Showing posts with label Movie Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Movie Reviews. Show all posts

Sunday, November 21, 2021

The Virgin Spring: Finding Meaning in Chaos

People need to make sense of chaos. Anything will do: superstitions, religion, fairy tales. And if your actions contribute in some way to the destruction of a loved one? What then? Find a way of making sense of things that simultaneously absolves you of blame. On the other hand, a person incapable of latching onto conscience-soothing beliefs faces true terror. What better way to explore the benefits of using fairy tales to cope with trauma than in a film based on an ancient folk ballad (i.e., a fairy tale)?

In medieval era Sweden, a servant girl, Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), struggles to light the morning fire in the dining hall of a feudal farm compound. Flames finally come to life and she opens the roof hatch to let the smoke escape. Then she prays to the Norse god Odin, telling him to make himself seen on Earth. So ends the opening scene of Ingmar Bergman's 1960 film, The Virgin Spring.

In the next scene, prosperous farm owner, Töre (Max von Sydow), and his wife, Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), pray in front of a crucifix of Jesus. The wife pours hot wax on her wrist to further show her devotion. It’s spring, likely close to Easter, and their daughter, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), must take candles to a church in a distant village because tradition indicates the task must be performed by a virgin. Karin begs her father to allow Ingeri to join her on the journey, and he relents.

The contrast between Ingeri and Karen is an interesting one. Ingeri is pregnant and at one point hints that her pregnancy may be the result of rape. But nobody cares. She's a throwaway person. What happens to her doesn't matter. Karin, on the other hand, is a virgin. The daughter of wealthy parents. But is she really a virgin? Or at least, as innocent as her image suggests? Karin tells her mother she danced with countless boys last night. Ingeri saw Karin kissing a boy in the barn during the same night of apparent abandon. Later, Karin's father remembers a time Karin stayed in the distant village over night. Perhaps not the same connotation it might have nowadays, but part of a pattern. All these scenes contribute to the theme that people believe what they want regardless of other contrary evidence.

Karin and Her Mother
Most of the characters in the film have a belief system based on Norse paganism or Christianity. But Simon (Oscar Ljung), a labourer on Töre's farm, may be an exception, at least by degrees. He sprinkles his poetic language with cryptic riddles. At turns, he appears obsequious and clownish; a kind of jester. And like most jesters in literature and fairy tales, he's more intelligent and prescient than first impressions might suggest.

But there's something darker there. In one scene, as he chats with the old servant, Frida (Gudrun Brost), Simon makes a light-hearted, bawdy insinuation about her. She counters with a suggestion about an indiscretion in his past. He laughs and swats it aside with a line about the benefit of fleeing a bad situation. It's in this scene the viewer might first notice a lesion at the corner of Simon's mouth. Perhaps symbolic of a tainted past.

The two girls set off, the blonde Karin in silk dress and on a white horse, the dark-haired, pregnant Ingeri in grubby peasant's dress and on a darker horse. They travel across fields, along the shore of a lake and into a forest until they come to a stream and the ramshackle mill-cabin of a one-eyed old man (‘Bridge Keeper’ in the credits, played by Axel Slangus). Karin carries on alone and Ingeri remains in the cabin with the old man. 

Bridge Keeper and Ingeri
His beliefs are based on magic and superstition. At the sound of galloping horses nearby, he proclaims the riders 'three dead men riding north.' Is he referring to the three goat herders we are soon to meet? They have no horses and one of them is only a young boy. But they hail from the North and perhaps begin fleeing in the direction of their home region after committing the horrific crime at the heart of the film. And, indeed, they do meet a nasty end later in the film. Through observation and speculation, or sheer luck, the old man has hit on a partial truth, at least on a symbolic level. And he seems aware of the real purpose of his belief system, saying "I hear what I want and see what I want."

Karin is brutally raped and murdered by two of the three goat herders she meets in the forest. Ingeri watches, transfixed, from a copse of trees, having trailed after Karin on foot after the incident in the cabin. Unwittingly, the murderers (Axel Duberg and Tor Isedal) and their young brother (Ove Porath) later seek shelter inside the walls of Töre's modest compound. Töre agrees to give them food and a place to sleep, and now we're on a collision course with the brutal, vengeful climax.

Simon of Snollsta
Before that horrific explosion of violence, we see one of the most arresting scenes of the movie, involving the young boy and Simon. After the three brothers have taken refuge at Töre's home, the young boy is the first to realize their horrible mistake. Later, as the boy lies in a bed in the dining hall, Simon at first mesmerizes, then terrorizes him with a story soaked in metaphor, violent imagery and conflict. Simon describes a dangerous journey the boy is on and horrible obstacles he will eventually overcome.

It's not difficult to see religious connotations in the parable. A description of hell, good triumphing over evil and, in the following lines, eventual redemption for sins a person may have committed: "But at the very moment you think you’re doomed, a hand shall grasp you and an arm circle around you, and you’ll be taken far away…where evil no longer has power over you." 

And following the scene, the film cuts to an image of Christ on the cross. But despite its elaborate flourishes, Simon’s tale is absent the wild rationalizations made by the other characters yet still intends to make order of chaos, to help the boy overcome guilt and move on in life. Simon's monologue is surely one of the most overlooked and powerful in film history.

The Young Boy
Immediately after the conclusion of Simon’s tale, something takes place off screen in the dining hall. It seems the tale may have led the young boy to the verge of a confession about the murder his brothers committed. Or perhaps something more sinister takes place. Viewers never find out for sure. Regardless, Simon rushes out of the hall just as Karin's mother, Mareta is about to enter, telling her that "They struck the boy."

In the folk ballad on which the movie is based, the men who kill Karin are revealed to be the sons of Töre, cast out years earlier due to the impoverished state of the family before the farm prospered. In other words, they are Karin's brothers. No indication that the film includes this final noirish twist. In fact, the age of the youngest brother in the film wouldn't allow this scenario to be possible. At most, there might be an allusion to this twist from the folk ballad when one of the brothers offers to sell the soiled dress of the dead Karin to her mother, claiming it's all the brothers have left of their 'dead sister.' Karin's mother now knows the horrible truth but doesn't let on to her daughter’s murderers. She rushes to tell Töre, which triggers the film’s famous revenge scene.

Before Töre sets out to avenge his daughter's murder, he takes a sauna while flogging himself with birch branches. Like all such rituals, it is done to assuage guilt, which, together with jealousy, is also a theme throughout the film. Perhaps the ritual will also give him guidance. Or at the very least, attach grand, righteous meaning to the task at hand. Upon finishing his sauna, he strides to the food hall, where the murderers have been sleeping for the night. He does away with the two older brothers: first plunging a dagger in the neck of one and then driving the other into the flames in the central fireplace.

Is the young boy spared? No. Töre hurls him against the wall, killing him. He is perhaps the most innocent character and suffers the same fate as his brothers despite the fact he didn’t take part in the rape or murder. He has no coping mechanisms, no ability to rationalize, and remains mute throughout the film. He experiences the true terror of what has happened to Karin and what, unjustly, happens to him. Perhaps, too, together with Simon, the small boy sees more clearly than anyone else in the film. 

When Ingeri leads Töre and his wife to Karin's body, they move her and water springs forth from where her head had rested. This is absolute proof to Töre of divine intervention. A sign from God that he must build a church at that spot. Not the more likely reality that, because it is spring and Karin had been left to die on a slope below a stream, the water overflowed and gravitated towards the depression her body made. The guilt of his earlier actions is all but forgotten.

The Virgin Spring has been classified under the genre ‘rape and revenge.’ That crude description does a disservice to this film. Like most fairy tales, it’s deeper and more powerful than its simple, linear presentation suggests. And just like the characters, viewers of this film will see the action through their own personal lens of life experience and world-view. Religious and superstitious types may have a more literal take on the film while skeptics may share the interpretation included here. 

