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Instant Classics: Criterion on Netflix #1-25

Before we begin I’d like to introduce our new reviewer, Sean, who – in the spirit of the Sisyphean tasks we love here at IOC – has decided to review all Criterion releases currently available on Netflix in anticipation of their availability on Hulu Plus.  – admin

Recently two giants of the film world had a falling out. Janus Films’ Criterion Collection, a stalwart bastion of good taste amongst special/collectors edition DVDs and Blu-Rays, and Netflix, the grande dame of online film rental and Blockbuster, er, busting, are soon parting ways over disputes regarding Netflix’s handling of Criterion’s titles. Of the many accusations most ringing is that Netflix never went out of its way to spotlight the Collection with its own page or making the word “Criterion” a viable in-site search option, or even making many of the films available in HD. These are indeed missteps on Netflix’s part, something Criterion’s new streaming partner, Hulu Plus, has remedied. Consequently, streaming rights to the bulk of the Collection are scheduled to be held solely by Hulu come the end of the summer.

Here’s my problem: While Hulu is indeed taking much better care of the Criterion films, when it comes to which site I’d rather pay for in terms of overall content, Netflix Instant Watch still wins by a country mile. Don’t get me wrong, I use Hulu for the vast majority of my tee-veeing, but even with Hulu Plus and the Criterion Channel, their film catalogue falls drastically short of Big Red. What’s a poor boy to do? Well if you’re me, the answer is to watch all (Yep. ALL.) of the Criterion Collection films available on Netflix before their license expires. And also, preferably, before the weather in NYC gets really nice. And while I’m at it, I’ll be writing short little reviews for each film to help you wade through the multitude of films that are currently available on Netflix. I hope you find this guide informative, entertaining and above all, helpful. Let’s get down to it, shall we?

-1. Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937)

Criterion came right out swinging with this 1937 classic directed by artistic royalty, Jean Renoir. While widely considered to be one of the first “jailbreak” movies ever made, Renoir uses dry humor, deftly paced dialog and often arresting cinematography to take the narrative far beyond a simple escape plot. The film opens in the midst of WWI with two French officers, the working class Lt. Marachel (Jean Gabin) an the aristocratic Capt. de Boeldiu (Pierre Fresnay) being sent to a German POW camp where they are interred with a whole host of extremely Gallic compatriots, including fellow officer Lt. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), the son of a rich Jewish banking family. They plot and execute several escape attempts before being transferred to a Gothic castle turned maximum security prison. There, Boeldiu forms a bond with the camp’s Commandant Van Rauffenstein (Erich Von Stroheim) over their upper-class backgrounds and mutual, unironic love of monocles. Meanwhile, Marachel and Rosenthal plot their final escape.

While all the familiar escape film tropes are in place (or should I say, established for the first time), Renoir is constantly guiding the viewer’s thoughts to higher ground. Hardly a moment goes by when we are not reminded that, despite the struggle of war, there is the never-ending struggle between the classes. Rauffenstein often shows Boeldiu preferential treatment due solely to his traditional aristocratic status, while Marachel gets along much better with Rosenthal, who, despite his wealthy status, will never be considered an equal by the standing French aristiocracy. Even more powerful than the social commentary, however, is the portrayal of basic human kindness, regardless of “sides”, against the dawning of the horrors of modern warfare. At a time when the scars of Gitmo are still raw and the divide between the social classes has never been wider, this film is as relevant as the day it was released.

-2. The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

Wow, only number 2 on the list and already we’ve got a classic amongst classics. This is easily one of the most influential films made in any language, country or time, ever. Akira Kurosawa’s epic tale of hardened men of war finding more of their own souls through one simple act of charity than a whole lifetime of conflict has been sending continual shockwaves ripping through the cinematic world for over half a decade. With influences clearly seen in everything from The Magnificent Seven to The Expendables, it’s almost a given that you already know not only the story but the characters themselves.

The village is in peril, so the peasants hire themselves a crack team of Samurai to defend it. There’s the unflappable guru leader and his wisecracking best friend. The steely-eyed professional, who’s only focus is to push his own limits and the fresh-faced rookie, who’s in over his head but too proud to admit it. There’s even a couple of nondescript guys (read: redshirt) on the team just to account for the possibility of a semi-tragic death on the team. While all these went on to become Hollywood action flick archetypes, they are all dwarfed by one actor whose role was too good to ever be a copy: the legendary Toshiro Mifune, whose performance in this prompted Kurosawa feature him in his next nine consecutive films. If you are at all interested in movies, this one ain’t recommended; it’s required.

-3. The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)

This super early Alfred Hitchcock thriller is an odd choice for Criterion’s third outing, but not altogether unpleasant. If you are already familiar with Hitch, this slick little thriller will provide an interesting example of the director beginning to play with the themes and characters that would one day become his calling card. For everyone else, it’ll most likely come across as an overly dated pre-war mystery full of “Oh-Hang-It-All” British bluster where women were barely self sufficient enough to open a window unaided, much less be expected to solve a mystery and men would drolly shoot pistols at each other without being bothered to even slouch toward cover. While this was the film that launched Hitchcock into Hollywood and cinematic godhood, no one would blame you for skipping it.

