Sunday, 16 February 2020

Five Easy Pieces (1970)


 
Five Easy Pieces
Finally, after weeks of lackluster cinematic nourishment, I get to watch something exciting. “Five Easy Pieces” was exactly that interesting and different an experience I was craving.

Robert Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is living a random existence. He is living with a girl, Rayette (Karen Black), whom he clearly dates for the sex and little else, certainly not what is inside her head, and works on an oilrig as a grunt. Here he has befriended Elton (Billy Bush) with whom he plays poker and bowling and occasionally screws his wife. It is pretty clear that Robert lives a life with as few hard attachments as possible and that everything is temporary. When Elton gets arrested for an old offense it is time to quit the job and Robert heads to Los Angeles to meet his sister, Partita.

Partita Dupea (Lois Smith) is a classical pianist, currently making a recoding in a studio, and we learn that so is Robert and in fact his entire family. Partita begs him to come home as their father is very ill and it is time to be reconciled. Robert first wants to go alone, but when Rayette throws a fit he agrees to bring her along, but installs her on a motel.

At the family home Robert meets Catherine (Susan Anspach) whom he makes a successful pass on whereupon Rayette shows up and everything turns sour for Robert.

What now, Robert Dupea?

This does not sound super interesting in summary, but it is. Jack Nicholson, who was a joy to watch, was perfectly casted as the drifter Robert. Behind his hard surface there is a desperate child who is afraid to commit and keeps running away instead of facing the music. As a portrait of a man who does not want to take the consequences of his actions it is brilliant. I would normally not enjoy a depressing topic like that but here it was made interesting. It helps that there is a certain wry humor throughout. Rayette really has the depth of puddle after a light rain, in the studio the technicians are exasperated when Partita starts humming horribly to her playing and so forth, but it gets very black and delicious when Rayette shows up at the family home. Robert’s escapade with Catherine is in shambles and Rayette perfectly sabotages a highbrow get-together by her sheer presence.

The best part however is the ending. Without revealing anything I can certainly say that this was not the ending I expected, but in hindsight probably the right and natural ending. What sort of resolution do you expect in a movie about a man who abhors resolutions?

“Five Easy Pieces” is a movie that looks ahead, into the seventies, with very little glamour, but excellent human portraits. As such I can certainly say I have left the sixties behind and arrived at a new modernity, a continuation from “Midnight Cowboy”.

Then, of course, Jack Nicholson is a big reason for watching this movie. He is young here (with hair) and it is before “The Shining” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” but you can already see those devilish traits that would become his trademarks later on and in fact, Jack Nicholson had already been doing movies for twelve years at this point. Not a novice at all.

“Five Easy Pieces” is a definite recommendation from me and not just because the bar on the List have been significantly lowered lately.

 

Saturday, 8 February 2020

El Topo (1970)



El Topo
It has been a poor period for my movies on the List and with “El Topo” that trend has reached a low point. In my opinion it just does not get much worse than this. I brought the movie to watch in the evenings while I am in Melbourne, but I wonder if that was such a great idea.

Going into this movie it looks like a western, but soon it became apparent that something was off. The music is weird and does not really seem to fit the pictures and what we are looking at gets strange, then ridiculous and then outright bizarre. The lead character whom I suppose is called El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky), is dressed in all black and looks like a super tough western character. Together with him on the horse is a small, naked boy. I am immediately worried that the child will get a bad sunburn, but soon I get a lot more to worry about. El Topo rides into a town where everybody has been brutally massacred, seriously “Wild Bunch” slaughtered, with pools of blood everywhere. When El Topo catches up with the culprits, it is the boy who shoots them. Seriously?

And that is just the beginning. It gets weirder and weirder and I realized that this is (again) one of those movies where the apparent narrative is secondary, even irrelevant, compared to the symbolic values. At that point I also knew that I should shift from enjoying a good movie to a highbrow analysis of all the clever symbols and messages. Since none of what I saw made any sense I went to Wikipedia, but I had to double check because the story described there seemed very different from the one I was watching and even that story made very little sense to me. Something about shooting people representing different religions…

Not understanding the symbolism (I am a bit stupid) I had to return to what I was watching, but I found no pleasure in that. Not at all. Random people got brutally killed. A western town ruled by a drag sheriff and a weird cult would kill off anything they considered degenerate although they were themselves freakish. An ultimate low was when a religious service developed into a game of Russian Roulette where every missed shot was praised as a miracle until a small boy grabbed the gun and shot himself in the head. El Topo himself becomes a monk who makes clown shows with a dwarf woman to raise money to dig a tunnel to set a group of handicapped people free. Only to see them all be killed when they arrive in town.

All this was terrible to watch. I felt disgusted and confused and angry and frankly could not wait for this horror show to end.

