Sunday 30 December 2018

Happy New Year 2019

Happy New Year 2019
It is the end of the year and time, again, to look back on the year that has passed.

First, I would like to thank those of you who read my blogs. I know you are not many, but quality easily makes up for quantity and I am grateful for you being there and love your comments. A very happy New Year to all of you!

This has been an eventful year. I moved with my family from Israel, where I have been living for the past 6 years, back to Denmark where I now live in Copenhagen. That was a major transition and kept me busy for a large part of the year. I have also been travelling quite a bit including a visit to The States in the Easter break, Korea, China and many other places. Accordingly, I did not do as many movies this year as I did in previous years.

The movie count ticks in at just 55 movies, the lowest for a year so far. Of these 46 are List movies and 9 are off-List movies. Last year I started a practice where I choose three movies each year to review beyond the List. The idea was that these should be my suggestions for the List, but over time this have changed to simply movies I am curious to watch. I have to admit that the quality of those movies has be varying and not all of them deserves one of those hallowed slots. Lately I made the further addition that one of them should be Danish, but I am considering dropping this requirement. The selection of Danish movies is generally not interesting enough. I think going forward that I will check if there in a given year is one deserving attention, otherwise I will pick internationally.

Of the List movies I went from 1963 to 1966, which is probably not that impressive. There have been great movies (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Repulsion, A Hard Day’s Night) and utter crap (Vinyl, Mediteranee, Pierrot le Fou) and a lot in between. I maintain that the List content of the sixties is not as interesting as the fifties or forties, but there are enough pleasant surprises and quality content to keep me going.

On the book side I have done far better than expected. I have read and reviewed eight books, which is way ahead of the five books I aim at. The books span a century from The Trial of Persilles and Sigismunda from 1616 to Moll Flanders of 1722. Compared to previous years the books I read this year have been consistently good and interesting, which goes a long way to explain how I got this far. Also books are good to bring along for long flights…

If I should pick one for general recommendation it would be The Conquest of New Spain. Besides being a singularly unique and captivating story, it is also based on true events eye-witnessed by the author. I learned a lot reading that book and I was thoroughly entertained.

It is also telling that none of my 2018 reads will end on my crap list.

2019 looks to be more of the same, except that I have no plans to move anywhere this year so hopefully I will get to review a lot more movies and continue to read great books.

If anybody has suggestions for 1967 or 68 off-list entries do let me know, I am all ears.

Happy New Year to all of you and may 2019 bring joy and prosperity and lots of great movies.

Monday 24 December 2018

Come Drink with Me (Da Zui Xia) (1966)

Da Xui Zia
Hong Kong movies is a by-name for a certain sub-set of movies with a focus on oriental martial arts. They have become synonymous with over the top fighting sequences, simplistic plots and poor dubbing and are often ridiculed.

I myself is of two minds on this genre. On one hand they are fun to watch and quite exotic, while one the other they often go in ridiculous directions and the cultural rooting of these movies is often so far from western that I often get confused.

“Come Drink with Me”, I am to understand, is the mother of all Hong Kong films and certainly one of most acclaimed. I understand why. I found it thoroughly entertaining and of surprisingly high production value and better than most martial arts movies I have watched. By watching the Mandarin language version I also avoided the usual dubbing issues.

A group of bandits led by a white face “Jade Faced Tiger” (Chan Hung-lit) attacks a group of travelers to take hostage the son of a local ruler. The purpose is to exchange him for a ruler of their own, currently imprisoned. Clearly these are highly skilled swordsmen. Their plan, however, starts to become unhinged when Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-pei) enters the fray. She is a super skilled swords master and the sister of the hostage.

While the movie seems to be leading up to an epic clash between the Tiger and the Swallow, two other characters intervene. These are Drunk Cat (Yueh Hua), a Kung Fu master of truly awesome skill disguised as a foolish drunkard and Liao Kung (Yeung Chi-hing), Drunk Cat’s old mentor and also Kung Fu master and an ally of the bandits.

This sounds simple enough and it probably is deep down, but there is an attempt at cooking up a real story here that goes a bit beyond awesome Kung Fu and while some of it was lost on me, it does make the movie interesting. I was reminded in several places of the Chinese intricacies of “The Outlaws of the March” and “The Three Kingdoms”, previously reviewed on my book blog, both in terms of plot themes and the way the characters are presented. Golden Swallow is almost certainly modelled on a female fighter with two blades in “The Outlaws of the March” and the martial arts master disguised as a drunken fool seems to be a common theme in Chinese tradition.

