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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.
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'.
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 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.
La femme d'à côté (1981)
old lovers. awkwardly reunited
Family man Gérard Depardieu is disturbed to learn his new neighbor is, by sheer coincidence, ex-lover Fanny Ardant. Both are happily married, but that doesn't stop them from resuming their affair, with tragic consequences.
The script is nothing new, but François Truffaut's intelligent treatment of the otherwise familiar story avoids the more obvious clichés of popular romantic fiction. It hardly ranks among the director's best efforts, but a pair of talented co-stars and the typically French pre-occupation with l'amour fou help maintain interest all the way to the startling conclusion.
Woman of the Year (1942)
when Tracy met Hepburn
From their first moment on screen together the rapport between Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy couldn't be more obvious, but it's too bad their chemistry wasn't better served by more dynamic direction. The formula romantic comedy plot moves like clockwork, with Hepburn and Tracy very much in character playing a globetrotting political journalist and an old-style sports reporter; the two meet, marry, and only then realize how little (besides love) they have in common. A half-century ago the scenario might have been fresh, but don't be too sure. It was produced in 1942, but under the deliberate (heavy-handed, to be less polite) direction of George Stevens the film looks like it was made a decade earlier. The best reason to see it today is to simply enjoy the ease with which its two stars play off each other.
A World Apart (1988)
the title refers not only to Apartheid, but to childhood as well
The first dramatic feature directed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Chris Menges tackles the injustices of Apartheid, without trivializing the issues or compromising the dramatic integrity of its script. Instead of adopting a gratuitous high moral tone, Menges concentrates first on telling a good story, following the growth to maturity of an adolescent (white) girl, already racially color blind, who feels neglected by her journalist/activist mother. The film might be criticized for once again using white protagonists to educate audiences about the black experience in South Africa, but it's a hollow complaint: writer Shawn Slovo based her script on personal experience, and the depth of its detail reflects her crystal-clear memories of growing up in Johannesburg during the early 1960s.
That the film succeeds more on a personal level in no way diminishes its political message, which unlike other anti-Apartheid dramas is never force-fed in condescending spoonfuls ("I know that already; stop treating me like a baby!" cries the frustrated young heroine after yet another lecture from mom). No easy solutions are offered, and the film ends in just another riot, suggesting with cautious optimism the hope for ultimate victory after what promises to be a long and difficult struggle.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
simply beyond criticism
What more needs to be said about a film that has gone beyond the status of a mere classic to become an enduring part of our national heritage? Is there anyone alive unfamiliar with Dorothy or Toto or the tornado or the Munchkins or the Yellow Brick Road or the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Wicked Witch of the West, the Emerald City, the Great and Powerful Oz, the ruby slippers, or the fact that there's no place like home?
Before the age of home entertainment most people knew the movie only from its frequent television screenings (always introduced, in our youth, by Danny Kaye), but seeing the film uninterrupted by commercials (and preferably on a big screen) is the best way to appreciate the fairy-tale simplicity of L. Frank Baum's story and the wealth of his imagination, in no way compromised by the economy of the film's Depression-era 1939 budget. This is one of those rare adaptations that is actually better than the original book: a film that will never grow old, for people who will never grow old.
Without Honor (1918)
a treat for silent film buffs
In the mid-1980s I was fortunate to catch a rare screening of this early silver screen relic, dusted off and presented by historian/movie fan William K. Everson at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, California. It's a silent morality tale, similar in spirit to D.W. Griffith's 'Way Down East', full of unlikely tragedy and romance in the long-established tradition of classic Victorian potboilers (as if the title didn't already make that clear). The film can hardly be considered a classic, but students of early silent melodrama may enjoy seeing Margery Wilson ('Brown Eyes' in the Huguenot episode of Griffith's 1916 epic 'Intolerance') in a rare starring role.
Without a Clue (1988)
two great stars in an amusing little farce
That sound you hear is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle spinning in his grave, from mirth more than outrage at the sorry state of his legendary Baker Street detective, depicted here as a bumbling third-rate actor living a role created by the real deductive genius and crime fighter: Dr. John Watson.
It's a convenient (if sometimes slightly antagonistic) arrangement, with Watson finding the clues and Holmes getting the credit, and both Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley play the one-joke premise for all its worth, having a lot of fun with their respective characters. Caine is the idiotic, clumsy, lecherous and vain Sherlock Holmes, but Kingsley's Watson is no less temperamental: he has to solve the mysteries and match wits with the fiendish Moriarty while keeping his petulant alter ego under control.
The plotting is conventional and Henry Mancini's cartoon music score makes the film sound at times like a mediocre sit-com, but it's a pleasure watching two award-winning talents trample a literary icon with such impeccable comic timing and malicious glee.
