Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Criterion Challenge: February 2015


- Note: the films with a highlighted asterisk means that they are my absolute favorite.

11. The Adventures of Antoine Doinel


Synopsis:


The release of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows in 1959 shook world cinema to its foundations. The now-classic portrait of troubled adolescence introduced a major new director in the cinematic landscape and was an inaugural gesture of the revolutionary French New Wave. But The 400 Blows did not only introduce the world to its precocious director—it also unveiled his indelible creation: Antoine Doinel. Initially patterned closely after Truffaut himself, the Doinel character (played by the irrepressible and iconic Jean-Pierre Léaud) reappeared in four subsequent films that knowingly portrayed his myriad frustrations and romantic entanglements from his stormy teens through marriage, children, divorce, and adulthood. With The Adventures of Antoine Doinel, Criterion is proud to present Truffaut’s celebrated saga in its entirety: the feature films The 400 Blows, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, and Love on the Run, and the 1962 short subject, Antoine and Colette, in a special edition five-disc box set.

Review: 

Like The 400 Blows, The Adventures of Antoine Doinel is very much an extension of who the director is as a person, but very well represents the type of artist he is. Antoine Doinel is the archetypal teenager with his angst, sneaky exploits, and hell bent pursuit on getting the woman of his desires. Sometimes the character comes off as creepy, and on occasions his exploits get old, but it's still fun to watch. Not to mention, all five films here beautifully captures Paris of the 1970's. None of these movies necessarily capture the brilliance that is The 400 Blows, but they're still worth the view.

12. Alexander Nevsky


Synopsis:

Eisenstein drew on history, Russian folk narratives, and the techniques of Walt Disney to create this broadly painted epic of Russian resilience. This story of Teutonic knights vanquished by Prince Alexander Nevsky’s tactical brilliance resonated deeply with a Soviet Union concerned with the rise of Nazi Germany. Widely imitated—most notably by Laurence Olivier’s Battle of Agincourt re-creation for Henry V—the Battle on the Ice scene remains one of the most famous audio-visual experiments in film history, perfectly blending action with the rousing score of Sergei Prokofiev.

Review: 

This movie is a dream for Russian history enthusiasts. It's chock full of Russian pride with a pretty easy to follow plot that moves at a fairly rapid pace. The most memorable scene from this whole film is the Battle on the Ice scene. It's so action-packed and quite impressive, worthy of the price of admission alone!

13. All That Heaven Allows 


Synopsis:

This heartbreakingly beautiful indictment of 1950s American mores by Douglas Sirk follows the blossoming love between a well-off widow (Jane Wyman) and her handsome and earthy younger gardener (Rock Hudson). When their romance prompts the scorn of her children and country club friends, she must decide whether to pursue her own happiness or carry on a lonely, hemmed-in existence for the sake of the approval of others. With the help of ace cinematographer Russell Metty, Sirk imbues nearly every shot with a vivid and distinct emotional tenor. A profoundly felt film about class and conformity in small-town America, All That Heaven Allows is a pinnacle of expressionistic Hollywood melodrama.

Review:

The premise of this story is so simple and melodramatic, the acting so wooden, and the character development so thin that sometimes I couldn't help but tune out from this movie, or feel cold to it. That was how I felt in the beginning, anyway. But as the movie progressed, despite the movie's many flaws, there's a warmth, sadness, and rawness to it. It's emotionally real, and the plight between the two main characters---the "forbidden" aspect, the fact that one is rich and privileged and the other is ordinary and low class---is sadly still so relevant. All That Heaven Allows may not have been a film that I loved, but I did admire it for its message, and how it still lives up to that, and in gorgeous Technicolor. Plus, Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman sure made one gorgeous couple on screen. This is pretty old-school Hollywood melodrama, maybe not at its most finest, but certainly at its most honest and believable.

* 14. All That Jazz


Synopsis:

The preternaturally gifted director and choreographer Bob Fosse turned the camera on his own life for this madly imaginative, self-excoriating musical masterpiece. Roy Scheider gives the performance of his career as Joe Gideon, whose exhausting work schedule—mounting a Broadway production by day and editing his latest movie by night—and routine of amphetamines, booze, and sex are putting his health at serious risk. Fosse burrows into Gideon’s (and his own) mind, rendering his interior world as phantasmagoric spectacle. Assembled with visionary editing that makes dance come alive on-screen as never before, and overflowing with sublime footwork by the likes of Ann Reinking, Leland Palmer, and Ben Vereen, All That Jazz pushes the musical genre to personal depths and virtuosic aesthetic heights.

