Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Blu-ray Review: Criterion Coterie

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Blu-ray Review: Criterion Coterie

by Tony Dayoub

Let's play catch up with the Criterion Collection. Today, we look at the label's most recent releases, from March 15th on through this week. All are on Blu-ray, two are brand new to the collection, three are reissues, and the remaining two I profile in my regular DVD column over at Wide Screen, so I'll link to that at the end of the post.

Let's start with the newest title, White Material (2009), directed by Claire Denis. This one is near and dear to me because I was fortunate to see the film at its debut US press screening at the New York Film Festival back in October 2009. White Material stars Isabelle Huppert as the manager of a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country. The country is in the midst of political turmoil, and while most of its wealthy French colonists (referred to by the revolutionaries as "white material") have long ago taken flight, Huppert stubbornly refuses to evacuate. Huppert harbors a fugitive revolutionary leader (Isaach De Bankolé) on the family compound as he lays dying from a gunshot wound to the gut. In the meantime, ex-husband Christopher Lambert is ready to sell off the property hoping to "save her from herself," and their son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is slowly slipping into madness.

Watching it again recently, I was struck by White Material's resemblance to Apocalypse Now (1979). As Duvauchelle's sanity erodes and he starts prancing around half naked, shaving his blond hair off in identification with the natives, I was reminded of Sam Bottoms as Lance the surfer in Francis Coppola's film. Like in that film, the obsolescence of colonialism, and the poisonous effect it has on a country and its native people, is explored. Huppert's protagonist is not quite as deluded as Brando's Kurtz character from the Vietnam picture, but she is just as misguided in believing she has some special identification with the natives simply because she has found a place that feels like home. When one character speaks of her son, he could just as easily be describing her:
Extreme blondness brings bad luck. It cries out to be pillaged. Blue eyes are troublesome. This is his country. He was born here. But it doesn't like him.
Or it could describe the French Denis, who grew up in Africa. Her familiarity with the terrain, both geographical and metaphysical, explains why she is effective in portraying the different strata of African society depicted in White Material. If there's any flaw, it is that, as in many stories told from a white perspective, blacks are given short shrift. It's a minor quibble because ultimately, the horrifying White Material succeeds at achieving a state of protracted dread as one hopes Huppert admits defeat before it is too late for her.

Prejudice of a different kind is the underlying subject of Robert Epstein's excellent documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk (1984). This isn't quite a biography of Milk, San Francisco's first openly gay city councilman, even though it covers much of the same ground as Gus Van Sant's more conventional 2008 biopic. It is a call to action, covering the huge strides forward that San Francisco and, indeed, the nation's LGBT movement is able to accomplish because of one man while reminding us of all of the work left to be done. Milk's private life is ignored in favor of tracking his positive influence on public opinion, explaining why the film's title focuses not on the man, but on the rapidly changing times he was a part of.

Even his devastating assassination (at the hands of a fellow councilman) is examined from the perspective of how it impacted the LGBT movement, both positively, giving them a rallying point, and negatively, depriving them of a political genius who knew when and how to push for his followers' civil rights. Milk knew that little battles won would eventually garner gays and lesbians a major victory.

The Times of Harvey Milk was shot on 16mm film, so don't be disappointed by the inherent graininess of the film. This is the cleanest 16mm print you're likely to ever see on Blu-ray, only adding to the essential nature of the disc.

The universality of human nature, defended so vigorously in The Times of Harvey Milk, is at the center of Edward Yang's Yi Yi (2000). The three hour film looks at a modern Taiwanese family through the perspective of the father (Nianzhen Wu), his teenage daughter (Kelly Lee) and his young son (Jonathan Chang). Work pressures on Dad are making him long for simpler times and he considers rekindling a failed romance from his youth while his wife goes on a spiritual retreat. The teenager starts her own romance with her neighbor's troubled ex-boyfriend. And the little one mysteriously takes photos of the backs of people's heads. Though we are repeatedly exposed to the different cultural practices of the family, be it in the form of a family wedding that opens the film or at the young boy's school, the viewer always ends up identifying with the family's similarities. This was my first time seeing the film, so I didn't get the opportunity to place this on my list of the best movies of the 2000s, but if I could go back, Yi Yi would easily place in my top 5 of that decade.

I wish I could say the same about another Criterion reissue, the popular Au revoir les enfants (1987). Louis Malle's personal story follows two boys (Gaspard Manesse, Raphael Fejtö) in a Catholic boarding school in Nazi-occupied France. The first boy doesn't really warm up right away to the second boy, new to the school, until he becomes intrigued by the latter's talent at math and music, and the discovery that said boy is secretly a Jew hiding under an assumed name. Much of the film struck me as rather conventional in its episodic depiction of the hard living under occupation, the small rewards found in such conditions, etc. Worse yet, the film's stab at profundity, the inevitable climax in which the Nazis come to the school to flush out any Jews hiding there, feels particularly false. I believe the events of the climax happened. I just don't believe they happened to Malle, who presents the events with ham-handed flourishes one would gather from a secondhand story; the fake tension and poignancy that arises feels at odds with the earlier, drearier part of the film.

Happily, I can say that the reputation of another well-known French film, Jean-Pierre Melville's Le cercle rouge (1970), is well-earned. This gangster film sports a cinematic trio of icons—Alain Delon (Le Samourai), Yves Montand (The Wages of Fear) and Gian Maria Volonté (For a Few Dollars More)—as a crew of jewel thieves who pull off a daring heist in a climactic, dialogue-free setpiece that lasts close to a half-hour. Oh, but what a tense half-hour it is, as the viewer sees the entire, expertly executed process from a the perspective of a fly on the wall. This scene would be reworked by Michael Mann years later in 1981's Thief. Melville's exploration of "honor among thieves" and the thin line that separates cop from criminal are also themes that would influence Mann in his films, and Le cercle rouge is perhaps the best expression of Melville's fascination with those topics.

To read my reviews of Criterion's Gilbert and Sullivan Blu-rays, Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy (1999) and 1939's The Mikado...



Jake said...

Yi Yi is far and away my favorite film of the decade. That scene where the elevator doors open and the camera does not move for any kind of reverse shot of the man's face as he runs into his old love just tears a hole in me. It's been awhile since I've seen it, though, and I can't wait for my Blu-Ray copy to get here in the mail along with White Material, which managed to be my least favorite of her last three films but still a near-masterpiece.

Jason Bellamy said...

The other day I noticed that White Material is coming out on DVD, and it reminded me that when the film was released I struggled to find a review that convincingly argued its agreed upon greatness. As I was struggling to figure out what others thought was so overpowering about it, most reviews I found didn't go much deeper than to imply that the film is great because Clair Denis directed it and because it has some striking images; they spent a lot of time describing what happens in the film but didn't, in my opinion, articulate its effect.

Following the link in this post, your original review (which I obviously missed at the time) does a good job of expressing the effect: "I can't remember the last time I was struck with horror the way I was here—at the frightening idea of finding oneself the target of one of these brutal children. The idea that a child—with no developed sense of self-worth or empathy—could be the one deciding whether you live or die, chilled me to the bone."

I can't say I felt the same (wish I did), but at least your review traces your experience to something tangible within the film.

If this comment makes it seem like I disliked White Material, that's not the case. But with the exception of a few moments, I found it very distant, and so I wasn't overpowered by it as so many others were (for reasons that often weren't explained).