Thursday 31 August 2017

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Dræb ikke en sangfugl
Back in the nineties I was very much into music, particularly British music, and one of the bands I liked was The Boo Radleys. Their music was pretty awesome and they had this odd name that I never really figured out. Now of course I know. Boo Radley is a character in “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

I always get nervous when I encounter a movie aimed at adults, but featuring children. My worry is that the movie will feature child abuse or hurting of children (which of course is child abuse). This is a topic I truly abhor and cannot stomach, but “To Kill a Mockingbird” uses children differently. They are the observers. It is through them and their, as adults, memory of times past, we are told the story. I found that charming and the naivety of that viewpoint works very well for the movie.

Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford) are two children living in a small town in Alabama in the thirties. Their father (Gregory Peck), whom they call Atticus rather than father or dad, is a lawyer and a very honest and decent man. Their mother is dead so Atticus raises the children himself with the help of the housekeeper Calpurnia (Estelle Evans).

The children idolize their father and watches him take care of his job with bemused wonder. As for all children there is a deliciously scary monster down the road, the dim-witted Boo Radley (a very young Robert Duvall) and he is like the most exciting thing in town. When the boy Dill (John Megna) arrives, he challenges the children to further adventures.

That happens soon enough. Atticus is designated defense for Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) who stand accused for raping the daughter of Bob Ewell (James Anderson), Mayella (Collin Wilcox), a local farmer. The children witness their father stand down a lynch mob and sneak into the court room to watch him defend the man. It is very clear that Tom is innocent, that Mayella was violated by her own father and Atticus is a good lawyer. There is just one little, but important catch: Tom is black and Mayella is white. Sadly, that decides the outcome. This is a wakeup call for the children who gets to see an ugly side of life and their very lives are now in danger.   

I do not think it is a coincident that the book and the movie were released at this time. There is a conflict in the nostalgia for a time gone and the brutal injustice of that same time that very well represented the early sixties. I bet it raised questions that hurt and was only able to be raised then, but did it so in so gentle and naïve a manner that you do not turn away from it. In a way the cruel injustice is more effectively displayed here than many later stories that serve it right in your face.

The way I watch movies is by chopping them into pieces so I can watch them in my breaks, but it did not work so well with “To Kill a Mockingbird”. I could not release it and the chunks got a lot bigger than I intended to. The fascination of those children extended to me and I could not let it go. That does not happen very often and it says a lot about the movie.

Scout and Jem were not annoying as most children on film are and Gregory Peck’s Atticus is the most sympathetic guy of the decade. In Game of Thrones he would not last five minutes. These are people you want to spend your time with. Juxtaposed we find the most despicable redneck scum imaginable and you wonder how this is possible in the same town.

I can only recommend “To Kill a Mockingbird”. These are two hours of your life you will not regret. And Boo Radley? He may be a lot more than the town monster if given a chance. Why, he may be your friend.


Friday 25 August 2017

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence af Arabien
What a gorgeous picture!

“Lawrence of Arabia” has a bit of a reputation so I went out of my way to get a blue-ray version of it and watched it on a high definition screen.

Oh, my…

I think for the first ten minutes of the movie I could think of nothing else but how beautiful this movie looks. The 70 mm film that has used to shoot it gives stunning pictures and the editing is simply world class. Of course it help when the desert landscape offers brilliant panoramas and visuals and colors like few other places. But this is just amazing.

“Lawrence of Arabia” is one of the great films of movie history, one of those everybody knows of, but, sadly, few people these days have actually seen. I, myself, watched it so many years ago I actually only remembered the ending scenes in Damascus. It is the story of a real character, T.E. Lawrence, in the movie represented by Peter O’Toole, who was a British officer sent out to scout the Arab leader Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness), but ended up leading the Arab tribes in a revolt against the Turks.

