what to watch when you're stranded
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Category — Criterion Roundup

Instant Classics: Criterion on Netflix #151-175

Welcome back to my ongoing and ultimately futile effort to review every single Criterion Collection film before they are retconned off of Netflix Instant Watch. After last week’s frankly lackluster reviews of some truly spectacular films, I have decided to put the boot to my own ass and try to write this column with the passion and insight that I know I am capable of. Apologies to anyone who’s first encounter with this site was my last piece. I think you’ll find this one to be far more entertaining and, just maybe, somewhat enlightening.

-151. Traffic (Steven Soderburgh, 2000) [Unavailable]

I haven’t seen this film since it came out, but if memory serves, it was just a boilerplate drugs ‘n’ guns story with some semi-innovative cinematography from a director who had already made the best films of his career. Remember when the War on Drugs was America’s biggest threat? I’m reasonably willing to bet that, in the wake of 9/11, two (three?) actual wars and the horrifying explosion of drug-related violence in Mexico, this film comes across today as an unbearably outdated and quaint cautionary tale to a world that hadn’t seen anything yet.

-152. George Washington (David Gordon Green, 2000) [Unavailable]

This is one of those movies that I’ve been hearing people rave about for years but never bothered looking into. Wish I could say otherwise, but there it is.

-153. General Idi Amin Dada (Barbet Schroeder, 1974)

In 1974, documentarian Barbet Schroeder secured unparalleled access to one of the most enigmatic dictators of the 20th century: Ugandan President Idi Amin. The resulting film is an unabashed look at what happens when an honest-to-god madman walks the halls of power. The film follows Amin, who clearly saw the project as propaganda piece, through a plethora of staged meet-and-greets, military inspections and candid conversations with the dictator his early life, Israel and the responsibilities of ruling a once-prosperous African nation.

Whatever Amin’s intentions for the film may have been, the camera’s unblinking eye captured many moments where the usually charming and urbane General would talk himself off-message and briefly pull back the curtain on his delusional worldview and unhinged emotional status. Amin is so charming that, were it not for Schroeder’s constant off-camera reminders that the man was responsible for genocide-level slayings of his own people, he could have easily managed to come off as merely a somewhat backward, but ultimately harmless, man-child playing at being President. The fact that we live in a political climate that often finds itself dominated by the whichever candidate is the most congenial rather than the one who is the most capable, makes this film a powerful shot across the bow of the modern voting public.

-154. The Horse’s Mouth (Ronald Neame, 1958) [Unavailable]

Haven’t heard of it before but: a dark, British comedy written by and starring a young Alec Guinness? Sign me up.
Side Note: Available online at Criterion.com

-155. Tokyo Olympiad ( Kon Ichikawa, 1965) [Unavailable]

While this film is supposed to feature some really groundbreaking cinematography, I just can’t help but feel underwhelmed by the prospect of watching a nearly 3 hour long film about the 1964 Olympics. Hell, I don’t even spend that much time watching the Olympics when they’re happening live on TV.

-156. Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974)

Pieced together from various interviews with military brass, discharged soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, newsreel presidential addresses and on-the-ground camera work, Hearts and Minds is THE documentary on the Vietnam War. Released in 1974, less than a year before the war would end, the film pulled all the disparate feelings towards the conflict that had been building up in the American consciousness for two decades and laid everything out in a vicious and visceral knockout punch aimed squarely at anyone who might still be on the fence. In fact, the movie was so controversial, that it’s original release was impeded and litigated against until all it received was a one week run in Los Angeles. And the Academy Award for Best Documentary.

While the film does use interviews with people on both sides of the famously divisive war’s opinion gulf, it’s impossible to ignore it’s underlying message when you see a sobbing relative of a dead Vietnamese soldier throwing herself onto his coffin while then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. William Westmoreland intones, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” Utterly unflinching in it’s depiction of one of our worst military disasters, Hearts and Minds blazed the trail and set the example that would later make documentaries like No End in Sight and Restrepo shining examples of how patriotism and unthinking compliance with a government’s agenda are not the same thing.

-157. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001) [Unavailable]

Wait, it’s been TEN YEARS since this film came out?! I am so old right now…

-158. The Importance of Being Earnest (Anthony Asquith, 1952)

Based on Oscar Wilde’s most popular work, the film recounts the efforts of Jack Worthing (Michael Redgrave) to secure the hand of young Gwendolyn (Joan Greenwood) in marriage. Problem is, she is under the impression that his name is really Earnest, which is the only name that will do for her prospective husband. The confusion stems from the fact that Jack lives two lives, one as Jack when in London and one as Earnest when he is at his country manor taking care of his young ward, Cecily (Dorothy Tutin). He tells Cecily that Earnest is his screw-up brother who he must constantly bail out of trouble, in order to avoid the constant pressure of being her legal guardian. Further complicating matters is Jack’s ne’er-do-well friend, Algernon (Michael Denison) who, upon hearing of Cecily’s wit and beauty, shows up at Jack’s manor in the guise of Earnest in the hopes of wooing the girl.

Witty and wry humor abound in this pointed critique of Victorian culture, which was so predominant at the time Wilde wrote it. While I’m not a huge fan of Victorian romances, this one comes off at a rather breezy clip and is over before any of the characters get too huffy and overbearing. Watch it with your mom. You know you forgot to call her, anyways.

-159. Red Beard (Akira Kurosawa, 1965) [Unavailable]

Bwah-huh? A Kurosawa flick that’s not available for streaming? It’s like I’m doing penance for that single, solitary Bergman film I got to stream last week.

-160. A Nous la Liberte (Rene Clair, 1931) [Unavailable]

As early French comedies are not my cinematic forte, I have no comment with which to, er, comment.

-161. Under the Roofs of Paris (Rene Clair, 1930) [Unavailable]

Same statement as the above film, only swap “comedy” for “ romance” and multiply the sentiment by a damn sight.

