Saturday 15 June 2024

The Right Stuff (1983)


Mænd af rette støbning

“The Right Stuff” is the best movie about test pilots and the early space program that I know of. Hand down.

At Edwards Air Force Base in the high Californian desert, the USAF are testing experimental planes and at the local bar the wall is covered with pictures of dead test pilots. In 1947 the object is to break the sound barrier and one of the, still alive, pilots, Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) is making the attempt, and succeeds where others have failed, in the X-1 plane.

In 1953 Gordo Cooper, Gus Grissom and Deke Slayton (Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward and Scott Paulin) are new pilots at Edwards, a place where pilots like Chuck Yeager are still dangerously pushing the envelope of what fighter planes can do while their wives are powerless and nervous bystanders.

The Russian Sputnik scare ignites a frantic quest to send Americans into space and we follow how pilots, like the three above, are gathered from different branches, but also the scramble itself to place humans into space. Rockets that explode, arguments on whether a space capsule is a remote-controlled container, or a spaceship controlled by an astronaut as well as the political jockeying around the space program. The focus, however, remains with the seven astronauts who now include John Glenn (Ed Harris who 15 years later would return to the space program in his amazing portrayal of Gene Kranz), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), Walter Schirra (Lance Henriksen) and Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank).

I am a bit of a space nerd and I love documentaries, book, exhibitions, you name it, about space and spaceflight. I have visited the Kennedy Space Centre and watched the launch of a Falcon 9 rocket. My science project in high school was on rockets and includes material on ESA’s Ariane 5 rocket. Behind me, as I write this, I have a Sky-Watcher telescope capable of watching the rings of Saturn and the stripes of Jupiter. For me, watching an undoubtably heroic epic like “The Right Stuff” is much less about macho-men with jet fuel for blood, but all about how many details it gets right and “The Right Stuff” is usually very close though sometimes disappointingly far off the mark.

The feel of the movie is that of a dramatized documentary. There is some real footage, authentic characters and anecdotes. It feels very real and for a space buff like me, this is awesome. Gus Grissom gets some poor treatment by the screenwriters, especially in the affair of the hatch opening prematurely on his flight, though the biggest clash with reality is when the movie’s need to created heroism converts, albeit dangerous, routine into spur of the moment reckless heroism. The Chuck Yeager substory suffers substantially from that and this is a bit surprising since he was in fact consultant on the movie and even gets a cameo in the bar scenes.

Jarring as these details are, it does not take away the sense of adventure here, of something big. There is a very basic appeal here in that this is fundamentally a very good story, delivered very well. I watched the Disney tv-series on “The Right Stuff” and despite being much longer and likely more correct, it never manages to inspire as the original movie did.

I have seen the Mercury capsule, one of those fished out after splashdown, and in the rocket garden of Kennedy there are copies of both the Redstone and the Atlas rockets. To think that people climbed into this and sat on top of that is just mindboggling.

But then, if these seven astronauts were only half of what they were presented as in the movie, it goes a long way to explain why they did it. I suppose they had the right stuff. Or were completely mad.

Either way, this will likely be my suggestion for Best Movie of 1983.



Saturday 8 June 2024

The Fourth Man (De Vierde Man) (1983)


Den fjerde mand

If I could give this movie a subtitle, it would be “Hitchcock in Dutch”. Hitchcock on acid with plenty of nudity, gory violence, some gay sex and plenty of religious symbolism, bordering on the blasphemous. Is it good? I do not know, but it is very much Verhoeven.

Jeroen Krabbé (who for me will always be the villain in “The Fugitive”) is Gerard Reve, a fiction writer of renown, but also a man with quite a few... issues. In short order these are: alcoholism, visions, obsession with catholic symbols, with death and his bisexuality. The first half hour of the movie is essentially a rundown of all the things that trouble this fellow.

Gerard is going from Amsterdam to the port town of Vlissingen to give a speech to the local book club. As it gets a bit late, he is offered to stay overnight with the treasurer of the club, the cosmetologist Christine Halsslag (Renée Soutendijk). She is a very delicious woman and a widow, so the night is well spent together, and we get see all of the pretty Ms. Soutendijk, literally. Gerard is also easily talked into spending a few extra days.

