Tuesday 31 December 2019

Happy New Year 2020

Happy New Year 2020!
Wow, how did that happen? Is it really already New Year again?

The calendar says so, it must be true then, but, man, did that year slip by fast?

Being that time of the year, I would like to wish everybody a very happy New Year and indeed a new decade. I am grateful to all of you who, occasionally, have read my blogs and especially to those who have written comments to my posts. It is always great encouragement with that sort of attention.

I suppose I should be doing a list of sorts of the best movies of the decade we are finishing now, but I am hopelessly out of the loop on current movies. The decades I can comment meaningfully on are up until the sixties, so I will skip that and let smarter people do that.

In 2019 I did 63 movies, of which 52 movies were from the List, 9 movies were Off-List and a single movie was so bad I just had to write a post on it. This took me from 1966 to 1969 with just 4 movies left for that year. It is also a step up from last year and I guess this is the amount I can expect in a typical year. Eventually I will get there. I am very happy to have introduced the 3 off-List movies per year though. As I move on there are more and more movies I would wish to include and already for 1970 I feel I will be limiting myself. Then again, I set the rules myself.

My book blog is getting a lot less attention than my movie blog, probably due to me not being much involved in book list communities, but 2019 was actually a good year on reading. I did 6 books for the List which took me from Gulliver’s Travels (1726) to Clarissa (1748). Not a great span of years, but now the years are more densely populated with books. Clarissa was apparently one of the longest novels in English literature, so I guess it is downhill from now on. The books I read continue to be good and interesting and that is important when you work on a list you know you will never finish.

So, Happy New Year to all of you and may the next decade be a great one.


Monday 30 December 2019

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Den vilde bande
The last movie of 2019 is Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch”. It has taken me a while to get through this movie, partly because of Christmas craziness, but also because I am uncertain about what I think of this movie. The blu-ray copy I got came with a lengthy biography on Sam Peckinpah which goes a long way to explain the elements of the movie and indeed his entire career, but it did not make me feel much better about the movie.

What we get here is a gang of outlaws, Pike’s gang or The Wild Bunch. They have specialized in robbing railroads and are looking for that final strike before they, or rather Pike (William Holden), can retire. This is not a group of charming Robin Hood outlaws, but a bunch of brutal, dirty scum, with no scruples at killing innocent bystanders, or indeed each other and a general behavior so uncivilized that barbarians is a honorific. The Book mentions a code of honor, but with the possible exception of Pike himself I could not see it. They are as low as it gets.

Except that the pose chasing them may be even lower. Deke Thornton is a former member of the bunch who is forced by the railroad company to chase The Wild Bunch. To this end the railroad has assigned him a group of absolute lowlifes, who are not only crude barbarians but also incredibly stupid. This group, supposedly upholding the law, has even less scruples killing innocent bystanders in order to collect the bounties on the Bunch members.

When the “last” hit on the railroad turned out to be a setup, costing them half their number, The Bunch seeks shelter in Mexico with the warlord Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) who’s army is fighting, and losing to, Pancho Villa and brutalizing the local population. This general and his army are even worse scum and makes Pike’s gang look like boy scouts. Mapache has a job for Pike, to get him a load of US arms to fight his little war.

And so, we have a three-way setup with bad guys against bad guys against bad guys.

Who do you root for in the ensuing battle? The movie wants us to root for The Wild Bunch but can only do that by setting them up against people who are even worse. Frankly, I disliked every one in this movie with the possible exception of Angel (Jaime Sanchez) and he is betrayed and tortured to death. Early on I decided that the only good outcome was if they all killed each other. Lo and behold, that is exactly what happened. So, was that a happy ending? I just felt disgusted.

For a movie in 1969 this is an incredibly violent movie. Even by today’s standard it reminded me of Tarantino on one of his killing sprees. In fact, I would hazard a guess that this is the movie Tarantino wished that he had made. I assume that this raw violence is a large part of its fame, but it does very little for me. Not that I am a prude, but this kind of mass slaughter and insane brutality only leaves me disgusted. I recently finished watching “Breaking Bad” where the violence worked as an adrenaline kick (and what a kick!). In “The Wild Bunch” it just made me want to puke.

If I look beyond the violence and the fact that I disliked everybody in it, I can see how it is intended as a swan song on the Wild West. The Wild Bunch would then be representing the freedom and anarchy of the West, being squeezed by the cruelty of corporate capitalism (the railroad’s pose) and whatever it is Mapache is representing (the devil?). Live free or die…

Production-wise “The Wild Bunch” is top notch. There is nothing wrong with the colors or the sound. Everything is beautifully shot and dusty like the desert. Only problem here is that no matter how well Peckinpah tried to frame his picture to get that special cinematography, Sergio Leone had already been there and done it better. Killing a hundred people with blood flying everywhere is no improvement.

I came into “The Wild Bunch” wanting to like this movie and felt satisfied with the production quality I met, but ultimately it left me empty and disgusted. If this was The Wild West, I am happy I am not there.

Speaking of “Breaking Bad” there are actually a lot of parallels to “The Wild Bunch”, but I think I will write a separate post on that one of these days.



Thursday 19 December 2019

In the Year of the Pig (1969)

In the Year of the Pig
“In the Year of the Pig” is a documentary on the clusterfuck that was the Vietnam War. Made in 1968-1969 it came out while the war has in high gear and amidst widespread protests against the US engagement in the war. It is not difficult to imagine that this movie would get a lot of attention and be both embraced and controversial at the same time, depending on your political standpoint.

