Friday, 13 January 2017

Rocco and His Brothers (Rocco e i suoi Fratelli) (1960)


Rocco og hans brødre


1960 starts off with an Italian movie, which is symptomatic for this year. As far as I can see there are four Italian movies on the List for 1960, so either Italian cinema went through a golden age or the general level was rather poor. As this is my first movie of the year that has yet to be decided. That is still the case after watching “Rocco and His Brothers”.
 
Luchino Visconti’s movie borrows into neorealist tradition by taking its departure in real and relevant issues, notably the migration of poor south-Italians to the prosperous northern Italy, but adds drama, almost melodrama to the story, which helps alleviate the dullness often associated with neorealism, but, in my opinion, it probably gets too much of that. Visconti uses the story of the everyday struggle to demonstrate some larger, philosophical issues and, as is often the case with such agenda’s, almost overplays his cards to make his points.

A discussion of the movie will be full of spoilers, so a warning right away, this review is aimed at those who have already seen it. There be spoilers ahead. For that reason I will also dispense with the summary as you will already know the story.

The movie centers on the Parondi family, consisting of five brothers and their mother. Each brother and the mother represents a value or property that is relevant for Italians. Combined they (may) represent the different directions Italy can take, though that may be a stretch. Their migration from south to north is both a very real window into a persistent issue in Italy (North versus South and internal migration) but also a journey from the past to the future.

The mother (Katina Paxinou) represents family, family at all costs. For her her family is everything. She defines her life as the matriarch of the five brother family and her prerogative is to keep the family united. What the brothers do or want is unimportant as long as they stay in the family and support the idea of a close knit family. The break-up of her family is her constant worry and when she cries and screams it is not for her sons, but what her sons do to the coherence of her family. All independence is evil. And she screams a lot! Twenty minutes in I had enough and with a sinking heart realized there was another two and a half hours to go.

Vincenzo (Spiros Focás) represents new family and is therefore a threat to the existing family. He is the first one to go to Milano and is already in the process of forming his own family when the rest of the lot shows up. The mother barges in and expects to join the party and is at once at odds with the bride-to-be’s family who will have none of that. Vincenzo has to choose and choses at first stay with his old family, but drifts back to that new family he wants to make. This is a cause of conflict with the mother.

Simone (Renato Salvatori) is a brute, a smartass who tricks or bully people to get what he wants. His motives are strictly egocentric and narcissistic and represents another classic Italian type. Visconti lets him fly high and crash, clearly letting us know that this attitude has severe consequences. Dramatically he is the bad guy causing trouble and exploiting the gullible. To the mother all that does not matter. It is a much bigger concern that he is being ostracized by the other brothers and therefore excluded from the family and he is hanging around with a prostitute, damaging the reputation of the family. When he finally kills the girl the mother cries not for the murder, but for the loss of her son.

Rocco (Alain Delon) is a saint. Everything he does is motivated by doing good and sacrifice himself in the process. This is particularly the case with Simone. Simone does what he can to exploit and dominate Rocco and in return Rocco forgives him everything and does all in his power and more to help Simone. Yet every time Rocco makes a sacrifice there is a backlash and good intent have terrible consequences. A case in point is the prostitute Nadia (Annie Girardot). She is revitalized by Rocco’s attention, but when Simone rapes her as punishment Rocco orders Nadia to return to Simone to help him because he thinks Simone needs her. The rape and being treated like an item that can be possessed and given away destroys Nadia and Simone is only the worse for her attention. Is this the Italian concept of Furbo and Fesso?

Ciro (Max Cartier) represents realism. He embraces the future, takes an education and gets a good job. He is also the one who both realizes Rocco’s sainthood and Simone’s evil and advocates practical and sensible solutions. Yet this is also a threat to the family-at-all-cost. Ciro is not about forgiving as Rocco and the mother but a mechanic or a doctor who fixes things, and who in a traditionalist world would be burned on the stake. Maybe he represents Italy’s painful transition into modernity.

Luca (Rocco Vidolazzi) is the future. He is much younger than the other four brothers and has yet to decide his path. Which of his four brothers will he follow? 

