Saturday, March 31, 2012

March 2012 Rundown

Another installment of the films I watched this month, but did not write a full-length review for:

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – Mark it 6.

While this highly renowned Cold War thriller was not quite the masterpiece I had expected, it is a very effective thriller none-the-less (expectations are dangerous but so hard to avoid).  Lawrence Harvey plays a brainwashed Communist assassin with the perfect front, a Medal of Honor award winning war hero returning home, while Frank Sinatra, also a part of the Communists' brainwashing experiments (but apparently not as effectively), tries to prove his suspicions before it is too late.  I enjoyed The Manchurian Candidate despite its somewhat ridiculous plot, but was not blown away – with the exception of the brainwash demonstration scenes involving a ladies’ hydrangea club, which was pure genius.  Also, Angela Lansbury is subversively terrifying as Harvey’s overbearing mother.

The Sweet Hereafter (1997) – Mark it 8.

Atom Egoyan’s extremely powerful drama looks into how a grief-stricken community deals with a horrific tragedy.  After a school bus crash kills most of the children in a tiny Canadian town, a lawyer (Ian Holm) tries to convince the mourning parents to join a class-action lawsuit to find some closure for the people and, in a way, for himself (having virtually lost his own daughter to a severe drug addiction).  There are great complexities conflicting the community as some feel a need to find a scapegoat while others realize that the accident was merely a freak and heartbreaking occurrence, with the outcome to be decided by one of the survivors, a now-paralyzed teenage girl (Sarah Polley),   The Sweet Hereafter is a terribly sad film, but its message is so emotional and execution so fascinating that sitting through all that sadness is worthwhile.

Wild Strawberries (1957) – Mark it 7.

Continued my kick of existential Ingmar Bergman films from 1957 with Wild Strawberries.  An old and lonely professor, Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), takes a strange road trip through Sweden to receive an honorary award.   Borg is joined by his daughter-in-law and a group of young hitchhikers while he is haunted by dreams and memories that highlight his existence of missed opportunities and wasted years.  Though distinguished, his life has lacked love and, consequently, real meaning.  Borg learns lessons from his dreams and memories, his refreshing encounters with the idealistic young people, and his first heart-to-heart conversations with his daughter-in-law.  He soon realizes that it is not too late to make a change for the best.  Wild Strawberries is a powerful film that teaches one to seize the day, so we have no regrets when we look back in the future.

Young Adult (2011) – Mark it 7.

Charlize Theron fully commits to being despicable in this new dark comedy by the Juno duo, director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody.  Theron plays Mavis Gary, a grown up version of the shittiest kind of teenager and ghostwriter of a series of trashy young adult novels.  Since high school, Mavis has failed to develop beyond her image obsessed and self-centered teen self.  An alcohol problem and the birth of an ex-boyfriend’s daughter takes Mavis back to her small town home for a self-destructive trip.  I admired Young Adult for making its heroine a monster (and sticking to that concept), and for remaining ambiguous as to whether or not she learned from her experiences.  Patton Oswalt also gives a stand out performance as Mavis’ ignored ex-classmate and newfound drinking buddy whose development since high school has also been stunted (due to a traumatic hate crime perpetrated by the ignorant jocks Mavis relates to so well).

The Guard (2011) – Mark it 4.

Brandon Gleason stars as a seemingly irresponsible and apathetic Irish policeman more interested in sex, booze, and drugs than the job.  However, when suspected drug traffickers show up in his rural town, the ignorantly racist Irish cop is forced to partner with a straight-laced African-American FBI agent (Don Cheadle) and all the odd couple clichés ensue.  Predictably, the bumbling Irishman has more going on in his brain than initially expected while the by-the-book American is always a little slow on the uptake.  The Guard is filled with comedic elements that miss their mark and dramatic elements that feel forced, and every plotline is too neatly wrapped up.  It is not necessarily a bad film, but one that is entirely forgettable.