The documentary is made up of archival footage and interviews with a wide range of experts, politicians and generals. We get a brief, but thorough background of the conflict with the Japanese occupation, the French attempt to hang on to Vietnam, the communist victory at Dien Bien Phu and the cease fire that temporarily separated the country. From then on, the various events that led to a deeper and deeper US involvement is discussed with cross clips between those arguing for more involvement and experts painting a rather different picture.

Obviously, the narrative is political, it could never be anything else, and the story unfolding is that of an elephant in a glass shop. In this narrative the hawks look aggressive and foolish, disconnected from reality on the ground and self-serving. The analysis of the experts on the other hand seems more well considered and in touch with reality, but also benefit from hindsight. Still, given that this is taking place while the war is at its highest it is remarkable how far these experts are in line with the much later analysis of the war.

It is an infuriating story and a very tragic one. Human suffering is everywhere and much of it seems utterly unnecessary. The picture of the burning monk is particularly shocking, but so are pictures of refugee children and dead soldiers too. War is an ugly business and when you then learn that much of this was done because a corrupt government had to be propped up to prevent the communists from taking over the country, it is also infuriating.

Yet, it is also clear from the documentary that it was not one single decision, but a succession of choices where one led to the next until the situation became intolerable but also very difficult to back down from. At least not without invalidating all the previous decisions.

It is a clever documentary and a lot more sober than I had expected. It is cool and detached rather than shrill in the analysis, and let the pictures tell the dramatic story. There is no mockumentary here and I think that is why it works so will. I feel I get smarter from watching it. I remember learning about the Vietnam War in high school and that was much the same picture, yet there is some much more detail here and background information. Certainly enough to understand that the best course of action would be get out of there as soon as possible and let the Vietnamese work it out themselves. Later, after this documentary was released, it was leaked that Pentagon had long known this was a lost battle but was simply afraid of admitting it publicly.

There are countless Vietnam War movies out there and many of them are excellent. I think “In the Year of the Pig” is an excellent introduction to the topic and it provides context to all these movies, whether it is Platoon, Apocalypse Now or The Post.

The relevance for a modern viewer is of course to keep it in mind when considering an activistic foreign policy today. How much do you really want to involve yourself in another country and are you certain you understand what is going on there?

Definitely recommended.


Tuesday 17 December 2019

Easy Rider (1969)

Easy Rider
There are some movies that have had a major cultural impact and some of these far more than quality of the movie itself seems to justify. “Easy Rider” is such a movie.

This is a low budget movie that seems to have been more or less invented as it was made. No one seems to agree who came up with the script, though Dennis Hopper is mostly credited with directing it. The first attempt at shooting in New Orleans appears to have ended in a drug-induced chaos and second attempt, using somewhat more professional technical staff was essentially a roadshow developing as it went. Or at least that was the impression I got from the behind-the-scenes feature.

All this is quite visible when you watch the movie. It has a laid-back style that does not need to explain anything. Two guys, Wyatt “Captain America” (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) are two bikers who make their money smuggling cocaine from Mexico. After their latest haul they decide to go to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras. This is the road trip that constitutes the majority of the movie. They encounter a variety of communities and people, all representing parts of the America of the period. There is the traditional farmer and his extended family, a hippie commune and rednecks who hate the counterculture of the era.

Along the way they make friends with the lawyer George (Jack Nicholson) who embraces the freedom of the bikers. With him they have some of the central dialogues of the movie, about how many people hate them because they represent a freedom, they are afraid to embrace and this fear makes them dangerous. Spoken shortly before those rednecks cave in his skull with clubs while he is sleeping.

This is also the essence of “Easy Rider”. It presents the counterculture as a challenge to the traditional America and this America lashes out at them in fear and hatred.

No wonder “Easy Rider” became the rallying point of much of the counterculture and the reference for much that happened in the following years.

Add to this a score that totally embraced the progressive music scene of the time, starting with Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” and it is difficult not to be caught up in the wave.

I bought in to the movie 100% and I fully understand the impact this must have had 50 years ago, but for me it was also quite an experience to watch three great actors very early in their careers. Dennis Hopper I had already met in “Cool Hand Luke” and “True Grit”, but this is the earliest film with recently deceased Peter Fonda and the great Jack Nicholson. What is really amazing here is how much they are free-wheeling and totally giving it as doped bikers. Awesome.

The ending of the movie is quite shocking, and I was totally unprepared for it since this was my first viewing. I do not want to spoil it, but when you think about it, it is actually the perfect ending in terms of message, especially when you consider that the characters are named Wyatt (Earp?) and Billy (the Kid?)…

Highly recommended. Not a great technical movie but with plenty of nerve to make up for that.



Sunday 8 December 2019

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

Off-List: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
The third off-List movie of 1969 is “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, recommended by Bea of Flickers in Time.

This is a movie about a flamboyant and unconventional teacher on a conservative school for girls in Scotland in the 1930’ies and immediately I get associations to movies like “Dead Poet Society” or “Mr. Holland’s Opus”. That is, of movies with a teacher rebelling against a restrictive or even oppressive school system in order to make the children better people.

Imagine my surprise when I take an instant dislike of the titular Miss Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith).

Miss Brodie is an arrogant and vain woman who is convinced she is in her prime. She uses her class as an adoring audience while she tells them essentially about herself and how wonderful she is. She is playing off two of the male teachers against each other without ever committing to either and she takes on favorite pupils for special outings and attention. Not to mention she is a great fan of Fascism and Mussolini and other great romantic conquerors.

