Monday, June 1, 2015

The Criterion Challenge: June


* 41. Being John Malkovich



Synopsis:

Have you ever wanted to be someone else? Or, more specifically, have you ever wanted to crawl through a portal hidden in an anonymous office building and thereby enter the cerebral cortex of John Malkovich for fifteen minutes, before being spat out on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike? Then director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman have the movie for you. Melancholy marionettes, office drudgery, a frizzy-haired Cameron Diaz—but that’s not all! Surrealism, possession, John Cusack, a domesticated primate, Freud, Catherine Keener, non sequiturs, and absolutely no romance! But wait: get your Being John Malkovich now and we’ll throw in emasculation, slapstick, Abelard and Heloise, and extra Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich!

Review:

It's not surprising at all that a movie directed by Spike Jonze would be not only surreal, but pretty brilliant. Everything about this movie is so ridiculous - ridiculously unbelievably, ridiculously funny, ridiculously thought-provoking and boundary-pushing, and ridiculously creative from beginning to end. Being John Malkovich praises a fine actor like John as it also mocks him and his celebrity. Cameron Diaz is truly unrecognizable in what is probably the best role that she's ever done. This movie is chock full of surprises even with many viewings. It is still refreshing, zany, and original, and to this day, no other director has dared to do anything like this. Only Spike Jonze!

* 42. Belle de Jour

Synopsis:

Catherine Deneuve’s porcelain perfection hides a cracked interior in one of the actress’s most iconic roles: Séverine, a Paris housewife who begins secretly spending her after­noon hours working in a bordello. This surreal and erotic late-sixties daydream from provocateur for the ages Luis Buñuel is an examination of desire and fetishistic pleasure (its characters’ and its viewers’), as well as a gently absurdist take on contemporary social mores and class divisions. Fantasy and reality commingle in this burst of cinematic transgression, which was one of Buñuel’s biggest hits.

Review:

Belle de Jour could possibly be one of the sexiest and most surreal movies to come out of the 1960s - and boy, isn't it ever so sexy. Even to this day, there's something so breathtaking and chilling about Catherine Deneuve's performance: she's at one moment an innocent, demure, cold, and blank-faced house wife and next moment, sometimes in the same moment, she's a creature of lust and desire, but she's not one to be free too easily, or to allow herself to explore the depths of her perverted fantasies. That is, until she becomes Belle de Jour. From there, the rest is history. This film highlights Catherine Deneuve and director Luis Buñuel at their prime - and to this day, Belle de Jour is still iconic, the film that they'll always be remembered for. It's still intriguing, provocative, and simply hot, in every way. 

43. Berlin Alexanderplatz

Synopsis:

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s controversial, fifteen-hour-plus Berlin Alexanderplatz, based on Alfred Döblin’s great modernist novel, was the crowning achievement of a prolific director who, at age thirty-four, had already made forty films. Fassbinder’s immersive epic, restored in 2006 and now available on DVD in this country for the first time, follows the hulking, childlike ex-convict Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) as he attempts to “become an honest soul” amid the corrosive urban landscape of Weimar-era Germany. With equal parts cynicism and humanity, Fassbinder details a mammoth portrait of a common man struggling to survive in a viciously uncommon time.

Review:

As much as I tried, I couldn't get through Disc 1 let alone all to Disc 6 which would make for 940 minutes/15 hours of my time that I really didn't feel that Berlin Alexanderplatz was worth all that. Aside from it being too long, there's no plot. Nothing really happens. And from what I read of other reviews of this "masterpiece," basically, nothing much really does happen aside from a lot of repetition of the main character beating up his women and having a miserable life. It's not in me to not give a movie a chance especially if it's Criterion, but in this case, I just couldn't do it.

44. La Bête Humaine

Synopsis:

Based on the classic Emile Zola novel, Jean Renoir’s La bête humaine was one of the legendary director’s greatest popular successes—and earned star Jean Gabin a permanent place in the hearts of his countrymen. Part poetic realism, part film noir, the film is a hard-boiled and suspenseful journey into the tormented psyche of a workingman.

