Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Harakiri (1962)

Off-List: Harakiri
For the second time in 1962 I am leaving the List and adding an entry of my own. Again it is a Japanese movie, “Harakiri” by Masaki Kobayashi, and again the theme is the samurai of feudal Japan. Thank you to Bea for recommending this one. There were times during the viewing where I was doubting your judgement but it did win me over. This is a tough movie to watch, but also an intelligent and beautiful movie.

“Harakiri” takes place in 1630 at a time following the civil war period where the shogunate is so firmly established that the need for warriors has all but disappeared. Where the samurai warrior caste had their glory days during the civil war, they are now practically useless. A practice has started where unemployed samurai, ronin, will approach the compounds of leading clans and ask to be permitted to commit ritual suicide, seppuku, in their attendance in the hope to be turned away with some money or be employed through their show of commitment to Bushido, the warrior code.

When Tsugumu Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai) shows up at the Iyi clan and ask to do seppuku in their forecourt, the master of the compound, Saito Kageyu (Rentaro Mikuni) is exasperated by yet another one and decides to tell him the story of the previous applicant in the hope of deterring him. The story is about a young samurai called Chijiwa Motome (Akira Ishihama) who came asking doing seppuku. Instead of turning him away with money they decided to take him on the word. This will generate respect for the Iyi clan and deter other beggars. It is soon clear that Chijiwa has no intention of committing seppuku, that he was merely a beggar. Even his swords are just for show, they are made of bamboo. Still Saito is showing no mercy and forces Chijiwa to commit seppuku on his bamboo swords, a gruesome sight.

This does not deter Tsugumu, but as they prepare for the ritual Tsugumu is holding off the procedure by telling the assembled retainers a terrible story. One that will turn the story upside down and tear the bushido code and samurai pride to pieces.

Chijiwa’s seppuku is a very graphic and truly horrible affair. Not pleasant at all. Yet the true horror is the fate of Tsugumu’s little family, especially the sickness and death of his grandchild, the toddler Kingo. This is heartbreaking in the extreme, but not played for sentimentality. At this point I was wondering if I really wanted to watch this.

Still, the message is so clever and subtle in the way it is introduced as well as brutal in its finale. The samurai pride that all samurai are trained to value and the Iyi clan is representing is just bullshit compared to the raw necessities of life. Providing for your family, treating sick children, being able to get work, that is what is important, this is what creates value. Who cares a flying fart about a samurai’s stoic pride in the face or hardship? The Iyi are exposed as the hypocrites they are and shown that they live on a lie. Something I suppose was sinking in in postwar Japan. Certainly it is easy to find parallels in contemporary Japan with jobseekers facing the big zaibatsu conglomerates with their ideals and work codes.

The impression that lingers though, is the beauty of the pictures, many of which are so serene that they are almost stylized. When an entire group of samurai are sitting entirely still in an immaculate courtyard surrounded clean-lined Japanese architecture it feels like a representation of Zen, of perfect balance and order. Yet outside samurai reality the real world is a chaotic place and when the two crash the visual impact is astounding. Often I felt that I could just stare at the images and enjoy them and be happy with that.

Thank you again, Bea, for introducing me to this movie. It is really a movie like no other and one that I am very happy to have seen.  

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Lolita (1962)

Lolita is one of those very loaded names that bring up very strong connotations. Almost anybody will think of an underage girl having a sexual relationship with a much older man and nobody would use that name except to bring up that specific association. I never saw “Lolita”, the movie, before, but I knew exactly what a Lolita is.

I have mentioned before that to me true horror is abuse of children and pedophilia is one of the worst kinds of abuse. Knowing that “Lolita” would very much be about pedophilia I was not exactly looking forward to this movie. However, Stanley Kubrick is usually good and if anybody can get away with it, he is the man.

He almost did get away with it.

Kubrick turned the focus away from the pedophilic elements and instead made a movie about fools. That makes the story more palatable and even fun, but it is also a very bittersweet movie.

A man with the unlikely name Humbert Humbert (James Mason) rents a room in a house in New Hampshire. Humbert is a professor in literature, British and very well mannered. Next to him the locals, living up to every stereotype Europeans have of Americans, look foolish and simple. A case in particular is the landlady, Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters). She is loud, crude, entirely tasteless and desperate for another man in her life. Professor Humbert quickly becomes her target. Humbert most of all looks like a guy desperate to get out of her clutches until he sees Charlotte’s underage daughter, Lolita (Sue Lyon). It is love at first sight for Humbert and if he has to work through the mother so be it.

