film

“Sword of Trust” Traverse City Film Fest Review (2019)

Written by Lynn Shelton and Michael Patrick O’Brien and directed by Shelton, “Sword of Trust” is a dramatic comedy that follows a mysterious Sword from the Civil War, and how it may in fact bear proof that the South had actually won the war. Marc Maron stars in the film as Mel, a wry but welcoming curmudgeon of sorts that runs a pawn shop in Alabama. He has one employee, Nathaniel (Jon Bass), a fool with a heart of gold who harbors a fascination for conspiracy theories propagated on the internet. We’re also introduced to Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins), a couple visiting town to manage Cynthia’s grandfather’s will and belongings. With the bank owning her grandfather’s house Cynthia is left only with a Civil War sword with several documents and a letter from her grandfather stating the sabre’s importance.

At first when the couple dare to enter Mel’s pawn shop, eager to rid themselves of their inherited relic of alternate history, they attempt to recoup their losses by feigning the sword’s legitimacy. This scene (and the film as a whole) between Mel and the couple attempting to prove the sword’s authenticity was a welcomed throwback to the character driven, dialogue heavy, indie flicks from the nineties. After some clever wordplay the four decide to seek out any true believers of the conspiracy willing to shell out enough cold hard cash for the blade. They encounter rival factions of southern men willing to get nasty over the conspiracy as they discover that a surprising amount of people believe in the flimsy facade, and are willing to get violent for “the truth“.

The emotional crux of the film, which was unexpected on my part, came from Maron’s Mel. When the foursome are hauled in the back of a trailer to the secret location of the family boss presiding over items of legitimacy from “The War of Northern Aggression“, they take the time to get to know each other. Cynthia and Mary recount their decision to chase their dreams before attempting to have and raise children, but it’s when they ask Mel about his life where he reflects on his musician-junkie days with Deirdre (in a small supporting role played by the director of the film, Lynn Shelton) where the film finds its humanistic core. The film’s identity relies, wisely, on the performances of its characters, and its in Marc Maron’s performance in the third act where all of the character’s intricacies and nuances are connected to a past of love, regret, hardened outlooks, and a weathered sense of realism that’s relatable and true to life. Maron, always ready with a pithy comeback, is anchored by a cast of skilled performers all working towards a well made dramatic comedy. “Sword of Trust” is a film that’s perfectly tailored for our post-truth paradigm, the fact that it manages to be equal parts clever and funny while maintaining a breezy hour and a half runtime is in itself a small cinematic miracle. Check it out!

Final Score: 40,000 dollars

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film

“The Wretched” Traverse City Film Fest Review (2019)

Written and directed by Brett and Drew Pierce, “The Wretched” is a throwback horror film that uniquely finds a balance between old school practical effects and an unnerving new wrinkle to the folklore of Witches. This was the last film that I caught at the Traverse City film festival this year, and it turned out to be my favorite film of the fest! Oddly enough, I was in line for another film earlier during the week with friends and we struck up a conversation with a couple of guys behind us after hearing them name-drop “Big Trouble in Little China” and “The Thing” as a few of their favorite films. They happened to be filmmakers from Michigan, now out in L.A., and had a film at one of the later Midnight movies during the week. That film was “The Wretched” and my friends and I made the move to get tickets for that film because of that short conversation, and we were better off for having done so!

This review will be more vague than usual as the film has only been screened a few times for audiences at this point, and the less plot details out there, the better, in my opinion. We follow Ben (John-Paul Howard), a seventeen-year-old visiting his father, Liam (Jamison Jones), for the summer in North Port Michigan, on the Leelanau peninsula. Over the summer Ben works with his father at the local docks teaching kids how to sail and clearing out the slips. He’s mostly concerned with garnering the attention of the local girls and trashing the petulant bullies’ boat after some uncomfortable humiliation. However his attention is soon turned to his fathers’ odd neighbors and their increasingly strange behavior. Ty (Kevin Bigley) and Abbie (Zarah Mahler) seem normal at first, and initially they are, but after a wander in the woods with her son Dillon (Blane Crockarell), Abbie begins to take on more… aggressive tendencies. Eventually evoking “Rear Window” in Ben’s obsessive paranoia over his neighbors’ strange actions, Mallory (Piper Curda) a quirky co-worker at the docks, joins him in investigating the truth. Kids start disappearing and everyone except Ben seems to have forgotten them, forcing him to action.

