Monday, December 16, 2013

#688: Dry Summer

(Metin Erksan, 1964)

Dry Summer is my favorite film in the World Cinema boxset so far. The film features one of the great villains in Criterion - Osman is a true piece of shit, the kind of character that makes your skin crawl and wish you could climb into the movie so you could smack the shit out of him. At times I hated him so much (and he seemed so over-the-top despicable) that I felt uncomfortable watching the film. But the incredible direction and suspense of the final sequence won me over.

One of the most interesting things about the film is how Erksan is able to take a socialist premise not dissimilar to that of Redes and create a timeless morality tale laced with Hitchcockian suspense. The movie's themes are reminiscent of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, though Bogart and friends are arguably more admirable than Osman prior to the discovery of the gold, and the way in which greed and hubris overtake the respective protagonists seems guided by an invisible hand - just not the one such craven capitalists pray to. Dry Summer might not be the towering parable Huston's film is, but it is a grand statement from an under-explored corner of the cinematic globe.

Monday, November 18, 2013

#682: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

(Elio Petri, 1970)

Note: There's a chance that if you've seen a movie I'll reference I am about to ruin the ending of this movie, so if you care about that sort of thing, stop reading.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is a direct precursor to American Psycho, to the degree that I'm shocked at how little this connection is discussed. Basically, the movie is to fascism what that movie was to capitalism, and it's just as biting, hilarious, and challenging intellectually. Of course, this movie came out thirty years before that one and nearly two decades before the book upon which that was based, so there's a pretty good case for the film as a cutting-edge satire ahead of its time.

Of course, the film fits perfectly into its era of Italian filmmaking, and makes a nice double feature with Marco Ferreri's Dillinger Is Dead from the previous year. Both films are major send-ups of Italian masculinity, and derive much of their pleasure from the unexpected actions of their main character and how they subvert expectations of their characters. Petri's film is more immediately engaging, no doubt, because the narrative is structured in such an engaging way. I guess it's a bit like Absolute Power, where a murder is shown in great detail but we don't know who the perpetrator is until the big reveal afterwards (is that too obscure of a reference now?). Either way, it starts the film off right and sets the tone for what is one of the most entertaining recent Criterion releases - and one of the best.

Friday, November 15, 2013

#681: Frances Ha

(Noah Baumbach, 2013)

The rumblings below Criterion posts about Frances Ha on social media are reminiscent of the outright avalanche of anger unleashed with the Tiny Furniture release. In one way, this is not surprising, and even makes sense; like Tiny Furniture, Frances Ha is a contemporary film (nearly always controversial for inclusion in the Collection) about a self-absorbed New Yorker (certainly not a broad crowd pleaser of a genre).

But in a much more sinister way, the backlash is indicative of a serious strain of sexism that is very present in the film nerd community. I have little doubt that Frances Ha would receive none of the complaints that have been voiced if the film was about a male character. Likewise, the comparisons to Tiny Furniture would not seem as obvious, simply because there are tons of movies about neurotic men in New York - in fact, one of the greatest directors in our lifetimes built an entire career on them. This portion of the Criterion audience makes me very uncomfortable, especially because women filmmakers are so underrepresented in Criterion and in film in general.

I would defend Frances Ha from these attacks regardless of how I felt about the movie itself. But this is actually one of Baumbach's best movie, certainly my favorite since Squid and the Whale. Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the movie, gives the kind of performance we don't get to see anymore in Hollywood films. While I somewhat agree with the criticism that she has yet to stretch out beyond her lone persona as an actress, her work here is extremely impressive. She's in virtually every scene, and she carries the film on her back.

Although Tiny Furniture is a fair comparison, it's that other neurotic I mentioned that comes to mind first here. It's impossible to film New York in black and white and not have people immediately compare what you are trying to do to Manhattan, and the film shares many overlapping themes with that one. But ultimately Frances Ha is less of an exploration of self-absorbed lives against the backdrop of a tragicomic opera of a city and more about adulthood and letting go of what is safe to find your landing place. It doesn't always succeed, but Gerwig's performance and the brilliant dialog from her and Baumbach's sparkling script means it's constantly enjoyable and over before you want it to be.

Two notes here: great fucking cover that is perfectly evocative of what's great about the movie but also what is true to its themes and story. Really, it's perfect. Second: this movie has one of my new all-time favorite lines in "He's the kind of guy who would like buy a black leather couch and be like 'I love it.'"

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

#690: The Housemaid

(Kim Ki-Young, 1960)

The Housemaid is a strange convergence of cultures. The film is vaguely erotic but structured like a morality tale. It's got plenty of the outrageous melodrama that Korean films have come to be known for in the modern era but it also has subtle moments of psychological intrigue and complex emotion. The movie's jazz soundtrack is reminiscent of Western films of the era (Criterion movies like Elevator to the Gallows and Anatomy of a Murder spring to mind) but the aesthetic and technique of the film is notably more Asian.

All these battling elements might make for a total mess of a film, but The Housemaid is a pretty tight ship. In fact, what makes the film so good - and, I would guess, so highly regarded - isn't that it is an especially remarkable story or tells such an impressive story (really, it does neither) but simply that it's executed so well. The way the story is told is rather cunning, and I was left guessing even who the housemaid would be early in the film, and then how the husband would extricate himself from the situation as the climax approached.

One thing that is especially interesting about The Housemaid, particularly in the context of this boxset, is that the film was so clearly a product of a studio system that mirrored Hollywood. Obviously there are elements here that wouldn't work in the US (the ending standing out as a clear example), but the way the film is presented and structured is obviously professional and somewhat workmanlike, a clear style that separates studio work from something like Touki Bouki, which was so obviously the work of an artist, or Redes, which clearly developed outside of an assembly-line mentality. It's a reminder that even if the US has the towering center of commercial film, there are plenty of studios spread out across the globe that are producing film with the same balancing act between art and commerce. Often one can learn just as much about a culture from what they produce when money is on the line than from what they do for the love of it. The Housemaid is an excellent example of this, and it makes a fine addition to the Collection and this box.

Friday, November 8, 2013

#685: Touki Bouki

(Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1973)

The second of two African films in the Martin Scorsese World Cinema collection, Touki Bouki is also the more innovative and foreign in the truest sense of the word. Mambety's style is both elemental and post-modern, indebted to Soviet cinema of the 50s as much as Goddard movies of the 60s. It's also a bit of a slog at home, where it was never meant to be seen.

The story revolves around two Senegalese youngsters who dream of a new life in Paris but seem stuck repeating silly mistakes in their home country. The details of the story are of little concern, and what sticks out in Touki Bouki are the surreal fantasy sequences and the grounded portrayal of Senegal. Both are given equal weight and yet never forced on the viewer - this is a movie only a native could make, the difference between Charles Burnett - a virtual native of Los Angeles - producing Killer of Sheep and Billy Wilder making Double Indemnity. It's not just the subject matters and social intentions that separate those two approaches to a place, and Touki Bouki follows the in-the-know pattern. This is one major place where it separates from its obvious spiritual cousin, Breathless, which is not especially tied to Paris (though this seems quite intentional by Goddard). It's these casual portrayals of Senegal that are most appealing about the film, but the use of sound and visual cues in rhythmic editing from Mabety run a close second, and make the case for the film as one of the more innovative of the 70s.

The problem with the movie, however, is that it's dreadfully slow. There are long stretches without dialogue, the plot is minimal, and you never really get involved with any of the characters beyond a surface level. Considering the talent on display here, my guess is that the experience of seeing the film on the big screen would be notably more enjoyable, and I'd be less likely to drift in and out of the film's current.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

#686: Redes

(Emilio Gómez Muriel and Fred Zinnemann, 1936)

The first half of Redes left me a little cold. It was obvious how huge the influence of the film had been on future Latino cinema and other socially conscious cinema - especially films about labor and worker's rights. But having seen so many of the films that followed in its wake lessened the impact of the story, and while the footage itself was impressive and worth watching, I didn't see the spark of cinematic innovation that made the film historically important and timelessly impressive.

