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Flick Clique: February 27-March 5

dvd_elnorteEl Norte (1983). When I first saw El Norte in high school Spanish class, its tale of two siblings’ danger-fraught journey from Guatemala to the promised land Los Angeles made quite an impression. The film has been somewhat hard to find over the years, but thanks to Criterion’s recent DVD set I got to check it out anew. It actually holds up beautifully, with the central theme of immigrants unable to feel at home in an indifferent and at worst exploitative U.S. resonating even more strongly today. As the main protagonists Enrique and Rosa, actors David Villalpando and Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez make up for what they lack in polish by striking the perfect note of inner strength and bewilderment at what they’re going through. Another thing that struck me were the scenes shot in the Guatemalan village, wonderfully composed with an eye for colorful details. There’s also a lot of humor, such as when Rosa is stymied by a complicated American washing machine. Great film, and my admiration for it is strengthened by Criterion’s making-of on the DVD explaining all the hoops director Gregory Nava and producer/co-screenwriter Anna Thomas has to jump through to even get it made. The film can get a bit overstated at times, sure, but for the most part it’s still a moving and strikingly relevant piece.
Foolish Wives (1922). Erich Von Stroheim’s high silent melodrama was so lavishly made that publicity of the time trumpeted it as Hollywood’s first million-dollar movie. That was an exaggeration, but the film’s full-scale recreation of post-WWI Monte Carlo still impresses. We actually saw this about 10 years ago, and that set with all those dress extras milling about was the only thing I remembered about it. Unfortunately, the story is typical fake-royalty-deceiving-the-rich stuff, stretched out to two interminable hours. Von Stroheim plays “Count” Karanzim, who teams up with his aunt and cousin (Maude George and the ever popular Mae Busch) to defraud the gullible rich out of their millions. His most prized victim is played by the fabulously named Miss DuPont, a diplomat’s wive who falls under the man’s snaky charms. This silly stuff is made all the more strange when Miss DuPont is seen absorbed in a book called Foolish Wives (maybe she should’ve paged ahead a few chapters to learn her fate?). Von Stroheim flexes his directorial muscles with the exciting conflagration at film’s climax, but most of what precedes it is florid and dull. Silents-wise, this proves that the later stuff from circa 1925-29 holds up better. A curio at best.
Street of Shame (1956). In Tokyo’s Yoshiwara district, a group of prostitutes of varying ages and self-worth levels react to the pressure of local lawmakers to ban their livelihoods. Another Criterion Eclipse release that I had low expectations for (we’ve been seeing lots of iffy old Japanese films lately, seemingly half about prostitutes), but this one was surprisingly cogent and brilliantly filmed. Director Kenji Mizoguchi keeps things moving with several subplots, but all of the characters are vividly portrayed, from the older lady coping with an embarrassed son living in another town to the Americanized girl with a cynicism that belies her young age. The women portrayed here are multi-layered, assertive and ultimately deserving of our respect, right up to the devastating ending. I’ve heard that this film actually changed the prostitution laws in Japan. On a more shallow note, I enjoyed the wild modern/traditional clothing, patterns and objects on display (if only this was shot in Technicolor!). Only debit: a weird score that belongs in a sci-fi tale.

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