CHRIS MARKER PAIRINGS
The Last Bolshevik and Happiness (A)
France/Russia; Chris Marker/Alexander Medvedkin, 1993/1934, Icarus/Arte
This is one of the most important, illuminating and thoroughly enjoyable DVD releases of the year: a double disc of Alexander Medvedkin's great silent comedy Happiness, which makes merry among the Russian peasantry as farms are collectivized, joined with The Last Bolshevik, Chris Marker's great documentary on Medvedkin, which exposes the reality of the farms and the Stalinist Communist era -- a period to which Medvedkin, sadly, resigned himself.
Here is an unforgettable portrait of a true film artist in the throes of bureaucracy, two films which are genuine revelations and superb works of art. Happiness is silent, with English intertitles and a music score, and The Last Bolshevik is in Russian, French and English, with English subtitles. Bravo! (Extras: Reconstructions of Medvedkin's early silent shorts, an interview and monologue with Medvedkin, and a deleted segment on Medvedkin and Dziga-Vertov.)
Remembrance of Things to Come and Collette (A-)
France; Chris Marker/Yannick Bellon, 2001/1951, Icarus
An excellent documentary about Parisian photographer and surrealist recorder Denise Bellon, this film directed by her daughter Yannick and Chris Marker is fashioned from her evocative black-and-white photos. Also included is Yannick Bellon's superb 1951 documentary Colette about the legendary writer/actress/adventuress Sidonie Gabrielle Collette, taken from her writings, illustrated with archive photos of her life and new film of her dwelling places, and featuring both Colette and Jean Cocteau. In French, with English subtitles.
The Sixth Side of the Pentagon and The Embassy (B)
France; Francois Reichenbach/Chris Marker, 1967/1973, First Run/Icarus
Here are two earlier short documentaries by Marker on the Vietnam War years. The first (Sixth Side), co-directed with Reichenbach, is a record of the same Oct. 21, 1967, Mobe protest immortalized by Normal Mailer in The Armies of the Night. Like Mailer's book, it's a brilliant success. The other one (Embassy) is an experimental "documentary" about refugees in a beleaguered embassy, and it doesn't really work, despite a nice ending.
PICKS OF THE WEEK
War Requiem (A)
U.K.; Derek Jarman, 1992, Kino
Benjamin Britten's 1961 antiwar musical masterpiece is a treasure for both film buffs and classical music lovers. Inspired by the works of World War I poet (and casualty) Wilfred Owen, the film offers Britten conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, and peerless singers Peter Pears (Britten's longtime musical companion) and Dietrich Fischer-Deskau. It's accompanied by Ken Russell-ish dramatic cinema imagery from Jarman, and played by a superlative cast that includes Jarman regular Tilda Swinton, Sean Bean, Nathaniel Parker (as Owen) and, in his final film appearance, as the Old Soldier, Laurence Olivier.
It's as devastating a performance of the Britten Requiem as you an imagine. Jarman, a gutsy esthete-rebel, was never afraid to bring full-blown art to the screen, and though it's not necessarily typical of him, this is my favorite of all his films. Bravo again! (Extras: Trailer, still gallery.)
U.S.; Michael Bay, 2007, DreamWorks
The Autobots vs. The Deceptions! The Hoover Dam mystery revealed! The famous Hasbro toys, inspirer of Transformers: the Movie with Orson Welles are here turned by CGI magic into extraterrestrial robot monsters and saviors battling it out before a frenzied group of U.S. officials and cops (Jon Voight, John Turturro) as well as frenetic teens (Shia LaBeouf and the aptly named Megan Fox) whose Chevy Camaro has suddenly come alive.
Even if you don't like this kind of movie -- teen boy high-tech adventures wired to the max -- I think you'll have to agree that Michael Bay makes them about as well as anyone but Spielberg (who is an executive producer here). There's also a tongue-in-cheek jollity to the movie that turns the digitized action scenes into crazy fun. And LaBeouf is a perfect actor-reactor for all this nonsense; I wish I'd seen him here before that dopey but popular Rear Window knockoff Disturbia. He makes this insane story come alive about as well as a teen star possibly could. (Extras: Commentary by Bay, featurettes.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Warner Home Video Western Classics Collection (A-)
U.S.; various directors, 1953-68, Warner
The best era of the movie western to date (I never give up on it) was in the '50s and '60s -- when John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Raoul Walsh were still very active and Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood were on the rise.
While these six color oaters, all "super-westerns" in aficionado Andre Bazin's definition, aren't masterpieces, I enjoyed them all mightily. They show exactly why westerns were such a bread-and-butter genre for so long -- and why they should come back more often to us. Mann may be the only great director here, and his Cimarron, sadly, is an epic that falls apart in the last half, but John Sturges proves again that he's been underrated by auteurists (for both his westerns and noirs), Robert Mulligan shows his usual feeling and lyricism in the Alvin Sargent-scripted suspense western The Stalking Moon, and Roy Rowland (The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T) and ex-Ford assistant Parrish (working with a Rod Serling script and a young John Cassavetes as villain) make decent forays into the form.