Among film scholars “El Topo” is considered a landmark movie, a masterpiece even. Obviously, I am not a film scholar.

My list of worst movies on the List has just gotten a new member.

  
 

Monday, 27 January 2020

Tristana (1970)



Tristana
I am starting out on the seventies on familiar ground. “Tristana” is a movie by Luis Bunuel, a director who has been a recurrent feature since the early thirties. I have lost count on how many of his movies I have watched by now, but it feels like a lot and my sympathy for them has been… varying. Bunuel for me is best when he becomes surreal and worst when he is grumpy. I would say “Tristana” is on the grumpy end of that scale.

Still, for a movie that does not seem particularly surreal, I find it hard to parse. The plot is fairly straight forward and seems to lack a point. More likely though, I simply have not picked it up.

In Toledo, Spain (a beautiful town I really must visit), Tristana (Catherine Deneuve) lives with an older man, Don Lope (Fernando Rey), her legal guardian. Don Lope is out of a noble family, but his support for the poor and his animosity against actually working means that he has lost almost his entire fortune and is getting by by selling off the family inventory. Don Lope is supposed to be an admirable man except in one respect: Women. Them he considers free game and is certain other me see them the same way. Since Tristana is a young and pretty girl (she is Catherine Deneuve after all) he sinks his fangs into her and make her not only his ward but his lover too. Fiercely jealous he bars her from even leaving the house alone and soon she is royally sick of the old man.

When she finally gets out of the house, she finds a young painter, Horacio (Franco Nero), falls in love and run away with him. Skip a few years and she is coming back to Don Lope’s house. Some illness in her leg makes her think she is about to die and so she wants to do this in his house, against the wish of Horacio. She does not die however, only loose her leg, but now she is a bitter woman and sends away Horacio, marries Don Lope, yet keeps him at an arm’s length, torments him and eventually kills him (or let him die from his illness rather than call the doctor).

So, what was the point of all this? I do not know. I had hoped that the extra material would have enlightened me, but it only went on about how great it is (as usual). Wikipedia is not much help either. My (poor) suggestions would be: 1. Treat your girl nice, she might pay you back big time. 2. Loosing a leg makes a woman bitter. 3. It is hard to get old when you lose everything you have, virility, principles and love.

In any case I am not happy with either of my interpretations and that makes me rather indifferent to this movie.

Technically it is better than most Bunuel movies. Hey, it is in color! Deneuve is as usual a sight for sore eyes and Fernando Rey is as good as ever. Toledo looks very charming (it snows in Toledo?? I had no idea.) and the filming itself is excellent.

There is just that little item about the point of this movie. There are hints that Bunuel compared the characters to himself and his own family and if that means this is sort of his family history, then that is pretty messed up.

Is this a movie to recommend? Well, die-hard Bunuel fans will likely love this movie. Me, not so much.

Friday, 24 January 2020

Finishing the Sixties



Finishing the Sixties
It is that time again, another decade in the bag.

With the review of “Kes” I am done with the sixties. This took me almost exactly three years.

When I grew up in the eighties, the sixties was generally considered the golden age of almost anything. Probably because this was our parents generation so everything from their youth we were told was so cool. In some parts of the world, particularly in Western Europe, this was a high conjecture period where everything was growing, everything got better, people got their own car and their own house in the suburbs. Optimism all round. Finally, this was not just recovery from the war, but real surplus.

Not so in all the world though. Decolonization and cold war derived conflicts seemed to get worse and worse and in our part of the world where we had plenty it could be difficult to see why we were so keen to keep other people under the boot. Counterculture, protest movements and a general rebellion against the old order was the result and out of the fire rose the world we live in today.

Certainly not a boring decade. New music, new fashion, new threats (will we get nuked tomorrow?) and new ways to live your life. And, of course, the greatest adventure of all, the space race.

It is no wonder that also cinema went through a revolution during this decade. I believe most people agree that the sixties was the end of the golden age of classic Hollywood with the demise of the studio system. Oh, big productions were still being grinded out, but it was elsewhere all the exciting stuff happened. New directors trying new things, independent producers pushing the envelope and European and Japanese directors redefining cinema. Admittedly, much of what came out of this was junk and I am particularly no fan of the French new wave, but it did pour vitality into general cinema and made it exciting.

As usual I shortlisted my 20 favorite movies from the decade (a hard pick) and selected the 10 best of them (an even harder pick, I keep changing my mind) and list them below chronologically. It is so very hard to pick the very best of them, but put a gun to my head, it would probably be “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”.

1.                 Lawrence of Arabia

One of the biggest and most glorious productions ever and one that looks magnificent even today. If this came up in the local cinema again, I would be the first in line.

