When We Were Kings

When We Were Kings CoverThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #998

Director: Leon Gast

Cinematography: Maryse Alberti, Paul Goldsmith, Kevin Keating, Albert Maysles, Roderick Young

Production Company: Polygram Filmed Entertainment

Release: October 25, 1996

Awards: Won the Best Documentary Oscar

Country: USA

In choosing to cover a full year of new Criterion releases, I sometimes find myself at a disadvantage… diving into a film or filmmaker’s work that I have no prior knowledge of. Usually I at least have some semblance of an idea about the subject matter.

Not here, though.

When We Were Kings 7I went into “When We Were Kings” about as blindly as one can go. I don’t like sports – realistically my interest in them equates to how cute I think the players look in their uniforms. Therefore, I knew absolutely nothing about boxing aside from what I learned during the exploits of the Balboa and Creed families. I had heard of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, but the latter only in context of his grills. I also, unfortunately, knew nothing about the ‘70s politics of Zaire.

I write these things not to make you judge me (though feel free), but because it underlines how thoroughly successful this documentary is at getting its points across. From minute one, I was enthralled and, by the climactic fight (of which I did not know the result, obviously), I was literally on the edge of my seat… which really hurts. Try to avoid it if possible.

When We Were Kings 1The documentary covers one of the most infamous of all boxing matches, the “Rumble in the Jungle,” where all-time boxing great Ali, who was then in his thirties, went up against powerhouse up-and-comer Foreman. Each fighter would pocket $5 million for the fight, which brings me to the third player in this game: Don King. King had plans to turn the fight, which was located in Zaire during the reign of a terrifying dictator named Mobutu Sese Seko, into an almost Woodstock-like event where all the greatest soul musicians would perform leading up to the actual match. But when Foreman is injured and the match is pushed six weeks, the concerts went on to nearly empty stadiums. Though the odds were 4-1 against him, during these six weeks, Ali rallied… seeming to channel the spirit and support of the entire nation in the battle, where he felled Foreman.

Film and TelevisionThere is a lot to unpack here, especially concerning all the fascinating men at the center of the event. Stories are told about how Sese Seko would have 100 men out of 1,000 shot in a stadium at random to prove his points. We see amazing soul performances by a line-up of creators that is absolutely astonishing. There’s a sequence where King is questioned by reporters about the event and he is bucking & dodging the queries while still amazingly seeming to give full, blunt answers. Foreman doesn’t speak much, but the talking heads ensure that we understand that this is actually a way for him to come off as powerful by those around him.

When We Were Kings LongAnd then there is Ali. Holy shit, there is Ali. I listed the other guys first so you understand how interesting they each are in their own right… but this guy handily blows them all out of the water. Charisma for days. The documentary gets into his political and religious stances via commentary, but for the most part, just lets the man speak for himself. And really, that’s all we need. He all but explodes the screen with his magnetism when he is on it, and when he is not, we miss him and want him to come back.

When We Were Kings 5Even with all this, the film goes out of its way to underline that he was still the underdog here. In the extras, producer David Sonenberg says that, had Foreman not injured himself, Ali probably would have lost. We see Ali stomping around angrily at the delay… doing anything to get out of Africa as soon as possible. But in staying, those around him enabled him to find the strength within to win – the locals overwhelmingly supported him and would shout “Ali, kill him!”

All the while, various talking heads help us understand the importance of what we are seeing. Norman Mailer and George Plimpton come off the best and have the most insight. Others, like Spike Lee, have one or two nuggets, but don’t say anything memorable enough to make me think they had to be included in the documentary.

When We Were Kings 4Mailer and Plimpton do their best work at the aforementioned climactic fight, explaining why what the viewer is seeing is as extraordinary as it is. We get insights into why the fighters are using the punches they are, how they previously have fought and what their behavior at any given moment in the ring really means. As someone who knows nothing about this, the commentary was much appreciated.

And it only underlines what we are seeing onscreen, which is wow. Watching Ali get pummeled for round after round is genuinely hard to watch, especially considering the journey we have gone on with him so far. And then the moment… the turn… it’s glorious to see. I don’t like boxing, but watching these two in the ring made me want to stand up and cheer, just like the billion people who watched it when it happened.

“When We Were Kings” is further proof that this 2019 Criterion exploration was worth it. I have found so many new voices and discovered so many amazing stories I would have just skipped over had I not made this commitment. This is a great documentary and worthy of your time and energy, even if you hate sports as much as I do.

Cover

Ali is front and center, staring you down with hundreds of people from Zaire behind him. It’s a great image, and one of the few times this year I’ve been satisfied with a photo cover.

I award it three-and-a-half beads of sweat out of five.

Essay

Kelefa Sanneh seems to be stuck between a rock and a hard place with this essay, because all it can do is restate everything that we learn in the documentary itself. He even goes into the other documentary on the disc, “Soul Power,” to help elevate the essay, with mixed results. Not great, but I don’t blame Sanneh.

I award it two boxing gloves out of five.

Extras

-We’ve got an entire other feature-length documentary here that Gast created from the footage he got in Zaire! This one is called “Soul Power” and specifically covers the concerts that played weeks before the fight. The musicians are amazing to watch, and the documentary itself is almost as good as “When We Were Kings.” Essential viewing if you loved the documentary.

-A pretty useless interview with Gast from 1997 that are sound byte responses to surface-y questions, all with a song way to loud in the background mix.

-A new interview with Sonenberg that is much more essential. I love his insights into the editing process and how he felt about the event while it was happening.

-A surprisingly good trailer.

I award them four-and-a-half runs at dawn out of five.

Up Next: “Matewan.”

Local Hero

Local Hero Cover.jpgThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #994

Writer/Director: Bill Forsyth

Cast: Peter Riegert, Burt Lancaster, Peter Capaldi, Denis Lawson

Cinematography: Chris Menges

Music: Mark Knopfler

Company: Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox

Release: February 17, 1983

Country: UK

“Local Hero” is a movie of moments – ones you look back on long after the film has ended and smile about. Those visuals or lines of dialogue are where writer/director Bill Forsyth gets humanity precisely right. The film isn’t interested in telling us a story so much as capturing a mood… a desire… a melancholy. In this, it succeeds. For better or worse.

Local Hero 6A beachfront town in Scotland is designated the perfect area to create a gigantic oil refinery for the Knox Oil company. CEO Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) sends one of his key executives, the boringly handsome Mac (Peter Riegert) to scope the area out and help make the sale of the town a reality. Once there, Mac meets up with two other boringly handsome guys who help him figure stuff out – the innkeeper/banker Gordon (Denis Lawson) and Knox employee Danny (Doctor Who). If you’re anything like me, you may have trouble telling them apart in any given scene, but so does Felix when he comes to visit, so I guess that’s part of the joke. Anyway, the magic of Scotland sweeps Mac off his feet… and I don’t even need to finish this sentence for you to know the rest of the logline.

Local Hero 1Even as I write that, it’s important to underline that Forsyth uses an expected structure to tell a story that isn’t interested in that structure at all. What Forsyth is more concerned with is playing with his more eccentric characters and keying in on his theme of nature & conservation.

And when the movie is focusing here, it is at its very best. There’s a delightful little model of the town and beach that Mac is shown when he gets to Scotland that belongs on either a miniature golf course or in a Bond villain’s lair. There we meet an expert on marine life named Marina (Jenny Seagrove), who has webbed feet, can swim underwater for minutes at a time and may just be a mermaid. Later, the entire deal comes down to a man named Ben (Fulton Mackay) who not only lives in a hut on the beach… he actually somehow owns the beach itself.

Local Hero 2Characters like these, along with Lancaster’s Happer, are so interesting that you wish that the movie was solely focused on them. And before I make this critique, I will write that I feel like Mac’s character functions both as a straight man and as a critique on the usual straight man cliché. After all, he might fall in love with Scotland, but at the end he heads back to Texas, spending the movie’s ending very, very alone. And he’s not the one who gives his boss the great idea about conservation. Actually, he’s pretty impotent all the way through.

Like I said, I suspect that this is a subtle jab at the usual straight man character by Forsyth, which is all well and good… but that doesn’t mean that Mac is any more interesting. For most of the running time, he’s just there. Riegert is bland throughout and cannot do a good impression of a drunk human. He gets one good scene where he realizes that his lunch is the rabbit he hit with a car then subsequently adopted and named… and the aforementioned ending… but that’s it. Copy and paste any other actor in his role and it would have been fine.

Local Hero 4What’s more, there isn’t just one of Mac, there are three! Gordon is zzz as well, while Danny at least gets a sweet romance with the possible mermaid. I’d much, Much, MUCH rather be watching any of the other cast having fun, and almost all the moments I remember from “Local Hero” don’t involve these characters, which is a shame.

Then again, I’m beginning to think that the necessity of a straight man as the viewer’s eyes into an eccentric, off-kilter world is just a myth. Did we really need Stingo in the “Sophie’s Choice” movie or Nick in “The Great Gatsby”? Hell, keeping John in the “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” adaptation all but sunk it. Even in comedies, all you want are the scenes with Lucy and Ethel… the moments Ricky walks in and his eyes bug out are afterthoughts. Give the viewer an engaging character and we’ll go along for the ride. Ciphers will be obvious to us from moment one.

