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"I understand and admire"
Back in December, after my first viewing of Persona, I stated that the film was "not as great as other reviewers had made out" How wrong I was. I watched Persona again last night and found it, second time around, to be challenging, interesting and enjoyable, emotions and feelings that went straight over my head on first viewing. This is the closest thing to "real" cinema that I have seen, because it doesn't offer the viewer any easy answers, Bergman lets the story unfold, and as he goes deeper into the psyche of the character he expects us to pay very close attention to what he is doing.
The film is pretentious, unashamedly, but the way Bergman takes the style from the narrative means that the pretension isn't a bad thing, because the images of Persona are some of the most memorable and haunting that any director has dared to show. From the opening images of the young boy framed in front of a full-screen rear projection of his mother, to the famous image of the two women's faces merged as one, the images help the audience decode some of the more complicated elements of the plot.
Now I must mention the acting (something I glossed over in my first review), because there are better performances in this film than any other I can think of at this moment. Firstly Liv Ullmann, who is simply amazing as the broken-down actress Elisabeth Vogler, she manages to seem both trustworthy, but at the same time controlling without speaking a single line of dialog, and she's helped out enormously by Bibi Andersson. The way that Bergman uses these very different (but in some way similar) actresses, is to contradict their actions at every turn, to continually play with their status within the film, Ullmann comes off as the masculine character, despite the fact that her profession would call for her to be feminine. Similarly, Andersson's nurse Alma often comes off as being far too weak for her vocation, but is this a general character flaw, or just a continuation of the role reversal the two women are undergoing.
There is still a great deal of Persona that I don't understand, and maybe I never will but this only makes me want to watch the film again and again, as it's the perfect film to just loose yourself in. There is so much that I have picked up on since my first viewing that I could write about this film for even longer, but this is not my personal forum form any kind of film critique. All I can say is Persona is a film that must be watched multiple times, every viewing only strengthens my affection for it and my growing admiration for Bergman that hit full swing after I saw The Seventh Seal. In December I gave this film a rating of 8/10, now I feel compelled to, not only change that score to a 10, but also to see the film again. A true masterpiece
Blue Velvet (1986)
Only in dreams
With Blue Velvet, David Lynch made a film that was so pure to his original vision that it would become the archetype of his work for the next fifteen years. Here, Lynch cast his ever probing, surrealist gaze upon small town middle America, and for the first time in a US film, showed the audience the darker side to what was often depicted as nothing more than the birth place of apple pie. We are drawn into the story almost immediately, with what would seem like a simple depiction of small town life, but the use of slow-motion hints that there is something not quite right with what we are looking at. So by the time Lynch has pushed his camera through the soft green grass of a regular front lawn, only to show us the slithering insects that hide in the darkness, we know that we are about to enter a very dark world.
Blue Velvet is a world filled with not only darkness, but also ambiguity. The characters of this world are constantly hiding behind some kind of façade, be it the wardrobe doors that practicing teenage voyeur Jeffrey peers from behind as he watches Dorothy and Frank interact, or something as simple as the make-up worn by Ben. Everything suggests to us that these characters inhabit a world at night, a world away from the life they live in the day. As the film moves closer and closer to the climax Jeffrey begins to feel more of a connection with Frank, having to go to some very dark places within his psyche. However Lynch's message, that underneath the normal persona of a regular human being is a repressed pervert laying in wait, or whatever point he is making doesn't really translate well. Not least to today's audience.
Blue Velvet is very much a film of its time, that time being the mid-eighties, with aids paranoia everywhere, it's easy to see this metaphor for the dangers of sex and love within the films turgid dreamscapes. But beneath this message hides a strong detective story, a modern day neo-noir that delivers interesting twists and a controversial pay-off with it's almost fairytale climax. This is the film David Lynch got right, proceeding to make great films that where all personal, but completely different in terms of style and substance from one another. Blue Velvet is a great film, with some fine (albeit bizarre) performances, still challenging to this day, If only Lynch hadn't gone on to spend the rest of his career re-making it.
"I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whoever I'm with".