(Side Note: when searching for this on Netflix, don’t get it confused with the 1979 remake starring Angela Lansbury and Cybill Shepherd (!) which I can in no way vouch for but do have a certain amount of reservations toward.)

-4. Amarcord (Federico Fellini, 1973)

Now we’re really getting into the art-house fare that Janus Films built its reputations upon. Federico Fellini aims his fever dream directorial style at his own upbringing in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. While the film runs all over the place with it’s expansive ensemble cast, the nominal focus is on young Tittia (Bruno Zanin) as he weaves through a year of self discovery and slowly learned lessons that will ring familiar to any male over the age of 20. All this happens against the backdrop of a provincial Italian village populated by simple peasants for whom the ominous realities of the dictatorship they live in seem intangible at best. Possibly one of the best portrayals of the absurd juxtaposition between the rigidities of the Fascist ideals and the natural exuberance of traditional Italian culture.

All that being said, I have a confession to make: I am not the biggest fan of Fellini. I know in some film circles this would be pretty much tantamount to blasphemy, but I don’t watch movies just to agree with what everyone else is thinking. That would make me a Michael Bay fan. I understand Fellini. I even “get” Fellini. I respect Fellini’s talents as a director and would never in a million years dispute his vast, positive influence on the medium but all that doesn’t change the simple fact that I find the baroqueness of his films all too often feel tawdry at best and stifling at worst. Believe me, I am in no way discouraging you from watching this or any other Fellini film. I’m just saying they’re not my particular cup of mushroom-laced grappa. You may now proceed to the comments section to commence your flame war.

-5. The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959)

A brilliant choice to follow up Amarcord. I really can’t say enough positive things about the film the kickstarted the French New Wave. This highly autobiographical film by Francois Truffaut is by turns hauntingly beautiful and achingly sad. The movie follows Antoine Doinel (played by a preternatural Jean-Pierre Leaud) a Parisian adolescent who finds himself on the wrong side of trouble no matter which way he turns. After being expelled from school, he fears returning home to face his adopted father’s anger so he hides out with his best friend. They get involved with petty theft and other teenage hijinks until one day Antoine is caught and shipped off to a youth camp.

Truffaut made the narrative flow of this film is almost secondary to the individual scenes as he laces each point in the story with teenage ennui set against the bleak shadows of postwar France. Where Fellini focused on the joy that could be had under trying circumstances in Amarcord, The 400 Blows ratchets up the grim hopelessness with every passing minute and really captures that adolescent sense of a powerlessness that seems to stretch on into eternity. A masterpiece in the truest sense of the word.

-6. Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946)

While widely considered to be the apex of Jean Cocteau’s cinematic efforts, I found this film to be a bit of a mixed bag. This is the classic story of Beauty and the Beast with no frills or additions to the plot to muddle things up. Practically every person in the western world is familiar with it, so I won’t delve in to the storyline here. Cocteau’s history in stage theater both helps and hamper’s this film. While the sets are lavish and visually striking all these years later, the acting is of the over-the-top, shouting-to-the-mezzanine style that I find is much better served on the stage than on the screen. All in all, if you are a fan of early cinematic melodrama or just wish a to see a solid retelling of a classic fairy tale without crass commercialism or unnecessary revisions (I’m looking at you Red Riding Hood), then this will be a welcome addition to your queue.

-7. A Night to Remember (Roy Ward Baker, 1958) [Unavailable]

The first film of the series not to be streamed on Netflix Instant. Saw it once when I was taking a film class in college and yet, I don’t remember it…

-8. The Killer (John Woo, 1989) [Unavailable]

Pretty bummed that this isn’t up and streaming. Well, I would be, that is, if I didn’t own it already. A fantastic example of Hong Kong action at it’s absolute finest. This is almost my favorite HK action film ever made. My favorite would probably have to be Hard Boiled.

-9. Hard Boiled (John Woo, 1992) [Unavailable]

Oh come on! What, you got something against stone-cold, double-fisted badassery, Netflix? Or is it just that too much “awesome” makes you uncomfortable in your pantaloons? OK, see these last two movies right here? I think we’re beginning to get to the root of Criterion’s gripe with the handling of their films.

-10. Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971)

Nicolas Roeg’s hypnotic film is as quiet, expansive and brutally unforgiving as the Australian Outback in which it was filmed. When a man suddenly tries to murder his teenaged daughter (Jenny Agutter) and young son (Roeg’s son, Luc) while on a picnic in the outback, the two children suddenly find themselves adrift in an environment that is as alien to them as another planet. They wander aimlessly for a while, nearly dying of exposure, before being found by a young Aboriginal man (David Gulpilil, who later played Jacko in The Proposition). The young man guides them to food, water and shelter, but their travels will ultimately take them to a place where he can not follow.

