the worst person in the world (joachim trier, 2021)

The story goes that Renate Reinsve had decided to give up on acting to become a carpenter. She met with Joachim Trier, and he wrote her the lead part for his new movie, The Worst Person in the World. Reinsve had done some stage work and had appeared in several Norwegian television series, but she wasn't yet a name. Trier saw something, and Reinsve has now won a couple of Best Actress awards (including one at Cannes). The film is nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Oscars, and if Reinsve is absent from the nominations list, she can take pride in being at the center of a film that is highly regarded.

Trier has said that The Worst Person in the World is a rom-com for people who hate rom-coms. Honestly, I could barely tell it was a rom-com. It is an honest look at love and relationships, how difficult they can be, and how a person can struggle in relationships when they are still finding out who they are. Needless to saw, Reinsve's character (Julie) is not the person referred to in the title, but that title does reflect how we don't always see the good things about ourselves that others recognize in us.

There is more to the film than Reinsve ... in particular, Anders Danielsen Lie is excellent. But the reason to see The Worst Person in the World is Reinsve, and the character Trier has created for her.


flee (jonas poher rasmussen, 2021)

You can learn a lot about Flee by looking at the three categories for which it has received an Oscar nomination: Best Documentary Feature, Best Animated Feature, and Best International Feature. It is the first movie in Oscar history to get nominated in all three of those categories, and it is clear from those nominations that this is not a straightforward presentation. Animation draws attention to its unreal nature, while documentaries at least pretend to show "real" life. By choosing to animate his film, Jonas Poher Rasmussen is making a statement about the veracity of documentaries.

The film is also complicated by the possible untrustworthy source of its narrative. Flee tells the story of the pseudonymous "Amin", who is a long-time friend of the director, and who is a refugee from Afghanistan. Rasmussen wants to tell Amin's story, wants to give Amin a chance to tell his story, but Amin has good reasons to hide behind anonymity. We don't know exactly what he looks like, since he is animated in a style so close to rotoscoping that we might forget the face is probably not a match for the real person. We learn of his escape from Afghanistan as a child, and to some extent, that explains all of the ways Amin hides the truth. Rasmussen assumes he knows much of the story, but over the course of the film, he learns that Amin has never told people his entire true story. The revelations are new not just to the audience, but also to the director.

Once you realize that Amin will adjust his story to protect himself, you question the validity of what he tells us about his life. The emotional makeup of the character feels very real, and his reasons for protecting himself are obvious. We sympathize with him ... we don't turn against him when we see how his story is sometimes a bit sideways to the facts, just as Rasmussen remains Amin's friend even as he learns that some of what he has known isn't literally true.

It strikes me that my two favorite movies so far from 2021 are documentaries. Summer of Soul remains my top choice, but Flee is in the same league.


shame (ingmar bergman, 1968)

OK, someone explain this to me. Shame is (at least) the 17th film by Ingmar Bergman I have seen. I have yet to see a bad one, so the expectations are great. But after watching Shame for the first time, I was embarrassed that I had never gotten around to it before. It is, to my mind, one of a handful of the greatest films of Bergman's career, and thus, one of the great films in cinema history. But apparently, not a lot of people agree with me. Bergman has 14 films on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time ... none of them are Shame (it finished at #1279). In the recent TSPDT users poll, Bergman received votes from 853 of the 1983 participants, the 6th-most of any director, and more than such directors as Wong Kar-wai, Welles, and Godard. 21 Bergman films received votes ... 12 of them got more votes than Shame, which got only 6. At the time of its release, noted critic Andrew Sarris wrote in the Village Voice that Shame was "completely worthless as a work of art."

OK, taste preferences and all that. But I'm dumbfounded nonetheless. Here I was so happy to fill in this blind spot in my filmgoing, and after the fact I find I wasn't alone in my blind spot. Except now that I've seen it, for me it is a blind spot no longer, and I am here to say that Shame is a great film.

