Saturday 26 August 2023

Stripes (1981)


Off-List: Stripes

I am a big fan of both Bill Murray and Harold Ramis and especially of the movies they did together, so it should come as no surprise that I picked “Stripes” as one of my off-List movies for 1981.

John (Bill Murray) and Russell (Harold Ramis) live a hand to mouth life in New York. John’s cynical, nihilistic and somewhat childish slacker attitude takes him nowhere and on a particularly shitty day he losses his job, his car, his girlfriend and his apartment. Somehow, he manages to talk his friend, Russell, into joining the army as a sort of last resort. Never has the US Army received more unlikely and unsuited recruits.

John runs his Bill Murray schtick throughout, which lands him at odds with everybody, especially his drill sergeant, Hulka, (Warren Oates). He has this way of talking to people where you always have a feeling he is mocking and not entirely sincere. Something which is both infuriating and hilariously funny. Needless to say, the basic training is a total disaster, something not helped by the “quality” of the rest of the unit, which includes Ox (John Candy) and Elmo (Judge Reinhold), both in their American screen debut, or the total incompetence of company commander, Captain Stillman (John Larroquette). The latter ends up sending Sergeant Hulka to the hospital when he blows him up, and it is now up to John to take charge of the unit so they can make it through graduation.

“Stripes” is sort of a combination of “Animal House” and “Private Benjamin”. It is the slacker anarchy and improvised hilarity merged into a story of unlikely and unfit recruits in the army. What happens when chaos meets discipline, when comedy meets deadly seriousness? This is not a new combo at all. In Denmark that combo dates back to the early sixties and also American cinema had been there before. It has just never been as funny as it is here. The key here is the force of nature which is Bill Murray and the writing and sense of the improvisation opportunities of Harold Ramis. Not to forget Ivan Reitman going along with it.

Bill Murray is one of the few actors who can make an entire movie be about himself and actually lift it. Any movie will completely change character the moment he shows up, for better or worse and from then on, it is a Bill Murray movie. This might not work for everybody, but for me his slacker cynicism is gold. He is the master of deadpan.

The story of “Stripes” is not great. There is a background phase, boot camp phase and then they are out on a mission. It is a story anyone with half a brain can follow. It is not a very naturalistic one either. There are lots of moments that require suspense of disbelief to the point of the ridiculous and had this been anything else than a Murray/Ramis/Reitman movie, it would have tanked. It is that thin. But by making it a vehicle it is all down to Murray and Ramis and in that context the silliness works. More for me back in the eighties and ninetieth, but I still had quite a few laugh-out-loud moments and I was able to gloss over some of the more stupid elements, such as the incursion into Czeck territory.

The early eighties was a very fertile period for this type of comedy and, silly as they are, I love them. Whether it was “Police Academy”, “Beverly Hills Cop” or “Trading Places” I always have had a good time watching them. A guilty pleasure, if you will. “Stripes” is almost archetypical in that respect, taking silliness and anarchy far but stopping just short of becoming stupid and creating in the process unforgettable comedy.

When Murray and Ramis fell out after “Groundhog Day” it deprived us of the potential for so much great comedy. What a miss. Then again, Murray seems to have been falling out with everybody in Hollywood, so it is a wonder how many great movies he has actually been in throughout the years.

“Stripes” is a Murray and Ramis classic. We still have the best to come, but this one is not bad. Recommended as a classic.


Tuesday 22 August 2023

The Boat (Das Boot) (1981)


Das Boot

“Das Boot”, or by its less awesome English name “The Boat”, is the quintessential submarine movie. I would even go so far as claiming it to be the best submarine movie ever, but I might take heat from that statement. When I watched it as a miniseries back in the eighties, I was completely sold by it. I swallowed each episode and could not wait until next week for the next episode. Then I read the book and was surprised to find how close an adaption Wolfgang Petersen made of it. This spring I even went to the Buchheim museum in Germany to see their exhibition of the story.

Buchheim, the author of the book, was a war correspondent during the Second World War and went himself on a tour with a submarine. While the novel (and hence the movie) is not specifically about this tour, it heavily inspired him and in the story, we follow his alter ego, Leutnant Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), a war correspondent assigned a tour on the submarine U-96.

