Criterion Corner: Reviews of Criterion's March Releases Take Us from Jesus Christ to Bill Clinton in 8 Easy Steps

Criterion Corner: Reviews of Criterion's March Releases Take Us from Jesus Christ to Bill Clinton in 8 Easy Steps

Mar 29, 2012

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!


Loose lips sink ships. So do giant icebergs and Nazi torpedoes. Criterion’s March line-up is filled with war and disaster, from the inky waters off the coast of England to a cluttered and antiseptic political office in the heart of Arkansas. It’s a month of trials and tribulations, sacrifices and dark nights of the soul. These 8 films are stuffed sideways with deaths both past and present, but from Jesus Christ on the cross to Bill Clinton on the campaign trail, it’s the hope for a better future that makes it all worthwhile. And if that sounds cheesy, well, the good news is that sometimes hope requires a lot of blood, explosions, and other things that are red. We begin our story in Soviet-era Siberia...

 

#601 LETTER NEVER SENT (dir. Mikhail Kalatozov) 1959 

THE FILM: Mikhail Kalatozov is still one of the cinema’s ultimate poster boys for wasted talent, and Letter Never Sent -- the last film he made before packing his bags for Cuba and preaching the good word of Communism over there -- is perhaps the most perfect distillation of his frustrating career. The simple story goes that Kalatozov was a genius -- among the most influential and compelling cinematographers of his time -- but his filmmaking was inextricably linked to a culture that saw little value in movies beyond their message, and what his films offer in craft they often lack in content. Letter Never Sent -- like so much of his work, and perhaps even more so than his revered ex-pat exercise I Am Cuba -- is indeed easier watched than felt, but never was there another Kalatozov film that offered so much promise only to send it up in flames.

Imagine The Grey in black & white, but in Soviet Russia, you wind up stranded in the frozen wilderness when your aircraft lands safely. The stunning first shot deposits four geologists in the heart of the Siberian tundra, where they begin canvassing the frigid expanse for diamonds in the hopes of finding precious materials produced within the boundaries of the motherland (dependence on foreign countries = so embarrassing). Sabinine (Innokenti Smoktunovsky as the Liam Neeson of the crew), narrates the titular letter to his wife, who remains in comparatively civilized Moscow. Andrei and Tanya (The Canes are Flying’s woozily moon-faced Tatyana Samojlova) are lovebirds, and Sergei rounds out the group as the feral wildcard, whose nascent affections for Tanya threaten the tenuous social order on which all four of these Russian frontiersmen (frontierspeople?) must preserve in order to survive.

Kalatozov’s giddily unhinged camera captures these dynamics with revolutionary fervor, dipping into the actors’ faces and twirling around them like Terrence Malick shooting a wild romance at the end of the world. It’s hypnotic stuff, and every wide-eyed expression of hope for a united Communist future is ecstatically rendered, breathing a rush of idealistic energy into even the most banal of developments. But just when things seem at their best and it appears as if Kalatozov is on the precipice of becoming an auteur worthy of his country’s cinematic legacy, the film dies in a fire. A forest fire, to be precise, which cuts through the tundra and obliterates all of the primal pathos that Letter Never Sent has somehow unearthed from a vast expanse of damp soil. Kalatozov’s sensibilities are too delicate for disaster, and while the scale of his images is unerringly impressive, fire has to be controlled, and Kalatozov seems bored stiff by the forced restraint. The spectacle withers, exposing the banality of the narrative and engendering a certain disdain that the talents of such a revolutionary filmmaker would be wasted on a revolution.

THE TRANSFER: Practically perfect. Letter Never Sent looks so beautiful on Blu-ray that it’s hard to avert your eyes, even during the film’s stagnantly static second half. Either Criterion was working with unexpectedly strong source materials, or their powers of preservation have exceeded all human understanding.

THE EXTRAS / THE BEST BIT: None. But the booklet sure is pretty!

THE ARTWORK: Jason Hardy’s exquisite art design for Letter Never Sent is the disc’s saving grace, and in and of itself sufficient reason to snap this up and hang onto it forever. The cover image is simple but drenched in pathos and despair, Hardy making great use of the film’s insipid wildfire by crisping the artwork on each side. Red and black on white is all that’s required to create this evocative image, and the color scheme speaks rather directly to Kalatozov, himself. 

