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Max Von Sydow

Review: The Exorcist

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

by Gregory Dean Way

Two priests chant “The power of Christ compels you!” as the possessed child floats in the air above her bed. The shot is a static one, both visually and behaviorally, one of the few inert moments in a film full of forward energy: The child remains rigid, resistant to the droning incantation. Paradoxically, it is at this most static moment that The Exorcist hints at truly coming alive as a worthwhile experience, by suggesting the agony of endurance that its symbolic battle of good against evil requires. However, one’s hopeful expectations go unfulfilled: The child gravitates downward far too soon; the potential for truly subjective, protracted participation by the viewer in the elemental confrontation of this two-hour picture is cast aside (one suspects because of the filmmakers’ fear of an impatient, negative viewer response to unfamiliar, nonlinear film experience). That The Exorcist should cast aside (i.e., spend so little time developing) one of its thematically most significant moments, yet sum to overkill its moments of more cretinously comprehensible shock, is a telling comment on the locus of Friedkin and Blatty’s concerns.

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Review: The Apple War

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

Viewing this movie is something like letting one’s mind indulge in a little game of free-association which employs all the wandering, illogical, illusory devices of a long and pleasant dream. Getting swept into its labyrinth of fairytale bumblings, mythical burlesque and social satire is as simple as falling through a rabbit hole into a kind of campy Wonderland where you almost expect Woody Allen to pop up, clad in fig leaves, perhaps tooting a souped-up pastoral on his clarinet in travesty of Pan. If you see something you don’t like here, something a little too-much, a little too facile—like the Hitlerian bit in the scene where a rumbling army of mechanized agricultural paraphernalia and boot-clicking construction workers invade the tranquil hamlet of Anglamark—hang on; you will probably be rewarded later on with something to make it all seem worthwhile. I mean, where else in the history of special effects can you find anything to compare with the spectacle of a Jolly Good Giant pissing on the flames of fascism, then eating a neo-Nazi bad guy and tossing aside his VW bug like an empty nutshell? Danielsson’s brand of satire often takes the form of similarly indulgent cinematic one-liners—maybe that is Woody Allen peeking around the corner of the local sex show as Severin the mad inventor catapults to work on a giant rubber band!—and in general his sense of parody seems more dense and sophisticated, but no less funny, than Allen’s. Ancient myth gets tangled with cinematic history gets tangled with Shakespearean allusion as our young hero swallows a toiled and troubled witch’s brew from an all-too-appropriate Coke bottle, then ventures, magic sword in hand, on a cross-country Quest which lands him on the set of a B science-fiction movie starring something resembling Godzilla—all, of course, to secure the gold which will buy off the bad guys and save the old apple orchards from the evils of overdevelopment. Of course!…

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Review: The Exorcist

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

The situation is hopeless. The film became a box-office phenomenon the day it opened. The public said Yes and the candyass critics said No and the frothing-at-the-mouth daily reviewers scuttled to assure the public it was right. You just know what those snits at the little film magazines are going to say. They’re going to say No. Big deal. If you’re so smart why ain’t you rich? All right, I’m sorry. I can’t help it. I thought it wasn’t a very good movie.

I read The Exorcist during a summer more disengaged than most, a time when I didn’t have very much to do and felt guilty about not doing it. A discerning friend later observed that the book seemed to him “one of the finest trash novels ever,” and while it had never occurred to me to invoke the stern god of Literature, I knew he was quite right. As narrative, it belonged firmly in the couldn’t-put-it-down class, and no one had to feel ashamed of succumbing to its spell. The film, written for the screen and produced by the man who’d so cozily chilled the summertime reader’s blood, had every right to exert the same spell. But it doesn’t.

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emigrants & immigrants

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Quite early in Jan Troell’s The New Land one realizes one is watching not a sequel, not the conclusion of a two-part magnum opus, but a second film. While The New Land represents a narrative extension of the events of The Emigrants, it also embodies a thematic and stylistic counterattack on the first film.

From the first shot of The Emigrants—the camera’s long, slow crawl over the rocky landscape of a 19th-century Swedish farm—we are aware we are watching something special; and with Troell’s hand in control of screenplay, camera, direction, and editing, we have reason to expect a one-man show, a rare level of unity and integrity in form, style, and content. In the first half-hour of the film, Troell introduces his principal characters to us through a carefully edited series of moments in their lives, selected from the passage of some five years’ narrative time. He edits not only to depict the passage of time, but also to systematically separate and dissociate his characters from their milieu: both story and style place the characters at war with their social, historical, and environmental circumstances. Karl Oskar Nilsson (Max von Sydow) is frustrated by his family’s inability to improve their lot, and by his own vulnerability to the whims of nature and a God he cannot accept. His wife, Kristina (Liv Ullmann), has a firmer faith, but is troubled by doubts and plagued with guilt because her physical love for her husband keeps saddling them with new children she fears they cannot feed. Karl Oskar’s brother Robert (Eddie Axberg) is a fledgling intellectual, disinclined to the manual labor to which he was born. Robert’s friend Arvid (Pierre Lindstedt) is the opposite, a true man of the earth, but one who is excluded from human companionship because of his simpleminded innocence. Daniel (Atlan Edwall) is a religious visionary whose ideas earn him the scorn of the Christian establishment and a price on his head. His principal follower, a former prostitute named Ulrika (Monica Zetterlund), is a social outcast with no regrets, whose efforts to find her own meaning are thwarted at every turn by social and religious persecution.

