Bergman 101 : “Winter Light” (1963)

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The second film in Ingmar Bergman’s inadvertent Trilogy of Faith is “Winter Light” and it is easily the most pointedly spiritual of the three movies. The film centers on a tortured pastor in the midst of an existential crisis. And if you thought “Through a Glass Darkly” had a tight focus, “Winter Light” narrows its scope even further. Here the story revolves around one man and his struggle to find meaning in his life.

Bergman made nineteen movies with Gunnar Björnstrand and here the Stockholm born actor plays Tomas Ericsson, the pastor of a small rural church. The film begins with Tomas leading his minuscule flock in their Sunday morning church service. Only a handful of parishioners are present including a fisherman named Jonas (Max von Sydow) and his pregnant wife Karin (Gunnel Lindblom). Also there is Märta (Ingrid Thulin), a local schoolteacher and former love interest of Tomas who has essentially become a thorn in his side.

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Throughout this thirteen-minute opening we watch as the parishioners sing hymns and take communion. Bergman and his long-time cinematographer Sven Nykvist deftly use their camera to not only capture the solemnity of the service but also to reveal the burdened souls of the people. This is conveyed mostly through a series of intense close-ups which Bergman so often employed in his films. Frequent cuts move us from one somber face to another, only occasionally interrupted by shots of Tomas carrying out his ecclesiastical duties.

Just like “Through a Glass Darkly” this story unfolds within a 24-hour window. The opening church service scene sets things in motion and does more than just convey the troubled state of the congregation. It also serves as an introduction to the people Tomas will encounter on more personal levels throughout the film. Bergman uses those interactions to dig deeper into Tomas’ psyche which is in many ways a mirror of his own. Bergman is essentially wrestling with the very same questions, uncertainties, and isolation.

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Tomas is in a miserable state. He is physically ill (it’s said Björnstrand actually had the flu during filming). He is emotionally detached. And he is as spiritually cold as the snowy Scandinavian winter. But Tomas isn’t necessarily a sympathetic figure. At one point he is asked what’s troubling him. His two-word response, “God’s silence.” Yet he too is silent when it comes to speaking grace and guidance to those who seek it. Instead he greets all with an icy indifference.

Take Jonas, deeply distressed over specific world events, who comes to the pastor seeking counsel. Yet all Tomas does is speak of his own misery and inner-tumult. Could it be that he too is crying out for help? Perhaps. But that doesn’t change the fact that Jonas is left a victim of Tomas’ self-absorption. And his treatment of Marta reveals even more about him. Despite her annoyances, Marta truly loves Tomas and shows genuine concern. But his bitter, spiteful responses to her shows an antipathy completely at odds with the compassion of his calling.

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It would be tempting to look at “Winter Light” through a broad lens – as simply a movie about a pastor who has lost his way. But anyone familiar with Bergman’s catalog knows he doesn’t work strictly on a surface level. That’s why this is such a fascinating film and one of my favorite Bergman pictures. There are innumerable ways you could interpret this film and its characters. Is it a movie about a wayward soul suffocating under the weight of depression? Is the film challenging what it sees as strict tenets of the Christian faith? Is it Bergman’s portrait of his father, a Lutheran minister to the masses but harsh disciplinarian at home?

With “Winter Light” Bergman has made something that has all the exterior markings of a slow, uneventful drama. But underneath its austere finish is a provocative think piece; a movie with the sheer depth of meaning to challenge any thoughtful viewer. It’s bleak and dour perspective won’t be for everyone. Nor will its ruminative pacing. But it’s far from aimless and what you get out of it will largely depend on what you bring to it.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

 

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5star

REVIEW: “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”

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Over a year ago I was at a very special event that featured a Q&A with none other than Richard Linklater. It was a great evening listening to a favorite filmmaker of mine talk about making movies. Close to the end of his session he hinted at his most recent project, a movie starring Oscar winner Cate Blanchett. That’s all he said, but it was enough to spark my interest.

It turns out the movie was “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”, an adaptation of the 2012 best-selling novel by Maria Semple. In it Blanchett plays disillusioned misanthrope Bernadette Fox. She pretty much hates everyone save her daughter Bee (newcomer Emma Nelson) and her husband Elgin (Billy Crudup). In fact her general negativity and social anxiety leads her one friend and mentor (Laurence Fishburn) to label her a “menace to society”.

