Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A recap of some of the last month's new and notable Blu-Ray releases.


ANOTHER WOMAN (1988, Twilight Time)
Among Woody Allen's dramas, Another Woman is perhaps one of the least known. Yet, in my opinion, it is his finest dramatic achievement, one that steps away from the almost self-conscious emulation of Ingmar Bergman in Interiors and asserts Allen as a dramatic force all his own. Sure, Bergman's influence is all over this thing (it's shot by Sven Nykvist for God's sake), but rather than be a slavish recreation of Bergman's style, Another Woman feels much more completely Allen's.

Gena Rowlands gives one of the most remarkable performances in the Allen canon as a college professor whose work on her novel is interrupted by the sounds of sessions from the psychiatrist's office next door wafting through the air vents. Propriety propels her to block off the vents at first, but soon she becomes enamored with the drama unfolding next door, as she listens to the struggles of a young woman whose life begins to mirror her own. She soon begins to see her life as the sham that it is, having reached 50 years old and having much less to show for it than she though. From her philandering husband (whom she stole from another woman), to her unwitting flirtations with other men that have threatened to destroy relationships, she left a path of emotional destruction in her wake without ever being self-aware enough to see it.

Another Woman is a fascinating character study, mostly free of Allen's trademark neuroticism, yet ripe with some of his most astute introspection. At first, the narration seems distracting, but by the end it becomes clear how vital it is as a window into its protagonist's soul, her story spilling onto the pages of the novel she is writing. The chilly distance with which Allen directs feeds directly into the her own detachment from humanity, something which slowly breaks down over the course of the film. It's a brilliant work, one that often doesn't get the credit it deserves, even among Allen's devotees. While Crimes & Misdemeanors and Hannah and Her Sisters have their champions, when it comes to Allen's dramatic output of the 1980's, in my opinion Another Woman has no peer.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


THE FORTUNE COOKIE (1966, Twilight Time)
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau star in Billy Wilder's acerbic insurance fraud satire, The Fortune Cookie. A comedic riff on some of the same themes that drove Wilder's Double Indemnity, The Fortune Cookie tells the story of a cameraman (Lemmon) who suffers a mild concussion after being hit by a football player while filming a game form the sidelines. His brother-in-law, known as "Whiplash" Willie (Matthau), is an unscrupulous, ambulance chasing lawyer, who convinces him to fake more serious injuries in order to sue his employer and the football team for 1 million dollars.

Matthau would go on to win an Oscar for his performance as the fast-talking Willie, and it's easy to see why. This was the first collaboration in what would become a lifelong friendship for Lemmon and Matthau, and their chemistry here is readily apparent. While it doesn't have quite the same impact as Double Indemnity, but Wilder's dark comedy cuts deep, taking no prisoners among lawyers and insurance men - both sides using ethically dubious tactics for the sake of money, neither taking stock of the man at the center of the madness. There's a dark sort of melancholy at the heart of the film, readily apparent by the film's rather downbeat finale. But it's also deeply, almost painfully funny. The saddest part, however, is perhaps the fact that nothing has changed. Wilder remains as much ahead of his time as he was of it, skewering human foibles with a withering eye.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

TAMPOPO (1985, Criterion)
The term "food porn" is often used to describe films or TV shows that showcase delicious-looking food, and does not usually refer to actual pornography featuring food. Juzo Itami's Tampopo, however, skirts that line with its unusual blend of eroticism and culinary delights. Billed as a "ramen western," Tampopo follows two itinerant truck drivers who happen upon a struggling ramen shop, and set about helping the shop's widowed owner improve her skills to become the greatest ramen cook in the land.

An ecstatic celebration of food in all its forms, Tampopo shifts back and forth from Tampopo's quest to have the best ramen shop, to tales of sexual exploits involving a gangster's food fetish, and a group of young women taking an etiquette class who get an unexpected lesson in how to eat ramen.  It's a wild and uniquely Japanese culinary fantasia, but it's also not particularly cohesive. Its disparate elements don't always add up, and often distract from the main narrative. It's undeniably mouth-watering, and its exploration of the eroticism of eating is particularly memorable, but the individual elements never really add up to a satisfying whole. Nevertheless, it's a hard film to watch and not leave hungry.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH (1941, Twilight Time)
Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth star in this delightfully frothy musical romp about a choreographer (Astaire) who falls in love with a beautiful dancer (Hayworth), after having to pretend to be in love with her thanks to one of his his philandering producer's schemes to hide his infidelity from his wife. Before things go too far, he ends up drafted into the army, but finds himself reconnecting with his former flame through his producers continued machinations.

While the plot is somewhat disjointed, it's ultimately beside the point. What people are here for is to see Astaire and Hayworth dance - and dance they do. Unfortunately the numbers are few and far between, relying instead on Astaire and Hayworth's comedic chops and considerable charm to carry the convoluted plot. Still, it's hard to go wrong with this pair, and while the dance numbers don't have the energy and verve of a Busby Berkeley number, it's easy to see how this film made Hayworth a star. Plus the crisp black and white cinematography is dazzlingly rendered on Twilight Time's new limited edition Blu-Ray. You'll Never Get Rich is a film that's easy to recommend based on its stars alone, and the jazzy Cole Porter score makes for a toe-tapping good time.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)