Tuesday 27 March 2018

Woman in the Dunes (Suna no Onna) (1964)

Sunna No Onna
”Woman of the Dunes” is an odd movie. It is one of those stories you cannot place in a single category as it seems to contain many elements or aspects.

On the face of it it lands somewhere between a prison escape movie and a robinsonade. Schoolteacher Niki Junpei (Eiji Okada) has ventured into an area of sand dunes to collect bugs for his collection. He misses the last bus home and the locals offer that he can stay with one of them, a woman that lives alone. She lives in a hut at the bottom of a sandpit, accessible only with a rope ladder. Soon enough however Junpei finds out that there is nowhere out and he will not make it back to school in time.

It turns out that the woman (Kyoko Kishida), who is never given a name, lost husband and child and needs a new man and the villagers has decided that Junpei is the one. He is of course upset by this turn of events, but no matter what he tries he cannot get out of the pit. In the beginning he tries brute force, but over time his schemes become more cunning. Meanwhile the woman seems bent on trying to make it comfortable for him and to make him accept his fate. When Junpei finally succeeds to get out of the pit he ends up in quicksand and is brought back to the woman. That seems to make him give up.

The sandpit is obviously a prison with Junpei the prisoner constantly trying to escape. The sandpit is also a deserted island with very limited, and certainly no visual, contact with the outside world and Junpei has to learn how the island works if he is to survive. Grudgingly at first, but with more enthusiasm as time wears on.

These, the surface themes, work well, albeit a bit slow and the ending is quite surprising. It is however on the deeper levels that “Woman of the Dunes” stands out. There is something very surreal about people living at the bottom of a sandpit. In reality it would never work. Sand is incredibly mobile and for all their shoveling the pit would be covered soon enough. I should know, I took my masters in sand dunes. There is simply no point to placing a hut at the bottom of a sand pit. The real story therefore is one of metaphors and that is where it gets interesting.

Junpei is getting caught in a marriage and he cannot get out of. Or more to the point, the life of a woman in Japan in the 1960’ies (and probably today as well) is a life at the bottom of a sandpit. Chained to a life with no outlook. Work is a Sisyphean affair that has to be done but never takes you anywhere and being together with a man is like being a spider capturing prey, dragging them into her sandpit. From this perspective the movie works very well. The woman who knows no other life and no other destiny is fatalistic and accepting about her life. The man, seeing this life from the male, outside, point of view, sees it as a despairing prison, an end to all he wanted to be.

This storyline is underscored by the soundtrack which is haunting and brooding and otherworldly and the sand is a perfect metaphor for the inevitable. The villagers with their googles and shrill laughter are like small demons tormenting the man and the woman, with the difference that the woman is accepting their treatment of her.

I found “Woman of the Dunes” a clever movie and captivating, literally, but it was also a tad too long. My version was an uncut version and I understand the need to trim it. It could easily loose about half an hour. When the scenes drag out I found myself drifting a bit. Overall, though, I would say “Woman of the Dunes” come out positive.     

There will be a short break now on this blog as I will be going for the next two weeks to The States.

Tuesday 20 March 2018

My Fair Lady (1964)

My Fair Lady
Oh dear, oh dear…

I am at a loss for words, where do I even start?

You know you are in for a rough ride when the praise in the Book is lackluster and rarely have the editors been this hesitant in their endorsement, yet somehow my hope were pretty high going in to “My Fair Lady”. Not sure why, though. Maybe because it is as famous as it is, maybe because it has been there, present as long as I can remember. In any case this is the first time I watch it for real and, well, now I know.

For the very few who are entirely unfamiliar with the story, this is an adaption of a stage production of a novel (“Pygmalion”) by Bernard Shaw. The language professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) makes it his goal to make a lady out of the street vendor Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn). He succeeds, she becomes a lady and they get each other. The end. Oh wait, somewhere in between 178 minutes passes.

At the heart of it this is such a classic story and I have seen countless versions of it. The ugly duckling taken out of its pond and transformed into a swan. The problem here is that this movie is probably the worst version of this story, ever.

The characters are just awful. Henry Higgins in particular is obnoxious in the extreme. Full of venom and spite, he mocks everybody around him with a superior attitude. That could be funny, but it is not. Just annoying. Eliza as the street vendor is only marginally less annoying. Her screaming and ranting almost deserves the mockery being served by Henry. Then of course in a split-second she turns into a lady with pleasant language, intelligence and understanding, which was granted her simply be learning a language.

The pervading idea is that language is a reflection of who you are. Refined language gives you by default a number of desirable qualities including wealth and intelligence, whereas dialects are a menace, speaking a dialect means that you are simple and borderline criminal. Needless to say that this idea is ridiculous in the extreme and not a little insulting.

That Henry teaches the girl as part of a bet and only uses her to show off his own brilliance is just part of his character. What is far more objectionable is that Eliza is supposed to fall in love with him. The last five minutes of the movie are just completely unbelievable given what has happened up to that point.

