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.

Friday, November 21, 2014

#693: La vie de bohème

(Aki Kaurismäki, 1992)

La Vie de Boheme is a delightful little movie that is meticulously realized. At its center are four great and understated performances, surrounded by a visual world that is half fairy tale, half realist. Adapted from the classic novel and moved into an alternate late 20th century, the film tells the story of three awful artists struggling to make something of their lives without sacrificing their art. Kaurismaki manages to avoid glamorizing their idealistic lives while still delivering admirable portraits of all three of them; he pokes fun at their mediocre work without belittling their ambition or their humanity.

Kaurismaki's work here reminded me strongly of two other Criterion directors: Wes Anderson and Mike Leigh. In many ways, Kaurismaki's work is just as stylized and ambitious as Anderson's, but La Vie de Boheme (and his more recent Le Havre) lack any of the precious self-awareness of even Anderson's best work. This primarily stems from his core humanism, a dogged determination to sympathize with his characters at all costs. Leigh has a similar affinity for his characters, but his films lack the whimsy of Kaurismaki, and often descend into tragedy. Even as Mimi lays dying at the end of La Vie, Kaurismaki's tone avoids this realm, shifting to a melancholic dream-like state that fits perfectly with the rest of the film.

I really loved this movie. Each shot is a beautiful and surreal portrait of these characters, and the way they relate to each other is endearing and often funny. Too frequently films of this nature are quickly digested and forgotten, while bigger, flashier, but not better movies end up getting the press. Every director should strive to make a film as beautiful as this contained but subtly genius work of art.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

#679: Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman

(Various, 1962-73)

This massive set represents the single biggest viewing challenge in the Criterion Collection to date. Twenty-five feature-length films, all with the same spine number. When it was announced, I felt a wave of resigned determination come over me. After all, I had just claimed victory in my Criterion battle, and had just three yet-to-be-released movies left before I had a clean slate. But here it was, nearly 40 hours of viewing time dumped on me in one fell swoop. Fortunately, these are really fucking good. Rather than dedicate just a few paragraphs to so many movies, I've decided to review them in order, immediately after I watch each one. I began writing this in August, 2013. Hopefully, you're not reading it in 2015. [Note: just made it!] I've bolded all the films that are worth watching if you don't plan on seeing the whole series.

The Tale of Zatoichi
(Kenji Misumi, 1962)

This movie is pure fun, the kind of film you can't help but want to watch. Yojimbo had just been released the previous year, and though this is not the cinematic tour de force that one was - after all, Kurosawa was at that point an international sensation at the height of his powers - it's nearly as entertaining. Misumi has a populist way with his camera, plunging into melodrama when needed yet exhibiting a perfect amount of restraint in the climactic fight sequence. As for the character of Zatoichi, it's easy to see why a franchise was built off of him. Like Mifune's ronin in Yojimbo, he is reserved but cunning and always a pleasure to watch and see what he does next. Getting through this collection is a major project that makes Berlin Alexanderplatz look like a walk in the park, but if every film is as entertaining as this one, I'm certainly going to enjoy the ride.

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues
(Kazuo Mori, 1962)

The second film in the Zatoichi series is not the first film's equal, most likely a victim of the rushed production after the original's surprise success. Obviously still indebted to the first movie but with an eye to future films in the series. Shintaro Katsu is just as charming, though, and the movie remains enjoyable throughout.

New Tale of Zatoichi
(Tokuzo Tanaka, 1963)

Number three is better than two, and features some really great moments, most notably when Ichi must roll dice to determine if he gets to keep his arm (spoiler alert: he still has two arms in the fourth movie). I don't know that I really bought that the person who taught this truly honorable dude would be such a scheming asshole, but as an installment in the series it worked pretty well. I am hoping later movies in the series have a little more style to them, as everything has been somewhat conservative up to this point, but overall I am definitely ready to keep going.

