Sunday, 26 March 2023

Life of Brian (1979)


Life of Brian

Monty Python is not for everyone, but it totally works for me.

My son is very much into Monty Python too and has been eager to watch “Life of Brian” with me for some time. Friday evening it was finally it, and we had a blast. The verdict was overwhelmingly positive from both of us.

“Life of Brian” is the second feature length movie from the Monty Python group following “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975) and several seasons of their “Flying circus” show. “Life of Brian” is a parallel story to the life of Jesus, creating a character, Brian, who was born in a stable next door to Jesus. Everything Brian experiences is however absurd in the extreme. He wants to fight the Romans, but the revolutionary groups are extremely fractured and more interested in dogma and fighting each other. He gets mistaken for a prophet and find himself with an unwanted and enthusiastic following and finally is he gets crucified following a botched raid on Pilates palace. He is actually pardoned, but his neighbor on the cross is released instead of him.

Sounds horrible, actually, but it is so absurdly carried out that it is hilariously funny.

As was the case with “The Holy Grail”, the movie is essentially a series of sketches only very loosely tied together. The sketches tend to get tangential to the story, working out in directions that are amusing but not exactly helpful to the overall story and at times it gets outright wacky, such as when Brian briefly gets abducted by an alien spaceship and find himself in the middle of a space dogfight only to crash right where he was picked up.

When we discussed the movie afterwards, we both picked the stoning scene as our favorite. So, what is so funny about a stoning, you may ask. Only men can attend a stoning so everybody there are women wearing fake beards. The accused has uttered the Lord’s name and must be stoned, but this results in the name being mentioned repeatedly followed by throwing of stones until it ends in chaos. Well, you kind of have to watch it.

The Monty Python team is Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Tery Jones and Michael Palin. As usual they all play multiple parts, which may sound confusing, but makes perfect sense in the moment. Each of them have their specialty sort of character that they do amazingly will, and I will just briefly mention Cleese as Roman soldier/policeman and Palin as Pilate with a speech deficiency (what is so funny about a name like Naughtius Maximus or Biggus Dickus?).

The controversy around “Life of Brian” is that it is accused of being blasphemous, mocking Jesus and Christianity. As usual, religious hardliners have no sense of humor. Actually, the movie is quite respectful about Jesus himself. It is everything else it is mocking. Fractured political revolutionaries, religious zealousness, barbaric practices, authoritarian policing and everything in between. It is satire, but it is satire on conventions, institutions and human folly, not on the religious message. That, in fact, is skirted quite neatly.

One should always be careful looking for a message or a point in Monty Python’s material. I do not think sending a message as such was their objective in general. If anything should be extracted though, it would be that life is full of absurdity and there is very little you can actually control, so you just have to get the best out of it. This, almost insane, optimism is most clearly on display in the end sequence when Brian is crucified by mistake and has been deserted by all family and relations to die a horrible death. In this, worst of all situations, the prisoners hanging around him starts to sing:

   If life seems jolly rotten

There's something you've forgotten

And that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing

When you're feeling in the dumps

Don't be silly chumps

Just purse your lips and whistle, that's the thing


Always look on the bright side of life


If you can keep optimistic in the face of such adversity, nothing will knock you down.

I like that idea.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, 23 March 2023

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)


Kramer mod Kramer

I have a real problem with divorce dramas. Maybe it has to do with that I am a divorce child myself. Maybe it is because children get hurt. Or maybe it is simply the intense and difficult emotions that always surround divorces. No matter how you look at it, there is no happy end to divorces involving children. All this makes it very difficult for me to watch a movie like “Kramer vs. Kramer”. It presses very uncomfortable buttons for me, and I dread to watch it. Frankly, I have more stomach for gory slasher movies than divorce movies.

Yet, “Kramer vs. Kramer” is by all accounts an excellent movie, and I am happy I forced myself to watch it.

Ted and Joanna Kramer (Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep) are married with a six year old son, Billy (Justin Henry). They live in an apartment in New York where he works in advertising, and she is at home. One evening when Ted returns from work, Joanna announces that she is leaving and immediately does so. No warning, no explanation and Ted is alone with Billy.

Ted is married to his job and while that may be a contributing factor to Joanna leaving, it also makes for a hard landing, having to take care of the child. Ted quickly realizes that he has to reprioritize his life to being first a father and secondly an account manager in advertising. Unfortunately, Ted’s boss is a prick who refuses to allow Ted to have a family life and ultimately he is laid off.

15 months later Joanna is back and now she wants Billy. This ends in the famous court scenes where all Ted’s good arguments come to nothing because Joanna is Billy’s mother.

This is a movie that kept making me upset. I was upset with Ted for not listening. He talks a lot, but only when he gets to be alone with Billy does he learn to listen. I was upset with Joanna, not so much for walking out on husband and son, but for being selfish enough to first give up on her son and then wanting him back. Not for her son’s sake but for her own. I was very upset with Ted’s employer for being so insensitive to Ted’s family issues. Maybe it is being at forty years distance where companies now do allow people to balance work and private life, where people can go on reduced time if they need to and understand that if children are sick, parents may need to be home with them. Many companies even allowed work from home in such cases before the pandemic and the question is not if but how many days you can be home with your sick child at full pay. And it does not matter if you are the father or the mother. I was upset with a court system that forces people to give up custody if they cannot afford the lawyers and I was upset with the mother’s automatic right to custody. But most of all it was upsetting to watch the impact on the child. A six- or seven-year-old child does not understand why mum and dad are not together. He does not understand why he has to leave home to live with the other parent and it upsets me when children becomes the victims of their parents selfish wants.

