Thursday 31 December 2020

Happy New Year 2021


Happy New Year 2021!

To say 2020 was the worst year ever is historical ignorance, but I cannot personally remember a year that felt as crap the one that is now ending. I am certain I do not need to expand on the reasons why, that must be obvious to anyone alive on planet Earth.

As we are about to start a new year, we are going through a second lockdown in Denmark. We may have done decently early on, but now it is going pretty bad and the only consolation is that we have finally started on the vaccination program. Let us just say we are starting the year on a low.

Thankfully, here at home we are okay and so is my closest family so there is that. There has been Corona positives in the larger family, but nobody got very sick (fingers crossed).

On my movie blog it was par for the course. I reviewed 59 movies in 2020. Of these 49 were List movies and 10 were off-List movies. Clearly, going off-List is getting a life of its own and I have to consider if I need to change the format on that, but that will be for another time. The 49 List movies took me from 1969 to 1972. Not a long period at all, 1971 was a killer year with the largest number of movies yet for a single year. It was as usual a mixed bag of candy, but enough great movies and small surprises to keep it interesting.

What really took off in 2020 was my book blog. Not that anybody actually reads it, but I was far more active there than I have been in previous years. The count ended on 14 books, which is almost 3 times more than my target. Lockdown provides for a lot of time to read. This took me from Tom Jones (1749) to Humphry Clinker (1771), about 22 year, mostly covering a golden period in British literature in the mid-eighteenth century. The quality was more varied that I am used to with Rousseau and Sterne marking low points, but also with great stuff from Smollett, Fielding and Lennox. I may not be able to keep up this pace for long, but it is a consolation during lockdown.

I wish all my readers a happy New Year, hope sincerely that you will stay safe and that there is good stuff out there on the other side.


Wednesday 23 December 2020

Deliverance (1972)


Udflugt med døden

A bunch of guys go on a survival trip that does not exactly pan out as expected. Does that sound familiar?

I do not know how many versions of this tale I have watched over the years, but they all have gotten blurred together. Some are good, some a wacky, even crazy and some are very disturbing. I seem to recall watching something with Kevin Bacon some time ago… Anyway, the mother of these adventure gone wrong movies is “Deliverance” by John Boorman.

Four city-dwellers from Atlanta heads into the backcountry to ride down a wilderness river before it will be drowned by a dam. These four guys want to do this in two canoes, but are clearly very unfamiliar with the river and population of the region around the river.

Lewis (Burt Reynolds) is the survivalist enthusiast who came up with this idea. He is on his own little Rambo trip and clearly gets a kick out of this. The other three are Ed (Jon Voight), Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox). They are merely passengers on this stunt, sceptic, but playing along.

In typical arrogant city-dweller style, they treat the local hillbillies with (a perhaps deserved) contempt and completely underestimate the rapids of the river. Soon both will (literally) screw them over and getting out of this alive is all they can hope for. Unscathed they are not.

On the positive side, there is some pretty amazing photography here. The river is dramatic and the ride down the rapids is exactly as exhilarating and wild as you could hope for. In fact, that river is pretty insane and the idea that this natural marvel should be swallowed by a dam in nothing short of criminal. As a critique of environmental sabotage, it works. As a comment on human folly in challenging nature it also scores points. The arrogance of these people evaporates completely as they realize their own inadequacy.   

What works less well is the guilt trip. It was a super bad idea to go on this canoe ride with no respect for the terrain and I understand that there is a collective guilt over what happens to Drew. Yet, the movie spends a lot of energy on remorse and guilt over what happens to the hillbillies. I will not spoil the movie with too many details, just say that given the situation they were put in by the hillbillies there was little else they could do. According to Hollywood morality it would be almost a crime not to do what they did with them. Yet, for half the movie these guys are consumed with guilt to the exclusion of all else, not for going on the river in the first place, not blaming Lewis for setting this up or for Drew and his family, but for what happened to the hillbillies.

One thing is that it is difficult to work out, another is that it totally eats the last third of the movie. When they finally get out of the water, I expected the movie to end and that was it, but instead we get a very protracted Lord of the Rings size ending focusing singularly on this guilt trip.

My experience with this movie was therefore a mixed one. There were great parts but what happened on the river, the actual drama, fills relatively little compared to their dealing with the trauma and to me it simply veers off in a strange direction.

Also, it must deduct that the production company wanted to cut cost and have the actors do their own stunts. That is pretty irresponsible.

It is a moderate recommendation from me.


Thursday 17 December 2020

The New Land (Nybyggarna) 1972



“The New Land” (“Nybyggarna”) follows on the heels of “The Emigrants” (“Utvandrarna”) and combines to make my second Off-list entry of 1972. At a combined six hour running time, this is quite a mouthful but despite the slow pace, absolutely worth it. I think I mentioned that when I reviewed the first part…

Where “The Emigrants” had a clear and obvious story arc, which was that of a journey: Starting out, the voyage and arriving, “The New Land” is more like a string of minor (and some rather major) events in a “what happened afterwards” sequence. This was how the books were written and there is an obvious desire here to follow the books as closely as possible. That is an admirable sentiment, but also a trap because converted to a movie all these events appear abbreviated and tableaux-like. The movie loses its dynamic drive and becomes more of a dutiful summary of events than something that can engage the viewer.

For this reason, “The New Land” is clearly the weaker of the two movies.

Karl-Oskar (Max von Sydow) and Kristina (Liv Ullmann) has arrived in Minnesota with their family and friends and now begins the hard life as pioneering settlers on the frontier. It is a do-or-die phase and while Karl Oskar persevere through hard work and a frugal lifestyle, some of his fellows do not. This is literally survival of the fittest and in this respect, Karl Oskar got a very appropriate schooling with him from farming in Småland. It is harder for Kristina. She suffers badly from homesickness and hangs on tightly to her roots. Still in the larger picture, she is also a survivor.

Robert (Eddie Axberg), Karl Oskar’s brother is less fortunate. He keeps dreaming of that windfall he is certain to find in America and now he imagines it is waiting for him in California. He convinces the simple Arvid (Pierre Lindstedt) to go with him, but the voyage is anything but easy. To pay for their way they have to take the lousiest and dirtiest jobs and as opposed to Karl Oskar, Robert is hopelessly unequipped for his challenges. Robert watches his friend die and his hopes come to nothing. Even when he thinks he has made something out of himself it turns out to be worthless.

While the story of Karl Oskar and Kristina is comforting and optimistic as they slowly build a solid life for themselves, their problems often seem trivial. To be able to pay to receive a letter, new neighbors who insist on religious zeal and which outbuilding to build next. In a personal life these are all major items, but outside the comfort for us outsiders there is hardly enough to drive the story. The story of Robert, as tragic as it is, holds a lot more drama and crisis and is the most interesting part of the story. In a Hollywood version all his hardships would find some sort of reward at the end, but this is not that kind of story. Here Robert’s story is merely a counterpoint to Karl Oskar’s and in reality, the solid farmer does better than the flaky dreamer.

