Sunday, September 15, 2013

AUTUMN SONATA (Blu-ray) - #60

A mother and a daughter. What a terrible combination of feelings and confusion and destruction.

In an effort to do a little research for once in my life, I actually looked up the term "sonata," thinking it would have some formalistic meaning that would have grave importance in regards to the 1978 drama, Autumn Sonata. Ingmar Bergman's not one to choose his classical music references lightly (see also, Saraband [review]). Isn't a sonata a melancholy, mood-driven piece, you know, like Beethoven's moonlight one?

Turns out, a sonata is not as specific as all that. It's a term that arose to differentiate music written for instruments rather than pieces composed for voice. It's a distinction of performance. Even so, this may still give us some understanding on how to approach Autumn Sonata. Despite being a movie driven by dialogue, the importance is in the delivery and the instruments performing the author's words. It's about how, not what, and thus also about what is done without language. It’s as much about what is not said as it is every syllable spoken.

Though the film has a quartet of characters, this one is really a duet. Autumn Sonata stars Bergman perennial Liv Ullmann as Eva and silver screen icon Ingrid Bergman as her mother, Charlotte. The elder woman is an internationally famous concert pianist, and one, as it turns out, who sacrificed family for career. At the outset of the picture, mother and daughter have not seen each other for many years. Eva is a writer who lives in the country with her husband (Halvar Björk), a minister, far removed from the art-world glitz that defines Charlotte's life. Charlotte has been invited to their home for a reunion and some TLC. Her companion of over a decade has passed away, inspiring her child to reach out and mend fences.

This is a good intention that is better in theory. Charlotte has barely stepped through the door when old tensions begin to bubble up. The process is sped along by Eva's hidden surprise: she has taken her younger sister, Helena (Lena Nyman), into her home. Lena suffers from a degenerative disease, and last Charlotte knew, she was staying in a medical facility. The fact that she had no idea that one of her children had taken over the care of the other shows how far removed she is from her own offspring. Charlotte's life--and this is one of Eva's main grievances, if not, in fact, the only one--has always been very much about Charlotte.

Just how much so becomes evident in the very first conversation between the reunited pair. Though Charlotte pays lip service to caring about her daughter's life, she spends little time listening, instead steering everything back to herself and her less-than-humble take on her many successes. Eva only gets to have her say much later in the day, when she insists on her mother's silence. This occurs during Autumn Sonata's longest sequence, as mother and daughter stay up all night digging through the past. The conversation gets serious and even cruel, as Eva unloads a lifetime of pent-up disappointments. The central issue is not so much was Charlotte a bad mother, but are either of these women actually capable of love? Or are they part of a cycle, each generation passing down its dysfunction when it comes to expressing affection?

The conversation careens through the women's shared history. Topics include infidelity, abuse, control, and even music, the one common ground the two maybe could have shared had Charlotte allowed it. Ullmann has the more showy role. Eva is a damaged pressure cooker in need of release, and once the tears and the shouting begins, nothing can stop them. (Indeed, in the new HD transfer, you can see the physical toll it takes on her like never before. Ullmann’s red-rimmed eyes look absolutely painful.)
Yet, this is Ingrid Bergman's movie. In essence, the "autumn sonata" is Charlotte's crucial final-act performance, as the diva improvises for her toughest audience. Are her facial expressions, the silent reactions, the most honest? Or can we believe her verbal explanations? Her attempts to turn everything around by saying it was she who was abandoned, that what she needed was a child who would take care of her, since she herself was incapable? Sven Nyquist’s camera searches and probes, looking for the important tell-tale sign, moving between the actors. The framing is as intimate as the shots are sometimes distancing. It’s particularly telling that, during flashback scenes, the memories are peered at from a distance, often from outside the room.