A wonderful comedy-drama starring the immensely talented James Stuart as kind hearted Elwood P. Dowd, a man who has refused to be ruled by life. The brilliance of this film is the subtlety of the story and the layers of the character. Under the polite veneer of fifties Hollywood conventions, Harvey has a decidedly dark undercurrent, one that deals with alcoholism, loneliness and rejection. Not that this should deter you from enjoying the many comic scenarios that Harvey throws at the viewer during the course of the film, as this is definitely a comedy gem. But the truth and beauty behind what Elwood is saying only make the entire package all the more exquisite, like putting chocolate on a donut.
The most beautiful scene I've seen in any film is the scene in which Elwood explains how Harvey has enriched his life, though the people who are listening to the story doubt Harvey's existence, thus doubting Elwood's sanity, the words of his speech, coupled with the delivery of Stuart's performance are so touching and true that even the most jaded audience will be won over into believing Harvey to be real. The enjoyment that Elwood now gets from life, the wonderful times he has, wherever he is, whoever he's with, is the kind of enjoyment everyone strives to achiever from life. This is bygone film-making at it's best; Stuart is such a joy to watch that you'll remember this film for a long time after viewing. With fine support from all the actors, this is one film that truly deserves its classic status.
The Pledge (2001)
Some nice touches help elevate this from merely average territory
Having never seen Indian Runner or The Crossing Guard, I was looking forward to seeing The Pledge, not only because it was billed as Jack Nicholson's return to form, but also as an excuse to experience the directing work of Hollywood bad boy Sean Penn. I'd seen the trailers and heard the acclaim, now it was time to watch, what I thought, would be an exemplary piece of film-making. But I was sorely disappointed. For the most part the Pledge amounts to nothing more than a slow burning character study, with some nice photography. But besides Nicholson's Jerry Black, none of the characters are all that interesting, and come off simply as plot devises, despite the work of the amazing cast of diverse acting talent.
The vital flaw with the film is the plot, which is never as interesting as the film-makers would like you to think it is, with far too much emphasis on Black coming to terms with his retirement, instead of focusing on the detective story, which at the end of the day, is why the audience is watching the film in the first place. Nicholson may be a senior citizen now, but I was not expecting to see a cross between Grumpy Old Men and Se7en, which is what this film comes across as. The film does have some strong acting from most concerned, notably Helen Mirren, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Noonan, Benicio Del Torro and Mickey Rourke, but this endless line up of, what amounts to nothing more than celebrity cameos are ultimately distracting.
The film should however be commended for having the guts to give us a twist ending that no one in a million years will ever guess, because it's the kind of ending that will either have you staring at the screen thinking `wow' or staring in to space laughing hysterically in disbelief. The Pledge is not the masterpiece some critics hailed it as, however the main performance of Jack Nicholson is perhaps his best, and most restrained since his pre-shinning days, giving us the only fully developed character, a character more about maturity than wild out-bursts, which is enough to make any serious film fan want to watch, but considering the talent on display, The Pledge should have been something so much more.
The Elephant Man (1980)
"The stream flows, the wind blows, the cloud fleets, the heart beats... Nothing will die"
Never could one hope to find a film as ugly and beautiful as David Lynch's film biography of John Merrick (The Elephant Man). Merrick's story is perhaps one of the most heartbreaking and appalling cases of human injustice to those different, with a strong message, which still holds importance to this day. In the hands of a lesser talented director this film may have been just another pointless Hollywood story, but in the hands of Lynch the film becomes a haunting, beautiful, but at the same time, highly disturbing work of art. Always surrealistic in its storytelling approach, the film sets up Merrick's complicated birth with an abstract dream/flash back sequence, dimly lit and photographed in gloriously grainy black and white the audience can't help but be immediately drawn in to the story.
The film then jumps forwards, and introduces us to the character of Fredrick Treves (Hopkins) at a London carnival, where Merrick is being shown as part of the sideshow. Treves is unable to see Merrick due to the police, who close the show before he gets there, but hungry for a glimpse he arranges to for a private showing with Merrick's owner Bytes. Lynch is reluctant to show us Merrick in full daylight for the first quarter of the film, which in my opinion was a clever move, because it allows we the audience to share Treve's intrigue as to weather or not the tag Elephant Man is suited, or whether we are being duped into seeing something not too much out of the ordinary. It is only later that, after we see Merrick, we realise that he is truly deformed beyond human recognition.
