Saturday 31 December 2022

Happy New Year 2023


Happy New Year 2023

Another year has gone by and again it is time to take stock. I think most people will agree that 2022 was not one of those years that will be remembered with fondness. Sure, this is the first new year post-COVID, but that already seems like such a long time ago and so much have happened since then. There is now war in Europe again and a bloody one at that and we are looking into an energy and an inflation crisis on top of all the other crisis’s plaguing us. I have an app on my phone telling me what the electricity price is over the next 24 hours so I can plan when to do laundry or use the oven, something I would not have thought of a year ago.

All is not bleak though. One man’s death is another man’s bread as the (Danish) saying goes. I work with renewables, and this is a field that is booming, as in gold rush boom times. We are hiring and are very busy and if all goes well, I will be opening our new Copenhagen office sometime in 23. If you are interested in this field you may want to check out the Danish Energy Island project, which is labelled as the Danish equivalent to the Moon project. Truly exciting stuff.

This was also the year where Sight and Sound presented their new and updated list of the 100 best movies ever and the number one spot, the best movie ever made, was: “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080, Bruxelles”. Interesting choice…

I have listed 55 movie reviews on this blog in 2022. Of these 46 were List movies and 9 off-List movies, making this the slowest year so far, but I am in no rush so never mind that. The period covered is 1975 to 1978 and three List years per calendar year does seem to be my pace now. A thing I have noticed in this period is how difficult is has become to limit my off-List movies to only three titles. There is just so many interesting movies out there that never many it to the List. This was also the first year without a new release of “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” and while it may bee too early a call, this could be the end of an era. It does also seem like the host of 1001 bloggers have been thinning over years, either from abandoning the project or by finishing it and this blog may end up as an anachronistic artifact, but then, so am I.

On my book blog I have read and reviewed 13 titles which is almost three times more than the target I have set for myself, so I can be pleased with that. This took me from 1794 to 1811, 17 years, and I am now far into the Napoleonic wars, in the period known as Regency. So, that means I am looking into a lot of Jane Austen stuff.

I would like to wish everybody a happy new year with my sincere hope that 2023 will finally be a better year. I think we all need that.


Thursday 29 December 2022

Up in Smoke (1978)


Up in Smoke

This was a lot better than I dared to expect.

Anthony “Man” Stoner (Tommy Chong) leaves his wealthy, but not very understanding, parents in his old Volkswagen with a Rolls Royce grill tied to the front. The car breaks down and Man is stranded.  Pedro de Pacas (Cheech Marin) wakes up confused, steps in his children’s breakfast and pees in the laundry basket. He gets his act together and takes his pimped-up car for a spin in high spirits. Pedro takes up a hitchhiker he thinks is a woman but turns out to be Man. Man has a joint the size of a salami and they are immediately best friend.

What happens next involves starting a band, hunting for dope with a Vietnam veteran and driving a car made from “fiberweed” (hardened marijuana) across the border from Mexico believing they are smuggling upholstering. Throughout they are chased by an anti-drug squad led by Sgt. Stedenko (Stacy Keach), but Pedro and Man hardly register this, partly from being high and partly because of the incompetence of the drug unit. When they pick up two girls on the way, they give them the idea to enter a Battle of Bands competition at the Roxy Theatre. What happens there just have to be seen.

A summary of this movie will never do it justice as it is one of those movies where it is the way it is acted out rather than the nominal story that matters. Cheech and Chong were a known comedy duo, and this movie is largely a vehicle for their stunts. These circle around drugs, especially marijuana and are of a very anarchistic nature. At first, I was a bit apprehensive, fearing another substance abuse movie, but it very quickly won me over. This is a hilariously funny movie.

It is a trashy sort of humor, very low at times, but never mean. They do some really stupid things, usually while heavily intoxicated, but they are rather innocent and even sweet. The peak of this is of course the concert at the end of the movie. It is a total disaster at first. Man is freaking out from stage fear and the girls gave him the wrong dope to fix it, so he tumbles around on the stage. Pedro enters wearing a pink ballet skirt and a Mickey Mouse hat and together with the smoke from the burning marijuana car venting into the venue, they get it turned around and into an unforgettable show. I will see if I can find a picture of Pedro in his outfit for this post.

