Friday, August 28, 2015

#771: Two Days, One Night

(Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014)

I end up saying this a lot on this blog, but here we go again: Two Days, One Night is the kind of film that would never be made in Hollywood. What's most interesting about that statement here, however, is that Hollywood really should be making films like this, and in fact often used to.

The basic premise of the film is that a woman who has been on medical leave from her job finds out that her boss had the other workers vote on whether they would get a bonus or have her come back to work. Now she must go around to all of her co-workers to convince them to forgo their bonus so she can keep her job. It's the kind of small, human-scale premise that is never made in Hollywood anymore, but its build to the vote and her quiet desperation lend the film a suspense and emotional connection that is totally lacking in what is actually produced these days.

The film lives or dies with Marion Cotillard. She's in every scene and even rarely off camera, and because we don't really get a chance to meet her before she is thrown into her challenge (another thing Hollywood would never allow) Cotillard needs to spend the rest of the film building up her character's backstory and giving her actions more than just a surface "I just want my job back" air. The film might have been more successful with a less glamorous actress - Cotillard's star quality and beauty makes it hard to see her as anything other than the protagonist in the film, like Brad Pitt in Benjamin Button (while both are great performances, Pitt's was more acceptable with the context of Fincher's hyperreal fable). Still, it's easy to forgive this casting when the technique both in front of and behind the camera is so impressive. The movie's episodic nature almost turns it into a mystery thriller, with each co-worker another piece of the puzzle, but the Dardennes' humanism makes Cotillard's journey more realistic and even urgent than any whodunit could ever be.

I don't know if Two Days, One Night rises to the level of the best films by the Dardenne brothers, but I can confidently say that cinema needs more films like this. Cotillard's journey recalls that in The Bicycle Thief but lacks the melodrama of that era, instead reaching for a technique that approaches verite, a reminder that, even for these former documentary filmmakers, fiction often resembles life more than the real thing.

#684: Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project

(Various)

Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project is a vital project with distinctly Western mindset. The notion that six films as diverse and distinct as these could be grouped together under any banner other than "cinema" is reductionist. Yet the care given to each and the spotlight shone on them by Scorsese's name and organization is impossible to dismiss as exoticism. The films in this collection (an assumed first in a series considering the 1 on its cover) are all unique and deserving of their restorations, and if the "world cinema" label ghettoizes them it is done while simultaneously elevating the value of perspectives different from what we typically see in film. Like world music, the title hopefully becomes a call for more diverse voices in cinema (in this case cinema history) and a tacit admission that the accepted canon is not definitive but instead sorely lacking perspective.

All six of these films (with the possible exception of The Housemaid) put their respective cultures at the center of their themes and subject matters in a way only rarely seen in the US. The similarity of the films stop there, however, as the stories range from music documentaries to experimental dramas to studio suspense. Of the bunch, Dry Summer stood out for me as the masterpiece. I was hooked on the story from the beginning, and the technique on display was more compelling than Hitchcock's Marnie, made the same year. But overall this box is a great release worth digging into, and the thought and effort put into preserving these films and giving them a wider audience is arguably the best thing Scorsese has done since Goodfellas.

Links to the individual films:

685. Touki Bouki
686. Redes
687. A river Called Titas
688. Dry Summer
689. Trances
690. The Housemaid

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

#687: A River Called Titas

(Ritwik Ghatak, 1973)

If there is a standard criticism of the most famous masters of the East, most notably Akira Kurasawa and Satyajit Ray, it is that they are deeply affected by the presence of the West. There is a sense that these directors have either been so deeply influenced by the Western concept of cinema or are so conscious of the Western gaze that their work is not truly representative of not just their national cinema but of their countries at large.

I tend to reject such criticism - unwrapping the influences and flowing ideas of international cinema is as difficult as separating the contributions of R&B and country to rock's creation. But watching a film like A River Called Titas makes it harder to ignore the idea that there are films that have a stronger national identity. Ritwik Ghatak's film documenting the lives of a small group of people living along the river Titas is a definitively Indian experience, as unconcerned with conforming to outside aesthetic rules as it is dedicated to its subjects' quiet lives and stark landscapes.

