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Face of a Stranger (1964)
Criminals in Love
I was quite taken with this movie. It is about a prison inmate who gets out to find that his wife is living with another man. He then visits the wife of a fellow inmate of whom he knows that he stashed the loot of a heist. He wants part of it, of course, but somehow he is also in search of consolation. The wive has gone blind so he pretends to be her husband. She seems to go for it - which if course is pretty weird and not really credible. But in the end it makes sense. The point is, that for both it is love at first sight (pun cannot be avoided) and they are a perfect match. The film succeeds in showing the mutual attraction of this odd and unlikely couple of two criminally minded but also vulnerable people. Jeremy Kemp gives his best, I feel he is an underestimated actor who only rarely could show his talenty beyond typecasting.
The birth of the New Left-being an adult sucks!
In many ways this film is remarkable. The story is a classic love/convenience triangle. And helplessly jealous Morgan is cut out to be the big loser from the start. A working class hopeful and a painter, he is just not willing to become an adult and prefers to descend into lunacy instead. His attempts to win back his upper class ex wife, an insecure character herself, are childish and quixotic in nature and enlighten the basically sad story with slapstick moments. The acting is mostly very good. David Warner is sweet and unforgettable – why he was chosen to play so many villains later in his career remains a mystery to me. Vanessa Redgrave's Oscar nomination was well deserved. Irene Handl as Morgan's mother is also very good. She represents the family background with its Marxist tradition. Apparently her generation hoped that lads like Morgan would become the enlightened new leaders of their movement! Instead, her son is a good for nothing character, for him the emblems of communism are just a decor to shock the petty bourgeois.
At the time this movie was made, it became chic again to be orientated toward the left. In China Mao started the Cultural Revolution, being a Red meant (in the West, at least) being unconventional, hip and somehow liberated. This romantic, pubertal New Left lasted more ore less until the genocide in Cambodia, then their supporters integrated themselves into the existing system or indulged in esoteric activities (or both). To me Morgan somehow represents the New Left which then emerged.
He remains a Mystery Man
What is the driving force behind this artist who seems to be past present and future at the same time? How is his physical and mental health? What kind of an American citizen or a World citizen is Woody Allen? Has he got "visions" that reach beyond his own persona and his intimate circle? Does he like dogs? Yes, there is a lot I would like to learn about this immensely productive and strangely elusive man who always has a fresh take on actual human events and conditions and seems virtually ageless. The answers to these questions are more easily found in Allen's own movies than in this documentary which is an uncritical tribute to the Mystery Man who appears in it as a friendly and soft spoken contributer. The style is very conventional (if not outright promotional) and disappointing - talking heads you already know (Maltin, Lax etc.) tell things you already know. Why didn't they interview his dentist, his super or his hairdresser?
And yet I don't regret having watched this documentary. As it also contains valuable insights which I found fascinating. Allen seems to stick to persons he has known for ages (I assume he is basically loyal and expects loyalty in turn). Early in his career he teamed up with people who created Woody Allen as a product. This seems to have been the foundation stone for future developments. Behind the name there is an industry with a hard core of constant trusted collaborators. It is as productive as it is (within clearly set boundaries) innovative. This somewhat unlikely combination seems to be unique. No one except Charlie Chaplin did anything that can be compared with it. I can credit the documentary for highlighting these aspects which serve as a kind of a shield for Woody Allen (the man) against too personal approaches to his persona.
Angels and Insects (1995)
A Man and His Moths - highly recommended
I find this movie absolutely fascinating on all levels: basic idea, story, acting, imagery, set design, colors, music. It all fits together so well and tells a fascinating, rather sad story of beings, their limits and the way they deal with it in a time period of great changes and discoveries. Set entirely on a beautiful Neo Gothic country estate and its grounds, the plot evolves like a dream. The main character looks amazingly like Abraham Lincoln (the story is set during that president's lifetime but presumably in England). He is a man of reason and science - and of no means. He arrives as a kept intellectual and falls for the beautiful daughter of his benefactor. The attraction is exclusively erotic (the movie can be credited for some explicit sex scenes which are for once not gratuitous but as necessary as they are believable) and rather unexpectedly he finds himself adopted into the family and a permanent resident of Dreamland. Always of an alert disposition he observes - and is in turn observed and manipulated. Dreamland finally turns out to be a nightmare, the true nature of things small and not so small are revealed. The Odyssey continues.
