Thursday, August 10, 2017

From the Repertory | 8/10/17

My reviews of some notable recent Blu-Ray releases of classic and catalogue titles.

THE CRIMSON KIMONO (Twilight Time, 1959)

Looking back on the original 1959 marketing for The Crimson Kimono, one might be forgiven for mistaking it for some kind of racist exploitation film. The posters screamed "YES this is a beautiful American girl in the arms of a Japanese boy!" as if it was meant to make the audience clutch its pearls and buy a ticket to see just what on earth could have possessed such a nice white girl to kiss a Japanese boy instead of a white boy.

The film itself, however, is nothing like that. Naturally, the idea of a white girl and a Japanese boy was a bit scandalous in 1959, with WWII not quite 15 years in the rear view mirror. But director Samuel Fuller sought to provide a deeper exploration of racism and the inherent societal expectations of love. He wraps his tale of forbidden love in a crime story, in which two cops (one white, one Japanese) fall for the same sketch artist while on the trail of a murderer who shot a stripper down in the street. It's a sordid, hard boiled crime drama, with hints of film noir skirting around the edges. But at it's heart, it's a love story - one in which the decidedly white woman only has eyes for the Japanese man. While the studio tried to pressure Fuller into making the white male lead into a jerk in order to give her a reason to fall in love with the Japanese man, Fuller resisted, insisting that she needed no other reason than that she preferred him to the white man. The resulting film is a fascinating exploration of racial tensions at the time, especially in the wake of WWII, when Japanese Americans still were not fully trusted.

Fuller added yet another layer to the story, however. Because he is so used to racism, the Japanese cop assumes his partner's jealously over his relationship with the woman is due to racism, when in fact it was due to his own feelings for her. Fuller also wanted to explore "reverse racism," something our more modern sensibilities have lead us to understand doesn't exist. Fuller, and most of America at the time, may not have understood the difference between racism and prejudice, but he managed to make compelling drama out of the idea that anyone can feel hate, especially when they are conditioned to be hated by the majority. One might feel queasy about such a plot in today's political climate, but Fuller treats the material with dignity. The Japanese man's mistrust of his lifelong best friend is borne out of the way he has been treated by a society that does not trust him. While Fuller doesn't quite go that far into the themes he tackles (this was, after all, 1959), it's a surprisingly astute exploration of race relations of the time. Fuller was inspired by D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms, a film even more problematic by modern standards (less so, perhaps, than Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, but I digress), but I'm a firm believer that art should be judged by it's own time, not by our's. The Crimson Kimono is a noir-ish thriller with the heart of a social drama, making for a fascinating genre hybrid that showcases Fuller's innate ability to make films that were so much more than the sum of their parts.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX* (*BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK) (Twilight Time, 1972)

Woody Allen's uproarious adaptation of Dr. David Reuben's 1969 self-help bestseller, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) is an episodic comedy that takes titles of Reuben's chapters (Allen famously never actually read the book) and turns them into comedy gold. Covering such questions as "Do Aphrodisiacs Work?" and "Are Transvestites Homosexuals?," Allen finds the humor in sex with his trademark neurotic wit.

Like most anthology films, some are stronger than others, but Allen is clearly having a blast playing around with different genres, from sci-fi/horror in "Are the Findings of Doctors and Clinics Who Do Sexual Research and Experiments Accurate?" (a take-off on The Blob in which villagers are terrorized by a giant man-eating breast) to the game show format of "What's my Perversion?" (imagining a game show in which celebrity contestants try to guess the guests' sexual fetishes), to the Antonioni-inspired "Why Do Some Women Have Trouble Reaching an Orgasm?" (in which Allen's wife can only achieve orgasm in public places).

But the two highlights here are the final segment, "What Happens During Ejaculation?," a hilarious, Inside Out-esque adventure that imagines the brain a giant command center (lead by a deadpan Burt Reynolds) preparing the body for a sexual encounter, and "What is Sodomy?," a surprisingly tender short starring Gene Wilder as a doctor who has fallen in love with a sheep.

In "What Happens During Ejaculation?," Allen stars as a sperm, imagined here as a paratrooper about to leap into the unknown, facing imminent deployment as the body's various organs work together to complete the sexual encounter. It's easily the funniest segment of the bunch (not to mention the most creatively inspired), even if the previous segment felt like a more natural denouement.

"What is Sodomy?" is perhaps the most famous segment, and it's not difficult to see why. It tackles a shocking and even revolting subject with such humanity that it's difficult not to be moved by it. Wilder's performance is so gentle and so affecting that it's easy to forget that we're watching a film about bestiality. The episodic structure of the film may dampen the film's over all impact, but "What is Sodomy?" is the one that lingers, even after the other segments have faded away. A lot of that is due to Wilder, who finds something strangely tender in an an extreme situation. That is, perhaps, what is most notable about Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask - it's ability to take the most absurd sexual situations, and make them somehow relatable. We all have our perversions, and Allen is here to find the humor and the humanity in one of our most sacred and widespread obsessions.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (Criterion, 1962)

A social faux-pas becomes the total unravelling of civilization in Luis Buñuel's devastating upper-class satire, The Exterminating Angel. The bourgeoisie was a favorite target of Buñuel's, and they were never more savagely lampooned than they were here, trapped in a room after a dinner party, unable to leave because of a simple breach of etiquette that causes them all to lose their grip on reality.

