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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wars and the horrifying explosion of drug-related violence in Mexico, this film comes across today as an unbearably outdated and quaint cautionary tale to a world that hadn’t seen anything yet.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.

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May 16, 2011   2 Comments

Cold War Hilarity – ONE, TWO, THREE

ONE, TWO, THREE is a great look back at a forward-thinking auteur at the top of his game.

Billy Wilder was undeniably a genius, a master filmmaker and social satirist of the first order whose keen observations often turned out to be true – in 1951’s Ace in the Hole he foreshadows today’s manipulative and self-promoting reporters (take that Rick Sanchez!) and in this scathing comedy, One, Two, Three (1961), written with frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, he predicts what would be Communism’s tragic weakness – American goods and the lure of the Western lifestyle! On the heels of his comedy masterpieces Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960), Wilder crafts what might be the most atypical screwball comedy ever – one which mixes Capitalism, Communism, the Cold War and American cultural imperialism into a heady brew that’s easily 40 years ahead of it’s time, feeling more like an episode of The Simpsons than a turn of the century madcap comedy. In it, James Cagney plays C.R. “Mac” MacNamara, high level Coca Cola executive banished to West Berlin for some transgression years earlier, who concocts a plan to redeem himself by being the first to sell the Soviets the secret formula and make a killing for his bosses in Atlanta. But just as he’s on the verge of convincing his Soviet counterparts (a bumbling trio obsessed with buxom blondes), the boss complicates matters by asking Mac to host his only daughter on a European excursion. And when she falls in love with an anti-American East Berliner (played by Horst Buchholz, the “German James Dean”), everything seems ready to blow up in his face like a heavily shaken bottle of Classic Coke. Filled with references to James Cagney’s earlier films (as well as to Wilder’s), what transpires is that rare film that entertains on all levels, and is an absolute must for fans of intelligent satire with historical substance – plus a dash of slapstick thrown in for good measure.

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July 16, 2010   No Comments

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