Sawing off the Scroll - and yet pretty top-heavy
Ever since I saw The Adjuster and The Sweet Hereafter I watch every movie by this director I can lay my hands on. This one is visually beautiful, well acted (with a notable exception) and touches important issues of today. And yet it left me rather disappointed. Atom Egoyan is a moralist who demands a lot from his viewers and invites them to check their own instincts. In reverse the viewers have the right to expect clarity and a straight story. Here, the director fails them. The story is too convoluted and contrived. It slows down everything and the whole does not find its proper rhythm. I found Arsinée Khanjian's persona and her performance problematic. It's got a syrupy intensity I found hard to stomach. The rather heavy-handed toying with the exotic is simply annoying. From her first appearance I thought, that person should not be allowed to teach intelligent adolescents. And appearing on somebody's front lawn in full North African (?) garb at Christmas Time? And then being asked to take that character seriously? Well, for me, it was too much. At least it gave me occasion to check my instincts, which is never a bad thing. So the movie may just have served its purpose ...
Lower Level (1991)
Please do not read the summary of this movie. There are no depressed women around here but two strong female characters and a bunch of guys who don't know how to deal with it. Lower Level was scripted and directed by women and I think this can be sensed clearly. The main storyline deals with a guard who is smitten with a woman architect and entraps her in "her tower" one night. The guard did a lot of planning - not unlike the Collector Terence Stamp in the eponymous movie directed by William Wyler. But he is doomed and clearly intimidated by the woman who in the end is not only able to liberate herself but also her occasional sexual partner (boyfriend or lover would not be the right word here). This is a fine example of low budget movie making. Very few actors, one location, nighttime only and quite a few good directorial ideas. It is not the greatest movie of all times but really good entertainment and visually very pleasing. Great cameo by Shari Shattuck.
Never Let Go (1960)
Paint jobs, pipe dreams
This is a minor classic with reveals an amazing depth, provided you watch the film several times. With each viewing Peter Todd's performance gets better and the state of mind of his character more clear. It's about an Anglia (an ostentatiously modest lower middle class car) and the hope the Todd character puts into the car. It seems to be the last straw for him to become the success in business he wants to be. His wife scolds him for having had so many pipe dreams that have come to nothing and at the same time tells him to let go (of the stolen car). The possession of the car becomes an existential issue, the guy is willing to die in order to get it back. It is all ridiculous in a really sad way. It is also impressive to watch the police officer (played by the always brilliant John Le Mesurier) slowly lose his countenance and hear him tell the main character icily that he does not care the least for his car and that the authorities just want to nail the criminals. The veneer is off on all sides not least off Peter Sellers' character who becomes to realise that a stolen car can leave traces even after an expert paint job. Never Let Go tells a great little story. I can wholeheartedly recommend this film.
Paths of Glory (1957)
The Chain of Command
This movie hits you like a ton of bricks. Like almost the whole work of Stanley Kubrick it tells a story about the failure of civilization. I do not see it as an anti-war movie or a historically accurate depiction of World Ware One but much more as a comment about large organizations. Principally, it deals with stalemate. The bosses have run out of ideas. They don't know what to do. But because their remaining in power depends on something - well, anything - being done, they risk the lives of thousands for enterprises that are highly unlikely to succeed. All the characters seem to be victims of a command: to make the impossible possible. The risks are unevenly distributed - as befits a vertically organized institution. The Paths of Glory is a story that is being told over and over, you can pick the settings yourself, it needn't be the trenches in Northern France, it could well be Wall Street or, for that matter, the European Union.
From an artistic point of view, I find Paths of Glory very satisfying, starting with the camera gliding flawlessly along the trenches down to the excellent set design by Ken Adam. The ending is the work of true genius. They way the jeering soldiers turn soft and melancholy is entirely convincing and unforgettable.
Is there really nothing critical to be said?
I recently watched this movie and then read the comments on IMDb.com which are without exception very enthusiastic. Did I miss something? Am I a dork without any real feeling left in me? Others will be the judges of that. Anyway, I felt this movie tells a very commonplace story of mediocre minds for which I found it hard to have much compassion.
The conductor is basically an egomaniac, a man of whom all around him think as a genius (by the way: aren't all orchestra conductors fascists at heart??). Not a very pleasant or entertaining fellow to be with, really. The blond damsel is a cute groupie, overwhelmed by the adulation the genius basks in - and the splendid Rolls he commands through the streets of London and the English countryside. The "love" they experience is without motive, without past and certainly without future – yes, one may argue, that this is the essence of love, but it makes rather boring viewing if you can't identify with the characters. The affair is concealed from the conductor's wife, which I can only see as a strategic move beyond immediately felt surges of emotions. It may be argued, that nobody wants to hurt anybody, but the act of betrayal lingers on and for me spoils the moments of intimacy between the lovers which are played out as an animated fashion magazine.
