Sunday, 22 April 2018

The Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso) (1964)



Den røde ørken
”The Red Desert” (“Il Deserto Rosso”) is the fourth Antonioni movie following “L'Avventura” (1960), “La Notte” (1961), and “L'Eclisse” (1962). I have been on the fence with these three movie, slowly growing to accept them when considering them on their own terms. With “The Red Desert” Antonioni stretches those term to the extent that I have a hard time keeping up.

I get the impression that Antonioni got so excited working with colors that this became the theme of the movie. To use colors actively to reflect the moods of a woman. Antonioni went into this with a lot of zeal, painted fields and what-not and the result is very beautiful. The colors and color compositions are truly magnificent and very central in this movie. Not just saturated colors, that is an old trick dating back to “The Wizard of Oz”, but a subtle use that is both understated and very powerful, if that makes any sense.

The problem is that I think Antonioni got so absorbed in his use of colors that he forgot there is more to a movie.

When you watch an Antonioni movie you have to understand that it is a tableau, a mental state or a feeling he tries to convey, not an actual story. If you look for a story you will get disappointed. In “The Red Desert” there are truly no story at all. No plot what so ever. The Book sums it up very nicely: A neurotic woman (Monica Vitti) is looking for love but finds sex. Except Vitti’s character Giuliana is far beyond neurotic. I am no psychiatrist, but to me she seems to be schizophrenic.

So, Giuliana goes around being afraid of everything to the sound of disturbing electronic noises. Her surroundings are post-apocalyptic industrial landscapes with steam and pollution, mud and fog. Deeply unpleasant. I learned that this was filmed in Ravenna, which is disappointing as I always wanted to visit that place only now to learn that it looks like this. Yicks. Anyway, Giuliani had some sort of accident and now she is a mental case. She is looking for love or understanding and feeling very alone. Her husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) is often not present and quite busy at work. Though, to my mind, he is trying to be accommodating, but there is not to do. A business contact, Corrado (Richard Harris) is fascinated by Giuliana and wants to bed her. Giuliana thinks he may help her, but ends up being disappointed. Giuliana is pretty much trapped in her mind and her’s is not a case for amateurs. She needs professional help and a lot of it.

Seriously, that is all that happens over it’s two hours running time.

I found it a lot less engaging than the first three movies. Of course, Antonioni is all about making us feel all her anxiety, but it is so far outside the normal range of feelings that all I feel is pity. The emotional situations, typically alienation, of the characters in the other three movies were all belonging to normal, modern people. I can relate to them. Giuliana is not normal, she is ill and pretty badly. Without that connection two hours feel very long.

The one thing going for the movie is as mentioned photography, particularly the use of colors. The highlight here is a story Giuliana tells her son about a girl swimming on a beach where she can hear the rocks sing. That water looks so inviting I immediately felt like booking a ticket to wherever I could find such a beach.

In the final analysis, unless you are an Antonioni aficionado, you watch this movie for the use of colors and little else. It is not a favorite of mine.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

The Naked Kiss (1964)



Off-List: The Naked Kiss
The second off-list movie of 1964 is “The Naked Kiss”. It is not a movie I knew up front, but one that has been recommended. It was therefore not a given thing that I would like it. Ultimately I did, so thank you for the recommendation.

Samuel Fuller, the director, producer and writer of the movie, had made a name for himself as a somewhat controversial filmmaker, in that he picked and, enthusiastically, delved into the seedier and lurid parts of life. In “Shock Corridor” it was mental illness or outright insanity. In “The Naked Kiss” it is prostitution and pedophilia. I bet that got your attention.

Kelly (Constance Towers) is a prostitute who apparently is pretty sick of her profession. When she arrives in a small town she does one job and then makes a career change and starts working with handicapped children. Unfortunately, the one job she does take is with the local police chief, Griff (Anthony Eisley), and now he wants her out of town. Prostitutes do not belong in his town. Talk about hypocrisy.

However, Kelly is hugely successful in her new job and she meets a nice guy and they fall in love. His name is Grant (Michael Dante), he is the richest man in town and Griff’s best friend. Griff is strongly against a marriage, convinced Kelly is a gold-digger. Shortly before the wedding Kelly’s world come crashing down as (SPOILER) she finds out Grant is a pedophile and wants to marry her because she is also flawed, her being a prostitute. Kelly grabs a phone, knocks him in the head and kills hem (careful with those phones…) For Griff the case is clear. Kelly deliberately went after Grant’s money and killed him in the process. How will Kelly get out of that pinch?

