Your guide to our coverage of the new DVD/Blu-ray releases
Here's what's new on DVD and Blu-ray this week as featured on Videodrone
Arrrgh! Johnny Depp and the 'Pirates' are Back 'On Stranger Tides'!
TV on DVD:
'V' Leaves the Skies. Or at Least the Network Schedule
TV on DVD Channel Guide: Margaret Thatcher and J.K. Rowling via TV Movies
The Cool and the Collectible:
Cult Watch: 'Batman: Year One'
'Willy Wonka' and the Ultimate Collector's Edition – with an exclusive clip
Coming up next week:
"Captain America: The First Avenger" (Paramount)
"Winnie the Pooh" (Disney)
"Attack the Block" (Sony)
"Father of Invention" (Anchor Bay)
"The People Vs. George Lucas" (Lionsgate)
"City of Life and Death" (Kino Lorber)
"Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" (Oscilloscope)
"Identification of a Woman" (Criterion)
"Island of Lost Souls" (Criterion)
"Laurel and Hardy: The Essential Collection" (Vivendi)
"Zombie: 2-Disc Ultimate Edition" (Blue Underground)
"Barney Miller: The Complete Series" (Shout! Factory)
"Jurassic Park: Ultimate Trilogy" (Blu-ray) (Universal)
"Dazed and Confused" (Blu-ray) (Criterion)
"The Conversation" (Blu-ray) (Lionsgate)
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Plus Felini's 'I Clowns' and Martin Scorsese's 'Cape Fear' remake
"Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: 40th Anniversary Blu-ray+DVD Ultimate Collector's Edition" (Warner) is quite the deluxe edition of the fantasy classic. Videodrone's review is here.
"The Crow" (Lionsgate), a perennial cult favorite among the dark comic-book movies, finally arrives on Blu-ray after (and only months after the inferior sequel was released). Brandon Lee (who died in a production accident while making the film) makes a simmering hellion of a hero, a lean, ruthless dark angel with furious moves and an intensity that strikes terror in his victims before he kills them in often grotesque ways, his form of poetic justice. It's essentially a sadistic revenge fantasy, a humorless Dr. Phibes with a demonic twist set in some vague Goth-noir city of perpetual night, buy style monkey Alex Proyas sets a striking look and tone: unreal nightmare fantasy with a flamboyant style, exaggerated art direction, and a thundering pace. A real live action comic book, right down to its pulp characters. The disc features a new commentary track by director Alex Proyas plus supplements from previous editions: a behind-the-scenes featurette, a profile of “The Crow” comic strip creator James O’Barr, extended scenes and deleted footage among the supplements, plus a bonus digital copy.
"The Guns of Navarone" (Sony) helped kick off the fashion for muscular World War II mission thrillers. Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and David Niven are part of the covert Allied saboteurs charged with infiltrating a Nazi stronghold on a rocky Greek island and destroying the heavily-protected guns hidden in the craggy caves. J. Lee Thompson’s WWII high tension adventure, adapted from the Alistair MacLean novel by blacklisted writer Carl Foreman, is a cracking good cliffhanger of grit and grease, loyalty and suspicion, and heroism under fire. Features separate commentary tracks by director J. Lee Thompson and film historian Stephen J. Rubin and 11 featurettes (the disc says three documentaries and eight featurettes, but as the longest is under 30 minutes I don't think they qualify as features, only featurettes), including "Ironic Epic of Heroism" hosted by Sir Christopher Frayling and the 1999 "Memories of Navarone" with J. Lee Thompson and stars Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and James Darren. Notes on the restoration from archivist Robert Harris here.