Both participants capture our sympathy and our frustration. Eva has legitimate complaints, but she is also adolescent and morose, and equally as self-absorbed as her mother, who is in turn shallow and insecure and totally reliant on others for her sense of worth. There is an irony to seeing a mother having a nightmare where she is smothered in her sleep by an unseen assailant; the common notion would be that it’s the matriarch who does the smothering. It’s actually this terrifying dream that causes her to cry out, simultaneously proving her point that she is need of aid (and, of course, that is why she has come to visit) and sparking argument that will dominate the next several hours of their lives. There is very little resolved between the two, except maybe the realization that they just need to stay away from each other.

But then, Autumn Sonata isn't about resolutions. There is no right or wrong in Ingmar Bergman's scenario. Rather, it's about the catharsis of the performance. It's like how Charlotte describes the Chopin piece her daughter attempts to play: it's supposed to be challenging and even ugly, the player has to struggle to get through it. The important thing, though, is that she does. The difficulty of the composition still exists, but so does the musician who dared to expose herself to these troubles.

Criterion’s Blu-ray re-release improves exponentially on the picture and sound of its original 1999 DVD (though it should be noted that the pictures used here are from that standard-definition DVD and not from the high-def reissue). Colors are vivid, and detail is exceptional. They have also considerably upped the game in terms of bonus features, with a massive on-set documentary, interviews, and the now-common Ingmar Bergman introduction joining the excellent Peter Cowie commentary from over a decade ago.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for review.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


A collection of links to non-Criterion movies I reviewed over August...


Ain't Them Bodies Saints, and wait, isn't another one of them Casey Affleck?

Austenland, you don't want to go to there.

Blackfish, a chilling documentary about killer whales in captivity and how they turn into dangerous killers.

Blue Jasmine, the latest ethical drama from Woody Allen features two sisters on either side of the economic line. An excellent cast led by Cate Blanchett makes good use of a great Woody script.

* Elysium. Good action flick with noble intentions, or pretentious political fable full of gore? Both!

The Grandmaster, Wong Kar-Wai's latest potential masterpiece, butchered for the Americas, and this one dude (me) just won't shut up about it.

We're the Millers, in which we finally see Jason Sudeikis break a comedic sweat. Also, it's Jennifer Aniston's third movie in a row where she strips so that other people can talk about how sexy she is. Is it a clause in her contract at this point? (See also: Horrible BossesWanderlust)

* The World's End, the new comedic apocalypse from the team behind Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead.

You're Next, a decent slasher picture that entertains but lacks in real suspense.

My Oregonian columns...

* August 2: get In Bed With Ulysses and let James Joyce put you to sleep; or look at dramas based on real life, the human trafficking story Eden; and James Cromwell in Still Mine.

* August 9: The remarkable Brazilian film Southwest; a film festival at the Columbia Gorge; and a bunch of music-related documentaries at the Hollywood Theatre.

* August 16: Adjust Your Tracking, a documentary about VHS collectors; a couple of Tarkovsky films; and the family comedy Papadopolous & Sons.

* August 23: documentaries on photographer Gregory Crewdson and soul singer Charles Bradley; plus, Modest Reception, an absurdist Iranian drama.

* August 30: Kristen Bell cries all over her swimsuit in The Lifeguard; Low create an art movie out of their old music videos; and two documentaries from Ondi Timoner, We Live in Public and Dig!


Angel and the Badman, a John Wayne western/romance from 1947.

God's Little Acre, notable for being the film debut of Tina Louise, but kind of over-the-top and scattershot otherwise. Directed by Anthony Mann.

Inescapable, the quiet and polite Canadian version of Taken . Not even Marisa Tomei can help this one.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, featuring James Cagney's last gangster role. And one of his most despicable. So you're going to love it.

* The Mindy Project: Season One, Mindy Kaling's very funny take on the girl-in-the-city sitcom.

Penny Serenade, this "marriage is hard" drama with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne will make you cry like a baby. Though hopefully not one of the ones that dies in the movie.

Reality, a surprising take on fame in the modern television age from the director of Gomorrah [review]. 

