Criterion Corner: Landmark February Releases Deliver Kittens, Samurai, And Jimmy Stewart

Criterion Corner: Landmark February Releases Deliver Kittens, Samurai, And Jimmy Stewart

Mar 07, 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!


February saw Criterion arriving at their landmark 600th release in fine style, offering up a group of films predominately concerned with looking back at how we got here and where we’re going. Justice, memory, identity... this month’s titles prove that the past isn’t dead, it’s up for grabs and probably on YouTube. 

He wrote me: “Here are reviews of Criterion’s February 2012 releases.” 

NEW RELEASES

#596 THREE OUTLAW SAMURAI (dir. Hideo Gosha) 1964 

THE FILM: A samurai film for the 99%, Hideo Gosha’s striking debut feature is a feisty little chambara that moves with a precision and purpose of an enormously skilled swordsman. Without necessarily rewriting the rules on how to make this sort of thing, Gosha still infuses the genre with a blast of fresh air, exuberantly agitating the genre away from the staid conflicts and characters that had previously defined the cinema of rampaging ronin. Hard contrasts, canted angles, and comparatively balletic fight choreography isolate Three Outlaw Samurai even from the likes of Kurosawa’s nihilistic Yojimbo, which had been made three years prior. Unusually swift and self-contained for the genre (the film clocks in at a furious 93 minutes), Three Outlaw Samurai is a fun, stylish, and precisely pissed bit of class warfare, as valuable a chambara as any that would be made in the 1960s. 

We begin, of course, with a rogue samurai walking along the dusty trail. He’s Sakon Shiba (Tetsuro Tamba, who you might recognize from everybody’s favorite racist James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice), and he’s looking for a roof over his head and some anonymous villains to cut down. Fortunately, those things tend to go hand in hand for a ronin on the move. Gosha gets right down to business, dropping Shiba into a hostage situation in which a ragged band of starving peasants has kidnapped an evil and greedy magistrate’s daughter, demanding lower taxes as their ransom. Shiba, a dangerous sort with a sword arm like a coiled fang, is sympathetic to their cause. He walks like Han Solo, he fights like he’s The Sword of Doom, and he simply can’t abide the suffering of the helpless.

Busy and alive and told without a wasted moment, Gosha’s debut is snazzy self-help cinema. Angry but geometric, steeped in tradition but burning with a yen for better times, Three Outlaw Samurai is a violent reminder that people need to help themselves to help each other, because there’s no greater waste than a life that’s lost for nothing. It’s definitely time for a sequel. 

THE TRANSFER: Blu-Ray was born for black & white, and it always feels as if it’s Criterion’s samurai films that best illustrate that fact. Three Outlaw Samurai looks stunning and appropriately precise in HD -- the contrasts are sword-sharp, beautifully complimenting Gosha’s hard, single-source lighting. The transfer is consistent and severe and almost meets the unreasonably high standards set by Criterion’s Harakiri release, last year. 

THE EXTRAS: Just the trailer. But it’s an awesome trailer, opening with a corporate moment that I’d love to see adapted for today’s Hollywood films.

THE BEST BIT / THE ARTWORK: With this release, the best bit is the artwork. Greg Ruth’s ink illustration makes for some seriously top-level cover art, and there are more gorgeous drawings waiting inside the box, as well. This may not be one of Criterion’s most lavish editions, but it’s certainly one of their most beautiful. 

THE VERDICT: 81 / 100

#597 TINY FURNITURE (dir. Lena Dunham) 2010 

THE FILM: See Criterion Corner #14: The Future of Important Movies. Also, see Tiny Furniture

THE TRANSFER: Given that Tiny Furniture was shot on a DSLR, Blu-Ray proves to be a perfect format on which to watch the movie, as the glossy veneer of 1080p underscores the digital sterility of Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography. Criterion’s transfer makes no attempt to hide Tiny Furniture’s consumer-grade origins, and the movie plays all the better for it. The Canon 7D is the camera I shoot on, and this Blu-Ray looks like the idealized form of the footage I wrangle for film school, maintaining on a big TV the fidelity with which I watch my stuff on those tiny Final Cut Pro canvases. You can see Lena Dunham’s every pore and roll, and I don’t think she’d have it any other way.

THE EXTRAS: First up is a 30-minute conversation between Dunham and Nora Ephron, in which the two filmmakers chat about autobiographical cinema as if their talk could possibly distract from Dunham’s decision to wear a shirt that’s shedding so hard I’m having an allergic reaction just watching it. I jest, it’s a fun and candid chat, if a bit too fawning. Much more interesting are a quartet of Dunham’s short films, all of which stutter like they were ripped directly from YouTube. Hooker on Campus is pure movie magic. The Fountain even appears in Tiny Furniture, further illustrating Dunham’s preoccupation with cannibalizing her own persona. Oh, and we also get all 58 minutes of Dunham’s first feature, Creative Nonfiction, which she made as an Oberlin undergrad. Obviously a student work (and a bit more whacked and imaginatively extreme than Tiny Furniture), Creative Nonfiction is compelling for a curio, and could provide the context that some people might need in order to accept Dunham’s other work. 

