Each month, the Paste staff brings you a look at the best new selections from The Criterion Collection. Much beloved by casual fans and cinephiles alike, The Criterion Collection has for over three decades presented special editions of important classic and contemporary films. You can explore the complete collection here. In the meantime, here are our top picks for the month of September:
Director: Bruce Beresford
What pushes men to go against their better character and commit atrocities? Bruce Beresford, one of Australia’s most accomplished veteran directors, sets this question at the center of his historical courtroom drama, which reenacts the arrest, court-martial and execution of three Australian soldiers—Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward), Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald)—during the dwindling bloodshed of the Second Boer War. The trio stands accused of murdering prisoners of war and thus breaking the “rules” of combat, and though Beresford never suggests their innocence, he does question profusely the farcical hypocrisy of their trial and punishment. This is a big, brawny film shot with an eye for Beresford’s South Australian locations, convincingly staged as South Africa, and attention to crisp composition. Movies like this look terrific even without Criterion’s restorative efforts, but the 4K transfer immeasurably adds to the effect of watching Breaker Morant whether for the first or tenth time. Worth checking out: The Beresford interview in the supplementals, coupled with historian Stephen Miller’s compressed but thorough brush-up on the real story behind the Boer War and Frank Shields’ documentary about the real “Breaker” Morant. You can have your morality lesson and your history lesson, too. —Andy Crump
Director: Bruce Beresford
If the disc for Breaker Morant isn’t enough Beresford for you to handle, you may as well pair it with Mister Johnson, a work that’s less celebrated than Beresford’s 1980 landmark and yet infinitely more complex. Chalk that up to subject matter: Beresford’s film is an adaptation of Joyce Cary’s 1939 novel, a tale of one young Nigerian man’s attempts to remake himself as a Brit during England’s 1920s colonization of West Africa. Cary’s novel caught a lot of flak for its condescending portrayal of Johnson. It’s to Beresford’s credit, then, that he finds the humanity in the character while the great British/Nigerian actor Maynard Eziashi sculpts his performance as Johnson through his innate charm and empathy. (Eziashi quite deservedly won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at 1991’s Berlin International Film Festival for his efforts.) Together, they turn Mister Johnson into a story that sympathizes with its title character rather than pat him on the head. As always, Beresford makes for a lively interview, but Criterion’s one-on-ones with Eziashi and Pierce Brosnan—who plays Johnson’s harried but not unkind superior officer—are the real prize here. —AC
The Honeymoon Killers
Director: Leonard Kastle
In a film that anticipates the coming of John Waters, Terrence Malick’s Badlands and the exploitation films of the ’70s, Leonard Kastle delivers greatness with The Honeymoon Killers. This film is shot with absolute care and there is a wonderful attention to detail as each frame lingers on. The true story of Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez unravels more and more through every passing act of grotesqueness and horror. This marks the only foray into directing for Kastle, and it is absolutely electrifying. Shot documentary style, the film isn’t afraid to show gruesome details—however, it is perhaps most powerful with what it doesn’t show. Kastle’s sense of lighting, particularly with what he does in the darkness, is one of the film’s strengths, not to mention the rather great performances by Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco, whose bickering makes for its highlight. This Criterion is one to grab if you’re a fan of the low-budgeted shock film that would become popular with the coming of the midnight films of Waters and Romero. Also included in the DVD and Blu-ray is a 2003 interview with the director and a wonderful essay by Gary Giddins, among others, that are sure to engage. —Nelson Maddaloni
Dressed to Kill
Director: Brian De Palma