-162. Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsey, 1999)

Set in the public housing projects of Glasgow, Scotland during the infamous garbage strike of 1973, Ratcatcher follows 12-year-old James as he grows up in some of the worst living conditions in the Western World. Living with his alcoholic father (Tommy Flanagan), beleaguered mother and two sisters, James must wrestle with his guilt after the inadvertent drowning of his friend as well as his burgeoning adolescence. Despite being a tough little kid, his hopes for the future seem on the verge of being swallowed the the ever-deepening morass of crime, filth and poverty that surrounds his daily life.

This film has the distinction of being one of the few English language films I’ve ever seen that I’m glad featured subtitles. Most of the characters, many of whom were portrayed by non-actors, sport Glaswegian accents that are so thick a slang-heavy, that even my Anglophile ears could hardly pick out what was being said. Luckily, Ramsey decided to eschew an overabundance of dialog in favor of long, haunting shots of the rust-and-concrete hell that she sends her characters to. Though much of it is filmed outdoors, the camera sticks close to it’s subjects, be they human or merely man-made, and enhances the sickening feeling of being a rat trapped in maze with no exits.

-163. Hopscotch (Ronald Neame, 1980)

The late, great Walter Matthau plays Walter Kendig, the CIA’s most talented field agent, who’s waging an ever-warming Cold War. After Kendig lets his KGB counterpart off the hook, he is called back to Washington and informed that he is being busted down to desk duty for the rest of his career. He becomes infuriated by his demotion and flees to his lover (Glenda Jackson) in Austria, where he proceeds to write his “memoirs” of all the CIA, KGB and (especially) former boss, Myerson’s (Ned Beatty) dirty secrets for the enjoyment of the reading public. Anxious to avoid his impending embarrassment, Myerson charges Kendig’s former protege, Cutter (Sam Waterson) to find and eliminate Kendig before his book goes to press.

Sounds like some good, old-fashioned 80’s cloak and dagger stuff, right? Wrong! This film is a manic and somewhat screwball comedy that pokes good-natured fun at the Cold War paranoia that had been rapidly slackening for the previous decade. Matthau is his typical, schlubby self as he leads his incompetent adversaries on a merry chase across the globe. A true product of the post-Nixon era, which gave birth to both the scathing documentary and wry political comedy genres in America. While lots of lightweight fun, I’m not entirely sure what it’s doing in the Collection.

-164. Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)

Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is a psychologist set to evaluate the conditions on a space station that is orbiting the distant ocean planet of Solaris. While scientists have been studying the planet for many years, the research close to the surface has proven hazardous and so the sprawling space station now only supports a three man crew. Upon arrival, Kris discovers that one of the scientists is dead and the other two are evasive and uncooperative. While walking through the empty halls of the half deserted station, Kris begins to suspect that they are not the only people on board. Sure enough, his suspicions are confirmed when he wakes up one morning to the sight of his wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who has been dead for ten years.

Based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, this film is a beautiful and quiet at space itself. While the film’s set design and contemplative manner owe an undeniable debt to Stanley Kubrick’s take on 2001, it stands on it’s own two feet as a meditation of the complexities of human interaction, emotion and, most importantly, communication. Tarkovsy was a master of narrative tone, which he proved here beyond a shadow of a doubt. Where a lesser director would have opted for sudden musical cues and bombastic set pieces to drive their point home, Tarkovsy uses a nearly inaudible aria, the tinkling of wind chimes or even just a shift in film coloration to enchant, provoke and unnerve at the slightest whim.

(Side Note: The 2002 remake is garbage. Don’t take my word for it, though. When speaking about the original film, Salman Rushdie said that it “needs to be seen as widely as possible before it’s transformed by Steven Soderbergh and James Cameron into what they ludicrously threaten will be ‘2001 meets Last Tango in Paris in space’. What, sex in space with floating butter? Tarkovsky must be turning over in his grave.” Moral: You just don’t piss off a man who’s had a jihad called down on his head.)

-165. Man Bites Dog (Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzei and Benoit Poelvoorde, 1992)

This mockumentary about two Belgian documentarians following around an urbane and charismatic serial killer, stars the film’s co-directors acting under their real names. Remy and Andre are the filmmakers who have taken it upon themselves to uncover the psyche of a madman, played by Benoit. As they are shown the tools of the trade, as well as it’s “occupational hazards” by an eager-to-please Benoit, the line between the subject and the observers becomes increasingly blurred and soon the documentarians begin to take a supporting role in their own film and Benoit’s rapidly increasing body count.

Originally released under the more provocative title of C’est Arrive Pres de Chez Vous (“It Happened in Your Neighborhood“) this is one of the all-time blackest of black comedies. The genius of the film lies in it’s portrayal of Benoit: he is intelligent, artistic and kind toward those he considers to be his friends and family, but turns into a cavalier and unfeeling murderer at the drop of a hat. In this, his character is not so far removed from the real life madness that is on display in General Idi Amin Dada. Even though Benoit is the central character, it is the film crew’s actions that provide the movie’s most devastating sucker punch. While at first unsettled by what they see, soon become fascinated with Benoit’s macabre profession, much in the same way we see the modern explosion of interest in reality shows and videos of all stripes. In never turning the camera off when the possibility of a good shot presents itself, Man Bites Dog dares to confront filmmakers, producers and especially the viewers with the notion that, by their continued production and consumption of this horrible parade of the worst aspects of humanity, they themselves become complicit in the perpetuation of that which they claim to abhor. Well recommended for anyone who likes their social commentary with teeth.

-166. Down By Law (Jim Jarmusch, 1986) [Tragically Unavailable]

My absolute favorite films from one of my all-time favorite directors starring one of my unquestionably favorite musicians. See this movie by any means necessary.