Raro Video released Federico Fellini's "I Clowns" on DVD earlier this year. It now makes the Blu-ray debut for both the film and the company. Originally made for Italian television, the production is a first-person exploration/appreciation of the art and culture of clowns made with the usual indulgence of its director. Reviewing the film in 1971, Roger Ebert wrote of this mix of fact and fancy: "This is artful and sometimes very amusing, but it doesn't work as fiction because Fellini is tied to facts, and it doesn't work as documentary because Fellini will not (cannot?) abandon his gift of giving the raw material an artistic shape." Like the DVD, the Blu-ray features Fellini's 1953 short "La Agenzia Matrimoniale" (made for the anthology film "Love in the City"/"L'amore in citta") and Adriano Arpa’s 45-minute visual essay "Fellini’s Circus." The disc is in a paperboard holder in a slipsleeve and accompanied by a handsome 50-page booklet. Gary Tooze reports that it is a marked improvement over the flawed DVD release, with none of the edge-enhancement issues that plagued the earlier release, at his essential site DVD Beaver.
The Blu-ray debut of "Cape Fear (1991)" (Universal) arrives for the 20th anniversary of Martin Scorsese’s remake of the 1962 thriller. Nick Nolte stars as the lawyer that sadistic ex-con Robert DeNiro hunts along with the counsellor’s wife (Jessica Lange) and daughter (Juliette Lewis) in his violent campaign of revenge. It’s Scorsese’s ugliest film in human terms, with a compromised lawyer who reneges on his duty to a vicious client to put him behind bars, his splintered family living a life of lies and mistrust, and an inhuman killer preaching revenge like a righteous angel of vengeance. Illeana Douglas and Joe Don Baker co-star, and original stars Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, and Martin Balsam all make cameos. Includes all the supplements of the previous DVD special edition: the 80-minute documentary "The Making of Cape Fear," two short behind-the-scenes segments, nine minutes of deleted scenes (including one very nice moment between mother and daughter), a featurette about the Saul and Elaine Bass opening credits sequence, a montage of matte effects shots and more, plus the usual BD-Live supplements.
Also new on Blu-ray: "Darkness Falls" (Image), Jonathan Liebesman’s 2003 supernatural horror movie about a demonic spirit that returns to a sleepy seaside town (in the guise of the famous midnight spirit who trades loose teeth for hard cash) to take revenge on a lynching from 150 years ago. No supplements.
Plus the 'Trancers' Chronicles, classic Hong Kong action and more Kevin Smith
"Batman: Year One" (Warner), based on the Frank Miller-scripted graphic novel about the early years of Batman and Jim Gordon (before he was Commissioner), is to date the best of the DC Universe Original Animated features. Videodrone's review is here. "Aki Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys: Eclipse Series 29" (Criterion) chronicles the amazing collaboration between Finland's eccentric rockers and legendary minimalist absurdist director. Videodrone's review is here.
Kaneto Shindo's "Kuroneko" (Criterion) is both an eerie ghost story and a ferocious horror tale of righteous revenge. Set in feudal Japan, in a bamboo forest perpetually shrouded in fog and shadow as ethereal as the ghosts that seem to float through it, the film chronicles the spirits of two women, raped and murdered by scruffy samurai who are more like feral bandits, driven to revenge themselves on all samurai, which they lure to their ghost house, itself a spirit that moves through the forest like a supernatural creature. It's one of the greatest of Japanese ghost stories, a horror film of elemental drive, feminist rage and visual grace. Read Michael Atkinson's review, from the 2010 revival, at The Village Voice here.
Criterion releases the film, fresh from a 2010 theatrical revival, on DVD and Blu-ray, with an archival interview with director Kindo Shindo and a new video interview with film critic Tadao Sato, plus a booklet with a new essay by film critic and horror film expert Maitland McDonagh. (You can read here essay on the Criterion website here.)
Back in the early days of home video, the most reliable direct-to-video label was Full Moon, the creation of Charles Band, a Roger Corman wannabe who found his niche in oddball movies series produced mostly in Europe. By reliable I don't mean they were all good – most were pretty trashy but some were actually a lot of fun – but you knew what you were getting: low budget style, funky effects and at best some strange creatures. "Trancers: The Ultimate Deth Collection" (Flatiron) was the best of his franchises, with Tim Thomerson as time-travelling (sort of) bounty hunter who ends up in present day Los Angeles. The 1985 "Trancers," which co-starred young Helen Hunt (who also shows up in the 1991 sequel "Trancers II"), actually hit theaters but the rest went straight to VHS rental racks. All five films on five discs in a standard case with hinged trays. Also from the Band factory is the oddball vampire twist "subspecies: The Complete Chronicles" (Flatiron), also five films (including pseudo-sequel "Vampire Journals") on five discs.
