Instant Classics: Criterion on Netflix #76-100
And we’re back with more Netflix Instant Watch goodness. Writing lead-in filler isn’t my strong suit so let’s just skip right to the films, yes?
*Sigh* While there are certainly David Lean films that I thoroughly enjoy, it’s becoming rapidly apparent that he is, by and large, not my favorite director. One of his earlier films, Brief Encounter, is based on a Noel Coward play and follows the star-crossed love affair of a middle aged doctor and a bored but staid housewife. They first meet at a train station on their way home from jobs and errands and continue to encounter each other there one day a week until their innocent friendship develops into a full blown affair which they both know can never be maintained.
This film is a typically rote version of a romantic tragedy. The plot is poignant at times but maudlin at others. The heavy use of voiceover narration rapidly becomes grating and the soundtrack appears to be stuck on a loop for most of the film. Not really an unpleasant film, but still one that lacks any means of recommending itself to anyone but the most die-hard Romance fan.
And Criterion created a DVD cover that makes me wish this was streaming. Bridget Bardot is the pretty much the definition of hotness. Noticing a definite trend of veering away from streaming the more sexually explicit titles in the Collection, possibly out of concern for younger viewers. As I am not a parent, I am unaware if Instant Watch comes with any kind of parental control option. Call me old fashioned but I think, in that situation, I would just opt to be an attentive parent.
W.C. Fields was easily the world’s greatest purveyor of the notion that drunkenness is it’s own reward. Probably the most well known work from one of history’s most renowned comedians.
-79. W.C. Fields-Six Short Films (Various Directors, 1933) [Unavailable]
The title says it all, really. Wish I could add to that, but I’ve not had the pleasure of watching any of these shorts.
Lars von Trier has become a bit of an iconoclast over the last two and a half decades and has, consequently, developed a bit of a love/hate relationship with the film-going public as well as industry insiders. No matter what you feel about the man, his artistic style and bold directing have been beyond reproach since this debut movie, which is sadly unavailable. I’ll have to do a full blown review of this next time I stumble across anything even remotely resembling free time.
Yet again, by the grace of Netflix, I have avoided sitting through what would most assuredly be another tedious Fellini film that renders the definition of time into hollow meaninglessness.
Christ, I was beginning to think I wouldn’t get to watch any more movies this week. And what a movie to come back to! There have been over fifty screen adaptations of William Shakespeare’s seminal tragedy, but this one easily stands at the top of the heap. Four years after he was infamously snubbed by the Academy Awards, Sir Laurence Olivier fired back with this masterful take on the story of the titular Danish prince (Olivier) who plots revenge against his own uncle for the murder of his father, the usurpation of the throne and the unseemly marriage of his mother. This time the Academy gave him his due, awarding him the Oscar for Best Actor as well as Best Picture.
Olivier brings his prior experience as a theater actor to bear here with full force, melding the finest traditions of stagecraft with inventively shot scenes and stunning in-camera effects. Shot almost entirely on a sound stage, the characters move about an a beautifully crafted, multi-level set in ways that hearken back to the blocking that is practiced in theater performances but never appear to be playing to an audience or the camera itself. One of the more arresting visual effects I have ever seen is the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father. Each time the ghost appears the camera fixes on an actors face, jumps forward and out of focus by degrees and then snaps back into focus once it has stopped moving, which gives the viewer an unsettling sense of motion sickness. The ghost itself is the stuff of nightmares, half visible and suggesting all the rot and decay that your mind can conjure up.
It’s nearly impossible to emphasize the enormity of Olivier’s achievement with this film. In 1996, Kenneth Branagh tried to follow in Sir Laurence’s actor/director footsteps and ended up with sprawling four-hour-long monster that had more in common with a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza than Olivier’s Hamlet. From the featherweight adaptation directed by Tony Richardson in 1969 to the target=”_blank”>overcooked Mel Gibson version in ‘92 to 2000’s Ethan Hawke-led target=”_blank”>horrorshow, this was the only one to bring the The Bard’s words to their full, dazzling, on-screen potential.
