Criterion’s Blu-ray debut is up to snuff

Murray is a freelance writer.

The first wave of Criterion Collection Blu-ray discs was initially slated for October, then pushed out to November, then pushed out again to this week. For a while, home video forums were abuzz with the rumor that Criterion would never release the discs at all. The reason? Criterion’s art-house product wouldn’t appeal to “the PlayStation 3 crowd” anyway.

In actuality, the company was reportedly working overtime to get the video and audio up to its famously high standards, as well as experimenting with some novel packaging. The first four Criterion Blu-rays -- “Bottle Rocket,” “Chungking Express,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “The Third Man” -- arrive today without the telltale blue plastic cases that nearly every other home video company has adopted for Blu-ray.

The Criterions come in cardboard digi-packs, with artwork identical to the standard Criterion DVDs (albeit slightly smaller, and with a discreet sticker on the front to note that the discs are Blu-ray).


Other quirky differences: During the usual Blu-ray slow-load, the Criterion logo hangs reassuringly at the upper left corner of the TV screen, and when the menu appears, it contains the novel feature “Timeline,” which allows viewers to “bookmark” segments of the movie with a push of a button.

Of course, the movies look superb and sound great. “Bottle Rocket” retains the original’s crisp pastels, which are essential to Wes Anderson’s puckish story of three lightweight amateur crooks. Wong Kar-wai’s “Chungking Express” has never sparkled this much, with its smeary color underscoring the impressionistic, intertwined sketches of two lovelorn cops.

Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” which stars David Bowie as an alien who embraces the venality of American culture, has its booming rock soundtrack well-served by Blu-ray. And “The Third Man’s” shadowy tale of conspiracies and betrayal in postwar Vienna looks perfectly moody.

Each disc lists for $39.95, equivalent to a standard Criterion DVD, and each contains the same bonus features as the standard editions: “Bottle Rocket” comes bundled with a short film that pre-dates the feature and a charming commentary by Anderson and star Owen Wilson; “Chungking Express” features a knowledgeable commentary by scholar Tony Rayns, plus a segment on Wong from a British TV series.

“The Man Who Fell to Earth” has a commentary by Roeg and Bowie and comprehensive interviews with the cast and crew, while “The Third Man” adds a wonderfully insightful commentary track by Steven Soderbergh and Tony Gilroy, plus lengthy documentaries about director Carol Reed and author Graham Greene.

As is standard on Blu-ray discs, the Criterions offer the option to jump back and forth from the special features to the movie, seamlessly.