Sunday, 1 October 2023

Arthur (1981)


Off-List: Arthur

The third off-List movie of 1981 is “Arthur”. This was a suggestion of my wife, who loved this movie in her childhood. For me, this was first time I watched it and I do not think I had even heard about it until my wife mentioned it. So, a good opportunity to expand my horizon and watch a movie together.

“Arthur” is a comedy about a playboy, Arthur Bach (Dudley Moore), who refuses to grow up and take responsibility for his life but drowns his insecurities in copious amounts of alcohol. We learn that he is fabulously rich with family money, but that it is really his parents who are calling the shots. Arthur has people to do all his work, Mr. Hobson (John Gielgud) his butler and Mr. Bitterman (Ted Ross) his chauffeur, and everywhere he goes, nobody refuses him, smiles and mocks him when he leaves again. He lives in a bubble of money and no responsibility. He hates it, but is unable to do anything about it, but drinking. And drinking he does.

At the opening of the movie, we see him cruising through town with Mr. Bitterman and picking up hookers. He takes one of them to an expensive restaurant and makes a scene just to set the stage. At home, Mr. Hobson is clearly familiar with the scenario, gets the girl out and tries to boost a bit of adult sentiment into Arthur, though largely failing. Arthur does love Hobson like a father, but it is always easier to dodge responsibility. A crisis, however, is looming on the horizon. Arthur’s parents have found a wife, the well-connected Susan Johnson (Jill Eikenberry), for Arthur and he must marry her or get cut off from his wealth.

This is where the magic starts happening. Arthur meets Linda Marolla (Liza Minelli) while she is stealing a necktie from an expensive shop. He is fascinated with her and her devil-may-care attitude and steps in when she is apprehended by the shop detective. Athur falls in love with this person who cannot be bought and is finally doing something on his own, unfortunately at a time when it is almost too late.   Will Arthur truly man-up or is he doomed to an unhappy marriage?

What makes “Arthur” a comedy is the shenanigans of Arthur when he is drunk. His drunken antics are played to full effect and against an audience who is sober and very proper, so Arthur is like a bomb in a stuffed-up society. That is kind of funny, and definitely the sort of fun that from a child’s perspective works as hilarious. Unfortunately for me, I have found as I get older that drunk people are only really funny when you are drunk yourself and watching Arthur get stiff is almost painful. It is clearly a shield against the world and rather than enjoying his jokes, I feel his pain and despair. Poor rich kid is a cliché, and I know it is difficult to feel truly sorry for somebody with this much resource behind him, but Arthur is a sad case. The victim of always taking the easy way and throwing out your dignity in the process.

In another decade, “Arthur” would be a tragic or at least a moral tale, but in the early eighties (as in the early thirties) there was a window where this could be a comedy that actually worked. I can see it as funny and I can see the appeal, but the alcoholism element just means that it has not aged well. It feels almost inappropriate, yet my anarchistic side thinks that is actually a plus.

Gielgud won an Academy Award for best supporting actor and the theme song (by Burt Bacharach) won the award for Best Original Song. And it is a very catchy tune indeed.

I do love my eighties comedies and I want to like this, but maybe not so much as a comedy but as a social commentary.

Monday, 25 September 2023

Body Heat (1981)


Høj Puls

I love film noir and “Body Heat” is very much noir. Sure, this is 1981, pictures are in color and the dialogue (and the sex) is updated, but on every other level, this is classic film noir as it was made in the forties and fifties. It is even based on a noir classic, “Double Indemnity” to an extent where it is fair to call it a remake.

We meet Ned Racine (William Hurt), a not-so-great Florida lawyer who spends more time thinking with his genitals that on his actual legal cases. This is a small town where people know each other so Ned may be losing a case (again) in court to the prosecutor Peter Lowenstein (Ted Danson), but he is still having a drink with him in the local diner, swapping gossip.

