Posts Tagged drama

Through a Glass Darkly

Year of release: 1961          Directed by Ingmar Bergman.          Starring Harriet Andersson, Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, and Lars Passgård.

“Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.

“Sooner or later I must face the question in plain language. What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, ‘good’? Doesn’t all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite? What have we to set against it?” – C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, chapters 1 & 2 respectively

In wrestling with the grief caused by the death of his wife, C. S. Lewis gave voice to some of the darkest fears and notions that anyone can experience in a life of faith: not that there is no God, but that He’s a cruel, heartless sadist. Ingmar Bergman’s “faith trilogy” wrestles with similar questions, wondering how an omnipotent being could also be all good.

Through a Glass Darkly serves as the opening film of the trilogy. The title is a very obvious reference to 1 Corinthians 13:12, indicating the (very slightly) more optimistic outlook of this film compared to the two that follow it—Winter Light and The Silence, the titles alone which suggest the dimming light and dying faith of their protagonists and their director.

However, Through a Glass Darkly holds onto hope of one day seeing face to face, acknowledging both the terror and joy of such a possibility.

The frightening potential of beholding God can be seen through Karin (Harriet Andersson), a mentally ill woman who believes her schizophrenic episodes are visions of God. Her final vision—a frightful and horrific analogy of God as an attacking spider that is further explored in Bergman’s subsequent two films, which led to them being labeled a trilogy along with this one—is starkly reminiscent of Lewis’ line, “Deceive yourself no longer.”

At the same time the arc of Karin’s younger brother Minus (Lars Passgård) shows the hope and joy of direct communication with God. After spending the majority of the film trying to please his emotionally and physically distant father David (Gunnar Björnstrand) and having his relationship with his sister fall apart in increasingly destructive ways, the final scene is a heartfelt face to face exchange with his father about the nature of God. Minus’ takeaway is one of the most startling lines in the film, which summarizes everyone’s need to give and receive love, not just with other people but with God as well.

The lone outsider to this dysfunctional family is Karin’s husband Martin (Max von Sydow), who has clearly understood the “for worse” part of his vows. He confides to David that after Karin was released from the mental hospital, the doctors told him she would never recover. Her illness takes an increasing toll on their marriage, and her family is not much support with Minus’ stony disgust toward his sister’s behavior and David’s selfish artistic desire to exploit his daughter’s illness for one of his novels. In spite of this, Martin’s loyalty to Karin never wavers, regardless of the pain outside forces and people bring into their relationship.

I believe that is an additional metaphor for faith. It is a relationship with God, and while outside factors and other people may attempt to poison it, it is still a relationship from which we should not flee. Even if those forces turn it into a burden, faith is still something beautiful and worth preserving.

As the son of a Lutheran pastor, faith and doubt is at the center of many of Bergman’s films, perhaps nowhere more explicitly than in this film, Winter Light, and The Silence. The necessity of doubt as a means to enrich one’s faith, or learning to see with clouded vision, is captured through the insecurities and harshness of the world which the characters here inhabit.

Karin’s mental illness compounds those insecurities, and her explanation that voices tell her what to do may seem as if Bergman is saying religion is a form of mental illness, especially since her final breakdown is caused by her encounter with her malevolent notion of “god.” However, Bergman follows that scene with a moment of salvation for all the characters, which can first be heard approaching in the midst of the Karin’s encounter with the spider god.

It is this moment of salvation where the notion that God is Love starts, but only starts, to become clear. Prior to that, any role of the divine in the lives of the characters was seen, in the words of the title, through a glass darkly. That darkness was intensified by the unhealthy ways Karin, as well as her lonely brother and workaholic father, sought love. In the end, Love wants her healthy and for the family to have a functional relationship.

A lakeside family visit that goes to hell is not an unusual premise for a film, but Bergman’s use of that setting to depict a literal walk through hell with all its doubts and uncertainties creates two parallel journeys about doubt and mental illness that coalesce at the same rock bottom moment. Both trajectories are beautifully captured by Sven Nykvist’s quietly observant camera, inviting us to reflect on what’s before us, but also reminding us there’s more out of the frame that cannot be easily explained.

To continue the Bible verse referenced in the title, for now, we and the protagonists know in part, and when faced with the evil in their lives, it may remain that way. However, there are tangible moments of goodness and grace, even if the coexistence of those moments with tragedy seems like a contradiction. Or as a quote from St. Augustine says, “If you are able to comprehend it, it is not God.”

 

Personal Recommendation: A+

 

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Scrap

Year of release: 2018       Directed by Leena Pendharkar.      Starring Vivian Kerr and Anthony Rapp.

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In some ways, Scrap is an extended trailer, a hint of a feature film to come that will hopefully be equally thoughtful and compassionate. At the same time, as a twenty-minute short it functions well as a brief window into a couple days in the life of a homeless woman.

Beth, played by scriptwriter Vivian Kerr, lives out of her Prius while desperately driving to various job interviews in the LA area while hiding the state of her life from her brother Ben (Anthony Rapp) and her daughter Birdy (Skylar Hill) who has been staying with her uncle. Additionally, Beth travels from neighborhood to neighborhood to find a place to park her car and sleep in the back seat where she won’t be harassed.

Reasons for harassment include a vandal smashing her car window to take some of her possessions and threats to call the police under the assumption that she must be a prostitute. Those assumptions reflect the overwhelmingly disparaging view that many people take toward the homeless, concluding that they either deserve it or must be drug addicts, sex workers, or some other group of people often branded as “lesser.”

Indeed, Beth herself is not free from those prejudices, as she works diligently to make sure her daughter, her brother, and his wife do not find out about her living situation. Her own self-shame adds another layer of difficulty to her life, and the film is honest about how difficult it can be to overcome such prejudices, even when they affect one as directly as Beth.

How long Beth has been homeless and searching for a job while her daughter lives with her brother is unclear. The story presented in the film feels entirely like a middle act with more backstory and a subsequent act to come when it is adapted into a feature film later this year—hence my calling it an extended trailer above. It is still very effective, with that middle act tightly told, moving from introducing us to Beth to building tension in the job interviews and altercations to the final exchange with her brother.

In their brief amount of screen time Kerr and Rapp convincingly portray a supportive yet not entirely close brother and sister, both of whom care about one another but are unsure how much to ask of the other. There is a natural chemistry between Kerr and Rapp, which should translate smoothly into a longer version of this story.

Scrap succeeds both as a promise of that feature length version, but also on its own both as a means of raising awareness for the homeless and as a challenge to reexamine any prejudices that we may harbor toward them.

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Mary Queen of Scots

Year of release: 2018              Directed by Josie Rourke.       Starring Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce, James McArdle, Jack Lowden, and David Tennant.

Mary Queen

“Better a live rat than a dead lion.” So says a character in one of the best plays and movies about the religious convictions and subsequent conflicts instigated by the English reformation. Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) lives by the conviction “better a dead lion than a live rat.” In 1561, with tensions between Catholics and Protestants still high in Europe, that is a dangerous principle to hold, and for anyone who knows their British history, it is one that cost Mary dearly.

The latest cinematic telling of that history assumes that knowledge, and it opens with brilliant crosscutting between Mary processing to her execution in 1587, Elizabeth I approaching her throne, and then back to Mary’s return to Scotland from France in 1561. The imagery draws a powerful parallel between the two queens, foreshadowing the ensuing conflict with a bookend that suggests their inevitable fates. Unfortunately, it’s the only time in the film such thought is given to the editing, and the rest of the film settles into a fairly rote history lesson, highlighting the main points in the power struggle between England and Scotland, Protestants and Catholics, Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart.

That is not to say Mary Queen of Scots is a bad history lesson. With grandiose and austere production design, stylish costumes and makeup, a talented cast, and some beautiful cinematography of the Scottish countryside the whole film remains watchable. However, the script and pacing are too pedestrian for the film as a whole to rise to the level of its parts or themes.

This is a strongly feminist take on Mary Stuart and her desire to unify England and Scotland, which I believe is not unusual for films about her. What is unusual is something that I’ve only seen in one other film, The Girl King from 2015. Both these films about strong female monarchs who are Catholic or wish to become Catholic, which functions a rebellion against their patriarchal Protestant courts, not only link Catholicism with protagonists’ feminism but also with their liberalism and anachronistic pro-LGBTQ beliefs.

As bizarre as this may seem, especially in twenty-first century America, I think there are parallels in that comparison worth exploring. In England and Scotland in the latter half of the sixteenth century, Catholics were a persecuted minority, much the same way LGBTQ people were for nearly all of the twentieth century. If a misogynistic patriarchy is the established norm throughout most of Western history, linking that to the dominant religion of a period film’s setting is not an illogical decision—after all, religion has often been abused to rationalize power struggles. Continuing this dramatic license, if a minority religion is then linked to the ways in which a female protagonist challenges said patriarchy, I think there is a dramaturgical basis for the comparisons made here.

However, I think the ideas themselves are more interesting than the film’s handling of them. That above paragraph is probably more thought than any of the filmmakers gave to those themes, as the driving force behind most dramatic choices seems to be: Mary is a progressive rebel.

The recurring motive throughout the movie is that Mary is too independent, and her taking agency of herself like a man threatens the toxic masculinity of the Scottish and English lords. As a contrast with Mary, Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) defers to her council and allows herself to be parliament’s pawn. In one of the film’s better exchanges, she tells her chief advisor William Cecil (Guy Pearce) that the throne has made her more of a man than anyone else, but she has just embraced the desires of the power-hungry men surrounding her. The woman who acts as an equal with the men is Mary, and she is detested for it.

This power struggle mostly plays out through the determination of the Protestant nobles to prevent England from ever having another Catholic monarch. Overlaying the sixteenth century religious conflict with a contemporary feminist angle creates a parallel between the bigotries of five hundred years ago and those of today, as can be seen in David Tennant’s frothing at the mouth, right-wing fundamentalist portrayal of John Knox.

The one performer who really stands out is Margot Robbie. Her final two scenes walk a perfect balance between Elizabeth’s compassion for her cousin and the role she has embraced in serving her council. It’s probably the best example of the film’s themes of religion and gender roles in a society dominated by men.

I am a huge fan of Ronan, and I firmly believe that she was robbed in losing awards for both Brooklyn and Lady Bird. However, her performance here, while very good, lacks the empathy those other characters had, and as fitting as her austerity is for Mary, it pales next to the range of emotions Robbie achieves in her portrayal of Elizabeth.

As a story of two queens caught between men’s games of political intrigue, the film never quite achieves the urgency and tension it should. Nonetheless, telling this chapter of history solely from their perspectives makes for a thematically fascinating subversion. Since the winners get to write history, the losers of conflicts are often reviled, sometimes rightly and other times not. Mary Queen of Scots was viciously reviled by the English and her subjects during her lifetime while Elizabeth I was beloved. The film’s modern lens invites us to consider the reasons behind that, and it is an idea I appreciated even as I wish the film did more with it.

 

Personal Recommendation: B-

Content advisory: An off-screen rape, a bloody assassination, several consensual sex scenes—one rather violent, non-graphic wartime violence, and fleeting nudity.             MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults

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A Star is Born

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Bradley Cooper.  Starring Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, and Anthony Ramos.

Sometimes there’s a film, and it’s the film for its time and place. It fits right in with the zeitgeist and has enough going for it that nearly everyone becomes swept up with it, celebrating its great achievements. A Star is Born may be that film. It certainly wants to be that film, and in nearly every scene it bends over backwards in its attempts to do so.

The fourth cinematic incarnation of a talented ingenue discovered by a famous artist has a lot to commend it. The song performances are amazing, the acting intense and emotional, the drama engaging and tragic with direction that mirrors each scene’s emotions precisely.

I could never escape the feeling that it was one giant collage of Oscar clips, with each scene edited for maximum impact in a twelve second clip at the ninety-first Academy Awards.

That style of storytelling works surprisingly well for the first act, in which veteran country music singer Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) stumbles upon Ally (Lady Gaga) performing in a nightclub. Impressed by her talent, he flirts with her and spends the night talking to her, culminating in him inviting her to perform in his next show. She says no, so he has his driver stalk her the following day until she changes her mind and quits her job for a one-night performance.

If Jack’s behavior seems creepy, the film wants us to know it’s okay, firstly because she playfully calls him out on it, secondly because he doesn’t hide that he’s an alcoholic, so he’s being honest, and thirdly because Jack is not aggressively sexist like some of the other jerks in the bar. It might be the most pathetic tie-in to the #metoo movement I’ve seen in a recent film, especially considering not a single male character is capable of listening to Ally, other than her friend and coworker Ramon (Anthony Ramos). To be fair, the film portrays most of these scenes from Ally’s perspective, but it wants to have its cake and eat it by portraying Jack’s behavior as a sort of meet cute routine.

The second and third acts follow the predictable beats for a story of a fading, depressed, alcoholic star and a quickly rising sensation, both of whom fall in love with each other. There’s the honeymoon romance, the temporary estrangement, irrational jealousy, and heartbreaking setbacks. There’s a strong supporting turn from Sam Elliott who has a “surprising” relationship to Cooper’s Jack. There’s a light critique of the showbiz industry and the unhealthy side of fame that doesn’t in any way threaten the status quo of the entertainment world.

In other words, it is the perfect level of mildly self-critical to make Academy members feel thoughtful and introspective while simultaneously making them feel proud both of how inclusive they are and of their valuable contributions to the world.

Lady Gaga gives an electrifying performance (especially when she’s singing) in a role that feels like it was meticulously crafted to win an Oscar, and she’s good enough that I won’t even be upset when it probably happens. Her acting and singing chops just about make the film worth watching.

I have never been the biggest Bradley Cooper fan, and while it is blatant that the film is an egotistical passion project for him, I found his Sam Elliott impression enjoyable and one of his better performances. The scene where Elliott tells Jack (Cooper) that “you stole my voice” is unquestionably on the nose, but I honestly didn’t mind.

The biggest problem for me was how hard the film labors in nearly every scene to win the Oscar, knowing that there is a very good chance it may succeed. In addition to the quasi-critiques of unethical producers and the faint connections to #metoo and #timesup, there’s the requisite sad ending to tell us we watched something profound, even though said ending could have easily been avoided with more believable writing. And of course, the entire film is about show business, the Academy’s favorite subject. In short, it’s the Oscariest batiest movie ever.

And you know what? Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, and Sam Elliott all clearly have such a great time with their roles, that I kind of ended up having one too, and I almost didn’t even care that this is an emotionally manipulative pile of Oscar bait, which will steal all year-end discussion from the actual best movie musical of 2018.

 

Personal recommendation: B-

Content Advisory: Fleeting nudity, non-graphic sexual encounters, and occasional rough language.                             MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Adults

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BlacKkKlansman

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Spike Lee.  Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Michael Buscemi, Ryan Eggold, and Topher Grace.

About a week ago on Fox News, Laura Ingraham went off on an unhinged rant lamenting that the country [white America] once knew and loved is being changed for the worse by the non-white demographics who come here illegally and legally, not dissimilar from Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard’s (Alec Baldwin) rant which opens this film. A year ago our president called neo-Nazis “very fine people,” while referring to peaceful black protestors as “sons of bitches.” Active members of the Nazi party are running for republican house seats in multiple states. Sadly, there are Americans who deny the obvious: racism is still a massive problem in America, and it has found a welcome home in the republican party which now controls our country.

Of course, this is not new. Perhaps the president spouting openly racist rhetoric with vigorous support from his base is, but Woodrow Wilson infamously hosted a screening of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation at the White House, and reportedly called it “history written with lightning” when the film was directly responsible for the return of the KKK and the rise of lynchings and baseless arrests of black people. (To be fair to Wilson, those words may have been falsely attributed to him by the book’s author.)

It was civil rights leader James Baldwin who said, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” Watching the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro a few years ago, I first became aware of a reality of white dominated entertainment for non-white youth. Baldwin discussed being a black child and watching TV shows or movies in which the white hero with whom the audience is expected to identify must kill the black (or Indian) villains. In watching such shows, Black and American Indian children are therefore expected to root for their own destruction.

Spike Lee knows all of this, and his newest film BlacKkKlansman does as well. The first scene that drills this home is when rookie police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black man on the Colorado Springs force, goes undercover to infiltrate a speech by former Black Panther leader Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) to make sure there is no threat of blacks starting a race war against whites. As Ture delivers a passionate address to a floating sea of black faces, the truth of his call for black people to accept themselves as they are and not remake themselves to be like white people inspires not only the crowd of adoring college students but the undercover Stallworth as well.

At that rally Stallworth also meets a young black woman Patrice (Laura Harrier) who maintains the police (or pigs as she calls them) are part of an inherently racist, capitalist system designed to profit off the suppression of black people. As Stallworth and Patrice begin a relationship, Stallworth insists there are good cops who can work within the system to fix it. While the film respects the reasons behind her charges, it also clearly depicts all the good cops can do when they don’t abuse their power.

For his next undercover operation, Stallworth infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan, meeting the local chapter leader by phone, and later grand wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) as well. When they meet face to face, his white partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) plays Ron to infiltrate the KKK (or the organization as it members insist on calling it) and prevent attacks against black citizens, threats which are far more serious coming from the KKK than from a big talking member of the Black Panthers, especially when there are racist cops who will defend any white person and over a century of oppression against blacks.

If there’s any flaw in the film, as Alissa Wilkinson notes, it’s that it lets white viewers off too easily. While it is certainly true that any remotely progressive white viewers (read: those who oppose Trump) will not feel guilty even if they have unwittingly supported racism in the past, and the film certainly lacks the savage audience indictment of The Wolf of Wall Street, the hero of the film is Ron Stallworth, and not some fictitious white dude smashing down a “whites only” sign. To be sure, the other three members of Ron’s team are wonderful allies, but the film makes it clear how unfortunately rare such people are.

Last year’s Mudbound did not give white viewers an heroic character to identify with. The best white characters stood on the sidelines helplessly as the black characters suffered horrific injustices, the worst gleefully carried out those injustices, and the vast majority blindly perpetuated a system of abuse. That is probably a more realistic, if bleaker, portrayal of racism in America. Here, the majority of the white cops support Ron, but they also turn a knowing blind eye to the racist cop on the force, and the chief proudly states how he supports J. Edgar Hoover’s targeting of black citizens. Still they mostly manage to come around by the film’s end. It might verge on wish fulfillment, but there are stories of it happening, and it fits naturally into the comic arc of the film.

Yes, I said comic. To quote St. Thomas More, “The devil is a proud spirit who cannot endure to be mocked.” The film mocks the diabolical KKK ruthlessly, as illiterate morons who are baffled and terrified that their “superior genes” are being replaced by educated blacks and Jews. Watching Ron rant about his hatred for anyone who doesn’t have “pure white Aryan blood” in order to trap the local Klan leader is one of the best scenes of the year, as is Ron’s revelation of his real identity to David Duke. At the same time, the film never undermines the danger and threat of the KKK, heightening the tension and the laughs created by their idiocy.

Befitting a comedy, Spike Lee’s broad storytelling is about as far removed from subtle as humanly possible. If the scenes of the KKK chanting “America first!” or saying they want to make America great (read: white) again or a cop explaining to Ron that racists now cloak their racism in economics, immigration, and other policies so more Americans will go along with them, and one day David Duke will endorse his ideal candidate for president are not blatant enough, then the final scenes of footage from last year’s Charlottesville rally followed by the president’s damning “very fine people” remarks cement the parallels Lee wishes to draw between the KKK of the sixties and the current administration.

There’s an inherent power to images and stories. At the film’s climax Lee crosscuts between a Klan meeting and black student rally, contrasting the violent hatred of one with the peaceful nobility of the other. By opening with a clip from Gone with the Wind and later showing scenes from Birth of a Nation, Lee shows how the damning stereotypes from films shaped the way multiple generations thought about black people. He shows how those stereotypes have continued to today, but he also shows how progress has been made before, and since history repeats, how it can hopefully be made again.

 

Personal recommendation: A-

Content Advisory: Recurring racial epithets, depictions of racially inspired violence, disturbing descriptions of torture, occasional obscenities.                  MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment

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