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Instant Classics: Criterion on Netflix #51-75

Round 3 of Instant Classics is here! This project is indeed quite an undertaking. After last week’s monster load of films, I’m curious, albeit a little fearful, of what Netflix has in store for me this time. Well, no time like the present I suppose…

-51. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985) [Unavailable]

Damnation! The exclusion of Gilliam’s masterpiece from Instant Watch bodes rather ill for this week’s roundup.

-52. Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961)

When a classic film goes on to directly influence another classic film, does that make it doubly classic? Whether it does or not, this is one of those movies that only comes along once every 25 years or so. When traveling Ronin Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) wanders into a village split between two warring gangs, he realizes that he can turn a profit by playing both sides against the middle. Soon the money is rolling in and the streets are running with blood, but the chaos he has stirred up threatens to sweep away not just the gangs, but Sanjuro along with them.

In addition to the usually impeccable acting and directing, Yojimbo’s soundtrack is especially awesome. It’s a strange mix of Eastern and Western themes complete with pattering drums, soaring brass and thundering piano that presages the work of the masterful Ennio Morricone. Watching this film is like watching two thoroughbred race horses tying the Kentucky Derby. Both Kurosawa and Mifune are at the peak of their careers as well as their artistic capabilities. Sure they would go on to turn in fantastic pieces of work, both with and without each other’s company, but this film, to me at least, stands as one of the most blindingly bright points in two unparalleled careers.

-53. Sanjuro (Akira Kurosawa, 1962)

Following the success of Yojimbo, Kurosawa turned right around and released this film the following year with Toshiro Mifune reprising his role as the titular Sanjuro, the opportunistic, hard-drinking ronin with a heart of gold. The movie opens with Sanjuro overhearing a group of well meaning but wet-behind-the-ears samurai plotting to weed out the corruption that is crippling their prefecture. Sanjuro informs them that their plan, while noble, is playing right into the hands of the corrupt Prefecture Superintendent. He offers them his help for the right price and, of course, all the sake he can get his hands on.

While often overshadowed by it’s predecessor, this film is no less worthy than any other Kurosawa/Mifune collaboration. Mifune’s acting is still top notch, Kurosawa’s camerawork is still inventive and intriguing, and the story is still compelling swords and Samurai fare, peppered with Mifune’s wry witticisms. The only fault I can find with the film is that it doesn’t really break any new ground from Kurosawa’s last entry; hardly a hanging offense. Be sure to stick through to the end for the notorious “blood explosion” (!) scene.

-54. For All Mankind (Al Reinart, 1980) [Unavailable]

A documentary on the men behind the Apollo moon missions. Never seen it.

-55. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman, 1988)

This is one of those rare occurrences when an “unfilmable” book meets the perfect director and the result is a true work of art. Set in the Prague Spring and the years that followed it, the film follows a womanizing young surgeon named Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis), his constant lover Sabina (Lena Olin), and his wide-eyed innocent wife, Tereza (Juliet Binoche). Just as Tomas’ constant philandering threatens to wreck his marriage, Soviet Russia stages a brutal crackdown on the recently liberalized Czechoslovakia, forcing the trio to escape to Switzerland.

It’s nearly impossible to write a coherent synopsis of this film as it faithfully follows Milan Kundera’s sprawling novel that touches on nearly everything about human life. What do I mean by everything? Sex, marriage, love, fear, strength, weakness, joy, sorrow, friendship, betrayal, freedom, oppression, and inevitably, death are all woven into a beautiful tapestry of bitter-sweetness that is sentimental without being sappy. Kaufman frequently shoots his actors through semi-translucent glass and fabrics and through reflections that are symbolic of how opaque we can be to our own selves while being transparent to those that are closest to us. One of the few romances I’ve come across that examines human bonds at their roots as well as their surfaces, which is even more odd when you consider that Kaufman is best known for writing Raiders of the Lost Ark.

