Thursday, December 18, 2014

SIMON OF THE DESERT (Luis Buñuel, 1965, Mexico)

Spine# 460
Simon stands atop a pedestal, unworthy and unwashed, seeking divine grace but instead finding the apathy of organized religion, his sacrifice an impotent curse from a deity who requires devotion above reason. Director Luis Buñuel crafts a superb condemnation of religious belief as the priests and congregation, faced with absolute proof of divine guidance, remain selfish and ignorant: while Simon is physically isolated atop this pillar, it’s the people below who are spiritually isolated from each other, seeking power and respite from suffering without payment in kind. 

The film begins with the church elders worshipping Simon and showing their gratitude by building him a taller and grander tower to pray upon, a recipe for moral corruption. Buñuel is sublime in his mockery of religious ideals as a double amputee begs to have his hands back, and with a few words they have miraculously appeared; the first thing the man does with his “new hands” is smack his children as they wander off listlessly. This subtle insight shines light upon the truth of intelligent non-deistic belief: god must hate amputees because there is not one documented case of a severed limb being restored by prayer, though many claim to be healed of other maladies. 

Soon, a beautiful woman with the devil’s tongue attempts to entice Simon from his saintly perch but each time he refuses. Finally, in wonderfully surreal imagery only Buñuel can imagine, a coffin propels itself across the wasteland and she captures Simon in a moment of weakness and transports him (via a metal coffin: a huge jet plane) to a beatnik nightclub. Newly shorn and smoking his pipe, grooving to some funky rhythm, he finally tastes the essence of humanity and struggles to return: but in his absence, someone else has already taken his place. 

Final Grade: (A)

DVD Only (1 disc)

  • New, restored high-definition digital transfer
  • A Mexican Buñuel (1995), 50-minute documentary by Emilio Maillé
  • New interview with actress Silvia Pinal
  • New and improved English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by critic Michael Wood and a reprinted interview with Buñuel
  • Thursday, October 16, 2014

    THE WARPED ONES (Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960, Japan)

    Eclipse Series 28


    Akira’s life is fueled by American Bebop Jazz, sex and alcohol, while trapped in a sweltering tempest of a slum-ish existence without regard to the future. Director Koreyoshi Kurahara embraces this juvenile delinquent and takes the camera into the frenetic and motionless moments of his grim and sweaty world, where rape and love are equitable exchanges as both become improvised and dissonant.  
    The story revolves around Akira and is told entirely from his viewpoint. Like Alex DeLarge from Kubrick’s masterful A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Akira’s anarchic lifestyle of narcissistic consumption include the love of music, rape, and ultraviolence. Akira also shares the latter’s use of poetic vocal expression but instead of slang he grins, hoots, howls, and utilizes his voice as a musical instrument as his face contorts like a rubber mask. Where Kubrick depicted his anti-hero with a very rigid and beautifully modernistic style, here Kurahara slings his camera into frantic motion; often moving much faster than the 24fps can capture resulting in a blurring and surreal mosaic of flesh and forgery. The opening credits of freeze-frame pugilism charge directly into the story as Akira is caught in a plot to pickpocket an American who is attempting to pick up his prostitute girlfriend. Kurahara shoots this in one continuous shot as the camera not only moves…but flows with the blaring jazz percussions thrumming underneath the images. Akira is caught by a local reporter and the story becomes a tale of retribution and instant gratifications. Welcome to the Sun Tribe!
    The literal translation of the title is SEASON OF HEAT which carries multiple implications. Kurahara often captures Akira is sweaty close-ups, powerless against the raging heat in his dilapidated flat. But the title also alludes to the delinquent lifestyle as the police are always a step behind Akira, turning up the heat. Of course the rising sun is the national symbol so to depict it as torturous and omnipotent, the characters very existence a mere whim to its life giving (and taking) anomalies is rebellious. But the International title also carries its own ambiguities as THE WARPED ONES may refer to Akira and his cohorts and their avant-guard lifestyle but also his victims who prove themselves equally unsettling.  
    Akira’s violent rape of a totally innocent Devotchka (sorry wrong film) leads to the story’s central conceit: the comparison of a middle-class couple (the reporter and his girlfriend) to the lower depths (Akira and his prostitute cohort Fumiko) of society. As the narrative develops with a racing, nervous energy it becomes apparent that the distinction between social classes is a matter of superficial appearances; the victim soon becomes victimizer as masks are eventually stripped away. In a society where “losing face” is worse than death, Akira never pretends to be anything other than he is naturally, while the reporter and his girlfriend still hide behind their carrion facades.
    Swapping partners becomes the logical deduction as Akira and Fumiko’s laughter throttles the audience from complacence. The final freeze-frame image zooms into Akira’s open mouth as he and his kind swallow the world whole.
    Final Grade: (B)
    DVD Box Set (5 Discs)
    • INTIMIDATION (1960)
    • THE WARPED ONES (1960)
    • I HATE BUT LOVE (1962)
    • BLACK SUN (1964)
    • THIRST FOR LOVE (1967)