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Blu-ray / DVD: ‘Here Is Your Life’

Here Is Your Life (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the 1966 feature debut of Swedish director Jan Troell, is ambitious by any measure: an epic (over two-and-a-half hours long) coming of age drama based on the semi-autobiographical novels by Nobel Prize-winning author Eyvind Johnson set in rural Sweden during the years of World War I.

It was also a response to the symbol-laden, psychologically heavy cinema of Ingmar Bergman, which was pretty much all the rest of the world knew about Swedish cinema in the early sixties. Here is Your Life, the feature debut of Jan Troell, was part of a new wave of Swedish cinema. Not quite Sweden’s answer to the nouvelle vague, it nonetheless ushered in young (or at least younger) filmmakers and different approaches, from the passionate romanticism of Bo Widerberg’s Elvira Madigan to the freewheeling intimacy of Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious – Yellow, both 1967.

Framed in those terms, Here is Your Life is a fresh take on the classic historical drama. Olaf (Johnson’s stand-in, played by Eddie Axberg) is a mere 13 years old when he leaves the farm of his foster parents (sent there because his real parents are too poor to feed him) and sets out to make his own way in the world. The film follows him through his teenage years as he moves from job to job—he works at a lumber camp, a brick furnace, a sawmill, a movie theater, a travelling tent cinema, a carnival shooting booth, and maintaining the engines at a railroad yard—and schools himself by reading philosophy and attending socialist meetings.

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Review: ‘The Three Days of the Condor’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Even the most casual glancer at the credits is going to smirk at the fact that The Three Days of the Condor is taken from a book called The Six Days of the Condor; a certain suspense factor tied up with significantly designated slices of time is distinctly compromised before the action can get underway. That difficulty aside, the movie version is not only twice as fast-paced as the book but also approximately 600% improved. Literarily, James Grady’s novel is sufficient to make Frederick Forsyth look like Graham Greene by comparison, and Sydney Pollack and his screenwriters have wisely compressed the itinerary of Condor—the code name of a CIA-employed reader and analyst of spy, mystery, and adventure novels who goes out to lunch one rainy noon and returns to find his utterly innocuous section totally “damaged” (everybody has been machine-gunned) by, just maybe, another CIA faction. Indeed, Pollack jams the plot past so fast that I wonder whether nonreaders of the book will be able to follow its every turn, especially when (Altmania again) key clues and crucial awakenings on the part of one character or another are often thrown away in a stepped-on line of dialogue or murmured soliloquy.

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Review: Brass Target

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Scrapers of cinematic barrel bottoms, stand advised: John Hough has laid incontestable claim to his long-sought title, the new James Goldstone. This department confesses to having been remiss in not calling your attention to the first change in the wind, the old James Goldstone’s 1977 realization of Rollercoaster, a Sensurround disaster pic so inoffensive, even moderately competent in execution, that it alienated the taken-for-granted audience for such fare and failed at the box office. At this time we can only conjecture whether Goldstone’s unanticipated lurch toward respectability will continue unchecked or prove an aberration in an otherwise execrable track record. Meanwhile Hough, the most flagrantly conscienceless hack to appear in the past decade (Sudden Terror, Treasure Island and above all the loathsome Dirty Mary Crazy Larry), has seized the day.

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The Seventh Seal – DVD (and Blu-ray) of the Week

The Seventh Seal on Criterion Blu-ray
The Seventh Seal on Criterion Blu-ray

Arguably the most famous of Ingmar Bergman’s films and certainly his most iconic, The Seventh Seal is Bergman at his most allegorical. Max von Sydow, young and blond and heroic, is a disillusioned knight returned from the Crusades in a state of spiritual desperation: his faith has been shaken by senseless death and terrible cruelty he’s seen perpetrated in the name of a silent God. Coming home to find his own country ravaged by the Black Plague doesn’t help matters much and as he searches for some sign of a benevolent God, he plays a game of chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot), personified as a cloaked figure with a grim white face. Gunnar Björnstrand is his skeptical squire, suspicious of religion that plays upon and encourages the blind fears of a superstitious population and cynical about a culture that values human life so cheaply.

The landscape in the opening scenes mirrors the harsh reality of his existence: rocky, cold, with jagged cliffs that look torn out of the land, scrub grass hills with scraggly trees. Only in the domestic scenes of Jof (Nils Poppe) and his family, wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) and infant son Mikael, does the sun come out to warm their world with anything close to hope. And it’s that warmth, that hope, that promise of the future the knight sees in their love and their laughing child, that he is able to save by his simple sacrifice.

As I remembered from college, it’s full of heavy themes about faith and loss, about the meaning of life and the fear of death, with a lugubrious and introspective knight trying to hold onto his idealism in the face of a grim world and an unforgiving existence. What I had forgotten was the details: religion is a grotesquery of death and suffering, the strange and the sick are accused of being in league with the devil and are executed while the trembling devout lash themselves in penitence, offering their suffering as proof of their devotion, or as a sacrifice to a merciless God in exchange for sparing their lives. “They speak of Judgment Day,” says one. Things have not changed in 50 years or 500 or 1000 years.

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