In the course of his stay, Gerard wants to write a story abut Christine. He finds out that she is also seeing a handsome young man called Herman. Gerard instantly falls in love with Herman and talks Christine into fetching him from Germany. While she is away, Gerard gets ridiculously drunk and learns, from Christine’s home movies, that she was married not once, but thrice and that they all died horrible deaths.

Christine returns with Herman, plenty of sex ensues and Gerard gets convinced he will be the fourth man.

“The Fourth Man” (“De vierde man”) references Hitchcock extensively. “Vertigo” and “Rear Window” is easy to recognize, but there are elements from quite a few more. The platin blonde girl, the witness to murder, the confusing signs, the even more confused potential victim and so on. The references queue up and I can imagine a sport of spotting them. This is not a spoof of Hitchcock, but more like fanfiction with a lot of oomph. All the elements get an extra notch or two in volume.

This is particularly the case with the Verhoeven staples. Our lead, Gerard is a very flawed character. We may understand him, but with his extreme qualities, it is difficult to sympathize with him. The religious symbols stack up, but also seem to be a red herring. They lead our attention, but apparently to nowhere and at the end may only be a product of Gerard’s delirium.  There is a lot of sex, hints of sex, sex motives and full-frontal nudity of both genders. Very Dutch. The function of the nudity is a bit obscure though, and besides the shock value, I think it is mostly used to intensify Gerard’s delirium.

From a murder mystery point of view, we are presented with the very Hitchcockian question of whether or not murders were committed or if it is only in the head of the potential fourth victim. Yet, I get the feeling that Verhoeven is less interested in this question and a lot more focussed on following, with some glee, the deroute of his protagonist. This is all about a guy going crazy.  

I do like a murder mystery, and I do love some Hitchcock, but I do not share the excitement of watching a guy go crazy. Gerard needed help to begin with and by the end he is a raving lunatic. Is that fun? Or exciting? He is playing with fire and losing, but he was losing from the very beginning and that makes this just a very sad movie with some sex and violence.

After this movie Verhoeven went on to Hollywood and among his later movies was the remake of “The Fourth Man”: “Basic Instinct”. All everybody talked about was how we saw a little too much of Sharon Stone, but frankly, it is peanuts compared to the original.

A little too Dutch for me I suppose.


Friday 31 May 2024

Terms of Endearment (1983)


Tid til kærtegn

The winner of Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1983 was “Terms of Endearment”, yet I never watched it before and even the name of the movie is one I have only heard mention in passing. What I did learn watching it, was that for all its apparent qualities, this is not a movie I would seek out and probably one I would not want to watch again. Maybe I did not miss much all those years.

Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) is a woman with one concern in her life: herself. Everybody around her is a concern for her only as they relate to herself. An episode in the very opening of the movie is telling. Aurora is concerned her baby girl may not be breathing. Her husband tries to tell her it is just sleeping. She enters the room, crawls halfway into the crib, shakes the baby awake so it starts to cry. Then satisfied the baby is indeed breathing she leaves the room with the baby crying, unattended.

Aurora is widowed when Emma, her daughter is still a child and their relationship is the focus of the movie. Emma (Debra Winger as Emma grows up) becomes a one-person support group for Aurora while she in turn is smothered by her mother. While Aurora’s sole purpose is her vanity, Emma is a more complex size. She always has her mother trying to run her things and so it seems that her fight is to get her own way. She marries Flap (Jeff Daniels) mostly because her mother does not like him and yet she remains close to her mother. For both the women, however, my lasting impression is that they are both very self-centred.

Flap gets a teaching position in Iowa, far away from Texas and Emma and Flap have three children together, but the pattern remains. The children learn that they are second, they need to give space to their mother. Flap, well, he has his work and eventually also an affair there. The suspicion of such an affair is enough to throw Emma into an affair of her own.

Meanwhile in Houston, Aurora is courted by many men, but start seeing her astronaut neighbour Garrett (Jack Nicholson). Garrett actually challenges her and refuses to be used as a mirror for her which is actually good for her and whatever improvement there is on Aurora, is largely due to Garrett.

I realize writing my synopsis that rather than telling of a plot or a narrative, I am merely trying to make a portrait of Aurora and Emma and I guess this is what this movie is all about. It wants us to understand these two people, but the more I learn about them, the more I come to dislike them. Or rather, I disliked them early on and it never gets better. No matter where they end, it is mostly about themselves. Tom, Emma and Flap’s oldest son, is a good image of my dislike. He sees both Aurora and his mother as failing him, his brother and their father. In Aurora and Emma’s life, there is simply not room for them.