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Bernadette is a character perfectly tuned for Cate Blanchett. She’s smart, neurotic, and a ticking emotional time bomb. These are characteristics Blanchett can convey in her sleep. It’s a vibrant, even dominating performance that may be a little too big for some tastes. I found her to be captivating and an essential reason the movie works as a whole.

At first the trajectory of the story is a little confusing and there are early moments when it’s tough to figure out what kind of movie Linklater wants to make (he co-wrote the script with Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr.). But I realized I had made the mistake of approaching the film as a straight comedy when it really isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, we certainly get dashes of humor scattered throughout. Some of it lands well, some of it not so much. But this was far more dramatic than I expected and once I had a grasp of that the movie began to speak a much more satisfying language.

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Bernadette is an intriguing character from the start and a hard nut to crack (absolutely no pun intended). Her struggles stem from a wide range of personal issues. She was once a famous architect known for her aggressively modern vision and willingness to trust her creative instincts. But when she and Elgin moved to Seattle from LA, his career took off while her fire to create was all but extinguished.

But Bernadette’s descent into cynicism and melancholy isn’t one-dimensional. There are numerous influences and conflicts, both internal and external, that are revealed and play roles in her sometimes fragile state of mind. It all adds a welcomed complexity to the character and keeps Bernadette from becoming some by-the-books stereotype that we often see in movies exploring this same territory.

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Bernadette’s many layers show most through her relationships. This includes her tepid marriage to Elgin, the devoted mother/daughter dynamic with Bee, the testy back-and-forths with her next door neighbor (Kristen Wiig), even her one-sided rants with her online secretary and virtual confidant. But when it all begins to overwhelm her, Bernadette sneaks off on a journey of rediscovery. I’m oversimplifying it for the sake of spoilers, but she vanishes leading Elgin and Bee to pop the question asked in the movie’s title.

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is a unique and quirky thing that won’t be for everyone. Then again Linklater movies never score big at the box office. And considering it goes up against a brand new animated film, a shameless publicity-hounding raunchy comedy, and a big-budget blockbuster holdover that trend should continue. But I liked a lot about “Bernadette” – Blanchett’s performance, Emma Nelson’s debut, the film’s big heart. I even liked its messiness. That may be a weird compliment, but this is a weird movie, and I guess I like that about it too.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”

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Lately we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in the works of American horror/mystery writer Shirley Jackson. Much of the thanks could go to Netflix and their popular television adaptation of Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”. Now we have a feature film based on Jackson’s final novel “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”.

Stacie Passon directs and Mark Kruger writes the screenplay for what is essentially a gothic family drama and mystery thriller mash-up. Set in 1960s New England and with a healthy air of gloom and dread, the story follows two troubled but tight-knit sisters. They live on the huge estate where six years earlier a terrible family tragedy shook them and the nearby village.

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Since then the Blackwood sisters mostly stay isolated within the walls of the mansion left behind by their deceased parents. Constance (Alexandra Daddario) never leaves and a cloud of speculation and rumor hangs over her. Was she responsible for horrible event that struck her family? The prattling, gossipy townsfolk certainly think so. And they let the younger sister Mary Katherine (Taissa Farmiga) know it during her weekly trips for supplies.

The villagers are a major influence on the psychology of the story. Their mean-spirited and scandalous hearsay pushes the sisters to stay in isolation, living alone with their tragedy, their secrets, and their disabled Uncle Julian (Crispen Glover). His semi-coherent ramblings are a mixture of utter nonsense and tiny nuggets of revelation – keys to understanding the mystery behind what happened six years earlier.

While far from ideal, the Blackwood girls have carved out a life for themselves in seclusion. But it’s turned on its head when out of nowhere their cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan) pays a visit. He immediately sets his eyes on Constance which puts him at odds with Mary Katherine who is willing to protect her sister at all cost.

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As the story unfolds we end up with multiple layers of mystery. What is Charles’ motivations? What’s with Mary Katherine’s fascination with magic spells (even though there’s no evidence any of her spells work)? And what really happened in Blackwood Manor six years prior? Passon explores these questions by leaning into the characters and the individual strengths of her cast. She provides plenty of atmosphere, manages tone well, and keeps things moving at just the right pace. She then allows room for the performances to shine.