One night, when Ned is ready to move on to the next lay, he meets Matty Tyler Walker (Kathleen Turner). She is a class or two above Ned’s usual prey, but he enjoys the challenge and somehow, he does end up in her pants. Matty is home alone most of the week as her wealthy husband does his business elsewhere and that is very convenient. Eventually they come up with a scheme to kill her husband to clear him out of the way and leaving his worldly possessions to Matty. That goes reasonably well, but then things start going south. Ned learns from various sources that things are not what he thinks they are, that he has been duped and is in danger himself. Matty is one sneaky viper.

“Body Heat” spends a rather long time setting up the pieces. It is slow and moody. There is a sense of oppressive heat, and most scenes are shot at night with lighting that creates a lot of shadow. All this is accompanied by a seductive, slow score by John Barry. This is sexy stuff. So is the chemistry between Hurt and Turner. It is a playful but sexually very loaded dialogue, maybe slightly too racy for the original noir movies, but the meaning and intent is exactly the same. We understand the sexual, dark energies involved here and if we were in doubt, the love-making following leaves nothing in doubt. Very steamy. Not that we really see that much, this is not porn, but that just makes it work even stronger.

When we come up to the murder, the movie changes gear. There is now not just a sexual load but something a lot darker and as we see all this from Ned’s point of view, we see how he struggles to keep afloat under this load. We thought we knew Matty, but as a character she becomes more distant as Ned realizes how little he actually knows about her and that is brilliantly done. We know Ned got into this through his own flaws, but we still feel the disquiet, even panic as he realizes he has been played as much as her husband did.

True to the noir style, there are no happy endings. Human failings and a femme fatale will eventually cause ruin and a few open ends is simply par for the course. This is exactly how it should be.

It was a pleasure to watch so many great actors at the early end of their careers. William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Ted Danson and Mickey Rourke just to mention some of them. It is not one of those movies where the actors improvise their roles, but instead it is more like a choreographed ballet where even the smallest details are well considered. A remark, a glance, a hand gesture, everything is loaded with meaning and the talent of both actors and direction is that it never looks staged. Or at least no more staged than we feel we a diving into a forbidden zone, developing into a nightmare.

An interesting detail I learned from the extra material is that the heat we feel is all fake. It was the coldest winter in memory in Florida and the actors were all freezing profoundly while they had to act as if they were barely enduring the heat. Now, that is the true illusion of cinema at work.

Is “Body Heat” too much of a pastiche on film noir? Some might say so, but I am buying it completely. I love it when directors are not afraid of using an old style or theme for their movies. Especially when it is this well done. Recommended, but probably not for children.


Wednesday, 13 September 2023

Time Bandits (1981)


Off-List: Time Bandits

When I was looking for off-List movies for 1981 I found that my first choice was on the List after all (“Evil Dead” is listed as a 1982 movie) and my second choice (“Kundskabens træ”) is included in my Danish edition of the Book. Looking around I saw that “Time Bandits” was an option. I seemed to recall this was a movie I always wanted to watch but never did. I could also see that this was essentially a Monty Python movie after Monty Python, so, a no-brainer, this had to be included as an off-List movie.

As I got into the movie, I realized that actually I have watched this one before. It just made so little impression on me that I had forgotten. That is unfortunately symptomatic for “Time Bandits”.

Kevin (Craig Warnock) is a single child living in a suburban home with parents who are far more interested in material wealth and gadgets than in Kevin. One night, a knight in full armor springs out of his closet and rides off through a wall that has now become a forest. Kevin is stunned, but the next night he is ready, armed with a satchel, flashlight and a polaroid camera, so when a gang of dwarves jump out of the closet, he is ready to go with them.

It turns out that these dwarves, headed by Randall (David Rappaport), used to work for the Supreme being (God), fixing errors in Creation, but decided to steal a map of gateways to plunder and enrich themselves. From Kevin’s room they land in Napoleon’s (Ian Holm’s) camp. Then on to the Sherwood Forest and Robin Hood (John Cleese) and then ancient Mycene where Kevin gets adopted by Agamemnon (Sean Connery) for helping him slay the Minotaur. Having robbed the Greeks clean, they land on the Titanic, which was kind of a mistake…

Meanwhile, Evil (David Warner) wants the map as well and sets a trap to lure the dwarves to his fortress. There is a showdown here where all mankind’s technology is useless against Evil and only the Supreme being, personified by Ralph Richardson, is able to save the day. Kevin wakes up, his house is on fire, but what seemed to have been a dream is contradicted by all his polaroids in his pocket.