This is a movie that is very strong on acting. The sheer number of nominations and wins in the acting categories is a testament to that. But it is also about people I dislike intensely, so rather to earn that sympathy the movie wants me to give them, I feel like kicking them and protect their surroundings from them. I hate to say it, but the “tearjerker” ending felt to me more like relief.

Obviously, a lot of people like and liked “Terms of Endearment”. While it is obvious Oscar bait, it also worked amazingly well at the box office. Whether it is because people really like selfish people or like to watch annoying people ruin theirs and other people’s lives, I do not know. Neither really works for me.

I think I can name quite a few movies in 1983 I would rather have winning.


Tuesday 28 May 2024

Utu (1983)



Utu is a Māori word that seems to mean something between vendetta and revenge. A formal, almost ceremonial, declaration embedded in Māori culture. That it is also the title of this movie says a lot about it. For somebody like me, unfamiliar with the Maori and their culture, this was an exotic ride.

It is 1870 and New Zealand is going through some of those clashes most colonized areas went through at the time. The Māori, as the original inhabitants of the land, saw the Europeans, the Pakehas, as landgrabbers, murderers and generally unjust, while the colonizers saw the Māori as subhuman vermin, especially those not christened yet. Many Māori were doing service in the colonial forces and for one of those, Te Wheke (Anzac Wallace), the wanton killing of Māori villagers became too much so he deserted and declared Utu on the Pakehas. His rebellion gained momentum as he attacked settlements, and his murder of a firebrand priest is particularly vivid.

One of those attacked was Williamson (Bruno Lawrence). Te Wheke’s band killed his wife and razed his home. For this he went on a single man hunt for Te Wheke with his impressive four-barrelled gun.

The young Lieutenant Scott (Kelly Johnson) was eager to show his prowess in battle, but somewhere between the arrogant and borderline incompetent Colonel Elliot (Tim Eliott) and the Maori girl, Kura (Tania Bristowe), he seemed to be constantly sidetracked.

Finally, Wiremu (Wi Kuki Kaa), was a scout in the colonial forces, a similar role as what Te Wheke had, though instead, Wiremu stayed loyal. He also turned out to be Te Wheke’s brother.

We see skirmishes between the parties, including a battle at night for a lonesome hotel, and enough to see that both of the parties are guilty of atrocities, but also that both parties have right on their side. While the battle only really results in a lot of people dead, real resolution is found in the final scenes where everybody appears to be having cause for Utu, but only through the ceremonial completion of the ritual can peace be restored.

It is obvious throughout that everybody sees themselves as native to the land, just in different ways. Everybody speaks English, but everybody, with the possible exception of the Colonel, speaks fluent Māori too. It seems to be the point of the movie that Māori and Pakeha are actually all the same people when it comes down to it.

Whether this is a naive, revisionist retelling of formative events in the history of New Zealand, or this is a truthful account of both historical event and national outlook, I am not the right one to tell, but it is an admirable point it tries to make and likely a more insightful portrayal of both indigenous people and colonizers than we usually see.

There is a keen attention to detail in “Utu”. Costumes, settings and historical details are meticulous, but more importantly, the Māori are depicted with a richness that makes this more of a Māori film than a western film. There is extensive use of the Māori language, also when Pakehas are involved and there are a lot of Māori actors here, both in major and minor roles. It is, more than anything, these unique qualities that made the movie worth watching for me.

While the production value is very high, this was the most expensive production in New Zealand at the time, there are also places where the movie suffers. Several of the characters feel half-cooked as if “Utu” had been intended as a long television series, but was boiled down to a feature. Kura, Wiramu and Scott all needed a lot more background and motivation. As it is, we just have to accept their actions at face value. This is of course the price of any action movie, but here it felt more like a flaw in the script.

Another, minor, complaint is that I found the score clashing with what we were watching. I know a lot of it was original, but I felt this was music for a different movie or a misunderstood idea of what the score should be. It is somehow too big and civilized for the frontier of New Zealand.

Overall, however, “Utu” is an impressive and worthwhile movie to watch, and it certainly has made me a lot more interested in the “Land Wars” of the nineteenth century in New Zealand.


