Monday 25 June 2018

Mary Poppins (1964)

Mary Poppins
After a number of… difficult movies… it now time to get all the way back into comfort land. Mary Poppins is Disney with capital D and so we know that this will be as cushy and mushy as it is at all possible. This is certainly in stark contrast to the route the List has been leading me lately.

“Mary Poppins” is a fairy tale musical for the entire family, which translates to children with the adults sitting in on the view. It follows the Hollywood template formulae for musicals, meaning anything is possible, with songs and a loosely written story to take you from song to song. Because this is fairy tale on top of musical the logic and causality of things has also been dismissed and aiming it at children means that it all takes a silly slant. This could go horribly wrong, but it stops right at the edge and remains sweet rather than stupid and thank you for that.

In the Banks family the father, Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson) is a stiff upper lip British banker while his wife, Mrs. Banks (Glynis Johns) is busy campaigning for women’s right to vote. That leaves their two children, Jane and Michael (Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber) in the hands of a sting of nannies, whom they torment into quitting. Then the wonderful Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) arrives and takes charge of the children.

Mary Poppins is a magic nanny. She can fly and do all sort of magic things and around her everything is fun and nice. She takes the children on adventures, including a trip into a painting together with her friend Bert (Dick van Dyke), and soon the children are in love with her.

The point is of course to make their parents realize they have two lovely children whom they should take care of and spend time with themselves and in the usual convoluted way this is exactly what happens.

As I watched the movie I was thinking that “Mary Poppins” is adults idea of what children should watch rather than what children actually want to watch. That this would certainly be the case today, though maybe children were different in 1964. All that singing and dancing and stories of nannies, is this really what children want to see?

However, as I was watching the last half hour of the movie I was joined by my 8-year-old son, who was very interested in the movie (though it could be a trick to avoid going to bed) and today coming back from school he requested to watch the movie from beginning and he loved it. So, I was wrong, this actually does hit a note with children and the movie serves its purpose.

I think it is merely me who is too far outside the target group (musical AND children’s movie) to fully buy into the movie, but I must admit that it is charming and sweet and of good production value. Technology has made the merging of live action and animation trivial, but for 1964 it works remarkably well, so points for that.

There are a few interesting appearances in the movie: Elsa Lancaster, Bride of Frankenstein, as a nanny and Jane Darwell of Grapes of Wrath in her last role as the Bird Woman.

Normally I am not sure I would recommend this type of movie, but it felt like the right movie at the right time and it does the trick for children, so it ends up with a recommendation from me.


Monday 11 June 2018

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo) (1964)


When it comes to movie versions of religious texts a lot of the usual criteria for evaluating a movie become invalid. A religious topic, especially if it is THE religious texts that are being used cannot really be rated as a good or a bad story. If you are religious, you would rate it according to how well it matches your religious believes. If you are not religious such a story would be so far outside your version of reality that you are not in a position to rate it. 

This is how I feel about “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew” (“Il vangelo secondo Matteo”) by Pier Paolo Pasolini. I very much belong to the second group and whether this is a good rendition of the gospels I will leave to religious people. 

What I can say is that Pasolini here went, as far as I can see, for a very literal presentation of the life and death of Jesus. There are hardly any surprises, it is all taken from the text. Even the lines seem to be direct biblical quotes. Something that at times sounds very odd as those lines do not work particular well in a normal dialogue. Many scenes are set up particularly so specific lines can be spoken rather than to serve any progressive story. This means that the slavic adherence to the text makes the movie lumber along rather erratically. 

I have not watched many religious movies, but of the few I have seen those that work the best are usually those that take their own spin on the story, have a certain angle or dramatize events. Pasolini however seems content to just visualize the story and so there are absolutely no surprises or originality here.