The main reason why I enjoyed “The New Land” despite these issues, is the almost ethnographic precision there is to this tale. There is a documentary element that insists on telling the tale of these settlers as honest and truthful as possible so for a history buff like me this is a treasure throve. It is interesting to see this community gradually becoming American, in language and sentiment, and how the region is changing from frontier to settled over a few decades.

And then of course we invest so much in Karl Oscar and Kristina that it is interesting simply to follow their lives.

Based on the summary on Wikipedia I suspect that my version was cut short in the end. We learn very little about what happens to Karl Oskar and Kristina’s children and while I understand that the movie was already long and drawing to a close, I would have preferred this to the dreadful scene of the dead baby.

“The New Land” is the lesser half of the two, but necessary to complete the story and therefore must be recommended.   

Tuesday 8 December 2020

Sleuth (1972)



One of the big names from the classic era of Hollywood was Joseph L.Mankiewicz. As screenwriter, producer and director he was involved in an insane number of movies including such celebrated movies “The Philadelphia Story”, “All about Eve”, “Guys and Dolls” and “The Sound of Music”. Right now there is a movie, “Mank” of Netflix about his brother Herman Mankiewicz who wrote "Citizen Kane".

His last movie was “Sleuth” and it is sort of fitting that it features both the glorious past (Laurence Olivier) and the future (Michael Caine) in a game of outwitting each other.

“Sleuth” is practically filmed theater. We only ever see two characters, Andrew Wyke (Olivier), the upper-class writer of clever detective stories, and Milo Tindle (Caine), the working-class hairdresser, and almost the entire movie takes place inside Wyke’s old mansion with the two men dueling.

Tindle has been invited by Wyke to his mansion. Tindle is seeing Wyke’s wife, Margueritte, and Wyke is seeing another girl, Tea, and now Wyke has a proposition to make Tindle. Rob his jewelry, sell it to a fence and Wyke can get the insurance money and all are happy. Sounds… reasonable enough, we are talking 250.000£, but Wyke is so obsessed with games and plots that he ends up having Tindle dressed up as a clown in the most ludicrous burglary attempt ever. At this point I was finding this charade both boring and confusing, where on earth was this going?

Then Wyke draws a gun and it turns out that this was all a plot to get Tindle into a situation where Wyke could shoot him. Apparently, sleeping with his wife is not something he takes so lightly after all. This made me sit up in my seat, I did not see that coming (sorry for spoiling the movie), and suddenly the movie turned a lot more interesting.

Having killed Tindle, Wyke is enjoying himself until a police detective, apparently straight out of Wyke’s detective stories, shows up and makes inquires about the missing Tindle. Wyke denies everything, but inspector Doppler is incredibly sharp and have soon Wyke cornered. Only, Doppler is actually Tindle in disguise. 1 -1.

The third game is also Tindle’s . He claims to have killed Tea, Wyke’s girlfriend, and framed Wyke for it. Wyke is now caught in the same sort of games he was playing on Tindle.

This is an extensive game of one-upmanship, but with a very bloody slant. The games get meaner and meaner and it is all about humiliating the counterpart.

Had this been lesser actors or a less skillful director, this could easily have become dull and dumb. There are plenty of movies out there with doucebags running scams on each other and they are not always good. But this is Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine in top shape and they manage to keep the steam up over the two and a half hours of running time. Especially Olivier is amazing, and it is very clear that as a stage actor he feels entirely at home in this sort of wordy, filmed theater. Caine is not bad either, though it takes some time before he rolls out his guns and are able to play up to Olivier.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz ended on a high. “Sleuth” made four Academy nomination, including best actor nomination to both Olivier and Caine, but in a strong year fell short of winning any. That is still pretty well done for filmed theater.

A recommendation from me. It has to be.


Wednesday 2 December 2020

High Plains Drifter (1972)


En fremmed uden navn

The early seventies was a period where conventions were turned upside down, for better or worse, and in movies the classic Western genre was no exception. Clint Eastwood, the face of the Sergio Leone western, went back to his man-with-no-name character in his second movie as director, but he did something decidedly different with it.

A stranger (Clint Eastwood) rides into a seemingly peaceful village called Lago. Them folks don’t like strangers and he is almost immediately accosted by some ruffians. When they try to rough him up, he kills them. Just like that. A young woman tries to catch his attention, then turn bitchy on him and he takes her to a barn and rapes her. He stays overnight in a hotel and dreams of the former marshal being whipped to dead while the townspeople stand passive by. Then, the day after the townspeople want to hire the stranger to protect them against three banditos, expected to arrive shortly to exact a revenge for being arrested in the town. The three banditos are those who whipped the marshal to death. The townspeople are so desperate they offer the stranger completely free hands, anything he wants.

This is where things get weird. Up to this point this looks like another version of High Noon or Seven Samurai, but The Stranger’s preparations are decidedly odd. A midget is setup as sheriff and mayor. Stuff are given away to Indians and Mexicans. A barn is taken down. The saloon is being ripped of drink and so on. Yeah, they do some practice shooting, but the townspeople really are no good. The Stranger wants them to prepare a fiesta, a “Welcome Home Boys” banner and paint the town read, while renaming the town “Hell”. By now the townspeople are getting royally sick of him and wonder if it is really worth it, but the Stranger seems to have an eye on each finger and stops any attempt to get at him. Also, it is becoming clear to us that they had more than a finger in that murder on the Marshal. What happens then when the baddies show up? Who are the real bad guys? And who is this Stranger?

There is a strong element of the surreal here, especially around the stranger’s identity. It is as if the dead marshal has come back to exact his revenge on the town, to shown them how pathetic and cowardly they are and how they are all complicit in the crime. The guilty town is emphasized by the strange fact that there is not a single child around (except for two Indian children), children being by definition innocent. Is the stranger the town’s guilty consciousness tearing it apart, personified in the judging stranger?

The morale is clear enough: passivity is complicity. If have the capacity to prevent a crime , it is criminal not to stop it. A message very fitting for a very activistic era.

Politics aside this is also a very engaging movie to watch. Drama and violence is lurking under the surface constantly and Clint Eastwood is superb in his typecast role of quiet avenger. This is Clint Eastwood exactly like we expect him to be. As violent as it is, this is also a movie I very much enjoyed watching. Guilty pleasure, I suppose, but this really is a different western.

A recommendation for fans of Clint Eastwood and those who like a bit of Bunuel in their movies.


Thursday 26 November 2020

The Emigrants (Utvandrarna) (1971)



The second off-List movie of 1972 is actually a double feature. I know I am supposed to be done with 1971, but since I want to watch “The New Land” for 1972, I have to start with “The Emigrants” (“Utvandrarna”) from 1971. No harms done, though. This is a great movie.

