Kagemusha (Criterion/Morningstar, 1980) D: Akira Kurosawa, w/ Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki. Rating: NNNNN
In a 52-year career strewn with masterpieces, of which The Seven Samurai is merely the best-known, this is one of Akira Kurosawa's greatest films. And one of his most difficult, which makes Criterion's scholarly presentation not just an enhancement, but a necessity. It's a dense tale of warring clans heading for a key battle in the struggle to unify Japan. The outsider thief who's drafted to impersonate a fallen warlord makes a good emotional centre, but he's doesn't help explain the complex, intrigue-filled action.
Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince does that on the commentary track. He links historical fact to Kurosawa's theme-driven inventions and explains social, political and personal details, along the way tying in Shakespeare, Noh drama, institutionalized homosexuality in Samurai culture and Kurosawa's use of visuals.
The director's at the peak of his visual mastery here. Originally trained as a painter, Kurosawa spent five years painting and sketching the movie when he couldn't get funding. Disc two and the accompanying booklet give us a fine look at his work.
The film's epic scope, visual strength, subtle story and acting make it highly re-watchable. As well, Kurosawa's had an enormous impact on world cinema, and the Japanese samurai film genre is fascinating in its own right.
Extras Disc one: scholar commentary, theatrical trailers. Wide-screen colour, digital transfer. Japanese stereo sound, new translation for English subtitles. Disc two: retrospective making-of docs with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola and from Japanese TV; version of film with Kurosawa's paintings, sketches and sound; Japanese whiskey ads with Kurosawa and Coppola; storyboard-shot comparison. Book with Kurosawa paintings and three essays.
The Corporation (Mongrel Media, 2003) D: Jennifer Abbott, Mark Achbar. Rating: NNNN
If you don't already know what The Corporation has to tell you, check it out - you need to hear this. The corporation, says Joel Bakan, the UBC law professor who wrote the book on which the movie is based, is the dominant institution of our society. It's a legally constituted structure for doing business, designated as a person and possessing civil rights. As a person, its character is psychopathic, totally and solely self-interested and wholly willing to harm others in the pursuit of its only legally sanctioned goal: profit.
There's a lot more here than that glib sound-bite description suggests. Directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott take us through the historical basis for the construction of the corporation, its rise to prominence and the legal structures that compel it to operate as it does. Theirs is a balanced view, and the disc-one extras give a detailed look at the methods they used to achieve it.
The subject sounds dry, but it isn't. Interviews and archival footage give equal time to corporate defenders and foes alike, big names that range from Milton Freidman on one side to Noam Chomsky on the other.
Their stories are fascinating, from the American businessmen's attempt to stage a coup to overthrow president Franklin D. Roosevelt to the two Florida journalists who spent six years in the courts trying to bring Fox News to task for compelling them to distort their reportage.
The characters are equally fascinating. Among the CEOs and academics are a stock trader, an industrial spy and a grassroots (read "covert") marketeer whose lack of media training gives us glimpses into a truly strange mind.
At 141 minutes, it's a little long and repetitive, but there's no reason not to spread your viewing over two or three nights - or more if you dig into the disc-two extras, where you'll find hours of interview clips sorted by topic and subject. It's well worth the effort.
Extras Disc one: Achbar and Abbott commentary, Bakan commentary, filmmakers' question-and-answer sessions, deleted scenes, Bakan interview, marketing doc, trailer. English surround sound, French and Spanish subtitles, descriptive video, English captions. Disc two: interview clips by subject and topic. English sound, no subtitles.
Sideways (Fox, 2004) D: Alexander Payne, w/ Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church. Rating: NNN
It's a little bit funny, a little bit poignant, a little bit realistic (but not much) and a whole lot of nothing but romantic fantasy for middle-aged men. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it may go a long way toward explaining all those accolades in print. There are an awful lot of middle-aged men in the reviewing business. Ironically, the realism and the fantasy are both embodied in Virginia Madsen, whose naturalistic acting makes both male leads look mannered, even as she displays the serenity and desirability that make her pure fantasy and, in real life, out of the reach of losers like them.
Occasionally, the movie drops dead in its tracks. There isn't much drama, and some scenes keep going after they've made their point. Worse, Miles and Jack, the two buddies on the verge of middle age who head off for a week in wine country, lack anything to engage our interest, much less our compassion. Out Tuesday (April 5).
Extras Giamatti and Haden Church commentary, deleted scenes, making-of doc, trailers. Wide-screen anamorphic. English 5.1, French and Spanish surround. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
Orgazmo (Alliance Atlantis, 1997) D: Trey Parker, w/ Parker, Dian Bachar. Rating: NNN
Natt Stone, who produced and acts here, puts it succinctly in the doc about Orgazmo on disc two. "At its core, Orgazmo is a terrible idea for a movie, and that's what I'm attracted to." He's right - there are only so many gags you can run on the premise of a naive Mormon who stumbles into porno acting before you must turn him into a kung-fu-fighting caped crimefighter because the evil pornmeister has kidnapped his girlfriend to force him to make a sequel. The story sags predictably - Trey Parker and Stone hadn't hit their South Park peak - but overall the movie is miles beyond Cannibal: The Musical, and the cast is terrific. Parker does a good shocked hick, while Dian Bachar, as sidekick Choda Boy, plunges into the work with a noble sense of purpose that belies the dildo strapped to his head. Toddy Walters demonstrates her mastery of the pratfall, and Ron Jeremy is the best he's ever been with his pants on.
Some of the most effective gags are in the deleted scenes; the "don't come here" gag is worth the rental alone. But that raises questions about the "unrated" version being promoted. It comes in a mere two minutes longer than the theatrical cut and has no significant differences. Given the success of South Park, a bit of restoration would've been nice.
Extras Disc one: theatrical and unrated versions; Parker, Stone and others commentary, cast commentary, South Park writers and guests commentary. English 2.0, French, Spanish subtitles, English captioned. Disc two: deleted scenes, retrospective doc, Parker interview, trailers. English, French and Spanish
subtitles, English captions.
Also coming Tuesday, April 5
The Amityville Horror Collection (MGM, 1979, 82, 83) Amityville 3D is not presented in 3D. Have these people no aesthetic standards? Amityville 1 and 2 and a disc of extras are all on hand in the box to prep you for the coming re-release.
Elektra (Fox, 2005) Jennifer Garner reprises her demented assassin from Daredevil.
Primer (MGM, 2004) Low-budget indie time travel tale.
Suspect Zero (Paramount, 2004) Another twist on the serial killer genre.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb