Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Midnight's Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie


Book Review
Midnight's Children (1981)
 by Salman Rushdie

  Salman Rushdie is like the poster child for serious literature in the late 20th century, transcending the narrow world of the novel to become an international superstar in the aftermath of the fatwa issued against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. He also has dated many super models, become a public intellectual and makes semi-regular appearances in gossip columns on three continents. But that reputation was built on the back of several world beating novels, and Midnight's Children is the first of those novels.

  Midnight's Children not only won the Booker Prize in 1981, it also won the 25th anniversary "Best Booker" award for best Booker AND the 40th anniversary award for best Booker.  Midnight's Children was his second novel, but it might as well been his first, for all the attention the first novel received.  Midnight's Children successfully qualifies as serious and popular art at the same time, and those looking for an explanation for the triumph of Midnight's Children would do well to look at Rushdie's obvious grasp of the entire tradition of the novel and his ability to blend that with his knowledge of life in India and Pakistan in the time of independence from the British.

  Rushdie's virtuosity is on full display from jump, with a narrator who narrates his own not only his own birth but also the history of his family going back to his grandparents, a narrative trick out of use since Sterne used it in Tristam Shandy in the 18th century.   Rushdie escapes the dour strictures of realistic fiction by drawing from inspirations ranging from 1001 Nights to the magical realism of Latin America to the flights of fantasy commonly found in fantasy and science fiction.

 He also integrates the actual history of India in the partition era, to the point where she was successfully sued by Indian Prime Minster Indira Ghandi for some of his statements in the book.  The family of the narrator and protagonist Saleem Sinai are Muslims from what would become Pakistan who settle in India during the time of British rule.   Born at the stroke of Midnight on the night of partition, Sinai is telepathically linked to some 600 other children born during the same day within the territory of post-partition India (when Sinai moves to Pakistan as a young adult he finds his gift inoperative.

  Despite the high concept telepathy elevator pitch, the meat and bones of Midnight's Children are a very well developed work of fiction about a devilishly complicated topic.  Midnight's Children was another top five title for me in 2016, narrowly behind Blood Meridian for best novel I read in 2016.  I've been actively looking forward to reading both titles for over a year, and neither disappointed.

  

Blood Meridian (1985) by Cormac McCarthy



Blood Meridian (1985)
 by Cormac McCarthy

  I don't often rush home and write a book review, but Blood Meridan is the kind of book that stays with you- for better or worse, depending on your capacity to derive aesthetic satisfaction from a nihilistic western set among a band of Indian scalp hunting American rejects plying their trade in Northern Mexico.  Based on the real life Blanton gang, McCarthy infuses the already incidinerary subject matter with an eye to style, scene and theme.   The bleak southwestern landscape receives a treatment at the hands of McCarthy which is 180 degrees from the lionizing landscapes from painters like Georgia O'Keefe and others from the Taos/Santa Fe area.   The simple truth is that the desert southwest is heathen territory, always has been, always will be.  Blanton's gang though, operates outside any conceivable definiton of morality, behaving in a rapacious fashion that is so disturbing it probably explains why Blood Meridian has never been made a film.

  For example,  Judge Holden, a quasi-historical member of the Glanton gang, is described as a hairless, seven foot tall man who is able to wield a howitzer like a handgun. He also probably abducts, rapes and murders several young girls, although this is never explicitly confirmed in the text.  It's clear that Holden is an otherwordly, likely demonic presence, and he ends up being one of the more memorable characters of 20th century fiction.

  Ultimately, I would argue that Blood Meridian is a stylistic triumph, with McCarthy's unique combination of Southern Gothic and genre fiction plot mechanics with old testament inspired language.  It is a heady mixture, leaving the reader full satiated at the end of the novel.  Probably my favorite read of the year.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Criterion Collection Reviews: 2014


   I'm ready to call it on the Criterion Collection project.  It's simply impossible to acquire the titles and devote the time it would require to watch the films.  The reviews I have posted are often my least inspired work, and I would say that there is little audience for mid 20th century foreign film.  That audience that does exist is a specialist audience, and these movie reviews were never particularly sophisticated, let alone well written.



Movie Review
Night and Fog (1955)
d. Alain Resnais
Criterion Collection #197

  Just clearing out my Hulu Plus Criterion Collection queue here at the end of the year while everyone is off on holiday!  Night and Fog positive: It's only 30 minutes long!  Night and Fog negative: It is super about the Holocaust and has much contemporaneous newsreel footage (including, I think pro-Nazi German and French footage) depicting the actual Holocaust: Jews being loaded onto trains, arriving at the camps, their suffering at the camps and of course a bunch of emaciated corpses.  I don't have any Holocaust survivors or victims in my family but I grew up going to Sunday school and at my Reform synagogue in Northern California Holocaust education was maybe the most important component.  Holocaust and Israel.  I've been to Holocaust museums in Washington and Berlin.  I've been to the Anne Frank house.  I've done everything BUT go to a concentration camp, but Night and Fog seems to be a sufficient replacement for the actual experience.

  Personally, I don't find "the" Holocaust to be particularly unique, Genocide seems to be endemic to the human species, it just so happens that the Germans chose a target and a means that left them holding the moral bag.


Stray Dog (1949)
d. Akira Kurosawa
Criterion Collection #233

  Stray Dog is a police procedural Kurosawa released the year before his 1950 break-out Rashomon.  His other major contemporary crime films were from the 1960s: High and Low (1960) and The Bad Sleep Well (1963).  I think you can make the case that Kurosawa's crime films are easier to watch than the period/Samurai stuff that he is famous for.  One of the major achievements of the Criterion Collection period is to keep almost Akira Kurosawa's entire output "in print" and available to stream on Hulu Plus.

  I think the argument that you make for Kurosawa is that he is the Japanese equivalent to Shakespeare: the single Artist the reader must understand to understand the art of the Artists nation. In this way, the crime thrillers are significant since they show Kurosawa working in the present.  The present is very close to the surface in Stray Dog, set in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Rice ration cards are used as currency, and Police Detective Murakami (played by a young Toshiro Mifune) is a solder freshly returned from the end of World War II.

  The story is set in motion when Murakami has his gun lifted from his jacket pocket on the bus coming home from target practice. Its loss sets off a frenzied search by the distraught Detective to find his missing weapon.  Murakami is paired up with the older sage Sato (Takashi Shimura).  The pairing of Shimura with Mifune was a delight, but the real star of the movie is Tokyo in a pre-boom state that provides an unfamiliar perspective on Japan's largest city.

 The scene most often referenced comes when Murakami goes undercover to try and find his gun.  The panoply of misery approaches anything in Italian neo-realism.  The Criterion Collection essay by critic Terrence Rafferty calls Stray Dog Kurosawa's "neo realist" crime drama and that is largely true.


Movie Review
The Golden Coach (1953)
 d. Jean Renoir
Criterion Collection #242

  Sometimes I'm watching a Criterion Collection title and I'm like, "OK, I guess so."  Such is the case with Jean Renoir's "Spectacle Trilogy;" it's not really a trilogy, but the designation of The Golden Coach, Elena and Her Men and French Cancan as such makes sense, since all three are colorful comedies with quality female leads and not much plot. This films- all three of them- are comedies in the Shakespearean/ Elizabeathan/Classical sense in that they are stories that have a happy ending, they are comedies not tragedies, but they are not "comedies" in the sense that we use the term today.

  For The Golden Coach, based on a French play which debuted in 1829, this classical, theatrical source material is key to understanding the film.  If you watch this movie applying film genre standards of the 1950s and 60s, you will be disappointed and likely think The Golden Coach artistically worthless.  On the other hand, if you regard The Golden Coach as kind of a meta-fictional take on performance, taking into account the play-like mise en scene and glorious technicolor costumes and locales, you might pass an agreeable hour and forty five minutes on the couch.

 Originally produced simultaneously in three different languages, the Criterion Collection version is in English, so you don't have to read it.  The underlying play and this film is set in colonial Peru.  A touring troupe of actors plays for the Viceroy, who becomes enraptured by Camilla (played by Anna Magnani) the lead singer/actress in the troupe.  He decides to gift her a solid gold coach he's had imported from Europe to Peru, but he is not alone in his affections, having to compete with a local bullfighter and one of the other troupe members.  This competition for Camilla's attention sets the plot in motion, and your enjoyment of the machinations will likely be tied to your appreciation of 19th century theater pieces.






































Movie Review
La commare secca (1962)
 d. Bernardo Bertolucci
Criterion Collection #272

  Bernardo Bertolucci is an Italian film maker better known for this work within the Hollywood system.  His best known films are the multiple Academy Award winning epic, The Last Emperor (1987) and the racy Last Tango in Paris (1972).   He's also had a host of box office duds: Stealing BeautyLittle BuddhaThe Dreamers (from 2012?)   His later success and foreign citizenship makes him a virtual lock for the early, lesser known films, of major directors category within The Criterion Collection, at La commare secca is especially worthy because the story is by another giant of Italian cinema, Pier Pasolini.

  What stands out about La commare secca compared to other Italian films of the same time is the vivaciousness of the camera work.  Unlike other early 60s directors from Italy, the viewer is not bored to tears sitting through tedious, carefully framed scenes of existentialist dialogue.  Although Bertolucci and Pasolini denied ever seeing it, you can't watch La commare secca and not thing of Rashomon, by Akira Kurosawa.

  In Rashomon,  the story of a murder is told through the varying viewpoints of several witnesses, all of whom tell a different story about the same sequence of events.  So to in La commare secca, the strangulation murder of a prostitute is told from the varying viewpoints of several witnesses, all of whom, it seems, have something to hide or a reason not to be forthcoming.  Unlike Rashomon, La commare secca ends with the audience seeing what really happened and the apprehension of the murderer, putting this movie more in the category of police procedural.

  Movie Review
Boudo Saved from Drowning (1932)
d. Jean Renoir
Criterion Collection #305

  This is the third Jean Renoir film from the Criterion Collection I've watched.  The other two: The Grand Illusion (1937) and Elena and Her Men (1956) are "classic" Renoir and "late" Renoir respectively, so that would make Boudo Saved from Drowning "early" Renoir. Renoir is one of those Artist who is known but not watched, a denizen of film studies courses and one night revivals at repertory theaters in places like New York, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.  Jean Renoir is not riding a recent wave of interest for any reason, there are no A-list Hollywood actresses set to star in reboots of his old films, he's not a particularly cool guy beloved by cineastes.

  Jean Renoir's light touch is fully on display in Boudo, shot in 1931, when film cameras, sound equipment and principles of films creation made keeping a light touch difficult. If you look at Boudo's immediate contemporaries in The Criterion Collection, all you see is German Expressionism and silent American comedies by Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.  Perhaps the most appropriate comparison is Chaplin, since Boudo, played by Michel Simon is a quasi-lovable tramp who turns the staid and predictable world of bourgeois book seller Lestingois up-side down with his irascible behavior.

  The central incident of Boudo Saved from Drowning is in the title of the film.  Lestingois, looking at the river through his telescope, sees Boudo try to kill himself by jumping off a bridge.  He runs across the street, saves Boudo, and brings him back to his book shop for an attempt at rehabilitation.   In its original version as a play in Paris, Boudo was perceived as a kind of satire on the comedy of manners that would have been well familiar to early 20th century audiences.  Boudo is a wacky outsider written to stir the pot (and plot.)

The Sword of Doom (1966)
 d. Kihachi Okamato
Criterion Collection #280

I took about a month off of the Criterion Collection project because I was roughly half way through the 400ish titles that they make available to Hulu Plus subscribers. One of my insights from this off period is that you can't seriously watch the Criterion Collection without appreciating each constituent element, Japanese cinema and Italian cinema to name two consitutent elements that give me trouble.  In the past, I've deluded myself into thinking that readers don't care, but when I actually go back and check the page views for the Japanese Literature and Italian Literature (which both includes films) I see that there multiple posts between the two with more than 100 page views, and a few with 500 or more.

  For example, Yojimbo (1961), directed by Akira Kurosawa, has 506 page views. Amarcord (1973), directed by Federico Fellini has 516 page views.  Salo/120 Days of Sodom (1975) by Pier Pasolini isn't far behind, with 461 page views.  The multiple posts with 100-200 pages views include L'Avventura(I), Kwaidan(J), Boy(J), The Night Porter(I), L'eclisse(I, Branded to KillDouble SuicideSamurai III: Duel at Granyju Island and In the Realm of the Senses (400 page views).  The average number of page views for a run of the mill Criterion Collection review is between 15 and 40, so all of these films are at least twice as interesting to the Audience for this blog as a normal post.

  The Sword of Doom is a Jidaigeki film, one of two genres in mid 20th century Japanese film.  A loose translation of Jidaigeki is "period drama" or "historical drama" and it is a genre that precedes the medium of film, with antecedents in theater.   Most of the classic Japanese films familiar to Western viewers are from this genre, and they include the entire sub-genre of Samurai films.  The Sword of Doom is set at the very end of the timer period typically covered by a Jidaigeki film, with action between 1860 and 1865.  It is late enough in history that a handgun plays a part in the story, and the Samurais it depicts seem to just be barely hanging on to relevance.

   The lead in The Sword of Doom is the masterless Samurai Ryunosuke Tsukue(played by Tatsuya Nakadai.)  Ryunosuke is a bad dude, the first scene has him killing an elderly man for little or no reason.  The first major incident involves him banging the wife of an opponent he is facing in a fencing match.  He finds out about it, divorces the wife, then kills the dude.  It gets darker from there, and ends up with Ryunosuke going mad, plagued by the spirits of all the people he's killed.

 Did I mention The Sword of Doom is two hours long?  Yeah.  The Criterion Collection product page description emphasizes the role of director Kihachi Okamato as the Sam Fuller to Kurosawa's John Ford. I haven't seen enough of the films of any of the directors involved that comparison except Kurosawa, but I would agree that the composition/mise en scene is extraordinary and agree with the observation that Okamato makes the most of the extra wide 2.35/1 aspect ratio used in Japanese film at the time.


Movie Review
Scanners (1981)
 d. David Cronenberg
Criterion Collection #712

  CLASSIC Cronenberg movie, came out in July 0n the Criterion Collection, fucking LOVE IT.  I've seen Scanners maybe a half dozen times at this point.  I am a BIG David Cronenberg fan, and I've seen many of his other films multiple times.  I've seen: Eastern Promises, in Cincinnati, eXistenz, in Washington DC, Crash I watched on the Left Bank in Paris, Naked LunchDead RingersVideodrome, The Fly.  They are all more or less great movies, and any characterization of Cronenberg as a "horror" or genre director really misses the genius of his films.

  For any serious Cronenberg watcher the early work of The BroodVideodrome and Scanners is vital. All three are independent films with "B-movie" type descriptions, but all three transcend their budgetary limitations to create enduring works of art, which bear multiple re-watchings.  Scanners is, in terms of plot mechanics, a kind of espionage thriller with an overlay of the now familiar mixture of psychology and horror that now defines much of his work.

   The wooden performance of Stephen Lack as Cameron Lake, the main "Scanner" of the film, might at first be taken as a poor performance, but is later explained by plot details.  The plot involving a nefarious conspiracy between a quasi-governmental private corporation and evil Scanners is classic Cronenberg- even at the earliest stages.

El Hedi ben Salem plays Ali, in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1974 film, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

Movie Review
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)
d. Rainer Werner Fassbinder

  This is a fairly conventional Hollywood style melodrama about an interracial couple in 70s Germany, he is a Moroccan (read "Black") Berber immigrant, she is a much older German woman. They experience the kind of super racist prejudice you would expect in 1970s Germany, overcome that racism, drift apart and then get back together. There's nothing overly creative in terms of the script, the cinematography or the construction of the narrative but the relationship at the center of the film is worth watching and the sensitive treatment of an older woman/younger man dynamic on top of the interracial aspect is emotionally compelling.


Movie Review
Overlord (1975)
d. Stuart Cooper

  File Overlord in the category of "great movies from other countries that didn't get a fair shake in the United States."  Either they weren't distributed at all- a common experience, or they weren't appreciated at the time, were poorly marketed, etc.  You don't normally think that an English language World War II picture shot by Stanley Kubrick's cinematographer a decade before Full Metal Jacket came out would fall into any of those categories, but Overlord wasn't even released in the United States in 1975.  Chalk it up to bad timing?  The "fall of Saigon," when North Vietnamese forces overran our Southern allies, was April 1975, so I would wager American audiences didn't want to hear about war at that period- let alone the people who buy films for American distribution.

  Overlord is an elegant combination of documentary footage of World War II combined with a narrative about a young soldier who faces his premonitions of death as he prepares to be a part of the D-Day invasion.  Criterion Collection re-released their edition in May of this year, and Kent Jones wrote an insightful essay to accompany the product page.  He posits that the animating spirit of the narrative portion about the young soldier facing death recalls the World War I era work of Ford Madox Ford.  A kind of matter of factness and stoicism that have to do with understanding the world is not fair but that there is nothing you can do.

  Jones also discusses the incredible amount of documentary footage that Cooper had access to via the British government.  Apparently, Overlord started as a simple documentary using that footage, and Copper then convinced people to let him make a larger film. 

Movie Review
The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
d. Akira Kurosawa

  I've got 29 posts under the Japanese Literature label.  24 of those are Criterion Collection titles, and two are posts about Japanese film but not movie reviews. Of the Criterion Collection titles, Kurosawa directed eight of them. Of those eight, the most relevant film for comparison is High and Low (1963), a more-or-less police procedural with noir-ish elements.  At two and a half hours, The Bad Sleep Well is more Shakespearean than Genre influenced in terms of pacing and plot.  The inter-generational conflict that extends to murder and certainly includes betrayal pays an obvious debt to the machinations in Hamlet.

