Monday 31 May 2021

Sleeper (1973)


Mig og fremtiden

With “Sleeper” I have arrived at the first Woody Allen movie on the List. I have not checked but I got the feeling there are quite a few of his movies coming up. Woody Allen is one of those directors, like Roman Polanski, whose movies you seemingly cannot discuss without also discussing the person, so let me just get that off my chest right away. I do not really care what sort of weirdo a guy may be or whether or not he may or may not be guilty of something. It is the movie I am looking at, that is all I really know and all I can talk about.

With that out of the way, let me continue being general and confess that Woody Allen’s schtick never really worked for me. His little, neurotic New Yorker is missed on me and the movies of his I like the best are those without him acting or at least staying in the background. It is not a dislike, I am just sort of indifferent to his typical character.

This is a problem when watching “Sleeper” because this is very much about Allen doing his thing and a lot of the comedy is dependent on that.

In “Sleeper” Miles (Allen) is a musician and owner of a health food store in New York (of course), who in 1973 went to hospital for a simple procedure, got frozen down and revived 200 year later. The doctors have to keep him hidden because they want to use him for a covert operation against the dictatorship they live in and soon he is on the run in a world he does not understand. This is all played out as slapstick comedy a la Chaplin or Keaton, complete with ragtime music and sped-up chases. Miles is a clown and everything he touches is a mess. The police, however, is not much better.

One of the novelties of 2173 is the butler android. Miles has an early encounter with one of these and escaping in a butler robot supply van he disguises himself as a butler robot. In this function he starts working for Luna (Diane Keaton), a snobbish artist who is not terribly bright. As a butler, Miles is a disaster and Luna wants his head replaced. Hilarity ensues and soon Miles is on the run again, this time with Luna in tow.

Everything here aims for comedy and this follows two tracks, the physical slapstick comedy and the little, neurotic New Yorker comedy and it plays both hard. The first actually has its moments, but Allen is not Chaplin or Keaton, and it is in general played too hard. My son would probably find it more to his taste. The other line, well, if you like Allen’s schtick…

I do not mind silly comedies, I laugh myself silly to Naked Gun or Airplane!, but it does not work too well for me here. I am also losing tough with a story which is, I think, more interesting than Allen’s comedy. There is a lot of Tati here, the bafflement with technology and the alienation caused by technology and modernity. Tati just does it a lot better. This ties in with a criticism of conformity and government control, which is very early-seventies. Yet all I get from the movie is that Woody Allen wants to be Chaplin.

I am likely the wrong audience for this movie, and would not be surprised if I stand alone on this. It is interesting to see what Woody Allen did in his early years, but otherwise I will leave it to Allen fans to give their appraisal for “Sleeper”.

Thursday 27 May 2021

Don't Look Now (1973)

Rødt chok

Nicolas Roeg is not your average director and “Don’t Look Now” is not your average movie. For one, it has the most horrific opening of any movie I can recall. Parents finding their little daughter downed in a pond. In writing this is sort of flat, but in the naturalistic presentation of Roeg, this is completely devastating and had this not been a List movie I would have stopped there and then. This is a parent’s worst nightmare and I feel sick just thinking of that scene.

How do you move on from something like that?

Laura (Julie Christie) and John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) go to Venice to work it off. John is a specialist restoring old buildings and got a job fixing an old church. This is not your typical Venice scene though. It is winter and Venice is grey and moldy and largely empty and thus a mirror on Laura and John.

Then Laura meets two old British women, one of which, Heather (Hilary Mason), claims to be psychic and that she has seen Laura’s daughter, Christine, and that she is happy. Shocked at first, this does inject new life into Laura who starts obsessing about this. John, on the other hand is sceptic until he also gets signs that something weird is going on.

And there we are, a ghost story in Venice… maybe.

Because it is very difficult to work out what is actually going on. Or more importantly, why? “Don’t Look Now” takes us on a dizzying trip through Venice where the border between reality and the supernatural becomes blurred. John is getting increasingly confused, seeing his wife where she is not supposed to be, seeing what could be his daughter in the alleys and have a close call with death when the scaffolding crash in the church.

