The Keep (1983, Michael Mann)

A movie about nazis being killed off by aliens should’ve been more entertaining – besides a really fantastic smoke-monster effect, this was only pretty good. It tries to be very serious and sets up many conflicts (good alien/bad alien, good nazi/bad nazi, nazis/jews, etc.) then doesn’t do anything wonderful with any of these things.

Trevor: “it fell apart for me when none of the story mattered… mystery invincible guy with glowing eyes walks in and defeats the beast, the worst execution of deus ex machina.”

Smoke Monster, de-smoked:

Okay, Nazis led by Jurgen Prochnow (Sutter Cane in In the Mouth of Madness, and I think Kyle’s dad in Dune) occupy a Romanian town and camp in an empty fortress watched over by a priest (Robert Prosky of Christine and Gremlins 2), who calls in his professor friend Ian McKellen with daughter Alberta Watson (Hedwig/Hansel‘s mom) to translate ancient writings after soldiers keep showing up dead. Prochnow isn’t murdering enough villagers, so the more ruthless Gabriel Byrne (three years before Gothic) is sent to take charge, later shoots Prochnow dead. Smoke Monster heals the formerly-crippled Ian McKellen, says he’s a golem-like Jewish avenger who will crush all nazis if Ian frees him. The priest gets all shitty and tells Ian he can burn in hell (admittedly all the nazis might be stressing him out), meanwhile Mystery Invincible Guy (top-billed Scott Glenn, Jodie Foster’s boss in Silence of the Lambs) has sex with Ian’s daughter until she notices he has no reflection. I think Invincible Guy and the nazis and Smoke Monster all kill each other at the end?

Alberta with sex alien:

Ian under Smoke Monster’s spell:

Second movie I’ve watched this Shocktober where the first death is by exploding head. TV veteran Mann’s second feature, which he has since disowned, based on a story by the guy who wrote Pelts. The actors act as big as possible (apparently Ian McKellen has mellowed with age) and the then-trendy Tangerine Dream soundtrack does the nazi-horror atmosphere no favors. But it’s a startlingly different movie, anyway.

Diary of a Country Priest (1951, Robert Bresson)

New priest arrives hopeful at his first parish, is immediately eyed suspiciously by a powerful man having an affair with his kid’s governess. Every day will be a new disappointment for this young priest until his eventual death. A neighboring priest tells him: “A true priest is never loved. The church doesn’t care a whit whether you’re loved, my son. Be respected, obeyed. Keep order all day long, knowing full well disorder will win out tomorrow.”

Adulterous couple:

But he’s hardly respected or obeyed – people think him a meddler and a drunk, as he stumbles around dying slowly from undiagnosed stomach cancer, tormented by students and threatened by their parents. He manages to reach one woman, but she dies the next day and his meeting with her is misunderstood by others. Finally he goes off to see a doctor, and soon dies at the house of a former colleague.

The priest gets bad news:

Young terror Serafita, who does the priest a kindness towards the end:

I thought of Winter Light when the priest gives a daily mass for only one attendant – the commentary mentions it too. Surprised to hear that Bresson was agnostic.

The local count is the one having the affair (with Nicole Maurey of Day of the Triffids). The priest wants to help the count’s daughter Chantal, whom he believes to be sadly neglected, and wife, who is a shut-in mourning the death of her son. He tries to convince the family not to send Chantal away for good, and convince the countess to open up – semi-successfully too, as the governess is sent away instead after the countess’s death.

Priest vs. Chantal:

More grimly serious than Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, sharing sympathetic doomed clergy as main character with Les Anges du Peche, and more austere than either of them. Won some awards in Venice, while top prize went to Rashomon. Based on a novel by Georges Bernanos (Mouchette, Under the Sun of Satan). Lead priest Claude Laydu later played Franz Schubert in a biopic.

