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Collecting Criterion – Hoop Dreams (1994)

hoop dreams victory

When it comes to film-making, there is no more remarkable place to find a compelling story committed to celluloid than in the documentary form.  Fictional movies can tell great stories, but with a definite sense of control over what we see.  A documentary on the other hand finds the drama in real life and if done well can be more captivating than any other kind of movie out there.  Documentaries can tell all kinds of stories; funny, heartwarming, heartbreaking, and even devastating.  And the reason why so many stay with us is because through following real people and showing real places, documentaries reveal to us an element of truth that other cinema can’t.  Sure, documentaries also have the power to manipulate, and not all for the better (just look at the political propaganda pieces from firebrand filmmakers like Michael Moore or Dinesh D’Souza).  But, what I’ve always found fascinating about the documentary form when it’s at it’s best is the way that film-making finds great drama in the unexpected and hidden parts of life.  There’s something about the presence of a camera that brings out things you never expected and with a precise editing job, you can find a narrative that you never realized was there before.  I’m sure no one thought a competition between two rival Donkey Kong enthusiasts would turn into a David vs. Goliath battle of wits like the one we saw in The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2008) or that an in-depth interview with a Government Intelligence officer would turn into an international incident and a pivotal turning point in America’s surveillance policy as it happened in CitizenFour (2014).  That’s the magical power of documentary film-making, and it’s important place in cinematic history is well reflected by some of the inclusions in the Criterion Collection.

Criterion includes many influential and important documentaries within it’s library.  Some of the more notable inclusions are the works of the Mayles Brothers, Albert and David, whose Gimmie Shelter (1970, Spine #99) documented the legendary Altamont concert set up by the Rolling Stones where an attendee was stabbed to death by the Hell’s Angels biker gang that were used as security, a moment caught on the Mayles’ own camera.  D.A. Pennebaker’s documentation of The Complete Monterey Pop Festival (1968, #167) also captured the introductions of rock legends like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to the world.  In an all-together different documentary style, Criterion also includes the controversial anti-Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds (1974, #156) and the equally unflinching Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976, #334) which documented the often-times violent tension seen in a coal mining community during a year long strike.  Many other acclaimed documentarians have also been highlighted by the Collection, including notable filmmakers like Agnes Varda, Errol Morris, Terry Zwigoff, Louis Malle, and even Orson Welles (in his later independent years).  But, if there’s something that the Criterion brand is especially great at, it is putting the spotlight on films that are especially deserving of more recognition, and that’s exactly what they did to one of the late 20th century’s most monumental documentary features.  It’s an epic story about hardship, family, and the dissection of the American dream, and it centers amazingly enough around the sport of Basketball.  So, with March Madness going on right now, I felt it was appropriate to highlight the documentary wonder that is Hoop Dreams (1994, #289).

Hoop Dreams is epic in both size and story, and the fact that it came to be that way was unexpected to everyone, including the filmmakers.  When director Steven James and producer Peter Gilbert began their project of documenting the lives of inner-city kids trying to pursue a career as professional basketball players, they only expected it to end up as a 30 minute special that would air on PBS.  Five years and 250 hours of footage later, they ended up with an amazingly complex story that ended up filling 3 hours of run time.  The film documents the lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two boys from poor housing projects in Chicago.  It starts with them as high school freshmen, both with aspirations of becoming star athletes in the NBA.  They get recruited into the same prestigious high school that their idol Isiah Thomas attended, St. Joseph’s, but academic difficulty causes Arthur Agee to fall behind and he ultimately is dropped out of school and from the team.  Afterwards, Agee returns to the projects to attend his local, state run school while Gates remains at St. Joe’s, barely clinging on academically and always under pressure to perform as the only black kid in a predominately white institution.  As the boys grow older, we see them deal with the harsh reality of what it’s like to pursue a dream and ultimately fall short.  Agee deals with behavioral problems in school, a drug-abusing father who causes economic woes for his family, and a lack of humility that ultimately isolates him from teammates and friends.  Gates on the other hand falls victim to high standards that ultimately put a strain on his health, due to long commutes to school and grueling hours of practice, that ultimately leads to injuries and a loss of respect among teammates.  By their senior years, the two boys mature into more seasoned and intuitive athletes and as they ultimately reach some of their goals and make the transition into college, they take a look back and examine if the dream of NBA fame is ultimately what they want in the end.

The brilliance of Hoop Dreams is the way that it captures so many different themes within the central narrative.  Yes, it’s ultimately about pursuing dreams and reaching for goals, but it touches upon so much more than that.  The film was made during the late-80’s and up through the early 90’s, a period of social and cultural upheaval for many people, especially those in poorer, racially segregated communities.  In Hoop Dreams, you see Agee and Gates deal with racial, class and economic division, the ongoing threat of gang violence and drug abuse in their homes, huge disparity in educational standards based on where they live, and just all around bad luck thrown in their way.  For both of the boys, basketball is more than just a game; it’s a way out.  What also occurred during this era of gang and drug proliferation in the inner cities was the rise of Sports culture as a whole.  Both ESPN and NIKE came into their own during the 1980’s and with them the rise of the marketing of Super Sports All-Stars.  It was the era of “Bo Knows Best” and “Wanna Be Like Mike” and larger than life figures who dominated their sports like no one before.  At the time for many African-American youths in America, sports figures were the only role models around for them to look up to, and that in turn made many inner-city black kids believe that their only ticket out of their poor communities was through athletics.  Unfortunately, the world of athletics is a far more competitive one than the media at the time would have led us to believe, and many young men fell short of their dreams with nothing to fall back on.  This reality is ultimately what’s at the center of Hoop Dreams and it’s that realization of dreams versus reality that both Agee and Gates come to as they evolve from boys to men that ultimately resonates when you watch the film.

Not that it’s all that makes this movie great.  Steven James remarkably is able to create this whole tapestry of the society that these kids exist within, and makes everything around them an integral part of their growth as people.  One great subplot in the story is Arthur Agee’s mother Sheila making her way through nursing school before ultimately receiving her certification by the film’s end.  Her struggle to break out of her situation and make something of herself is a nice parallel to the struggle of her son and it’s a bright point that gives hope to everyone involved about what their futures might be.  The movie also works perfectly as a sports film, with the games that the two boys compete in playing crucial significance to the growth of their character.  When they ultimately play in the state championship tourney by their senior years, you really feel the weight of what has led up to this moment.  By the end, you see that both boys had talent that could have taken them far, but life and society put up different paths for them to take, and whether or not they took them it would determine what kind of person they would be.  It’s a grandiose story of universal truths found in a small corner of American society that rarely gets seen and that’s what makes Hoop Dreams so memorable.  When it premiered at Sundance in 1994, it was immediately praised by the critical community.  Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel in particular championed this film relentlessly on their nationally syndicated program, hoping to give the movie the due attention that it deserved.  Amazingly, the film was overlooked by the Oscars, and it exposed some of the unfair nomination processes that the Academy had; in particular, the Documentary category at the time was not voted on by other Documentary filmmakers.  The Hoop Dreams snub forced the Academy to change it’s voting practices, and that in itself was a positive change for the better thanks to this movie.

Criterion once again delivers a worthy presentation of a film deserving of a special edition.  Documentaries are an interesting class of film compared to their Hollywood counterparts, in that there is a more relaxed standard of picture quality that they are judged by.  For most documentarians, their only option of film stock is lower quality, grainy 16mm, or in some cases the even more low-grade 8mm.  But, the strength of a documentary is not how polished it looks but rather what it captures on screen, and therefore documentaries can get away with having a shabbier appearance.  Hoop Dreams has even more of a handicap in the visual department because it was shot on video tape as opposed to film.  This gives the movie a mostly home video look which may put off some viewers more used to a more film like experience.  But, despite the limitations of the source, Criterion has done it’s best to make the high definition picture of this movie look as good as it possibly can be on blu-ray.  The results come out looking great and live up to the high Criterion standards.  The high-definition transfer was made in collaboration with the Sundance Film Institute, the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Academy Film Archive, so you know that this movie went through a lot of restorations in order to get it to it’s highest quality possible.  With approval from director Steve James , this is about the best possible picture we’ll ever get for this film.  The sound quality is also perfectly balanced given, the limitations of the source.  Overall, it’s a prime example of how to give a documentary the proper preservation it needs.

Criterion has also supplied a wealthy set of bonus features that also enrich the experience.  The most substantial feature in the set is a documentary called Life after Hoop Dreams, which gives us a much needed update of where Arthur Agee and William Gates are today.  Both men, now in their forties, never did make it into the NBA, but as the documentary shows, their lives haven’t fallen apart as their dreams of fame faded away.  Both of them, as we learn, finished college and earned a degree, and they’ve in turn used their skills to give back to their communities, as coaches, entrepreneurs, and even as a pastor in William Gates’ case.  Watching these once troubled youths turn into well adjusted adults in the wake of this movie is a very pleasing turnout and makes it’s inclusion here very worthwhile.  There’s also an engaging commentary track from the filmmakers, and it’s fascinating to listen to them discuss the process of documentary film-making based on their experience with this project, especially in how their small, simple special evolved into this giant undertaking.  Another interesting feature is a collection of excerpts from the Siskel & Ebert show, tracking the critical reception of the movie.  The advocacy for the film by the two famed critics is recognized by many as one of the elements that helped to popularize the movie across the nation, and these excerpts are a way of acknowledging their help.  Ebert in fact named Hoop Dreams as the Top Film of the 1990’s, and director Steve James would pay back the kindness many years later by spotlighting the life and career of Roger Ebert in the also acclaimed documentary Life Itself (2014).  Rounding out the features is a music video tie-in as well as a theatrical trailer.  Overall, it’s a solid presentation with some very worthwhile features that compliment the movie perfectly.

Hoop Dreams may seem like a hard sell at first glance.  A 3 hour documentary about inner-city kids who want to play professional basketball?  But, when you do finally give it a look, you will find an engrossing, multi-layered drama that will keep you interested the whole way through.  What ultimately makes this movie so fascinating are the kids themselves.  We see Arthur Agee and William Gates grow and mature and learn what the American dream is really like.  The movie also teaches us a lesson about the all too common barriers we set up in society with regards to what a person can achieve based on their race, their class, or their level of education.  The movie also allows us to see that fame and glory are not without cost and hardship.  In a world that values super stars, we don’t see enough of the sometimes ugly ladder that people end up climbing in order to get there, and Hoop Dreams is just one reflection of how so many who seek a way to the top often never make it.  More over than that, the movie just overall represents a high point of documentary film-making, and the often amazing way it can capture the unexpected drama of human life.  The late great Albert Mayles once said, “The natural disposition of the camera is to seek out reality,” and Hoop Dreams is a perfect illustration of that notion.  The filmmakers never set out to capture this amazing, grandiose story, but as the years went by and more and more interesting things happened in front of them as they continued to roll film, they ended up with a story that was better than anything they could’ve imagined.  That’s the power of documentary film-making; the ability to capture life’s crucial moments unexpectedly.  You can’t do that with purposely staged events and rarely with talking head interviews.  Hoop Dreams is life unfolding in front of our eyes and that is the most epic kind of story that can ever be shown on the screen; and plus, it’s got some great basketball in it too.

hoop dreams criterion


Collecting Criterion – House (1977)


Though the vast majority of Criterion’s titles fall into the range of prestige art films, there is a small selection in the Collection that’s devoted to highlighting the strange and bizarre from cinema around the world.  That’s where you’ll find some of the more unique examples of horror and suspense ever put to celluloid, and it’s a special treat that Criterion devotes as much care and respect to these titles as they would to some of the more honored films in their catalog.  Some of Criterion’s horror titles include Roman Polanski’s breakthrough classic Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Spine #630), as well as early movies from David Cronenberg like Scanners (1981, #712) and The Brood (1979, #777) and from Guillermo del Toro like Cronos (1993, #551) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001, #666).  The more interesting horror titles in the Collection are the international ones however, which range from the truly disturbing to the really bizarre.  Some of these include the lyrical and gory French thriller Eyes Without a Face (1960, #260) and the silent Danish film about witchcraft Haxan (1922, #134).  But, if there’s an international body that has consistently put out the most disturbing and visually arresting horror movies over the years, it would be the nation of Japan.  Criterion has thankfully assembled some of the most groundbreaking titles from Japanese horror, all influential not just within their own domestic cinematic traditions, but also to horror filmmaking worldwide.  These include the Masaki Kobayashi epic scale ghost story Kwaidan (1965, #90) and the moodily atmospheric Kuroneko (1968, #584).  But perhaps the most interesting horror title to come from Japan found in the Collection is the very one-of-a-kind oddball, House (1977, #539)

Oh, where to begin with this movie.  House is unlike any horror film you will ever see; or any movie for that matter.  It’s probably better described as a psychedelic trip than as a movie.  The film was directed by a former Japanese commercial director named Nobuhiko Obayashi, and his commercial background definitely shows in this film.  With a near manic tone and surreal uses of mattes, collage effects and animation, House feels very much like a Japanese TV commercial on steroids.  And that was probably the desired effect on Obayashi’s part.  This was meant to be a showcase for his own bizarre style and there seems to have been no better genre to make that work than in horror.  It should be understood that not all horror is the same and not every horror film is meant to leave you scared.  House is a perfect example of creepy horror, where the chills come not from the sudden scares but instead from the constant uneasiness brought on by the grotesque imagery on screen.  Honestly, nobody who watches House will ever be scarred out of their minds by it, but it will no less be a disturbing experience.  Amazingly enough, Obayashi was able to get studio funding for his artsy project, by no less than Japanese powerhouse Toho International (the studio that brought Godzilla to the world).  Toho probably didn’t realize what kind of movie they had just underwritten, but their gamble did allow for Obayashi’s imagination to be fully realized on film and as a result, it has become one of their most influential movies.

