Criterion Corner: Criterion's Amazing November DVDs & Blu-Rays Deliver Masterpieces Home For The Holidays

Criterion Corner: Criterion's Amazing November DVDs & Blu-Rays Deliver Masterpieces Home For The Holidays

Nov 28, 2011

Welcome to Criterion Corner, where the movies love you back. A column dedicated to the wide and wonderful world of the Criterion Collection, Criterion Corner runs twice a month, one installment featuring reviews of Criterion's new releases, and the other an essay pertaining to Criterion culture. Follow @CriterionCorner and the Criterion Corner Tumblr for daily updates!

Criterion often seems to operate inside of an Oz-like bubble of cinematic glory, a company paved like a one-way street of wish-fulfillment, but you better believe they know when Christmas is imminent, because the Big C don't mess around come November (note: referring to Criterion as "The Big C" is not going to become a regular thing round these parts). Last year it was the ?America Lost and Found ?box set that arrived just in time to be gobbled up on Black Friday, and this year I'd argue that their big-ticket offerings are even more exciting. Krzysztof Kieslowski may not enjoy the same cultural cache as the likes of Jack Nicholson, but for a guy whose first name includes seven consecutive consonants, he's pretty damn popular amongst American audiences, and Criterion's lavish and loving box set of Kieslowski's final works  - a trilogy of films that towers over the world cinema of the 1990s - is poised to expose his masterworks to multitudes of new viewers. Meanwhile, Sidney Lumet's classic debut film, an invaluable piece of Americana, is introduced to the Collection, while Ingmar Bergman's magnum opus - and my favorite holiday movie ever made - finally receives the HD upgrade it deserves. It's a month of magic, chance, and justice under the Criterion banner, with each of these films ultimately underscoring the seasonally appropriate message that we're all in this thing together.  



#587-590 THREE COLORS (dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski) 1993 / 1994 *** BEST RELEASE OF THE MONTH! ***  

THE FILMS: One day in the mid-1980s, Krzysztof Kieslowski began to think big. By that point, the Polish auteur - and few filmmakers have ever been so worthy of the neologism - had built a worthy body of documentaries and fiction films. Early efforts like Blind Chance and Camera Buff (both of which are included in Kino's mandatory Kieslowski box set) play like blustering shivers from a filmmaker whose talents and vision have already far exceeded the reach of his stories, though together they lucidly illustrate their maker's pet themes and obsessions: Paradoxes, happenstance, and the extent to which someone can retreat into the arts only to find themselves reflected, refracted, and hopefully renewed by those same tools and creations. Double lives. Second chances. Also really attractive women, often vulnerable and / or naked, but that's neither here nor there. It was obvious that these single-serving morsels were only the beginning, but of what it was hard to say. And then, in 1988, there was The Decalogue, in which Kieslowski canvassed the practical applications of The Ten Commandments, but flaying the laws that supposedly govern all human existence didn't quite satisfy his ambition, so - after the wistful majesty of The Double Life of Veronique - Kieslowski and his key collaborators tore apart the French flag in the hopes of finding something larger inside. Liberty. Equality. Fraternity. It could have been any country, really, but the money was French. The stories that spilled out were cordoned off and collected into Three Colors, Kieslowski's final work, and the triptych in which the master graciously shared his wisdom by fully submitting to the mysteries that haunted him most.

BLUEThe trilogy begins in abstraction: A close-up of rolling tires along highway pavement, a cerulean whirligig at the end of a child's arm sticking out of a car window, a kid messing about on the side of the road. It's a microcosm of how Kieslowski constructs his worlds, scattering images and sounds like molecules and allowing his audience to gather them up into little orbits of sense and meaning. This characteristically dispersed sequence - which ends with a car crashing into a tree - actually contains about 85% of the film's plot. Julie (Juliette Binoche), the wife of an esteemed composer, is the only survivor of the wreck that claims her husband and daughter. Her healing process is couched in destruction. It begins with a half-assed suicide attempt, and festers as Julie destroys her husband's unfinished composition, "Song for the Unification of Europe," and essentially obliterates everything that connects her to her former life. She yearns to be reborn, through sex or submerging herself beneath the azure waters of a municipal swimming pool, but at pivotal moments it's music that provides Julie her only respite, as Kieslowski fades out into 10-second patches of darkness and allows Zbigniew Preisner's soul-stirring score to steer her through oblivion. But as Julie tries to retreat inwards, squeezing her knees to her chest tightly as if hoping to disappear, her actions inevitably begin to affect the people around her. Kieslowski's gift for visualizing his drama is never as immediate and arresting as it is here, his vision aided immeasurably by the diaphanous lighting of cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, and a breathtaking turn from Juliette Binoche, here delivering what may be the cornerstone performance of the great film acting career of the last 25 years.
Fun fact: On Twitter, I recently asked Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly if the ending of his beloved first film was inspired by a similar sequence at the end of Blue, and he responded simply: "If you're going to steal, steal from the best." Amen.

