Mean Streets - Featured

The New Old: Not-So-Teenage Wasteland

Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973) – These days it’s hard to imagine a time when Martin Scorsese wasn’t the most respected filmmaker in America and even harder to imagine that he once made movies that didn’t star Leonardo DiCaprio. But back in 1973, he just was a little asthmatic film prodigy looking for a chance to prove it. He’d already directed a few award-winning shorts, one hyper-personal movie (Who’s That Knocking At My Door), one piece of schlock for Roger Corman (Boxcar Bertha) and edited Woodstock, and yet he was still bouncing around LA begging for work and getting Rodney Dangerfield levels of respect. For years he’d dreamed of making a little, personal, violent flick about his old neighborhood that would allow him to show off everything he knew about filmmaking. When he finally scrambled together enough cash to do it the result was Mean Streets, a little low-budget fire cracker made so cheaply that he couldn’t even afford to shoot most of it in New York, but yielded such impressive results that he sold it to Warner Brothers, pulled in ludicrously glowing reviews, and kicked off one of the great directorial careers overnight. Mean Streets would be remembered today for historical significance alone and thankfully it’s aged well enough that it’s not just a time capsule. It’s the first genuine masterpiece from one of the greats.

Scorsese’ s breakout movie is more of a collage of images of a time and place than anything with a guiding narrative. It tells the tale of a few Little Italy friends stumbling awkwardly into adulthood. One is a local loan shark who specializes in failed deals named Michael (Richard Romanus) and another is a seedy bar owner with a love of exotic cats named Tony (David Proval). The main characters are Charlie (Harvey Keitel) a deeply guilty Catholic struggling to reconcile his spiritual life with his debt collecting job for his connected uncle and Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro) the neighborhood nutcase who dodges debts, blows up mail boxes for fun, and fires guns from roof tops just for the sake of it. Charlie and Johnny Boy were childhood friends and that bond becomes strained over their criminal ties and Charlie’s relationship with Johnny’s cousin. Mean Streets almost feels like the beginning of a gangster trilogy for Scorsese that continued through Goodfellas and Casino. Each film inched up the ladder of the mafia’s hierarchy with the first chapter following loosely connected kids essentially playing gangster roles unaware of the lethal consequences.

More than anything else, the film remains fascinating today for capturing three major talents at the moment they were recognized. Keitel is heartbreakingly conflicted in the central role, a nice guy stuck in a world with no room for nice guys, who cracks under guilt and pressure. DeNiro is at his most rambunctious and psychotic, playing a character who shits on anyone in sight for fun with an ever decreasing life expectancy.  The performance earned him his Oscar-winning role as young Don Corleone in The Godfather Part 2, but in many ways Johnny Boy is the more impressive creation. An irrepressible wiseass and anarchist whose idiotic authority-bashing behavior may earned him respect as a kid, but costs him his life when the stakes left the school yard. Yet, the star of the show has to be Scorsese, who emerges as a fully formed stylist here. His sumptuous, expressive cinematography is already in full force as well as his skill with matching evocative images to source music (DeNiro entering a bar backed by The Rolling Stones remains one of the most striking moments of the director’s entire career). Equally assured are his ear for naturalistic dialogue and his gift with coaxing out improvised performances (a dialogue exchange between Keitel and DeNiro in the back of a bar early on was an instant classic). Compared to the slickly directed Scorsese films that would follow, Mean Streets can feel crude at times. Low budget seams can be seen in the occasionally wobbly shot, awkwardly edited improv, tinny sound recording, or unintentional jump cut. Thankfully these flaws only add to the cinema verite feel and are clearly something the director corrected immediately in his next film.

The occasionally wonky low-fi aesthetic of Mean Streets is more noticeable than ever in Warner Brothers’ new Blu-ray. Dangling lights and undercranked exposures stand out amongst what is mostly a stunning hi-def transfer. Some may be irritated by this, but for me revealing just what a rushed and by-the-seat-of-Scorsese’s-pants production this flick was, feels charming and only makes the achievement more impressive. The disc’s special features are ported over from the previous DVD and are short n’ sweet. First up is a revealing commentary by Scorsese with a few minor additions from collaborators. He opens the track by announcing that he considers Mean Streets to be less a movie than a summary of his life to that point and continues to spill out details about the highly personal production. The track sadly doesn’t cover the entire film, but it’s well worth a listen. Next up is a vintage featurette from the film’s release showing Scorsese visiting his old neighborhood and friends that’s interesting (if only for how visibly uncomfortable Scorsese seems with the whole affair), but far too brief and a theatrical trailer that prove Warner Brothers had no clue how to market the movie back in 1973. Sadly that’s it, which is a shame since Scorsese’ unreleased documentary about his parents Italianamerican was always conceived as a companion piece and should have been included. Ah well, at least Mean Streets is finally available on Blu-ray in a more-than-worthy technical presentation. If you’ve never seen it before, I’m deeply jealous. You’re about to experience one of the most underrated films of Hollywood’s artistic gold rush of the 1970s.

