Saturday 13 April 2024

Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi (1983)

 


Stjernekrigen: Jedi-ridderen vender tilbage

It is always a guilty pleasure to watch the original Star Wars movies. Although the third instalment is the poorest of the three, it still provides a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.

When we left “The Empire Strikes Back”, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) had been dry-freezed into a carbonite slab to be handed over to the giant gangster slug Jabba the Hutt, so “Return of the Jedi” naturally opens with a rescue mission at Jabba’s palace. This includes Leia (Carrie Fisher) in a golden bikini and a showdown on the rim of the mouth of a giant monster. Jabba’s palace is the scary version of Muppet Show, but at least it is sinister and gloomy.

Mission accomplished, the movie jumps straight to the finale. Here we have three parallel stories taking place simultaneously with plenty of cross-clips. A new death star is being build in orbit around the Sanctuary moon (Endor). Luke (Mark Hamill), Leia, Han, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and the droids go to the moon to deactivate the shield protecting the death star. Luke, however, quickly leaves for the death star to try to turn back his father, the infamous Darth Vader (David Prowse, James Earl Jones), from “the dark side”, and in the third storyline Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Willams) is leading an alliance attack on the death star. Something that will only succeed if the mission to the moon is successful.

The narrative here is super simple. Being the finale movie of the trilogy, this was bound to be a final showdown of epic scale. This we do get, the scale is grand and, as such things have to be, the stakes are great. The way it plays out is unfortunately a little too straight forward. Gone are the twists of “The Empire Strikes Back”.

Gone too is the darkness and pervading doom of the middle episode. Rather than leaving the comic relief to the droids, a job they carried very well in the two first episodes, “Return of the Jedi” is crammed to the brim with comic relief. It is a change of formula that reduces the age (real or perceived) of the audience and makes parts of it more Muppet Show than space opera. The common criticism is the native inhabitants of the Sanctuary moon, the teddy bear like Ewoks. They are cute and sweet and a bit naive, but they are also an eighties version of the Minions and silly is a description that only scratches the surface. Of course, we smile and laugh at the cute little teddies, but honestly, is this the movie we are watching? Is saving the universe depending on cute teddies?  At least at Jabba’s palace, there is a level of darkness, but already there I feel it has gone too far down this mistaken road.

I still feel excitement watching the space battles and the adventure story of good versus evil and we are still lightyears (literally) ahead of the prequels, but learning that both David Lynch and David Cronenberg were considered to direct this third instalment of the Star Wars trilogy, I cannot help wondering what that would have done to this movie. Certain it is, that it would not have been half as cute, but a lot more interesting than what we ended up with.

The version I watched was the cinematic release version, to get the experience cinemagoers would have had back in 1983 and frankly, the technical side holds up well. Sure, there is some green wall sequences (like the speeder rides through the forest) that look a bit clumsy, but there is a texture to the world that later CGI fail to deliver. For lack of a better term, the world looks more real. A sidenote: I had one of those speeders as a toy back then... cool stuff.

“Return of the Jedi” ended the trilogy, and it would take a decade and a half before the universe was revisited. For many of us, these three movies will stand as the real universe, but as much as we complain about the later movies, the downward trend started already with “Return of the Jedi”. The elements we do not like in the prequels are the same elements that makes “Return of the Jedi” the weakest of the three.

Yet, when all is said and done, I still enjoy watching it. There is enough of the things we like, and we do get closure. Just maybe a little too predictable.

 


Sunday 7 April 2024

The North (El Norte) (1982)

 


El Norte

If you thought Illegal immigration is a new thing, then you are mistaken. “El Norte” tells us this issue was pretty much the same 41 years ago as it is today. Only the magnitude can be discussed.

Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) and Enrique (David Villalpando) are siblings in Guatemala. Because their father is trying to set up some sort of protest against abuse from, presumably, the landowners, he is shot and their mother is taken away, presumably killed. The siblings only survive by hiding. Seeing they cannot stay they decide to go to “El Norte”, to the promised land in the North where everybody have flush toilets and a car.

They manage to get through Mexico easily enough, but in Tijuana on the US border they run into trouble. The first agent they find to help them across the border tries to mug them and then they are picked up by immigration and sent back. The second attempt fares better but costs them their only valuables and involves a long crawl through a rat infested sewer. Something that eventually proves fatal.

In the US things are not as great as they could have hoped. There are people who are willing to hire illegal migrants, but the pay is very low and the risks are high. There is the constant threat from the “Migra” (Migration authorities) and without papers there is no health or any other official protection. All of which are issues Rosa and Enrique run into and which lead to a downbeat conclusion.

The striking thing about this movie is, as mentioned above, how timeless this story is. Change the cars and haircuts and this movie could have been made today. In this movie the migrants are fleeing Guatemala, but it could be from anywhere in the Global South. There is a strong motivator to move in the physical prosecution Rosa and Enrique are subjected to, but there is also an obvious economic lure, which plays a large part in the movie. The US is the place these people dream of whenever things are hard. This story could also just as well have played out in Europe. Then the crawl through the sewer would have been replaced by a dinghy across the Mediterranean.

The political point the movie is trying to make is to see illegal migration from the point of the migrant and present the risks, indignities and desperate hopes of these. What of course is not covered here is the other side of the coin, why this kind of immigration is illegal. I think there are some pretty good arguments why governments want to control immigration, but from the point of view of the migrant, all those points are completely irrelevant. The consequence is that they end up in a lawless limbo.

From a production value point of view, I had some misgivings going in as this promised to be a second-rate production, but that is not the case at all. Production value is pretty high and the acting, especially from Gutierrez and Villalpando, is convincing. They strike the right level of naive determination, and we instantly sympathize with them. Both went on to have long careers in movies and TV.

There is a level of melodrama here, it cannot be otherwise or there would be nothing to drive the movie forward, but what stroke me most watching it, was the looming threat of disaster just over the horizon. Every step of the way, from Guatemala and to the end in Los Angeles I get the sense that Rosa and Enrique are walking on a precipice and often they are not even aware of the danger they are facing, blinded as they are of their hopes and needs. It actually made it difficult for me to watch as I constantly counted all the may ways this could end badly and, in a sense, I was not disappointed.

I am not certain I would want to watch “El Norte” again, this is not a feel-good movie, but I guess it classifies as an important movie that tells a story people need to hear.

 

Monday 1 April 2024

Trading Places (1983)

 


Off-List: Trading Places

The first Off-List movie of 1983 is “Trading Places”, a big childhood favourite of mine. I cannot tell how many times I have watched this over the years and while it may not hold up as well today as it did back then, it never fails to amuse me. This time I watched it with my wife and son and based on his reaction to it, this was his first viewing, it still works.

Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer (Don Ameche) Duke are wealthy commodity brokers (Duke & Duke). Stingy, prejudiced and arrogant, they have the kind of money where it does not matter what people think of them. In between their never ceasing pursuit of making money, they have an ongoing discussion on heritage vs. environment. Eventually they decide to conduct an experiment: They will send their star executive into the gutter, while picking a desperate type from the gutter and make him their executive. The value of the bet: 1$.

The star executive is Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), as arrogant and prejudiced as the Dukes and of “good breeding”. The gutter type is Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), presently employed begging money pretending to be a crippled Vietnam veteran.

Louis takes really badly to having everything taken away from him. Without his status and his money, he is nothing and only with the help of the hooker Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis) does he stay afloat, sort of. Billy on the other hand eases into the role of commodity broker very easily. With the help of the butler, Coleman (Denholm Elliott), he is soon unrecognizable from the street thug he used to be. This lasts until he learns the truth about the bet (and that there is no-way the Dukes will have a black man leading their business). Now Billy, Louis, Ophelia and Coleman are on the warpath to take down the Dukes.

A modern take on The Prince and the Pauper tale, this is not a novel story, but in my poor opinion the best rendering of it ever done. It plays as a comedy, but except for some scenes on a train, it stays well inside the probable and makes us invested in the story. We are amazed with Billy, and although it is difficult not to feel a bit schadenfreude with Louis, we do feel with him as well. He is just so utterly helpless. Maybe Billy is a little too good a commodity broker for somebody picked up from the street, but explanation would be that street smarts is transferable into the commodity market.

The comedy is mostly slightly underplayed, with hints and asides and of course Murphy doing some of his idiosyncratic shenanigans. By today’s standard the comedy is way-underplayed, but my claim is that this is exactly why it works. The afore mentioned train sequence is the exception. Here we venture deep into silly comedy and according to the extra material the studio wanted to ditch this part. Thankfully, they did not. Silly as it is, it is also hilariously funny and comes at exactly the right point of the movie. Amazingly, after this intermezzo, the movie is able to jump straight back into probable land to provide us with a very satisfying and believable finale. That it is not free fantasy is reflected by the fact that today there is a law against insider trading known as “The Eddie Murphy rule”, based on “Trading Places”.

John Landis had a good streak at the time and “Trading Places” is definitely Landis classic. It is a good example of his type of movies. For Aykroyd, Murphy and Curtis, “Trading Places” was a huge boost to their careers, it is likely they would not have gone where they did without this movie and at least for me, this is the movie I associate all three of them with. I also love how the movie showcases Elliot, whom I mostly know from the Indiana Jone franchise, Ameche and Bellamy. All three belong to the old guard and they bring a lot to the movie. Don Ameche had not acted in a feature for a decade, but went on a roll after this one. I loved his role in Cocoon.

Yet, for all this, the greatest impact of “Trading Places” is the personal one it had for me. I loved it throughout the eighties and nineties, and it was one I always could take out if I wanted a good time and it still is.

Seriously, why was this movie not included on the List?


Wednesday 27 March 2024

Videodrome (1982)

 


Videodrome

David Cronenberg is (in)famous for his disturbing movies and “Videodrome”, his entry onto the Lis, gives us a lot of classic Cronenberg to, well, enjoy.

