Persona (1966)

Persona (1966) movie poster

director Ingmar Bergman
viewed: 06/29/2016

I really don’t know what I can bring to the table here about Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 masterpiece, Persona. It’s such a major film and so much writing has been done on it, from the time it was released 50 years ago until now. What fresh commentary do I have?

I don’t know.  I’m also not sure why it has taken me so long to finally see the film.

Before I’d ever seen a Bergman film, I’d seen a parody of his work, the seriously hilarious The Dove (De Düva) (1968) by George Coe and Anthony Lover and featuring a very young Madeline Kahn.  When I finally watched Bergman’s films, I managed to see the ones more directly parodied like The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957), and The Virgin Spring (1960).  The Virgin Spring blew my mind when I watched it.

But for some reason, I’d held off on Bergman for some time.

Persona is so different a film from those, seemingly much more influenced by Jean-Luc Godard of the time, but still so intensely emotional and delving, deeply psychological, a screeching catharsis.

I don’t know that it affected me as The Virgin Spring did years ago, but it is so complex and powerful, I think I’ll be sitting with it for a long time yet.  I felt almost immediately the desire to watch it again. I don’t know that I will, but I’ve kept Bergman at arm’s length long enough, far too long.

We Are the Best! (2013)

We Are the Best! (2013) movie poster

director Lukas Moodysson
viewed: 11/20/2015

I haven’t seen all of Lukas Moodysson’s films, in fact, I guess I’ve only seen Show Me Love (1998) and Lilya 4-ever (2002).  But I’ve come to think of him in particular in his interest in teenage girls.  Okay, that sounds bad.  But his work is focused on the world of teenage girls, from self-discovery or even total emotional isolation as in Lilya 4-ever.

We Are the Best! was adapted from a graphic novel by Moodysson’s wife Coco and tells the story of three teenage girls coming of age in Stockholm in 1982, yearning for a punk rock that has seemingly died out too early for its time.  Mira Barkhammar and Mira Grosin play Bobo and Klara, respectively, rebellious, out-spoken, brash, silly, self-conscious yet adventurous best pals, who recruit the alternately Christian outcast Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) because she’s actually very talented at the guitar.

Like Moodysson’s other films, this is a naturalistic portrayal, one that resonates and moves, in no small part due to the characters and their performances.  It’s sweet-natured and doesn’t once shift into darkened corners, while still giving a sensibility of time and place and personality.

It’s girl power.  A great girl power movie, sweet and fun and punk.

I watched it with Clara, my 11 year old daughter, who enjoyed it very much as well.

Let the Right One In (2008)

Let the Right One In (2008) movie poster

director Tomas Alfredson
viewed: 08/28/2015

Let the Right One In has been one of my favorite new films that I have seen since keeping this diary.  It’s lingered in my mind since first seeing it 6 years ago, and it’s been one of the few films I have really wanted to see again.  Of course, I saw the American re-make Let Me In (2010).  I’ve even read John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel from which the film was adapted.

The film is more a love story perhaps than a horror story, and more than a romance, it is a depiction of alienation, loneliness, otherness, and the finding of a true friend or perhaps love.  Its echoes of child abuse, bullying, and darker truths transcend the easy reference “that Swedish vampire movie”.

As much as I had wanted to see it again, I also started wanting to watch it with my kids, and my kids have gotten to an age where it would not be inappropriate.  Whether or not they would like it, that I wasn’t so sure of.

Watching it again, I felt for the strengths of the film, the unromantic icy 1980’s landscape of suburban(?) Sweden and especially the brilliant casting of Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar and Lina Leandersson as Eli.

The kids, I’m not sure what they thought of it.  Felix said he thought it was good.  Clara was a little less impressed, though now I’m wondering if it is because she thought it would be scary and was disappointed on that score.  I don’t know.  It’s still among the best contemporary films I’ve seen in the past 13 years, now no longer exactly contemporary.

Lilya 4-ever (2002)

Lilya 4-ever (2002) movie poster

director Lukas Moodysson
viewed: 11/23/2014

Swedish director Lukas Moodysson has lingered on the peripheries of my film viewing for almost the entire duration of this film blog.  His 2000 film, Together, was one of the first films that got added to my Netflix queue (notable that I’ve stored things there for over a decade now — also that film is currently available on Netflix streaming).  His latest film, We Are the Best! is also available from Netflix streaming right now and has had a lot of buzz (it’s about young teenage girls who form a punk band).  In the interim, I managed to see only one of his movies, Show Me Love (1998) (though I still prefer its original Swedish title “Fucking Åmål”

His 2002 film, Lilya 4-ever has been another long-lasting film in my movie queue.  I can hardly recall what I had read about it at the time to get it there, but there it has stayed from many moons.  It was only after reading through some lists of dark, depressing films that I recently bumped it up to the top of my queue and finally have now seen it.