Sitting through 153 minutes of Shakespearian dialog only to find that this classic Rastaploitation flick is unavailable has been one of the more character building moments of my life.
Wait, wait, we’ve got streaming access to pretty much every single move that Kurosawa ever directed, but no dice on Ozu? Strewth.
Haven’t seen this, but seeing as how this was the inspiration for My Fair Lady, which has the dubious honor of being the least abrasive musical I have ever sat through, I would bet it’s probably a solid little film.
While widely renowned for his silent films such as Battleship Potempkin, these three films constitute the entirety of Eisenstein’s “talkie” period which are Alexander Nevsky and the two remaining films of his Ivan the Terrible trilogy…
-87. Alexander Nevsky (Sergei Eisenstein, 1938)
Eisenstein’s first film with sound is a pretty straightforward historical account of Prince Alexander Nevsky (Nikolai Cherkasov) who rallies the Russian people to defeat the invading Teutonic Knights. While the plot is rather painfully simple due to the close eye being kept upon him by the Soviet government, the rest of Eisenstein’s strident filmmaking style isn’t censored in the least. The action sequences on display here revolutionized the industry and are widely regarded as being the direct progenitor of every “sword-and-sandals” battle scene from Ben-Hur to Lord of the Rings. What’s even more impressive is the half-hour long (!)climactic battle scene that is the very definition of “epic”. I mean, we are talking about literally hundreds of extras, many of them garbed in ridiculously complicated wardrobes, who are then handed disturbingly real looking prop weapons, lined up on opposing sides, and told to have at one another. You simply cannot do that type of thing anymore and come up with a film that will make back it’s budget.
Another interesting facet of this film, is it’s political agenda. At the time, there was a lot of anti-German sentiment in Russia due to the fact that Germany was a right-wing totalitarian regime and the Soviet Union was a left-wing totalitarian regime. The German Teutonic knights are clear stand-ins for Nazi stormtroopers, many of them even wearing helmets that look like medieval analogs of those worn by Nazi soldiers before and during WWII. The knights are shown as town-razing, civilian-slaughtering, baby-burning (Seriously. This movie has burning babies in it.) zealots whose only motivation is an insatiable appetite for conquest. Most interesting of all, however, is the film’s presaging of the German invasion that would happen three years after it was released. Just goes to show, no matter if you’re a medieval knight, or Napolean, or Hitler or even just playing the board game Risk: don’t invade Russia. They’ve had a lot of practice killing people who try.
(Side Note: While this is in fact streaming on Netflix, it is not the Criterion Collection presentation. The film stock and sound are not restored and the white subtitles are constantly fading into the monochrome images on screen. Still a good movie though.)
-88. Ivan the Terrible, Part 2 (Sergei Eisenstein, 1958) [Unavailable]
Considered by Stalin to be critical of his autocratic reign, the film was immediately banned upon release and it’s incomplete sequel was confiscated and burned. A pretty good rule of thumb for most things in life would be to go and check out anything that Stalin didn’t like.
Brian De Palma is a bit of an acquired taste. This is one of his earlier thrillers starring a fiercely mulleted Jennifer Salt as Grace, an aspiring young journalist who sees her neighbor, Danielle (Margot Kidder) brutally kill a man in her apartment. She calls the police but when they arrive, the body, as well as any evidence of a crime, have vanished, compelling Grace to investigate the murder on her own. As she digs deeper into Danielle’s background, she unearths a disturbing past that may prove to be more than one journalist can handle on her own.
De Palma’s inventive camera style is all over this one. Split screen shots, POV shots and circular zoom wipes all combine to confuse the lines between reality and fantasy. While the overall tone is exceedingly Hitchcockian, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching an overlong episode of The Twilight Zone. Not bad, just… De Palma.
