Sunday, 18 July 2021

Mean Streets

 Year of Release:  1973

Director:  Martin Scorsese

Screenplay:  Martin Scorsese and Mardik Martin, based on a story by Martin Scorsese

Starring:  Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Amy Robinson, Richard Romanus, David Proval

Running Time:  112 minutes

Genre:  Crime drama


Four friends live in the Little Italy section of New York City:  Charlie (Keitel) is torn between his devout Catholicism and the jobs that he does for his mafioso uncle (Cesare Danova); Johnny Boy (De Niro) is a violent, mercurial wild man whose reckless ways are about to catch up with him; Michael (Romanus) is a small time gangster and money lender who wants to break into the big leagues of organised crime; and Tony (Proval) owns the bar and neighbourhood hangout where these guys all congregate.  Johnny Boy owes Michael a lot of money, and Michael is determined to collect one way or another.  Charlie is sucked in because he has vouched for Johnny, and he is liable to pay if Johnny can't make good on his debts.   To complicate matters further is Charlie's secret relationship with Johnny's epileptic cousin Teresa (Robinson).


Martin Scorsese and Harvey Keitel had previously worked together on Scorsese's debut feature Who's That Knocking at My Door? (1968) and Robert De Niro had already made several features for Brian De Palma, but this was the film that broke all three of them into the big time.  It's shot in an almost semi-documentary style, with a constantly moving, handheld camera (the production were unable to afford to lay down tracks for tracking shots).  Scorsese had intended the film to showcase the world that he had grown up in, and it showcases the trademark criss-crossing dialogue and a soundtrack mixing rock, Motown, pop and Italian opera.  The film is sprawling and loosely plotted, but there is a spiky, kinetic energy that keeps it moving along. It's anchored by two incredible performances by Keitel and De Niro.  Harvey Keitel as Charlie is someone who is trying to be good, but trapped in a violent world, and anchors the film.  Robert De Niro gives an incendiary performance as the unpredictable maniac.  However, in the film's insular and strongly male world, people of colour and women don't really get a look in.  The only female character who really has much to do is Amy Robinson's Teresa, who doesn't really appear until the second half of the film, but she does hold her own in the boy's club.  It's an exciting, dynamic film, where sudden violence is just around the corner.  


Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro in Mean Streets

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Don't Torture a Duckling

Year of Release:  1972

Director:  Lucio Fulci

Screenplay:  Lucio Fulci, Roberto Gianviti and Gianfranco Clerici, from a story by Lucio Fulci and Roberto Gianviti

Starring:  Florinda Bolkan, Barbara Bouchet, Tomas Milian, Irene Papas, Marc Porel

Running Time:  105 minutes

Genre:  Thriller, horror


The sleepy, rural Southern Italian town of Accendura is shattered by a series of murders of young boys.  As the police scramble to find a suspect, the superstitious locals, already suspicious of outsiders, prepare to take the law into their own hands.  Astute journalist Andrea Martelli (Milian) and wealthy party girl Patrizia (Bouchet) attempt to solve the crime before anyone else has to die.


Prolific Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci worked in a. number of genres before finding his niche with numerous gruesome horror and thriller films (must famously such delightful charmers as Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), City of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981), The House by the Cemetery (1981) and The New York Ripper (1982)).  Although the bloodletting here is fairly restrained by Fulci standards, this is one of the first films to use the violence which he would later become famous for.  This belongs firmly in the giallo subgenre.  The word "giallo" is literally the Italian for "yellow" and it was used as a name for a series of crime novels and thrillers published in Italy with distinctive yellow covers.  The term later became known for lurid horror and thriller films, that were notable for their elaborately choreographed murder scenes, usually high production values and buckets of gore.  Don't Torture a Duckling however is unusual for a giallo in having a distinctly Italian rural setting, most giallo films were set in urban settings, and frequently in London or America, to make them more saleable abroad.   As with many films of the genre, Don't Torture a Duckling has a memorable, lurid title which bears little to no connection with the plot of the film (the closest thing to a duckling in the film is a Donald Duck doll). The film is suspenseful, and the mystery is intriguing.  The Italian countryside looks beautiful and the cast are decent.  It does paint a very bleak picture of Italian small town life, as well as providing quite a scathing critique of the Catholic Church, and the police (who are portrayed as pretty much completely incompetent), as well as the causal cruelty of children (in the opening of the film a child shoots at a lizard with a catapult).  There is even a weird but effectively creepy Black Magic element.  To be fair, it paints a pretty bleak picture of human nature in general.  Some of the gore effects are unconvincing, and the theme of child murder, while not graphic, and a scene of gratuitous nudity may be offensive to some.  While it is not one of Fulci's best known films it is one of his better films.  