Cashing in on the red, white and blue icon a week before his new incarnation hits home video, "Captain America (1979) / Captain America II: Death Too Soon" (Shout! Factory) offers a sorry double feature of dull TV movies starring Reb Brown as an uninspiring stand-in for the Marvel hero. Best wait until next week.
Timed to arrive the same week of his new film "Red State" is "Kevin Smith: Too Fat for 40" (Shout! Factory), essentially a Kevin Smith stand-up comedy gig performed in his hometown on his 40th birthday. The DVD and Blu-ray both feature hours of bonus material. "Smodimations: The SModcast Cartoon Show Season One" (Shout! Factory) collects the animated "Smodcast" shorts of from Kevin Smith's website (animated by Steven Stark to conversations between Smith and Scot Mosier) and edits them into a short feature. For the Smith obsessive, you can get both in "Kevin Smith: Too Fat for 40 / Smodimations Box Set" (Shout! Factory), a website exclusive that includes a bonus disc with a live video SModcast of a "Hollywood Babble-On" program with Smith and Ralph Garman, recorded on May 22, 2011. That's a little too much Kevin Smith for me.
Four more martial arts classics of Hong Kong cinema, including two early films from the great Chang Cheh. Cheng Pei Pei and Jimmy Wang Yu star in "Golden Swallow" (Arc Entertainment), the 1968 film that (in the words of historian Ric Meyers) "cemented Chang Cheh's stardom), and David Chiang and Ti Lung headline the 1973 "Blood Brothers" (Arc Entertainment), where friendship is tested by betrayal and, of course, bloody battle. Also new this week: "Killer Clans" (Arc Entertainment) and "The Avenging Eagle" (Arc Entertainment)
"You Got to Move: Stories of Change in the South" (Milestone), the 1985 documentary of grass roots activism in the south, arrives with two new pop culture documentaries: "The Captains" (eOne), directed by William Shatner, and "More Brains! A Return to the Living Dead" (CAV). Details at the True Stories documentary roundup.
A collaboration like no other between Finland's eccentric rockers and minimalist absurdist director
When Aki Kaurismaki, Finland's deadpan farceur of minimalist slapstick, absurdist comedy and bruised romanticism, teamed up with the aggressively eccentric rock and roll cover band Leningrad Cowboys, a mix of bar band performance, punk attitude and polka flourishes, to make the surreal rock and roll road movie "Leningrad Cowboys Go America," who knew it would be the beginning of a surreal collaborative friendship?
Actually it wasn't the beginning -- he had already directed a couple of music videos for the band -- and "Aki Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys: Eclipse Series 29" (Criterion) includes all five of their music video collaborations along with their three feature films. In "Leningrad Cowboys Go America" (1989) they push their own image as a bizarre bar band from the wilds of Northern Europe to extremes tht have to be seen to be believed. Clad in matching black boots and gravity-defying hairdos that both jut out into a spindly point, they navigate the backroads of America one bar at a time, recognizing long-lost relations through the DNA of their fashion statements and love of blues-based American rock songs. Who else but Jim Jarmusch would make a cameo: the blond reverse image of these mock-Soviet rock soldiers?
The follow-up "Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses" (1994), which reverses the road trip to take them back through Europe to their promised land (Siberia) didn't really connect with audiences, but they had one more collaboration in store. "Total Balalaika Show" (1994) is a concert film as conceptual art piece satire: Finland’s idiosyncratic rock icons Leningrad Cowboys performing with the Red Army Ensemble (a men’s choir formed to preserve Russian folk music). It is a record of not merely the largest concert to that time in Finland (the event drew 70,000 people), but the strangest. “Let’s Get Together,” sing the pointy-haired rockers with the choir taking back-up with hundreds of voices, switching off between Russian folk classics like “The Volga Boatman” and American standards like “Stairway to Heaven” (with the Red Army musicians accompanying on their traditional 3 stringed balalaikas).
