Wednesday 30 November 2016

Ben-Hur (1959)

There are big movies, there are really big movies and then there is Ben-Hur.

It is colossal.

As such it is one of those movies everybody will at least know off, simply due to its massive size. I watched it first time back in the nineties when the university film club screened it in a converted auditorium and I am grateful I got the chance to watch it on a big screen. This is the kind of film that deserves it, maybe even needs it.

Ben-Hur may well have been the most expensive movie ever made at the time. It is three and a half hours long, employs 350 talking characters and an insane number of extras. It is filmed on numerous locations around the world including purpose built sets of a magnificence to eclipse those used by Griffith for “Intolerance”. The only thing I can compare the hippodrome to is when Cameron built a copy of Titanic just to sink it. And every single character in every single scene had to be dressed and equipped in an era-fitting costume! It goes without saying that the filming is in crisp Technicolor cinemascope.


The one thing you have to worry about when presented with such a technical marvel as “Ben-Hur” is if there behind all this dazzle is a decent movie. It is okay, at least most of it is okay. Direction here is way better than DeMille’s silent movie tableau style in “The Ten Commandments”. Scenes here are dynamic and fluid, these are not just characters delivering lines to the camera, but actually to each other. But we are not entirely home either. The pathos is still heavy and at times more than the movie can carry. Especially Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur is prone to melodramatic acting to the extent that I got sincerely fed up with him. Whether it is the fault of Heston or Wyler I am not sure but man, that guy is totally over the top.

Things gets a lot better when action takes over. The chariot race is well known and for good reason. It has been referenced and copied, but never exceeded. It is simply exhilarating. But my favorite is the naval battle. In fact the entire sequence at sea is the part that works best for me. The filming, the cutting and the set, wauw! This is eye candy. And maybe best of all Heston keeps quiet and is reduced to stare in hatred. His best acting of the movie.

The story itself has an ambivalence. It is an adventure story about the exploits of Judah Ben-Hur and as such not so different from a typical swashbuckler movie. Great popcorn stuff and fitting for a big budget movie and it works. However the movie also wants to be about personal transformation. The hardship and injustice Judah suffers from Rome in general and Messala (Stephen Boyd) in particular makes him a bitter man that takes up the fight, but then learn mercy and is released from his anger. That story works less well, mainly because the movie spends three hours to make Judah an angry man and then he meets Jesus and everything is settled. That leads to the third theme, which is the movies intention of telling an alternate story about Christ. I am sure that religious people get a kick out of that theme, but it seems forced upon the adventure story and it does not entirely work. Sure, those are powerful scenes with Jesus on the cross or walking down Via Dolorosa, but I cannot help that this part is a Deux ex Machina that is there because of a religious intent.

I have always been fascinated by the Roman era, like so many people before me, and one of the things that strikes me is the very bad publicity the Empire always gets in Christian texts. It is quite understandable actually, the early Christians were persecuted by the Romans, but those texts also form our collective image of the Roman Empire. The more I look however, the more I see a level of benevolence in the empire completely at odds with the Christian texts. The Romans brought civilization to all corners of the Mediterranean world and beyond. It brought prosperity and peace and the first two centuries of the millennium was known as Pax Romana. Roman law protected its inhabitants against lawlessness and exploitation and the main thing the Romans demanded in the districts was for its residents to abide by the law and contribute to the defenses. Not so different from the EU today. Incidentally when Jesus was executed by the Romans it was at the request of the ruling class in Jerusalem, not because the Romans had anything particular against Jesus. In that light I find it a bit difficult to buy Judah’s hatred of the empire (though his personal hatred of Messala is completely reasonable) and I have some sympathy for Pilates speech to Judah.

Alas, all this does not change that “Ben-Hur” is a great movie to watch and enjoy, especially for the popcorn. The bigger the screen the better. It is one of the greatest spectacles ever made.

