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
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.

  

Friday, 25 August 2017

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)


 
Lawrence af Arabien
What a gorgeous picture!

“Lawrence of Arabia” has a bit of a reputation so I went out of my way to get a blue-ray version of it and watched it on a high definition screen.

Oh, my…

I think for the first ten minutes of the movie I could think of nothing else but how beautiful this movie looks. The 70 mm film that has used to shoot it gives stunning pictures and the editing is simply world class. Of course it help when the desert landscape offers brilliant panoramas and visuals and colors like few other places. But this is just amazing.

“Lawrence of Arabia” is one of the great films of movie history, one of those everybody knows of, but, sadly, few people these days have actually seen. I, myself, watched it so many years ago I actually only remembered the ending scenes in Damascus. It is the story of a real character, T.E. Lawrence, in the movie represented by Peter O’Toole, who was a British officer sent out to scout the Arab leader Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness), but ended up leading the Arab tribes in a revolt against the Turks.

Whether or not this is a correct historical representation of the event I have no idea and that is actually only of minor importance. It does lend it a story arc that is unusual as reality rarely follows a script. This is most evident in the climactic scenes, which do not resolve anything. Not for Lawrence personally and not for the Arabs in general. The victory in Damascus is a Pyrrhus victory that finally deflates Lawrence and demonstrates how the Arab revolt may win the war, but is unable to win the peace. So much for the Hollywood happy ending.

Up to that point we follow Lawrence in his love affair with Arabia. Lawrence demonstrates both an understanding of Arab culture clearly absent from the British officers in Cairo, and a naivety on the harshness of the same culture, war in general and the duplicity of his British allies. He is both the best and the worst suited person for his role. An intellectual dreamer facing the brutal reality. We as viewers share his dilemma. We see the exotic beauty and the brutality. We love him and despise him. We understand him, yet he remains an enigma. This is all testament to the brilliance of “Lawrence of Arabia”.    

Yet its brilliance is also its problem. With so magnificent pictures, a scope this large and a technical prowess of this scale it is easy to forget that “Lawrence of Arabia” is a movie from 1962. I inevitably measure it by modern standards and in that light the acting is sometimes hopelessly overdone. This is especially the case with Peter O’Toole. His is often theater acting, exaggerated as if to a live audience. It is jarring, but in those days it was perfectly normal. Heston was far worse in “Ben Hur”. Even Kirk Douglass in “Spartacus” did it.

Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal and Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi are odd choices in brown-face, but they both get away with it. Guinness still sounds very much like Alec Guinness (or Obi Wan Kenobi), but Quinn entirely disappear in his character. Perfectly cast however is Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali. Being Egyptian there was no need for brown-face there and he blends more seamlessly into his role than his British counterparts. This was the role that catapulted him into stardom and it was deserved.

Just last Monday I was Allenby road in Tel Aviv, only now I know who that fellow actually was. Jack Hawkins as General Allenby was impressive, yet it was tiny Claude Rains who kept stealing the picture. I always imagined him as an American actor yet here he is perfectly British, the quintessential quiet, grey manipulator.

In a sense “Lawrence of Arabia” has never ended. The Middle East is still an unruly place where tempers run high and violence is never far away. Damascus is again a war zone and again and again the locals here demonstrate much better skill and fighting wars than winning peaces. It is a sad, but true note to end the film on.   

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

The Eclipse (L'Eclisse) (1962)



Ukendte Nætter
L’Eclisse is the third movie in a series by Michelangelo Antonioni that started with L’Avventura and La Notte. It is not immediately apparent that this is a trilogy, there is no continuing story or overlap in characters, but thematically they are quite similar. They all deal with emotional emptiness.

When you read a synopsis describing a movie as inaccessible and without a logical plot it is usually time to get worried and I was, going into this one. This is not what I normally look for in a movie. Fortunately I had already watched the other two movies so I was acclimatized to Antonioni’s particular style and with that synopsis I feared the worst and that is actually a good place to be. It can only get better than expected.

I actually found it more coherent than the previous two movies. It did not feel as if the movie was searching, but missing, a storyline, because it did not pretend to have much. Instead it was full of impressions, pictures expressing that particular emotion the movie seeks to convey. That is much less stressful for me as I do not have to try to make sense of what I am watching.

