Wednesday 29 November 2017

Passenger (Pasazerka) (1963)

Back on the List I am continuing on the depressive strain to late. This time with the Polish movie “Pasazerka” (Passenger), a movie that largely takes place in Auschwitz. That, more or less, sets the tone.

“Passenger” is an odd movie in the sense that it is unfinished. The director Andrzej Munk died during the shooting of the movie and the end-product is a combination of footage and stills with a narrator filling the gaps. It therefore feels like half movie, half documentary about the movie. It is strange and I cannot say that worked very well. It certainly made me focus more on the process of making the film than the story of the film.

The story also drowns in the subject matter. Any movie featuring a death camp will overwhelm the viewer with the enormous tragedy of millions of people being systematically killed, and for the few who are not being killed outright, total degradation. I personally have a hard time with Holocaust movies and this one pressed exactly the wrong buttons for me. In one scene we see a large group of children walking into a gas chamber, completely oblivious to their imminent death, some holding hands with nurses guiding them there. Then a German guard prepares the poisonous gas, with no second thought for what he is doing. I felt like puking.

I have been to Theresienstadt, mostly because my wife’s great-grandparents were killed there, and that was bad enough. A real death camp I could not visit. It would be too much.

Somewhere there is a story, but I am not really sure about it. We follow a woman, Liza (Aleksandra Slaska) who is a guard, an overseer, with SS tags and all. On a boat trip she sees a woman she thinks is a woman from her past and so she tells her ignorant husband an edited version of her past, something about that she saved that woman’s life in Auschwitz. Later we get the honest story which is something about that Liza and that woman, Marta (Anna Ciepielewska) waged a mental war of supremacy on each other.

This is where I had to let go of the story. I simply have no idea what this conflict was about and how it played out. It also seems of very little consequence with the pictures of all that misery around them. We see the barracks where the prisoners live, we see naked women being chased though the camp, we see prisoners play music for the staff and we watch endless columns of people walking to their death. Who cares about a story about a guard and a prisoner fighting for mental supremacy?

“Passenger” won awards in Cannes and, I think, Venice, but I think that was more for the subject matter than the quality of the film itself. A half-finished film with an obscure conflict? No, it is the pictures from Auschwitz that matters. Those are pictures I remember.

Frankly, I just want to move on to the next movie.


Sunday 26 November 2017

Charade (1963)

Off-List: Charade
The first of the off-List movies I have selected for 1963 is “Charade”. Thank you, Bea, for reminding me of this movie. It is not only a good pick for a movie that should have been on the List, it is also exactly what I need in a stream of otherwise depressive movies.

“Charade” was recommended to me by my parents-in-law about a year and a half ago and we watched it together back then. I remember wondering why this movie was not on the List when so much garbage seem the clutter the early sixties part of the List, so I started to look for flaws. Strangely enough I found almost none. Almost, because there is a bit of aging to this movie, but viewed in context with other 1963 movies the flaws are negligible. Here on second viewing I am even happier about it. This is movie that truly makes me smile.

“Charade” is a Byzantine maze of hidden identities and scams, an everbody-against-everybody, a free for all to get the coveted prize of 250.000$.

Regina “Reggie” Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is an American socialite in France. She is vacationing in the Alps with her friend when she is approached, apparently innocently, by Peter Johua (Cary Grant). Upon returning to Paris her husband is dead and their apartment entirely empty. Turns out Reggie knew practically nothing about the late Mr. Lampert and all he has left her is a travelling back with four different passports and a letter that her dentist appointment has been rescheduled.

In this moment of need Peter reappears and helps her get back on her feet. Only, he is not alone. No less than four other men shows up, including a CIA man, Bartholomew (Walter Matthau), with a keen interest in her, her husband and an awful lot of money that he was supposed to have, but nobody can find.

What we learn over the following events is that very few are what they claim to be. One character in particular changes identity four times in the course of the movie! There are also very few limits to the extent these people will go to get the money, including murder. The confusion and mystery make for perfect ingredients both for comedy and suspense and “Charade” plays both horses very well. The comedy is largely borne by Grant and Hepburn. Grant for simply being his usual character (think Thornhill in “North by Northwest) and Hepburn for being, well, her typical character, somewhere in between “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “Roman Holiday”. The ping-pong dialogue between these two is a reminiscent of the 1930’ies screwball comedy and it mostly work, though Grant’s lines misfires occasionally.

