Chungking Express

We’re all unlucky in love sometimes. When I am, I go jogging. The body loses water when you jog, so you have none left for tears.

—-Chungking Express

I saw an interview with Martin Scorcese a while back where he described the Marvel movies as “Theme Park Movies.” He went on to say that if you enjoy them, good for you, but don’t let them crowd out “real” movies from the limited screen real estate.

I agree. I am superheroed out. Maybe, some day, I’ll watch another comic book movie… but right now I don’t think I could make it all the way through. Life is too short.

Luckily, I have The Criterion Channel. And a list.

Yesterday I made time to sit down and watch Chungking Express – a Hong Kong comedy/drama/romcom by director Wong Kar-wai. I’m not going to write a full review, mostly because a review pretty much always contains spoilers and in my latter years I try really hard to see films spoiler-free. I want to give anyone coming to my site the same consideration.

I knew nothing about Chungking Express (for some reason, I thought it was about a train) and was very, very pleasantly surprised. It has a unique structure – it is not a theme park movie – yet it is very enjoyable and not hard to watch.

It is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite movies (the structure has some resemblance to Pulp Fiction). He has an excellent YouTube video about the film – it’s divided into two parts. You are supposed to watch the first part before seeing the film, then come back and watch the rest (though even the second half is pretty spoiler-free).

A great movie – and Tarantino does know of what he speaks.

After seeing this movie I’ll never buy a can of pineapple without looking at the expiration date… and never listen to California Dreaming the same way.

Jean Renoir and La Bête humaine

“You see, in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.”
― Jean Renoir

Big Boy 4018, in Fair Park, more than a few years ago.

So yesterday, I finished La Bête humaine by Emile Zola.

I have written before about my love for the streaming wonderfulness of The Criterion Channel. So tonight I sat down and watched the 1938 film by Jean Renoir, his version of Zola’s La Bête humaine.

It was very good – though very different than the book. The plot was significantly trimmed down – most of the murders were gone (only the two key homicides were left). The big set pieces were cut too, for time and also, probably for budget – the special effects cost for train wrecks and blizzards has to be enormous.

What is left is a more personal story, one of the first examples of film noir – with a femme fatale (Simone Simon – who I recognized from Cat People, filmed a few years later). A love triangle, murder, and Zola’s inherited madness make for a lively time.

Simone Simon, in a publicity still from Cat People

Renoir’s genius is in his ability to make his characters come alive on screen. He also shows a wonderful respect for the working class folks that populate the story. Even at their worst – his characters have their reasons, they are driven by the sins of the past.

It did still have the trains, though. The plot moves along like a hot steam engine on a track. A lot of the film was done on location instead of in studio – which added a gritty realism to the story. The Criterion Channel had an interview with Peter Bogdanovich who said that the original impetus for the film was that the star, Jean Gabin, wanted to make a movie where he got to drive a train.

Dracula A.D. 1972

“The Greek word for “return” is nostos. Algos means “suffering.” So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.”
Milan Kundera, Ignorance

I enjoyed watching The Devil’s Backbone last night I decided to cruise onto The Criterion Channel again and find something else. It had been a difficult day (aren’t they all?) so I wanted something entertaining (maybe campy) and nostalgic – plus something I didn’t have to think too hard about.

High school is such an influential time – so many things things from those tender years are locked in your very soul.

During that brief precious time one thing that I did was go three times a week to movies shown at the US Embassy. These were free, shown on 16mm, and flown from country to country as a service for embassy and military overseas. Sort of a taste of home away from home. They weren’t first run movies – most were up to a year old… sort of what might be shown in a dollar theater today (or last year). After the embassy was destroyed in the earthquake these were shown in the Marine guard quarters or sometimes at our house. I learned to run the 16mm reels – which was more difficult than you would think.

At any rate, this thrice-weekly showings were a big part of my life – I never missed a film. I would see a film or two in a “civilian” theater too – so for a lot of my formative years I was seeing at least four random movies in a week. The source of a lifetime addiction.

