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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B+

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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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A

Danton – Criterion Collection

dantoncriterion1I’m addicted to the Criterion Collection right now.  I’ve got a little over 60 titles and I’m still mapping out which cinematic adventure to get next.  Danton was just released as spine #464 in the DVD collection and it’s definitely a great addition to Criterion.

Gérard Depardieu and Wojciech Pszoniak star in Andrzej Wajda’s fantastic depiction of the French Revolution and the ideological clash between man-of-the-people Georges Danton and cold hearted Jacobin extremist Maximilien Robespierre, the two key figures of this period. Wajda draws parallels to Polish solidarity, a movement that was being quashed by the government as the film was in production.

Wadja has a large body of work that includes films that are more psychological and romantic in nature—most based in contemporary Poland or in the horrific years of World War II.  Danton (1983) appears to be a period piece by the front cover and conversely not about Poland at all.  Wadja lays out the blueprint for an passionate allegory on the uselessness of a violent revolution—and of course the clear parallels between the French Revolution and twentieth century Poland.

The movie is based on the play, The Danton Affair, by Stranislawa Przybyszewska—a communist whose sympathies were with the radical Robespierre.  Wadja then decided to flip the play on its ear in 1975, making Danton the protagonist and by 1980 at the apex of the Solidarity liberation movement, he transforms his play into a film, with production taking place in Poland and location scenes being shot in France.  Just like the actual problems presented on screen, the filming of Danton was tangled up by a Soviet coup in December 1981—creating a totalitarian regime that halted production permanently.  Taking the movie to Paris, Wajda only returned from Polish exile in 1989 after the Jaruzelski government fell.

Taking place in 1794, Danton starts almost five years after the fall of the Bastille.  Following the period when the newly formed revolutionary government begins to create a Committee of Public Safety and the Revolutionary Tribunal to suppress its enemies and raise military forces, we find Danton and Robespierre as the central figureheads arresting and executing huge numbers of suspects, including Marie Antoinette and Duc d’Orléans—the period known as the Reign of Terror.

This film raises some complex questions in rather simple ways seen through the interactions between Danton and Robespierre, presented in opposing political, logical and humanistic ideologies.  Danton is Wajda’s crowning achievement not only in the context of film, but also as a piece of historical significance, and Criterion does a beautiful job of reminding us why.

The DVD is a two-disc set with the film presented in its original 1:66:1 aspect ratio, video interviews with Wajda, screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, Polish film critic Jerzy Plazewski and a 42-minute behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of the film.  For the history buffs, check out this little masterpiece.

Danton – Criterion Collection

Danton – The Auteurs

B+