Sunday, December 17, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Have you heard kids?  Another Star Wars movie is upon us, and if you haven’t seen it then you failed at life and you shall be publicly shamed.  There of course is that usual contingent of people who love to remind you they’ve never seen any Star Wars films, but for normal people things tend to stop and everyone needs to get on board before the masses spoil everything for everyone.  If you are on the fence about whether or not to see Episode VIII and you’re looking to this here blog to make up your mind for you, stop now.  I will spoil the holy hell out of this film for you unapologetically.  So this is strictly for people who have already witnessed the now annual cinematic event, or people who give no shits about seeing it and just really love my prose.  

So before I get into the film itself I need to get a little meta and start discussing Star Wars as a franchise, a money making property, and a cinematic universe.  There was definitely a sense of relief when George Lucas mercifully handed off the keys to his extremely profitable kingdom to Disney.  Knowing that episodes 7-9 wouldn’t be anything like the prequels was certainly cause for rejoicing.  The problem with Disney handling this property is their scientific approach to going down the middle.  I don’t see any scenario where any of these films live up to the original trilogy, but it also seems hard to imagine any of these films being as bad as the prequels.  A similar comparison can be made with the MCU.  By crowd pleasing and playing it mostly safe all the movies are enjoyable but none will ever reach the heights of The Dark Knight.  However mercifully they won’t also reach the depths of Batman v. Superman, so I guess it’s still a win.

There is also a certain cautionary tale of being careful what you wish for.  Star Wars films used to be released three years apart.  They were a damn event, and although Force Awakens and The Last Jedi still seemed like events, they’re already starting to lose their impact.  With this aggressive release schedule you also have very little margin for error during production.  Directors have already been replaced on the Han Solo film no one asked for next year, and Disney will move heaven or earth to get their Christmas release.  That’s the other problem I have, Star Wars comes out in May.  After all May 4th is Star Wars day, and you can’t release six films in the same month, then suddenly start dumping these flicks on us for Christmas.  Christmas is when critically acclaimed movies trying to win awards get released, I don’t need Star Wars occupying my viewing time, and taking up 3-4 screens at every theater that otherwise might have shown a worthwhile low budget indie film.  It’s a dick move and it’s probably part of Disney’s subversive plot to snuff out anything that isn’t Disney.

So here we are with a new episode every odd year and a pointless film designed to “expand the Star Wars Universe” every even year.  The more I think about Rogue One the more I want my time and money back.  I’m sure despite my protestations I’ll probably be dragged to Baby Driver Han Solo, and I’m sure it’ll be entertaining in the way Thor: The Dark World was but you can’t make me like it.  Am I becoming and old curmudgeon who takes these movies designed for kids and simpletons too seriously?  Probably, but like millions of other people I grew up with these movies and still want them to matter.  The over abundance of Star Wars movies is exhausting and largely unnecessary.  There was always an expanded universe in comics, books, and video games which was perfectly set up for the super die hards who legitimately couldn’t get enough of this shit.  For the rest of us, tone this shit down a bit, it’s making these films less special with each annual release.

On that note, there is another problem I’ve noticed about these films.  I did see Force Awakens and Rogue One in theaters, and that’s it.  I have felt no need to revisit either film since they were released.  In the case of Rogue One I’ve actually become gradually repulsed by the idea of sitting through that again.  Force Awakens was certainly tolerable and wasn’t a bad film, but it really did nothing for me beyond the surface level of telling a Star Wars story.  There were so many similarities between that and the A New Hope that it mainly just made me want to watch the earlier film again.  The prequels were awful for a way different reason, but none of those films were worth watching more than once except to possibly make fun of it for critical purposes.  Compared to the compulsively re-watchable aspects of the original trilogy I just don’t feel like any of these hollow facsimiles will hold up that well in 30+ years regardless of how competent they may be.

Now let’s talk about Episode VIII, and to some extent Episode VII. After the first three episodes destroyed my faith in Star Wars, I promised I wouldn’t walk into these films with fanboy blinders on.  I would try and look at them objectively as films, without focusing too much on how they rate against others in the franchise.  Before I get too far into this I will freely admit that there are plenty of flaws in the original films we all love.  There are plot holes, laughably fake effects, and head scratching moments aplenty, but they don’t bother me.  Maybe I just grew up with it, but mostly it’s because the films themselves can overcome those flaws.  You’re so immersed that those flaws either take a dozen or so viewings to even notice, or they’re just forgivable because everything else is so great.  Unfortunately these new films don’t have that built up good will and are operating on a much smaller margin of error.

