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Lucid Streaming: Choice Criterion on the cheap

Edwanike Harbour selects a few highbrow classics— from comfort food to comedic misadventure— currently streaming on both HBO Max and The Criterion Channel.

In early December, Warner Bros. Pictures Group stunned the entertainment industry with its announcement that it would be releasing 17 films in 2021 exclusively to HBO Max for a month, and then screening them in theaters. Warner Bros. is calling this a hybrid distribution model, a piloting program for 2021, after which it will reevaluate its utility. Like it or not, if the goal is no longer to maximize theatrical ticket sales in this topsy-turvy COVID world, this new way of distribution will no doubt have reverberating consequences for the film industry for years to come.

While many mega stars in Hollywood and certain brooding directors are clearly not thrilled with this turn of events (I’m giving you the side-eye, Christopher Nolan), consumers have the pleasure or displeasure (in the case of Wonder Woman 1984… oof) of streaming some of the industry’s biggest films from the comfort of home. But if you’re now subscribed to HBO Max, and you’re in the mood for more elevated fare, the service currently has several delectable streaming options that are also available through The Criterion Channel.

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And speaking of delectable, let’s start with one of the most sensual and essential foodie films, Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (1985). Not one to shy away from the corporeal pleasures of both sex and food, Itami examines the interplay between these two primal instincts in a playful, yet torrid manner in this feast for the eyes.

Gun (Ken Watanabe) and Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) are truck drivers who stop by fledgling ramen shops in search of the perfect bowl. They come across Tampopo’s (Nobuko Miyamoto) and quickly realize she needs a hand in getting the base broth right. (Grab a bowl from Morris Ramen to truly experience this.) The men taking Tampopo from place to place to learn the best way to prepare her ramen make for some of the most aesthetically pleasing scenes in their demonstration of the time and skill required to perfect a meal. You’ll salivate with anticipation at watching Yoshi Katô, the master of all-things-ramen, explain how to smell and arrange the bowl. Several food-related vignettes are woven into Tampopo’s story, but the one with a couple who mix lavish meals into their love-making show Itami’s true strength as a director. You will never look at an egg yolk the same way again. 

After enjoying your ramen, surely you’ll want to nourish on a bit of heavier material. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (1974) focuses on the prejudice an interracial couple faces in a pre-unified Germany. While many of us in Madison feel progressive enough and oh-so-over passé racism, this masterpiece’s themes are still prevalent today.

An elderly widow, Emmi (Brigitte Mira), gets caught in a rainstorm one night and seeks shelter at a local bar. There she meets Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), a Moroccan immigrant 25 years her junior. They fall in love, hard and fast, much to the chagrin of her family, his friends, and her horribly prejudiced neighbors. Despite the societal pressures and rejections, they decide to marry. Ideally, their love may be enough for them to weather the trials and tribulations that interracial relationships often face. As time goes on, other issues of social stratification begin to surface, and the film prompts viewers to wonder if perhaps the couple was a bit hasty in their decision to elope.

As a director, Fassbinder is actually much more subtle in this entry than he is in other darker works such as Fox And His Friends (1975) and Chinese Roulette (1976). Ali still has an unmistakably unrelenting eye on the characters, but he handles metaphors with skilled hands here while paying homage to Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor melodrama All That Heaven Allows (1955). Can love truly overcome the societal pressures that dictate parameters around our lives based on socioeconomic status, age, and race?

To end on a cheery note (and impress your friends), the quintessential British slacker comedy Withnail & I (1987) is a good bet. Written and directed by Bruce Robinson, the film captures the hedonism of the late-60s in Camden with a bit of autobiography, as the character of Marwood (Paul McGann, the “I” in this situation) is loosely based on Robinson himself. Richard E. Grant also absolutely nails the comedic timing as Withnail in this slice-of-life tale, making it one of the best and most accessible Criterion entries to-date. If you weren’t able to catch it at the Wisconsin Film Festival when it made the rounds ten years ago, it’s a perfect time to be introduced.

Living in absolute squalor with no job prospects, an appetite for fast-living, and a bit of bad judgment, both Withnail and Marwood are unemployed actors coming down off a drug high. Marwood suggests the pair take a holiday in the Lake District to recharge their batteries where Withnail’s Uncle Monty has a cottage. So, after some persuasion, they hop into their junky little vehicle and head north for some rest and relaxation. Only they find the weather to be dreadful and the denizens of this town to be less than hospitable. Not only that, the lascivious Uncle Monty (in a sinfully good performance by Richard Griffiths) returns early unexpectedly and can barely hide his intentions for poor Marwood, as they seem to slip and slide into one restless misadventure after another.

Thematically, this is ultimately a movie about friendships and how to navigate them when there is a bit of a mismatch of personalities. While Withnail is more of a fly-by-night, carefree individual who actually comes from a middle-class background, the anxious Marwood is a bit more nervous and deferential. We may have even encountered a Withnail or two in our lifetimes or might uncomfortably see ourselves in this iconic character. Especially as we’re left to contemplate what is next for this world and media landscape, the film aids in appreciating the longing and sincerity for a leisurely time, complemented by a perfect hit-filled soundtrack with Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” This independent classic is one no real self-proclaimed cinephile can pass up.

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