Saturday, 28 May 2016

ACMI, Melbourne

Visit to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image
For the past two weeks I have been in Australia and mostly in Melbourne where I have been teaching a class in the use of our brilliant software WindPRO. Finally, having completed my duties, I have today been able to join my wife and son in some sightseeing and luckily they have saved the best for last: The Australian Centre for the Moving Image, ACMI.

ACMI is located in the very heart of Melbourne, right on Federation Square and about 200 m from our hotel so it was a no-brainer to include it in our itinerary. It seems to be fairly new with a number of galleries and screening rooms and frankly I think we saw only a fraction of it. Just two days ago they opened a Scorsese exhibition, which I understand is a travelling exhibition set up by the Berlin film museum, and that was a natural first stop.

This was a really nice exhibition with lots of props, pictures, stories and film clips and definitely worth the admission. Scorsese is a film nerd and that means that an exhibition about Scorsese will include a lot of references to older movies and I actually saw the original red shoes from the P&P movie “The Red Shoes” (1948).


Scorsese’s own movies are hit or miss with me and I am not one of his biggest fans therefore much of the exhibition is for me less exciting than for example the Kubrick exhibition I saw in Berlin some years back. “Taxi Driver” was pretty cool and “Hugo” was kind of sweet, but I am sure a true fan would have wet his pant over the exhibits.

True gold, however, I found in the permanent exhibition (which incidentally is free). This is not a large exhibition, but smart, exciting and completely engrossing. Divided into a historic overview of the development of moving image entertainment from lanterna magica to internet streaming, a thematic presentation of film effects and Australian contributions to film and TV (Cate Blanchett, Dame Edna etc.) it covers a surprisingly large array of subjects, yet is deep enough to become interesting. The trick I think is that it manages to get everything into context and, man, I could have spent all day there.

Among the highlight was an original 1939 RCA television, interactive examples of light and shadow effects as used in movies such as “Cat People” or “Night of the Hunter” and the car from the “Mad Max” movies.


And my son? He found a Minecraft exhibit where you could sit and play Minecraft on a number of Xbox consoles. That completely made his day.

Awesome museum.

Among other highlights of the trip is our excursion to the Grampians where we got in very close contact with the local fauna, such as the huge emu that wandered around our motel room one morning…

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

Sheriffen fra Dodge City
The next two weeks I will be in Hong Kong and Melbourne, Australia, and although I will be bringing along a couple of movies I do not expect to have much time for watching and writing. The trip is half work and half vacation and I will be bringing along my wife and son, so thankfully no lonely nights in distant hotels, but that also means that this place will be rather empty until the end of the month. I will however, as far as I can get away with it, be keeping an eye on the blogroll if interesting movies are showing up.

Anyway, on to today’s movie.

Every country has those events that has become national legends and I got a feeling that the showdown between Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the Clantons in 1881 was one such event. Every decade sees a new version of the story out of Hollywood and they all have their own angle on the story. Frankly I have no idea which is closer to the truth and I am not sure that it really matters. If we pretend that this is not supposed to be a true story, they are simply classic western elements cooked up again and again. It is an okay story, I just do not know how many times I need to watch it.

“Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” is a bit of a schizophrenic experience. Half of it is well worn western tropes and clichés and the other half of it is a far more interesting character study, as modern as the other half is old school. The result is difficult to place and I am half way between a groan and excitement. Maybe it is simply a 1957 movie trying to go new ways.

The general framework of the story is well known to say the least. The movie makes quite a lot out of the lead up in which Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday are grudgingly building up a friendly relationship along the formula of: Bandits ride into town aiming at either Doc or Wyatt and the other one helps him out. It happens three or four times so I lost a bit track of these incidents. The last one however is the famous showdown in Tombstone where Wyatt has gone to help his brothers against the Clanton clan and with Doc Holliday trailing along. The shootout is neat, but requires no other presentation.

The general plot, the shooting, the cowboy heroism, all those things are terribly old and whenever these are in focus the movie is predictable and one dimensional. As something I have watched a million times before. That includes the final shootout, which I am sure was nicely done technically, but frankly a bit boring.

