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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.

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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.

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.

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Join us this Wednesday evening at 7pm for a very special Defenders with Star Tribune columnist, Variety contributor and National Society of Film Critics member Rob Nelson. For the first time in the Defenders 2 ½ year history the movie shown will not only be a super secret, but also a super secret Twin Cities sneak preview of a film that has only played a couple times at film festivals in the US and the world! If you want more of a hint that that, look elsewhere–yours truly was unable to pry even a peep from Rob or host Jim Brunzell! Come early, stay late, and enjoy a lively post-screening discussion.

Tickets, as always, available in advance at www.trylon.org. All proceeds for the screening will go to Bethel University’s Seminary Library.

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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.