If you only pay attention to the mainstream, theatrically-released movies that cycle through to Blockbuster shelves, you might get the impression that only a handful of new DVDs get released in any given week.
Not so. Dozens of distributors worldwide flood the U.S. DVD market — week in, week out — with an amazing assortment of home video titles. Independent films, old TV show compilations, classic film reissues, animation, concert movies, foreign films, children's programming, documentaries, collected miniseries, repackaged anniversary editions, and a truly alarming number of British parlor comedies, arcane exercise videos and Italian horror films.
Two films new to DVD last week are likely to get lost in the shuffle of high-profile movies hitting retail shelves — both had limited U.S. theatrical releases. But they're worth well tracking down, and serve as nice examples of DVD's weekly smorgasbord.
A fine piece of sci-fi and an Academy Award winner from 2009, after the jump.
Moon, the feature film directorial debut of Duncan Jones (son of rock and roll spaceman David Bowie), is a superior specimen of cerebral sci-fi, a futuristic psychological thriller with a terrific leading performance by Sam Rockwell.
Rockwell plays astronaut Sam Bell, the sole human operator of a lunar mining facility on the dark side of the moon. Sam is approaching the end of his three-year contract; his job to handle the occasional situation that can't be addressed by the station's otherwise fully automated system. Giant harvesters roam the lunar surface, mining Helium-3, while inside the command station Sam keeps company with the HAL-like supercomputer Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey).
Due to some technical problems, Sam can't communicate in real time with his handlers back on earth. Instead, he has to rely on the multimedia equivalent of snail-mail, and he treasures the regular video dispatches sent by his wife and baby daughter.
Weird thing is, they don't seem to be getting his replies. Also, Sam appears to be catching a cold, which is strange, considering he's alone. On the moon. But — oh, well. He'll be heading back to Earth in just a few weeks. It's all good. Right?
What an actor's showcase this is. Director Jones wrote the script with Rockwell in mind, and he's is in every scene, and then some, which will make sense about 30 minutes into the film. Avoid spoilers at all costs. Some of the trailers for Moon give away far too much, as do most of the reviews, and you're better off going into this one cold.
Moon recalls intelligent sci-fi fare like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and the original Alien. Watch how much mileage Jones gets out of his very limited budget — reported at around $5 million. The interior sets are minimal but dense with detail, and the lunar landscape shots entirely convincing. Jones works wonders here with basic optical effects and scale models.
The sci-fi appeal of Moon comes not from CGI trickery but from the strength of the film's ideas, and their implications. This is old-school, roll-up-the-shirtsleeves, "hard" science fiction — the kind championed by Asimov, Heinlein and the other writers of sci-fi's Golden Age. Rockwell's amazing performance adds layers of psychological intrigue and raises some rather heavy existential questions as well.
The extras are remarkably generous for such a small production — two different commentary tracks, several making-of featurettes, director Q&A sessions and Jones' previous sci-fi short Whistle. A very pleasant surprise, Moon should find great success on DVD where good word-of-mouth goes a long way.
Also new this week, Departures is the English translation for the title of the Japanese hit Okuribito, which won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film. The film tells the story of an unemployed orchestra musician who returns to his hometown and finds work as an apprentice "encoffiner" — a Japanese term for a certain sort of funeral professional.
Calm and elegant, Departures is like still water that runs surprisingly deep. You'll see each plot point coming a mile away, but float along anyway and you'll be rewarded. Most compelling are the details of the Japanese encoffiner's trade, a ritual which navigates the practical concerns of death with the complex serenity of a tea ceremony.
The DVD adds English subtitles and a short making-of doc. Consumer advocacy note: The final scenes are powerfully moving, so keep a box of tissues nearby for surreptitious eye-dabbing.