Thursday 25 April 2024

The Big Chill (1983)


Gensyn med vennerne

When director and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan toured the studios with the script for “The Big Chill”, he was turned down by all the big studios. According to Kasdan, they did not see the point of the movie. I am not really surprised. On the face of it, I see where they were coming from. It is a movie that does not seem to have a story arc or a plot and with too many characters to stay in focus. However, when you then dig into it, it manages to work surprisingly well. You just have to through away your expectation of what a movie should be like.

A guy called Alex (whom we never see), has died, killing himself, and his old friends from college show up at his funeral. There is a reception at the nearby home of Sarah and Harold Cooper (Glenn Close and Kevin Kline), where Alex also used to live. Sarah and Harold are living an affluent, yet very conventional life. Also staying at the house is Chloe (Meg Tilly), Alex’ much younger girlfriend. The visitors include television star Sam (Tom Berenger), journalist Michael (Jeff Goldblum), psychologist turned salesman (and Vietnam veteran) Nick (William Hurt), defence lawyer Meg (Mary Kay Place) and housewife Karen (Jobeth Williams) who’s husband leaves the next morning to take care of their children.

All these people (with the possible exception of Nick) seem to have reached a comfortable position in their adulthood and while it sounds like they were a tightknit group in college, the years since have taken them away from each other. Both physically and mentally. Being gathered again they both enjoy each other’s company and are surprised to learn how different they have become. The big chill of the title is supposed to be the effect when a supposedly familiar person says something that reveal a fundamental difference in values or worldview.

Over the weekend the characters interact, talk about their lives, banter and argue. There is no straight line here, it is more like seven balls simultaneously in a pinball game. What we do learn, though, is that all of these people need some readjustment in their lives. Not that they necessarily have gotten lost, but something is missing and the weekend together makes them realize this and even offers an opportunity to fix it. Sort of a coming-of-age movie for adults.

 Realizing this is what makes the movie interesting. Having a lot of Hollywood stars talking, laughing and arguing may have been entertaining in its own right, but when the characters start to not only unfold but also to develop, that is where the movie shows its value, something all those studio heads clearly missed.

Normally I am very sceptic about ensemble movies. In order to give screentime to all of them we often do not get enough of each. Not so here. Being confined to a very narrow space (they rarely leave the house), there is always interaction. One on one, one on two or any combination and they all bring something into the mix, allowing a depth to all the characters.

It also helps that the issues these people are dealing with are relatable adult problems. Not terribly exotic but also not naively juvenile. It is also not so much the cliché midlife crisis, but more a life-caught-up-with-me, what-happened-to-the-person-I-used-to-be kind of issues. I am not saying we all suffer from that, but as an adult, this is relatable.

Of course, I also must mention that it is fun to watch so many of the great actors of the eighties together in a movie that is all about acting. Yeah, they could discuss shopping it Walmart and it would be interesting to watch.

I enjoyed “The Big Chill” a lot more than I expected I would. It is a good pick for the List.


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?