Tuesday, April 21, 2015
The Criterion Challenge: May
* 31. Badlands
Badlands announced the arrival of a major talent: Terrence Malick. His impressionistic take on the notorious Charles Starkweather killing spree of the late 1950s uses a serial-killer narrative as a springboard for an oblique teenage romance, lovingly and idiosyncratically enacted by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. The film introduced many of the elements that would earn Malick his passionate following: the enigmatic approach to narrative and character, the unusual use of voice-over, the juxtaposition of human violence with natural beauty, the poetic investigation of American dreams and nightmares. This debut has spawned countless imitations, but none have equaled its strange sublimity.
Badlands is Lolita meets Bonnie and Clyde - so criminal, so creepy, and so wrong, and though it may not be shocking by today's standards, this movie is still pretty mesmerizing. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are almost a little too believable in their roles as the bad boy and the Lolita-esque teenager on the run and madly, crazy in love; they make it hard to believe that they're only just acting. Even the violence---the human and the animal kind---is so real to life (no worries, no animal or person was actually really harmed in this movie!). The romanticizing of death, violence, and crime juxtapositions beautifully with the nature that surrounds them. But it's not all surface; Badlands is psychologically intense as it is also darkly comical. The impeccable use and timing of the voiceover and the film's score ties it all together into not only a unique experience, but a truly horrifying one.
32. Ballad of a Soldier
Russian soldier Alyosha Skvortsov is granted a visit with his mother after he single-handedly fends off two enemy tanks. As he journeys home, Alyosha encounters the devastation of his war-torn country, witnesses glimmers of hope among the people, and falls in love. With its poetic visual imagery, Grigori Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier is an unconventional meditation on the effects of war, and a milestone in Russian cinema.
Even though this is a war movie, Ballad of a Soldier is about love: the love between a man and his country, of a son and mother, and of a man and a woman. It's so poignant in its simplicity, so moving in its honesty, and so charming in its innocence. It's also one gorgeous film; the cinematography is poetic and really sweeping in its beauty. Even if you may not be a fan of war movies, this one is so worth watching because there's a whole lot to admire, and simply, it's one that you will never forget.
* 33. The Ballad of Narayama
This haunting, kabuki-inflected version of a Japanese folk legend is set in a remote mountain village where food is scarce and tradition dictates that citizens who have reached their seventieth year must be carried to the summit of Mount Narayama and left there to die. The sacrificial elder at the center of the tale is Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka), a dignified and dutiful woman who spends her dwindling days securing the happiness of her loyal widowed son with a respectable new wife. Filmed almost entirely on cunningly designed studio sets, in brilliant color and widescreen, The Ballad of Narayama is a stylish and vividly formal work from Japan’s cinematic golden age, directed by the dynamic Keisuke Kinoshita.
This is one strange film, and I'm not putting that lightly. The Ballad of Narayama is brutal: brutally sexual, brutally violent, and through it all, brutally human. And the movie doesn't take any of this lightly as it introduces us to this village and its people and all their hardships, from a family being buried alive, from a young man seeking "sexual relief" with a neighbor's dog, from a mother finding a woman, any woman, to take her son's virginity, and onward to the ultimate sacrifice, of a son carrying his mother, Narayama, to her death at the top of a mountain, which is a brutal journey in and of itself. This movie isn't for the faint of heart; everything is pretty graphic and hardcore. And what does it all mean? What does one get out of this movie? If anything, is that humanity can be pretty sick, and that's part of the beauty of this movie, is just how vividly, in such a surreal and tender way, it gets that message across.
34. Band of Outsiders
Four years after Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard reimagined the gangster film even more radically with Band of Outsiders (Bande à part). In it, two restless young men (Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur) enlist the object of both of their fancies (Anna Karina) to help them commit a robbery—in her own home. This audacious and wildly entertaining French New Wave gem is at once sentimental and insouciant, effervescently romantic and melancholy, and it features some of Godard’s most memorable set pieces, including the headlong race through the Louvre and the unshakably cool Madison dance sequence.
I've seen this in almost every college French and film class, and I'm still not blown away by it. I love it more for its style, cinematography, literary references, and editing than for its story, which is interesting and kind of funny on the surface, but is actually pretty boring, at least to me. But Band of Outsiders does have a charm about it, and has some pretty cute and endearing moments, like that Madison dance sequence and the Louvre scene. So what it lacks in plot, it makes up for in its suave and cool style. It's definitely not the ordinary gangster film. It's not for everyone, but if anything, this movie does what very few gangster films (not even the great ones) will do: make you smile.
