DVD and Blu-ray are wonderful formats for film study and appreciation. Their large storage capacity facilitates the inclusion of supplementary features, such as audio commentaries by filmmakers, critics and scholars. Stephen Prince has scripted and voiced a series of audio commentaries that provide scene by scene and shot by shot analyses of classic films. Each commentary provides background on the film and filmmaker, the story setting and analysis of themes and visual design. They are comprehensive audio essays keyed to the moment-by-moment unfolding of the films.
One-Eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando, 1961, Arrow Video). This is the only film directed by actor Marlon Brando. For years, it suffered an unfair reputation as a self-indulgent attempt at a Western by Brando. It circulated in poor-quality versions with faded color and incorrect aspect ratio. This new restoration released by Arrow -- with superb color and the correct ratio -- shows how mistaken those impressions were. The commentary explores the film as a masterpiece by an actor whose skill at drama and shrewd understanding of cinema made him an outstanding film director. This is a unique, not-to-be-missed Western.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Sam Peckinpah, 1974, Arrow Video). This is the ultimate Sam Peckinpah movie -- in its lurid depiction of greed and depravity, Peckinpah battles his personal demons in one last, grand struggle for filmmaking greatness. The commentary places the film in the context of his career and explores its themes and obsessions. Like Straw Dogs, this one separates the Peckinpah friends and foes.
Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (Akira Kurosawa, 1990, Criterion). Kurosawa launched the final creative period of his career with this very personal, epsiodic work offering a series of dreams about life and the world. Kurosawa weaves numerous episodes from his own life into the dreams, which deal with art, the beauty of nature, and the omnipresent threat of war and environmental destruction. A film of extraordinary visual beauty.
Dillinger (John Milius, 1973, Arrow Video). When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Director Milius takes this advice from John Ford and gives us a rollicking, violent depiction of Dillinger and other legendary Depression-era gangsters. Above all, the movie is an homage to director John Ford, whom Milius greatly reveres, along with a dash of Kurosawa in the mix. The commentary points out the Kurosawa and Ford homages and the ways that Milius' tale offers a romantic enlargement upon history.
Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964, Criterion). Kobayashi presents a quartet of ghost stories in one of the most ravishingly beautiful films ever made, presented here for the first time in the U.S. in the director’s full, extended version. The commentary focuses on Kobayashi’s synthesis of aesthetic tradition and avant-garde experimentation, and the ways the film marked a turning point in his career.
Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa, 1949, Criterion). Kurosawa’s crime film is a kind of neo-realist film noir about a detective whose pistol is stolen and who must find and recover it. The commentary examines Kurosawa’s fondness for popular genres, his use of genre as a vehicle for social criticism, and his existential ethos and its relation to the chaos of post-war Japan, devastated by Allied bombs and struggling to recover.
Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952, Criterion). In this, Kurosawa’s first materpiece, a clerk dying of cancer feels his life has been meaningless and searches for affirmation in his final days. The commentary discusses Kurosawa’s use of illness as metaphor, his bleak view of the post-war generation, and his use of the hero character as a vehicle of social change.
Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954, Criterion). Back-to-back masterpieces – this film followed Ikiru and remains Kurosawa’s best loved and most respected movie. Seven samurai make war on their own class in defense of a farming village. The commentary, a joint effort from a group of scholars, focuses on Kurosawa’s use of the period of 16th century Japan and his feelings about the world of the samurai.
The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa, 1958, Criterion). Kurosawa’s entertainment about two ruffians, a princess and her general struggling through enemy territory to reach home is best known as an inspiration on George Lucas and Star Wars. The commentary focuses on Kurosawa’s first use of anamorphic widescreen, the influence of Hollywood director John Ford, and the influence of Noh theatre on the film.
Yojimbo(Akira Kurosawa, 1961, Criterion). Kurosawa’s black comedy about a samurai pitting two gangster clans against each other has influenced Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and countless other movies. The commentary focuses on Kurosawa’s neo-Confucian criticism of post-war Japanese capitalism through the guise of the period film and on the influence of Hollywood Westerns and film noir.
Sanjuro (Akira Kurosawa, 1962, Criterion). Yojimbo was so popular that Kurosawa’s studio wanted a sequel, so Kurosawa offered this very different, more elegant satire of samurai etiquette and of the samurai movie genre. The commentary compares the two films and examines Kurosawa’s deconstruction of the samurai tradition as it has existed on screen.
High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963, Criterion). One of Kurosawa’s most brilliantly designed movies, this kidnapping tale is also one of his most stunning exercises in widescreen composition. The commentary focuses on Kurosawa’s filming methods, his decision to break the film into two radically different sections, and his views on crime and on kidnapping in contemporary Japan, a problem to which the movie is a pointed response.
Red Beard (Akira Kurosawa, 1965, Criterion). Kurosawa’s three-hour epic about a 19th century slum clinic was his last black-and-white movie, his last with actor Toshiro Mifune, and his last in anamorphic widescreen. The commentary covers these points of transition, Kurosawa’s evolving visual style, and details of 19th Japanese medical practices on which Kurosawa drew.
Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, 1980, Criterion). Kurosawa’s first samurai movie in color, it was a co-production with American money. The commentary focuses on it as a historical tale, akin to Shakespeare’s historical plays, about the final days of the Takeda clan, wiped out by an army using rifles in manner that, for Kurosawa, foreshadowed the many slaughters of the twentieth century.
Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985, Criterion). Kurosawa’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear was his final period film about the 16th century samurai wars. The commentary focuses on Kurosawa’s regard for Shakespeare and his manner of translating and transposing Shakespeare’s tragedy to the terms of 16th century Japan.
Sword of Doom (Kihachi Okamoto, 1966, Criterion). Okamoto’s ferocious samurai movie is a cult favorite for its spectacular sword-fight choreography and its bleak portrait of a psychopathic warrior on a rampage in 19th century Japan. The commentary focuses on Okamoto’s adaptation of the source novel, his treatment of the political crises in late-Shogunate Japan that motivate the story, and his deliberately oblique and modernist approach to story and character.
Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971, Criterion). Peckinpah’s most notorious movie is a lacerating portrait of emotional, sexual and physical violence. The commentary focuses on Peckinpah’s career and use of irony as a mode of drama and storytelling and focuses as well on the Vietnam period that the movie responds to. The commentary offers the film as a more subtle and explosive critique of violence and masculinity than it is typically taken for.
Cross of Iron (Sam Peckinpah, 1977, Hen's Tooth). Peckinpah’s only war movie portrays German soldiers on the Russian front. The commentary explores Peckinpah’s late career, his use of Brechtian distancing techniques, and his uneasy relationship with the film’s production and story.
The Naked Prey (Cornel Wilde, 1965, Criterion). Wilde’s singular film about a safari guide hunted by Zulu warriors is strikingly visual and almost a silent movie for having so little dialogue. The commentary focuses on the film’s criticism of South Africa’s policy of apartheid and its infusion of the American civil rights struggle into a story that in many respects participates in the colonialist templates that Hollywood applied to narratives set in Africa.