Wednesday, October 22, 2014 0 comments

Eclipse Series 1: Early Bergman- Thirst (1949)

Directed By: Ingmar Bergman
Written By: Herbert Grevenius
Torment, Crisis, and Port of Call, for as much potential and ambition they held, were ultimately disappointing starts for writer and director Ingmar Bergman's illustrious career in filmmaking. The first two films being unwieldy and melodramatic from a narrative standpoint and visually stiff, and the third, while visually stunning due to the work of cinematographer Gunnar Fischer and the most  competent of the three films, suffered from issues brought on by both its structure and character development.

Bergman's seventh directorial effort, Thirst, is unlike any previous Bergman film, utilizing a non-linear, flashback heavy structure that really serves to challenge the audience. The film follows troubled couple, Rut (Eva Henning) and her husband Bertil (Birgir Malmsten), as they travel across post-WWII Europe, all while simultaneously recalling the past events that brought them their, a past that involves affairs, infertility, and abuse. Additionally, that storyline parallels that of a mentally disturbed widow Viola (Birgit Tengroth), as she deals with her own issues, which involve a sadistic psychiatrist and depression.

Yet interestingly, Thirst is so much like Bergman's previous films. His trademark dark subject matter is all here intact: the unfortunate characters of Thirst dealing with such wonderful issues like abortion, murder, infidelity, depression, abuse, suicide, sadism, and death. Bergman's treatment of youth culture is as empathetic as its always been, and his tendency to focus on a romantic relationship to provide a narrative framework for the entire film is also done here.

In short, it feels like Bergman finally has figured out what he wants his films to be about, all while finding a structure that he feels most comfortable in. Gone is the superficial melodrama of Torment and Crisis, the tense high stakes psychological drama Bergman excels at taking its place.

What's more is that Bergman is at top form as director here. A tense sequence (Which can be seen on the clip below. SPOILER ALERT!!!), which features Bergman at his most horrific, shows just how skilled he is at utilizing lighting, editing, direction, and sound to achieve such simultaneously hypnotizing and chilling effects.

It certainly isn't a perfect film. The narrative is perhaps a bit too sprawling at times, moments of confusion over where I was in the film's timeline being all too frequent when the film first starts. Additionally, the film's attitudes on sexuality, while certainly progressive at the time, haven't aged nearly as well as they could have, a scene featuring a cliched "devious lesbian" character (I use the word "devious" because her hair conveniently forms horns on her head in one shot.) being an eye-rolling example of this. Yet one can be forgiven for cutting the film some slack considering that it was produced over 60 years ago.

Thirst is the first great film of the Bergman filmography. It's a work that ambitiously treads through a non-linear storyline, all while dealing with harsh thematic subjects effectively while also setting up some skillfully directed sequences. It certainly won't be the best film of his filmography, yet that speaks more of whats to come rather than what's here.

Rating: 4/5
Next: The 400 Blows (1959)
Monday, October 20, 2014 0 comments

Halt and Catch Fire Season 1 Catch Up: "FUD"

"Son this is about relationships. This isn't something you'd understand."
I don't think the writers have any idea what to do with Joe.

On one hand, the reveal that Joe is completely full of shit is certainly a refreshing twist on the white male anti-hero trope. Where most anti-hero shows reveal the hollowness of the protagonist's goals, Halt and Catch Fire has essentially just revealed that Joe is a con-artist dressed up as visionary. It certainly explains why his speeches rung false in the last episode. The boardroom scene where Gordan says, "Tell me you have a plan Joe," and Joe silently looks at him with guilt definitely was a power to it that suggests the show has an awareness of the usual cliches of the antihero trope.

Yet on the other hand, the move serves to deflate Joe's storyline to the point where I simply have no interest in seeing Joe's storyline develop any further. It may be an interesting idea to have Joe be this pathetic loser, but its executed in the most boring manner possible. Whether it be Joe frantically throwing stuff around in search of the BIOS binder, a freakout in a speaker shop, hints at a bad childhood, or a terribly miscalculated shirt ripping scene, Joe's character has so far proven itself to be a toxic element in this series.

Before we go into all of that though, let's talk some good stuff.

The episode picks up immediately after the first episode, with Joe and company completely taking down the IBM legal team through their pre-rehearsed answers. With IBM sent running, Joe reveals to Gordan and Cameron what he wants from them: a personal computer that can run twice as fast at half the speed. Gordan thinks such an idea to be difficult, but possible, while Cameron outright rejects the idea, believing that they should strive to be more creative. This entire situation sets up what is sure to be the major conflict of the series: creativity versus practicality. Gordon believes in progress moving in increments, while Cameron believes in revolutionizing technology. The scene also does a good job of giving an indication of what the season is going to look like, a job which the pilot simply didn't accomplish.