Max Renn (James Woods) is heading a small television station that specializes in seedy stuff nobody else cares to air. This particularly includes porn and violence and when lab technician Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) picks up a grainy signal from Malaysia depicting very real looking sadomasochistic scenes, Max is sold. He gets Harlan to tape as much as possible and learns it is not from Malaysia at all but from Pittsburgh and is called Videodrome. It is also essentially snuff porn as nobody leaves alive.

Max meets Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry, yes, the one from “Blondie”) and the video presence of a professor called O’Blivion on a  talk show and quickly hooks with her. Turns out she is really into this Videodrome stuff, so she leaves Max to audition for the show.

At this point I was convinced this was a decent into violent pornography, the stuff that makes you want to take a shower after even hearing about it, and Max mission to save Nicki from the clutches of a sinister, underground cabal. In the process, of course, Max will learn the error of his ways.

I was wrong.

The movie takes a strong left turn as Max discovers that the Videodrome signal is used for mind control and the function of the actual pictures is to draw the attention of the viewer. All the sex thing is just a red herring. The mind control makes the viewer hallucinate and often drive the victim crazy. Max is targeted for this mind control and while his world is turned seriously weird (a hole is opening in his stomach, things are coming out of the television etc.), he is turned into a killing machine, to kill the enemies of his controllers. Sort of “The Manchurian Candidate” on acid.

By the time the movie ends, I, the audience, cannot tell what is real and what is hallucinations as it all blends together. This is also the impression I am sitting back with. Accepting the premises of the movie, when I try to follow the narrative, at some point I get lost. Is it dreaming, hallucination, reality or insanity? This confusion keeps the viewer off balance, which is good for suspense, but also threatens to send the viewer into resignation as the narrative cease to make sense. It is a tricky balancing act, and I am not entirely certain Cronenberg manage to keep that balance.

There are smart moves though. The first 15 minutes focus on violent pornography emulates the way Max is drawn into the Videodrome world. Videodrome is not about pornography and neither is the movie, but for both it is the hook.It is supposed to fascinate the dirty mind to want to watch more and thus be subjected to what comes after, the real agenda. It also taps into the idea of mass media as an agent for mind control. This is not new at all, and Hollywood is far from done with that idea, but doing it through the tv screen, targeting particular viewer segments through the choice of the carrier signal is, I think, novel. In 83, home video and easy access to seedy stuff was clearly taking off big time and this strange new world was ready for exploration.

Unfortunately, as for most movies exploring technological novelties, it also makes the movie feel dated. The wonders and magic of the tv signal and video cassettes all look antique by now.

What does not look outdated, though, are all the body horror special effects. Hallucinations or real, the scope and execution of all this weirdness is nothing short of amazing. In an age before CGI, getting these things to look real was really hard and I found them convincing. Others may disagree.

I am not certain where I land with this movie. I understand and appreciate the cleverness of “Videodrome”, but I am not certain I follow it all the way to its conclusion. Rather, I feel I dropped off the wagon somewhere around two-thirds in. In all likelihood, there are a lot of fans out there, but I am not entirely convinced.

 

 


Friday 22 March 2024

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)

 


The Draughtsman's Contract

A good movie is a movie that stays on your mind for a long time, but is it also good if it stays there because you are desperately trying to work out what it was all about?

We are in England in the late seventeenth century where the artist Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins) gets a contract to make a series of drawings of the Herbert country house. The drawings are supposed to be a gift from Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman) to her husband. Mr. Neville are reluctant to accept the job but when the contract come to include access to Mrs. Herbert’s body, he accepts.

At the Herbert mansion, Mr. Neville commandeers everybody around for the purpose of the drawings and particularly Mrs. Herbert’s son in law, Mr. Talmann (Hugh Fraser), is ruffled by Mr. Neville’s presence. For a long while, the movie is about Mr. Neville drawing, using Mrs. Herbert and arguing with especially Mr. Talmann. That is, until Mr Herbert is found dead in the moat. Mr. Neville is convinced he will be accused of the murder, if for no other reason than everybody disliking him.

Some time later he returns, has sex again with Mrs. Herbert and is murdered by Mr. Talmann.

Okay, clearly there is a lot more going on, but then I will be starting to guess and be on pretty thin ice.

There is an exaggeration in the movie that pervades everything. The dialogue is fast, refined and elaborate and, yes, quite difficult to follow. The outfits, especially the wigs, are even by seventeenth century standards big and over the top and worn everywhere. The foppishness is rivalling Versailles and while it makes the movie interesting to look at, it is difficult not to see all this as a point. Mr. Neville is the exposer of the hypocrisy and idiocy of the idle rich and seems to enjoy that he can commandeer everybody around, mock them and literally screw them over. That makes the movie an exposé of the foibles of the privileged class, something they rarely like.

When I try to get a step deeper, I run into a wall of confusion, primarily from the dialogue. Maybe my English is simply not good enough, but often I would sit back and realize I had no idea what was going on. Again, this may be intended, a lot in this movie appear to be there to confuse us, such as the strange, unexplained living statue, but then again, it could just be my inadequacy.

As a murder mystery, it leaves us mystified. We never learn who killed the man. Instead, we get a lot of accusations thrown around. Everybody seems to have had a motive, yet only one is suitable to take the blame. Again, that may be the purpose.