So before I sound like a grumpy old man shaking his first angrily at the sky saying “Not my Star Wars!” I want to mention a few of the things that I liked about The Last Jedi.  Mercifully Poe was actually kind of awesome.  He seemed so painfully thrust upon us in Force Awakens as some sort of Han Solo substitute that I instantly hated him and the corporate think tank that created him.  For a minute it seems like his reckless nonsense would be passed off as cool, but his character seemed far less forced here and I found myself a half hour into the film thinking he wasn’t too bad.  They definitely delayed him and Finn making out and officially becoming the first interracial gay couple in the galaxy but maybe Episode IX will give us that pay off.

Emo Vader was actually one of the highlights

Spoilers are going to start now, so this is the last warning.  I really, really liked when Kylo Ren and Rey killed CGI space monster Snope and then fought side by side against surprisingly powerful Imperial guards.  Emo Vader instantly redeemed himself and as he offered Rey a chance to kill everything and forge their own destiny I got really excited.  Force Awakens painfully repeated the plot of A New Hope with some thinly veiled differences just to technically not plagiarize.  For one brief moment I thought maybe we would be done with the First Order and the rebels and finally get an original story.  Rey and Emo Vader using their powers of the force with no Sith or Jedi dogma just ruling the galaxy like the ultimate good cop-bad cop.  Of course I knew this wasn’t to be, so I’ll have to contend to the inevitable fan fic for like minded people.  I also liked the fact that Rey’s parents turned out to be piece of shit junkers who sold her for drinking money, instead of some cosmic lineage that would have seemed ridiculous.

Now for everything I had a problem with.  For starters this movie was far too damn long.  Regardless of the actual run time being 2 hours and 33 minutes, it felt too damn long.  Towards the end I started thinking about Return of the King because every time I thought they could wrap up the film more stuff happened.  I know many people have felt Star Wars movies could have been longer, but once again careful what you wish for.  You could have easily cut 50 minutes out of this film and not missed a thing.  Things pick up right where Force Awakens ends, and I’m not a huge fan of that.  The other episodes generally had a few years between them, allowing us to feel that our characters grew and developed somewhat off screen.  This is the whole reason for that iconic scrolling exposition, to catch us up on what happened since the last film.  For that reason I didn’t even remember Finn was wearing a Jacuzzi suit.

Finn and his forced subplot was my biggest complaint plot wise.  We get this convoluted subplot where he has to do a video game side quest to shut down the tracking device.  There are plenty of subplots in Star Wars films, but with Rey having grumpy Luke Skywalker telling her to fuck off, Finn’s plot just seemed more like “we gotta give him something to do”.  So they go to CGI Monte Carlo to find the only person in the galaxy who can break into the First Order’s security system only to get arrested for parking in a tow zone and settling for stuttering Benicio Del Toro who totally can do the same job after all.  The fact that they go through all that nonsense, and ride space horses, and there’s stupid ass kids, only to get right to the tractor and Brienne of Tarth to catch ‘em felt like a waste.  I don’t mind the fact that they failed but I did mind the fact that so much screen time was spent following their failed quest that I ultimately felt like all of that could have been done away with, and I cold have gotten out of the theater half an hour earlier.

Finn could have and should have been killed several times in this film.  For starters Brienne should have just executed them, but you knew there would be some deux ex machina to save him because he hadn’t yet gotten his love scene with Poe.  When he gets saved by the Star Destroyer they’re in getting blown up I just figured cool he’s going to escape.  I definitely didn’t feel like the remaining storm troopers and Brienne would keep trying to kill them, as their ship got destroyed.  Typically something like that makes you change your priorities to get the fuck out of there.  Towards the end of the film Finn was about to go all Randy Quaid in Independence Day to save the rebellion from that magic laser battering ram.  It seemed like a decent arch to his character, he sacrifices himself, everyone lives and escapes, but then random asian girl crashes into his ship which should have theoretically killed both of them to “save him”.  Side note, how the hell did he drag her back to the base considering they spent like five minutes in ships flying out to meet the first order.  No doubt he would have been captured, killed, or stomped by an AT-AT, but I digress.

No one understands true love
I liked Benicio’s pragmatic approach to the conflict and the fact that he certainly seemed to understand that there were some select people who profit regardless of whether the First Order or the Republic wins.  I couldn’t help feel like this was a direct commentary on America’s foreign policy, which helps grey up some of the usual black and white politics of this cinematic universe.  His character had it’s own quirks, but as a one film side character I did enjoy his brief moments.

