Saturday 29 July 2023

Airplane! (1980)


Højt at flyve

“Airplane!” is currently my son’s favorite movie and has been so for a while. I admit I like it too, but since introducing him to it, we have been watching it a lot and I have no idea how often he has been watching it alone or with other members of the family. Let us just say that he can recite a lot of the dialogue verbatim.

“Airplane!” is a spoof on disaster movies from before spoofs really was a thing.  It takes all the disaster movie tropes, and a lot of the conventions around flying in general, and makes them funny. Elaine (Julie Hagerty) has left Ted (Robert Hays) because of his inability to commit since a war incident. It is a bit foggy, but Ted was a pilot during the war (with footage indicating this could be Second World War…) and thinks he caused six fellow airmen to die. Since then, he has not been near planes. Unfortunately for Ted, Elaine is a flight attendant, so chasing her means that he must get on the plane with her. On this flight the crew (and half the passengers) get very sick from the food, so now they are looking for somebody who not only can fly a plane but also did not have the fish for dinner. It is up to Elaine and Ted to get the plane safely to Chicago.

As in all spoof movies, this is not about the plot, but about all the jokes and references that are made. In “Airplane!” the jokes are generally better than average, but what really makes it work is two things: The references are so general that anybody even today can relate to them without having watched some obscure move from the seventies and secondly, all the jokes are delivered with a straight face. This second item requires a bit of explanation.

The actors were instructed to consider their roles as if in a serious movie, no matter how silly the lines or the implications were. So, the Captain of the plane, Captain Oveur (Peter Graves) will ask the little boy totally inappropriate things, such as if he has ever seen a grown man naked as if it was the most normal thing to do and Leslie Nielsen as Doctor Rumack will enter the cockpit and wish Ted and Elaine good luck with a serious face three times, the last even after they landed.

This is the genius of “Airplane!”, that they let all the silliness act out seriously. In the clash it becomes funny. The bar scene where Elaine and Ted first meet, the craziness would not be half as funny if any of them had smiled or laughed. It is totally deadpan, when Ted takes off his white uniform jacket and wears a John Travolta outfit underneath and goes totally disco.

A lot of the fun happens in the background. In a serious (or seriously acted) conversation something bizarre may be happening behind or slightly offscreen. Sometimes you have to look for it, like the magazines Captain Oveur are reading while others are difficult to miss, like the “jiggle and leave” moment (an internal household joke).

Both Julie Hagerty and Leslie Nielsen went on to have great careers in comedy, largely based on their performance in “Airplane!”. Nielsen was frequently cast in the Zuckers (David and Jerry) later movies which tried to follow the formula of “Ariplane!”, which went well with “Naked gun”, though eventually the formula got a bit old.

“Airplane!” itself though is not getting old any time soon. We still laugh our heads off even if this was the umptieth time we watched it. Try say “Drinking problem” in this house and we are already laughing.

Various lists have named “Airplane!” as one of the funniest movies ever made, usually in top-10, and while taste in comedy is a VERY personal thing, I think that shows that I am not alone.

Perfect medicine for a gloomy day. Very highly recommended.

Sunday 23 July 2023

Loulou (1980)



This was a difficult movie to get behind. Not that it is surreal or obscure in Godard fashion, but it took me a very long time before I got any idea what story it was the movie was trying to sell and even then, I am not certain this is story I need to watch.

Nelly (Isabelle Huppert) is married to André (Guy Marchand) but prefers to be together with Loulou (Gérard Depardieu). “Together” meaning having a lot of sex with Loulou. André is understandably not happy with the situation. He is upset she is leaving, and he is upset she prefers a guy like Loulou to him. He wants her out, yet he cannot let her go. Nelly just does whatever she feels like. Sometimes she goes back to André, sometimes she stays with Loulou. She is not very reflective about why she does what she does, she just responds to her impulses.

