Tuesday, 27 September 2016

The 400 Blows (Le Quatre Cent Coups) (1959)



Ung flugt
A quick skimming of the Book would make you realize that the sixties were if not dominated then at least heavily influenced by French film. I understand that this is the new French wave or Nouvelle Vague. Frankly I am not certain what the concept covers, I was never much into French movies of the sixties, but as today’s movie, “Les Quatre Cent Coups (The 400 Blows)” is touted as the opening of the genre I must assume that it will be something like this.

I cannot say that I am super excited.

It is not that “Les Quatre Cent Coups” is a bad movie, it is not, not at all actually, but Mon Dieu this is a depressing movie! Ten-fifteen more of these movies and I will be ready to kill myself.

Apparently Francois Truffaut had a tough childhood. Certainly he felt enough bitterness about it that he decided to make a movie about it. As I understand it he has not made it a secret that the movie is to a large extent auto-biographical, although combined with the story of a few other people he knew. During this childhood of Truffaut’s, in the movie acted out by young Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel, everybody were against him, his parents, his teachers, the social institutions and so he had to rebel and run away. If you think about it it is actually rather peevish.

Fortunately for the movie it is played out in a realistic tone. We believe that Antoine’s mother would rather be without him and considers him an annoying block on her feet and that his father has very little patience with him. Looking at the school and the teachers we also understand and believe that this is a very hostile environment bent on making the lives miserable for the students. That does make the movie feel less self-indulgent and makes us ready to sympathize with Antoine.

Antoine is a good child, and mind you, that is what he is, only a child. He is trying to fit in, at home, at school and with his friends, but both home and school are hostile environments who cares little about how he feels and what he thinks. Only his friends is his refuge. Children should not be raised by other children and when school and home are abandoned there is only so much friends can provide. Antoine lives on the street, steals and sleep like a homeless whereever he can get shelter.

Of course this is unacceptable, but instead of looking into the reasons why this is so everybody seem bent on blaming Antoine and forcing him to conform.

Through all this Antoine is almost sleepwalking. He is a witness to all that happens around him and to him but there are only few things he actually does and that is mainly to avoid and escape, which he does repeatedly.

I have a hard time watching people wallow in misery, especially when they are children. A movie that is all about that is very hard to get through. There are very few good things that happen to him and those that do happen are double edged and come back to bite him. Even the resolution is bittersweet: Escape, but what then? What is he going to do?

If this is how the next decade in movies will form I need a deep breath. This will be challenging.

On the positive side I would have to commend the movie on the realism of all this decay. I do not think I have ever seen such a depressing side to Paris. This is very very far away from “An American in Paris”. I bet there are and were a lot of teenagers who got their dream of romantic Paris shattered here.

My favorite actor/actress here must be Claire Maurier as Gilberte Doinel, Antoine’s mother. She is the devil. Her expression of pure malice when she tells Antoine that they do not want him home is brilliant. She easily qualifies to my top ten of most horrific villains in movie history.

I am so happy I can return to some American escapism with my next movies.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

...With a Chainsaw



...With a Chainsaw
I recently saw a post on Facebook asking you to mention the last ten book you have read and then add “with a Chainsaw” to the title. Silly, but the thought kept me awake for a large chunk of the night. What if I did that to the last ten movies I have watched?

Let’s see:

1.       Some Came Running with a Chainsaw

Uh, I want to see that one!

2.       My Uncle with a Chainsaw

Suddenly he is not such a cozy uncle anymore

3.       Dracula with a Chainsaw

Now, there is an idea for a Hollywood flat out of original ideas. Merging themes has become come il faut lately and this beats the crap out of Superman vs Batman

4.       Ashes and Diamonds with a Chainsaw

Strange, but not that funny

5.       Vertigo with a Chainsaw

This could get really confusing. Sort of a random massacre

6.       The Music Room with a Chainsaw

Very bizarre music! Or maybe the room is used for other things as well.

7.       The Defiant Ones with a Chainsaw

Not only are they on the run, but they are armed!

8.       Cairo Station with a Chainsaw

Everybody get out of there! The paperboy has gone completely bonkers!

9.       Gig with a Chainsaw

Now, there is a musical with an edge!

10.   Touch of Evil with a Chainsaw

Hmmm… not really working

And I will just add an eleventh for good measure

11.   Man of the West with a Chainsaw

That could work. A reinvention of the western

When you think about it there are plenty of good titles in movie history that would work and completely change the movie. Spartacus with a Chainsaw. The Dark Knight with a Chainsaw. The Fabulous Amelie from Montmartre with a Chainsaw. The Emperor Strike Back with a Chainsaw. Julia and Juliet with a Chainsaw. The Devil Wears Prada with a Chainsaw. Or go a bit back in history with Swing Time with a Chainsaw or Singing in the Rain with a Chainsaw. How about Citizen Kane with a Chainsaw?