Now there’s enough other stuff to fill another 50,000 words about my nitpicking but I’ll limit it to some bullet points

1. What the hell was with Princess Leia waking up in outer space and “forcing” her way back to the ship to save herself?  That was ridiculous and silly, and wasted a perfect opportunity to kill a character that probably needed to die considering Carrie Fisher did die this past year.  Also she proceeded to do nothing of note the rest of the film making her surviving pointless unnecessary.
2. Those Porg things were insufferable.  I wanted Chewbacca to eat them all and I would have laughed hysterically.  I try not to hate the cutesy nature of them, but my god they looked like super fake cartoons, at least Ewoks were little people in costumes.
3. How the hell is Rey a Jedi master instantly?  This is more a complaint with Force Awakens.  It took Luke years of training to do the simplest tasks, and she just has “raw Jedi power” or some shit?
4. Who the hell is Snope and why did he look like a shitty video game villain?  He shows up in Force Awakens and just is the new emperor or something.  I know Andy Serkis played him, but we couldn’t get some makeup instead of that fake looking cartoon video game boss?  Also how damn powerful is he that he can force choke someone light years away and toss them around the room?  Doesn’t matter he’s dead now, hurray.
5. Ghost Yoda can light shit on fire?  I mean it’s awesome that Jedi ghosts can show up and talk, but I’ve never seen them physically do shit, minor complaint.
6. Too many stupid kids, and the end was garbage.  I thought we all politely agreed after Phantom Menace that kids have no place in the galaxy.

Sadly Carrie Fisher was completely useless in this film
The last big complaint I had is the basic plot of the film.  Every Star Wars film inevitably involves rebels running away from the empire, and that was nothing new.  However two and a half hours of them running away and slowly getting picked off was just boring.  Even if it was an exciting space chase it would have still gotten old after an hour.  I also wonder why the hell Laura Dern didn’t tell Poe what the plan was which could have saved us that pointless Finn subplot.  This film simply seemed to just say “here’s all your favorites and they’re doing stuff.”  No one seemed to have anything necessary to do and it ultimately made this film feel like all surface.

I liked Emo Vader and his temperamental nature.  I also laughed out loud when he ordered every single weapon to fire on Luke Skywalker.  That could have been a very, very ridiculous scene but it did get explained somewhat to a satisfactory enough conclusion.  Not sure if they’re going to just set this up so that he eventually goes good and everyone lives happily ever after, but there’s enough intrigue to make his character unpredictable and interesting to watch.

So yeah feel free to let me know how much I missed the mark and what a fucking idiot I am, or whether or not what I’m saying makes any sense.  I’m still going to see Episode IX, let’s just hope it doesn’t waste all of our time.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

All About the Criterion Collection

I’m writing this as Justice League is underwhelming audiences across the nation.  I didn’t go see the film like I didn’t go to see Batman v Superman, and I’m not going to brag about remaining willfully ignorant but I have very little interest.  Before you jump up and down yelling I’m some Marvel fanboy and somehow a hypocrite remember that these movies DC has unleashed on an innocent public have been politely called dumpster fires by everyone and there are better ways to waste my time.  So let’s talk about the company that has produced about 80% of my blu-ray collection, the one and only Criterion Collection.

Now Criterion got their start back in the laser disc era, but for our modern incarnation let’s look at 1997.  The first spine number was Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion, and it effectively kicked off the chronology of releases that has recently eclipsed (Criterion pun) the 900 mark.  Grand Illusion like far too many other titles has fallen out of print, because unlike other companies, Criterion simply leases titles.  They do good work but if their publishing license runs out or the original owners decide they want to put out their own version then often the superior Criterion releases are left to the sands of time.

So rather than give you some history of the company I’d rather break this down into a couple of categories.  This is my personal blog, so I’d like to first talk about what factors into my decision to buy a Criterion film on blu-ray.  Then we can put together a few lists of some of my favorite titles, films in badly need of an upgrade, and perhaps some wild speculating wish-listing on titles I’d like to join the collection.  This post isn’t sponsored but I believe Criterion’s website still has an additional 20% off sale going on right now.

The What and Why of My Collection

I became a film addict in the summer of 1999, and this has been documented elsewhere on My World of Film.  For the first year and half plus I was content with VHS.  Many films were either bought, recorded off of TCM (or the occasional other commercial free cable channel), or acquired through less reputable means.  Many kids today barely remember how crappy VHS was as a medium to watch film, and it’s somewhat amazing I went as long as I did with it.  I purchased my first DVD player towards the end of 2000/beginning of 2001 and began the slow conversion of films to the new medium.

I’ve always been obsessive, this is well documented in a lot of things, but for many years I had to own every film I saw.  I couldn’t simply see a movie, or rent it, I had to have my own copy of it.  So often I bought films blindly, and one trip through my mom’s basement will reveal dozens of movies I would have rather not spent money on.  Go up into the attic and there’s literally cases of VHS tapes I’ve maybe watched once if at all.  This naturally is an incredibly expensive hobby, and from 2002-2005 I had a pretty good job and zero debt.  So my disposable income went to things like cd’s and DVDs, instead of practical things like a savings account or a mortgage.  