It is obvious that Nelly’s marriage to André is dysfunctional. We do not know if André was like this before she left, but he does have temper and aggression issues and is likely a controlling character. The question I ask myself is, why then Loulou?

Loulou is just out of jail with no intension of stopping his criminal career as he does not believe in working. Instead, he just hangs out all day. He has had about a million affairs with all sorts of girls, and he is very frequently drunk. Nelly could not have chosen a worse partner.

Nelly’s argument for preferring to be with Loulou is that he can go on longer when they are having sex and that he is there for her all the time. No wonder, the guy does absolutely nothing with his life. I could sort of accept the sex argument if Gerard was offering something special, but his version sex is very vanilla and in fact he and his friends have a very casual and unromantic attitude to sex and women which can best be described as exploitative and disrespectful. Yet, for all his flaws, Loulou is the exact opposite of André and that might be the clue to Nelly’s attraction to him. Does she really love him or is it part of some sort of rebellion against André?

Nelly gets deeper and deeper involved in Loulou’s world and even becomes an accomplice to his criminal affairs, but only when she gets pregnant does she start reflecting. Not that Loulou is bad for her, but only that maybe this is not a relationship to raise a child in. Well, at least that.

Nelly is such a princess. A character who always get what she wanted, who expect her actions have no consequences, who has her own gratification as a first priority and expects the world to conform to her needs. I hardly need to mention that I did not sympathize with her one bit and that is a problem when she is the central character. Of course, I did not like André or Loulou either. Or his criminal friends or the silly, needy girls that hang on to Loulou and his friends. There is just an entire world here that is so far from my own that I find it hard to relate and much less sympathize. In fact, whenever the situation goes ballistic, I feel they have it coming and deserve each other.

So, why do I need to watch this movie? The only answer I can give is, that this is a gender switch on the man running off with a prettier, but useless, girl because the sex is better, but with little thought on anything else. If men can do it, why not women? Is this reason enough? For me, no. If I could somehow have related to any of the characters, it might have been different. As it is, I could not care less and if any of the principals had any grain of sense, they would have done the same and just left the others alone.

Director Maurice Pialat was nominated for the Palme D’Or. Must have been a poor year in Cannes.

Not recommended unless you get a kick out of watching idiots messing up their lives.

Wednesday 19 July 2023

The Big Red One (1980)


Den barske elite

“The Big Red One” was a surprising find on the List. There are plenty of war movies, but war movies about the soldiers rather than the war or the concept of war are rare, as if the lack of that higher motive somehow invalidates the movie. Not that this movie is pro-war, but it is not outright anti-war either. It is simply about the soldiers who fight it. But then again, maybe it is actually about war as a concept…

Samuel Fuller, the director and writer, was himself a soldier with the US. 1st Infantry Division during the Second World War and “The Big Red One” is largely based on his own experiences, from the North African campaign through Italy, Normandy and the capitulation of Germany. It follows a squad led by a man known only as the Sergeant (Lee Marvin), a WWI veteran. There is a core group, Griff (Mark Hamill), Zab (Robert Carradine), Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco) and Johnson (Kelly Ward) who are there from the beginning and a score of nameless faces in the form of replacements who quickly disappear in various gruesome ways.

The story is episodic in the sense that each scene is a progression through the various theaters, but the story within each scene is largely repetitive. The squad is fighting, people around them are dying, death is random and then there is a break in the fighting where normality or a sort of normality gets a brief moment. The scenery changes, North Africa looks different from Belgium, but little else. The ennui is emphasized by the static situation of the squad. Nobody changes rank, the discussion is largely the same, the jokes run on the same themes. Sure, there are events such as the woman giving birth in a tank, the old women’s party in Sicily or the boy the Sergeant find in Falkenau, but even these events follow the pattern of normal-world events colliding with the war to create a bizarre mesh.

