Venezia 2019 ****


It’s something of a cliché to say that the backdrop can feel like a character in an evocative film; Rodrigo Guerrero’s Argentinian/French co-production makes extensive use of a wintry Venetian location that gives it a unique, haunting quality. Paula Lussi plays Sofia, a woman with a secret; part of the power of Venezia is that the audience only gradually uncover the details of what that secret is. She wanders the narrow streets, has language difficulties with local shop-keepers, a painful encounter with a local lothario. Some of the people she meets are sympathetic, and she manages to strike up a few bonds. But when she blurts out her story, it’s not believed; her fragile relationships are not ready for the weight of tragedy. The city of Venice has become something of a tourist trap, but Venezia returns it to the more spiritual and sinister realm of Don’t Look Now; some casual throw-away shots provide a useful index to Sofia’s feeling of alienation, and the way the dialogue switches between languages emphasises the communication issues. Venezia is a short story, heart-rending and effective in engaging the emotions; it’s prime assets are Venice itself, the bleak yet luminous photography of Gustavo Tejeda, Guerrero’s humanity and sensitivity, and Lussi’s arresting performance. At 74 minutes, it’s a snapshot of being alone in a foreign country which also carries a subtle political weight in 2019, and marks an effective third film from Guerrero.


The Happy Prince 2018 ***

princeThe Happy Prince is a thoughtful look at the last years of Oscar Wilde, with Rupert Everett clearly relishing the chance to immerse himself in the role to the point of unrecognisability. It’s generally known that Wilde lay in the gutter in his post-gaol period and looked at the stars, and The Happy Prince doesn’t spare us the details of Wilde’s rather desperate life-style in France and Italy. Grasping for money, paying for sex with minors, unwilling to write and ripping everyone off whenever he can, his genius is only glimpsed in fleeting moments, but the film generally avoids sentimentality. Colin Firth and Tom Wilkinson are amongst the support, but it’s clearly a labour of love for writer/director and star Everett, who looks worryingly like Marlon Brando in his death-throes and is well worth seeing in this demanding role.

Angels & Demons 2008 ***


It might seem hard to imagine, but there was a brief window between the publication of The Da Vinci Code and the film version being released, and in that brief moment, Dan Brown was seen as an exciting new writer of modern day adventures. A shuffle through the film versions of Da Vinci, Angels and Demons and Inferno reveals something rather different, a ersatz Indiana Jones without the action, but with long stretches of cross-word puzzle wisdom and shonky history lessons. Angels & Demons has built up a cult reputation in the ‘so bad it’s good’ category, and there’s no doubt, it’s kind of fun. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is recruited by the Vatican to outsmart a potential terrorist who has kidnapped various cardinals in the run-up to the announcement of a new pope. Could it be significant that one of the candidates , Irish front-runner (Ewan McGregor) is an ex-helicopter pilot? Brown’s plotting isn’t much better than a National Treasure movie, but the production is lush, Rome is skilfully evoked, and Ron Howard brings his usual professional approach to the material. The final barrage of plot-twists is ludicrous to say the least, but that’s what makes Angels & Demons such a hoot; impacting layers of smug cleverness end up forming a crust of nonsense that makes Angels and Demons far more amusing than most comedies.


Death Rage 1976 ***


Yul Brynner was something of an unlikely star, but his performances in The King and I, The Magnificent Seven and Westworld made him a house-hold name. By 1976, he was dying of cancer, but still puts in a serviceable performance in Antonio Margheriti’s murky but effective thriller. Brynner is Peter Marcinia, a NYC hit man who re-enters the killing game to revenge the death of his brother. He travels to Naples where he tangles with both the local cops and the mafia, while finding time for romance with exotic dancer Barbara Bouchet, whose night-club routine gets quite a bit of screen-time. While nothing new in the genre of poliziotteschi, Death Rage has plenty of punch-ups and car chases, well-filmed and anchored by an unexpectedly touching performance from Brynner. There’s a weariness about his portrayal of Peter that makes Death Rage worth catching for genre fans; struggling to get himself into gear for one last job, there’s echoes of another 1976 elegy for a Hollywood star, Don Siegel’s The Shootist and John Wayne.

Salo 1975 ***


Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom, is an extreme film, and any review has to begin by warning potential audiences about the disturbing content of Pier Paulo Pasolini’s 1975 film. In an era of Nazi-controlled Italy, circa 1944, authorities round up the best-looking local boys and girls and decant them to a palace where they force them to re-enact the works of Dante and De Sade before exacting various sexual and physical cruelties on them. This is certainly cinema of cruelty, and the final scenes of tongues being cut out are agonising to watch, but Pasolini’s intent is not exploitative; his brother died in a similar incident, and his depiction of the horrific details is unsparing in capturing the banality of evil.

The Cassandra Crossing 1976 ***


George P Costmatos’s 1976 film marked the start of the slow decline of the disaster movie; it’s the kind of all star extravaganza that defies logic and credulity, but the packaging is consistently entertaining. Richard Harris play a divorced couple who end up by chance on the same trail; they’ve picked the worst possible transportation, since there’s a plague carrier on board, not to mention a seriously weakened bridge to negotiate. There’s also a motely collection of actors doing their thing, including OJ Simpson, Martin Sheen, Ava Gardner and John Phillip Law. McKenzie (Burt Lancaster) is trying to cover up the outbreak, with disastrous results; Cosmatos is intent on using the tropes of a conspiracy thriller to knit the disparate elements together, and the result is chaotic but enjoyable; continually on rotation on British and American television throughout the eighties, The Cassandra Crossing is one of these daft films indelibly branded into the consciousness of several generations.


Besieged 1998 ***


Almost certainly the last great film from writer Bernardo Bertolucci, Besieged is a far more modest affair than The Last Emperor, with the action largely confined to a beautiful Italian apartment in Rome. Shandurai (Thandi Newton) moves in, and becomes the object of the affections of British composer and pianist Kinsky (David Thewlis), but she rejects his advances. She’s more concerned about her African husband, who has been jailed by a dictator. Kinsky begins to release that his love for Shandurai goes beyond physical attraction, and attempts to change her mind about him with a grand gesture. Besieged is a simple film about complex romantic and political issues, well-performed and the work of a master film-maker whose minor work is more powerful than most director’s best.