Sunday, 29 January 2017

La Dolce Vita (1960)

Det søde liv
Me and Fellini are not the best of friends. His movies are highly acclaimed, but generally fails to drag me into their universe. Usually, it would seem, I simply get annoyed with the characters and start shouting at them to get their act together, something I doubt was the intention with the movies. With “La Dolce Vita” I get the feeling that this is exactly the intention.

I would not go so far as to say that I liked “La Dolce Vita”, but at least I see the point and it is a point well made. It is comedic, but so bitter and acerbic that the laughter gets stuck in the throat. The rich and famous, the public and their intermediaries, the journalists, all get skewered in this biting satire, to the extent that I feel sorry for the lot rather than amused.

“La Dolce Vita” has no story arc, at least none that I could recognize, but is instead a 2 hours and 47 minutes tour through the idle depravity of the rich and famous and the sycophantic and parasitic envy of the public. Our eyes are those of Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni). He had aspirations of being a writer of novels, but earns a living as a gossip journalist. In that function he insinuates himself into the lives of the idle rich, but as an outside observer. It is clear from the beginning that a large part of him wants their lives and even pretends that he is part of it. This despite that he has a conventional fiancé at home (Yvonne Furneaux as Emma) burning with frustration that Marcello is out there partying instead of being home with her.

Marcello’s aspiration is pathetic and naïve as demonstrated by his infatuation with the over-dimensioned Sylvia (Anita Ekberg). He is virtually invisible to her, only to be used as a mirror of her own vanity. Later, in the course of the movie Marcello gets sucked into that world so that by the end he is no longer an observer but an integral part of it.

Is it then all he ever dreamt of? Who is to say. Marcello has clarity enough to care for his fiancé and appreciate the life she stands for. He has an encounter with his father that makes him realize what he has been missing in his life and most importantly he and Emma makes a visit to Marcello’s friend Steiner (Alain Cuny), a man who seems to have found all the true values in life: his children, nature, poetry and science. Marcello and especially Emma are full of admiration. Yet Marcello throws it all away for an empty, idle and ultimately stupid life in the fast lane. The glamour is simply too alluring.

The public fascination with the Dolce Vita of the idle rich is represented by the ever-present photographers who like insects swarm around them, latching on to everything they do. They manipulate and they are manipulated in that common interest of providing a show for the public. No more clearly demonstrated than in the scene of miracle in the fields. To me this was straight out of “Ace in the Hole”. The media here has no decency what so ever and it is no coincidence that the term paparazzi was originally a name of one of the photographers in this movie.

Fellini is spot on. History has proven him right except in one point. The depravity of the world was not complete by 1965. It could and would get a lot worse. Yet, I am not entirely sold by the movie. It is an uncomfortable movie to watch. The fun is not fun at all and the movie is so long that I got the point a long time before it ends. It is also rather depressing to watch. There is no redemption for these people. Even Steiner succumbs in the end and in this closed world of Fellini we are all heading straight for Armageddon. From an artistic point of view you cannot but admire Fellini, but this is no Sunday afternoon watch.

If we forget the story a bit there is a lot to enjoy in “La Dolce Vita”. First of all sheer amount of beautiful women. Anita Ekberg is way over the top, but for all the other roles Fellini has really gone out of his way to find quality actresses for this movie. That is of course part of the message. Beauty is surface and surface is all these people have. It is a bitter sweet truth, but quite enjoyable nonetheless.

There is also a strange fascination with all this depraved entertainment. Some of the costumes are really out there and the characters are quite imaginative. In their boredom they are really exploring the fringes of entertainment.

I doubt Fellini and I will ever be truly good friends, but at least with movies like this one I can respect him and that counts for something.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

The Young Ones (La Joven) (1960)

Mands begær
”La Joven” or ”The Young One” (or “White Trash”) was a difficult film to find. As this is a Luis Bunuel movie, produced in Mexico, I was not surprised to find it only available is Spanish, but it was soon clear to me that this is a movie with American actors speaking English and the Spanish on my version was dubbed, poorly. With the help of a subtitle file I did makes sense of it, but it was definitely an example of crossing the river to get water.

Bunuel was a surrealist / anarchist / socialist why developed in that direction through his career. I do not mind any of that had his movies in general been as good as the List editors seem to think. With “La Joven” his is definitely in his social consciousness phase and more lucid than usual. His “case” is racism and bigotry from white trash and as such it is hitting a nerve that I suppose is still valid. White trash as a population segment has become quite important.

Miller (Zachary Scott) is a game warden on a small island, presumably in the American South. His elderly partner has died leaving his young granddaughter, Evvie (Key Meersman) as his only company. Miller is a confident brute who sees himself as supreme leader of his little kingdom. Evvie is hardly more than a nuisance that he can boss around, that is until he realizes she is becoming sexually attractive. That gives her an entirely new value to him, something that baffles and scares the girl who is frankly little more than a child.

