Tag Archives: Max von Sydow

232. HOUR OF THE WOLF [VARGTIMMEN] (1968)

“Directors always say—and I think they mean it—that they’re telling a story. They tell a story and they don’t want to have an interpretation of what it ‘means,’ symbols… I think, for example, Hour of the Wolf, it can look like it was a lot of symbols. I don’t think it is. It’s a scary story, narrated very simply, even if the persons are very surreal.”–actor Erland Josephson (Baron von Merkins)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: The prologue explains that the artist Johan Borg disappeared from his home on the Frisian islands, and that this film is a recreation of events from his diary and the recollections of his wife. Borg has disturbing dreams, and the characters from the dream, along with an old flame, appear before him in real life. As the days wear on, the hallucinations become so intense that his wife seems to share in them, and the ghostly party invites the couple to visit them at the local castle.

Still from Hour of the Wolf (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • According to the film, “the hour of the wolf” is the time between midnight and dawn when most people die and most babies are born.
  • The film began life as a screenplay entitled “The Cannibals.” After Bergman was hospitalized with pneumonia, he stopped working on the script and instead produced Persona.
  • Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann had an affair during the making of Persona, and Ullmann became pregnant with Bergman’s child. The actress did not want to relocate to Fårö to live with Bergman (who was still married to concert pianist Käbi Laretei at the time), and stayed in Oslo until Bergman sent her the script for Vargtimmen and convinced her to come to Fårö to make the film. She gave birth to the child before the movie was completed.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: When describing the figures that appear to him in his nightmares, Johan Borg mentions “the old lady, the one always threatening to take off her hat. Do you know what happens if she does? Her face comes off along with it, you see.” That’s not just a tease; although we never see Borg’s sketch of the character,  Bergman later comes through with the literal vision of the old woman removing her face along with her hat.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Boy at the beach; walking on the ceiling; face-off hag

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Themes of creative frustration, infidelity, humiliation, forbidden sexual impulses, and existential angst manifest as a court of demonic aristocrats who lure the artist and his love into a web of madness and self-destruction in Hour of the Wolf. Gothic imagery fits Ingmar Bergman like a comfortable shadow, and his only outright horror movie is every bit as philosophical, eerie and inscrutable as you could hope.


Clip from Hour of the Wolf

COMMENTS: According to Liv Ullmann, when, pregnant, she fled Ingmar Bergman’s arms after completing Persona, he convinced her to Continue reading 232. HOUR OF THE WOLF [VARGTIMMEN] (1968)

THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965)

“The most bi-polar epic ever made” would be more apt.

Big budget Hollywood Bible blockbusters are a category that can put shame to the campiest excursions found in low budget horror and sci fi pics. The king of sword, sandal, and sacred cleavage (male and female) was undoubtedly Cecil B. DeMille. Like many patriarchal types, DeMille was, by most accounts, a mean-spirited, obsessive controlling showman, who aggressively pushed his propaganda in some of the greatest howlers ever committed to celluloid. The trademark DeMille camp was intact from the beginning, with his silent King of Kings (1927) gifting us some of the most jaw-dropping intertitles in cinematic history. Mary Magdalene, in jewel studded bra, on the way to meet her lover Judas, mounts her chariot and barks the command: “Nubian slave, harness my zebras!” Still, even DeMille was ecumenical enough to place blame for Jesus’ death on the religious leaders, as opposed to Mel “I hate other religions” Gibson’s medievalism of condemning an entire race of people.

DeMille was at his most seductive in Sign of the Cross (1932), a sexy romp about first century Christians starring Charles Laughton as a leering Nero and the slinky Claudette Colbert taking a pre-code bath in goat’s milk. As usual, the sinners are more interesting than the hopeless saints.

