Tuesday 27 April 2021

Paper Moon (1973)


Off-List: Paper Moon

The third off-List movie of 1973 is Paper Moon. This is a movie I knew absolutely nothing about, but I read a very nice review on it at Flickers in Time (thanks, Bea) and got curious. It is indeed a delightful movie and one I am quite surprised was not included on the List. Well, it goes straight to my suggestions for what to add in the ideal revision.

Peter Bogdanovich took on the bestselling novel “Addie Pray” and reshaped it into something entirely Bogdanovich. It is the mid-thirties and at a funeral in the Kansas countryside Moze (Ryan O’Neal) drops in to say goodbye to the woman he apparently once knew. The locals, hoping he may be a relative, urge him to bring the dead woman’s daughter, Addie (Tatum O’Neal), to her aunt in Missouri. Moze is very reluctant, insisting that he is certainly not her father (though it is strongly hinted he may actually be), but Addie is a very clever girl and a quick learner and Addie has strong penchant for Moze profession, being a conman.

Before long Moze and Addie are running all sorts of scams on the local population, selling bibles to bereaved widows, fooling money out of cashiers and so on. Addie and Moze are quite a team.

At a carnival Moze gets infatuated with an exotic dancer with the wonderful name Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn) and when they leave town Trixie and her maid, Imogene (P.J. Johnson), are added to the car. Addie is not amused and while she befriends Imogene, she contrives a complicated plan to get rid of Trixie.

“Paper Moon” goes a long way to look and feel like a movie from the mid-thirties. Black and white cinematography, a period soundtrack and a set on the Plains that looks decidedly yester-year. It is quite impressive. But what is an even bigger achievement is the tone it manages to keep. It is comedy, and a really fun comedy it is, but it never gets silly. This is depression era misery but it never gets maudlin. To call it bittersweet is probably too harsh, but it is like a Scandinavian comedy, tempered and underplayed and the result is heart warming and very enjoyable. This is a difficult balance, but Bogdanovich nailed it.

“Paper Moon” also features an amazing father and daughter duo. Ryan and Tatum O’Neal have a chemistry and confidence with each other that probably comes from their real life relationship. There is nothing uneven despite the age difference, Tatum is fully able to hold her own and at the same time Ryan holds nothing back. Tatum O’Neal was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award and was the youngest winner ever.

I had a great time watching “Paper Moon”. The adventures of Addie and Ryan are fun and outrageous, but what I most enjoyed was the ping pong bantering between them, the development from grumpiness, over respect to genuine love. As usual in road movies it is not the distance travelled on the road, but the one travelled in the heart.

Strongly recommended to everybody.

Talking of Scandinavian comedies, I really should get to see “Druk” as it won an Oscar last night.


Wednesday 21 April 2021

Enter the Dragon (1973)


I dragens klør

That was fun.

The one name that has, for as long as I have been around, been associated with Kung Fu is Bruce Lee. Most of the tropes about Kung Fu in movies are based on Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee is the martial arts actor above them all. And yet, in his too short life he only made a single movie for a Hollywood studio (and a pile of Hong Kong movies). That movie was “Enter the Dragon”.

I was quite certain I had been watching Bruce Lee movies before, but now I am not so certain and I a am positive this was first time for “Enter the Dragon”. What is a lot more likely is that I have seen it and him referenced in a ton of shows, to the extent that Bruce Lee is to me a familiar face.

“Enter the Dragon” was written for Bruce Lee as a vehicle, and he was himself very much involved in every aspect of it. The result is a polished-up Hong Kong movie, thin on story, but loaded with martial arts.

Lee (Bruce Lee) is sent from his Shaolin temple to infiltrate an island run by crime lord and Kung Fu renegade master Han (Shih Kien). Han runs a Kung Fu school on the island as a cover and has invited Kung Fu masters from around the world for a competition. Lee has a personal motive since Han’s goons caused the death of his sister. Other invites are Roper (John Saxon), a charming gambler, and Williams (Jim Kelly) with impressive microphone hair.

What happens next is not terribly important story wise. What matters is that this trio is kicking some serious ass. All three are accomplished fighters, but Bruce takes it further and single handedly best hundreds of useless henchmen. His fighting is almost a dance as he kicks and punches his way through the opposition.

That may also be the weakness of the movie. In every fight there is a superior and an inferior fighter and the better of the two makes the other look completely useless. It does not matter that he has just been an expert fighter. Against the new superior fighter, he will be completely useless. A good example is William, who has no problem against henchmen, but against Han he is even worse than the henchmen, if that was actually possible. For Bruce Lee this means that the first real challenge is also the last when he goes up against Han. But then he also gets comb to his hair…

In true Hong Kong style we get terrible dubbing and plot holes the size of a meteor crater. This would normally give the movie a tang of cheapness, but I found instead it lent authenticity to the movie. It felt like a Kung Fu movie because this is exactly what a Kung Fu movie is. Bruce Lee with his funny fighting sounds, the exaggerated sound effects, the mysterious sounding but pointless lines and larger than life villains.