It wasn’t until I went to finish college that life gave me a compound fracture of debt and poverty that I’m still recovering from a decade after the fact.  A now defunct website used to sell all new Criterion DVD’s for 35% off so I’d often pre-order whatever was coming out, and periodically search the archives for what I should purchase.  My priority then was mostly films I didn’t own on DVD yet, but also with an eye for special features.  Many items in my collection were just fine on VHS, and I didn’t have any interest in buying expensive releases just for a better quality print, and maybe easier to read subtitles.  So audio commentaries, making of documentaries, interviews, deleted scenes, etc. were all pretty important qualifications for purchase.  Luckily for me Criterion came through with these quite a bit, and remember I didn’t need my collection to be tried, true, and tested, just give me some good special features and a movie I didn’t already have and I was sold.

My collegiate poverty taught me oh so slowly to be a little more selective with what I spent my money on.  This doesn’t mean I still don’t spend money foolishly on shit I don’t need, it’s just a little more thought out than before.  I got a Playstation 3 for Christmas 2009 which contained a blu-ray player but I had no real burning desire to start overhauling my DVD collection.  In fact I didn’t have much interest in buying anything new for quite awhile.  A few films here and there on my Christmas list and the rest of the year I went without.

Where the blu-ray collection began
Fast forward a few years and I stumbled across a couple of films used from that old standby the Criterion collection.  Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket and Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal were the first two blu-ray editions to my Criterion family that I remember purchasing.  These are an interesting contrast because Seventh Seal isn’t a film I would have ordinarily bought.  I owned Seventh Seal on DVD, which replaced the VHS I recorded off of TCM years before.  Although they re-released the film on DVD with better special features than the one I owned, I wasn’t too convinced to re-purchase it.  The cheap used price plus the fact that it’s one of my top 100 films convinced me it wasn’t a horrible idea to spend my money on.

Pickpocket though was a film I never did own on DVD.  At one point this was my favorite Bresson film, and I believe I had a VHS of it somewhere, so it was ripe for an upgrade.  It helped that this Criterion released checked off all those other boxes for a worth owning title, and finding it used meant the price was right.  These little seeds plus increasing financial security let the door be cracked ever so slightly to start once again building my own personal collection, I just wanted to make sure this time there were some ground rules.

Now since I made these arbitrary rules up they are somewhat flexible, but they’ve served to get my Criterion blu-ray collection from those two to the 125 plus it’s at now.  First rule is so obvious it’s almost not worth writing, and that’s price.  Since joining the 21st century and following Criterion on the old social media, they keep me up to date about those periodic sales.  The pattern has been over the past couple of years for there to be two separate 24 hour flash sales on Criterion’s own website.  Basically for a day everything is 50% off, so if you’ve ever balked at the price on some of their titles, these are the sales to look for.  Even better is Barnes and Noble partners twice a year to do a month long sale.  If you happen to be a member at B&N, you get an extra 10% off in stores, so that $40 blu-ray is now $18.  Enough math, but rest assured the only times I buy are one of these four annual sales.

Second rule is that I’m only buying films I’ve seen before.  Now there is the occasional exception in terms of a film included on a boxed set (like Drive, He Said and A Safe Place on the BBS Story), but my days of blind-buying movies are over.  I have cases of shit I bought without watching, then saw one time and wish I had my money back.  Seriously when the hell am I ever going to watch Seabiscuit again?  This naturally skews my collection towards the classics as opposed to some of the very excellent contemporary films Criterion has put out.  By the time I watch the new film, it’ll be years before I nostalgically feel a need to add it to my collection.  This doesn’t mean I love every film I buy, but they’re at least films I’m familiar with and at least have a desire to revisit or add to my stash.

The next general rule is the fact that I don’t already own it on DVD.  Now there are obviously some exceptions to this rule.  For example I owned Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle on DVD, but when his complete collection was released on blu-ray it seemed a fair investment to get it even if I already had one of the six films in the set.  There are definitely older releases that have been improved upon that I have yet to pull the trigger on.  It took me until last month to finally buy Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused to replace the substandard turd of a release I had from Universal.  Criterion released their own DVD version about a year after this version and although an instant improvement I just couldn’t bring myself to re-purchase a movie I loved.  Fast forward another decade or so and I realized I’ll probably never watch my old DVD and might as well upgrade, especially as it went so nicely with the Before Trilogy (which I coincidentally owned Sunset on DVD as well), and Slacker.  

