THE DVD SHELF: "Slings & Arrows," "Seven Samurai," Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" and "Glee"

News   THE DVD SHELF: "Slings & Arrows," "Seven Samurai," Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" and "Glee"
 
We screen Blu-ray releases of the delicious Canadian series "Slings & Arrows," and the Japanese classic "Seven Samurai," plus a restoration of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," and "Glee: The Complete First Season."

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Among the many obvious advantages of the Blu-ray process comes one we didn't perhaps anticipate. Yes, we know that everything is going to look better in Blu-ray. Or at least, it should look better on Blu-ray; we've seen some where the powers in power have seemed to simply lackadaisically run the thing through some kind of Blu-ray machine, assuming that it would automatically be so much superior that people who bought the DVD/VHS/ Beta/Laser Disc would unquestioningly clamor to buy yet another generation of the same ol' thing. But such cases have been relatively infrequent, at least in my viewing experience. Blu-ray does come out better; sometimes enhancing what was already (seemingly) there, sometimes markedly improving the viewing experience. But that's not what we started to discuss. In putting out Blu-ray versions of items already well served on DVD, the canny studio tries to give the viewer more.

A case in point is the new release of Slings & Arrows [Acorn], the Canadian series about life at a top regional theatre not dissimilar to the Stratford Festival. "Slings & Arrows" — which was first broadcast in 2003 (Season 1), 2005 (Season 2) and 2006 (Season 3) — might not have made an enormous impact when it was first broadcast in the United States, but a stateside following developed with the release of the first season on DVD and increased with the release of the two subsequent seasons. A set of the entire run was released in 2008, the 18 episodes supplemented by interviews, a behind-the-scenes featurette, and a clutch of deleted and extended scenes (which turned out to be an icing-on-the-cake bonus for those who love the series).

Now here comes the six-disc Blu-ray box, with all of the above plus commentaries on three episodes. Take the commentary on Season 1/Episode 1 from creator/writers Mark McKinney, Susan Coyne and Bob Martin (AKA The Drowsy Chaperone's "Man in the Chair"); what "Slings & Arrows" fan doesn't want to hear them sitting around talking? I have twice recommended "Slings & Arrows" in this column, lavishing praise on its incisive and wildly extravagant love of the theatre. Enough already; if you haven't yet discovered it and don't do so now, you don't deserve the rich entertainment it will bring you.

As an aside, I have more than once marveled that these marvelous actors — many of them veterans of the professional Canadian stage — are all but unknown to New York theatregoers. (The exception being William Hutt, who gives an astonishingly good performance during the final season as an actor playing Lear while he is dying of cancer — filmed while Hutt was, indeed, dying of cancer. Hutt starred with Gielgud and Irene Worth in Edward Albee's 1964 play, Tiny Alice.) Which is a way of mentioning that Stephen Ouimette, who plays the very dead artistic director Oliver Welles, is at this very moment appearing with Mark Rylance and David Hyde Pierce at the Music Box in La Bete. *

Yes, some companies do indeed release newly remastered DVDs or expanded deluxe edition DVDs or new Blu-rays indiscriminately, in a manner that leads one to think that said companies exist merely for the purpose of turning out "new" product and keeping cash flowing. But then, isn't that the reason that the major studios have home video divisions? The Criterion Collection has never been in that type of business. They don't make the movies, of course; they license films that they love, lavishing the sort of care and attention that the studios only seem to give to blockbusters. (Mission statement: "dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements.")

Quality has been the Criterion hallmark. You or I might not be attracted to all the titles on their list, as they seem to pride themselves in cutting across genres and cultures; but the great films of world cinema are indeed represented. Criterion has, in an almost quaint manner, seen fit to number their releases as they go along. (They are up to about 550, although that number includes multi-film sets but does not include their Eclipse series of lower-cost films without extensive bonus features.) All of which is to say that Criterion disc #2 has now been issued on Blu-ray, Akira Kurosawa's majestic Seven Samurai. Why, dear reader, should you be interested in a three-and-a-half hour, black-and-white, Japanese-language cowboys-and-indians — or, rather, peasants-and-brigands — Western from the far, far East? Well, why not ask yourself why "Seven Samurai," despite the elements in the preceding sentence, repeatedly lands on "best movie ever" lists, and remains unforgettable to most everyone who has seen it. And why it remains one of the most influential films of the past 50 years, and especially well-suited for repeated viewings?

As expected, the Blu-ray process brings new dimension to Kurosawa's sweeping battle scenes. What I did not expect, though, was what Blu-ray would bring to the smaller scenes, to the closeups; for all its spectacle, the richness of "Seven Samurai" is in the intensive character studies Kurosawa brings us. And these seem, somehow, laid more nakedly bare in this splendid new edition of one of Criterion's — and our — favorites.

It seems like Beauty and the Beast [Disney] has been around forever, when in fact the film was first released in 1991; just 19 years in November. (Didn't the Broadway musical run about 20 years?) The two-disc Platinum Edition DVD was released in 2002, and quickly sold out. Now comes the Diamond Edition, available in Blu-ray and — come November — on DVD. Disney takes full advantage of the Blu-ray process; what's more, there are so many bonuses of various kinds that the true B&B fan is likely to be engrossed for weeks. I've been sitting here watching "Composing a Classic," a discussion with composer Alan Menken. Also of interest is "Broadway Beginnings," which concentrates on stars who have appeared in the stage version. Although none of 'em can hold a candle — or a lumiere — to Angela Lansbury, David Ogden Stiers and Jerry Orbach, who voiced the animated version. Some of these bonuses will be on the forthcoming DVD as well, of course; but looking at the release in hand, it almost seems that this Diamond Edition of "Beauty and the Beast" was devised to show off the Blu-ray process. The two-disc Blu-ray is initially being released with a third disc — the new DVD version — bundled in.

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The television series "Glee" got off to such a fast start in 2009 that demand existed for a DVD set midway through the first half of the first season, which was duly released as "Glee: Road to Sectionals" last December. Glee: The Complete First Season [Twentieth Century Fox] has now been released, on DVD and on Blu-ray. Seeing as how all self-respecting "Glee" fans already own the first DVD (with 13 episodes), Fox has simultaneously released Volume 2 of the first season, "Road to Regionals." One way or the other, that's 22 episodes of "Glee," starring Broadway favorites Matthew Morrison and Lea Michele along with Emmy-winner Jane Lynch. Stage-worthy guest stars, too, along the lines of Kristin Chenoweth, Jonathan Groff, Neil Patrick Harris and Idina Menzel. I haven't waded through all 974 minutes myself, but my 13-year-old thinks it is great. The special features, she adds, look especially neat on Blu-ray.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released Updated and Expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)

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