By and large, the Hebrew Bible makes for better cinematic material than the story of Jesus. Those primitive tribal tales make no apologies about contradictory portrayals of a divine being who is, alternately, a savage and a benign father (depending on who was writing). Some of the more outlandish fantasies found in the Torah are almost hidden, which is rather convenient for the childish, self-proclaimed literalists who tend to bypass such passages. ‘s Noah (2014) looked at the troubling contradictions without blinking, and gave us one of the most challenging Bible-inspired works of art since Arnold Schoeberg’s opera “Moses und Aron.”

Still from The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)A hopelessly derivative pastiche of preexisting rabbinic narratives, the New Testament Jesus narrative is a bit more problematic. Worse, Jesus himself is, more often than not, rendered in artistic representations as a kind of reverential masochist, a bland “John Boy” Walton deity. Some of the figures that surround Jesus are infinitely more compelling. The giddy and girlish Mother of Christ delivers her Magnificat (which echoes Hannah in 1 Samuel). That soliloquy is better written than almost anything that comes out of Jesus’ mouth. The sassy Martha is the Mary Ellen Walton we all secretly root for over her hopelessly pious sister. Insert-foot-in-mouth Peter makes for a more colorful companion than that dullard, beloved John. The woman at the well and post-Gospel figure Paul have more personality than Jesus himself, with a few notable exceptions. When Jesus steps out of character and horsewhips the money changers, or mantles a Garboesque “I want to be alone” attitude, he suddenly comes to life. Oddly, those wonderful Technicolor miracles and kicking demon ass moments are often inexplicably bypassed in Hollywood treatments, probably because they are uncomfortably “unrealistic.” Of all the Tinseltown interpretations of Jesus, Continue reading THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965)

CAPSULE: BRANDED (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Jamie Bradshaw, Aleksandr Dulerayn

FEATURING: Ed Stoppard, Leelee Sobieski, Jeffrey Tambor,

PLOT: A Russian advertising executive develops the ability to see people’s brand loyalty, which materializes before his eyes as waving blobs on stalks attched to their necks, then decides he must come up with a plan to destroy all advertising.

Still from Branded (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Some movies are so bad they’re weird; other movies intend to be weird, but just end up being bad. Branded is in the latter category.

COMMENTS: Branded stars Ed Stoppard as Misha, a native-born Russian marketing prodigy with a flawless British accent. He explains “my father was a British communist who immigrated here,” which actually does very little to explain why there’s not even a hint of a Slavic cadence to his speech. The real reason must be that the casting director was insistent on hiring an actor who couldn’t do a convincing Russian accent and the filmmakers decided that no one would care, so long as they justified it with a throwaway line of dialogue. In the grand scheme of Branded‘s many screenwriting sins, this one is small, but it exemplifies the sloppiness of the entire project. Got a plot hole? Just slap a patch on it and send it out, no one in the audience will be the wiser. Ironically, Branded is a protest about advertisers selling us shoddy merchandise that we don’t need, but the construction here is so flimsy, the “deep message” so eye-rollingly obvious and over-sold, that we want to return the movie for a full refund. It is divided into two equally bad but incompatible halves. The first concerns Stoddard meeting and falling for his boss’ niece (Leelee Sobieski), who is producing a weight-loss reality television show without realizing it’s secretly a complicated plot by a fast food magnate (Max von Sydow, whose scenes were all shot separately from the rest of the cast) to make fat sexy. (The show’s logo is made out of Latin letters rather than Cyrillic ones–oh, never mind). The boss, Jeffery Tambor, wants to keep Stoppard away from Sobieski, to the point where he’s willing to wreck his protégé’s life—but why? Also, why is there a (dropped) subplot about Tambor blackmailing Stoppard into spying for the U.S. government? Come to think of it, why is Tambor even in the movie? He disappears for the second half, after Stoppard hides out in the countryside for six years until he has a dream that tells him to sacrifice a red cow (I’m not kidding). When he returns to Moscow, Sydow’s plans to make obesity sexy have borne fruit (we hear the world’s least rhythmic rapper sing a hit with the lyrics “If you get more fat/I would like it like that”), except for female lead Sobieski, who didn’t follow the flab fad. Sobieski’s persistent skinniness results, not from her independent spirit which sees through advertising’s lies, but because the movie knows we in the audience don’t actually buy the premise that blubber can be sold as a fashion accessory. Back in society, Stoppard starts seeing tumorlike CGI blobs waving on stalks attached to the rest of the cast. This ability introduces an awkward element to his courtship with Sobieski: when he insists “I really do see creatures on you” she slaps him, like she thinks he’s pretending to be schizophrenic just to get out of the relationship. From there, the movie just gets stupider. The “brand monsters” that flow out of consumers look cheap and ugly: “The Burger” looks like a half-melted Ronald McDonald waving in a stiff breeze. Since brand spirits arguably should look plastic and fake, this slapped-together, sub-SyFy Channel quality look could be intentional; but given the thorough incompetence of the rest of the production we have to conclude the shoddy CGI is just another mistake. Overall, Branded is a movie with a couple of good ideas which are sunk by lazy screenwriting, mediocre performances, and humorless preaching. If you want a clever movie about powerful forces manipulating the gullible masses, watch Wag the Dog; if you crave an incisive satire about advertising, try How to Get Ahead in Advertising. If you want to see CGI monsters battling, maybe Pacific Rim? If you want to hear lines like “a castrated lamb is happy because it doesn’t know what it’s lost” delivered with complete sincerity while shapeless blobs fly around the Moscow sky, then Branded is your ticket.