I spent a lot of time in the eighties reading through my father’s library. It was a fairly random collection of books, but I was not particularly critical and ended up reading most of it. This included a vast epic by Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg about a group of Swedish peasants in the mid-nineteenth century who, driven by poverty and misfortune, left their ancestral Småland to cross the ocean to begin a new life in Minnesota. It made a big impression on me back then, especially the first volumes, but somehow I completely missed the 71-72 miniseries.

The first installment, “Utvandrarna” covers the first two books. We meet Karl Oskar (Max von Sydow) and his wife Kristina (Liv Ullmann), trying to make their farm work. But this is Småland, the soil is poor and rocky and the outcome uncertain. When things are good they can barely make ends meet and when misfortune strike… well, their hole is getting deeper and deeper and finally even Kristina sees no other way than leaving. We also meet Karl Oskars brother Robert (Eddie Axberg). Robert is a dreamer, wishing for a different life than that of being a farm hand, a job he is completely unsuited for. His desire to move away is also strongly motivated by the sadistic farmer he is indentured to. Finally, we meet Danjel (Allan Edwall), Kristina’s uncle, a puritan preacher whose religious activities makes him an enemy of the local clergy. Danjel brings his flock with him to America, certain that their faith will protect them from all danger.

For these peasants everything about this journey is new and terrifying. The boat ride is like a purgatory with illness and death in the crammed and unhealthy quarters below deck. Danjel is losing his wife and later his infant daughter and their faith is not enough to protect the flock from seasickness. It is an exercise in humility for that once confident and proud man.

Arriving in Minnesota there may not be much there but potential, and it is with this promise this first half of the story ends.

This is epic, Swedish style. That means very slow and very moody, but this is also a story that begs to be told in this manner. The camera likes to dwell on the scenes, and we get very close to the characters. This makes us feel their misfortunes so much the harder, but it is also at times difficult not to be a bit impatient with the movie. I could easily see many modern viewers get bored by it. It is also a very impressive recreation of the 1840’ies. Everything, cloth, food, houses, mannerisms are very faithful to the era and it always pleases me when even the small details are right. Therefore it was also a bit disappointing to learn that it was all filmed in Sweden, which of course explains why Minnesota looks this much like a Swedish forest… Then again, maybe it does, never been there.

A thought that kept coming back to me through the three hour running time was how much this story resembles that of the migrants today, leaving miserable lives in Africa or the Middle East to find a new life in Europe. The boat ride could be the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean in an excuse for a boat, and the mismatch between the dream of the destination and the harsh reality that meet them on arrival is also comparable. The major difference I suppose is that America was considered an open land that had use for the new arrivals. Not quite so for a goatherder from Somalia.

About a million Swedes left for America and even though “only” 300.000 Danes went that way everybody has some distant relative in America. My grandfather’s brother left in the beginning of the last century for Canada and I remember meeting his grand children back in my youth, thinking it was magic I had family so far away.

“Utvandrarna” brought back the memories of reading the books. This is a very faithful adaption, and it is just as fascinating as I remember the story. It is quiet drama, but life and death drama nonetheless. A big recommendation from me. Soon I will watch the second part…


Friday 20 November 2020

Last Tango in Paris (Ultimo Tango a Parigi) (1972)


Sidste tango i Paris

I recall watching “Last Tango in Paris” many years ago and that at the time I thought it sucked. Over the years the details have faded to the point where I mostly remembered something about Marlon Brando being an ass and a lot of sex. Obviously, I was not really looking forward to go through this again.

When you start this low it is difficult not to be positively surprised. “Last Tango in Paris” is not as bad as that, but I cannot say I was impressed either.

Paul (Marlon Brando) and Jeanne (Maria Schneider) happen to visit the same vacant apartment at the same time and somehow start a sexual relationship. I am still a bit baffled how that actually happened, but the point is that Paul insists they know nothing about each other. There is only sex between them. Pure, objectified sex. She is a (very) pretty young girl and he is a brutish middle aged man who takes her when he wants her.

This apparently was a sexual fantasy of director Bertolucci, and it tastes like such a fantasy. Maria Schneider is delicious, but I wonder who would think the same about the abusive Paul character, even played by Marlon Brando? Obviously, I am lacking some insight here, but my failure to understand this attraction is a real problem when trying to get into the story. The idea is that as long as Jeanne and Paul’s relationship is pure objectification and sexual gratification, it is great and gives them something, but when that illusion breaks and they get to know the person underneath, the relationship is less attractive.

And that is essentially the story.

There are two substories. Jeanne is engaged to Jean-Pierre, an aspiring movie director, and that is also a strange relationship. He is obsessed with making a cinema verité movie with Jeanne and is constantly followed by a film crew. Yet it is his own film he is interested in, not really her. Another objectification.

The other story is about Paul. His wife has committed suicide for unknown reasons. They were running a hotel together and she was having an affair with one of the guests and was apparently open about it. Paul and the other guy even wear the same bathrobe. This story may explain why Paul is a bit unhinged, but little else. I even cannot work out if it is a parallel story or watched in flashback.

I did not remember those subplots and they made me hope that I had underestimated the movie, that there were some deeper layers worth exploring, but tying them up it did not lead much further than that Paul was a miserable character and not that attractive. Not the deepest analysis, I know, but all I really saw was that a sexual fantasy only works as long as it is a sexual fantasy. Reality is far too bland and depressing and ruins the fun. And apparently sexual fantasy includes being raped in the butt by a middle-aged man.

Maybe the premier claim to fame is the explicit sex element. There is a lot of skin at display and it is also obvious that the sexual element is central to the story. I cannot complain of what we see of Maria Schneider, she is a very pretty girl, but if this was supposed to be exciting (and I got a feeling this was the intension) it is failing badly. Maybe I have just grown too old, to me it just looked sad and pathetic. Also, rape is not really my thing.

Maybe “Last Tango is Paris” is not as bad as I expected, but it did by no means win me over. Its mix of sex and existential crisis is often a winning formula or a poor excuse to make pornography, but I was really hoping for something more. Sorry, not a recommendation from me.

Friday 13 November 2020

Cabaret (1972)



Back in high school our school was once visited by a theater ensemble, doing songs from “Cabaret”. That particular day our class was sitting on the front row and when the painted host sings the famous “Wilkommen” song he picks my lap to sit on. I do not think I will ever forget that song.

“Cabaret” was one of the big movies in 1972. It won eight Oscars including Best Director (Bob Fosse), Best Actress (Liza Minelli) and best Supporting Actor (Joel Grey). In a decade with very few musicals, the Academy certainly embraced this one.

“Cabaret” certainly does a lot of things right. Rather than the typical filmed theater with dancing cowboys or people spontaneously breaking into song, the music is focused on shows at the decadent Kit Kat Club and these intermezzos are neither filler nor focus but a counterpoint to the action off the stage. This is, at least nominally, my kind of musical.

This is Berlin in the very early thirties. It is before the Nazis took power, but there is an evil foreboding that something bad is going to happen. Partly from the omnipresent Nazi hoodlums and partly from the abandon with which the clientele at the Kit Kat Club embrace the decadence. The Master of Ceremonies at the club (the demonically painted Joel Grey) is the devil, preparing hell while serving bliss.

On this dramatic backdrop we a served an almost boring story of Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli) and Brian Robert (Michael York), two foreigners trying to get along in this Berlin before the storm. American Sally is this manic pixie character with a dream of being a famous actor (think Louise Brooks, famous at that time in Germany for Pandora’s Box), yet stuck with a job as singer at the Kit Kat Club. Brian is the new arrival, a British aspiring writer who teaches English and is (almost openly) gay. Their story is mostly of them being friends, both of them falling in love with a rich baron and Sally getting pregnant. If this sound a bit on the dull side then I got it right. I had a hard time working out what the point with their story was. It is more of a portrait of two odd characters than anything else. Liza Minelli may have inherited her singing voice from her mother, but her manic character in this story is one I quickly got tired of. There is a desperation to her mania, which makes her a sad character despite her energy, but it does prevent me from wanting to slap some sense into her.

The gay Brian is the more interesting character, but his role is more to support Liza Minnelli than to develop a character of his own. His voice though evokes that of Roger Livesey and that is a voice I can listen to for hours without tiring.

The most interesting element to the Sally and Brian story is their encounters with the world of Berlin in 31. The political violence, the poverty, the decadence and the growing antisemitism. The feeling that it is five minutes to twelve is one of the strongest assets of the movie.

A musical however should be measured by the music and that part of it is outstanding. Whenever we return to the Kit Kat Club I would wake up from my dose and enjoy the demonic spectacle there. This is excellent music and a fascinating show. An ugly one, but one that I could feel deep inside, especially when the Master of Ceremonies would smile at the camera.

A high-tension setting, a great show, but a dull story, “Cabaret” is not perfect and it ended up feeling long, but the spectacle is remarkable and it remains a must-see.

Sunday 8 November 2020

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)


SOS Poseidon kalder

The first off-List movie of 1972 is “The Poseidon Adventure”. The List editors, like the Academy, have their preferences. Some genres (dramas and art films particularly) are well represented while others are not. Disaster movies definitely belong is the later category with only some token representatives. I suppose they are considered pulp, and while I tend to agree, they are often very entertaining pulp.

“The Poseidon Adventure” is most likely not the first disaster movie ever (“Airport” is often mentioned as an earlier exponent of the genre), but it is widely considered the mother of the big-budget disaster spectacles of the kind Hollywood inanely continue to crunch out to this day. It has all the classic ingredients except one: the complete absence of CGI.

The SS Poseidon is an almost derelict ocean liner (think Titanic) on its last voyage from the US to Greece. Shortly before reaching Greece, on New Years night it is toppled by a tsunami wave, leaving it floating around bottoms up.

In classic disaster movie style, we are introduced to a seemingly random host of characters who only have this in common that eventually they will meet up and try to get out together. The premier of these is Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) whose mantra seems to be “If you want to get thing done, do it yourself”. Sort of an action priest. When the ship capsizes, he tries to gather people around to go the stern, hoping to get out that way. Most people however decide to be sheep and wait around to die. The team he does assemble is a very uneven affair. An elderly Jewish couple, Mr. and Mrs. Rosen (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters) on their way to Israel to visit their grandson. Two children, brother and sister (Eric Shea and Pamela Sue Martin). Mr. Lonely and singer, James and Nonnie (Red Buttons and Carol Lynley). A purser, Acres (Roddy McDowall) and newlywed, former prostitute Linda Rogo (Stella Stevens) and policeman Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine).

Through the bulk of the movie we have essentially an escape room scenario where each room holds their own challenges, each character get a chance to shine and ever so often one of the characters will succumb to the challenges as the ship breaks apart.

On the positive, this is a grand spectacle. The setting, the upside-down ship, is simply astounding. Every single detail is reversed and there is no cheating here. We are talking real fire, water and toilets upside down. Without CGI all the special effects are analogue, and it shows in realism. It is even so that many of the stunts where done by the actors themselves (Shelley Winters gained a lot of weight and learned to dive to do her own underwater stunt without artificial padding!). Technically this movie is top notch.

Where it falls apart is the usual place for disaster movies. An all-star cast could not prevent that all these characters become incredibly cliché. They are almost archetypical of the type of person they are supposed to represent, to the extent that there is absolutely no individuality in any of them. It is all surface, no depth. It is no wonder when you have this many characters and the focus is on the disaster itself, but it makes the movie feel very dated and almost involuntarily funny. There were periods where I was thinking that the movie tried hard to be a family movie with comical relief and all (the mis-matched Rogo couple), but then, the tragedy of all the death around them makes this a fairly poor choice for children to watch.

I probably have more tolerance for this kind of pulp than most people. Give me an interesting setting and I can put up with a lot of crap. Had the child been less annoying, the Rogo’s less comical, Nonnie less scared of everything and the preacher less gung-ho this could have been a great movie. Now I will settle for it being a good representative of a disaster movie and a must see for fans of the genre.

Incidentally, the public loved it. Following its release in 72, it became the highest grossing movie of 73 at the box office.

I think the editors should have carved out a space for this one. It would add a bit of adrenaline to the List.


Tuesday 3 November 2020

The Heartbreak Kid (1972)



After the success with “A New Leaf” I was looking forward to “The Heartbreak Kid”, this being another Elaine May movie. Unfortunately for me it belongs to that particularly category of comedies where everything goes from bad to worse and we as supposed to love it. This works for many people, but not so well for me. I mentioned this in my review of “The Out of Towners” and, yeah, it is still an issue.

Lenny (Charles Grodin) is a New York salesman who is getting married to Lila (Jeannie Berlin, May’s daughter). It is one of those marriages where the couple hardly know each other going in (some cultures like it like that) and true enough, soon they realize, or at least Lenny realizes, that the other person is not exactly what was expected. Lila is annoying and borderline stupid, and Lenny is grumpy and mean. Their honeymoon is getting worse and worse and by the time they reach Florida, Lenny is not that much in love with Lila anymore.

At this point Kelly (Cybil Shepherd) shows up, a tall, blond and provocative girl who nudges Lenny enough to catch his attention and then he is sold. From now on he keeps Lila at a distance with all sorts of crazy stories while paying court to Kelly and her less than enthusiastic father (Eddie Albert).

It is impossible to root for neither Lenny nor Lila. Lila is too annoying and Lenny is a total dick. That does not mean it is not funny though. Lenny’s pursuit of Kelly is death defying for lack of a better word, juggling Lila and Kelly and trying to convince Kelly’s father of his honorable intentions. In the best scene of the entire movie Lenny is explaining in very sincere terms to Mr. Corcoran that he is newly married and on his honeymoon but made a mistake and now wants his daughter. This is of course completely outrageous and Mr. Corcoran is struggling not to explode. It is as if Lenny does not even understand how far out he is.

