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How About Some Noah Baumbach, Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Altman and Akira Kurosawa for the Holidays?

If you ever wonder why certain elements get tossed into a movie, remember: beauty never needs to be justified. These and other thoughts on recent Blu-ray releases.

Come in, come in. Sit down in front of a little fire on this tangy evening. Have you ever tried quince jelly on a slice of manchego? People like it with a Spanish red, but I prefer this lightly chilled sherry. Somehow impertinent yet ingratiating, isn’t it? Shall I put something on the stereo? Segovia? Mahler? Sun Ra? Ray Conniff?

Ah yes, you wanted to know about some of the stuff coming out on Blu-ray. I can but point you in a few directions that may appeal. First, let’s consider two 21st century American classics put out by Criterion with all their typical bells and whistles.

Punch Drunk Love (2002) follows the whimsical attempts at romance between lonely, frustrated salesman Barry (Adam Sandler) and the winsome Lena (Emily Watson). The relationship is nearly ruined by a crazy scumbag (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who tries to swindle Barry with charges to a phone-sex line. The film is unpredictable and off-center, to say the least, and dotted with curious references to the mythology of Atlas, seen on a moving truck, who bears the world on his shoulders and has seven daughters — as Barry has seven sisters.

Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson has explained that he loves Sandler’s movies, which are mostly critically disdained but very popular. He specifically loves their hostility. Sandler’s kind of a hostile vulgar variant of the Jerry Lewis persona: an unlikeable klutz who wants to be loved but got little of it from American critics. Both Lewis and Sandler use obnoxiousness to distract from their naked sentimentality, although the real difference is that Lewis was a visual stylist who directed his own pictures with a kind of literalized cartoonishness.

He learned from Frank Tashlin, a real cartoon director who did several of the Dean Martin / Jerry Lewis movies. To the French, Lewis was a typically American narcissistic child. That puts Sandler in a tradition that includes the Three Stooges and Lou Costello. Forgive me; I get to wandering. Try some of these olives.

Anyway, it was a coup for Anderson to convince Sandler to make this film, in which his hero does have anger management issues, but Sandler’s fans stayed staunchly away from what feels like an anti-Sandler movie and very much one of Anderson’s personal eccentricities wandering down its own vital tangents. It could be said that gentle awkwardness is the film’s dominant tone and even its vision of American life, that modern alienation breeds either hostility or a lost sweetness, or both.

Anderson frequently mentions Robert Altman as an inspiration, and this film uses Shelley Duvall’s recording of one of Harry Nilsson’s songs from Altman’s Popeye (1980) so that Watson’s character (or even Sandler’s) seems to be channeling Olive Oyl. Like Popeye, Barry keeps evincing surprising displays of strength that should be impossible.

Any movie that makes a fetish of a Popeye song is worth watching, although the major musical contributor is Jon Brion, a musician-composer-producer who allowed his own cartoonish eccentric impulses to pop throughout a picture in which Sandler plunks on a harmonium. New extras include an interview with Brion, who explains why most soundtracks are boring.

Another creator involved in the film was the abstract painter and video artist Jeremy Blake, whose rich, bright, spectra-like abstractions punctuate the film along with the Popeye song. Blake apparently drowned himself in 2007, shortly after the suicide of his girlfriend. His story, along with a look at some of his works, is discussed by two art curators in an excellent bonus feature.

If you ever wonder why certain elements get tossed into a movie, remember: beauty never needs to be justified. It’s beauty! There can’t be too much, and generally, there’s way too little. Music, colors, gestures, even nudity — the more gratuitous they seem, the more necessary really. Do we justify sunlight? The moon?

Okay, that’s what I need to put on, do you know Rautavaara? Mystical Finnish composer, “Cantus Arcticus” has bird song. Let this blow you away. If you love the birds, we can go full metal Messiaen, but hold that thought.

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Adam Sandler and Emily Watson in Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

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The Squid and the Whale (2005)

I was going to say: the other movie came out a few years later. Yielding so much while clocking in at a brisk 80 minutes, writer-director Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005) is superficially a high-art Manhattan movie. The story amounts to carefully observed snapshots of a disintegrating marriage, with Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney as the couple, and it’s all reflected through the teenage son (Jesse Eisenberg) and his younger brother (Owen Kline). That sounds hideous enough, but the logline doesn’t capture it.

No, I’ve never had squid. Not much on the chewier seafoods. Now, pangasius with a dash of butter is a light forkful of heaven. It’s also called basa, and by coincidence, I’m about to rustle some up with gluten-free breadcrumbs.

Back to Baumbach, people naturally make the Woody Allen connection. As with Allen’s Husbands and Wives (1992), it’s a merciless exposure of everyone’s foibles, but with compassion. The real subject is maturity: how the teen realizes through his own screw-ups that he can be just as pretentious a jerk as his dad. At last he’s able to confront the museum’s squid and whale without averting his gaze through a childish mix of fear and love. When he looks at the two beasts engaged in mortal battle, he sees them objectively as predators and compassionately as products of their nature. It’s a very “New Yorker magazine” kind of epiphany, and a rare example where this kind of thing works in cinema.

