Shoot First, Die Later (1974)

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To view Shoot First, Die Later click here.

Here’s how I’d pitch Fernando Di Leo’s Shoot First, Die Later (1974) to any of my friends: If you’d like to see a gritty Italian crime movie that evokes The French Connection (1971) and surely influenced Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, look no further than this grim bit of business. Heck, I’ll toss in one more movie reference for good measure. Are you familiar with the re-release poster for Le Samouraï (1967), the one where Alain Delon stares expressionlessly down the barrel of a gun? Imagine him grinning instead (if you can) and there you have Shoot First, Die Later. It’s as if the French shrug at the abyss whereas the Italians meet the same raw nihilism with a smile. [...MORE]

The Living and the Dead: L’Eclisse (1962)

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To view L’Eclisse click here.

FilmStruck is currently streaming 11 films featuring Alain Delon as part of their “Icons: Alain Delon” theme and for the next 4 weeks I’ll be spotlighting a few of my favorite titles in this collection. To learn more about the French actor please see a previous post I wrote in 2010 to celebrate Delon’s 75th birthday titled, “The Ice-Cold Angel turns 75.” You might also enjoy perusing my modest collection of Delon memorabilia on display in Alain Delon: A Personal Passion.

While recently rewatching Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (aka The Eclipse, 1962) I received the sad news that George Romero had died. The celebrated Italian art house auteur and the American director behind the hugely popular Living Dead franchise aren’t typically associated with one another but I suspect that Antonioni’s work may have inspired Romero early in his career. In The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead, author and film studies professor Tony Williams asserts that the frustrated married couple holed up in a shopping mall surrounded by hordes of zombies in Dawn of the Dead (1978) resembles the dissatisfied bourgeois couples that listlessly maneuver through Antonioni’s early films. Williams explains that these survivors of Romero’s zombie apocalypse “exist in a world of boredom as a result of their access to a world of conspicuous consumption.” It is an astute observation and one that I can appreciate. In their own unique ways, Antonioni and Romero both addressed the capital driven corrosion of modern society through alienated characters facing an existential crisis. Their means and methods may have been different but underneath Antonioni’s slick surfaces and carefully coiffed characters, there is an element of mystery along with heightened anxiety and a sense of profound dread. These are qualities found in many horror films, including the best work of George Romero, and they are at the forefront of L’Eclisse.

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Pasolini’s Audacious Debut

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To view Accattone click here.

Pimps, thugs, prostitutes, thieves and other miscreants, these are the denizens of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone (1961). “Accattone,” a slang term for beggars and bums, is also the nickname given to Vittorio, our antihero, as played by Franco Citti in a break-out role that would bring him fame at the age of 26. He’d later be cast as Calò in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), where he was given the famous line “In Sicily, women are more dangerous than shotguns.” As the pimp in Accattone, one that treats all the women he comes across quite badly, he is completely deaf to such advice. [...MORE]

Every Day Is Like Black Sunday (1960)

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Okay, it may technically be Wednesday, but there’s never a bad day of the week to pay a visit to Black Sunday (1960), the grandmother of Italian horror films. Sure, the country produced a few movies with horrifying or macabre elements, most notably Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1957), but here’s where the magic really kicked into high gear and set the stage for a dazzling wave of phantasmagorical creations that would run well into the 1990s. [...MORE]

Nino Rota: The Bounce Goes On

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As a film score junkie, I have a soft place in my heart for that freakish period in the ‘60s and ‘70s when film composers suddenly became music superstars and had regular hits on the Billboard charts. Sure, composers were big before that with guys like Johnny Mercer and the dream team at MGM getting soundtrack releases out there to the public, but it really hit a peak when you regularly had composers like Henry Mancini, Maurice Jarre, André Previn, Elmer Bernstein and John (or Johnny, at first) Williams scoring big hits that people would walk around humming and whistling for months.

Then there’s the man who really helped bring international film scoring into the mainstream: Nino Rota, who had started off writing ballets and operas and entered the world of film music in the ‘40s. He shot to fame via his collaborations with Federico Fellini, a partnership that began with The White Sheik in 1952 but really exploded in 1960 with their worldwide sensation, La Dolce Vita (1960).

