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!
Alexander Nevsky (1938) Sergei Eisenstein
Yeah, I know it’s probably a tough sell to start with an old Soviet history movie. But it’s a little badass, this history movie!
The titular Prince Alexander of 13th century Novgorod would become a Russian historical hero for his defense of the city against an attempted invasion by Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire. The film quickly positions Alexander (erformed in slightly stilted, dated style by Nikolai Cherkasov) as a man of the people, who rally to him to defend their city, rather than sell out to the Germans as many of the spineless bourgeois would. Alexander Nevsky carries all the political subtext one can imagine a Russian film from the brink of World War II would bear. There is a common thread of populism, and the Russo-German tensions that heat the narrative were all too relevant.
But history isn’t for everyone, and historical context for even fewer of us tired, dusty fans of lore. Well, that’s okay! For nearly 80 years old, Alexander Nevsky‘s pivotal battle scene is really quite entertaining for its age. Eisenstein, known for pioneering basic film language in films like Battleship Potemkin and October, utilizes wide shots of huge legions of extras, galloping across ice to meet and slay the hell out of each other. One could argue Nevsky suffers from a bit of a poor pace in that its major battle takes up so much time, while others like myself could bask in the great armor costumes and epic scale of the conflict.
The aforementioned armor as well as the look of the sets are what really kept my attention during Alexander Nevsky. I’m just a sucker for ornate armor and crusader fervor. History is just wild stories, one after another!
The Wages of Fear (1953) Henri-Georges Clouzot
Man, I have seen this movie so many times. Serving as the source material for William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (another great, great film), The Wages of Fear is the kind of straight up adventure that I think could sway someone who might be hesitant to watch an older, black-and-white film. And one in a language other than English, no less.
Set amidst a community of expatriates wasting away in a South American town, Wages‘ early scenes build its world phenomenally. These men are in the armpit of the world, cast out from their home countries for crimes, mistakes, or a bit of both. There’s a palpable desperation in the hot air that director Clouzot captures through dire, but not oppressive, character drama.
Desperation is the key word. When an oil company’s field erupts into flames some distance from our expats, the company needs to get a shipment of volatile explosives from the town, a destination for small aircraft, to the fiery field. But who would risk taking such fatal cargo over such rough terrain..?
The Wages of Fear’s story of desperate men undertaking a dangerous job for money and a second chance underlines a discussion on the idea of what is and isn’t a commodity. Is gambling with one’s life worth potentially making a buck to rejoin society? For any interpretation one might find in Wages, I personally have returned to it so many times for just how incredibly fun it is. There’s tension as the trucks roll across rocky roads, navigating wooden bridges and muddy pools. The band of men are all in it for one reason or another, and the prolonged time spent with these characters facing death yields a rewarding saga of banter, drama, and revelation that is rarely matched.
Happy Together (1997) Wong Kar-wai
This is another one I’ve revisited time and time again, and like Wages of Fear similarly deals with people struggling outside of their own country. Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) and Yiu-fai (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) are couple from Hong Kong who visit Argentina as an escape and attempted rebirth of their tumultuous relationship. They have a particularly bad fight, splitting up and leaving the two men to drift in a foreign country.
Wong Kar-wai is known best perhaps for In the Mood for Love (another terrific film also available on the Criterion Channel), and his somber, romantic films more often about mood than story. Happy Together is a sad film, with moments of beauty and love between its contentious characters. It’s also an incredibly vibrant film to simply look at and experience viscerally, featuring bold neon lights and harsh, sunny skies, as well as abrupt and shocking use of slow and fast-motion and odd uses of camera focus. Wong often cites Martin Scorsese as a strong influence on his work, and the sudden blaring of a guitar over a slow-motion segment might recall any of the American master’s gangster films.
Yet for as dazzling as some of the direction can be in Wong’s films, the human element is always first and foremost the most impactful. Happy Together is an elegy for anyone who’s ever loved or longed for love, hurt or hurt someone. It’s anchored by authentic performances and an eye for beauty amidst life’s sadness and squalor. It’s frankly among the most-touching films I’ve ever seen, and probably ever will see.
Cure (1997) Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Wow, I hadn’t even realized this was on the Criterion Channel! To shift gears dramatically from Happy Together while still staying in 1997, Cure will make your skin crawl and your hair stand up with its chilling atmosphere and mind-bending murder mystery.
Koji Yakusho plays Takabe, a detective tracking a series of grizzly, seemingly random murders across Tokyo that are all connected by a similar mark found on the bodies of mutilated victims. Finding a lead in a strange man (Masato Hagiwara), the case takes turns into studies of hypnotism, and the mystery of the paranormal.
Cure is an absolutely breath-stopping film. The Japanese have a way of concocting violence in a nonchalant style of framing and editing that can be utterly appalling while avoiding Saw levels of on-screen gore. Sure, there are the Takashi Miikes of the world with their splatterfests, but Kurosawa’s film is something different altogether, weaving haunting imagery in as Takabe becomes increasingly embroiled in the nihilism and murk of crime without reason. Cure is layered with details and hints at its own mythology that may or may not become apparent on repeated viewings, but the sheer sense of dread and unease the film instills should be enough to satiate any genre aficionados in aesthetic alone.
This month features a lot of films I’ve seen half a dozen times, and consider real favorites, but the Criterion Channel continues to astound me with films the likes of which I’ve never even heard of, as well as overwhelm me with the opportunity to catch up with names of filmmakers I’ve long known and never truly explored. Yasujiro Ozu is often touted as an all-time great of cinema, and I’ve been able to catch Floating Weeds and The End of Summer: All the sloooow Japanese family life I crave! It’s all a drop in an ocean and I’m grateful for the sheer amount of content added every month.