Monica Vitti is back as a woman, Vittoria, who is breaking up with her boyfriend, Riccardo (Francisco Rabal). We have no idea why, but apparently they have been talking or arguing all night. Vittoria is determined to end this, but Riccardo is more reluctant. Leaving Riccardo, Vittoria is entering a vacuum. Her apartment is empty. Her modern neighborhood is cold and sterile. For a while she fills up the space with two friends, dreaming they are in Africa, but it is just that, an escape.

Vittoria’s mother is playing with money on Rome’s stock exchange and as Vittoria go there to seek out her mother (Lilla Brignone) we are introduced to that crazy place. This is a hectic and surreal place where money is made or lost in minutes and everybody are leaning on a heart attack. It is here Vittoria meets Piero (Alain Delon) and somehow they start hanging out together.

Piero completely embraces consumerism. He lives in the present, concerned with work, buying things and doing what he wants, when he wants it. Not an unpleasant guy at all, but very different from the hesitant and thoughtful Vittoria who has no idea what she wants and who seems to second guess herself in anything she does. It feels like archetypical man and woman profiles and that may be intended. She soon gets frustrated with him because he seems shallow and he gets frustrated with her because he cannot figure out what she wants. It is a wonder they are still together at the end of the movie.

Speaking of which, the movie is famous for an ending entirely without the two protagonists. That was not as special as the hype made it, but did serve effectively to underline the empty waiting that Vittoria experiences.

I think limbo or emotional vacuum is the overriding theme of the movie, even more than in the previous movies. You can fill up your life with money, work or consumption, but is that enough? Can you love someone, or force yourself to love someone and have that fill your life? All these people are clearly lacking something.

Maybe it is just me who is a bit naïve, but looking at these three movies there is something missing in all of them: children. To name procreation as the meaning of life is a little too biological even for me, but from personal experience I can definitely say that getting children of your own gives plenty of purpose, one way or the other. That may be what these very modern Italians are missing.

L’Eclisse is a beautifully made movie with every picture thought out and full of details. Technically the stock exchange scenes are brilliant and they capture the primal energy perfectly. As does the soundtrack that must have inspired countless later movies. A detail I liked very much was the juxtaposition of very new and very old, but then again, that is Rome.

This is not a movie I would recommend to everybody, but if you know what you are going into, you will not be let down by this one.

 

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Sanjuro (1962)



Off-List: Sanjuro
As I will be doing a few times in 1962 I am moving off-list to review movies that should have been included. This, the first one, is Akira Kurosawa’s “Sanjuro”.

“Sanjuro” is the sequel to “Yojimbo”, which I reviewed off-list for 1961. It is again a strong movie, but to put it bluntly, not up there with “Yojimbo”. It does all the right things and on its own I love it, but the problem here is that is it a sequel and as such suffers from some of the usual problems with sequels. First and foremost that Yojimbo is a damn good movie and very difficult to match. It simply pales in comparison. Secondly, it is a bit too obvious that with Toshiro Mifune’s character, the ronin Sanjuro, Kurosawa had found a winning formula that had to be explored/milked for what it was worth. That always leaves me with a bitter taste.

Having said that, there is no doubt that “Sanjuro” is a great movie. I did have a great time watching it, even if I expected more.

While the ronin character is the same, the plotline is a bit different from “Yojimbo”. This time Sanjuro walks into a feud between a decent chamberlain and a corrupt superintendent. Not two groups of warring gangsters, but a good side and a bad side. The chamberlain’s supporters have been complaining about corruption and in the process brought the chamberlain’s life in danger. Sanjuro now joins the supporters in their effort to free the chamberlain and get back at the corrupt superintendent Kikui (Masao Shimizu).

Trouble is, these supporters are complete clowns. They may be samurai with top-knots and swords and everything, but they act like confused geese.  Without Sanjuro they would have been completely lost. When they act on their own advice they get in trouble, but when they follow Sanjuro’s advice they accomplish remarkable things.

