Monday, March 8, 2021

Little Fugitive: The Collected Films of Morris Engel & Ruth Orkin Blu Ray Kino Classics Review

Little Fugitive: The Collected Films of Morris Engel & Ruth Orkin (1953-68) 3/9/2021

Little Fugitive, Lovers and Lollipops, Weddings and Babies, I Need a Ride to California 

Disclaimer: Kino Classics  has provided me with a copy of this film free of charge for the purposes of review. All opinions contained within are my own honest reflections. 

Disc 1

Little Fugitive (1953)

Directed By: Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin 

Starring: Richie Andrusco, Richard Brewster, Winifred Cushing 

   Young Joey (Richie Andrusco) is tricked into thinking he killed his brother so he runs away to Coney Island and spends the day riding rides.  If ever there was a time-capsule movie, something that truly captured a special time and place it would have to be Little Fugitive from 1953. This American Cinema-Vertie attempts and I think succeeds in distilling that magic of summer time fun and the innocence into one breezy eighty-minute experience. The scenes of the kids playing and interacting with one another feels incredibly real and relatable. Before Spielberg did it in E.T (1983), Little Fugitive is special in that the primary characters are children and though there are adults around they really don't factor into the overall narrative. The movie is also important in documenting early '50's New York, more specifically Coney Island. From the beach, the games and rides it's all here. The movie doesn't have what you might think of as a meaty plot with the entire movie just one boy's adventure in Coney Island. This might be off-putting for some but, for me the whole movie was an engaging meditation on care-free youth as seen by a boy living in '50's New York. The acting is great with Richie Andrusco and Richard Brewster giving quite mature performances for their ages. Little Fugitive does the impossible by evoking that feeling of being young and worry free whilst also capturing a special time and place in New York's famed Coney Island. 

Picture: Little Fugitive is a film that is, as of this review nearly seventy-years-old. Kino presents a overall clear restoration with a nice contrast in the black-and-white photography. Images have a nice sharp look and retains a lot in terms of detail. The film does have some minor issues with scratches and artifacts. I wager this can be chocked up to the original material which, again is nearly seven-decades old at this point. Honestly, the flaws do not in my opinion detract from the film and it's clear that a lot of work has been done to achieve the overall look of the film. 

Sound: Little Fugitive has a DTS 2.0 track. Dialogue comes in clear as does the overall sound design and music. Like the image, the sound does have a few minor flaws in the way of some background hiss but, again, nothing that I feel takes away from the film. 

Extras: Little Fugitive  has a nice array of extras including two vintage doc-featurette's: Morris Engel: The Independent" and, "Ruth Orkin: Frames of Life" Rounding out the features is a commentary track by Morris Engel, Theatrical Trailer and Image Gallery 

Disc 2: 
Lollipops and Lovers (1956)

Directed By: Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin 

Starring: Lori March, Cathy Dunn, Bill Ward, Gerald O'Loughlin 

   Three years after Little Fugitive Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin re-teamed for Lollipops and Lovers. The film tells of a single mother living in New York named Ann (Lori March) and her daughter Peggy (Cathy Dunn). Ann starts dating Larry (Gerald O'Loughlin) and starts to navigate courting mom whilst also bonding with daughter. Little Fugitive was a big hit when it was released earning both praise by critics and an Oscar nomination not to mention awards from the Venice Film Festival. This is why it's not hard to see why Engel and Orkin would want to make another film based in New York and centering around a kid. However, Lollipops and Lovers in my opinion fails to re-capture that magic. It's not to say that the film has not merit, indeed, it's very charming in places and the photography is again top notch. Unlike Little Fugitive, this film tries to have a richer narrative but the story is too thin and the characters arent engaging enough to help gloss over the weak narrative.  The acting is also a step down with child actor Cathy Dunn coming off wooden. Again, Fugitive works because it demanded less acting and was more about an adventure seen through a wide-eyed kid. The adult actors frankly also come off as silted. Lollipops has its good points but if I'm being totally honest it feels like a not as good re-working of Little Fugitive with a whiny protagonist.  

Picture: In terms of picture quality Lollipop looks great on 1080p and, has less issues in terms of artifacts and scratching in the print. I again chock this up to this maybe having better original material. There is a nice sharp contrast with the great black-and-white photography and like Fugitive it retains a lot of detail. Grain is a little heavy at times but nothing that is in my opinion distracting. 

Sound: Lollipop has DTS 2.0 track. Dialogue comes through nicely with no background noise or hiss. An overall nice audio presentation. 

Extras for Disc 2: Still Life: A live interview with Ruth Orkin and, Home Movies from Morris Engel. 

