Saturday, March 31, 2012

962. Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi/Spirited Away (2001)

Running Time: 125 minutes
Directed By: Hayao Miyazaki
Written By: Hayao Miyazaki
Main Cast: (voices): Daveigh Chase, Suzanne Pleshette, Jason Marsden, Susan Egan, David Ogden Stiers
Click here to view the trailer


I haven't had too many brushes with animation since I started my journey, so to be honest I was a little skeptical about checking out a work of Japanese animation, especially one that had so much fantastical elements to it. Add to that the fact that I'd never seen a Miyazaki film and you could say I was really dreading movie night, last night.

Our film revolves around Chihiro, a little girl who, along with her parents, is movie away from the town she grew up in. Chihiro isn't happy about the relocation and she makes her thoughts known through whiny complaints on the car ride to her new home. Her parents try to ease her mind, but she isn't hearing any of it. When the family is nearing their new home, Chihiro's father sees what he thinks is a shortcut and decides to take it. Eventually the trio end up at the mouth of a tunnel, within eyesight of their new home. Chihiro's parents, curious about where the tunnel leads, decide to do a little investigating. Chihiro is afraid of what the tunnel might lead to and tries her best to get her parents back in the car. They forge on, however, with Chihiro clinging to her mother's side, still skeptical about the excursion. At the other end of the tunnel, Chihiro's father identifies what he finds as an abandoned amusement park and nearly dismisses going further. That is until his nostrils get a whiff of some good eatin' and the parents decide that they must taste what they're smelling. When the family finds the source of the food, the parents sit down and begin to chow down, with Chihiro still urging them to return to the car, still afraid of her unknown surroundings. When Chihiro wanders off, she comes across a boy, Haku, who tells her that nighttime is near and she must get out of here. When Chihiro returns to her parents, she finds that they've gorged themselves so much that they've turned into pigs. Now, Chihiro finds herself in a whole new world, like Alice down the rabbit hole and it's up to her to save her parents and survive in this spirit world.

You see, this has never really been the type of movie for me. I've always enjoyed a healthy dose of reality with my movies. So when a film starts exploring mystical, fantastical and supernatural elements, my brain starts to shut it out. I'm just not your guy if your topic of choice is dragons, spirits, witches, talking frogs, six armed boiler dwellers, etc. Well, that is unless the movie with the dragons, witches and spirits is really good, then I can take it. You see, I think I'm quite open minded when it comes to film. If you give me something that's really well done, I can enjoy it. With that being said, I actually really liked "Spirited Away". I'm not sure how it's going to fair in the long run (my opinion could rise or lower), but for now, chalk up a victory for Japanese animation in the battle it waged on my personal tastes. First and foremost, I'd have to say the victory came through Miyazaki's use of glamorous animation. Whether it was an impending rainfall or Chihiro and her pal "No Face" riding a bus through a city of lights, it was breath taking to watch the colors and realize that it all started as a blank computer screen, the 21st century's equivalent to a piece of canvas.

Beyond that, Miyazaki forced you to care about his character Chihiro and threw us into such an imaginative world, that you couldn't help but feel like a child again, at least for the duration of the movie. See that was another problem of mine: I went into "Spirited Away" with the mindset that animated films just weren't for me anymore and as a 27 year old man, I just wasn't going to be able to lose myself in a child's world. What rubbish! That was my closed minded side rearing it's ugly head and thankfully Miyazaki restored my faith in animation and makes me excited to see more of his films and made me realize that just because something is aimed toward children, doesn't mean adults can't take something away, something totally different perhaps. "Spirited Away" more than likely won't be landing a top five spot on my next TOP 20, but I really did enjoy it...a lot more than I thought I would.

RATING: 7.5/10 For now an '8' seems a smidgen too high, but perhaps in time it will grow on me.


Note: I'm sure by now regular visitors of my blog have noticed the banner in the upper right hand corner advertising "Seven Shadows Week". Soon you will know all the details, but for now I may be away from the blog while I watch the seven movies that will make up the "Seven Shadows Week" festivities. I'll be watching the films and writing the reviews, but the reviews will not be posted until all of my reviews are written. That way, we'll be able to keep the entire week contained to just that - a week. So if my posts slow down now, you'll know why. I'm sure as I await the arrival of the movies from Netflix, I'll pop in here and there to review some other movies, but over the course of the next week or so, I may be scarce.

March 30, 2012 10:46pm

Thursday, March 29, 2012

510. EL TOPO (1970)

Running Time: 125 minutes
Directed By: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Written By: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Main Cast: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Brontis Jodorowsky, Jose Legarreta, Man Alfonso Arau, Jose Luis Fernandez
Click here to view the trailer


When flipping through the book, prior to my last hiatus, I came across the entry for "El Topo" and just by looking at the picture of Alejandro Jodorowsky in his El Topo gear, I wanted to see this film. I took a break before I could get to it, but when I restarted my Netflix account this month, I made sure that I'd receive it in my first batch so that I could check it out.

The film starts with El Topo (A. Jodorowsky) riding across the desert, dressed in all black, riding a black horse. A child is with him, whom we can assume is his son. He instructs the child that since he is now seven years old, he is now a man and must bury a photograph of his mother and his favorite toy. Once the boy buries his possessions, the two continue riding through the desert and eventually come upon a town. There they find the residents massacred, the animals massacred (including horses with their entrails falling out) and in the buildings they find people hanging from the ceilings by their necks. They find one man still breathing and able to speak, who tells them that the perpetrators have fled to a nearby monastery. El Topo hunts them down and kills them and their leader, a Colonel. It is here that El Topo leaves the boy in the hands of a group of monks and takes with him a woman, whom he names Mara. From here, El Topo is told that he there are four master gunslingers living in the desert and that he must find and defeat all of them to become the greatest gunman of all. El Topo accepts his mission. The four gunslingers each represent SOMETHING (a religion, I suspect) and together with Mara he rides to duel with each of them. This is really only half of the film, but to even try to get into anymore would be too much of a headache for me...and you.