Loosely based on true events, Lilya 4-ever is the harsh tale of an Estonian teenager whose mother abandons her in the poor public housing world of her home town.  Befriended by one boy a couple years younger (whose abusive life is almost more pathetic than her own), she suffers worsening and worsening experiences at the uncaring world of her aunt, supposed friends, local thugs, and even her very selfish aunt.  She turns to prostitution and meets a seemingly nice young man who promises a job in Sweden, hope, a future, somewhere not where she’s been all her life.

Of course, he’s tricking her into sexual slavery.  Her little buddy commits suicide.

Though the story has an unrelenting quality of terrible, terrible things, Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) sustains her hopes until hopes are crushed to death.

Moodysson’s cinema is almost entirely focused on young teenage girls, and presumably they’re not all as dark as Lilya.  Show Me Love showed a hopeful burgeoning lesbian relationship and ended on an up note.  We Are the Best!, as the title would suggest, seems to be on the downright uplifting side.

He handles his young talent well.  Akinshina and Artyom Bogucharsky (her little friend Volodya) are excellent, young, naturalistic performers.

Both of Moodysson’s films I’ve seen have been good, I would say not great.  I would have a hard time putting my finger on what it was that was “missing”.  But I don’t know.  I’m still interested in both Together and We Are the Best! but I don’t hold them with the highest of expectations.

Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

Searching for Sugar Man (2012) movie poster

director Malik Bendjelloul
viewed: 02/04/2013

There are a number of remarkable documentaries about music, musicians, rock’n’roll, the business, ones that encapsulate so much of the experience of the dreams, aspirations, the fame, the realities of the world of making it as a musician.  DiG! (2004) is a brilliant portrait of excess and ego.  The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005) is a remarkable image of genius(?) gone crazy. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008) is an amusing picture of an “almost was” band.  Each of those films offer some perspective on music and the people who’ve put their lives into their music and resonate, I believe, for anyone who has been in and around the music biz.  Searching for Sugar Man adds yet another dimension to the films of the genre.

It’s the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a musician from Detroit from the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, who cut two albums, and despite some passionate appreciation by a few, disappeared from the music scene.  Of course, in the United States, nobody really noticed and probably nobody really knew who he was.

But in South Africa, a country that for many years was under the brutal rule of Apartheid, somehow, Rodriguez’s music reached them and connected in a huge way.  In South Africa, he was as popular and important as Bob Dylan, who Rodriguez sounds a bit like.  But in the 1970’s-1980’s, cultural isolation kept this fact rather unknown.  It isn’t until the 1990’s that a fan and a journalist research their way to find out what happened to Rodriguez, about whom some quite interesting urban myths existed.

It’s a pre-internet tale of discovery.  Because they do find him, still in Detroit, a father of three adult women and a laborer working these many years in construction and living humbly.  And they bring him to South Africa where this  rather “normal” guy is heralded and welcomed as a huge rock star.

It’s a heartwarming story, certainly as its portrayed in the film, produced in Europe and directed by Malik Bendjelloul.  Bendjelloul tells the tale as a detective story, from the South Africans who were such passionate fans that they unraveled their mystery fostered in distance and isolation.

The image of South Africa is quite interesting, getting a sense of the vibe of the young white people who lived during Apartheid, how the music fostered their own sense of rebellion and change.  But mostly it’s Rodriguez himself.  With his big black sunglasses, he just screams the part of “rock star”.  This second generation Mexican-American in ice cold Detroit.  A talent with some ardent admirers, still quite the humble man, even when decades later he is given the sort of treatment that inspires so many to become musicians.  And now, with the film, he’s finally going to be better known in his native country.  It’s quite a tale and it’s quite well-told.

