Friday, March 27, 2015

The Criterion Challenge: April


March was so busy and crazy that it took me not only February but also March to finish the last Criterion Challenge! They don't call it "March Madness" for nothing!

So finally, on to the challenge for April. The films for this one are:

21. An Angel At My Table 

Synopsis:

With An Angel at My Table, Academy Award–winning filmmaker Jane Campion brings to the screen the harrowing true-life story of Janet Frame, New Zealand’s most distinguished author. The film follows Frame along her inspiring journey, from a poverty-stricken childhood to a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia and electroshock therapy to, finally, international literary fame. Beautifully capturing the color and power of the New Zealand landscape, the film earned Campion a sweep of her country’s film awards and the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Review:

This movie is a gem for a myriad of reasons. Where to start? Firstly, the subject is of famed New Zealand author Janet Frame. It's her life story filmed in 3 parts, from her childhood, to young adulthood, to her fame. Secondly, it's directed by one talented female director, Jane Campion. There are many films that capture New Zealand in all its glory on location, but this movie truly captures it in such a way that makes you feel that you are there, and that makes you wish you were actually, really there. For all the film's beauty, this is a story not for the faint of heart. It's gut-wrenching, tragic, and powerful. The cast present the characters so faithfully, and the story just feels so dedicated to doing right by the author and by New Zealand. If there's only one downside to this movie, is that it's very long, clocking at almost 3 hours, but is it worth it? Absolutely - it's worth every second!

22. Armageddon

Synopsis:

Bruce Willis and an all-star cast of roughneck oil drillers blast off on a mission to save the planet in Michael Bay’s doomsday space epic.

Review:

Honestly, this movie is so painfully over the top, melodramatic, and ridiculously campy, and at times I'm not quite sure if that was the film's intention. It's also very dated now. It's so 90's that watching this now is laughable. It's even harder to imagine that there was a time when people actually loved this movie (or maybe they didn't - maybe most just actually loved to loathe it?). Now, I wouldn't say Armageddon is a classic, and frankly I'm surprised that it got the Criterion treatment, considering that it's just a blockbuster movie, fun for its time, sure, but...it's not that great, far from being taken seriously. But is it entertaining? Oh yes, it's hilarious, whether it was meant to be or not. The movie has so many stars from Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Steve Buscemi, and so many more that adds more to its campiness, not to mention, all the EXPLOSIONS, and lots of Aerosmith music, because, you know, that's what an apocalypse is all about. Let's face it, though, Armageddon is a guilty pleasure. You aren't supposed to like it, but you can't help but love it for what it is - one gloriously entertaining, loud, and brainless summer movie that's not afraid to be shameless.

23. Army of Shadows 

Synopsis:

This masterpiece by Jean-Pierre Melville about the French Resistance went unreleased in the United States for thirty-seven years, until its triumphant theatrical debut in 2006. Atmospheric and gripping, Army of Shadows is Melville’s most personal film, featuring Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and the incomparable Simone Signoret as intrepid underground fighters who must grapple with their conception of honor in their battle against Hitler’s regime.

Review:

This could possibly be one of the bleakest, darkest, and most gripping depiction of this harrowing time in history. The cinematography is absolutely stunning, and the cast is absolutely perfect. This is not a romanticized version of the French Resistance; this is as real and gritty as it can get, and it's not only thrilling to watch, but is definitely worth seeing repeated viewings of Melville's masterpiece. 

* 24. As Long as You've Got Your Health 

Synopsis:

In this endlessly diverting compendium of four short films, Pierre Etaix regards the 1960s from his askew but astute perspective. Each part is as technically impressive as it is riotous: a man attempts to read a novel about vampires beside his sleeping wife but cannot seem to separate reality from fiction; a simple afternoon at the movies becomes a consumer-culture assault; a jarringly noisy urban landscape keeps a city’s population on edge; and a day in the country means something different to a picnicking city couple, a hunter, and a farmer.

Review:

I'm surprised that I've never heard of Pierre Etaix before. There's a reason why: his films have been unseen for decades because of legal tangles. This is all the more reason why watching his films is a must: it's not only a miracle that we can actually watch them nowadays, but seriously, this man is hilarious. He can easily be compared to a French Chaplin and Buster Keaton - yes, Etaix is as brilliant! And his physical comedy has been compared to that of Jacques Tati and Jerry Lewis, but Etaix equally stands as a class of his own. As Long As You've Got Your Health is a riot! Each whacky and quirky scenario is so beautifully crafted, well-executed, and just oh so gut busting funny. I loved every minute of it.

* 25.  Au Hasard Balthazar

Synopsis:

A profound masterpiece from one of the most revered filmmakers in the history of cinema, director Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar follows the donkey Balthazar as he is passed from owner to owner, some kind and some cruel but all with motivations beyond his understanding. Balthazar, whose life parallels that of his first keeper, Marie, is truly a beast of burden, suffering the sins of man. But despite his powerlessness, he accepts his fate nobly. Through Bresson’s unconventional approach to composition, sound, and narrative, this seemingly simple story becomes a moving parable of purity and transcendence.

