Thursday 27 June 2019

Once Upon a Time in the West (C'era una Volta il West) (1968)

Vestens hårde halse
When discussing the best opening of a movie there is no avoiding “Once Upon a Time in the West”. If you do not remember anything else from the movie you will always remember that. At least that is how it was for me. For years that was the only part that really stuck with me, though a few years ago I got that remedied and now my mental picture is a lot more detailed.

Anyway, the opening is a five-minute-long sequence of three men waiting on a station in the American Southwest, sweaty and dusty and very menacing looking. A fly is buzzing around a face, water drips on to a hat and in the silence every sound is exaggerated. The windmill, the telegraph, the fly. Then the train arrive. Apparently, nobody gets out, but the behind the train a lone guy appears with a haunting harmonica. Soon after three dead men. Only then does the music starts and the movie is on.

Sergio Leone refined his techniques through the “Dollars” trilogy and in “Once Upon a Time in the West” it reaches its zenith. Long, drawn out scenes, loaded with tension, extreme close ups, and sweeping vistas. Little dialogue, but pictures that tells more than many words and a story that both taps into the heart and soul of westerns and yet approach with a very different sentiment. All that is “Once Upon a Time in the West”.

The story is not that complicated. The railroad is arriving to this particular part of the Southwest. Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) is preparing for it by building a station, but the railroad tycoon, Mr Morton (Gabrielle Ferzetti) does not want to share the profits and has his little gang to remove obstacles, led by Frank (Henry Fonda). Disguised as a local outlaw gang in long dusters they massacre McBain and his three children on the very day he was to receive his new bride. When she, Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), arrives all are gone and she is pretty much alone with a house in the middle of nowhere and an awful lot of timber and enemies she is not yet aware of.

A guy called Harmonica (Charles Bronson) has also arrived looking for Frank and the local outlaw Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is mightily offended that somebody is doing stuff in his name… and not a little taken by the young widow.

Everything comes to a head of course with many deaths all round, all wanting a share of the fortune.

This is a great movie with a lot of things going for it, not least the four leads where especially Henry Fonda shines as one of his career’s few bad guys. The music, written before filming the movie, is exquisite, Morricone at his best, and the sets are more lavish than ever before in Sergio Leones production.

Yet, this is not a perfect movie, not like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. It is as if Leone is going a bit too far on his style. The scenes are drawn out a little too much, things are a bit too mysterious due to lack of dialogue and the patos threatens to tumble the entire structure. Personally, I felt there was too much happening off camera as if large chunks had been cut out of the movie, yet it was the longer, European edition, I was watching. Turns out it was a suspense trick where the gaps would be filled later, but not all of them and there are still things I have to guess at and in the meantime I have been rather confused. An example is Cheyenne being taken away to a maximum security prison, only to show up a few scenes later under a train.

The balance is a bit off in “Once Upon a Time in the West”, not enough to ruin it, but enough to annoy and that is a shame. Apparently, the American audience upon release was very annoyed, one reviewer calling it “Tedium in the Tumbleweed”, and it tanked. It takes patience to watch it, but then the reward is also great for as slow as the scenes are, they are also packed with detail and cinematic beauty and it has so many legendary moments.

Despite its flaws I would not hesitate to recommend it.

Wednesday 19 June 2019

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Abernes planet
I have an embarrassing confession to make: I never watched “Planet of the Apes” before now.

I love good science fiction and I have known about the franchise since forever, but I always missed out on it. Since I started this project, I knew it would come up eventually so I have had it standing unopened on the shelf for the past… uh, five years or so.

Now is finally the time and I have watched the famous “Planet of the Apes”. And, yeah, it was good, but…

Okay, let me start with the good stuff. Production value is very high, and it is great to finally enter the period where Hollywood began to pour money into science fiction rather than making them on a shoestring budget. This production bears all the marks of big Hollywood: Beautiful cinematography, neat special effects, the elaborate and not too artificially looking set design and not least the ape costumes. The set designs deserve some special attention. In the sixties there was a tendency to make cheap, artificial looking TV sets. Take the villains lair of the typical James Bond movie of the era. Here, on “Planet of the Apes”, they went out of their way to make the ape community look real. There is still a little way to go, but they are thinking it right, creating a combination of the familiar and the alien in culture, artifacts and dwellings.

I also like when science fiction goes with an idea and explores it without merely using the genre as an excuse for extravagant action. Here of course it is the inversion of the human-animal relationship that lets us study ourselves from the outside. The apes are adapting many human traits including those they despise in humans. Something that is directly applicable to many, if not most revolutionary governments. You become the very thing you fought. Then of course we have Taylor (Charlton Heston), the sole surviving astronaut, who is our eyes dumping into this world, bring along our sentiments. It is an exciting soup and generally they made it work.