The last few sequences of the movie did away with this dispassionate stance. Redes final half is beautiful, lyrical, and moving. It's an angry but hopeful work, like all great political cinema must be, and even if things haven't changed as much as its filmmakers probably hoped they would, it's easy to see what films like this have done in the ensuing 75 years - and just what they can be capable of.

I've never fished for a living in Mexico in the 1930s, but Redes shows me what that might be like. Better yet, it does this with both a documentarian approach (which was the film's original intention) and an impressionistic touch. The quick cut montage at the end of the film is both high art and deeply grounded in the world of its characters. Seeing moments like this in films from the 30s is a humbling experience - seeing it come not just outside Hollywood but outside any studio system is a reminder that great art is rarely driven by commerce. In 2013 just as in 1936, it is an outsider's responsibility to tell stories that aren't being told. But it is their prerogative to tell them in a way that has never been done before.

#689: Trances

(Ahmed Maânouni, 1981)

Along with being one of the first films selected for Martin Scorsese's World Cinema project, Trances is a major positive step for Criterion for one big reason: it is one of two films in this boxset made in Africa. After nearly 700 spine numbers, Criterion has totally neglected what was formerly referred to in the West as the dark continent. Considering the rich history of cinema in places like Senegal and Morocco, where this film was made, this is one of the great holes in Criterion's catalog. Movies like Black Girl and The Iron Gate are great candidates worthy of full standalone releases, but there are most likely hundreds of other films worthy of spine numbers that I've never heard of and would love to see presented.

Anyway, Trances itself is an interesting and somewhat unconventional portrait of an excellent Moroccan band called Nass El Giwhane - if you enjoy the music here, I highly recommend their record Disque D'Or. The movie spends a lot of time watching them perform and rehearse, but there is also a lot about the culture and city surrounding them, especially the politics of the group. Based on the title, I was misguidedly expecting a psychedelic experience, like a North African Head. But what the movie turned out to be was less engaging cinematically but more fascinating in terms of who the band is. It's always interesting to see what pop is defined by in other parts of the world because there are so many differences while still retaining much of what is at the core of the musical experience.

Monday, October 28, 2013

#677: The Uninvited

(Lewis Allen, 1944)

The Univited is another perfectly enjoyable old-Hollywood entry in the Collection. But unlike I Married a Witch, I think The Uninvited is very much deserving of its place. This is mainly because of the seemingly effortless way the story is told. Like many non-Hitchcock suspense pictures of the 40s and 50s, it lacks the master's greater significance, but often the pure craft on display is just as impressive. Interestingly, like the modern Hitchcockian masterpiece The Vanishing, The Uninvited was made by people who have relatively routine careers outside of this one artistic success. Director Lewis Allen, who impressively made his feature debut here, had a handful of moderately received pictures over the next decade (only one of which I've seen - Suddenly, starring Frank Sinatra) but gradually shifted into television. Co-screenwriter Dodie Smith, believe it or not, went on to write The Hundred and One Dalmations, the original book the film was based on. Joel McCrea, the best-known actor here, was a second-tier movie star who frequently put in more-than-serviceable performances (and of course heads up the cast of the impeccable Sullivan's Travels) but never really achieved immortality. [Duh, Ray Milland, not Joel McCrea.]

So what makes The Uninvited stand out from the average tight-ship Hollywood program? I think it's the spark of mystery that remains present in the film from the very beginning until the last few scenes. Like many early Hitchcock classics - especially his British pictures, which quite clearly influenced this film - the movie never loses its sense of fun, even when it is often suspenseful and at times downright creepy. It's not a movie that is going to give anyone older than ten nightmares (at least I don't think so...) but it has the potential for subsequent viewings to be just as enjoyable, just as suspenseful, and even more impressive at how well the plot is tied together in a neat little package. The Uninvited is often regarded as the first movie to treat ghosts seriously. If this is the case, it's even more impressive that they were able to thread the supernatural into this standard suspense template without dropping the ball at some point. This isn't an undiscovered masterpiece that is going to make a splash, but it's absolutely deserving of the bigger audience this release will afford it, and I think there will be quite a few people finding this in their regular rotation once they been exposed to it.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

#663: Shoah

(Claude Lanzmann, 1985)

[There are a number of times during Shoah when an interviewee says there are no words to describe their experience. Although it is crude to compare watching a movie to what these people witness in their lives, there are truly no words to describe Shoah. It is both one of the truest representations of cinema and undoubtedly the most harrowing and life-altering film I have ever seen. There is no other film with which to compare it. There is, perhaps, no other film. Some thoughts, messy and honest:]

It took me nearly a month to watch all of Shoah. Part of this is my busy schedule and the film's nearly ten hour running time, but most of it is the need to fully digest and attempt to comprehend each section of the movie. As it moved deeper into its narrative, it became more and more difficult for me to process. There were moments when I stopped paying attention because the emotions were overwhelming. Other sections I rewatched because they were so dense and perspective-altering.

Shoah is a reminder that horror movies are made to understand our deepest fears, while documentaries about horrors are meant to destabilize those same fears. Nightmare on Elm Street is therapy and Irreversible is abuse, but both of these things are comfort, in a way. Shoah is uncertainty in the form of truth. It's the electron knocked out of its orbit, hurtling towards us.

I've never been to Germany, though my last name is German, from a family that emigrated in the 1850s. In some ways, Lanzmann paints a more damning picture of Poland, though his account is extremely controversial and should be balanced by the knowledge of how many Christian Polish people died during the war, often fighting what they knew was a losing battle. But it is Germany that is stained by the Holocaust, and the German people - many of whom had no idea what was going on - who must live with it until there is no longer a Germany. I don't think I could ever go to Germany after having seen Shoah. I don't really think there should be a Germany any more to go to.

Many of the key people Lanzmann interviews in the film are now dead. Lanzmann interviewed them in the 70s, just 30 years after the events they describe. It is horrifying to me that the 70s were just three decades after the Holocaust. It fills me with great sadness to think that the men and women who can tell us first-hand what happened will soon all be gone from this Earth. I want them to have peace, I want the pain to be gone from their eyes. I want them to live forever, though. I don't want anyone else to tell their stories but them.

Fuck Saló.

My maternal grandparents were 20-something American Jews when they found out about the Holocaust. My grandfather fought in Europe, spending time in France and Italy, mostly. I don't know if it matters that you are Jewish - maybe if you had family in Europe that was killed or barely survived like they did it meant more to you. I like to think it didn't, but it's hard to find the kind of impact the Holocaust should have had in American culture in the late 40s. Sometimes it's hard for me to believe there was any culture.

I lived through 9/11, like we all did, only I was a little closer than most and still miles away. I lived just below Canal St. and watched both towers fall. I saw people walking up the streets covered with soot and dust, some with minor injuries that were ripples from the tidal wave that hit the bottom of the island. Rumors swirled of more attacks and we all wondered what could possibly happen next. I say this because we all try to take our own experiences and feel like we can relate to the stories we hear. The fear and confusion I felt that day and in the subsequent weeks is my own, but I am ashamed of it. I have lived a life of privilege. We all have.

Perhaps the most harrowing section of the film is a letter that ends the first half in which problems with the vans that were being used to commit mass murder are laid out in bland bureaucratic prose, referring to the Jews as the "merchandise." It's a chilling inadvertent commentary on any system's ability to normalize the ultimate horrors through political language and mental separation. The letter was written by Walter Rauff, a Nazi whom many consider to be responsible for the murder of 100,000 Jews. He also allegedly worked with Israel after the war as a secret agent meant to foment unrest among the new country's neighboring enemies. When his mission failed, the Israeli secret service helped him escape capture and flee to South America, where he worked with Pinochet and died of lung cancer in the 1980s. This kind of self-serving purposeful dismissal of justice is almost as horrific as the crimes of which Rauff was accused.

