Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

hannahand1Recently I was thinking about who I would characterize as favorite directors versus directors that I simply respect. In the latter category, I would stick the likes of Quentin Tarantino, The Coen Brothers, and Wes Anderson. Because truth be told, I do not always like or even enjoy all their films, but I can still appreciate them. They have their own unique artistic visions when it comes to making movies and that comes out of the fact that they know the lineage that they are derivative of. That’s something that cannot be taken lightly.

I think I would same the same of the work of Woody Allen, and he truly is a special icon of film. There’s no saying that his work is not original because each film bears his mark, but it also takes cues from the past.The utmost compliment I can give Hannah and Her Sisters is the fact that it might be one of my favorite Allen films thus far, behind Annie Hall. It does noticeably take cues from the likes of Bergman and Bunuel however, but that does not detract from its own charms.

hannahand4It begins and continues throughout with rather arbitrary inter-titles written in white letters over a black background. But it’s the perfect embodiment of Allen’s style of writing to go along with his typically anachronistic scores that nevertheless elevate the charm of his films. What follows is an engaging storytelling set piece extended over three Thanksgiving dinners with Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her two sisters. Holly (Diane Wiest) is the aspiring actress, who has run a catering service on the side while fighting a drug problem and trying to figure out her love life. Lee (Barbara Hershey) is a natural beauty, who lives with an older intellectual named Frederick (Max Von Sydow). She has also unwittingly made a conquest of her sister’s respectable husband Elliot (Michael Caine), who nevertheless gets quite nervous in her presence.

This is a film about their families — their interconnected lives that constantly fluctuate and change dynamically with every passing month and holiday. Their lives go from the invariably awkward, to the tragic, and finally, find their perfect equilibrium. The voices inside their heads are constantly active with fears, thoughts, and desires.

hannahand5What’s perhaps most striking about this film is the great depth of the cast. Maureen O’Sullivan stars next to her real-life daughter. Carrie Fisher makes an appearance as Holly’s friend and rival. Even Daniel Stern, Julie Louis Dreyfuss, and Allen regular Tony Roberts pop up in various moments. Perhaps most spectacularly of all, Allen himself commands the spotlight as anxious hypochondriac Mickey Sacks. Essentially it’s the character that Allen always takes on, but in this case, he stuck himself in almost a B-plot. He gets his chance to swim in his fatalism, pessimism, and philosophical dialogues about God and religion. In fact, it is quite reminiscent of Bergman in this respect, but from a uniquely Allenesque perspective. His awkward jokes (eg. I had a great time tonight it was like the Nuremberg trials) make me crack a smile or let out a genuine chuckle in spite of myself. Bergman would never do that to me, but Allen enters that territory while going so far as casting von Sydow in a slight nod to his Swedish hero.

But really all of this is set to the greater backdrop of the familial drama. That’s where the meat and potatoes of this story lie and in this dynamic, there is a lot of genuinely great moments. One of the most memorable is also one of the most difficult when the three sisters gather together over lunch and their relationships seem to be falling apart in front of our eyes. As it goes with the passage of time, things eventually turn out okay and another holiday gathering comes. Each sister is content with where they’re at and so are their spouses. It’s probably one of the most upbeat Allen movies I can think of, if only it were not besmirched by his own personal life. But that’s a dialogue for a different time. After all, this film is really about Hannah and Her Sisters.

4.5/5 Stars

Winter Light (1963)

winterlight1In the second leg of Ingmar Bergman’s Faith Trilogy, he gets right to the core of all matters of faith. He takes an up close and personal look at a man of the cloth named Tomas (Gunnar Bjorstrand), who shepherds a small congregation in a rural Swedish town. Such is the life of a clergyman, as with any life, where there are rough patches and emotional highs that rejuvenate you, but mostly rough patches. In fact, he is going through such a spell when the film begins. We survey his humble little chapel, and there are only a few scattered members of the community present. Half seem disinterested and Tomas himself speaks words of spiritual truth and yet it seems like he is only going through the motions. Does he actually believe these benedictions and words that he is proclaiming? I’m not sure he even knows for sure.

