The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum: Completed more than a decade before the string of masterpieces for which he’s most known, Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Criterion, $27.99 Blu-ray, $22.99 DVD) is a startlingly modern meditation on the give and take between art and life. Forecasting by at least two years the technical innovations of Orson Welles, this 1939 feature is mesmerizing in its radical formalism, from its virtuoso tracking shots to its ambitious deep-focus photography and its elegant refusal to cut corners — or to cut it all, unless an edit is absolutely necessary.
Which is fitting for a narrative about the world of theater, with its emotional nakedness and respect for the unbroken scene. The film’s atmosphere equals that other great ’30s Japanese-theater melodrama, Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds. The adopted heir in a long line of accomplished thespians, Kiku (Shotaro Hanayagi) performs, poorly, in a Tokyo theater company, his inadequacies cosseted by flattering fellow-actors and a gaggle of geishas. It takes the honest criticisms of his brother’s nursemaid, Otoku (Kakuko Mori), for Kiku to realize the truth. He falls in love with Otoku, but because of her low caste, their courtship is rejected by Kiku’s powerful father, and with it his chances of continuing to act in Tokyo.
It won’t be the first time either of these characters are forced to choose between a fulfilling stage career and happy domesticity. The couple elopes, in a sense, to Osaka, where Kiku joins a traveling troupe. Mizoguchi flashes forward one year, and then four more, as Kiku’s ascent to top billing comes with a sorrowful price.
Anyone who’s ever been in love will find Chrysanthemum deeply affecting, if not positively painful to absorb, all the more powerfully because of the distance Mizoguchi keeps between himself and his creations. His matter-of-fact mise-en-scène is free of judgment or commentary, each wide shot piercing the heart with an unshakeable clarity. Japan’s greatest director of women’s pictures would film a number of feminist touchstones in his three-decade career, but this is arguably his rawest, purest expression of the sacrifice of the fairer sex. For both its technical mastery and its progressive storytelling, this heartbreaker is a necessary addition to any cinephile’s collection.
Night Train to Munich: An intricate plot of shifting tangles and of-the-moment political commentary characterize Carol Reed’s crackerjack World War II spy thriller (Criterion, $27.99 Blu-ray, DVD previously available). It’s set in 1939, just a year before the film’s release, and the Nazi juggernaut has begun its onslaught of Eastern Europe. The daughter (Margaret Lockwood) of a prominent Czech engineer “escapes” a concentration camp with a Gestapo officer (Paul Henreid) posing as a fellow detainee in order to lead the girl to her refugee father. It takes the intervention of a British intelligence agent (Rex Harrison, rail-thin, suave and smug as a rug), himself impersonating a hacky crooner, to don Third Reich regalia and spirit her away to safety on the titular locomotive, with curious Nazis monitoring his every step.
The film’s Russian-doll tableau of performances within performances offers a meditation on the nature of acting, and indeed of surviving in a world of creeping fascism. Central to this dark political backdrop is Reed’s claustrophobic direction; he stages scenes in locked rooms, constricted train hallways, inescapable compartments, cramped automobiles and, in the film’s climax, a suspended cable car at the Swiss-German border. The accumulation of these tight spaces suggests, accurately, a world of abridged freedoms closing in.
That this mordant message is tempered by pungent wit, we can thank screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Laudner, the dynamic duo responsible for Hitchcock’s similarly set The Lady Vanishes two years earlier, who resurrect that film’s dry comic relief of Caldicott and Charters (Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford), a pair of bourgeois British passengers, in significant supporting roles here.
Night to Train to Munich ultimately less resembles Reed’s future masterworks than it does Hitchcock’s ’30s output — not just The Lady Vanishes but the inconvenient lovers-on-the-run adventure of The 39 Steps and the menacing ambience of The Man Who Knew Too Much. The latter film’s famous shoot-out is echoed toward the end of Night Train to Munich, with its symphony of whizzing bullets, splintered wood, punctured glass and clanging metal. It’s one of many examples of Reed deploying sound to heighten tension, in a way that likely made Hitch proud. As for the occasionally thick British accents, that’s one audio element with which your television may struggle: To appreciate the script’s nuances, closed-captioning is a must.
The Neon Demon: The modeling world is a pit of vampiric envy in Nicholas Winding Refn’s phantasmagoric 2016 satire (Broadgreen, $19.99 Blu-ray, $12.99 DVD). Elle Fanning is a pale, virginal, doe-eyed and 100-percent organic ingénue from small-town Georgia, whose arrival creates lust, jealousy and tumult in the surgically enhanced L.A. model scene.
