Instant Classics: Criterion on Netflix #26-50
Welcome back to Instant Classics, my continuing mission to watch and review every sing Criterion Collection film that is currently streaming on Netflix Instant Watch. Last week we discovered only a paltry 10 out of the first 25 films released through Criterion are available for streaming. This week is looking much better, with 16 of the next 25 up and running. Let’s get this show on the road.
-26. The Long Good Friday (John Mackenzie, 1980)
What a hell of a way to start off the week! John Mackenzie’s early 80’s British gangster flick comes screaming off the screen like it just ate Guy Ritchie for breakfast. Bob Hoskins is brilliant as bull-headed crime boss Harold Shand who is making one last attempt to go legit buy having a hand in the redevelopment of the London waterfront. When a series of bomb attacks and assassinations directed at his empire threaten to derail his plans, Harold must take action the only way he knows how: tearing a Harold sized hole through the London underground.
Hoskins imbues every second he is onscreen with a vein-popping, thinly controlled cockney rage the likes of which the world would not see again until Steven Soderbergh unleashed The Limey nearly two decades later. He wraps the film up with one of the most deliciously vicious anti-American rants ever committed to celluloid. Helen Mirren kills it (as usual) in the role of Harold’s wife, Victoria, providing the brainy counterbalance to Harold’s brawny ravings that might just be the key to getting him through this mess he’s found himself in. The entire proceedings are soundtracked by a punchy synth score that has just enough thematic callbacks to the swinging 60’s to remind you where this film’s roots are. Keep an eye out for a ton of future stars in bit roles, including P.H. Moriarty, Alan Ford and an extremely young Pierce Brosnan.
-27. Flesh for Frankenstein (Paul Morrissey & Antonio Margheriti, 1973)
Shlock and awe. This Paul Morrissey directed take on the classic Frankenstein story is all blood, breasts and bizarre performances. Udo Kier brings the role of Baron von Frankenstein to crazed, glistening life while surrounded by a multicultural cast who spray improvised-sounding dialog through a dazzling array of clashing accents. The Baron wishes to make a race of super-Serbians(?!) who will not only begin a new race but answer solely to him. In his endeavor to finish the male counterpart of his monstrous Adam and Eve, he settles on the head of a local farmhand who was rather attached to it. Later on, the farmhand’s friend (Joe Dallesandro) recognizes the fact that the farmhand’s head is not where it ought to be and a whole cavalcade of intestine spilling, spine-cracking mayhem ensues.
Mawkish gore and neo-eugenisist sensibilities jockey with full frontal nudity and anachronistic set pieces for screen time. If I had to pick one line to sum up this movie in it’s entirety, it would be Frankenstein’s words to his assistant (Arno Juerging, looking like the love child of Tim Robbins and Martin Freeman), immediately after he has dry humped the corpse of one of his creations: “To know death, Otto, you must fuck life…in zee gall bladder!” Priceless.
(Side Note: Screenwriter Tonino Guerra also penned Fellini’s Amacord. Talk about range.)
-28. Blood for Dracula (Paul Morrissey, 1974)
When Flesh for Frankenstein wrapped under budget and schedule, the ever-thrifty Paul Morrisey decided to craft this mostly improvised companion piece out of the same cast, crew and set pieces. Even the roles are recycled: Udo Kier is still hamming it up in the title role, Arno Juerging is still a sleazy little lackey and Joe Dallesandro is still sexing all the ladies while dropping his “New Yawk” accent into a film full of Europeans. Aside from the basic storyline and a couple new faces (including a cameo from Roman Polanski), the only notable differences between the two films is less gore and more nudity, as well as a shift in tone from vaguely fascist to overtly Marxist. If there was ever a doubt that Morrisey was the king of camp, this film puts that debate to rest.
-29. Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975)
Jeez, if there’s one thing Australian cinema has imparted to us, it’s to not go screwing around in the outback. Based on the best selling book of the same name, the story is deceptively simple: a group of Victorian-era schoolgirls who go missing while on a class outing and are never heard from again. When the investigation into the vanishings prove increasingly more fruitless, the ensuing sense of panic creates far reaching shockwaves that throw the lives of anyone even remotely involved into utter turmoil.
Like Walkabout before it, Picnic explores the popular Aussie theme of “cultured” Europeans finding themselves at odds with their newly claimed environment and/or native peoples. Peter Weir utilizes soft focus camerawork and a haunting, pan pipe-driven score to give the story an extra haze of dreaminess and delirium that is so contagious, you might want to notify a friend of your whereabouts before attempting to view this film for yourself.
