12 Criterion Capsules: Good Cinematic Medicine

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.

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.


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.

RATING 7 / 10


30 Years of Slowdive’s ‘Souvlaki’

Everything You Know Means Nothing: Problematic Art and Crystal Castles’ Legacy

The 15 Best Americana Albums of 2013

Sara Petite Has Fun “Bringin’ Down the Neighborhood”