Wednesday 23 November 2016

Breathless (A Bout de Souffle) (1959)

I guess I am a bit stupid. Or dense. Or just conservative. Watching “A bout de soufflé” I kept asking myself, what is it I am supposed to love about this movie, what is so special that really ought to be super excited? I am through the movie and the extra material and I still have not come up with an answer. I do not hate this movie, but it does very little for me. Critics swoon over it so I must be, well, a bit stupid.

“A bout de soufflé” is supposed to be the movie that started the French new wave in cinema. It was a collaboration of all the filmmakers that made a name for themselves in France throughout the sixties and honestly that may be its claim to fame, as the starting point for all these people: Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol etc.

It is a rambling sort of movie, cheaply done using almost exclusively location shots and hand held equipment. The dialogue is not improvised, but seem often random, stylized at times, but also natural. That is all very nice but hardly new. The Italians started this 15 years earlier and Cassavete’s “Shadows” is far more out there than “A bout de soufflé” ever goes.

Then there is the story of a charming crook, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who wants to be Humphrey Bogart and spends his time looking cool, picking up girls and steal and swindles friends and foes. He even kills a policeman. Michel hangs out with an American student journalist, Patricia (Jean Seberg) and much of the movie is dialogue between the two of them. I am not sure what to make of that. Is this a theme of ultimate freedom and rebellion, sort of a “Thelma and Louise” story? Or maybe “Natural Born Killers”? Could be. Or maybe a theme on sexual freedom, that you are free to choose who you want, and with that free love you get into the confusion of sex and love. Clearly Michel and Patricia have very different positions on that and those positions the movie makes a lot out of. Patricia would say something to the effect of her position and Michel would answer by not answering at all but saying something entirely irrelevant to what Patricia was saying. Yet the two of them are inexplicably drawn to each other.

Inexplicably I say because although the movie makes a lot out of Michel’s charms you really do not have to look very far to realize he is a despicable character, not so much through his talk, stupid as it is, but simply through his actions. The man is an asshole and Patricia is way too smart not to realize that. So what does she want with him? It is my guess that she does not even know herself. Certainly when she turns him in she explains it as a test on if she really cares for him.

So, yeah, an examination of love and attraction is as close to a theme as I think we get here. Unfortunately as I cannot see what she wants with him in the first place, expect for his Belmondo lips, the theme is lost on me. She is playing with fire and he loves himself too much to really care about her. Not a good basis for a love story.

All is not lost however. Even I can find something of value here, though it is mostly in the detail. I love that the move was filmed in the real Paris and not in some studio version. The streets very not poor and grimy nor romantically bohemian. They were simply streets in Paris and that felt like a window into reality. At some point they were listening to Radio Luxembourg and that was what everybody in Europe did at the time. When the big radio stations were slow to adopt the new music you could always find it on Radio Luxembourg.

Of course Jean Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg became big, romantic stars and as the movie where their careers began “A bout de soufflé” deserves some credit I suppose. It is just not enough for me. Having a narcissistic criminal and a girl too smart to be there discussing love and sex for an hour and a half just does not cut it. In 1959 that was probably pretty awesome, but in 2016 this is just lame.

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Shadows (1959)

There are several criteria for making the List. Some movies were award winners, some were successes at the box office and some have simply passed the test of time and become classics. Then there are those that are none of the above, but critically acclaimed. They are a mixed bunch and make up a not insignificant portion of the List. For me there is a special group that transcends all these categories, namely those movies that does something new, breeth fresh life into the media and help shape movies as we know them today. “Shadows” is exactly such a movie.

By the usual criteria I should not even like this movie, but I am strangely fascinated by it and watched it with this feeling that I was witnessing something special, a harbinger of things to come. Calling it a rebirth is probably stretching it, but it felt incredibly modern.

“Shadows” is the first movie made by the famous John Cassavetes. It is proclaimed as an improvisation exercise, but that has since been refuted as a gimmick. Nevertheless it is a far looser than normal movie in filming, structure, script, and even plot. It is a meandering sequence of scenes witnessing what appears to be random event in the life of three siblings in New York.

