Friday 27 October 2017

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Hvad blev der egentlig af Baby Jane?
Here is a movie I have been looking forward to for some time. The battle of the divas, the one chance the two biggest divas of Hollywood’s golden era had to beat the shit out of each other. Uh, this should be good. But then the doubt would nag me that this could be hugely embarrassing, a debasement of once great women into undignified mud throwing.

In the end it was a bit of both, but mostly the first, but also what I did not expect, a movie which in itself was of excellent quality and well worth a watch.

“Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” is the story of two sisters, Jane (Bette Davis) and Blanche (Joan Crawford). As children Jane was a star, but also a spoiled and obnoxious child, whereas Blanche was generally ignored. Later, in the thirties, Blanche became a glamorous movie star while Jane’s career never really took off as she owned very little real talent. One night Blanche broke her spine in a car accident, blamed on Jane, which effectively ended her film career.

Fast forward 25 years or so and Jane and Blanche live a secluded live in Blanche old mansion. Blanche lives upstairs, stuck in a wheelchair, and Jane is taking care of her. Jane however is slowly going crazy. She hates her sister, she drinks conspicuous amounts of alcohol and in her mind she is regressing to her early stardom. She is convinced that Blanche wants to get rid of her, which is not entirely incorrect, and her paranoia, delusion and hatred grows steadily in volume as she tortures her sisters and eventually keeps her prisoner, tied up in her own room.

If you have seen “Misery” you get the general picture. In fact I believe Stephen King was inspired by this story when he wrote the book. The core of the movie is the struggle of Blanche to get help and the torture served by Jane. The movie packs an impressive amount of suspense as Jane always looms as a deadly threat and always seems to intercept Blanche in the last minute. I literally sat on the edge of my chair and I truly did not expect that.

The lunacy of Jane is also quite spectacular. The stages she goes through makes her increasingly pathetic, but also deadlier than ever. Her hiring of a pianist (Victor Buono) to prepare her return to the stage is both laughable and painful to watch and it is difficult not to feel sorry for her, though in the pianist’s shoes I would probably run away as fast as I could.

Joan Crawford is excellent as Blanche. Overbearing in the beginning, then frightened and finally apathetic, she plays the role to the hilt. It is Bette Davis however that steals the picture. Her Baby Jane is a master at her work. As acting goes this may be the best she ever did. I love it when an actress cares more for being the role than to look pretty. Baby Jane is ugly as sin and you have to look very hard to see Bette Davis behind the character. Privately both actresses were, it appears, quite unlikeable, but on set they were glorious and this is a unique opportunity to see them both shine.

“Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” is not perfect. There are elements that jar. I find it suspicious when timing is always so that Jane appears at the worst possible moment. She may go for a ride for hours, yet it takes exactly the time it takes Blanche to scribble a note and throw it out the window. Or get down the stairs to the phone or… yeah, it is almost on repeat. Also there is something about the motivations of the characters that are off. I know there is a big reveal in the end, yet I cannot grasp why Blanche choose to keep Jane around her after the accident and support her through her acting career. Especially when we see the hostility of her as a child. It does not entirely add up.

Still these feel like minor issues in the larger picture. “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” is effective suspense, it is supremely acted and there is a fair dose of camp here that never becomes corny. It adds to what has already become a good year in movies.

Saturday 21 October 2017

The Exterminating Angel (El Angel Exterminidor) (1962)

The Exterminating Angel
Bunuel, Bunuel, Bunuel…

Based on the number of entries Luis Bunuel got on the List, he must be one of the most important directors ever. Unfortunately I have yet to recognize his genius. When he is best he is okay but his standard level seems to be a bit below that.

For “the Exterminating Angel” (“El Angel Exterminador”) Bunel is going back to his surrealist roots. On the face of it this movie makes little sense and even in symbolic form this is a difficult movie to chew. A group of wealthy people, men and women, are having a dinner party. The staff is in a hurry to leave and only one waiter stays back. The dialogue at the table and afterwards in the salon appears disconnected and non-sensical. None of the guests want to go home and eventually the guests (and hosts) realize that they cannot leave the room.

Meanwhile nobody is able to enter the villa. It is as if a force field prevents the guests to leave and the outside world to enter. Few of the guests are actually desperate to get out, but as time goes they degenerate from their polite and cultivated façade to a far more basic and aggressive level. The conversation starts making more sense, but their situation does not. Several times in the course of the movie we see a group of sheep and a bear.

Halfway through the movie I decided to check what Wikipedia says about it. There I learned that the villa is supposed to be the country of Spain, and that the dinner guests are the elite in Spain. They have been isolating the country since the Spanish Revolution in the thirties and by the early sixties the isolation is, according to Bunuel, causing the elite and the system in Spain to degenerate.

It helps with such a clue. Large parts of the movie now makes at least symbolic sense, such as the sheep, which is supposed to be the innocent public, while others remain obscure.

Bunuel was a notorious anti-fascist and this interpretation sounds very much like him. When we near the end also get an isolation of the Church Bunuel gives us his second enemy, the catholic church.  

In my opinion movies have to be careful about using symbols and certainly surrealist elements in order for the viewer to be able to relate to the story, or alternatively go all out on surrealism, so if nothing else at least it is funny. “The Exterminating Angel” lands somewhere in between. This makes some of the discussions and actions quite bizarre, but not strange enough to be amusing. Getting the clue for the interpretation helps a lot and even if I did not understand it all it, it got a lot better with that understanding.

“The Exterminating Angel” is not on my Danish version of the list and I do not know if it was part of the original list or if it was added in the big revision. In any case its status as an uncertain entry makes sense and I think we are here talking the lower part of the Bunuels movies.

I came back from China this morning and did not sleep all night. It is payback time now and I doubt this review will rate higher than the lower part of my reviews.



Monday 16 October 2017

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Manden der skød Liberty Valance
It has been a while since my last post. The past two weeks I have been having my “summer” vacation with my family, going to both Denmark and Thailand. I cannot say I really missed watching movies, sitting there by the pool in Hua Hin, but now I am back (and actually already left for my annual business trip to Beijing) I cannot wait to get going again.

Today’s movie is “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, a John Ford movie with an all-star cast. Unsurprisingly this is a western and although I am not a big fan of the genre I was looking forward to this particular movie, largely due to the cast. We get John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles and in a secondary role, Lee van Cleef. This just cannot go wrong.

Yet I was somewhat underwhelmed by this movie.

In a genre that indulges in its clichés and stereotypes this movie goes two or three steps too far in that direction. Let me start with the cast itself:

John Wayne is simply being John Wayne. I Know, I know, John Wayne is rarely actually acting (“The Searchers” being a notable exception), but here is he is being the cliché of John Wayne. He stands, talks, moves and has the opinions and sentiments of how we think of John Wayne. Why John Ford called the character Tom Doniphon and not just John Wayne is beyond me. Jimmy Stewart as Ranse Stoddard, a newly arrived lawyer from the East, is also essentially being Jimmy Stewart. His character is a combine of the most archetypical Jimmy Stewart characters to the extent that I see Jimmy Stewart and not Ranse Stoddard there, on the screen. 

The story is that of the taming of the west. The (no-named) area around the town of Shinbone has already been possessed by ranchers and is now going through the next phase, the transition from open range cattle farming to that of the homesteaders. Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) is a local gunslinger, who represents the jungle law of the ranchers while the newly arrived lawyer Ransom Stoddard represents the “civilized” rule of the law. In between these is the character of Tom Doniphon. He is the tough, self-relying and confident rancher type, but he is also friendly to the new homesteader group, not least because he has his eyes set on Hallie (Vera Miles), the daughter of two Swedish settlers. Tom believes in the power of the gun and seems to be a better match against Liberty Valance (at least in his own head) than the bookish Ranse who appears hopelessly unsuited for the jungle law. Yet the core of the movie is Ranse versus Liberty, anarchy versus law, territory versus statehood, ranchers versus homesteaders.

It sounds like a story we have heard before, a few times actually, and with the characters outlined, hopelessly cliché. But placing Tom Doniphon there in the middle, something different happens and this is where “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is best. In the black and white struggle Tom is something as unusual in a western as grey. Tom is the loss of the wild west, the remembered freedom and the sacrifice for progress. John Ford said that although this is a fight between Stewart and Marvin, John Wayne is in fact the central character. I am not sure this is enough to lift the movie into being something special, but it helps.

I have a feeling a movie like “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is better loved in America than outside. It seems to tap into a lot of cultural references that are uniquely American. In this sense it feels a bit like “Mr. Smith goes to Washington”. Personally I never got the idea that you are only a man when you can stand up to your enemy with a gun.

Still as westerns go it is probably not too bad. Time flies well, there is a good pacing and plenty of action. If this makes you tick I suppose you could do worse.