Kurosawa’s Steely Noir “Stray Dog” Unleashed a Bad-Ass Mifune on the World

Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa's STRAY DOG

Stray Dog review by Trylon volunteer Greg Hunter.

Stray Dog (1949), the next installment in our Kurosawa Sans Samurai series, is the rare detective story in which the lead must solve a problem almost entirely of his own making. The film follows Murakami (Toshirô Mifune), a well-intentioned rookie, as he navigates the seedier side of mid-century Tokyo in order to track down his stolen service weapon.

Kurosawa directed Stray Dog at a time when his contemporaries were depicting postwar Japan’s cultural shifts, portraits of transition and recovery such as Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring… which is also a pretty great movie, but Stray Dog is striking by comparison for its lively, popcorn-y qualities.* At the center of that movie is Mifune, contributing one of his earliest performances under Kurosawa, with whom he collaborated on many films, for many years.

Mifune embodies his characters so well in these movies that a first-time Kurosawa viewer might assume the actor spent his career playing variations on a type. He’s so persuasive as the solitary, righteous swordsman of Yojimbo (1961), or as the brash gangster of Drunken Angel (1948), that he could have made a life of rehashing either role.** Watching him as a Macbeth analogue—and the world’s shoutiest man—in Throne of Blood (1957), it’s hard to imagine him as anything but that screaming tyrant.

And yet in Stray Dog, he’s equally convincing as a dude who got his stuff swiped on a train car. Mifune contributed more to the Kurosawa filmography than anyone not named Akira Kurosawa, and this weekend, guests of the Trylon can watch him grow both in character and as a leading man.

* I guess a person could make a case that the Americanness of the film’s MacGuffin–the missing Colt pistol–is richly symbolic of something, e.g. the young Det. Murakami and the future of the police force being led astray by an export of the United States…  but this is probably not the kind of person with whom you want to see Stray Dog.

** Honestly: Yojimbo-era Mifune is a cool enough dude that, in my Toshiro Mifune fan fiction, Alain Delon, Marcello Mastroianni, and Marlon Brando are standing around having a mid-century cool dude contestmaybe Brando is taking apart an engine while Delon fixes some cocktailsand then Mifune enters and the other guys all shit their pants. Stray Dog—Friday through Sunday, everybody!

Greg Hunter (gregjhunter.tumblr.com) is a writer-editor from Minneapolis. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Comics Journal, The Official Catalog of the Library of Potential Literature, and elsewhere. He concept-tweets in obscurity as @Dialogue_Log.

Stray Dog screens Friday and Saturday, 7:00 & 9:15, Sunday at 5:00 & 7:15. Purchase tickets here.

 

MPR’s Euan Kerr Defends the Indefensible!

0That’s right, everybody! It’s time once again for your favorite secret-awful-or-nearly-awful movie of the month, the Defenders! You know the drill: a local personality, working in conjunction with the Trylon, will steal in to the theater while you wait, patiently, and put on… what? A lost classic you’ve never heard of? A monumental disaster you swore you’d never sit through? A weird little B-movie that’s strangely appealing? A boxing film obsessed with Barbara Streisand’s ass?!?

The only way to know is to head on down to the Trylon microcinema TONIGHT, where one half of Minnesota Public Radio’s Cube Critics, Euan Kerr, will be defending a favorite of his. Euan, according to the bio he himself gave us, “shoulders the burden of a split personality resulting from being born in Glasgow, Scotland, but raised in Edinburgh. This has been a huge asset in his three decade-long career as a radio journalist, primarily with MPR, but also with KFAI and the BBC.”

Half of all the proceeds go to his charity of choice, Kulture Klub Collaborative.

Euan Kerr’s Defenders screens tonight at 7:00! Purchase tickets here.

“All the Light in the Sky”, a Mumblecore Masterpiece

All-the-Light-in-the-Sky_800x1185The Trylon’s celebrated Monday and Tuesday night Premieres continues its trend of masterpieces that have inexplicably failed to find a home somewhere else. We’re proud to present Indie wunderkind Joe Swanberg’s All the Light in the Sky.