    Saturday, October 4, 2014


    Official announcement:

    "We have confirmed that certain Blu-ray discs pressed at a replication facility that we used for a period in 2010 have become defective, showing a noticeable bronze discoloration on the underside and developing playback problems. We have confirmed the problem on seven titles, though not on all copies of those titles. All of these titles have since been re-pressed at a different pressing plant, and the vast majority of discs in circulation should not be affected.

    The potentially affected Blu-ray titles are:

    Howards End
    Paris, Texas
    Pierrot le fou
    The Seventh Seal
    Summer Hours

    If you have found that your Blu-ray copy of one of these titles does not play, please send your disc to the following address for a replacement:

    Jon Mulvaney
    The Criterion Collection
    215 Park Avenue South
    5th floor
    New York, NY 10003

    Please include only your disc—no packaging—along with the address to which you'd like us to mail your replacement. We will not be replacing or exchanging packaging. There is no need to email us in addition.

    If we learn that other titles are similarly defective, we will add them to this list and continue to replace them as well.

    Thank you for your patience and understanding."   

    Tuesday, September 23, 2014

    REVANCHE (Gotz Spielmann, 2008, Austria)

    Spine# 502

    A fatuitous event leads two dissimilar men into a nexus of despair concerning the life of one innocent girl. Direct Götz Spielmann examines this conspiracy of discontent as he pulls focuses upon the inner turmoil and anguish of a small time crook and a small town policeman, who share a bond sheathed in lead.  

    Alex is an affable guy living on a sinking island in the midst of the mainstream, who seeks a better life for he and his girlfriend Tamara. They need quick cash to escape Tamara’s pimp and escape towards the bright lights of the big city, but Alex’s infallible plan proves otherwise. Soon, Alex is resigned to his father’s home, his spiritual vision obscured by hatred, unable to see the forest around him for the trees. His elderly father is sick and he finds himself playing parent to the proud Patriarch, attacking the giant woodpile day after day with a vengeance. Meanwhile, Robert is a fledgling officer who stumbles upon a bank robbery: as the two felons escape he attempt to shoot the tires but his first shot is off the mark, killing the passenger. The cruel hand of Fate directs their lives at this violent crossroad: Spielmann’s story is not about the character’s actions but rather inactions, their spiritual journey through emotional oblivion.  

    The fault with the story is in suspension of disbelief, the plot revolving on a grandiose coincidence. As Spielmann pursues this contrivance he waits until almost the halfway point to reveal the device: this allows the principals room to develop, to transition from caricature into character.   

    Beautifully photographed, a mysterious object breaks the opening shot of dark placid waters, and it’s not until the denouement that we identify the artifact and understand the act’s implication. This elliptical structure allows closure to the sullen and foreboding account of all that has transpired, and gives hope to these fractured lives.
    Final Grade: (B+)

    Blu-ray (1 disc); DVD (2 discs)

    • New, restored high-definition digital transfer, approved by director Götz Spielmann, with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
    • New video interview with Spielmann
    • The Making of “Revanche,” a half-hour documentary shot on the set
    • Foreign Land (Fremdland), Spielmann’s award-winning student short film, with an introduction by the director
    • U.S. theatrical trailer
    • New and improved English subtitle translation
    • PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by critic Armond White

    Wednesday, August 6, 2014

    M (Fritz Lang, 1931, Germany)

    Spine# 30

    Fritz Lang’s 1931 morality tale about impartial democratic justice versus vigilante retribution remains frighteningly prescient in our modern world. A child rapist and murderer is on the loose terrorizing Berlin, every parent’s worst nightmare incarnate in flesh and bone, thick with the blood of innocent victims.