Nicolas Roeg populated this story with strange characters, symbols and motifs, which all seem foreboding. It is creepy more than it is horrific and rather confusing too. Nothing is entirely what it seems, but we rarely learn what it really is.

I am having some trouble deciphering “Don’t look now” and is mostly left with it’s themes of death, decay and doom. John has some prescience, but it never helps him. Instead, he is tied to downward spiral. Much more I cannot glean from this. I was expecting some sort of closure or catharsis at the end, but got no such thing. This is just not that kind of movie.

That does not mean that this is a poor movie, not at all. It totally works at making you uneasy. The sense of doom is subtle enough that you rarely see it outright, but it is there, just beneath the surface. Whether it is the grey and creepy alleys or the strange policeman. Echoes between houses or the dark water in the canal.

Roeg uses flashbacks and visions in glimpses to let us into the heads on Laura and particularly John. This is part of the dizzying effect, but also let us share their emotions, which is crucial in this move.

And then we are invited into their bedroom, like for real. Not sure I really needed that.

“Don’t Look Know” is one of those movies I probably need to watch a few times. At this point I find it intriguing and disturbing as if I have only scraped the surface, but not disappointed as I sometimes are when I am being left confused at the end of the movie.

Probably a recommendation, if you can get past that first scene.


Wednesday 19 May 2021

Day for Night (La Nuit Americaine) (1973)


Den amerikanske nat

It is difficult to think of anything more meta than making a movie about making a movie and to have the director be acted by yourself, but that was exactly what Francois Truffaut did with “Day for Night” (“La Nuit Americaine”).

Like Bogdanovich and Scorsese, Truffaut was huge film geek and somewhere on the way I guess he thought that the process of making a movie would be a story good enough to be a movie. He had of course picked up a look of stories from the many movies he had already made and this he pieced together as “Day for Night”. Within the framework of making a movie called “Je Vous Présente Pamela” or just “Pamela”, Truffaut lets the crew act out small vignettes of stories. The movie they are making is not important, we never really understand what is going on in this movie. Instead, it is the process of making it that is in focus and the myriad small stories around it.

Truffaut himself as the director, Ferrand, is stressing about making the movie in very short time, compromising and improvising along the way to negotiate all the obstacles being thrown at him. He is no auteur, just a craftsman and it is the grinding out a movie that is the real art here. The actors all have their bigger and smaller issues. Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a man-child, only slightly more mature than in “The Mother and the Whore”. Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Aumont) is an actor past his prime but with a career in Hollywood, he presents himself as a big star. Séverine (Valentina Cortese), also past her prime, is drunk half the time and forgetting her lines. The big star of the movie, Julie (Jacqueline Bisset), is flown in from Hollywood to be the draw of “Pamela”, yet she is a nervous wreck, kept up by her doctor husband.

And then there is the crew, Odile (Nike Arrighi), from make-up, Joëlle (Nathalie Baye), the director’s assistant, Bertrand (Jean Champion), the producer and on and on.

Truffaut manages to keep the movie realistic while describing the set as madhouse full of overgrown children. It is a balance between a love letter to film making and a comedy, on the verge of becoming a farce, but stepping back from that.

The strength of “Day for Night” is that it is charming and many of the vignettes are funny as stand-alone images. The weakness is that it is a mess. There are so many things happening at the same time and many of the stories are both unrelated and going nowhere and that makes “Day for Night” lose focus. Ferrand and the movie are the only things that tie it together. Is that enough? At times it is. The movie set is a madhouse and you have to be crazy to go into this business, but somewhere in this mess there is also a great sympathy for those who go through with it anyway and live and breathe for making movies.

I was not entirely won over by “Day for Night”, it did feel too chaotic as a movie and too comedic as a documentary, but there are moments where I love it and that is enough.

The film industry loved it. They are suckers for movies about movies and “Day for Night” won the Academy award for best foreign language movie and was nominated in several other categories as well. For Truffaut himself this was a personal success and made him an enemy of Godard who hated the movie. That must be the biggest compliment of all.


