The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Criterion Collection

benjamin_buttonBenjamin Button, Criterion Collection’s #476, gets released tomorrow both as a two-disc DVD and two-disc Blu-ray.   But a lot of people seem to be up in arms over Mr. Button getting “the Criterion treatment,” mostly because it’s a new movie that hasn’t had a chance to stand the test of time.  Why does it matter?  I love the Criterion Collection and it amazes me how people get pissed when they realize a mainstream movie is being put on the Criterion label.  What’s more, who cares?

David Fincher has proved himself as a director, not to mention the fact Criterion previously released Se7en and The Game on laserdisc the SAME YEAR they came out.  In fact, CC released several laserdiscs that coincided with their release date in the 1990’s, so it seems strange that every time a new film gets picked up by Criterion, people act like such elitists.  These are the same people that praise Robocop and The Royal Tenenbaums for having a Criterion spine number, but turn around and shun the fact that Armageddon and The Rock were also released (okay, they should’ve probably thought that one through more), but the point remains that Criterion has a pretty good track record and they’re eventually going to run out of classic and foreign films. I think there are plenty worse choices than Benjamin Button to complain about.  I’m not saying Criterion hasn’t put out some questionable titles, but I doubt someone could collect their entire catalogue and not be completely satisfied for having such an extensive and important film library.

Also important, Benjamin Button is a pretty damn good movie.  The directing was great, the story and screenplay were excellent, and the acting was far superior to some of the fodder most people go to see at the movie theater on a weekly basis.  I think an important reason CC released Benjamin Button was because of their relationship with directors like Fincher; just like other directors that are still living and have a film on Criterion, most have the label that say “Director Approved” on the packaging. Criterion takes good care of the movies they inherit, so I have faith they’ll do a good job; I bet some of the whiners might even be taken by surprise.

The two-disc Criterion Edition DVD and two-disc Criterion Blu-ray include the following special features:

  • Interviews with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett
  • Audio commentary featuring Academy Award-nominated director David Fincher
  • Never-before-seen footage revealing the innovative techniques behind the Academy Award–winning visual effects and makeup
  • Step-by-step examination of the motion-capture process aging Brad Pitt
  • In-depth exploration of David Fincher’s creative process on the set
  • Interview with acclaimed composer Alexandre Desplat about the score
  • Featurettes on the film’s storyboards, costumes, and Academy Award–winning art direction
  • Stills galleries, including costume design and candid behind-the-scenes production photos
  • Optional French- and Spanish-dubbed soundtracks
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing, and optional French and Spanish subtitles
  • PLUS: An essay by film critic Kent Jones

Based on F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, the film is an excellent tale with excellent characters who provide an excellent performance.  There aren’t many movies like Benjamin Button, which is probably why Criterion choose it as one of their rare inductees into their elite collection so soon.

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2666 – Roberto Bolaño

2666I’ve been trying to read a lot more non-fiction recently, but I received 2666, which is Roberto Bolaño’s last novel and by now, his most famous work.  I was interested with the many themes Bolaño incorporates into the novel and the way in which he intertwines five different stories together.  The main depiction over the course of the novel covers a series of serial murders taking place in the city of Santa Teresa and the separate stories of how each character becomes involved.  It also tackles the deeper issues in Bolaño’s psyche about the collapse of society in the 20th century through an array of characters spread across time and space.

The first section entitled “The Party About the Critics,” tells about four academics who are all enthralled with the mysterious German novelist, Benno von Archimboldi, a man who’s written widely over-looked books until some scholars begin translating and studying him.  These academics begin interacting with one another at conferences discussing an author who hasn’t been seen in decades—ultimately leading them to the Santa Teresa at which point the city takes center stage (Ciudad Juárez is the real life city).

The second section, “The Part About Amalfitano” immediately departs from the first story and we’re introduced to Oscar Amalfitano, a literature professor in Santa Teresa who is quickly losing his sanity—he feels his daughter, Rosa is slipping away and he becomes increasingly obsessive about whether the young women of Santa Teresa are safe, most importantly his daughter.  This section really gets into the compelling nature of the murders exposing the ever-present dangers surrounding Santa Teresa.

The third section, “The Part About Fate” introduces Charles Fate, a black American writer who was sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match, something he really knows nothing about which leads to many more things.  He gets involved with Rosa while also gaining interest in the raped and murdered woman that are being found around the desert on a regular basis, wanting to become more of a detective than a writer.  He desire to figure out the murder lead him closer to death than to actually finding any closure about the murders.

“The Part About the Crimes” is the fourth part of the novel, a section that catches the reader in the headlights—at nearly 300 pages, Bolaño describes in absolutely every detail possible the circumstances and descriptions of all the girls that were murdered in Santa Teresa.  Page after page of grim details begin to mount, there is very little being solved by the police who don’t take the time to investigate any of the crime scenes.  This section brings about enormous questions about morality and intrigue.

The final section “The Part About Archimboldi” finally puts all the rumors and stories about Benno von Archimboldi to rest— Bolaño talks about Archimboldi’s life as a biography of sorts.  Archimboldi’s real name is in fact Hans Reiter, born in 1920 in Prussia—his life spanned the 20th century living in Europe, with the center of his life drenched in the atrocities of World War II.  The fragmented and unconcluded stories told about the war draw a very recognizable parallel to the murders in Santa Teresa.   Eventually, Bolaño returns the focal point to Santa Teresa and the murders, perhaps suggesting a descent of violence that we might prefer to deny.

