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"Man on Wire" makes no mention of 9/11 or the destruction of the World Trade Center.
Documentary detective Morris used his patented device of mixing real interviews and re-enactments to investigate the nightmarish photos taken at Abu Ghraib. Morris calls it "a non-fiction horror movie" about the 2003 abuses at the U.S. prison in Iraq -- not much of a stretch.
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"Young@Heart" seems like a one-tricky pony: A bunch of upbeat geezers do versions of rock songs in a choral setting. Wheel chairs, walkers and breathing machines help keep the stage show rockin'.
Anyone with an interest in pop culture already knows the high-concept at work here, but that shouldn't stop music lovers of any age from checking out this fine Channel 4 documentary on the New Hampshire seniors.
Here's how "Young@Heart" opens. We hear the stop-and-go power chords of the Clash's "Should I Stay Or Should I Go." On the downbeat, a walker bangs the stage floor. A little old lady opens wide and screams, acting out the punk classic as if it were an English music hall ditty. The crowd goes wild.
Stephen Walker's docu tracks the Youngsters as they work up a new show ("Alive and Well") and debut it before a local audience. Some things go well; many do not.
The rock-chorus formula is tricky to execute, since the average age of these guys is 80. So when musical director Bob Cilman brings in Sonic Youth's "Schizophrenia," he knows no one has heard the (hometown) band, much less the song. Months of frustrating work lie ahead. Same with songs by Talking Heads, Jimi Hendrix, the Police and the Stones. Anyone up for "I Wanna Be Sedated"?
The movie hits its emotional peak as Fred Nittle takes a seat onstage and sings Coldplay's "Fix You." He's a big man with a bad heart who breathes with the help of an oxygen device. His assured performance is a tribute to two members who died the week before -- one was to sing the song with Nittle. Like many of the songs, the lyrics take on profound new meanings when performed by those knocking on heaven's door.
Powerful stuff. Likewise when the mourning chorus sings Dylan's "Forever Young" in front of a group of prisoners who no doubt miss their grannies. Hankies all around.
Fox Home Entertainment has released "Young@Heart" on a single DVD. It includes a dozen or so extra scenes and music videos, as well as a short film about the group's trip to L.A. for a show at the Wiltern.
The DVD extras don't tell the Young @ Heart history, unfortunately, so you have to piece it together during the movie. The group was founded in 1982 by resident of an elderly-housing project. The original acts had some female impersonations and a bit of a strip tease. The rock repertoire came much later.
To get in, you have to be 70 years old. Some are beginners, others have professional chops.
You don't learn much on the DVD about chorus master Cilman, except that he's a bit of a dick with a heart of gold. (Cilman's executive director of the local arts council as well.) The singers seem to fear him a bit, since he can and will drop their songs if they don't perform up to the chorus' standards. "He eats nails," one Youngster says with a weak smile.
The Fox DVD of "Young@Heart" looks and sounds OK (based on a bare-bones review copy). Turn it up for the music videos of "Road to Nowhere" and "Stayin' Alive"/"I Will Survive."
Also circling the DVD blog's players this week are the Criterion Collection's trio of Max Ophuls films: "The Earrings of Madame de ...," "La ronde" and "Le plaisir."
New and notable:
An American in Paris (Warner)
Busby Berkeley Collection, Vol. 2 (Warner)
Charlie Chan Collection, Vol. 5 (Fox)
Chuck: First Season (Warner)
Cybill (TV, First Look Studios)
Dirty Sexy Money (Disney)
Duckman, seasons 1, 2 (Paramount)
The Earrings of Madame de ... (The Criterion Collection)
La ronde (Criterion)
Le plaisir (Criterion)
88 Minutes (Sony*)
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (Rhino)
The Love Guru (Sony*)
Made of Honor (Sony)
101 Dalmatians (live action, Disney)
101 Dalmatians II: Patch's London Adventure (Disney)
Private Practice, season 1 (Disney)
Pushing Daisies, season 1 (Warner*)
Risky Business (Warner*)
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, season 3 (Time Life)
Star Trek: Alternate Realities Collective (Paramount)
The operative description seems to be "cine-essayist" -- but even that open-ended bag feels too conventional.
Most of the now-elderly French artist's films are documentaries, of sorts, but they're relentlessly personal, subjective and sometimes deliberately obscure.
Marker's partly an experimental filmmaker, a specialist in arthouse fare. While his films can be difficult, especially upon first viewing, the director always knows where he's going with his narratives and parables. Fans delight in trying to catch up.
Marker's video distributor calls him "the best-known author of unknown films."
His films often operate in a dreamlike state, where images can jet in from any source -- in static, filmed or animated form. The ever-present narrators appear recruited from a beat poetry reading or science fiction flick.
Marker's most famous film, "La Jetee" (1962), in fact, is best known for inspiring Terry Gilliam's science fiction entertainment "Twelve Monkeys." A cousin of Godard's "Alphaville," Marker's relatively short film about post-apocalyptic Paris consists almost entirely of still images that are given meaning and spin by the voice-over.