I'm not going to sit here and say that "El Topo" was a garbage film, filled with sex, violence and sacrilegious imagery and something that I really regret having to watch to continue my journey. I won't say that because it isn't true and in fact, I've watched worse for this journey. Take "Salo" for instance, which was far more gruesome in it's imagery. Actually, "El Topo", at times, reminded me of Fellini's "Satyricon", a film that I didn't hail when writing about it, but one that has since grown on me and one that I look back on as an utterly fascinating experience. However, did I like "El Topo"? No, I didn't. Honestly, it falls under that often used category of "not for me" movies. The film, above all else, is about religion (or at least that's my perspective), as Jodorowsky's El Topo character is forced to duel with four men, each representing a different belief. Yes, I believe in God, but I really don't like a lot of religion in my movies (see my Ingmar Bergman reviews). In the trailer for "El Topo", the narrator claims that "El Topo is not about religion, for it contains all religions". Well then that would make it an apex film on the subject of religion, wouldn't it?

By the time this movie was over, I honestly couldn't tell if Jodorowsky was a religious man and his film was meant to justify his beliefs or if he was an atheist and his film was meant to mock other people's beliefs. And on top of all the religious talk there was an awful lot of symbolism, something that got much more thick in the second half. On top of the symbolism and religion, the film was very surreal and I feel like if I had brought a bag full of marijuana with me to watch this movie, then we'd be talking about the #1 film of my next TOP 20. I can say, however, that I was never bored. I watched the screen intently, soaking up the images, listening to the actors and trying to put together the Rubik's cube that was "El Topo". The images actually were quite mesmerizing at times. A scene where one woman splits open a cactus plant and licks through the inside, to symbolize her sexual desire for another woman was quite...intense? (not sure if that's the word I'm looking for). If you want a one sentence explanation of what "El Topo" is all about, chew on this: "El Topo" is what would happen if Federico Fellini made a spaghetti western. Now, I actually like Fellini and my dabbling with spaghetti westerns several months ago was a highly positive one. However, I can't say that the two mix very well. We'll leave it at that.

RATING: 5/10 Let's just call it right down the middle. I have a hard time saying that this was a bad movie, because there was obviously SOMETHING there that had appeal. However, in the end it just wasn't my cup of tea.


March 29, 2012 3:49pm

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

992. Das Leben der Anderen/The Lives of Others (2006)

Running Time: 138 minutes
Directed By: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Written By: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Main Cast: Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme
Click here to view the trailer


As I mentioned in an earlier, "update" post, this 100 films will be thick with films from the 1940s, as well as movies from the 21st century. Today I take a look at the winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 79th Academy Awards - "The Lives of Others".

The film is set in 1984 in East German or the German Democratic Republic (GDR). It revolves around the group of Stasi officers, who are hundreds of thousands strong and who's goal it is to "know everything". The Stasi officer that the film focuses on is Captain Gerd Weisler (Muhe), an expressionless, emotionless and very cold man, who follows orders and does his job well, interrogating suspects and using any means necessary to "know everything". When Weisler's superior, Anton Grubitz (Tukur) invites him out to a play, Weisler accepts. Grubitz points out the playwright, Georg Dreyman (Koch), stating that he is a socialist sympathizer and a standout citizen of the GDR. Weisler doesn't buy it and notes that Dreyman looks suspicious and should be watched. After conferencing with his superior, Grubitz is ordered to bug Dreyman's apartment and find out what he can about him. Dreyman's girlfriend is the actress, Christa-Maria Sieland (Gedeck), who also lives in the apartment and who will also be under surveillance watch, which will be headed up by Weisler. However, after weeks of listening to phone calls, watching cameras and observing his subjects, Weisler begins to form some sort of bond with Dreyman and Sieland.

All I really have to say is that the film was quite brilliant. When I started it last night, I was feeling a little under the weather and unsure if I'd be able to finish it before I succumbed to my pillow and a good night's sleep. Well, my suspicions were correct and wanting to give every film in the book my full attention, I too a respite from it. This morning, when I awoke and got ready to finish the film, I still wasn't sure of my exact thoughts on it. I definitely wasn't feeling the "must see" vibe and I assumed that when it was all said and done, I would give it an average rating. Boy, was I wrong! The film continued this morning and I watched intently, first laying down, then to my elbow to get closer to screen, as the suspense was turned up and I really started to grow attached to these characters, not unlike Weisler's attachment to his surveillance subjects.


My biggest attachment was to Weisler himself, who grew from a cold, emotionless man into someone who was ultimately punished for caring. What a wicked world where someone is punished for showing basic, human characteristics. I'll jump to the end and announce that I was nearly in tears, as Weisler (now a mail carrier) walks into a bookstore to find a novel by Georg Dreyman, opening the first few pages and finding that it's dedicated to him. In fact, the entire final hour was just so gripping. The entire time I assumed that the end would see Weisler and Dreyman finally meet and at first, I thought that would be the logical ending. Again, I was wrong, as the ending that was in place was actually perfect and in a way, I feel like the two did meet. They knew about one another, Dreyman realized that Weisler helped him and Weisler knew that Dreyman appreciated his help.

I really don't know what else to say. I've just finished the film and perhaps I didn't give myself ample time to let it all sink in. What I do know is that the film is great and I'd recommend it to anyone. For anyone out there who "doesn't watch foreign movies", I feel sorry for you, because this is the type of greatness that you're missing out on. Sure there's a healthy dose of politics involved and a heaping side of history lesson, but that's simply the backdrop to a film about genuine, human emotion trying it's best to thrive in a cruel world. This is a gem of a movie and deserves all the accolades that it's received. In fact, I see one final accolade in it's future - a spot on my next TOP 20.