Basically, she fails on every single parameter and I was wondering why we are supposed to see this vain woman as the great reformer of the school system. Especially since the grey and stoic headmistress of the school, Miss Mackay (Celia Johnson from “Brief Encounter”!) is actually sweet and quite reasonable. Sure, the pensum is mostly regular knowledge like math and science and reading with the occasional “female activities” like sewing and the color scheme of the school is varieties of grey, but in my poor opinion any of these are better than what Brodie is doing.

When we get into the story, the current Brodie set, Brodie’s favorite girls, consists of Sandy (Pamela Franklin), Monica (Shirley Steedman), Jenny (Diane Grayson) and Mary (Jane Carr). These are the special girls Brodie has hand picked to train for something special, to become “crème-de-la-crème”. To no big surprise though, Brodie’s scheme completely fails and rather than adore her, the girls mock and despise her.

This comes to a head when Mary, inspired by Brodie’s fascist supporting talk, goes to Spain to find her brother, but land on the wrong side since her brother is fighting against the Fascists and is killed. Sandy take it upon herself to put a stop to Brodie and even at that moment Jean Brodie fails to understand just how far off the mark she is.

I started out disliking the movie, but when I finally realized that the movie was not endorsing Miss Brodie but rather warning against her special kind of stupidity, the movie grew on me. It was a sweet moment when she learns how completely she has failed, but it was a hollow sweetness because she entirely fails to grasp the reasons why.

Maggie Smith won the Academy Award for her effort and if that award is given for most annoying voice of the year, I would say it was well earned.

Recommended? Well, I will have to think about that. Maybe eventually, but for the moment I disliked that character too much to endorse the film.


Sunday 1 December 2019

The Conformist (Il Conformista) (1969)

From a political thriller (“Z”) I am moving on to a political gangster movie. Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Il conformista (The Conformist)” is a story about a hitman working for the secret police in fascist Italy who is in France in 38 to kill a dissident professor. But it is also, and probably more, the story about the moral aspects of following the system when the system is rotten.

The most remarkable element to this movie is the extent to which it is told in a non-linear form. In fact, it takes non-linearity to a whole new level where you have to keep your focus to make sense of what is going on. The first half of the movie is a blur for me and only in hindsight am I starting to make sense of this part. The problem is that the storyline follows several tracks with flashbacks within flashbacks and with cross clipping that made me dizzy at times.

One track is Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant, again!) and the “special agent” (gunman) Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) busy chasing a car. Another is Marcello preparing to marry a girl, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) in order to become a “normal person” and applying for work in the fascist secret police. There is a track where Marcello visits his parents and one from his childhood where he thinks he has killed a man who is making sexual advances on him.

Eventually these tracks coalesce into the story of Marcello proving his place in the secret police by going to Paris on pretense of a honeymoon, but actually to kill his old university professor, Luca Quadri (Enzo Tarascio).

Marcello is a strange and conflicted character. He is driven by an eagerness to conform to the ideal of a good fascist, with the right opinions and a cynicism that at times seems honest, but at other times seems like an uncomfortable mask. The meeting with the professor and even more, his young wife Anna Quadri (Dominique Sandra) reveals him as being unresolved and fumbling. While pretending to move on as planned toward Manganiello, he also looks like a man desperately searching for a way to avoid the confrontation and preferably to be somewhere else entirely. Especially after he starts a seemingly unmotivated sexual relationship with Anna. This is a part I still do not understand. Does he know her from the past? Were they once an item?

Whether or not he actually regrets the murder, he resigns to the job and let it unfold. Thereby proving to be a good fascist. But what then when fascism is no more? What will he tell himself?

This moral conflict and dilemma in a man who caves into the system is the central point to the movie and reveals Marcello as a weak and spineless man, but maybe not so different from many other people.

The cinematography of “The Conformist” is very impressive. It does an excellent job at reconstructing the thirties and the colors and lighting are used masterfully. Even when I was most confused, I could always lean back and enjoy the pictures.

The sound side was much less impressive. The Italians never used sound stages but dubbed the sound in later. I know this is a common practice even today in many parts of the world, but I never got used to it and the particular feel it gives a movie and I do not think this dubbing worked so well in “The Conformist”. This stands out particularly because the quality of the rest of the movie is so high. It is so obvious that it is not the actor actually speaking and the sound collage is sometimes entirely disconnected from the picture. Quite distracting.

Still, it is one of those movies that keep rummaging around in the head for days after watching it and I am certain a second viewing will make a lot more of it fall into place. Which may be a good idea because there are still too many loose ends for me. Non-linearity should be used carefully.


Monday 25 November 2019

Z (1969)

A central element in most conspiracy theories is that “The Government” is on to something sinister, keeping it secret for the public and going out of its way to cover up for itself. Most conspiracy theories are laughable but then there are those countries where these things are very much reality and sometimes so blatantly that, at least for an outsider, those in power seem act with impunity.

Apparently, Greece was such a place in the sixties and the movie “Z” is about some of the shenanigans of the “deep state” in Greece.

In 1963, the leader of a left leaning pacifist party in Greese, Grigoris Lambrakis, got murdered during a rally in Thessaloniki by an extreme right-wing group acting under the instruction of the army and the police. In the following procedure led by the investigator Christos Sartzetakis, it was revealed how far this conspiracy went into the high ranks of power where a conservative elite wanted to cling to power at all costs. Yet, although exposed, they managed to forgive themselves and hit back at the prosecutors for embarrassing them.

“Z” is in French and appears to be taking place in France, but that is a very thin disguise. In every other aspect it is referring to this case in Greece to the extent that the opening titles state that any resemblance to real characters and events is intentional.