Then of course there are all the things that are happening or rather not happening over the very long running time of the movie. There is a lot of singing naturally, it is a musical. In fact according to Wikipedia there a 25 musical numbers we have to get through, during which not much is happening. I am wrecking my brain trying to remember what actually happens, but really, very little is actually happening. Quite a lot of shouting though and that is another thing. This is not just a stage adaption. It is filmed, acted and vocalized as if it is on a stage. Filmed theater so to speak. Just plain weird. And loud.

Some of the songs were quite familiar. I know “The Rain in Spain” and “Get Me to Church on Time”, but curiously only in a Danish adaption. See, this fantastic musical was so successful that it was translated to stage and film versions all over the world.

I cannot help thinking that I am missing something. When you are watching a movie and regularly mutter to yourself that that this is really bad and the world at large thinks this is amazing then you have to wonder if you are watching the same movie. I generally do not love musicals, but this is way beyond that. If not even Audrey Hepburn can save a movie then we are in trouble.   

Thursday 15 March 2018

Marnie (1964)

As far as I can see “Marnie” is the last Alfred Hitchcock movie on the list. A recurrent theme on this blog has therefore reached its last chapter. Hitchcock is the single most prevalent director on the List and I have lost count on the number of times I have reviewed a Hitch movie. Usually they are good, even very good. This time… it is okay, but not great.

The Hitchcock catalogue is so large and so glorious that it is a tall order to find a place in that collection and “Marnie” barely makes it. In my opinion at least. Undoubtedly there are big fans of this movie as well.

“Marnie” is the story about a woman, Marnie (Tippi Hedren), who has a scheme going. She will work in a company for a few months under an assumed identity and then rob the place and leave town. In between heists she will visit her mother, Bernice (Louise Latham), give her some money and spin her some tale of what she is doing. As we are entering the story Marnie has just done a tax consultant office and is moving on to the Rutland company.

The Rutland company is headed by James Bond… eh… Mark Rutland (Sean Connery). He was a client at the tax consultancy and recognized Marnie. This makes him insist on hiring her and he takes her under his wing. Exactly why is never quite clear, but the more messed up Marnie turns out to be, the more insistent he is. Marnie is afraid of the color red, she is afraid of thunder and she abhors men. She also eventually robs the Rutland company and tries to walk away with a fortune. Caught between Mark and a crime charge Marnie is forced to marry Mark and go on a lengthy honeymoon with him, all for him to play psychiatrist on her.

It is a strange couple. Marnie is seriously messed up and Mark is obsessive, even sadistic, in his insistence on getting her “solved”. No wonder Marks former sister-in-law Lil (Diane Baker) finds it weird and suspicious and tries to stop this charade.

It does of course come to a climax where the psycho analysis goes full throttle.

“Marnie” seems like a composite of previous Hitchcock movies. There is a lot of “Spellbound” in it. The man frantically trying to solve a woman mystery from “Vertigo” and the lead as a thief from “Psycho”. It all feels like we have been here before and those elements were not the best from those movies. Sure, Hitch is a genius at building up suspense and editing his movies, but it feels old here. Not just because we have seen it before, but in 1964 cinema has moved on and a Hitch movie still looks like something from the fifties.

There is a lot hanging on Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery. Their chemistry is quite decisive. Fortunately they are up to the task, but only barely. Sean Connery is James Bond and that air of uber-man he also brings into his role as Mark. Super confident, strong, assertive and resourceful. But also manic in his insistence of fixing Marnie. His character is not the gentle hero but something darker and we never learn why. I had hoped that something would explode in the climactic scenes due to his flaws, but instead he steps down and becomes a more ordinary gentleman hero. Disappointing. Tippi Hedren has to be this seriously troubled girl. A thief and a liar, she is not the person you would normally root for and in clashing with the dark insistence of Mark Rutland she is like a wild animal caught in the headlights. She does that well. That she as a character is quite a bit out there in unbelievable territory is not her fault.

Beside the nice editing what I really liked about the movie was the score. As usual it is Bernard Herrmann and this time it is very haunting, but also the kind of music that buries itself in your skull. It is still there and I am humming the Marnie theme while I am writing.

“Marine” is okay. It is not a bad movie, merely a tired movie. It marks a natural end to the big Hitchcock productions. He did continue to make a few more movies but as I understand it they are considered lesser movies in his filmography. Ultimately “Marnie” was a bit disappointing, but I think that is mostly when comparing it to his great movies.


Saturday 10 March 2018

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Off-List: A Fistful of Dollars
The first off-list movie of 1964 is “A Fistful of Dollars”.

“A Fistful of Dollars” is a low-budget western made by Italians on a location in Spain. It features a previously unknown American actor, who insisted his lines should be reduced, suspect Hong Kong style dubbing and a plot that is almost a complete rip-off of a Japanese Samurai movie.

Does not sound very promising, does it?

Ah, but this is in fact the birth of the Spaghetti-western, the movement, spearheaded by Sergio Leone, that would revitalize the western genre, adding that mythological element to the western that made it even more “western” than reality. The subgenre that gave us such legendary movies as “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “A Fistful of Dollars” is its glorious beginning.