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The Inbetweeners: The Complete First Season (2008) – One of the sad requirements of British comedy finding it’s way to North America is that it often involves a crap US remake. With MTV about to launch a shameless rehash of The Inbetweeners mot likely to disappoint and die a slow death, the original series has finally gotten a North American DVD release. In the pantheon of British comedy, this tale of sex obsessed teenagers engaging in all forms of humiliation doesn’t exactly rank with high points like The Office. Yet judged out of in the shallow pool of teen-focused shock comedy, it’s far better written, performed, and observed than should be expected. The title refers to kids caught in-between the world of geeks and cool kids, which immediately draws comparisons to Freaks And Geeks. Don’t expect this to be as painfully honest as that show though. Nope, while there is a sense of realism this is more of a raunch and stomach-ache comedy that has a laugh count just high enough to work.

The Freaks and Geeks comparison does at least hold up to the main characters, who are a painfully awkward lot more suited to grow up and join the cast of Peep Show than Saved By The Bell: The College Years. Created by veteran Brit-com writers Damon Beesley and Iain Morris, the show clearly comes from a personal place. With four characters each playing a distinct high school type (Simon Bird’s Will is the slightly geeky everyman, James Buckly’s Jay is the requisite bullshitter, Blake Harrison’s Neil is the group’s moron, and Joe Thomas’ Simon is the most normal one, guaranteeing him extra embarrassment for spending time with the weirdos), the show has plenty of recognizable entry points for the writers to hang their cringe comedy. The standard teen tropes of first girlfriends, first cars, and bad jobs are all used, filled with plenty of destruction and naughty language to keep the kids happy. The writers have a strong enough sense of adolescence to make older viewers nostalgic and slip in jokes about inadvertently mocking the disabled or public nudity to ensure there’s plenty of offensive material to keep non-teens happy.

At times The Inbetweeners can pander to the target audience by relying too heavily on slang-as-humor or grating pop montages, but when the writers are at their best those crutches disappear (which I somehow I don’t see that being true of the US version since that’s the American sitcom’s stock-in-tade). There’s no sense in trying to misrepresent the series as being searing satire or insightful drama/comedy. Nope, this is a show designed to make you laugh at the word “bellend” and projectile vomiting and does it damn well. The characters are just well enough defined and performed to raise the material above YTV programming with swears and that’s really all you need in a teen sex comedy. This is probably one of the best examples of the genre in recent years, for whatever that’s worth.

The DVD comes along with all of the special features from the British edition including a nice making of doc focused on creators Beesley and Morris, the usual deleted scenes/outtakes collection, overlapping joke-fest commentaries on four episodes, and video diaries from the cast that eventually degenerate into Jackass style stunts egged on by each other and the creators. Overall, a fantastic set for a hilarious TV series that might not be the represent the most ambitious or intelligent comedy coming out of the UK, but is certainly one of the funniest recent Brit-coms. If this DVD is successful enough we may even get a theatrical release of the movie that broke records at the UK box office last year. So, please pick up a copy and before we all start ignoring MTV remake. We don’t want to encourage that sort of thing, no do we?

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The Last Days of Disco (Whit Stillman, 1998) – Whit Stillman wasn’t just one of the directors who helped kick off the 90s indie filmmaking movement with his hyper-articulate snob-comedies; when that brief era of low budget freedom died he was also the biggest casualty. Stilman was never suited to transition into light Hollywood fair or a career as a faceless rewrite artist. His deliberately old-fashioned character comedies were too personal and specific. When he couldn’t continue making them on his terms, he simply disappeared.  In 1998, The Last Days of Disco seemed like business as usual for Stillman, released a midst a flurry of 70s period pieces like Boogie Nights (yay!) and 54 (yikes!). In hindsight, it has become something of an unexpected swansong for the director who would disappear from filmmaking after its release for 13 long and painful, neo-Lubitsch lacking years. Looking back on it now, the film is probably the most accessible on his resume and the one hurt most by his excesses as a filmmaker, and now with it getting a long overdue re-release from Criterion, the movie ripe for rediscovery. It no longer seems like the bland talky cousin to the late 90s cinematic tales of 70s excess, but a delightful little social comedy about the birth of yuppies, the death of disco, and how to be (or not to be) an insufferable prick in your late 20s.

