Monday 26 January 2015

Forbidden Games (Jeux Interdits) (1952)

Forbudte Lege
”Jeux Interdits” or ”Forbidden Games” as it is called in English is a French movie from 1952 by René Clément. It is the moving tale of a young girl of 5 years, Paulette (Brigitte Fossey), whose parents get killed in the German attack on France in 1940 and finds shelter with a farm family.

This was definitely a nice surprise. I had not expected that this movie would be anywhere as good as it was and that makes me even more pleased with this movie. Essentially this is a deeply serious and tragic movie about how children deal with death and disaster, but disguised as a bittersweet comedy. That is a genius combination because it makes it easier to swallow an otherwise almost unbearable story.

In the opening Paulette and her parents are stuck in a convoy of refugees leaving Paris. Paulette witnesses her parents get killed by German planes strafing the convoy along with her puppy. The death of her parents is simply too much for her, she cannot deal with that. Instead she focusses her mourning on her puppy and in continuation of that on all other animals that dies. Paulette meets the boy Michel (Georges Poujouly) who immediately adopts her although he is only a few years older than she is. Through him she learns of what must be done with the dead, that you bury them and place a cross for them. It becomes quite an obsession for her and we understand that these animals and the rituals are stand-ins for her lost parents. Michel is eager to be her mentor and together they start a hunt for crosses of all sorts for their impromptu cemetery.

Michel belong to a poor family on the countryside. We learn that their life is rough, cloth are worn-out and torn and the food is simple. But they get along and in their gruff and rustic way they are a cozy family that stick together and where one belong. It is a case of what you do not have in your wallet you have in your heart, though they would never admit that. They are way too unsentimental to formulate such an idea.

For Paulette they are a godsend. After that heartbreaking opening of the movie it is so warming to see how they take her in and give her a new family.

The second part of the movie focuses on Paulette and Michel’s building friendship and their hunt for crosses. This gets entirely out of hand when Michel robs the cemetery of 14 crosses and causes friction in the family. They have no idea that Michel is doing this for Paulette, nor that Paulette uses this as an outlet for her mourning. To the family it is an expense and a disgrace. When the police arrives the family think it is because of the crosses, but actually they are there to take Paulette away. While the family is relieved Michel is furious. He seems to be the only one who understands how much Paulette needs him and his family and Paulette, well, she losses her second family and is understandably devastated.

It is not a happy end movie, but it is the better for it. It drives home the message of how lonely and bereft this little girl is and why it is so important to have somebody she can call family and trust. It is truly heartbreaking.

I have the added problem that I cannot deal with suffering children on the screen. It cuts through my heart like a knife. When we hear about war we think of soldiers fighting and numbers of civilian who are hurt or killed by war, but when you see the pictures of children being victims of the fighting then war takes on an entirely new dimension. Incidentally I visited the holocaust memorial in Berlin just two days ago, where these stories of small children add a poignancy to the disaster that makes it entirely unbearable.

Clément picked as Paulette a most gorgeous little girl. She is absolutely adorable and she works perfectly for this picture. She is believable as the lost child and her acting feels natural. That is no easy feat of which countless of terrible Hollywood performances bear witness. The DVD comes with a half hour featurette including an interview with Brigitte Fossey from 2012 and amazingly she still looks like that little girl. I understand why Clément chose her back then and apparently it was quite an experience for a 5 year old girl. She revealed an interesting detail: Half the movie is filmed almost a year later than the other half and in the meantime Brigitte grew 12 cm, yet in the movie you never notice. 12 cm!

There is a lot of heart in “Jeux Interdits” and there is a worthy reason for the movie, but most of all it is a movie that moves you as a viewer and I am very happy to have seen it.


Friday 23 January 2015

A Visit to Museum Für Film und Fernsehen

A Visit to Museum Für Film und Fernsehen
I am spending a few days in Berlin with my wife on my way back to Denmark. This has given me the opportunity to visit Museum Für Film und Fernsehen here in Berlin. You might ask what is so special about that? Is that not just another dull museum? Well, no.

The film museum in Berlin celebrates German movie history and especially the glory days of the film studios in Babelsberg, just outside Berlin. That ought to require no further explanation and I guess most people reading this blog will know that I am talking about movies like Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari, Dr. Mabuse der spieler, Nosferatu, Der Letzte Mann, Metropolis, M, Die Büche der Pandora, Der Blaue Engel…. and on and on. Knowing this I had no doubt that this must be my first stop on a visit to Berlin.

Oh, little did I know that it is much better than that.