  The violence of The Bad Sleep Well is as disturbing as anything else you are likely to see in Kurosawa's body of work. A young-ish Toshiro Mifune stars as the son of a man who killed himself to save his corporate employer a potential set back at the hands of the government.  Mifune, playing Koichi Nishi, is the bastard son of the dead executive.  He switches identities with a friend, manages to marry the crippled daughter of Vice President Iwabuchi, then sets about bringing various parties to justice. Again, the two hours plus run time limits any interest in this film to the margins of those who watch Kurosawa movies or older Japanese films. It's not one of the top 3 Kurosawa films to watch, and probably not in the top 5 either.  Top 10, sure.

 Compared to High and Low the plot moves at a somber pace, and the setting is not as interesting as the regional location in the other film.  Also, the Shakespearean influence inevitably drag down a film.  

Wavy concrete forms with biologically influenced designs are characteristic of Gaudi's work, which combined Gothic cathedrals with William Morris to concrete an utterly unique architecture in Barcelona.

Movie Review
Antonio Gaudi (1984)
 d. Hiroshi Teshigahara

  This is an hour and ten minute (mostly) wordless documentary/visual poem on the subject of Catalan Architect Antonio Gaudi.  Gaudi's work is a major tourist attraction in Barcelona, which itself receives upwards of three million tourists a year, many of which make a visit to one of the major Gaudi sites in Barcelona, the Familia Sagrada Cathedral and Park Guell chief among them.  The camer work is slow and loving and the fact that Teshigahara gets most of his shots without anyone else IN THEM is enough to warrant a viewing even if you've been to Barcelona and seen the buildings/park in the central area.  Another reason to watch this film is that Teshighahara gets footage of Colonia Guell which has a Gaudi designed crypt, and what looked like an actual housing development of single family dwellings- I can't find that anywhere on the internet.

   Towards the end of the film there is actually an interview with someone who narrates the back story the the Familia Cathedral, still unfinished, which must be the only "must-see" Catholic cathedral in the last century. Gaudi was actually deeply Catholic, and lacked the radicalism of the contemporaneous artistic avant garde which launched the career of Pablo Picasso, as well as several lesser known writers and artists in the late 19th and 20th century.

"Ich bin bereit für meine Nahaufnahme."  or "I'm ready for my close-up," Rosel Zech plays the Sunset Boulevard esque Veronica Voss in Fassbinder's excellent 1982 film of the same name.


Movie Review
Veronika Voss(1982)
 d. Rainer Werner Fassbinder


    The Criterion Collection description calls Veronica Voss "satire masquerading as melodrama," but it could equally be described as movie that looks like a take on Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard until the last 20 minutes.  Sunset Boulevard is of course the immortal 1950 film starring Gloria Swanson as faded star Norma Desmond. Sunset Boulevard is a noir that starts with a body floating in a swimming pool and works back to front in time.  Veronica Voss eschews any narrative trickery, saving its surprises for a more conventional plot twist which takes place near the end of the film.

   The story involves a brief affair between Voss, a famous Nazi era film star who is living in post war Germany, mired in obscurity, and as it turns out, madness, and Robert Krohn (acted by Hilmar Thate), a rough and tumble sportswriter (Fassbinder was a soccer fan as it turns out) who takes the place of the private eye character you typically associate with noirish plots.  He already has a live in girlfriend, who participates in his affair with a kind of world weary bemusement.

  Although there are some stylistic touches in the lighting and composition, the story is easy to follow and eminently watchable if you can get over reading the subtitles.  The performances are compelling, and the echo of Sunset Boulevard grounds the watcher in a releateable narrative.  Veronica Voss is worth checking out on Hulu Plus.


Movie Review
Schizopolis (1996)
d. Steven Soderbergh

  So like, lesser films of greater film makers- that is a big Criterion Collection category, presumably because they are available and lack prior DVD editions.  Schizopolis was made during Soderburgh's self imposed Hollywood exile after his break-out film Sex, Lies & Videotape, before he settled into the type of guy who could drop 100,000,000 grossing pictures in back-to-back years.  Schizopolis actually stars Soderburgh himself in a double role.  The phenomenon of doubling is seemingly at the center of 400 years of narrative story telling- the popular "early" example is Doctor Jeckl and Mr. Hyde but there were doubles long before that.

  Soderburgh plays Fletcher Munson, a speech writer for a Scientology type religion/marketing outfit.  his double is a dentist, Dr. Jeffrey Korshek.  There are long periods where one or both of the characters speak in an un subtitled foreign language.  An early scene between Munson and his wife is conducted entirely in generic descriptions of verbal interactions, "Unenthusiastic greeting. Terse description of day at work, etc." spoken by both characters.

    Soderburgh adds extra edge by casting his soon-to-be-ex wife as the love interest of both characters.  Schizopolis is kind of funny the way Godard is kind of funny, not very.

Paul Robeson playing "Bosambo" in the regrettable Sanders of the River


Sanders of the River (1935)
d. Zoltán Korda
From Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist boxed set, Criterion Collection #369

  Included in the excellent boxed set, Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist, Sanders of the River is not what you would call a career highlight.  In fact, the description on the Criterion Collection site calls Sanders of the River, "deeply embarrassing" to Robeson- as in- he was deeply embarrassed by the resulting film, which can only be called a "glorification of the British Empire" while simultaneously being deeply insulting to Africans.  I suppose there is some value to Sanders of the River as the first film that Robeson made after departing the United States for England, but as a watchable film? Negatory.

What is Fellini-esque? Evil clowns are Fellini esque.


Movie Review
I vitelloni (1953)
d. Federico Fellini

  I vitelloni is an example of one of the big Criterion Collection categories:  Early works by film makers who would late go on to create masterpieces, where the early film has some but not all of characteristic attributes of the later masterpieces. Depending on the number of non-masterpiece early works and the level of interest in the film maker, Criterion Collection may be inclined to relegate non-important early works to the Eclipse collection (see Ingmar Bergman) or not do Criterion Collection editions at all.

  Fellini didn't have many non-masterpiece early works.  His first widely acknowledged masterpiece is usually considered to be Nights of Cabiria, and that was released in 1957.  Before Nights, he only released five feature films, and I vitelloni is second.  There is nothing "Fellini-esque" about I vitelloni is as much as that word describes a certain style of film making that equally combines the realistic and the bizarre/grotesque.  There is nothing grotesque about these characters except perhaps the caddish behavior of Fausto, as the cheating husband in a group of 20 something lay abouts in a small Italian town in the years after World War II.  Working a job is anathema for these lot, and their wives, fiances and mothers seem to put up with their loafish behavior with a shrug.

  I vitelloni didn't do a whole lot for me, emotionally.  There was little to distinguish it my mind from other Italian films of the 50s and 60s, though perhaps the fact this was early 1950s makes it somewhat "ahead of its time" in terms of neo-realism, which is avowedly NOT a style that one associates with "Mature Fellini."

  Unlike Michelangelo Antonioni, Fellini is actually concerned with incident.  At his neo-realist "best" the pacing is anything but slow and moody.  He's also not as "real" as Roberto Rossellini, even at this early stage. I vitelloni does not "push the envelope" in terms of limiting camera equipment and using natural, outside lighting.  Roughly speaking if you are trying to assign the apex for each of the big 3 Italian filmmakers you are talking 40s-early 50s for Rossellini,  Antonioni in the early 60s and then Fellini in the mid to late 60s.

Movie Review
Kanal (1957)
d. Andrzej Wadja
Part of Adrzej Wadja: Three War Films #282

  Kanal is part of the thematically linked "Three War Films" trilogy by Polish cinema lion Adrzej Wadja.  Criterion Collection only has four Wadja films in the collection, but if you investigate him with a quick internet search it's easy to see that he is truly the Dean of Polish filmmakers, with four Academy Award Nominations for Best Foreign Films (no wins) and lifetime achievement and specific film awards inside Europe.

  I imagine judging Wadja's career based on the three war films, all released between 1955 and 1958, is similar to judging Martin Scorcese based on Mean Streets (1973), Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976):  You can do it but it will leave out a ton of good work, and really only give you an idea of the starting point of Scorcese or Wadja.

  Wadja's war trilogy takes place both during (Kanal and A Generation) and immediately after (Ashes and Diamonds) the war.  All three concerns acts of resistance with the moral playing field sliding from "clear"(Kanal: Polish resistance fighters, during the Warsaw uprising, struggling to escape via the sewers of Warsaw.) To "somewhat murky" (A Generation: Youths, living in occupied Poland, collaborate with Nazis and joint the resistance.) To "fetid (Ashes and Diamonds: Hit men roam post-Communist Poland for and against the new Polish Communist government.)

  Of the three Kanal is the only film that has the familiar outlines of a "Hollywood" film.  The claustrophobic atmosphere of the Warsaw sewers that envelops the final hour of the film draws the viewer in and makes the story memorable in a way that the other two films do not.   A main difference between Kanal and an analogous Hollywood escape picture is the absence of a happy ending.

Chipmunked cheeked actor Joe Shishedo is the Mifune to Suzuki's Kurosawa.

Movie Review
Youth of the Beast (1963)
 d. Seijun Suzuki

  Japanese cinema, Seijun Suzuki, we are in the heartland of the Criterion Collection with Youth of the Beast (1963.)  Youth of the Beast was off-beat director Suzuki's breakthrough film.  He followed Youth of the Beast with Branded to Kill (1967) and Tokyo Drifter (1966).  Those two films are his generally acknowledged twin masterpieces: anarchic gangster movies infused with the same ethos as the neo-noir of the French New Wave, and an obvious source of inspiration for contemporary directors like, oh, I don't know, Quentin Tarantino.  Youth of the Beat is a direct precursor for Branded/Drifter, with many of the same stylistic flourishes that feature in those films in less extreme/more embryonic forms.

  The use of be bop for action sequences, a hall mark of Suzuki, appears here, as does actor Joe Shishedo, the hero of Branded to Kill.  Shishedo is to Suzuki what Toshiro Mifune is to Kurosawa: An actor whose appearances go hand in hand with any discussion of the film maker, or the films.  Here, the plot is baroque in the gun-fighter double crossing two opposing sides over the course of the film with violent results.  Its a plot used by directors from John Ford, to John Huston, to Akira Kurosawa, etc.  Rather it's the style of Youth of the Beast that draws the eye, and considering the end results of Branded/Drifter, Youth of the Beast is worth taking seriously.

Frank Merriwell was a popular pulp fiction character who served as a model for Lloyd's hapless Freshman, Harold Lamb.
The Freshman (1925)
d. Sam Taylor & Fred Newmeyer
starring Harold Llloyd
Released March 25th, 2014

  A couple things to know about The Freshman going in: One- it was Lloyd's biggest box office hit. Two- it references the 20s American College culture very heavily. It was hard for me to watch The Freshman without thinking about the relationship between the explosive growth of college students and the explosive growth of literature itself in the 1920s.  By the end of the 1920s, you had a mainstream literary tradition that was still intact from prior to World War I.  There were active German and French language scenes and works.  There was literary surrealism, already a decade old.  There was experimental modernism- which had a huge decade with both Ulysses and the prime time of Virginia Woolf.  There was the Harlem Renaissance, detective/pulp fiction.  That is seven sub-genres of novel based literature that were creating classics in the 1920s.

 Film, on the other hand, was still largely a popular medium without pretensions towards "high art."  The film most instrumental in creating art-film as a category, The Passion of Joan of Arc by Carl Th. Dreyer, was only released in Europe in 1928.  While D.W. Griffith had made quantum leaps in terms of the presentation of narrative film in the teens, his movies were hardly "art film."   And of course, neither was The Freshman- they were films meant to entertain that just happen to be, in retrospect, masterpieces.  Lloyd was one of the three great silent comedy icons alongside Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

  The restored edition released by Criterion Collection, with a new soundtrack/score(by Carl Davis,) is a marvel to watch.  Rarely is the before/after difference so great for non-Criterion Collection editions than in the earlier silent era films, where existing copies can be quite bad.  Stephen Winer's accompanying essay- readable at the Criterion Collection site is a must after any watching.

 On balance, The Freshman is a good deal more crucial than a dozen 60s Italian neo-realist masterpieces simply because it documents a crucial transition in American culture (increase in college attendance) albeit in a light hearted and comical way.

Andrzej Wajda.


Movie Review
A Generation (1955)
by Andrzej Wajda

  A Generation is an entertaining World War II resistance picture from the perspective of Communist partisans fighting the Nazi's in Poland.  It's an idealized picture to be sure, as representative of the official ideology of the Polish government in the mid 1950s as a corresponding Hollywood film about World War II would be of the American government.  Despite the non-art film atmosphere and generally laudatory portrayal of the Polish Communist, A Generation still packs a gritty punch, with the female love interest getting hauled off by the Gestapo in the last five minutes of the film.   There is also a highly memorable visual of partisan bodies hanging from electricity transmission polls.

  A Generation is part of Wajda's World War II trilogy- the other films are Ashes and Diamonds (1958)- about post War shenanigans and Kanal (1957.)  Wajda is one of two European film makers to do a post World War II trilogy- the other is Robert Rosselini (Rome Open City(1945), Paisan(1946) and Germany Year Zero(1950) 5/6ths of the way through both of them, I feel confident asserting that World War II was perhaps the first true example of narrative film documenting a world wide current event.  Certainly, World War I was not that event.  Narrative film of the 1920s wasn't sophisticated enough, nor was there a truly global event, aside from the Great Depression.  Likewise, the development of narrative film in the 30s and 40s was still incremental and suffered from technical limitations.

  After World War II, there was a great deal of surplus equipment floating around- Europe, the U.S.  There was also a good deal of industrial capacity that was diverted from war material, and raw materials that were no longer needed for war.  In the area of film, this meant that actual film and the equipment to shoot film (and the people to operate the equipment) suddenly came on the market at the same time that the narrative technique of cinema had evolved to the point where a "War Movie" was plausible and affordable.



G. (1972) by John Berger


Book Review
G. (1972)
 by John Berger

   It took the Booker Prize a few years to really establish it's identity as a purveyor of international British Empire based hits.   The first Booker Prize was awarded in 1969 for Something to Answer For,  by English author P.H. Newby.  That was followed in 1970 by a Welsh winner (Bernice Reubens for The Elected Member.   V.S. Naipaul winning in 1971 for In a Free State is perhaps the first glimmer of the future of the Booker Prize,  but they immediately followed that book with this one.  G. is a blend of picaresque and novelle de philosophe, with Berger taking pages away from the amorous adventures of the titular protagonist to introduce philosophical musings as they relate to sex and desire.   This blend of fiction and philosophy was hardly novel in 1972, but it obviously struck a chord with the Booker Committee.

   The success of G. was almost immediately eclipsed by the other book Berger published in 1972,  Ways of Seeing,  a classic non-fiction work about the impact of the mechanical reproduction of art on the experience of the viewer.   Ways of Seeing continues to be a staple in high school and university literature courses all over the world.   Unlike Ways of Seeing, G. has not maintained classic status, even as an early Booker Prize novel.  In fact, when I saw G. was on the  2006 1001 Books list, I had to check to make sure it was the same John Berger.

   Jacket copy to the contrary, I did not G. particularly magical or shimmery.  Rather, it was like reading a novel written by a socialist who admired the books of Henry James and D.H. Lawrence before he obtained "consciousness" and then tried to integrate this love into his conscious fiction.







Monday, December 19, 2016

Collected Criterion Collection Reviews 2013-2014



Yasujirō Ozu, prolific Japanese film maker and master of Japanese "comedy."


Movie Review
Good Morning (1959)
d. Yasujirō Ozu
Criterion Collection #84

   Before I started seriously watching the Criterion Collection I was good for two Japanese auteurs: Akira Kurosawa and this guy, Yasujirō Ozu, testament to the simpatico tastes of me and my ex, we both enjoyed watching Ozu movies on Netflix.  I'm not 100% solid on the basis for my opinion, but I'm relatively certain that Ozu is who you would call "Japan's Greatest Comic Filmmaker."   I'm not sure that there are any others, but Ozu is known for his prolific run of quiet domestic dramedy's which are, to my mind, the Japanese equivalent of Anthony Trollope's main stretch of novels in the 1870s.   Ozu is funnier then Trollope, but I couldn't watch Good Morning without thinking about the form of the Victorian multi-plot novel.

  Here, the story concerns four families living in 50s suburban Tokyo.  Each family is decidely nuclear in composition: Working husband, stay at home wife and one or two kids, plus one family has a grandma.  One  of the four families has a television, and the children of one of the other families wants a television, so the children decide to remain silent until the television is purchased.

  Criterion Collection itself describes Good Morning as "hilarious" and it almost sent me to dictionary.com to see if there was some other meaning of hilarious besides "really funny" because that is one thing this movie is not.  It certainly possesses a wry sense of humor, and there are a few jokes but there is also domestic tension, unemployment and a kid who craps himself A LOT.

  You can't be serious about the Criterion Collection and ignore Yazujiro Ozu and his quiet Japanese domestic comedies.



Movie Review
The 400 Blows (1959)
d. François Truffaut
Criterion Collection #5

  The story I heard about the origin of The 400 Blows by François Truffaut is that Truffaut was a critic writing for the Parisian film criticism journal Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s, when a film maker essentially challenged him in print by saying, "If you are so smart, why don't you make a movie."  And Truffaut made The 400 Blows in response, which many argue is the greatest movie of all time.

  That's enough to make you the top Artist/Critic cross-over of all time, especially if you include the fact that as a critic, Truffaut was part of the highly influential avant garde French New Wave, and then he became a leading film maker in the movement which followed the criticism... that he wrote.  Godard and Truffaut play an out-size role in the minds of 21st century avant gardes of all nations because they worked in the international medium of film.  The 400 Blows may require sub-titles for a non French teacher, but the cutting edge grammar/composition requires no translation, and The 400 Blows remains as fresh and dynamic today as it must have been in 1959.

  The 400 Blows is the first in a series of films Truffaut made about Antoine Doniel, played here by Jean Pierre Leaud.  Doniel would serve as Truffaut's filmic alter ego, and he figured prominently in a whole series of films which reportedly were inspired by Truffaut's actual life story.  In The 400 Blows it is Doniel as a child, going to school, embarking on a life of petty crime and eventually getting sent away to juvie and having his Mom tell him that she does't love him anymore.