Local Hero 3And I’d even argue that the powerful, sad ending works not because we identify with Mac’s character and feel for him. It works because we care about that town and work, because we all understand that feeling of touching something great and retreating. Our hearts don’t break for him – they break for us.

Okay, tangent over, because I fear I’m talking you out of watching “Local Hero,” because you definitely should watch it. It’s one of those films that is so great and so perfect in so many ways that those few problems it has feel magnified tenfold. But for most of its running time, I was just sitting there like a silly fool with a big ‘ole smile covering my face. And I so appreciate that Forsyth has more on his mind than just a regular comedy – the issues and humanity he explores throughout resonate deeply and with great purpose. This is the first film I’ve seen from the beloved filmmaker, and it definitely won’t be the last.

Cover

Mark Thomas offers up a lovely, eye-catching cover that captures the mood and essence of the film quite well. I love his use of color here and would happily get the poster.

I award it five bunny rabbits out of five.

Essay

This appears to be Johnathan Murphy’s first essay for the Collection, and it reads much like someone really trying to impress his boss. Lots of dollar words and sentences that take 20 words when 7 would have been more than enough. I like a lot of the ideas Murphy introduces, but struggle with his execution.

I award it three seashells out of five.

Extras

Criterion went all out.

  • There’s an excellent commentary from the soft-spoken Forsyth and the more talkative scholar Mark Kermode. It’s not my favorite commentary, but I’m so happy that Criterion is regularly producing them once again.
  • A conversation between Forsyth and critic David Cairns, who starts the conversation by calling “Local Hero” “a perfect movie.” It comes across about as awkward as you think it does. The new information is fine, but you’d be better off listening to the commentary… though a Michael Powell cameo (?!) makes it worth watching.
  • A documentary about cinematographer Chris Menges that covers “Local Hero,” but also so many other great movies in his filmography. A highlight of the disc.
  • Three very repetitive short documentaries from the ‘80s (yes, one is a television show and one is a one-on-one interview, but still) that cover the making of “Local Hero.” No major new nuggets to be seen, though hearing Lancaster be incredibly excited about the project… and also calling Forsyth “Mr. Forsyth”, made me smile from ear to ear.
  • A meh trailer.

I award them five falling-apart beach dwellings out of five.

The Circus

The Circus CoverThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #996

Writer/Director: Charlie Chaplin

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Merna Kennedy, Al Ernest Garcia

Cinematography: Ronald Totheroh

Music: Charlie Chaplin

Company: United Artists

Release: January 6, 1928

Country: United States

When I say that Charlie Chaplin’s “The Circus” is the weakest of the feature films he made from 1921’s “The Kid” to 1952’s “Limelight,” don’t think that I dislike it. Just the opposite – it’s a four-star comedy that brings me much joy and more laughter. But when the competition is eight bonanza masterpieces (yes, I am including the incredible “A Woman of Paris,” which remains mostly unseen)… well, you see the problem. That said, expect this write up to be a flurry of compliments broken up by more compliments (with a few minor beefs thrown in for good measure).

The Circus 9Chaplin is dear to me, ranking with Pedro Almodovar as the movie equivalent of my soul mate. His “Modern Times” remains my favorite film ever created, full stop. His mixture of laughter, humanity and tragedy is unparalleled in filmmaking. There isn’t a year that goes by where I don’t seek out as many revivals of his work on the big screen as possible, and I take great enjoyment in introducing my friends to his oeuvre.

In other words, he’s a rock star.

The Circus 4Merna Kennedy stars as the none-too-creatively named Merna, a trapeze artist in a struggling circus still learning her routine. Her father (Al Ernest Garcia) owns the circus and is very abusive toward her – beating and often withholding food from her. Into their lives waddles our beloved Tramp (Chaplin), who becomes the star of the show accidentally… his bumbling is the thing the audiences really want to see. He falls in love with Merna, who unfortunately only sees him as a BFF, especially after sexy, sexy tightrope walker (not a metaphor) Rex (Harry Crocker) joins the circus. Merna and Rex fall in love, but the Tramp makes one final play for her heart, one which sends him on a most dangerous (and by that I mean hilarious) trek on the tightrope high above the circus.

The Circus 7Realizing Merna and Rex are meant to be, he enables them to be married and then makes the decision to stay behind as the circus moves on to its next town. Sound films were arriving, and this was Chaplin’s final all silent film – one can’t help but watch these final moments, as the wagons drive off, leaving the Tramp in the literal dust, as an explicit illustration of how Chaplin may have been feeling at the time… especially after such a difficult production.

Fires, divorces, reshoots upon reshoots, technical problems and I-don’t-know-what-all plagued Chaplin during the film’s shoot (as outlined wonderfully in the Criterion commentary), but the movie miraculously shows no hints of this. Though it touches on weighty issues – though not in an explicit way like “Modern Times,” “The Great Dictator” or “Mousier Verdoux” would later in his career – the film feels light as air for most of its running time.

The Circus 1The introduction of the Tramp, in which he is so hungry that he literally eats a hot dog out of a baby’s hand (and adding some ketchup for taste, natch), dominoes into a breakneck race through an amusement park and hall of mirrors which is rightly considered one of the very best sequences in Chaplin’s work. There’s one other such crown jewel in “The Circus,” the aforementioned climactic stunt scene of the Tramp struggling mid-show on a tightrope with no net underneath… ending with a group of monkeys attacking him on the rope and biting his face all over (this looks very real). It’s a perfect meshing of humor, stunts and most impressive special effects – there isn’t a moment you don’t believe he’s actually up there with his life in peril.

The Circus 3That said, the smaller jokes and gags are all very stellar. Chaplin excels with the big set pieces, but is smart enough to know that sometimes you just need to splash shaving cream across someone’s face. But perhaps that may be the problem with “The Circus.” With most of his other masterpieces, you first think of the human moments – the final moment of “City Lights,” the Tramp showing his love the house he built for them in “Modern Times,” and so forth. Here all you really think about are the laughs.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that Chaplin simply had no chemistry with Kennedy. Kennedy is fine, but aside from an early moment of her stuffing bread in her mouth with the Tramp, there is little to no indication that she even likes him that much as a friend, despite the intertitles.

The Circus 6The second is more frustrating, because Chaplin had the solution right in front of him. This is that he doesn’t properly set up the romance between Rex and Merna… nor even that Rex is a decent guy. As a result, the final sacrifice of the Tramp where he matchmakes their marriage doesn’t land as well as it should.

That solution I mentioned lies in a lengthy deleted sequence on the Criterion disc, in which the Tramp encounters some twin boxers while out on a day. It’s a great sequence and quite funny, but it also represents some essential character moments. In it, the Tramp watches as Merna and Rex bond romantically (to his chagrin) but also the audience sees that Rex is a good guy (he stands up for the Tramp when he’s being bullied) – one worthy of Merna’s love. The sequence is quite funny, and I wish Chaplin had chosen to include it.

The Circus 5Still, the above quibbles are just that… quibbles.

“The Circus” represents a master filmmaker in near-peak form, but let’s be honest. Near-peak for Chaplin is still better than 99% of other filmmakers. I’ve been anxiously awaiting this release for years… and actively frustrated that Criterion had been taking their time with it, though the full package merits the wait. Now that it’s here, I’m both ecstatic and bittersweet that all of our beloved Tramp’s feature adventures have had their Criterion release. Luckily, this doesn’t have to be the end of Chaplin… now bring on “A Woman of Paris”!

Cover: The Chaplin covers have been all over the map in terms of quality with zero continuity between them. I’ve liked artist Mark Chiarello’s work elsewhere, but not here. I don’t like the color scheme, and it doesn’t come close to capturing the fun or tone of the film. Heck, the inside illustration behind the disc would have been a better cover. All in all, it sits on the lower end of the spectrum – better than the abortive “Modern Times” cover, but nowhere near close to the excellence of “City Lights” or “Limelight.”

I award it two angry donkeys out of five.

Essay: I liked Pamela Hutchinson’s essay for “The Heiress,” but not so much here. The work is a little surface, touching on a great many important parts of the making of the film, but not digging as deep as it could. It also has a case of way too many descriptors – “an incomparably poignant ending,” for example.

I award it two boiling eggs out of five.

Extras: This thing is stacked – one of the biggest releases of the year.

  • The centerpiece is the aforementioned reconstruction of the deleted boxer scene, which is frankly good enough that it should have been included in the movie. Highly recommended.
  • There is also an alternate series of takes, mostly concerning Merna. They are less interesting but still recommended.
  • There’s a crackerjack audio commentary by Jeffrey Vance which is engaging throughout – please offer up more like this!
  • An awesome (awesome!) short showing the film’s premier at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Here’s where we see the time traveler on her phone (Google it), but also all the awesome circus acts brought in to make the premier special. A bit involving an acrobat and a dog was tremendous. Plus, it’s always great to see this sort of slice of old Hollywood life.
  • “In the Service of the Story,” which shows how special effects were used throughout the production of “The Circus.” A little long and repetitive, but the stuff about the lion sequence and the climax are most interesting.
  • Another one of those “Chaplin Today” documentaries, this one mostly surface and pretty skippable… I really wanted it to dig into the meat of the film’s production problems more than it did.
  • A short segment from 1969 where reporters are interviewing an increasingly grumpy Chaplin. Note what he says about the public’s appetite for stories in the wake of audiences not understanding “Monsieur Verdoux” or “Limelight.”
  • A superfluous interview with Chaplin’s son Eugene that seems to exist mostly to show Chaplin’s European home and museum.
  • An audio interview (love the visual playing while it’s being spoken) with Eric James, who helped Chaplin with his music. The most interesting tidbit is that they would work endlessly and still sometimes only produce a minute of music a day.
  • Several takes of “Swing, Little Girl” (the song that opens the movie) sung by a professional singer. Frankly, it’s much better than Chaplin’s rendition.
  • A passable re-release trailer.

