Saturday, 19 August 2017

Two Men in Manhattan (1959)

I could have written yesterday if we had gone to the cinema as originally planned for Thursday to see "Atomic Blonde". The first review of that film sounded very promising, but the subsequent ones were so negative that we were put off going out, especially since we already had tickets for the above French film last night.

In retrospect I'm not sure which I would have preferred since the above movie from Jean-Pierre Melville is quite possibly his most minor -- I won't go so far as to label it his worst. The young Frenchman adopted the pseudonym Melville as a homage to a favourite American author when he served in the Resistance during the Occupation of France. After the war he tried to enter the film industry through the accepted doorways, but rejected he became a sort of outlaw film-maker and as such he is considered a godfather of the French New Wave. He wrote and directed "Bob le Flambeur" in 1956 as his version of an American gangster movie, but its limited success and the subsequent panning of the above film turned him away from small budgets and the lofty ideals of Godard and Truffaut. He went on to create such classics as "Le Doulos", "Le Samourai", "Army of Shadows", and "Le Cercle Rouge" before his relatively early death in 1973 -- all gritty stories of hard men and brotherhood.

Since so many of Melville's films are milestones of French cinema, I needed to complete his filmography by viewing this 'Two Men' movie. Set in largely neon-lit night-time New York, it is the very slim tale of French news agency drone Moreau being asked by his boss to investigate the non-appearance of a leading French delegate to the U.N. at the most recent session -- the diplomat seems to have vanished into thin air.  Moreau joins forces with a dissolute compatriot photographer, played by Pierre Grasset, to follow the leads of recent photos showing the diplomat with an assortment of arm-candy, one of whom might be the mistress who holds the key to the mystery.

Melville himself plays Moreau and he seems to be grinning within at living his dream and playing a hard-boiled lead in an American-set noir; however he's not really much of a actor and it's all a little embarrassing. Similarly most of the female players sought out by the pair -- backstage at the Mercury Theatre, in the Capitol recording studio, at a high-class brothel, and in a Brooklyn burlesque house are so amateurishly acted that the film seems more of a documentary than a thriller. Grasset in contrast is excellent, as is the street-scene cinematography and the somewhat incongruous jazz score. Therefore the film is something of a mixed bag, finally centring on the conundrum of whether the diplomat's memory -- yes, he turns up dead -- should be honoured or smeared. The ending is both unexpected and vaguely satisfying, but it was a bit of a ham-fisted plod to get there.

Housekeeping: Sorry but there will be no blog next week. It's FrightFest weekend yet again...and no, we haven't succumbed and purchased a pass for the full festival. We have, however, honed in on eight films between Friday and Monday. I just hope we've made better selections than we did last year. Full details to follow....

Friday, 11 August 2017

Un Borghese Piccolo Piccolo (1977)

This Italian film, translated as 'An Average Little Man', is relatively unknown and difficult to source, but it is one of those movies that once seen becomes unforgettable. It stars Alberto Sordi, best known as a satiric comedy actor in more than 150 films, who began his career back in the 30s dubbing Oliver Hardy into Italian, and who moved into international recognition with his roles in Fellini's early 50s films "The White Sheik" and "Il Vitelloni". I watched him recently in another little-known Italian flick "The Scopone Game" (1972) co-starring with Bette Davis believe it or not.

Anyhow one might expect yet another comic turn from this versatile actor and the movie certainly begins in that way, but soon moves into the blackest of black tales. Sordi is Giovanni, a Roman government jobsworth, married to hausfrau Amalia (played by Shelley Winters no less), desperate to get his beloved son Mario, newly qualified as an accountant, a coveted post with the government against fierce competition. Giovanni has cosied up to his superiors and has even agreed to join their Masonic Lodge in his attempt to get his son preferential treatment. Mario, a hangdog gormless youth, reminiscent of the young Gene Wilder, is coached, coddled, and blessed by his doting parents, before going off for the final examination. However, as Giovanni escorts his son to the exam venue, they get caught in the crossfire of a bank robbery, and poor Mario is shot dead -- a heap on the pavement with his seven pens spilling from his pocket -- his assassin's smug face burnt into Giovanni's memory.

The news is broadcast on the telly causing Amalia to suffer an irreversible stroke. Giovanni is now faced with both the loss of his beloved son and having to do everything for his helpless wife. When he is brought into police headquarters to identify the culprit in a line-up, he deliberately chooses not to point out the hated face; instead he trails the young man, patiently waits to accost him, knocks him unconscious, and takes him to his country allotment. There he binds the chap with wires and generally abuses him until he dies-- having wheeled in Amalia in her chair to admire his handiwork. The film which began as a jaundiced view of Roman society segues into sub-Tarantino "Reservoir Dogs" torture porn. 

It was really no surprise finding Winters (or Davis for that matter) in an Italian movie, since many fading Hollywood stars found work in the booming European film industry back in the 1970s. Winters made a number of appearances in Italian films, normally dubbed of course; however in this movie little dubbing was needed since she was both paralyzed and mute for most of the story. She did, however, portray her suffering beautifully!