Dazed and Confused is also part of the instant upgrade.  I’m a well documented Stanley Kubrick fanatic, so there was no way I wasn’t going to replace my special feature-less duds of DVDs Dr. Strangelove and Barry Lyndon with Criterion’s fancy new blu-rays.  Now if you’re choosing to use my rules as hard and fast guidelines for your own future purchases just know that at the end of the day these are all personal judgment calls.  I guess the last rule is simply that the blu-ray has enough bells and whistles to be worth buying (as opposed to renting or streaming), but that is up to your personal definition of special.

So there’s probably a question many of you are asking right now, why the hell buy any media?  There’s streaming left and right, the internet usually fills in the gaps in legit or not so legitimate ways.  In fact even Criterion partnered with TCM for their own streaming service called Filmstruck.  I haven’t subscribed to Filmstruck because I already have Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, and at a certain point you just have to say enough is enough.  I know that when Criterion was on Hulu it was far from a complete list, and there were no shortage of films I wanted to watch that were unavailable.  

There are a few reasons why I personally decide to own these and still purchase new discs.  For starters if you have the internet and let’s say some company like Comcast is your provider, there is a 100% chance at some point in time you’ll find yourself sitting down on the couch for a night in only to find that high speed internet is down.  Hell even my cable runs through an ethernet cable so it certainly comes in handy to have your own personal film library.  Not to mention the idea of bringing a film over to a friend’s house who might not have fill in the blank streaming service.  Sure when the internet is down you could always just read a book, but damnation I want a movie.  

As for me I just like having media.  Based on the size of my current home, I don’t really have the space to bring the entire film library from Chicago, but the blu-ray collection is just manageable enough to display.  The unified box art makes storage super simple, and they’re always a decent conversation piece.  Nearly every release features some detailed booklets that often contained transcribed interviews and essays.  Sure you can look some of these up online, but do you feel like doing that?  Didn’t think so, now let’s change gears.

My Favorite Criterions

I do love a good list, and I toyed with the idea of ranking the Marvel films when I was writing about them, but considering how similar in quality they were I passed.  So I’d share some of my favorite releases from Criterion that I happen to own on blu-ray.  Let’s set a few ground rules, these aren’t my favorite films that were released, shit just look at my top 100 list if you’re interested in that.  These are also all films that should still be available on blu-ray so no Pierrot le Fou, Chungking Express, Third Man, etc.  The last thing I should point out is that I do own all these films on blu-ray, so although there are many great releases I have on DVD (M, Rules of the Game, Tokyo Story) I’m keeping to the films in my blu-ray collection.  So take all that for what it’s worth.

Chimes at Midnight (1966) - spine #830

This is definitely one of my favorite releases ever.  Chimes checks off a lot of boxes in terms of special features, and is a perfect companion piece for The Immortal Story, released on the same day.  There is an expert audio commentary, some interviews with surviving cast members, wonderful information in it’s booklet, and of course a spectacular transfer.  The reason this might top my list is because of that last point.  Chimes at Midnight literally never looked better.  The audio was notoriously awful upon it’s initial theatrical run and due to Welles’ typical financing issues this film was always obscure.  I got it on VHS from lord knows where, and it was barely watchable.  This blu-ray is the way it was meant to be seen, and I have to give extra points for releasing a film that never saw any official release on DVD and the VHS was out of print since sometime in the 80s if it ever was available.  Any true film fanatic should own this.

The New World (2004) - #826

Criterion has done a damn good job with Terence Mallick’s first four films, and I went into some detail with this in my own blog post about those films.  Shortly after The New World premiered there were stories of alternate versions, and extended cuts.  Mallick has become something of a recluse and won’t talk about any of his films, but the dud of a DVD originally released just crapped out the US theatrical cut.  Criterion decided to release three different cuts of this film, along with a lengthy making of featuring tons of production footage.  It really helps to complete the entire picture.  Seeing all three versions I can’t say there is a ton of differences but for the obsessive completionist it’s very satisfying.  Now here’s hoping they give a similar treatment to Tree of Life some day.

A vast improvement over the VCD
A Brighter Summer Day (1991) - #804

Now if this film was just given a restoration and good subtitles I probably would have included it in this list.  Edward Yang’s masterpiece was criminally out of print.  Yi-yi (2000) got a release many years earlier so at that point the hope of one day putting out his harder to find earlier films began to germinate.  Now Tapei Story was part of the Scorsese World Cinema project released after this, but there’s still plenty of room to grow.  A Brighter Summer Day is simply the greatest film from Taiwan, and after the long circulating VCD (a format many of you probably never even knew existed) transfer this was a godsend.  The fact that they supplemented it with an audio commentary track and a feature length documentary about the New Taiwan Cinema Movement, definitely sends this over the top.

