Friday, January 28, 2022

#2,700. I Vitelloni (1953) - Federico Fellini Triple Feature


So what is a “Vitelloni”?

Well, according to filmmaker extraordinaire Federico Fellini, it’s a man in his late 20s or early 30s who doesn’t work and spends his days with his buddies, chasing girls and wasting time.

That just about sums up the characters populating his 1953 award-winning comedy / drama, I Vitelloni.

Like many of the great director’s movies, I Vitelloni is semi-autobiographical: Five buddies – Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), Alberto (Alberto Sordi), Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste) and Riccardo (played by Riccardo Fellini, Federico’s brother) – all of whom are pushing 30 - live in a provincial town on the Adriatic coast.

Fausto is dating Moralda’s sister Sandra (Leonora Ruffo), and is forced to marry her when she becomes pregnant. But Fausto won’t let marriage get in the way of his having a good time, and is fired from his job when he makes an aggressive pass at Giulia (Lida Baarova), the wife of his boss (Carlo Romano).

As for the others, Leopoldo fancies himself a playwright, and is flattered when renowned actor Sergio Natali (Achille Majeroni) praises his newest opus, while the reserved and quiet Moraldo does what he can to hide Fausto’s philandering ways from his sister. Alberto lives off his mother and his sister Olga (Claude Farell) - though he is none too happy to discover Olga is dating a married man - and Riccardo hopes one day to become a famous singer.

Whether dressing up for the annual masquerade ball, playing pool, or simply staring out at the sea, these five friends dream of the day when they can leave their quiet, boring town behind. Only one of them, however, will find the courage to actually do so.

I Vitelloni is, indeed, a comedy, and features a handful of funny moments; in one scene, Alberto leans out of a car window and insults some workers on the side of the road, only to have the car break down immediately after. But it’s the characters and their laissez-faire attitude that makes this film so appealing, even when said characters are doing questionable things, like when Fausto leaves Sandra alone in a movie theater to pursue a married woman that had been sitting next to them.

But its their flaws that make these friends believable, and even when you want to smack some sense into them (Fausto’s father, played by Jean Brochard, does so to his son on a number of occasions), you can’t wait to see what the five of them will do next.

Cited as an influence on such movies as Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and George Lucas’s American Graffiti, I found as I was watching I Vitelloni that I couldn’t help comparing it to Barry Levinson’s Diner (though Levinson claims he had never seen this movie prior to writing and directing his 1982 film). Like I Vitelloni, the characters in Diner are a decent bunch of guys with no ambition; they hang out with one another and have a good time. When the responsibilities of life creep up on you, as they do all of us, who doesn’t think back to a time when there wasn’t a care in the world?

Well, for the characters in I Vitelloni, that’s pretty much every day of the week.

Must be nice.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

#2,699. Variety Lights (1950) - Federico Fellini Triple Feature


Notable for being Federico Fellini’s directorial debut (he co-directed it with Alberto Lattuada), 1950’s Variety Lights kind of blew me away. I wasn’t prepared for how truly funny this movie is, or how poignant some of its more dramatic moments would be (at times, the film brought a tear to my eye).

I never would have thought that a Fellini film could take me by surprise; I have yet to see a movie of his that didn’t floor me one way or another, and I rank three of his pictures (8 ½, Amarcord, and Roma) among my all-time favorites. Yet for years I avoided Variety Lights, in part because I never read a synopsis of it that “wowed” me.

The story centers on a traveling troupe of second-rate actors and performers who barely earn enough to pay for their trip to the next town. The “star” of this troupe is Checco Dal Monte (Peppino De Filippo), who performs vaudeville-style musical numbers and dramatic scenes, normally accompanied by his longtime fiancé Melina (played by Fellini’s real-life spouse, Giulietta Masina).