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Surveying the Red Desert (1964)

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“There’s something terrible about reality and I don’t know what it is.” – Giuliana (Monica Vitti)

Modern malaise and alienation are two themes that Michelangelo Antonioni (L’Avventura [1960], La notte [1961], L’eclisse [1962]) returned to repeatedly throughout the 1960s. In Red Desert (1964), which is currently streaming on FilmStruck and available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion, these ideas find expression in Italy’s postwar industrial landscape and in Monica Vitti’s large eyes. Vitti was Antonioni’s muse throughout much of the decade and Red Desert provided the Roman beauty with one of her best and most iconic roles in the form of Giuliana, a woman who is desperately and deeply alone. Giuliana is married to a wealthy and providing man; they have a lovely child, many friends and even more acquaintances. Despite this, she is unable to connect with people and her surroundings. Giuliana’s isolation has plunged her into an all-consuming depression triggering bouts of paranoia that she cannot express in words so she has retreated inward. Her eyes are her only voice and they are dark, bottomless pools of emotion pleading for warmth and sympathy in a world that is often cold and incredulous.

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Father of Fear

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This Friday, August 26, finds TCM’s Summer under the Stars getting a little chillier than usual with an all-day marathon covering the career of horror icon Boris Karloff from the dawn of cinema’s sound era in the revolutionary FRANKENSTEIN (1931) through his elder statesman phase of the horror genre in Roger Corman’s THE TERROR (1963).

However, I’m zooming in on the last film in the Karloff filmography airing that day (and repeating again on Halloween if you miss it!) — and one that’s especially close to my heart since it’s the first film I remember scaring me on TV (courtesy of a TBS airing many years ago). BLACK SABBATH (1963) is the only anthology film directed by the great Mario Bava and Karloff’s sole excursion into Italian horror. Karloff plays a key role in the longest and most elaborate of the three stories, “The Wurdulak,” and also serves as the onscreen host tying all three tales together. What’s fascinating and well covered by now is the fact that Karloff actually shot his narrator duties twice, with the Italian and American prints featuring entirely different presentations. The Italian version also adds a lighthearted coda with Karloff astride a wooden horse used for one of his earlier scenes, pulling back to show the film crew in a delightful, barrier-shattering flourish. [...MORE]

A Quiet Place in the Country

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A Quiet Place in the Country was nominated for a Golden Berlin Bear at the 1969 Berlin International Film Festival. The film was spearheaded by Italian director Elio Petri, stars Franco Nero and Vanessa Redgrave, and includes the work of Ennio Morricone. Billed as a sadistic and erotic horror film, it reminds me of Piero Schivazappa’s The Frightened Woman (aka: The Laughing Woman) which was released in 1969, a fitful year for Italian psychosexual thrillers. I’ll admit to preferring the latter to the former, but A Quiet Place in the Country is not without various selling points. [...MORE]

Federico Fellini: The Cartoonist

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Federico Fellini is one of my favorite filmmakers so I was delighted to discover that TCM Imports is showcasing the movie maestro’s work every Sunday night throughout the month of November. In the next three weeks you can catch Nights of Cabiria (1957) on Nov. 15, Juliet of the Spirits (1965) on Nov. 22 and Satyricon (1969) on Nov. 29.

I’m particularly fond of the last two films scheduled and generally prefer Fellini’s work in the sixties due to its baroque artistry and avant-garde sensibilities. During that transformative decade the Italian director disregarded conventional storytelling technique in favor of a unique dream language, which emerged from his life experience and was filtered through his vivid imagination and esoteric interests. The results were a series of innovative, provocative and unapologetically sensual films that can still shock and surprise audiences. Fellini also had a wonderful sense of humor that was patently apparent throughout his career as a celebrated director and talented cartoonist.

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La Strada

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(My film-critic friend Michael Casey is both a fan of Fellini and wine, so it seemed appropriate to let him fill in for me today and this post was written by him.) Entry into the world of wine can be a daunting task. With roughly 9,000 grape varietals growing across the globe — as well as regional styles for each varietal — the possible choices of where to begin can boggle the mind. Well, as a wise man once told me, “The French make wine for saving, the Italians make wine for drinking.” And since the idea behind TCM’s Wine Club is to “uncork the fun of movies and wine,” what better place to start than in the country of Italy? Here the wine is as delicious as it is accessible, and the 2013 Pillastro Primitivo is perfect vino to quaff while settling in for Federico Fellini’s seminal La Strada (November 8). [...MORE]

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