Svensk Filmindustri

Erik the Viking (1989, Terry Jones)

Erik the Viking is a great example of when the director doesn’t know how to direct the script. What makes it peculiar is… director Jones wrote the script.

The film, an absurd comedy about a group of Vikings trying to end Ragnarok so they people will stop killing each other, starts with the the very not comedic scene (though the film gets to laughs really quickly, which is rather impressive) of lead Tim Robbins, having completed his looting and pillaging, moving on to the raping part of the Viking code. His intended victim is Samantha Bond. Only Bond’s not into being raped, which throws Robbins for a loop—he’s never done this raping part before and doesn’t have the predilection for it. Instead he and Bond have what becomes a life defining conversation (for Robbins anyway) right before his comrades show up to rape her and he kills them.

And, accidentally, her as well, which throws him into a right funk. He can’t stop seeing Bond’s face, whether in a crowd, in the distance, or laid over another woman his comrades are torturing. Empathy’s a very un-Viking value, something Robbins’s grandfather (Mickey Rooney in a wonderfully unhinged cameo) tries to explain.

Rooney, rightly, doesn’t reassure Robbins, so Robbins heads up into the mountains to talk to recluse Eartha Kitt (in a good but sadly not great cameo, partially just due to the terrible composite shots showing the landscape outside her cave) and she tells him how he’s going to have to quest to the mystic land, Hy-Brasil, retrieve a magic horn, blow the horn to get to Asgard, then again to wake the gods, then again to get home.

To accomplish this task, Robbins has to put the band together. There are tough guy Vikings Richard Ridings and Tim McInnerny, McInnerny’s dad, Charles McKeown (who doesn’t think McInnerny’s tough enough), Christian missionary Freddie Jones (who’s the butt of endless great jokes, even when he’s saving the day), John Gordon Sinclair as the wimp (he’s great), and Gary Cady as the heartthrob blacksmith. Now, turns out Cady doesn’t want Ragnarok to end because he’s a blacksmith and capitalism; you stop the looting, pillaging, raping, and murdering and he’s out of business. So he gets his sidekick, Anthony Sher, to go and narc to local warlord John Cleese (of course) about Robbins’s mission. So Viking is basically Robbins and company on their quest, while avoiding Cleese trying to kill them all.

The quest takes them to the aforementioned magical land, which is a violence-free paradise with Greco-Roman style architecture, ruled by Jones. Imogen Stubbs plays Jones’s daughter, who becomes infatuated with Robbins. The attraction is mutual but only when Robbins forgets his secret mission—to bring Bond back from the dead. The questing will also take the band to Asgard, where they find the gods don’t live up to expectations but are a lot realer than anyone could anticipate. Because Jones, as writer, has a bunch of great ideas and a lot of good sequences, he just can’t figure out how to realize them on screen.

Making it stranger is the fantastic production and costume designs from John Beard and Pam Tait, respectively. Good photography from Ian Wilson, good music from Neil Innes; not good editing from George Akers, but you really get the impression it’s because Jones, as director, didn’t get enough coverage for him. Viking has great sets, great costumes, great make-up, so it never makes sense when it doesn’t look right. Sometimes it’s those bad composite shots—but the miniature special effects are excellent—and then the third act has some really bad optical effects.

I’m zealous about special effects not dating, they just sometimes don’t work and Erik the Viking’s special optical effects for the finale… they just don’t work. And the film relies way too heavily on them. Nicely, the film’s able to—more or less—skate by to the finish, which has this really oddly profound moment for the characters and you wish Jones (the director) could’ve visualized it better onscreen. It works but not enough to lift things up. The whole third act seems rushed and cramped in ways it shouldn’t, both in terms of story and setting.

Good lead performance from Robbins, with great support from some of his comrades; Stubbs is good, Bond’s excellent, Cleese is fun (it’s a fluffed out cameo)… Sher’s really good as the turncoat.

Erik has almost all the right pieces for success; Jones not being able to crack his own script is the dealbreaker.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Terry Jones; director of photography, Ian Wilson; edited by George Akers; music by Neil Innes; production designer, John Beard; costume designer, Pam Tait; produced by John Goldstone; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Tim Robbins (Erik), Imogen Stubbs (Princess Aud), Richard Ridings (Thorfinn Skullsplitter), Tim McInnerny (Sven the Berserk), Charles McKeown (Sven’s Dad), Gary Cady (Keitel Blacksmith), Antony Sher (Loki), John Gordon Sinclair (Ivar the Boneless), Freddie Jones (Harald the Missionary), Danny Schiller (Snorri the Miserable), Samantha Bond (Helga), Mickey Rooney (Erik’s Grandfather), Eartha Kitt (Freya), Terry Jones (King Arnulf), and John Cleese (Halfdan the Black).


