Friday, 14 December 2012

The bases are loaded with Three Samurai Warriors. Hollis Frampton is at bat. It's a GRAND SLAM for the Criterion Collection!!! Two Stellar Blu-Rays tie for a spot on Greg Klymkiw's 10 Best Blu-Ray/DVD Releases of 2012 - There'll be one new posting everyday until we hit the magic number. Today's Klymkiw Blu-Ray/DVD 2012 Accolade is THE SAMURAI TRILOGY and A HOLLIS FRAMPTON ODYSSEY from the Criterion Collection.

The Best Blu-Ray and DVD Releases
of 2012 as decreed by Greg Klymkiw

This was a stellar year for Blu-Ray and DVD collectors that it's been difficult to whittle my personal favourites down to a mere 10 releases, but I've more or less been able to do so. So hang on to your hats as I'll be presenting a personal favourite release from 2012 EACH and EVERY single day that will comprise my Top 10. At the end of all the daily postings, I'll combine the whole kit and kaboodle into one mega-post with all titles listed ALPHABETICALLY. My criteria for inclusion is/was thus: 1. The movie (or movies). How much do I love it/them? 2. How much do I love owning this product? 3. How many times will I re-watch it? 4. Is the overall physical packaging to my liking? 5. Do I like the picture and sound? There was one more item I used to assess the material. For me it was the last and LEAST area of consideration - one that probably surprise most, but frankly, has seldom been something I care that much about. For me, unless supplements really knock me on my butt, their inclusion is not that big of a deal. That said, I always go though supplements with a fine tooth comb and beyond any personal pleasure they deliver (or lack thereof), I do consider the educational value of such supplements for those studying film and/or those who might benefit from them in some fashion (film students or not). So, without further ado, here goes.

Greg Klymkiw's 10 Best Blu-Ray & DVD Releases of 2012 (which will be compiled in alphabetical order in one final mega-post). Today's Title (more to follow on subsequent days) is a tie between two magnificent releases that best exemplify why the Criterion Collection continues to be a leader in home entertainment product:

Criterion Collection: The Samurai Trilogy A Hollis Frampton Odyssey
These 2 Great Criterion Collection Blu-Ray Releases Among the 10 Best Home Entertainment Releases of 2012
By Greg Klymkiw

The Criterion Collection is the Tony Lazzeri of home entertainment product. If the Criterion Collection was, in fact, a baseball player, they would, like Mr. Lazzeri, not only have been the first player to score two grand slams in the game's history (accomplished for the Yankees against the Athletics in 1936), but they'd be hitting grand slams every game, every season and well into infinity.

Let's face facts! Criterion rocks!

I've been a loyal Criterion Collection supporter since the laserdisc days. I still own my lovely collection of LP-sized movies that I secured during the first two-thirds of the 1990s.

Being an inveterate collector, I'd become quite disillusioned in the 80s when my favourite - nay, beloved home entertainment format Betamax was edged completely out of the marketplace by the dastardly and decidedly inferior VHS. I hung on to my Beta movies and my VHS buying was extremely limited.

Then I met Jim Murphy, the legendary Canadian film distributor, educator and mentor. Over a delicious buffet at the Golden Griddle (the first of hundreds), he waxed poetic for about four hours on the joys of laserdiscs and in particular, those discs issued by the Criterion Collection - remastered versions of significant films from all over the world and jam-packed with all manner of supplemental materials - including the very new (at the time) notion of directors' commentaries on separate tracks of sound.

Keep in mind, I was a ridiculous collector of books, comics, vinyl, cds, movies and all manner of tchokes. Collecting (or accumulating) is an addiction and every addict needs an enabler. Jim was my enabler. In fairness, we became one another's enablers - going once or twice a week to the now-defunct Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street in Toronto for what we referred to as "a laser run". This we did for many years and once DVD took over, we continued the same pilgrimages - not JUST to Sam's anymore (they used to have the largest and best selection of laserdiscs), but now, stores purveying all manner of movies on this "new" digital format were popping up all over the place.