    The narrative is structured as a police procedural rather than a criminal psychological dissection; focusing on the investigation and the burgeoning frustration of law enforcement. Lang’s expressionist style suggests the crimes rather than showing the grotesqueries. As a little girl plays with a ball, an innocuous whistling stranger befriends her and buys her a balloon thus gaining her limited trust. We know what happens because Lang shows us the ball rolling slowly through the grass, coming to a dead stop. We then see an image of the balloon floating helplessly into the overhead wires. Lang’s cinematic genius is obvious in another scene as the killer looks through a shop window spying the reflection of a lonely little girl: all sound stops, his eyes widen, his features contort into madness as we fear for the little child. Lang also moves his camera in one continuous shot around a deli, stopping to observe minor details, and up and through a glass partition: surely this influenced a young Hitchcock!

    As the death toll mounts, the police aren't any closer to solving the crimes and they begin to arrest the usual suspects looking for clues. The criminal underworld begins their own search because the constant police raids are bad for business. They enlist the help of the poor and destitute and it’s the blind beggar who recognizes the killer’s signature tune that leads to his capture.

    The criminals pass their own judgment upon this killer; this is truly a trial by peers! But without the Rule of Law then society will plunge into anarchy: self-rule works well as a philosophy but it’s the powerful that abuse the weak in reality. Even a child molester has the right to Due Process. And yes, he’s guilty regardless of his own assessment: his premeditation is legal proof of intent, and his writing to the newspaper and covering up his actions shows he understood the concept of right and wrong at the time he committed the crimes. Now it’s the government’s duty to pass judgment upon his acts, to punish this murderer with all jurisprudence.

    Final Grade: (A+)

    Blu-ray (1 disc); DVD (2 discs)
    • New, restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
    • Audio commentary by German film scholars Anton Kaes, author of the BFI Film Classics volume on M, and Eric Rentschler, author of The Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and Its Afterlife
    • The long-lost English-language version of M, from a nitrate print preserved by the British Film Institute (Blu-ray only)
    • Conversation with Fritz Lang, a 50-minute film by William Friedkin
    • Claude Chabrol’s M le maudit, a short film inspired by M, plus a video interview with Chabrol about Lang’s filmmaking techniques
    • Video interview with Harold Nebenzal, son of M producer Seymour Nebenzal
    • Classroom audiotapes of editor Paul Falkenberg discussing the film and its history, set to clips from the film
    • Documentary on the physical history of M, from production to distribution to digital restoration
    • Galleries of behind-the-scenes photographs and production sketches
    • New and improved English subtitle translation
    • Plus: A booklet featuring a new essay by film critic Stanley Kauffmann, the script for a missing scene, three contemporaneous newspaper articles, and a 1963 interview with Lang

    Sunday, July 27, 2014

    THE LAST METRO (François Truffaut, 1980, France)

    SPINE# 462
    A Jewish playwright is forced to hide in the dank underground of his own theatre. He directs his play listening to echoes and whispered secrets as his wife drifts farther away into her double life. Director François Truffaut creates a play within a play within a film and a love triangle that reflects this deep masquerade as the characters must act out their parts to survive, losing themselves in the brutal nexus of fiction and reality.

    During the Nazi occupation of Paris, Daxiat an Anti-Semitic critic vomits his propaganda through the media and attempts to gain control of the Montmartre Theatre and its beautiful owner, the gentile wife of the “missing” playwright. The gorgeous Catherine Deneuve imbues Marion Steiner with a fiery inner strength and charm, an independent woman torn between her husband and the new actor Bernard Granger (a rock-solid performance by Gerard Depardieu). Granger is a member of the Resistance and uses his talent to secret information and contraband to his cohorts, his egotistic facade hiding his true political motivations. But soon Bernard can no longer hide his anger at the inane verbiage spouted by Daxiat and his actions threaten the company and his own life by revealing his true colors: blue, white, and red. Lucas directs the play through a proxy and the play THE VANISHING LADY is a huge success…but the two leads begin to love and despise one another.