Monday 20 May 2024

Vacation (1983)


Off-List: Vacation

The National Lampoon’s Vacation movies are incredibly popular in my family. The favourite is the “Christmas Vacation”, but it was “Vacation” from 1983 that started the party. In my family the movie is known simply as “Walley World” and we reference it every time a trip (of any sort) is becoming an expedition. This happens surprisingly often as my inner Clark Griswold asserts itself.

Obviously, this movie, or at least “Christmas Vacation” must earn a place on my 1001 movie list.

The Griswolds is a nice, middle class suburban family as families are most. Except that Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) is a bit, well, quite a bit, extra. He has his own ideas of how things should be, tries to do everything right, but through a combination of optimism, over-confidence, self interest and poor decision making, he always ends up in a series of disasters. The rest of his family, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), his wife, Audrey (Dana Barron) and Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall), their children, have a hard time keeping up with him.

Clark has a two-week vacation and has planned the greatest family vacation ever: A road trip across the US to California to visit the theme park Walley World. The vacation gets a bumpy start when the car Clark had ordered did not arrive and, instead, he is stuck with the “Wagon Queen Family Truckster”. Probably the unsexiest family car in the history of mankind.

Every step of the way, Clark Griswold’s unique qualities lead the family from either near-misses to outright disasters. We are introduced to Ellen’s cousin Cathrine (Miriam Flynn) and her hillbilly husband Eddie (Randy Quaid), recurrent characters in the franchise. The family is coerced to take the intolerable Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca) and her monster of a dog along with them to Phoenix. Going through all the roadblocks would take the fun away, so let me just say that somewhere in Arizona this is no longer a vacation but a mission, a quest for fun. Clearly, Clark Griswold has lost his marbles.

Finally, finally, the family arrives at Walley World, only to find out it out of business for maintenance. Take one guess at what that does to Clark...

I do not know how many times I have watched this movie. No matter how well I know the jokes, I still laugh every time. The humour stands up surprisingly well and I think it is a combination of not running the jokes too far and that we can, at least a little, see ourselves in this family vacation not going according to plan. Clark’s “giving up is not an option” attitude is also a very recognizable spoof on the virtue of persistence. Maybe sometimes it is okay to call it off and cut your losses. I am myself the master of over-ambitious plans and whenever I plan a hike or a trip, I inevitably get that look from the rest of the family, oh oh, Griswold. Yeah, movies work when we can laugh at ourselves.

Everything in “Vacation” works, although I learned that apparently the original ending did not, so that half a year or so after the original shooting had ending, a new sequence had to be shot at Walley World. Only, teenagers grow a lot in half a year and if you look closely, you see that Rusty is suddenly a lot taller. Still, I am happy they did redo this ending because it totally works. Taking the roller coaster at gunpoint is so Clark Griswold.

The “Vacation” generated a long living franchise with varying success. The “Christmas Vacation” and the “Vegas Vacation” are great while the remake of “Vacation” from 2015 is a real stinker.

For us, Walley World is not a place or a movie, it is a concept.

Thursday 16 May 2024

Money (L'Argent) (1983)



The Cannes winner of 1983 was Robert Bresson’s “L’Argent”. This was also his last movie. As Bresson is a familiar name on the List, I knew more or less what sort of territory we are entering here.

The focus of the movie is as the title says, money. Money as the agent of everything that is wrong in the world. The narrative is sort of a chain reaction, starting with a teenage boy who is barred from the kind of allowance he wants and therefore exchange a large counterfeit note in a camera shop. The shopkeeper wants to get rid of those fake money he has and so lets his young assistant, Lucien (Vincent Risterucci) pay for fuel with them. The fuel delivery man, Yvon (Christian Patey) does not suspect a thing, is caught when he tries to pay with them in a cafe. In the ensuing court case Lucien and the shopkeeper denies everything so Yvon gets fired. Out of job, he gets hired for a heist, is caught and sent to prison. Meanwhile, Lucien steals from the shopkeeper, is fired and then goes ahead robbing the shopkeeper. The he goes to prison too. And this is just the beginning.

Seen as a conventional movie, “L’Argent” is a pretty shitty movie. It is heavily stylized which means that all the acting is strangely wooden, and the characters are like automatons, delivering their lines and nothing more. All the characters are also flat and the only thing we learn about any of them, even the principal characters, is about their connection to the money in question. They need money and they are willing to compromise anything to get them.