He’s been withstanding a winter period of his life personified by the icy weather engulfing his humble city on a hill. It reflects his own heart and mind which are going through a season of extraordinary indifference. On top of that, he’s fighting a bad case of the flu, and he is discontent in God’s silence. Where is God? Why is He not more present in his life?  Why does he not more clearly reveal himself? Is there any power left in prayer? They are honest questions from a man struggling with faith, and it’s the epitome of an existential crisis. Bergman seems to be churning up all the thoughts creeping up in his own mind, and it’s very human — extremely honest.

Tomas has little in the realm of advice or comfort to offer his parishioners. For instance, when the depressed fishermen Jonas (Max Von Sydow) comes to the pastor after contemplating suicide, given the state of the world in the nuclear age, Tomas has little to say, because in order to encourage others you have to be encouraged. There’s nothing that can be done if the well you’re running on goes dry. You cannot sustain yourself that way. About all he is able to offer are a few downward glances because there’s no conviction left in him.

winterlight2On a personal note, Tomas lost his beloved wife and now he deflects the affections of local teacher Marta, who herself does not believe in God, but still, she loves Tomas dearly. In a deeply heartfelt letter, she confesses her true feelings for him, and he responds with very little acknowledgment. He cannot bear the townsfolk talking about them, and he still misses his wife dearly. It doesn’t help when he gets tragic news about Jonas.

Winter Light never reaches a clear conclusion, because life is hardly ever like that. In fact, there is an underlying irony that becomes apparent in this story. After Tomas lashes out against Marta and tells her to let him be, it becomes all too clear that Marta, though she does not believe in God, is in a sense, living a better life. They are both lost in the throes of winter still, but she at least has the capacity for love and vulnerability. Tomas’s apathy seems to be a far greater plight since he feels trapped in a labyrinth of idiotic trivialities, as he puts it.

winterlight4The sexton Algot brings up an interesting point about the suffering of Christ. His physical suffering must have been immense, but how much greater must he have suffered when everyone deserted him. The disciples didn’t understand a thing he said, Peter denied him, everyone else deserted him, and he was even forsaken by God. It suggests the importance of our interactions with one another. In the days of our lives, it becomes so easy to continue constantly in the endless cycle of life. Never getting outside of it and relating to our fellow man. Falling into apathy and indifference, which is especially easy when tough times hit.

Bergman does it again, delivering a film full of philosophical depth and questions that force the viewer to ruminate over their own condition, whatever their background or beliefs might be. Sven Nykvist’s photography is beautifully austere once more, and it adds a certain visual depth to the director’s trilogy. It’s stark, pure, and piercing with gorgeous shades of black and white.

4.5/5 Stars

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens_Theatrical_PosterAnyone who is at least a little bit familiar with ring theory knows that the Star Wars saga has often folded back on itself, with near-mirror images, similar plot devices, and obvious parallelism. It gives any fan a new found appreciation for the films, and with that mentality, The Force Awakens can be thoroughly appreciated.

Without a doubt, it is positively exploding with entertainment value, up and coming talent, as well as the old friends that we were looking to catch up with after 30 long years. However, this is not simply another installment, reimagining, or remaking of Star Wars (although Abrams does succeed in rebooting the franchise). This chapter is yet another refrain in the epic intergalactic ballad that is Star Wars. As such, it points to the future and recalls the past much like many ancient texts, fairy tales, and pieces of mythology.

In this film, we do see many things that hearken back to the earlier films, which makes sense due to the return of screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan as well as legendary characters like Han, Chewie, and Leia (now known as General Organa).

The Force Awakens also introduces a lowly scavenger girl (Daisy Ridley), who is reminiscent of Luke Skywalker in her hero’s journey. A new evil has risen up in the form of The First Order, and the Rebellion has been replaced by the more progressive Resistance. They still have many of the same problems, however, like defying a menacing dark lord who is very strong in the force. There is also a giant battle station dubiously named “Starkiller” which dwarfs any previous Death Star. Young Rey must sneak around the colossal fortress much like her predecessors, and a meager fleet led by crack pilot Poe Dameron looks to find the one weakness to bring the menacing giant to its knees. We’ve seen variations of it all before, but whereas remakes get old all too quickly, our contemporary culture revels in the remix. That’s part of the magic behind what J.J. Abrams has done.

