Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Ranking David Fincher


On this blog, I tend to notice when a) I've seen all of a particular type of movie, like movies directed by a particular person, and b) that particular type of movie reaches a particular numerical milestone.

And then I rank.

Only a) is technically necessary to do the ranking, but in the case of Gone Girl, both a) and b) are satisfied.

Gone Girl is, lo and behold, David Fincher's tenth feature, and I've seen all of them. So, it's time to put this man's career under the microscope -- microscopic precision being something that Mr. Fincher himself would heartily endorse.

Without any further ado:

1) The Social Network (2010). I have known for two or three years now that I consider this to be Fincher's masterpiece, but have only shied away from embracing that stance because I thought it made me seem like too much of a new-school cinephile. There are three other titles that many people would be more quick to christen as Fincher's best. But Network is one of only two Fincher films I've seen more than once, and it's the only one I've seen three times. Given that it is also his third most recent, that says something about just how much I dig it. I know part of my love has to do with it being Fincher's first and still most memorable collaboration with my favorite musician, Trent Reznor. I still listen to the score at least a couple times a year. But it also has towering performances from Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara, Aaron Sorkin dialogue that crackles like Sorkin dialogue has never crackled for me before, and a brilliant non-chronological narrative structure that works perfectly in concert with Fincher's trademark formal magnificence. If I had to boil down why I love The Social Network to just one thing, however, it would have to be similar to why I love Bennett Miller's Moneyball: Both films take subject matter that is inherently uncinematic and find the pulsing human drama that brings it to life. It's an against-all-odds success, so it also bucks the odds by being my #1.

2) Seven (1995). Seven is not the other Fincher film I've seen more than one time ... and the fact that I've seen it only once truly shocks me. This is, quite simply, one of the most indelible documents of human depravity ever committed to film, a sinister worm that gets inside your brain and sucks out any optimism you feel toward your fellow man. As Morgan Freeman's William Somerset states: "Ernest Hemingway once said 'The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part." This was also when Fincher announced to us just what he could do with a camera, with a frame, with a cast. Not only is every new thing glimpsed around every new corner freshly horrifying, but the movie builds toward a perfect climax involving one of the enduring classic spoiler twists of the 1990s. (Twist casting, anyway.) What's in this box? A crackerjack piece of filmmaking that has probably been the director's most influential work.

3) Fight Club (1999). Fight Club is an odd mixture of strengths and weaknesses, satisfying material and stuff that is just plain bogus. But what endures for me is the way this movie almost feels like the first movie told using the language of the internet. What I focus on when I think of Fight Club is not guys punching each other in a grimy basement (or even punching themselves), but the opening act and its hologram-like 3D aesthetic, its intermingling of support groups and exploding airplanes and the ability to walk into, and select, and move the shiny material objects in an Ikea catalogue. This is the other Fincher film I've seen twice, and it's the roaming quality of his camera -- traveling through ceilings and floors on a 360-degree rotation, moving to places only the mind's eye can go -- that made me come back for more. Fight Club's good parts are so good that you are easily distracted from the whole thing collapsing in on itself in numerous spots. It's only the lack of a convenient opportunity that has kept me from seeing this again -- it's been over a decade since my second viewing.

4) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). It's hard to say, with a straight face, that you really like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, since it has been so generally shit upon in the six years since its release. But I ranked it in my top ten the year it came out, and I wasn't crazy ... was I? Button represents a pretty significant drop-off from the top three, but it must have done a number of things right because I remember being entranced in its spell. The right kind of epic love story, which spans years and continents and lots of really nice art direction, can do that for me, and I suppose Button was unusual enough to find a sweet spot in my imagination. Having lived through a number of years of Button backlash, though, I now think that it's probably the least likely of Fincher's movies for me to revisit, because there's the least amount more I could discover from it. I'd revisit the great ones to soak in their greatness and the misfires to analyze why they missed, but Button will probably just sit in the middle, never to be explored again.

5) Zodiac (2007). Now is the time for you to haul out your apoplexy and give it full voice. On a podcast devoted to Gone Girl I listened to yesterday morning, the podcasters described Zodiac as the consensus choice for Fincher's masterpiece. Well, that consensus didn't poll me, I guess. I like this movie a lot and respect it even more, but it's a very hard movie to love. I find Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo's search for the Zodiac killer a wholly unsatisfying affair, and I don't really buy the argument that that's the point. I didn't expect for the movie to reveal who the killer was, as the case is still unsolved, but the movie asks you to be interested in police procedural behavior for its own sake. Through that it gets at an interesting glimpse into the obsessive mind, but I remember telling people that it felt like a really long episode of Law & Order. A really good episode, but one held back by the same limitations. Since time has placed this movie in an even more favorable light than it enjoyed from the critical establishment at the time, I definitely have to give this one a second chance.

6) Panic Room (2002). I didn't give Panic Room a fair shake at the time of its release, and it took me more than a year to finally see it. In fact, I derisively referred to it as "Green Room," so cynical was I about its sleek green-filtered appearance and apparent lack of substance. But Panic Room is actually a tight, taught little domestic invasion thriller, with uniformly good performances and real tension. What I really remember about this movie, however, is how it represents the most ostentatious demonstration of technique Fincher has ever committed to film. I referred to the wandering of Fincher's camera in his previous film, Fight Club, as a major plus in that film. Here, Fincher's camera travels on impossible tracks through the house and main set, a feat that is equal parts digital manipulation and cinematographic derring-do. I would watch this movie again just to sit agape at the audacity of that camera, its omniscience purposefully representing no one's perspective.

7) Gone Girl (2014). It's too soon since my first viewing of Gone Girl to know how it will really settle with me over time. But as I indicated in my previous post, it's the only Fincher movie I've seen where I questioned the potential irresponsibility of the ideas presented. I didn't use the M word -- misogyny -- in my previous discussion of Gone Girl, but it's been fighting its way to the surface the more I think about the film. However, if you entirely divorce (pun intended) the players from what they signify in terms of the battle of the sexes, and view them only as pawns in a Hitchcockian thriller, you can sit back and appreciate how Fincher may be today's most capable director in terms of assembling such an homage. I was thrilled by the film's look and execution, and didn't guess where it would go at any point. If I can just get past that little issue of the underexplained psychotic behavior of the lead female character, Gone Girl might jump a few spots on this list.

8) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011). It's when we get to #8 on this list that I truly appreciate just how good Fincher's filmography has been. In a lot of ways, this is the most technically accomplished film Fincher has ever made in terms of perfectly distilling the hard and icy world of its story. It's a near ideal match of director and subject matter. Ah, but it's the subject matter that holds me back here. I'd already seen the original version of the film, and already been generally dissatisfied by a story that I feel has been quite overrated by the public in general. Certainly, there are elements of this series of books that truly crackle, including the introduction of a truly memorable character (and Rooney Mara kills it as Lisbeth Salander), but overall I just don't think this narrative lives up to its apparent promise. And Fincher's version backloads the movie with a bunch of extraneous material that may be true to the book (I don't know, I haven't read it) but has the effect of weighing things down. There's a trailer's worth of super awesome in this movie and lots of very good sprinkled throughout, but you walk out of the theater feeling a bit disappointed. I know my disappointment is also tied to the long, bloated and indistinct score by my hero, Mr. Reznor -- in the height of self-indulgence, the movie's soundtrack was something like 39 tracks long. Maybe that Oscar for The Social Network went to his head.

9) The Game (1997). And here comes the big dropoff. Remember the bogus material that I said detracts from Fight Club? The Game is 87.3% bogus material. There's suspension of disbelief, and then there's what The Game asks you to do. Sure, this movie looks good, and sure, it can be thrilling in spots. But when you start to realize that the only way certain outcomes could be achieved, the only way the giant puzzle could keep going along the correct trajectory, is by every character making exactly the right decision at exactly the right moment, you start to feel like The Game thinks you're a fool. And I'm no fool.

10) Alien 3 (1992). I can't say for certain that the third Alien movie, and Fincher's first feature film, is really his worst. The Game might be worse, actually. But when you live in a climate of hatred for Alien 3, as we all do, some of it has to seep through your skin. I actually think this movie is pretty good for a completely stripped down version of an Alien movie, and not all that essentially wrongheaded for a series that kept reinventing itself with every new entry. But that cruel and unusual way it renders the events of Aliens meaningless -- that's all I'll say for those of you who still haven't seen these movies -- is a misstep from which the movie never recovers, even if it only comprises the very beginning of the movie. Since Fincher didn't write the movie, you can hardly blame him. Still, it's kind of funny to think about how we were introduced to this great new talent through a movie that was widely panned ... and yet he still got to make Seven and go on to become one of our great modern-day auteurs. Without Seven to prop up his first three movies, Fincher's early output doesn't look so good at all.

And that's probably just about enough David Fincher for today.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's post, in which I wonder aloud "Where was Ben Affleck's junk in Gone Girl? I DIDN'T SEE IT."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Someone finally found the right role for Rosamund Pike


WARNING! WARNING! DANGER! DANGER! GONE GIRL SPOILERS TO FOLLOW!

Rosamund Pike has dead eyes.

After searching for years for a reason why I disliked this actress so much, I finally came to a concrete realization in the opening minutes of Gone Girl:

Her eyes are dead.

This is a problem when you are trying to portray, you know, a human being.

Fortunately, in Gone Girl, Rosamund Pike doesn't have to.

For probably the first time in a career that has involved primarily straightforward casting, Rosamund Pike is playing a sociopath. It turns out that this is something this otherwise artificial actress can do very well.

Considering how little I like her as a performer, I have seen quite a lot of Rosamund Pike movies. From Die Another Day to Fracture to An Education to Surrogates to Jack Reacher to The World's End, Pike has always struck me as a pod person, an alien skirting around the edges of what it might be like to play a human being, but never really getting there. She not only strikes me as false, she downright discomfits me. There's something, you know, wrong with her.

In a role that requires those dead eyes to say something about the depths of sociopathic behavior of which she is capable, though, Pike nails it.

What dead eyes are you speaking of, you ask? How about these dead eyes:


Finally, I am discomfited by Rosamund Pike for the right reasons.

I wonder if David Fincher -- or his casting director, Laray Mayfield -- saw in Pike what I saw. Or rather, what I didn't see -- namely, a soul. I wonder if they said "We need someone truly soulless for this role. I know -- Rosamund Pike!"

In any case, she does nail it.

In the first half of the film, we are seduced into the tempting narrative that she's a basically good trust fund baby whose life has been run into the ground after her husband moved them to the middle of nowhere, began cheating on her, and started demonstrating violent tendencies. I was sort of bothered, then, that there was nothing behind her eyes, even at the start when she is supposed to feel an uncomplicated love toward Ben Affleck's character. This was when my "dead eyes" theory really took hold.

But at about the halfway point, the performance -- or I should say, Pike's most common performative mode -- is totally recontextualized. She was faking. She was putting on a show. We won't get in to the psychopathology that has brought her to this point -- which is a bit more complicated and problematic -- but by now, she does have a total disdain for certain if not most human beings, who may deserve only a percentage of that disdain.

And when she slits Neil Patrick Harris' throat with a boxcutter, then writhes around on top of his body as she bathes in his blood (and as Trent Reznor's generally muted score reaches its sinister crescendo), we truly realize we've been looking into an empty shell all along.

My problem with Gone Girl, then, is not Pike's performance -- which I now consider one of the film's foremost strengths. My problem is how the film gets her to this point. By the end, the most obvious interpretation of the he said-she wrote story is that most of what he said was true, and most of what she wrote was false. At one point tempted to side with a battered wife, we are now left with no option but to consider her a contemptible whack job whose hatred of men has driven her to try to ruin the lives of at least three of them -- seemingly just for her own sport.

The reason given? She couldn't live up to the high standard set by her parents, who wrote a popular series of children's books starring a much more successful version of her.

Her husband -- who could have been a truly awful character -- is more than anything guilty of philandering and perhaps inattention.

Not only does her psychopathology seem dispiritingly simple, but the reframing of the narrative has the effect of vindicating men -- not just one, but several -- who are accused of dastardly deeds against women. Not only does Amy Dunne try to frame her own husband for killing her -- a frame-job she may nor may not being trying to cement by ultimately killing herself -- but she once framed a man (Scoot McNairy) for raping her. Women lying about rape is an extremely problematic narrative purpose, even if the person who wrought the bestselling novel was a woman. In fact, Gillian Flynn adapted her own book into this screenplay.

It's not that there can't be a movie about a woman who fabricates accusations against men, just that she needs to be grounded in an emotional reality that makes sense. She can't just be a psycho.

So while David Fincher's undeniable craftsmanship again elevates this to something of a technical marvel, it's in service of a half-baked idea.

The one who did spend enough time in the oven is Rosamund Pike, and now I actually look forward to seeing what she'll do next.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Hey! Go see this!


My friend Matthew Saville is a very successful director.

