The first of Barnes & Noble’s half-off Criterion Collection sales ends tonight/tomorrow morning at 3am EST. So no time to waste picking up some favorite titles–unless, of course, you want to save your pennies for November, which is usually when the second installment falls. (Check Amazon for price matches besides.)
The Black Stallion (1979): “Family films” often means movies I put on for the kids on the little TV upstairs while I sip martinis and watch something more stimulating on the big TV downstairs. But first-time director Carroll Ballard’s masterpiece, produced by Francis Ford Coppola the same year his legendary Apocalypse Now was released, is one for everyone, with the simple appeal of a story about a boy and his horse, brought together under extraordinary circumstances, wedded to the rich visual poetry conjured by Ballard (who would go on to make the excellent Never Cry Wolf and Fly Away Home) and DP Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography. The Criterion disc bests a prior Blu with its superior makeover and excellent extras, including a lengthy conversation with Ballard, three of his animal-themed short films from the 60s, and an interview with Deschanel.
Watership Down (1978): On the other hand there’s this feel-bad family classic, not recommended for tykes. I think my class was bused to a theater to see it when I was a kid; at age 50, I think I blocked the memory. Richard Adams’ novel about a rabbit warren under siege is a downer, and the film, a true labor of love for writer/producer/director Martin Rosen, follows suit. But it’s also transcendently depressing–the technique, far from Disney, is beautifully realized, and a superb cast of voice actors, including John Hurt, Ralph Richardson, and Zero Mostel (his last assignment), cleanses any trace of false sentiment. It hurts, but the pain has an upside. (Art Garfunkel sings its signature tune, “Bright Eyes.”) You can also watch the disc in PIP mode, accompanied with the original storyboards. Extras include an interview with Rosen and an appreciation by horror meister Guillermo del Toro, who of course would love it.
The Bridge (1959): An attempt at German atonement for the horrors of World War II, this foreign language film Oscar nominee is sort of like last year’s Fury, in reverse–the protagonists are that movie’s antagonists, the teenage boys conscripted at the 11th hour to wage a war that the Third Reich was clearly losing. While director Volker Schlöndorff is on hand to explain its impact on him and others in the vanguard of the New German Cinema in the 60s and 70s, you may find it a bit simplistic and heavy-handed. Still, its intentions are pure, and the black and white production is moodily produced. Extras include interviews with director Bernhard Wicki, known as a director on international productions like The Longest Day (1962) and Morituri (1965), with Marlon Brando, and as an actor (including Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, also available from Criterion).
Le Silence de la mer (1949): On the other hand, here is the French production, in which a Nazi soldier, billeted with an elder man and his niece during the occupation, endures the silent treatment from them, as they refuse all attempts at small talk and conversation. This was the debut film of the great Jean-Pierre Melville, whose noted crime films (like Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, with Alain Delon) are part of the collection. It has the same tautness, yet is closer kin to Melville’s other dramas about Vichy and the resistance, Léon Morin, Priest and Army of Shadows. Those are also Criterion titles, and I recommend them all. Supplements include two documentaries about Melville’s resistance-era activities and the film itself, plus his debut short, 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown (1946). I was surprised to see Howard Vernon, the star of so many fantastic films (not all of them too fantastic) for Spain’s Jess Franco, in good form as the cultured, yet increasingly wounded, officer.
The Confession (1970) and State of Siege (1972): Costa-Gavras’ Z (1969) and Missing (1982), acknowledged classics, are joined in the collection by these two lesser known but no less potent credits, both starring Yves Montand. In the former, set in 1950’s Czechoslovakia, Montand is an Communist official abducted and imprisoned, for unknown reasons that only become cloudier as a punishing interrogation begins. Supplements include an on-set documentary by Chris Marker (La Jetée) that features the author of the source novel, Artur London, who speaks of his experiences as a political prisoner in a French documentary that’s also part of the package.
The Confession plays in some way as a rebuke to rightist critics of Z, who felt the director of that Oscar winner would be incapable of upbraiding leftist abuses in the same way. Co-written by Franco Solinas (The Battle of Algiers), State of Siege has more complicated politics. Montand plays another abductee, a US official in an unnamed Latin American country subject to CIA meddling at the behest of its regime. But the urban guerrillas who suspect him of complicity in torture are also put under the microscope as the scenario plays out. (Chile’s Marxist government, democratically elected, would fall the next year, with murky CIA involvement.) Besides a chat between the director and film scholar Peter Cowie, the extras include NBC news footage about Dan A. Mitrione, the US government advisor on whom the film is based.