For the first half hour I had some trouble paying attention to this movie. I suppose the filming felt like a throwback to the fifties and the story did not appeal much to me. But at that crucial moment where Kelly kills Grant, Fuller changed gear and this becomes a lot more interesting. The plot is piling up against Kelly and it gets quite exciting. In these passages “The Naked Kiss” is very much a film noir and a good one at that.

Constance Towers is by far the best actor on the set and giving her as much screen time as possible was a good choice. Her quiet despair is subtle and convincing, and her full steam misery is pretty good too. The rest are more B crew types, but they suit the movie.

There are flaws though. Not big enough to sabotage the movie, but odd enough that I cannot help thinking about them. They are, however, typical of Samuel Fuller.

First off Griff is a prick. His hypocrisy in the opening, his reluctance to recognize her change, his wild accusations and the vitriol he pours at her in the prison. But, alas, when he realizes she did not kill Grant for his money, but because he was a pedophile there are no apologies or remorse. In fact it would appear Griff and Kelly were lovers all along. Ehh, why is she kissing him instead of punching his face?

Secondly, Kelly did actually kill the guy violently. He may be a pedophile, but he did not attack her. She cannot claim self-defense. In most places that is not enough to kill a guy. Instead you go to the police. So, as I understand it she is actually guilty of murder. Something I have misunderstood?

A last item is the interrogation of the little girl at the police station. That made me cringe. Can you really rough up a child witness like that? And where are her parents? Maybe it is the age showing, but it felt wrong.

It ought to be easy to fix these details and the result would be a wonderfully lurid tale. I think I preferred “Shock Corridor”, but there is enough in the “The Naked Kiss” to make it worthy of watching. Whether I think it deserves a place on the List I am doubtful. At least I need to get a more complete view of 1964 first.

 

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

A Hard Day's Night (1964)



En hård dags nat
How many songs do you know by The Beatles? 5? 10, maybe? 50? Personally I haven’t got a clue. Say a number and it is probably more. I grew up in the eighties, long after The Beatles broke up, but still I can say I grew up with The Beatles. They were everywhere. In the radio, in the song books, in television, on the record shelves of friend’s parents and as teenagers we would re-discover their music and share its youthfulness as had we been our parents generation. No other band has had that sort of longevity, at least not with me. But it goes beyond that. I keep discovering songs I like only to find out that this song is also a Beatles song.  I hear Beatles songs I feel certain I have never heard before and yet they sound familiar because in all likelihood I did hear it many, many years ago.

And I am pretty sure I am not the only one.

Strangely enough I never saw “A Hard Day’s Night” before, at least not in its entirety, but the songs are quite familiar. So, watching this I could combine the joy of a first viewing with the comfort of familiarity. I felt spoiled.

Obviously “A Hard Day’s Night” is a vehicle for The Beatles. The storyline is about the thinnest possible. It is basically a day in the life of the band. They are taking the train to London to appear in a televised show. To get there they have to escape a horde of screaming girls and deal with inane questions from journalists (Journalist: How did you find America? Lennon: Turn left after Greenland). The producers of the show are going nuts because of the antics of the band and finally they get to play. That is not really a lot, but sprinkled throughout are a number of zany subplots. Paul’s grandfather (a very clean man) is constantly causing mischief. The manager and the road manager have an ongoing argument abut being taller than each other and the band members tend to wander off.  George ends up with a marketing dude who is very impressed with himself and Ringo, encouraged by Paul’s grandfather, deserts the band to find the real life in the streets. This happens to end in a Keaton-scale police chase.

It is sweet and fun and very light and helped a lot by the four Beatles members being very sympathetic characters. There are also threads to a Monty Python style sort of comedy that is quite appealing. But at the end of the day, what really matters is the music. Rather than spontaneously braking into song, the music bits slide almost naturally into the action, basically by the band taking every opportunity to sing a song or as backing music to the action on the screen. It works very well and rather than being a musical this is a movie about a band playing music.