The movie starts on land. There is a big party for officers where everybody gets ridiculously drunk. Almost desperately drunk actually, as if this was the last party. On the way back to the submarine we see the rest of the crew, no less drunk. And then we are on board the U-96 for 99% of the rest of the movie. “Das Boot” is distinct from most other submarine movies by not having a particular narrative structure, expect perhaps that of an odyssey. We live on the submarine with the crew. Listen to the Captain, only called Kaleun (short for Kapitänleutnant) (Jürgen Prochnow), the banter of the crew and share their experience. Sometimes they are immensely bored, trapped in this tiny tube with nothing to do. They experience storms, throwing the boat and everything in it hither and there. Then we have action when U-96 encounters a convoy, quickly scores a couple of hits, but then become the hunted as British destroyers chases them with deepwater charges. Seriously, there is nothing more claustrophobic than being trapped 150 below sea level with loud sonar pings hitting the hull.

U-96 miraculously escapes but is heavily battered. However, instead of being instructed to go back to base for repairs, it is ordered to reload in Spain and then go to La Spezia, Italy. Through the Gibraltar, the most heavily guarded passage on Earth. A total suicide mission and almost a disaster for U-96, lying grounded at 280 m at the bottom of the strait with multiple and critical failures.

It is not so much what is happening as the experience of it happening that is the strength of the movie. This is not a gung-ho crew out to sink some ships, but a group of men trying to stay alive and sane doing what they are ordered to do. With one notable exception, they are not Nazis but German sailors. They are good at what they do, but they are not out there doing it for the Führer. We sense that very strongly. But more than that we feel the claustrophobic fear. The dirt and sweat. The very tight space. The pressure, on the hull, but also on the mind, threatening to throw people into madness. “Das Boot” is so good at this that it sucks you in and you hold your breath and whisper when a destroyer is passing overhead and you jump with adrenalin at the scream of “ALAAAARM!!!” when the submarine has to dive in the manner of seconds to avoid being shot to pieces. It is a very submersive experience, literally.

For a war movie, there is surprisingly little shooting. There is also surprisingly little visually of the war. Inside the submarine you do not see anything, you feel it. Only when the submarine surfaces and watches the burning victim of their torpedo do we get the visual impact and then it hits in the gut as burning sailors are trying to jump ship. This is a lot more about the mental experience of being on a submarine during the war than the war itself and you could probably make the same movie with a crew from any other country, except that the submarine war and the staggering losses is unique to Germany.

To achieve all that, Buchheim wrote a great book, but it is Wolfgang Petersen who created the experience in the movie, and it is that experience that sells it.

“Das Boot” was nominated for six Academy Awards, but did not win any. Must have been a hell of a year.

Strongly recommended. Go for the directors cut at 209 minutes.    

Thursday 10 August 2023

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)


Jagten på den forsvundne skat

Da da-da daaaa, da da-daaa, da da-da daa, da da-da daaa daaa daaa…

Okay, a bit silly, it is not so easy to transcribe a theme, I just wanted to set the mood here with one of the most famous John Williams scores ever: That of Indiana Jones. Few things make me smile like that theme.

There is a handful of movies out there where it feels silly to write a review because everybody, and I mean literally everybody, even in some backwater in Yemen, will know about the Indiana Jones movies, if they have not already watched them. What more can I say than has already been written? This is like writing about Star Wars all over again.

Did I forget to mention that I totally love the franchise up until and including “The Last Crusade”.  I have watched “Raiders of the Lost Ark countless times and can recall every scene in detail.

My favorite character is the Gestapo agent Toht, played by Ronald Lacey. He is absolutely perfect and every one of his lines is a classic: “Now, eh heh heh, what shall we talk about?”. Even his name is a play on the German word for “dead”. In our family we can often find a place for an Indiana Jones quote and Toht’s lines are very high on that list. Another classic is “This is how we say goodbye in Germany” to which you answer “I prefer the Austrian way”… but that is a different Indiana Jones movie.

The character of Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is an interesting one. He is professionally an archeologist, something which is emphasized with him teaching classes at a university, but his fieldwork is not the painstaking excavation of ancient burial sites and structures, but more akin to treasure hunting. Indiana Jones is to some extent modelled on a Howard Carter type of archeologist, the guy who found the tomb of Tutankamun, an action hero adventurer who goes for the really spectacular finds. For this kind of archeologists as for many collectors it is the item itself as a historic celebrity rather than the context and addition to the collective knowledge that is the motivator. This is why Jones rival, Belloq (Paul Freeman) see a kinship with Indiana Jones. They may represent the good and the bad guy, but the difference between them is surprisingly small. There are many hints to that throughout the franchise, especially in this first installment, as if we need to be reminded that it is okay what Indiana Jones is doing.