WHITEWhite is widely regarded as the trilogy's weakest installment, and it certainly sticks out, given that its protagonist is a silly man in a triptych of films dominated by women. Zbigniew Zamachowski is Karol Karol, a Polish immigrant scraping by in Paris, a man whose repeated name seems to double back and negate itself, rendering him forever unequal in a world that will seek to annihilate him at every turn. As with all stories of equality, White is obsessed with its absence. Karol Karol is introduced to us a temporary citizen in a country whose language he can hardly understand, a place where even the simplest of conversations deprives him of the upper hand. We meet him as he's en route to a (very familiar) courtroom, where his sadistic wife (a young Julie Delpy) has negotiated the terms of their divorce: Karol was unable to consummate their marriage, so their marriage is to be dissolved, his name stripped from the business they share, and his legal right to remain in France reneged. As if that weren't enough for our hapless hero, Kieslowski haunts him (and us) with one of the cinema's most perfect images: A P.O.V. shot of Julie Delpy - blissed out in blinding white light - smiling at Karol as they walk up the aisle at the end of their wedding ceremony. Nothing or no one in this film so mercilessly torments Karol like that one magical memory.

The most plot-driven film in the trilogy (and sluggish for it), White kicks into gear when Karol meets a man willing to smuggle him back to his native Poland so long as he agrees to execute a murder once he's there. Karol is stuffed in a suitcase and shipped to his homeland, exultantly exploding from the luggage in the middle of a garbage dump, beaming about finally being home. It's a droll bit of political comedy, bitter and snide where Blue and Red are wistful and wondering. And truth be told, White is a nasty film from a filmmaker who was usually too busy being awed by life to find it quite so ugly. Karol Karol eventually loses himself in a distended revenge plot, tilting at windmills to achieve equality with his ex-wife, but he's too consumed by malice and contempt to be the equal of anyone who has never actively submitted themselves to such things. So often labeled an "anti-comedy," I'd argue that White is more of a laugh-tweaked tragedy - a riff on Hamlet where the hero is played by a sap rather than a prince. It may not be as lustrous and resonant as any of Kieslowksi's other features (it's no coincidence that it's his most narratively straightforward film), but White provides a critical bridge between the first and final chapters of the Three Colors trilogy, raising the stakes for all three protagonists by illustrating that the past is always close, but it's not always on your side.

REDRed isn't coy with its primary theme of fraternity, which could be argued to be the overarching theme of the trilogy as a whole (if you were forced to pick just one). It explodes out of the gate, physically connecting the opposite sides of a phone call by following the signal through the fiber-optic wires in a blitz of images that anticipates the impossible cameras of David Fincher and makes you wonder what sort of miracles Kieslowski might have worked with today's technology. The story then settles on a part-time model named Valentine (the human anomaly that is Irene Jacob), who fate or happenstance steers into an uneasy friendship with one of the trilogy's pet characters, the sandy judge played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. What follows is a series of protracted coincidences that unfold with the conviction of real life, a sumptuous and sexy meditation on how life rolls, rhymes, and reverses (listen to the strains of Blue's themes during the scene at the bowling alley, played here as if stretched apart like an elastic string).

And then Red sort of cheats. It's that ending. I won't spoil it, but Kieslowksi resolves the trilogy in a way that's only possible in its last film - it could be regarded as something of a cheap trick, but by embracing a purely cinematic device and weaponizing the audience's emotions against them, Kieslowski ties the people of his trilogy into the fabric of our world, obliterating that which divided his characters and squeezing it all into a single television screen. The layers of mediation, or lack thereof, push us into the empty shoes left behind by the characters we've come to know, tying us into their world just as it releases us from it. If these films ultimately cohere into a single apocryphal story, it's one in which we can all believe.


THE TRANSFERS: As someone weaned on the Miramax DVDs, watching Criterion's Three Colors Blu-rays makes me feel like Val Kilmer in that movie where he regains his sight after Mira Sorvino gives him eyeballs or something. The transfers here aren't perfect (Blue and White are  too noisy for my tastes, and edge-enhancement will occassionally distract even the most casual viewer), but the colors are finally as rich as the pathos they illustrate. Red may look the best, but each of these films feels like film, highlighting their remarkable cinematography, and accentuating Kieslowski's use of various media (HD allows the differences between television, print media, and life - so critical to Blue and Red - to achieve the full potential of their expression).