The story of House is just as basic as the title itself.  It’s essentially a haunted house movie, where a group of characters (in this case, Japanese schoolgirls on a field trip) must survive through a spooky night in a decrepit old home while it’s deceased inhabitants pick them off one by one.  Even the characters themselves are purposely archetypal, down to their names being representations of their personality.  The characters include Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) who pridefully obsesses over her good looks, Melody (Eriko Tanaka) who likes playing music, Mac (Mieko Sato) the chubby one who likes eating, and Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo) who, well you can already guess what her thing is.  Together they take a trip to the mountains where they will stay at the home of Gorgeous’ ailing Aunt (Yoko Minamida), who is wheelchair bound and lives with her fluffy white cat.  As they stay longer at the house, the more they notice that not everything is as it seems, and soon more and more bizarre things start to happen.  Not only that, but some of the girls begin to disappear and/or are found brutally murdered around the house.  Thus begins a string of some truly strange and at times very creepy moments as the girls are suddenly consumed by the house as it becomes clear that it has a mind of it’s own.  Shattered mirrors cause the skin to peel off a girl who is looking into it; another girl’s disembodied head tries to eat her nearby friend; another girl is consumed by a carnivorous piano; and there’s even a demonic painting of the fluffy white cat that spews blood and fills the entire room with it.  Overall, the flow of the story is less about delving deeply into these girls’ stories and is more about finding weird circumstances to put them all into, and the crazier the better.  And that’s essentially the overall appeal of House; no holds are barred in this crazy ride of a movie and it’s more than anything about the experience than the narrative.

Now, as imaginative as House may be, it can also polarizing.  Those looking for a scary cinematic experience may be disappointed in this movie, because more often than not, this movie is more inclined to tickle your funny bone than to give you goosebumps.  I think that the description on the back of the Criterion box for this movie says it best when it states that it’s like “an episode of Scooby-Doo as directed by Mario Bava.”  This movie revels in it’s absurdity while at the same time not shying away from showing some really disturbing imagery at times.  That sometimes jarring contrast between tones can often times give you whiplash, but Nobuhiko Obayashi still manages to make it resonate despite the inconsistencies.  I especially admire the fact that he just goes for the most ridiculous ideas possible, throwing away all reason in the process.  The overall effect helps to give this movie the feeling of a feverish nightmare, which helps place it comfortably in the horror genre.  It may not make you jump out of your seat, but it will disturb you by it’s unrelenting assault on the perceptions of reality.  In addition, there’s also a beauty to be found in the movie’s surrealism.  Obayashi has said that the ideas in the film came to him from a short story written by his daughter, and there is indeed a childlike wonder in all the mayhem on screen.  Obayashi’s style certainly has a playfulness to it, even when what you’re seeing is freakishly disturbing, like when a piano chomps off the fingers of the girl playing it, and then those disembodied fingers begin to play the piano on their own afterwards.  It may be an aquired taste for some, but those who go for this kind of absurdist horror have made this movie a cult favorite for many years.

What I admire most about this film however is just how stunningly beautiful it is.  Nobuhiko Obayashi clearly wanted this movie to be as removed from reality as he possibly could make it, and it succeeds at doing just that.  Almost nothing was shot on location, except for a couple exemptions.  The majority of the scenes were filmed on soundstages with some incredible matte paintings used to fill out the background scenery, each of them exaggerated in their own way to give this movie a very storybook look.  Couple this together with some interesting uses of animation and some groundbreaking green screen effects, and what we get is an art show collage come to striking life.  The green screen effects in particular are the standouts, because Obayashi almost revels in the limitless possibilities he can have with the technique.  He uses it to create some rather striking visuals, like the crumbling of Gorgeous’ face in the mirror, revealing an inferno underneath her skin.  He also puts multiple layers of these effects on top of one another, making impossible to film angles and images come to life.  It’s really amazing watching this movie and realizing that nothing  was aided with CGI; that all the effects were done in camera.  That’s the benefit of having someone directing this with a commercial background, because a director of Obayashi’s type would understand the power of visual stimuli a bit more.  In addition, the color cinematography by Yoshitaka Sakamoto is both vibrant and daring, perfectly supporting the zaniness of Obayashi’s imagery.  For me, it almost feels like what a live action anime would look like, and by that I mean in terms of it’s visual energy and unbounded sense of reality.  It wouldn’t surprise me if more than one anime film in the last few decades took a few inspirations from this movie, especially some of the more horror based ones.

Criterion’s treatment of the film is as expected.  Given the cult status of the movie, it’s not at all surprising that Criterion would jump at the opportunity to include this film in it’s Collection, especially if it means giving it a spotlight to help it find a larger audience.  The movie has thankfully been well cared for in the Toho Studio vaults through the years, but even still for a movie it’s age, there needed to be an extensive restoration to make the film sparkle more in high definition.  For their edition of House, Criterion gave the movie a new high-def transfer for it’s blu-ray release, and if there was ever a movie in the Collection that deserved a blu-ray, it’s this one.  The HD scan of the movie really makes the colors pop, which is a blessing for a color driven movie such as this.  The background mattes also are more stunning to look at in this transfer, allowing the viewer to see all the fine detail of the craftsmanship behind them.  Of course some of the visual effects will look dated in this transfer, as the seams behind the effects are more clearly defined in HD causing the illusion to become a little less effective, but it’s no more glaring than any other effects film of that era.  In fact, I think Obayashi’s intent was for his audience to be more aware of the artificiality of his movie, because that’s a part of the overall experience.  As long as the visuals still retain their impact, it doesn’t matter how obviously fake they look, and thankfully the HD transfer makes those visuals as stunning as ever.  The uncompressed soundtrack likewise runs that fine balance between the natural and the unnatural, and Criterion has also given it a respectable restoration.

There’s also a healthy sampling of bonus features that both celebrate the film as well as gives us the audience a look into it’s making.  Perhaps the most substantial feature on the blu-ray is the Constructing a “House” featurette.  This newly filmed piece made by Criterion features interviews with director Nobuhiko Obayashi, as well as his daughter Chigumi, who like I stated before was the one who came up with the story originally.  The two talk about how the movie came to be and how Obayashi was able to get it made, despite his lack of experience in features.  Some of the movie’s most notable visual moments are touched upon as well as how they were able to make those groundbreaking effects work.  Screenwriter Chiro Katsura is also interviewed in the featurette, explaining the challenges of creating a cohesive story-line around all these imaginative set pieces.  Next is an experimental short made by Obayashi in 1966 called Emotion.  It’s a neat, if strange little half-hour film that helps to show us how the director was trying to find his voice in his early years as a filmmaker, and how that would soon be reflected in the more ambitious House years later.  Some of the director’s manic editing style and trick photography are clearly noticeable in this short film, and it’s good that Criterion has included it here as a comparison point for showing the evolution of Obayashi as a filmmaker.  Also included is an appreciation video from American horror filmmaker Ti West, who helps to put the legacy of the movie into perspective, including it’s influence on his own style.  Lastly, there is an original theatrical trailer, which rounds out a small but still very welcome collection of supplements for this Criterion edition.

House is a difficult movie to recommend, because it’s really hard to tell how someone might respond to it.  If anything, I would say just watch it once for the experience and see if it’s you’re type of horror movie or not.  I for one admire the movie for it’s originality.  It’s safe to say that there is no other film like it, ever.  The manic uses of absurd imagery are riotously funny to watch, but it’s also balanced with a macabre sense of foreboding that helps to make it effectively creepy at the same time.  That’s a blend that you see lacking in many horror films today, many of which seem more concerned with throwing scares at you than trying to establish a sense of terror.   But, you can see some of the influence that House has had in the horror genre over the years too in many different ways, whether it be the absurdly graphic murders committed by Freddy Kruger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, or the blending of humor and horror found in the films of Edgar Wright.  Or even the graphic design similarities that this movie shares with the medium of anime.  It’s a cult movie for a reason and it’s great to see something this completely original find it’s place in cinema history.  Criterion of course have done their part to give this movie a respectable presentation, and many Criterion collectors would be well served by having this on their shelf.  I would say that it’s even worth getting just for the striking box cover art along, which uses the iconic painting of the demonic cat from the movie to great effect.  That eerie image will really stand out on your blu-ray shelf.  Overall, for a good Halloween movie experience, you can’t go wrong with Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House.  It’ll make you laugh out loud even while you’re chilled to the bone by it’s visually vivid house of horrors, and that’s a cinematic treat that’s perfect for this spooky time of the year.


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Collecting Criterion – The Wages of Fear (1953)

wages of fear

The Criterion Collection continues to be a great resource for anyone who wants to expand their knowledge of worldwide cinema.  Gathering classic films from around the world, from every genre and every era, Criterion has helped to show modern audiences that there has always been a vibrant film-making culture outside of Hollywood and that it is just as influential on the movie-makers of today, if not more so.  A particularly huge chunk of Criterion’s catalog is devoted to the many film-making movements that arose in Europe during the post-war years.  Many of these films are fascinating because each of them perfectly represent the changing cultural landscapes of their selective countries as they began to rebuild and define themselves in the later half of the twentieth century.  We see the rise of Neo-realism emerge out of post-war Italy thanks to films like Bicycle Thieves (1948, Spine #374) by Vittorio de Sica, the emergence of the French New Wave with Breathless (1960, #408) and The 400 Blows (1959, #5) by Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut respectively, as well as the rise of New Swedish CInema with Ingmar Bergman and his classic The Seventh Seal (1957, #11).  But, not all of the movements of this period represented a complete break from Hollywood for most European filmmakers.  Some of them found inspiration in the films being made across the pond and tried to use many of the same techniques and apply them to stories that hit closer to home.  And this was especially the case with filmmakers who intended to use the medium of film to make more of a political statement.

Political films of this time period sought to break down many of the traditional conventions of old-fashioned cinema by seeking to achieve a grittier sense of realism in their movies.  And many European filmmakers saw some of this style that they wanted to replicate arise out of Hollywood in the form of film noir.  Noir was a huge departure from the lavish, colorful Hollywood productions that many European intellectuals dismissed as too decadent and bourgeois for their tastes.  As a result, many New Wave and Neo-realist filmmakers idolized the noir anti-hero, because he represented a symbol of defiance in a world gone mad.  One particular politically minded filmmaker of this period was French director Henri-Georges Clouzot.  Clouzot was heavily influenced by Hollywood thrillers of the pre-war and post-war periods, and his career as a filmmaker also left a impact on the genre as well.  He was often called the French Alfred Hitchcock because of his mastery of suspense and in fact, Hitchcock actually viewed Clouzot as a rival at the time.  The two directors at one point fought over the rights to the murder thriller Diabolique (1955, #35) which Clouzot eventually won out, and it prompted Hitchcock to make his own dark murder thriller, Psycho (1960), in response.  But, as much as Clouzot left a mark on the thriller genre in worldwide cinema, he was also a filmmaker unafraid of tackling politically charged issues in his stories.  That was particularly the case with what many regard to be his masterpiece, and a film that Criterion has lovingly preserved for modern audiences, 1953’s The Wages of Fear (#36)

The Wages of Fear is a suspense thriller unlike any other, putting desperate men into a life-threatening situation against the elements and against themselves.  The film follows the lives of a group of down and out social rejects who take petty jobs in a run down South American village just to get by.  Mario (Yves Montand), a con artist, learns of a job opportunity being given out by an American owned oil company and quickly seeks out the help of another con man, Jo (Charles Vanel) who has contact with the American contractor (William Tubbs) who’s hiring the men.  Both Mario and Jo are chosen to drive a truckload full of heavily unstable nitroglycerin to a drilling site high up in the mountains to help stop an out of control oil rig fire there.  To make matters worse, the drivers are given none of the safeguards necessary to make the cargo safer to transport, given the urgency of it’s need.  With their deadly cargo, the truck drivers must take extra precaution as they trek their way over the mountains, which includes obstacles like numerous rock slides, precipitous cliff-side roads, and the occasional oil slick from a ruptured pipeline.  Even a minor speed-bumb could prove deadly to these men if it causes the nitro to explode unexpectedly.  Not only that, but they must work under a deadline in order to be paid the full amount they were promised and contend with another truckload driven by another crew; the German Bimba (Peter van Eyck) and the Italian Luigi (Folco Lulli).  The remainder of the story follows the different trials that these drivers face while on the road, each becoming more perilous and heart-pounding than the next.