"Jetee" remains unusual for the director in that it's fiction, but the sci fi film established a Marker marker: a focus on time as a pliable, interlaced dimension barely controlled via the interface of memory.
The Criterion Collection last year released "La Jetee" on a double-bill with the swirling travel journal "Sans Soleil." That widely praised DVD introduced the relatively unknown filmmaker to many here in the States. Now comes a quartet of Marker releases from Icarius Films (First Run).
Begin with the best: The curious and adventurous should turn to "La Jetee"/"Sans Soleil," a marvelous disc that appeared on this DVD blog's list of 2007's top DVDs. These are the essential Marker films, coming two decades apart.
The "La Jetee" slide show technique is reprised on "Remembrance of Things to Come" (2001), the most compelling of the four new DVD releases.
"Remembrance" surveys the photography of French street photographer Denise Bellon (1902-99). In her between-the-wars photography, Marker finds a persistent and thematic foreshadowing of WWII's destruction of Europe. Marker's narration (read by Alexandra Stewart of "San Soleil") makes the case for Bellon's prescience.
The film, co-directed with Bellon's daughter Yannick, is framed by images from the first major surrealists exhibition and the last. (Bellon was a friend and booster of the pioneering surrealists.) In between, we see plenty of everyday life, a World's Fair, Africa, the Spanish Civil War, the Popular Front, the rise of Hitler's National Socialists and the Occupation.
Bellon's work stands on its own, but Marker added newsreel footage to fill in some of the gaps. As with most Marker films, the stated subject matter (Bellon's photography) is really a window to the true subject (the roots of the deadliest world war).
And so it is, as well, with Marker's "The Last Bolshevik," ostensibly a biography of the Russian filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin but in full a subjective history of Russia and the Soviet Union -- from the October Revolution to the eve of the Berlin Wall's fall. One witness calls the Soviet director "a whole era condensed into one life."
The Marker docu runs in two hourlong parts, with chapters of spoken "letters" to the Soviet director. Medvedkin was a "true believer," both a Red Army general and an outcast, whose story is told through interviews, scenes from his films and the usual Marker video fever dreams.
Medvedkin's "Happiness," an offbeat semi-comedy from 1934, accompanies the "The Last Bolshevik." The film failed to amuse the Red authorities, who nonetheless allowed the director to continue his career.
The hard-left's takes on wars in Vietnam and Iraq inspire the other two Marker DVDs.
"The Sixth Side of the Pentagon" (1967, 26 minutes) is a tight and mostly straightforward docu about the antiwar march on the Pentagon that was chronicled in Norman Mailer's "The Armies of the Night."
Marker does a brilliant job of setting up the confrontation between the well-organized protesters and the young security forces outside the military fortress. The narration skews hard left, of course, but the camera seems to respect both sides. Marker focused a lot on faces, giving the footage a contemporary feel. Some of the long shots recall Kurosawa, whom Marker would later profile in "A.K."
"Pentagon" is paired with "The Embassy" (1973, 21 minutes), an 8mm work of fiction that appears to document the trials of a bunch of Europeans hiding in an embassy during a third-world coup. The audio hasn't aged well, making it a strain to follow the minimalist plot. A minor work.
"The Case of the Grinning Cat" provides an excuse to cover the French reaction to the events of 9/11. Much of this concerns a presidential election, which keeps things pretty much localized.
Marker, long fond of cat imagery, sets out to discover the source of some street art: a yellow grinning cat that started appearing here, there, everywhere in Paris during the tense period. Marker's tale of the cat and his bemused take on the "flash mobs" that found plenty to protest in those days come in sharp contrast to the violence and urgency of the "Pentagon" film.
The most interesting material on the disc comes in a series of short films about animals. "The Bestiary" contains five shorts, some weird and some cute. 1972's "Three Cheers for the Whale" makes a quick run through the history of commercial whaling, protesting the super-efficient modern hunting of the giant animals. It's framed as a letter (or lecture) to whales.
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In the 1985 documentary "A.K.," Akira Kurosawa says there are so many beautiful images to be found around a location shoot, it's a shame no one ever films them. Marker does.
The docu maker, in his narration, cites the temptation to feed off Kurosawa's gorgeous set-ups for the warlord movie "Ran," but promises to film the proceedings from "our level" -- as in, the grunt's-eye level. Not much of a handicap for Marker as he wanders around the location on Mount Fuji, with its fog-wrapped prefab castles and armies of feudal-warrior extras.
It takes all of 10 seconds for Marker to invoke his great theme of memory, but for this project the documentarian is content to remain still much of the time, letting the film be carried by images, the music, the sounds of men and horses, and Kurosawa's observations on filmmaking.
"A.K." seeks no truths beyond what is there for a visitor's ears and eyes. Marker remains reverential throughout, a fan and a disciple. Appropriately, he takes to calling Kurosawa "sensei," meaning master.