THE EXTRAS: Oy. Okay, I'll try to keep this short. Each film is accompanied by an "On X" visual essay, new packages which concisely unpack these dense works (Annette Insdorf's insight into Blue being the most illuminating example). Each also includes a "Kieslowski Cinema Lesson," in which the filmmaker walks viewers through his decisions regarding a pivotal moment or sequence. All 3 discs are packed with exclusive new interviews with the films' composer or stars, in which their shared awe for the late filmmaker bubbles to the surface. Kieslowski's short films are scattered about, and Red includes an intimate 55-minute doc on the filmmaker that was shot less than a year before his death. Juliette Bincohe is on hand to offer scene-specific commentary for Blue, but sadly, the Criterion package does not include the feature-length audio commentary that Insdorf contributed to the Miramax DVD.

THE BEST BIT: Mileage may vary, but for me the most vital supplement here might be the simple behind-the-scenes footage that Criterion has included with the White and Red discs. It's nothing particularly unusual, but to watch Kieslowski operate on set from a distance in a smattering of muddled video, wresting some of the most iconic images of the modern cinema from the most mundane of environments, its a rare reminder as to the cinema's transformative power. Watching these things right after plumbing the films, Kieslowski seems to be as much of a magician as he is an artist.

THE ARTWORK: People scoffed at Criterion's artwork when it first surfaced a few months ago, but the image that adorns the box itself - a still of the fiber-optics from Red, colorized to express the trilogy's titular hues - speaks to the abstract connections that bind these films. It's a successful image, but perhaps not quite as memorable as one might hope. The films' individual covers are perhaps more successful. White and Red take the obvious route, but Blue opts for the televised image of a bungee-jumping man over the expected profile of Juliette Binoche. The menus are unified and sublime, and the thick booklet included in the box is a beauty, and stuffed with worthwhile insight. It's precisely the kind of thing that inherently elevates this release above previous (and future) iterations of these films.

THE VERDICT: 95 / 100


#591 12 ANGRY MEN (dir. Sidney Lumet) 1957 

THE FILM: Watching Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men, I'm always reminded that film is ultimately a director's medium, that spaces can be captured and carved in any infinite number of ways, those subtle choices often making all the difference between a good story and a great movie. 12 Angry Menfeatures a dozen great performances that help its thin (if dagger-sharp) morality tale to land with a heavy impact, but Criterion's release of the classic American courtroom drama confirms that it's Sidney Lumet's direction that makes it stick.

You how this story goes, its parable is something of a birthright for anyone born into a country so proud of its legal system. The premise of 12 Angry Men is so clean - the platonic ideal of a one-room drama, really - that by the time you sit down to watch it all that's left is for the film to fill in the blanks. A young man of vaguely ethnic origin stands trial for murder, and before the film is just a few minutes old the twelve jurors have convened to the jury room (so far as Google will tell me, there's no more official title for that space) to decide the man's fate (or as the poster puts it: "Life is in their hands, death is on their minds!"). It seems as if the deliberations will be exceedingly brief - eleven of the jurors are sufficiently convinced that the defendant is guilty, and most of them look forward to being freed from their civil duty within the hour so that they can go home / to the baseball game / anywhere else. A unanimous decision is required in order to reach a verdict, and in this case that seems easy enough for these civil servants to achieve. But what they didn't count on was that the twelfth juror would be Henry Fonda, and that he would be more sensitive to the ideals of justice than anyone this side of Socrates.

As soon as Fonda begins defending his "innocent until proven guilty" ethos in his sturdy, calm, and immaculately reasoned fashion, the plot is powered along less by action than inertia, one juror conceding to Fonda's appeal every few minutes until only a few, particularly stubborn men remain. Given that the vote must be unanimous and that Fonda seems about as easy to sway as a small Himalayan mountain, it's only a matter of time before the deliberations reach their inevitable outcome. But of course it's not about the destination, Lumet's film doesn't attempt to solve the prejudices that impoverish our country's sense of justice so much as it hopes to shame them, embarrassing their arguments and untwisting their broken logic until the inevitable is the only thing that makes sense. Contrasting Lumet's telling of the story with the television version that CBS aired in 1954 (also included on this disc) underscores the director's masterful use of angles, levels, and compositional geometry. It's his first feature, but it's remarkable to watch how he slices up this one stuffy room, morally stratifying an entire country in a small wooden box as it begins to rain outside. It never feels didactic because Lumet refuses to let even an inch of his space be lazy - it's all alive, the background always shifting, like one of those multi-tiered hallway shots from The Rules of the Game that he manages to sustain for upwards of 90 minutes. Observe the blocking: who's standing, and how much of their face is shrouded in shadows? Lumet almost never shows the blinds, so it's as if those shadows are coming from the inside out. It's tragic, of course, that 12 Angry Men doesn't feel dated, but it's Lumet's direction that keeps it feeling vital.