Robert Taylor, the star of three of these movies, also establishes himself as a good sub-Cooper hero, and it's also fun to watch William Holden, Glenn Ford and Gregory Peck, heroines Eleanor Parker (twice), Julie London and Eva Marie Saint and prime heavies Richard Widmark, Cassavetes, and Charles McGraw. This is a highly entertaining set.
Includes: Escape from Fort Bravo (John Sturges, 1953, A-) with William Holden, Eleanor Parker, John Forsythe and William Demarest; Many Rivers to Cross (Roy Rowland, 1955, B) with Robert Taylor, Parker and Victor McLaglen; The Law and Jake Wade (John Sturges, 1958, B) with Taylor, Widmark and Henry Silva; Saddle the Wind (Robert Parrish, 1958, B) with Taylor, Cassavetes, London and Donald Crisp; Cimarron (Anthony Mann, 1960, B) with Glenn Ford, Maria Schell, Russ Tamblyn, Arthur O'Connell; and The Stalking Moon (Robert Mulligan, 1968, A-) with Peck, Saint and Robert Forster.
OTHER NEW OR RECENT RELEASES
Camp Rock (Extended Rock Star edition) (D)
U.S.; Matthew Diamond, 2008, Walt Disney
Wasn't there a time when rock 'n' roll was the music of rebellion, nonconformity and the underclass? Costarring young star rockers the Jonas Brothers, this awful, sugary hit Disney Channel TV Movie is about a summer camp for young middle class (and above) rockers, with teen rock hopeful Mitchie (Demi Lovato) getting snubbed by upper-class rockers, falling in love with fellow teen rockers, helping her caterer mother feed the whole rockin' camp, and finally rocking out with her incredible composition "We Rock" in a rock-star contest finale to end them all. (We can only hope.) All we can say is: Rock on, camp rockers! 'Cause there's nothing like a camp that rocks! Really. (Extras: Camp Rock Karaoke, featurettes on "How to Be a Rock Star" and other rockin' subjects, and Sing Along With the Movie.)
U.S.; John Jeffcoat, 2006, Ocean Park Home Entertainment
A sweet, intelligent, well-shot and sometimes very funny romantic comedy, Jeffcoat co-writes and directs this film about an American white-collar guy (Josh Hamilton) who gets his job outsourced and has to travel to India to train his replacements. While there, he falls in love with India -- and one of the replacements. Good, but the ending is unsatisfying. A subject like this needs more bite. With Ayesha Dharker and Larry Pine.
Rush Hour/Rush Hour 2 (C+)
U.S.; Brett Rather, 1998/2001, Warner
One Rush too many. With Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker.
John Carpenter's Vampires (B-)
U.S.; John Carpenter, 1998, Film Office
James Woods vs. vampires. Okay, but not Carpenter's or Woods' best.
Under Siege/Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (C+)
U.S.; Andrew Davis/Geoff Murphy, 1992/1995, Warner
Steven Seagal is a two-fisted cook battling terrorists, including an incandescent Tommy Lee Jones, who take over a Navy battleship in the original Under Siege. That one, directed by Andy (The Fugitive) Davis, is pretty good. But somebody wouldn't leave well enough alone; they insisted on plopping Seagal's Casey the Cook character onto a terrorist-ridden transcontinental train, threatened by meanie Eric Bogosian, and then hired that fine but overmatched New Zealand filmmaker Geoff Murphy (Utu) to try and make sense of it. He can't. Luckily nobody thought of setting a third Under Siege aboard a vacation cruise ship. The saved that one for Speed 2: Cruise Control.
Bright Lights, Big City (B-)
U.S.; James Bridges, 1988, MGM
Director James Bridges and actors Michael J. Fox, Kiefer Sutherland and Phoebe Cates take a whack at Jay McInerney's chronicle of sex, drugs and proofreading at The New Yorker. (To tell the truth, the proofreading scene is all I remember of the book.) But the movie -- based on another raise-hell-and-then-cry-about-it-in-print confessional novel, like Less than Zero -- doesn't have much to recommend it. Not even Robert Downey Jr., the sometime saving grace of this genre. With John Houseman, Dianne Wiest and David Hyde Pierce.
Pale Rider (B)
U.S.; Clint Eastwood, 1984, Warner, Blu-Ray
A moody Clint Western: kind of a surrealist Shane, with one-time High Plains Drifter Eastwood as another spooky strange-guy-in-town, this time bent on good. It's good stuff too: a Cannes Film Festival entry, the cast includes Carrie Snodgress, Michael Moriarity, Chris Penn and C. E.'s fellow TV Western refugees Doug McGrath and John Russell.
The Good Fight (B)
U.S.; Noel Buckner, Mary Dore & Sam Sills, 1984, Kino
A vivid photo-chronicle and '30s remembrance about the Americans who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, this film is narrated by matchless journalist and all-around great guy Studs Terkel, and includes some really moving interviews. This makes an interesting companion piece to The Last Bolshevik. (Extras: Interview with the filmmakers, outtakes -- more Bill bailey stories; homage with Pete Seeger.)