CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
La Roue (A)
France; Abel Gance, 1922, Flicker Alley
Abel Gance, maker of the spectacular 1927 French epic Napoleon, was one of the great symphonic masters of the silent movie, and La Roue is one of his greatest symphonies.
It's also a real cinematic event: the restoration of a legendary and once vastly influential film epic, released in France in 1922 at 7½ hours, ruinously cut to 2 hours or so for American audiences, and now restored to 4½ hours and much of its previous grandeur by Paris' Lobster Film Studios, Eric Lange and David Shepard. It's another beautiful job by Flicker Alley, and no true cinephile should miss it.
The story of La Roue (The Wheel) is, in many ways, pure silent-movie melodama, but done with such grace, style and deep feeling that it sweeps you up and thrills you, just as the silent melodramas of Gance's friend and admirer D.W. Griffith still do. Shot on location at the St. Roch railroad yards near Nice, conceived and written by Gance himself, it's the Zola-esque story of a moody crack engineer (played by Gance's favorite actor of the period, Severin-Mars) rescues a little girl from a devastating train wreck and secretly adopts her; she grows into a beauty (played by American actress Ivy Close) who wins both Sisif's heart and desire and also that of his sensitive violin-maker son Elie (Gabriel de Gravone) and the unscrupulous wealthy railroad man de Hershan (Pierre Mangier).
More train wreck and tragedy envelops them all, and the second half of the tale unfolds on the snow-capped peaks of Mount Blanc, where Sisif (whose name derives from the Sysiphus of Albert Camus' favorite classic myth) is finally exiled.
Gance was both a classicist and a great film innovator, and La Roue is told in a blazingly brilliant style that blends stunning compositions and passionate acting with brilliantly accelerated editing techniques (in the action scenes), pounding volcanic cutting rhythms that went even further than Griffith's and obviously were another major inspiration on Eisenstein and the Russians. La Roue, whose main admirers included the young Akira Kurosawa, is a cinematic masterpiece that we have never before seen with such power and complexity. It rends the emotions, drenches the eyes and quickens the heart. Among this release's major assets: a contemporary documentary by famed novelist Blaise Cendrars, who was present for some of the filming, and a new orchestral score by Robert Israel, to replace the long missing original score by Artur Honegger.
Bravo, Abel Gance! And bravo, Lobster Studio and Flicker Alley, for bringing most of this marvelous La Roue back from the dead. (Silent, with intertitles and new orchestral score. Extras: Blaise Cendrars documentary and booklet with William M. Drew and Robert Israel essays.)
I'm Not There (B)
U.S.; Todd Haynes, 2007, Weinstein Company/Genius Products
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
The Films of Morris Engel, with Ruth Orkin (A)
U.S.: Morris Engel/Ruth Orkin/Ray Ashley, 1953-58, Kino
Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, subjects of this essential box set from Kino, are major, highly influential figures in both American photography and movies of the 20th century: master recorders of city streets and city people from the '30s through the '80s (in photography) and in movies (in the '50s). Sadly, comparatively, not that many American movie watchers have heard of them. And only a few more know of their 1953 masterpiece, Little Fugitive -- which no less a critic/cineaste/expert than Francois Truffaut called the progenitor of the entire French New Wave -- and therefore of all the movie new waves that followed in its wake. Truffaut said, "Our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn't been for the young Morris Engel...with his fine Little Fugitive."
Engel and Orkin, a married couple who came to each other through photography, were a strong part of the '50s New York Jewish leftist arts community, born from the Depression and the Second World War. Star camera poet/hounds for the magazine PM, they were later collaborators on one of the most remarkable and important American independent features ever made: Little Fugitive, a big critical and audience hit shot on a shoestring ($30,000), inspired by Italy's postwar neorealist films, and the granddaddy of all the American indie breakthroughs that followed. This wonderful box set reclaims their legacy.
Little Fugitive (A)
Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Ray Ashley, 1953
The unforgettable, richly atmospheric tale of a small boy (Richie Andrusco) who mistakenly believes he's killed his older brother with a gun and spends a day and night hiding on the Coney Island beach and fairgrounds. Incredible performances by the child actors, especially Andrusco, and a lovely, pungent photographic record of '50s Coney Island that captures it forever. An amazing film, especially when you consider its budget and era.
Lovers and Lollipops (B)
Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin; 1955
Another extraordinary child performer (Cathy Dunn), charmingly and ruthlessly plays the daughter of a single New York mother (Lori March), who starts to sabotage her mommy's budding relationship with a boy friend (Gerald O'Loughlin).
Weddings and Babies (B+)
Morris Engel, 1958
The most personal of these films, a funny and poignant romantic drama about a wedding and baby photographer (John Myhers), his increasingly impatient fiancée (marvelous Swede Viveca Lindfors) and life in Manhattan's Little Italy.
(Extras: Documentaries on Engel and Orkin by their daughter Mary Engel.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
P.S. I Love You (C+)
U.S.; Richard LaGravanese, 2007, Warner
Hilary Swank and Gerard Butler are an ideal New York City couple who are separated by death; Butler prolongs the love and agony with an elaborate series of letters and directions, which he's left behind for her. Nice try at an offbeat romantic comedy from a smart, accomplished writer-director. But there's little chemistry between these two, and the premise leaves a strange, bitter taste in your mouth. The ace supporting cast includes Lisa Kudrow, Gina Gershon and Harry Connick Jr.