Review:

* 45. Bicycle Thieves

Synopsis:

Hailed around the world as one of the greatest movies ever made, the Academy Award–winning Bicycle Thieves, directed by Vittorio De Sica, defined an era in cinema. In poverty-stricken postwar Rome, a man is on his first day of a new job that offers hope of salvation for his desperate family when his bicycle, which he needs for his work, is stolen. With his young son in tow, he sets off to track down the thief. Simple in construction and profoundly rich in human insight, Bicycle Thieves embodies the greatest strengths of the Italian neorealist movement: emotional clarity, social rectitude, and brutal honesty.

Review: 

There's something about this movie that's so charming and nostalgic. Perhaps it's the simplicity of the story, but I think Bicycle Thieves has stood the test of time because, don't we love rooting for the underdog? This is the story about the common man, one that I'd hope most of us can relate to in some way or form at times of adversity. It's also one beautifully made film that immediately sucks you into postwar Rome. Everything about this movie feels so true and authentic in its themes and emotions, and even though it's heartbreaking more times than not, it still manages to make me smile. 

* 46. The Big Chill

Synopsis:

After the shocking suicide of their friend, a group of thirtysomethings reunite for his funeral and end up spending the weekend together, reminiscing about their shared past as children of the sixties and confronting the uncertainty of their lives as adults of the eighties. Poignant and warmly humorous in equal measure, this baby boomer milestone made a star of writer-director Lawrence Kasdan and is perhaps the decade’s defining ensemble film, featuring memorable performances by Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Mary Kay Place, Meg Tilly, and JoBeth Williams. And with its playlist of sixties rock and R&B hits, The Big Chill all but invented the consummately curated soundtrack.

Review:

The Big Chill is a movie of a generation, about a generation. The story is so simple: after the funeral of a friend, these thirty-somethings join together to reminisce about the good ol' days of the 60's. Juxtapositioned with the now harsh realities of the 80's, this makes for a classic that will naturally make you laugh and feel good as it will also make you relate and possibly choke you up. And like many good films that have done the same, the rock and roll and R&B soundtrack complements not only the film, but the character's lives, highlighting their highs and their lows. The cast here is stellar; they all hold their own and shine. What makes The Big Chill still refreshing is that it isn't corny and overly sentimental. It could have easily went down that path. If it did, I don't think this movie would be quite as impactful, poignant, and endearing. From exploring the power of friendship, the challenges of change, the acceptance of self-pity, and moving onward from death, The Big Chill is still one powerful story after all these years.

47. Big Deal on Madonna Street

Synopsis:

An all-star cast and jazzy score highlight this charming comedy, a deft satire of classic caper films like Rififi. Big Deal on Madonna Street hilariously details the plight of a sad-sack group of bumbling thieves and their desperate attempts to pull off the perfect heist.

Review:

Fun, amusing, and entertaining! 

* 48. The Blob


Synopsis:

A cult classic of gooey greatness, The Blob follows the havoc wreaked on a small town by an outer-space monster with neither soul nor vertebrae, with Steve McQueen playing the rebel teen who tries to warn the residents about the jellylike invader. Strong performances and ingenious special effects help The Blob transcend the schlock sci-fi and youth delinquency genres from which it originates. Made outside of Hollywood by a maverick film distributor and a crew whose credits mostly comprised religious and educational shorts, The Blob helped launch the careers of McQueen and composer Burt Bacharach, whose bouncy title song is just one of this film’s many unexpected pleasures.

Review:  

What a riot! There's a lot that's so ridiculously charming about this camp classic. For one, it takes itself far too seriously. You'd be hard pressed not to be tickled by that. For how silly the whole thing is, you'd want to re-watch this over and over again, at least for its pretty impressive special effects (not bad for 1958!) and its remarkable color palette that's very luminous and adds even more to the campiness and its nostalgia. And the title song? "Beware of the Blob, it creeps and leaps and glides and slides!" Still oh so catchy. And The Blob itself? Pretty cool looking! The Blob is just an hour and a half of endless fun that can't be forgotten.

