Friday, 15 October 2021

The Godfather, Part II (1974)

 


The Godfather II

The big winner at the Academy awards in 1974 was “The Godfather Part II”. It was the first sequel to win Best Picture and is, as I understand it, by many ranked even higher than the first Godfather movie.

It is a great movie, I am just not certain I would swing myself that high.

“The Godfather Part II” continues where “The Godfather” left off. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is in full control of the family and all its activities. It is big business and big money and despite his promises to his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton) it is still mostly on the wrong side of the law. As in the first movie, this one starts with a big family party, eating, dancing, family and friends while inside presides Michael, giving audience to applicants. There is no doubt Vito’s role is now Michael’s.

Something in the line of a big business venture is in progress involving a competitor or business partner, Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg). The game in underhanded and involves treason and violence and soon Michael sees enemies everywhere. He finds himself very much alone, up there on his throne.

Intermixed we follow the story of the young Vito (Robert De Niro), how his family was killed by the mafia in Sicily and how he came to America and eked out a living. Eventually, Vito gets involved with the underworld and it turns out he has a real talent. Soon he is the king of the Italian community in New York.

“The Godfather Part II” is an interesting film that tries to dig into the nature of the mafia phenomenon. It is examining how it works, what makes people do what they do and the price they pay morally and as well as physically. It is fascination and abhorrence at the same time. Respect and disgust. The problem is just that as a driver of a movie, especially a very long one as this is, it is not enough. Where Part I had an evolving plot that kept the movie interesting, Part II is more about disintegration than actual plot and it makes the story feel long. I never worked out the details of the plot with Hyman Roth, which is frustrating, but also not really important. Michael probably did not work it out either, he just lashed out left and right, wielding his significant power.

The mixing in of the Vito story did a lot to lift the movie and I found it potentially more accessible, but just as it was getting interesting, it is left floating. When Vito has become a mafioso, he is home, and the story is left there.

On the technical side this is a true dazzle movie. The new year party in Cuba, the Little Italy setting, and the court hearings are such time capsules, full of interesting details. There are so many great acting performances here by such a stellar cast like Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, Robert De Niro and so many more. This is a big movie by any standard and maybe that was what dazzled the Academy.

Gangster movies was never really my thing and I do not share that fascination with thugs, so this is a bit uphill for me. Having now watched “The Godfather Part II” I am convinced “Chinatown” was robbed. That was the best movie back in 1974.

I do give my recommendation for “The Godfather Part II”, although I may be the last person above 40 to have watched it. It is a big and important and very impressive movie. It just did not keep me that engaged.

  


Friday, 8 October 2021

Blazing Saddles (1974)

 


Sheriffen skyder på det hele

“Blazing Saddles” is the second Mel Brooks film for 1974. Considering how happy I was with “Young Frankenstein”, I had high hopes for “Blazing Saddles”, but alas, this is in my humble opinion a far inferior movie.

“Blazing Saddles” is a spoof on every Western ever made, trying as it is to cramp every trope and cliché of the genre into a single movie and turning them upside down. This is the lonely sheriff (Cleavon Little) against ungrateful townspeople, a drunkard of a gunslinger as the sheriff’s sidekick (Gene Wilder), an evil railroad baron (Harvey Korman as Hedley, not Hedy, Lamarr), a corrupt governor, uncivilized cowboys, exotic saloon performers and so on. On top of that Brooks throws in racism and bigotry as a major theme.

The story is… well, I am not too certain what the story really is, because it is very clear from the get go that the objective here is to fire off as many jokes as possible far more than drive a story forward. I imagine there was an outline of a story somewhere, but in some frenzied brainstorming among the scriptwriters it sort of got lost. It is something about a railroad baron who needs to drive his railroad through a town and so he needs people to move. To that end he gets them a black sheriff, expecting that will drive them out of town. Then he wants to get rid of the sheriff and then get rid of the townspeople again… well, I am not too sure.

In any case, the jokes here have totally taken over the movie. They fail more often than fly, and that is not necessarily because they are bad, but mainly because they flood the movie. It all becomes terribly silly and infantile and it seems as if Brooks forgot the principle that worked so well in “Young Frankenstein” that every joke needs a straight partner. There are no straight partners here. What would have been a funny scene in any other context or as a stand-alone scene becomes a wish-wash of silliness.

A wonderful scene like Gene Wilder telling Cleavon Little that these people are “just simple villagers, the clay of the West, you know, morons” is super funny when I watch that snippet, but in the movie, I hardly smiled at it and it is such a shame. Madeline Kahn’s Lili Von Shtupp sings the wonderfully terrible “I am Tired”, but in the context it is almost boring. There is simply an overload of jokes, and this is unfortunately Mel Brooks as I know him.

