Sunday 31 December 2023

Happy New Year 2024


Happy New Year 2024

It is New Year’s Eve again. I would have loved to have been able to say that the past was a great year, but, alas, it was not. Personally, I am doing alright, life carries on as it usually does, but the world looks bleaker than it has done for quite some time. It is no secret that my six years living in Israel make me take special interest in what happens there, but although it is hard not to, I try to keep politics out of the blog. Cannot say I am always successful at that, after all, my blog is my window to say what I want, but I want this to be about movies and books and not about politics.

This year was also the craziest weather I ever experienced, and I think most of us know what that means for the future. Let me just say that I have never felt this good about working in renewables. To actually be able to make a difference on something this important is special.

I could list up a lot of terrible things going on, but today is supposed to be a celebration, a good riddance to the old year and the best of hopes for the coming year. I do sincerely hope there will be good things in store for us all. If there is one particular wish for the new year from me, it is responsibility. That people, high and low, governments and organizations, take on responsibility themselves instead of blaming everybody else. Half the problems in the world could be solved if everybody took a hard look at themselves rather than blaming somebody else for their misery.

Anyway, during 2023 I watched and reviewed 62 movies, which is more than I have done in a while. 12 of these were off-List movies, leaving 50 movies on the List. I went from 1978 to 1982 and I am now well into what I consider the golden era of cinema: the eighties. The past two months I have been through a streak of classics that would please me any day and although I am looking into a series of more mundane movies, there are lost of highlights to look forward to.

On my book blog I have done 9 titles this year, which I consider an acceptable achievement, considering my target is just five books per year. I have gone through the period 1811 to 1822, a period known for romanticism and the post Napoleonic years. Jane Austen was a wonderful acquaintance and I really liked E.T.A. Hoffmann’s book about his cat.

I wish everybody a happy new year and all the best for the time ahead. May 2024 finally be a good year.

Thursday 28 December 2023

Yol (1982)



When I popped in the “Yol” DVD, I learned that my copy had only French subtitles. I also quickly learned that my French is not really that good and even though it is better than my non-existent Turkish, it had a massive detrimental effect on my experience watching this movie. It is likely a lot better than what I got out of it and the fault is on me, so my apologies up front. Luckily there is a decent summary of the plot on Wikipedia without which I would have been entirely lost.

“Yol” takes place in contemporary Turkey. A group of prisoners get a much longed for leave to return to their families and we follow a handful of them. I am not entirely certain of the names so I will try to leave that out. One does not get far. At a checkpoint, he cannot find his papers, so back he goes. Another one travels through the snow to get home, only to find that his wife is held prisoner because she has dishonored the family (prostitution?). The guy is supposed to kill her and seems intend on leaving her to die in the freezing cold, but changes his mind when it is already too late and so she dies. A third is really bad friends with the in-laws but gets away with his wife. Just as they seem safe, they are hit by a double whopper: an angry mob want to lynch them for having sex on the train toilet (presumably this is a crime against morality, though I would rather say it is a crime against hygiene. That toilet is really disgusting) and they get shot by one of the in-laws. Yeah, very bad friends. A fourth returns to his Kurdish village only to drop down into a civil war affair. The village is under siege by government forces and his brother is killed. Tradition dictates that he then marries the widow and leave this girlfriend with a long nose. Presumably there is a fifth guy, but I somehow missed that. Or got him mixed up with the others.

Obviously, this is a political movie, raging against the political system in Turkey at the time. I sense it to be just as much a cultural critique as most of these men are in trouble, not so much because of the regime but because of cultural dictates of honor and tradition. For anybody with even peripheral experience with the Middle East, such problems should not be a surprise, although from a western perspective they feel medieval and heartless. Such a critique is a lot more difficult to swallow for those being criticized so I guess calling it a regime critique makes it more palatable. Then it is not the fault of the people but the fault of the elite, and who does not despise the elite?

Reading about the movie, I learned that the actual making of the movie was quite an adventure in its own right as the director was imprisoned during filming and escaped and fled to Switzerland and edited it from there. All direction was done through written instruction. That is a story I would like to watch!

There is no doubt the filming and acting is of high quality. It looks very naturalistic. As I could not get much out of the dialogue I instead focused on the images, and they were stunning. Stunning and very depressive. The sense of dirt and smell and poverty is all around. Poor houses, insufficient cloth, noisy and dangerous traffic, it is hard to imagine this is a country on the doorstep of Europe forty years ago. There were only two uplifting elements: The smiles on children’s faces, always a blessing, and the pictures of wonderful food. No matter how poor these people seem to be, the dinners, even casual snacks, look like feasts. I am familiar with Middle Eastern food and what these people were eating is everything I love about it.