Although the bulk of the film's information comes from spoken words, like all pure cinema you don't need the sound to understand the full impact. There are essentially three images in Shoah. The most common is not human, but is instead the scene of the crime, as one understated synopsis put it. The camera winds its way through contemporary Europe, spending most of its time in the overgrown ruins of the camps themselves. Unlike Night and Fog, shot twenty years earlier and whose poetic and haunting exploration of the camps is in no way rendered obsolete by this definitive work, Shoah is shot in a workmanlike manner that dwells on the natural elements of the ruins' surroundings. Lanzmann has no interest in telling you what it was like to be in the camps by showing you this footage. He is binding all of us on Earth to them through common signifiers. It's a constant reminder that this happened, not in a place but to humanity, perhaps if one is inclined in front of God, surrounded by Him. The second image in Shoah is of the complicit, the Polish citizens who stood by and watched and the German SS and bureaucrats who were at best willfully ignorant. Some of these people are unrepentant and soulless, content to rattle off facts as if their testimony absolves them. Most, however, are at war within themselves, desperate to justify their inaction even when it was clearly justified and they really were powerless to help. These people are us, and we must reconcile that knowledge with who we believe we are today. The third image is the survivor, and this is the image one will never forget. The stories in Shoah are unlike any you have heard before, but the look in the eyes of these men and women is indescribable. If there is one feeling they all have, it is guilt. I think most Holocaust survivors would reject being called victims, even though the horrors they went through and must live with are incomprehensible. They are survivors because someone else died in their place and there was nothing they could do about it. They are at their most emotional when they plead with Lanzmann to understand that there was nothing they could do, even if what they did do was more than any of us could have. They do not cry for themselves, but for their families, for strangers.

Lanzmann is a controversial figure, particularly in Poland where the film was denounced as an attack on the Polish people that omitted much of the hardship and tragedy that country suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Certainly, if you only watched the film and knew nothing else of World War II history, the depiction of Warsaw in the final sequence of the film would lead you to believe that things were normal and sunny for the non-Jewish population. Yet Lanzmann's forceful perspective on the Holocaust is essential to his telling of the story. His anger and disgust is present in his interviews with SS members, while his aggression towards the Polish who in some ways benefitted from the deportation of the Jews is evident and sometimes feels illogical and unfair. But without this emotion the film would feel dead and the story would not have nearly as much impact because there would be nothing with which to engage. Telling the story of a grand tragedy without a perspective is an act of cowardice. Lanzmann knew that.

I don't think most people know that the Nazis kept their industrial-scale mass murder of the Jews secret from even high-ranking members of the SS. Many people chose to turn a blind eye, for sure, but there were undoubtedly many who honestly had no idea of what was being done in their name. As explained by the only historian in Shoah, the reason this was so easy to do was that every other thing done to the Jews by the Nazis was old hat in Europe. Basically anything up to the actual "final solution" had been done before, so most Europeans basically said "Here we go again." Perhaps more difficult to conceive of is what he indicates that this means - up until this point, the Nazi bureaucrats did not need to make their personal mark on what they were being asked to do. It was only when they were asked to commit the greatest organized crime against humanity perhaps in history that they needed to think outside the box. Because the secret needed to be kept, nothing could be detailed in communication from the leaders to the field, which meant they were somewhat on their own. The Holocaust was, in essence, a triumph of middle management.

Everyone should see Shoah, but don't ever see Shoah. It's a terrible truth that once it's known you can't forget. It's history made eternally relevant, a social service that is invaluable. It's hopefully something we'll never need, but it's vital to have it on reserve. It's also a living thing, cinema that sinks into you even in its most static, uncinematic moments. Roger Ebert said it shouldn't be judged against other movies and vice versa, and I know exactly what he means. As a film, it would rank with the greatest ever made. But there are no films to rank it with. There is only Shoah.

Monday, September 2, 2013

#669: Charulata

(Satyajit Ray, 1965)

It was unlikely that Charulata would impress me as much as The Big City did, but ultimately these are two very different movies, despite sharing a star and a director. Madhari Mukherjee here plays a woman totally separated from her character in The Big City. Although the two films share Ray's sympathetic perspective on the female condition, Mukherjee's character here is more akin to the titular character of The Earrings of Madame de..., secure in her wealth, but trapped in her life. Ray's work here is flashier, too - though of course nowhere near Ophüls level excess - most obviously in the film's enigmatic and stylized final moments meant to pay tribute to the source material's open ending.

Despite the beautiful and lyrical direction, Charulata is ultimately less satisfying for me than The Big City because of its overwhelming melodrama. The climax seems so overblown that I had a hard time reaching the emotional epiphany Mukherjee's character does, unlike the similar moments in The Big City. It's important, too, to note the similarities between this film and The Music Room. Like that early Ray masterpiece, Charulata uses a palace as a prison, deftly winding his way through its rooms and slowly but forcefully demonstrating the inevitable doom of the ruling classes of India's past. The main character in each film is very different, but both are perfectly calibrated for what each film wants to say.

I think Charulata might grow on me with subsequent viewings, but for now it ranks a notch below the other two Ray films currently in the Collection. Of course, I continue to anticipate many more films being added from this master, just as I hope Ray is not the only Indian to receive such attention.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

#668: The Big City

(Satyajit Ray, 1963)

I loved The Music Room far more than I expected to, but it took watching The Big City for me to give Satyajit Ray the respect he deserves. At this point, I've only seen three Ray films: The Music Room, Pather Panchali, and The Big City, but it's the last one which showed me what I should have known already - Ray is his country's Kurosawa, a master humanist and technician whose ability to craft a reflection of his society into universally understood cinema was rarely matched in cinema history. The Big City is such an impressive work of art that it's almost criminal that I have been kept from it for so long. Certainly, as I wrote in my review of Ray's first entry in the Collection, his omission from the Western canon has been long overdue for correction, and while non-Japanese Asian cinema has leaked into American movie culture in slow drips (mostly due to Hong Kong's love affair with the shoot-em-up action movie), India has for too long been ignored with only Ray's Apu Trilogy mentioned in hushed tones.

The Big City is a great film for many number of reasons, but what I most loved about it was Ray's ability to depict a fully fleshed out female character who is certainly empowered and brave, but often scared and uncomfortable and always conflicted in her new modern role. Despite the fact that she stayed within her own country, I was often reminded of was El Norte, a movie about a changing culture struck by economic desperation that really couldn't be more different in terms of specifics. But the component both share in spades is humanity, an acute sense of these people and sympathy for their struggles. Ray's film is especially noteworthy because he chose to focus on a woman (who is by the way played by the startlingly beautiful Madhabi Mukherjee, whose screen presence rivals Setsuko Hara and Barbara Stanwyck) and tailored his film to make a specific point about gender relations in an evolving India post-revolution. When combined with the contempt Ray's story has for Mukherjee's father-in-law, his feminist perspective is crystal clear, and his desire to modernize India at this early stage in its development should be eye-opening to anyone unfamiliar with India's history. But it's the way he tells the story that is so impressive.

The Big City isn't perfect. There are moments that play too melodramatic, and I don't know that I entirely buy the husband's turnaround in the final moments of the film, as well-intentioned as it was. But these choices are intentional and point towards Ray's focus on appealing to his audience rather than preach to them. The Big City is not a radical film, which is part of what makes it so noteworthy socially. It's Ray's quiet self-assurance that makes it so impressive technically, and this masterful touch and clear intention manifested in such pure form that elevates him to the ranks of the great directors. Quite clearly, The Big City is Criterion's call for Ray's immortality.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

#678: La Notte

(Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961)

I watched La Notte years ago while struggling to come to terms with Antonioni - at the time, I was obsessed with Blow-Up, but found L'Avventura puzzling and dull - but I remember little of it and I actually think I probably fell asleep halfway through. This doesn't really matter, but I mention it because I probably wouldn't have liked the film anyway as I was certainly too young to understand the sadness and longing in the film. Made just a year after Antonioni's masterpiece, La Notte maintains the same tone and modernist perspective, but in every other way feels like it was made by an artist twenty years older. It's Autumn to L'Avventura's Summer.

La Notte is more actor-driven than its better-known older sibling. This is partially because the film is more specific to its characters, but its mainly due to the presence of three iconic actors: Jeanne Moreau, Marcello Mastroianni, and Antonioni's muse Monica Vitti. They are all wonderful here, and they make the movie a more immediately engaging film than L'Avventura, even if it is more subtle and less audacious. I love Moreau to death in Jules and Jim, but her character her is equally engaging and yet very different. The final scene is so emotional and real, a perfect ending.