Review:

The plot to this movie is oh so simple: it's a spiritual fable of a donkey named Balthazar who's passed down from owner to owner, who endures one cruel event after another, showing mankind's indifference to suffering. It's about as heart-wrenching as Disney's Bambi, as you can't help but weep and truly sympathize with this sweet, innocent animal. For a story about a donkey, this will be one of the most human movies you'll ever see. Naturally, the donkey not only steals our hearts, but he embodies so much heart and humanity. Pain, despair, heartache, hope, and the flaws of mankind is seen through the eyes of this donkey, and all is ultimately transcendent in one remarkable story.


* 26.  Au Revoir Les Enfants  

Synopsis:

Au revoir les enfants tells a heartbreaking story of friendship and devastating loss concerning two boys living in Nazi-occupied France. At a provincial Catholic boarding school, the precocious youths enjoy true camaraderie—until a secret is revealed. Based on events from writer-director Malle’s own childhood, the film is a subtle, precisely observed tale of courage, cowardice, and tragic awakening.

Review:

This movie is one of the first French films I've ever seen, and I still haven't taken for granted or forgotten how heartbreaking, heartwarming, and powerful it is. It's a simple coming-of-age film about war, prejudice, and violence during Nazi-occupied France, but at the root of it all, it's about friendship and how it binds two souls together during this harrowing period in history. The most remarkable thing about this film are the two main actors, these two young boys who just really tear your heart strings. Without them, Au revoir les enfants just wouldn't be the same with its emotional impact.

27. An Autumn Afternoon

Synopsis:

The last film by Yasujiro Ozu was also his final masterpiece, a gently heartbreaking story about a man’s dignifed resignation to life’s shifting currents and society’s modernization. Though the widower Shuhei (frequent Ozu leading man Chishu Ryu) has been living comfortably for years with his grown daughter, a series of events leads him to accept and encourage her marriage and departure from their home. As elegantly composed and achingly tender as any of the Japanese master’s films, An Autumn Afternoon is one of cinema’s fondest farewells.

Review:

Something about An Autumn Afternoon is so..inviting. Just the title alone is pleasant and refreshing, but the film itself is pretty sublime, oh so colorful, and lovely, as if it's just steeped in Japan. The plot/storyline may not be the most interesting. This film can be very slow moving. A lot is built around the gorgeous visuals than on the plot and characterization, but on the whole, this is a rewarding movie. It's warm, a bit melancholy, sometimes funny, but most of all, very human.


28.  Autumn Sonata

Synopsis:

Autumn Sonata was the only collaboration between cinema’s two great Bergmans: Ingmar, the iconic director of The Seventh Seal, and Ingrid, the monumental star of Casablanca. The grand dame, playing an icy concert pianist, is matched beat for beat in ferocity by the filmmaker’s recurring lead Liv Ullmann, as her eldest daughter. Over the course of a day and a long, painful night that the two spend together after an extended separation, they finally confront the bitter discord of their relationship. This cathartic pas de deux, evocatively shot in burnished harvest colors by the great Sven Nykvist, ranks among Ingmar Bergman’s major dramatic works.

Review:

Autumn Sonata is a pretty typical Bergman film: it's gorgeous, but is oftentimes painfully slow, and makes one want to fall asleep almost within minutes of watching it. However, like most if not all Bergman films (at least from my experience of watching a whole lot of Bergman over the years), if you can approach it with open eyes and an open mind, there's a rewarding experience to be found. Yes, the beginning is painfully slow, and it almost lost me, but once the movie dug really deep into the mother and daughter relationship, that was when Autumn Sonata became compelling. The story is awfully depressing and bleak, but powerful. Even more powerful are Liv Ullman and Ingrid Bergman who truly give their all into their roles, pulling us through a relationship that's harrowing and tragic. Both of them are fueled by raw emotion. You'd be hard pressed to not be fueled with them.

29. Babette's Feast


Synopsis:

At once a rousing paean to artistic creation, a delicate evocation of divine grace, and the ultimate film about food, the Oscar-winning Babette’s Feast is a deeply beloved treasure of cinema. Directed by Gabriel Axel and adapted from a story by Isak Dinesen, it is the lovingly layered tale of a French housekeeper with a mysterious past who brings quiet revolution in the form of one exquisite meal to a circle of starkly pious villagers in late nineteenth-century Denmark. Babette’s Feast combines earthiness and reverence in an indescribably moving depiction of sensual pleasure that goes to your head like fine champagne.