The film museum is located in the ultra-modern Sony center on Potsdamer Platz and the museum itself opened in 2000. I dare say, however, that the current permanent exhibition must be even newer than that. This is no simple collection of artifacts, but a full immersion into the movie experience. The exhibits are presented in context and you just cannot not be wow’ed by the presentation. The opening alone with a hall of mirrors with screen suspended in the air showing muted clips of classic films is just stunning, and from then on you almost forget to breathe throughout the exhibition. Except that I was so busy making exclamations and telling my wife why this and that exhibit was amazing and important.

The exhibition covers a lot of ground and all the important classics are represented. I think I found all the German movies I have seen on the List so far except for one. Some gets special attention. Das Kabinett des D. Caligari has its own cinema where you can see the movie, of course in an off-angle presentation.

There is the coat from Der Letzte Man, props from M, details from Die Büche der Pandora, but most attention is given to Metropolis and Marlene Dietrich. They are given entire rooms (plural) including the android and costumes and personal notes from Dietrich.

Again and again I had to gasp over the items they had collected. Props, cameras, notes and letters, it is a true treasure throve.

Beside the films themselves the museum has a theme about all the people who went to Hollywood and made a career there and in the process created a vacuum in Germany during the Nazi regime. I knew this was the case, but it is striking how much influence all these Germans had on the American film industry, especially among directors. One of the curious items was Peter Lorre’s immigration papers upon his arrival in the States.

As a bonus the museum has a temporary exhibition about Ken Adam, the famous production designer who was a feature on all the major James Bond movies until the eighties and invented the war room in Dr. Strangelove. Again a very interesting exhibition especially the layered cinematic presentation of the war room design.

The museum is not particularly large, but the space is used extremely well and both in design and content this is one of the most interesting exhibitions I have ever seen. I can highly recommend to make a visit to Berlin if only to see this remarkable museum.

Tuesday 20 January 2015

The Quiet Man (1952)

Den Tavse Mand
15 years ago I was madly in love with Ireland and everything Irish. I spent my vacations in Ireland and even contemplated moving there. One summer I spent a month bicycling 1000 miles around the island. Then I started having work in Ireland. I was doing some wind farms for clients there and that tempered my relationship with the green island. It is classic. The idyllic impression only lasts as long as you are a tourist. When you get below that surface there is a harsh reality completely at odds with your dream image.

I can sort of understand John Ford when he did “The Quiet Man”. He had this sentimental idyllic image of his ancestral home and that is what he wanted to show the audience: his dream vacation. The same way as his westerns depicted an iconic American West this movie tries to show an iconic Ireland. The result is a pre-industrial romanticism about the jolly life on the countryside full of stereotypes and cliché images. He was not alone in doing that. In Denmark at least half the films made during the fifties cover this very ground.

In Ford’s Irish fantasy world an American (Ford himself maybe, in his dreams?) is returning back to Ireland to buy back his ancestral home and settle in. He finds a girl, but her brother will not give her away in marriage because the American bought land he had his eyes on. This pisses off the girl and the Yank will have to fight the brother. That is all there really is to the plot and symptomatic for Ford’s picture of the Irish countryside this is the level of the problems they have. In fact in all other matters, life is great, the nature beautiful and no problem so great that you cannot solve it with a pint and a song. It sounds a bit silly, but at least it is not as ridiculous as it was in Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley”. You can almost believe in this carefree life and it is an image that have drawn tons of people myself included to Ireland. The fact and the reasons that millions of Irish went the other way is happily ignored.

The reason I am not entirely sold by this movie has a lot to do with the rosy picture the movie paints. This Ireland is a little too happy and tidy, a little too much of a fairy tale for me to buy into it. We are supposed to love all these characters, something that the movie “Whiskey Galore!” succeeded at on a Scottish island, but here everybody is just a bit too much on the side of a caricature for it to work, at least for me.

Still there is no questioning the entertainment value. John Wayne as the returning Yank, Sean Thornton, is as always a pleasure and although he is for sure of Irish origin he is sufficiently a fish out of water that he is believable. His confusion with the Irish and their quaint and illogical ways is plain in his face and speech. Considering how we know him as the quintessential Western hero he really looks misplaced and that is a good thing, mind ye.

Maureen O´Hara as Sean’s love interest Mary Kate Danaher looks glorious in Technicolor, but I am not so sure I like the character. She is supposed to be a fiery Irish redhead who gives anybody a verbal thrashing, but like so much else in this film it is just getting a bit too much volume. She is friggin out of her mind! Considering the trouble she is giving everybody it is a wonder what Sean sees in her, but more about that later.

