As Good As It Gets

A supreme sampling of new DVD releases from Criterion.

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All those reports about the tragic death of videotape have been somewhat exaggerated. But not by much.

More and more titles appear on DVD every day, and not just the movies you'd expect.

There are several enlightened companies out there who have made solid reputations for themselves primarily by seeking out this really interesting (albeit often esoteric) stuff and then releasing it on DVD, often in lovingly restored packages, with extras. The most notable of these companies include Anchor Bay (who've graced us with everything from the complete works of Werner Herzog to a box set of Brigitte Bardot), Kino (whose tastes run from silent German Expressionist classics to Canadian surrealist Guy Maddin) and Fantoma (a small San Francisco outfit that located Alexandro Jodorowsky's "lost" film Fando and Lis and presented it to the world on DVD). Fantoma most recently unleashed a trilogy of vintage oddities by legendary Brazilian horrormeister Jose "Coffin Joe" Marins.

Criterion Collection almost single-handedly changed the nature of the home entertainment biz in the mid '80s when it began producing laserdisc editions of deserving films in their correct (often widescreen) aspect ratios — something virtually unheard of at the time. The company frequently embellished the presentation of those movies with extensive supplemental features, such as directors' commentaries and the like. This legendary series of bells and whistles-enhanced laserdiscs served as the prototype for all those groovy (and now practically de rigueur) special edition DVDs that light up our lives these days.

Criterion made the shift from laserdisc to DVD some time ago with typical grace and style. Over the past few years they've divided their time between releasing sparkling new DVD editions of some of the many titles from their legendary laserdisc catalogue (like Brazil, The Seven Samurai, Amarcord, et. al) and producing beautiful, brand new special edition DVDs of important and extremely cool films like The Third Man, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Gimme Shelter. These Criterion editions are almost always highly sought-after, and when they go out of print, as happens from time to time — well, I guarantee if you surf over to eBay at this very moment, you're likely to find a copy of Criterion's out-of-print Salo going for somewhere in the range of 300 big ones. (It originally retailed for under 30.)

The Criterion library of films on DVD now hovers just over 100 titles and there's not a clunker in the bunch. Don't assume that means that these movies are all cut from the same cloth: While Criterion displays a clear affection for what we'd have to call "serious art films," there's a healthy smattering of just about everything to be found under the company's banner. Recent releases have included numerous classic art films, true, but also The Beastie Boys Video Anthology as well as elaborate special editions of Rushmore and Brian De Palma's exploitation classic Sisters.

It all amounts to perhaps the most eclectic and tasty buffet any movie buff could desire. Need proof? Here's a sampling of the latest batch of Criterions:

Spartacus One of the most lavishly produced laserdiscs ever becomes one of the most lavishly produced DVDs ever. Opinion continues to be sharply divided on Spartacus. Does it really belong in the Stanley Kubrick canon? Is Kirk Douglas' haircut just too weird? But one thing is pretty much universally agreed on: This is one of the best Hollywood epics ever made (and a gladiator movie to give Ridley Scott a real run for his money). Criterion's 2-DVD set includes a stunningly crisp and vibrant transfer of the film's uncut, 196-minute version in its ultra-wide 2.2:1 aspect ratio, as well as so many extra features you'll need an entire weekend to navigate through them.

Included is one of the best commentary tracks you'll ever hear (by the wonderful Peter Ustinov, novelist Howard Fast, Kirk Douglas and others), five deleted scenes (including one nixed by the Catholic Legion of Decency), tons of behind-the-scenes footage, documentaries, interviews with Ustinov and Jean Simmons, newsreel footage, original storyboards and hundreds of production stills, posters, publicity materials and even a comic book. Ancient Rome was never so much fun.

Rififi Criterion's Rififi is a must-have on the virtue of its image quality alone, which is about as good as I've ever seen a black-and-white film look outside of a movie theater. The film positively seems to glow in this gloriously sharp and luxurious transfer, with a near-limitless variety of grays, and blacks so deep and seductive you feel like you could sink into them.

Rififi, for the uninitiated, is the prototype for just about every great heist movie from the '50s on, a masterful blend of hard-boiled American noir and a more reflective French style. The movie's a tough, atmospheric treat from beginning to end, packed with beautiful losers, double-crossing stool pigeons, desperate junkies, seedy Montmartre night clubs, bad girls in fur coats, and lots and lots of pistol-packing, fatalistic tough guys immaculately outfitted in dark coats, ties and hats (and we haven't even mentioned the famous heist scene itself).

The extras on the DVD are sparse but choice: a fascinating 20-minute interview with director Jules Dassin, a gallery of production stills (including some suitable-for-framing pen-and-ink set designs by Alexandre Trauner), and an oddly misleading trailer for the English dubbed version of Rififi (complete with rave from Walter Winchell).

Fiend Without a Face Living proof that it's not just high art that gets the Criterion treatment. Mobile, flesh-eating, atomic brain-creatures and great (albeit charmingly dated) stop-motion effects are the main attractions in this 1958 cult creepfest. Criterion's pristine 1:66 widescreen transfer reveals Fiend to be a surprisingly well-composed movie, and re-establishes the latent surrealism of shots of the brain monsters dangling from trees or using their spinal chord tails to inch themselves along the ground(!).

Extras are plentiful and include an audio commentary with the film's executive producer, a series of trailers from other "genre" films, and a collection of publicity photos, posters, clippings and artwork from the film. The real gem here is an illustrated essay by cultural historian Bruce Eder that examines Fiend and puts it in its proper sociological context. If this disc floats your boat, wait till you see what Criterion did with The Blob.

M. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle If Chaplin, Keaton or even Monty Python figure among your personal gods, don't even think about ignoring these discs. Jacques Tati is one of the funniest men in the world and a film visionary unlike any other. His movies are gentle little ruminations on the ins and outs of daily life ("postcards," as Tatiphile and ex-Python Terry Jones describes them in his loving introductions included on these DVDs).

M. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle are two of Tati's very best, nearly wordless romps combining some of the wittiest and imaginative sight gags and graceful slapstick ever committed to celluloid. Both films feature Tati's recurring hero Monsieur Hulot (played by the director himself), a klutzy, pipe-smoking beanpole who manages to endear himself even as he inadvertently creates havoc everywhere. There are a few age-related problems on the DVD transfers (mostly stray scuffs and blemishes on the prints), but nothing major. On the whole, the films look great in these new digital transfers, with Mon Oncle's rich color schemes looking particularly smooth and natural. Each disc comes with a very rare short film: Rene Clement's 1936 Soigne Ton Gauche (starring Tati as a would-be boxer) appears on M. Hulot's Holiday, while Mon Oncle includes Tati's own L'ecole des Facteurs, a delightful 1947 sketch about getting the mail delivered on time. All in all, grand stuff.

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