Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Second Disc: The Criterion Collection

You saw this one coming. Of course I would talk about these guys eventually. Well here it goes. Set the gush level as high as it'll go. This is gonna be a bumpy ride for some of you.

The Criterion Collection is a home video distribution company that specializes in, "important classic and contemporary films." Some may confuse this to be a listing of the best films ever made. In a way that's true but it's not that black and white. In the end they are a dedicated group of film lovers who want nothing more but to give you the most important films (not the best necessarily) in their best possible versions on the best available formats.
I fell in love with them shortly after I fell in love with film as an art form and not just straight up entertainment. And how could I not? Any film lover whether serious or casual has a huge variety to choose from whether it's artsy or wacky. There are tons of reasons why The Criterion Collection is one of the best resources for film in the modern age. And I'm going to tell you many of those reasons. First with the obvious...

The Titles

As I stated before, Criterion has a very wide variety of titles to choose from. DVD and Blu-ray alone they've released over seven hundred titles, plus whatever they released on Laserdisc that hasn't already been re-released.
While this collection releases some of the best films ever made it doesn't mean they're the most popular. They have released some more popular titles like Casablanca and King Kong on Laserdisc. Then Silence of the Lambs and Monty Python's Life of Brian on DVD just to name a couple off the top of my head. But for the most part you'll see their selection is a very unique list. I challenge you to go and look at their complete and find movies you recognize. I guarantee you will not find many. That's not a bad thing of course. That's one of the best parts about this company. They have released some amazing films that you or I may have never known about if not for their efforts. Otherwise where's the fun of discovery if they're gonna release what you expect or want them to?
As a quick example these are some excellent films I found out about because of Criterion: The Samurai Trilogy (Musashi Miyamoto, Duel at Ichijoji Temple, Duel at Ganryu Island), Seven Samurai, The Red Shoes, Jigoku, Salo, The Magic Flute (Bergman's adaptation), The Seventh Seal, Blood For Dracula, Flesh for Frankenstein, Jeanne Dielman 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, and the list goes on and on and on and on.

When I get Criterion's new release newsletter I'm sometimes surprised and many times very excited with the new titles they're bringing out. It's great because due to the variety they have there is next to no way to predict what they're release next, outside of guesses because of similar themes. Sometimes these titles will be pretty popular movies (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), quirky but still pretty popular (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), older and lesser known titles that would otherwise be lost to history (The Passion of Joan of Arc), titles that are just REALLY out there (Naked Lunch), and even some mini-series/film serials (The Human Condition) and documentaries (Shoah).
But these titles aren't always easy to get your hands on. Due to issues with copyright, rights, limited runs, and so forth certain titles can and will be available for only so long until they're out of print and never re-printed via Criterion (but sometimes/usually through other distributors). You'll find this mostly with their earlier DVD releases.

I'll talk about more titles as I go on. If you want to see a complete list now you can go to their main website for extensive details on everything DVD/BD, or to the Wikipedia page for their Laserdisc releases.

Price + Extras

Because of the quality and effort they put into each title Criterion is known for the high prices of their releases. On average a new release title can cost anywhere from $30-$40 depending on if it's DVD or Blu-ray. That's roughly $10-$20 above the usual price you would see even a new release movie whether standard or "special edition." Keep in mind that's the average. Some of their stand alone titles can get up into the $50+ range depending on the title or what all it includes. That's because the premium treatment of the film and the set come at a premium price. You do truly get what you pay for. Their goal is in theory to give you the last edition you will ever need to buy. I say "in theory" because they have re-released multiple titles with even better editions than before. Like my newer editions of Seven Samurai and The Seventh Seal.

Typically with their special features they try and cram in as much as possible.
One good example of this is for The Leopard. It includes two cuts of the film, the full 185 minute cut and the 161 minute American cut. This along with a wide variety of other special features that are all packed thick and aren't just little 5 minute blurbs of "behind the scenes" shit like typical, modern DVDs/Blu-rays have been doing recently.
An even better example is Brazil. It includes the full director's cut on disc 1. Disc 2 has some making of features but also includes a full history of the controversy surrounding the film and it's multiple edits. Within that is a series of interviews, phone messages, documents, etc. The icing on the cake has to be disc 3, where you find the "Love Conquers All" cut of the film. A heavily altered (over an hour cut out!) version done without the director's approval and used for TV viewing. It's a huge departure from the original film's purpose and is a fascinating watch as it is there to show the power of something as simple as editing. Great commentary to go with it, too!