Wages of Fear is a masterclass in suspense film-making and should be watched by anyone who loves heart-pounding action.  What makes it particularly spectacular is the fact that Henri-Georges Clouzot utilized almost no trick photography during the making of this film.  All of the most perilous moments in this movie, whether it be a huge explosion to clear a rock slide off a road, or a truck hanging perilously off of a cliff-side on a rickety, old platform, was done entirely on location.  You have to wonder if Clouzot might have been a little crazy to put his actors in such perilous situations for the sake of each shot, but in the end, it does heighten the sense of realism that the movie has.  They’re just lucky that Clouzot didn’t put real nitroglycerin in those trucks.  Even still, the realism really heightens the cinematic experience that you’ll get from this movie.  There are many moments that’ll make you wonder how they filmed that, to which the answer will probably be very, very dangerously.  The realism also helps to underline the human condition that these men are put through, which underlines the political subtext as well.  Some have claimed that the movie was anti-American, which I don’t really believe is the case, because nothing in the movie casts a negative light on American culture or government.  Instead the movie is more of an accusation against the dehumanizing and sometimes unlawful practices of oil companies in developing nations.  But to some, attacking oil interests was equivalent to an attack on the U.S., so the film was cut heavily on it’s American release.  Looking at the film today, the cuts seem unnecessary and unfair, and Criterion has thankfully restored the movie to it’s appropriate length.

A large reason why the film still resonates beyond it’s technical achievements is also because of the strength of the cast.  Yves Montand and Charles Vanel carry the film significantly, and much of the films suspense is portrayed perfectly on their faces.  You really get a sense of the toll that this perilous mission is taking on the men, as they begin to break down both mentally and physically.  There’s an especially gruesome moment late in the movie when Yves’s Mario must decide whether or not to stop the forward progress of his truck through a waist deep pool of spilled oil in order to pull an impaired Jo out of harms way, or keep plowing through in order to avoid getting the truck stuck.  The anguish on Yves face during this moment of decision is heartbreaking, especially when juxtaposed with the squeals of pain from Jo as the multi-ton truck crushes his leg.  This scene is one of the most notorious in the movie and the chemistry between the two actors really sells the horrifying impact of the moment.  There’s also a lot to say about Clouzot’s ability to sustain the tension in this movie.  In all the film’s 2 1/2 hour running time, not once do you feel the movie drag.  Every moment helps to ramp up the tension as the men head further away from the calm of civilization and deeper into an environment where even one bump in the road could mean immediate destruction.  Many filmmakers have since been influenced by Clouzot’s unbelievable work in Wages of Fear, including Oscar-winning director William Friedkin, who himself tried to duplicate Clouzot’s masterwork with his very ambitious but flawed remake, Sorcerer (1977), starring Roy Scheider.  Despite Friedkin’s best, and loving intentions, there is no comparison to the original.  It was a product of a time when filmmakers pushed themselves to the edge only because it was the best way to capture reality, and not just because it would show off their talents as a filmmaker.

The Criterion edition of The Wages of Fear once again represents their strong commitment to preserving the classics of yesteryear and bringing them back to their former glory.  While Wages of Fear is limited visually by the standards of the time that it was made, it has nevertheless been preserved well enough over the years in French film vaults, given it’s highly regarded status.  Criterion helped to give the movie a fresh new transfer in high definition for this blu-ray release and the hard work shows.  The black and white cinematography is beautifully realized in high definition, bringing out the stark contrasts between light and dark, which defines many of the film’s most tension filled moments.  The high-def transfer also brings out the texture detail beautifully, showing every jagged rock and piece of rubble on that mountain pass as well every bead of sweat that runs down the faces of the actors.  Clouzot wanted his film to reflect reality as best as it could and the on-location photography really shines through in this new transfer.  And like I said before, this is the longer uncut version, and all the deleted material has likewise been seamlessly reincorporated back into the movie.  The soundtrack, which was also limited by the technology of the time, has also been given a cleaned up transfer in this new edition.  The Criterion blu-ray features an uncompressed monaural soundtrack free of pops and hisses and sounds very natural for a film of it’s age.   For a foreign language black and white film made over 60 years ago, this is as good as you would expect from the people at Criterion.

The extra features on this set aren’t quite as extensive as some of Criterion’s other marquee titles, but what is here is still appreciated.  There’s no commentary track, but we are given a few interesting documentaries regarding the film and the people who made it.  Probably the most substantial feature is a 2004 documentary called Henri Georges Clouzot: An Enlightened Tyrant, which details the life and career of the director.  The feature is a fascinating look at a complex man who was a great artistic mind, but also someone who was known to be very hard to work with.  There is also a really fascinating video essay called Censored, which details the different cuts made to the movie upon it’s American release.  It shows the cuts themselves as well as details as to the specific reasons for why they were cut, like the already mentioned perception of anti-Americanism as well as some suggestions of homosexuality between the different characters.   There are also interesting interviews with cast and crew included on this set, including a new one with Clouzot’s assistant director on Wages of Fear, Michel Romanoff, where he details the tumultuous filming on location in southern France.  There’s also an interview with Clouzot biographer Marc Godin as well as an archive interview from 1988 with Yves Montand (who died in 1991), and how he viewed his experience making the film.  Overall, a very nice collection of extras that add substance to this set and compliment the movie perfectly.

The Wages of Fear was a groundbreaking movie in many ways and it has only gained more notoriety ever since it’s original release.  Even when it first premiered back in 1953 it was seen as something special.  It holds a special distinction of having won both the prestigious Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and the Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the first movie to ever do that.  Even many years later, it’s influence is still being felt in gritty suspense thrillers from all over the world.  Clouzot has rightly earned a reputation as one of France’s greatest filmmakers, although his gritty realist style fell out of fashion once his native country adopted the New Wave.  But, even still, his work is right at home in any cinephile’s collection, and no more so than with The Wages of Fear.  It’s cinematic suspense at the highest degree and much of it’s film-making wonder is still impressive to behold.  Clouzot’s career was unfortunately brief, due to health complications that plagued him for his entire life, but with this and Diabolique, he thankfully won enough high praise to be considered a peer among the cinematic titans of his day.  He didn’t earn the title of the French Alfred Hitchcock for nothing.  The Wages of Fear is a movie that I recommend that every one should check out, especially if you’re looking for a good title to add to your Criterion collection at home.  It once again shows how good Criterion is at keeping the works of the great cinematic masters of the past alive and relevant for modern audiences.

wages of fear bluray

Collecting Criterion – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Fear loathing

The films and career of filmmaker Terry Gilliam are unlike anything else seen in Hollywood.  Starting off as the animator and sixth member of the legendary comedy troupe Monty Python, Gilliam soon made the transition to acclaimed filmmaker, bringing along his strange and whimsical sensibilities with him in the process.  Though his films are practically produced, it’s the content and stories that often set his work apart. Gilliam has a fondess for fantasy and science fiction; really, anything that delves away from the ordinary.  Couple that with an absurdist and anti-authoritarian point of view, and you can easily see the common current of Gilliam’s filmography.  That stong artistic style that has shaped Terry Gilliam’s film career has also made him a favorite from the Criterion company, earning some of his movies a coveted place in their collection.  Although Gilliam’s filmography isn’t as extensively included in the collection as some other filmmakers, the ones that are present are certainly worthy of their placement.  They also give you a sense of the director’s versatility, showcasing his ability to create modern social commentaries (Brazil, Spine #51) as well as pure fantasy adventures (Time Bandits, #37).  For this article, I will be taking a look at one of Terry Gilliam’s later pieces of work; one that actually marks a departure for the director in some ways, while at the same time being an ideal presentation of his unique style.  It’s his 1998 cult hit, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Spine #175).  And if there were one title that has benefitted greatly from the Criterion treatment, this oddball masterpiece would certainly be it.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was adapted from the book of the same name by Hunter S. Thompson, one of the counter-culture movement’s most notorious and influential writers. The creator of what would in time be called “Gonzo Journalism,” Hunter Thompson’s style of writing has achieved legendary status.  He was known for injecting his own bizarre experiences into his press pieces and for documenting the social, political, and cultural upheavals of the 60’s and 70’s with a sharp critical perspective.  And one of his favorite subjects to write about was the rising drug culture in America, one in which he had very personal knowledge of.  While not what you would call the most natural journalist, Thompson’s writings are fascinating nonetheless, and offer a very unique voice to an era in our history that represented significant change. That, and the fact that Thomspon was such a bizarre character have also contributed to his status as one of the great writers of the last half century.  Certainly, his writings have garnered many fans over the years, including Terry Gilliam.  The pairing of these two only seems natural, because Gilliam is really the only kind of filmmaker who could capture the hallucinatory nature of Thompson’s writing effectively.  But, even with the way out there style of Thompson’s writing, Fear and Loathing is also strangely accessible and grounded, which is probably a result of Gilliam’s assured direction, which retains a very knowing sense of humor throughout.  Strange how two oddball minds can come together and make a piece of art that is strangely coherent, but that’s what we end up with here.

The plot itself is more or less a series of vignettes showing Hunter Thompson stand-in, Raoul Duke (an almost unrecognizable Johnny Depp) taking a trip to Las Vegas to cover a cross-country motorcycle race in the deserts outside of Sin City.  With his companion and agent, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) by his side, Duke takes in the Vegas experience while doing pretty much every drug known to man.  And the different experiences are altogether trippy and hilarious in their absurdity, such as Duke envisioning the people in a casino bar as literal  “lounge lizards” or both Duke and Gonzo getting high off of ether and having difficulty making their way through a Circus themed casino.  Though not every moment is played for laughs, as the movie does address the downside of drug use as well.  One scene involves Duke trying to talk Gonzo down from a bad trip as the dangerous addict lies in stupor in a full bathtub. Another heavily dramatic and tense scene also involves Gonzo threatening a diner waitress (played by Ellen Barkin) during a heavy late night romp.  The purpose of all these stories was mainly for Hunter Thompson to document the slow burn that followed the idealism of the hippy generation, as America was slowly slipping into a post Vietnam and Watergate malaise that involved many more people turning to drug use to forget the pain of their lives. As Hunter Thompson put it, this was America’s “season of hell,” and he saw that brought out most clearly in the decadent and flashy city of Las Vegas.  Though not an easy kind of story to put into a narrative, Gilliam still managed to make it work, and Fear and Loathing ends up being both an engaging set of scenes as well as an eye-opening social commentary.

The film itself had been in the works for many years, even long before Terry Gilliam was involved.  The rights to Thompson’s book floated around Hollywood for two decades, with british director Alex Cox (of Sid and Nancy fame) attached to write and direct at one point. Parts of Cox’s script treatment still exist in the final version, but it is clear that the project was entirely crafted towards Gilliam’s own tastes.  Though a long time in coming, the end result is a perfect display of Gilliam’s talents. Filmed in the wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio(a rarity for a Gilliam film), the movie is a beautiful trip into the bizarre mind of Hunter Thompson, capturing all the hallucinatory sights with perfect and often hilarious excess.  It’s a great showcase for all of the tricks of the trade that Gilliam has at his disposal, like the consistent use of wide angle lenses to highlight his characters heightened states, or having the hallucinations come to life through puppetry and visual effects.  Not only that, but the amazing cinematography by the DP, Nicola Pecorini, and the production design by Alex McDowell does a great job of capturing the sleaziness of Las Vegas in the 1970’s. You can just smell the booze and cigarette smoke that permeates every frame, and the movie makes a point to highlight the garishness of the casino and hotel rooms that these characters inhabit.  Overall, Terry Gilliam proved to be the ideal person to bring Hunter Thompson’s writings to life, because only he could have the vision to make the bizarre feel so real.

In addition to Gilliam’s amazing visuals, we also are treated to great performances by the two leads. Johnny Depp showcases his abilities to disappear into a role perfectly here as Raoul Duke.  Depp considers himself to this day an avid fan of Thompson’s work and the two men became well acquainted during the making of this film.  Even though the character is named differently, there’s absolutely no doubt that Depp crafted his performance into an imitation of Thompson. His character work here is so spot on and is hilarious without ever being too cartoonish.  I especially like the way that Depp never removes the cigarette holder in his mouth while he speaks, which becomes an indelible part of the character’s voice overall.  This performance left such a mark on Johnny Depp that it wouldn’t surprise me if there are shades of Hunter Thompson in some of his later performances; I can even see just a tiny bit of it in Captain Jack Sparrow.   Benicio del Toro also holds his own as Dr. Gonzo, a character that becomes a roller coaster of emotion throughout the entire film.  Del Toro’s work here is especially engrossing because he shifts between being hilariously inept (like his inability to jump off a moving carousel in one scene) to being frighteningly menacing in other moments (the already mentioned diner scene).  The movie works wonders when both actors share the spotlight because their chemistry is so strong. While Gilliam’s visuals take frequent flights of fancy, it’s these two that really help to ground the movie as a whole.  Both of course would go on to bigger roles in the future, but even here they’re both at the top of their game.  The movie also fills the cast with some great cameo appearances from many well known actors, like Tobey Maquire playing a hitchhiker or Gary Busey playing an intimidating state trooper, rounding out a strong cast of odd characters.

Criterion usually has to put a lot of work into their restorations, but in this case, the film already was given to them in a mostly printine state. Such is the case with movies made in the last several decades that make it into the Criterion Collection.  That’s not to say that Criterion transferred the edition with a lazy effort.  The movie was given the best possible visual treatment on blu-ray as always, capturing all the visual flourishes of Gilliam’s film the way they were intended to be seen.  Gilliam’s movies in particular are defined by their distinctive color schemes, and Criterion thankfully makes those colors pop in high definition.  In particular, the brownish hues of the nearly washed out desert scenes really retain a consistent quality to them, and they contrast perfectly with the darkly lit and almost sickly hued hotel scenes.  The audio presentation is also strong, capturing the sometimes hallucinatory nature of the soundscape in this movie.  Though not a sensory overload experience in the audio department, there is nevertheless a lot of creativity in the sound mix, which the blu-ray presentation perfectly presents.  It helps when the filmmaker is readily available to approve the quality of these presentation, and of course the edition is marked with Terry Gilliam’s seal of approval.  Again, not a revelatory audio and visual presentation by Criterion, given that the edition had to work with some already well preserved elements, but it does represent the solid efforts that they put into every title, whether old or new.

