Thursday 29 June 2023

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)


Star Wars Episode V: Imperiet slår igen

When I did my review of “Episode IV: A New Hope”, I focused on my experience with Star Wars as an entity, so in many ways what I wrote back then also applies to “Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back”. This review will instead be a bit more movie specific. Not that I think anybody knows this one any less than “Episode IV”, but “Episode V” actually happens to be my favorite in the trilogy and so it deserves a more specific treatment.

It is always difficult to make a sequel and a sequel in a trilogy is even worse because it is “just” a bridge between the introduction and the conclusion. Any climax can only be a minor one and we are sort of done introducing the themes. For Star Wars they (and that means likely George Lucas) chose the “Lord of the Rings” approach. The party split up and get their separate tracks which eventually intersect. We meet the rebels on the ice planet Hoth just as they are being discovered by the Empire. Despite a brave defense, the rebels are overrun, but manage a timely escape. Luke and R2D2 head on to Dagobah to get trained by Yoda, while Han Solo, Leia, Chewbacca and C3PO play a cat and mouse game with Vader’s imperial fleet in order to get away from Hoth.

They think they are successful in outsmarting Vader when they get to Cloud City, but Vader is one step ahead of them and has forced the local leader, Lando Calrissian, into trapping the gang. It is however not Han or Leia Vader is interested in, but Luke as he might be turned into the dark side, especially since Darth Vader has the ultimate argument: “I am your father, Luke”.

Yes, as we all know, at its heart, the Star Wars franchise is about dad-issues.

Episode V feels like a journey. A journey across the galaxy, but more so a personal development journey. Luke faces his personal coming of age rite with his training and facing Vader and Han and Leia develop as characters and develop in their relation to each other. Everybody is at a different place with themselves by the end of the movie and that is their preparation for the final act.

That does not sound particularly exciting, sort of get the pieces lined up for the final battle, but it is the getting there that is all the fun. Star Wars has never claimed to be a high brow series. Its strength is the adventure, the heroic struggle and the imagination and “Episode V” has tons of this. Fortunately, we have no cute or stupid critters, the bane of most Star Wars episodes, leaving the two droids to be the comic relief and that strikes a good balance. We also get an excellent pacing where something is happening constantly. If not outright action, then a lead up to it. There is never a boring moment. Some of the later installments fall into the traps of endless action or complex and confusing setups, but in Episode V the balance is good, and the story is not more convoluted than everybody are following it.

Maybe the fact that Lucas stepped away from the actual production and had other people direct and write the script is what makes “Episode V” work so well. Lucas is clearly the idea guy, but the acting, the dialogue and the character development feel so much smoother that in “Episode IV”.

For me, watching the trilogy is a nostalgia trip. It is my childhood experience, these are the toys I played with, and I watch the episodes uncritically, ignoring whatever flaws they might have had. I watched the theatrical version instead of the renovated one to get as close as possible to that original experience and I do not need any of the “improvements”. This is my little happy place, a bubble of joy.

I think it is quite incredible that this movie was made in 1980.


Saturday 24 June 2023

The Blues Brothers (1980)


Off-List: The Blues Brothers

"It's 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark... and we're wearing sunglasses." "Hit it."

When I was a student at the University of Aarhus there were a few of movies with exceptional cult status. At campus, “The Blues Brothers” was likely the movie most often watched, quoted and imitated at parties. Frequently you would see people show up as the Blues Brothers and the soundtrack was always a hit. I cannot say that I was the biggest fan, my taste in music pointed in a different direction, but I was as caught up in the party as much as anybody else. And this was a decade and a half after its theatrical release. That this movie was never included on the List is mindboggling. Did the editors never go to our parties?

Jake Blues (John Belushi) is released from prison and picked up by his brother Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd) in his new Bluesmobile, a former police car as he reasonably enough traded the old car for a microphone. They visit the “Penguin” (Kathleen Freeman) at their old orphanage, where they learn that the place will be shut down unless they can produce 5000$ to pay taxes. When Jake and Elwood subsequently visit the church of Reverend Cleophus James (James Brown), Jake is endowed with divine inspiration and realizes they must get the band back together.

This is not easy as everybody got new jobs, but they succeed and head out to make that big show that will produce the 5000$ needed by the orphanage. They are on a mission from God, as they keep telling everybody. In the process they manage to piss off the police, a country and western band and the local chapter of the Nazi party, not to mention a mysterious woman (Carrie Fisher) who seems hell-bent on blowing up Jake. To say they have to run a gauntlet is an understatement, but they are cool. Very very cool.