The more I think about “The Draughtsman’s Contract”, the more I realize there must be a lot more hidden here, that the story is deeper than the foppish circus we are served. That is frustrating, but also interesting, and probably a good reason to watch it again.

Another good reason is the fantastic score by Micael Nyman. At first it sounds like authentic period music, but there is an underlying exaggeration and even a beat that reveals it as a modern score pretending to be of the seventeenth century. It is quite clever and pure bliss to listen to.

Peter Greenaway’s movie has the air of a mockumentary, a distortion of reality to prove a point, which is more or less the kind of movies he made before this one and although it is not playing for laughs, there is a wry humour here that makes me accept my complete confusion.

 


Saturday 9 March 2024

A Christmas Story (1982)



A Christmas Story

Christmas movies are a category on their own. During the holidays, they are everywhere, but outside that narrow period from late November until New Year, they entirely disappear. A few of them do work outside the season (“Die Hard”, “It’s a Wonderful Life”), but most feel... flat... when Christmas is far away. Maybe this is why the List features very few Christmas movies and that most of those belong to that first category. I believe “A Christmas Story” is the first thoroughbred Christmas movie I have encountered on the List, and, yes, it does feel sort of weird to watch it in March.

But let us pretend this is December, it is dark outside, and the coffee table is stuffed with Christmas cookies. Now we can consider “A Christmas Story” in the right frame of mind.

Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) is a 9-year-old boy living with his younger brother, Randy (Ian Petrella), his mother, Mrs. Parker (Melinda Dillon) and his father, the “Old Man”, Mr. Parker (Darren McGavin) sometime in the forties. Christmas time is coming up and all Ralphie wishes for Christmas is the Red Ryder BB gun. This is not a popular choice and everybody, his mother, teacher, even the department store Santa tells him he “will shoot his eyes out”. Ralphie then cooks up a million schemes to get the toy for Christmas, some of those are quite inventive.

While this is the main story, “A Christmas Story” is a meandering tale with tons of small subplots fleshing out the life of Ralphie and his family. We see a boy in his class getting his tongue stuck on the flagpole. Ralphie tries to bribe his teacher. The Old Man wins a hideous lamp shaped like a woman’s leg, setting off “the battle of the lamp” with his wife. Ralphie gets the hate-gift of any nine-year old boys when he gets a pink bunny suit from Aunt Clara and is forced to wear it (the best laugh of the movie). In fact, it is not wrong to say that all these small vignettes are the movie.

Ralphie is a truly annoying little boy, but I suppose that is also the point. As it is told in retrospect, we remember all these great or exciting things form our childhood, but objectively, they were perhaps not that fantastic and we were hardly the angels we think we were. Presenting Ralphie as obnoxious is such a point and works great for comedy, though less good for the ears.

Child-Ralphie’s point of view is of course a child’s point of view and at that age there is a lot of magic, wonder, strangeness and mystery to life. Small problems are big problems and big problems just pass over the head. Life in the Parker home is full of small adventures, disappointments and injustices. What matters from a child’s perspective is just different from that of an adult.

Christmas is of course the central event here and what can be bigger for a nine-year old boy? Reality is... eh, a bit more messed up and that mess is really fun to watch.

Curiously, “A Christmas Story” is not a staple Christmas movie in Denmark. I do not remember ever having watched it before and I wonder why this is. It is a Christmas movie far above the average junk we are fed with during the holidays and I could easily believe this would be a classic elsewhere. Whether it will become a Christmas classic in our home I am not so certain. Both wife and son found the voice of young Ralphie truly annoying.

 

Tuesday 5 March 2024

A Question of Silence (Stilte Rond Christine M.) (1982)

 


De stilte rond Chistiane M.

“A Question of Silence” (De stilte rond Christine M.) was a difficult movie to find, but I am happy I did. Rare movies are often rare for a reason, and I do suppose “A Question of Silence” is something of a fringe movie, but at least it is an interesting one of the sort.

Janine van den Bos (Cox Habbema) is a psychiatrist called in to assess the sanity of three women who have committed a gruesome murder. The three women have admitted to the murder, feel no regrets and are complete strangers to each other. Why would they do such a thing if not insane?

As Janine spends time with them in prison, she slowly realizes that this is not just a murder, but something bigger.

Christiane (Edda Barends) is a housewife with three children, who has no other content in her life than taking care of the children and wait on the husband who clearly sees her as no more than that. Christiane has turned catatonic.

Andrea (Henriette Tol) is a secretary to an executive of a large company. She is clearly very smart and highly skilled, but management cannot see beyond her being a secretary, although she has potential for so much more.

Annie (Nelly Frijda) runs a diner where she must suck up to scummy men who think they have a right to abuse women.

On the day of the murder, all three women are in the same clothes shop when the (male) clerk catches Chritine stealing. As a response they kill him viciously.

What Janine finds out is that the clerk is unimportant, it is what he represents, the oppressive males, that matters. The act of murder is a rebellion against the patriarchy and something which the women see as a win, not a crime. The court, dominated by men, fail to see that point.

