Marcel Dalio shows off his new toy in one of my personal top 10, Jean Renoir’s 1939 “The Rules of the Game.”
It’s taking some time, but when I finally get my big screen/Blu-Ray/Home theater going, I might be doing my own impression of Dalio. I’ve been working with mostly Clinton-era tech, so this is a big change. Which reminds me: How long until Criterion puts this one out on Blu-Ray?
Featuring Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Anthony Hopkins, and a heartbreaking Vanessa Redgrave, 1992’s “Howard’s End” was the third (and most star-studded) adaptation of a novel by E.M. Forster from the famed triumvirate of producer Ismail Merchant, Oscar-winning writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and director James Ivory. With the Merchant-Ivory team’s famed talent for exquisite visuals amidst extravagant period settings, it’s also perfect fodder for a Criterion two-disc DVD set.
Thompson and Bonham Carter are sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel, affluent early 20th century intellectuals who find themselves embarrassingly intertwined with the crassly wealthy Wilcox family. Eventually, the ailing matriarch, Mrs. Wilcox (Redgrave), starts up an intense friendship with the older and more stable Schlegel sister, Margaret. After her death, wry Margaret unexpectedly falls for and marries Mr. Wilcox (Hopkins), not knowing the ardent capitalist had chosen to ignore a death-bed bequest of enormous import. Meanwhile, the younger Helen’s overweening sympathy for a sensitive clerk with intellectual aspirations (Samuel West) inadvertently threatens everyone’s happiness and proves, once again, that it’s money that matters most. A morally complex blend of complex comedy and drama with florid tragedy reminiscent of another great literary adaptation, George Stevens’ “A Place in the Sun,” “Howard’s End” is everything you could ask for in thoughtful period entertainment, with some highly nuanced ideas from novelist Forster on the interplay of economics and emotional life. Critics sometimes downplay the “tasteful” Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala films, but this hugely entertaining winner of three Academy Awards, including a Best Actress statue for Emma Thompson, gives Oscar bait a good name.
After his short but memorable role as undercover operative Lt. Archie Hicox in the WWII epic, “Inglourious Basterds,” Michael Fassbender shot to the top of my actors to watch list. Quentin Tarantino’s film may have put him on the map, but even before its release, Fassbender was earning strong reviews for his performance in artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen’s directorial debut, “Hunger.” As Bobby Sands, the real-life IRA member who went on a hunger strike in protest of the British government’s refusal to recognize him and his fellow Maze inmates as political prisoners, Fassbender completely immerses himself in the role with Christian Bale-like dedication. It’s a pity he doesn’t actually show up until the second act, because it only makes those first 30 minutes seem that much less significant. While a lot of that time is spent setting the mood within the prison (from the poor living environment to the brutality handed down by the guards), “Hunger” doesn’t really get going until Fassbender makes his grand entrance – and even then not a whole lot really happens. In fact, with the exception of a 16-minute, single-shot conversation between Sands and an Irish priest (Liam Cunningham), the movie is pretty forgettable due to an overall lack of character development. It’s still worth checking out for Fassbender’s committed performance, but it’s not quite the modern masterpiece that Criterion would have you believe.
The second collection of past Criterion releases – stripped of their DVD extras (and more than half their cost) – presents an even better, more accessible collection of films from the cinephile-sanctified vaults of legendary distributor Janus Films than the prior volume. This boxed set (the titles are also sold separately) is highlighted by three of the most entertaining and emotionally open films by three of the mid-20th century’s most revered filmmaking powerhouses: François Truffaut’s innovative 1959 coming-of-age drama, “The 400 Blows”, starring a 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud, set the pattern for the genre worldwide, while also launching France’s iconoclastic New Wave of the 1960s; Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 “Ikiru” is a deeply moving and gently humorous film about a milquetoast bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura, the fish-faced badass leader of “The Seven Samurai”) facing certain death from stomach cancer without benefit of a billionaire buddy or bucket list; and 1954’s “La Strada” is a wondrous surefire tearjerker by the great Federico Fellini and starring his wife, the even greater Giulietta Masina, as a Chaplinesque waif, and America’s own Anthony Quinn as a very mean muscleman. England’s 1944 “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” starring Roger Livesay and Anton Walbrook – two great actors, too little remembered – and featuring an astonishing film debut by gorgeous 24-year-old A-lister-to-be, Deborah Kerr, is from the still-not-legendary-enough team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It’s one of the most enjoyable comedy-dramas ever made, as well as an eye-opening, Technicolor, quasi-wartime propaganda epic, and my current unofficial “all-time favorite movie,” if you really want me to name one.
Definitely worthwhile, but not anyway near the same category, is another British entry, George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” Co-directed by star Leslie Howard (“Gone with the Wind”) and stage-to-screen specialist Anthony Asquith, and with Wendy Hiller as the definitive Eliza Doolittle, it’s a solid but sometimes slow adaptation of the Shaw play, which you may know as “My Fair Lady,” but without the music or sentiment, or “Pretty Woman,” but without hookers and with actual wit. Finally, we have 1959’s “Black Orpheus”, Marcel Camus’ retelling of the myth of Orpheus, samba style. It’s a beautiful but slow ride that has millions of fans – just not me. All in all, there’s no faulting this collection. However, the absence of DVD extras makes a strong case for curious viewers to simply join Netflix and rent the original Criterion releases, great bonus features and all.
Radio humorist Garrison Keillor gets a great deal of mileage poking fun at the taciturn ways of Swedish and Norwegian-Americans in the bleak Midwest. By comparison, Aki Kaurismäki’s similarly Nordic Finnish Fins make the citizens of Lake Wobegone seem like a bunch of raging drama queens. Kaurismäki is known for blending clever ultra-deadpan comedy and classical neorealist filmmaking, and since I love the former and just barely tolerate the latter, his works tend to be a hit and miss affair for me. Nevertheless, the definite class of this no-frills three-disc set from Criterion’s Eclipse line — comprised of three short feature-length movies about the lives of working folks who get themselves into bad, bad trouble — is also, however, the least overtly funny. 1990’s “The Match Factory Girl” is an ultra-dry twist on the pathos-heavy Hans Christian Anderson tale starring Kati Outinen — the female lead of Kaurismäki’s terrific 2002 art-house hit “The Man Without a Past” — as a trodden-upon lass who finally has enough of her vile parents and her even more vile boy-enemy (you can’t call him a friend). Ned Flanders-mustached Matti Pellonpää, who appears un-credited as the cruel seducer, also plays major roles in the less melodramatic, less reliably entertaining, but also very deftly made, films that round out the set: 1986’s “Shadows in Paradise,” a romantic comedy of sorts, and 1988’s “Ariel,” an out of sorts heist picture.
“Match Factory Girl” aside, this is the kind of material that will test the patience of viewers who don’t love such neorealist tropes as watching characters make tea for 15 seconds of real time. On the other hand, if kitchen sink realism and downbeat, ultra-subtle humor is your thing, they all may be your cup of tea. An ecological note: Given that all three features combined run just over 3.5 hours (the longest is an epic 76 minutes) and there are zero extras, someone should ask Criterion why was it necessary to package this brief trilogy on three separate discs.