Where Peter Joshua is the jovial character, the three stooges, Scobie (George Kenedy), Tex (James Coburn) and Gideon (Ned Glass), are the sinister types that brings danger to the mix. The suspense largely comes from their side when they try to force a solution. Yet, maybe there is an outside player who is even worse…

Beside handling both comedy and suspense very well, “Charade” has an excellent pace, that keeps you seated and engaged throughout and, not least, tons of charm. A remake was made in 2002 (“The Truth About Charlie”) that goes only for the suspense element and in the process loses all the charm of the original. That one cannot be recommended.   

Of course there is a credibility issue. I doubt anybody would have handled herself as cool as Reggie does and I doubt State Treasury employee’s would go to those extents to bring back money, an army of lawyers would be more realistic, but that is not the point. In the world “Charade” takes place in, this story is completely credible, and we would not have it any other way.

“Charade” is a wonderful good time. It is an excellent opportunity to watch some of the best actors and actresses of the period do their thing and it is a travesty that this movie is not on the List.

Wednesday 22 November 2017

The Cool World (1963)

En by i New York
“The Cool World” is a movie about gangs in Harlem, but about as far removed from “West Side Story” as it is possible to get. Instead of glamour, color and dancing, we get grit, misery and despair, but also the coolest soundtrack imaginable.

Apparently there was a trend in the beginning of the sixties, likely inspired by the French new wave, to make attempts at filming reality, or to make fiction films in an environment as real as possible. This is something that happened far from the big studios and often at a fraction of their budgets, which both gave the freedom to do things differently, but also made them technically inept. There are quite a few on them on the List and “The Cool World” is one such movie.

It was difficult to find much information about the movie, the Wikipedia page is very thin, so I do not know much of the background for the movie. My guess is that this was intended as a movie about growing up in Harlem, underprivileged, poor and exposed to all the rough sides of life. It is fiction, but it looks real. Filming is clearly on location and the actors do not seem like actors at all, but locals being more or less themselves. I have no way of knowing if that is the case, but I strongly suspects this is so.

We follow 15 year old Duke (Hampton Clanton), who is a petty thief with dreams of being a gang boss. He admires an older gangster called Priest (Carl Lee) and run some errands for him. At one point Priest asks Duke to keep his gun for him, while he is otherwise engaged. This fuels Duke’s dreams of reviving a gang, “Royal Pythons” and go after another gang, “The Wolves”. As he returns the gun his head is filled with thoughts of getting his own gun. He sets up the gang, get his own gang girl and prepare for the rumble.

As the rumble approaches however, he starts thinking that there is more to life than this. He sees what happens to junkies, his girl, LuAnne (Yolanda Rodriguez) makes him think of a different life and when Priest is killed he is seriously disturbed. Alas the rumble is unavoidable and ends poorly.

I was unable to find a proper copy of this movie. It is available on YouTube, but the quality is horrendous. Smeared pictures and poor sound quality combined with a very on-location feel makes it often difficult to figure out what is going on and understand the dialogue. That is a shame, really, because it is an interesting movie and I would love to watch a restored version.

While I often got lost in the actual story I had no problem following the scenery. The pictures from Harlem are filled with misery and poverty. There is a quiet despair in these pictures that sometimes explodes in violence or rage, but there is also defiance and an insistence on getting the best out of things. This is not just an exposé of the slum, but a movie that cares about the people it films. I have never been to Harlem. The few times I have been to New York I never ventured that far north, but somehow I would not be surprised if it did not look much different from this movie.

The real draw of “The Cool World” however is the soundtrack. This is the most awesome Dizzy Gillespie jazz soundtrack imaginable. I love this kind of music. It works perfectly with the scenery and the story, but it also works perfectly on its own. This is the kind of music I would put on for myself.

This is a depressing movie, and a very confusing one due to the poor quality, and I am not sure I would want to watch it again, but given a proper restoration this could be a highlight of 1963. If for no other reason than the music.


Sunday 19 November 2017

Blonde Cobra (1963)

Blonde Cobra
The best thing about ”Blonde Cobra” is that it is only 33 minutes long.

Sadly, that is the only good thing about it, I can think of.

“Blonde Cobra” is an experimental film about… I confess, I have no idea. Something about a guy going around in, what he thinks is, funny hats and a narrator telling stories, which he thinks are funny. The two things do not seem to have anything to do with each other, indeed at times the picture disappears entirely.

To me this looks like home video. Some people got high, decided to shoot some footage of each other, then smoked some more and narrated the thing, finally smoked themselves into outer space and edited the excuse for a movie.

The Book calls it a master piece, which makes me think that the editors smoked the same thing. I genuinely like film art. I like when the film media is turned upside down, but this is just stupid. A few years ago the List was revised and space was made for 50 new entries, but “Blonde Cobra” stayed!!! Unbelivable.