The music is great. In fact the rest does not matter, having the music is easily enough. Of the twelve songs used in the movie six of them were new material made specifically for this movie to be used as a soundtrack album. Normally I would think that such songs mainly would be filler compared to the “greatest hits” that would make up the rest, especially given the very short time Lennon and McCartney had to come up with them, but that is not the case at all. Every single one of them is a classic and are in my opinion better than their previous material. Especially the title song which is one of my all-time favorite Beatles songs.

The second disc of the Criterion edition I got contains a wealth of information and anecdotes of the movie. Somewhat repetitive though, by the third behind the scenes feature I felt I knew everything worth knowing about this particular movie. The historic account of the Beatles up to the point of the movie is very interesting though and well worth visiting for its own sake.

Rather than saying this was a good movie I would say that this was a movie I greatly enjoyed watching and I could easily see it again. Highly recommended. Very highly.

And now to something completely different… I have just returned from The States with my family and want to share with you the launch of the Falcon rocket last week as seen from Kennedy Space Center. I hope this works…
ups... Blogger has a maximum size of 100 MB so instead you may have to download it from here instead:
 
 

      

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Woman in the Dunes (Suna no Onna) (1964)



Sunna No Onna
”Woman of the Dunes” is an odd movie. It is one of those stories you cannot place in a single category as it seems to contain many elements or aspects.

On the face of it it lands somewhere between a prison escape movie and a robinsonade. Schoolteacher Niki Junpei (Eiji Okada) has ventured into an area of sand dunes to collect bugs for his collection. He misses the last bus home and the locals offer that he can stay with one of them, a woman that lives alone. She lives in a hut at the bottom of a sandpit, accessible only with a rope ladder. Soon enough however Junpei finds out that there is nowhere out and he will not make it back to school in time.

It turns out that the woman (Kyoko Kishida), who is never given a name, lost husband and child and needs a new man and the villagers has decided that Junpei is the one. He is of course upset by this turn of events, but no matter what he tries he cannot get out of the pit. In the beginning he tries brute force, but over time his schemes become more cunning. Meanwhile the woman seems bent on trying to make it comfortable for him and to make him accept his fate. When Junpei finally succeeds to get out of the pit he ends up in quicksand and is brought back to the woman. That seems to make him give up.

The sandpit is obviously a prison with Junpei the prisoner constantly trying to escape. The sandpit is also a deserted island with very limited, and certainly no visual, contact with the outside world and Junpei has to learn how the island works if he is to survive. Grudgingly at first, but with more enthusiasm as time wears on.

These, the surface themes, work well, albeit a bit slow and the ending is quite surprising. It is however on the deeper levels that “Woman of the Dunes” stands out. There is something very surreal about people living at the bottom of a sandpit. In reality it would never work. Sand is incredibly mobile and for all their shoveling the pit would be covered soon enough. I should know, I took my masters in sand dunes. There is simply no point to placing a hut at the bottom of a sand pit. The real story therefore is one of metaphors and that is where it gets interesting.

Junpei is getting caught in a marriage and he cannot get out of. Or more to the point, the life of a woman in Japan in the 1960’ies (and probably today as well) is a life at the bottom of a sandpit. Chained to a life with no outlook. Work is a Sisyphean affair that has to be done but never takes you anywhere and being together with a man is like being a spider capturing prey, dragging them into her sandpit. From this perspective the movie works very well. The woman who knows no other life and no other destiny is fatalistic and accepting about her life. The man, seeing this life from the male, outside, point of view, sees it as a despairing prison, an end to all he wanted to be.

This storyline is underscored by the soundtrack which is haunting and brooding and otherworldly and the sand is a perfect metaphor for the inevitable. The villagers with their googles and shrill laughter are like small demons tormenting the man and the woman, with the difference that the woman is accepting their treatment of her.

I found “Woman of the Dunes” a clever movie and captivating, literally, but it was also a tad too long. My version was an uncut version and I understand the need to trim it. It could easily loose about half an hour. When the scenes drag out I found myself drifting a bit. Overall, though, I would say “Woman of the Dunes” come out positive.     

There will be a short break now on this blog as I will be going for the next two weeks to The States.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

My Fair Lady (1964)



My Fair Lady
Oh dear, oh dear…

I am at a loss for words, where do I even start?

You know you are in for a rough ride when the praise in the Book is lackluster and rarely have the editors been this hesitant in their endorsement, yet somehow my hope were pretty high going in to “My Fair Lady”. Not sure why, though. Maybe because it is as famous as it is, maybe because it has been there, present as long as I can remember. In any case this is the first time I watch it for real and, well, now I know.