Local film critic Peter Valelly writes of the movie, “It’s a testament to the strength of [Swanberg and actress Jane Adams’] vision, their shared emotional connectivity, that All the Light in the Sky makes the trappings of conflict, the traditional anchor of cinematic storytelling, feel like baggage to be left behind. And at its finest, freest moments, it’s a film that makes the small, personal world of the self, where outward kindnesses meet inner doubts, feel as vast as the ocean—quite an accomplishment, indeed.” Read the full, four-star review at Joyless Creatures.

All the Light in the Sky screens Monday and Tuesday evenings at 7:00 & 8:45. Purchase tickets here.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JBrYWL16_dE

Kurosawa Samurai? NO! “Drunken Angel” is Kurosawa Noir!

shimura-and-mifuneOur Kurosawa Sans Samurai series continues with one of the master’s finest films noir: Drunken Angel!

Angel was  the first of sixteen collaborations between Kurosawa and his pair of muses: Takashi Shimura and the famous Toshiro Mifune. Primarily this is the story of the good doctor Sanada (Shimura), the “drunken angel” in question, who treats his long-suffering patients by a dismal swamp in between getting hammered at night. Along comes Mifune’s crazy gangster Matsunaga, who is suffering from tuberculosis which is exacerbated by his wild living. Matsunaga tries to bully Sanada into help, and eventually the two men form an uneasy friendship. Kurosawa being Kurosawa, nothing ends with smiles and bluebirds, though. This is noir at its finest.

One of the hallmarks of noir is its examination of life in a post-World War II world, and that is in full view here. The United States occupying forces actually censored movies (and books, etc.) that criticized America, and yet Kurosawa manages to slip quite a few by, including and especially the gangsters western clothing and musical tastes.

Drunken Angel screens Friday and Saturday at 7:00 and 9:00, and Sunday at 5:00 and 7:00. Purchase tickets here.

See Bears with Vic + Flo at the Trylon

vicflosawabearIn Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, our eponymous heroes are former convicts, freshly released from prison and in love with one another, who end up in the backwoods of Quebec. Of course, nothing will go exactly right, as old crimes and misdemeanors assert themselves while this poor couple is just trying to live in this dryly funny small town.

“It’s an ominous, claustrophobic, unhappily sapphic work whose thunderclap of a climax instills terror and awe of the fates’ petty, whimsical cruelties.” –Inkoo Kang, Village Voice

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear screens Monday and Tuesday at 7:00 & 9:00. Purchase tickets here.

Make Your Monday Mad with some Marx Bros. at the Heights!

marx-brothers-animal-crackers-2The Trylon and Heights Theater’s Ain’t We Got Fun?: Pre-Code Hollywood series comes to a riotous close with a double-feature (two for the price of one!) of the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers and the insane Girls About Town, directed by George Cukor. Don’t miss it!

Review of Animal Crackers by Trylon volunteer Michael Popham.

Animal Crackers, the Marx Brothers’ second feature, is proof that in show business, timing is everything.  Not just comic timing – that was a given for these guys – but the kind of timing that gets you and Fate and Destiny all singing from the same hymnal.  The advent of the talkies did two things that benefited the Marx Brothers tremendously: it brought vaudeville to an end and it created a brand-new showcase for their unique mix of slapstick and clever wordplay.

Not that the Marx Brothers’ success was just dumb luck. They paid their dues in show business and then some.  As kids they worked as musicians and singers, appearing in all sorts of venues (Groucho spent much of his childhood performing as a boy soprano; Harpo’s first jobs were as piano player in nickelodeons and brothels). Later they spent years on the various hardscrabble vaudeville theater circuits that snaked across the eastern half of the United States.  Over time they played in just about every little berg that had a vaudeville stage, and by the mid-1920s had worked their way up to being a headline act in E.F. Albee’s theaters.  Albee was the best there was, the very pinnacle of vaudeville, but it didn’t last. When the brothers quibbled over some minor items in their contract they were not only fired, but blacklisted from the entire vaudeville universe.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  Though few knew it at the time, vaudeville’s days were numbered, as it began to dawn on theater owners that the talking pictures made live acts redundant.  Meanwhile, the brothers distilled their act into a musical comedy and packaged it as a Broadway show called I’ll Say She Is. That show was a smash hit and the brothers followed up with two more shows, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers.