Roeg’s film fairly broods over such indelible human themes such as life and death, primitivism and civilization, sexual discovery and spiritual reawakening. His camera lingers on long shots of pristine desert landscapes and from them conjures up parallels human nature versus nature’s law. While some of his concepts of the “noble savage” may not hold up all that well with time, the real star of this movie is the desert itself, which is as ageless as the day man first laid eyes on it.

-11-21. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957); This is Spinal Tap (Christopher Guest, 1984) ; Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) ; Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (Hiroshi Inagaki, 1954); Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (Hiroshi Inagaki, 1955); Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (Hiroshi Inagaki, 1956); Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975); The Naked Kiss (Samuel Fuller, 1964); Shock Corridor (Samuel Fuller, 1963); Sid & Nancy (Alex Cox, 1986); Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988) [All Unavailable]

Jesus H. Mortimer Christ. Those are 11 utterly fantastic, nay iconic, films that Netflix has not seen fit to stream for your viewing pleasure. Let’s try to break these omissions down real quick, going from plausible to “you’re doing it wrong”.

120 Days of Sodom: OK, I can understand skipping this one.
Samurai 1-3: Granted these films are a little bit niche and not Toshiro Mifune’s best known roles, but if that is the criteria for streaming these movies, then may I direct your attention to The Lady Vanishes?
The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor: Sure, Sam Fuller may not play all that well in Flyover Country but is that any reason to deprive the rest of us?
Sid & Nancy and Dead Ringers: Who exactly is your streaming programed towards? A Tonight Show studio audience?
The Seventh Seal, Silence of the Lambs and This is Spinal Tap: I’m calling bullshit. No excuses. Do better.

-22. Summertime (David Lean, 1955)

Total fluff. While I don’t demand that that all of my cinematic experiences be replete with high concept scripting, legendary acting and groundbreaking cinematography, I find David Lean’s romantic dramedy in Venice to be a real lightweight no matter which movies it’s Collected with. Katherine Hepburn is a rubbernecking American spinster on vacation in a Venice populated by a bunch of Italian who seem to find her continental boorishness to be charming rather than, well, boorish. She soon catches the eye of a local man (Rossano Brazzi) and yadda yadda yadda. There’s nothing really surprising going on with the plot so I’ll just leave it to you if you want to check it out. Venice is to be given credit having the most textured, nuanced role in the entire film. To be fair, I might have had a different opinion of this movie if not for the fact that it’s filmic progeny clutter up the theaters in spades and launch the careers of the Katherine Heigls and Kate Hudsons of the world.

-23. Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

I imagine this was a bit controversial when Criterion first announced it was adding Paul Verhoeven’s ultra-violent, ultra-smart sci-fi actioner to the collection. This is pretty much a total departure from the previous underground and art-house content that Criterion had been collecting. Americans and their vaguely puritanical mores have usually been fine with violence in their film, up to a point. Verhoeven gleefully blasts past that point at every opportunity, all the while making a sly commentary on the very values that put those boundaries in place. The MPAA famously gave the old X rating to a whopping 11 different versions of this film before it was eventually hauled in to become what is still one of the hardest R ratings in the history of American cinema. Nobody makes social criticism a blood-and-guts spattered joyride like Mr. Paul Verhoeven. Not for the faint of heart, but then nothing about Detroit really is.

-24. High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963)

One of Akira Kurosawa’s most underrated works, High and Low is the story of Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune, natch), a wealthy business executive who is trying to execute a leveraged buyout of the shoe company that he works for. To do this, he mortgages everything he owns and just about to go ahead with his plan, when he receives a phone call informing him that his son has been kidnapped. It is soon revealed that his son is safe and sound, but that the kidnappers have inadvertently taken the son of his chauffeur. This throws Gondo into a pitched moral battle between his conscience and his financial future, with neither taking a clear lead until the end.

This is one of Kurosawa’s and Mifune’s final collaborations and the fruits of that collaboration are displayed here with all the tension and power of a cocked hammer on a gun. While his camera is busy making even the roomiest mansion feel claustrophobic, his rewritten pulp-novel of a script is working through the very emotions and decisions Kurosawa himself was facing at this point in his career. While he had been making critically acclaimed films for over a decade, he was now faced with the choice of reaping the financial benefits his name would garner him or staying true to his artistic vision even though it meant less money. His ultimate choice, like that of the film’s protagonist, was, as always, the unconventional one that inevitably saved his soul.

Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece was previously reviewed on the IOC by Marco, here – admin.

-25. Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965) [Unavailable]

And we wind up the first installment of this column with yet another disappointing gap in the Netflix Criterion collection. Not Godard’s best effort, but still one of my personal favorites. It’s nice to see him adding a twinge of science to his fiction in addition to the pulp.

Coming soon: 26-50 in my ongoing series to occupy every last stitch of my free time.

February 28, 2011   3 Comments

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