Fellini Satyricon (1969): Around the time Dylan went electric, Federico Fellini went color, and the reaction was equally divisive. “Toby Dammit,” his portion of the Spirits of the Dead (1968) Poe omnibus, is right up there with his best work. But Juliet of the Spirits (1965) and especially this pageant of ancient Rome, inspired by the satire of Petronius, are butt chafing, however resplendent the production, and even a lush Blu-ray can’t offset the indulgent ennui. Retrospective pieces will aid the unitiated.
The Fisher King (1991): For all his (not unjustified) complaints about Hollywood corruption, let’s face it: this one, and Twelve Monkeys (1995), also studio backed, are the only two Terry Gilliam movies anyone has revisited in 25 years. We can only hope the filmmaker can find common ground with the machine again. The Blu-ray edition of a Criterion favorite (and a great New York movie) ports over a Gilliam commentary and adds some new supplements, including interviews with Gilliam, producer Lynda Obst, screenwriter Richard La Gravenese, and co-stars Jeff Bridges, Amanda Plummer, and Mercedes Ruehl. There’s also a nine-year-old interview with Robin Williams, whose suicide renders a poignant film almost unbearably so.
My Beautiful Laundrette (1986): It was quite a shock to realize that the same actor playing the fusty Cecil in A Room with a View also played the skinhead Johnny in this British classic, released just months apart–and Daniel Day-Lewis has been upending our expectations ever since. The movie doesn’t rest on his breakthrough performance, however. There’s so much to Hanif Kureishi’s script, a broadside against racism and homophobia (Johnny is trying to help his lover, a South London Pakistani with family issues, open a posh laundromat) that’s also hot and funny and alive in a way that too few British movies are these days. (Thatcherism may have been bad for England, but it was great for the local film industry, giving it something to rail against.) Stephen Frears would go on to make some fine, more traditional movies, like Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and 1990’s The Grifters (and Kureishi would write clumsier, more didactic ones, the downside of that rage) but this remains a standout, on Blu in all its ragged 16mm glory and with interviews with the writer and director.
My Winnipeg (2007): Frozen racehorses! Hockey madness! And the star of Detour (1945), Ann Savage, unearthed and before the cameras once more! Guy Maddin’s “documentary” of his hometown, at the dead center of North America, brims with quirky humor, offhand observations, and a deadpan affection for the wellspring of his peculiar talent. If you care for more strangeness after the feature (which the filmmaker explains, sort of, in an interview), take a look at the five shorts Maddin has made since this movie, which bring us up to date on a particularly idiosyncratic career.
Odd Man Out (1947): Classic Noir No. 1, with James Mason on the run from the authorities after a botched robbery in Belfast (unnamed, but the signifiers, and politics in the IRA era, are unmistakable). Finding refuge as injuries wear him down is difficult; harder still is a spiritual reawakening as the authorities close in. Director Carol Reed and DP Robert Krasker would reteam for a more enduring credit, The Third Man (1949); this one earns reappraisal, with scholarly interviews about the film and William Alwyn’s score, a documentary about the production, and a 1952 radio adaptation that featured Mason and Dan O’Herlihy.
Ride the Pink Horse (1947): Classic Noir No. 2 is a keeper, rescued from the oblivion of indifferent releases. Actor Robert Montgomery, fresh from directing the unusual “first person” Philip Marlowe detective story Lady in the Lake, eschewed the gimmicks for a straightforward telling of a complicated shakedown scenario, set in New Mexico. The movie is noteworthy for a sympathetic view of Hispanic life (co-star Thomas Gomez was the first Hispanic actor to receive an Oscar nomination for this film) but it doesn’t stint on the gunplay, double crosses, and occasional poetic image (the “pink horse” of the title) that drifts through the dusty streets. A must for noir fans, with a commentary track by experts Alain Silver and James Ursini among the bonus features.