While the Criterion's budget-minded Eclipse line doesn't include supplements, the bonus inclusion of the five music videos / musical short films makes it almost like a special edition. "Rocky VI" (1994) is somewhere between movie parody and music video while "Through the Wire" treats us to a Leningrad Cowboy prison break mini-movie, but the glories are "Those Were the Days," which offers a pretty bleak existence to long for, and "These Boots," which spans an entire life; the first verse is sung by a newborn with the already perfected hairdo and five o'clock shadow of lead singer Mato Valtonen. Though only five minutes long, it's both an epic and the most outlandishly cartoonish film of Kaurismaki's career. Also includes notes on each film by Michael Koresky.
Plus new collections and gift sets and lots of reality TV.
"V: The Complete Second Season" (Warner) brings the 21st century reboot of the eighties invasion series to with an abbreviated ten-episode season and conspiracy just beginning, but the spectacle is sure impressive. Videodrone's review is here.
"The Rise and Fall of Margaret Thatcher" (BBC) offers a portrait of the Prime Minister through three BBC productions made between 2002 and 2009, with Thatcher played by three different actresses. Andrea Riseborough is the young Margaret Roberts, a research chemist with a passion for party politics in "Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Findley" (2008). "Andrea Riseborough's captivating central performance saved the whole project from the obvious pitfalls of parody and impersonation," writes Hermione Eyre in The Independent. Patricia Hodge takes on the roll in the BBC telefilm version of "The Falklands Play" (2002), which imagines the backroom story of Thatcher and her cabinet facing the Falklands crisis. Lindsay Duncan is the Iron Lady in her final days in "Margaret" (2009) as she slips from power.
Poppy Montgomery is the former schoolteacher turned pop-culture wizard in the new TV movie "Magic Beyond Words: The J.K. Rowling Story" (Lifetime). This "unauthorized biography," based on the book by Sean Smith, premiered on the Lifetime Network earlier this year.
Jimmy McGovern creates a kind of short story anthology with "The Street: Complete Collection" (BFS), a British TV drama series centered on the different households on a single street Manchester. The characters drift through one another's stories, but it's proximity and community that connect the otherwise self-contained stories. The intimate dramas tend to revolve around emotionally trying crises in the lives of the everyday folk, all of them made into vivid characters through sharp writing and a brilliant cast that includes Jane Horrocks, Jim Broadbent, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, Matt Smith, Gina McKee, Vincent Regan and Jodhi May. Originally made for the BBC, it showed in the US on BBC America. 12 episodes on six discs in a double-wide case with hinged trays.
"Robotech: The Complete Series" (A&E) is a new box set edition of the entire 85-episode animated TV space opera, an American-dubbed (and rewritten) incarnation of three Japanese anime series ("Super Dimension Fortress Macross," "Super Dimensional Cavalry: Southern Cross" and "Genesis Climber Mospeada") which were combined into a single sprawling epic. It opens in 1999 when a massive alien battlecruiser crash-lands on Earth in the midst of a bloody global war, suddenly unifying the nations in a common cause to rebuild the ship, study its secrets, and prepare for an invasion, and spans three generations in the epic battle between Earth and alien invaders (and the ensuing romantic complications of pilots and officers of the new interstellar fighting force). It became one of the most influential anime series ever in the US. 17 discs in a box set of four standard cases with hinged trays, including four discs of supplements. Along with the archival clips, alternate versions and original pilot episodes are the animated features "Robotech: The Movie" and "Robotech II: The Sentinels" and the new documentary "Carl Macek's Robotech Universe," about the producer who created the American incarnation of the show.
"Little House on the Prairie: The Complete 9 Season Set" (Lionsgate) – Inspired by the autobiographical novels by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and produced by Michael Landon, this landmark family series follows the travails of a poor but loving salt-of-the-Earth family who leave Minnesota and settle in the prairie town of Walnut Grove, all as seen through the eyes of little sister Laura (Melissa Gilbert). The 55-disc box set features all 203 episodes of the nine-season run plus the original TV movie pilot, along with commentary on various episodes, featurettes and other supplements, all in a fairly modest package -- a plastic binder with envelope sleeves -- with a price to match. Even at full suggested retail price, it's under $3 a disc.