The obscure American actor happened to be Clint Eastwood and I think that is enough introduction. These were the movies that made him famous. When you think of Clint Eastwood as an actor, you think of the characters he played in the Leone westerns.

And the Japanese Samurai movie is “Yojimbo” by Kurusawa. If I should think of a movie suited to be remade into a western, that would be the one and, amazingly, “A Fistful of Dollars” is one of the best remakes ever made. It is in fact so good that it holds up even when you know it is a remake.

That begs the question, which of the two is the better movie? And who is coolest: Toshiro Mifune or Clint Eastwood?

The crazy thing is that I do not know, both movies are great. Kurusawa created a perfect western and Leone did not just copy it, but reformatted it using his very own style that brought so many new things, not just to this story but to the western genre and cinema in general.

That is in fact the first thing you notice when you watch “A Fistful of Dollars”. This movie looks different from anything that went before. The super close-up of faces on the wide-screen format is obvious and effective, but also the tension is created with only minimal dialogue, but mainly though using the canvas of those faces, how the camera moves from face to face, not to watch them speak or react, but just observe them. Combine that with layer upon layer of sounds with exaggerated clarity and that amazing Ennio Morricone soundtrack and tension builds up to the bursting point. Shots feels like release, violence comes from pent up tension and we are on the edge of our seats.

The setting is Mexico and so the Spanish/Latin connection does not look awkward, but quite authentic.

Yes, I enjoyed “A Fistful of Dollars” immensely. It is extremely watchable, both because the story is as good as it is and because this is a stylistic feast for the eyes and the ears. Ennio Morricone is a legend. Sergio Leone is a legend and Clint Eastwood… well, do I need to repeat myself?

A “Fistful of Dollars” belongs on the List ahead of most of the movies there. The fact that neither “Yojimbo”, nor “A Fistful of Dollars” have earned a spot is a crime.

So, who is cooler, Mifune or Eastwood? Go watch the ending of “Yojiimbo” and tell me that he is not the most awesome lonesome hero ever. Clint is a solid second. Or wait… ahhh…. I don’t know…


Tuesday 6 March 2018

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) (1964)

Pigen med paraplyerne
I went into “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” or “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” knowing that this is a movie that is loved by many people and is praised by many critics. This is supposed to be really awesome, yet my immediate reaction to the movie was disappointment and disinterest.

What I discovered early on was that this is a very banal story about young love and a love triangle where all dialogue is replaced by singing. Not by songs per se, but singing conversations. It was weird and sentimental and oh so melodramatic. I felt that I was definitely in the wrong target group for this movie and wondered how I would get through it.

This was not how I expected this movie to be.

However, something happened along the way and certainly in the aftermath of watching it. I am not sure I am going to actually like it, but I am definitely going to respect it and value it a lot higher than that initial impression.

It is a very banal story. Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) are young, very young, and madly in love. Guy works at a petrol station and Genevieve helps her mother with her umbrella shop. Yeah, apparently back then you could have a shop selling only umbrellas, but maybe that is why the shop was in trouble. On the last night before Guy has to leave for two years of military service (with no leave to go home) the two of them consummate their relationship and soon after Genevieve is pregnant, voila.

Being without Guy is hard, especially with a child, and so it is lucky that Monsieur Cassard (March Michel) shows up to court Genevieve. He is also rich, sincere and want to raise the child as his own.

After two years Guy is back in Cherbourg and Genevieve is long gone and married. Guy is pretty disappointed, but hooks up with his cousin (!?) Madeleine (Ellen Famer), gets married and they have a child of their own.

Pretty straight forward, right? But then there are all the small twists. In a standard melodrama Genevieve would have somehow held out, or as Guy returns, they would be reunited, but that is not how reality works. Life moves on and two years is a very long time when you are 17 years old. When Guy and Genevieve finally meet 4 years later they are both in a different place that is also fine and they have very little to say to each other. That could be very cynical, but it is not. It is actually very beautiful and reminded me of the conclusion of “Cast-Away”. You cannot reset the clock, but you can move on and come to terms with what has happened.

The singing that so annoyed me also ended up actually working. The characters are not suddenly bursting out into song, nor do they start dancing with a whole chorus behind them, this is just regular dialogue that is song instead of spoken, and somehow the impact is larger for it. No dancing gangsters or cowboys. The music itself is also pretty incredible. It is a mishmash of styles, but each fitting perfectly to the situation and the theme of the lovers is so catchy that is has been stuck in my head ever since finishing the movie and that is a few days ago by now.

On the other hand this is not entirely working class realism either. There is an element of magic, emphasized by the music and the saturated colors. A fairy tale element that strangely work together with the stark realism.

Oh, and the weirdest thing: Monsieur Cassard is actually Rolland Cassard in “Lola”. Back then he got burned and moved out of Nantes. Now he made a fortune and this time he gets the girl. C’est la Vie.

In the final analysis “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” ends on the positive side, despite my initial grumblings. It probably helps to be a lover of musicals or French melodrama, but if even a cynic like me can get something out of this, then it cannot be all bad.