But that's why these are so expensive. They give you everything you'll ever need to enjoy these titles. It gives you multiple edits that aren't just the R and Unrated cut with a time difference of two to five minutes. They give you worthy differences to see the story from a different perspective. It also gives you more history on the film itself especially if there was controversy or just a general difference of opinion causing changes. Heck I've seen movies packed in with their remakes.
They give it to you not just because it's available to the world, but because they have a good reason for including it. Nothing is thrown in for padding. Everything that is in there they meant to put in there. And this is a huge benefit for some titles as sometimes they'll throw a whole other movie in the mix. There are a couple of Chaplin movies available that also include some of his shorts. For Kubrick's The Killing they included another early Kubrick film, Killer's Kiss. And in the second DVD release of The Seventh Seal they include the documentary Bergman Island, which is otherwise a standalone Criterion title. It's so fantastic what they do with these sets. Every single time a new title comes out it's like a whole new experience in film even if you've seen the movie before.

Janus Film & Alternatives

Janus Film is a distribution company that goes hand in hand with Criterion. Janus Film actually was formed way back in 1956 (Criterion was founded in 1984) and is the distribution company that initially distributed to theatres many now famous Criterion titles. Just take a look at a lot of the older titles and you'll see their logo at the start. Basically their purpose is nearly the same to Criterion. To bring forward otherwise overlooked titles to the mainstream light. But in the case of Janus Films they were theatrical where Criterion is home video. Their activity isn't as huge as it used to be. As a matter of fact, according to their Wikipedia page they released Revanche theatrically in 2009 but it was their first first-run (meaning not a re-release) theatrical release in almost 30 years. I knew they were still issuing films. I saw Mala Noche when it was re-released in theatres about 5 or more years ago but that movie first came out in 1986.
Despite seeing their logo at the start of multiple films I didn't really take notice of them too much until fall 2006. In October of that year they released what I consider to be my holy grail of film collecting. The Essential Art House: 50 Years of Janus Films.

Oh sweeeet baby Jane...

A 50 DVD box set that includes a hardcover book commenting and expanding the films. It really is a hell of a collection and I feel would be worth every penny. However the reason why I call it a holy grail is because of it's price. If you wanted to buy this collection new you'd have to drop nearly $800. The price on Amazon at the time of writing this was specifically $764.96 (Used is around $450 or higher depending who/where you buy it from). That may not just seem like a lot for a box set, that IS a HELL of a lot for a box set! Now I did do the math and it came out to fifteen and change for each title which is fair. Also keep in mind it comes with the book so that would "lower" the cost per movie slightly but I can't imagine by a lot. I know the book used to be sold separately but for the life of me I can't remember how much it was. Anyway, one of the main reasons I brought that up because I wanted to express how badly I want it.

The other reason is to talk about what came after that. Around the same time The Essential Art House mini collections were released. Basically these were the same movies included in the mega box set collection but at an individual or smaller box set rate. These also doubled as budget Criterion titles. Same titles as full priced Criterion but sold without the extra bells and whistles, just the movie itself.
One example of this is The 400 Blows. Right now you can get it on Amazon for roughly $25 in the Criterion edition DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack. But if you buy the individual Essential Art House edition it is only $15. That's great if all you're interested in is the movie itself with a killer transfer but not the bonus features and don't need the extra Blu-ray. And this is far from the only good deal. An even better deal is on Knife in the Water. Criterion edition is $34 and EAH edition is $18. The only downside to these is that some of these titles are already out of print or are just flat out rare. There are smaller collections of these individually sold titles released to put them at an even better deal, but like I was saying, some are rare and/or out of print. Some volumes can cost as high as $75-90 new depending where you buy it simply because they're out of print. It would be more worth your time and money to buy the titles individually.

But enough about the prices and rarity, the fact of the matter is that Criterion wants their titles to be more accessible. They are providing titles at cheaper prices while maintaining the full package version for the buffs who can't get enough. Not only that but they will time and time reissue some out of print tiles.
The original Criterion edition of Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom is considered one of the rarest DVDs out there. It was the 17th title they released on DVD way back in the late 90s but had a limited shelf life. Rumors were because of the movie's controversial content when it was actually a rights issue. For almost a decade it stayed that way until Criterion was able to gain the rights again and re-release it in August of 2008 on DVD and a couple years later on Blu-ray. I actually did enjoy this movie artistically (the content and context of the content is rough, however) and hope to get my hands on the re-release, maybe even the Blu-ray.