Movie Review
For All Mankind (1989)
 d. Al Reinert
Criterion Collection #54

  For All Mankind was JUST added to Criterion Collection on Hulu Plus- it must have been within the month of July- so there is some relevance for this review because it's essentially a "new release" as far as streaming goes.  When I hear the "space beep" sound that echoes through this documentary about NASA's trips to the moon, I can think of nothing else but Spiritualized Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space (see Youtube video embedded above.)  As it turns out, that beep is like the click of a two way radio/walkie talkie type device- it's funny because I just think of it as this percussive sound- as it's used in the song above, and had no idea that it played this functional role in space communication.

 For All Mankind is chock a block with such revelations as well as packed with simple beauty and majesty.  They also uploaded a making of documentary that really explains how the film was put together as a compilation of all the flights to the moon (but they don't tell you that.)  Also, the audio and visual are edited so that sometimes the voice you hear talking is different then the Astronaut pictured.

  If you can watch For All Mankind and not be profoundly moved you are not human.


The Fiend Without a Face (1958)
 d. Arthur Cabtree
Criterion Collection #92

  I think it's a mistake to just assume that the current situation with streaming films and ebooks represents some kind of end state from which there is no advance or retreat.  Already since I've been writing this blog, Ebooks that I "purchased" for free on my Amazon Kindle now cost a dollar.  I've only been watching Criterion Collection titles on Hulu Plus for a little over a month, but I've already been through one major app. update that brought additional titles online and created sub-collections (Chaplin, Bergman, Cult Classics, Samurai Movies.)

  When it comes to payment for music, movies and books we are clearly in a Wild West type of ecosystem: You can grab whatever you want but consuming it all takes effort and discipline.  The main ways that people seem to have adopted to this new reality of cultural consumption is the "binge" typified by watching 20 tv show episodes in a row on Netflix, and becoming a cultural grazer- flitting from artist to artist and work to work without a concern for deep and lasting attachment.

 It occurs to me that there is a third route which is what I'm trying to do, essentially being an auto didact without regard to assembling a like minded community.  All you have to do is have the minimum level of financial stability and aptitude to do something like read all 1001 Books Before You Die or watch all the films of the Criterion Collection, and I'm sure this is something more people will begin to do over time.

  Fiend Without a Face is actually a UK production, adapted from a Novella that appeared in an American horror/sci fi pulp magazine in 1930.  It's about these crazy Mental Vampires that consist of a pulsing brain and spinal cord.  What they do is eat your brain and spinal cord.  Oh and they are powered by Nuclear energy.  Fiend Without a Face is really about enduring an hour of passable horror/sci fi B Movie set up for 13 minutes at the end when the monsters become visible and you get an "Oh shit" moment as you realize that yes, this movie does belong in the Criterion Collection because the monsters are so off the chain.

The Element of Crime by Lars Von Trier

Movie Review
The Element of Crime (1984)
 d. Lars Von Trier
Criterion Collection #80


  This movie is another "win" out of the first hundred Criterion Collection titles.  Lars Von Trier is a director who I literally hate because his movies make me uncomfortable but yet I've seen all of them except Antichrist and Melancholia. I watched Dancer in the Dark with my Mom in Berkeley and it was THE most uncomfortable experience in my entire life.
All Sepia All Day All Night 24/7

  Luckily, The Element of Crime lacks all of the characteristics of Von Trier's more well known work, except for being kind of impossible to watch.  The Element of Crime is a "sci fi detective" movie that reminded me most of Alphaville, in the way that Von Trier worked with a limited budget and contemporary scenery to conjure up a spooky and other-worldly dystopia.

  The "story" of The Element of Crime is that of exiled Police Detective Fisher being called back to Europe for one last case.  The narrative is framed by a dialogue with an unnamed Egyptian therapist who is using hypnosis to help Fisher reconstruct what happened.  In flashback sequences, the viewer is brought up to date on Fisher's quest to bring a serial killer of young lottery ticket girls to justice.

  From a "film art" the single most notable feature of The Element of Crime is that Von Trier shot it in Sepia colored film, which, to me, makes all of The Element of Crime look like an instagram photo. #theinternet #modernlife.

Le million (1931) d. Rene Clair

Movie Review
Le million(1931)
d. Rene Clair
Criterion Collection #72

  Rene Clair is best known for his other Criterion Collection featured film, A nous la liberte- a movie that Charlie Chaplin ripped off for his classic, Modern Times. A nous la liberte ALSO came out in 1931.  Made at the beginning of the "talky" era, Clair stretched the capabilities of sound in a film in ways that still come across as fresh and inventive today.

 Le million is about a guy who wins the lottery but can't find the jacket that has the lottery ticket inside. His girlfriend, lends it to a hobo, and he sells to it an opera singer who wears it during his performance and HI JINKS ENSUE.  FRENCH HI JINKS FROM THE 1930s.


 It occurs to me while watching older movies that there are tips and tricks that would make shooting a movie today on a limited budget earlier.  For example, setting up the camera and then have the actor move a long distance within the frame- that's easy enough to do, and seems to be a technique that filmmakers with limited budget/technology and big artistic vision cope with the limitations imposed by budget.

  You could just shoot it silently and do the sound separately.  The past has tons of ideas like this to plunder.


Joan of Arc

Movie Review
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
d. Carl Th. Dreyer
Criterion Collection #62


  Oh yeah so this is a silent film.  And by silent I mean totally silent- no score- nothing.  Just sitting in my living room in silence for the 82 minute run time.  The story behind this Criterion Collection edition is more interesting then the film.  The Passion of Joan of Arc was thought to be "lost" until in intact copy was found in, of all places, a Norwegian insane asylum because OF COURSE IT WAS.

This guy.

  Criterion then paid to have the movie restored frame by frame, no mean feat considering it was shot on Nitrate film- the kind that Tarantino used in Inglorious Basterds to blow up Hitler.

  The result is... an 82 minute silent film.  Wooo woooooo.  Basically it's the actress above making that face for the entire movie, interspersed with shots of the inquisitors.  I can see why you wouldn't want to watch this movie.



Lord of the Flies (film)(1963)
 d. Peter Brook
Criterion Collection #43

 Lord of the Flies by William Golding is one of the few books I've continuously possessed since high school. I'm fairly certain that the copy I have actually is the copy I read in my freshman English class.  The book was published in 1954.  According to Wikipedia, Lord of the Flies was not a great success initially "selling less then 3000 copies in the US before going out of print...but later became a best seller." (WIKIPEDIA)

Lord of the Flies (film) 1963


     Certainly it continues to be required reading across the globe today, and has inspired multiple filmed adaptations. (and influenced countless artists and cultural products.)   Criterial Collection #43 is the 1963 adaption by English theater director Peter Brook.   Brook was well known for his explorations on the experimental fringe of theater, and he carries a radical sensibility into the film of Lord of the Flies.  Shot largely in verite/documentary style, Brook successfully translates the book into his cinematic vision with a minimum of ostentation and fuss.  It's actually kind of the opposite of what you'd expect from an avant-garde theater director, but it reflects well on Brook in addition to serving the excellent source material.



Movie Review
Z (1969)
d. Costa-Garvas
Criterion Collection #491

  Oh the great joy of being able to take in top shelf cinema and literature without having to endlessly plan the books and films one is going to watch.  I thank my lucky stars every day that I live in a world where all books and movies (but especially the older ones) are available for free, essentially.  I couldn't even tell you how much money I've saved, but just using my "Categories" as a rough estimate- I've watched 98 Criterion Collection films.  Those cost 30 dollars a piece- so that is three thousand dollars in just the last six months or so.  And then books- I've got at least one hundred free books read on my Kindle- so let's say seven dollars a book (shipping a used book from Amazon costs four bucks typically, so even a book that costs a penny ends up costing you a few dollars)- that's another 700.

   Z is a political thriller about the assassination of a charismatic left-wing political leader and the subsequent investigation/cover-up.  Z won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film when it was released, and it's easy enough to see why.  Costa-Garvas apparently based Z on the real-life assassination of Greek leftist leader Gregoris Lambrakis, but sets the film in a nameless French speaking country that merely resembles Greece.  Costa-Garvas has technique and pacing aplenty, you feel like you are watching a Hollywood film, rather than a "foreign" picture.

  There really isn't a dull moment in Z, it's essentially an action movie/thriller/police procedural overlap and I had no trouble making it through.  Z isn't high art exactly, but it is fun and worth watching.


Movie Review
La promesse (1996)
 d. Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Criterion Collection #620

   The first feature film of the Freres Dardenne, La promesse is a self assured debut about the experiences son of an alien smuggler in the post-industrial landscape of Belgium.  Igor is a good looking young kid, in noted contrast to his bespectacled, moderately over weight father, who physically resembles Donal Logue's freaky cab driver from the MTV promos of the 1990s.

  The Dardennes came from a documentary background, and their narrative style is decidedly in media res, with no exposition or supplementary characters who provide expository type dialogue.  Instead the viewer is simply dropped into the soup.  Thirty minutes in it is unclear if a plot is even in the offing, and then an African immigrant dies accidentally at a house where the boys father is having the illegal immigrants work, and Igor is left to cope with a very unknowing, recently arrived widow.

  The relationship between Igor and Assita (the widow) occupies the rest of the film, as Igor comes to feel a moral responsibility for her well being.  In terms of films from the same area, it is hard not to think both of Agnes Varda's Vagabond as a similar in media res depiction of the underbelly of Francophone life.  In terms of the landscape, The Vanishing comes to mind: simply because it is set in the same general region.  For those looking for an American equivalent is the work of Gus Van Sant, and further back, the short fiction of Raymond Carver.

  While La promesse isn't exactly fun, it's not boring either, and worth the hour and a half time investment.


Movie Review
Rome Open City (1945)
d. Roberto Rossellini
Criterion Collection #497

  I'm sure scholars, critics and the filmmaker himself would take issue with the statement that Rome Open City in any way "invented" Italian Neorealism, but it certainly was a breakout international success as an example of that style of film making.  Criterion Collection is thick with the Italian Neorealist, Rossellini in particular, who has 12 films in the collection.  Neorealism is an interesting film genre because it has a concern with both authenticity and immediacy.  Those are two qualities which, since the advent of Neorealism, have been present in the international film community, but were formerly not so much.

  Neorealism brought more of the documentary style to the cinema, and none were better than Rossellini himself. Rome Open City as an early/first effort is more like a typical melodrama with stylistic flourishes that mark it as being different from other melodamas.  The actors were professionals, not amateurs, and Rossellini used music and conventional plot points to depict the vagaries of existence in occupied Rome.

  Half a century plus on, it is easy to take for granted the innovations that Rossellini brought to cinema with Rome Open City and his other films of the 40s and 50s.  The composition/mise en scene ideas of Neorealism have been embraced to the point where even big budget action movies use its techniques.  At the same time Rome Open City holds up in 2013 as an eminently watchable film.  Inexplicably divided into two parts despite a run time of under two hours, Rome Open City fairly races by till a bloody denouement which is predictable but still packs an emotional wallop.

Lee Eun Shim plays the Housemaid in the 1960 Korean film directed by Kim Ki-young


The Housemaid (1960)
d. Kim Ki-young
Criterion Collection #690
Criterion Collection/World Cinema Foundation edition released December 10th, 2013.

  This is the last of the initial batch of World Cinema Foundation titles that are being released via the Criterion Collection on December 10th. The Housemaid is a dark, dark, dark Korean picture about a Housemaid who seduces the piano teacher husband.  And as IMDB says, "Dark consequences ensue."  As luck would have it I'd actually already seen the 2010 remake of this film, directed by Sang So.

 The Housemaid can fairly be described as a "twisted tale of love and obsession" and out of all of the World Cinema Foundation/Criterion Collection titles it is the film that most neatly fits into a "Hollywood Perspective," what with a focus on sex and death.  The Housemaid is a good deal darker than any film noir I can think of.  Forced abortions, child murder, suicide, attempts at poisoning;  The Housemaid has all that.  Any fan of American of French Noir will enjoy The Housemaid and it is BY FAR the most watchable of the newly released World Cinema Foundation titles.


Movie Review
A River Called Titas/
Titash Ekti Nadir Naam 1973
d. Ritwik Ghatak
Criterion Collection/World Cinema edition released December 10th, 2013
   
   There are certain existential questions that confront you when you spend two and a half hours watching a 1973 Bengladeshi film about the decline and fall of a fishing village- located on the river called Titas.  A River Called Titas is an epic, multi-generational affair, shot in black and white and of course, with subtitles from the Bengali.  On the spectrum of "Watchability" that I often use to evaluate various different Criterion Collection titles, A River Called Titas is at the near bottom.  It is really, really tedious.  However, on the "historical merit" spectrum A River Called Titas comes in high.  First, it's Bengladeshi and how many Bengladeshi films have you seen?  Zero?

  Second, director Ritwik Ghatak is an important figure in Indian Cinema, and how many Ritwik Ghatak films have you seen? Zero?  So there are reasons to watch A River Called Titas but that it does not make it fun.  Also, and maybe this is just me not getting some of the nuances but people are really mean in this film- to one another- to children- it's brutal.  I'm not sure what's up with that but it was not a flattering picture of the "simple village fisher folk,"

Marcello Mastroianni plays the Organizer of the title.

Movie Review
The Organizer (1963)
 d. Mario Monicelli
Criterion Collection #610

   Yet another Criterion Collection title where I'm like, "Really, a 1963 Italian movie about the travails of garment factory workers in Turin in the early 20th century?"  Apparently my reaction was shared by contemporary American critics.  The accompanying critical essay at the Criterion Collection site mentions that Stanley Kauffman, reviewing The Organizer in the New Republic, asked why anyone would make a movie about a labor movement in 1963.

  Of course, Kauffman was unaware of the labor unrest plaguing the Fiat Factory in Turin in 1962, making The Organizer a clear reminder to domestic Italian audiences that the fight of labor against capital was a fight that always needed to be renewed.  Vacationing in Turin in 2010, I stayed at a Hotel in that same Fiat factory that had been the subject of dispute around the time this film came out.

  It had been redeveloped for the Turin area winter Olympics, and now had two luxuryish hotels and a huge-ass shopping mall.  One of the pleasures for me watching The Organizer is that it was actually shot in Turin, and I recognized many of the locales (Turin is not a particularly large city, and the downtown is distinctive with large squares and overhanging Arcades.)

  At the same time it was a melancholy memory for me, of a relationship past.  It makes me want to go back to all those places with someone new to replace the old, saddish memories with new happy memories, but I'm not sure Turin would make the cut for a second visit in this lifetime.

  The Organizer has a black and white, retro look, but at the same time it is very clear that this is not an Italian neo-realist picture, rather it is in the style of a Hollywood melodrama, with dollies, tracking shots, and maudlin sentiment for days.  It's not an unpleasant film, easy to watch, but hardly what I would call a "classic."

Spalding Gray: Ppl like him for some reason, but I've never met one.  Seriously where do these people live, New York City? London? Theater people? Help me out.

Movie Review
Gray's Anatomy (1997)
d. Steven Soderbergh
Criterion Collection #618

  During the first season of Mad Men, my ex and I picked up a copy of "The Buttoned Down Mind of Bob Newhart" on vinyl at the swap meet because there had been a reference to it on Mad Men.  We both were vaguely familiar with the 80s sitcom Bob Newhart and whatever, but not fans.  We listened, in horror, to the Buttoned Down Mind of Bob Newhart, both wondering the entire time what the fuck was supposed to even be funny about it.

 I kind of got a similar vibe from Gray's Anatomy, which is a filmed version of a show by monologist Spalding Gray.  For those who may be unfamiliar, Gray was a tall, thin white haired dude of staunch WASP blood, and he specialized in the monologue.  His most notable success was the show/film Swimming to Cambodia, which made him a star of the 80s art film circuit.

 Gray died in 2004, the apparent victim of a suicide (found floating in the East River.) Death and suicide permeate his work, Gray's Anatomy being no exception.  He discusses his mothers suicide repeatedly, and makes reference to a history of family members not surviving past their early 50s.

  Gray's Anatomy is about an eye condition Spalding Gray had, and the attendant anxiety that he felt and alternative health type measures he took in the hopes of avoiding surgery.  The monologue is interspersed with documentary style interviews with 4-5 regular people who have dealt with 'eye issues.'

  I've purposely avoided watching Swimming to Cambodia simply because of the monologue format, so I give myself high marks for sitting through this night mare fest.  Monologues, I mean really.  What the fuck, Criterion Collection?

Movie Review
City Lights (1931)
d. Charlie Chaplin
Criterion Collection #680
Criterion Collection edition released November 12th, 2013

  Watching silent films can be a bit of a chore.  Charlie Chaplin is probably the first silent film maker who really connects with a contemporary audience.  If you look at other Criterion Collection titles from the silent era they are super arty and dull.  Important, sure. But dull. Chaplin on the other hand makes films that connect across time and space.

 You compare Chaplin to, say, D.W. Griffith, and equally "important' silent era film maker, and Griffith's films are essentially unwatched, and Chaplin is still being watched, essentially, on the level of a current release.  There's also the fact that Chaplin wrote/directed/acted and produced his own films.  I think you can make the case that a significant portion of what we today call "movie magic" was essentially invented by Charlie Chaplin in his classic films.

 Take City Lights, soon to be given the Criterion Collection treatment (took them long enough? rights issues?)   Chaplin is seen as being a fairly innocent filmmaker, but City Light features attempted suicide, drunken misery, prison and of course, centers around the relationship between Chaplin's Little Tramp character and a blind flower girl.  Kinddda dark.

  Chaplin is a genius, bottom line.  His movies are so watchable- and enduring- just the very definition of the word "classic."


Movie Review
¡Alambrista! (1977)
d. Robert M. Young
Criterion Collection #609

This title is an excellent example of the Criterion Collection "resdiscovering" a film that was either lost or close to it. Alambrista is a narrative film about the experience of an illegal Mexican immigrant coming to the United States and working in the fields.  Robert Young had a background in news/documentary film and this experience informs the look and feel of Alambrista.

