Red Beard


Criterion Collection, $39.95

Scrape away the run-amok product placements, hoary ethnic jibes, and fail-safe fart jokes of the modern Hollywood clunker, and you'll often be blinded by the suggested altruism lurking at the core. Tom Hanks is the highbrow carrier; Adam Sandler is practically our celluloid Dubya. The whole ordeal must have Akira Kurosawa rotating like a barbecue spit six feet under.

According to film historian Stephen Prince, whose commentary track is basically the lone extra on Kurosawa's 1965 black-and-white period epic Red Beard (Akahige), the Japanese director long espoused relationships in which a wizened master teaches an impetuous pupil to give of himself unto the needy. In this sterling digital transfer, we see Kurosawa's final variation on this plot, as curmudgeonly physician Kyojio "Red Beard" Niide (Toshiro Mifune) encourages uppity intern Yasumoto to embrace his responsibilities in a dilapidated 19th-century public clinic.

Prince's wealth of expository historical knowledge makes for just the right supplement in deconstructing Red Beard. As the film swoops through grandly composed sets (the aftermath of an earthquake, a perilous whorehouse, the clinic's billowing gardens), then lingers on vignettes spun by various patients (the stunning, insane Mantis; selfless, terminally ill romantic Sahachi), Prince delineates sonic and structural highlights with—for a stuffy historian—almost palpable giddiness.

We learn that Kurosawa's fondness for telephoto lenses arranged at 90-degree angles often resulted in depth of field "continuity errors" during cuts. The distance between his lovers, enemies, and colleagues is intentionally skewed. See? Art can imitate life gracefully. Take note, Mr. Deeds.

Andrew Bonazelli

Take note, too, of some other DVD releases. Kevin Smith crony Brian O'Halloran (Clerks) stars as a messed-up clown in Vulgar (Sept. 3); the 1973 blaxploitation film The Mack arrives on the same date, as do Wesley Snipes' Blade II and something called Mickey's House of Villains from Disney, which is probably guaranteed not to scare the kids. Dude! National Lampoon's Van Wilder packs more raunch onto disc—including the "unrated" version of same (Aug. 20). Those who only know Billy Connolly as an actor (Mrs. Brown) can check out the Scotsman's stand-up routines on two new discs (Sept. 3).


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