The supplements are pretty healthy as well for this edition. First of all, the artwork used on both the outer cover as well as in the insert booklet help to give this edition a lot of character on its own. Provided by artist Ralph Steadman, the artwork perfectly stylized the movie with often bizarre illustrations that perfectly compliment the film you are about to watch. The  features themselves include no less than three commentary tracks; one from Terry Gilliam, another with Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro, and even one from Hunter Thompson himself.  Deleted scenes are also included with commentary from Gilliam.  Most are fascinating to watch, especially since they show different elements of the actor’s performances, but it’s clear why many of them were cut, which is explained well enough by Gilliam.  Another fascinating feature is a collection of correspondence written by Thompson over the course of the film’s making, all read aloud by Johnny Depp. It’s a treat to listen to Depp add more to his performance as the character, but it also offers an interesting insight into Thompson’s own experience during the the making of the film.  A couple of short documentaries are also included, called Hunter Goes to Hollywood and Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood, which delve deeper into the long development of this movie. Another documentary also comments on the controversy surrounding the final script, when it changed hands between Alex Cox and Gilliam.  Other materials include an excerpt from Fear and Loathing’s audio CD, trailers, production stills, and rare materials about Oscar Zeta Acosta, the real life inspiration for Dr. Gonzo.  Overall, a very packed edition for a movie deserving of such a treatment.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a great oddball film experience and I’m glad Criterion saw it worthy of their film library.   It didn’t take long for the film to make it into the Collection (just five short years after its premiere) which goes to show just how strong an impact the movie has left on audiences. Though not a box office success when first released, the movie has amassed a strong cult following, one in which this Criterion edition is clearly aimed at pleasing.  I for one enjoy this film immensely, mostly as a showcase for Terry Gilliam’s style and for the stand out performances of Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro.  As far as Hunter Thompson goes, I don’t prescribe to his sense of nostalgia over the drug culture of 60’s and 70’s, but I do admire his unique style as a writer.  He was a one of a kind character and a unique voice in American pop culture.  After his unfortunate suicide in 2005, his legend has continued to grow and this film marked a great entry point for anyone looking to see what made him stand out so much.  But, even apart from it’s connection to the legendary author, the movie still stands as a unique cinematic experience.  Terry Gilliam is a welcome visionary in the Criterion Collection and it’s surprising that his work is not more widely represented; something that is going to be partially remedied when Criterion adds The Fisher King (1991, #764) later this year.  But if you’re looking for a unique film that showcases the director’s talents well, then give this Criterion edition a look. But don’t stay too long.  This is bat country.


Collecting Criterion – Fanny and Alexander (1982)

fanny and alexander

Christmas movies and prestige cinema have never really mixed well together.  Considering that Christmas has become such a commercial holiday over time, it’s not surprising that Christmas themes have become abundant in commercial films as well.  Though not always a negative thing for both the movies and the holiday they reflect, it’s pretty safe to say that most Christmas movies tend to be safe and formulaic family fare.  Rarely do you see a Christmas movie that deals with button-pushing issues or harsh, negative themes.  The point of the holiday is to rejoice and be festive after all.  But there are some Christmas movies out there that have taken risks and still delivered a powerful presentation of the holiday spirit.  In some cases, these movies end up being some of the most beloved classics of the holiday season; Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is probably the best example, given that it touches upon themes of depression and suicide in it’s story-line.  Sometimes it helps to add a little spice to the sugar and address the darker side of the holiday season in order to make us better appreciate the good things.  The Criterion Collection, always a home to movies that represent the many dual layers of the human experience, has also become the home to many holiday themed films as well that share this complexity.  Some are very strongly centered around the holiday, like French director Arnaud Desplechin’s 2008 film A Christmas Tale (Spine #492), while others use the season as a backdrop for a larger narrative, like Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955, #95) or Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997, #426).  But, if there was a title in the Criterion catalog that makes the most of it’s Christmas setting and has won the acclaim of critics and cinephiles alike, it would be Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 masterpiece, Fanny and Alexander (#261).

Ingmar Bergman is a favorite among the Criterion publishers, and is competitive with the likes of Akira Kurosawa for having the most titles to his name under the Criterion label.  Bergman’s filmography is lengthy and varied, but they are all well defined by the director’s very distinct and recognizable style.  Both a renowned director on the silver screen and on the stage, Bergman’s style is very earthbound and confined to small, intimate portraits of ordinary life.  That’s not to say that he doesn’t take flights of fancy every once and a while, but even those moments have a cold, stoic nature to them.  Bergman can be an acquired taste for some people.  His movies often are sometimes so devoid of kinetic energy that it may leave some audiences bored.  But no one can deny the visual power that his movies often have.  In many ways, Bergman is the Grandfather of modern Scandinavian cinema, and many filmmakers who have come up in the years since from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark have in one way or another drawn inspiration from his films.  Even some American filmmakers have been inspired by Bergman’s work; probably the most surprising would be Woody Allen, who credits Bergman as a direct influence.  Of course, Criterion has honored Bergman with many fine editions of his most noteworthy movies, including his first international hit and probably his most famous overall film, The Seventh Seal (1957, #11).  Other noteworthy hits like Persona (1966, #701), Wild Strawberries (1957, #139), and Autumn Sonata (1978, #60) have also made it into the collection.  But Fanny and Alexander holds a very special place in the collection, not just for it’s reputation as a movie, but because it also marks the end of an era.  Fanny was to be Bergman’s final theatrical film as he decided to work solely on stage and television in the years after.  He would come out of his semi-retirement in 2003 and direct one final film called Saraband, but that pales when compared to the effort he put into this project.  It’s a spectacular feat of cinema, which Criterion has matched with an equally grand special edition.

Fanny and Alexander is an interesting film in the Bergman filmography mainly because of it’s epic scale, and also the fact that it centers on such a young protagonist, something that Bergman had never done in any of his previous films.  While most of Bergman’s movies run at a brisk but methodically paced 90 minute average length, Fanny and Alexander runs a lengthy 187 minutes theatrically, which even itself was cut down from a staggering 5 hour long television version.  Though the movie is nearly twice as long as most of Bergman’s other films, it’s understandable as to why.  The story follows the tale of the wealthy Ekdahl family at the turn of the 20th century, led by their matriarch Helena (Gun Wallgren), and her three sons Carl (Borje Ahlstedt), Gustav (Jarl Kulle) and Oscar (Allan Edwall).  Oscar, the elder son, has managed to successfully run his family’s theatrical business with wife Emile (Ewa Froling) and children Alexander (Bertil Guve) and Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) in tow.  The close knit family spends a festive Christmas season together, showing how closely knit the whole of them are, but that joy is soon shattered when Oscar is stricken by a sudden stroke while rehearsing a play.  After his death, Emile is in need of security for both the theater and for her children, so she turns to local Lutheran bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo), who takes Emile and her children into his home after she agrees to their marriage.  Soon after, things start to go sour as Bishop Edvard proves to be a cold, unloving husband and father.  Emile resolves to end the marriage after she finds Alexander alone and bloodied in his room after a beating given to him by the bishop.  However, a problem occurs when Emile ends up with child, and Bishop Edvard refuses to let his new family go.  This resolves the extended Ekdahl family to take action and find a possible way to free Emile, Fanny and Alexander from the cruel bishop.

Naturally the primary theme of Fanny and Alexander is the bonds of family, and how festivities like Christmas keep those bonds growing stronger over time.  The whole beginning of the story presents that idea perfectly with the extravagant party put on by the Ekdahls in both their theater and in their lavish home.  The party is played out in extravagant detail, giving us an interesting and personal look at Swedish Christmas traditions as well as the intimate relationships between all of the characters, young and old.  In the theatrical version, this Christmas celebration takes up nearly 40 minutes of run-time, and in the television version, it makes up the entire first 90 minute episode.  It also marks the high point of Ingmar Bergman’s vision.  In this scene alone, we see the director at his most lavish as well at his most introspective.  The movie has been called semi-autobiographical, and that wouldn’t be surprising.  Christmas celebrations like this were probably a major part of Bergman’s early life growing up in pre-WWII Sweden.  It also marks a strong contrast with Bergman’s earlier, bleaker films in the post war years.  Those films would often focus on shattered dreams and harsh realities with little in the way of solace.  Not to mention, most of them were devoid of color.  In this film, however, color is abundant.  Fanny and Alexander is far and away the most extravagant of Bergman’s films, helped largely by the Oscar-winning set design, as well as the Oscar-winning cinematography by long-time Bergman associate, Sven Nykvist.  But, the most interesting aspect of this opening Christmas celebration is how it contrasts with the latter, bleaker part of the movie.  Once Bishop Edvard enters the picture, the whole movie pivots into a darker, more typically Bergman-esque narrative.  This gives the pleasing Christmas scenes a interesting context within the movie, and also in Bergman’s own mindset.  Is joy from festivities like Christmas the ideal that we want in life, or is it merely a dream that momentarily dulls the pain of reality?

This theme plays out in a very interesting way in the movie, because it is told entirely through the eyes of a child.  Though the movie is named after the two siblings, young Fanny is actually more of a secondary character, as Alexander is the main protagonist.  Bergman clearly drew upon his own experiences in childhood, but interestingly plays things in reverse in Alexander’s story.  In reality, Ingmar Bergman was born into a stern, religious household and was constantly reprimanded by his authoritarian preacher father.  He would later find escape in the world of theater and film, and while never really abandoning his faith, Bergman would always cast religious authorities in a negative light in most of his latter work.  Alexander on the other hand was born into the theater, and grew up in a loving and imaginative household.  It’s only when religious authority enters Alexander’s life that things start to fall apart.  In many ways, the two fathers in Alexander’s life represent Bergman’s ideas between dreams and reality.  Oscar is the father Bergman wishes he had, while Bishop Edvard is the father that he actually had.  This is probably why the latter part of the movie feels so bleak, because of that loss of innocence.  Bergman feels fortunate to have found joy in his ability to create, but he expresses great pity to anyone who has that taken away, like with Alexander.  The movie does a brilliant job of expressing that duality, with the lavish and colorful Ekdahl residence contrasted against the stale, white walls of Bishop Edvard’s home.  And although Fanny and Alexander portrays religious figures negatively, Bergman still presents a very spiritual side in the movie, as ghosts and ghouls roam free among the characters, especially in the imagination of Alexander, who often sees his lost father Oscar still roaming the hallways at a distance.  It’s a deeply moving portrayal of childhood and growing adolescence, which is perfectly portrayed by young Bertil Guve as Alexander.  Overall, he becomes one of Bergman’s most intimately interesting protagonists.

Upon it’s initial release, Fanny and Alexander was hailed as a masterpiece, and has steadily grown in reputation as one of cinema’s great classics.  It’s often been called Bergman’s greatest achievement and the greatest Scandinavian film ever made, which is a high honor.  So, given it’s monumental reputation, Criterion had to do something special with this edition, and they certainly delivered.  First of all, it should be noted that the Fanny and Alexander edition not only contains one movie, but two by the famed director.  In addition to directing the film itself, Bergman also had a second camera on his set to capture the whole process of him working behind the camera, which he later edited into a documentary called appropriately, The Making of Fanny and Alexander (1982).  This feature length documentary is an interesting look at Bergman’s process, and how it often led to many struggles on the set, both internally and with the cast and crew.  It’s an intimate portrait of the man himself and helps to really show the mind and method of an artist in a fascinating way.  Overall, the presentation of the movie and the documentary comes in a lavish three disc blu-ray set.  The theatrical edition is included, given a beautiful high definition remaster, as well as the lengthy television version, made available for the first time here in North America.  The documentary makes up the third disc, along with all of the extras.  Each of the different films on this set are given brilliant digital presentations that do justice to this over 30 year old film.  The picture quality really brings out the lush colors of Sven Nykvist’s photography, and the sound presentation, although low-key generally, still feels true to life and sounds perfect.  It’s a worthy visual and aural presentation that shows exactly why Criterion is the best home possible for Ingmar Bergman’s collection of films.

The extra features also help to fill out the set nicely.  In addition to the colossal Making of Fanny and Alexander feature, you also get two other noteworthy documentaries on this edition.  The first one is called A Bergman Tapestry, which gives you a comprehensive look at the making of the movie from the perspectives of the cast and crew, all looking back on their experiences with the director.  The second documentary is a made-for-TV retrospective interview with the director called Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film.  Conducted in 1984 by Swedish film critic Nils Petter Sundgren, the two men sit down and discuss Bergman’s career and why he decided (at the time) to stop making feature films.  Fanny and Alexander is discussed extensively, as well as many of his other noteworthy works, and it’s an overall very enlightening interview that feels right at place in this set.  The remaining supplements are extensive galleries of the many award-winning sets and costumes, showing just how much care went into the crafting of this film, and showing just how much Bergman wanted this film to glow visually.  Rounding it all out, there is an audio commentary track by film scholar and Bergman biographer Peter Cowie, on the theatrical version only.  In it, Cowie discusses the themes of the movie in more detail, as well as discussing the film’s place in Bergman’s whole filmography and it’s legacy.  It may not seem like a lot on the surface, but each of these extra features are enormous in of themselves, especially the monumental Making of.  It’s another sign of Criterion’s high standard, and of course they wouldn’t do anything other than the best for a film that is widely considered one of the greatest that’s ever been made.

