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Review: Justice League

SPOILER WARNING: In order to have more a free form discussion on the film I will be removing all restrictions to give a more complete picture of my perspective.

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Written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon and directed by Zack Snyder, “Justice League” is the superhero movie culmination of the DC film universe (so far). Going into this film admittedly my expectations were fairly low after the mess that was “Batman V Superman”. This past summer’s success in “Wonder Woman” was a delightful surprise in the series and so I began to hope, with cautious optimism, that maybe the DC team-up film could have potential. To be honest the film hooked me right at the opening of the film, in which some children with a camera interview Superman before his death in the previous film. They ask him what his favorite thing about Earth is and he looks away in thought before turning back to face them, and he smiles right before the scene ends without his answer. That was just the first nugget of reassurances that the whole movie bends over backwards to tell us, We know these characters- we will fix our mistakes.

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This film is a gigantic step in the right direction, by focusing on what they needed to fix most from previous installments they’ve carefully reexamined their heroes and mended the past’s wounds. Let’s focus on what they did right first, the heroes. The newcomers in this film, Ezra Miller’s Flash, Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman all shine in various moments and scenes. Ezra Miller was a comedic hit throughout the film, his reactions to the other league members were memorable, and his Barry Allen was different enough from Grant Gustin’s version that no one at the CW should feel maligned or discredited by Miller’s take on the character. Ray Fisher surprised me with his performance of Victor Stone A.K.A. Cyborg, he was subdued and subtle and he grew over the course of the film as he became more adjusted to his evolving abilities and new body. We even got a “Booyah!” and as someone that grew up with the animated Teen Titans show, that’s all I needed, and I appreciated it. Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry was intimidating when he needed to be, and a great presence in the film, but he seemed to be a hero lost in his own storyline at times-an effect of not having his own solo film before the team up entry. Make no mistake though, I am now enticed by the idea of an Aquaman movie, something I thought I’d never say years prior.

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The trinity of DC’s superheroes, Wonder Woman, Batman, and (let’s be honest we all knew he would be back) Superman worked so well in this film that I was wonderstruck. Gal Gadot proved to be the beating heart of this film franchise this summer with her World War One origin story and she again earns her rightful place as one of the most well rounded and consistent of these characters. All hail Diana Prince, respectfully. However my two favorite re-renditions of characters in this film were that of Ben Affleck’s Batman and Henry Cavill’s Superman. These characters went under massive overhauls since the last time we saw them onscreen, and I couldn’t have asked for a better apology than Batman himself telling Superman at one point, “I was just fixing a mistake, righting a wrong” (Or something along those lines), and he’s right. Warner Brothers has righted many wrongs here for me and it will be exciting to see where the franchise goes from here.

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This doesn’t mean that the film is without it’s flaws though. The main problems that I have with the film echo what most take issue with, namely the villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) and his motivations. I understand that there needs to be a huge threat facing the planet for the league to assemble, but when you compare this film to, say, “The Avengers” Loki may have been playing a cosmic gamble for power in allegiance to Thanos, but we know his inner issues of pain and spite towards his father Odin and thus his dive into a darker path. This is where Marvel’s plan of having standalone films before the team up event films make more thematic sense. Steppenwolf was essentially a mindless drone with cardboard thin characterization. You can only shout “MOTHER!” so many times before people start asking questions. Which is why the filmmakers were bright enough to keep the focus on the heroes and them gearing up to face the threat of Steppenwolf rather than examining a character that’s not worth examining.

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“Justice League” was a success in my eyes because the people behind the film took the time to ask, Why are these heroes beloved worldwide? What are the core essences and values of these people and how do we develop a compelling story about them? Batman never once picked up a shotgun in this film, Superman smiles and has become a more recognizable Clark Kent, and the filmmakers were wise enough to throw some well timed self aware humor into the story. Hopefully this is indicative of the DCU’s future, because it is one where we finally have some hope.