Into this child abuse story steps Traver (Bernie Hamilton). He is a musician on the run from a false charge of rape who has run out of gas near the island. Traver has one trait against him for a fellow in this part of the world: He is black. As such he is in the eyes of white trash like Miller a condemned man already.

Miller knows nothing about the rape charge against Traver. For him it is enough that he is black and has entered his kingdom. He is vermin that needs to be hunted down. Evvie has no racial bias and is fascinated by the civil and cordial treatment from Traver. This is obviously very different from the dominance and sexual advances of Miller. She is baffled by the hatred Miller is having towards the black man and tries hard to understand.

These are the two themes of the story: child abuse and racism, and for most of the movie that is basically what is on display. The movie draws a connection between the two, saying that both are founded in the character type that is Miller and as such the movie is one, long exposé of Miller’s flaws.

This could have become awfully boring if it had not been for the lethal tension between Miller and Traver and the constant danger hoovering over Evvie. But the story also takes some twists to reveal that racism is not a constant. When Miller learns that both men served in the army in Italy, Traver becomes more than just a black intruder and later on self-preservation relegates animosities to the backseat.

I was okay with this movie. It was not the greatest movie I ever saw and often it is rather ham-fisted, but it grew on me as I watched it. I needed to see Evvie getting off this island, out of the clutches of Miller and his kind and that tension, more than the almost fatalistic racism, was what drove the story forward for me.

Probably the best I have seen from Bunuel so far, but that is not really praise I suppose.


Friday, 13 January 2017

Rocco and His Brothers (Rocco e i suoi Fratelli) (1960)

Rocco og hans brødre

1960 starts off with an Italian movie, which is symptomatic for this year. As far as I can see there are four Italian movies on the List for 1960, so either Italian cinema went through a golden age or the general level was rather poor. As this is my first movie of the year that has yet to be decided. That is still the case after watching “Rocco and His Brothers”.
Luchino Visconti’s movie borrows into neorealist tradition by taking its departure in real and relevant issues, notably the migration of poor south-Italians to the prosperous northern Italy, but adds drama, almost melodrama to the story, which helps alleviate the dullness often associated with neorealism, but, in my opinion, it probably gets too much of that. Visconti uses the story of the everyday struggle to demonstrate some larger, philosophical issues and, as is often the case with such agenda’s, almost overplays his cards to make his points.

A discussion of the movie will be full of spoilers, so a warning right away, this review is aimed at those who have already seen it. There be spoilers ahead. For that reason I will also dispense with the summary as you will already know the story.

The movie centers on the Parondi family, consisting of five brothers and their mother. Each brother and the mother represents a value or property that is relevant for Italians. Combined they (may) represent the different directions Italy can take, though that may be a stretch. Their migration from south to north is both a very real window into a persistent issue in Italy (North versus South and internal migration) but also a journey from the past to the future.

The mother (Katina Paxinou) represents family, family at all costs. For her her family is everything. She defines her life as the matriarch of the five brother family and her prerogative is to keep the family united. What the brothers do or want is unimportant as long as they stay in the family and support the idea of a close knit family. The break-up of her family is her constant worry and when she cries and screams it is not for her sons, but what her sons do to the coherence of her family. All independence is evil. And she screams a lot! Twenty minutes in I had enough and with a sinking heart realized there was another two and a half hours to go.

Vincenzo (Spiros Focás) represents new family and is therefore a threat to the existing family. He is the first one to go to Milano and is already in the process of forming his own family when the rest of the lot shows up. The mother barges in and expects to join the party and is at once at odds with the bride-to-be’s family who will have none of that. Vincenzo has to choose and choses at first stay with his old family, but drifts back to that new family he wants to make. This is a cause of conflict with the mother.

Simone (Renato Salvatori) is a brute, a smartass who tricks or bully people to get what he wants. His motives are strictly egocentric and narcissistic and represents another classic Italian type. Visconti lets him fly high and crash, clearly letting us know that this attitude has severe consequences. Dramatically he is the bad guy causing trouble and exploiting the gullible. To the mother all that does not matter. It is a much bigger concern that he is being ostracized by the other brothers and therefore excluded from the family and he is hanging around with a prostitute, damaging the reputation of the family. When he finally kills the girl the mother cries not for the murder, but for the loss of her son.