The Rose (1979): The HBO documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck begins with Cobain imitating Bette Midler’s final scene from her debut film, writhing and thrashing on the stage in the throes of an overdose. (That’s it right here.) He’s having fun, but knowing what fate had in store for him, the laughter dies in our throats. Midler’s fictional portrayal of a Janis Joplin type, an all-in Oscar nominated performance, is pretty much the whole show in an overwrought melodrama that applies raw-edged 70s content to an unsympathetic attitude toward “alternative” musicians and their lifestyles that hails from the 50s. But damn if tears don’t well up in my eyes when the title ballad plays on the soundtrack. New content on a typically gorgeous release, besting the prior DVD by miles, includes interviews with Midler, director Mark Rydell (both more comfortable with the boogie-woogie milieu of 1991’s For the Boys), and DP Vilmos Zsigmond.
Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942): A delightful sendup of Hollywood and a great screwball comedy, both the work of Preston Sturges, whose dazzling catalog is making the transition to Blu-ray. Both star the underrated Joel McCrea, who, in the former, is a disenchanted comedy director who hits the road to find the real America–only to find that the road hits back. (His serious project is entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which the Coen brothers repurposed for their own comedy in 2000.) Claudette Colbert is McCrea’s runaway spouse in The Palm Beach Story, which has one of Sturges’ great comic setpieces, her run-in with the drunken, gun-toting millionaires of The Ale & Quail Club en route to Florida by train. Travels supplements include a video essay with contributions by director Bill Forsyth (Local Hero), while Bill Hader, one of Criterion’s new friends, speaks about Sturges in an interview regarding Palm Beach.
The Sword of Doom (1966): After supplements-free versions on laserdisc and DVD, Kihachi Okamoto’s samurai classic, one of the bleakest of its genre, gets an extra, and it’s a good one–a commentary by Stephen Prince, whose talks about Akira Kurosawa have graced several of his films on the label. Prince discusses the performance styles of actors Tatsuya Nakadai, as a particularly uncouth specimen of the warrior class, and Toshiro Mifune (in a smaller role, advising an opponent), the source novel, the history of the era portrayed, and the similarities between this film and Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), another essential title.
The Thin Blue Line (1988): Errol Morris’ documentary, which freed an innocent man from jail, changed my thinking about the death penalty, and the issues it raises about the subject will always be pertinent so long as it continues in this country. (Not too long, I trust, as voters and state governments, if not the Supreme Court, waver in support.) That said, the movie can be enjoyed as an intricate suspense thriller, urgently scored by Philip Glass, whose influence can be seen on pretty much every true crime treatment since, including HBO’s The Jinx. Extras include new interviews with Morris and Joshua Oppenheimer, whose documentary The Act of Killing (2012) draws from the earlier film.
Tootsie (1982): You go, girl–a 4k resolution Blu suits Sydney Pollack’s comedy classic, and the new disc, porting over excellent content from prior laserdiscs and DVDs that detailed its arduous production, adds some fresh remarks from Dustin Hoffman. He’s a wonder in this (Ben Kingsley’s Oscar for Gandhi, while understandable, still rankles decades later) but then again every contribution is first rate. A movie I’ve watched again and again (Bill Murray! Teri Garr! Jessica Lange! George Gaynes!) has never looked or sounded better. I may request for it to be played on my deathbed, to accompany me, with a smile, into the great beyond.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970): Before then, I’ll keep seeking out fresh movies to enjoy. I’d seen this one, a Czech fantasia, in horrid quality before, and it made little impact. Properly restored it’s a nightmare, and I mean that as highest praise. In Carrie, a girl’s first period awakens hidden powers; in Valerie, menstruation looses a slew of strange sensations, ritualistic goings-on, and otherworldly visitors, including vampiric ones. What’s happening? Well, it’s a girl thing–and a Slavic thing, a Surrealist thing, and a bit of a communist one, right as Soviet tanks crashed into the Czech New Wave. The handsomely restored Blu-ray (prior releases were drained of color) is a requiem for filmmaker Jaromil Jires, with three of his short films included, and a piece that fits his work into the avant-garde. Also present are interviews with some of the performers and the option to listen to an alternate score created by The Valerie Project, a Philadelphia-based ensemble inspired by the movie. Viewing and listening to sink your teeth into.