Similarly, when he takes Lila out to eat and to explain to her that he wants a divorce and actually think that this could have a good outcome, which of course it does not. Again, the sincerity explaining something completely outrageous.

Lenny is a madman, a stalker and lacking any sense of propriety. That is funny, but it is also completely impossible to watch. I am a bit strange when it comes to that. The deeper Lenny sank in his schemes, the less I was able to watch it. It is just not easy watching somebody dig their own grave, especially when they hurt people in the process.

Lenny actually gets all he wanted, despite all odds, only to find out maybe this was not what he wanted after all. A suitably bittersweet conclusion.

I really do not like watching people get themselves in trouble. I have to disentangle myself from the characters, tell myself Lenny is an ass and hoping he will get caught in his own schemes. That sort of works, but it is not easy. I cannot say I fully enjoyed “The Heartbreak Kid”, but I am also certain I am in the minority. It was popular enough that a remake was made in 2007 and that is probably the version most people will recognize.

Wednesday 28 October 2020

Aguirre: the Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes) (1972)


Aguirre, den gale erobrer

It is a new year on the List and the movies are now only 48 years old, yay! The first 1972 movie is “Aguirre: the Wrath of God” and I would have loved to say that 1972 is starting strong, but I am not entirely convinced.

“Aguirre” is a movie by Werner Herzog, a prolific director who is still making movies today, but strangely enough I have watched very few of his works. Well, that is what the List is for, to let us see movies we would otherwise have missed.

It is 1560 and Pizarro’s band of conquistadors have successfully taken down the Inca empire and robbed it clean. Now their eyes are set on the next price: El Dorado, where the streets are covered with gold and if there is something a conquistador cannot resist then it is gold.

Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés) sets out into the jungle with a small army but is soon bogged down. Instead of continuing he sends out a smaller force to scout ahead and bring back information on the land ahead and any sign of El Dorado. This expedition is led by Ursúa (Ruy Guerra) and they immediately build rafts and set out on the river.

It is a motley band, drifting into oblivion. Indian slaves, including a former prince, a black slave used to scare the Indian, two women who does nothing but wear their fine and always clean dresses, and a bunch of soldiers including Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), a mercurial officer. What happens through the remainder of the movie is that the members of the expedition are taken out, one by one, by the Indians, through internal strife or the hardship of the travel. Aguirre, obsessed with the price of taking El Dorado, gets crazier and crazier and coup the expedition and they find… absolutely nothing.

The theme here is white man’s greed. The conquistadors are simple thieves, highwaymen possessed by greed. Their senseless pursuit for the elusive price leads to nothing but destruction and oblivion, but with substantial collateral damage. There is a complete insensitivity to the land they are travelling through and the people living there. They are blind to the natural wealth while their eyes are fixed on a price which is just an illusion.

It is interesting to watch this movie in 2020 and notice how nothing has really changed. The themes are still valid and the people on the rafts could as well be us as the world of 72 or the conquistadors in the sixteenth century.

I think those are the eyes to watch this movie with: as an allegory. On its own it is a frustrating movie to watch. Practically everybody of any importance to the story are insufferable and there is nothing but destruction, defeat and madness in the course of the movie. You learn early on to despise the characters and there is some satisfaction in watching them succumb to their greed and ultimately impotence, but it is odd to watch a movie where you cannot wait to see the characters meet their respective ends.

Still it is also a beautiful movie. Made on a shoestring budget there are amazing pictures of the rainforest a plenty and even the demise of the expedition is filmed in glorious color. There is some symbolism in the dirty, ugly look of the soldiers, the tidiness of the Indians and the spotless cleanliness of the women, which is captured very well by the camera.

It is not a movie I enjoyed as much as I found it interesting. It is not an adventure and it is not exciting, but as an allegory it is spot on.


Friday 23 October 2020

Wake in Fright (1971)

 Wake in Fright

I believe I mentioned recently, somewhere, that I like Australian movies. Well, I may have to take that back. Watching “Wake in Fright” was a terrible experience. Not that it is a bad movie as such, but watching people make a string of bad decisions, ruining their lives in the process, is not my idea of fun and this is a story that makes “Lost Weekend” a trip to the zoo.

John Grant (Gary Bond) is a teacher forced to teach in the outback as part of a government contract before he can return to Sydney. The place is seriously a two-shack village in the middle of nowhere and for John it is simply something to get over with. For the Christmas break John is returning to Sydney and has to change from train to plane in Bundanyabba, also known as “Yabba”. John intends to stay just for the night, but it turns out to be quite a bit more as his weekend spins into a hellish nightmare.

The local sheriff, Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), gets him drunk and introduces him to the local attraction, a rowdy game of two-up. A guy throws two coins and you bet if it will be head or tail. First John wins, but then, first bad decision, he conceives the idea that he could win enough to free him from servitude, and losses every penny he got (of course).

In a series of event John encounters numerous dubious characters and gets involved in drinking, fighting, shooting kangaroos in the night and general loss of dignity. John totally hates this place, the people and what it has reduced him to and just wants to get away, but even that is not possible.

This was seriously difficult to watch. Practically everybody here is horrible. Oh, the Australians are a jolly lot, but here they all had a mean, nihilistic streak that made them noisy, rude and disgusting. Everything John gets involved in is seedy at best and revolting at worst. I just wanted this movie to pass. The worst was the kangaroo hunt at night. A bunch of drunk idiots driving out into the desert, blinding kangaroos with light and shooting them left and right, singing and yelling. Even fighting the kangaroos with hand and knife. I really like roo’es, they are the cutest animals, and this was just brutal slaughter. Absolutely horrible to watch.

I suppose the idea is that civilized and controlled John Grant meets and discover his dark side and has to face it and that Dr. Clarence Tydon (Donald Pleasence) is an example of a version of John that has embraced and learned to live with the dark side. Part of John want to embrace him and another is disgusted by him and wants to kill him, read: himself, because he hates what he sees. Only in the end when he has come to terms with this can he proceed with his life. Clever enough, but it does not help. No matter how I turn it I felt awful watching this movie.

“Wake in Fright” was the third new addition to 1971 in the grand revision and one that I cannot say that I needed. In fact, the editors did not have a lucky hand revising the list for 71. None of the additions are must-sees and two are outright disgusting.

This was also the last movie of 1971 and I am now, finally, ready to proceed to 1972.



Monday 19 October 2020

The Hired Hand (1971)


The Hired Hand

The second new addition to the List in the grand 10th edition revision to 1971 was “The Hired Hand”. This was Peter Fonda’s first project after “Easy Rider” and the first movie he directed and honestly this could hardly be a more different one.