“Time Bandits” is intended as a children’s movie or at least a family movie, so the story is told at the eye height of children. At that, I am sort of outside the target group and my criticism may therefore be unfair. One of the consequences of this angle is that nothing gets explained and even the silliest elements must be taken at face value. I suppose it has become more difficult for me to just accept with a child’s faith what I see as I have gotten older. The short of it is that at face value, very little here adds up.

For Monty Python that was never an issue. What carried the day was the anarchistic comedy and everything else was just a, wry, frame to string it along. That comedy is much toned down here. Certainly, some is left and much of that is very much left-field, but as it is aimed at children it is also very harmless and often falls flat. Maybe it has something to do with that the Monty Python members who do appear, do so for only short moments. John Cleese is top-billed and is a fantastic Robin Hood, but is there for hardly five minutes. Michael Palin shows up twice, but hardly as more than a cameo. Maybe they did not want to steal the picture (which they do when they finally appear) but there is not enough Monty Python here to even remotely quality as such.

What we get instead is a coming-of-age story for Kevin. His (maybe) internal journey explores the meaning of value. Most particularly material wealth compared to moral wealth, but also concepts like courage and companionship. Kevin’s parents are disqualified as representing consumerism and little else and Kevin emerges with some more wholesome qualities. It is a moral tale, told in the language of the early eighties and at the eye-height of children.

What does work here, and works spectacularly well, is the set decorations. There is a lot here that points towards Terry Gilliam’s later movies, especially in Fortress of Evil. Again, a departure from Monty Python but pointing forward to something quite spectacular such as “Twelve Monkeys” or the cinematography of Jeunet.

I was rather underwhelmed by “Time Bandits”. It is too much in-between for my taste and aimed for a different target group. As a Monty Python fan, I do not consider this essential viewing, but for anybody interested in the work of Terry Gilliam, there are some interesting insights here.


Thursday, 7 September 2023

Chariots of Fire (1981)


Viljen til Sejr

Everybody knows the image of running in the surf to Vangelis’ “Chariots of Fire”. Certainly, if you have attended or watched any sporting event. But that is also all I knew of the movie behind this image before now. Probably a mistake on my side.

“Chariots of Fire” is a movie about a group of British athletes preparing for and competing at the Paris Olympics in 1924. The two main characters are Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) with a rivalry implied between them.

Abrahams is a Cambridge student and a son of a wealthy Jew of Lithuanian origin. This has placed a chip on Abrahams’ shoulder and he feels everything he does is to prove the prejudice of others wrong. A sentiment that is both motivating him and threatening to push him over the edge, both in terms of his own mental health and other people’s acceptance of him.

Motivation is something Liddell has plenty of as well. Liddell is strictly religious, born in China of missionary parents and destined to take over the mission eventually. Liddell is also very fast and when he runs, he is convinced he is doing God’s will and honor him by winning. The upshot is that Liddell fights and exerts himself 120%, making him extremely fast, even in adversity.

Abrahams sees Liddell as his only real competition in Britain and during a race in Scotland where Abrahams lose to Liddell, he takes on his coach, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm) to give him that extra edge, something frowned upon by the elitist Cambridge board who do not like professionalism.

At the Paris Olympics the expected duel on 100 m between Abrahams and Liddell is cancelled when Liddell refuses to run on a Sunday and instead runs the 400 m race. The personal duel instead becomes a transatlantic duel where the British runners are pitted against American runners.

The classic sports movie is about setting a team, practicing and then competing (to win, understood) and “Chariots of Fire” does follow this formular, even if the team is only understood as the runners picked for the Olympics. The thing that makes “Chariots of Fire” interesting is the motivation of the athletes. As the character, Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers), remarks, for the others, running is a fun hobby, for Abrahams it is an obsession. Lindsay is a good hurdles runner, but without that extra motivation he will not be more than good. Abrahams and Liddell are fueled by something else, and this is what is explored and the reason for watching this movie.