I know, it’s a little unreasonable that the parents don’t recognize a famous Pink Floyd song in that one crucial scene, but you just have to go with it. In the context of their son performing a song he wrote, maybe they would be fooled and only unconsciously realize why they recognize a great song.

It’s another film with good musical choices. Baumbach discusses the music in a bonus segment with Luna’s Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, who wrote a few themes for the picture partly inspired by Midnight Cowboy. Songs include Loudon Wainwright, Tangerine Dream, and wonderful “Figure Eight” from Schoolhouse Rock, as sung by the great Blossom Dearie. That’s it, let’s put her on the stereo next.

True, it’s a movie that overeducated critics might like for “superficial” reasons, since it’s just a pleasure to hear dialogue about Kafka and French New Wave movies like Breathless (one of many wonderfully inappropriate responses) and The Wild Child (“lots of people like that movie” — the boy justifies himself as a precious philistine), and a poster for the three-hour black-and-white talkfest The Mother and the Whore (1973).

That reminds me: In a dialogue between Baumbach and writer-critic Philip Lopate on the old DVD (not retained by Criterion), Baumbach says the script called for a Blow-Up poster but Warner wanted $6,000 and New Yorker Films offered them a list of free posters. He picked The Mother and the Whore only because he liked that movie and didn’t get the obvious joke until later.

To finish that thought about critics, it’s understandable that critics like to be flattered by cultural references when they can announce to the world that they happily “got it”, and it’s understandable they would respond to a smart family like themselves, or their fantasy of themselves, being skewered so delightfully, but that doesn’t invalidate the movie’s pleasures or make it less smart than it is. That’s not what makes it a good movie, though, just as Anderson’s facility and quirkiness aren’t what make his movie good. Lord knows there’s plenty of that in cinema. It’s the empathy, their final commitment against snark and in favor of human feelings, that make the movies truly good.

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Lily Tomlin and Tom Waits in Short Cuts (1993)

It’s common for reviewers to like movies that flatter them by holding up a snide mirror to the class they come from or aspire to, and this is why both good and bad movies receive praise for the wrong reasons. American Beauty (1999), for example, and Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) appeal for the same reasons yet are much less than they seem.

What’s that? Oh, I know, everyone hailed Short Cuts as a masterpiece, and by the way, that’s another one freshly on Criterion. You know, Altman liked to say he made films that you couldn’t understand properly on a first viewing. This was a defensive way of arguing that those movies critics didn’t warm to are better than they think, and he was basically right.

The irony here is that, if you follow the logic, it must mean those movies that were hailed on first viewing must be his most simple and unrewarding, and I’m afraid that’s pretty much true of his post-’70s output. Movies like The Player and Gosford Park basically bean you with their simpleness, but people enjoy his technique so much that they appreciate not having to scratch their heads as they’re told what they want to hear about folks with money.

Shades of Beauty

Yes, think about Short Cuts, which takes a handful of powerfully compressed stories by Raymond Carver and dissipates them by interweaving them like spaghetti strands and, what’s worse, distorting and nullifying their themes. I don’t require fidelity to a source, but I know when the lack of it makes a thing worse. Carver’s Midwestern middle-class narratives were all about the possibility of communication in those moments of grace when people work at it. It’s in his very titles: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Where I’m Calling From, etc.

Altman takes some of the plotlines and transfers them to spoiled upper-class L.A. types we can all sneer at. Communication and feeling become impossible in his critique of the spoiled and phony. Plenty of people have told that story, and it’s much easier and lazier.

Take the story “A Small, Good Thing”, which is about the devastating event of a child hit by a car, and the driver meets the parents at the hospital. In Altman’s film, it becomes a finger-wagging tale of a selfish mother who, when she finds her boy sitting catatonically in front of static on a TV instead of being at school and he says he was hit by a car, she puts him to bed and later waffles about it on the phone with her husband. She doesn’t go ballistic, she doesn’t rush to the emergency room, she behaves like she’s too heavily medicated herself to grasp reality.

Credibility is sacrificed on the altar of making the viewer feel superior to those moneyed Angelenos whose big houses we envy, and critics so enjoy superiority that huzzahs were universal. They were flattered that it had something to do with Carver, which is real literature, right? They didn’t notice Altman was just coasting on his patented style of masterful mixing and editing.

Here’s another irony. On the Criterion disc, you can learn more about the Carver you didn’t get, because extras include an audio interview with him and a PBS documentary on his life. There’s also a feature-length making-of that serves the purpose of patting itself on the back, plus deleted scenes and Dr. John’s demos of some songs performed by Annie Ross in the movie. I must say, one of the best things about Altman’s output is his consistent use of music as a structuring device, so that he made a lot of musicals and quasi-musicals. Not long after Short Cuts came the excellent Kansas City, and after the hit of Gosford Park came the shamefully overlooked The Company. Where’s Criterion on those?

