2010 DVD Talk Criterion Challenge

by Travis McClain

Created 09/10/12

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From my original DVD Talk post

Going into this challenge, I was one of those who were somewhat intimidated by the elitist reputation of the Criterion Collection. I suffer from a particularly pronounced Impostor Syndrome, so for someone with my rather pedestrian taste in film I felt very tenuous about wading into these waters.

My thoughts on the auteur theory are well established, but what I haven't mentioned often is how I feel about cinephiles who casually insert trivia from a favorite director's filmography in their often-insightful, sometimes-pretentious glowing praise of films. I can do this on subjects about which I, too, am passionate...which is one more reason I felt completely out of my depth entering this challenge.

I came in only actually owning two official Criterion Collection DVD releases; I have a handful of qualifying titles in non-Criterion releases. I figured I could use this challenge as an excuse to finally go through all the bonus content on the two CC releases I owned, and if I felt like watching any of the other eligible titles, so be it. And I figured this could be a good time to finally get around to watching David Lean's pre-Bridge on the River Kwai directorial efforts.

I started, then, with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou which I'd only seen once before, five years ago. At the time, I felt deceived into being lured by marketing promises of "a comedy starring Bill Murray!" into something far less familiar to my understanding of what that meant.

I followed that up with The Royal Tenenbaums, another Wes Anderson project that is one of my friend's absolute favorite films; he's glowed about it for years now and I decided to stream it from Netflix once I saw it was available. That kicked off a run of Netflix streaming for the month, though I did check out a couple of titles from my local library, including The Wages of Fear, which I checked out because another challenge participant mentioned it as one he was going to watch; unfortunately I did not get to viewing before having to return it. I definitely got my money's worth out of my Netflix subscription fee for September!

Some of the titles I got to fell short of my expectations; I realize that crossing time and geography require some contextual research to bolster one's understanding and appreciation of the film in question. Divorzio all'italiana (Divorce - Italian Style) I found sleazy more than anything else, for instance. La Jetee was interesting, though I suspect I won't remember it well; Sans Soleil made Chris Marker's photo-documentarian style a little more tedious to endure due to its length.

I failed to get to any of the Lean films (though I did watch the first eight minutes of Brief Encounter four different times; Netflix's upload stops there). On the other hand, I did finally begin exploring the works of Ingmar Bergman and I fell completely in love with them. It's out of my budget right now, but I have placed the Ingmar Bergman: Four Masterworks box set on my wish list. Jungfrukällan [The Virgin Spring] was disturbingly visceral; I'm glad I saw it, but if I ever scrounge up the money for the box set I suspect this disc will get much less play.

My thoughts on each title I watched have been posted throughout this thread, and also appear in my list thread post; they're spoiler'd for size, not content, so feel free to peruse. (And most of them have pictures, too!)

One last thought: I really came to appreciate the Criterion website. I hit it up for those aforementioned pictures I inserted into my list thread post, and I love that they have archived all the essays they've ever published--including those dating back to the Laser Disc era. If you haven't made use of this feature, I highly advise it. Some of the essays I read were no more insightful than a Wikipedia entry, some were of that pretentious nature I mentioned earlier; but others were approachable and informative, and offered some great insight. Maurice Yacowar's Flesh for Frankenstein essay really helped me make sense of that film being selected for inclusion in the hallowed Criterion Collection.

At the end of the month, I really feel like I've become far more comfortable with Criterion. I made a deliberate point not to explore Asian cinema this year, not because it doesn't interest me but because I wanted to have a sort of regional focus. I may change my mind a year from now, but I'm tentatively planning to concentrate on Asian features in 2011.

Note: The DVD Talk Criterion Challenge allows titles that were originally released as part of The Criterion Collection on LaserDisc. I also watched the following films from that assortment:

Silverado (LaserDisc #116)
Carrie (LaserDisc #141)
Bram Stoker's Dracula (LaserDisc #183)

  • My second-ever viewing of the film; I'd forgotten much of the second half over the last few years. Tonight I was reminded of The Wrath of Khan with regards to the Steve's mid-life crisis and his relationship with Ned, as well as having the lurking nemesis out there. It resonated with me a lot more this time; perhaps because I've been pretty down of late myself, wondering if perhaps my chances at accomplishment aren't dwindling--if not outright over.