It is obviously a clear miss that I got very little out of the narrative and that the script was largely wasted on me. Obviously, I ought to find a copy with subtitles I can actually understand and for that reason I would have to wait with my recommendation until then.

Wednesday 20 December 2023

Tron (1982)


Off-List: Tron

The third off-List movie of 1982 is “Tron”. “Tron” is one of my son’s favorite movies, both the original and the sequel, and he has watched it countless times. Thus, he was invited for last night's rewatch, or was it him inviting me? hmmm…

Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), usually known just as Flynn, is a programmer who got expelled from the Encom corporation and now runs a gaming arcade. He is keen to access the Encom computers to find evidence that the CEO Ed Dillinger (David Warner) stole his software (some games) and used it to power his career. Flynn is visited by his friends and current Encom employees Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan) and Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) who warns Flynn that Ed is on to him, and that people are getting locked out of the system. They agree to let Flynn into the building so he can gain access.

It turns out that the Encom computer system has been taken over by a program called the Master Control Program (MCP). It has even locked out Ed and is now bent on world domination. When Flynn tries to access the system, MCP retaliates by using an experimental laser to dissolve and digitize Flynn and he thus becomes another program inside the strange computer world.

This is a really weird world built on vector graphics where programs are personified through avatars. Blue ones are free, red ones are controlled by the MCP. Flynn is the only “user” on the system and meet with Tron and Yori, avatars of Alan and Lora. Together they venture on an odyssey through the grid to fight the MCP.

The basic story of “Tron” is fairly simple. It is essentially “Star Wars” inside a computer world. Or “The Lord of the Rings” (The lord of the disks?). That story is classic and not super interesting. What is interesting is the world building going on here. In my youth cyberpunk was a big thing (not certain if it still is) where the idea was that inside the computer network, you can be an avatar venturing around to meet and fight programs personified as other avatars. “Neuromancer” comes to mind as a classic book in this genre. This entire concept comes from “Tron”. In this sort of world, you are not planting code or searching libraries, you are analoging it and fire guns and drive imaginary bikes. Today reality has sort of caught up and you can play games in virtual worlds and with a VR headset, pretty much get the “Tron” experience, but it is still different because the “Tron” world is not a program, it is more like a network operative system hosting programs. “Tron” is the internet before that was even a word. This is where it slowly dawns on you how far ahead of the time “Tron” was.

It is easy to forget though. As a twenty first century viewer, the visuals are clunky and primitive. Everything consists of straight lines and simple graphics. The avatars are filmed in black and white and then (hand) colored. The result is… weird. But then, again, go back to 1982 and we are ages before CGI. There was never any movie before “Tron” that used computer generated images to even close to the extent it was used in this movie. This is an age where the household computers would have been an Apple II or, if you were really ahead of the curve, the newly released Commodore 64. What “Tron” did, stretched processing capacity to the extreme and according to “Tron” lore set limitation on the actual design. To complicated designs simply could not render.

These two elements, the conceptualization of cyberspace and the pioneering work in CGI are the cornerstone contributions of “Tron” and reason enough to watch it. It does help that it also has that classic eighties vibe that feels so familiar for fans of eighties movies (like me). The optimism, the endless possibilities, the jargon. In many ways, this picks up on so many eighties themes that it is absolutely worth watching, also beyond the special contributions. Of course, there is no harm in having Jeff Bridges being the lead, he rarely does a poor job, and he does bring charm and humanity to something which could easily become too flat and mechanical.

“Tron” is a nostalgic trip back to the eighties, pleasant and easy, but also super important for its contribution to popular culture and CGI. That is really enough to recommend it. Lots of recommendations from my son too.

If you are in the wind industry MCP means something entirely different…

Friday 15 December 2023

Tootsie (1982)



The good streak of great 1982 movies continues with “Tootsie”, a romantic comedy from a time where it was possible to make them intelligent and fun, dramatic and sweet, all at the same time.

Dustin Hoffman is an actor, Michael Dorsey, out of work. He has got a, well earned, reputation for being difficult to work with and his opportunities have dried up. It takes his agent, George Fields (Sydney Pollack, who also directed the movie), great effort to get this through to him. Even playing a tomato he cannot do without arguing with the director.

Dorsey lives together with aspiring (but way too unconventional) scriptwriter, Jeff (Bill Murray), and sees a lot of, usually unemployed, actor friends. One of them, Sandy (Teri Garr) is trying to get a role in a soap opera but is refused for not being stern enough. In desperation, Michael dresses up as a woman to try his luck at the audition… and gets the part.