THE BEST BIT: A 7-minute video interview with Paul Schrader (!?) who digs into why young people are so pissed at this movie (“Lena Dunham is the James Franco of female directors”). He talks mumblecore, coins the term “Slackavettes,” and supersedes my epic defense of the film in every possible way because Schrader is the most awesome. 

THE ARTWORK: An orange, fleshy, pixelated portrait of Dunham, it’s not pretty and it’s not meant to be. The extreme close-up, all squares instead of strokes, is an apt reflection of Aura’s self-image as it’s mediated by the digital world, but it’s also... it’s not a good look. For anyone. Kudos to Dunham for okaying such a bracingly confrontational introduction to the film that follows.

THE VERDICT: 84 / 100.

#598 WORLD ON A WIRE (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder) 1973 

THE FILM: “I’ve shot a TV-Movie in two parts, entitled World on a Wire. Each part is an hour and a half long. We show a world in which human beings can be created with a computer. This, of course, creates doubts about ourselves merely being projections, since, in that world, projections and real persons look alike. What this is about is based on an old philosophical model which here creates a certain kind of horror.” 

That’s how Rainer Werner Fassbinder described World on a Wire upon its release in 1973, and the tragedy of his words is that they are a perfectly adequate substitute for the actual experience of watching this prophetic 205-minute mind-bender. There’s more to the narrative, of course (namely so far as Fassbinder’s adaptation of the Daniel Galouye novel uses the film’s sci-fi tropes to explore the false sense of agency required to sustain corporate culture), but this sprawling and silly Jenga game of a miniseries can’t quite sustain the fevered awe of its own invention. World on a Wire becomes ordinary and functional precisely when the world in question is shown to be anything but, and eventually the awe its prescience inspires just isn’t enough to pull you along. 

That being said, by the time World on a Wire begins to break down it may have already destabilized your world forever. The film, which finds Fassbinder at his most garish and eccentric, was set in a present that now reads like a future we narrowly avoided. Fred Stiller works in the government-funded lab responsible for / host to Simulacron, a virtual world populated by 10,000 identity units who believe that they are real as it gets. The project appears to be on the verge of a major evolution, when the lead scientist disappears without a trace -- it’s not long after Stiller realizes that he’s the only employee who remembers the vanished man that the headaches begin.

World on a Wire isn’t the work of a bearded Fassbinder, but rather just a mustached ones (he seems to have been rocking the handlebars, at the time). Accordingly, it seems sly and spritely and just a little sinister, a fluid stench of sex working its way into even the film’s most sterile environments. Stilted mannerisms and endless reflections create a world that always points away from itself, Fassbinder’s edit skipping over dramatically critical events like a dream you don’t realize you’re having, but all of this stuff that shakes reality off its moorings mutes whatever sociopolitical machinations first drew Fassbinder to this story. The ideas hit so long as Stiller doesn’t have to drive them. Still is more sympathetic and self-assured than most of Fassbinder’s heroes, but far less watchable as a result. 

But during the first part, when Fassbinder is busy setting his traps, World on a Wire is more than a film that anticipated the internet, Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix, Inception, and approximately every paranoid thought the modern age has ever given you. The more we learn, the greater the hubris of our own existence becomes. It doesn’t take 3.5 hours to figure out, but you’ve gotta see it. 

THE TRANSFER: Well, this is a bit of a strange beast. Shot in 1.33:1 and forever stained with the warped look of something ripped off a television, World on a Wire is hard to judge by the usual standards. Images are soft and slightly unreal, but Criterion’s Blu-Ray sifts through the film’s dense visual language to make good on Fassbinder’s twinkling vision. It may not look great, but it looks right, and the film feeds off that consistency in order to cohere at all.

THE EXTRAS: Just two, which is a bit underwhelming given the enormity of this release. That being said, both supplements are worth your time. The lesser of which is an interview with Gerd Germüden, whose erudite commentary points a clear path through Fassbinder’s dense epic. Plus, it’s really fun to say “Gerd Germüden.” 

THE BEST BIT: The other extra is the main event, Juliane Lorenz’s fifty-minute documentary about the making of the film, World on a Wire: Looking Ahead to Today. Some of Lorenz’s imagery is a bit hokey, but it’s a pleasure to catch up with the cast, and there’s no such thing as about a boring story about Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Definitely worth a look.