[admin. note: In a fit of unseen synchronicity, IOC recently ran a Great Scenes post from Down By Law here]

-167. The Complete Monterey Pop Festival (Various, 1967) [Unavailable]

You know, it really irks me that Criterion gave individual spine numbers to box sets and then continued on numbering the films contained in said box set. How is the obsessive-compulsive in me supposed to arrange that on my shelf in numerical spine order? Apparently it irked IMDB too, because they don’t have a listing for it.

-168. Monterey Pop (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967) [Unavailable]

See above. Or below for that matter.

-169. Jimi Plays Monterey & Shake! Otis at Monterey (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967) [Unavailable]

Companion pieces to the hippie music documentary in the entry above, that is bundled together in the box set featured in the entry above that. Marks the point in history when Monterey first became associated with insufferable douchebags.

-170. Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932) [Unavailable]

Remember what I said earlier about French comedies and romances from the 30’s? Let’s bundle American romantic comedies from the 30’s in with them.

-171. Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963) [Unavailable]

Was really looking forward to reviewing this. Never fear! It’s made it’s way to the top of my DVD queue and will be getting a full treatment in the near future.

-172. Pepe Le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937) [Unavailable]

Remember what I said about French comedies and romances from the 30’s? I am the exact opposite with French gangster films of that same era, or any era, really. This film cut the path that the likes of Bob le Flambeur and Le Samourai would later tread to stunning effect.

-173. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1943)

A sprawling, comedic effort from The Archers, this film follows the military career of Gen. Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) through the Boer War and First and Second World Wars. Candy starts and unlikely friendship with a German army officer (Anton Walbrook) and has various romantic inclinations toward three different women, all played by Deborah Kerr, over the course of his life as he watches the world and it’s notion of how to fight warfare, leave him in the pages of forgotten history.

What. A. Slog. Right from the start it’s all zany musical cues, scenery-chewing line delivery and “Pip Pip Cherrio I Dare Say Wot Wot” to the point where I found it hard to believe that this film was made by actual Brits. Everyone in it is such an over-the-top caricature that it felt like I was spending three hours (yeah, never getting that time back) inside the brain of some hick from Arkansas who had been asked to describe forty years of British military actions without having ever met an Englishman and only a rudimentary grasp European history. While it was considered highly subversive and critical of the military establishment when it was released as well as having helped pioneer the Technicolor era, I found literally every other aspect of this film to be unbearably grating. And yet? No less a cinematic luminary that David Mamet claims it as his favorite film! What the hell is going on?! Perhaps one day I will finally realize why all these incredibly talented directors, for whom I have so much respect, are so enamored with what I consider to be some of Powell and Pressburger’s most unwatchable films. Wether or not I do, one thing is for certain, that enlightenment won’t come from watching this film again.

-174. Band of Outsiders (Jean-Luc Goddard, 1964) [Unavailable]

Portrait of a Netflix: loves Kurosawa and Michael Powell; hates Bergman, Goddard and Hitchcock. What an asshole.

-175. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998)

Based on the semi-autobiographical, cult classic book by the inventor of Gonzo journalism himself, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. The story, such as it is, follows Raul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his lawyer Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) as they take a trip to Las Vegas where they are to report on a motorcycle race. Due to the inclusion of “two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine…a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls” the assignment takes a very forgone and brain-melting detour into the depths of the American psyche in the early 70’s.

The film, like the book, is howlingly funny mainly due to the fact that Gilliam allows Thompson’s original, razor-sharp prose to dominate the film. Depp and Del Toro share a magically abusive on-screen chemistry that brings the two characters (which are in fact hyper-embellished stand-in’s for Thompson and his friend, Oscar Zeta Acosta) to sweaty, wild-eyed life. Adding to this is Gilliam’s notorious, madman directorial style which produced wildfire-caliber sparks when played against Thompson’s narcotic agitprop. The camera zooms through hellish hallucinations and even-more hellish realities to leave the viewer dumped out at the end of the film with the same exhausted feeling you get when you spend a day riding rollercoasters at an amusement park.

Fun fact: I have seen this film more times than any other film ever made. When I was 18 and fresh out of my parents house, I embraced the drug culture with open, eager arms. This film became something of a mantra for me and my roommates who would rush home from work nearly every day for months on end to absorb every scrap of it’s twisted, cynical and yet, strangely hopeful account of two men searching for truth, justice and the American Way with the aid of a laundry list of illicit substances. I found this film at a time when I was in the process of rejecting the suburban, Christian fundaments of my upbringing and searching for something, anything at all, to latch on to. At first the film seemed to be a simple, amoral glorification of all things drug-induced. Upon further repeated viewings, however, I began to feel the full impact of Thompson’s words. The drugs, while taking somewhat of a top billing in the film, were simply the fuel for his quest, not the destination. It’s not a celebration of getting fucked up, but rather a eulogy for the decency, honesty and, incredibly enough, morality that Thompson perceived as lacking in the post-hippie-Watergate-Vietnam hellscape that was his understanding of America at that time. Further delving into Thompson’s serious journalistic efforts, in fact, was one of the strongest of my motivations to become a writer. While I have since outgrown both my druggy phase and this film’s somewhat juvenile world-view, the best I can sum up my continued love for it is by paraphrasing the Good Doctor himself: I wouldn’t recommend films that glorify sex, drugs or insanity to everyone, but they’ve always worked for me.

Well that was an interesting little block. I like how the whole thing was bookended by such polar opposites as Traffic and Fear and Loathing. While I do hope for less whackadoo British comedies in the future, any week I get to re-watch three films that are in my all time top 50 (Solaris, Man Bites Dog, Fear and Loathing) is a good week in my book.

Enhanced by Zemanta

May 16, 2011   2 Comments

Instant Classics: Criterion on Netflix #126-150

I hate to start things off with an apology, but I feel it’s somewhat necessary. The past two weeks of my life have been assaulted by a trifecta of distractions in the form of new job responsibilities, the NBA playoffs (RIP CITY!) and the glorious onset of springtime in New York City. I don’t know about you but when the weather and people outside are so damn beautiful, keeping myself focused on obscure Czech films from half a century ago becomes somewhat of a chore. That being said, I have reviews for you! Enjoy! And hopefully next week I’ll be back with more.

-126-127. Ordet; Gertrude (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1955; 1964) [Unavailable]

Two films by Dreyer that portray the various and sundry ways a family can rip itself apart. Not exactly summer reading.

-128. Carl Th. Dreyer: My Metier (Torben Skjodt Jensen, 1995) [Unavailable]

A documentary on the life and times of one of the most unstreamed directors in Netflix’s catalogue.

-129. Le Trou (Jacques Becker, 1960) [Unavailable]


Fantastic jailbreak movie from one of the most overlooked directors in French cinema. If people such as Francois Truffaut and Jean Renoir like a guy’s films, it goes without saying that they are worth looking into.

-130. The Shop on Main Street (Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos, 1965) [Unavailable]


Is there such a thing as “too much” Nazi/Soviet-bashing? Probably not, but Czech New Wave Cinema definitely did it’s damnedest to find out and this film is no exception.

-131. Closely Watched Trains (Jiri Menzel, 1966)

Milos Hrma comes from a long line of malingerers who have been adept at one thing: profitably avoiding hard work. The family is proud and the neighbors are jealous when young Milos takes a position as an apprentice at a small railway station in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia. While he excels at his mindlessly easy job, he has yet to succeed in the matters of love and thus his coworker takes it upon himself to tutor young Milos in the manly art of carousing.

The verdict is in (and it rhymes!): Czechs love sex. Seriously, a ton of the books and films coming out of soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia in the 60’s were transfixed by the freeing powers of some good, old copulatin’. This film, along with the rest of the Czech New Wave, is subtle, wry and subversive. The Germans are a clear stand-in for the Soviet oppressors of the time and the cast do their level best to constantly question and impede the efforts of the occupying force and it’s collaborators. When one takes into account the country’s political climate at the time, it’s rather amazing that Menzel, Milos Foreman or any of the other Czech directors were able to get away with this type of blatant, political jabbing but I’m nonetheless thankful that they did.

-132. The Ruling Class (Peter Medak, 1972)

When his father dies in an unfortunate autoerotic accident, Jack Gurney (Peter O’Toole) finds that he is now the 14th Earl of Gurney. Trouble is, he’s already got a job: being God. Mortified by Jack’s delusion that he is Jesus Christ, his conniving uncle decides he must marry Jack off so that he may produce an heir to the Earldom and be committed once and for all. All is going to plan until Jack’s doctor makes a shocking breakthrough at the last moment, and sanity seems to have been restored to the House of Gurney. Or has it?

Utterly scathing social commentary of the highest order. This film attacks every aspect of and preconceived notion held by the British aristocracy and religious establishment with gusto and razor sharp wit. O’Toole plays a strangely loony straight-man to the rest of the cast’s crumbling stiff upper lips. The dialog is so quick and dry, you may miss the delicately delivered punch-lines until a few beats after they’ve been spoken (and their full, satirical intent until even later).

-133. The Vanishing (George Sluizer, 1988) [Unavailable]

This film is a truly haunting experience. Too many “missing persons” movies turn to improbable terrorist/serial killer cliches (I’m looking at you, Liam Neeson’s Current Career Choices) to satisfy the audience’s need for a defeatable antagonist. This is probably much closer to the real thing. Really bummed it’s not streaming on Netflix but it IS online for $5 at Criterion.com.

-134. Häxan (Benjamin Christensen, 1922) [Unavailable]


This awesomely creepy witchcraft movie is right up there with Nosferatu as one of my favorite silent horror films.

-135-137. Rebecca; Spellbound; Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940; 1945; 1946) [Unavailable] target=”_blank”>

target=”_blank”>No!

OK, I’m overreacting a little bit, but I mean, come on. I can stream The Lady Vanishes but none of these? What’s your GAME, Netflix?

-138. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

This is, hands down, my absolute favorite Kurosawa film. While I love pretty much everything the legendary director brought to the table, this is one of those films where even the most uninitiated viewer can grasp just how revolutionary the man was. The film opens on three men seeking shelter from a downpour in the ruins of the titular city gate. Two of them have just come from a murder trial where they heard three wildly differing testimonies of the crime: one from the criminal (Toshiro Mifune) who is the chief suspect, one from the raped wife of the victim, and one from the ghost of the victim himself as related through a medium. The extraordinary thing is, each person takes the responsibility of the murder upon themselves. As the stories are told, it becomes clear that no one is telling the truth about the events and, as such, the truth may never be known.

Just in looking at the central storytelling method, you can tell that this is not your average movie. While Kurosawa did not come up with the multiple POV plot (the movie is based on a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa), the way he perfectly captures the multiple, varying stories was something that had never been done before. He pioneered not only the concept of multiple shots to further increase the dynamism of his action pieces but also made use almost entirely of ambient, outdoor light. Not only do both of these concepts see heavy use in contemporary cinema to this day, but the multiple POV storytelling technique has been aped so many times in such films as Hero, Reservoir Dogs, The Usual Suspects and a veritable litany of TV episodes, that it is now referred to as “The Rashomon Effect”.

-139. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

What’s this? A Bergman film? Streaming? On Netflix?! Such things are unheard of! Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom, one of the founders of Swedish Cinema who had a profound influence on Bergman) is a crotchety old man who has severed most of his personal connections to the outside world. On the day he is to be awarded for his 50 years as a doctor and a scientist, he takes a long car ride from his isolated home accompanied by his daughter-in-law. Along the way he encounters several people and a series of dreams that make him reevaluate his choices that have made him and empty, lonely old man.

