Thursday, 23 March 2017

Peeping Tom (1960)

Fotomodeller jages
Quite by coincidence I am on to another psychopathic killer movie. “Peeping Tom” follows right on the tail of “Psycho” last week and it is entirely fitting. Those two would make an excellent double feature.

Where “Psycho” was leading us to believe that the nice guy at the motel is actually a nice guy and not a mad killer, “Peeping Tom” goes the completely opposite way.  Right from the opening we know that Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm) goes around killing people. Only then do we learn that Mark is actually a nice and gentle boy who struggling with some personal demons that makes him kill people. It sounds like an impossible task. How can you make a crazy killer sympathetic? A man you would actually root for? But Michael Powell, director and producer, actually accomplishes just that and that is in my opinion what makes this movie special.

Gradually through the movie we are let into Marks world, a truly strange and horrifying place. We see how he was ruined as a child by a sadistic father who did fear experiments on him and filmed it all. The result of that upbringing is an obsession with filming anything, everything really, and hunt for that perfect image of fear as people watch themselves die. It is clear that Mark get off on those images. Even the thought of them makes him sexually aroused and the murders seem to be orgastic release for him. This is seriously weird stuff, way beyond dressing up as a dog or hanging out with plastic dolls and a perversion far ahead of its time.

Personally I have some problem following the logic of his particular affliction. It does not really make sense and it gives me the nasty suspicion that his condition is deliberately gory and extreme, but then, I am not a psychiatrist, I have no idea if this sort of psychosis is a real thing. It bothers me because repelling as it is we get to like Mark and I want to understand why gets suck a kick out of filming people watching their own death.

Between working on a film set and going around killing people for kicks Mark meets a nice girl. Helen (Anna Massey) is a tenant is the big house Mark’s father left him who is endeared by the shy and gently boy. She wants to get to know him, but has clearly no idea what she is walking into. Mark falls in love with Anna immediately in part because he is desperate to reach out for someone to help him, yet, understandably, afraid what such a person would think of him. This part is quite interesting, both because we learn a lot about Mark, but also because I get strangely torn between hoping Anna can help him and urging her to get out of his reach that he does not kill her too.

Mark is of course a lost cause. The police is closing in on him and his relationship with Anna can only end in disaster. His secret is not something you can just learn to live with. The question is merely which disaster will happen first. However Mark has planned that moment and know exactly how he wants to check out.

There are a number of interesting elements to this movie. First of all why choose an actor with a distinct German accent as Mark? It is never explained, but I think it is with the war in mind, that at this time the British public would associate a German accent with a sadistic nazi villain.

Another element is the theme of voyeurism. Mark is not the only one who gets a kick out of watching. There is a great scene in the newsagent shop with an older man eager to buy pornography, but shy about it when a school girl enter the shop. Maybe a way of saying that voyeurism is a common thing, though in my book there is a big step up from porn to murder.

Then the movie has a whole meta thing going with the film set Mark is working at. A film about the process of making a film.

Powell has sprinkled humoristic elements over the movie, particularly on the film set, but also in scenes involving the police. I am not sure I like that levity. Mark’s affliction deserves to be taken serious and the silliness attenuates some of the bite. Normally I like that break in depressive movies, but here I find it unfitting.

My favorite character of the entire movie must be Anna’s mother, Mrs. Stephens (Maxine Audley). She is blind and therefore cannot be a voyeur and perhaps therefore she possesses more clarity than any other character. Also she is one sharp woman with a dry wit.

All in all “Peeping Tom” is a daring movie that does thing we are not (or were not) used to watching. It is cleverly made and swings itself up to an impressive level of suspense. It is impossible not to compare it to Psycho and in that comparison I think “Peeping Tom” falls short. I understand intuitively what is happening to Norman Bates and why he thinks as he does, but Mark is simply too far out. I simply cannot relate to his sexual obsession. But then again, I would hate to have another end sequence with a psychologist lecturing on his condition. Mark’s spectacular demise must and should speak for itself.


