So I have not posted in a while. Mainly because I was without a laptop for about two months, but also because I have not watched anything recently worth reviewing or discussing. That was until last week when I decided to subscribe to Hulu Plus to access their large selection of Criterion films. For those that might not have heard of the Criterion Collection, it is a DVD/Blu-Ray distribution company that acquires, restores and beautifully packages “classic”, “important”, foreign and American films with a focus on art-house and hard to find releases. I’ve been a fan for quite some time and recently had an urge to explore their collection more deeply, which has led to this post and hopefully more to come.
“The Cranes Are Flying” is a visually dazzling, humane and emotional war drama about a girl struggling to survive during WWII as her boyfriend is on the front lines and communication with him is lost. This might sound like a story ripe for melodrama and clichés but instead it is very delicate and sincere. The development of the relationship between the young lady, Veronika, and her boyfriend, Boris, is handled so well and their chemistry so deep that when they are apart and when thing take a turn for the worst the pain and heartbreak feels all too real.
What truly made me fall in love with this film, beyond that touching and humane story, was just how exceptionally well crafted the film itself is. The visuals are at times stunning and the camera work, cinematography and crane movements are superb. It is one of those films that is the total package, delivering on an emotional, technical and storytelling level unlike most films made today. A definite must see.
“El Sur” is a lyrical and often haunting portrait of alienation, dislocation and the often un-remarkability of being human. Its story is seen through the eyes of a young girl named Estrella who is living with her family in northern Spain after the Spanish Civil War. We watch, in an almost mystical but utterly mesmerizing fashion as she begins to mature and realize truths about the world around her. The most shocking, and the one that plays the biggest role in her development has to do with her father who we learn comes from a deeply troubled past and is filled with pain. Like Victor Erice’s other film, “The Spirit of the Beehive” (one of my top fifteen favorite films of all time), it all plays out in a rather delicate manner and because the world we see is one through the eyes of a child it is often surreal and enigmatic. This is all handled with fantastic direction by Erice whose brilliant use of natural light and granulation adds a special touch to the visuals and tone. It definitely is a wonderful film and perhaps a new favorite.
*An interesting, albeit sad, fact about “El Sur” is that Erice had planned an additional 90 minutes to be added to the end of the story but the producers wouldn’t allow it. Luckily the final result was still near perfect and ends on a very fine note. The film is also apparently very hard to find, even Criterion has not released it but luckily was able to offer it for streaming. I do hope it gets a restored release sometime soon.
“Knife in the Water”, Roman Polanski’s first feature film, is a competently directed chamber piece about a couple who pick up a young hitch hiker and take him along as they go sailing out on a lake. Polanski seemed to have had some social themes he wished to address but personally I felt none of them really came through, and since their isn’t much in the way of thrills or humor the result was a rather boring affair that ended with no new insight or entertainment to be had. I guess I’d recommend it to those interested in seeing the first film of Polanski’s career, but other than that I doubt I’ll ever find myself considering watching it again.
“Umberto D.”, Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist tale of a pensioner struggling to get by, is an emotional depiction of the human condition, solitude and dignity. It stars Carlos Battisti, non-professional actor and university professor at the time, as Umberto Domenico Ferrari who after decades of civil service is left struggling to get by off of the small pension he receives. He has no family, and lives under the roof of a cruel landlady who wants him out. His only friend is his dog Flike, though he does have a good relationship with the landlady’s young maid.
The story begins as Umberto’s time in his apartment is nearing its end and unless he can pay his rent he will be evicted and left with no place to go. With a pension too small to make up for this debt he must sell his possessions for money and refuses to beg on the streets. When things do not seem to be going his way Umberto considers more drastic measures to escape his unhappiness and plight. It all builds up to a very sad, but also inspiring ending that nearly left me in tears.
Like De Sica’s other and perhaps more well known film “Bicycle Thieves”, the story appears rather simple on the surface but its examination of such universal and emotional themes is what makes it so profound. “Umberto D.” avoids melodrama and sentimentality in its portrayal of its protagonists struggle and instead handles it with a quiet sadness. I couldn’t recommend it more.