The Golden Compass (B-)
U.S.; Chris Weitz, 2008, New Line
A lively, sumptuously visualized but variable fantasy, this film is based on the first book of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy -- an epic children's book inspired by Milton's Paradise Lost, with newcomer Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, the little girl adventuress in a world of witches, daemons and talking bears. The movie starts out draggily and doesn't establish its Jules Verne-ish alternate universe with enough authority. But as soon as Sam Elliott (playing salty cowboy Scoresby) shows up, along with Iorek Byrnison, the king of the armored ice bears (a magnificent computer creation voiced by Ian McKellen), they kick the whole movie into gear. With Nicole Kidman as bad witch Marisa, Eva Green as good witch Serafina and Daniel Craig, barely visible as Lord Asriel. By the way, the religious controversy over this fantasy movie is ridiculous. Message to all these overactive anti-witches-in-movies crusaders: Get an afterlife. (Extras: Commentary by Weitz, featurettes.)
First Sunday (C+)
U.S.; David E. Talbert, 2007, Sony
Another dangerous premise and fine cast gone wrong: two desperate, financially strapped buddies (Ice Cube and Tracy Morgan) try to rob a local church and end up holding a church meeting group hostage. Everybody charms everybody else, except for the one official villain; the supporting cast includes Keith David, Chi McBride, Loretta Devine, Nick Turturro and Melinda Williams. Cube generously plays straight man for everybody; the funniest of them is Katt Williams as flippy Rickey.
Steel City (B-)
U.S.; Brian Jun, 2007, Peace Arcade
This good low-budget indie is about a family torn apart when the father (John Heard) is jailed for a crime he may not have committed. All the acting is fine, especially Tom Guiry and Clayne Crawford as the brothers, America Ferrera as the girlfriend and Raymond J. Barry as flinty Uncle Vic.
Dans Paris (B-)
France; Christophe Honore, 2006, Gemini Films
A smart if predictable French family comedy. But don't expect a Gallic Everybody Loves Raymond. It's a French family: a lovelorn brother (Romain Duris, at his most morose and inward) bonds in various ways with his salty father (Guy Marchand), his knockout mother (Marie-France Pisier) and his sparky younger brother (Louis Garrel, son of Philippe). (In French, with English subtitles.)
The Devil's Own (C+)
U.S.; Alan J. Pakula, 1997, Sony
A moody social thriller from Pakula, the movie is about an Irish terrorist (Brad Pitt) rooming with a good cop (Harrison Ford), and the hell that breaks loose around them. The cast is strong, and the direction tight. This is no Klute or Parallax View, but it passes.
The Bridges of Madison County (A-)
U.S.; Clint Eastwood, 1995, Warner
The saccharine Robert James Waller bestseller about a left-on-her-own-for-a-while small-town married woman's lost love with a traveling photographer, improves greatly on its source and becomes a memorably human and sad movie romance. As written by Richard LaGravenese (P.S. I Love You), directed by Eastwood and acted (superbly) by Clint and Meryl Streep as the couple, it all works well. Steven Spielberg was supposed to direct this, and I wish he had; it would have been his first adult romance. But, passed over to its star, it shows a side of Eastwood usually less evident in his movies. (Friends of C.E. have said that, among his roles, this one is closest to his true personality.)
Serial Mom (C+)
U.S.; John Waters, 1994, Universal
John Waters has never really found a successor to his grand diva and superstar Divine, not to mention the rest of his old scabrous stock company, and not even Kathleen Turner, at her nastiest, can erase his/her/their memory. Here, she's as a perfect suburban mother with a taste for family values and bloody slaughter, and this blend of serial killing and anti-momism satire is pure Waters and some funny stuff. But, to continue our theme, it's no Pink Flamingoes. With Sam Waterston, Ricki Lake and Matthew Lillard.
The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto (A-)
Japan; Kihachiro Kawamoto, 1968-79, Kimstim/Kino
Exquisite is right. These short cartoons, shot early in Kawamoto's career, are gems of stop-motion puppet animation, in the tradition of the nonpareil Czech puppet master Jiri Trnka (one of Kawamoto's teachers). The subject matter is both classic and surreal. The puppets are gorgeous. The humor is sometimes wry. The stories -- one of them, A Poet's Life, adapted from novelist-screenwriter Kobo (Woman in the Dunes) Abe -- are surprising, affecting, and sometimes scary. A little treasury. Includes: The Breaking of Branches Is Forbidden* (1968); An Anthropo-Cynical Farce (1970; in French, with English subtitles); The Demon (1972); The Trip (1973); A Poet's Life (1974); Dojoji Temple (1976); and House of Flames (1979). (All films are in Japanese, with English subtitles, except where noted.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS
The Last Detective Series 4 (B-)
U.K.; various directors, 2006
From the novels by Leslie Thomas right on to the popular British TV show based on them, London's "Dangerous" Davies (played spot on by Peter Davison) is a detective for the common man: somewhat dowdy and hangdog, and definitely a henpecked husband (thanks to Emma Amos), but one hell of a detective and a dogged, relentless cop. If John Nettles' Tom Barnaby (of Midsummer Murders) is something of a provincial gentleman, Davies is a big-city prole-up-from-the-ranks, and his clumsiness, which is not a deliberate ploy as it is for Peter Falk's Columbo, makes him more endearing, and therefore more dangerous.
Includes: Once Upon a Time on the Westway (Nick Laughland), Dangerous Liaisons (David Tucker), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Willesden (Douglas Mackinnon), The Man from Montevideo (Sandy Johnson), Dead Peasant's Society (Martyn Friend). (All films are U.K. productions, from 2006. Extras: Interview with Davison, Leslie Thomas bio and booklist, cast filmographies.)