Not too long ago I also watched the "Interlude" directed by Douglas Sirk and released in 1957. I found it far more convincing and a truly moving melodrama, although the storyline is almost identical. It is a movie that works much better for me on the emotional level. The reason for that is, I believe, that the need for love can be felt more strongly. And there is an element that should always be present in a true love story: Surprise (at the world, the turn of events - and at oneself).
Le téléphone rose (1975)
Weird, weird, weird
Strange comedy with a a really weird political slant. The main character is the owner of a small enterprise in the southwest of France. An American corporation plans a take over. In order to smoothen the negotiations they invite the guy to Paris and wine and dine him. Furthermore he is introduced to the "niece of the PR director" who in reality is a hooker they rented for the occasion. The guy goes to bed with her almost at once, falls for the really stale "niece" story and kinda falls in love with her. Some dingle dangle ensues and in the end the guy follows the hooker to Milan where she has a "business appointment", is insulted by the hooker while boarding the plane, stomps away over the tarmac and is followed by the (pleading?) hooker. The end.
Somehow the movie makes the statement that American corporations are bad because they corrupt honest to god provincial French entrepreneurs. But as a matter of fact this entrepreneur is a stupid BEEP. He lies and cheats to his wive who is not only attractive but supports him actively and loyally in his business dealings. And he tries to ingratiate himself to the workers (who are unruly in any case) in a sickening way, making them feel he is one of them. He is clearly not more likable than the real baddies in their corporate glass tower in Paris. This makes it difficult to feel any fondness for the main character and his predicament, which seems to be required if one ought to take an interest in the story. Therefore the movie fails to carry a message and is only a succession of gags which, I gladly admit, are not all bad.
The cast is much better than the script. Mireille Darc does her usual thing (her part is essentially the same as in The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe). I also watched this because Daniel Ceccaldi is in it (as the PR executive), in my opinion one of the most underrated French character actors of his generation. So watching this was not entirely time wasted.
Wanted for Murder (1946)
B picture gets A treatment
This is a truly memorable movie. Not for its story which is pretty pedestrian but for its treatment by the screen writers, the actresses and actors, its cinematography and its art direction. My first surprise came with the title credits. Emeric Pressburger participated in the screen writing. And this seems to be one of the rare cases in which the screen writing is better than the general plot. There are a great many interesting characters which are competently and nicely sketched. The actresses and actors grace the script with very good, heart felt and often funny performances down to the last bit part (and there are many of them). They portray ordinary people who just want to be decent - and ordinary. The movie is set in post war London and the number of sets and location shots is astounding considering the simplicity of the whole affair. The apartment of the villain is in a fine town house, and it looks like it was shot on location, so it must also be a feast for friends of architecture. Watching this movie is anything but a waste of time!
Again and again I become enraptured by British films which were made during the period of Austerity (The Archers, Ealing Studio, Carol Reed etc.). I always feel that lack of funds was more than compensated by the love all those who participated felt for their art.
Another stalemate in the Middle East
This is a most unusual movie for its time, and it is fascinating to read the comments on it here on the IMDb. Many viewers are apparently undecided what to make of Sirocco as it does not fit any of the known stereotypes. This is neither Algiers (1938) nor Casablanca (1942), there is no romance, you don't find anything exotic about the place in question (Damascus, Syria) and no great friendships are about to develop. It is basically a movie about people who are confronted with a drab and hopeless situation (messagewise I would compare it with The Sand Pebbles (1966)). It painfully reminds todays viewers of the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq (well, the Jasmine salesman bolts off before his handgranades go off in the cafe, the suicide bomber had not been invented yet). Western powers (they have a mandate from the League of Nations) are pitted against so called "patriots" (they have no mandate at all) in a bloody battle without a discernible cause. The Bogart character is an opportunist arms dealer and a coward to boot. At one time he really hits rock bottom in the Catacombs underneath the city as he tries to hide in his tattered Bogey-raincoat - one of the many great visual moments in this beautifully photographed nightmare of a movie with its superb set design.
The main message of Sirocco is a depressing one: If things turn bad, the efforts of single individuals are of negligible effect. We have a disillusioned French officer (Lee J. Cobb who I have never seen better). He wants to prevent a planned execution of civilians as a retaliatory act after an ambush, not out of idealistic motives or with any hope but just because he is sick of all the killing. Like all the other characters he gets bogged down by the circumstances and in the end departs on a meeting with the "patriots" with the Bogart character's help. Everyone agrees that this action is meant to be a suicide. The officer even gets out of his uniform which heretofore had the function of a corset.