The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
has as much character as a box of cornflakes
The screen adaptation of John Updike's novel is a more-or-less typical package deal: a generic assembly-line production marketed for adults but aimed at adolescents, and supported by the crutch of high-tech (circa 1987)special effects. Somewhere lost within the cartoon scenario about three restless New England divorcées and their pact with Satan is an underhanded comment on male chauvinism and gender aggression, but the film is never allowed a chance to rise above the level of a summer bubblegum fantasy (with literary pretensions). Was it meant to be a horror film? A comedy? An allegory of Women's Lib? By trying to be all three it ends up as an awkward mishmash of each, with only Jack Nicholson's juicy-ham performance (he plays the Prince of Darkness like a dirty old man) holding any interest.
Withnail & I (1987)
at loose ends
A pair of unambitious young actors face the bitter end of the 1960s with a mixture of suspicion, fear, and the sort of paranoia brought about by long stretches of enforced boredom and too many hallucinogenic drugs. In a desperate attempt to 'get away from it all', the arrogant, high-strung Withnail and his equally neurotic companion trade their seedy urban flat (in which all sorts of loathsome creatures lurk among the dirty clothes and unwashed dishes) for the even more claustrophobic confinement of a rustic country cabin. There they encounter more than one unexpected bucolic peril: a recalcitrant chicken; a seemingly antagonistic poacher; and finally Withnail's amorous Uncle Monty, an aging pederast pursuing his nephew's terrified, homophobic friend.
No one who lived through the '60s is likely to remember the decade quite like this...but of course no one who drank as much liquor or dropped as many pills as the arrogant Withnail and his anonymous roommate is likely to remember much of anything. Writer-director Bruce Robinson lends a disarming comic masochism to his own loosely rendered autobiography, creating an oddly eccentric (but not unkind) portrait of two misfits on the edge of a society in transit, both of them out of touch with changing times and facing an uncertain future with equal parts contempt (from Withnail) and paranoia (from his anxious companion).
The film itself is only slightly more eccentric than its characters, but such offbeat originality could only have come from personal experience, and Robinson (author of 'The Killing Fields', and the otherwise unnamed 'I' in this film's title) fills in the blanks with caustic black humor and 20-20 hindsight. Even the flamboyantly self-centered, cynical Withnail earns a degree of sympathy by the film's end, as he wanders off into the rain, a soon to be forgotten relic who couldn't quite adapt to changing times.
Wish You Were Here (1987)
another canny dissection of English manners and morals
David Leland's companion piece to 'Personal Services' (also 1987) is another dramatized fiction suggested by the life of Cynthia Payne (London's notorious 'Luncheon Voucher Madam'), only here the canvas is smaller and the film, as a result, is less effective. A 'prequel' to the earlier feature, it relives the rebellious teenage years of the sassy young Ms. Payne (the names have again been changed) as she flies in the face of her stodgy English upbringing with a rousing rejoinder of "up yer bum!" Growing up too fast in a very slow corner of the Empire, she struggles through that awkward age when her cynicism about sex hasn't caught up with her curiosity about it, leading to a good deal of engaging if familiar adolescent angst, reinforced by a bland seaside setting viewed through nostalgia. The film succeeds mostly on the charm of young Emily Lloyd, portraying a character who can't decide if hers is a child's mind in an adult's body, or the other way around. Boredom motivates her rude behavior, and it's a pity the film itself didn't follow her good example. After making its point (and making it well), the story can't help losing a little momentum.
a good idea, not fully realized
Laughter has to be one of the more effective weapons in the battle of the sexes, so it shouldn't be surprising to find so many women sharing their unique (and sometimes harsh) perspective on the stand-up comedy circuit. Instead of getting mad, these girls get funny, and this modest documentary offers a sampling of greatest hits (often below the belt) from the new generation (circa 1992) of female comedians.
But what should have been a foolproof subject for a documentary film is hurt by the routine organization of material, shortchanging some lively footage of the comics on stage plying their trade in favor of too much backstage analysis. The hit-or-miss humor speaks volumes by itself (there obviously aren't too many dead spots in a compilation film), but the best jokes ironically have nothing to do with tampons or idiot boyfriends.
A Winter Tan (1987)
at 91 minutes, its easily an hour-and-a-half too long
This may be the perfect movie for neurotic, masochistic women, recounting one self-indulgent writer's "vacation from feminism" in sunny Mexico, where the search for some clue to her identity leads only to a succession of virile Mexican boys half her age. Canadian actress Jackie Burroughs portrays expatriate New Yorker Maryse Holder by quoting her explicit, confessional letters in beatnik monologues spoken directly to the camera (a random sample: "cycles of vengeance, cycles of revenge, motorcycles of despair
"), but exactly who this woman is or what she's after is never made clear: is she rebelling against her advancing age, or simply looking for Señor Goodbar? Burroughs can be an intense performer, and the film may well capture the essence of Holder's narcissistic lifestyle, but the sad truth is that she wasn't a particularly talented writer ("vomit seems to be my metaphor", she admits, with stunning candor, at one point), and the film wallows in self-pity and self-importance. Five people, including Burroughs herself, share the director's credit, possibly because no one wanted to take full responsibility for it.
