Saturday 30 April 2022

Julefrokosten (1976)



Every single company in Denmark, most associations and indeed any other group of people outside family, have an annual Christmas lunch (julefrokost). I do not think this is uniquely Danish. The format of it however seems to be outside the ordinary. Most of my international friends see it as a bit of a culture chock and feel a bit… uncomfortable about how rowdy a thing it is. Somewhere between the pickled herring and snaps and watching your boss play air-guitar this is something you remember. Unless you passed out with hazy ideas about what happened. If you do not know what snaps is, google it. The best is called Rød Aalborg and must be drunk at sub-zero temperature…

“Julefrokosten” is a legendary movie about such a Christmas lunch that when completely off the rails.

At Simonsen’s Bijuteriefabrik it is time for the annual Christmas lunch. This is a small company of the old school with a hierarchical structure, a place where people are called by surname. But at the Christmas lunch all such titles and forms are relaxed, and everybody are intent on having a good time. This means copious amount of alcohol. And snaps, well, you really do not need a lot of those. Soon the foreman Karlsen (Jesper Langballe) is hitting on Henny (Lisbeth Dahl), Merete (Kirsten Norholt) hits on anything that moves, Peter Petit (Jørgen Ryg) speaks fake Chinese and sits in the food, Borgunde (Judy Gringer) gets the party in gear and Hans (Preben Kaas) is everybody’s best friend as he supplies drink. By the time the manager, Simonsen (Bjørn Puggaard-Müller), shows up everybody are in high spirits and he gets busy catching up.

This goes from bad to worse when the party crashes Simonsen’s office where the stuffy bookkeeper, Asta Asmussen (Birgitte Federspiel), thinks she will be hosting coffee and cake, but instead gets into a fist fight with Borgunde. When they order a late evening snack, the delivery guy gets sucked into the party and as drunk as the rest. Even worse when a passing elderly lady sees Petit and Borgunde on the roof and thinks he is about to get killed. Eventually half the party ends in the detention to sleep it out.

Okay, I have never experienced a julefrokost get to those extremes and generally drunk people are only funny if you are drunk yourself, but this is one of the few examples where they actually are funny, especially when you have experienced Christmas lunches and know how wild they can get. There is something funny about how stupid and embarrassing people can get when inhibitions are lost and, frankly, a relief to see a movie where people turn funny instead of mean from drinking. Not that these people do not have a LOT to think about afterwards and bitterly wished they had held back a bit.

This is also fun to watch because the cast is the absolute best Danish film could offer by the mid-seventies. Every single role is filled by an actor who would be a star on his or her own in any other movie, and yet nobody is drowning (well, in snaps, but you know what I mean). This is truly an ensemble comedy. Sure, some of the jokes are dated, but this is still way better than the remake from 2009, mostly because it does not feel the need to moralize. We can all see that objectively this is terrible, but it is also hilariously fun.

Our Christmas lunch was postponed due to Covid and is due is three weeks. The food and the snaps are ready and there are places on site to crash. Only question is if we are getting too old for this stuff.

Monday 25 April 2022

Taxi Driver (1976)


Taxi Driver

The picaresque novel has a long history, going back centuries. My book blog counts a number of these, but also the picaresque movie has something of a history. The typical format is that of a traveler, who in each location meets new people and new situations and in the process of these encounters the traveler while being an observer, is formed and may form his world. One of the finest, and most classic, of these is Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”.

The idea of a taxi driver as the traveler is brilliant and has been used frequently since. The taxi driver picks up different characters and go different places with each client and in the process experiences and observes the locales and the people. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is such a traveler. He is our observer and commentator as he drives taxi at night in New York. As a character Travis is an empty vessel. He is alone and with a minimal of baggage. Cut off from his family and with a background as a soldier, he possesses nothing but what the city gives him. That is unfortunately mostly negative experiences. As a night driver, Travis experience the underworld, prostitution, violence, drugs and scum of all sorts and it gives him a cynical and disgusted outlook, but it also forms him as to how he should be. He becomes as crude and degraded as the city around him.

One of his stops is to observe Betsy (Cybil Shepherd). She works in a campaign office for a presidential campaign and is his goddess. When he finally gathers the courage to approach her, it is so awkward that it is both painful and hilarious to watch. She is in a completely different league from Travis and he simply has no interface to her. His idea of taking her to a movie is to go watch a porn movie in a seedy joint! Guess how that turns out. To Travis, this failure feeds into his general disgust and people like Betsy become representatives of a world he despises.

Another character he meets is Iris (Jodie Foster). She is a very young (12, if we are to believe her) prostitute. Again, Travis simply observes her and decides she needs help. Iris is incredulous and has no idea what he is talking about. Again, Travis attempt at breaking out of his internal world and connect with the outside world is awkward and he fails to connect.

