We the Animals(9/9/2018)

In 2011 a film came out which was perhaps the most hotly anticipated movie of the 2010s: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.  I remember the anticipation for it: the trailers looked great, the buzz out of Cannes was intense, and Malick had pretty much never disappointed previously, at least not in my book.  Finally on that faithful summer day I went to see the movie and… I liked it but didn’t love it.  It was kind of a weird feeling, I was bedazzled by the film’s crafts and was fascinated by the film’s aims but then by the second half it just kind of felt like it wasn’t going anywhere.  There were just these endless passages of kids playing in the woods and the various conflicts and family dynamics at the center of it felt like they were left sort of unresolved despite a lot of the Sean Penn sections implying a degree of catharsis that never really connects with the rest of the movie.  Upon repeat viewings I warmed to the movie but not entirely, in many ways it’s something I appreciated a macro level (I appreciated the vision) and on a micro level (damn near every shot was gorgeous) but which failed for me on the levels that lay between in which it is meant to act as simple drama.  So why am I talking about this seven year old movie now?  Well, in part it’s because that movie’s influence has loomed large in the years since its release and no film has quite seemed as much like an echo of Malick as the debut feature from director Jeremiah Zagar called We the Animals.

Set in update New York the film looks at a Puerto Rican family consisting of a mother (Sheila Vand), a father (Raúl Castillo), and three brothers.  The film largely focuses on the youngest of these brothers, Jonah (Evan Rosado).  Early on we see that Jonah is the only of the three brothers who can’t swim, which establishes as a theme that he’s a little different from his more rough-and-tumble older brothers Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel).  The family is not very wealthy and the relationship between the mother and father is rocky to the point of being violent at times.  Jonah’s one escape from this occasionally rather sad life are the cartoons he occasionally draws late at night in secret for fear that his family would not understand them.

Indie debuts are often autobiographical, and this one sort of is as well even through it’s not based on the childhood of its director and is instead an adaptation of a novel by a guy named Justin Torres and is loosely based on his childhood.  The writer/director of the film is Jeremiah Zagar who is young but who isn’t entirely a novice as he’s been making short films and documentaries for over ten years.  That experience shows as he has a clear grasp of how to make a confident film with a consistent tone and some fairly striking imagery.  Compared to 95% of English-language films this is fairly stylistically bold and yet I can’t quite help but feel like there’s something a bit passé about it.  It’s not that there have been some massive number of films told from a child’s perspective via Malickian camera movements and occasional forays into magical realism, but there have been enough like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Summer 1993, and to some extent The Florida Project and even Beasts of No Nation, that the stylistic choice here doesn’t have quite the impact it might have had last decade.  That isn’t to say it isn’t still fairly compelling of course

We the Animals is certainly not much of a plot oriented film.  If you were to describe the story of the film to someone you would spend more time telling them the gist of it than you would recounting a series of events that lead from one to another.  Instead this is more of a character piece but it’s a character piece about someone who doesn’t have that defined of a personality by virtue of his being a ten year old.  We know that Jonah is a bad fit with his brothers, and late in the film we get some insight into why, but aside from the fact that he’s depressed by his family situation I’m not sure we ever really get that much out of him.  This is perhaps the same problem I had with The Tree of Life back in the day; it was beautiful, it captured a feeling, but at the end of the day there didn’t quite seem to be enough meat on the bone to make a feature film fully engaging.  Of course that movie had certain advantages over this one, namely the fact that it invented this style rather than followed it and it also had greater ambition in its sweep.  We the Animals has its moments of magical realism but it certainly never stops to recount the dawn of time in full detail and while the filmmakers involved are very talented they aren’t quite Terrence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki and on a scale of “pure cinema” this can’t really compete.  So what we’re left with with We the Animals is a movie I certainly admired for its craft and what it was going for but which just didn’t seem to quite have that last narrative hook that would really grab me.  It’s certainly a movie worth seeing but I’m not sure it quite grabs that extra bit of import that it needs.