Sanjuro is the same lonely ronin from “Yojimbo”. Crude, impolite, but with his heart in the right place. Oh, and a totally awesome swordsman.  The main difference from “Yojimbo” is that Sanjuro is now more concerned with preventing death rather than causing death, even among the bad guys. Not that it really stops him when it is necessary, he still kills with lightning speed, but with a regret that he did not have in “Yojimbo”.

It is also clear that “Sanjuro” is a lighter movie than the dark “Yojimbo”. A movie between good and bad guys have one side pegged as the winners from the beginning. It is never really brought in doubt. When Sanjuro gets in trouble it is never serious trouble and there are a number of places where we are encouraged to laugh, especially of the nine clowns Sanjuro is helping.

The movie works, it is funny when it wants to be and dramatic when it aims in that direction, but I guess I miss that darkness and gritty ambience that “Yojimbo” had. You could still laugh at “Yojimbo”, but it was a more cynical laugh, a bitter laugh. In “Sanjuro” there is no bitterness left, instead you laugh at them clowning around. However I have to give it that the ending is the most awesome one I have seen in year. If you have not seen it I will not ruin it, only say that it is spectacular.

I hope I have not given the impression that “Sanjuro” was a poor movie, because it is not. It just had some pretty big shoes to fill and I would happily watch it again. After revisiting “Yojimbo, that is.

 

Sunday, 6 August 2017

An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma no Aji) (1962)

 
 
En eftermiddag i efteråret
It has been a few days since my last review through no fault of this movie. My wife and I went on a small trip to Warsaw, Poland to escape the oppressive heat and I decided not to bring along any movies. Probably a smart choice. Yasujiro Ozu’s “An Autumn Afternoon” (“Sanma no aji”) is not a movie you want to rush through in a plane, but something to enjoy quietly and slowly at home. Doing that is a very rewarding experience.

Let me say right from the start that this is the best Ozu movie I have watched. There are no big dramas, no shouting, no action whatsoever and only the thinnest of plots. Instead this is a beautiful portrait of an older man who realizes that his children are growing up and he is getting old. It is sympathetic to its characters and entirely free of melodrama, but with precise insight into the feelings the characters go through and it is just so beautifully made, like a Japanese flower arrangement: Aesthetic, restrained and insightful.

The older man is Shuhei Hirayama (Chishu Ryu). He is a widower with three grown children of which the oldest Koichi (Keiji Sada) is married and live in another apartment with his wife. Hirayama attends a class reunion together with his old friends, one of which is Kawai (Nobuo Nakamura). They have invited one of their old teachers Sakuma who is having a grand time and gets a bit tipsy. When they drive him home they realize that he is actually a sad old man making noodles with his old and bitter daughter. For Hirayama this is a wake-up call. He can see himself ending like Sakuma, old and destitute and clinging on to his daughter. Kawai is urging him to marry off his daughter, but Hirayama has not been busy and Michiko (Shima Iwashita), his daughter, has not been busy either, but content to run the house for her brother and father. As Hirayama has seen what the future has in store for him he is set in motion and so is Michiko.

This feeble summary does not sound at all inspired, but in the movie it works perfectly. Hiroyama is a jovial fellow and this group of middle aged man is very sweet. They are a bunch of pranksters like overgrown boys, but obviously also men of some importance, managers and that sort of people. It is hard for them to accept that they have grown old, but face it they must.

Hirayama’s children are balancing between tradition and modernity and it is very interesting to watch them handling this balance. Traditional family values versus modern independence. Conspicuous consumption against traditional prudence. And as becomes the key event of the movie, the mechanisms of marriage. They are caught between the modern way of falling in love with someone they meet themselves and arranged marriage set up by their parents. This theme has been explored before and after and is usually a very loud affair, but not here. Here we can see that both father and daughter are very uncertain about the whole thing. Michiko has fallen in love with someone, but has not dared to ask him, and Hiroyama has not dared to ask her what she wants. All this hesitation means that opportunities slip away and that is the real risk with Sakuma’s fate lurking on the horizon.

Ozu is brilliant at catching these underplayed emotions and really show what a high context culture the Japanese is. Sometimes it is just a glance, sometimes a shy laughter, the misery in a cup of sake or the longing look at some golf clubs.

