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Zoo in Budapest (1933)
early sound era fantasy in need of restoration
When he presented it at the Pacific Film Archive in 1989, historian William K. Everson described this charming early sound feature as a Disney-esque fairy tale, and he had a point: there's a disarming, almost childlike innocence to the characters and scenario. The film is part love story and part wildlife protection fable, following a pair of stray visitors (a precocious young boy and a beautiful, runaway orphan girl) who find adventure and (for the latter, at least) romance while trespassing after hours among the other caged animals in Hungary's capitol city. The setting may not have a convincing Middle European flavor, but the film is remarkably free of the awkward sentiment common to many early talkie productions. And the script shows surprising consistency for an effort credited to five writers, one of whom couldn't resist adding a slam-bang safari stampede climax totally out of step with the otherwise sensitive melodrama preceding it. The beautiful camera-work, no longer pristine in this surviving print, is the work of Lee Garmes.
the divided city
The large cast of characters in this lively German feature provides a rough cross-section of a malcontent society in transit: corrupt policemen, cynical young prostitutes, illegal Lebanese aliens, delinquent runaway children, and Zischke himself: a sullen but self-reliant teenage cartoonist abandoned by his mother when she follows her American GI boyfriend back to the land of milk and honey across the Atlantic. Is it any wonder that a city with such a chronic identity problem as pre-unification Berlin would be inhabited by a shifting population of rootless, restless souls? Everyone here is vaguely dissatisfied and desperate for some way (any way) out, which soon arrives in the coveted form of two forged passports. The production benefits from some youthful enthusiasm on both sides of the camera, but there isn't much substance behind all the attractive black and white photography. And the script is fatally overwritten, introducing so many peripheral subplots that the final resolution can't help but seem anticlimactic.
Zelly and Me (1988)
inhibited drama never really comes to life
Small movies can sometimes yield large pleasures, but to appreciate this modest, independently produced drama you'll have to first forgive a lot of its shortcomings. The film is more well-meant than well-made, following the battle of wills between a dictatorial grandmother and a benevolent French governess over the welfare of a precocious, orphaned poor-little-rich-girl. But it's an unfair competition from the start: Grandma Coco can only express her affection for young Phoebe through jealous tantrums and cruel discipline, while governess Zelly (short for Mademoiselle) is all compassion and tenderness (and very little else).
The film is a peculiar mixture of lukewarm nostalgia and cold, upper-crust alienation, showing more forbearance than might otherwise be expected from a story about child abuse. But the meager budget isn't enough to convincingly recreate the (somewhat arbitrary) 1958 setting, effectively isolating the action in a dramatic vacuum. A little more background detail might have made it more involving.
Look for cult director David Lynch in a small role, alongside his then girlfriend Isabella Rossellini.
Young Romance (1915)
a charming little antique
Two young clerks in a department store meet and fall in love during a seaside vacation in Maine, but part as strangers because, unknown to each other, both had been masquerading as upper-class 'swells', just to see how the better half lives. With so much coincidence already at work it's hardly surprising when (happily) the two are reunited after their mutual charade is over, but despite an all-too convenient resolution the scenario still shows plenty of simple, unassuming charm after more than three-quarters of a century in the archives (as of the screening I attended, way back in 1987). Likewise, the film itself has been beautifully preserved, with the freshly struck, tinted print opening like a small window onto the manners and customs of a more innocent age.
The Young Philadelphians (1959)
melodramatics in and out of court
This unbelievable (but no less enjoyable) legal soap opera comes complete with dark family secrets, coincidental encounters, tragic misunderstandings, and a courtroom finish Hitchcock might have loved, in which the fate of a man perhaps wrongly charged with murder waits to be decided by a butler's sense of smell. Paul Newman stars as a young lawyer rising through Philadelphia society using his wits, his charm, and a few unscrupulous tactics never taught in law school, and Barbara Rush is the hot-and-cold love interest. But Robert Vaughn steals the film playing an unfortunate friend who, in less than two hours of screen time, descends from an amiable barfly to a crippled war veteran to a skid row derelict facing the electric chair.