Yves Montand is “The Deputy” (meaning Grigoris Lambrakis) who is visiting “a northern town” for a rally. His team is having difficulty finding a proper venue, clearly the proprietors have been “discouraged” by somebody, but finally they are assigned a lousy locale. The team has been warned that The Deputy may be targeted but the police is treating it indifferently. At the rally the police are present in force and so are a number civilian anti-communist protesters (despite the pacifists are not communists). Already arriving at the venue, The Deputy is his in the head without the police doing anything and when he leaves the venue they finish the job, exactly as the real hit.

When the Examining Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant as the Christos Sartzetakis character) arrives, the case is presented as an accident where a three-wheeled mini-lorry swerved into The Deputy, causing him to fall and hurt his head. The second half of the movie is now the investigation where gradually the official story proposed by the police and army brass falls apart and their, sometimes clumsy, attempts at silencing witnesses are exposed. The Magistrate is not political, he is just doing his job a little too well, but he soon finds himself the target of the deep state who accuses him of being a communist. Yet he prevails. Sort of. As a news report shows at the end, the top brass may have been charged, but they generally went free while the witnesses and indeed all the leading members of the pacifist party either died in unfortunate accidents or disappeared.

“Z” presents itself as a political movie, but I think today we would call it a criminal thriller. What political position condones criminal behavior or blatant suppression of the population? Oh, I am sorry, my mistake, plenty of political systems believe this sort of behavior is defensible and convenient, even today. Then let me rephrase myself: “Z” makes the fighting of a corrupt political system a criminal investigation, treating the brass as what they really are, criminals. The movie does have sympathy for the left, but it is not a leftist movie any more than “All the President’s Men” was. It is simply indignant at what a corrupt regime managed to get away with.

Technically it is a well-made movie. It does not go too far in what could easily have become shrill accusations, but instead when things become grotesque resort to ridicule. In this way the generals and colonels become involuntarily comical in their insistence on protecting the realm.

The Book writes that the suspense is unbearable, but I would not go that far. It is interesting though, and manages well to keep my interest. Definitely a movie to recommend but one you should probably be careful watching in a number of countries even today.   

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Satyricon (Fellini Satyricon) (1969)


It is Fellini time again.

<deep sigh>

Even in his better moments I am a bit apprehensive about his movies. “Satyricon” is in my opinion not one of those better moments and whatever it is, it is not easy.

I am having some trouble describing what I have just been watching. It is something about a young man called Encolpius (Martin Potter), who travel through a number of scenes in an LSD version of ancient Rome. The various scenes do not have a lot connecting them. We never know how one scene turns into the next and most seem to serve as a story on their own. Only Encolpius appears in almost all of them and a common theme is sex. Not love, but an indulgent, self-gratifying obsession with sex. Sex with young boys, prostitutes, orgies, rape, impotence, sex as divinity, sex as depravity, you name it.

Encolpius wants a very young boy called Gitón (Max Born) for some sexy time. His friend Ascyltus (Hiram Keller) has taken him and sold him to a theater, where they chop a hand off a man to give him a golden hand instead. Encolpius extracts Gitón and takes him home through a brothel, but Gitón prefers to be with Ascyltus. An earthquake ruins the building where Encolpius lives. He attends an orgy with lots of food and half naked women and he is enslaved on a ship. Here he is forced to marry an older man. Then there is a guy who is rehearsing his funeral and another man and wife who free their slaves, send their children away before they kill themselves. Encolpius and Ascyltus movies into their vacated house, finds a slave left in the building and have sexy time in the pool. There is also a battle with a fake minotaur and a goddess who literally creates fire between her legs. 

For me it is a problem that the storyline is as chopped up as it is. The lack of a progressing story reduces the movie to a series of vignettes and very random ones at that. At some point I was not confused any more, just resigned, realizing that I did not care very much. I have no idea what Encolpius wanted except for sex and potency. Boys, girls, young, old, thin, fat, he gets to try it all and so what? There is a feeling that all this sex is not important at all, just a lot of emptiness, and violence, random and casual, is just around the corner.

I also found this weird Roman setting very disconcerting. It did not feel like antiquity or reality of any kind but a depraved dream or a fevered fantasy. It may have been the intention, but it was very unpleasant to watch as if on the verge of vomiting. 

A movie this random and disjointed is obviously aiming at something else than telling a coherent story. The trouble is just that I have not figured out what that is. A psychological theme? A political theme maybe? A search for the meaning of life, looking the wrong places? A Christian denunciation of the heathen hedonism outside Christian moral? Without that key it all feels too random.

The theme of the depravity of ancient Rome as a counterpoint to Christianity is an old and very well-known story. Gibbons work on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire rested on the assumption that it was this depravity that ruined the empire and gave rise to Christianity. I have no doubt the early church was busy assigning all sorts of depravity on the foul heathens that prosecuted the early Christians and indeed some of the books surviving to this day are surprisingly raunchy. Maybe Fellini just thought all that was pretty cool.

I think “Satyricon” is mostly for Fellini fans. Not one I would actually recommend to anybody else.


Thursday 14 November 2019

Tænk på et tal (1969)

Off-List: Tænk på et tal

The second off-List movie for 1969 is a Danish movie. For each year I look through the list of releases (yeah, that list is not that long..) to see if there is anything I either know to be good or that I am curious to see. The movie that caught my eye for 1969 was “Tænk på et tal”. It loosely translates to “Think of a number” though I have no idea if it has an international release under a different name than its Danish title.