Review:

What's not to love about this extravaganza? All That Jazz is stylistically a nod to Fellini's  with its fantasy musical theme and semi-autobiographical nature, but it's entirely a Bob Fosse movie, one that Mr. Fosse was practically born to make. If there's one word to describe this film, it's this: breathtaking. Everything from the story, the dancing, the acting, the editing, the lighting, and the music epitomizes everything that Fosse---and entertainment---is all about. The beauty and brilliance of this movie is that it not only works as a movie musical, but it also works as a psychological exploration of fantasy vs. reality, of man vs. the entertainer/work-a-holic, and of life vs. death. Not many musicals dare to be this personal and artistic while also somehow not relying on pretension, but on pure talent, entertainment, laughter, and fun. If that's not Bob Fosse, I don't know what is.

15. Alphaville 


Synopsis:

A cockeyed fusion of science fiction, pulp characters, and surrealist poetry, Godard’s irreverent journey to the mysterious Alphaville remains one of the least conventional films of all time. Eddie Constantine stars as intergalactic hero Lemmy Caution, on a mission to kill the inventor of fascist computer Alpha 60.

Review:

This is a typical Godard film (artsy, pretentious, and clever), but far from being just some ordinary science fiction movie. This is a moody piece; you really do have to be in the mood for it, and even if and when you are, there's just something about it that leaves you feeling cold, and yet warmed to this unique story. I've seen this movie many times throughout my college French courses. I still have mixed feelings about Alphaville. It's one of those films that's not really that enjoyable. More than likely you'll only want to see it once, but there's a lot to appreciate here---the cinematography, the poetry, the acting, the nudity, and the overall quirkiness---that makes it worth seeing.

16. Amarcord 


Synopsis:

This carnivalesque portrait of provincial Italy during the fascist period, the most personal film from Federico Fellini, satirizes the director’s youth and turns daily life into a circus of social rituals, adolescent desires, male fantasies, and political subterfuge, all set to Nina Rota’s classic, nostalgia-tinged score. The Academy Award–winning Amarcord remains one of cinema’s enduring treasures.

Review:

Amarcord is without a shadow of a doubt one of Fellini's most accessible films. It oozes nostalgia, and it's ridiculously campy, over the top, and oftentimes obnoxious, but that's the point, and only Fellini can make it look somewhat artsy. Despite its high points, for me personally, it was a pretty boring film. I didn't mind so much that it was plot-less, but there was no depth or meaning behind anything. It meandered a lot to the point where it lost me, and all I could do was simply admire the film for its cinematography and get a rise out of the nudity and the goofy erotic-ish scenes, but nothing else more.

* 17. Anatomy of a Murder

Synopsis:

A virtuoso James Stewart plays a small-town Michigan lawyer who takes on a difficult case: the defense of a young army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) accused of murdering a local tavern owner who he believes raped his wife (Lee Remick). This gripping envelope-pusher, the most popular film by Hollywood provocateur Otto Preminger, was groundbreaking for the frankness of its discussion of sex—but more than anything else, it is a striking depiction of the power of words. Featuring an outstanding supporting cast—with a young George C. Scott as a fiery prosecutor and the legendary attorney Joseph N. Welch as the judge—and an influential score by Duke Ellington, Anatomy of a Murder is an American movie landmark, nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture.

Review:

This is one bold, daring, and shocking film of its time, and in many ways, it still is. Not many movies if any at all around 1959 and beyond has been so frank about sex and rape like Anatomy of a Murder is. Words like "panties" (esp. the frank in-court questions to the female victim: "do you wear panties, were you wearing panties...?"), "spermatogenesis", and "irresistible impulse", words that you'd never hear on-screen back in the day, made audience squirm then. Nowadays, maybe it doesn't as much, but still, it really is quite surprising. But it's not scandalous for the sake of it. There is a pretty gripping and exciting murder story here, a superb cast of intriguing characters, highly sophisticated cinematography, and a jazzy Duke Ellington score to boot. The icing on this pretty rich cake is how the movie never gives away anything, and doesn't make anything so black and white. It dissects the legal system in a bitter, tough, and biting way that leaves you constantly questioning the motives of the lawyers, attorneys, witnesses, victims, and so many more characters that make up this story, and the system itself. This movie is often placed in the same "best trial movie ever made" rank as 12 Angry Men, and rightfully so. But there's a whole lot about Anatomy of a Murder that makes it very different. It's conniving, ambiguous, and sleazy, daring to approach the topics that we're still afraid to talk about so openly, and those are the reasons why this movie is not only good, but perfect. 

* 18. And God Created Woman 


Synopsis:

The astounding success of Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman revolutionized the foreign film market and turned Brigitte Bardot into an international star. Bardot stars as Juliette, an 18-year-old orphan whose unbridled appetite for pleasure shakes up all of St. Tropez; her sweet but naïve husband Michel (Jean-Louis Trintignant) endures beatings, insults, and mambo in his attempts to tame her wild ways.