Apparently this movies caused quite a stir and there are clearly many opinions on what is right and what is wrong in custody cases. In the extra material I learned that “Kramer vs. Kramer” is even referred to as a legal precedent in custody cases. Maybe it is biased because the scriptwriters were men and included Hoffman who himself was going through a divorce at the time, but it does drive a strong case.

Of course the acting is phenomenal across the board and Justin Henry may be the best child actor I ever saw. This is very emotional acting on all sides and they went for quite a lot of improvisation to make it appear as natural as possible and man it works.

“Kramer vs. Kramer” won five Academy Awards, including Best picture and four additional nominations. Every one of them were deserved.


Thursday, 16 March 2023

Being There (1979)


Velkommen Mr. Chance

“Being There” is something as rare as an intelligent comedy. It is quiet, slow, insightful and incredibly funny. How often does that happen?

In a very slow-paced opening, we see Chance (Peter Sellers) wake up. He watches television, gets (immaculately) dressed and tends to the garden. When the maid of the house, Louise (Ruth Attaway) tells him the “old man” has died and that she is leaving, his only concern is the television and getting something to eat and we slowly realize that Chance is not mean or rude, but vacant, almost retarded. It turns out that Chance has lived his entire life in this house, belonging to the “old man”, never left the premises and only knows the outside world from what he watches on television. Having now to leave the house, he is entirely unfit to survive on his own.

Luckily, Chance is hit by the car of wealthy Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine). She takes him home to care for his injury and something incredible happens. Although Chance does nothing but being his own quiet self, smile and listen, everybody around him are massively impressed with him. Eve’s husband, the influential and very ill Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas) believes he is a talented business man, Eve think he is the hottest guy in town. The President of the US takes his words on gardening as sage advice on running the country and the Russian ambassador is convinced he reads poetry in Russian. Chance has no idea what is going on but just flows with it and reduces everything to very simple answers.

Chance is like a mirror, everybody sees in him what they want to see. A wise man, a shrewd man, a loving man because what they are really seeing is themselves. A reporter who asks him what papers he reads get the answer that he does not read papers but likes to watch TV. True and simple, but her read on it is that here is finally a man who admits that he gets his information from her media and she feels vindicated.

I kept waiting for the moment where the bubble would bursts, where people would finally realize that he is nothing what they think he is but just a dimwit, but it never happens (sorry, if that is a spoiler). A doctor who suspects that it is the case, keeps it to himself, seeing how Chance makes people around him happy. When Chance in the final scene even walks on water, it seems his purpose is high indeed.

There is biting satire here of course, having all these high and mighty people think that this idiot is a fountain of wisdom. They get to look pretty ridiculous. Sellers is also in his own right a source of a lot of fun. He is completely deadpan in his portrayal of Chance and gets himself into the most weird situations. The lovemaking scene with him and Eve was a hoot. Her lying on the floor masturbating and him doing yoga exercises on the bed. Priceless.

I am a big fan of Peter Sellers and the List has generally been too thin on his movies, but then again, it is thin on comedies in general. I do not know if this is his best movie, he was pretty amazing in “Dr. Strangelove”, but there is something incredibly fitting about this role for Sellers. He claimed that without a role to play, he was nothing and something similar can be said about Chance. On his own his is nothing, but he wears the roles people dress him in.

Sellers was nominated for Best Actor and Douglas won for Best Supporting Actor. It also won a place in my heart. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 9 March 2023

All that Jazz (1979)


All That Jazz

It is now two days since I watched “All That Jazz” and I am still not certain what to think of it. It is a movie that balances on a number of knife edges, and I have yet to decide whether or not it falters. One thing is certain, it is a rather unique movie.

We follow Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), a choreographer and manager of sort and alter ego of Bob Fosse, director of “All That Jazz”. One stream is a narrative about setting up a musical and editing a movie of his. Another is a string of flashbacks to earlier events and encounters. A third is a conversation Joe is having with an angel of death, Angelique (Jessica Lange), though whether he is dead or imagining the conversation is unclear. Finally, Joe is imagining other events of various sorts.

Which of the streams we are in at any given moment is not immediately clear, which at times makes this a confusing watch. It is clear however that all streams serve to portrait Joe Gideon as a person and the events leading up to his death.

Joe lives life in the fast lane. He is super engaged in his stage production and in his movie. He smokes and drinks in excess and he beds every pretty girl he sees and, yes, in his position he sees a lot of pretty girls. It is as if his life never takes a break but is constantly at full speed. The is plenty of damage from this lifestyle. On a personal level he is neglecting his daughter, Michelle (Erzsebet Földi) and leaves an unhappy wake of ex-wives and ex-girlfriends behind him. His health is deteriorating rapidly and his unwillingness to take a rest is what finally kills him. But also on a professional level his manic lifestyle has consequences. His productions are way ahead of his audience, and he is either deemed a genius or a disaster, but certainly not an average-Joe.

We see glimpses of these productions. Disjointed glimpses, that is, and I am sometimes in doubt if we are watching stage, movie, deep-flashback or dreamshows. Always they are extravagant (his stage production has a significant amount of nudity) and often it centers around death. A particular sequence has a comedian telling about the five stages of dying: anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance and the movie keep retuning to this sequence and even takes Joe through them.

In fact, the narrative could be wrapped up as “Life and Death of Joe Gideon”.