I do not recall watching it before, but I read the book by Danish author Anders Bodelsen in high school and thought back then that it was a solid crime thriller, good enough that I would like to watch the movie. Fortunately, it was not a miss.

Flemming Borck (Henning Moritzen) is a bank clerk in a small suburban branch. He is a quiet man, lives a lone and is a bit on the boring side. One day he finds a scrapped piece of paper in a bin with a text asking to hand over a lot of money. Flemming is disturbed, but also fascinated that somebody had aborted a robbery of the bank. Convinced that the guy will soon show up again Flemming takes a for him very unusual step. He stashes away a large sum (10.000 Danish kroner) in his lunchbox. When the bandit finally does rob the bank he gets a way with 170.000 kroner, but the bank is missing 180.000 kroner, the difference is in Flemming’s lunch box. Flemming has just managed to steal 10.000 kr, a sum roughly equivalent to 15-20.000 $ today.

Now something unexpected happens. The bandit (Paul Hüttel) has worked out that there was supposed to be 10.000 kr more and that the clerk must have the rest. He starts blackmailing Flemming as he has, correctly, deduced that Flemming is not the most assertive type. Flemming’s attempts to avoid and escape the bandit make up the rest of the story and the conclusion is open ended and chilling.

Forty years before “Breaking Bad” here is a story with many parallels. The ordinary and highly inexperienced guy who turns criminal and end up way over his head. This is also a story with many twists and turns and few people are who they are supposed to be. At the same time the setting is so ordinary that you could see yourself there. The bank and the people there are very recognizable with the usual banter and small intrigues and because of this the extraordinary, when it happens feels so much stronger. 

The story is not without problems though. It is never explained why Flemming steals the money. Is it boredom? Facination? A need to escape? By all appearances Flemming Borck as a type seems to be perfectly suited for his quiet, boring life. Secondly, I do not understand why the bandit returns to extract the last 10.000 kroner. He just got 170.000 kroner, vastly more than the clerk got. By comparison the 10.000 kroner are peanuts. Why risk everything to get them. On top of this he persists even after he gets arrested. He sends his girlfriend, Jane Merrild (Bibi Andersson) after him and later when he gets released, he flies to Tunesia to look for him. Seriously?

As usual when watching old Danish movies, this one boast many of the classic Danish actors, both starring and in smaller parts. Most noteworthy though is it that Swedish Bibi Andersson, whom we normally know as one of Ingmar Bergman’s regulars has one of the leading parts. That was a surprise, but it works fine.

“Tænk på et tal” is a quiet but chilling crime thriller and prospective fans of Nordic noir can begin here. It is worth a watch.


Monday 11 November 2019

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Midnight Cowboy
The Best Picture 1969 according to the Academy was “Midnight Cowboy”, the first, and probably only, X-rated movie to ever win that coveted award. I think it is safe to say that this movie is a bit outside the usual fare.

“Midnight Cowboy” is a movie by John Schlesinger about a young, and very naïve, Texan man who leaves his job as a dishwasher in Texas to become a hustler in New York. By this is meant male prostitute and Joe Buck (John Voight) is convinced that with his good looks and skills at lovin’, the New York ladies will be queuing up for him. However, with his cowboy attire and hopeless naivety, he is more a joke than anything else and he is soon broke. Helpful in relieving him of his money is a local small-time hustler named Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), soon though the two of them strike up a friendship at the bottom of the slums of New York.

It sounds terrible in synopsis, but what makes this story not just bearable but actually interesting and charming is the bittersweet humor pervading it. Joe Buck makes a ridiculous figure in New York, but he is also sweet and gullible and therefore likeable. His attempt at working is so miserable that he ends up paying the lady rather than getting money from her. Ratso is a creep, but he is not without feelings and his desperate need of a friend is gripping. Ratso and Joe are lonely and out of their luck, but they find part of what they are lacking in each other and that is heartwarming and not a little comical given how different an appearance they make.

Hoffman and Voight were both are the very start of their careers here. Hoffman had just come off “The Graduate” and Voight had his breakthrough with “Midnight Cowboy” and there is an energy here belonging to a new generation in Hollywood. It is super interesting to see these actors who later became big stars in these, their early roles. Along same vein, the portrait of New York is a very contemporary 1969 picture with the energy and vitality, but also the trash and slums that was New York of the era. Near the end Buck and Ratso even visit a party that was arranged to appear exactly like Warhol’s Factory. This is no coincidence as Warhol and his group was in fact involved with this scene and many of the characters are Warhol regulars.

Harry Nilsson singing “Everybody’s Talkin’” may be the famous song out of the movie, but John Barry’s theme, discreet as it is, is one of those scores everybody knows even if they cannot put a finger on where it is from. It has been copied a thousand times in small variations, but this one is the real deal. I have been humming it constantly over the weekend and it is not only catchy, but also sets exactly the right tone to this melancholic drama of floundering lives.

This would definitely be one of the better movies of 1969 and I think a bold and surprising but also correct pick of the Academy. It managed to catch a lot of the zeitgeist and seem like the right movie at the right time, yet, surprisingly, it holds up perfectly today.

Oh, about the X-rated thing… an average episode of “Sex and the City” is way more raunchy than this movie ever got.


Tuesday 5 November 2019

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Compared to 1968, the year 1969 looks fairly light weight in terms of great movies. Leafing through the List the one movie that stood out for me in 1969 was “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. Of course, I am hoping that some of the other titles will be awesome and prove me wrong, but I will be surprised if, at the end of this year I will not pronounce “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” the best movie of 1969.