This soon becomes a very unhealthy infatuation and when the pedophile screenwriter and local celebrity, Peter Quilty (Peter Sellers) also notices and desires Lolita, things spin entirely out of control.

I mentioned that this is mainly a movie about fools. For a large part the Haze mother and daughter and indeed the entire community play the roles as fools. Humbert does not go so far as to mock them, but he does not have to. Next to him they all look primitive and foolish. That Humbert plays Charlotte to get to Lolita just emphasizes this. Peter Sellers with his trademark impersonations steps up the fooling element, both because he fools Humbert and because he simply is that far out. Image Dr. Strangelove appearing in a romantic drama and you got the picture. It is almost too much.

However the biggest fool is Humbert himself. He is fooling himself to think that he can have a relationship to an underage girl. Even as it becomes painfully apparent that they have absolutely no common ground and she can only see him as a father and barely that, does he persist. He simply refuses to accept the idiocy of it, it not the appropriateness. Only at the very end does reality catch up with him and as it does, it destroys him.

I admit that it is fun to watch idiots exposed. There is wry humor to that, but here it is strangely juxtaposed to the horror of pedophilia. Humbert is a sad character and Quilty, behind the crazy stunts, is quite a monster. I am not sure these are things to be made fun of and I feel quite guilty for liking the movie. It certainly walks a tightrope and I am not sure it always keeps the balance. Kubrick would later return to this awkward balance between the inappropriate and the entertaining, so I supposed it fascinated him. It certainly makes for interesting and different movies.

It is too soon for me to pass judgement on “Lolita”. The fun and the bad taste in my mouth are still struggling for supremacy. Time will tell where it tips. Still there is no doubt that Kubrick gave himself an almost impossible task and got away with it better that almost any other director would.


Monday, 4 September 2017

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Kandidaten fra Manchuriet
I did not expect to be blown away by ”The Manchurian Candidate”. I really did not, but I was. I had no idea they produced something like this in 1962. Wow.

Tight pacing, brutal violence and twisted plots are stables today, but not back then, not to this extent, and that was only the beginning. I am not sure how to describe “The Manchurian Candidate”, but something like a modern action thriller that happens to be 55 years old and in black and white would probably be a good approximation.

To explain the plot is to give away the surprises, so I will try to be gentle. In fact I did not understand what went on to begin with and that, I think, is intentional. During the Korean war an American patrol is betrayed by its Korean guide and taken away in Russian helicopters. A war hero, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), returns to a grand reception, which is usurped by his mother (Angela Lansbury) and his stepfather, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) for political promotion. Raymond hates his mother and immediately leaves for a newspaper job in New York rather than being her trophy. Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) has recurring nightmares of attending a New Jersey gardening lecture only to have the guests turn into Russian and Chinese top brass and featuring Raymond Shaw coldly killing two of his men, with Marco unable to interfere.

Where does this all lead to? I can say as much as this includes communist moles, ugly politics, insane McCarthy’ism and people who are not what they seem. Sometimes they do not even know themselves what they are.

The theme of McCarthyism is particularly interesting. In 1962 America was slowly recovering after the onslaught of McCarthyism. Blacklisted writers were slowly coming back and while the Communist scare was by no means over a somewhat more realistic outlook was taking hold and it was possible to look back on this era with a critical eye. Senator Iselin is clearly a McCarthy caricature. Ignorant and boisterous he was able to cash in on the Communist scare by claiming that the US government was infested by Communist agents. While presenting Iselin as a clown and his accusations as foolish and damaging, the center of the story is exactly Communist infiltration with dangerous agents. A very interesting contraction, but quite logical when you think about it. Would infiltrating agents really go around as party card holders, publicly announcing their stand?

Another interesting element is the sheer violence displayed. Here is a movie, fifty years before Game of Thrones, that is not afraid of killing principal characters. You sit there thinking, he is not going to kill him/her/them, no way, but he does and callously so. It is quite shocking because it is so unexpected. And that is where the gravity sinks in. This is not for children.

You cannot discuss “The Manchurian Candidate” without mentioning the excellent casting and performance of the lead actors. Sinatra is always good, nothing new there, but Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury are phenomenal. Harvey turns cold as a fish and can be both determined and dazed with conviction and Lansbury is one of the all-time meanest mother figures and pulls it off. It is a crowded field of bad mothers in Hollywood productions, but she is up there.