*** out of Five

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Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 9 – WarGames (1983)

A couple of installments back I saw the movie Short Circuit, which was directed by a guy named John Badham.  Badham is not a guy most people will know by name, and probably for good reason, but he has had an interesting career as a Hollywood journeyman and made a number of films that people remember pretty well.  The son of a U.S. Army General from Alabama and a British actress that he met overseas, the Badham family got an odd entrance to the entertainment industry when his sister was cast as Scout in the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Much later Badham would work in television and make one small film before suddenly scoring a breakout hit film when he found himself making Saturday Night Fever and followed that up with the big budget Frank Langella starring adaptation of Dracula and the well-remembered thriller Blue Thunder.  From there though he started to become more of a director of family films.  Had I known ahead of time that the same guy who made Short Circuit also made WarGames I may have waited until I saw the latter before seeing the former, though that probably would have set me up for disappointment because Badham’s earlier film is plainly better than Short Circuit.

If there’s a common thread between WarGames and Short Circuit it’s that both films share a certain skepticism about shady military experiments.  WarGames is meant to be something of a cautionary tale along the lines of The China Syndrome or Fail-Safe but made for a more family friendly post-E.T. Hollywood.  But unlike Short Circuit, which was even more entrenched in a Spielbergian brand of cinema, there’s still a bit of that gritty brand of 70s paranoia to be found in WarGames.  It’s telling that the movie doesn’t start with Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy but instead begins in NORAD with generals and scientists talking in geopolitical technobabble that probably isn’t entirely authentic but certainly doesn’t seem to have been dumbed down too much for kids.  The mere fact that concepts like mutually assured destruction and early web hacking are being discussed here feels a lot more confident than what you’d usually get from PG rated fare today.  Of course the more family oriented material with Broderick and Sheedy isn’t half bad either.  Broderick’s character is interesting in that most movies of this era would make a computer geek like this into a total nerd with pocket protectors and shit but here this hacker is depicted as a slightly awkward but mostly normal teenager and Ally Sheedy’s character is fairly compelling if slightly lacking in things to do in the film.  The film is probably at its weakest when it wants us to believe that this kid can escape from military custody like he was John McClane or something, but for the most part the characters work.

WarGames was more than likely inspired, at least in part, by a 1979 incident in which NORAD detected that a Soviet missile attack was inbound, leading to the president to be alerted and asked to make a decision to retaliate within 3 to 7 minutes.  Fortunately for everyone it was determined within those 3 to 7 minutes that a training simulation had accidently been loaded into an active computer and that the whole thing was a false alarm and nuclear war was averted.  Unbeknownst to audiences that saw the film a similar close call actually happened on the Soviet side in 1983 because their computers misread an unusual weather pattern and crisis was only averted that time because a Soviet Air Defense officer named Stanislav Petrov went against protocol and disregarded the computer detection of incoming missiles.  No one in the west would learn about that near-apocalypse until the 90s but it still underscores that the kind of scenario found in the film was not entirely fantastical and helps explain why the film was actually taken pretty seriously despite its trappings back in 1983.  Ronald Reagan is said to have seen a screening of the film and is said to have put forward a presidential directive on computer security because of it.

To the Scorecard

I was surprised to learn while researching the film that it was pretty well respected by critics at the time of its release.  Roger Ebert gave it four stars and the film earned an Academy Award nomination for its screenplay.  I’m not sure that’s I’d praise it that much, but it’s definitely a good movie and it’s certainly better than its reputation as a mere nostalgia piece.

The Little Stranger(9/3/2018)

One of the most oddly sad things that movie studios find themselves doing is the “dumping” of certain movies.  This happens when studios fund certain movies and let them get made, but then start to have cold feet about them after they’re done.  Sometimes the completed film is simply bad but sometimes they just prove to be less commercial than the studio expected and it’s determined that it will be a harder sell with the public than they thought it would be.  Sometimes they’ll respond to this by putting out some sort of misleading advertising campaign, sometimes they’ll scale back the release and hope the movie catches on, but all too often what they do is the minimum possible to fulfil their contracts and cut their losses.  They’ll put the movies out in months like January or August or September when there’s the least competition and they’ll do the absolute minimum required in marketing.  They won’t bother putting the films in festivals to generate early buzz they might screen the movie for critics but even if they get good reviews they probably won’t capitalize on it.  Basically they’ll do everything in their power to make sure the film just kind of comes and goes in cinema and hope that interest picks up on DVD or something.  One of the more interesting and perhaps disappointing victims of “dumping” as of late is probably the latest film from Room director Lenny Abrahamson entitled The Little Stranger.