Now follows a strange and increasingly complicated double life where Michael Dorsey juggles a romantic relationship with Sandy, another with fellow cast member, Julie (Jessica Lange), and a third with Julie’s father, Les (Charles Durning) while successfully becoming a star on the soap as Dorothy Michaels. In her character, Michael is asserting against the director and the male cast and that wins over the viewers, especially the female ones, and Dorothy Michaels becomes an icon. The only ones in on the scam are Jeff and George and both are really worried.

“Tootsie” has at least three themes going. The most obvious is the gender switch, which is also the source of most of the comedy. It is seriously hilarious, probably the funniest gender switch role since “Some like it hot”, but it also tries to drive some points on how it is for a man to experience what it is like to be a woman in a male dominated world. This is way before MeeToo and the men in the business have no restraint.

The second theme is the romantic element. It is of course closely linked to the first and is what makes it a romantic comedy. Michael as Dorothy is admonishing exactly the treatment, he himself is subjecting Sandy to. Which is both funny and terribly sad. Or would have been if Teri Garr had not been insanely funny in her own right.

The third element is the surprise and may at first feel like a clash, but I think is what makes the whole thing work. This is a social-realistic element of unemployment and the humiliation the actors must go though to make ends meet. This could easily have been rather hypocritical, considering all these suffering actors are played by A-list actors, but there is a serious tone here, so familiar from the seventies and early eighties social-realist TV, that we buy it. As Michael says: “I don’t believe in Hell. I believe in unemployment, but I do not believe in Hell.” Getting a job, any job, is serious business for these people. This could easily be a party killer, but it benefits the movie in two ways. It provides the motive for Michael to do what he does and it works as a frame for the hilarity. Funny stuff is only funny if played against something serious. The Marx Brothers were only that funny because they played up against Margaret Dumont and “Tootsie” is only as fun as it is because of its recognizable reality. Something modern comedies, especially romantic comedies, have largely forgotten.

“Tootsie” is a feast of great performances. Dustin Hofman is very convincing, both in his serious parts and in the comedic ones. His usually hyped persona fits brilliantly for the role. Bill Murray is unusually subdued and it is Sydney Pollack’s achievement that he prevents him from stealing the scenes. He is funny, but restrained, just firing off his usual VERY dry jokes. The real star for me though is Teri Garr. She is actually stealing her scenes and a lot of the comedy is due to her. For a supporting actress she has a mighty impact on the movie and had I not watched this movie (multiple times) before, I would have rooted for her. She is a far more amusing character than Julie.

“Tootsie” is a favorite of mine. It is one of the best gender switch comedies ever and one I do not get tired of watching. It avoids getting moralizing, but also evades the silliness swamp of the opposite ditch. Keeping that balance is a major achievement of this movie.

Favourite scene: Les and Van Horn (George Gaynes) realizing Dorothy is a man. Priceless.

Very highly recommended.


Sunday 10 December 2023

The Evil Dead (1982)


The Evil Dead

“The Evil Dead” franchise is one of the most iconic horror franchises in existence. Even I am familiar with it and horror is not really my jam. At campus we would watch the movies a lot, though mostly the second and third installment while the first one generally went under the radar. Certainly, watching it now, I realize I have only ever watched extracts from it. We tended to prefer the third Evil Dead movie because of its slapstick elements and while that is certainly an element in the first movie as well, it is less of a thing. What is very visible is that “The Evil Dead” was made on a marginal budget compared to the later movies.

Five young people are vacationing in a cabin deep in a forest in rural Tennessee. It is clear, to us at least, that something is wrong right from the beginning. There is a strange entity swooshing through the forest, represented by a point-of-view camera sailing through the forest with an ominous low frequency rumble. The youngsters are happily ignorant though, but that is soon going to end. In the basement they find a strange looking book and a tape recorder, telling them that the book is an ancient Sumerian book-of-death and that a certain incantation will bring on evil demons. Somehow the tape actually makes the incantations.

Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) is the first victim. When she goes into forest to find out what is calling her, she is captured by the trees in what might best be described as a bizarre rape scene. Desperate now to leave, she and Ash (Bruce Campbell) find out the bridge is trashed. They are trapped. Cheryl now becomes possessed and changes her appearance for the worse, so they trap her in the basement. The other girls, Shelly (Theresa Tilly), the girlfriend of Scott (Richard DeManincor), and Linda (Betsy Baker), girlfriend of Ash, fall in rapid succession, while Scott in an attempt to get out gets so badly mangled by the forest that soon he too becomes possessed. Eventually, Ash is alone, trying to fight off his former friends who just refuse to die and stay dead.

