Saturday, 21 October 2017

The Exterminating Angel (El Angel Exterminidor) (1962)

The Exterminating Angel
Bunuel, Bunuel, Bunuel…

Based on the number of entries Luis Bunuel got on the List, he must be one of the most important directors ever. Unfortunately I have yet to recognize his genius. When he is best he is okay but his standard level seems to be a bit below that.

For “the Exterminating Angel” (“El Angel Exterminador”) Bunel is going back to his surrealist roots. On the face of it this movie makes little sense and even in symbolic form this is a difficult movie to chew. A group of wealthy people, men and women, are having a dinner party. The staff is in a hurry to leave and only one waiter stays back. The dialogue at the table and afterwards in the salon appears disconnected and non-sensical. None of the guests want to go home and eventually the guests (and hosts) realize that they cannot leave the room.

Meanwhile nobody is able to enter the villa. It is as if a force field prevents the guests to leave and the outside world to enter. Few of the guests are actually desperate to get out, but as time goes they degenerate from their polite and cultivated façade to a far more basic and aggressive level. The conversation starts making more sense, but their situation does not. Several times in the course of the movie we see a group of sheep and a bear.

Halfway through the movie I decided to check what Wikipedia says about it. There I learned that the villa is supposed to be the country of Spain, and that the dinner guests are the elite in Spain. They have been isolating the country since the Spanish Revolution in the thirties and by the early sixties the isolation is, according to Bunuel, causing the elite and the system in Spain to degenerate.

It helps with such a clue. Large parts of the movie now makes at least symbolic sense, such as the sheep, which is supposed to be the innocent public, while others remain obscure.

Bunuel was a notorious anti-fascist and this interpretation sounds very much like him. When we near the end also get an isolation of the Church Bunuel gives us his second enemy, the catholic church.  

In my opinion movies have to be careful about using symbols and certainly surrealist elements in order for the viewer to be able to relate to the story, or alternatively go all out on surrealism, so if nothing else at least it is funny. “The Exterminating Angel” lands somewhere in between. This makes some of the discussions and actions quite bizarre, but not strange enough to be amusing. Getting the clue for the interpretation helps a lot and even if I did not understand it all it, it got a lot better with that understanding.

“The Exterminating Angel” is not on my Danish version of the list and I do not know if it was part of the original list or if it was added in the big revision. In any case its status as an uncertain entry makes sense and I think we are here talking the lower part of the Bunuels movies.

I came back from China this morning and did not sleep all night. It is payback time now and I doubt this review will rate higher than the lower part of my reviews.



Monday, 16 October 2017

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Manden der skød Liberty Valance
It has been a while since my last post. The past two weeks I have been having my “summer” vacation with my family, going to both Denmark and Thailand. I cannot say I really missed watching movies, sitting there by the pool in Hua Hin, but now I am back (and actually already left for my annual business trip to Beijing) I cannot wait to get going again.

Today’s movie is “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, a John Ford movie with an all-star cast. Unsurprisingly this is a western and although I am not a big fan of the genre I was looking forward to this particular movie, largely due to the cast. We get John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles and in a secondary role, Lee van Cleef. This just cannot go wrong.

Yet I was somewhat underwhelmed by this movie.

In a genre that indulges in its clichés and stereotypes this movie goes two or three steps too far in that direction. Let me start with the cast itself:

John Wayne is simply being John Wayne. I Know, I know, John Wayne is rarely actually acting (“The Searchers” being a notable exception), but here is he is being the cliché of John Wayne. He stands, talks, moves and has the opinions and sentiments of how we think of John Wayne. Why John Ford called the character Tom Doniphon and not just John Wayne is beyond me. Jimmy Stewart as Ranse Stoddard, a newly arrived lawyer from the East, is also essentially being Jimmy Stewart. His character is a combine of the most archetypical Jimmy Stewart characters to the extent that I see Jimmy Stewart and not Ranse Stoddard there, on the screen. 

