Saturday 31 December 2016

Happy New Year 2017

Happy New Year 2017
It is the last day of the year and thus time for the annual status on my blog.

I wish all my readers a happy new year. May 2017 be a better year than 2016.

2016 was a year where it was difficult to be an optimist. I learned a new word: "nativism", which is about as contrary to everything I believe in as is possible. Of course the concept is not new, it has been around for at least two hundred years, but it has not coalesced like this since the forties. When you travel as much as I do and see as many people as I see it is really difficult to come to terms with the nativistic mindset and telling people they are wrong seem to have the opposite effect.

However this is not a political blog, so I can stick my head in the sand and focus on what I do here.

New Year is also anniversary time for my movie project. Seven years down the line it clocks in at 368 movies plus a few extra down the list and a handful of titles from the Danish edition. I am very close to finishing the fifties (expect a post on that topic in a few days) and a new decade beckons in the horizon.

In 2016 I watched and reviewed 54 movies from the List, which continue the downward trend. I had expected to cover a few more movies, but things did not turn out that way and a movie per week seems to be the realistic pace for me. Alas, as I keep saying this is not a race. Also I did watch and review a few movies off List.

The period covered in 2016 was 1955 to 1959, both years included and while I will return to the issue in my decade concluding post, I can say that this was a most interesting period in movies with high’s and low’s, of course, but interesting none the less. My excitement with this project is unabated.

2016 was also the second year of my book blog and after a rough start that project is now on track. My ambition of five books per year from the List holds as I am now 10 books down. It does not take a Ph.D. to figure out that it will take a medical miracle for me to complete the List, but I have no intention of doing that. It is all in the process.

Followers of the book blog will however have noticed that nothing has happened since October. That is not laziness on my side, but due to the nature of the next book on the List. Gargantua and Pantagruel is a brick ticking in at 1000 pages, which is okay, I do not mind big books, but it is also a 500 year old comedy that is not funny. Ugghh. Going is slow and it is likely to take me a few more month to get through that one.

Still, despite this late setback I enjoy the book project as well, if nothing else then for that fascinating window into times past.

I wish everybody a very happy New Year and hope that you all will have a great time tonight. I certainly intend to.

Sunday 25 December 2016

The Hole (Le Trou) (1959)

Prison break movies have a long history and seems to be recurrent phenomenon from the earliest of movies to this day. The List also has its share of them. But why is prison escape movies so popular? Have that story not been told enough times?

When you think about it, it is a bit odd, really. Prisoners will as a rule be in prison for a reason, so these are what we would categorize as bad people. They are in prison to a) punish them and b) keep them away from the rest of us. Then why do we root from them when they want to escape? In the case of prisoners of war the picture is simpler. These people’s only fault is that they were caught by the enemy and we can easily root for them. But what if the convicts were hardened criminals? Would we still be so eager to see them escape? The surprising answer is “yes”, though we may feel a bit disturbed by that answer. I think there is something fundamentally human in wanting to escape imprisonment and it appeals to us. Also the prisoner is the underdog against an overwhelming opponent and we like to see the weak win over the strong.

The fascinating thing about “Le trou” and the reason for this lengthy introduction is that it cuts the prison break theme into the bare bone. This is the condensed essence of this story fed directly into our veins. Five hardened criminals digging their way out of prison and I so want them to succeed.

“Le trou” is based on a novel written by an ex-convict who took part in such an endeavor back in 1947 from the infamous La Santé prison in France. The book is supposed to be a quite precise account of the events and Jacques Becker, who made the movie, was apparently very faithful to the novel. Several of the prisoners were hired as consultants and one of them, Jean Keraudy, is even playing himself in the movie, though by the name of Roland. So, yeah, this is a movie that tries to capture exactly how it was in that cell in La Santé.

Four prisoners, Geo (Michel Constantin), Manu (Philippe Leroy in the role of the author), Monseigneur (Raymond Meunier) and Roland are cell mates. They have for a while been planning their escape, when, at the opening of the film, a fifth prisoner is added to the cell. This is Claude (March Michel), a young, well-educated man charged with attempted murder. The four inmates are forced, though reluctantly, to include Claude in their plans. Then work begins and we see them, through the eyes of Claude, hammer their way through the concrete floor, explore the cellars of the prison and eventually dig a tunnel past a blockage in the sewer. This is filmed in a way to make this feel real. A simpler film may have simply shown some hard working men and then jumped forward to the completed job, but not “Le trou”. The filming is a stretched out affair lasting at least five minutes of hammering the floor a slab of actual, real concrete!). Sounds boring, but it is not. Instead it made me FEEL the work and tension and eagerness to get through that floor. It feels like real time, the release when they get through is physical, it is simply sublime. Same goes for the other sequences. This is not about being pedantic and technical, but to enable us to share the sentiment of these prisoners. I have never seen it done like this before and I am very impressed.

The character development of the prisoners is also interesting. Of the four original inmates we never learn that much detail of their background, but we learn plenty about them from the way they act and deal with the situation. They are all very well defined characters, very well developed, but never explicitly described. Again sublimely done. Claude is the exception. He seem to be less described from his actions and is often a passive observer. Instead he is the only one of which we are offered a backstory. In that sense his portrait is more conventional than the four cell mates, a detail that is worth noting.