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Some Came Running (1958)



Some Came Running
Life is a mess. This is not the usual Hollywood message where there is a deeper meaning to life and everything gets straightened out in the end, but as most of us will know reality is a messy soup and nothing ever goes exactly as we planned or hoped (and that is in fact not all bad). Then comes along a movie like “Some Came Running” and presents us with something closer to reality. A terrible mess.

First off let me say that I knew nothing of this movie going in. This movie is not included in the book I am following so I did not read a synopsis and the DVD cover is in French… All I knew was the main cast of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine and that it was directed by Vincente Minnelli. Ah, a sappy comedy, I thought. Boy, was I wrong.

Dave Hirsh (Sinatra) is a soldier arriving in the small town of Parkman. He wakes up upon arrival rather bewildered. Apparently he was put on the bus while drunk having mumbled something about this town and somebody had taken that literally. He is also in the company of a woman he does not know, Ginny (MacLaine), who seems taken by him.

Turns out Dave and Parkman has a history so Dave ditches the girl and checks into the local hotel. The movie is only slowly giving up its secrets so only gradually are we finding out how things stands and that is actually one of the interesting details of the movie. All through the movie we learn more and more about Dave. He is a writer who has not written in years, he has a brother in town, Frank (Arthur Kennedy), who is now one of the wealthiest men in town, but who ditched Dave when he was only a child, and Dave has a serious drinking issue.

The plot is essentially what happens when Dave lands in his old and very provincial town. For Frank his arrival is like the detonation of a bomb. He wife hates David’s guts, and soon gossip about Dave shakes the respectability the Hirsh family crave so much and starts a slide that threatens to explode the family. But Dave is just a catalyst. The Hirsh’es has enough tensions built up that an explosion was inevitable.

For Dave it is also an encounter with Gwen, a literature fan at the local school or college. Gwen is in love with his writing while Dave is immediately smitten by Gwen. Dave’s direct ways however is a complete turn-down for Gwen who image herself completely incompatible with the life in the gutter Dave is leading.

Rejected by Gwen Dave finds some comfort with Ginny, who is dumb as a door, but completely devoted to Dave and not without charm, and Bama (Martin), a professional gambler with an even greater drinking issue.

Dave vacillates between striving upwards to become a better man and court Gwen and sink to the gutter with Ginny and Bama. Clearly he does not belong in either place and that is the trouble. In Parkman Dave is trouble and no matter what he does he is fighting a loosing battle. It is so much easier to just flow with it.

This is not a story that brings resolution. There is no cozy landing here and in that sense it resembles life. At best there is shake up and that is refreshing until people get hurt and that they do plenty.  What is Dave to do? Or Gwen? Or Ginny? The only ones I do not feel sorry for in this story is Frank and Agnes. With their hypocrisy they deserve their downfall. The rest are just caught in this mess called life.

Although there are a few scenes potentially included for comedic effect this is not a comedy or a funny movie, unless you have a very dark sense of humor. To see comedic actors like Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine in such a movie is interesting and it works surprisingly well. It also worked very well that I was totally unprepared for the movie. It unfolds as it was intended, very gradually, and we just do not know where it is leading. Much like life.

Although I am not prone to like this type of movie I was positively surprised. There is a poetic justice in the ending that seem fitting for this movie and I love the chaotic route to that place. Sinatra proves his value once again and Minnelli redeems himself. I can recommend it.

 

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

My Uncle (Mon Oncle) (1958)



Min onkel
Comedies are the exception rather than the rule on the List. Many of those that have been included are not that funny anymore as the years have not been kind to them. Those that do survive the passing of the decades are usually focused on visual humor and, more importantly, are intelligent. One such survivor is Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle”. I do not hesitate calling this the funniest movie on the list so far, even compared to Keaton and Chaplin. I do not remember laughing this much from any of their movies.

“Mon Oncle” is the second installment featuring Tati’s Monsieur Hulot. First time was in “Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot” and back then I erroneously thought that that would be the only Hulot movie and desperately wished for some more. Luckily I was mistaken and I now got my wish fulfilled plenty. It is obvious that several years have passed, the Hulot character is more developed and the film itself, while still situational, is more focused and, yes, funnier.