The episodes high watermark definitely is the scene where Cardiff Electric gets raided, IBM swooping in to take all clients. One great sign from Halt and Catch Fire is that it effectively knows how to dramatize people going on phones panicking over a rival business, showing that Halt will have little to know trouble making the PC business interesting. It's a bonus that the writer's were able to imbue the scene with character moments in order to create scenes which are both dramatic and purposeful. "Son this is about relationships. This isn't something you'd understand," Yells Toby Huss's John Bosworth at Joe, a line that smartly showcases the differences in business expertise between John and Joe, while additionally allowing John to call Joe a sociopath. Moments like this prove that Halt and Catch Fire isn't just a mere Mad Men clone here. There's some real craft and ideas at play here that have the potential to make for some fantastic television

Yet Joe, who is unfortunately the central character of the show, is a black hole. Lee Pace attempts to do his best with the script he's given, yet its hard to really give much depth to a character so thinly conceived. The pilot set Joe up as a mystery man with a grand plan; only for this episode to reveal that he may not have thought up his plan thoroughly enough. It's certainly an interesting twist on the anti-hero archetype and definitely superior to Joe being some omniscient mystery man who's plans work out perfectly.

But there has to be better material for Lee Pace to work with than screaming at people he's angry with, throwing weird temper tantrums in basements, and spinning terrible yarns about how he was abused as a child for being a nerd. Take the scene near the end of the episode, where Joe gets into a fight with Gordan, only to have his shirt randomly tear off, revealing a bunch of scars on his chest. "To this day, I don't blame them. I don't think they meant to chase me off the roof." Says Joe to a shocked Mackenzie and Gordan. It's a pretty terrible scene for a number of reasons, chief among them being that its a hilariously unbelievable scene in an otherwise believable TV show. The reveal that Joe made up the story on the fly only serves to concern me even more that the writer's have no idea what the hell they're doing with Joe.

Which isn't to say this was a terrible episode. It's an hour that displays Halt and Catch Fire is at least self aware of the genre pitfalls and is actively writing around them. Nowhere is this most obvious than in the relationship between Gordan and Donna, where the writer's pretend to set up a very contrived conflict between the two, only to knock it down immediately to prove that this isn't that type of show. Again, the raid scene was great, Toby Huss as John Bosworth is pretty spectacular, and Cameron has been put in a great position for future episodes. Yet even with all that, the problems the show has been having with the character of Joe MacMillan only serve to worry me. It's entirely possible that the writer's are able to figure out Joe in future episodes. Yet rather than looking at Joe's future on the show with anticipation, I must admit that the prospect of spending more time with Joe MacMillan only serves to bore me.

Rating: 3/5

Friday, October 17, 2014 0 comments

Criterion Collection #4: Amarcord (1973)

Directed By: Federico Fellini
Written By: Federico Fellini & Tonino Guerra
Chaotic, joyful, and over-sexualized to the point of farce, Amarcord is Frederico Fellini's attempt to make sense of adolescence. A semi-autobiographical work, Amarcord depicts a year in adolescents of Titta (Bruno Zanin), a kid struggling with sexual and familial tensions brought on by the political and social issues of Fascist Italy in the 1930s, while also checking in on the lives of the various zany character that inhabit the town of Borgo San Guilanon, a town situated near the birthplace of Fellini.

While there are slivers of nostalgia throughout the film, Amarcord is, at its heart, a biting satire. Whether it be fascism, sexuality, and even the Catholic Church; Fellini mocks it all through scenes both dramatically interesting and comedically ridiculous.

A hilarious scene has Titta attempting to confess his sexual desires to a masturbation obsessed priest, Fellini utilizing the scene to skewer the Church for its repressive attitudes towards sex and inability to connect with the youth. Fascism receives an even more brutal treatment, a scene showcasing Fascist guards shooting down a gramophone playing "La Internationale" in a distant tower, displaying the radicalism and madness of Fascists Italy at the time.

Fellini is a master at constructing scenes that strike a perfect balance between farcical and dramatic. A dinner scene with Titta and his family is highlights this ability. Every shot is extremely busy and dynamic, despite it featuring people literally sitting down for dinner. Fellini is able to effectively also derive a ridiculous amount of tension due to the abhorrently hostile relations each family member has with each other, the scene eventually evolving into a moment of intense emotional rawness for nearly all the characters.

This leads me to the biggest reason why Amarcord is such an effective film: its honesty. Fellini consciously avoids the usual sappy cliches and trappings of family dramas, instead portraying a family flawed at its core. Titta is terrible towards his parents and vice versa, their relationship only reaching somewhat of a peace during times of illness or death. What's better is that the film doesn't cop out when dealing with those problems, foregoing the usual "they love each other in their hearts" in favor of something more grounded and dark, despite it being a film that is often cheery and farcical.

