PICKS OF THE WEEK
Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di Ferragosto) (A-)
Italy; Gianni Di Gregorio, 2008, Zeitgeist Films
Gianni Di Gregorio, co-writer of the great Italian crime film Gomorra, here executes a bewitching lovely, warm and funny change of pace as director, writer and star of Mid-August Lunch.
It's a delicate, wry, brilliantly observed comic tale about a unemployed 50ish bachelor in Rome named Gianni (Di Gregorio). Gianni has just one friend, drinking buddy Viking (Luigi Marchetti). He spends most of his day caring for his 93-year-old mother Valeria (played by Gianni's mother, Valeria De Fransiscis) -- cooking for her, helping her daily doings, reading Dumas' The Three Musketeers to her at night.
Behind in his rent, sweltering in the dog days of summer, Gianni is solicited by another condominium-owner and manager, Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata), and asked to wipe out part of his condo debt by temporarily caring for Alfonso's mother Marina (Marina Cacciotto) and his aunt Maria (Maria Calli).
Improbably enough, Gianni's doctor (Marcello Ottolenghi) also drops by that same day, examines him, and then requests that the now-crowded caretaker, for that night, also take in the doctor's mother Grazia (Grazia Cesarini Sforza). This leaves the gentle, considerate Gianni without a bed, but with plenty of opportunity, aided by Viking, for his culinary talents to flourish, as long as he doesn't violate Grazia's stringent dietary restrictions. (The lure of a macaroni casserole demolishes those anyway.) The four women are at first a little contentious, especially about the custody of the TV. But finally family, friendship and pasta conquer all.
That's it. No car-chases. No shootouts. No hanky-panky. No vampires. No glamour-pusses. But lots of food and laughs. I've seen several films recently about older people, and this is by far the best: wittily and wisely written, subtly and beautifully made. The acting, some by nonprofessionals, is superb. It made me laugh, fondly. In Italian, with English subtitles.
Palermo or Wolfsburg (A-)
West Germany; Werner Schroeter, 1980, Facets Video
1. Palermo, Sicily. In an impoverished neighborhood in Palermo, where the sun bakes the streets, the hills and the fields, a young man named Nicola (Nicola Zarbo), whose alcoholic father cannot support the family, decides to find work abroad. He gets the blessings of his family, his priest, the local boss, and travels by train and ship to...
2. Wolfsburg, Germany, where it's grayer, grimmer, where there's factory work that deadens the soul, where the bars at evening promise easy sex, revelry, companionship, explosive danger... and sometimes obsessive love and sudden death.
3. The courtroom at Wolfsburg, where Nicola is on trial for murdering two young bar bullies -- and where the truth will out.
Werner Schroeter, who died recently, was, along with his friend and admiring colleague Rainer Werner Fassbinder, one of two great gay directors of the German New Wave. This film, which won the Golden Bear, or top prize of the 1980 Berlin Film Festival, is his acknowledged masterpiece. Shot in three acts, in three different film styles (modern provincial neo-realism, urban melodrama, and courtroom drama), it movies from realism to nightmare stylization, carrying us along on a dark wave of mental and moral disintegration and operatic madness. Photographed and co-produced by Thomas Mauch. With Ida di Benedetto and Magdalena Montezuma. In German and Italian, with English subtitles.
U.S.; Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez, 2007, Vivendi, Blu-ray
Double-feature includes: Terror Planet, Rodriquez's amusingly sleazy spoof of an old-fashioned, unintentionally funny, unintentionally sleazy, science fiction horror movie; and Death Proof, a feminist car-chase sadistic romp with a Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!-style ensemble of tough girl drivers (Rose McGowan, Rosario Dawson and others) battling it out with the evil Stunt Man Jack (Kurt Russell.) Nasty fun. (Extras: extended and unrated footage, featurettes, trailer.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Louis Feuillade's "Fantomas: The Complete Saga" (A)
France; Louis Feuillade, 1913-14, Kino
Louis Feuillade (1873-1923) was a phenomenal creator of early silent cinema, a master of French pop filmmaking who managed to invest his dark, horrific, thrill-packed and wildly popular movie crime melodramas and serials with a poetic sense of place and time and an incongruous but powerful realism, all of which contrasted weirdly with the penny-dreadful plots and outrageous twists and shocks with which his smash-hit melodramas were loaded.
Les Vampires (1915-16), Judex (1916), La Nouvelle Mission de Judex (1917) and Tih Minh are among Feuillade's best known films and official masterpieces. But so is the quintet of films, a continuous series of five linked serials/features, that make up this great Kino package Fantomas: The Complete Saga.