Hesher (2010) – Mark it 1.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is barely recognizable as Hesher, a longhaired and scraggly metalhead slacker who forms an odd and unlikely friendship with a grieving family.  It’s a shame that such a bold performance was wasted in this piece of shit film.  Hesher is clearly a sociopath, who is inexplicably tolerated by all the bland people he encounters.  Yet he is a sociopath who teaches everyone valuable lessons in the end, obviously.  Every dramatic cliché is used, including the literal use of a thunderstorm to symbolize the characters reaching rock bottom, and each time Hesher infuses some hackneyed drama, it is laughably bad.  All its intended laughs stem from seeing Gordon-Levitt’s vulgar disregard for common decency, and that motif gets old almost immediately.  Natalie Portman is her adorable self in a supporting role, but who cares because it comes in one of the worst movies I have ever seen.

Winter’s Bone (2010) – Mark it 7.

Jennifer Lawrence gives a breakout performance as Ree, a 17-year-old girl forced to take care of her younger siblings and pill-popping mother in the poor backwoods of Missouri.  The court threatens to take away their home, the only thing holding this family together, when Ree’s meth-cooking father fails to attend his court date.  To try and save their home (and in turn, her family), Ree goes searching for her father and manages to get dragged further and further into the dark depths of the Ozarks’ underworld.  This movie's tone increases its intensity as the dangers mount up, and Lawrence is fantastic as a desperate but strong young woman who refuses to let the choices of her father break up the rest of her family.  John Hawkes is also great (like in Martha Marcy May Marlene) as Ree’s intimidating uncle, Teardrop, who offers his help but can never be trusted completely.  

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Directed by Sean Durkin
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson

With its pair of breakout feature film debuts by director Sean Durkin and star Elizabeth Olsen (the Olsen twins’ younger sister), Martha Marcy May Marlene displays two new bona fide talents on the scene.  This dark drama simultaneously takes its viewers inside an increasingly creepy cult in rural upstate New York and inside the tortured mind of one of its escaped members as she tries to readjust to life outside the farm.  As the dangers of being in this cult become clearer, the film’s tone gets ever darker and Olsen’s stunning performance increases intensity.  Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of those films that left me with a feeling of unease in the pit of my stomach by the time the credits roll, but when that feeling arises from such a well-made film it is always a good thing.

Elizabeth Olsen is asked to carry this film on her shoulders, and there is no doubt that she can handle such a task.  As the title suggests, Olsen’s character assumes numerous identities that all have major problems.  We are introduced to this character as she is making her escape through woods with the other cult members calling out the name, “Marcy May.”  Yet she is “Martha” when we hear her panicked phone conversation to reconnect with the sister, Lucy, whom she has abandoned (“Marlene” is the pseudonym all the female cult members use when answering the phone).  Soon Martha is attempting to recover at Lucy and her husband’s lavish lake house in Connecticut, but the years of the cult’s indoctrination make leaving behind Marcy May a difficult strain.

Martha Marcy May Marlene’s structure further blends the distinctions between the different identities Olsen’s character is struggling with.  The film begins at the convergence between Martha and Marcy May, at the moment she escapes the cult.  However, from there we seamlessly weave back and forth between the two time periods.  As Martha assimilates back into the more civilized world we are taken to the day she enters the cult and given her new identity, Marcy May, by the hauntingly calm cult-leader, Patrick (John Hawkes).

Coming from a troubled past, life on Patrick’s free-love communal farm seems very inviting at first.  However, we saw her panicked state when the film opened and instinctively know there is something terrible going on underneath the surface.  Sean Durkin cuts between Martha’s deteriorating psychological state at her sister’s home with the sexual and physical violence she had grown accustomed to in the cult (until it reached a tipping point).  Sometimes the editing is so subtle and two the story arcs are so comparable that the viewer needs time to catch up and figure out which time period we are watching; it is a very effective trick and a powerful one.  The once peaceful life of Patrick’s cult becomes a terrifying existence just as the peaceful reprieve at Lucy’s lake house leads to a terrifying mental breakdown.  The physical and psychological toll that Martha/Marcy May endures is so great that the path the film takes in its third act is quite exhausting.