There are a lot of women in this movie. They are all long-legged, pretty dancers. They, almost, all end in Joe’s bed and I keep getting them mixed up. The two major roles are Joe’s ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer) and the current (or one of them) girlfriend Katie (Ann Reinking). Both do a lot of dancing.

It is no secret that Bob Fosse used himself as template for Joe Gideon and essentially wrote his own eulogy, predicting that this life of his would kill him. I cannot help thinking that either he had enough insight to see his own flaws or he was a narcissist who wanted the entire world to know what a brilliant asshole we was. Not unlike Fellini in “8½”. Either way, there is a level of navel gazing here that I am not entirely comfortable with. Is it too much? Maybe. That is really the question.

That apart, there is no doubt that the format of the movie with its non-linear structure is interesting, if not confusing, and the show performances spectacular. As readers of this blog will know, dancing does little for me, but it is difficult to ignore the spectacle of this and the eroticism is on Very-high, regardless of your sexual persuasion.

I doubt it is a movie I will go back to, but it is also a movie that cannot be ignored, so I guess it is a must-see-once sort of movie. Let that be my recommendation.

Thursday, 2 March 2023

The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) (1979)



“The Tin Drum” (Die Blechtrommel) is a famous novel by Günther Grass and the movie adaption with the same name won lots of prices including the Palme d’Or and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language movie and we are talking 1979 here, one of the great years of cinema. Yet, “The Tin Drum” is not my jam. As usual I am too stupid to get the point and the characters are generally too unlikable and annoying for me to really care about them. Considering how celebrated this movie is, I am obviously missing something.

Our narrator, Oskar (David Bennent), starts out telling us about his odd family. His mother, Agnes (Angela Winkler), is married to Alfred Matzerath (Mario Adorf), a Gdansk, or Danzig, chef, but has a long standing affair with her cousin Jan Bronski (Daniel Olbrychski). Which of them is Oskar’s father is uncertain, all four live together in what appears to be blissful ignorance.

In 1927 when Oskar is 3 he decides to stop growing, thinking that adult life is stupid. He also clings on to his tin drum as a child to his ipad and discovers a rare skill for blowing up glass with his scream. Yeah…

Oskar remains a three-year old boy with a drum for most of the movie and as time goes by, this becomes stranger and stranger. He witnesses the rise of the Nazis, the death of his mother by eating fish, and the outbreak of war. Throughout, Oskar seems to be an agent of misfortune that brings about bad things for those around him. Whether it is some perverse thirst for revenge or childish ignorance is hard to say, but what I see is a massively annoying boy who consistently is in the wrong place. His screams are horrible, his voice jarring and those eyes, Jesus!

The movie, and the freakishness, reach a crescendo during the war as Oskar becomes a young man in a boy’s body and starts to explore his sexuality. My wife watched this part with me and asked me to please stop watching this. I could only agree, this gave me the shivers.

There is a point to having this boy watching the craziness of the world and commenting on it, but I am quite certain I am not getting it. This could be something about naivety against the harshness of life, or an indictment of adult life, but it does not come through like that. We all know that Nazism was horrible, Holocaust terrible, that regular people got caught up in it for better or worse, but having this child as a narrator blurs rather than accentuate all this. The poignancy becomes grotesque and the evil, absurd. Why this choice is just beyond me. Worst of all, the Oskar child completely steals the focus and I as a viewer is busy being annoyed with him rather than the events he is talking about. Strange choice indeed.

On the plus side, the setting in German controlled Gdansk, between Germans and Polish was interesting. I cannot recall ever watching a movie on that location in that period before. Some of the scenes were shot on location and I have to admit that Gdansk looked a lot more interesting than in my own visits to this city.

Unfortunately, I cannot think of much else that I liked about the movie. I felt it just dragged on and could not wait for it to finish. That cannot be a good thing.

Clearly, I got it all wrong as I did not see the brilliance of this movie, so feel free to enlighten me.

Only recommended for masochists who like to torment their ears, eyes and sensibilities about children and sexuality.


Friday, 24 February 2023

Rend mig i traditionerne (1979)


Off-List: Rend mig i traditionerne

The third off-List movie of 1979 and my Danish contribution is a movie only known by its Danish title “Rend mig i traditionerne”, which translates to something like “To Hell with Traditions”. It is the film version of a novel by Danish writer Leif Panduro, one of those novels that all high school students in Denmark get to read, myself included.

This is the story of David (Henrik Koefoed), a high school student who gets his tie stuck in a venting machine and is arrested by an overzealous policeman who is convinced he tried to rob the machine. When his relations come to pick him up from the police station, he starts barking and bite people. Convinced he has lost his mind he is committed to a mental hospital.

What we see at the hospital is that everybody are mostly interested in their own agenda and how David fit into it, the doctor (Axel Strøbye), the nurses and David’s relations. Especially David’s wealthy and self-obsessed mother (Bodil Kjær) and his business-like brother (Hans Rostrup). Instead David forms a friendship with the completely off-the-planet crazy Mr. Traubert (Olaf Ussing). He is the only one not looking at David with condescension. Gradually we learn through flashbacks how David ended up in this place.

David’s problem is that he is confused about what to do with himself. There is pressure on him to act in a certain way, be a certain kind of person, follow social codes. David is just a teenager reacting to and against this pressure. When his teachers reach out to him in friendship, instead of following the social norm, he does the opposite and kick their butts. The family’s plans for him just makes him want to hide and ignore them and his relationship to girls is an entire can of worms on its own.