Phew.

I award it five stolen watches out of five.

Up Next: “Local Hero”

Polyester

Polyester CoverThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #995

Writer/Director: John Waters

Starring: Divine, Tab Hunter, David Samson

Cinematography: David Insley

Music: Michael Kamen

Release: May 29, 1981

Company: New Line Cinema

Country: United States

I love the “Hairspray” musical and have seen both the Broadway production and its feature adaptation probably a dozen times in total. I even watched the live production on NBC a few years ago. I also am a fan of the little-seen, quickly-killed “Cry-Baby” musical – I saw it twice on Broadway during its 68 performance run. Further, I get so much joy from watching John Waters speak in interviews – I often find myself laughing out loud at his wit and humor. He and his work have obviously done so much for the LGBTQIA community, and its impact there cannot be overstated.

Polyester 1This is my awkward way of backing into the fact that, while I admire everything surrounding Waters’ work, I don’t much like his actual films. Dear readers, I have tried! I’ve tried multiple times during different times in my life, waiting for that switch to be flipped. But at this point, I am becoming more and more convinced that there isn’t even a switch. Criterion’s release of “Polyester” was just about the most ideal circumstance to try again outside of a midnight screening, with its included Odorama card… and yet it still didn’t happen.

For a long while, I contemplated just doing a short write up saying the above, taking a powder and moving on. Because I know how funny the content is for so many people, and I don’t want to rain on their parade. Nor do I want to come across as condescending or dismissive, because that’s not me. I still watch “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” once a year, after all, so I’m not one to talk. But I made a promise to cover every new Criterion release in 2019, and so that’s what I’m going to do. Apologies in advance.

Polyester 2“Polyester” chronicles Waters’ take on a Douglas Sirk melodrama if it had starred Elizabeth Taylor, with the William Castle-esque Odoroma cards distributed to audiences so they can experience the smells of Baltimore along with the main character. That main character is the sweet Francine Fishpaw (Divine), who is stuck in a terrible life. Her gross, flatulent husband Elmer (David Samson) is cheating on her and taking every opportunity he has to call her fat. Her son Dexter (Ken King) is infamous all over the city for randomly approaching women and stomping on their feet, which gives him a sexual thrill. Her asshole daughter LuLu (Mary Garlington) is sleeping with another asshole and quickly finds herself pregnant. And then there’s her mother La Rue (Joni Ruth White), who at first just appears nasty, but may be scheming against her daughter in the soapiest of ways.

Unsurprisingly, Francine’s life implodes totally (Divorce! Abortions! Arrests! Skunks!), but she finds strength in a burgeoning relationship with Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter)… until the reveal that Todd and La Rue are conspiring together. He’ll marry Francine, drive her insane and then the duo will gain control of her home and money.

Polyester 4Okay, here is my fundamental problem with the film… if you are going to do parody, I only laugh if everyone in the movie plays things completely seriously. If every actor is winking or, in this case, turning to the camera, nodding and saying “check this shit out!”, it does not work. Divine plays it straight most of the time, which makes the moments when he winks all the more noticeable. The worst offender is Garlington, who didn’t meet a line of dialogue she couldn’t add ten exclamation points to.

Polyester 5And because there is little plot drive or development until the last act, all we are doing are living in those sequences of big actors playing things even bigger. It’s just not my thing. For me, the movie improved exponentially once the Todd romance/gaslighting plot clicked into gear because there is some real drive to the storytelling – it’s by far the best section. Then, of course, in the special features, Waters talks about how he wishes he could entirely rewrite that third act. Whoops.

Of course, I’m in the minority here, and that’s okay. There are several genuinely funny ideas or bits in “Polyester” that left me laughing. The best is probably the classy drive-in theater that Todd takes Francine to, where caviar and champagne are served instead of popcorn and Coke. There’s also a moment where a member of a Baltimore church choir is hit by a drive-by broom by LuLu and her horrible boyfriend, and will not stand for it – she simply boards a nearby bus, throws the driver out and stalks LuLu in the bus until she traps the car, then approaches the car and bites its tire, popping it. As one does. Other bits with a beheaded body on the side of the road also brought on a chuckle.

Polyester 6But, ultimately, those moments are small in comparison to the rest of “Polyester.” Sure, it was fun to sniff along when told to, though the Odorama card’s odors were sometimes a little… off. But despite all the dressings, it still doesn’t change my big problem with the film, and the reason why it doesn’t work for me. That said, I have a feeling if you are reading this, you are a big Waters fan and I’m very happy you enjoy it. Please don’t hit me with a broom when you drive by me next.

Cover: Almost unquestionably the cover of the year. Absolutely brilliant work by Sam Hadley and Raphael Geroni paying tribute to the classic melodrama posters from the ‘50s and ‘60s while still giving the whole thing the Waters twist. Unmissable.

I award it five skunks out of five.

Essay: Elena Gorfinkel has an amazing name and provides a decent-but-not-outstanding essay for this edition. I dunno, I feel like if you are covering a Waters film, the essay should be bigger, funnier, crazier. But it’s just a regular Criterion essay… I wish it was more.

I award it two-and-a-half vials of gasoline out of five.

Extras: Repetitive, but fun.

  • By far the best is a 2019 conversation between Waters and critic Michael Musto, which is So. Much. Fun. Seriously, one of the best extras of the year, and I love every drop of tea that Waters freely spills. Tab Hunter voted for Trump, y’all! His aside about his anger that New Line let Odorama go out of copyright, which resulted in him not being paid when Robert Rodriguez used it years later, is amazing: “They called it an homage. But in Hollywood, we call a ‘homage’ a check.”
  • An older Waters commentary that is also a delight – put it on while cleaning the house and you’ll have a smile on your face the entire time.
  • A new short documentary harvested from clips from another documentary – it’s kind of vague. But all the usual suspects are as fun and engaging as they always are, even though nearly every bit of information is said better elsewhere on the disc.
  • 1993 Interviews with several of the cast and filmmakers, which is fun.
  • There are four archival television programs that touch on the film, its makers and its cast. They are short and repetitive, though you really should watch the one with Waters driving through Baltimore talking about all his favorite hangouts.
  • A trailer, because obviously.
  • A small Easter Egg of Waters smoking while telling theater audiences not to smoke… unless they really want to. So funny!
  • A bunch of alternate takes and deleted scenes, which I honestly didn’t get through. But if you love the movie, you’ll probably find a lot to love here.

I award them four-and-a-half broken toes out of five.

Up Next: “The Circus”

The Scorsese / Marvel / Coppola of It All

IKIRU (1954)

So there’s this incredible sequence in Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” where a man has died. We’re at his wake, and it becomes clear that this man has devoted the last six months of his cancer-ridden life turning a wasteland into a park for children. There are a lot of very important people at this wake – businessmen, politicians, you name it. Some try to take credit for the achievement. Others dismiss the man’s work. Still others demean it as not all that important. There are a group of families there to pay tribute to the man for changing their lives for the better, and the “important people” easily dismiss them.

Here’s the thing, though. At the end of the day, the park is still there. The achievement has still been made. And it’ll still stand long after all those people’s words have drifted into nothingness.

Marvel 2Over the past few weeks, the zeitgeist has been filled with chatter about the comments of film writer and director Martin Scorsese and, more recently, writer/director Francis Ford Coppola. Specifically comments they made about Marvel superhero films.

“I don’t see them,” Scorsese said. “I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

Marvel 3“I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again,” Coppola added. “Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.”

Understandably, the Internet exploded. Because of course it did. One sect defended Marvel, demeaning Scorsese and Coppola as the old guard and out of touch. Many jokes were made about Coppola’s “Jack” and Scorsese’s “Vinyl” pilot. Another group rallied around the writer/directors, using the opportunity to savage Marvel movies and Disney in general, because the company seems like an easy punching bag these days for everything bad about everything.

Marvel 4The reaction is as visceral as it is predictable.

I have to admit I’m actually surprised it’s managed to continue on the entertainment Web sites as long as it has, and with Coppola’s new comments there probably isn’t going to be any stoppage.

It also takes place at an odd crossroads for myself, because I’m both a huge cinephile and a huge comic aficionado.

Marvel 5I watched my first Hitchcock movie when I was four – and this is not an exaggeration. Growing up, my bedroom had video store racks in it to house my VHS and DVDs. I attended the American Film Institute Conservatory for Screenwriting, go to TCM Fest every year and own about 400 movies from the Criterion Collection. More than that, I often guest on podcasts about the Criterion Collection. I’m the guy who wrote a letter to Warner Brothers when they shuddered Filmstruck. I’m the asshole who corrects you that “Star Wars” was really just “The Hidden Fortress” with more robots and less rape jokes.