90s ‘It Girl’ Chloe Sevigny stars as a young, nebbish book editor living in a crap New York apartment who heads out to discos on the weekend looking for either love or just someone to grind with for a night. She’s doesn’t really have a personality suited to that world, but she’s been dragged into it thanks to her passive aggressive bitchy friend perfectly played by a young (and almost unfairly attractive) Kate Beckinsale. Beckinsale’s character is a classic Stillman creation. She’s a manipulative, cold, privileged narcissist who surrounds herself not with friends, but people who she can mock and use to make herself superior. In anyone else’s film, the character would be insufferable. In a Stillman movie, she’s a hysterical comedic creation who the writer lets speak free from any sense of self-consciousness, left open to deriding audience laughter. You’d hate all of his characters were they not so uniquely charismatic. Like all projects by the writer/director, the pleasures lie entirely in seeing the characters interact and reveal far more about their damaged little lives than they realize.

Your enjoyment of a Stillman flick comes down to your appreciation of his carefully constructed and subtly mocked social types. The dialogue is unnatural, but so well written and performed that it hardly matters. You just have to appreciate flippant lines like “I’m not an addict, I’m a habitual user” or ironic pop culture and literary analysis that both mocks and perfectly mimics post collegiate debates/intellectual masturbation. Last Days of Disco is probably an ideal Stillman entry point since it retains all of those qualities (as well as the occasional stilted line reading and alienating socially abhorrent characters), while also tapping into universal themes about struggling to find that first place in the world after college that don’t always enter into the director’s privileged social-climbing milieu. Make no mistake, his movies aren’t for everyone and his dialogue will either sound thrillingly stylized or gratingly indulgent depending on your appreciation for such things.

Criterion’s new Blu-ray looks shockingly good for a low budget effort, filled with glossy New York photography. It’s also a dialogue driven character piece though, so the high-def upgrade isn’t exactly necessary if you already have the Criterion DVD with all the same special features. The disc also contains a flippant and enjoyable commentary from Stillman, Sevigny, and Stillman regular, and now sadly semi-retired Chris Eigeman that’s packed with memories, observations, and ribbing between friends. Stillman even unexpectedly and amusingly acknowledges the snobbish nature of the movie with good humor. Also included are a few fun, but understandably deleted scenes, a vintage and all too brief making-of doc, an audio recording of Stillman’s more autobiographical novelization, production stills, and a trailer. A great package for Stillman fans as well as a perfect entry point to find out if you love or loathe the surprisingly influential dialogue-driven filmmaker.

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Check out our interview with Whit Stillman about his latest effort Damsels in Distress here!

Metroplois (Whit Stillman, 1990) – Going back even further, Whit Stillman’s debut Metropolitan was kind of like the high brow Clerks of the early 90s indie film scene. It’s also a zero-budget debut about aimless self-obsessed 20-somethings endlessly analyzing their lives and cultural minutia with a knack for verbally decimating each other. The difference is that Stillman’s world is that of wealthy overeducated Manhattanites searching for the next social gathering to define their lives rather than Jersey slackers with more intelligence than cash or ambition. Stillman is equally enamored with dialogue above action, his influences were just more routed in classic comedies. Metropolitan feels like the movie Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges may have made in the Jim Jarmusch area and that tone was so unique at the time that the film proved to be a modest hit that scored an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. That success would be unthinkable now, Stillman was just lucky enough to have his debut released during a time when there was still a theatrical audience for such material. Stillman’s influence can be felt today in the work of directors like Wes Anderson or Noah Baumbach who riffed on his style of deadpan comedy amongst pseudo-intellectuals, but there’s nothing quite like the writer/director’s tone and he never quite topped his debut, even in more polished and entertaining follow ups.