He's directed features, he's directed high-profile TV movies, and he's directed award-winning TV shows.

But something has eluded him thus far in his professional career:

A U.S. theatrical release date.

That all changes with tomorrow's release of Felony, his police drama that first played at last year's Toronto Film Festival. At that time, he was discouraged about its prospects of getting that coveted U.S. release date, widely recognized as a necessary imprimatur for a film to be taken seriously on the world stage. Even with a cast of known stars, like Joel Edgerton, Tom Wilkinson, Jai Courtney and Melissa George, the film could have still been destined only to "play for a fortnight" (a phrase he used that my wife and I have since privately teased him about) in Australian theaters, and then become a memory.

Well, it's still playing in Australian theaters on the day I write this, October 17th, having been released way back on August 28th. And yes indeed, it's opening in U.S. theaters tomorrow.

I may not like it as much as Noise -- his 2007 feature that got him a trip to Sundance, but never a U.S. release -- but it's in the ballpark. Matt knows what he's doing.

Plus, it's got the great Tom Wilkinson. Who, among his many other talents, can do a very credible Aussie accent.

Like Noise, it's a cop movie, but also like Noise, it's not a conventional cop movie. While that movie dealt with a detective whose pursuit of a murderer is being complicated by a maddening case of tinnitus, this one deals with the ethical quandary when cops try to cover up each others' involvement in a tragic accident. Both films are good food for thought (so seek out Noise if you've never seen it as well).

I saw Felony back on opening night, when I must admit I was one of only a dozen people in the theater. But numbers don't lie. The word of mouth has kept this one going, as Felony has now officially survived another Thursday new release day at Cinema Nova, meaning it's starting it's eighth full week in theaters. That's not a fortnight, Matt. That's four fortnights.

But it may not play for longer than a fortnight in the U.S., so seek it out. You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The world's douchebaggiest ringtone


"Ah ah ah hooah hooah
Ah ah ah hooah hooah
Ah ah ah hooah hooah
Come on now, more margaritas!"

If you recently saw Tusk, you may have this little ditty stuck in your head, just as I do.

It's the ringtone belonging to the main character, Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), a douchebag podcaster who likes to laugh at famous freaks on the internet. And it's such a terrific character detail, such a terrific signifier of douchiness, that it's probably one of my favorite things about the movie -- a movie I liked quite a lot.

Of course, at the time I saw the movie I had no idea that it was a comedy bit recorded from one of Kevin Smith's podcasts, where radio personality Ralph Garman (who appears as an actor in both Tusk and Smith's last film, Red State) was doing an impersonation of Al Pacino. Apparently, in this particular bit, Pacino is a fan of tequila, triple sec, lime juice and salt.

To me, it just sounded like what a real dickhead would say to a group of girls, when he was hoping to roofie one of them and have his way with her. "Come on, drink up!" (Considering the events of Tusk, there's a bitter irony to the notion of unquestioningly drinking something that is thrust in front of you.)

It's not that I believed this character would do something like that, but that this character would not comprehend the underlying grossness of a jerk trying to get some girls drunk. Most douchebags would not actually commit date rape, but they would think the type of activities that lead to date rape are awesome. I wouldn't be surprised if Wallace Bryton were a devotee of Tucker Max, for example.

What I love is how many times Smith uses this ringtone in the movie. It's got to be in there at least a half-dozen times, and each time the movie pauses to let its absurdity play out for 5 to 10 seconds before the phone is answered. The ringtone comes at funny moments, to accentuate the comedy, and in scary moments, to puncture the tension. It is used masterfully to get a laugh each time.

Since just having me spell it out in words above is probably not enough to create the necessary mental image -- can you have an image of a sound? -- here is that ringtone, with accompanying graphics:



It's one of a number of masterful touches in Tusk -- intermingled with some touches that aren't so masterful, and some parts that simply seem like flab that could have been cut out. Still, Tusk is a win overall for Smith -- both very funny and very disturbing at different junctures, with some other random tones thrown in to jangle you further.

After Red State, that's what I love about the new Kevin Smith -- you really never know what you're going to get.

Now, to locate the nearest Mexican restaurant with a liquor license open at lunchtime ...

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A very bad word indeed


On Saturday night we watched Jason Bateman's directorial debut, Bad Words, about a 40-year-old man who uses a loophole to enter a national spelling bee competition intended for eighth graders.

The title has multiple meanings, as it also refers to the fact that Bateman's Guy Trilby has no filter. He emits profanity with a gusto that is only heightened when he's speaking to a child.

Before the movie started, though, I was focused on a different bad word -- one that has bothered me time and again since I've moved to Australia. I thought it was finally time to write about it.

The word is "unmissable," and it has been a bad bad word indeed.

I know "unmissable" does qualify as a word, barely, but it's the way "unmissable" is used in popular advertising here that really gets my goat.

The word creates hype for a movie or TV show or concert performance by trying to encapsulate how unwise it would be for you, the prospective viewer, to miss it. In this case, the word was applied to one of the trailers before Bad Words. If you had to translate it into, say, six words, those six words would be "You don't want to miss this!"

Except there's a difference between telling someone they don't want to miss something, and saying that they literally cannot miss it. It's the latter that the word "unmissable" implies.

In fact, you would have to really struggle to find any appropriate usage of the word "unmissable." (And I could stop using the quotation marks, probably, except they provide the important secondary function of belittling the word's legitimacy.) If there is an asteroid heading toward Earth and there is a mathematical certainty that the two bodies will collide, Earth could be described as "unmissable" to that asteroid. And vice versa.

But telling someone they literally cannot miss a piece of popular entertainment is just ridiculous, unless Beyonce is going to set up her band and her backup singers in your bedroom and start performing while you're fast asleep. I suppose, once you woke up, she would be "unmissable" to you.

But a movie? A TV show? There are many more ways to miss it than to not miss it. In fact, with any given piece of popular entertainment, more than 95% of the world's population is likely never to see it.

I suppose in some ways it is silly to get stuck on the semantics of this word, since I obviously understand what they mean in context, the sense of urgency they are trying to convey. But it just strikes me as such a dumb way to convey it. And what then strikes me as all the more annoying is that it's spreading like a virus. There it is on the side of that bus. There it is now on that billboard. And there it is now on my TV.

What may be strangest, though, is that this seems to be a peculiarly Australian phenomenon. Perhaps they borrowed it from the U.K., since that's a pretty common practice here. But I definitely have not seen it in the U.S., which is strange, since a) a lot more advertising is created in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world, and b) Americans typically have a pretty healthy disdain for the proper and/or intended use of words.

