Mean Streets (1973)

A buddy comedy for the first half, gradually piling on the struggles until Keitel is overwhelmed between allegiances to his fuckup friend (De Niro), his girl (Amy Robinson), and his criminal employers. He chooses poorly, trying to have it all – but only the fuckup (and randomly, David Carradine) gets killed, in a movie with very few guns considering the poster art is a smoking gun.

Feels like play-acting for a while, a dress rehearsal for Goodfellas, but I think that’s because these guys are such small-time gamblers. Only one of them (Richard Romanus) has a car, they scout deals for cigarette cartons, and they think two thousand dollars is an impossible amount of money. David Proval is the guy who runs a bar, and I think Victor Argo’s the big boss. Young Scorsese already knew what he liked, kicking into slow-mo when the Rolling Stones song comes on.

from the commentary: Marty was fired from Honeymoon Killers and WoodstockMean Streets was a record of his own young life compressed into a few-days story… Cassavetes’ Shadows is credited as their inspiration of possibility, and Corman taught the filmmaking discipline (visible in the movie are posters for Husbands, X, and The Tomb of Ligeia)


What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963)

Nervy montage with stills and motion and stop-motion and graphic elements, tied together with a comic narration by struggling writer Harry. Suffering a block, he throws a house party and meets a girl. Marty’s earliest short seems to be telling us: “I really enjoyed Zazie dans le metro.”


It’s Not Just You, Murray! (1964)

Murray is here to show off his success and say it’s all thanks to Joe, who started him on bootlegging gin. Another silly little film with comic narration which feels like it’s making it up as it goes. The gangster parody becomes a Hollywood musical parody… Joe steals Murray’s wife, then we jump to an inexplicable 8 1/2 ending.


Italianamerican (1974)

Just a good time around the table, talking about food, family and the old days. I appreciate that Marty continues eating in the foreground while his camera crew films his family.

“Lousy choices, that’s your whole story, lousy movies,” someone says to Robin Wright, playing “herself.” This one’s not exactly great, but better than lousy – at least we get interesting topics and some fun animation. Getting around to watching this due to one of those topics – the idea of movie studios scanning actors then using their digital images indefinitely is back in the news.

Harvey Keitel as her agent gets a good monologue during the scan procedure, then Robin takes her money (they never say how much) and goes home with her hard-of-hearing kite-obsessed son Kodi Smit-McPhee. Twenty years later she enters the “animation zone” to attend a contract renegotiation party. The company which has successfully controlled and redefined her image for so long (one of her future sci-fi films is named RRR) stupidly puts Actual Robin in front of a live mic. There’s a revolution, real or imagined, and Robin is stuck in animated form so they freeze her body for future scientists to deal with. This is where Paul Giamatti comes in – he specializes in explaining insane situations to people in movies.

Ethan Hawke appears in none of these movies, rather he was interviewed on Criterion to chat about movies in general and about each of these picks, so I watched every minute of that and then went on a Hawke-approved viewing spree.


The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1968, Les Blank)

Blank is one of my faves because the photography is grainy but good, the songs and stories play out in full, and he cuts the picture to whatever catches his interest. Hopkins is a versatile player. I see Hawke’s point about watching this to really understand the blues. It kinda worked but I’m still not past the “all the songs sound the same” phase. I’ll get back to those Bear Family comps, maybe.


The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972, John Huston)

That makes two in a row set in Texas. Paul Newman goes to the lawless part of the state, brags about being a bank robber, is robbed and nearly killed… Victoria Principal (TV’s Dallas) brings him a gun, he returns to the bar and kills all the men, then instates himself as sheriff and hires the next group of guys to wander in (five failed outlaws) as marshals.

I love that the story is partly narrated by dead men who passed through. Grizzly Adams (our director) isn’t permitted to die in town so he moves on, leaving his bear behind. The ensuing musical montage to an Andy Williams song is better than the Raindrops Keep Falling scene, because it’s about Newman and Principal playing with a bear. The only threat to Newman’s authority is Bad Bob The Albino (Stacy Keach) who is killed immediately, until attorney Roddy McDowall turns out to have been playing the long game, getting elected mayor and turning the tables on the power structure. After 20 years in exile, Bean returns to round up the gang (and grown daughter Jacqueline Bisset who doesn’t seem to mind having been abandoned for two decades) and stage a fight to the death between the wild west old-timers and modern society’s highly flammable oil-well town. Ethan says that everyone now admits the postscript ending is bad, in which Bean’s actress idol Ava Gardner arrives in town too late and only gets to meet Ned Beatty. Roy Bean was a real guy who often shows up fictionalized on screen – he’s been played by Walter Brennan, Andy Griffith, Tom Skerritt, and returning to the legend with a casting promotion, Ned Beatty.


Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976, Robert Altman)

Judge Roy Bean was mostly set in 1890’s, we’re in 1880’s now, with a nightmare font on the opening titles. Sadly, for our second revisionist comedy western we’ve left Texas (set in Wyoming, filmed in Canada) but we’ve still got Paul Newman, now with an aged Dude appearance as a famed cowboy running a wild west show. Major Kevin McCarthy delivers Sitting Bull to the show (interpreter Will Sampson of Cuckoo’s Nest does all the talking) but his role and attitude are mysterious. Meanwhile it’s the usual Altmanny bustle of activity (I’ve missed it), featuring sharpshooter Geraldine Chaplin taking aim at living target John Considine, producer Joel Grey handling a visit by President Cleveland and his new wife (Shelley Duvall!) and I’m afraid I didn’t buy Harvey Keitel, the same year as Taxi Driver, playing a meek flunky. Everyone gets uptight and embarrassed in turn, and in the end, the president refuses to hear Sitting Bull’s requests, and Newman roams his oversized quarters talking to ghosts (predating Secret Honor by eight years). This won (?!) the golden bear in Berlin, against Canoa and Small Change and The Man Who Fell to Earth.

After a tinted windowboxed flashback over classic pop music, Alice is grown up and is Ellen Burstyn, has son Tommy and real asshole husband (Billy Green Bush of Critters), who dies in a car crash in under 15 minutes. Alice wants to be a decent mom but her only skill is bar singer, and she tends to attract abusive dudes like young cowboy Harvey Keitel, so they ditch another town and she’s a waitress in Tucson when lovely Kris Kristofferson shows up – it’s a coincidence that I watched both of his 1974 movies the same month. Tommy hangs out with bad influence Jodie Foster, his mom has to deal with sardonic coworker Diane Ladd, and they both have to decide whether Kris can be trusted.

Ellen and Diane:

Harvey and his scorpion:

Not as revelatory as After Hours, but pretty great. A TV series based on this movie ran for nine seasons, I had no idea! Burstyn won the oscar, Ladd lost to Ingrid Bergman’s worst performance, and Chronicle of the Years of Fire beat it at Cannes.

The lead cops, whose casting may be holdovers from when this was first planned as a Martin Scorsese picture, get first billing, but the film belongs to Mekhi Phifer as Strike, sort of the D’Angelo Barksdale of this story. He’s a mid-level drug dude with a stern and intense boss (Delroy Lindo) whose heart (and stomach) isn’t in his work. The poor guy either executes a rival or guilts his brother into doing it, and he’s such a harmless dude that even the cops help him get away in the end. Whoever called this a trial run for 25th Hour nailed it.

Keitel and “Chucky”:

Strike tries to get himself a protegee named Tyrone, but keeps getting yelled at by Tyrone’s mom. Some Spike Lee weirdness keeps you on your toes – the climactic murder by Tyrone is foreshadowed in a VR game, and what was up with that “No More Packing” billboard with the gun in a lunchbox? Best of all is when Harvey Keitel, terrible at his job, is telling Tyrone what he should say to get off for the killing, appearing by the kid’s side in alternate-flashback versions of the events.

Showdown:

Somebody was not careful when writing character names – with only a few lead roles, why would you name four of them Ronny and Rodney, Errol and Darryl? Also funny to hear an interviewee correct the cops’ pronunciation of his name “Jesus,” with John Turturro standing right behind him.

Nice to see this at the Landmark before it disappeared onto the small screen (bragging). Quiet movie – there are long stretches with low conversations and no background music. I don’t want to say it’s too quiet, but its epic length and contemplative air didn’t resonate as much with me as others – I didn’t feel a great sadness that the hit man’s family wouldn’t talk to him and he ended up friendless, puttering around a retirement home and choosing his own casket. Still, from scene to scene, undeniably a heck of a movie. Scorsese with his Gangs of New York screenwriter. Starring all the actors I recognize, plus a few I almost do (The Captain from USS Callister as Hoffa’s foster son).