2.                 To Kill a Mockingbird

The proof that a good story can make a great movie. Technically this is an okay movie, but the story it tells, faithfully, is one of the best and makes it a great movie.

3.                 What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

What do you get when you set the two greatest divas, in the autumn of their career, up against each other and let them fight it out? This is exactly as awesome as it sounds.

4.                 Woman in the Dunes

One of the most interesting stories I ever saw told in cinema. So unique and special and so fascinating to watch.

5.                 Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

What better way to tell about the threat of nuclear war than through black comedy. It is so horrifying a topic that this is almost the only way to make sense of it. Also, one of the best Kubrick movies ever. Certainly the funniest.

6.                 Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The proof that phenomenal acting can carry a movie. Four stellar performances make any other element of the movie irrelevant.

7.                 The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A contender to my shortlist for the title as The Best Movie Ever. Certainly, Sergio Leone’s best movie and maybe the best western. Everything works. Everything.  

8.                 In the Heat of the Night

If you want to see the changing world of the sixties reflected in a movie, this would be it. Zeitgeist and the new way of doing cinema combined with a great story and good acting. This is a winner.

9.                 Once Upon a Time in the West

Seems on unfair bringing in two Leone movies, but this one is only shortly behind “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and has the best opening ever.

10.             Rosemary's Baby

Did modern horror start with “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Night of the Living Dead”? I don’t know, but since “Rosemary’s Baby” is the better movie it gets a spot here.

 

The rest of my top twenty is listed below, deserving an Honorable Mention. In chronological order:

1.            Psycho

2.            A Autumn Afternoon

3.            An Actors Revenge

4.            Blow-Up

5.            Cool Hand Luke

6.            The Fireman's Ball

7.            2001: A Space Odyssey

8.            Night of the Living Dead

9.            Midnight Cowboy

10.          Easy Rider

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Kes (1969)



Kes
The last film of 1969, and indeed of the sixties, is “Kes” by Ken Loach, a director who is still very active today.

If you are familiar with the movies by Ken Loach it will come as no surprise that “Kes” is about a working-class boy in Northern England who is having a shitty life. The boy, Billy Casper (David Bradley) lives at home with his single mother and his abusive larger brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher). Short on cash, Billy has a morning job as a delivery boy for a shopkeeper before he goes to school. Everywhere Billy goes he is met with abuse and suspicion. His brother, the shopkeeper and at the school. Particularly at the school. Apparently, Billy has a past with some theft, and he does still have a very flexible attitude towards property rights, yet it is difficult not to see the abuse he is suffering as excessive.

One day Billy finds a nest of kestrels in a ruined tower. He becomes fascinated with the idea of training a kestrel and starts studying falconry. Soon he has his own kestrel in a shed at home that he feeds morsels of meat and trains to hunt.

The kestrel is obviously a metaphor for escaping the dreary life in Barnsley and the values Billy assigns to the kestrel are all those he wishes for himself. When Jud kills the kestrel as a payback for Billy making him miss a betting win it is not just the kestrel that dies but Billy’s hopes for a better life.

This is a very depressing movie. Everything stacks up against Billy. Although the movie is shot in a realistic style, the bigotry is so extreme that it even gets farcical. If not already earlier it certainly went over the top in the scenes with the PE teacher who insists on taking part of the football game as a player and a referee, bending the rules in his favor and sending off any student who dares to complain. Billy, he forces to stay in the cold shower indefinitely.  That idiot coach actually made me laugh. Another example is the school principal who is so caught up in berating the school offenders that he refuses to recognize that one of the boys were simply sent to him with a message from a teacher and whacks him on the hands as punishment.

I know the purpose of the film is for us to be socially indignant and feel sorry for Billy, but the exaggeration is so rampant that it was difficult to take it entirely seriously. I have no doubt life in those regions were miserable and that child abuse is also sadly common today, those are serious topics, but this was just too much of a no-hopes movie and misery smeared too thick.

“Kes” is heralding the style and theme that became very typical for the seventies, the social realistic drama and while I generally like seventies movies, this is a genre I can easily get too much of.

I am not sure I would recommend that to anybody but those who are thinking of moving to Barnsley or another of the industrial cities of Northern England.

Note: “Kes” lack of success in the US was attributed to the thick Yorkshire accent. Supposedly people found it hard to understand what they were saying.

And thus ends the sixties.

 

Thursday, 16 January 2020

The Color of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova) (1969)


 
The Color of Pomegranates
Readers of this blog may remember that I reviewed the movie “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” a few years ago. While that was not a bad movie, it did use stylized images and surrealism in a way that often made me loose track of the story. Now the director Sergei Paradjanov is back with “The Color of Pomegranates” where he goes even further into the direction nurtured with “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors”. Gone is any semblance of narrative or even progressive movements. Instead “The Color of Pomegranates” consists solely of a series of fairly static tableaux. There is movement in the tableaux, but it could be a woman waving her arm, a man digging or music instruments spinning on their own axis. Faces will typically look straight at the camera with no movement at all, not even blinking.