There is no denying that Martha Marcy May Marlene is a heavy film, but it is one in which the weight is worth the challenge.  It is haunting.  It is beautiful.  It is surreal.  And it leaves many blanks for the viewer to reflect upon and fill in.  But there is so much to enjoy.  Elizabeth Olsen is a force of nature as her character navigates through her brutal life.  As is John Hawkes, who is so calm and peaceful that only make him more hideous.  Every minute of this film has haunting subtleties that left me both mesmerized and disgusted, and I couldn’t wait to watch it again to investigate further.  Upon a second viewing, some of the ambiguities become clearer while some remain wide open, but the intrigue remains.  Martha Marcy May Marlene beautifully shows how cults can calmly unleash their horror on impressionable young people and how hard it is to then leave that impression behind.  This is one excellent movie.

Mark it 8.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

My "Mad Men" March

It is important to preface this post by saying that when it comes to TV shows, I take spoilers very seriously.  Some believe that once an episode is broadcast on the air, people should be able to talk about it freely regardless of if others haven’t had a chance to see it.  I think that rule was valid in an era before DVR, DVD box sets, Netflix and Hulu, but those rules should no longer apply.  Therefore, as I discuss the upcoming season of Mad Men, I will try to remain as vague as possible so those not yet caught up can freely read.

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As I type this article, we are a little more than 24 hours away from the return of AMC’s brilliant drama, Mad Men, and I can safely say that my anticipation for any series’ season debut has never been this amped.  My experiences with The Wire and Breaking Bad (the other two series in my holy triumvirate of TV dramas) were quite different.  I did not become hip to The Wire until after its run had ended so I watched them at my convenience via the DVD box sets.  Breaking Bad was experienced in a few mad dash marathon sessions so I could quickly catch up to its most recent season.  However, with Mad Men I got the pleasure to enjoy Season 4 on a week-by-week basis (like in olden days), but that has made its 17-month hiatus painfully long.  

Like I stated, it has been 17 months since we last had new Mad Men.  And while I own the DVDs for all four seasons, I had not watched any episodes since last season's finale in October 2010.  I needed to refresh my memory before retuning to the mid-Sixties’ advertising world on March 25.  With all 52 episodes staring at me from my DVD case, I decided to get ambitious (relatively speaking, though I still managed to work full-time and have a normal social life too) and revisit the WHOLE series.  I first got hooked on Mad Men in my junior year of college, and rampaged my way through its first three seasons during that spring semester almost two years ago.  Beginning that next summer, Sunday nights at 8 (central time) soon became something I eagerly anticipated every week.  Clearly, I was a fan from the get-go but during the second viewings in my recent Mad Men month of March, my appreciation of the show has increased considerably.

The term “Mad Men” refers to the advertising executives on New York’s Madison Avenue, and the show Mad Men transports viewers right into the middle of that world throughout the 1960s.  Don Draper is the creative genius at Sterling Cooper, one of those advertising firms populating Madison Avenue.  He is chain-smoking, cocktail drinking, womanizing family man with more talent than anyone in his field but also with more demons than anyone else too.  The Mad Men story revolves around Don’s mysterious past catching up to his successful but ever so complicated current existence.  I believe that fiction’s most memorable characters find a way to captivate an audience while balancing both their angels and demons.  Don is one of those memorable characters as you find yourself horrified by his less than admirable actions yet fascinated and endeared by his good qualities.

While Don Draper is the show's main pillar, Mad Men’s writing is so strong that these complicated and interesting storylines apply to each of its more ancillary characters. Secretary extraordinaire Joan Holloway, ladder climbing account executive Pete Campbell, closeted homosexual art director Salvatore Romano, aging advertising stalwarts watching the times pass them by Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper, and Don’s lonely and issue-filled housewife Betty Draper are just a handful of characters interesting enough to support their own dramas.  Yet as an ensemble (much larger than I have intimated here), Mad Men becomes one of the greatest dramas ever created.  Each character is given enough screen time to be developed deeply which is something often missing with other large scale casts.