Chock full of beautiful imagery and camerawork, Wild Strawberries finds Bergman at his surrealist best. The dream sequences are both haunting and profound and the presence of one of Sweden’s cinematic luminaries in the lead role no doubt went a long way to making this film nigh on perfect. When I was first introduced to this filmmaker’s work, I was struck by his delicate yet powerful grasp of humanity’s fear of a meaningless life being bookended by a meaningless death. If anything, this film proves that Bergman should have had no such fears when his own time came.

-140. 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963)

Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is a famous director who is stricken with a crippling case of “director’s block” while filming his wildly ambitious and semi-autobiographical science fiction masterpiece. The root of his troubles seems to be the multiple demands and distractions placed upon him by his wife, mistress and producers but a series of flashbacks (dreams? alternate realities?) begin to unearth a different story.

Those of you who have been reading this column for a while may want to sit down: I really like this film. I know that I have been highly critical and dismissive of Fellini’s other works and I still stand by those statements. Prior comments notwithstanding, Fellini crafted a gorgeous, hypnotic and highly metaphysical nesting doll of a movie here. Starting with the title, which is self-referential to this being his “8 1/2th” directorial effort, through to the film’s plot mirroring Fellini’s own life at that time, the layers of symbolism and allegory are piled on like an infinitely skinned onion. Just try to walk through this in your head: Fellini was suffering writer’s block and marital problems while working on a film, so he changed the script to reflect what was going on in his personal life and ended up with a film about a director who was suffering from writer’s block and marital issues while working on a film, so then THAT director starts making a film about *fizzle pop burn nosebleed*. On every level, this film is a revolutionary triumph of the art of cinema.

-141. Children of Paradise (Marcel Carne, 1945)

Set in the bustling theater district of early 19th century Paris, a beautiful young courtesan named Garance (Arletty) finds herself on the receiving end of four very different men’s very different ideas of love. An actor, a mime, a thief and an aristocrat all covet her affections but none of them want her to be as she is. On a more esoteric level, the film is using the trappings of theater’s past to tell the story of cinema’s present and future.While fighting for Garance’s attention, the four men are all drawn into the plot as players, writers and patrons.

I can’t really delve into the plot much deeper than those few sentences without giving away enough of the plot to spoil some really spectacular moments in the film. Suffice it to say, this film, at 3+ hours in length and spanning nearly a decade of storytelling, is epic in every way. All four of the men are based on real historical figures of the time and the set pieces have a fantastically accurate ramshackle quality about them that calls to mind The Gangs of New York. While it is a bit of chore to sit all the way through, Children of Paradise will reward the attentive viewer with a touching story of love, duplicity and the fine art of acting.

-142. The Last Wave (Peter Weir, 1977) [Unavailable]

OK so Peter Weir really shot himself in the foot with the whole Master and Commander debacle. Still and all, this movie is outstanding and can you really hate on a guy who managed to elicit genuinely target=”_blank”>watchable performances out of both Robin Williams AND Ethan Hawke?

-143. That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Buñuel, 1977)

As recounted to his fellow passengers on a Paris-bound train, Mathieu (frequent Buñuel collaborator Fernando Rey) falls in love with a beautiful young maid named Conchita (played by Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina. We’ll get to that later.). While Mathieu is obsessed with seducing the girl, Conchita holds his satisfaction tantalizingly out of reach. While her constant coquettishness keeps drives Mathieu away, it also has the power to keep luring him back to her, until he reaches what he thinks is the final straw.

Like many of Buñuel’s films, this is all about the destruction we wreak upon ourselves in the name of pursuing our desires. Mathieu comes from a privileged background and so feels secure in his right to possess what ever it is that he wants, in this case, Conchita. Conchita comes from an impoverished background in an oppressive country (Franco’s Spain) and so feels that she must fight off anything or anybody who would impede her absolute sense of freedom, in this case, Mathieu. While both of them love one another, their desire to behave just as they always have and never compromise ultimately trumps their desire for each other. Conchita is especially conflicted, and Buñuel uses his two actresses to further outline a single woman’s hot and cold tendencies in his typically surrealist fashion.

-144. Loves of a Blonde (Milos Forman, 1965)

After the communist government has forced a large number of women to relocate to a remote town in the Czech countryside and work in it’s shoe factory, the city officials and factory bosses notice that the number of women now greatly outweighs the number of men. This problem is affecting the women’s happiness and productivity, so the government relocates and army base to the town in the hopes of fixing the problem they have made. Andula, one of the women at the factory attends a state-sponsered mixer for the soldiers and factory workers and falls for Milda, the pianist at the event. The two end up spending the night together but when Milda returns to his home in Prague, Andula feels compelled to follow.

It’s hard to write a compelling synopsis of this film because its plot is so deceptively simple. Underneath the skin of the standard girl-meets-boy proceedings are many veiled jabs at the Soviet-backed government that was in power when Milos Forman directed this film. Andula and Milda find themselves in an artificial relationship because of the failed social engineering practices of their government, but one that is still as tender and real as any other, no matter how temporary it may be. Many films in Czech cinema’s New Wave championed the notion that sex was the one freedom that totalitarianism could never conquer, and this film is no different, conveying that notion with all the sentiment and vulnerability of a teenage crush.

-145. The Fireman’s Ball (Milos Forman, 1967) [Unavailable]

I watched this many years back and all I can remember about it is getting to the end and thinking, “Meh.” Then again, I used to like Fight Club back then, so it’s a bit of a toss-up.

-146. The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957) [Unavailable]

Art House film from Soviet Russia. Leave the Yakov Smirnoff jokes at the door, people.

[admin. note: pardon the interruption but I am compelled to let you know that Kalatozov’s 1964 film, I Am Cuba – a historic bit of Soviet propaganda and a fantastic example of film direction at it’s finest – is available on Netflix streaming, and is highly recommended. A review is pending]

-147. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000) [Unavailable]

This was JUST available on Netflix Instant and I’m mildly pissed that I didn’t get to it in time because, like everything else the man does, it’s unspeakably beautiful.

