Sunday, 17 December 2017

Winter Light (Nattvardsgasterna) (1963)



Lys i mørket
There is something very intense about Bergman’s movies in general. Characters are fighting internal battles with themselves, with their Gods or demons or, well whatever else that troubles them. When you get that inner struggle his movies are great. When you don’t, well, then you are in for a hard time. That is why Bergman is hit or miss.

This is particularly true for Winter Light (odd English title for what translates as “participants in the communion”) as there is little else in this movie than those internal battles.

I may understand the worries the characters in “Winter Light” have on an intellectual level, but they also feel alien enough that I have to strain to comprehend them. That makes “Winter Light” a difficult movie.

Central to “ Winter Light” is the priest Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand). He is the gloomy and serious looking priest of two small congregations in the Swedish outback. Behind the façade however, Tomas is a troubled man. He feels left by God and is rather bitter about it. For a priest that is pretty bad and Tomas does take it badly.

Since his wife died four years earlier he has struggled to find a meaning with his existence and he has found none. God is not helping him at all and God’s silence is making Tomas bitter. In fact his internal struggle dominates everything he says or does. He seems blind to the people who seek his help, and instead of assistance or understanding he lashes out in bitterness. His eye is turned inward instead of outward. In the movie this is exemplified by Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow in an uncharacteristic minor role), who is terribly afraid that the Chinese will nuke Sweden, and by Märta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin), who genuinely cares for him and wants a bit of attention in return.

In the case of Jonas, Tomas should have been listening and supporting Jonas. Instead he is telling him that life is pointless and without hope, based on his own misery. Jonas subsequently shoots himself, thank you for nothing. For Märta Tomas has no room in his life. Märta’s attention is unwanted and oppressive to him. If his mind is 100% filled with himself, how can she demand a piece of his attention and care as well? How can she demand that he should receive and return her love?

Frankly the egomanic Tomas is not very sympathetic and it is frustrating to see that the meaning he is looking for, the divine element is right before him, yet his egomaniac obsession prevents him from recognizing it. I felt like screaming at him, but it would have been to no avail. No amount of imploring could have opened his mind. He was too far gone in his self-pity.

Near the end Tomas has a conversation with Algot Frövik (Allan Edwall), a sexton, which I suspect is key to the movie. Algot says that Jesus greatest suffering was that he though God had left him, there on the cross. This, I suppose, would compare Tomas suffering to that of Jesus’ and in Christianity it just does not get bigger than that. Exactly what effect that has on Tomas is not clear to me. He simply proceeds to give service to an empty church. It makes the story feel unresolved, but I am probably missing something as usual.

Those heavy stone churches, grave priests and empty churches are very familiar to me. Except for the snow this could have been in Denmark. I was surprised to note that this was already the case in 1963. It could easily have played out in 2017 and I guess that makes the story relevant today. It just does not feel that relevant to me, but that has more to do with me not being religious. The neurotic worries of religious people are always difficult for me to grasp. For somebody more religiously connected I can imagine this movie will resonate quite well.

Still, I do like the idea of cutting this deep, to the bare bones in a story. It gives movies a focus rather than distractions and Bergman was a master of that exercise. I do not recall watching a movie as naked as this one, though. The black and white photography helps a lot, but this is really all about communicating internal turmoil, which in turn means acting and direction.

This is a movie I admire more than I enjoyed. I did not connect sufficiently with the subject matter and it feels unresolved, but I would still recommend it. It is very much Bergman.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Hud (1963)



Hud
Everything is bigger in Texas. That includes the assholes.

“Hud” is one of the big movies of 1963. It was nominated for seven Oscars and won three, including Best Actress (Patricia Neal), Best Supporting Actor (Melvyn Douglas) and Best Cinematography. It also has a reputation that walks well ahead of it and it was one of the movies I was looking forward to, going into 1963.

It is a movie that in many ways delivers. It is exactly the A-movie you would expect. Acting, photography, direction and gravity are all of a very high standard. Add to that a beautiful score by Elmer Bernstein and the best black and white cinematography imaginable and it all starts to sound very promising.

Why is it then that this felt like a difficult movie to watch?

That is a personal question of course. Another person might have an entirely different experience. To me the answer is two things. First, this is essentially a portrait of a jerk, a Texas size asshole, in the shape of Paul Newman as Hud Bannon, the son of old rancher Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas). Hud does not care shit about anything or anyone but himself and his own gratification. He picks fight, drinks too much, sleeps with other men’s wives and treats everybody and everything in an underhand and selfish manner. He is a nihilist and an egoist and he is charming as hell. He is the central character of the movie and it is bloody difficult to have any sympathy for him or to root for him in any way.

Secondly, this is not a happy movie. On the contrary, it is a movie with a slow-moving doom that creeps in from the horizon and tramples everything underfoot. You can see it coming right from the start and you just know this will not end well. It is depressive as hell. Beautiful, important, intelligent and depressive. In many ways it reminded me of “The Grapes of Wrath” with that nostalgic pang of an era gone.