Marvel 6I love Scorsese and his films have meant a hell of a lot to me. His “The Last Temptation of Christ” is one of those movies that made me begin to question all the strict teachings of the Catholic Church I had been brought up with. “Hugo” was the first movie I saw when I moved to Los Angeles. The final, bittersweet moments of “The Age of Innocence” were part of the reason I wanted to be a filmmaker. And though Coppola hasn’t had as much of an impact on my life, I still consider his “Godfather” trilogy and “Apocalypse Now” among the greatest of all films… I just came to them later than most.

Marvel 7I’m also the guy who started collecting comics when I was 12 and now have probably 80 boxes of them in my mother’s basement (because of course they’re in my mother’s basement) back in Ohio. In undergrad, I interned for Wizard Magazine and wrote a cover story about fellow geek Kristen Bell… she later hugged me, which is still one of my top fourteen memories. I wrote an interview column for Comic Book Resources for seven years and have talked to just about everyone in the industry multiple times. I remember Crossgen Comics. Hell, I own original art from Crossgen Comics.

I was always a DC guy growing up, and Superman remains my favorite superhero – maybe favorite character – of all time. The Marvel superhero films that began with “Iron Man” tap into that same sense of wonder and magic for me that the DC Comics from Mark Waid, Dan Jurgens and Grant Morrison did for me in my early adulthood. I see each one opening weekend, and though some are weaker than others, I genuinely believe that every one of the films made under producer Kevin Feige is, well, good.

All that is to say that I have all the skin in this game. When I look at my Facebook feed (yes, I’m an ancient 34 year old) and see certain comments from my Cinephile friends, they sting. So do the ones from my very testy comic fan friends.

And I know that we are living a world where everything is about Me! Now! Answers! Hell, if Postmates tells me it’s going to take more than 30 minutes to bring me my Cinnabon, I shut down the app and cry.

Marvel 8Yes, all of this seems very important right this very second, but remember that park I was talking about earlier? It’s the same thing here. In 10, 20, 50 years, all these Marvel movies will still be here. And so will the oeuvres of Scorsese and Coppola. Because, let’s face it, when Scorsese and Coppola use the word “cinema,” they really mean “art.” Great art will outlast all the Rotten Tomatoes scores. And the message boards. And the Reddits and SubReddits and the Instagram Stories and I don’t know what all.

Writer/director Akira Kurosawa, whose work I mentioned earlier when discussing “Ikiru,” really didn’t like the movies of another Japanese director of the era, Yasujiro Ozu. After Ozu released one of his familial dramas called “The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice,” Kurosawa sniffed the following: “Japanese films all tend to be rather bland in flavor, like green tea over rice. I think we ought to have richer foods, and richer films.”

Ouch.

marvel 9The comments, of course, caused a lot of hubbub at the time, but now they are nothing but a funny footnote in both filmmakers’ filmographies. Kurosawa’s work includes masterpieces that helped shape modern filmmaking like “Yojimbo,” “High and Low” and the aforementioned “Hidden Fortress.” He has two films on Sight and Sound’s Top 100 films of all time: “Seven Samurai” and “Rashomon.” However, those two movies are lower on the list than Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” and “Late Spring.”

In the ‘50s, “Tales From the Crypt” was considered trash and stories were banned for being culturally derisive. Today many of those stories are considered masterpieces. Science Fiction was considered a low art, and now Ray Bradbury is routinely called one of the greatest of all authors, and “2001: A Space Odyssey” one of the best films of all time. I could keep listing examples all night, but it all comes down to this:

Art perseveres.

And why are we even trying to dictate what defines great art anymore, when that meaning has changed so often? Really, when you think about it, how one defines art is the most intimate of subjects. Personally, I call art anything that moves me either positively or negatively. But that may be much different for you, and that’s okay.

Marvel 10Earlier I mentioned the end of “The Age of Innocence,” where Daniel Day Lewis’ character can’t quite bring himself to enter the home of his lost love. When I first saw it, I cried and cried. Hell, I still do when I watch it. Near the end of “Avengers: Endgame,” there is a single shot at the funeral of Tony Stark which encompasses just about every major character from the entirety of the Marvel Universe, and when I saw it, I cried and cried. When I took my mother to see “Captain Marvel,” the title character has a line just after the climax: “I have nothing to prove to you.” I looked over and my mother was dissolved in tears, at both the moment in the narrative and the meaning behind it.

We are human. To me, if something touches me emotionally, it is valid artistically. It is “cinema.” Don’t let others dictate to you what art is, because they may well be wrong. Hell, I may be wrong. Decide for yourself. Love what you love. Be inspired by whatever inspires you.

Cluny Brown

Cluny Brown CoverThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #993

Writer: Samuel Hoffenstein & Elizabeth Reinhardt

Based on the book by Margery Sharp

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Cast: Jennifer Jones, Charles Boyer, Helen Walker, Peter Lawford

Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle

Music: Cyril J. Mockridge

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Release: June 3, 1946

Country: USA

“Cluny Brown” introduces its title character (played by Jennifer Jones) at the door of a man whose drain is clogged. “Let’s have a go at it?” she asks, ostensibly referring to the sink. Sure, she’s not technically a plumber, but there’s nothing she loves more than whacking away at a pipe. And she does just that, hitting the stubborn metal with a hammer while the owner watches in shock… and the owner’s uninvited guest Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer) watches with admiration. The pipe unclogged, Cluny celebrates by drinking her first glass of alcohol… then her second… before climbing onto the couch and beginning to writhe in ecstasy, at a certain point even meowing like a cat.

Cluny Brown 1It’s minute six, and there is not a doubt in the world that you are in an Ernst Lubitsch film.

The movie is notable because it is the final film that Lubitsch completed before his death – he died several days into filming his final credit, “The Lady in Ermine,” which was completed by Otto Preminger of all people (he also took most of “Cluny Brown’s” crew along with him to make film noir masterwork “Laura”). It’s also been, for all intents and purposes, a very difficult film to track down for cinephiles, as outlined in the excellent Siri Hustvedt essay accompanying the Criterion release. Getting this proper recognition and a spine number all its own gives the film an air of importance – is this a missing masterpiece finally given its due?

Cluny Brown 3Well, not quite.

Don’t get me wrong, “Cluny Brown” is a good movie. Good enough that I wish that it was better. Because, all things considered, this could have been a masterpiece.

I’m going to focus on what works first, because they are myriad and involve some of the best moments within Lubitsch’s dazzling filmography. First and foremost is the way the screenplay, co-written by Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt, treats Cluny as a character. It goes way beyond the above metaphor equating plumbing with sexual awakening… the co-writers make Cluny genuinely eccentric – all she wants to do is let her freak flag fly. However, the British culture just before World War II was, uh, less than inviting to that type of behavior. After Cluny is forced to take a maid job at a stuffy estate, she becomes engaged to an even stuffier guy in the neighboring town. His mother extends the clogged sink metaphor in a funny runner of her clearing her throat, unwilling to speak, in every scene she appears in. But her fiancé is the worst – after Cluny unclogs a drain at a party, there is a legitimately heartbreaking scene (I never thought I’d write that about plumbing) where he demands that Cluny make herself presentable by rolling down her sleeves and fixing her hair. To make her less than herself.

Cluny Brown 6That’s what makes Cluny’s happy ending so much more spectacular than the usual ending to romantic comedies of the era. She’s in her maid outfit on a train with her true love Adam, who insists that she remove her hat and apron… throwing them from the train while she watches. She is now free from the societal constraints around her, and through this gesture Adam underlines that their marriage won’t be one where he would ever tamp down her spirit. Plus, as we find out in the flash-forward, he also buys her a mink purse (?!) – what more could you ask for in a man?

And Adam is a fascinating romantic hero. Brought to life beautifully by Boyer, he is a displaced intellectual thanks to the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia (this matches well with Cluny, an orphan who does not belong in the estate she works for), but you never for a moment think he’s a stuffed shirt. He’s happy to go against the grain in his opinions, and as a result recognizes just how special Cluny is. It’s quite telling that, even though Cluny is our main character, in the third act the film’s point-of-view shifts to Adam in the moment he thinks he has lost his love forever.

Cluny Brown 7There are also many genuine laughs throughout, like where Adam is about to have fisticuffs with his friend Andrew (Peter Lawford), but realizes that they may break Andrew’s mother’s favorite vase in the process. Another runner with a doorbell had me in stitches. But describing great comedy is never as good as experiencing it, and despite the problems I’m about to get into, this is definitely a film worth seeing.

And my biggest problem is Jones’ central performance.