But the last and most recent of these alternatives is easily one of the best. In 2011 Criterion started working with Hulu Plus to make many of their titles available through them. At $8 a month you can enjoy nearly nine hundred Criterion titles, many of which are otherwise only available in box sets or special feature sections.
A beautiful deal considering you could watch literally hundreds of dollars worth of Criterion material for a deeeeeeeep fraction of the cost. Not all titles available, though. Some I was bummed not to see on the list. First world problems.
See the full list of what's currently available here.


Believe it or not there's one more layer to The Criterion Collection. Even with all that under their belt there's still one more collection they maintain. The Eclipse Collection.

I like to look at Eclipse as an extension of The Criterion Collection. The collection releases even lesser known titles that what they already release but usually by the same directors or in a similar theme as their mainline releases. As I look through this collection it feels like these were titles they felt warranted a release, but wouldn't be able to hold up on their own. Which means for fans of Ingmar Bergman or Akira Kurosawa (common names in Criterion) they can get a collection of their more obscure work with a bundle price tag attached. No they don't have the abundant special features, but the fact they're released at all is a charm.

Funny thing about these collections, though. They are loaded with far lesser known titles, little to no special features, yet they're more expensive than the single title released with lots of special features.
It may sound like I'm complaining but I'm not. if anything I enjoy the irony of it. Also I over exaggerated that point. It definitely depends on what's included and how many titles are included. I've seen some on Amazon that have only a couple movies and it's around $20. Then there were some that jumped to the $70+ range!
Still these are definitely worth it. While, unfortunately, I am not as familiar with as many of these titles I can still appreciate what I've come across. Personally I only have one of these box sets. That being The First Films of Akira Kurosawa. Four great films packaged together nicely, but couldn't really see myself busting down doors for each individual title. Wish I had more cash to get more like When Horror Came to Shochiku, Chantal Akerman in the Seventies, Early Bergman, and so on.
Which is probably a good way to look at this. I think Criterion understands that many of these individual titles wouldn't be worth giving the full Criterion treatment so they go with this instead. Not to say they're not memorable films. Just Criterion understanding not everyone has all the money in the world.

There's not much else to say about Eclipse. They have the same mission statement as Criterion, just a different kind of execution.
You know what, though? I just thought of something. If we count these as Criterion titles then that means their total list on DVD would jump a huge number. Each Eclipse has two to seven titles in each pack. They've released forty so far. That means this adds close to two hundred more titles! Estimate without counting each one individually. I love Criterion so much.

My Wish List

Any and every Criterion fan has a wishlist of what they want to see released through this portal of excellence and respect for the art of film. To keep things simple I'll give you ten key films I would love to see released via Criterion. Not a solid, chisel this in stone top ten list but ten that come to mind as I'm writing this post.

LoveExposure - One of my top ten favorite movies of all time and easily one of the best I've ever seen. This modern, Japanese, coming of age tale from Shion Sono is charming, heartwarming, funny, but also deep, dark, and disturbing in many ways. At a massive four hour run time it is immersive and plays out on screen like you're reading a book. Getting a pristine Criterion transfer all on one Blu-ray (so I wouldn't have to switch discs halfway) would be an incredible experience. The extras don't even have to be abundant. Getting this Criterion-ized would be good enough in my eyes. It would render my import copy useless outside of being a collector's item (I imported the UK DVD before the region 1 copy became available).

Once Upon a Time in America - One of those movies that has a very rich history and multiple cuts. A new cut is being released in September but I hear it's not the full one. It'd be great to get a box set with the multiple cuts with the main selling point being the full cut of the film. Giving three cuts and three different perspectives. The roughly 2 1/2 hour US theatrical cut, the DVD almost 4 hour cut, and the 4+ hour full director's cut. Add a set of extras going through the history of the film and one of those essay booklets that's been included in some of the bigger packaging and it would be an essential Criterion title.

