Sunday, January 30, 2022

#2,701. Fellini's Casanova (1976) - Federico Fellini Triple Feature


Fellini’s Casanova kicks off with one of those great scenes the Maestro did so well; a carnival, set on the streets of 18th-century Venice, with hundreds of extras parading around in colorful costumes. More than a great opening, this sequence sets the stage perfectly for this 1976 film, which is chock full of all the imagination, wit, and, yes, the audacity so prominently featured in many of Fellini’s later works (Roma, Amarcord, Satyricon).

A loose, often unstructured account of the life of Giacomo Casanova (played by Donald Sutherland), who many considered the greatest lover in all of Italy, Fellini’s Casanova whisks us to some of Europe’s most prominent cities, starting with Venice, where the title character has a rendezvous with a nun (while her rich boyfriend watches through a peephole), then is arrested and thrown into prison for his lewd behavior.

Casanova eventually escapes and says goodbye to Venice forever, traveling first to Paris, where he is the honored guest of Madame d’Urti (Cicely Browne), who asks the Italian lover to impregnate her. It’s here that Casanova also meets the love of his life, the gorgeous Henriette (Tina Aumont), though the affair is short-lived.

An encounter with two women in London, who rob Casanova and leave him in the streets, leads the fiery Italian to attempt suicide by drowning himself in the Thames. Before he can finish himself off, however, Casanova spots a giantess (Sandra Elaine Allen) and her two dwarf companions resting by the side of the river, and decides to follow them back to the circus, where the Giantess, known as Princess Angelina, arm wrestles men for a living (she has never lost).

Casanova next visits Switzerland, where he has a brief fling with an alchemist’s daughter (Olimpia Carlisi), then it’s on to Germany, first Dresden, where he runs into his mother (Zanetta FArussi) in a crowded theater, then Wurttemberg, whose royal court displeases him, though he does meet - and has sex with - a mechanical doll named Rosalba (Leda Lejodice).

From this synopsis, you can assume (quite correctly) that Fellini’s Casanova is not so much a straightforward account of its main subject’s life as it is a fantastical journey through the surreal, with moments that are equal parts erotic (though the sex scenes are shot in such a way that they’re more comical than arousing) and bizarre (the sexual encounter with the mechanical doll being at the top of a very long list).

Sutherland is quite good as Casanova, convincing as both a great lover and a sophisticate, though the real stars of Fellini’s Casanova are Danilo Donati (the production and costume designer), composer Nino Rota (whose music compliments the film’s vibrant imagery), cinematographer Giusseppe Routuno, and of course Fellini himself, whose vivid imagination brings a carnival-like atmosphere that resonates throughout the entire movie.

Those looking for a structured biopic will find themselves quickly frustrated; everyone else should settle in for what will prove to be one very wild, very entertaining ride.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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 carnage in Fulci’s spaghetti western Four of the Apocalypse also raised 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 a fascinating entry in the subgenre, and 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 spending time in the same jail cell. Fortunately for them, the same night they are locked up, a group of vigilantes rides into Salt Flats, shooting everyone in their path.

His town destroyed, the Sheriff of the now-deserted Salt Flats (played by Donal O’Brien) releases the quartet the next morning, and together the four ride 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 just how dangerous the frontier can be, and sets them on a course that will forever change the nature of their friendship.

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 guy 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 has fallen 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 a lot 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 comes crashing down on characters we have grown to admire.

Along with the performances, Fulci and screenwriter Ennio De Concini concoct 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 Bunny when she goes into labor.

A well-acted (Tomas Milian is also 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 my favorite spaghetti westerns of all-time.
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

Thursday, January 13, 2022

#2,693. The House of Clocks (1989) - Spotlight on Italy


A Made for Television film that was originally produced as part of a series (which, alas, never aired on Italian TV), The House of Clocks is a far cry from what Fulci was turning out in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but that doesn’t make it a total loss.

A trio of thieves (Karina Huff, Keith Van Hoven and Peter Hintz) break into an estate owned by Victor (Paolo Paoloni) and Sarah (Bettine Milne), a rich elderly couple with a large collection of clocks. Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned, and when the smoke clears Victor, Sarah, and their groundskeeper (played by Al Cliver) are dead.

But as the would-be crooks will learn soon enough, time passes much differently in… the House of Clocks!

For a TV movie, The House of Clocks features some pretty gnarly kill scenes (not that I expected anything less from Fulci, mind you), and the story itself, bizarre as it is, has its charms.