Yet there is no way around it, “Come Drink with Me” is mostly about awesome martial arts. Blindingly fast swords play, acrobatic jumping and battle as ballet. In fact, Cheng Pei-pei was a ballet dancer who was asked to apply the ballet grace, control and rhythm to her fight sequences and it works amazingly well. Battles in this sort of movie tend to get boring and repetitive, but “Come Drink with Me” balances the over the top fighting with a grace and speed that keeps it interesting. Sometimes the age becomes apparent when it becomes silly, but mostly it stays on the good side of the tipping point. It helps of course when you consider these Kung Fu masters as oriental super heroes of awesome powers. It is sort of the same suspense of disbelief that required watching Superman. As long as opponents are matched well, it works.

In the final analysis this was a pleasant surprise, being a lot better that I expected. I had to double check the date to ensure that this was not a more recent remake, the production value was not what I expected from Hong Kong, 1966, but far better. Definitely recommended.

Also, this is December 24th and I would like to wish everybody a Merry Christmas. May you have an enjoyable holiday.

Tuesday 18 December 2018

Min søsters børn (1966)

Off-List: Min søsters børn
As mentioned in an earlier post I am allowing myself to add three movies each year and one of these has to be a Danish movie. This particular last rule I initiated for 1965 and already now I am starting to regret it. Danish movies vary greatly in quality and my pick for 1966 is… not impressive.

There is in Denmark a long tradition for family comedies. The kind of movies you grow up with as a child and that the entire family enjoy going to the cinema to watch. I am certain this is not just a Danish phenomenon, but for many years these movies carried the torch in Danish cinema. It was a tradition that took off for real in the sixties and my pick for 1966 “Min søsters børn” (loosely translates into “My Sisters Children”, but I am not at all certain this movie has an English title) belonged to that wave. It started a series of four installment and was much later (2001-2013) remade with another six episodes. I think it is fair to say that it would be hard to find a Dane regardless of age who would not be familiar with this series.

So, cultural significance, check.

The plot is fairly simple. Erik Lund (Axel Strøbye) is a bachelor academician in children psychology about to defend his doctorate for which he has to pay a visit in Copenhagen. This coincides with his sister and her husband going abroad on a vacation alone, leaving house and children to uncle Erik. He can stay there an take care of house and children while he is in town anyway.

Very soon it becomes clear that Erik is all theory and has no actual experience in raising children. The children are running corners on him and he has his hands full. Or this is how I remember this series. As the movie progresses Erik finds himself repeatedly in situations that his neighbor (Karl Stegger) construe as a crime of some sort prompting him to call the police. And every time the children are saving his butt by providing the information that makes the police drop the charges. The shenanigans of the children are actually very subdued and reduced to annoying voices and capturing a girl for their uncle.

And therein lies the trouble. This first movie is just way too passive, too sweet and not funny. The setups that are supposed to generate the laughter barely makes me smile and the children never really challenges their uncle or the viewer. It is just uncle Erik challenging himself. For a comedy that is just too thin or maybe the jaded viewer in 2018 expects a lot more.

But, I can live with that. My son liked the movie, to my great surprise, so there is that. The real problem here is the morale of the story.

Erik is exponent of modern children psychology and with a few modifications his ideas are actually how you would look at this topic today. The movie, however, decides to make fool of these ideas as high-brow nonsense and instead advocate old-school discipline including corporal punishment. Only when Uncle raise his voice, curse the children and threaten to slap their butts has he “learned how to raise children” and the children happily agree.


Suddenly 1966 is a looong time ago.

I would not add this movie to the List, not even a Danish version of the list, but the modern installments are actually watchable, and we have enjoyed some of them in the past. It is telling that my wife, who is a bit of a fan, walked out on this one halfway through.

Cultural significance, yes. Recommendation, no

Sunday 16 December 2018

Daisies (Sedmikrasky) (1966)

The sixties do seem to be the decade of experimentation. Here is another experimental movie, this time a Czech one, and so I get the usual, difficult task of working out what I have just been watching.

This time I was reasonably happy with the beginning of the movie. It did not make much sense, but there was something fun and happy about it that had to make me happy as well. Unfortunately, this did not last. The happiness wears off and is replaced by annoyance. Annoyance because these girls not only appear stupid but also completely nihilistic and this is…fun?