Shame is a war movie, but at first it feels like an abstract war movie. Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann play an unsettled married couple who are living on an isolated island, only marginally aware of the war going on in the world outside of their lives. Bergman never explains who is fighting, or what they are fighting over. What he does show is the impact of war on even the non-participants. The couple is isolated, but not isolated enough ... eventually, the war comes to them. They must confront their own inner beings, and they aren't very pleased with themselves. Gradually, Shame becomes just brutal to watch (in its way, it's as hard to experience as Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain). We never do learn what the war is about, which is why it feels abstract, but what the war does to the characters is not abstract, but rather unsparingly real.

In the midst of all this, Liv Ullmann gives one of her greatest performances. Shame was left out when it came to Oscar nominations, but surely Ullmann deserved some attention. (Next January, she will finally get her first Oscar, an honorary award.) Ullmann comes face to face with her fellow actors, and with the audience (thanks to frequent close-ups), and she is never less than brilliant.


what i watched

Geezer Cinema: Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2019). Something like Geezer Cinema, where my wife and I take turns picking a weekly movie, is great partly because every other week, I'm exposed to a movie I might not have found on my own. Unfortunately, Midsommar was my pick, and I can't say I liked it. I enjoyed director Ari Aster's earlier movie, Hereditary (which it happens was my sister-in-law's pick from another movie group I'm in), and while I originally thought Midsommar was a Swedish-language art film, once I realized it was a horror film I picked it for Geezer Cinema. Midsommar is 20 minutes longer than Hereditary, and it felt even longer than that, bordering at times on Slow Cinema. I thought it could have been half an hour shorter, and was surprised to find out there is a 171-minute Director's Cut out there. I assume Aster wanted to build suspense slowly, but I never felt it ... perhaps it was too slow for me. Florence Pugh is the best thing about the movie, which is ultimately too muddled for me to care. Bonus points, though, for a mallet that serves as Chekhov's gun.

21 Bridges (Brian Kirk, 2019). Before the pandemic, our Geezer Cinemas took place in theaters, and we must have seen trailers for 21 Bridges a dozen times. We knew it wasn't Chadwick Boseman's best movie, but it was still hard to pass up when I remembered I had recorded it on the DVR some time ago. Boseman is fine ... when wasn't he? ... but he is given little to do. 21 Bridges in a paint-by-numbers thriller, with Boseman as a cop who closes down all the bridges connected to Manhattan so he can find some bad guys. There's nothing wrong with the premise, and there's a nice cast (besides Boseman, you've got Sienna Miller, J.K. Simmons, and Stephan James). But it devolves into shootouts that are mostly uninteresting, and the twists in the story aren't too hard to guess in advance. It's not the worst way to spend an afternoon when you are bored, but you can do better if you're in the mood for some Chadwick Boseman.


another round (thomas vinterberg, 2020)

The only other film from Thomas Vinterberg that I have seen is The Hunt, which also starred Mads Mikkelsen. It was a good movie, in large part because Mikkelsen was so interesting in it. Another Round is more of an ensemble piece than was The Hunt ... Mikkelsen stands out, but he's not the entire focus of the film. The story, of four high-school teachers who come up with the idea of trying to maximize their job performance (and their lives) by getting just drunk enough to bring out their best, is different at least.

I can't speak of the veracity of the image Another Round paints of a place where half the country, including the high-school kids, are drunk. (The Danish title is Druk, which means drinking.) Things get interesting when the teachers first find their abilities enhanced. It feels like Vinterberg wants us to believe the idea that drinking makes us better people. But things get carried away, as you know they must. They base their experiment on a theory that apparently is actually espoused by someone, that people need to raise their blood alcohol level to 0.05 to achieve peak performance. Once the four are successful (at least in their eyes), they wonder why they should stop at 0.05. Wouldn't things improve even more if they got drunker? Which they do.

The blend of comedy and drama isn't always smooth ... perhaps it isn't meant to be. There are plenty of fun (not necessarily funny) moments, and of course, there are moments of great drama, especially around the crumbling marriage of Mikkelsen's Martin and his wife, Anika (Maria Bonnevie). I was never sure just how tragic this was supposed to be. We never really see Martin and Anika when they are happy, so we don't have much at stake with their relationship. Overall, Another Round is about the four male teachers; it is sneakily a guy movie.