Of course, it rarely makes a lick of sense (again, this is Fulci we’re talking about here, so no big surprise), and I disliked the ending (which made even less sense than what came before it), but if you’re a Fulci completest my guess is you’ve seen worse.
Rating: 5 out of 10

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

#2,692. The Moment of Truth (1965) - Spotlight on Italy


Combining documentary-like footage with a rags-to-riches storyline, director Francesco Rosi’s The Moment of Truth is a harsh, sometimes brutal account of bullfighting in 1960s Spain.

It is also damn near a masterpiece.

Wanting more out of life, Miguel Romero (Miguel Mateo), the son of an impoverished farmer, heads to Barcelona in the hopes of landing a good-paying job. Struggling at first to make ends meet, the young man learns that becoming a successful Torero, or bullfighter, could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams.

Luckily, Miguel has a knack for this intensely dangerous sport, and before long is one of its biggest superstars. But will success and his newfound wealth cause him to become careless in the ring?

The Moment of Truth is not an easy film to watch. The opening scene, which features actual footage of Pamplona’s “Running of the Bulls” (staged annually during the San Fermin Festival), contains some disturbing violence, both caused by the bull (who gorges a few participants) and inflicted upon it (the creature’s ultimate demise is as graphic as they come). This is the first of several bloody sequences, and there are moments during the bullfights when you will want to look away (usually towards the end of each match, when the Torero thrusts his final sword into the bull).

It’s more gruesome elements aside, however, The Moment of Truth is a compelling, beautifully shot motion picture, spinning the tale of an ambitious young man who wants to make a better life for himself, and won’t allow anything - even fear - to stand in his way (though confident in his abilities and aggressive when fighting the bulls, Miguel admits at one point that he’s frightened every time he steps into the arena). Despite it being his screen debut, Miguel Mateo delivers a superb performance as the brash, cocky Miguel, and the gorgeous Spanish landscape (Rosi shot the movie on-location) only adds to the film’s authentic flavor.

And yet, The Moment of Truth is still a hard movie to recommend; yes, I think it is an extraordinary motion picture, perhaps one of the finest to emerge from Italy in the 1960s (and in a decade that saw Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti and a slew of others turn out some of their best work, that’s saying something). But as I said above, it’s also very violent, and unflinching in its depiction of bullfighting (many countries - and even a few cities in Spain - have banned the sport in recent years), and it’s because of this that I suggest you tread lightly.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Sunday, January 9, 2022

#2,691. The 10th Victim (1965) - Spotlight on Italy


It’s the 21st century, and legalized manhunts are all the rage. Participants in these hunts must survive ten rounds – five as a hunter and five as the prey – before they’re declared champion and awarded a boatload of cash. The governments of the world fund these hunts, and major corporations chomp at the bit to sponsor the most successful contestants.

Having completed nine rounds, American Caroline Meredith (Ursula Andress) is closing in on victory, and has signed a lucrative contract with beverage company Ming Tea to have her final kill televised.

Her intended victim is Marcello Polletti (Marcello Mastroianni) of Rome, who himself just polished off his sixth kill. Despite his success, Marcello has his share of financial troubles, as well as an ex-wife (Luce Bonifassey) and current lover (Elsa Martinelli) who are making his life a living hell.

Posing as a reporter doing an expose on Marcello, Meredith travels to Rome and - with the help of Ming Tea - sets the groundwork for what will surely be her most impressive hunt to date. But when she and Marcello develop feelings for one another, it’s anyone’s guess as to which of the two combatants will come out on top.

A movie that inspired The Running Man and even Austin Powers (Meredith sports a bra at one point with guns mounted in the front, a “weapon” that Mike Myers and company borrowed for the Fem-bots scene in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery), director Elio Petri’s The 10th Victim is a slick, stylish sci-fi / comedy that boasts impressive futuristic set pieces (I especially liked Marcello’s house), a clever premise (the script was based on Robert Sheckley’s book The Seventh Victim), and a handful of inspired moments (once he realizes what’s going on, Marcello signs a deal with a sponsor of his own, who will pay top dollar if he can lure Meredith into a crocodile-infested swimming pool).

As for the film’s two stars, their chemistry is palpable; an effective and often humorous spoof for much of its runtime, The 10th Victim veers off into more romantic territory in the final act, and thanks to Mastroianni and Andress, this storyline, which might have easily seemed out of place in a sci-fi spoof, works as intended, ending the film on a high note.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Friday, January 7, 2022

#2,690. Red Desert (1964) - Spotlight on Italy


Its landscape filled with factories, smokestacks, and apartment complexes, one might assume that Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert, the director’s first ever color film, is a harsh critique on industrialization. Throughout the movie, its lead character Giuliana (played by Antonioni’s frequent collaborator Monica Vitti) seems to wander around in a haze, out of place in a world such as this, with her mental health, already fragile at the start, deteriorating further as the story progresses.