 It isn't hard to see both how ¡Alambrista! almost came to be forgotten and why it is a great Criterion Collection discovery: the narrative of the illegal Mexican immigrant is an issue that has grown in importance since the film was made, and the "downer" subject matter and style make it a good example of a film that wasn't appreciated by the general Audience at the initial time of publication/release.

 The accompanying essay by Charles Ramirez Berg does an excellent job of giving a straight forward explanation of the genesis of Alambrista (funded by PBS, for one thing.) and the circumstances of the principal photography (skeleton crew of two plus actors.)  It's worth reading before you watch the film

Nina Pens Rode plays Gertrud

Movie Review
Gertrud (1964)
d. Carl Th. Dreyer
Criterion Collection #127

  Gertrud spoke to me more profoundly then any other film in the Criterion Collection to this point.  That is probably because Getrud is the story of a woman who leaves her husband in a quest for love. She fails. I relate to that because I recently experienced the end of my own 12 year relationship/marriage, and almost every line in Gertrud rang pure and true to my own experience. I'm sure I'll be reflecting on this film for months, if not years to come.

 Gertrud is married to a cold, lawyer/politician husband in what I believe to be 1950s Denmark.  In the first 15 minutes, she announces that she's leaving, and when he asks why she tells him straight up it's because he is too cold.  She falls for a young musicians, but he mistreats her and eventually discloses that he has another woman, and that the other woman is pregnant, and their affair ends even before she is divorced for her husband.  An old flame of her makes a play, but she tells him, in no uncertain terms, that she doesn't love him either because he understands nothing of love.

 At the end of the film she is alone, 40 years later, and still refuses to compromise on her believe that "love is all" even though her time actually being in love seems limited to about two and a half years out of the 80 or so years that she exists.  Gertrud raises alot of issues about love, and specifically about the loss of love, and I found it to be utterly profound and moving.  I would have wept if I was the weeping type.

  Honestly I don't know if you can really understand love until you've had it and lost it.  If you haven't lost love, how can you know it was there in the first place? There are so many types of human relationships- sexual and otherwise that can exist without love it seems like it is entirely possible to live an entire lifetime without experiencing it- unless you have it and then lose it, so you can know that it was there.

Modern Times Charlie Chaplin



  Movie Review
Modern Times (1936)
 d. Charlie Chaplin
Criterion Collection #543

  Modern Times was the last appearance of the Little Tramp, the character Chaplin rode to everlasting fame.  By 1936 sound had been a part of cinema for a decade, and while Chaplin made use of sound in the form of music and sound effects, Modern Times was the last film in which Chaplin didn't speak dialogue (he does, however, sing near the end of the film.)

  Modern Times is like four separate shorts strung together and given a feature-type heft by virtue of his relationship with Paulette Goddard, playing the role of "a gamine."  Most people associate the first segment of the film which takes place in a factory where Chaplin works tightening a pair of bolts on an assembly line.  After the famous scene where he gets sucked into the interior of gear intensive piece of machinery, he gets fired, caught up in a street rally and mistaken for a Communist leader.

  The Tramp is imprisoned, but released after getting a pardon for preventing a jail break.  He gets out, meets Goddard- literally shoe less so gamine is she.  Goddard is the original manic pixie dream girl, and the first female lead who would match Chaplin's intensely physical performances.

   Modern Times was the first movie where Chaplin's socialist/communist ideology was visible. He would follow with The Great Dictator and follow that with being hounded from America by anti-Communist crusaders.  Another proud moment in American history there.  Chaplin continued to make movies- good movies- for decades, but his critical/popular zenith was reached in this film.  It would only be in later decades that his reputation would be restored and amplified.

Charlie Chaplin is Monsieur Verdoux
Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
d. Charlie Chaplin
Criterion Collection #652

   OMG late period Charlie Chaplin is KILLING ME.  SO...FUCKING....DARK.  In Monsieur Verdoux, the film Chaplin made AFTER he played Hitler in The Great Dictator, he plays a serial killer.   Sooooooo dark.  Chaplin is fully acting in the modern style in Monsieur Verdoux, he plays a character who is as far from "the little tramp" that led him to fame and fortune as the difference between silent and sound film itself.

   Monsieur Verdoux is what you call a "Bluebeard" a man or woman who marries and murders his conquests.  In Verdoux is motivated by a desire to support his wheel chair bound wife and child, but the body count is in the teens.  Chaplin is cool as a cucumber as the murderer.  Before he is carted off to the guillotine at the end of the film, he refuses to accept responsibility and compares himself to the approaching mass murder of World War II, favorably.

  The dark humor of Monsieur Verdoux almost anticipates the tone of Coen brothers films, I feel like he must have been an influence on them.

Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai

Movie Review
Seven Samurai (1954)
d. Akira Kurosawa
Criterion Collection #2

 I realized the other night that I was essentially lying to myself about having seen Seven Samurai before. I think it was just one of those movies I'd maybe caught a glimpse of on PBS one time as a teen and then never had to watch again, and then felt like I had to SAY that I'd seen it before, and just created this web of self deception and lies to avoid having to watch a three hour plus movie about Samurais in 16th century Japan.

 Although I objectively knew that Seven Samurai is regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, that didn't make me want to watch it.  Well no more, I've have cured myself and I can now say that Seven Samurai was just as difficult to watch as I expected it to be.   Luckily the Hulu Plus version included the very excellent hour long documentary, Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences which I actually watched interspersed with the movie itself to give myself little breaks during the run time.

 Japanese cinema in the 1950s and 1960s had tremendous vitality, and as the documentary points out, Kurosawa set out with a self conscious aim to elevate what had previously been considered a light entertainment genre in Japanese film- similar to what John Ford accomplished with the Western in America a decade earlier.  One of the talking heads in the accompanying documentary points out that Kurosawa both satisfies genre requirements, and creates a work that is impossible to talk about strictly in terms of genre- the ultimate in artistic achievement.

  Seven Samurai also represents a step forward in terms of Kurosawa's film technique, with the addition of multiple cameras being shot at the same time, and the use of long distance telephoto shooting during the action sequences.

 Of course, Seven Samurai was a huge international art house hit and it is another of the corner stone/foundational films without which the Criterion Collection wouldn't exist, so best to pay ones respects at least once in your life.


Movie Review
Gate of Hell (1953)
d. Teinosuke Kinugasa
Criterion Collection #653

  The first three films to make it out of Japan were Kurosawa's Rashoman, Mizoguchi's Ugetsu and this film all in 1952/1953.  The Seven Samurai followed in 1954.  That's as solid an example of a specific art scene making an international breakout within a defined time period as you are likely to see in any era.  In 1952, nobody knew shit about Japanese cinema, by the end of 1954 it was a thing that people liked.

  The significance of Gate of Hell is that it is in color- the first internationally distributed Japanese film in color.  Seen in color, the attention to mise en scene/cinematography which defined the first wave of exported Japanese films is in high relief, so to speak.  The color in Gate of Hell is eye popping- the purples and reds in particular and the color really overwhelms the film itself, which is a retelling of a tale of obsessive love told against the backdrop of 12th century Japan.  12th century Japan looks almost exactly like 15th and 16th century Japans that I've seen in other films.  I love how the Japanese used blocks of wood for pillows! Did that ever stop?

  Besides being visually breathtaking, Gate of Hell is a typical "jidai-geki" or historical film- one of the two genres of Japanese cinema (the other being gendai-geki, or contemporary film.)  An unrequited love between a warrior and a married women leads to tragedy, the end.  Director Kinugasa is a one hit wonder in the Criterion Collection, so there is nothing else by him to watch.

Babette, of Babette's Feast fame

Movie Review
Babette's Feast (1987)
d. Gabriel Axel
Criterion Collection #665
Release Date:: July 23rd, 2013

  Babette's Feast exists at the edge of my memory, likely because I watched Siskel & Ebert review it on their PBS show "At the Movies."  In 1987 I was 9 years old, so I know I didn't watch Babette's Feast in the theater or on television.  But I know I saw their review of it.  So many of the Criterion Collection titles were old before I was born it is interesting to watch a film that came out within my lifetime (and isn't part of their curious obsession with Michael Bay)

  Like other Danish films that I've watched but yet to review here, Babette's Feast takes places in a rural village where all the people are stoked on God.  It's set in the mid to late 19th century, with a flash back that takes us back to 1850, and a major episode that happens 15 years before the titular feast of Babette.

  Like the films of the Don of Danish cinema, Carl Th. Dreyer, Babette's Feast has a lot to say about the austere, puritanical Christianity of rural Danes in the 19th century, but it Babette's Feast is more fun then any of Dreyers' films...by a wide margin.  There are moments of humor and frivolity, and a bonafide happy ending- so rare in Danish literature.

   Babette's Feast also turned me onto Jutland- which looks like a fun place for a visit, if you are into rural areas by the sea that are super quiet and depopulated.  The accouterments Criterion has already uploaded to the title page at their website already have a ton of resources if you intrigued.  Couples- this would be a good movie to watch together on a Friday night.  And of course fans of Danish cinema.  Which is everyone, I'm sure.

Future space man from Things To Come

Movie Review
Things To Come (1936)
d. William Cameron Menzies
Criterion Collection #660
Release Date: June 18th, 2013

   Things To Come, a collaboration between H.G. Wells and producer Alexander Korda, had every advantage.  It was the 1936 version of a sci-fi blockbuster, based on the Wells book, with a huge-for-its-day budget.  Unfortunately, to call the script "stilted and terrible" is to offend both those words.  Well maybe not terrible.

  The movie has its moments- both the montage sequences of the decades long World War (this movie was written and released BEFORE World War II, and in the book this war starts when Germany invades Poland !);  similarly the montage closer to the end where the global super state constructs the shiny, gleaming world of the future have a wondrous quality that leave you in awe of the prescience of all involved.

  The acting,,,is terrible.  The story... non existent.  For those who watch contemporary films it is similar to what they did in World War Z with a book that was an homage to Studs Terkel's "Working" ( a collection of interview with people about working.  In other words it is an attempt to create a dramatic narrative from a printed source with no dramatic narrative.

 Let Things To Come be a lesson to us all!  Also, H.G. Wells was kinda a fascist, though he died too early to really appreciate how badly that could turn out.  His gleaming super state of the future looks like something out of a Nazi propaganda film.

  I probably would not recommend Things To Come to anyone unless they said something like, "Oh yeah, HUGE H.G. Wells fan." or "God I love big budget sci fi films from the 1930s that totally bombed."  or I suppose people who dig interesting artistic failures.  Because Things To Come is def. a fail.

Movie Review
Shoot The Piano Player (1960)
d. François Truffaut
Criterion Collection #315

  One of the problems with watching the major works of the French New Wave is simply how familiar they have all become by virtue of their absorption by a half century of filmmakers in the rest of the world.  The techniques pioneered by Truffaut et. al. are now utilized by art film makers and television commercials alike.  Those films with an intensely personal approach, such as Truffaut's own 400 Blows, maintain their emotional intensity, but genre experiments like Shoot The Piano Player, while intriguing as an example of film history, have less power by comparison.

  Which is not to take anything away from the enduring popularity of Shoot The Piano Player, Truffaut's second feature and the 3rd most popular Truffaut product on Amazon.com and appears to rise and fall in virtual lock step with 400 Blows in terms of overall popularity in the English language:



 Personally, I didn't really enjoy Shoot The Piano Player and I find the French New Wave a bit of a chore thus far.  Probably because it all feels so familiar, and the endless reading of subtitles can be tiresome.  I'm not inclined to to rush through the films, certainly.



This is a Ngram comparing the popularity of the films by Truffaut, Godard and Chabrol in the English language between 1950 and 2000.
Movie Review
Le Beau Serge (1958)
p. Claude Chabrol
Criterion Collection #580

   And so the French New Wave arrived in 1958, heralded by this particular film, Le Beau Serge by Cahiers du Cinema critic/founder(?) Claude Chabrol.  Chabrol would have to the third in the trinity of French New Wave film makers alongside Truffaut and Godard.  But, importantly, Chabrol was first, with his first film, Le Beau Savage rising to prominence a year prior to Godard, who released Breathless in 1960.  You can see that illustrated in the Ngram below:


Ngram demonstrating Chabrol obtaining popularity a year before Godard in the English language between 1958 and 1960.

  It's interesting to note that in the period betwen 1958 and 1965, Truffaut actually ran a distant third to Chabrol and Godard, just after that time period Truffaut would surpass Chabrol in popularity and it remained that way forever after.

   Understanding that Breathless was released well after Le Beau Serge helps pull both films and the French New Wave itself into focus.  The French New Wave is the central episode in any broad history of the relationship of the Arts to criticism.  It was a time period where critics became artists and obtained a world-wide Audience.  So prominent is the example of the French New Wave as an Artistic trend that it dominates the naming of non-French national/regional trends: the Eastern European New Wave, but demonstrably through the type of films which were actually made during the 1960's in countries all over the world.

 The primary non-Native artistic influences on the French New Wave, examples, if you will, were the northern European examples of Dreyer and Bergman and the Italian neo-realism of Rossellini and others.  On the other side of the art/commercial divide, there was a definite familiarity and fondness for the conventions of American genre film, gangster and detective movies specifically, but also comedy and musical examples.

  The main critique of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd was directed at the French filmmakers of the 1920s-through-1940s, the critique being that the films were impersonal and failed to properly communicate emotionally with the Audience.  All three major "first" films of the Chabrol/Godard/Truffaut/Le Beau Serge/400 Blows/Breathless French New Wave break out on 1958-1960 were sharp, emotionally intense affairs based on the human experience of the creator.  Intensely "personal" films, the critic/auteurs of the French New Wave sought to stamp their Art with a uniquely personal vision, aided by craft and technique learned from a steady diet of viewing films, mostly in Paris.

   Aside from properly crediting Le Beau Serge as the first film of the French New Wave it is also fair to say that it is the third best of the three major films.  400 Blows is often called the best film of all time, with a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes (Breathless only has a 96%Le Beau Serge also has a 100% but with only 8 critical opinions tabulated, vs. 50+ for both 400 Blows and Breathless.) Part of that is maybe because of how incredibly DARK Le Beau Serge is, with a plot that revolves around a dead "Mongoloid" baby, intense alcoholism and an incest/rape subplot(!) that shocks in 2013, perhaps more today than then in 1958.


Movie Review
The Double Life of Véronique (1991)
d. Krzysztof Kieślowski
Criterion Collection #359

   Some of these movies are getting watched simply because they are the oldest film on my Hulu Plus movie queue.  Kieślowski is best known for his "Colors" trilogy: Blue, Red & White, also part of the Criterion Collection.  I've seen the Colors trilogy, and the films share a common style: abstracted and elegiac, they echo work that Wim Wenders did in the same general time period and it's an influence that is clear in the films of Michel Gondry.

 Almost anything you read about The Double Life of Veronique, including laudatory critical reviews, will mention that the film makes little or no sense when you try to describe it 'in print,' and who am I to disagree with that assessment.   There is something about a film that you both want to watch enough to put on a queue AND not want to watch so much that it becomes the very last film on that same queue over a period of weeks.

  Watching the last film on a digital queue is both satisfying and exasperating at the same time.  The ability of this act to elicit both emotions simultaneously is perhaps its most distinctive feature.  At the same time, it is hard to really connect with such a film, on a personal level.


Lars Von Trier: Too old and fat to be considered an Enfant Terrible in 2013.

Movie Review
Europa (1991)
d. Lars Von Trier
Criterion Collection #454

 I'm hesitant to say too much about Von Trier because I have a deep belief that talking about Von Trier like you enjoy his movies makes you sound like pretentious fuck.   I will say that having now watched a fair amount of Ingmar Bergman and Theodor Dryer I have a better feel for Von Trier's influences.

 Europa is a pretty straight forward film noir type film about an American who gets a job working as a train conductor in Germany immediately after World War II.  He immediately gets involved in a plot to sabotage his train line, while simultaneously dealing with the vagaries of being a probationary employee in a foreign land.

  Fair to say that if you just add "as imagined by Lars Von Trier" to the above paragraph you should be able to get a clear picture of what Europa is like.  It is a coherent, narrative film that actually looks like a film from the 50s post war period of European Art cinema.  Quite an achievement considering the 1991 release date.

  Europa is easily Von Trier's most watchable film- with only one graphic suicide and no genital mutilation.  Can't wait for Nymphomaniac LOL.

Harriet Andersson in Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) d. Ingmar Bergman

Movie Review
Smiles of  Summer Night (1955)
d. Ingmar Bergman

  Important to understand about Ingmar Bergman's pre break-out work is that he spent 7 months a year as the director of the Malmo Community Theater.  Then, in the summer months, he would make a movie using the same actors.  The concept of "summer" dominates the titles of Bergman's 50s works: Summer with Monika (1953), Summer Interlude (1951) and of course, Smiles of a Summer Night.

  Smiles of a Summer Night came out just before the Seventh Seal (1957) so it was fairly easy for newly turned on Bergman fans to go back and take in Smiles of a Summer Night, thus it obtained a kind of retroactive/revival style popularity. This phenomenon is discussed in the included DVD extra, a conversation between familiar Bergman scholar Peter Cowrie and producer Jorn Dunner.  Cowrie points out that while Smiles of a Summer Night achieved European notoriety by winning a prize at Cannes, it didn't happen in North America.

  Smiles is essentially a sex farce- with clear references to Shakespeare and the larger Scandinavian concept of the passionate, brief summer.  The parlor drama scenery is very much something that Bergman would eventually leave behind, but he wasn't bad at the quasi-Victorian style.


Movie Review
Eating Raoul (1982)
d. Paul Bartel

  If you are as unfamiliar with the films of Paul Bartel as I was going into watching Eating Raoul, the best way to think of him is as the lesser known cousin of John Waters.  Eating Raoul is essentially the hit out of his entire career.  It's an early 80s satire that brings to mind, of course, John Waters, but also Repo Man era Alex Cox as well as later filmmakers like Gregg Araki.