-90. Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1965) [Unavailable]
Remember all those J-Horror movies that were flooding the US market about ten years back? Every single one of them owes their existence to this film. If you are a fan of slow-building, psychological horror, then this film is an absolute must see.
One of my favorite 50’s B movies. This film scared the crap out of me as a child. The 80’s remake is available on Instant Watch, but not fit for human consumption.
[admin. note: check out the great scene from the 80’s schlocky hokum here!]
Man, the late 50’s was a hell of a good time to be a horror movie fan, which, it would appear, Netflix is not.
A great example of how the directorial team of Powell and Pressburger, who made films under their collective nom du cinema was The Archers, were years ahead of their fellow British competitors. Black Narcissus is based on a Rumer Godden novel about a group of nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), who set up a convent in an old harem high in the Himalayan mountains. Their efforts to bring western medicine, education and religion to the mountain tribes soon become hampered by a variety of obstacles, including the distracting presence of the cynical British foreign agent, Dean (David Farrar), the arrival of a local General’s son (Sabu) who has come to be educated, and, most of all, their new unfamiliar and exotic surroundings. Sister Clodagh does her best to keep the convent on mission, her own troubled past begins to resurface as she finds herself drawing closer to Dean in the face of her mounting hardships.
While the story is high 1940’s melodrama, the overall point it is attempting to make is rather progressive for the times in which it was made. While Britain was looking down the barrel of the end of it’s sprawling empire (India would gain it’s independence from the UK a mere three months later) The Archers were promoting the idea that such remote parts of the world are beautiful and alluring to Westerners is because of those location’s lack of Western culture, not in spite of it. The whole film is a giant allegory of the many ways in which the imperialistic spreading of Western ideals to the four corners of the earth is both fundamentally flawed and inherently futile. Also of note are the visual effects, which are as reliably beautiful as in any Michael Powell film. Absolutely breathtaking hand-painted matte backgrounds, impeccably shot miniature exterior models and lovingly reproduced interior sets were of far greater quality than what was being filmed on most other movies at that time. Even today, this film is a testament to that fact that you don’t need high-tech CGI effects and thirty tons of explosives to transport and audience anywhere the filmmaker desires to take them.
-94. I Know Where I’m Going! (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1945)
A pretty basic little romance from the The Archers. Joan (Wendy Hiler) is a headstrong young woman who is engaged to be married to a wealthy, older businessman. She is traveling to meet him on an isle in Scotland and has almost arrived when she meets a handsome but poor naval officer named Torquil, who is traveling to the same island. When the weather turns bad, he offers to put her up at his friend’s house until the weather turns and I think you can see where this is headed without me writing any more about the plot.
While not nearly as good as some of their later films, it is interesting to see Powell and Pressburger experimenting with elements they would later go on to master. The overall attitude of the film towards it’s determinedly proto-feminist heroine is a rather irritating mix of head-shaking exasperation and begrudging respect that, while more than likely par for the course at the time of it’s filming, consistently got in the way of me enjoying a film that is otherwise beautifully shot and full of wry, unforced dialog. It’s also yet another film in the Collection that is a puzzling favorite of Martin Scorsese. I’m almost sure that one day he’ll come forward as being a secret Michael Bay fan and then the mystery of Criterion’s release of Armageddon will be solved.
Douglas Sirk has become widely regarded as a master of subversive cinematic criticism of the American status quo. This film concerns Cary (Jane Wyman), an aging, suburbanite widow who wishes to find love again but finds all of the options available to her somewhat uninspiring. Enter Rock Hudson, playing the part of her (in no way homosexual) gardener, who shows her that love can transcend social class.
