THIS WEEK IN DVD’S – Feb 22nd, 2007
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Criterion)
Mikio Naruse—call him the esoteric art-house antidote to Yasujiro Ozu—has been all but invisible to us Yanks: None of his films have received a proper Region 1 DVD release (until now). Criterion, solidifying their status as the undoubted patron saint of international cinema on DVD, has finally added Naruse to their release schedule, dropping on us the master’s finest hour: When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Criterion). Equal parts morality tale and introspective character analysis, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is the tip-toeing story of a bar hostess (Hideko Takamine) who must juggle her own desires and plans with the iron-clad society methodologies that have her trapped. Naruse has the narrative trajectory of Kurosawa (as slow-paced and pensive as it is, this picture is never mumbling or dull), but he has Ozu’s eye for quiet, unassumed nuance. And this disc looks positively extraordinary—the 2.35:1 Anamorphic widescreen transfer afforded the picture is leaps and bounds cleaner than any print of the film I’ve ever seen, and Criterion has even preserved the film’s original Perspecta sound effects with a 3.0 soundtrack (the original Japanese mono mix is also here). Criterion regular Stephen Prince offers a stand-out commentary track, as well, and even though the interview with actor Tatsuya Nakadai isn’t exactly mesmerizing (where is some interview footage with Naruse, people?), it’s a worthy inclusion to an exemplary DVD release.
49th Parallel (Criterion)
Criterion has long been a staunch supporter of the Archers on DVD (they’ve single-handedly introduced this lowly writer to Black Narcissus, The Tales of Hoffman, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and that alone merits them a gold star), but it’s with special applause that 49th Parallel (Criterion) arrives. This 1941 masterwork—made before Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger became a de facto directing/writing team (though they did collaborate in that fashion here)—is, along with their A Canterbury Tale, the team’s most charming and deliciously multi-faceted work. This tale of a team of Nazis whose U-Boat gets stranded in the waters of Northern Canada couples Powell’s heft of vision with Pressburger’s near-preternatural ability to give his characters both colloquial truism and panoramic symbolism. And this DVD is a marvel: Disc One brings a commentary with historian Bruce Eder (yeah, it’s a bit dry, but I’ll take it), but Disc Two is the real honey-pot—not only do we get excerpts of Michael Powell’s dictations for one of his autobiographies and A Pretty British Affair (a documentary on the distinctly British nature of the Archers’ pictures), but Criterion has included the impossible-to-find The Volunteer, a 1943 short by Powell and Pressburger featuring Ralph Richardson. Necessary viewing, folks.
Green For Danger (Criterion)
Green For Danger (Criterion) doesn’t have the filmmaking prowess that befell such British masterworks as The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, but writer/director Sidney Gilliat (Hitch’s screenwriting collaborator on Vanishes) brings a heady dose of English properness and piqued sass to the table here, nonetheless. Where Powell and Pressburger looked at the wartime nightmare of WWII through almost psychedelic glasses with 49th Parallel (at least ideologically), Green for Danger instead turns the Nazi threat into an almost bookish murder-mystery triviality: Gilliat subdues the fear and rampant British paranoia of the period into a palpable, almost goofy affair, and this does wonders for his film’s sense of style. I suppose one should call it a murder mystery (somebody dies on an operating table—but was there foul play involved…?), yet Gilliat makes Green For Danger far more than Agatha Christie-esque dinner party fare: It’s a thematically knee-deep investigation of a culture in danger of being decimated by an all-too familiar menace. Unfortunately, Green For Danger’s DVD presence pales in comparison to recent Criterion releases—yeah, there’s a commentary here (as with 49th Parallel, Bruce Eder provides a historical basis for the picture), and we get an interview with British film historian Geoff Brown, but between these thin extras and a transfer that isn’t anywhere as gorgeous as the one given to, say, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, the release definitely comes up short—but that doesn’t mean the film is any less substantive or thoughtful than its more finessed and glamorous cousins.
Beauty and the Beast: The First Season (Paramount)
Oh, man—if you’ve ever had a goth-chick girlfriend, then you know the powers that Beauty and the Beast: The First Season (Paramount) has to offer. Ron Perlman basically plays Glenn Danzig with a kitty-mask instead of a heavy metal scowl, and pre-T2 Linda Hamilton is a sassy go-getter D.A. by day and a sultry, Stevie Nicks shawl-mistress by night—and Linda and her big man-kitty look deeply into each other’s eyes and sigh…they sigh. Yeah, Mike has disdain for this show—20 minutes in, and I was ready to cry uncle—but this is one of the most hotly-desired shows to finally appear on DVD. You know what sucks, though, my goth chicas? There ain’t a single extra here, and the full-frame transfers are really sub-standard (even for a TV show from the late 80’s).
Extras: The Complete First Season (HBO)
Far more astute (and trendy) is Ricky Gervais’ Extras: The Complete First Season (HBO), even though the show’s in-crowd hipness is almost enough to establish a backlash against it. Yeah, the guy’s funny, and his fellow cast mates are a credible motley crew of hilarious up-and-comers, but Extras’ real ace-in-the-hole is its frequent usage of top-tier celebrity cameos, each of them ready to poke fun both at Gervais and themselves with equal savvy. A Gervais commentary or two would have been nice here, but the deleted scenes and outtakes included on this set are worth a peek, and the 16×9 Anamorphic transfers are top-of-the-line.
Wondering if you should pony up $40 for that two-disc spectacular? For all of your DVD questions, ask Mike at [email protected] .