Set sometime after the Second World War, The Little Stranger focuses in on a country doctor named Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) whose mother once worked for a rural estate of the “Downton Abbey” variety called Hundreds Hall as a maid.  One day he’s called to Hundreds Hall because the current maid there named Betty (Liv Hill) has taken sick.  While there he sees that the place is a shell of its former self and is in a state of complete disrepair.  The family’s matriarch Angela Ayres (Charlotte Rampling) is still around but has seemingly little influence and her son Roderick (Will Poulter) hasn’t been much of a “man of the house” since receiving extensive burn injuries during the war.  The brightest spot of the house appears to be his sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who seems a bit more sensible and capable of moving on than her family members.  It soon becomes apparent that the downfall of this house seems to have been precipitated by the death of the family’s eldest daughter Susan (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) as a child.  Despite the state of the house Faraday still has an affection for the place and makes a point to keep visiting it to try an experimental treatment for Roderick’s burns and becomes more and more a friend of the family despite some very strange things happening in Hundreds Hall.

I think a big part of why this movie was “dumped” but the studio has less to do with its actual quality than with the simple fact that it kind of impossible to market.  The movie is about 75% “Masterpiece Theater” style British period piece and 25% a horror movie and will probably not give the audiences for either of those things exactly what they’re looking for.  The people looking for a Merchant Ivory movie out of something like this will probably not be thrilled with the ghost story elements and the typical horror audience will certainly not be happy with the dearth of scares to be found in the film (it makes The Witch look like The Conjuring by comparison).  Now, being an unconventional genre blend isn’t inherently a bad thing or commercial suicide.  That Nicole Kidman film The Others had a similar period piece to scares ratio as this does and it managed to be a hit, albeit almost twenty years ago.  But it you’re going to do something unexpected and unconventional you do sort of need to work extra hard in order to make people interested and I’m not so sure that The Little Stranger does.

The film was based on a novel by a woman named Sarah Waters, who is a contemporary British author who’s known to write novels in the same milieus that the likes of Charles Dickens and Emily Bronte used to specialize in but to look at them with a modern eye and to tackle issues that would have been taboo when the acknowledged masters were writing.  Film buffs would probably know her best as the author of the book “Fingersmith,” which was the basis for Park Chan-Wook’s excellent 2016 film The Handmaiden.  I was expecting that The Little Stranger would do a bit more to subvert its own genre in a similar way but it instead feels more like a fairly faithful replication of the traditional haunted house story like “The House of the Seven Gables” or “The Turn of the Screw” but I’m not really sure it’s doing anything that Henry James couldn’t have done if he wanted to.  But even as a bare bones gothic horror story this seems to be missing some elements.  For one thing, Charlotte Rampling proves to be rather dull as a matriarch driven mad by guilt.  Granted they were probably trying to avoid the cliché of the batty old rich lady but the alternative they came up with was a little boring and Rampling feels a bit wasted as a result.  They also don’t do a great job of establishing the backstory for Caroline’s deceased sister and why her ghost is so hellbent on revenge.  You keep expecting there to be some revelation about that but it never really comes.  Beyond that the film just never really breaks out cinematically.  It’s consistently competent, the performances are pretty good, it’s shot well but given that this is Abrahamson’s the follow-up to something as winning as Room you certainly expect something a lot more impressive than what we’re given.  It’s ultimately kind of a hard movie to really judge because at the end of the day it certainly isn’t “bad” so much as it’s underwhelming.

**1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 9/12/2018

Lean on Pete (8/25/2018)

 

In the spring and early summer we saw the release of two horse adjacent indie movies: The Rider and Lean on Pete.  Neither of these movies made a whole lot of money but critically the “winner” was probably The Rider, which sort of overshadowed Lean on Pete.  I’m not sure I agree with that consensus or disagree with it, both of those movies just kind of exist on that same “interesting but not remarkable” level that stands out more in the early summer when we’re kind of desperate for counter-programing.  Lean on Pete is the third major film from Andrew Haigh, who broke out with the movie Weekend and explored even more interesting territory with 45 YearsLean on Pete is pretty clearly my least favorite of his three movies but it’s not without its charms.  The film focuses on a teenager who finds himself hanging out near a rural racetrack and forms a bond with a horse named Lean on Pete.  That one sentence description makes this sound like a sentimental family movie but it’s more of a hard edged social realist movie than that, something closer to Kes than Secretariat.  The movie also doesn’t necessarily follow the structure and formula that you expect it to and becomes something of a Gus Van Sant style portrait of a young man on the fringes of Pacific Northwestern society.  This is kind of a hard movie to lay a final verdict on.  It goes in different directions than you think but not so different that I would call it some kind of groundbreaking effort.  It’s a movie that’s certainly good but not particularly memorable.

*** out of Five

The China Hustle (8/27/2018)

This Alex Gibney produced documentary has the rather unenviable task of trying to explain an aspect of the financial system that would not intuitively make for thrilling viewing.  In essence what the film is looking at are Chinese companies that are being traded on the U.S. stock exchanges which are not nearly as large as they claim to be on their reporting and in some cases may not be legitimate companies at all.  For example, one case study in the film is of a paper company that was supposedly very successful but upon investigation on the ground was revealed to basically be one dilapidated factory with puddles of water all over the floor and hardly a single truck going in or out on a given day.  The film follows a group of American investigators who make their money by finding scam Chinese stocks like this, shorting them, and then presenting evidence of their fraudulence in order to drive the price down significantly.  In addition to following these people the movie goes into some of the reasons why this happens, including the fact that it’s apparently not illegal in China to lie to foreign companies, and why this could be a pretty big problem.  Trading in stocks that turn out to be garbage in the real world was a huge part of what caused the 2008 mortgage crisis, and while this little practice probably isn’t going to be a disaster on that scale there does seem to be the makings of a bubble if too many of these Chinese stocks turn into toxic assets, and if that happens this will seem like a very prescient documentary.

*** out of Five

Disobedience (9/1/2018)

Disobedience is not a bad film at all but it doesn’t feel like a particularly notable one.  The film concerns a love triangle of sorts involving a woman played by Rachel Weisz, a woman played by Rachel McAdams she had a lesbian affair with as a teenager, and that woman’s husband, who she married because of the expectations of her ultra-orthodox Jewish family.  That could be the setup for something a bit naughtier and more subversive but this movie takes itself very seriously, almost to the point of being kind of dull.  Weisz and McAdams both give very good performances and director Sebastián Lelio (in his English language debut) manages to give the whole movie a nicely tasteful treatment that seems to capture the sub-culture at the film’s center accurately but I also never particularly cared about the proceedings.  Had this been made around 2005, when simply having a story about homosexuals in a relationship in a studio financed film was still novel, I think this would have felt a lot more groundbreaking and interesting.  Let’s make no mistake, 2018 isn’t exactly a paradise for gay representation, but I still kind of need a little more from a movie like this to really make it stand out.

*** out of Five

Minding the Gap (9/5/2018)

Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap is one of those documentaries that was clearly meant to be one thing when it started filming and over a long time of shooting morphed into something bigger and better.  The film could perhaps be viewed as something of a Hoop Dreams story (the film is, perhaps non-coincidentally produced by that film’s director, Steve James) in that it began as a look at a trio of young amateur athletes, in this case skateboarders, but becomes more of a look at lower class contemporary American life.  Of course that comparison only goes so far.  For one thing the film only runs about 93 minutes and covers a much shorter length of time than Steve James’ masterpiece and it also has the distinction of having been directed by someone who is more or less one of its subjects: a skateboarder who started out filming his friends in Rockford Illinois as they act like the usual rambunctious skate kids but continued to follow them as they entered the adult world somewhat with varying degrees of success.  As the film goes on it begins to center around one issue in particular which I’m not going to reveal at this time but it is tackled in a very serious and impactful way.  I wouldn’t call it a perfect documentary as Liu is not always able to document his own side of the story with complete objectivity and some of the subjects here are more interesting than others but it’s still a very impressive piece of work.

**** out of Five  

Tully (9/12/2018)

Screenwriting careers are not always easy to keep going, especially ones where you’re coming up with original ideas and speaking with an original voice.  As such I wasn’t always sure if we’d be seeing much more from Diablo Cody after her big Oscar winning breakthrough with Juno, but she seems to have stuck it out pretty effectively.  Her latest film (and I think it’s fairly safe to say she’s the bigger creative force on it than director Jason Reitman) is Tully, a film about a middle aged woman whose just given birth to her third child and feels like she is beyond stressed.  To cope with the pressure her brother-in-law hires a night nurse for her whose job is to watch the child at night and wake her up when it needs feeding.  The film largely concerns her relationship with the night nurse and how these women and their outlooks contrast with one another.  The film’s depictions of the frustrations of parenthood certainly ring true and the cast certainly brings these moments to life and paint quality character portraits.  I had a couple of issues with the film as I watched it but the film actually managed to clear a lot of them up by the time it ended.  Not quite a movie that fills me with excitement but a strong piece of work to be sure.

***1/2 out of Five

Madeline’s Madeline(9/1/2018)

If there’s one thing I don’t tend to spend a lot of time talking about in my reviews, proportionally, it’s probably acting.  This is perhaps something a lot of film aficionados downplay given that the rest of the culture gives so much attention to movie stars and we like to give more attention to all the other elements that go into the making of a film.  Still, acting is a huge part of what goes into the making of a film so it’s worth knowing about, the problem is that the “process” can be pretty malleable and hard to describe.  In theory it’s a skill that can be learned, or at least there are a whole lot of people who claim that they’re able to teach it for a price, but it also seems to be a talent: something you’ve either got or haven’t got.  Historically actors have been trained using a sort of trade that can be learned with a great deal of practice and trial and error, but more recently it’s been taken over by a system created by Konstantin Stanislavski resulting in “the method.”  The Method has been in vogue since at least the 1950s and is today probably most associated with people who take it a bit too far and do crazy stuff on set to stay in character, but often it’s employed in more subtle ways where people tap into their own personal memories in order to evoke emotions.  Of course plunging into your own emotions as part of your job like that feels like something that would be rather fraught, and that is part of the plot of the new independent film Madeline’s Madeline.

The main character of Madeline’s Madeline, Madeline (Helena Howard), is a sixteen year old girl who lives with her mother Regina (Miranda July) in New York and suffers some sort of mental illness which I don’t think is named in the film.  It’s not terribly clear what Madeline’s school life is like (I think the movie is set in the summer) but she’s usually fighting with her mother, both for normal teenager reasons and also because her mother is a bit flighty and isn’t great at communicating with her.  Madeline’s one respite seems to be the theater class/group that she’s attending which is run by a woman named Evangeline (Molly Parker).  This is the kind of acting class where they have you pretend to be bacon frying or have you imitate a cat and they seem to be putting together some sort of experimental performance that seems to shift its focus frequently.  As the film goes along Madeline increasingly becomes the centerpiece of this theater piece and the deeper she’s challenged to probe her inner feelings the more intense her various problems start to seem.

One of the lingering questions I had leaving Madeline’s Madeline was whether or not the people making it were under the impression that the play at the film’s center was ever going to be any good because to my eyes this theater troupe seemed really weird.  The play that they were working on (was there supposed to be an actual play?) does not seem to have had a script and they seemed to be making it up as they went on in rehearsal.  I suppose that Mike Leigh comes up with stories in a similar way, but most of the acting exercises they’re doing seem so abstract and weird that it’s hard to tell what form it would take.  It’s also a bit curious that this isn’t an acting class for teenagers and some of the cast members are fully grown hippies, but that is bit by design as it’s one of the things about this experience that is stressing her out and getting her in a bit over her head.  At its heart this movie is a character study (the fact that the protagonist’s name is in the title twice might have been the first clue) and it seeks to explore how Madeline’s mental illness affects her life and the movie probes to some extent how appropriate it is for an acting instructor to be probing into the mind of a sixteen year old with that kind of background given that this acting coach is not exactly a trained therapist.

Madeline’s Madeline has been labeled an “experimental” film, in part because it is very willing to disorient its audience.  It drops us into the story without explaining the situation right away and it often uses unconventional close-ups and edits in order to sort of reflect the haziness in its protagonists mind.  Helena Howard proves to be quite the discovery in the film and manages to both sensitively portray the character’s mental illness and also does a pretty good job of doing “acting within acting” during the theater troupe scenes.  Of course given that the character is a complete unknown and that she, like the character, is an actress one is pretty much invited to speculate as to how different she is from Madeline and how much art is imitating life as the director in the film tries to put together a story around her.  Looking up interviews and articles about the making of the film suggest that Howard is really not that much like Madeline and certainly doesn’t share her struggles with mental illness and that the making of the film was a much healthier collaboration than the making of the play in the film, but just the same I do think there’s supposed to be a parallel there that the audience is supposed to speculate on.  To some extent I found that interesting, but I was not a fan of the way that the film ends, which could be viewed as an admission that you can’t tell someone’s story if you haven’t walked in their shoes but could also be viewed as a cop out where they never really tried.

*** out of Five

Crash Course: Early Bergman

In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.”  This is a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics.  With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot.  Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme. 

In 2007 the illustrious Criterion Collection announced that they’d begin releasing a new line of products called the Eclipse Series.  This was explained at the time as being a series of DVD boxed sets which would consist of movies that Criterion had acquired the rights to but which weren’t famous enough to quite warrant the expense of one of their famous deluxe blu-ray releases.  These would be DVD-only releases rather than blu-rays, they would be cleaned up but not given a full restoration, and they wouldn’t have any extras but at least these movies wouldn’t be left languishing without distribution and would be available to fill holes in the collections of certain enthusiasts.  It was also announced that their first release under this new line would be a set called “Early Bergman” which curated five films that Ingmar Bergman made early in his career before his international breakthroughs like Summer with Monika and Smiles of a Summer Night.  This set has sat on my shelf for a while I’ve been getting by Bergman fixes from some of his later and more famous movies but I decided that with 2018 being the much celebrated centennial of Bergman’s birth the time was right to finally explore this tantalizing boxed set and see how the genius was formed.

Torment (1944)

The first film that Criterion/Eclipse included in their boxed set was actually not a film that Bergman directed.  This was actually directed by a guy named Alf Sjöberg who was a Swedish director of note from the time but Bergman wrote the screenplay and served as an assistant director on it and did consider it to be the start of his film career.  Bergman was 26 when this came out and was likely even younger when the screenplay was written and you can pretty easily tell this is a young man’s film given that it’s about a young man’s time at a private school and it very much takes that teenager’s point of view and mostly validates his angst.  At the film’s center is a conflict between the film’s protagonist and a rather cruel Latin teacher who everyone calls Caligula and it is most definitely not the kind of story where a teacher and student eventually come to respect one another.  The film reportedly drew from Bergman’s own memories of his schooling days and how he found them to be stifling and rather miserable.  After the film was released he even found himself in a public correspondence with his old headmaster, who found the movie to be something of a hit piece.  Bergman responded that he “definitely [had] not wanted to criticize my own school, but all schools” and the two seem to more or less reconciled their differences.  Having said all that, one should not minimize the influence of Alf Sjöberg on the film as the visual style here is different from Bergman’s.  The film’s look and the acting style on display hue a bit closer to what you might expect from a conventional Hollywood movie of the era than the arthouse direction that Bergman would employ once he started getting more control over his films.

*** out of Five

Crisis (1946)

While Torment marked Ingmar Bergman’s debut as a produced screenwriter but it was the film Crisis that was his true directorial debut and by all accounts it was not exactly smooth sailing on set.  Svensk apparently had a lot of faith in Bergman at first but started to get cold feet and called on Victor Sjöström to be brought in and supervise the production.  However I wouldn’t say that this shows too many signs of being a troubled production and I would exactly say that it’s the sloppy work of an amateur but that characteristic Bergman feel has not developed yet and frankly it gave me a slightly renewed appreciation for what Alf Sjöberg was able to do for Bergman’s script on Torment.  The film is essentially a light melodrama which takes as its jumping off point a story of a birth mother coming to reconnect with an eighteen year old daughter that had long been raised by a foster mother.  Though it begins as a story about the conflict between the biological and adoptive mother it’s really more concerned with the eighteen year old and her sexual awakening.  The film has a lot going on in it and at times isn’t quite sure what it wants to be.  At times it feels like it could be mistaken for a standard Hollywood “woman’s picture” but it’s more daring than those movies would be and you can clearly see Bergman’s affinity for stage plays in it as well.  It’s a weird little movie for the most part and not one that I think many would have remembered if Bergman had quit the film industry after making it rather than become one of the great auteurs of cinema.  Worth watching for completists like me, but not an essential movie.

** out of Five

Port of Call (1948)

The next film in the Bergman Eclipse set was made two years after Crisis and Bergman had made three other movies since then.  Clearly Bergman developed pretty dramatically as a filmmaker in those two years as Port of Call feels much more cohesive and daring than his debut feature even if he still hasn’t quite developed his signature style.  This film is actually said to be inspired by the neorealist movement that was in vogue in the late forties and Bergman has suggested as much in interviews, but there are limits to how much this movie could really be said to be part of the movement.  While the characters here are more working class than the rich or at least well educated people who usually populate Bergmans films and while the film does weigh in a bit more overtly on social issues, the film is not populated by non-actors and the film’s ending is a bit more hopeful than what you’d expect to see in a Rossellini or De Sica film.  The film focuses in on a sort of working class romance between a seaman and a young woman who had done a stint at a reform school.  The film doesn’t seem overly concerned with the economic challenges the characters face so much as the social constraints they seem to be fighting against and the movie proves to be incredibly bold in its exploration of the female character’s sexual past.  It its second half the film even looks rather fearlessly at the issue of abortion and comes out with a pretty strong pro-choice message in an era when abortion appears to have still been illegal in Sweden for those who couldn’t afford to bribe public officials.  That’s definitely some stuff you were not getting from American films from the 1940s and it likely would have even been bold by the standards of many other sections of Europe.

**** out of Five

Thirst (1949)

In between making Port of Call and this movie, Thirst, Ingmar Bergman made a film called Prison that was considered something of a failure and this follow-up was considered to be something of a more commercial re-do of that movie.  It follows a married couple as they take a train ride from Italy back up to Sweden after a vacation and goes into flashbacks of some of their previous relationships that inform their current situation.  The couple bicker like crazy, sometimes in that semi-playful way that certain married couples do, but sometimes in ways that show some real issues with the marriage.  Bergman was only 31 when he made this film but was already on his second of five marriages so clearly he knew a thing or two about marital dysfunction already.  The chemistry between Eva Henning and Birger Malmsten was quite good I also liked the first of the flashbacks, but some of the other flashbacks did not work as well and even at only 84 minutes the film feels a little padded.

**1/2 out of five

To Joy (1950)

With 1950’s To Joy Bergman once again looks at the dynamics of a dysfunctional marriage and is even more open about the fact that it’s a loosely veiled autobiographical work.  The film concerns a man who plays violin for a symphony orchestra in Stockholm and falls in love with a woman who also plays for the orchestra.  We know from the very beginning of the movie because of a flashback structure that this is doomed to end in tragedy, that they will marry but that the woman is going to die in an accident, so you’re mainly rooting for them to have some happiness while they can but they frequently don’t because the man is kind of pathetic.  The man is constantly in a funk because of his doubts about his skill as a violin player and worries that he’s a mere mediocrity and this takes a toll on the relationship as well.  It’s not hard to see this guy’s violin pursuit as a stand-in for Bergman’s own struggles as a young director, especially given that he cast his real life mentor Victor Sjöström as his stand-in’s conductor and mentor in the orchestra.  If this is indeed supposed to be a self-portrait of sorts it’s not a very flattering one, in fact it borders on the self-flagellating as it shows this guy not appreciating what he’s got until it’s too late and generally screwing everything up.  In life Bergman would go on to make a lot of the same mistakes all over again and would have five different wives in total as well as some serious relationships with other women, but from what we see in this film he has clearly learned a lot already and I’m sure it took some guts to put everything out in his art like this.

***1/2 out of Five