Criterion Corner is a Cinematical column dedicated to the wide and wonderful world of the Criterion Collection, and it will make you poor. Criterion Corner runs on the 2nd (or 3rd) and final Wednesday of each month. The first installment features reviews of Criterion's new releases, and the second includes an essay, a video countdown, and other fun stuff pertaining to Criterion culture. Follow @CriterionCorner & visit the Criterion Corner Tumblr for daily updates.
Welcome to another installment of the Criterion Corner, where the movies love you back. This is something of a curious month for Criterion, as the brand known for restoring and releasing classic films is making a bold grab for both contemporary movies and contemporary movie-lovers. Not only has Criterion announced a heartily requited romance with Hulu Plus, but their distribution deal with IFC Films has continued to pay off some rather outrageous dividends, as two of the best films of the last decade come to the Collection in style. But the pick of the month is reserved for a somewhat unsung American classic -- a stone cold masterpiece for which Criterion has put together one of their finest releases yet.
As the Terran Federation of Earth might ask: "Would you like to know more?"
NEW CRITERION RELEASES:
#553 'Fish Tank' (Andrea Arnold) 2009
THE FILM: Things begin all stark and subdued, with a respite from some unknown chaos. 15 year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) breathes heavily, her head swaying mere inches away from the camera's lens. She surveys her small and sterile Essex fiefdom from the balcony, and then tears onto the quad of her low-rent apartment complex like a locomotive steaming off the tracks, dishing out head-butts and shrill curses to anyone who crosses her path. Mia is not a happy girl, her propulsive anger enough to power half of Britain, let alone the boney frame of one small pissed off teenager. She harbors ambitions of becoming a dancer, but her talents don't seem to match her desperation. She shares an apartment with her pre-sexualized kid sister and her apathetic mother (who feels absent even though she never seems to go outside), but they're less of a family than they are living reminders of Mia's likely trajectory. She needs to get out, and her mother's new boyfriend (a brilliant and believably ominous Michael Fassbender) might just be her best chance for escape...
It's a sliver of a story, made rich and full-bodied by a small mess of arresting performances. Jarvis is a diamond in the rough, a Bruno S. for the rambunctious teenage set. Andrea Arnold, here making only her second feature, implicitly recognizes that "Realism" is a dirty word, and so she infuses her film with a fair measure of furtive poetry -- if the metaphors fall a bit clunky, the drama is sly and strong, buttoning things up with the most narratively satisfying dance sequence this side of 'Dogtooth.'
'Fish Tank' is the kind of film that makes Criterion's deal with IFC Films seem like charity, not business. It's swift kick in the ass that's every bit as uncouth and kinetic as it is poignant and enduring, an electric modern marvel that'll leave you breathless.
THE TECHNICAL STUFF: One of the most crisp transfers the still-nascent world of Blu-ray has ever known. The picture is rich and vibrant, and despite the film's restless movement it never surrenders to ghosting effects. The sound is equally clear, but subs are definitely recommended for American ears.
THE EXTRAS: Criterion's IFC releases tend to be on the skimpier side, and 'Fish Tank' is no exception. The video interviews are barely above the stuff of an ordinary E.P.K. and the "Audition footage" -- too brief to feel substantial -- instead feels tacked on.
THE BEST BIT: You mean besides seeing the words of Cinematical's very own Todd Gilchrist pop up in the film's trailer? A trio of Arnold's short films are included, and they more than compensate for the thin supplements. 'Milk' is an arresting early work that gets extraordinary mileage from a single image, 'Dog' is a brutally wayward mess, and 'Wasp' is a haunting Oscar-nominated portrait of a desperate single mother that paved the way for 'Fish Tank's' strikingly confident stride. As a bonus, it provides an unforgettable episode of "When Good Directors Meet Terrible C.G."
THE ARTWORK: I might have gone with the image at the top of this post, but Criterion's choice is frank and appropriately captures Mia in suspended animation.
THE VERDICT: Criterion provides a glorious home for one of the best films in recent years. Arnold is a major talent, and this dazzlingly electric film is the perfect way to get acquainted.