Blondes have all the fun, assuming, of course, your idea of “fun” involves being stalked through subways or city streets and potentially being slashed to ribbons with a straight razor. In Brian De Palma’s 13th picture (which is incidentally also his best), women stalk women across and beneath New York City’s streets in a tautly told, meticulously made psychological horror story that’s as much about split screens as it is split identities. When call girl Liz (Nancy Allen) finds herself at the wrong place and at the wrong time, she becomes the chief suspect in the murder of dissatisfied housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson), as well as the killer’s next target. Dickinson finds herself in the unenviable role of Janet Leigh’s character from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but De Palma references himself almost as boldly as he references the master of suspense, further developing his identity as a master in his own right. Criterion’s Blu-ray makes a stunning presentation of Dressed to Kill, and in its unrated version, too; interviews with De Palma, conducted by Noah Baumbach, and with Allen are immediate musts, but you’ll want to check out Keith Gordon’s six minutes of high praise for De Palma’s vision, as well as Michael Apted’s tribute to cinematographer Ralf Bode. —AC
Andy Crump: In the world of Wes Anderson, adulthood means melancholy and disappointment. From Royal Tenenbaum to Steve Zissou and M. Gustave, Anderson’s characters frequently look back on the past with bitter fondness: They’ve all lost something in the transition from adolescence to maturity, whether their compassion, their pride, their success, or shades of their dignity. Anderson has been refining his affected, curated style of filmmaking since the 1990s, and you can track the trajectory of his evolution as a director in bold leaps from one picture to the next, but no movie in his body of work documents jaded grown-up ennui better than Moonrise Kingdom. For all its gentle charm and whimsy, this film may be the film that crystallizes the shift from youthful optimism to wistful middle age.
Michael Dunaway: Nice work, Andy, and I largely agree with you. I think my only major disagreement with you is in emphasis—although Anderson is great working both sides of the adolescent divide, it’s the childhood scenes in Moonrise Kingdom that resonate most with me. I think it’s possibly the first time that he’s depicted such an unblinkingly, uncompromisingly (and uncompromised-ly) idealistic view of romantic love (and of course, it’s telling that he turns to childhood for its setting). I think he’s completely sold on Sam and Suzy’s love. As am I. David, your thoughts?”
David Roark: I agree, and with Moonrise Kingdom, I think Anderson believes in this picture of youthful love and optimism so much so that he sees it as a vision or catalyst for the adults who have somehow lost it. You could even argue that, by the end of the film, Sam and Suzy’s adventure and all the escapades surrounding it are the means by which the adults find a sense of hope and redemption. Which brings me to my next point: While I see Moonrise Kingdom as the culmination of Anderson’s body of work for a myriad of stylistic and thematic reasons, some of which we’ve already mentioned, I also think it represents his most overtly religious work. In films past, Anderson explores and invokes a number of spiritual undertones, but in Moonrise Kingdom he is more explicit. That said, I view Moonrise Kingdom as an apocalyptic narrative, with its hints at the Noah’s Ark elements, in which out of death and destruction comes hope and life. To take it a step further, there is an overt Judeo-Christian aspect to the film, as we see a community of confused and broken people get literally washed of their sins, which leads to forgiveness, reconciliation, adoption, etc. What do you think? Am I reaching too far here?”
Andy Crump: I don’t think so at all, David. In fact I think the theme of innocence lost (or, if you like, innocence evolved) plays into the film’s biblical sensibilities. You can’t make a movie that uses Benjamin Britten’s work as a recurring motif without taking on at least shades of religious meaning, if you ask me, and on top of that there’s an entire sequence about the “moral weight” of marriage. If you consider that scene—which, frankly, is one of the most hilariously straight-faced scenes in the entire film—from that Judeo-Christian perspective, you expand the moment beyond the parameters of adult despair and childlike optimism. And yet Moonrise Kingdom remains, in total, a kind of celebration of the latter first and foremost. The Criterion Collection really leans in on those qualities, too: The supplemental features are youth-centric, whether we’re talking about the animated shorts that bring Suzy’s book collection to life or the collection of essays about the film written by a selection of young people. On my first viewing of Moonrise Kingdom, it never occurred to me that adolescent types might actually enjoy it, but Anderson has made this world seemingly for that crowd above everybody else.