RATING: 9.5/10 I can't go '10' because I'm just not feeling it, but nevertheless, this is a great movie, '10' or no '10'.


March 28, 2012 12:31pm

Monday, March 26, 2012

148. Sullivan's Travels (1941)

Running Time: 90 minutes
Directed By: Preston Sturges
Written By: Preston Sturges
Main Cast: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn
Click here to view the trailer


With "Bergman Week" behind me, I decided to go back to the days of black & white pictures, around the time period (within a few decades anyway) of where my journey began and take a look at yet another Preston Sturges comedy - "Sullivan's Travels".

Joel McCrea is John L. Sullivan, one of the hottest picture director's in town, a man who has dedicated his life to making comedies (films like Ants In Your Pants, for example). However, up until now, his life's work has been more about making money, rather than making poignant pictures. Sully decides that it's time to make a statement with one of his films and announces his decision to make a film called O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a film that explores the misfortunes of the poor. He figures that people want to watch something that they can relate to and since times are so tough, it's perfect timing. Sully's studio boss reminds him that he doesn't know anything about being on the streets or what it's like to be someone who's less fortunate. Sully agrees and decides to take to the streets and find out, first hand, what it's like to be a tramp. Along the way he meets a girl (Lake), because, let's face it - "There's always a girl in the picture!". The girl becomes so attached to him (in record time actually) that she insists on following him around like a lost puppy dog and participating in the experiment with him.

Me and this movie just didn't click. I think my main problem with it, is that I was expecting something different. In fact, I shouldn't have known what to expect. Of the two Preston Sturges films I've watched for the book, one I thought was brilliant ("The Palm Beach Story") and the other...not so much ("The Lady Eve"). However, I had heard the basic plot synopsis for this film (I need to stop reading those) and thought it sounded like something that I'd really take to. Actually, to me it kinda' sounded like "It Happened One Night" (which I loved), where we'd have a guy and a girl go from strangers to lovers and along the way, treat us to a good road comedy. That's not really what I got at all. I had some problems with the script, to be honest. The basic structure sounded like gold - a rich man sets out with ragged clothes and a dime in his pocket to learn about the plight of the downtrodden. However, every time the film got going, the plot had a wrench thrown into it and I never really got that road comedy I was looking for. In fact, when Sully and the girl finally do get out on the road, their entire trip is told through a montage, that lasts no more than five minutes.


With that all being said, let me say that everything past Sully handing the one thousand dollars in $5 bills out to his former, fellow tramps was really great. Sully handing out the $5's, being beaten over the head and robbed for his money, waking up on a train car, viciously assaulting a train station employee with a rock and getting sentenced to six years of hard labor in a prison camp, where he realizes that comedies are essential and plotting to get out of prison so that he can make more. Not to mention, being pronounced dead and having his wife (whom he hates and who won't grant him a divorce) re-marry under the circumstances and opening the door wide for him to marry Veronica (or whatever her name was - "the girl"). That right there is an ENTIRE 'freaking movie, in itself!! That sounds amazing to me and everything I just wrote up there literally takes up about the final twenty minutes of the film. For my money, that's way too much gold to cram into twenty minutes. And the beginning wasn't good enough to warrant such a fabulous ending.

The reason I suggest that this movie may be the "King of Comedies" is, obviously, because of its message - comedies are essential and provide more of an escape. It's a nice message, really. Let's face it, comedies aren't usually on the top of a film snobs list of favorite genres, they never receive Oscar nominations (at least not the LOL comedies, the ones that really make you howl) and the ones that do make you howl are usually written off as nothing but garbage (usually by yours truly). But Sturges takes a stand for all comedies, for all-times to come - they're essential and as long as they keep the busting the gut's of the audience, they will always have a place in the American cinema scene.

RATING: 5.5./10 I know, I know, that seems really harsh, but all in all, I just wasn't crazy about it. They're were script issues, as far as I'm concerned and had it been a little more polished (at least for my tastes) it could've gone a lot further.


March 26, 2012 8:39pm

Saturday, March 24, 2012

692. Fanny och Alexander/Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Running Time: 188 minutes
Directed By: Ingmar Bergman
Written By: Ingmar Bergman
Main Cast: Bertil Guve, Pernilla Allwin, Gunn Wallgren, Jarl Kulle, Ewa Froling
Click here to view the trailer


Well after months of hype "Bergman Week" began and it took three more months before, what was supposed to be a week long tribute to the Swedish director, culminated. For the duration of "Bergman Week" I've been waiting for that one film to really blow me away and make me realize the greatness that was Ingmar Bergman and in the 11th hour, it finally came.

For starters, I want to say that "Fanny and Alexander" is really a misleading title for this movie. Yes, the film does revolve around the two young siblings - Fanny (Allwin), the little girl, who doesn't say much but always sticks near her brother's side and Alexander (Guve), a boy who enjoys all the perks of being a child, who is strong in his opinions and who has an active imagination. However, the film is really about their entire family. When the film begins it is Christmas time and the family is gathering at Helena Ekdahl's (Wallgren) palatial home, the matriarch of the Ekdahl family. Helena has three sons: Oscar, Gustav Adolf (Kulle) and Carl. Each of the three men have built families of their own. Oscar operates the family owned theater and is the husband of Emilie (Froling) and the father of Fanny and Alexander. The family gets along splendidly and while watching the film it's difficult not to reminisce about your own childhood and your own, personal family memories. However, when Oscar dies, somber days lie ahead. Emilie remarries to Bishop Edvard Vergerus, a man who doesn't take well to the children, to say the least. He is particularly hard on Alexander, whom he realizes hates him. The film commences over the course of it's three hour time limit, using all of it's time wisely and letting the tale of the Ekdahl's unfold.