THE VERDICT: 61 / 100

 

#602 THE WAR ROOM (dir. Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker) 1993  

THE FILM: In 1960, “direct cinema” was brought to the heartland when Robert Drew was on hand to shoot the Wisconsin democratic primary between Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy, and the movie editor D.A. Pennebaker cobbled together from that footage -- simply titled Primary -- was for some time arguably the most vital raw document of our political process as it exists in the modern age. Eight presidential elections transpired between Primary and 1992’s The War Room, another fly-on-the-wall doc that Pennebaker made with Chris Hegedus while embedded with Bill Clinton’s campaign, and this new Criterion release underscores how much of a loss it is that Pennebaker wasn’t there to film them for us.

An exercise in verité filmmaking like, um, approximately everything else Pennebaker has ever made, The War Room is a compelling and immediate “you are there” portrait of history desperately trying to keep pace with itself. Forget talking heads or recreations, this is war as seen from the ground level, a political campaign shot like The Battle of Algiers. The Clinton campaign is fighting for the hearts and minds of America, working the streets and negotiating the stormy waters of new media to put their man into power. The stars of the show are James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, two men of very different sorts who are mutually tasked with shepherding Clinton’s message into office. Their immediate opponent is George Bush but their ultimate antagonist is the new model of the political machine -- politics has submitted itself to entertainment, and the next president will be determined by whichever candidate’s team is the first to figure out how it works. It’s Broadcast News in real life -- the voters are Holly Hunter, but in a two-party system there’s no way around marrying one of the leads. 

Pennebaker and Hegedus recognized that the heartbeat of any campaign isn’t the candidate so much as it’s his campaign managers -- Bill Clinton, at least until election day, is practically their product. No sleep, familiar rhetoric, and historical stakes. The times change, the outfits mercifully change with them, and the campaigns are tasked with finding new ways of expressing the same old messages. Watching James Carville give one of The Criterion Collection’s great performances, talking about the most minute edits to a 30-second TV spot and sparring with his future wife (Bush’s deputy manager), it’s easy to forget that in all this eminently human chaos you’re watching a nation being reshaped. It looks a lot like a bald-headed Cajun shoving chips into his face, and it’s riveting. 

THE TRANSFER: Verité docs don’t tend to age all that well, and when compared to the rest of this month’s Criterion releases that truisms holds, um, true. The transfer from 16mm to HD is faithful to the image and therefore grainy with bits of unsightly white pixel elements, and the news footage remains a bit banged up in the name of accuracy. Nevertheless, The War Room looks as good as one could reasonably expect, while never disrespecting the film’s critical early 90s aesthetic.

THE EXTRAS: One of my favorite things on this loaded disc is a casual 40-minute conversation between Pennebaker, Hegedus and two others on how this whole crazy movie came into being. “Maybe we can get D.A. Pennebaker -- yeah, if he’s alive.”  Recorded just last year, Pennebaker is so present and with it, you almost feel like it wouldn’t be entirely unreasonable to throw him in the thick of things this fall and see what happens. The best part is an isolated 6-minute excerpt in which wonderfully named cameraman Nick Doob explains the logistics of shooting something so intensely private. A 25-minute clip from a William Clinton Foundation panel is a bit redundant, though hearing Carville go off on how much harder primary elections are than general ones is neat.

THE BEST BIT: Of course, The War Room hardly needs to be reviewed these days, as the filmmakers essentially reviewed the film themselves with their feature-length 2008 follow-up, Return of The War Room. Everyone is back to comment on the action -- well, everyone except for the candidates, which is exactly how it should be. It’s a glorious way to gain perspective, and simple details like seeing Bill Clinton’s autobiography on a bookshelf behind one of the talking heads is jarring stuff if you’ve just spent 90 minutes with the original film, and can’t help but feel as if you’re still in the thick of things. Bonus: The Carville / Matalin love story. Subtitles would have been great.

THE ARTWORK: Simple but effective, the rare instance of Criterion resorting to floating heads, and the rarer instance of it actually working. Nice that they chose to spotlight Carville and Stephanopoulos rather than either of the candidates, themselves.

THE VERDICT: 88 / 100. 

 

#603 - #606 DAVID LEAN DIRECTS NOEL COWARD (dir. David Lean) 1942-1945 

THE FILMS: David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, a bunch of other medium-stretching masterworks) didn’t always make epic films, and if it weren’t for playwright Noel Coward, Lean may never have made films, at all. History has it that Coward -- an intolerably successful and multi-talented fellow whose sessile and snarky little theater work just needed to stand on a small stage to see right through all of England -- wanted to try his hand at filmmaking in order to do his part in the war effort. Coward was introduced by Carol Reed to a shy young editor named David Lean, a man whom the playwright hoped would be valuable for both his resourcefulness and his docility. The year was 1941 -- by 1945, some four films later, David Lean would be internationally recognized as one of the world’s elite filmmakers, his most beloved masterpieces still in front of him. Here’s how that story goes, collected by Criterion into an overwhelmingly British release so great that your upper lip will be stiff for weeks. 

