Monday, 27 June 2022

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)



There is something immensely silly about writing a review of the original Star Wars movie, the one commonly known as Episode IV - A New Hope. I bet there are hundreds, if not thousands of such reviews around. Everybody and their mother have watched it and if you have not, I wonder what you are doing on a movie blog in the first place. So, I will do it a bit differently and talk about my personal experience with Star Wars.

I was too young to watch Star Wars in the cinema. In 1977 I was barely 4 years old, and it would be another few years before I would start going to watch children’s movies in the cinema. I did see a picture recently of people queuing for Star Wars in 1977 on Facebook and I found it oddly fascinating. Back then in my early childhood people really looked different, yet Star Wars feels, in my humble opinion, fresh and modern even today.

My first experience with the franchise was the toys. It was all the rage, but ridiculously expensive. It was that or Lego, but awesome as those spaceships were, you could not actually build anything. They could blow up though and they did that very well. The coolest friends were those with a lot of Star Wars toys. Many years later, when I got a son myself, he got an awesome Y-Wing bomber in Lego. He was of course way too young for that, but for his father, building it was pure bliss.

Only after the release of episode VI did I start watching the actual movies, but then I could not stop. I have no idea at all how many times I watched them, especially episode IV. Not in the cinema though, that train had passed, but we had some very worn VHS tapes copied from television.

I guess I am one of the purists when it comes to the Star Wars universe. As much as I adore the early three movies, I have never come to terms with the prequels or the countless Disney installations for that matter. There is of course the commercial exploitation element souring things, but if I really should be honest, it is a matter of design. I love the angular and brutalistic design of the early movies. The have knobs and wires and bolts and feel like they were built of iron plates on a shipyard. There is a texture and substance to them that probably also have something to do with the model work rather than the CGI used in a later age. The pace is also slower and there is a buildup that has all but gone. Rewatching Episode IV for the first time in some years I am struck with how slow the action actually is until Falcon lands on the Death Star. Sure, there are light saber fight and blasters being fired and an awesome fighter attack on the Death Star, but it is not a start to finish adrenaline rush. Maybe I am just getting old, but it feels like my pace.

Talking about that attack run, our cinema had a small arcade of video games and the greatest one was a game on that fighter attack. I spent a fortune on that…

Star Wars is the first movie on the List where I do not feel like I am watching an old movie. To me, it is my generation of movies, a modern movie if you will, and I think that marks some sort of turning point on this project. The beginning of a different era. Perhaps also in a real sense. At least in the science fiction genre there is a before and after Star Wars. The clunky, clumsy and cheap science fictions were now a thing of the past and the genre would now receive the big budgets it takes to make truly impressive movies. Most of modern science fiction and probably blockbuster movies in general owe a debt to Star Wars. Not to mention Harrison Ford.

For my rewatch I picked the original theatrical version rather than the modernized one from the nineties and it worked just as well as always.

Friday, 24 June 2022

Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977)


Last Chants for a Slow Dance

I am struggling to find anything positive to say about “Last Chants for a Slow Dance”. Everything that comes to mind is negative. Usually, I can then consult the Book. The poorer the movie, the more the editors will gush over its qualities, but I am in Korea this week and the book is thousands of kilometers away. Even Wikipedia is rather laconic on its entry. Well, I guess it is just going to be one of those reviews.

Tom (Tom Blair) drives around in his car. He has picked up a hitchhiker and is busy telling him how awesome he is, especially with the girls, and how his wife has conned him into having two children. As the hitchhiker refuses to be impressed, he is eventually kicked out. Tom returns home and have a row with his wife, Darlene. She is complaining how he is never there and never provides any money. Tom replies by being an asshole. Tom leaves and picks up a girl on a bar. After sleeping with her he calls home and has another row with Darlene. In the bedroom of the girl he just slept with. Then he gushes at pictures of wanted criminals, finds a man stuck in the forest with a broken car and shoots him dead. The end.