Homer, his son Hud and his grandson, through a now dead second son, Lonnie  (Brandon deWilde), lives on a ranch with house keeper Alma (Patricia Neal) and a few hands. One day a cow falls sick and dies and the veterinarian soon has the entire herd in quarantine under suspicion of foot-and-mouth disease. That is a serious illness, even today. I remember outbreaks in Denmark where loads of cattle got killed on the slightest suspicion of mund-og-klov-syge, as it is called in Danish. It is no joke (my sister’s husbond is a cattle farmer) and for the Bannons it is complete disaster. Their entire life is based on ranching and without cattle there is nothing left. Homer is of the old school and he is watching his entire life’s achievement getting flushed down the toilet. Hud wants to sell the herd before it gets quarantined to get the money and then lease the land to oil drilling. Essentially he shits on all the honor and principles of Homer, which is perfectly in his character. Lonnie admires his granddad, but he also thinks uncle Hud is pretty cool. For him this is a life deciding moment: Does he want the life of the principled and honorable, but doomed grandfather or the cool, rebellious, but ultimately empty life of his uncle?

The doom of the ranch may be the backdrop, but the real drama is the rift between Homer and Hud, each representing opposing worldviews, with Lonnie as the observer in the middle. It is a mean and bitter conflict, all the more so because it is family. It actually hurts to watch, and I suppose that is a quality of the movie.

This may be a western, but it is a modern one. Modern not just in the time it takes place in, but also for the realism. These are not gun slinging cowboys robbing the bank, or a lonesome cowboy on the frontier. No, these are just ordinary people trying to make a living in dusty, dry Texas. In that sense it is a movie that points forward to the realism of the seventies and as such feels well ahead of its time.

Watching “Hud” is not sitting down for a good time, this is not Sunday afternoon watching, but it a rewarding movie with gravity that will make you want to kick Paul Newman and taste the dust of West Texas. It is not my favorite movie, but it is a quality movie and worth watching, definitely.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Contempt (Le Mepris) (1963)



Jeg elskede dig igår
Even dealt the best cards imaginable, Godard can still mess up a movie.

The Book always promises me heaven when presenting Godard movies, but I have learned the hard way to mistrust it. In the case of “Le Mepris” (Contempt) the factual elements are so promising though, that I dared a little hope. Could it finally be that Godard would give me a movie to make me understand his fame and why movie critics wet themselves over his movies?

This time Godard gives us Brigitte Bardot as his lead actress. That counts for a lot, if for no other reason but the massive sex appeal surrounding her. For those unfamiliar with Bardot, she was the hottest girl of the period. Even in my childhood, in the eighties, when Bardot had turned into a strange cat woman, people talked about her with awe and in the “Le Mepris” we see why. Godard miss no opportunity to show her off to her best advantage, with or without cloth.

We also get a movie, ostensibly, about making movies, with Fritz Lang as himself and lots of references to other, famous movies. There are plenty of shots and talk about the movie making process and even some jokes about the pretentiousness of making art movies. This should be good.

Colors are beautiful, music is great. Actually better than just great. What could go wrong?

Well, incredible as it sounds it all comes to nothing.

First of all there is no plot and hardly a narrative. Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) is a French writer who has moved to Italy with his pretty wife Camille Javal (Bardot), a typist, to write screenplays. He is meeting with an American producer, Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance), who wants him to rewrite a script for his new movie, a movie on the Odyssey, directed by Fritz Lang as himself. Jeremy is an arrogant womanizer and Paul casually throws Camille into his arms. Camille is hurt by this and for the major part of the movie they have an ongoing slow-burn argument going on about it.

The argument is largely pointless, based on (deliberate) misunderstanding and selfishness, throwing in some clichés about men not understanding women and vice versa. Finally, they go to Capri where the discussion continues and ends with Camille walking out on Paul together with Jeremy.

It is dull, pointless and stupid. I lost interest after 10 minutes and it never picked up. Yes, Bardot has a pretty butt and yes, it is nice to see Fritz Lang, but, really, what is the point? Watching people have silly arguments over whether they love each other is neither profound nor interesting, it is not even dramatic, just immensely juvenile.

Godard is also wading around in stereotypes. Jeremy Prokosch is maybe the worst as an arrogant, self-indulgent American producer, the image a European would have of a such. He is totally disconnected from his surroundings if it wasn’t for his translator Francesca (Giorgia Moll), yet he acts as the man in charge. Paul has to be the quintessential screenwriter, always wearing a hat and with ambitions of something else and Lang has to be the auteur with disdain for his script and his producer. It makes me wonder If I have been watching a satire, ironizing over the world of moviemaking, but if so, it is a wry and dull satire and certainly not a fun one.