The Apu Trilogy (1954-1959) - #782-785

If there were ever a Mt. Rushmore of world cinema Satyajit Ray might very well be on there, somewhere next to Renoir, Bergman, and Kurosawa.  The Apu Trilogy is his best known work by a mile, and surprisingly enough finding a decent version of it was not too easy.  The Merchant Ivory people eventually crapped out a moderately competent DVD release, but that seemed like little more than a transfer from VHS.  The other Criterion Ray releases have been a little lacking for special features, but this one certainly is not.  There are no audio commentaries, but the bonus interviews and archival footage is worthy of those 4 disc Lord of the Rings releases.  Not to mention at long last the films are in mint condition and with mercifully easy to read subtitles.  Another essential edition to any serious collection.

Marketa Lazarova (1967) - #661

Some time in late 2006-early 2007 I decided to go on a Czech film bender.  I watched everything I could get my hands on, and living a few blocks from Facets video was a huge resource.  After a couple months and several dozen films I heard about this film.  It wasn’t really part of the new wave, even if it was made during that very fertile creative period.  This film’s claim to fame was being named the greatest Czech film of all time by people in the Czech Republic.  I had to see it, and there were no copies floating around.  I did track one down thanks to the good people at Odd Obsession, but I never knew why this never even saw the light of day on VHS.  So Criterion crossed off some serious wish lists with their release, complete with tons of extras and a customary superb transfer.  Here’s hoping one day they upgrade some of their other Czech new wave releases while using this as the standard.

Wim Wenders:  The Road Trilogy (1974-1976) - #813-816

There are a few nominees for best boxed sets released by Criterion over the years, but this might just be the best of them.  For starters these three films weren’t the easiest films to find.  Anchor Bay released a slew of Wim Wenders films on DVD but this trilogy was noticeably absent.  Track down a few grainy craptacular VHS tapes and you’ll know how I first experienced these films.  Getting all three in one nice set, with legible subtitles, and tons of special features made me a very happy man.  There are commentary tracks on all three films which is always a wonderful reason to dust these off the shelf.  It even includes two super early short films Wenders made and a mighty thick booklet with more information than you’ll probably ever need to know about this trilogy.  It also helps that these are three of the best films from West Germany in the 70s.

The Night of the Hunter (1955) - #541

Criterion has released no shortage of classic Hollywood films.  Often these are oddballs on the fringe of the studio system, other times they just serve as the definitive version of some certifiable classics.  Night of the Hunter is a bit of both, the cult classic and lone directorial effort from Charles Laughton was done all the justice with this release.  You expect the transfer to look great, because even Criterion’s pre-cursor Home Vision Entertainment made damn good VHS tapes.  However there aren’t too many 2-disc blu-ray sets in the collection.  This is loaded to the brim with nearly 2 and a half hours of behind the scenes footage and outtakes unearthed from lord knows where.  The first disc includes ample interviews, a commentary, and archival footage from the release.  Someone could write a book about this release there’s so much information to sift through.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941) - #118

Speaking of classic Hollywood done right, Sullivan’s Travels is the earliest release on this here list and it is a treasure.  I honestly can’t speculate too heavily on why I never owned this on DVD.  I had gotten pretty much all of Preston Sturges’ very great films off of TCM, and perhaps when this was released I didn’t think it was a film I’d watch a ton.  This features a rather random all star crew for an audio commentary, which reminds me a little of Terry Jones introduction to Unfaithfully Yours.  It also has a 75 minute documentary about Sturges and a few extra bells and whistles.  This is among the most essential comedies in American film history, and this far surpasses the other random Sturges releases Criterion has put out over the years.

Sansho the Bailiff (1954) - #386

What would this list be without some Mizoguchi?  Similar to Sturges, I had a good amount of Mizo on VHS, including Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff which meant I largely passed on the initial DVD releases.  I bought a bootleg of Life of Oharu, which for years was the sole DVD of his in my collection.  Now we can debate whether or not Sansho the Bailiff is his best film, but it gets my vote as the best release of his work Criterion has ever done.  Jeffrey Angles audio commentary was incredibly informative not just on the film but Japanese history and literature of the period depicted.  The booklet is massive including not one but two versions of the original story that inspired Mizoguchi.  You can probably flip a coin among Ugetsu, LIfe of Oharu, and this but if you had to own one on blu-ray I might lean towards Sansho.

L’Eclisse (1962) - #278

There are a few moments in my cinematic life that shaped my journey in profound ways.  The first time I went to Facets and started my membership I rented two films that were nearly impossible for me to find, A Matter of Life and Death and Antonioni’s Eclipse or L’Eclisse.  These were VHS tapes mind you and the Powell-Pressburger was instantly my favorite of their many collaborations, where the Antonioni film made a better first impression than any of his films previous to that.  Truthfully I never showered heaps of praise on Antonioni’s films but along with Godard and Bunuel he was the director whose work I most looked forward to watching.  Perhaps because I went out of my way to get this on VHS that I didn’t deem it necessary to purchase the DVD when it dropped a year or two later.   This does feature a great commentary track as well as a documentary on Antonioni’s work, as well as another piece specifically about this film.  L’Avventura might be the definitive Criterion release of his, but I owned that on DVD and never upgraded.  This film will always mean a little more to me than others, and I’m happy to have it in my collection.