CLuny Brown 4It’s not that she is bad as Cluny, because she isn’t. Jones does a perfectly acceptable job in the role, which would be fine if this was a lesser movie. But when most everything around you is firing on all cylinders and you, frankly, are not… then it’s a problem. Then there’s also the problem of Jones’ place in the master’s filmography. Lubitsch has drawn extraordinary performances from many of his leading ladies, including Greta Garbo, Margaret Sullavan, Carole Lombard, Jeanette MacDonald, Miriam Hopkins and Kay Francis. That’s quite the list. And the thing that, for me, connects all of their performances is that their work feels effortless. I’m sure it wasn’t, and they went through great pains to get it just right, but the final product feels that way. With Jones, who adopts a weird breathy tick in most of her scenes, you can tell that she’s trying. She’s trying oh so hard. It doesn’t help that she has no sexual chemistry with Boyer either.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the actress in the secondary love story, Helen Walker, runs circles around Jones. Walker never became a household name, but should be familiar to film noir aficionados for her roles in movies like “The Big Combo” and “Nightmare Alley.” But damn does she sparkle here – a drunk driving accident curtailed her career, but this woman could have been one of the greats. She’s the center of the best scene in the movie, where Boyer enters her bedroom at night to make the case for her character to connect romantically with Andrew. Walker spits out some amazing dialogue like the best of the aforementioned Lubitsch leads, and the punchline of her repeatedly (and stoically) screaming to get him to leave is about as perfect a comedic moment as one could ask for.

Cluny Brown 5There are other, smaller problems. Mostly with the script. Certain scenes sit there, almost funny or almost clicking, but not quite. Cluny arriving at her estate and being mistaken for a person of distinction is one of them, as is a recurring bit with a nightingale that never lands as solidly as it should.

I find it odd to recommend a movie where the weakest part is the lead performance, but here we are. All the bells and whistles make “Cluny Brown” worth your time and energy, though I can’t help but walk away frustrated that it wasn’t as good as it could have been.

Cover: Despite all the unnecessary slamming of an earlier iteration of the cover online, Caitlin Kuhwald provides a fine cover, and the Rosie-the-Riveter allusion is appreciated. The interior illustrations on the booklet are also quite appealing. I am docking half a point, however, for giving Cluny a wrench instead of her favored hammer in the main image.

I award it three adorable floral hats out of five.

Essay: I’m always a sucker for an essay that personalizes the movie for the author, and that is exactly what Hustvedt does – relating how “Cluny Brown” came into her world time and again at important moments in her life. The stuff about the production of the movie is aces as well.

I award it four-and-a-half collies out of five.

Extras: It’s odd, because most of them address Lubitsch as if those watching would be unfamiliar with his oeuvre… and “Cluny Brown” is not a good starting point for the master.

  • The best is a conversation between Molly Haskell and Darran Smith Nehme about all the female leads in Lubitsch and how they feel out of their time in the best way possible. It’s engaging, short and insightful.
  • Kristen Thompson offers up a video essay on how reaction shots are important in Lubitsch comedy which… yeah. Obviously.
  • A decent Lubitsch origin story documentary by Bernard Eisenschitz which became annoying after a bit because of a recurring visual bit of falling shadows behind photographs (you’ll understand when you see it).
  • A radio adaptation that is really grating. There’s a studio audience killing most of the punchlines (or not laughing at the right ones), and a performance by the usually-excellent Dorothy McGuire as Cluny which seems as if she is reading the script for the first time when performing it.

I award them all two-and-a-half hammers out of five.

Up Next: “Polyester”

The Cloud-Capped Star

Cloud Capped Star CoverThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #993

Writer/Director: Ritwik Ghatak

Based upon the novel by Shaktipada Rajguru

Starring: Supriya Choudhury, Anil Chatterjee, Gita Ghatak

Cinematography: Dinen Gupta

Music: Anil Chandra Sengupta

Release: April 14, 1960

Country: India

I am a giver.

If I love you, I will give you everything I have – my time, my friendship, my money, my attention… the list is boundless. When I was a teenager, my mother and I had to care entirely for my Grandfather, who had Alzheimer’s, and my Grandmother, who became blind, all while my uncles and aunts pretended the situation didn’t exist. I gave until I felt like I had nothing else to give, and then gave more. Now, I’m not saying that I’m a saint – I have certainly been at the receiving end of other people’s unnecessary generosity. But just this month, my best friend had a bit of an intervention with me… telling me that I was devoting too much of my everything to people who don’t deserve it, don’t appreciate it and would never return the favors.

Cloud Capped Star 6Because of this, I felt a close connection with Neeta (Supriya Choudhury), the main character in the extraordinary “The Cloud-Capped Star.” The smartest member of her family, she works in addition to going to college, though she gives every penny she earns to her ungrateful family. Her younger brother (Dwiju Bhawal) is too busy with other work, schooling and sports to care. Her father (Bijon Bhattacharva) may pretend to care, but never enough to actually intervene as others take advantage of Neeta. Her mother (Gita Day) snatches Neeta’s money away, insults her and then blatantly tries to set Neeta’s boyfriend’s (Niranjan) eyes away from Neeta and to her younger sister Geeta (Gita Ghatak).

Cloud Capped Star 8The one person who may actually care is her older brother Shankar (Anil Chatterjee). Studying to be a professional singer, he happily (and usually unapologetically) takes her money… but there is an understanding between them that, once he makes it, he will be able to pay her back. More than that, he loves her and supports her emotionally, which is more than can be said for the others around her. Shankar sings early and often in the film – almost turning it into a low-key musical at times – and the most impressive scene of the impressive film is one of these moments. When Neeta has had so much of her soul taken away, Shankar joins her in a dark room and they sing a mournful, gorgeous melody as the camera simply pans in and out… contemplating them, their connection and the emotions both are experiencing; her pain, and his pain at seeing her in pain.

Cloud Capped Star 5Because that is what happens. This is one of the great melodramatic tragedies in film… you can say that her soul is taken away, but you can also argue that she gives it away willingly. Realistically, it’s a mix of both. Life for her family was difficult to begin with in the aftermath of the partition, with a major class change and living conditions that have altered dramatically. Her family is in debt to the local grocers, so she begins to spend all the money she makes to pay them back and keep the family fed. Her father gets injured, so it only makes sense that she drop out of school and become the soul breadwinner. Her life is busy and her weak asshole of a boyfriend begins to look elsewhere for a warm body.

Cloud Capped Star 2But then her family begin to savagely rip away pieces of her. Because they know they can. Because they know she’ll allow it. Her mother’s gambit to pair Geeta with Neeta’s boyfriend works – her love is stolen by her own sister, who could care less about Neeta’s feelings. Right before the wedding, Geeta sends her mother to demand Neeta’s best jewelry, and the mother can barely muster something close to an apology for legitimately ruining Neeta’s life.

Neeta cannot emotionally process this because she needs to keep working. Her brother is in an accident, and those bills need to be paid, and her body finally breaks down with tuberculosis… a month before Shankar hits it huge as a celebrity. He returns, ready to change his family’s life for the better, especially his sister’s… but it is too late.

Cloud Capped Star 3She’s committed to a medical facility, but it’s not just her body that is broken – her mind has gone too. When Shankar visits her, she dies in his arms while screaming “I want to live!” He returns home, and we realize every character has gotten their happy ending. A new, expensive house has been built for the mother and father to live in. Geeta has had her first child and is happily married to that motherfucker. But no one speaks of Neeta and her sacrifice, and no one in the surrounding town remembers her.

She gave up so much of herself that she isn’t even a ghost… it’s like she never existed.

The fury the viewer feels while watching is palpable, and it’s not always at the characters manipulating Neeta – often it is at Neeta herself. This is the definition of great drama. And while Neeta is always striving to do good, she remains an interesting character from beginning to end.

Cloud Capped Star 4Choudhury’s performance is one for the ages. The gentleness she has at the beginning… the chemistry she shares with every member of the cast. And her range! Watching her finally spit vitriol at her mother was amazing, as was her desperation in Neeta’s final moments of life. The entire ensemble around her turns in fine work as well, but you’ll walk away remembering Choudhury first and foremost.

Cloud Capped Star 7This is the first film I’ve seen from writer/director Ritwik Ghatak, but it will hopefully not be the last. Ghatak is an excellent writer, but excels just as much visually throughout. He takes major chances with his camera, and they almost always work. Odd angles, editing that doesn’t quite fit, noir shadows… it feels like it should send the film over the top, but it never quite goes there. The final act in particular goes fully into the fractured mind of Neeta, with weird pans, cross-cutting and blackness filling much of the frame. The music, for the most part, is luscious and beautiful, though my one annoyance is some weird instrumentation that makes several emotional sequences sound like they are verging on science fiction, which took me out of the film.

Still, that is a slight quibble. “The Cloud-Capped Star” is one of the best films Criterion has released in 2019, and an essential purchase for your collection. It receives my highest recommendation and is definitely worth the blind buy.

Cover: F. Ron Miller creates a beautiful image of one of the most impactful recurring visual motifs in the film. It’s eye-catching, the background color is fitting and those two eyes will haunt your soul.

I award it four-and-a-half razors out of five.

Essay: Ira Bhaskar offers up an essential essay, first at giving the reader context about Ghatak’s career and creative point of view, and second in underlining how special the film is. Great stuff.

I award it four-and-a-half broken sandals out of five.

Extras: Pretty meager.

  • A conversation between directors Kumar Shahani and Saeed Akhtar Mirza, who were taught by Ghatak in school. It’s a great, revelatory extra as they geek out about how awesome the film is, though their conversation mostly focuses on the visual aspects therein.
  • A stills gallery which, surprisingly, is engaging and has some interesting tidbits within it.