The show is also much more than a study of great characters.  The 1960s were a turbulent time that saw optimism over the election of a new kind of President and depression over his assassination, the rise of the Civil Rights movement transforming the nation, and the slow decline into a mistake of a war in Vietnam.  Mad Men touches upon so many of these landmark moments in American history with its characters representing some of what the whole nation was going through. 

My favorite of these instances where Mad Men fuses social movements with its plotlines has always been watching Peggy Olson (Don’s secretary turned Sterling Cooper copywriter) begin to liberate herself like many women of that time.  After Don, Peggy is probably the show’s next most integral character; the series even begins on her first day of work. Upon first glance, Peggy is a naive and innocent young girl destined to be a secretary until she finds a husband and has kids (which was the only viable option for so many back then).  Slowly, however, it becomes clear that Peggy is one of the show's most progressive thinkers as she takes control of her body, her relationships, and her career.  Though always fighting an uphill battle, Peggy continues to gain confidence and display her immense talents to show that a woman can be every bit as strong and independent as any man.  I cannot wait to see her stay so forward thinking, because I have a feeling that the rise of counterculture and further liberation conflicting with her responsibility to promote the myths of commercialism (through advertising) will produce some amazing drama.

It feels as if I could devote an entire blog to Mad Men (as well as The Wire or Breaking Bad), and continue to sell it short.  Every note is hit so perfectly in this show from its music choices and cinematography to its set direction and costumes.  Add in a multitude of complex characters and writing so strong that there is rarely a predictable beat to be found, and you have an artistic achievement beyond most things found on either the small screen or the silver screen.  I cannot wait to see what paths show creator Matthew Weiner takes these characters down as Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce enters 1966-67 in Season 5.  I know I will be in store for hour long time capsules that provide its viewers with heightened drama and moments of great comedy.  Many nights of this past March have been spent revisiting what these characters have gone through during the decade, and I now get to look forward to seeing where they continue to head every Sunday night.  It is definitely going to be exciting.

If I were to “Mark” television, Mad Men would be undeniably marked a 10.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)

Directed by George Lucas
Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd

While I am not as fanatical as many, I consider myself a pretty big Star Wars fan.  And I am one of those fans who always adds the footnote, “just the original trilogy,” when describing their enjoyment of the series.  But with the recent releases of the Star Wars blu-ray box sets (of which I scooped up the Episodes IV-VI box right away) and George Lucas’ plans to convert all six into 3D, I began think about those damned prequels again.   When The Phantom Menace got its rerelease in 3D, I realized that it had probably been about 10 years since I actually watched it from beginning to end.  I remember loving it when I was kid then beginning to question its quality throughout my teen years.  However, I don’t exactly remember watching it during the time in which I had soured on it.   Therefore, I thought it was appropriate to revisit Star Wars:  Episode I – The Phantom Menace with as open a mind as possible, to see if it really was as bad as I was led to believe since my last viewing.  

Note:  I did not pay to revisit it via Lucas’ money-grabbing 3D presentation, but rather got the blu-ray from Netflix.

This review is going to be light on summary because by this point in time, I think you’ve either already seen The Phantom Menace or you have no plans of ever doing so.   Before describing my reactions in detail, I’d like to get my verdict out of the way:  objectively speaking, The Phantom Menace is a bad movie.   A bad movie with occasional moments of greatness, yet those moments only amplify its wasted potential.  

While watching The Phantom Menace, there’s no denying that George Lucas is a creative master of action sequences and visual effects.  Despite the 13 years since its release and the sometimes obvious CGI use, this film holds up well and is an absolute feast for the eyes.  The vast expanses of Naboo’s majestic tropical kingdom and Coruscant’s unfathomable cityscapes are mind blowing visually (and have likely never looked better than they do on blu-ray).  You are left awed by the talent that Lucas’ team of artists at Industrial Light & Magic possess.  When given an action set piece, George Lucas is also a man of considerable talents.  