While this book is at times PAINFULLY long, you are continuously sucked back into his writing, not only because the subject matter is interesting but also because you want to take up Bolaño’s challenge—don’t we owe the imaginary characters the benefit of finding out their fate because it’s just as necessary to find out the fates of their real-life equivalents? Bolaño points out the painful ironies of real life in that this violence happens all the time and the reason is because we choose to ignore it.  At just over 900 pages, 2666 leaves you feeling a little unsatisfied, but at the same time, you’ll feel a grand sense of accomplishment for finishing what you started.  The book is dark, mysterious, and horrifying, which makes you want to turn your head away and at the same time makes you want to continue to climb Bolaño’s mountain of significant storytelling.

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The Hangover

the_hangoverI’ve been sitting and waiting patiently for Old School Dos to drop, but as fate would have it, Todd Phillips has the film in production, but its not rumored to drop until 2011.  In the meantime, you can catch Phillips’s newest piece, these time with a whole new cast—including Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, Bradley Cooper, Ken Jeong, Mike Tyson, and Dan Finnerty (from Old School’s infamous “Dan Band”).  As you can imagine, this movie is going to be about ridiculous circumstances, but honestly the trailer speaks for itself… The Hangover opens June 5th.

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The Hangover

Sansho the Bailiff – Criterion Collection

sanshoI’m a big fan of Japanese samurai movies—I collected every one that the Criterion Collection offers so far; The Samurai Trilogy, The Sword of Doom, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Rebel Samurai box set, Ran, etc, etc. I haven’t gotten very into the other film facets of Japanese cinema but I picked up Sansho the Bailiff because I thought it was another epic samurai-period piece.  To my surprise, Sansho was definitely not the movie I thought it was.  This movie brought about an inspiration that very few filmmakers are able to accomplish, but veteran director Kenji Mizoguchi encapsulates all of film’s finest elements on screen.

The same year Akira Kurosawa finished his masterpiece, Seven Samurai, Kenji Mizoguchi released Sansho the Bailiff, which like Seven Samurai was an epic period piece that explored and dissected the depths of the human condition. This movie brought about an inspiration that very few filmmakers are able to accomplish, but Mizoguchi brings with him his directorial wisdom and vision to make the audience part of the film’s experience.

Set in the Heian period (794 – 1185 A.D.), this historical piece (jidai-geki) takes place in an age where Confucianism and many other Chinese influences were at their peak, and because of this saw tremendous contributions within the arts, especially poetry and literature.  Throughout the film, Mizoguchi does an extraordinary job of conveying these sentiments through the dialogue and the emotional hardships Zushio and Anju go through.  Although nothing is explicitly explained to the audience, it becomes painfully evident throughout the film that this is an inescapable tragedy.

The story begins as an honorable governor is forced into exile from his village, but not before making his children promise to remember his teachings of principles and morality.  His wife and children (Zushio and Anju) are sent to live with his brother but several years later they are captured and the children are sold into slavery.  The film then depicts the awful treatment the children are subjected to as they grow up slaves at an estate run by Sansho, a bailiff.  As they grow up, their paths begin to separate more and more—Anju retains her father’s teachings while Zushio represses them, considering only how to survive.  Zushio adopts the nature of the bailiff, void of regret and morals, but his newfound authority leads him only to find that he can’t escape his ultimate fate.

The contrast of the film shows the solitary fate of the mother compared to the brutal nature of the exiled son. In the final scene, the blind mother is only concerned with what happened to her daughter, feeling that her son had died long ago.  Mizoguchi talks to his audience without words—his musical score permeates through difficult scenes while others are filled with the silent ambiance of his masterful storytelling.  What’s more, his long and difficult shots allow you to see the incredible beauty that’s engulfed by symbolism—in Mizoguchi’s case, water seems to be a heavy influence, providing both grief and tranquility.

Mizoguchi proved his mastery of the jidai-geki genre in previous efforts, from The 47 Ronin to Ugetsu, which provides the setting for nearly half of his post-war films.  Dealing with increasing control and censorship in pre-war Japan, Mizoguchi found that a period piece was the only type of film the Japanese would allow him to make.  Experiencing this during the making of The 47 Ronin, Mizoguchi recalls, “We were virtually forced to make it.”

Overall, Sansho shows Mizoguchi as a master auteur, who has a unique vision in storytelling and visuals, but like Kurosawa believed, making a samurai film was not a skill Mizoguchi possessed.  According to Kurosawa, he didn’t understand the Samurai emotion in Ugetsu and The 47 Ronin, citing that 47 Ronin even lacked the vital final samurai battle scene.  Although Kurosawa makes a valid point, their directing styles in samurai period pieces are vastly different.  Mizoguchi seemed more concerned about women in society compared to a Kurosawa continuously focused on his male main characters and their own personal battles, whether external or internal.  While Sansho doesn’t really fit into the classification of a samurai film, I would argue that samurai emotion showed through its characters regardless, starting with the governor’s code of honor, all the way to the tragic final scene of mother and son reunited all too late.

Besides the obvious genius of the film, the way in which Criterion restored this film, as they do with virtually every one, looked marvelous.  Sansho was presented in its original aspect ratio, 1:33:1, which was digitally transferred in high definition—created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35mm fine-grain master positive.  They also cleaned up the image quality by removing dirt and scratches from the print, so watching this on a blu-ray player was really enjoyable, even for a film that was made in 1954.

This picture is a definite must see for any film enthusiast, make sure to enjoy the little nuances that Mizoguchi apparently enjoyed creating, from the score to the acting to the story.  Criterion released this title as spine #386 which comes as one disc, featuring video interviews with critic Tadao Sato, assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka, and actress Kyoko Kagawa on the making of the film, along with a 75 page booklet featuring an essay by Mark Le Fanu and two versions on the story which the movies were based upon—Ogal Mori’s 1915 “Sansho Dayu,” and a written form of an earlier oral variation, in a new English translation.  Invest in this one.

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Sansho the Bailiff – Criterion

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