"There was no better filmmaker working at the dawn of the twenty-first century than Abbas Kiarostami," argued Michael J Anderson back in March 2009. "Few other artists in the history of the medium have so unrelentingly addressed André Bazin's still seminal question, 'What is Cinema?,' and even fewer have provided such original insights. While there is nothing entirely new in Kiarostami's art exactly, there is, then again, nothing like it either. Kiarostami's cinema is the most Bazinian of its generation and at the same time the most Godardian. His work bridges the gap between neo-realism and formalism, fiction and nonfiction, in a manner that not even Godard himself nor Jacques Rivette could manage. Abbas Kiarostami, in other words, is one of the rare figures in the history of film art who can lay claim to the creation of an idiom that is all their own."
And he turns 70 today, an occasion for appreciations in the German papers (Bert Rebhandl in the Berliner Zeitung, Jan Schulz-Ojala in Der Tagesspiegel) and a fine day for Criterion to release one of Kiarostami's major works on DVD and Blu-ray. Ed Gonzalez in Slant: "No one but Abbas Kiarostami seemed capable of recognizing the significance of one Hossein Sabzian's affront to realism in cinema when he took on Mohsen Makhmalbaf's namesake. Call it what you will (documentary, mockumentary, self-fulfilling prophecy), Close-Up is still the definitive film-on-film commentary. At its simplest, Kiarostami's masterpiece tackles Sabzian's moral justification for taking on Makhmalbaf's identity (for him, it arose from his love of the arts). Close-Up's genius, though, is not that it suggests that there's no legal and/or moral justification for Sabzian's actions, but that Sabzian's defense is impossible to fathom unless the spectator can share the man's passion for art as cultural and intellectual emancipator."
More from Michael Atkinson (Movieline), Sean Axmaker (Parallax View), Nelson Kim (Hammer to Nail), Amanda Mae Meyncke (Film.com), Rodney Perkins (Twitch) and Jamie S Rich (Criterion Confessions). And for Gary W Tooze, "seeing it via Criterion's 1080P Blu-ray rendering — this was like a first viewing."
Update: Close-Up is "neither a documentary nor a drama," writes Godfrey Cheshire for Criterion, "but a provocative, unconventional merging of the two, a meditation on perplexities of justice, social inequity, and personal identity that also subtly interrogates the processes and purposes of cinema. The film met with a mixed, generally unappreciative reaction when it was first shown in Iran in 1990. Abroad, however, it proved singularly successful. Although displayed at second- and third-tier festivals in the West, Close-up made such an impression among critics and cinephiles that it paved the way for Kiarostami’s elevation to Cannes, New York, and other top festivals with his next film, And Life Goes On (1991). Arguably, no film was more dramatic or decisive in heralding the international artistic arrival of postrevolutionary Iranian cinema. At the end of the 1990s, Kiarostami was voted the most important director of the decade by US critics in Film Comment, while dozens of international and Iranian film experts surveyed by the Iranian magazine Film International named Close-up the best Iranian film ever made."
"Coming after the trilogy of L'avventura (1960), La notte (1961), and L'eclisse (1962), which confirmed his reputation internationally as one of the world's leading avant-garde directors, Red Desert is the most ambitious of all of Antonioni's attempts to ground the condition of our modern existence in a theory of alienation."
Mark Le Fanu for Criterion's Current: "The alienation in question is very complex, and it is part of the film's difficulty, but also its achieve ment and seriousness, that the feelings evinced in its dramatization are so fundamentally contradictory and intractable. For on the one hand, Antonioni would say, the world being created by the advance of tech nology is undoubtedly beautiful: we see it in the fantastic sculptural shapes thrown up by science and industry — the girders and pipings and pylons that are part of a vast new network of global communications, seemingly reaching to the stars (an early sequence in the movie takes us to a deserted rural building site where the University of Bologna is constructing a massive new radio telescope). On the other hand — and here the pounding soundtrack of the film's opening ten minutes makes its own inescapable comment — this new world is very close to hell. A wasteland is a wasteland, after all, and if a 'new beauty' has been born (how powerfully the film shows that it indeed has been), the phenom enon is shot through with poison."