The ending, I was told, would be shocking. I could not wait for that jolt to shake me out of my stupor, but alas, it was entirely as pointless as the rest of the movie.

As such, Godard managed to take all those promising elements and flush them down the toilet, giving us something as pretentious and empty as what he seems to be criticizing. Pretty girls and luscious colors can never save such a mess. Godard, je n’ai que du mépris pour toi.

Monday, 4 December 2017

8 1/2 (1963)


 
It is time for yet another Fellini movie, this time “8½” from 1963.

I have been lackluster at best when it comes to Fellini’s movies, so it may not say much, but I think “8½” is the best of his movies so far. Or maybe I have just gotten used to these Italian movies and lowered my tolerance threshold.

“8½” is a strange movie. One of those that are impossible to describe, you just have to see it. It sounds like a comedy: A director is trying to make a movie, but it is all a big mess. Actors and particularly actresses crowd around him asking him what their parts are, a monstrous spaceship set is being built on a beach, producers, critics and journalists are all jabbering for a attention and in the middle of all this both the mistress and the wife of the director shows up on set. Meanwhile the director has no idea what movie he is going to make, instead he is simply stalling.

This sounds familiar, as if at least parts have been used in other comedies, and it sounds hilariously funny, but in “8½” the angle is different, sort of. It is undeniable that there is a bitter humor to this, but Fellini tries to play it a lot deeper. His director, Guido, (Marcello Mastroianni) wants to make a movie about himself (with a spaceship!) and it seems as if Fellini wanted to make a movie about himself, making a movie about himself. Yet, Guido is more lost than we must hope Fellini ever was. He is constantly searching and in doubt. He seeks out women and cannot let them go again, something to do with his childhood supposedly, and that is both causing him endless trouble, but also make him look sad. Except that most of these women are phenomenally beautiful: Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo, Barbara Steele just to mention some of them. To me he reminds me of a child who ate too many cookies and got a bad stomach pain.

Guido is clearly stranded in his life, groping for meaning and answers. In his mind his dreams play out as surrealist movies, but they rarely provide any answers. The opening sequence with a man trapped in a car in a giant traffic jam only to finally break out and fly away, seems symptomatic for Guido. He is trapped in his life and in his role as a successful director.

So we have this odd combination of a setting that is clearly, outrageously so, comedic, and a story that is a lot more profound and even sad. It is both somewhat confusing and rewarding as if Fellini is using comedy to tell a serious story, or is making fun of his own problems.

Without revealing too much I think it is safe to say that the situation spirals out of control and when Guido finally finds release he has all the characters dance in a chain resembling the divine comedy, a fatalistic surrender to life as it is, accepting it instead of fighting it. Supposedly the right morale to draw from this.

The mix of normality and surreal dream sequences is inspired. They work very well to give us glimpses of Guido’s thoughts and they are all hilarious to watch, especially the harem scene. Ironically Guido’s reality is catching up with his dreams and is getting even more surreal than what his mind can concoct. I have more trouble with all the Italian craziness, of everybody shouting and throwing up their arms, but that is what you are in for, watching Italian movies.

Wikipedia writes that “8½” is now considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. I doubt I would go that far. Let me stick to “one of the greatest Fellini films of all time”.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Passenger (Pasazerka) (1963)


 
Passageren
Back on the List I am continuing on the depressive strain to late. This time with the Polish movie “Pasazerka” (Passenger), a movie that largely takes place in Auschwitz. That, more or less, sets the tone.

“Passenger” is an odd movie in the sense that it is unfinished. The director Andrzej Munk died during the shooting of the movie and the end-product is a combination of footage and stills with a narrator filling the gaps. It therefore feels like half movie, half documentary about the movie. It is strange and I cannot say that worked very well. It certainly made me focus more on the process of making the film than the story of the film.

The story also drowns in the subject matter. Any movie featuring a death camp will overwhelm the viewer with the enormous tragedy of millions of people being systematically killed, and for the few who are not being killed outright, total degradation. I personally have a hard time with Holocaust movies and this one pressed exactly the wrong buttons for me. In one scene we see a large group of children walking into a gas chamber, completely oblivious to their imminent death, some holding hands with nurses guiding them there. Then a German guard prepares the poisonous gas, with no second thought for what he is doing. I felt like puking.

I have been to Theresienstadt, mostly because my wife’s great-grandparents were killed there, and that was bad enough. A real death camp I could not visit. It would be too much.

Somewhere there is a story, but I am not really sure about it. We follow a woman, Liza (Aleksandra Slaska) who is a guard, an overseer, with SS tags and all. On a boat trip she sees a woman she thinks is a woman from her past and so she tells her ignorant husband an edited version of her past, something about that she saved that woman’s life in Auschwitz. Later we get the honest story which is something about that Liza and that woman, Marta (Anna Ciepielewska) waged a mental war of supremacy on each other.

