Toho, 1958, B&W, 139 mins.- Criterion DVD

Toshiro Mifune: "Make them carry gold and they'll put up with anything."

     You can't beat a man who combines superlative ass-kicking abilities with psychology, and in this picture Samurai General Mifune gives all of his talents a workout. Charged with escorting the Princess of his defeated clan and a cache of gold to safety, he employs some questionable methods- but compared to the two peasants he recruits to help him, he's practically a saint.

The two poor villagers, Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara- whose experiences frame the story- are caught up in the backwash of war, and through no fault of their own they manage to survive and hook up with Mifune and the Princess, Misa Uehara. The latter is the story's most moral character, a tomboyish, headstrong young woman who ultimately gets the most out of the journey, which exposes her to both the best and worst parts of humanity.

Director Akira Kurosawa's classic is full of beautifully-composed widescreen photography and epic confrontations, and despite the unpleasantness of the setting there is a rich vein of humor and adventure and fun running through the picture. A superior piece of entertainment all around. The disc features restored picture and sound and a brief video bit with George Lucas, who talks about the influence of the picture on "Star Wars."

United Artists, 1963, Color, 115 mins.- MGM DVD

Claudia Cardinale: "I'm quite content with reality. I have no need for escape."

     You can rest assured that the above sentiment is not shared by anyone involved in the making of this movie, which introduced the cartoon Pink Panther, the non-cartoon but nevertheless animated Inspector Clouseau, and Henry Mancini's theme music- all of which became durable parts of pop culture.

This original picture focuses as much on debonair jewel thief David Niven and his plan to steal the titular diamond as it does on Peter Sellers' Clouseau, and the mixture of elements is somewhat uneven, veering from a glamorous caper flick to a mini-musical to a wheezy bedroom farce to a chase straight out of the Keystone Cops. Luckily, though, whenever Sellers is on screen he brings the energy level up with his portrayal of a man who is suave, competent and self-assured- but only in his own mind. In actuality, he's a clueless klutz, and the conflict between perception and reality is comic gold.

The slapstick is relatively restrained and realistic in this first installment, and there is a particularly funny twist at the end. The disc is a plain vanilla affair, but the film looks pretty good, and if you're a fan of Sellers or writer/director Blake Edwards you should check it out.

Fox, 1969, Color, 116 mins.- Five Star Collection DVD

Sally Kellerman: "This isn't a hospital! It's an insane asylum!"

     Bubbling up from the depths of the Sixties counterculture soup pot is this wildly irreverent stab at the war in Viet N- er, "Korea." Those who are only familiar with the successful TV series will find recognizable elements here, but the tone is different- this is a genuinely subversive piece of work, blending Marx Bros.-style shenanigans with the grim realities of war.

It is episodic and messy, refusing to tie its story elements into a nice tidy bundle at the end- just like real life, if your life included serving in an Army field hospital during a bloody and seemingly pointless conflict. The realistic feel is aided immeasurably by director Robert Altman's famous overlapping dialogue- most of it improvised- and by the documentary-like photographic style.

Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould lead a terrific cast in taking potshots at a variety of sacred cows, in a meshing of style and content that was extraordinary at the time and still resonates today. The two-disc set features a newly-restored version of the film, with extras including a commentary by the director, stills, and several documentaries which reveal behind-the-scenes craziness rivaling that seen on screen.

Best selection of jazz instruments -!


© Melt Magazine 2001