Film

12 Criterion Capsules: Good Cinematic Medicine

Michael Barrett

As Criterion continues to unleash its Blu-rays of eclectic film classics at a mad pace, we continue trying to keep up with so many riches.


Here Is Your Life

Director: Jan Troell
Cast: Eddie Axberg
Distributor: Criterion
Year: 1966
USDVD release date: 2015-07-14

Day for Night

Director: Francois Truffaut
Cast: Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Aumont
Distributor: Criterion
Year: 1973
USDVD release date: 2015-08-18

Dressed to Kill

Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson
Distributor: Criterion
Year: 1980
USDVD release date: 2015-09-08

Blind Chance

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Cast: Boguslaw Linda
Distributor: Criterion
Year: 1981
USDVD release date: 2015-09-15

Mister Johnson

Director: Bruce Beresford
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Maynard Eziashi
Distributor: Criterion
Year: 1990
USDVD release date: 2015-09-22

My Beautiful Laundrette

Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Gordon Warnecke, Daniel Day-Lewis
Distributor: Criterion
Year: 1985
USDVD release date: 2015-07-21

A Room with a View

Director: James Ivory
Cast: Helena Bonham Carter, Julian Sands
Distributor: Criterion
Year: 1986
USDVD release date: 2015-09-29

The Honeymoon Killers

Director: Leonard Kastle
Cast: Shirley Stoler, Tony Lo Bianco
Distributor: Criterion
Year: 1969
USDVD release date: 2015-09-29

The Brood

Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar
Distributor: Criterion
Year: 1979
USDVD release date: 2015-10-13

My Own Private Idaho

Director: Gus Van Sant
Cast: River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves
Distributor: Criterion
Year: 1991
USDVD release date: 2015-10-06

Kwaidan

Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Katsuo Nakamura
Distributor: Criterion
Year: 1965
USDVD release date: 2015-10-20

Mulholland Dr.

Director: David Lynch
Cast: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring
Distributor: Criterion
Year: 2001
USDVD release date: 2015-10-27

As Criterion continues to unleash its Blu-rays of eclectic film classics at a mad pace, we continue trying to keep up with so many riches. Watching important high-calibre movies is a full-time job, but how can we process the experience while still finding time to eat and sleep? The answer: capsules! Here's a batch of movies dating from the swinging '60s to the dawn of the new century. Take 12 and call us next month.

Here Is Your Life

What: A teenage farmboy comes of age in northern Sweden while WWI rages distantly in the newsreels. Director-writer-editor Jan Troell's debut feature, co-written with Bengt Forslund from novels by Nobel winner Eyvind Johnson, mixes realism and poetics into a wealth of careful details and digressions, even interspersing moments of color into the black and white. The large cast includes famous Bergman players like Max von Sydow and Gunnar Bjornstrand. This is the complete film's US debut in any format and in a beautiful 2K digital restoration.

Why: At first this movie threatens to be dreary, despite its modern 1960s tics, but our sullen, stubborn, hard-working, much-reading bumpkin moves quickly from deadly lumber work to the lures of working in a cinema, touring the country, and figuring out girls. The result is an unusual, intimate, nearly three-hour epic with passages of grace and mystery. Troell, Forslund, and star Eddie Axberg (later in Troell's The Emigrants and The New Land ) are interviewed. A Johnson-based short with Von Sydow, which led to the feature, is included.

Day for Night

What: The film crew shooting a melodrama are plagued by romantic problems and practical issues that threaten to derail the barely controlled circus. Director Francois Truffaut plays the director of the film within the film, and his glamorous, temperamental stars are played by Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Valentina Cortese, Jean-Pierre Léaud, and Alexandra Stewart. The gimlet-eyed observations of human behavior are elevated with swirling camerawork and Georges Delerue's rich romantic score.

Why: One of Truffaut's most loved movies is often called a valentine to film-making, partly for revealing many details of the process and effects, but it's more a bittersweet cocktail of people under such personal and professional stress that you're left thinking it's a miracle any movie gets made. In addition to retaining most of the extras from a 2001 Warner Brothers disc, this edition has French TV materials and new scholarly remarks, including a discussion of how this film created a rupture between Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. It doesn't offer the option of the English-dubbed track -- not that anyone should prefer it, but it's how many Americans saw the film in 1973.