La Notte is perhaps best compared to Kubrick's final masterpiece, Eyes Wide Shut. Both films revolve around a married couple that has lost their passion for each other. They have reached the point where intimacy becomes dullness. One night throws all of that into disarray, and they are left with only one option - fucking. The films are equally dark, but La Notte never feels like the dream Eyes Wide Shut is constantly flirting with. It's a very real film, but with a sharp psychological edge that makes it a compelling portrait of a broken marriage and two lonely people desperate for a connection. It might not have the remarkable vision and ambition of L'Avventura, but its a masterpiece in its own right.

Monday, August 12, 2013

#661: Marketa Lazarová

(František Vlácil, 1967)

Marketa Lazarová is a beautiful film - perhaps one of the most beautiful in the Collection. Unfortunately, it's also extremely opaque and complex, making it a difficult film to fully comprehend on a first watch. In fact, I watched the film nearly a month ago, but every time I go to write a review I end up being somewhat unsure of what I watched, which leads me to seek out one more article about it online to read more about its creation and reception.

There are two things that immediately jump out at me about this once-forgotten Czech film that has slowly become one of the most praised in its country and, with this release especially, is now ready to enter the canon of world cinema. The first is just how poorly acted the film is, particularly in comparison to its expert filmmaking. Seeing a truly gorgeous and masterfully directed movie featuring actors who frequently take you out of the film is a strange experience, a study in contrasts when the limitations of auteurism are laid bare. When you are working with people that really shouldn't be in movies, even the greatest cinematography can't cover it up.

Second, seeing the film in its modern context - and essentially watching a movie being elevated to the near-upper echelon of cinema - is fascinating, especially when it's a film I didn't especially care for. Part of my negative feelings toward it certainly come from my own limitations with these types of historical, highly literate and impressionistic narratives. Alexander Nevsky, another difficult presumed masterpiece from behind the Iron Curtain, springs to mind as a comparison - though that film has long been in the canon, while this one is merely storming the gates. But I think another big part of it is just my lack of engagement with the story, which I find extremely antiquated and almost wholly irrelevant to modern times. For this reason, its elevation over the last decade fascinates me because it is clearly not coming from a reassessment of the film's relevance (like, say, Vertigo) but rather from a new appreciation of its technique, and a sort of intellectual guilt over the idea that it was once passed over by the cultural gatekeepers.

Marketa Lazarová is certainly worth seeing (it's on Hulu), if only for how breathtaking its visuals are. But the vast majority of people are going to have a difficult time hanging with the narrative, if only because it's difficult to see from outside its cultural context how the film can possibly connect on an emotional level.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

#655: Pierre Etaix

(Pierre Etaix, 1963-1971)

Criterion's Pierre Etaix boxset is going to be a revelation for just about anyone interested in digging into it. As a filmmaker, Etaix ranks somewhere between "occasionally listed as influential" and "totally forgotten," especially considering the fact that he hails from one of the highest profile cinematic countries. But a combination of rights issues, poor championing, and a career that existed primarily during an era when his light touch was not in line with the dominant radical tastes of the cinematic elite has left Etaix in a position totally undeserving of his talent. This set should reverse that.

While I wouldn't put Etaix on quite the same level as Tati, the comparison is not without merit. Both directors have relatively small catalogs, and both operate in light, mostly visual humor with a sharp satirical bend that gives their work more heft. At his best, most specifically with Yoyo, the absolute masterpiece in the set and a solid candidate for best comedy of the 60s, Etaix can rival Tati in his deft delivery and execution. Some jokes in these films are truly sublime - as a part-time comedian, I found myself in awe of Etaix's ideas and ability to execute them multiple times. This is comedy in its highest form.

Of the five full-length films included here, the only one I didn't especially care for was The Land of Milk and Honey. After a promising opening, the footage Etaix shot never really comes together. And his talent lies in his impeccable execution so much that the documentary format takes away from his perfectionism, making him less special. His four fiction full-length are pretty consistently enjoyable, even As Long As You've Got Your Health, which is essentially a series of mostly silent shorts cobbled together. As a whole body of work, it's extremely impressive, and while his style is somewhat tied to his era, it would have been really wonderful to see him evolve into the 70s, 80s, and even 90s (Etaix is still alive, and contributes to the box). As it stands, this must be one of the most underrated comedic voices in film. Don't overlook this set.

Monday, July 29, 2013

#336: Dazed and Confused

(Richard Linklater, 1993)

Dazed and Confused is one of the unusual pop culture artifacts that is both nostalgic and, with the passage of time, itself a piece of nostalgia. Richard Linklater wrote the film in his mid-thirties as an ode to his high school experience in the 1970s, but upon its release the film was embraced by teenagers who identified with the bell-bottoms, long hair, and pot culture in a time when kids were desperate to reject their 80s upbringing. It subsequently became a defining work of the 1990s - no movie other than perhaps Clueless represents my generation of teenagers more effectively, a feat that seems totally ironic considering its dedication to its setting. (Note, too, that Clueless is based on Jane Austen's "Emma" - and what says more about the post-modern 90s than that?)

This achievement is less surprising when you consider how honest and loyally crafted Dazed and Confused is. Though he clearly has the cynical, destructive 80s in mind (most obviously when Marissa Ribisi theorizes that the 80s will be amazing - a clear knowing wink), Linklater never succumbs to the sort of saccharine nostalgia for innocence that George Lucas's American Graffiti is beholden to with regards to the pre-Vietnam War era. Likewise, his ability to shuttle between social strata and lend them all the same level of attention to detail and dignity is remarkable, even more so when considering how rarely this has actually been achieved. Adam Goldberg's nerd and Sasha Jenson's meathead are crafted with equal care for their intelligence and relative sophistication. It would seem unlikely that anyone who sees Dazed and Confused would be unable to recognize at least part of themselves in one or more of these vivid characters.

I've seen Dazed and Confused more times than I can count, but this most recent viewing was the first in years. I was struck by how impressed I was with the filmmaking, particularly from a storytelling perspective. Despite including multiple storylines, Linklater managed to structure the film seamlessly, giving everyone their moments without bumps in the film's momentum. The characters are well-established both through dialog and direction. Framing and establishing shots are carefully selected to hammer home each world with which Linklater is concerned. But there's also a quirkiness that emphasizes Linklater's personal connection to and love for his characters. Linklater is not often mentioned as an influence on Wes Anderson, another Texas director - though less often linked to the state, but the connection came to mind frequently while watching Dazed and Confused.

Linklater's work can often be dismissed as slight and undeserving of serious reflection, even if his movies are almost without fail intellectually stimulating. I think a big part of this is his unambitious scale; with very few exceptions, Linklater mainly focuses on average, thoroughly human characters doing average, thoroughly human things. His core masterpieces, the two Before films (I have yet to see the third), hardly concern themselves with any characters beyond the two leads, while even conventional story structure falls by the wayside. Though Dazed and Confused is similarly narratively loose, the film's format is recognizable to anyone who has seen compressed-time coming-of-age films, and this can make it seem a lot less revolutionary and a lot more specific to its time and place (both in setting and release). Hopefully, this won't prevent new generations of movie lovers from discovering the film, because it deserves a place as one of the fine films about adolescence, even after its nostalgic appeal has faded.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

#676: I Married a Witch

(Rene Clair, 1942)

I Married a Witch is a light, entirely harmless movie that doesn't deserve a full Criterion release. As one of the few films Rene Clair made in Hollywood and one of the better Veronica Lake movies (not saying a lot), its presence on the Hulu Criterion page (where I watched it last night after its release was announced) is worthwhile. But the film simply can't compare to Clair's earlier work in France, and Lake's only other film in the Collection, Sullivan's Travels, is far superior.