The Fugitive
(Tokuzo Tanaka, 1963)

The fourth film is the first not to have his name in the title (at least according to the subtitles) - and the first to repeat a director, as Tanaka also directed the third film. It's also probably my favorite movie in the series to date, mostly thanks to a totally kickass sword fight at the end between Zatoichi and a rival samurai. At this point, two things are clear about the series.

First, it's settled into a nice formula, which is basically that Zatoichi arrives in a new town where he quickly gets into trouble, often because his past catches up with him. What follows is Zatoichi peacefully trying to resolve that trouble before succumbing to killing everyone in sight. This naturally mucks things up with whichever woman had fallen in love with him or with which he has fallen in love, and Zatoichi is left once again to roam the countryside alone and one step ahead of trouble.

Second, though, is the series' continuity. Unlike a similarly long-running (though not as prolific) series like James Bond, Zatoichi has a continuing story that carries over from movie to movie. You can certainly watch any of them on their own at this point, but all three sequels to date have featured at least one other character from a previous film. This makes the series feel like less of a serial and more of television series, and in this context the boxset Criterion is releasing is not especially long. With most of the films coming in at less than 90 minutes, this 25 film set amounts to less than two seasons of a network drama. This is a much more comforting way to think about the road ahead, even if I'm certainly enjoying the journey.

On the Road
(Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1963)

Unless I'm forgetting someone, On the Road is the first film not to include any other characters from earlier films. It's also the most routine, though it's a fun routine, for sure. I'm definitely hoping the woman who is plotting revenge against Zatoichi is going to reappear in later films.

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold
(Kazuo Ikehiro, 1964)

The jump in filmmaking from On the Road to Chest of Gold is startling. Every film before this was directed in a serviceable manner - think of them as television episodes rather than cinema and you'll get the idea. There were a handful of flourishes here and there, but mostly the camera's job was to show you what was happening and help you understand the action. Kazuo Ikehiro's take on Zatoichi is akin to Cuaron's take on Harry Potter; he's reading between the lines and improvising in those spaces, while still retaining the basic rhythm and not straying too far from the familiar riff. This makes Chest of Gold the first truly cinematic installment. The script is less appealing than some of the earlier work, however, which keeps this from being my favorite in the series to date. But I'm interested in seeing where the series goes as it gets deeper into the 60s.

Zatoichi's Flashing Sword
(Kazuo Ikehiro, 1964)

Flashing Sword is one of the more violent installments to date - but that's not saying much considering the fact that the early films didn't show blood of any kind. The movie isn't as flashy as its predecessor, but there are some great stylistic flourishes, and one of the best moments in the series involving Ichi killing a bunch of dudes under water. The climax involving dark corridors and candles is also very well-executed, and brings some fresh fighting concepts to a series that in America would be quickly turning into a routine. Although the stories in the Zatoichi films have certainly settled into a formula (as has Shintaro Katsu's performance), there remains something new to offer viewers in each entry, even if you mostly know the dance.

Fight, Zatoichi, Fight!
(Kenji Masumi, 1964)

After a few out-of-the-box installments in Ichi's series, as directed by Kazuo Ikehiro, Kenji Misumi, director of the very first installment, takes back the reins in Fight, Zatoichi, Fight. While the results remain entertaining, this installment is the first to feel extraneous. Maybe it's the absurd baby-centric premise that has been used in countless films before and after (he even pees in his face - comedy!), or maybe it's that the one original fight sequence here - in which Ichi is attacked by men with torches to block out his hearing - fails to electrify and is shot in a rather pedestrian manner. There's still plenty to like here, but I'm hoping the next movie has a little bit more energy.

The Adventures of Zatoichi
(Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1964)

We are back on track with the ninth feature. Interesting backstory for Zatoichi with a potential reunion with his father combines with a standard but well-executed version of the typical Zatoichi-against-the-machine conflict, but the stand out here is the impeccably shot and totally fucking awesome sword fight in the climax. This is the second kick-ass faceoff in the series to rival anything I've seen in more "artistic" Japanese samurai films, and it's a real pleasure to see such great work in a simple studio product. Another note here: aside from the occasional honorable samurai (which Ichi inevitably has to kill) pretty much every guy in these movies other than Ichi himself is a real jerk. Weren't there any decent men in feudal Japan?