This is where I had to let go of the story. I simply have no idea what this conflict was about and how it played out. It also seems of very little consequence with the pictures of all that misery around them. We see the barracks where the prisoners live, we see naked women being chased though the camp, we see prisoners play music for the staff and we watch endless columns of people walking to their death. Who cares about a story about a guard and a prisoner fighting for mental supremacy?

“Passenger” won awards in Cannes and, I think, Venice, but I think that was more for the subject matter than the quality of the film itself. A half-finished film with an obscure conflict? No, it is the pictures from Auschwitz that matters. Those are pictures I remember.

Frankly, I just want to move on to the next movie.

 

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Charade (1963)



Off-List: Charade
The first of the off-List movies I have selected for 1963 is “Charade”. Thank you, Bea, for reminding me of this movie. It is not only a good pick for a movie that should have been on the List, it is also exactly what I need in a stream of otherwise depressive movies.

“Charade” was recommended to me by my parents-in-law about a year and a half ago and we watched it together back then. I remember wondering why this movie was not on the List when so much garbage seem the clutter the early sixties part of the List, so I started to look for flaws. Strangely enough I found almost none. Almost, because there is a bit of aging to this movie, but viewed in context with other 1963 movies the flaws are negligible. Here on second viewing I am even happier about it. This is movie that truly makes me smile.

“Charade” is a Byzantine maze of hidden identities and scams, an everbody-against-everybody, a free for all to get the coveted prize of 250.000$.

Regina “Reggie” Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is an American socialite in France. She is vacationing in the Alps with her friend when she is approached, apparently innocently, by Peter Johua (Cary Grant). Upon returning to Paris her husband is dead and their apartment entirely empty. Turns out Reggie knew practically nothing about the late Mr. Lampert and all he has left her is a travelling back with four different passports and a letter that her dentist appointment has been rescheduled.

In this moment of need Peter reappears and helps her get back on her feet. Only, he is not alone. No less than four other men shows up, including a CIA man, Bartholomew (Walter Matthau), with a keen interest in her, her husband and an awful lot of money that he was supposed to have, but nobody can find.

What we learn over the following events is that very few are what they claim to be. One character in particular changes identity four times in the course of the movie! There are also very few limits to the extent these people will go to get the money, including murder. The confusion and mystery make for perfect ingredients both for comedy and suspense and “Charade” plays both horses very well. The comedy is largely borne by Grant and Hepburn. Grant for simply being his usual character (think Thornhill in “North by Northwest) and Hepburn for being, well, her typical character, somewhere in between “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “Roman Holiday”. The ping-pong dialogue between these two is a reminiscent of the 1930’ies screwball comedy and it mostly work, though Grant’s lines misfires occasionally.

Where Peter Joshua is the jovial character, the three stooges, Scobie (George Kenedy), Tex (James Coburn) and Gideon (Ned Glass), are the sinister types that brings danger to the mix. The suspense largely comes from their side when they try to force a solution. Yet, maybe there is an outside player who is even worse…

Beside handling both comedy and suspense very well, “Charade” has an excellent pace, that keeps you seated and engaged throughout and, not least, tons of charm. A remake was made in 2002 (“The Truth About Charlie”) that goes only for the suspense element and in the process loses all the charm of the original. That one cannot be recommended.   

Of course there is a credibility issue. I doubt anybody would have handled herself as cool as Reggie does and I doubt State Treasury employee’s would go to those extents to bring back money, an army of lawyers would be more realistic, but that is not the point. In the world “Charade” takes place in, this story is completely credible, and we would not have it any other way.

“Charade” is a wonderful good time. It is an excellent opportunity to watch some of the best actors and actresses of the period do their thing and it is a travesty that this movie is not on the List.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The Cool World (1963)



En by i New York
“The Cool World” is a movie about gangs in Harlem, but about as far removed from “West Side Story” as it is possible to get. Instead of glamour, color and dancing, we get grit, misery and despair, but also the coolest soundtrack imaginable.

Apparently there was a trend in the beginning of the sixties, likely inspired by the French new wave, to make attempts at filming reality, or to make fiction films in an environment as real as possible. This is something that happened far from the big studios and often at a fraction of their budgets, which both gave the freedom to do things differently, but also made them technically inept. There are quite a few on them on the List and “The Cool World” is one such movie.

It was difficult to find much information about the movie, the Wikipedia page is very thin, so I do not know much of the background for the movie. My guess is that this was intended as a movie about growing up in Harlem, underprivileged, poor and exposed to all the rough sides of life. It is fiction, but it looks real. Filming is clearly on location and the actors do not seem like actors at all, but locals being more or less themselves. I have no way of knowing if that is the case, but I strongly suspects this is so.

We follow 15 year old Duke (Hampton Clanton), who is a petty thief with dreams of being a gang boss. He admires an older gangster called Priest (Carl Lee) and run some errands for him. At one point Priest asks Duke to keep his gun for him, while he is otherwise engaged. This fuels Duke’s dreams of reviving a gang, “Royal Pythons” and go after another gang, “The Wolves”. As he returns the gun his head is filled with thoughts of getting his own gun. He sets up the gang, get his own gang girl and prepare for the rumble.