This could have been a tragic social-realistic drama, but it is the exact opposite. “Rend mig i traditionerne” plays for comedy in every scene. Even David’s breakdown is funny. David’s family is ridiculously self-obsessed and the hospital staff so condescending that they seem entirely uninterested in the patients. All this does give the whole thing a bit of surreal feel and while it may be confusing at first, it is entirely intentional. All those things we consider normal and expected behavior has something irrational in it and this is how David looks at it. He is so tired of people who have all the answers because how on Earth can they know how he is feeling?

In a world of madness, the actual crazy people are quire refreshing.

The lesson for David is to not run away and hide, but admit to who he is and what he feels and not be dominated by outside expectations and of course he gets there in the end with the assistance of girlfriend Lis (Karin Wedel).

The book was one of the great anti-conformist novels of the seventies and it managed to tap right into that anxiety that most teenagers feel at some level. That contributed greatly to its popularity in a rebellious era, but it still holds validity today. The movie maybe aims a little to much to the silly side for comfort but it is a decent rendition of the story and as usual begs for a reread of the novel.

I have no idea if “Rend mig i traditionerne” was ever released abroad, but I am fairly confident the novel is available in English.

Highly recommended.


Sunday, 19 February 2023

Breaking Away (1979)



There are lots of sports movies around, but precious few about bicycling. I like bicycling so learning that this movie was about that, made me very curious indeed. What it really is though, is a coming of age story, but one of the better ones, so I was not too disappointed that the bicycling was merely a tool for the story.

The four friends Dave, (Dennis Christopher), Mike (Dennis Quaid), Cyril (Daniel Stern) and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) have finished high school and now spends a year just hanging out. They live in the town of Bloomington, home of the Indiana State University, a town which is rather sharply  divided into those with a connection to the university and the natives, called Cutters due to the main industry of the town of cutting limestone. Essentially affluent upper class versus unrefined working class. The friends all belong to the latter with something of a chip on their shoulder against the former.

While each of them has a story of their own, it is Dave we follow. He loves bicycle racing, adores Italian bicycle teams and through them everything Italian. He even learns Italian and goes around pretending to be that. While his mother has some sympathy for his dream, all this rubs his father entirely the wrong way. The circus between the three of them is half the movie and is preciously comedic.

Dave starts to court college girl Katherine (Robyn Douglass) pretending to be an Italian exchange student and when the Italian professional bicycle team Cinzano joins a local race, Dave thinks his dreams are coming true. Jealous to be matched by a local amateur, one of the Cinzano riders stick a pump into his wheels and makes him crash and all Dave’s dreams with it.

Will a local Little 500 race be the ticket to regain self-respect and a way out of passivity?   

In many ways “Breaking Away” is a story I have seen many times, but it is a good story, and this is one of the better renditions. Because this is a seventies version of the story, it wants to pitch working class local boys against the privileged, but that is even not that big of a theme. Finding the ticket to something better by believing in the dream and being a team is the big one here. The ticket here just happens to be through bicycling.

I love the show of Dave pretending to be Italian. It is ridiculous and stupid but also endearing. I love that he is so much into his dream, and I love the play with his parents. His father going nut over all this Italian stuff, finding way too many things with “ini” in it: Fettuccini, zucchini and so on.

The story with the group of boys finding themselves in the limbo of what to do with their lives is also a classic. Their pact of sticking together may be holding them back but it also gives them strength as a team. Should the strength of a team not also promote them into better lives?

I am not terribly familiar with American college towns and the dynamics there, though I did stay for two months in Hanover, NH, back in 07. Not really enough to sense any conflict, the town there seemed to embrace the college, but I get the impression that the movie is rather faithful in presenting Bloomington and a conflict that may be more about the fear of aspirations and ambition than anything else. Once the boys (and the parents) let go and move on, college is not such an awful thing.

“Breaking Away” is a feel-good movie and I did leave it with that nice, warm buzzing feeling inside. It did get five nominations at the Academy Awards and won one (Best Screenplay), and it got a big star in my book. You need movies like this. Talking of stars, all four boys went on to have excellent careers in Hollywood. Dennis Quaid probably as the biggest of the them but all four of them have a very long list of movie titles and television shows under the belt. They may have acted before, but “Breaking Away” was also their big break.

Highly recommended.

Monday, 13 February 2023

Meatballs (1979)


Off-List: Meatballs

The second off-List movie of 1979 is “Meatballs”. This Canadian comedy I never heard of before, but listen to this: It is directed by Ivan Reitman, written by Harold Ramis (and a few other people) and stars Bill Murray in his first leading role. When I realized this movie existed, I simply had to watch it.

Tripper (Bill Murray) is part of a team (CITs, counsellors-in-training) running a summer camp out in the Canadian forests. The camp is called the North Star camp, is headed by Morty (Harvey Atkin) who everybody insist on calling Mickey and it is in competition with the high-end summer camp Mohawk on the other side of the lake. Tripper is, to the surprise of nobody, an anarchistic goofball who is taking nothing serious, but with his heart in the right place. Curiously the same character Murray has been in almost all his movies.

We follow the camp from preparations to receive the children, through the various events of a summer camp, until the camp shuts down at the end of summer. The action is what happens at all these events. Spaz (Jack Blum) and Fink (Keith Knight), the geek and the chubby guy are constantly the butt of any joke as they, mostly failing, explores the other sex. Tripper notices depressed child Rudy (Chris Makepeace) and take him under his wing in typical Murray style, between running practical jokes on Morty and mock-desperately wooing Roxanne (Kate Lynch). The climax of the movie is the Olympiad against rival camp Mohawk, an event North Star has lost the past 12 years, but the CITs are a crafty bunch, so maybe this time it will be different.