“The Blues Brothers” is a tremendously fun movie to watch. Both Aykroyd and Belushi were at their comedic peak here and their characters, Elwood and Jake, are priceless. But what everybody remembers “The Blues Brothers” for is the horn of plenty of music. Not lame-ass music for the movie stuff, but some of the best black music America has ever produced. Okay, I will likely get nailed for that statement, but seriously, we have James Brown, Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, Cab Calloway and Ray Charles all appearing and singing some of their best-known songs, plus we have The Blues Brothers with their excellent band singing a whole string of classics. Not many movies can boast this. I mean, friggin’ Aretha Franklin singing “Think!” Do you have any idea how many times that very version was played at the parties I went to in the nineties?

You might then ask, what would be so special about two comedians singing blues? The Blues Brother and band with backstory and all was actually formed years before and had a number 1 hit on the album charts with their music and only then did they get the idea of making a movie. This is the real deal, even if it started as a stunt. That they manage to add energy, charm and crazy fun to the music is just add-on.

John Landis managed to take this music and this crazy stunt and actually weave a coherent story around it that is both engaging and fun and I can even forgive that events go completely off the rails in the last chase toward the Cook County Assessor’s office. It is a balancing act with the anarchy threatening to topple the movie and it is mostly successful.

It has been years since I watched “The Blues Brothers” the last time, but it has not lost an inch since then. It is still one of the best music comedies ever made and I still get happy watching it. I just need some shades and a hat.

List editors, shame on you!


Monday 19 June 2023

The Shining (1980)


Ondskabens hotel

Wow, that was quite an experience. I knew “The Shining” should be good, but I had no idea it was this good.

Stanley Kubrick has an established track record of trying out different genres, but in each case excels in it as if he never did anything else. “The Shining” was his attempt at the horror genre and as usual he nailed it.

Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as winter janitor at the exclusive Overlook hotel as it shuts down for the winter. With him he brings his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd). The Overlook is an exclusive hotel where they can live in style all winter and Jack can get some quiet time to finally write his book, but it is also built on top of an Indian burial ground, and we all know what that means.

Danny has psychic abilities, so he understands early on that something is off, but for the adults this looks like a perfect deal. Jack never realizes something is wrong, but is sucked into a madness that makes him aggressive and delusional. He sees people in the hotel who convince him that his family is the enemy, which supports an underlying resentment that they are in the way of his glory. Wendy sees her husband visibly change, first to a bad tempered and grumpy man and then to a raving lunatic and obviously she is not thrilled.

At some point Jack completely loses it and chases his family through the hotel with an axe.

There are a lot of things that works in this movie. While the original novel by Stephen King is clearly supernatural, Kubrick’s rendition keeps it more veiled. We are never in doubt that something is badly off, but a lot of the supernatural elements have a strong flavor of psychological effects. Is Jack seeing ghosts or is he getting insane, or are the ghosts making him go insane? Could his aggression be projections of his inner frustrations, now being let loose in the isolation of the lodge?  If this had been a simple ghost story, it would not have worked half as well, but the sense that there is more behind the surface adds so much extra to the movie.

Kubrick also avoids explaining too much. Calling all this the effect of a violated cemetery is too cheap. There are things going on here we are only partially let into, and that mystery is both fascinating and frightening.

Then there are the basic elements of setting up the horror. The confined space, the ominous corridors, the sounds, the Steadicam moving along with the characters. It is a very submersive feeling and reminded me a lot of Lynch’s rooms in Twin Peaks. We do not need to actually see a lot to feel the evil.

And then there is Jack Nicholson. Few actors can be as expressive with their face as he can, especially along the lines of being mad and aggressive. His evil smile is truly vicious, and yet he can also be completely affable. The most iconic scene must be when he breaks down the door to the bathroom with an axe, sticks his head inside with the line: “Here is Johnny!”. I watched this movie with my son and he rewinded several times, photographed the face and sent it to his friends. But the fact is that all through the film, Nicholson’s face steals any scene he is in.

“The Shining” works at every level it intents to and is one of the best horror movies I have watched. Granted, this is not really my genre, but if even I can see this is great, there much be something to it.

Highly recommended.

Sunday 11 June 2023

The Last Metro (Le Dernier Metro) (1980)


Den sidste metro

“The Last Metro” (“Le Dernier Métro”) is one of the last of Francois Truffaut’s movies and is by many seen as the second installment in Truffaut’s unfinished trilogy about the production process, following “La Nuit Americaine” (about making movies) and which was supposed to end with one about making musicals. I do not entirely agree with that assessment. “La Nuit Americain” had moviemaking as the central element, but “Le Dernier Metro” has more themes in play and the supposed theater themes is more of a setting than the central element.

During the Second World War, the modest Theatre Montmartre is trying to survive the hardships caused by the war. The owner and director of the theatre, Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent) is Jewish and has presumably fled the country, but is actually hiding in the basement, listening in on everything going on. Instead, it is his wife and lead actress Marion Steiner (Catherine Deneuve) who runs the theatre according to instructions that her husband “left” before he “fled”. Resources are small so they have to be creative on props and costumes and the Germans as well as the French Nazi sympathizers take a lot of, unwelcome, interest in the theater, especially the Nazi mouthpiece Daxiat (Jean-Louis Richard).

