Nearly a half-century later, Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” still shocks and unnerves

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There are plenty of controversial movies. Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” is notorious.
How notorious? The new Criterion Collection Blu-ray of Peckinpah’s 1971 film is the first Criterion disc I know of that includes an extensive interview with a film critic who is not a fan of the movie. Actually, Linda Williams, who calls the film “deeply misogynistic,” likens “Straw Dogs” to D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” as a film that shouldn’t be buried or dismissed, but studied and talked about.
Others are more complimentary, of course. But Peckinpah’s film stills hits like a punch to the gut, leaving us queasy and unsettled. The home invasion thriller has become a genre onto itself over the years, from “The Strangers” to “The Purge” — one could see Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” as a bald rebuke to Peckinpah’s vision. But none are as disquieting.

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“Punch-Drunk Love,” the Paul Thomas Anderson cult classic that should have been

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Why isn’t Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” his cult classic? His 2002 curveball take on the romantic comedy seems like a perfect candidate for midnight-movie showings, Twitter bio quotations, and Threadless T-shirt designs. I’m surprised we don’t see more millennials getting married with the groom in a royal blue suit.

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“I Knew Her Well”: Get to know this lost Italian masterpiece

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First, let’s get this out of the way: “I Knew Her Well” is a masterpiece of ’60s Italian cinema. Never released in the United States when it came out in 1967 and only now available via a new Criterion Collection edition, Antonio Pietrangeli’s film deserves to stand alongside such classics as Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” and Dino Risi’s “Il Sorpasso.” All three films chronicle the good times of handsome young people enjoying a prospering, changing Italy — until the party ends, and they realize how hollow the good times have been.

“I Knew Her Well” screens at 7 p.m. Saturday at the UW-Cinematheque series at 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. as part of a series of newly restored Italian films. It’s free, and one you won’t want to miss, if only to see the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography up on the big screen.

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“Breaker Morant”: An officer and a gentleman, and a murderer

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The box art for the new Criterion Collection edition of “Breaker Morant” features the image of a lone man standing, arms tied behind his back, awaiting a firing squad.

Except that in Bruce Beresford’s 1980 movie, things look quite different. Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward) faces his executioners not on his two feet, but sitting, in the middle of a field in a little wooden chair that looks like it was swiped from someone’s kitchen table. The sun is setting over the hills — it could be a nice little moment, if it weren’t for the rifles.

It’s a surreal touch of civilization in the middle of a very uncivilized war in Africa. Throughout Beresford’s gripping film, we see civilization and savagery at odds with each other, the former offering a veneer of cover for the latter. It’s a great film, and the new Blu-ray edition gives “Breaker Morant” its due.

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Blu-ray review: “La Cienaga: The Criterion Collection”

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The first image is leisure as nightmare. The camera stays uncomfortably close to the middle-aged bodies of a group of unidentified sunbathers, lounging around a fetid pool. We don’t see faces, just their protruding bellies, gray chest hair, sagging skin. Thunder rumbles in the distance, and the bathers begin dragging their metal lounge chairs across the concrete tiles. The noise is hideous, like a banshee.

This unsettling opening marks the beginning of 2001’s “La Cienaga,” and the beginning of the film career of Argentine director Lucrecia Martel. Much of what viewers find fascinating about Martel’s films can be found in that beginning — elliptical narratives, an emphasis on sound, and subtle explorations of class divisions deeply embedded in character. The film is just out in a new edition on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.

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“L’avventura: The Criterion Collection”: She’s the original gone girl

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Imagine Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” if nobody tried to figure out who the murderer was, and you have some sense of what an impact Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’avventura” had on world cinema in 1960. While critics and audiences expecting a mainstream mystery were frustrated, the film quickly gained a reputation as a bracing and elliptical new style of narrative.

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