Still the winners are the tight pacing and the script that combine to keep the suspense level high and give the movie a uniquely sinister feel. This is a movie that managed to keep me on the edge of my seat, literally.

It is not perfect, though. As often happens some of the steam comes off towards the end as the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. It is as if without the mystery element the movie is reduced. Mrs. Iselin is best when we suspect, rather than when we know. The movie is rushing toward a resolution that seems too cheap considering what we were promised. There are larger mysteries here, at least potentially, that I feel cheated from. It is not enough to ruin the movie and I could throw the same accusation at half the productions coming out of Hollywood today. Still it is such a shame, this is so close.

“The Manchurian Candidate” was remade in 2004 and no surprise there. This is an exciting story begging to be reused by a Hollywood down on ideas. I have not seen that one and frankly I do not need to. The original is easily good enough. Even today.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Dræb ikke en sangfugl
Back in the nineties I was very much into music, particularly British music, and one of the bands I liked was The Boo Radleys. Their music was pretty awesome and they had this odd name that I never really figured out. Now of course I know. Boo Radley is a character in “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

I always get nervous when I encounter a movie aimed at adults, but featuring children. My worry is that the movie will feature child abuse or hurting of children (which of course is child abuse). This is a topic I truly abhor and cannot stomach, but “To Kill a Mockingbird” uses children differently. They are the observers. It is through them and their, as adults, memory of times past, we are told the story. I found that charming and the naivety of that viewpoint works very well for the movie.

Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford) are two children living in a small town in Alabama in the thirties. Their father (Gregory Peck), whom they call Atticus rather than father or dad, is a lawyer and a very honest and decent man. Their mother is dead so Atticus raises the children himself with the help of the housekeeper Calpurnia (Estelle Evans).

The children idolize their father and watches him take care of his job with bemused wonder. As for all children there is a deliciously scary monster down the road, the dim-witted Boo Radley (a very young Robert Duvall) and he is like the most exciting thing in town. When the boy Dill (John Megna) arrives, he challenges the children to further adventures.

That happens soon enough. Atticus is designated defense for Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) who stand accused for raping the daughter of Bob Ewell (James Anderson), Mayella (Collin Wilcox), a local farmer. The children witness their father stand down a lynch mob and sneak into the court room to watch him defend the man. It is very clear that Tom is innocent, that Mayella was violated by her own father and Atticus is a good lawyer. There is just one little, but important catch: Tom is black and Mayella is white. Sadly, that decides the outcome. This is a wakeup call for the children who gets to see an ugly side of life and their very lives are now in danger.   

I do not think it is a coincident that the book and the movie were released at this time. There is a conflict in the nostalgia for a time gone and the brutal injustice of that same time that very well represented the early sixties. I bet it raised questions that hurt and was only able to be raised then, but did it so in so gentle and naïve a manner that you do not turn away from it. In a way the cruel injustice is more effectively displayed here than many later stories that serve it right in your face.

The way I watch movies is by chopping them into pieces so I can watch them in my breaks, but it did not work so well with “To Kill a Mockingbird”. I could not release it and the chunks got a lot bigger than I intended to. The fascination of those children extended to me and I could not let it go. That does not happen very often and it says a lot about the movie.

Scout and Jem were not annoying as most children on film are and Gregory Peck’s Atticus is the most sympathetic guy of the decade. In Game of Thrones he would not last five minutes. These are people you want to spend your time with. Juxtaposed we find the most despicable redneck scum imaginable and you wonder how this is possible in the same town.

I can only recommend “To Kill a Mockingbird”. These are two hours of your life you will not regret. And Boo Radley? He may be a lot more than the town monster if given a chance. Why, he may be your friend.


Friday, 25 August 2017

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence af Arabien
What a gorgeous picture!

“Lawrence of Arabia” has a bit of a reputation so I went out of my way to get a blue-ray version of it and watched it on a high definition screen.

Oh, my…

I think for the first ten minutes of the movie I could think of nothing else but how beautiful this movie looks. The 70 mm film that has used to shoot it gives stunning pictures and the editing is simply world class. Of course it help when the desert landscape offers brilliant panoramas and visuals and colors like few other places. But this is just amazing.