The entire thing, and I mean this is really all, lasts an hour and twenty minutes.

First off, I did not get this story. Why is it interesting to follow a loser of a guy who is being an asshole to everybody? He wants to be awesome, but he is just pathetic. I am kind of thinking that he thinks those criminals are super awesome and he wants to be super awesome like them. Or maybe he is just bored.

Not getting the story is probably part of the reason why I was super bored watching it. The long takes and the lack of anything interesting happening was another, but hey, I actually dug Jeanne Dielmann. It also did not help that I do not find idiotic assholes interesting. Why his wife did not simply give him the boot is a mystery. Maybe she is trash too.

Clearly this movie was made on a shoestring budget, it certainly has this home video feel to it. The lack of budget makes it gritty, but not in a good way. It just looks cheap. If somebody told me it was made over a weekend, I would believe them.

If all this was not bad enough, the movie is sprinkled with a soundtrack of country music. I have a very hard time with country music.

I can only wonder how this ludicrously bad movie made it to the List. What secret quality made the List editors chose to include this movie in preference to some of the other movies that was released this year? It actually makes me angry that it takes up a slot on the List.

And thus I enter the year 1977…


Wednesday, 15 June 2022

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)


Manden som kom ned på jorden

After a series of movies that I found less than great I was positively inclined going into Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth”. I mean, it could not be as bad as watching “1900”. Also, this is a movie with David Bowie, yeah!

It was an early disappointment though that this movie does not feature even a single song by Bowie. I think more than anything, this was what I had been looking forward to. The back story to this assumption is that earlier this year I watched the Bowie musical “Lazarus” live on stage in Skuespilshuset, Copenhagen. This is a show that uses the characters and story elements from the movie, combined with a lot of great David Bowie music. More specifically the part where Newton lives in a drunken stupor in a confined hotel room, reflecting on his life and the people in it.

Anyway, I am getting sidetracked, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” is the story about a humanoid alien (Bowie) from a drought-stricken planet who is visiting Earth in order to get water to his planet. He comes with a host of technological advances and uses them to get immensely rich with the help of a lawyer, Farnsworth (Buck Henry), whom he makes a manager of his company. Newton, being an odd fish, strikes up a friendship (and considerably more) with a hotel housekeeper, Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) and a womanizing scientist, Dr. Bryce (Rip Torn). He is just about to succeed in his mission when some entity, the government or a competing company, it is never entirely clear, steps in and shuts the entire operation down. Farnsworth is murdered and Newton is confined to the aforementioned hotel room.

Being an alien, Newton of course has some really weird abilities. One of them is that he not only sees but can project himself in time. This has a counterpart in the extremely jagged and jumpy structure of the movie. A lot of it consists of small, unexplained vignettes, which serves to throw the viewer off balance (and become a tad annoyed at times…), but this is also an imperfect view into the perception of Newton. Only gradually do we understand the story and its background and until then it is just odd scenes.

Newton is an alien to human life and through him we are exposed to the fallacies of humanity. This is a common trope, but it is a lot more subtle here than usual. The message, though, is familiar. Humans are egoistic, xenophobic and governed by lower instincts. It is not that Newton does not understand these things, his reaction to them is just very un-human. It is easy to see him as a sacrificed Christ character, but he is no saint himself. He is just different.

“The Man Who Fell to Earth” is not a feel-good movie. It is not even tragically funny. It is sad and misanthropic, but there are flowers in the desert, these small elements of hope and benevolence that saves the movie from being a complete misery-fest. They are few and far between, though, and it is difficult not to feel sorry for Newton and the prospects of humankind.

Nicolas Roeg is one of those directors you come to expect a lot from. His movies are challenging and difficult, but also rewarding to watch and “The Man Who Fell to Earth” is no exception. I was weirded out several times, but I always found my way back to the story and I understand the decisions he made. This is not cinematography for the masses but how an art cinematographer makes a science fiction that is really about the human condition.

David Bowie did not sing, but he was still phenomenal. He was a true spaceman.


Thursday, 9 June 2022

1900 (Novocento) (1976)



Welcome to Bertolucci’s massive socialist manifest.

It is truly amazing what you can get away with when you are a famous director, known for making controversial but highly successful movies. After his success with “Last Tango in Paris”, Bertolucci got away with making what can only be described as a suicidal project.

On the face of it “1900” (“Novecento”) is a sympathetic enough idea. Two children are born on the same day in 1901 on the Berlinghieri farm in Italy. Alfredo is the grandson of the owner of the farm, the Padrone, Alfredo the Elder (Burt Lancaster), and Olmo is the illegitimate son of one of the Berlinghieri peasants. We follow them as children, young men (as Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu) and as adults. When Alfredo’s son Giovanni takes over, times get tough for the peasants and while Alfredo, the younger lives an idle life, Olmo becomes a glowing communist.

With the rise of fascism in Italy, the new foreman on the farm, Attila (Donald Sutherland) introduces fascist methods on the farm as well. He is an enthusiastic fascist and a complete psychopath. Olmo and the peasants have a hard time and Alfredo is too weak to dismiss Atilla when he takes over as Padrone. When the war ends, the farm becomes a communist commune with a lot of singing and dancing and incomprehensible speeches.

Sounds decent enough, except that this relatively simple story takes five hours and 15 minutes to complete! I am not kidding, I basically watched three movies worth of Italian social realism. Long movies are not necessarily a problem if the time is well spent, but this was an ordeal.

Behind the appearance of realism this is an almost cartoonishly stylized story. The landowners are evil fascists, the peasants are the innocent heroes fighting for liberation under a communist banner. Attila and his blackshirts are evil bastards. Olmo is the hero with integrity who always does the right thing, while Alfredo is a weak man protected by his wealth who has the power but not the will to do the right thing. This story is so black and white that it is almost comical. Meanwhile we are supposed to believe that despite all this Olmo and Alfredo are best friends. Yeah…

Bertolucci also felt a need to give us some shock effects. The sex and the nudity is tasteless, but mostly harmless. Just unnecessary, really. The cruelty of Attila on the other hand is so extreme that I seriously considered simply cutting the movie after he kills the boy, Patrizio, in one of the worst scenes I ever watched. I felt sick to the bone, and this is part of the reason it took me two weeks to get through this mess.

Because Bertolucci felt the need to drive home his points this aggressively, it feels like heavy-handed propaganda to make Moscow blush. It loses the credibility it so much wants to have, sacrificed for a political agenda and the corners it needs to cut renders large parts of the movie rather incomprehensible. The bigger sacrifice though, is that as a viewer I lose interest in the story and the characters and remember, this is a five hour long movie!

The usual problem on Italian movies with strange dubbing that disconnect the actor from his or her voice seems almost a minor issue. I chose Italian language because it is an Italian movie in Italy, but how weird is it to see Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu and Donald Sutherland speak Italian?

Unless you are looking for an inspiring movie for your next (very long) meeting at the local socialist revolution club, I would not recommend this movie on anybody. Find some other three movies. At least one of them will be time better spent.

Friday, 27 May 2022

In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no Corrida) (1976)


I sansernes vold

I am not really into cursing on this blog, but I have to say, this was pretty fucked up, literally.

The Book describes “In the Realm of the Senses” (“Ai no Korida”) as being rather explicit, but I think that is an understatement. In an interview, director Nagisa Oshima called the movie hardcore pornographic and that, I think, is more precise. A Japanese pornographic movie, well, the List is supposed to cover all movies of significance and I suppose that genre was underrepresented.