Rocco (Alain Delon) is a saint. Everything he does is motivated by doing good and sacrifice himself in the process. This is particularly the case with Simone. Simone does what he can to exploit and dominate Rocco and in return Rocco forgives him everything and does all in his power and more to help Simone. Yet every time Rocco makes a sacrifice there is a backlash and good intent have terrible consequences. A case in point is the prostitute Nadia (Annie Girardot). She is revitalized by Rocco’s attention, but when Simone rapes her as punishment Rocco orders Nadia to return to Simone to help him because he thinks Simone needs her. The rape and being treated like an item that can be possessed and given away destroys Nadia and Simone is only the worse for her attention. Is this the Italian concept of Furbo and Fesso?

Ciro (Max Cartier) represents realism. He embraces the future, takes an education and gets a good job. He is also the one who both realizes Rocco’s sainthood and Simone’s evil and advocates practical and sensible solutions. Yet this is also a threat to the family-at-all-cost. Ciro is not about forgiving as Rocco and the mother but a mechanic or a doctor who fixes things, and who in a traditionalist world would be burned on the stake. Maybe he represents Italy’s painful transition into modernity.

Luca (Rocco Vidolazzi) is the future. He is much younger than the other four brothers and has yet to decide his path. Which of his four brothers will he follow? 

From a northern perspective the conflict in the movie can feel alien. The mother’s family at all cost is way too much, but is also very much reality in the Mediterranean context. The same is the brute and saint of Simone and Rocco and my guess is that an Italian watching this movie will get a lot more out of this relationship. 

For these reasons I had the feeling that this movie was not really aimed at me. I appreciate what Visconti was trying to do here, but from outside the cultural context it loses quite a bit of its bite and if you add to that my aversion for Italian screaming I end up being on the fence. The middle part was good, but the beginning and the end was too over the top for me.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Finishing the fifties

Finishing the Fifties

Another decade in the bag!

As of last Sunday I am done with the fifties. It has taken me two years and three month and 134 movies.


The fifties was a formative decade that in many way formed the world we live in today. The Second World War was finally behind us and the world was looking forward again. There was growth on the horizon, at least in America where the fifties still seem to be considered a golden age, but also Europe was recovering, planting the seeds of what would eventually become the European Union, heralding an age of prosperity and peace. Yeah, for the record I am strongly pro-EU.

It was a world dominated by the East-West divide and a growing fear of what lurked on the other side. Across the pond that caused the communist scare with the blacklist of anybody with a socialist inclination, which turned out to have a massive influence on the movies produced in this decade. In Europe it marked a crossroad where the Eastern countries took a different way than the West, but also a growing social consciousness that shaped the welfare system and produced movies that defied conventions.

In the world of cinema there was one thing that stood out as the game changer: the television!

Invented in the thirties, in regular operation from the forties, television became commonly available in the fifties and changed the way average people sought entertainment. No longer did cinemas have a monopoly on movies, you could just turn on your home altar and check what was on. For the film studios that meant that they had to provide something else. Color, widescreen, massive budgets, even 3D. Things that would make the cinema experience something special, give you something you could not get at home. The result is a decade that brought increasingly impressive movies. There is nothing like pressure to invigorate an industry.

Hollywood produced some of its most famous movies during this decade and was technical and financially way ahead of the rest of the world. Europe was more like a laboratory of new ideas, often hit or miss, but usually interesting. However, surprisingly, the country that shined on the movie sky in this decade was Japan. Kurosawa, Mizuguchi and Ozu are just a few of the directors the West came to know in this decade.

Anyway, it is time to present the ten movies of the decade I loved the most. As it turned out that was a very difficult exercise. When I was down to twenty movies I had a list of movies that would all qualify and it was a painful process to reduce it even further.

Yet, ten it must be. In chronological order:

1.       Sunset Boulevard

A noir classic that never gets old. Last Sunday I went to the cinema to watch “Sing” with my wife and son and, lo and behold, it is still being referenced! Amazing movie.

2.       Singin’ in the Rain

I am not your average musical fan, but “Singin’ in the Rain” is simply the best musical ever. Not placing it on this list would be criminal.

3.       Roman Holiday

A sweet romantic comedy about a princess that falls in love in Rome, how on Earth did that make my top ten? Well, if you add that the princess is Audrey Hepburn and the script was made by Dalton Trumbo I believe you have your explanation.

4.       Rear Window

Why two Hitchcocks on my top ten? Because including every one of them would exclude everything else. I have always loved “Rear Window” and somewhere between the economy of the set and the messing with our heads this is one of Hitchcock’s best movies.

5.       The Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai)

“The Seven Samurai” may well be the best movie ever made and I love every minute of it. Kurosawa was more versatile than many people know, but this is why he is remembered as the master of the samurai movie.

6.       The Searchers

In a decade madly in love with westerns “The Searchers” stand out as grittier, tougher and more intense than any of its contemporaries. It feels modern in every sense.

7.       The Bridge on the River Kwai

Again a top movie of the decade that has stood the test of time. I watch it every few years and love it every time. How can this movie not be on my top ten?