Kurosawa is observed closely, but never interviewed on camera. The master's comments come from low-fi audio cassette recordings, which Marker says were recorded as Kurosawa was talking with friends. (Marker, presumably, counts as a friend.)
"A.K." is available on Criterion's latest version of "Ran," a double-DVD set worth owning for a host of reasons, including Marker's fine docu.
Fans of Chris Marker surely will appreciate another recent Criterion release, of Guy Maddin's trippy and mysterious "Brand Upon the Brain," a modern silent film with narrator.
Even some straight-up historical docus come accompanied by the world's worst re-enactments. Need there be one more uncredited fat guy done up as Henry VIII? The History Channel and its offshoots are prime offenders, but PBS and the BBC have their indictable moments as well.
Watching that crap makes you marvel at the quality of "The Presidents Collection," a brick-like DVD set saluting the commanders-in-chief of the past 100 years. The PBS box set contains a whopping 35 hours of documentary footage, without a single hack actor in sight.
Sound like a grad-school cram session? Nah. These history lessons are first-rate entertainments, in the spirit of Ken Burns' works, but more businesslike. They're all from the "American Experience" series, created by PBS programming powerhouse WGBH.
When the time comes to profile the administration of Barak Obama or John McCain -- or, um, Sarah Palin -- let's hope the folks at "American Masters" will be standing by. The weird events of summer of '08 will require some pretty good explaining.
Release of the PBS/Paramount DVD box set of "The Presidents Collection" was timed to the political conventions, of course. Individual titles have been available for some time.
U.S. leaders covered in the PBS set are Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman, "The Kennedys," Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The glaring omission is Dwight Eisnhower, whose "American Masters" profile came out in 1993.
The "American Masters" presidents series started in 1990 with "Nixon," and more or less presented a profile a year leading up to the senior George Bush's docu of this year.
I'd seen most of them over the years, but not the Jimmy Carter piece. On the eve of Obama's convention, it proved a perfect time to revisit the outsider from Georgia's four years in the White House.
We all know the ending: A presidency that began with soaring hopes, the best of intentions and too few policy specifics ended in shame and misery. As the final seconds ticked away on the Carter administration, the docu shows us the president's pain as he waits all night in vain, praying for Iran to release the American hostages.
Like many of these docus, "Jimmy Carter" runs in two parts, across three hours. Linda Hunt voiced the narration, as she did for "Woodrow Wilson" (Jason Robards did several other profiles).
Watching Carter's populist ascent and nasty decline brought reminders of just how much drama that one one presidential term contained: The Middle East peace accord, the Bert Lance scandal, the energy crisis, runaway inflation with its 19% interest rates, Carter's bone-headed "malaise" speech -- and, of course, the embassy hostage crisis.
While these docus are of necessity event-driven, "Jimmy Carter" is fairly successful at examining the man as well as the presidency. Equal servings of sugar and vinegar. This docu would make a terrific double feature with Jonathan Demme's profile "Jimmy Carter Man From Plains."
At a time when some of our highest-profile documentaries come with agendas ("An Inconvenient Truth," "The Man From Plains"), it's good to be reminded how dramatic and hard-hitting objective content can be.
The 162 minutes of "Carter" flew by. I was immediately looking for extra features, which didn't exist, aside from a PDF teachers guide. (In the box set, only "Woodrow Wilson" comes with bonus features.)
My high-schooler, who knew little of Carter, came away with a small book's worth of knowledge. He loves history.
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Those tiring of politics in the new world should check out Simon Schama's "A History of Britain," recently repackaged by A&E Home Entertainment. This is the best historical video series I've seen since Ken Burns' glory days, perhaps since "The Civil War."
Writer and "presenter" Schama is a real-deal professor of history at Columbia University. His books include "Rembrandt's Eyes" and "Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution." If he'd been your history teacher, you'd probably be a historian.
Schama's relentless subjectivity, and his way of dwelling on certain events and people -- at the expense of others that are arguably more important -- have a way of hacking off more formal academics. He makes unlikely connections and plays with time frames as he sees fit. These are the qualities that help make "A History of Britain: The Complete Collection" such a treat.
The 15-part documentary series, made for the BBC as part of its millennium celebrations, made him a celebrity and a CBE. In the U.S., the series ran on the History Channel.
Like the previous A&E DVD box set of 2002, the new release has 15 hours of material spread over five discs. This time, the old clamshell DVD cases are discarded, making the box about a third of the depth of the old case. No reason to upgrade, of course, but it's a great excuse the write about the set.
Schama's journey takes us from the Stone Age through WWII, although the latter more familiar years are wisely shuffled through.
His history of the British Isles is the history of its great and infamous leaders. He spends quality time with Richard the Lionheart, Longshanks, Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill, while barely mentioning some other major figures.
Schama's talks and lectures often are delivered from the locations where the events occurred. It helps to remember that the professor was primarily working for a British audience, which knows a great deal more about these people and events than the U.S. viewers. That elevates the level of conversation, a good thing.
Those needing remedial work could turn to the three companion books from the series.