Screens Armchair cinephile 

Catching up with Criterion

The Criterion Collection is always a film buff’s friend, putting out lavish (if expensive) editions of worthwhile titles. Their release strategies can be eccentric, though: They’ll release uncontroversial masterpieces such as Seven Samurai for a stretch, then suddenly swerve into a run of quirky diversions (a compilation of Beastie Boys videos, anyone?) or material that’s clearly a personal obsession of the company’s founders (the films of David Lean, say).

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Without a lot of fanfare, the label has been on a roll for the last couple of months, releasing solid editions of movies whose mainstream fame, in most cases, hasn’t yet caught up to the esteem in which cinephiles hold them. It’s a varied bunch — the only common factor here is that each entry boasts a strong artistic vision.

The best known, Ran, has been released on DVD a number of times already, both here and abroad, in editions ranging from fine to embarrassing. Akira Kurosawa is a particular favorite at Criterion (with over a dozen releases, and more around the corner), so the company naturally wanted to put its imprint on the filmmaker’s autumnal masterpiece, a retelling of King Lear set in 16th-Century Japan. By all accounts, this disc does a better job than others with the riot of color Kurosawa used; it also includes a feature-length doc on the filmmaker by Chris Marker, the cult director of La Jetée. (Hey, when will Criterion release that?)

Staying in Japan for a moment, we have Ugetsu. Director Kenji Mizoguchi isn’t as big a name as Kurosawa, but he’s renowned among scholars of Japanese cinema. Coming near the end of his career (and the highlight of it), Ugetsu tells a strange ghost story in which cruel scenes of war alternate with sensual, stylized sequences of more intimate human interaction. Among other features, this two-disc package offers a 72-page supplementary book and a two-and-a-half hour Mizoguchi doc from 1975.

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One of Mizoguchi’s champions was Jean-Luc Godard, another Criterion fave, whose Masculin Féminin recently hit stores. Turning an eye on the youth culture in 1960s Paris, Godard is less interested in plot than in the way young men and women interact — “not just what they do,” as Pauline Kael put it, “but how they smile and look away.”

Mike Leigh’s Naked presents a more disturbing vision of male-female relations. The 1993 film probably drew more public attention to Leigh than any three of his other films combined. Not as much bleak as nasty, the film strays from the British director’s ensemble-oriented approach to the working class, digging into one character’s flawed emotional makeup: David Thewlis takes on the role of a career here (last year’s Harry Potter film was surely a nice paycheck, but still) as an educated but screwed-up man who seems on the verge of leaving the human race for good.

Leigh lightens up a few years later in Career Girls, which was recently released in a no-frills edition by Fox. Katrin Cartlidge (from Naked) shares the screen with Lynda Steadman, playing a pair of college roommates who bond despite their obvious differences. Six years after graduation, the pair meet up again and Leigh offers a relaxed look at two lives stuck in media res.

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After its recent issue of Robert Bresson’s beloved but challenging Au Hasard Balthazar, Criterion delivers maybe his most accessible film with Pickpocket, a study of a singular character with a cinema-friendly vice. A self-absorbed but anonymous thief, Michel, is drawn to theft for practical, intellectual, and strangely existential reasons.

In the film’s most memorable interaction, Michel is confronted by a detective who knows he is a pickpocket but isn’t prepared to shut him down; the scene is a test of Bresson’s famously stringent approach with actors, which is investigated here in The Models of “Pickpocket,” a 2003 documentary by Babette Mangolte.

Returning to Kurosawa’s samurai lore without leaving France, we have Le Samouraï, a 1967 Alain Delon vehicle that leaves most of the actor’s other films in the dust. Director Jean-Pierre Melville, whose beautiful Bob le Flambeur benefitted from Criterion’s attention a few years ago, applies Japanese warrior mythology to a gangster tale straight out of 1930s America. Delon’s impassively code-bound assassin anticipates the hero of Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog decades later, which, come to think of it, would make a fantastic Criterion Collection disc someday — especially in a package containing the RZA’s perfect, unavailable-in-the-U.S., hip-hop soundtrack.

By John DeFore


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