    Truffaut is concerned with the faces hidden under the makeup and shadowed by stage light, and seeks to uncover the hidden agendas and aspirations of human nature, using the play set amidst our violent history as a metaphor concerning the value of art imitating life. His characters all hide behind some barrier: a dank cement wall, the social graces of high society, or the idol banter of male egotism. THE LAST METRO is filmed in glorious saturated colors, giving the film itself a stage-like atmosphere, which further confuses the senses. As the film ends and reconciliations are made, Truffaut cuts to life as an act, seeking truth through the paradigm of Art.

    Final Grade: (B+)

    Blu-ray (1 disc); DVD (2 disc)
    • New, restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
    • Two audio commentaries: one featuring Annette Insdorf, author of François Truffaut, and one with actor Gérard Depardieu, historian Jean-Pierre Azéma, and Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana
    • Deleted scene
    • French television excerpts of interviews with Truffaut, and actors Catherine Deneuve, Depardieu, and Jean Poiret
    • New video interviews with actresses Andréa Ferréol, Sabine Haudepin, and Paulette Dubost, assistant director Alain Tasma, and camera assistants Florent Bazin and Tessa Racine
    • A video interview with the celebrated cinematographer Nestor Almendros, detailing his collaborations with Truffaut
    • Une histoire d’eau, Truffaut’s 1958 short film co-directed by Jean-Luc Godard
    • Theatrical trailer
    • New and improved English subtitle translation
    • PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by Armond White

    Saturday, July 26, 2014

    WISE BLOOD (John Huston, 1979, USA)

    SPINE# 470
    Hazel Motes is a speck in a cosmic storm, his blood a fury of existential angst that thrusts him deeper into an emotional abyss, lost in the vacuum of nihilism, a victim of religion. Hazel returns from the savage Vietnam War, discarding his Purple Heart, discouraged and alone after haunting his broken home. His fire and brimstone past has tainted his blood, flashbacks to his Grandfather’s zealous Christian condemnations reverberate throughout his psyche, regressing to the little boy who pissed himself in fear of hellfire.

    Director John Huston blasts religiosity back to the dark ages: from the opening credit sequences in stark black & white, where faith is relegated to uneducated childish scrawls to the fraudulent preachers who dominate the cityscape of modernity. Into this morass wanders Hazel screeching his new “religion”, the church of Christ Without Christ, an ironic and militantly satirical worldview that would make even Kurt Vonnegut proud! The narrative subtext seems to indicate that Hazel was a devout Christian but the horrors of war (and life) have changed him, have opened his mind towards a greater understanding…but he’s caught in a self-destructive web of anger and resentment towards society. He caustically disregards Enoch, a young worshiper who wants nothing more than to be friends. Enoch’s comic obsessions with primates and a mummified corpse seem superficial and narratively irrelevant, but could be read as a religious metaphor concerning Homo Sapiens’s superiority over our common ancestors…an evolutionary fact that the villainous faithful deny. Enoch descends into mankind’s primitive past (he actually dresses as an ape) while Hazel is juxtaposed as the empty future of his morally bankrupt philosophy.

    John Huston doesn’t shy away from the racist authority that permeates Macon, GA and this gritty unrelenting drama plays as both satire and tragedy. Brad Dourif’s performance is vehemently empathetic as a young man who needs guidance, not from an imaginary savior but from a real flesh and blood person. His final penance is only self-perpetuating, he’s lost the ability to care, and becomes an echo in the void.

    Final Grade: (B+)

    DVD Only ( 1 disc)
    •New, restored high-definition digital transfer
    •New interviews with actor Brad Dourif, writer Benedict Fitzgerald, and writer-producer Michael Fitzgerald
    •Rare archival audio recording of author Flannery O’Connor reading her short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
    •A 28-minute episode of the television program Creativity with Bill Moyers from 1982, featuring John Huston discussing his life and work
    •Theatrical trailer
    •PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by author Francine Prose