Thursday, 14 November 2019

Tænk på et tal (1969)

Off-List: Tænk på et tal

The second off-List movie for 1969 is a Danish movie. For each year I look through the list of releases (yeah, that list is not that long..) to see if there is anything I either know to be good or that I am curious to see. The movie that caught my eye for 1969 was “Tænk på et tal”. It loosely translates to “Think of a number” though I have no idea if it has an international release under a different name than its Danish title.

I do not recall watching it before, but I read the book by Danish author Anders Bodelsen in high school and thought back then that it was a solid crime thriller, good enough that I would like to watch the movie. Fortunately, it was not a miss.

Flemming Borck (Henning Moritzen) is a bank clerk in a small suburban branch. He is a quiet man, lives a lone and is a bit on the boring side. One day he finds a scrapped piece of paper in a bin with a text asking to hand over a lot of money. Flemming is disturbed, but also fascinated that somebody had aborted a robbery of the bank. Convinced that the guy will soon show up again Flemming takes a for him very unusual step. He stashes away a large sum (10.000 Danish kroner) in his lunchbox. When the bandit finally does rob the bank he gets a way with 170.000 kroner, but the bank is missing 180.000 kroner, the difference is in Flemming’s lunch box. Flemming has just managed to steal 10.000 kr, a sum roughly equivalent to 15-20.000 $ today.

Now something unexpected happens. The bandit (Paul Hüttel) has worked out that there was supposed to be 10.000 kr more and that the clerk must have the rest. He starts blackmailing Flemming as he has, correctly, deduced that Flemming is not the most assertive type. Flemming’s attempts to avoid and escape the bandit make up the rest of the story and the conclusion is open ended and chilling.

Forty years before “Breaking Bad” here is a story with many parallels. The ordinary and highly inexperienced guy who turns criminal and end up way over his head. This is also a story with many twists and turns and few people are who they are supposed to be. At the same time the setting is so ordinary that you could see yourself there. The bank and the people there are very recognizable with the usual banter and small intrigues and because of this the extraordinary, when it happens feels so much stronger. 

The story is not without problems though. It is never explained why Flemming steals the money. Is it boredom? Facination? A need to escape? By all appearances Flemming Borck as a type seems to be perfectly suited for his quiet, boring life. Secondly, I do not understand why the bandit returns to extract the last 10.000 kroner. He just got 170.000 kroner, vastly more than the clerk got. By comparison the 10.000 kroner are peanuts. Why risk everything to get them. On top of this he persists even after he gets arrested. He sends his girlfriend, Jane Merrild (Bibi Andersson) after him and later when he gets released, he flies to Tunesia to look for him. Seriously?

As usual when watching old Danish movies, this one boast many of the classic Danish actors, both starring and in smaller parts. Most noteworthy though is it that Swedish Bibi Andersson, whom we normally know as one of Ingmar Bergman’s regulars has one of the leading parts. That was a surprise, but it works fine.

“Tænk på et tal” is a quiet but chilling crime thriller and prospective fans of Nordic noir can begin here. It is worth a watch.


Monday, 11 November 2019

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Midnight Cowboy
The Best Picture 1969 according to the Academy was “Midnight Cowboy”, the first, and probably only, X-rated movie to ever win that coveted award. I think it is safe to say that this movie is a bit outside the usual fare.

“Midnight Cowboy” is a movie by John Schlesinger about a young, and very naïve, Texan man who leaves his job as a dishwasher in Texas to become a hustler in New York. By this is meant male prostitute and Joe Buck (John Voight) is convinced that with his good looks and skills at lovin’, the New York ladies will be queuing up for him. However, with his cowboy attire and hopeless naivety, he is more a joke than anything else and he is soon broke. Helpful in relieving him of his money is a local small-time hustler named Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), soon though the two of them strike up a friendship at the bottom of the slums of New York.

It sounds terrible in synopsis, but what makes this story not just bearable but actually interesting and charming is the bittersweet humor pervading it. Joe Buck makes a ridiculous figure in New York, but he is also sweet and gullible and therefore likeable. His attempt at working is so miserable that he ends up paying the lady rather than getting money from her. Ratso is a creep, but he is not without feelings and his desperate need of a friend is gripping. Ratso and Joe are lonely and out of their luck, but they find part of what they are lacking in each other and that is heartwarming and not a little comical given how different an appearance they make.