    Bill Murray's nuanced performance keeps it from ever tipping into outright comedy, while humanizing the drama of the story. I couldn't help but wonder what the film might have been like had he and Jeff Goldblum been cast in each other's role.

    Disc Two: The Supplements

    In one of the most embarrassing interviews I've ever seen--and surprisingly, it's included on this release--director and co-writer Wes Anderson flounders when asked for what, exactly, is his film a metaphor? He contents himself that his film is a metaphor at all; that it lacks an intended correlation appears to have escaped his attention at all until the publicity tour. The "Mondo Monda" interview segment paints Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach as clueless guys in way over their heads in the world of storytelling.

    The trailer suggests a quirky ensemble comedy, and as others have remarked, Life Aquatic functions much more convincingly as a drama. I don't know how much of this marketing campaign stemmed from the public perception of Bill Murray as a funny man, or any unease at suggesting to take the film seriously in the first place or what, but it's incongruous with the actual film.

    I liked the novelty of the inclusion of Seu Jorge's 10 performances of David Bowie songs in Portuguese, but I found the solo acoustic aesthetics hypnotic (read: they began to put me to sleep after 10 minutes).

    I found Mark Mothersbaugh's segment interesting, but I wasn't bowled over by it. It was less thorough, I thought, than a comparable segment with Hans Zimmer on The Dark Knight Two-Disc Special Edition and Blu-ray Disc releases. Still, it wasn't a bad glimpse into the score of the film, and I appreciated his honest declaration that composers hate the inclusion of recorded songs in a film for hogging all the key moments in the movie, and I was amused/distracted by just how fat his dog was.

    The "This Is an Adventure" documentary is a solid making-of feature, but I found the "Intern Video Journal" to be entertaining and more approachable than the stuffy, reverent nature of most DVD supplements.

  • A friend of mine has revered this since its release, so I finally broke down and streamed it via Netflix. I enjoyed the story and performances, but wasn't entirely in love with it. It seemed to me that the first section, establishing the precocious, genius status of the three children was made superfluous by their rather ho-hum behavior as adults; it would have sufficed to know that they were rich and dabbled in things blue collar folk rarely do.

    The film also lacked a sense of momentum; it just sort of kept going, even after a series of scenes, any one of which might have been a climax for other stories. The music didn't help; I found nearly every selection added virtually nothing to the moment, save for the use of The Rolling Stones's "Ruby Tuesday." Some further editing and a different use of music would have sharpened this greatly, though I would be perfectly happy to explore the Criterion DVD and see if there are reasons given for these things.

  • This is a film co-written and directed by Jean Renoir about a trio of P.O.W.s who conspire to escape from their German captors during World War I. Two of the three are Frenchmen; the third, Rosenthal, they encounter at their first camp. The structure of the film follows the prison escape plot, but the themes explored and touched on include the futility of war, as well as class issues (there is even a morbidly funny discussion about how cancer and gout will soon become blue collar concerns). Think The Bridge on the River Kwai plus The Shawshank Redemption, with a castle in the middle of it.

    It took me a few minutes to wrap my head around the German characters speaking in French, but that didn't throw me for a loop nearly as much as a handful of lines spoken in English; I'd love to know why Renoir and/or his co-writer Charles Spaak felt the need for those few lines throughout the film not to be in French. The defiant performance of "La Marseillaise" was obviously appropriated for Casablanca (where I feel it was more effective, but that's just me). I also couldn't help but wonder if George Lucas hadn't drawn on Captain von Ruffenstein when he conjured up Darth Vader. All in all, I really enjoyed this film.

  • 37 year old Sicilian Baron Ferdinando has tired of his wife Rosalia and has turned his eye instead on his 16 year old cousin Angela. Divorce isn't a legal option, so he concocts the next best thing: he'll conspire to push his wife into an affair of her own, justifying her murder.

    The film is rather dark; sometimes humorous, sometimes outright creepy and almost certainly incongruous with the values most of the Western world hold in 2010. None of this bothered me, of course. What did bother me was that the film was rather predictable, although I give credit for at least this: many of the subtexts were established with lingering looks and gestures, rather than the kind of extraneous exposition that characterizes plot advancement in a lot of contemporary film. I'm inclined to put this in my "Average" list, all things considered, because I feel like I've seen this story before and didn't find anything new with this version.