Great sets and scenes abound here. Damascus is a place of eternal night - and we never get out of the place into the open. The Roman Catacombs seem to be inspired by Giovanni Piranesi's "carceri" drawings. There is a great scene in which the Bogart character buys a belly dancer's finger cymbals. Another scene begins with the focus on a visibly tender and juicy steak which the Bogart character starts cutting into. "He brings his own food", the waiter explains to other patrons who would like the same. What a better way to depict a war profiteer?
As the lines above suggest, the storyline of Sirocco is pretty sprawling and the film is more of a situation than a story. That makes it only more realistic and instructive. Our time is right for anti-war movies of this kind. In can recommend it.
Silver Bears (1977)
Money laundering ...
... turns out to be silver laundering. That's what this maybe overly cerebral movie is about. Most of the protagonists try to give their criminal actions a whiff of legality by diverting the flow of money to Switzerland. It was an item then as it is now. Almost all the action is set in Switzerland, in the Italian speaking part south of the Alps, to be exact. And Switzerland is basically boring (i.e. no shots fired, no bloodletting, no moans or shrieks in the night). Nonetheless, the movie has some beautiful scenes. The way the freshly arrived crooks find out that their bank's offices is above a crummy pizza parlor, for example. Or the visit in the shady count's empty palazzo. The count takes one of the elegant, anorexic chairs and smashes it to the ground to stoke the fire. (Then he hands a chair to Caine. He should have smashed it likewise, to the dismay of the Count - what are you doing? - who meant that one to be sat on. Instead Caine just sits down - a missed opportunity!!) Also very good is the scene in the small private plane which runs into some serious turbulence, with the Count very scared an Caine not scared at all, taking the opportunity to clarify options and attitudes. Louis Jourdan, who plays the Count, is a mayor asset to the movie. Cibyll Shepherd is in one of her better parts here (interesting wardrobe and make-up) and also has a few really good scenes. Overall this movie is worth watching.
Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis (2008)
For the French Regionalism is a joke
I remember comedy hour on French radio. I remember imitations of the Bretons, of the Basques, of the Alsatians, of the French speaking Swiss and of Belgians. They are peripheral and therefore funny and not to be taken quite seriously. Now, imagine a Spanish film depicting Galicians (or, worse, Catalans!) as peripheral, kind but stupid yokels. The outcry it would generate! This belittling of regions far from the (so called) cultural centre seems to me a specific French cultural trait. And they want to be the leading nation of Europe. I am not surprised that this movie was a smash hit, everyone likes to see a story set in a pretty little town, where there are no big worries and everybody is kind and helpful (who wouldn't like to live in Bergues after the viewing?) but it's basically presenting a real place as an idyll and hunting for cheap effects. It brings nothing new or interesting to the viewers but some moments of distraction at the expense of a specific region.
Climax!: The First and the Last (1955)
I have not seen this TV episode ...
... and yet I feel compelled to add a commentary. The reason for this is an interview with John Frankenheimer I saw on youtube.com. He's a great storyteller and explains at length how in this episode EVERYTHING went wrong. The actors were terribly miscast, they forgot their lines (this was live TV, I believe) and had to be "pinned to the wall" by the TV cameras lest they would walk off the set and out of the studio, the fog machine came on too late and then overproduced, enshrouding the different sets. John Frankenheimer says, if I understood correctly, that he had to take the blame for the disaster and was fired. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9HUMhdBNG4 - it's worth your time!
Corpo d'amore (1972)
Words and bodies
This is a very unusual and highly artistic movie. Those who made it knew exactly what they wanted and they have a great command of their respective crafts.
A father and a son meet for a holiday on a beach. The father is 62 and a researcher of insect life, the son is 15 and at a boarding school. They don't have to say much to each other and both agree to stop the experiment". But then they come across the inert body of a unconscious young woman. They carry her to their beach house. She regains consciousness and it turns out that she speaks a language they do not understand. They treat her as their property, take her to the beach, to the small restaurant nearby and on boat trips. The woman's presence enables father and son to come to terms. One day she disappears and they find her together with her hunky diver boyfriend who speaks her language as well as theirs. Father and son don't like this intrusion into their harmonious triangle and they start fiddling with the hunk's oxygen tanks ...
The control of image, color and sound in this film is truly awesome. The scenery is strictly confined to the beach, the beach house and the small restaurant (corpo d'amore was filmed by one of the greatest cinematographers ever, Vittorio Storaro). It all appears in beautiful, warm colors. The use of music is carefully chosen and inserted (Bach's Goldberg variations among others), occasionally complemented by the sound of the waves. Language plays an important role and is often used as a poetic voice-over, not unlike in some films of Alain Resnais. Father and son are experienced soliloquists and language is for them mainly an instrument for introspection and less communication.