  The transgressive premise of the film is that married couple Mary and Paul Bland (played by Bartel and his frequent co-star and ex Warhol girl Mary Woronov conspire with Latino hustler Raoul Mendoza to lure "swingers and perverts" to their house through a personal ad, and then to murder the respondees and steal their money.

  I think though the most enduring quality of the film is its indieness.  Released in 1982, Eating Raoul was a precursor to the indie comedies that flooded the market a decade later, and it probably bears some credit/responsibility for the larger genre of gross comedy typified by classic period Farrelly Brothers films, Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin, etc.


Movie Review
Kuroneko (1968)
 d. Kaneto Shinedo

  Unlike some of the more esoteric categories within the Criterion Collection, "Japanese Horro" is a genre where I feel like there is at least a realistic possibility I will encounter someone who is "into" these films and be able to carry on a conversation with them prior to my death.  Another positive about Japanese horror movies is that "cool" people often feel vaguely guilty if they are NOT familiar with the genre and will act like they are interested in these films our of a sense of duty to be versed.

  Japanese horror traces roots back to Japanese folk tales tracing back to what we would call "the Middle Ages" and beyond.  Many of the ghosts are vengeful spirits of wronged women, putting the story of Kuroneko (Woman and her daughter and law are raped and murdered by a bunch of samurai and become demons who kill and eat samurai.)  Similar to a tale in one of the other early Japanese films, Kwaidan, the resolution of the tale involves a family twist, when the long lost son in law returns as a samurai and is tasked with the job of killing the demon spirits of his wife and mother in law.  IRONY ALERT!!!!

 The wife takes herself out of the picture by trading her demon immortality for "seven days of heaven" with her living husband, but the mother-in-law doesn't go down so early.  There is also a demon cat involved.  If you are familiar with more recent iterations of Japanese horror films, you can see some of the visual motifs already formed in Kuroneko, particularly the agile skittering of female ghosts, which I realize now must be related to the cats that are constantly popping up in these tales (for example the Demon Cat in House.)

  Like Kwaidan, Kuroneko is not scary so much as spooky and kind of melancholy. There isn't a lot of zest for mayhem like you see in American horror, and the contemplative tone is more in line with the rest of Japanese cinema vs. representing a departure from national cinema conventions.


Movie Review
The Four Feathers (1939)
d Zoltán Korda

    The point of watching all the Criterion Collection movies is to learn about the Criterion Collection itself, more than seeing all the movies.  Criterion Collection clearly obtains the rights to a group of films controlled by the same rights holder- a studio or trust of the filmmaker, and then has limited resources and will release titles from the group of films acquired over time.  Some of these acquisitions give them the right to stream the titles online and others do not.  This is clear in their releases of more recent American directors like Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, where the right to distribute the title online/streaming is held by a different rights holder.

  I mention this for The Four Feathers because it is a film from the United Kingdom, and I've noticed that many of the Criterion Collection releases from the UK are NOT available streaming, making the catalog of Hungarian/English film maker/producer Alexander Korda particularly important.  The Four Feathers is an almost breath taking early example of action adventure film making, shot in color, from 1939.  I'm hard pressed to think of an American counterpart from this early in the 20th century but it could be ignorance.

  I'm fairly certain that a casual viewer could be told that The Four Feathers was made in the late 1960s and not even question the assertion.  The story of The Four Feathers is basic English colonial empire action-adventure stuff, with a plot based on the so-called "Anglo-Sudan" war of the late 19th century. John Clements plays Harry Faversham, an English military officer who up and quits on the eve of his squad being shipped to Sudan for the upcoming war.   Shamed by his fiance, he disguises himself as an "Arab trader" and infiltrates the Sudanese rebellion, providing assistance to several of his old chums (in disguise) along the way.

   It's good old fashioned, pre-political correctness English empire fun, which means that the baddies come off as little more than one dimensional "others"; but really, when you think about it... not much has changed in Hollywood or England since when it comes to big budget action adventure pictures

Liv Ullmann wears glasses!

Movie Review
Scenes From a Marriage (1973)
d. Ingmar Bergman

  OK yeah maybe too much Bergman.  Fanny and Alexander AND Scenes From a Marriage are both three hours long- in their short versions- making for six hours of Bergman in the last few weeks.  Add in the other Bergman films- like 20 hours of Bergman in the last couple months?  Too much Bergman.  I find myself wandering the empty streets of Malmo in my dreams.

 I don't know if any of my regular readers have been divorced, but certainly if you've been through it like me there is A LOT to make you cringe in Scenes From a Marriage- Bergman makes Noah Baumbach look like a fuck wit by comparison.   After three hours of emotional hell you do get something resembling a happy ending, but man what an ordeal.  Scenes From a Marriage does make you think but man.  ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.

Movie Review
Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman;
The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)(Zatoichi 1)
d. Kenji Misumi


   OMG I want to call shenanigans on the Criterion Collection for releasing a 27 film boxed set as a SINGLE Criterion Collection number (679.)  Who the fuck does Criterion Collection think they are fucking with? The Tale of Zatoichi is the first number in this 27 disc monster set and if you think I'm going to review all 27 films and give each film a page you are sadly fucking mistaken.  I will do no. such. thing.   If I EVER watch the second film in this series, and I'm by NO MEANS making a promise to do that, it will be posted on THIS review page.

  Criterion Collection has some archival issues that result from their variations in numbering practices.  For some boxed sets, each title has its OWN number.  And then for other boxed sets, like the Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman series, all of the boxed titles have ONE number.  That is CONFUSING.   The figure of "Zatoichi, the blind swordsman" lies somewhere between a midevial knight errant and a modern day gunslinger in terms of his combination of personal characteristics:  gruff but endearing, kind but deadly.  These deep roote character traits are an essential part of what makes Zatoichi and other Samurai/Ronin characters so endearing: They strike clearly cross cultural notes.

  The very fact that Zatoichi shot 27 titles in the series speaks to the influence of the Western genre of Western films/Cowboy and Indian films, as well as that of serial television shows.  It's an obvious East/West fusion though I can't for the life of me think of a single human being, not even myself, who would be interested in watching all 27 films.  Perhaps when I get down to the Eclipse titles I will reconsider it.

Juliette Binoche in Blue.

Movie Review
Three Colors: Blue (1993)
d. Krzysztof Kieślowski

  You don't get more "90s Art House Cinema" than the Three Colors trilogy by  Krzysztof Kieślowski.  Watching Blue on Hulu Plus, I tried to remember the circumstances under which I watched this film for the first time around the year of release.  Parents rented it from a video store?  Maybe Blockbuster I'm guessing? I would have been a senior in high school the year  So I've seen Blue before, but I wasn't adverse to watching it again.  Kieslowski is really at the top of his game in Blue: It's like an amalgamation of a half century of art film styles in a single film.

 Juliette Binoche is impeccable as Julie, the woman who loses both her husband and young daughter in a car crash, and then struggles to distance herself from human relationships, only to discover that such a state of affairs is impossible.  Blue is a potent film, a milestone made all the more remarkable by the fact that it is but the first of a trilogy of masterworks.

Julie Delpy: White

Movie Review
Three Colors: White (1993)
 d.  Krzysztof Kieślowski

   The last conversation I had about the Three Colors trilogy, my partner said her favorite film in the trilogy was Red, but after White I'm having trouble imagining how Red can top it.  I certainly like White more than Blue.  Blue is well... blue.  White is like a revenge movie, and a crime caper movie and is actually funny but it still packs an emotional punch and has something to say about life and love.

  The two films overlap at a point in Blue where Julie is discovering the identity of her husbands mistress, who is a young lawyer in the civil courts of Paris.  White begins in that same scene- we see Julie entering and being escorted out of the court room as Polish hairdresser Karol Karol is being divorced by his cruel French wife Dominque (played by a SMOKING HOT Julie Delphy. JE SUS IS SHE HOT IN THIS MOVIE.)  Dominque divorces him on grounds of impotence, kicks him into the street without a dime to his name, and frames him for an abortive arson.  Karol retreats to Poland, literally escaping inside a large piece of luggage, and drifts into a quasi criminal career in land speculation and stolen goods fencing.  Successful, he hatches a plot to revenge himself on his ex-wife.

  White is watchable to the point where you might even call it "fun." Zbigniew Zamachowski as Karol Karol has a likeable everyman quality that comes across in any language, and the sub-plot involving Karol and his business partner/friend Mikolaj is as interesting and more touching emotionally than the main revenge plot between Karol and his ex.

Irene Jacob in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Red.


Three Colors: Red (1994)
directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski

  This was  Kieślowski's last movie, and it makes sense, as kind of a capstone to a career- I'm talking about all three films in the Colors trilogy: BlueWhite and Red.  Even though they are separate stand-alone plots there are enough inter-linkages to consider them like a single film in three parts.  Particularly when you compare it to a 3 or 5 hour career capstone like Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman- all three films clock in at under five hours of watching time total, and all three are entertaining.

  Red is about Valentine, a fashion model, played by Irene Jacob (The Double Life of Veronique.)   Valentine is doing her fashion model thing in Geneva when she runs over the dog of embittered former Judge Joseph Kern, a recluse living in a suburban neighborhood and getting his jollies from listening into the phone calls of his neighbors.  Valentine is attracted and repelled at the same time.  Events spool out in a typically Kieslowskian way with many ringing telephones and breathless conversation in phone booths, all drawing to an epic conclusion that ties the characters of all three films together in a single horrifying accident at the hands of mother nature.


Movie Review
Identification of a Woman (1982)
d. Michelangelo Antonioni

  I had assumed that Michelangelo Antonioni stopped making films after Blow Up (1966) but incorrectly as it turns out.  Aside from being a rehashing of themes that are familiar to any repeat viewer of Antonioni's oeuvre:  ambiguous relationships, people getting lost in the fog and long shots of people not doing or saying anything, Identification of a Woman is mostly notable because of the various explicit sex scenes that are included.  Like X rated level sex scenes.  Identification of a Woman is also interesting because it is the story of a recently divorced film director who bangs a number of hot young chicks.

 Considering the ubiquity of the older man/younger woman theme in literature- be it novels, films or what have you, it is hard not to consider where you stand in that relationship.  It's even harder to realize that you yourself are closer to the "old man" category than any other.  It seems like there is a little lee way between the ages of 35-50 (I am 37) but the clock is ticking.  Clearly though it is ok if you either looking for a young wife to bear your children (and you are a wealthy older dude) OR if you are someone with business in the cultural industries.

 For example the "plot" (such a vague concept for Antonioni) involves the director/Antonioni stand in (Niccolo) struggling to case the lead in his next film.  He picks up on Mavi, played by a short-haired Daniela Silverio, who may or may not roll with a crypto-fascist group of rich Italians.  Niccolo is promptly threatened in an appropriately (for an Antonioni film) vague manner.   Niccolo takes Mavi away to the country, there is an argument, I looked down at my Samsung galaxy to play a quick game of Candy Crush, and when I looked up again, Mavi has vanished.

 Niccolo then hooks up with actress Ida (played by Christine Boisson) who helps him track down Mavi.   The whole film has the feel of a noir without any of the action or murder. In fact, in the end you have a fairly conventional but stylized bourgeois love story with an ambiguous ending.

  Worth mentioning is the sound track to this film.  The inclusion of several early 80s synth anthems gives Identification of a Woman a retro-future vibe and increases the style level by a factor of 2 or 3. 

Carla Marlier plays Albertine in Zacie dans le metro directed by Louis Malles

Movie Review
Zazie dans le metro (1960)

  No matter how deep I get into the Criterion Collection there is always yet another filmmaker with a dozen plus films with whom I'm utterly unfamiliar.  Today it's Louis Malle- he's got 17 titles in the Criterion Collection and I've seen... one.  This one.  It's impossible to characterize Malle's career in terms of a preference for genre or a distinctive style.  Rather, Malle passes through film history like a kind of Zelig, making New Wavey type films during the French New Wave (this film) and helping to define a generation of American art house films two decades later (My Dinner With Andre.)  Documentaries, dramas, and whatever- Malle has done it all.

 Released during he first flush of the French New Wave, Zacie Dans le metro has an anarchic feel that resembles a Loony Toon in terms of energy. The story of Zazie dans le metro: A young girl spends the weeekend with her female impersonator cousin in Paris while her Mom is having a romantic rendevous, is merely a clothes hanger for a variety of slap stick gags and editing tricks.  Like other French comedies of the 1960s Zazie dans le metro has a distinctly slapstick feel, with little of the "deep" meaning of contemporary films like 400 Blows or Breathless.

  It's an enjoyable ride and maybe worth a watch for big Wes Anderson fans.

Juliette Mayniel plays the slatternly Florence, the shared love interest of cousins Paul and Charles in Les Cousins (1959) directed by Claude Chabrol.


Les cousins (1959)
 d. Claude Chabrol

  Les cousins has the distinction of being the second best French New Wave film released in 1959 (400 Blows.)  There's something to be said about an Artist who puts out a pretty good work of Art the same year that the best example of the Art form ever gets released in the same country, as was the case here.  Les cousins is Chabrol's second feature, and he went ahead and cast the same two men in the lead roles, reversing the good/bad axis.

  In Les cousins, Jean-Claude Brialy, the hero of his first form, plays Paul, the lecherous, debauched law student who welcomes his naive cousin Charles, played by Gerard Blain, to university study.  While living with Paul, Charles falls in love with Florence, who is, unfortunately, a slut.  When Florence gets the time and location of a date with Charles wrong, Paul takes the opportunity to seduce her, ably assisted by his major domo Clovis.  Cut to: Paul shoots Charles with one of the many pistols scattered about the apartment but only Charles fails his initial examination after Paul keeps him up with his partying.

 Les cousins, with its university setting, jazz soundtrack and American gangster influenced dialogue is closer to what would become the signature style of the French New Wave than was Chabrol's first picture, Le Beau Serge.  Of course Breathless, which would be released in 1960, would define that style, but Les cousins is verrrrry close.

Movie Review
Fanny Och Alexander (Three Hour Theatrical Version)
 (1982) d. Ingmar Bergman

  Fanny and Alexander exists both in a three hour theatrical version and a five hour "television miniseries" version.  I watched the three hour version because that is what they had on Hulu Plus.  I would probably watch the five hour version if I could get it for free.  This film is the capstone to Bergman's career, and is supposedly the most (and only) autobiographical film among his works.  At the same time it is the most avowedly populist of all his works- made for television, for Pete's sake.  And while the "populist" element of Fanny och Alexander is best summarized as resembling Shakespeare, Dickens and Tolstoy, it is present.

  I think contemporary viewers often assume that Bergman has been universally lauded as a genius for his entire career, but in fact his work has always drawn a split reaction- from the beginning.  Both inside and outside Sweden, many people "didn't like" Bergman from the start. I think it is fair to say that since he has stopped making new movies the "Nay" faction has disappeared or simply moved on to more contemporary targets, but personally, I love Bergman movies.  That's a question of taste, with no "right" or "wrong" answer, but I am on the side of light.

  So I can understand both how someone could not like Bergman and not like Fanny and Alexander, and I can understand how someone who likes Bergman WOULDN'T like Fanny and Alexander (too commercial, so to speak.) but I like Bergman and this movie, for a variety of reasons.

 First, there is the way that Bergman crafts what is essentially the flimic adaption of a non-existent early 20th century Swedish epic novel- an analog to the Galsworthy Saga or The Old Wives Tale.  The length of Fanny & Alexander isn't a reflection of some complicated plot, merely it the insistence by Bergman that he take the time to properly tell this multi-generational family saga.  Second, there is the timing of the period- 1907-1909- a fascinating period where Swedes had the telephone but not automobiles, phonographs but not radios. 


Movie Review
Louie Bluie (1985)
d. Terry Zwigoff

 Like other reviews being published in this between Xmas/end of the year time slot, Louie Bluie was lurking at the bottom of my queue for half a year. The seasons flew by and Louie Bluie sat unwatched, spending a total of 8 months on or near the bottom of my Hulu Plus movie queue. It wasn't until it actually became the LAST movie on my queue that I managed to watch it, and so I thought it was appropriate for Louie Bluie to be the last movie reviewed in 2013.

  What have I learned from watching 100+ titles of the Criterion Collection this year? I've learned they have a lot of titles by Kurosawa and Bergman, and that they excel in the areas of 50s and 60s European art cinema and have a fondness for eccentric American indie films. It has been an odyssey.

Paul Robeson in his break-out role in the movie version of the Eugene O'Neill play Emperor Norton. Also, this play/movie is hella racist. Just flat out, old school, racist.


Movie Review
The Emperor Jones (1933)
d. Dudley Murphy

 Although The Emperor Jones is part of the Paul Robeson: Portrait of An Artist box set, The Emperor Jones is also noteworthy because it is so early in time.  Only a small fraction of the Criterion Collection films take place before World War II.  The explosion in Post World War II cinema seems to be roughly equivalent to the take-off in the production of novels prior to World War I.  Thus, watching any film made before 1945ish is an event, but often exasperating, since the limitations of the first generation of "talkies" makes for an antiquated viewing experience.

 Also, The Emperor Jones is hella racist, down to the minstelry dialect that Paul Robeson uses.  It sounds like the rough equivalent of an English actor doing a hick southern accent: He gets the message across but it's obviously "acting."  I don't know alot about Robeson except his wikipedia biography, but I'm sure he had mixed feeling about the role.  The use of the "N" word is frequent to ubiquitous, mostly by Robeson himself when referring to the islanders that he "conquers" by convincing them he is impervious to all but silver bullets.  The racism is most galling in the portrayal of Emperor Norton's "subjects."

 I'm not a big advocate of political correctness, but I'm pretty sure the racism that permeates The Emperor Jones would shock most if not all contemporary viewers.