There are a number of reasons for this of which the premier must be the pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. I believe this was the first time they were put together and that was one inspired move. There is a chemistry between these two wonderful actors that makes the total far larger than the sum of the parts. The best parts of this movie are those where we just watch these two guys together doing whatever it is they do.

“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” apparently started a fad for buddy movies, trying to tap into that magic that the constellation of Newman and Redford gave this movie, but not many were as successful at it.

The story of the movie, for, yes, unnecessary as it may seem, there is actually a story here, is of a legendary pair of outlaws in the West who harassed the railroads to the extent that a super posse was formed, eventually pressing the gang to emigrate to South America. Paul Newman is Butch Cassidy, a witty and smart fellow and the brains in the outfit, while Robert Redford is the Sundance Kid, the brooding gunslinger. The have a gang, The Hole in the Wall gang, whom we see plundering trains, but mainly it is just Butch and the Kid and the girl they both loved, Katharine Ross as Etta Place, we follow.

Although these are clearly on the wrong side of the law, there is something incredibly affable about them that it is difficult t be upset with that fact. The train robberies are fun and who feels sorry for a railroad baron? When a sheriff wants to form a posse, nobody is interested and it is hilarious to watch Butch and the Kid sitting upstairs on a porch relaxing while they are listening to the sheriff begging the townspeople to join him.

The super posse changes all that and for a substantial part of the movie they are being chased by the relentless posse. Suddenly it is not as fun being Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and they leave for Bolivia. They do try going straight there, but the only thing the know how to do is robbing banks and so it ends the way it must, side by side with guns blazing.

There is an odd intermezzo with domestic bliss before leaving for South America where the three of them are enjoying a quite moment. The oddness is largely due to the choice of scoring. Burt Bacharachs’s  "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" is not exactly what you would expect to hear in a western. It is certainly very far from a Morricone scoring, but this is nevertheless the origin of that song. The effect of using this music is to remove the movie from the classical western genre and into something else and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” has more in common with “Thelma and Louise” than John Wayne or Sergio Leone. The western environment is just setting for a movie that is really about freedom and friendship.

And then I have not even commented on the fantastic production value that sets this apart from most other movies of the era.

I saw “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” ages ago, and while I remember liking it, I doubt I was able to fully appreciate it. I am now. Highly recommended.


Wednesday 30 October 2019

True Grit (1969)

Off-List: True Grit
The first off-List movie of 1969 is “True Grit”. I have never seen it before and the only things I knew about it going in was its famous, recent remake and that Ranker considers it the second best movie of 1969. I guess this made me more than a little curious to watch this movie.

It was, frankly, a bit disappointing.

“True Grit” is a movie about a girl, Mattie (Kim Darby) whose father got killed by a low-life caller Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey). She sets out to find him and bring him to justice. To that end she hires a Marshall, Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne), and, much against his will, insists on riding along. They are joined by a Texas ranger, La Boeuf (Glen Campbell) who wants to take Chaney to Texas. Chaney has joined a gang led by Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall) and so they are two men and a woman up against an entire gang of outlaws.

This is very much a vehicle for John Wayne to do his usual things. To be tough and grandfatherly, dunk and just, trigger happy and jovial. Essentially your standard John Wayne. The Academy apparently thought he did that so well that they gave him an Oscar for it. If there is nothing better in 69 this will indeed be a thin year.

John Wayne being what he is, the main character here is Mattie. It is cool that she wants to join the man hunt, but this girl has so many annoying qualities that any sympathy I had for her soon wore out. She is preachy and very penny-pinching, lacks a sense of the situation and is practically useless in the field. She is the kind of person you least want to bring along on such an expedition. You may then ask, why is she then joining the chase? The answer may well be as comical relief.

See, “True Grit” is trying hard to be a comedy, or at least have some substantially comical elements. Bringing this girl along for a manhunt she is not suited for is such a comical element. So is Rooster drinking with his cat and Chinese friend. Problem is just that Mattie is not funny, she is annoying, and her preachy manner made her tiresome very fast.

The other main element of the movie is the Western theme of hunting down outlaws. It is okay, but nothing special and although it is a long movie, this part of it is fairly short in order to set up a relationship between Rooster and Mattie. The hardship of the chase is also played down and frankly there is not much of a search. They ride into the territory, stumble upon Nep Peppers gang and shoot it out. Of course, Mattie gets in trouble, which makes things a bit complicated, but nothing they cannot handle.

I thought it would be tougher and grittier, but this is 69 and not 2019, and so this is a sanitized version of the West. I could also have managed without the comedy. For me “Western” and “comedy” does not merge very well. And finally, I could really have used a less annoying character than Mattie.

Well, I got my curiosity settled and that is that.


Saturday 26 October 2019

High School (1969)

High School
This review of Frank Wiseman’s movie “High School” is heavily influenced by the fact that I have been watching it and am writing this review from a hotel room in China. This mean that I do not have the Book at hand and that I cannot use Wikipedia (or Google for that matter) to search out information on this movie. My upload will probably have to wait till I am back in Europe.

I seem to recall from the Book that “High School” is considered a criticism of the educational system, that students are taught useless things in a dysfunctional environment.

Well, I had a hard time recognizing that. It rather seems like a fairly objective portrait of the everyday life at a regular high school with all the various thing that normally goes around at such a place. It was almost boringly normal. In small clips, each of a few minutes, we see scenes from the daily life at the school. Classes being taught, students getting advice, some getting detention, shows being staged and so on. There are no direct connections between the various vignettes, no characters carrying through, except that the principal shows up a few times. They are just scenes from the school.