As the rumble approaches however, he starts thinking that there is more to life than this. He sees what happens to junkies, his girl, LuAnne (Yolanda Rodriguez) makes him think of a different life and when Priest is killed he is seriously disturbed. Alas the rumble is unavoidable and ends poorly.

I was unable to find a proper copy of this movie. It is available on YouTube, but the quality is horrendous. Smeared pictures and poor sound quality combined with a very on-location feel makes it often difficult to figure out what is going on and understand the dialogue. That is a shame, really, because it is an interesting movie and I would love to watch a restored version.

While I often got lost in the actual story I had no problem following the scenery. The pictures from Harlem are filled with misery and poverty. There is a quiet despair in these pictures that sometimes explodes in violence or rage, but there is also defiance and an insistence on getting the best out of things. This is not just an exposé of the slum, but a movie that cares about the people it films. I have never been to Harlem. The few times I have been to New York I never ventured that far north, but somehow I would not be surprised if it did not look much different from this movie.

The real draw of “The Cool World” however is the soundtrack. This is the most awesome Dizzy Gillespie jazz soundtrack imaginable. I love this kind of music. It works perfectly with the scenery and the story, but it also works perfectly on its own. This is the kind of music I would put on for myself.

This is a depressing movie, and a very confusing one due to the poor quality, and I am not sure I would want to watch it again, but given a proper restoration this could be a highlight of 1963. If for no other reason than the music.

 

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Blonde Cobra (1963)



Blonde Cobra
The best thing about ”Blonde Cobra” is that it is only 33 minutes long.

Sadly, that is the only good thing about it, I can think of.

“Blonde Cobra” is an experimental film about… I confess, I have no idea. Something about a guy going around in, what he thinks is, funny hats and a narrator telling stories, which he thinks are funny. The two things do not seem to have anything to do with each other, indeed at times the picture disappears entirely.

To me this looks like home video. Some people got high, decided to shoot some footage of each other, then smoked some more and narrated the thing, finally smoked themselves into outer space and edited the excuse for a movie.

The Book calls it a master piece, which makes me think that the editors smoked the same thing. I genuinely like film art. I like when the film media is turned upside down, but this is just stupid. A few years ago the List was revised and space was made for 50 new entries, but “Blonde Cobra” stayed!!! Unbelivable.

I think it is supposed to be funny. At least the narrator thinks so. It is also supposed to be provocative and very gay. Awesome, give me something gay and provocative and fun to boot. This is none of those things. Ah, yes, it is gay, I will give it that, but the lewd stories are so infantile that it does not count as provocative, merely of someone who could use some help battling his inner demons and maybe grow up a bit.

I also have to confess that have little idea what happened the last five minutes of the film. I had started looking into getting a new credit card and was wondering why my digital signature was not working any more…

For gay humor I prefer “Öresunds visan”. You may require subtitles, but it is largely self-explanatory.

Thank you, editors of the List, for wasting my time. I will add this to my list of Top 5 Useless Movies on the List.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Nutty Professor (1963)



Jerry som den skøre professor
Oh no, not another Jerry Lewis movie.

Deep sigh.

Okay, I guess it is no secret by now that I am not a fan of Jerry Lewis. His form of comedy, vastly over played and infantile (Jim Carrey’s style) grates on me and he can single handedly ruin a movie for me. “The Nutty Professor” is no exception.

The curious thing is that there is potential in this movie. The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story of course is a classic. So is that of the clumsy, geeky guy taking a step too far to get accepted. Both stories are classics because they work. We are interested, even fascinated by the split personality theme because we all consist of good and bad and so Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are distills of something we recognize, and Hollywood of course loves that story. It also loves the geeky guy who wants to be popular, maybe even more so and a movie like “Weird Science” come to mind as a good (and fun) example.

In any case with two so solid stories it is hard to go entirely wrong. Lewis is the geeky professor Kelp at a high school, who is good at chemistry and little else. He is bullied by everybody and decides he has to change. Body building does not really do it for him, but chemistry does, so Kelp concocts a mixture that turn him into a smoking hot, super cool, bloated oaf: Buddy Love. Mr. Love can sing, play piano and act cool and smooth and is soon the hottest guy in town. Unfortunately the spell only lasts a limited time before he reverts to being Kelp.

Professor Kelp likes the student Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens) and she is sympathetic to him. As Mr. Love, Kelp goes full throttle on her and she is both attracted and repulsed by her. Especially she finds it disturbing that he often disappears with hardly a word. Eventually of course it is revealed that Kelp and Love is the same guy and Kelp gets his girl.

