Friday 28 April 2023

Mad Max (1979)


Mad Max

All franchises started somewhere and one of the more successful franchises, the Mad Max franchise, started with a low-cost production called, yes, “Mad Max”. According to Wikipedia it holds the Guinness Book of Records for most profitable film ever. Those two facts are likely why it earned its place on the List.

In some undefined future that looks very much like the seventies, road anarchy is the order of the day. On the mostly empty roads outside of Melbourne, the Main Patrol Force (MPF) has largely free hands to combat misbehaving traffic. Goose (Steve Bisley) and Max (Mel Gibson) are officers of the MPF, wearing leather suits and driving supercharged police cars. They get involved in a war with a biker gang led by an ugly fellow named Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a fight that eventually costs the life of Goose. As a result, Max resigns.

Later on, Max is enjoying a little vacation with his wife, Jessie (Joanne Samuel), and their toddler son. Again, they encounter the biker gang who pick out Jessie for a target. Soon the little family is on the run, but eventually the bikers catch up and (SPOILER) do something terrible to tip Max over the edge and send him down vigilante road.

It is not a terribly complicated story and neither the acting nor the setting are particularly impressive. Both scream budget. There is very little to indicate that this is some future and the roads which are 90% of the sets are just empty country roads. I have been on those roads, and they are very… empty. The dialogue is not great, but mostly good enough to avoid outright embarrassment and Mel Gibson is likely the only actor with a standout performance.

What “Mad Max” does is show us a lot of burning rubber. Right from the beginning we are getting high speed chases, cars and bikes being rammed off the road and supercharged engines. The dominant sound of the movie is not dialogue, music or gunfire, but that of revving engines. And those are no ordinary engines. Indeed, there is almost a glee to those sounds.

I have not myself followed the Mad Max franchise. Once, on a plane, I decided to start so I watched this one, but, while I did not outright dislike it, I was not particularly impressed either and I did not follow through with the later installments. Given the amount of money “Mad Max” brought in, I have the impression that production value improved a lot for the following movies, but I cannot confirm that. Somehow, the premise of the movie just does not tempt me enough to give it a shot.

I totally get why “Mad Max” is an important movie, but I cannot say that this is a great movie. It is not even a fun movie to watch unless high speed chases do it for you. It is in fact a rather sad and depressing movie about the cheapness of lives and how basic instincts take over when law breaks down. I can see a coolness factor in some of it, but again, I feel it is a bit off. Those leather-clad police officers look like they are on the way to a… different kind of party and the villains, well, it is almost sweet that they remember to wear proper crash helmets.

On a rather different note, there is something curious about having a film, indeed a franchise, about speeding on Australian roads. First thing you notice when you drive a car there is how slow everybody drives on those very straight and empty roads. They enforce those speed limits very strictly. A few months after returning from Australia in ’16 I got a greeting from Victoria Police sent half the way around the globe for doing 57 km/h where 50 km/h are allowed. I am a road pirate. Lucky, I did not get shot.

Recommendation? Not certain, but if you are into the franchise, I suppose this is where you start.

Saturday 22 April 2023

Manhattan (1979)



Woody Allen loves New York and “Manhattan” is his love letter to the city. Maybe it is this angle that makes me like “Manhattan” a lot better than most other of Allen’s movie. When he changes the focus a bit away from himself, his movies become so much better.

We follow a few characters who are interconnected and, at least to me, appear more as generic New Yorker types than necessarily particular individuals. Their actions, discussions and problems become an image of the city with its nervous energy, which is what Woody Allen wishes to portray.

Isaac (Allen) is a twice divorced comedy writer who is dating a 17-year-old girl, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). He is friends with Yale (Michael Murphy) who is married to Emily (Anne Byrne), but secretly dates Mary (Diane Keaton). As friends, Yale is confiding in Isaac about his philandering, while Isaac is quite open about his worries that Tracy is so much younger than him. When Isaac gets to meet Mary is put off by her, considering her a cultural snob, but as they spend more time together a certain energy between them emerges. Isaacs neurotic sarcasm against Mary’s nervous snobbery makes an unlikely, but interesting combo. Maybe it is their honesty about their likes and dislikes that draws them together.

