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Criterion goes Blu with this rare Soviet import, but is it worth shelling out cash for a movie-only high-def edition....?
Criterion / 96 Minutes / 1960 / Unrated / Street Date: March 20, 2012
I suppose it can be said that this high-definition Criterion edition of Letter Never Sent is better than nothing. This drama from Soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov has been widely unavailable for years, and when Criterion liberated the film and popped it on their Hulu queue, it allowed those of us who'd never experienced it a chance to give it a whirl. Sounds great, right?
Well, this begs a unique point. To be able to watch the movie as one of potentially hundreds of available flicks on your $8 Hulu Plus account (in lower-than-standard-def, of course) is one thing, but to throw over $30 for a Blu-ray Disc version is quite another. It's Criterion's prerogative to release movie-only editions of anything they want - again, just to have these off-the-beaten-track gems available in any capacity is an endeavor worth applauding - but it's difficult to offer a gale-force recommendation for a BD edition that doesn't come with any bells and whistles.
The movie itself is a relatively engaging melodrama, one that follows the emotional interactions among a quartet of geologists in Siberia on a search to find (literally) diamonds in the roughs of the barren wilderness. Kalatozov balances these folks' relationships with each other with their tumultuous interplay with nature at large with intriguing liveliness (the early films of fellow Criterion stablemate Larisa Shepitko come to mind as similar efforts), and as the movie builds toward its big finale, the whole thing becomes cleanly engaging.
But there's not much here to merit anything more than perhaps a Blu-ray rental, and this brings us back to a very simple quandry: Why spend the money to rent the thing in high-def when you can watch it on your Hulu Plus account (it's currently very much available). Of course, those who adore the film and will revisit it again and again shouldn't hesitate - it is, at the end of the day, another gold standard Criterion title - but one wonders about Criterion's intentions with a release like this one. As a devout fan of the studio's, I'll gladly take a bullet for them as long as they keep up the good work, but movie-only releases like Letter Never Sent seem like a trend toward oddly redundant overkill. I guess it's time for us to bridge our Criterion Hulu and physical collections....