In fact, there's not much to say about I Married a Witch. The film is vaguely a screwball comedy, though none of the characters are particularly clever or funny and the plot is extremely simple. The premise - a man who burns a witch at the stake condemns his male descendants to always marrying the wrong woman - is actually a pretty good idea for a film. But the execution never really exploits this concept, and the movie simply devolves into Veronica Lake trying to ruin a man's life but falling in love with him in the process.

There are certainly moments where Clair's touch shines through (mostly in the early scenes before the modern setting is revealed), and at 77 minutes the movie is never dull. But the movie suffers from two stars who are not especially funny, and I can probably think of 20 comedies from the same era off the top of my head that are more appealing and more deserving of Criterion's attention. I hesitate to say I Married a Witch is the worst film Criterion has released in recent memory (Life During Wartime comes to mind) but it's certainly the slightest release they've had in quite some time. Even when compared to a mixed comedy like Design for Living, I Married a Witch can't measure up.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

#672: 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman

(Roberto Rossellini, 1950-54)

Rossellini is about to become the only director with two spine-numbered boxsets in the Collection, a designation that's well-deserved. The director is often overlooked on lists of the best filmmakers ever - even Italy has produced a number of filmmakers that often get mentioned before him, such as Fellini, Antonioni, and De Sica - but his influence on modern film, especially in Europe, cannot be overstated. The three films in this boxset were made during his most notorious era, when he met Ingrid Bergman and began an affair with her, despite the fact that both were married to other people at the time.

3 Films by Roberto Rossellini has no chance of measuring up to its cousin and Criterion's #500 spine, Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy, which contains three of the most significant films in history. The movie that comes closest is Journey to Italy, the third film in the set and ironically the least ambitious. Although it shares a late epiphany with Stromboli and some drawing room melodrama with Europe '51, the film is much more mature and restrained than either of the other films in this box. It's also a deep and complex examination of marriage and generally knowing a person too well. Kiarostami was heavily influenced by the film when he made Certified Copy, one of the great films of the last decade, and I wouldn't be surprised if it ranked high on Antonioni's list either.

Criterion is still doing a giant service with this set. All three of these films have been unfairly neglected (none were originally hits) and the only available prints or discs were in shoddy condition. I'm excited to see the finished product, especially with regards to Journey to Italy, which I would say is one of the great overlooked films of the post-war era.

Links to individual reviews:

Stromboli
Europe '51
Journey to Italy

#674: Europe '51

(Roberto Rossellini, 1952)

Europe '51 is one of the oddest films by a major director in the Collection. The movie is a cross between an upperclass melodrama and a religious parable; at times I was reminded of The Passion of Joan of Arc, All That Heaven Allows, The Flowers of St. Francis, and Secret Sunshine, four very different Criterion films. The story centers around Ingrid Bergman's self-absorbed society lady character, a woman more concerned with her dinner party going off without a hitch than with her son's anxiety and need for attention. When tragedy strikes, she falls into a deep depression, only broken when she transforms her life into a sacrifice for other people.

The strangest thing about Europe '51 is the push and pull between the heavy-handed political statement and the equally purple soap opera of Bergman's family life deteriorating. The politics of the film are notably more engaging than the melodrama, mainly because Rossellini doesn't seem especially interested in the latter. His camera work is reminiscent of Vittorio De Sica's in his earlier The Children Are Watching Us, but it's not nearly as visually appealing and often feels more like a TV drama than something made by the same person who filmed the memorable tuna fishing in Stromboli. His anointing of Bergman with all types of martyr imagery is equally ham-fisted, if somewhat more enjoyable.

Europe '51 is the only film in the upcoming Rossellini/Bergman boxset that is not available on Hulu, and it's probably no coincidence that it's by far the least important or impressive. That said, it still has its occasional charms, and is worth viewing for any fan of the two. It also features an unexpected treat in seeing Ingrid Bergman and Guiletta Masina share the screen, which alone makes it a special moment in film history.

Monday, July 8, 2013

#65: Rushmore

(Wes Anderson, 1998)

There are only a handful of movies in the Criterion Collection I've seen more than Rushmore, yet I haven't put it on in at least four years, since I'm just getting around to writing about it now. This is probably the longest I've gone without seeing it since its release in 1998, opening night in Century City, where it was running for one week to allow Bill Murray to qualify for the Oscars (his snub for this performance remains a total joke). Having seen the film so many times, it's hard to remember what my first response was to it beyond loving it - I do remember that as a budding Kinks fan the soundtrack was especially impressive - but in multiple viewings since I've come to believe there are few movies as successfully executed as this little character piece. Wes Anderson was only 29 when he made it, but his skill and - perhaps even more importantly - his discipline as a filmmaker were already fully formed. His use of flat perspective mixed with subtle handheld work merged an indie aesthetic with a distinct storytelling visual palate that allowed the tone of the film to match up perfectly with its cinematography; Anderson is at once highly stylistic and not at all flashy, twee for the indie generation but devoid of his later films' preciousness (detractors would argue with this last point, but comparatively there's no contest).

Although Anderson's sure hand (and his and Owen Wilson's vision of the story) is what makes Rushmore so impressive from a filmmaking perspective, the movie is largely held together by two impressive performances. It would be entirely impossible to imagine anyone as Max Fischer other than Jason Schwartzman, who inhabits the role so much that he's been trying to run away from it ever since to no avail. Meanwhile, Bill Murray is so funny, so heartbreaking, and so lovable that he's been using the same routine for the last fifteen years, nearly winning an Oscar for a far inferior film in the process. The relationship between the two characters manages to feel authentic and natural without much in the way of exposition; this is mainly thanks to Murray, who looks at Schwartzman with an endearing stare of bemusement and longing - for his own youth just as much as for Schwartzman's. He loves Max because he understands him, but he also envies his naïveté and courage. He wants to be Max far more than Max wants to be him, even after he gets the girl.

Rushmore is not the towering achievement many of the best films in the Criterion Collection manage to be, yet it is one of the few perfect films in the set. It's especially impressive because it's lack of ambition never gets in the way of the power of its story. Over the past decade and a half, this has turned out to be the key to Wes Anderson's immense talent; Max says early on in Rushmore that "I guess you just gotta find something you love to do and do it for the rest of your life. For me that's going to Rushmore." For Anderson, it's producing quirky semi-nostalgic character portraits of characters struggling with their identities (usually wrapped up in parent issues). There is a case to be made that the messy but brilliant The Royal Tennenbaums is Anderson's crowning achievement, but every film he's made after Rushmore is a response to this one, because it is a perfect execution of his voice. There were probably only two other filmmakers who produced great, truly unique work in the US in the 90s, not coincidentally also with their second features: Quentin Tarantino with Pulp Fiction and Paul Thomas Anderson with Boogie Nights. Both of those films are great, but unquestionably messy affairs - it's Wes Anderson with his quiet story and dogged focus who produced the exact film he intended to make. Although its reputation has been somewhat diminished by complaints that his style has devolved into a schtick, what's actually onscreen never fails to enchant, and the director's choices for set design, costumes, music, and even cinematography make the film as timeless as it seemed when it was first released. Rushmore is one of the best-known and most-owned films in the Collection, but even that assessment understates its value to the series. It's the gold standard for contemporary film for Criterion, and fifteen years later it's every bit the masterpiece it appeared to be upon its release.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

#673: Stromboli

(Roberto Rossellini, 1950)

Stromboli is a metaphor for itself. Although she was born in Europe, Ingrid Begman was perhaps the most glamorous Hollywood star of the 1940s. By the time Stromboli was made, Bergman was only 35 and had already had a string of successes, including two of the best movies ever made, the perfect Notorious and the incomparable Casablanca. Roberto Rossellini was equally accomplished, having finished his War Trilogy and perhaps single-handedly ushered in a new era in filmmaking. But the director's neo-realist style was practically defined in opposition to the Hollywood films that Bergman made; they were a supremely unlikely pairing.

This is reflected in the film - Rossellini's only Hollywood-backed feature. Bergman plays a Lithuanian refugee desperate to leave Europe for a better life in Argentina. When she is denied passage, she accepts a marriage proposal from a young Italian solider, who promises to take her back to his charming Italian island in the beautiful Mediterranean. The island turns out to be an active volcano, with only a few small villages with meager wages from fishing. The moment Bergman gets there she wants to leave.