I think it is supposed to be funny. At least the narrator thinks so. It is also supposed to be provocative and very gay. Awesome, give me something gay and provocative and fun to boot. This is none of those things. Ah, yes, it is gay, I will give it that, but the lewd stories are so infantile that it does not count as provocative, merely of someone who could use some help battling his inner demons and maybe grow up a bit.

I also have to confess that have little idea what happened the last five minutes of the film. I had started looking into getting a new credit card and was wondering why my digital signature was not working any more…

For gay humor I prefer “Öresunds visan”. You may require subtitles, but it is largely self-explanatory.

Thank you, editors of the List, for wasting my time. I will add this to my list of Top 5 Useless Movies on the List.

Wednesday 15 November 2017

The Nutty Professor (1963)

Jerry som den skøre professor
Oh no, not another Jerry Lewis movie.

Deep sigh.

Okay, I guess it is no secret by now that I am not a fan of Jerry Lewis. His form of comedy, vastly over played and infantile (Jim Carrey’s style) grates on me and he can single handedly ruin a movie for me. “The Nutty Professor” is no exception.

The curious thing is that there is potential in this movie. The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story of course is a classic. So is that of the clumsy, geeky guy taking a step too far to get accepted. Both stories are classics because they work. We are interested, even fascinated by the split personality theme because we all consist of good and bad and so Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are distills of something we recognize, and Hollywood of course loves that story. It also loves the geeky guy who wants to be popular, maybe even more so and a movie like “Weird Science” come to mind as a good (and fun) example.

In any case with two so solid stories it is hard to go entirely wrong. Lewis is the geeky professor Kelp at a high school, who is good at chemistry and little else. He is bullied by everybody and decides he has to change. Body building does not really do it for him, but chemistry does, so Kelp concocts a mixture that turn him into a smoking hot, super cool, bloated oaf: Buddy Love. Mr. Love can sing, play piano and act cool and smooth and is soon the hottest guy in town. Unfortunately the spell only lasts a limited time before he reverts to being Kelp.

Professor Kelp likes the student Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens) and she is sympathetic to him. As Mr. Love, Kelp goes full throttle on her and she is both attracted and repulsed by her. Especially she finds it disturbing that he often disappears with hardly a word. Eventually of course it is revealed that Kelp and Love is the same guy and Kelp gets his girl.

There is some potential for drama, but it is mostly traded for comedy. The comedy here is the helpless Kelp and the obnoxious Love and that stands and falls with Jerry Lewis. If you like his style you are likely to find this movie hilarious, but if, like me, you find his form of comedy annoying and grating then there is not much left to save the movie, certainly not in the sense of comedy. Stella Stevens is nice as a sweet looking girl, but her job is only to let Lewis play up to her. Del Moore as the principal Dr. Warfield is fine as the straight victim of Lewis gags, but again that is just what he is. This is a Lewis movie, doing the Lewis stuff. I understand why the movie was remade, it has a lot of potential if you just replaced the comedian.

Then of course there is the highly suspect issue of a teacher with a relationship to a student. I understand this is a very definite no-go, but here it is not questioned at all.

I should say something nice and so I will admit that the colors were great and the music was nice. Apparently the famous Edith Head did the costumes and it shows. I wish there was more I could mention, but a comedy that I do not find funny is just a flat experience.

Friday 10 November 2017

The Birds (1962)

It is a new year, 1963, and the first movie of the year (in my edition) is Alfred Hitchcock’s ”The Birds”.

This is a very famous movie. At least, it is a movie I remember people talking about, back in my childhood, but I only remember having caught small and few glimpses of the actual movie. This is not a movie you let children watch.

Now I am an adult, I think, and old enough to actually watch it and my impression is both positive and negative. This movie comes at the tail end of long string of Hitchcock movies and, frankly, the bar is pretty high.

On the positive side, this movie delivers what it promises. It is a suspense and horror movie and we get lots of both and in a very high quality. Hitchcock took something as harmless as birds and made them menacing, murderous creatures. It is actually ludicrous and corresponds to an army of vicious hamsters or the rabbit from Monty Python, but it works, surprisingly. Watch this movie and you will never look at a bird in quite the same way. The scene with Melanie (Tippi Hedren), Mitch (Rod Taylor), Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) and Mitch’ mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) locked up in their house with an army of crazy birds trying to get in is pure terror. As is the moment where Melanie, sitting outside the school, realizes that the birds are gathering for an attack.