“Up in Smoke” is credited as the first “Buddy stoner film” and is as such the mother of all those genre movies that followed. Movies like “Harold and Kumar”, “Knocked Up” or “Grandma’s boy”. In fact, Wikipedia lists more than a hundred buddy stoner movies including a lot of well-known titles. This is what “Animal House” was for the college movie, and here is the wild thing, “Up in Smoke” is still one of the best of them.

I am pleasantly surprised that the editors of the List have shown enough range to include a movie like “Up in Smoke”. Sure, founding a genre is a big thing, but the List is thin on comedies and especially of the trashy sort. This is a brilliant entry and a good warmup for New Year’s Eve. Highly recommended even for non-smokers like me.


Friday 23 December 2022

Shaolin Master Killer (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin/Shao Lin San Shin Lui Fang) (1978)


Shao Lin San Shih Liu Fang

Hong Kong is well represented in 1978 with two movies on the List and that is not one too many. Both are excellent representatives of the genre of Hong Kong kung fu movies.

We are somewhere in southern China. The Manchu has conquered China, replacing the Ming with the Qing rule, and are seen by the local population as oppressors. This would place the story in second half of the seventeenth or early eighteenth century. Liu Yude (Gordon Liu) is a student of a teacher with links to a resistance movement. This places both teacher and students in conflict with the local Manchu General Tien Ta (Lo Lieh) and his brutal and capable henchmen. In a crackdown, Liu Yude manages to escape. He decides to seek out the Shaolin temple to learn kung fu as a means of fighting the Manchu.   

The temple is (of course) a mystical, Buddhist place, in isolation from the rest of the world. Liu Yude becomes a monk under the new name San Te and undertakes training in kung fu as well as general Buddhist schooling. This is the bulk part of the movie. San Te must go through 35 different “chambers”, each teaching a different skill and we watch a surprising number of these chambers in detail. He learns balance by jumping on floating logs, arm strength by carrying buckets with daggers strapped to the arms, head strength by nodding sandbags and so on. San Te is skilled and fast and cause some friction in the temple. Not all are convinced San Te has pure intentions, but think he is driven by a desire for revenge. When San Te graduates and is offered to head any chamber he wants, he desires to open a 36th chamber to teach kung fu to the outside world to fight the Manchu. This gets him kicked out of the temple.

This opens up the third chapter where San Te finds a handful of promising students and exacts his revenge on General Tien Ta.

This is the “Rocky” of kung fu movies and the ancestor of movies like “Karate Kid”. The three chapters of “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” are now, and has been for many years, also prior to this movie, a trope, bordering cliché. Yet, it is this training period that excites us and that we want to see. How this regular person transforms from a novice to an expert through a training program condensed into a montage. Except that in “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” this montage lasts an hour and far outshines the first and the third chapter. I do not know anything about martial arts but what I see in movies, so I have no idea if any of this training makes sense. It looks mystical and brutal and I suppose that is the point. San Te’s final skill in kung fu is so sublime it is magic.

The obvious reason for watching a kung fu movie is for the fighting sequences and there are a lot of those. It is the sort of fighting that look more like dancing and with surprisingly little wire work. Again, I am no expert in these things so I cannot say if it is great, but although there is a lot of it, it does not overstay its welcome. It stops short of getting tiresome.

The weakness of “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” may be in the (lack of) complexity of the story. There really is not much of a story going on here and the characters a sketchy to begin with. With only two major objectives to the movie, the fighting and the training, there is not room for much else. The Manchu is a generic oppressor, the town is a generic occupied town and the killed friends and family only serves the purpose of being that. In this respect, the other 1978 kung fu movie “Five Deadly Venoms” is a lot more complex and interesting with a convoluted plot. Yet, it is not really fair to compare the two. What “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” brings to the table is also significant and although we have seen training montages before, I have not in any earlier movie seen it this elaborate.

Gordon Liu had a breakthrough with this movie and has been starring in a ton of movies since, including the “Kill Bill” movies. The career Bruce Lee could have had had he not died early.

“The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” is a fun and easy watch, also for an audience not into martial arts and it is a recommendation from me.