Fanny and Alexander is a movie that needs to be seen by any film fan out there, especially those who want to expand their understanding of international cinema.  Along with The Seventh Seal, this would be considered essential Bergman, and would probably be the best way to introduce the director’s work to someone who is unfamiliar with it.  Do not be daunted by it’s epic length; Bergman fills every moment of this film with awe-inspiring artistry and doesn’t waste any of it on needless indulgence.  In fact, for such a personal film, the movie is surprisingly accessible, and that’s probably because of the universal themes of family and coming of age that Bergman chooses to address here.  Not only that but it has one of the most lavish and beautifully crafted visions of a Christmas celebration that has even been put on film.  Upon seeing it, you can see why this movie is often considered a holiday classic, because few other Christmas movies feel this joyous about the holiday.  It’s not cynical or shallow, and it shows what the holiday spirit should be all about, and that’s the bonds of family.  I only wish that more Christmas adaptations would follow that example and stop sending bad messages in the guise of Christmas cheer (I’m looking at you Kirk Cameron).  Ingmar Bergman has had the reputation of being a bleak and cold-tempered story-teller, which is sometimes reflected truthfully in his earlier films.  But Fanny and Alexander presents something altogether different in the vision of hope, presented beautifully in the image of a family Christmas celebration.  Hope and joy may be an unusual theme to find in a story made by the same guy behind the post-apocalyptic Seventh Seal, but Fanny and Alexander shows the legendary filmmaker at his most introspective and surprisingly, at his most optimistic.  This treasure of a film gets a much deserved edition from Criterion and would make a very wonderful gift under the tree for any cinephile this year.

fanny bluray


Collecting Criterion – Ace in the Hole (1951)

ace in the hole

The Criterion Collection has given us solid editions of movies that are either universally renowned or completely obscure, and has used it’s label as a mark of quality for the films in it’s library.  But, while many of the films that make it into the Collection have garnered attention because of their lack of exposure, either being from a foreign market or were little seen outside of some artistic circles, there are some instances where Criterion shifts it’s focus back to Hollywood and brings our attention to a movie that demands our attention.  Sometimes it’s an important but overlooked benchmark film in a genre that deserves the Criterion label, like Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948, Spine #709) or a curious Hollywood oddity like the Charles Laughton directed The Night of the Hunter (1955, #541).  But other times it’s films that were overlooked in their day that have stood up remarkably well over time and became more relevant that get the Criterion treatment.  That has been the case with a lot of surprisingly prescient films like Fritz Lang’s (1931, #30), which looked at the dangers of vigilante justice in a pre-Nazi Germany, or Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960, #58), which explored the nature of voyeurism and how human privacy was more fleeting than we would’ve like to have believed.  And then there are some films that would have certainly been deemed a classic in their day if they had not been overshadowed by other films at the time.  This was certainly the case with a movie called Ace in the Hole (1951, #396), directed by the legendary Billy Wilder.  Ace in the Hole is a movie that has thankfully been given new life as part of the Criterion Collection, and having rediscovered it as a part of the catalog, it’s a mystery as to why this movie has gone unnoticed for all these years.

Part of the reason why Ace in the Hole has largely been overlooked is because it was sandwiched in-between two of Wilder’s more successful and renowned films; 1950’s Sunset Boulevard  and 1953’s Stalag 17.  These movies are now considered among the director’s all time greats, while Ace is seen more or less as a quieter exercise between the two.  That, however, is how the original audience reaction painted the reputation of this movie, and it should not reflect on the quality of the film itself.  In fact, I believe that Ace is just as good as these more famous titles; if not better.  It’s just as unforgiving in it’s satire and themes as Sunset Boulevard, and it probably works better as a film today than it did in it’s first run.  Billy Wilder was no prophet, but he certainly could pick out a troubling trend in American culture and exploit the hell out of it.  In this case, the subject of ridicule was tabloid journalism, and the way it can be carried out of control.  Now, back in the early 50’s, sensationalizing the news was not something that anyone saw as scandalous, and Wilder’s take on the issue definitely exaggerates things to the very extreme.  But the sad fact is that over the years, tabloid journalism has become so extreme and out of control, that it has actually caught up to Wilder’s absurd predictions, making his Ace in the Hole all the more prophetic.  This is probably why Criterion chose to spotlight this particular film, and I’m glad that they did.  It gives us all a chance to take another look at this strangely prescient film and help it to become one of the great Hollywood classics as we now reexamine it through the knowledge that we have today.

The movie follows the story of Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), a big-city journalist who has fallen on hard times.  He reluctantly takes a job as reporter in a small New Mexico town.  He finds the new surroundings pretty dull compared to his old life, but that changes when he gets word of a cave-in at a local mine.  Not one to lose an opportunity Tatum quickly investigates and he soon learns that a miner has been trapped within the cave-in, unable to free himself out of the rubble.  Tatum quickly relays the story not just to his own newspaper, but to all media sources across the country.  Soon, national attention is brought to this small town story, with Tatum leading the charge.  Tatum soon learns that the rescue mission can be accomplished in less than a day, but through a little bit of coercion and some bribing of the local officials in charge, he manages to slow and extend the rescue mission over the following week.  He even uses his wit and charm to convince the miner’s estranged wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) that this is the right thing to do.  As the story gets bigger with every passing day, so does the crowd reaction outside of the mine.  The whole scene soon becomes a circus, both figuratively and literally, complete with a ferris-wheel at the mine’s entrance.  But, reality starts to set it when the trapped miner’s condition starts to deteriorate, and it dawns on Tatum that he made the problem worse by trying to satisfy his own ends.  Once the miner dies in the cave, Tatum is faced with the fact that he now has blood on his hands and must now deal with the chaos that he created.

The remarkable thing about a movie like Ace in the Hole is that it is both absurd and yet wholly realistic at the same time.  Billy Wilder was always a master at highlighting the follies of mankind, whether it was for a laugh or for a moment of sharp insight.  He managed to make that work in dark films like Sunset Boulevard and also in lighter ones like The Apartment (1960), and always with unparalleled wit.  Ace in the Hole came out right after Sunset Boulevard and it’s very much in the same vein.  Both films deal with unchecked human vanity, and how it consumes the lives of not just their selected main characters, but also the lives of everyone around them.  Chuck Tatum is a perfect example of this kind of archetype; a man so consumed by his own ambition, that he loses all sense of the consequences of his actions.  Not only that, but he does so with a righteous fervor, believing that what he’s doing is the right thing.  The scariest aspect of the movie is just how quickly people succumb to the same kind of media frenzy that surrounds Tatum’s crusade; with absolutely no one raising an alarm as to the unethical practices going on behind the scenes.  One doesn’t have to look far to see the same echoes of this today in our own media culture whenever there is a celebrity on trial or a political scandal being exposed.  Eventually, the stories becomes less about informing people, and more about covering every minuet detail, trying to drag a story out long after it’s relevance is spent in order to hold onto the audience longer.  Wilder saw this as a potential issue back in the 50’s and it’s a sad reflection on our culture today that his absurd analysis has actually proven out over time.

But, apart from what it has to say, this isn’t the only thing that has made Ace in the Hole a honored addition to the Criterion Collection.  It’s an excellently made film as well; just like most other Billy Wilder films.  The writing in particular is very strong, which comes courtesy of Wilder himself, and his co-authors Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman.   Every character is given sharp-witted dialogue, but none of it feels inauthentic or too cinematic.  Kirk Douglas in particular does exceptionally great work here, but then again when has he ever disappointed.  He makes Chuck Tatum a very fascinating scoundrel and a character that’s both hard to like and dislike.  Though inspired by many of the overzealous journalists of the early 50’s, you can definitely see the pomposity and full-of-themselves vanity of Chuck Tatum in modern day “journalists” like Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly, which just shows how well Douglas’ work here has held up.  The remaining cast works well too, like Jan Sterling’s conflicted Lorraine, and Robert Arthur as Tatum’s idealistic assistant Herbie, who captures the effect of Tatum’s manipulations on the impressionistic young journalist frighteningly well.  Wilder’s direction is also top-notch here.  He manages to get the message of the story across without ever banging it into the audiences head.  Small visual cues, like the “Tell the Truth” sign in newspaper’s office, helps to slowly build the story’s morals over time, allowing them to sink in before the climatic blow reaches us.  Overall, it’s easy to see why this movie has made it into the Collection.

Like most other Criterion titles, Ace in the Hole has received a world-class restoration, helping to bring out the best quality in the movie’s picture and sound.  Though the film’s original elements were easy to find in the Paramount Pictures’ archives, there still had to be a lot of work done on restoring it to it’s full original glory.  Given that the movie wasn’t as universally renowned as it’s predecessor Sunset BoulevardAce unfortunately deteriorated over time and Criterion’s restoration team did a great amount of work to get the picture up to today’s standards.  Seeing the film now on blu-ray, it’s clear that their hard work payed off, because it looks just as good as any other classic film from it’s era.  While there are still imperfections in the picture, they are more likely the result of the original limitations of the film stock, and not at all a reflection of the quality of Criterion’s restoration.  It should be clear that Billy Wilder was never a stickler for visual purity; he was just a good enough visual director who focused his films more on the dialogue and the performances, so the fact that Ace in the Hole looks as good as it does here should tell you how well Criterion’s team did.  The black and white contrast is well balanced and the detail really shines through on the textures.  Just take a look at the scenes in the desert around the mine to really appreciate the high-definition picture on this blu-ray.  The restoration to the mono soundtrack also feels genuine and helps to support the film as well.  The carnival atmosphere during the latter part of the film in particular pops out in the soundtrack as you watch the movie.  Overall, another quality effort from the Criterion team on a film well deserving of a polished restoration.

The bonus features also help to highlight the significant reputation that this movie has built over time.  First off is an audio commentary track from film scholar Neil Sinyard, who helps to break down the film’s social themes as well as it’s place in media history and within Billy Wilder’s own filmography.  It’s a bit of a dry lecture for cinephiles, and may not be for those who want to hear a more detailed analysis of the making of the movie, but Sinyard’s comments are still informative and worth giving a listen.  The biggest feature on the set though is a full length documentary called Portrait of a “60% Perfect Man“: Billy Wilder (1980).  In it, director Wilder is interviewed about his career and his methods of film-making, complete with relevant clips from some of his most notable films, including Ace.  The documentary shows just how funny the man was in person as well as his passion for film-making and it works as a fantastic overview of the works of one of Hollywood’s most legendary and original voices.  An excerpt from Billy Wilder’s 1986 appearance at the American Film Institute is also included, which while not really relevant to the film itself, is nevertheless an appreciated addition.  Rounding out the extras are some very welcome archival interview clips from star Kirk Douglas and co-writer Walter Newman, both discussing their work on the film, as well as an appreciation clip from director Spike Lee, who has long been a fan and champion of this film.  Also included is a behind-the-scenes photo gallery and an original trailer, and it all makes this a very complete and worthwhile collection of extras to help compliment the presentation of this feature.