I award them two blood-covered handkerchiefs out of five.

Up Next: “Cluny Brown”

The Koker Trilogy

The Criterion Odyssey

Where Is the Friend’s House?

Koker Cover 1Spine #990

Writer/Director: Abbas Kiarostami

Cast: Babek Ahmedpour, Ahmed Ahmedpour, Kheda Barech Defai, Iran Outari

Cinematography: Farhad Saba

Release: February 1987

Country: Iran

It’s oddly fitting that “Where Is the Friend’s House?” begins Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker Trilogy – it tells a simple story as simply as possible… one would never imagine that it would spark a series of films with multiple timelines, complex mythology and two actors playing variations on Kiarostami himself. I love that kind of meta stuff myself, but this film has no interest in it. Instead, it sets up what will be the emotional recurring throughline of all three – people going out of their way to help those they do not need to.

Here that person is Ahmed, played by Babek Ahmedpour… who has to be one of the most adorable child actors in cinema history. During a regular day at school, he watches his friend Mohamed (Ahmed Ahmedpour) be berated by their Teacher (Kheda Barech Defai) simply because Mohamed forgot his notebook. The Teacher threatens expulsion if it happens again… and that day after school Ahmed finds Mohamed’s notebook in his backpack. Well… fuck.

Thus begins an odyssey to return said notebook to Mohamed. But “Where Is the Friend’s House?” has no interest in cooking up silly, unrealistic plot complications to keep the two boys apart for the running time. Here the obstacles are grounded. Realistic. A mother who doesn’t understand the severity of the situation. Several trips up and down Kiarostami’s iconic zig-zag hill. A man who creates doors but doesn’t have the bandwidth to listen when a kid asks him a question repeatedly.

Ahmed never wavers for a moment in his insistence that this is a life or death situation for him. He often repeats simple phrases a dozen or more times, all the while Babek’s big, adorable eyes scream “Why don’t you just understand?!” There’s a moment where one of Ahmed’s Grandfather’s friends insists on tearing a page out of the notebook to use for himself, and the amount of stress you see covering the little actor’s face is palpable… you half expect him to pass out because of the tension.

That scene with the Grandfather (Rafia Difai) is one of Kiarostami’s few missteps in a film that is otherwise a masterpiece. Though his fans would become used to the master’s detours from the main character’s journey in the rest of his oeuvre, the moment Kiarostami abandons Ahmed’s point-of-view and sticks with the grandfather, the movie loses some of its tension and build. Yes, I understand that Kiarostami was attempting to take a step back and make a social commentary in that moment, but it doesn’t work, nor does the Grandfather’s insistence that beatings are good for kids.

That said, the rest of the movie? Aces. I love the way Kiarostami almost takes the film into slapstick territory at moments – after following a man he suspects is Mohamed’s father miles on foot, he arrives at the man’s house and spies the man’s son… who’s head is covered by a small door he is holding. Kiarostami plays the moment out far past where it should end, with his father and then a nearby horse also obfuscating Ahmed’s view until we finally see… it’s not Mohamed. The moment is so perfectly pitched it could make Chaplin jealous.

It also doesn’t overstay its welcome. At less than an hour-and-a-half, Kiarostami comes in, makes his points narratively and thematically, and bows out before you get bored with complications upon complications. He also ends “Where Is the Friend’s House” with one of those perfect movie moments… in fact every film in this trilogy ends similarly, not in what we are seeing but how it makes us feel. And let me tell you, when I saw that flower in the notebook, my heart just about exploded.

And Life Goes On

Koker Cover 2Spine #991

Writer/Director: Abbas Kiarostami

Cast: Farhad Kheradmand, Buba Bayour

Cinematography: Homayun Payvar

Release: September 1992

Country: Iran

Okay, so stick with me here. That movie we just discussed, “Where Is the Friend’s House?” Well, in “And Life Goes On,” that film’s Director (Farhad Kheradmand), who may or may not be modelled on Kiarostami, brings his Son (Buba Bayour) on a desperate trek to Koker. Why desperate? That entire area of Iran was recently levelled by an earthquake that killed 30,000 people, and the Director is trying to get there to see if the brothers who played the friends in “Where Is the Friend’s House?” survived the quake.

Your mind is probably reeling upon reading that premise, and Kiarostami takes his time revealing that this is what the movie is really about. I had never seen any of these films prior to getting the boxed set, and didn’t even read the back of the disc before putting it in, so when the Director produces a poster for “his” film, goosebumps immediately covered my body and I did a little dramatic gasp alone on my couch. It was very dignified.

Though the premise is ostensibly the film’s major selling point, this connection with the previous movie in the trilogy is not its soul. Just the opposite – strip away the “Where Is the Friend’s House?” of it all and the film would still be a powerful examination of a people who have just experienced the unthinkable. It has been five days since the earthquake, and sometimes Kiarostami simply plants his camera and drinks in the devastation, which is vast and excruciating to see. We are so numbed to event movies showing natural disasters with no consequence that actually witnessing the realistic aftermath is even more impactful. Kiarostami shot the film almost a year after the actual earthquake, and how odd must it have been for the area to have to set debris all around their homes and towns once more, tearing open those old wounds.

Back to the fact that the film takes place five days after the earthquake… short enough that the world is still a wreck around the survivors but long enough that they can form coherent sentences to ponder their grief. A mother does her wash for her two sons despite having lost her daughter… because she must. A woman looks for a teapot in her broken home, one which holds the body of her husband in its rubble, because she must drink. A young man speaks of how he lost 65 (!!!) relatives in the quake but got married the day after anyway, because he had to. Because life goes on. And if these people allowed the grief to overwhelm them, they could lose their other loved ones, or their own lives. Much is made of a sports playoff taking place that night, and a community of those who lost their homes and now live in tents still find a way to set up an antenna so they can watch the event.

Kiarostami takes his time exploring the different characters the Director happens upon during his trek. Though pressed for time, Kiarostami has several ingenious plot developments to keep things moving slowly. First and foremost is the landscape itself – the world is filled with holes in the earth, broken roads and dead ends. Second is the Director’s car, which is constantly needing water to avoid overheating. This allows for a quiet, relaxed pace as we contemplate those surviving in this world that is half familiar and half alien to them. Many of these one-on-one conversations between the Director (or his son) and the men & women hit you emotionally. Others, unfortunately, come across a little too much like listening to “This American Life” on NPR, with the Director asking questions that seem nonsensical, or nailing a metaphor home even though it’s definitely not the time for it. When that young man talks about managing to get some tomatoes on his wedding night, we understand that this is his wedding banquet – the Director doesn’t have to rub it in.

Though even as I write that, I must wonder if it’s Kheradmand’s delivery of the dialogue or the dialogue itself. “Where Is the Friend’s House?” was grounded by Babek’s performance, which you could not look away from. And the third film in the trilogy, “Through the Olive Trees,” has a great performance by Mohamad Ali Keshavarz. And though Kheradmand is fine, he doesn’t offer up the kind of emotion or resonance I wanted for the central character, which is a damn shame considering the excellence around him.

Though the zig-zag hill makes a small cameo in “And Life Goes On,” all sequels must be bigger than the original (that was my sarcastic voice), so Kiarostami frames his finale on a mountain with a zig-zag road leading up it. I’ve read and watched in the special features that many consider the ending ambiguous… a reading I fundamentally don’t understand. Someone literally tells the Director character that the two boys are alive and just up the road with an oil lamp. He follows the road, doesn’t get up the mountain but spies two boys in profile at the top of the mountain carrying an oil lamp. The entire film has been grounded to this point, with no magical realism, so one can assume we can trust what we see. The music, also, supports this. Do viewers need to be spoon fed a happy ending so obviously? Really? I mean, really? The ending is so powerful because it hints at the happy ending without being explicit. That “ambiguous” word gets thrown around a lot for the final shot of “Through the Olive Trees” too, so get ready.

Through the Olive Trees

Koker Cover 3Spine #992

Writer/Director: Abbas Kiarostami

Cast: Mohamad Ali Keshavarz, Hossein Rezai, Zarifeh Shiva

Cinematography: Hossein Jafarian

Release: May 1994

Country: Iran

Okay guys, ready to pull away another layer of that onion? “Through the Olive Trees” takes place behind the scenes during the making of “And Life Goes On.” Our Director (another Kiarostami stand-in played by Mohamad Ali Keshavarz) notes that one of the PAs on the set named Hossein (Hossein Rezai), who also has a small role in the film, is in love with another one of the actors (Tahereh Ladanian), though she won’t give him the time of day, speak to him or respond to his repeated marriage proposals. Worse, they play a married couple in “And Life Goes On,” and she’s flubbing scenes because it’s awkward. Is it because she really loves Hossein, or just hates him?

While both “Where Is the Friend’s House?” and “And Life Goes On” are imperfect, I would say that I love both of them. And while I enjoyed “Through the Olive Trees” a lot, I would not go so far as to say I love it. There are amazing, wonderful things in it, make no mistake, but there are two things that keep me from planting my flag and shouting my adoration from the rooftops.