There are two amazing scenes in the film:  the pod race and the final light sabre battle.   As the baby-faced Anakin Skywalker races for his freedom, Lucas is able to amp the tension with broken cables, smoking engines, fired gunshots, high speeds, and narrow canyons.  The stunning ten-minute sequence has you holding your breath until the very end (except when you groan over a terrible piece of Anakin dialogue – but more on that later).   The climactic light sabre battle with Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn and Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi fighting Darth Maul (Ray Park) is also a triumph in action.  The John Williams score is powerful, the choreography is exciting, and suspense is palpable (until Lucas cuts to Anakin flying some spaceship and you are reminded of its abundant flaws – but more on that later).  With good actors like Neeson and McGregor, I even felt some emotional impact when their fighting resulted in pain and suffering.  However, a successful movie (beyond financially) needs more than two great scenes and visual effects can only go so far.  There needs to be an interesting story and compelling characters as well, which The Phantom Menace sorely lacks.

My biggest problem with the Star Wars prequels is that the story of Anakin Skywalker’s downfall to become one of the greatest screen villains ever, Darth Vader, should have been epically tragic.  But that great tragedy is never felt because these movies fail to develop Anakin into any sort of compelling figure in the first place.  This problem all starts with The Phantom Menace.  As Anakin Skywalker, poor Jake Lloyd is so in over his head that you begin to feel sorry for him.  I know he’s just a little kid and I am not going to denigrate him for not delivering his line readings on par with thespians of much higher stature.   However, Lloyd’s being “just a little kid,” is precisely the problem.  Other than some bullshit explanation about a high number of midichlorians in his blood (add all the pseudo-science you want, Alec Guinness will forever explain the Force most aptly in A New Hope), a conveniently placed virgin birth, and the simple plot device that he’s really good with machines (somehow building his own pod racer and C-3PO on a slave’s wages without his master’s knowledge), there’s no reason to believe that there is anything special about the kid.  And all the “yippees” and “woahs” that Lucas wrote into the dialogue for Anakin only highlighted the issue he is merely an average, and kind of annoying, little kid.  For this tragedy to be effectively set up, the role of Anakin Skywalker needs to be weighty, and The Phantom Menace leaves you nothing but fluff.

Character problems extend beyond Anakin.  Even a good actress like Natalie Portman feels wooden and robotic.  Her Queen Amadala (or Padme because George Lucas felt it necessary to include some arbitrary body double plotline) lacks any majestic power that could ever inspire a nation or Galactic Senate.  Throughout the film, it feels as if she were just reading her lines off a page, all be it sometimes with some crazy (and distracting) hair and makeup.  When she shares a scene with Ian McDiarmid’s devious but charismatic Senator Palpatine, you can’t help but notice how she isn’t even in his same league.   My problem with the whole rise of Darth Vader storyline is especially apparent when Jake Lloyd shares the screen with Portman.  For this great tragedy to work, not only does Anakin have to be truly heroic and fall, but also the love between him and Padme has to be beautiful (they are Luke and Leia’s parents after all!).  When Padme meets Anakin and those first connections are made, all I see is a wooden actress talking to a little boy.  There needs to some sort of spark, perhaps if Lucas made Anakin a bit older that could exist.   The seeds of this love story begin awkwardly and cannot help but plant some uneasy feelings of pedophilia, which is not what anyone wants from Star Wars.  From the beginning, Lucas wastes the potential of a powerful tragedy through some bad casting decisions (or lack of direction in Portman’s case, who has proven that she can act).

