Watched (on screen) in 2008 (Catching up)

An ongoing list of films and DVDs I watched this year (the new entries are #4-6):

  1. Winter Light [The Communicants] (1962, directed by Ingmar Bergman)
    • As my life has gotten steadily busier and more distressing I have found Ingmar Bergman a perplexing source of solace. This is the fifth or sixth I have watched recently, and I must admit that I have developed a quite a crush on Gunnar Björnstrand. So... this film, in which he plays a existentially despairing pastor incapable of giving comfort to his flock or returning the love of his mistress, was an all-too-real piece of heartbreak. It opens with a long, impressive scene lifted uninterruptedly from a Lutheran service, and as Björnstrand's minister moves anxiously about the church painted demons leer, mourning, over his shoulder from the hallowed walls. [January 3, 2008 ****]
  2. Suddenly, Last Summer (1959, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
    • The short play by Tennessee Williams that lurks behind this film is a well nigh perfectly crafted piece of claustrophobic storytelling, in which the tales crafted by a dead man's domineering mother and possibly-mad cousin are simultaneously deeply convincing and lushly, impossibly heightened in their affect. Mankiewicz's film opens well, but as it progresses much of this narrative intensity and literary vividness (a vividness which, like the bright, precise colors of a high definition tv, seems more real than real) is dispersed by changing scenes (unity of place served Williams *very* well in the original, if I remember correctly) or displaced by melodrama, a poor substitute. In part the film declines in strength because Katherine Hepburn (in one of her best performances - the unnerving power of the severe Violet Venable suits her talents better than any screwball role ever did), who dominates the film's opening, increasingly takes a back seat to the therapeutic relationship between her careworn niece and the doctor Mrs. Venable has called in to lobotomize the girl. This is also the case in the play (and to great effect), but unfortunately for the film both the doctor (Montgomery Clift, still shattered from his traumatizing car accident) and the questionably sane Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor, who demonstrates an enraging lack of control over her voice) turn in really poor performances. If I remember the play properly, the chilling ending is also thrown over in the film for a more maudlin choice. Ah well - it is all almost redeemed by the sight of Katherine Hepburn descending slowly like a god composed entirely of cheekbones into her living room in a contraption that more closely resembles a wrought-iron throne than an elevator. [Saturday, January 5, 2008 ***]
  3. The Silence (1963, dir. Ingmar Bergman)
    • Bergman does Antonioni, with all the revisions to that bleak and glossy worldview (a rather allegorical outlook, for instance) that one might expect. Two sisters (one cerebral, put-upon, and dying and one fleshly, spontaneous and vicious) and their wide-eyed innocent of a child (it is hard to say that one or the other is more maternal to him) prowl desperately about a desolate hotel in a country that in the midst of some unspoken civil unrest. The "silence" is famously a spiritual one, but what is fascinating is how little actual silence there is in the film, at first on the level of lack of noise (the world of The Silence is filled to brimming with the claustrophobic pressures of diegetic noise - clocks ticking lives away, crowds shuffling oppressedly, radios playing tinny Bach), and then later on the level of lack of conversation. The sisters delight in their linguistic isolation from the people of the hotel and town: without the local language their central characteristics are played up through interpersonal contact - intellectual attempts at connection through music or the acquisition of individual words in the new language for one sister, and a more bodily form of communication for the other. This is by far the bleakest Bergman film I have seen, and although it was interesting and beautiful, it was also the least enjoyable and most schematic. [Sunday, February 3, 2008 ***1/2]
  4. Paisan (1946, dir. Roberto Rossellini)
    • It took me months of watching to get through this relatively short set of Italian neo-realist films. Paisan, or Paisa, is a series of six linked short pieces about interactions between the American, British and German forces and civilians in Italy in the latter stages of WWII. They often raise interesting situations (like that of a black GI faced first with the racism and trickery of the Italian street urchins he comes into contact with, and then with their brutal poverty), but like many overworked short stories, they strive too hard for a poignant, dramatic ending or set-piece for which there hasn't been a sufficiently rich narrative foundation. [Feb 10, 2008 ***]
  5. The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard (2007, mini-series)
    • I had heard that this series (about a previously apolitical woman who stages a surprisingly successful run for the Prime Ministry of Britain on a common-sense and transparency platform) was a bit cheesy, but I was gamely enjoying it until the abrupt and undercutting ending. All this build-up of plot-lines for naught! We were just left hanging, as if they had intended a much longer series than they had been able to afford to make. (Is this in fact what happened?) I felt mocked and derided. (Yes, I take my television endings very seriously.) [Feb 13, 2008 **]
  6. Vantage Point (2008, dir. Pete Travis)
    • When I saw the trailer for this thriller in which a terrorist act is viewed from eight different "vantage points" I was filled with a desire to see it, not least because it is extremely well cast (also, I can love a good thriller with the best of them). However, it turns out that this is one of those films which has really found its highest form of expression in the trailer genre. Excruciatingly badly written, it was also remarkably short for its fragmented structure (I know this smacks of "The food was terrible and there wasn't enough of it," but in this case the brevity of each "vantage point" narrative was the source of a lot of the film's weakness). The result: we ended up seeing the same horrific acts over and over until we were numbed and even a little irritated by them (did they just want to get the most mileage out of expensive special effects?), but major characters played by famous actors were given little to no back story. Ugh. Excruciating. Half a star for a good cast, who were almost universally wooden and under-rehearsed. [Feb 28, 2008 *1/2]
  7. What will be next? Who can say?

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