THE TRANSFER: The image is inevitably superior to any previous home video version of ?12 Angry Men, but - pivotally - it's the contrast that really makes this the definitive presentation of the film. Things are a bit grainier than I'd have hoped, but the blacks and grays cut into each other with intent to kill, shadows falling over faces like accusations, where on previous iterations of the film they seemed like blobs of space that the light just didn't reach. In that regard, Criterion's Blu-ray is something of a revelation.

THE EXTRAS: I'm tempted to say that the inclusion of the TV version is the big ticket here, but Lumet's take completely reduces it to a relic. The 25-minute doc "12 Angry Men: From TV to the Big Screen" provides some compelling context, but is likewise just a testament to what Lumet was able to do with the material. A short doc on writer Reginald Rose should appeal to fans of ?The Golden Age of Television, and it's neat that Criterion included a 1956 Rose teleplay that Lumet directed. A 40-minute featurette on DP Boris Kaufman - Dziga Vertov's younger brother - is more compelling to me, as cinematographer John Bailey discusses the man who shot everything from Jean Vigo's ?Zero de conduite to Elia Kazan's ?On theWaterfront?. If you're reading this, odds are that Kaufman is one of your unsung heroes, and this is a great way to realize that. Ultimately, however, the extras do feel a bit light for such a significant release.

THE BEST BIT: If there's a feature on a disc called "Lumet on Lumet," it's gonna be the best feature on that disc. Period. Anyone familiar with Lumet's insanely influential tome on filmmaking will know that the man was a captivating fount of wisdom, and here he drops nuggets of directorial wisdom like it's no big deal, muttering: "All good work is really self-revelation" and moving on to the next thought before you have time to realize the implications of his words on his work. You'll want to watch this again and again.

THE ARTWORK: Sean Phillips' garish painting subverted my expectations for a monochromatic cover, but did so to great effect. It's gorgeous, hyper-detailed work, the soft brushstrokes speaking to the fluid morality of the characters they form. I'd almost rather Henry Fonda's juror not take such a prominent square in the center, but this thing will nevertheless look tremendous on your shelf.

THE VERDICT: 86 / 100   



#216 THE RULES OF THE GAME (dir. Jean Renoir) 1939 

The Film: "I believe in little, but I may start believing in friendship." 

Too often lost in the mess of frilly accolades that have suffocated Jean Renoir's masterpiece beneath the yolk of being one of the greatest films ever made, is the fact that The Rules of the Game - the cinema's quintessential farce - is that it's ultimately a film for the people. A tangled (but clear) web of flirtations, affairs, and reprisals, Renoir's sublime upstairs / downstairs saga is both a groundbreaking marvel of direction and a resonant portrait of societal stratification as seen from beneath several floors of glass ceilings, but it's also wry comedy that's only a hair removed from the charming escapades of Ernst Lubitsch. It's damn funny, and the film's climactic sequences - which several of the aristocratic characters confuse for an act, some kind of primitive cartoon - is a rush of kinetic filmmaking brimming with portent and pathos but reliant upon neither. In a vacuum, The Rules of the Game is almost a cinema of attractions, the kind of thing that young Hugo (he of the Scorsese Hugos), might unknowingly recreate as he's being chased around a Parisian train station.

Of course, it's so much more than that. An aviator bounds off of single-jet plane moments after completing a remarkable transatlantic flight and whines into the radio that his mistress didn't show up to see him land. The both of them (and a motley mess of others) retreat to a countryside estate for a weekend of rich-people stuff (they hunt, they entertain themselves by getting knotted up in various romantic entanglements, they don't work, etc...), during which a slavish attention to protocol and a collective apathy for consequences will ensure that someone doesn't survive the soiree. So for all of its smudges from "The Lubitsch Touch," the Criterion film of which Renoir's opus most reminds me is Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses, a movie about two lovers engaging in a non-stop sexcapade of increasing grotesqueness in order to shield themselves from the encroaching horrors of World War II. Or perhaps the more immediate reference is Fanny and Alexander, as Renoir deploys long hallways and high angles to distort the film's lavish estate into something of a children's play-set, puppets in a show so ornate they're fooled into thinking it's real. I guess that for all the words critics have thrown together about The Rules of the Game, it's Renoir's fellow filmmaker's that have best articulated its power. 

