Monday, July 29, 2013

Criteritron #1

The Criterion Collection is, without a doubt, a film snob's dream come true. They consistently release the best of world cinema on DVD and Blu-ray, with exquisite packaging and a wealth of informative, interesting special features. But this quality typically comes at a price point that's a bit above the average home video release, and even Netflix doesn't always spring for Criterion titles—going so far as to ship substandard versions previously released by other labels instead of some Criterion titles, while not even making others available.

So, what can you do if you're interested in Criterion but don't want to buy every film in the Collection? Well, Criterion partnered with Hulu some time ago, and now the vast majority of its catalog—including some titles for which there are no disc versions—is available to stream at no extra cost for all HuluPlus subscribers. In the past, I've been critical of HuluPlus's model. It's never made much sense to me to make paying subscribers watch the same ads you show the freeloaders, and the myriad restrictions on Hulu's TV content—some shows can only be watched on a computer, while for others, only five episodes are available at a time—have made $7.99/mo. seem like a high price tag. But for this kind of access to classic world cinema, it seems like a straight-up bargain. If you don't mind missing out on beautiful box art or special features, this is the best (and in some cases, only) way to experience Criterion's offerings.

And yet, there are almost TOO many titles to choose from. From obscure oddities released under Criterion's Eclipse imprint, to Hulu-only exclusives, how can anyone decide which of the 700+ available titles to watch? Well, that's where The Criteritron comes in. In this occasional feature, I will dip my toe into HuluPlus's massive pool of Criterion content and come up with recommendations for your viewing pleasure. From recognized all-time greats to lesser-known semi-obscurities, I'll try to pick things that are interesting or edifying, but no less entertaining for it. So, without further ado, I present...

The Criteritron #1: Leningrad Cowboys Go America
Finland/Sweden, 1989
Directed by Aki Kaurismäki

What Is It?: A sort of road/tour movie, following a bizarre fictional Russian rock band, the Leningrad Cowboys, as they (complete with the corpse of one of their members frozen in a casket) take their show to the US. The Cowboys sport the most exaggerated quiffs in the history of hairdos, their pompadours extending into foot-long points off the front of their heads, and wear pointed shoes to match. They are, by all accounts, terrible, but their manager (Matti Pellonpää) eggs them on, stealing from them all the way. They get into countless scrapes, meet long-lost family members, and stay true to their bizarre brand of rock and roll, come what may.

Why Watch It?: Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki is one of cinema's foremost ironists. He uses a sort of deadpan camera to capture the foibles of Finnish life, scoring satirical points by contrasting the oblivious stoicism of his characters with the absurdity of the situations in which they find themselves. While he typically aims for social commentary, his films involving the Leningrad Cowboys (two sequels, including a live concert film, followed Go America, all of which can be purchased together on Criterion's Eclipse imprint) are less socially conscious and more out-and-out fun. And this film is hilarious, from the band's ridiculous appearance to their utter self-confidence and determination to make it big in a country where they fit in even less than they did back home. Kaurismäki mines the awkwardness of this culture clash for everything its worth, sticking with shots and scenes for ever-so-slightly too long to enhance the irony, while poking fun at stereotypes from both sides of the Iron Curtain. It's a dry, slowly-burning sort of humor, and while a lot of the fun comes from mocking the band itself, somehow Kaurismäki gets us on their side and manages to wring legitimate emotion out of their journey.

If you're a HuluPlus subscriber, you can stream Leningrad Cowboys Go America on any HuluPlus-enabled device (game consoles, Roku, smartphones et al), or you can watch it here on Hulu or embedded below.


  1. Thanks for the tip. This film really made our weekend. And if you enjoy this film you absolutely have to watch Total Balalaika Show, the live concert featuring the Red Army Chorus. The mind boggling and hilarious version of Sweet Home Alabama is alone worth the price of admission.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! I first saw it in grad school when a fellow student, writing about road movies for her dissertation, screened it for us during our free period in the school's cinema. Great fun.

      And yes, I should watch the concert! I've heard tracks from it, but haven't gotten around to watching it yet.