Young and Innocent (1937)
Hitchcock before Hollywood
Because the Master of Suspense made so many memorable films it's easy to overlook some of his earlier, embryonic gems. But for anyone except a Hitchcock completist this rarely seen relic from the director's English period will hold only academic interest, anticipating (in some cases by several decades) specific highlights from later classics. The film may lack the trademark perversity (and occasional Freudian overkill) of his Hollywood features, but it still shows plenty of humor, suspense, and (by then already a signature) at least one astonishing camera move. The plot itself is pure Hitchcock, with a typically unexpected MacGuffin: the belt of an incriminating raincoat sought by a fugitive wrongly accused of murder. When seen today the only real liability to the film is its absurdly low pre-war budget. Hitchcock was always a thrifty director, but some of the miniature model work shown here is laughably unconvincing.
Huang tu di (1984)
visually rich, but it requires a little patience
In this handsome but dramatically subdued portrait of life in the harsh, mountainous hinterland of mainland China a plucky young bureaucrat, collecting folk songs for the communist army, befriends a penniless widower and his children, before learning to his horror that the winsome teenage daughter is to be sold against her will into marriage with an elderly local farmer. Director Kaige Chen shows a photographer's eye for visual composition and symmetry, but the narrative structure of his film is almost non-existent. This is storytelling completely uninfluenced by Western techniques and standards, unfolding for the most part through imagery and song. Whether the result is a refreshing change of pace or an exercise in tedium will depend entire on the viewer's attitude toward classic Third World cinema.
The Year My Voice Broke (1987)
A reluctant nerd approaching the awkward end of adolescence finds his intellectual pursuits in fierce conflict with his awakening lust for a childhood friend from the wrong side of the tracks, who meanwhile is infatuated with a kindred rebel spirit more her own age.
The subsequent rite of passage doesn't stray too far from the patented coming-of-age blueprint (laughter leading to tragedy leading to bittersweet wisdom), but writer-director John Duigan's affectionate screenplay avoids falling into any sentimental traps, and the isolated Australian outback setting recalls some of the melancholy nostalgia of 'The Last Picture Show'. If not much else the film is a welcome throwback to a time when Australian movie-making meant well-crafted, unpretentious entertainment, before the Down Under film industry devolved to the level of 'Crocodile Dundee'.
The Wrong Box (1966)
A madcap cross-country chase for an inherited fortune by two elderly brothers and their many offspring ought to be funnier than this, especially with so many familiar names and faces along for the ride. Viewers with a weakness for the mugging style of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore might be entertained, but others may find themselves longing for more scenes with trivia freak Ralph Richardson, and a bigger part for Peter Sellers, seen all-too briefly as a dotty MD with a fondness for cats. Elsewhere the various routine plot complications and misunderstandings are (at best) fitfully amusing, but the presentation is rarely more than just plain silly, with coy title cards ("Disaster Ensues!") providing a labored chuckle along the way. The script was based on a Robert Louis Stevenson short story, which would explain the otherwise gratuitous Victorian setting and trappings.
The World of Tomorrow (1984)
the lessons of nostalgia
Visit the 1939 New York City World's Fair, and see the future as it should have been!
Your guide will be Jason Robards, Jr., who as a carefree ten year old boy can be seen thrilling to the sights and sounds of this greatest of all international expositions, and cheerfully mugging for the camera in his father's home movies!
He'll lead you through a Utopian Never-Never Land of scientific wonders and social achievements, including the popular Futurama Exhibit, featuring a scale model of Democracity, the perfect planned community for the next generation!
Follow the all-American Middletons (Mom, Dad, Babs and Bud) from Main Street, Indiana, a promotional film family touring pavilions representing all the mightiest nations on Earth, with the notable exception of Germany, which at that moment was planning a world event of an altogether different sort!
The ironies of hindsight make this a fascinating documentary, suggesting (not without regret) that optimism is no match for the harsh reality of current events. The film includes plenty of rare color archival footage.