My Life as a Dog (1985)

My Life as a Dog (1985) movie poster

director Lasse Hallström
viewed: 09/22/2012

Back in 1987, I saw My Life as a Dog and totally fell in love with it.  12 year old Ingemar, a rambunctious character who gets into all kinds of good-natured trouble, identifies with all sorts of tragic news stories, most specifically that of Laika, the Russian dog, shot into space, who eventually starved to death.  Ingemar’s mother is dying and he ends up going to live with in the country with his uncle and aunt and an array of characters who populate the town.

There is the green-haired boy.  The old man who has him read to him surreptitiously from lingerie advertisements.  The beautiful blond who brings him along as she poses in the nude for a sculptor to keep things “artistic”.  The man who eternally works on his roofing.  The wacky inventor who builds a rocket ride that breaks down.  And the remarkably cute girl with the short brown hair who likes to pass for a boy so that she can play sport.

It’s bittersweet and funny, quirky and charming.  And I thought it was great.

It is pretty great.  Director Lasse Hallström hit is stride with his gentle storytelling but really had his coup with the casting.  Anton Glanzelius, who played Ingemar, has perhaps one of the cutest, sweetest smiles in all of cinema.  He’s freaking lovable!  And Melinda Kinneman, who played Saga, the tomboy, is terrific and is as cute as girls that age could be.  I think even at that time I wanted to go back and be 12 again just to fall in love with her.

My Life as a Dog isn’t a kids film, but as I’ve been trying to expand our movie-viewing a bit, I thought we’d give it a go.  The other experiment was that we watched it in Swedish, with me reading the subtitles to the kids.  I don’t think that they could keep up with the reading but I wanted to open the experience of listening to another language and thought it’d be worth the go.  It was.  They both enjoyed it, tough Felix noted that it was “pretty sad”, what with Ingemar losing his mother and even more tragically, his beloved dog.

Hallström has gone on to Hollywood, making What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993), The Cider House Rules (1999), and many others, most of which are these family melodramas that are more tinged with the bittersweet.  I’ve always kept My Life as a Dog in a special place.  It’s a sweet film and a good one.  And those kids are some of the most likable children ever to grace the silver screen.

Erotikon (1920)

Erotikon (1920) movie poster

director Mauritz Stiller
viewed: 07/15/2012 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

First off, Erotikon sounds like something it’s not.  What it is: a modern (for 1920) comedy of the sexes.

From Swedish director Mauritz Stiller, one of the two most important silent directors from Sweden in the silent era, it’s a surprisingly light romp in the homes of the well-heeled society of the time.  It centers around an entomologist, his wife, her would-be lovers, and a rather precocious niece in a romantic pentagram or quadrangle that is constantly morphing shape.  The entomologist, at one point, explains in a lecture the sociology of particular type of beetles what turns out to be a ripe metaphor for the levels of friction in the human world.  Apparently the beetles are happy polygamists, with two or more females on hand, never happy with just one (the amusing intertitles featuring bugs and other amusing illustrations make this even more comical).

Not really knowing where the film is going made for a bumpier, odder ride.  In some ways, it’s a comedy of miscommunication and misunderstanding, kind of like a former Three’s Company, if you will.  What is as amusing as anything in the film is its resolution, a charmingly brisk and cheerful break with societal norms, which turns out to be the only way for everyone to find happiness.

The film has been noted as an influence on many that came after it, most significantly Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (1939).  It’s far lighter and fluffier than that film, in fact, it’s pretty much a cinematic confection.  It’s cute and quite amusing, though its title certainly lead you to imagine otherwise.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest (2010) movie poster

(2009) director Daniel Alfredson
viewed: 02/21/11

The finale of the Swedish-produced adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s ultra-popular series of novels, known as “the Millenium trilogy” but perhaps are best known by the first novel’s title, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009), has arrived on DVD.  “Millenium” is the name of the fictional magazine owned and operated by Mikael Blomkvist (played by Michael Nyqvist in the films and assumed to be roughly based upon Larsson himself).  But the center of the whole thing is the character of Lisbeth Salander (played very aptly by Noomi Rapace in each of the films), and so to refer to the series through the name of the magazine seems much less the point than its primary creation,  the girl with the dragon tattoo on her back.

It feels like ages ago, but it was just a year ago that I read the first book, that I saw the first film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  And then I read the second book, and more recently saw the second film, The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009).  And with an American re-make of the original film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo due out toward the end of this year, starring Rooney Mara and directed by likely Oscar-winner David Fincher, this thing is far from over.  But the Swedish series has finished and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest is the end.