"America: The Story of Us – Collector's Edition" (History) repackages the 12-episode series -- a history of America, from the pilgrims to new millennium, compressed into less than ten hour without commercials -- into a new gift edition with a bonus disc (featuring a documentary on the Statue of Liberty) and a 400+ page companion book.
Nickelodeon's "CatDog: Season One, Part One" (Shout! Factory) is the DVD debut of the 1998 series about the oddest conjoined creature you've seen: cat head on one end, dog on the other, and what appears to be a giant sausage with legs as a body. 10 episodes on two discs. Also new this week: "Star Wars – The Clone Wars: The Complete Season Three" (Warner) on DVD and Blu-ray.
Another season of reality TV:
"Gigolos: The First Season" (CBS), the Showtime original series that follows the exploits of five male escorts in Las Vegas, is just one of the many cable reality shows this week. Eight episodes on one disc. "Top Shot: Reloaded" (History) features 13 episodes on four discs, plus over an hour of supplements. "Ghost Hunters: Season Six, Part 2" (Image) presents 13 episodes from the SyFy series on both DVD and Blu-ray.
Also new this week is "The Real L Word: Season Two" (CBS) (nine episodes on three discs, plus two bonus episodes of "The Borgias"), "Pawn Stars: Volume Three" (History) (16 episodes on two discs) and "American Pickers: Volume Two" (History) (8 episodes on two discs).
And the rest:
Marla Sokoloff and Mark Webber star in "Gift of the Magi (2010)" (Vivendi), originally made for the Hallmark Channel. "The Big Game" (VCI) as a 1995 British telefilm about big stakes gambling over a board game (and it's based on a true story!). "Craig Ferguson: Does This Need to be Said?" (Paramount) is the extended, uncensored version of his Comedy Central stand-up special.
Frank Miller's take on Batman's early years is adapted to the small screen - see a clip here
DC comics may be stumbling over their big screen incarnations of their iconic comic book superheroes but their far more modestly mounted the DC Universe Original Animated Movies are surprisingly good, especially given the limitations of their resources. These budget-minded direct-to-DVD films translate graphic novels and memorable comic-book runs into animated incarnations efficiently, at times stylishly and generally true to their source material.
"Batman: Year One" (Warner) is to date the best. It's also based on one of the best "Batman" stories of the past twenty years: Frank Miller's revision of the early days of Batman and Jim Gordon (before he became police commissioner), which was also a major influence on Christopher Nolan's live action "Batman" movies.
See a clip below, after the jump
Animation aside, this isn't a Batman cartoon. Like the comic, the story is told in slivers of action marked by the passing dates of the calendar and framed by the diary-like voice-overs of the parallel protagonists. Emmy winner Bryan Cranston (of "Breaking Bad") voices Gordon, the lone honest cop on the thoroughly corrupt Gotham City police force, and brings a world-weary, conflicted quality to the man risking not just his career but his family to follow his moral compass, which nonetheless spins askew under the pressure. Ben McKenzie, however, tries too hard to give Bruce Wayne/Batman, the fledgling hero learning his trade on the streets, a sense of gravitas through a pose of stoicism and ends up simply flat and one-dimensional. Eliza Dushku ("Dollhouse") comes in as colorful support as Selena Kyle, aka Catwoman, born out of the same struggle out of the Gotham cesspool.
For a story constructed out of choppy slices, this is probably the most unified of the DC animated features. The stripped-down art and composition suggests the graphic quality of David Mazzucheli's original art (though without the rich texture) and honors the parallel storytelling of the original work. It preserves the diary-like structure to build, piece by piece, a portrait of two heroes (and one aspiring villain) from revealing moments. While it never tips in to R-territory, these PG-13 productions are for the same audiences as Miller's graphic novels are. This is not the Cartoon Network.