Review:

If there's one movie that truly defines and pays such decadent tribute to food and how it can unite families and communities together, it would be Babette's Feast. It's a tale as rich in storytelling, history, culture, and depth as the French cuisine that's as much a star of this film as the actors in it. It's a pretty simple movie, based off of a short story and adapted to capture its religious, spiritual, and earthly essence. For its simplicity, it's also pretty complex and has many more themes and lessons to tell than meets the eye. There's also so much to admire about this movie: the heroine, Babette, how a film about the elderly isn't depressing, cute, or imbecilic, but about how these people aspire to be who they want to be on their own terms, and, naturally, the preparation of the grand feast! It's just all so delightful, warm, and inviting. And besides, what's not to love about an arthouse movie dedicated to food? Just be sure to eat something before watching it!

* 30. Bad Timing 

Synopsis:

Amid the decaying elegance of cold-war Vienna, psychoanalyst Dr. Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) becomes mired in an erotically charged affair with the elusive Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell). When their all-consuming passion takes a life-threatening turn, Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel) is assigned to piece together the sordid details. Acclaimed for its innovative editing, raw performances, and stirring musical score—featuring Tom Waits, the Who, and Billie Holiday—Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing is a masterful, deeply disturbing foray into the dark world of sexual obsession.

Review:

This is one of the creepiest movies about sex and love that I've seen in a long while. And being that it is a Nicolas Roeg film, it's also artsy, engrossing, bizarre, and pretty out there. You won't look at Art Gafunkel the same way again after Bad Timing as he plays the disturbed Dr. Alex Linden who takes his love and sexual obsession for Milena Flaherty to the extreme. He and actress Theresa Russell are so consumed by their roles that it's no wonder that I was consumed to watching this film. Everything about this movie is so wrong, and yet it's so right - the editing, the awesome film score, the art references, the setting, the sex scenes, and the performances. Bad Timing is simply brilliant.

The movies that are omitted from this list are:


Andrzej Wajda: Three War Films

 
Synopsis:

In 1999, Polish director Andrzej Wajda received an Honorary Academy Award for his body of work: more than thirty-five feature films, beginning with A Generation in 1955. Wajda’s next film, Kanal, the first ever made about the Warsaw Uprising, won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and launched Wajda on the path to international renown, a status secured with the release of his masterpiece, Ashes and Diamonds, in 1958. These three groundbreaking films helped usher in the Polish School movement and have often been regarded as a trilogy. But each boldly stands on its own—a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the struggle for personal and national freedom. The Criterion Collection is proud to present this director-approved edition, with new transfers of all three films and extensive interviews with the filmmaker and his colleagues.

Antichrist

Synopsis:

Lars von Trier shook up the film world when he premiered Antichrist at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. In this graphic psychodrama, a grief-stricken man and woman—a searing Willem Dafoe and Cannes best actress winner Charlotte Gainsbourg—retreat to their cabin deep in the woods after the accidental death of their infant son, only to find terror and violence at the hands of nature and, ultimately, each other. But this most confrontational work yet from one of contemporary cinema’s most controversial artists is no mere provocation. It is a visually sublime, emotionally ravaging journey to the darkest corners of the possessed human mind; a disturbing battle of the sexes that pits rational psychology against age-old superstition; and a profoundly effective horror film.

Antonio Gaudí

Synopsis:

Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí (1852–1926) designed some of the world’s most astonishing buildings, interiors, and parks; Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara constructed some of the most aesthetically audacious films ever made. Here their artistry melds in a unique, enthralling cinematic experience. Less a documentary than a visual poem, Teshigahara’s Antonio Gaudí takes viewers on a tour of Gaudí’s truly spectacular architecture, including his massive, still-unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona. With camera work as bold and sensual as the curves of his subject’s organic structures, Teshigahara immortalizes Gaudí on film.

Arabian Nights

 
Synopsis:

Pier Paolo Pasolini traveled to Africa, Nepal, and the Middle East to realize this ambitious cinematic treatment of a selection of stories from the legendary The Thousand and One Nights. This is not the fairy-tale world of Scheherazade or Aladdin, though. Instead, the director focuses on the book’s more erotic tales, framed by the story of a young man’s quest to reconnect with his beloved slave girl. Full of lustrous sets and costumes and stunning location photography, Arabian Nights is a fierce and joyous exploration of human sexuality.

The Atomic Submarine

 Synopsis:

When a nuclear-powered submarine, the Tiger Shark, sets out to investigate a series of mysterious disappearances near the Arctic Circle, its fearless crew finds itself besieged by electrical storms, an Unidentified Floating Saucer, and lots of hairy tentacles.

The Bad Sleep Well  

Synopsis:

A young executive hunts down his father’s killer in director Akira Kurosawa’s scathing The Bad Sleep Well. Continuing his legendary collaboration with actor Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa combines elements of Hamlet and American film noir to chilling effect in exposing the corrupt boardrooms of postwar corporate Japan.

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