“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” is a well-made gothic thriller with a surprisingly rich human element. Much of that can be attributed to Jackson’s novel which was influenced by her own personal experiences. It may be a little light on the thriller side, but it does wrestle with some interesting themes and the overarching air of mystery is quite satisfying.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Wandering Earth” (2019)

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The Chinese science-fiction mega-hit “The Wandering Earth” is quite the movie. It’s a massive visual spectacle that stands as China’s second highest grossing film of all time. Just as impressive, it sits among the top 25 highest grossing science-fiction films ever made. That’s quite an accomplishment for director Frant Gwo. Now Netflix has picked up the global streaming rights making it accessible to a broader audience around the world.

“The Wandering Earth” is based on the 2000 short story by Liu Cixin. It’s set in 2061 and follows the desperate attempt of mankind to avoid having the earth incinerated by an aged and overactive sun. Scientists declare the catastrophe unavoidable and estimate the Earth will be gone in 100 years, the entire solar system in 300. Needless to say the situation is pretty grave.

So what do the citizens of earth do? Every nation joins together to initiate The Wandering Earth project. The idea is to build a huge network of massive thrusters (called Earth Engines) along the planet’s surface to essentially push the earth away from the sun and eventually out of the solar system before its all destroyed. Large underground cities are built to house a portion of the world’s population. Many of the rest die from cataclysmic tides and freezing cold, a result of the earth ceasing to rotate and pulling away from the sun.

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All of that is basically the setup for the film’s story and as you can probably tell your first and unquestionably biggest challenge will be getting past the preposterous central conceit. Let’s be honest, it’s utterly ridiculous. But Gwo and his team of seven (yes seven) writers do something kind of amazing. They make this batty and fairly basic disaster movie idea into something exciting and thoroughly entertaining.

The story is told from two different locations. The first is aboard a navigational space station where an international collection of scientists and astronauts monitor the earth’s progress as it pushes across space. Liu Peiqiang (played by Jing Wu) has been on the station for 17 years and nearing the end of his stint. His hopes are to head back to earth and pick up his relationship with his son Liu Qi who was 4-years-old when his father left on his mission.

On earth an irreverent Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao) and his adopted sister Han Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai) sneak their way to the surface by using their grandfather’s security clearance. Their mischievous antics lead to them being arrested and thrown into jail. Then things really take a bad turn.

As the earth approaches Jupiter scientists plan using the gravitational pull of the bigger planet to propel ours past it and beyond. But when Jupiter experiences a gravitational spike, it throws off calculations and begins pulling the planets together. Earthquakes break out across the earth’s surface resulting in numerous malfunctioning earth engines. Humanity on both the space station and earth scramble to reignite the engines to avoid a catastrophic collision.

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The film features several things that are easy to pick apart – tons of information dumps, cheesy rah-rah moments, a garden variety of typical disaster movie characters. Yet somehow, despite routinely treading on familiar ground, “A Wandering Earth” never feels like a rip-off or becomes a punchline. It clearly and unashamedly borrows ideas from “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Gravity”, and even Michael Bay’s “Armageddon”. But it’s pacing is so snappy you never have time to dwell on it, only to enjoy the ride.

And then there are the digital effects. I don’t know if there is ever a scene where I wasn’t in some way wow’d by what I was seeing. It’s literally one scene after another of digitally rendered locations and set pieces all of which look absolutely stunning. This may be the biggest reason the movie works. It sucks you into its world through the sheer strength of its visuals.

“A Wandering Earth” is both ludicrous and routine yet I had an absolute blast with it. It’s truly a wacky concoction that’s hard to even describe. It’s impossible not to mention the familiar tropes and second-hand characters. But this is science-fiction escapism at its very best and can easily get behind the fun and craziness this movie provides.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “What They Had” (2018)

whattheyposterChicago native Elizabeth Chomko’s bittersweet debut “What They Had” takes a look at a delicate subject but does so in a way that is sure to speak to the hearts of many who watch it. Chomko pulls from her personal experience of having a grandmother diagnosed with dementia and being part of the family struggling to deal with it. Her film captures the heartbreak while also showing a warmth and sense of humor that gives it a stamp of reality.