-56. The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock, 1935)

First off, there are at least four film versions of John Buchan’s novel and please believe me, this is the only one worth watching. Yes, the remakes all have their merits (well, the 2008 BBC TV version, not so much) but this film is vintage Alfred Hitchcock all the way to the bank. Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is vacationing in England when he finds himself violently thrust into the middle of an international conspiracy revolving around something called “The 39 Steps”. On the run for a murder he didn’t commit, he is eventually arrested by agents of the conspiracy who are posing as policemen and finds himself handcuffed to the beautiful but obstinate Pamela (Madeleine Carroll). Still chained together, the two make their escape, but the enemy has friends everywhere, time is running short and it seems not a single person in the whole UK knows what the hell “The 39 Steps” are.

Probably the best film from his British period of filmmaking, The 39 Steps experienced wide international success that greatly helped the director’s jump into the Hollywood movie industry. Not his best films by any means, it is still plenty watchable, with an ending that you are highly unlikely to guess at before it is revealed. Also has the dubious honor of being one of the very first film to utilize the “Macguffin” plot device, which would go on to form the major plot element of every half-assed spy novel and movie that has been made since.

-57 Charade (Stanley Donen, 1963) [Unavailable]

Have not seen this film but considering it stars Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, and was filmed in Paris in the mid-sixties by the director of Singing in the Rain, I’m gonna guess it’s pretty damn charming.

-58. Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960)

A delightfully nasty piece of work that serves not only as a Freudian psychological thriller, but as a strange kind of commentary on film directing as well. Mark (Carl Boehm) is aspiring filmmaker who has a nasty habit of killing people on camera. His traumatized childhood has left him with an unhealthy fixation on the nature of fear, which he is compelled to document as he murders young women. His project is nearing completion when he is befriended by his downstairs neighbor, Helen (Anna Massey), whose unconditional kindness towards him throws doubt on his life’s work and his ability not to include her in it. The film’s self-obsessed fixation on cameras and the people that work them inspired Martin Scorsese to say that this, in addition to Fellini’s 8 1/2, contained everything that can be said about directing.

While Boehm effectively gives Peter Lorre a run for his money in the role of a twitchy, perverted killer, it’s Maxine Audley who steals the show as Helen’s blind, Johnnie Walker-swilling mother. Her character instinctively knows something is dangerously amiss with Mark and at one point she gets to deliver a truly dynamic monologue to him on the power of that instinct. While it was reviled upon release, it rapidly gained cult status and has now been widely considered a classic, but not before heavily damaging director Michael Powell’s career. Ironically enough, Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous Psycho would be released a mere three months later and go on to change the way people thought about horror movies forever.

-59. The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1973) [Unavailable]

Of all the films in this roundup that I’ve never seen, this is probably the least excusable. I’ll have to remedy that sometime in the near future.

-60. Autumn Sonata (Ingmar Bergman, 1978) [Unavailable]

Too bad. This beautiful late-career film had twice the Bergman power, with Ingrid Bergman’s only collaboration with the director with whom she shared a surname.

-61. Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979) [Unavailable]

Hands down the best thing to ever come out of the Monty Python troupe. Damn, how many more of these films in a row are going to be unavailable?

-62. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Th. Dryer, 1928) [Unavailable]

At least one more it seems. Starting to see a pattern here. The only movies that aren’t streaming are either films that I really, really love and films that I’ve never seen but have been meaning to. Thanks, Netflix!

-63. Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)

Herk Harvey and his uncomfortable sounding first name directs this exploration of that age old topic: is the gateway to hell really in Utah? Mary (Candace Hillgoss) narrowly survives a deadly car accident and, in a fit of what can only be described as PTSD, subsequently accepts a job as a church organist in Salt Lake City. As she drives there, she becomes strangely captivated by the baroque silhouette of an abandoned carnival pavilion she sees off in the distance. While she peers at it the ghoulish face of a man (Mr. Herk himself)  appears where her reflection should be in car’s darkened window. The face and the pavilion continue to haunt dreams and eventually start to bleed into her waking life as she struggles to understand what is happening to her.

