Welcome to the Criterion Corner, where we break down some of the month’s new releases from the Criterion Collection.
#285: Ashes and Diamonds (1958), dir. Andrzej Wajda
In post-World War II Poland, a Polish partisan named Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) and two compatriots attempt to assassinate a new commissar, Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzeżyński), on a lonely stretch of country road just outside a church. Bullets fly; the man’s coat bursts into flames before he collapses in front of a sculpture of Christ crucified. There’s just one problem: Maciek has killed the wrong man.
So begins Ashes and Diamonds, Andrzej Wajda‘s undisputed masterpiece, following Maciek’s continued mission to kill Szczuka and the increased ambivalence with which he greets it — aided by a tryst with a beautiful waitress and an increasing nihilism that threatens to swallow him whole. It’s a film about post-war Polish malaise (struggling against the Communist propagandists who bristled against its sympathetic portrayal of a Home Army officer), which also feels deeply contemporary for the time. With his oddly fashionable clothes and ever-present sunglasses, Cybulski strikes a figure of unexpected cool (he was dubbed “The Polish James Dean” for a reason); his performance is filled with an antic disposition.
Jerzy Wójcik’s cinematography paints Cybulski’s world in stark, evocative chiaroscuro, the black-and-white photography obscured by smoke and fog and despair — even when it explodes in beautifully realized images like an upside-down Christ dangling between Maciek and his lover or the explosion of fireworks that herald his embrace of the now-murdered Szczuka. The script meanders, but then, so does Maciek: Wajda is less concerned with the accomplishment of his mission than exploring whether the mission is worth carrying out in the first place. It’s a rousing indictment of ideological rigidity and the limits of resistance, not to mention the uncharacteristic humanization of the kinds of folks officials in Poland would rather have seen dead.
Ashes and Diamonds is old hat for Criterion (hence the lower spine number), but this recent Blu-ray upgrade is a real treat for new and old fans of the film. The 4K restoration is crisp and sharp, allowing for only the occasional hint of artifacting for scenes that merited additional sharpening. The monaural soundtrack is also quite effective. The Blu retains many of the DVD’s original features — including an insightful audio commentary from film scholar Annette Insdorf, who’s so schooled on Wajda’s work and influences she’s met the man personally. If the commentary is too much for you, there’s a new video essay by Insdorf that crystallizes and expands on many of the points she makes in the track. Add to that archival newsreel footage on the making of the film, a 2005 program on Wajda’s work on the film, and a gripping essay by Paul Coates, and it’s a real must-have for fans of the Almighty Film Canon.
You can purchase Ashes and Diamonds from the Criterion website here.
#1090: Original Cast Album: Company (1970), dir. D. A. Pennebaker
But now for something a little breezier: a 53-minute documentary from verite maestro D.A. Pennebaker about the 24-hour recording session for the original Broadway cast of Stephen Sondheim’s observational musical Company. Pennebaker’s long been the master of capturing the fly-on-the-wall magic of live music (see: Monterey Pop), but there’s something so infectious about the rhythms and quirks of Original Cast Album: Company that makes it one of his most accomplished works.
With his roving camera, Pennebaker captures every tic, flubbed line, and nervous laugh of the show’s original 1970 cast, as they run a marathon recording session into the late Manhattan hours — with all the exhaustion and frayed nerves that entails. Sure, it’s nice to hear expert renditions of songs like “Being Alive” and “Another Hundred People.” But then watch Sondheim himself, stalking the cast in his black turtleneck and piercing eyes, nitpick half-notes and pronunciations of words like ‘bubbi’, and the potboiler nature of the piece becomes even more gripping. (It culminates, of course, in the revelatory sequence in which Elaine Stritch melts down over her wearied performance of “Ladies Who Lunch.” WROOONG!)
Fans of musical theater probably already have this one memorized, but the Blu-ray set is also a joy in its own right. There are the usual features — commentary tracks both old and new, conversations and interviews with Sondheim and orchestrator Jon Tunick, and more. But the real novelty is the inclusion of the Documentary Now! episode “Original Cast Album: Co-Op,” a literally pitch-perfect parody of the documentary featuring John Mulaney, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Paula Pell, and more.
That episode was my introduction to the doc itself, and remains one of the most gut-busting, shockingly accurate riffs on an existing work — not to mention one of the best episodes of television — in the last decade or so. Add to that a Zoom convo from 2020 featuring the cast of Co-Op talking about the appeal of the original doc, a sweet get-together in which Richard Kind expresses his love for the whole project: “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had on a job.” Seriously, this may be the rare Criterion where one of its special features is even more valuable than the film itself.
You can purchase Original Cast Album: Company from the Criterion website here.
#1091: Beasts of No Nation (2015), dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga
Back from old to new, happy to sad, with Cary Fukunaga‘s revelatory Netflix original Beasts of No Nation. The latest in Criterion’s release of Netflix original films to physical media (a phenomenon which, no matter what side you come out on, at least commits these streaming originals to physical disk for necessary preservation), Beasts is a brutally honest, observational adaptation of the novel by Uzodinma Iweala. Following a young boy named Agu (Abraham Attah, heartbreakingly vulnerable and vibrant) as the unnamed African country he calls home collapses into civil war, Fukunaga charts his transformation from an innocent boy into a hardened, haunted child soldier.
What strikes you most about Fukunaga’s approach is its lyricism: The filmmaker, best known for his roving camerawork on every episode of the acclaimed first season of True Detective, captures Agu’s world with a kind of childlike reverence. Its opening shots, featuring Agu and his friends playing with a hollowed-out television they call an “imagination TV,” frame its central character as the master of his own story — with the audience as the bemused observers of his play.
And indeed, as tragedy strikes and he’s swept up into the hypnotic mentorship of the Commandant (Idris Elba, all quietly paternalistic menace), there’s a sense of The Lost Boys in his missions with his fellow child soldiers. It’s an ingenious approach — capturing war crimes through the eyes of children who know not what they do — and Fukunaga (who acts as his own cinematographer) intersperses harsh images of violence with an ironic veneer of heroism, aided by Dan Romer‘s devastatingly introspective score. And through it all, Fukunaga never takes his carefully-considered eye from Agu, a child whose moral compass is toyed with for the ends of others, and who’s just self-aware enough to recognize the evils he may never come back from.
The features on Beasts of No Nation are sparse for a Criterion release, but no less welcome — especially since you won’t find supplemental materials for this work hardly anywhere else. In addition to an insightful commentary from Fukunaga and first AD Jon Mallard, there’s a doc on the development and making of the film, as well as a convo between Fukunaga and cultural critic Franklin Leonard.
There’s also an insightful essay by critic Robert Daniels that contextualizes the film within not only its sociopolitical milieu, but the cinematic history of children-in-war films, Fukunaga’s career, and the broader role it played in helping turn Netflix from a streaming service into a major Hollywood awards player. (Full disclosure: Daniels has contributed to The Spool in the past.)
If there’s one small niggle with the Blu, it’s that it seems to only have one subtitle track to cover the Twi language sections, not the English-language dialogue, at least when viewing on an Xbox. But apart from that, it’s a fine addition to the Collection that continues the imprint’s part-preservational, part-commercial mission to release Netflix originals on their label.
You can purchase Beasts of No Nation from the Criterion website here.