Or maybe it's been around for a while and I've only just recently started noticing it.

Maybe I just missed the memo on "unmissable."

Monday, October 13, 2014

Boredom porn


You've heard the term torture porn for movies that fetishize torture, and disaster porn for movies that fetishize disaster.

How about "boredom porn" for movies that take boredom to extreme levels of perversity?

That's how I'm starting to mentally classify the films of Lucien Castaing-Taylor, and I haven't even seen the one that could best fit the description: 2012's Leviathan. (It's available for streaming on Netflix, but having already watched one Castaing-Taylor film this week, I need to give myself a bit of a break before I tackle another.)

Castaing-Taylor is an anthropologist, director of Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, and he is perhaps best known for the 2009 sheep documentary Sweetgrass, which he directed with Ilisa Barbash. Castaing-Taylor did not actually direct Manakamana, which I saw last night, but as a producer, his sensibilities are all over it.

What sensibilities are those, you might ask?

Well, before I tell you about the format of Manakamana, I'll get you in the right mindset by talking about Sweetgrass and what I know of Leviathan.

I first wrote about Sweetgrass here. It's a steadfastly slow-paced film, dealing with little more than the basic visual stimuli of watching sheep herded through Montana's Beartooth Mountains. The cinematography is lush and the dialogue is minimal. Really, you are just watching sheep for 101 minutes.

Leviathan is, as I understand it, basically the same thing, but applied to the commercial fishing industry. For detractors of this type of film, Leviathan has the decency to be only 87 minutes long (which does give me more incentive to prioritize a viewing in the near future). Here, Castaing-Taylor shared the directing credit with Verena Paravel.

Those aforementioned detractors will want to stay far away from Manakamana. Not only does it not have the decency to be comparatively short, clocking in just shy of two hours, but it is arguably about far less than either of those films, with far smaller variability in its imagery.

So it's finally time to tell you: Manakamana is about a cable car ride to the top of a Nepalese mountain where visitors worship at a temple that shares this film's name.

It's not about the temple, mind you. It's just about the ride to get there, and back.

Eleven such rides over 118 minutes, lasting around 10 minutes each.

Seriously.

The film starts with a man and a boy (the ones seen in the poster) emerging from the darkness of a cable car station at the base of the Nepalese mountain, seated in a car. A camera is set up directly across from them and observes them for their 10-minute ascent. The boy and the man, who presumably know each other, speak not a word to each other for the entire journey.

At the top, they return to a state of darkness to disembark. Creating an illusion of seamlessness, the camera then transitions to show us a different ascent up the mountain, this time with the camera placed on the opposite side of the car (to get a different background, I suppose) and with a solo woman making the ascent. As she is by herself, she says nothing either.

At this point I was wondering if there would ever be any dialogue in this movie at all.

And had left the second car ride running while I ran a did a couple quick household chores in the vicinity of my computer.

Initially angered that directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez would have the audacity to record such a thing and call it a movie, I started to get into Manakamana a bit more as it moved along. Yes, finally in the third car ride, the two riders do talk to each other. Not about anything really important, of course, but there was dialogue, and I clung to it like a life preserver. A couple later conversations had more substance, a couple others were notable for their lack of it (you think the people don't even know each other and then they finally say something very personal about halfway down), and there's at least one big surprise that made me laugh out loud. I won't spoil it, in case you do want to take this ride, so to speak, yourself. Another segment contains a really funny bit as well, that has to do with the apparent disconnect between our preconceived notions of the characters and the activity that consumes the length of their ride.

The format itself is unwavering, except in terms of which side of the car the camera is resting, and which direction the car is travelling. (The first six are trips up the mountain, the last five are trips down.)

I did eventually decide there was something profound about this. I genuinely looked forward to seeing who would emerge from the transitional darkness between vignettes, with whom I would be spending my next ten minutes. I also began to wonder about things like our tendency as human beings to fill the silence with meaningless chatter, or not, and what that says about how comfortable (or uncomfortable) we are with our loved ones, as well as with ourselves. I wondered if the spiritual experience they were heading toward, or had just completed, rendered them more thoughtful and less vocal than they might usually be. I also began to wonder if the camera was hidden, or in plain view, and whether that affected how the people behaved (although they certainly give no indication of noticing its presence). I wondered if the filmmakers had to run down these people afterwards to get their permission to participate, and whether that dictated which vignettes we saw and which we didn't.

And even though Manakamana became more than a marginally positive experience for me, I still call it boredom porn without any urge to retract the snarkiness of that designation.

Manakamana certainly challenges, and perhaps even snubs its nose at, the very notion of what constitutes conventional subject matter for a documentary. But it ended up being okay that it was so quiet and meditative and perhaps did not require my undivided attention, because I had intended to divide my attention between the movie and prepping dinner for the next night anyway. Manakamana actually got action-packed enough at times (in other words, filled with enough dialogue that I couldn't walk away) that I actually had to pause it a couple times to go fetch ingredients.

Perhaps inevitably, I did think about how this sort of makes for a good structure for a Hollywood movie. If that sounds crazy, let me explain. It could be an omnibus movie, where ten different directors direct different ten-minute shorts, all set on a ski lift. (Because I don't think the Hollywood version of this takes place in Nepal.) When each new segment begins, you'd have no idea which two familiar actors were going to emerge from the darkness (except the trailer would have ruined it, so you would actually know). You'd have no idea what the characters' relationship was in some cases, and in others it would be immediately clear. There'd be the story of the couple who breaks up over the course of the ride. There'd be the opposite story where the two strangers fall in love. There'd be the one where two apparent strangers slowly realize that the other person is the person they've been assigned to kill. There would be the avant garde one where the people only spoke to each other through inscrutable pieces of meaningless dialogue. And so on. And so forth.

Thanks, Lucien Castaing-Taylor. You've given me my million dollar idea.

Not so boring after all.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A history of violence


Nicolas Cage has pondered violence and its consequences in two films so far in 2014 -- and they are not actually as far apart in quality as you might think.

Okay, Joe is a lot better than Rage. But Rage is also a lot better, in its own weird way, than your typical Nicolas Cage paycheck movie.

Both movies have something to say about how you can't fully leave a violent past behind you. Really. Even Rage.

Having made my introduction and let you decide if you're intrigued enough to continue, I will now also tell you that I'm going to SPOIL both of these movies in order to make my points. You've been warned.