Whether or not this is a correct historical representation of the event I have no idea and that is actually only of minor importance. It does lend it a story arc that is unusual as reality rarely follows a script. This is most evident in the climactic scenes, which do not resolve anything. Not for Lawrence personally and not for the Arabs in general. The victory in Damascus is a Pyrrhus victory that finally deflates Lawrence and demonstrates how the Arab revolt may win the war, but is unable to win the peace. So much for the Hollywood happy ending.

Up to that point we follow Lawrence in his love affair with Arabia. Lawrence demonstrates both an understanding of Arab culture clearly absent from the British officers in Cairo, and a naivety on the harshness of the same culture, war in general and the duplicity of his British allies. He is both the best and the worst suited person for his role. An intellectual dreamer facing the brutal reality. We as viewers share his dilemma. We see the exotic beauty and the brutality. We love him and despise him. We understand him, yet he remains an enigma. This is all testament to the brilliance of “Lawrence of Arabia”.    

Yet its brilliance is also its problem. With so magnificent pictures, a scope this large and a technical prowess of this scale it is easy to forget that “Lawrence of Arabia” is a movie from 1962. I inevitably measure it by modern standards and in that light the acting is sometimes hopelessly overdone. This is especially the case with Peter O’Toole. His is often theater acting, exaggerated as if to a live audience. It is jarring, but in those days it was perfectly normal. Heston was far worse in “Ben Hur”. Even Kirk Douglass in “Spartacus” did it.

Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal and Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi are odd choices in brown-face, but they both get away with it. Guinness still sounds very much like Alec Guinness (or Obi Wan Kenobi), but Quinn entirely disappear in his character. Perfectly cast however is Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali. Being Egyptian there was no need for brown-face there and he blends more seamlessly into his role than his British counterparts. This was the role that catapulted him into stardom and it was deserved.

Just last Monday I was Allenby road in Tel Aviv, only now I know who that fellow actually was. Jack Hawkins as General Allenby was impressive, yet it was tiny Claude Rains who kept stealing the picture. I always imagined him as an American actor yet here he is perfectly British, the quintessential quiet, grey manipulator.

In a sense “Lawrence of Arabia” has never ended. The Middle East is still an unruly place where tempers run high and violence is never far away. Damascus is again a war zone and again and again the locals here demonstrate much better skill and fighting wars than winning peaces. It is a sad, but true note to end the film on.   

Wednesday 16 August 2017

The Eclipse (L'Eclisse) (1962)

Ukendte Nætter
L’Eclisse is the third movie in a series by Michelangelo Antonioni that started with L’Avventura and La Notte. It is not immediately apparent that this is a trilogy, there is no continuing story or overlap in characters, but thematically they are quite similar. They all deal with emotional emptiness.

When you read a synopsis describing a movie as inaccessible and without a logical plot it is usually time to get worried and I was, going into this one. This is not what I normally look for in a movie. Fortunately I had already watched the other two movies so I was acclimatized to Antonioni’s particular style and with that synopsis I feared the worst and that is actually a good place to be. It can only get better than expected.

I actually found it more coherent than the previous two movies. It did not feel as if the movie was searching, but missing, a storyline, because it did not pretend to have much. Instead it was full of impressions, pictures expressing that particular emotion the movie seeks to convey. That is much less stressful for me as I do not have to try to make sense of what I am watching.

Monica Vitti is back as a woman, Vittoria, who is breaking up with her boyfriend, Riccardo (Francisco Rabal). We have no idea why, but apparently they have been talking or arguing all night. Vittoria is determined to end this, but Riccardo is more reluctant. Leaving Riccardo, Vittoria is entering a vacuum. Her apartment is empty. Her modern neighborhood is cold and sterile. For a while she fills up the space with two friends, dreaming they are in Africa, but it is just that, an escape.

Vittoria’s mother is playing with money on Rome’s stock exchange and as Vittoria go there to seek out her mother (Lilla Brignone) we are introduced to that crazy place. This is a hectic and surreal place where money is made or lost in minutes and everybody are leaning on a heart attack. It is here Vittoria meets Piero (Alain Delon) and somehow they start hanging out together.