-148. Ballad of a Soldier (Grigori Chukhrai, 1959)

After a singular display of bravery on WWII’s Eastern Front a young soldier named Alexei is given six days of leave to go visit his mother. Along with several other discharged soldiers and a young woman, Alexei begins his tightly scheduled journey home. On the way, he finds his progressed blocked by obstacles both natural and manmade, but his spirit never wavers.

While the dynamic and rapid-fire camera work are call-backs to the work of Sergei Eisenstein, the storytelling is pure post-Stalin “New Soviet Cinema”. At a time when the French were aggressively slashing and burning as much entrenched cinematic dogma as they could get their hands on, their Russian counterparts were just beginning to explore the newfound freedoms available in the wake of one of the world’s worst despots. Where previous Russian war films had sought to glorify the achievements of the Soviet military at large, this film takes a closer look at the personal cost of the individuals.

-149. Juliet of the Spirits (Federico Fellini, 1965) [Unavailable]

I’d call this film “plodding” but that would infer a mistaken sense of forward thrust that is almost completely absent here.

-150. Bob Le Flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1956)

Bob (Roger Duchesne) is an aging gambler and ex-con who’s luck and money have almost run dry. Desperate for cash, Bob joins several other hoods in planning to rob a casino vault. Everything is going according to plan until Anne, the young woman that Bob is taking care of, accidently divulges the details of the heist to the wrong person and puts the whole operation at risk.

Awash in indecipherable French slang and atmospheric set pieces, Bob Le Flambeur is classic noir cinema to the bone, and yet still boasts a proto-New Wave pedigree. The seedy, neon-washed streets of Paris’ Montmartre district provide just as much atmosphere to the back-room plots and back-alley double crosses as LA ever did. In this film, not only did Melville betrays his passion for old-school American Crime dramas, but elevated the genre with the type of hand-held camerawork and a solitary jump cut that presaged the impending French film revolution by several years.

What an all around excellent selection of films! I seriously loved every single one that I saw. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some springtime to soak up.

Enhanced by Zemanta

May 3, 2011   No Comments

Instant Classics: Criterion on Netflix #101-125

After last week’s milquetoast selection, I went ahead and searched for the availability of a good amount of Criterion films that I am scheduled to review in the future. In doing so, I think I have found indicators that, in regards to Criterion streaming on Netflix, the end is extremely fucking nigh. I don’t know if the Netflix brass just threw their hands up and said “Screw it, we need more Dolph Lundgren films, anyways” or what, but there were at least a dozen films that had been previously available, that are, at the time of this writing, scheduled to come down in the near future. On the one hand, I would like to say that I could pick up the pace and make a mad dash through the upcoming 473 films. On the other, I have somewhat mixed feelings about losing what’s left of my feeble mind. With any luck, I’ll make it across that ludicrously distant finish line before time runs out.

-101. Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman, 1972) [Unavailable]

*Shakes head, sighs*
In case you haven’t been following along, not a single Criterion-released Bergman film has been streaming on Netflix so far.

-102. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel, 1972)

Six upper class jackasses are attempting to have dinner together, but find their efforts repeatedly stymied in Buñuel’s classic absurdist film. The plot is incredibly loose and nonsensical, yet tied together by reoccurring incidents, attitudes and dreams.  In each dinner scene, the characters display their disdain for the lower classes alongside their enduring sense of entitlement.

Buñuel seems hell bent on toying, not only with his characters, but with the audience as well. The story is constantly being twisted and set back as some events are revealed to only exist in a character’s dreams and others are so illogical and ridiculous, that they could not occur in a rational world. Therein, however, lies the genius of this film. Buñuel made his film incoherent and absurd as a way of underlining the entrenched, everyday hypocrisy he perceived as being the calling card of the French elite. With subtle (and often, not-so-subtle) visual cues and set pieces, he cuts their self-centered worldview off at the knees and serves it back to the very people he is decrying. Utterly satisfying subversive cinema.

-103. The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)

Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), is a bumbling, shy heir to a beer empire. While on a cruise ship back from South America, he runs into Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and her father (Charles Coburn) , two con-artists looking to fleece the naive Charles. After Jean has seduced Charles, she finds herself falling for him as well, but her larcenous past keeps catching up to her and threatening to ruin it all.

An enjoyable screwball comedy from Sturges. Stanwyck and Fonda make for an enjoyable on-screen pair and the dialog is a great example of ‘40s rapid fire banter. Totally enjoyable in a mildy forgettable kind of way, if that makes any kind of sense at all.

-104. Double Suicide (Masahiro Shinoda, 1969) [Unavailable]

Have heard nothing but good reports about this film. I’m guessing at least two people kill themselves in it.

-105. Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960) [Unavailable]

I had totally forgotten that Kubrick directed this film. While this does make me want to go back and watch this sometime in the future, I’m not-so-secretly pleased that I don’t have to devote 196 minutes to doing so while I’m in the middle of writing this column.

-106. Coup de Torchon (Bertrand Tavernier, 1981) [Unavailable]

Huh. I have never seen or heard of this movie. A story about a police chief turned heartless killer does sound intriguing though.

-107. Mona Lisa (Neil Jordan, 1986)

Neil Jordan and Bob Hoskins, why, oh why won’t you make more movies together? George (Hoskins) is a small-time crook who has just gotten out of jail and his old boss, Denny ( target=”_blank”>Michael Caine) gives him a job driving high-class escort, Simone (Cathy Tyson) from hotel to hotel. At first the two bristle at each other, before coming to an understanding that their professional identities are not necessarily reflective of their personal ones. Convinced she can trust him, Simone asks George to help her find an old friend who has disappeared, but as he delves into the sleazy underbelly of London, he starts to realize that her request will be the largest favor ever asked of him.