“Lawrence of Arabia” is one of the great films of movie history, one of those everybody knows of, but, sadly, few people these days have actually seen. I, myself, watched it so many years ago I actually only remembered the ending scenes in Damascus. It is the story of a real character, T.E. Lawrence, in the movie represented by Peter O’Toole, who was a British officer sent out to scout the Arab leader Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness), but ended up leading the Arab tribes in a revolt against the Turks.

Whether or not this is a correct historical representation of the event I have no idea and that is actually only of minor importance. It does lend it a story arc that is unusual as reality rarely follows a script. This is most evident in the climactic scenes, which do not resolve anything. Not for Lawrence personally and not for the Arabs in general. The victory in Damascus is a Pyrrhus victory that finally deflates Lawrence and demonstrates how the Arab revolt may win the war, but is unable to win the peace. So much for the Hollywood happy ending.

Up to that point we follow Lawrence in his love affair with Arabia. Lawrence demonstrates both an understanding of Arab culture clearly absent from the British officers in Cairo, and a naivety on the harshness of the same culture, war in general and the duplicity of his British allies. He is both the best and the worst suited person for his role. An intellectual dreamer facing the brutal reality. We as viewers share his dilemma. We see the exotic beauty and the brutality. We love him and despise him. We understand him, yet he remains an enigma. This is all testament to the brilliance of “Lawrence of Arabia”.    

Yet its brilliance is also its problem. With so magnificent pictures, a scope this large and a technical prowess of this scale it is easy to forget that “Lawrence of Arabia” is a movie from 1962. I inevitably measure it by modern standards and in that light the acting is sometimes hopelessly overdone. This is especially the case with Peter O’Toole. His is often theater acting, exaggerated as if to a live audience. It is jarring, but in those days it was perfectly normal. Heston was far worse in “Ben Hur”. Even Kirk Douglass in “Spartacus” did it.

Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal and Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi are odd choices in brown-face, but they both get away with it. Guinness still sounds very much like Alec Guinness (or Obi Wan Kenobi), but Quinn entirely disappear in his character. Perfectly cast however is Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali. Being Egyptian there was no need for brown-face there and he blends more seamlessly into his role than his British counterparts. This was the role that catapulted him into stardom and it was deserved.

Just last Monday I was Allenby road in Tel Aviv, only now I know who that fellow actually was. Jack Hawkins as General Allenby was impressive, yet it was tiny Claude Rains who kept stealing the picture. I always imagined him as an American actor yet here he is perfectly British, the quintessential quiet, grey manipulator.

In a sense “Lawrence of Arabia” has never ended. The Middle East is still an unruly place where tempers run high and violence is never far away. Damascus is again a war zone and again and again the locals here demonstrate much better skill and fighting wars than winning peaces. It is a sad, but true note to end the film on.   

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

The Eclipse (L'Eclisse) (1962)

Ukendte Nætter
L’Eclisse is the third movie in a series by Michelangelo Antonioni that started with L’Avventura and La Notte. It is not immediately apparent that this is a trilogy, there is no continuing story or overlap in characters, but thematically they are quite similar. They all deal with emotional emptiness.

When you read a synopsis describing a movie as inaccessible and without a logical plot it is usually time to get worried and I was, going into this one. This is not what I normally look for in a movie. Fortunately I had already watched the other two movies so I was acclimatized to Antonioni’s particular style and with that synopsis I feared the worst and that is actually a good place to be. It can only get better than expected.

I actually found it more coherent than the previous two movies. It did not feel as if the movie was searching, but missing, a storyline, because it did not pretend to have much. Instead it was full of impressions, pictures expressing that particular emotion the movie seeks to convey. That is much less stressful for me as I do not have to try to make sense of what I am watching.

Monica Vitti is back as a woman, Vittoria, who is breaking up with her boyfriend, Riccardo (Francisco Rabal). We have no idea why, but apparently they have been talking or arguing all night. Vittoria is determined to end this, but Riccardo is more reluctant. Leaving Riccardo, Vittoria is entering a vacuum. Her apartment is empty. Her modern neighborhood is cold and sterile. For a while she fills up the space with two friends, dreaming they are in Africa, but it is just that, an escape.

Vittoria’s mother is playing with money on Rome’s stock exchange and as Vittoria go there to seek out her mother (Lilla Brignone) we are introduced to that crazy place. This is a hectic and surreal place where money is made or lost in minutes and everybody are leaning on a heart attack. It is here Vittoria meets Piero (Alain Delon) and somehow they start hanging out together.