The reason that I took to this film so much, was because, for the most part, it was a very straightforward tale. Sure, there were still a few unanswered questions (What was the deal with Ismael?), but for the most part Bergman gives us a very genuine film. I don't have a whole lot to say, so I'll try to keep it short. "Fanny and Alexander" gives us a barrage of scenes, all of which are handled with care. Each segment feels so true to life that, like I said above, I couldn't help but remember my own memories while watching it. The film starts out at Christmas time and there are so many familiar facets to that segment. An uncle pulling children into a separate room so that he can show them a flatulent magic trick, relatives gathering around a dinner table and later falling asleep in chairs and on sofas, so many people having so many different conversations and the whole thing gives off a real feeling of warmth and togetherness. Later, after the Christmas segment, Alexander's father, Oscar, dies. It's probably the most realistic death scene I've ever seen, as first Oscar falls ill and it's only a matter of moments (in movie time anyway) that Oscar is lying on his deathbed, mourners surrounding him, sweat pouring from his body and a vomit stained bucket nearby. It's a scene that really hit me, because I'd never seen a persons death conveyed so realistically on film. I've never stood around someone's deathbed (knock on wood), but this is how I would picture it.

The second half picks up with Emilie's marriage to the Bishop, Edvard. He treats Alexander like shit and he's played marvelously by Jan Malmsjo. It takes all the togetherness and warmth of the first half and gives it a complete 180, now forcing the audience to plummet into sorrow, as we watch poor Alexander try to survive in the home of the Bishop. I've never been one for films where kids were the main characters, but I've gotta' say this one really gripped me and the entire duration of the film really flew by. Of course, I watched it in two sittings, but to tell the truth I couldn't wait to come back and finish the second half and see just what happened to these two kids. There were no bad cast members, but a special kudos to Jarl Kulle, Mona Malm, Erland Josephson and Jan Malmsjo are due. Also, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Sven Nykvist. Even if I didn't enjoy every Bergman picture, starting with "Through a Glass Darkly", at least they looked breath taking and "Fanny and Alexander" was no exception with it's use of rich colors that captivated me. I think we'll leave it at that.

RATING: 8.5/10 I can't go the full monty (yet), but this is one of those ones where quibbling over numbers is pointless. It's great and that's that. Would NOT be surprised to see this one pop up on my next TOP 20.


With "Bergman Week" finally finished I figured it would be suitable for me to write a few words about the man himself. For years I've been a fan of Woody Allen and when you're a fan of someone you tend to listen when they have something to say. For years I've listened to Woody Allen interviews where he's cited Bergman as the man that really influenced his career and for years I often wondered how I'd take to Bergman's films, since I obviously took to Allen's so greatly. Years later I finally saw "Scenes from a Marriage" and loved it. With "Bergman Week" I've found that, in fact, I didn't take to Ingmar as greatly as others do. Despite liking a few of his films, I'd have to say that overall he's just not the director for me. Often times I wish I could like all the films I'm "supposed" to like. However, I soon realize that there's no fun in that and I can really only like the films that hit me somewhere familiar or leave an impact on me. I think Bergman's main problem (from behind my eye) was that he was to consumed with his own mortality, the existence of God (or lack thereof) and questions that no filmmaker (or human, for that matter) could answer. Bergman tried his best to use his words and his camera to answer some of those questions or at least force his audience to think along with him. I've never been one for philosophical films and at times, Bergman's films took on a more poetic nature, that also didn't agree with me. It's not that they were BAD, it's just that they and I didn't quite connect. I'm glad that I finally got the chance to sit down and watch a good bunch of Ingmar Bergman films and surely, when the opportunity comes, I'll probably even see some more. I'd like to think I have a better grasp of what Ingmar Bergman is all about, however, I think he and I need to see other people.


1. Fanny and Alexander
2. Winter Light
3. Through a Glass Darkly
4. Cries and Whispers
5. Persona
6. Hour of the Wolf
7. Shame
8. Smiles of a Summer Night
9. The Seventh Seal
10. Wild Strawberries

But, one last time, remember "Scenes from a Marriage" SHOULD HAVE been included! The end.


Sullivan's Travels (1941 - Preston Sturges)
The Lives of Others (2006 - Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
Monsieur Verdoux (1947 - Charles Chaplin)
Spirited Away (2001 - Hayao Miyazaki)
El Topo (1970 - Alejandro Jodorowsky)

March 24, 2012 12:43am

Friday, March 23, 2012

965. LANTANA (2001)

Running Time: 121 minutes
Directed By: Ray Lawrence
Written By: Andrew Bovell from play Speaking in Tongues
Main Cast: Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, Barbara Hershey, Kerry Armstrong, Rachael Blake
Click here to view the trailer


"Bergman Week" will conclude tomorrow, but I figured it couldn't hurt to take a day's break from my tribute to Ingmar and take in something else. I let my wife do the picking, as she took to my stack of Netflix movies and pulled out "Lantana", one that we both thoroughly enjoyed.

The plot of "Lantana" involves many characters, using interweaving plots to tell a fabulous tale. Leon Zat (LaPaglia) is a police officer who is cheating on his wife Sonja (Armstrong). His lover is Jane (Blake), a woman he met in a dance class that he and his wife have been taking. When Leon isn't involved in his extra-marital relationships, he's a hard-nosed detective, ready to put the boots to anyone who is doing wrong. Besides the affair, he's not the most loving husband in the first place, being very cold with Sonja and snapping at her without a moment's notice. Sonja has been seeing a therapist behind Leon's back, Valerie Somers (Hershey), who does her job well, despite having the pain of her daughter's murder on her mind. Valerie is married to John (Rush), an intelligent lawyer, who is also very cold with Valerie and who also seems to be hiding something - perhaps an affair of his own? The film opens with a shot of a dead woman lying in a thicket of brush. Who is the dead woman? How did she die? The film goes full throttle from there.