The most important motivator in that sense is that the alternative is worse. If Jones and his team does not retrieve the artifact, then somebody much worse will and what can be worse than a bunch of Nazis. It is like Oppenheimer’s dilemma: Perform the infamy of building the bomb before the Nazis do. In that context, we are not talking grave robbing, we are not talking sensationalist archeology anymore, we are talking saving mankind.

The artifact in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is the Ark of the Covenant, which is a perfect item in this context. It is a well-documented historical item, in the sense that it features prominently in the holy texts of three major religions, it has mysteriously disappeared, and it is supposed to be imbued with a supernatural power. Yet, the real scoop is that this is a Jewish artifact, sought after by their arch-nemesis, the Nazis. We are talking epic clash here and are dappling just that bit into superpower territory, something the first three movies managed to do so gently, we are able to accept it.

What makes “Raiders of the Lost Ark” so great, is that it works on every level. We have the high-level context of good versus evil in an epic struggle, but we also have a well-paced action movie that keeps you on your toes. Thirdly, the script is genius. It adds understated humor in surprising places that disarm the pompousness and makes you laugh as a relief. The formula is actually old and was employed to some extent in “Star Wars”, but it is with the Indiana Jones movies it has peaked. Many movies have attempted to copy the formula, more or less shamelessly, but none have come close, not since.

“Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark” is one of the best, most successful and most entertaining movies ever. It is brilliant.

Bonus anecdote: The German plane supposed to fly the Ark to Germany is a fiction. There never existed such a plane in reality. It is a mash-up of several different concepts from era. Google it and you find some really spectacular planes. I would have loved to see it fly though... 

Sunday 6 August 2023

Raging Bull (1980)


Raging Bull

I have a real problem watching movies about assholes. Especially when you are supposed to somehow root for them. Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) and practically everybody around him are dimwitted, egoistic, brutal, violent, rude, abusive and short-tempered and I found nothing to like, sympathize with or relate to at all in these people. Add to that that this is about boxing, the sport I dislike more than any other and this was a very hard movie for me to get though. I could only watch a few minutes and I would have to take a break so it took me the better part of a week to get through this movie. I do not understand what I am supposed to get out of it or why this is something I should see. AFI has “Raging Bull” ranked as the fourth greatest American move of all time. Clearly, I am missing something, and will likely be in minority with my opinion. So be it.

Jake La Motta was a real figure. He was boxing professionally in the forties and went under the name “The Bronx Bull”. In his boxing career he was moderately successful. He won some and lost some and even held a title of some sort at a point. We see a lot of these boxing matches, which is basically one guy beating the shit out of another guy.

Most of the movie is about what happens between games. Jake’s manager is his brother Joey (Joe Pesci), a guy only marginally less offensive than Jake. They treat their women with scorn and abuse and take offense about almost anything. Maybe this is Italian New York style, but it feels amped up. Jake fights a lot with his wife but then ditches her and finds a new girl, Vicki (Cathy Moriarty). Actually, in the opposite order. He also treats her poorly, verbally as well as physically, but only near the end of the movie does she leave him. Jake and Joey also have an on/off relationship with some mafia looking guys that are not terribly different from themselves.

And things sort of go on like this for a couple of hours. Jake and Joey get into fights with everybody, eventually also each other. Jake’s career ends, he becomes a nightclub owner until that ends poorly. In the end Jake is a bit of a bum, lonely and poor, but smarter? I doubt it.

Well, there is no discussion that technically Martin Scorsese made an impressive movie and there is nothing wrong with the acting. All are doing a good job on that account. The black and white cinematography is also a good choice, it helps to give it that 1940’ies vibe. It is the narrative and the characters that are the problems here. I do not see where this story is going. An asshole becomes a moderately successful boxer which gives him license to be an asshole until that license expires and then there is nothing left. Great. Normally there is a redeeming element or a morale or something, but I saw nothing more than that. And those characters! Holy mackerel, they are stripped for anything sympathetic. Again, if we have to focus on bad guys, at least they are funny or evolve or get their comeuppance. You could say Jake gets the latter, but in an ugly, sad, and unsatisfying way. He started a bum and ended a bum and acted like a bum in the middle part.

So, why do we need this movie? Some obviously think this is important, but I fail to see why. It ticks none of my boxes. So, no recommendation from me. Well, unless you are into assholes treating everybody badly.

And thus ends 1980. On with 1981.