The calmness is supported by Ozu’s unique style of filming. He was the master of the static camera, placed on the floor and usually with some sort of framing. It is absolutely beautiful in color and somehow drags the rush out of the movie so we as viewers give ourselves time to take in the story. As a composition Ozu was never better and when we get to the last scene with Hirayama, drunk in his wedding suit singing old wartime songs, we absolutely understand him.

I can only recommend this movie. This was the last one Ozu ever did, but it makes me want to seek out some of his earlier movies not on the list. Watch this, but do yourself a favor and make sure all is quiet around you when you watch it.

 

Monday, 24 July 2017

400 Movies!!!



400 Movie Anniversary
Another milestone has been reached by yours truly. 400 movies down the list as I count it.

It feels like I am actually getting somewhere, 400 is a sizeable chunk of the, huh, approaching 1200 movies on the List.

The past one hundred movies has taken me from 1955 to 1962, which amounts to seven years and it has taken me a year and nine months. It is five years since I started the blog and seven and a half years since I started watching the movies. Slow but steady.

The List keeps throwing curveballs at me, mixing the solid hits with the obscure and this is a trend that seems to intensify here in the sixties. Sometimes it is fun, sometimes annoying, but I am still in a period where I have seen very few of the movies before, so they are always new and surprising to me.

And now for the traditional award.

Last time I mentioned that the style was moving from noir to westerns and that has truly been a theme of the past hundred or two hundred movies. It is therefore tempting to give the award to:

Best Western (not a hotel)

Nominees are:

1.       The Searchers

2.       Seven Samurai

3.       Yojimbo

4.       The Stagecoach

5.       High Noon

Considering Westerns are not my favorite genre, this is a very strong field of movies, all of which I enjoyed heaps. Any of them could run away with the award, but I will, without blinking, name the winner as:

Seven Samurai

This is simply one of the best westerns ever made and it is not even taking place in the American West.

Somehow I have a feeling that the category for my next award at 500 would be Most Obscure movie. I was tempted to do it already, but I know some seriously weird stuff will be coming my way over the next hundred movies so I will push it a little.  

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Dog Star Man (1962)



Dog Star Man
I like video art, I really do, but Stan Brakhage’s ”Dog Star Man” did absolutely nothing for me.

I have a hard time explaining what I saw, partly because it made no sense at all and partly because I had serious trouble maintaining attention on the film. Instead my attention strayed everywhere else and whenever it returned to the screen it was just more of the same.

There were some solar flares, some close-ups of body parts, sometimes internal body parts. There was a man walking up a hill in snow with a dog and an axe over his shoulder. Those pictures were very confused, but I got the impression it was not going so well for him. There was a baby and some faces, maybe religious, and the whole thing was mixed with scratches, quick cuts and false colors.

There is no sound to this thing. At first I thought it was a mistake so I found another version on YouTube, but that was the same. Even silent movies come with a sound track.

Video art is hit or miss and this is definitely a miss for me. I feel annoyed, not just for wasting an hour and fifteen minutes on this thing, but because this film takes a slot on the List in a year where there are several movies that should have been there. That is not a fault of the movie, but of the editors of the List. I will sort of pretend that they got the spot instead and will be including at least three extra movies for 1962.

There is not really a lot more I can say about “Dog Star Man”. I understand that this is widely acclaimed so obviously somebody get something out of it.

On another not, this is my 400th movie on the List, so there will be an anniversary post coming up soon.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cleo de 5 a 7) (1962)



Cleo fra 5 til 7
Here is another movie I did not expect much from. French new wave cinema has had a lot of trouble impressing me and the description of “Cleo from 5 to 7” sounded… uninspiring to say the least. Following a girl around for 2 hours almost real time while she waits for the result of a medical examination. Not exactly my kind of movie.

It starts that way two. There is no plot, not in the classical sense at least and as not much is happening I found myself drifting for the first 15 minutes. Then something happens. I am not sure exactly what it is, but I assume that in the disappointment of any plot to latch onto the brain starts to look for something else, and that is what this movie has plenty of. There is a lot of something else.

