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Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao
(The Criterion Collection)

Shakespearean in its conception, visually stunning in its presentation and rich in its scope, Akira Kurosawa's 1985 film, Ran, is often hailed by film critics as a "late-life masterpiece," owing to the fact that the master Japanese director was in his mid-70s at the time of the release.

So with all the wonder on display in this impressively restored and packaged Criterion Collection two-disc release --Êthe larger-than-life story, the broad characterizations, the portentous performances, the mise-en-scene lifted from water-colored storyboards -- most would question any notion that Ran can still leave the occasional viewer wanting. It would seem like sacrilege these days, given Kurosawa's rightful place in film history, and part of that legacy includes what many critics believe to be two of the best cinematic Shakespearean adaptations ever: 1957's Throne of Blood (Macbeth) and Ran, which was based on King Lear. This may very well be true, and praise be to the man who can faithfully update the Bard's works, which too often stand on their own and rarely translate well to other mediums.

But despite all of Ran's strengths, it is far from perfect. Truth be told, it's bloated, without a lick of subtlety or nuance. It's so far over the top, particularly Tatsuya Nakadai's bug-eyed performance as the foolhardy, Lear-esque Hidetora Ichimonji, that the film feels burdensome within the first 30 minutes. From the moment Hidetora naively tries to retire from the family business of running the province he spent a lifetime building and hand it over to his three sons, you feel the weight of the story with virtually no sense of build-up. And the chase is on to phase Hidetora completely out of the picture begins, thanks in no small part to the machinations of Lady Kaede (deliciously sinister Mieko Harada), a wolf in sheep's clothing who seeks to avenge her own family through seducing one of the sons.

There's no denying Ran's power, particularly in the final battle sequence that makes the chariot race in Ben-Hur look like an I Love Lucy skit.

"I feel that Ran is my life's work," Kurosawa says in the 30-minute documentary Akira Kurosawa's Passion, one of several hefty extras in the Criterion release's second disc. "I wanted to put all the energy left inside me into this film." Clearly Kurosawa was looking at his own formidable life with this film. Which is why, perhaps, we can be forgiven for feeling a bit spent after this worthy film that nevertheless needs the "late-life" caveat to this supposed masterpiece.

Scarlet Street
Directed by Fritz Lang
Starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett

One of the many curiosities about Fritz Lang's reputation is that he has gone down in cinema more for Metropolis than some of his more polished works, particularly Scarlet Street. After all, according to film historian David Kalat's commentary for this exquisite Kino release, Lang maintained that this 1945 effort was his favorite English-language film just as M was his favorite German-language film.

Say one thing for Lang: The man had good taste in his own work, for Scarlet Street is one of the greatest in the film noir canon if not necessarily one of the most celebrated. Small wonder; it was a box-office hit at the time despite (or maybe because?) of the fact that it was banned in three states. Which brings up one of the truly great ironies of film noir: In trying to provide an honest assessment of mankind's darker shades of morality, the genre was dismissed as being amoral.

Lang's work here is a classic case in point in exploring the sad world of accountant Chris Cross, played by Edward G. Robinson in one of his great archetypal performances. Only superficially appreciated at work and harangued by his carping wife (Rosalind Ivan), Chris seeks comfort in his amateur attempts at painting. Fate intercedes when he defends a prostitute, Kitty March (Joan Bennett), when she is roughed up by her pimp, Johnny Prince (film noir icon Dan Duryea). Through a misunderstanding, Cross allows Kitty to believe he's a wealthy painter and eventually sells his work through her. Jealousies arise, and the final results are inevitable if complex.

Scarlet Street's great charm is how Robinson, who so famously enlarged his small, roundish features to fill the silver screen, here so deftly shrunk himself to ineffectuality. His Chris is nothing like his gangers, poker players and other heavies, more closely resembling his insurance investigator Barton Keyes in another film noir classic, Double Indemnity -- though still weaker. But this is Robinson at his most nuanced and sympathetic, and this is Lang at his most assured.

Last year, Questar released Scarlet Street as part of a five-disc set, but this version features a masterfully restored print along with Kalat's insightful, if verbose, commentary. It's also a must-have for film noir lovers, who aren't afraid to be alone in the dark.



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