So, the big question is, did fighting the patriarchy justify the murder, or was this a bestial murder on an innocent man doing his job? This, I suppose is what viewers and critics has been discussing ever since and the reason this is considered a great feminist movie.

There is no doubt that the three women believe that their misery is due to men and there is also no doubt that the men immediately around them are selfish pricks who feel superior to the women. This includes Janine, whose husband is a conceited ass. The premise of the movie is that this is a systemic fault and men must as a consequence be fought, simply because they are men. If you are a militant feminist, you may agree with that.

Personally, I find the idea interesting, but ultimately wrong and misplaced. Or maybe I am just too male. There is a (sadly fundamental) human trait that inclines us to blame an outside agent for the misery in our lives rather than taking a hard look at ourselves. Once this agent is identified, we fix it by fighting and killing it. Then we are absolved from blame and get an outlet for our frustration. Ruthless politicians have used that trick for centuries and it is found right down to the school playground. To me, the cases of the three women are no different. There are a hell of a lot more rational ways to deal with their problems than to commit murder, but it is so nice and easy to have so simple and cathartic solution at hand. Just ask Hamas. Or the Nazis.  

I am not dismissing the frustration and predicament of the women and I do not blame them for thinking men are imbecile pricks, but I dare say that many of the systemic problems for women has improved over the years through means that did not involve killing anybody but by women taking action to improve both their own and other women’s conditions. As any woman would tell me, we are not there yet, but going back to the women of the movie, I am quite certain that today, a smart girl like Annie could get a glorious career in another company with a less narrow board, it would be acceptable for Christiane to ditch her worthless husband and, well, Andrea would need those bums as customers, but at least today I doubt she would need to take such shit from them.

I am glad conditions and opportunities are better for women today than they were forty years ago and I am proud of the girls who fought for it. Luckily very few men have had to die in the process, but I guess it takes movies like this one to get there.

“A Question of Silence” is more interesting and thought provoking than I expected and while I cannot follow it all the way, I was happy to have watched it.

     


Wednesday 28 February 2024

Fanny and Alexander (Fanny och Alexander) (1982)

 


Fanny og Alexander

It has been about a month since my last post and, yes, I did spend a week on a winter escape, but mostly the wait is due to the length and pace of this, the next movie on the List. “Fanny och Alexander” comes in a cinematic version of 188 minutes, but of course I happened to buy the miniseries version clocking in at a whooping 312 minutes. It was a tough one to get through and it did not help that work has been very busy. Anyway, finally done.

It is Christmas time 1907 in the home of the Ekdahls in Uppsala, Sweden. The Ekdahls are wealthy, so the party takes place in their palatial home stuffed with domestics and expensive furniture. We get the entire Christmas party in close to real-time, I do believe it is longer than the wedding in “Deerhunter”, and the amount of detail is incredible. I noticed that they have the almond present and the dance through the halls to the song “Nu er det jul igen!”, both Danish traditions, though I would not be surprised if they actually originate from this movie. Danish television has had a long tradition of airing “Fanny och Alexander” during Christmas and this Christmas scene is the only thing I remember having watched before. In any case, the Christmas party serves to introduce us to the numerous members of the Ekdahl family and show us how happy they are.

Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve) are the grandchildren of family matron Helena Ekdahl (Gunn Wålgren) and children of theater director Oscar Ekdahl (Allan Edwall) and actress Emilie Ekdahl (Ewa Fröling). In this environment Alexander’s imagination is sincerely encouraged. Then, shortly after Christmas, Oscar suffers a stroke and dies. Emilie tries to carry on running the theater, but eventually she abandons it and marry the town bishop, Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjö). The bishop is a hard and religious man who believes in austerity and discipline, a combination that goes down very poorly with the children. His regime of punishment and degradation makes Emilie regret, but there is no way the bishop will let go of her and the children.

“Fanny och Alexander”, I understand, is supposed to be, to some extent, autobiographical, which actually makes a lot of sense when you watch it. I can see Bergman as Alexander being born into a creative theater world and I can see how an encounter with the bishop would mark you for life. In fact, if half of this is autobiographical, this movie would offer a Freudian explanation for most of his movies.

It would also explain some of the more illogical elements of the movie, first and foremost why Emilie would want to marry Edvard. It does not take more than a glimpse of the man to see this is a bad match and any lingering doubt evaporates when he opens his mouth. Her explanation makes very little sense unless she is a complete idiot and incredibly selfish. The only explanation that works is… that it actually happened, which I am inclined to think.

Alexander experiences a number of magical or spiritual moments, such as seeing ghosts or his encounters at the home of Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson). It is easy to see a lot into this magic, but I prefer the simpler explanation of Bergman’s representation of creative imagination, the vent of his inspiration, At eleven years of age anything can become magic.

While the Ekdahls are clearly the good people (and privileged), the Vergerus are the bad guys. You need go no further than the interior décor, clothing and lighting to be convinced of that. There are no grey zones here. Christian ascetism as the source of problems is a recuring Bergman theme. The Jewish Jacobi household has a curios role here. As friends of the Ekdahls, they are clear members of the good side, but as a free agent, they can operate in spaces the Ekdahls cannot, both practically and spiritually.

