Motherless Brooklyn 2019 ****

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It’s a good twenty years since Jonathan Lethem’s novel was published; based on the public and critical reaction, writer/director Edward Norton needn’t have bothered adapting the text from prose to screen. And yet there’s plenty to enjoy in Motherless Brooklyn, which, like The Goldfinch, is far from the dud that the box office might suggest; certainly, films about urban planning are rarely big news, but although it’s 144 minutes long, Norton’s film is idiosyncratic and often engaging.

Bruce Willis gets near-top billing, but is pretty much out of the film before the credits go up. Willis plays Frank Minna, a local gangster with a penchant for rescuing children; it’s through this method that he’s a mentor to Lionel Essrog, a bright young man with Tourette’s syndrome. Essrog also has a perfect memory, and listens in on one of Minna’s meetings shortly before his father-figure is shot. Piecing together various abstract clues, Hamlet-style, Essrog starts to investigate Trump-ian property baron Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) and also the businessman’s brother Paul (Willem Dafoe). Randolph has designs of the New York property market, but his methods are underhand, and Essrog is quickly out of his depth…

A film like this stands and falls on its villain, and Baldwin relishes the opportunity to play Randolph with saturnine charm. Whether he’s directly responsible for the violent killings that beset Essrog isn’t exactly clear, but it is obvious that Randolph has an evolved philosophy that penalises the poor. Motherless Brooklyn has a Chinatown-lite view of city corruption, and anyone interested in New York will enjoy the various allusions gathered here, as well as some eye-opening chat about Central Park

Norton is also an actor’s director, getting good work from his cast, and he also provides a happy centre as Essrog. Playing a character with a disability isn’t a great look in 2019, and yet there’s obvious reasons why it wouldn’t be easy to cast the role. Norton does well not to play Essrog’s verbal infelicities for laughs, and pulls off something rare and unexpected by having a disabled protagonist whose disability is not central to the narrative.

Motherless Brooklyn takes a few wrong turns; the background to Essrog’s detective agency is inadequately sketched in, and Minna leaves far too early to get a sense of who he was. But there’s a clear gap between the quality of Norton’s film and the public’s appreciation of what he’s done, and Motherless Brooklyn is worth recommending to the discerning viewer.

Leon: The Director’s Cut **** 1994

leonThe director does indeed seem to have been cut from the package accompanying this blu-ray release of Luc Besson’s celebrated film; there’s barely a glimpse of the French auteur, while star Jean Reno and musician Eric Serra are front and centre of the extras provided here. Given the general obloquy surrounding Besson’s reputation at the time of this new release, perhaps that’s understandable, but it would be a shame to consign Leon to the dustbin of history; it takes more than one person to make a film, and Leon is notable for a trio of iconic performances from Reno, Natalie Portman and Gary Oldman, the latter setting a gold standard for manic villainy that’s rarely been bettered.

The rangy-looking, punkish Reno plays the title role; Leon, pronounced more like Sergio Leone that Leon the pig farmer. He’s a hit-man of remarkable effectiveness, introduced in a generic but effective series of track-downs. Operating in a sunny New York, Leon retires to his apartment between jobs, only to find himself drawn into a violent stramash when he takes pity on precocious kid Mathilda, played by Portman. When her family are eliminated by Norman Stansfield (Oldman), Mathilda’s last hope is to knock on Leon’s door; he lets her in, not only to his apartment, but to an array of weapons and a philosophy that would befit a samurai; the knife comes last. Of course, Leon and Mathilda’s relationship is frowned on, not least by Stansfield’s government colleagues, who want them both eliminated.

Those who seek to psychoanalyse Besson, to prove him innocent or guilty of actions elsewhere, will find plenty of evidence to consider in Leon; this director’s cut, some 23 minutes longer than the original, makes explicit that Mathilda sees Leon in a sexual way, and also makes explicit that he does not share her view. That was implied in the version originally released as The Professional in the US, but it’s probably worthwhile to have this spelled out. Either way, the film retains an uncomfortable edge that adds to the plotting; given how effectively Leon’s story plays out, it’s strange that Besson has never taken an espionage/assassin story so seriously in the many films that followed.

If Besson’s reputation is problematic at the time of this blu-ray’s release, Leon: The Professional is, like the central character, beyond reproach. Reno was never better than this, silent, dexterous, unexpectedly comical and a consistent, powerful presence. Portman makes Natalie seem both grounded and real, while Oldman gives the kind of huge, villainous performance that makes a great movie flow; snaffling drugs like sweets, playing an invisible piano, his manic energy is balanced by Reno’s absorbent hero. And Leon has never looked as good as it does here, the blu-ray fully capturing the canyon streets of NYC, a breath-taking, outsiders view of a dark and dangerous city hidden by shafts on sunlight.

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

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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 ***

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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 ***

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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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAM8PBCIjcA

The Seventh Victim 1943 ***

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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.

https://www.amazon.com/7th-Victim-Tom-Conway/dp/B07CT64XYW/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=seventh+victim&qid=1562063785&s=gateway&sr=8-2

Q; The Winged Serpent 1982 ***

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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.

https://www.amazon.com/Q-Winged-Serpent-Michael-Moriarty/dp/B07J6NXSNB/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=q+the+winged&qid=1562063164&s=gateway&sr=8-1