Here’s the first. While the first two films were closely interconnected, you did not have to watch one to completely immerse yourself in the other. The fact that it was meta certainly added a layer of power to the viewing experience, but take it away and they are both still powerful. Here, I feel like “Through the Olive Trees” leans on that nostalgia just a little too hard – I wonder if I would have liked it as much had I not been excited to see Babek again, or watch one of my favorite scenes from “And Life Goes On” being shot, and so on. Maybe? But maybe not.

The second thing is the characterization of Tahereh. Because she is so resistant to his advances, she comes across as fully not interested, even for a moment. And the only interest she showed Hossein took place off camera and is spoken of from his point of view. I am certain that Kiarostami did not mean for it to come across this way (and I am also thinking that it may be a cultural difference), but Hossein comes across like a stalker in several scenes or sequences.

Recalibrate Tahereh just a smidgen. Give her some looks, or sexy stares with Hossein, or anything else, and I wouldn’t have had this problem. But alas, here we are.

That said, I wanted to get those two major problems out of the way first so I could focus on what worked, which is most everything else. There’s a conversation that Hossein has with the Director in the back of a moving truck where he so beautifully articulates his views on love, life and class that I was moved to tears. And while the plot hinges on Hossein’s love connection, the main character is the Director – who questions Hossein, tells him to move forward then, at the finale, essentially says “Go get that girl!” without leaning into the romantic movie cliché of it all. Keshavarz gives a marvelous, humane performance throughout, and I loved how he was always searching for… something… with his eyes.

I also want to bow down in praise of Zarifeh Shiva as the long-suffering producer who both has to cater to the Director’s whims while also keeping the ship sailing on budget. The patience she shows people when I would just want to scream “Get it together!” is marvelous, and the way you can see her swallowing her real feelings offers up some great scene work.

Then there’s the end, which again has been called ambiguous even though it’s not. From the top of the zig-zag hill (aww… there it is again!), we watch as Hossein desperately follows Tahereh through the olive trees into a field, begging her for a word… only a word… We see her stop, turn, ostensibly say a word, and then Hossein runs off in joy back across the field, at one point tripping over himself. The music is triumphant. Nothing in Hossein’s character to that point indicates that he would run off after getting bad news… he would definitely stand there with his shoulders slumped, Charlie Brown style. Once again, the answer as to what we are seeing is fully clear, and to pretend otherwise is just silly. Oh well, I guess critics and scholars need to pay rent too, and 10,000 extra words about an ambiguous ending even though it’s not ambiguous could help pay for November.

Put together, these are three films I’ll treasure. I began this 2019 Criterion Odyssey with Kiarostami’s last work, “24 Frames,” and am ecstatic that I’ve had the chance to visit more of his films before the year is up. This is an absolute must-buy for all Criterion collectors.

Cover: With apologies to artist Eric Skillman, the individual covers to the three films and the overall cover are so damn boring. I can’t imagine anyone walking past this at Barnes and Noble and being drawn to it, and while I appreciate the visual way he interprets the zig-zag hill on the covers, I do not think he succeeded. Like, at all.

I award it one smashed flower out of five.

Essay: Godfrey Cheshire is a good writer, and I’ve enjoyed reading several of his essays in the past and watching him on various special features. But this lengthy booklet is not good. To someone who has never watched the movies, it spoils the fuck out of every film, and if you have watched them, you become bored because it comes across more as a recap than as an analysis. Interesting ideas, like the negative feedback in Iran to “And Life Goes On” are introduced and then dropped immediately without being expanded on. What a pity.

I award it one-and-a-half warm bottles of Coke out of five.

Extras: Let me take a deep breath…

  • There’s a super interesting but really, Really, REALLY depressing 90-minute documentary by Kiarostami called “Homework,” which takes a deep dive into Iranian teaching practices. Looking at the home life of many of the children will leave you with a sour taste in your mouth. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy I watched it, but I’m never going to watch it again. Like, ever.
  • An audio commentary for “And Life Goes On” by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, which is a great listen and highly recommended as a way to get into Kiarostami’s mind and work ethic. Oh, how I wish Criterion would do more commentaries like this one!
  • A documentary called “Truths and Dreams” which covers the same area many other extras do, but not as well. Skippable.
  • Ahmad Kiarostami is back (he was also interviewed for “24 Frames”) to talk about the trilogy and his father, and this connection between the two is quite clear throughout, especially considering that two of the three films focus primarily on child protagonists.
  • Cheshire has a conversation with Jamsheed Akrami, which is solid-if-unspectacular. Cheshire comes across much better here than in his essay and Akrami impresses more than he did in the extras of “24 Frames,” where he didn’t even get the film title right.
  • An interview between Kiarostami and Peter Scarlet, which is essential in all the ways. Hearing the master speak is always a joy.
  • Finally, an interview with Hamid Naficy which I was expecting to be bored during, but it’s actually quite fun and gives some great insight into the trilogy. Highly recommended.

I award it five flower pots out of five.

Up Next: “Fists in the Pocket.”

The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice

Flavor CoverThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #989

Writer: Kogo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Cast: Shin Saburi, Michiyo Kogure, Koji Tsuruta

Cinematography: Yuuharu Atsuta

Music: Ichiro Saito

Release: February 20, 1952

Country: Japan

Describing the work of master director Yasujiro Ozu is one of the most difficult things that any film critic or enthusiast can take upon oneself. You try to talk about how Ozu seems to strip away all the bells and whistles of visual melodrama in his family stories, but then it feels as if the person listening could misconstrue that for simplicity… which it most certainly is not. In fact, this insistence on keeping the camera quiet except for a few shots of movement is revolutionary, as is the choice to have characters stare directly at the camera as they address other characters in any given room. So does one call it simple, yet revolutionary?

Flavor 1And then there are the stories themselves, which almost never lean into the easy drama we often get from these types of family dramas. But “subtle” isn’t the right word for a guy who has more than one fart joke in his oeuvre, is it? If I described to you the climactic scene of “The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice,” where the most action-packed moment involves a woman cutting a radish, your eyes may glaze over before I get to the second sentence. And yet these moments have such quiet power they often cover your body in goosebumps or, in a movie like “Tokyo Story,” feel like a sledgehammer to the gut.

Article after article I read about Ozu never quite capture the tone or genuine feel of the master in the same way one could conjure the “feel” of the work of Kubrick, Chaplin, Kurosawa or Varda. Roger Ebert did several Great Movies essays on him, and he usually simply described scenes and characters (along with how those choices made him feel), while others focused on the radical nature of Ozu’s technical choices at the expense of his humanity. All the while, I am now 350 words into an essay about “The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice” and I haven’t even given you a hint as to what it’s about… which I probably should get to relatively soon.

Flavor 2I guess what it comes down to is this – the only way to truly capture or understand the work or Ozu is to experience it firsthand. Without this context, there’s no way you can really grasp the man. So if you’ve somehow gotten to this article in a series of articles about the Criterion Collection and miraculously haven’t seen his stuff, stop reading now and go watch one of his movies. I’ll be here when you get back.

Okay, so let’s dive in then. “Flavor” focuses on a crisis within the marriage of Taeko (Michiyo Kogure) and Mokichi (Shin Saburi). This is partially caused by the family’s niece Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima), whose modern dress and opinions are in stark contrast to Taeko’s. Taeko wears a kimono, Setsuko wears a skirt. Taeko was part of an arranged marriage, and Setsuko absolutely refuses to allow herself to be put in that position. Another symptom of the crisis is that Taeko is from an upper-class family while Mokichi is used to a more lower-class life. The real reason the marriage is imploding, however, is simple.

Flavor 5Taeko is the absolute worst.

She is an actively terrible, selfish asshole who only thinks about herself and her narcissistic needs. She bullies her niece and husband. She freely lies about silly things just for the hell of it. She calls Mokichi “Mr. Bonehead” behind his back and compares his looks to a carp she spies one day while at a day spa (shocker, she lied to her husband about where she is). Beyond the bullying, she is just nasty for the sake of nastiness, and seems to take glee in her actions. She even hisses at Mokichi for having the gall to put miso soup over his white rice at dinner (how fucking dare he!!!!!!!!!!). In case you can’t tell, I hated Hated HATED her for almost all of the running time.

Flavor 4Now, Ozu and his regular collaborator and co-screenwriter Kogo Noda had every opportunity to shade Taeko as an actual human being. To frame her flaws from a point of inadequacy instead of class. To have her be nice to a single other person in the movie. But they choose not to. This is genuinely surprising to me, especially considering how often they go out of their way to draw most of their protagonists in shades of grey. And make no mistake, Taeko is our protagonist here, which makes for a sometimes difficult watch because you begin to stop paying attention to the screen and start to think about ways karma could come and bite her in the butt. Even when the screenwriters do deal with archetypes or cliché characters in their films, it is almost always with a specific point or purpose behind it… often to undercut or twist it into something unexpected. But not here.

Flavor 6Even as I make these statements, I should underline that these do not take away from “Flavor’s” inherent watchability. Even though I have… strong… opinions about Taeko, I never wanted to stop the disc, and the fact that they kept me mostly engaged (except for the aforementioned karma fantasies) for all of the two-hour running time when I hated the main character is some kind of astonishing. That said, the climactic turn, which I’ll get to in the next paragraph and involves her emotional breakthrough, can’t help but feel somewhat unearned because all we’ve known of Taeko is how terrible she is before those moments. I balanced this in my mind for awhile before writing this – would it have been better to slightly (slightly!) shade Taeko before her change or is the turn more shocking and also emotionally satisfying because Ozu and Noda refuse to give her that depth? Ultimately, I decided I would have preferred a moment or two of humanity.

