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How About Some Noah Baumbach, Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Altman & 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.

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?

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.

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.

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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