A man looks at a woman whose hair is wet

Through a Glass Darkly (1961, Ingmar Bergman)

At eighty-nine minutes, Through a Glass Darkly never has a chance to get tedious, which is part of the problem. Writer-director Bergman has just introduced the characters, just established the ground situation, when he tries a graceful segue into the characters and their relationships being familiar in the second act. They’re not. They’re still being established, which makes the purely expository relationship between Gunnar Björnstrand and Max von Sydow something of a time suck. A beautifully acted, beautifully directed time suck.

Glass takes place over twenty-four hours. Popular but intellectually bereft author Björnstrand has returned home to his family after finalizing the draft of his latest novel. There’s twenty-something daughter Harriet Andersson and seventeen year-old son, Lars Passgård. von Sydow is Andersson’s husband. Presumably von Sydow and Andersson have had to take care of Passgård, as Björnstrand seems a rare presence in Passgård’s life.

Andersson is recently out of a mental hospital. It’s unclear, initially, what’s going on, only it’s incurable (or likely incurable). That discussion is von Sydow and Björnstrand’s first scene together alone. Bergman plays it more for character development than exposition, which is far different from the second half of the film, when he eschews character development for exposition. He doesn’t need much character development second half because it turns out to be action packed.

Before Bergman identifies it as schizophrenia–which is made somehow less terrifying by the tranquil isolated island setting (there’s not running water, electricity maybe)–he’s got the rest of the character setup to get done. So a half hour at least because Andersson gets a scene to herself, experiencing her symptoms.

While the film never looks stagy–quite the opposite–Bergman’s script feels not just stagy, but a little too pragmatic. Like he was adjusting around actors schedules. Andersson and Passgård get paired off for scenes whenever von Sydow is busy with Björnstrand. Otherwise it’s von Sydow and Andersson. Björnstrand gets like a scene and a half alone with his kids, the full scenes coming right at the end for the emphasis. He’s a bad dad, who isn’t a particularly good writer. There’s more exposition later, but never time for Björnstrand to do anything with it as far as character development. It’s filler. It’s that time suck.

Because Bergman’s actually got some big time drama in store for the family and he’s got to pace it right.

The problem with the big time drama is it turns out to be a MacGuffin. All the action in the second and third acts turn out to be MacGuffins, since the point of Glass is Andersson and how Bergman presents her character. The film drags a little in the second act, before it’s clear just how well Bergman’s made Andersson seem reliable. The more unreliable Andersson gets–always precisely essayed, in performance and presentation–the more effective Bergman’s initial pacing becomes.

Bergman makes the boring bits essential.

Until he gets to Björnstrand’s big confession scene to von Sydow; it proves as narratively inert as it does for character development. Because then it’s action time, because Andersson’s not just shattering her reliability, she’s going to stomp it into dust.

And it works, no doubt. Bergman sells it. He’s got a great cast. Andersson, Björnstrand, von Sydow, Passgård until the third act. There’s some phenomenal acting in Glass.

Bergman’s not really interested in the characters, he’s interested in the reveals. It’s all kind of melodramatic, actually. As melodramatic as Bergman can get, actually.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman; director of photography, Sven Nykvist; edited by Ulla Ryghe; music by Erik Nordgren; production designer, P.A. Lundgren; produced by Allan Ekelund; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Harriet Andersson (Karin), Gunnar Björnstrand (David), Max von Sydow (Martin), and Lars Passgård (Minus).


This post is part of the 1961 Blogathon hosted by Steve of Movie Movie Blog Blog.

The Seventh Seal (1957, Ingmar Bergman)

The Seventh Seal has a lot of striking imagery. Gunnar Fischer’s cinematography is peerless, but it’s more–it’s how the photography works with the shot composition, how the shots work with one another (Lennart Wallén’s editing is simultaneously amiable and stunning). And then there’s how it all works with Erik Nordgren’s music. Bergman’s going for theatrics in The Seventh Seal, which I wasn’t expecting. He goes from them right away though–the film’s opening titles are silent and then very noisy; I’m surprised now, after seeing it, learning he adapted it from a play (his own play, but still a play). It makes sense, but since the film’s never stagy and so visual, I hadn’t thought about it.