49. Black Narcissus

Synopsis:

This explosive work about the conflict between the spirit and the flesh is the epitome of the sensuous style of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. A group of nuns—played by some of Britain’s finest actresses, including Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, and Flora Robson—struggle to establish a convent in the Himalayas, while isolation, extreme weather, altitude, and culture clashes all conspire to drive the well-intentioned missionaries mad. A darkly grand film that won Oscars for Alfred Junge’s art direction and Jack Cardiff’s cinematography , Black Narcissus is one of the greatest achievements by two of cinema’s true visionaries.

Review:  

For all its sultry colors, scenic ambiance, and gorgeous cinematography,  Black Narcissus is painfully dated, awfully racist, sexist, and Christophobic. The plot - there isn't one. The acting - it's pretty horrid. The location and setting (the Himalayas) is entirely inaccurate - there are indigenous African birds, the East-Indians and East-Asians are entirely stereotyped, and the entire depiction of cultures are painted in a "savage" kind of light. It's supposed to be cold, but the resident Englishman wears short pants, in the Himalayas? For the characters being nuns, there was no religious basis or religious substance behind anything that happens in the film. The acting is so cold and rigid that it's not even laughable. It's just bad acting. All that this movie has going for it is how beautiful it is to the eyes, but that's about it. At the heart of it, this movie is embarrassing, silly, boring, and not worth one's time.

* 50. Black Orpheus


Synopsis:

Winner of both the Academy Award for best foreign-language film and the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus (Orfeu negro) brings the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to the twentieth-century madness of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. With its eye-popping photography and ravishing, epochal soundtrack, Black Orpheus was an international cultural event, and it kicked off the bossa nova craze that set hi-fis across America spinning.

Review:

This is one of those movies where when watching it, you aren't only watching a movie, but an experience, a life-changing one at that. Black Orpheus brings Greek legend to Brazil and vice versa, not just simply retelling the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but doing something much more with it. Black Orpheus makes it sexy, ravishing, and festive as it makes it dark, menacing, and tragic. Everything from the location to the characters are brought to life, almost animated greatly in part because of the bossa nova soundtrack and because much of the film takes place during Carnaval. And the actresses and actors, and the costumes? GORGEOUS. It's no wonder that this movie won a Palm d'Or at Cannes, an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA Award. It is truly a cinematic triumph.

The films that were omitted from the challenge this month are:

Bergman Island

Synopsis:

Just four years before his death, legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman sat down with Swedish documentarian Marie Nyreröd at his home on Fårö Island to discuss his work, his fears, his regrets, and his ongoing artistic passion. This resulted in the most breathtakingly candid series of interviews that the famously reclusive director ever took part in, later edited into the feature-length film Bergman Island. In-depth, revealing, and packed with choice anecdotes about Bergman’s oeuvre, as well as his personal life, Nyreröd’s film is an unforgettable final glimpse of a man who transformed cinema.

The Big City

Synopsis:

The Big City, the great Satyajit Ray’s first portrayal of contemporary life in his native Kolkata, follows the personal triumphs and frustrations of Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee), who decides, despite the initial protests of her bank-clerk husband, to take a job to help support their family. With remarkable sensitivity and attention to the details of everyday working-class life, Ray builds a powerful human drama that is at once a hopeful morality tale and a commentary on the identity of the modern Indian woman.

Bigger Than Life

Synopsis:

Though ignored at the time of its release, Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life is now recognized as one of the great American films of the 1950s. When a friendly, successful suburban teacher and father (James Mason, in one of his most indelible roles) is prescribed cortisone for a painful, possibly fatal affliction, he grows dangerously addicted to the experimental drug, resulting in his transformation into a psychotic and ultimately violent household despot. This Eisenhower-era throat-grabber, shot in expressive CinemaScope, is an excoriating take on the nuclear family. That it came in the day of Father Knows Best makes it all the more shocking—and wildly entertaining.

Billy Liar

Synopsis:

Tom Courtenay gives a flawlessly nuanced performance as Billy Fisher, the underachieving undertaker’s assistant whose constant daydreams and truth-deficient stories earn him the nickname “Billy Liar.” Julie Christie is the handbag-swinging charmer whose free spirit just might inspire Billy to finally move out of his parents’ house. Deftly veering from gritty realism to flamboyant fantasy, Billy Liar is a dazzling and uproarious classic.