Josef Braun: "Criterion's new release of Red Desert on DVD and Blu-ray is itself a strange and beautiful object, designed to highlight the film's most chilling and engaging images and garnished with supplements that offer plentiful insights into the making and reception of the film while, wisely, never going so far as to pretend there could be anything like a definitive interpretation of its bizarre and enigmatic story, one that still seems to speak to us from some under-explored place that both surrounds us and remains invisible."
More from Sean Axmaker and Rodney Perkins (Twitch). Earlier: Richard Brody (New Yorker).
"Filmmakers don't come much more celebrated than Carol Reed — he won an Oscar for Oliver! (1968) — and yet much of his bread-and-butter early work, before the remarkable run of The Fallen Idol (1948), The Third Man (1949) and Outcast of the Islands (1952), remains obscure." Dave Kehr in the New York Times: "A couple of years ago VCI released his 1940 thriller Girl in the News, with Margaret Lockwood as a nurse who may or may not have murdered her elderly charge, and now Criterion has released his Night Train to Munich from later that year. It's also a thriller with the solemn, dark-haired Lockwood, though it's less a follow-up to Girl in the News than a sort of sequel to Lockwood's most famous film, Alfred Hitchcock's Lady Vanishes (1938)."
Monte Hellman for Criterion's Current: "How do you make a comedy about something as serious as the Nazi threat of world domination — particularly as it is happening? Perhaps there's something in the English character that allows them to see humor in disaster. Some sort of survival mechanism. It's not a secret that Outcast of the Islands — perhaps the least known of Reed's major works — is one of my all-time favorite movies. But for as long as I can remember, I've been attracted to spy thrillers, and particularly romantic spy thrillers with comic overtones. So Night Train (as the American release was called) was an early favorite as well, and I've revisited it a number of times over the years." It "holds up as a very entertaining movie, beautifully acted with charm and restraint. And it's a chance to see a great director developing the skills he'll later use with such brilliance."
"Come for Carol Reed's name, stay for Rex Harrison's performance," advises Simon Abrams in Slant.
Before we leave Criterion, let's note that three films by Akira Kurosawa make Johnnie To's list of top ten Criterion releases, including Seven Samurai in the top spot: "The opening scene, with the horses, is one of the best ever. It always mesmerizes me." Also: Notes on R Crumb's thoughts now on Terry Zwigoff's 1995 documentary Crumb, out on DVD and Blu-ray in August.
Bluebeard is out from Strand Releasing, a "barebones DVD release of a predictably, spectacularly toothsome Catherine Breillat film," notes Ed Gonzalez. Also in Slant, Fernando F Croce on the Zeitgeist Films release of Alain Cavalier's Le Combat dans l'île with Jean-Louis Trintignant and Romy Schneider: "A modest package for a less than explosive French New Wave curio." More from Josef Braun.
"George Cukor's justly celebrated 1954 version of A Star is Born arrives on Blu-ray," notes the New York Post's Lou Lumenick, "another stunningly gorgeous high-def restoration and remastering from Warner Bros in the wake of Dr Zhivago, North by Northwest, Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. It goes without saying this is the career peak for the troubled Judy Garland, who was triumphantly returning to the screen three years after being fired by MGM and sadly never shone anywhere near this brightly in her handful of remaining movies." More from Tony Dayoub, Steve Rothaus and Gary W Tooze.
Michael Atkinson at IFC.com: "Death Race 2000 [1975, Paul Bartel] was in its day an inevitable splooge: the future-fascist-state-ruling-by-homicidal-sport idea is at least as old as Elio Petri's The 10th Victim (1965) (which is very much a comedy about televised human hunting, and vulnerable to a humorless remake soon). It's not a notion that could've arrived before television, because no one had seen social control like TV before." Out from Shout! Factory.
DVD roundups. Sean Axmaker, DVD Talk and Slant.
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