Monsieur and Madame Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola and Adrienne Servantie) are of the nouveau riche. They live a very modern life in a stylized modernistic house full of electrical appliances. Everything wirrs and buzzes and are of the latest design. But it is also a very cold home. The garden is immaculate with straight lines and absurd curves, impractical in the extreme and the rooms of the house are largely empty. There are only a few items in each room and these are intended to be looked at rather than being used. In fact the Arpel home looks like a modernistic home design catalogue, not a place suited for living. However for the Arpel’s it fits their ideal of modern and efficient lives perfectly. They even have a child that serves the same purpose as the home. Needless to say Gerard (Alain Bécourt), the nine year old son is bored stiff in this home.

This could be a terrible story, but it is played out for fun. All those electrical appliances are hilarious. Some of them work less elegantly than others and combined they make the Arpels look ridiculous.  The extravagant and completely tasteless fish fountain is the garden is a good representation of this home. Made to impress it is actually completely laughable.

The antithesis of this home is Monsieur Hulot (Tati). He is anarchistic, childish, distracted and very inefficient. But he is also a warm and friendly character and greatly loved by Gerard. Hulot is brother to Madame Arpel and as he is unemployed he spends a lot of time with the boy. The scenes switch between the cozy old neighborhood where Hulot lives and the modernistic nightmare where the Arpels live. It is when these two worlds meet things get funny.

Hulot in the Arpel house, Hulot trying out a job in Arpel’s factory making plastic (very modern!) items, the Arpel’s trying to train Hulot. It is all a riot. I love the job interview scene and the garden party is fantastic. The neighbor is worth a movie all on her own and Hulot making plastic sausages instead of tubes is just amazing. Yet the winner is all those small details you hardly notice at first, but all contribute to make this culture clash truly epic.

Of course the story does not really lead anywhere. There is not a crime to solve or any big solution, only the chaos inflicted by Hulot. It becomes a prime concern for the Arpels to rid themselves of Hulot if they cannot reform him, but in doing so Hulot also becomes the key for Monsieur Arpel to meet his son at his eye level and reconnect.

I love that the movie is viewed from the eyelevel of Gerard. A nine year old would find all that modernity useless and laughable, though he might not consciously realize just how narcissistic it also is, and the old and inefficient, but warm and hearty world of Hulot’s is what dreams are made of.  It makes me forgive the naivety of the movie and fills me with a warm and cozy feeling.

It is funny to think of that all that modernity is now largely reality for many if not most of us. Automatic doors and vacuum cleaners are pretty standard now and we are surrounded by electric gimmicks of all sorts. The interesting thing is that this does not detract from the movie at all. The character types are universal and they totally work, also today.  

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Dracula (The Horror of Dracula) (1958)



Dracula
Man, there are a lot of vampire movies around! It seems to be an inexhaustible theme, at least for producers. For me I have a long time ago found my saturation point. The List also has its share of bloodsucking vampire movies. Including today’s movie I count four so far, where three of them are telling the same story. At least Dreyer’s movie had an entirely different angle.

For this reason I am going into this movie on a weary note. How many times do you need to watch this story?

This time round it is the British Hammer studio who are taking a crack at the story. Until recently I knew nothing of this studio, but thanks to Bea at “Flickers in Time” I am now if not familiar then at least aware of their movies and their penchant for the macabre.

The story itself hardly needs a summary. Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arrives at Castle Dracula as a librarian, but with the secret objective to get rid of the count. Before he gets this far he is turned into a vampire himself. Alarmed by Harker’s reports Dr. van Helsing (Peter Cushing) rushes to Castle Dracula, too late to save his friend and to stop Dracula (Christopher Lee) from leaving.

Dracula has set his eyes of Harker’s fiancée, Lucy Holmwood (Carol Marsh) and soon she is also turning into a vampire. Lucy’s brother Arthur (Michael Gough) is pretty upset about Harker’s death and blames van Helsing, but with Lucy’s illness and (un)death he is reluctantly coming around. Dracula really seems to have a grudge on him for his next victim is Arthur wife, Mina (Melissa Stribling).

Although van Helsing always seems to be two steps behind the count he is a professional vampire killer who knows all the tricks. Will he eventually catch up with his prey?

Because it is a retelling it is impossible not to compare the 1958 version with Murnau’s and Browning’s versions. There is no doubt that the Hammer version (directed by Terence Fisher) is technically more eloquent than the two former versions. Anything else would be strange given the intervening years. This especially counts for the special effects that now mostly works as opposed to the helpless effects Browning relied on. The 58 version also keeps a very nice pace with a story that actually moves and provides a reasonable amount of suspense.