  • I heard about this film years ago, but this was my first viewing. It's about a director who tires of making comedies and wishes to make a "serious" film about human misery. When confronted by the fact he's never endured any, he goes off in search of it only to come to appreciate the importance of making others laugh.

    This actually rivals La Grande Illusion as my favorite film so far in the challenge. Joel McCrea's performance is great; he conveys quite a lot of inner thinking with his expressions, and Preston Sturges's screenplay has no fat to be trimmed. The final act is a bit of a stretch, but by then I was way too invested in Sullivan's story to be bothered by a couple of contrivances.

  • I remember seeing this in the theaters when it opened and enjoying every minute of it. I've only seen it once on DVD, some time early last year, I think. It was just as fun then as it was tonight. Ed Harris as General Hummel is a sympathetic character; too often, rogue military characters lack the humanity that this guy has. And I've never not enjoyed watching Sean Connery in an action movie.

    It's a cliche, but I defer to Roger Ebert's comments in the Criterion Collection DVD booklet to defend why the movie ought to be seen. In a nutshell, it's because sometimes you just really want an enjoyable spectacle and The Rock delivers. The movie is clearly from the 90s; today, General Hummel would just send documents to Wikileaks and pressure the government through the media to meet his demands.

    Commentary Track with Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, Nicolas Cage, Ed Harris and Harry Humphries

    I'm not generally fond of cut & paste commentary tracks like this; there's a lack of rhythm to them when one voice is replaced by another without any natural segue.

    Mostly, this is a Bay & Cage commentary; Cage mostly talks about the lines of dialog he wrote for the movie and ideas he came up with for his character. Bay mostly talks about fights with the studio over money, camera work and his side of some publicized rows he had while making the film. The other three guys have a handful of cherry-picked remarks peppered in throughout.

    I would absolutely love to have heard a Sean Connery commentary track, because anecdotes about him dominate the track when the participants aren't indulging in narcissism. In any event, I'd actually recommend this track if for nothing else than the way it really makes the case for how film is a collaborative medium and not the execution of a singular vision the way the auteurs insist.

    Disc Two: The Vault

    Good God, was that really the trailer that got me excited 14 years ago?! Jerry Bruckheimer's few remarks included in the audio commentary track were clearly excised from his standalone video interview, and I think they should have remained there. That cut & paste commentary track was cluttered enough, and his insights really work better in the context of this video segment.

    I loved the excerpts from Secrets of Alcatraz, which explores the history of the island and the various incarnations of the facility itself, as well as the 1969 American Indian takeover (of which I was previously ignorant). I'd be quite interested in seeing the rest of this documentary.

    That aside, the most interesting portions (for my money) were the two segments filmed with Harry Humphries's consultant business about the use of guns in movies. I'm not a gun person at all (not anti-gun; they just don't do anything for me, like football or tomatoes), so I found this two segments both informative and devoid of the kind of over-the-top machismo that you normally find in gun instructors. These guys are SEAL veterans, but they don't appear to have that chip on their shoulder that a lot of gun enthusiasts have.

    Also, I enjoyed Roger Ebert's remarks in the booklet where he eventually concludes, "You may feel silly later for having been sucked in, but that's part of the ride."

  • This reminded me of a current phone commercial in which two girls are shown going through life in split-screen. One girl's reception is great and she goes on to become a world-class ballerina; the other girl's reception is shoddy and causes her to miss her opportunity and she winds up in the audience watching the other girl perform on stage. This movie is like that, only without the split-screen and it's about a guy born on the same day as, but who isn't, Jesus.

    I've never really been a Python fan, but my wife is so when we came across this Criterion disc at the library we decided to check it out. She'd seen it before, but I hadn't. It's more cohesive than Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and it has some moments that amused me, but it didn't win me over as a fan of theirs.

  • It's hard to have even a cursory appreciation for film and not hear about Fritz Lang's 1931 classic. I finally streamed it via Netflix for my first-ever viewing just now The police and crime syndicate conduct a manhunt for a serial child killer, and while I'm in opposition to the death penalty and believe in the rule of law--even when that law doesn't necessarily meet my definition of justice--I really wanted to see the mob get hold of this guy and just tear him limb from limb.

    What really surprised me was the final act, when the killer is actually put on the mob. After enduring the tension leading up to his apprehension, I just wasn't prepared for an examination of the morality of executing him. There's a lot going on in this film, and I now appreciate why it's held in such high regard.