THE ARTWORK: Sam Smith’s cover art (also used on the one-sheet that heralded the film’s theatrical tour) is a thing of beauty. Minimalistic without being reductive, the design captures Stiller in the overlap of two different planes of existence, the strings of the title forever pulling him down. The booklet tucked inside the package is similarly gorgeous and complete. Criterion at its best.

THE VERDICT: 80 / 100

#599 VANYA ON 42ND STREET (dir. Louis Malle) 1994 

THE FILM: When is your life not happening?

Louis Malle was an enormously versatile filmmaker, his cinema stretching from the warped anarchy of Zazie dans le Metro to the verisimilitude of Place de la République, and it’s fitting that Vanya on 42nd Street would ultimately prove to be his last feature, as this slyly mediated portrait of a theater cast subsumed into their text is a tender reduction of his life’s work. 

Things begin much the same way as they did in My Dinner with Andre, Malle’s camera finding a few familiar faces amongst the New York throngs and following them to their destination as if by accident. Where once it was a restaurant, now it’s the abandoned Amsterdam Theater in Times Square, a hollow shell of a place that played home to Ziegfeld Follies before the rats chewed up the stage so completely that it was unusable for Malle’s actors. There’s Wallace Shawn and Julianne Moore and of course the indomitable Andre Gregory, and they’re having a chat about whatever when suddenly the tenor shifts and we find ourselves watching an impromptu production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. It feels like less of a performance than it does a happening (and it had been happening at various private venues for five years before Malle decided to roll cameras).

Told with a gradual theatricality but nevertheless rooted in an aesthetic of subtle, immaculately framed medium shots, Malle’s rendition of Uncle Vanya often loses itself in the shroud of a black box theater. But then, every so often, you’ll see an empty seat, or get a look at the cavernous chipped ceiling that domes the place closed, and you’ll feel a void that darkness itself could never hope to equal. But in the moments where the action sinks into shadows and the text takes over, it’s pure Chekhov. At its worst -- at its most routine -- Malle’s film is good Chekhov. Malle’s gift for shaping a story with the stuff of real life occasionally makes these beats feel like missed opportunities, but perhaps it was just time for the filmmaker to let the action take over and get as close to it as he could before it was gone. 

THE TRANSFER: Vanya on 42nd Street isn’t the most visually opulent film in the world, but Criterion’s Blu-Ray gets all the little things right. The detail is precise, the murkier colors never look withered but never washed out, and -- most importantly -- the darkness swallows the characters without dressing them in digital artifacts.

THE EXTRAS / THE BEST BIT: All we get is a 36-minute making-of doc, made exclusively for The Criterion Collection in 2011. The featurette leads us chronologically through the development of the film, a bunch of familiar talking heads telling us about how they came together, what Andre Gregory expected of them, and how it translated to the screen. It’s crucially informative, a warm and succinct invitation to understanding just what this movie is, and brief enough to retain a bit of mystery.

THE ARTWORK: Can’t say that I’m wild about the cover’s blocky look, but the idea of a frozen moment and colliding the act with their text is a fine idea. It’s hardly an all-timer, but it gets the job done.

THE VERDICT: 77 / 100

#600 ANATOMY OF A MURDER (dir. Otto Preminger) 1959 

THE FILM: Forcing the people of the United States into an overdue confrontation with their own dirty laundry, Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder sprinted through production in two furious months and was in previews just four weeks later, as if this courtroom anti-drama were an urgent message for a country running short on justice. Despite the film’s 160-minute running time, Preminger’s most famous work (sorry, Skidoo) courses with a steady desperation, its gentle frames and laconic drawls working to force the audience to consider the full dimensions of a crime, ultimately illustrating how the law must not be prude, even if it can never be pure.

Out in the sticks of Michigan, a “humble country lawyer” named Paul Biegler (a quintessential James Stewart) who becomes embroiled in the case of his life when a local military man (the late Ben Gazzara as Manny Manion) goes on trial for the murder of an innkeeper who allegedly raped his sexpot wife. Biegler isn’t motivated by the sort of righteous flair that Jimmy Stewart inhabited so naturally, but rather only by a vague thirst for renewed purpose. He argues that his client committed the murder under the influence of a violent “immediate impulse,” and must therefore be acquitted for his temporary insanity. Hard evidence seems scant, so Biegler appeals to the jury’s sentiments when he runs low on facts, and the case is set to be decided less by what happened than by how it plays to an audience.

And we, Preminger’s camera makes perfectly clear, are that audience. The pivotal composition to which the film returns time and again is a diamond in which Biegler and whomever is on the witness stand are third and first base, the judge sits on second, and we’re hovering over home plate. When the humbly rural judge speaks his mind to the people before his bench (as he does when explaining the inconclusive findings of a polygraph test, for example), he stares directly at us. By the time the trial concludes, the verdict almost feels irrelevant, the film arguing that our remarkable but imperfect legal system can’t ever afford to pretend that it’s anything more. 