Friday, 17 March 2017

Psycho (1960)

I cannot say I have been terribly impressed with last batch of movies I have been through. They generally have not struck a chord with me, even if some of them have been famous and admittedly influential. Maybe that is why I felt so relieved and energized watching Psycho.

“Psycho” is not the best Hitchcock movie I ever saw. It may not even be top tier. But even an average Hitchcock movie is a great watch and “Psycho” is a movie with a lot to offer.

At first it may seem disappointing that “Psycho” is in black and white. Come to think of it all the movies in 1960 so far have been in black and white and I am longing to some glorious Technicolor, but “Psycho” must have that noir’ish black and white cinematography. It simply would not work in color. This is something I only get to realize much later in the movie when the story takes some dramatic and unexpected turns. Yet the disappointment quickly fades as I am snuggled into the familiar comfort (or discomfort if you will) of a Hitchcock production. The score, a Hitchcock hallmark by now, is eerie and haunting, maybe one of his best scores, and the framing of each scene expertly made. Best of all we get some spectacular acting right from the get-go.

“Psycho” is about a woman, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) who is involved in an affair with a man who is in debt and still tied to a woman he is trying to divorce. The relationship as it is is too distressing for her, but if only they had a lot of money…

That money suddenly appears when a client of her boss deposits 40.000 $ with her. She makes a quick decision and runs off with the money. Marion however is a terrible thief. She has guilt painted all over her and it seems to be only a matter of time before she is caught. Her attempt at shaking a curious policeman by changing car is simply pathetic and useless and as she stops for the night at a motel she starts having second thoughts. Especially after talking with the young and sympathetic owner of the motel (Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates) who seems to be even more trapped than she is.

This is where the movie changes completely. This movie is not about Marion Crane and the 40.000 $, but about a psychopathic killer lurking at the motel. Marion is stabbed to death in the legendary shower scene and disappears out of the movie. A private detective appears, looking for the woman and the money, but he is also killed.

If you did not know the story already this would be one of the greatest plot twists in movie history. The entire premise of the movie is turned upside down and we are plunged into something a lot darker than a romance and a theft. Problem is we know this plot twist already. “Psycho” is one of the most iconic movies ever made, the shower scene is more famous than anything I can think of and we know Norman Bates is a psychopath. I feel robbed really. I wanted that surprise, the spectacular twist that people back then in 1960 would line up in long queues for and promise not to tell anybody about (another legend of the movie), but I can only guess how they most have felt. It is like watching “Sixth Sense” knowing that Bruce Willis character is already dead. Ufff…

Sure, I did enjoy it, how can you not. Anthony Perkins is absolutely perfect, both as a nice and shy young man, as a terrified and angry man and as a psychotic villain. Even knowing what he will eventually be doing it is difficult not to be sympathetic towards him. He may be one of the most interesting bad boys in movie history.

A second reason for liking it despite the surprise having been spoilt is the expert composition. “Phycho” is a case where cinematography, score and editing complements each other perfectly. The view from the motel towards that ominous house with the all-strings score is genius and so is the famous shower scene.

The one thing I did not like was the psychologist appearing in the end. I do not understand why we need a 7-minute lecture on Bates’ sickness at this point. It is pretty obvious what has happened by then and these things usually work better unexplained. On top of that the actor doing the lecture is absolutely awful. It is lecture as a show, posing for the camera and it looks ridiculously stupid. Cut this part and I would make “Psycho” a top tier Hitchcock.

At the end of the day it is difficult not to be impressed by this movie. I liked it a lot and probably more than I normally would thanks to the mediocre fare I have been offered lately, but objectively the parts of this movie that are famous deserve their fame. This is a movie you must see… from the beginning.


Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Housemaid (Hanyeo) (1960)

I have a certain affinity for Korea and Koreans. Through work I have visited Seoul many times and come to like it a lot. Going around is Seoul it is strange to think that this was not always a glitzy and modern place, that there was a time where Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world and that is not even that many years ago. Korea started this century as an occupied country and only just earned its freedom when it was thrown into a devastating war. Those were harsh times and it is no wonder that the first Korean entry on the List is as late as 1960.

At this time Koreans where eager to get out of the poverty and were very inspired by the West, most notably America. In that light Hanyeo, today’s movie, is an American thriller transplanted to Korea with a lot of focus on the necessity of earning wealth. Makes sense, no?

Hanyeo is a very effective movie. With obviously cheap tools (few sets and mediocre actors) the director Kim Ki-young is able to wrench an insane amount of intensity out of his ludicrous story. This is a horror thriller with a true monster who does not hesitate to kill and wreck to get what it wants and all that inside the home of a small family.

Dong-sik Kim (Kim Jin-kyu) is a musician teaching a class of women at a factory to sing. For some reason the women are madly in love with him. One girl sends him a love letter and is summarily dismissed from the factory and kills herself out of grief. A second one tries to get piano lessons from the musician and so enters his home.

At home Dong-sik Kim has a wife and two children. They just moved into a new house they can barely afford, but they are eager to get a high living standard and so the wife (Ju Jeung-ryu) sews at home and Dong-sik Kim accepts to take in the girl for piano lessons. However the wife is heavily pregnant so they decide to take in a housemaid and ask the piano girl to find one. And so she does… Myung-sook (Lee Eun-shim), the housemaid, is a monster from the nether realms of hell. While Dong-sik Kim managed to deflect the first girl and barely manage to deflect the piano girl (although she is pretty) Myung-sook is not so easy to get rid of. She forces Kim Jin-kyo to have sex with her (she practically rapes him) and then use that as a tool against him and his family. She starts to kill them off and their attempts to get rid of her are hampered by their unwillingness to lose their hard-earned wealth.  

The problem with this movie is that it is way over the top. Everything is super exaggerated, there is always thunder when Myung-sook appears, she will typically be looking in through a window when it is least opportune and she is raving mad. All the while the conflict is in fact entirely unnecessary. The family have plenty opportunity to get rid of her early on and there were plenty of signs that she was very unstable. Even later when she starts killing off the family members their excuses for keeping her sounds hollow and lame. Yet depite these issues it is still a very entertaining movie because of the nerve mentioned above and because Lee Eun-shim is great as the demonic housemaid. She goes way further than you would normally see in an American erotic thriller and even in European one. She is raw lust and need and completely controlled by her animal instinct.

Had the story been tempered with a less ludicrous script this could have been a great movie. As it is it is fun despite itself and I found myself laughing out loud several time. That is great, I love that kind of movies, but this could have been a different and far more sinister movie with a bit of care.

Also the ending is one of the weirder ones…

Friday, 3 March 2017

The Cloud-Capped Star (Meghe Dhaka Tara) (1960)

Meghe Dhaka Tara 
The year 1960 seems to be particularly heavy on depressive movies. I certainly feel I am caught up in a flood of them. I do not mind tragic stories, but this is starting to wear me out. I could really do with a bit of feel-good, but that will not be today, because today we are going to India again and India is, based on these old movies, just about the most depressive place in the world.

“Meghe Dhaka Tara” or “Cloud-Capped Star” is the story of a Bengal refugee family who probably used to be well off, but fled what is now Bangladesh and is now eking out a living in a refugee camp outside Calcutta (now Kolkata). It is not to be confused with the 2013 movie of the same name, which I found by mistake and got an hour into before I realized my error (it is also black and white and takes place around the same time). In any case in this family the father and the elder daughter Neeta (Supriya Choudhury) support the family, him by running a small school and her by tutoring children and students. Neeta is clearly gifted and was supposed to do a master degree, but she has become caught up in the job of supporting the family. As her father tends to waste away the money the family is completely dependent on Neeta’s income.