Joe, described as David Gordon Green's comeback from the purgatory of dumb Hollywood comedies (what, no one saw the terrific Prince Avalanche last year???), has also been described as a comeback for Cage. In truth, Cage makes a movie like this every three or four years, something that reminds us that filmmakers at their peak still want to collaborate with the man, and he them.

It's very much in the mold of a movie like Jeff Nichols' Mud, in which a loner is trying to outrun his violent past. The title character in Mud is actually on the run, but Cage's Joe is just at the level of not seeming able to keep himself out of trouble -- even when he's made very noticeable strides toward pure, respectable legitimacy as the head of a crew whose job is to poison trees so the lumber companies can clear them. He'll be actually on the run if he can't control that hot temper. When he sees a teenager (Tye Sheridan) in jeopardy, it's enough to mix with the already combustible elements of his personality to point toward something fatal, for somebody.

Rage, on the other hand, feels a lot more like Cage's other choices from the past ten years, where he agrees to star alongside a handful of other nominally recognizable actors for a salary that is well over half the film's budget. If he's made this movie once, he's made it a thousand times. The salary-to-budget ratio may be even more lopsided in this one, as such elements as the lighting and the editing come across as particularly shoddy. Even the credits, something that shouldn't cost much at all, are remarkably dull.

In Rage, Cage is a former hoodlum who has taken himself out of the game and become the head of a respectable construction empire. Even though he's been retired from crime for 15 years, the logical suspicion is that his teenage daughter's kidnapping can be tied to evening an old score. So he calls on the services of two old criminal associates to knock some heads with him, and turn the criminal underworld of Mobile, Alabama (I guess there is such a thing) upside down in trying to find her.

There, now the real spoilers to follow.

The interesting thing about Rage, which sets it apart from your typical Cage fare, is that he does not succeed. At about the movie's 30-minute mark, they find the daughter's body. I suppose something like that might have been assumed from the movie's title, but I did not assume it. In your typical Cage kidnapped daughter movie (say, Stolen), he recovers her in the final scene, while also sending the kidnappers to some kind of water grave (or maybe impaled on a fence post). Not here. She's dead.

Rage shifts to more typical territory after that, where Cage scorches the earth to stir up long-dormant animosities between crews as the body count rises and rises. When each of his friends succumbs, I got more a sense of this movie's freedom from the strictures of your typical escapist action movie. This is not heading anywhere triumphant.

Then it happens: We learn that the death of his daughter had nothing to do with the Russian mob, as had been suspected for most of the movie. Except in the following way: A Russian gun he stole from a mobster he killed years ago (a Tokarev, which provided the movie's original title) was used in the killing, And that's because he kept it in a box in his closet, where his daughter knew about it. When she showed it off to two male friends to impress them on a night of drinking, it went off. Terrified and consumed with guilt, the friends trashed the house to make it look like a kidnapping, and relocated the body so it would not be found right away.

After all, when you had a history like Cage had, you'd believe that kind of narrative, wouldn't you?

I was all prepared to dismiss Rage until this point, but the revelation about what really happened genuinely surprised me. Of course, the dangers of too-accessible guns is not an entirely original message for a movie, but I did not expect it to be the message of this movie. I expected Cage to kick righteous ass in the just pursuit of the genuinely malevolent people who kidnapped and killed his daughter. Instead, he should have just been pursuing himself. He thought he got away with that unauthorized mob hit all those years ago, but it actually came back to roost for both him and the two friends who helped him pull it off -- in a poetically just fashion he could never have imagined.

It's all too fitting, then, when the movie ends with the Russians finally taking their vengeance on him for this recent spate of unprovoked violence. He has a poignant final call with his wife, in which he contemplates how his life would have been different if someone hadn't put a knife in his hand just before he committed his first kill. Then they sneak into his house and end him.

Look, it doesn't make this a great movie, but it does make it one of the most poorly constructed movies, from a technical standpoint, I've ever sort of liked. (Did I mention the awful lighting and editing? Yikes.)

I do find myself wondering if this movie might have been taken a bit more seriously if it had kept that original title Tokarev. See this post for a fuller discussion of that idea.

Thought I'd forgotten about Joe? So did I there for a moment.

Joe seems to require a bit less ink from me as it's unnecessary to try to convince you to see it. (Heck of a job I did, convincing you to see Rage by spoiling the entire movie.) But it explores the same theme of violence never staying buried, with a similar outcome.

The title character of Joe is also now a legitimate businessman after spending a life in and out of bar fights and prison. However, he still holds various slights close to the surface, and therefore isn't able to stay out of scrapes, even in his relatively clean current existence. He's got an ongoing beef with a local scumbug (played by a dead ringer for Peter Sarsgard), and just can't refrain from smashing the guy's head into the bar whenever he sees him.

What really gets his goat is not that various small-time big shots are still provoking him -- that's to be expected to some degree -- but that the cops are continuing to profile him based on previous bad behavior. They are quick to think the worst of him, to confuse him for the former incarnation of himself, so he makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy by leading them on high-speed chases and cold-cocking the occasional sheriff's deputy who assumed the worst about him. Was that sheriff's deputy truly wrong, Joe?

Like Cage in Rage (I should have told you that character's name -- Paul Maguire), Cage in Joe keeps getting just enough rope from the cops to hang himself. It's as if these cops are allowing both characters to be delivered to some preordained fate by leaving them unjailed for offenses that should have been easy incarcerations. This is how Joe is free to attend the skirmish that will be his last, but will also kind of be his redemption. Hearing that the teenage boy he's taken under his wing, who has been getting regular beatings from his father (a dead ringer for Ed Harris), is now trying to save his sister from his father's attempts to prostitute her out to Joe's rival for some booze money, Joe insinuates himself into the situation instead. In fact, it's an act of mercy on Joe's part that seals his fate, as he releases a tangential player -- and gets shot in the gut once that tangential player gets his gun from his truck. In real movies like Joe, a gut shot actually kills.

It would be tempting to wrap up this piece with some kind of overarching statement about violence and the state of Cage's career, but instead I'll end on a joke:

"Will Nicolas Cage have a hard time leaving violence behind him in his next movie?"

"Nope, he'll just get Left Behind."

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Hi, I'm Derek Armstrong


After five years, nine months and six days of writing this blog, I thought it was finally time to come out of the shadows and introduce myself.

Hi, I'm Derek Armstrong.

For years now you have known me as Vancetastic. The reasons to remain hidden behind that handle are no longer practical, if they ever were.

I originally gave myself the name merely as a means of more or less copying the naming convention used by my friend, Rob, who called himself Gimpadelic when he started his blog. It was reading his blog that made me think I could write a blog.