  • My first Ingmar Bergman film! Talk about eye candy...Ulla Jacobson, Eva Dahlbeck, Harriet Anderson and Margit Carlquist were all smokin' hot. It's about a group of love triangles and it's a bit hectic, but I thought it played more enjoyably than Divorzio all'italiana, which explored similar themes. There was some lesbian subtext between Anne and Petra the Maid that I rather appreciated. Fans of Sex and the City should be able to appreciate this film, and its frank celebration of feminine sexuality.

    One little note: I had to interrupt the movie for about 20 minutes dealing with Crohn's and when I resumed, I forgot to read the subtitles. I'd gotten so into the movie, I had become oblivious to the fact it wasn't in my native tongue.

  • Aside from Warhol's name being attached, I have absolutely no idea how this ever warranted inclusion in the Criterion Collection. About the only good thing I can say about it is that it seems to bask in how awful it really is.

    The premise actually is fairly interesting; in this incarnation, Frankenstein (known mostly as "Baron") conceives of constructing a male and female, to spawn a new race of beings subordinate to him. Rather than explore this in its entirety, though, the whole thing is buried under early 70s sexploitation cheese and while I'm not abject to gratuitous nudity or eroticism...this is just...bad.

    Addendum: I wanted to follow up on my remarks about Flesh for Frankenstein, having read Maurice Yacowar's 1998 essay. He argues that the film is a satire of gratuitous violence and shallow sexuality devoid of humanity not just in film, but across society itself. That got me thinking about what James Whale did with Bride of Frankenstein, and I have to say I prefer Whale's "inside joke" perspective. Maybe because it was subtle, whereas Paul Morrisey's version is an exercise in excess.

    It's also noted that the film was originally filmed in derision of the 3D fad. I can recall some shots that I imagine were intended to be presented in 3D, but my Netflix stream was in 2D. I therefore can't speak at all about that layer of satire. Having read up on it and slept on it, I still feel like it's an over-reaching work of camp horror/gratuitous sex masquerading as art...but maybe a subsequent viewing or the commentary track (not available via Netflix streaming) would persuade me otherwise.

  • This is a 1989 documentary compiled from various footage shot between 1968 and 1972 by astronauts who visited the moon. A lot of footage was originally shot on 16mm and had to be blown up to 35mm for this cut; for someone who has sat in an IMAX theater and seen that kind of orbital footage, it was surprising to see just how thrilling it still was to see Earth from outer space and know it's not a model against a velvet backdrop.

    I loved that the various voyages were intercut; if you're not paying attention, or if (like me) you're really just unfamiliar with each particular moon landing, it can be confusing because the film plays out as though it's a singular trip to the moon. Not only would subtitles have been helpful for some of the more garbled recorded lines, but some on-screen attributions of who is actually speaking and when he went would really have helped make clear the scope of the documentary.

    That said, I really enjoyed seeing this footage. It will never cease to thrill me.

  • A post-apocalyptic survivor is sent into the past and future in search of aid in this 28 minute long short film. The premise is interesting, as is the execution--the whole thing is told using still photography and a third-person omniscient narrator. A shade predictable, but oozing with innovation nonetheless.

  • A "free form travelogue" and "non-linear essay" are but two phrases I've read to describe this film. Predominantly, it explores aspects of Japanese traditions and folkways; but there are random jaunts across Africa, to Iceland and a genuinely odd segment in which scenes from Hitchcock's Vertigo are re-traced on location in San Francisco.

  • A middle-aged guy with a jealous bone is killed after confronting his young nymph bride (Lulu, played by American Louise Brooks) on their wedding night. She is found guilty, but manages to go on the lam with what would have been her stepson, who is in love with her. The film reminded me in a lot of ways of both Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and Divorzio all'italiana. Being a silent film doesn't impede the urgency or longing in any of the performances, and the story is clear and easy to follow without being simplistic.

    I was also quite impressed by the camera work and the editing; a lot of shots are cut very quickly and the images are dynamic, rather than the static look of many of its contemporaries. And while I may or may not be off-base about the lesbian subtext in Carrie, there is absolutely no denying that Countess Anna Geschwitz (Alice Roberts) is clearly in love with Lulu.

  • The premise (a returning Crusader playing chess with Death) kept calling back to me so I broke down and watched it just now via Netflix. At times it feels deeply spiritual; other times, it mocks religious faith. I can tell there's quite a lot going on here that I'm not grasping simply because I'm not particularly versed in theology.