The “but” comes from a very important concept in science fiction, that of internal consistency. For us to fully believe in the story there must be a consist logic that may be different from the real world, but must obey its own laws and here is my problem. The most glaring is that of language. The apes speak English, and not just for the viewers, like Russians speaking English in “Chernobyl”, but Taylor understands them, and they understand Taylor. He does not have to learn their language. And not just that, they also write using the same letters and language. Now, given that the (SPOILER!) ape civilization sprung up on the back of human civilization on Earth, it can be explained, but would Taylor not notice this right away? Would he not find it peculiar that on this strange planet people spoke and wrote English? And how did evolution create a complete copy of humans there? While we are at it, would not animal-like humans go around naked? These humans are described as something akin to monkeys in our world and they would never try to cover themselves. Even “modern” primitive human tribes in remote area hardly cover themselves and usually not the breast. Not that I am requesting a nudity show here, but would astronaut Taylor not find it a bit peculiar? And how can the apes see “animals” that dress themselves as bestial?

These inconsistencies are annoying because the rest is as good as it is. I even like Charlton Heston in this role where his natural arrogance helps it along and the ending of course is spectacular. I think everybody knows how it ends, so I had that twist ruined, but then you could say that there were so many hints that really Taylor should have figured out early on that he was on Earth.

I do recommend “Planet of the Apes”, it is a milestone movie, and I honestly do not know how those 112 minutes passed so fast.

Monday 17 June 2019

The Cow (Gaav) (1968)

The first film of 1968 is “Gaav” or “The Cow”, an Iranian movie.

It takes place in an Iranian village where only a single farmer has a cow. This cow is doted on by the owner, Hassan, who talks to it, baths it and plays with it as if it had been his own baby. Hassan is also much admired in the village because he has a cow.

One night while Hassan has been away from the village the cow dies. The villagers know this will break Hassan’s heart so they decide to hide it from him, but he still takes it very badly and goes crazy, believing he is himself the cow. There is no stirring him from this delusion and so in the end they take him to the city.

That is about it.

Well, there are some subplots. Hassan’s son is a young guy that has been living in the city and has difficulty adapting, but he is finding a nice girl to get married to. Also, there are some mysterious Bolouri who want to steal things, but their role is very much unexplained, so I cannot even guess what they are. I suspect they represent some obscure outside agent causing the misery in the village, like a bad spirit.

I do feel sorry for Hassan, but that is also all I really get from this movie.

The village looks poor and the inhabitants rather bored. Not the most exciting place in the world. Except for a few women cooking I do not think I saw a single person actually working. Mostly they are asking what is going on and asking the village chief, Eslam, what to do.

It won a number of awards and was a favorite of Ayatollah Khomeini. Not really certain why.

I find it difficult to say very much about this movie. I like cows, but I guess not that much.



Thursday 6 June 2019

Closely Watched Trains (Ostre Sledovan Vlaky) (1967)

Skarpt bevogtede tog
1967 is maybe the largest year on the List in terms of volume, but with “Closely Watched Trains” (“Ostře sledované vlaky) I am now done with it. Some of this volume was due to filler, but there was also plenty of quality stuff in 1967. Although slightly underwhelmed (it did with the Best Foreign Language Oscar for 1967) I am inclined to place “Closely Watched Trains” in the latter group.

It is an odd film, unlike most other movies. Nothing big happens through most of the movie, but plenty of small things that does not seem to have that much to do with each other and yet meshes together to paint a larger picture. Throughout the whole thing there is an understated humor, that is often not that apparent, but if you are attentive you will pick up a lot of deadpan stuff.

The introduction sets a high standard in that respect. Milos (Václav Neckář) tells about his great grand father who got wounded in battle and lived off his pension gloating on those actually working until they beat him to death. His grandfather was a hypnotist who tried to stop the German invasion by hypnotizing the tank drivers, which worked for 30 seconds until they ran him over, and his father is a pensioned train driver who does nothing all day. Loved that! Now Milos got a job as assistant railway dispatcher, a job that requires… almost nothing.

In this non-job Milos watches the war passing by while he is mostly concerned with losing his virginity. There is a sweet train conductor he likes and she likes him, but it is not really working. If you ever watched “American Pie” you know the score, except here it is a lot more understated. Milos colleague, Hubicka (Josef Somr) also thinks only about girls but with more proficiency. In fact, he does have a ridiculous amount of fun.

