Criterion Corner is a Cinematical column dedicated to the wonderful world of the Criterion Collection, running twice at the end of each month -- once for new reviews and once for Criterion commentary.
Criterion spent March doing some much-needed spring cleaning. After years of waiting, Mike Leigh's smashing 'Topsy-Turvy' was finally outfitted with a spine number to call its own, Criterion claimed another pivotal documentary with Rob Epstein's moving portrait 'The Times of Harvey Milk,' and under-appreciated Japanese auteur Mikio Naruse enjoyed a valuable (if not particularly exciting) Eclipse box set of his most illuminating silent works. On top of all that gooey goodness -- releases as inevitable as they are essential -- Criterion also served up glorious Blu-ray reissues for one of the greatest films ever made about childhood, and one of the greatest films ever made to so much as include childhood.
So let's dig a little deeper, shall we?
NEW CRITERION RELEASES:
#557 'The Times of Harvey Milk' (Rob Epstein) 1984
THE FILM: 'The Times of Harvey Milk' is an effectively concise portrait, a story told with the brevity of a purpose beyond question. Rob Epstein's documentary would rather be a judge than a mediator, and in 88 hypnotic minutes it lays out the legacy of its subject in a fashion as direct and unapologetic as Harvey Milk, himself. Milk -- as the world remembered when Gus van Sant distilled his legend into an impassioned but comparatively useless biopic -- was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. He was innervated by the revolutionary vibes he felt emanating from the angled streets of his adopted home (late 1970s San Francisco), and he soon found himself the outspoken voice of America's marginalized gay community. Milk understood the hate his politics would attract, and Epstein's film opens with the coldly unforgettable moment in which Dianne Feinstein announced Milk's assassination to the press.
The narrative Epstein carves is so neatly organized that it almost feels self-perpetuated, and his decision to rely on a small number of memorable subjects rather than a panoply of talking heads underscores the personal effect Milk had on those he knew. To that end, Milk, while naturally credited as the film's lead, isn't actually on screen all that often. He appears in candid pictures and pivotal clips (one hilarious bit of footage involving Milk stepping in some precisely planted dog crap illustrates his raw talent as a politician), but Epstein is more concerned with the change Milk sparked, and the lingering aftermath of his unshrinking pleas for hope.
That aftermath extended to all corners of the political arena, and Epstein's doc quietly, and with a great deal of prescience, explores the degree to which Milk's message informed American politics at large. The film couches its abiding reverence for its subject in a stately tone (Harvey Fierstein's careful narration balances levity and gravitas to great effect), and while Epstein lionizes Milk he never loses sight of the fact that the political machine is more fascinating than even its most beautiful cogs. 'The Times of Harvey Milk' won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1985, and in 2008 we saw how Milk's parting message that "You gotta give 'em hope!" hasn't aged a day.
THE TECHNICAL STUFF: 'The Times of Harvey Milk' has no business looking this good. The booklet includes an account by Ross Lipman (senior film restorationist at the UCLA Film & Television Archive) that chronicles the details of the film's 15-year journey from 16mm to 35mm, and then 35mm to the 1080p HD you see here. Needless to say, this Blu-ray represents the work of several caring individuals over the years, and the film will never look better.
THE EXTRAS: One of the most loaded discs Criterion has released this year. There's a trailer and deleted moments, and a neat 20-minute show created by Criterion in which the director of UC Berkeley's documentary program dissects the film with a personal zeal. There's 'Celebrating Harvey Milk: Two Films, One Legacy' in which the principle players of both the doc and Gus van Sant's biopic show up to talk Milk (because there was no way this disc wasn't going to include a cameo from James Franco). There's an awed and informative commentary with Epstein, co-editor Deborah Hoffman, and photographer Daniel Nicoletta, and the list goes on...
THE BEST BIT: Well over an hour of Harvey Milk's recordings (both tape and video), including his political will. A powerful document in their own right, this is the kinda stuff that changes lives and rights the world. I'm not sure where else this material is available, but it's worth the price of the disc in and of itself.
THE ARTWORK: A blurred photo of Milk that recalls Eric Skillman's cover for 'Close-up,' it's not the most striking image but its tenuous detail speaks equally to triumph and a legacy in constant danger of being obscured.
THE VERDICT: Essential. A pivotal film given the attention it deserves.
#558 'Topsy-Turvy' (Mike Leigh) 1999
THE FILM: Desperate for the swift kick in the ass that might dislodge him from the dour masterpieces upon which he built his brand, the erudite and infamously fool-smiting filmmaker Mike Leigh looked to the past. Leigh woud eventually find his muses in the prolific opera duo of William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, as unlikely an inspiration for the director as they were for each another.
'Topsy-Turvy' is nothing less than one of the modern cinema's greatest pleasures, and every so often -- as a few of its episodic solos collapse together into a grand medley -- it feels like something more. Not a biopic so much as a consideration of the theater trapped in amber, Leigh's film begins with Sullivan (Allan Corduner) suffering from mediocrity and kidney disease in equal measure. The latest piece of pop puffery he's scored for Gilbert is the lame 'Princess Ida,' and Sullivan is ready to rip their contract to ribbons and devote himself to more serious work. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), as the more business-oriented side of the operation, remains satisfied. He's a broad man who might have been a banker had not been blessed with such a gift for snappy rhymes and ludicrous comic situations. Leigh doesn't put the two of them together in the same room until the film is 30 minutes old, and though the stiffly civil conversations they share about the future of their professional union are among the strongest moments of Leigh's career, it's abundantly clear that Leigh has only marginally greater concern for the geniuses who renew the theater than he does the madmen who prowl the alleyways behind it.
When the idea for 'The Mikado' crashes onto Gilbert's floor, Leigh doesn't bother explaining what prompted the change of heart that encouraged Sullivan to write the opera's music. For Leigh, the fruition of genius is an inevitability, and he chronicles the process by which the show was staged with an overflowing reservoir of wry and tender details, and an almost complete indifference for suspense; 'Shakespeare in Love' this is not. Cross-cutting between hyper-precise rehearsals and the finished product, Leigh maintains an unwavering focus on process, a zany assortment of parallel subplots held taut behind the scenes. Bolstered by more incredible British actors than a Harry Potter movie -- you can find few performances in the Collection that are more endearing or full-bodied than that of Allan Corduner -- 'Topsy-Turvy' is a wistful meditation on the ardor of artistic creation. There one minute, gone the next, and always ready for the next show.
THE TECHNICAL STUFF: The transfer is gorgeous. Grain is thick and textured where it ought to be, and the image renders both the bright colors of the stage and the more subdued hues of the world behind it with equal clarity.
THE EXTRAS: Criterion has included a commentary from Mike Leigh, recorded back in 1999 when 'Topsy-Turvy' was fresh in his mind. For a man who devises so much of his films in the moment, it's curious to hear him discuss his exacting eye for period detail. There's also a smattering of deleted scenes, which Leigh omitted only because he was under pressure to shorten the film. Even in sub-VHS quality, they're nice to see. Criterion has also recorded a probing 37-minute conversation between Leigh and his musical director Gary Yershon, which begins with Yerson insinuating that Leigh's an "awkward bastard" and going from there.
THE BEST BIT: 'A Sense of History,' a mordantly hilarious 26-minute short film from 1992, written by and starring Jim Broadbent and directed by Mike Leigh. Broadbent plays the 23rd Earl of Leete, a stuffy British bloke leading viewers on a tour of his family's grand estate. But the tour takes a turn for the dark when it's revealed that this candid fellow doesn't, um, deal with his problems very well. Ostensibly included because this was the set on which Broadbent and Leigh began discussing a Gilbert and Sullivan film, an excuse is never necessary for something so gleefully twisted.
THE ARTWORK: The clever and practical cover art speaks for itself. I'm not sure about the sea green backdrop, but these layman's eyes remain deeply impressed by how well this conceptual gimmick actually works.