This shouldn't really take long. Yes, I enjoyed the film. However, do I agree that it's one of the 1001 films that I think deserved to be labeled a "must see"? Eh, not really. My biggest complaint with the film is that it really lacked something to kick it up into that upper echelon of fabulous films. It's as if grandma made a pot of her delicious, homemade stew, but forgot to add salt. I'm really not sure what it needed, but my first notion is that a more intense score could only have helped to pull the movie through the very few, lazier moments. The score that was in place just didn't have the 'OOMPH' that it should have had for a movie about such intense topics as love, trust, betrayal, murder and human relationships. Although, maybe there was something else that just wasn't quite right, but as I write this I can't put my finger on anything else that was wrong with "Lantana".

The aspect that really deserves admiration here is the magnificent script, filled with twists, turns and curve balls. Nowadays there are so many filmmaker's throwing in twists & turns for the sake of surprising their audiences, even if those twists & turns don't make sense. Here, when all is said and done, all of the curve balls that have been lobbed make complete & total sense. Nothing is added in for the sake of screwing with the audience and nothing feels the least bit contrived or hokey. We, the audience, are given the crucial elements on a need to know basis, as we watch the tale unfold and as various questions pop up. We knew we'll get the answers in due time and that's what makes "Lantana" exciting - knowing that at any moment we could be given a crucial answer to an itching question. As far as the acting goes, everyone did a fine job, but a special kudos to Geoffrey Rush and Anthony LaPaglia (of Cold Case fame) for really showing up to flew their chops.

RATING: 7.5/10 Perhaps as time goes by, I'll realize that this film wasn't missing anything and it was even better than my rating suggests, but for now, that's the rating and something WAS missing.


March 22, 2012 10:17pm

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

551. Viskingar och rop/Cries and Whispers (1972)

Running Time: 91 minutes
Directed By: Ingmar Bergman
Written By: Ingmar Bergman
Main Cast: Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson
Click here to view the trailer


Nine down, one to go. My tribute to Ingmar Bergman which has spanned across three months at this point is getting ready to wind to a close and I've still yet to be totally blown away by one of his films. Obviously my expectations are too high, but it's hard to lower your expectations for such an acclaimed filmmaker and the director of "Scenes from a Marriage" - a personal favorite of mine. Unfortunately, "Cries and Whispers" didn't go far in restoring my hope for Mr. Bergman.

The film centers around three sisters: Agnes (Andersson), Maria (Ullmann) and Karin (Thulin) and Agnes' maid, Anna (Sylwan). Agnes is dying of cancer (at least the book cites it as cancer, although it's never really mentioned what her illness is exactly) and during her final days her two sisters and her maid cling to her bedside to try and make her as comfortable as possible. Over the course of the few days that the film takes place over, Agnes' two sisters and Anna take time to reflect on their past, each represented in flashback form, using various whispering voices and a closeup of the actresses' faces to signify the beginning of a past event. The film takes place wholly inside the manor of Agnes', where the walls are painted blood red. As far as summation of the plot is concerned, however, that's about as best as I can do, because really this film was quite perplexing to me and honestly, like many other Bergman films, I couldn't quite peg it.


Watching "Cries and Whispers" was like trying to get directions from a mute - I just couldn't understand what Bergman was trying to tell me. I realize that there was much more to this picture than meets the eye, but I'll be damned if I really knew what he was trying to say. I understood that Karin and Maria (and probably Agnes too, when she was well) had a hard time showing their true selves to one another. They couldn't even show the most human of characteristics toward their loved ones (their husbands, one another). Hell, it took Agnes getting cancer before the sisters finally came around and even then, in her most desperate times of need, it was Anna who had to step in and be the comforting and consoling one. The sisters (Karin and Maria) were almost like robots and this film seemed to portray a turning point in their lives, where they were forced to be human, at least a little bit. These are women who were of a bourgeoisie lifestyle and never really had to face death and when they were faced with one very real facet of life, they took it upon themselves to flashback into the past and face others.

I got the sense that Agnes was the exact same way, but as the cancer was ripping her apart inside she couldn't help but to reach out for a human connection. That connection really came in the form of Anna, but I'm not sure the extent of their relationship. Was it just me or was it hinted that Anna and Agnes may have had some sort of lesbian relationship going on. I mean, Agnes obviously had no husband and Anna and Agnes just had a really tight bond that seemed to go far beyond employer and employee. At one point, when Karin is reading an excerpt from Agnes' diary, Anna rushes closer to try and hear a little bit of what is said. Perhaps she's showing concern over what Agnes' may have written, about a possible sexual relationship that existed between them. And at the end, Anna reveals that she has taken Agnes' diary, as one of the final frames shows her opening the book, sending us into our final flashback and the end of the film.

I don't know. All this thinking about "Cries and Whispers" is starting to make me really curious - even more curious than I was when I started writing this post. Perhaps this film wasn't AS bad as I initially pegged it for. I'm still really lost, but I do want answers. Well, this will have to be one that I toss around the old noggin' and we'll see where it ends up, but for now I'll leave it at that. As far as the technical elements go, the acting (as per usual with Bergman films) is top notch and the color cinematography from Nykvist is breathtaking.

RATING: 7/10 Initially I had it pegged for a '6', but over the course of my writing and pondering it got bumped. I think that's the first time I've changed a rating mid-review. Next up: "Fanny and Alexander".


March 20, 2012 10:37pm

Monday, March 19, 2012

489. Vargtimmen/Hour of the Wolf (1968)

Running Time: 87 minutes
Directed By: Ingmar Bergman
Written By: Ingmar Bergman
Main Cast: Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Gertrud Fridh, Georg Rydeberg, Erland Josephson
Click here to view the trailer


Well it's coming down to nut cuttin' time for Ingmar Bergman to really blow me away with one of his ten films from THE BOOK. "Hour of the Wolf" was the eighth Bergman work from THE BOOK and while it didn't fail immensely, it ultimately did fail to really "wow" me.