Tuesday 20 December 2022

Dawn of the Dead (1978)


Zombie - Rædslernes morgen

I get the impression that “Dawn of the Dead” is considered by many as one of the greatest horror movies, or zombie movies, ever made. At least that is what Wikipedia writes. I am not as impressed, but that is not the same as saying I did not like the movie. It does have a lot going for it.

The zombie apocalypse is in full swing. As TV production is winding down and general panic is on the rise, TV-producer Fran and her boyfriend traffic reporter Stephen decide to escape the sinking vessel in the station’s helicopter. They are joined by two SWAT deserters Peter and Roger, who are disillusioned with the losing battle against the zombies.

They end up on the roof of a mall, almost out of fuel. The mall has everything they need (except fuel), but is also infested by zombies who seem to be drawn to this important place in their previous life. Roger, Peter and to some degree Stephen get the mall cleaned up and barricade the entrances with trucks. Unfortunately, Roger gets bitten in the process and we all know what that means. The three remaining characters spend weeks in this consumer heaven until eventually a biker gang spots the helicopter and decides to plunder to mall. Mayhem ensues.

I loved George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”. Despite or perhaps because of its very limited budget and the very confined space it worked tremendously well. “Dawn of the Dead” was made ten years later and with a much larger scope but fails to excite me to the same degree. We still get the siege scenario, but it is difficult to take it very seriously. The zombies move in slow motion and although they are horrible creatures they are also pushovers and do not in the same way spell doom. Instead “Dawn of the Dead seems to go for the same sort of gory comedy as Peter Jackson’s early movies, especially “Braindead”. You can watch “Dawn of the Dead” exclusively for the million ways to kill zombies (and the million ways zombies can kill people). The production team clearly had a lot of fun with that.

The reason critics love “Dawn of the Dead” is its criticism of consumerism. Once the group lands on top of the mall, the movie changes gear and lets the group indulge in the suburban fantasy of getting a mall of their own to do with whatever they want. I was reminded of the South Park episode where Cartman gets his own theme park and enjoys having it all to himself. Until he realizes what an empty experience that is. This is also what happens to our group of now three people. If the bikers had not raided the mall, they would have suffered some sort of meltdown. Are the bikers then interrupting their little slice of heaven or saving them from it?

This is a movie with gaping holes and less than great acting. Where does electricity come from when everything else have broken down? Or water for that matter? What causes this zombie disease, and don’t they die of… well something, completely unable to care to themselves as they are? But this is just not one of those movies where you should think about those things. “Dawn of the Dead” is over the top and in your face. Characters do stupid and illogical things, sometimes because they are flawed characters, and sometimes because the script is flawed. But why care when all you really want to see are some gory shots of zombies getting their brains splattered on the wall.

One thing you cannot take away from “Dawn of the Dead” is that it created our image of what a zombie looks like. If anybody, even children were asked to describe a zombie, they would do the stunted walk and the empty face created by “Dawn of the Dead”.

A recommendation? Well, there are days where this is just great stuff and others where I think this is pretty stupid, but I bet it was fun to make it.

Wednesday 14 December 2022

Vil du se min smukke navle? (1978)


Off-List: Vil du se min smukke navle?

The third off-List movie for 1978 is a blast from the past. At least from my past, it is. “Vil du se min smukke navle?” was the young love movie back in my childhood and although it was dated already when I became a teenager, this was still the reference point for the genre in Denmark.

Claus (Birger Larsen) is a shy and sensitive ninth-grader (which makes him around 15 years old) who has reached the age where girls are becoming very interesting. One particular girl, Lene (Lise-Lotte Rao), is flirting a bit with him and when the class is going on an outing to the Swedish forest for a week their relationship gets ample chance to develop.

This is not a movie with a lot of plot going one. Mostly we just follow these young people on the brink between childhood and maturity doing what they normally do on such trips. Claus is just as much hit by puberty as the other children and do not really know what to do about it. Lene is the adventurous one. When she looks at him and smiles, his world is all good, when her attention is elsewhere or she is goofing with the other boys, he withdraws into himself. They are clumsy, but when they are together everything is great.

It sounds silly and light, but the special quality of the movie is that it perfectly catches the weightlessness of that first love and the awkwardness it also causes. Where other movies distance themselves with comedy or ridiculing the youngsters, this movie takes them seriously and is very honest in its portrayal of them. I feel sympathy for Claus and Lene and I remember that confusion. When they finally have their romantic boat ride in the early morning, it feels as if it is all coming together in a way few movies manage.