Stromboli is about worlds colliding: the expectations of a young woman who dreams of something better for herself and the resigned but indignant fortitude of the peasants who populate a small and inhospitable bit of land far removed from the centers of society. But what shows up on screen is impossible to ignore - Bergman, looking just as strikingly beautiful as ever, standing in for all of Hollywood and everything shimmering and soaring within it, desperate to escape the neo-realist hell she has been unceremoniously plopped down into without any hope of escaping. It's this combination that makes the film so striking, in a way that the later collaboration between the two artists (and lovers) Voyage to Italy isn't at all. Bergman even acts the way you would expect Hollywood to act - don't get me wrong, this isn't Did You Hear About the Morgans?, but Bergman does sort of flop around petulantly, flinging her sexuality at whatever man she can find, desperate to use them to achieve her goals. Not that the neo-realists come off any better - Bergman's husband is abusive, while his fellow villagers couldn't be bothered to have empathy for puppy that was drowning if it was doing it in an improper way.

This parallel level of conflict, however, makes the movie even more compelling, and the battle between Hollywood and the Other is deeply felt in the film's final moments, which do more to point the way toward Antonioni's early 60s work than anything I've ever seen. Bergman's volcano epiphany lends her character more closure than Antonioni's protagonists, of course, something also true of the similarly proto-modernist Voyage to Italy, but the way Rossellini uses the landscape to mirror Bergman's internal struggle and ultimately merges her strife with the inevitability of nature is certainly a lead-in to Antonioni and similar European directors who would emerge from the neo-realist soil.

Stromboli also has brilliant moments that come unrelated to the oddness of Bergman's presence. The most notable is obviously the tuna fishing scene, which is simultaneously horrifying and mesmerizing. This one scene does more to explain the experience of living on the islands of the Mediterranean than maybe anything I've ever seen, and it's quintessential neo-realism. The difficulty of Bergman's character makes the film sometimes difficult to watch - even as someone who loves her more than maybe any other actress ever - but Rossellini's sure hand makes it a well-spent hour and a half at the movies.

Monday, June 24, 2013

#518: By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volumes One and Two

(Stan Brakhage, 1954-2003)

This is ostensibly a review of the double collection of By Brakhage that Criterion released in 2010, just five months after I began this blog. What it really is, however, is a post about how nearly four years later, after 476 posts, I have now seen every Criterion movie with a spine number up to #654. Of the movies released or announced, I only have eight spine numbers left to check off my list - only two of these are currently in stores (and I'm halfway done with Pierre Etaix, which would bring me up to #660).

I honestly never thought I would get here - I started this blog in 2009 with the intention of watching maybe three or four a month and never really getting anywhere. But with the addition of so many Criterion movies on Netflix - and then the explosion when they joined up with Hulu - along with the increasing pleasure of being exposed to so many of what are now my favorite movies ever, I quickly escalated my pace until I reached this point. When you have a number like 250 or even 75 staring at you, you start to wonder if you'll ever get there (and if your marriage will survive - thanks for staying with me, Audrey, even if it meant one more samurai movie!) and if you really didn't bite off more than you could chew.

Since I started this journey I bought a condo, became a father (and watched all 15 hours of The Human Condition while he napped on me!), and wrote approximately 200,000 words on the films I love - five times the number of words in my first draft of my book on Illmatic and probably 20 times the number of words on Penguin. This is a staggering amount of work when I step back and look at it, one that amounts to my intellectual journey over the past four years as both a film watcher and a writer.

I will continue to post here, but I assume it will be less frequently (something that's really already happened) - I hope to keep up with new releases as they come (I have the rest of Etaix cued up, and then Marketa Lavarova when I find enough time to carve out), and I'm excited to see what the future holds for Criterion in the all-digital age. I hope anyone who has dropped in here at any time has at the very least gotten my enthusiasm for what value the Collection provides and my willingness to have an open mind towards even the least-likely appealing films I have been subjected to.

Anyway, this all seems a little out-of-proportion for my silly little online journal, but after so long, I knew I needed to mark this ending in some way. As a wiserich man once said, "Done, on to the next one!"

Links to individual reviews:

Volume One
Volume Two

#517: By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume Two

(Stan Brakhage, 1955-2003)

Volume two of Criterion's most significant collection of experimental films is twice as long as volume one and considerably more challenging. The set lacks the lineup of high-profile pieces like Window Water Baby Moving, The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes and Dogstar Man that made the first anthology so significant, but the combination of the two volumes represents one of the most significant collections of experimental film available on blu-ray in the US (a market that is extremely lacking - note that Maya Deren, arguably the most significant American experimental filmmaker in history, lacks any films that have been made available on the newer format).

Still, with substantially more lengthy pieces on volume two, this collection is much more difficult to wade through. I loved the first volume, but I am not a huge experimental film fan and the genre is not really made for home viewing, where slow works mean more distractions have the chance to seep in and you being to wonder how much more time is left in this one before the next one comes on and maybe you'll just check your email again real quick and oh, is that a link to a new article about, etc. I blazed through the first set in under a week - this one took me nearly six months.

That shouldn't discourage fans of the first set from seeking out this one (and really, if you have a blu-ray player, why not buy the whole box?) but it does indicate that most of what is here feels more like minor Brakhage. There are certainly some great pieces, whether it's the kinetic climax of The Domain of the Moment or the sprawling politics of the multi-part Visions in Meditation. But too often these films feel like they were meant to be seen in bits and pieces rather than in one continuous viewing. Although it makes me feel like a classic American, anything over fifteen minutes here had me wondering at one point or another how much longer it was going to be. Perhaps I want to like experimental film more than I do, or perhaps I just resist something lacking any semblance of a narrative when it moves beyond a short piece into something resembling acts. Either way, I was much less taken by this volume, even if I continue to be grateful that Criterion dedicates itself to project like this.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

#662: Safety Last!

(Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, 1923)

For some reason I had never seen a Harold Lloyd film in full until I finally got around to Safety Last this week. This is not the case with Woody Allen, who clearly knows this film and Lloyd's character the Glass (whose name in the movie really is Harold Lloyd) extremely well. In fact, as much as I immediately fell in love with the humor and suspense of the film, what I was really blown away by was how much of Woody Allen's style had been influenced by Lloyd.

This might seem surprising to the casual viewer, as Allen is generally known as a verbal comedian most obviously influenced by Groucho Marx (with a perhaps more unabashedly Jewish intellectual bend - I mean this in a good way, btw). But in reality, Allen's work has always had a strong visual component, from his first film, Take the Money and Run, where Allen plays cello in a marching band (think about it) to his best films like Manhattan where Allen casually reaches into the pond in Central Park and pulls out a fistful of muck. These jokes share a clever playfulness and self-deprecating tone that isn't present in Chaplin's wistful musings or Keaton's set pieces - often dedicated to their creator's ingenuity rather than his clumsiness - but is all over Lloyd's style here. Allen's affectations, too, often seem directly lifted from the earlier actor: his knowing looks at the audience, his anxiety around impressing women, his loving jabs at women too stuffy or men too brutish - all these behaviors are manifested in Safety Last and throughout Allen's career. For a huge Woody Allen fan like myself, this discovery was quite significant.

Fortunately, Safety Last is so good that it would be impossible for it to be totally overshadowed. This is undeniably one of the towering classics of the silent comedy era. Similar to (the greatest of them all) The General, it also works as a suspenseful adventure as well, especially in the last sequence, which is impossible to avoid getting wrapped up in. It's funny how Hollywood can spend $200 million on cartoons fighting each other in space as explosions go off around them and one guy climbing a building 90 years ago can be far more suspenseful and thrilling - but here I go getting old man on everybody!

What I really love about Safety Last ultimately are the little things - the gags and winks to the audience that are the true genius of the film, surrounded by an elementary plot and awkward devices that would be at home in a Mickey Mouse cartoon (the forced way the film gets Lloyd's friend set up as wanted by the police is maybe the best example). These gems range from Lloyd straightening his hair using his (superimposed) reflection on a bald man's head to the clever way in which Lloyd's name is incorporated into the film. Keaton was perhaps the master of using the medium as a tool in his joke kit, but Safety Last makes it clear that this sensibility was very much established across the silent era.