Hitchcock is also reusing a plot device that worked very well in “Psycho”. He is starting one story and lulls us into believing that this is the story and then, out of the blue literally, this plot turns insignificant against the real plot of the movie. I somehow see the point in doing this because it gets the viewer into the right state to receive the scare.

But this movie is not perfect. On two account I have problems with it.

First there is the reason for the birds to attack. There is none, and that bothers me a great deal. It is just… there. We are offered a few half-hearted explanations in the movie. A woman claims that Melanie is to blame, because it started when she arrived. Another claims this is the punishment of God, but most of the characters just ask “why” in bewilderment. I have read several places that the bird attacks are somehow related to female sexuality, but that is just plain weird. Yes, there are an awful lot of women in this movie and some of them has some issues, but I do not see how that relates to the bird attacks. One could just leave it as a nature gone crazy thing, like a volcano or an epidemic, but it just feels unsatisfying.

The second issue I have with “The Birds” is that the front story, what we are supposed to believe is the story to begin with, has some loose ends. I did not really get it. As I understood it Melanie and Mitch know each other from the courts and Melanie has a, maybe sinister, agenda going all the way up to Bodega Bay to give Mitch the two lovebirds. There is something wrong about her, she wants something. Then the reaction she gets from the villagers, especially the school teacher Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), when she mentions Mitch, gave me the impression there is something ominous about Mitch.

Anyway, it turns out that Melanie just have a crush on Mitch and that Mitch has a dominating mother.

Eeehh… well…

Technically Hitch was never better. On the special effects side this is totally edgy in 1963 and the jump scares work perfectly. This is just not good enough thought out. Somehow it is too thin with too many loose ends. On the back of so many great movies Hitch could do better than this.


Sunday 5 November 2017

Heaven and Earth Magic (1962)

Heaven and Earth Magic
Before Terry Gilliam there was Harry Everett Smith. Gilliam is (among many other things) famous for those animations he did as part of Monty Python. They were made from Victorian cut-outs, were completely surreal and were intentionally absurd. Years before Gilliam did these Harry Smith did something very similar and I am quite convinced Gilliam was inspired by Smith.

Smith’s “Heaven and Earth Magic” is a 66-minute-long animation movie based like Gilliam’s on Victorian cutouts. There is no apparent storyline, indeed any attempt at wresting a story out of this flounders. Instead we see surreal things like women on pedestals, eggs with hammers inside, skeletons with giant syringes and much, much more. There is a fellow, a male character, that appears throughout the movie, clearly a protagonist of some sort, who moves around in some sort of dance. He will carry the woman, give her a melon, find eggs with hammers inside or feed all sorts of things into the mouth of a big face.

I really have no idea what it all means. At 66 minutes it is so long that you would think that it should be more than just absurd images and novel connections and there are some hints that this play with subconscious images, but if it is religious or existentialist or whatever, I have no idea.

It is always frustrating to look at something that makes no sense and after an hour of this my attention was slipping. Yet there is something fascinating about these images. It is just so absurd that it is a novelty all in itself. I can certainly see Terry Gilliam being fascinated by this.

I tried showing a few minutes of this for my son and though mystified he actually liked it. Maybe because it was the scene where a foot appears and kick everything to pieces, that was kind of silly, even for this movie, but I also think children have an easier time accepting the absurd. I cannot help trying to find meaning in what I see and maybe there is none.

The Book writes that the intension is to combine things in new ways and draw on some common cultural references and maybe that is all it is, a playful and idle game of combining silly things. I find it hard to accept that that is all there is to it, but it is the best I can come up with.

“Heaven and Earth Magic” was a fascinating watch, but also unsatisfying. It is special and maybe that is why it is taking a slot on the List, but by taking a slot, it excludes other and better movies. Any of the three off-list movies I reviewed for 1962 deserve the slot more than “Heaven and Earth Magic”.

This concludes 1962. It took a while and with three extra movies it was also a bigger year than usual. 1962 had a lot of excellent movies and it will be difficult for 1963 to reach these heights. But I can always hope it will.

Friday 3 November 2017

My Life to Live (Vivre sa Vie: Film en Douze Tableaux) (1962)

Livet skal leves
I guess Godard and I will never really be friends. And if we do, it will not be through “Vivre sa vie” (“My Life to Live”).

“Vivre sa Vie” is a movie about a girl, Nana (Anna Karina), who works in a record store in Paris and owes some money. She meets a pimp who sets her up as a prostitute and later she gets killed when the pimp tries to sell her to some other pimp. In between she watches movies (Jeanne d’Arc), listens to poetry and talk with a philosopher.

That is about it.

Oh, and the presentation is as twelve small stories, almost vignettes, which sometimes, sometimes not, fit chronologically together.