Ace in the Hole was a hard-sell in it’s time, and it’s probably the reason why it has been lost for so many years.  In fact, for the longest time, the movie went by a different title, called The Big Carnival, which was a choice made by Paramount Pictures and not by Wilder.  Billy Wilder thought that the new title was too on-the-nose for the film he made and took all the subtlety out of what he was trying to convey; but it was something that he didn’t fight the studio over, so the title stuck.  Thankfully, when Criterion first released the title on DVD, they thankfully restored the original title just as Wilder had wished.  Hopefully Criterion’s edition of the movie brings new attention to it.  It really is amazing to watch this movie and see how many things that it predicted correctly about media culture and human greed.  It makes a great companion film with Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), another movie that was well ahead of it’s time dealing with the same subjects.  Any student of journalism today should be required to watch both movies as a lesson in the ethical boundaries that they will inevitably face in their profession.  But, apart from that, Ace in the Hole should be seen by all as just a great example of film-making.  It certainly stands as one of Billy Wilder’s best and most hard-hitting films and hopefully it will now earn it’s place as one of the director’s all-time greatest.  I certainly would equate it with some of his better works and I am grateful that Criterion took the time to highlight this film too.  It’s a movie well worth rediscovering and it’ll be curious to see how well it’s hard-hitting themes will hold up over time as the media circus that it predicted sadly becomes all the more common.

ace blu-ray


Collecting Criterion – The 39 Steps (1935)

39 Steps

While the Criterion Collection is renowned for bringing to light obscure and forgotten cinematic works from across the world, they are also responsible for preserving some of the lesser known works of the great masters.  Legendary filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and John  Ford have become a part of the Criterion library, with deluxe editions of some of their earlier films like Spine # 516  Stagecoach (1939) and #538 Paths of Glory (1957).  While some of these may not be as obscure as other titles in the Collection, Criterion nevertheless honors these directors by giving worthy notice to a few of these films, showing just how important they are to the growth of cinema in general.  In recent years, Criterion has also been looking for even more prestigious films to include in it’s library, including some of the most beloved movies of all time.  Among their titles today are some Oscar-winners like Laurence Olivier’s 1948 Best Picture winner Hamlet (Spine #82) and Elia Kazan’s 1954 winner On the Waterfront (#647).   Not only does the inclusion of these beloved masterpieces give a special acknowledgement to the filmmakers within the Collection, but it also shows that Criterion celebrates the Golden Era of Hollywood just as much as they do the art house scene.  And one particular Hollywood master has been long celebrated as part of the Criterion Collection, all the way back to even the early years of the label.  That director of course is the “Master of Suspense;” Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock is widely considered to be one of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers, if not the greatest.  No other director was more consistent in Hollywood, while at the same time breaking new ground with every production.  Most of his films are legendary; Psycho (1960), North by Northwest (1959), Rear Window (1954), and The Birds (1963) just to name a few.   In fact, the British Film Institute, for the first time ever, named a Hitchcock film as the “greatest movie ever made,” that being 1958’s Vertigo; it took the honor away from Citizen Kane (1941), which held that spot for over 40 years.   While these popular movies are kept in the public eye by the studios that made them, Criterion has also contributed greatly to showcasing the works of Alfred Hitchcock.  At one point, the Criterion Collection had seven Hitchcock films in their library.  These included the movies made during Hitchcock’s first few years in Hollywood; 1940’s Oscar-winner Rebecca (#135), 1945’s Spellbound (#136) and 1946’s Notorious (#137).  These Criterion editions have unfortunately gone out of print, and have returned back to their original studios for new editions, but Criterion still maintains the licence to a few other Hitchcock titles.  These are mainly the ones that were released during the earliest part of his career, back when he was still cutting his teeth in the British film industry.  It’s interesting looking back at this period in Hitchcock’s career, as we see the beginning of some of the things that would become synonymous with Hitchcock’s later work.   And if there is one Criterion film that best illustrates the beginning of the Hitchcockian style, it would be 1935’s The 39 Steps (Spine #56).

The 39 Steps is probably the best known of Hitchcock’s British films, though it doesn’t quite receive the same recognition that his later flicks do.  But, even so, many of the director’s trademark elements are there, and in many ways 39 Steps helped to set the standard for all of those that followed.  In particular, it began the “wrong man” scenario that would become a popular theme in most of Hitchcock’s later films.  The story follows a young Canadian traveler Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat) who finds himself wrongly accused of murder when an undercover spy (Luccie Mannheim) is found dead in his flat.  In her possession is a map to Scotland, which he uses to track down the people responsible for the murder, while at the same time avoiding getting caught himself.   Upon investigating the clues along the way, he learns that the head of the spy ring responsible for killing the girl is missing the top joint of one of his fingers, and he also discovers something known only as “the 39 steps”.  He escapes capture on the Scottish Moors, after being recognized by a fellow traveler named Pamela (Madeline Carroll) who believes he’s the murderer.  He soon finds refuge in the home of a respectable Scottish scholar, Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) who is willing to hear Richard’s side of the story.  Richard makes his plea and feels safe in the Professor’s estate; that is until he discovers that the Professor has a missing joint on one of his fingers.  Richard, having learned the identity of the true murderer, soon finds himself on the run again, only this time determined to learn the secret of the “39 Steps” before Professor Jordan can stop him, and learn what it has to do with a vaudeville performer named “Mr. Memory.”

The 39 Steps (1935) is small in scale compared to some of Hitchcock’s other great works, but all of the pieces are still there.  In fact, this film helped to introduce many of Hitchcock’s most familiar trademarks.  Apart from the obvious “wrong man” scenario, which would become a favorite theme in Hitchcock’s later works like North by Northwest, this film also introduced the idea of the MacGuffin to the cinematic language.  A MacGuffin is a cinematic term, coined by Hitchcock himself, that refers to the thing that the main characters are searching for, but in the end turns out to be something inconsequential to the audience.  In other words, it’s the thing that drives the motivations of the plot; making the directive more important than the actual reward.   Hitchcock’s uses of a MacGuffin in a movie are pretty noteworthy and here it’s pretty much the focus of the entire film.  In the end, we learn what the 39 Steps is during the final scene, but that piece of information really amounts to very little.  What we remember is the heart-pounding search to find it, and that’s what Hitchcock is known best for.  He was the “Master of Suspense” for a reason, and this film clearly shows how he refined his cinematic voice around this trademark.  You can also see in this movie how the director was finding his style as well.  The film features stunning camera work, which helps to elevate the suspenseful nature of the movie very well.  The scenes in Scotland in particular have a nice gloomy feel to them.  But, it’s the use of close-ups and quick-editing where we see the Hitchcock of later years start to develop, and it’s clear to see how this same filmmaker would redefine Hollywood movie-making in the years to come.

Does the film hold up against it’s more famous descendants?  It’s hard to put this film in the same category as some of Hitchcock’s later classics.  After all, Hitchcock’s prime was really in the 1950’s, when he pretty much could do no wrong.  The Hitchcock of the 1930’s was still trying to figure things out and probably didn’t have the same kind of control over his vision that he soon would have.  At the same time, The 39 Steps is still a very effective movie, and still holds up as a great example of early suspenseful story-telling.  Robert Donat makes a fine leading man in the film, playing the determined and resourceful Hannay with a lot of charm.  He embodies that “every man” sensibility that Hitchcock always loved to put into his main characters, and he gives the character a believable intelligence throughout.  The writing also retains much of that classic British wit that Hitchcock’s films are known for, especially the earlier ones.  It’s clever, without being too complicated, and it treats it’s audience intelligently, never resorting to spelling things out for us.  Hitchcock’s macabre sense of humor is also present in the movie, albeit more subdued here than in many of his later films.  Also, the black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, showing Hitchcock’s keen eye for composition.  If the film has a major flaw, it’s the fact that it feels small.  The film is relatively short at 86 minutes, compared to Hitchcock’s later films which ran on average around 2 hours.  While it does fill it’s run-time with plenty of story, it feels like more could have been built upon the mystery.  Instead, the majority of the movie gives us the typical man on the run scenario, which gets worn out by the 1 hour mark.  Thankfully, the film finishes strong with a very memorable climax.  It’s clear that Hitchcock was still trying to figure out the “wrong man” narrative here, and this film feels like a good test run for his later movies like North by Northwest.

Criterion, of course, treats all of it’s new titles with special care, and Hitchcock’s 39 Steps is no different.  Given that the movie is very old, it needed to be given a special restoration in order to bring out the best possible image quality.   The 39 Steps was selected as a Criterion title very early on, and was released on DVD way back in the late 90’s.  The image quality of the DVD release was passable, but nowhere near what the film should actually look like.  So, when Criterion prepared the film for a Blu-ray re-release in 2012, they gave the movie a proper high-definition restoration.  The results of Criterion’s efforts are astounding.  The film, naturally, hasn’t looked this good in years.  While still maintaining the grainy look of a film it’s age, the restoration has helped to boost the levels of sharpness and detail to the image.  Color contrast is always something to take into consideration when restoring a black-and-white film, and here the  gray levels contrasted with the blacks and whites feels a lot more natural and authentic.  The sound quality has also been cleaned up, and is now free of the pops and buzzes that usually plague an older soundtrack.   Is it the best possible picture and sound that we’ve seen from Criterion.  Unfortunately, the original film elements were unavailable to Criterion, due to the original negative being lost to time.  But, Criterion did the absolute best that they could here, and the film has thankfully been cleaned up and preserved digitally for all of us to enjoy.  Given that it’s Hitchcock, the standards are pretty high, and Criterion does the legacy proud here.

The Criterion edition also features a good sampling of bonus features, many of which were carried over from the original DVD.  First off, there is an Audio Commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane.  Ms. Keane’s commentary is more of a lecture style analysis of the movie’s larger themes and the film’s lasting legacy.   This isn’t the kind of commentary track that you listen to for a breakdown of how and why the film got made, like so many director’s commentaries do.  This is more like the kind of analysis that you would hear in a college level film course, which is not bad if that’s something that interests you.  Marian Keane’s analysis is informative and well-researched.  Just be warned that it’s also very scholarly as well, and in no way substitutes for a behind-the-scenes look.   A documentary included on the disc does however go into the making of the film a little bit more.  Also carried over from the DVD is Hitchcock: The Early Years, which details the director’s early films made in his native England, including this one.  A complete radio dramatization is also present on this edition, created in 1937 for the Lux Radio Theatre show and starring Ida Lupino and Robert Montgomery in the roles of the main characters.   New features added exclusively for the blu-ray edition include footage from a 1966 interview with Hitchcock done for British television, where he talks a little about the making of this film.  Also, another Hitchcock scholar, Leonard Leff, recorded a visual essay, which goes into further detail of the film’s production.  Rounding out the special features is a gallery of original production design art, as well as an excerpt from another interview of Hitchcock, conducted by another filmmaker, Francois Truffaut.   All in all, a very nice set of features that makes this set feel very well-rounded.

If you consider yourself a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock, chances are you already are familiar with The 39 Steps and it’s place within the master’s entire filmography.  While it may not be as exciting as North by Northwest, or as chilling as Psycho, or as emotional as Vertigo, it nevertheless represents a nice stepping stone towards some of those later masterpieces.  I certainly look at it as a prime example of Hitchcock’s earliest work, because you can see all the elements there that would come to define his entire career.  It’s movies like The 39 Steps  that really illustrate perfectly the maturing of a filmmaker, and even though it doesn’t reach the heights that we know now that Hitchcock was capable of, it still stands on it’s own as a fine piece of entertainment.  I certainly recommend it for anyone who just wants to see a good old fashioned spy movie.  There were many others like it at the time, but few feel as effortless in it’s suspense as The 39 Steps does.  There are other Criterion editions of films made during Hitchcock’s early years, and they are worth checking out too, like 1938’s The Lady Vanishes (Spine #3) and 1940’s Foreign Correspondant (#696), which was the last film Hitchcock made before his move over to American cinema.  The 39 Steps unfortunately has been overlooked over the years as a defining film in Hitchcock’s career, so this Criterion edition is a welcomed spotlight for a movie that is deserving of it.  It’s always great to see where the beginnings of a great filmmakers style came from, and The 39 Steps is the kind of movie that shows that off perfectly.  Hitchcock holds an honored place in the Criterion Collection, and hopefully that spotlight will continue to extend to many more of the director’s great early films.

39 bluray

Collecting Criterion – The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)


