C What’s Good: What to watch on the Criterion Channel for September 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!

The Triplets of Belleville (2003) Sylvain Chomet

I don’t know about you, but I’m always on the lookout for good animation. Feature-length stuff is always a plus as well. Even then, I’ll find myself in a trap of either American or Japanese animation; not a bad thing, but variety is the spice of life, right? Enter: The Triplets of Bellville

From French animator Sylvain Chomet, Triplets tells the almost completely non-verbal story of a tough little old lady and her grandson. An obsessive cyclist, the grandson races the Tour de France, only to become involved in a sinister mafia plot. It becomes the grandmother’s duty to rescue her kin, with the help of her grandson’s beloved dog and the titular Triplets, a faded musical act of a bygone era.

The Triplets of Belleville is an absolute stunner to take in. Opening with a Fleischer-Esque segment depicting the flashy trio, the animation quickly becomes more detailed and grim, yet encompassing an almost disturbing surrealism that acts as a contemporary spin on the abstraction and dysmorphia of golden age animation. Triplets features some creepy moments of wide-eyed, dubious characters, yet rarely does the style feel like too far of a leap. It’s fantastic but follows a bizarre internal logic that sucks you in. Perhaps a fleeting feeling, the surreal facial expressions and casual disregard for gravity (at times) reminded me, oddly, of Invader Zim. Though there are no aliens here, The Triplets of Belleville is somewhere between the waxing nostalgia of Hayao Miyazaki and the creeping ominousness of a Grimm fairytale. 

High Noon (1952) Fred Zinnemann

I mean, you should watch High Noon all the time, but this came to my attention as it will be leaving the Channel on September 30th. So get to it!

Fred Zinnemann’s hallmark western tells its story in real-time, arguably the best example of a feature film committing to a strict timeframe and tempo. Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is an upstanding, tired sheriff whose past is coming to haunt him. Just before retirement! Having been sent by Kane to jail years prior, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) is set to arrive in town by train at, you guessed it, noon. Expecting trouble from Miller and his brothers, Kane scrambles to garner a posse from the townsfolk, who turn their shoulders to the desperate sheriff one at a time. 

Since its initial release in the ’50s, High Noon has been the source of much analysis and adaptation, most famously for its production and release at the height of the Red Scare in the US. The film’s indictment of bystanders and the fragmentation of community in the face of violence would be read by many as a protest against the harassment of American communists by the likes of Joseph McCarthy.

But besides its political and historical relevance, High Noon just keeps the plot moving. At a brisk 85 minutes, there’s no room for fat, and with a cast as terrific as this (a personal favorite of mine is Lee Van Cleef, known best for his role in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, who plays a minor thug to Miller’s band of guns) and a story so engaging one needn’t read too much into things to have a good time.

A Touch of Zen (1971) King Hu

I’ve raved about Hu’s Dragon Inn here on C What’s Good before (it’s still available; it’s still one of the best films of the ’60s), but if you’re looking for more gorgeous, epic wuxia action–and why wouldn’t you be–things don’t get much grander or better than A Touch of Zen.

By 1971, Hu was something of a phenomenon. Dragon Inn was a smash hit, and his follow up, a three-hour martial arts epic, would cement him further in the annals of film history. A scholar and artist becomes wrapped up in the case of a fugitive on the run from Ming dynasty secret police, eventually resulting in brawls with devout monks and scheming eunuch despots.

A Touch of Zen features its fair share of ass-kicking and high-flying wuxia action, so fans looking for a fight shouldn’t be deterred by the film’s lengthy runtime. Like all of Hu’s work though, his brand of martial arts action does, in many ways, predate the pure-action cinema that would flood out of Hong Kong in the late-’70s and ’80s, when wuxia would take a backseat to the so-so-red blood of kung fu cinema. Hu’s film is a gorgeous love letter to the Chinese countryside, featuring mountains steaming with early-morning fog and an always-gorgeous production of costumes and set design. The title rings true in that the film is a meditation, with elements of deep spirituality and faith tinging the film’s morality tale with a warmth and sense of all-knowing, though never to the point of pretension or forcefulness. Be formless; shapeless, like water. [Ed Note: Watch this movie. It’s really special!]

Un flic (1972) Jean-Pierre Melville

So, Un flic is not Melville’s best film. This was near the end of his career, released a year before his early death at the age of 55. For years Melville had been making sleek, quiet French film noir in a tradition caught between the old guard of ’40s and ’50s American noir and gangster films and the nouvelle vague, or French New Wave of filmmakers. The likes of Francois Truffaut, Agnes Varda, Alain Resnais, and so on. Filmmakers who were pushing style in a whole new direction. Melville was just a tough bastard (he was with the French Resistance during the Second World War) who didn’t need any touchy-feely artistry, yet couldn’t help but reinvent film style as the times, they were a-changin’.

That’s a brief, discombobulated pitch so as to say Jean-Pierre Melville is one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time, and someone you should check out. Why would you recommend his “not best” movie then, Sam, you buffoon? Because Da Vinci’s sketches were better than my magnum opus! That’s why!

It’s minor, yet Un flic features the Melville staples in glorious color photography, something he was only just starting to experiment with later in his career. You’ve got suave Alain Delon as a police inspector on the tails of several brutal Parisian bank robbers, eventually rubbing shoulders with all sorts of informants and drug pushers. Un flic is worth watching for its massive set pieces though, to which Melville dedicates tremendous stretches of the film. Most will point to the lengthy train sequence in Un flic, featuring daring helicopter-to-moving-train heist that is carried out without bombast or over-the-top flair. Melville’s just that cool. But Un flic has stayed with me all these years for its opening sequence, the bank robbery in a foggy, coastal town that gets the ball rolling. It’s gorgeous, it’s atmospheric and tense, and it’s as hard-boiled and cool as ’70s crime films get.