Hugh (Hugh Hurd) is a jazz singer getting crap jobs in third rate joints and not doing too well on those. He is constantly shadowed by his manager, a very overbearing type. Through a combination of Hugh’s ever present anger and his lack of success Hugh drives a wedge between them.

Ben (Ben Carruthers), Hugh brother, is an unemployed trumpeter who is idling his time away with his just as useless friends. They frequent bars to pick up girls and spend an awful amount of time being bored. Attempts at moving them out of the rut are halfhearted and doomed, such as a visit at a museum, and it takes a brutal thrashing for Ben to wake up.

Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), the sister, is a pretty, flirtatious girl, who is hell bent on defining her own rules. She allows herself to be impulsive, whether it be to walk up and kiss a stranger or invite a new flirt on a date with the current boyfriend. She has artistic aspirations and also in these insists on defying conventions. However beneath the independent front she is vulnerable and surprisingly innocent and whenever her attitude gets her into trouble she curl up or lash out as if she is ashamed of that vulnerability.

The life these siblings lead are very much in line with the beat-generation writers such as Jack Kerouac. It is a search for meaning, but a rebellious search outside conventions. In that sense it reminded me of Fellini’s “I Vitelloni”, but here the style of filming and acting points forward to Jim Jarmusch or Robert Altman. It is like a Dogme movie four decades before the term was coined. It lends the movie a realism and a refreshing air that makes it exciting to watch.

Completely in line with the style of the movie the conclusion is vague. It is a coming to terms conclusion, accepting things, that brings a calmness, but is sufficiently open-ended to not really be a conclusion at all and I am left with the feeling, for better or worse, that I simply watched a few days in the life of these siblings.

“Shadows” has a curious detail that has been made a lot of in reviews and comment, which is that of race. The movie is absolutely colorblind and the characters are all shades at random. Only for a single character does it seem to be an issue, otherwise people are simply people as if Cassavetes is simply stating that it is a non-issue. I prefer to look at it like that and just be bemused of the attention that particular detail has received.

You want to see something else tonight? Go watch “Shadows”. Lean back, let it play out. It is quite rewarding.

Saturday 12 November 2016

Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro) (1959)

Sort karneval
Following the List is a travel experience both in time and space and I love that I get to visit a lot of places around the world on this tour, especially when the movies are up to standard. That is certainly the case with “Orfeu Negro” or “Black Orpheus” from Brazil. I like Brazil very much. I have been there twice and got the impression that it is a happy and friendly place despite the problems and poverty they do have to struggle with, so to watch a movie centered on the most quintessential Brazilian event of the Carnaval is something to enjoy.

“Orfeu Negro” is one of those movies where I am happy with much of the movie yet contain elements, even key elements, that annoy me, so this will be a “great, but…” review.

Mostly however this movie is a joy to behold. The quality of the filming is exquisite with bright colors, beautiful vistas and very strong and well placed cutting. Even by Hollywood standard this one gets top marks and that is not exactly what I would expect from the second Brazilian movie on the List, no offense.

Secondly, and that is the winning point, this is very much a story about Carnaval, the all-consuming event of the year in Rio de Janeiro, where the town explodes in music and dance and joie de vivre. There is so much samba music and dancing here that I cannot help being caught by it, even when it gets more ominous and trance-like. This is not the feeling I get watching a musical. Gene Kelly never makes me feel like getting out of my chair to join the party, but the samba in “Orfeu Negro” makes my blood pump and my feet tap. Then, talking breaks from the dancing, when the movie changes gear, we are treated with wonderful bossa nova. Oh, that beautiful sleek language caressing the song in bossa nova. In my personal version of paradise the soundtrack is bossa nova, oh yes. Here is the cool thing: all this music and dancing is not just a pretty backdrop, but so very central to the movie that in my opinion it is the movie.