PAIRS NICELY WITH: 'Ratcatcher' (#162)
#554 'Still Walking' (Hirokazu Kore-eda) 2008
THE FILM: I hope they somehow live forever, but if Masahiro Shinoda and Nagisa Oshima ever die at least I'll finally be able to proclaim sans caveats that Hirokazu Kore-eda is Japan's greatest living filmmaker. That might seem like a morbid intro, but death and finality have always haunted Kore-eda's films, including his startling debut 'Maboroshi' and his seminal 'After Life,' which some consider to be one of the best films of the 1990s (and by "Some" I mean "Me"). The aughts found the burgeoning master refining his idee fixee, most notably with Cannes sensation 'Nobody Knows' and the transcendent contemporary fable 'Air Doll,' which chronicles the adventures of an inflatable sex doll who springs to sudden, wide-eyed life. 'Still Walking' is ostensibly a tribute to the filmmaker's recently deceased mother, but the specter that most obviously looms above this searing film -- an invaluable addition to the genre of family gathering dramas -- is that of exalted Japanese auteur Yasujiro Ozu.
Every summer, the Yokoyama family ritualistically reconvenes in their quiet country home to take stock of their lives and mourn the death of the the clan's eldest son. The thick drone of chirping cicadas casts a static pall over the reunion, as if the insects are determined to help muffle the inevitable symphony of inter-generational discord. The surviving son wants to leave as soon as possible, the daughter (played by the inimitably voiced pop star YOU) wants to move in, and the aging parents are just trying to stay busy and distant. Kore-eda adopts Ozu's trademark pillow shots and unhurried pace, but eventually -- and unforgettably -- concedes an emotional aggression and volatility in which Ozu never dared to indulge. Both a poignant take on the circle of domestic life and also something of a deceptively lethal revenge picture, 'Still Walking' is ultimately a wistful reminder that you have to take that next step, even if you know full well what's waiting for you around the corner.
THE TECHNICAL STUFF: The Blu-ray transfer is grainy and lived in, as it should be. The picture almost repudiates the film's modernity, achieving instead a soft, timeless tone that does right by Yutaka Yamazaki's richly organic cinematography.
THE EXTRAS: Another comparatively sparse release, what few extras Criterion did slip through are all solid. Kore-eda is refreshingly candid in a lengthy video interview, and the "Making of" doc is 30 minutes of candid behind-the-scenes footage that begins with Kore-eda vanishing from the set and only gets more fun from there.
THE BEST BIT: 'Still Walking' will make you hungry, and not like "Hey, I could eat" hungry, but like, "I'm about to blend a Vermonster and chug it home" hungry. Understanding as much, Criterion kindly included recipes for some of the drool-inducing dishes served in the film. I'll be trying my hand at them later this week, so hit up the blog in a few days for results and tips (assuming this doesn't somehow result in me poisoning myself to death and / or burning down my apartment in the process, which it surely will).
THE ARTWORK: It's growing on me. The watercolor approach sets an appropriately wistful tone, and the film doesn't offer all that many striking images from which to choose. Also, 'Still Walking' offers another example of how Criterion is starting to have some real fun with their menus -- the main menu here is a snippy and touching little short film unto itself.
THE VERDICT: A devastating film from a modern master at the top of his game. It'll welcome you in and make you feel at home, buttering you up to eat your heart.
PAIRS NICELY WITH: 'Tokyo Story' (#217)
#555 'Sweet Smell of Success' (Alexander Mackendrick) 1957
THE FILM: 'Sweet Smell of Success' is among American cinema's prickliest masterpieces, and groping for the film's soft underbelly is like sticking your hand into a pit of vipers and hoping you'll pull up daisies. There's no kindness here, and over almost every one of the conversations crammed into Alexander Mackendrick's hyper-literate film hangs a soul on the edge. But the saga of the irrepressible Sidney Falco is ultimately more than just a jazzy re-telling of Faust, because 'Sweet Smell of Success' isn't about a man at odds with the devil so much as it's about a man waiting for his time to wield the pitchfork himself.