Who would have thought that a gangster flick (starring Bob Hoskins no less) could be so heartfelt? The chemistry between Tyson and Hoskins as two deeply vulnerable hard-asses who tentatively learn to open up to one another is both beautiful and touching. I think one of the most poignant depictions ever of a person dropping their facade comes when George is asked by Simone if he has ever needed anyone, to which he responds, stocky frame trembling, voice choked with emotion, “All the time.” A fantastic film that succeeds on every level.

-108. The Rock (Michael Bay, 1996) [Unavailable]


Shit sandwich.

-109. The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934) [Unavailable]

The second film in this round of movies that I am utterly unfamiliar with, although the Criterion website says that this film “escalates [von Sternburg’s] obsession with screen legend Marlene Dietrich” which, in my experience is always a wonderful thing to escalate.

-110. M. Hulot’s Holiday (Jacques Tati, 1953)

The slapstick tone of this film is apparent from the moment the titular Mr. Hulot’s rickety jalopy sputters and backfires it’s way across the screen in this wry send up of summer tourists gone wild. Hulot, played by Tati himself, is a stork-legged bumbler of the highest order off on a seaside holiday, who’s continual pratfalls put him at loggerheads with both the locals and his fellow vacationers alike.

Tati keeps the finest traditions of cinema’s Silent Era comedy alive and well as he follows in the footsteps of Chaplin, Keaton and the Marx Brothers. Though the dialog is sparing, it’s absence is not missed and in fact allows the wide array of deftly comical sound effects and sight gags to claim center stage. While a lesser director would have lampooned his petit-bourgeios subject matter with a more cynical tone, Tati handles them gently, never disparagingly. As a bartender in New York, I have made it a tradition to watch this at the beginning of every tourist season, in the hope that some of it’s good natured long sufferance will rub off on me.

-111. Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati, 1958)

More slapstick fun from Jacques Tati in his recurring role of Monsieur Hulot, the perpetually inept man-child trapped in a suburban nightmare. This time, Tati brings his particular brand of social criticism home, specifically the home of M. Hulot’s technology-obsessed relatives. His sister and her husband live a garish, modernist trainwreck of a house where comfort is trumped by aesthetics and gadgetry at every turn. In the midst of this is their nine year old son, Gerard, who, bored with his sterile existence, latches on to his eccentric uncle at every available chance. These two kindred spirits manage to get into all manner of trouble together until Gerard’s parents come up with a scheme to pull Hulot’s head out of the clouds.

Once again, Tati eschews words where noises and clever camerawork are capable of carrying the story. Not only is this technique effective as a means of delivering the plot, but also as a way of underscoring the absolute banality of what passes for conversation in his perfectly manicured suburban hellscape. In dealing with such weighty subjects as social identity and consumerism, Mon Oncle always manages to keep the perspective of a light-hearted outsider bemusedly watching the scurryings of others who are not in on the joke. While viewed as being anti-progressive upon it’s release, I found this film to still resonate strongly in these gizmo-centric times in which we find ourselves today.

-112. Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)

Well color me shocked. All three M. Hulot films are available for streaming with this one being the grande dame of them all. The film once again finds Hulot bumbling through a world full of inconvenient conveniences and obtuse technology. This time, Tati adds a young American tourist (Barbara Dennick), who flies into Paris and repeatedly encounters Hulot in a series of increasingly absurdist set pieces.

The same themes of the first two Hulot movies maintain through this one, so there’s not much more that I can say about it. Like Tati, I am an avid supporter of the notion that in our pursuit of the future, we must not discard or forget the past, nor should we hold our gadgets with such high regard that we merely exist as an extension of them. Ironically enough, this film was considered technologically advanced for it’s time due to the fact that Tati filmed entirely with 70mm film stock and stereoscopic sound, both of which were incredibly expensive and complex to use at that time. It turned out to be a good decision however as the heightened audio-visual quality let Tati take his trademark style of physical gags and subtle comedic sound effects to a new level.

-113. Big Deal on Madonna Street (Mario Monicelli, 1958) [Unavailable]

Not a big enough deal to stream on Netflix, apparently.

-114. My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936)

At the height of the Great Depression, Godfrey (William Powell) is a “forgotten man” who is hired on as a butler for the extremely dysfunctional Bullock family by their capricious daughter, Irene (Carole Lombard). In addition to his daily duties he has to fend off the elder sister Cornelia’s (Gail Patrick) attempts to get him fired as well as Irene’s growing infatuation with him.

When taken in the context of the time it was filmed, My Man Godfrey makes some rather pointed observations on wealth, privilege and social class. The Bullocks and all of their friends are mewling idiots with no concern for or contact with the world outside of their effete, little bubble. Godfrey comes into this as a man who was, at one point, on an equal footing with his employers but threw their morally bankrupt and pointless attitudes away when he saw the dauntless optimism of down and out bums living in a garbage dump. While the film is more screwball comedy than social commentary, the huge gulf between the classes that is it’s central motivation, makes this film all the more compelling in this day and age.

-115. Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955) [Unavailable]

My favorite French gangster movie of all time, second only to Le Samourai. Dassin builds more tension with his nearly soundless half-hour long heist scene than all the target=”_blank”>O Fortuna’s and exploding sports cars in the world.

[admin. note: you can find Marco’s review of this essential heist flick here]

-116. The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa, 1958)

Two enslaved peasants escape from their overseers and run into General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) who is trying to smuggle Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) and what is left of her family’s gold through enemy territory to the safety of the titular Hidden Fortress. Along the way the peasants constantly scheme of ways to make off with the gold while the General uses all of his savvy to try to keep the ragtag group out of harms way.

Yet another great film from the legendary duo of Kurosawa and Mifune. This film was brought to even higher acclaim when George Lucas revealed that many of the thematic elements of The Hidden Fortress, from the predominant use of frame wipes all the way down to basic character arcs, were “inspiration” for the first Star Wars film. What he meant to say was “I am a talentless hack who got famous by ripping off one of the greatest directors in history”, but he had overinflated his neck that morning and so the original statement came out a bit garbled.