Buñuel confines them in a social trap of their own devising, caught in a web of absurd social mores from which they cannot escape, bound by baseless niceties and classist prejudice created by a senseless social order. And it is only when they turn to equally baseless superstition in which they have absolute faith that they are able to escape (if only temporarily). That they immediately get stuck once again, this time in a church, is no coincidence. Not only is Buñuel satirizing the upper class here, he's also turning a withering eye upon the church, and the blind faith in an institution that ultimately traps its faithful in a confining social and spiritual construct.

The Exterminating Angel takes the surrealism of Buñuel's earlier works and turns it into a kind of comic absurdity. While Buñuel actively eschewed any kind of rational interpretation of films such as his debut work, Un Chien Andalou, he boldly uses his surrealist sensibilities in service of an incendiary message, creating a darkly hilarious evisceration of a social order that no longer has any basis in reality.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

GHOST WORLD (Criterion, 2001)

Have you ever felt like a movie was made just for you? Like the filmmaker somehow understood everything about you and made a film with you in mind? Ghost World is that for me. I was 15 when I first saw it, and it was a revelation to my teenage mind. I showed it to everyone I knew. I showed it to my family. I showed it to friends. After I grew up I showed it to my wife. One day, when they're older, I will show it to my children. But none of them ever seemed to appreciate it the way I did. And while I know it is a film with a fervent following, Ghost World feels like it's mine, something that speaks directly to me in a way no one else can understand. Which is fitting, somehow. That is part of its magic and its beauty, I think - its ability to speak to and for those who don't quite feel at home in mainstream society. While I wouldn't say that necessarily describes me - I've always felt a certain disconnect between popular culture and societal standards, and the things I find worthwhile.

I like to think I've grown up since then, but there's just something so special about it and it's rebellious spirit, railing against the lack of authenticity in a soulless culture that has forgotten what really matters, always in the pursuit of empty consumption. Thora Birch, Scarlett Johannson, and Steve Buscemi have never been better, and the screenplay by director Terry Zwigoff and author Daniel Clowes remains one of the most biting yet sensitive portrayals of misanthropy ever seen on screen. It's characters are in search of authentic human connection, but most importantly they are in search of themselves - desperately looking for a niche in a world that insists on putting them into boxes. Ghost World is so good it hurts, and remains to this day one of my all-time favorite films.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

PRIZZI'S HONOR (Kino Lorber, 1985)

A mafia hitman and his new wife discover that they have each been hired to kill the other, in John Huston's penultimate film, Prizzi's Honor. Angelica Huston won an Oscar for her performance as a mafia daughter with a crush and a vendetta. The narrative meanders a little but, but Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner are in top form. Nicholson's working class thug is a thrilling departure, although the love story between he and Turner never really congeals enough to make the drama compelling. A dark comedy, to be sure, but it all ends on a surprisingly dour note that it never quite earns.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

SILKWOOD (Kino Lorber, 1983)

Meryl Streep received the fifth of her many Oscar nominations for portraying Karen Silkwood, a whistleblower at a nuclear facility who died under suspicious circumstances in 1974. Her story comes to life in Silkwood, Mike Nichols' conventional but undeniably compelling drama that hits all the notes one expects from these "one person vs. the corporation" films, but does so with a kind of grace that keeps it from being too plodding or preachy.

The film is overlong, and takes a while to get to the point, but there's something admirable about the way it takes its time to setup the characters and their particular circumstances. Streep is reliably excellent, as is Kurt Russell as her boyfriend, and Cher as their roommate. A top notch cast, and a strong, Oscar nominated script by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen, keep Silkwood from sliding into cliche "Lifetime movie of the week" territory.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


STALKER (Criterion, 1979)

What to make of Andrei Tarkovsky's enigmatic science fiction masterpiece, Stalker? At once a haunting religious allegory and a chilling dystopian vision, Stalker is truly an experience like no other.

Ostensibly a film about three men attempting to journey to the site of a purported alien crash, Stalker's eponymous character is a guide who takes travelers deep into the heart of what is only known as "the Zone," in order to find a fabled Room that is said to grant people's innermost desires. Along the way they face deadly traps and shifting passageways designed to thwart them on their way to happiness, and only the stalkers can see them safely to The Room. Is he a prophet, leading people to the promised land? Is he a false prophet, playing on their hopes and dreams? Is he just a misguided man with misplaced faith?

Stalker dares not only to question religion's role in our world, but to pose the question - "even if our faith in God is in vain, was it still in service of a greater good?" Is a lie an evil even if it brings joy and hope? And what if, in the end, it turns out to be true? Shot in gorgeous, golden sepia, and later (in the Zone) in lovely, muted color, Stalker is a masterwork like no other. The new Criterion Blu-Ray is absolutely flawless, bringing each golden shot to breathtaking life. Like all Tarkovsky's films, it is a slow, deliberate work. Yet not a shot or a sound is wasted (the use of sound here is especially stunning). It's like something out of a dream, guiding us through a haunted, desolate landscape that eerily presages the Chernobyl disaster that would occur seven years later. It's a mesmerizing, utterly un-categorizable work that is undeniably the work of a master artist at the peak of his powers.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

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