Criterion has always been dedicated to silent cinema, as indicated by its early releases of masterpieces like Nanook of the North and The Passion of Joan of Arc. But recent years have seen a redoubling of this dedication, most notably with their impeccable Von Sternberg boxset and their Chaplin acquisitions but also with relatively lesser-known gems like Lonesome and The Phantom Carriage. Safety Last may be their most significant recent silent release, though, simply because it walks the line between the iconic status of Chaplin's work (which of course was never in danger of being forgotten) and the artistic ingenuity of Lonesome (which is nevertheless a more minor film). It's just the kind of movie Criterion was created to release.

Two side notes about the cover: 1)Though a lot of work probably went into certain elements, my guess is that few covers have had as unquestionable an image selection as this one - there were simply no other reasonable options. 2) Is this the only cover in the collection that does not feature the name of the director of the film? edit: just thought of one - The Game. But still, it's pretty rare.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

#658: Medium Cool

(Haskell Wexler, 1969)

In some ways, Medium Cool is a close relative of many of the other American films in the Collection from the same era. The BBS boxset, particularly A Safe Place and its crown jewel, Easy Rider, along with Two-Lane Blacktop are personal movies that are simultaneously trying to say something, both about film and the world at the time. Medium Cool fits nicely into this style in a lot of ways.

But there's something else about Wexler's film that sets it apart: its flirtation with the documentary genre that leads the film towards a much grayer cinematic landscape. The footage taken at the DNC in Chicago is the centerpiece of the film, and it's therefore where it lives or dies, depending on your tolerance for docu/drama style and tone.

As might be expected from Wexler, the film is much more beautiful than it has any business being.The mix of real and pseudo documentary footage with a variety of more obvious narrative scenes is seamlessly blended, and Wexler's ability to maintain a steady eye across a wide range of characters and settings is quite impressive. Robert Forster, meanwhile, might not be a star, but he carries the film with a hefty presence that reminded me of what Tarantino saw in him when he tried to resurrect his career 15 years ago.

Despite these positives, the film takes a while to build up any narrative momentum, and Wexler seems much more interested in capturing the broad range of life in Chicago in the late 60s than he does in telling a compelling and economic story. This makes the movie much more interesting for its value as a document of its time than for its story or any interesting combination of the two.

By the way, does anyone else see bacon in a frying pan in the cover? Or was that the intention?

Friday, May 31, 2013

#659: Life Is Sweet

(Mike Leigh, 1990)

I'm not a Mike Leigh fan. Tangentially descended from the Cassavetes line of filmmakers, Leigh brings that unique brand of quirky humor and working-class angst to the classic style of amorphous plots, semi-improvised dialog, and an emphasis on human interaction over story action. Whether or not you like his films will most likely depend on how much you like his style, because the movies don't offer many other ways into the story.

Given, this can be said of many of the greatest directors ever, most notably Yasujiro Ozu. My recently discovered love of Ozu is a big reason why I'll keep giving Leigh a try. But another big reason is that there are moments in all of his films - and I've seen nearly all of them since this one, his breakthrough work - where sunlight breaks through and his characters are exposed in all their messy beauty. In Life Is Sweet, it happens near the end of the film, when the mother has finally had enough of her troubled daughter's empty life. Their exchange is so honest and heartbreaking that it's instantly recognizable to any parent or child, regardless of how different it is from your own situation.

That's where Leigh shines, finding the parallel humanity regardless of his subject matter. Still, his movies are so intentionally messy and small that I have a hard time sticking with them through their running times. Life Is Sweet is a really good movie, but it's not the kind of movie that gets me excited.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

#656: Jubal

(1956, Delmer Daves)

Of the two Daves Western added to the Collection this month, Jubal is both the lesser-known and the lesser. Although the story is rooted in a complex story of jealousy and love that would have, as Criterion mentions, fit right into a Shakespeare tragedy, it's disconnection with core Western themes and an absence of any real social commentary makes it a fairly disposable installment in the genre.

But if the movie doesn't quite measure up to it's follow-up, 3:10 to Yuma, its performances nearly do. Ernest Borgnine and Rod Steiger in particular are really great in secondary roles, but Glenn Ford holds his own in the lead. It's also interesting to see Borgnine and Steiger in the same movie since Borgnine is probably most famous for Marty, the Oscar winning movie in which he played the titular role - a role originated on TV (in a show included in the CC Golden Age of Television boxset) by Rod Steiger.

After watching Ford in these two movies, I definitely see his appeal, but it also cements his place for me as a second tier star. He's unquestionably attractive and his acting chops are there, but he lacks the onscreen presence of the great established stars of his time (e.g. Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant) or even the younger up-and-comers like Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. His performance here is serviceable, but doesn't feel big enough to carry the movie and create a center of gravity for the other characters. In this way, he reminds me of Alan Ladd in Shane, an overrated movie that might have been a true classic with a stronger lead. Jubal isn't that good of a movie, but it might have been more memorable with someone else in the lead role. As it stands it's a solid Western, but it's not much of a surprise that the film has been overlooked until now.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

#657: 3:10 to Yuma

(Delmer Daves, 1957)

3:10 to Yuma is probably best known at this point as the original version of the recent Western starring Russel Crowe and Christian Bale. This makes a release of the first version a perfect occasion to forget about that history and focus on the film itself - something that is a real pleasure to do. Delmer Daves has been mostly forgotten in film history, especially as a director, since his most famous screenplay work was on Love Affair, which was directed by Leo McCarey. Prior to the remake of this Western five years ago which gave the original a higher profile, his highest profile film was probably Dark Passage, most notable as one of the few Bogart/Bacall onscreen team-ups and as one of those rare mainstream narrative films that spends much of the time with a first-person perspective.

3:10 to Yuma proves that Daves was better than mere gimmicks; this is a beautiful and striking film directed with razor precision both in terms of the way Daves deals with the suspense of the narrative and how he treats the Western iconography so familiar by 1957. The film's storytelling is intricate and sparse - more reminiscent of The Friends of Eddie Coyle than High Noon - which is not especially surprising considering the film is based on an Elmore Leonard story. Daves lets both his cast and his geography come to him, with only an overwrought (but typical of the era) score get in the way.

But the core strength of 3:10 to Yuma lies in the two performances at the center of the film. Although I've seen Glenn Ford here and there in a number of films (most notably Gilda) this has to be easily his best performance I've seen. My wife pointed out that his character has the same calm unpredictability that made Heath Ledger's Joker so effective in The Dark Knight, and while he might not rise to that level as an iconic villain, the film's success is largely due to his magnetism and air of danger and violence buried underneath the surface. Van Heflin, meanwhile, holds his own in a role fairly typical of his career at the time, when he spent more time in cowboys than out of them. His rancher has a dark side (enhanced by his wife's stereotypical and vaguely sexist prodding) that gives the film an added psychological kick.

It's probably the hint of darkness in both characters that makes the ending somewhat disappointing and unbelievable after what has come before. But the final sequence is filled with so much tension and executed so well that it's hard to fault the film too much for delivering the requisite happy ending. 3:10 to Yuma is a great addition to the criminally small but slowly expanding Criterion Western contingent.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

#653: Gate of Hell

(Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953)

Gate of Hell is most noteworthy for its visuals. As one of the first color films to be exported from Japan, the movie takes full advantage of its format by presenting costumes and sets that positively glow in vivid HD. The impact of these visuals has not been lessened by countless followers: the film's design aesthetic is even more impressive than the recent Criterion release The Ballad of Narayama, and ranks with Kwaidan as one of the most impressive uses of color I've seen out of Japan. I watched the film on Hulu, but I'm sure it looks even more spectacular on blu-ray.

Despite being overshadowed by the imagery, the film's story happens to be pretty intense and engaging. The combination of a truly fascinating political feud which emerges from the scandal and the descent into madness of the protagonist, who had previously seemed so selfless and rational, makes the movie gripping and almost archetypal in its depiction of the samurai mindset.