In 2007, Jim passed away. He left the Earth well before he should have and the void this created all across the country was (and still is, frankly) incalculable. However, Jim left behind a tremendous legacy for filmmaking in Canada - providing tutelage and mentorship through the National Screen Institute, but also supporting the financing and distribution of many important Canadian films - most notably the ultra-cool cult werewolf picture Ginger Snaps. On a personal level, though, his loss felt especially and almost egregiously unfair to so many of his closest friends.

Jim was a generous man in his life and this continued after he passed on. Jim's last will and testament bequeathed - to his closest group of movie-mad collector pals - his enormous collection of vinyl, books, cda, tchochkas and . . . movies. In typical Jim Murphy fashion, his will specified that we were to split this treasure trove "in a manner of [our] own devising."

Us laddies agreed upon a most gentlemanly manner to do so. We gathered in Jim's apartment and each took a turn selecting one movie of our choosing. Sometimes, in true collector fashion this involved bartering. And all through this strange day, it gave us pause to spend much time reminiscing about our dear departed friend.

And, of course, amongst the DVDs, the first to be snapped up were the Criterion Collection.

Then it came to the laserdiscs. Hundreds upon hundreds of them. Almost every Criterion Collection laserdisc known to man sat there. This was long after laserdiscs were dead and buried. To everyone in that room, save for me, laserdiscs were six feet under. The gentlemen looked at me with knowing grins. I looked to the Heavens - a habit of my Catholic upbringing - and said, "Jim! You fucker! You had to die for me to finally have a bigger laserdisc and movie collection than you." With the generous assistance of all these strapping fellows, my entire van - every inch except where I sat to drive - was full of laserdiscs.

As I drove home with box-loads of Jim's movies, I remember very distinctly looking over to the passenger seat where Jim sat - possibly more times than anyone else on this planet and that would include, up to that point, my wife and daughter. In his hallowed co-pilot spot were boxes. Nope. These were no substitute.

That said, whenever I watch one of "Jim's" titles, it's like he's not really gone. Whatever spirit exploding from the movie itself is, I like to think, the same one that touched him the way it touches me. And since so many of our conversations revolved around Criterion titles, those are the ones that bring me closest to him.

Movies are pretty much almost everything to me and while I get those strange feelings of spiritual reunification with my old pal, they're somehow strongest when I'm watching the laserdiscs. It was Jim who introduced me to the Samurai Trilogy. On Criterion laserdiscs. I still have them, even though I now own the Blu-Rays.

Today, I occasionally watch many of the Criterion laserdiscs since a number of their titles have yet to find their way onto DVD and Blu-Ray. It's a mystery to me why James Whale's stunning version of Show Boat lives only on extremely rare laserdiscs. Others are M.I.A, because of contentious material on the commentary tracks. The first three James Bond pictures issued in sumptuous editions will never again be available after EON Pictures' Cubby Broccoli demanded all unsold Criterion discs be withdrawn (for reasons never publicly stated, but if you ever hear the tracks, they are a far cry from the often polite, controversy-free puffery on many contemporary commentaries).

And recently, in light of all the hoopla surrounding Skyfall, I took the time to cleanse my palate of that overrated abomination and watch all three Criterion Bond discs WITH the illicit commentaries. It was as if Jim and I were chuckling together over the irascible, witty and often curmudgeonly old-school tidbits. He'd regale me on endless drives to movie stores, flea markets and other purveyors of home entertainment product, with all his favourite moments from those Bond commentaries with a delightful regularity that bordered on the fanatical. And now I could hear them myself. They were Jim's copies. And I could listen to the commentaries and occasionally be reminded of Jim's spirited paraphrasing of their contents.

