Every month brings a flood of carefully packaged movies from Criterion. Old, new, color, black and white, Hollywood, Asian, European, documentary, cult, and sometimes just bizarre, Criterion offers a phenomenal release rate of quality films, so what can I do, except give you some of my impressions as the cinematic deluge engulfs me. Here’s a sampling of ten recent Blu-rays from their ever-expanding catalog.
1. Ikiru (1952)
What: Takashi Shimura plays an insignificant bureaucrat who, when told he’s dying of cancer, realizes he’s wasted his life. He pours his energy into one final act to leave a mark: clearing permits for a city park.
Why: Possibly Akira Kurosawa’s greatest film, and that’s saying something. Ironically, it was hailed as a masterpiece by US critics even though for years it was seen without the last act, where the man’s co-workers get drunk and lugubrious at his funeral. Some have felt that this radical change in form and tone lessens the film, but the ending turns a sentimental masterpiece into a bracing one.
The two parts comment on each other: one haunting and open, one messy and closed, both about our will vs. what’s beyond our control. This restored 4K digital transfer on Blu-ray preserves a previous DVD commentary and making-of, and there’s a 90-minute documentary on Kurosawa.
2. Jellyfish Eyes (2013)
What: After his father dies in the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, a boy makes friends with a weird, little creepy-cutie creature. It turns out everyone in his class has one, and they’re all part of a secret experiment to harness children’s unspoiled energy for cooperation or destruction. As it goes along and spins into a tornado climax, a seemingly simplistic set-up about a sad boy making friends becomes more mixed or vexed in its messages about the grown-up world and the natural emotions of children — which aren’t so pure.
The allusions to Fukushima, religious fanaticism, xenophobia, and innate human violence pop up like itchy warts on the shiny surface.
Why: This film is a collaboration between postmodern painter Takashi Murakami (in his directing debut), who uses Japanese pop culture and anime style in his art, and horror director Yoshihiro Nishimura (here a producer/writer). Even by the standards of Japanese children’s movies influenced by manga and E.T., this gonzo special-effects adventure is one bizarre baby. Its status as a mishmash knock-off seems a self-conscious “genre” strategy in keeping with Murakami’s creed that our culture is saturated with these cutesy sci-fi tropes: so why not embrace it as a language? In the making-of, the collaborators even make fun of the idea of closing on a chirpy theme song — which the film does.
3. Burroughs: The Movie (1983)
What: Howard Brookner’s 1983 documentary on writer and cadaverous, croaking, late-life performance artist William S. Burroughs opens with his 1981 Saturday Night Live spot and, with free access to the man and his friends, covers his childhood, his queer sexuality, his association with Beat writers, the murky incident of shooting his wife during a William Tell act gone terribly wrong, and readings from Naked Lunch and other works.
Those appearing include Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs Jr. (shortly before his death), friend and manager James Grauerholz, writer Terry Southern, and painter Francis Bacon.
Why: This collage-portrait of clips and interviews skips a lot (including his first wife) and leaves you wanting more. Outtakes include a confession to a youthful armed robbery of a Turkish bath, a chat with Andy Warhol, performance clips from New York hipsters like Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson in Burroughs’ honor, and demonstrations of weaponry.
There are also making-of and restoring-of docs, thanks to Aaron Brookner’s Kickstarter campaign to restore his uncle’s film, and commentary by sound recorder Jim Jarmusch.
4. Bitter Rice (1949)
What: The annual harvest by female rice workers in Northern Italy is the backdrop for a sex-and-crime melodrama involving two of the workers (Doris Dowling and Silvana Mangano), a gigolo-crook (Vittorio Gassman), a hairy-chested soldier (Raf Vallone), a stolen necklace, and tons of rice.
Why: Giuseppe De Santis combined the neorealist context of the real lives of ordinary folks shot outside the studio with trashy, wildly non-credible melodrama and staged the whole thing with seductive camera movements in front of gorgeously coordinated crowd scenes. The film’s popularity had nothing to do with tracking shots, the plot, or themes of organized labor and female solidarity, however, and everything to do with amore as beautiful women bend over in the sun, run through the rain, or hyperventilate among the rice. Mangano became a sex symbol and married producer Dino De Laurentiis.
This digitial restoration looks terrific, and a one-hour extra on De Santis’ career makes the case for wanting to see his other movies.
5. Gilda (1946)
What: Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is a seedy, gamy hustler who gets picked up one night at the Buenos Aires docks by an elegant, if sinister, gentleman (George Macready) who unsheathes his sword-cane. Johnny’s soon happily running the man’s casino and living in his mansion, but the honeymoon is over when his “owner” buys another possession by marriage: the sultry, stunning Gilda (Rita Hayworth), the woman Johnny dumped in a previous life.
Her hatred, described as an “exciting emotion”, leads to provocative, destructive behavior that may doom them both. In the incendiary highlight, she performs a mocking striptease to “Put the Blame on Mame”, which teases “boys” about blaming their mothers and all women for their problems.
Why: Directed by Charles Vidor, shot with elegant movements and rich high-contrast black and white by Rudolph Maté, scripted suggestively by Marion Parsonnet et al, and produced by Virginia Van Upp: a pioneering female producer of noirs who shaped much of Hayworth’s career, this is an amazingly dark, perverse, and neurotic film that was a hit despite — or because of — a subtext that dared not acknowledge its sexual ambiguity. Nevertheless, as noir historian Eddie Muller says in a new bonus: “the subtext is the plot”. Many audiences were puzzled by what exactly was going on, but the sensational Hayworth came across loud and clear over the tortured, enigmatic morass of action. The movie can still make you question what you see and hear.
This disc repeats extras from an older DVD, including desultory commentary and a profile of Hayworth.
6. Death by Hanging (1968)
What: Officials argue over protocol when a hanged man doesn’t die but revives with amnesia. The man is then talked into remembering his life and choices through increasingly elaborate and bizarre examples of “play therapy”.
Since the convict (Do-yun Yu) is Korean, the film includes a commentary on Japanese treatment of Koreans within broader implications of the whimsies and paradoxes of conformism and economic progress in ’60s Japan, where citizens were encouraged to get with the program, whether they wanted to or not. The film also examines the death penalty.
Why: Nagisa Oshima’s film is “theatrical” with mostly one setting, staged in the traditions of Brechtian alienation and the avant-garde. This shows its conceptual brilliance, but it doesn’t convey how gripping and mordant it is, how balanced the comedy and confrontation are, how visually exciting its black-and-white claustrophobia is, and how off-putting it is — in a good way.
Extras are a sentimental/political short with photos of Korean children, and an excellent discussion by critic Tony Rayns. This release gives hope for other long-unseen films by Oshima the social provocateur, including Night and Fog in Japan, Pleasures of the Flesh, Sing a Song of Sex, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, Boy, The Man Who Left His Will on Film and The Ceremony.
7. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
What: This meticulously composed film comprises one anecdotal week in the life of a struggling pre-Dylan folk singer (Oscar Isaac) in 1961. He goes on fruitless road trips, he meets an abrasive jazz musician (John Goodman, hilarious) and a straight-talking club owner (F. Murray Abraham), he avoids a pregnant lover (Carey Mulligan), and he crosses paths with a cat named Ulysses on its own odyssey in a nod to both Homer and Disney’s The Incredible Journey. This is a film about failure at the very doorstep of success, and a stringent lament about missing the boat.
Why: It’s exactly the sort of movie one can watch just to sink into its world. Its attitude and tone for the early ‘70s are greatly expanded by the Coen Brothers’ eerie precision, brilliant technique, period savvy, sharp humor and perfect performances. There’s a wry compassion, even love, for the characters it skewers (all of them), because it loves the music — which is also wonderful. One character feels inspired by the hero of Norwood, a novel by Charles Portis, whose True Grit was previously remade by the Coens.
Bountiful extras include a commentary, a making-of, a feature-length concert, music discussions, a 1961 film about a clash between folkies and police, and the Coens interviewed by Guillermo del Toro.
8. The Graduate (1967)
What: Just one word: plastics. Played by Dustin Hoffman in a star-making performance, Benjamin isn’t sure what to do now that he’s grown up, but Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) offers some ideas of her own. Katherine Ross plays her awkward daughter, supposedly Benjamin’s girlfriend, and this leads to a literally iconoclastic ending, overturning the giddy expectations of romantic endings with a clear-eyed, sobering gaze into the land of “What happens now?”
Why: A genuine American milestone — if only for being a sex comedy in which the characters actually have sex. This film combines suburban satire with colorful widescreen photography, moments of killer editing, and a Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack that pioneered pop song scores.
The 4K digitally restored Blu-ray carries previous commentaries and extras, adding a few new interviews. Out of the vaults come classic TV clips of director Mike Nichols and Paul Simon.
9.Paris Belongs to Us (1961)
What: While rehearsing Shakespeare’s Pericles, several young people are involved in a conspiracy by malevolent forces in a shadowy, maze-like, black and white Paris. Shot in 1958 as Jacques Rivette’s debut feature (released in 1961), this is a seminal film of the French New Wave. It’s less about its teasing, contradictory, unresolvable plot than it is about Paris as a world of youth and a declaration of new ways of making and watching movies. It taps the restless spirit and sense of doom that would mark the unfolding decade.
It’s scripted, but Rivette would later use improvisation for even rangier films, just as he would continue the device of rehearsing plays.
Why: After studying Alfred Hitchcock, Rivette made suspenseful movies in a loose, lanky anti-Hitchcock style. While that master defined drama as “life with the dull bits left out”, Rivette leaves in the longueurs of people walking, talking, or sitting in a state of anxiety and confusion, so that we can share a sense of their “real time” while suspense is conjured by plot devices like rumors and mysterious deaths.
Discussing Pericles, characters make self-conscious remarks like “The looseness holds it together” and “I’m depending on the music”. Philippe Arthuys’ music lends foreboding modernist post-bop jangles to perfectly ordinary conversations for an instant suspense device.
Extras are a Rivette short and an interview with New Wave historian Richard Neupert.
10. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
What: An ex-POW (Frank Sinatra) of the Korean War tumbles to the idea that his decorated war-hero buddy (Laurence Harvey), was brainwashed by the Communists into becoming an assassin without his awareness, via post-hypnotic suggestion. A particular wild card in the plot (literally so in the costume design at one point) is the hero’s mother (Angela Lansbury), a ruthlessly ambitious senator’s wife who is more bizarrely memorable than most James Bond villains. Among the plot’s disorientations is Janet Leigh’s pick-up conversation with Sinatra on a train.
Why: John Frankenheimer’s satirical political thriller is shot in beautiful black and white by Lionel Lindon and scripted by George Axelrod (best known for sex comedies) from Richard Condon’s bestseller. Unlike Rivette’s film, this paranoid conspiracy thriller lets you in on the paranoid conspiracy after several teasing nightmares. That’s the more traditional approach, but the effect was still cuttingly modern in 1962 because the ideas behind Condon’s plot were exuberantly surreal and, in the element of political assassination, too uncannily close to imminent events.
This Blu-ray preserves Frankenheimer’s 1997 DVD commentary and new interviews with Lansbury, fan Errol Morris, and Cold War historian Susan Carruthers.