So, I was too impatient to wait to read the book.  I didn’t want to read it in hardback, had no idea when it was due in paperback, and in the end, found myself not caring enough to slog through the tomes.  I was glad to finish the series with the final film.

But the film really is not all that.  Maybe the book isn’t either (I’ve read as much).  The film starts with Salander with life-threatening injuries, sustained at the end of the prior film.  She spends a huge portion of the film in the hospital, healing, not doing a whole hell of a lot.  The film’s intrigues unwind in a courtroom, villains are white-haired elderly dudes and Salander’s German automaton half-brother, who is no personality and all brutality.  While Blomkvist runs around with stuff happening and drama and action, it’s really the dud of the series.

Borderline boring.

The best character in traction, the finale bereft of surprises, the film ties up its loose ends, but to little effect.

Larsson died prior to the publication of the books, their exponential popularity, and the films, perhaps before the books were even properly edited.  He was apparently working on a fourth novel at the time of his death.  So, this wasn’t necessarily “the end” to his trilogy.  His trilogy wasn’t necessarily a trilogy.  But that’s what we’ve got.  And like I said, ending on a point of dull anticlimax.

If you want my real opinion, the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was the best of the series (as was the film).  The convoluted back-story that Larsson developed for Salander in The Girl Who Played with Fire was interesting, especially if you were taken enough with her to want more.  But the latter two books could have been boiled down into one perhaps.  This final installment just feels extraneous, and while it does bring closure to things, it’s a 2 1/2 hour struggle at closure that really isn’t very satisfying.

At the moment, I somewhat dread the American re-makes.  I mean, David Fincher is a better director than either of the Swedish film-makers who made this first series.  But Noomi Rapace nailed the character.  It feels like it’s been done.  And Nyqvist as Blomkvist seems more apt than the ripped Daniel Craig.  I am very tired of the series.  I am tired of it all.  Especially after slogging through this final film.

The Girl Who Played with Fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009) movie poster

(2009) director Daniel Alfredson
viewed: 12/09/10

The Girl Who Played with Fire, which for those of you who somehow have missed out on this literary phenomenon, is the first sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009).  Where the books have reached an extreme ubiquity over the past year in America (having already achieved that across Europe), these films, adapted, written, directed, and produced in the story’s native Sweden, are a mini-phenomenon in themselves.  Writer Stieg Larsson didn’t live to see his explosion into international fame or his character of Lisbeth Salander become such a popular heroine, but it’s a legacy that still seems to be growing.

Larsson wrote The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked a Hornets Nest, known as “the Millennium trilogy” before dying suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 50.  This series of films, which star Noomi Rapace as Salander and Michael Nyqvist as Mikael Blomkvist, and are shot in Sweden, in Swedish, will soon be followed up by an American series staring Rooney Mara as Salander and Daniel Craig as Blomkvist and which are slated to be directed by David Fincher (The Social Network (2010), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Zodiac (2007)).  So, the overkill hasn’t reached a crescendo yet.

Earlier this year, I read the first two of Larsson’s books, and then in Spring, I saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  I haven’t yet read nor seen the final chapter in the trilogy (I’ve been kind of waiting for it to come out in paperback).  And I couldn’t muster the desire to get out to see this film in the theater, though I did manage to watch the first one in the theater.  The final film is still playing in the theaters at the moment, I believe, so shouldn’t be too long off for DVD.

The thing about this series is that Noomi Rapace pretty much exactly embodies Lisbeth Salander, the way I imagined her, and probably the way a lot of people imagined her.  She has the “look” but Rapace does a good job channelling the mixture of rage, fear, intellect, privacy, and wit of the character.  And as much as Nyqvist fits Blomkvist, the whole series is really much more about the gothy misanthropist computer whiz detective than anything else.  That and violence against women.  And Rapace is great.  It’s hard to imagine what Fincher and Rooney think they can bring that hasn’t been brought.

Well, actually, Fincher is no doubt a much more adept film-maker.

The films are competent, but challenged by bloated, convoluted stories.  I felt myself on the verge of confusion during The Girl Who Played with Fire despite having read the book.  There is so much to pack in and the film skips along almost like a Cliffs Notes version of events.  Director Daniel Alfredson, like director Niels Arden Oplev before him in the first film, tries to rein in the whole of the big story to suit the avid fans, and does so at the cost of making a completely comprehensible film.   I mean, by the end of the film, I was more confused about the connection between the super villain and the international prostitution ring even though one can guess that they are connected.