From a northern perspective the conflict in the movie can feel alien. The mother’s family at all cost is way too much, but is also very much reality in the Mediterranean context. The same is the brute and saint of Simone and Rocco and my guess is that an Italian watching this movie will get a lot more out of this relationship. 

For these reasons I had the feeling that this movie was not really aimed at me. I appreciate what Visconti was trying to do here, but from outside the cultural context it loses quite a bit of its bite and if you add to that my aversion for Italian screaming I end up being on the fence. The middle part was good, but the beginning and the end was too over the top for me.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Finishing the fifties




Finishing the Fifties

Another decade in the bag!

As of last Sunday I am done with the fifties. It has taken me two years and three month and 134 movies.

Yay!

The fifties was a formative decade that in many way formed the world we live in today. The Second World War was finally behind us and the world was looking forward again. There was growth on the horizon, at least in America where the fifties still seem to be considered a golden age, but also Europe was recovering, planting the seeds of what would eventually become the European Union, heralding an age of prosperity and peace. Yeah, for the record I am strongly pro-EU.

It was a world dominated by the East-West divide and a growing fear of what lurked on the other side. Across the pond that caused the communist scare with the blacklist of anybody with a socialist inclination, which turned out to have a massive influence on the movies produced in this decade. In Europe it marked a crossroad where the Eastern countries took a different way than the West, but also a growing social consciousness that shaped the welfare system and produced movies that defied conventions.

In the world of cinema there was one thing that stood out as the game changer: the television!

Invented in the thirties, in regular operation from the forties, television became commonly available in the fifties and changed the way average people sought entertainment. No longer did cinemas have a monopoly on movies, you could just turn on your home altar and check what was on. For the film studios that meant that they had to provide something else. Color, widescreen, massive budgets, even 3D. Things that would make the cinema experience something special, give you something you could not get at home. The result is a decade that brought increasingly impressive movies. There is nothing like pressure to invigorate an industry.

Hollywood produced some of its most famous movies during this decade and was technical and financially way ahead of the rest of the world. Europe was more like a laboratory of new ideas, often hit or miss, but usually interesting. However, surprisingly, the country that shined on the movie sky in this decade was Japan. Kurosawa, Mizuguchi and Ozu are just a few of the directors the West came to know in this decade.

Anyway, it is time to present the ten movies of the decade I loved the most. As it turned out that was a very difficult exercise. When I was down to twenty movies I had a list of movies that would all qualify and it was a painful process to reduce it even further.

Yet, ten it must be. In chronological order:

1.       Sunset Boulevard

A noir classic that never gets old. Last Sunday I went to the cinema to watch “Sing” with my wife and son and, lo and behold, it is still being referenced! Amazing movie.

2.       Singin’ in the Rain

I am not your average musical fan, but “Singin’ in the Rain” is simply the best musical ever. Not placing it on this list would be criminal.

3.       Roman Holiday

A sweet romantic comedy about a princess that falls in love in Rome, how on Earth did that make my top ten? Well, if you add that the princess is Audrey Hepburn and the script was made by Dalton Trumbo I believe you have your explanation.

4.       Rear Window

Why two Hitchcocks on my top ten? Because including every one of them would exclude everything else. I have always loved “Rear Window” and somewhere between the economy of the set and the messing with our heads this is one of Hitchcock’s best movies.

5.       The Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai)

“The Seven Samurai” may well be the best movie ever made and I love every minute of it. Kurosawa was more versatile than many people know, but this is why he is remembered as the master of the samurai movie.

6.       The Searchers

In a decade madly in love with westerns “The Searchers” stand out as grittier, tougher and more intense than any of its contemporaries. It feels modern in every sense.

7.       The Bridge on the River Kwai

Again a top movie of the decade that has stood the test of time. I watch it every few years and love it every time. How can this movie not be on my top ten?

8.       My Uncle (Mon Oncle)

This may be a surprising choice, but it was the pleasant surprise of the decade. Hulot was a master of physical comedy and “Mon Oncle” is hysterically funny. What more do you want?

9.       Some Like it Hot

Another classic that has stood the test of time. More than fifty years later this is still better than any comedy you can find in the cinema. Wilder was a genius!

10.   North by Northwest

Maybe Hitchcock’s best movie ever, certainly his most complete. This movie have to be in top ten.