Thursday 13 May 2021

The Wicker Man (1973)


The Wicker Man

I am not an expert on the horror genre, not by a long shot, but in my poor experience (or taste) what makes a horror movie work is the sense of foreboding. The icky feeling that something is terribly off and that something bad is about to happen. It is that sense that makes me as a viewer scared of watching and prepare for anything, and that “anything” can in the imagination become truly horrific.

“The Wicker Man” is all about foreboding.

Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives at the remote Scottish island Summerisle to investigate a reported missing child, Rowan Morrison, but his investigation run into early trouble. None of the islanders seem to recognize the girl and every step of the way Howie is told to get permission from the local nobleman, his lordship Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). Howie is forced to bully his demands through and find ample evidence that the girl does or did indeed exist. Howie is a devout Christian and is shocked to find an abundance of signs that the island has reverted to paganism and he becomes increasingly convinced that Rowan is held captive to become the May-day sacrifice to the islander’s gods.

The major part of the movie finds Howie going around finding all these weird hints, building up an anticipation of something dreadful. The islanders are the typical quaint type from so many other rural movies, think “Whiskey Galore”. They act and speak with that relaxed no-nonsense attitude that is so familiar, but then drop in a word or an act that is completely contrary to that nature. A good example is Mrs. Morrison treating her daughter’s sore throat by putting a toad in her mouth or the schoolteacher teaching very young children of phallic symbols. These may be small hints and elements, but it is exactly because they are only hints that they work so well.

What starts out as a criminal investigation gradually turn into a conflict between the Christian Sergeant Howie and the pagan and potentially satanic islanders. This sounds like a battle of good and evil, but it becomes strangely twisted. Howie represents a strict, dominant and restrictive faith while the islanders, despite their creepiness, seem free and liberated. They celebrate sex and fertility very openly, but is it free love or is it cultic and demonic abandon? So, as a viewer I start to become confused. Is the dogmatic Howie our hero or is it in fact the charming Lord Summerisle?

I will not reveal the ending here, that would be too much of a spoiler, but there is a very interesting twist that makes this movie something special when Howie encounters the Wicker Man.

In terms of style “The Wicker Man” is hard to place. It is obviously a horror movie, but the rusticity and the many songs makes it something of a folkloric musical. It would a appear as a strange combination and threw me at first. Then as the movie progresses it somehow ties well in with the plot. It juxtaposes the rural bliss with the ominous practices on the island. The tunes are rustic but the lyrics are lurid and bawdy in the extreme.

It is a slow movie to be frank and probably too slow for many horror fans, but it is all in the foreboding. Add to that the amazing voice of Christopher Lee and you have a winner. When Lee speaks to the public, he does it with that booming voice that makes me think of Saruman much later in his career and that gives me the shivers.

“The Wicker Man” is a recommendation from me. Horror without gore and jump scares, but with foreboding is spades.



Friday 7 May 2021

The Long Goodbye (1973)


Det lange farvel

Some of the best movies in the forties were based on books by Raymond Chandler, so I was pleasantly surprised to see Robert Altman taking on Raymond Chandler in 1973. A Philip Marlowe noir set in the hippie heyday had to be interesting and I was not disappointed.

In 1973, Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) lives on the top floor in a sunny Los Angeles compound, alone with his cat and next to a group of stoned hippie girls. He is as cynical and sloppy with himself as you would expect but spends the first 10 minutes of the movie trying to feed his hungry, but picky, cat. I love cats and that is a beautiful cat, so he gets points for that.

As in all Raymond Chandler stories there is a lot going on of which we are only catching glimpses. Marlowe has to navigate in this murkiness and does that with a certain amount of bravado, which is a lot of the attraction of the movie. When Marlowe is brought in by the police he has no idea why and when he learns he has no intention of selling out his friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), yet manages to hold his own through the interrogations, not unlike Bogart’s Marlowe in “The Big Sleep”.

Marlowe’s own investigation of Terry Lennox, whom he learns was charged with the murder of his wife and was later found dead in Mexico, is haphazard and opportunistic, such as a seemingly unrelated job to find the author husband of Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt). Mr. Wade (Sterling Hayden) is in a detox clinic, which Marlowe helps him bust out of. Another strange agent is the gangster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell), who is convinced Marlow knows something about a lot of money Lennox owes him. Surprisingly, Augustine is friendly with Mrs. Wade…

Thus the pieces are set up in a game that defies normal comprehension, and likely beyond Marlowe too, but which he nevertheless throws himself into to find out what happened to his best friend.

