C What’s Good: What to watch on the Criterion Channel for August 2019


C What’s Good is the monthly follow-up piece to our C What’s On round-up of the Criterion Channel’s monthly programming. Leaping off of the hard work done by our own Hubert Vigilla, I hope to select a few favorites or interesting picks and convince you they’re worth your time!

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) Stephen Frears

My Beautiful Laundrette would become a sort of calling card and emblematic entry in the filmography of the veteran British director Stephen Frears, who cranks out films almost every other year to this day! Whereas he’s moved on to loftier costume dramas like The Queen, Laundrette is about as parsed-down and raw as you could ask for in a film.

In a rough South London neighborhood, Omar (Gordon Warnecke) is the son of a wealthy Pakistani family whose businesses are numerous and respected among the immigrant community of London. Branching out on his own venture, Omar faces bigotry at the hands of local street punks and skinheads, but comes to reconnect with his old friend from school Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), who’d fallen in with the punks. Recruiting Johnny, their differences cast aside, Omar looks to renovate an old laundrette the family owns, turning it into a refined and communal space. In the process of working together, Omar and Johnny develop an intimate relationship, naturally challenging the opinions of their friends and family.

My Beautiful Laundrette, with a premise that sounds like a mushy soap opera, might appear to be a bit of a sap. Certainly things could have turned for the melodramatic, but Frears knows to make his film tight and streetwise; the locations and supporting cast are authentic and human in their motivations, and the film is anchored by its leads. 

Gordon Warnecke is the star, but many of us will watch this retroactively with the great Daniel Day-Lewis in mind, and certainly he was just as terrific then as he is now. You realize it’s less about Johnny, a racist punk, overcoming his identity to become a lover to Omar and more about two men casting aside the expectations society put upon them to expose their true selves; the Doc Martens and the shaved head were really just borrowed items for an identity assumed out of convenience.

In a world where tolerance for the culture and identity of others feels as important now as it ever has, My Beautiful Laundrette is a bittersweet romance and a comedy (“dramedy”) to warn and remind us that violence starts small, and out of seemingly “innocent” acts of exclusionary behavior.

Police Story (1985) Jackie Chan

Duh! How could I not mention Police Story!? For a lot of Westerners, Jackie Chan means Shanghai Noon and Rush Hour; for young’uns like myself he’s that as well as Jackie Chan Adventures, and something of a punchline to schoolyard jokes (to be clear, it was always something like “I’ll kick your ass like Jackie Chan!”) But in case you needed to be reminded or, perhaps, learn that Jackie Chan is, at his core, one of the wildest, hardest-working action choreographers and stuntmen of all-time, look no further than Police Story.

Chan plays… Inspector Chan, a Hong Kong cop working a major undercover operation to bust some crime lord scumbag. After an insane opening raid, the bad guys are booked, and the attention shifts to protecting the gangster’s secretary (Brigitte Lin), who serves as a key witness in the prosecution. 

And things go on from there. Police Story is far from plotless, and I may even be doing it a disservice by so-lackadaisically summarizing. But the star here is Chan, and that’s all you’ve got to know.

What makes the action in Jackie Chan productions so terrific and engaging is that it’s mostly about being fun. Chan, in his scenes, is put at a disadvantage, armed with household props against knife-wielding goons, or in the case of Rush Hour playing a stranger in a strange land. And yet for the proverbial arm tied behind his back, Chan manages to bust heads like it’s nobody’s business, making him appear all the more heroic and satisfying in his victories, while giving the audience an incredulous laugh as to how he gets out of this one!

Police Story, with its wild double-decker bus chase, goofy phone-answering segment, and let’s-destroy-this-shopping-mall final brawl is set-piece after set-piece, keeping the action rolling even when we have some downtime and the heads, as I say, aren’t being busted.

It’s basically just pure fun. And what, do you not like fun?