Black Moon 

Synopsis:

Louis Malle meets Lewis Carroll in this bizarre and bewitching trip down the rabbit hole. After skirting the horrors of a mysterious war being waged in the countryside, beautiful young Lily (Cathryn Harrison) takes refuge in a remote farmhouse, where she becomes embroiled in the surreal domestic life of an extremely unconventional family. Evocatively shot by cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Black Moon is a Freudian tale of adolescent sexuality set in a postapocalyptic world of shifting identities and talking animals. It is one of Malle’s most experimental films and a cinematic daydream like no other.

Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant


Synopsis:

In the early 1970s, Rainer Werner Fassbinder discovered the American melodramas of Douglas Sirk and was inspired by them to begin working in a new, more intensely emotional register. One of the first and best-loved films of this period in his career is The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, which balances a realistic depiction of tormented romance with staging that remains true to the director’s roots in experimental theater. This unforgettable, unforgiving dissection of the imbalanced relationship between a haughty fashion designer (Margit Carstensen) and a beautiful but icy ingenue (Hanna Schygulla)—based, in a sly gender reversal, on the writer-director’s own desperate obsession with a young actor—is a true Fassbinder affair, featuring exquisitely claustrophobic cinematography by Michael Ballhaus and full-throttle performances by an all-female cast.

The Black Stallion


Synopsis:

From the crystalline shores of a deserted island to the green grass and dusty roads of 1940s suburban America, Ballard and director of photography Caleb Deschanel create a film of consistent visual invention and purity, one that also features a winning supporting performance by Mickey Rooney as a retired jockey and a gorgeous score by Carmine Coppola.

Les Blank: Always For Pleasure


Synopsis:

An uncompromisingly independent filmmaker, Les Blank made documentaries for nearly fifty years, elegantly disappearing with his camera into cultural spots rarely seen on-screen—mostly on the peripheries of the United States, but also occasionally abroad. Seemingly off-the-cuff yet poetically constructed, these films are humane, sometimes wry, always engaging tributes to music, food, and all sorts of regionally specific delights. This collector’s set provides a diverse survey of Les Blank’s vast output, including fourteen of his best-known works and eight related short films.

Blast of Silence


Synopsis:

Swift, brutal, and black-hearted, Allen Baron’s New York City noir Blast of Silence is a sensational surprise. This low-budget, carefully crafted portrait of a hit man on assignment in Manhattan during Christmastime follows its stripped-down narrative with mechanical precision, yet also with an eye and ear for the oddball idiosyncrasies of urban living and the imposing beauty of the city. At once visually ragged and artfully composed, and featuring rough, poetic narration performed by Lionel Stander, Blast of Silence is a stylish triumph.

Blind Chance

Synopsis:

Before he stunned the cinematic world with the epic series The Decalogue and the Three Colors trilogy, the great Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski made his first work of metaphysical genius, Blind Chance, a compelling drama about the difficulty of reconciling political ideals with personal happiness. This unforgettable film follows Witek (the magnetic Bogusław Linda), a medical student with an uncertain future in Communist Poland; Kieślowski dramatizes Witek’s journey as a series of different possibilities, suggesting that chance rules our lives as much as choice does. First suppressed and then censored by the Polish government, Blind Chance is here presented in its complete original form.

Blithe Spirit

Synopsis:

Blithe Spirit, David Lean’s delightful film version of Noël Coward’s theater sensation (onstage, it broke London box-office records before hitting Broadway), stars Rex Harrison as a novelist who cheekily invites a medium (Margaret Rutherford) to his house to conduct a séance, hoping the experience will inspire a book he’s working on. Things go decidedly not as planned when she summons the spirit of his dead first wife (Kay Hammond), a severe inconvenience for his current one (Constance Cummings). Employing Oscar-winning special effects to spruce up Coward’s theatrical farce, Blithe Spirit is a sprightly supernatural comedy with winning performances.

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