 

The rest of my twenty best movies will have to be honorable mentions, but they are still amazing movies. I can recommend every one of them.

 

 To Live (Ikiru)

High Noon

Bad Day at Black Rock

The Night of the Hunter

The Ladykillers

A Man Escaped (Un Condamne a Mort S'est Echappe ou le Vent Souffle ou il Veut)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Paths of Glory

12 Angry Men

Touch of Evil

 

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Floating Weeds (Ukigusa) (1959)



Floating Weeds
”Floating Weeds” or ”Ukigusa”, as it is called in Japanese, is the last movie for me from 1959 and indeed from the fifties. This is a milestone for me and “Floating Weeds” seem to be the perfect movie for the occasion.

“Floating Weeds” was part of a series of movies Yasujiro Ozu directed as remakes of his older production. I do not know his personal motivation for these remakes, but it is reasonable to think that with the advances in filmmaking and his own improved skill he could improve these older movies. The result, in the case of “Floating Weeds”, is a visual marvel and an exercise in the directorial restraint of a master. In that sense it also represents the maturation the film industry was going through in this period and I cannot think of a more beautiful way to end the fifties.

The story is that of a troupe of kabuki actors’ visit to a small seaside town in Japan. The troupe is led by Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura) and it is soon clear that although this is not a particularly glamorous troupe it is used to bigger places than this town. The shows cannot attract more than a few people and in the boiling summer heat a lethargic feel soon falls over the literally stranded troupe.

The reason for the visit and layover is that Komajuro has a secret child with an old flame here. The boy (Hiroshi Kawaguchi as Kiyoshi) has no idea Komajuro is his father but thinks he is his uncle, coming by to visit from time to time. This is a crucial time for Kiyoshi, he is about to leave for college and that means leaving his mother, Oyoshi (Haruki Sugimura) alone. Something Komajuro, who still have warm feelings for her, is against. But how to instill paternal authority when you are just an uncle?

In the troupe Sumiko (Machiko Kyo) considers herself Komajuro’s mistress. She is disturbed by Komijuro’s secretive activities and when she finds out he is visiting his old flame she is devoured by jealousy and talk the younger actress Kayo (Ayako Wakao) into seducing Kiyoshi as revenge. As this play out we have a meltdown in the making, culminating when Kiyoshi and Kayo fall in love and elope.

The story here is not a big one, but it is also not central to the movie. Instead it is a movie about human dynamics, especially between generations, and it is in the interactions of the characters that we find the heart of this movie. Komajuro is a very nuanced character. He can be grandfatherly gentle and generous, calm and humble to his friends, but also a choleric despot when crossed. He does not take nicely to Sumiko’s shenanigans and his attempts at paternal authority does not become him. Obviously he is afraid that Kiyoshi will repeat the affair he and Oyoshi had with pains and regrets that entails, but he is also completely deaf to the wishes and dreams of Kiyoshi and this tone deafness puts him at risk at being parked in the periphery, essentially becoming irrelevant.

There are parts of “Floating Weeds” that play out as a comedy. These are for me the weakest parts and exemplify how difficult it is to communicate humor across cultures. A Japanese audience is likely to have a lot of fun here, but on me it is largely wasted. The appearance of a happy, French tune as the Kabuki troupe’s theme also threw me. What on Earth was that?

I also struggle with some of the cultural differences in the family and generation dynamics, but I do get the gist of it and as the drama develops I do get involved in the characters and for me the second half is therefore much stronger than the first half.

The acting and the cinematography however are the real stars for me. Wow, that is just amazing! Ozu build up scenes with a slow and deliberate pace and uses his famous static camera to full effect. Pictures are often beautifully framed and more often than not you could print a still and hang it as a poster. The result is sweet melancholy that penetrates the entire movie, one of calm, apathetic decline, like the first falling leaves in September. We see it in the faces and manners of the characters and their longings are their driving force, whether it is for acceptance, love, fame or peace. They all have something they want, but cannot get and that translate very well across cultures.

“Floating Weeds” is almost more a state of mind than a drama and one I am happy to have experienced. I want to watch some more of Ozu’s stuff even if it is not on the List. If “Tokyo Story” and “Floating Weeds” are representative of his work the List could have included more than just these two.