As one might have guessed by now, this movie is not for feminists. The woman is all body in an idealised kind of way, sexuality is kept tightly under the surface. For a long time I was not sure if she was meant to be a figment of father's and son's imagination, the missing link between soliloquists. Mimsy Farmer is perfect in this role. She seems to have fallen out of the skies and her beauty has something surreal. Not bad for a chick who is usually known for biker and horror flicks, eh?
Los ojos dejan huellas (1952)
Excellent Spanish Italian noir
The storyline and the style of this movie make this a full fledged entry in the genre of film noir. The cinematography, especially in the many scenes shot at night, is superb. Raf Vallone and Elena Varzi (both Italians and a married couple in real life) star. They are really good.
Short synopsis (SPOILERS)
It is about a man who stopped his studies in law to become an itinerant salesman for perfumes, a very bitter character in a Humphrey Bogart raincoat who sees himself as victim (seems to be just a state of mind). A friend from university who got it made" runs into him in a restaurant, and to say that the salesman is displeased with the encounter is a gross understatement. The friend is so drunk that the salesman grudgingly agrees to his pleading to take him home. There he meets the friend's trophy wife which instantly triggers an erotically charged love-hate relationship. The friend has trouble with his mistress and knocks a competitor down a flight of stairs, thinking he killed him. This he tells the salesman asking him to procure an alibi for him. The salesman sees his chance to get rid of the man and get the wife for himself. He convinces the man to fake a suicide in a public place and then exchanges the pistol loaded with blanks with one that has real bullets. The man kills himself, and there are many spectators around to prove it. His widowed wife smells foul-play and enters a relationship with the salesman in order to get to the bottom of it while the police also try to nail the guy". There is a good surprise ending in the hunting lodge of the woman, a master hunter, with all her trophies hanging on the wall.
Being interested in Spanish cinema, I recently also purchased the better known Muerte di un ciclista" of 1955, the storyline of which has some similarity. I frankly thought this one was superior, although maybe not as politically pure" as the former. According to IMDb this movie was filmed in the Cinecittà studios in Rome, there are also quite a few daylight shots of Madrid and el Escurial. In my opinion this is a quality picture.
The Life of David Gale (2003)
Ms Winslet slaughters a (silent) lamb plus another rotten rental car
This movie takes the viewers for a ride. It is constructed like a courtroom drama with a mystery aspect. But the courtroom dealings are already over and the mystery does not reveal that the accused is innocent or with a twist that he is guilty after all, contrary to the viewers' expectations. He is innocent, there is a twist and he is guilty after all. In short: the mystery does not exist. Well, it does exist as far as the viewers have no idea what is going on up to the end - but for a reason that does not call for a mystery, really.
The Life of David Gale has a very contrived screenplay which is too smart for its own good. It is an indictment against the death penalty, I assume. But those who battle against it in this movie are such unsound and fanatical characters that in the end it might as well be a pro DP movie. But I guess this is a pretty faithful reflection of many political activists of our era: it's much less about the betterment of society than about their own, very personal moral and mental setup. Granted that there is a serious and important issue involved (and in the case of DP, there is), these people can cause great harm to the issue in question. In my opinion that's what happens in this movie. What is outrageous about the DP is that a court of law factually declares itself infallible, but that's not something that anyone in this movie alludes to.
There is some heavy handed symbolism to be found e.g. a cuddly toy lamb, owned by Gale's son but left behind when the family split and faithful companion of the troubled ex philosophy professor (Gale, that is). The professor dead, the journalist played by Winslet inherits the lamb, shakes it, gets electrified by the plastic clicketyclick inside the ovine tummy and without much ado turns to slaughter the poor animal (rip, tear, rip), extruding a crucial videotape from its interior. Bitter and unironic as it appeared on the screen, I was glad for the probably unintended comic relief. And again, there is a rental car that does not work and causes its driver trouble. Was it only a cheap story device to add some extra tension? Or is there something deep and meaningful behind it? I really don't know.
Den som frykter ulven (2004)
The script takes liberties that are so hair raising that I have to assume this movie is a genre parody. (What genre? Uh, Nordic crime drama?) The action takes place in a region somewhere in Norway - where there is a bank robbery every 50 years. And every 70 years a dangerous mental case escapes from the loony bin. And every 100 years there is a murder. In the movie it just happens that the three things happen the very same morning. And not only that. The escaped mental case happens to sit passively in the very bank at the very moment of the robbery (because of the air conditioning, as we learn later) just after the murder was discovered and a chubby boy reported seeing him in the area of the crime. And not only that. The robber decides to take the mental case as a hostage. Please don't ask me why, nothing makes much sense here.