The story is so thin and apparently pointless that there must be a deeper story behind. Especially with the references to Dreyer, Poe and the philosopher dude. However, I am obviously too stupid to get that story. Or maybe this movie was just too boring for me to care to find the deeper meaning. The Book describe it as a masterpiece so, clearly, I am way off-track.

Frankly I have little more to say about the movie. As usual it is nice going around in Paris in 1962 and see what it looked like and then of course there is Anna Karina herself.

Anna Karina is a bit of a discovery. She was, it appears, a famous actress in the sixties and seventies and an accomplished singer as well, but I do not recall having encountered her before, except for an early review of “Alphaville”. This is quite surprising because she happens to be Danish, originally called Hanne Karin Blarke Bayer, and we tend to take credit for any success achieved by anybody with the most tenuous connection to Denmark. Alas, in Denmark she is practically unknown. Or maybe I am just too young.

She does have a captivating appearance and she is the one thing that makes this movie bearable. Likely I am going to see her a lot more because she was used by Godard as Sternberg used Dietrich and the List just loooves Godard…

If anybody has a clue what this movie is actually about, do drop me a line.


Wednesday 1 November 2017

The Longest Day (1962)

Off-List: The Longest Day
”The Longest Day” is the third off-list film I have chosen to review for 1962. I recall watching “The Longest Day” ages ago and I was surprised to see that it had not been included on the List. Now after having watched it again I got confirmed the grandeur of the spectacle as I remember it, but I also got some understanding for why it is not on the List.

“The Longest Day” is a movie about D-Day, the Allied invasion in Normandy in 1944, no more and no less. The only concession is that it actually starts the previous evening, which therefore serves as backstory, but otherwise it is strictly a single day. While limited in time, there is hardly any limit in scope. We see, or are supposed to see everything. We see the American parachuters land, we see the British gliders near Caen. We follow the landing on every one of the five beaches including the scaling of the cliffs on Omaha beach. We listen the generals back in England, meteorologists, sailors, officers and privates. We follow English, American and French troops as well as resistance saboteurs. We even follow the battle on the German side, in the bunkers, the operation centers and the airfields. This is not only the Longest Day, but probably also the longest cast list.

It is clear that the picture intends to portray what really happened on D-Day and therefore the events of the day is both the plot and the topic. The reproduction is impressive, and it works. It feels very authentic and it is difficult to let go of the movie. It is intense and captures well the intensity of the events. As it often happens the desire to be accurate means that inaccuracies are that much more glaring. The compromises necessary to make the movie work are so much more in your face because the movie claims to portray reality.

I can live with that, though. Countless war movies have inured me to vagaries of moviemaking. There are other problems that are much worse. With so wide a scope we lose focus. We do not see the individuals enough to invest in them and they remain very one-dimensional. We also lose track of event. Shooting here, shooting there, tons of people dying, what is the big picture, how does it all fit in? I know enough about the invasion to fill in many of the gaps, but for most viewers this must be a confusing experience, a bit like watching “Dunkirk”.

There are literally a ton of stars on the roster for this movie. It is a who is who in Hollywood and elsewhere on the male side. Wayne, Fonda, Mitchum and Connery to mention a few. They all need a few minutes of glory, but that is all we really see. These are not roles, they are cameos and it rarely works to cram so much stardom into a single movie. What they do is nice enough, but each of their stories warrant an entire movie on their own, something later D-Day movies have done. Limit the scope and you get a much better movie.

The coverage of the battles looks very modern and I do like that they got all sides of the affair covered. This is not a simple glorification of American soldiers, but it actually portrays the Germans as human beings. They are soldiers, not (necessarily) Nazis. On the other hand, there is something very dated about the presentation. The movie is packed with inspirational speeches, the kind of talk that befits propaganda films, but not something that can claim to be realistic. They weigh the movie down and give it a pathos that it does not need. The pictures and the topic lend it enough of that.

Another problematic limitation is to stick to just one day. Nothing is resolved in a day. A lot of storylines start but practically none are brought to a conclusion. It would be weeks before the beachheads were consolidated and of course all the personal stories went far beyond that. I cannot shake the feeling that I have been watching the first episode of an excellent tv series, an early “Band of Brothers”, and is waiting for the next episode. Alas, there is no more and so it feels unfinished.

Still for all my criticism this was an easy watch. It may be three hours long, but it flew by in a rush and that is a quality sign. It falls into a number of traps and feels dated and so I get why it is not on the List. On the other hand, it is also a very impressive achievement and in many ways a landmark. If “The Ten Commandments” could by on the List, why not “The Longest Day”?