The anarchy of it all goes all in towards the end with a complete breakdown of the fourth wall, with actors of this movie breaking into the set of another movie and trashing it and sheriff and sidekick wondering off to find a cinema to watch the end of their own movie while talking to the audience…

With “Young Frankenstein” Brooks could restrain himself enough to maintain a balance and it worked. With “Blazing Saddles” that balance is completely gone. I am sure it works for some people, I am almost convinced my son will like it, but it did not work for me. When I start glancing at my watch it is a bad sign.

When I think about it, I could say almost the same things about “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, but with a completely different outcome. There it all works. Curious…

 


Sunday, 3 October 2021

Celine and Julie go Boating (Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau) (1974)

 


Céline og Julie ta'r sig en tur

The Book writes that if you do not master French, you will not fully appreciate this movie. This is likely true, and I suspect this can be extended to not even understand this movie. I know, I know, I have been here before and yes, I seem to be one those plebeian viewers who need the movie to make sense on the immediate level to appreciate it. It is clearly a failing in me, so my views are strictly for myself and not a general verdict on the movie.

I was rather lost watching “Celine and Julie Go Boating” (“Céline et Julie vont en bateau”).

Or, to be more precise, every time I thought I understood what it is going on, something happened to convince me that I do not understand it after all.

Julie (Dominique Labourier) sits in a park reading a book on magic spells. She sees another woman, Celine (Juliet Berto) rush by and drop something. Julie picks it up and runs after Celine to return it, but she keeps running away, dropping more things. After a long run through Paris, they meet up in a café and soon after they are best friends (?). They start sharing each other’s life, literally, and they start visiting a strange house. Coming out from the house they are confused and do not remember anything, but there is a candy in their mouth and using this candy they can relive what appears to happen in the house as if it is a movie.

The story in the house is a loop around a triangle drama where a child ends up dead, but they only see bits and pieces, so they have to return to get more candy. Julie also finds out this is a house she visited a lot when she was younger, maybe even as a child.

Eventually, Julie and Celine cook up a magic brew so they can enter the story and save the girl.

There are elements that are naturalistic, like the Paris setting and the bohemian lives of the women and then there is the fantastic, Alice in Wonderland, element of entering a magic fantasy world. The problem for me is that neither are very consistent. In both, the things they say or do or events they are subjected to make very little sense, as if it all take place on a planet where cause and effect are messed up. When I started to settle on the idea that they have found an entrance to a fantasy world where they can change events I actually did get invested in the story, almost understanding it, only to get thrown off again when clearly something else was going on.

So, what is actually happening here? Forget about the apparent story. The real story is something about fantasy worlds, about loops, inner-lives and some meta-themes around being a viewer and active participant at the same time. From what perspective are we watching a story? Can we take on the role of somebody else? Who is the viewer anyway? Is all this actually the imagination of a cat?

Heady stuff, and I am not at all certain any of this is even remotely correct.

What I do know is that “Celine and Julie Go Boating” clocks in at over 3 hours and that I had to stop it several time because I was zoning out. You have to be really into this stuff to stay focused throughout its running time and I cannot say that I was. Half the time I had no idea what was going on. My mastery of French is clearly insufficient.

 


Friday, 24 September 2021

Chinatown (1974)

 


Chinatown

I am a big fan of film-noir. Those 1940’ies noir are just awesome, even if some of the private-eye themes are bordering cliché. The neo-noir genre tries to reanimate the look and feel of the original noirs, usually with a twist, and few does it better than “Chinatown”.

“Chinatown” is a Roman Polanski movie, the last he made in Hollywood. It recreates a 1930’ies private eye scenario in Los Angeles where the former cop, now private investigator, specializing in extramarital affairs, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by Mrs. Mulwray to look into her husband’s infidelities. Gittes and his team tails him and shoots some nice pictures of Hollis Mulwray with a girl. The pictures get publicized and Mulwray is publicly crucified.

Immediately after, Gittes is approached by another woman (Faye Dunawaye) who claims she is the real Mrs. Mulwray. Gittes realizes he has been duped, but before he can find Mr. Mulwray, he has been murdered. Something very fishy is going on.

Hollis Mulwray was the Chief Engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and clearly this goes a lot deeper than infidelities. Gittes is a character straight out of a Hammett or Chandler novel and insist on digging into it only to find out that nothing is what it looks like, and nobody are straight.

Polanski took special pains to make this look like the 30’ies and with the saturated colors and almost stylized sets there is almost a cartoonish texture to the cinematography. This is underscored by an almost perfect moody jazz score. The layered and convoluted plot where we are always caught off-balance and not entirely certain what is going on, also harks back to the noir originals.