Weddings and Babies (1958) 

Directed By: Morris Engel 

Starring: John Myhers, Viveca Lindfors, Chiarina Barile 

   Weddings and Babies tells the story of Al (John Myhers) and Bea (Viveca Lindfors) two photographers that are at a crosswalk in their lives. Al going through a midlife crisis wants to quit the business and marry Bea but life gets in the way, including Al's elderly mother. Morris Engel yet again dips from the well of  Cinema-Vertie in this snap-shot of two New Yorkers in the late '50's. In his third film and his first solo work Morris Engel shines in this. I will say where for me, Lovers and Lollipops failed because the characters were not engaging this movie succeeds in this arena. Though I will say Al specifically may not be the most likeable person I find him incredibly relatable. This is somebody that is in his late '30's that feels like they are at a crossroads in life. I am relatively the same age as the character and thus I think I connected with his struggles. Bea is also a well developed and interesting character and I think the two actors work off one another quite well. Like the other three films in this set Morris Engel does the cinematography and, seriously, its amazing. The stark black-and-white photography is so expertly done with some truly stunning compositions. Its a shame that Morris Engel never made a name for himself as a cinematographer. Weddings and Babies does slog a little bit but, I think overall this movie works because the characters relatable and the story is riveting. 

Picture: Weddings and Babies is really stunning on 1080p. The black-and-white has a really nice contrast. The grain level is a bit on the high side but doesn't at all distract from the overall presentation. The film has a few minor scratches but again, nothing that in my opinion takes away. Engels wonderful photography is celebrated here. 

Sound: Weddings and Babies has a DTS 2.0 track. Dialogue comes through nicely and its impressive that there is little to no unwanted background noise or hiss. 

Disc 3: 

I Need a Ride to California (1968)/Short Films 

Directed By: Morris Engel 

Starring: Lilly Shell, Rod Perry 

    For fans of Morris Engel, I Need a Ride to California is probably the cherry on the sundae, as this film as far as I could never never had a proper home video release. In 2017 MoMA restored and screened the film. And, now thanks to Kino it finally gets to be seen by the masses. The film centers around a group of hippies in '68's East Village. Having watched these films in order I could tell that Ride retains the Cinema-Vertie of his earlier films yet, here we see Engel use more overt stylish shots and a greater focus on music. Also, I could be wrong but it also seems like the editing has matured here as well. Engel movie is a time-capsule of late '60s counter-culture movement which anti-Vietnam songs and anti war marches. It's not at all subtle and this is the only film that seems to have a overt message. Not saying this is bad per se and, to Morris's credit it never feels preachy. Once again the photography and shot comps are extremely well done and it baffles me why Morris Engel never went into being a full time cinematographer. There is an outdoor sequence in the full bloom of fall that is breathtakingly beautiful and also kind of haunting. Ride is for the most part an engaging story though, the movie does tend to drag a bit. It was tempting to reach for the remote a few times. Overall, a beautifully shot film with likeable characters and as always, a eighty-minute look at a bygone era. 

Picture: As I stated in my review I Need a Ride to California was a film that never got a official home video release in the US (or anywhere else as far as I know) and, was restored in 2017 by MoMA. The film looks great and retains the films big vivid '60's colors. The film has a few scratched and artifacts but overall, it's nearly pristine. 

Sound: Ride has a DTS 2.0 track. Overall, the film has a nice clear front heavy channel. There is a very little in the way of hiss or background distortion. Some of the dialogue gets lost within the music but I don't think this is something that can be fixed in the remastering process. 

Extras: Disc 3 has a nice array of featuring including Short Films: The Dog Lover, The Farm They Won, One Chase Manhattan Plaza, Peace Is 

Commercials: Oreo cookies, Ivory Soap, Fab detergent. 

Final Thoughts: I came into these completely blind, only having heard of Morris Engel. Having watched all four films I can say that Little Fugitive is my favorite though I related more towards Weddings and Babies as it showcases a man going through a midlife crisis. I will be honest and say though I thought each movie was interesting and for the most part engaging in some way these movies are not going to be everybody's cup of tea. These are movies that are slower paced and the narratives are I feel secondary to the overall Cinema-Vertie experience. Indeed, Little Fugitive has a plot but its really about capturing that feeling of childhood adventure and, of course showing off early '50s Coney Island. Weddings and Babies is probably the film that has the most rewarding story wise. If you are already a fan the big selling point for this set is they finally include I Need a Ride to California which has rarely been seen since it's creation. Kino also curates a host of short films and commercials for those completists out there. Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin never really became household names despite having a lot of talent and both being nominated for an Oscar. Though their careers were brief its still interesting to see the films they made which captured two decades of American life. In my opinion, if you enjoy movies that offer a slice of Americana or want to explore Cinema-Vertie this is a must-own set. 

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