Zatoichi's Revenge
(Akira Inoue, 1965)

Another routine outing, though Akira Inoue does bring some interesting flashback/montage techniques into the mix. Shintaro Katsu gives a very strong performance in this entry, but the fight scenes are standard and the villains are so weak that there's hardly any suspense. A redeemable non-samurai man does finally show up, but he starts out trying to betray Zatoichi and only turns toward the light after being confronted by the swordsman. The entertainment is not as constant, but the spark is still there long enough to carry us through to the next installment.

Zatoichi and the Doomed Man
(Akira Inoue, 1965)

I took a long break from Zatoichi in between the last installment and this one, for no real reason other than life is busy. Coming back to it I am reminded how impressive the series is. This is the second movie in 1965 to feature the character, and yet they managed to deliver a fresh concept that makes this movie stand out from all before it. Here, what felt new was the character who decides to impersonate Zatoichi, a clever plot that builds on the challenges of the earlier movie but also serves as a shrewd reminder of how honorably the blind swordsman uses his powers. I'm not sure if the break renewed my vigor for the concept, but Zatoichi and the Doomed Man was one of the most fun offerings yet.

Zatoichi and the Chess Expert
(Kenji Misumi, 1965)

Despite an interesting premise, this was an average installment in the series that lacked any really compelling moments. I did enjoy Zatoichi's relationship with the chess player in the film, but it never really felt like anything beyond the typical Zatoichi movie.

Zatoichi's Vengeance
(Tokuzo Tanaka, 1966)

Tokuzo Tanaka directed one of my previous favorite movies in the series, The Fugitive, but Zatoichi's Vengeance felt much more routine. The key differentiating feature here was the blind monk that Zatoichi meets, who convinces him that he should not be corrupting the young boy Zatoichi must protect. This is a clever enough take on the series, but it doesn't go very far beyond that. Another good movie - and I probably liked this one slightly more than the last one - but nothing special.

Zatoichi's Pilgrimage
(Kazuo Ikehiro, 1966)

Zatoichi's Pilgrimage is the first movie in the Zatoichi series that I feel genuinely reaches classic status. This is a perfect execution of the concept and a stunningly beautiful movie, both emotionally and technically. The movie makes a statement early on with an opening sequence that ups the ante in terms of gore in the series when a thief gets his hand cut off, but the rest of the movie doesn't maintain this shock value, and instead turns into a confident retelling of the Zatoichi template. Zatoichi's Pilgramage often reminded me of the strongest episodes of my favorite television shows - not the ones where the most significant things happened (although those can often be great, too) but the ones where it feels like everyone associated with the series is firing on all cylinders and the director really gets what's at the core of the series thematically. Tanaka's beautiful cinematography and straight-faced delivery of the story is a reminder what can happen when craftsmen refuse to settle and instead elevate their popular art to graceful levels. If I had hated all of the films up to this point (and I liked all of them) it would have all been worth it for this one.

Zatoichi's Cane Sword
(Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1967)

How are these still this good? I mean, I know TV shows can be good or even getting better 15 episodes in, but these are 90 minutes and they release two or three every year. Movie sequels get made every few years and are always terrible. Anyway, Zatoichi's Cane Sword doesn't reach the cinematic heights of its immediate predecessor, but it's just as compelling as a narrative. This time, the series focuses on Zatoichi's underrated supporting character, his sword. There's a twist here that matches any plot development that's come before, and the movie as a whole has some great character swings for Ichi. These are all a real pleasure, but they seem to be only warming up 15 in.