Though an occasional “classic” would slip through, most of these movies were pretty bad and a lot of them weren’t exactly appropriate for children. No harm done.

One group of schlocky flicks to come through the embassy was pretty much the entire catalog of classic 1970s Hammer Horror. The most memorable films – the ones burned into my paltry gray matter – were the Dracula films starring Christopher Lee.

It was a film series, many of them led into each other, roughly. There was:

Dracula
The Brides of Dracula
Dracula: Prince of Darkness
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave
Taste the Blood of Dracula
Scars of Dracula
and
Dracula A.D. 1972

I pretty much remember all of them except the first two (they were a bit before my time). It’s amazing how many plot points, bits of eerie music, spouts of blood, and spectacular cleavage that I still remember to this day. Those are the things that an adolescent male mind is particularly sensitive to.

So, tonight, I spotted Dracula A.D. 1972 on the list of Criterion Collection films and sat down to watch it.

First of all, it isn’t a very good movie – arguably the weakest Dracula film – and it has not aged very well. Dracula is killed in 1872 and then resurrected in swinging London, 1972, to prey on a group of decadent hippies including Van Helsing’s great-granddaughter. It has a third-rate Austin Powers vibe that doesn’t fit very well with the whole evil blood-sucking thing.

I can’t really recommend it on quality… but on nostalgia mindless entertainment… it fits the bill.

The Devil’s Backbone

“What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”
Guillermo del Toro. The Devil’s Backbone

Will I ever see another movie in a real theater? I’m sure I will, but right now it’s unimaginable.

I decided to pay for the streaming service, The Criterion Channel. Tonight I watched a movie that I had seen in the theater a few years ago – Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo). I had made a point to go down to Mockingbird to catch it at the Angelika after seeing its crackerjack trailer before another movie a week earlier.

It’s worth a second look.

The first scene is a bomb falling from a warplane in a rainstorm. It turns out the bomb falls in the courtyard of a Spanish orphanage, but it doesn’t explode. It remains stuck in the ground, sticking up at a steep angle- death, danger, and doom made into steel. The orphanage claims the bomb has been defused, but the orphans claim that it is still ticking.

The orphanage is collecting the sons of the Republican fighters in the final catastrophic days of the Spanish Civil War. The bomb is by no means the most frightening thing in the orphanage – there is the war, boatloads of secrets, and a ghost boy with dire warnings.

Yes, it is a ghost story… but in a world gone to hell, a ghost can almost be a breath of… if not fresh – at least welcome air.

Guillermo del Toro has gone on to great Hollywood fame (Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, Hellboy, The Shape of Water) but he has said this is his favorite among his own films. A sibling film to Pan’s Labyrinth (also set during the Spanish Civil War).

There are ghosts, and pain, and hell comes to earth… but there is also poetry, friends, and music and sometimes that’s enough to go on.

Podcast on The Devil’s Backbone

Woman in the Dunes

When I was a child, I was always seeing, in small, sheltered areas of sand or loose dust, the cone-shaped depressions where ant lions lived. I was fascinated by these and looked them up in the encyclopedia (these were the decades long before the Internet – I can’t imagine how rich my childhood would have been had I access to that unlimited fount of useless knowledge) and learned of the insect hiding at the bottom of the self-constructed pit. These sand-traps had a strange fascination for me, I would seek them out and study their various sizes, locations, and patterns of distribution.

I never seem to see these anymore. I don’t know why?

For some reason, it was years before I ventured out to an ant lion pit with a simple sheet of typing paper and learned how easy it was to scoop up the sand and sift it off the paper in such a way as to expose the tiny, flat, gray, insect with the immense mandibles that hid at the bottom of the cone, waiting for unfortunate prey.

In looking for a movie to watch from the Criterion Collection I settled on, for no real reason, a strange Japanese work called Suna no Onna (literally “Sand Woman) – better known by its English name – Woman in the Dunes.

I had heard of this movie decades ago – but for the longest time, never was able to see it. You forget how hard it used to be… I’m talking before a thousand channels of cable television, before VHS even… to see obscure foreign films. You could read about them, and I did, but you could never actually see them.