The film has a lot of characters–something else I wasn’t expecting–but the main ones are Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand and Nils Poppe. von Sydow is a knight back from the Crusades, Björnstrand is his squire, Poppe is a juggler in a touring company. Even though Bergman opens with von Sydow (meeting Bengt Ekerot’s Death, no less), the film quickly moves to toggling between Björnstrand and Poppe. They’re regular guys, after all. von Sydow is in the middle of a spiritual crisis, pestering Death to confirm or deny the existence of God; he’s not exactly relatable. And von Sydow’s so beautiful, with his golden locks (Seal’s black and white, but they made sure to make his hair look good–for the film, obviously), he’s a bit apart from everything else. Whole scenes will pass between the rest of the cast while von Sydow stays in the background. Sure, he’s the knight on a quest and Bergman’s interested in this specific narrative and the literary trope, but Bergman’s a lot more interested in the people. But he never shortchanges the trope–and Seal’s just under 100 minutes, Bergman’s got a nimble pace–just shows there’s a lot more going on.

Oh, right–Seal’s set against an outbreak of plague, which has everyone gathered worried and looking for signs. Can’t talk too much about that detail without spoiling something. Even though The Seventh Seal is straightforward in its plot, Bergman does so much with the symbolism–which he bakes into the narrative, both visually and in scene–it’s just as dramatically compelling an arc as everything else. Bergman’s really serious about the film. So it’s kind of strange–and endearing–when the film’s fun and funny and gentle. It’s fairly upbeat overall; it’s also without Bergman doing it as a reward, like something the audience gets after sitting through numerous horrific scenes.

All the performances are great. Björnstrand is the best. He has the most to do, but he’s the best. Bibi Andersson’s great as Poppe’s wife. von Sydow’s fantastic. And Ekerot’s good as Death, of course. Oh, and Åke Fridell, Erik Strandmark and Inga Gill are all good. Like I said, it’s a lot of characters. Gunnel Lindblom’s got maybe three lines and she’s great too. Bergman’s direction of the actors is just as breathtaking as everything else in The Seventh Seal.

It’s a wondrous film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ingmar Bergman; screenplay by Bergman, based on his play; director of photography, Gunnar Fischer; edited by Lennart Wallén; music by Erik Nordgren; production designer, P.A. Lundgren; produced by Allan Ekelund; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Gunnar Björnstrand (Jöns), Max von Sydow (Antonius Block), Bengt Ekerot (Death), Nils Poppe (Jof), Bibi Andersson (Mia), Gunnel Lindblom (Girl), Maud Hansson (Witch), Åke Fridell (Blacksmith Plog), Inga Gill (Lisa), Inga Landgré (Karin), Bertil Anderberg (Raval), Anders Ek (The Monk), Gunnar Olsson (Church Painter) and Erik Strandmark (Jonas Skat).


Shame (1968, Ingmar Bergman)

Shame has three or four sections. Director Bergman doesn’t draw a lot of attention to the transition between the first parts, he hides it in the narrative. Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow are a married couple living on an island following a war. Not much information about the war, but they’re concert violinists turned farmers. Their problems are relatively trivial–von Sydow’s unsuited for their new life–and their bickering, while not exactly cute, reveals their tenderness and partnership.

Bergman moves Shame from this domestic drama territory into what should feel more familiar–von Sydow and Ullmann are suspected of being collaborators. Bergman is precise with everything related to the context of the war. He moves the war–its machines, its soldiers–through the existing setting. Through fantastic photography from Sven Nykvist and editing from Ulla Ryghe, great sound design, the war, which can’t surprise von Sydow and Ullmann, can’t surprise the viewer either. Except to recognize the lack of reaction. Bergman doesn’t desensitize, he encompasses the viewer in the despair.

And then Shame changes again. Because the viewer’s already submerged, the change isn’t jarring. It’s almost tranquil, even as the film’s action becomes more and more perilous, the relationship between von Sydow and Ullmann becoming poisonous just to observe. Everyone is trapped, viewer included.

The film hinges on the performances, of course. von Sydow and Ullmann are both extraordinary. He gets better material second half, she first.

Shame’s exceptional. Bergman’s conciseness, Ullmann and von Sydow; so great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman; director of photography, Sven Nykvist; edited by Ulla Ryghe; production designer, R.A. Lundgren; produced by Lars-Owe Carlberg; released by AB Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Liv Ullmann (Eva Rosenberg), Max von Sydow (Jan Rosenberg), Sigge Fürst (Filip), Gunnar Björnstrand (Jacobi), Birgitta Valberg (Mrs. Jacobi), Gösta Prüzelius (the vicar) and Hans Alfredson (Fredrik).


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