While Branded is nowhere in the neighborhood of a good movie, it avoids a “b” rating from this site because it’s inoffensive, and it has one saving grace: it’s pretentious. As far as awful movies go, I would rather see an ambitious failure that fumbles while trying to discuss big ideas than another retread of improbable firefights, romcom misunderstandings, or Adam Sandler making fart jokes in a silly voice.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Branded is film school pretentious and stupidly inept at the same time, and while the flick certainly has enough visual weirdness to fill a provocative trailer — oh, the insidious nature of advertising! — it’s destined to become a cult classic in the realm of ‘WTF did I just watch?'”–Scott Weinberg, Twitch (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “john greeson.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Nils Poppe, Bengt Ekerot,

PLOT:  A disillusioned knight and his cynical squire return to a 14th century Sweden ravaged

Still from The Seventh Seal (1957)

by the Black Plague; Death comes for the knight, but he entices the Reaper to play a game of chess for his soul.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTThe Seventh Seal is undoubtedly a great movie, but its weirdness is in doubt.  In fact, trying to decide if this film is strange enough to make it on the List almost makes me feel like Antonius Block wondering if there’s a God out there.  As an existential allegory, the film has a significant amount of unreality in its corner; although much of the movie is a starkly realistic portrait of medieval life, Bergman often ignores logic in minor ways when necessary to make his larger metaphorical points.  He also incorporates the fantastic in one major way, by making Death a literal character in the film, a “living, breathing” character who not only plays chess but also poses as a priest and chops down a tree with his scythe.  That’s not much weirdness to go on, though, and the best external support I can find for considering the movie “weird” is the fact that it’s been (inaccurately) tagged with “surrealism” on IMDB.   I’m torn; the weird movie community will need to chime in on this one.

COMMENTS: The Seventh Seal has a big, imposing reputation as a masterpiece of world cinema, but if you haven’t seen it yet, you may be surprised to find that most of what you think you know about it is wrong.  In the first place, it’s not nearly as gloomy as you may have heard.  True, every frame of the film is suffused with the foreknowledge of death—Bergman is very in-your-face with his message that you are going to die, and it’s going to be horrible—but the grim scenes alternate with lighthearted, comic ones.  The entire dynamic between the drunken smith Plog, and his unfaithful wife Maria, and her unlucky paramour Scat, for example, has a tone of bawdy Shakespearean comedy.  The idyllic scenes where the knight enjoys a meal of milk and wild strawberries with the juggler Jof and his family have a warmth that temporarily drives away the chill—even though there is a skull peering over the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)

