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.