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I'm generally not one to lay down money for a movie (or much else, for that matter) unless I've got a pretty good idea that I'm going to enjoy it. The Criterion Collection is one of those rare things that I don't feel that way about. I've found that I can buy any Criterion film and at least be satisfied with my purchase. There are exceptions, of course, but as a general rule, it holds true.
This is a list of those movies I've been particularly pleased with, after purchasing them with no real knowledge of them.
This is one that I picked up only because it was Criterion, and the description on the back made it sound like it might be interesting. I was completely blown away! Somehow I glossed over the fact that this was a solo performance by Philip Baker Hall when reading the description, and after watching the film it took a moment for that fact to sink in. No characters other than the angry, sad, bitter Richard Nixon are needed, and in fact, would have detracted from this film. Hall holds this film together with an intense performance that is truly gripping, and director Robert Altman is wise enough to step back and simply capture the ever-changing landscape of this single-actor, single-set tornado. The one touch that Altman adds is the use of the security screens and cameras, which adds a subtle undertone of paranoia and self-importance.
I'd seen del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth and I'd heard the word "vampire" used in conjunction with this film, but that's all I had to go on. I was delighted to find this pleasant and touching story about the lengths people will go to for immortality and youth. It's hard to believe this id del Toro's first film. While far from perfect (Pan's Labyrinth definitely surpasses it), it looks and feels like a film made by a seasoned pro.
I watched this one on recommendation from my wife, knowing only that it was directed by Jim Jarmusch (who I wasn't very familiar with), featured Roberto Benigni (who I also wasn't too familiar with, though I knew him a little better than Jarmusch), and had music by Tom Waits (who I love). The film is like five short films united by the concept of a cab ride. I couldn't stop laughing at Benigni's Rome story, but after watching again, I'd have to say my favorite segment is the New York one (despite Rosie Perez and her voice).
A surprisingly good epic film about a man who truly believed in an ideal, and who was willing to do everything he could to change the world. This drive would lead him to success in Cuba (in Part One), and absolute failure in Bolivia (in Part Two). One thing I appreciate about the film is that it doesn't try to tell us everything there is to know about Che. It takes two segments of his life, the revolutions in Cuba and Bolivia, and tells those stories. This shows Che at his highest and at his lowest. I know there's more to tell about Che. Part One ends as he and the rebels head for Havana, but there's more to tell about Cuba. I know there's another revolution he was part of, between Cuba and Bolivia, in the Congo. Those stories don't fit here, however. The subject matter for the two parts was chosen as point and counterpoint. Beautifully shot and well-paced with a focus on realism, the film effortlessly pulls you along for the entire length of both parts.
Despite Mr. de Winter's whirlwind courting of the unnamed main character by being rather indifferent toward her (in fact, this attitude continues through most of the film), I really enjoyed the story of this "replacement" wife trying to fit into a situation that she doesn't fully understand and isn't fully welcome. From what I gather, this adaptation of the novel had to clean up a few plot points to satisfy the ratings board, but I was still along for the ride from the very beginning, and many of the twists took me by surprise. Those that didn't still managed to be just a little different from what I was expecting.
While the presentation of psychoanalysis is a little naïve (not to mention, shoved down your throat) in this film, ultimately it all pays off. This is a film that really grew on me. As I started watching, I really wasn't enjoying it much. The oversimplification of psychoanalysis really bugged me, though I understand what a new concept it was at the time the film was made. By the halfway point or so, I was hooked, and eager to see how it would end.
I was inspired to pick this one up because of the Terry Jones introduction. This is a black comedy gem. The first part is full of witty dialogue delivered at a breakneck pace. The second part perfectly portrays the three different fantasies of revenge, guilt, and sacrifice, never failing to get a laugh regardless of how dark it gets. The final part is pure slapstick genius that brilliantly plays off of earlier events.
I'm listing this as the full trilogy instead of individual titles because it really feels more like a mini-series than three separate films. While I was a little disappointed that more of Musashi's philosophy (as written in The Book of Five Rings) wasn't featured, I did enjoy the films. While not quite historically accurate, Inagaki's story and cast of characters provides a feeling of continuity essential for an epic work like this that probably wasn't present in Musashi's actual life. My only note to Criterion is: why, oh why did you use the Western naming convention of personal name followed by family name, instead of Japan's tradition of family name first? (Musashi Miyamoto, as he's called in the Criterion translation, should truly be Miyamoto Musashi.) This seems like one of those details that I usually trust Criterion to deliver faithfully.
I expected a fun and exciting action flick, maybe with some great visuals and shots mixed in. I got that, and a lot more. The story is actually fairly complex and intriguing, with rival gangs and unknown identities of undercover cops making things difficult for Chow Yun-fat as a Dirty Harry type hero. Not a deep movie by any means, but lots of fun and entertaining on multiple levels.