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Blu-ray Reviews
Blu-ray Disc reviews by Tim Salmons of The Digital Bits

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (Criterion Blu-ray Disc)

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Robinson Crusoe on Mars
1964 (2011) - Paramount (Criterion)
Released on Blu-ray on January 11th, 2011 (Spine #404)
Released previously on DVD


Film Rating: A-
Video (1-20): 16
Audio (1-20): 15
Extras: B+

When his space shuttle has suddenly crash landed, Astronaut Commander Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) must find a way to survive on the unexplored planet of Mars. As he fights for his survival, he soon discovers that he isn't the only one hanging around on the big red planet.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars is one of the lost gems in American science fiction cinema. Prior to the birth of "realistic" and "well-informed" sci-fi films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, there were very few projects that paid any real attention to what was going on scientifically and technologically in the 1960's - and those that did didn't really make much of an impact on audiences or critics. At the time, this film resembled more truthfully what was going on at NASA than even the filmmakers were aware of. Aesthetically, the piece really shines, and is a far better designed and executed story than even some of Byron Haskins' previous projects. This particular film is more about a human's lone survival, physically and mentally, than about strange space creatures or science fiction technology. While the former isn't even utilized in the film (as it was in the original book), the latter is miniscule and just a means of telling a story without much attention being paid to it. It's also interesting to note that it has the look and feel of the Star Trek television series, which was just right around the corner (and I mean that in the best possible way).

For the Criterion Blu-ray release, be rest assured that the A/V presentation is a good one. It looks the best it possibly can with only slightly more grain than normal and an even color palette. Mostly blacks, tans and reds are seen for the duration of the film, but they are all pleasantly stable and easy on the eye. For budgetary reasons, the film was shot using the Techniscope process and enlarged for a 2.35:1 theatrical presentation. The reasons for this were mostly budgetary, and while the image isn't quite as crisp as it could have been had they just shot anamorphically, it is by no means unpleasant. The transfer on this disc was struck from the original negative and not the aforementioned blown-up theatrical print, so it does everything that it should and more without any major distractions. The original uncompressed monaural soundtrack is also included, but it doesn't quite pop as much as I was hoping it would. It has some aural depth and opens the film up in places but some of the dialogue and sound effects sound a bit on the choppy side to me. A minor complaint, but again, not a major issue.

Supplementing the film aren't an enormous amount of extras, but there are some good ones to pick through. First up is an audio commentary with screenwriter Ib Melchior, actors Paul Mantee and Victor Lundin, production designer Al Nozaki, special effects designer and Robinson Crusoe on Mars historian Robert Skotak, and snippets of an audio interview with director Byron Haskin. Next is Destination Mars - a featurette that covers how the film presents its technology and how accurate it is (or inaccurate in some cases). Also included is a music video made by the folks at Criterion using footage from the film set to Victor Lundin's recording of "Robinson Crusoe on Mars", a still gallery featuring many early concepts for designs in the film, the original theatrical trailer, and finally a 13 page booklet featuring an essay by Michael Lennick, Ib Melchior's "Brief Yargorian Vocabulary", and a list of facts about Mars itself.

Had this film been a little more successful, it makes you wonder what the science fiction film landscape would have evolved into. Rarely seen and rarely mentioned at all, it deserves the cult audience it has garnered. Given that this great Criterion release sheds some light on a mostly forgotten treasure of a movie, it calls for a revival - and it's definitely worth adding to your collection. Highly recommended.

Tim Salmons

The Red Shoes (Criterion Blu-ray Disc)

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The Red Shoes
1948 (2010) - Janus Films (Criterion)
Released on Blu-ray on July 20th, 2010 (Spine #44)
Also available on DVD
Original Criterion DVD still available

DTS-HD Master Audio

Film Rating: A+
Video (1-20): 19
Audio (1-20): 15
Extras: A

Eager young ballerina Victoria Page (played by real-life dancer Moira Shearer) sets out on the road to stardom under the tutelage of obsessive stage producer Lermontov (Anton Wolbrook) with the companionship of the ballet's composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring).

Caught between her love for her work and Craster, her struggle ultimately drives her to tragedy.

The Red Shoes was a more sophisticated kind of entertainment than most might have perceived it to be. Released in 1948 and made by the creative team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (who's previous successes included The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus), it's one of those cinematic experiences that more so than not changes or even challenges the film landscape. Everything from the performances, design, color, lighting and narrative themes are all meticulously crafted and even (dare I say) put Powell and Pressburger's previous works to shame. While the focus is primarily a seemingly innocuous and relatively straightforward look at the behind-the-scenes workings of a ballet troupe, it also contains one of film's great set pieces: a lush and beautifully artistic ballet of the original "The Red Shoes" story that, on-screen, mixes fantasy with reality in a surreal production that many consider to be the finest representation of ballet in film.