Yale and Mary decide to break up their relationship and that opens the door for Isaac. He in turn breaks up with Tracy and goes all in. Unfortunately for Isaac, Yale and Mary are not done with each other and when they break it to Isaac, he realizes that what he had with Tracy was actually pretty good.

With Meryl Streep as Jill, Isaac’s second ex-wife, now turned lesbian and writing a very revealing book about her relationship with Isaac. Meryl Streep’s role in this movie is not big, but the amount of comedy it brings to the movie is immense. Having an ex-wife who turned lesbian and delivers all your shortcomings with spite and relish to the public is the ultimate in male humiliation.  

The changing relationships here are of course a mess, but it is the dynamics around them that is interesting. The doubts everybody is in, their insecurities, the intellectual facades used to explain away what is basically emotions run amok. Being a Woody Allen movie, the dialogue is of course witty and poignant, exposing the speaker as much as the spoken about. It is fun to listen to, but also makes a lot of sense. Isaac is trying to be the voice of reason but is as little in control of himself as anybody else. The neat thing here is that although Isaac gets a lot of the good lines, this is not so much about Isaac himself as about the situation. Almost all here are narcissists and not only Allen’s character. Tracy may be the only character who is not obsessing about herself, she just is and feels and responds and this may be the realization Isaac comes to, that all the intellectual narcissism does not make him as happy as her unconditional love.

The presentation of “Manhattan” is also interesting. It was filmed in widescreen black and white with a score by Gershwin, which combines to give a nostalgic image of New York as a setting. This classic setting is then offset by these very modern types trying to get their modern selves to work out and the aggregate is thereby a picture of New York as Allen wants us to see it. I am certain the city is many things, but for many, and I suppose particularly people not living there, this is an image that resonates. Allen did a similar love letter to Paris in “Midnight in Paris”, and I think they would make a good double feature. Another option is the more recent Billy Crystal movie “Here Today”, which could be “Manhattan” 30 years later.

I really liked “Manhattan” and I liked it a lot more than any previous Woody Allen movie I have watched. This would make me more open, than I have been, to watch more of his production.

Sunday 16 April 2023

The Muppet Movie (1979)


Muppet går til filmen

I always loved “The Muppet Show”. It was a big thing on Danish television in my childhood and I loved watching it. A handful of years ago I discovered a box set with an entire season’s worth of episodes and bought it. I now own two seasons. Still, the magic is there, all these years later. Okay, I get impatient at times, but every episode has just enough of that anarchistic madness that makes me love the show. When “The Muppet Show” is best, it is the puppet version of Monty Python.

Sadly, “The Muppet Movie” was a disappointment.

With this movie, the decision clearly was to focus on the cuteness of the puppets, the songs and the cameos of famous actors, whereas the anarchistic madness is entirely absent. The target group seems to be 5-year-old girls and as I am not, it misses the mark for me. I tried to watch this with my family. Half an hour in my wife gave up, five minutes later my son followed suit and I was left to struggle through this on my own. When you start checking the synopsis to get an estimate on how long is left, it is not going great.

The anarchy is the heart and soul in “The Muppet Show”. Statler and Waldorf has to be immensely rude and dry, the Swedish Chef has to do some outrageous cooking, Gonzo has to do some insane stunts (hanging from balloons does not cut it) and Dr. Bunsen run some mad experiments on Beeper. Even the songs of the ordinary shows have this mad twist that keeps them from being too sweet (and boring). A good cameo feeds into the craziness, which marked a poor cameo as some famous person just trying to look good or cute. All this is absent in the movie. A few of the cameos try to do the right thing (Steve Martin’s was decent), but most are just there to, well, be there.

So, what does “The Muppet Movie” actually do? Well, Kermit lives in a swamp, singing about rainbows (?) when Dom DeLuise paddles by and suggests he goes to Hollywood to be a star. Kermit is early on hunted by Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), a fried frog leg franchise owner who wants to use him in commercials. Kermit meets Fozzie Bear in El Sleazo bar and together they drive across the country to Hollywood. Enroute they meet Gonzo, Miss Piggy and The Electric Mayhem band. There is a showdown in a ghost town with Doc Hopper where Animal saves the day by taking an enlargement potion of Dr. Bunsen’s. They make it to Hollywood where they sing a song.