Cannibal Holocaust - An horrifying classic that caused a ton of controversy when released. Another fine example of a title that could sell itself solely on the special features talking about the controversy surrounding the film. There is so much history here that it could definitely justify the premium price. Also it'd be neat to see an alternate cut. They included the 'Love Conquers All' cut of Brazil to show the power editing can have on a movie. Here they could have the 'Animal Cruelty Free' cut used in certain regions. All scenes with animal death were cut in that version due to the fact they were controversial because they REALLY KILLED THE ANIMALS!

Ring - Easily one of the best Japanese horror films, hell one of the best horror films ever made. It's a movie that I don't feel gets the attention it deserves in this day and age. At least in America. So much of it's attention is either based on the American remake or the many rip-offs that were 'inspired' by it the years following it's release. A criterion release would bring it back in a way that shows the subtle origins of this modern classic. Even though the book is far more subtle than the 1998 movie it still is a far better example on how pacing can and should be approached in horror, making it far scarier and more disturbing than a few scenes stringed together to startle you.

Inland Empire - This could be a set made with a similar approach Shoah had. In the early 2000's David Lynch went big time digital and big time online. So not only could we make this everything the current 2 disc edition is, but throw in a ton of his online shorts that were in the same style as or eventually inspired material in Inland Empire. The core film filled with extra films on top of it is always a great package deal. Sure it would raise the price quite a bit but I'd be willing to pay $50+ if it meant getting all of that into one package and new extras!

Un Chien Andalou - A fantastic, surreal silent short film from the late 1920's. This would make a great budget title like when Criterion released the thirty minute documentary Night and Fog. It's also a popular enough title where I'm sure they could get a few other extras to make the purchase of a 16 minute short worth $15.

Napoleon - An epic from the silent era that has had quite the history since it's initial release. Having multiple cuts would be nearly impossible and would raise the price too high considering there are, reportedly, at least nineteen different versions of the film. Starting with the original cut being ranging from six to nine hours long. Regardless this is a highly praised film that's been lost to time. There's never been a DVD release and the VHS/Laserdisc release (At four hours more or less) is very uncommon. Bringing it to Criterion would finally give it the treatment it deserves and so I can finally see the damn thing. That and I've got to see what the 4.00:1 aspect ratio looks like in select scenes.

Barry Lyndon - The one Kubrick I'll include on this list because of how underrated it is. As Kubrick's follow up to the controversial masterpiece A Clockwork Orange he took a bit of a gamble. Barry Lyndon was a very slow-paced three hour period piece centered around a fictional Irish rogue. At the time it got moderate success. While it is given high praise now it gets very little attention, especially when compared to Kubrick's other work. Seeing this re-done with a Blu-ray release and some history would be a dream come true for me. As this is one of my top Kubrick films, just behind some of the more obvious choices.

Lar Von Trier's Trilogy of Depression - A 1/3rd cheat because Antichrist is already a part of the Criterion. Much like how they released Pasolini's Trilogy of Life not too long ago I would love to see LVT's complete Trilogy of Depression released. Package together Antichrist, Melancholia, and Nymphomaniac into what would be a top notch deal. Also, unlike other filmmakers they tend to honor, LVT is still around so he could do an extensive commentary for each of the films which would be fascinating. Especially the four hour epic Nymphomaniac. A movie I've been entranced by since it's inception but have yet to see. Despite that slight lack of info and despite being disappointed by Melancholia I still think this would make a fantastic set.

Birdemic/The Room/Etc - Please, let me explain, this is not entirely a joke. Criterion does not release their titles based on a one to ten score of how good it is. They release based on the impact said titles had on the industry or if they served other importance. Technically it would make sense to include movies like Birdemic or The Room as they became huge cult classics in their missteps. No, not a 'so bad it's good' series. Not intentionally bad movies. I'm talking projects where the director thought they were making something brilliant, failed miserably, and won in popularity because of it. No Sharknado because it wasn't conceived the same. Anyone know what I mean by this?

My Other Wish List

There were a few titles I intentionally left out because they were already released on Criterion but on Laserdisc. Most of their Laserdiscs have since been re-released on DVD but with a good number still left behind. These are my top ten re-releases I would love to see (alphabetical order this time):

2001: A Space Odyssey - The Blu-ray currently available is actually a fantastic set with some great special features. Still I can see more being done with it, including even more. Maybe even a paperback copy of the original book? It was written alongside the making of the film so it would make sense. That and it's a small book so it could fit in the package pretty well.