Gimpadelic was derived by taking his name and turning it into an adjective. So I did basically the same thing, except I used a nickname rather than my real name to distance myself from it. (Yep, Rob used to call me Vance. Still does sometimes, actually.)

Why did I want to distance myself from it?

I can't say for sure. I originally thought that bloggers were supposed to be anonymous or something. Maybe we were all unduly paranoid that something we wrote was going to be traced back to us and that we would be held responsible. That's a heck of a lot of importance to place on random observations about the world, cinematic or otherwise. Most bloggers aren't discussing government secrets, you know. (Though I guess some are discussing deeply personal issues.)

However, I quickly realized that there was a value to not having my name on this thing. After all, I sometimes updated posts at work, and if someone ever wanted to know why I was visiting this website so regularly, I wanted to have plausible deniability. I wanted it to seem like, maybe, I was merely a big fan of The Audient. "See, it doesn't even have my name on it! Vancetastic? That could never be me!"

Except it is me, and now, I actually do want people to know.

You see, I've decided I'm making a concerted effort to "get back out there." It's been nearly three years since I wrote my last paid review for All Movie Guide. I don't know if I'll ever get paid to write a movie review again, but I have to try, dammit. Even if I don't get paid, I have to try to write in a forum in which I am actually recognized as myself.

There may be some opportunities, so now is the time.

And if these opportunities arise, and if I need writing samples, I want to be able to point them to this site and say "See? That's my blog. You can see my name right there." Sure, they could try to tell me it's some other Derek Armstrong, but they'd have to be looking for a reason to disbelieve me, in which case I probably wouldn't be getting anywhere with them anyway.

Look, writing about movies isn't what it once was. Few people get paid for it, and those who do usually don't get paid much. They either have to have entire other jobs to fully support themselves, or have to do a bunch of other boring things as part of that job in order to collect their paycheck.

But if there's any distant glimmer of a possibility that I will one day be gainfully employed as a critic again, I can't be hiding in the shadows. I've got to put myself, my full self, out there. I've got to sign my name to what I contribute to our collective discussion of the glorious world of cinema.

Hi, I'm Derek Armstrong.

You'll be hearing more from me soon.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Without going into spoiler territory


It must be really difficult to talk about movies these days, especially since more plot information than ever tends to fall into "spoiler territory."

Unfortunately, what seems to happen is that the people charged with the sacred duty of protecting spoilers -- particularly podcasters, who converse off the cuff and don't generally edit out slips of the tongue -- simply give lip service to avoiding spoilers ... and then fail to avoid them. 

Which makes it even more difficult to listen to people talk about movies, if you haven't seen the movie. 

"Without going into spoiler territory," they'll say, "let's just say that a certain someone in The Crying Game doesn't have a certain type of genitalia that you would expect that certain someone to have."

Really? Did you just avoid that spoiler? I don't think you did. 

That's an exaggeration, of course -- the people on the podcasts I listen to have more smarts than that. The real problem is that any individual statement they make does not constitute a spoiler, but taken in combination, you get a pretty complete image of the thing you're trying not to find out about.

So now is the time that I will give my SPOILER ALERT about Tusk ... a movie I am in a position to be able to spoil, even though I have not actually seen it. (And therein lies the problem.) 

I was listening to the second-most-recent episode of Filmspotting on Saturday, having known it was about Kevin Smith's Tusk, and having dragged my feet on listening to it long enough to realize I was not going to be able to watch Tusk within a reasonable amount of time. (I believe it comes out here on October 16th.) 

I had heard the most general logline of the movie, which was "It's about a man who turns into a walrus." I might have not liked to know even that, but with a title like Tusk, I might have assumed it had something to do either with walruses or elephants. The 1979 Fleetwood Mac album was also a possible focus of the film. 

Now, when Filmspotting co-host Josh Larsen and guest host Michael Phillips launched into their review, it was clear from the start that they intended to avoid spoilers. But it was also clear that they wanted to have an in-depth discussion of the film, which required them to give us more context than a totally spoiler-free review would allow them to do.

So there came that phrase again -- "without going into spoiler territory" -- followed by three rather suggestive phrases sprinkled through the review: "unwanted surgery," "body horror" and "obsession with walruses."

Piece those together, and now I know that there is a crazy guy who surgically implants walrus anatomy into a human.

Of course, if there were any doubts about that conclusion, I need only listen to the parts they felt confident they could share -- which basically remove any of those doubts.

However, Josh and Michael were not content just to spoil the main parts of the story. They also spoiled what is supposed to be a surprise cameo by Johnny Depp. Not just that he's in the movie, but that he plays a Quebecois detective with a walrus mustache. It's like if someone told you that Tom Cruise was in Tropic Thunder before you saw it. (And who knows, maybe someone did.)

It's the second time in the space of a month I was worried about listening to Filmspotting because of potential spoilers. I was told I should know as little as possible about Charlie McDowell's The One I Love, so I delayed listening to that episode. I was actually at a near podcast standstill, in fact, as I was also avoiding the episode of the Slate Culture Gabfest in which The One I Love was on tap.  

Fortunately, in that case, The One I Love was already available for rental on iTunes, so I scooped it up for the princely sum of $6.99 and watched it on a Friday night with my wife. When I then turned to the podcasts, I found that Josh and regular co-host Adam Kempenaar had really talked around the spoilers in their review -- but that Culture Gabfest team blew them wide open. (At least they issued a spoiler warning before divulging.) 

I'm not really criticizing any particular podcasters or people here. What bothers me is the very nature of film-related discourse, and what bothers me most is that I don't know there is any way it can be avoided. I love listening to these podcasts from week to week, and I love them precisely because they are not satisfied with a cursory, surface-level review of a movie. Getting into the meat of the movie is what makes them great. I'm so into the podcasts, in fact, that I don't want to skip any or listen to them out of order, because there are certain other features on each episode that are enhanced by listening to the shows in the intended sequence.

But I'm never going to be able to keep up with their pace of watching new releases, especially when certain movies don't even come out in Australia until three months after they hit theaters in the U.S., and certain other movies may intrigue me but don't seem like an immediate priority.

So what do I do?

Listen with one ear closed, and beg those involved to exercise as much prudence as they can.

At least I figure to see Gone Girl before Filmspotting gets to it next Friday. The plan is to go tomorrow night. 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Joel Edgerton plays dress-up


I've had reason to take an interest in the career of Joel Edgerton over the years.