Despite the film's macabre tone, director Mario Monicelli skillfully manages to poke fun at contemporary Roman society's many foibles. Most memorable are Mario's initiation ceremony into the Masons (I have no idea whether the bizarre rituals portrayed are realistic or not) and a scene at the cemetery where Mario's coffin in stacked with hundreds of others -- occasionally exploding -- in a huge warehouse, since there is a shortage of space for new graves.

As for our hero who is of retirement age, he is cut loose to 'enjoy' his retirement, being given the smallest of medals to mark the occasion, and being generally ignored by his erstwhile colleagues. Then Amalia dies. Giovanni is overwhelmed with sadness and despair. What is left for him? Well there are the brash young men that he encounters who remind him of his son's sad fate -- just maybe they deserve punishing as well...

Friday, 4 August 2017

The Lost Fortnight

With my computer dying the death, it's amazing how many films I watched over the last two weeks as compensation. If truth be told there were a few which had totally slipped from my memory (and which I needed to look up on IMDb to refresh myself). Chances are I'll forget them again once today's blog is finished.

Let's save the newish and relatively mainstream ones for last and start with some of the oldies. "London Belongs to Me" (1948) is a lovely ensemble piece most notable for the great Alastair Sim (always watchable) playing a gold-digging phony medium and that late luvvie Richard Attenborough playing a criminal punk. "The Ruthless Four" (1968) -- a spaghetti Western also known as "Every Man for Himself" is worth a watch for pitting old-timers Van Heflin and Gilbert Roland against the young and amoral Klaus Kinski and George Hilton in the search for buried gold. "Salt of the Earth" (1954) has the dubious distinction of being the only movie ever banned in the U.S. It was made by a bunch of blacklisted Hollywood folk documenting a strike by Mexican workers at a New Mexico zinc mine -- and it is now on the National Registry! Then there was "The Devil at Four o'clock" (1961) memorable for starring Spencer Tracy's alcoholic priest with Frank Sinatra's career criminal as they work together to save a bunch of leper kiddies form a Southsea island threatened by an erupting volcano. (No, they don't make them like that anymore).

Then there were the foreign entries. Another oldie "The Devil and the Angel" (1946) with Erich von Stroheim in one of his rare film roles (and in French) as a disfigured forger deeply in love with a blind carnival worker; worth a watch. I caught up with Sky's weekly foreign offerings of which the Swedish flick "The Here After" (1915) was totally depressing and forgettable and the French film "The Connection" (2014) was not even saved by star Jean Dujardin. The French-Canadian "My Internship in Canada" (2015) with a Haitian go-getter acting as an intern in rural Quebec (the only MP who replied to his circular request) was mildly pleasant. Finally. the Russian "I Won't Come Back" (2014) where an ex-orphanage young girl runs away with a 13-year old desperate to reach her grandma in Kazakhstan was both involving and ultimately emotionally devastating.

The less said about the few television movies seen, the better, although one of them "Dreamhouse Nightmare" (2017) aka "Mother of the Year" was much nastier than the usual saccharine run.

I also watched three animations of which the Chinese-made "Unbeatables" (2013) about plastic footballers coming to life was pretty awful. However I found "The Secret Life of Pets" (2016) rather amusing and "Moana" (2016) potentially a Disney classic. I particularly enjoyed the demi-god's (voiced by The Rock) tattoos coming to life on his body -- a bit of hand-drawn animation amongst the computer-generated main.

I'm not sure I have the patience to say much about some of the more recent offerings on Sky. "Breaking the Bank" (2016) set in London has Kelsey Grammer as a pathetic failed banker -- and what kind of demented angel thinks that he can carry a movie nowadays? "A Street Cat Named Bob" (2016) is based on a true story of an ex-druggie redeemed by a stray; the cat was very good!  I did enjoy the new Marvel entry "Doctor Strange" (2016) with its largely European leads of Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejifor, Tilda Swinton, and Mads Mikkelson, although it looks like future outings will be as a part of the increasingly boring Marvel ensembles. Some others very briefly: "The Gift" (2015) directed and written by and starring Joel Edgerton (rather nasty); "The Stamford Prison Experiment" (2015) yet another nasty take on the oft-told tale; "Good People" (2014) starring two of my least favourite actors James Franco and Kate Hudson -- more nasty; "White Island" and "Laid in America" (both 2015) -- a waste of time; and "Finding Altamira" (2016) a watchable account with Antonio Banderas of the cave paintings found in Spain.

Had I in fact written last Friday, I probably would have picked "I am not a Serial Killer" (2016) for its unusual storyline and casting. It stars Max Records (far less cute than his appearance in 2009's "Where the Wild Things Are") as a death-obsessed and unpopular high school student, who works in his mother's mortuary in his spare time, and Christopher Lloyd as his spooky neighbour and an inveterate serial killer. The interplay between the pair once the kid has established that alerting the police will only result in more murders is a fascinating game of cat and mouse.

And that's about as up to date as I shall get....