The troupe’s luck finally changes for the better when novice dancer Liliana Antonelli (Carla Del Poggio) forces her way into the fold. A true beauty, Liliana draws large crowds, and even captures the heart of Checco, whose amorous feelings for the young starlet cause him to toss Melina to the curb. But can Checco keep Liliana happy, or will her newfound fame go straight to her head?

As I already mentioned, there’s nothing about this synopsis that would indicate just how entertaining Variety Lights truly is; it’s a standard show-biz story, yet told with enough warmth and humor to make is all seem completely fresh. I laughed out loud during some of the early scenes, like when the troupe performed at the rundown theater with a leaky roof (the water constantly dripping onto the performers was comedy gold).

In addition, both De Filippo and Masina bring a believable pathos to their characters: two aging actors, one hungry for the fame that has thus far eluded him, the other longing for a love and stability that suddenly seems out of reach. Del Poggio, who was married to co-director Lattuada at the time of production, is also quite good as the ambitious Liliana, and the supporting players are in top form (my favorite being Giulio Cali, the less-than-impressive magician whose best friend is a goose).

It may not seem like much on paper, but take my word for it: Variety Lights is a movie you won’t want to miss!
Rating: 9 out of 10

Monday, January 24, 2022

#2,698. Four of the Apocalypse (1975) - Spotlight on Italy


Director Lucio Fulci had his share of trouble with the censors. Several of his movies, including The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery, and Zombie, were targeted for their violence and ended up on the UK’s Video Nasties list, while 1982’s The New York Ripper so enraged the BBFC (The British Board of Film Classification) that they not only banned it outright, but ordered all prints to be immediately flown out of the country!

The blood and killings in Fulci’s spaghetti western Four of the Apocalypse also managed to raise a few eyebrows, and during its initial run in 1975 the movie never once screened in the United States. While the violence is, indeed, graphic, Four of the Apocalypse is such a fascinating entry in the subgenre that it deserved a much better fate than that.

Salt Flats, Utah, 1873. Four strangers: professional gambler Stubby Preston (Fabio Testi), pregnant prostitute Bunny O’Neill (Lynne Frederick), town drunk Clem (Michael J. Pollard), and cemetery worker Bud (Harry Baird) - who claims he can communicate with the dead – spend an evening locked in the same jail cell. Fortunately for them, their incarceration occurs the same night that a group of vigilantes rides into town, shooting and killing everyone who crosses their path.

The Sheriff of the now-deserted Salt Flats (played by Donal O’Brien) releases the quartet the next morning, and together the four ride off into the untamed west, happy to have escaped with their lives. But a chance encounter with a vicious outlaw named Chaco (Tomas Milian) reminds them of just how dangerous the frontier can be, and sets them on a course that will forever change the nature of their friendship.

As I mentioned above, Four of the Apocalypse features a handful of shocking scenes, most of which center on Tomas Milian’s Chaco; at one point, the bandit guns down two men and tortures a third - a sheriff - by skinning his abdomen (he eventually finishes the poor lawman off with his own badge, plunging it straight into his heart). In addition, there’s a scene in which Chaco rapes Bunny, forcing Stubby, who is slowly falling in love with her, to watch the entire assault (though not graphic, this sequence is still very disturbing).

Yet thanks to the fine performances delivered by its cast, coupled with moments as engaging as they are unique, Four of the Apocalypse is so much more than just another violent Italian western. Testi and Frederick have great chemistry together (aided, rumor has it, by a real-life romance between the two that started while this movie was in production), and both Pollard and Baird bring a genuine likability to their characters, despite their faults (Clem is a drunk and Bud is more than a little flaky). In fact, part of what makes Chaco’s reign of terror so upsetting is that it’s happening to characters we have grown to admire.

Along with the performances, Fulci and screenwriter Ennio De Concini concocted a number of very memorable scenes, chief among them a late sequence set in an all-male mining community, which bands together and does what it can to help the moment that Bunny goes into labor.