In a world of chaos, terror and, finally, eternal non-existence, many people latch onto irrational explanations to get them to the finish line. Every random act can be attributed to divine intervention. Every misstep explained away. It’s a game that validates your status, ignores those with less power and has a particular flavour that just happens to suit your chosen fairy tale and level of intellect. The alternative is to let chaos sweep you into eternity before you have a chance to make sense of the world.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Movie Review: The Honeymoon Killers

The Honeymoon Killers
How do audience members rate verisimilitude in the films they watch? We sometimes say that a certain film has a realistic feel to it. A certain visceral impression that the situations in the film could have happened just the way they are presented to us.

Maybe low production values combined with a decent story contribute to an authentic feel. And sometimes even the passage of time may allow that tangible sense of "real" to creep into a movie.

Or perhaps because of the fact that so many of the films we watch are churned out by Hollywood, the good, non-Hollywood ones that come along are so jarringly different in comparison that we are inclined to attach the authentic label to them.

Regardless, filtered through the lens of movie-speak and other suspension of disbelief aspects, there is something about particular films that strikes us as being somehow more real or believable than others.

Twisted Relationship 
A refreshing and unusual movie released in 1970, The Honeymoon Killers, starring Sharon Stoler and Tony Lobianco, has that raw, unpolished feel that contributes to its memorable quality and, at times, sense of realism.

Stoler plays Martha Beck, a damaged woman who has never known love, and as a result has become a bitter, angry individual. But she still shows glimpses of warmth: when she tries to soothe herself and when she finally does find someone to love her. But a twisted love it is.

Martha meets the essence of seediness: a swarthy, shameless lothario—Lobianco as Ray Fernandez—who is creepiness distilled into its purest form. Yet he possesses the uncanny knack that so many predators have: preying on the weak and lonely.

Ray responds to a letter that Martha writes to a lonely hearts dating agency. He spins some horribly clichéd missives professing his love for her. But of course, he really wants to use up Martha and throw her away. She senses this and homes in on that predatory element in him, nurtures it, and makes it a part of who they become together.

After a few meetings, Ray tells Martha that she was just one of many. He regularly writes to women who advertise in the lonely hearts pages of newspapers. He shows romantic interest and then tries to suck them dry financially. Instead of showing revulsion and disgust at what he does, and the fact that she was one of his targets, Martha gets involved with his scams. She tags along as his "sister" when Ray meets up with his victims.

Sick, Murderous Little Vignettes
A series of simmering, twisted, and sad vignettes in which Martha's jealousy and the vulnerability of the women being set up make for good drama. It also provides a painful look at the lonely lives that so many people lead, and what can happen because of that desperation.

The swindles get nastier and more ruthless, and Martha and Ray start murdering their prey. There really is never any doubt how things will turn out, but the situations can be at times intense, and the growing warped relationship between Ray and Martha creates a great deal of voyeuristic appeal. As some couples bond through a life of ups and downs and various challenges, a twisted yet real love seems to develop between these two pathological freaks.

The Honeymoon Killers features two of the most harrowing murder scenes you will ever see. The banal, bathetic manner in which Martha and Ray destroy their victims is part of the power of this film. It switches from black humour and near farce to ruthless, nasty violence in a heartbeat. But they are so wrapped up in the surreal world that they have created that it is all rationalized away with little effort.

Absurdity and Realism Mix Well
While there is that sense of realness about the film, it also has an absurdist quality about it. And after all, since reality is absurd so much of the time, this aspect of the movie is very appropriate. The film is "based on a true story," but as with most such claims, and especially regarding obscure crimes that happened so long ago and for which there is little historical evidence, it's hard to say how true to life this movie is. That's not important though.

The movie was ahead of its time, or at least not in sync with its time, in terms of editing and pace. It ticks along and jumps from scene to scene in a way that will appeal to the move-goer of today who has little time for long, drawn out scenes and extended dialogue.

A tale about how far some people will go to alleviate the loneliness and existential drudgery that plague their bleak lives. The Honeymoon Killers will seem gratuitous and exploitative to some but others will enjoy the film's haunting, bleak depiction of a strange murderous little world.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Movie Review: Out of the Past

Out of the Past Mitchum"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."

The fact that we can never escape our past is a theme in countless crime dramas.