He’s left the framework: We have our obligatory opening introduction, there are the glorious orchestrations of living legend John Williams and numerous other familiar touchstones. In fact, it’s frighteningly familiar. We see the rubble of star destroyers and AT-ATs. Stormtroopers have a facelift, the Millennium Falcon is still kicking, and some of the planets strikingly resemble the likes of Tatooine, Yavin IV, and Hoth. A lightsaber in the snow brings back images of a Wampa’s cave from The Empire Strikes Back. Nightmarish hallucinations feel reminiscent to the caves of Dagobah, and plucky little BB-8’s secret map makes us think of all those years ago when R2 first took that message from Princess Leia. It all falls wonderfully into place.

But there is also so much that this film does that inches away from the original trilogy, without cutting ties completely. It brings in a new batch of capable stars: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac. It gives us new pieces of backstory, more definition to this galaxy, while simultaneously creating characters, weaponry, and settings that little boys, and now girls, all across the galaxy will be emulating.

However, perhaps one of most profound aspects of the latest continuation of the saga is its diversity on so many levels. There is a strong female lead in Ridley, an ethnically diverse cast, and there are actually some juicy roles for actors over the age of 45. Aside from the newcomers and the vets, we are also treated to the likes of Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Gwendoline Christie, and even Max von Sydow. Most of them by now are well established, but each one explored different avenues with their characters allowing for greater definition and depth.

In fact, Mark Hamill has arguably the most enjoyable role, because he is the main driving force behind this whole tale (He also gets top billing to boot). Everyone is looking for him, and in this way, he’s rather like the Third Man, Harry Lime, a character who makes the most of a brief climatic cameo, due to the vast shrouded mystery that has been developed around his character. In this case, we are itching to know where he is and what he’s been up to. Why? Because he is Luke Skywalker! The last Jedi in the galaxy. Do you need a better reason?

Thus, The Force Awakens has some dour notes, but it most certainly is a narrative of beginnings, awakenings, and rebirth. We do not quite know actually where they will lead because evil still exists in the shadows and the light side has yet to bring absolute peace to the galaxy.

Star Wars VII is most everything that any hardcore fan or casual viewer could desire in a saga that bursts at the seams with cultural clout. The exciting part is the titillating prospect that there’s still so much room to grow and a lot more galaxy to be revealed. Perhaps it’s best that Abrams hands over the reins to someone else so they can try their hand at expanding the galaxy. But for now, he did a stellar job at bringing balance back to the force, at least for a couple years. We had a bad feeling about this, but we can all let out a collective sigh of relief. All is right in the Star Wars universe.

4.5/5 Stars

Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

througha2There is so much that could be talked about with Through a Glass Darkly, but I feel the need to point out the more obvious, to begin with. Ingmar Bergman, in retrospect, envisioned this film as the first installment in his 1960s trilogy. As such, the film is a chamber piece that takes place entirely on a single island with only four main players. It lets go of some of the symbolism of many of Bergman’s films, but it still surges with religious content that reflects Bergman’s own background and spiritual conflict.

Through a Glass Darkly is one translation of 1 Corinthians 13, essentially suggesting that at the present time we only get a poor reflection of what is to come. In other words, we cannot fully understand the ways of the world and the ways of God. But how does this theme relate to the film you ask? That’s what I wanted to know as well.

At a basic level, this is yet another story about family and interpersonal relationships. Karin is staying on an island with her husband Martin (Max von Sydow), her father David (Gunnar Bjornstad) who is an author, and her baby brother Minus. She recently was released from a hospital for schizophrenic-like symptoms while her father has recently returned from Switzerland trying to combat a fierce case of writer’s block.