THE VERDICT: A deliriously fun primer to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan as well as a moving film in its own right, Mike Leigh's greatest anomaly makes for one of Criterion's greatest recent inclusions. You'll laugh, you'll sing, and from the supplements you'll learn that Gilbert was so sexually repressed that he kept a "Flirtorium" in his house.
#559 'The Mikado' (Victor Schertzinger) 1939
THE FILM: As much fun as it might have been to see Mike Leigh's cast actually perform the show, Victor Schertzinger's bright and placid rendering of this most flamboyant operetta is a fine substitute. 'The Mikado' marks the first time that a Gilbert and Sullivan work was filmed for the screen, and as such this marks one of the rare Criterion releases that's esoteric historical value threatens to overwhelm its present-day pleasures.
Mileage will surely vary based upon one's taste for the show itself (unlike 'Topsy-Turvy,' which thrives upon its own merits), and as something of a 'Pirates of Penzance' guy myself, this especially convoluted bit of Oriental foppery is only intermittently engaging between its timeless musical numbers. Written in 1885, 'The Mikado' is a silly tale that uses its arbitrarily foreign Japanese setting as a proxy to lampoon Britain's most absurd politics. All you really need to know -- and indeed, all you might know even after all is said and done -- is that there's a wayward prince, the woman he pursues, and the office of Lord High Executioner which is dictated by increasingly ludicrous fine print. To review the text any further would be to wallow along the boundaries of my critical ability, so let's just say that this show makes for a great CD.
Schertzinger's rendition -- a lavish affair populated by members of the renowned D'Oyle Carte Opera Company -- stages the production with even less regard for plot than Gilbert had upon writing it. Things kick off with a rather confusing prologue (subtitles are a godsend for this film), but it's nevertheless a sequence of cinematic fluidity that is unchallenged by the rest of the film. When Schertzinger stages the action he really stages the action, seldom asking the camera to do more than violate the proscenium that keeps live audiences at bay. The sets are ornate and ecstatic, the costumes dazzling to the extreme, but this 'Mikado' is seldom more dynamic than it might feel if seen from a seat in The Savoy Theatre, only larger.
THE TECHNICAL STUFF: As unwilling as I am to offer the film itself any concessions due to age, it's presentation -- for a film plopped on stage in 1939 -- is something of a miracle. A number of muddy shots reveal 'The Mikado's' antiquity, but for the most part Criterion has resurrected this film from beyond the grave. Blu-ray.com calls the color reproduction "The best [they] have ever seen," and I'd tend to agree. A true testament to the dual powers of film restoration and the Blu-ray format.
THE EXTRAS: There's been some discussion that 'The Mikado' should have been a supplement on the 'Topsy-Turvy' disc, but the extras Criterion offers here put that theory to bed. Professors Josephine Lee and Ralph MacPhail Jr. speak fluidly to the genesis of the film, and Mike Leigh of course shows up to articulate the extent to which Schertzinger's 'Mikado' informed 'Topsy-Turvy.' There's also a deleted scene and excerpts from "Swing" and "Hot" radio versions of the show.
THE BEST BIT: An immaculately restored silent advertisement for the D'Oyle Carte Opera Company's 1926 staging of 'The Mikado.' It's a three-minute treasure, with precisely hand-painted frames giving us a rare glimpse as to what a genuine staging of the show looked like in the days before it was consumed by kitsch.
THE ARTWORK: An appropriately gorgeous illustration of the Three Maidens, this is one of Criterion's most fetching covers.
THE VERDICT: A curiosity for completists and people of certain tastes, Criterion has treated 'The Mikado' with the same concern they might an established classic. Most won't find this essential, but those who do will be thrilled.
BLU-RAY UPGRADES AND RE-ISSUES:
#330 'Au Revoir, Les Enfants' (Louis Malle) 1987
THE FILM: 'Au Revoir, Les Enfants' is a modest movie (perhaps too modest to shoulder the burden of its reputation), but this poignant autobiographic saga of an adolescence cleaved by evil resonates as the most personal of Malle's scattered tales. It's 'School Ties' but the kids are younger and the anti-Semites are actually card-carrying Nazis.