The plot, like many of Ingmar's films, is kind of hard to describe. Our main characters this go around are Johan (von Sydow) and Alma (Ullmann), a couple living on an island. Johan is a painter who doesn't say much and is often times a bit fussy. He likes Alma because she too is quiet and the two get along well enough. One evening, Johan confesses to Alma that he's been encountering an odd mix of characters, pulling out his sketch book to reveal the drawings he's made of the oddities. He speaks of several characters: an old woman who threatens to remove her hat...and her face, a "bird man" and a homosexual man who is "practically harmless". Alma is concerned for Johan, but doesn't pay him too much mind at first, probably chalking it up to his peculiar nature. Later, however, Alma is also visited by the old woman in the hat, who tells her to read Johan's diary. Johan becomes increasingly fearful of the demonic characters that plague him, so much so that he refuses to go to sleep before dawn. Later, Johan and Alma are approached by Baron von Merkens (Josephson), who invites them to his castle for a dinner party. Alma joins Johan at the castle, but the experience is unpleasant, as Johan is mocked by the other guests. From there the plot kind of starts to become more segmented, as we get various pieces of information that all lead to the finale.


Much like "Persona" I just don't think I fully grasped this film. However, unlike "Persona" it really failed to intrigue me in the long run. The notion that this is a horror movie is kind of baffling to me. I've heard other people who have seen this film cite it as one of the scariest movies they've ever seen and I didn't think it was a bit scary, which leads me to believe that maybe I didn't know what I was watching and thus, didn't know what I was supposed to be afraid of. While Bergman films always lose me in the plot, I can always say that almost everything else is magnificent about them. Here, the actors (most notably Ullmann and von Sydow) are magnificent and the dialogue that they're given to work with is equally stellar. At one point, Johan recalls being a boy and getting punished. He goes into this whole story about being locked in the closet and then later being released, only to be whipped by his father. I love how Bergman doesn't show us everything, but rather allows his wonderful actors to use his marvelous dialogue and let us picture the action, rather than see it. I also love Sven Nykvist's cinematography (in not just this, but all of the films he filmed for Ingmar), as he produces a very crisp black & white, using natural lighting and getting the most of the natural landscapes of Bergman's Faro Island.

I guess the whole plot here was about Johan struggling with demons and trying his best to escape them in any way he knew how. I perceived the "ghouls" that Johan saw as the evil side and Alma as the good side and it was up to Johan to choose which path he'd follow. Ultimately Johan was lead into temptation, choosing the dark side and disappearing. Of course, I could be WAY off in my interpretation and it wouldn't surprise me a bit if I am. In the end, Alma implies that had she not loved Johan so much, she may have been able to be more of a help to him. Had she not been able to see the demons, like he did, she may have been able to pull him back to reality. I've also heard theories that each of the demons that Johan encounters represents something from his past. Of course, Veronica Vogler (Ingrid Thulin) represented a past affair and scandal, but apparently everyone represented something that Johan wasn't proud of, from his past. I'm gonna' stop now, because at this point I'm just grasping at an explanation for this film. In my opinion, the film just didn't have a voice (to me) and lacked structure. I really didn't know how to take it or what to make of it and ultimately it just didn't go over well with me. It may take another viewing or even a bit of research to really get it.

RATING: 6/10 I was somewhat intrigued, but not nearly as much as I was with "Persona". The acting, cinematography and dialogue were all marvelous, so it gets points there. Next up: "Cries and Whispers".


March 19, 2012 6:32pm

Sunday, March 18, 2012

487. Skammen/Shame (1968)

Running Time: 103 minutes
Directed By: Ingmar Bergman
Written By: Ingmar Bergman
Main Cast: Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow, Sigge Furst, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Birgitta Valberg
Click here to view the trailer


Moving right along with the conclusion of the "Bergman Week" festivities, we come to "Shame", one that I had to track down via YouTube and one that I was less than impressed with.

Jan (von Sydow) and Eva (Ullman) are a married couple, living on a farm during a civil war. They're former musicians, now forced to sell various crops and raise chickens due to their war town country. Their relationship isn't the most stable, as Jan is extra sensitive, weeping often for what seems like no reason at all. Jan's sensitive nature makes Eva impatient, forcing her to snap at him often. However, just as quick as they get into tiffs, they make-up, promising one another that they'll spring for a bottle of wine once their day of work is through. The couple have no political affiliation and thus they are casualties of war, civilians unable to escape threat. Jan's solace comes in ignoring the world around him, while Eva constantly bickers with him for not repairing the radio so that they can hear what's going on. When paratroopers land in their front yard, Jan and Eva are unable to avoid the war any longer and are eventually taken prisoner, thought to be allies for the opposition. It doesn't take long before they're released by their old friend Col. Jacobi (Bjornstrand), but it's almost too late to repair their relationship, which has been torn apart due to forces beyond their control.

Perhaps Mr. Bergman and I are just polar opposites. In THE BOOK, it states that Bergman thought the script was uneven, resulting in a poor first half and a better second half - I couldn't disagree more. The film started out fantastic, as I was able to really relate to these characters who had no political affiliation and were being forced to self destruct through no fault of their own. Usually when I hear the words "war" and "politics" when hearing a movie description, I dread what is to follow. However, the main characters of the film weren't concerned with the war and or the politics, so I was good to go. Anyway, here we have this couple - a seemingly normal couple who have their spats and make-up sessions and make due by doing manual labor and enjoying a bottle of wine to spoil themselves. I absolutely love Liv Ullmann and after seeing her in "Scenes from a Marriage", I declared her my absolute favorite actress at a time when not many actresses struck my fancy. Max von Sydow, although not appearing in any movies that have totally wowed me, has grown on me and honestly, I think he has marvelous talent.