The cast of puppets are there and they are cute. Not fun, but cute. Most of the dolls get a bit of screentime, but the funniest get very little time and it is very limited what they do with it. It is mostly Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy and Gonzo we see. The potential is there for Miss Piggy to do her thing, but it is all pretty lame and innocent what she does and Gonzo, well, I have never seen him this boring.

There are LOTS of songs here. I am not qualified to say if they are good, but I know I was bored every time one came up. The madness that spices them up in the standard show was, well, absent.

The list of A-listers with a cameo is truly staggering, which may also be part of the problem. We just have to see James Coburn say a line, Madeleine Kahn give her persona from “Blazing Saddles” etc etc. Mel Brooks is moderately successful as Professor Krassman, and Martin as mentioned above as an insolent waiter. But none of these cameos really fit into the larger picture and it is rather a game of Guess the Star.

“The Muppet Movie” feels like a missed opportunity. As if the Second Unit crew got hold of the puppets and a large budget, but was missing the point of the show. This could have been amazing, but was just dull. The other, and likely more likely, explanation is that this was a Disney setup for small girls. I feel certain they would love this. In any case, unless you belong to that target group, this movie will only cause grief.


Saturday 8 April 2023

The Jerk (1979)


Hvem sagde fjols?

Steve Martin is one of those comedians it has been difficult to ignore over the past forty years or so. I am not as big a fan of him as most people, but I have to admit that in his best movies, he is great. Unfortunately, he is not good enough to save his poorest movies. Well, in my humble opinion. “The Jerk” was his first movie in a starring role (at this time he was an established name on SNL) and besides marking to beginning of a long career in the movies, it also represents both the best and worst of Steve Martin and is as such a good representative movie of his.

The story (written by Martin himself) is about the not very bright but very enthusiastic Navin Johnson (Martin). He grows up in a black family in the Deep South, thinking he is miscolored black himself. Leaving the family to embark on a quest to make something of himself, he tumbles into a series of events with great naivety than lands him first a job at a gas station and then with a travelling circus. He makes it rich by accident by inventing a nose grip on glasses and loses it all again in lawsuits as it makes people cockeyed.

It is the sort of story that is not that important. Way too silly and unrealistic to be anything but a setting for Martin to fool around in. And fool around he does. This is where Steve Martin usually becomes divisive. He can be very funny, but one of his schticks is to go totally overboard exaggerated and that is in my opinion not that funny, but rather annoying. In the Jerk he does that a lot. However, when he tones it down and creates a funny setting, then he can be great. A good example is when he lands a job at the tank station. The owner (Jackie Mason) shows him a place where he can sleep and Navin, thinking he means the public toilet is super enthusiastic. On the other hand when a group of gangsters tries to pay for gas with a stolen credit card (belonging to Mrs. Nussbaum!), Navin tries to delay then by tying their car to the neighboring church. Watching the car drive off dragging a good section of the chapel, Navin tells the police to look for a blue Chevy dragging half a church. I still chuckle at the image.

Marvin is playing up against two women who are close to outshining him. Catlin Adams as Patty, the daredevil on her motorcycle is a hilarious character and just as mean and ridiculous as she sounds. Sadly, a bit underused. The second is Navin’s love of his life, Marie (Bernadette Peters) who is almost as silly and scatterbrained as Navin. Steve Martin is best when either of these two women are in the picture.

I doubt there is much of a message in “The Jerk”. Maybe some jabs at racism and racial slurs. Maybe some hits at idiots turned rich, but the point, I think, is the comedy involved and little else.

For better or worse, though, it is great with some comedies on the List and this could have been a lot worse. We spent an evening, the entire family, watching “The Jerk” and the consensus was that it was fun and enjoyable and that is really all you want. My son says the funniest scene was when he told his parents that he had found out what his special purpose was for… I do not think it is a comedy I will be remembering a long time and I have watched better and more memorable movies by Martin, but it is a fitting representative, and, again, you could choose a lot worse.