None of the scenes are particularly condemning. The teachers are trying to teach. The students are what students normally are. Some has a rebellious streak, which is common enough. Some teachers are prone to droning which is also common enough. There is no cruelty on display. When a teacher states that only in the dictionary does “success” come before “work”, it is just stating the obvious in an attempt at motivating the class.

The only part I resented was the discussions with the counsellor on how much parents could afford to pay for college tuition and how that limited the options. Where I come from this is very bad style and access is based on merit and nothing else, but I understand that in the reality of this high school this is standard practice and the issue is treated matter of factly and not as an item of particular concern.

The purpose of the movie I can only see as a time capsule, documenting a high school in 1969. It is curious to watch, many things actually being much the same as they are today, and at the same time different as it is rooted in its time.

Maybe I am missing a bit of drama or something controversial. Eventually it started getting boring watching daily life play out. But then again, it is comforting to see that daily life can play out without big drama and that people are just people at any time.

Considering how unexceptional this is, I am just wondering why it is on a list of 1001 movies you have to watch before you die.


Tuesday 15 October 2019

A Touch of Zen (Hsia Nu) (1969)

Hsia nu
Next week I will be going to China on my annual trip there and it is quite fitting that this next movie on the List is a Chinese movie. Well, technically it is Taiwanese, but it is supposed to take place in China.

“Hsia Nu” or “A Touch of Zen”, as it is called in English, is a wuxia movie of epic scale. Wuxia is that very popular “sword and magic” genre of movies that most westerners associate with Hong Kong. Think “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. “Hsia Nu” is about 200 minutes long and released over a two-year period (in 70 and 71, though on the List it is listed as a 69 movie…) and clearly made with a budget to match.

In medieval times Gu Sheng-tsai (Shih Chun) earns his living by painting portraits and doing calligraphy. Clearly, he is a bookish fellow, but without much ambition, to his mother’s chagrin. This changes when a mysterious woman moves into the ruin next door. Gu is smitten, but the girl, Miss Yang (Hsu Feng) is not who she seems to be, nor are practically anybody else, and soon Gu is involved in a high stakes game against powerful members of the empirical court.

“Hsia Nu” is clearly one of the finest wuxia movies I have seen. That does not include that many examples, but of those I have seen this one stands out. What makes it special is the first hour or so. Instead of rushing into some crazy fighting, it starts out very quietly and mundane. It is quite realistic, and we get a proper introduction to the quiet life of Gu Sheng-tsai. He is as confused with the girl and the mysterious characters that begin to show up as we are and even the first fighting scenes are not at all over the top, merely a demonstration of the supreme fighting technique of Yang Hui-zhen. As the film progresses, we do of course get loads of that swordplay the wuxia genre of renown for. Whether you like this or not is a matter of taste. Personally, I find it a bit comical to have the fighters do giant jumps into a melee and, well, they do that quite a lot, but that is what wuxia is all about.

I found it fascinating how the story itself keeps developing. It takes focus to keep track of the characters, but I found the story much better developed than usual in wuxia movies. It helps that Gu is not some kind of mighty fighter but a fairly ordinary guy. That means that we, the audience, can relate to him and he becomes our presence in the movie. Unfortunately, more wants more, and me too, I was longing to learn more of Yang, General Shi and Abott Hui. There is a brief romantic scene between Gu and Yang but is so short that we know practically nothing of their relationship. Yang merely looks touch and stoic and that is almost all we learn about her. I cannot say if this is simply Chinese prudishness, but I could definitely see her opening up a bit more.

Towards the end it also seems as if the story gets sacrificed for the battle scenes or maybe it was just me getting tired. It felt like one, very long, continuous battle sequence and I lost some touch on what was going on. The problem with awesome fighters, as with superheroes, is that killing tons of henchmen eventually gets tiresome.

Still, I want to judge it by the superior first half of the movie and for that it is a definite must-see.


Monday 7 October 2019

Lucia (1969)

It is very likely “Lucia” is a good movie. It is also possible it is a terrible movie. I frankly have only a vague idea whether it might be either. In fact there is very little I can tell about the movie. Instead I can tell a lot about my efforts to actually watch it.

The Cuban movie “Lucia” is very difficult to obtain. Amazon has it for sale for 46£, which is outside my budget. Bongo, who printed the only version available on DVD, does not have it in stock. I might be able to find an American version I cannot watch on my player. The link on the 1001 movies hard-to-find list has expired. The only way I could watch this was on YouTube. Here only the second and third part of its three segments are available and these two episodes are not subtitled. Except you can make YouTube auto translate. Let me give you an example of the wonderful dialogue:

Man and woman talk to each other:

“That opens

Because you can invent things you can

Invent things from my dad things from me

When I’m more at home I

Tranca says she spends her life

Talking about boyfriends and stuff

And my dad spoke mistakes and you didn’t”

The short of it is that I got zip out of the dialogue and was left with what I could see on the pictures.

The first segment I have not seen.

The second segment in the thirties is about a woman and a man. The man is apparently a revolutionary and ends up dead. She is very sad

The third segment take place in the sixties and is about a storming relationship between a woman and a man. They fight a lot and scream at each other. They have these voices you listen to and know they have been screaming a lot.

The music is nice, which is not surprising, Cuban music is very good. There is a very nice version of “Guantanamera” in the third segment.

This is a very hard way to watch a movie and it is only because I am a completionist that I endure this. Towards the end the lack of understanding meant that even the pictures lost interest and I just could not wait for it to finish.

If I manage to obtain a proper version, I will watch it again. Until then I will just cross it off my list and move on.


Thursday 3 October 2019

My Night at Maud's (Ma Nuit Chez Maud) (1969)

Min nat hos Maud
I have heard a lot about the movies by Eric Rohmer, but seen very little of his production. Whether “My Night with Maud” (Ma nuit chez Maud) is representative of his movies I have no idea, but it has certainly made me curious.

Right off the bat I have to admit that I am fearfully unequipped to parse this movie. I therefore excuse my lack of understanding of some of the central elements of this story.

As the story go it is fairly straight forward. Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a single engineer living in Clermont, France. It is near Christmas and there is a girl he has seen that he really would like to meet. In fact, he believes he is in love with her, although he knows nothing about her.

Before he gets as far as to meet her he encounters an old friend, Vidal (Antoine Vitez), who invites him to spend an evening with a friend of his, a divorced doctor called Maud (Francoise Fabian). This turns out to be a long evening with lots of talking and because of the weather Jean-Louis spends the night there.

The next day he approaches the girl, Francoise (Marie-Christine Barrault), a 22 year old biology student, and drives her home and spends the night there. Five years later they are married with a child.

This all sound a bit drab. The interesting part is what happened that night at Maud’s. The three of them ends up discussing Pascal, particularly an item known as “Pascal’s Wager”. Now, this is where I got out of my depth and I had to look this up. Pascal as I recall was a brilliant scientist and the unit for pressure is named after him. What I did not know was that he also made the foundations for probability theory and differential equations. He built a mechanical calculator and, which is central to the movie, wrote a major work on theology. Not, as you might think, a positivistic, scientific treatise, but a highly mystical one. I understand that the intention of his work was to bring the reader to despair and confusion in order to embrace God. Pascal’s Wager goes something like that you have to gamble whether or not you believe in God. Even if the probability of God’s existence is small, the reward is infinite, so you have no choice but to choose God.

Jean-Louis is a Catholic while Vidal and Maud are not. The discussion seems to be a challenge to him on his faith and this is where I am insufficiently schooled in religious matters to follow this discussion on Pascal.

What I do understand is that Maud is an infinitely more interesting woman than Francoise, that Jean-Louis gets a unique chance to get a relationship with this clever and beautiful woman, but refuse her in favor of an unknown woman barely out of her teens on the grounds that Maud is not Catholic.

Is this the central point of the movie then? That Jean-Louis choose the girl he knows nothing about because of the promise of infinite joy in a religious life? Or is it the other way around, that Jean-Louis misses the true challenge, to be in the big, unknown relationship with a woman who will challenge him all the way and instead chooses the simple and easy solution where his life and thinking goes unchallenged? Or is the purpose of the night with Maud, like that of Pascal, to confuse and despair Jean-Louis in order to enable him to embrace love with Francoise?

There is a lot to think about here, and I think I will go a long time contemplating this movie.

I would love to hear from somebody better schooled in Pascal, Jansenism and religious discussions how to interpret this movie.

Definitely a rewarding movie, but one that requires attention and patience. Certainly, one to make me curious about Rohmers other movies.

Incidentally Blaise Pascal was born in Clermont. So was Audrey Tautou.

Tuesday 1 October 2019

Ad Astra (2019)

Ad Astra
I am taking a short break from the List to post a short article (because I will not call it a review) on Ad Astra. For the past week I have been back in the Middle East on vacation and my wife and I exploited this to have a night out at the cinema. This happens all too rarely, and it is fun to go watch something not for small boys. I had my eyes set on Ad Astra because I am really into sci-fi, but just because something looks good…

Well, rather than writing a review I will ask a few questions.

1.       What exactly is the Lima project doing around Neptune if they are supposed to be at the heliosphere?

2.       Why was the Lima project equipped with antimatter? I mean, what are they using it for?

3.       Why is the antimatter sending bursts of radiation towards the inner solar system?

4.       Why does the antimatter issue not appear, even as a topic of conversation when Roy gets to meet his father at the Lima project?

5.       Why did Clifford kill everybody else? To take pictures of other planets?

6.       How did a man who can kill an entire crew to take pictures of stars get to be in charge of a long duration mission?

7.       How long can you narrate on a missing father? And why does it have to sound like something out of Blade Runner

8.       What exactly is the function of constantly getting a phycological evaluation? If this is to avoid another Clifford McBride, why is Roy taking four or five of those before they even suspect Clifford killed the crew?

On the technical side:

9.       If humanity has built a tower into space (presumably a space elevator) why do they have to fly into space in an old-school rocket? Would it not be natural to use the elevator or at least a space plane?

10.   If the transport to the moon is with a rocket carrying 5-7 passengers, why do they arrive at what looks like a busy airport terminal? It would take quite a few of those rockets to keep that terminal busy.

11.   What is the function in the movie of having a war zone between two moon terminals?

12.   Why do you have to ride in an Apollo era moon buggy to get between the two terminals? Even 2001: A space Odyssey used a shuttle to get around.

13.   Why not send the spaceship to Mars from the same terminal as is used for traffic to Earth rather than sending people out on a perilous ride?

14.   Why do you have to use a rocket shaped space craft to fly to Mars? The moon has no atmosphere.

15.   On the other hand, why are the Norwegians flying to Mars in something that looks like the ISS space station?


17.   What is floating water doing on the surface of Mars?

18.   How can you climb up the inside of a rocket engine during ignition?

19.   How can you get from Mars to Neptune in 79 days with regular reaction engines? Most spacecrafts spend at least a decade on that journey.

20.   Neptune is a fairly big planet. How can a simple radar sling you across the planet?


21.   Why is it I felt somewhat deflated leaving the cinema?