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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

Criterion Collection New Releases of May, 2021

This May, Hou Hsiao-hsien will join the Criterion Collection with a new, director-approved restoration of his ravishing chamber drama Flowers of Shanghai. The period reverie confirms his status as one of the world’s great filmmakers. Also joining the collection is Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. This generation-defining teen movie will appear in a new restored 4K digital transfer. The major "classic film" addition of the month stars Tyrone Power in one of the most haunting and perverse film noirs of the 1940s, Nightmare Alley, which makes its first appearance on Blu-ray. Then there's the pre-Code triumph, Merrily We Go to Hell starring Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney. This exploration into addiction, non-monogamy, and sexual liberation is directed be one of cinema's earliest female directors, Dorothy Arzner. Finally, Ahmed El Maanouni’s Trances. The enveloping portrait of the renowned Moroccan band Nass El Ghiwane appears in stand-alone Blu-ray and DVD editions.

Let's start with the youngest of the new additions, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The wild world of adolescence has rarely been captured with as sharp an observational eye as in this refreshingly smart, frank spin on the teen comedy by director Amy Heckerling and screenwriter Cameron Crowe. The hormone-fueled sociological examination of 80s teenage-hood is based on Crowe’s experiences going undercover as a student at a Southern California high school. The pop-culture touchstone that broke new ground in its raw yet sensitive depiction of the realities of coming of age launched a cast of unknowns to stardom, including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates, Judge Reinhold, Forest Whitaker, Anthony Edwards, Eric Stoltz, and Sean Penn as the iconic stoner, Jeff Spicoli.

Flowers of Shanghai is an intoxicating, time-bending experience bathed in the golden glow of oil lamps and wreathed in an opium haze. Intrigued? This gorgeous period reverie by Hou Hsiao-hsien traces the romantic intrigue, jealousies, and tensions swirling around four late-nineteenth-century Shanghai “flower houses,” where the courtesans live. Although ensconced in opulent splendor, these ladies of the night are confined to gilded cages, forced to work to buy back their freedom. Composed in a languorous procession of entrancing long takes, Flowers of Shanghai evokes a vanished world of decadence and cruelty in insular universe where much of the dramatic action remains tantalizingly offscreen.

Dorothy Arzner, the only woman to work as a director in 1930s, examines addiction and female sexual liberation in Merrily We Go to Hell. Decades before such ideas were widely discussed, her unique voice among Hollywood traditionalists brought them to the screen with striking frankness, sophistication, and wit. Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney turn in extraordinary performances as the urbane couple whose relationship is pushed to the breaking point by his alcoholism and wandering eye. This leads Sidney to devise an emotionally explosive experiment with an open marriage. Exposing the hypocrisies and petty cruelties simmering beneath the surface of high-society elegance, Merrily We Go to Hell is a scathing early-feminist commentary on modern marriage.

Darkness lurks behind the bright lights of a traveling carnival in Nightmare Alley, one of the most haunting and perverse film noirs of the 1940s. Adapted from the scandalous best seller by William Lindsay Gresham. The film gave Tyrone Power a chance to subvert his matinee-idol image with a ruthless performance as a small-time carny whose unctuous charm propels him to fame as a charlatan spiritualist, but whose unchecked ambition leads him down a path of moral degradation and self-destruction. Although its strange, sordid atmosphere shocked contemporary audiences, this long difficult-to-see reflection of postwar angst has now taken its place as one of the defining noirs of its era—a fate-fueled downward slide into existential oblivion.

Trances is a one-of-a-kind documentary by Ahmed El Maanouni, who filmed four musicians during a series of electrifying live performances in Tunisia, Morocco, and France; on the streets of Casablanca. The groundbreaking Moroccan band Nass El Ghiwane is the dynamic subject of this captivating story. Told in intimate conversations through song and traditional instruments, and with connections to political theater, the film tells the story of how the band became a local phenomenon and an international sensation. Both a concert movie and a free-form audiovisual experiment, bolstered by rebellious lyrics and images of the band’s rapt audience, Trances is pure cinematic poetry.


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