But the fact of the matter is that Antonioni loved this industrial setting; he found it beautiful, and chose the modernized city of Ravenna, Italy, for this very reason.

So if Red Desert is not an expose of urbanization and its effect on the individual, the reverse must be true; it is about a character who cannot keep up with an ever-changing world, and the manner in which her psyche processes her surroundings is where the film’s true story lies.

To make matters worse for her, Guiliana’s husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) is the manager of a successful petrochemical plant. While talking one day with Corrado (Richard Harris), an associate who paid him a visit, Ugo confesses that his wife was recently in a car accident, and though physically fine she has yet to recover from it mentally.

Corrado, who is recruiting workers for his new factory in Argentina, takes an interest in Giuliana, and the two strike up first a friendship, then, eventually, a romance. But Giuliana, who fears the modern world, cannot escape her feelings of isolation and dread, which seem to be rapidly closing in on her.

Vitti does a remarkable job conveying her character’s fears and phobias, even if we - like Ugo, Corrado, and even she herself - have no idea what is causing them, or how to remedy her situation. In an early scene, Giuliana awakens from a nightmare, telling Ugo that she dreamt she was sinking in quicksand and could not escape. Later, following an afternoon getaway with Ugo, Corrado, and several others, Giuliana is convinced a ship that recently docked is carrying a disease, and does everything she can to get away from it as quickly as possible.

To his credit, Antonioni does not try to explain Giuliana’s mental state nor does he vilify it. Her condition remains enigmatic throughout, and while it is obvious that she is somehow a victim of her surroundings (much like Julianne Moore’s character in Todd Haynes’ Safe), Giuliana is as baffled by it all as those around her.

Though a deliberately paced motion picture that often favors visuals over character and plot, Red Desert nonetheless provides food for thought, and is open-ended enough to allow the audience to draw its own conclusions.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

#2,689. The Flowers of St. Francis (1950) - Spotlight on Italy


One of the premier filmmakers of the Italian Neorealism movement, Roberto Rossellini directed a number of classics in the 1940s, including Open City, Paisan, and Germany Year Zero, movies that focused on social issues of the time, often using non-actors for key roles and shooting not in a studio, but on-location to tell stories of famine, war, and the crippling effects of poverty.

The Flowers of St. Francis focuses on a much different reality; this 1950 film (which was co-written by Rossellini’s frequent collaborator, Federico Fellini) centers on the life and teachings of Francis of Assisi, a catholic friar who, due to his works of charity, was canonized a Saint by Pope Gregory IX in 1228. Using actual Franciscan monks to portray Francis and his followers, Rossellini crafted a poignant, beautiful, occasionally humorous motion picture.

Broken up into nine chapters, The Flowers of St. Francis stars Brother Nazario Gerardi as Francis, the spiritual leader of a community of friars. Living his life according to Christian principles, Francis inspires several of his order, including the often clumsy Brother Ginepro (Brother Severino Pisacane), to take up the mantel and bring the word of God to the masses, both in Italy and abroad.

Based on two 14th century novels: Little Flowers of St. Francis and The Life of Brother Ginepro, The Flowers of St. Francis features some truly gorgeous imagery (the opening, in which Francis and his community are walking through the rain, is breathtaking) as well as several poignant moments (while praying in the woods one evening, Francis encounters a leper, and is moved to tears).

In addition, the film contains a handful of scenes designed to make you laugh. Brother Ginepro’s first attempt at preaching nearly ends in disaster when the tyrant Nicalaio (Aldo Fabrizi) and his barbarians accuse Ginepro of being an assassin. Fabrizi, who played the pivotal role of the priest in Rossellini’s Open City, is hilariously over-the-top as Nicalaio, and at one point his barbarians grab Brother Ginepro and use him as – of all things - a jumping rope!

Despite being untrained actors, Brothers Gerardi, Pisacene, and the other Franciscans are convincing enough to make you believe they are, indeed, Francis and his followers, and the picturesque surroundings (the film was shot on-location in the countryside just outside Rome) also add an air of authenticity.

Selected by the Vatican in 1995 as one of the 45 greatest films ever made, The Flowers of St. Francis stands as yet another shining example of Italian Neorealism, and is a film I wholeheartedly recommend.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Monday, January 3, 2022

#2,688. The Inglorious Bastards (1978) - Spotlight on Italy


Enzo Castellari’s highly entertaining World War II film stars Bo Svenson as Lt. Robert Yeager, who, as the movie opens, is awaiting court martial for disobeying orders.