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention The Phantom Menace most reviled creature, the entirely CGI-rendered Jar Jar Binks.  This creepy and unabashedly annoying mix of a tongue-tied Jamaican stereotype, Walt Disney's Goofy, Steve Urkel, and "Michelle" from Full House is flat out awful.  I get that his purpose is for comic relief, but such comedy has to be effective and used properly.  From his dialect to his mannerisms, Jar Jar Binks has no purpose beyond the worst kind of comedy, overly obnoxious slapstick coupled with incessant need to blab (oftentimes unintelligibly so).  Lucas once had the ability to seamlessly fuse comic relief into his films; one needs to look no further than R2-D2 or Yoda.  Those characters were often hilarious but had real purpose beyond the comedy.  Jar Jar has no purpose and no redeeming qualities.   Even the battle, in which Jar Jar was inexplicably made General that pitted his Gungun race against an army of droids, lacked any real stakes.  Whether Jar Jar performed admirably or bumbled around like a complete fool (it was the latter), the outcome was inconsequential when compared to the other battles going on in space and between the Jedis and Darth Maul.  Beyond being cringe inducing, the character of Jar Jar Binks is entirely useless.  All the criticisms pointed his way may even be understatements.

It is frustrating to watch The Phantom Menace because we are filled with the memories of the transcendent first trilogy and saw the great potential in the story of the fall of Anakin Skywalker/rise of Darth Vader.  There are even some inspired moments in The Phantom Menace.  Darth Maul is a terrifying villain and incredibly cool, but deplorably underused.  As is our one link to the original trilogy (beyond a mere cameo), Obi-Wan.  Giving one of the movie’s best performances, Ian McDiarmid’s Senator Palpatine (or Darth Sidious, as he is secretly known) becomes just a role player despite his plotline being the most interesting:  he deviously plans to use the Naboo and the Jedi as pawns to gain the power to eventually become the evil Emperor we know so well.  What we get instead is far too much time with young Anakin and Jar Jar, too much pseudo-science to make Qui-Gon Jinn not look like a complete nut for thinking Anakin is actually special, and too many confusing details involving the Trade Federation and its leaders with the most blatant use of offensive Asian stereotypes since Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. 

Having recently re-watched the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, the tightness of those plots are some of their greatest strengths.  There is not a moment wasted in those films, but the same cannot be said of The Phantom Menace.  It feels as if Lucas had too much time to think about it.  What results is a bloated picture cramming in too much mythos and reaching too far into depths of his imagination.  With too much time to tweak his ideas, the viewers are left with some bullshit about intergalactic trade blockades, microscopic particles of the Force and countless creatures with so many weird mannerisms that they either become distracting or downright distasteful.   When dealing with so many flaws, state-of-the-art visual effects and eye-popping action sequences cannot do enough to save the film.

As I close this long and thorough review, I want to say that I have no real urge to revisit Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith any time soon, despite the feelings I had going into The Phantom Menace.  I have seen both of those films much more recently than the last time I watched The Phantom Menace, so my memories of them are much clearer (I actually like the third one despite its flaws).   The lasting impact I had from those movies was that my apathy toward the little kid version of Anakin turned to a distinct disgust for the temperamental and whiny punk he became when Hayden Christianson took over the role (the bad acting continued).  The supposedly epic love story remained just as awkward.  Going into the prequels, the audience knew there was potential for high drama (and great action, of course), as one of the greatest Jedis ever gives in to temptation to perform the ultimate betrayal.  Instead we were treated to an unlikable dude who gets sad, mad and then joins a gang; it was a colossal letdown and the makes the backlash it has since received feel earned.  The Phantom Menace is that first letdown.

Mark it 3.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Max von Sydow, Bengt Ekerot, Gunnar Björnstrand

Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal has long been on my list of films I need to see but something about it seemed a bit intimidating.  Bergman has a reputation of producing thought-provoking but slow films; though his one film I have seen, Fanny and Alexander, is amazing (and not slow despite its epic length).  Taking on a Bergman film that poses deep questions about issues of life, death, and the existence of God during the Middle Ages in Plague-ridden Sweden was something I needed to build myself up for.   When The Seventh Seal came up twice in episodes of the Filmspotting podcast I recently listened to (Top 5 Movies about Mortality and Top 5 Existential Films), I decided it was time to see why The Seventh Seal is so highly regarded.