A well-acted (in addition to those already mentioned, Tomas Milian is superb as the villainous Chaco), smartly structured motion picture, Four of the Apocalypse is not only one of Lucio Fulci’s best films, but ranks right up there with Django, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West as one of the greatest spaghetti westerns ever made.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Friday, January 21, 2022

#2,697. Killer Crocodile (1989) - Spotlight on Italy


An Italian schlockfest of the highest (lowest?) order, Killer Crocodile is a Jaws rip-off that’s so goofy, so hilariously over-the-top, you can’t help but feel some affection for it. 

A team of well-meaning researchers heads into the swampy marshes of a tropical island, trying to determine whether or not someone is dumping toxic waste into the water. But there’s more than poisonous sludge in this particular swamp; it is also home to an enormous crocodile, which is less than hospitable to strangers. 

Joining forces with Joe (Ennio Girolami), an experienced crocodile hunter, the researchers set out to destroy the mammoth croc. Unfortunately, the killer reptile seems to be always one step ahead of them. 

We get our first glimpse of the title creature less than a minute into Killer Crocodile, and it’s not the least bit impressive. In fact, you’re more likely to chuckle than scream whenever the monster pops its head out of the water. Even more ridiculous than the crocodile is the movie’s dialogue, some of which is side-splittingly hilarious, and there are moments that were clearly “inspired” by Spielberg’s 1975 classic (aside from a scene in which one character fires a rifle at the charging beast - a la Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody - the score by Riz Ortolani often sounds like it could have been co-written by John Williams). 

The attack scenes in Killer Crocodile are the film’s most inspired moments, and the gory effects, the work of frequent Fulci collaborator Giannetto De Rossi (Zombie, The Beyond, etc), are a definite highlight.

Killer Crocodile may not be a good movie, but it’s damned entertaining! 

 Also, keep an eye out for Hollywood legend Van Johnson (The Caine Mutiny), who appears in a handful of scenes as a corrupt judge.
Rating: 7 out of 10

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

#2,696. Street Law (1974) - Spotlight on Italy


Director Enzo Castellari (Eagles Over London, The Inglorious Bastards) teamed up with actor Franco Nero (Django) for this action-packed 1974 Italian crime film.

As Carlo Antonelli (Nero) is in the middle of making a large cash deposit, a trio of armed robbers (Romano Puppo, Nazzareno Zamperla, and Massimo Vanni) storm the bank and make off with his money. With the police dragging their feet, getting nowhere with their investigation, a frustrated Carlo decides to take the law into his own hands and track down the bandits himself.

Ignoring the warnings of his wife Barbara (Barbara Bach), Carlo quickly gets in over his head, but with the help of a low-level crook named Tommy (Giancarlo Prete) he may just have a fighting chance of bringing the thieves to justice.

Franco reportedly did most of his own stunts for Street Law, and by the looks of it Castellari put the actor through hell. At one point, after locating the crooks, the bad guys get the jump on Carlo, beating him to a pulp before tying a rope around him and dragging him through the mud. Later, the poor guy is nearly run over by a car (several times, actually)!

Fortunately, the role's physical demands did nothing to diminish Nero’s performance. He is in top form as the incredibly determined private citizen willing to risk everything to see that justice is done. Giancarlo Prete is also solid as Tommy, the thief who helps Carlo, unwittingly at first (Carlo attempts to blackmail Tommy, insisting he tell him everything he knows about the bank robbers) then eventually of his own accord. Watching the initial mistrust between Carlo and Tommy blossom into a genuine friendship is yet another of the film’s strengths.

What you’ll remember about Street Law, though, are its intense action scenes, some of which are quite violent. The opening credits sequence, which features reenactments of crimes and murders inspired by real-life events, gets the movie off to a bloody start, and the final shoot-out (set in an empty warehouse) is as harrowing as they come.