The rest of the cast is stuffed to the brim with quaint characters who are drinking their pints and following their sports and doing their best at being as old school Irish as possible.

I cannot say that I did not enjoy myself. I did and it is difficult not to. What the film shows is a pleasant dream with just enough going on to make it more than fluff. It also keeps a nice pace considering it clocks in at just over 2 hours. So in that sense this film is nice enough company.

What tickles me however, beside the over the top white wash of rural Irish life is some strange points of the movie. Sean wants to marry Mary Kate and manage to get his bride through an inventive scheme carried out by the villagers. That is fine and even fun. Mary Kate´s brother Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen) refuses to give her her furniture and money because he felt cheated, obviously a way to get back at Sean though I do not see how he could do such a thing to his sister, but all right. Mary Kate is going bazooka over not getting her money even though Sean tries to convince her it does not matter and she wants to leave him because of it… This is presumably because he refuses to fight her brother…??? When Sean catches up with her he manhandles her home in a not very pleasant way and everybody are excited…????? Mary Kate is pleased to be treated like this and everybody are excited that Sean and Will start beating the crap out of each other….????????

I must say there are a few things here I do not understand. Are we supposed to think that the reason Mary Kate is a bitch is because has been too nice to her and what she really needs is a good slap? And are we supposed to think that Sean is a real man because he manhandles his wife. And what is this stupidity of fighting it out? Where I come from brawling like this is the lowest behavior imaginable and certainly nothing to cheer.

Yet here it is part of the glorious Irish charm. Sorry if I do not manhandle my wife or go into fistfights with people who owe me money. I guess I would make a poor Irishman.

Of course you might argue that with a fiery wife you have to stand up for yourself, but considering Mary Kate´s level of bitching, is that really her husband’s fault? Frankly I think I would have kicked her out at a fairly early stage.

Still Ireland is a pretty place and Co Galway and Co Mayo are not the worst places to go in Ireland. For my money however I would head north to Co Donegal where you can still find the old and real Ireland, where life is truly tough, but the beer and the whiskey is particularly good. Slainte.

Thursday 15 January 2015

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Den Dag Jorden Stod Stille
“The Day the Earth Stood Still” is my last 1951 movie and a movie I have been looking forward to see. I make no secret of my enthusiasm for good science fiction and although there was the risk that this would be extremely kitsch and primitive (1950’ies sci-fi films are usually used as mockery of the genre) I had a hope that this would be at least interesting.

I was not let down. In fact this movie was a lot better than I expected and certainly a lot better than I feared. In fact modern sci-fi could probably learn a few things from this movie.

“The Day…” may at first appear to fit the classic sci-fi bill. An alien space ship is arriving on Earth and is causing great alarm. There are panic scenes and great consternation which are entirely in step with the cold war anxiety that had just begun at this time. The spaceship, which is pretty neat, lands in Washington DC (of course, they always do that in American films) and out steps a giant robot and an alien with the classic We-come-in-peace message.

But this is where the cliché ends. The alien is shot before he gets much further by a trigger happy soldier and turns out to be humanoid. In fact there is hardly any difference physiologically between Klaatu (Michael Rennie), as he is called, and the rest of humanity. The wounded man is brought to hospital and immediately subjected to polite but firm interrogation. Klaatu has a message to all nations of the Earth and this seems to miff the US government. As the UN at this point excludes the Soviet bloc that is not good enough either and none of the alternatives the government suggests seems to satisfy Klaatu. Instead he wants to meet the people and escapes from the hospital. This really upsets the brass who had insisted on keeping him where they could control him. The fact that they cannot control him seems to through them entirely off balance, so much so that they issue a shoot on sight order. It does not help that Klaatu’s spaceship is impregnable and that the robot Gort (Lock Martin in a really cool suit) is super strong and has a beam that can make things disappear. The army is helpless against it and that throws the army into a frenzy. Despite Klaatu’s friendly approach and the fact that nobody has been hurt, the army and the politicians decide that this alien is a menace.

Klaatu’s mission work out a lot better among regular people. He befriends a boy, Bobby (Billy Gray) and his mother Helen (Patricia Neal), who thinks he is a New Englander called Mr. Carpenter. Klaatu also meets a scientist who is a lot more receptive than the politicians and they agree to set up a meeting of wise people of all nations instead of politicians to hear Klaatu’s meeting.