Well, anyway, the movie went from 90 to 0 in record time, resulting in what I thought to be a poor second half. Once the Rosenberg's were captured and taken into the prison, the movie went downhill and fast. I think what happened is that I had this film pegged - I thought I'd be witnessing a film about a couple working through their relationship and day to day struggles, all the while using the war as a backdrop to add to their problems. When the couple were actually pulled into the middle of the violence and war torn situations, it got really stale, really fast for yours truly. I think I made a big mistake making "Scenes from a Marriage" the first Ingmar Bergman movie I ever saw. Now every time I pop in one of his films, I expect a very dialogue driven, examination of relationships and that's obviously not what I'm getting every time. I also think that I took such a sine to "Scenes...", that it made my expectations for the rest of Bergman's portfolio high and thus I'm finding myself disappointed more frequently than usual.

It's not that "Shame" is a terrible film. It will probably work for most people. I just found that as the film progressed, it got too complicated, in what could have been a very uncomplicated, straightforward story about a couple living in a war torn land. When Jan has his change of character, when Jacobi is introduced and when the war really starts to become the focal point is when I mentally checked out.

RATING: 6.5/10 Again, it may have just been high expectations, but it just didn't hit the spot as well as I would have liked it to. There's only three Bergman films left and I'm really hoping that one of them totally blows me away...TOTALLY!


March 17, 2012 9:00pm
Happy St. Patrick's Day

Friday, March 16, 2012

455. PERSONA (1966)

Running Time: 82 minutes
Directed By: Ingmar Bergman
Written By: Ingmar Bergman
Main Cast: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann


I realize that using the word "week" to describe my tribute to Ingmar Bergman is now completely ridiculous, but it's how I always name my tributes and despite being illogical, we'll still go with it. Approximately two months ago I reached the halfway point in my "Bergman Week" festivities and at that point the Swedish director had still yet to "WOW" me, like I had hoped he would. However, "Persona" was a step in the right direction.

The cast is comprised primarily of Bibi Andersson as Sister Alma and Liv Ullmann as Elisabet Volger. Mrs. Volger is an actress, who during a performance went silent for the span of about one minute, not saying a word. The next day Mrs. Volger refused to leave her bed and wouldn't speak a single word - that was three months ago. Still not willing to speak, Mrs. Volger finds herself in the confines of a hospital bed and when the film begins Sister Alma, a nurse, is being assigned to take care of Elisabet. Not making much progress at the hospital, the doctor of the facility prescribes a getaway for Elisabet, in which her and Alma will go to the doctor's summer house on the beach, where they'll be in seclusion and hopefully make some progress. The getaway seems to do Elisabet some good, as she's in good spirits, soaking in the sun, picking berries and writing letters to her husband, but still refusing to open her lips. Alma uses the time to her advantage to, recharging her batteries and using Elisabet as her own personal shrink, bouncing thoughts and secrets her way and appreciating Elisabet's seemingly keen interest. However, things begin to unravel when Alma reads a letter written by Elisabet and not intended for her eyes.

"Persona" is a prime candidate of a movie that I would yammer on and on about, trying my best to decode it, while at the same time trying to write some semblance of a review. In other words, bear with me and I'll try not to drone on and on.

I'll admit that I didn't really, fully understand "Persona". But lets sit that fact to the side for a moment and I will tell you that I was very intrigued by the film, as a whole. I was in love with the two actresses as they perfected their craft before my eyes, playing off one another and being really real while in the confines of an obviously fictitious world. Bergman doesn't hesitate to remind us that we are indeed watching a movie, as the film begins with a projector. We hear a strip of film circulating around a spindle and as Roger Ebert writes in his review, Bergman seems to be eluding that illusion and reality somehow tie in to the film we're about to experience. The dialogue is pretty perfect as well, with perhaps the best bit coming when Alma describes an orgy she had many years prior, on a beach with three strangers. The black and white cinematography is crisp and well defined and at times the sunlight washes over the room, making it look like the actors and sets are blanketed in dew.

No, I didn't fully understand the film, but the plot was enough that I was able to be gripped by it and I left it wanting to know more. It was more than likely the reaction that Bergman wanted me to have, wanted each of his viewers to have - unknowing, almost to the point of frustration, but still curious. Ebert also writes that the film and the viewer seem to share the same relationship that Alma and Elisabet do - "The nurse is maddened by the unspeaking actress in the same sense that the audience is frustrated by the movie: Both stubbornly refuse to be conventional and to respond as we'd expect". I won't go to in depth on my analysis and interpretations, because to tell the truth, my interpretations were few. This is one of the few movies where I've been less concerned with cracking the code and more concerned with just absorbing the film and taking everything in, perhaps so that I would have all the information to turn around in my head.


My first reaction was that there was some sort of identity crisis going on. On the surface Elisabet was the sick one, but when you got into the meat & potatoes of the film, Alma was really the one that was more mentally unstable, perhaps not knowing her place in the world or who she should be. In the beginning Alma says that while she has free will and is able to do as she pleases, the rest of her life is pretty much predetermined - she'll marry a man named Karl-Henrik, have kids and grow old. This seems to trouble her and it seems to me that there's much more to her thoughts than I originally thought. It also seems to me that when the film seemingly breaks, at about the halfway point and we see the film burn away, there's probably something VERY significant about THAT particular moment, something that I'd probably need a second viewing to figure out. Let's just suffice it to say that I need to see this movie again someday to fully comprehend it. Hell, I may even need a hand from a few of the essayists who have written about "Persona". However, despite not fully grasping what's going on, I wasn't completely maddened by this film and it held a generous dose of intrigue, holding my interest and keeping me in wonderment.