Another element, which at least for me, makes the movie interesting, is that it is largely a true story. Abrahams and Liddell are real characters and the portrait of them is quite faithful. Some details are modified (Liddell found out he was running on a Sunday and changed to 400 m already before departure for Paris), but the essence is true. This makes it a window into another age where sports were considered a bit differently than today with athletics being a gentlemen’s sport, well dressed at all events and a code of conduct which already in 1924 was becoming antiquated. To see these British athletes in suits next to their American counterparts in tracksuits is like watching the past and the future in a single image. The List has had movies from the 36 and the 64 Olympics and while the style of them are very different, they serve to demonstrate a development in the attitude towards sports.

Then of course there is the famous scoring by Vangelis. I am constantly reminded of his scoring for “Bladerunner”, as different a movie to “Chariots of Fire” as it is possible to make them, and a part of me is thinking that so similar a score cannot possibly fit so different movies. In “Gallipoli” the electronic score was definitely a clash, but there is something about the patos in Vangelis score that against odds actually makes it work here. Or maybe the theme song has just become so associated with sports, particularly athletics, that intuitively it works. I may just have become conditioned to think that this is the sound of a sprinter in slow motion.

I liked “Chariots of Fire” more than I thought I would. It is an interesting watch even if the drama element is kept at a minimum, but I am wondering what made the Academy award it four Oscars, including Best Picture? This is the year of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Das Boot”. Still, I do recommend it.


Saturday, 2 September 2023

Gallipoli (1981)


Ærens vej til Gallipoli

If you know just a little about Peter Weir and his movies, you will know not to expect something as trivial as a straight war drama from him. Gallipoli is a big thing in Australia and in his hands “Gallipoli”, the movie, is really about two things: The coming of age of Australia as a nation and the idiocy or World War I.

The movie takes place in 1915, only a decade and a half after the formation of the Australian federation. In the outback of Western Australia, Archy (Mark Lee) dreams of going to war. Archy is the son of a ranch owner, or whatever it is called in Australia, and practicing to be a sprinter. At a local town fair race, he races a railway worker, Frank (Mel Gibson), who just quit his job. Both are excellent sprinters and end up bonding. Archy wants to join the light cavalry but is too young and Frank just wants to get to Perth. They ride a freight train but end up in the middle of nowhere and must cross a large saltpan in the desert to get a train out. Through Archie’s bush skills they manage and Frank helps Archie look older so he can enlist. Frank has no wish to enlist, but somehow gets involved anyway. As he does not know how to ride, he joins the infantry.

They end up in Egypt where the Australian and New Zealandic units are being formed in the what is known as the ANZAC. We see them practice and deal with being mates in a foreign country and eventually Archie and Frank reunite. As they are supposed to leave their horses behind, Frank asks and is permitted to join Archies unit. Then they are off to Gallipoli in Turkey. The ANZAC only controls a small strip of land along the shore with a steep slope up. Any attack is pretty much doomed as the Turks can, at leisure, move the attackers down with machinegun fire. The ANZAC must attack to draw fire from a British attack on another beach, but the attack is total disaster with everybody cut to pieces.

So, as I mentioned above, this is a lot about the formation, or coming of age, of Australia as a nation. The Australians are presented as naïve children who are living a comfortable and protected life, in sync with their environment, even one as hostile as the Western Australian outback. They are heading blindly into a war that really has nothing to do with them, but the adversity is fusing the country together and is giving them both a national trauma, but also a national myth about being Australians that is celebrated to this day as ANZAC day. Through my travels in Australia, I can testify that this is still a big thing there.

Having said that, this is an odd movie to watch. It is very pretty, as Weir’s movies always are, but it is also incredibly slow with the things happening seeming of little relevance to the overall story. My guess is that it tries to describe the idea of being mates and bonding Australian style, of the things that would form a young Australian at the time. Frankly, I found it borderline boring, if it had not been also very pretty to look at.

The war part is surprisingly short. We see them based on the beach of Gallipoli in a very relaxed atmosphere, until the moment of attack. This attack is presented as extremely moronic, with stupid errors from all levels of management, but it has to be done because management orders it so, and so everybody dies. The End.