And that would be the best description of Amarcord, a film that, on the surface, is crazy and upbeat, yet has a darker more honest core that fuels those comical elements. Fellini has constructed possibly one of the more the more unique contraptions I have seen in awhile: a film that's message is so at odds with its tone that you still are left wondering whether Fellini is pining for the times of his childhood or scorning them. Possibly a little bit of both?

Rating: 4/5
Coming Up Next: Thirst (1949)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014 0 comments

Eclipse Series 1: Early Bergman- Port of Call (1948)

Directed By: Ingmar Bergman
Written By: Ingmar Bergman and Olle Länsberg
Rating: 3/5

After the admirable failure of Crisis, Ingmar Bergman would work on 3 more films: It Rains on Our Love (1946), A Ship Bound for India (1947), and A Ship for India (1947). In his fifth directorial effort,   Port of Call, a melodrama about a romance between the tortured Berit, played by Nine-Christine Jönsson, and gruff sailor Gösta, played by Bengt Eklun, its obvious that Ingmar Bergman has a much clearer grasp on how to direct a motion picture. Whether it be the beautifully hazy shots of shadowy dockworkers walking along the shipyard at dawn or the fluid long take that Gösta meeting his fellow dock workers in a shadowy room, Port of Call is a gorgeous film.

And yet the film is part of a genre not known for being particularly "gorgeous." Port of Call would be Bergman's first foray into Italian Realism, a genre more known more for its realistically, gritty urban environments and unkempt characters than stunning imagery. What's interesting is how Port of Call balances these two visual style. The dirt and grime are still there, Berit and Gosta often in a rather unkempt state for the majority of the film and images of working class poverty are in abundance. The difference is that Bergman is now, for the very first time, working with his longtime collaborator Gunnar Fischer, who would work with Bergman on many of his seminal works, such as The Seventh Seal (1957) and Wild Strawberries (1957). Fischer succeeds in creating visual wonders by raising the image contrasts to more actively separate light and dark, creating beautiful outdoor scenes, such as the previously mentioned dock scene, and interior shots that have a nourish feel to them.

Yet despite this breathtaking imagery, the world of Port of Call is by no means pretty. The central romance between the suicidal Berit and the aimless Gosta unsurprisingly goes to some extremely dark places, dealing with Bergman's usual themes of childhood alienation, adult dismissal of youth opinion and culture, depression, anxiety, suicide, and even abortion. Combine this with it's realistic urban environment, and you've essentially got another dark and depressing Bergman film. In fact, the film was so controversial at the time, that it wouldn't even be released in the United States till 1963, even receiving an X rating when it debuted in the United Kingdom.

What really differentiates this from Bergman's previous efforts is, up to a point, Bergman actually integrates the themes into his narrative and actively engages with them.

What this leads to is the most fully formed Bergman films so far. Whether it be the extremely interesting relationship between Berit and her hateful mother, played by the menacing Berta Hall, or the dark emotional journey Berit goes through as she descends deeper into depression and madness due to years of neglect and isolation, Port of Call is the first Bergman directed film, in the Eclipse series at least, to actually have a core storyline that drives one through the entirety of the film.

However it all works up to a point. Unfortunately, the Gösta part of the story falters simply due to his character essentially being a cipher for the entirety of the film. What this means is that the central romance simply isn't able to come to a satisfying end and any scene involving his character becomes frustrating due to a lack of knowledge of his motives. By the end of the film, we know little of Gösta beyond him being a gruff sailor who sometimes is prone to angry emotional outbursts that aren't really adequately explored or thought out.

Which isn't to say that the film is a failure per say. Berit's story is thankfully the focus of the film, meaning that one will, at the very least, be interested for majority of the film's running time. It's a pity that Port of Call isn't better, especially considering the large strides forward in both writing and directing when compared to his directorial debut. Yet it's hard to be too disappointed when you take into account that Bergman had successfully constructed this fairly ambitious film merely 2 years into his directing career.
Monday, October 13, 2014 0 comments

Halt and Catch Fire Season 1 Catch Up: "I/O"

Author's Note: The following is a series that will focus on a show that has already aired its first season. It's a means of catching up with it and writing about it when its second season premieres.
"What are you trying to prove with all this?"

Reverse engineering Mad Men isn't exactly the best starting point for a TV show.