Neeta has a brother, Shankar (Anil Chatterjee), who dreams of singing. He does nothing all day but sing and beg money of Neeta for silly things like a shave. At least he is sympathetic if useless. Neeta’s sister Geeta (Gita Ghatak) is equally spoilt. She does nothing but complain about poverty and all the things she cannot get and of course beg money of Neeta. I believe there is another, younger brother as well who is studying. Their mother is one on those wailing mothers who does nothing but complain about everything while she toils for her useless children.

This is the story about Neeta. It starts bad and gets progressively worse. Her farther gets sick so she is now alone bringing home an income. She has a nice boyfriend, Sanat (Niranjan Ray), but when she insists that she cannot leave her household since they are all depending on her he gets frustrated and in steps Geeta and steals Sanat. Geeta does not mind leaving the household and Sanat promises to get decently wealthy. Did I mention that Geeta is a snake? Then the younger brother drops his studies and takes a job only to have a bad accident. Hospital treatment is not cheap and again it is Neeta who has to take care of it. Finally she contracts tuberculosis…

Basically the story is about Neeta’s sacrifice and suffering. When her family finally starts being grateful and a bit ashamed it is too late. Neeta’s life is washed out.

Such an uplifting story is exactly what you need on dark, winter nights…

Actually despite the obvious melodrama and Neeta’s intolerable family this is not a bad movie. It does have a progressive story and it is not as prone to stalling as other movies I have recently watched. Supriya Choudhury as Neeta is surprisingly good and her growing frustration and loss is felt more than seen as only good actors can do. This means that you cannot look away from the story and it moves surprisingly fast.

I am always struck by the poverty and grittiness of life in India in these old movies and this is no different. Neeta is of course a victim of that poverty, but more than that she is a victim of her own family. She willingly sacrifices herself for them and thereby she is also guilty in that exploitation. She could have objected and had a good education and a very good and dedicated husband, but she is caught up in her obligations and as a result she loses everything.

Add to that the irony that Shankar does become a famous and rich singer who buys the family a new house with two stories and that Sanat and Geeta gets beautiful children and prosper and Neeta can see that her sacrifice is thankless and did nothing for herself.

“Meghe Dhaka Tara” is a blow to the stomach, a movie intent on making you cry or get angry, but it is also a surprisingly well made movie. I am just not sure I can handle any more depressive movies right now.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Adventure (L'Avventura) (1960)

De elskendes eventyr
I frankly have no idea what to write about ”L’Avventura” (The Adventure). It felt like a very long and empty shell and I still have no idea what this was all about.

Let us just start with the story because that is very easy. A group of wealthy Italian people are going on a boat picnic to some volcanic islands off the Sicilian coast. Anna (Lea Massari) is uneasy about her relationship this Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). I still have no idea exactly what was bothering her, but she seems quietly desperate. On the boat ride she lies about seeing a shark and confides that something is wrong to her friend Claudia (Monica Vitti). Then she disappears. They all go looking for her but to no avail. When the others resign the search and return to their lives Monica and Sandro continue looking for Anna.

They never find her but in the process of looking for her they start an affair with each other. Claudia is suffering guilt, not knowing whether she wants to fall in love with Sandro and that is about it. For 2½ hours.

To say that watching this movie was a frustrating experience is an understatement. Nothing happens. At all. It is a beautifully shot movie and particularly Monica Vitti is a revelation, but considering the critical acclaim of this movie there is clearly more to this movie, but what?

I will venture onto very thin ice and say that this may have something to do with the way Claudia perceives the world. I kept getting this feeling from her that she senses exactly what is going on around her, but lacks the words to express it and the ability to process it. You can see it in her eyes that reveal understanding or are disconcerted when she catches a wrong vibe. When Sandro hits on her she feels both guilt and that there is something not entirely trustworthy about Sandro.

Another possibility, and now I am really guessing, is that Claudia and Sandro are archetypes for men and women and the way the two genders understands and communicates with each other. Claudiu is all erratic and illogical feeling and unspoken needs and Sandro is all about getting into her pants, direct and literal. To me that sounds more like a cliché than archetypes and a tale that has been told a million times before.