The team behind this particular release have really outdone themselves. Created from a new high definition master that utilizes an award-winning restoration from 2009, you couldn't be any more pleased with the A/V presentation. Shot using the three strip Technicolor film process, the color palette comes to vivid life. Blacks, reds, greens and blues are all deep and crisp (as they are with most Technicolor pieces). As Scorsese mentions in the video introduction to the film, this newly produced print is much sharper and more precise than it was upon the original release. Despite all of the digital manipulation, grain is still very solid and barely noticeable throughout. While a great deal of time was spent removing color breathing and molding from the prints during the restoration process, there are still some tell-tell signs in certain spots. However, it doesn't detract from the overall presentation at all - a presentation that is absolutely breathtaking. The original mono soundtrack has also been included - giving us a taste of what it must have been like to experience this in 1948. It's quite an even soundtrack that leaves little to complain about.

There are a healthy amount of extras to compliment this release. The aforementioned video introduction with Martin Scorsese as he explains and shows examples of the restoration process, an audio commentary with film historian Ian Christie as moderator and interviews with cinematographer Jack Cardiff, actors Marius Goring and Moira Shearer, composer Brian Easdale and Scorsese all woven together, a documentary on the making of the film - Profile of "The Red Shoes", and a video interview with Michael Powell's widow and Scorsese's long-time collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker Powell. Also included is Jeremy Irons reading excerpts from the novelization of The Red Shoes and the original Hans Christian Anderson story, separate tracks and both of which can be played during the film. Closing it all out are photographs from Scorsese's personal collection of memorabilia from the film, "The Red Shoes" Sketches (which contains an animated storyboard presentation of the film's centerpiece sequence), the original theatrical trailer, and a 25 page booklet featuring essays and restoration details.

Quite obviously, this is one of Martin Scorsese's favorite films, but it also shows up in many cinema enthusiastsí top ten lists the world over (including my own). The bottom line is that this film is an encapsulating experience. Pure cinema, in every sense of the phrase, it still holds a great deal of power over sixty years after its original release. With the loving care put into this Blu-ray presentation, it's essential viewing for film fans.

Tim Salmons

Black Narcissus (Criterion Blu-ray Disc)

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Black Narcissus
1947 (2010) - Janus Films (Criterion)
Released on Blu-ray on July 20th, 2010 (Spine #93)
Also available on DVD
Original Criterion DVD still available

DTS-HD Master Audio

Film Rating: A
Video (1-20): 19
Audio (1-20): 15
Extras: A-

Set in India, high atop the Himalayan mountains, is a story about a small order of nuns who are assigned the task of taking over the empty building stationed there and converting it into a convent for the surrounding natives.

However, their difficulties begin almost immediately as ever-increasing feelings of disillusionment, paranoia and madness begin to creep into their minds. As they struggle to maintain order, their faith is called into question and their will to survive is put to the test.

Roundly considered in the film community to be one of the most beautiful-looking films ever made, the true power of Black Narcissus lies within not just its plot, but its underlying theme of sexuality. It may not be apparent, but in 1947, subject matter that delved into the spirit battling the sins of the flesh, particularly with such definitive imagery, was a bit of a taboo. Deemed obscene in the eyes of the Catholic church, it alternatively struck a chord with the movie-going public and with critics. Filmed entirely (and unbelievably) at Pinewood Studios in London by the Powell and Pressburger players, the story ultimately is about self-reflection and renewed faith of not just the mind, but more importantly, the soul.

This is also another of Criterionís great masterpiece releases (would you expect anything less?). The magnificent presentation is just as staggering as it must have been when projected over fifty years ago. Jack Cardiffís award-winning cinematography is a thing of true beauty. Even the matte paintings seem to leap to life while the color palette, consisting of strong greens, reds, and whites, is just as lush as one could hope for. There is a considerable amount of film grain, but not so much that itís distracting. It gives the film more character, and also leaves more visual information intact. Many that criticized Criterionís previous release for its extreme amount of edge enhancement can rest easy. You will find none of that here. On the audio side of things, the original uncompressed mono soundtrack has now been included with this release, completing a fantastic sensory experience.

In the supplement department, there's a decent amount of material to look through. Beginning with a video introduction to the film by filmmaker and close friend of Michael Powell, Bertrand Tavernier, an audio commentary featuring Powell and Martin Scorsese has also been included. The Audacious Adventurer, featuring Tavernier again chatting about the film and his friend Powell, Profile of "Black Narcissus", a nice documentary on the making of the film, Painting with Light, another documentary that discusses Cardiff's work, the original theatrical trailer, and a 21 page booklet that features an essay by critic Kent Jones.

One of the many Powell/Pressburger visual feasts that manages to maintain interesting themes and within an intriguing story, Black Narcissus falls right in line. Itís a marvelous work in the succession of everything that came before and after it, and also raised the bar very highly for filmmaking in general. Now with this pristine and wonderful package from The Criterion Collection, this masterpiece can be experienced at its best.

Tim Salmons
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