That said, the aforementioned climax is classic Ozu in every sense. It’s the small character moments between husband and wife that cause all the impact. All we see them do is make a quick dinner together in a kitchen that – despite being in their house – feels foreign to them because of their maid, and then Taeko acquiesces and tries putting miso soup over some white rice. That’s it. It’s so simple and yet… it’s also everything.

Flavor 3Saburi was a regular for Ozu at this point and turns in another fine, expected performance. Kogure, on the other hand, only collaborated with him this once, and does quite well with a role where the audience hates her for most of the running time. Technically, it’s everything you expect from Ozu from the main titles onward, including what amounts to a spiritual meditation as we watch bikes race around a stadium for several minutes. We can’t see the colors the racers have, of course, and the continuity between shots is nonexistent. And yet, thanks to the music and placement within the film, it’s a necessary palate cleanser that weirdly sticks with you longer than much of the rest of the running time.

“The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice” came out right in the middle of the richest creative period in Ozu’s career, right around “Late Spring,” “Early Summer” and “Tokyo Story.” Bluntly, it’s not as good as those three masterpieces, but most movies aren’t. It’s a solid, sometimes spectacular, drama that revisits many of Ozu’s most beloved themes. If you’ve never watched a movie by the master, this is not the place to start, but if you already love the guy and are eager for more, you can’t go wrong here.

Cover: Katherine Lam returns to the collection with this lovely cover, which isn’t the most complex or eye catching of the year… but then again, it doesn’t need to be. She perfectly captures the mood of Ozu and the film, though for some reason the tree branches in the foreground bug me – they attract the eye uselessly when you ought to be focusing elsewhere.

I award it four extra pachinko balls out of five.

Essay: I wrote above how difficult it is to capture Ozu’s essence in writing, and Junji Yoshida tries hard. The first half of his essay is quite well-done, focusing on how modern many of the master’s tendencies were coming out of World War II, though the writing becomes dryer as it progresses.

I award it three-and-a-half ramen shops out of five.

Extras: We’ve got a whole extra film in here, guys!

-Yep, we get Ozu’s 1937 “What Did the Lady Forget?”, which shares several similarities to “Flavor” in a niece who wreaks havoc on the life of a married couple. It’s very good, but also blunter and more unfocused than the later movie, and you walk away feeling oddly ambivalent about what you’ve just seen. Still, at less than an hour-and-a-half, it’s totally worth your time.

-David Bordwell offers up a video essay that doesn’t dive as deep as you want it to, though there are several gems here.

-A documentary about Ozu and Noga’s work together as co-screenwriters on over 15 projects. As a screenwriter, I’m ecstatic that Noga gets the spotlight he deserved, and the insights to their collaboration are great.

I award them four-and-a-half racing bikes out of five.

Up Next: The Koker Trilogy

The Inland Sea

The Inland Sea ProfileThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #988

Writer: Lucille Carra & Donald Richie, based on his book

Director: Lucille Carra

Cinematography: Hiro Narita

Music: Toru Takemitsu

Release: November 19, 1991

Country: United States

Donald Richie, who wrote the memoir upon which “The Inland Sea” is based, also provides voiceover for this slight, pretty documentary/travelogue that seems mostly pulled word-for-word from his book. Early on, he states: “My search is for the real Japanese. The originals. Somewhere near the sea I believe I will find them. The people the Japanese ought to be. The people they once were.”

Inland Sea 1It’s an interesting sentiment, and upon first blush a romantic-yet-authoritative one, at least when heard stated with such certainty by Richie, whose voice is perfectly formed for this type of storytelling. Nostalgia for something that once was is a powerful sentiment, because in looking fondly back it’s so much easier to focus on the 1% of the 1% of things that worked better. That were great. That embrace your ideology. And because you do that, with a wave of the hand one can easily disregard the warlords, mass starvation, disease, the harakiri and the I-don’t-know-what all which was the actual reality for most folks. It’s also incredibly dismissive of all the… I guess… “not real” Japanese who have lived there all their lives and have for generations. But maybe that’s just me.

It’s also a statement that is vague enough that it can never be fully captured. The rest of the nearly hourlong (that’s right, the entire thing is only 56 minutes) documentary explores several of the islands contained within the title location, stopping to spotlight people, places and things quickly before zipping over to the next. A pattern among the segments emerges: what filmmaker Lucille Carra focuses on undercuts Richie’s thesis statement.

Inland Sea 7We’ve got a Frank Sinatra-loving monk who wants to tear down his monastery and completely rebuild it. There’s an elderly woman who relates her difficult early life, carrying both her baby and heavy packs of fish up a mountain (!) in order to make ends meet – she now delivers newspapers. A rich man has recreated an entire ancient building out of cheap modern supplies in order to get the tourists to come by. These people seem no more-or-less happy than anyone around them, and it’s almost funny that Richie’s narration is at its strongest when describing the more modern Japan: “Copies of the latest ‘Vogue’ (and other magazines from overseas) lie scattered in coffee shops all over Japan. There’s no attempt at discrimination, but many of the pieces of various foreign cultures are lying there, all brand new, and ready to be put together like pieces of some giant scattered puzzle.”

Inland Sea 2I fear that I’m making all these descriptions are making this sound more interesting than it actually is. To be perfectly upfront, I have not read the book upon which this documentary is based… and neither seem to have any of my fellow Criterion fans who I asked about this. That said, explaining the origin of the project is actually more confusing than the experience of watching. Richie, a talented writer and friend of Criterion until his death earlier this decade (he penned several truly excellent essays for the company) was a major proponent of introducing Japanese culture to America. He wrote a memoir (though he called it a novel) about the years he spent living in Japan and his exploration of the Inland Sea. Decades later, Carra got the rights and convinced Richie to narrate and write some of the screenplay, which ended up being almost entirely lifted from his text. Carra’s intent was to revisit many of the locations Richie visited, but ended up visiting many others and interviewing people not in the text.

Inland Sea 4That’s a lot of track laid for what is, in the end, a pretty shallow travelogue. Carra introduces us to fascinating subjects, teases us and then has already moved on before the viewer finishes contemplating what he or she is looking at. The Shinto religion is brought up, described for three sentences and the filmmakers are moving on, even though the reader is still trying to parse Richie’s quizzical, paradoxical explanation of the beliefs. Then, oh look, it’s a leper colony! Isn’t that… oh wait, now we are looking at an island of cats. At a certain point, I just pulled out my notepad and began listing everything I was watching to Google later, since there was no real insight present in the film itself. At least modern viewers have Wikipedia to fall back on… imagine the frustration of those watching in 1991.

Inland Sea 5And I honestly have no idea why there couldn’t be more depth here. The movie is only 56 minutes… why not make it two hours and double the time spent on all the subjects? Or why not just focus on the three or four most notable passages/subjects from Richie’s book and do a deep dive? These half measures do no one any favors and I’d imagine would frustrate most viewers. Then again, the movie is being released on the Criterion Collection, so perhaps I’m crazy. It’s always a possibility.

Inland Sea 8The two things that Carra absolutely nails are tone and music. She really creates a grand atmosphere for the islands that is underlined by the shot choice, the space between sequences and the framing of the world. Toru Takemitsu’s (“Ran”) great score certainly adds to this in every scene it supports, though Carra smartly knows when to let atmospherics and nature permeate the soundtrack.

That said, don’t buy this disc. A suggested retail price of thirty bucks for less than an hour of content and no real insight into the subject the documentary covers? That’s a hard pass. The Kindle edition of the Richie book is nine bucks on Amazon and I suspect you’ll get a much better tapestry of the world from reading it. Aside from the Richie connection, I actually have no idea why “The Inland Sea” was chosen for inclusion in the Collection. Certainly several of Carra’s other documentaries must have been more worthy? Whatever the case, this one is all wet.

Cover: A superb cover by Tatsuro Kiuchi that invites you into this blue, blue world. It’s truly eye catching and makes you want to pick up the disc and read the back immediately. I don’t have any issues with this one, guys… it’s one of my top ten covers of the year.

I award it five feral cats out of five.

Essay: Arturo Silva should be commended for finding enough subjects to fill an entire Criterion essay considering the shallowness of the film it supports. The work is split into three sections, covering the origin, the film and the book. All the pertinent information on the background comes out stylishly. This sounds way harsh, and I’m sorry, but I actually got more insight and depth from the essay than the film itself.

I award it four Frank Sinatra songs out of five.

Extras: Add them up and their running time might actually be longer than the movie.

  • A shared interview with Richie’s friends Ian Buruma and Paul Schrader. The men are so different that it’s pretty damn fun to watch them wax lyrical on their friend, though it does last a little long.
  • An interview with Carra about the development of the project, which is perfectly adequate.
  • An old interview with Richie about his love for Japan and his writing. Interesting, if ultimately skippable.

I award them two smaller-than-expected boats out of five.

Up Next: “The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice.”