In Which We Serve (1942): Terrence Rafferty’s essay “Battle Stations,” included in the booklet that Criterion has tucked inside this box set, begins: “Good wartime propaganda films are as rare as good wars.” It’s a great line, but ultimately one that Rafferty and I both believe In Which We Serve proves false -- there are no good wars, but here is one very good wartime propaganda film.

In Which We Serve is David Lean’s directorial debut, which is either inspiring or repugnant, depending on where you are in life. Coward came to him in the hopes of using the cinema to relate a humble and sobering story “about a ship,” the playwright intending to fortify the war effort by galvanizing the troops with a stirring reminder of all the things they were fighting to protect. If the resulting film is an unapologetic love letter to the dear British spirit, the agenda is almost torpedoed by the quality of its conveyance, as Lean’s remarkably assured craft and the fierce, universal undertow with which Coward tells the fractured story of the HMS Torrin      elevate In Which We Serve into the highest echelon of war films, ulterior motives or not. The masterful opening sequence, in which the Torrin is painstakingly assembled and then quickly destroyed, anticipates Lawrence of Arabia’s famous match dissolve while also establishing the value of what the war effort intended to protect, and the speed at which it might all be lost. Coward himself provides the film’s emotional anchor as the dignified Captain Kinross (Brief Encounter’s Celia Johnson makes her feature debut as his wife), and Lean rouses even contemporary viewers with his extraordinary sense of scale and craft (the evocative editing, which expertly blends stock and studio footage to imbue the combat scenes with a rare immediacy). This may sound like faint praise, but In Which We Serve outclasses Pearl Harbor in every way. The Brits were first, and thank god for that. 

This Happy Breed (1944): Celia Johnson in Technicolor is sort of mind-blowing. The actress is the unsung hero of this entire box set, but This Happy Breed is the only time she isn’t in black & white, and she looks like a completely different person. Her face is no longer a sunken ravine of deep shadows like all the hope in the world died just before reaching her eyes, instead she looks... Normal. Average. It’s the face of someone who hasn’t given up, someone who still hasn’t entirely made up their mind about the world around them. And then you remember that This Happy Breed is the only Coward / Lean collaboration that’s definitively set in the years before WWII (Brief Encounter doesn’t quite qualify), and the aesthetics begin to make sense: This sad portrait follows a middle class family as they toil from 1919 to 1939, embodying England as it was in the years leading up to its darkest days, and as the film rolls along it’s as if someone is slowly dimming the lights.

The most expansive and narratively complex of the Lean / Coward films, This Happy Breed is a big ol’ family saga, a densely packed melodrama that plays like a somber British version of Meet Me in St. Louis (this analogy works best if, like me, you only saw Meet Me in St. Louis once about 10 years ago). Johnson and Robert Newton play Mr. and Mrs. Gibbons -- the film begins as they move their three children into their new South London home, and the flat soon becomes a stage for 2 decades of British history. We watch as the various events inform and impact the Gibbons gang, who -- for all of their snark and drama -- essentially exist to inhabit the spirit of the British people with flushed cheeks and fine hats. Lean’s exquisitely measured direction allows the time-stretching story to feel contained but never inert, his careful camera moves and attention to technical detail ensuring that the scope never slackens the focus (note the building echoes of the sound design as the flat is emptied out of things and people). As a result, deliberately generic happenings are loaded with real weight, and even though you just know the film is going to end with someone stepping out of that front door, it’s still wrenching when the door closes behind them. 

Blithe Spirit: (1945): The beginning of the end. Blithe Spirit was adapted from Coward’s super successful stage play of the same name, and his instructions to Lean were famously clear: “Just photograph it, dear boy.” Well, that was never going to happen -- Lean could never show up to set without his sense of cinema. A comedy of terrors, Blithe Spirit is the story of a novelist named Charles (the garrulously violent Rex Harrison) who hosts a seance in his house in order to inspire his next book, but it goes horribly awry when the medium summons the ghost of his dead ex-wife, Elvira (a fluorescent Kay Hammond), whom only he can see. Charles’ current wife, a shrew called Ruth (Constance Cummings) rounds out the trio of unpleasant characters, and “ectoplasmic highjinks” ensue (words and spelling of that special phrase belong to the NYT’s uncredited 1945 review). 