The story of Tony Revolori, who loved Saoirse Ronan and grew up to be F. Murray Abraham, told his tale to Jude Law, who grew up to be Tom Wilkinson, whose book inspired many. Zero worked with Ralph Fiennes, who slept with Tilda Swinton, who was murdered by Willem Dafoe at the behest of Adrien Brody, who framed Fiennes by threatening Mathieu Amalric and later murdering Lea Seydoux and Jeff Goldblum (and his cat). Fiennes escapes prison with help from Harvey Keitel, runs into cop Edward Norton and military concierge Owen Wilson, clears his name but sacrifices himself to nazi authorities to save Revolori and Ronan. Jason Schwartzman is a Jude Law-era lobby boy, and Bill Murray, Bob Balaban and some others are shoehorned in.

See also: what I wrote on The Wind Rises.

Stefan Zweig (Letter From an Unknown Woman) gets an “inspired by” credit. Cowritten with the guy who drew the paintings at Eli Cash’s house in Royal Tenenbaums.

Katy liked it alright. My mom did not.

Precocious children with parental issues, highly-organized secret plans and old-fashioned craftsy props surrounded by superstar actors including Bill Murray – so yes, it’s like any Wes Anderson movie, but it’s a good one. He has a unique talent for collapsing different locations into one hermetic snowglobe of a film. The visual/conceptual unity is helped by the soft, grainy 16mm cinematography, and that fact that all the action takes place on an island.

In the celeb-actor world, Frances McDormand is cheating on husband Bill Murray with local cop Bruce Willis. Edward Norton leads a troop of scouts, hopes to join his idol, scout commander Harvey Keitel, at the big convention where Jason Schwartzman is some kinda mercenary merchant. And Bob Balaban is a sort-of-present character/narrator.

But one of the movie’s strengths is that it focuses primarily on its young heroes, Sam and Suzy, who run off together and camp on the beach, leaving the celeb-actors as background players. Willis and Norton lead search parties as two threats approach: an epic storm, and Tilda Swinton of Social Services, coming to take Sam to a home.

Katy liked it more than she thought she would.

Thought I was supposed to be impressed with Jane Campion. I’ve liked her movies that I’ve seen – this, Sweetie and Holy Smoke – but I can’t say I love ’em to death. Very capably-made dramas with unique performances, nothing especially transcendent though. Maybe my expectations were too high… I’ve been hearing that this is a must-see classic important film for a decade and a half now.

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Local Georgia girl Holly Hunter, who I haven’t seen since O Brother Where Art Thou, is a mute pianist come to secluded New Zealand in the mid-1800’s with her daughter (10-year-old Anna Paquin) to marry landowner Sam Neill (the year before his finest hour: In the Mouth of Madness). Right away, Holly meets brutish tattooed native-wrangler Harvey Keitel (on a roll, in between Bad Lieutenant and Pulp Fiction). He takes ownership of her precious piano and invites her over to play, offering her it back in trade if she’ll let him touch her. Harvey is obsessed with her and a music lover, which is more than Sam Neill’s got going for him, being impatient with Holly’s muteness, her music and her daughter, so eventually Holly is sleeping with Harvey. Sam finds out and chops off her finger, then apologizes and lets her go away with Harvey to live happily as a piano teacher with a Harvey-made false finger.

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I didn’t mean to watch a bunch of oscar-nominated films from 1993 all in a row, it just worked out that way. So now I can look at the list of nominees and see how this stacked up to Orlando and The Age of Innocence, while cursing Schindler’s List and Philadelphia. At least it’s good to see that Dave and Farewell My Concubine each got a chance, and can’t argue with Nick Park winning for a Wallace & Gromit movie. Personally, in ’93 I was more psyched about Jurassic Park, In the Line of Fire, Groundhog Day, A Perfect World and Wayne’s World 2.

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So this movie, The Piano Teacher and The Pianist all contain scenes of horror and mutilation, and Shoot The Piano Player has a perfectly unhappy ending. I wonder what awful things lie in wait with The Page Turner, The Tuner and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes.