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.