Zatoichi the Outlaw
(Satsuo Yamamoto, 1967)

This one was a bit routine, with the only interesting moments coming from a boss who manages to deceive Zatoichi's usually impeccable sense of character and a brief musical montage that feels very much of its time in the best way. The plot is overloaded with characters, perhaps a recognition that the core story is not especially interesting or special within the series, so we get just about every archetype we've seen to date: the evil corrupt bosses, the star-crossed lovers Zatoichi attempts to shepherd, the reformed ronin, etc. Still not a bad movie, but I'd put this near the bottom of the pack.

Zatoichi Challenged
(Kenji Misumi, 1967)

A perfectly serviceable entry in the series, Zatoichi Challenged was neither especially noteworthy nor memorably off. Again Zatoichi is tasked with transporting a child, though thankfully we are saved most of the dumb humor of Zatoichi and a Baby!!! The final fight sequence is especially beautiful and the samurai's change of heart was pulled off rather well, I thought. But there's nothing here to remember or that makes it different from the rest of the series - which, in a way, makes it different from the rest of the series. Zatoichi Challenged is as formulaic as the series gets, which is a pretty good thing.

Zatoichi and the Fugitives
(Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1968)

Another generic entry, with only a few saving graces: the fight scenes were particularly bloody and the death faces were incredible. Do they have a school for those people? There should be an Academy Award for best death face. Although Zatoichi Challenged was actually pretty good, the last three in the series have taken a notable step down - though I wouldn't put any of them at the very bottom and they are all still pretty entertaining as far as samurai movies go.

Samaritan Zatoichi
(Kenji Misumi, 1968)

And we're back! Samaritan Zatoichi doesn't reach classic status but it is one of the must-see films of the series. Misumi delivers just enough cinematic style and variation in formula to make this installment the best since Zatoichi's Pilgrimage. The best part, though, is how focused the plot is, with minimal side stories and a contained universe of characters, all swirling around Zatoichi in an elaborate dance of corruption and honor that defines the series. This one was a real pleasure.

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo
(Kihachi Okamoto, 1970)

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo is a significant departure for the series. First, there are all the superficial differences; it took nearly two years for the film to be released after the previous installment, when previously there had often been two films in one year; the film runs nearly two hours, while most of the series' films clock in at under 90 minutes; and finally the film features another towering figure in samurai cinema: Toshiro Mifune's Yojimbo. Yet the film also feels different. While the basic template of the series remains - in this case, Zatoichi returns to a town he loves only to discover that it has been taken over by evil yakuza - the story is more sprawling, the characters more complex, and the pacing more cinematic and less episodic. Although Zatoichi is certainly still the protagonist, he spends most of the film sharing screen time with Yojimbo, who drives as much of the story as anyone. Obviously, it's a real pleasure to see both of these characters onscreen at once. We don't get to see a true battle between the two (since neither could possibly kill the other) we do get a few great exchanges and some brilliant dialog. The plot might be a little overly complex, and there are a few scenes that probably could have been excised. But overall this film lives up to its promise and kicks the cinematic ambition of the series up a notch, refreshed after its longest break and ready for the homestretch.

Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival
(Kenji Misumi, 1970)

BADASS. After a two-year hiatus, the Zatoichi series had a one-two punch in 1970 of a strong crossover with an iconic character and then this, certainly one of the best films in the series and arguably the best overall after Zatoichi's Pilgrimage. This one has everything we expect of a great Zatoichi movie: sullen women pining after Ichi's honor, prideful and petty villains who wield power over towns of peasants, naive men and/or boys who mistakenly choose the path of the yakuza, and Ichi himself, alternately humorous and powerful. But it also does everything the previous installments did so exceptionally well that it seems to be on another level. Ironically, as the series gets closer and closer to its move to TV the films are becoming more and more cinematic. Check the epic bath house fight - a clear influence on Cronenberg's Eastern Promises and every bit as gripping and memorable. Or the climactic sequence, an incredible mix of impressive suspense (the dice without marks) and stunning visuals (Ichi in the fire). The villain, too, rivals any of the previous heavies for a place as the greatest in the series, a blind man who has consolidated power and fears Ichi's similar drive. If all of this wasn't enough, we get Tatsuya Nakadai, one of Japanese cinema greatest stars, as a ronin desperate to avenge his wife and convince Ichi was her undoing. If I had to recommend only one Zatoichi film to someone who had never seen one, it would be this. It's just that good.

Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Man
(Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1971)

This installment was one of the most fun from a stylistic perspective. A guest appearance by Hong Kong kung-fu star Jimmy Wang Yu not only gives the series a bit of hand-to-hand combat to mix in with traditional samurai action - it allows the filmmakers to have some fun with the usual flourishes found in that region's cinematic grammar. This means awesome rack zooms, quick cuts matched with impossible stunts, and sparse, even abstract set design. The story itself is passable but certainly beside the point, as everything leads up to the big showdown between Zatoichi and the one-armed swordsman. All in all another fine 1970s entry that distinguishes itself from anything else in the series.

Zatoichi at Large
(Kazuo Mori, 1972)

Oh dear, another baby. Although it is definitely handled better than it has been in previous films, this has become such a contrived driver of conflict in these movies that it was disappointing to see it in the later editions. All of the previous films of the 70s have been so different from what came before, so this routine entry was a bit of a letdown. Still, there were components here that weren't strictly routine, the most amusing of which was the final, last-second fight - fit in as if the movie was ending and the filmmakers thought "oh no, we forgot to close that plot thread!" The least impressive film since Zatoichi and the Fugitives four years earlier.

Zatoichi In Desperation
(Shintaro Katsu, 1972)

This is the first film in the series to be directed by star Shintaro Katsu and the actor's enthusiasm and inexperience both shine through. The film is visually busy, making for a constantly engaging installment but without any real heft behind it. He certainly has some great moments behind the camera, but they rarely serve the story, which has another fairly routine central conflict (Zatoichi accidentally causes a woman's death, leading him to make amends by freeing her daughter from prostitution). The difference here - and the thing that allows the movie to join most of its 70s associates as a singular entry in the series - is that the film is almost oppressively dark. Just the fact that the woman isn't especially interested in leaving the oldest profession is something that would not have happened in early Zatoichi films, where just about everyone who isn't yakuza or government is pure of heart. What Zatoichi is up against here is notably more complex than what we've seen in earlier films, and so too is the challenge bigger at the end when his hands are pierced, the kind of injury we've never seen from the seemingly invincible hero. Add in a dead kid as a sideplot and you've got a pretty depressing popcorn movie. But after 24 of these movies, seeing something different can be just as enjoyable as seeing the same routine executed more efficiently.

Zatoichi's Conspiracy
(Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1973)

A fine ending to the series. Although the film is rather typical, the central conflict carries an emotional heft that earlier films lacked, and Zatoichi's journey - while unfinished - feels like it has come to a resting place. There are a few really great fight scenes here, and the candle sword trick is pretty cool. Overall, the films in the 70s showed a huge maturation from the earlier phase. Certainly these movies were more explicitly sexual and violent (blood spurts everywhere in the last few movies), but they also featured more nuanced characters (relatively speaking) and bigger threats. While the earlier films had settled into an episodic rhythm, where each movie could be subbed out for any other, these last six films each felt like they were trying to separate themselves from the pack, so it seems surprising that this was the last stretch before the series made the jump to TV.

Thoughts on the series:

Zatoichi is wholly deserving of its place in the Collection. These movies represent not just a significant chapter in Japanese film history, but one of the most impressive runs of any serial. Although there are certainly some mediocre entries in the series, none of them are truly bad and all of them would make perfectly decent standalone films. And then there are the must-sees: the first film, Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, Zatoichi's Pilgrimage, Samaritan Zatoichi, Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, and Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival are the movies every film lover, and especially every lover of samurai movies, should not miss. This was a massive undertaking, but it was also never a chore and I could certainly see myself going back to these at some point in the future (especially with all of them up on Hulu). This is the sort of set Criterion does best, and I'm glad they are still doing it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

#710: Judex

(Georges Franju, 1963)

Judex is basically a French version of The Shadow, an early prototype of the superhero genre that would define comic books for the modern era and is currently holding the summer box office in a choke hold. This remake of the original film adaptation of the character is a movie in love with movies, the illusion and freedom that define the artform.

