Ex Libris: The New York Public Library 2018 ****


Oscar-winning documentary maker Frederick Wiseman’s film, Ex Libris, is a three hour valentine to the New York Public Library system, examining in granular detail how the role of the library reflects the changing demands of the internet era. With only one in three New Yorkers having broadband at home, Ex Libris depicts how the modern library is not only an access point, but a hub of communities, a centre of information and a bastion of truth in the era of fake news. Wiseman is one of the great figures of U.S. documentary history, and it’s notable that he’s chosen this particular moment to reflect on the library system, and why it’s important. Even without a voice-over, the running time doesn’t feel punishing at all; in fact, Ex Libris skips by, with brief appearances from luminaries like Patti Smith, Elvis Costello and Richard Dawkins to light the way. But it’s Wiseman’s intent that makes Ex Libris so compelling; doubling down on the ordinary interactions that illuminate the lives of the New Yorkers seen here, Wiseman’s film is as important as his Titicut Follies and Hospital as portraits of how key American institutions function.


The Night of the Juggler 1980 ***


Any alternative history of American cinema should include this surprisingly raw studio thriller from 1980; James Brolin plays Sean Boyd, a tough cop who has alienated many of his fellow policemen by taking a hard line on corruption. He’s forced to confront his contemporaries when his daughter is kidnapped in error; the culprit Gus Soltic (Cliff Gorman) doesn’t realize that it’s not the daughter of a wealthy industrialist he was hoping to use for an extortion plot. The first half of Robert Butler’s film, adapted from a novel by William P McGivern, is a terrific chase sequence in and around New York’s Central Park, with Boyd battling to get his daughter back. The second half is less sensational, but still taut, and cop and quarry get closer. The Night of the Juggler is something of a social document of NYC circa 1980; street gangs, porno stores, and police corruption ideally embodied by the perennially sweaty Dan Hedaya.

The Seven Ups 1973 ***


Having produced Bullitt and The French Connection, it’s no surprise that Phillip D’Antoni’s only film as director has a scorching car-chase to offer, making full use of the areas in and around New York. Roy Scheider is Buddy, one of the Seven Up team whose name comes from the length of sentence given to the criminals they pursue. They’re up against a group of mobsters who are impersonating policemen to shake down the locals as part of a protection racket, and with Sonny Grosso’s real life exploits providing the source material, as with The French Connection, the details reek of authenticity. Tony Lo Bianco, Joe Spinell and Richard Lynch add to the hard-boiled credentials, but the chase sequence is what elevates The Seven Ups to greatness; there’s no jolly high-flying stuntwork, just speed and grit, leading to a punchy climax involving a stationary truck. The Seven Ups is scarcely remembered today, but fully deserves a cult following.


The Seventh Victim 1943 ***


Producer Val Lewton’s name of a film is always an indication of quality; even in a butchered 71 minute cut, The Seventh Victim still exerts a certain power. Although European films like Haxan had dealt with devil worship, Mark Robson’s 1943 film was cut due to its forthrightness, locating a Satan worshiping cult in the heart of New York’s Greenwich Village. Out-of-towner Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter) arrives in the Big Apple in search of her missing sister Jacqueline, with the sinister cult of the Palladinists to blame. For an old film, The Seventh Victim seems to still raise the ire of censors, with lines and scenes truncated for TV showings; whatever the reasoning, this is a tight, sinister thriller, and clearly an influence of the urban unease of Rosemary’s Baby and the genre it spawned.


Q; The Winged Serpent 1982 ***


Unstoppable writer/director Larry Cohen reacted well after being fired from I The Jury, knocking up a fresh horror project in six days and enlisting David Carradine and Michael Moriarty as leads. Shepard (Carradine) teams up with Richard “Shaft’ Roundtree to investigate missing people who are being snatched off the street in NYC, with Moriarty’s loner a possible link to the killings. But who is responsible? Cue the winged serpent, a stop-motion creation of Harryhausen charm, who dives around Manhattan searching for unwary construction workers and sunbathing women to snack on, dropping body-parts on unsuspecting citizens. Q: The Winged Serpent fully deserves its cult reputation; it’s well scripted and acted, and delivers fully on its ridiculous premise on an obviously low budget.


Dinner Rush 2000 ***


Director Bob Giraldi cut his teeth on pop videos for Michael Jackson and Pat Benetar, and his feature debut is an accomplished comedy-drama about life in a busy New York restaurant. Danny Aiello is Louis Cropa, who struggles to balance out the interests of critics, rivals, patrons, gangsters and policemen over the course of a ‘dinner rush’ Giraldi shot the film in his own Tribeca restaurant, so the knowing feel makes sense. John Corbett, Mike McGlone, Summer Phoenix and Sandra Bernhard are amongst the patrons, but it’s the ensemble cast and Giraldi’s feeling for the nuances of city life that make Dinner Rush such a blast. It’s an upstairs/downstairs story of kitchen vs restaurant that makes for a delicious slice of NYC life.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three 1974 ****

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Undiminished by the big-budget remake, Joseph Sargent’s 1974 police drama pitches Robert Shaw’s ruthless criminal Mr Blue against world-weary policeman Zachery Garber (Walter Matthau). The conflict arises when Blue and his gang hijack a NYC subway car, threatening to shoot the passengers if their demands are not met. Sargent manages well with both long periods of tension and sharp, location-based action, while coaxing memorable performances from Shaw and Matthau. John Godey’s terse novel gets the film version it deserves, with David Shire contributing a notable score to accompany the sweaty heroics.