This is Bruce Lee, and I had a great time watching it. HIIIAAAAAHHH—IHHH… HUH!

In 2008 my wife and I spent the Christmas week in Hong Kong and on the way up to the peak on Hong Kong island we saw this wax figure of Bruce Lee. He is big in Hong Kong!



Friday 16 April 2021

Papillon (1973)



There is a distinct and very popular sub-genre called (at least in my book) prison break movies/series. This is not a favorite of mine, but there are a number of excellent representatives of this genre on the List. “A Man Escaped”, “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Papillon” to mention a few.

They have this in common that someone we would root for have been imprisoned (unfairly) and in an escape-room-like challenge attempts to gain the freedom the System will not grant him. This is the ultimate freedom of the individual against the oppressive structures of the majority scenario. In the case of “Papillon” this person is Papillon (Steve McQueen), based on the real-life character of Henri Charrière.

At the opening of the movie a group of French prisoners are being moved from France to a penal colony in French Guyana, among these Papillon. We never learn exactly how he got there, but it is hinted that he was falsely accused of murder to get him out of the way. En-route to South America Papillon befriends the geeky Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman) a notorious forger who apparently caused a financial scandal where many people lost a lot of money. Dega has hidden away a lot of money where the sun does not shine and Papillon, seeing this man needs protection, considers a friendship with Dega a win-win situation.  

The prison in French Guyana is not a pleasant place. It is hard work, diseases and humiliation and Papillon, despite dire warnings, is looking for ways to escape. Turns out there is an entire industry of luring prisoner’s money by offering fraud escape routes. Papillon’s first escape attempt falls into one such trap and he spends the next two years in isolation. Dega tries to smuggle in food to him, and when it is discovered, rather than ratting on Dega, Papillon endures by eating bugs.

Papillon’s stay in prison becomes a continuation of escape attempts and hard punishment and that seems to be the morale of the story. The prison system against the spirit of this man. We see many others who lose this fight and either break or die or both (the system does not want to correct the prisoners, it wants revenge), but Papillon refuse to do either. Papillon may be fighting a futile battle, but the fact that he continues to fight it is a victory in itself.

Louis Dega handles the disappointments differently. He bends and closes up inside himself. By the end he is not entirely mad, but so secluded in his own world, and comfortable there, that he cannot be reached, neither by Papillon nor by the system.

“Papillon” works because the prison system is as brutal as it is and because Papillon and Dega are as sympathetic as they are. In fact, it is difficult to see any of the prisoners as deserving and that makes them more like KZ prisoners. This makes the struggle morally easy and let it focus on the philosophical dilemma between individual freedom and conformity. Of course, this is a brutal simplification and leaves out all the arguments for having a penal system in the first place, but that is not where this movie wants to go, and the simplification gives it clarity.

Another reason why it is works is the very high production value. McQueen and Hoffman were at this point at their peak and it shows. The acting if first rate and dialogue is only a small part of it. The set design is exquisite with a copy of the original prison and jungle scenery so steamy and humid that you feel it watching the movie. My only complaint, really, is that the whole thing takes place in English and not in French. This threw me in the beginning, but eventually I got used to it and had it been in French, I doubt we would have gotten Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman as Papillon and Louis Dega.

“Papillon” is a definite recommendation from me and another great movie from 1973.  This is quickly becoming one of the good years in cinema.


Friday 9 April 2021

Soylent Green (1973)


Off-List: Soylent Green

The second off-List movie of 1973 is “Soylent Green” and again we are in the science fiction genre. A few years ago I started a little sci-fi movie project with my wife. It is now defunct, but one of the movies I was looking forward to watch on that list was “Soylent Green”. It sounded interesting and I had never even heard about this movie.

“Soylent Green” is a dystopian detective story, 9 years before “Blade Runner”, set to take place in New York 2022. That is, next year! In this version of 2022 humankind has gone into a Malthusian death spiral. Wild population growth has used up all natural resources and destroyed the ecosystem until the only thing left is people. It is everybody for themselves and nothing works, except perhaps the police.

In this environment we meet Frank Thorn (Charlton Heston), a police detective, and his “Book” (researcher) Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson). Thorn is investigating the murder of a rich fellow, Simonson, who lived in the fenced off exclusive part of town with his concubine, here called “furniture”, Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young). Simonson was a board member of Soylent Industries who supply food for the mass of humanity in the form of nutrient wafers “Soylent Red” “Soylent Yellow” and “Soylent Green”. As Thorn gets deeper into this case he finds out things he probably wished he had never known.