Films in need of an upgrade*

Counting the coming soon titles, there are at this time of writing 916 titles in the Criterion Collection.  I’m not about to count how many are available on blu-ray, but let’s just say it’s roughly half.  Along the way many titles have gone out of print, and plenty others just seem ripe for improvement.  Despite being the industry standard for excellent home video releases for decades now, not all titles are created equal.  So I’d like to highlight a few films that are already part of the collection but have never been released on blu-ray.  Some of these are long out of print, others might very well be getting worked on as we speak, so I might revisit this in a year or so to see how we’re doing.  These are going by earliest release on up.  Maurice Pialat’s L’enfance nue (1968) is the last title not to be put out simultaneously with a blu-ray, in case you were wondering.

*In the time I started writing this to the time I published, Criterion did announce a new deluxe edition of The Passion of Joan of Arc, so I’ll spare you my now obsolete bitching.

The Grand Illusion (1937) - #1

Might as well start with the first.  I know -there is a decent blu-ray of this film from Studio Canal, but most of the reviews seem to hint they could have done a better job.  Every other film from the first ten releases except for the super long OOP John Woo films has gotten a blu-ray reboot from Criterion.  For reasons I no longer remember this was another film I never purchased on DVD despite it always being among my very favorites.  This original DVD is now approaching 20 years old, which is very much the definition of long overdue.

Andrei Rublev (1966) - #34

Andrei Tarkovsky is represented ok on blu-ray.  Stalker was one of my favorite Criterion releases from this past year.  Also available are Ivan’s Childhood and Solaris, but Andrei Rublev was their first release and man has that DVD left much to be desired.  It was a rather lackluster transfer with rough subtitles and only a select scene commentary track.  I always just assumed they’d re-release the film and do Tarkovsky’s masterpiece justice, but here we are two decades later still waiting.  I’ve held out this long, so I guess I can keep being patient but this one is a head scratcher.

Nights of Cabiria (1957) - #49

I would like to group this together with La Strada, after all the National Society of Film Critics did for their A-list book.  Both films are essential Fellini, and considering how well they’ve done with Fellini on blu-ray I feel like it’s only a matter of time before these see the light of day again.  Nights of Cabiria by my research hasn’t been released by anyone on blu-ray but it is currently out of print.  This has always been my favorite of Fellini’s 50s work and I remember thinking the original dvd release had room for improvement.  La Strada was a little better equipped with special features, but if this film got the same treatment Roma and Satyricon did I’d be quite happy.

I can look at stills from this movie all damn day
Eisenstein: The Sound Years (1938-1958) - #86-88

Comprised of Alexander Nevsky and both parts of Ivan the Terrible, this set was always essential world cinema.  Eisenstein rightfully made his reputation during the silent era and I can’t recommend all of his work from the 20s enough.  The sound era wasn’t quite as kind considering how many films were abandoned, banned, destroyed, etc.  For what he did accomplish are some brilliant works of art that showed Eisenstein as a master of all elements of mise-en-scene as opposed to just an innovative montage artist.  These three films came out in a three pack with relatively bare bones features.  An attempt at reconstructing his lost film Bezhin Meadow, and a couple of audio essays and that was pretty much it.  Perhaps an upgrade with a few more bells and whistles might come around soon for these film school essentials.

Ordet (1955) - #126

This spot was originally occupied by The Passion of Joan of Arc, but rejoice that has been added to the upcoming March titles.  With that and Vamypr, there certainly seems to be a chance other Dreyer films might get the new media upgrade soon.  Ordet was put out as part of a Dreyer boxed set and all the films were no frills releases.  I never bothered buying the set because of the utter lack of extras, and the fact that the pre-existing Home Vision VHS tapes were certainly watchable.  I’d love to see the whole Dreyer boxed set re-released but if they chose only one title I’d have to vote for Ordet.  It’s only special feature was a deleted scene from the documentary Carl Th. DreyerMy Métier.

Closely Watched Trains (1966) - #131

Czech film critics might have voted Marketa Lazarova as the greatest film from their home country, but for the rest of the world it’s pretty much a coin toss between The Shop on Main Street and this.  Both films were released at the same time by Criterion and they are just a tiny step up from their VHS counterparts.  There was an excellent Eclipse series featuring some of the best films of the Czech New Wave, and that set makes some allowances for the lack of special features.  These two films came out with nothing but the films themselves.  You know it’s minimal when you have to list new subtitles as a special feature.  The only supplemental material on either this or Shop is the US trailer for Closely Watched Trains.  It almost seems like an insult for what are two essential masterpieces of Eastern European cinema.  The same lack of special features also plagues the two Milos Forman releases.  Luckily they seemed to fix this by the time of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and Marketa.