Final Score: 10,000 Leagues above Batman v Superman’s quality

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Famous Filmmaker’s Firsts: David Lynch’s “Eraserhead”

Written and directed by David Lynch in 1977, “Eraserhead” is Lynch’s first feature length film. “Eraserhead” is a surrealist, black comedy with a tinge of horror. Although, this may be one of the most interpretive movies when it comes to understanding the meaning or intentions behind the film, and Lynch has said as much before. When asked about why the film still resonates years past it’s time in a 2014 interview with Vulture Lynch replied, “Well, you know, it’s difficult to say. I always say the same thing: Every viewer is different. People go into a world and they have an experience, and they bring so much of what makes them react, it’s already inside of them. Each viewer gets a different thing from every film. So there are some people where Eraserhead speaks to them, and others it doesn’t speak to them at all. It’s just the way it goes.” So, there are the obvious things that you can pluck from an initial viewing of the film, Henry (Jack Nance) is a man who is flung into fatherhood and marriage when he is clearly not ready or able. His fear and anxiety surrounding the subject permeate most of what we see, although we see a lot of strange imagery throughout the film. The basic plot of the film is that we follow Henry as he encounters women, family, fatherhood, fear, and despair.

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Though diving into what the film really means might not be the best way to provide fruitful discussion of the film. With David Lynch’s movies I’ve come to find that his style relies more on the feeling of the art, not the details or specifics of the story at hand. This film in particular seems to be mostly concerned with a general sensation of anxiety. The score and sound design are the most constant factors of this, each scene has various noises gurgling in the background while steam and exhaust bellow from unseen sources. In fact the whole world of “Eraserhead” seems to be structured that way. It is a largely industrial and urbanized setting with families squeezed into small and cramped apartments that all look in need of some repairs. Henry’s one room apartment is oddly stranger as he has a pile of dirt with a small tree growing out of it on his nightstand and a window that only shows a stark brick wall looking back.

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As far as the performances go, they are definitely in line with much of Lynch’s work. Actors are either solemn and blank save for a few expressions or they are completely the opposite and only exhibit high level emotion in bursts and spats at awkward intervals. While visiting his girlfriend Mary’s (Charlotte Stewart) family for dinner her parents exhibit a very vocal and intrusive display. While her father (Allen Joseph) goes on a deluge of his past work as a plumber putting in all the pipes in the area, Mary’s mother (Jeanne Bates) confronts Henry about his sexual encounters with Mary which resulted in a baby-well- even the characters aren’t sure that it is a baby, but nonetheless they know that he is the father. This all takes place while a dog laying in the living room is feeding a horde of constantly mewling puppies nearly overwhelming the motherly animal.

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The rest of the film is left to Henry after Mary leaves in frustration at the loudly crying baby-like creature in his small and dark apartment. After that the film dives even further into the dream logic of the world in which Henry sees a strange woman in the radiator dancing on a stage singing and squashing little sperm-resembling creatures. Trust me, it only gets weirder from there. I found this film to be worth a watch, it’s definitely unique, but far from my favorite of Lynch’s library of films and “Twin Peaks”. The surreal nature of some scenes and the world building are what drew me into this film. It’s nice to know that there are creators out there willing to push the boundary and create whatever and however they can. “Eraserhead” is certainly not for everyone, but give it a shot-you never know when you may find a new favorite film.

Final Score: 1 Man and 1 Disgusting Baby Creature from the Black Lagoon

*Check out these videos posted below; re:View from Red Letter Media and Renegade Cut both host interesting discussions on the film. There’s also the interview that Vulture did with David Lynch in 2014 if you’re interested, enjoy!

Sources:

http://www.vulture.com/2014/09/david-lynch-interview-eraserhead-midnight-movies.html

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Review: Thor Ragnarok

*There are some mild spoilers in this review, but nothing too revealing*

Written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher L. Yost and directed by Taika Waititi, “Thor Ragnarok” is the third installment in the “Thor” franchise and easily one of the finest additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Coming hot off the heels of Waititi’s last film “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” Ragnarok retains several actors from the kiwi adventure-comedy. Sam Neill shows up in a play on Asgard portraying Odin in a fun cameo while Waititi’s longtime collaborator Rima Te Wiata plays the role of the Grandmaster’s (Jeff Goldblum) security guard on the trash planet of Sakaar. This is a Thor film that sheds the weight of past films while embracing the greater cosmic scale that earlier films like “Doctor Strange” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” had already accelerated. But how did we get to this place? Let’s rewind a second and take a look at the franchise as a whole.