For the very few who are entirely unfamiliar with the story, this is an adaption of a stage production of a novel (“Pygmalion”) by Bernard Shaw. The language professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) makes it his goal to make a lady out of the street vendor Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn). He succeeds, she becomes a lady and they get each other. The end. Oh wait, somewhere in between 178 minutes passes.

At the heart of it this is such a classic story and I have seen countless versions of it. The ugly duckling taken out of its pond and transformed into a swan. The problem here is that this movie is probably the worst version of this story, ever.

The characters are just awful. Henry Higgins in particular is obnoxious in the extreme. Full of venom and spite, he mocks everybody around him with a superior attitude. That could be funny, but it is not. Just annoying. Eliza as the street vendor is only marginally less annoying. Her screaming and ranting almost deserves the mockery being served by Henry. Then of course in a split-second she turns into a lady with pleasant language, intelligence and understanding, which was granted her simply be learning a language.

The pervading idea is that language is a reflection of who you are. Refined language gives you by default a number of desirable qualities including wealth and intelligence, whereas dialects are a menace, speaking a dialect means that you are simple and borderline criminal. Needless to say that this idea is ridiculous in the extreme and not a little insulting.

That Henry teaches the girl as part of a bet and only uses her to show off his own brilliance is just part of his character. What is far more objectionable is that Eliza is supposed to fall in love with him. The last five minutes of the movie are just completely unbelievable given what has happened up to that point.

Then of course there are all the things that are happening or rather not happening over the very long running time of the movie. There is a lot of singing naturally, it is a musical. In fact according to Wikipedia there a 25 musical numbers we have to get through, during which not much is happening. I am wrecking my brain trying to remember what actually happens, but really, very little is actually happening. Quite a lot of shouting though and that is another thing. This is not just a stage adaption. It is filmed, acted and vocalized as if it is on a stage. Filmed theater so to speak. Just plain weird. And loud.

Some of the songs were quite familiar. I know “The Rain in Spain” and “Get Me to Church on Time”, but curiously only in a Danish adaption. See, this fantastic musical was so successful that it was translated to stage and film versions all over the world.

I cannot help thinking that I am missing something. When you are watching a movie and regularly mutter to yourself that that this is really bad and the world at large thinks this is amazing then you have to wonder if you are watching the same movie. I generally do not love musicals, but this is way beyond that. If not even Audrey Hepburn can save a movie then we are in trouble.   

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Marnie (1964)



Marnie
As far as I can see “Marnie” is the last Alfred Hitchcock movie on the list. A recurrent theme on this blog has therefore reached its last chapter. Hitchcock is the single most prevalent director on the List and I have lost count on the number of times I have reviewed a Hitch movie. Usually they are good, even very good. This time… it is okay, but not great.

The Hitchcock catalogue is so large and so glorious that it is a tall order to find a place in that collection and “Marnie” barely makes it. In my opinion at least. Undoubtedly there are big fans of this movie as well.

“Marnie” is the story about a woman, Marnie (Tippi Hedren), who has a scheme going. She will work in a company for a few months under an assumed identity and then rob the place and leave town. In between heists she will visit her mother, Bernice (Louise Latham), give her some money and spin her some tale of what she is doing. As we are entering the story Marnie has just done a tax consultant office and is moving on to the Rutland company.

The Rutland company is headed by James Bond… eh… Mark Rutland (Sean Connery). He was a client at the tax consultancy and recognized Marnie. This makes him insist on hiring her and he takes her under his wing. Exactly why is never quite clear, but the more messed up Marnie turns out to be, the more insistent he is. Marnie is afraid of the color red, she is afraid of thunder and she abhors men. She also eventually robs the Rutland company and tries to walk away with a fortune. Caught between Mark and a crime charge Marnie is forced to marry Mark and go on a lengthy honeymoon with him, all for him to play psychiatrist on her.

It is a strange couple. Marnie is seriously messed up and Mark is obsessive, even sadistic, in his insistence on getting her “solved”. No wonder Marks former sister-in-law Lil (Diane Baker) finds it weird and suspicious and tries to stop this charade.

It does of course come to a climax where the psycho analysis goes full throttle.

