Essential Art House, Vol. 5 [Criterion Collection] [6 Discs] [DVD]

This fifth volume of Janus Films' Essential Art House series truly lives up to its title, with six features from the giants of world cinema -- films uniformly regarded as masterpieces. Contents include David Lean's 1945 Brief Encounter, Federico Fellini's 1963 8 1/2, Yasujiro Ozu's 1959 Floating Weeds, François Truffaut's 1962 Jules and Jim, Gillo Pontecorvo's 1959 Kapò, and Milos Forman's 1965 Loves of a Blonde.
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Overview

Synopsis

Loves of a Blonde
Out in the Czech countryside, a shoe factory owner petitions the People's Army to station a division of soldiers in his town, where the women outnumber the men sixteen to one. The arrival of the troops is greeted with great excitement, but the girls in the town are disappointed to see that the men are older reservists, and not the strapping young men they'd envisioned. Still, when a band plays at the local pub, the girls show up to be ogled by the older men, many of whom are married. A trio of reservists sends a bottle of wine to Andula (Hana Brejchova), Marie (Marie Salacova), and Jana (Jana Novakova), and the girls argue over whether or not to acknowledge the gesture. But Andula catches the eye of the comparatively dashing young pianist, Milda (Vladimir Pucholt). Milda convinces Andula to go to his room, where he seduces the mildly reluctant girl. The next morning, the traveling musician assures her repeatedly, "I do not have a girlfriend in Prague." Milda leaves town, as expected, but Andula has fallen in love with him, and decides to journey to Prague to track him down. A low-key black-and-white ensemble comedy, Loves of a Blonde was cast predominantly with non-professional actors. The film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, drew a lot of attention to the "Czech New Wave," and jumpstarted the international filmmaking career of director Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). ~ Josh Ralske, Rovi

8 1/2
Fresh off of the international success of La Dolce Vita, master director Federico Fellini moved into the realm of self-reflexive autobiography with what is widely believed to be his finest and most personal work. Marcello Mastroianni delivers a brilliant performance as Fellini's alter ego Guido Anselmi, a film director overwhelmed by the large-scale production he has undertaken. He finds himself harangued by producers, his wife, and his mistress while he struggles to find the inspiration to finish his film. The stress plunges Guido into an interior world where fantasy and memory impinge on reality. Fellini jumbles narrative logic by freely cutting from flashbacks to dream sequences to the present until it becomes impossible to pry them apart, creating both a psychological portrait of Guido's interior world and the surrealistic, circus-like exterior world that came to be known as "Felliniesque." 8 1/2 won an Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film, as well as the grand prize at the Moscow Film Festival, and was one of the most influential and commercially successful European art movies of the 1960s, inspiring such later films as Bob Fosse's All That Jazz (1979), Woody Allen's Stardust Memories (1980), and even Lucio Fulci's Italian splatter film Un Gatto nel Cervello (1990). ~ Jonathan Crow, Rovi

Brief Encounter
Based on Noël Coward's play "Still Life," Brief Encounter is a romantic, bittersweet drama about two married people who meet by chance in a London railway station and carry on an intense love affair. Sentimental yet down-to-earth and set in pre-World War II England, the film follows British housewife Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), who is on her way home, but catches a cinder in her eye. By chance, she meets Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), who removes it for her. The two talk for a few minutes and strike immediate sparks, but they end up catching different trains. However, both return to the station once a week to meet and, as the film progresses, they grow closer, sharing stories, hopes, and fears about their lives, marriages, and children. One day, when Alec's train is late, both become frantic that they will miss each other. When they finally find each other, they realize that they are in love. But what should be a joyous realization is fraught with tragedy, since both care greatly for their families. Howard and Johnson give flawless performances as two practical, married people who find themselves in a situation in which they know they can never be happy. ~ Don Kaye, Rovi

Jules and Jim
Acclaimed French director François Truffaut's third and, for many viewers, best film is an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel by Henri-Pierre Roché. Set between 1912 and 1933, it stars Oskar Werner as the German Jules and Henri Serre as the Frenchman Jim, kindred spirits who, while on holiday in Greece, fall in love with the smile on the face of a sculpture. Back in Paris, the smile comes to life in the person of Catherine (Jeanne Moreau); the three individuals become constant companions, determined to live their lives to the fullest despite the world war around them. When Jules declares his love for Catherine, Jim agrees to let Jules pursue her, despite his own similar feelings; Jules and Catherine marry and have a child (Sabine Haudepin), but Catherine still loves Jim as well. An influential film that has grown in stature over the decades, Jules et Jim was often viewed by the counterculture of the 1960s as a cinematic proponent of the free-love movement, but in actuality the picture is a statement against such a way of life. Despite the bond shared by Jules, Jim, and Catherine, their ménage à trois is doomed to fail; and Catherine's inability to choose between the two men leads to tragic consequences for all three. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi

Floating Weeds
This 1959 Ozu production centers on the likable but fallible leader of an itinerant acting troupe ("floating weeds" being the Japanese name for such groups), Kimajuro, played brilliantly by Ganjiro Nakamura. The film opens on a lazy, stagnant river as the troupe lays spread about on a boat deck drifting downstream. It's obvious that they're a ragged bunch as they sit fanning themselves and smoking on deck. The boat pulls into a quiet fishing village where the troupe proceeds to canvass the town, hanging up posters and performing impromptu stunts for the inhabitants. Kimajuro and his actress mistress, Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), head to the theatre and secure their cramped quarters above the theatre's main hall. Kimajuro leaves to pay a visit to a local saki bar owned by Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura), who, years previous, had conceived a child with Kimajuro. The child has grown into a strapping young man, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), who has a good job at the post office. Kimajuro, although clearly proud of his son, has refused to take responsibility for the child and Kiyoshi thinks Kimajuro is merely his uncle. Unbeknownst to Kimajuro, Sumiko has discovered his secret, and, infuriated, hires a young actress to seduce Kiyoshi. Terrified that his son is falling for this woman of loose morals, Kimajuro has to decide what's most important: keeping his secret safe or saving his son by acknowledging his paternity. ~ Brian Whitener, Rovi

Kapò
The French/Italian/Yugoslav concentration camp drama Kapo stars Susan Strasberg, who several years earlier had originated the title role in the Broadway production The Diary of Anne Frank. Here, Ms. Strasberg is once again a European Jewish teenager victimized by the Nazis. Interred in a concentration camp, Strasberg is befriended by the camp's kindly doctor, who helps her hide her true identity and work as a camp guard, or "kapo." Unfortunately, Strasberg's new found power goes to her head, and her abuse of that power is very nearly on the same level as the Nazis. Brought down to earth by the death of a close friend, Strasberg spearheads an escape attempt, sacrificing her own life in the process. Nominated for a best foreign picture Oscar in 1960, Kapo nonetheless did not find an American distributor until 1964. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

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