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C What's Good: What to watch on the Criterion Channel

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Postwar prostitutes and Russian revenge this May!

Here in its first official capacity, 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!

Revenge (1989) Yermek Shinarbayev

You look at a title like that and must think “Oh how very original!” Even the film’s premise might sound familiar. Following the bizarre and senseless murder of a little girl, her father has a son with another woman, passing on to him the mission and burden of avenging his unknown half-sister. So not exactly your cookie-cutter motivator, but we’ve all seen some grisly action movies with a twisty scheme. Only I wouldn’t believe you if you told me you’ve seen anything quite like Revenge before.

Shinarbayev is a filmmaker I’m utterly unfamiliar with, having picked this film out of a hat, so to speak. I didn’t know that I was in for gorgeous, utterly insane naturally-lit compositions, or haunting, dreamlike atmosphere that permeates the entire film. Revenge examines the life of a young man who was created for violence in a literal sense, exploring purpose and familial bonds through a fable-like lens and a surreal quality. The concept of revenge, seeking to right a wrong, is a much-tread topic for films, though more often than not we end up with buckets of blood and broken bones. That’s all well and good, of course, but Revenge, though it features violence, doesn’t revel in it. There’s a sense of mystery attributed to it that makes the entire film play as a horror movie almost. It makes you uneasy, because some of the visuals here are haunting in their calmness.

Gate of Flesh (1964) Seijun Suzuki


Suzuki is a master of the Japanese studio film. Actually, Suzuki is just a master. Working tirelessly, with dozens of films to his name, his political sentiment and strong eye for cinematic abstraction livened up more than one Nikkatsu studio-assigned script. Gate of Flesh being a strong example of both qualities.

Set immediately after the Second World War, Gate of Flesh predominantly follows a band of wire-thin, cutthroat prostitutes working the black market streets of Tokyo. First and foremost, Suzuki’s work to recreate the squalor and desperation of the immediate Postwar Era is remarkable. There’s a sense of dire realism to watching people hawk sweet potatoes on the street (by the way, Japanese sweet potatoes are the best thing ever and you need to try them) and lead there oxen down the narrow streets. Gate of Flesh ain't no picnic.

The ladies of the night (and day, and whenever else they can make ends meet) follow codes of commodification, selling themselves but maintaining a fierce and often violent control of their identities and their strength. The world of rubble and ruins they live in has sucked their souls, making the idea of love a forgotten luxury. The entrance of a bitter Japanese veteran (chipmunk-cheeked icon Jo Shishido) throws a wrench in their pact, and the blossoming yakuza factions looking to get ahead make matters even more complicated.

Suzuki is perhaps best known for his bizarre hitman film Branded to Kill (also starring Jo Shishido) and the wildly-colorful yakuza movie Tokyo Drifter. Those movies feature some of his more surreal story beats and abstract visual compositions, which makes Gate of Flesh and its strong political examinations a “scholarly case” for Suzuki’s brilliance. He unpacks the bitterness of a veteran who feels betrayed by his country as well as the conflict of a young woman wanting to feel love but forced by her surroundings to steel herself. It’s bleak stuff, and the tinge of B-movie exploitation certainly adds some grit and grime, but it’s well worth your time!

The Lineup (1958) Don Siegel


What’s black, white, and hard-boiled all over? The Lineup of course! Don Siegel’s lean and mean late-’50s noir might clock in at only 86 minutes, but they’re some of the grittiest and toughest the genre has to offer.

Eli Wallach and Robert Keith play an odd couple of contract killers, Dancer (really, that's what they call him!) and Julian, respectively. Loose on the streets of San Francisco, they're on the trail of heroin that's been smuggled in through unsuspecting returnees. As is the noir tradition, nothing goes as planned, with violence spilling out from the mansions to the streets faster than you can say "radio drama." The killers' conundrum is presented alongside the police as they scramble to put an end to the madness.

I have a particular affinity for America in this era; the overwhelming sense of a different era always strikes me, though The Lineup certainly doesn't sugar coat this Americana pie. Not a gorefest, of course, there's still an ugliness to its violence, with civilians caught in the maelstrom of Dancer's temper, despite the odd, almost-fatherly attempts by Julian to soothe the big brute. 

For its strong central performances, brisk pace, and transportive locations and aesthetic, The Lineup is film noir for anyone looking for a genre film with some bite. 

Breaker Morant (1980) Bruce Beresford


War’s a bit of an awful, messy thing, innit? I don’t need to chronicle the list of films that themselves chronicle the harrows and horrors of la guerre, but Breaker Morant is worth mentioning for more reasons than that.

 Set amidst the Second Boer War of the early 20th century Moran immediately compartmentalizes its examination of racism in interesting ways. That war was fought between British colonial forces and native Boers in South Africa, themselves descendants of Dutch settlers. Breaker Morant focuses on the court martial of three Australian soldiers serving in a special brigade of the British forces, the trial bringing about the Brits’ disdain for the Aussies. It’s subjugation within subjugation!

Morant is also something of a historical document not only of the Boer War, but of Vietnam. Released in 1980, the utter sideshow that was the Vietnam War was still fresh in the minds of many Europeans and, especially, Americans. The film’s central court martial revolves, basically, around the distinction between civilian and soldier. The Boers were some of the first to utilize guerrilla tactics in their warfighting; plain-clothes soldiers, hit-and-run, unconventional tactics, and so on. The murky waters of who’s who in a warzone were no clearer during the fighting in Vietnam and the surrounding zones, making Breaker Morant a poignant reminder of how the mess isn’t a new one.

Featuring some insane use of split-diopter cinematography and a generally terrific period aesthetic, Morant might stumble with some heavy-handedness (“It’s a new war," yeah, I get it!) but is absolutely a great film for some terrific performances and its gripping story.

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For every recommendation here there are a dozen other films I haven't even heard of that will no doubt be great. It sort of hit me with Revenge, a film I watched totally at random because its run-time fit my schedule, but the Criterion Channel is looking to be the long-lasting (fingers crossed!) successor to FilmStruck that provides entertainment and a sense of discovery for film lovers, but also an education. So much of this content hasn't found its way even to the Criterion Collection of DVDs and Blu-Rays, it's a treat to explore and be rewarded!

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Sam van der Meer
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Filed under... #art film #Classics #criterion channel #Foreign #streaming

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