This is not a movie with any big drama or deep crisis, just a string of fun events, bookended by the start and end of summer, so everything stands and falls with this string being sufficiently entertaining. This is very early Ramis and Reitman and neither has at this point come entirely into their own, but the outline is there, all the elements that would make them famous. Many of the following movies, “Caddyshack”, Stripes”, even “Ghostbuster” follow up on ideas from “Meatballs”. I thought they did okay here, but what really saves it is Bill Murray. Though he may also be the problem of the movie. He vastly outshines everybody else to the extent that in hindsight this is basically a vehicle for him to do his schtick. If you like Bill Murray, there is a lot to love here and fortunately for me, I do. Even mediocre jokes or situations that were not even intended to be funny, becomes so in his hands. It is entirely over the top, but also awesome.

One thing that did bother me, watching “Meatballs” is that a summer camp like this is all about giving the children a great experience and the function of the staff is to facilitate this. In “Meatballs” however, the children are hardly there. The interaction is mainly between the CITs, their interests are mainly the other CITs, the party is a CIT only party and they even have a CIT only over-night’er. I understand this is just a silly comedy and the summer camp is just a setting for the shenanigans, but I cannot help feeling that there is very little interest in the people for whom this summer camp is actually for, both from the CITs and the movie scriptwriters. If it had not been for the Rudy story, they could have been taking care of hamsters and it would have been the same movie.

This supports the impression that “Meatballs” is a movie that is halfway there. It has a lot of good ideas, interesting premises, but has not entirely been cooked through. There is enough here to make it an entertaining movie, but not enough to make it a classic. Still, you cannot be a Ramis/Reitman/Murray fan without having this one under the belt.

I think my son will like it…


Wednesday, 8 February 2023

Alien (1979)



In my early youth, the movie “Alien” scared me. I preferred the sequel “Aliens” because the characters were badass and fighting back, though futile as it turned out to be, but at least they were not powerless. In “Alien” they were. Hopelessly lost against the monster. That freaked me out. Only in adulthood did I fully get to appreciate the masterpiece “Alien” is at every level. It is to this day the ultimate in confined space horror.

The space tug Nostromo is lumbering through space with its load of ore when the crew is wakened from hibernation. The ship has detected an unusual signal and the crew is obliged to investigate. Curiously, the Nostromo is not even supposed to be on this location. The crew lands, finds an alien ship and, inside of it, mysterious eggs. Upon investigation an egg opens, and Kane (John Hurt) attacked by a facehugger.

The away team returns to the ship and while 3rd officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) insists the team has to quarantine, science officer Ash (Ian Holm) lets them in. Anybody with just the faintest familiarity with the Alien franchise will know that letting one of these guys on board is a very bad idea. Like in, really bad.

What follows is a cat and mouse game where the monstrous alien is the cat and the mice are at a loss at how to get rid of it or even survive.

The thing that sets “Alien” apart and above almost all other movies of its kind, is the intense ambience of the movie. It is a confined space, but also industrial, cold and alien. Hostile to humanity in almost every way. There is nothing cozy about the Nostromo. Add to that the lurking monster, which is mostly unseen, it becomes the kind of movie that makes you afraid of the dark. Well, it did to me, back in the eighties. Tons of movies have tried to emulate this ambience since, but I have difficulty naming any that has topped it.

There are two operating themes in “Alien”. One is pitting frail humans against an evil much bigger than them. Space in all its emptiness and hostility, the giant, industrial ship and not least the alien monster. Against all these, despite all our ingenuity, we are utterly pathetic. The second theme is humanity’s persistent need to mess with things that we really should avoid. It turns out that being on this location is no accident and science officer Ash has secret orders to retrieve a live specimen of the alien and bring it back. Like King Kong from Skull Island. A hubris that will be repeated throughout the franchise.

“Alien” was only the second movie by director Ridley Scott and that is truly mind-blowing. He would go on the be one of the best and most influential directors in Hollywood and while not every one of his movies are gold, enough of them are and “Alien” showed the way. Whenever his name pops up, I am all attention.  

You also cannot mention “Alien” without naming Sigourney Weaver. She went from extra to lead with this movie and, exceptionally for an actress, not in a romantic role. Weaver’s Ripley may represent the frailty of humanity and common sense, but she is also badass and resourceful, the characteristics usually assigned to a male lead. I love that Ripley breaks the stereotype and it does not feel forced at all. It simply works better with a woman and credit to Scott for recognizing that. Weaver would go ahead to become an action icon and was sadly type cast as a tough woman. But that is also Hollywood.

“Alien” is to this day a highly effective space horror movie. Yes, there are wilder jump scares today, but the ambience, holy crap, it is magnificent. It has been some years since last time I watched it and it surprised me how modern and effective it still is. Ignore the clunky computers and the haircuts and this could have been made today.

And that is the freakiest monster in movie history.

Very highly recommended, but then again, of course you know that.

Friday, 3 February 2023

Stalker (1979)



Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” is the 43rd best movie ever made, according to Sight and Sound and therefore clearly a movie that brings something to the table. However, Tarkovsky is in my book a man of missed opportunities and it may therefore not be my table he brings it to.