The Criterion Collection has honored all kinds of beloved cinema by making them a part of it’s library, but they’ve also spread their wings out to include movies that carry a dark cloud of controversy around them.  Many of these types of movies within the Criterion Collection include a box set devoted to the I am Curious series, which were Swedish films that were deemed pornographic and were banned for years in the United States.  Also included in the Collection are the silent documentary on Satanism, Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), the movies of controversial Danish director Lars von Trier, and perhaps the most controversial film of all, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom (1975); a movie that I will one day brave my way through and review for this series.  Criterion does an honorable job of collecting these button-pushing movies, because regardless of the controversy that surrounds them, they still stand as cinematic touchstones and are worthy of preservation and posterity.  Given that Easter is almost upon us, I thought that I should review for you one of the most scandalous movies of all times that has also gone on to become one of Criterion’s most interesting titles; and which also fits within the religious theme of the holiday.  That film is Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).
The interesting thing about this Criterion title is that it’s the only Scorsese film that has been selected as part of the Collection.  This is probably because Scorsese’s other movies probably don’t carry the same stigma that this one does, and have found an easier time getting distribution.  The Last Temptation of Christ more than likely could only ever get released through the Criterion label because no other studio would dare claim it.  Nevertheless, I’m sure that Scorsese is quite pleased with this film’s place within the Criterion Collection, as well as he should be.  Criterion has done a masterful job of restoring the movie and giving it a proper home video release.  In the 25 years since the movie has first premiered, the controversy surrounding it has subsided, especially in the wake of the firestorm surrounding Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), so Criterion’s distribution of the film itself is far from controversial.  Of course, when watching the movie itself, it becomes very apparent why the movie sparked heated emotions in the first place.  Scorsese has always been a risk-taker, and it’s to his credit as a film director that his movies have done as well as they have.  With The Last Temptation, he was fulfilling a life-long ambition to make a film about the life of Jesus Christ, no doubt having grown up watching the great biblical epics of Hollywood’s golden era and being raised in a Catholic household.  But, making a movie like this in a different era with a reputation like what Mr. Scorsese had was going to lead to some tension no matter what, and Scorsese certainly found out how hard it was to fulfill his own dreams.
First and foremost it must be understood that the movie is not based on a scriptural source, but rather is adapted from the similarly controversial novel of the same name by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, the same man who wrote Zorba the Greek.  Though Nikos was always a devoted Christian author, he was nevertheless condemned by both the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, and his book was banned in several countries.  Despite what the Church thought of his writing, Nikos believed that he was honoring Christ by showing his humanity.  In the novel, Jesus is not depicted as an infallible deity, but rather as a passionate and troubled human being who strives to do God’s work on Earth even when doubts his own strength to accomplish it.  The Jesus in the novel remains pure and accomplishes everything he’s been entrusted to do by God, but the novel also examines the temptations that are laid out in front of him that try to pull him away from becoming the Messiah.  The final temptation shows him giving up his crucifixion and leading a normal human life; marrying Mary Magdelene, raising children, and dying at an old age.  Of course, Jesus resists the temptation and goes through with the sacrifice in the end, but the novel details the life that may have been, and this is probably what drove many religious figures to be upset.  Despite Mr. Kazantzakis’ best intentions, the idea of a fallible Christ was unacceptable to many people and sadly it lead to the author’s downfall.
Martin Scorsese was drawn to the ideas of Nikos Kazatzakis’ novel, particularly the way it looked at Christ the man, and he held onto the rights to the novel for many years, hoping to bring it to the screen himself when he had the opportunity.  Scorsese made the movie at a transitional time for him personally.  He had beaten a drug addiction that plagued most of his early career and was now going through something of a spiritual reawakening.  Most of his films during the 1980’s were markedly different in tone to his gritty crime dramas of the 70’s.  In 1983, he made the dark comedy The King of Comedy, which he then followed up with the very low budgeted dramas of After Hours (1985) and The Color of Money (1986).  The Last Temptation pushed Scorsese into even more foreign territory, since the director had never done a period film before, let alone a religious one.
While he knew that the source material was controversial, Scorsese wanted to make this movie as an affirmation of his own Catholic faith.  Indeed, watching this movie you can see Scorsese’s own view of spirituality come through, and it stays true to the scriptural teachings of Jesus Christ.  Unlike Mel Gibson’s The Passion, Scorsese did manage to secure financial backing from a major studio (Universal), albeit with a very small budget.  It was warmly received by critics, but naturally was condemned by Church organizations who didn’t understand it.  The backlash from religious viewers was so intense in fact that the movie is still banned in some countries, and one screening in Paris during it’s premiere was the scene of a terrorist attack by Christian zealots, leading to the death of one person. Suffice to say that The Last Temptation of Christ still stands as Martin Scorsese’ most polarizing film to date.  Upon viewing the movie today, the film isn’t as scandalous on the surface as it once was perceived to be, although I’m sure you still won’t hear any mention of it in religious circles.
My own impression of the movie is that it’s an intriguing, if somewhat flawed, depiction of the life of Jesus.  The most controversial elements of the movie, that being the moments of temptation laid before Jesus, are actually the strongest parts, and shows Scorsese’s knack for making challenging cinema accessible for the average viewer especially well.  The extended sequence at the end of the movie, depicting the life Jesus could’ve had if he gave up his sacrifice for humanity is especially captivating, and spells out perfectly exactly why Christ was meant to be the Savior of humanity according to scripture; a subtlety that I think a lot of religious zealots tend to overlook.  Unfortunately, Scorsese’s film is a bit on the overlong side.  Running 2 hours and 45 minutes long, the movie doesn’t have the same kind of driven pacing that Scorsese’s other movies have, and tends to drag through many of the more introspective moments of the narrative.  In addition, the movie is unfortunately dated by a terrible soundtrack, made by recording artist Peter Gabriel.  While unique, the music does feel out of place in this biblical tale, and makes many of the scenes feel like a bad 1980’s music video instead of an uplifting spiritual movie.
Where the movie does shine, however, is in it’s performances, particularly with Willem Dafoe as Jesus.  Dafoe carries this movie on his shoulders and creates a Jesus Christ that we’ve never seen before on the big screen.  I liked the way that he showed Jesus’ confusion and fear throughout his entire journey, which helps to make the character much more personable than relatable.  Now, many religious people argue that Jesus must be unknowable because he was more than just a man, but Dafoe’s performance shows that Jesus’ teachings can have more power when we understand better the person who is giving it to us.  And better yet, Dafoe’s performance has a lot of passion behind it, making Jesus captivating as a character.  When we see Jesus in this movie, we begin to understand why he was able to inspire people to follow his teachings.
The supporting cast also adds a lot to the movie, especially Harvey Keitel as a very sympathetic Judas Iscariot.  Some of the other casting can be a little random at times; like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) director Irvin Kershner showing up briefly as a stone-throwing zealot; and hold on, was that David Bowie as Pontius Pilate?  One cameo that I did find interesting was Harry Dean Stanton as religious convert Saint Paul, who manages to help even Jesus himself learn more about God’s plan.  The movie’s visual design is also spectacular in this movie.  Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus gives the film an epic scope, and helps to make the film feel big even with the limited budget.  Also, many of the trademark Scorsese touches are there, particularly in the dramatic lighting of certain scenes.  Scorsese’s unique cinematic touches throughout help to stand this movie apart from other biblical movies, particularly with one interesting technique during the crucifixion scene where the camera tilts down 90 degrees in front of Jesus on the cross, showing a sideways view of the image.  It’s a simply done trick, but it does leave a definite impression.
Criterion’s edition of the movie brings out the best of this film by giving it a spectacular restoration.  Produced through a high-definition scan from the original negative elements, the movie looks almost brand new in it’s blu-ray edition.  Thankfully Universal has kept the original negative safe in it’s vault; a religious organization called Campus Crusade for Christ once offered the studio $10 million for the negative just so they could destroy it.  Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker supervised the restoration, alongside cinematographer Ballhaus, and the film definitely looks like it reflects the artistic visions off all involved.  The score, for better or worse, does sound great in the restoration.  You’ll especially appreciate how clear the sound mix is.
The extras, while not particularly as lavish as some other Criterion titles, is nevertheless worth checking out.  First there’s a group audio commentary pieced together from interviews with Scorsese himself, along with Willem Dafoe and screenwriters Paul Schrader and Jay Cocks.  Production footage of the crew on location is also available to view in this package, which gives you the interesting insight into the making of the movie, and seeing Scorsese at work behind the camera is always interesting to watch.  It also gives you a nice idea of what it takes to make a period drama look authentic.  A brand new interview is also included with composer Peter Gabriel, as he details the influences that went into his work on the film’s score.  While I already made my feelings known about the music, it’s still interesting to hear Peter Gabriel’s methods behind his work, and what he thought of collaborating with Scorsese at the time.  Rounding out the extras is an interesting gallery of production and publicity stills.
While the controversy surrounding the movie has dissipated over time, Criterion was still taking risk keeping this movie in the public’s eye, and I give them a lot of credit for continuing to stand up for challenging works of cinema like this overall.  The Last Temptation of Christ is still a monumental work of cinematic art, and while it may not be the most enriching biblical film I’ve ever seen, or even the best example of Scorsese’s work as a director, it’s still a movie that is absolutely worth seeing.  I particularly would like to see religious organizations take another look at this film, because I think it’s more true to the spirit of Jesus’ teachings than they would like to believe.  Contrary to what they may believe, Scorsese did not make this movie because he wanted to attack Jesus’ image.  In the end, Christ does fulfill his purpose in God’s plan and goes through with his sacrifice.  What Scorsese showed us in the movie was that Jesus was also a man, and still vulnerable to the same faults as humankind.  The fact that he overcame them is what made Jesus special, and that’s what Martin Scorsese took away from his own perspective on religion.  Scorsese assures us that his movie is not scriptural but rather a dramatic interpretation of one extraordinary man’s journey through life, something which is stated before the movie’s opening credits.  Regardless of how the final movie turned out, I still thank Scorsese for taking an honest and unique approach to such a touchy subject.  The Last Temptation of Christ is still one of the most unique religious themed films ever made and it makes a worthy addition to anyone’s Criterion collection.

Collecting Criterion – Videodrome (1983)


The Criterion Collection is notable for presenting and preserving some of the world’s most beautiful and life-affirming movies in it’s library.  But, at the same time, Criterion has also made an effort to preserve examples of the truly bizarre and grotesque from cinema’s history.  Apart from some classic B-movie horror films from Hollywood like 1958’s The Blob (Spine #91), there are other bizarre movies in the Criterion library like the Andy Warhol-produced Flesh for Frankenstein (#27), or the silent occult documentary Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Years (#134), as well as the works of avant-garde filmmakers like Luis Bunuel (#102 The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (#17 Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom).  While some of the most shocking and button-pushing films have come from international releases, where censorship standards are much looser, Criterion has also sought out some shocking movies that are come from closer to home.  Case in point, some are films from our neighbor to the north, Canada, and one of their most celebrated and challenging auteur filmmakers; David Cronenberg.  Cronenberg’s film career is an interesting one, considering that some of his movies have actually become mainstream hits (1986’s The Fly, 2005’s A History of Violence, and 2007’s Eastern Promises), but some of his earlier and more obscure films are worth a revisit too, and thankfully he has allowed Criterion the opportunities to give them the presentations they deserve.
One particular title of Cronenberg’s that has been given new life as a Criterion title is his sadly little seen psycho-sexual thriller, 1983’s Videodrome (#248).  Videodrome was one of Cronenberg’s most ambitious films in the early part of his career, riding high off the success of his previous thriller Scanners (1981).  The film featured a then rising-star James Woods in the lead, as well as Blondie lead singer and pop icon Deborah Harry as his love interest.  The film also featured some groundbreaking make-up effects that brought to life some of the film’s more shocking moments.  Unfortunately, the film didn’t click with audiences the same way that Scanners did, or for that matter, his follow-up success with The Fly.  Videodrome‘s lukewarm reception from critics and audiences may have had less to do with it’s gory elements, and more to do with it’s satire on the media and politics of the day.  The movie is a hard one to define simply, given the story-line’s heavy reliance on explaining how TV broadcasting works, but it’s a film that still sticks with you long after you’ve seen it.  In many ways, the movie has benefited from the passage of time, as many of the themes in the film are actually playing out more clearly in society today, and this is probably why the film has developed a devoted cult following over the years.  Criterion’s edition of Videodrome helps to carry Cronenberg’s vision into the new century with both a deserving restoration that quite literally will blow away your TV and a slew of extra features that really plunges the viewer right into the center of the madness behind the film.
The story itself is definitely a product of it’s time, and yet still very much ahead of it’s time, and very accurate in some of it’s predictions.  Max Renn (James Woods) is a sleazy cable TV programmer who is looking for the next big thing to draw in audiences to his channel, which caters to a very adult audience.  The problem is that by pushing the envelope with every new show, he has found that audiences have become desensitized and are no longer shocked by what has been putting on the air.  This leads to the discovery of a video tape called Videodrome.  Videodrome, on the surface, looks like a sado-masochistic snuff film, which even Max Renn finds uninteresting at first.  But, over time, he becomes hypnotized by the tape and watches it continuously over and over again.  He sends his girlfriend Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) to investigate the source of the tape, which she does willingly, but she soon disappears.  It’s not long before Max receives more Videodrome tapes, only this time with Nicki featured in them.  Max soon starts hallucinating as he watches, with bizarre things happening to him like a cavity opening up in his chest from which he pulls out a fleshy, blood drenched pistol.  Max tries to uncover what’s happening to him psychologically, what’s happened to Nicki, and the secrets behind Videodrome, which soon leads him into the depths of a deep-seeded political conspiracy.
It’ll be readily apparent that Videodrome is not for the casual viewer.  It can even be quite disturbing at times, particularly when Max starts becoming overwhelmed by the hallucinations that are plaguing his mind.  These scenes in particular are the standouts in the movie, and feature some of the film’s most impressive visual effects.  Made long before CGI would become the norm in film-making, every special effect in this movie had to be done with practical elements.  Some of those effects are still impressive today, like when Max’s TV screen starts to expand out and become almost malleable, which soon causes Max to rub his face into it (an image which Criterion uses for the box cover).  Also, the part where Max reaches into his own chest is another impressive effect, one of which I’m sure will make one or two viewers queasy upon seeing it.  What pleases me most is that Cronenberg’s vision is truly a unique one, and this movie probably more than any other manages to make those visions come to life in unforgettable ways.  Cronenberg definitely has an affinity for taking everyday things and giving them a grotesque and almost monstrous quality.  That is certainly true in the later parts of the movie when Max carries a gun around that seems to have been fused to his hand in a puss-riddled fleshy shell.  Again, some really sick stuff, but Cronenberg’s effects team did go all out and made this grotesque imagery something really special.
The film is also interesting given the themes of it’s story.  In many ways, it actually predicted many things that came true in the years since it’s release.  Sure, the movie is dated a bit by the limits of technological advances known in it’s time, but some of the ideas behind the movie have held up well.  The idea of technology and media content leading individuals towards obsessive behavior is something that we have seen play out in our society over the years, and it’s a central idea within the plot of Videodrome.  With the internet giving us access to any kind of content we want, with very little in the way of restrictions, it becomes more likely that anyone can become consumed with the impulsion to obsess over certain things.  Not only that, but like the audiences that Max Renn is catering to with his channel, we are becoming more and more desensitized to what we see on the internet.  Likewise, when we obsessive over certain things, we become more susceptible to manipulation; whether it is by our political leaders or by those around us.  That’s what Videodrome ultimately leads up to with it’s messages, and it’s amazing to think that Cronenberg and his team were contemplating these larger ideas in a time long before anyone had even a notion of what was to come with the internet.  The idea that we become slaves to our lives in interactive media is probably the film’s most unsettling element and the one that continues to keep this film relevant so many years later.
A lot of credit should go to the cast for making this film work.  This may have been the point in James Woods career when he was beginning to be typecast in sleazy businessman roles (something which he has struggled to break out of ever since), but his performance as Max Renn is still a very strong one.  Woods perfectly captures the slow devolution of the character as he plunges deeper into madness.  You forget how good of a leading man he can be sometimes, and this movie gives him a starring role that perfectly fits his talents as an actor.  The film pretty much rests on his shoulders and he managers to carry it through, even when it moves into it’s truly bizarre moments.  Deborah Harry doesn’t have as much screen-time, but she’s used very effectively in the movie as well.  She’s particularly unsettling in those hallucinatory moments, and there’s a sensuousness to her performance that really makes her a standout.  Rarely do you see music icons feel completely comfortable in an acting role, but Deborah manages it very effectively, and not once will you feel like she’s out of place.  I also like the whole look of the movie as well.  This film definitely has an early 80’s schlocky style to it, reminiscent of slasher movies like Nightmare on Elms Street, but Cronenberg balances that out with some really interesting stylistic choices.  During some of the more sensual, hallucinatory scenes, the film starts to feel more like a film noir thriller.  Also, the actual design of the “Videodrome” seems inspired by the style of Stanley Kubrick, in terms of it’s set-up and lighting.  It all adds to a very interesting cinematic vision, one of which feels uniquely Cronenberg.
So, how good is the Criterion Collection’s edition of the movie.  First of all, the restoration of the movie is excellent.  The film is, of course, limited to the low-budget production that it is, and will not look as fresh and sharp as something that was made more recently, but for a 30 years old movie like this one, it looks outstanding on blu-ray.  The colors in particular, something that is particularly evident in Cronenberg’s style, really pops out in high-definition.  And for an early 80’s flick, the film elements have really held up well, especially in contrast with the VHS video playback that you see periodically in the movie. That alone shows you just how superior a good high-definition presentation is.  The extras also give us a detailed look at the movies making and it’s legacy.  You get two great audio commentaries; one from Cronenberg himself, and the other with stars James Woods and Deborah Harry.  There are also numerous making-of documentaries on the films special effects, a gallery of production materials and behind the scenes photos, as well as a short film called Camera which Cronenberg made specially for the Toronto Film Festival in 2000.  My favorite extra, however, is a feature called Fear on Film, which is a 26 minute round-table discussion with Cronenberg himself and some of his film-making peers; John Landis and John Carpenter.  Seeing these three iconic directors discussing their work and horror cinema in general together is a real treat, and well worth the price of the Criterion edition alone.
So, is this a Criterion title worthy of the brand.  As a cinematic achievement, I would absolutely say yes.  David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is an expertly crafted film that really holds together and has actually become more interesting as a story-line since when it first premiered.  Would I recommend it as part of your own Criterion collection.  That all depends on your own tastes.  Like I said before, Videodrome is not for everyone, and I’m sure that there will be more than one person who will be either grossed out by it, or will probably not get the meaning of it at all.  I for one found it to be a very interesting cinematic experience, and I would recommend the movie as at least a rental.  For many people, these kinds of movies are made for specific audiences, and Cronenberg’s films are still are an acquired taste for many people, much like the works of David Lynch.  One thing that I find interesting is that I actually prefer Cronenberg’s films to Lynch’s.  Both directors have made careers out of examining the grotesque and the bizarre in everyday life, but I feel like Lynch is more style over substance; again, it all comes down to cinematic tastes.  In the end, I highly praise the job that Criterion has done on this title, especially with the Fear on Film extra feature that accompanies it.  It’s a challenging piece of cinema, but one that I’m sure will help you admire the Cronenberg style and want to explore it deeper.  Just don’t give into it’s hallucinatory pull.
“Long Live the New Flesh.”

