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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”>


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.

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May 3, 2011   No Comments

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