The premise of “Stalker” is a very promising one. In an unnamed country, something came from space, a meteorite perhaps, and changed an area. Uncertain how to deal with it the authorities have sealed it off. Strange things happen inside the “Zone” and there is a certain “room” inside the Zone where visitors can make anything happen. The route to this room is tricky and fraught with danger and only the Stalkers can guide visitors to this room. Alexander Kaidanovsky is “Stalker”, guiding the two visitors, “Writer” (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and “Professor” (Nikolai Grinko) through the Zone to the Room.  

This sounds great, but Tarkovsky does not catch the ball. The movie he wants to make is a study of the human soul. What are the reasons for seeking a place where you can get your innermost wishes fulfilled? Why is such a place ultimately dangerous? How essential is such a hope to us being human? Fair enough, those are interesting questions too and that could still work. But the characters in Tarkovsky’s movies talk and talk and very little actually happens. The endless dialogue is often useless bickering or inconsequential ranting to an extent that I never remember anything of it. “Stalker” is exactly like that.

From a plot perspective it is a huge let down that after two hours of getting there, nobody actually enters the Room. Rewinding a bit, the dialogue would reveal both the Writer and the Professor has realized that they are not ready to risk revealing themselves, either because they know they are wanting or because they prefer to keep that part of themselves private.

The bottom line is that all these considerations are hugely interesting but presented in so immensely boring a format that I lose interest in it and I do not remember anything of their argumentation. That is likely my problem. Critics of the world think this is the best thing since sliced bread, but I cannot help it. I was waiting for something to happen, waiting for the penny to drop, some clues, but only in hindsight do I get a glimmer of what the movie wanted to do and that is just not good enough.

My interest in the movie was tickled in other ways though. The zone, or indeed the world, is presented as a decrepit industrial ruin. Chemically polluted water, broken concrete and rusty cannons. This is in fact, and to no surprise, a real landscape in Estonia, then part of the Soviet. I have worked on projects in Estonia where the Russians left only ruin, and this was not unlike such sites. It was so poisonous that large portions of the crew, including Tarkovsky himself, died from cancer allegedly caused by working on this set. Did Tarkovsky intent this as a critique of Russian desolation or was it merely a suitable backdrop to a place of hope? For me, it says more about Russia than anything else.

I do not think I can say that I have liked any of Tarkovsky’s movies and in this case, it feels extra bitter, because both premise and the questions raised are so promising. But at least he made somebody else happy. Not a recommendation from me though.


Thursday, 26 January 2023

The China Syndrome (1979)


Off-List: The China Syndrome

The first off-List movie for 1979 is “The China Syndrome”. I picked this one because I thought I remembered watching it years ago. Turns out that was a different movie, and I only knew of this movie by reputation. So, yes, a movie with a large reputation and a first view for me.

Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) is a news reporter on a Los Angeles TV station, doing puff pieces on singing birthday cards and zoo events. One such assignment is on the Ventana nuclear power plant where the local manager explains about nuclear energy. While filming there is a tremor, and they witness what looks like a near fatal accident. Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon), the floor manager looks very distressed by the event and unknown to the plant manager the cameraman, Richard (Michael Douglas), has filmed the event.

Kimberly’s managers do not want to use the material so a very upset Richard steals the tape and shows it to a nuclear energy expert who is testifying in a public hearing on another of the power company’s plants. Meanwhile, Jack Godell, while trusting that the system and the failsafes work, is worrying about something not sounding right during the event and starts looking into the structural details. When he finds that the welding inspections are faked he gets really worried and soon Kimberly, Michael and Jack are up against some very powerful interests.

“The China Syndrome’s” claim to fame is that it was released just 12 days before the accident on the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, making it a warning against the dangers of nuclear energy. This is of course a coincident and maybe a bit unfair because as I see it, it is more about the public against big money who in the interest of their business take incredible risks with health and safety, kills, steals and lies. The public’s watchdog is supposed to be the media, but media itself may be compromised. So, basically, this is a conspiracy story where threat of a nuclear accident simply demonstrates the high stakes of the game.

If we are to focus on the nuclear accident aspect, I think the Chernobyl case is probably a better parallel. There it was personal ambition and political interest (the communist equivalent of big business) that set aside public safety and caused a major accident. If the threat of a nuclear accident really was the main theme of this movie, it would and should have gone much further down that road.

It is obvious that Kimberly, Richard and Jack represent honesty and public interest, the need to do the right thing and therefore they have our sympathy. It is equally clear that they have no idea what they are up against and only in the final minutes realize how small potatoes they really are. That realization is probably more chilling in this movie than the threat of a nuclear accident and I think “The China Syndrome” is one of the better conspiracy movies at that.

The cast speaks for itself. Fonda is always good and it was fun watching a young (and rebellious) Michael Douglas, but it is Jack Lemmon that steals the picture. His portrait of a troubled engineer, challenged on his integrity is phenomenal, though career best would maybe be a step too far in such a glorious career. Both Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon were nominated for Academy Awards and Lemmon won it in Cannes.

I quickly overcame my disappointment that this was not the movie I expected it to be and enjoyed what I got instead. This is a well composed movie and not as stereotype as conspiracy movies tend to be. And of course, points of pointing out that some things are just too dangerous to play games with. Recommended.


Saturday, 21 January 2023

My Brilliant Career (1979)


Min brillante karriere

It is entirely fitting that I review “My Brilliant Career” the day after my book review of “Sense and Sensibility”. Despite taking place a century and half the globe apart, they are concerned with exactly the same issues. That of gender politics from women’s point of view.

Around the turn of the century (1900), Sybylla (Judy Davis) is a daughter of a struggling farmer family in the Australian outback (or at least rural Australia). Sybylla is different. She dreams of becoming something, pianist, painter, writer, something different than farmhand or somebody’s wife. Her parents consider her vastly egoistic and conceited and in frustration send her off to her grandmother.