Out of the Past, a 1946 crime noir starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas, is an early example of just how powerful that theme can be. A lean, cool movie with all the backstabbing, moral ambiguity, and hopeless fatalism that you could hope for.

Mitchum plays the nihilistic, unflappable Jeff Markham, who has changed his name to Jeff Bailey and opened a petrol station in a small town in California. Markham was previously a private investigator in New York before accepting a case that forced him to take it on the lam and change his identity. A former associate passes through town looking for Markham, and quickly finds him. Markham registers little emotion as he sees Joe Stephanos waiting for him at his petrol station.

In fact, no character in this film so much as flinches when some bit of nastiness comes down the pipes; only perhaps the odd flash of rage when things really heat up. The more likely reaction to any horrific piece of news is not real fear, excitement or worry. No, lighting a cigarette is always the most logical thing to do!

Stephanos wants Markham to go to meet Whit Sterling, played by Kirk Douglas. Markham agrees, and a few days later he sets off to Lake Tahoe with his girlfriend Ann. On the ride up to meet the heavy from out of the past, Markham regales Ann (and isn't it always the case that the second-choicer in any Hollywood flick is very attractive in her own right, but is always missing that certain something that the lead actress has?) with the tale of what led him to this point. And so begins the classic extended flashback scene that is so often a part of crime noir flicks.

The Extended Flashback

Seems that a number of year ago Sterling sent Markham after his woman, Kathie Moffet, who had taken off after pilfering 40 thousand dollars of Sterling's money. She also put a slug in his guts before skipping town. Markham took the gig to find her and wound up in Mexico, that teeming city of millions of people. Within that sprawling mass of humanity, Markham quickly found Moffet.

And she instantly knows why he is there but plays along. She casually drops the fact that she knows his real intentions after they kiss on the beach one night. He similarly doesn't flinch when she tells him this. Instantly enamored with each other, they start trading cryptic, double entendres, and acting nihilistic and doomed.

When they meet on the beach for the second time, they engage in some of the memorable dialogue that is part of the film.

"I didn't know you were so little."

"I'm taller than Napolean."

"You're prettier too."

Markham's character demonstrates one of the many truisms that is part of the slow suicide shadow world that exists in great crime noirs. You might as well just try to take a woman like she's yours for the taking. Perhaps you'll get humiliated by rejection, but it's better than acting like a castrated loser who will get humiliated anyway.

Still in the extended flashback scene, Markham and Moffet leave Mexico after Sterling gets hip to what they are up to—Sterling and Stephanos show up at the door of Markham's bungalow in Acapulco wearing their New York suits. Markham and his new dame head to California and try to start over in San Francisco. Markham's former partner—Fisher— sees him at a racetrack one day, and then locates him and Moffet at a cabin in the woods a few days later.

Of course, in Out of the Past nothing is ever what it seems. But still, it's not all that surprising to Markham or the audience when we find out Kathie has been stringing Markham along. The sly look on Moffet's face as she shoots Fisher during a standoff in the cabin tells you that there is more to her than we have seen so far. She drives off and leaves Markham with Fisher's corpse and a bankbook that she dropped, which reveals evidence of the 40 thousand dollars she had been insisting she never stole.

Out of the Past

Back now to the present, as Markham concludes the retelling of his past to Ann, and they pull up in front of Sterling's mansion in Lake Tahoe. Ann drives off back to Bridgeport and leaves Markham alone to casually walk back into whatever Sterling has waiting for him. And what a non-shocker when Markham reacquaints himself with Sterling, and Moffet waltzes into the room and rears her sultry viper head.

A great twisting plot plays out over the rest of Out of the Past. Sterling and Moffet try to reel Markham back in so that they can use him to take the fall for the murder of someone who was trying to lean on them. Turns out they will also try to pin Fisher's unsolved murder on him—Moffet has conveniently fingered Markham in a written confession that they have tucked away in a safe.