That's exactly what Halt and Catch Fire does in its pilot episode. From the "Draper-esque" protagonist, a handsome businessman who's motives are as mysterious as his origins, to the authentic, if stylized, portrayal of its time period, to the focus on character development over plot momentum, to even the cutthroat business setting, calling Halt and Catch Fire "Mad Men: 80s" wouldn't be such a huge stretch. 

It's obvious that AMC, realizing that with Mad Men leaving and Breaking Bad ending, needs something that will rake in the awards. Yet rather than take a chance with someone with a proven track record of critically acclaimed television, AMC has instead opted to just simply copy the formulas of the tried and true.

Usually such a gambit doesn't work. Attempting to reverse engineer a show into existence usually just leads to uninspired archetypes, rehashed narratives, and simply makes for uninteresting TV in general.

So boy was I completely shocked when Halt and Catch Fire completely bucked this trend. Not only was it an engaging, solid hour that lays the foundation for what should be a fairly thought-provoking, if not at the very least engaging, series on the PC revolution of the 80s, it actually went to some very unique and interesting places that bode quite well for the future, while also raising some ominous red flags.

Taking place in 1938, Halt and Catch Fire follows mysterious businessman Joe MacMillan, played by Lee Pace, as he attempts to build a PC under intense legal pressure with sales engineer Gordon Clark, played by Scoot McNairy, and punk programmer Cameron Howe, played by MacKenzie Davis.

What differentiates Halt and Catch Fire from other AMC period dramas, like Hell on Wheels and Turn: Washington's Spies, would be its focus on character development over plot momentum. The show has all the right instincts of what needs to be focused on at least in the pilot, giving us time to better understand the characters, while also setting up a plot that definitely has me excited to watch.

The characters that most benefit from this narrative style are husband and wife team Gordon and Donna Clark, who is played by Kerry Bishé. What originally seemed like the "depressed husband, nagging wife" dynamic that so many cable shows, like Breaking Bad and even Mad Men, annoyingly present, eventually evolved into a complicated relationship between two  individuals who, while obviously in love with each other, struggle to balance their personal and professional aspirations. This wonderful kitchen scene has Donna and Gordon frankly discussing their relationship, eventually coming to an agreement that usually comes episodes, or sometimes even seasons into a show in order to arbitrarily sustain the drama. It's refreshing to see Halt and Catch Fire not turning Donna into the nagging wife stereotype, while also acknowledging Gordon's self absorption.

Speaking of wonderful scenes, Halt and Catch Fire is packed full of them. A fun scene where Joe and Gordan attempt to reverse engineer an IBM PC shows an ability at presenting really complicated technical processes while still making them interesting to watch. A hilarious scene where  Joe and Gordon attempt to recruit Cameron to their team show that the writers do get how to derive humor from the different cultural backgrounds of the characters, while also successfully setting up an interesting female character in Cameron. The best scene comes at the end, when rows upon rows of lawyers comprising IBM's legal team stroll into Cardiff Electric office towards Joe, Gordan, and Cameron, prompting Gordon to chuckle and say to Joe, "What are you trying to prove with all this?"

It's a question that's supposed to define the entire season, much like, "Who is Don Draper?" in that amazing first season of Mad Men. Yet I'm not exactly sure the writer's are going to be able to answer that question, for one simple reason: Joe MacMillan, at least for now, is a very cliched cable anti-hero  and also the most uninteresting character in the entire show. From his glaringly clumsy and artificial speeches, to his annoyingly emotionless exterior, MacMillan simply feels way too derivative when put against other cable protagonists. 

This segues into a big, potential red flag for the entire season. Whereas it's usually acceptable for one character to be underdeveloped or uninteresting in a television show, it ideally should not be the one that the show's centered around. Admittedly, it's way to early to predict whether or not Joe will be a liability. It's possible that show-runner Jonathan Lisco is able to figure out the character or maybe even reduce his role in future episodes. Regardless, it is an early issue that will have to be overcome in the following episodes.

Yet, I find myself extremely optimistic about the show despite this major issue. Already Halt and Catch Fire has figured out so many of the advanced stuff that many cable shows still struggle with, that I would be shocked if it wasn't able to overcome this basic issue. It may not be perfect, but the Halt and Catch Fire pilot is an engrossing episode that avoids many of the basic traps and pitfalls that befall many cable dramas nowadays.

Rating: 4/5
Friday, October 10, 2014 0 comments

'Wetlands' Review

Here's my a review I wrote for David Wnendt's Wetlands, a provocative comedy that features some of the most disgusting imagery I have seen in years. In other words, I loved it! Click here for the review!
Wednesday, October 8, 2014 0 comments

'The Congress' Review

Here is a review I did for the Hatchet on Ari Folman's The Congress, a perplexing film that, after reviewing a little over 3 weeks ago, I still can't figure it out. Click here to read it!