Piper Curda and John-Paul Howard in “The Wretched”

This film excels on several technical fronts. Firstly, the adherence to practical effects over the use of CGI in this film is not only admirable, but downright mesmerizing. I’m not sure how they crafted some of their scares, but they were highly effective in creating an atmosphere of disgusting, moody, tension. Which, by the way, is utilized perfectly in this film. Some modern day horror films overdo the heightened levels of tension throughout their run-time, but this film wisely gives the audience a false sense of security at times; allowing several scenes to breathe and the audience to get attached to these characters as people first and foremost- not just fodder for the supernatural villain to devour. These characters were also, delightfully, more intelligent than expected, they’re smarter than your average teenager stereotype from any given slasher flick. One character even removed his shoes before heading up a staircase to find the source of a few bumps in the night. They seemed like reasonable people approaching an unreasonable scenario, no comic relief characters blindly blundering into danger here! Oh, and the sound design has to get a mention as well, it was unsettling and perfectly set each scene to a mood that slowly evolves from creepy to outright terror nearing the third act!

Zarah Mahler as Abbie in “The Wretched”

Speaking of the third act, it gets pretty intense! Not to oversell the film, but the choice to stack several types of phobias on top of each other in the final sequence was brilliant! Forcing your characters to keep charging forward through a continued escalation of terror like that was, well, it was a damn good time at the cinema. This was a satisfying throwback to old tropes with refreshing new techniques and execution. Anyone that enjoys films like “The Witch“, “Evil Dead” (The Sam Raimi version), or “Halloween” (The John Carpenter version) will probably enjoy this one as I did. I highly recommend seeking this one out once the film makes it’s way through the festival circuit and distribution process. Keep your eyes peeled for this one!

Final Score: 1 Witch

*Below is a link to an interview with one of the directors, Brett Pierce, where he discusses the reasoning behind why they decided to shoot the film in Northern Michigan, check it out!

https://www.northernexpress.com/news/feature/evil-dead-descendant-bros-brett-and-drew-pierce-bring-the-wretched-1/

film

Old School Review: “Ugetsu” (1953)

Written by Matsutarô Kawaguchi, Akinari Ueda, and Yoshikata Yoda, and directed by Kenji Mizoguchi “Ugetsu” is a film that hides its true intentions behind the veil of a ghost story. The supernatural aspects of the film cleverly disguise the introspective look at the different sexes and how war frenetically warps both. Frankly, the idea of ghosts here aren’t what modern audiences may expect, it is an older representation of the dead that take issue with moving on from this world. There are no jumpscares here, but there is a moral tale that should cause concern and, dare I say it, a deeper level of fright than your typical horror show. We are set in sixteenth century Japan during a civil war in which two lower class families are torn apart just as much by the greed and avarice that foments during wartime, as their own miscommunications.

Mizoguchi’s camera is almost always flowing in poetic fashion, mastering the long take and transitions that emit an ethereal tone.

Genjurô (Masayuki Mori) and Tôbei (Eitarô Ozawa) are the men of two small households in a rural village near the shores of Lake Biwa in Ōmi Province. Genjurô, a potter, and Tôbei, an ambitious fool with dreams of becoming a Samurai, head to a larger village nearby that’s heard to be having a small economic boom due to the encroaching war. Despite the concerns of their wives, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) Genjuro’s wife, and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) Tobei’s wife, the two men hurry off to earn money, material value, and in their eyes; the satisfaction of their wives despite their own fears of inferiority. Which is nonsense to begin with as both of their wives tell them that they are enough for them as they are. Despite the worries of their wives and the village elder, the two men come back successful with a small batch of earned income, which only bolsters their egos to earn more silver and gold the next time they embark.

This scene was excellently shot and eerily immersive.

As Genjurô and Tôbei rush to prepare their next batch of pottery in their kiln, the approaching war marches upon their doorstep before they can properly assess their work and are forced to leave while it burns, unattended. The two men begrudgingly trot off with their families as soldiers arrive in their village, but it isn’t long before they are so consumed by the idea that they might lose all of their effort that they run off to check the kiln. To their surprise, the pottery was completed without harm and they quickly gathered their product and convinced their wives to travel with them to the city to sell their goods once more. They choose to take a boat across the lake, avoiding the foot-soldiers of war. However once on the water, and the fog rolls in, we are at once transported from a wartime historical drama to one of supernatural happenings. An unspoken sense of dread spreads as another boat emerges from the mist with a dying man to warn them of pirates out among the waves. After which they decide that sneaking about the edge of the water might be safer. Genjurô’s wife and boy head back towards safety, but Ohama fears that Tôbei’s dreams of becoming a Samurai could overtake him, so she departs with them to hurry along the selling process.

A newly decorated Tôbei discovers Ohama working as a prostitute.

As expected, Tôbei runs off after spotting a decorated warrior in the crowd. Ohama chases after him to no avail while Genjurô remains to sell their wares. Not long after Ohama’s rush to find Tôbei, Genjurô is approached by Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyô) and her aide. They point out a few dishes and a sake set and tell him to bring them to the Kutsuki mansion just outside of town. Now, here’s where each of the four major characters have major scenes surrounding their decisions and failures. Tôbei eventually finds a suit of armor and sneaks about to the battlefield where he stumbles upon a dying general of the opposing faction who asks his accompanying lieutenant to execute him by decapitation. The loyal underling abides, wipes tears from his face, and takes the head of his fallen master right as Tôbei attacks from behind, killing the lieutenant and hurrying away with the stolen head as his prize. He finds the nearest barracks, presents the head of an enemy general and is rewarded fondly with a fitting rank, horse, and a small regimen of soldiers to command. Ohama’s luck is not so kind, as she’s captured by random footsoldiers, raped, and thrown to the street. She eventually finds work as a prostitute and runs into Tôbei with his men at an inn. They argue at length in a scene where I personally thought Ohama might actually kill Tôbei, but eventually they abate and both discard their new personas and return to the village having learned that unchecked ambitions can have great costs.

Lady Wakasa’s seductive illusions further illustrate how war inflicts suffering on men and women alike- even carrying some trauma to the afterlife.

Genjurô and Miyagi, however, fare worse fates than that of their neighbors. Given that Mizoguchi’s main narrative focus is the suffering of women due to the ambitions of the men in their lives during times of heightened conflict, the overarching narrative between Miyagi and Genjurô is particularly grim. While Genjurô heads to the Kutsuki manor with Lady Wakasa’s order, Miyagi and their son Genichi are attacked on the road home by rootless foot soldiers. In a moving sequence Miyagi is hassled for the food she’s carrying, Genichi strapped to her back, but the men quickly overcome her and stab her to death with their spears and trot off with their spoils to devour them in the background- all while Genichi wails in the foreground clasped to his dead mother’s back. This macabre scene paired with the dream-like pleasures Lady Wakasa offers to Genjurô may cause a battle of emotional turmoil in the gut- and as this film’s historical setting is used as a reflective mirror to Japan’s postwar sensibilities, it’s introspective look at Japan’s wartime morality is powerful and poignant. Eventually Genjurô is confronted by the reality that his new illustrious lover may not be all that she seems, a local shopkeeper turns pale at the mention of Kutsuki Manor and a wandering priest notices that Genjurô has been in contact with supernatural forces and applies exorcistic tattoos all over his body. When he wakes from his illusory nightmare and sees that the Kutsuki manor has been in ruins for years, Genjurô returns home sober and in need of his family. Waiting for him there are Genichi and Miyagi, with food and a bed roll waiting. It isn’t until the morning after that Genjurô realizes that his wife’s ghost was watching over their son, and he goes back to solemnly fire up his kiln, and help Tôbei tend his fields.

Miyagi’s final moments…

In retrospect, I did enjoy this film. Mizoguchi has a unique direction, and his narrative focus is one that is often underrepresented- especially in his own time. While this film did not capture me or necessarily take my breath away, it was a good film that I respected. This was the first film of Mizoguchi’s that I have seen, and I’ll definitely be returning to his library of films in the future. I recommend this one to anyone interested in the film’s sociopolitical message or simply to see another Japanese master of cinema. I recommend giving the links listed below a look if you want to know more about the film and the creators involved with it.

Final Score: One Potter, One Samurai, and One Ghost

The article below is what drew me to check out Mizoguchi in the first place. Having recently seen a lot of Kurosawa and Ozu films- I found this article’s title to be both provocative and mystifying. Thus credit, where credit is due:

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/better-than-ozu-and-kurosawa-mizoguchi

*Here’s another focused review that provided a lot of good context for the film and Mizoguchi as a creator:

https://deepfocusreview.com/definitives/ugetsu/

*Lastly, here’s another in-depth analysis of “Ugetsu” that I found fascinating:

https://www.slantmagazine.com/dvd/ugetsu-bd/

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Old School Review: “Good Morning” (1959)

Written by Kôgo Noda and Yasujirô Ozu and directed by Ozu, “Good Morning” is a comedic drama following two young boys who wage a war of silence against their parents to persuade them to buy a Television set so they can watch Sumo wrestling. This is the most charming of Ozu’s films that I have seen thus far (three and counting), and still yet the film manages to insert powerful, but subtle, musings on the intricacies of communication and intent. The film is focused on a small Tokyo suburb of families living in close proximity with each other and it cleverly bounces between the language barriers and misunderstandings of a few groups of the residents. First, and most focused on, are the two brothers Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu) and Minoru (Sitara Koji). On their morning walks to school they and a few other boys from the neighborhood have perfected a game in which they press a finger against each other’s forehead to instigate a fart, which gives way to laughter and affirmation in the group. Funnily enough, one poor kid keeps failing this intestinal test and, well, he begins and ends the film with a walk of shame back to his parents to get a change of pants.

The mothers and wives of the suburb turn a simple misunderstanding into a series of gossip and rumors because their collective dues haven’t been paid accordingly. They all attest to have paid on time, surely, there was a simple issue along the way, but on the other hand the chairwoman, Mrs Haraguchi (Haruko Sugimura) who collects the dues, has just bought a new washing machine. As the film progresses, Mrs Hayashi (Kuniko Miyake) the mother of Isamu and Minoru, wanted to solve the issue quickly- she seems to be easily put on edge by financial stress– but Mrs Haraguchi hears about the allegation of a new washing machine bought illegally with the dues and confronts Mrs Hayashi (who didn’t even start the rumor) to assure her that this did not happen. Ironically, later when Isamu and Minoru go on a strike of silence to get their parents to buy a TV, they apply this silence to all adults and Mrs Haraguchi assumes this slight was instigated by Mrs Hayashi for the misunderstanding, and quickly informs the other women that Mrs Hayashi holds grudges. This whole incident, by the way, is finally uncovered when Mrs Haraguchi discovers that the dues were given to her mother (Eiko Miyoshi), a comedic old woman who had simply forgotten about receiving them. The grandmother is often found praying, and blatantly complaining about her ingrate of a daughter- yet another Ozu familiarity in the comedy and tragedy of generational family affairs.

The fathers and husbands of the suburb also have their own issues with communication as well. The father of Isamu and Minoru (Chishū Ryū) must mediate and absolve his sons squabbling, after they loudly resist he bellows that “You talk too much for boys your age”. Minoru (the eldest) responds that adults are even worse because adults always engage in pointless niceties like “good morning”, “good evening” and refuse to say exactly what they mean. Which is how Isamu and Minoru come to their silent strike. Their father also has a scene with an older acquaintance in a bar who had found no solace in retirement, only the slow walk toward death. They try to communicate between one’s drunken rambling and the other’s botched attempt to cheer him up- but in doing so realizes his own encroaching retirement. It is this acquaintance, happier with a new job near the end of the film selling electronics, that Isamu and Minoru’s parents buy a TV from to celebrate his new job- to the joy of the silent little warriors.

Final Score: 2 brothers and a few rumors

film

Old School Review: “Tokyo Story” (1953)

Written by Kôgo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu, and directed by Ozu, “Tokyo Story” is seemingly a simple family drama about an older couple traveling to visit their children and grandchildren in Tokyo. At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking such of an arthouse film, but you’d be wrong in this case. In essence that is the skeleton of the film, yes, but beneath the initial layer lies a story about family and how time can erode once strong connections. It is about how parents can lose their place in their family’s hierarchy. How work and modernization can manipulate and destroy family in subtle ways. Mostly though, it is about the bittersweet heartbreak of growing old and losing touch with those closest to you.

When Shukichi (Chishu Ryu), the grandfather, and Tomi (Chiyeko Higashiyama) the grandmother, arrive in Tokyo they’re welcomed by a busy family. They spend the first few days with their oldest son Koichi (So Yamamura) a doctor in a small local clinic. He is married to Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake), and they have two sons. After meeting their grandchildren and hanging out about the house (Not many adults have the time away from work to take them sightseeing) they head to Koichi’s sister, Shige’s (Haruko Sugimura) home. Shige is also married and runs a beauty salon in the first floor of their abode. The family members mean well, and make several attempts to entertain their elders, sightseeing some and buying them treats (though Shige protests at her husband for buying such expensive cakes- they eat most of them before presenting the gift). At a lack of finding things for Shukichi and Tomi to do the married couples recruit Noriko (Setsuko Hara) their widowed daughter-in-law who hasn’t yet remarried since the war. Noriko is more than happy to help, even though she isn’t a blood relative and has the least stature among the adult children of Shukichi and Tomi.

They try not to burden any of the family while they are in Tokyo, but it becomes clear after some time that they are simply too busy to accommodate them. After a failed trip to a resort spa outside of Tokyo, paid for by Shige’s family, Shukichi and Tomi decide to head home. They linger about for a bit, trying not to offend anyone for having left the spa early, which isn’t why they came to Tokyo in the first place. After a night out with Shkichi’s old village friends now residing in Tokyo, and Tomi having a profound evening with Noriko- they depart for home. Shortly after having returned home, Tomi falls gravely ill and the children begin to make the journey home for their dying mother. It is a beautiful and tragic sequence of scenes for the last half hour of the film, Shukichi veiling his grief with blank expressions and the children all commingling their grief and true feelings about their parents- it’s a lot, and if you can make it through the end with dry eyes, I honestly don’t know what would move you to tears in cinema.

The story, however, is only one slice of what makes this film so memorable and potent. Yasujiro Ozu’s technique behind the camera accounts for much of the dreamlike quality of the film. His cinematography and framing choices seem unique in how he utilizes them. He doesn’t always adhere to the eyeline rule, characters can seem as if they aren’t looking at each other as they speak, but he cares not. His style doesn’t sacrifice spacial or auditory understanding in the least, it enhances it. Ozu often frames two people sitting side by side, facing away from the camera, which gives the audience an almost ghostly viewpoint of the dialogue. It’s in this pairing of those faraway, unconcerned, shots of conversation with his low angle mid-shots of the actors directly facing the camera that Ozu’s style emerges as one both heavily invested in what his characters have to say, but also of the world they inhabit. Many scenes are bookended with “pillow shots” (relating to a similar technique in Japanese poetry); beautiful compositions of elaborate cityscapes, simple architecture, trains chugging along, or boats cruising along the coast in the background that bind the characters to their place and time so beautifully.

Inherently relatable and elegantly true to life, “Tokyo Story” was a joy to discover. I cannot recommend it enough, I found it (as with most older films lately) on the Criterion Channel, and with it a new filmography to plumb. Test new waters, take a chance and maybe you’ll find a new favorite film or filmmaker, I know I have.

Final Score: 4 adult children, 2 grandchildren, and 1 heartbroken old man..

*To further inform you on the humble perfection of this film, I’ve linked Roger Ebert’s review of the film below:

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-tokyo-story-1953

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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.

www.cosmicbooknews.comsitesdefaultfilesjustice-league-flash-cyborg-costumes-833e5d5748d92d3b1579ea8e15cc993a4aa684d4 

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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Old School Review: The Seventh Seal (1957)

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:

lastactionhero1

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”:

bill-ted-grim-reaper

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):

HolyGrail024

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.