“Marnie” seems like a composite of previous Hitchcock movies. There is a lot of “Spellbound” in it. The man frantically trying to solve a woman mystery from “Vertigo” and the lead as a thief from “Psycho”. It all feels like we have been here before and those elements were not the best from those movies. Sure, Hitch is a genius at building up suspense and editing his movies, but it feels old here. Not just because we have seen it before, but in 1964 cinema has moved on and a Hitch movie still looks like something from the fifties.

There is a lot hanging on Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery. Their chemistry is quite decisive. Fortunately they are up to the task, but only barely. Sean Connery is James Bond and that air of uber-man he also brings into his role as Mark. Super confident, strong, assertive and resourceful. But also manic in his insistence of fixing Marnie. His character is not the gentle hero but something darker and we never learn why. I had hoped that something would explode in the climactic scenes due to his flaws, but instead he steps down and becomes a more ordinary gentleman hero. Disappointing. Tippi Hedren has to be this seriously troubled girl. A thief and a liar, she is not the person you would normally root for and in clashing with the dark insistence of Mark Rutland she is like a wild animal caught in the headlights. She does that well. That she as a character is quite a bit out there in unbelievable territory is not her fault.

Beside the nice editing what I really liked about the movie was the score. As usual it is Bernard Herrmann and this time it is very haunting, but also the kind of music that buries itself in your skull. It is still there and I am humming the Marnie theme while I am writing.

“Marine” is okay. It is not a bad movie, merely a tired movie. It marks a natural end to the big Hitchcock productions. He did continue to make a few more movies but as I understand it they are considered lesser movies in his filmography. Ultimately “Marnie” was a bit disappointing, but I think that is mostly when comparing it to his great movies.

    

Saturday, 10 March 2018

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)



Off-List: A Fistful of Dollars
The first off-list movie of 1964 is “A Fistful of Dollars”.

“A Fistful of Dollars” is a low-budget western made by Italians on a location in Spain. It features a previously unknown American actor, who insisted his lines should be reduced, suspect Hong Kong style dubbing and a plot that is almost a complete rip-off of a Japanese Samurai movie.

Does not sound very promising, does it?

Ah, but this is in fact the birth of the Spaghetti-western, the movement, spearheaded by Sergio Leone, that would revitalize the western genre, adding that mythological element to the western that made it even more “western” than reality. The subgenre that gave us such legendary movies as “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “A Fistful of Dollars” is its glorious beginning.

The obscure American actor happened to be Clint Eastwood and I think that is enough introduction. These were the movies that made him famous. When you think of Clint Eastwood as an actor, you think of the characters he played in the Leone westerns.

And the Japanese Samurai movie is “Yojimbo” by Kurusawa. If I should think of a movie suited to be remade into a western, that would be the one and, amazingly, “A Fistful of Dollars” is one of the best remakes ever made. It is in fact so good that it holds up even when you know it is a remake.

That begs the question, which of the two is the better movie? And who is coolest: Toshiro Mifune or Clint Eastwood?

The crazy thing is that I do not know, both movies are great. Kurusawa created a perfect western and Leone did not just copy it, but reformatted it using his very own style that brought so many new things, not just to this story but to the western genre and cinema in general.

That is in fact the first thing you notice when you watch “A Fistful of Dollars”. This movie looks different from anything that went before. The super close-up of faces on the wide-screen format is obvious and effective, but also the tension is created with only minimal dialogue, but mainly though using the canvas of those faces, how the camera moves from face to face, not to watch them speak or react, but just observe them. Combine that with layer upon layer of sounds with exaggerated clarity and that amazing Ennio Morricone soundtrack and tension builds up to the bursting point. Shots feels like release, violence comes from pent up tension and we are on the edge of our seats.

The setting is Mexico and so the Spanish/Latin connection does not look awkward, but quite authentic.

Yes, I enjoyed “A Fistful of Dollars” immensely. It is extremely watchable, both because the story is as good as it is and because this is a stylistic feast for the eyes and the ears. Ennio Morricone is a legend. Sergio Leone is a legend and Clint Eastwood… well, do I need to repeat myself?

A “Fistful of Dollars” belongs on the List ahead of most of the movies there. The fact that neither “Yojimbo”, nor “A Fistful of Dollars” have earned a spot is a crime.

So, who is cooler, Mifune or Eastwood? Go watch the ending of “Yojiimbo” and tell me that he is not the most awesome lonesome hero ever. Clint is a solid second. Or wait… ahhh…. I don’t know…