Renoir's characters are indelible (including the one he fills out, himself), the fluidity of his framing and the extent to which every inch of his deep compositions is alive with action something that contemporary filmmakers, for all of the technology at their disposal, still struggle to replicate. With The Rules of the Game, Renoir squeezed his defining narrative obsession of man's common humanity through the mirrors of a kaleidoscope, twisting it until the visions inside were almost too beautiful to mourn. It's a blast, but when the film ends, the party's over.

THE TRANSFER: It can be difficult to remember how much of a triumph this transfer (and the restoration that has allowed for it) really is, but quickly thumbing through the film on Hulu should sufficiently remind you as to how necessary this Blu-ray really is. Sure, the transfer here inherits a mess of flaws from the original negative (scratches and lines, mostly), but the clarity is superb, and the stability of the image makes for a wonderful viewing experience. Criterion really tried not to over-correct this 72 year-old film, erring on the rawer side of things, but it's never been easier to appreciate Renoir's use of focus (both deep and otherwise), and the image is clean enough that background subplots once lost to blurriness and deterioration will finally be known, as if this film weren't already textured enough.

THE VERDICT: Criterion's ?The Rules of the Game ?DVD is among their best, but this is one of those films that ardent cinephiles will forever be content to re-purchase. It's hard to imagine that Renoir's masterpiece could ever look better, but you won't regret finding that out for yourself.


#261: FANNY AND ALEXANDER (dir. Ingmar Bergman) 1982 

THE FILM: You could argue that Fanny and Alexander isn't the best Ingmar Bergman film (especially if you enjoy losing arguments), but it's hard to deny that the legendary auteur's magnum opus - originally intended to be his swan song - isn't the most Ingmar Bergman film. And that's not a trivial testament to the project's epic length (at least, it wasn't originally intended to be), but rather an observation meant to underscore just how much of Bergman's persona is stuffed into this thing, a deliciously dense stew of everything he represented, a child's story touched with the resigned wisdom of someone in the twilight of his life. I think that Bergman felt the parallels between youth and old age in a way that I can only distil, both sides of the coin mutually awed by the sheer enormity of human drama and desire, unable to understand it all and eager to let magic fill in the gaps. 

If it wasn't sufficiently evident in the above paragraph, I have a bit of a hard time writing about this movie. The theatrical cut, which clocks in at a too-brisk 188 minutes, is easier to wrangle - it feels like a movie, always looking over its shoulder to make sure that the audience is still there. But the "television cut" at 312 minutes, sprawls out before you like a quicksand confessional, whatever that is. Given that I never knew Bergman personally, I have the luxury of reading Fanny and Alexander as an autobiography, the cinema and its myriad tricks akin to Alexander's puppet theater. I think of Hirokazu Kore-eda's masterpiece After Life - in which the recently deceased are allowed to select one memory from their days on Earth to recreate, film, and bring with them into heaven - and regard Fanny and Alexander as what Bergman would have fashioned for himself (assuming that Kore-eda's purgatorial crew would have allowed Bergman some unique concessions). The story of Alexander (and his sister Fanny, I guess), who are forced to vacate the world they know after their father's sudden death in exchange for a life with the severe man to whom their mother is soon re-married, is not explicitly Bergman's own, but the world they inhabit is undeniably a product of his darkly winsome genius. It's a lot like Tron?, in that way, which incidentally was also released in 1982. So there you have it, Fanny and Alexander = Ingmar Bergman's Tron.

THE TRANSFER: Oh, this is heaven. Sven Nykvist was born for Blu-ray, and this is arguably the shining moment in a career comprised entirely of highlights. An obvious choice for an HD boost, it's the deep reds that are the first to pop. The colors here are ravishing and it's key to feel how Nykvist's palette downshifts from fever-dream tones to more earthly hues as things derail for Fanny and her brother. It's never been so easy to lose yourself inside of Bergman's gentle fable, and that's saying something.

THE VERDICT: This might be the most essential Blu-ray upgrade Criterion has released all year.  

Note: Criterion's Rushmore Blu-ray was not available to me as of press time. But you to tell you that it's beautiful, and just about every single person you know to tell you that it's the most valuable artistic expression of the 20th century, or something to that effect. 

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