Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"Autum Sonata" (Bergman, 1978) -- Awful!

OK, the first movie that I'll review is a lousy one. Let's get some crap out of the way, before we delve into the gems.

So here we have this throwaway project (Autumn Sonata) by the celebrated Swedish director (Ingmar Bergman) which nevertheless is getting rave reviews (94% ripe on rottentomatoes.com, for example). Why am I then claiming that this movie is absolute crap?

To begin with, the movie looks like crap. By the looks of it, it is one of the shoddiest Criterion releases to date. The picture is oddly window-boxed, which forces ugly black borders around the picture, creating a frame-within-frame effect. As if that is not sufficiently unsettling, the clarity and the sharpness of the images is absolutely not present. Everything looks blurred, as in a fifth generation VHS copy.

So, optically, this movie sucks beyond belief. What about visually? Again, no cigar. Awkward, even clumsily framed scenes, with plenty of ugly close-ups, contribute to the nauseous feeling while watching the movie. The color scheme is, to put it mildly, terrible, with overbearing browns and dark, saturated reds and yellows. Definitely not a pleasant movie to watch, and definitely not the one that would make you crave for viewing its imagery again and again.

On the audio front, things are not that bad, even though the choice of music is dismal. The Chopin sonata both the daughter and her mother are playing is placed as the centerpiece of the movie, but is an unbearably plodding piece of quasi music. There is no rhythm to it whatsoever, and any hypothetical traces of the melody are conspicuously absent. So it is a big let down, making this movie even more painful to go through.

What about the pace of the movie? It starts off as a promising, slow burning meditation on cozy country living, but then quickly switches gears to the frantic, uncalled for rapid fire close ups and unsettling camera movement. The pacing is bad, and seems to be undermining already shoddy foundation of this movie.

Acting? Pretty bad and rushed. Both Ingrid Bergman in the role of the mother and Liv Ulman in the role of the daughter are typecast, and tend to make caricatures out of their celebrated respective movie personalities. There is way too much explicit acting in this film, as in 'look, this is how you should behave when you're distraught' etc. Lame, to say the least.

Storyline: practically non-existent. Mother arrives for a visit, the daughter is hopeful that the mother has changed, but learns quickly that she hasn't. The rest of the movie is spent on creating an opportunity for the daughter to vent her hatred, and to subsequently retract her attacks and apologize. Kind of boring and predictable, I would say.

Underlying philosophy? Humans are big insecure crybabies. Wait, that's not a philosophy, that's just some lame attempt at amateur psychology. Utterly childish and boring.

Overall, this movie suffers from a surprising lack of subtlety. For a celebrated European director of Bergman's stature, it is shocking to find such shallow, preachy exercise in amateur psychology. Where is the depth of the character study, where is the finesse in character development?

But the worst thing, the worst offense, is the absolute lack of white space in this movie. By white space I mean the pauses, the silences that would give the viewer's mind an opportunity to fill in some blanks while watching. Everything in this movie is explicit, and every psychological moment, every feeling, is pushed onto us. Bergman is taking every second of this movie to bludgeon us over the head with his explanations. He should've been cognizant of the fact that such brute force approach simply doesn't work. For the movie to be good and engaging, it must leave plenty of white space and silence, letting us, the viewers, have a go at the hints dispersed throughout the movie. Otherwise, the mind quickly gets saturated, bored, and refuses to participate.

Which is exactly what happened to me while watching this piece of drivel. Subtlety => zero, brute force patronizing => one. Brute force patronizing wins in this move big time.

Again, my verdict is -- awful!

My Criteria

Before I start posting my movie reviews, a word on what criteria will I be using is in order. In general, I'll try to avoid reviewing vapid dreck, such as pretty much anything coming out of Hollywood production, but also most other dreck coming out of the conveyor belt movie factories, such as Bollywood, for example.

After thinking hard about it, I've decided to forsake the numerical rating of the movies (such as '4 out of 5 stars'), and to introduce qualitative rating. Instead of stars, I will be using qualifiers such as 'poor', 'great', 'lousy' and such.

The above point bellies the fact that the movie reviews you'll be reading here are purely subjective. I do not profess any competence in being able to objectively asses any work of art, especially cinematographic work of art. So I'll be sticking to my unmitigated subjective view of the movies.

Here are, then, some of my subjective criteria that I'll be using when evaluating the movies in general:
  1. Optical impact (I am a big stickler when it comes to optical aspect of the visual imagery projected on screen; is it consistently in focus, is the contrast realistic looking, are the colors and the saturation all right, how is the light treated, are the shadows realistic looking, and so on)
  2. Visual impact (frame composition, camera angles, camera movement, pacing)
  3. Audio impact (is the sound that is mounted over the imagery serving the visual message)
  4. Timing (overall pace, transitioning from one shot to the next, etc.)
  5. Acting (including casting)
  6. Storyline
  7. Underlying philosophy
The above list is sorted from the most important criterion to the least important one.

With this in mind, let's now start reviewing the movies.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

On Cinematography

I am starting to focus my efforts on cinematography. I feel irresistibly drawn to this art form, for a couple of reasons:
  1. It is the most populistic of all art forms. One does not have to have any previous education in order to enjoy and understand a good movie. One does not even have to be literate in order to immerse oneself in a good movie.
  2. It combines all other art forms that I'm fond of and have spent years practicing: visual art (drawing, painting), music, sound-scaping, poetry, narrative prose, philosophy, choreographing the motion of animate and inanimate objects. In a word, it combines pretty much everything (the only dimension missing in film is olfactory, that is, smell, and touch).
I will try here to post reviews of all the movies I find stunningly beautiful and significant. I will also, for variety sake, try to post some reviews of the movies that fail to deliver, despite the amassed hype.

All my reviews will be purely subjective, as I don't claim any capability for being able to objectively judge any work of art.

So please stay tuned...