The most remarkable films of this nature can be invigorating, but even the greatest can be difficult to approach from a Western perspective. Without cultural touchstones, films can be as indecipherable as the language their protagonists speak. Consequently, A River Called Titas is not easy to fall in love with on first viewing. What can be appreciated, however, is Ghatak's love of his subject, the beautiful care with which he treats the manmade and natural surroundings he captures. Halfway through the film I grew tired of the melodrama of the story and spent most of my time simply living in the world A River Called Titas depicted. This is an underrated power of cinema; underutilized because viewers are so rarely exposed to films of this nature and resisted because of preconceived ideas about what movies should provide.

I didn't fully stay with A River Called Titas, but I took away from it a profound sense of place. It's the idea that each film I see makes the world a bigger and more complex living organism that draws me to a film like A River Called Titas, even when I have difficulty translating its appeal to fit my Western expectations.

Friday, May 29, 2015

#748: Watership Down

(Martin Rosen, 1978)

It took 700 films for Criterion to release its first full-length feature animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, which slipped through thanks to Criterion's close relationship with Wes Anderson. This is partially because of the difficulty of licensing the most important animation, the bulk of which is behind the Disney paywall or obscure Japanese agreements (occasionally the two combine to make it even more difficult to obtain animated features - note that none of Miyazaki's best work is available digitally). Mainly, however, the lack of animation in Criterion's stables stems from two things: the unfair perception among cinephiles that animated work is inherently artistically inferior and the skew toward family appeal in the genre. This latter element is a barrier both artistically (as the bulk of animation is slight) and financially (as the home video market for family entertainment is much more robust than that of foreign film).

With these barriers in mind, it's not much of a surprise that the first truly animated (i.e. hand drawn) feature to arrive in the Collection is Watership Down. Wielding both the literary heft and adult-focused themes that separate it from the typical animated film, Watership is the perfect fit for Criterion on paper. The good news is that in practice it's also fully worthy of the label and a deserving "first" representation within the catalog.

Before the beautiful and trippy intro of the film is over, it's already clear that Watership is a unique animated film. The talking animal trope is as old as animated film itself, yet rarely has it been used in such a serious and adult-themed context. The rabbits of Watership Down are no less anthropomorphized than Thumper - in fact, the concept has been taken to its extreme, with the full weight of what it means to be human behind it. Here are animals with their own creation mythology, socio-political dynamics, and the full scale of human emotion. It's a stark reminder of what has been lost in the accepted (Western) truth that animation is inherently for kids.

The story of Watership Down is very engaging, and I found myself wrapped up in this dark tale of a group of rabbits struggling for survival. Although the animation is not perfect, it's also beautiful and carefully detailed. Rosen made another animated film based on a Richard Adams novel after this, but his career outside of these two films was also filled with literary adaptations (albeit live action). His care for the written word can often overpower his own artistic interpretations here, making the film a little by the numbers, but the imagination behind the story is so vivid that it never seems routine.

Although there are countless animated films that would certainly make the Collection if Criterion had free reign, most will never see the light of day. Still, there are many films that I'd love to see included that could conceivably make their way into the Collection: The Adventures of Prince Achmed is currently out of print, The Secret of Nimh is currently a clearance blu ray, while any of Bill Plympton's work would make for a great adult installment in the series. Regardless, Watership Down is a film any fan of animated film should see, and it's hopefully the beginning of a bigger trend.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

#761: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

(Jaromil Jires, 1970)

In the four months since I last posted here, I moved into a new house and settled into life as a parent of two children. I've probably watched a total of three films in that span, the driest spell in my adult life, probably in my life after two years old or so.