The audience knows, and Markham knows, that Moffet is a nasty piece of work who will do whatever it takes to come out on top. Like most crime noirs, despite the ostensible lack of morals of most of the characters, this is in fact a morality play. Markham susses out that he is in some kind of frame-up, but goes along because he feels there is no other choice. Maybe he will right some wrongs, and see the scum who tried to ruin his life suffer in the process.

Great Lines

Some great lines throughout the movie in the crime noir/gangster/movie talk tradition:

"A dame with a rod [gun] is like a guy with a knitting needle."

Markham to Sterling and his thug when they find Markham in Mexico and sense that he may not be telling the truth: "Let's go down to the bar. You can cool off while we try to impress each other."

A cabbie to Markham: "You look like you're in trouble."


"Because you don't act like it."

"I think I'm in a frame."

Moffet and Markham in one of their many great exchanges: "I don't want to die."

"Neither do I. But if I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die last."

And Sterling to Moffet as everything starts to unravel near the end of the film: "I took you back when you came whimpering and crawling. I should have kicked your teeth in."

Along with the twisting, murky plot, the classic lines and the great performances, the cinematography adds a dark, shadowy (chiaroscuro), evocative feeling to Out of the Past.

One of the classic early crime noir movies that still packs heat and delivers the goods.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Reviewing the Reviewers: An Analysis of Book and Movie Reviews

For a book or movie review to have any credibility, there has to be some balance. In other words, no review should be completely negative or positive. Even if the reviewer absolutely loves what he is reviewing, there must be some criticism, and some call for improvement. Otherwise, the review is tacitly claiming that the book, movie, television show, or anything else that is being reviewed is flawless.

On the other hand, a sneering, lopsided attack is rarely warranted and is usually an excuse for the reviewer to spew some venom and show off how clever he thinks he is.

Unfortunately, the state of reviewing today would lead you to believe that there is an awful lot of perfection out there. Unwarranted praise, low standards, and an unwillingness or inability to thoroughly critique are some of the main problems. Why is this so?

First, there are an awful lot of people out there--mainly online--who have no idea what they are talking or writing about. They have basic emotional responses to what they read and see. Without any knowledge of character development, narrative, or any other aspect of writing or film-making, they simply have nothing worth saying. Their comments are no different than a 12 year-old's description of a movie. When you can't articulate exactly why you have an opinion on something, your comments lose credibility.

Second, numerous reviewers offer up their views as a brazen quid pro quo. They may be getting paid to shamelessly provide a favourable review. Or they simply review positively because they want to maintain access to those who give interviews, provide admission to various junkets, or otherwise make the life of a professional reviewer worthwhile. If those individuals are writing for high-profile media outlets, their opinions can influence others.

Third, as time goes by, there are fewer opportunities for paid reviews in the world of newspapers and magazines. The demise of Kirkus Reviews is another example of that. When reviewers are paid for their time to write a well-researched review backed up with relevant and insightful comments, the quality is generally better.

Finally, there is no accounting for taste. It is hard to fathom the rubbish that is embraced by so many people. This is not so much an indication of the lack of good reviewers as the fact that numerous individuals simply have different standards, and like different things.

The average length of reviews must surely be taking a hit as well. Pithy reviews that are hardly more than a synopsis and a rating are becoming the norm. But all is not lost. Though the amount of worthless garbage on the internet is unlimited, the overall availability of good information on books and movies continues to increase.

In the online world, some of the best and most thorough reviews can be found on Unfortunately, like a microcosm of the vast online universe, to find those reviews, you will have to wade through a lot of dross. Disingenuous tripe that has been planted by those associated with the work that is being reviewed is also a problem.

One of the best high-profile professional movie reviewers remains Roger Ebert. The most well-known and "successful" person in any field, especially one in which writing is the medium, rarely is the most thorough, knowledgeable, and entertaining. Ebert is an exception. He still makes the effort to provide reviews that are entertaining in their own right, and often extrapolates and riffs off the themes in the movie he is reviewing. And if you're a regular reader of Ebert, you are sure to read references to other movies, books, and even great music related to whichever film is the focus of the review.

