howards end

Home Movies: “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams,” “Lone Wolf and Cub” series, and lots more

A pair of Japanese releases from The Criterion Collection are among the reasons to stay home and watch movies.

With the Portland area still thawing out from what passes for a winter storm in these parts, this seems like as good a time as any to launch what will hopefully be a new weekly feature on movies you can watch without leaving the warmth and comfort of your home.

Even with Portland’s abundance of independent and art house cinemas, there are worthy films that never make it into local theaters. And between streaming services like Fandor, Hulu, Netflix, MUBI, and the brand-new Flimstruck, the options for discovering unseen classics are boundless. Plus, they do still make movies on disc, and a good Blu-ray edition remains the best way to watch a film in your pajamas.

The Northwest Film Center’s annual Japanese Currents series is wrapping up this weekend, but if you can’t make it down to the Whitsell Auditorium, a couple of recent Blu-ray releases from The Criterion Collection can help you satisfy that yen for Japanese cinema. One is a late effort from one of the nation’s grand masters, the other a chance to dive into the gloriously stylized, narratively compelling, and thoroughly bloody swordfight genre.

Martin Scorsese as Vincent Van Gogh in “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams”

“Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams” came out in 1990. It was the first of Kurosawa’s movies I saw in a theater on its initial release, and it was the last of his films to approach greatness. (He only made two more features before his death in 1998.) It’s the sort of personal, impressionistic project only a legend could get away with. Literally based on the director’s recurring dreams, the movie is comprised of a series of vignettes, often imbued with a mixture of nostalgia, despair, and wonder. All are stunningly shot, but the most memorable features none other than American director Martin Scorsese as Vincent Van Gogh. It’s Scorsese’s most adept piece of acting (which isn’t saying much) and a testament to his admiration for Kurosawa that he appears at all.

“Dreams” looks astonishing on Blu-ray, and the Criterion release comes with enough extra goodies to get you through an entire snow day. First off, there’s a two-and-a-half hour documentary shot during the making of “Dreams” that provides as intimate a look at how a cinematic genius in full flower operates on a daily basis than you’re ever likely to find. Then there’s another fifty-minute doc, made in 2011,  featuring interviews with Kurosawa’s collaborators and colleagues, including Bernardo Bertolucci, Hayao Miyazaki, and Scorsese. A couple of freestanding interviews with the movie’s production designer and assistant director offer even more insight into its making. And, to top it all off, there’s a brand-new, full-length audio commentary track (a rarity these days even on Criterion releases) from film historian Stephen Prince. Prince, a Kurosawa expert, has contributed commentaries to past Criterion releases of nine other of the master’s works.

If “Dreams” is too artsy and respectable, though, Criterion has in its other hand the three-disc, six-film “Lone Wolf and Cub” set. No film industry could churn out genre series like the Japanese, and, other than “Zatoichi,” the “Lone Wolf and Cub” films might be the pinnacle of that trait. Made between 1972 and 1974, they follow the travelling adventures of Ogami Itto, an unjustly disgraced executioner in the Tokugawa Era who wanders the countryside pushing a perambulator containing his three-year-old son. Trouble follows them everywhere, so it’s a good thing Ogami has outfitted the baby cart to contain all manner of hidden weapons and deadly devices.

Tomisaburo Wakayama stars in the “Lone Wolf and Cub” series

Although the quality slumps a bit as the series goes on, the films are all stunningly shot, and star Tomisaburo Wakayama strikes the perfect tone as the curmudgeonly, ascetic, ultimately humane warrior who stands up for the little people and carves the bad guys into so much sushi.

The “Lone Wolf and Cub” movies are more than just samurai action flicks, with stories involving and complicated enough to hold your interest even before the blood and viscera begin to flow.

But, hey, maybe you’re just not in the mood for Japanese movies. It happens. Here’s a rundown of some other stuff that became available this week:

“Frank & Lola”: Michael Shannon is hot these days, by which I mean both that he’s a sought-after actor thanks to performances in films such as “Nocturnal Animals” and “Midnight Special,” and that he’s incredibly pissed about Donald Trump’s electoral victory. For some reason, no Portland theaters chose to run this relationship drama in which he plays a Las Vegas chef who falls in love with a younger woman (Imogen Poots, “Green Room”). She’s got secrets in her past, or at least claims to, as well as a dysfunctional mother (Patricia Arquette). He’s got anger issues and professional ambition. Writer-director Matthew Ross’ debut feature isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it’s involving enough to be worth a look. (available to rent via Amazon, Vudu, Cinema Now)

“Howards End” Blu-ray: The Cohen Film Colletion has made impressive strides in recent years to become an important player in the art house and repertory scene, and their biggest move yet was the recent acquisition of the Merchant Ivory film library. The first fruits of that deal came with the theatrical re-release of “Howards End” (locally at Cinema 21) and now its appearance in this luxurious Blu-ray release. It’s probably the most visually stunning film in the Merchant Ivory oeuvre, and there’s a making-of documentary, a Q&A session from earlier this year, and an audio commentary.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” Black & Chrome Edition: Director George Miller had initially intended to release the best action movie of 2015 in black-and-white, but obviously that ain’t gonna happen in today’s world. Now he’s finally been able to set his preferred version of the film loose on the world, and it’s available for streaming rental or on a Blu-ray. Can’t wait to check this out.

“Children of Divorce” Blu-ray/VOD: The company Flicker Alley is one of the unsung heroes of the film preservation movement. (Not that there are any terribly sung heroes of the film preservation movement.) Their latest effort is this 1927 comedy starring Clara Bow and a very young Gary Cooper. Judging from the trailer, it looks magnificently restored, and includes an hour-long documentary on Bow on the Blu-ray.

“The Exterminating Angel” Blu-ray: Another Criterion job, this Blu-ray debut of Luis Bunuel’s 1962 surrealist classic about a high-society dinner party that just won’t end includes the same supplementary material as their previous DVD issue, including a comprehensive, feature-length 2008 documentary about Bunuel’s career.

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