Couch Trip

Feb 4, 2009 at 12:00 am

The Minoru Kawasaki Collection
Synapse Films

The films of Minoru Kawasaki are unrepentantly silly. Featuring masked wrestlers, crazed monsters and soccer-playing crabs, Kawasaki has a flair for the absurd. Synapse Films recently unleashed three of Kawasaki's most outrageous films on the American public: The World Sinks Except Japan is an update to the classic disaster film genre (and a nod to 1973's Japan Sinks) with a plot as simple as its title. Most of the film's action takes place in a pub, which has become a microcosm of world politics where those pesky Americans and dastardly Chinese just keep sticking their noses everywhere. Rug Cop parodies the '70s cop show aesthetic with a detective who uses his hairpiece to fight crime. (That's right, a hairpiece.) Finally, Executive Koala plays out like a corporate intrigue tale about, yup, you guessed it, an executive who happens to be a six-foot-something koala.

Filled with goofy songs and bizarre characters, there are a lot of endearing qualities to this trio of films, even if there ain't enough plot to go round. World Sinks and Executive Koala feel like skits that go on too long; stretched past the breaking point at feature length. But Rug Cop manages to entertain throughout its full running time by playing strongly on cop show tropes. —Mike White

Rossellini's History Films: Renaissance and Enlightenment
Criterion Eclipse

If you're like me, the idea of watching three epic, talky, confusing Italian period pieces made for TV and clocking in at 129, 162 and a whopping 255 minutes is about as appealing as having to scarf down endless quantities of your least favorite vegetable. But, like eating your veggies, it can also be good for you

The Age of Medici, Blaise Pascal and Cartesius, aired in the early 1970s and directed by master neorealist Robert Rossellini, epitomize an erudite cinema of edification, even if it comes at the expense of entertainment.

When Rene Descartes, in Cartesius, is introduced to an automaton (which looks like it was lifted from Disney World's Pirates of Caribbean ride), he marvels at the invention, but given how drained of drama this entire box set is, it's easy to look at each real character as a mechanized part of a filmed historical diorama. Even if you're a junkie for the Italian Renaissance, you couldn't call Rossellini's ventures riveting. They make Barry Lyndon look like 300.

Still, you have to admire the totality of his approach, one nearly immune to criticism. While Hollywood biopics would manipulate and cherry-pick from their subjects' lives in order to frame their stories into formulaic narratives, Rossellini films everything as it would've happened and leaves nothing out. Aside from the everyday lopping off of a hand now and then, there are no violent conflicts, no melodramatic shout-downs. These films are a series of protracted, truth-seeking conversations and debates. In defiance of the conventional storytelling wisdom of "show, don't tell," key characters' deaths are rendered as off-screen nuisances told in passing, lest they get in the way of a hearty debate about deductive reasoning or the use of Latin versus the vulgate.

Rossellini seeks less to rewrite history than to relive it as a documentary. Thus, his shooting style is one of long, virtually unbroken takes. Cutaway shots are scant, and the only indication of technique is the use of the casual zoom. The viewer is positioned as a silent observer in the monasteries, inns, courthouses, universities and laboratories populated by world-changing denizens like Descartes, the father of philosophy, who concluded that "I think, therefore I am," and Pascal, whose contributions included the calculator, air vacuums and the expansion of public transit.

Descartes and Pascal are both depicted as nonconformists who blazed trails in adverse settings by trying to marry science with God in devoutly theocratic milieus.

For unscrupulous, exiled banker Cosimo de' Medici, the subject of the trilogy's longest and most arduous entry, the relationship to the overriding religion of the time is a bit more complicated. Rossellini requires you to do some homework, excising plenty of helpful information just as he jettisons transitions from one bustling scene to another. It's difficult for the spectator to get his bearings, making one miss the comforting cliché of the Hollywood establishing-shot and the time-and-date subtitle. Perhaps the best homes for these exacting films are not in a cinema and certainly not on a television but as permanent museum fixtures, supplementing an already bountiful exhibition on the Italian Renaissance and Enlightenment. —John Thomason

Anna Biller Productions

Set in 1972 Los Angeles, Viva is a heavily saturated and slightly sedated homage to Radley Metzger's winning and slinky skin flicks (Camille 2000, The Image, The Opening of Misty Beethoven). Writer-director Anna Biller stars as the titular Viva, a frustrated housewife who goes on a sexual odyssey with her best friend Sheila (blond bombshell Bridget Brno). After her studley husband Rick (Chad England) leaves the lovely Viva alone with her lifestyle magazines and macramé, she and Sheila become prostitutes to broaden their horizons. "I've always wanted to be a prostitute; it sounds so romantic!" This leads to a series of misadventures as Viva becomes the world's most reluctant escort, learning life lessons with each lay.

Vincent Canby described Radley Metzger's The Lickerish Quartet as having "ripe and incredible color and decor." The same can easily be said for Viva. Complete with porn-star emoting, dialog rife with double entendres, and a softcore score laden with Piero Piccioni tunes, Viva transcends the films it lampoons with its overripe delivery and buckets of blue eye shadow. Go to