The last ten minutes of the movie are very interesting, but it would be a complete spoiler to reveal the details. Suffice to say that it brings in a completely new dimension to the movie and although my first reaction was disbelief I soon after realized that this was a masterstroke. If this movie did not already standout, the ending places it far apart from conventional prison break movies.

“Le trou” is one of the best prison break movies I have ever watched and, albeit very different, is on par with Bresson’s “A Man Escaped”. If you ever wondered how it would be like to dig your way out of prison this is the movie to watch, but even more, if you are interested in the psychology of the wish and need to escape prison you will probably not find a better movie to watch. These people might not, and should not, last two days on the run, but you so much want them to succeed. So much.

Sunday 18 December 2016

Rio Bravo (1959)

Rio Bravo
I realize that I am starting to get overly negative in my reviews. My excuse is that I try to find both good and bad sides to the movies I watch and therefore end up with a balanced review, but I am frank enough to admit that sometimes I get carried away and swoon over a movie or get all negative and maybe that is beginning to tilt towards the negative. Maybe it that as I move forward in history the bar is increased and I expect more from the movies I watch. With that in mind I went into “Rio Bravo” thinking that this is a movie I will like, this is a movie I should say a lot of positive things about.

It did not take long however before I started thinking that maybe I had chosen the wrong movie for my reform. There are so many things here that rubs me the wrong way. Yet I should be more positive so let me start out in that mode.

“Rio Bravo” is a pretty movie. The set is clean and iconic and is filmed with style. Although we keep going around in the same sets they work pretty well and the colors are nice.

Secondly, Angie Dickinson as Feathers, a gambler girl who accidentally finds herself in the small town of Rio Bravo, is real pretty and adds a nice decorative element to the set.

Thirdly I love that Dean Martin’s character is called Dude. If I was a western character I would want to be called Dude.

That is about it though.

A major problem with “Rio Bravo” is that it is a backward gazing hodge-podge. It throws together elements and styles that generally hark back rather than look forward. As a western it is incredibly old school. A bunch of anonymous henchmen of the bad guy (John Russell as Nathan Burdette) is laying siege to a small town to get one of their number, an equally anonymous Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) out of prison. The defense of the prison is in the hands of a few good and sympathetic characters headed by John Wayne as Sheriff John T. Chance. This is like the oldest western cliché in the world. Where “High Noon” took the basic story and turned it around to something new and exciting, “Rio Bravo” turns it back into something known and predictable.

“Rio Bravo” also does not seem to take itself serious. Comedic elements are thrown in with a very loose hand, but instead of providing release and humor it dilutes the nerve of the movie and it is just not funny enough to be a comedy as such. For me a western is either gritty as hell or an outright comedy. The halfway place is a non-place.

Then there is the element of Feathers. With or without her this would have been exactly the same story. The romance between her and Chance is odd, but I can forgive that. Love is a strange fish. The problem is that it is forced and fundamentally unnecessary. The reason it is there has nothing to do with the story, but because somebody decided the story needed a love interest, because, well, the audience wants such a thing… or do they? Dickinson does a good job at being a third wheel, but that is essentially what she is.

Howard Hawks I have always held in high esteem. His back-catalogue is truly impressive. That is why I was completely baffled by the poor direction the actors are getting here. Wayne looks like he would rather be somewhere else, the bad guys look like they were picked from the extra’s queue and what was that with Ricky Nelson as Colorado, the young gunslinger? Rarely have I witnessed a worse casting. Completely unbelievable and very poorly directed. What was Hawks thinking? Again it feels as if somebody decided that this movie needed a teenage idol for the girls to moan over and to hell with it if he did not fit into the movie.

Which brings us to the songs… come on…

A hodge-podge, that is what it is. If you asked a computer to cook up a western from elements producers would think the audience would like you could get something like Rio Bravo. Disjointed and bland and insincere.

Well, all this may be less important if I enjoyed watching it, but at 135 minutes it creeps along too slowly to ever get me out of the chair and even the final show down, the piece de resistance of the movie, fizzles and never really turns interesting.

I know, I know, I promised to be positive. I am really sorry, that will have to be next time. I promise.

Saturday 10 December 2016

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

Hiroshima, min elskede
Alain Resnais is back. He was the guy with the blow to the stomach movie, “Nuit et Brouillard” and with Hiroshima as part of the title I had a fairly good idea where this was going.

I was only partly right. The first 15 minutes is indeed continuing in the same vein with death and destruction and heart breaking footage of children crying out for their parents, radiation damaging and terrible deformities. Then the movie change and for the rest of the running time it is a fictious story of two lovers in “modern” Hiroshima, a French woman (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese man (Eiji Okada) having an intense affair (both are married we learn) that evolve into a very intimate and trance-like recall of events at the end of the war. Not the Hiroshima bomb, although his entire family died in the blast, but of her lover, a German soldier, who was shot at the end of the war.

