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.