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.

Angel Heart 1987 *****

I was still a teenager when I saw Alan Parker’s 1986 genre-bending horror/detective story; just old enough to beat the 18 certificate. The film ran for several months at my local Odeon; I returned over and over again to watch the print turn ragged on the screen. While friends waxed lyrical on Scorsese and Godard, it was Alan Parker’s film that caught my imagination, so to see a restored blu-ray pressed decades later is a welcome opportunity to revisit a well-thumbed, well-loved text.

The story is simple in synopsis but surprising in execution. Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is a down-at-heel private eye hired by Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to investigate a missing singer by the name of Johnny Favourite. Those unlucky enough to cross Angel’s path end up dead; Angel senses he’s being set up, but it’s only when he travels to New Orleans that the gumshoe begins to realise that supernatural forces are at work, and he’s little more than a pawn in the game.

Michael Seresin’s photography is the first thing to notice here; poor DVD prints haven’t helped the film’s reputation, but this blu-ray looks as good as if not better than the original; it’s hard to think of another film that looks as moist as this, which detailed textures to snow, paper, clothes, sweat and blood. The result is a film that’s vivid and atmospheric, with dream-like interruptions scored to the sound of a beating heart, telling a story with an outrageous twist ending that’s tricky to fully explain in detail.

Based on William Hjortsberg’s book Falling Angel, Parker shifted the action largely from NYC to New Orleans, and also changed the time-period and a few crucial details; elements from the book like the magic show are dropped, despite being remarkably cinematic in their own right. Parker’s use of mirrors, fans and blood is very much his own pictorial style, and while audiences weren’t sure of Angel Heart at the time, it’s clearly a misunderstood work that had a huge influence on Christopher Nolan

Parker’s wry commentary starts by discussing the problems of directing cats; it’s also implied that herding De Niro and Rourke through a number of scenes together wasn’t much easier. De Niro makes something iconic of his devilish character, but it’s Rourke that’s the revelation here. It’s not surprising to hear that Rourke couldn’t act the same scene the same way twice; his work feels spontaneous, and there’s an edge that makes Angel feel both larger than life and vulnerable.

Some of the other extras on this fresh re-issue suggest that Parker was prepared to bend the rules of voodoo in order to get what he wanted from his New Orleans shoot; such comments are interesting, but don’t detract from the film’s power. In the classic notion of drama, Angel’s investigation of his case is a search for himself, and a discovery of an unpleasant truth about human nature. Parker’s film may have been better known for its sex scene than it’s dramatic content at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, Angel Heart is an essential purchase for fans of all the considerable talents involved, and for horror aficionados in general.

ANGEL HEART is  released on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD and Digital on October 14th 2019 and can be streamed below…

 

Death Wish 3 1985 ***

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Third sequels go off fast, like milk left out of the fridge, particularly if the second entry in the franchise is as vile as Death Wish 2. Presumably feeling that there was no more mileage in terms of gritty hatefulness, exploitation and misogyny, Winner goes off in a silly post-Rambo new direction with the third turgid chapter of the continuing adventures of taciturn vigilante Paul Kersey, played with minimal effort and no application whatsoever by Charles Bronson. Kersey is back in New York, and Winner opens his film with a typical lack of flair by showcasing the side of a bus that Kersey is travelling on through the opening credits. After a few decent location shots in Port Authority bus station, the action shifts to a strange post-apocalyptic landscape; for one reason or another, presumably cheapness, Winner elects to shoot his NYC drama in what looks like an old schoolyard in England, and the cognitive dissonance is mind-blowing in an Inception-type way. With three American cars and a couple of Victorian buildings, Winner and his team abjectly fail to conjure up the idea that we’re in NYC for a split second, and watching Bronson, Martin Balsam and Ed Lauter bumble around dull English street-corners gives Death Wish 3 the unprofessional air of an amateur/student film. Kersey arrives in NYC to spend time with a friend, but the attentions of various thugs including Bill and Ted’s not incredibly intimidating Alex Winter, set him on a Energiser-bunny rampage with one predictable take-away; ‘Blow the scum away.’ But rather than shocking the neighborhood, Kersey’s kill-fest delights various pensioners in the area, who are goey-eyed at his gift for constructing lethal man-traps and cheer from the windows as he mows down an army of thugs to create a kill-count that goes into double figures. Mourning widows break out ear-to-ear grins at the thought of impending violence, families share a smile like it’s Christmas Day when they hear of Kersey’s murderous sprees, while Jimmy Page contributes a raft of inappropriate music that sounds like a particularly jocular game-show theme. The mark of a truly terrible film is that, even on a third or fourth viewing, there are layers of awfulness to be discovered, and Death Wish 3 is a very rich text indeed.

Late Night 2019 ***

emma 2Late Night looks at the modern phenomenon of late-night talk shows; from Johnny Carson to Jay Leno, with Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon two of today’s best known. Seth Meyers even makes an appearance here, seemingly uneasy at playing himself. What’s notable is that all of these examples are male; in setting out a story about a woman fighting to find her place in a touch NYC writers room, it seems strange that Mindy Kaling’s script should position a female tyrant at the top of the tree.

Played by Emma Thompson, Katherine Newberry is a fading star of the small screen, a Norma Desmond whose writers are terrified to admit that she’s not as funny as she used to be. Molly (Kaling) comes to NYC from a chemical plant, and is not attuned to the competitive atmosphere she encounters, or to the whims of her boss. But Newberry has issues, from an ill partner (John Lithgow) to a secret workplace romance, and Molly strikes up an unconventional alliance with her; Newberry provides the platform, while Molly brings the funny.

