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03.05.08

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Phaedra

Ephemera: Old film footage gets revived in 'Flames.'

Spring Screens

Ancient and epic, oh my

By Michael S. Gant


S aved From the Flames' (three discs; Flicker Alley; $49.99) This seven-hour collection begins with the sad fact that for about half of its history, cinema was recorded on volatile nitrate stock. As many as eight out of 10 early films are lost, irretrievable. Luckily, thanks to obsessive collectors and outfits like Blackhawk Films and Lobster Films, something of our recorded past has been salvaged, and even restored, thanks to advances in digital technology.

This Flicker Alley set presents 54 short films made from 1896 to 1944, and they only whet one's appetite for whatever other treasures remain to be rescued. Many early clips are valuable simply because they open a window on to mundane life a century ago: workers mill around a factory, casting curious glances at Lumière's candid camera in 1896; intrepid motorists drive and drag their cars from San Francisco to Reno in 1915.

Early filmmakers delighted in the sleight-of-hand effects of their new art, as with Georges Méliès, who enhances his own magic act with editing tricks. The astonishing 1911 Automatic Moving Company presents furniture scuttling out of a moving van and into a new house all by itself in stop-motion animation, done, according to the accompanying booklet, with doll-house furniture, although the illusion is nearly perfect.

Also included are experiments with synchronized sound (a scene from Cyrano de Bergerac ) and wonderful, labor-intensive hand-coloring. The best example is The Talion Punishment , a fantasy about human/butterfly hybrids who taunt a lepidopterist. Some familiar faces also show up. Charlie Chaplin, donning his tramp suit for the first time, wanders into the path of speeding cars in 1914's Kid's Auto Race , and Stan Laurel mugs in The Pest , a 1922 short about a door-to-door salesman.

The sound entries range from French theater ads for Week-End cigarettes with Fernandel and Tati, to an amazing industrial documentary about a Chevrolet factory in which unsung cinematography great George Avil creates a symphony of images from spinning gears and stamping machines.

My favorite, however, is Play Safe , a Fleischer Studios cartoon from 1936 using gorgeous early three-color Technicolor and mixing 2-D characters with 3-D sets. In seven minutes, a plucky kid moves from playing with toy trains to racing along with anthropomorphized streamliners. It beats Polar Express hands down.

'Beowulf: Director's Cut' (one disc; Paramount; $29.99) Robert Zemeckis repurposes a musty epic to attract 14-year-old boys addicted to video games. King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) keeps losing minions to Grendel's pop-ins, and calls on Beowulf (Ray Winstone) to save his kingdom. Beowulf obliges and eventually snags Queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn, as bland in motion-capture as she is in real life) in the bargain. It's Shrek enlivened with gore and Renaissance fair wenches.

The mead-hall action is hectic and confusing, but Crispin Glover's tortured "mama's boy" Grendel ("Rippéd offa me arm," the monster bleats) and Angelina Jolie's supermodel mom steal the hero's Nordic thunder. The director's cut promises scenes "too intense for theaters," but I saw nothing that a bloody-minded child wouldn't enjoy.

The extras are more entertaining than the film. The behind-the-scenes footage demonstrates how complicated—and ludicrous—performance-capture photography can look. The actors don their scuba suits covered with tiny sensors and wires and start jumping in their harnesses like kids in a play set. Especially amusing is the sight of Glover tearing apart miniature stuffed dummies that will eventually, through the miracle of software, become gushing monster meat.

Ultrabuffed Beowulf turns out to be doughy Ray Winstone, whose Richard Burtonesque voice would be wasted in a life-action film. Some other features show the impressive models and storyboards for the project; they even reveal that what look like spiked high heels on Grendel's mom's feet are actually pointy hoof claws.


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