In summary, “Fanny and Alexander” is not a bad movie, but it suffers from wanting to tell too much. The long version I watched is easily two hours too long. Isolated, the many details may be interesting, but they also serve to distract for the core of the story. As narratives, the many detours are simply not interesting enough and I get impatient and distracted. The Ekdahl brothers Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle) and Carl (Börje Ahlstedt) are the comic relief as the movie’s Thomson twins, but sadly not funny enough for that (a classic Swedish problem).

For me, personally, suffering children are deeply problematic to watch and here their suffering is drawn out for hours. In the end we see much less than we sense, but it was still hard for me to endure.

“Fanny och Alexander” won four Academy Awards, but not for editing. That one was a big fail. Cut out about three hours and we are down to something that would work. The miniseries version I simply cannot recommend.


Wednesday 31 January 2024

The Night of the Shooting Stars (La Notte di San Lorenzo) (1982)

 


San Lorenzo natten

War is a terrible thing, there are not two ways about it. For an adult it is often difficult to comprehend. For a child, war is downright bizarre. “The Night of the Shooting Stars” (“La Notte di San Lorenzo”) tells the story of a war seen through the eyes of a six-year-old girl.

The movie takes the form of a mother telling her child of a war taking place a long time ago as she experienced it when she was a child herself. The war is the Second World War in 1944 when the front was somewhere in Tuscany and the retreating German army was wrecking as much destruction as they could get away with. In the town of San Martino, the German have selected a number of houses for demolition and told the inhabitants to seek shelter in the church. Some of the townspeople decide to disobey the order and leave the town at night to find the American. Those who go to the church gets blown up by the Germans.

Cecilia (Micol Guidelli) is a six-year-old girl who has joined the exodus with her mother (and the father, I think). We follow the group at large and meet a host of people and what they are experiencing is both strange and traumatic. The fighting, when it occurs, is barbaric and, in the eyes of Cecilia, often surrealist. Friends meet, but being on different sides in the war they shoot each other after their greetings. A bus drawn by horse are led by opera singing German soldiers, a fascist who kills Cecilia’s grandfather is killed by Achilles spear and so on. The Americans are never quite there, and disaster is always close if not present. Yet, in this nightmare there are also small wonders, such as a field of watermelons, American soldiers giving chocolate and balloon (?!) and the elderly Concetta (Margarita Lozano) and Galvano (Omero Antonutti) find each when they have lost everything else. It is a world that makes little sense on any level, but especially for Cecilia.

The special angle of the movie makes it a strange war movie. It is surreal, scattered and illogical, but in the way war is all that. It is full of people, real people, who talk (a lot, this is Italy), have feelings, dear ones, flaws and then suddenly die. There is no point to who dies and who lives, nothing is really fair, it just happens, as in the strange shoot-out in the wheat field. As we see all this from the little girl’s viewpoint, there is a certain innocence about it, as if people are just playing at war with each other and not really dead, yet we also see it as adults, the cruelty and tragedy of it.

“The Night of the Shooting Stars” is a beautiful movie to watch. The Tuscan landscape is sundrenched, and all colors are sharp and crisp, especially the matching dresses of Cecilia and her mother. Most of the people are smiling, sometimes even when they kill each other, and the wonder of things are in every image. This may be a nightmare, but it is also a great adventure at that eye-height.

As a viewer those feelings are conveyed to me. I sit back with equal amount of horror and wonder. A lot of it happens in glimpses, a lot makes little sense, not because of surrealism, but because from the child perspective we perceive certain highlights that the child see as important and so I often lack the context or the knowledge of the relations between each character. The position of both being a third person viewer and share the second person view of the girl is sometime confusing, but it also juxtaposes elements that are wildly differently perceived by the child and an adult.

War is really not for children, or for anybody, really, and what the movie seems to tell us is that children need to create this alternate reality to cope with it. That is both a wonder and a tragedy in its own right and while the movie does not go all in depressive, it is easy to perceive that beneath the surface of wonder, there is depth of mourning.

I am still undecided if I truly liked “The Night of Shooting Stars”. I am still a bit dizzy from watching it and trying to take it in, split, again, between wonder and sorrow. Then again, its success at conveying those feelings very much speaks for the movie.

 

Friday 26 January 2024

Gandhi (1982)

 


Gandhi

The movie “Gandhi” is one of those gargantuan projects that either stands as a landmark or falls pitifully under its own weight. Fortunately, “Gandhi” manages to be of the first kind.

“Gandhi” is, not surprisingly, a biopic on Mahatma Gandhi and rather than, as has in later year become popular, being  focused on a single event, it tries to take in a broad sweep, covering five decades, from Gandhi’s time in South Africa in the 1890’ies to his assassination in 1948. It is also, which is more astonishing, not preoccupied with Gandhi’s personal life but focusses on what he did as a public person. It stands as proof that the remarkable things people did are interesting enough in itself and does not need support from trivial personal details. Watch and learn, producers of “Maestro”. This does not mean that we do not get close to Gandhi, we do, but in small details, integrated into the larger picture.