While on their way to the stockade, Yeager and several other military prisoners, including Pvt. Canfield (Fred Williamson), Tony (Peter Hooten), Nick (Michael Pergolani), and Berle (Jackie Basehart), manage to escape when their convoy is attacked by the Germans. Now on their own, Yeager assumes command of this ragtag group of misfits, promising to get them safely to Switzerland.

But when they inadvertently disrupt a crucial mission organized by Col. Charles Buckner (Ian Bannen), Yeager and the others have no alternative but to “rejoin” the army and volunteer for an assignment that, if successful, could spell the end of Nazi Germany once and for all!

Much like Castellari’s Eagles Over London, The Inglorious Bastards features plenty of action; along with the many battle scenes, there’s a thrilling sequence in which Yeager, Buckner, and the others escape from the Gestapo, and the final third of the movie, set on a moving train, will have you on the edge of your seat.

Svenson, Williamson, and Hooten are in fine form as the criminals-turned-heroes, and Castellari also manages to slip in a rushed but nonetheless effective romantic subplot, with Tony falling head over heels for French resistance fighter Nicole, played by Debra Berger.

Quentin Tarantino himself is a big fan of The Inglorious Bastards, and “borrowed” its title (though not its story) for his 2009 war film starring Brad Pitt and Christoph Waltz. Watching the original again, it’s easy to see why Tarantino and so many others continue to sing this movie’s praises. An action-packed “guys on a mission” film in the same vein as The Dirty Dozen, The Inglorious Bastards is flat-out fun!
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, January 1, 2022

#2,687. Ulysses (1954) - Spotlight on Italy


A precursor to the Italian Sword and Sandal / Peplum subgenre (which hit the height of its popularity following the release of 1958’s Hercules, starring Steve Reeves), director Mario Camerini’s Ulysses also feels like a spiritual ancestor of the fantasy films of the 1960’s

Based on the classic story by Homer, Ulysses picks up ten years after the war with Troy (which we see only briefly in an early flashback). Ulysses (Kirk Douglas) has not yet returned to his kingdom in Ithica, and as a result, many suitors, chief among them the arrogant Prince Antinous (Anthony Quinn), believe the hero is dead, and have moved into his palace in the hopes of wooing his “widow” Penelope (Silvana Mangano).

Penelope, however, is convinced that Ulysses is alive, and with the help of her son Telemachus (Franco Interlenghi) is doing everything she can to delay the suitors on the off-chance her beloved will one day return.

As for Ulysses, he and his men traveled far and wide, battling monsters and sirens, until an encounter with the witch Circe (also played by Mangano) costs the great hero both his ship and his crew.

Washing up alone on the shores of Phaeacia, Ulysses no longer remembers who he is or where he came from, and finds himself falling in love with Nausicaa (Rossana Podesta), daughter of King Alcinous (Jacques Dumesnil). Though welcomed as an honored guest in Phaeacia, Ulysses knows his destiny lies elsewhere, and holds out hope that his memory will eventually return.

A big-budget production (the estimated cost was the equivalent of $3 million U.S. dollars), Ulysses is a gorgeous film, with excellent costumes and lavish set pieces. There are also some memorable action sequences, like when Ulysses, still suffering from amnesia, defeats the Phaeacian wrestling champion; and a well-realized flashback to when his ship was almost destroyed in a storm is both tense and exciting.

The strongest scenes in Ulysses, though, are those that blend adventure with fantasy, like when Ulysses and his crew outwit the giant Cyclops Polyphemus (Umberto Silvestri), or the scene in which his ship encounters the Sirens, who try to coerce the hero into abandoning his vessel. The film’s most imaginative sequence, however, is when Ulysses is under the spell of the Goddess Circe, who transforms his men into swine and promises to grant the hero immortality, thus allowing him to take his place among the Gods of Olympus. There’s even a creepy scene where Ulysses is visited by the ghosts of his fallen comrades, all of whom lament the fact that they are dead. Though lacking the special effects wizardry of Ray Harryhausen, moments such as these would have been right at home in later fantasy movies like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts.

Kirk Douglas is perfectly cast as the heroic title character, as is Anthony Quinn as the treacherous Antinous, and Mangano shines in her dual role as the distraught Penelope and the conniving Circe. In addition, the cinematography of Hollywood’s own Harold Rossen (The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ In the Rain) is top-notch, and director Camerini (allegedly assisted by the great Mario Bava, who remained uncredited) makes great use of the film’s many picturesque locales, including Tuscany, North Africa, and the coast of the Mediterranean. That said, the most engaging aspect of 1954’s Ulysses is undoubtedly its story, which features action and wonder in equal doses.

Ulysses will definitely appeal to kids, but there’s plenty here to get the parents excited as well.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10