8.       My Uncle (Mon Oncle)

This may be a surprising choice, but it was the pleasant surprise of the decade. Hulot was a master of physical comedy and “Mon Oncle” is hysterically funny. What more do you want?

9.       Some Like it Hot

Another classic that has stood the test of time. More than fifty years later this is still better than any comedy you can find in the cinema. Wilder was a genius!

10.   North by Northwest

Maybe Hitchcock’s best movie ever, certainly his most complete. This movie have to be in top ten.


The rest of my twenty best movies will have to be honorable mentions, but they are still amazing movies. I can recommend every one of them.


 To Live (Ikiru)

High Noon

Bad Day at Black Rock

The Night of the Hunter

The Ladykillers

A Man Escaped (Un Condamne a Mort S'est Echappe ou le Vent Souffle ou il Veut)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Paths of Glory

12 Angry Men

Touch of Evil


Sunday, 1 January 2017

Floating Weeds (Ukigusa) (1959)

Floating Weeds
”Floating Weeds” or ”Ukigusa”, as it is called in Japanese, is the last movie for me from 1959 and indeed from the fifties. This is a milestone for me and “Floating Weeds” seem to be the perfect movie for the occasion.

“Floating Weeds” was part of a series of movies Yasujiro Ozu directed as remakes of his older production. I do not know his personal motivation for these remakes, but it is reasonable to think that with the advances in filmmaking and his own improved skill he could improve these older movies. The result, in the case of “Floating Weeds”, is a visual marvel and an exercise in the directorial restraint of a master. In that sense it also represents the maturation the film industry was going through in this period and I cannot think of a more beautiful way to end the fifties.

The story is that of a troupe of kabuki actors’ visit to a small seaside town in Japan. The troupe is led by Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura) and it is soon clear that although this is not a particularly glamorous troupe it is used to bigger places than this town. The shows cannot attract more than a few people and in the boiling summer heat a lethargic feel soon falls over the literally stranded troupe.

The reason for the visit and layover is that Komajuro has a secret child with an old flame here. The boy (Hiroshi Kawaguchi as Kiyoshi) has no idea Komajuro is his father but thinks he is his uncle, coming by to visit from time to time. This is a crucial time for Kiyoshi, he is about to leave for college and that means leaving his mother, Oyoshi (Haruki Sugimura) alone. Something Komajuro, who still have warm feelings for her, is against. But how to instill paternal authority when you are just an uncle?

In the troupe Sumiko (Machiko Kyo) considers herself Komajuro’s mistress. She is disturbed by Komijuro’s secretive activities and when she finds out he is visiting his old flame she is devoured by jealousy and talk the younger actress Kayo (Ayako Wakao) into seducing Kiyoshi as revenge. As this play out we have a meltdown in the making, culminating when Kiyoshi and Kayo fall in love and elope.

The story here is not a big one, but it is also not central to the movie. Instead it is a movie about human dynamics, especially between generations, and it is in the interactions of the characters that we find the heart of this movie. Komajuro is a very nuanced character. He can be grandfatherly gentle and generous, calm and humble to his friends, but also a choleric despot when crossed. He does not take nicely to Sumiko’s shenanigans and his attempts at paternal authority does not become him. Obviously he is afraid that Kiyoshi will repeat the affair he and Oyoshi had with pains and regrets that entails, but he is also completely deaf to the wishes and dreams of Kiyoshi and this tone deafness puts him at risk at being parked in the periphery, essentially becoming irrelevant.

There are parts of “Floating Weeds” that play out as a comedy. These are for me the weakest parts and exemplify how difficult it is to communicate humor across cultures. A Japanese audience is likely to have a lot of fun here, but on me it is largely wasted. The appearance of a happy, French tune as the Kabuki troupe’s theme also threw me. What on Earth was that?

I also struggle with some of the cultural differences in the family and generation dynamics, but I do get the gist of it and as the drama develops I do get involved in the characters and for me the second half is therefore much stronger than the first half.

The acting and the cinematography however are the real stars for me. Wow, that is just amazing! Ozu build up scenes with a slow and deliberate pace and uses his famous static camera to full effect. Pictures are often beautifully framed and more often than not you could print a still and hang it as a poster. The result is sweet melancholy that penetrates the entire movie, one of calm, apathetic decline, like the first falling leaves in September. We see it in the faces and manners of the characters and their longings are their driving force, whether it is for acceptance, love, fame or peace. They all have something they want, but cannot get and that translate very well across cultures.

“Floating Weeds” is almost more a state of mind than a drama and one I am happy to have experienced. I want to watch some more of Ozu’s stuff even if it is not on the List. If “Tokyo Story” and “Floating Weeds” are representative of his work the List could have included more than just these two.