Of course there is the possibility that this is not about anything at all, but just a 2½ hours of wasted time, something critics would never admit to not understanding and consequently praise it to the skies. A part of me likes this idea, but I honestly do not think it is that simple. This is Michelangelo Antonioni after all and the prizes it was awarded were quite significant, so I will probably have to resign and admit that it is just me being too stupid to get it.

What did make the movie somewhat bearable was Monica Vitti. Her expressive acting and sense of presence is outstanding and I understand she will feature in several more movies on the list. That is truly something to look forward to.

One of the more or less pointless scenes involves Claudia’s friend obviously having an affair with a young painter. The paintings he was making were quite interesting, sort of a mix of Miro and Picasso. It is kind of sad when this is what I remember from the movie.

Anyway, if anyone can explain to me why this movie is so fantastic please step forward. I am at a loss and very much need some help here.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Under Sandet (Land of Mine) (2015)

Under Sandet
I have just returned from a trip back to Denmark during which I stayed over with a friend of mine who had prepared a few movies for us to watch. We ended up choosing “Under Sandet”, a Danish movie from 2015 which has received an Academy nomination in the Best Foreign Language category. If it sounds unfamiliar it might help to know that it is released abroad as “Land of Mine”. I am not in the habit of reviewing new movies, but both the timing and the quality of this movie is exceptional.

The backstory of the movie is that during second world war the German army fortified the entire Atlantic and North Sea coastline in anticipation of an allied invasion. This included the Danish west coast. The hulking bunkers are in many cases still there as silent, grim reminders of a violent past, but a more immediate problem after the war were the millions of mines buried just under the sand. These had to be removed.

The sentiment was that those who placed them there could please remove them again so some two thousand German soldiers were sent to Denmark to clean the beaches. From an outside perspective that sounds reasonable enough. However the German army in 1945 was a rag-tag collection of children and old men. Hardly the gruesome Nazi’s that people loathed. The movie follows such a group of children dressed up as soldiers who is sent to do mine cleaning service. Remove 45.000 mines in three months and they can go home.

Their supervisor Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller) hates the Germans. We see that in the opening where he assaults and beats some German soldiers in a convoy simply for being German. Sgt. Rasmussen receives his troop of German “soldiers” in the same spirit and openly declares that he does not care if they all die clearing mines. The same goes for Karin (Laura Bro), the farmer who is paid to feed the soldier. She takes her revenge by simply not feeding them while Lt. Ebbe Jensen (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), the pioneer of the engineering corps in charge of the operation, takes a sick pleasure in killing as many as possible.

And a deadly task it is. Even for skilled minesweepers this is tricky business and with an average of six mines per hour it does not take a genius to figure out that from time to time something will go wrong. The movie has this slow pace that almost lulls you into complacency and then, boom, somebody blows up and every time it happens the simple brutality is shocking.

As already mentioned the troop consists of boys, not men. They hardly need to shave, they are shaking with fear of their task and they are completely out of place. The only army training they seem to have gotten is to do what they are told and to reply correctly to shouting. Beside that they are just big school children. There is a quiet despair to them as if they are accepting their lot, but at the same time do not understand why fate has placed them where they are. Soon, very soon, they are transformed from German soldiers to individual, gentle characters. Sebastian, Helmut, Ludwig, Wilhelm and the twins Ernst and Werner (Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Oskar Bökelmann, Leon Seidel, Emil and Oskar Belton) and so on. We, the audience soon find it difficult to hate them and gradually Sgt. Rasmussen must recognize them for what they are. It is that phenomenon that it is easy to hate people as a group but very difficult to hate them as individual human beings that is at the heart of the movie. As the boys are broken down, reduced both in number and spirit they come into focus as human beings even to cold hearted Karin.