Harry Collings (Peter Fonda) and Arch Harris (Warren Oates) have been riding together for seven years. There is no telling what they have been up to, but that it has been a nomadic life. Harry has gotten sick of this life and long to go home. At the same time their younger partner, Dan Griffen (Robert Pratt) gets shot in some God-forsaken hamlet over a horse, marking the punctuation to the roaming life. Harry and Arch return to Harry’s wife Hannah (Verna Bloom) and her homestead. She does not want to recognize him as her husband right away, figuring he will probably leave again and her daughter believes her father is dead. Instead Harry and Arch are staying in the barn as hired hands. Slowly, however, Harry and Hannah are warming up to each other and Arch, rather than being a fifth wheel, rides out. When Harry learns Arch is held captive by the people who killed Dan he has to choose between saving his friend or staying with his wife.

The first thing you notice watching “The Hired Hand” is the pace. This is super slow. So slow in fact that the film occasionally goes slow-motion or even stops and becomes stills. Nobody ever runs, all riding is in a trot and conversation is slow and economic in words. The story itself is of necessity equally short and simple.

This super slow pacing allows the movie to dwell on particular elements in ways other movies cannot. The funeral of Dan, the eternal ride across the land, the emotions on the face of Hannah which speaks more eloquently than any dialogue. It also allows the movie to go very visual. Every frame seems to be there for its visual impact and goes for an almost over the top aesthetic. Combine that with a moody score and there are parts of the movie where the entire purpose of it seems to merely be to build a number of tableaux. Montages with double exposure, silhouettes and slow motion. It is all very pretty, but more than once I got reminded of cheap seventies romances who went for exactly the same aesthetic and when you see it in “The Room” you know this theme has run its course.

But “The Hired Hand” is before all this and should not be judged by later abuse.

Warren Oates is fast becoming one of my favorite actors and his presence her is huge. Fonda himself reminds me of Viggo Mortensen with his gruff looks and soft voice, but the center of the movie belongs to Verna Bloom as Hanna Collings. She is the strong woman who stayed and ran the farm when her husband flaked away. She is the one he has to appease and convince to be accepted again and she could and would take in men to her bed in his absence when she felt the need. Her place is a garden of Eden whereas the world the men roam is a devastated and depraved wasteland. It is, I believe, a very strong feminist statement.

I think I liked “The Hired Hand” or I liked the idea of it. The pacing and the aesthetics verge on the ridiculous, so close to tipping over that it almost becomes a spoof of itself, but I believe it does pull through in the end, not least thanks to the down-beat ending. The beauty and the hardness go hand in hand and maintain a balance, tenuously, but it is there.

Universal had no idea what to do with “The Hired Hand”. Could this be marketed as a Western? Was this a follow up on “Easy Rider” Who should see this movie? The release and marketing of “The Hired Hand” was therefore a disaster and the adapted tv release was no better. Only in 2003 when the original was restored did “The Hired Hand” get a proper reception, but likely too late to really make an impact.


Wednesday 14 October 2020

The Devils (1971)


The Devils

“The Devils” is the first of three movies that were added to the List for 1971 in the big tenth edition revision. A year with many movies just got significantly extended. In the case of “The Devil” I think it was unnecessary to include that one. At least if they wanted to cater to my taste. I did not like that movie.

The story itself is interesting enough. In the early seventeenth century the French king, or rather his puppet-master, Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) wanted to affirm his control over the French countryside by removing the town walls protecting provincial towns. This would also make it easier to cleanse France of protestants. Loudon was a holdout eager to keep its wall. The struggle to keep the walls was led by a priest, Father Grandier (Oliver Reed). To get to the town walls Richelieu’s henchman Baron de Laubardemont had to get past Grandier. Turns out Grandier had a weak spot. He liked women. A lot. And women were madly in love with Grandier. At the Ursuline monastery the nuns, led by Sister Jeanne of Angels (Vanessa Redgrave) dreamt of Grandier as well and when he turned them down Sister Jeanne went bananas and claimed that Grandier is the devil and had raped the entire monastery. This is something the Baroncan could use and with the help of the inquisitor, Father Barre (Michael Gothard) they were soon ready to burn Grandier on the stake.

So, this is a story about religion as a tool for political gains. It is also a story about the insanity of witch hunt, and it is the story of sexually undernourished nuns and how far they will go when refused.

All this is potentially interesting. Add the period element and I am definitely open to it.

But this is the early seventies where anything can be ruined by making it an artistic expression. Ken Russell did not go for a realistic or even a mystic expression but went stylistic instead. All out. In order to throw in a lot of symbolism he created a dream like (or nightmarish) world, where the town is all white bricks, the monastery is white and entirely empty, the cathedral black and full of straight lines, doctors magicians from the world of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and practically everybody except for Grandier madmen and women.

The weird orgy of the nuns is bizarre, the king a clown and Richelieu drives around on a strange twentieth century construct in an equally modern prison-like office.

This is how Godard would make a period piece and somehow I am not surprised to find that in the early seventies other directors were going the same way. The symbolism and stylisism (is that a word?) completely sabotages the movie.

Add to that that the movie is incredibly cruel and barbaric. Oh, I have no doubt the seventieth century was a barbaric era. The barbarism of the thirty-year war is legendary. But Russell is extremely graphic and appears to take a sick pleasure in the pain people are going through. Combine that with the sex and the masturbation and this becomes really sickening.

There were times, many times, where I was wondering if I really wanted to go through with this and the only reason I can think of is that I am a completist.

“The Devils” caused controversy and various churches condemned it and still does. Seriously, perceived blasphemy is the least evil of this movie. It is the destruction of a worthy story by artistic expression.

Not recommended. Just skip it.    

Thursday 8 October 2020

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)


Motorvej USA

There is a certain category of movies I would call nerd-movies. Those are movies that embrace a particular topic, have characters who are really into that topic, and which treat the topic with respect. I find it fascinating when people are going all in on their interest and I like the idea of nerd-movies even if I do not always care for the topic.

“Two-Lane Blacktop” is a nerd-movie about racing cars. Not big industry race shows, but dudes who fix their own cars and go around racing as their big, all consuming interest.

Yet, maybe this is also a substance abuse movie…

Two guys, the Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) drive around in their little wonder of a car. The shell of it is an old 1955 Chevrolet, derelict and worn, while the inside is an overpowered race car. This car is their entire content in life. The money they make by racing other cars are spent of gas, spare parts and some food. The movie does not even give them names, they are just the driver and the mechanic.

On the road they encounter two people, a girl, known as “the Girl” (Laurie Bird), a drifting hippie who tag along to anybody who will take her anywhere else, and a guy known as GTO (because he drives a Ford GTO, Warren Oates).

The girl is trying to break through to the guys and is not getting anywhere, even if the guys genuinely want to get through to her, but the car interest is so all-consuming that there is no room for her. She is just left on the backseat with the tools. Eventually the girl simply gives up.