Lean’s first act was to explode Coward’s story out from the confines of a single room -- there are even a few exteriors! But Lean’s real contribution to the material was in his use of cinematic spaces and the medium’s gift for isolation, as through composition and careful editing he was able to visually articulate the romantic fracture’s of Coward’s scenario. Elvira appears only to Charles, and movie magic allows us to see that play out -- moreover, when such images are cut together with an array of objective wider shots which unify all 3 of the story’s major players, Lean effectively destabilizes our sympathies, creating a moral ambiguity rare for such a frothy romantic charmer. The Technicolor is marvelous (Ronald Neame’s cinematography deserves its own review), and Lean’s insistence on makeup and practical effects remind you of how effectively fooled the eye can be. While the narrative shorts out in the wake of a deliriously unexpected 2nd act twist and the third act gets bogged down with Margaret Rutherford’s Madame Arcati, the ending with which Lean amends and improves Coward’s original text delivers some deeply satisfying comeuppance. Coward felt differently, and famously told Lean that he, um, ruined the best thing that Coward ever wrote. Neither part of his claim was true.

Brief Encounter: (1945): In the history of cinema, no other film longs quite so hard. Imagine the last scene of Before Sunset stretched out to 95 minutes of heartbreak so thick and British you could spread it over a crumpet, and then take everything happy or hopeful out of that equation. That’s Brief Encounter, Lean’s smallest film and perhaps his best, the stiff and impossibly wistful portrait of an affair to forget between the two most ordinary pre-war Brits you could possibly imagine. She is Laura Jesson (the great Celia Johnson), a plain woman with a face of shadows so deep it’s as if her features were designed to hide secrets. He is Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), a decent and well-spoken man who seems mildly perplexed by his attraction to the simple stranger he meets at the local train station when he’s asked to remove a piece of grit from her eye. Given that both are married, any sort of relationship between them is forbidden -- not only for the obvious reasons, but also because it engenders thoughts of impossible lives, and reinforced with the strength of a hangman’s noose precisely how finite their respective worlds had become and how permanent their decisions have been. The trains leave every hour on the dot (and Lean’s locomotive lust has never been more sublime or suggestive than it is here), but they just go back and forth, forever.

Hauntingly shot by Robert Krasker (the film is a web of sharp contrasts and transfixing reflections) and so restrained that one of the cinema’s most torturously romantic moments is practically invisible the first time you see it, Brief Encounter has only become more powerful since the culture in which it’s set has become totally unrecognizable. It was shot during the twilight of WWII but takes place in 1939, and the film includes nary a mention of the war. In a way, Lean always intended the setting of this film to be somewhat foreign or forgotten, the social pressures understood but also undercut so that Brief Encounter isn’t remembered as a movie about tea or soot or what the neighbors will think, but about a universal sigh, and the moment when you realize that your dreams were never anything more. 

THE TRANSFERS: In a word: Impeccable. In Which We Serve looks almost as perfect as A Night to Remember, but the decidedly less elegant nature of its story justifies the rougher textures. This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit are both imbued with the glories and defects of early Technicolor -- colors explode off the screen, but the image has a tendency to warble like a soloist suddenly jumping up an octave for a moment. Nevertheless, the clarity and detail is insane (watch Blithe Spirit on Netflix Instant for an idea as to how vital these Blu-rays are). Criterion’s Brief Encounter Blu is far richer and more contrasty than any previous release of the film, even though the old DVD didn’t look too shabby. 

THE EXTRAS: Oh boy. A Profile of ‘In Which We Serve’ is a 24-minute 2000 doc that provides a crash course in this formative film, and gives DP Ronald Neame a chance to speak (bummer he doesn’t go off on a tangent about directing Gambit). Neame is even granted his own documentary on This Happy Breed, which he even had a hand in writing. In Which We Serve also includes the audio from a 1969 conversation between Coward and Richard Attenborough, which makes for compelling background listening. The five essays included in the set’s booklet are exquisite, even by Criterion’s exacting standards, with Terrence Rafferty and Farran Smith Nehme authoring particularly compelling reads about In Which We Serve and This Happy Breed, respectively. 

THE BEST BIT: Well, the star of the show here might have to be Noel Coward expert Barry Day, whose direct words and frazzled grey sideburns bring the history behind these films to life over the course of several illuminating 10-15 minute oratories. Day even pops up to supplement the pre-existing extras on the Brief Encounter disc, looking like an insanely erudite version of Jeff Daniels’ character from Dumb and Dumber

THE ARTWORK: Classy perfection. The artwork is simple, exact, and iconic, much like the films these pieces represent. The box is sturdy, and each of the slipcases is delightfully emblematic of the films within. Criterion’s packaging physically unifies one of the cinema’s great unsung partnerships, rectifying that oversight as only they can.