There really is no hiding it, the movie goes all out right from the start, and the first thing I thought, just a few minutes in, was that they are not holding back here. It is Tokyo in 1936 and Sada (Eiko Matsuda) is a prostitute at a brothel. She has a… very healthy appetite and when the owner of the brothel, Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji) takes an interest in her, she is so ready. Sexual harassment is just what she has been waiting for and he meets his match in carnal appetite. For the majority of the movie, we watch the two of them have very real, unsimulated intercourse and we see everything.

Eventually it becomes clear that their appetite is not so healthy after all. Their sex becomes wilder, usually they seek spectators, group sex, violent sex and at some point, I believe they killed an old lady Sada wanted Kichizo to have sex with. It becomes obsessive, they are not eating, hardly getting out of bet, just constant sex and Sada becomes jealous that Kichizo may have sex with his wife. They start playing strangulation games and this ends in something I hope I will never see again. Seriously messed up.

The point of the movie is to portrait a couple getting so obsessed about their sexual relationship that they drift off into a tangent to reality and create their own reality. It literally drives them insane. The art, and I suppose the reason this movie is considered special, is that this drift is made into something beautiful, into something we can almost follow. Almost I would say, because it is also batshit crazy.

The look and feel of the movie is gorgeous. The colors are knife sharp and the period sets are just amazing. So are the bodies shown, not just because pretty and clean bodies look better in porn, but because the movie is seeking a certain very clean and smooth aesthetic. It wants to make the sexual would of these two people a desirable place to be, although objectively it should repulse us. Maybe that is the objective of porn objectively, but this movie just takes it so much further. It feels less about gratifying the viewer and more about dragging us along with the couple into their weird tangent.

Sada Abe was a real character who back in 1936 killed her lover and cut off his genitals, but so charmed and fascinated the public that she got away with relatively light punishment. She is, as I understand it, quite a legendary character in Japan and there have been some attempts to tell this juicy story, but I doubt anybody have tried this hard to get into her head. And her body too.

I found it a very disturbing movie. It is very aesthetic, but it is a shocking aesthetic that makes me very uneasy watching it. I feel too close to them and I become one more they have sex in front of. What starts fairly harmless becomes more and more disturbing and by the time we got to the strangulation scenes I had difficulty watching it and the final scene… ugh… as I wrote above, I never want to see that again.

If watching erect penises, semen dripping out of the mouth, food in the vagina and strangulation games is your thing, well, there is a lot for you here, but I cannot honestly call this a pleasant movie. It will take some time to get past this one.  

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

The Ascent (Voskhozhdenie) (1976)



Few countries are as vilified right now as Russia and though it is stupid and counterproductive to generalize, it cannot help but influencing my view on this movie, “The Ascent” (“Voskhozhdeniye”). This is probably the wrong time to objectively review an old Soviet movie, but it is next on my List so, no way around it.

This is a movie which, despite its significant length, is rather short on story. It is the second world war and a group of Russian partisans are being chased through the forest by the German army. Short on food, two soldiers, Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) and Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) are sent to a village to procure supplies. It is deep (and very snowy) winter and Sotnikov is ill. There is a brief encounter with a German patrol and Sotnikov is shot in the leg. The two soldiers seek refuge in a farmhouse belonging to a woman and her small children, but are discovered and taken by another German patrol.

Now follows an interrogation by a collaborator, Portnov (Anatoli Solonitsyn) where Sotnikov refuse to corporate despite torture while Rybak quickly breaks. The rest of the movie, until the execution of Sotnikov, the farm woman, a headman and a young Jewish girl is about establishing that Sotnikov is a saint and Rybak hardly deserves to be called human.

And that seems to be the message of the movie. Those who stand firm and take a bullet for their country are admirable saints, while those who just wants to survive are dogs who do not deserve it.

As simple as that.