A delightful black and white 60’s horror with much the same tone and production value as Night of the Living Dead, Carnival has gone on to achieve legendary cult film status. I love how old school directors could wring such a decent amount of horror out of some weird-looking dude in white greasepaint and raccoon eyes while filming in broad daylight. While the film piles the symbolism on just a little thick, the hauntingly disjointed organ-driven soundtrack and trippy visuals keep it from ever really becoming the finger-wagging cautionary tale that it feels like it was intended to be.

-64. The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

This classic noir film penned by the legendary novelist, Graham Greene, opens in a postwar Vienna, where newly arrived American pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) is trying to connect with his old friend Harry Lime. Upon reaching his house, his informed by the building’s porter that Harry had been hit and killed by a car the day earlier. Devastated by the loss of his friend, Holly attends Harry’s funeral, where he meets the British military police Maj. Calloway (Trevor Howard), who informs him that his friend Harry was deeply involved in the dangerous Viennese black market. Holly, is disbelieving at first and vows to launch his own investigation into the death of his friend. Along the way he encounters a whole rogues gallery of shifty racketeers, Harry’s alluring former girlfriend, and a sneaking suspicion that nothing and no one are what they seem.

True to form, Greene’s script is absolutely chock full of witty barbs and a distinct aversion to Yanks who meddle in foreign (particularly European) affairs to which they are utterly unfamiliar. Vienna is shot in beautiful film noir fashion, with shadowy alleys and doorways that harbor watchful eyes sharing screen time with bombed out buildings and strangely untouched cathedrals that stand silent testimony to the wave of violence that had so recently washed over the city. There is also an astounding amount of quality work put in by extras culled from the local populace, whose faces are etched with the unmistakable sorrow of a recently conquered people but also shot through with veins of impotent rage at the multitude of outsiders who have carved up their country (and more importantly, their city) amongst themselves. I can’t really delve any deeper into the plot without spilling some major spoilers, but I will say that the target=”_blank”>great Orson Welles makes an appearance, and delivers the best monologues about cookoo clocks in all of film history.

-65. Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998) [Unavailable]

Pardon me while I take a moment to break something down for the Netflix executives who are no doubt following this column with a near-religious fervor: It’s a safe assumption that Instant Watch is used primarily by people who are more internet savvy than tech savvy, who in turn are more likely to buy Mac products, who in turn are more likely to be hipsters, who in turn almost universally love Wes Anderson. Just sayin’.

-66-69. The Orphic Trilogy: The Blood of a Poet (1930), Orpheus (1949), Testament of Orpheus (1959, all by Jean Cocteau) [All Unavailable]

The collected and singly available titles of Cocteau’s experimental trilogy. I’ve only ever seen Orpheus, which was yet another visually arresting display of filmmaking from a director who specialized in pushing the limits of cinematography.

-70. The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)

No matter how much of a mixed bag his last couple of films may have been, Martin Scorsese will always be one of my favorite directors simply for being the genius behind this film. Easily one of the most controversial films ever made, The Last Temptation of Christ is adapted from Nikos Kazantzakis’ equally-divisive novel about the final days of Jesus Christ. The basic story is the one everyone in the Western world is familiar with: Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, eats the last supper, is betrayed by Judas and ends up on the business end of a whole lot of sharp objects. The twist here is instead of just dying, Jesus sees a vision of an angel telling him that his work is done, he is not really the son of god and he can come down off the cross and spend the rest of his life making babies with Mary Magdalene. Jesus gives some serious thought to the matter, but all may not be as it seems.

As someone who grew up in a repressive religious background, this movie had a profound impact on not only on my taste is cinema, but on my entire worldview as well. Willem Dafoe’s Jesus is the most conflicted – the most human – depiction of Jesus to ever grace the screen. Up till that point in time, Jesus had been depicted as beatific cypher with a bovine-like range of facial expressions, who was more of a watercolored religious icon than a flesh and blood savior. Here, Scorsese shows a Jesus who wrestles with both everyday struggles and extraordinarily trying circumstances with all the troubled emotions you would expect from a man, yet manages to rise above them with the strength and will of a god. Harvey Keitel also brings a level of pathos and conflict of purpose to Judas Iscariot that heretofore had been distinctly absent.

Naturally, upon release, the film was subjected to a massive wave of outrage and protest from Christians around the world. At one point, a French movie theater that was screening the film fell victim to a molotov cocktail attack from a fundamentalist group. It was banned in multiple countries and remains so to this day in the Philippines and Singapore.The gist of people’s anger stemmed from (SPOILER ALERT! Seriously, if you haven’t seen it, SKIP TO THE NEXT REVIEW or go watch it right now and come back.) the fact that during his final temptation, he goes off and marries Mary Magdalene and has kids and leads a normal life. While this is indeed totally outside the realm of biblical canon, the fact remains that a) he was hallucinating that entire scene because that was the point of a temptation: to make him not want to be nailed to a cross and save humanity; and b) no matter how soul-wrenching the choices were for him, at the end of the day, he still made all the right decisions. The point wasn’t to be sacrilegious, but rather to illuminate the duality that would be inherent in someone who is both God and man. Regardless of what personal beliefs you may hold, this is utterly powerful, thought provoking cinema at it’s absolute finest and as such has a permanent place on my top 10 list.

-71. The Magic Flute (Ingmar Bergman, 1975) [Unavailable]

Curious Netflix User: “Hey, um, so I took this film appreciation class once and the instructor repeatedly cited Ingmar Bergman as one of the finest, most influential filmmakers to ever sit in a directors chair. Thing of it is, I’m easily distracted and would really like to be able to have instant access to his works so I can watch them when I’m in the mood for deep, brooding dramas instead of getting it on DVD, having it linger around the house for a couple weeks, and sending it back unwatched because the eighteenth HD Special Edition of Avatar is next up in my queue. Is that possible?”

Netflix: “…Now available on Netflix Instant Watch; The Spy Next Door! Starring Jackie Chan!!!”

-72. Le Million (Rene Clair, 1931) [Unavailable]

Unfamiliar with this film, which is apparently an early musical, so I will probably continue on being unfamiliar with it.

-73. Cleo From 5 to 7 (Agnes Varda, 1962)

A fantastic example of French New Wave Cinema from it’s highly regarded Rive Gauche contingent. Cleo (Corrine Marchand) is a beautiful young singer who is awaiting the results of a cancer biopsy. As the title indicates, the story follows her from the hours of 5pm to 7pm beginning with a less than encouraging tarot card reading which pulls double duty as the opening credits. Distraught, she seeks solace in her friends and loved ones, only to find that it is an absolute stranger who may be able to bring her the most comfort of all.

Shot on the streets of Paris, this film is awash in all the romantic notions that The City of Lights embodied at that time. Sidewalk cafes and crooning music emanating from radios and quiet parks and bustling street life all meld together to create an idyllic backdrop against which the characters quietly muse about friendship, despair and a variety of existential quandaries.

(Side Note: While this film is currently available on Netflix Instant, it is also available to stream at Criterion.com for $5.00, along with many other films, which will then be credited towards your purchase of any available DVD or Blu-ray edition of that film. I’d also be willing to bet that the picture quality from Criterion’s own website is a better than Netflix’s by a country mile.

-74. Vagabond (Agnes Varda, 1985) [Unavailable]

More from Agnes Varda, continuing here theme of women with existential crises wandering around France

-75 Chasing Amy (Kevin Smith, 1997) [Unavailable]

Due to the lack of any means of coherently translating the sound of a big, wet fart into words, I will only say that a fan of Kevin Smith I am not.

Well that was an easy week! The Orphic Trilogy’s exclusion really took a load off my viewing schedule. Hell, for the first time in weeks, I even got to watch a movie that isn’t on the Criterion Collection! Downside: that movie was Ong Bak 3. Oh well. They can’t all be gems, I suppose.

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