In fact this movie is so smack full of impressions from Paris in 1962 that you could watch this movie, get nothing else out of it and still leave happy. The taxi drive through Paris while listening to the radio news was a real eyeopener. It felt very real and with so many details that it got me quite excited. While this sounds like a distraction it also served as the key to the movie for me.

The woman we follow is Cleo (Corinne Marchand), a singer of some fame who is now waiting for the results of what sounds like stomach cancer. Cleo is surface and appearance. Everybody looks at her, even herself, but all anybody see is a baby-doll-like bimbo with the depth of a cartoon character. She is frankly rather annoying. Her relationship with her boyfriend is super shallow, like that of an admirer and I get the impression that they only care for each other in as much as they feel flattered. Then half way through the movie Cleo takes off that awful wig and change from the flamboyant fur coat and polka dot dress and into a more anonymous black dress and she is completely changed. It is as if she is changed from the image she wants the world to see and into herself as a person who actually watches the world. I was only able to put it into words when I watched the extra material, but the effect was very clear and striking in the movie. She changed from a non-entity I did not care about and into a real and interesting person.

The curious thing is that she was a lot prettier as herself, she could in fact go around like that today and she would not look out of place, but that is beside the point. As Cleo observes the world so do we. People in the café, on the street and the people she meet. All because of a change in view point becomes a lot more interesting. Her friend Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck) is a mirror on this experience. As a nude model, the artists see her but they do not see her as anything but an idea. Away from the studio she is alive and joyful and nothing like the empty shell the artists are looking at.

It is in this state Cleo meets a soldier in a park, Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller). At first he seems rather annoying in the way he is coming on to her, but his interest is genuine and so she finds herself genuinely interested in him, something very different from her relationship with her boyfriend, and she opens up and find relieve in that sharing.

When Cleo finally gets the results of the test it seems almost inconsequential. In a way she has through her transformation healed herself.

This is a quite unusual film and as I wrote in the introduction I would not have expected to like it, but I found that I actually did. First for the treasure throve of details it gives, but then as it opens up, for the existential depth of it.

The whole real-time thing seems like a gimmick, like Hitchcock’s (almost) one-shot “Rope” movie, and it sometimes threatens to sabotage the movie. Life is simply not interesting enough for two hours that we need to see it all, but it does add to the realism and makes all the details so interesting. Fragments of dialogue, news in the radio, random people on the street and all the strange things that happens in real life and not in a typical edited film version.

Of the French new wave movies, I have watched, this is probably the one I have liked the most, one that actually captures the idea of this new wave. Recommended.

 

Friday, 14 July 2017

A Dog's Life (Mondo Cane) (1962)



Mondo Cane
Ahh, 1962. A new year, new movies, a great leap into modernity or more of the same?

“Mondo Cane”, the first movie of 1962 is a great leap all right, but I am not entirely sure where to. Off the planet maybe and into the world of tabloid headlines and half-baked truths. Certainly an… interesting way to start a new year.

“Mondo Cane’s” raison d’etre is to shock and upset and not much more than that. In this manner, it has more in common with a modern tabloid or maybe a Michael Moore movie than anything else. Sometimes it works, I was upset a few times, and sometimes this 21st century viewer is just to jaded to take offence and then it seems merely quaint, but back in its day this was a great hit at the box office and apparently sparked a whole genre of “Mondo” films.

It was an Italian team (Cavara, Prosperi and Jacopetti) who combined footage from around the world in a montage that barely hangs together. The vignettes cover items such as pets, men as sex objects, environmental pollution and religious practices plus a ton of other issues that generally has very little to do with each other. When it works best the footage is combined so a topic is considered from very different angles that makes us question what is normal. My favorite is the jump from a pet cemetery in America where people say goodbye to their beloved pets as if they were members of the family to a Malaysian restaurant where you can get your favorite puppy for dinner. What is normal, to treat an animal as family or to eat it?

Unfortunately these juxtapositions fail more often than not, aiming more for the shock effect as when Gurka soldiers in Nepal decapitate living cattle. Even I had to look away. Or old people shoved aside to die in Singapore.