Elliot Gould’s Philip Marlowe have this bemused expression on his face as if he has been away for 20 years and wonders at what the world has come to, but where other characters would get cynical and conservative, Marlowe is not judgmental at all, he accepts it and just does not quite get it.  This is the basis of many of the comical situations in the movie. Usually underplayed, but highly entertaining.

Ultimately it is a movie about betrayal and disappointment and that gives “The Long Goodbye” a melancholic undertone. This is reflected in the constantly repeated theme by John Williams and in the various characters. Under the surface there are dark stories and disappointment. Even Marlowe’s cat is unfaithful. Yet, this never gets depressive or morose.

The end result here is a highly entertaining crime noir that I swallowed hungrily. Surprisingly, it was not a hit at the box office. This has been explained as a case of poor marketing and upon re-release it did better. To my mind it is one of the best movies in a, so far, excellent year and deserve to be watched.


Saturday 1 May 2021

Mean Streets (1973)


Gaden uden nåde

“Mean Streets” is the first movie on the List by Martin Scorsese. It also features Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro as young actors in their first entries on the List. That is a lot to look forward to and so my expectations were very high going in. Unfortunately, I cannot say they were met as well as hoped.

We are in New York’s Little Italy neighborhood where (of course) there is a lot of mob activity. Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a low-level mobster doing work for the family. Exactly what work is never really clear, at least not to me. It is criminal, but does not seem to involve killing people. Charlie is religious and see himself as a righteous person who needs to help people, which is almost comical in a mobster, except that Charlie find himself caught between this inclination and doing career in the mob. One of the characters Charlie feels obliged to help is his friend John (Robert De Niro) and that is a real problem since John is a borderline psychopath who does not care about anything or anybody, a hopeless case. John owes money left and right with no intention of paying back his loans. He skips on work and blows up or shoots random things if he is not outright assaulting people on the street. Charlie tries to cover for him, sweet-talking his creditors, but John just see Charlie as a dupe and constantly let Charlie down.

In between we see a lot of a bar run by Charlie’s friend Tony (David Proval) where Charlie hangs out with his friends. Charlie also has a secret affair with John’s cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson), though her function is the story is mostly to showcase Charlie’s hypocrisy between good intentions and being a mobster.

Scorsese did a lot of work on the setting and ambience. This has the look and feel of a New York small time mobster world. A real-life mini-Godfather if you will. It has that documentary graininess and looseness in narrative that makes it feel real. Points for that. The acting is also very nice, a joy to watch De Niro and Keitel, and the soundtrack has all the coolness it needs.

The problem here is the narrative.

First thing is the premise. Charlie has assigned himself the hopeless mission of keeping John afloat, but John, despite his rebelliousness is not worth rooting for and much less worth saving, so why do we care? Ditch the moron and get on with it.

Then there is Charlie’s dilemma of being the mobster with a heart of gold. Dude, wake up! That is oil and water, man. It does not mix. This makes Charlie a ridiculous character and not a little pathetic. He cannot keep the two things apart and so he is crap at both and I do not really care for Charlie in the first place.

And finally, the story is not really going anywhere. Because Charlie cannot extricate himself from John, he is being dragged along into his destruction and that is where the story ends… just like that.

I know there are probably artistic reasons for the dark obscurity of the images during the last 10 minutes of the movie and I know it was probably a mistake to watch this in broad, sunny daylight, but as I could hardly see anything I had only the sound to go by and it consisted mostly of screaming and shouting, so, well, I felt somewhat nonplussed.

I get the impression that the look and feel of this movie was more important than the actual story, that this is something of a love letter to the Little Italy neighborhood and the people there, but I wanted more and felt let down. On the other hand, I am equally convinced that following these small-time mobsters around is awesome and cool to many viewers and I can respect if not quite understand that.

In 2016, while in Melbourne, I went the film museum there and visited a Scorsese exhibition and I remember there was a lot of stuff from this movie. This was clearly, at least for Scorsese, a very important film. I just wish I liked it better.