THE DVD SHELF: From Kurosawa to Capra, Schlesinger to Pasolini, an End of the Year Grab Bag

By Steven Suskin
December 23, 2012

"Rashomon," "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "Brazil," a collection of Frank Capra films and Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Trilogy of Life" are screened in this month's column, offering some last-minute holiday gift ideas.



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With 2013 fast approaching, we cast an eye upon the stack of unwatched (or partially watched) 2012 DVD and Blu-ray releases. We will save some for January, but otherwise now clear the decks in time for you to deck your halls with discs. Those which interest you, at least. So herewith are a clutch of films, some of which really do deserve more space than we have for them.

Like an assortment of items from the Criterion Collection, headed by Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. This 1950 film won two major awards at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, becoming the first Japanese movie to achieve international acclaim — including an Academy Honorary Award as the best foreign film of the year. (In 1956, this became a category in its own right.) "Rashomon" is stark and riveting; it is also notable for being one of the few films to find its way into the psychological casebook (as "the Rashomon effect"). The film recounts a violent murder, with four participants offering contradictory eyewitness accounts. Between Kurosawa's intriguing storytelling, the strong performances (led by the riveting Toshiro Mifune), and the startling cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa, "Rashomon" launched Japanese film into the western world and instantly established Kurosawa as a major force.

Criterion gives us an impeccable Blu-ray; they seem to take their time with their restorations, making sure they get everything right. Special features include an interview with director Richard Altman about the film; excerpts from "The World of Kazuo Miyagawa," about the cinematographer; and an hour-long documentary featuring interviews with cast and crew. This plus a booklet featuring an essay by historian Stephen Prince, an excerpt from Kurosawa's autobiography, and the two short stories (from 1915 and 1922) by Ryunosuke Akutagawa upon which the film is based. For repeated viewing, I myself prefer Kurosawa and Mifune's "Seven Samurai," which came along in 1954, and which is also available from Criterion on a spectacularly good Blu-ray. But "Rashomon" is not to be missed.

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Criterion also gives us two influential films from a more modern era. John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody Sunday was a ground-breaking drama, with a woman (Glenda Jackson) and a man (Peter Finch) both involved in affairs with the same young artist (Murray Head). Not the sort of thing that was talked about in 1971, and certainly not in such a rational and intelligent manner. The screenplay came from Penelope Gilliatt, at the time an already-respected film critic and the ex-wife of John Osborne. Schlesinger, Gilliatt, Finch and Jackson each received Oscar nominations for their contributions. Special features include new interviews with Head, production designer Luciana Arrighi and director of photography Billy Williams along with a 1975 audio interview with Schlesinger. The booklet includes Gilliatt's introduction to the published screenplay.

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Another cinematic experience altogether is Terry Gilliam's 1985 satirical fantasy Brazil. This is a brave new world, or perhaps an Orwellian new world; think of Big Brother, "Modern Times" and "Dr. Strangelove" combined. "Brazil" is richly fascinating, both intellectually and visually; one of those films that stays in your mind for years. Gilliam was joined by Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown for the screenplay. Jonathan Pryce (pre-Miss Saigon) stars, along with a fascinating group of actors headed by Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins and Michael Palin.

The two-disc Blu-ray is loaded with extras, including the on-set documentary "What is Brazil?"; "The Production Notebook," a collection of interviews and video essays; "The Battle of Brazil," a documentary about Gilliam's problems with his producers; and Universal's shortened, happy-ending cut of the film. All told, Criterion's "Brazil" — with extras — is a release you can spend hours watching and rewatching.

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Not unlike "Brazil" — in it novel unworldliness, at least — is Pier Paolo Pasolini's Trilogy of Life, a collection of three films from the early 1970s. Pasolini takes us back through the centuries, recreating the Middle Ages in a colorful, earthy and lusty manner. "The Decameron" (1971) is altogether startling. Here are nine tales from Boccaccio, illustrating human nature at its most primitive. The opening tale tells of a fortune hunter who is robbed when he is maneuvered to plunge into a latrine. The most memorable tells of a young man who gets a job as a gardener in a convent by pretending to be a deaf mute — and how he comes to be especially popular with the nuns.

Pasolini sets his film in Naples and shoots mostly on location, with a cast that includes many amateurs. He seems to have cast for teeth; he uses dozens of beautiful peasant types, whose origins are revealed only when they open their mouths to reveal the worst teeth you've ever seen on the screen — immediately suggesting earlier times. They also unashamedly open their Middle Age garments with great frequency. ("The Decameron" was especially controversial in this, one of the first mainstream commercial films unapologetically laced with full nudity.)