World on a Wire is a movie version of this book, Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye


World on a Wire (1973)
d. Rainer Werner Fassbinder

  Fassbinder's made-for-german-tv version of the 60s pulp sci fi classic Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye was "rediscovered" in 2010, and this Criterion Collection edition followed.  The rerelease/discovery took place in Art house cinemas, and it was shot in 16 mm film, so it makes sense that Criterion Collection picked it for the DVD treatment.  Criterion Collection released the IFC series Fishing with John as one of its first releases, so they are hardly snobs about work shot for television vs. proper theatrically released films.

  Given the 1977 release date and thematic resemblance to world beating box office films like The Matrix, its tempting to call World on a Wire wildly influential, but that seems unlikely considering that the film was only "rediscovered" three years ago.  Rather it's a case of an astute selection of source material and the fact that the concept of "virtual reality" has really come into its own in all disciplines whether you are talking leisure, academics, literature.  I suspect that the central premise of World on a Wire: That we are all living inside a computer simulation, would scarcely cause someone to blink in 2013, let alone drive them insane.

  If you've seen the Matrix or have any familiarity with computer "games" like Second Life or World of Warcraft, you should be intimately familiar with the thought that we are all just living in some giant video game.  It is an idea that has been current in philosophical circles for a generation- Baudrillard's 1981 philosophical treatise, Simulacra and Simulation is over a generation old at this point.  The larger idea of the Simulacrum goes back in the English language to the 16th century, and has a lengthy history in art criticism that goes back centuries.

  Which is not to take away anything from Fassbinder or World on a Wire, but only to point out that the combination of rediscovery in 2010 and the older iterations of the Simulacrum in art theory make this movie less influential than it at first appears to be.  It is still a fun, crazy trip and the visual style has a lot of imitative/revival potential.

  The combination of film and source material is another interesting example of the boundaries of high and low art, and literary and genre fiction.  Simulacron-3 was published as straight up pulp fiction in 1964, in 2013 it is worth asking the question whether it might not be a literary classic.   In many ways, the literary treatment of comic books has gobbled up all the oxygen for any serious audience interest in the reclassification of pulp science fiction from the 50s and 60s.  It is a project that Criterion Collection is tackling on the film side.  Perhaps some of the responsibility lies with the copyright/publishers of the original books.

Amyl Nitrate in Jubilee by Derek Jarman


Movie Review
Jubilee (1978)
d. Derek Jarman

Jubilee is one of those movie you say you've seen and like but actually haven't seen and don't like it if you've seen it, because it is pretty darn unwatchable.  Shot during the first flush of the British Punk movement, Jubilee is the first (and maybe only?) serious film that emerged from that initial burst of punk enthusiasm.

 Jarman's view of punk is that of someone whose participation in the avant garde pre dates the arrival of punk itself.  Punk was something that happened after Jarman had begun making experimental Super 8 films is a manner that was presumably inspired by Andy Warhol.  The movie makes about punk shows a variety of influences from outside the punk movement.  A club scene is soundtracked with an avant disco cut, and the structure of the film clearly resembles the questing young female protagonist narrator in I Am Curious: Yellow and Blue.

  Much of Jubilee consists of one of the main female narrators declaiming socialist/anarchist rhetoric.  Ultimately it's the visuals that make Jubilee enduring.

Miguel Mateo plays Miguelin in the 1965 film The Moment of Truth, about bullfighting in Spain.





































Movie Review
The Moment of Truth (1965)
 d. Francesco Rosi

  The Moment of Truth is a "Rocky" style narrative about a bullfighter in Spain, but made by an Italian filmmaker and shot in Italian.  It is another excellent example of what makes the Criterion Collection channel on Hulu Plus so freaking great.  I'm not saying I'm an expert on bullfighting, but I do find it interesting, and I have been to the Iberian peninsula three times in the last decade, and been to bullfighting rings in three different cities, seen multiple bullfighting museums, etc.  And of course, I'd never heard of this film until I actually watched it.

  I will say that The Moment of Truth is NOT for the faint of heart OR for people who have a "problem" with bullfighting and animal cruelty- you folks will want to stay far, far away.  The Moment of Truth is far from being perfect- some of the early scenes are so dark you can barely tell what is going on, and the film fairly rushes towards the third act (he dies at the end fyi) without so much of a pause.  It's more like a Hollywood film than an "Art film" but the exotic nature of the narrative subject makes up for the lack of "artiness."

  However, if you are Googling "The best movie about bullfighting" I would suggest that The Moment of Truth is it, if only because I don't know of any other films about bullfighting.  Also worth noting is that the Torredor, Miguelin, is played by real life bullfighter Miguel Mateo, giving The Moment of Truth a kind of documentary style authenticity, particularly during the bull fighting scenes.



Three Outlaw Samurai (1964)
d. Hideo Gosha

 I'm going to level with y'all.  I kind of half-watched Three Outlaw Samurai, despite Criterion Collection's assertion that Hideo Gosha is "legendary."  Legendary? Is that why  Criterion Collection only has two Gosha movies?

  From my intermittent observation I could tell that Three Outlaw Samurai represents a step up in terms of style- closer to the Samurai moves from Tarantino's Kill Bill and Kill Bill 2, and farther away from the stately pace of Kurosawa.  In fact, several of the action scenes in Three Outlaw Samurai out-and-out resembled the scenes with Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.  Considering Three Outlaw Samurai is beloved because of the sword play, that should come as no surprise.  There is also actual blood from the cutting- which is absent from 50s Samurai films.

 It's just...Samurai movies.  I don't know.  There are SO MANY. SO SO MANY SAMURAI MOVIES.  And no one cares- just look at how the Keanu Reeves starring 47 Ronin did at the box office (TERRIBLY.)  No one cares about Samurai movies except the Criterion Collection itself.  It's like an obsession.

Cathryn Harrison plays Lily in Black Moon directed by Louis Malle (1975)


Movie Review
Black Moon (1975)

  Black Moon is a weird outlier in the Louis Malle canon: A post-apocalyptic fever dream that is most often tagged as a "dark Alice in Wonderland" though without many of the redeeming qualities of that book. Cathryn Harrison stars as Lilly, who is fleeing an unexplained civil conflict between army types and rebel types.  After abandoning her car, she makes her way to a country mansion which is inhabited by a bizarre old woman and a sister/brother duo who seemingly communicate by touch.  There is also a black unicorn, old person breast feeding, a talking rat and zero explanation of what is going on.

  Black Moon is another movie in the category of films that sound cooler than they actually are. Or perhaps more like one of those films that you say you like afterwards because it seems cool to do so, but do not actually enjoy watching.  Ultimately the only attraction is the winsome Cathryn Harrison, who plays the entire film in a sheer blouse that gets progressively more unbuttoned during the nearly two hour run time.

 Ultimately you'd have to call Black Moon a failure, though perhaps a movie worth showing to the right girl or gal to demonstrate ones cultural sophistication.

Movie Review
Hearts and Minds (1974)
 d. Peter Davis

  A two hour documentary about America's involvement in Vietnam?  Where do I sign up?  Hearts and Minds was released in 197-75, when Vietnam was not exactly a settled issue, so he gets extra credit for timeliness.  Fog of War by Errol Morris is great but releasing the film 40 years after the events provides a less visceral audience reaction.   The combination of documentary footage and interviews isn't dated in the least.  Hearts and Minds is never slow or dull.  Considering the royal shit storm we've tossed at the Syrian government for using Chemical Weapons, it is shocking to see the United States using them like it wasn't even an issue in the late 1960s.  The Vietnam War was...not that long ago.

  I guess it wasn't a war crime because the U.S. didn't agree NOT to use chemical weapons until the 1990s- something I looked up midway through this film.  Because the footage is so close to the actual events, some of the personalities are shocking- General Westmoreland, head of the American war machine, casually claiming that "Orientals" "don't value life;" is particularly vile.  To this credit, Clark Clifford, who was secretary of state during a portion of the War is already on the record talking about what a huge mistake Vietnam was.

 It's equally obvious that Davis thinks Vietnam was a huge mistake.  Watching the film, I'm wondering if there are any people left anywhere who think that Vietnam was anything besides a colossal mistake.  The usage of chemical weapons... it makes the responsible civil and military leaders in the United States look like war criminals.  I hate to say that, but it really doesn't even seem like a close question by the standard of 2013.


Paisan (1946)
d. Roberto Rossellini
Second film in Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy box set, Criterion Collection #500

  I think there is a lot to really dig into in the Rossellini War Trilogy, but that there are very few people out there who are actively interested in Rossellini.   Paisan is very much an Empire Strikes Back style bridge between the powerful anchors of Rome Open City and Germany Year Zero.  Paisan is an episodic film about the Allied invasion of Italy in 1944-45(?).  Individual segments are 15-30 minutes apiece and range all over Italy, many of the segments deal with a small group of American soldiers and their interactions with various segments of Italian society.

  Rossellini blends professional actors with locals and non actors.  In Paisan there are American, Italians, Germans and English, all speaking their native language.  Taken together Rossellini's War Trilogy are impressively international productions.  Due to the lack of a traditional story, Paisan moves along at a Hollywood level pace.  It's a brisk ride and a watchable movie- perhaps easier to watch than either Rome Open City and Germany Year Zero though not as significant as the other two.

Movie Review
Pépé le moko(1937)
d.  Julien Duvivier

  I saw Pépé le moko during a college class I took on film noir. It seems crazy that you could actually take a class in film noir, but I suppose it's no crazier than people who major in literature.  Majoring in literature, what a hilarious thought. The Criterion Collection essay by Michael Atkinson has a great graph on the historical significance of this film:

Without its iconic precedent there would have been no Humphrey Bogart, no John Garfield, no Robert Mitchum, no Randolph Scott, no Jean-Paul Belmondo (or Breathless or Pierrot le fou), no Jean-Pierre Melville or Alain Delon, no Steve McQueen, no Chinatown, no Bruce Willis, no movie-star heritage of weathered cool, vulnerable nihilism, bruised masculinity-as-cultural syndrome. (André Bazin, writing in 1957, demarcates the difference between Pépé le moko’s Jean Gabin and late Bogart by maintaining that “the fate of Gabin is precisely to be duped by life. But Bogart is man defined by fate,” a distinction made less by character, I think, than by the twenty-year progress toward a grimmer sensibility that began in Pépé.) Most vitally, there would have been no film noir––not as we know it today.
Atkinson goes on to claim that somehow Pepe le moko is not credited as being the originator of film noir, but my film noir class, which I took in 1999, said that it was, so I guess perhaps opinion was split prior to this Criterion Collection edition coming out in 2003.  It is a paradox of older movies that have inspired entire genres that the original movie ends up paling in comparison to its own imitators.  As you watch Pepe le moko, you can't but help think about some of the actors listed above, and their iconic roles, and kind of yawn at this trailblazer.


I fidanazti ("The Fiances") (1962)
d. Ermanno Olmi

  One thing I've learned in the past three or four months is that queues are no way to organize serious movie watching.  You don't want to be watching movies off a list you generated how ever many months ago.  Maybe at my highest rate of consumption I could watch five films in a week- that's like all of my television time for the entire week AND all the time I might spend in a movie theater- and it's only five films.  Making a queue that contains 50 films means that you will be living with a night's worth of addition for two to three months, and that is no way to live.

  From here out I'm going to rely on the Criterion Collection Hulu Plus page itself to suggest the films, and abandon the queue approach to keep some kind of spontaneity and freshness into every nights selection.  I fidantzi, which translates into The Fiances, is in theory about the relationship of a factory foreman promoted to help with a troubled plant in Sicily.  Having watched the film itself, I would have to say that the film is about the workers in a factory in southern Italy, and the life of the Milanese foremen sent to "reeducate" them/indoctrinate them into the world of the industrial work force.

   Visually, the most striking scenes take place inside the factory, and the bulk of the relationship material seems to be in the last twenty minutes of the film.  It almost felt like an attempt to make a movie about small town Sicilian factory workers into a romantic melodrama.   Stylistically, the other hallmark of I fidanazti is the "dance hall scene" -in the story it's a melancholy moment prior to the fiances being separate by his work re assignment, but it possesses a found footage quality that marks it as "realistic;" like Olmi just stuck his camera into a local dance. The effect is striking on the viewer with the kinetic energy giving that portion of the film a feeling unusual for the films of the early 1960s.

  Was I Fidantzati ever released in the United States for theaters?  The Rotten Tomatoes page for the film has no contemporary reviews.  The Wikipedia page says that it played in New York in 1964, but it appears that it wasn't reviewed by the New York Times.

  It's obvious that you would group Olmi with the school of Italian Neo Realism, though the director himself takes issue with that analysis in his accompanying interview for this film, "that this is the artistic tradition he is responding against because, he claimed, he used non-actors in authentic locations whereas neorealism used professional actors."  Well, whatever, Ermanno Olmi, I know Italian Neo Realistic cinema when I view it and this movie is an example of Italian Neo Realism.



Movie Review
My Life as a Dog (1985)
 d. Lasse Hallström

 My Life as a Dog was a straight-up art house hit, netting Swedish director an Academy Award Nomination for "best director" and earning eight million plus at the American box office.  Not bad for a film that deals frankly with a dark coming of age story about a young boy growing up in small town Sweden.  The story of a child growing up in very adult ways is as tried and true a theme in European cinema as exists, period the end.  You start with 400 Blows, and really just move forward from there.

  Young Ingemar Johansson (played by Anton Glanzelius) is the second son of  a single mother/tuberculosis sufferer.  Mom is dying, and she doesn't want to put up with her kids, who are a pain in the ass.  Ingemar is shipped off to his Uncle's house, and trials and tribulations ensue.  My Life as a Dog is based on a Swedish novel that was basically a fictionalized version of the true-life experiences of the author.  The story is a straight ahaed bildungsroman.  The audience appeal is easy to see- and I wasn't surprised that director Hallstrom got his start directing videos for ABBA.(!)

  The explicit treatment of pre adolescent sexuality is inescapably non-American, and yet another reason why it undoubtedly found a larger than average audience among Americans.  I think successful foreign films are those that take familiar topics/themes in unfamiliar directions, and My Life as a Dog is a fine example of this phenomenon.
  


Movie Review
I Am Curious - Yellow (1967)
d. Vilgot Sjöman

  More a history lesson than anything else in 2013, I Am Curious - Yellow was the first film to show people fucking outside of porno theaters. It was famously bought by the owner of Grove Publishing (publisher of Henry Miller, William Burroughs, and the Evergreen Review) after he flew to Stockholm to see the film during the initial run in Sweden.  The tone of I Am Curious can roughly be described as "mid period Godard" i.e. still telling a story, but inter-cutting the narrative with cutaways to the filim crew making the film.

 If you go back and read contemporary reviews by mainline quality film critics like Rogert Ebert and Vincent Canby, you can sense a level of frustration with the financial/mainstream success of what is, admittedly, a terribly pretentious and dull narrative.  Watching I Am Curious - Yellow I'm reminded me of the joke about guys who watch the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show on television must not have heard about the situation with internet pornography.  Of course, in 1967 many people hadn't actually seen pornography.

 Fair warning: Slllooowwwww opening.  slow.  and a LOT of socialist politics.  I Am Curious is more politics than sex.  The politics are almost more radical than the sex.



Movie Review
I Am Curious - Blue (1967)
d. Vilgot Sjöman

  It has been well observed that you can attract attention to otherwise boring source material by "sexing up" said boring material.  This approach works in mass market advertising AND art, equally well.  There is no better example of this than the financial success of I Am Curious-Yellow.  I Am Curious Yellow/Blue are companion films.  They are two films covering the same period of time and the same characters.  They are not, as some disgruntled critics claimed at the time, "the same film."  If you watch both films, you can see it is obviously not true that they are in any way "exactly the same."  They are both assembled from the same footage, and they both tell the same story: that of Lena, an inquisitive young Swedish woman who likes banging dudes and socialist politics.

 If you watch both films back-to-back, which is hardly an Olympian feat, since they combine to about three hours in length, it's easy to make out the intent to have the two films fit together jigsaw puzzle like, to create a full narrative of the central story of Lena, and her affair with a carsalesman, with a sub-plot of the real life relationship between Lena and the filmmaker.  All the relationships fall apart and time, and within the running of both films, the scenes alternate between portions of the Lena/car salesman in movie relationship, Lena/actor playing car salesman out of movie relationship, Lena/film director out of movie relationship, Lena/doing socialist junk like interviewing people etc.

 In my opinion, is an interesting but rather failed experiment that fits within the "New Wave" rubric of the late 1960s.  The inclusion of explicit graphic sex and the ensuing courtroom litigation, combined with the actual popularity of the first film in the "art house" milieu in the United States, ensures that I Am Curious will remain in print, but ultimately it is a footnote for every discussion of cinema EXCEPT the legal battle to make 60's era literature "not obscene" in the United States, where it plays a central, nay leading, role.



The Silence (1963)
d. Ingmar Bergman
Part of A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman (four discs) Criterion Collection #208

  This movie is part of Bergman's trilogy which also includes Through A Glass Darkly(1961) and Winter Light.  All three films are about faith and loss of faith.  There is a clear connection between these three films and the movies of Dutch filmmaker Carl Th. Dreyer.  The Silence is a real wierd trip, maybe the most "surreal" of all of Bergman's films and almost Felliniesque or Lynchian (anachronism intended) in its weirdness.

 First, there is the kafka-esque setting: An unnamed central European city.  The film is introduced by a lengthy scene of the three main characters: two sisters and the young son of one of them.  They are forced to stop at a stately hotel because one of the sisters is sick, and the other sister- the mother of young Johann- ends up engaging in what can only be described as a sexual escapade.  The sexuality is pretty shocking: there is a scene of female masturbation, public sex in a theatre and naked wrestling.   Reading up, I read a quote from Woody Allen where he said that The 
Silence only makes sense if you understand the two sisters as two sides of the same person.

Other than the shocking sex moments, it is a long, slow slog- a clear minor classic in the Bergman canon- butttttt the weirdness level makes The Silence maybe worth a watchy poo.