Friday, July 3, 2009

No Country for Old Men: Movie Review

chigurhEveryone is after a suitcase full of money, and one long chase plays out with numerous confrontations in between. Many a great crime narrative is based on such a premise. A one line summary might lead you to believe that's exactly what No Country for Old Men is about. That wouldn't be wrong, but the movie is also much more than that.

The movie focuses on three characters, Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin), Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem), and Ed Tom Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones). Llelwelyn is a retired welder who comes across the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad while he is hunting in the desert. He surveys the carnage and hightails it with a suitcase full of two million dollars he finds at the scene. Chigurh is an ethereal, almost mythical killing machine who wants the money back. And Ed Tom Bell is a jaded, worn out, aging sheriff.

Chigurh kills out of perceived necessity. But sometimes he kills to honour his word. Other times he kills based on the flip of a coin. He often kills with a bolt gun (a stainless steel rod blasted with pressure from CO2 canister) similar to those used for slaughtering animals. Other times he employs a shotgun with a silencer. He never shows any overt emotion while performing the deed. Strangely, viewers may not feel any sort of loathing for Chigurh but might instead only experience a dreadful fascination, both for the performance by Javier Bardem and the sinister brutality of the character.

The Power of Silence

Silence plays a big part in the movie. The most gripping scenes where the tension ratchets up are almost completely devoid of dialogue. This isn't an easy task for a film-maker to accomplish successfully, but here it is done with a master's touch.

The Coen brothers, who directed this movie, understand that the unconscious mind is often more powerful than the conscious. This is communicated through the character of Llewelyn, who suddenly awakens on a few occasions with revelations that spur him on to immediate action.

But more than those obvious moments, the directing style of the Coens emphasizes the power of what is left unsaid. Many subtle effects are channeled to the viewer, and taken together, their collective force is impressive. This is one of the rare films I will watch again because there are so many elements at work.

In one scene, as Lllewelyn lets down his guard after a long journey during which he dodged Chigurh a number of times, he rolls into a motel. He moves with weary intent towards his room, and passes the motel swimming pool along the way. A woman calls out to him and they engage in a bit of flirting from a distance as she invites him for drinks. She tucks her legs up before she rises from her pool-side lounge chair. It is one brief fluid motion yet there is somehow more in that shot than a written description of the scene could ever communicate.

Moments later, Ed Tom Bell comes upon the aftermath of a slaughter at that same motel that has left Llewelyn and the woman dead. The viewer can visualize exactly how the showdown occurred and is better off for not having seen it play out frame by frame on the screen.

The Vagaries of Life

Chance is one of the recurring themes in the movie, with the fate of many of Chigurh's victims determined by an accidental meeting or, literally, the flip of a coin. Perhaps the fact that Chigurh became a nasty, ruthless killer is down to the vagaries and turns of life as well. All three of the main characters were in the military (Chigurh and Llewelyn in Vietnam, and Ed Tom Bell in WWII). Similarities between them are drawn in the personal honour codes they adhere to and even in some of their eerily similar gestures, utterances, and interactions with others.

For whatever reason, the violence of the war together with his personal experiences ricocheted around in Chigurh's mind and turned him into a predator. Llewelyn and Bell never embraced violence but are similar to Chigurh in other ways. Had life conspired differently, perhaps they would have wreaked as much destruction as Chigurh.

Throughout the movie, Bell laments the state of the world and how it seems to be getting more violent. Is he really being genuine? Or are his words just clichés that allow him to converse with others? His conversation with a broken down wheelchair-bound older man who knew Bell's father puts the lie to the age old mantra that things were somehow less violent in the past.

All the characters are poets in No Country for Old Men. Lines spoken in movies are written to be memorable, and the perfection, timing, and sometimes absurdity of movie-speak is half the enjoyment. But the characters in No Country for Old Men all speak in a special way that has a distinct cadence and rhythm appropriate for their roles.

The Coen brothers are the masters at crafting a kind of cinematic violence that is jarring and surreal. This is fitting, as anyone who has experienced real-world violence knows that an odd, unreal quality permeates any such occurrence. And just like real violence, No Country for Old Men is likely to have a real effect on viewers.