35. The Bank Dick
W.C. Fields stars as an unemployed, henpecked drunk who spends most of his time at the Black Pussy Cat café. Things take a turn for the absurd when he unwittingly captures a bank robber and lands a job as a security guard. Written by Fields under the pseudonym Mahatma Kane Jeeves and featuring one of his most hilarious performances, The Bank Dick is an undisputed classic of American comedy.
This is classic comedy right here. It's only 75-minutes, but this gem turns every minute into gold. More absurd than the story is the main character of The Bank Dick; he's so repulsive and unlikeable, and yet only W.C. Fields can make a man like that get away with his tomfoolery, and make you laugh out loud while he does it. There are so many hilarious moments in this film; it's all very vaudeville and slapstick---so dated by today's standards of course---but surprisingly, it's still laughable and even charming. This is just one funny film from one unique comedian from America's Golden Age of comedy.
36. The Battle of Algiers
One of the most influential political films in history, The Battle of Algiers, by Gillo Pontecorvo, vividly re-creates a key year in the tumultuous Algerian struggle for independence from the occupying French in the 1950s. As violence escalates on both sides, children shoot soldiers at point-blank range, women plant bombs in cafés, and French soldiers resort to torture to break the will of the insurgents. Shot on the streets of Algiers in documentary style, the film is a case study in modern warfare, with its terrorist attacks and the brutal techniques used to combat them. Pontecorvo’s tour de force has astonishing relevance today.
Based on a true story, The Battle of Algiers is so full of heart, passion, and power. It's documentary-like in style, very gritty, raw, and authentic, filmed through the lens of a savvy and intelligent director who also put his own personal experiences into this gripping story. The cast is largely non-professional actors, and it was financially assisted by the Algerian government. The result of all this makes it no wonder that the film is so nail-biting, depicting both sides of conflict fairly, and why the horrifying scenes feels and looks so graphic. Even the film score (co-composed by Pontecorvo himself and the great Ennio Morricone) is quite something. This movie was released in 1965, but it still has relevance--it's one of those films that's simply timeless.
* 37. The Beales of Grey Gardens
The 1976 cinema vérité classic Grey Gardens, which captured in remarkable close-up the lives of the eccentric East Hampton recluses Big and Little Edie Beale, has spawned everything from a midnight-movie cult following to a Broadway musical, to an upcoming Hollywood adaptation. The filmmakers then went back to their vaults of footage to create part two, The Beales of Grey Gardens, a tribute both to these indomitable women and to the original landmark documentary’s legions of fans, who have made them American counterculture icons.
Big and Little Edie Beale are the world's first reality TV stars, and Grey Gardens was indeed like something straight out of fiction, but the fact that their riches-to-rags story is real is what makes these people and the original movie hilarious, frightening, sadistic, charming, and just...zany as hell. It's no wonder that Grey Gardens became a midnight-movie cult classic that inspired a Broadway musical and a Hollywood adaptation, and why Big and Little Edie are counterculture figures. Gone but never forgotten, Big and Little Edie also live on in part two of Grey Gardens, The Beales of Grey Gardens, that's remarkably as amazing as Grey Gardens. It's instantly charming and weird from the get-go with Little Edie singing "You Ought to Be in Pictures", outside in front of their run-down East Hampton mansion, showing off some leg, sass, and glamor. It's chilling, and inspiring, that from decline these two characters can rise up against it and make each day bright even when they're in a living hell, and they even make hell seem like a hell of a lot of fun, even if their idea of fun is pretty depressing and bleak. Their eccentricity is simply wonderful, and this documentary showcases that in a more down-to-earth fashion, tearing away the camp and showing us the real Big and Little Edie Beale. For certain, you'll never forget these two, nor Grey Gardens, and not even this. All a classic in every way.
* 38. Beauty and the Beast
Jean Cocteau’s sublime adaptation of Mme. Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy-tale masterpiece—in which the pure love of a beautiful girl melts the heart of a feral but gentle beast—is a landmark of motion picture fantasy, with unforgettably romantic performances by Jean Marais and Josette Day. The spectacular visions of enchantment, desire, and death in Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête) have become timeless icons of cinematic wonder.
There's no adaptation of Beauty and the Beast like this one. To say it's beautiful and magical is an understatement. More than that, it is surreal, courageous, and passionate, as it's loud and clear that Jean Cocteau is faithful to the beloved fairytale but then is also honest to his natural instincts as a visionary, artist, and director. This movie is flawless. Every character is unforgettable. Jean Marais as the beast and Josette Day as Belle obviously are the centerpiece of this divine landmark of not just French cinema, but cinema as a whole. Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast may be 69 years old, but how remarkable that it is still, after all these years, truly timeless, as iconic as the fairytale itself.