Burt Lancaster’s Wyatt Earp is in general a representative of this side of the movie. He is a lawman and a boy scout at that. Only in his developing friendship with the Doc do we get a glimpse of a more complex character.

No, all the good parts in this movie belongs to Kirk Douglas’ Doc Holliday, especially in his relationship with “Big Nose Kate” Fisher (Jo Van Fleet), awesome name, no? I think this is the most interesting portrait of the Doc Holliday character I have seen. He is a troubled man. On the one hand he knows he is a looser: He lost his dental practice, he is loathed and a wanted man around the country and he is slowly dying from tuberculosis, In short, an outcast. Yet he is using this position to project a hell-may-care attitude of smartness and success. A success which of course is hollow to say the least. Kate, a saloon whore, is just as outcast. In each other they find sympathy but they also mirror their failure, which causes a complicated love-hate relationship. While Doc Holliday finds some redemption in helping Wyatt Earp, it is his and Kate’s relationship that is the true heart of the movie.

By comparison the relationship between Wyatt and high-roller Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming) is about as sweet, dull and predictable as vanilla ice cream.

The Book says that Kirk Douglas gets a lot of fun out of playing Doc Holliday and I do not doubt it. I never stop loving his parts. No matter what he did he was awesome and he personally lifts this movie from dullness to something close to spectacular. Really, there are two kinds of scenes in this movie: those with and those without Kirk Douglas, and I know which ones I prefer.

Overall the movie gets an average rating from me. I often wish Hollywood would move on instead of constantly returning to old stories, but as such repetitions go this is not the worst one.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

Manden der blev mindre
I am a sucker for old science fiction. I think I have mentioned that before, but this felt like a good time to say it again. It is really too bad so few examples of it makes it to the List, but when they do they are outstanding and “The Incredible Shrinking Man“ is exactly that. A movie that is both incredible to watch and does what sci-fi does when it is best, use the fantastic element to give a new angle to a story that is relevant for us.

At the face of it this is an amazing movie to watch. A guy, Scott Carey (Grant Williams), gets in contact with some mysterious cloud stuff while sailing that makes him shrink. At first it is a struggle to convince his surroundings that he is getting smaller. These things just do not happen. When the evidence is irrefutable comes the question what to do about it. The doctors, ever optimistic, are “working on it”, meaning they haven’t got a clue. Scott’s wife Louise (Randy Stuart) have already decided that Scott’s size means nothing to her, but their relationship does become that of a nurse-patient one or mother-child, which is infuriating to Scott. To him his shrinking is impotence and he tries to counter it by being increasingly assertive. It does not help that they lost their source of income and had to sell the story to the press, who now lurks like vultures around their home.

When he is the size of a midget Scott meet a fellow midget with whom he does not feel impotent. That does not last long as he keeps shrinking.

Then comes two epic segments of the movie. At the size of two inches he lives in a doll house and has a battle with their house cat, which from that perspective is a fearsome monster and shortly after (as a result of the battle) he gets stuck in the basement. This is a new world and Scott is like stone age man fighting for survival. His enemies are hunger and the terrible monster of a spider. This is existence reduced to the most basic and although he survives his resolution is not physical but rather metaphysical.

I love what they did making him small like this. Frankly I had no idea they were capable of doing this in 57 and doing it so seamlessly. I had thought this would look terrible by today’s standard, but no, it is really impressive. And not only impressive from a technical point of view, but also in how they change our perspective with it so we see how the world looks like when you are a tiny creature. The cat and the spider are just ordinary creatures, not something that would concern us, but if you are less than two inches tall, whoa!!

When you then add the more philosophical aspects this movie shows its true worth. Scott’s impotence as he grows smaller is spot on. We may think it silly, but truly our sense of ability comes from our mastery, especially from a male point of view and losing that mastery is degrading. In a 1950’ies setting where the man in generating the income and is “the master” of his home this is particularly poignant. What mastery do you have left when you are two inches tall?

Life in the basement rewrites this. When he accepts this is an alien world he is ready to master his surroundings. His perspective or measure of things is simply different now. This give him new confidence and his attitude changes until the realization that you are who you are no matter what and that is what finally sets him free.