This is a deeply humanistic message that goes much further than the movie and the shame that is felt by Sgt. Rasmussen and Karin can easily be transferred to other issues where groups are hated collectively and that is why this movie feels relevant today rather than just poking to our bad conscience of something that happened 70 years ago.

“Under Sandet” is a slow-moving movie, but it is a movie that grabs you around the heart and moves you, especially if like me you cannot accept cruelty to children. In a world of fast paced movies, it is an almost shocking experience to watch a movie that takes its time to let you know the characters. And double shocking when it then blows them away.

As far as I can see the movies in the Best Foreign Language category are all strong and I doubt “Under Sandet” will win it, but it is a worthy candidate and I can only recommend it.     

Friday, 10 February 2017

Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le Pianiste) (1960)

Skyd på pianisten
”Tirez sur le pianiste” or ”Shoot the Pianist” is the second installment on the List from Francois Truffault. It is quite a departure from “Les Quatre Cents Coups” in several ways. Gone is the social-realistic pathos and oppressive self-importance to be replaced by playfulness and a mischievous sparkle in the eye. ”Tirez sur le pianiste” is a movie by people having fun rather than burning to tell an important story.

I liked “Tirez sur le pianiste” a lot more than I did “Les Quatre Cents Coups”.

It is a strange movie to describe because it is both very conventional and completely unconventional. The plot is something you would recognize from an American B-movie, but processed in a way that is not quite a parody but questions the very format of the film. I imagine that Truffaut and his team sat down and considered every scene of the movie and said: “Hey, wouldn’t it be totally awesome if instead of doing this or that the characters would do or be something entirely different?” In that sense the very format of the otherwise ordinary story becomes a playground.

Take for example the introduction. A man, Chico (Albert Rémy), is on the run from someone. He meets a complete stranger with flowers, chat him up and is told a lengthy story about a marriage grown from dislike to full blown love. He says good bye and continues to run to find his brother and ask for help. There is an obvious clash here that makes you wonder and even smile, but not enough of a clash to break the illusion. In the bar where Chico finds his brother Charlie (Charles Aznavour) people are dancing and having a great time, but when you look at the couples dancing they are outright bizarre. Again you raise your eyebrow and even smile, but not enough to break the illusion. Then Chico disappears out of the story only to reappear in the end and we now follow Charlie, who has a secret worthy of any B-movie, but taken that step further.

The only movie I can really compare “Tirez sur le pianiste” to is “Pulp Fiction”. Tarantino’s toying with the conventions of B-movies is entirely parallel to what Truffault does here. That makes it fun and entertaining and always surprising, but never so much that it brakes the frame of the larger story. Charlie and Chico are being hunted by two gangsters and it does end in a bloody shoot-out, but the road there takes some very peculiar turns. The gangsters are tough and persistent, but they are also talkative clowns who in the heat of things keep up conversations completely unrelated to what they are actually doing. Again not unlike Jackson’s and Travolta’s characters in “Pulp fiction”.

Another similarity are the sudden jumps in the story timeline introducing plotlines seemingly unrelated to the main plot. The jumps are very sudden and at times dizzying and reflect the play with the format. The situations in these often almost unrelated scenes are detailed and elaborate and I get the impression that much more attention was invested in getting these scenes right than in developing the main story and as such they often feel more like tableaux than parts of a progressive story.

Truffault actually manages to keep it all on track and never lets it slide too far and I think this is why it actually works. This could easily have become a spoof movie or a hopelessly arty movie, but it maintains the balance well enough to become neither.

That is until I saw the interview with Truffault in the extra material. His explanations to the movie were so highbrow and pretentious that I wondered if it was me who had completely misunderstood the movie. According to Truffaut “Tirez sur le pianiste” is an art project. In my understanding, it was a group of movie makers having a great time. I much prefer my version.

I would definitely recommend this movie to anybody with an affinity for early Tarantino movies. He must have watched this movie and been inspired. In its time “Tirez sur le pianiste” was not received well so I guess Truffault was about thirty years ahead of his time.