Hoffman and Voight were both are the very start of their careers here. Hoffman had just come off “The Graduate” and Voight had his breakthrough with “Midnight Cowboy” and there is an energy here belonging to a new generation in Hollywood. It is super interesting to see these actors who later became big stars in these, their early roles. Along same vein, the portrait of New York is a very contemporary 1969 picture with the energy and vitality, but also the trash and slums that was New York of the era. Near the end Buck and Ratso even visit a party that was arranged to appear exactly like Warhol’s Factory. This is no coincidence as Warhol and his group was in fact involved with this scene and many of the characters are Warhol regulars.

Harry Nilsson singing “Everybody’s Talkin’” may be the famous song out of the movie, but John Barry’s theme, discreet as it is, is one of those scores everybody knows even if they cannot put a finger on where it is from. It has been copied a thousand times in small variations, but this one is the real deal. I have been humming it constantly over the weekend and it is not only catchy, but also sets exactly the right tone to this melancholic drama of floundering lives.

This would definitely be one of the better movies of 1969 and I think a bold and surprising but also correct pick of the Academy. It managed to catch a lot of the zeitgeist and seem like the right movie at the right time, yet, surprisingly, it holds up perfectly today.

Oh, about the X-rated thing… an average episode of “Sex and the City” is way more raunchy than this movie ever got.


Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Compared to 1968, the year 1969 looks fairly light weight in terms of great movies. Leafing through the List the one movie that stood out for me in 1969 was “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. Of course, I am hoping that some of the other titles will be awesome and prove me wrong, but I will be surprised if, at the end of this year I will not pronounce “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” the best movie of 1969.

There are a number of reasons for this of which the premier must be the pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. I believe this was the first time they were put together and that was one inspired move. There is a chemistry between these two wonderful actors that makes the total far larger than the sum of the parts. The best parts of this movie are those where we just watch these two guys together doing whatever it is they do.

“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” apparently started a fad for buddy movies, trying to tap into that magic that the constellation of Newman and Redford gave this movie, but not many were as successful at it.

The story of the movie, for, yes, unnecessary as it may seem, there is actually a story here, is of a legendary pair of outlaws in the West who harassed the railroads to the extent that a super posse was formed, eventually pressing the gang to emigrate to South America. Paul Newman is Butch Cassidy, a witty and smart fellow and the brains in the outfit, while Robert Redford is the Sundance Kid, the brooding gunslinger. The have a gang, The Hole in the Wall gang, whom we see plundering trains, but mainly it is just Butch and the Kid and the girl they both loved, Katharine Ross as Etta Place, we follow.

Although these are clearly on the wrong side of the law, there is something incredibly affable about them that it is difficult t be upset with that fact. The train robberies are fun and who feels sorry for a railroad baron? When a sheriff wants to form a posse, nobody is interested and it is hilarious to watch Butch and the Kid sitting upstairs on a porch relaxing while they are listening to the sheriff begging the townspeople to join him.

The super posse changes all that and for a substantial part of the movie they are being chased by the relentless posse. Suddenly it is not as fun being Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and they leave for Bolivia. They do try going straight there, but the only thing the know how to do is robbing banks and so it ends the way it must, side by side with guns blazing.

There is an odd intermezzo with domestic bliss before leaving for South America where the three of them are enjoying a quite moment. The oddness is largely due to the choice of scoring. Burt Bacharachs’s  "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" is not exactly what you would expect to hear in a western. It is certainly very far from a Morricone scoring, but this is nevertheless the origin of that song. The effect of using this music is to remove the movie from the classical western genre and into something else and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” has more in common with “Thelma and Louise” than John Wayne or Sergio Leone. The western environment is just setting for a movie that is really about freedom and friendship.

And then I have not even commented on the fantastic production value that sets this apart from most other movies of the era.

I saw “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” ages ago, and while I remember liking it, I doubt I was able to fully appreciate it. I am now. Highly recommended.


Wednesday, 30 October 2019

True Grit (1969)

Off-List: True Grit
The first off-List movie of 1969 is “True Grit”. I have never seen it before and the only things I knew about it going in was its famous, recent remake and that Ranker considers it the second best movie of 1969. I guess this made me more than a little curious to watch this movie.

It was, frankly, a bit disappointing.