But a number of things are not working so well here. Dracula for one. I had so much been looking forward to see Christopher Lee give it as the count. Come on, this is Saruman, one of the vilest and most crazy characters in cinema. But 58 is a long time ago and Lee in his youth did not possess that venom that later made him such an excellent villain. Bela Lugosi had more of that exotic charm and suave that makes Dracula dangerous AND sexy and Max Schreck was an infinitely more menacing actor. It is not that Lee is outright bad, he is just trying to wear some very big shoes.

Another element that annoyed me tremendously was that although this was clearly presented as a very gothic story taking place in Germany, each and every character, even the innkeeper in the unnamed eastern European country Dracula lives in, are very, very British. Accent, attitude, mentality, everything exudes Victorian Britain and that crashes completely with the setting. Van Helsing sounds, acts and looks more like Sherlock Holmes than a German or Dutch vampire hunter.

What this movie ultimately suffers from however is that it feels generic. It lacks something to make it stand out and it feels like a good, but alas a run of the mill rendition of the Dracula tale and in that sea of Dracula movies that is available that is just not good enough. I am not a fan of Browning’s Dracula, but at least it had Lugosi. Murnau’s version however was uniquely creepy and is still for me the one I would watch again.

Am I the only one who found Michael Gough’s Athur Holmwood totally annoying? If he was supposed to be he did a marvelous job.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Ashes and Diamonds (Popiol i Diament) (1958)



Aske og diamanter
I know zip about Polish cinema. “Popiol i diamant” or “Ashes and Diamonds” is the first Polish movie I have ever watched. Unless you count Krzysztof Kieślowski’s movies, but those are in French and are more of an international kind. No, with “Ashes and Diamonds” I am truly breaking new ground.

That makes me incredibly curious. What would movies look like in a country that has recently been screwed over repeatedly? The answer is: surprisingly interesting and technically adept. Somehow this should not come as a surprise. The golden age of German cinema was those dismal years after the first world war.

The story of “Ashes and Diamonds” takes place on the night Germany finally surrendered. It is a day of celebration, but in Poland the reality is confused and painful and celebrating seems the height of hypocrisy. Poland suffered like no other country in the war. First screwed by the Russians and the Germans combined, then wholesale slaughtered by the Germans, then betrayed by the Russians when the nationalists rose to free the country and finally under the Russian thumb enforced a ruling class not to everybody’s liking. Poland is literally in ruins, physically, mentally and emotionally. People are still struggling and fighting as has been the mode of survival during the war, but who are they fighting now?

This is a tired place, weary but instinctively fighting on. The communists who are currently on top is celebrating the victory. The nationalists are fighting the communists hoping against odds that they can topple a government backed by the Soviet and most people just want to survive or to close the eyes and forget the suffering.

Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) is a young man waking up from the war. Full of nervous energy he is ready to explore life, love, art and all the great things in life. But Maciek is also a veteran soldier of the nationalist army. He fought in the sewers of Warsaw during the ill-fated uprising the year before when Warsaw was finally destroyed by the Germans while the Soviet army was waiting for the Germans to finish the job. Maciek is on an assignment to kill the new communist leader of the region, a job we see botched in the opening. Now Maciek has rented a room in the hotel where the communist leader, Szczuka (Wacław Zastrzeżyński), is staying and where the victory celebration is taking place and he is under pressure by his commanding officer to kill Szczuka this very night.

That is essentially the movie. The war and the celebration. Life and death. Eager to explore life Maciek wants out, but he cannot. In one night he finds love, hope and beauty, but also death and destruction.

This is not so much a movie with an exciting forward moving story, but instead a snapshot of that existential crisis Maciek is in, which in turn was the crisis of the Poles as a people. Expecting action you would probably be disappointed, but there is a lot of other things happening. The party for example is both hilarious and creepy. It reminded me of the party held by the pigs in “Animal Farm”, lavish amidst the general ruin, with an insistence on having fun. When the party is interrupted by a very drunk secretary and his new best friend it can best be compared to Peter Sellers “The Party” or the embarrassment in “Festen”. It is one of those parties where you do not know whether to laugh or to cry and you probably end up doing both.

 Zbigniew Cybulski as Maciek is another highlight. Obviously he was instructed to act like James Dean, but even with that in mind there is something very open and vulnerable about his character. You can read all the pain and all the joy in his face. He is impulsive and act immediately on his feelings (James Dean?) and for a person caught in the conflict of celebration of life and death and destruction this is exactly the right reactions. I read that Cybulski was much used by the director and I might look up his other movies. Well, I know I will because I bought the entire War-trilogy.