Animal Crackers was released in cinemas in 1930. No real effort was made to hide its stage origins; the movie looks as though we’re watching the Broadway show just as it was originally presented.  It’s a hodgepodge of bits and gags, songs and wisecracks and put-downs.  None of it really makes sense, but somehow, deliriously, it all works.

The title is a non-sequiter, as the Marx Brothers’ early titles tended to be. The plot, such as it is, involves the unveiling of a famous painting owned by the wealthy Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) and the efforts of two parties to replace the painting with a fake, for wildly different reasons.  The unveiling coincides with the return to America of the famous African explorer Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx).  Brought in to play at the event are two eccentric musicians, Signor Emanuel Ravelli (Chico Marx) and his associate the Professor (Harpo Marx).

The Marx Brothers’ humor was pretty clean even for its time, and most of the jokes are quite family friendly (“I shot an elephant in my pajamas,” Groucho tells his listeners at one point. “How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.”) But the Hays office did recommend cuts for the movie’s re-release, and most viewers today will be able to spot them easily.  (“Signor Ravelli’s first selection,” Groucho announces, “will be ‘Somewhere My Love Lies Sleeping’ with a male chorus.”) The racier lines were usually delivered fast enough that by the time the joke registered they were on to something else.  In-between we have some classic bits with Chico and Harpo, and the usual saucy exchanges between Groucho and the long suffering Margaret Dumont.  As an added bonus, watch for Zeppo Marx playing Captain Spaulding during  the blackout scene; Zeppo was known to do a dead-on impersonation of Groucho, and filled in on a day when his older brother wasn’t on the set.

Michael Popham toils by day in the Membership department of Minnesota Public Radio.  By night he writes about film at The Horror Incorporated Project

Animal Crackers screens at 7:30pm Monday night at the Heights, followed at 9:30 by Girls About Town. Purchase tickets here.

Kurosawa’s Melancholy Masterpiece “Ikiru”

Ikiru 1

We’re proud to open our Kurosawa Sans Samurai series with what might be the greatest of all of the auteur’s non-samurai films: Ikiru, starring the incomparable (and criminally underrated) Takeshi Shimura.

Review by Trylon volunteer David Berglund.

Filled with heartbreak and insight, Akira Kurosawa’s gently personal Ikiru marks a high point in an impressive and prolific filmmaking career otherwise marked by more dynamic, violent pieces.  For many, the story of Kanji Watanabe (Shimura), a dying man searching for meaning from a heretofore monotonous life as a paper-pusher, will be too meandering.  Yet, to preserve authenticity and thematic resolve, it should be stated that this journey must initially lack a center and aim.  After all, Watanabe, a widower with only a motley group of adult moochers for children and a disappointing existence, is at a loss – he certainly sees no need to return to a pointless job, but if he doesn’t go to work, then what?  Kurosawa wisely invites us to walk alongside Watanabe as he fails to find meaning from vice, for this departure makes his subsequent discovery – the joy in helping others – more gratifying.

And yet, Kurosawa knows that life is never this simple, for even if one man finds purpose and meaning in life, this does not mean everyone will take notice, applaud, or follow in his footsteps.  In a stunningly honest third act, Kurosawa details the conversations that take place at Watanabe’s funeral – conversations tainted with pride, mockery, and empty resolutions.  Contrasting such conversations to the genuine tears of the formerly neglected people he has helped, Kurosawa’s point is clear – a virtuous life will not always change the world, but it can certainly have profound influence for some.

The film serves as a call to overcome the distractions and minutiae of life and delight in the purpose of making the world a more compassionate and communal place, one small effort at a time. Not because such efforts will return material or social benefits, but because they free us from the burden of these false idols.  Lacking the sentimentality of most films that carry this message, Ikiru stands tall; a complex examination of generosity that carefully and earnestly urges us to do more.

David Berglund is a proud Longfellow resident and ardent cinema junkie who previously wrote on film with his wife, Chelsea Berglund, on their Movie Matrimony blog.

Ikiru screens Friday and Saturday at 7:00 & 9:45 and Sunday at 5:00 & 8:00. Purchase tickets here.

The (Original and Best) Carrie at the Trylon!

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Review by Trylon volunteer David Berglund.