“True Grit” is a movie about a girl, Mattie (Kim Darby) whose father got killed by a low-life caller Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey). She sets out to find him and bring him to justice. To that end she hires a Marshall, Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne), and, much against his will, insists on riding along. They are joined by a Texas ranger, La Boeuf (Glen Campbell) who wants to take Chaney to Texas. Chaney has joined a gang led by Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall) and so they are two men and a woman up against an entire gang of outlaws.

This is very much a vehicle for John Wayne to do his usual things. To be tough and grandfatherly, dunk and just, trigger happy and jovial. Essentially your standard John Wayne. The Academy apparently thought he did that so well that they gave him an Oscar for it. If there is nothing better in 69 this will indeed be a thin year.

John Wayne being what he is, the main character here is Mattie. It is cool that she wants to join the man hunt, but this girl has so many annoying qualities that any sympathy I had for her soon wore out. She is preachy and very penny-pinching, lacks a sense of the situation and is practically useless in the field. She is the kind of person you least want to bring along on such an expedition. You may then ask, why is she then joining the chase? The answer may well be as comical relief.

See, “True Grit” is trying hard to be a comedy, or at least have some substantially comical elements. Bringing this girl along for a manhunt she is not suited for is such a comical element. So is Rooster drinking with his cat and Chinese friend. Problem is just that Mattie is not funny, she is annoying, and her preachy manner made her tiresome very fast.

The other main element of the movie is the Western theme of hunting down outlaws. It is okay, but nothing special and although it is a long movie, this part of it is fairly short in order to set up a relationship between Rooster and Mattie. The hardship of the chase is also played down and frankly there is not much of a search. They ride into the territory, stumble upon Nep Peppers gang and shoot it out. Of course, Mattie gets in trouble, which makes things a bit complicated, but nothing they cannot handle.

I thought it would be tougher and grittier, but this is 69 and not 2019, and so this is a sanitized version of the West. I could also have managed without the comedy. For me “Western” and “comedy” does not merge very well. And finally, I could really have used a less annoying character than Mattie.

Well, I got my curiosity settled and that is that.


Saturday, 26 October 2019

High School (1969)

High School
This review of Frank Wiseman’s movie “High School” is heavily influenced by the fact that I have been watching it and am writing this review from a hotel room in China. This mean that I do not have the Book at hand and that I cannot use Wikipedia (or Google for that matter) to search out information on this movie. My upload will probably have to wait till I am back in Europe.

I seem to recall from the Book that “High School” is considered a criticism of the educational system, that students are taught useless things in a dysfunctional environment.

Well, I had a hard time recognizing that. It rather seems like a fairly objective portrait of the everyday life at a regular high school with all the various thing that normally goes around at such a place. It was almost boringly normal. In small clips, each of a few minutes, we see scenes from the daily life at the school. Classes being taught, students getting advice, some getting detention, shows being staged and so on. There are no direct connections between the various vignettes, no characters carrying through, except that the principal shows up a few times. They are just scenes from the school.

None of the scenes are particularly condemning. The teachers are trying to teach. The students are what students normally are. Some has a rebellious streak, which is common enough. Some teachers are prone to droning which is also common enough. There is no cruelty on display. When a teacher states that only in the dictionary does “success” come before “work”, it is just stating the obvious in an attempt at motivating the class.

The only part I resented was the discussions with the counsellor on how much parents could afford to pay for college tuition and how that limited the options. Where I come from this is very bad style and access is based on merit and nothing else, but I understand that in the reality of this high school this is standard practice and the issue is treated matter of factly and not as an item of particular concern.

The purpose of the movie I can only see as a time capsule, documenting a high school in 1969. It is curious to watch, many things actually being much the same as they are today, and at the same time different as it is rooted in its time.

Maybe I am missing a bit of drama or something controversial. Eventually it started getting boring watching daily life play out. But then again, it is comforting to see that daily life can play out without big drama and that people are just people at any time.

Considering how unexceptional this is, I am just wondering why it is on a list of 1001 movies you have to watch before you die.


Tuesday, 15 October 2019

A Touch of Zen (Hsia Nu) (1969)

Hsia nu
Next week I will be going to China on my annual trip there and it is quite fitting that this next movie on the List is a Chinese movie. Well, technically it is Taiwanese, but it is supposed to take place in China.