The first two “Thor” films, while having their fair share of fans and being generally well received, aren’t always near the top of the average moviegoers personal favorites of the MCU thus far. I believe one of the main reasons that’s led to this film being such a drastic departure from Thor’s past films was that Marvel Studios now has the confidence to embrace the more obscure aspects of their material after the successes of “The Guardians of the Galaxy” and it’s sequel. Marvel seems to know the conversation surrounding their brand of movies and taken some criticisms to heart. The studio now seems to embrace the expectations that their logo inspires as they’ve turned the tables on the audience by playing against these expectations. Which only reinforces my opinion that if you’re going to go make a sci-fi fantasy film, just go for it. Be unique, go for the weird and the unknown and see what works and what doesn’t. As it turns out, throwing the incredible Hulk into the far reaches of outer-space to fight aliens in a gladiator arena, while also having Thor attempting to stop the mythical end of Asgard called ‘Ragnarok’, is a pretty damn good idea.

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Since we’re playing in the sandbox of gods and kings, mythology and science fiction, it makes sense to acknowledge just how silly all of this really is. Taika Waititi never discredits the past or tosses around cruel or barbed comedy though- it’s all in good fun and is a refreshing change of pace for the franchise. In fact this year’s three releases from Marvel have been increasingly better at pairing comedy with their films. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”, “Spider-man Homecoming”, and this film all deftly weave comedy into their storylines without sacrificing quality or softening the threat of the villains of each story. I think it’s immensely important that neither James Gunn nor Taiki Waititi lost their comedic voices while engaging in the Marvel movie machine, Jon Watts might have also kept his comedic touches intact with the newest iteration of “Spider-Man” but I’m less familiar with his work. Though I’d be remiss not to mention the comedy gold in this film that is Korg, an alien gladiator made of rocks who also happens to be trapped on Sakaar-and portrayed by the director himself. If you’ve seen “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” imagine Ricky Baker as an alien rock gladiator- but with manners, and there you have it.

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So, there are essentially two things that made this film work as well as it did for me, the performances and the visuals. In various films throughout history there have been scene stealing actors or characters that charm us, fill our lungs with laughter, or terrify our very hearts-but this film is loaded those moments. There wasn’t a single character that overshadowed the rest of the cast. Each seemed to have something to contribute to the story or to keep the pace swiftly bouncing along with a joke or an escalation of violence that underlined the characters’ need to keep moving in the right direction. Taika Waititi has said that one of his chief intentions with the property was to make Thor the most interesting character in his own movie. This is something he succeeds in doing by stripping the character down, removing his hammer, forcing a new look upon the character, and dropping him in new environments with an earned confidence. The additions of Doctor Strange and Bruce Banner’s Hulk also have merit as they remain consistent while moving the various characters forward in development. Strange immediately whisks Loki away after the brothers arrive on Earth looking for Odin-a sign that he’s been studying and honing his craft of Sorcerer Supreme since his film’s end. Just as the Hulk has become a fully formed character after staying in his green form for two years while fighting, and winning, battles on Sakaar. New additions to the franchise weren’t ignored or phoned in either as Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie has a fully formed story arc that builds on Asgard’s past and towards it’s future. Cate Blanchett’s Hela was a fun creation of dangerous and menacing, though while there was some chewing some of the scenery at times, she remained a threat and clearly had fun on the production. Even Karl Urban’s Skurge, mostly a comedic relief character, has a complete arc across the film. Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster was a joy to watch though, perfectly becoming an amalgamation of the audience’s perception of Goldblum, a playful nod to his own film past, while also becoming the character as opposed to the character becoming a riff on Goldblum’s own tendencies. Idris Elba also returned as Heimdall, everyone’s favorite all seeing Asgardian. This time around he’s been an outcast of Loki’s rule on Asgard and leads a secret resistance against Hela’s invasion while sporting a costume fit for Aragorn’s Strider from “Fellowship of the Ring”.