The world of Metropolitan is that of privileged early 20s children of wealth who with college now behind them spend their time waiting for debutant balls and ritzy social gatherings to define their lives through appearance. They speak like characters from Jane Austen, yet it feels very much like a put on. They are kids playing at being sophisticates because it feels like how they should be living. Even though they meet in high-minded gatherings, they inevitably spend their evenings playing childish truth games or merely picking away at their fragile egos. The movie follows Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) as he enters this society as an outsider from a lower-middle class home. His closest friend in the group is Nick (Stillman’s reigning MVP Christopher Eigeman) who mercilessly mocks the cult while simultaneously being unable to exist outside of it. Like all of Stillman’s work, some of the dialogue can feel overwritten and some of the actors have trouble wrapping their tongues around it, but for the most part Metropolitan holds together well. It remains his best movie because despite the how specific and foreign the environment can feel at times, the themes of youthful alienation and class struggle are universal and an easy means to discover this world. It’s also damn funny and mocks the silly society of manners and their useless rules in case I haven’t made that clear. You will laugh, I promise.

Criterion’s new Blu-ray gives Metropolitan the best technical presentation the film has ever received, but given the low-budget 16mm origins it can only look so good. The transfer is faithful and the low-fi aesthetic combined with a highbrow world was always part of what made the movie so intriguing. Special features are carried over entirely from the old Criterion DVD, but at least they are strong, featuring ten minutes of outtakes, strange footage of alternate casting (including possibly the most unexpected Lloyd Kaufman cameo in film history), the trailer, and a fantastic commentary with Stillman, Eigeman, Taylor Nichols, and editor Christopher Tellefsen who cleary share a collective nostalgia trip. A film for anyone who loves classic, sophisticated, dialogue-driven Hollywood comedies and 90s Sundance hits. Sure, that’s not a wide audience, but those people will love it.

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Down By Law (Jim Jarmusch 1986) – Jim Jarmusch has been one of the most reliable oddball outsider voices in American movies for almost 30 years. He’s so committed to remaining independent from any form of filmmaking system that he actually insists on personally owning the negative to his movies and sells only for distribution. That militantly strict filmmaking code ensures that idle years will pass between projects while he struggles to make that magic deal every time. On the plus side, it means he’s in charge of home video rights and tends to favor the folks at Criterion for their sweet, sweet reverential ways. Criterion has also been so kind as to start transferring his movies into the HD world and their latest Blu-ray release is Jarmusch’s underrated second feature Down By Law. He was an indie darling when he made the film with the shot-on-loose-ends Stranger Than Paradise having earned him praise worldwide. Any follow up would have been met by hungry naysayers anxious to announce failure. Down By Law was fairly well received when it was released, but looking back now the film looks like it’s easily one of his finest outings that never really got the recognition it deserved.

As standard for any Jarmusch flick, the plot is minimal. Tom Waits plays a DJ down on his luck that’s booted out of his house by his girlfriend and ends up talked into a stupid job by a seedy hood that lands him in prison. Early Jarmusch collaborator and New York fixture John Lurie plays a pimp with ambitions that also lead him in the slammer. The pair are uneasy cellmates that turn into a trio when an Italian tourist played by the one and only Roberto Benigni (never better than when applying his manic energy to a lethargic Jarmusch movie) joins them in their cell. They all bicker, form a friendship, escape, and then wander the bayou. That’s pretty well it, but this filmmaker’s movies aren’t typically about big stories. The man who described his first feature as “The Honeymooners directed by Ozu” is more interested in throwing actors defined by strong personalities together and watching them bounce off each other while soaking up atmosphere of evocative American landscapes and music through artful cinematography. Down By Law plays to all the filmmaker’s strengths.

Waits, Lurie, and Benigni are a hilarious combination of personalities, almost like an arty Three Stooges for hipsters (back before that became a dirty word wrapped in tight jeans) who could have easily gone on to be a recurring comedy team. Jarmusch teams with ace cinematographer Robby Muller for the first time and the monochrome black and white images of a decaying New Orleans they created are simply astounding. There’s a sadness to the visual language that clashes and mingles with the comedic performances in a fascinating way. Throw in a Jazz score by Lurie and songs by Waits and you’ve got yourself one hell of a slice of entertainment for the art film inclined. Criterion’s technical presentation is pretty mind blowing, offering depth and clarity that the film may not have even received in its theatrical release. In a film this stylized, that’s reason enough to buy the disc. That’s a good thing too because all of the special features are left over from their decade old DVD. Granted, it’s an exhaustive set of interviews, music videos, Q&As, and phone conversations between Jarmusch and the cast that would be impossible to top, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Unless you despise the arty comedy of Jim Jarmusch, this thing is a must buy.

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