Travis’ response to all this is to go ultra-right. He wants to clean the town, he wants to do something and in his world that means to go kill the bad guys. At first he settles for the politician Betsy is working for and when that fails, he turns his vengeance on Iris’ perceived tormentors.

This is a movie that is scarily relevant today. Travis’ character can be recognized from countless assassination and shooting cases and his voice is echoed by militant right-wing people the world over. I have had taxi drivers echoing Travis. The alienation, the loneliness, the impression of moral decay is all too common and today such people can confirm themselves on social media. “Taxi Driver” was blamed for inspiring this sentiment, but it was just an early mirror on a sentiment that has only grown since.

Travis is the picaresque traveler who gets formed by the world he travels through, but fails to connect with it. He morally degrades along with this world and thus he shares fate with the city.

This is not a feel-good movie, but it packs a hell of a punch. It is crowded with rising stars, has a haunting soundtrack by Bernhard Hermann and is brilliantly shot and directed. It may be the best move in 1976. Also, it gave De Niro his famous line “Are you looking at me?”.


Saturday 16 April 2022

Rocky (1976)



I am not certain “Rocky” introduced the sports montage, but I cannot imagine a sports montage without the “Gonna Fly Now” soundtrack. In fact, any preparation for doing something big must be accompanied by this track, just as the actual performance in slow motion must be Vangelis’ “Chariots of Fire” and the eventual success, Queen’s “We are the Champions”. Then add iconic scenes like the victory jump at the top of the staircase of the Philadelphia Art Museum or the persistent cry of “ADRIAN!”, which you will always feel like shouting if you get beaten up badly. Three Academy Awards including Best Picture and countless sequels and spin-offs of which the latest is due this year. To think this all came from a low-cost production in 1976 with non-union crew, an extra as the lead, no actor pampering and a persistent diet of pizza…

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a working-class boxer and part-time collector for a loan shark. His career never took off and he has let himself slide so the games he fights are cheap and brutal and with no future. He cares about boxing because he is good for nothing else and his only other interest is Adrian (Talia Shire), a shy woman who works in a pet shop. They are both off-beat characters and that is, I suppose, their attraction to each other. To see them make out is so awkward and poignant that I felt the camera really should not be there.

Rocky’s break happens as one of those once in a lifetime events, when the opponent of World Champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) cancels due to an injured hand. The game is highly advertised, too much money is at stake, but there are no other ranked opponents available. Creed comes up with the idea to find some unknown, local boxer and make it an “American Dream” chance and he likes the sound of the name “The Italian Stallion”, Rocky’s call name.

From completely unknown, Rocky is now thrown into the limelight and must get his act in gear for this game. The rest, as they say, is history.

I have never been a sports guy and boxing is a game I never cared for. I just never watch it. This may be the reason I was never into the Rocky series, but even I have been massively exposed to that franchise. It is one of those, like “Star Wars” or “Indiana Jones” that you just cannot avoid. As I mentioned in the opening, the tropes founded by this movie are big ones and the world would have been a slightly different place without this movie. To me, though, this movie is less about boxing than a rags-to-riches tale and one that springs out of a truly sad place.

The environment of Philadelphia in the mid-seventies presented is just depressing and the no-future life of those living there is heartbreaking. The movie spends a lot of time and focus on this world. The dirt, the hardships and the sorry existences living there. The love story of Rocky and Adrian works because they are two “losers” who find that together they are not losers and that is the heart and soul of the movie. Rocky knows he is going to lose the fight, but this is not about winning a game but winning over himself, to show that he can pull himself up. In this sense there is a clear parallel to “Bad News Bears”, reviewed earlier on this page.

Then of course the production of this movie is a parallel to the story it tells. Before this movie Stallone was an extra or performing in soft-core porn, but he wrote the script for Rocky and insisted on playing the lead with the result that is was rejected as a big production and only got very minor funding. It became, however, a huge success and a true rags-to-riches story on its own.

Even without the acclaim and massive influence on pop-culture “Rocky” does stand its ground. It is a solid movie, even if the basic story has been repeated ad-infinitum. It just works.


Friday 8 April 2022

Marathon Man (1976)



In the mid-seventies, Dustin Hoffman was here, there and everywhere. He is almost omni-present. Usually, though not always, movies benefitted from his presence. My second off-List movie for 1976, “Marathon Man” is another Dustin Hoffman film.

In this movie we follow two tracks that seem to have nothing to do with each other. Track 1 is a cloak and dagger track with spies and agents, bombs and shady dealings. It is very difficult to work out what happens here, but the scenes focus on Henry “Doc” Levy (Roy Scheider, yup, the guy from “Jaws”!) and people with a heavy German accent. Doc is clearly some sort of agent and things are not going great for him. His contacts are dying around him and someone is trying to kill or at least warn him too.