-117. Diary of a Chambermaid (Luis Buñuel, 1964) [Unavailable]

I’m really beginning to wish there was either more Criterion films being streamed or an “Unavailable” key on my laptop.

-118. Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941) [Unavailable]

One of the earlier examples of Hollywood self-criticism. What happens when you send a pampered film director out into the world as a hobo to learn about human suffering? Veronica Lake happens, that’s what.

-119. Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson, 1987) [Unavailable]

One of my favorite dry, British comedies. Two drug-addled aspiring actors escape from the urban squalor of 1960’s London and end up on a holiday from hell. If ever in your life there has been a point where you’ve entertained the notion that the moldy stack of dishes in your sink has gained awareness, this is your kind of film.

-120. How to Get Ahead in Advertising (Bruce Robinson, 1989)

Keeping with the malaise-driven spirit of Withnail and I, Bruce Robinson directed this story of Dennis Bagley (Richard Grant), a ruthlessly brilliant advertising executive who hits a creative wall when he is saddled with creating an ad campaign for a new brand of pimple cream. As his deadline looms, the stress that has been building in him manifests itself as a boil. A talking boil.

Equal parts social satire and body horror, this film feels like some long lost collaboration between Jacques Tati and David Cronenberg. The humor is black as night and dry as a bone, yet spiked through with moments of wildly manic physical comedy. No one can do bug-eyed paranoia like Richard Grant, who manages imbue his horror at what is happening to his body with a level of sly absurdity that one cannot help but laugh at. Don’t let the comedy fool you though. This is just as withering an indictment of Western consumerism as anything cooked up by Oliver Stone.

(Off-Topic Side Note: There are no Oliver Stone movies in the Criterion Collection because he is a tone-deaf purveyor of hackneyed dreck, and yet I would be OK if a couple of his movies were retconned into the spots currently occupied by Michael Bay’s cinematic leavings.)

-121. Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963) [Unavailable]

Looks positively “madcap” and all that that phrase entails.

-122. Salesman (Albert Maysles, David Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin, 1968) [Unavailable]

A fascinating look at the sad, little lives of door-to-door Bible salesmen. There’s really nothing that this noted trio of documentarians couldn’t make interesting.

-123. Grey Gardens (Albert Maysles, David Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin, 1976)

This is the cinematic version of spending some time with your senile grandparent and crazy cat-lady aunt, but with the highly uncomfortable exception that you are not related to them. A deeply personal documentary that delves into the lives of “Big Edie” Beale and her daughter “Little Edie”, relatives of Jackie Kennedy, who live in the titular estate of Grey Gardens in East Hampton, Long Island. Once rich socialites, the mother-daughter pair now dwell in a wrecked mansion in near-total isolation from the outside world and have formed a combative, yet loving codependency that somehow sustains them, even as their house, and their sanity, slowly crumble away.

It would have been easy for the Maysles’ to edit in a running commentary full of fun-poking asides and off-site commentary on their subjects. Instead, they took the high road, opting to stay out of the camera’s focus and let the two women tell their own story as they saw fit. While Big Edie spends her days reminiscing about times past, Little Edie pines for a life that never was and the camera stands silently by neither judging the actions, nor putting words in the mouths of the women, but instead instilling the viewer with an very real feeling of sympathy toward these two sad figures who, in real life, they would most likely shun.

-124. Carl Theodore Dryer Box Set [Unavailable]


“There’s no streaming in box sets!” -Tom Hanks

-125. Day of Wrath (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1943) [Unavailable]

Dear Netflix,
Just because you can’t stream the box set as a box set, doesn’t mean you can’t stream the films that are contained in the box set whatsoever. Also: box set, box set, box set. Loses meaning the more you repeat it.

 

OK, so a little bit thin this week but the selection was, for the most part, rock solid. At least there were no more early David Lean films to suffer through. Baby steps, Netflix, baby steps. Oh, wait, you already blew it, didn’t you? Never you mind, then.

One last note: While I like to try and keep my writing on the professional side of things, I do like to include some humor for your increased reading pleasure, some of which come in the form of the pages I link to throughout the column. Let’s just say that objects and people that are of particular enjoyment or irritation to me will sometimes get a little bit more than the standard IMDB link. Happy Hunting.

Enhanced by Zemanta

April 11, 2011   No Comments

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?

-76. Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)

*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.

-77. And God Created Woman (Roger Vadim, 1956) [Unavailable]

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.

-78. The Bank Dick (Edward Cline, 1940) [Unavailable]

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.

-80. The Element of Crime (Lars von Trier, 1984) [Unavailable]

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.

-81. Variety Lights (Federico Fellini and Alberto Lattuada, 1950) [Unavailable]

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.

-82. Hamlet (Laurence Olivier, 1948)

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.

-83. The Harder They Come (Perry Henzell, 1973) [Unavailable]

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.

-84. Good Morning (Yasujiro Ozu, 1959) [Unavailable]

Wait, wait, we’ve got streaming access to pretty much every single move that Kurosawa ever directed, but no dice on Ozu? Strewth.

-85. Pygmalion (Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, 1938) [Unavailable]

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.

-86. Eisenstein – The Sound Years (Sergei Eisenstein) [Unavailable]

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.

-89. Sisters (Brian De Palma, 1973)

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.

-91. The Blob (Irvin Yeaworth, 1958) [Unavailable]

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!]

-92. Fiend Without a Face (Arthur Crabtree, 1958) [Unavailable]

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.

-93. Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947)

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.

-95. All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)

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.

-97. Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)

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.

-98. L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)

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.

-99. Gimme Shelter (David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, 1970) [Unavailable]

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.

Enhanced by Zemanta

March 31, 2011   No Comments

  • Some of the topics discussed on the isle

  • Meta