For some strange reason though Camus, or whoever was in charge of the project, decided that the movie should be a modern, but very literal retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. I do not mind that story, it is a beautiful one indeed, but it is so unnecessary here. Naming the characters Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes and even the dog Cerberus is ham fisted and the mystical stalker dressed up as Death seems entirely artificial. He is only there and in that form because in the myth Death takes Eurydice. I would not have minded if this had been the man that threatened Eurydice in the village she escaped from (though it may be what was intended) in a more naturalistic form, but here is seem to be a magical creature, yet he is obviously just some dude with a mask on. There is no real need for this character. Orfeu’s (Brenno Mello) spurned girlfriend Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira) has vitriol and anger enough to fill that role and something similar goes for the spirit summoning late in the movie. In my opinion the movie would have worked better by cutting the connection to the myth and stick to the triangle drama and the Carnaval.

That irritation however does not ruin the overall joy of watching “Orfeu Negro”. It is brimful of colorful characters such as Serafina (Léa Garcia) and her demure cousin Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), Mira of course, Orfeu himself and the children that follow him as a Greek choir and when these people gather as a crowd in the samba magic happens. It is obvious that these are people of little means and that they live in awful favelas, this is not a white washing of Brazil, but that makes the energy released through that annual event so much more powerful. This is not spillover from a life of plenty, but the energetic outlet of a life in poverty, the thing that makes life possible for these people.

Brazil is a very interesting place also outside of Carnaval. It is big and complex and varied and I think that is captured very well in “Orfeu Negro”. Even if this is only Rio we see the contrast of the boulevards and the favelas, the blacks and the whites and everything in between and most of all we see people with lust for life. Thank you for that.   

Final detail: “Orfeu Negro” was made both in English and Portuguese. I understand the motivation, but honestly, why anybody would want this in anything but sensuous, Brazilian Portuguese is beyond me.

Monday 7 November 2016

The Hidden Fortress (1958)

Off-List: The Hidden Fortress
Two years ago or so I bought a box-set of Kurosawa movies thinking that with all the Kurosawa films on the List that would be a convenient solution. As a bonus the box-set includes titles not on the List and given the Kurosawa track record those are must-sees as well. One of these is “The Hidden Castle” from 1958. I know, I am already past 58, but so what?

“The Hidden Fortress” is famous for being the inspiration for “Star Wars”. George Lucas has openly and repeatedly mentioned that and in my silly head that made me expect an early version of “A New Hope”, which is not at all what Lucas meant. Inspiration is not the same as a remake. As a result I was somewhat disappointed by “The Hidden Fortress” and only near the end did I come to terms with the fact that this was not even intended to be “A New Hope”. Instead “The Hidden Fortress” is more akin to “The Stagecoach” both in plot and feel.

The one element Lucas did pick up from this movie was that the story is told from the viewpoint of the lowest characters. In Star Wars it was the droids, in “The Hidden Castle” it is the two peasants Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara). They are cowards and clowns like the droids, but a lot more than that. They are greedy, opportunistic, stupid and vicious. In fact they have no redeeming features at all, not even loyalty to each other. They are funny like the droids, but not sympathetic at all. We never love them but take pleasure in mocking them for their small minds and petty squabbles. To place two so comical, yet unsympathetic characters in the foreground was something new Kurosawa brought to the table and while interesting it only works half way. Lucas fixed that by making the droids sympathetic.

The peasants find themselves on the wrong side of the border in a bloody civil war. I am not sure of the period, but these are samurai with guns so seventeenth century is probably not entirely off. While on the run from yet another prison camp they stumble upon a gold treasure hidden inside firewood. The gold belong to the defeated Akizuki clan, whose remaining members are hiding out in a hidden fortress in the mountains. The two most important members are Princess Yuki Akizuki (Misa Uehara) and General Makabe Rokurota (Toshiro Mifune). Rokurota is a tough samurai who unflinchingly sacrifices his own sister for the cause so when he takes in the peasants it is not a friendly partnership, but simply a new master for the peasant although it does take a while to seep through their dense skulls. The princess is a true aristocrat and together as the venture out to find a route through the enemy lines they are a motley group.

This voyage is like in “The Stagecoach” the core of the movie. As they travel the land and encounter all sorts of hazards they learn a lot about each other and we learn about them. The Princess see a world she has never known and take pity and the general for all his valor learns humility. Only the peasants never seem to learn anything until the very last scene of the movie.