GTO is more complex. He loves his car too, but his reason for being on the road seem to be a little different. We get the impression he is trying to get away from something. He picks up lots of hitch hikers and each of them he tells a new story. Also the guys get a few stories from him. It is also unclear where he is going, Miami, New York, Washington, Chicago, Mexico, Montreal. The destination does not really seem to matter, but he clearly has a chip on his shoulder and seems eager to prove himself.

The guys and GTO decide to race to Washington, betting their cars (their lifeblood, really), but none of them seem eager to actually finish the race. Instead there are lots of detours on the way.

The most striking thing about the movie is all these cars, the sound and sight of them and the exhilaration of driving them really fast. If you are into cares this would be a go-to movie for that alone. Beneath this there is a story of disconnect between people. None of these people are successful in reaching out for other people. Either they are incapable or just not interested enough. The most telling moment is when GTO starts on a story which for once may actually be the real one, the Driver asks him to shut up, GTO’s problems is not his problems. With that interest in other people, no wonder they are lonely.

There is an undercurrent indicating that despite their deep interest in cars, these people are wasting away their lives in pointless pursuit of something they are never reaching. It is exciting at first, but gets more and more sad as the movie progresses and even moves into David Lynch territory with surreal and abstract elements. The ending, the celluloid of the filmstrip simply burning away is telling.

Somewhere between a nerd film and an art film, “Two-Lane Blacktop manages to combine the two into something that works on both accounts. I am not that much into cars, but it is difficult not to feel the potency of these custom cars. Learning they have on the other side of 300 horsepower engines, makes may own VW Polo feel truly puny, and I can almost sense the intoxicating power these people must feel from their cars like a drug. Yet, like any drug it leaves you an empty husk when the rush has burned out.

I think it is a moderate recommendation from me. Better than I expected, but probably works better for some than others.

Saturday 3 October 2020

Straw Dogs (1971)



I was warned against “Straw Dogs”. The description in the Book made it sound so uncomfortable that I wondered if I really wanted to watch it and Peckinpah’s previous film on the List “The Wild Bunch” did not sit well with me. I also believe I received warnings from elsewhere that this movie was too much. In that light I am almost disappointed to watch it and find out that it was not as bad as that. Not at all, actually. It may be my jaded 21st century position or it may simply be me expecting worse, but “Straw Dogs” did not exceed my boundaries. I even found it quite compelling.

David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), a quiet mathematician and his pretty and lively wife Amy (Susan George) have just moved into her old family home in a remote and very rural part of the British countryside. The idea is that he gets the quiet he needs for his mathematical research while she… Well, it is not exactly clear what she is supposed to do, except for being back in her old haunt and it quickly becomes apparent that this is a problem. Amy is bored. Clearly her idea was that their life in seclusion would be that of a love nest with permanent attention thrown her way. David does love her, but there is work time and there is attention time and somehow Amy failed to get that brief.

It is not because attention is unavailable. Half the village hillbillies are drawling over her and as they consider David only half a man, not able to stand up for her, they are moving in. Fooling David into a duck hunt where they park him in the wilderness, they go to rape Amy. This is a weird scene. Right away Amy picks up what they are aiming for. Charlie (Del Henney) is her former boyfriend and, clearly, he thinks he can still get some. Amy resist, but as he is insisting, I get some very mixed and confusing signals from Amy. Does she actually want this? Only when the next in line gets to her do I clearly sense her horror.

Afterwards, Amy never tells David about this and I am uncertain what to make of this. I had sort of expected that David would raise to this provocation and hold the culprits accountable. Instead it will be in defense of the retarded but big Henry Niles (David Warner). At a Christmas event Janice Hedden (Sally Thomsett) hits on Henry, gets him to follow her out and wants to make out with him. She is the daughter of head-hillbilly Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) and learning Henry is with Janice the hillbilly gang sets out to beat him up, armed with a lot of alcohol. David and Amy accidentally hit Henry with their car and take him home, which leads the hillbilly gang there as well. Soon the Sumner house is under siege.

These last 40 minutes are truly intense. David defends his home like a castle, Amy is pissed at David, Henry is panicking and the hillbilly gang is like a horde of mindless zombies. In fact, this part is very similar to “Night of the Living Dead”, so close in fact that I wonder if the stories have the same source. Even a more recent, but far cozier, movie like “Home Alone” picks up on this theme of a home under siege.

Certainly this part is violent and it is terrifying to see the quiet and friendly mathematician having to kill people, but this is a kill or be killed situation and it is not so that David suddenly turns into a trained killing machine, nor does he have some brilliant defense plans. He simply rises to the occasion and hates every bit of it. Amy seems to be crumpling but also manages to pull through, stepping over the line where she also inflicts damage on other people.

This is bad ass and in your face violence, bestial violence, that David is facing and Peckinpah shows us every bit of it, but there is nothing here I have not seen Tarantino do ten times so I am fairly inured. What Peckinpah manages to here is to remove the cartoon effect and make it real and to keep the steam up in a sequence that could easily become tiresome in less capable hands. The Book says there is no catharsis effect, but I am not so certain of that. Their life in the house is forever ruined, but they did fight this off together and it may be the one thing that could save their marriage.   

I am not a fan of Peckinpah, but there was a lot more to this story and much more relevance too than what I saw from him in “The Wild Bunch”. It actually ends up with a recommendation from me.   

Reading the review on "Straw Dogs" on Steve Honeywell's 1001Plus site got me to philosophize on the name of the movie. Maybe it is just me not being entirely familiar with the term, but I read Straw as referring to the rural setting, the hillbillies, and Dogs as bestiality. Hillbillies turned beasts. David is the opposite, decency and civilization, and his construct is under siege by the straw dogs. The same for Amy, except she thinks she want the beast until she realizes her terrible mistake.

Monday 28 September 2020

The Last Picture Show (1971)


Sidste forestilling

There are sad, declining places and then there is the Anarene, Texas of “The Last Picture Show”. I doubt I have ever seen a place as sad and dull ever, real life or in fiction.

Peter Bogdanovich’ coming-of-age story has as the central character Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), a high school student in the above mentioned Anarene, Texas, sometime in the early fifties. Sonny plays football, but both he and the team suck. He hangs out at Sam-the-Lion’s (Ben Johnson) pool hall with his friend Duane (Jeff Bridges), drive around in his wreck of a car and hangs out with girls. And that is really all there is to do in Anarene.

As in most coming of age movies there is a lot of interaction between the teenagers, but most seem driven by sheer boredom. The only thing you really can do is experiment with sex and alcohol so this they do with abandon. Nothing new, you might say, is that not the topic of any coming of age movie? The difference here is the quiet desperation with which this is pursued. Sonny dumps his girlfriend and starts seeing his coach’s lonely wife, Ruth (Cloris Leachman) while Duane enjoys the hottest girl in town, the rich Jacy (Cybil Shepherd), until she grow bored and decides to try something else, such as a nude pool party. Particularly painful is it when the boys decide it is time for the retarded but sweet Billy (Sam Bottoms) to lose his virginity and set him up with a prostitute in a car while they are jeering outside.