Barbara Bouchet and Tomas Milian in Don't Torture a Duckling

Monday, 12 July 2021

Tess

Year of Release:  1979

Director:  Roman Polanski

Screenplay:  Gerard Brach, John Brownjohn and Roman Polanski, based on the novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Starring:  Nastassja Kinski, Peter Firth, Leigh Lawson

Running Time:  186 minutes

Genre: Drama


England, the 1880s:  In the rural county of Wessex, teenager Tess Durbeyfield (Kinski) lives in a small village with her poor farming family.  When her feckless father learns that his family are the last direct descendants of the ancient, and once aristocratic "d'Urbervilles" he sends Tess to approach a wealthy local family named d'Urberville, believing that they are related.  However, Tess ends up attracting the attention of ruthless libertine Alec d'Urberville (Lawson), who relentlessly attempts to seduce her.  Eventually he overpowers her, an incident that has catastrophic repercussions.


Given what was going on in Roman Polanski's life at the time he made Tess, it might seem that a stately, lavish period drama was a safe choice to help rebuild his career in mainstream cinema.  His previous film, the psychological thriller The Tenant (1975) had been a commercial and critical disaster, but far more seriously he had fled the US after his criminal conviction in 1977 and, to this day, he can't set foot in the United States without risk of arrest.  However, Polanski was first given a copy of the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles in 1969 by his wife, Sharon Tate, who believed it would make a good film and wanted to play the lead.  She gave him the book shortly before she was murdered by the Charles Manson cult.  The film opens with a dedication to her.

The film is a beautiful piece of work.  It sticks very closely to the novel, although some scenes are cut.  Set in Thomas Hardy's fictional county of Wessex, based on his native Dorset, the film was shot entirely in France due to Polanski being unable to enter Britain without risk of being extradited back to the US.  this doesn't really matter though, it's a stunning film to look at, the kind of film where almost every image looks like a painting.  Aside however from the climax set at Stonehenge, which does look like at times like a studio set.  A key element in the book is farming and rural life, and this is conveyed in the film, during the 1940s when Polanski was fleeing the Warsaw ghetto he spent a lot of time in very rural Poland and wanted to show the ancient peasant culture he found there.  it beautifully captures the countryside and the changing seasons.  Nastassja Kinski is striking and conveys a lot with very little, and is always mesmerising.    Understandably, many people will be put off due to the subject matter, and the fact that it's Roman Polanski.  However, it is a beautiful and wonderful film, and definitely recommended for fans of the novel.



Nastassja Kinski is Tess

Saturday, 10 July 2021

"Tess of the d'Urbervilles" by Thomas Hardy

  Year of Publication:  1891

Length:  420 pages

Genre:  Fiction


In the rural English county of Wessex in the 19th Century, Tess Durbeyfield is happy but poor, living with her younger siblings and loving but feckless parents.  One day her father learns that they may actually be nobility, descended from the ancient "d'Urberville" family who were once powerful and wealthy but have fallen on hard times.  Tess is pressured to approach the wealthy d'Urbervilles that live nearby and plead ties of kinship.  However Tess unwittingly draws the attention of  libertine Alec d'Urberville, who persuades her, against her better judgement, to accept employment on his estate.  Alex persistently attempts to seduce Tess, who repeatedly rebuffs him, until late one night he overpowers her.  Things go from bad to worse for Tess, as she becomes a social pariah.  She spies the possibility of happiness through the love of free-thinking parson's son, Angel Clare, only to find that, while she is done with her past, it is far from done with her.


Like all of Thomas Hardy's major novels this is set in his semi-fictional county of Wessex in south-west England, in which all of the places are real, but given fictional names.  This is a powerful, heartbreaking novel.  Tess is slowly destroyed because she is raped by Alec d'Urberville, for which she is blamed by pretty much everyone she encounters.  D'Urberville's attack is kind of ambiguous in the novel, it is hinted at after the fact, but not actually described.  Thomas Hardy is scathing about society's double standards and how women such as Tess are treated, and it really shocked readers in the 1890s, but it is important to remember that the book is a product of the 1890s, and so it may not seem as forward thinking to modern readers as it did to contemporary readers.  Tess is a wonderful main character who is sympathetic and engaging, and you feel so sorry for her, as Hardy seems to pile on every misery he can think of upon her.  Angel Clare, our romantic hero, is actually kind of a dick.  He marries Tess about halfway through the book, and confesses to her a sexual liaison he had with a woman in London, Tess tells him her story, and he basically dumps her even though he tells her that she is "more sinned against than sinning," before heading off to Brazil without her.  The book is very well written and wrings out every kind of emotion.  it is funny, heartbreaking, and will make you angry.  The events of the narrative are set against the rhythms of 19th century rural life, and the book is this beautiful pastoral of the English countryside and farming life.