All things considered, it is no wonder MGM opted to remake Carrie this year. Not only is Stephen King’s novel a heralded American classic in a nation obsessed with the horror genre, but Brian De Palma’s previous 1976 adaptation of the novel is so unique in its tonal oddities that there could be no way additional adaptations could detract from its place in film history.  This is not to say the American film industry has reverence for film history in considering new projects, but rather that the tonal shifts of De Palma’s adaptation allowed room, and a possible perceived desire, for a more straightforward telling of the tale. Simply put, De Palma’s Carrie is so distinctly his own that it will always stand apart from additional adaptations.

Highlighted by the contrasting performances of Piper Laurie’s wonderfully theatrical Margaret White and Sissy Spacek’s meekly timid Carrie, the film’s surreal tonal leaps imbue the film an unsettling sense of fragility.  Viewers are not simply on edge due to the increasing suspense of the plot, but because De Palma does not provide clear footing from which to process the film. Is the film a teen comedy? Is it spiritual horror? Is it a cautionary tale? Is it a revenge flick? De Palma infuses aspects of all these stories, and by doing so creates an exciting and dizzying experience that mirrors the unreasonable and insane mood swings of adolescence. Let’s face it–even without telekinesis, high school was horrifying; with it, it is a downright nightmare.

David Berglund is a proud Longfellow resident and ardent cinema junkie who previously wrote on film with his wife, Chelsea Berglund, on their Movie Matrimony blog.

Carrie screens at the Trylon Monday and Tuesday nights at 7:00 and 9:00. Purchase tickets here.

Lynch’s Masterpiece “Blue Velvet” this weekend at the Trylon

196Our David Lynch: Surreal Marvel comes to a close with Blue Velvet, widely regarded as his masterpiece (among a slew of already great and shockingly original films.)

Blue Velvet review by Trylon volunteer Michael Popham.

David Lynch’s trippy Blue Velvet is set in Lumberton, North Carolina, a small town that’s sleepy and dull and as corny as a Bobby Vinton song. The normalcy of this place is conveyed so skillfully that we accept at face value the town’s obvious absurdities (such as the fact that it can somehow support a nightclub where a full-time lounge singer warbles La Vie En Rose to a packed house every night). Lynch isn’t creating the kind of manic nightmare landscape we saw in Eraserhead, but the guy is still in surrealist mode. This is a funhouse mirror version of red-state America, and you are advised not to fully believe anything you see.

As the movie begins we meet Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle McLachlan), a college student who’s been called home to help out with his ailing father’s hardware store.  This scenario doesn’t promise much in the way of adventure, but Jeffrey’s daily walk to the hospital takes him by a vacant lot, and he finds (in a very Lynchean moment of stark incongruity) a severed ear lying on the ground. Scrounging up a paper bag, he scoops up the ear and hurries to the local police station. The detective on duty listens to Jeffrey’s story and then peers into the bag.  “Yes,” the detective confirms solemnly. “That’s an ear, all right.”

The line always gets a laugh from audiences and the humor seems intentional, a reminder that we shouldn’t take this stuff too seriously. While Blue Velvet is ostensibly a drama – at times a harrowing one – Lynch keeps signaling that on some level the movie is, like life itself, a mordant joke.

Jeffrey is clearly excited to be involved in a real live mystery, as though he has found himself in one of the Hardy Boys novels he no doubt devoured as a kid.  But there’s an ominous undercurrent to it all: The Mystery of the Severed Ear is a little dark for the Hardy Boys, isn’t it?  And girl-next-door Sandy (Laura Dern), who’s become his reluctant sidekick, isn’t sure why he wants to sneak into the apartment of beautiful lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosalini), who is connected, somehow, with the crime. “I can’t decide whether you’re a detective or a pervert,” Sandy tells him.

“That’s for me to know,” Jeffrey deadpans, “and for you to find out.”

But Jeffrey doesn’t know, not really; that’s another mystery he’s working on. Like Archie from the comic books, he’s torn between Betty and Veronica, a good girl and a bad girl, unsure of which one he wants, and too naïve to know which one he ought to want.  In any case, he is wholly unprepared for the world he’s stumbling into – a world of voyeurism, kidnapping, sadistic violence, brutal sex, drug abuse, psychopaths with mommy issues and, most nightmarishly, people who prefer Pabst Blue Ribbon to Heineken.