Grandma Bossier (Aileen Britton) is the Aussie version of nobility and hers is a vastly different world from what Sybylla is used to. This is as Victorian as anything to be found in Britain and Sybylla feels like a fish on land. Besides learning good manners, Sybylla is supposed to find a husband. Only that way she can retain respectability and secure means of living. The idea that Sybylla could make something of herself on her own is considered outlandish and a fad to grow out of. The first suitor is a British guest at the manor, Frank Hawdon (Robert Grubb), a man who considers himself quite a catch and who does not take no for an answer. The second is Harry Beecham (Sam Neill), a local landowner of the same social strata as Grandma Bossier. Harry is different and a relation between Harry and Sybylla blossoms, seriously challenging Sybylla’s ambition of avoiding marriage.

The core of the story is, again, the narrow scope of prospects allowed for women. As in Jane Austen’s world, the sole purpose of women is to be married off to a man. That is her intrinsic value. She can marry into prestige and wealth, but even marriage in itself, as poorly as the match may be, is necessary in order to be anything. The alternative is to be a spinster, dependent on family, or utter poverty and disgrace. The century between Austen and “My Brilliant Career” makes no difference at all.

Sybylla dares challenge this system and while we may understand her today (“may” as in, sadly, not the entire world thinks like that), her contemporaries are nonplussed and rather confused how to deal with her. Not just the ruling class, but even the dirt farmers in their squalor subscribe to that attitude.

As a viewer we are challenged to join that opinion. Do we also consider her conceited and selfish and unable to compromise? Or do we support her choices? It is not as easy and simple as it sounds. Sure, there is no way she should marry Frank, and it is also easy to challenge Bossier’s Victorian views, but would it be too much to ask for her to assist her struggling family? And why not give in and marry Harry? It is obvious they love each other.

“My Brilliant Career” is a beautifully made movie with a wonderful restauration of rural Australia 120 years ago. Production value is top notch. It is also a movie with excellent actors performances, especially from Judy Davis, but also the two matriarchs Bossier and Aunt Gussie (Patricia Kennedy) are wonderful. It entirely baffling that the only Academy nomination this movie garnered was for Best costume design. But then, 79 looks to have been a strong year.

I liked “My Brilliant Career” a lot better than I expected and it does what few movies succeed to do, challenge its audience. Recommended.


Monday, 16 January 2023

Real Life (1979)


Real Life

Over the past 30 years we have seen the rise and fall of reality TV. From Big Brother over Survivor to, well, anything really. I say fall, because I sense the genre has gotten tired and the shows I used to watch are either cancelled or degraded beyond what I care to watch. But there was a time where reality TV was something of the future and the idea trying to film real life was novel and even futuristic. Early attempts was made with Cinema Verité, but the first reality shows as we would recognize it appeared in the seventies and the movie “Real Life” is very much a response to this novel idea.

The question “Real Life” asks is how real is reality TV really when you consider how intrusive it is to be filmed and how conscious the subjects are of being filmed. Then there is the obvious agenda of those producing the show. They need good TV, something the average viewer will want to watch and is reality interesting enough in itself or does it need a bit of… encouragement.

“Real Life” is a comedy so of course it gets pretty extreme. The director of this project to film a family throughout a year is comedian Albert Brooks as himself. I was not familiar with him, but apparently he was a name on Saturday Night Live. His agenda is to make a fun show, but he has very little understanding of anything else including the alleged scientific angle on this “experiment”. This they make a lot out of: involving a famous research institute and assigning psychologists to follow the family is supposed to lend credibility to the experiment, but because this is a spoof movie, we see a straight faced selection process that is entirely ludicrous. The researchers are not much better than the director.

The Yeager family appears like a standard family of four, but it is soon clear that each of them has their own idea of why they are in this project and this is not at all coordinated.   

So, with a director out of sync with his own project, a consulting partner disconnected from reality and a family that is highly conscious of being filmed, this can only go one way and it does so… fast.

Knowing what we do today about reality TV it is difficult not to see this movie as prescient. When we laugh at it today, it is because it gets so much right, 20-30 years ahead of its time, not unlike “Network”. These are all the things that are wrong with reality TV and also why people see it anyway. The total meltdown, conflicts on set and setups that just have to have been artificially introduced. I think most of us are convinced by now that there is not much reality left.

If we take away this hindsight and try to watch this with 1979 glasses on, I am not so certain it is working as well. Sure it is hilariously funny that the director sends his crew with the father for a horse operation rather than film the daughters communion because it has more drama, and to watch Brooks displaying his complete lack of understanding for the researchers work, but the tone gets a bit shrill at times and there may be a little too much slapstick here for the basic idea to truly work. Certainly, the illusion that this is seriously meant is quickly lost when Brooks ends his introduction speech to the local community with a song and a big band. Or to say this in other words, I love the idea here but I was not laughing as much as I think I was supposed to.

Perhaps its value today is mostly that the real world caught up with what was intended as a spoof and maybe that is enough.

In any case, I love that there is room for comedies on the List.

Thursday, 12 January 2023

The Marriage of Maria Braun (Die Ehe der Maria Braun) (1979)


Maria Brauns ægteskab

This review of “The Marriage of Maria Braun” is placed under a big ---SPOILER--- tag. I cannot discuss this movie without revealing the end. This is largely because I am struggling with understanding it and the ending serves as my point.