Chomko wrote and directed the film which instantly gets off on the right foot by putting together a superb cast. The film opens with Ruth (Blythe Danner) putting on her coat, leaving her apartment, and then vanishing into the cold Chicago night. Turns out Ruth has entered a new stage of her dementia that could end up being more than her husband Bert (Robert Forster) can handle.

Their son Nicky (Michael Shannon) calls his sister Bitty (Hillary Swank) to let her know their mother is missing. They find Ruth but the incident convinces Nicky that their mother belongs in a nursing home. He convinces his sister to help persuade their father who is vehemently against it.

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The bulk of Chomko’s film centers around this family and their attempts to reckon with the reality of Ruth’s condition. Bert, a no-nonsense devout Catholic, wants no part of “the best memory care place in Chicago” (as Nicky sells it). This adds to the already present tension between father and son. Bitty takes a more middle-ground approach which draws the ire of both Nicky and Bert.

An intertwined family drama with such a sensitive subject at its core is tricky ground. It’s even trickier when you approach it with a sense of humor. Chomko has spoken about the joy of laughter and how her family’s willingness to laugh helped them cope. Her movie gives us a really good image of how that works. “What They Had” makes you laugh in a way that can feel wrong at times but makes sense when considered in its narrative context. And Chomko deserves a ton of credit for having such a sensitive touch.

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The one place the film suffers is in its well-intended effort to dig deeper into the characters. Several subplots intersect with the central story but none are really given the time and attention they need. The biggest is centered around the strained relationship between Bitty and her college-weary daughter Emma (played by a very good young actress Taissa Farmiga). The two actresses share several good scenes but you never get a good handle on their relationship. There are a few others that leave you wanting to know more.

It’s hard to not be moved by “What They Had” and its tender but true handling of its difficult subject. Perhaps most impressive is Chomko’s ability to capture the heart-rending helplessness of both Ruth and her family. You feel it in every character and every performance (again the cast is so good). But you sense it most in Chomko’s writing and you never doubt its deeply personal origins.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Wife”

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“The Wife” begins as a strategically restrained family drama, but it doesn’t take long to notice its boiling undercurrent of frustration, resentment and discontent. The further we get into the story of Joseph and Joan Castleman the more we feel the tug of inevitability. It’s like a powder keg with a lit fuse. We know it’s going to blow up. The question is when?

Swedish-born Bjorn Runge directs this Jane Anderson adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel. Their film opens in 1992 Connecticut where accomplished author Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) and his supportive yet melancholy wife Joan (Glenn Close) receive an early morning call informing them that he has worn the Nobel Prize in Literature. Joseph is understandably ecstatic over what would be any writer’s dream while Joan’s enthusiasm is a bit more tempered.

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The couple travels to Stockholm, Sweden for several days of ceremonies leading up to the Nobel prize presentation. They bring along their son David (Max Irons), an aspiring writer who yearns for the approval of his father. The look we get into their relationship exposes the first of several cracks in the family’s facade. Joseph’s high honor ends up opening old wounds and creating a few new ones along the way.

The story takes its time unveiling itself, slowly feeding us small morsels of revelation. Some info comes through a handful of flashbacks that documents how younger Joseph (Harry Lloyd) and Joan (Close’s real life daughter Annie Starke) met while showing the genesis of their problems both as writers and as a couple. These moments are interesting enough but far weaker than when Close and Pryce are on screen and they tend to disrupt the film’s rhythm.

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And that brings me to the film’s biggest strengths – its two central performances. Close has the trickiest role of the two and she often speaks volumes without uttering a word. Her empty smiles and burdened stares reveal someone worn down by tragically quenched ambition and partially self-inflicted disempowerment. Pryce is no stranger to playing a narcissistic writer (see 2014’s “Listen Up Philip”). His character requires a much different performance than we get from Close yet he is a perfect complement to her. The two 71-year-olds have a remarkable chemistry. And it’s worth mentioning that Christian Slater is surprisingly effective as a lurking biographer chomping at the bit to get rights to Joseph’s story.

The more Close’s once dutiful wife questions her own decisions and concessions the more tension builds between this husband and wife. From there “The Wife” simmers to the point of boiling over and the outpouring of emotions we get in the third act is all but unavoidable. At a dinner honoring the Nobel recipients Joan is asked what she does for a living. Her response and the manner in which she gives it offers the perfect encapsulation of her character – “I am a kingmaker”.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

3-5-stars