Without revealing too much of the conclusion I can say so much that we get a hectic ending with a shooting, a resurrection, a robot in action and the great message that it is time for aggression to end, that the people of the Earth has reached a stage where they are becoming a threat to the surrounding universe. Unless the people of the Earth subject themselves to a world order without war they will be obliterated. And just to demonstrate the power of the alien he stops all machinery and electrical devices for half an hour, except for hospitals and planes. No harm, but plenty of dramatic effect.

The story can be read in several layers. On the face of it it is an exciting story about what might happen if we got a visitor from outer space. Stupidly we would probably try to kill the visitor even if they were friendly.

On the track just below it can be seen as a criticism of the xenophobic attitude of scared politicians and a trigger happy army. The shoot-first attitude quickly takes over when the culprit cannot be controlled. This plays along the communist scare of the period: if you are not our friend you are probably our enemy and we cannot risk that. The politicians and the army are too embedded in the cold war mentality to be receptive to the warning from Klaatu and instead he must find the smart people of the Earth, the artists and the scientist.

But it is in the third layer that it becomes really interesting because this is also a Christ story. Klaatu comes down from Heaven with the promise of salvation, but those in power will not listen. The government wants to use him for their purpose but he refuse to support any one cause. Instead he goes out among the common people to find his disciples. The speech in front of the spaceship is straight out of the gospels. Klaatu also gets killed, but is resurrected and eventually through ascension return to the heavens. Gort is a manifestation of divine power, almighty and just but ruthless and it is easy to see Helen as Maria Magdalene, present at the crucifixion and the resurrection. The people of Earth is promised eternal salvation or damnation at a soon to come judgment day, the choice is ours, and we chose to kill the messenger.

The sublayers are subtle enough that they are not at first apparent and therefore not thrust in our face and it elevates the movie far above the normal B-movie genre that this type of movie would normally belong to. Add to that that the production value is, well, not flawless, you can still see that it is made on a shoestring budget, but carefully made. This is not a run of the mill film but well considered and they get the most out of both actors, special effects as they were available and particularly the cinematography. There are so many great tableaux in the film that this is almost a window into 1951 Washington DC and that I always find interesting.

In a modern mainstream sci-fi film the producers are so busy showing off all the flashes and bangs they can create that the story and the characters are relegated to secondary roles. This was not really an option in the early 1950’ies. The technology was just not ready yet and thank you for that because forcing emphasis on story and characters makes for much better movies.

Normally I watch my movies in small snippets during my breaks, but in this case I just could not let go of the movie. All too soon my time is up and I could hardly wait for my next break. This is how I want to feel when I watch a movie and that is why I give “The Day the Earth Stood Still” my highest recommendation.


Wednesday 7 January 2015

A Place in the Sun (1951)

En Plads i Solen
It is time for the first film of the year and that honor falls to the sobering “A Place in the Sun”. This movie is decidedly not a party, but after the party of “An American in Paris” I am okay with that.

“A Place in the Sun” is a clever film because it plays with the audience. We are presented with this guy who keeps making wrong decisions. Not by accident, but fully consciously he does the wrong thing again and again. In a normal film I would quickly notice that, and in this case I am also warned by the synopsis in the Book, and my normal response would be to detach myself from the character. Obviously this is a miscreant who will end up getting what he deserves. But here is the interesting part. George Stevens, the director, portrays this young man, played by Montgomery Clift, as a sympathetic, sweet and innocent looking young man to such an extent that despite myself I cannot help rooting for him.

So, he is a flawed hero, that is nothing new, and yet it is because Stevens takes it to an entirely new level. There is no malice in George Eastman, Clift’s character. In a sense he is as honest as the country bumpkin he is supposed to be, yet he manages to get himself entangled in a plot that is about as dishonest and vile as imaginable and he has only himself to thank. Do you like such a character or do you despise him? That is the cleverness of the movie, because you end up doing both.

I have seen several sources that make up this movie to be a social commentary, a bit like “The Crowd”, where George Eastman is craving for the trappings of the rich and famous and is violating the rules to get there. I do not see that at all. George is a fish out of water who is struggling with his own poor choices and poor judgment. This conflict between good and bad, sympathetic character and wrong choices is in my opinion the theme of the story. A film noir where the femme fatale is essentially himself.

George starts down this road when he works in the factory packing room and deliberately break the most explicit rule of the company and initiate a relationship with one of his co-workers, Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). You cannot blame her, it is all him coming onto her. Oh, he is nice and charming and young people fall in love, but there is a good reason for this rule, it serves to protect the employees from abuse and true enough, when shortly after something better shows up on the radar George loses interest in Alice.