I am not very familiar with the Gallipoli operation, but what I have learned is that practically everything that could go wrong did go wrong, largely do to poor planning and a lack of contact with reality. This could be said of most of that war, but at Gallipoli it all came together as a massive clusterfuck. The soldiers landed on the wrong beaches, the massive naval support was useless due to bad communication, the top brass who planned the thing had little understanding of the place, but worst of all, they thought they were fighting the previous war and had developed no tactic or technology to face the war they actually got and at no point did they face that fact and reconsidered their operation. If the spirit is right, you can face anything, even machinegun fire and to hell with losing a few (thousand) young men in the process.  “Path of Glory” is a good window into that world and Weir was known to have been heavily inspired by that movie.

An interesting detail is that while the score is often somber and classic, it changes into an electronic score by Jarre when Archie or Frank are running. First time I heard “Oxygene” being played I sat up wondering what was going on. It is nice music but a very odd choice for a 1915 setting.

I am not completely sold by “Gallipoli”. I understand what it is trying to do, but I have a feeling it would work better if I was Australian. As it is, it was just a bit too slow for me.  

Saturday, 26 August 2023

Stripes (1981)


Off-List: Stripes

I am a big fan of both Bill Murray and Harold Ramis and especially of the movies they did together, so it should come as no surprise that I picked “Stripes” as one of my off-List movies for 1981.

John (Bill Murray) and Russell (Harold Ramis) live a hand to mouth life in New York. John’s cynical, nihilistic and somewhat childish slacker attitude takes him nowhere and on a particularly shitty day he losses his job, his car, his girlfriend and his apartment. Somehow, he manages to talk his friend, Russell, into joining the army as a sort of last resort. Never has the US Army received more unlikely and unsuited recruits.

John runs his Bill Murray schtick throughout, which lands him at odds with everybody, especially his drill sergeant, Hulka, (Warren Oates). He has this way of talking to people where you always have a feeling he is mocking and not entirely sincere. Something which is both infuriating and hilariously funny. Needless to say, the basic training is a total disaster, something not helped by the “quality” of the rest of the unit, which includes Ox (John Candy) and Elmo (Judge Reinhold), both in their American screen debut, or the total incompetence of company commander, Captain Stillman (John Larroquette). The latter ends up sending Sergeant Hulka to the hospital when he blows him up, and it is now up to John to take charge of the unit so they can make it through graduation.

“Stripes” is sort of a combination of “Animal House” and “Private Benjamin”. It is the slacker anarchy and improvised hilarity merged into a story of unlikely and unfit recruits in the army. What happens when chaos meets discipline, when comedy meets deadly seriousness? This is not a new combo at all. In Denmark that combo dates back to the early sixties and also American cinema had been there before. It has just never been as funny as it is here. The key here is the force of nature which is Bill Murray and the writing and sense of the improvisation opportunities of Harold Ramis. Not to forget Ivan Reitman going along with it.

Bill Murray is one of the few actors who can make an entire movie be about himself and actually lift it. Any movie will completely change character the moment he shows up, for better or worse and from then on, it is a Bill Murray movie. This might not work for everybody, but for me his slacker cynicism is gold. He is the master of deadpan.

The story of “Stripes” is not great. There is a background phase, boot camp phase and then they are out on a mission. It is a story anyone with half a brain can follow. It is not a very naturalistic one either. There are lots of moments that require suspense of disbelief to the point of the ridiculous and had this been anything else than a Murray/Ramis/Reitman movie, it would have tanked. It is that thin. But by making it a vehicle it is all down to Murray and Ramis and in that context the silliness works. More for me back in the eighties and ninetieth, but I still had quite a few laugh-out-loud moments and I was able to gloss over some of the more stupid elements, such as the incursion into Czeck territory.

The early eighties was a very fertile period for this type of comedy and, silly as they are, I love them. Whether it was “Police Academy”, “Beverly Hills Cop” or “Trading Places” I always have had a good time watching them. A guilty pleasure, if you will. “Stripes” is almost archetypical in that respect, taking silliness and anarchy far but stopping just short of becoming stupid and creating in the process unforgettable comedy.