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Which brings me to the visuals. Personally, I loved the blending of the science fiction and fantasy locales and vistas of the film. I never thought there would be a day when I would see the Incredible Hulk suplex-ing an undying giant wolf on the rainbow bridge of Asgard. That is something that’s outright amazing to me, and maybe that won’t do it for everyone, but I loved it nontheless. Everything from the barrage of colors on Sakaar to the fiery lava fields of Muspelheim from the opening scene to the vibrant earthy tones of Asgard were a dazzling visual feast. I also really loved the way Valkyrie’s backstory was shot with the Pegasus riding female warriors launching an attack against Hela years prior. It reminded me of the painting scene in Wonder Woman, but with more slow paced action taking place onscreen. Skurge also received this perspective while leaping from a spaceship into a crowd of undead Asgardians and wielding two AK-47s. The film as a whole was a joy to watch from beginning to end. This is the third film of Taika Waititi’s that I’ve seen and I will most assuredly be seeking out all that remains as soon as possible. This film was quite and enjoyable time and I highly recommend it. Though, if you’re not on the Marvel Studios bandwagon by now this one probably won’t sway you.

Final Score: Four Asgardian Gods and a Hulk

 

 

 

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Old School Review: Ikiru

*This film was released in 1952-There will be spoilers*

Written by Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, and Shinobu Hashimoto and directed by Kurosawa in 1952, “Ikiru” (translated as ‘To Live’) is a drama that is considered by many to be Kurosawa’s finest achievement from his lauded filmmaking career. The story follows Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a middle-aged Japanese bureaucrat that discovers that he has stomach cancer, a death sentence that forces him to search for meaning as he reflects on a life that he’s wasted stamping forms that only serve to waste people’s time. The beginning of the film perfectly sets up the roundabout rigmarole that goes on in the local government departments, proving the inefficiency of bureaucracy. A group of mothers are trying to get a cesspool in their neighborhood cleaned up and made safe for their children, but each representative in turn says that such a project would be better serviced by the next department until they’re brought back to where they started. Finally they lambaste the clerks in Kanji’s office and leave discouraged.

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Kanji learns that he indeed does have stomach cancer and initially tries to find meaning in the pleasures of life, but discovers in the midst of a nightclub that this is no solution. After befriending a young novelist (Yūnosuke Itō) in a bar Kanji admits that he’s worked his whole life for his savings, and now that he’s dying-he doesn’t know how to spend it. The novelist is entranced by Kanji’s story and whisks him away on a tour of the nightlife. Kanji enjoys himself for awhile, but at one of these parties a piano player asks for requests, and he responds with “Gondola no Uta”, or “The Gondola Song” an old romantic ballad, and the pianist begins to play as Kanji solemnly sings in a manner most soul crushing; “life is brief fall in love, maidens before the raven tresses begin to fade before the flame in your hearts flicker and die for those to whom today will never return.

Eventually Toyo (Miki Odagiri), the youngest member of Kanji’s section at the public works, tracks him down to get his stamp of approval for her to quit and move on to a more fulfilling occupation. They end up sharing the rest of the day in each other’s company as Kanji realizes that she despises the public works as much as he does. He clings to Toyo even after she leaves the public works because her youth and joy remind him of what he wants out of life. He eventually reveals his situation to her and she points out that she only gets happiness by working in a toy factory knowing she is making children happy-which is the realization that propels Kanji to do something meaningful with the remainder of his time on Earth. In one of the many perfect shots of the film Kanji rushes out of the cafe as a separate group sings Happy Birthday to a colleague as he descends a staircase in a representation of his rebirth, he has found his purpose.

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What I found to be particularly effective were the scenes without Kanji, where those closest to Watanabe, co-workers and family, talk and gossip about his actions and intentions. It brilliantly focuses on the reactions and suspicions of those in his orbit, who are unaware of his illness and the existential crisis that he is facing. Coworkers often cite the fact that the corporate world is full of competition and that many will likely look to fill Kanji’s seat at the head of the table after he misses his first day in thirty years. His son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) and his fiance are the unknowing culprits of the most painful things said to Kanji throughout the film. They are distant in nature and only seem to want to retrieve Kanji’s retirement funds to buy a house and start their own lives. Kanji even attempts to tell his son about his stomach cancer but the discussion turns sour upon misdirected assumptions about Kanji and Toyo. Which is all the more painful as earlier in the film there are several sequences that show the longing he has for Mitsuo as he was raising him, his wife and Mitsuo’s mother had died young, so Kanji provided for his son the only way he knew how. He worked long hours at a job filled with meaningless paperwork and never remarried for the sake of his son. Kanji clearly misses the closeness he once shared with his son and there are some effectively brutal scenes throughout the film that accentuate how far the divide has grown in that time. Once Kanji finds his purpose, to not only clean up the cesspool referenced earlier in the film, but to build a children’s park in its place, he effectively disappears from the film. We only see the fruits of his labor, and his path there, through flashbacks after his eventual death. Which leads me to the most satisfying portion of the film.

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My favorite part of the film is when we jump five months in the future to Kanji’s wake after the park has been built. We are soon informed that the deputy mayor and his aides have also attended Kanji’s wake after giving a rather self serving speech at the park’s opening ceremony. The wake is interrupted by a slew of journalists waiting outside as the mayor discounts Kanji’s efforts to get that park made, they scoff at the reporters who assert the local citizens’ opinion that Kanji Watanabe built the park. “They don’t know how government works!” they proudly defend, and that no one man could build that park. Since Kanji didn’t tell most people that he had stomach cancer the claim is made that even he didn’t know that he had the illness, thus having no clear drive or motivation to complete the project and thereby discounting the claims that he deserved credit for getting the park built. The whole sequence is intercut with flashbacks from the last five months in which Kanji visited every person and department possible to push and plead for people to simply do their jobs. Efforts to paint him as intruding on the jurisdiction of other departments fall short after several people point out that Kanji was threatened when he got in the way of powerful people wanting to build a red light district there. Others also begin to remember Kanji referencing that he didn’t have time, that he seemed intent on his goals before his time ran out. This effectively sets the record straight for the remaining bureaucrats and Kanji’s family as they realize that he knew that he was going to die the entire time. We then see the final moments of Kanji Watanabe’s life as he swings in the park in the snow. He looks content, tired, and full with happiness as he sings “Gondola no Uta” one last time, but with a joyful heart this time.

life is brief.
fall in love, maidens
before the crimson bloom
fades from your lips
before the tides of passion
cool within you,
for those of you
who know no tomorrow

Final Score: 1 brand new hat & the satisfaction of fulfillment in life

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Old School Review: The Mirror

Written by Andrei Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Misharin and directed by Tarkovsky in 1975, “The Mirror” is a hell of a head trip if you haven’t ever heard of the Russian filmmaker and dived headfirst into this film without any context like I did. The other day I was looking through the Filmstruck catalog and decided to look into more foreign films, it’s an area of storytelling that I’m rather lacking in to be honest, and found Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. Skimming through his seven feature films I noticed “Solaris”, perhaps remembering the title from somewhere or sometime-but instead opted for “The Mirror” as it was an hour shorter. Ironically in an effort to save time I chose a film that required roughly two hours of light research and article skimming to understand.

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“The Mirror” is an intensely personal film for Tarkovsky. The film is part autobiography, part fiction, and part pure visual storytelling. This film is very abstract. It plays with time, reality, and scenes sometimes play out in black and white, other times in sepia-tone, and sometimes just in plain old color. The film is told through three separate timelines, pre-war, war-time, and post-war in Russia with many sequences being directly lifted from the filmmaker’s life. Fleeing Moscow to live with relatives in the countryside in his youth was a big part of the pre-war phase. Tarkovsky’s father was a well known poet, and you can most definitely see that influence. There are many slow and meditative shots revealing nature and people intermingling, like in one of the opening scenes where the Doctor who asked for directions gazes back towards Tarkovsky’s mothers’ house in the countryside as wind sweeps and bellows along the fields of buck wheat that Tarkovsky had planted for the film. The main character-whose face remains unseen throughout the film and is to be a reflection of Tarkovsy himself- narrates from off-screen throughout many sequences, although there are a few narrations weaved into the film where Tarkovsky’s father recites his own poetry over select scenes.

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Tarkovsky here has essentially made a stream of consciousness film. It is about a man reflecting on his life as he lay dying from illness, and in that way you can absorb and view these scenes from this character’s perspective. Even though we are never properly introduced to the character we know him deeply by the time we see him caressing a bird before letting it fly away near the end of the film. What makes the film hard to digest on first viewing, besides it’s incredibly nonlinear narrative and plot structure, is that Tarkovsky had cast two actors to play two different roles. Margarita Terekhova plays Natalia, the ex-wife of the adult Aleksei (Tarakovsky’s representation of himself) and Aleksei’s Mother, Maria, in the pre-war era as well. On top of that Maria also goes by Masha or Marusya at times. The child actor, Ignat Daniltsev, plays the 12 year old Aleksei and also Aleksei’s son Ignat later in the post-war era as well. There’s also the fact that Tarkovsky inserts real newsreel footage of wartime with Russia, China and Germany depicting border spats with China and immensely crowded walkways and protests and other more mundane footage of Russian soldiers moving large floating structures piled high with perishables and goods through ankle high water with no destination in sight.

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In my mild research of the film I came across a sentiment that perfectly said what I could not in how to approach this film, I have a link to the website at the bottom of the review if this has piqued your interest for more information about “The Mirror”, “I realised that the best approach when watching this film is a simple one. To not try to dissect what each scene means per say but to try to understand the underlying themes of the film which involve adolescent love, pain, abandonment and emotional trauma“(http://www.classicartfilms.com/mirror-the-1975). This was an interesting departure from what I normally view and I encourage others to go and watch something that you know you wouldn’t normally choose, it’s good to get a different perspective. “The Mirror” was captivating in a few ways for me personally, but this is definitely not a film that will fit everyone’s tastes. The director knew that when making the film. He cared not for the box office predictions or numbers, not for the critical response that he would receive good or bad, he just created, and that is something that I can appreciate. However if you viewed this film and still have no idea what was even going on, fret not, for even Tarkovsky himself wasn’t entirely sure of the purpose or meaning of some scenes, “There are many complications there which I don’t even completely understand myself. For example, it was very important for me to have my mother in some scenes. There is one episode in the film in which the boy, Ignat, is sitting…not Ignat…what was his name?…the author’s son, he is sitting in his father’s empty room, in the present, in our times….And as he is sitting there we hear the doorbell, he opens the door. This is my mother. And she is the grandmother of this boy who opens the door for her. But why doesn’t she recognise him, why doesn’t the grandson recognize her?…one has completely no idea. That is…firstly, this wasn’t explained by the plot, in the screenplay, and secondly…even for me this was unclear.” (http://www.classicartfilms.com/mirror-the-1975)

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Final Score: The Dreams, Past, & Future of 1 man

*For more analysis check out this site below, it helped me immensely in sorting out the film’s themes and ideas in play:

http://www.classicartfilms.com/mirror-the-1975

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Old School Review: The Seventh Seal

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman in 1957, “The Seventh Seal” is a fantasy drama set during the Middle Ages in which a disillusioned Knight returns to Sweden after the Crusades have ended. The Knight, Antonius Block, (Max Von Sydow) is met by the personification of Death (Bengt Ekerot) on a seaside coast and engages in a ‘running’ game of Chess over the course of several days to determine his fate. If this sounds familiar, a knight playing chess with the grim reaper, it may be because of the parodies that this film has inspired over the years. Take Ian McKellen’s cameo in “The Last Action Hero” for example:

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McKellen’s character even emerges from the set of a film with the same title as Bergman’s classic, sporting the simple yet effective look of Death. However my favorite example of this imagery being parodied happens to take place in a little movie called “Bill and Ted’s Bogus journey” the sequel to “Excellent Adventure”:

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Other aspects of the film have been mined for laughs as well. “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” famously depicted their own version of the flagellant scene by having a roving group of monks smacking themselves in the head while reciting lines from the Dies Irae (A Latin Hymn):

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So, why all references you might ask? To press upon you (for the uninitiated) that this film is heavily lauded around the world-and therefore has been ripe for a good ribbing for over half a century now. The story deals heavily with religious themes and seriously questions organized religion through allegory and rich dialogue. In the film, every character deals with doubt in some way shape or form- it is one of the central ideas of the story after all. The two opposing ideologies of the film are represented in both the Knight Antonius, and in Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), his nihilistic squire who rides with him. Both characters’ personalities color Bergman’s own differing thoughts on the subject of God, “Since at this time I was still very much in a quandary over religious faith, I placed my two opposing beliefs side by side, allowing each to state its case in its own way. In this manner, a virtual cease-fire could exist between my childhood piety and my newfound harsh rationalism.” -Ingmar Bergman.

The other major theme of the story is the silence of God and how people react to this. Antonius may be dour and depressed by all of this but he never rejects the possibility of God, he simple wants some reinforcement that can prove that his life has not been wasted. He says as much when he and Jons enter a small chapel. Jons chides a local artist there for creating artwork depicting the dance of death and embracing the religious and ideological fervor that led to the Crusades while Antonius goes to confess. He asks, “Is it so terribly inconceivable to comprehend God with one’s senses? Why does he hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles? How can we believe in the faithful when we lack faith? What will happen to us who want to believe, but can not? What about those who neither want to nor can believe? Why can’t I kill God in me? Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way – despite my wanting to evict Him from my heart? Why is He, despite all, a mocking reality I can’t be rid of?” Shortly thereafter Antonius reveals that he is playing chess with Death and boasts of the move he has planned to cheat the supernatural foe. However, it was not a priest that was listening to the woes of the Knight, but Death himself.

During this exchange Antonius reveals his understanding of religion and the organization of it, “We must make an idol of our fear, and that idol we shall call God.” Once Death vanishes from the chapel both Antonius and Jons head into the small village and see the traveling theatre troupe we had been introduced to earlier in the film. They are composed of a married couple, Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Andersson) with their infant child and Skat, the director of the troupe. Jof occasionally has visions and is the only other character to actually see Death other than the Knight near the end of the film. After a spat in the local pub involving Jof, Antonius meets the married couple outside of town and shares a meal with both of them and oddly enough- he finds his meaning in that moment with Jof and Mia on a hillside, he is inspired by the simple love of the two and embraces the gift of the natural world, not a fate handed down from above, but of the fellowship of mankind in the natural world. He then extends an offer to them to travel with him and Jons through the forest rather than risk getting the plague along their original route, even going so far as to offer shelter in his castle from the plague.

In his next turn in the game Antonius appears exuberant and Death takes notice, deviously asking if he plans to take the troupe through the forest. Antonius also takes note of the grim reaper’s inquiry and becomes well aware of the threat his newfound friends face with him. Once deep into the woods the Knight engages with Death one last time, in which Jof notices who Antonius is playing chess with and decides to escape while Death is distracted by the game. Antonius sees the troupe attempting to leave and knocks over half the board to let them escape Death’s grasp.. for now. It is this act which completes Antonius’ quest to do one meaningful deed before Death takes him. In the end Jof sees Death and the Knight’s remaining travelers doing a solemn dance of death as he guides them away from the land of the living.

Much like my initial viewing of “Citizen Kane” I found this film to be more enjoyable than I had expected. This sensation can be condensed down to two major reasons why the film worked for me as a modern audience; humor and truth. Gunnar Bjornstrand’s character Jons was an unexpected source of humor in the film as the first half of the film paints the squire as a cynical brute with a penchant for singing tunes. We see him rough up a would-be rapist, Raval (Bertil Anderberg), while searching for water in the first act. However, Jons quickly recognizes Raval, the theologian that had convinced the knight to leave for the Crusades in the first place, and promises to brand him on the face if he sees him again-which he does, and he immediately fulfills that promise. The second half of the film shows his other half though, his comfortable acceptance of the world and its darkness, which leads into his sense of humor. One scene in particular has Jons providing lines to Plog the Blacksmith as the local smith tries to insult and threaten the theater troupe director that had run off with the blacksmith’s wife earlier in the film. It’s wonderfully played as the squire’s attention is piqued when the insults begin to fly and he makes his way to Plog’s ear to aid for his own enjoyment. There are other times throughout the film’s runtime when the darkly comic humor emerges, though the film is indeed mostly concerned with Antonius’ quest for answers.

Which leads me to the second reason the film worked, the truth in Antonius’ universally relatable problem, having doubt. Questioning the larger machinations at work can be applied to religion, but it could also be applied to government rule, as an example. Having a sensation of existentialism after experiencing doubt as to what was previously considered the standard way of life can be disorienting to say the least. Many people throughout time have felt that same sensation, it’s part of what makes a revolution so unsettling to some- and just as invigorating for others. The truth in the film is likely so well done because Bergman drew from his own inner turmoils about religion but also because of the way he crafted the world of his film as well. By creating a sensation of anxiety and fear from a threat as menacing as that of the black plague Bergman made the medieval world’s problems comparable to that of the 1950’s and now again in 2017, the fear of nuclear annihilation. Bergman thought of his film as an allegory for the 20th century, or the modern era, with the threat of the black plague resembling the cloud of anxiety that nuclear weapons now bring in its place. He was also inspired by the idea of art existing in dark times, which is brought to life in the film by the troupe of traveling actors bringing song and dance to various small villages even under the looming threat of the black plague. “In my film, the Crusader returns from the Crusades as the soldier returns from the war today. In the Middle Ages, man lived in terror of the plague. Today, they live in fear of the atomic bomb” – Ingmar Bergman. “The Seventh Seal” is a classic for a reason and if you want an entry point into the acclaimed filmmaker’s body of work, this is a fine start. “The Seventh Seal” is in the Criterion Collection and can be found on Filmstruck, a classic film streaming service that works with the Criterion Collection, as well.

 

Final Score: 1 Knight & 1 Bishop

 

*For more analysis of “The Seventh Seal” I suggest giving the video below a look, it helped me to more fully understand the film, hopefully you’ll find it of use as well.

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Famous Filmmaker’s Firsts: The Coen Brothers’ “Blood Simple”

Written by both Joel and Ethan Coen and directed by Joel Coen, “Blood Simple” is a thriller that reflects much of their future catalog of films in a multitude of ways. Mainly that there might be a simple tumbling of events based around those universal and age old instigators; love, jealousy, and revenge. The film opens with narration condoning complainers and letting the audience know that something can always go wrong because in Texas, we’re told, you’re on your own. This brilliantly lays out the mentality that ultimately causes everything to go awry.

It’s a simple story at its core, but it’s what the Coens do with that structure and how they shoot the preceding events that make this film worth it’s while. Abby (Frances McDormand) decides to leave her jealous and brooding husband Marty (Dan Hedaya) in the night. Ray (John Getz) works for Marty at his bar and offers to drive Abby to Houston, but a mutual attraction only gets them to a motel before doubling back after a night of passionate indiscretion. While there Marty’s hired private eye Visser (M. Emmett Walsh) snaps proof of the infidelity and wheels back to Marty to hand over the proof for an envelope of money.

A few double crosses later and we have scenes that play out where two characters believe each other has killed another all while we the audience know that neither version is true. The Coens play each scene for all it’s worth by ratcheting up the tension with their shot sequences, pacing, and soundtrack choices. The title of the film is derived from a 1929 Dashiell Hammett novel (Red Harvest) which the term “Blood Simple” is described as the addled, fearful mindset of people after a prolonged immersion in violent situations. Which is something that every major character goes through, and some viewers may also feel unsettled due to the atmosphere alone. I really enjoyed this movie, it was fun getting to the root of two of the most critically acclaimed directing duos to ever hit Hollywood and it’ll help give me context to their future releases, every good story needs an origin after all. I suggest giving it a shot!

Final Score: One love triangle and a knife in the hand