Although the community seems to function on the outside, we learn the same story from everybody once we get closer. Sonny, who is a good listener, hears from Sam, Ruth, the coach and Lois (Ellen Burstyn), Jacy’s mother, how they all had dreams of a better life, but that staying in this place has drained them into a stupor. Living in this place made them ghosts of who they used to or wished to be.

Eventually Sonny and Duane has a fall out when Jacy starts hitting on Sonny and Duane leaves for the army, leaving Sonny behind in an increasingly desolate town.

I do not think I ever saw a movie as eloquently describing this kind of quiet desperation. It permeates everything: the color scheme (stark black and white), the wind howling through the empty town, the worn-down pool hall, the empty diner, the closing picture show, but more than anything the eyes of most people in this town. This is a dead-end, everybody knows it, but for many it is too late to escape. It was a depressive experience to watch this, but Bogdanovitch is a good enough storyteller to keep it interesting and despite myself I got drawn into the story.

Often I was reminded of the far more recent “Ghost World” except that is merely one person being stuck. In “The Last Picture Show” it is an entire community that has lost its steam and given up. The quintessential scene must be Sonny having a coffee with Ruth as she completely looses it and Sonny just stares at her with empty eyes and then puts his hand on hers. There is real compassion in that.

“The Last Picture Show” is also the introduction on the List of both Jeff Bridges and Cybil Shepherd. Bridges was at this time already an experienced actor while Shepherd was a model headhunted for the job. Both did an excellent job on this movie and the rest is, as they say, history.

“The Last Picture Show” is a recommendation from me.



Monday 21 September 2020

A New Leaf (1971)


Off-List: A New Leaf

I have decided to add a fourth off-List movie to 1971. Bea at Flickers in Time recommended to me the movie “A New Leaf” and having now watched it, it is too good not to get a review. Thanks, Bea!

Elaine May is one of those great stars who have remained unknown to the larger public. At least I was not aware of her before watching “A New Leaf”. This is largely because she preferred to run things from behind. Screenwriting, often uncredited or under a pseudonym or assisting on direction, especially on comedy, but she was actually an accomplished comedienne and a skillful director and with “A New Leaf” we get the full package as May directed, wrote and acted the lead female part. It worked like a charm.

Henry Graham (the magnificent Walter Matthau) is a good for nothing aging playboy, who has been living off his trust fund until it is a fund no more. Used to the niceties of wealth, never worked a day in his life and generally unpleasant to anything with two, four or lo legs, Henry is in trouble.

Assisted by his butler (George Rose) Henry borrows some money from his uncle and set out on a terrifying mission: To find a rich woman and marry her in six weeks. Oh, the ladies Henry digs up! They are a laugh. Finally, though, Henry finds the perfect mark: The distraught botany professor Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), heiress of a massive fortune and completely helpless. Henry woos her and marries her, but when he gets to the point where he is supposed to get rid of her again something happens.

Never has a bluebeard been as miserable as Matthau makes him and never has a mark been as completely naïve and hapless as May’s professor. They are simply made for each other. I am used to comedies with Matthau as a grumpy old fool, but I think he was never better as a such than here. And this includes his comedies with Jack Lemmon. The scene where the accountant is trying to get through to him that he is broke is hilarious and Matthau only have to wear his helmet in his broken Ferrari to look ridiculous.

The smart thing however is that “A New Leaf” is not chasing the gags, but is more involved with the story it has to tell and that story is fundamentally funny. It may not be as surprising and innovative as “Harold and Maude” but its more conventional approach is plenty enough. I like that it takes some time to build up the Henry Graham character so that when he finally meet Henrietta we know exactly how horrible she is in his eyes and we know enough of him that we both despise him and feel a bit sorry for him. It is sort of a Bill Murray thing, but Walter Matthau perfected this type of character several decades before “Groundhog Day”.

All this however is Elaine May’s vision. The created it and the universe Matthau swims in and she scored big in my book.

Definitely a recommendation.


Wednesday 16 September 2020

Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song (1971)


Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song

Not long ago I watched and reviewed “Shaft” and I believe I hailed it as one of the first blacksploitation movies. It was predated however by “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song”, who as I understand it, is recognized as the initiator of the genre.

A lot of what I said about “Shaft” goes for “SSBS” (that really is an impossible title) as well. It goes 100% for coolness and macho awesomeness. The score by Earth, Wind and Fire is fully up there with Isaac Hayes “Shaft” score and, of course, this is a bunch of Brothers kicking some white ass.

That is, however, where the similarities end. “SSBS” was made on a much smaller budget, reputedly 150.000$, and goes for the rustic feel. That means grainy texture, lenses often out of focus and a cutting technique which wants to be edgy, but often come across as awkward and amateurish. The quality and polish is not there and so, probably a conscious decision, it goes the other way.

The other main difference is the plot, which really is something else.

Sweetback grows up in a brothel where he is famous for his sexual prowess from early on. Seeing him as a boy on top of one of the prostitutes was a tough one to eat so soon after “Murmur of the heart”. Anyway, the point is that Sweetback is famous for one thing and that is his mighty dick. One night during a peep show the police show up and want to bring somebody down to the station. It is unclear to me why since there were no subtitles on my copy and the slang combined with poor sound made it a bit difficult to follow. Sweetback leaves with the police and on the way to the station they pick up a Black Panther militia dude from some brawl. The policemen stop and beat up the Black Panther guy with Sweetback watching. At some point it is too much for Sweetback so he beats up the policemen, possibly killing them.

Now Sweetback is on the run and this is the main part of the movie. It is like an odyssey and I would not be surprised if somebody more clever than me would find direct parallels to the stops Homer’s hero did on his journey. Sweetback passes through Beetle’s brothel, a black church and a Hells Angels hideout. Here he is challenged to a duel with the president and when asked to choose weapon, he goes for his prime asset, his dick. And wins.

The police is getting more and more incensed, beating up every black guy in their way, totally unapologetic (police violence against black people is not a new thing) and though Sweetback keeps evading them, they are getting close as he is aiming for the Mexican border.

The point of the movie is obviously that black people are fighting an uphill battle against white authorities, that they can trust no-one but themselves, but that they are truly awesome. As such this is a very political movie and one that seems relevant to watch here in 2020. What Sweetback is up against is a whole bunch of prejudiced Dirty Harrys who prefer to shoot first and will not back down.

While I appreciate the coolness of the style and the music and even the rustic texture I could not shake that cheap production feel. There are montages going on repeat for no obvious reason and strange jumps and cross clips that make it hard to follow the plot. I suppose it was part of the charm, but it often threw me off-track and that is a minus.

Still, overall, I appreciate the experience, not only for political and cinematic significance but for simple entertainment value. It is a recommendation from me.