The obvious parallel to “The Big Red One” is the mini-series “Band of Brothers” and it is tempting to consider “The Big Red One” as the inferior in that comparison. Although there is a similar progression through events and the same small group of soldiers, “Band of Brothers of not static to the same decree and it lets us know the characters in a way we never get to know those of “The Big Red One”. I watched the “Reconstruction” version, which adds another 47 minutes and several locations to the story, but it makes little difference. None of those add to the picture of a static state of things. The soldiers are numbed by the war, they become automatons and it is all about fighting, surviving and getting the best out of the breaks they get.

In a sense that makes the movie boring. We get the point early on, we stop caring about new phases, just hope none of the principal characters get shot in some pointless firefight. The battle scenes are realistic and dramatic and very loud, but they are also repetitive at their core to the extent that I just wanted them to be over with, mostly because of the risk to the soldiers having them go on.

I do think this is actually the point and maybe even the reason it is on the List. The ennui and the madness of war is a state that is almost impossible for outsiders to understand. How can being under fire be boring? But “The Big Red One” gives us a window into that, an understanding that takes away all the romance but also does not make its characters monsters. This is an understanding Fuller likely had and this is him offering it to us.

Lee Marvin got so type cast as the weather-beaten soldier that it almost feels like a cliché to see him here, yet he does the job. On the other hand, what is Luke Skywalker doing here? Mark Hamill here was quite a surprise, but the Luke Skywalker chock only lasted a few minutes, then he was Private Griff.

I doubt “The Big Red One” will ever be my favorite. I do like “Band of Brothers”, but for exactly the reasons that make these two different. It is not a bad movie, and it does work as I believe intended, so it is a moderate recommendation from me.    

Wednesday 12 July 2023

Private Benjamin (1980)


Off-List: Private Benjamin

It may seem like an odd choice to choose a lightweight comedy like “Private Benjamin” as the third off-List movie for 1980, especially considering how many high quality movies were bypassed by the editors this year. I admit it, it is not the greatest movie ever made, but for me it is a nostalgic trip watching it. In my childhood home this was a favorite and on heavy rotation. In those days, my fascination, I believe, was the idea of this little girl going through military training though watching it again so many years later I realize there is a bit more to it.

Judy Benjamin (Goldie Hawn) is a spoiled and pampered girl who has always had people to take care of her. Her rich parents got her out of her first marriage to a professional tennis player and her second husband, a lawyer, died on their wedding night (the opening scene). Judy’s only qualifications are shopping and being a trophy wife. The end of her second marriage throws her so much that she is talked into joining the army (of all things), mostly to do something herself without anybody to take care of her.

To Judy’s surprise, the army is, well, the army, and a far cry from the life she has been used to. She is in fact totally unprepared for the challenges and frankly not really fit for them. Her officer, Captain Lewis (Eileen Brennan) is only too happy when Judy’s parents show up to take her home. This, however, triggers something in Judy. She is not going back to her old life but has something to prove and her effort from then on is much improved. When on the war game marking the end of basic training, she is instrumental in her side winning the game, much to Captain Lewis’ grief.

Eventually Judy meets the charming French doctor (gynecologist, no less), Henri (Armand Assante) and has to choose between married life and the army. Is she ready to lose her freedom again?

I do like Goldie Hawn. She has excellent comedic timing, always had, and this movie is more than anything a vehicle for her. She is in practically every scene of the movie, and we are not suffering for it. Everything that is fun in this movie, is fun because of her.

The basic theme of “Private Benjamin” is taking charge of your life as opposed to having other people run your life. It is so easy for Judy to just lean back and let others lead her. Her parents did it, her (brief) husband did it, Henri does it, and nobody expects anything from her but compliance. But taking charge of her own life is liberating and empowering. It makes her blossom and feel fulfilled even if it is also harder. Judy finds that she can do so much more when she gets the chance and going back, easy as it seems, just does not taste as good.

There are tons of clichés here too of course. The underdog managing to get through military service, the useless girl who can do more than she thinks if she gets the chance, but the most hilarious of the stereotypes must be the charming French deucebag and the disaster of American women getting along in France. That is a hoot, every time.