Akira - One of the best animated features to come out and not just from Japan. This surreal, extraordinary animated feat would be stupendous on a modern Criterion release. Especially since it could include alternate dubs from the original release and the 2001 re-release when the dialogue and translation was re-worked for the first special edition DVD. And just think about how beautiful it would be in HD via their amazing transfer work.

Annie Hall - Do I even need to explain why? This is one of Woody Allen's finest and is considered a classic by nearly everyone who has seen it. It's funny, charming, and incredibly innovative for it's time. Holds up great so re-releasing would do great. They could even sell it at a less expensive rate like how A Hard Day's Night was recently sold for $20 at release compared to the usual $30-$40 tag.

Blade Runner - An amazing film with a long history and many different cuts. It would be hard to top the five disc collector's edition Blu-ray from a few years ago. It has all five cuts of the movies and tons of special features. Still I feel that collector's pack could have been put together better. Something Criterion would do very well.

From Russia With Love - Something I know wouldn't be released individually in the "binge the entire franchise" mindset of the modern age. Still would be nice to see this and maybe even an era collection. Like 'The Connery Collection' for Bond. A celebration of how he helped establish the character to be what he is today. At the very least a re-release of From Russia With Love would be fantastic as it is, like many other people, one of my favorites.

Halloween - What eventually became every other slasher out there, the first Halloween is a tense and exciting example of horror done right on a simple and small scale. If this were coming I know it wouldn't be anytime soon as there's a new box set coming out of all the Halloween films (with an abundance of features). This would be great to see. Because much like a lot of the other movies Criterion puts out... plenty of different cuts, plenty of history, plenty of additional content.

A Night at the Opera - Really I'd be happy with just about any of the Marx Brothers films coming out on Criterion. Still I understand why they chose this one back in the day. Easily one of their best films that is only comparable to their other 'non-Zeppo' films. Sorry, buddy. I don't know why but the ones you were in just weren't as good. I don't think it was anything you did. Maybe it was just a coincidence.

Supercop - I have no other reason why other than I think it was badass they released this on Criterion in the first place. Hard Boiled and other John Woo I can understand. But this Jackie Chan action flick? Did not see that coming. Would make me happy to see re-released for the sheer fun of it.

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song - Didn't personally care for it my first time around. I do understand the importance of the film as it was technically the first of it's kind that kick started all the other ass kicking brothas and sistas movies. If it weren't for this we wouldn't have classics like Shaft, Super Fly, and eventually Black Dynamite.

Taxi Driver - Like Annie Hall do I really need to state why this should be re-released? It's an American classic that helps showcase what Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro are truly capable of. It is remembered well and for good reason. It's dark, honest, and has a lot to say. Seeing it re-released via Criterion would be fantastic and there's not much else to say about it that hasn't already been said.

The Future

Criterion is still going strong, there's no doubt about that. With every year they grow and get better and better. Before I commented how they have out of print titles but they're continuing to turn that around when looking at re-releases even as of recent time. So that list of unavailable Criterion titles is not only getting smaller, but are being released better than before.
The great thing about them is they always are open to innovating and thinking outside the box. Not always fully succeeding, though. They recently did a string of Blu-Ray/DVD combo packs at a higher price than DVD but people didn't react well to that.
However they seem to be doing pretty well digitally, too. When I found out about them being on Hulu Plus I wondered if it would be just a handful. Then I was pleasantly surprised to see majority of their library there and it made me want to get a real deal Hulu membership instead of just a free trial. They also embrace digital by renting and selling digital copies of their movies. I know some are currently only available that way, but I doubt they'll keep them exclusive.
I guess the only thought I have is I wish they would release more animated films. They've released over a thousand titles when taking the Eclipse collections into consideration. How many of those features have been animated? Two. Akira on Laserdisc and Fantastic Mr Fox earlier this year. There's no reason why they can't put more an effort into animated features that would be equally beloved as their typical releases.
None the less they continue to satisfy and surprise me. I always thought Salo would be rare, but that's not the case anymore. A few years ago I would have never dreamed Scanners would get the Criterion treatment. But it did. Even if they don't fulfill my dream list they still do so many wonderful things it more than makes up for it. Like they're telling me what I should want instead of giving into my personal choices.
Bravo, Criterion, bravo.

No comments:

Post a Comment