* 39. Bed and Board
The fourth installment in François Truffaut’s chronicle of the ardent, anachronistic Antoine Doinel, Bed and Board plunges his hapless creation once again into crisis. Expecting his first child and still struggling to find steady employment, Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) involves himself in a relationship with a beautiful Japanese woman that threatens to destroy his marriage. Lightly comic, with a touch of the burlesque, Bed and Board is a bittersweet look at the travails of young married life and the fine line between adolescence and adulthood.
This is the fourth installment of the Antoine Doinel series, and I think that it's by far the most entertaining and accessible one. Antoine isn't this annoying and creepy kid anymore, but yet he's not really all-grown-up either, very much in an awkward stage between still being that boy while growing into a man. Except that he's a husband and a father this time around, which needless to say, both enriches and complicates his life that's far from boring. Like all the films in this series, the charm of Antoine Doinel is that anybody can relate to him, because in many ways, a lot of us have been like him, and maybe some of us still are, especially in this Bed and Board stage of Antoine's life. This film entirely works as a comedy with some touches of sweetness. You can't start this one without having seen the other films in the series (The 400 Blows, Antoine and Colette, Stolen Kisses, and the last installment, Love on the Run), but once you get to Bed and Board, you'd be hard pressed not to love it.
* 40. Before the Rain
The first film made in the newly independent Republic of Macedonia, Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain crosscuts the stories of an orthodox Christian monk (Grégoire Colin), a British photo agent (Katrin Cartlidge), and a native Macedonian war photographer (Rade Šerbedžija) to paint a portrait of simmering ethnic and religious hatred about to reach its boiling point. Made during the strife of the war-torn Balkan states in the nineties, this gripping triptych of love and violence is also a timeless evocation of the loss of pastoral innocence, and remains one of recent cinema’s most powerful laments on the futility of war.
This was one of the most emotionally heavy, gripping, and heart-wrenching movies that I've seen in a long time. Released in the mid-90's, it's remarkable how it feels as if Before the Rain was released in 2015. But then I suppose perhaps that's the point: Before the Rain is a timeless story about religion, spirituality, the futility of war, and the clash between the ancient versus modern Macedonia, how be they separate or apart, different or the same, all is futile. There's always this sense that life in and of itself is an all or nothing affair, no matter if it's affairs of war, affairs of one's country, affairs of one's religion, or affairs of the heart. At the heart of this film is a very simple, introvert story that screams louder than words; it's the pictures and images that has the final say. Not only does this movie beautifully craft a story around ethnic violence in Macedonia, but it also expertly uses multiple narratives that makes sense, keeps the tale moving, and makes it more engrossing. Of all the movies I've watched this month, Before the Rain is one that I highly recommend seeing the most. It's incredible.
The movies omitted from this month's challenge are:
The Bakery Girl of Monceau
Simple, delicate, and jazzy, the first of the “Moral Tales” shows the stirrings of what would become the Eric Rohmer style: unfussy naturalistic shooting, ironic first-person voice-over, and the image of the “unknowable” woman. A law student (played by producer and future director Barbet Schroeder) with a roving eye and a large appetite stuffs himself full of sugar cookies and pastries daily in order to garner the attentions of the pretty brunette who works in a quaint Paris bakery. But is he truly interested, or is she just a sweet diversion?
The Beastie Boys Video Anthology
The Beastie Boys are among the most influential groups of the last two decades. As their music has opened hip-hop to a wider audience and changed the parameters of its sound, their ambitious music videos have carried the medium to new levels of artistic expression. This groundbreaking two-disc anthology showcases the vast potential of DVD technology, with most of the eighteen videos containing alternate visual angles and multiple audio tracks. There are hundreds of possible image and sound combinations, including new surround mixes, a cappella versions, instrumentals, and more than 40 remixes (by such artists as Moby, Fatboy Slim and the Prunes), including many new remixes created exclusively for this release. Loaded with never-before-seen footage and unreleased music tracks, this special edition also contains a trove of rare still photos and exclusive audio commentary by the band and the video directors. And the coup de grâce; the world-premiere director’s cut of Nathanial Hornblower’s “Intergalactic” spin-off “The Robot vs. the Octopus Monster Saga.”
Le Beau Serge
Of the hallowed group of Cahiers du cinéma critics turned filmmakers who transformed French film history, Claude Chabrol was the first to direct his own feature. His absorbing landmark debut, Le beau Serge, follows a successful yet sickly young man (Jean‑Claude Brialy) who returns home to the small village where he grew up. There, he finds himself at odds with his former close friend (Gérard Blain)—now unhappily married and a wretched alcoholic—and the provincial life he represents. The remarkable and stark Le beau Serge heralded the arrival of a cinematic titan who would go on to craft provocative, entertaining films for five more decades.