While this sounds obscure and avantgarde, I actually find that I like it better that an obscure narrative. It is a relief that there is none. I can simply sit back and enjoy the pictures instead of trying to work out who is who and why on earth they are doing what they are doing.

This is supposed to be about an Armenian poet called Sayat Nova who was active in the 18th century. This fellow is apparently very famous in the Caucasus area and even thought of as a unifying character in a divided region. Here I am at a disadvantage because I never heard of this guy before and indeed my knowledge of the Caucasus countries is very limited. I have been wanting to visit there for a long time, but not yet done so. Hence, since these tableaux are supposed to tell the life story of the poet, I merely see pictures of a boy, then a man in various scenes in Armenia.

Yet that is almost enough. The pictures are gorgeous even if I do not understand them. The scenery, the monasteries, the cloths, it is all very exotic and dream-like. This can only make me even more curious about this region of the world.

Still, you have to imagine 70 minutes of these tableaux. At some point it simply gets boring. A break helps and when I start watching again, I can get right in (no narrative to keep track of) and enjoy the images.

This is of course an art movie and the intention is of course not only to show us some pretty images. There are messages and sentiments which it is trying to convey in relation to this poet, but these are completely wasted on me. Unfamiliar as I am with the topic, I do not even know what to look for. In another movie this is likely to have made me upset or dismissive (e.g.  Mediteranee), but there was a fascinating quality to the imagery on display which made me more receptive to “The Color of Pomegranates” and I saw it less as an ordeal than I would have expected. I actually found the Making of.. feature on the DVD with a bunch of talking heads analyzing the movie duller than the movie itself.

This is not for everybody, but the sheer beauty of the imagery makes it worth a watch.

Mirror, father, mirror…

 

Friday, 10 January 2020

The Butcher (Le Boucher) (1969)



Slagteren
I have not watched Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher (The Butcher) since high school. Back then we watched it in French class, over and over, and analyzed it to death. At least that was what I thought at the time. In reality, it cannot have been that many times, but it felt that way and I remember despising the movie. While I cannot say I learned a lot of French, my talent for languages is very poor, I did learn a lot about Le Boucher.

Now, upon re-watching it many years later, I cannot recall why it was I disliked it so much. In fact, it is not bad at all.

In a small town in Perigord, France, a man, Popaul (Jean Yanne), and a woman, Helene (Stephane Audran) get acquainted at a wedding. He is the town butcher and she is school headmistress. They get friendly, he probably a bit more than her. Meanwhile, young women start to die in or near the town, always cut to pieces, never raped. Apparently two unrelated stories, except that Popaul’s favorite subject is meat, blood and death…

The reason our French teacher liked this movie so much is that it is loaded with symbols. I do not remember half of those, but they usually relate to blood, sex, death and the color red. There are caves nearby with ancient cave paintings and the score hints at something primeval and discordant. The analysis was that Popaul desires Helene (symbol of beauty and purity from Homer’s Illiad), but is constantly held off by Helene. He finds sexual release in killing girls because he has some stone age instincts that tells him to do so.

While I am fully on board with the sexual release, it is strange, but plausible, I never was able to reconcile the idea that killing girls for sexual release is a particularly caveman thing to do. I somehow doubt that this was the kind of thing stone age man went around doing. Otherwise it is a miracle humanity got anywhere. What is more likely is that primitive man is associated with animal instincts and that there is some sort of animalistic drive for violence and sex that draw on the same energy. It is a bit far-fetched, but psychotic killers are usually off the rails, so why not?

What I noticed this time round is the unique ambience “Le Boucher” manages to project. It is a melancholic tristesse combined with an ominous feeling of danger. This is strangely at odds with the idyllic and calm ambience that a cozy, small French town should project and probably why it is so unsettling.

The crime story itself works quite well, particularly the part where Helene suspect Popaul to be the murderer. There is a great moment where Helene, and us, the audience, I suppose, think she is going to be stabbed, only to find that the killer impales himself. I found that a bit anticlimactic. Had he killed Helene it would have been a different movie. Instead the crime story fizzles, and we are back with murder as a sexual release device.

A small detail I enjoyed was the outing to the caves. I am a sucker for cave paintings and those I have seen in France are mind-blowing. They are such a blast from the past, especially in real life, and as a device to conjure the primeval they are unbeatable.

This is not a bad film and definitely worth a watch. There are plenty of love stories and crime stories out there, but this is a different take on the combination of the two.