While writing this column, I have been pleasantly surprised by more than a few films, but this is the one that has caught me the most off guard. I watched it once as a young film student and dismissed it as the standard 1950’s pap that it appears to be. But when you pay closer attention to the line delivery and the subtle facial reactions they elicit, it becomes clear that Sirk was shooting some very pointed commentary at a complacent lifestyle that was repressive at it’s worst and banal at it’s best. While up front the plot does deal with a time-relevant taboo regarding the mixing of social classes, it quickly becomes a stalking horse for the director to voice his disdain for an entire mindset that was based in homogeny, propriety and, above all, repressed sexuality. As the Tea Party and other hard-right factions gain an ever-increasing foothold in American politics, this film has become quite a relevant piece of evidence, insomuch that it proves that the fairy tale of the 50’s that these political groups pine for is exactly that: a fairy tale.
-96. Written On The Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956) [Unavailable]
Have not seen it, but given how much I enjoyed All the Heaven Allows, I expect it to be joining my DVD queue with a quickness.
Quite possibly one of the most important films to ever come out of American Cinema. Do The Right Thing thrusts the viewer headlong into the joys, sorrows and tensions of living in Brooklyn’s predominantly black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood on the hottest day of the summer of ‘89. Following a “day in the life” structure, we are rapidly introduced practically everyone in the neighborhood. Mookie (Lee) delivers pizzas for Sal (Danny Aiello) and his two sons, Pino (John Tuturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) is the local drunk who hangs out on building stoops shouting his opinions to anyone who will listen and harassing Mother-Sister (Ruby Dee) for her affections. Everyone, black, white, Puerto Rican and Korean does their best to get along, but as the mercury rises, so do old racial tensions until one tragic spark ignites a firestorm of rage.
I am deeply dissatisfied with that plot synopsis, because I can’t sum up the intricacies of this film in a single paragraph any better than I could sum up all of Brooklyn in a sentence. This film is raw, powerful and utterly unflinching in it’s look at a topic that most Americans would rather sweep under the rug. There is, quite simply, no other filmmaker, living or dead, that can fully portray the frustrations and pain caused by centuries of slavery, decades of segregation and the ongoing daily indignities of racial discrimination, like Spike Lee. He peels back preconceived notions on both sides of the issue and discards the niceties and obfuscations that clutter the dialog to home in, with scalpel-sharp precision, on the bleeding heart of the matter while simultaneously addressing such weighty subjects as when an act of violence is a condonable option. I tell you, when he’s on his game, the man is the Michael Jordan of filmmaking; handling the most impenetrable of subjects with confidence and competence while hardly breaking a sweat. It doesn’t matter if you like movies or not, if you are a human being and you live in America, seeing the movie ought to be mandatory.
This is an art house movie with a capital A. Anna (Lea Massari) is the absolute poster child for ennui as she accompanies her friend Gabrielle (Monica Vitti) and lover Sandro (Gabrielle Ferzetti) on a boat trip to the Mediterranean. When they land on an island, Anna disappears and is never heard from again. So what is Claudia and Sandro’s reaction? They hook up of course! However, seeing as how Sandro is a bit of a manchild and Claudia is wracked with guilt over shacking up with her possibly dead friend’s boyfriend, problems quite naturally abound.
Did I say that Anna’s character was the poster child for ennui? I meant this entire film. While it did help break a lot of ground for future existentialism-heavy art flicks, L’Avventura also demands that the viewer find some level of empathy with it’s wealthy, disaffected characters. Furthermore, the current trend of Mumblecore films can trace their horrid little lineage straight back to plot-light, dialog-heavy films full of beautiful people stuck in quandaries of their own making, such as this. Best saved for a rainy day, in the middle of winter, when you’re lightly depressed, on Quaaludes.
Fuck that. Gimme Streaming.
-100. Beastie Boys Video Anthology (Various, 2000) [Unavailable]
And we cross the triple digit line, not with a bang, but with an unavailable. To be fair, Netflix is probably just avoiding the logistical headache involved with individually streaming a bunch of 3-4 minute long music videos.
100 down and only 571 to go! That is…daunting. There were a couple good surprises in the mix as well as films that didn’t hold up on my second viewing of them. All in all, though, this week’s roundup was a bit weaksauce. I mean, I only had to watch nine movies out of twenty-five! Boo-urns.