In the end, I realize that I’m suffering from a bit of fatigue with this series.  Rather than hyped up to read the finale (or go see it in theaters), I’m languishing back, wondering what is the best approach to me to closing out the trilogy for myself, in book or in film (or both as I’ve done so far).  But there is still that David Fincher version, due in theaters next year.  I’m guessing that a lot of people will never see these Swedish films (or at least that is the marketing supposition behind re-making the films).  As I said, the overkill has probably not yet begun to crest.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Niels Arden Oplev
viewed: 03/23/10 at the Embarcadero Cinema, SF, CA

Adapted from the novel by Stieg Larsson, the late author of what is known as the “Millenium” trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first cinematic adaptation of the popular Swedish thriller series.  The book seems quite popular here in the US, but apparently is even bigger back in Europe.  It’s an interesting, though semi-tragic story how Larsson, a journalist, had written these three books and submitted them to his publisher but died before they were published.  This whole thing has become big after his death.

The book, which I read earlier this year, is a complex mystery involving ritualistic serial murders, Naziism, corporate intrigue, and a sort of “locked room” mystery at its core.  Really, though, I think perhaps the most compelling thing in the book is the character of Lisbeth Salander, a gothy punk misanthropist who specializes as a computer hacker and detective.  She’s a tough little gal whose been through hell and she teams up with Mikael Blomkvist, a dedicated journalist who had been set up in a libel suit that nearly ruined him.  She’s 25.  He’s 40 something.

She’s the “girl with the dragon tattoo.”

Actually, the title in Swedish translates as “Men who Hate Women”, which has bearing on the story because the book is focused on heinous crimes against women.  The anglocised title actually rings a lot better and goes along with the latter books, The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, which I believe are already in production.

What’s interesting in this film is the role of adaptation from popular texts featuring characters who have become iconic from the written page yet never portrayed visually.  There was a massive casting effort to find someone to play Lisbeth and they wound up finding a pretty spot-on actress in Noomi Rapace.  She looks exactly as I’d imagined her and she plays the character with just the right tone.  But like a lot of other cinematic adaptation series, like Harry Potter or even The X-Men, there is so much effort to not spoil the character and to try to be true to the story for the fans that the actual work of making a good movie is almost secondary.

Personally, I thought that the book was somewhat bloated.  It took me well over 100 pages to get involved (though I did get involved) and the film, at 2 1/2 hours, has a bloated quality to it as well, even though they trimmed a lot of side plots down to try to capture it all.  Typically, thrillers or mysteries, being genre creations, work best when tight, perhaps even concise.  And yet, with all the trimming that they did with this film, there is a lot still to pack in, and oddly enough, the loss of some of the storylines oversimplifies Salander’s character and her relationship with Blomkvist.

What I did like particularly, was seeing the settings portrayed in the film.  Set in both Stockholm and on a northern island of Sweden, the landscape plays a key role in the story.  A girl has gone missing in the 1960’s, from an island with only one bridge connecting it to the mainland, which was blocked at the time of her disappearance.  Blomkvist is hired to help to solve the mystery of who killed her and why, by her uncle the reigning patriarch of a once powerful business empire.  So seeing the northern landscapes really was enlightening.

But I did ask myself, ultimately, why I went to see this film.  Well, obviously I like movies and mysteries, etc., but why is it compelling to see a story you’ve read visualized onscreen, portrayed  by actors, constructed by other storytellers, interpreting everything for you and simplifying and paring it down?  Isn’t the book the better place to be?  And obviously the reason that they made this film was because they knew people would want to see it and that it also would potentially expand the readership of the books, too.  It’s money.

Adaptation is an interesting problem at any time, but particularly constrained by expectation when adapting a beloved story or character, playing to a fan club if you will.  And frankly, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, while it certainly “got some things right”, it also sort of flopped for me.  I kind of wished that I’d seen it with someone who hadn’t read the book to know how much sense the story made to them.  I also understand that there will likely be an American adaptation of the novel which will obviously be given some significant creative license.

But as well, the second book, The Girl who Played with Fire, was released yesterday in paperback (the final book of the series is to be published in the US in May, I believe), and I went out and bought it and started reading it.  I had planned to read it once it was in paperback.  But perhaps I am just feeding the fire that I just criticized by doing so.