-30. M (Fritz Lang, 1931)
One of the best films ever made from one of the greatest directors in history, Fritz Lang broke so much ground here, you’d think he was building a skyscraper. Jason Voorhees, Michael Meyers and especially Freddy Kruger all owe their very existence to this portrayal of the world’s first on-screen serial killer. The basic story is that of a major German city gripped by the fear of a rampaging child killer (Peter Lorre). The police are clueless, the population is frenzied and only the city’s criminal underground seems to be making any headway in hunting the murderer down before another innocent child meet their grisly fate.
It is absolutely impossible to understate to impact this movie had on the filmic world. Lorre’s character is the archetype for every sweaty, bug-eyed pervert who would follow in his creepy wake. The storyline was one of the first to be ripped from the headlines, as it is based on the then-recent events surrounding the “Dusseldorf Vampire”. Lorre’s whistling of In the Hall of the Mountain King not only popularized the use of leitmotif in cinema, but cemented Edvard Grieg’s classic tune as one of the most ominous pieces of music ever written. On top of it all you have Lang at his finest, using silence to balance sound in the same way a tattoo artist uses negative space to create depth and texture. Worth watching if only for the ultra-rare sight of a genre being both invented and perfected all in one fell swoop.
(Side Note: It’s not part of the Collection but Fritz Lang’s other magnum opus, Metropolis, is available on Instant Watch in it’s complete, restored format and original orchestral score. Well worth checking out.)
Representing the early stages of work for director David Lean as well as for the great Alec Guinness, I can’t really dig on these films for the sole fact that I hate Charles Dickens from the bottom of my black little heart. While Guinness is fantastic in both of these films, Lean really shines insomuch as he manages to boil Dickens’ sprawling prattle down to a couple hours of screen time. So there you have it, great director, great acting, some moments of really beautiful camerawork… and Charles Dickens. If for some reason you happen to like Dickens, then these are two of the best adaptations of any of his works. If you, like me, think Dickens and Tolstoy are two of the most over-celebrated hacks of the literary world, then you can still catch that Lean/Guinness magic by watching The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Just not on Netflix Instant Watch, of course.
-33. Nanook of the North (Robert J. Flaherty, 1922) [Unavailable]
Pretty ambivalent about this one. While it has the distinction of being one of the first documentaries ever filmed, it also has a notorious reputation for being shamelessly staged and anglicized at every turn. If nothing else, the film is an interesting time capsule of Western attitudes toward “primitives”.
-34.Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966) [Unavailable]
Was really looking forward to this, as I’m trying to expand my exposure to Russian cinema. Oh, well. Guess I’ll have to stick it in the old-fashioned queue.
-35. Diabolique (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s follow up to the powerful The Wages of Fear cemented his legacy as one of the masters of the thriller genre. Diabolique is the story of Christina (Clouzot’s wife, Vera, easily one of the most beautiful women to have ever lived), her chauvinistic husband Michel (Paul Meurisse) who openly cavorts with his mistress, Nicole (Simone Signoret). The two women, instead of being antagonistic, bond over their mutual hatred of Michel’s behavior. Nicole eventually convinces a hesitant Christina that they should kill Michel and be done with his lechery once and for all. Once decided, they hatch a scheme in which they sedate Michel, drown him in a bathtub and chuck his body into a swimming pool to make it look like an accident. The perfectly laid plan unravels however, when Michel’s body never resurfaces in the pool and, in fact, disappears altogether.
A fantastic study of loyalty and betrayal, wrapped in an intriguing blend of murder mystery, film noir, and gothic horror. Clouzot is at the top of his game here, proving that a well placed light in a room full of shadows and ominous set pieces can be more terrifying than all the “gotcha”-style musical cheap shots that are stock and trade of the modern horror genre.
(Side Note: The message at the end of the film is possibly the first-ever anti-spoiler warning, in which the filmmaker implores the audience not to be diaboliques [devils] by giving away the twist at the end of the film.)
-36. The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)
If one wanted to back up the claim that they just don’t make movies like they used to, this would be a powerful piece of corroborating evidence. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s thriller follows four European drifters who are down and out in an anonymous South American Country; the charming yet contemptible Mario, boisterous Luigi (weird, right?), unflappable Bimba and the sleazy and conniving Jo. When an American-owned oil well explodes, the company hires these four men to drive trucks full of nitroglycerin that will be used to put out the fire. The catch is, it’s 1953 and neither road maintenance nor suspension technology had progressed to the point of being even remotely safe.
Clocking in at a hefty 131 minutes, the first hour is all getting-to-know-you and set-up. Enjoy that, because the next hour and half is going to be non-stop, tooth-grinding tension. As someone who once drove a large truck though a narrow mountain road, this film dredges up all kinds of unpleasant flashbacks. Every bump, every rock, every twitch carries enough toe-curling power to put Alfred Hitchcock to shame (which he actually did when he beat Hitch to buying the film rights for Diabolique). The camera pairs agonizingly long shots of crucial minutiae such as wheels slowly spinning out in muck and taught wires pulled to their breaking point with the tightly framed faces of men who’s nerves and minds are fraying beyond all hope of repair. This film is one ordeal you should be proud to put yourself through.