The question I ask myself is how this movie was considered in Poland in 1958. It did win awards in the West, but in Poland I can imagine the reception would have been guarded. The communists, well known for their iron grip, cannot have been too happy with the way the communists and their opposition is described here. Yes, the nationalists are painted as misguided fools, but also as heroes who fought the Germans in the uprising and Maciek, the centerpiece of the movie is firm in his allegiance to the opposition.  And Poland as the ruined victim of a gang rape cannot have been a happy memory.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Vertigo (1958)



En kvinde skygges
I watched Vertigo for the first time about 20 years ago or so. Newly restored the movie was rereleased in cinemas and we went some friends from campus to see it on the big screen. In hindsight I was too young to appreciate it at the time. I had no real relationship to Hitchcock and his movies and I think we just wanted to do something different. In any case the movie did not make that much of an impression on me and frankly I had forgotten many of the plot points including the resolution.

Today I am in a different place and although this time round was not a big screen experience, rather the opposite in fact, I was overwhelmed on this second viewing. Part of that was my lowered expectation. This is so much a better movie than I remember, and part of it is the sheer, stand out quality when compared to contemporary movies. Of course the restoration has a lot to do with that, but, come on, will you look at those pictures?!

There is a reason why this period is considered Hitchcock’s golden age. Since “Rope” his movies were just getting better and better and although he circled around the same themes he was still able to cook an entirely different story out of those themes. In “Vertigo” he is again messing with the mind of the protagonist and the psychology involved is far more important than the actual murder mystery. In this sense he is reverting to movies like “Spellbound” and “The Wrong Man”, but “Vertigo” is darker than both of these and certainly a technically far more eloquent movie than “Spellbound”.

“Vertigo” is a descent into madness. The normal, upright guy, with Jimmy Stewart as a perfect cast, is caught in a whirlpool and sucked into it. First he has a traumatic experience that gives him a fear of heights, incapacitating him enough to lose his police job and then as a private investigator he gets sucked into a case that just does not make sense. Our guy, John Ferguson, is asked by an old college friend to keep an eye on his wife. He is worried for her because he is convinced a long time dead ancestor is possessing her and forcing her to commit suicide. That sounds totally bananas and John is of the same opinion, except that really weird things are happening to her. Unable to accept the ghost story John is convinced Madeleine (Kim Novak) is suffering a mental problem and his role changes from a shadow to loving her and actively helping her deal with this illness and more than anything prevent her from killing herself.

Because of John’s fear of heights he fails dismally and the guilt renders him effectively catatonic. Thus ends the first act.

Beware of spoilers below!!! If you have not seen this movie stop reading right now.

As John slowly recovers he is a changed man. All his thoughts revolve around Madeleine, his love for her and his failure to save her. He is now the one who is starting to see ghosts. When he encounters Judy, an ordinary store girl from Kansas he projects Madeleine on to her. He wants her, but as Madeleine, not as Judy. Understandably this freaks out Judy as it would any sane person.

Unfortunately this is where Hitchcock makes his mistake, at least in my poor opinion. In a scene after this freaky encounter he reveals to us that Judy is Madeleine (indeed Kim Novak is playing both roles) and that she was playing a role in order to make the murder of the real Madeleine look like suicide. Knowing this we understand that John is on the right track, but for the wrong reason. Really what he is doing is insane: he wants Madeleine back to undo what has happened rather than simply getting over it and in the process he is getting creepier by the minute. It kind of ruins it for me to know that she is that woman. I would have loved to get that twist in the end. Instead I feel that maybe John is not as crazy as he really is.

When it clicks for John that, dammit, Judy is Madeleine he starts crawling out of the hole he has fallen into. The price however is that the crime that until now was imagined becomes real. Ironic.

There is no happy end here, only a dizzying spiral and I commend Hitchcock on avoided a silly Hollywood ending. It takes a confident director to do that and it is probably part of the reason “Vertigo” was not the box office hit it was hoped to be. “Vertigo” is not a popcorn flick, but a movie to be experienced and that probably has less mass appeal, but it is also what lifts it way above the pack.

“In Vertigo” there is not much of explanation, the doctors are as confused as we are and we only really know that that John is obsessing. Oh, if only Hitch did not have to reveal the hoax we could have been as confused as John. Now we are merely disturbed.

Still I can only recommend “Vertigo”, although if you read this far I hope you already saw it.

It is an awesome movie.