Max von Sydow (55 years younger than he was at last month's Academy Awards, where he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor) plays Antonius Block, a knight returning to his home Sweden with his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), after fighting in the Crusades for ten years.  His views on life and God have been disillusioned by the horrors he witnessed fighting a useless war and by the devastation the Plague has unleashed across Europe.  Death literally approaches Antonius as he nears his home, in the form of Bengt Ekerot’s creepy, but darkly humorous, version of the Grim Reaper.  Antonius is not afraid of Death but not ready to greet his end while lacking greater knowledge about God and meaning of life.  Antonius and Death begin a game of chess to give him a chance gain some further insight before it is too late.

As the returning Crusaders travel through Sweden, it becomes clear that death (the thing, not the person) and God weighs heavily on the people in The Seventh Seal.  People have become accustomed to the sight of Plague-inflicted corpses, but question why God has decided to punish them so terribly (questions that remain unanswered).  Some of The Seventh Seal’s most powerful scenes involve people attempting to appease the apparently vengeful God, such as a terrifying procession of people whipping themselves in penance for their sins and the burning of a young girl at the stake over the belief that she has been in contact with the Devil.   Yet God continues to remain silent while the Plague’s devastation rages and Death continues to show himself to Antonius (and others) and do his duty.

However, The Seventh Seal is not an overly dour, slow or depressing film despite its heavy themes.  I'd even go as far to say that I had a good deal of fun while watching it.  There were many instances of dark humor and others of great beauty that were quite unexpected and very refreshing.  Ekerot’s Death is filled with small but funny lines that he coldly dispatches while making his numerous appearances either to play chess or to discuss Antonius’ reasoning for prolonging his fate.  The most consistently humorous character is definitely the squire, Jöns.  He acts as the film’s voice of reason, partially because he is one the only characters not struggling with answers from a higher authority when facing such a devastating age.  Jöns has realized that there is not a lot of meaning behind all the death left in the wake of the Crusades and the Plague, and that the best way to survive is to just look out for oneself and those closest to you.  In the tensest situations when people are struggling with matters of life and death, Jöns provides great comedic reactions to help lighten the mood during these dark times.  But he has a heart behind his cynicism.  A traveling troupe of actors that join Antonius and Jöns also help lighten the mood.

Death remains the only constant in this world, which is a huge contrast to God’s invisibility.  While Antonius’ quest for some insight to tell him something different lacks definitive answers, he does find some beauty in this dark and destructive world that tells him that life is, in fact, worth living.  There are so many beautiful moments involving a family of actors who befriend Antonius on his travels.  Jof, Mia, and their baby are the definition of a happy family whose love remains untarnished by all the death they live amongst.  One of my favorite moments occurs when Jof and Mia share some strawberries and milk with Antonius.  At this moment, Antonius realizes that despair has not completely infected the world and being able to enjoy moments of peace with friends makes life worth living.  Death may be inevitable and he has prepared himself to face it, but he will make it a mission to prevent Death (the figure) from showing up to dispense his punishment on Jof, Mia and the baby.  The moments of beauty are especially inspiring in the context of such a dark and disturbing environment that the Plague has created.

The Seventh Seal forces one to examine those deep questions about life, death, and whatever occurs after, but does not ever feel heavy-handed in doing so.  It is great work of cinema that is filled with iconic images, amazing scenes, and fascinating characters.  Even when some things seem out of place, Bergman masterfully weaves them together in the end so it becomes clear that every moment had a purpose.  Upon my second viewing of The Seventh Seal, all the pieces fit together much more clearly and there are great little touches that become more noticeable.  I look forward to comprehending my newest reactions whenever I decide to experience this film a third time.  I may have hesitated to give this existential movie about mortality a proper chance, but it was worth the wait.  All the hype I heard about The Seventh Seal being one those “Great Movies” was well warranted; it is a classic.