     

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Happy New Year 2017



Happy New Year 2017
It is the last day of the year and thus time for the annual status on my blog.

I wish all my readers a happy new year. May 2017 be a better year than 2016.

2016 was a year where it was difficult to be an optimist. I learned a new word: "nativism", which is about as contrary to everything I believe in as is possible. Of course the concept is not new, it has been around for at least two hundred years, but it has not coalesced like this since the forties. When you travel as much as I do and see as many people as I see it is really difficult to come to terms with the nativistic mindset and telling people they are wrong seem to have the opposite effect.

However this is not a political blog, so I can stick my head in the sand and focus on what I do here.

New Year is also anniversary time for my movie project. Seven years down the line it clocks in at 368 movies plus a few extra down the list and a handful of titles from the Danish edition. I am very close to finishing the fifties (expect a post on that topic in a few days) and a new decade beckons in the horizon.

In 2016 I watched and reviewed 54 movies from the List, which continue the downward trend. I had expected to cover a few more movies, but things did not turn out that way and a movie per week seems to be the realistic pace for me. Alas, as I keep saying this is not a race. Also I did watch and review a few movies off List.

The period covered in 2016 was 1955 to 1959, both years included and while I will return to the issue in my decade concluding post, I can say that this was a most interesting period in movies with high’s and low’s, of course, but interesting none the less. My excitement with this project is unabated.

2016 was also the second year of my book blog and after a rough start that project is now on track. My ambition of five books per year from the List holds as I am now 10 books down. It does not take a Ph.D. to figure out that it will take a medical miracle for me to complete the List, but I have no intention of doing that. It is all in the process.

Followers of the book blog will however have noticed that nothing has happened since October. That is not laziness on my side, but due to the nature of the next book on the List. Gargantua and Pantagruel is a brick ticking in at 1000 pages, which is okay, I do not mind big books, but it is also a 500 year old comedy that is not funny. Ugghh. Going is slow and it is likely to take me a few more month to get through that one.

Still, despite this late setback I enjoy the book project as well, if nothing else then for that fascinating window into times past.

I wish everybody a very happy New Year and hope that you all will have a great time tonight. I certainly intend to.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

The Hole (Le Trou) (1959)



Hullet
Prison break movies have a long history and seems to be recurrent phenomenon from the earliest of movies to this day. The List also has its share of them. But why is prison escape movies so popular? Have that story not been told enough times?

When you think about it, it is a bit odd, really. Prisoners will as a rule be in prison for a reason, so these are what we would categorize as bad people. They are in prison to a) punish them and b) keep them away from the rest of us. Then why do we root from them when they want to escape? In the case of prisoners of war the picture is simpler. These people’s only fault is that they were caught by the enemy and we can easily root for them. But what if the convicts were hardened criminals? Would we still be so eager to see them escape? The surprising answer is “yes”, though we may feel a bit disturbed by that answer. I think there is something fundamentally human in wanting to escape imprisonment and it appeals to us. Also the prisoner is the underdog against an overwhelming opponent and we like to see the weak win over the strong.

The fascinating thing about “Le trou” and the reason for this lengthy introduction is that it cuts the prison break theme into the bare bone. This is the condensed essence of this story fed directly into our veins. Five hardened criminals digging their way out of prison and I so want them to succeed.

“Le trou” is based on a novel written by an ex-convict who took part in such an endeavor back in 1947 from the infamous La Santé prison in France. The book is supposed to be a quite precise account of the events and Jacques Becker, who made the movie, was apparently very faithful to the novel. Several of the prisoners were hired as consultants and one of them, Jean Keraudy, is even playing himself in the movie, though by the name of Roland. So, yeah, this is a movie that tries to capture exactly how it was in that cell in La Santé.