I first came across him as the star of the film Kinky Boots, which was then the latest in a long line of movies -- spawned by the success of The Full Monty -- about British underdogs involved in unusual pursuits. I found him pretty milquetoast and ineffectual in the role -- "wet," as my wife would say.

So I was a little surprised when he reemerged a couple years later as someone more masculine and formidable, in movies like Animal Kingdom and Warrior. I liked this new incarnation of the man, and found myself becoming one of his fans. Meanwhile, he was catching the eye of Hollywood and starting to become a true leading man.

Then in the past few years I have known him as a collaborator of my friend Matthew Saville, who is married to one of my wife's oldest friends and who directed the feature Noise, which played at Sundance in 2007. A huge fan of Noise, Edgerton sought out Matt to direct his own script, which later got the title Felony and came to star Tom Wilkinson and Jai Courtney along with Edgerton. (I plan to pimp Felony a bit more when it gets its U.S. release a couple weeks from now.)

The latest iteration of Mr. Edgerton, however, goes back to having me a little puzzled again.

Just this week I watched the trailer for Exodus: Gods and Kings, at first thinking it was the new movie from Alex Proyas. That's actually Gods of Egypt and isn't due until 2016. However, the confusion isn't surprising as not only is the title similar, but Exodus also takes place in Egypt, dramatizing the famous Biblical story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt. Although I was generally impressed by the trailer, realizing it was directed by Ridley Scott blunted some of my enthusiasm.

Further blunting it was seeing Joel Edgerton as the great Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II.

It was at that moment that I realized: While I like Joel Edgerton a lot, not for a minute do I think he has any range. And certainly not the kind necessary to credibly play a pharaoh.

Also, isn't he a bit ... I don't know ... white?

I guess your average Egyptian is not particularly dark-skinned. But Joel Edgerton might be, like, the whitest guy I've ever seen. I think that's what I was responding to when I shrank away from his performance in Kinky Boots and called it "milquetoast." That word is of course based on a fictional character named Caspar Milquetoast, who bore the characteristics of weakness, timidity and blandness. The creation of his name, however, has to do with the image of a piece of toast dipped in milk -- something not only white, but something that easily loses its substance through dissolution.

I should back up a step and remind you that I don't see Joel Edgerton like this anymore. In fact, he's rather virile, I think. But he's still essentially a white guy, not a guy I can easily imagine playing an Egyptian.

But it's not just his skin color or his perceived skin color that makes me doubt his fitness for this role. It's that Edgerton has consistently been cast in very realistic-type roles -- if not always modern, then at least very straight-laced. The only time he has even remotely strayed from the realm of realism is when he played a character in The Great Gatsby, but the only reason that's not quite as realistic is because the film's director (Baz Luhrmann) would almost never be thought of as confining himself to realism. Edgerton's performance within that fanciful film is pretty grounded, though.

Edgerton did provide the voice of the villain in Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, but I'm not counting that. Voice work is an entirely different animal.

So exactly how, one wonders, did he get cast in Scott's film, playing opposite a much more straightforward instance of casting in Christian Bale as Moses? It's hard to say for sure, but I'm guessing he had the right squinty eyes for the part. He does sort of look like how I imagine that pharaoh looked.

But can he pull off the role? Can he "go big"? Either as big as the film undoubtedly requires, or as big as Bale will undoubtedly go?

It's hard to say, but I will say this: Joel Edgerton has reinvented himself before. There's nothing to say that he can't do it again, and I think it's certainly fair to let him try.

Because one thing I've learned from talking to Matt about his experiences with Edgerton is that Edgerton is one of the hardest workers he's ever met. He's worked hard to have a busy career where he has been capable of changing people's minds about what he can do. And it's not just the acting we're talking about here -- the man has written several scripts as well. I can't imagine it will be long before he directs his own movie, rather than just leaving that to his brother Nash (another hyphenate, one of the oddest you are likely to find: director-stuntman).

As for Exodus itself, it figures to have state-of-the-art special effects, and since it's from Ridley Scott, it will likely be emotionally cold. I do know that it's excellent fodder for a big-budget Hollywood movie, and I really enjoyed the treatment of this subject matter in Dreamworks' film The Prince of Egypt.

So, we'll just have to see I guess. And we'll also have to see what incarnation Joel Edgerton has in store for us next.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Not quite memorable


Not quite Orlando Bloom yet not quite James McAvoy, Luke Evans brings his unique but entirely unremarkable brand of not-quiteness to the movie Dracula Untold this week.

Evans is also not quite famous, but he is being cast as though he is -- in part because there are so many actors he is almost like.

He's not quite Dominic West, but he's also not quite Robert Pattinson. He won't quite make you swoon, but you know, almost.

I haven't seen all of Luke Evans' movies -- in fact, I've seen only one or two. But all of them are not quite reputable, not quite original. Here's a quick list:

Clash of the Titans
Robin Hood
The Three Musketeers
The Immortals
The Raven
Fast & Furious 6

A bunch of sequels, remakes, and other questionable properties, without an ounce of soul among them. (Says the guy who has only seen The Raven.) I have no doubt -- like, zero -- that Dracula Untold will be more of the same.

I am intentionally omitting the films that don't fit the pattern, such as the Hobbit trilogy, the first of which I loved. But even though these movies are "better" than the ones I've listed above (again noting that I've only seen one of them), they don't do anything to disprove the notion that Luke Evans is a generically handsome hack who shows up primarily when you need someone who is not quite Michael Fassbender yet not quite Johnny Depp,

Now I'm talking crazy -- Evans hasn't the charisma to even momentarily be confused for those two. However, casting directors clearly believe they are getting a leading man type when they cast him. Why else would he keep on showing up with significant roles in properties that are expected to make studios a lot of money?

Here is a good metaphor for Luke Evans. He's like a movie that has had shoddy 3D effects added to it in post production, but in person form.

What do I have against Luke Evans? Nothing, really. He's passable. He's competent.

But it's this pattern he has of showing up in movies that are not quite blockbusters that makes him seem like this slightly embarrassing figure, a "poor man's" Bloom or McAvoy or West or Pattinson or Fassbender or Depp.

And so what if he's not quite Dominic Cooper? You aren't, either, and I don't see you in any movies.

And Luke Evans may have not quite those people's bank accounts, but he will keep on laughing his way to the bank nonetheless.

A disappointing way to go through a career?

Not quite.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Whole Lotta Bergman: Cries and Whispers


More like Cries and Whimpers, as this series is definitely going out with one.

Perhaps something about the milquetoast title of this 1972 film caused me to drag my feet on viewing the last film in my mini five-film Bergman series, as it took a whole month after my last movie to watch it, whereas each of the others had taken about two weeks. Whatever the reason, finally watching the movie made me realize that my foot-dragging was justified.

