New Criterions

Criterion's new DVDs are state of the art

Now that DVD has pretty much taken over the entire movie-watching world, there's good news and bad news, and then some more good news.

The good news is that films from all times and places — rare and wonderful movies that we never thought we'd have a chance to see (or see again), much less in the comfort of our own homes — are now readily available to anyone who owns a DVD player.

The bad news is that not all of these DVDs look and sound the way we expect our DVDs to look and sound.

All the more reason to be thankful for the handful of DVD companies we can consistently trust. At the very top of that list is the Criterion Collection, whose continued dedication to excellence pretty much assures us that any DVD of theirs we watch is going to offer the sublime viewing experience we so richly deserve.

The Criterion library of films on DVD now hovers at just over 200 titles, and virtually every one of those productions brims with imagination, passion and the highest possible quality. Here's a sampling of some of the latest and best of the batch:

Steven Soderbergh's brazenly unclassifiable Schizopolis is just the sort of film tailor-made for the Criterion treatment. Ignored by the public and outright slammed by most critics when it was first released in 1996, Schizopolis might easily have fallen into the cracks of cinema history. Criterion's new DVD of Schizopolis confirms the movie as one of the most interesting films of the '90s. It's also certainly one of the strangest.

Very much in the surrealist-dadaist spirit of vintage Bunuel or early Richard Lester, Schizopolis is a frenetic, through-the-looking-glass farce featuring the writer-director himself in a performance as droll as it is absurdly excessive. Soderbergh's character splits into two entities midway through — a corporate drone slaving away for a self-help fascist modeled after L. Ron Hubbard, and a neurotic dentist in a blue jogging suit — but that's a fairly ordinary occurrence compared to everything else in this mind-bogglingly weird and frequently hilarious opus.

Television news conferences are held to urgently address the slanderous rumor that racehorses urinate more than other animals. A guy called Namelessnumberhead Man obsesses on ways to fatten up his spouse. Soderbergh's doppelganger has an affair with his own wife. A goggle-wearing Bug Man and a series of sexy housewives engage in erotic foreplay by murmuring come-ons like "Death rattle! Monkey calluses!" to which the throaty reply is "Jigsaw, landmine, sneeze." In the end, word games completely take over and everybody starts speaking in badly dubbed French, Italian and Japanese. All of it is ridiculously inexplicable, much of it is brilliant, and, at one point, even good ol' Tampa figures into the scheme of things.

Schizopolis was an ultra-low-budget production, but you'd hardly know it from the crisp, virtually artifact-free image and vivid colors of Criterion's high-definition digital transfer. In what may be my favorite DVD feature of the year, Soderbergh interviews himself, delivering a deadpan "director's commentary" that's actually an elaborately constructed series of fabulous lies, driving home the movie's deliciously subversive Monty Python-meets-Kafka approach. For the more literal minded, a second commentary by various cast and crewmembers provides an informed and very personal take on the methods behind the movie's madness. A selection of deleted scenes and the original trailer round out the extras on this emphatically odd and highly recommended disc.

Never one to pigeonhole itself, Criterion works wonders with all sorts of contemporary and classic films. Alain Resnais' 1959 masterpiece, Hiroshima Mon Amour, for instance, is a movie every bit as enigmatic as Schizopolis, but that's about as far as the connection goes. Where Soderbergh's movie revels in gleeful guerrilla tactics and pure absurdity, Resnais' film is profound and poetic. It is also, simply put, one of the greatest films of all time.

It's quite possible that movies like Pulp Fiction and Memento wouldn't exist without the elegant but audacious time-shattering experiments initiated in Hiroshima Mon Amour. Working closely with screenwriter Marguerite Duras, Resnais fuses past and present, thought and action, while probing the innermost depths of a Japanese man and a French woman engaged in a passionate affair in postwar Hiroshima. The film begins in a curiously detached, almost documentary-like fashion, eventually becoming more rigorously stylized as it constructs and deconstructs its own narrative. Resnais' film is certainly a love story on one of its many levels, but it is also an elaborate meditation on memory, encompassing everything from the individual histories of the two lovers to the far-ranging effects of the atomic bomb on the Japanese psyche. With an infinitely complex structure that inevitably mirrors the workings of the human mind itself, Hiroshima Mon Amour is a fascinating work of art that has rightly been described as the first truly modern movie.

The DVD edition of Hiroshima Mon Amour is one of Criterion's finest, a beautifully produced package that comes complete with a handsomely designed 32-page booklet. The film's image and sound have been meticulously restored, allowing us to fully savor the breathtaking black-and-white cinematography of Mikio Takahashi and Sacha Vierny (who went on to shoot for Peter Greenaway, among others). The immaculate, full-screen image is smooth and richly detailed, with deep, shiny blacks and exceptionally strong contrasts. There are moments, as when we're watching the opening shots of beads of sweat glistening on the lovers' skin, when the image seems to take on a startling, almost 3D-like clarity.

The disc's supplements include film historian Peter Cowie's thorough and thought-provoking commentary, balancing background information on Resnais, Duras and the film's production with detailed analysis of specific key scenes as well as the film's innovative techniques and themes. There are also no less than two interviews with the notoriously publicity-shy Resnais, as well as a pair of filmed chats with actress Emmanuelle Riva, shot nearly a half-century apart. The two faces of Riva tell their own bittersweet story, facing each other across a 50-year chasm and dovetailing neatly into the temporal tone poem that is Hiroshima Mon Amour. Consider this a definitive edition.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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