There is some potential for drama, but it is mostly traded for comedy. The comedy here is the helpless Kelp and the obnoxious Love and that stands and falls with Jerry Lewis. If you like his style you are likely to find this movie hilarious, but if, like me, you find his form of comedy annoying and grating then there is not much left to save the movie, certainly not in the sense of comedy. Stella Stevens is nice as a sweet looking girl, but her job is only to let Lewis play up to her. Del Moore as the principal Dr. Warfield is fine as the straight victim of Lewis gags, but again that is just what he is. This is a Lewis movie, doing the Lewis stuff. I understand why the movie was remade, it has a lot of potential if you just replaced the comedian.

Then of course there is the highly suspect issue of a teacher with a relationship to a student. I understand this is a very definite no-go, but here it is not questioned at all.

I should say something nice and so I will admit that the colors were great and the music was nice. Apparently the famous Edith Head did the costumes and it shows. I wish there was more I could mention, but a comedy that I do not find funny is just a flat experience.

Friday, 10 November 2017

The Birds (1962)


 
Fuglene
It is a new year, 1963, and the first movie of the year (in my edition) is Alfred Hitchcock’s ”The Birds”.

This is a very famous movie. At least, it is a movie I remember people talking about, back in my childhood, but I only remember having caught small and few glimpses of the actual movie. This is not a movie you let children watch.

Now I am an adult, I think, and old enough to actually watch it and my impression is both positive and negative. This movie comes at the tail end of long string of Hitchcock movies and, frankly, the bar is pretty high.

On the positive side, this movie delivers what it promises. It is a suspense and horror movie and we get lots of both and in a very high quality. Hitchcock took something as harmless as birds and made them menacing, murderous creatures. It is actually ludicrous and corresponds to an army of vicious hamsters or the rabbit from Monty Python, but it works, surprisingly. Watch this movie and you will never look at a bird in quite the same way. The scene with Melanie (Tippi Hedren), Mitch (Rod Taylor), Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) and Mitch’ mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) locked up in their house with an army of crazy birds trying to get in is pure terror. As is the moment where Melanie, sitting outside the school, realizes that the birds are gathering for an attack.

Hitchcock is also reusing a plot device that worked very well in “Psycho”. He is starting one story and lulls us into believing that this is the story and then, out of the blue literally, this plot turns insignificant against the real plot of the movie. I somehow see the point in doing this because it gets the viewer into the right state to receive the scare.

But this movie is not perfect. On two account I have problems with it.

First there is the reason for the birds to attack. There is none, and that bothers me a great deal. It is just… there. We are offered a few half-hearted explanations in the movie. A woman claims that Melanie is to blame, because it started when she arrived. Another claims this is the punishment of God, but most of the characters just ask “why” in bewilderment. I have read several places that the bird attacks are somehow related to female sexuality, but that is just plain weird. Yes, there are an awful lot of women in this movie and some of them has some issues, but I do not see how that relates to the bird attacks. One could just leave it as a nature gone crazy thing, like a volcano or an epidemic, but it just feels unsatisfying.

The second issue I have with “The Birds” is that the front story, what we are supposed to believe is the story to begin with, has some loose ends. I did not really get it. As I understood it Melanie and Mitch know each other from the courts and Melanie has a, maybe sinister, agenda going all the way up to Bodega Bay to give Mitch the two lovebirds. There is something wrong about her, she wants something. Then the reaction she gets from the villagers, especially the school teacher Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), when she mentions Mitch, gave me the impression there is something ominous about Mitch.

Anyway, it turns out that Melanie just have a crush on Mitch and that Mitch has a dominating mother.

Eeehh… well…

Technically Hitch was never better. On the special effects side this is totally edgy in 1963 and the jump scares work perfectly. This is just not good enough thought out. Somehow it is too thin with too many loose ends. On the back of so many great movies Hitch could do better than this.

   

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Heaven and Earth Magic (1962)



Heaven and Earth Magic
Before Terry Gilliam there was Harry Everett Smith. Gilliam is (among many other things) famous for those animations he did as part of Monty Python. They were made from Victorian cut-outs, were completely surreal and were intentionally absurd. Years before Gilliam did these Harry Smith did something very similar and I am quite convinced Gilliam was inspired by Smith.

Smith’s “Heaven and Earth Magic” is a 66-minute-long animation movie based like Gilliam’s on Victorian cutouts. There is no apparent storyline, indeed any attempt at wresting a story out of this flounders. Instead we see surreal things like women on pedestals, eggs with hammers inside, skeletons with giant syringes and much, much more. There is a fellow, a male character, that appears throughout the movie, clearly a protagonist of some sort, who moves around in some sort of dance. He will carry the woman, give her a melon, find eggs with hammers inside or feed all sorts of things into the mouth of a big face.

I really have no idea what it all means. At 66 minutes it is so long that you would think that it should be more than just absurd images and novel connections and there are some hints that this play with subconscious images, but if it is religious or existentialist or whatever, I have no idea.