Put simply, with greater elaboration to follow, Cries and Whispers became the only movie in the series that I actively disliked. And I kind of actively disliked it a lot.

Which is strange, in a way, because the film is probably most closely related in theme and overall tone to The Silence, which I think of as my favorite film I watched for this series (yes, even more than Persona). Both The Silence and Cries and Whispers contain estranged sisters, one of whom is very sick, who tell each other they hate each other. And both movies rely so heavily on silence on the soundtrack that each one makes a kind of reference to it in the title.

But that's where the comparison ends.

Cries is set in a palatial mansion sometime in the 19th century. A cancer-stricken woman, Agnes (Harriet Andersson), is in the last days of her life. Her two sisters, Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin), are at her deathbed, but they have not been close to Agnes in life for many years now. Only her dutiful and devout servant, Anna (Kari Sylwan), can provide her a modicum of comfort as her physical pain becomes increasingly agonizing. While they are waiting for the inevitable to arrive, the characters indulge in remembrances of their earlier lives in this mansion, when they were younger and comparatively healthier (both physically and mentally). One recalls an affair with a handsome doctor. Another recalls her husband's possible infidelity. A third thinks fondly of her mother, now two decades dead. When Agnes finally passes, the nature of these remembrances grows more surreal, and the women appear as though they may be losing some grasp on their tenuous sanity.

I should probably highlight two crucial differences between Cries and all four of the other films I watched, all of which were made in the 1960s, and three of them within a three-year window:

1) Cries is the only film not set in or close to present day, and

2) Cries is the only film shot in color.

I suspect the second was more a problem for me than the first, considering that two of my most cherished Bergman films -- The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring -- are set in the very distant past, much longer ago than the 19th century. But the second was kind of a big problem. To make another generalization, I just don't think I like color Bergman films very much. That's a very broad statement and one that is easy to poke holes in, considering that the only other color Bergman film I've seen -- Fanny and Alexander -- was a movie I ended up liking quite a bit. Still, when I was watching Fanny and Alexander, and especially as I was struggling to get into it, I noted that it didn't feel like a Bergman film. Seeing Bergman in color was kind of like hearing Charlie Chaplin talk -- there was just something off about it. I like my Bergman in black and white, and that's all there is to it.

What's funny is that this film was actually lauded for its cinematography to the point of winning an Oscar for it. Its deeply saturated red tones were considered by 1972 audiences to be something truly sublime, whereas I found them actively displeasing to look at. But that isn't where this movie's Oscar love ended. I find it quite difficult to believe, since a movie like this wouldn't stand a chance today, but Cries and Whispers was actually nominated for best director and best picture as well. In fact, it was hurried into U.S. theaters in 1972 -- before its Swedish release date -- just to capitalize on its warm festival reception and its potential to garner the numerous Oscar nominations it ended up garnering.

I just don't see it, and it makes me wonder if I am really so out of sync with other people on Ingmar Bergman. I found this film to be a painfully protracted, even torturous exercise. It is so determinedly slow-paced that I could only watch a half-hour of it the first night before falling asleep, but then just to be sure I gave myself plenty of opportunity to fall in line with its rhythms, I watched it again from the start the next night. I didn't get into those first 30 minutes any more on a second viewing, and the movie probably only got worse from there.

Maybe Cries and Whispers was the first time I have been willing to admit to myself that Bergman really may have been the kind of arthouse director you make fun of when exaggerating the pretensions of arthouse directors. Maybe after seeing some of that in his other films, but finding plenty else to redeem them, I truly felt the accumulation overwhelm me by the time he made Cries and Whispers. I mean, even the title is almost self-parody for an arthouse film. A cry and a whisper can each be viewed as excessively dramatic methods of expression, and to intimate that this film is filled to the brim with such excessive expression is almost to point out one's own absurdity.

I've talked around what I didn't like about this movie, so perhaps I should give you a few specifics before I cut out and take an extended Bergman break. What frustrated me so much was this movie's lack of specificity. Although you would never accuse Bergman's dialogue of being purely expository, never before this movie have I found that entire passages of dialogue exist only to be completely abstruse. Bergman may have trafficked in abstractions in other films, but that was the exception rather than the rule, as each of those films have a tangible reality and a definite plot from which they may stray -- which they may come close to entirely abandoning. A movie like Persona may be more explicitly an arthouse film in numerous things about its construction, especially as it calls attention to its own status as a piece of artifice, and includes some imagery that has no textual connection to anything going on in the story. But even Persona has more of a plot than what we get in Cries and Whispers, and when it does go off the rails, it does so with conviction. Cries and Whispers, meanwhile, feels like just an amorphous collection of disconnected dysfunction, punctuated by a few superficially shocking moments and images. It just spins and spins and spins its wheels.

Perhaps the problem is that I never felt that the characters had a relationship with each other, a history that had gotten twisted up into the current version of their reality. Significant chemistry passes between the two women blending identities in Persona, or the family struggling to understand mental illness in Through a Glass Darkly, or the spiritually exhausted pastor and his flock in Winter Light, or the toxic pair of sisters and their son/nephew in The Silence. Not so here. These felt like characters in a Samuel Beckett play, butting up against each other in order to explore existential angst, displaying none of the shared history that makes us care what becomes of them.

One thing I will say about Cries and Whispers, however, is that it makes a fitting final film for this series. Back when I first started, one of my readers suggested that it was useful to consume a lot of Bergman films at once -- not only because you could clearly see the themes that straddled the movies, but because it's interesting to appreciate the troupe of actors with whom Bergman associated himself. And true enough, this movie allowed me to easily look back on the movies I'd seen and view this as kind of a reunion of those performers. Liv Ullman appeared in Persona, the first movie I watched. Harriet Anderson was the star of Through a Glass Darkly, which came next. Then Ingrid Thulin appeared in both Winter Light and The Silence, though I must say I had to go back and check because she seems to have a bit of a chamelon-like ability to alter her appearance. The fact that they all convened for a movie that disappointed me is kind of beside the point.

Okay! This has been a great education on Bergman. Just as a way of wrapping things up, I will list the films in order of my preference, and the star ratings I gave them on Letterboxd:

1. The Silence (1963) - 4 stars
2. Persona (1966) - 4 stars
3. Through a Glass Darkly (1961) - 3.5 stars
4. Winter Light (1962) - 3 stars
5. Cries and Whispers (1972) - 2 stars

Now ... who should I do next?