If truth be told, there's a perverse part of me that prefers laserdisc to DVD and/or Blu-Ray. It's similar to why I still prefer films projected on actual celluloid rather than by digital means. The Criterion laserdiscs were, of course, masterful - the best of the lot, the best of the best. My dear friend, director Peter Lynch, bestowed upon me early Criterion laserdisc templates of Citizen Kane and King Kong which he had received when he curated an early festival devoted to digital production. They still provide me with lovely alternative modes of viewing.

Of course, you're probably wondering why I'm unloading my personal history and deep love for Criterion laserdiscs when I'm supposed to be championing Criterion's astounding Blu-Ray releases for 2012. The answer is quite simple - Criterion led the way. End of story. They were the first company to market specifically to die-hard collectors - connoisseurs, if you will. Laserdiscs were the first ultimate collectors' sell-through item. And the technology of laserdisc was one that purists could really embrace. For me, and yes I'm one of those analog-is-better-than-digital nuts, it all comes down to the warmth of the picture and with laserdisc, it was the only analogue system of home entertainment that yielded a picture quality closer to film than any other format (save perhaps for early analogue Betamax). Where Criterion really excelled here was in their exquisitely mastered and produced laserdiscs on the high quality CAV format. The frame accuracy for detailed study of the films (especially on the ins and outs of specific cuts) remains unparalleled. To this day, when I need to hunker down and analyze cuts, I haul out my CAV Criterion laserdiscs of Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and The Red Shoes. Nothing does a better job.

We are, however, in a digital age that is here to stay and rather than remain a complete curmudgeonly naysayer, I have embraced both DVD and Blu-Ray and continue to do so. The best companies (like Criterion and a handful of smaller independents like Milestone, Kino, Zeitgeist and Olive) maintain extremely high standards when restoring and/or remastering films to digital formats. Criterion, above all, was not only the first and best, they've maintained that position. If, God forbid, all home entertainment goes in the direction of on-demand and streaming, I suspect the last man standing to be the likes of Criterion. Their avid followers will accept no less than the ability to hold the precious film in their hands.

And in 2012, I held plenty of great movies in my hands - most of which came from Criterion - so many, in fact that I was initially flummoxed as to which of their pictures would find their way onto  a 10-Best list devoted to home entertainment. Some wonderful Criterion releases this year included such gems as Heaven's Gate, Umberto D, Les visiteurs du soir, Quadrophenia, Rosemary's Baby. Rosetta, La Promesse, Summer Interlude, The Gold Rush, ¡ALAMBRISTA!, Harold and Maude and La Haine.

Well, if truth be told, they all deserve to be on such a list, but for my money, the pinnacle of Criterion's excellence was in the astounding box set of Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy and the utterly, insanely and fascinating box of Hollis Frampton's brilliant experimental films.

The Samurai Trilogy dir. Hiroshi Inagaki *****

Samurai I: Musashi Miyato won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and like its two sequels, the movie stands alone as great motion picture entertainment. When watched one after the other, these three classically structured and beautifully directed films comprise a genuinely sprawling epic, often referred to as Japan's Gone With The Wind.

Musashi Miyato is a tale of two friends who begin together on the same path, go to war, but eventually take separate forks in the road of life which results in a series of surprises in their respective love lives - none which either of them would have ever seen coming. The title character (Toshiro Mifune) begins a journey towards becoming a samurai warrior. His somewhat weaker-willed pal Matahachi, abandons his wife-to-be and takes up with a manipulative dragon lady. The picture is bursting at the seams with first-rate melodrama, action scenes of unparalleled excitement and a deeply-felt rendering of a time, place and tradition now gone with the wind.

Samurai I is a tough act to follow, but Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple delivers a thousand-fold. When we last left Musachi, he'd become quite a skilled warrior and after some womanly dalliances, he declared his love to one very special lady, but in spite of this pulling at his heart strings, he decided to bugger off in search of his samurai mojo. Samurai II features several spectacular duels, more romance, our hero's first meeting with the man who becomes his ultimate nemesis and, if this isn't enough for you, he squares off against 80 - count 'em - 80 warriors. Will he survive? Well, as this is a trilogy, we certainly do hope so.

Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island is, without question, a corker of a conclusion to the stunning Samurai Trilogy. Our hero accepts the love of a good woman, settles down to a peaceful agrarian life, but just as he thinks he's out, they pull him back in again. He not only assists a group of helpless villagers to battle a gangster warlord, but he agrees to one more duel with the young man who has been itching to fight him for many years and might be the only swordsman skilled enough to take down the incomparable Musashi Miyamoto - Samurai of the highest order.

It's an astounding box. The pictures have been digitally restored in eye-popping hi-def and happily, the sound is presented in wonderful uncompressed mono. In addition to the array of essays there's an especially interesting newly produced segment on the real Musashi Miyamoto.

A Hollis Frampton Odyssey dir. Hollis Frampton *****

The legendary experimental American filmmaker is given a magnificent platform via the Criterion Collection to showcase the art he created during his tragically short life. Hollis Frampton, subject of this insanely exhaustive Criterion Blu-Ray was very much a structuralist. Identified as such by P. Adams Sitney, the foremost academic scholar on experimental cinema, Frampton's films would be, according to Sitney, "predetermined and simplified" and that this overall, almost carved-in-stone minimalist structure was what leapt from the formative pre-shooting stage to the film itself.

For me, experimental movies are just plain cool. Or at least they can be. Like any genre, there's good, bad, in-between and yes, great. Traditionally, experimental film has no real concern with narrative and yet, non-narrative experimentation - at least some of the best work - can be as structured as a narrative film that adheres to the Syd Field or Robert McKee approaches to visual storytelling.

A Hollis Frampton Odyssey is, without question, one of the seminal achievements in what could be seen as the ART of home entertainment creation, production and distribution. Assembling, restoring and providing a wealth of supplemental materials focusing upon this visionary and highly influential artist has been rendered with such loving care that Criterion continues to maintain their well-deserved reputation of going above and beyond the call of duty in their service to preserving the art of cinema (rivalled only by that of Milestone Film and Video whose recent commitment to the work of Lionel Rogosin and their ongoing restoration of silent cinema also places them in this pantheon).

The Criterion disc places 24 of Frampton's films in three sections comprising "Early Works" (including his groundbreaking feature film Zorns Lemma), films from his Hapax Legomena cycle and several key works from the stunning, though sadly unfinished Magellan cycle.

Watching the disc from beginning to end speaks volumes of the care taken by the Criterion team to curate the films. The cumulative effect of screening the early short works prior to watching the feature length Zorns Lemma ultimately yields the riches inherent in the said early titles, but also delivers a perfect platform to succumb to the sheer, unadulterated joy to be found in Frampton's feature.

Experimental cinema - especially in this package of Hollis Frampton's works - should always first be viewed experientially. Just sitting back and letting "IT" happen to you is not only pleasurable, but at times becomes impossible to do and you find yourself mysteriously and surprisingly engaged in a form of dialogue with the film. Frampton not only brilliantly EXPLORES the relationship between film and audience, but creates a relationship in and of itself.

Hollis Frampton died at the age of 48 from cancer. He was plucked from us far too early. The Magellan films, once complete, would have provided an epic work based upon the calendrical cycle and as such, would have delivered one movie for every day of the year.

Seriously, if this isn't cool, nothing is.

A Hollis Frampton Odyssey is available on Blu-Ray and DVD via the Criterion Collection. The restoration and picture transfers are stunning and happily, the sound is presented in uncompressed mono - the way it should be experienced. The extra features - many of which include interviews, footage and "commentary" from Frampton himself - are a treasure trove of insight into the artist and his extraordinary work. If you've never seen Frampton's work, or haven't for a long time, I highly suggest watching all the films first - from beginning to end before you dive into any of them extras. Let your senses and intellect mingle with his art. Get to know the artist through his work first - THEN get to know him with the terrific additional features. Most importantly, those who care deeply about film should NOT rent this. BUY IT!!!