Bernhard Granger (Gerard Depardieu before he attained blimp size) is the new lead actor. He has a crush on most women, but especially Marion, and he is affiliated with the resistance, which is rather problematic when you need Nazi approval to run a theater. Bernhard, Marion and Lucas make for an odd and awkward love triangle.

More than being about setting up a show on a theater, this is a period piece on life in Paris during the war. There is a lot of, successful, effort done to make it look and sound authentic. Especially the music and the small mundane elements. They are both more interesting and more in focus than the details around the show they are putting up. The love triangle is also a major theme, which is treated both elegantly and, well, curiously. Maybe it is a French thing, but Lucas seems to be rather okay sharing his wife with Bernhard.

The problem with “Le Dernier Métro” is that it feels too long. It is a long movie, but not more than so many other movies. What makes it feel long is the lack of intensity. Every crisis there is, and there are quite a few, is handled surprisingly fast and easy. You would think Gestapo searching the basement is a big thing, but you just hide and invent a story for the basement. You would think that Daxiant threatening to take over the premise would cause alarm, but it was resolved so quietly that I hardly noticed what happened, not to mention the lack of an explosion in the love triangle. It is a narrative that feels static like a painting with more interest in the portrait than narrative. In a way that is a relief, why should everything necessarily have a crisis with potential for meltdown, but it does make the movie a bit dull. In that sense, the chaos and anarchy of “La Nuit Americaine” was a lot more fun.

“Le Dernier Metro” was one of Truffaut’s more successful movies, especially in France, and I can see why. You feel cozy and warm watching it, people are funny, and bad things are not as bad as that. The lighting and the music is a nostalgia trip and sometimes we need just that.

I could see myself watching it again, at least for the music.


Friday 2 June 2023

Caddyshack (1980)


Off-List: Caddyshack

The first off-List movie for 1980 is “Caddyshack”. For many people I need say no more. For the rest, this is a classic (as in VERY classic) comedy by Harold Ramis about… golf.

The setting of “Caddyshack” is the Bushwood Country Club and particularly its golf course. This is a posh country club with two kinds of people: those who play and those who serve. Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) is a young man who is saving up for college being a caddy. The country club sponsors a college scholarship and Noonan is jockeying for it. This means sucking up to Judge Smails (Ted Knight), director of the scholarship program, co-founder of the club and a total dick.

Ty Webb (Chevy Chase) is a very wealthy golf bum who practically lives at the country club, plays without keeping score and just tries to live as easy as possible. He is a friend of Noonan and pretty girls, such as Smail’s niece, Lacey Underall (Cindy Morgan).

Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield) is a real estate developer with way too much money. His visit to the country club is disrespectful in the extreme and he manages to piss off the establishment to a degree where it can only be settled through a high stake four-some on the golf course: Czevik and Webb against Smails and Dr. Beeper (Dan Resin).

Carl Sparcler (Bill Murray) is a not quite stable greenskeeper who is waging a war against a gopher that is messing up the golf course. His means of fighting the gopher gets rather extreme as the gopher keeps evading him.

Condensed, the theme is the servants against the rich snobs, a sort of repeat of “Animal House” but on a golf course. Mostly, though, it is the various characters goofing around with often tenuous connection to any main story. In fact, seen from the outside the movie is a bit of a mess. Hung up on a story about Noonan trying to get a scholarship, the movie digresses so much into vignettes that there is a real danger of losing focus and indeed upon release, “Caddyshack” was panned for being exactly that, a mess.

What saves “Caddyshack” is that all these digressions are tremendously funny. In isolation, even priceless. Ty Webb’s date with Lacey Underall, Carl’s war on the gopher, Czernik’s motormouth insulting everybody and their mother, Smails hunting Noonan though the house with a golf club and so many more fantastic scenes. Sure, they tie together very poorly and when remembered, it is the scene and not the context that is recalled. In this way, it is almost a precursor to the spoof movies, except that the jokes here stay within the plausible.

I learned, watching the extra-material, that the original script was primarily the Noonan story, but on set the comedic heavy-weights went on an improvised rampage and produced so much gold that it supplanted much of the original story with stuff that is often tangential to the intended direction of the movie. Murray did not even have lines going into the movie and if you look closely, his storyline only connects with the main storyline at the very last moment of the movie.

It has been many years since I watched “Caddyshack”, could be as much as thirty years, and what I remembered was only bits and pieces. Well, now I understand why they were bits and pieces. I also remember it as being funnier than I found it this time round. I do not think it has aged poorly, I think it is just me expecting more. The curse of rose-hued memories…

“Caddyshack” is comedy-classic even if most of the participant have done better stuff since. It is a very easy watch as you do not even have to pay attention and I can only recommend it. It really belongs on the List.