One interesting question is how much Morito's actions in the last act of the film are actually the result of his descent into obsessive love as opposed to insecurity at his embarrassment. The emperor and his court spend a lot of time ridiculing Morito and trivializing the predicament instead of cutting it off before it has time to fester. The fact that Morito didn't know the woman was married makes his initial intentions more pure and his later actions (after he has already been laughed at) less clear.

In some ways, Gate of Hell reminded me of Dangerous Liasons. There is a cynicism pervasive in the high classes here that dehumanizes the three people who are actually forced to deal with the love triangle at the center of their entertainment, and while Morito certainly symbolizes the potential for evil within the masculine and militaristic tendencies of the samurai (which per usual is a stand-in for Japanese culture as a whole), the men who surround the core characters seem to be portrayed in a light that is even more damning. This exploration of what is essentially male gossip might not help Gate of Hell achieve with its story what Kinugasa achieved visually, but it makes Gate of Hell a great watch, and more than just a pretty face.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

#664: The Life of Oharu

(Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952)

Most tragedies follow a basic template. A protagonist begins in a certain place - whether it's a normal steady place or immediately after something difficult has happened to them - and they encounter some sort of disaster that throws their world into chaos. The rest of the movie is spent dealing with that chaos, and the protagonist eventually either recovers or succumbs to their challenges in some way. A good recent example of a typical tragedy in the Collection is Secret Sunshine. A woman moves to her deceased husband's hometown to raise their child there when something horrible happens that propels her forward through a spiritual and existential journey. There are multiple heartrending moments in the film, but - like the majority of similar movies and stories of any kind - it's the one central tragedy around which the film revolves.

The Life of Oharu has perhaps ten, maybe even fifteen moments like this. Oharu is betrayed, misled, punished, humiliated, and victimized by random fate so frequently in the film that Mizoguchi's portrait nearly collapses under the weight of absurdity. Mizoguchi's steady hand and the main performance of Kinuyo Tanaka, who worked frequently with the director (she's in all of his films in the Collection), ultimately save the film from the type of sensationalism reserved for similar exploitation movies disguised as social commentary (see: Precious), but the comparisons are still evident. While Mizoguchi has honorable intentions, his portrayal of the plight of women in Japan has little of the complexity and sharp bite of Imamura or Oshima. This is mainly because the film is so melodramatic that it doesn't feel real, the message so obvious that it's hard to take away any applicable lesson.

By the way, this movie is really, really good. I know it doesn't sound like I think that, but it's beautiful and humanistic and it's impossible not to feel a strong attachment to Oharu. Each story within her journey ranges from moderately interesting to stirring enough to be the basis for its own film. And like Mizoguchi's poetic masterpiece Sansho the Bailiff, the film's imagery is lyrical and indicative of Japan's beautiful visual iconography. It's just that when you're finished, you're going to need a long bath.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

#409: Days of Heaven

(Terrence Malick, 1978)

Since I began this journey, all three of Terrence Malick's 20th century films have been added to the Criterion Collection. This is a major coup for the series, but it's also great for movie fans looking for superb renderings of three of the best films of modern American filmmaking. Malick is undoubtedly one of the great narrative film artists this country has produced, and perhaps more importantly one of the few truly unique ones.

All three movies are classics, but Days of Heaven is the one that stands out as perhaps the most beautiful movie ever made. I first saw it when I was around 19 or 20 after being told by one person or another (or perhaps after reading in one book or another) that it was "The Greatest Movie Ever Made." I've probably watched only a handful of movies with such a lofty recommendation in mind (Citizen Kane of course being the old standby rite of passage), and it can often make a first viewing somewhat disappointing with such high expectations. Days of Heaven was not disappointing.

The film is mainly known for its cinematography, and this is well-earned. It's not entirely clear who deserves the credit for the film as shot (it's credited to Nestor Almendros, but Haskell Wexler apparently shot a great deal of the finished product), but what's on screen is stunning. Shot mostly by daylight, often with the sun just setting behind the horizon, Days of Heaven often has the kind of otherworldly glow for which the term "magic hour" was created. But even scenes not shot during this brief time of day can dazzle, like the shot which follows a girl as she jumps down a pile of hay, briefly catching the glare of the sun as it goes, or - most certainly - the climactic fire which finally and violently fully severs the connection between Shepard's magnate and his wife and her lover. The Thin Red Line argues that the true crime of war is against nature, but Days of Heaven surely believes that nature will endure, its gentle indifference saving it every time.

As Malick begins to put out films at a faster pace (his latest, To The Wonder, just arrived on iTunes), it's worth remembering how mysterious and iconic Days of Heaven seemed in the twenty years that separated it from Malick's follow-up. Like other relatively recent Criterion releases Repo Man and Vanishing Point, it seems impossible to imagine a major studio greenlighting and bankrolling Days of Heaven, and the film's powerful and beautiful rhythm is seldom matched by anything even Malick has made since. It's not only his best film, it's one of the few movies I think is unquestionably essential viewing.

One last thing: It's also worth noting that Ennio Morricone did the score, and its one of his most evocative and underrated works. Obviously best known for his Western work, Morricone here uses a similar Americana tinge to pull out the timeless and allegorical qualities of the story. Despite the fact that it is not featured as prominently as some of his other scores, I'd put it on the same level as those.

Monday, April 8, 2013

#607: A Hollis Frampton Odyssey

(Hollis Frampton, Various)

If you count By Brakhage as one set, A Hollis Frampton Odyssey is only the second collection of experimental shorts in the Collection. On one hand, this is totally understandable; it's doubtful that these sets reach the kind of wide audience even an arthouse release like, say, Badlands reaches; I assume compiling a set like this requires an enormous amount of curation, work obtaining rights, and other behind the scenes efforts; and perhaps most importantly many of the greatest and/or most well-known experimental filmmakers have work that either isn't meant to be seen in one sitting (e.g. Andy Warhol) or simply doesn't translate to home viewing (e.g. Nam June Paik). Currently, the set is in just under 400 collections, placing it on the low end of the spectrum, especially for an in-print recent release.

Of course, none of this matters when examining the films that are included here, and when the set is evaluated on its own merits it's pretty special. Frampton's work is notably different from Brakhage's deeply personal and tactile films - though there is certainly an auto-biographical component to Frampton's films, most notably in one of the best included pieces, (nostalgia), in which Frampton has an actor read descriptions of photographs from his life as they are shown burning away on a hot plate. The twist of the film is that the description corresponds to the photograph shown after it, making the viewer work to reconcile what has been said with what is being shown, while retaining enough information to do the same with the subsequent photo. It's a frustrating juggling act as a viewer - though not nearly as frustrating as another film in the same series, Critical Mass. The film combines three of the least appealing things in existence: improvisational acting, lovers' spats, and dischordant editing for an interminable half hour of nails on a chalkboard. I barely made it through this cinematic equivalent of Metal Machine Music even after tuning out halfway through.

The core piece here is Frampton's masterpiece Zorns Lemma, which runs over an hour and is the only selection available on Hulu. It's a brilliant exploration of form that should be required viewing for artists interested in photography of any kind. The majority of the film is dedicated to shots of letters of the alphabet as found on signs in various fonts and conditions, often but not always in alphabetical order. This sounds dull, and it kind of is, but it's also beautiful and oddly inspired. Like the rest of Frampton's films, there's certainly more to the explanation of the film than I am providing, but I think it's important to approach work like this with a totally clear mind and then search out people far more dedicated and informed than me to explain it should the need arise. Most of the time, however, I prefer my gut response to non-linear film to the explanation of it, however correct or intelligent the explanation seems.

There are other shorts here, some more appealing than others, but every one interesting in its own right. Most importantly in terms of his inclusion in the Collection, Frampton infuses his work with much more humor than Brakhage (at least based on the first volume of the latter's work), providing a much needed counterpoint to broaden the range of experimental film represented. On the whole, I would say I prefer the Brakhage set, but this is still a great collection that shouldn't be overlooked by people who are open to this sort of thing.