Yes, this is a lightweight comedy and, yes, it is both formulaic and stuffed with stereotypes, but it is sweet and funny and very easy to watch. And I am transported back to the eighties.

Might not work for everybody though.


Sunday 9 July 2023

The Elephant Man (1980)



“The Elephant Man” seems like an unlikely follow-up on David Lynch’ “Eraserhead”, being as it is far more mainstream, both in terms of narrative and production value, but it was a bit of a scoop for Lynch to break out of the experimental film circle and access both a much wider audience and the funding to make his projects. Lynch managed to do this while staying true to many of his Lynch-tropes.

“The Elephant Man” is based on the true story of John Merrick (John Hurt), a massively deformed fellow, as told by the surgeon who found and took care of him, Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins). In 1880’ies London, Treves accidentally encounters Merrick being displayed in a freakshow as The Elephant Man. Merrick is clearly being brutalized by his “handler”, Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones) and Treves removes Merrick to the hospital where he has his practice. Both hospital staff and management are at first shocked by their new tenant, but eventually under their care Merrick is transformed from a dumb circus act into a kind and soft-spoken gentleman.

Treves is excited about his find and displays this extraordinary medical case for his peers, but eventually he has second thought about his motives. Is he really any better than Mr. Bytes, using Merrick as a show piece for his own benefit? The night porter, Jim (Michael Elphick) has no such scruples and sets up his own sideshow, inviting the lower strata of the public in to watch John Merrick at night. Something that eventually turns out disastrous. Actress Madge Kendall (Anne Bancroft) is at first motivated by a similar curiosity for the bizarre, but manages very quickly to recognize the gently soul beneath the deformity and becomes a bit of a champion for him.

Indeed, the theme throughout the movie seems to be whether or not the people around John Merrick take an interest in him for their own profit or gratification or if they do it from sympathy or pity for a fellow human being. Is John Merrick an item or a person? I found a strong parallel to the somewhat later “Edward Scissorhands” movie, which is perhaps even more blunt on this topic. Practically all characters start out seeing Merrick as a freak and because of these deformities he is not quite human. The smarter or more empathic of those he deals with go through the phase where they realize there is an actual person behind the appearance and question themselves for their initial position. In this way John Merrick becomes an agent for these characters to develop. We, as an audience, go through the same phases. Can we not say that we go into this movie to watch the incredible Elephant Man, but only gradually realize there is a real person within where the grotesque appearance actually matters little?

I think David Lynch has a fascination with the aparte. Something akin to Tod Browning in the thirties, but Lynch uses the freakish elements to embody emotions, personalities or themes. Almost all his movies have odd looking characters who look the way because they represent something and so a character like John Merrick is a gift to Lynch. He does not even have to invent a freak. Lynch also added some surreal elements to represent the troubled mind of Merrick. It is difficult to imagine how a person treated like John Merrick would feel, but Lynch’ visions actually help understanding the despair and seclusion Merrick lives in. Lynch also could not help recreating a lot of the space and soundscape from “Eraserhead”. It is a grimy and dark London with a very industrial and impersonal feel to it. An inhuman place, which helps to underline the inhumanity with which Merrick is treated.

Ultimately, John Merrick is recognized as a man as immortalized with the famous quote: "I am not an animal! I am a human being. I am a man." And with that achievement we are done and it is a happy ending, or is it? For John Merrick it is fulfillment, but also the end of the road.

“The Elephant Man” was not an easy movie to watch. It is an emotional rollercoaster, and you cannot not be upset with the way most people get no further than seeing the freak, but the impact of it also feels rewarding even if you feel a bit dirty for at first only seeing the deformities. I recommend it, but I suspect it will be a long time before I watch it again.

A bit of trivia: The real Dr. Treves later pioneered the surgical treatment of appendicitis and saved the life of the British king at the time for which he was knighted. Ironically, Treves himself eventually died from a ruptured appendix.