THE VERDICT: 90 / 100 ***Pick of the Month***

 

BLU-RAY UPGRADES

 

#7 A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (dir. Roy Ward Baker) 1958  

THE FILM: Roy Ward Baker’s remarkable docudrama is so richly cinematic, it’s hard to believe that in the 54 years since A Night to Remember’s release no one else has attempted to make another large-scale film about the sinking of the Titanic. ...Oh, right. Okay, so this extremely competent portrait of disaster at sea has been somewhat overshadowed by that James Cameron blockbuster (no, not True Lies, the other one), but watching A Night to Remember in the days before Titanic’s inevitable 3D re-release, I’m struck by how graciously the two films compliment one another, and not necessarily in the ways one might expect.

A Night to Remember, which takes a somewhat kaleidoscopic approach in depicting the Titanic’s disastrous maiden voyage, is still a startling technical achievement. In fact, the always surprising extent to which Titanic adheres to Roy Ward Baker’s vision (Cameron’s epic often feels like a remake lathered in soap) is perhaps the ultimate confirmation of the earlier film’s visceral achievements and historical verisimilitude. The multitude of moments that Titanic lifts from A Night to Remember don’t speak to a historical accuracy so much as they do the impeccably believable spectacle of Roy Ward Baker’s recreation. There’s the string quartet playing as the ship goes down, the men conniving to squeeze onto the lifeboats, the Unsinkable Molly Brown laughing in the face of death. Some bits far exceed what Cameron did (the steerage passengers finally getting a look at first-class is a heartbreaker), which more than compensates for Titanic’s obvious technological edge (Baker couldn’t get those water-logged bulkheads to tip in quite the same way).

On the other hand, A Night to Remember is unable (and perhaps unwilling) to establish any sort of emotional through-line, with second officer Charles Lightoller serving as an incidental protagonist, and a dull one at that. In fact, A Night to Remember ultimately speaks to the efficacy of the oft-derided romance with which Cameron anchors his film -- as cheesy as it was, it gave the audience a sense of purpose to compound Baker’s immaculate sense of place. As a result, A Night to Remember is an inspiring bit of overachievement, the enduring value of which is chiefly in its dialogue with the films that came in its wake. I’m just happy it’s not in 3D.

THE TRANSFER: A Night to Remember may be the most beautiful Blu-ray ever made from a classic film, full stop. From the very first shot, the presentation here is beyond flawless -- crisp, deep, and with just a hint of grain in all the right places. They called it the HD transfer of dreams, and it was. It really was.

THE VERDICT: Buy this. If not for the movie, then for love of the game.

 

#70 THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (dir. Martin Scorsese) 1988  

THE FILM: Reviewing this is sort of a losing proposition, no? Odds are that I’m not going to author a revelatory piece on Scorsese and Schrader’s controversial Passion Play.  I mean, there are lots of folks out there who think about Jesus a lot harder than I do (they’re called Christians). I’m hardly a Biblical scholar -- so far as I’m concerned most of Jesus’ previous temptations involved dyeing Judas’ hair (there can never be an acceptable explanation for Harvey Keitel’s pubic red wig) -- but the enduring beauty of this provocative film is that it ultimately abandons religious portraiture in favor of a character study that explores the inextricable relationship between fallibility and faith. The Last Temptation of Christ famously grapples with Christ the man rather than Christ the Son of God, making it the rare film to be more interested in his defects than his doctrine. 

Like any religious manifesto, it’s best not to be taken whole hog -- it’s imperfect and some of it is best discarded, but the parts that work are capable of permanently impacting your worldview, or at the very least your appreciation of human sacrifice. For me, The Last Temptation of Christ falters when Willem Dafoe’s straining neck muscles are left to add a pinch of suffering to the most familiar stories ever told, but soars -- like all of Schrader’s best films -- when it focuses on a man who’s obsessed with defining himself through action. Perhaps that should have been my tact, looking at The Last Temptation of Christ as it’s reflected by Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, two unforgettable biopics that end with the sort of rapturous transcendence that the cinema pulls from the ether and makes real for the rest of us.

THE TRANSFER: A solid if not particularly flashy HD transfer makes The Last Temptation of Christ a worthwhile upgrade for those who like having this film in their lives. Somewhat grainy but never distractingly so, and blessed with rich and varied shades of light brown, Criterion’s Blu-ray is clean without ever feeling inauthentic or glossy. To my eyes, the transfer actually improves as the film rolls along, and the final moments of milky white are cathartically pristine. 

THE VERDICT: Judge not lest ye be judged, right? 

 

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