Dressed to Kill

What: Surrounded by seductive music and camerawork, Angie Dickinson and her body double masturbate in the shower to a disturbing fantasy, and it's off to the races. Michael Caine, Karen Allen, and Keith Gordon are among those wandering through stylish set pieces in this twisty, kinky, button-pushing murder tale in its unrated widescreen glory with a 4K digital restoration.

Why: Here's an archetypal Brian De Palma thriller of sex, violence, and bravura film-making, including split-screen and literally razor-like editing. Interviews with De Palma and others (including the body double) discuss Alfred Hitchcock, political incorrectness, composer Pino Donaggio, the poster designer, plus the R-rated cut and the TV cut. Criterion has already released Sisters and Blow Out. Can Obsession be far behind? What about Carrie, The Fury, Casualties of War, or the maligned masterpiece Body Double? Stay tuned.

Blind Chance

What: When his father dies, Witek (Boguslaw Linda) either misses or catches a train. Depending on that moment, he either pursues a career in Poland's Communist Party or becomes a Catholic dissident -- both of which are frustrating and lonely -- or finds short-lived happiness and productivity as an apolitical doctor. The film explores all three possibilities as a kind of flashback from the moment of death; it can be seen as a more serious precursor to multiple-reality movies like Run Lola Run and Sliding Doors.

Why: Shot in 1981, then shelved until a censored release years later, this is the restored director's cut (with one shot still missing except the sound). In its detailed canvas of Polish society, this film combines Krzysztof Kieslowski's documentary roots with his emerging metaphysics about the flexibility of identity, the riddle of will and fate, and the many resonances of meaning in a way that resists reductive interpretation. Extras include critical thoughts and demonstrations of censorship.

Mister Johnson

What: In Britain's Nigeria colony in the 1920s, Mister Johnson (Maynard Eziashi) is an in-between figure, a British-educated local black man eager to rise in the society of his white English rulers by hook or by craft. This sun-struck character study, written by novelist William Boyd from Joyce Cary's 1939 novel, is an ambiguous mix of comic and tragic tones.

Why: Although Eziashi won Best Actor at the Berlin Film Festival, director Bruce Beresford's film fell through the cracks after his much safer and cozier and more successful Driving Miss Daisy. Perhaps some felt this sly, unconventional drama wasn't politically correct, though it's correctly political. Johnson isn't a heroic or positive figure, and that's part of the story's credible human appeal. There's no reason why he needs to be some kind of suffering saint, or a calculated victim in the manner of Beresford's Breaker Morant (also freshly from Criterion, with Beresford's commentary and a doc about the real Morant), in order to grasp his tragic dilemma. The disc has new interviews with the director, actors and producer.

My Beautiful Laundrette

What: When Omar Met Johnny. In 1980s London, a Pakistani man (Gordon Warnecke) goes into the laundry business with a tall white punk (Daniel Day-Lewis) with whom he's in love. They have a couple of scorching scenes -- or so it seemed in 1985, when unapologetic gay hanky-panky in movies was rare enough to be counted on one hand. Today, we see Day-Lewis' star power announcing itself.

Why: Hanif Kureishi's screenplay is a schematic structure to examine the hot-button topics of race, class and sexuality, and it attracted attention in Margaret Thatcher's England and US art houses. Director Stephen Frears orchestrates the atmosphere and pace in a manner forecasting his future successes, including his next picture, Prick Up Your Ears, and his more recent achievement in Philomena. This Blu-ray adds new interviews.

A Room with a View

What: Will a spunky Edwardian lass (Helena Bonham Carter) marry the shy fellow (Daniel Day-Lewis) or the outgoing one (Julian Sands)? Judi Dench, Denholm Elliott, and Maggie Smith lend support. Based on E.M. Forster's novel, this Oscar-bait breakout for Merchant Ivory Films epitomized lush, literate, British romance -- although director James Merchant was American while producer Ismael Merchant was from India, where German-born writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala also lived.

Why: The most famous and memorable scene involves male skinny-dipping in a way that sets up audience expectations about uptight ladies and overturns them. This, along with a new generation of British actors, contributed to the movie's freshness and escapism. Its success led to more careful, intelligent literary items from Merchant Ivory, including Maurice, Howards End, Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, and The Remains of the Day. The disc offers a few new interviews.

