The Cranes Are Flying (1957, Criterion Collection), dir. Mikheil Kalatozishvili w/ Tatyana Samojlova, Aleksei Batalov. Rating: NNNN
Ballad of a soldier (1959, Criterion Collection), dir. Grigori Chukharj w/ Vladimir Ivashov, Zhanna Prokhorenko. Rating: NNN
These two films are among the post-Stalin Soviet classics dealing with the second world war. (I'd like to see Andrei Tarkovsky's similarly themed Ivan's Childhood on DVD.)
The Cranes Are Flying and Ballad Of A Soldier offer a snapshot of late-50s taste in international cinema. The former won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and the latter picked up an Oscar nomination for best screenplay.
If you're only having one, go for The Cranes Are Flying, a home-front drama about a young woman whose husband heads off to war while his brother hangs back and makes a play for the heroine. Centred on the astonishing performance of Tatyana Samojlova and featuring complex single-shot sequences with some remarkable hand-held camera work, The Cranes Are Flying stands up as an unexpectedly dramatic document of wartime angst.
Ballad Of A Soldier is less psychologically satisfying but more mythologically resonant -- for years it was the most popular Russian film among Russians. A young soldier on short leave from the front meets a girl on a train. This being a Soviet film, these are the cleanest and soberest Russians one can imagine. The cinematography is magnificent, and both discs do full justice to Criterion's reputation for great transfers.
EXTRAS: Ballad Of A Soldier has a 1960 radio interview with the director and stars. The lack of goodies is balanced by excellent scholarly liner notes for both films.
Asoka (2001, Mongrel), dir. Santosh Sivan w/ Shahrukh Khan, Kareena Kapoor. Rating: NNN
The box copy promises the story, based on legend, of a third-century Indian emperor who "waged one of the bloodiest wars in history." It doesn't mention that the first 90 minutes of this 150-minute film cover the romance between Asoka and the exiled princess of a neighbouring kingdom, with musical numbers that might work as Britney Spears videos (which I don't mean in a bad way).
Bollywood movies are maximalist: let's make every movie as if it were the only movie the audience would ever see. Indian strictures against onscreen sex (the actors aren't allowed even a kiss) leave room for intensely sensual dance numbers. Director Sivan is nothing if not versatile. He also wrote and directed The Terrorist, a starkly modernist study of a young suicide bomber.
EXTRAS: Making-of featurettes, theatrical trailer, separate menu to access the five musical numbers, English and Malay subtitles.
Also this week
Ali Will Smith as the Champ.
Jerry Maguire: Special Edition Two-disc set of Cameron Crowe's Oscar winner.
Friends: First Season The TV series, complete with all the "Is Chandler gay?" gags and Marcel the monkey.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb
No rating indicates no screening copy