The next part of the film is where the real argument of The Elephant Man rests, the age-old argument of beauty only being skin deep and how those who have beauty on the outside often have none on the inside. As Merrick goes to show the staff of the hospital of which he's taken residency that he is an articulate, erudite human being, he is slowly integrated into polite society, not from respect though, the crowds are only gathering because viewing Merrick has become something of a status symbol, and this is where Treve's must decide whether or not he has forced John to exchange one freak-show for another.
For me The Elephant Man is one of the most staggering and moving films of recent cinema, the herald of a maverick talent in the then young David Lynch, and brimming with evocative production design, beautiful photography and a wealth of fine performances from Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud and Michael Elphick, not to mention Hurt's remarkable performance hidden under layers of prosthetic make-up. It is true what others have said, that The Elephant Man is a very bleak, very downbeat film, a film not afraid to hold a mirror to society's injustices, but the ending is uplifting in a different way than most conventional happy endings. In the respect that John has just has the happiest day of his life, and no day will ever be that good, so the perfect way to end that perfect day, is to sleep like he has always wanted to, even if it will result in his own death. With the final line (used as my summary), we are told that nothing dies, that the spirit will always live on. What a touching sentiment to the endurance of the human spirit. A masterpiece 10/10
Det sjunde inseglet (1957)
Unarguably one of the greatest motion pictures ever made.
My first taste of the work of Ingmar Bergman came late last year, when I first saw The Virgin Spring. My initial reaction to that film was one of bewilderment; being new to Bergman, I just wasn't sure what to make of it. The second Bergman film I saw was Persona; again I just didn't fully grasp the film and in my naivety, belittled the staggering work of art I now hail it as by saying that it needed to make sense. I know understand Bergman's work a little better, and understand that The Virgin Spring was Bergman's least personal film, and one that he accepted as a director for hire. Persona on the other hand is often credited as the director's most complex and experimental film, open to interpretation and definitely not a film for all tastes. Now I have seen my third Bergman film, the classic of art-house cinema that is The Seventh Seal.
The Seventh Seal is everything a great film should aspire to be, a joy to watch from start to finish and filled with a mixture if wonderful performances and haunting images. It was also nice to see a much more simplistic story after the mind bending Persona. Here Bergman's key concerns are not psychological mind games and disintegrating personalities, instead he looks at the themes that would in later years become synonymous with his cannon of work, religion, and death (or waiting for death, as illustrated in Cries & Whispers as well as here). The film follows knight Antonious Block (Max Von Sydow) and his companion Jöns as they return from the crusades. Death has long since walked besides Block, and now the hooded figure believes it is his time to go, Block however has other ideas and challenges Death to a game of chess, if he wins, his life will be spared. This gives us the first iconic image of the film, possibly the first major iconic image of art-house film-making, as Block sits by the sea playing chess with the apparition of Death.
As the film moves on, Block and his companion make their way to the nearest town, where a religious procession enter and warn the villagers of the plague. This is another key sequence in the film, and the way Bergman films the entrance is nothing short of genius. The cutting and camera angles (together with the naturally beautiful black and white film stock) evoke and convey the growing sense of dread that has been following our hero's from the outset. The key theme in this film seems to be not only religion, but also loss of faith. Antonious spends much of his time condemning the crusades for the pointless loss of millions, all in the name of god, and later it becomes more apparent that Block believes god to have abandoned him. This truly is a classic film, and a true work of cinematic art. 10/10
Krótki film o zabijaniu (1988)
Perhaps the best film I've seen in a long time
If it wasn't for the fact that I saw Bergman's The Seventh Seal today, I could wholeheartedly state that director Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short film about Killing is without a doubt the best film I have seen in a long time. Originally made as part of Kieslowski's series of TV dramas Dekalog, dramatising and updating the Ten Commandments, A Short film about Killing details the bleak story of a young man, who in the heat of the moment murders a detestable taxi driver. When I say bleak, that's really an understatement, this is one of the most downbeat films ever made, with it's specially printed photography and dreary Polish locations Kieslowski makes it clear that this is not going to be an easy film to sit through, and although there is not an upbeat moment in the entire running time, we still find ourselves compelled to watch, compelled to listen to what Kieslowski is trying to say.
The first image of A Short film about Killing is, appropriately enough a dead cat. Hanging from a railing as the title is superimposed on the screen. We are then introduced to the three characters that will play the important roles in the story, the killer (Miroslaw Baka), the victim (Jan Tesarz) and the young barrister set the task of following the case when the murder reaches the court (Krzysztof Globisz). Each of these people's lives are set up simultaneously, with the use of crosscutting, sometimes their separate paths cross briefly, but never fully meeting until the end of the films first act, which climaxes with one of the most brutal murder scenes ever committed to film. With this scene, I believe that Kieslowski is showing the audience that the act of killing is not as easy as shown in Hollywood movies and daytime TV, the fact the scene goes on for as long as it does gives the viewer an idea of just how loathsome an act of murder is.
The final act of the film may not be as strong as act one, but the point of Kieslowski's argument begins to become clear. An almost unplanned act of random violence is enough for the state to put all of their time and effort into the trial and subsequent execution of the murderer. By the final act, with the killer hanging from the neck, Kieslowski's draws parallels between the dead cat from the opening credits. The point being, does this murder actually stand for anything? This is a powerful film that will linger long in your mind and with stand out performances from all concerned, especially Miroslaw Baka whose display of emotion at the climax of the story is nothing short of brilliant. Without a doubt one of the greatest films ever made. 10/10
Unfolds like a dream but does it mean anything?
Not for all tastes, Institute Benjamenta is like David Lynch's The Elephant Man via the works of Bergman and silent expressionism. Every single frame in the bizarre odyssey is tightly composed and beautifully printed in black and white. The use of shifts in focus and depth, and the wild juxtapositions of the most mundane actions, allowing them to take on any number of connotations only heightens the floating dream like atmosphere, as we are dumped into this world with no idea of what is going on, or what is going to happen. But this film is terribly slow (this is were the Bergman element comes into play), and it's a test of the viewer's concentration to see the film through. But unlike Bergman, Institute Benjamenta does not pay off at the end, nor does it leave the viewer puzzled, conflicted and desperate to experience the film again (ala Persona).
Instead Institute Benjamenta just ends, and personally I have no desire to watch the film again, I felt I got everything I could and wanted to gain from the experience. The acting was good, suitably distant and with the right level of cold detachment, but there was a constant feeling the actors were plating second fiddle to the sumptuous visuals put on show by the famed animators the brothers Quay. It's sad that they have yet to make another live action film, as the wealth of great ideas and knowledge of film-making displayed in Institute Benjamenta is one-hundred times better than most of the recent films I've seen, if the Brothers had put a little more time into the depth of the narrative, they could have backed up those haunting images with some much needed substance.
This is not a film for everyone, as I have already stated. The nonsensical narrative and bursts of surrealism will undoubtedly put off some viewers, but this is a film that should have a wider audience. In a cinematic world of conventions and formulas the brothers Quay made a film that, although by no means great, showed originality and definite promise, that makes Institute Benjamenta a film worthy of cult classic status.
Le petit soldat (1963)
My first experience of Jean-Luc Godard
Not quite a masterpiece in terms of world cinema, Jean-Luc Godard's La Petit Soldat, is still, to this day considered by most, to be one of the directors most singular films. Although the narrative is best described as simplistic, Godard's nouvelle vague approach to filming, and his clever deconstruction of film-noir conventions helps give this seemingly one-dimensional thriller a much-needed depth, bringing with it an added multitude of codes and connotations ripe for discussion. It's not a hard task to come away from La Petit Soldat, knowing immediately if you buy into Godard's school of film-making, because most of the familiar Godard-ian motifs are used. The grainy black and white photography, the cinema verite, hand-held camera, the brooding narration, the anti-hero, Anna Karina
All this information can be gathered from watching THIS film alone, excluding Godard's more well know works, such as Bànde a Part or À bout de soufflé. However it is the nihilistic torture of the main character (Michel Subor), which takes place mid-way through the film that really makes the film what it is. Godard's documentary approach to the scene, gives a sense of real terror, detailing the action in the same way he details the beauty of Karina in the apartment scenes. Another revelation, (perhaps used in other Godard films, I'm not too familiar with) is the way actors occasionally look into camera, as though Godard is letting us (the audience) in on the plot, or more importantly the joke. As stated earlier, this is not a spiralling multi-faceted conspiracy piece, more a modern distillation of film-noir, within the confines of the French New Wave
In full an excellent film.
Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)
The definitive A.I. review
The idea of Steven Spielberg delivering Stanley Kubrick's long in gestation epic A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) was always going to result in an odd hybrid of a movie. But at its core, A.I. delivers both the warmness of a Spielberg film, and just the right amount of Kubrickian detachment to make the story work. The film expertly sets up the theme of Robotic rebellion and their lack of understanding with the first scene, showing professor Hobby (William Hurt) conducting a talk about the creation of artificial life, after pricking a `mecha' with a pin, professor Hobby asks the machine how she feels about what has just happened. The machine is polite and accommodating, not really sure of what is going on, when Hobby speaks of love, the machine can only translate the intimacy of love, not the act it's self. This then leads us to the introduction of David (Osment), the first robot boy, capable of expressing the love of a real child. The first act now begins and we see David slowly inducted into the Swinton family, originally a replacement for their real son, who languishes in cryogenics until a cure for his illness can be found. But once the son is fit to come home, the Swinton's are faced with the problem of having two children, both fighting over the attention of their mother, one blinded by jealousy, the other blinded by love. Once the mother has abandoned David in the words, the film moves into act two, in which the brightness and optimism of act one slowly becomes a darker and more mechanical pessimism. The climax of act one shows us that it is human error that is causing the problems in society, whereas the parents abandon David because of his failings, because he is a robot, the robots continue the function, because they are programmed to regardless of what happens.
It is from this that the Pinocchio quest begins, and Spielberg expertly draws parallels with the story of the wooden boy searching for the blue fairy to make him real, with the story of a Robotic boy trapped in the same situation. This also helps set up the conscience of the film, in the character of Teddy, a supper toy. It's no surprise that Spielberg (and Kubrick) decided on the Pinocchio element, because David is programmed to think like a child, and it is only natural that he would identify his very real situation with something more aching to fantasy, something that Freud believed in strongly. Children watch cartoons and read fairytales because they give the child hope; it's also a way of telling very dark stories in a lighter way. The use of Pinocchio is a clever devise as the story is really a metaphor for coming of age, and loss of innocence, which is what is at the forefront of A.I. This loss of innocence also sets up the character of Gigolo Joe (Law), a pleasure robot who joins David on his quest, a character who fills David in on the ways of Human law and their feelings about robot kind. When Joe and David find themselves rounded up at the flesh fair, act two takes on a much darker tone. It is here that we get the first look at human error in its fullest form, as robots are slaughtered for the entertainment of humans. It is only after one human believes David to be a real boy that pandemonium breaks out, the message being that the humans are only interested in their own kind. As David and Joe quest to Rouge City to find the blue fairy, the origins of David become more clear, and it is only when we begin to make sense of the whole situation that the film spirals into a third act that comes right out of nowhere.
David, with the knowledge that he is not the original he thought he was, lies at the bottom of the ocean for two thousand years, his blue fairy a statue at a fairytale amusement park, flooded like the rest of Manhattan. It is here that Spielberg's film takes a bizarre turn that it almost doesn't recover from. The sight of the alien beings subtracts the humanity of David's quest, taking away the humanity he had developed over the course of the film. This is also the part of the film that is so obviously trying to be 2001: A Space Odyssey, as the aliens recreate David's adopted home, and give him the chance to see his mother once again is almost like Bowman travelling through the star gate and finding himself in the huge house. But it is from this that we must remember that David is a child, that one day with his mother is worth more than anything else to him, and it is also important to think of the possibility that the entire third act could be taking place in David's imagination, as he lies at the bottom of the ocean, slowly shutting down due to the harsh conditions. This would explain the almost fairytale reprise of the narrator (Ben Kingsley), and the strong sentiment of David's perfect day. A lot of people have expressed great hatred to this ending, words like schmaltzy and copout have been thrown around, and it only highlights a noticeable parallel between them, and the humans of A.I., have audiences become so nihilistic that they root for a child (admittedly a robotic child) to be destroyed, and to have his wish go unfulfilled. The ending of the film beautifully nurtures the notion of undying, unconditional love between parent and child, as David's dream of a lifetime with his mother has been granted, even if it means he must lay in the bed for another two-thousand years. A.I. may be an odd hybrid, and it may not have been the film that Kubrick envisioned, but it is definitely a greatly underrated film that has been criticized by talent-less critics who have no real ammo to back up their argument.