Where this version is supposed to stand out is in Pasolini’s application of Italian neorealism to the telling of the story with his use amateur actors and natural locations. At least this is how Wikipedia describes it. I have a hard time seeing that. There is very little that seem natural here. Indeed there is a staged feel to the production that is anything but natural. Characters are not fleshed out and there is absolutely no spontaneity in the dialogue. If this is realism then something has happened since Rossellini.

Then again, if you are really into the religious text you would probably appreciate this strict adherence to the scriptures. It is a particular quality for this type of movie.

I doubt that I have to recount the story itself. It starts with the impregnation of the Virgin Maria and ends with the Resurrection of Christ. Everything in between is well known.

The film was filmed in Calabria in Italy and as I actually live in Israel right now I can see where these look like the real locations and where they decidedly do not. I suppose for the average viewer the match is good enough, but I find it a bit comical at times.

Pier Paolo Pasolini has a reputation of being an avantgarde director with many inaccessible or outright disgusting movies under his belt. My own experience with his movies is very limited, but I find odd that the director of “120 days of Sodom” should also have made this very conventional movie about the life of Jesus. I must say that I expected something else.

On an entirely different note, it is now official that my family and I are moving back to Denmark in July after six years in Israel. We are going to live in Copenhagen and the next month and a half is going to be pretty chaotic. My posting frequency will likely reach an all-time low in this period, but once established in our new apartment I hope to get back to normal speed.


Monday 4 June 2018

Black God, White Devil (Deus e o Diablo Na Terra del Sol) (1964)

Gud og djævelen i solens land
Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Carl Th. Dreyer made a Western?

Well, “Black God, White Devil” (“Deus E O Diablo Na Terra Do Sol”) is what I imagine it would be like.

We got a very emotionally loaded movie that touches on a lot of big questions with characters that will stand still facing different directions and proclaim their existential pain with robot voices. Then they will shoot and kill a lot of people in a sun-dried land for no particular reason.

That does not sound very appetizing and it also reflects my general disappointment with the movie.

It starts out pretty good though. Manuel (Geraldo Del Rey) is a cattle herder (cowboy) in a very dry part of Northern Brazil. He is poor and lives in a shack with his wife Rosa (Yoná Magalhães) and their infant child. Things start going bad when Manuel gets screwed over by the owner of the cattle and Manuel kills him in return. This part is pretty good and very Western-like. Tough and gritty.

Rosa and Manuel escape and joins a religious group following a preacher called Sebastian (Lidio Silva). Sebastian is an asshole. He is filling his followers with lots of religious bullshit and is essentially creating a religious militant group whose only allegiance is to him. Manuel is eating it raw and becomes a faithful follower. This culminates when Sebastian commands him to kill his child as a sacrifice and that is pretty much when I mentally left the movie. The memory of that scene still makes me want to vomit.

Rosa kills Sebastian in return and immediately became my hero, for a while at least. A hitman, sent out by the church (Mauricio do Valle as Antonio das Mortes) kills the whole bunch except for Rosa, Manuel and a blind folk singer.

On the move again, Rosa and Manuel join a bandit who is killing every landowner he can get his hands on. At this point I was getting very confused. I have no idea what was really going on in these scenes, except for the massive amount of killing. It is a very surreal phase of the movie, maybe reflecting the bewilderment Manuel and Rosa are going through. Alas, Antonio das Mortes shows up again and do some more killing.

It is possible that I might have gotten more out of the movie had I not checked out after the baby killing scene. Then again, maybe not. It was getting very existential, very surreal and we are left with nobody to hang on to and a story that is not really going anywhere but towards death. We are very far from a Hollywood happy ending, but I could live with that if this did not feel more like a fizzle than a conclusion. In the end there is nothing but death. True, but also terribly depressing.

The production level is higher than the older Brazilian movies I have seen with the exception of “Black Orpheus”, but not anything approaching what Sergio Leone did in this period. We get the heat and the callousness from the cinematography, but beyond that there is a cheapness to the movie that speaks of a very limited budget.

Not a favorite of mine. How can any movie be that murders children in the name of religion?