During the war Maria (Hanna Schygulla) gets married to Herman Braun (Klaus Löwitsch) in 43 and Herman immediately returns to the front. In the aftermath of the war, Maria is waiting in vain for Herman to return. When she learns he has died, she takes a job in a nightclub as (perhaps) a prostitute. She starts a relationship with an American soldier, Bill (George Byrd), but a day while they are entertaining each other, Herman shows up and a fight erupts between Herman and Bill. Maria hits Bill in the head with a bottle and accidentally kills him. In the ensuing trial, Herman takes responsibility and is given a long prison sentence.

Maria meets industrialist Karl Oswald (Ivan Desny), with whom she starts a complex relationship. She seduces him to give her a high position job in return for being his mistress but keeps him emotionally at arm’s length as her heart belongs to Herman. In this position Maria gets rich and powerful. When Herman is released from prison, Maria goes to pick him up but learns that he has already left for Canada or some place.

Eventually Karl dies and Herman returns to Maria. The will is read in Maria’s house. Karl left half the company to Maria and the other half to Herman as thank you for staying in Canada until Karl has died. Maria is upset. When she goes to the kitchen to light a cigarette, she and Herman dies in a gas explosion.

As I already mentioned, I am struggling to figure out this movie. The only help the Book offers, is that Maria’s fate is a mirror of post-war Germany’s fate, but that does not help me that much, except that women needed to be strong to rebuild a country without the men. Also, the Book gets a number of facts wrong, so I question its reliability concerning this movie.

Maybe a key lies in Fassbinder’s typical portrait of women. They are usually taking on positions or roles normally associated with men, making them appear strong or in command or faced with a different set of challenges. Maria takes charge of her own life and manipulates her surroundings ruthlessly in a power performance perhaps more associated with men, while the men in her life, Herman and Karl, are reduced to spectators or followers. She takes and gives according to her head and is unwilling ever to be the passive part. If this is the clue, then maybe realizing that she needs and is dependent on a second half is what destroys her? Her independency coming to an end?

If this is the case, then what does that has to do with the fate of post-war Germany. Was post-war Germany missing its second half? East-Germany? Its soul? Something it lost in the war?

All that aside, I found it super interesting to watch a German take on life in the post-war ruins. Film and literature is full of war stories, but remarkably few post-war stories, as if all of a sudden, Germany is back and rich again. There are dramatic stories there and I enjoyed that part a lot.

This is also a technically impressive movie. It has a much nicer finish that earlier Fassbinder films and the art-project feel that usually has plagued his movies is gone entirely.

If only I could understand it. Suggestions are very welcome.

A tentative recommendation.

In my version of the Book, this was the last 1978 movie.

Friday, 6 January 2023

Halloween (1978)


Maskernes nat

I am not a fan of the slasher genre, so while I am aware that Halloween is an entire franchise with new movies still coming out today, it is something I have never sought out or watched. That may have been a mistake because, as I have just found out, the original Halloween from 1978 is a masterpiece.

Six -year-old Michael Myers stabs his sister to death in cold blood and is locked away for 15 years, until he escapes. His doctor, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) fears he has gone back to Haddonsfield to kill some more. That is exactly what Michael (Nick Castle and Tony Moran) has in mind, in as far as anything is going on in that mind of his.

Near his old house he spots Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) whom he starts to follow. Laurie meets her two friends Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (P.J. Soles), which makes for three targets. It is Halloween evening and Annie and Laurie are both babysitting in houses just across from each other. Michael, wearing his scary mask, is the boogeyman become reality, and starts at Annie’s house…

The story is really not complicated and that is as it should be. This is all about how it is done.

The setting is as normal and familiar as can be, small town /suburban, quite roads with middle class homes. The girls are ordinary teenagers who do what teenagers do, nothing special there. Into this comes the Boogeyman and on Halloween of all nights. He is like a shadow, something you see out of the corner of the eye, immobile and unfaced and gone the next time you look. He is the reflection of your fear, and you are powerless against it.

We are observers, very literally. Sometimes from the viewpoint of the boogeyman, sometimes from the victims and sometimes we are that third entity who is there but unable to interact, standing on the stairs or behind the bushes, but you always, at least in the scenes with tension, have the feeling of being THERE.

As the Book also says, this is very much like Hitchcock. Probably a bit gorier, but the tension is not in the actual killing but the threatening presence, the looming danger of something only half-seen. Like the pool scene in Tourneur’s “Cat People”. It is this element that Carpenter here condenses to excellent effect.

It helps that it is accompanied by an excellent score, which again is simple but very effective. To my surprise I learned that the score is also Carpenter’s work. A talented man.

I believe this was Jamie Lee Curtis debut film, but she does not come about as an amateur. On the contrary, she was very convincing and very curious to see this very young Curtis with longer hair. Then again, she is out of an acting family and her mother got stabbed pretty badly in “Psycho”, a movie not that different from “Halloween”.

On Wikipedia, there is an entire section devoted to an analysis of “Halloween”. I did not read it, but I do understand the temptation to read some deeper motives into the movie. This happening on Halloween, the apparent immortality of Michael, the Boogeyman and the fact that Laurie as sole survivor is a virgin. This layer seems unnecessary, but maybe it does help tickling our subconscious.

A small, but amusing, detail: The movie the children are watching is “The Thing”, the movie Carpenter would go ahead and make a remake of a few years later.

Halloween is brilliant because it takes a simple idea and perfects it. Very little extra, just this, the ultimate subliminal tension. Highly recommended.