Where Chinatown deviates from this formula are in two particular elements.

Gittes may look as if he is in control and he certainly wants to make that impression, but he is not. Everything he learns tells him how wrong he was before and though he has the audacity to get into places and obtain information others would not get, it is often too late or too little because he is missing information. He may be two steps ahead of us, like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, but he is also two steps behind the events unfolding. He is not an antihero, but an insufficient hero.

Secondly, the catastrophic ending. Without spoiling too much, I can say we get a spectacular ending, but not in the way you would expect. This ties in with the first exception. Gittes is insufficient and the case is bigger than him. The bad guys are overwhelmingly strong and there really is no stopping them. This moves “Chinatown” very much from the 40’ies to the 70’ies. It is a breaking of illusions and a political statement, really. Chinatown here is a metaphor for lawless corruption. Gittes tried to get out of Chinatown, but Chinatown caught up with him.

The combination of the 30-40’ies pastiche and the political implications of the conclusion makes for a strong and unique combo. I was totally sucked in, experiencing that combination of love and horror and I have to say this is one of the best neo-noirs ever. This is powerful stuff and extremely well crafted. Polanski has made a lot of great movies, and this is among his best, seriously.

Chinatown won one Academy Award (Best Original Screenplay) and was nominated in another 10 categories, including all the big ones. In a year without “The Godfather II”, it could have swept the table.

Strongly recommended.

 


Monday, 20 September 2021

Young Frankenstein (1974)

 


Frankenstein Junior

I was certain I had seen “Young Frankenstein” before, it is a title I am very familiar with, but I quickly realized that I must have mixed it up with something else and instead this became an unexpected first view for me. I cannot complain, this was a lot better than I thought it would be.

“Young Frankenstein” is a Mel Brooks comedy and for better or worse, his trademark is silly jokes. Especially in his later movies there is an infantile streak that, well, makes it a Mel Brooks movie. “Young Frankenstein” is funny and silly, but it is also something more. There is a heart in it. A love for the old Frankenstein movies by James Whale and a restraint from going totally overboard. An explanation was offered when I discovered that the original idea was Gene Wilder’s and that he co-authored the screenplay. This movie is, simply put, more than a Mel Brooks comedy.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) is teaching medicine in America. Sober and scientific medicine, not the mumbo-jumbo of his infamous grandfather. When he inherits the old family castle, he travels to Transylvania (inexplicably misplaced in Germany…) to check it out. He is met by Igor (Marty Feldman), an assistant, Inga (Teri Garr) and the housekeeper, Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman) and together they set out to create their own monster (Peter Boyle).

Everything in this movie is made with an eye to “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein”, whether it is the black and white cinematography, the gothic laboratory (the original set from the thirties!) or the various scenes. We get the brain mix-up, the life-by-electrocution scene, the little girl with the flowers and the blind hermit. Even Elsa Lancaster’s hairdo is recreated with the white stripes. But where the original was having religious elements such as a human as the Creator, “Young Frankenstein” largely replaces that, rather serious, element with a lighter father-son theme, about acceptance of the father role.

Most of all though, it is a comedy. Igor has fantastic bug-eyes and frequently breaks the fourth wall with Monty Pythonic comedy. Garr as Inga is a revelation in comedic timing, often stealing the scenes and Wilder himself does the Gene Wilder thing, but more controlled than how he usually appear. It would have been easy to take him totally overboard, but he actually stays believable throughout. Amazingly enough.

In the extra material it was explained that every comedic stunt in the movie has a straight guy, though the role of straight guy may change mid-scene, and that is why the jokes usually work. If Feldman is funny, Wilder is straight. If Wilder is funny then Garr is straight, but suddenly they reverse and so on. Sounds simple, but I believe that is the successful recipe.

The only time they cross the line and take the silliness too far is when Wilder and Boyle, as Frankenstein and Monster, stage a musical piece, “Putting on the Ritz” in front of a dignified audience. Curiously, not a Brooks stunt, but Wilder’s idea. Luckily though, the movie quickly returns to form from this intermezzo.

I had a great time watching “Young Frankenstein”. It is funny and quotably. Silly and witty but with a heart and a respect for the original story that make you feel like you watched a complete and coherent movie and not just a string of theme jokes. Warmly recommended.

As a bonus, see if you can spot Gene Hackman.

 


Tuesday, 14 September 2021

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

 


En kvinde under inflydelse

I am no expert on mental illnesses. I think it is scary what illnesses in the brain can do to you and I am quite certain I would not be good at handling a person with such an illness. Yet, this is exactly what Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence” invites us to do. For two and a half hours we get to live with the Longhettis.