In South Africa, Gandhi was shocked to find racism being flaunted as blatantly as it was. As an Indian he was a second-rate person to the white overlords. He got the Indian community involved in a non-violent campaign for emancipation that came to include other ethnic groups as well. He was thrown in prison repeatedly and his supporters were physically assaulted and yet he prevailed and got a number of demeaning laws withdrawn. In South Africa he developed the doctrine of non-violent protest as well as his pastoral and ascetic outlook on life.

Based on his success in South Africa he was invited to return to India to assist in the independence movement there. Already on arrival he was seen as a hero, but his preference for going out to see for himself and walk among people rather than work party politics endeared him to the public, and the independence movement leaders first learned to respect him and then to love him. Indeed, in the course of his activities in India it is not wrong to call him the father of India, or, maybe better, the guru of India.

All this sounds like the story of the real person Gandhi and, indeed, I do not know the difference. The movie’s very clear objective is to tell the story of Mahatma Gandhi and gives the impression of telling the objective truth. One should always be suspicious of that, but I am not in a position to tell the real and the fictious Gandhi apart. I suppose it speaks to the credit of the movie that it feels real.

It truly is an amazing story and even covering the highlights of it requires a long movie, but, surprisingly, “Gandhi” never overstays its welcome. It stays long enough on each episode to round it off and never falls into the trap of repetition, even if Gandhi with remarkable consistency follows the same policy that he developed in South Africa. It is difficult not to feel anger at the wanton cruelty of the British in both South Africa and in India, the massacre of Amritsar was particularly difficult to watch, but even the British are not portrayed with utter contempt. Rather, they seem bemused or even confused at what they are facing in Gandhi. So am I, actually, as a viewer. My cynical common sense tells me that Gandhi’s nonviolence and non-corporation and especially his inclusiveness should be all too easy to trample and pick apart, yet it works against the British.

So much more sad is it that it did not work against the religious tension among the Indians themselves. Against that sort of madness even Gandhi fights in vain.

“Gandhi” features a remarkable roster of actors and actresses. Foremost Ben Kingsley in the role of his life. I think for my generation, Mahatma Gandhi simply looks like Ben Kingsley. In supporting roles, we have everything British and Indian cinema could field at the time plus a few Hollywood A-listers. I even saw Daniel Day-Lewis far down on the list. The Indian top leaders were really remarkably portrayed. Roshan Seth, Saeed Jaffrey and Alyque Padamsee really look like the real Nehru, Patel and Jinnah.

“Gandi” cleaned the table at the Academy Awards, taking eight statues, including three of the big ones. Gandhi is an extremely ambitious movie, like Gandhi’s politics by all rights it should not work, but it does, it flies. Highly recommended.

 

Sunday 14 January 2024

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

 


Fitzcarraldo

In Greek mythology Sisyphus was condemned to roll a stone up a mountain. Every time he reached the top, the stone would roll down and he could start all over. “Fitzcarraldo” is a slightly more modern take on that story.

Fitzcarraldo is a corruption of Brian Fitzgerald, an Irish adventurer in the early twentieth century, played by Klaus Kinski, who has big ideas, but less good luck on carrying them out. His project of a trans-Andean railway went bust and his idea of bringing opera to the frontier town of Iquitos is not going too well either. His latest idea is to buy a lease to a plot for rubber plantations that nobody else wants. The problem with this plot is that it is inaccessible. The rapids on the river means that it is impossible to sail upstream to the plot. Fitzgerald, however, has a plan. It turns out that another, accessible, river is very close to the inaccessible one a bit upstream from the plot, so Fitzgerald wants to sail a steamer up this river, then drag it over the isthmus and sail down to the plot. The steamer will traffic this river, rubber will be sent back across the isthmus and shipped down to Iquitos. Fitzgerald, who is broke himself, gets his girlfriend, the brothel manager Molly (Claudio Caridinale), to put down money for the plot and the steamer, and he now has a short time to prove that the lease is feasible. Major drawback: The accessible river is controlled by a hostile indigenous tribe.   

As the boat approaches the Indians, the crew flee the boat, leaving Fitzgerald, the captain Resenbrink (Paul Hittscher), the machinist and the cook alone on the boat. When the Indians surround the ship, they are trapped. This is where Fitzgerald decide to gamble everything on a myth of the tribe about a white god who is supposed to bring the tribe salvation. It seems to work and through an enormous (and rather dangerous) effort by the Indian, the boat is dragged over a hill onto the other river.

----SPOILER----

Sleeping off the celebration hangover Fitzgerald wakes up as the boat is speeding down the rapids, getting beaten up in the process. Turns out the Indians totally bought into the myth, but slightly differently from Fitzgerald’s intention. The white boat had to be carried across and sent down into the rapids. Only then will the gods be appeased. The operation was a huge success for the Indians, but Fitzgerald is back exactly where he started, like Sisyphus.