Review:

And God Created Woman begins with a buxom, butt naked Brigitte Bardot sprawled out on the ground, outside, behind a line of laundry, with a man admiring her feet as God's gift to man. And alas, that's basically the movie in a nutshell: God's gift to man that is in the form of a very curvacious, flighty, bratty, and sassy woman named Juliette, and all the men who love her and the women who hate her. This film has nothing deep, interesting, or profound to say. It's all about sex, and Brigitte Bardot here is basically the embodiment of sex in a movie although fluffy, dense, and plot-less, is pretty entertaining, and very sexy indeed. This movie made Brigitte Bardot internationally famous, and other than making foreign films more marketable and USA-"friendly", I think it also revolutionized sex in films too. Other than being a smoldering sex pot who instantly makes you think dirty thoughts, Brigitte Bardot is truly stunning and delightful here. You can't keep your eyes off her. She was practically born to be made into a star in this film, and that was exactly what happened. This won't be anywhere near to being one of the best films you'll ever see, but it is definitely Brigitte Bardot's best film, and certainly her most memorable one.

19. And The Ship Sails On 


Synopsis:

In Fellini’s quirky, imaginative fable, a motley crew of European aristocrats (and a lovesick rhinoceros!) board a luxurious ocean liner on the eve of World War I to scatter the ashes of a beloved diva. Fabricated entirely in Rome’s famed Cinecittà studios, And the Ship Sails On (E la nave va) reaches spectacular new visual heights with its stylized re-creation of a decadent bygone era.

Review:

I'm not sure what to think about this one. It's indeed imaginative, but like many of Fellini's later works, as artsy and whimsical as the characters are, there isn't much plot to really keep my interest. But maybe that's the point: it's meant to be visually stunning, decadent, and artsy, but nothing else more. Or maybe I'm just at the point now where Fellini just doesn't do much for me. Whatever the case, this is overall an amusing movie, delightful in its own way.

20. Andrei Rublev 


Synopsis:

Immediately suppressed by the Soviets in 1966, Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic masterpiece is a sweeping medieval tale of Russia’s greatest icon painter. Too experimental, too frightening, too violent, and too politically complicated to be released officially, Andrei Rublev has existed only in shortened, censored versions until the Criterion Collection created this complete 205-minute director’s cut special edition.

Review:

This movie is epic in more ways than one. It's 3 hours and 25 minutes of black and white, complex religious, artistic, spiritual, and political themes, and a pretty hard-hitting meditation on man's relationship with God, art, and his country. It's a biopic on Russia's iconic painter, but it transcends above that. It really is as experimental, frightening, violent, and complicated as it's described in the synopsis. There's some pretty haunting stuff going on in this movie that has to be seen to appreciate it. If you have the time and the attention span for a movie this grand, go for it, Andrei Rublev is so worth it.

The Criterion movies that have been omitted from the challenge are:

Adventures of Zatoichi 


Synopsis:

The blind swordsman wanders into a town to celebrate the New Year. There, he befriends a young woman whose father has gone missing; as he tries to help her find him, he becomes entangled in a web of corruption and a series of tragic twists of fate. Returning director Kimiyoshi Yasuda and screenwriter Shozaburo Asai masterfully weave together a variety of narrative threads and tonal registers, all while playfully tweaking the conventions and motifs of the series.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul


Synopsis:

The wildly prolific German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder paid homage to his cinematic hero Douglas Sirk with this update of that filmmaker’s 1955 All That Heaven Allows. A lonely widow (Brigitte Mira) meets a much younger Arab worker (El Hedi ben Salem) in a bar during a rainstorm. They fall in love, to their own surprise—and to the outright shock of their families, colleagues, and drinking buddies. In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Fassbinder expertly wields the emotional power of classic Hollywood melodrama to expose the racial tensions underlying contemporary German culture.

America Lost and Found: The BBS Story


Synopsis:

Like the rest of America, Hollywood was ripe for revolution in the late sixties. Cinema attendance was down; what had once worked seemed broken. Enter Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner, who knew that what Hollywood needed was new audiences—namely, young people—and that meant cultivating new talent and new ideas. Fueled by money from their invention of the superstar TV pop group the Monkees, they set off on a film-industry journey that would lead them to form BBS Productions, a company that was also a community. The innovative films produced by this team between 1968 and 1972 are collected in this box set—works that now range from the iconic (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show) to the acclaimed (The King of Marvin Gardens) to the obscure (Head; Drive, He Said; A Safe Place), all created within the studio system but lifted right out of the countercultural id.

And Everything is Going Fine

Synopsis:

After the death in 2004 of American theater actor and monologist Spalding Gray, director Steven Soderbergh pieced together a narrative of Gray’s life to create the documentary And Everything Is Going Fine. Brilliantly and sensitively assembled entirely from footage of Gray, taken from interviews and one-man shows from throughout his career, it is a rich, full portrait—an autobiography of sorts—of a figure who was never less than candid but retained an air of mystery.


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