Street Law is one of the more notable entries in the Poliziotteschi subgenre, also known as Italo-crime or Spaghetti Crime films (Poliziotteschi movies centered on organized crime, vigilantism, and police corruption, and often featured brutal violence and heavy doses of action). It is tense, exhilarating, and – ultimately - a very satisfying motion picture.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Monday, January 17, 2022

#2,695. The Children Are Watching Us (1944) - Spotlight on Italy


A precursor (in theme, if not execution) to the Italian Neorealist movement, Vittorio De Sica’s The Children Are Watching Us is an effectively moving melodrama about a crumbling marriage, as seen through the eyes of the couple’s only child.

Young Prico (played superbly by Luciano De Ambrosis) is caught up in a family crisis; his mother Nina (Isa Pola) has fallen in love with Roberto (Adriano Rimoldi), a younger man, and decides to leave both her husband Andrea (Emilio Cigola) and Prico so that she can be with him.

Sent to live with his grandmother (Jone Frigerio) for a few days, Prico is soon reunited with his mother, who returned home for his sake. Though not particularly happy with the arrangement, Andrea – following the advice of their housekeeper Agnese (Giovanna Cigoli) - agrees to let Nina move back in, and it isn’t long before the couple has reconciled.

To help Nina readjust to married life, Andrea whisks her and Prico away to a beachside resort for the summer, only to find his wedded bliss once again threatened when Roberto tracks them down.

Shot during the height of World War II, several years before Roberto Rossellini kicked off the Neorealist movement with Open City, The Children Are Watching Us raised a few eyebrows with its tale of infidelity, a taboo subject under Mussolini’s fascist regime, and this alone makes it something of a curiosity.

What lifts it to a higher level is the performance of Luciano De Ambrosis, who, despite his age (he was five years old at the time), serves as the film’s main character. By his own admission, De Ambrosis was a sensitive child (his real mother had passed away just months before filming began), and he brings a heart-wrenching sincerity to the role of Prico, a boy who loves both of his parents, yet must deal with the fact that his family is falling apart before his very eyes. He is thrilled early on when his mother returns home (his tears are, in part, what causes Andrea to relent, and allow Nina to move back in), only to find himself turning on Nina while on vacation, when he spots her and Roberto frolicking on the beach (Andrea’s job forced him to return home early, leaving Prico as the only witness to his mother’s continued transgressions).

De Ambrosis handles these moments flawlessly, and it’s because of his performance that The Children Are Watching Us is more than a simple family melodrama; it is a tragedy, and we mourn for Prico. One scene in particular, late in the film, where Andrea asks Prico what happened at the resort, is heartbreaking; Prico lies to Andrea, saying he and his mother were alone, not to protect Nina, but to save Andrea himself from further heartbreak.

Though flawlessly directed by De Sica and featuring solid performances from the entire cast, it is De Ambrosis who makes The Children Are Watching Us such a poignant, unforgettable motion picture.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, January 15, 2022

#2,694. Alienween (2016) - Spotlight on Italy


Take the effects and dark humor of Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste, combine it with the dynamic energy of Lamberto Bava’s Demons, and toss in a few scenes that could have been lifted straight out of Japanese anime, and you have writer / director Federico Sfascia’s Alienween, a crazy, bloody, over-the-top sci-fi / horror / comedy that’s a tremendous amount of fun.

It’s Halloween night, and four friends gather inside an abandoned house for what they hope will be a wild, drug-fueled party. The hookers have already arrived, and the drugs are on their way, but unfortunately for these old pals the evening won’t go exactly as planned.

For starters, the girlfriends of two of the guys turn up unexpectedly, demanding an explanation. As if that isn’t bad enough, there’s the pesky little alien invasion that’s going down outside, and when these visitors from outer space crash the party, the good times come to a screeching halt!

Alienween is high-octane entertainment from start to finish, with loony characters, tons of quick cuts (like a music video on speed), and practical effects that make the most of its meager budget. This is an insane, grindhouse-style gorefest, and I had a blast watching it!
Rating: 8.5 out of 10