“Hsia Nu” or “A Touch of Zen”, as it is called in English, is a wuxia movie of epic scale. Wuxia is that very popular “sword and magic” genre of movies that most westerners associate with Hong Kong. Think “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. “Hsia Nu” is about 200 minutes long and released over a two-year period (in 70 and 71, though on the List it is listed as a 69 movie…) and clearly made with a budget to match.

In medieval times Gu Sheng-tsai (Shih Chun) earns his living by painting portraits and doing calligraphy. Clearly, he is a bookish fellow, but without much ambition, to his mother’s chagrin. This changes when a mysterious woman moves into the ruin next door. Gu is smitten, but the girl, Miss Yang (Hsu Feng) is not who she seems to be, nor are practically anybody else, and soon Gu is involved in a high stakes game against powerful members of the empirical court.

“Hsia Nu” is clearly one of the finest wuxia movies I have seen. That does not include that many examples, but of those I have seen this one stands out. What makes it special is the first hour or so. Instead of rushing into some crazy fighting, it starts out very quietly and mundane. It is quite realistic, and we get a proper introduction to the quiet life of Gu Sheng-tsai. He is as confused with the girl and the mysterious characters that begin to show up as we are and even the first fighting scenes are not at all over the top, merely a demonstration of the supreme fighting technique of Yang Hui-zhen. As the film progresses, we do of course get loads of that swordplay the wuxia genre of renown for. Whether you like this or not is a matter of taste. Personally, I find it a bit comical to have the fighters do giant jumps into a melee and, well, they do that quite a lot, but that is what wuxia is all about.

I found it fascinating how the story itself keeps developing. It takes focus to keep track of the characters, but I found the story much better developed than usual in wuxia movies. It helps that Gu is not some kind of mighty fighter but a fairly ordinary guy. That means that we, the audience, can relate to him and he becomes our presence in the movie. Unfortunately, more wants more, and me too, I was longing to learn more of Yang, General Shi and Abott Hui. There is a brief romantic scene between Gu and Yang but is so short that we know practically nothing of their relationship. Yang merely looks touch and stoic and that is almost all we learn about her. I cannot say if this is simply Chinese prudishness, but I could definitely see her opening up a bit more.

Towards the end it also seems as if the story gets sacrificed for the battle scenes or maybe it was just me getting tired. It felt like one, very long, continuous battle sequence and I lost some touch on what was going on. The problem with awesome fighters, as with superheroes, is that killing tons of henchmen eventually gets tiresome.

Still, I want to judge it by the superior first half of the movie and for that it is a definite must-see.


Monday, 7 October 2019

Lucia (1969)

It is very likely “Lucia” is a good movie. It is also possible it is a terrible movie. I frankly have only a vague idea whether it might be either. In fact there is very little I can tell about the movie. Instead I can tell a lot about my efforts to actually watch it.

The Cuban movie “Lucia” is very difficult to obtain. Amazon has it for sale for 46£, which is outside my budget. Bongo, who printed the only version available on DVD, does not have it in stock. I might be able to find an American version I cannot watch on my player. The link on the 1001 movies hard-to-find list has expired. The only way I could watch this was on YouTube. Here only the second and third part of its three segments are available and these two episodes are not subtitled. Except you can make YouTube auto translate. Let me give you an example of the wonderful dialogue:

Man and woman talk to each other:

“That opens

Because you can invent things you can

Invent things from my dad things from me

When I’m more at home I

Tranca says she spends her life

Talking about boyfriends and stuff

And my dad spoke mistakes and you didn’t”

The short of it is that I got zip out of the dialogue and was left with what I could see on the pictures.

The first segment I have not seen.

The second segment in the thirties is about a woman and a man. The man is apparently a revolutionary and ends up dead. She is very sad

The third segment take place in the sixties and is about a storming relationship between a woman and a man. They fight a lot and scream at each other. They have these voices you listen to and know they have been screaming a lot.

The music is nice, which is not surprising, Cuban music is very good. There is a very nice version of “Guantanamera” in the third segment.

This is a very hard way to watch a movie and it is only because I am a completionist that I endure this. Towards the end the lack of understanding meant that even the pictures lost interest and I just could not wait for it to finish.

If I manage to obtain a proper version, I will watch it again. Until then I will just cross it off my list and move on.