I had never heard of Judex (or even the character) before the title was announced, though it wasn't a totally left-field choice considering Franju had directed Eyes Without a Face, an early addition to the Collection. I enjoy that movie a lot, and what little I read about it before watching had me thinking this was going to be one I really loved. It sounded like a stylish and playful mind game that didn't bother to follow the rules of logic or realism.

Ultimately, though, I just sort of really liked it. The core story of the film is interesting but doesn't lead to much, as a lot of the explanation of backstory that was supposedly included in the original film has been nixed. This makes the movie a bit more like a fever dream, which is cool enough but doesn't allow the experience to add up to much. There's also a woman at the center of the film who is pretty much everything you could ask for in a stereotype of woman as a ruthless bitch, which is either a coincidence or a symptom of the time. But the movie is so pulpy and silly that it's hard to criticize it for anything other than not being pulpy and silly enough to elevate it to something really special.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

#706: Master of the House

(Carl Th. Dreyer, 1925)

It's not that I didn't like Master of the House, an engaging and gentle little movie that shows off Dreyer's early skill with the camera. It's just that all of the talk about its revolutionary and progressive stance on gender roles is largely unfounded. Within the context of 1925's political discourse, a movie that highlights a woman's work and the need to value them in their role is certainly admirable. But a better attitude from men is not the goal of feminism - it's simply the barest necessity of entry into the human race. Master of the House does nothing to strike against the larger injustices of the patriarchal society, it simply uses them to tell a light and harmless but ultimately traditional story about a man taking his wife for granted.

There's a certain condescension directed at the past, where racism and sexism are graded on a curve. Anything that appears remotely empathetic toward people who aren't white men is declared revolutionary, while the notion that social justice or progressive thinking could have existed before the 1960s is supposed to be a revelation on par with the discovery of complex tools in the caveman era. The truth is that Master of the House is mainstream entertainment designed to play with the already widely held beliefs of the general public, and only the stodgiest traditionalist would have complained about it.

Moving beyond this complaint - which is generated through no fault of the film itself - Master of the House is an enjoyable film. Though it is certainly minor when compared to Dreyer's later work, his technical skill is clear, and I like seeing more silent films in the Collection, regardless of how "revolutionary" they are.

Monday, August 18, 2014

#708: Like Someone in Love

(Abbas Kiarostami, 2012)

Certified Copy is possibly my favorite movie of the last ten years, so Like Someone in Love was a highly anticipated viewing despite the conventional wisdom that seemed to place it a step down from Kiarostami's last film. Even though I would agree that the movie doesn't quite live up to its predecessor, Like Someone in Love is a perfect companion piece to that film, and a rewarding and engaging cinematic mystery.

Like Certified Copy, the movie deals in vague plot details matched with vivid characters. The three main players here, like the two in Certified Copy, feel just as real and relatable as the protagonists of any movie, and yet we know so little about their backgrounds as to feel we are getting only an abstract portrait of their inner lives. Unlike Certified Copy, however, the film revolves around one character that holds the key to understanding - Takashi, the older man, who knows the truth about his relationship with Akiko but declines to reveal it. This makes the film much less of an intellectual exercise than Certified Copy, where both main characters seem to be toying with the viewer in a surrealist and removed way, but it also makes it a tad more infuriating, since it seems like the whole matter could be easily cleared up in a confessional scene.