Over the course of the movie the two girls (Blond and Red, because I have no idea what they are called) go out of their way to annoy people. They sabotage a Charleston show in a restaurant. They go on dates with older men, make scenes in the restaurant and then dump them on trains. For the grand finale they crash a dinner party before the guests arrive and trash it all, food, plates, decoration, all is lost so these girls can have some fun.

This seems to be the purpose for the two girls. In a movie with no actual plot and no storyline, Red and Blond have no other agenda than doing what they feel like in the moment and they do that with a childlike glee. It does not matter if it is cutting up the bed or terrorizing other people. It seems to all be for kicks.

Obviously, when we are talking art or experimental movies, there are deeper stories than the apparent one. Here I am at a loss. I simply do not know what that deeper story is. I can guess, though, and somethings are not too difficult. At one point the girls are cutting sausages up while they are talking with one of the ditched men on the phone. It is not difficult to guess that they are symbolically cutting up his genitalia. With a smile of course.

Another potential meaning is political, this being shortly before the “spring in Prague”. Exactly how to read that though I do not know. Ruining everything pleasurable was a habit of the communist party, so maybe there is a clue there. Acting with silly abandon could be reflect a poorly led country. Maybe.

Or maybe we are just supposed to be convinced that acting as if there are no consequences or pricetag is very annoying and offers no long-term reward, even when done by two sweet girls.

There is a lot of nice filming with vibrant colors and fast montages. There is some interesting editing and color filter choices and the soundscape is inventive too.

Ultimately however, it does not change the end result: general annoyance. Silly girls ruining things for other people has a very short shelf life.

If you intend to watch this you can stick to the first 10 minutes. That is enough to get the picture. Beyond that I would not recommend this movie.


Wednesday 12 December 2018

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Il Buono, il Bruto, il Cattivo) (1966)

Den gode, den onde og den grusomme
There is an exclusive group of movies on the List that stand out as my personal favorites and these I have been anticipating for years now. One of those movies is “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and now it is time.

Seriously, I have been looking forward to revisiting this movie for a long time as I have held off watching it since I started on the List. Before that I watched it frequently but taking a break does wonders for anticipation.

So, there are no surprises here, this is exactly the movie I know and love with one exception: watching all these movies chronologically has provided context and a better appreciation of what Sergio Leone did with “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”. This is not just one helluva Western, it is a piece of art.

“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” is one of the most iconic Westerns ever made. It is the western that give the look, the feel and pace and the sound of what a Western is supposed to be. And then it is not even American, but shot in Spain by Italians. A similar claim can be made of Kurusawa’s “Seven Samurai”, but at least that was a transplanted Western. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” is the real deal.

Sergio Leone takes his time. He loves panoramic shots, ultra-closeups of eyes, sweat tickling down stubble and flies buzzing around unwashed faces. Leone frames his shots like Ozu, he composes paintings, so scenes work as tableaux. Slow pace, fast violence, pathos and disarming humor, Leone is the maestro orchestrating the opera.

Clint Eastwood takes up his already established quiet man-without-a-name persona and makes it iconic. Dirty Harry exists because of “Blondie”. Eli Wallach, in his later years a sweet, soft spoken, old man, is this crazy Hispanic banditos with wild eyes and a foul mouth. Nasty, but strangely likable. And Lee Van Cleef, Angel Eyes, amoral, cunning, vicious and striking. Three characters larger than their roles, or is it simply Leones orchestration that makes them so? He makes them the stuff of legends and not just for their shooting skills. They are, objectively, terrible people, but Leone makes them a lot more than that.

And then there is Ennio Morricone. His name speaks for itself, but was there only one movie for which he should be remembered it would be this one. Of course, Morricone did a vast number of scores and great ones too, but even my eight-year-old son knows the “AIAIAaa – da-dah-da” theme and that is not even the best part of the score. To me this is the sound of a Western and yet it is completely different from classic Western scoring up to this point, with the exception of Leones earlier films.  Take the scene where Tuco realizes he has found the cemetery; the music is so much part of that scene I could not imagine it without.

It is a simple story of a treasure hunt and shifting alliances between bandits, but it is also a story that moves in a world of madness, where thousands of people die meaningless death and normality is suspended. In this world our three characters make more sense than anything around them and looking for some gold seem fair enough.

I love this movie. I love everything about it. I love it more now than ever before.  

When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk.

Just watch it, again.