"In his mid-50s and a festival favorite since the 80s, [Aki] Kaurismäki has joined the ranks of the master auteurs," writes Dennis Lim in the Los Angeles Times, "but in the US at least, he has remained somewhat overlooked. Le Havre is being released by Janus Films, the sister company of the Criterion Collection, and for those looking to catch up, a pair of DVD boxed sets are available on Criterion's midprice line Eclipse. Compassionate chronicles of the romantic, economic and existential plights of blue-collar outsiders, the films in the Proletariat Trilogy set [Shadows in Paradise, Ariel and The Match Factory Girl], made between 1986 and 1990, put Kaurismäki on the international map. The Leningrad Cowboys set (out this week) shows off his goofier side, not to mention his taste for Soviet kitsch and American rockabilly."
This second trilogy — Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses (1994) and Total Balalaika Show (1994) — "chronicles eight years in the group's history, from their ramshackle fictional roots to becoming a bona fide crowd-pleaser for 70,000 real Finns," writes Vadim Rizov at GreenCine Daily. "A fake Siberian cover band that rarely performs original material, they're actually versatile performers. And aside from their idiosyncratic attire (lengthy pompadours extend and hang like diving boards from their foreheads, mirrored by outrageously long and pointy elf shoes), they're typical Kaurismäki characters who enjoy diligent beer drinking whenever possible, staring to deadpan effect — and furthermore, showing no visible facial reactions to anything." What's more, "they've outlasted Kaurismäki's conception: this year, they released a new album entitled Buena Vodka Social Club. Some jokes never get old."
David Anderson for Ioncinema: "Filled with visual — and occasional aural — absurdity, this collection is an entertaining immersion in all manner of culture shock, as our intrepid troubadours make their way from Russia to New York to Mexico and back, playing just about every filthy dive and low rent wedding reception along the way."
At one point in Total Balalaika Show, the Cowboys cover the Turtles' "Happy Together," "here an unabashed paean to we-can-work-it-out optimism," notes Criterion's Michael Koresky, "complete with a majestic Red Army tenor soloist who warbles alongside the guitar-vamping Cowboys. The entire extravaganza is both grandiose and disarmingly touching; Variety called it 'the most incongruous — and inspired — cross-cultural pairing since Nureyev danced with Miss Piggy,' and legendary French filmmaker Chris Marker remarked in a note to critic and Kaurismäki scholar Peter von Bagh, 'When historians will look for a vignette to encompass the brief autumn of utopia that followed the fall of the Empire, I doubt they can find a more significant and poignant one.'"
Also writing for Criterion, but on a DVD and Blu-ray release packed with all the label's usual extras, is Maitland McDonagh: "Scratch the surface of a contemporary J-horror classic like Ringu (1998) or any of the Ju-on films (2000–03) and you'll glimpse Yabu no naka no kuroneko (Black Cat from the Grove), released in the US as simply Kuroneko (1968). Shot in shimmering, widescreen black and white and suffused with an unsettling eroticism, Kaneto Shindo's elegant nightmare of earthbound violence and otherworldly revenge wasn't the first film to be rooted in Japanese folk stories about onryo, the vengeful spirits of those who were abused in life, usually women, whose rage is so great it can't be contained. The Ghost of Yotsuya (Nobuo Nakagawa, 1959) and Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1965) both preceded it, and other classics of Japan's golden age of filmmaking — notably Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu (1953) — featured female spirits. And supernatural cats had appeared in Black Cat Mansion (Nakagawa, 1958) and The Ghost Cat of Otama Pond (Yoshihiro Ishikawa, 1960). But Shindo drew those threads together and wove them into Kuroneko's unprecedentedly unnerving women, whose descendents are now many, and into a terrifically spooky story whose resonance extends beyond the satisfying chill of an exotic campfire tale and whose wrenching psychological anguish transcends specific cultural traditions." Sam Smith posts an entry on designing the cover.
"The 1966 Stagecoach," writes Dave Kehr, "received moderately approving reviews ('an enjoyable trip most of the way,' Robert Alden wrote in the New York Times) and began the slow slide into obscurity that seems to be the fate of overreaching remakes. Though it has occasionally surfaced on television, [Gordon] Douglas's Stagecoach has remained elusive on home video until now, as it arrives in a limited edition DVD from the boutique label Twilight Time…. While Ford was indisputably the greater artist, Douglas has put his finger on one of the weaknesses of Stagecoach: Ford's determination to make a sort of meta-western, a film that deals in archetypes rather than individuals, and epic themes rather than genre conventions…. Ford, in Andrew Sarris's famous phrase, keeps his eye on the horizon line of history; Douglas, whose sensibility is at once more pessimistic and humanistic than Ford's, concentrates on the immediate problems facing the characters in the foreground."
DVD roundups. The AV Club, Richard Corliss (Time), Mark Kermode (Observer), Paul Matwychuk and Heather Noel and Michael Tully (Hammer to Nail).