Kiarostami is, of course, totally unconcerned with such matters, and remains much more engaged with the ways in which people relate to both each other and the outside world. As in his previous films, the post-modern flair, obtuse thematic structure, and car driving/riding sequences define the director's aesthetic. But Someone in Love firmly resides in Kiarostami's second career, that of an exiled artist obsessed with his national crisis. It's no surprise that Kiarostami's two films outside of Iran, Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love, immediately imply removal from a subject - for Kiarostami, every film he makes outside of Iran is removed from its true intentions, a simulacrum of the film he really wanted to make. The final moments of both films are revelation interrupted, a moment of foreplay or violence that speaks to the greater truth of the respective film, and the ultimate metaphor for Kiarostami's identity unrealized by his exile.

It might be a crude comparison, but this era of Kiarostami's work reminds me of Caetano Veloso's exile from his home country of Brazil. Both artists fuse modern global aesthetics with personal and national styles which are distinct to their respective countries, and Veloso's 1971 self-titled album feels unsettling and mysterious. Like Kiarostami, Veloso chose to work in a language that was not his own, but that of the country in which he was creating art. If the metaphor is to hold, the Iranian filmmaker has much more experimental and arguably difficult land to traverse. But the journey will never be anything less than invigorating and impressive. Kiarostami is certainly one of the great living filmmakers - that he hails from one of the world's most notorious and complex countries only makes his emergence that much more powerful.

On a personal note, this is my 500th post on a Criterion movie on this blog. I honestly never thought I'd get this far, but it's been a thoroughly rewarding journey, one I wouldn't trade for any other artistic endeavor I've made. I've obviously slowed down a great deal since I "caught up" with the collection - which has made me slip a bit in terms of keeping up. But as long as Criterion continues to put out movies, I'll continue to watch them and post here. Even as they encounter more financial issues and turn to ever bigger releases to maintain their place  in the market, I believe in what Criterion is doing and continue to have faith that they will be around for spine number 1000 and beyond. Here's hoping we are all there to see it happen.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

#720: The Big Chill

(Lawrence Kasdan, 1983)

I watched The Big Chill for the first time when I was a teenager, and there are few more depressing movies to watch at that stage of life. For people with limitless options ahead of them, this is a film about people who are dead inside, horrified with the decisions they have made, and desperate to regain their freedom. They are unlikable and self-absorbed. Like Kevin Kline's later film, The Ice Storm, it's an unpleasant and uncomfortable viewing because it's hard to wrap your head around the choices you watch.

Once you've grown up, started a family, waded deep enough into a career or whatever they call it these days, the film is oddly less depressing, more comforting. It's a reminder that no matter how bad things get, you can always go home. It's a reassurance of the interpersonal connections that don't go away when philosophies and priorities change.

Of course, while the fundamental conflict of The Big Chill, the struggle with getting older and wrestling with dreams and responsibilities, is timeless, the resolution is specific to the boomer generation the film claims to represent. If The Big Chill was made today - and seeing how difficult it is to have adult dramas get made in the Hollywood system, it wouldn't be - the moral of the story would be distinctly anti-nostalgia, a lesson about appreciating what you have in life instead of longing for the past. If the children are our future in The Big Chill, the future is a disembodied voice we police from a distance while we dance and screw away the blues to the safe pop rhythms of our youth. The Big Chill is drenched in a nostalgia that would be tossed aside immediately by my generation, even as we struggle to uphold our own truths from a bygone era.

At one point, a character complains that "even fortune cookies are getting cynical" - a cynical comment about too much cynicism. The group of friends in The Big Chill finds comfort in the idealism of their youth because they know how foolish and carefree they were; they've tasted the apple and wish they hadn't. This was a bitterness that was passed on to their children, a generation intent on avoiding the disappointment their parents endured, but destined to fight some other kind of disappointment that doesn't come from anything more specific than the realization that no one is exempted from losing their cool.