Mark it 9.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Hanna (2011)

Directed by Joe Wright
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett

It is hard to imagine that director Joe Wright would follow up his grand period pieces, Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, with such an adrenaline rush of a film like Hanna.  Having seen Atonement and Hanna (and hearing good things about Pride and Prejudice), it is clear that this is a man of considerable talent.  After earning a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Atonement, the young Saoirse (pronounced "sur-shuh") Ronan has proven that she has the talent to carry a film herself.
The film’s tone is set from the beginning as we watch Ronan’s Hanna finish her father’s brutal training regimen in the icy forests of Finland.  Eric Bana plays the father, an ex-CIA operative who went into seclusion after his CIA handler murdered of his wife (Hanna’s mother).  He has completely sheltered his daughter from the outside world since then, spending the next 14 years training for their dangerous revenge mission against his old handler, Cate Blanchett, and her colleagues.  When the first domino in their plan is tipped over at the fifteen-minute mark, Hanna becomes a wild and exciting thrill ride.
I hesitate to get into too much detail regarding the great game of cat-and-mouse Hanna becomes, a game in which the roles of Blanchett’s cat and Ronan’s mouse are often interchangeable.  There are so many twists regarding Hanna’s mysterious history and incredible skills that are best to be experienced blindly.  I can freely discuss its breakneck pace, stylized action, and Ronan’s excellent performance.
A film’s musical score can be a powerful tool.  Some films call for the score to be barely noticed while in others, it becomes an iconic characteristic.  What remains crucial is for the score to effectively accompany the film’s tone.  The music in Hanna is over-the-top without being distracting, like the film’s style and action is over-the-top without being obnoxious.  The Chemical Brothers’ pulsating electronic score accompanies the action perfectly, from its high energy beats during Hanna’s prison escape to the creepily haunting melodies that plays at a Berlin underworld burlesque show where Blanchett meets with one of her most devious accomplices.   Each musical piece is very memorable; I found myself having trouble getting it out of my head (and didn’t find it to be a nuisance). 
Hanna is filled with exciting set pieces as Hanna treks her way across Europe (with the help of an unsuspecting British family on vacation) to reunite with her father in Berlin.  Along the way she must put her brutal training to test to escape Blanchett and her evil henchmen.  Despite being a slender teenage girl, Saorise Ronan convincingly takes on each battle, using Hanna’s superior knowledge and skill as leverage over the brute strength of her foes.  And Joe Wright doesn’t shy away from the action with series of jump cuts, but rather pulls back and lets you take in each beautifully choreographed sequence.   
I want to avoid the trap of selling Hanna short as merely an exciting thriller (not that that is necessarily has to be a shortcoming).  I say this because Saoirse Ronan does not portray Hanna as just the icy killer that she is but also a wide-eyed young girl taking in the world outside her isolated life in the Finnish forests for the first time.  For her first 16 years, Hanna’s only understanding of the wider world was from encyclopedias that her father read to her.  She is a multi-lingual, highly trained assassin who is desperate to hear her first piece of music and make her first friend.  Subtle scenes such as her first experiments with electricity (a florescent light that amazes her) or the realization that she has a friend in the daughter of that vacationing British family are just as memorable as Hanna’s most intense action sequences.  Ronan’s performance combines strength and innocence to make her character so interesting, machinelike but vulnerable.  At only 17, Saoirse Ronan is already an actress whose films I will firmly place on my radar.  In supporting roles, Eric Bana’s harsh but caring father and Cate Blanchett’s coldly evil CIA agent take command of each scene they are in as well.

Hanna has a lot of the ingredients I often seek in a film.  It is filled with incredibly stylized action without becoming overindulgent and distracting, interspersed within powerful drama highlighted by great performances.  And there is just the right amount of creepy oddness to it.  It is like an adolescent Kill Bill meets the Bourne moviesmixed with a touching father-daughter relationship/coming-of-age tale, and with flourishes of some David Lynch-ian weirdness.  Hanna is that arthouse action thriller with an appeal that the masses might be able to get behind. 

Mark it 8.