Freaky

  Year of Release:  2020

Director:   Christopher Landon

Screenplay:  Michael Kennedy and Christopher Landon

Starring:  Vince Vaughn, Kathryn Newton, Katie Finneran, Celeste O'Connor, Misha Osherovich,  Dana Drori, Alan Ruck

Running Time:  101 minutes

Genre:  Horror, comedy


The American town of Blissfield is targeted by a brutal serial killer known as "The Butcher" (Vaughn).  One night, the killer attacks bullied teenager Millie (Newton), and stabs her with a cursed dagger.  however, he is interrupted by the police before he can kill her.  The Butcher escapes, but the dagger's power causes them to swap bodies.  Millie finds herself in the body of a middle-aged male serial killer who happens to be the most wanted person in town.  The Butcher, however, is in the body of a high school girl.  Millie has just 24 hours to find the Butcher and stop the carnage, before the exchange becomes permanent.

Director Christopher Landon had previously made comedy-horror film Happy Death Day (2017) and it's sequel Happy Death Day 2U (2019) and this has a similar kind of high concept premise.  Despite being set in the present day, it hearkens back to the 1980s with those two great '80s subgenres the slasher film and the body-swap comedy.  The title is an obvious reference to one of the definitive body-swap books Freaky Friday (1972) which has itself been filmed several times.  Vince Vaughn is hilarious as the serial killer turned teenage girl, and it is funny seeing him channel the mannerisms of a teenager.  Kathryn Newton is engaging as Millie, but manages to be genuinely chilling and effective as the cold-blooded dead eyes killer, who of course is able to wreck so much carnage because who would suspect her?  The film opens as a traditional slasher, where four obnoxious teenagers are gruesomely and amusingly offed by the killer, but it really improves as it goes along and ultimately is a hugely funny look back at the high school slasher film and body swap comedy, and it manages to mix nostalgia with a real contemporary feel.  Celeste O'Connor and Misha Osherovich play Millie's friends, and there is real chemistry between the trio, even when Millie is being played by Vince Vaughn.  There is also some emotion, with Katie Finneran as Millies' alcoholic mother, who is still consumed by the death of Millie's father a year previously, and dana Droir plays Millie's caring but brutal police officer sister who is increasingly estranged from their mother.  The killings are satisfactorily gory (the scenes where Alan Ruck's bullying teacher gets what's coming to him is deeply satisfying), the jokes are funny, and the whole thing is a really entertaining experience.  It's the kind of film that you put on late on a Friday or Saturday night and you're going to be entertained.


Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton in Freaky

Wednesday, 7 July 2021

Black Widow

Year of Release:  2021

Director:  Cate Shortland

Screenplay:  Eric Pearson, story by Jackie Schaeffer and Ned Benson, based on the Marvel comics character Black Widow created by Stan Lee, Don Rico and Don Heck

Starring:  Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, O-T Fagbenle, Ray Winstone, Rachel Weisz, Olga Kurylenko, William Hurt

Running Time:  134 minutes

Genre:  Thriller, science-fiction, superhero


Superhero team The Avengers has collapsed and former assassin turned Avenger Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, (Johansson) is on the run from the US Government.  Contacted by her estranged younger sister, Yelena (Pugh), Natasha learns that the all-female team of elite brainwashed assassins known as "Widows" is still active, and she and Yelena have to confront a monstrous figure from their past and a powerful new "super-soldier" who can exactly mimic any opponent's fighting style so it's like "fighting a mirror".