In this sense, “The Evil Dead” is similar to the sequels. Ultimately, this is Bruce Campbell as Ash fighting off a horde of zombies and demons in a wild and gory ride. The setting owes a lot to “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), with an isolated house under siege by zombies, and the possessed truly look and act like those zombies, though without the sluggishness. The difference is that the possessed are already in the cabin and it is a single guy trying to hold them off while being attacked from all sides. So, it is still an under-siege movie, the siege is just personal rather than the place.

Of course, in this genre it is all about the jump scares and the goriness. On the first account, “The Evil Dead” does very well, but I am also a very easy target. The second is not as convincing. It is clear that it really wants this to be a point and the demon possessed do look freaky. Some of the violence is also gory to the point of the nauseous, but there is a point where the play-doh animation takes over when it loses all credibility and just look amateurish. My guess is that it was this more than anything that encouraged a sequel with actual funding. “The Thing” was a good example of what was technically possible at the time. Combine that with the talent and enthusiasm of Sam Raimi’s team and this would be awesome (and so it was!).

Despite the flaws in production value, “The Evil Dead” works very well and it founded not just a very successful franchise, but also a horde of movies heavily inspired by it. The haunted cabin in the woods is now a movie trope and Peter Jackson started out making movies made to resemble “The Evil Dead” long before “Lords of the Rings”. I only felt a little disappointed that Ash would not wield his famous chainsaw, but that of course is only in the sequel.

“The Evil Dead” is extremely famous and rightfully so. As a movie to watch I do prefer the sequel, but then again, I have a history there. You get really far on enthusiasm, but sometimes a bit of funding does the trick. Still, this is a recommendation from me.


Sunday 3 December 2023

48 Hrs. (1982)


Off-List: 48 timer

The second off-List movie of 1982 is “48 Hrs.”. This is one of those movies I would have watched quite a few times back in the eighties, but probably not since, so finding it on the list of eligible 1982 movies, I thought it was time to revisit it. Also, Eddie Murphy had quite a streak in the eighties and those movies are generally worth watching.

Jack Cates (Nick Nolte) is a police inspector in San Francisco who, somewhat coincidentally gets involved in a shootout between escaped convict Albert Gantz (James Remar) and Billy Bear (Sonny Landham) and two of Cates’ colleagues. Both policemen are killed and now Cates wants to hunt them down. To help him Cates seek out Ganz former partner Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy) who has six months left of a three-year sentence. Turns out Hammond is more than willing to get Ganz busted.

Cates and Hammond are a very unlikely duo. There is very little sympathy between them and absolutely no trust. A fist fight and a number of near misses with Bear and Ganz change that to a grudging respect as they both prove very resourceful.

“48 Hrs.” is considered the founder of the buddy-cop genre, a genre that became immensely successful throughout the eighties and nineties. At least quantitatively if not qualitatively. It created a format that has been copied and imitated ad infinitum. You would have a white and a black guy, a wild one and a lawful one, a screaming police chief (preferably black) and a case that is about to explode and probably does. If the policemen do not lose the badge it is a close call. The duo will intensely dislike each other, but through the dangers of the case they will learn to trust and respect each other. Did I forget anything? Oh, there will always be some girl/wife/daughter trouble, something about job vs. paying attention to the home front.

We all know these clichés and they all come from this movie. “48 Hrs.” did not invent the police movie and some of those tropes were established at the time it was released, but the format was definitely set by this movie. That means, watching it now, forty years later, it feels dated and predictable, almost comically so, and it is easy to forget that “48 Hrs.” is not a recipe movie, but the movie that made the recipe. For this reason, I did not enjoy it as much as I remember, which is, honestly, unfair of me.

Nolte is almost comically gruff and tough. A bit of an alcohol problem and fighting with everybody including wife, boss and colleagues and driving around is a car that is both too big and too trashed. Murphy is, well, Murphy. He is not pulling out all his guns as he would later in “Beverly Hills Cop” but there is enough of his roguishness to make him both sleek and amusing. His introduction, singing Police’ “Roxanne” in prison sets a high bar which he cannot quite reach for the rest of the movie, with the possible exception of him busting a country and western bar.

As we have come to expect from Buddy-cop cop movies, there is a lot of action. Shootouts, car chases, hostage scenarios and really badass villains. “48 Hrs.” is fine of all these accounts and would still be if we had not become accustomed to even wilder fare. One can argue there is a special charm here, but Nolte is not my favorite actor, and his performance is just a tad too hammy to win me over.

Still, “48 Hrs.” must get credit for being first and considering how may tropes it fathered I find it rather surprising it is not on the List. For this reason (some may argue only for this reason) it is a must-see movie.