Friday, August 22, 2008

Criterion Strikes Again

Kurosawa's High and Low
For true film fans who have no interest in the latest emptyheaded blockbusters opening each weekend during the summer, The Criterion Collection is the most dependable alternative, cranking out stellar versions of various classic and contemporary foreign and independent films. Even when the film itself is lacking, the voluminous Criterion extras more than make up for it.

And this month’s winner among equals is its release of High and Low, Akira Kurosawa’s masterly 1963 crime drama. In this almost unbearably nerve-racking exploration of a kidnapper’s effect on a wealthy industrialist and his family, the great Toshiro Mifune gives a monumental performance as the rich target, and Kurosawa’s explosive direction brilliantly treads the fine line between intimate character study and a vast canvas showing contemporary Japanese society, warts and all. This much-needed DVD re-release has a sparkling new transfer that shows off Kurosawa’s precise black and white visuals as never before–the packed extras include a commentary by scholar Stephen Prince, a 37-minute documentary about the film’s making, a vintage interview with Mifune and a new interview with Tsutomu Yamazaki, who plays the kidnapper with diabolical wit.

Jacques Tati’s Trafic (1973) is a comedown after his 1967 masterpiece Playtime, but even in this feeble comedy there are scattered moments of splendidly-realized slapstick (best extra: documentary about Tati’s onscreen alter ego, In the Footsteps of M. Hulot)...although a modest melodrama by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s usual standards (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes), The Small Back Room (1949) builds to an exciting bomb-defusing climax (best extra: interview with cinematographer Chris Challis) of the most infamous films ever made, Salo–120 Days of Sodom (1976) was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final feature, an unsubtle and intentionally disgusting display of the degrading fallacies of fascism that’s more important historically than artistically (best extra: The End of Salo, a 40-minute making-of documentary) ...Mishima, Paul Schrader’s beautifully-shot 1985 biography of Japan’s avant-garde writer and right-wing nationalist, unfortunately fails to illuminate either his short life or disturbing art (best extra: BBC documentary, The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima)...Claude Jutra’s sentimental 1971 drama Mon Oncle Antoine is an evocative slice of life in 1940s rural Quebec, but the director’s tragic end is far more dramatic, as the bonus documentary, Claude Jutra: An Unfinished Story, shows...Carl Theodor Dreyer’s haunting Dracula adaptation, the 1932 silent film Vampyr remains the most austere, and best-ever, Transylvanian thriller–also, thanks to the new restoration, this is Criterion’s top silent-film package yet (best extra: Carl Th. Dreyer, a 1966 documentary about the director’s career)....and Twenty-Four Eyes–Keisuke Kinoshita’s sublime 1954 chronicle of a quarter-century in the life of a beloved teacher and her students–is another example of the kind of unknown classic that Criterion rescues from video oblivion (best extra: interview with film historian Tadao Sato about the film and its creator).

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