The year is 1943 and there are some new students at Julien's woodsy boarding school. Things are dicey at first, but Julien eventually warms to one of the unknown boys, but as the two of them grow closer so too does the war beyond the school walls. It's an icy and understated film, one that Malle tells with the pained detachment of an old man forced to confront a memory that offers no catharsis. 'Au Revoir, Les Enfants' is never quite as compelling to watch as it is devastating to recall, but few films have ever rendered the end of innocence with such decisive finality.
THE HD UPGRADE: I wasn't able to get my hands on this Blu-ray in time for this post, but Blu-ray.com concludes: "There are substantial upgrades [from the DVD] in practically every key area we address in these reviews and no serious transfer-specific anomalies that I could spot."
THE VERDICT: This doesn't strike me as the kind of film that demands to be seen as pristinely as possible, in fact the comparatively muddled look of the DVD probably underscores the film's twisted reminiscences. That being said, it sounds as if fans will be rewarded for upgrading.
#339 'Yi Yi' (Edward Yang) 2000
THE FILM: It's beyond tragic that Edward Yang died in his prime (he was only 59), but after 'Yi Yi' it's hard to imagine that he had much left to say. His wise and unhurried final masterpiece -- a three-hour portrait which chronicles a year in the life of a rather ordinary Taiwanese family -- paints broad strokes with a fine brush, effervescently capturing a world of infinite possibilities as if by chance. It begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral, and in between there's a love triangle, a coma, a lovely trip to Japan, and little Yang-Yang running around snapping pictures of the back of everyone's head so as to show them what they can't see for themselves. In my unabashedly immodest opinion, 'Yi Yi' is one of the ten best films of this young millennium, and out of deference to its details (and space limitations) I'll just leave it at that.
THE HD UPGRADE: Gorgeous and deeply appreciated. Sharp but without that hyper-real HD veneer implicit to the Blu-rays of many newer films, devoted fans of the film will be drunk on the improvements -- there's no mistaking this transfer for any DVD edition.
THE VERDICT: Given the film's subdued and domestic feel, it seems like an unusual choice for an HD upgrade, but it's one that Criterion handled with great care and with which they produced noticeable refinements. If you own this film you love this film and if you love this film you'll be glad to have this.
Series #26 'Silent Naruse' (Mikio Naruse) 1931-1934
Criterion wants you to believe that under-appreciated Japanese auteur Mikio Naruse was every bit the equal of his more venerated peers like Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, and with the only five surviving early works from Naruse's silent era, Criterion's case is made somewhat more convincing. At the very least, Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse makes for a fascinating look at a filmmaker trying to escape the dual constraints of his nascent medium and his unyielding society.
Most of Naruse's films are tough to find here in the United States -- beyond this set, only his post-war masterpiece 'When A Woman Ascends the Stairs' is legally available, and it's spine #377. With that in mind, this Eclipse set will probably serve as more of an introduction to Naruse's work than anything else.
Naruse's interest in the restraints of social protocol is already in full bloom, particularly so far as they concern women caught between duty and domesticity (a concern Naruse most notably shared with Mizoguchi). 'Every-Night Dreams' is particularly haunting, as this tale of a tireless single mother who's shaken by the return of her long-absent husband allows Naruse to submerge his flair for subtly rendered dynamics into a brittle latticework of melodrama. 'No Blood Relation' (1932), on the other hand, finds Naruse's burgeoning ambition getting the best of him. The story of a Japanese actress returning from her years of Western success in order to reclaim her child, 'No Blood Relation' is woozy on its own possibilities, thrashing about with a kinetic flair that Naruse would later choose to seduce or subdue (even some of the intertitles vibrate with energy). The story is too predicated upon dialogue for the silent cinema and the emotion drains out long before this ship leaves port, but fortunately for us all Naruse would sooner solve his interests then retire them. For a detailed analysis of these telling early works, definitely check out Michael Koresky's essay on Criterion's site.
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