Falco (Tony Curtis, shirking his heartthrob image in favor of looking like a Twilight Zone Ray Liotta), is a press agent on the prowl, kicking around the New York City nights like the neighborhood mutt that sticks its nose into your business until you cough up scraps. Falco knows the name of every columnist, club owner, and cigarette girl in town -- he's a man with hundreds of acquaintances, few friends, and one master: J.J. Hunsecker. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster, here a tower of ill-temperment) is both a thinly veiled attack on Walter Winchell as well as one of the cinema's great unsung psychopaths, an odious and implacable man whose column can make careers and ruin lives (and does both on a nightly basis). He's the kind of guy who abandoned his scruples along with his childhood toys, and achieved his current position in life as a direct result. Hunsecker's relationship with Falco is ultimately symbiotic, but the press agent is so hungry for success that he's willing to downshift from village vulture to Satan's stooge if it will earn him a seat at the table.
The film is every bit the distasteful acidic powerhouse it was when it first hit, its indelible characters, venomous one-liners, and immaculate attention to detail helping this stiff drink go down easy. A 'Citizen Kane' for the gossip set and the cornerstone of Mackendrick's legacy, 'Sweet Smell of Success' will remain a seething mad classic for as long as people want a sniff for themselves.
THE TECHNICAL STUFF: Unfortunately I was only able to check out this release on DVD, but even in 480p the transfer was rock-solid. The folks over at DVD Beaver call the Blu-ray image "Magnificent." Good news, because legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe makes stiff sets and b-actors into dreamworlds and icons in this one.
THE EXTRAS: A hugely loaded release. James Mangold (director of '3:10 to Yuma') chats about his time as Mackendrick's student at CalArts, which is pretty nifty, and Winchell biographer Neal Gabler pops up to praise and flay the notorious journalist in equal measure. One of the neatest extras finds James Wong Howe telling some old war stories and then giving a brief lesson on film lighting. There's also a 44-minute doc about Mackendrick and his rather elusive legacy.
THE BEST BIT: James Naremore's audio commentary has gotta be one of the best that Criterion has ever commissioned. The dude knows his stuff (he quite literally wrote the book on the subject), and his comments are both illuminating and engaging (he might be reading, but his enthusiasm shines through). He's also refreshingly critical of the film, even though I found myself disagreeing with his assertion that the goodliness of Hunsecker's doe-eyed sister detracts from the grit of the story (methinks it encourages the film to succeed as a parable).
THE ARTWORK: Stunning. A garish rendering of the film's opening scene -- Falco haunting the mid-town streets under the ever-watchful eyes of J.J. Hunsecker -- this is one of Criterion's most beautiful releases. The epic booklet contained within is a black & white wonder, dense with enriching essays in the guise of an old-time gossip rag.
THE VERDICT: Criterion went all out with this one. Sure to be one of the finest home video releases of the year, this is a landmark release.
PAIRS NICELY WITH: 'Ace in the Hole' (#396)
#556 'Senso' (Luchino Visconti) 1954
THE FILM: 'Senso' is like watching Jeff Gordon hop in a Maserati on the open road, only to make the world's slowest three-point turn. Wait, let's roll that back a second. 1954 found Luchino Visconti on the precipice of greatness, switching gears from his neo-realist origins to the lavish yet brutal melodramas for which he's best remembered. It was an awkward and frustrated limbo between the starkly seriocomic 'Obsession' and the sumptuous sweep of 'The Leopard,' and 'Senso' suffers enormously from its stilted identity. Visconti's genius is allowed to come out and play from time to time, but it's hindered by a dawdling screenplay that can't recover from a dreary second act.
Visconti once said that he liked melodrama because it "Is situated just at the meeting point between life and theater," and 'Senso' is built upon his determination to negotiate that territory. The film opens rather ravishingly during an opera interrupted by political strife. Amidst the spectacular Technicolor pissing contest, the seeds are sown for an illicit affair between an Italian (Alida Valli as Livia) and an Austrian officer (Farley Granger as Franz). Their relationship -- to put it mildly -- is not mutually beneficial. The broad, theatrical strains of their courtship are darkly enchanting, even if Livia's naivete too quickly unseats her convictions. It's all a bit hazy and politically facile, until the narrative is forcibly relocated beyond the bounds of Venice and the film surrenders to a chatty mode that almost seems to anticipate the extended bedroom dialogue that bisects 'Breathless.' The sudden tonal shift makes it seem as if Visconti isn't trying to balance life and theater so much as alternate between them -- while the film is steadfastly stuffed with beautiful objects, not even Tennessee Williams' punchy contributions help this story find a pulse.
