(Miramax/Alliance Atlantis, 2001) D: Stephen Chow, w/ Chow, Vicki Zhao. Rating: NNNN
Miramax finally got something right with Shaolin Soccer. They'd shelved it for over two years before releasing a dubbed-in-English, cut-by-half-an-hour version that was pitched to 10-year-olds. The DVD includes the Hong Kong cut of the film, in Cantonese with English subtitles, which is a good thing because my player wouldn't access the English version.
Shaolin Soccer is a sports inspirational. A group of ragtag losers with a dubious coach get together to play a big tournament and learn to become champions. The kick is that writer/director/star Stephen Chow has made them all ex-Shaolin monks and kung fu masters down on their luck. Even Vicki Zhao's Mui, who works baking sweet rolls, is a kung fu master. So the game scenes have the berserk quality of a kung fu effects extravaganza - Soccer Warriors From The Zu Mountains.
Chow's specialty is a comedy genre known in Hong Kong as "makes no sense," so be warned that this is a movie where people spontaneously break into musical numbers.
EXTRAS Ninety-minute English version, 112-minute Cantonese version, English subtitles.
(Kino, 2003) D: Li Yang, w/ Li Qiang, Wang Shuangbao. Rating: NNNN
This chinese film is an underground movie in both senses of the word: it was made without official approval and was shot to a large extent in working mines. It's a kind of thriller - two con men travel from one mine to another, choosing a young miner whom they sign up as part of a company insurance package, then kill below ground and collect the insurance. Li Yang, who began in documentary, offers a scathing look behind the public face of China's economic miracle, a world where the mines are dirty, dangerous and, worst of all, unprofitable, the whores are easy to find and everyone is on the take. The film has a great, gritty look. At times Li may be more concerned with his agenda than with keeping the story moving, but the film's worth seeing for a look at the unoffical version of Chinese culture.
EXTRAS Director bio, production notes, stills gallery. Mandarin with English subtitles.
Purple Rain: 20th Anniversary Special Edition
(Warner, 1984) D: Albert Magnoli, w/ Prince, Morris Day. Rating: NNNN
It's been 20 years since the release of Purple Rain? Where does the time go? Looking at it today, Prince seems even creepier and more annoying than he did then, but there's no guarantee that a musical genius and a manipulative, self-absorbed creep can't occupy the same body. What saves this movie, even now, is the stunning presentation of the musical numbers. Director Albert Magnoli didn't have time to set them up and shoot them conventional movie-style, and instead shot them live-to-recorded-playback, with multiple cameras, so they sizzle even now.
Warner has worked real hard on this two-disc SE, but they're stuck with the unavoidable fact that Prince, Morris Day and Apollonia declined to have anything to do with it. We hear lots from the director, the cinematographer, the producer, Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam (members of the Tyme), but the stars aren't there.
On the other hand, it's finally in a good anamorphic wide-screen transfer, and all eight music videos that came out of the film are included in the extras, even Sex Shooter.
EXTRAS Director/producer/cinematographer commentary, documentary on the First Avenue Club in Minneapolis, featurette on the film's fashions, MTV premiere party (which gets real old real fast), eight music videos, theatrical trailers for Purple Rain, Under The Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge (the latter two are also out this week, for masochists only). English and French versions, English, French, Spanish subtitles.
Futurama: Complete Fourth Season
(20th Century Fox, 2003) Creator: Matt Groening, w/ Billy West, Katey Sagal. Rating: NNN
I'll start by saying that futurama's three-N rating for this season is for presentation. You get beautiful transfers, full commentaries on every episode and all sorts of little goodies. Unfortunately, the steady decline of the series from its first season is even more marked here, in the final set. Had Futurama followed the pattern of Fox-mates The Simpsons and King Of The Hill, it should have been in its glory by Season Four, not fighting the network to get its final episodes aired.
The problem faced by Futurama is that The Simpsons never sacrificed any of its talent to the new show - the way that, say, Joss Whedon devoted his energy to launching Angel during Buffy The Vampire Slayer's fourth season - and the show never developed its own presiding genius. There are some funny episodes. It's not horrible. But this package is really for hardcore fans only.
Extras Producer/director/writer/cast commentaries on every episode, deleted scenes from most episodes, animatics, promo spots, pencil tests, stills gallery. English, Spanish versions, English, French, Spanish titles.
(Criterion/Morningstar, 1953) D: Federico Fellini, w/ Franco Interlenghi, Alberto Sordi. Rating: NNNNN
I Vitelloni was Fellini's third film as a director and first masterpiece, drawing on his personal life in Rimini and following the lives of young idlers in their 20s who've fended off adulthood for as long as possible. Nino Rota's astonishing score - one of the few by this composer with any musical spine to it - accompanies this compellingly believable portrait of life lived in suspension. Fellini gives us a rare reminder of his neo-realist roots, and the night scenes of deserted small-town streets have an eerie beauty.
Criterion's presentation is generally first-rate, and the very clean black-and-white transfer only betrays its age on occasion, not with scratches but with a slight softness in the image. Criterion has also constructed a new retrospective making-of with the survivors of the film. (Some of this interview material appeared on Criterion's White Sheik DVD last year.)
EXTRAS Making-of documentary, theatrical trailer, stills and poster gallery, booklet essay. Italian with English subtitles. Street date Tuesday (August 31).
Coming Tuesday, August 31
The Passion Of The Christ
(Warner Home Video, 2004) Two hours of Catholic torture porn in the guise of spiritual uplift. Yum.
South Park: The Passion Of The Jew
(Paramount, 2004) Counterprogramming at its finest. Bonus episode Red Hot Catholic Love.
(Paramount, 2004) Ashley Judd, promiscuous crime fighter. The subtext of director Phil Kaufman's commentary is, "I was contractually obligated to do this commentary."
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb