Saturday 29 August 2020

Shaft (1971)


If there was something I was really looking forward to, entering the seventies, it was blacksploitation movies. Nothing for me represents the coolness of the seventies as blacksploitation, the groove, the style and the kick-ass. “Shaft” is all that and I am happy.

John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) is a private detective in New York who is like a black James Bond, just a lot cooler. Shaft takes orders from no-one; he sets the pace. He is resourceful, witty and charming and he can be at home in any company, though he has very little respect to white people. And then he is, I think I said it, totally cool.

The storyline in “Shaft” is not exceptional. Shaft is hired by a gangster to find his kidnapped daughter. With the help of some militant brothers he traces the mafia dudes who are holding her and orchestrate an assault to set her free. Not anything new.

What is new is that this marks the beginning of a line of movies where black people are cool, and resourceful, where the subculture is embraced and treated with respect. It may be exploitation, but it feels more like homage and for somebody going through the list chronologically like me this is a long overdue breath of fresh air.

I am fully aware that the whole race thing is a politically sensitive issue that has not become less touchy over the years, and I am certain that for those with these issues much closer to them a movie like “Shaft” that plays on race both in stereotypes and reverse the stereotypes would be loaded with meanings. For me, living on an entirely different continent, black American subculture is so integrated in what we consider general American culture that a movie like Shaft feels perfectly natural and representative of what we consider American. 

For these reasons I am quite certain I am not getting half the messages this movie is sending and I apologize for that. Rather than being engaged in the politics I focused on how thoroughly enjoyable the movie was. The witticism and the coolness we would later see in movies like “Beverly Hills Cop” and it has become almost a trope, but for a 1971 movie this was a revelation. I do not really care that much of it is exaggerated: How many girlfriends does this dude have and would it really be possible to sideline the police like he does? But this is also a dream image, wishful thinking if you like, very much like James Bond is. It is kick-ass and it works.

What also works in spades is the soundtrack. Isaac Hayes is for me the sound of Chef in South Park (and what a loss that he left the show), but he also did tons of music and what he did for “Shaft” is not his worst stuff. Hearing his deep voice in the opening of “Shaft” sets the right tone and feels good deep in the soul.

“Shaft” is not a movie you watch for the intricate plot, it works, but no more than that. It is a movie you watch for the style, the charm and the coolness and in this case that is absolutely enough. Plus, one should not underestimate its general significance.

Definitely recommended.

Monday 24 August 2020

The French Connection (1971)

The French Connection

I have vague memories of having watched “The French Connection” years ago, but it must either have been a very long time ago or a different movie I am confusing it with, because none of what I saw this time round matched my recollections of the movie. Well, poor memory means that I get to enjoy movies as if it was first time.

“The French Connection” is a celebrated movie. No less than five Academy Awards, including some of the big ones, and a ton of other awards. This is supposed to be a big experience. Yet, it sort of fell flat for me. Not that it is bad, but over the years I have seen hundreds of movies and tv-series going exactly where the French Connection is going. Shabby New York policemen chasing international drug smugglers. A washed-out policeman with a hunch, deadly gun fights and car races. Arguments with the police boss, stalk-outs that may or may not yield anything. Is this an episode of “District Hill Street” or “Beverly Hills Cop”? Okay, maybe “The French Connection” started a trend, but I cannot help it, I was, frankly, a bit bored watching this cliché feast.

To my mind, “Get Carter” was a lot more interesting to watch.

Anyway, “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) are two New York Policemen in the narcotics division spending their time catching small fish in Brooklyn. Doyle, who is a bit on the frantic side, has an eye for pointing out scumbags and gets a hunch about some people he spots in a nightclub. On the spot he decides that they should explore this and so a lengthy stalking part ensues. In parallel we follow a French narcotics smuggler, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), and his dodgy companions, who a setting up a big shipment of heroin to the US, which he will deliver himself. Eventually the stalking leads to the Frenchmen.

The Feds get involved, but since Doyle has a bad reputation, they are convinced there is nothing in it and Doyle and Russo are asked to drop the case. At this point Charnier’s gunman, Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi), makes an assassination attempt at Doyle, killing an innocent bystander instead. The resulting chase is probably the most famous scenes of the movie where Nicoli hijacks a train, killing several people in the process and Doyle chasing the train on the road underneath it in an increasingly wrecked car. However, it is only when they bring in Charnier’s luxury car and find a pile of drugs that everybody get convinced, leading up to the final showdown.

The most remarkable here is not the story, but the cinematography. It is possible New York looked bad in 71, but I am convinced the cinematographer (Owen Roizman) made it look a lot worse. Everything is grey and dirty, rundown and ruined. Post-apocalyptic, really, and it actually fits the frantic and seedy Doyle. His mess of an apartment looks much like the rest of the town.

Reading up on the movie, the ending is supposed to be special, so I was looking forward to it. It is supposed to be a big downer, but Doyle is just doing what he has been doing throughout, chasing bad guys without a care for whoever happens to be in the way. I guess there is a case there for police violence… 

Somewhat related, I found it baffling that the massive killing spree in the train chase was passed over with no implications. To me this looked like a major disaster including the derailing of the train, but the movie just moves on as if nothing had happened. This was for me a much larger story than the drug-bust, but maybe the idea is that people got killed by trigger happy gangsters on a daily basis in 1971 New York. It certainly helped promoting the apocalyptic ambience, if not the logic of the storyline.

As I said “The French Connection” is not a bad film and I am pretty certain it has its fanbase. I was disappointed, but that may just be me.


Wednesday 19 August 2020

Get Carter (1971)

Gør Carter Kold

The List suffers from too little Michael Caine, at least up to this point. In “modern” films Caine has always been the element that could lift any movie no matter how hopeless it otherwise was (Austin Powers just to mention one), but Caine had some very good roles back in the sixties and seventies and it is a shame that only with “Get Carter” we are served some on the List.

“Get Carter” is very much a product of its time, there in the early seventies. It is an impressionistic movie, which was very much in vogue, where the viewer is introduced to a world and a story without any explanation and left to sort it out for him or her self through what is presented. I cannot say I am 100% certain of the storyline, but probably need one or two re-watches to get the details. “Get Carter” also presents a worn-down world of degradation and corruption. It is the world of “Dirty Harry”, “Klute” and “A Clockwork Orange” where morals are flossy and lives are cheap.

Jack Carter (Michael Caine) is a gangster in London who learns that his brother Frank has died up north in his native Newcastle. Jack goes to Newcastle to deal with the funeral and, convinced of foul play starts to investigate his brother’s death. This is where it starts getting complicated. There are an awful lot of dodgy types going around in Newcastle, none of whom likes what Jack is doing. Local ringleader Cyril Kinnear (John Osborne) seems to have had a hand in Franks death. A rival to Kinnear, Brumby (Bryan Mosley) wants to use Jack against Kinnear. Jack’s employer in London, Gerald Fletcher (Terence Rigby) has worked out that Jack is having an affair with his wife and has sent a team of gangsters to Newcastle to pick him up and in the middle of all this Jack learns that Frank’s daughter has been coerced into making porn movies. Add to this a number of women whose attachments are a bit uncertain.

Quite a handful to keep track of and, mind you, none of this is explained. You sort of have to work it out as the scenes unfold.

And unfold they do. There is no filter on anything we are exposed to. Jack is a violent and ruthless man, his only redeeming characteristic is that everybody appears to be worse and that he does seem to be fighting a worthy cause, revenging his brother’s death. Brutality, torture and cold-blooded murder is dealt out liberally as is sex, drugs and, well more violence. I kept thinking of this as the long-lost twin of “Pulp Fiction”, there are just so many similarities. The main difference is the “Get Carter” never seems to glory in the violence as Tarantino is prone to. Its depiction is cold and factual, a color in the palette used to paint the rotten underbelly of this provincial city.

I did get caught up in it and found it very difficult to put down. Normally I find it very hard to root for a bad guy, but hey, this is Michael Caine and he is magnetic in “Get Carter”, even when he is ruthless. He is resourceful, but not in the gentleman fashion of James Bond, but simply because he is a better gangster than the rest. However, when he finds out that Doreen (Petra Markham), his niece, has been lured into porn we see his tears revealing a softer side.

There is also a compelling aesthetic in the choice of scenery and cinematography. I have never been to Newcastle, but, man, it looks like a dump. It is the setting of quiet despair and hopelessness that makes it a prime habitat for these gangsters.

This is a big recommendation!


Saturday 15 August 2020

Red Psalm (Meg Ker a Nep) (1971)

Den røde salme

After a streak of good and great movies the List editors strike back with another strange movie.

“Red Psalm” is the second movie on the List by Hungarian director Miklos Jancso (after “The Red and the White”) and where the first was a bit alternative in the narrative structure, this this one is all out obscure. 

Well, actually it is not so difficult to see what is happening. The obscurity lies primarily in why this lasts 88 minutes instead of 10. 

A group of actors are dressed up as peasants and soldiers on a rural setting in Hungary, late 19th century. The peasants sing and dance about the communist revolution with the soldiers standing around. From time to time some peasant will hold a political speech in the line of “workers, unite and take over”. Everything is stylized. People are pretense killed or whipped, speeches (rather than talks) does not necessarily lead to a discussion and nothing follows any causal model. All this goes on for 88 minutes without showing us anything we have not seen in the course of the first 10 minutes.

There are very few elements to make this movie interesting. There is the involuntary comedic element that you constantly get the feeling that they dubbed the pictures with lines from a different movie, so at odds are the sentences with the scenes unfolding. This did trigger a smile from time to time, but, sadly, not enough to make it truly amusing.

Another element is that a few times over the course of the movie some of the girls are naked. They are pretty girls, but the interesting thing here is that I have to ask myself “why?”. It is so baffling why these girls are going naked that again it is almost funny.

That is about it. It was insanely difficult for me to maintain a minimum of attention to what was happening on the screen. Chopping it up in small pieces did not help much. 5 minutes into each watch I found my attention wandering elsewhere. Luckily, I did not miss anything. This just goes on and on and on without any apparent change.

Some, according to Wikipedia, consider this Jancso’s best movie. If that truly is the case I hope this one is the last of his on the List.

Only recommended for masochists and fans of communist avantgarde musicals.

Tuesday 11 August 2020

Harold and Maude (1971)

Harold og Maude

I cannot say I was looking forward to watch “Harold and Maude”. A story about a teenage boy and an old woman having an intimate relationship sounded… very social realistic. Something about the elder person helping the young one getting through puberty or something like that. Anyway, a long-groaner. But that was not what this movie was at all. Instead it was one of funniest and most endearing movies I have watched in a long time. A truly positive surprise.

Harold (Bud Cort) is a young man, my guess around 16 or 17 years old, who is not happy. He lives with his rich mother in her huge mansion and she is clearly busy running his life but without actually listening to him. His hobbies are to stage pretend suicides and to go to funerals. It sounds crazy, but those suicides are both spectacular and hilarious. Clearly Harold has a thing with death and although a lot of it has to do with getting some real attention from his mother, it is also a longing to escape the stranglehold of his existence.

At the funerals Harold attend another guest keeps popping up. This is an elderly lady, Maude (Ruth Gordon), who is fascinated with death, but for a different reason than Harold. Maude is an anarchist who lives life to the fullest and does exactly what she pleases. Her interest in funerals is part of her big wheel philosophy and because she is planning her own end, to go when she is still able to live her life as she pleases. Harold and Maude hook up and become best friends. 

Did I mention that this movie is hilariously funny? Maude as an anarchist is completely out of control. Taking cars if she needs them, creating strange art, gate crashing and doing everything a sweet old lady is not supposed to do. For Harold this is freedom and for me it was a hoot. The scene where Maude steals a tree and a car to drive it into the forest and on the way evades a highway trooper only to end up stealing his motorbike is just priceless.

Harold’s mother (Vivian Pickles) is convinced that what Harold needs is a wife and so she looks for candidates, of course without consulting Harold. The prospects are all ideal women in her eyes, meaning boring and respectable, and Harold is very good at scaring them away with a gory display. Then she decides that the army is the thing so she sends Harold to his officer of an uncle. This is trickier to get out of but with the help of Maude they put up a very effective show for the uncle.

Throughout there is this perfect blend of lightness and depth that makes it both interesting and very easy to watch. The heart of the movie is of course the relationship between Harold and Maude and how each of them is exactly what the other one needs and that is sweet. We learn that beneath the reckless surface there is a serious backdrop, a dedication to life born out of her past as a holocaust survivor and it is from this dedication that Harold finds that energy and that direction he has so desperately been missing. 

A lot has been made of this being a sexual relationship with a huge age gap, but maybe I have become inured from watching weird British documentaries because this did not trouble me at all. Instead I saw it simply as two people becoming as close as it is possible to get. In fact, listening to the priest raving on about the grossness of such a relationship was a hoot in itself.

No, this was a beautiful movie and a hilariously funny one and a big recommendation from me.

Monday 3 August 2020

Klute (1971)

On of my favorite genres is that of the noir. Classic noir, neo-noir, sci-fi noir, that does not matter. Hell, I am watching Jessica Jones on Netflix and that is a Marvel noir. Something about the mood and pacing of noir movies make them awesome, at least to me, and in “Klute” I found a wonderful example of noir.

Tom Gruneman from somewhere in Pennsylvania has disappeared and as regular policework has proven fruitless, Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi), his partner or manager, hires a local detective, John Klute (Donald Sutherland) to find him. Apparently, Tom has been writing obscene letters to a high-end prostitute in New York. Klute looks her up and finds more than he bargained for.

Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) is in many ways the complete opposite of the small town detective Klute. She is adapted to the big city with cynicism and rough edges. She is edgy and street-wise, but also lonely. The deadpan honesty of Klute clashes completely with the layers of pretense which is Daniels world. Yet each of them finds in the other something they are missing in themselves.

From this point the movie follows two tracks. One is the lost person case which takes both of them deeper and deeper into unsavory territory of drugs, abuse and murders. The other is a development story, particularly on Daniels’ side. We get a window into her thoughts through her conversations with her psychiatrist and these monologues function like the voice-over narrator in a typical noir. From these we see her gradually break out of her shell and become vulnerable. A state she does not like and seek to escape.

I do not know which of the two are the most interesting. I suppose the movie is depending on both parts, but they also create a bit of a disconnect. There is a period in the middle of the movie where the crime story moves so much into the background it is almost forgotten. The case however is the nerve of the movie so luckily it does return and with a vengeance.

For me there are two things to this movie I really love. One is the mood. There are a lot of night scenes with an amazing score. There were parts where I saw a kinship to “Bladerunner” and it gave me the shivers. This goes with the slow pace and the phycological elements of loneliness and estrangement.

The second is this classic noir feature that there is so much we do not know and will never know. There is a world outside the camera and outside the characters knowledge, loose ends that creates mystery and danger. Sometimes this is frustrating, but when it works, like here, it adds layers of depth to the story.

Jane Fonda won the Academy award for Best Actress and that was well deserved. She is very convincing in a role that could have gone very extreme, but was very human.

I think my only complaint is that my copy was ridiculously poor. It was some Spanish import without subtitles and very poor picture quality. It would be worthwhile to seek out a better version. That is the penalty for buying these things cheap.

Definitely a recommendation, especially for noir fans.