I really did not like Misa Uehara as the princess. Her pose as a tom-boy with a whip in her hand certainly conveys strength and superiority and is effective almost as a caricature, but as soon as she opens her mouth it falls apart. She sounds utterly hysterical and while I feel certain it is a cultural thing and that I just do not get it, it does make her sound annoying and half out of her mind.

The parallel to the western genre is the selling point of the movie. It is such an interesting idea to place a western in ancient Japan and although Kurosawa was already here in “The Seven Samurai” “The Hidden Fortress” is much more true to the western genre. If you had any doubts they would finally evaporate in the final escape scene on horseback with a western theme on the soundtrack.

This is not my favorite Kurosawa, not by a long shot, also after recovering from my disappointment of not seeing more of “Star Wars” in it, and I understand why it is not on the List. Yet, it has enough quality and plenty of interesting components to warrant a viewing and I know that I will probably end up liking it a lot better over the next few days as the dust settles.   

Tuesday 1 November 2016

Ride Lonesome (1959)

Ride Lonesome
With ”Ride Lonesome” we are back in western land, a favorite genre of the fifties it seems. I can almost feel the groan coming (oh no, another western, oh no, another western bashing), but this is neither. “Ride Lonesome” is actually quite interesting.

According to the Book and Wikipedia director Budd Boetticher made a series of westerns with Randolph Scott. I have no idea how that worked out as a series, “Ride Lonesome” is the only one I have seen, so I do not know if there is a progression or if “Ride Lonesome” is typical. What I do know is that the western genre has developed quite a bit through the fifties, eventually leading up to the Leone westerns of the sixties. What I find very interesting is that the boundary between good and bad, right and wrong is getting blurred. There is no such thing as a white knight out of medieval chivalrous novels (you might want to consult my book blog on those). Instead the heroes are flawed and may even approach the status of antiheroes. At the same time the bandits are not condensed evil, but may be more complex or as in “Ride Lonesome” reformed to the extent that we do not know where to place them. In the same vein good or bad actions are not what they seem and in that grey zone people get a lot more real and interesting.

In “Ride Lonesome” the one we hang on to is Randolph Scott’s bounty hunter Ben Brigade. He is Gary Cooper light with the same posture, same clipped speech and same ramrod integrity. He has caught a wanted murderer, Billy John (James Best) and is taking him to town. We are not in doubt that he is the one we vouch for, he keeps doing the right thing. Or does he? Increasingly he says things and acts as if something is not right and he is being way too callous.

At a shift station Brigade encounters Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn), two wanted men, as well as the station manager’s wife Carrie Lane (Karen Steele). First appearance is that Sam and Whit are keeping Carrie prisoner. Is Brigade going to rescue a damsel in distress from two bandits? Nope, it gets a lot stranger than that. The local Indians are on the warpath and forces the group together and soon they are riding out towards Santa Cruz to bring in Billy John for his hanging. Sam and Whit wants Billy John for themselves. Not for the money though, but because there is amnesty to those who bring him in. As Brigade does not want to give up his prisoner Sam and Whit seem likely to simply kill Brigade.

Here is the question: Is Brigade as clean as he seems and are Sam and Whit as bad as they appear? The witness is Carrie who is thus our eyes and ears and she is confused.

I like it when movies play with the stereotypes and makes us reconsider our prejudices. I admit that it can be done even better as Leone would show us a few years later, but even to ask this question in the chivalrous genre of the western is interesting.

If “Ride Lonesome” has a flaw it is that it is too short, only 70 minutes. It spends effort describing characters who are more than two dimensional types, but leaves me hungry for more. It is obvious there is a lot more to these characters that could be explored and the Carrie Lane character deserves a larger role than just being the observer with the questions and the eye candy. Dumping a girl like that into a group of lonely men should spark all sorts of drama, but it does not and besides being unrealistic it does seem like a missed opportunity.

“Ride Lonesome” is not the greatest western ever, but it is still worth watching and with its short running time it is certainly an easy watch.