-37. Time Bandits (Terry Gilliam, 1981)
Ah, Terry Gilliam, you crazy bastard. Unfolding like a children’s fairy tale as told by a PCP-smoking Brother’s Grimm, Time Bandits is the story of a neglected young boy named Kevin who discovers one night that his closet has become a space-time portal. The next night, six dwarves pop out of it. They are in possession of a map that they stole from the Supreme Being, that shows every hole in the space-time continuum which they have been using to travel through the continuum stealing treasures from various historical figures. Kevin gets accidently carried off into the portal with them as they bounce through history, encountering the likes of Napoleon (Ian Holm), Robin Hood and Agamemnon (Sean Connery). Throughout their journey’s they are pursued not only by the disembodied, Gilliam-illustrated head of the Supreme Being, but also by the mysterious Evil, played to bone dry perfection by David Warner and the gnarliest prosthetic fingernails I have ever seen.
No one else, living or dead, can unfurl a pure sense of childlike wonder with a winking snap of droll Brit humor into a (mostly) coherent feature length film like Gilliam. While his stories sometimes struggle to connect with their own characters, Gilliam’s visual style is always impeccable, if perhaps not entirely historically accurate. It must be said, however, that anyone quibbling over historic inaccuracies in a movie the features six time traveling dwarven thieves, is probably not up to the task of appreciating any of Gilliam’s work anyways.
-38. Branded to Kill (Seijun Suzuki, 1967)
An absolute classic yakuza flick from one of my all time favorite directors, Seijun Suzuki. Hanada (Joe Shishido) is the third highest ranked hitman in all of Japan. He kills his way through the underworld at the behest of his boss until he botches a contract from a beautiful woman and finds himself the target of the Number One assassin.
Talk about going against the grain, this film is so wonderfully weird and psychotic that it got Suzuki blacklisted from Japanese cinema for an entire decade. He took what was supposed to be a stock B-movie yakuza script and infused it with jumbled timelines, hallucinatory animations and the sexual fetishization of steamed rice, all while battling the Nikkatsu film studio for creative control. The film bombed upon release but has since been recognized as the masterpiece of absurdist cinema that it is, and has gone on to inspire the styles of such luminaries as Jim Jarmusch, Park Chan-Wook and Quentin Tarantino.
Seijun Suzuki’s masterpiece – and one of my favorite films of all time – was previously reviewed on the IOC here -admin.
-39. Tokyo Drifter (Seijun Suzuki, 1966)
Yet another dizzying journey into the gritty world of the Tokyo yakuza from master director Seijun Suzuki. The story follows Phoenix Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari), a yakuza thug who finds himself suddenly unemployed when his gang boss gives up the yakuza lifestyle to go straight. He refuses a job offer from a rival gang and fearing for his safety, takes his former boss’ advice and leaves town. It soon becomes apparent that his old boss may not have Tetsu’s best interests in mind and Tetsu is forced to choose between his loyalty and his life.
Where Branded to Kill was shot in sullen, yet spastic black and white, Tokyo Drifter color codes it’s characters and their moral orientations vividly. While not as unstrung as Branded, this movie is still an excellent example of Suzuki’s manic storytelling and intoxicating shooting style.
-40. Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998) [Unavailable]
Over the last ten films, we’ve seen excellent installments from such heavyweights as Lang, Lean, Gilliam and Suzuki so it only makes sense that the next film Criterion featured would be from… wait, what the hell? I will be eternally befuddled as to why this cinematic abortion was included in the Collection. Easily one of my least favorite films of all time. At least it’s not streaming.
-41. Henry V (Laurence Olivier, 1944)
A film adapted from one of worlds greatest playwrights, by one of the worlds greatest actors who, incidentally, is also the director. Can you guess what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to do when it was released? That’s right, they snubbed it! Nominated it for four awards and gave it none. Well, Laurence Olivier did get an honorary award for starring, directing and producing the film as well as for having more talent in his fingernail clippings than all the other winners combined. Upon receiving the “award” Olivier (who would later go on to be Knighted, Baroned, respected as the finest actor of his and many other generations, buried in the same graveyard as British kings and in a cruel twist, resurrected to appear in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) reportedly shrugged, knocked back a liter of cognac and gave it to his chauffeur as a tip.
Oh, incidentally, the movie is pretty damn good, too.
-42. Fishing With John (John Lurie, 1992) [Unavailable]
Nooooooo! I love this criminally under-appreciated and short-lived TV show almost as much as I hate Armageddon. This show was the very definition of dry satire, featuring the crazed genius of Tom Waits, Willem Defoe, and Dennis Hopper.