Everything changes in the final scene. Mikkelsen breaks into a drunken but still stylish dance, and for a couple of minutes, I couldn't keep the smile off of my face. For a brief period, I was unconcerned with what Vinterberg was trying to say. It's a lovely moment.

Another Round is nominated for two Oscars, Best International Feature and Best Director, which is unusual. I've seen all five pictures in the directing category, and Vinterberg doesn't stand a chance of winning. I haven't seen the other "international" movies, so I can't hazard a guess about that category.


after the rehearsal (ingmar bergman, 1984)

This is the twenty-first film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 21 is called "Shot by Sven Week".

Sven Nykvist is one of the most well renowned and critically acclaimed cinematographers of all time. Though he's often associated with his films shot with Ingmar Bergman, he's worked with a number of high profile directors on almost 100 films. If you're unfamiliar with his imagery, its time to take a look.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film with cinematography by Sven Nykvist film.

Watching After the Rehearsal in 2021 carries the reality of the pandemic. The film, made for television, is a chamber piece with one set and three characters, the kind of structure that is a bit more prevalent right now, when it is so difficult to be expansive with film making. Of course, Bergman wasn't thinking about pandemics when he made this film (unlike The Seventh Seal, which takes place during a plague pandemic). The three characters are Henrik Vogler (Erland Josephson), who is directing a new version of Strindberg's A Dream Play; Rakel Egerman (Ingrid Thulin), a middle-aged actor who worked with Vogler in the past; and Rakel's daughter Anna (Lena Olin), who is starring in the current production.

After the Rehearsal is itself something of a dream play. Roger Ebert wrote of the confusion people seemed to have with the film:

Reading the earlier reviews of the film, I discover that one critic realized only belatedly that the younger actress, Anna, was onstage the whole time the older actress, Rakel, poured out her heart. Strange, and yet another critic thought the whole scene with Rakel was the director's own dream. Yet another suggested that Anna represents not only herself but also Rakel's absent daughter. And another theory is that Anna is the daughter of the director and Rakel, and is brought into being by the residual love between them, as a sort of theatrical Holy Spirit. The age of Anna has been variously reported as ranging from twelve to twenty, with one critic reporting that both ages of the character are represented.

The film has a supernatural feel, even though Bergman uses no obvious tricks. When the film opens, Vogler is alone in the theater after the day's rehearsal ... as we see him, he is waking up, commenting on how things look strange. Anna appears, they interact ... Anna reveals her hatred of her mother. The mother appears, despite the fact that she is dead ... a younger Anna (played by Nadja Palmstjerna-Weiss) observes it all, unnoticed by the other two. The mother leaves, Olin-as-Anna returns. It is entirely possible that After the Rehearsal comes out of Vogler's head, perhaps in a dream. Bergman doesn't press this point (hence the confusion Ebert mentions). Thus, he creates something supernatural that could just as easily be a straightforward recounting of a night in a theater.

The scene between Vogler and Rakel is especially intense compared to the two scenes with Anna and Vogler, which is perhaps inevitable, given that Ingrid Thulin is one of the most intense actors ever. (Bergman writes of one scene, "[I]n this film she couldn't distance herself from her part. When she would say the line 'Do you think that my instrument is destroyed forever?' she would begin to cry. I told her, 'Please don't sentimentalize!' To me, it seemed natural for her to say the line with cool observance. Instead she burst out crying every time. Finally I gave up.") Lena Olin holds her own in this company, no small achievement considering the abilities of Josephson and Thulin.

Ultimately, After the Rehearsal is as much a family drama as it is a commentary on the theater. As for Sven Nykvist, he doesn't have any vast panoramas to play with in this one-set movie. He uses a lot of close-ups, and overall, he suggests the smallness of the setting without our noticing. It's not as expansive as the work that earned him two Oscars (for Cries & Whispers and Fanny and Alexander), but it perfectly suits what is needed here.

The opening of the film:


hour of the wolf (ingmar bergman, 1968)

Another movie for "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 25 is called "1,001 Films to Watch Before You Die Week".

Maybe the most well known film reference book widely available for consumer purchase, 1,001 Films to Watch Before You Die is a yearly publication showcasing a selection of 1,001 films with essays and contributions by 70+ film critics. If you're a fan of film, you've most likely come across at least one edition of these books over the years, and maybe even flipped through one at one point or another. Now, the list I've linked uses the 2018 version of the book, and that's the version that will be used for this challenge, but if there's a 2019 version that is released after this Season Challenge is published, you are free to watch a film from that list, even if it didn't appear on the 2018 version.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from the 2018 edition of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

Max von Sydow died last week, so I chose one of his movies for this challenge.

David Lynch loved Hour of the Wolf. If you've seen his movies, and you see Hour of the Wolf, you'll understand his feelings. Hour of the Wolf is beautiful to look at (Bergman's usual contributor Sven Nykvist was the cinematographer). It focuses on intense psychological profiles that are rarely concrete, allowing the viewer to interpret what we are seeing both in real time, and when we look back on the film. There is plenty to talk about.

And its meaning are insular. Bergman drew on his own nightmares ... when Max von Sydow's artist Johan has terrifying visions, they have at times direct connections to things Bergman has experienced. This gives them that inscrutable, uneasy terror of the worst nightmares. They don't have to "mean" anything. But it feels like Bergman knows what they "mean".

Liv Ullmann, who is the best thing about the movie, said "she had little understanding of the subject matter during production, but recognized Bergman's traits in von Sydow's character." She knew Bergman intimately. The audience does not, so we can't really recognize Bergman, other than knowing Johan "is" Bergman.

So Hour of the Wolf becomes an example of Your Mileage May Vary. I found it intriguing, it was never boring, Liv Ullmann was excellent, and it was over in an hour-and-a-half. If it matches your taste preferences, you might agree that it has earned its spot at #485 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. For me, it does not reach the heights of The Seventh Seal (another Bergman/von Sydow collaboration).

Here is one of the best scenes in the movie. This is not the best print ... don't judge Sven Nykvist!


a woman's face (gustaf molander, 1938)

This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 12 is called "Classic Performers: Ingrid Bergman":

A major name in both American and European cinema, Ingrid Bergman is often considered one of the greatest performers to have ever graced the screen. From notable American classics like Casablanca and Spellbound to her work with Roberto Rossellini in Italian neorealist mainstays such as Stromboli and Europa '51, Bergman filled the screen with emotion that is hard to be matched.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring Ingrid Bergman.

In 1936, Molander and Bergman worked together on the original Intermezzo. Two years later, at 23, Bergman was in A Woman's Face, a silly bit of nonsense, from a French play, about a woman with a scarred face who changes from a bad person to a good one when she receives an operation that turns her face into Ingrid Bergman's. You have to admire the dedication it took to make Ingrid Bergman ugly for a good portion of the picture.

Ingridface

Bergman does an excellent job of turning her ugliness (she was burned in a fire as a child) outward into a life of crime in a blackmail ring. She also does what she can to make her transition from bad to good seem believable ... it's almost matter-of-fact in the script, but Bergman makes the change gradual and she connects emotionally with the audience. It's also fun to see how Bergman is allowed to be physically big ... at times she seems like the tallest person in the room, and even when her face is disfigured, she commands the screen. It's interesting how the "ugly" woman is always trying to hide her face but uses her body to dominate.

Remade in English a few years later with Joan Crawford.


film fatales: italian for beginners (lone scherfig, 2000)

Just to prove I can talk about something besides karma, tonight I watched Italian for Beginners. It's a Dogme film that, miracle of miracles, is a sappy, relatively conventional love story. It's nothing special, but charming enough, and the digital video looks v.nice on teevee, once you get past the part where it looks like, well, like a teevee show. There's no clear reason for this to be a Dogme film ... I suppose you could argue that the Hollywood-ish plot is ironic ... but the movie works because it's NOT ironic, for the most part, so who knows.