    On the historical side, though, it was fascinating to see the self-flagellating sect depicted on screen; Pat Robertson is clearly descended from these people, resolved that every crisis is a punishment from God.

    The performances were great, the cinematography fairly dynamic and the music really added to the film--in the few places where it was used. Excellent film, and one I'm glad this challenge nudged me into watching.

  • 78 year old Professor Borg is to be honored today, and his drive to the ceremony is rife with reminisces and introspection. He is accompanied by his daughter-in-law, Marianne. Along the way, they stop to visit his childhood home, his 96 year old mother and pick up some hitchhiking youth, all of whom serve to examine the Professor's life.

    This is my third Ingmar Bergman-directed film, and possibly my favorite; it's got more substance than Smiles of a Summer Night, and more tenderness than The Seventh Seal. It reminded me of both Up and A Christmas Carol; that is, if either Carl Fredrickson or Ebenezer Scrooge had bothered to cultivate a likable public persona to mask their inner cold-heartedness. There's a lot going on here, but it never becomes confusing.

  • The special effects haven't all aged well, especially the stuff where images were superimposed on other negatives, but the sheer grandeur and scale of the production is nothing short of astounding. Miklós Rózsa's music brings a classic sense of adventure to every scene; I can definitely trace Indiana Jones back to this film.

    I streamed the movie, but I see on Criterion's website that the DVD includes a commentary track featuring Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese! I bet that's really special. One last thought: I kept thinking June Duprez looked like Katy Perry in the long shots, and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the close-ups. Never combined those two before.

  • A then-contemporary re-telling of the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice set in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. The film is visually stunning (and how could it not be, with those gorgeous locations and wonderful costumes?), and the music is infectious. I had a bit of a problem with my viewing, because my wife was on the couch with me, working on a paper for class and only partially paying attention. Her interruptions and distractions really dampened my emotional investment in the film at times.

    There is a moment when the film becomes all but silent, and it is genuinely chilling--especially in light of what is happening on-screen during this portion of the story. My wife had questioned how this met the standard for being counted as a musical, and I tried to explain to her just how important music was between the characters--especially between Orpheus and Eurydice. It wasn't until that scene with no sound at all that I realized just how dependent upon music the film really is, and if that's not the definition of a musical, then I don't know what is.

  • This 2008 dramatization of Bobby Sands's 1981 hunger strike is not for the squeamish. The conditions of the Irish prisoners, the savagery of their British guards; it's all here in documentary-style reality. I understood the nature of "The Troubles" as a child, but it existed elsewhere for me. This was a brutal depiction of a microcosm of the entire ordeal, and it simultaneously makes one sympathetic to both sides, really, while also reaching a point where one has to ask whether any cause would be worth such extremes.

    Most of the cinematography consists of static long shots that linger on the scene. It creates a distant, observatory feel, but when we're not seeing a group of armed guards beat the hell out of a single naked inmate, the film lacks energy. Much of the early parts of the film feel like a documentary that hasn't gone to post-production for the obligatory narration and music. It walks a very thin line between making an artistic point by making you uncomfortable and becoming simply tedious to endure. Also, I felt that too much attention of the first half is paid to peripheral people, who do not really figure into the specific narrative of Sands. For a 96 minute long film with such a narrow scope, it feels like there's at least 15 minutes of material that could easily be excised and actually make the film more compelling.

  • I knew going into it that the premise was dark--a young girl is raped and killed in the woods--which is why I'd kept putting off this viewing. The starkness of the production, the explicit nature of the violence and the fact that the trio of brothers included a young boy made for a very visceral film. I tip my hat to any work of art that provokes such strong emotional response, but I cannot fathom viewing this a second time.

    The examination of spirituality and religion found in The Seventh Seal is actually more compelling here. There, faith is more of an academic discussion; here it is subjected to an unrelenting crucible. I teared up a few times throughout the film, and that's extremely rare for me.

    In retrospect, I really should have made this the third and not fourth selection I watched from the Bergman box set; Wild Strawberries would have been a very welcome final act, so to speak. I believe Criterion lists it third on the box package, and I would suspect it's because they suggest you don't end with this.

    On a lighter note, every time I looked at Gunnel Lindblom, I thought of Fairuza Balk.

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