Josef Braun: "Ride with the Devil (1999) was dumped into the marketplace over a decade ago with only the most meager fanfare, a magisterial Civil War epic featuring several young rising stars that was somehow immediately rendered little more than a footnote of strictly cult interest in the careers of director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus."
"In several ways, it's not surprising that this lavish, big-country saga was overlooked ('Like, six people saw it,' co-star Jeffrey Wright says in an interview included in Criterion's special features)." Michael Atkinson for IFC.com: "It takes place exclusively in the war-fringe arena of Missouri and Kansas, where North/South, good/bad dichotomies were so muddied by South-sympathizing Northerners and ex-slaves fighting on the rebel side and immigrants being targeted for their nationality alone that it amounted to a free-kill zone, and clear narrative propulsion would therefore be hard to come by. I've seen Ride with the Devil several times, and I'm still not clear on the characters' motivational politics, or at least what they're supposed to mean to the film's thrust, and this despite an ample amount of expository chitchat." Still, it "remains a grand, gorgeous pickle of a film, perpetually fascinating for its determination to resist ethical categories."
"The great theme that has preoccupied Ang Lee in every one of his films is that of resistance to convention," writes Christian Blauvelt in Slant. "Whether it's filial obligation in The Wedding Banquet, inequitable rights of inheritance in Sense and Sensibility, stultifying middle-class morality in The Ice Storm, the Wudang warrior code of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or the rampant homophobia of rural America in Brokeback Mountain, each of these films feature characters chafing against their assigned roles in their respective societies. The irony is that all of these are in fact exceedingly conventional films, well-made literary adaptations, yes, but overly deferential to their source material, whether coming from Jane Austen, Rick Moody, Wang Du Lu, or Annie Proulx." But Ride With the Devil is "the most daring film Lee's ever attempted, a rumination on identity — geographic, ethnic, racial, and otherwise — that confounds many of our kneejerk assumptions about America's bloodiest conflict."
"Criterion's Blu-Ray brings out the rich palette of Frederick Elmes's cinematography, particularly the lush, almost electric, green of the Plains states' foliage," finds Sam Adams in the Los Angeles Times.
More from Sean Axmaker, Rodney Perkins (Twitch), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York) and Gary Tooze (DVD Beaver).
Today Criterion also releases Sidney Lumet's The Fugitive Kind (1960), "one of the best films made from [Tennessee] Williams's material," according to David Thomson. Though it features Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani, "No one went to see the movie in 1960. It got no nominations at Oscar time. It lost a fortune. But it may be one of the most intriguing Tennessee Williams pictures, in that we are asked to weigh and consider the faults of its provincial society. It is about time we yielded our trust in box office, the Academy, and journalistic critics as measures of quality. We have to see the pictures for ourselves. In which case, it’s natural enough to notice that The Fugitive Kind is only two films before Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, another study of the light fading in a small town." Also in Criterion's Current, Sam Wasson interviews producer Richard Shepherd.
In the New York Times, Dave Kehr recaps the life of Barbara Stanwyck, from her "Dickensian childhood" on and notes that "the extreme plot machinations of Hollywood melodrama must have possessed an everyday familiarity for Stanwyck. She certainly treated them that way, approaching each new crisis, not as an opportunity to burn down the house (as did Davis) or milk the audience's sympathy (à la Crawford), but as a fresh set of problems that needed to be negotiated." More from Sean Axmaker.
In The Notebook today, Glenn Kenny writes that "at a level of craft, and passion, [Frantisek Vlácil's] Valley of the Bees is no less beautiful than Marketa Lazarová. It's just more straightforward."
DVD roundups. Sean Axmaker, Monika Bartyzel (Cinematical), Brad Brevet, Noel Murray (LAT) and Bryce Renninger (indieWIRE).
Update: Michael Atkinson, on The Fugitive Kind in his first DVD column for Movieline: "[T]o whatever extent moviegoers may have been used to Brando and Magnani in the 50s and early 60s, we have no one like them now. Garbling their Southern-fried dialogue, each in their own powerhouse fashion, the stars bridle and strut and vamp like two exotic species of racehorse; the characters may be slight, but these were not small people."
Updates, 4/28: Godfrey Cheshire on Ride with the Devil for Criterion: "In adapting Daniel Woodrell's novel Woe to Live On, Lee and screenwriter-producer James Schamus created one of the great Civil War films, which stands in relation to the likes of Gone with the Wind much as Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch does to classic westerns. This is the messy, bloody, revisionist version, stripped of all illusions of nobility and high purpose: a visceral film, alive to adrenaline-pumping danger, sudden catastrophe, and the cruelties (or mercies) possible in every change of fortune. In a sense, though, Ride with the Devil simultaneously belongs to another genre entirely: the coming-of-age film. You might even say that the two nominal genres, as used by Lee and Schamus, effectively intertwine, mirroring each other: just as Jake [Tobey Maguire] must discover his character in the crucible of war, so does the nation itself attain a new maturity through its ordeal of division, violent conflict, and eventual reunification."
Peter Bowen interviews Woodrell for FilmInFocus.