This is George next poor choice. Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) is young, beautiful, charming and stinking rich. Let is just be nice to George and assume it is her winning personality and not her wealth he falls for, but still, this girl is far outside his league. Watching George in the company of Angela and her friends and family is a painful exercise of fish out of the water.

For a while George is playing two horses because he does not seem willing to give up on Alice either. Yet another poor choice. This comes to a head when Alice finds out she is pregnant and at the same time suspects that George is losing interest with her. The right and honorable thing here of course is to make a reality check and get his situation sorted out one way or the other. Either commit himself fully to Alice and the baby or to make a clean and generous settlement which with access to Angela’s ocean of wealth ought to be an easy matter. Instead George avoids the confrontation with either of them and instead opt for a third solution, to arrange for an accident to befall Alice. Talk about really poor choice!

All through this Montgomery Clift manages to instill in George a boyish innocence that even wins us over so we cannot but feel with him all the way through to the electric chair. That is quite a feat.

The two leading ladies are quite remarkable and deserves some special attention. Especially Shelley Winters. At this point in her career she was playing brash and sexy young women with a can-do spirit. I saw her in “Winchester ’73” and in “Red River” and in both movies she was a lush and inviting woman. Much more than just a romantic interest. In “A Place in the Sun” she is completely transformed. She barely makes it as romantic interest. Instead she is drab and dull and every bit an excuse for herself. Her character is flattered by George’s interest and it is easy to think of her as an easy conquest for him. When he burns her there is a quiet desperation to her as if she is almost bursting to tears, but keeping it together with a wild hope that maybe, just maybe, George will love her again as before. It is such a massive difference from her earlier roles that at first I did not recognize her at all. It earned her an Academy nomination and a well-deserved one.

The other woman is her opposite. Angela is the first big role for Elizabeth Taylor, who was only 18 years old at the time of the filming. Of course it helps that everything about the filming is smooth when she is in the picture, but still this is a massive entry of an actress. She owns every scene she is in and it is easy to see the mega star she is on her way to become. Taylor had actually already been in movies for about a decade at the time, but nothing as big as this.

One thing I was thinking watching this movie was that I bet Stevens had been watching the Murnau classic “Sunrise”. I know “A Place in the Sun” is an adaptation of a famous book, but there are so many parallels to that story. A man torn between the known, earthy woman with whom he has a commitment and the woman that promises him dreams beyond expectation. He takes the first woman onto a lake with the intention to kill her but experience a change of heart. Here the two stories depart as if Stevens had thought what would have happened if the man from “Sunrise” had actually ended up killing his wife? We end up forgiving the farmer, but can we forgive George? He did have the change of mind after all and did not want to kill her, yet she died. Interesting thought.

“A Place in the Sun” won a lot of Oscars, but not the big one. It is certainly the kind of movie that the Academy loves, but were the brilliant components enough to give a great sum? I just do not know. It is a movie I respect more than I love and I am glad I saw it, but will I have the stamina to see it again?


Thursday 1 January 2015

Happy New Year 2015

Happy New Year 2015!
Another year is gone and I am staggering into the new year, not with a hangover, mind you (I have developed an allergic reaction to alcohol, sigh), but with a crippling cold that makes my head feel twice as big.

Anyway, I wish everybody a happy new year and good luck with all your endeavors.

I do not yet have a tally on the number of actual reviews I made in 2014, the picture is muddled by non-review posts, special Danish entries and escapades further down the list, but on the last day of the year I reached the 250 movie mark, though it depends a bit on how you count them. That is a nice round number and the objective I was aiming for so I am happy with that.

Right now I am deep into 1951 and despite a slump in quality of late I am thoroughly pleased with the movies I am watching. There are lots of interesting stuff coming up and knowing the editors by now there will also be some nice surprises. If all goes well I aim for the 300 mark by the end of 2015 and maybe even a bit further.

For Christmas I got two new books: “1001 Restaurants You Must Experience Before You Die” and “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die”.

The restaurant book I think is best suited as a travel guide. Going through that one would soon become very expensive and while I do travel for food, this I feel would be taking it a bit too far. Also the restaurant business is fickle. A few years down the road the scene may have changed substantially and I would only be limited by a list.

The book list however has lasting value and although my reading speed prohibits me from ever completing such a list it is very tempting to give it a shot. So, my plan for 2015 is to branch out with a second blog. How exactly that works with two blogs in tandem I have yet to figure out, but the New Year is a time for bloated promises and intensions and this will be mine. Do not hold your breath though. It may take months before I start it and the blog rate will be very slow.

Take care and all the best from here.