This is the 24th film in the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) franchise, based on characters and stories from Marvel Comics.  This film, however, while there are frequent references to the previous films, is by and large a stand-alone film and can be enjoyed even if you haven't seen all of the others, which is something of a relief.  The film starts off as a gripping spy thriller, although it does become increasingly science-fictional as to goes along.  As played by Scarlett Johansson, Natasha Romanoff is one of the stalwarts of the MCU franchise, but this is the first time that she headlines her own film.  By now, Johansson fits the role like a glove, and here is added Florence Pugh as her sister.  The two work really well together, and there is real chemistry.  In particular Pugh has a nice line in the throwaway delivery of comic one-liners.  David Harbour more or less reprises his gruff-but-loveable dad from Stranger Things (2016-present) but with an added Russian accent.  O-T Fagbenle appears as Natasha's own version of James Bond's Q supplying her with vehicles and equipment.   Rachel Weisz is sinisterly maternal and Ray Winstone is oilily villainous.  Olga Kurylenko does a lot with a little as a tragic, silent assassin and William Hurt has a extended cameo as the US agent on Natasha's trail.  The film has obvious nods to the James Bond franchise, acknowledged in one scene where Natasha watches Moonraker (1979), and there are nods to the TV series The Americans (2013-2018).  By and large this is a very good action film.  the action scenes and special effects are spectacular, the fighting scenes are well choreographed, the jokes are funny and there is some real emotion.  The performances, particularly from Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh, are good.  The film's main problem is that the story runs out of steam before the end, and it all wraps up a little too neatly, but it's engaging and spectacular enough that it doesn't really matter.  

By the way, as with all of the MCU films there is an additional brief scene after the closing credits, so stick around.



  Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in Black Widow

 

Saturday, 3 July 2021

Another Round

 Year of Release:  2020

Director:  Thomas Vinterberg

Screenplay:  Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm

Starring:  Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang, Lars Ranthe

Running Time:  118 minutes

Genre:  Comedy drama


Middle-aged friends Martin (Mikkelsen), Tommy (Larsen), Peter (Ranthe) and Nikolaj (Millang) are all teachers at the same high school in Copenhagen.  All of them are unhappy and bored with their jobs and lives.  At Nikolaj's birthday party, they discuss a theory by psychiatrist and philosopher Finn Sk√•rderud which claims that having a blood alcohol content of 0.05 makes one happier, more creative and more relaxed.  The four decide to test this theory and vow to spend their work hours a little bit drunk, as time goes on they increase their dosage, and soon find that always being drunk isn't necessarily a good thing.


This Danish comedy-drama won Best International Feature at the 2021 Academy Awards, and Vinterberg was nominated for Best Director but lost to Chlo√© Zhao for Nomadland.  It started out as a stage play that Vinterberg wrote, as well as stories that his daughter Ida told him about drinking among Danish teenagers.  Ida tragically died in a car crash while the film was in production causing Vinterberg to rewrite the film from being a homage to drink to being more of an affirmation of life in general.  The film is dedicated to her memory.  Vinterberg made his name in the international film world with Festen (1998), one of the best of the back-to-basics "Dogme '95" films which were something of a sensation for about five minutes in the late '90s, and went on to make the fine Thomas Hardy adaptation Far From the Madding Crowd (2015) starring Carey Mulligan.  This film is stylishly made, with text messages and passages from the report that the guys write about their boozy adventures appearing as text on the screen.  There are some very good performances, particularly from Mads Mikkelsen, and the four guys all give very layered performances.  They are likeable characters, and while they are a bunch of white guys in the middle of a midlife crisis, they are sympathetic, the film communicates their boredom and quiet unhappiness and makes us care about them.  The female characters are more one note being wives or girlfriends or the school principal, who really seem to be there to react to their men's drinking.  However Maria Bonnevie is good as Martin's wife, Annika.  There is real chemistry between her and Mikkelsen, however she is kind of underused.  The film is often funny, however it feels far too long, and it really doesn't seem to know what it wants to say about alcohol.  The film is more or less a celebration of drinking, however it does show the dangers of being too drunk, but there is really nothing about the health consequences of drink, aside from the risk of alcoholism.  Really, when they are only drinking a controlled amount of alcohol, they actually do have a great time.  They are better, more engaged teachers (Martin teaches history, Tommy teaches sports, Peter teaches music and Nikolaj teaches psychology), and happier in their personal lives.  Of course there is a dark side, but it isn't really dwelled on that much, with the exception of a tragedy late in the film, and seems more there to end the experiment.  The teens in the film also drink like fishes.  The movie opens with a group of teenagers taking part in a very popular game where they race around a lake in teams with a crate of beer, chugging a beer periodically and end up causing drunken mayhem on a bus, all of which is played for laughs, and doesn't even seem to get them a talking-to.   As I said, the film is too long, but it is often fun, and has some very good performances.  Ultimately it is celebratory, and if anything argues that things are best in moderation. I felt that the film was a little awkwardly paced in the opening passages but it does come into itself as the story progresses and we become more familiar with the characters, and by the end you might find yourself wishing you could go for a drink with them.  By the way, mine's a pint.



Mads Mikkelsen has Another Round