My Dream Criterion Titles

Here’s the point where we enter into pure fantasy.  With 900+ titles Criterion has done a damn fine job of putting out excellent films.  However there always remain a few random gems that have not yet found there way onto the collection and in some cases haven’t even been released officially in any format.  So for each of these titles I’ll do my utmost to assess just how likely they might be to being released one day.

Los Olvidados (1950)

I’ve made no secret over the years that Los Olvidados is my favorite Luis Bunuel film.  There is a relatively cheap DVD available on Amazon that has no special features and I couldn’t even specify what country it was from.  Bunuel has seen a healthy amount of his films get the Criterion treatment but oddly enough none of his Mexican movies.  The 50s were a very fertile period for Bunuel and this is hands down the best of that era.  I could even see an Eclipse series possibly releasing some of his random Mexican films (El, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, Nazarin, etc.) but this deserves all the bells and whistles befitting the true masterpiece it is.  

This needs to happen

Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)

This isn’t the only Jacques Rivette I’d love to see released, but it’s my favorite.  Paris Belongs to Us was put out on blu-ray by Criterion and seemed like it could be the start of something, yet fast forward several years it remains the only Rivette film released by Criterion.  There have been some extremely expensive imports of this released, some with worthwhile special features, but it’s remained unavailable here.  Part of the confusion might be the fact that many of Rivette’s US film rights were owned by the now defunct New Yorker Films but that didn’t stop Criterion from putting out Louis Malle’s or Yasujiro Ozu’s work.

The Mother and the Whore (1973)

Now here’s a film by my research that was never even released on DVD.  Like the previous Celine and Julie, this was also part of the New Yorker film library.  Also like that film this is a masterpiece of post-New Wave France.  Considering the mammoth length of the film I won’t be too picky with the special features, I’d just want a good transfer with legible subtitles.  Jean Eustache has a small enough collection of films that you could theoretically put them all out in one set ala Jean Vigo.  Not sure what the particular hold up for this film might be but considering the far more obscure Jeanne Dielman film was released, I haven’t given up hope for this.

Greed (1924)

Now I’m getting into pure fantasy here.  I’d like to say that I’m not holding out hope there is some phantom complete print that can magically be summoned.  I’m just talking about the existing version(s) of Greed out there.  The standard version and the 4-5 hour reconstruction produced by Turner Classic Movies in the late 90s.  I’m sure that particular version has opened a Pandora’s box of complicated licensing fees, but the film itself should probably be public domain by now.  Although Criterion would be an ideal home to feature the multiple versions as well as some information about the reconstruction I’d just be happy if anyone put it out, preferably with both versions for comparisons sake.  TCM and Criterion’s recent partnership with the streaming app Filmstruck has me believing it isn’t completely out of the realm of possibilities. Considering Criterion’s rather poor track record of releasing silent films this might be one better suited for Kino who did a fine job with several other Von Stroheim films on DVD.  Point is someone release this damn film already.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

This draws several comparisons to Greed not just in terms of it being one of the great “lost” films of all time, but also it’s relative obscurity on home video.  This isn’t quite the rarity Greed is, considering there are a few underwhelming DVD’s of this, although nothing really worth owning.  Welles is easily one of the most celebrated filmmakers of all time and nearly all of his directorial features (minus the super obscure Filming Othello) are now available with ample supplements.  The Magnificent Ambersons even in it’s butchered form is still one of the greatest American films ever made, and if whoever owns RKO’s back catalogue doesn’t feel like doing it justice let Criterion have it.  I have some hope for this considering their Othello, Chimes and Midnight, F for Fake, and The Immortal Story releases.  Criterion has largely stayed away from Welles studio films, but nearly all of them are available with commentaries and documentaries elsewhere with this noticeable glaring omission.  

I’ll leave off there.  I would love to see more Latin and South American films released.  Perhaps some harder to find experimental films (like Michael Snow or even a third Brakhage set).  Crossing my fingers maybe a few more films from Taiwan in the 80s might be forthcoming.  There are plenty of great Indian films not made by Satyajit Ray that I’d love to see.  Nearly every Buster Keaton film could use an upgrade from the bare bones Kino releases.  Long story short this list will never end, so let’s just hope good things keep coming our way.

P.s. I did see Star Wars:  The Last Jedi, and I would like to discuss this film in blog form, so theoretically I’ll get around to it soon.  Stay tuned…