Thursday 28 March 2013

Tokyo Story (1953)

Tokyo Story
Or “Make Way For Tomorrow Japanese Style”.

For those who may not be familiar with “Make Way For Tomorrow” I strongly recommend it. You can find my comments here.

“Tokyo Story” follows a very similar story. An old couple who lives in a remote region of Japan makes a trip to Tokyo to visit their children and grandchildren. It has been a while since they have seen them, but while the adult children are making pretense of being delighted to see them it soon becomes clear that they consider their visiting parents a burden. The film focuses on the relationship between adults and their old parents and how much or little room they have for them.

Where “Make Way For Tomorrow” is told with a certain understanding for the children “Tokyo Story” is more raw and direct and there is no doubt where the sympathies are. The opinions are spelled out just in case we did not get it and it is more difficult to find sympathy for the uncaring adult children. That is a bit annoying and makes the last 15 minutes unnecessary, but I suppose it also supply us with some sort of vindication.

The two old people Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), usually just referred to as Mother and Father are the sweetest old couple. They are generally quiet, polite and affable and even when faced with rude indifference or provocations they do not sell out their children. Instead they remain loyal. They have been looking forward to this trip for a while and get all starry-eyed about the prospect of seeing all their children again.

They have 5 children of which Kyoko, the youngest, is the only one living in the village. She goes to school and also takes care of the old couple, but we do not get to see her very much.

Koichi (So Yamamura) is a children doctor with his own clinic. His home is the first stop on the visit to Tokyo and he is the one who “has made it”, although we soon see that work takes priority in a big way. His promise to take them out on a tour is so easily cancelled when he is called out to a sick child that we almost sense his relief. Certainly he does not consider it a big problem to postpone a tour for his parents. We also get the impression that the rest of his household (wife and children) are not terribly impressed with having Mother and Father staying in their house.

Keizo (Shiro Osaka) is a younger son of the old couple. We do not get to see him much, he lives in Osaka, but when they have to stop there on the return journey he is mighty bothered by it. His life is full of his own stuff, young, modern, idle stuff.

But it is Shige (Haruko Sugimura) who is the real bitch. Where the others are merely indifferent she is outright vicious. This is made quite clear in several scenes. She complains that her husband has bought too expensive cakes for the old couple, she cannot make any time for her parents due to her important job as a hairdresser, when a client ask who the old couple are she will not recognize them as her parents, she is busy sending them off to a spa (making sure the brother will share the cost) to have them out of the house and at the death bed the Mother is hardly cold yet before she demands a number of her possessions. On top of that we get her entirely hypocrite concern over her parents and tears at Mothers death that we just cannot take serious. She is painted very black. Her husband really wants to do something for the old couple but she firmly tells him not to bother. Bitch Bitch Bitch.

The fifth son Sjoji died in the war, but his widow Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is still attached to the family. She works hard and lives poorly in a tiny flat, but she is the only one who cares for the old couple. She takes leave of work although she is busy, takes the couple on a tour of Tokyo, get food for them in the evening and when the old couple are effectively homeless after having returned from the spa “too early” she takes in Mother while Father goes to see some friends. She even offers Mother some money even though she has little herself. Clearly she is the Good Samaritan, the one with the least reason who cares the most.

That is also the point of the film. If not already during the Tokyo visit then certainly at the deathbed it is clear who the poor children are and who are the good. Noriko as the standout star and Kyoko as the innocent youth. The fatalistic point of view is that as you get older you get selfish and has enough in your own and cannot take care of your parents and eventually that will happen to Noriko as well. Father seems to agree that this is what must be expected yet we as an audience are supposed to be outraged and think that this cannot be, it must not be so.

The movie has a very slow start and with a running time of 135 minutes it requires some patience to get through it. Though as I got deeper involved with the film it got me very much involved, something I only rarely experience with Asian films. The cultural difference is simply too great to really capture me. But “Tokyo Story” is told in this slow insisting way that sneaks up on you and you get to care, especially for the old couple, and to fume in outrage over Shige, the bitch.

If only the movie had stopped 15 minutes earlier. The problem is that the film needs to spell it out in capitals. It is as if it does not trust that we get the point and that is the weakness of the film. Because of this we do not get the heartbreak of “Make Way For Tomorrow”. Fatalism in “Tokyo Story” is colder, more inevitable.

Still I consider this a very good film and a very nice surprise.   

Sunday 24 March 2013

The 39 Steps (1935)

De 39 Trin
When Hitchcock started out in Hollywood and churned out blockbusters en masse he had already directed quite a few films in England. For his Blackmail (1929) I bought a box-set with some nine of his early films from the transition from silents to talkies and those movies were all over the place. Very few had what you would call Hitchcock features and only few more were really good. It actually took quite a while for Hitchcock to find his particular style and themes. But then by 1935 he seems to have struck gold. Suddenly he makes “The 39 Steps” and this is so right on everything we know Hitchcock for.

Actually I do not mind that he made different movies. Most directors do and probably should. It is just that Hitchcock is so famous for his thrillers and with “The 39 Steps” he makes a really good one.

“The 39 Steps” is the story of Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian temporarily staying in London, who accidently becomes involved in a spy affair when he offers shelter to a beautiful and very nervous woman, Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim). She is on the trail on some spy master who is about to take a big Air Force secret out of the country. Unfortunately his goons are also on the trail of her and her nervousness is justified. In the middle of the night she gets stabbed and Hannay gets blamed for the murder. He takes up her task realizing that the only way to clear his name is to get the spy master and so he heads up to Scotland.

From here on he is both the hunter and the hunted. Both the police and the spymaster’s henchmen are trailing him and we get a series of close calls. Nobody believes his story about spies, whereas the accusation about murder is a lot more believable. This is particularly the case with a blond woman he keeps bumping in to (Madeleine Carroll as Pamela). To her he is a simple criminal and the sooner he is out of her hair the better. To us who of course know he is innocent she soon gets annoying with her insistence of refusing to believe his story, but then who can really blame her. On the other hand he gets help and understanding from unexpected corners like the young farmer’s wife and the innkeeper’s wife.

The pursuit is intense and the pace is high and we get quite a rollercoaster ride. It is one of those films which feel shorter than they are because we get carried away. Donat is quite believable and his distress and paranoia becomes ours as well. However he is resourceful and quick witted and he soon adapts to this spy affair. We get a hero who against odds is able to pull it through.

I have seen a number of comparisons to Hitchcock’s later “North by Northwest”, but I was mostly reminded of the much later “The Fugitive” (the one with Harrison Ford) where Dr. Kimble is on the run for a murder he did not commit and decides that the only way he can clear his name is to get the real murderer. There are so many similarities that it is clear that “the 39 Steps has been a major part of the inspiration, probably even to the original tv series. The police’ insistence that he is first of all a murder. The disbelief in the “real” story, the friends who are actually the bad guys, the show down at a major event, even one of the escapes where Ford joins a parade is an exact copy of “The 39 Steps”.

There were many elements that I enjoyed watching “The 39 Steps”. Besides the pace, suspense and sheer inventiveness of the story I enjoyed the play between Donat and Carroll when they get handcuffed together. She despise him and his exasperation with her takes a mocking, teasing slant as he gives up on convincing her to help him and instead just tries to get it over with and the best out of it. She needs to get the truth thrown smack in her face before she realizes her mistake and even then she does not seem particularly remorseful. Their dialogue here is gold.

Another element I liked was a surprising occurrence of dry dark humor. The train attendant’s insistence on serving tea for Hannay, the lingerie show on the train, the king pin’s wife’s interruption in what appears to be a death sentence asking if the gentleman will stay for dinner. Not to mention the jealous Scottish farmer who insists on believing that his beautiful wife is cheating on him. And yet all this hilarity never compromised or distracted from the central storyline. That is very well done.

And the object of all these spy games? The big secret? Who cares, that is entirely unimportant. The only thing worth knowing about it is that it is important enough to kill to get or protect it.

Go Hitchcock!

Friday 22 March 2013

The Anniversary Speech

Thank you for the picture, Stefan!

The Anniversary Speech
It is my 150 movie anniversary!


I have now watched the first 150 films on the list and I will (fairly) soon have caught up on my lag. As you may know I was already at film number 114 (Robin Hood) when I started my blog, so there has been some catching up to do. At this point the gap is only 22 movies wide.

I will use this opportunity to give a more detailed presentation of myself and what I am doing here on my blog. I love to get that glimpse of other people so it is only fair to provide something myself.

My name is Thomas Sørensen. That is a very generic Danish name, the equivalent of John Smith, and I share it with a whole bunch of people including a former national team goalkeeper. I am Danish, but in the autumn I have temporarily relocated to Israel where my wife got a job. I am in the fortunate situation that I can keep my day job in some form from a remote location. So I live here with my wife and 3 year old son and that is an interesting and very different experience.

In my day job I am a wind energy consultant. The company I work for makes a nice piece of software that helps you find out where to place your wind turbines, how much they will produce and how much they will disturb the neighbors. It is a pretty unique tool and we sell it all over the world. As I am involved in development, testing and consultancies on wind farm projects I get to travel all over the world to teach people how to use it or to work on actual projects. Within the last year I have been to Australia, England, Belgium, Brazil, China, Japan and South Korea. I always loved to travel so in a sense this is really great, though with a small child it is also very hard.

A benefit from all the travelling is that I get to meet a lot people and experience cultures very different from my own. I like to think it makes me more open minded, but it is just as likely to make me more cynical. In any case it makes me quite receptive to movies from odd places in the world and likewise despise very nationalistic themes in movies.

In 2008, just before my wife and I went to Shanghai for 5 months, a friend of mine gave me a book that was going have a big influence on my life: 1001 movies you must see before you die. I only got to delve into it after I returned from China, but then I really got hooked. Very early cinema caught my interest and I started reading a lot about it and I realized I knew absolutely zip. It was quite shocking to find out that before 1940 there were only a handful of films I had heard of and if I had seen them I certainly had forgotten all about them and that includes the classics. In fact I have been blatantly ignorant of film prior to 1970. Here was this treasure throve of pictures deemed classics and I did not even recognize the names of most of them. That was quite a revelation.

I have always been fascinated by mammoth projects where the object is not to finish but the process itself, like reading a dictionary or building some monstrosity and the idea of just starting from one end and work myself through something I will probably never finish appeals to me.  So around the time my son Nimrod was born I decided to go through with this crazy project and start watching all the movies in the book chronologically. Very slowly. It soon became my task to feed Nimrod a bottle of milk in the morning and in the evening and so would watch the films in 10-15 minute chunks, which was fine because I had decided to actually buy the DVDs and if I raced through the list this could become very expensive indeed.

I think most people who do the list watches the films alone and I am no exception. My wife is not really into these old films and while I have two good friends who are I have only seen a few of the films with Zsolt and Maurizio. So I started searching the Internet to see if there was anybody out there doing the List as well. So far I have found nobody in Denmark, but I soon discovered Squish and the blog club. Not only were there people watching the List, but also blogging about it! I started reading all the entries to movies I had seen as well and commented on many of them and soon grew deeply envious. This was just so cool! I just had to be part of this community, this was the long sought for outlet for all I wanted to say about these old films. Yet something was holding me back. The bloggers are all so good that I could not possibly contribute with anything new and my pathetic writings would only be the laughingstock of the community. That is until I thought; what the hell, it is just a blog not some sort of exam and my angle would not be an expert review or deep analysis, it would be my personal experience with the films. This is what I look for anyway when I read entries on movies, the gems of personal impressions, and everybody have their own take on the movies they see and are perfectly entitled to it. So one day without thinking too much about it I just went to it and created the most simplistic site on the net and voila, I was a blogger myself.

And the most amazing thing happened: fellow bloggers actually read my posts and commented on it. For that I am very thankful and I would like to send a special thanks to Steve, Siobhan, Chip Larry and Kim for very encouraging comments and my apologies for harassing your back catalogs.

I stick with my plan to watch the films chronologically, but I also have a backlog to fill, which means that I have to watch the first 113 movies again to write something decent about them. I do not really mind though since most of them are good. Also there are a few later films I have reviewed. Those are, ahem, my picks for the blog club. You cannot really pick a movie and then not comment on it yourself, no?

Doing the list chronologically has a number of advantages that I am quite happy about. For one I get a really good feel for the development of the film media and the history it covers. I can see how styles and fashion changes, how techniques evolves, stars emerge and develop and for a novice like me I get the proper foundation to see the next films on the list. Secondly I avoid the danger of taking all the easy film first, ending up with a bunch of difficult and obscure movies. In this way they are evenly scattered out on my road through the list.

A special feature is that I am actually following the Danish edition of the list. This means that about a dozen Danish and a handful of Swedish films will enter the list over time that does not figure in the original version. In those cases there will be both an “a” and a “b” entry on the List.

My taste in film has evolved quite a bit over the three years I have been watching films from the list. Whereas before I would have listed a number of genres as my favorites and others as stinkers I am now at a place where I would say that any genre can be good if the film itself is good. I have found that I love a good musical or a sweet love story as much as a gothic horror or a big production. It all comes down to how well the film is made and many of the best experiences have been total surprises. If I should pick out a single movie from the list as a standout hit for me it would probably be “M”. It just has so many things going for it and I have seen it several times now and love it more with each viewing. In fact I am very impressed with German expressionism and am quite excited that I am now getting into the prime film noir period, the 1940´ies where so many elements of German expressionism are being expertly used.

One genre that has always fascinated me is period film. It is interesting to see a historical event acted out, though as with science fiction the results are often disappointing. Either because the historical facts have been compromised for dramatic effect or boredom due to an overzealous insistence on historical precision. If somebody asked me today what movie I would really like to see made I would say one that takes place in fifth or sixth century central Europe. That period is so full of epic drama and so lacking historical sources that there are both plenty to pick from and freedom to develop stories worth seeing. I would love to see a movie about Alarik and the Visigoth, Theodoric and the Ostrogoth or the most obscure yet epic adventure of the Vandals and Alans. An obvious choice would be the story of Ammianus Marcellinus, a Roman scholar and former soldier who witnessed the barbaric invasions and whose life itself was quite an adventure. This period is made up of the stuff of legends, yet the only story we ever get is that of King Arthur. There are so much more to tell.

Anyway, thank you for reading my posts, I very much appreciate it. And do remember to check out those blogs in the right column I follow. Those are the one with all the good stuff.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

The Palm Beach Story (1942)

The Palm Beach Story
Preston Sturges was apparently quite a hit back in the early forties. The List contains an entire swath of his movies and to me he seems to be a 1940’ies version of the Farrelly Brothers. He was a crafty comedy director who through craftsmanship knew how to get something fun out of even mediocre scripts, but like his modern day equivalent the quality of his production varies and some of his films are certainly better than others.

“The Palm Beach Story” is I believe not one of the highlights. It feels somewhat stretched and forced and not up to say “The Lady Eve” standard.

Many of the plot elements are taken right out of Leo McCarey’s “The Awful Truth”. A bantering couple split up, but cannot let go of each other and in the end must accept that they belong together. There are also the new relations with money and charm and the couple even have to play brother and sister so the new relations do not realize that are in fact a couple. I love “The Awful Truth” and a movie could do worse that borrowing from that one, but while Claudette Colbert is funny and witty Joel McCrea just is not Cary Grant. In fact McCrea as the husband Tom Jeffers in altogether too heavy and grumpy for his character to work. Instead of witty he appear bitter and angry so much that I feel I understand the real reason why Colbert’s Geraldine Jeffers want to divorce him and try something new and certainly it does not seem obvious why she would want to come back to him.

This may seem trivial but that character flaw almost blew the movie for me. This is a shame because it does have a lot of things going for it at least potentially.

Geraldine is an odd character. She appears distraught and confused, at least in the first half of the film, and yet resourceful which throws her into some odd situations. She is fed up with just getting by and has realized that she is a trophy wife with no practical skills so she wants a divorce so she can find some rich guy to marry. Her explanation that it is actually to help her husband Tom is really far out and yet that is actually what she accomplishes. I can kind of understand why he thinks that that is the most absurd idea, but she is so determined to go through with it that her leaving is more like a prison break escape. A comedic highlight of the film. I loved that she tried to fasten her goodbye note to him with a needle to his body.

Half way through the film however she seems to be losing momentum. When her husband shows up at the Hackensacker yacht she becomes more drama and less comedy and in fact the comedic focus instead is transferred to Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor).

Another very amusing element is The Ale and Quail Club. They have absolutely nothing to do with the storyline, but were quite hilarious on their own. A bunch of hunting enthusiasts who act like a gang of boys when they get something to drink resulting in, well, chaos. At first they offer to bring Geraldine on board the train without a ticket and later in the midst of chaos she escapes their company.

The Hackensackers are another potentially funny element. John D. Hackensacker( Rudy Vallée) is a nerdy billionaire, a dope ripe for picking and his sister Princess Centimillia is a frivolous idle rich complete with a history of failed or insincere marriages and a foreign admirer in tow (greetings!). Those are two outrageous characters and that is also their problem. They are just too much. I do not really buy their characters. The princess takes too easy to Tom and John D. too easily falls for the damsel in distress. Such two characters did not become billionaires by being idiots.

The resolution is a story on its own. When the Jeffers decide that they should stay together after all instead of a life in luxury the Hackensackers do not seem too upset that their new loves turn out to be frauds. Instead they happily jump their twins, whom they have never met.

In fact the resolution ties up to the beginning where we see a wedding involving tied up bride and fainting maids. I understood absolutely nothing of that and only while doing research on the film (no more Rosebud incidents!) did I understand that it was in fact their twins who should have been married, but Tom and Geraldine both stole their twins place and so ended up getting married, but not to the one they wanted to marry. That should explain why a few years later Geraldine want to flee the marriage, but not to my mind why their twins would then be ready to marry the Hackensackers.

All in all a film with many potentially fun and interesting elements, but also a lot in the execution that just do not work so well. Rapid dialogue and fast pace tries to make up for it, but there are just too many holes in the logic. Still some solid laughs and that is after all the purpose of a comedy.       

Sunday 17 March 2013

Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (1933)

Las Hurdes
Few people will be offended if I call “Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan” a terrible film. It is terribly depressing and for a documentary it has a very flexible relationship with facts. Fortunately it is short so the pain is manageable.

But watching it again I go to reflect on this genre in general and the inherent problems they come with.

In the best of all worlds a documentary is an objective description of a subject from the real world. There is no room for fiction and the documentarist is only a passive observer. From the documentary we therefore get a snapshot of reality and it serves as a truth witness. We get a bit smarter on the world we live in.

Unfortunately this is usually not the case. In fact I would claim that in the most extreme definition this is almost never the case. The problem is that somebody is making the documentary. This documentarist has an intention with the documentary, a starting hypothesis that is the basis of the documentary. When he or she goes into the field to document they already have a fairly clear of what they want and they seek that out to film it. Of course it may be that adjustments happen along the, but it is very rare that a documentary takes an entirely different direction. Therefore we are not necessarily getting what is really out there as much as we get what the producer wants to find.

What if the documentarist starting hypothesis is wrong, that the problem barely exist or was a non-issue? In science that is a perfectly valid result and provide valuable information, but for the documentarist that is looming disaster. The documentary needs an audience and an audience is only interested if there is meat on the story, a level of drama or indignation or at least some pretty pictures. A half hour show to document that a problem actually was not so big an issue after all is unheard of and you would quickly get out of work if it was that sort of shows you produced.

So problem or not, there must always be a story.

Add to this that the documentary is a snapshot. To many people this documentary is all they will ever know about that issue and so whatever pictures it draws up will be stuck in the minds of the viewers.

Let us take an example. A documentarist have heard that housing is a problem In a little town of 5000 people. It turns out that it is only 10 people who cannot find a place to live, but the show is on so he focusses on these 10 people and describes their troublesome quest for a home. To the viewer it looks as if housing is a really big issue in this town even though 4990 of the 5000 residents have a place to live.

When the story gets politically motivated, and in a certain sense you can say that everything is politics, the documentary becomes agitating and even propagandistic. An election video is a good example. It has to move people and the story may be absolutely true but is described in a way to support the agenda of the documentarist. Sometimes this very obvious like “Triumph des Willens”, but often not so easy to spot. I would make the claim that any documentary has an agenda and true or not we have to become convinced.

So, where am I heading with all this?

With the above in mind it is quite easy to understand Las Hurdes. Spain was divided in a bitter struggle between socialists and facists and each take a rather extreme position. Bunuel is supporting the socialist side and so endeavors to find and describe some poor downtrodden people to fuel the socialist cause. If the conservative and wealthy class gets to look bad in the process so much the better. With that in mind Bunuel and his crew look up the people of this impoverished region to show how bad it is. They are not interested in the things that actually works or the things that the church or others of the establishment actually does for these people (they got a new school and a road, that is something, no?) because that would just muddy the picture. The focus has to remain on the misery of these people. Sometimes I felt that the narrator and the picture were mismatched because what I saw did not look as bad as it was described, but there is a remedy for that. If you cannot find it, make it. Apparently the mule that succumbed to the bees did so after having been smeared with honey and at least two animals were slaughtered for the film.

Watching this we will, as we have no prior knowledge of this region and its people, be convinced of the atrocious conditions these people live under and the Bunuels agenda has succeeded. However in this case as in most if not all of the politically motivated movies of the pre-war period we recognize the exaggeration and so must conclude that if we cannot trust part of the story, what can we trust? And so the documentary loses all its momentum. This is an issue that remains to this day. When you recognize the agenda of the documentarist and start spotting errors the story crumbles. A typical Michael Moore problem, but he is far from alone. Al Gore could not help tinkering with his figures and that seriously weakened an otherwise important cause. And even if all the facts are right, have we really gotten the full story? Hardly.

I honestly do not know how conditions were in Las Hurdes in the thirties and after watching “Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan” I do not feel any smarter, only disgusted.          

Friday 15 March 2013

How Green was My Valley (1941)

Grøn Var Min Barndoms Dal
At the Academy Awards in 1942 the big winner was John Fords “How Green was my Valley” including the big one for Best Picture. Considering 1941 was a big year with films like “The Maltese Falcon”, the commonly recognized founder of the film noir genre and a blockbuster on its own, and “Citizen Kane”, the founder of almost anything else in cinema, “How Green was my Valley” must be absolutely awesome.

I know, going into a film with high expectations is never a good idea so I supposed “HGwmV” was doomed from the beginning.

Honestly I do not know where those Oscars came from. At this point I am operating with two theories:

1.       The Academy was composed of nostalgic old farts dreaming themselves back to those glorious days in the coal mines of Southern Wales and cry with blissful longing for the whap of the teachers stick.

2.       The memory of “Gone with the Wind” was still fresh with them and this epic story of a world of yesteryear torn apart reminded them of it.

My own impression of “HGwmV” is that it feels schizophrenic. It is told with a nostalgic longing for things past, painting the images with a rosy hue so that you feel that the narrator is almost breaking his voice from all those golden memories. But what are those memories?

Ah, yes, we got the loving but strict father. Yes, he was oh so wonderfully strict, but you have to be with many children in those old days. Well, as the film progresses he is softening and we do get to see a heart of gold, but at that point the sons are either gone or killed and the daughter married off against her will.

Oh, and those glorious coal mines. Now that was good, solid work for real men. Wonderful coal dust to soften your lungs and good workout to strengthen a boy. Well, from time to time people would die down there in the pits and them coal slags were probably not too healthy either, but what job is really safe? Oh, and job security was maybe not the strong side either not to speak of environmental impact on those picturesque valleys. But come on, those coal mines were great and men were singing when they came from work after a day of labor in the dark, wet mines.

School was also a golden memory. What a great experience to get mocked by both teacher and students, but then a good boy can learn boxing and when you knock somebody down you have made yourself a name in the world. And that whacking of the teachers stick, well he seemed to get a kick out of it so it was good for something and then you could wear your stripes with pride. Not like lax schools today, oh no, we looong for them good ol’ days.

One thing we definitely remember with a nostalgic pang was the community feeling in the village. All that singing and drinking beer (not too much) was great. Everyone was welcome. And a bit of fighting, branding or gossiping was not too bad, no? So, a few ended up as outcasts and that it happened to be those most worthy in the community, well was just too bad, guess they had it coming, breaking the rules and all.

To the defense of the story we can choose to see it as an “innocence lost” storyline, where everything is happy happy (sort of) in the beginning but all those bad things gradually destroys everything good about life in the valley till there is nothing left but to leave. I suppose that is an okay, but rather depressive storyline.

My experience watching it was that of a bumpy ride through the lives of the Morgans, the host family of the film. There are ups and downs, though mostly downs and it does not feel as if the story is going anywhere. With half an hour to go I was wondering how they were going to end this one because I did not really see a climactic resolution on the horizon. Without revealing too much I can say that it was a bit of a fizzle as people either die or leave, more or less as they had throughout the picture.

For the film an entire village had been built in California to mimic a Welch mining village since they could not use the real thing in Wales due to the war. I have no complaints about that, it looks real enough to me and I guess that is an achievement. The odd mix of dialects however kept grating on me. I think the only thing they had in common was being rural.

The Book describes “HGwmV” as a Kleenex film, but it did not really work on me. I guess I do not miss my old coal mine so badly and a scattered family, well, you should meet mine.

Sunday 10 March 2013

Le Roman d'un Tricheur (1936)

En Svindlers Roman
Sometimes when I watch particular movies I get the feeling that I am dealing with a big ego. A friendly person might call this kind of person an auteur (curious that it is the French term which is used). A less friendly one would call such a person a pain in the ass.

“Le Roman d'un Tricheur” is such a movie and Sacha Guitry I sense is such a person. When you see that he directed the movie starring himself, based it on his own book and with hardly any dialogue but his own narration and add to that the smug tone of the film, well, this is not a person who is trying to hide his talents. So, I guess the opinion to the film will very much depend on how you feel about such an ego.

Whether you like the movie or not it is obvious that several later directors and films owe a lot to “Le Roman d'un Tricheur”. Anybody who has seen the films of Jean Pierre Jeunet will recognize the style of the narrator who describes the situation with the dispassionate voice and detail of a police report, which become amusing as the story told is rather far-fetched. Think “Amelie” and “Delicatessen”, those rely heavily on the same style of narration.  Another example is “Forrest Gump”. Like in “Forrest Gump” the narrator himself is sitting down (in a café) telling his life story, sometimes to his book and sometimes to the random listener. In this way the story becomes a series of flashbacks anchored in the “present”. The similarities do not stop there. Like “Forrest Gump” the story of The Cheat (yup, that is all the name we get) is an incredible one that partly take us through a number of world history events and places the character more or less unwittingly in crucial positions from which he luckily emerge unscathed. I do not think I would call life in Monte Carlo a world event, but it places him in a position to describe the decadent life there from a unique point of view. Also one of his women (there are a few) show up in the “present” as a blast from the past in a curious twist of events.

Robert Zemeckis must have seen “Le Roman d'un Tricheur” more than once.

In the light of such future events it is interesting to watch “Le Roman d'un Tricheur”. However on its own there are some problems. Beside the blatant ego behind it I have some problems with the point of the storyline.

As far as I can determine the storyline is a discussion of whether it pays off to be honest or if we might be better off being dishonest. From the beginning we get the impression that the narrator believes that the unhappy things that happen to him such as the death of his entire family from mushroom poisoning is due to him being honest, while the fact that he survives them is that he is being dishonest. Frankly I cannot keep track on when he is honest and dishonest and when he benefits from it or not. He seems to decide at some point that he might as well be dishonest and so become a card cheat with great success. When an encounter with his former comrade-in-arms turns him into an honest gambler he loses all again. I am a bit confused.

This confusion extends to his romantic affairs. One woman is a professional thief from whom he runs away before he gets himself too involved. Another is a wannabe cheat with whom he marry, yet escapes from when their scheme fails. These two women he meets later at the casino while he himself is in disguise busy robbing the bank. The result of the encounter is that he split his winnings that evening with them and sleeps with his wife still in disguise. That is it. A third woman is an older baroness he meets as a young bellboy at the hotel where he is working. While he is madly in love with her back then he does not want to be recognized by her when she shows up in the present. Why not? When she does recognize him, which she does because he gives back the watch she once gave him he squirms and seem to prefer to be somewhere else. So, he loved these women in the past tense but avoid them in the present. Why?

A clue may be that he sees the fraud of his past as a vice that he is now cured from (he has taken the job as responsible for security at the casino) and so he distances himself from his past life and the women in it. Yet he does not sound particularly remorseful when he describes his past life. In fact it seems like he had a blast.

So, I do not really “get” the point of the movie. That leaves me with a bit of an empty feeling. It is as if some 10-15 minutes of the storyline that would help explain what it really is he is trying to say has bet cut away.

Maybe it is that he all his life has been flirting with dishonesty, but always turned honest before he burned himself seriously? Perhaps. In the lack of a better explanation I will let that stand for now.

Maybe this is just another auteur movie where the point is lost behind the bloated ego of the filmmaker.

Thursday 7 March 2013

Dodsworth (1936)

If anybody asked my right now why I am watching all these old movies from the list I would answer in one word: Dodsworth.

Warning: lots of spoilers!

It was a total surprise for me the first time I saw it a year ago and seeing it again confirms that my first impression was right. On paper the story sounds tedious, not something I would care much to see. A successful industrialist and his wife retire and go on the trip of their life to Europe. The wife, who is an idiot, flirts to the left and right in an eager and delusional attempt at being young again and eventually she sends her loving, but frustrated husband home. All attempts from his side to bring her home to their former life are in vain and eventually he gives up and waits out the divorce. During the wait he meets a kindred spirit and they take a liking for each other. When the wife’s sand castles crumble and she calls for his help he has to decide what he want to do with his life.

Does it sound a trifle boring? Well, it is not. Not at all. This is not a comedy, nor a tragedy, but simply a story of people. Well, well-off people with the means to do what they want on first class, but essentially just people. Samuel Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is the magnanimous and energetic former owner of an automobile company, which he built up from scratch. He is full of ideas and energy and a stand-up guy who speaks his mind. I suppose he embody many traditional American virtues, though I dare say that those virtues are pretty universal, at least today (well, maybe except for his loudness…). His only weakness as his friend Tubby exclaim is his blindness of his wife.

Fran Dodsworth (Ruth Chatterton), his wife, is vain and shallow. No, that is way too mildly put. She is obsessed with form, how people see her, status and crave attention. She is mightily impressed by titles and decorum and measures her own worth in her sexual attractiveness. In short, an idiot and a very annoying one at that. The way Fran and Sam fit together is that Sam takes care of her and she smirks when she needs something from him and otherwise treats him with superiority. Maybe it comes from being idle rich; her idiocy and his guilt at not giving her enough attentions, but he is fundamentally a good guy (and good guys accept their wives and do not give up on them) and she is fundamentally incredibly self-centered and narcissistic. No two ways about that.

The film indicates that European depravity leads Fran into her adulterous and decadent lifestyle, but she manages perfectly on her own. While the guys she finds are mostly well groomed scum they are also lead on by her as Captain Lockert (a very young David Niven) clearly tells her. She just baths in their attention and does not seem to realize that they want something in return. When they tell her that, she is deeply insulted and upset with them instead of listening to what they have to say. That counts for Lockert, Iselin and Kurts mother, the baroness (an always excellent Maria Ouspenskaya in a small part). Also a very narcissistic trait.

I could talk for a long time about how much Fran grates on me and how sorry I feel for Sam. An early peak was when he had arranged tickets for them to go home in time for when their daughter was giving birth, but she refused because it would remind her that she was a grandmother. I feel truly sorry for their daughter.

The last half hour is payback time. Early on Sam meet Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), an American expatriate taking it easy in Italy. As opposed to Fran she is an adult woman who knows what you can and cannot and though there is chemistry between her and Sam they perfectly remain friends, a grown-up relationship. When Sam ends up in Italy during the divorce however those restraints are cast aside and they get closer, yet still in that adult mature way and they experience their second youth. Finally Sam is happy again. And younger. It feels so good to see him that way.

At the same time Fran gets that definite slap from the baroness, uh it feels so good (the devil inside of me…) and she comes crying back to Sam. We get a few minutes of crisis then. Sam is still the responsible person, but he has learnt to see who Fran really is and she being her usual obnoxious self we end up with a very satisfying resolution.

I liked very much the portrayal of Sam and Fran. They are not as one-dimensional as they may sound, but we get a very good look at them and although the sympathy of the movie is clearly on Sam’s side Fran is not portrayed as a caricature, but quite realistic. You even feel a bit sorry for her because she is simply too stupid to really realize what she is doing and how it is affecting her surroundings. She does need some sort of protection, yet I still feel she gets as she deserves. She would probably go on telling people how unfair she has been treated and how stupid everybody are, but she will get more and more isolated and meanwhile Sam has been released from her and is enjoying life again.

The best part of the resolution is that their daughter is an adult and thus not a victim of the divorce.      

Mary Astor was not that lucky. At the time of filming she was involved in an ugly divorce that included heavy infight over custody over her four year old daughter. She came out stronger from this and became a big shot culminating in a headline appearance in “The Maltese Falcon”.

Dodsworth is one of the glorious highlights of the thirties. I wonder why I did not think of it when I listed the top ten of the thirties a few months back. That must be a miss.

Monday 4 March 2013

Sullivan's Travels (1941)

Med 10 Cent på Lommen
We are back again in good ol’ 41 to finally get on with the list. This time with Preston Sturges “Sullivan’s Travels” and it is good to be back when you are in such good company.

“Sullivan’s Travels” is a comedy about a successful director of comedies (Joel MCrea) who gets it into his head that he will make socially indignant movies about the troubles of the unfortunate. He soon realizes that he has not got a clue how people live outside his protected Beverly Hills home and so he ventures out as a bum with 10 cents in his pocket to explore life in the gutter. But this is not so easy when you are a naïve and inexperienced prince of Hollywood and all your dependents are trying to get you back in safety.

This sounds funny and it is. It is not a deep movie and the social indignity is mainly a comical instrument, but it works and Sullivan is just about the worst bum in the world. Joel McCrea gives Sullivan intensity and a zeal, he really insists on learning how to be a hobo and it is not easy. First he has to get away from his entourage following him in that ridiculous tour bus (love the chef!), then becomes the love slave of two crones (check out the scene in the cinema, his expression is glorious) and when he finally succeeds he gets sick and hungry and have to bug out.

As a bum he meets The Girl in the shape of Veronica Lake. He could definitely do worse. I now realize that Veronica Lake is the template for all these later “forties babes” (Like L.A. Confidential). She is quite amazing. From the moment she enters the film she steals the picture both through her sheer looks but particularly for her comical qualities.  She is good as the fed up wannabe actress who just wants the film industry to go screw itself, so perfectly cynical and honest and even when she finds out he really is a famous director she is hard to impress.  I love the idea of having her dress up as a boy and come along with him. That is like the worst idea in the world and together they are even more miserable at being bums.

The most important test of any comedy is if you laugh from them. As this is a film to celebrate the comedy, those who make them and laughter as medicine for the soul the laughing criteria becomes even more important. “Sullivan’s Travels” succeeds gloriously. I laughed throughout. In the car chase, in the cinema with the crones, when he gets arrested for stealing his own car and all the wonderful wisecracks. To why he does not have any money: “I just paid my income tax”.

All this works really nicely for the first hour. Then we get the drama. Sullivan is assumed dead, but actually convicted to 6 years of hard labor for trespassing and assault. Since his prison is a chain gang of the “I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” type he cannot get contact to the outside world and will have to come to terms with the fact that he is going to be there for a long time. This part did not work so well for me. This change of tone is quite abrupt and seems to convey some real social indignity. Uf, those horrible chain gangs. It seems a bit artificial and hypocrite in the sense that the film assumes there are different laws for hobos and Hollywood movie directors. Well, I am sure there is, but playing that card undermines the indignity. If only he can prove he is a move director it will be okay that he trespassed and hit the rail worker.

But that is really a minor detail in the bigger picture. Sullivan realizes that making funny movies is okay because it makes people happy and so he is back in business and does not need to make his own “Grapes of Wrath”. He even gets rid of his succubus of a wife so he can marry the super hot Veronica Lake.

Sullivan film project is called “O Brother where art thou” and that point of course toward the Coen brothers film of the same name. While I am still considering what those two films have in common another later movie to reference to “Sullivan’s Travels” is “Trading places”. Is also explores the comedy of a fish out of the water or maybe it is just that Eric Blore reminds me of Coleman (Denholm Elliott). Ah well.

In any case, an excellent comedy that was a real bliss to watch. Ah, it is good to be back in 41.

Saturday 2 March 2013

Lost in Translation (2003)

Lost in Translation
I am now breaking form in a big way. Not only am I jumping far ahead, I am also mixing up my comments on the movie with my own personal on location report. The thing is I have just been in Tokyo (I have just arrived in Seoul for the second leg of my trip) and so it was too big a temptation not to trail one of my all-time favorite movies “Lost in Translation”.

“Lost in Translation” is great for several reasons. The most obvious one is the cast. I can see any movie featuring Bill Murray and often he is the reason for me to see a film. He is one of those very few actors who can singlehandedly save a terrible film, but fortunately he usually get good material to work with. The list is very long and I am loath to pick out my favorites among them because it would exclude other excellent films. What make Bill Murray exceptional is his ability to look baffled and his deadpan comments. He is good at being cynical, but his sarcasm is tempered (though still outrageous) and when he is exaggerating I still believe him as opposed to Jim Carrey. Place Bill Murray in a weird situation and you will get the best out of him and this is exactly what “Lost in Translation” do. I only have to look at his face sticking up above a group of Japanese or watch him trying to understand what the Japanese courtesan want him to do (“Lip my stockings!) and I am sold.

Scarlett Johansson is an actress I am gaining more and more respect for although she is not one of those who can carry a movie by herself. I suppose her winning feature is that she usually is a character type I and probably most people can relate to. In “Lost in Translation” she has to look lost to match Bill Murray. That is a tall order but she does it well and I can definitely feel the chemistry between them.

The second reason for “Lost in Translation’s” greatness is all the subtle levels of alienation that the film presents. The two major ones are personal and cultural. Charlotte (Johansson) is having an identity crisis. She is at a crossroad in her life feeling that she has to do something but have no clue what it should be and so she is drifting along. She is entirely alone in this crisis and gets absolutely no response from her family or her husband, the photographer who brought her along to Japan on a job.  Bob Harris (Murray) is the shade of the movie star he used to be and now reduced to endorsing Japanese whiskey. This is of course happening all the time for any celebrity and he is getting a ton of money for it, but he clearly sees this as an uncomfortable job he just has to get over with. He is married, but the marriage has soured into routine and his feeling that he is not really needed in the family. His life and thoughts and those of his wife have diverged and he is as lost as Charlotte.

This alienation gets a more external aspect by placing the two of them in the bustling hub of humanity that is Tokyo. This is not just a humongous city but also a very different place for people of a western origin and mindset. It is not just a different language; it is almost everything that is different. Attitudes, habits, what people eat and do for fun, even the most familiar and seemingly universal is here presented as being outlandish. That is hilariously funny but also serves to isolate Charlotte and Bob. Add to that that they stay high above ground in an island of exclusivity far removed from the world on the Hyatt Park hotel and their isolation is complete.

Having established all this isolation the film then creates all these small bridges between people and across cultures. Bob and Charlotte of course. The two westerners toward the friends of Charlotte when they go to a karaoke bar. Even small things like the hopeless conversation between Bob and an elderly Japanese woman on the hospital that ends in laughter and smiles. These bridges become all the more poignant because of the alienation.

The third reason for greatness is the touch with which this film is made. This could easily have become depressive or a mean mockery of Japanese culture but the film is made with a love for the characters and their culture that the jokes remain innocent. Just because something is weird does not mean it is wrong. This all mean that I as a viewer find myself in a limbo of pleasure watching the story unfold. It seems and feels very light and the depth of the movie sneaks up on you without you hardly notice it.

The fourth reason is how unconventional the story and film is. Besides the genius of placing the story in Tokyo this story could easily have become a simple love story of two lonely people, but it is not. They make a bond and they do kiss in the end, but it is an intimacy of the soul, a friendship, they build and what form it has reached and will develop to is a secret between the two of them that we, the viewer, will never know as we could not hear what they said in the end. In the form their relationship has throughout it is not a threat to their individual marriages, but might actually save those, though in the end we do not know if they have crossed the boundary. That I think is a really elegant touch.
The bar at the Hyatt Park

Around 70% of the movie takes place at the Hyatt Park hotel, so as I was in Tokyo anyway I could not help going there with my wife and a colleague. Not only was “Lost in Translation” shot on location, they used the set exactly as it is. When you go there today you can find the lobby, the corridor, the pool and not least the bar exactly as in the movie. I could even find the table we sat at in the film! On the night we went there a jazz band playing, orders of magnitude better than the one in the film, but that was the only difference. Looking around you see exactly the same kind of people, drinking the same kind of drinks in the same kind of atmosphere.
The jazz band was way better than in the movie


The view from the bar is magnificent! It looks like something out of “Bladerunner” and you feel exactly dissociated from the real world outside, precisely like Charlotte and Bob. If you should ever come by Tokyo and is a fan of the movie like me it is definitely worth checking out. Just bear in mind that if you do not stay at the hotel they charge a cover fee. We ended up paying a cover fee of 6600 Yen…
Proof I was there on location. My wife, me and my colleague Stefan

I brought my wife with me to Tokyo like John invited Charlotte. Except for the first day and a half my wife was left alone to explore the city, much like Charlotte and here is maybe my only complaint about the movie. How can anybody be bored in Tokyo? This is a super interesting city and although my wife did not find a Bob Harris she could easily pack her days full and I believe she had a wonderful week. Yes, Tokyo is a crazy place and the Japanese are different, but everybody we met are wonderful people and it is not so difficult to bridge the gap.
Sibuya Crossing, several scenes were shot here, though we did not see the dinosaur