* That Touch of Mink, a May-December romance with Cary Grant where we pretend that Doris Day isn't really in August with the rest of us.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

TO BE OR NOT TO BE (Blu-ray) - #670

Comedy can be serious business, particularly when it is making light of dark subjects. When Mel Brooks made The Producers in 1967, two decades after World War II, he met resistance from people who didn't think Hitler and his Nazis should be the subject of satire. Brooks saw it a different way: he was depowering the evildoers by making them the object of ridicule. They rule by terror, but it's hard to be terrorized when you're laughing.

Of course, Brooks was not the first one to have this idea. Ernst Lubitsch wanted to achieve a similar outcome with his 1942 motion picture To Be or Not to Be. Made while the war was at its height, To Be or Not to Be was seen by some of lacking in taste. "Too soon" as the sensitive and humorless often cry. Lubitsch wanted to vilify the Fuhrer by undermining his villainy. You can't beat us because we refuse to be beaten. (Years later, Mel Brooks would close the circle by starring in a remake of To Be or Not to Be.)

Jack Benny and Carole Lombard star in To Be or Not to Be as Joseph and Maria Tura, Poland's top stage actors. At the start of the film, they are set to open a new play dramatizing life within the Gestapo. Political pressures and Germany's invasion of Poland put the kibosh on the show. Instead, the troupe carries on with their production of Hamlet.

The title, To Be or Not to Be, is, of course, a reference to Hamlet's best-known soliloquy. It's significant to the story because Maria has deemed the start of the speech as a cue to an admirer to visit her backstage. The smitten fan is a pilot named Sobinski (played by a young Robert Stack). It also poses the existential question that ultimately leads the theatre company into helping out the Resistance: to be or not to be a hero, to be or not a passive victim. The opportunity comes when Sobinski returns to Poland from combat, hoping to stop a Nazi spy (Stanley Ridges) carrying sensitive information. When Sobinski is outfoxed by his quarry and Maria inadvertently put in a sensitive situation, her husband and their co-workers try to help out. First they pose as Gestapo officials in hopes of intercepting the intel, and then Joseph poses as the actual spy so he can use the connection to get everyone out of the country. Unsurprisingly, each ruse is subject to unforeseen complications, and before they know it, they are in so deep, one of the actors even ends up pretending to be Hitler himself.

Lubitsch's script, which he co-wrote with Edwin Justus Mayer (The Buccaneer), smartly valued story over shtick, and so the tightly plotted narrative allows for as much drama and suspense as it does jokes; indeed, the trick of To Be or Not to Be is how Lubitsch takes his very straightforward scenarios and finds the humor within them, injecting each moment with wit and letting character flaws disrupt everyone's efforts. The Nazis consistently trip themselves up by being more concerned with appearance and perception than anything else, and Joseph gets himself and his friends in further trouble due to jealousy. Comedy grows out of selfish behavior and a distorted sense of self-awareness.

Jack Benny is incredible as Joseph. He is at his most droll here, and rather than fall back on his famous persona, he puts his trust in the material. There's no need to spice up the lines, the writing is perfect as is. Carole Lombard is also very funny, as well as beguiling. She often provides the emotional pull in the film, either by being in danger herself or by being the first to realize how wrong something may be going. Also of note are Felix Bressart and Tom Dugan as the theatrical troupe's regular character actors/support team. Like many a Shakespearean side duo, they serve as added comic relief, their commentary on the happenings providing insight and laughs in equal measure. Dugan is the one who disguises himself as Hitler, but it's Bressart's Greenberg who makes the ultimate sacrifice--and thus gets the starring role he always hoped for.

While there are plenty of laughs, Lubitsch never loses sight of the tragedy going on all around these characters. A montage of post-invasion destruction reminds us of who the German army's major targets were, and the lingering threat, as well as the SS's callow participation in it, means the potential consequence is never dulled. Lubitsch's gamble pays off: as audiences, we are invested precisely because we are enjoying ourselves. These merry men and woman make us laugh, and so we care about what happens to them. We like them, and we want to keep on liking them, and by logical extension, we hate anyone that would make the laughter stop.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVD Talk. Images here were taken from an earlier standard-definition DVD and were not taken from the Blu-Ray under review.