Movie Review
Stolen Kisses (1968)
d. François Truffaut

  Stolen Kisses is Chapter 3 in the Antoine Doinel saga- Truffaut's extended series about, essentially, himself. Doinel is played by Jean-Pierre Leaud.  Doinel is perpetually smitten, but in Stolen Kisses he is young and single, and not cheating on his wife with whom he has a child. In fact, Stolen Kisses is positvely light n breezy, with a story line involving Doinel's improbable job as a private detective.  It's an improbable job for Doinel because he is what you call "feckless."  At the beginning of Stolen Kisses, he's getting kicked out of the army.  He gets a job working at a hotel, gets fired because he lets a private detective into the room of a client, then he gets a job with the detective agency, falls in love with the wife of the client to whose case he is assigned, and ends up settling down with the "girl next door."

 Throughout the tone is light whimsy, very watchable- fun.

Throne of Blood: Toshiro Mifune does Macbeth

Movie Review
Throne of Blood (1957)
d. Akira Kurosawa

 Kurosawa Macbeth movie!  If you've seen Macbeth you know the plot of Throne of Blood which is a fairly accurate (to my weak grasp of Shakespeare) rendition of the famous Shakespeare play Macbeth.  What caught my attention in Throne of Blood was 1st) the large scale battle scenes- which i don't remember from any other Kurosawa film- even the Seven Samurai was pretty small scale battle scenes.  The second is his use of Noh Theatre, which makes sense since the play within the play from Macbeth is a necessary part of the underlying source material.



Movie Review
Red Desert (1964)
 d.Michelangelo Antonioni

  Finally, an Antonioni film that scores high on the "watchability" scale. (1)

Antonioni is the apogee of a certain kind of 60s era European director.  His films are consistent in terms of their tone and visual style.  The tone is melancholy/"existentialist" although if he was working today he would inevitably be considered "post-modernist."  The visual style consists of long takes, static compositions and a painterly concern with framing and camera movement.

  These traits both conspire against Antonioni ever breaking through to an enduring 'popular' audience for his work while securing his acceptance among a smaller Audience concerned with the role of art in film.  That leaves the modern viewer with the choice of whether to ignore Antonioni because his films are slow and often boring, whether to dip into the better films to get a sense of what he was about OR to go 'all in' and watch all available.  Ignoring a specific artist and their work is often unconscious simply because the prospective audience member simply hasn't heard of the artist, let alone their work.  Consciously ignoring and Artist and Audience member "knows" is "important" is a different matter entirely. You have to seriously question the importance of Audience members who proclaim expertise in a certain field of art and simultaneously celebrate their limited knowledge base.  This describes many critics.

  But is a "completist" mentality required?  Obviously not, simply because the amount of time that exists is limited.  You can't dedicate your entire waking life to viewing art products, so cuts need to be made.  I would humbly suggest that  Red Desert is a top 3 Antonioni title because of the following:

1.  Classic Monica Vitti performance:  Monica Vitti stars in most (if not all?) of the top tier Antonioni films, and here she is in living color.
2.  Color:  Antonioni is kind of synonymous with the conscious choice to use black and white film instead of color, but Red Desert is his first color movie and it really livens up the scenery.  He also hand colors specific scenes
3.  Industrial Landscape:  Like many Antonioni films Red Desert has a very minimal plot, leaving the viewer plenty of time to ponder the scenery.  Here, said scenery is an industrial town in Southern Italy, and the quasi-environmentalist tone of the film gives Red Desert a futuristic vibe.





NOTES

(1)  Blogger auto-corrects on "watchability."  I did an internet search and discovered that "Watchable" is a word (going back to 17th century England.) and that "watchability" is a form of watchable.  

Movie Review
Au hasard Balthazar (1966)
 d. Robert Bresson

  Au hasard Balthazar probably gets fewer viewers than it should because the one line synopsis of the plot typically reads, "A movie about a donkey!"  But for the title you could say that Au hazard Balthazar is just as much "about" Marie- played by Anne Wiazemsky in her first role- Godard was so smitten by her in this movie that he subsequently married her.

  Balthazar is the titular donkey, and the movie traces his life as he is passed around between different members of a small town.  In the beginning of the film, he develops a special relationship with young Marie, then as she grows older things get worse for both of them.  Marie hooks up with a local rogue named Gerard.  It's a romance that ends poorly for Marie and ends in her sad and untimely death.

  Throughout Au hasard Balthazar Bresson demonstrates the distinctive style that made him the first "Auteur" to be identified by the critics at the Cahiers du Cinema.  Robert Bresson is not just a cornerstone of Modern Cinema, he's also a filmmaker seemingly in the heart of the Criterion Collection itself- the fact that only has 6 films is probably down to the fact that he didn't make that many films, period.

Savatore Giuliano


Salvatore Giuliano (1961)
d. Francesco Rosi

 I would say if you had to pin point two stylistic hallmarks of Italian Neo-Realism film, first would be "long shots" and using non-actors in acting roles.  Both techniques are in abundance in Salvator Giuliano, which is he story of a famous partisan fighter/outlaw in Sicily.  The movie begins with Giuliano's bullet ridden body being subjected to an official coroners inquiry and then tracks back and forth in time to reveal the way Giuliano is first used by advocates of Sicilian independence during the closing rounds of World War II, only to be abandoned after the reassertion of authority by the central Italian government in the 50s.

  Giuliano and his band stage an unprovoked massacre of democratic Communists and the last hour of the film is devoted to the reconstruction of the trial of his compatriots over responsibility for the massacre.  Salvator Giuliano seems to be an early example of the political rebellion biopic, but specific to the location of Sicily in the 1950s/early 1960s.


Movie Review
The Naked City (1948)

  Man just when I think I've got a handle on the scope of the Criterion Collection it's, "BAM!" Another major American film maker who was instrumental in developing a genre that YOU like (film noir) and you've never seen ANY of his movies."

  Dassin made a series of documentary/italian neo realism influenced crime procedurals that became synonymous with the genre of film noir.  His career was interrupted by being black listed during the 50s, but rebounded in Europe (Rififi was made in France in 1955.)

  The main film noir Dassin titles are this one, Night and the City (1950) and Brute Force (1947.)  The Naked City is the most stylistically distinctive of the three films with all the scenes being shot "in the wild" often through mirrors or from inside motor vehicles.  The dual influence of Weegee type crime photography and European art film seems obvious sixty years down the road, I can see why The Naked City has endured.

  At the same time, the story of The Naked City- a garden variety police procedural- is garden variety b crime picture, making a viewing a bit of an academic exercise vs. a "fun" movie watching picture. 



Movie Review
The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
d. Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell & Tim Whelan

  Roger Ebert calls The Thief of  Bagdad equal to The Wizard of Oz, but obviously The Thief of Bagdad is the lesser seen title, but if you actually sit down and watch The Thief of Bagdad the Wizard of Oz comparison is apparent.  Aside from generally being an outstanding effects driven fantasy suitable for viewing by all ages, The Thief of Bagdad is mostly notable for the effects themselves.  If you watch the accompanying "extra" segment about the effect you can hear how influential The Thief of Bagdad in inspiring a generation of Hollywood special effects gurus.  The Theif of Bagdad was actually made in Los Angeles, so even though the production team was largely English, it is technically a "Hollywood" film.

  Although the The Thief of Bagdad is obviously directly inspired by elements of 1001 Arabian Nights the story is an original story that is simply set in the same time period.  The Thief of Bagdad is another example of the theme of special effects which is emphasized in the Criterion Collection.  The interest in special effects film making is an explanation for why the collection contains Michael Bay's Armageddon.

 From that perspective, The Thief of Bagdad really is impressive- although it was released in 1940 it stands up more than a half century later, alongside other enduring Hollywood classics from the early technicolor era.

The Exterminating Angel d. Luis Bunuel
Movie Review
The Exterminating Angel (1962)
 d. Luis Buñuel

  The questions I form during the watching of any film are now inevitably phrased as inquiries for Google these days, "What is the meaning of Exterminating Angel?" is the one that came up here.  By "meaning" I am talking about interpretative meaning, because the events of The Exterminating Angel are very straight forward:  A group of wealthy people are gathered together for a dinner party only to find that they can't leave.  We aren't told (and they don't seem to know) why they can't leave- but there is no physical reason.  Instead, the bulk of the hour forty minute run top is mostly spent among the characters as they decline in physical and mental condition, while a group of onlookers gathers outside, equally unable to enter.

  In the last ten minutes, the dinner party makes it out by carefully reinacting the events immediately prior to when they discovered they couldn't leave ("You play the exact song you were playing, and you say to her what you said to her then.")  Our only hint of some kind of deeper interpretative meaning comes in the last five minutes where the same events begin to repeat themselves, this time inside a church and an ending of soldiers beating people in a square

  The upper class/church shift and repetition of the same problem (people being unable to leave) appear to lead the viewer to an interpretation that favors an allegorical perspective, but Buñuel himself resisted attempts to give a single explanation for "Why?"

  What's left is a film that plays like a surrealist/existentialist joke about the inability of certain people to do anything, and it is as apt today as it was then.  A bold masterpiece indeed, if a little dull in the actual watching.



Vivre la vie (1962)
 d. Jean-Luc Godard

  It's remarkable that before Vivre la vie popped up on the list of "suggested titles" on the Criterion Collection channel of Hulu Plus, I had never heard of it ONCE.  Not read about it in a book, not heard mentioned in passing among friends, not had it recommended by Hulu Plus itself, let alone Amazon.com.  How is it possible that Jean-Luc Godard made a movie in 1962 about a RECORD STORE CLERK TURNED PROSTITUTE, and the character was played by Anna Karina, who is fucking gorgeous in it, and nobody thought to mention it to me?

 It's not like, I have completely ignored Godard throughout my adult life.  Quite the opposite, in college I was subjected to Hail Mary (1965), an incomprehensible film about I have no idea.  Not a Criterion Collection title either.  Also in college, I watched Alphaville for the first time, sitting in the film library of my university and watching on an 8 inch screen using a video tape.  After college/law school, I definitely saw Breathless for the first time, probably on DVD.  I've watched Weekend in the course of this Criterion Collection project.  It's fair to say that I haven't had much experience with the Godard deep cuts collection, and I suppose you could call Vivre sa vie a "deep cut" because of the sex driven subject matter.

  At the same time Vivre sa vie is a very enjoyable film and I'm shocked I'd never heard of it before I watched.  A caption at the start of the movie says "in honor of all the B Movies" or words to that effect, and Vivre sa vie "My Life to Live" is clearly a take on the morality driven exploitation picture- think Reefer Madness for the best known example- though these films were current for a long duration from the pre-Code era to at least the 60s.  The tone is not quite irreverent, but nor is it moralistic or preachy.  In fact, Vivre sa vie is pretty much the embodiment of "cool" in every meaning of the word.

  This is Godard PRIOR to his headline dive into narrative incoherence, experimental techniques and Marxist politics.  In other words, Vivre sa vie deserves status as a classic of the heart of French New Wave and I'm just stunned it isn't watched more often.  You certainly should check it out. I can't think of more than maybe 5 or 6 movies out of 150 ish watched where I've actually recommended the movie.


Movie Review
Faces (1968)
 d. John Cassavetes
Part of John Cassavetes: Five Films


   Is it embarrassing for me to confess that this is the first Cassavetes movie I've EVER watched?  It can't be that bad, because I've never had him come up in a conversation despite maybe two decades plus in being casually interested in film and independent film.  I'm sure I could have bluffed my way through a five minute conversation, but before I watched Faces it would have been a conversation based on my utter lack of experience actually watching one of his films.

  If you've watched the films of the French New Wave and have a passing familiarity with Bergman and the Italian Neo Realist, you will know where Cassavetes is coming from.  Faces reminded me of a combination of early Godard and Bergman, made by an American film maker with a desire to bring a stylized realism to American audiences.

  Cassavetes is known as being a true pioneer for independent film in America, though mostly that related to him obtaining release and distribution for his own films.   He is possibly the first American film director to consciously embrace "auteuerism" while focusing outside the "hollywood" system of production and distribution of American film.

  Faces is probably more of historical interest at this point, though the "searing" portrait of a decaying marriage is certainly intense by the standards of AMERICAN film of the time- on the French New Wave/Bergman/Italian Neo Realism scale it scores about a 6 out of 10 on the emotional intensity scale.

  One feature of Faces that absolutely fascinated me was Cassavetes repeated use of drunk conversations.  The man is a virtuoso when it comes to filming drunk people rambling- giving those scenes unusual intensity.  Maybe 50-75 percent of the run time of Faces is people drunkenly talking/arguing. Its a kind of emotional intensity that still exists in the work of well known contemporary film makers- I'm thinking of David O. Russell, specifically.  If you've seen Bradley Cooper berating Louis CK in American Hustle you can get a sense of where Faces is coming from, only less entertaining and minimal plot, with black and white, high contrast film.

The mosnter from First man Into Space (1959) d. Robert Day

Movie Review
First Man into Space (1959)
d. Robert Day

  The American B-Movie from the 1950s and 1960s is a well represented category inside the Criterion Collection.  Criterion Collection likes movies by American independent film producers, and typically the films have a better than average idea behind them with the expected minimal production values and typically comically terrible acting.

  First Man into Space features all these characteristics- it was released after Man had reached space but before people had gone into space, so the plot revolves around a hubris-tic pilot flying experimental rockets in the stratosphere (a la Chuck Yeager.)  Lieutenant Dan Prescott- the Yeager type pilot, has a foreign accented boo, Tia Francesca (played by Maria Landi) and works with his brother, Commander Charles Prescott (played by Marchall Thompson.)

  When Dan flies to high he disappears, only to reappear as a murderous monster covered in what can only be described is a rubber suit covered in muffin crumbs.  He ruthlessly murders a half dozen people and drinks their blood before his sympathetic brother and a Strangelovian Doctor bring him back from the brink.  Left unsaid is whether he is punished for murdering a gang of people while cloaked in he toxic space dust.



Movie Review
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
 (1976) d. John Cassavetes
Part of John Cassavetes: Five Films


  If you look at that Google Ngram comparing the frequency of mention for Cassavetes, Truffaut, Bergman & Godard between 1960 and 2000, you can see that as of 2000 Cassavetes gets a "3,"  Truffaut gets a "9" and Bergman and Godard both get 11's.  So Truffaut is approximately 3x as popular and Bergman and Godard are both close to 4x as popular as Cassavetes.  Comparing the long term trends for all four film makers, only Bergman is on a path of long term decline (he peaked at "25" in the mid 1970s, and since then has dropped by 14 "points.")

  I'm looking into this because I feel strange about never having seen one of Cassavetes' films before a couple weeks ago.  How did this happen?  He's obviously a key, key figure in American independent film- perhaps THE key figure.  I am someone who claims to be "into" American independent film, so it seems unlikely that I would have missed such a key artist...unless he's not actually that key.  I think the chart above makes a clear case that Cassavetes is roughly a third as popular as Truffaut and a fourth as popular as Bergman and Godard.

  That makes sense to me, since I am placing great stock on no one ever saying anything like, "Oh well you HAVE to watch this Cassavetes film."  Needless to say, watching a Cassaevetes picture in 2014 is a familiar experience because so many of his techniques have been adopted lock stock and barrel by subsequent American film makers.  Cassavetes himself is adopting techniques that were either developed or logically derived from techniques by the European directors of the French New Wave, Italian Neo-Realism and Bergman, but he contributes an improvisational FEEL (his films were tightly scripted and not actually improvisational) and an immediacy that are intimately familiar to a generation raised on video tape and now digital video.

  The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is what you call a noir picture, though Cassavetes is so far from classic noir conventions that this movie is more like the take of an art film director on the genre of noir.  Ben Gazzara is amazing as low level strip club/burlesque club owner Cosmo Vittelli and Cassavetes take on the conventions of noir are as elliptical and personal as all his other takes on everything else. Character mumble and bullshit- it's like the direct inspiration for several decades of American independent cinema in terms of the underlit scenery and shaky camera work.


Movie Review
A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
d. John Cassavetes
Part of John Cassavetes: Five Films

   Of course after I write that long involved post about how unpopular Cassavetes is I watch A Woman Under the Influence and learn it was nominated for two Oscars....so.... he's not THAT unpopular.  It's more like A Woman Under the Influence was his break out and then The Killing of Chinese Bookie was a mis-understood at the time "hidden" masterpiece.  A Woman Under the Influence is about a working-class couple: The Longhetti's.  The dad is Nick, acted by Peter Falk (who also helped finance the film) and the Mom is Mabel, played by Gena Rowlands.  Mabel is a little off kilter from the start, she sings to herself and says strange things to her three young children. It's clear within the first fifteen minutes that Nick, who works for the City repairing underground water pipes, is concerned, but also that he loves her and that she's always been a little off.

  After a bizarre incident involving their children, some of their children's classmates and the father of said children's classmates that features unexplained nudity, Mabel is institutionalized. Nick struggles to cope with single parenting, revealing that perhaps Mabel isn't the only person with issues relating to boundaries and controlling emotions.  In the most memorable scene from this part of the film, Nick takes his kids to the beach in the back of a delivery truck and gives them all beer on the ride home (all children 10 or younger.)

  Often described as an "uncompromising depiction of a mental breakdown" what I saw was a woman who has always been a little "off" but who is essentially victimized as the result of something beyond her control (naked kids running around under her watch.)  Yes, her behavior is bizarre but she really isn't THAT crazy until people start accusing her of being crazy, at which point she does, indeed, act like a crazy person.  Upon her return from the psych ward after a six month commitment, it becomes clear almost instantly that the time away hasn't done her a lick of good, and that she is exactly where she was prior to being sent off.

  Her and her husband fight in a violent scene which takes place in front of her children, but then make up and the curtain drops.   A Woman Under the Influence is a beloved classic to be sure and a must watch for anyone who claims to be interested in the history of American independent film.