Track 2 features Thomas “Babe” Levy (Dustin Hoffman), a Ph.D history student working on a project that should clear his father who was blacklisted in the McCarthy era. A topic that is a bit of an obsession for Babe. He is also really into running and is practicing for a marathon with a similar obsessive zeal. The combo makes for a shabby and likely sweat-smelling living. Babe meets a nice girl at the library, Elsa (Marthe Keller) and starts dating her.

The sharp reader may already have noticed that these two characters share a surname, but that took me quite a while to work out and it was only half-way into the movie when Doc pays Babe a visit that I realized they were brothers. It is also only when Doc gets stabbed by the bad guys and stumbles back to Babe’s apartment to die in his arms that the storylines merge. As it turns out there are old Nazi’es involved, including a Nazi-dentist from Auschwitz (no shit, I thought that was only my dentist), played by legendary Laurence Olivier, lots of diamonds and renegade government agents. Babe is in this way over head and his teeth will never be the same again.

A good thriller balances what it tells and does not tell its audience. Little enough that the whole thing is mysterious, but enough that we do not get completely lost. A part of me was thinking that I was left a bit too much in the dark here, but the effect is that we share the same confusion as Babe feels and that is okay. The problem is that Babe is a terrible listener. He asks by shouting and keep shouting instead of listening for the answer and that is partly the reason he is left in the dark. I cannot tell if this is part of Babe’s character or if it is Dustin Hoffman’s particular way of acting, but it was grinding on me.

Roy Scheider, on the other hand, grows on me. At first, I only thought of him as the chief of Amity Island, but he is very versatile and this role was very different, as were his roles in “Klute” and “French Connection”. Juxtaposed with his brother Babe, Doc could not be more different.

I have long suspected that dentists were actually Nazi sadists and now I feel confirmed. I just knew they took special pleasure out of tormenting my mouth and extorting my money. I visited my dentist yesterday morning and just waited for her to ask: “Is it safe?”. I would have talked, there and then.

“Marathon Man” is a decent thriller. Sure, there are loose ends, but that is okay, we need the mystique. As these are mostly, the middle part is the best, the slow finding out what this is about, whereas the conclusion dives into classic Hollywood tropes. I am okay adding it as an off-List movie, but I can also see why it might not earn a spot on the List. On the other hand, the list is definitely lacking some Nazi dentists.


Friday 1 April 2022

All the President's Men (1976)


Alle præsidentens mænd

One of the most common conspiracy theories is that there is a cabal in the government trying to manipulate things through illicit means. Well, it is, I suppose, an entire family of conspiracy theories. Unlike most of those far-fetched ideas, this one actually happened and curiously enough operated by the very same kind of people who believes in these theories. Thieves believe everybody steals, I suppose.

It is a commonly known story that it was two journalists at the Washington Post who traced the infamous Watergate burglary to the top-echelon at the White House and brought down the Nixon administration. Robert Redford was so fascinated by the story of these two journalists, probably more than by the case itself, that he approached them and got their help to make a movie about them. The result is “All the President’s Men”.

Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) are two, young and low-rung journalists who get assigned to cover the burglary case. They soon learn that the burglars have ties to the White House, but the waters are very murky. Woodward has an anonymous contact at Justice, Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) who tries to nudge them along with riddle as in some treasure hunt for adults and then it is out knocking doors, to piece together the puzzle.

Jason Robards as the Post editor is both encouraging their investigation and holding back the story, insisting on more meat on it, which forces Woodward and Bernstein to dig deeper until they find out how deep this conspiracy runs.

This is, I understand, a fairly faithful representation of their story. The newsroom at the Post was recreated so exactly that authentic Washington Post garbage was flown in so even the bins were like the real office. This also means that the investigation of the movie follows the same steps as the real investigation and those were, frankly, very confusing. I had to concentrate hard to follow it. There are so many names thrown around, hints and references than mean nothing to me and seemingly the same exercise repeated again and again. What I did work out was that it was the payments to the burglars that led to CREEP (the Committee to RE-Elect the President) and further up to the closest associates of the President, but also into the FBI, which was supposed to investigate the burglary.

It is an opaque case, but it is also presented in a broken form. Certainly not through easy to read flow diagrams, which leads to authenticity but at the expense of understanding exactly where you are in the movie.

Eventually, there is a backlash. Woodward, Bernstein and indeed the Post feel the wrath of the White House and they start getting paranoid. Are they being followed and bugged?

Then just as things look most dangerous and uncertain, the case is closed and the president falls…


The idea is, that at this point the story has caught up with what is publicly know, so the rest is history, as they say. Except that I am a foreigner living more than forty years after the fact. This is not known history to me and I simply missed the clues to how they pulled it off.

This is an interesting story, even an important story and I love the authenticity and the refusal to do a Hollywood spin on the story, but the cost was that it lost me on the way. I will have to read up on it though, it is too interesting to miss. I want those ten minutes the movie cut away.