Pasolini next moved to England for "The Canterbury Tales" (1972). Once again, he spun his film together from a bunch of unrelated tales; both films are somewhat haphazardly assembled, without clear beginnings and endings. "Canterbury" is crammed full of colorful locations, peasants, teeth and skin. There are a few recognizable actors mixed in as well, notably Hugh Griffith (from "Tom Jones" and an Oscar-winning turn in "Ben-Hur") as a lusty Lord and Josephine Chaplin — daughter of Charles — as his beautiful-and-bored wife May. Also on screen is Pasolini himself, as the author Chaucer; he also played an artist — a fresco painter identified merely as "Giotto's pupil" — in "The Decameron."

Pasolini traveled to Africa and Asia for the final part of his trilogy, "Arabian Nights" (1974). All three are fascinating, although "The Decameron" was surely the most startling of the three at the time (and might be the most watchable now). "The Trilogy of Life" is a remarkable triptych of films unlike few if any others. For Pasolini, that was more or less the end; he was violently murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1975, just before the release of his final film.

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Criterion has a sister label named Eclipse, which brings us low-priced DVDs of overlooked films without extensive special features and booklets. The newest in the series is Three Wicked Melodramas from Gainsborough Pictures. Wicked melodramas they are, of a low but delectable fashion. The prize of the set is wicked, indeed: "The Wicked Lady." Margaret Lockwood — best remembered as the young heroine of Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes" — is the lady in question. Her girlfriend need only remark that it is too bad there aren't any dashing millionaires in the neighborhood other than her fiance; Lockwood's eyebrow raises, the closeup shows an icy hardening of her gaze, and within moments she steals the fellow. The same sort of sequence leads her to claim an abandoned wing of the manor — with a secret staircase to the garden — for her own; to take up the cloak of a highwayman, robbing coaches along the London road; and to start murdering people left and right.

Much of the fun comes with the entrance of an authentic masked highwayman, in the person of James Mason. The two of them act up a storm, until Lockwood sends Mason to the gallows. Seeing as how this is a wicked melodrama, he is duly hung from the gallows but survives, so Lockwood can shoot him in cold blood. This 1945 film from Leslie Arliss ain't art, but it was a major box office success and it's quite enjoyable. The set also includes "The Man in Grey," the 1943 hit — also with Lockwood and Mason — which started Gainsborough's run of melodramas; and the 1945 "Madonna of the Seven Moons," starring Phyllis Calvert and Stewart Granger.

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Finally, we have an interesting set of early films from TCM's "Collector's Choice Vault Collection," Frank Capra: The Early Collection [Sony]. Capra began his career in the mid-'20s writing silent comedies for Mack Sennett and directing comedian Harry Langdon to stardom. He joined Columbia Pictures in 1928, eventually helping move the studio from "poverty row" to first class rank with the 1934 Oscar-winning smash, "It Happened One Night." But that was already Capra's 19th film at Columbia.

The five-DVD box set in question includes four of the films he made with Barbara Stanwyck, developing her into a star. These include "Lady of Leisure" (1930, adapted from a David Belasco drama); "The Miracle Woman" (1931); "Forbidden" (1932); and the most interesting of the lot, "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" (1933). This last was a melodrama about an interracial romance between a white woman and a Chinese warlord, which proved a difficult subject for the time. The first film to play Radio City Music Hall, it was unceremoniously yanked midway through its scheduled two-week engagement.

The Capra set is short on bonus features — the point, here, it to rescue these films from oblivion — but there are introductions from Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and Michel Gondry.

The other title in the set is a Broadway-related novelty. Joe Cook was one of those stage comedians of the '20s who had musical comedies written around him. (Others in this category included W.C. Fields, Will Rogers and Bert Lahr.) One of Cook's musicals was the 1928 hit Rain or Shine, which ran 11 months. The movie rights were duly purchased, but by the time filming began movie musicals were in a slump. Thus, Joe Cook recreates his role in Frank Capra's "Rain or Shine" (1930), but the score — by Milton Ager, Owen Murphy and Jack Yellen — is cut altogether. The story is apparently changed as well; the plot is still built around a traveling circus, but the whole thing ends up in flames. Which would not have worked so well on stage.

Cook, though, is interesting to watch; a likable fast-talking hero whose straight-faced but overlong explanations turn to gibberish. His acrobatic background is in evidence; he does a nifty act with Indian clubs plus a pretty good — and funny — tight-rope walking stunt. He brought along his two stooges from the Broadway production. Tom Howard is a crusty old-timer, playing a country businessman who can't keep up with Cook's scams. The other fellow — playing a slow-witted rustic whose trademark is a slow wave of the hand — is a fellow named Dave Chasen. He stayed in Hollywood, and — at the urging of Capra and with financial backing from New Yorker editor Harold Ross — opened a chili joint in Beverly Hills. Chasen's went on to expand itself into an internationally renowned landmark, outliving its owner (who died in 1973) and closing in 1995.

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(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and On the Record columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)