Strange as it is, from there on it gets better and I don't mean it ironically. The robber and the mental case flee through the woods and become friends - sort of - although the latter tries to bite off the nose of the former (friends of gore will not be disappointed). The two actors are really good - the chemistry works. And in this relationship lie the main elements of suspense of the whole story as it is not clear in what way the mental case is a mental case. There are moments in which the story turns into a kind of an ancient fairy story and the whole imagery beautifully enhances this impression. The robber proposes that they go to Haiti together. He would open a bowling alley, the mental case, he suggests, could make a living as a dog trainer. These were the few traces of intentional humor I could detect. Later the robber somehow downsizes his aim to an escape to neighboring Sweden.
Of course there is a cop. And of course he is divorced and has trouble with his ex, fact which the audience is not spared from. And not only that. He is Danish! That is a country far, far away from Norway. So he is a total stranger in the land of Ibsen and out of his depth. To tell the truth, I thought he rather looked like a mental case himself but then: don't we all? It is a small wonder that the case more or less solves itself, despite the help" of a brash woman psychiatrist (with whom he gets to the point of jointly rolling in the hay in the second half of the movie only). There is a kind of a surprise ending (again in terms of logic pretty mind boggling) that is not half bad. Political correctness abounds, of course. The dad ob the chubby boy is away on a peace keeping mission for the UN, ethnical Non-Norwegians are favorably placed in strategic places without much effect.
I judge this a well crafted good bad movie. I am not a Scandinavian, and probably many regional inside jokes simply escaped me. This movie showed me that it is not always clear if I read" a picture the way its makers wanted me to. But that's one of the fascinating qualities of the medium, isn't it? In any case, I had a good time with Den som frykter ulven.
Der Alte (1977)
In the beginning intelligent subversion of conventions
I recently purchased a DVD with the two-hour pilot and the first installment of this series I once watched as a teenager. And I was very pleasantly surprised.
At the time the series was created, 1977, a whiff of New German Cinema seems to have penetrated TV productions of this kind, and I should say the makers had the audacity to subvert a genre. How on earth did they get away with it? I am convinced that today a bold step like is impossible mainly because the public would not be ready to stomach it.
In Germany there was a tradition of pappy" crime mysteries: An old police inspector (often very close to retirement) solves cases by sheer street knowledge and the wisdom of advanced age. The predecessor of Der Alte" was The Comissar", and its star, Erik Ode, portrayed a cute father figure in the mold of Heinz Rühmann. The social changes in the 1970s made this type of cop increasingly ludicrous.
But what did they do when they saw that the old recipe grew stale? They came up with another dusty old guy in a slightly unkempt gray business suit and called him Der Alte". Apparently English versions of the series run under the name The Old Fox", but the anything but respectful German term might as well mean The Has Been". And in fact, Der Alte" of the first installments seems to be an embittered and frustrated crime solver who is somehow isolated in the force and without friends clearly a man on his way out. He does not crave for sympathy and his actions often seem to be outright suicidal: In the pilot he offers himself as a hostage in exchange for some bank clerks in a Dog Day Afternoon" situation. In the following installment he sets himself up as a blackmailer of murderers and goes to a meeting completely exposed and without any protection. When the murderer's bullet misses him a shade of delusion seems to pass over his face. He really does not seem to care anymore.
Der Alte" I write about here is a rather nasty guy, a loner who is unkind, sarcastic, arrogant and leers after young girls. He is plainly unlikeable and there is nothing particularly funny about him. But once he's taken up the scent he makes the right moves and what else do we expect of a crime-solver? Experienced actor Siegfried Lowitz was dead right for this character and I guess he can largely be credited for the success of the series.
But not only the acting and the screen writing is of a very high quality, the whole visual style fits in perfectly. A pretty gloomy atmosphere of stark realism is created but all the set ups seem to be rigidly controlled, nothing seems out of line, every detail fits. An interesting aspect is the use of new Pop music themes to heighten the tension, the above mentioned installment for example uses excerpts of the song Asylum" by Supertramp who were about to become very popular. Another installment used Alan Parsons Project's The Raven". Again they must have purchased the rights at the time when the corresponding album was released. So they must have had a smart musical adviser on this series and an intelligent crew who knew exactly how to fit the tunes in hey, maybe Der Alte" is a predecessor to MTV which I think came a few years later.
Anyway, everybody who would like to get a feel of the mid 1970s in Europe will find the early seasons of this intelligent, artistically interesting series a treasure trove.