This dark, seedy world undergirds the hometown that Jeffrey thought he knew. The manicured yards and tree-lined streets are no longer able to hide the corruption and predations of the world, which seem suddenly ubiquitous, threatening to soil everything good and pure.  The evil is personified by the monstrous but weirdly sentimental psycho Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper, in an uber-methody performance).  In the end, Lumberton can no longer protect Jeffrey from the world and he must learn to confront the evils of the world himself.

The phantasmagoric Eraserhead (1977) was Lynch’s first feature, and while its appeal was strictly limited to the art houses, it got Hollywood’s attention.  With The Elephant Man (1981) and Dune (1984), Lynch was careful to keep his inner weirdo in check as he reached for some measure of mainstream respectability. But Blue Velvet was a watershed of sorts.  It proved that Lynch’s unique take on the world could appeal to middle-brow sensibilities; and it proved that in movies, as well as in so many other areas of life, it’s best to just be yourself.

Michael Popham toils by day in the Membership department of Minnesota Public Radio.  By night he writes about film at The Horror Incorporated Project.

Blue Velvet screens Friday and Saturday at 7:00 & 9:15, and Sunday at 5:00 & 7:15. Tickets for the Lynch films have been selling out! So purchase your tickets in advance to guarantee a seat.

Rare Pre-Code Double-Feature at the Heights on Monday

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The Ain’t We Got Fun: Pre-Code Hollywood series continues with another incredible double-feature (yes, 2-for-1!) at the Heights Theatre on Monday night. Check out the insanely entertaining Search for Beauty and Murder at the Vanities, both from 1934… and well before Hollywood “cleaned up” its act.

Search for Beauty and Murder at the Vanities review by Trylon volunteer Colette Ricci.

Search for Beauty is an equal opportunity movie–nothing is weighted too heavily to any one side. Men and women are objectified and preyed upon. The morally high horsed and morally corrupt converting one another is the answer to their problems. Actions have consequence, no matter the morality of the perpetrator. And everyone is unchanged by the end of the film, each just as squeaky clean or immorally motivated as they were at the start.

It’s a surprisingly excellent, though kind of passive, commentary on why bending people to your will isn’t the best tool for converting people. But I wonder if this was a purely accidental commentary. Search for Beauty is flush with cornball acting, running jokes beaten to death, gratuitous near-nudity, a lavish dance number, and characters with no more dimension than a birthday card. Was all that really brilliant camouflage for some social commentary? Search for Beauty walks the line with such utter confidence, I honestly couldn’t say.

Where Search For Beauty attempts to walk a morality tightrope, Murder at the Vanities does a high dive into moral corruption. There’s a love song to marijuana with a backdrop of nude women posing in peyote flowers. The theater owner refuses to stop the show when it becomes apparent there’s been a murder… or two. Actual blood drips from a dead body. The homicide detective just about breaks his neck checking out every dame that walks by. Ladies wear only the slightest hint of clothing.

Assuming this was the bleeding edge in 1934, what would have naturally come next for taboos in film? How would that order of events shape the film landscape of today? If Hollywood had just moved to the rating system and skipped the Code would we have redefined our social taboos that much earlier?

The Hays Code was basically forced naivete. And without relatable manifestations of their problems, desires, fears, experimenting, family troubles, etc., many people were left to feel like anomalies for large portions (if not all of) their lives. Sure you could pick up a book and find these themes, but you’d have to be able to read. Film brought gritty fiction to a much wider audience, and free artistic expression is an important tool of an evolving society. Did stalling that sector of art’s natural evolution stunt our growth as a county for 30 years? Or did we benefit further by having to express those morally bankrupt ideas in far subtler ways?

Whatever your takeaway, these movies should not be assessed solely on face value. Their entry into our lexicon is far more important than any flimsy story line or stiff delivery. It’s a strange chance to reflect on where we are and how we got here.

Colette Ricci writes, photographs, crafts jewelery, draws, has a really killer idea for a magazine, and works retail 40hrs a week. If you know of a way to create time, please contact her, she is desperate.

Search for Beauty screens tonight at the Heights Theatre at 7:30 followed by Murder at the Vanities at 9:10. Double-feature! One ticket gets you in for both shows. Purchase tickets here.