In a day’s time, these four individuals try to parse through all that is going on. Though they initially attempt to shroud it with morning swims and silly stage productions, they cannot completely disregard their reality.

througha3Minus feels he is lacking love and affection. He feels like his sister makes fun of him while his father is aloof and withdrawn from his life. Meanwhile, David is grief-stricken in private, realizing that his daughter’s condition is incurable and yet he also regrets his morbid fascination with it. David tries to cope with his wife’s condition, but although she seemed jovial and fine at first, Karin’s situation begins to decline.

She hallucinates, speaks of going through the walls, and faints. Matters are made worse when the voices in her head tell her to go through her father’s diary. There she reads about his thoughts on her and her “incurable” state. When they take a boating outing Martin asks his father-in-law about what he wrote on the request of Karin, and they get into a discussion. As Martin surmises he seems to be a man with all the right words, but no clue about life itself, and David does not try and object.

Back on the island Minus is with his sister, who confides in him about the voices, and when a storm hits she hides dejectedly in the hull of a boat. Minus follows soon after along with his father. They send for an ambulance to fetch Karin and in a penultimate moment, she speaks candidly with her father one last time before she is to be taken to the hospital. In these final moments she goes up to the attic and while being observed by her husband and father, Karin, breaks into hysterical fits. The visions she has seen are obviously too horrible to bear

througha5This is a film about brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, fathers, and daughters. All revolving around four characters wrapped up and intertwined in this complex spider web of relationships. The spiritual content is great and there is also a lot of minutiae in Through a Glass Darkly. It shares some of the same mind-bending moments as Persona (1966) and yet this film felt even more personal if that is possible. As the title suggests and David even tells his son, we cannot fully understand what is happening, but we can be certain that someday we will know if only we grasp hold of love and the love that God has for his people.

Ingmar Bergman’s type of film-making seems foreign to us now and I don’t mean simply since it’s Swedish, but due to the fact that it is so connected to issues of spirituality and deep questions of faith and love. He cannot and will not allow his work to be cut and dry, because he cares about delving into the human condition. And that condition by default is chock full of ambiguity and complexity. Through a Glass Darkly. The title fits aptly indeed.

4.5/5 Stars

The Virgin Spring (1960)

19cfc-jungfrukc3a4llanDirected by Ingmar Bergman and adapted from a Swedish ballad, this film revolves around a Christian Medieval family. Their only child is a beautiful, care free girl who they cherish. They sned her off to church with a maid servant. Along the way the two of them must pass through the forest. The girl leaves her servant behind to rest and then she goes on, meeting some herdsman on her way. She shows them hospitality by sharing her food, but the two men brutally rape and kill her. Ironically, that night they seek shelter with the girl’s family unknowingly. By accident the parents discover what became of their daughter and they must then decide what action to take. Bergman’s films certainly bring up questions about morals, religious faith, and evil. None of the characters were perfect but instead human, because they all make mistakes and must ask for God’s forgiveness

4/5 Stars

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman and starring Victor Sjostrom, the film follows an elderly doctor who travels by car to receive an honorary degree. Over the course of the day the old man has strange dreams and he also reminisces about his summers as a child with his family. He travels with his daughter in law and along the way they pick up energetic young people, deal with an unhappy married pair, stop at a gas station, and visit the old man’s lonely mother. The days events force him to face his past and realize his various faults. He also recognizes soon enough he will die. However, he finally comes to terms with it all and as a result he treats his daughter in law, son, and housekeeper differently. As with many Bergman films, this one is thought provoking. Some of the dream sequences were a bit odd but many of the characters and scenes were enjoyable.

5/5 Stars

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Starring Max Von Sydow and directed by Ingmar Bergman, this Swedish film revolves around a knight who returns from the Crusades with his squire. He begins a chess match with Death which parallels his travels across a land infested with the Black Death. Along the way he is joined by a pair of married actors and a blacksmith. However, he is tired and disillusioned with his life. To make matters worse he witnesses some terrible things and finally loses his game against Death. He returns to his wife with some of his friends and they face their fate when the time comes. This film was an interesting blending of a Medieval setting and modern disillusionment. Besides being very metaphorical, the cinematography is stark, while the title alludes to the events in the biblical book of Revelation.

5/5 Stars