Expect for a film about comedy, there’s not much that’s funny about Late Night; a film about Tina Fey’s experience of the SNL writers room would be more direct. And Newberry would make more sense as a man than a woman; perhaps Kaling’s point is that women hold each other back, but side-lining issues of sexism and glass ceilings robs the film of agency. Like The Clapper, it seems bizarre that someone with such experience of show-business would write a story that seems tone-deaf to the realities of the work.

That said, late Night is a passable, appealing film with likeable performances and brisk direction by Nisha Gantata. Better films about women in the workplace will follow; Late Night makes a decent fist, but fails to pack enough punch to be more than disposable.

Liquid Sky 1982 ***

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Liquid Sky sounded like quite an amazing movie when it first came out in 1982; aliens who invade New York to harvest the opiate produced at the moment of orgasm from beautiful clubbers? Sign me up, thought my 13 year old self, only to be somewhat stymied and baffled by the art-house, post-Warhol leanings of Liquid Sky itself. Don’t expect any aliens, in fact, there’s only a paper-plate flying saucer, and special effects are restricted largely to basic chroma-key which interrupt rather than illustrate Slavia Tsukerman’s sci-fi drama. The focus is not really sex, or sci-fi, but drugs, specifically heroin and cocaine, both of which seem to be widely popular in the slice of NYC rooftop club-land featured. Margaret (Anne Carlisle) plays both Margaret and Jimmy, two characters who get caught up in the alien’s enthusiasm for heroin; with glass shards appearing embedded in the heads of victims, who then vanish into thin air, it’s clear that there’s something allegorical going on, but Liquid Sky is too slippery to allow an easy definition. Whatever’s going on, the costumes are wild, the NYC club scene is well caught, and the print on Amazon Prime is surprisingly good; Liquid Sky has become a huge cult movie, and if you’ve never heard of it, broad-minded viewers will always find something outré in this weird and occasionally wonderful film.

Hustlers 2019 ****

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One magazine is going with ‘the most important film of the year’ for Hustlers, which would be a pretty damning condemnation of the inconsequential quality of much of the year’s films. Hustler feels like the latest reaction to the MeToo era, and creating crime movies with a ‘sisters are doing it for themselves’ vibe. With credits for both ‘Stripper consultant’ and ‘Wall Street Consultant’, at least the production has done some due diligence on the subject in hand, and it shows.

Hustlers follows on from Oceans 8 (awful) and Widows (better) as a number of female star names join forces to make a buck and beat the system, with various male antagonists in their way. Based on an article and taking some inspiration from a real story, writer/director Lorne Scafaria’s film doubles-down on the bitches-get-riches formula, keeping the stakes small and realistic; Constance Wu from Crazy Rich Asians is Oliver to Jennifer Lopez’s pole-dancing Fagin, teaching her how to dope strip-club clients with a mixture of Ketamine and MDMA while the girls cleans out their bank accounts. Of course, their clients are Wall Street scumbags, so Hustlers feels that the victims deserve all they get, and it’s only when Wu’s character shows mercy to one client that things fall apart. Hustlers does seem to have a sociological statement up its sleeve; that women, given the chance, will be as greedy as men; paying granny’s medical bills is the initial motivation, but funky expensive shoes and handbags prove to be the real undoing of Lopez’s gang.

Much as I Tonya took the clichés of the Scorsese gangster movie and revitalised them by having a female point of view, Hustlers is a female-version of Goodfellas, the fun is watching a gang come together and fall apart due to greed. Pop stars Cardi B and Lizzo have brief cameos to add value, and Usher manages a brief cameo as himself in which he manages to enter a nightclub and say his own name, pretty much the level of achievement that might be expected of a five-year old in a nativity play. But Wu and Lopez have lots to do, and they do it with great style; Lopez’s dancing is pretty sensational, and she’s got her career back on track here after the hilariously awful Second Act. The punchlines can be summed up in two lines the two lines; ‘’ Hurt people hurt people’ and ‘motherhood is a mental illness’. Hustlers looks at women, greed, crime and money, and it’s an absorbing mix of Goodfellas and Flashdance; a big hit is one the cards, and deservedly so, it’s a big, flashy, entertaining movie that poses a few interesting moral questions alongside the handbag porn.

The Informer 2020 ****

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Set for a U.S. release in January 2020, The Informer is a tough, old school crime opus that’s been delayed several times, but is well worth the wait. Andrea di Stefano’s thriller is sold on its connections to Sicario and John Wick, but there’s a down-and-dirty feel about the espionage featured here that’s located somewhere bwteen Homeland and John le Carre. Joel Kinnaman plays Peter Koslow, a special ops undercover agent who is embedded in an FBI mission to shake-down drugs elements in the NYC/Polish community. Koslow has a wife (Blade Runner 2049’s Ana de Armas) and kid to protect, so when a routine pick-up of a diplomatic bag full of drugs goes south, Koslow is forced to witness the death of a cop. This brings in interest from the NYPD’s Grens (rapper Common), who is keen to find out how the cop died and who is responsible; Koslow’s handlers (Rosamund Pike and Clive Owens) seek to contain the mess, but Koslow engineers his own passage out via an audacious prison break. Based on the novel Three Seconds by Roslund/Hellstrom, The Informer’s generic title hides a sober, intensely gripping thriller that’s something of an antidote to much of the silver-screen’s childish fare; the fights are brutal and the stakes are high. Look elsewhere for choreography and stunts, because The Informer makes a virtue of feeling like a real-world story. With a well-known cast well used for once, The Informer’s hard-as-nails attitude makes it one of the best thrillers of the year.