I have very mixed feelings about this movie, most notably with the strange juxtaposition of the nuclear bomb and the confession of a wartime love affair. I fully understand the need of a memorial to the victims of the bomb, both for the terrible suffering of these people and to prevent a modern repetition (actually the blast was repeated only three days later) and the strong pictures, and by all that is holy these are very strong pictures, are justified. I also appreciate the raw emotion and intimacy of the confession story. It is very arty, but I tend to like art movies the stylized dialogue is poetic, pretentious, yes, but it actually works. What does not work is the two things together.

After the gut-wrenching first 15 minutes I felt completely numbed and unable to appreciate the following story. It feels obscene to even compare her personal story to that of the thousands of destroyed lives in Hiroshima. Sure, it is very important to her, but frankly, even to her I should think that such tragedies would make her suffering seem trivial. Instead her recollection is overpowering her, associating her Japanese lover with her lost German boyfriend and she is falling to pieces before the camera. At first I could not believe what I was watching. Then I felt angry at the comparison and only near the end did I start to feel appreciation for that part of the story.

According to the extra material the theme is awareness of forgetting…

That is one of those pieces of information you need a few minutes to digest. In fact it still baffles me. The story of the lovers I read as one of catharsis, a cleansing process that is necessary for her in order to carry on with her life. That she tells the story to a Japanese lover in an impossible affair, just means that she is taking a break from reality to get this done. She will never see him again and that is where her pain should go as well.

What I do not understand is why it is her and not him who is going through this cleansing. As far as I can tell he needs it a lot more. Or maybe the whole idea is that he already had it? That being in Hiroshima is dealing with the past instead of hiding it away?

A lot can be said about the poetic style of the filming and the dialogue. It is highly stylized and is using symbols to convey its meaning. It is of a kind that you would either love or hate. Love for the poetry and hate for the sheer pretentiousness. Oddly enough I find myself more on the “love” side of that fence. Once I accept that a movie is an art movie I can put on the proper glasses and enjoy it as such. Either way you cannot ignore the massive intensity of both Riva and Okada. This is emotional porn and the nakedness is a lot more than absence of cloth. This should engage the viewer, but how can you when you are already numb?

I still need to reconcile myself with the two very different movies in this package before I can truly say that I like this movie. Maybe I am just missing the key and eventually it will come to me. Until then I will park my evaluation on hold.

Sunday 4 December 2016

Pickpocket (1959)

I think I have worked out how Robert Bresson’s movies work.

They force you into the brain of a character going through some sort of crisis or and makes you see the whole thing from the inside of his head. In “Diary of a Country Priest” it was a priest going through a religious crisis, in “A Man Escaped” is was a prisoner during the war and in “Pickpocket” it is a, well, a pickpocket.

The view from inside the head of the prisoner was fascinating and very interesting and one of the best French movies I have watched. The priest however was massively uninteresting and I did not care one bit for the character. As a result this was a terrible movie to get through. With “Pickpocket” I am afraid we have landed in that ditch again.

The head we crawl into is that of Michel (Martin LaSalle), a man who develops a severe case of kleptomania. He steals some money at the race course and gets so excited about it that he cannot stop again. Michel is a terrible amateur, but soon he meets a true pro who trains him into an expert pickpocket.

Michel is lost to the world. His mother dies, friends walks out on him and he hardly recognize a girl, Jeanne (Marika Green) with an obvious (and inexplicable) crush on him. The only thing Michel cares about is his stealing. Eventually he develops a paranoia, believing that everybody is on to him. When his friends are caught he goes away for a while, returns a few years’ later, steals some more and are caught.

At this point Jeanne has a baby with a man who does not care about her and she looks to Michel to help her. Great help he is.

The problems here are many.

First off, I do not care about Michel. He is obsessive and selfish and completely impossible to root for. It is not just that he has chosen a despicable profession, no, this guy is a complete asshole with room in his life for just himself. Sometimes the mind of a criminal is fascinating and interesting, but not Michel’s. Only in the sense that stealing is like a drug for him and that his behavior and mental state closely resembles that of an addict. That is perceptive of Bresson, but not enough for me to take a real interest in Michel.

Bresson apparently demanded a certain kind of natural acting. I cannot say that has benefitted this movie. Michel walks around with dead eyes, like a zombie, deepening my lack of interest. All dialogue is clipped, surreal and at times outright stupid. It is not so much that it is confusing (and it is), as it feel artificial and serves as a repellant against interest. At least the “Diary…” had some interesting characters and a few good dialogues, but I cannot even remember one such in “Pickpocket”.

There is a point to the movie, besides showing us the inside of the head of a victim of kleptomania, which is something about that in prison he finally finds Jeanne and that this is somehow his cure, but it is thin, really thin. It is sad and somewhat unbelievable that a pretty and smart girl like Jeanne only have Michel to help her. I mean, Paris is a big place and Michel has done everything in his power to turn her away from him. It is more believable that Jeanne is the only one left for Michel, but that she should now suddenly be able to cure him… nah…

Sorry for being the pessimist.

I really did not care for Michel and his affliction and combined with the filming technique this movie felt twice as long as its modest running time. Bresson is truly a hit or miss director whose certain style is so dependent on his subject. In this case it was a miss for me. Sorry.