---END OF SPOILER---

From the point of view that the ingenious people win out against the white man, I suppose this is an interesting and successful movie. The problem is just that we, the audience, are so invested in Fitzgerald and his huge undertaking that his failure feels devastating. He may just be back at square zero, but that is also a pitiful result given the effort. The strange opera ending, which I did not entirely understand, feels like a patched on happy end. There really is nothing to celebrate for Fitzgerald. That in itself makes this a painful watch.

I also must say I did not entirely understand his plan. It would be a lot easier to use small boats on the inaccessible river and the steamer on the good river. Then there would be no reason to drag the boat across. That of course removes the entire premise of the movie, but I just find the reasoning too week.

Then there is the character of Fitzgerald himself. He is hyperactive to the extent that today he would get a diagnose. It is a difficult character to love, and Kinski is not making that easier. This is a manic character played by a manic actor. Something that apparently caused a few problems on the set. According to Herzog, the Indians used as extras offered to kill Kinski for Herzog. He politely declined.

Technically, however, this movie is a monumental feat. The pictures from the Amazon are stunning and the project of moving the ship is both as a document and an actual effort without comparison. You must see it to believe it. Unfortunately, the sound side cannot match the pictures. My disc has no subtitles, so it was a choice between German and English spoken language. That means that everybody except the indigenous people speak that language, dubbed in the studio. The English version sounds incredibly fake.

“Fitzcarraldo” is in my personal opinion more interesting and impressive than actually good. I found it difficult to keep my interest and attention on the movie until the last act, and while that act is absolutely spectacular, I am not certain it can carry the entire movie. For this reason, I am hesitant to recommend “Fitzcarraldo”.


Wednesday 3 January 2024

Diner (1982)

 


Diner

It is entirely fitting that the first movie I review in 2024 is taking place during the last week of the year (of 1959), culminating on New Year’s Eve. Fortunately, I had better things to do New Year’s Eve than watching movies (it was a good party!), but watching this on New Year's day is not so bad either.

“Diner” is about a group of young men in their early twenties who struggle with growing up. They are clearly childhood friends and use the local diner as their hangout and this is indeed where a large part of the movie takes place. The movie is famous for the banter between these young men and true enough, their talk about, well, anything and nothing, takes up a substantial amount of screen time.

Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) is going to get married (to Elyse, a woman we never see the face of). He is an American football fan and has devised a quiz on football that Elyse must pass, otherwise the wedding is off. Eddie is clearly nervous about the wedding and reveals late in the movie that he is a virgin. Shrevie (Daniel Stern) is already married, but is clinging on to his interests, music and his friends, alienating his wife Beth (Ellen Barkin) in the process. Boogie (Mickey Rourke) is a hairdresser by day and study law at night, mostly as a pick-up for girls. He also has a gambling problem, trying to get easy money and easy girls. Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) is the rich kid who has no idea what he wants with his life and is busy blowing it away with alcohol and irresponsible stunts. Billy (Tim Daly) is back from New York to serve as best man. The love of his life, Barbara (Kathryn Dowling), works at the local TV station. She is pregnant but not really interested in a relationship with Billy. And Modell (Paul Reiser) is just tagging on.

All of the young men claim a careless existence, but they all carry a concern or issue related to growing up. Their irresponsible pranks and their banter all seem like them desperately trying to avoid becoming adults and entering that next phase of their lives. This is symbolized by the change of decade and all the other changes happening at the time, from music over women’s rights to different expectations to them as adults.

Coming of age movies are common and whether as group or individuals, in comedies it is usually about sex. This one is slightly more mature in that these people have to assume a responsibility that is honestly long overdue. They do not realize it themselves, but they are scared of the future and use each other’s company to cling on to an adolescence they have already passed. They are under pressure from society conventions to move on and while that is also about to change, they are just a bit ahead of the curve for that. A decade or two later, adolescence could easily stretch a decade or two longer, but not in 1959.

In this sense, it is a bittersweet comedy. The banter and the pranks are fun at face value, but the desperate irresponsibility is also sad and painful, and I could not help wanting to kick them in the right direction. Not necessarily to get married and have children, but to assume responsibility for their own life. All of them really. It does not matter if it is Shrevie, insisting his records are more important than his wife or Fenwick drinking himself senseless. Shrevie is a nice guy really, he does love his wife, and Fenwick is actually smart, a lot smarter than he lets on. Why waste all this for a careless life?

I found the movie hard to get into. The thing these guys have together seemed like a very closed thing. Their banter is along lines only they really get and as an outsider I am not invited. Only gradually are we invited inside when the movie moves beyond the banter, and they become real people. Still, even to the end I had some difficulty telling Shrevie, Billy and Modell from each other. It does not help that irresponsible stunts work very poorly with me. Fenwick faking a car accident is just not funny to me. However, as their careless surface breaks up and we see their vulnerability, the comedy also gets funnier. Perhaps the characters simply become more likable, and the movie won me over in the end.

“Diner” is also interesting in having so many actors in the early part or what became illustrious careers. Practically all these guys went on to become A-listers.

“Diner” is a rare intelligent comedy. It works because it is not stupid and does not sacrifice itself to silly gags. It may not be as funny as it is made up to be, but it works and that counts.