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Dreams (1990)

Yes indeed, where would we be without Criterion? Another new release and very High Art is Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990), from his majestic late period, when the dynamism of his high era is replaced by magisterial serenity. Who else could have made those films? And in the case of this surreal anthology, who else could have had these gorgeously colored, precisely framed, exquisitely executed dreams?

You could say there’s not much to the film (only beauty!), and some reviewers did say so, but it’s the kind of thing you can rewatch endlessly. Look at the delicacy of the opening fantasy about fox fables. Look at the effects wizardry in the sequence where Martin Scorcese plays Van Gogh. Here, the resources of George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic are applied to plunging us into the artist’s brushstrokes. And if you think that’s too hoity-toity, look at the “disaster movie” about nuclear reactors on Mount Fuji. It’s the most spectacular Godzilla movie ever made without Godzilla!

The extras include a documentary and an old making-of that’s longer than the movie, plus a few new interviews and a new commentary. If you like Blossom Dearie, let’s put on some Betty Carter next. She’s even wiggier. And let’s move on to this crisp Riesling. I’ll have you know these carrot cake muffins are gluten free. We’ll just let them thaw while I turn over the pangasius. The magical thing is, you won’t even know you’re eating fish because it’s so light.

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Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (1974)

Criterion isn’t just for High Art snobs, or they’d never have come out with the Lone Wolf and Cub box, based on characters created in Japanese comics. This Lone Wolf is a disgraced former samurai turned ronin, a common romantic figure in samurai lore. What makes him different is that he’s probably the first single dad in the genre. He wheels his baby son everywhere in a bamboo carriage that’s tricked out like a James Bond car.

So the six movies consist of this ultra-cool daddy (Tomisaburo Wakayama) wandering from one setpiece to another along forests and bridges as they’re set upon by squads of assassins, and he carves them up amid gouts of blood sprayed in arterial ballets more extravagant than Jackson Pollock. Meanwhile, the impassive, virtually robotic kid (Akihiro Tomikawa) pushes buttons to make knives flip out of his wheels and whatnot. It’s as surreal as possible, defiantly so, and directed with maximum stylistic carnage.

That pretty much describes all six jaw-dropping movies in the series, mostly directed by Kenji Misumi. Americans were introduced to it via Shogun Assassin, an English-dubbed version released in 1980 by Roger Corman; it combined footage from the first two movies. It’s the kind of martial arts thing relegated to grindhouses, but some critics sat up and took notice, including Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. Their TV show alerted the audience to something special, although the later pan-and-scan VHS tape did the movie no more favors than the dubbing. Eventually letterboxed versions of the originals came out in the ’90s, and now all are remastered on Blu-ray along with Corman’s version for hardcore nostalgics.

We could reach for some statement about the loyalty and protection of the father and son in a hostile world, but these films are frankly less interested in redemptive art than sheer kinetic thrills. Still, they’re products of a richly contentious time of upheaval in Japan, when student protests shared headlines with neo-militarists and radical terrorists, and where economic transformation was interacting in a complicated way with the humiliation of WWII and American occupation. At the same time, the film industry was going to hell in a baby-cart thanks to competition from TV. One studio made nothing but “romantic porno”, and others turned to cheap series for their bread and butter.

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Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion

The Lone Wolf films were one of the two most important and violent series in Japan’s early ’70s cinema, and by what’s probably no coincidence, you can find the other series collected in a recent Blu-ray/DVD pack by Arrow Films, the Criterion of exploitation. Yes, I refer to the four films in Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection, and they’re a strong brew, indeed.

Basically the ultimate “women in prison” films, these factor in the burgeoning feminist movement that was equally part of the radical ferment in this rapidly changing traditional culture where everyone was expected to remain politely in their designated places. These movies center on the transgressive and terrifying heroine-fueled by sheer rage and played by Meiko Kaji, sporting a floppy black hat and full length black trench coat that might have influenced The Matrix.

When she’s railroaded into prison and suffers typical abuses, she responds by transmogrifying from a doormat into an impassive, cold-blooded avenging angel who organizes her fellow inmates into a radical union committed to overturning the system. Personal vengeance becomes an anarchic political movement marked by mayhem.

Directed by Shunya Ito and Yasuharu Hasebe, these are hyper-stylized, adrenaline- (or estrogen?) fueled films of disorienting angles, rapid cuts and majestic musical cues, and their unsubtle message is that the entire male-dominated society is a women’s prison. Yes, these movies can be dismissed as trash, at your peril, but rarely has trash conveyed such a righteous revolutionary vision, nor one that combines class and gender so handily. We’re consistently left with the idea that united women are unstoppable and will not be subdued. That’s what can make movies like this so dangerous.

And now, a few chocolates? I like the ones with coconut or hazelnuts. I think they go with a final touch of gouda and a dash of sparkling Asti as we wind down with a little Satie. You’re not driving, are you? I hope this has given you a few pointers on recent Blu-rays, but really, it’s impossible to keep up, isn’t it? Happy viewing.

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