THE TECHNICAL STUFF: 'Senso's' original 3-strip negatives had "Suffered extreme shrinkage," and you can tell right off the bat that this new transfer must have been a total nightmare for everyone involved. Criterion details the process in the booklet included with the disc, noting the assistance of D.P. Giuseppe Rotunno and Martin Scorsese. The first and final shots of the film are noticeably damaged beyond all apparent repair, but the brunt of the film is satisfyingly sharp, and overlaid with a dreamy sheen befitting the story. A minor miracle of film restoration.
THE EXTRAS: Meaty half-hour features like 'Viva Verde' and 'The Making of Senso' make convincing cases for the film's enduring value and resonant self-reflexivity. Peter Cowie narrates a visual essay which provides even further background, but to my mind can't help save the film from its inherent doldrums. A 50-minute episode of the BBC program 'Sunday Night' dedicated to Visconti confirms that this set is ultimately is a more valuable tribute to a filmmaker than it is to one of his weakest films.
THE BEST BIT: 'The Wanton Countess,' the abridged English-language cut of 'Senso' that aired on American television. It's about 25 minutes shorter, and -- while this may be heresy -- it definitely flows better in spots. It's also neat to hear Granger and Valli speak their lines in English. Tennessee Williams' dialogue is evident but insignificant, proving that not too much was lost in translation.
THE ARTWORK: Another painterly cover, this one simple and true (even though it kinda looks like Elvis is cruising for chicks during a Christmas parade. Are there Christmas parades? Is that a thing?)
THE VERDICT: It's tempting to call this release a rare Criterion misfire, as the film is certainly below the standard the brand has achieved, but this package provides such valuable insight to Visconti's latent sensual genius that it simply refuses to be written off. It's as needless for non-fans as it is mandatory for his many acolytes.
PAIRS NICELY WITH: 'All That Heaven Allows' (#93)
BLU-RAY UPGRADES AND RE-ISSUES:
#4 'Amarcord' (Federico Fellini) 1973
THE FILM: To be reductive about it, Fellini's work can be distilled into two distinct modes: Measured reality and wild fantasy, and somewhere 'twixt the two lies genius. There's the stark and cold Fellini of 'I Vitelloni,' the nostalgically gaudy grand guignol of 'Amarcord,' and 'La Dolce Vita' jutting up from where they meet. By turns ribald, haggard, and almost unbearably poignant, 'Amarcord' is an eye-popping pastiche of the filmmaker's world -- it plays to me like '8 1/2' as grinded through 'The Wizard of Oz,' a climbable scaffold to Fellini's brain that replaces his anxieties with cardboard ships and enormous breasts.
THE HD UPGRADE: No complaints with the transfer, which gracefully toes the line between feeling both real and yet also profoundly strange. The colors are strong, lively, and mercifully free of the HD gloss that plagues the Blu-ray editions of so many classic films.
THE VERDICT: Even fans who purchased the Collection's two-disc set won't regret the upgrade to this definitive version.
#359 'The Double Life of Veronique' (Krzysztof Kieslowski) 1991
THE FILM: 'The Double Life of Veronique' has been one of my very favorite films since I first encountered it a few years back, although I feel as if it's political allusions dawn on me only now. Criterion describes Kieslowski's masterpiece as a "Symphony of feeling," and that's as apt a way as any to describe the film's unique sorcery. The gorgeous Irene Jacob is two women (one Polish, one French) who meet for a moment on a metaphysical plane that lies just beyond the fringes of their understanding. It's Kieslowski's most gloriously sensual work (eclipsing even 'Blue' in that regard), an inexplicable ode to the unknown for which a political solution -- the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Poland's role in the Allied victory of WWII, what have you -- feels crude and provincial.
THE HD UPGRADE: Criterion once again airs on the side of grain, and the unusually textured image doesn't always suit the unique aesthetic of Kieslowski's films. But the colors and deiberately fractured light are rendered with great attention and detail.
THE VERDICT: A potentially life-changing blind-buy for those unfamiliar with Kieslowski, and with all due respect to 'The Decalogue' this might be the ideal place to start. For those who already own Criterion's lavish DVD, I almost feel the lo-fi look of standard-def plays into Kieslowski's approach, but then stuff like the famous glass ball sequences just sing in HD. Not a mandatory upgrade, but a gift you should never dream of returning.