CAPSULE: WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998)

DIRECTED BY: Vincent Ward

FEATURING: , Annabella Sciorra, Cuba Gooding Jr., Max von Sydow

PLOT: A pediatrician dies and goes to paradise, but he’s willing to throw away an eternity of

Still from What Dreams May Come (1998)

bliss to find his wife, who’s trapped in a far less pleasant afterlife.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Majestic visuals make Dreams worth a gander for most, but due to high levels of sugary sentiment it’s contraindicated for diabetic cinephiles.  While it has some unusual moments (and a cool eyeblink cameo from weird icon Werner Herzog as a tormented head), its weirdness isn’t much higher than any other Hollywood-approved fantasy.

COMMENTS:  The romantic afterlife fantasy What Dreams May Come flopped at the box office, but won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Visual Effects.  When pediatrician Chris (Robin Williams) dies and goes to heaven, the afterlife manifests as one of his wife’s oil paintings.  Williams (joined by spiritual guide Cuba Gooding Jr.) wanders around inside an incredibly detailed landscape that looks like it was literally created out of paint; when his shoe slips on the mud, it exposes an undercoat of iridescent green and orange. It’s a miraculous mise-en-scène that, by itself, makes the movie worth catching.  Other visuals pack quite a punch as well, especially when the action moves from a prismatic heaven to a gray hell: we watch a horde of swimming dead menacing Chris’s boat, and see him carefully transverse a field where the faces of the damned grow like heads of lettuce.  Unfortunately, the other aspects of the production can’t keep up to the standard set by the visuals, and a vein of sappiness undermines the whole endeavor.   What Dreams was made during the period when Robin Williams was still transitioning from a wacky motormouthed comedian to a “serious” dramatic actor, and he received some praise for this performance at the time; looking back, however, it seems too restrained, as if he’s trying to keep his massive personality in check.  Gooding Jr. tries to compensate for Williams’ surprising lack of energy, and goes over the top a couple of times (I half expected him to shout out, “show me the salvation!”). Annabella Sciorra comes off best, but she needed a Continue reading CAPSULE: WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998)

CAPSULE: HOUR OF THE WOLF [VARGTIMMEN] (1968)

DIRECTED BY: Ingmar Bergman

FEATURING: Max von Sydow,

PLOT: An artist is haunted by memories of his past. While isolated on an island with his pregnant wife, his demons catch up to him. Madness and delusion creep deeper into his mind as a gang of mysterious island dwellers intervene in the couple’s life. A secret, scandalous affair surfaces, and when supernatural forces intervene, the couple’s relationship and sanity is strained.

Still from Hour of the Wolf [Vargtimmen] (1968)
WHY IT SHOULD’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a tough film to decipher. The ending is certainly weird, but the lead-up to that point is too ponderous and ambiguous. Bergman is a master and his lone foray into the horror genre is an excellent piece of film-making; his artistry in delving into the lower depths of the human psyche is better established in his other well-known masterpieces, however.

COMMENTS: The older I get, the more I appreciate Ingmar Bergman films. There is something about Swedish movies that encapsulates human existence like no other country. Scenes are left dangling on a thread waiting to snap. The slow, or still, images can verge on monotony, but are usually necessary to convey the pathos of the souls here. Sometimes watching scenes slowly transpire is the best way to fully grasp how life can unravel around us. A scene in this film actually plays out for an entire minute with the main character staring at his watch to express how even sixty seconds can feel like an eternity. Time can sometimes lay heavy on a burdened mind. What I’m trying to suggest here is that Bergman is amazing at capturing exactly what it means to be human. We sin and regret, yet we still long for penance and understanding. Even when our existence feels loathsome, it sure is nice to have someone else around to share in our misery. Modern Swedish director Roy Andersson (You, The Living) knows this as well and, like Bergman, his films are wrought with longing stares of sadness.  Both Swedes capture these depressing moments and bring them alive with precise balance and well thought out execution.  Even dialogue is matter-of-fact.  Nothing said in their films seems to be unimportant or drivel; it’s Continue reading CAPSULE: HOUR OF THE WOLF [VARGTIMMEN] (1968)