RATING: 7/10 That's about as far as I can go for the moment, but I'd recommend "Persona" to anyone willing and ready to piece together a puzzle.


March 16, 2012 1:19am

Thursday, March 15, 2012

936. MAGNOLIA (1999)

Running Time: 188 minutes
Directed By:
Paul Thomas Anderson
Written By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Main Cast: Tom Cruise, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Robards, John C. Reilly
Click here to view the trailer


I told you I'd be back! Yes, I've made the decision to return to my grand journey and continue watching my way down this long road of 1001 films, continuing down the road to 500, the road to being halfway home. For the curious, "Bergman Week" will continue soon, but I needed a familiar film to slip back in with, so I made a choice from my DVD shelf and chose "Magnolia".

Please excuse any writer's rust that I may be experiencing - I'm usually not very confident in my writing when I'm just getting back on the horse. To sum up the plot of "Magnolia" in one paragraph is, on one hand, very difficult and on the other hand, quite easy. There really isn't much of a plot, to be quite honest with you. What "Magnolia" is, is a gathering of characters who are loosely intertwined and whom we encounter over the course of a couple of days in the San Fernando Valley of California. We meet a handful of characters, including Frank "TJ" Mackey (Cruise), the misogynistic creator of "Seduce & Destroy" - a self-help system marketed toward men, teaching them how to "tame" women. Frank's estranged father is Earl Partridge (Robards), who is suffering from brain and lung cancer and is being looked after twenty-four hours a day by Phil Parma (Hoffman), his nurse. Earl's wife is Linda (Julianne Moore), a trophy wife who has cheated on him numerous times over the years and only realizes during Earl's final days that she truly loves him. There's also Jim (Reilly), a cop who may or may not have dreams of being on "Cops", as he speaks to himself while on patrol, is religious and is in need of a mate. There's Jimmy Gator (Hall), a legendary game show host who is dying of bone cancer and who is trying to reconnect with his daughter, Claudia (Melora Walters), a drug addicted woman, who also finds solace in the arms of older men, probably compensating for the loss of a father figure.


I never really knew what "Magnolia" was all about before. As I watched it this time around, I desperately tried to form some theories and perhaps, in the end, I may have pieced something together. Let me talk it all out and hopefully the words that are spewed from my fingers make some sense when all is said and done.

My first thoughts were that all these characters are basically failures at life. You take characters like Earl Partridge and Jimmy Gator who failed at being fathers. Due to her emotional problems, mainly inflicted on her by her dad, Claudia is a failure at relationships and thus can't meet men in the proper "dinner & date" type way and even when she finally succeeds in that, she messes it up. Jim is failure as a police officer, Donny is also a failure when it comes to employment as he's seen early on getting the boot from his job. Donny also fails at love, failing to grasp what it's really about. Linda failed as a wife, admitting that she cheated on Earl. However, adding up all those failures, one guy didn't fit the puzzle and that was Phil Parma, a genuinely good man who isn't a failure and seems to have the most bearings about him of anyone of the characters, even reaching out to Frank "TJ" Mackey on behalf of Earl Partridge. So while this theory sat in the back of my mind, in the end I gave up on it.

Then I realized that this is just a film about intertwining characters told in a very dramatic way. It's a very melancholy story and at times you just want to burst into tears for no real, defining reason. The entire aura of the film is just a big downer - characters have cancer, characters molesting their children, characters doing drugs & drinking, characters attempting suicide, characters attempting numerous criminal acts, relationships being torn at the seams and family members treating one another like shit. Lies are told, secrets are leaked and confessions are made and all the while the rain pours outside ("Cats and fucking dogs out there") and never are we given an opportunity to even crack a smile. Perhaps that explains the ending - I mean the very ending, when Claudia breaks the fourth wall and smiles at us. Perhaps she's letting us know that the characters that deserve to be all right will be and the ones who deserve a more gruesome fate, will get it. It's actually an exhausting film to watch, because at times it's so intense. The music doesn't let up during the entire second hour and suddenly scenes that would be normally run of the mill are turned into pieces of extreme suspense - a child peeing his pants on a game show, Phil Parma frantically trying to reach Frank Mackey, Linda picking up prescriptions at the drug store.

As it pertains to the frogs...Well, I know there's a lot of people out there who like to let their imaginations run wild in instances like this. They'll think of the most cockamamie ideas and apply them to the movie, just so they can tell their friends they figured out the big secret behind the film. I honestly don't think there's a biblical connection at all. I think the rain of frogs is simply a disastrous event that works to put things in perspective for these characters and in turn, actually ends up solving a lot of problems. I hate to bring this up, because it's such a touchy subject, but it's kind of like 9/11 and how on that particular day menial problems just didn't seem too important for the time being. People were more apt to forgive and forget when tragedy struck and I think that's what the frogs did in this movie.

As for the technical aspects of the film, the acting was brilliant, with EVERYONE bringing their A-game, especially guys & girls like Tom Cruise, Jason Robards and Julianne Moore. This is either a love it or hate it movie, you're probably going to lean one way or the other. As for me, I love it. I think that even though, at times, it doesn't make a lot of sense and you finds yourself questioning the real motives of the movie, you can still get lost in the characters and the meaning of it all. At times the music is too intense, but again I say this is a very real story, told in a very dramatic way, so perhaps the very intense music that plays almost non-stop through the second hour was intentional.

RATING: 9/10 I can't go the full monty on this one (not today anyway), but it's still damn good and maybe with some thought, I can boost it. Like I said, "Bergman Week" will commence and conclude soon enough. It's good to be back!


March 15, 2012 1:15am

Sins of Omission - Entry #94: ZODIAC (2007)

Running Time: 157 minutes Directed By: David Fincher  Written By: James Vanderbilt, based on the book by Robert Graysmith Main Cast : Jake...