Piero completely embraces consumerism. He lives in the present, concerned with work, buying things and doing what he wants, when he wants it. Not an unpleasant guy at all, but very different from the hesitant and thoughtful Vittoria who has no idea what she wants and who seems to second guess herself in anything she does. It feels like archetypical man and woman profiles and that may be intended. She soon gets frustrated with him because he seems shallow and he gets frustrated with her because he cannot figure out what she wants. It is a wonder they are still together at the end of the movie.

Speaking of which, the movie is famous for an ending entirely without the two protagonists. That was not as special as the hype made it, but did serve effectively to underline the empty waiting that Vittoria experiences.

I think limbo or emotional vacuum is the overriding theme of the movie, even more than in the previous movies. You can fill up your life with money, work or consumption, but is that enough? Can you love someone, or force yourself to love someone and have that fill your life? All these people are clearly lacking something.

Maybe it is just me who is a bit naïve, but looking at these three movies there is something missing in all of them: children. To name procreation as the meaning of life is a little too biological even for me, but from personal experience I can definitely say that getting children of your own gives plenty of purpose, one way or the other. That may be what these very modern Italians are missing.

L’Eclisse is a beautifully made movie with every picture thought out and full of details. Technically the stock exchange scenes are brilliant and they capture the primal energy perfectly. As does the soundtrack that must have inspired countless later movies. A detail I liked very much was the juxtaposition of very new and very old, but then again, that is Rome.

This is not a movie I would recommend to everybody, but if you know what you are going into, you will not be let down by this one.


Tuesday 8 August 2017

Sanjuro (1962)

Off-List: Sanjuro
As I will be doing a few times in 1962 I am moving off-list to review movies that should have been included. This, the first one, is Akira Kurosawa’s “Sanjuro”.

“Sanjuro” is the sequel to “Yojimbo”, which I reviewed off-list for 1961. It is again a strong movie, but to put it bluntly, not up there with “Yojimbo”. It does all the right things and on its own I love it, but the problem here is that is it a sequel and as such suffers from some of the usual problems with sequels. First and foremost that Yojimbo is a damn good movie and very difficult to match. It simply pales in comparison. Secondly, it is a bit too obvious that with Toshiro Mifune’s character, the ronin Sanjuro, Kurosawa had found a winning formula that had to be explored/milked for what it was worth. That always leaves me with a bitter taste.

Having said that, there is no doubt that “Sanjuro” is a great movie. I did have a great time watching it, even if I expected more.

While the ronin character is the same, the plotline is a bit different from “Yojimbo”. This time Sanjuro walks into a feud between a decent chamberlain and a corrupt superintendent. Not two groups of warring gangsters, but a good side and a bad side. The chamberlain’s supporters have been complaining about corruption and in the process brought the chamberlain’s life in danger. Sanjuro now joins the supporters in their effort to free the chamberlain and get back at the corrupt superintendent Kikui (Masao Shimizu).

Trouble is, these supporters are complete clowns. They may be samurai with top-knots and swords and everything, but they act like confused geese.  Without Sanjuro they would have been completely lost. When they act on their own advice they get in trouble, but when they follow Sanjuro’s advice they accomplish remarkable things.

Sanjuro is the same lonely ronin from “Yojimbo”. Crude, impolite, but with his heart in the right place. Oh, and a totally awesome swordsman.  The main difference from “Yojimbo” is that Sanjuro is now more concerned with preventing death rather than causing death, even among the bad guys. Not that it really stops him when it is necessary, he still kills with lightning speed, but with a regret that he did not have in “Yojimbo”.

It is also clear that “Sanjuro” is a lighter movie than the dark “Yojimbo”. A movie between good and bad guys have one side pegged as the winners from the beginning. It is never really brought in doubt. When Sanjuro gets in trouble it is never serious trouble and there are a number of places where we are encouraged to laugh, especially of the nine clowns Sanjuro is helping.