I read the book, by Kōbō Abe, and wondered if the film followed it closely. Finally, about ten years ago, I was able to get a VHS copy at an avant-guard video store. I was very disappointed. The transfer was so bad all I could see was a blur. It really made no sense. I hoped the original was better than this horrible copy of a copy of a copy.

It is. The Criterion Collection edition they are streaming from Hulu+ is crisp and clear. Because of this, the black and white visuals of moving sand are awe-inspiring.

The story is a simple one. An entomologist, scouring a remote seaside area looking for the key beetle that will get his name immortalized into the entomology texts, and simply trying to escape the city for a awhile, is tricked into getting himself lowered by rope ladder into a deep well in the sand. At the bottom is a recently widowed woman (she lost her husband and daughter to a sand cave-in) who needs help it the nightly task of shoveling the sand out of her home.

The rope ladder is pulled up and he is trapped.

The movie is a long one, slow moving, and concentrates on the man’s slow realization of the hopelessness of his situation, of his eventual resignation to his fate, and on the complex evolving relationship between him and the woman. She has trapped him, but she was trapped herself, and really didn’t have any choice. She is terrified that he will leave.

I was young when I read the book. I didn’t realize how universal the man’s fate was. We’re all stuck in that well of sand and all we can do is shovel as fast and as hard as we can.

Ant Lion Pits

The Criterion Collection

I don’t know about any of you, but over the past year I have become less and less happy with the selection that Netflix has streaming online. More and more, I have been going over to Hulu+ which I began paying for a while back. I bought Hulu+ for the television shows. I have been so busy it has been almost impossible for me to sit down and watch an entire film, so I have been diving into the shallow pedestrian seas of TeeVee – both current and classic. Hulu has always been a good place for that. Hulu, however, doesn’t have the best interface in the world and I have been having trouble finding what I wanted.

So a month or so ago I sat down and did some work figuring out the site structure and how to find what I want. While doing this I discovered a staggering fact.

Hulu+, starting in February of 2011 started streaming the entire Criterion Collection of movies online. The entire collection.

More

More

More

So what? – you must be asking. What the hell is that? Criterion Collection? Who cares?

Criterion is a company that is dedicated to putting the best films of international cinema onto digital media (DVD, Blu-Ray, Streaming) and doing an amazingly bang-up job of it. Their catalog is up to somewhere around eight hundred films now, with more every day.

If you know me, having access to something like this, from my roku box on the television, to my laptop computers (Hulu+, unlike Netflix, will even work on Linux), to our Kindle Fire…. well, that’s like dumping a big ol’ pile of Heroin in my lap.

Where to start? Well, first off, I found the Criterion Selections after stumbling across a film, I’m embarrassed to say, I’ve been looking for for a while – In the Realm of the Senses. This Japanese film, banned in Japan, has a notorious reputation of being nothing more than high class pornography, with a horrendous, vile, and violent conclusion.

After actually watching the thing, I can report honestly, that the reputation is well earned. So, on to the next film.

What next? I have seen a lot of these over the decades and want to watch them again – but there are a lot that I have never seen… and a few I’ve never even heard of.

I can watch these great classic movies while I’m riding my exercise bicycle. Wait, let me get my list of New Year’s Resolutions out….

Here’s a list from Paste Magazine of ten recommended films, this looks good:

  • The Kid (1921)
  • George Washington (2000)
  • The Seven Samurai (1954)
  • La Jetée (1962) (source material for 12 Monkees)
  • Jules and Jim (1962)
  • The Blob (1958)
  • The 400 Blows (1959)
  • Wild Strawberries (1957)
  • M (1931)
  • The Vanishing (1988)

I’ve seen all but two of these… but it is a worthy list.

Here’s a recommendation for:

  • Knife in the Water (1962)
  • Lord of the Flies (1963)
  • Ratcatcher (1999)

This guy is blogging his way through the whole thing. So is this guy… and this guy too, and this guy.

So many films, so little time.

Any suggestions, please leave a comment.