I raced through this movie and I felt almost cheated by its short running time. Interesting, exciting, fascinating, it is not often I use all these adjectives about these old movies, but they are all deserved. Yes, there is still an element of B to this movie, the actors are no A-listers and the characters could easily have been drawn more detailed, but that would likely have been at the expense of the message of this movie. In its condensed form it stands out clearly and at the end of the day I probably would not change a thing.

So, “The Incredible Shrinking Man” gets my warmest recommendation and I gladly add it to my growing list of pleasant surprises.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Throne of Blood (Kumonosu Jo) (1957)

Blodets trone
I have a confession to make. I know almost zip about the works of William Shakespeare. Oh, I know who he is and his significance. I have even visited his hometown, a very pleasant place indeed, but I have never read even a single one of his plays. I have also managed to avoid watching, though not by intend, practically any of his plays, whether on stage or on the screen, with the sole exception of Henry V, which was on the List. This is not something I am proud of, it just happened to be that way. Shakespeare is not a big thing in the Danish school system, which tend to prefer homegrown authors, and reading old plays… hmm… there just never seem to be time for that sort of thing.

My point here is that the famous story of “Macbeth” is actually new to me. Yes, yes, I have heard about it about a million times, but this is the first time I see it and that both means fresh eyes, but also a hopelessly naïve viewpoint. So bear with me. That this first viewing should be Akira Kurosawa’s version transplanted to feudal Japan is a bit of a scoop. I have no idea how the original goes, but somehow I cannot image it play out better than it does in “Kumonosu-jo” or “Throne of Blood”.

The setting is generic, there are hardly any place names and the characters are all invented, making this more of a moral lesson than a pretense at a historic document. However Kurosawa cleverly places the story in the medieval era so he can use samurai, lots and lots of samurai. Yeah, we like samurai, they are pretty cool.

The commanders Miki (Akira Kubo) and Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) successfully repel an attack by an enemy and are returning to Cobweb Castle to be honored by the supreme commander Lord Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki) when they get lost in the labyrinthine Cobweb Forest. Here they have an encounter with a truly scary ghost who tells them that Washizu will be commander of The Northern Mansion before the day is over and eventually the master of Cobweb Castle. Miki on the other hand will become master of Fort One and eventually his son will be master of Cobweb Castle. Lo and behold, when they arrive at the castle Washizu and Miki are both promoted as the ghost predicted.

For Washizu this is the beginning of a nightmare, mainly because his wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) is hungry for a lot more. While Washizu is content to be a loyal subject she twists his mind with paranoid fantasies and makes him kill Lord Tsuzuki on a visit to the Northern Mansion. This makes Washizu master of Cobweb Castle, but also convinced of treason and rebellion, alienating him to practically everyone and eventually leading to his fall. I suppose all this is well known to those familiar with Macbeth.

This is not a very complicated story, but the message is interesting anyway. Lust for power drives you mad and it is not a good thing to know your future because there is always a catch.

The sell here is the cinematography and the acting. Kurosawa went out of his way to give this movie exactly the right texture. The haze creates mystery and confusion, the castles are strong as power and fate is unavoidable. There is an oppressive feeling throughout and we can feel it weighing on Washizu’s mind. Every image is a joy to watch and, yeah, the samurai are cool.

Toshiro Mifune was a perfect pick for the role as Washizu. In his previous movies I have not been totally sold by him. He tend to over-act and be a little too crazy. As Washizu however he was perfect. His superiority that turns into mistrust, paranoia and despair required exactly the kind of madness Mifune could do and “Throne of Blood” would just not have been the same movie with another lead. The final scene where Washizu is perforated with arrows is deservedly famous, but it is when he is acting against Yamada as Lady Asaji that he really shines. That is partly because she is excellent as well. Totally cool she is plotting sheer madness in order to get what she wants and when things are not going exactly as planned she cracks a bit, but is resourceful enough to pull it through. Yet she ends up just as mad (or worse) than Washizu. Strong performance.

This is a great film, but it is not the best yet from Kurosawa. Though I hate to rank great movies I still prefer Seven Samurai and Ikiru to this, but if this is the standard of those to come I am a happy man.

Yeah, samurai are pretty cool.