“Vil du se min smukke navle” is also very much a product of its time. The immediate expression is very much 1978 with the notorious cloths, color scheme and hair cuts of the day, but also on a more profound level does it represent its time very well. It is the innocent time before the eighties, it is the great freedom after the hippie era and in this time they can find that remote place in a Swedish forest where the outside world does not exist.

The idea of school classes going on a cottage trip to socialize is quite an institution in Denmark (and may well be elsewhere as well) and while I can probably not claim they started with this movie, it has formed the mythological background for these trips. Consciously or unconsciously every generation since hope to find something out there like this class of ninth graders did.

Most of the cast were amateurs, which is not surprising given the age of the characters, and even for the director Søren Kragh-Jacobsen this was his first movie. There are moments where you can tell that this is not an expensive production, but it is far outweighed by the innocence and naturalism of the acting and presentation. Søren Kragh-Jacobsen would go on to become one of the best Danish directors with lot of movies under the belt and, surprisingly, so did Birger Larsen. He did not do much acting after this movie, instead he went into film production and eventually became a recognized director as well of both movies and television. Sadly, he died in 2016, just 54 years old.

I can highly recommend this movie, also to an international audience. There is something very universal about it that I think anybody who has been young and in love will recognize.

Saturday 3 December 2022

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (L'albero Degli Zoccoli) (1978)



When I learned I was in for three hours of Italian social realism with “The Tree of Wooden Clogs” (“L’Albero degli zoccoli”), I was worried, but this is a very unique movie and not at all what I expected.

“The Tree of Wooden Clogs” is a movie without any plot in the traditional sense. Instead, we simply follow a group of peasants in the Bergamo region of Northern Italy some time near the end of the nineteenth century. And here I mean follow in a very literal sense. The camera is a fly on the wall, observing what is going on. There is no explanation, there is not progressive story or story arch, there is no melodrama. We simply see and experience the life of these peasants living as tenants in a larger structure (commune farm?) owned by the local landlord.

Life is hard and precarious for these peasants and even small misfortunes may be disasters when you are living on the edge of existence and therein lies the drama. There is no need for schemes or strange coincidences when a sick cow is enough to threaten very real ruin. Some disasters are averted, others not and when that happen, the consequences are fatal.

So, what we see is a series of vignettes that just depicts life. A pig gets slaughtered, a peddler comes by to sell cloth, one of the older peasants nurtures tomatoes in chicken dung and gets the fruit ready before the others. A young man approaches a young woman, and they fall in love and in a lengthy scene they get married and visit her aunt in Milano.

None of these scenes lead anywhere, there is no climax. It is simply an honest depiction of these people’s lives and as such this feels more like a museum than a movie. I went into this expecting melodrama and a string of misfortunes leading up to a big disaster, but that sort of cinema tropes does not fit at all this movie as they never fit real lived life. It is not nostalgic either. There is nothing of the cozying up to life in the past when everything was better. In that sense, this is a brutal movie where dung smells, and poverty is not fun at all. Sure, the community moves together, spend time with each other and try to help each other where they can, but not because of altruistic good, but because it is a means to survive. As peasants there is no way they can manage on their own.

This is realism and it is social in that it wants us to understand where these people are coming from, but it is a window more than an agenda movie. It does not judge but tries to be objective. People are not good or bad, they just are. If something is bad, it is the social structure that all these people are living in, that life may be so hard and so unprotected that even small problems may be disasters.

“The Tree of Wooden Clogs” won the Palme D’Or in 78 and has received a lot of acclaim. I can understand that and agree with a lot of it. As this window, this museum piece, it is hugely interesting, and I could imagine even more so for Italians trying to understand their past. I do like this sort or reenactment, and this is far more than old buildings and costumes but an actual understanding of the lives of these people. A critique though may be that with the absence of plot and story arc, three hours of running does feel like a long time. The question is how long time you really want to be in this museum.

The bottom line is that this is a very unique movie, and a very well and honestly made one. This never looks like amateurs in front of the camera and I do believe I am looking at life in the 1890’ies. That does deserve a lot of credit and I find it possible to live with and even appreciate the lack of a progressive story arc. It is a recommendation from me.