboot (just to frustrate continuity nuts).

Insert here a sentence about how Criterion have really outdone themselves this month and how November will be their best release slate yet. That said, it’s a pretty uniquely enormous pile of work they’ve put in to this pile of discs that may very well be part of the November 50% off Criterion Sale that Barnes & Noble tend to run each year.

First up on November 8 is a Blu-ray upgrade of their formerly 5-DVD Fanny and Alexander (1982) set, which carries over all of the same features in a 3-Blu package, including the 3.5 hour Theatrical Cut, the 5+ hour Television Cut, and a ton of documentaries including a Making Of doc made by Ingmar Bergman himself, all in HD. If you haven’t seen Bergman’s most personal film, now’s a great reason to bump it up on the “to watch” list.

The next week (November 15) brings an embarrassment of riches with remastered DVD/Blu editions of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) and a box set of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors Trilogy (1993 & 1994), considered one of the greatest films and trilogies in cinema history. The Rules of the Game was originally a two-DVD set that came in a really nice digipack case (which was replaced with one of the “figure 8” two-disc cases). This release offers a newly-done HD master, but no new features beyond the cartoony (but interesting) new artwork.

The Three Colors Trilogy had a fair amount of extras on its previous Miramax DVD release, most of which are carried over (including cinema lessons from the director, interviews, and docs), with the exception of the old commentaries with Annette Insdorf. Added in Criterion’s new box set are freshly-recorded interviews, video essays, and vintage Kieślowski shorts (as well as one he acted in but didn’t direct).

November 22 brings a Blu-ray upgrade of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998). Features are all the same, but I wonder if it’ll have the same mini-poster in the case as the DVD did. On the same day, we’re getting what I consider the surprise of the month, Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men (1957) on DVD and Blu-ray. The extras are just as much of a surprise, including the 1955 teleplay adaptation of the same script from another director plus Tragedy in a Temporary Town (1956), a teleplay directed by Lumet. A trio of new interviews, a few vintage ones with Lumet, and a video essay about the film versus television versions of Men.

Finishing off the month is one of the more unique Eclipse sets to date, which focuses on an actor instead of a director in Eclipse Series 30: Sabu!. Sabu was a very unique screen star whose career exploded in the ‘40s and lasted until his sudden death of a heart attack in 1963. As a 12-year-old, he was plucked out of a maharajah’s horse stalls shoveling shit by a British producer (true story!). He became the go-to Indian actor for Hollywood features after starring in Elephant Boy (1937) and Drums (1938), both of which are included in this set along with his major breakout role as Mowgli in the live-action Jungle Book (1942). The guy has a fascinating personal story, including his rapid push to become an American citizen who fought as a tail gunner in WWII.

Recent Blu-grades

Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963), Spine #24
The Japanese master’s adaptation of King’s Ransom benefits most from the HD upgrade as most black and white films do: in its depth of contrast. In particular, whites don’t blow out and bleed into one another like they did way back in the original DVD mastering, particularly Toshiro Mifune’s fashionable white dress shirt/sweater combo he sports for the whole movie. All the white in the frame makes the subtitles difficult to read at times, but if you’re used to white on white in this respect, it isn’t a big deal. In case you weren’t that familiar with it, the movie is based on an Ed McBain novel, and has nothing whatsoever to do with that 2005 movie starring Anthony Anderson.

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Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1963), Spine #249
As a comparatively late black and white film, like High and Low, Pontecorvo’s masterpiece about French-occupied Algiers would be expected to look a fair amount cleaner. The run-and-gun, documentary-style shoot resulted in a relatively gritty, imperfect look. The bump up to HD means this looks about as good as it can without being too clean. Criterion’s two-week-old Blu upgrade is a great reason to revisit a major film that has become even more relevant to U.S. audiences since the “War on Terror” began.

Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946), Spine #6
This has been one of my most-anticipated Blu-ray upgrades for a long time. Criterion re-issued this previously, and just like that time, they’ve revised the cover art yet again. The new Phillip Glass score added as an alternate audio track doesn’t light me on fire, but it’s there if you like it. If the only version you’ve seen is the Disney one, you simply couldn’t fathom what you’re missing here. This will end up on my best upgrades of the year list for sure.

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Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), Spine #237
Similar to High and Low, this one has a lot more white than black in the frame, and the transfer leaves nothing to be desired. If Bergman intimidates you because some college film professor or art film dork forced The Seventh Seal on you at the wrong time or place, you should give this one a shot. It’s a sex comedy. There’s some loneliness and emo stuff in there, but it’s completely outweighed by classic sex farce elements.

Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl (2001), Spine #259
Until I revisited it, I feel like I gave this movie short shrift. “Why upgrade it to Blu-ray?” people might whine, when this and that Criterion title still isn’t. Well, the simple answer is that everything in the Collection should get upgraded to Blu-ray eventually. This leads me into the next part of this installment of Criterion Collected, a new feature I call…

Off the Shelf: Why Doesn’t Criterion Release/Upgrade My Favorite Movie?

This regular piece of the column will briefly get into topics not necessarily tied to a particular disc, but Criterion culture at large.

The biggest complaint or exasperated plea I see chucked out into the internet via Twitter or blog posts about Criterion is “why won’t they release my favorite movie?”. The answer can take a number of forms, but most prominently, licensing rights can kill something before it’s even under consideration. Warner Bros, for example, doesn’t sub-license any of their titles. That could change in theory, but it’s highly, highly doubtful. WB wants to own all of their prized gems. Before I get my hand slapped, it’s true they did sub-license back in the laserdisc days, but we’ll get more into that in a future Off the Shelf.

I’d love it if Criterion got their mitts on things like Fantastic Mr. Fox, or Studio Ghibli’s library, or even Pixar’s films. Lawrence of Arabia would be great too, as would Ghostbusters. The problem is, those films all either do just fine on their own for their rights holders, or they’re prestige titles that they pull out every so often, remaster, and release in a giant box set draped in linen and silk, gilded with the tears of limited edition angels. These titles would just never see the light of Criterion’s mastering lasers in the current climate. It’s a tough pill, but it must be swallowed.

A couple of years ago, StudioCanal, a European mega-conglomerate film rights holder, struck an exclusive deal with Lionsgate to release their titles in the U.S. StudioCanal owns all sorts of amazing movies, from Kurosawa’s Ran and Carol Reed’s The Third Man to Godard’s Contempt and A Woman is a Woman, among loads of other great movies. Something like 30 Criterion titles shortly thereafter went out of print. That reminds me, we should talk about OOP titles in a future installment too.

So after you get past the “can it be licensed” question, you hit the question of whether a title fits their description of “important classic and contemporary film”. People like to jab at this standard by pointing out the inclusion of Armageddon and The Rock, but I wholeheartedly defend their inclusion. They signaled a sea change in blockbuster film, where big and huge became even bigger and more huge.

Maybe you don’t like or never heard of Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician, or you couldn’t begin to guess how to pronounce the title of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le deuxième souffle. Maybe you know them, but think they’re lesser films from those directors. Well, tough shit. Criterion is interested in completion of filmographies as much as they are those directors’ greatest films. I’m glad they actually put out films from various directors (Ozu, Fellini, Melville, Kurahara, and the list goes on) that otherwise probably wouldn’t have been available in the U.S. at all, much less at their level of picture quality and subtitling standards.

Then there are the modern films, which are a whole other ball of wax.

There was a minor uproar earlier this year when it leaked out (via someone at IFC, I think) that Criterion were planning to release Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture. To those folks I can say that they may have hated the film, but then again maybe there were people who hated George Washington, David Gordon Green’s directorial debut, which I consider one of the most prescient new films they’ve chosen. Say what you will about Green’s recent films, but GW is still outstanding. The renewed focus in recent years of discovering new auteurs in the making has been great to watch. It’s introduced me to directors like Steve McQueen (Hunger), Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours and Carlos), and Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine), among others.

A whole other fork of this is people who complain about certain long-in-production titles taking forever. Cronos was long planned, but Guillermo del Toro was busy working. The long-rumored The Game must have fallen victim to David Fincher’s similar constant state of filming. A friend of mine just about went apeshit waiting for Soderbergh’s Che to hit shelves. Spitting out one of these releases takes a long time for a good reason: it’s always worth the wait.

Maybe your favorite movie won’t end up with fancy packaging and that oh-so-coveted spine number, but it’s not for want of Criterion trying their best.

Rumors and Speculation: Spine 600

November’s releases take us up to spine #591, and I’d be a little surprised if Criterion aren’t planning to push through #600 in December. They made #500 (Rossellini’s War Trilogy) a pretty major deal, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t do the same with this landmark as well. The question is what it’ll be. Will it be from an existing director, like Kurosawa’s final film Madadayo (1993), which is currently only available in their massive AK 100 box? Will it be someone new? Will it be a box set like the Rosselini set?

[UPDATE: According to commenter Michael Cherkosky, it looks like Criterion posted a Gojira film can on their Facebook page today, which makes me think there’s no way that it isn’t #600. If that’s the case, holy shit! UPDATE 2: Here’s the pic:

Sound off with your thoughts in the comments, along with thoughts on this new format for Criterion coverage on Badass Digest. Apologies that this entry ran a bit long since I haven’t written one in a while.