There are a lot of similarities to “Blade Runner” here, but “Soylent Green” never does manage to hit the nerve “Blade Runner” touched. For one, the dystopian world, scary as it is, is not anywhere as convincing and thought through as “Blade Runners”. Although some of the things, the greenhouse effect, the reduced biodiversity, the depletion of resource, are no longer science fiction. “Blade Runner” had a melancholy darkness that held a lot of fascination, even appeal. In “Soylent Green” the world is just plain disgusting.

Another difference is that where Harrison Ford was a perfect cast, Charlton Heston was a terrible one. He is totally unconvincing and somehow strikes me more like a Douglas Fairbanks thrown into movie, except Fairbanks would have been a lot more fun. Somebody ought to have told him this is not “Ben Hur”.

But then on the other hand we get to see Edward G. Robinson in what turned out to be his last movie, and that was pure bliss. It is actually worth the admission just to enjoy the great Robinson. As a bonus we also get Joseph Cotten in a small, but important role as the murder victim, Simonson. Too little though to get much fun out of it.

When “Soylent Green” is best it is examining the horror of a hyper Malthusian age, taking that scenario into the most extreme and showing the degradation of people when there are too many of them and their lives are cheap. When it is worst, we get a not well enough thought through detective story with Charlton Heston as the knight in shining armor. That story has way too many holes and loose ends. We never even find out why Simonson dies and Thorn’s discovery in the end has only very thin ties to the murder case. Ugh.

There are things to enjoy in “Soylent Green” and I would not be surprised to see a remake at some point, but it was not a winner for me.

Oh, and by the way, if anybody offers you a piece of Soylent Green, just pass.

Thursday 1 April 2021

American Graffiti (1973)


American Graffiti

It is the Easter Holiday and I have done something incredibly exotic for these Corona times, which is to go to Germany to spend the holidays with my family in law. Crossing a border these days is apparently a super dangerous affair with an amazing amount of paperwork… You have to want to do it.

Anyway, I brought with me “American Graffiti”, the next movie on the List and what a holiday treat that was. Blowing it up on a badass television in high definition from a Blu-ray disc only enhanced the experience. This is delicious stuff.

“American Graffiti” is George Lucas memoirs of his youth in Modesta, California and is as such a love letter to the youth culture of the early sixties. Young people cruising up and down the street in their cars, listening to the music of the time and worrying about their future. Apparently, Lucas based this movie on a number of characters he knew when he himself graduated from high school.

In the course of a single night, we follow four stories, which to some extend intersect, and in each of them the guy in focus achieve some sort of clarity on his life. That sounds very profound, but the stories are unforced and easy and quite believable.

The guys are Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), Steve (Ron Howard), John (Paul Le Mat) and Terry “the Toad” (Charles Martin Smith).

Curt is supposed to leave for college in the morning, but is having second thoughts about going. His adventures of the night include spotting a pretty blonde in a passing car, getting picked up and almost pressed into membership of a local gang and finding (and meeting) the mysterious radio DJ Wolfman. Through this Curt finds his resolve for what to do.

Steve is also set to leave for college in the morning, but have a fallout with his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) along the line of “I think it would be okay if we see other people”. Laurie gets pretty upset and throughout the night Steve and Laurie are alternately together and apart in a complex dance. Steve also finds his resolve on what to do.

John Milner is the local drag racer, driving a home-made construct of a car. By chance he ends up having the under-age Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) in his car, which forces him to find his responsible side, moving in the course of the night from being the reckless drag racer to the responsible big brother type.

Finally, Terry, the local geek, has an absolutely insane night which include getting an awesome car, picking up a pretty girl (Candy Clark), getting an armed robber to get him booze, getting sick from the booze, loosing the car, hiding from the mysterious goat killer and getting beaten up by some tough guys. Crazy night, but also very maturing.

The narrative of four stories in parallel is pretty standard today but was completely new ground in 73. Despite this it works flawlessly and was, I suppose, quite an eye-opener. So was the storyline which does not move towards a particular climax, but instead take the characters through a development and process them as evolved beings on the other side. This combination apparently was difficult for the studios at the time to swallow, but I guess it helps having the director of “The Godfather” as producer (Francis Ford Coppola).

The big draws to me though were the ambience and the cast. Lucas managed to draw almost iconic imagery of the early sixties with wall-to-wall music and a documentary like depiction of the youth culture. By letting the actors improvise and be relaxed about their roles he also managed to make the dialogue and acting unforced and natural which is in start contrast to the theatricals of earlier youth movies.

And then there is the cast. This is where young actors like Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard and Harrison Ford (as the drag racer Bob Falfa, who is challenging John) became names in their own right. This was if not their breakthrough then the pivotal boost of their careers. Watching them here was just magic and the amazing thing is that all the other young actors in the movie were just as great to watch.

I had a great time watching American Graffiti. This worked 100% for me and I can only recommend it. A classic coming of age story in a brilliant wrapping.