My life is a film festival.
And so is yours if you do it right.
That’s true of anyone who chooses to make film a passion, an active ongoing interactive passion. People who watch movies at every oppportunity. And there are a lot of you out there. In the past fourteen years or so that I’ve been online, I’ve “met” literally thousands of film fans in different forums, and the vast majority of them are decent, fun people who seem to take movies seriously the same way I do… and who can enjoy them in all their various forms.
The way things get programmed here at the house has to do with timing and opportunity and the potential audience and what’s appropriate and what’s not. There are things that only get watched when no one’s home so there’s no chance anyone’s listening from the other room. Regardless of what I think of Rob Zombie as a screenwriter, I am fairly sure I don’t even want my kids overhearing the ambulance/cow/crash scene in “Halloween 2,’ for example.
So it’s all a juggling act, and I just reorganized my office because I put in a new bookshelf. And in doing so, I set aside one shelf that is just “Blu-ray titles I need to watch and/or write about.”
I also have another shelf that is “DVD titles I need to watch and/or write about.”
And then there are a LOT of shelves of “I’ll get around to it. Seriously. When I’m retired, maybe, but it’s coming, and it’s gonna be GREAT.”
It’s not impossible. I have days where I see three or four films, if I’m here and working. Most of the ones on my “need to watch” shelf, I’ve already “seen” in a way because I’ve seen the films before and when the discs arrived, I put them in and spot-checked a few scenes. Just to see how the transfer looks. Did that the other night with the “Spartacus” Blu-ray, for example, and that’s a nightmare. A terrifyingly bad transfer. It’s just weird it’s so bad. Conversely, I’ve seen some of the “Fear and Loathing” and “Toy Story” transfers, and they’re excellent.
But sitting down to watch a Blu-ray from start to finish is a time consuming task… and instead of seeing it as a task, which is the total wrong way to walk into any film, I look at it as a festival that I’m programming. Everything’s getting a timeslot. There are DVDs that I’ll watch just because of the ease of watching that versus a Blu-ray. Things that might otherwise never get a chance. I like to take chances. I like to watch things that might well be terrible, fingers crossed I’ll discover something great.
I kid when I say this is a film festival, but that’s sort of how it feels when you’ve got this many choices. And you might say, “Oh, sure, you’re a movie critic so you’ve got all those choices.” Well, so do you. If you have a cable box. Or a Netflix account. Or if you have a Redbox near you. Or if you’re fortunate enough to still have a real store to go to, which I think remains the best way to do things. You’ve got choices. More choices than ever before. You are awash in choices. Sure, you’re paying to make those choices, but you can’t say these days that you’re restricted in what you can get your hands on.
So let me play a little catch-up as we look at three recent titles released by Criterion. Criterion is, by far, my favorite home video company. Surprise. The company with the best taste and the most subtle and consistent standards for great sound and picture is my favorite. What. A. Shock.
These three titles are perfect examples of the different ways that the Criterion model really pays off. “Ride With The Devil,” for example, was a good film that got released in a truncated form that director Ang Lee didn’t like at the time. Criterion gave him a chance to finish the film his way and finally release it. The result is a movie well worth owning, not Ang Lee’s best but certainly a well-told story, a lovely minor-key work by one of our best working filmmakers. The Blu-ray transfer features a strong surround mix, especially in some of the scenes involving gunfights. The disc comes with a typically good selection of extra features. There are two commentaries, and both are excellent, informative, lively. One is Ang Lee and his longtime collaborator James Schamus, while the other features key collaborators talking about the craft of the film, which is considerable. There’s a solid interview with the great Jeffrey Wright. This is a nuanced, provocative performance by Wright, so it’s nice to hear him talk about the work. The liner notes are a substantial read in their own right. It’s a terrific treatment of an unjustly overlooked film, and the high-def transfer supervised by cinematographer Frederick Elmes is lush and dense, a Blu-ray treat.
The Olivier Assayas film “Summer Hours” wasn’t a film that flattened me as I was watching it, but it sank in, and the more I think about it, the more I find it evokes a sort of wicked nostalgia in me, a longing for something that can’t be duplicated or recaptured. It’s the most complete film that Assayas has made so far, and it’s like he’s focused all of his previous strengths as a filmmaker. It’s a quiet little movie about an extended French family who has always come together at the summer home of a famous uncle, an artist who left everything to Helene (Edith Scob), a niece who has served as his estate’s caretaker since his passing. Now, as Helene faces her own mortality, her grown up children Adrienne (Julliete Binoche), Frederic (Charles Berling) and Jeremie (Jeremie Reiner) are faced with the choice of what to do with this estate. What happens as family moves away, relocating around the world, unable to find the time and the money to get home to France? What happens when Helene dies and the legal responsibility for the house falls to her children? What happens when your family no longer has a place to gather?
It doesn’t sound like the most captivating material for drama, but Assayas is looking for something more than cheap fireworks. He’s after an emotional truth that runs through every moment of the film. He doesn’t crowd the viewer. This is a movie that leaves room for the audience, open and honestly observed. It’s a wise and adult movie, elegant in the way it dissects this family as they sell off their memories, making heritage just one more asset to be negotiated, one more piece for the museum. The film concludes with a party scene, and although everything onscreen is joyous, unbridled youth allowed to run free on this beautiful estate one last time before it’s gone, there is such sadness simmering just below the surface of the images that I found it almost unbearable. Maybe I’m just reaching an age where I look back and see all the decisions I’ve made that have taken me away from family, away from comfort, and I am struck by the deep sorrow that comes with regret, and by the clarity with which Assayas renders it.
Finally, I cracked open the new five-film Eclipse release featuring the early work of Nagisa Oshima. I’ve seen a handful of Oshima films over the years, like his last release “Taboo,” or “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” and last year, I finally caught up with the searing “In The Realm Of The Senses,” thanks to the Criterion Blu-ray release. But I’m totally ignorant of his early work, so thank god for the Eclipse line, where Crtiterion releases lesser work by major artists, films that might otherwise be ignored when sizing up a career. In this case, this new collection of five films starts with “Pleasures Of The Flesh,” and in a way, it can be seen as a warm-up for “In The Realm Of The Senses,” a film that has a great noir set-up but that quickly becomes a wallow in sexual obsession and disappointment. Not that that’s a bad thing. It’s just that “Pleasures” starts with a fairly brilliant premise: a guy is in love with a much younger woman and, protecting her honor, kills a man who assaulted her. He’s spotted as he kills the guy, and the witness blackmails him, explaining that he needs someone to hide 30 million yen while he’s in jail for embezzlement. Since he could turn the guy in for murder, he figures this is the perfect guardian for his money while he’s in jail. The girl he loves gets married, though, and the guy who is watching the money decides that he has nothing to live for. He sets out to spend all 30 million yen before the embezzler is released from jail, planning to kill himself once he’s done so the guy will get out and find an empty suitcase and a dead body. Even better, he plans to spend the money on hookers who look like the woman who broke his heart so he can take out his revenge on their bodies for a year.
It’s a beautifully shot movie, expertly acted, and it is deeply uncomfortable at times. I don’t think it totally works on a thematic level, but enough of it works that I’m ready to dig into the next film in that box set as soon as possible, ready to expand my own knowledge of Oshima’s work with the help of the folks at Criterion. Whether they’re working to fill in gaps in a filmmaker’s resume or release films through a deal with IFC or just plain restore an undeservedly-maligned film’s reputation, Criterion continues to prove themselves the single most significant home video company around, release after release after release.
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