Friday, February 18, 2011

InRO Feature: Home Movies - January (2011)

"A new year, a new Home Movies. On hiatus for much of 2010's latter half, this column has decided on a few New Year’s resolutions to improve things for 2011: to catch some of the new releases we missed in the site's regular review area, to further bask in the splendor of the Criterion canon, and to obsess over every obscure necessity of your home viewing. With a little help from InRO’s Music Editor Jordan Cronk, Home Movies is back and better than ever. While compiling our (quite late) January installment, we found that the best films made available to us were genre films, both old and new. Jordan weighs in on Criterion’s two Samuel Fuller releases and I take a look at a new Blu-ray of Dario Argento’s “Deep Red” from the UK. In between we tackle the so-called Movie of the Year (last year, that is), an invaluable Alejandro Jodorowsky and a classic Sergio Leone (both now on Blu-ray). A horror film, a sci-fi upgrade, and a suspenseful gimmick round out this month’s picks." Kathie Smith [Feature by Jordan Cronk and Kathie Smith] [InRO]

(Note: For archiving purposes, I've included my personal contributions to this column below. Please follow the link provided above to read the entire feature - JC)

Shock Corridor / The Naked Kiss [Criterion; Region A]

Something of a B-movie auteur, American iconoclast Samuel Fuller carved a distinctive niche for himself through a string of some of the most subversive pre-New Hollywood films of the early ‘60s. Two of his best, 1963’s “Shock Corridor” and 1964’s “The Naked Kiss,” were also two of Criterion’s earliest releases (spine No.’s 18 & 19, respectively), and as has been their practice over the last couple of years, the distributor has upgraded their previously bare-bones packages with new, lavishly decorated Blu-rays. The films themselves, a kind of mélange of tabloid-generated taboos and bold stylistic cues, are the essence of mid-period Fuller. After a few years poking around at different genres (check Criterion’s nice Eclipse set, “The First Films of Samuel Fuller,” for a small taste of some of his early westerns and war films), Fuller found his most confident footing in the confines of the film noir with 1953’s “Pickup On South Street” (also a Criterion release). Over the next decade he would hone his approach to low-budget, studio ignorant filmmaking, and as the censors loosened their grip, Fuller continued to run even wilder, reaching a logical plateau with “Shock Corridor,” a hyper-stylized loony-bin noir that cut its wilder impulses with impassioned social and political messages. Few films from the era met racism with as much fervor, and save for his late career masterpiece “White Dog” (again Criterion—god bless you guys), no Fuller film is as effective a sociological (and, of course, psychological) critique as “Shock Corridor.”

Few could have guessed, then, that when Fuller would charge back just a year later with “The Naked Kiss”—arguably reaching his creative apex in the process—it would mark the beginning of the end of this prolific phase in his career. A startling feminist manifesto from one of cinema’s most hard-headed, masculine filmmakers, “The Naked Kiss” took pulp screenwriting to heights then-unreached. The dialogue is a high-wire act of double entendres (“I’m pretty good at popping the cork if the vintage is right” being a personal favorite) and curious cultural references, anchored in every frame by a fiery Constance Towers, Fuller’s actress of choice around this time. A damning indictment of prostitution, pedophilia and law enforcement, “The Naked Kiss” is one of the most persuasive arguments for the moral effectiveness of the B-picture ever produced. Both of these films being well preserved, it’s no surprise these Blu-ray editions look exquisite, with cinematography by Stanley Cortez—who shot two of the most visually stunning films of the previous decades, Orson Welles’s “The Magnificent Ambersons” and Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter”—rendered to 1080p and arriving in their most balanced and textured state probably since they debuted. The packages are equally noteworthy, with great artwork for both discs provided by “Ghost World” author Daniel Clowes, and extras consisting of new video interviews with Towers and a handful of vintage interview segments with Fuller. There are a number of hilariously profane Sam Fuller soundbites across these segments, but his proclamation on “The South Bank Show” that “I love it when you have ‘em by the balls and you squeeze slowly,” sums up these pulpy classics better than just about any critical analysis of either ever could.

Once Upon a Time in America [Warner Bros.; Region A]

Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” is my favorite movie ever, the one I most frequently refer to when asked that question. Interestingly enough, I don’t consider Leone one of my favorite filmmakers, though I do have a great deal of respect for most everything he did and the influence he continues to have. Something about the messy monstrosity that is “Once Upon a Time in America,” however, appealed to me from my very first VHS viewing many years ago: the iconic still that graces just about every poster and home video edition of the film; the heartbreaking Ennio Morricone score; the impressive assembly line of great actors, none of whom actually turn in their best work but are perfectly cast; the indulgent 4-hour runtime; the narrative dead-end of a script. I could go on, but suffice to say that “Once Upon a Time…” remains the embodiment of the term “flawed masterpiece.” And you know what? In this case I’ll take flawed, messy and indulgent over stealth precision and efficiency, because more than most any film I can name, passion infuses every last bit of celluloid that makes up this picture. It’s obviously a vision of America as seen through the eyes of an outsider, but few films strip the American dream of so much romance. The picture quality of this new Warner Blu-Ray isn’t going to open anyone’s eyes to the merits of the film if not already predisposed, but it's a slight advancement over the standard definition, with colors tightening up and grain shrouding every inch of the screen for a very film-like presentation. The original materials probably don’t allow for much advancement beyond this, though part of the film’s charm (at least in my view), has always been its nostalgic, sepia toned ambiance. There aren’t any new features offered either, only the original DVD commentary track by Richard Schickel (which is great and very informative for the entirety of the film’s length) and, oddly, a different (and inferior) version of the film’s trailer. It’s convenient, however, to finally have the film on a single disc, as the previous editions had always been split across multiple discs or tapes. I obviously can’t guarantee a similar reaction to my own for those who haven’t yet experienced Leone’s career-capping work, but I can promise you one of the most beautiful damn things ever set to film, and a story of friendship and betrayal that’s totally universal.

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