The courts may require an oath of truth, but nothing would get done without a little showmanship (this is where that frantic, feral Duke Ellington score comes home to roost). Stewart’s performance is a doozy, especially when it allows you to enjoy Biegler’s vacuity, George C. Scott is a joy as the granite-faced prosecutor, and even the weak stabs at comedy help the whole thing to feel panoptic instead of sloppy. Anatomy of a Murder is a masterpiece even beyond that iconic Saul Bass title sequence, an enduring reminder that justice can’t be complete, but it has to be compelling. 

THE TRANSFER: Magnificent. It’s not the most consistent transfer Criterion has ever done, but its moments of softness are few and far between, and the rest is almost impossibly crisp. The depth-of-field in the courtroom scenes best illustrates the clarity and detail on display.

THE EXTRAS: Criterion wasn’t going to skimp on their 600th release -- this is the most loaded package of the month by far. We kick things off with a 29-minute interview with Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch, which is dry and... biographical (but a great primer). Then there’s a clip from a 1967 talk show in which Preminger, a staunch opponent of censorship, chats with William F. Buckley (and some high school kids) about his favorite subject. Two exclusives: We get 21 minutes of critic Gary Giddins talking about Duke Ellington, and 14 minutes of Pat Kirkham talking about Saul Bass. 5 Minutes of newsreel footage from the set are pure gold, complete with an amazingly enthusiastic voiceover typical of the era. 

THE BEST BIT: “Anatomy of Anatomy.” Preminger’s film is based on an actual case, and in 1997 a Marquette County resident published a book about how the production of Anatomy of a Murder transformed the identity of the community in which it was shot. For the last 10 years, filmmakers David C. Jones, Claire Wiley, and John O’Grady have been compiling a documentary on the subject, and here Criterion presents 30-minutes of their work-in-progress. It plays like a History Channel one-off, but is nevertheless a neat reminder that a film is never just a film.

THE ARTWORK: The cover is the poster, and that’s exactly how it should be. The booklet has been Bass-ed up with shutters of black boxes, and it’s a pleasure to flip through.

THE VERDICT: 90 / 100 ***CRITERION CORNER PICK OF THE MONTH!***

 

BLU-RAY UPGRADES

#387 LA JETEE / SANS SOLEIL (dir. Chris Marker) 1963 / 1983 

THE FILM{S): Alright, let’s get personal. The films of Chris Marker should only be discussed in the first-person. The use of “I” is imperative, the backbone of every thought relating to his cinema. The thin veneer of coldness that’s hardened along the top of his work might disguise Marker’s films as cool or masturbatory (or cooly masturbatory) intellectual essays, an idea supported by the artist’s deceptively reclusive nature. But I’d argue that few films of any stripe are as implicitly personal as La Jetée and Sans Soleil, the two masterworks available on Criterion’s only new Blu-Ray upgrade. Both hyper-specific and inclusively universal (or hyper-specific in order to be inclusively universal), La Jetée and Sans Soleil each present and return to the isolated images that haunt their protagonists as a means of exploring the tenuous relationship between a man and his memories.

La Jetée, the 30-minute short film that provided the skeleton for Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, is told in a looping succession of still images that follow a time-traveling man’s attempt to return to a hazy moment from his youth, as if it were still there waiting for him. The past, he learns, is not quite as malleable as one’s relationship to it. Sans Soleil explodes that notion in a million different directions and scatters the pieces across the globe, as one of Marker’s aliases writes to another about Japanese cats, African women, and an image of three Icelandic children that he struggles to place. Marker’s rabble of invisible, fictitious supporting characters allows him to illustrate the process with which all people communicate with the images swirling about their head. Marker’s gifts for message and montage allow the “found” footage he uses to retain an immediacy that belies their age -- watching Sans Soleil, Tokyo circa 1982 doesn’t feel past, it feels reborn. 

THE UPGRADE: La Jetée enjoys a clear and immediate benefit from the HD transfer, allowing details of Marker’s still photos to pop like never before. Sans Soleil is so rooted in distance and decay that a veneer of clarity almost seems to fight against Marker’s message -- streaming the film on Criterion’s Hulu page tempted me into considering it in light of the format’s ephemerality, but Blu-Ray just seemed unnecessary and even potentially harmful. And, well, it turns out that my concerns weren’t only unfounded, but laughed out of the water. Sans Soleil doesn’t only justify this upgrade, it functions as a subtle illustration of why they’re the best in the business, Without upsetting the integrity of Marker’s work, Criterion makes the image feel significantly more film-like than any of its previous digital incarnations, returning to Sans Soleil the texture and plasticity with which Marker first shot it. These are home movies, but the Blu-Ray makes you feel like you were there. 

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