The movie works, it is funny when it wants to be and dramatic when it aims in that direction, but I guess I miss that darkness and gritty ambience that “Yojimbo” had. You could still laugh at “Yojimbo”, but it was a more cynical laugh, a bitter laugh. In “Sanjuro” there is no bitterness left, instead you laugh at them clowning around. However I have to give it that the ending is the most awesome one I have seen in year. If you have not seen it I will not ruin it, only say that it is spectacular.

I hope I have not given the impression that “Sanjuro” was a poor movie, because it is not. It just had some pretty big shoes to fill and I would happily watch it again. After revisiting “Yojimbo, that is.


Sunday 6 August 2017

An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma no Aji) (1962)

En eftermiddag i efteråret
It has been a few days since my last review through no fault of this movie. My wife and I went on a small trip to Warsaw, Poland to escape the oppressive heat and I decided not to bring along any movies. Probably a smart choice. Yasujiro Ozu’s “An Autumn Afternoon” (“Sanma no aji”) is not a movie you want to rush through in a plane, but something to enjoy quietly and slowly at home. Doing that is a very rewarding experience.

Let me say right from the start that this is the best Ozu movie I have watched. There are no big dramas, no shouting, no action whatsoever and only the thinnest of plots. Instead this is a beautiful portrait of an older man who realizes that his children are growing up and he is getting old. It is sympathetic to its characters and entirely free of melodrama, but with precise insight into the feelings the characters go through and it is just so beautifully made, like a Japanese flower arrangement: Aesthetic, restrained and insightful.

The older man is Shuhei Hirayama (Chishu Ryu). He is a widower with three grown children of which the oldest Koichi (Keiji Sada) is married and live in another apartment with his wife. Hirayama attends a class reunion together with his old friends, one of which is Kawai (Nobuo Nakamura). They have invited one of their old teachers Sakuma who is having a grand time and gets a bit tipsy. When they drive him home they realize that he is actually a sad old man making noodles with his old and bitter daughter. For Hirayama this is a wake-up call. He can see himself ending like Sakuma, old and destitute and clinging on to his daughter. Kawai is urging him to marry off his daughter, but Hirayama has not been busy and Michiko (Shima Iwashita), his daughter, has not been busy either, but content to run the house for her brother and father. As Hirayama has seen what the future has in store for him he is set in motion and so is Michiko.

This feeble summary does not sound at all inspired, but in the movie it works perfectly. Hiroyama is a jovial fellow and this group of middle aged man is very sweet. They are a bunch of pranksters like overgrown boys, but obviously also men of some importance, managers and that sort of people. It is hard for them to accept that they have grown old, but face it they must.

Hirayama’s children are balancing between tradition and modernity and it is very interesting to watch them handling this balance. Traditional family values versus modern independence. Conspicuous consumption against traditional prudence. And as becomes the key event of the movie, the mechanisms of marriage. They are caught between the modern way of falling in love with someone they meet themselves and arranged marriage set up by their parents. This theme has been explored before and after and is usually a very loud affair, but not here. Here we can see that both father and daughter are very uncertain about the whole thing. Michiko has fallen in love with someone, but has not dared to ask him, and Hiroyama has not dared to ask her what she wants. All this hesitation means that opportunities slip away and that is the real risk with Sakuma’s fate lurking on the horizon.

Ozu is brilliant at catching these underplayed emotions and really show what a high context culture the Japanese is. Sometimes it is just a glance, sometimes a shy laughter, the misery in a cup of sake or the longing look at some golf clubs.

The calmness is supported by Ozu’s unique style of filming. He was the master of the static camera, placed on the floor and usually with some sort of framing. It is absolutely beautiful in color and somehow drags the rush out of the movie so we as viewers give ourselves time to take in the story. As a composition Ozu was never better and when we get to the last scene with Hirayama, drunk in his wedding suit singing old wartime songs, we absolutely understand him.

I can only recommend this movie. This was the last one Ozu ever did, but it makes me want to seek out some of his earlier movies not on the list. Watch this, but do yourself a favor and make sure all is quiet around you when you watch it.