-43. Lord of the Flies (Peter Brook, 1963)
I hardly think I’m fit to even comment on this film adaptation of William Golding’s seminal novel about practically every animalistic instinct that manifests in humanity. In it’s most literal sense, it’s the story of a group of young boys who are stranded on an island that are in dire need of adult supervision. At first they band together to build a signal fire to alert any passing ships of their presence, but when the specter of a possible monster is discovered, they quickly devolve into a vicious, tribal mentality. On a metaphorical or philosophical level, however, the story delves themes are much, much deeper, such as relationships of command and the conflicts between church and state, none of which I have the room to delve into here.
While Peter Brook’s film diverges somewhat from the novel, it manages to retain the brutal thrust of Golding’s words with the added punch of being able to physically see the children going feral. From the gritty opening montage to the precociously admirable acting job of it’s young cast, this film stands testament to the fact that good writing will always shine through, but if you go the extra mile with the film production, you’ll end up with a classic on your hands.
-44. The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1948)
My disinterest in ballet is so strong that it almost caused me to miss out on the schizophrenic genius that is Black Swan. Because of that same disinterest, I actually waited until I had seen all the other films on this list before watching this and then fell asleep in the middle of it. Twice.
The basic story is that of Vicky (Moira Shearer), a young ballet dancer that joins the dance troupe of the demanding yet inspired Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). Boris pushes Vicky to be his new prima ballerina but a love interest in the form of the new musical composer might get in the way of her passion for ballet. Roughly three dance pieces later, I was out like a light. Twice.
This is not saying the film is necessarily bad, mind you, just that if failed to appeal to me on a storyline level. The cinematography is sumptuous in a way only early Technicolor could be, the sets are beautifully crafted and there are some delightfully campy performances, all of which were constantly being interrupted by big ballet numbers. This is the same reason I dislike musicals: whenever the music starts, the story stops. But hey, Marty Scorsese loved it and Darren Aronofsky clearly lifted some thematic elements in making Black Swan, so maybe I’m just some barbarian who falls asleep in movies. Twice.
-45. Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997) [Unavailable]
One of only two Iranian films in the Collection. Sadly, I know nothing about it.
-46. The Most Dangerous Game (Irving Pichel & Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1932) [Unavailable]
Haven’t seen it, but from what I understand it inspired the AMC daytime bellwether Surviving the Game, starring Ice-T, Rutger Hauer and Gary Busey. So there’s that.
-47. Insomnia (Erik Skjoldbjærg, 1997) [Unavailable]
Not to be confused with the remake staring post-”hooah” Al Pacino. This Norwegian thriller is and arrhythmic rollercoaster ride through one man’s rapidly devolving psyche.
-48. Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus, 1959)
Marcel Camus’ vivid re-imagining of the ancient Greek myth was shot in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro with all the sights and sounds that he could cram onto film. The opening shot literally explodes into the midst of the Brazilian Carnivale, where newly arrived Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) finds herself lost and confused in the chaos until she climbs aboard a trolley driven by Orfeu (Breno Mello). Even though Orfeu is already engaged to the overbearing Mira, the connection between them rapidly becomes undeniable. It is soon revealed that Eurydice is on the run from a sinister masked man, who is none other than the coolest looking depiction of Death this side of The Seventh Seal. In the midst of Mira’s mounting suspicions and Carnivale’s increasing fever pitch, Death succeeds in his mission and Eurydice is accidentally killed by Orfeu’s own hand. Grief-stricken, Orfeu embarks on a journey to reclaim the soul of his beloved.
Where the song and dance routine cluttered up the narrative of The Red Shoes, here they weave seamlessly into the very fabric of the Favelas in which they were shot and enhance the strikingly beautiful and increasingly hallucinogenic visual style that is this film’s calling card. While Portuguese is not one of those languages where I can tell if the performances are good or bad, it really doesn’t matter either way since pretty much every frame is so packed to the gills with symbolism that you could watch this one with the subtitles off and still perfectly understand what’s going down.
(Side Note: Netflix’s refusal to stream the Criterion films in HD is obnoxious under most circumstances. In the case of Black Orpheus, it’s practically criminal.)
Two more Fellini movies, neither of which I’ve seen. Might be good, might not; I’ll probably never know ‘cause they aren’t streaming and I’m not a Fellini fan.
Well, it looks like I won’t be making any fans in the coveted Fellini-watching, Dickens-reading, ballet dancer demographic. Also people who are named Michael Bay probably wouldn’t care for this column but studies show that a shocking 9 out of 10 Michael Bays are illiterate. Sad. Give the teachers their collective bargaining, y’all. See you next week.