It is always frustrating to look at something that makes no sense and after an hour of this my attention was slipping. Yet there is something fascinating about these images. It is just so absurd that it is a novelty all in itself. I can certainly see Terry Gilliam being fascinated by this.

I tried showing a few minutes of this for my son and though mystified he actually liked it. Maybe because it was the scene where a foot appears and kick everything to pieces, that was kind of silly, even for this movie, but I also think children have an easier time accepting the absurd. I cannot help trying to find meaning in what I see and maybe there is none.

The Book writes that the intension is to combine things in new ways and draw on some common cultural references and maybe that is all it is, a playful and idle game of combining silly things. I find it hard to accept that that is all there is to it, but it is the best I can come up with.

“Heaven and Earth Magic” was a fascinating watch, but also unsatisfying. It is special and maybe that is why it is taking a slot on the List, but by taking a slot, it excludes other and better movies. Any of the three off-list movies I reviewed for 1962 deserve the slot more than “Heaven and Earth Magic”.

This concludes 1962. It took a while and with three extra movies it was also a bigger year than usual. 1962 had a lot of excellent movies and it will be difficult for 1963 to reach these heights. But I can always hope it will.

Friday, 3 November 2017

My Life to Live (Vivre sa Vie: Film en Douze Tableaux) (1962)


 
Livet skal leves
I guess Godard and I will never really be friends. And if we do, it will not be through “Vivre sa vie” (“My Life to Live”).

“Vivre sa Vie” is a movie about a girl, Nana (Anna Karina), who works in a record store in Paris and owes some money. She meets a pimp who sets her up as a prostitute and later she gets killed when the pimp tries to sell her to some other pimp. In between she watches movies (Jeanne d’Arc), listens to poetry and talk with a philosopher.

That is about it.

Oh, and the presentation is as twelve small stories, almost vignettes, which sometimes, sometimes not, fit chronologically together.

The story is so thin and apparently pointless that there must be a deeper story behind. Especially with the references to Dreyer, Poe and the philosopher dude. However, I am obviously too stupid to get that story. Or maybe this movie was just too boring for me to care to find the deeper meaning. The Book describe it as a masterpiece so, clearly, I am way off-track.

Frankly I have little more to say about the movie. As usual it is nice going around in Paris in 1962 and see what it looked like and then of course there is Anna Karina herself.

Anna Karina is a bit of a discovery. She was, it appears, a famous actress in the sixties and seventies and an accomplished singer as well, but I do not recall having encountered her before, except for an early review of “Alphaville”. This is quite surprising because she happens to be Danish, originally called Hanne Karin Blarke Bayer, and we tend to take credit for any success achieved by anybody with the most tenuous connection to Denmark. Alas, in Denmark she is practically unknown. Or maybe I am just too young.

She does have a captivating appearance and she is the one thing that makes this movie bearable. Likely I am going to see her a lot more because she was used by Godard as Sternberg used Dietrich and the List just loooves Godard…

If anybody has a clue what this movie is actually about, do drop me a line.

 

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The Longest Day (1962)



Off-List: The Longest Day
”The Longest Day” is the third off-list film I have chosen to review for 1962. I recall watching “The Longest Day” ages ago and I was surprised to see that it had not been included on the List. Now after having watched it again I got confirmed the grandeur of the spectacle as I remember it, but I also got some understanding for why it is not on the List.

“The Longest Day” is a movie about D-Day, the Allied invasion in Normandy in 1944, no more and no less. The only concession is that it actually starts the previous evening, which therefore serves as backstory, but otherwise it is strictly a single day. While limited in time, there is hardly any limit in scope. We see, or are supposed to see everything. We see the American parachuters land, we see the British gliders near Caen. We follow the landing on every one of the five beaches including the scaling of the cliffs on Omaha beach. We listen the generals back in England, meteorologists, sailors, officers and privates. We follow English, American and French troops as well as resistance saboteurs. We even follow the battle on the German side, in the bunkers, the operation centers and the airfields. This is not only the Longest Day, but probably also the longest cast list.

It is clear that the picture intends to portray what really happened on D-Day and therefore the events of the day is both the plot and the topic. The reproduction is impressive, and it works. It feels very authentic and it is difficult to let go of the movie. It is intense and captures well the intensity of the events. As it often happens the desire to be accurate means that inaccuracies are that much more glaring. The compromises necessary to make the movie work are so much more in your face because the movie claims to portray reality.

I can live with that, though. Countless war movies have inured me to vagaries of moviemaking. There are other problems that are much worse. With so wide a scope we lose focus. We do not see the individuals enough to invest in them and they remain very one-dimensional. We also lose track of event. Shooting here, shooting there, tons of people dying, what is the big picture, how does it all fit in? I know enough about the invasion to fill in many of the gaps, but for most viewers this must be a confusing experience, a bit like watching “Dunkirk”.