“Vivre Sa Vie” or ‘My Life to Live (It’s My Life)’ is the episodic telling of a period in time in the life of Nana, a mother and wife turned aspiring actress who turns to prostitution in search or happiness and money. In telling her story director Jean Luc Godard uses the camera as if it were the human eye, seeing at times the perspective of Nana viewing her surroundings; but is at its most interesting when it acts as an onlooker, mesmerized by her beauty and sadness, fixated on her flawless face. Often, like with “Breathless”, Godard’s overindulgence leads to excruciating viewing experiences, but because the camera and editing her serve some purpose it is not only bearable but escalates what on the surface appears to be a simple story. I found the whole thing to be rather fascinating and its ending stuck with my longer than I thought it would. Another high recommendation.
“Tokyo Drifter” and “Branded to Kill” by Japanese ‘B-movie’ director Seijun Suzuki can both best be describe, as one critic put it, like this “…Suzuki doesn’t do establishing shots and when he does, they don’t establish shit.” As true as that statement is, and the editing and fractured pacing (even more prevalent in ‘Tokyo Drifter’) are unusual and at times distracting, both still contain a level of uniqueness and visual splendor to make for satisfying and often amusing viewing experiences.
The first I watched was “Tokyo Drifter”, about a gangster trying to go legit though the world around him is trying to pull him back in or bump him off. It is definitely the most visually stunning of the two but contains a very fractured plot with at times hectic editing. Scenes often skip from one moment to the next which is at first hard to follow, especially considering how much story and how many characters are crammed into the short running time. And yet, its pop-art look, visuals and fresh and cool main character make it such a treat to watch that I just have to recommend it.
Next up was “Branded to Kill”, the more ‘conventional’ of the two, which had a much more fluid story and editing that wasn’t as chaotic. The story follows a hit man who after messing up a job struggles to survive as the organization that hired him tries to kill him. It honestly isn’t the most original or thrilling story. The most exciting parts come during a few surreal sequences when the main character seems to be losing his mind. Overall I wasn’t too impressed, though it still holds a visual uniqueness that makes it worth watching for those interested, and is perfect for a double feature alongside “Tokyo Drifter”.
“Summer Interlude” could be described as lesser Bergman, which isn’t surprising being that it is one of his earlier films, coming out before 1957 when he released “Wild Strawberries” and “The Seventh Seal” and his popularity and the quality of his films increased greatly. Still, it is a very good story about an unhappy ballet dancer who, when visiting a summer home, remembers her tragic past through flashbacks. The plot very much reminded me of “Wild Strawberries” (flashbacks/reevaluation of ones life) meets “Summer With Monika” (a summer fling on a beautiful island), which was a pleasant surprise considering this came out before both.
There honestly isn’t much more to say other than that the themes Bergman tackles here will be very familiar to those who enjoy his work. Its only fault in my opinion would be an end revelation that comes a bit too abruptly. Overall it is a must watch for any Bergman fan, but an ultimately unremarkable motion picture.
*This is the 16th film I’ve seen from Ingmar Bergman (my favorite director by a large margin) and the first of many of Bergman’s early films that Criterion and Hulu Plus have available.
“Eyes Without a Face”, Georges Franju’s gothic horror tale of guilt, obsession and beauty, is an atmospheric, finely shot and haunting film. The story follows Dr. Genessier whose daughter Christiane, after a serious car accident, is left with a face scared and practically missing. Feeling the guilt of having caused the accident, and wanting badly to give his daughter back her beauty while also furthering advances in the field of transplantation, Dr. Genessier hatches out a gruesome plan. He and his assistant track down and kidnap women bearing a resemblance to Genessier’s daughter so that they can remove their faces and try to successfully transplant them onto Christiane.
What makes the story and film so effective is the atmosphere and imagery. The buildup to the first surgery is a slow one, but as the fate of the woman chosen for the graphic procedure becomes clear there is a level of dread that fills the story that would make anyone uncomfortable. Add onto that graphic imagery like the facial surgery, shown in full, and the mask Christiane wears to hide her scars (which is arguably one of the creepiest I have ever seen) and it becomes a chill inducing experience.
The film isn’t without its flaws. The biggest being the way in which it often jumps from one scene to another, in which the audience can easily assume what happened but still periods of times seem missing. Luckily that is never really an issue and the end result is something I’d recommend to anyone, especially those with a preference for horror.
At the moment I still have 47 Criterion films in my queue to watch on Hulu Plus, and that is just those that I have a strong interest in. The size of the full collection to stream is around 130. I doubt I’ll make it through them all, but I hope to post another group of reviews like this every week.
I hope you enjoyed the reviews, and leave any comments (good or bad) below.