“Mondo Cane” is very liberal in its definition of truth and at times its manipulation is definitely in the way. I am sure the Bikini atoll was devastated by the nuclear bomb testing, but somehow the turtle confusion sounds like they are bullshitting us and the life guard demonstration in Sydney Australia is just too silly. On the other hand the sequence about nightlife in Hamburg is probably authentic. I have seen places and people like that and the saying is true that says that there is nothing as stupid as drunk people when you are not drunk yourself. Maybe with the exception of the idiots in the bull-run sequences from Portugal. Or the people who will pay a fortune for a smashed car or a painting made by nude women smeared in blue paint…

It is a surprisingly easy movie to get through. The confusion of these vignettes should have made it pointless, but in themselves they are usually beautifully shot and with enough surprise that I sit curiously waiting for the next vignette. Tribes on pacific island or Papua New Guinea are expected to be odd, but it is when we see our own culture portrayed as odd that it starts getting interesting.

I would not say I was sold by “Mondo Cane”, its objective is simply too narrow, and I do not feel informed at all, merely weirded out, but it was still a lot better than I thought it would be. I would be hesitant about taking too much away from the movie except this, that when your angle of view changes, things you thought where normal may suddenly become very strange indeed.

Monday, 10 July 2017

The Exiles (1961)



De rodløse
In my old hometown of Aalborg in Denmark there is a perpetual party. I fair weather it will be outside on the square in front of the train station while in poor weather it moves inside into one of the bars on the square, but it will always be on. When I lived there we called it Grønlænderfesten, which translates to The Greenlandic Party, since majority of the participants would the Greenlanders who had moved to Denmark. They were always happy and they did not bother anyone, but it was difficult not to think that in their alcoholic haze they lived a shadow life of what they should have been.

“The Exiles” seems to be the American equivalent. This is about American Indians, or whatever it is politically correct to call them, who has left the reservation and now live a shadow life in Los Angeles on the fringe of society. They may be partying hard, but it does not seem like a happy life, not for any of them and there is constantly a feeling that this is wrong, that they should be doing something else.

How real this movie is I am unable to tell, but it feels like a portrait of the lives of real people, who narrate over filmed events of one evening and night in their lives. It might be called a documentary, but it is not a film that offers any explanations or opinions other than the characters themselves. As a mirror on reality it would be a good double feature with “Chronicle d’un été”, here succeeding where “Chronicle…” according to itself failed.

We follow Yvonne and Homer who live together in the Bunker Hill neighborhood in Los Angeles. They both left the reservation to strike out for themselves in Los Angeles, where they met each other. Yvonne is a sad, soft spoken character who does all she can to make Homer appreciate her. She cooks for him, fix his cloth and let him do whatever he wants in the hope that he will be a good husband and father to the child she is expecting and maybe even get a job. In return Homer is just being an asshole.

Homer does not do anything but watch television at day and hang out with his friends at night. They hit the bars, pick up girls, gamble their money away, drink some more and get into fights. In that process Homer does not offer Yvonne a single thought, but seems to be perfectly okay about what he is doing as if it is his right. But Homer is not happy, even though he has a ton of excuses for what he does. We rarely see him smile and there is a quiet desperation about him, which becomes most expressed when he going to a midnight pow-wow with the other Indians on a hill on the outskirts of town.

Both Yvonne and Homer seems to be wasting their lives waiting for something else, something they can only vaguely define and which they seem completely unable to reach for.

I did not like Yvonne and Homer very much, they were too much fool and asshole to be likeable, but it was remarkable how honest they were and how exposed they got in the course of this movie. This cannot have been an easy movie for them to watch afterwards and I wonder how the director got so close to them. Part of me thinks he was abusing that confidence by the not very flattering way they are portrayed, but another part is quite convinced that they we nod and agree that this is pretty much what their lives are about. These are not resourceful people. Yvonne is not strong enough to leave or stand up to Homer and Homer is not strong enough to look himself in the eye and take responsibility for his life. Instead they just flow with it.

It is fascinating and not a little sad, a bit like the Greenlandic party in Aalborg. These are just two people and their friends, but something here speaks for a larger group of people with similar background. And then of course we get a good look at the not so glamorous life in Los Angeles in the late fifties, far away for Hollywood’s glitz.    

This was the last 1961 movie for me. Next comes 1962…