There are literally a ton of stars on the roster for this movie. It is a who is who in Hollywood and elsewhere on the male side. Wayne, Fonda, Mitchum and Connery to mention a few. They all need a few minutes of glory, but that is all we really see. These are not roles, they are cameos and it rarely works to cram so much stardom into a single movie. What they do is nice enough, but each of their stories warrant an entire movie on their own, something later D-Day movies have done. Limit the scope and you get a much better movie.

The coverage of the battles looks very modern and I do like that they got all sides of the affair covered. This is not a simple glorification of American soldiers, but it actually portrays the Germans as human beings. They are soldiers, not (necessarily) Nazis. On the other hand, there is something very dated about the presentation. The movie is packed with inspirational speeches, the kind of talk that befits propaganda films, but not something that can claim to be realistic. They weigh the movie down and give it a pathos that it does not need. The pictures and the topic lend it enough of that.

Another problematic limitation is to stick to just one day. Nothing is resolved in a day. A lot of storylines start but practically none are brought to a conclusion. It would be weeks before the beachheads were consolidated and of course all the personal stories went far beyond that. I cannot shake the feeling that I have been watching the first episode of an excellent tv series, an early “Band of Brothers”, and is waiting for the next episode. Alas, there is no more and so it feels unfinished.

Still for all my criticism this was an easy watch. It may be three hours long, but it flew by in a rush and that is a quality sign. It falls into a number of traps and feels dated and so I get why it is not on the List. On the other hand, it is also a very impressive achievement and in many ways a landmark. If “The Ten Commandments” could by on the List, why not “The Longest Day”?

     

Friday, 27 October 2017

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)


 
Hvad blev der egentlig af Baby Jane?
Here is a movie I have been looking forward to for some time. The battle of the divas, the one chance the two biggest divas of Hollywood’s golden era had to beat the shit out of each other. Uh, this should be good. But then the doubt would nag me that this could be hugely embarrassing, a debasement of once great women into undignified mud throwing.

In the end it was a bit of both, but mostly the first, but also what I did not expect, a movie which in itself was of excellent quality and well worth a watch.

“Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” is the story of two sisters, Jane (Bette Davis) and Blanche (Joan Crawford). As children Jane was a star, but also a spoiled and obnoxious child, whereas Blanche was generally ignored. Later, in the thirties, Blanche became a glamorous movie star while Jane’s career never really took off as she owned very little real talent. One night Blanche broke her spine in a car accident, blamed on Jane, which effectively ended her film career.

Fast forward 25 years or so and Jane and Blanche live a secluded live in Blanche old mansion. Blanche lives upstairs, stuck in a wheelchair, and Jane is taking care of her. Jane however is slowly going crazy. She hates her sister, she drinks conspicuous amounts of alcohol and in her mind she is regressing to her early stardom. She is convinced that Blanche wants to get rid of her, which is not entirely incorrect, and her paranoia, delusion and hatred grows steadily in volume as she tortures her sisters and eventually keeps her prisoner, tied up in her own room.

If you have seen “Misery” you get the general picture. In fact I believe Stephen King was inspired by this story when he wrote the book. The core of the movie is the struggle of Blanche to get help and the torture served by Jane. The movie packs an impressive amount of suspense as Jane always looms as a deadly threat and always seems to intercept Blanche in the last minute. I literally sat on the edge of my chair and I truly did not expect that.

The lunacy of Jane is also quite spectacular. The stages she goes through makes her increasingly pathetic, but also deadlier than ever. Her hiring of a pianist (Victor Buono) to prepare her return to the stage is both laughable and painful to watch and it is difficult not to feel sorry for her, though in the pianist’s shoes I would probably run away as fast as I could.

Joan Crawford is excellent as Blanche. Overbearing in the beginning, then frightened and finally apathetic, she plays the role to the hilt. It is Bette Davis however that steals the picture. Her Baby Jane is a master at her work. As acting goes this may be the best she ever did. I love it when an actress cares more for being the role than to look pretty. Baby Jane is ugly as sin and you have to look very hard to see Bette Davis behind the character. Privately both actresses were, it appears, quite unlikeable, but on set they were glorious and this is a unique opportunity to see them both shine.

“Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” is not perfect. There are elements that jar. I find it suspicious when timing is always so that Jane appears at the worst possible moment. She may go for a ride for hours, yet it takes exactly the time it takes Blanche to scribble a note and throw it out the window. Or get down the stairs to the phone or… yeah, it is almost on repeat. Also there is something about the motivations of the characters that are off. I know there is a big reveal in the end, yet I cannot grasp why Blanche choose to keep Jane around her after the accident and support her through her acting career. Especially when we see the hostility of her as a child. It does not entirely add up.

Still these feel like minor issues in the larger picture. “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” is effective suspense, it is supremely acted and there is a fair dose of camp here that never becomes corny. It adds to what has already become a good year in movies.

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.