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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

The Criterion Collection New Releases of July 2019

This July, The Criterion Collection has an eclectic group of releases to offer the discerning classic film fan. Included in the ever impressive bundle is the definitive, director-approved, 30th anniversary edition of Spike Lee's 1989 masterpiece, Do the Right Thing. There are also films by directors Agnieszka Holland and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, films starring Jane Fonda and Richard Burton, and one film that boasts the creative talents of cinematographer, Roger Deakins.

I was in college at San Francisco State University when I first saw Do The Right Thing. It was shown in a screenwriting class taught by Professor Larry Clarke. Set on one block of Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighborhood, at the height of summer, 1989's the now recognized masterpiece confirmed Spike Lee as a writer and filmmaker of peerless vision and passionate social engagement. Over the course of a single day, the easygoing interactions of a cast of unforgettable characters (including Lee as Mookie) gives way to heated confrontations as tensions rise along racial fault lines, ultimately exploding into violence. Punctuated by the anthemic refrain of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," Do the Right Thing is a landmark in American cinema, as politically and emotionally charged and as relevant now as when it first hit the big screen. My professor presented this film as an example of superior screenwriting that used the natural course of a day as the perfect structure for storytelling. I will always remember that.

Agnieszka Holland's Europa Europa, is a breathless adventure story set amid the chaos of World War II, or so the press copy reads. I admit, I have not seen this film (although parts of the description sound very familiar). So, I must rely upon what has been generated by the marketing heads to convey the qualities of this new 2K restoration. Based on the real-life experiences of Salomon Perel, this wartime tour de force is a breathless survival story told with the verve of a comic adventure, an ironic refutation (I didn't know that was a word) of the Nazi idea of racial purity. Salomon (Marco Hofschneider) is portrayed as a sixteen-year-old German Jew separated from his family after fleeing to Poland. He finds himself assuming various ideological identities in order to hide the fact that he's Jewish. He poses as a dutiful Stalinist in a Soviet orphanage, hides in plain sight as an interpreter for the German army at the Russian front, and takes on the role of a member of the Hitler Youth in his home country. This indeed sounds just like the press release reads: a complex portrait of a young man caught up in shifting historical calamities who struggles to stay alive.

The new restoration of Michael Radford's 1984, bears the stamp of approval by the film's much acclaimed cinematographer and recent Academy Award winner (after 13 nominations), Roger Deakins. John Hurt and Richard Burton star in what is known as the definitive screen adaptation of George Orwell's prophetic novel. A parable of totalitarian oppression, the film is faithful to the book's bleak prophetic vision right down to the presence of "Big Brother". Yet, one citizen (John Hurt) risks everything in a defiant assertion of humanity in the face of soul-crushing conformity. Through vividly grim production design and expressionistically desaturated cinematography, the film conjures a dystopian vision of postwar Britain as a fascistic nightmare. In other words, it's a world all too recognizable as our own. Required reading for every high-schooler back in my day, 1984 is a story that has improved with its screen translation. Its imagery is nearly impossible to create in the imagination of one's own mind.

Marcel Pagnol's enchanting comedy The Baker's Wife, features the legendary actor Raimu in a new 4K restoration. The warmth and wit of the celebrated playwright shines in this enchanting slice-of-life comedy. Now a cinematic auteur, Pagnol draws a vivid portrait of a close-knit village where the marital woes of a sweetly deluded baker snowball into a scandal that engulfs the entire town. The Baker's Wife is at once wonderfully droll and piercingly perceptive in its depiction of the complexities of human relationships. According to many sources, Orson Welles once called the beloved, down-to-earth French character star Raimu (born Jules Auguste Cesar Muraire), "the greatest actor who ever lived." One can hardly argue the point of this compliment, as it is given by one genius to another.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's career-crowning "BRD Trilogy", which includes The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss, and Lola, return to Criterion on Blu-ray. "BRD" is in reference to the "Bundesrepublik Deutschland" (Federal Republic of Germany), an unofficial German initialism for West Germany, which now stands for the republic that merged between East and West in 1990. Back in 1977, when the two very separate Germanys still existed, Fassbinder was thirty-two years old and had already directed more than twenty-five feature films. It was then that he began to trace the postwar history of West Germany in a series of films told from the perspectives of three remarkable women. The Marriage of Maria Braun is a heartbreaking study of a woman picking herself up from the ruins of her own life, as well as a pointed metaphorical attack on a society determined to forget its past. Veronika Voss is a wicked satire disguised as 1950s melodrama, based on a true story of a once-beloved Third Reich-era Ufa star living in obscurity in postwar Munich. And Lola is is a wonderfully satirical homage to Josef von Sternberg's classic The Blue Angel, shot in childlike candy colors in tribute to capitalism. The trilogy would garner Fassbinder his greatest successes, both at home and abroad, and cement his position as one of the foremost figures of the New German Cinema.

Although I was an exchange student to Germany in 1983, I did not see a Fassbinder film until I was in college. It was then that I realized for the first time that subtitles are no substitute for the exactness of a language. Subtleties can be easily lost, and my film professor was none too pleased when I pointed out some inconsistencies between what was said and what was written as the interpretation. In general, this is not a big deal, but with a filmmaker like Fassbinder it will take away from the director's true intentions. I don't expect you to go out and learn German just to watch these films, but I do want you to understand that there is much lost in the translation.

Academy Award winner and member of Hollywood royalty, Jane Fonda gives one of the most electrifying performances of her career as a sex worker in peril. Appearing on Blu-ray for the first time, director Alan J. Pakula's Klute brings audacity and counterculture to the screen in the form of the character, Bree Daniels - a call girl and aspiring actor who becomes the focal point of a missing-person investigation. Although the film's title character "Klute" is a detective played by Donald Sutherland, Fonda made the film her own. The daughter of beloved Golden Age actor, Henry Fonda, Jane portrays Bree as an independent woman with a frankness that had not yet been attempted in Hollywood. Shot by master cinematographer Gordon Willis, Klute is a character study thick with the mood of early 1970s New York, depicting the struggles of a woman on the fringes of society trying to find her own way.

Yet again, Criterion proves, month after month, year after year, that its radar for finding classic films to add to their collection is truly a fine tuned instrument. Be sure to check back here next month to see what Criterion has to offer in August.

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