The Big Chill is far from a great movie, but it's lasted as long as it has not because of its impressive cast and almost unbelievably stacked soundtrack but because it speaks to a simple and quiet truth about a milestone in life that often goes unmentioned. These are the kind of moments the Hollywood of the 80s was best equipped to handle, and it's a reminder of what our current cinematic landscape is missing: movies that aren't for everyone, but might mean everything to you.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

#702: The Great Beauty

(Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)

It would be easy to describe The Great Beauty as Fellini with Facebook, a contemporary retelling of the grotesque modernism of Fellini's core work, most notably and obviously La Dolce Vita (finally announced as a Criterion title earlier this month). To do so, however, would marginalize the film's own merits as a commentary on modern life just as much as it would reduce modern life itself to the tools we use to navigate through it.

Certainly, there is a strange anachronistic feeling to the modern components characters wield in The Great Beauty - the music they dance to, the cars they drive, the nude photos they offer up. The film feels so much like La Dolce Vita that these details serve as an odd reminder that we are not watching something that was, but something that is. Sorrentino has made a film about a man surrounded by history: his own, his city's, his film's. It's a quintessentially Italian endeavor - perhaps even uniquely Roman - but the lessons he dwells on are universal and eternal, an idea easily reinforced by everything that has changed in the last fifty years in Rome and everything that has stayed the same.

As in La Dolce Vita (and fellow modernist masterpieces L'Avventura and Through a Glass Darkly), the best moments in The Great Beauty are in the morning after, the sleepy but clear realizations that the cycle goes on. The film is also stunningly beautiful, almost to a default, and Sorrentino says as much with his camera as he does with his script. His protagonist is an empty shell stuck at the long party, but it's a beautiful party, and the way Sorrentino seduces the viewer allows Jep's momentum to seem less pitiable, more understandable. We wait for the next rush of adrenaline, desiring our own power to ruin the party - not to use it, but to know that we have it.

The Great Beauty's success is so frequently technical and theoretical that it can be hard to interact with the text's intentions. Jep is searching for the titular prize, but isn't everyone? We believe his desires but we don't recognize anything new - in a way, this is the point of the movie, that we're all living a cycle, that modernity and society's progress is a lie to cover up the fact that we are all in tatters. They say caged animals are the only ones who have time to be depressed, and we have yet to devise a better cage for humans than that of eternal comfort. The Great Beauty might be trudging over worn territory, but there's no more terrifying prospect in modern life than getting everything you want and still feeling empty.

Friday, February 7, 2014

#694: The Long Day Closes

(Terence Davies, 1992)

Distant Voices, Still Lives is one of my favorite movies made during my lifetime, and a top request for Criterion treatment. So when The Long Day Closes was announced, I had somewhat mixed emotions: it's nice to see Davies in the collection, but I wish it was a different title above his name.

After watching The Long Day Closes, I don't feel that different. In fact, I hope people who have come to Davies because of Criterion's seal of approval would seek out Distant Voices first before seeing this movie - it's not just a better movie, but a better introduction to the artist's style and singular execution, which involves gentle camera movements, dimly lit but meticulously composed visuals, and a loose narrative held together with stark dialogue and nearly constant, mostly diagetic traditional music.

That said, this is still a beautiful movie and a worthy addition to Criterion's ranks. Rather than deal in memory and the passage of time, as much of his work does, The Long Day Closes relishes the moment, depicting a crucial point in childhood as a peaceful but stirring moment in life. It's certainly still from the point of view of the present, but Davies seems more engaged with his setting than in Distant Voices, which floats along through brutal fog and unshakable trauma. It makes the movie feel less experimental even as it expands upon the narrative theory put forth by his earlier features. This is a complex and skilled narrative that is intricately and masterfully composed.

Perhaps this is what makes it feel less alive than Distant Voices. Davies's style is at its best unhinged and dangerous, like a bloody revolution set to cleanse the country of its sins but succumbing to the ever ready truth that past is present. The Long Day Closes is at peace with itself, but it's impossible to shake the feeling that it's all a charade.