Collecting Criterion – The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)


The Criterion Collection is known for being the distributor of some of the greatest and underseen classics of yesteryear, but they also have a reputation for putting out modern films as well.  In fact, if you look at the complete collection entirely, you’ll see that a good percentage of the titles are ones from the last 20 years or so.  This does open up the debate over whether or not the Criterion Collection has a high enough standard over which titles it includes, considering the fact that it takes time for a film to earn the status of a classic.  Some of Criterion’s more controversial choices for inclusion in recent years have included the films of David Fincher (#476 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, #627 The Game), a film by Girls star and creator Lena Dunham (#597 Tiny Furniture) and also the movies of Michael Bay, I kid you not (#40 Armageddon, #107 The Rock, both now out of print).  This begs the question of what makes a film a classic and if Criterion are the ones responsible for making that decision.  I’m sure that Criterion would themselves say that they choose titles not because of their status as a classic, but on whether or not it’s a title that will sell well in the video market.  The fact that they devote so much time and effort to make the editions of their titles so good is one of the things that has set them apart.  And the reason why they choose to release films from contemporary directors is so that they can get the filmmakers’ actual input on the release of their films in the collection, as well as their approval.
One director who has not only had his whole filmography released under the Criterion label, but has also had his career boosted by the Collection as well, is Texas-born filmmaker Wes Anderson. Anderson is a very polarizing director, mainly due to his very distinctive style.  His films usually are identified by their quirky story-lines and characters, their unconventional use of pop songs (mainly from the 60’s and 70’s) to underscore a scene, the bold use of colors and deliberate composition in the cinematography, and last but certainly not least, the presence of the great Bill Murray.  Some people either love Wes Anderson’s movies in all their eccentricities, or loathe them as being nothing more than style over substance.  While I can see how some people dislike Wes Anderson’s style, I for one can’t get enough of it.  I have yet to see a Wes Anderson film that I didn’t like; even the one that left me a little underwhelmed (Criterion #450 Bottle Rocket) was one that I could still appreciate.  And part of what has made me a fan of Wes Anderson’s work has been the excellent Criterion releases devoted to his films.  So far, six of his movies have been released as part of the Criterion Collection: the aforementioned Bottle Rocket (1996), #65 Rushmore (1998), #300 The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), #540 The Darjeeling Limited (2007), and coming next February, #700 Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), which was my personal pick for the best film of 2009.  One film in particular does stands out, mainly due to it’s early popularity, as a film that really began to define Wes Anderson’s status as a filmmaker: that being #157, 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums.

The movie follows the struggling relationship between members of an affluent, but fractured family.  The patriarch, Royal Tenenbaum (a perfect Gene Hackman) finds that the funds that have helped to support his decadent lifestyle have been drying up, and this leads him to turning back to the family that he had all but cut ties with years ago.  The once proud family, made up of three former “wonder kids” now in their adulthood, are also struggling to take control of their lives.  Chas (Ben Stiller) a Wall Street hot shot in his youth, who’s now struggling to keep everything afloat as a single father after his wife had died in a plane crash.  Adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) gave up a promising career as a playwright in order to settle down in a now loveless marriage with psychologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray).  And Richie (Luke Wilson), the youngest, had a promising career as a tennis phenom, before he began to lose his game and faded into obscurity.  Etheline Tenenbaum (Angelica Huston), the mother, has manged to keep her house in order despite the hard times with the help of her accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), who has suddenly shared his growing affection with her.  This prompts Royal to step in and reclaim his family before he loses them forever.  And how does he do this?  By telling them all that he’s dying of cancer, which is a flat out lie.
The film is a loaded one to be sure, and I wouldn’t disagree that Wes Anderson sometimes struggles to keep everything in check over the course of the run-time.  But, The Royal Tenenbaums is nevertheless a very effective and charming movie.  What makes it work so well, no doubt is the cast.  Gene Hackman is outstanding as Royal Tenenbaum, and he steals every moment he’s on screen.  What I love is the fact that Royal is so likable in this movie, even when he’s doing and saying the most horrible things.  Wes Anderson’s scripts, which he co-writes on every movie (this time with co-star Owen Wilson), are known for their sly, and rather outlandish sense of humor, and no character better exemplifies that than Royal.  I especially like the way that he takes little consideration of other peoples feelings, even when he’s in direct conversation with them.  An awkward exchange with Chas at a cemetery in particular is both an uncomfortable and laugh-out-loud funny moment in the movie (“Oh, that’s right.  We’ve got another body here.”)  Gene Hackman alone would been enough to watch this movie, but the rest of the cast is also excellent.  Angelica Huston brings a lot of class to the character of Etheline and helps to give the film its moral center.  Gwyneth Paltrow is hilariously deadpan as Margot.  Ben Stiller and Luke Wilson deliver some of their best performances as well.  And Anderson regular Bill Murray is absolutely hilarious in his few moments onscreen.  Add in Owen Wilson as ticking timebomb next-door neighbor and author named Eli Cash, and you’ve got a very well rounded cast.
If the film has a flaw, albeit a minor one, it’s the fact that it feels unfocused.  I mainly see this as a byproduct of trying to fit too many things into one film. The cast of characters is enormous, and trying to give everyone enough screen time is a daunting task for any filmmaker.  The Royal Tenenbaums was made in the early part of Wes Anderson’s career, at a time when he was still figuring things out.  Looking back on the film, you can see that his style was still forming at this point in time.  The Royal Tenenbaums would be Anderson’s last film to feature a kind of naturalistic aesthetic look to it, as he began to head in a much more whimsical and cartoonish direction with his next film The Life Aquatic.  I think that the more subdued visuals of Royal Tenenbaums is probably why this film has remained to date one of Wes Anderson’s more popular films.  It’s undoubtedly his most mainstream film to date, though The Royal Tenenbaums is not a conventional Hollywood movie by any means.   But as a part of his overall body of work, I see this movie as one of his lesser efforts.  I still love it, don’t get me wrong, but when I think of a Wes Anderson movie, this is not the one that comes to mind.  I think of his later films as being the ones that really define him as a director, given how much more assured they are.  But, I am glad to see how well this film has held up both as a movie and as a part of the director’s full oeuvre.
What is significant about the Criterion edition of this film is the fact that it was released as part of the collection almost instantly.  Like I had said before, sometimes it takes a while for a film to achieve classic status, and only then it may find it’s way into Criterion’s catalog.  The Royal Tenenbaums, however, was selected to be a part of the collection right when it left theaters; the shortest window ever for a Criterion title.  The choice was made probably because of the fact that Wes Anderson’s previous film, Rushmore, sold so well under the Criterion label in the years after it’s premiere.  Adding The Royal Tenenbaums seemed like a no-brainer choice, especially after it’s own successful run in theaters.  But, what’s even more remarkable is the fact that Criterion had the exclusive rights to the film’s DVD release, thanks to a deal with Touchstone Pictures who financed the movie, and they made the movie available to the mass market.  You have to understand that this was an unusual move on Criterion’s part.  Up until that point, Criterion released their titles in small quantities and usually limited the availability to a few select retailers nationwide.  In my home town, I would usually only find a Criterion movie section in my local Barnes & Nobles, and that was it.  So, the fact that The Royal Tenenbaums was so widely available was a significant game changer for both Wes Anderson and Criterion.  I’m sure that for many people, Royal Tenenbaums had to have been their first Criterion title, which opened up the gates for a whole new audience for the distributor.
The Royal Tenenbaums DVD release back in 2002 was an enormous success, making the movie one of Criterion’s best-selling titles.  Last year, they revisited the film again with a Blu-ray edition, which helps to give this 12 year old film a fresh new look.  The movie is stunning in high definition, as is every other Wes Anderson film.  This is probably why the director has become a favorite among Criterion collectors like myself; his bold use of colors brings out the full potential of the color range and brightness in a Blu-ray presentation.  The blu-ray edition also carries over every bonus feature from the previous DVD release.  Among the extras found here are a Director’s commentary by Anderson himself.  There’s an interesting filmmaker profile of Wes Anderson made by none other than acclaimed documentarian, Albert Mayles.  There are also a dozen or so behind the scenes clips of the actors at work on the set, along with some interviews.  There’s also a fun little faux talk show made by Anderson called The Peter Bradley Show, which highlights miscellaneous people involved with the film like extras, grips, and the late Kumar Pallana, who played Royal’s butler in the movie.  Also included in the set are original artwork pieces by Wes Anderson’s cousin and resident company artist, Eric Anderson, whose style perfectly compliments the movie.  In fact, the Criterion Collection has used Eric Anderson’s artwork for every one of their Wes Anderson titles, including using some of them as the cover art for each edition, including this one.
So, The Royal Tenenbaums stands as not just an important release for Wes Anderson, but as a groundbreaking movie for their the Criterion brand as well.  I’m sure that a lot of people have this film to thank for introducing them to both Criterion and Mr. Anderson.  The film has aged very well over the years, though I think that it’s clear that Anderson has clearly moved on to bigger and better movies since then.  The Royal Tenenbaums was a launching point for him; an opportunity to show what he can do with more tools at his disposal, and I’m happy that the end result was as successful as it was.  My hope is that Wes Anderson continues to stick by Criterion and have every one of his releases available under their label.  The one holdout is last year’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012), but I’m sure that a Criterion edition is in the works for it in the near future.  The years ahead also looks bright for the director.  His next film, The Grand Budapest Hotel is set for release next March and the trailer alone is enough to make me smile.  I also like the fact that Wes Anderson’s style has clearly become so identifiable now, that it received a SNL send up this year that was both mocking and reverential at the same time.  It even included narration from Alec Baldwin, who was also the narrator in The Royal Tenenbaums, showing just how impactful this film has been.  Even if you find Wes Anderson’s style a little too quaint, The Royal Tenenbaums is still worth watching.  If anything, this Criterion edition will give this film the stunning presentation that it rightly deserves.