It is practically the opposite message from most of the Vietnam movies from this period and forward and appears tailored to follow the party line of complying at all costs. Something that really has not changed in that country. The message also seems to apply today, though I wonder how many of those Russians fighting in Ukraine are Sotnikovs or Rybaks…

This is a very bleak looking movie. The black and white cinematography is almost whitened out by the snow, all characters are worn, damaged and shabby looking and even the soundtrack (cannot really call it a score) is disturbing. You feel you are in an environment on the brink of death. Those alive are only so because they are not dead yet and the value of life is pathetic. The Germans are non-persons, monsters in uniforms, and the Russians are all into their futile heroism. There is no more depth to them than that. The only question that matters is how to die.

This was not a movie I enjoyed. The intended intensity was to my mind way over the top, the message questionable and the delivery unpleasant. It is a Christ analogy where Sotnikov dies to take our sins from us, and we should praise and worship him for that. We even get a halo around his head, it is that thick.

For a suffering population asked to make sacrifices for a greater good, I suppose it serves a purpose, but as a viewer I could think of a thousand movies I would rather watch.


Saturday, 7 May 2022

Network (1976)



Imagine if television networks only cared about ratings, about the price they could charge for the commercial blocks and went as low as possible in the attempt to appeal to our lowest instincts, so that we, despite ourselves would watch their junk instead of something else. This crazy, far-fetched and completely unrealistic scenario is the premise for Sidney Lumet’s movie “Network”.

When Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a longtime news-anchor at the UBS network, learns he is getting sacked for poor ratings, he suffers a sort of breakdown. During one of his last shows he announces on live television that he has been fired and will commit suicide on the next show. While his friend, the news division manager Max Schumacher (William Holden) is stunned and tries to protect Beale, the programming chief Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), spurred by the attention Howard got, wants to exploit it. She sells the idea to management and suddenly Howard Beale has a show where he can rant and scream. Never idle Diana develops the show and in parallel tries to setup a show called “Mao Tse Tung hour” with a terrorist organization where they can film and broadcast their terror attacks.

UBS is a recent acquisition of the larger corporation CCA, who are not too pleased with the deficits made by UBS. Especially the news division is not making enough money and so gets the axe. Diane’s new shows however are making UBS profitable again and so she is a hero, along with her manager Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall). CCA is itself being bought by Saudis and when Howard learns this, he starts ranting on that in his show and he is no longer amusing to the board. Top-dog Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) convinces Howard that the world is a depressing place run by big business so learn to live with it. Howard picks up on that, it becomes his point on his shows and so, with such a depressive message, his ratings plummet. Management sees no other choice than to let the terrorists assassinate Howard Beale. On live television.

This is a super-sharp satire on the television industry and as grotesque as it is presented, nothing here really feels surprising. Sadly, I am confident this is fairly close to reality. This is of course also why it is funny. We recognize it. Television is stupid in order to appeal to the lowest denominator; the shows know no boundary and we are the cattle to milk. We are there for the network, not the other way round.

What works tremendously well in this movie is that it never goes for slapstick. It keeps it real all the way through, there are no hidden smiles or ironic distance, but characters that take themselves serious. Faye Dunaway in particular as Diane is completely outrageous, but perfectly serious about it. She is real enough to avoid being a caricature, and yet she has given up her humanity to dedicate herself to ratings. She has no filter at all.

Maybe the funniest scene of the entire movie is where the network with their lawyers and the terrorists with their lawyers are negotiating the contract for their shows. Badass terrorists discussing clauses in legal documents. Isn’t this sort of capitalism exactly what they are fighting against? It was hilarious.

Howard Beale, the crazy man on screen, is only half as outrageous as what is happening behind the shows. The cynicism, greed and power games are way crazier than a man screaming that he cannot take it anymore.

“Network” is of course just as relevant today as it was in 1976. Streaming probably has not helped. If television gets too stupid, we have alternatives (I gave up on cable years ago), but the networks seem convinced that lowering the bar enough will bring people back to flow-TV. This means that Network hits home 100% and I can highly recommend it.