Mabel (Gena Rowlands) is suffering from some illness, though I am in no position to tell what it is. There is some indication she is bipolar, but I could be very wrong. She seems very nervous and slips into a fantasy world where she will act strangely hyped and say and do odd things. The last thing Mabel needs is someone too stupid, selfish or hot tempered to deal with her illness, but that is exactly what her husband Nick (Peter Falk) is. Shouting and bullying is his way of handling things, force them into submission and show who is the boss. He is the kind of guy who will shout at people to have fun and if they do not, a slap may help them on their way.

Frankly, if I was in Mabel’s shoes I would also want to retire into my own little world where Nick could not reach me and that makes me wonder how big a hand he may have in her illness.

Plotwise, it is not as if a lot is happening over the course of the movie. Mabel is slowly getting worse and in a scene with a particularly lot of shouting, Mabel gets hospitalized. Half a year later she comes back, but her welcome home party disintegrate when Nick starts shouting and Mabel suffers a relapse.

It is clear to me that Mabel is very much alone. People see her as an ill and potentially dangerous person, and she has nobody to rely on. In a crucial scene near the end, she asks her father if he will not stand up for her, but he deliberately misunderstands her instead of coming to her help. And Nick, man, he may mean well, but he is downright abusive. Again, near the end, when Mabel is feeling most vulnerable, she asks him if he loves her, and he cannot commit. He simply has no idea what she needs. In his eye, she just needs to be normal, dammit, and it probably works better if he shouts it.

As such, this is a painful movie to watch. There is no doubt that both Rowlands and Falk act their asses out of their pants (an expression that works better in Danish…) and it feels very real, but it is not enjoyable to watch. Like a train wreck in slow motion. I cannot help thinking of the children who must grow up scarred for life and I get so upset watching Nick and both set of parents.

Does that make it a good movie or a terrible movie? I guess it depends on which standard you use. It feels important and it makes you question things in yourself, though it might be difficult to handle this any worse than Nick does. Would I want to watch it again? Well, I do not think I would do that to myself. Once is plenty enough.

Wikipedia writes that it was difficult to sell the movie. Cassavetes was told that “No one wants to see a crazy, middle-aged dame”. I think the real question is, who wants to see an insane middle-aged man go crazy on his mentally ill wife? It is spectacular, maybe even important, but also very, very painful.

 


Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Vampyres (1974)

 


Off-List: Vampyres

Sex and blood is a combo that always seems to work. Or the idea is that it is meant to work. An appeal to something primeval or something like that. Teenage vampire movies are the natural consequence and Heaven knows we are swarmed with those. The ultimate milking (pun intended) of this combo however must be the movie “Vampires”.

When I was browsing for off-List movies for 1974 I found a movie with the description “Vampyres is a 1974 British erotic/lesbian vampire horror film”.  Okay… I have to see this. This would either be fantastic or a complete disaster, both of which qualifies it for my list.

It actually turned out to be… neither… or a bit of everything. Certainly, it is not your average movie.

It is a story that barely adds up. Fran (Marianne Morris) and Miriam (Anulka Dziubinska) is a lesbian couple who was shot to death and now, as vampires, pick up strangers by the wayside, posing as hitchhikers, and take them to their gothic mansion where they seduce their victims, get them drunk and drink their blood. The corpses are placed back in their cars posing as mock car accidents. And yeah, there are a few holes in that premise…

Here is the thing: Fran and Miriam are very pretty, and the “seducing” part is… very explicit and so is the killing afterwards. There was some tongue kissing there that literally look like they are already eating each other, and it blends directly into a blood frenzy that looks more like cannibalism than the sanitized blood letting in a teenage vampire movie. This is Sex and Blood at full throttle.

Beside the girls and their random victims there is Ted (Murray Brown), a “victim”, easily seduced by Fran, who the girls for some reason do not kill. Just tap a bit of blood each night. Maybe Fran likes the sex too much. In any case, when Ted is starting to realize something sinister is going on, he is strangely unable to leave. Don’t ask why.

Also, there are the campists, John (Brian Deacon) and Harriet (Sally Faulkner), who have setup their caravan next to the manor and see a lot of strange shit.

There is a little twist at the end (or a few if you like), but really, this is all about Sex and Blood. Lots of Sex and Blood.

On the one hand the production value here is actually reasonably high. There is some decent acting, and the set is spot on. Then on the other hand, this is a story with gaping holes and only there to set up the sex and the gore. So, I guess it is a movie that actually delivers what it sets out to do. It is not outright porn and it is not an amateurish production, but the scary elements often bent to camp and exploitation, so I am not entirely certain it counts as horror either. What it is, is a movie that dares to go all in instead of beating around the bush. It is unapologetic about what it does and despite its trash agenda there is something liberating in that.

You want sex and blood? You got it.