Everything is a little bit absurd, but in a serious and real enough context and that is what makes the movie work. Hearing the Nazi collaborator Zednicek (Vlastimil Brodský) talk about the victorious German armies making strategic withdrawals is that sort of deadpan, absurd statements the movie is full of. When the station inspector greets Milos on his first day he tells him his father was a great train driver and in the same sentence that we once threw a stoker off the train. Think about that. That is a really odd thing to say.

“Closely Watched Trains” never becomes hilarious. There is a bitter-sweetness to it that keeps it grounded. I am not sure if that is what makes it actually work or if that is what is preventing me from falling in love with it. Ultimately it is a very sad movie on many levels. Human foolishness on every scale, from Milos silly worries, over the kangaroo trial against Hubicka for stamping a girl’s buttocks to the craziness of the war. Humor is the medicine, but it is a desperate medicine and it does not really work. Everybody is sinking.

I am pretty sure it is one of those movies you must watch a few times to appreciate it. Already thinking about it I see it in a better light than while I watched it. It is just that it feels a bit… dead. Nothing is really going anywhere and that I suppose makes me impatient. If instead I think of the scenes individually it goes a lot better.

There is a very awkward scene where Milos is looking for an older woman who can teach him about sex, so he turns to the station master’s elderly wife and mumbles something about helping him. It is a bit funny, but when you start noticing what the woman is doing to the duck while Milos is mumbling it get quite outrageous. Understated and deadpan.

This will probably grow on me so I am leaving the door open for “Closely Watched Trains”. The best movies are those that leave you thinking about them afterwards.


Sunday 2 June 2019

Vij (Viy) (1967)

Before there was “Evil Dead – Army of Darkness” there was “Viy”.
I went into “Viy” completely blank. I had not even read the synopsis in the Book, so I had no idea what I was going into. Imagine my surprise when I realized this was a horror comedy in a similar vein as the “Evil Dead” movies, but Russian style.
We are in Russia, some time in the past. Three students at the priest college are on their way home from the seminary for break when they get lost in the night. They seek shelter at a farmstead whose sole inhabitant seems to be an old hag. She insists that the young men sleep separately and in the night,  she wants some cozy time with one of them, Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov). He protests, but to no avail and soon she is sitting on his shoulders, using him as a flying horse. Yup, that is quite a sight!
Khoma is not too fond of this usage and as soon as he can get away with it, he beats up the old hag, who immediately turns into a pretty, young woman. Khoma flees.
Later, at the seminary, Khoma is called to visit a remote manor to pray for a young woman who is dying from a beating (!?). The girl has specifically named Khoma. Khoma is not excited to say the least, but he is left with no choice. The manor, or large farmstead really, seems to be functioning normally and Khoma is sent in to pray for the girl, who has now died, in the little church. This is a gloomy church and as soon as he starts praying the girl comes alive as some sort of ghoul and only his protective circle keeps her at bay. The second night is even worse, now she is flying in her coffin, and Khoma, understanding that this cannot end well only wants to escape. Unfortunately, there is no escape so instead he fortifies himself with a lot of vodka and goes for a third session.
Third night is the real nightmare. This time skeletons, zombies, ghouls and what-not come creeping out of the walls, including some monstrous creature called Viy. Will Khoma make it?
There are several things to note here. First of all, this movie plays for both horror and comedy. Khoma is a total antihero. He is a bit of a coward, looks and sounds a bit goofy and is not smart enough to get out of his trouble. They call him “Philosopher”, but he is as totally down to Earth as the farmers. This makes him a very unlikely hero and therefore funny.
The horror part comes from some very impressive stop motion animation that given its age and origin took me by surprise. Even by todays standard the monsters are decently effective, and the ending is not exactly what you may have expected. There is also an unexplained element concerning the manor and the people there. What is really happening and what do they know? We are never told and while this is at first a bit annoying, in retrospect I think it adds a dimension of mystery to the story.
Then of course, this is a Russian movie. This means that in some ways it looks amateurish compared to Hollywood counterparts (though at this time, horror movies in the West was also low-budget B affairs) and the humor is, well, Russian. Humor translates poorly, but even I got enough of it that I found it funny. I am quite certain that the copious amounts of vodka being drunk would be something a Russian audience would relate to and how vodka will give you enough stupid bravery to undertake ridiculously dangerous tasks.
I was pleasantly surprised by this movie, mostly, I think, because I did not expect anything from it. It is fun and entertaining and does not pretend to be more than it is and that is good enough for me.