Four prisoners, Geo (Michel Constantin), Manu (Philippe Leroy in the role of the author), Monseigneur (Raymond Meunier) and Roland are cell mates. They have for a while been planning their escape, when, at the opening of the film, a fifth prisoner is added to the cell. This is Claude (March Michel), a young, well-educated man charged with attempted murder. The four inmates are forced, though reluctantly, to include Claude in their plans. Then work begins and we see them, through the eyes of Claude, hammer their way through the concrete floor, explore the cellars of the prison and eventually dig a tunnel past a blockage in the sewer. This is filmed in a way to make this feel real. A simpler film may have simply shown some hard working men and then jumped forward to the completed job, but not “Le trou”. The filming is a stretched out affair lasting at least five minutes of hammering the floor a slab of actual, real concrete!). Sounds boring, but it is not. Instead it made me FEEL the work and tension and eagerness to get through that floor. It feels like real time, the release when they get through is physical, it is simply sublime. Same goes for the other sequences. This is not about being pedantic and technical, but to enable us to share the sentiment of these prisoners. I have never seen it done like this before and I am very impressed.

The character development of the prisoners is also interesting. Of the four original inmates we never learn that much detail of their background, but we learn plenty about them from the way they act and deal with the situation. They are all very well defined characters, very well developed, but never explicitly described. Again sublimely done. Claude is the exception. He seem to be less described from his actions and is often a passive observer. Instead he is the only one of which we are offered a backstory. In that sense his portrait is more conventional than the four cell mates, a detail that is worth noting.

The last ten minutes of the movie are very interesting, but it would be a complete spoiler to reveal the details. Suffice to say that it brings in a completely new dimension to the movie and although my first reaction was disbelief I soon after realized that this was a masterstroke. If this movie did not already standout, the ending places it far apart from conventional prison break movies.

“Le trou” is one of the best prison break movies I have ever watched and, albeit very different, is on par with Bresson’s “A Man Escaped”. If you ever wondered how it would be like to dig your way out of prison this is the movie to watch, but even more, if you are interested in the psychology of the wish and need to escape prison you will probably not find a better movie to watch. These people might not, and should not, last two days on the run, but you so much want them to succeed. So much.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Rio Bravo (1959)




Rio Bravo
I realize that I am starting to get overly negative in my reviews. My excuse is that I try to find both good and bad sides to the movies I watch and therefore end up with a balanced review, but I am frank enough to admit that sometimes I get carried away and swoon over a movie or get all negative and maybe that is beginning to tilt towards the negative. Maybe it that as I move forward in history the bar is increased and I expect more from the movies I watch. With that in mind I went into “Rio Bravo” thinking that this is a movie I will like, this is a movie I should say a lot of positive things about.

It did not take long however before I started thinking that maybe I had chosen the wrong movie for my reform. There are so many things here that rubs me the wrong way. Yet I should be more positive so let me start out in that mode.

“Rio Bravo” is a pretty movie. The set is clean and iconic and is filmed with style. Although we keep going around in the same sets they work pretty well and the colors are nice.

Secondly, Angie Dickinson as Feathers, a gambler girl who accidentally finds herself in the small town of Rio Bravo, is real pretty and adds a nice decorative element to the set.

Thirdly I love that Dean Martin’s character is called Dude. If I was a western character I would want to be called Dude.

That is about it though.

A major problem with “Rio Bravo” is that it is a backward gazing hodge-podge. It throws together elements and styles that generally hark back rather than look forward. As a western it is incredibly old school. A bunch of anonymous henchmen of the bad guy (John Russell as Nathan Burdette) is laying siege to a small town to get one of their number, an equally anonymous Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) out of prison. The defense of the prison is in the hands of a few good and sympathetic characters headed by John Wayne as Sheriff John T. Chance. This is like the oldest western cliché in the world. Where “High Noon” took the basic story and turned it around to something new and exciting, “Rio Bravo” turns it back into something known and predictable.

“Rio Bravo” also does not seem to take itself serious. Comedic elements are thrown in with a very loose hand, but instead of providing release and humor it dilutes the nerve of the movie and it is just not funny enough to be a comedy as such. For me a western is either gritty as hell or an outright comedy. The halfway place is a non-place.

Then there is the element of Feathers. With or without her this would have been exactly the same story. The romance between her and Chance is odd, but I can forgive that. Love is a strange fish. The problem is that it is forced and fundamentally unnecessary. The reason it is there has nothing to do with the story, but because somebody decided the story needed a love interest, because, well, the audience wants such a thing… or do they? Dickinson does a good job at being a third wheel, but that is essentially what she is.