These films also contain Feuillade's most famous and enduring character, Fantomas, who began as the star of a formidably popular crime novel series by Pierre Silvestre and Marcel Allain. Fantomas was a super-villain who rallied vast audiences along with surrealist artists and cognoscenti, and kept popping up in French films through the century, including a 1964 hit by comedian Louis de Funes, and a loving version by Nouvelle Vague mainstay Claude Chabrol. The great, indefatigable French arch-villain also inspired sinister counterparts all over the world, starting with Fritz Lang's near-direct homage figure, Dr. Mabuse.
Fantomas (played by dashing, brooding matinee idol Rene Navarre, who became an early superstar in the role) is a super-criminal and gang leader, a man of mystery, a man of fashion, a man of a thousand disguises and identities, a man of endless ingenuity and ruthless murderous cunning. Pursued by the scowling, obsessed Javert-like Paris super-police detective Juve (Edmond Breon) and Juve's friend, the energetic and courageous crime super-journalist Jerome Fandor (Georges Melchior), Fantomas leaves a trail of blood and terror on the Eugene Atget-like Paris streets, as he robs, steals, kills, scales rooftops, flees in motor-cars, dances in chic ballrooms, seduces with no sweat, reduces wealthy and Rubenesque society ladies to quivering jelly, assassinates with impunity, burgles with élan, leaves a trail of corpses in his wake, breaks in and out of jail seemingly at will, and effortlessly eludes the police, mystifies the experts, terrorizes the rich, and keeps framing helpless innocents for his awful crimes.
Souvestre and Allain wrote fast, hard and seemingly unreflectively; their tales seem to pour out of their subconscious like automatic nightmares. Feuillade was equally fluid, an even more expert and prolific craftsman and stylist. According to Katz, he directed 800 films of all lengths during his astonishing two-decade career, besides writing 100 screenplays for others, and heading up operations at France's Gaumont Studio, a job that he'd inherited from his predecessor and mentor, the legendary pioneering woman filmmaker-mogul Alice Guy Blache. He died at 52, in 1925, leaving behind him a last serial, Le Stigmate. Silent, with English subtitles and a music score assembled from Catalogue Sonimage. (Extras: Two Feuillade shorts, the 1910 bible epic The Nativity and the 1912 The Dwarf; dDocumentary Louis Feuillade: Master of Many Forms; two Commentaries by David Kalat; image gallery.)
Includes: Fantomas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine, 1913, Fantomas kills, is caught, and escapes death; Juve vs. Fantomas, 1913, Juve and Fandor take up the hunt; The Murderous Corpse, 1913, Fantomas, on a murder spree, frames a corpse; Fantomas vs. Fantomas, 1914, The plot thickens: Juve impersonates Fantomas; The False Magistrate, 1913, Fantomas, in his most brilliant disguise, impersonates a judge and takes over the criminal court.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
A Nightmare on Elm Street (D+)
U.S.; Samuel Bayer, 2010, New Line
Twenty-six years ago, I walked into the only theater that ever stood on the very same block where I lived -- the Vogue in Los Angeles on Hollywood Boulevard between La Brea and Cherokee -- and got the living hell scared out of me by a new movie called A Nightmare on Elm Street. This Wes Craven horror super-shocker was about a grinning school janitor with a hideously burned face named Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), who wore a tacky striped sweater, a dirty fedora and had steel-claw fingernails -- a wise-cracking homicidal maniac who ran amok in the dreams of the local high-schoolers, taunting and killing them in both fantasy and reality. The movie was so murderously effective, I was almost afraid to walk home. And home was only a block away.
Decades later, there have been eight more trips to Elm Street, and any teenager who goes anywhere near that tree-lined block probably belongs in a padded cell -- where they will almost certainly fall asleep and find Freddy waiting for them.
Now comes the lavishly budgeted modern remake that, as with other recent remake atrocities -- the new Last House on the Left and the new Friday the Thirteenth -- bids to re-start the whole nightmare cycle all over again: a super production with lots of splatter but without Craven, without Englund, without Depp, without Heather Langenkamp, Patricia Arquette, Chuck Fleischer and all the rest of the gallery of the nightmare-ridden and slashed -- and, most important, without shame.
Co-written without inspiration by Wesley Strick (of the Scorsese Cape Fear), half-stylishly directed by Samuel Bayer (of numerous rock videos), and with Jackie Earle Haley bravely replacing the seemingly irreplaceable Englund, the new A Nightmare on Elm Street purports to tell us what really happened way back when, to fill in the complete backstory that sent Freddy off on those endless bloody rampages.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is slick but empty, flashy but familiar, bloody but bowed. I wasn't scared walking out of it this time. I should have been scared, walking in.
U.S.; Steven Shainberg, 2002, Lionsgate
A shy-looking boss (James Spader) hires a quiet secretary (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who develops a taste for degradation. Daring, but overrated.