OCTOBER 31ST FRINGE VIEWING LIST

Here’s an alternative seasonal viewing list for the weird, that goes beyond the usual vampire/zombie/demon/slasher fare (although some favorite characters make appearances).

1. Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle 3 (2002) . Only the third of Barney’s epic Cremaster Cycle, made over an eight year period, has made it’s way to any type of video release, which is criminally unfortunate. The Guggenheim Museum, who financed it, exhibits the Cycle and describes it as a  “a self-enclosed aesthetic system consisting of five feature-length films that explore the processes of creation.”  Trailers are available on the Cremaster website; www.cremaster.net. The third movie is available via Amazon and other outlets, albeit at expensive prices [Ed. Note: the version of Cremaster 3 that’s commercially available is not actually the full movie, but a 30 minute excerpt that’s still highly collectible as the only Cremaster footage released].  The Cremaster Cycle is complex, challenging, provocative and not for the attention span-challenged.

Still from Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002)2. Guy Maddin‘s Dracula-Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002). Guy’s Dracula ballet, choreographed to Mahler.  Just when you though nothing more could be done with this old, old story.  Of course, we are talking Mr. Maddin here.

3. Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968). Bergman’s ode to German Expressionism has been labeled his sole horror film. Hour is a further continuation of frequent Bergman themes—the defeated artist, loss of God, nihilism—and stars Bergman regular Max Von Sydow.  Some find this dull and slow, others find it mesmerizing and nightmarish.

4. Roman Polanski‘s The Tenant (1976) returned this consummate craftsman back to the territory of Repulsion and remains one of his best films.  Polanski is now facing extradition charges for having sexual relations with a willing, underage girl thirty years Continue reading OCTOBER 31ST FRINGE VIEWING LIST

CAPSULE: INTACTO (2001)

AKA Intact

DIRECTED BY: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo

FEATURING: Leonardo Sbaraglia, Eusebio Poncela, Mónica López, Max von Sydow

PLOT:  In a world where the power of luck is real and spread unequally, fortune’s favorites square off against each other in a series of secret tournaments, sometimes for mortal stakes.

Still from Intacto (2001)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  A weird kernel of an idea at the center of a movie can’t qualify it for the List of the 366 best weird movies of all time, without more. Intacto gives us a little bit more, in the form of the bizarre and unnerving rituals engaged in by luck’s elite, but although it’s a strange ride, it’s not enough.

COMMENTS: Intacto starts from a magical realist premise: an individual’s luck is not random, but quantifiable, like a red blood cell count. Some people have more of it than others, and it can be stolen, and traded. With that as the “what if?” starting point, first time director Fresnadillo constructs a strange world where the lucky carry grudges, face each other in underground tournaments, and use luck as a weapon. Structured as an arty dramatic thriller, the main fun to be had in Intacto comes from watching Fresnadillo slowly reveal the rules the fortunate play by. Particularly intriguing are the secretive games of chance the charmed set up to test their skills against one another; going far beyond five-card draw or craps, the matches are all highly artificial and ritualistic, with the rules not disclosed to the viewer beforehand, lending them a sense of mysterious gravity. The best and weirdest has a glowing green katydid selecting a champion by alighting on the molasses-smeared head of the luckiest blindfolded contestant in a darkened room in a casino basement. There’s a weirdish thrill to these mysterious bouts, but the rest of the thriller plot is not so thrilling. There are two converging plotlines. The primary strand features Federico, a former Chosen One who’s been robbed of his luck, seeking a disciple to square off against “the Jew” (a grave and typically impressive Max von Sydow), the lone survivor of a holocaust concentration camp and the reigning God of Chance. He finds one in Tomas, a bank robber and survivor of a plane crash. The secondary plot features Sara, a scarred female detective herself chosen by fortune, who seeks to bring Tomas to justice. The way the dual storylines play out in the climax is satisfying enough, but don’t expect any startling twists or heart-racing moments.

The major downside is that the film, thematically a metaphor about survivor guilt that’s difficult for the average person to connect with emotionally, is relentlessly downbeat and gloomy. Moody Tomas, backed by a morose Federico and hunted by glum female detective, squares off against the haunted Jew. Between the four of them, they can hardly manage to crack one joke or smile to lighten the mood. Intacto’s themes are weighty, but it also seems that director Fresnadillo is also convinced that an oppressive atmosphere is necessary to make an Important Film.

An inversion of Fresnadillo’s scenario can be found in 2003’s less effective and less weird The Cooler, starring William H. Macy as a mope who’s so ill-starred that a Las Vegas casino hires him to drain away the luck of roulette players and slot-jockeys.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Elegant and lucid, and inflected with its own weird species of drollery, Intacto is a cerebral occult thriller from first-time Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, unfolding like a dangerously tricky puzzle, teasing and provoking.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

15. STEPPENWOLF (1974)

“…it seems to me that of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other, and frequently it is actually the affirmative and enthusiastic readers, rather than those who rejected the book, who have reacted to it oddly…”–Hermann Hesse in the 1961 prologue to Steppenwolf

DIRECTED BY:  Fred Haines

FEATURING: Max von Sydow, Dominique Sanda, Alfred Baillou

PLOT:  Harry Haller is a world-weary writer and intellectual in the Weimar Republic who is considering committing suicide soon.  One night he meets Hermine, a beautiful young woman, who shows unusual interest in him and makes him pledge obedience to her as she initiates him into the pleasures of the flesh, including jazz, drugs, and sex.  Eventually Hermine leads Harry to the Magic Theater, where a delirious dream about some aspect of his personality lurks behind every door—including, perhaps, his homicidal side.

Still from Steppenwolf (1974)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie was adapted from Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse’s classic 1927 novel Steppenwolf, which had been rediscovered and adopted by the 1960s counterculture because of it’s perceived revolutionary vision and it’s apparent endorsement of free love and psychedelic drugs.
  • Michelangelo Antonioni (Blowup) was offered the chance to direct but turned it down because he thought the book was unfilmable.
  • This was the only film directed by Fred Haines.  He had previously been co-nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Ulysses (1967).
  • Co-producer and LSD-enthusiast Melvin Abner Fishman declared the Steppenwolf would be “the first Jungian film.”
  • The Czech artist Jaroslav Bradac created the wonderful animated sequence, “The Tractate on the Steppenwolf”; the artist Mati Klarwein (who was also responsible for classic album covers for Miles Davis and Santana) created the fascinating paintings that line the corridors of the Magic Theater.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  For a movie that is so deliberately visionary, there’s not one single image that sticks out far above the others.  The most obvious choices are the images which show Harry simultaneously as a wolf and a man, a concept that is often chosen in numerous variations for covers of paperback editions of the novel.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The heavy symbolism and feverish imagery of Hesse’s

Original trailer for Steppenwolf (1974)

masterpiece, written while Freud and Jung’s theories of the unconscious mind were still novel and revolutionary, present some weird scenarios (such as Harry entering into dream debates with the ghosts of Goethe and Mozart).  When this material is adapted through a 1974 lens, an era when cinematographers hadn’t yet come down from the LSD-inspired visual experimentalism of the late 1960s, it becomes even weirder.  From the Magic Theater sequence on, Steppenwolf is truly trippy stuff.

COMMENTS: There’s a difficulty in reviewing movie adaptations of novels, in that the Continue reading 15. STEPPENWOLF (1974)