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) Werner Herzog

In a filmography as vast as Werner Herzog’s I shouldn’t be so surprised that his vampire (*vampyre) film with the manic Klaus Kinski is often mentioned late in the game. But at the same time, Nosferatu the Vampyre ought to be heralded as the cinematic masterpiece it truly is, rivaling Murnau’s original film and serving as perhaps the definitive masterpiece adapting the story of the infamous Count.

The story is one we know. Jonathan Harker (played here by the legendary Bruno Ganz) is a German real estate agent, traveling the rickety roads of Transylvania to meet with an elusive Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski), whose recent purchase of German property necessitates the meeting at his Transylvanian castle. One thing leads to another, and you’ve got yourself the world’s most powerful vampire (*vampyre) on the loose, set sail for Germany with his army of plague rats and a hankering for the tender flesh of Harker’s stunningly-beautiful fiancé, Lucy (Isabelle Adjiani).

The key to adapting material, it would seem to me, is that there needs to be a reason for doing something again. Especially when the Dracula story had been committed to film several times before Herzog took a poke at it in the late-’70s. True enough, his stab at the Gothic legend hearkened back to Murnau’s original silent masterpiece in its grimness. Gone is the camp and grandeur of Bela Lugosi’s gleefully-devilish delivery. Kinski’s Dracula is a pale, sick looking thing, with curling nails and bloody eyes. His plague rats are disgusting things, decimating towns which themselves already look filthy with grime and antiquated medicine. Herzog embellishes the ugliness and sense of the unclean, while also taking in the extreme, haunting beauty of his story. Remarkably-photographed, featuring one of my favorite final shots of all-time, Nosferatu the Vampyre is the kind of film that justifies “remakes” or further adaptation of tried-and-true material.

The War Room (1993) Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker

Americans might be loathe to sit down for a documentary on politics these days, but for one of the greatest documentarians of all-time, you ought to sit and give anything a chance!

And it shouldn’t take long for The War Room to sink its teeth in and keep you glued for its run. Covering Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, The War Room is as close to this kind of stuff as you can get without being in the room. Obviously the film released while Clinton was in office, covering his victory, but it’s fascinating more than 20 years later to watch something like this. Particularly for someone like myself, who was just carbon in the air when all this was going on.

To see the minute, painstaking work of the campaign staffers and realize “Oh wow, these people had to work to make this happen, and they did it!” There’s something oddly satisfying in that, for me; to see the little things that add up to big history.

It helps that Clinton’s campaign is largely-represented on screen by the Southern drawl and no-BS attitude of James Carville and the snappy, calculating speed of George Stephanopoulos. Hegedus and Pennebaker recognize their stars when they find them, and while they have a history of keeping tabs on the likes of Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger, the truth represented by their documentation is that larger-than-life, celebrity-like personalities exist in more people than just those covered in the headlines or at the top of a rock album.

Pennebaker just recently (August 1, 2019) passed away at the age of 94. His career was one of a trailblazing documentarian, making The War Room timely viewing for several reasons. I’d implore the curious to also seek out, on the Criterion Channel, Monterrey Pop and Don’t Look Back. Even casual documentary-fans should find something to love in his classic music documentaries, as symbolic time capsules of their era, if nothing else.

Another month and another home run for the Criterion Channel. With the madness that seems to be perpetually consuming our news headlines every day, I felt as if you could look at a lot of the new offerings on the ‘Channel and think “Hmm, that relates a bit to the nonsense going on these days…” but I might be projecting. Either way it’s a testament to the kinds of work that the Criterion Channel is committed to championing: Good, classic films that weather the test of time and are truly important as well as entertaining and enlightening. I think for every War Room (though truly an engaging film in itself) there’s a Police Story on offer. By that I mean the folks over at Criterion have a strong understanding that yes, film is art. Yes, art is important and serious business. But who the hell wants to be serious all the time? Sometimes you want to see Jackie Chan chase a speeding bus on foot, and that’s just as valid as anything else.