Howard Hawks I have always held in high esteem. His back-catalogue is truly impressive. That is why I was completely baffled by the poor direction the actors are getting here. Wayne looks like he would rather be somewhere else, the bad guys look like they were picked from the extra’s queue and what was that with Ricky Nelson as Colorado, the young gunslinger? Rarely have I witnessed a worse casting. Completely unbelievable and very poorly directed. What was Hawks thinking? Again it feels as if somebody decided that this movie needed a teenage idol for the girls to moan over and to hell with it if he did not fit into the movie.

Which brings us to the songs… come on…

A hodge-podge, that is what it is. If you asked a computer to cook up a western from elements producers would think the audience would like you could get something like Rio Bravo. Disjointed and bland and insincere.

Well, all this may be less important if I enjoyed watching it, but at 135 minutes it creeps along too slowly to ever get me out of the chair and even the final show down, the piece de resistance of the movie, fizzles and never really turns interesting.

I know, I know, I promised to be positive. I am really sorry, that will have to be next time. I promise.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)



Hiroshima, min elskede
Alain Resnais is back. He was the guy with the blow to the stomach movie, “Nuit et Brouillard” and with Hiroshima as part of the title I had a fairly good idea where this was going.

I was only partly right. The first 15 minutes is indeed continuing in the same vein with death and destruction and heart breaking footage of children crying out for their parents, radiation damaging and terrible deformities. Then the movie change and for the rest of the running time it is a fictious story of two lovers in “modern” Hiroshima, a French woman (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese man (Eiji Okada) having an intense affair (both are married we learn) that evolve into a very intimate and trance-like recall of events at the end of the war. Not the Hiroshima bomb, although his entire family died in the blast, but of her lover, a German soldier, who was shot at the end of the war.

I have very mixed feelings about this movie, most notably with the strange juxtaposition of the nuclear bomb and the confession of a wartime love affair. I fully understand the need of a memorial to the victims of the bomb, both for the terrible suffering of these people and to prevent a modern repetition (actually the blast was repeated only three days later) and the strong pictures, and by all that is holy these are very strong pictures, are justified. I also appreciate the raw emotion and intimacy of the confession story. It is very arty, but I tend to like art movies the stylized dialogue is poetic, pretentious, yes, but it actually works. What does not work is the two things together.

After the gut-wrenching first 15 minutes I felt completely numbed and unable to appreciate the following story. It feels obscene to even compare her personal story to that of the thousands of destroyed lives in Hiroshima. Sure, it is very important to her, but frankly, even to her I should think that such tragedies would make her suffering seem trivial. Instead her recollection is overpowering her, associating her Japanese lover with her lost German boyfriend and she is falling to pieces before the camera. At first I could not believe what I was watching. Then I felt angry at the comparison and only near the end did I start to feel appreciation for that part of the story.

According to the extra material the theme is awareness of forgetting…

That is one of those pieces of information you need a few minutes to digest. In fact it still baffles me. The story of the lovers I read as one of catharsis, a cleansing process that is necessary for her in order to carry on with her life. That she tells the story to a Japanese lover in an impossible affair, just means that she is taking a break from reality to get this done. She will never see him again and that is where her pain should go as well.

What I do not understand is why it is her and not him who is going through this cleansing. As far as I can tell he needs it a lot more. Or maybe the whole idea is that he already had it? That being in Hiroshima is dealing with the past instead of hiding it away?

A lot can be said about the poetic style of the filming and the dialogue. It is highly stylized and is using symbols to convey its meaning. It is of a kind that you would either love or hate. Love for the poetry and hate for the sheer pretentiousness. Oddly enough I find myself more on the “love” side of that fence. Once I accept that a movie is an art movie I can put on the proper glasses and enjoy it as such. Either way you cannot ignore the massive intensity of both Riva and Okada. This is emotional porn and the nakedness is a lot more than absence of cloth. This should engage the viewer, but how can you when you are already numb?

I still need to reconcile myself with the two very different movies in this package before I can truly say that I like this movie. Maybe I am just missing the key and eventually it will come to me. Until then I will park my evaluation on hold.