When Murray and Ramis fell out after “Groundhog Day” it deprived us of the potential for so much great comedy. What a miss. Then again, Murray seems to have been falling out with everybody in Hollywood, so it is a wonder how many great movies he has actually been in throughout the years.

“Stripes” is a Murray and Ramis classic. We still have the best to come, but this one is not bad. Recommended as a classic.


Tuesday, 22 August 2023

The Boat (Das Boot) (1981)


Das Boot

“Das Boot”, or by its less awesome English name “The Boat”, is the quintessential submarine movie. I would even go so far as claiming it to be the best submarine movie ever, but I might take heat from that statement. When I watched it as a miniseries back in the eighties, I was completely sold by it. I swallowed each episode and could not wait until next week for the next episode. Then I read the book and was surprised to find how close an adaption Wolfgang Petersen made of it. This spring I even went to the Buchheim museum in Germany to see their exhibition of the story.

Buchheim, the author of the book, was a war correspondent during the Second World War and went himself on a tour with a submarine. While the novel (and hence the movie) is not specifically about this tour, it heavily inspired him and in the story, we follow his alter ego, Leutnant Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), a war correspondent assigned a tour on the submarine U-96.

The movie starts on land. There is a big party for officers where everybody gets ridiculously drunk. Almost desperately drunk actually, as if this was the last party. On the way back to the submarine we see the rest of the crew, no less drunk. And then we are on board the U-96 for 99% of the rest of the movie. “Das Boot” is distinct from most other submarine movies by not having a particular narrative structure, expect perhaps that of an odyssey. We live on the submarine with the crew. Listen to the Captain, only called Kaleun (short for Kapitänleutnant) (Jürgen Prochnow), the banter of the crew and share their experience. Sometimes they are immensely bored, trapped in this tiny tube with nothing to do. They experience storms, throwing the boat and everything in it hither and there. Then we have action when U-96 encounters a convoy, quickly scores a couple of hits, but then become the hunted as British destroyers chases them with deepwater charges. Seriously, there is nothing more claustrophobic than being trapped 150 below sea level with loud sonar pings hitting the hull.

U-96 miraculously escapes but is heavily battered. However, instead of being instructed to go back to base for repairs, it is ordered to reload in Spain and then go to La Spezia, Italy. Through the Gibraltar, the most heavily guarded passage on Earth. A total suicide mission and almost a disaster for U-96, lying grounded at 280 m at the bottom of the strait with multiple and critical failures.

It is not so much what is happening as the experience of it happening that is the strength of the movie. This is not a gung-ho crew out to sink some ships, but a group of men trying to stay alive and sane doing what they are ordered to do. With one notable exception, they are not Nazis but German sailors. They are good at what they do, but they are not out there doing it for the Führer. We sense that very strongly. But more than that we feel the claustrophobic fear. The dirt and sweat. The very tight space. The pressure, on the hull, but also on the mind, threatening to throw people into madness. “Das Boot” is so good at this that it sucks you in and you hold your breath and whisper when a destroyer is passing overhead and you jump with adrenalin at the scream of “ALAAAARM!!!” when the submarine has to dive in the manner of seconds to avoid being shot to pieces. It is a very submersive experience, literally.

For a war movie, there is surprisingly little shooting. There is also surprisingly little visually of the war. Inside the submarine you do not see anything, you feel it. Only when the submarine surfaces and watches the burning victim of their torpedo do we get the visual impact and then it hits in the gut as burning sailors are trying to jump ship. This is a lot more about the mental experience of being on a submarine during the war than the war itself and you could probably make the same movie with a crew from any other country, except that the submarine war and the staggering losses is unique to Germany.

To achieve all that, Buchheim wrote a great book, but it is Wolfgang Petersen who created the experience in the movie, and it is that experience that sells it.

“Das Boot” was nominated for six Academy Awards, but did not win any. Must have been a hell of a year.

Strongly recommended. Go for the directors cut at 209 minutes.