Tuesday 4 April 2023

Apocalypse Now (1979)


Dommedag nu

“Apocalypse Now” is another one of those movies I was convinced I had watched before, but now, watching it for my review, I am not so certain. Beside a few iconic scenes, this felt like a first watch. It is possible though that in the past I simply did not understand it and zoned out. I still cannot say I fully understand it, but I do appreciate what it is doing.

Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is a war-weary special ops agent sent out into the jungle to “terminate” the rogue colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has gone insane. Willard is not exactly stable himself at the opening of the movie and his journey upriver to find Kurtz becomes a voyage into the madness of war. It is an odyssey up the river Styx or down the rabbit hole with encounters like vignettes on the way. Willard makes the journey on a small navy boat with a crew of four, Chief (Albert Hall), Chef (Frederic Forrest), surfer Lance (Sam Bottoms) and a very young Laurence Fishburne as Mr. Clean. In the course of the journey these four feel the weight of the madness and transition from decent young men to more primal forms as sanity slips away.

The most famous encounter is likely the one with Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and his cavalry regiment. They have exchanged their horses with helicopters, but otherwise kept very much to being a cavalry unit. With loudspeakers on the helicopters blaring Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” they are vengeance from above and as a viewer I am struck with the awe of watching the formation of helicopters fly and the horror of the death and destruction on the ground. Kilgore himself is more interested in surfing than the battle and is super excited to be meeting the professional surfer Lance and it gets entirely absurd when he changes to trunks and takes out his board while under heavy fire. This is also where we get the (in)famous quote: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning […] it smells of victory”. That apocalyptic destruction is equated with victory is very much at the heart of the movie.

Another striking, but less famous sequence is the scene with the tiger. Chef and Willard are looking for mangos in the jungle while Chef tells his story. He was under way to become a high-end chef when he was drafted. In the navy, they were presented with beautiful, first-rate beef, but instead of respecting the quality, all of it was thrown in the vats to boil. “It just turned gray”. A good and sad allegory of young people with lots of potential getting mashed into conformity by the military.

By the time Willard reaches Kurz, the movie has taken on an almost surreal form. With the haze and the scenery, we are not in the normal world anymore, but has reached the Hades at the end of Styx. People here are savage natives, now ruled by the barbaric and insane God-king Kurz. He has killed off most of his own men who are hanging and lying mutilated everywhere and is worshipped by a photo journalist (Dennis Hopper) as his priest.

I cannot say I entirely understand the end sequence in Hades. There are clearly thick allusion to mythology here with the sacrifice of a cow and the rule and fall of Kurz, but I can only partly parse it. It is not anymore about sides in a war, but about the nature of human cruelty and divine urge for destruction. Obliteration of humanity and civilization and a regression into apocalyptic barbarism.

There is no doubt that “Apocalypse Now” was and is a strong anti-war statement. The comment is not on good or bad sides but on what the nature of war does to humanity. On that agenda, it is very convincing and I have no doubt there is a lot of truth to it. This does not make it a pleasant view though. There are many places where the horror and the sadness is overwhelming and the loss of humanity and sanity is devasting to experience. But “Apocalypse Now” also manages to balance a fascination and tension with the horror so we cannot look away and despite the misery feast, the movie does not feel too long. The version I watched was the Final cut, which is somewhere between the theatrical version and the Redux version and I think the additions do make sense. Especially the visit to the French plantation.

“Apocalypse Now” is also an impressive movie to look at. The cinematography is striking, and my copy had an exceptionally high quality. It is amazing and disturbing that death and destruction can look… beautiful?

This is a movie with a massive impact on the viewer and a very long legacy. It did get a lot of Academy nominations, but only won Best Cinematography and Best Sound. 1979 was a very strong year, but I cannot help thinking that the downbeat mood and the mysterious ending cost it a few wins. Yet, I do not think it should be changed in any way. It goes off the rails for a reason and that reason is the point of the movie.

It will probably be a long time until I watch “Apocalypse Now” again but Coppola’s vision is a must see and it is probably the most important film of 1979.