Borat is a Kazakh. Kazakhstan is a huge land mass east of the British Channel. Kazakhs are like cossacks in ancient times: Backward. Stupid. Violent. And morally corrupt to the bone - if not entirely void of any morals. It's altogether different from the Insular Culture that developed in England and spread from there to some other parts of the world, e. g. the U S of A - a beacon of hope which dazzles the less fortunate peoples of this earth. Borat goes to the US of A with every immigrant's dream: to learn the way how to get rich. His plans and aims are hazy, his determination pretty fierce.
Once arrived, Borat holds up a mirror in front of the US of A's face. For some reason he has to daub that mirror with fresh feces every morning. I did not really understand why this was necessary but wait, of course: this movie wants to SHOCK! For that reason it takes recourse of some of the oldest, stalest and unfunnyest juvenile practical jokes there are. And this sinks the movie to the depths of low grade crap and makes it a commercial success.
The main message of this movie is: if you're surprised, you're dumb. While there is some validity to that statement, it does not add value to a work of art. It is just not entertaining to listen to a guy say I was in construction, now I am retired", and Borat react, aha, you are a retard" and going on and on about it for minutes, like this is something really, really funny. He gets so lost in all those rather disorganized and ill paced pranks that there isn't a true conclusion to this movie, except that it's individual contacts that count (important, but treated as a side effect here).
It's interesting that most of the Americans who come into contact with Borat acquit themselves quite well. Americans, so it seems, are not easily dazed especially when they want to sell something (a car, a gun, lessons in courtesy) they are quite willing to swallow a healthy dose of pranks and verbal abuse with amazing patience.
I am a Kazakh myself and I am aware that the message of this movie is mainly directed at people who are firmly embedded in the Insular Culture. But out here we watch it all the same, because we so much admire (and ape) pretty much everything that reaches us from the West. The style I so much criticized before has the effect that the satirical bullets ricochet and leave neither wound nor impact.
L'avocat de la terreur (2007)
The Life and Times of a Joker
After having seen Schroeder's Idi Amin and Kiki the talking gorilla, I was disappointed by L'avocat. From an artistic point of view it is not on the same level. I found it difficult to recognize the organizing, guiding hand of the director. Also, the subject is strangely out of focus but that is maybe just one of the points the movie wants to make. Maître Vergès must be a pretty elusive fellow and certainly not someone who let himself manipulate by a movie maker. And - contrary to Amin and the gorilla - Vergès is just not very telegenic. That's certainly nobody's fault, it's just a fact.
What remains for me are the many bonmots" this movie contains. It did not become clear to me if Vergès ever was a good lawyer. I suspect he always saw the court of law principally as a stage for making political statements or for furthering a certain self image. But he certainly is a great story teller. My only war wound", he tells the interviewer, was self inflicted I cut a finger when I closed my pocket knife after eating a dish of oysters". Mao listened to me attentively or maybe he just wanted to be polite." It is fun to listen to him telling these anecdotes and being disrespectful, even to himself. Many, maybe too many other people make their entrance as interviewees. Even for someone who has a notion of the last few decades of world history it is not always easy to follow.
Saying all this, I have to credit the movie for forming a pattern of statements, places and time periods that recount events which brought a lot of pain and sorrow to this planet. The central question - is Maître Vergès a man with a cause? - remains unanswered. Somehow he shifted from one liberation movement" to the next, maybe connected to secret services, maybe not - his aims apparently as fuzzy as those of the said movements - never drowning like others but always ending up seemingly comfortably on the surface. It is never clear how much Vergès was a prime mover on the terrorist scene or a teleguided pawn. After seeing this movie I would liken him to a joker in a pack of cards.
Someone not very deep into history might be surprised at how L'avocat shows that there were always connections and sympathies between old, active Nazis and young, seemingly leftist revolutionaries. Others know the old French saying: Les extrèmes se touchent.
Vincent Price is brilliant, movie as whole isn't
Dragonwyck combines elements of Rebecca and Jane Eyre and transports the action from England to New York state in around 1840. I learned from it some facts about American history which I did not know previously. I wasn't aware of that fact that vestiges of feudalism survived in Yankee territory until the mid 1800s and that some farmers had a status akin to those of serfs. The set design and the cinematography are very appealing.
For fans of Vincent Price Dragonwyck is an absolute must see. His performance is simply unforgettable. Never has arrogance been displayed in a more elegant, suave and sinister manner. Just listen to him casually remark: I don't like cripples." Makes your hair stand on end. It is quite evident that he was an actor of the first order (did he ever get an award or something?). I like to imagine him in all the roles Orson Welles played around the time Dragonwyck was made It would have been wonderful if he got more parts like that.