The error here is of course to watch this as a conventional movie. “L’Argent” is an artistic project that is not here to entertain, but to drive an artistic point. The point here is the corruptive effect of money and by reducing the actors to robots, everything outside the money fades away. It is a singular desire. Defence is singular, the law is singular, violence is simply an extension of means to obtain money if other ways are barred.

Is Bresson then successful with his art project? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder as they say. The jury in Cannes obviously found it successful, though being an aging French movie icon would have been to his advantage here. I am not personally as certain. Because everything else fades into the background, the message here is so singular that it is banal. Money is bad. Money corrupts. Money is the cause of everything bad that happens.

The problem with that is that it is not a discussion or a polemic setup. It is simply a statement. If we learned something about the people that was corrupted or the victims there would have been depth to the statement, but instead it is simply a litany of all the horrible things people will do for money. It is just way too simplified. On top of that it is oldest cliché in the world to blame money and greed and by extension capitalism. Not that I in any way want to defend and clear finance and greed of evil, but, come on, this is really cheap.

When Bresson tried to focus on very basic elements in his movies from the fifties, they worked so well be because they condensed to object to stunning clarity. With “L’Argent” he is trying to do the same thing to our relationship with money, but to me it completely lacks the zing of his early movies and instead it feels tired.

It is an art movie and I like the idea of it, even appreciate it. It just does not really work for me.

Thursday 9 May 2024

The Last Battle (Le Dernier Combat) (1983)


Den sidste kamp

I am continuing down the road of mystifying movies. Interesting visually, but difficult to decode what is going on. “Le Dernier Combat” (“The Last Battle”) is a fascinating watch, but I am still, hours after finishing it, wondering what story it is trying to tell. Or indeed what it is I was looking at.

The movie clearly takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. People are few and largely scavengers. All the trappings of civilization are broken and crumbling. Its black and white scenography looks like “Fallout” in grey-tones.  We are following a man, identified in the titles as “The Man” (Pierre Jolivet), who is scavenging to make or fix a small aircraft. In his encounters with other scavengers, we learn that spoken language is non-existent, but we never learn why. The Man escapes a violent clash with the scavengers in his plane and crash lands in a town. This unnamed town is populated by only three other people. There is “The Doctor” (Jean Bouise) in an abandoned hospital, “The Brute” (Jean Reno), a man who wants to get into the hospital and an unnamed and unseen woman held in a room at the hospital by the doctor.

The Man gets into a fight with The Brute, and, injured, seeks shelter in the hospital. The Doctor and The Man become friends, which lasts until The Brute gain entrance and go on a murdering rampage in the hospital.

This was Luc Besson’s first feature movie and as always with his movies, it is visually interesting. The post-apocalyptic world is bleak and frightening and although the actors are just going around in old ruins with a lot of garbage, it carries the sense of places suddenly left year earlier. There is dust everywhere and everything is broken and torn. Literally everything.

The problems I have with the “Le Dernier Combat” come primarily from the narrative. I do not understand what these people want or why they are doing what they are doing. The Man wants to fly, but why and where to? The Brute wants to enter the hospital with an almost childish glee, but why? What is there that he wants so bad? When he finally gets there, the only thing he seems to do there is to kill. The Doctor keeps a girl in a cell. Why? And who is she? Why is it speech has disappeared? We get no answers to any of these questions.

I end up suspecting that Luc Besson had this idea of a post-apocalyptic world where speech had disappeared and went big time into the world building. Then, because after all this is a movie, he needed the characters to do something, anything, but without caring too much about what they actually did.

Later I had the thought that “Le Dernier Combat” works well as a companion movie to the 1981 movie “Le Guerre de feu” (“Quest for fire”). That one takes place before civilization, while “Le Dernier Combat” takes place after civilization. In both cases language is gone, people are hunter-gatherers, encounters at violent or friendly, nothing in between and humanity is reduced to basics. The Doctor’s cave paintings in the hospital is a massive hint in that direction. Again, the narrative is less important, it is the picture of the world that matters.

A definite upside was to see a young Jean Reno. Even in less good movies, Reno is always able to make the movie worthy of watching. Just strange to see him here as the villain. A slightly comic villain?

On the decidedly negative was the strange soundtrack. Not that the music was bad, but it belonged to a VERY different kind of movie. In this context it was somewhere between comic and confusing.

As a tableau “Le Dernier Combat” is spectacular, thought provoking and worth watching. As a story, and indeed as a movie, I consider it flawed and I am therefore hesitant to recommend it.