The Honeymoon Killers

What: In real life, Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler) and Ray Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco) were known in the 1940s as the "lonely hearts killers" for their habit of bilking and killing lonely old widows. Scored by passages from Mahler, this black and white true-crime movie tells their story, which also inspired three later films.

Why: Director Leonard Kastle's only film is a masterpiece of dark Americana. Maintaining a deadpan balance between pathos, horror, and grim satire, it's anchored by Stoler's harsh, wrenching performance (she'd be equally amazing in Lena Wertmuller's Seven Beauties ) and a meticulous plot structured around American holidays. Fun fact: Martin Scorcese was fired as director for being too slow. Second Fun Fact: Francois Truffaut called it one of the best American films of the 1970s. Third Fun Fact: Kastle, who passed away in 2011, was an opera composer. The disc offers interviews.

The Brood

What: Oliver Reed plays a doctor at the Somafree Institute of "psychoplasmics", where his star patient (Samantha Eggar) resides while her young daughter is stalked by monsters. The estranged hubby tries to help. The mayhem leads to an audaciously revolting example of the "body horror" for which writer-director David Cronenberg became famous.

Why: In the same year they swooned over Kramer vs. Kramer and its warm, fuzzy celebration of fatherhood over self-absorbed moms, most critics complained of how disgusting was Cronenberg's film, so this dark, angry, highly personal study of divorce and psychological trauma went largely unappreciated except by horror fans. Criterion is here to correct that with interviews and making-of. A special bonus is Cronenberg's cerebral, avant-garde Crimes of the Future, basically a student film with his themes of sex, disease, and impersonal organizations run amok.

My Own Private Idaho

What: River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves play male hustlers -- one a gay narcoleptic and the other a mayor's bad boy son -- who take to the roads of the Pacific Northwest in this story of friendship, love, and interludes from Shakespeare's Falstaff plays. The film can be seen as a spiritual follow-up to Gus Van Sant's debut feature Mala Noche and the theme of "outsider youth" in Drugstore Cowboy.

Why: Van Sant's original blend of poetic realism conjures a world of beauty, heartache, the inarticulate, the intelligent, the sad, and the quirkily musical -- note the opening use of Eddy Arnold's yodeling "Cattle Call" . There's a justly famous campfire scene of quivering understatement. This film made an impact with gay viewers in the early 1990s and still claims its own cinematic nether sphere. This 4K digitally restored Blu-ray retains the extras from a 2005 DVD.

Kwaidan

What: Masaki Kobayashi directed this three-hour Japanese anthology of four ghostly tales based on the stories of Lafcadio Hearn. The excruciating highlight is "Hoichi the Earless", in which a blind singer paints his body with Buddhist script to remain invisible to a ghost--but forgets the ears! The first two stories are about women who aren't what they seem, and the final tale concerns the dangers of the writing life.

Why: Famous for its exquisite, vivid colors, this film's slowly paced stories are drenched in eerie atmosphere, while Toru Takemitsu's nerve-rattling score mixes silence with piercing effects. This 2K digital restoration offers a critical commentary, an older interview with the director, a new interview with his assistant, and a new essay on Hearn's life and work.

Mulholland Dr.

What: Naomi Watts plays a fresh-faced hopeful from the heartland who arrives in Hollywood with stars in her eyes and starts investigating the mystery of a strange woman (Laura Harring) with no memory. What first seems a straightforward play of stereotypes spirals in on itself to become one of David Lynch's confounding meditations on changing identity, the corruption of innocence, and dark forces in the world. The process of "casting" takes on metaphysical dimensions. Also in the cast are Justin Theroux, Robert Forster, and Golden Age dance star Ann Miller.

Why: Sometimes the dream factory produces nightmares. If you're prepared for a movie in which the questions multiply instead of resolving, this is a beautiful, unnerving, surreal enigma. The hinted explanation is a dark, unhappy one. This restored 4K transfer comes in a slipcase and adds new interviews with Lynch, the actors, composer Angelo Badalementi, photographer Peter Deming and others.

7
Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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