Unfortunately the script is bad. I suppose the reason for that is a botched attempt to condense a long, sprawling novel into a dense 103 minutes. There are simply too many characters. Some fine actors like Ann Revere, Walter Huston or Jessica Tandy are simply wasted. And it is definitely not Gene Tierny's finest hour either. She is no Joan Fontaine and struggles with a character which is patently unlikeable and confused (the tremendous difference in hight between her and Price doesn't help, either). The women's dresses (heavily patterned cloth that highlights the strange itinerary of seams) are very weird and distracting.
There is a strange mix of genres. Romance, period piece, film-noir, Gothic horror and the murder mystery are entwined in an awkward manner. It is just too much, and the conclusion is very unsatisfactory: Dragonwyck is abandoned by the heroine" without the viewers knowing what will happen to the place. Manderly was at least burned down. Joseph L. Mankiewicz went on to do better stuff, thank God.
Das Leben der Anderen (2006)
Interesting but flawed
What I like about this movie are the sets, the locations and the editing. As a viewer I could really believe that I am looking into Eastern Germany in the 1980s. The wiring and the ensuing connection between the artist's flat and the cold, drafty attic with the listening post perfectly showed the perverseness and the absurdity of that particular totalitarian system. The highlight for me was, when a guest in the apartment, an enthusiastic journalist from the West, pops the cork of a bottle of champagne. The cork hits a light switch in which a hearing device is hidden, a very quick and short cut to the attic shows how the guy with the headphones winces in silent pain. The movie also makes it very clear that the Socialist systems outmaneuvered themselves with their paranoia what remains of them are vestiges of Russian style secret service systems (but that is older then Socialism and probably has little to do with it).
What I dislike about this movie is primarily that it is designed as a melodrama. The story is by nature an obscure one. The actions are stealthy ones, almost all that happens happens in the dark. This is transformed into long epic scenes which might attract a mass audience but do not fit the subject matter. I found the overbearing (and often praised) musical score hard to stand. In order to appreciate a melodrama you have to identify with the characters. And this I could not do. It must be said that the people who in this movie were the victims were also people of that totalitarian system. They were successful artists who made a career. They knew amply well how to play" that system and basically supported it. I am sure it was a great privilege to live in a spacious flat in the center of Eastern Berlin. The victims are not half starved idealistic artists who would die for an ideal, they are rather let's face it fat cats with a healthy sense for survival. I found their intellectual whining rather sickening. One has to assume that with such a privileged lifestyle it was easy to generate jealousy in members of the surveillance squads (and I am certain this was systematically, tactically done). Therefore it is difficult to believe in the development of goodness" in the main character. The movie intimates that it is triggered by music the listener hears in the apartment. I did not find that very convincing.
...And Then She Was Gone (1991)
I did not think this was a good movie. The overly loud musical score is poured over it like cheap gravy and I suspect that the dramatization of this true event was anything but subtle probably they thought they had to spice it up.
And yet, there is something deeply irritating about the whole affair that made it worth the watching time invested. The main character is oddly believable as a living doormat. I have to agree with other commentators that Robert Urich delivers a stunning performance. The man plays a big, intelligent fellow, a former football pro and a successful businessman, but people don't hesitate a second to walk right over him. The man seems to be outright plagued by an unhealthy kindness and, above all, an over developed sense of responsibility.
When a business partner sets an important meeting at a date when he is supposed to go on a long promised trip with his girlfriend he cancels the trip. When he wants to pass a found doll to a traffic cop who does not accept it, he takes it with him. When he tells his secretary she should send the doll to its owner by mail, the secretary refuses flat out and virtually orders him (her boss) to deliver it personally and he does it. The result: he gets nearly lynched as a supposed kidnapper and then beaten up time and time again. This becomes all the more grotesque as the guy's wardrobe seems to consist only of two ill fitting business suits which become more and more tattered and dirty as the story moves along. He never even removes his tie! It is very odd and slightly surreal.
The man is coerced into helping to find a girl who disappeared by the girl's single mother, a waitress. She transfers part of her guilt and responsibility over to that stranger she had never met before and who has nothing to do at all with the kidnapping. And he accepts the transfer. This is beautifully shown in the scene where he stays in the woman's apartment because she can't sleep. She leans against him and falls asleep at last. In the morning they both awake, the woman refreshed the man (unshaven, in creased business suit and limp tie) with a numb side against which the woman had leaned. But the masochistic climax is definitely the moment when the woman storms into a restaurant where the afore mentioned important business meeting takes place and tells the guy to go with him. He tells her he will, when the meeting is over. But for her it cannot be in a few minutes, it has to be RIGHT NOW. The urgency is clearly irrational but he dithers and dithers and then obeys. Oh, it was hard to bear.
The bottom line: This movie shows that different genders have different agendas and priorities and how not to deal with that issue. The rather downbeat ending is very telling in that aspect.