Plus 'A Better Life,' 'Red State,' 'Monte Carlo' and more
"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" (Disney) dredges up the waterlogged adventure franchise for yet another big-budget spectacle sustained only by Johnny Depp. Arrives on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D editions, as well as digital download. Videodrone's review is here.
Cameron Diaz makes gives her all to be a really "Bad Teacher" (Sony) in this comedy about an opportunist killing time as a high school educator (or at least trying to pass as one) while searching for a rich husband. MSN film critic Glenn Kenny gives it a good grade: "A refreshingly raucous comedy that comes surprisingly close to completely living up to its lack of conviction, "Bad Teacher" does more than merely excel in the rude and crude departments." Justin Timberlake and Jason Segel co-star, but extra credit goes to the supporting cast, which includes Lucy Punch, John Michael Higgins and Phyllis Smith (of "The Office").
Both the original R-rated theatrical version and a longer (by five minutes) unrated edition arrive on DVD and Blu-ray, which also include two featurettes, deleted scenes and outtakes. The Blu-ray also includes three bonus behind-the-scenes featurettes, an interactive "Yearbook" with outtakes and a gag reel.
Chris Weitz takes a stab at exploring the American Dream in "A Better Life" (Summit), starring Demian Bichir as an illegal Mexican immigrant who sacrifices all to give his son a shot at, as the title says, a better life. "The best reason to consider seeing "A Better Life" is the lead performance of Demián Bichir," argues Glenn Kenny, but he warns that the film is "too often compromised by the often insistent triteness of the story line and direction." Features commentary and deleted scenes.
Kevin Smith steps out of his comfort zone of wise-a** comedy with "Red State" (Lionsgate), a horror film with an ideological subtext and a metaphor made literal in the form a holier-than-though preacher who literally sacrifices the Godless heathens to appease his values. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott writes that "For all its boisterous profanity and splattery violence, the film is more of a weary sigh than a sputtering volley of indignation." Michael Angarano stars with John Goodman, Michael Parks, Melissa Leo and Stephen Root providing the (not always reliable) adult supervision. On DVD and Blu-ray, with a making-of featurette, a conversation with Michael Parks, deleted scenes and other supplements.
Disney Channel star Selena Gomez gets the royal treatment in the tweener romantic fantasy "Monte Carlo" (Fox), a "Princess and the Pauper" tale of an American girl mistaken for a British socialite. While he admits to its shortcomings and second-hand plot, MSN film critic James Rocchi says it just fine for its target audience: "A star kids have seen before, a plot they haven't, places they've only dreamed about with a few side trips into something like real feeling-- that's not a bad itinerary for a summer staycation of a PG movie made for preteen girls." Co-stars Leighton Meester, Katie Cassidy and "Glee" star Cory Montieth. On DVD and Blu-ray, with featurettes and deleted scenes. The Blu-ray features a bonus digital copy and more featurettes.
"Page One: Inside the New York Times" (Magnolia), the acclaimed documentary made with unprecedented access in the fabled newsroom, is the top pick for a solid week of non-fiction films (see review here), which also includes "The Shock Doctrine" (Kim Stim/Zeitgeist) and "Beats Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest" (Sony). Reviews of these films and more at the True Stories roundup here.
And it's another hefty week for cinema imports, toplined by "Aftershock" (China Lion), currently China's all-time biggest blockbuster. Reviewed on Videodrone here. Also debuting this week: Alex de la Iglesias' "The Last Circus" (Magnet), "The Robber" (Kino Lorber) from Austria, the French romantic comedy "The Names of Love" (Music Box) and Giuseppe Tornatore Italian epic "Baaria" (Image). More in the Foreign Affairs wrap-up here.
And the rest:
The lives of two immigrants struggling to get by in New York City cross in the indie drama "Prince of Broadway" (Flatiron). "It's an undeniably small yet almost indefinable film," writes Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, "warmhearted and bittersweet, laced with both humor and tough emotions." Includes commentary and a featurette.
The indie comedy "Turkey Bowl" (Tribeca) follows the annual touch football ritual of old college friends years into their friendship and Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jamie Kennedy star in the coffee shop romantic comedy "Café" (Maya).