Hume Cronyn as the sadistic Capt. Munsey in Brute Force directed by Jules Dassin

Movie Review
Brute Force (1947)
d. Jules Dassin

  Jules Dassin made some tuff crime type movies that hover at the edge of film noir and anticipate some of the techniques of French New Wave.  In particular his post war crime movies have a documentary feel that is created by unusual (for the time) camera techniques.

 These techniques are already in evidence in Brute Force which is actually his first foray into the area of crime and criminal conduct.  Here, he is limited by the setting a "Sing Sing" style state prison ruled by an inept Warden and the cruelly sadistic Capt. Munsey, memorably depicted by Hume Cronyn.  Munsey squares off against Burt Lancaster's Joe Collins who quickly becomes obsessed with escaping Munsey's grasp by escaping from the prison.

  Aside from the unusual directorial technique and flair, the plot and action is that of a conventional escape from prison picture with above average marks for Cronyn's Capt. Munsey.  Munsey is a memorable fellow with a hint of Nazi style sadism in his voice- more in line with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest type authority than the more benign 50s authority figures.

Russian actress Tatyana Samoilova

Movie Review
Letter Never Sent (1959)
 d. Mikhail Kalatosov

  Letter Never Sent is a fun watch mainly because of the combination of inventive cinematography, breathtaking taiga/siberian landscapes and a action-adventure survival story plot that is as fresh today as it was a half century ago.  My take on the Russian collection within the Criterion Collection is that they are highly watchable films with little popularity. Only one of my Russian Criterion Collection films has scored more then 100 page views (Andrei Rublev: 139)


Татьяна Самойлова Tatiana Samoilova, Russian actress. Russian Audrey Hepburn anyone?






































  My sense is that the Cold War made marketing Russian films from the 1950s and 60s very difficult when they were released, and by the time the Cold War ended a generation of critics had come of age with little exposure to Soviet era film.   That's just a hunch, I haven't done the research.  I find the Russian films to be universally watchable, and none more then the Kalatosov 1-2 punch of The Cranes Are Flying and Letter Never Sent.  Both star the winsome Tatyana Samoilova as the female lead.  She was a real attraction in both films for me.

 I didn't realize going in that she was the same actress from The Cranes Are Flying, and I stopped the film and went online to confirm where I'd seen her before.  Her striking Russian/Scandanavian features and naturalistic acting style make her stand out as a main attraction.  However in both films the performances are overwhelmed by the stylish and inventive shot making Sergei Uruvesky.  He was the photographer/cinematographer in both films by Kalastosov and he is probably due more credit then Kalastosov himself for the enduring value of both films.

 I know, simply from watching the extras from the Criterion Collection edition of Rashomon that Kurosawa was the first to shoot a tracking shot from behind a screen of forest trees, and the first to shoot up to the sky, but Uruvesky does both shots in the first five minutes, and goes on to experiment with hand held film and camera movement in a way that makes you get up off the couch and rewatch specific scenes to see how a particular shot was executed.

 So to the scenery: Russian's vast Outback/Taiga/Siberia is very much of the moment.  I'm thinking of the recent Werner Herzog documentary, as well as the popularity of survival based reality television shows.  All those factors combine to make Letter Never Sent an easy recommendation with very high watchability and equally high contemporary relevance


Movie Review
Fists in the Pocket (1965)
 d. Marco Bellocchio

  I'm not sure if I'm being recommended movies that deal with twisted subjects or whether the Criterion Collection is simply saturated with said pictures, but add Fist in the Pocket to "sordid European familiy melodramas."  Fist in the Pocket was the debut of notable(?) Italian film maker Marco Bellocchio.  Yet another well known European filmmaker whose existence I was completely unaware of until I randomly watched one of his/her films on Hulu Plus.

  Fist in the Pocket tells the story of a troubled family, known in the film only by their first names.  The Matriarch, played by Liliana Gerace, is a blind tyrant, demanding loyalty from her four children. The eldest is the normal one, and then Giulia and Augusto are the "too close for comfort" middle children, with youngest Leone being essentially invalid.

  Augusto is determined to free the family, so he takes it upon himself to push his Mother off a cliff during their visit to a cemetery.  He calmly discloses the fact to Giulia at the funeral, but she either doesn't believe him or doesn't want to believe him.  Augusto celebrates his new found freedom by patronizing a prostitute, and then taking Giulia for a viewing of that prostitute afterward.   After he murders Leone by convincing him to overdose on his medication, Giulia freaks out, and the movie ends with Augusto expiring from an epileptic fit.

  Although the plot is dark, the film is more or less a conventional narrative construction with realist overtimes.  Bellocchio downplays the terrible behavior, as if to make the point that such is essentially "normal" in our society.



Movie Review
Cría cuervos . . .(1976)
d.  Carlos Saura

 Cría cuervos... is a dark little film shot in Spain while Franco was literally on his deathbed. The movie is about Ana, played by Ana Torrent who is orphaned along with her two siblings when her fascist military father dies in flagrante (in the arms of the wife of his closest friend.)  It turns out that Dad was preceded in death by Mom, who appears to the disturbed child in the form of a ghost, gradually filling in the back story of her parents troubled relationship in a blend of dream sequence and flash back.

 This movie is "about" Franco's fascist dictatorship in the way that many movies made under an atmosphere of censorship can be "about" that censoring government: oblique.  If I'm reading the metaphor properly, the Aunt who steps in as Ana's new guardian represents the attempt of the current Spanish government to deny the crimes of the past, and the ghost of Ana's mother (played by Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie) represents the "ghost of the past" while the children represent "the Spanish people."

  You can watch Cría cuervos . . . without worrying about the politics- it stands on its own as a dark psychological thriller- sort of- it's somewhere between thriller and memoir.

Tunes of Glory, still from the film.

Movie Review
Tunes of Glory (1960)
d. Ronald Neame

  This is the third Ronald Neame directed film from the Criterion Collection that I've seen. There is the delightful Hopscotch (1980), a winning spy picture starring Walter Matthau.  The other is The Horses Mouth, which, like Tunes of Glory, features Alec Guinness.

   Tunes of Glory is about a battled of wills that plays out at Scottish military base in the period after World War II.  Guinness plays an "up from his bootstraps" commanding officer named Jock Sinclair.  Jock is, at you might guess, Scottish, and Guinness is of course amazing.   He can really carry the skirt he has to wear through most of the picture.  Jock is troubled when his replacement arrives and turns out to be the well educated, somewhat effete Lt. Col. Basil Barrow, played by John Mills.  Barrow is from an old military family and doesn't drink whiskey.

  He quickly turns the base on its ear with his strict adherence to rules and regulations, going so far as to order dance lessons at 7:15 AM three times a week because the soldiers dance with their hands above their heads. (?!?)   Sinclair, already upset, drunkenly assaults a fellow soldier when he sees that soldier talking to his only daughter.  Barrow needs to decide whether to file a report, ruining Sinclair's career and earning him the undying hatred of the regiment OR not filing a report and ruining any chance he has to be taken seriously as a commanding officer at the base.

  After Sinclair essentially talks him out of filing the report,  he is told by his lieutenant that the men simply assume that Sinclair is running the show and Barrow is taking orders from him whereupon he quickly shoots himself in the head.   Sinclair goes insane with guilt shortly thereafter AND SCENE.

  All of Neame's pictures are worth a watch on the Criterion Collection Hulu Channel, but I would start with Hopscotch first, then this film, then The Horses Mouth.


Hobson's Choice (1954)
d. David Lean

   Fun little comedy from David Lean.  It's about this guy who owns a boot shop in late Victorian Manchester.  He has three daughters- wife is dead.  Oldest daughter- wants to get married even though she's "too old" (30 lol) and when Dad poo-poos her she promptly sets her cap on the skilled book maker of her father's shop.  LET THE CLASS BASED ENGLISH COMEDY COMMENCE! Charles Laughton is excellent as the alcoholic patriarch.  Remember when alcoholism was a subject for comedy?


Movie Review
Corridors of Blood (1959)
d. Robert Day

Part of Monsters & Madmen Boxed Set

  Corridors of Blood is included in the Criterion Collection because Boris Karloff stars Dr. Thomas Bolton. Christopher Lee- who was to become a staple of English and American Horror/Fantasy films- is there as "Resurrection Joe."  The plot is a B movie/genre film combination of a Jeckyl and Hyde type "dark side to experimental science" and the Burke and Hare scandal of 19th century Scotland, where men were found to be murdering people so they could get paid by the medical colleges for the corpses.

  Unappreciated in its day (release in the US was delayed several years and even then it was distributed as the second film of a double bill with a less exceptional first feature), Corridors of Blood is the type of movie that would go utterly unseen without the Criterion Collection, and it's worth watching to get a shot at seeing Boris Karloff really act.  He's quite good in this movie.



Movie Review
The Haunted Strangler (1958)
d. Robert Day

Part of Monsters & Madmen Boxed Set

    The Haunted Strangler was made by the same people who made Corridor of Blood: both were English "horror" movies starring Boris Karloff.  They are the only two Boris Karloff films in the Criterion Collection, and they are sold together with two American sci-fi/horror films.  One of those is also directed by Robert Day (First Man Into Space.)  All four films are "B-movies" and all four were shown as part of double bills at lower level theaters when released in the 1950s

   All four films make the most of a limited budget and compensate for a lack of budget with strong performances and intriguing scripts.  The Haunted Strangler is the intriguing tale of an Author who investigates a mysterious series of murders and traces them to a medical student who went insane and was sent to an asylum (though never caught.) As it turns out.... HE was that insane medical student, which he discovers only after murdering again.

  The denouement, which happens after Karloff escapes from an insane asylum while awaiting trial for the new batch of murders, is cliche, BUT what can you expect?  The Haunted Strangler is, at bottom a b-movie, but an excellent example of one.  Now that I've watched all four films I'm glad I did- but it's hard to imagine paying 70 bucks for these four films. 



Opening Night (1977)
d. John Cassavetes
Part of John Cassavetes: Five Films


  Opening Night completes the Criterion Collection boxed set of John Cassavetes: Five Films, which essentially includes his "must-sees":  First, they start with Shadows (1959) which is his "first" film. Next comes Faces (1968), which is his take on domestic relations in the mid to late 60s among Hollywood types.  Then you've got A Woman Under the Influence from 1974, another movie about intense domestic relations.  The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, from 1976, is Cassavetes' take on film noir, and probably his most watched feature.  Finally there is Opening Night (1977)- which was not actually distributed in theaters until 1991, making it the very definition of a "lost classic."  If you watch all five films it is easy to grasp the essential attributes of the Cassavetes style: The feel of unscripted dialogue (but not really as it turns out,) intimate, not standard camera work, emotional explosiveness, virtuoso performances from Gena Rowlands, an absence of conventionally developed plots.

  Opening Night embodies all of these attributes, and at two and a half hours is a good deal longer then the other four films in the boxed set.  It is also unusual because it has what is essentially a conventional Hollywood style happy ending, where Rowlands, playing aging, willful actress Myrtle Gordon, gets her shit together and pulls off her lead role in the play within the film.   The tug of wills between Gordon, defiant as she resists playing a character whose spiritual loneliness hits too close home, and the other actors- notably Ben Gazzara as the put-upon director and



Movie Review
Autumn Sonata (1978)
d. Ingmar Bergman

  IMPORTANT new addition to the Criterion Collection Hulu Plus channel as of the last week in April.  Autumn Sonata is a late period Bergman, but an early Criterion Collection release AND the only film where he directed Ingrid Bergman, not related, of Casablanca and Hollywood fame.   Bergman has 29 titles between Criterion Collection proper, Eclipse Series 1Early Ingmar Bergman (5 films) and documentaries/features about the making of films (3 entries.)  Fanny & Alexander takes two Collection spine numbers for the television and theatrical versions.  So that leaves 19 Criterion Collection titles proper.   I'm at 12.  I think those numbers may be off.  Excluding his films from the forties, which are the subject of Eclipse Series 1, His early 1950s films: Summer Interlude (1951, #613),  Summer With Monica (1953, #614) and Sawdust and Tinsel (1953, #412.)   Then you've got the back-to-back Medieval career makers of The Seventh Seal(1957, #11) and The Magician (1958, #537.)  The 60s peak with Persona (1966, #701) but you've also got Through a Glass Darkly (1961, #209) and The Silence (1963, #211)- both among the most dour of all his films.

 The 70s and 80s films are the most cohesive as a group- as Bergman focuses in on the rips and tears of quiet domesticity, with an almost microscopic focus on inter-generational parental/child unhappiness.  Cries and Whispers(1972, #101), Scenes from a Marriage(1973, #229), Fanny och Alexander(1982, #263) and this film, Autumn Sonata all work a similar kind of emotionally claustrophobic space.  Certainly Cries & Whispers and Scenes from a Marriage are the two other Bergman films that most resemble Autumn Sonata- Liv Ullmann plays practically the same character in Scenes from a Marriage and Autumn Sonata.

  The emotional ordeals she has to bear in Bergman's 70s films reminds me of interviews I've read with actresses about acting for Lars Von Trier- it seems almost sadistic to make her play these women.  Autumn Sonata also reminded me of Gena Rowlands performances in A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night, although neither Ullmann or Ingrid Bergman are as emotionally unhinged as Rowlands, the combination of their two performances reminded me of separate halves of Rowlands performances.

  So without disclosing too much of the plot- plot never being the focus of a Bergman movie in the first place- it's safe to say that Autumn Sonata deals in family recriminations and emotions left unexpressed.  Typical fun late Bergman.


Movie Review
Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
 d. Jim Jarmusch

  Stranger Than Paradise wasn't his first feature, but it was his first film to bring him a wide audience and it remains a widely viewed classic.  Certainly a must for hipsters and would-be hipsters between the ages of 30 and 60, Stranger Than Paradise is a movie about Slackers a decade plus before the term was invented, and an important link in the timeline of Hipster culture between the Beats and the present day.  Shot in black and white, Stranger Than Paradise stars John Lurie (from Fishing With John IFC show) as a feckless, unemployed Hungarian immigrant hipster called Willie.  His only onscreen friend is Eddie, played by Richard Edson (you'll recognize him when you see him.)   They spend their time on the Lower East Side watching television, drinking beer out of cans and hustling poker games.

 Nothing changes when Eva, Willie's Hungarian cousin appears fresh from Budapest, and is forced to wait for ten days while her eventual host, Aunt Lotte in Cleveland, gets some surgery done.  Willie continues to eat tv dinners, watch football but now with Eva sitting nearby in his tiny apartment.  He warms a bit at the end of her ten day stay, buying her an ugly dress that she promptly throws into the garbage on the way to Cleveland.

 Fast forward a year, and Willie and Eddie decide to take a road trip to Cleveland, where they find Eva working at a "hot dog restaurant" and pass the time playing cards with a bemused Aunt Lotte.  On a whim, the two turn around as they are about to leave town and drive with Eva to Florida, where things do not go well.  Stranger Than Paradise is an eminently watchable feature 30 years later, and the wry humor and static compositions that characterize Jarmusch's mature output are very much in evidence.



Movie Review
Mala Noche (1985)
 d. Gus Van Sant

   Little seen upon its intitial release, the 2007 Criterion Collection edition of Mala Noche was the first time that a large-ish Audience actually saw what is commonly called Gus Van Sants' first film.(1)  Mala Noche is based on the work of Portland-based Beat poet/author Walt Curtis.  Curtis wrote Mala Noche in 1977, and it was the kind of episodic, wallowing in the mulch of junkies and queers type of material that had been well established by other Beat figures.    In Mala Noche the object of gay affection for the white, educated protagonist are several non-English speaking illegal Mexican immigrants who may or may not be actually gay.

   What stands out about Mala Noche is just how non-political it is.  There are no important speeches, or deep conversations about what it means to be gay in 80s America.  It's more like a simple depiction of complicated relationships that are self-evidently impacted by considerations surrounding race, class and (obviously) sexuality.

  Van Sant self-financed Mala Noche for 25,000.  Although the film never obtained a proper release, it did travel the film festival circuit to a degree and attracted Van Sant enough attention to get at least one offer from Hollywood.  When the studio rejected his ideas for the scripts that would become Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant retreated to the Pacific Northwest and continued down an independent path.

 Later, of course, Van Sant would make his peace with Hollywood and helm Good Will Hunting- which grossed more than 150 million dollars and launched the careers of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as A-list Hollywood stars.  Van Sant worked in Hollywood throughout the 90s, reeling off  the Nicole Kidman starring To Die For, Good Will Hunting, a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho and Finding Forrester before retreating back to the indieverse until the release of 2008's Harvey Milk biopic.  He's followed a middle path between abandoning all pretenses of independence and doggedly hewing to the non-mainstream path, and the result is a career where he has become one of (if not the) most highly regarded, openly gay filmmakers in the world, while making films about gay subjects that appeal to a mainstream audience.  That's nice work, if you can get it.




NOTES
(1)  Van Sant actually did make an earlier feature but it was unwatched and the filmmaker himself appears to have disowned it.

Dita Parlo- not pictured in L'Atalante
L'Atalante (1934)
 d. Jean Vigo
In The Complete Jean Vigo: Criterion Collection #578

  I dunno I guess this Jean Vigo is like a lost genius of pre-war French Cinema, but man pre-war French Cinema is some obscure shit.   L'Atalante was the only full length feature of Vigo's brief career (untimely death while still a young filmmaker.)  Obscurity aside, it is a remarkable film in light of the fact that he made it in the 1930s.  L'Atalante remains entertaining 75 years later.

  Vigo can be seen as of the early film makers to bring a self consciously artistic style to the mechanics of film making.  Often called "poetic realism" Vigo is both poetic and realistic in advance of his contemporaries in 30's film making, French or otherwise. L'Atalante is the story of a young couple, a steam ship captain Jean, played by Jean Daste and his young wife from the countryside, Dita Parlo.

  The steam ship has a salty first mate (Michel Simon in a memorable performance) and the story evolves via the arrival of a flirty Showman who makes eyes at his wife.  They fight, she leaves, they get back together. It is low key but artfully done.










  

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