I mention this because Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is not the ideal movie to jump back into Criterion specifically and cinema in general. It's a difficult (though admittedly playful) surrealist playground of new wave cinema, hippie mysticism, and Christian philosophy that doesn't settle into any recognizable groove over it brief running time. There were moments I enjoyed, and the film has some memorable visuals and a handful of technical tricks that make it a worthwhile viewing. But I think even if I had been in the right mindset for this one it would demand multiple viewings before a cohesive viewpoint could be generated. As it stands, I'm not close to that place, and as Stuart Smalley says, that's ok.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

#746: A Day in the Country

(Jean Renoir, 1936)

A Day in the Country is a simple and lyrical short intended to be a vignette in a larger work by the great Jean Renoir. Because the project was not finished, this piece didn't see a release until a decade after it was filmed. As a standalone Criterion release, A Day in the Country is an odd choice: it's only 40 minutes long and is certainly a minor work in the director's catalog (though it's hard to argue any of Renoir's work is truly minor considering his stature). The outtakes compilation included on the disc is longer than the film itself, making this set more about the supporting extras matching up with the main text than it is about the movie on its own.

Despite this, there is much to love in A Day in The Country. A couple of great performances from the two lovers anchor the film, while the romance/storm montage is striking in its beauty and poetic framing. The depiction of the city/country dichotomy is quite stereotypical, but the film is not striving for any complex grand investigation. It's equally easy to forgive the "no-means-yes" kiss scene, which has been replicated hundreds of times before and after this film.

Ultimately, though, the movie is fairly slight and it seems unlikely that anyone but Criterion or Renoir completists would be interested in purchasing this one. I'm glad to have seen it, but I doubt I'll watch it again.

Monday, November 24, 2014

#707: Il Sorpasso

(Dino Risi, 1962)

Il Sorpasso is the kind of movie Americans almost never see. The majority of foreign films that make it to our shores are serious, ambitious films that would be labeled prestige or art pictures even in their own country. Comedies are rarely imported, even from English speaking countries (with the exception being the occasional quirky inspirational English country comedy), while some films that hardly get a release in their own country are trumpeted upon their arrival in the US.

So here is an odd installment in the Criterion Collection: a loony commercial comedy in the middle of Italy's late 50s, early 60s golden age. One of the protagonists even dismisses Antonioni as boring - maybe the first instance of a film talking trash about other films in the collection? It's no surprise that Il Sorpasso is largely unknown in the US, despite being hugely popular in its native country.

(Spoilers below.)

But what's most interesting about Il Sorpasso is how often it defies its low-brow nature. The movie's basic premise couldn't be more Hollywood: two guys, one uptight and inexperienced and one borderline insane and fun-loving, spend a day racing through the Italian countryside, encountering colorful predicaments along the way. And yet its ending, in which the car careens off the road, sending the young man to his death on the cliffs below, wouldn't get past the first submitted draft of the script in any Hollywood studio.

It's this moment which is inevitably the crux of the film, and it sends a shadow over everything that came before it. It's all over so quickly that it's difficult to process as it is happening what it means for the picture as a whole, but it leaves you with such a sour taste in your mouth that it's hard to retain the freewheeling joy of the rest of the movie without feeling implicated in an innocent man's senseless death. In other hands, the movie might have ended with the same tragedy, only played with a sly wink to the audience, a dark joke between the director and his viewers. An equally likely choice would have been to send Bruno to his death, leaving the younger man to ponder the implications of the whirlwind day in which he was caught. Yet Risi's decision to kill off the law student and leave Bruno empty-handed turns the tables on his Italian viewers. One man's awakening to the carefree life becomes an indictment of Italian machismo in an instant.

How you responded to the ending will likely depend on how you viewed Bruno in the rest of the movie. Characters like this have become ingrained in Hollywood films over the last fifty years, so his carefree brutishness is less jarring than it might have seemed in the 1960s, perhaps making the ending feel even more surprising, out of place, and/or unwarranted. I've seen comments online from people raving about the movie but stating that they will pretend the last few minutes of the movie didn't happen, while others (rightly) argue that the ending is the whole point of the movie. For me, Il Sorpasso is a reminder that films needn't subscribe to one genre, one tone, or even one viewpoint. Fun can be fun, even when it leads to tragedy. This is so often forgotten in modern Hollywood that it bears repeating: once art is pigeonholed, it loses much of its power.