Piero completely embraces consumerism. He lives in the present, concerned with work, buying things and doing what he wants, when he wants it. Not an unpleasant guy at all, but very different from the hesitant and thoughtful Vittoria who has no idea what she wants and who seems to second guess herself in anything she does. It feels like archetypical man and woman profiles and that may be intended. She soon gets frustrated with him because he seems shallow and he gets frustrated with her because he cannot figure out what she wants. It is a wonder they are still together at the end of the movie.

Speaking of which, the movie is famous for an ending entirely without the two protagonists. That was not as special as the hype made it, but did serve effectively to underline the empty waiting that Vittoria experiences.

I think limbo or emotional vacuum is the overriding theme of the movie, even more than in the previous movies. You can fill up your life with money, work or consumption, but is that enough? Can you love someone, or force yourself to love someone and have that fill your life? All these people are clearly lacking something.

Maybe it is just me who is a bit naïve, but looking at these three movies there is something missing in all of them: children. To name procreation as the meaning of life is a little too biological even for me, but from personal experience I can definitely say that getting children of your own gives plenty of purpose, one way or the other. That may be what these very modern Italians are missing.

L’Eclisse is a beautifully made movie with every picture thought out and full of details. Technically the stock exchange scenes are brilliant and they capture the primal energy perfectly. As does the soundtrack that must have inspired countless later movies. A detail I liked very much was the juxtaposition of very new and very old, but then again, that is Rome.

This is not a movie I would recommend to everybody, but if you know what you are going into, you will not be let down by this one.


Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Sanjuro (1962)

Off-List: Sanjuro
As I will be doing a few times in 1962 I am moving off-list to review movies that should have been included. This, the first one, is Akira Kurosawa’s “Sanjuro”.

“Sanjuro” is the sequel to “Yojimbo”, which I reviewed off-list for 1961. It is again a strong movie, but to put it bluntly, not up there with “Yojimbo”. It does all the right things and on its own I love it, but the problem here is that is it a sequel and as such suffers from some of the usual problems with sequels. First and foremost that Yojimbo is a damn good movie and very difficult to match. It simply pales in comparison. Secondly, it is a bit too obvious that with Toshiro Mifune’s character, the ronin Sanjuro, Kurosawa had found a winning formula that had to be explored/milked for what it was worth. That always leaves me with a bitter taste.

Having said that, there is no doubt that “Sanjuro” is a great movie. I did have a great time watching it, even if I expected more.

While the ronin character is the same, the plotline is a bit different from “Yojimbo”. This time Sanjuro walks into a feud between a decent chamberlain and a corrupt superintendent. Not two groups of warring gangsters, but a good side and a bad side. The chamberlain’s supporters have been complaining about corruption and in the process brought the chamberlain’s life in danger. Sanjuro now joins the supporters in their effort to free the chamberlain and get back at the corrupt superintendent Kikui (Masao Shimizu).

Trouble is, these supporters are complete clowns. They may be samurai with top-knots and swords and everything, but they act like confused geese.  Without Sanjuro they would have been completely lost. When they act on their own advice they get in trouble, but when they follow Sanjuro’s advice they accomplish remarkable things.

Sanjuro is the same lonely ronin from “Yojimbo”. Crude, impolite, but with his heart in the right place. Oh, and a totally awesome swordsman.  The main difference from “Yojimbo” is that Sanjuro is now more concerned with preventing death rather than causing death, even among the bad guys. Not that it really stops him when it is necessary, he still kills with lightning speed, but with a regret that he did not have in “Yojimbo”.

It is also clear that “Sanjuro” is a lighter movie than the dark “Yojimbo”. A movie between good and bad guys have one side pegged as the winners from the beginning. It is never really brought in doubt. When Sanjuro gets in trouble it is never serious trouble and there are a number of places where we are encouraged to laugh, especially of the nine clowns Sanjuro is helping.

The movie works, it is funny when it wants to be and dramatic when it aims in that direction, but I guess I miss that darkness and gritty ambience that “Yojimbo” had. You could still laugh at “Yojimbo”, but it was a more cynical laugh, a bitter laugh. In “Sanjuro” there is no bitterness left, instead you laugh at them clowning around. However I have to give it that the ending is the most awesome one I have seen in year. If you have not seen it I will not ruin it, only say that it is spectacular.

I hope I have not given the impression that “Sanjuro” was a poor movie, because it is not. It just had some pretty big shoes to fill and I would happily watch it again. After revisiting “Yojimbo, that is.