Der Himmel über Berlin (1987)
poetry in motion
Compelling, ponderous, exasperating, enigmatic, demanding and beautiful: Wim Wenders' rediscovery of his native Germany from its most symbolic city is all this and more. His spellbinding portrait of Berlin, past and present, is poetry in motion: a haunting, hypnotic masterpiece that lingers in the memory long after its final image fades from the screen.
From the opening aerial shots to the last (admittedly long-winded) soliloquy, the film is a provocative look at a world that has long since lost its innocence, as witnessed by a pair of benevolent guardian angels invisibly cataloguing human daydreams and emotions, and occasionally offering mute comfort in moments of private spiritual crisis. In the divided city of Berlin what they most often overhear are poetic expressions of longing and despair, but it isn't enough to stop one empathetic angel from trading in his wings for a chance to experience all the mundane, earthbound luxuries of mortal life, from something as simple as a cup of hot coffee to something as complicated as falling in love.
In less sensitive hands the idea might never have gone beyond a simple romantic fantasy (as in the inevitable Hollywood remake, starring Nicholas Cage), but Wenders and co-writer Peter Handke are more interested in making the film a vicarious tour of the human condition, overheard in passing: an infant's first joyous observations; the final thoughts of an auto accident victim; the calm resignation of a man on the brink of suicide; and the recollections of an actor (Peter Falk, playing himself, but with a whimsical twist) on location during the making of a war movie.
Wenders' typically moody soul searches aren't always easy to sit through, but the unexpected element of fantasy lifts the film completely out of the ordinary, and the soaring imagery (shot mostly in luminous black and white) goes a long way toward balancing the occasional clutter of repetitive prose-poetry during the sometimes protracted interior monologues. Viewers may find it either exhilarating or annoying, but behind all the angst and alienation is a stubborn, almost childlike faith in the benevolence of human nature.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
The Western genre was effectively killed off by Sam Peckinpah's bloody masterpiece, in which a band of aging outlaws unable to adapt to changing times decides to make their final exit with something more than a whimper. The film is concerned with nothing less than the death of the Old West itself, a theme Peckinpah approached more gently in 'Ride the High Country'; here the director redefines Western mythology by embracing its most destructive impulses. The action has been choreographed into a terrible, exhilarating ballet, from William Holden's terse command during the opening credits ("if they move, kill 'em") to the cathartic fury of the final bloodbath, which invented a whole new vocabulary for screen violence. Peckinpah's macho code of honor, primitive sense of humor, and often sloppy sentiment can be hard to stomach, but the influence the film has had is undeniable, and its impact when seen today (in particular the final shoot-out) is only slightly diminished by our current over-saturation in MTV shock editing techniques.
Wild at Heart (1990)
David Lynch once admitted to making movies about things that frighten him, and after seeing this comedy-noir freak show it's obvious he must be terrified of criticism from the political Far Right. The film is a catalogue of nightmares guaranteed to offend any card-carrying conservative: heavy metal music, raw language, kinky sex and violence, a casual abortion, so on and so forth.
The token storyline, adapted (rather freely) from a novel by Barry Gifford, follows two rebellious young lovers on the lam from an assortment of warped sideshow villains and the usual pathological refugees from Lynch's overwrought imagination. With its almost epic displays of bloodshed and sex the film certainly lives up to its title, but there's a disturbing sense of familiarity about it. By now the peculiar habits and dark obsessions of its director are too well known, and this postmodern nightmare only redefines the same evil undercurrents of his earlier 'Blue Velvet' on a bigger budget and even more outrageous scale.
At its best (in some of the more offbeat digressions) the details are morbidly amusing in a way that recalls Fellini or Buñuel, and the director's hallmark visionary style and outer-limit dream logic are still compelling. But a colorful rut is still a rut, and controversy for its own sake is always an artistic dead-end. In the end the film is just another excuse for Lynch to test how far he can push the censors, with results ranging from brilliantly perverse to just plain embarrassing, and not even the occasional arcane reference to The Wizard of Oz will endear the film to anyone but the most die-hard of the director's fans.
Why Worry? (1923)
a change of pace for Harold
The most lively of Harold Lloyd's classic comedies is arguably his most accessible when seen today, and can now be enjoyed without the indiscriminate editing and idiot soundtrack added by Time-Life Films in the early 1960s. Of all his silent features it's the least rooted in the ideals of its age, employing an element of fantasy quite out of character from his usually plausible boy-next-door scenarios. Adopting one of his popular idle, young millionaire roles, Lloyd stars as a wealthy hypochondriac on vacation in South America, thwarting a military coup with the help of his loyal nurse and a gentle (but formidable) giant. It's a measure of Lloyd's appeal that he could be so inventive without seeming at all out of the ordinary in the manner of Keaton or Chaplin. His innocence and vigor allowed him to milk an amazing amount of humor from any one gag (curing the giant's toothache, for example), building each laugh with an escalating but practical absurdity rarely possible outside of silent film comedy.