Armchair CinephileShakespeare ... and smart kid-stuff 

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You never have to look far to find somebody performing Shakespeare, but some especially sharp productions have made their way to DVD lately. One of the most avant-garde meditations on the bard, My Own Private Idaho, is the beneficiary of a luxe Criterion Collection edition. The Gus Van Sant film casts River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves in a tale of brotherly love that transplants Henry IV into the seedier side of the Pacific Northwest, with gay hustlers, junkies, and thieves. It'd never fly in high-school Shakespeare class, but it gets at some subtext that most productions skip. (Van Sant fans will also welcome the New Line release of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, the filmmaker's adaptation of Tom Robbins' book.)

Two less outlandish restagings of Mr. S are paired in a recent package from Home Vision: Twelfth Night and Macbeth, respectively, featuring Parminder Nagra and Greta Scacchi, relocate the plays to contemporary settings and cast them with more international actors. More traditional are two Royal Shakespeare Company productions with powerhouse casts: Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in a 1978 Macbeth (A&E) that was originally shot for television; Dench reappears with Ian Holm, David Warner, Helen Mirren, and Emma Peel herself, Diana Rigg (!) in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Water Bearer Films).

These productions all benefit from having women's parts played by the genuine article, but audiences in Shakespeare's day weren't so lucky. The recent Stage Beauty (Lions Gate) returns us to that era, casting the delicately-featured Billy Crudup as a man known for his brilliant portrayal of Othello's Desdemona. Then the King goes and declares that women can act on stage, making Crudup's long-cultivated femininity a liability.

Good things come in threes for kids recently, and for adults who feel nostalgic about their childhoods. Three releases in a "Chuck Jones Signature Edition" from Lions Gate present some of the animator's more famous non-Looney Tunes creations: Mawgli's Brothers, The White Seal, and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi are all based on tales by Rudyard Kipling; the last one is particularly welcome, with its rich narration by Orson Welles. Each of the features is 30 minutes, and they could easily fit on one disc, but Lions Gate has split them onto separate DVDs, pairing them with more obscure "bonus stories."

Disney has brought out three eagerly awaited titles from Studio Ghibli, the brilliant Japanese production house behind Sprited Away. Two of the three are directed by that film's maker, Hayao Miyazaki (who is to Ghibli what Walt Disney was to his empire) - Porco Rosso and the better known Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind - while the third, The Cat Returns, was directed by Hiroyuki Morita. All three, saints be praised, are serious editions: They're presented in widescreen and the discs offer both the original Japanese-language tracks and audio that has been dubbed by well known Engligh-language actors.

While we're giving props to Disney, let's not forget Bambi, the latest of the Mouse House's treasures to arrive on the digital format. As we've come to expect with the studio's milestones, this one comes with both cinephile-oriented features such as deleted scenes, and kid goodies including a "forest adventure game." Sadly, it also includes a trailer for Bambi and the Great Prince of the Forest, what looks to be the latest in a long line of cheaply produced sequels that desecrate a beautiful memory.

Also on the cartoon front but heading into weird territory, VCI just collected a batch of the old Clutch Cargo shows. You know, the ones in which most of the "animation" relied on a real human mouth that was superimposed onto the drawn characters, a technique that has popped up in Pulp Fiction and on Conan O'Brien's show. Personally, I think this might freak kids out; stoned 20-somethings, on the other hand, should eat it up.

Finally, for kids edging into adolescence, comes a special edition of Stand By Me (Columbia/TriStar). Remembered as a launching pad for some famous and infamous careers, the Stephen King adaptation still holds a fair bit of charm. Collectors who already have the older edition of this one shouldn't get worked up, though: this offers no new features other than a little booklet and a "song track" with eight short tunes.

By John DeFore


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