Refn’s interrogation of Los Angeles’ insecure cat-walkers yields potent exchanges. “Plastics is just good grooming,” says one model, in praise of her frequent visits to her surgeon of choice. “She calls me the Bionic Woman,” boasts another, prompting Fanning’s naïf to genuinely counter, “is that a compliment?” The director effectively portrays an industry of porcelain dolls whose egos are just as easily shattered, and whose auditions have the tenor of cattle expositions.
This being a Refn film, things go bonkers right quick. Beautifully obtuse Lynchian surprises tumble through the film’s surreal midsection, and the sardonic dialogue acquiesces to ambient, wordless dreamscapes gradually inseparable from reality.
By the time the necrophilia rolls around, The Neon Demon will have lost many viewers, just as those turned off by the eyeball disgorging from Refn’s Only God Forgives abandoned that nasty bit of sadism.
But this time, the film’s champions are correct to laud its brutal vision. As with Paul Verhoeven’s misunderstood Showgirls, Refn’s sleek, crystalline images function as an autocritique of the surface pleasures of both cinema and modeling — tacking boldly, and literally, the cannibalizing nature of industries that swallow people whole.
Kamikaze ’89: Germany’s Wolf Gremm adapted this cultier-than-thou 1982 cyberpunk policier (Film Movement Classics, $29.99 Blu-ray, $22.99 DVD) from a 1964 novel by Sweden’s Per Wahloo, realizing an angular and motley futurescape that cobbles elements of Alphaville, 1984 and A Brave New World and anticipates Blade Runner.
It’s set in a faux-unified future Germany where a media-controlling CEO in a gleaming skyscraper receives a bomb threat from an anonymous former employee. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, in his final acting role, stars as the humorless, alcoholic police officer with an immaculate arrest record who attempts to crack the case in four tumultuous days.
Directing with the twitchy punch of Samuel Fuller, Gremm presents a garish, Tangerine Dream-scored dystopia full of eccentric details both visual and narrative. Liquor and vegetables alike are prohibited in the world of Kamikaze ’89, frequent suicides are reported euphemistically as “premature deaths,” and the country’s reigning dictator operates everything from the news media to mass entertainment, numbing his television audience into submission with an endless, demented laughing competition. The movie’s anarchic revolutionaries repurpose American comic-book iconography and street art in their subversive attempts to topple the regime, which hides its secrets in its tower’s seemingly invisible 31st floor.
Kamikaze ’89 has style to spare and boasts some of the most lunatic costume design of the 1980s, but it’s the existential unease that keeps this raffish curio relevant. Against an insurmountable enemy, it bravely culminates, like much police work, in grim dissatisfaction. It’s satire with a pungent aftertaste.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: It’s hard to imagine Clint Eastwood directing a movie with a black transvestite and a voodoo practitioner who converses with squirrels, yet Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Warner, $16.98 Blu-ray) exists. Adapted from the John Berendt nonfiction best-seller of the same name, Eastwood’s 1997 critical flop centers on the murder trial of a nouveau riche Savannah antiques dealer (Kevin Spacey, in a reptilian dry run for Frank Underwood) and the freelance writer (John Cusack) who happened to be in the right city at the right time to cover it.
If you don’t remember the trial itself, or its anticlimactic result, we don’t blame you. The story only teems with life at its fringes, when exploring the eccentric misfits and Gatsbyesque grotesqueries of late-’70s Savannah — an environment Cusack’s naïve Yankee scribbler describes to his editor as “’Gone With the Wind’ on mescaline.” Every day, a man carries a leash through the town square, walking the ghost of a dog; at extravagant soirees, widowed doyens enjoy paroxysms of laughter over their husbands’ suicides; a superstitious resident keeps horseflies on leashes attached to his lapel, threatening to poison the city’s water supply.
Then there’s Lady Chablis, a famous regional drag queen, playing a version of herself in scenes that derail into broad sitcom crudeness and on-the-nose (or other anatomical parts) innuendo. Eastwood has never been much of an ironist, so we’re never sure how to accept this theatrically sordid yarn. Is it a sober crime thriller or site-specific satire? Midnight lumbers more than flows, but when it’s on key, its atmosphere of gonzo Southern life is incomparable.