The colorfully-named creative team The Vicious Brothers direct the indie-horror film "Grave Encounters" (Tribeca). "The Howling Reborn" (Anchor Bay) revives the old werewolf franchise about a hidden society of lycanthropes with new blood. "Freerunner" (Image), an action film built around the urban acrobatic sport of parkour, stars Sean Faris and Danny Dyer. "Sucker Punch (2009)" (Lionsgate), not to be confused with the Zach Snyder action fantasy, is a boxing revenge flick.
Plus 'The Last Circus" from Spain, 'The Names of Love' from France, 'The Robber' from Austria and more
"Aftershock" (China Lion), currently the most popular domestic blockbuster in Chinese history, spins a family melodrama through two devastating earthquakes, opening with the 1976 earthquake that assaulted Tangshan, China and killed an estimated 240,000 in a city of around a million people. This is no disaster film, however. The spectacle is used to illustrate the scale of the event that shatters one family, and the "Sophie's Choice" decision by a hysterical, panicked mother that haunts the survivors over the decades. The shadow of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake not only hangs over the film, it bookends it in a respectful and touching way. No recreation here, simply a survey of the aftermath as those who survived 1976 return to help here. In between is a sprawling melodrama and an interesting survey of China during and after Mao.
A marriage of historical prestige picture and popular melodrama, "Aftershock" is a crowd pleaser with real-life resonance and no political subtext – kind of like China's version of "Titanic." It's full of the sentimentality that we tend to dismiss as hokey overkill, but director Feng Xiaogang uses it as a respectful way to explore loss and pay tribute to the lives lost and damaged in the two quakes. It didn't get the international acclaim or attention of the Chinese arthouse auteurs like Chen Kaige or Zhang Yimou or Jia Zhangke but it sure brought in audiences in China, where it made $100 million.
Which makes it an interesting choice to launch China Lion, a DVD label releasing (in partnership with New Video) big, popular, star-powered productions from mainland China. In the coming months, this label will be releasing the kinds of Chinese imports that you may not have realized even played the U.S. because they skipped the arthouse and went directly to multiplexes in communities with large Chinese and Asian populations. Among the upcoming titles: a Chinese remake of "What Women Want" with Andy Lau and Gong Li. Seriously, did you even know it existed? In Chinese with English subtitles, no supplements.
Alex de la Iglesias' "The Last Circus" (Magnet) combines horror and satire in the perverse crucible of a dysfunctional circus and an obsessive love triangle to measure Franco's legacy in Spain. This insane clown showdown is "deranged and grotesque and spectacular" and a "near-masterpiece," according to Salon.com film critic Andrew O'Hehir. "[I]f you like your baroque sex and violence with a side dish of heavy-duty symbolism, and if the idea of an unholy collaboration between, say, Guillermo del Toro, Federico Fellini and William Castle appeals to you, then put "The Last Circus" on your must-see list right now." On DVD and Blu-ray, in Spanish with English subtitles, with "The Making of The Last Circus" and other behind-the-scenes featurettes.
The romance is a lot more buoyant and sexy in "The Names of Love" (Music Box), a cheerfully romantic comedy of opposites in love starring Jacques Gambin as a tightly-wound scientist and Sara Forstier as a young, free spirited liberal who sleeps with right-wing men who seduce them to her cause. "Forestier's performance is a tour de force of comic acting, maintaining astonishing alertness and energy from shot to shot and scene to scene," praises San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle, and indeed she won the Best Actress Cesar for her performance. In French with English subtitles. Supplements include "The Making of The Names of Love," deleted scenes and the bonus short "A Could Have Been a Hooker."
"The Robber" (Kino Lorber), from Austria, turns the true story of a world-class runner with a double life as a lone wolf bank robber (or is it the other way around?) into an austere, spare portrait of a largely impenetrable personality. Philadelphia Inquirer critic Steven Rea writes that the film is "Exhilarating and, ultimately, filled with a sense of existential dread." In German with subtitles, no supplements.