The story is that of the taming of the west. The (no-named) area around the town of Shinbone has already been possessed by ranchers and is now going through the next phase, the transition from open range cattle farming to that of the homesteaders. Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) is a local gunslinger, who represents the jungle law of the ranchers while the newly arrived lawyer Ransom Stoddard represents the “civilized” rule of the law. In between these is the character of Tom Doniphon. He is the tough, self-relying and confident rancher type, but he is also friendly to the new homesteader group, not least because he has his eyes set on Hallie (Vera Miles), the daughter of two Swedish settlers. Tom believes in the power of the gun and seems to be a better match against Liberty Valance (at least in his own head) than the bookish Ranse who appears hopelessly unsuited for the jungle law. Yet the core of the movie is Ranse versus Liberty, anarchy versus law, territory versus statehood, ranchers versus homesteaders.

It sounds like a story we have heard before, a few times actually, and with the characters outlined, hopelessly cliché. But placing Tom Doniphon there in the middle, something different happens and this is where “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is best. In the black and white struggle Tom is something as unusual in a western as grey. Tom is the loss of the wild west, the remembered freedom and the sacrifice for progress. John Ford said that although this is a fight between Stewart and Marvin, John Wayne is in fact the central character. I am not sure this is enough to lift the movie into being something special, but it helps.

I have a feeling a movie like “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is better loved in America than outside. It seems to tap into a lot of cultural references that are uniquely American. In this sense it feels a bit like “Mr. Smith goes to Washington”. Personally I never got the idea that you are only a man when you can stand up to your enemy with a gun.

Still as westerns go it is probably not too bad. Time flies well, there is a good pacing and plenty of action. If this makes you tick I suppose you could do worse.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Keeper of Promises (O Pagador de Promessas) (1962)

O Pagador de Promessas
Religious movies, or movies with strong religious themes, are often problematic for me to watch. Not because I dislike them, though I sometimes do, but because I feel they are talking past me. Like watching a movie referencing a culture I am not familiar with. Oh, I know about religion of course, but there are numerous concepts that only a true believer or one deeply embedded in the culture will truly understand.

And so a movie like “O Pagador de Promessas” or “Keeper of Promises” is aimed at somebody else than me and I am a bit sidelined with only a partial understanding of what is going on.

A man, Ze (Leonardo Villar) arrives in Salvador, Brazil, with a huge cross on his shoulder and his wife in tow. It is the middle of the night and the church, which is their destination is not yet open. Ze and his wife, Rosa (Gloria Menezes) have walked all the way from their village to keep a promise to Santa Barbara. When Ze’s donkey fell ill only prayer to Santa Barbara worked and to give thanks Ze has promised to bring this huge cross to Santa Barbara’s church in Salvador.

Fairly simple, right? Or so you should think.

It turns out to be way more complicated. When the priest (Dionisio Azevedo) arrives, he will have none of it. The primary reason being that Ze actually made the promise to someone called Inanza, or something like that, in a witchcraft ceremony. In that particular sect Inanza is an incarnation of Santa Barbara and the witchcraft and catholic church are there meshed together. Not so in Salvador and the priest will not allow any connection to witchcraft in the church. Ze however is stubborn. He made a promise and he intends to keep it so he stays. This is where the situation turns crazy.

A pimp manages to seduce Rosa and turns the police onto Ze to get him out of the picture. A journalist sees a story in the making and makes a big thing out of it. Locals see Ze as a rebel against establishment and rally around him and desperate people converge on him, seeing him as a saint with holy powers. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Ze is constantly being used, abused, misunderstood and ridiculed and he just wants to keep his promise.

This all sounds very familiar. I am sure I have seen very similar movies before. “Ace in the Hole” comes to mind, but also “Life of Brian”. Obviously the movie is aiming at the exploitation of the naïve and of real faith versus institutionalized faith, but for me it actually seems to be about the absurdity of religion. Everything spins so horribly out of control because people get carried away by their convictions. This is why I write that I do not feel properly dressed for watching this movie. I do not understand what drives these people. A little flexibility all round would go a long way to defuse this situation, but instead the characters come out as caricatures, extreme and one-dimensional characters who serve the purpose to prove a point.

Because of this artificial sense I cannot say that I truly like the movie, but I suspect it is more a matter of me not understanding it well enough. It was nominated for an Academy award and won the Palme d’Or in Cannes so somebody obviously got more out of it than I did. What I did get is what I usually appreciate in movies from “exotic” (read: different from the usual) places, the window it provides into a very different world. Brazil is to me a very exotic place. I have been there twice and what strikes me is how extremely diverse a place it is. From north to south, from rich to poor, countryside to the city. This is something you also see in this movie and maybe it is actually the fundamental theme of the movie.


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.