Behind the Curb

Lots of people have been complaining lately that Woody Allen movies would be better without Woody Allen. Writer-director-actor Edward Burns seems to have taken the message to heart. His new comedy, Sidewalks of New York, is Woody lite – make that extra-lite – minus Woody. His model is clearly Husbands and Wives, right down to the hyperactive camerawork and faux-documentary structure: We watch as an offscreen moviemaker asks impromptu questions of a half-dozen or so lovelorn New Yorkers, whose lives are interconnected in a roundelay of botched passion. We also see quite a few scenes in which, by all logic, the camera could not possibly be present, and yet it is. But let that pass. This is the kind of movie where it’s best not to apply – how shall I say it? – the strictest dramatic standards. It makes the same misstep that Allen’s comedies often do: It assumes that the lives of these people are only about sex and love, and so that’s all we ever see of them. This one-and-a-half-dimensionality wears thin.

What makes the movie sort of enjoyable anyway are the performances; the actors, who, besides Burns, include Heather Graham, Rosario Dawson, David Krumholtz, and Brittany Murphy, all have their sporty moments. Dennis Farina has a hilarious turn as a TV-show host who seems tickled by his own studliness. As a philandering dentist, Stanley Tucci plays the kind of guy who defends keeping a mistress by calling his attitude “very European.” Tucci is so incisive that he momentarily lifts the movie into an edgier realm where people exist as more than just whimsical jabberers with cutesy-poo foibles. When he’s not around, the sidewalks in this movie appear to have been scrubbed clean.

In 1997, the documentarian Edet Belzberg began work on a feature film about Romanian street children, spending hundreds of hours in the subways living with runaways and cast-offs. Her movie, Children Underground (at Film Forum), is almost unbearably sad. These kids with young-old faces are already lost; sniffing paint, breaking into mêlées, sleeping on cardboard boxes, they live a ragamuffin existence in purgatory. Belzberg tracked down a number of the children’s dissolute parents, and without being doctrinaire about it, she strongly suggests, despite the elders’ protestations and excuses, why the kids ran away. But she also leaves a gateway open to the unanswerable: Finally, no one can really know why the runaways have placed themselves in harm’s way. Well-meaning church workers and social workers try to make a difference, but for the most part, the adults who push nervously past the children on the streets and in the subways are resentful of being subjected to such a spectacle. Belzberg doesn’t intervene during the moments of violence, believing that the film can force social change only by showing the worst. If she is correct, then this film should move mountains.

In Brief: I don’t know of another director as great as Kon Ichikawa whose films have been as spottily distributed in this country. Still working at 85, he has made more than 80 movies, of which only a dozen or so have been shown widely here. The Museum of Modern Art is currently running a 26-feature Ichikawa retrospective, many in newly struck 35-mm. prints, and it’s a cultural event of the first order. In addition to the acknowledged masterworks, including the documentary Tokyo Olympiad, Fires on the Plain, The Burmese Harp, and The Makioka Sisters (which may be the most beautiful film I’ve ever seen), there are major discoveries, including Ten Dark Women, Punishment Room, and Alone on the Pacific.

Sidewalks of New York
Written and directed by Edward Burns.
Children Underground
Documentary by Edet Belzberg.
Kon Ichikawa
Retrospective at MoMA.

Behind the Curb