R. Humanick in Slant:

Bresson sees spiritual disorder as a disease, not unlike the stomach cancer we suspect is—and is ultimately confirmed to be—plaguing our titular character. Likely to fall ill at the slightest exertion, he has taken to a diet consisting entirely of stale bread soaked with wine. This leads the unnaturally suspicious townsfolk to suspect alcoholism, and in a heartbreaking revelation, we learn that the priest was in fact born to alcoholic parents (“pickled from birth,” as someone tactlessly puts it). Wine drinking is seen less as a habit to be abhorred, however, than as a routine not unlike holy communion, although Laydu’s fasting during shooting adds immeasurably to the priest’s sickly appearance and the accruing tone of his death rattle, and there remains a subtextual suggestion that our physical and spiritual limitations are naturally entwined.

F. Bonnaud for Criterion:

So Robert Bresson’s film is above all the story of a failure, of a man who is completely incapable of leaving an impression on the world. It is the story of defeat, of a faint trace of spirit left behind and then erased all too quickly. It is a story about someone who tries his best to throw things off balance, and whose best efforts are finally squelched by the weighty order of things.

Winter Light (1962, Ingmar Bergman)

Set in one day, almost a real-time portrait of the failings of local pastor Gunnar Bjornstrand (bad father from Through a Glass Darkly). He gives his sermon to a sparse, unattentive congregation then has a series of disspiriting meetings in his office. Gunnel Lindblom (servant girl in The Virgin Spring) wants him to speak with her husband, a depressed Max Von Sydow, never looking more sad and powerless. Local atheist teacher, friend and off-again love interest Ingrid Thulin (Sydow’s secret wife in The Magician) writes the pastor a an attack/analysis letter, delivered as a speech to-camera.

Gunnar and Ingrid:

Then Von Sydow is back (mentioned: “a spider God, a monster”, direct callback to Through a Glass Darkly). He is feeling suicidal and the pastor so completely fails to help (“I’m no good as a clergyman,” he even admits) that Sydow promptly wanders outside and shoots himself in the head. Ingrid goes with Gunnar to inform the widow, and along the way he discusses their lack of a relationship. “I don’t want you. Once and for all I have to escape this junkyard of idiotic trivialities. And I don’t love you, because I love my wife. When she died, so did I.”

Widow Gunnel:

Off to the next church service in another town, joined by the hunchbacked sexton, a thoughtful man and the best character in the movie. Each tormented by their lives’ lack of meaning, Gunnar begins the service, which is attended only by Ingrid.

Sexton Allan Edwall, later in Fanny & Alexander and The Sacrifice:

A strong contender for Most Depressing Film of All Time. Made the same year as Frantisek Vlácil’s The Devil’s Trap (“an allegory regarding science, religion and secular power”) and The World’s Greatest Sinner, in which Timothy Carey renames himself God and defies the other God to show himself. Max von Sydow would follow this up by playing Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told.

The ending, in Bergman’s words: “Irrespective of everything, you will hold your Communion. It is important to the churchgoer, but even more important to you.”

P. Cowie from the DVD extras:

When it came out, I remember certainly being very shocked that this did not look like a Bergman film. It didn’t have that spectacular technical expertise which we associated during the 50’s with Bergman. But looking back I think it was very deliberate on his part. It wasn’t a budget problem or anything like that. He just wanted something very, very wintry and very, very severe.

P. Cowie:

Film buffs who know Bergman’s earlier film Through a Glass Darkly will note the organist’s scornful dismissal of that work’s conclusion: “God is love; love is God.” Indeed, Winter Light stands as a bridge between Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence, as well as Bergman’s farewell to his own religious upbringing. Some might call it an exorcism.

Ebert:

The sexton, the little twisted man, alone has a face that is alive with wonder at the mystery of faith. He has been reading the Gospels, he says, and thinks the emphasis on Christ’s suffering on the cross is all wrong. Christ only suffered a few hours, he says, while he, Algot, has suffered more and longer, and it is not so bad. No, the real suffering of Christ came when his disciples betrayed him at Gethsemane, and when he cried out to a father who seemed to have forsaken him. He suffered because he feared no one had heard or understood his message. Christ suffered because he, too, was dismayed by the silence of God.

To The Wonder (2012, Terrence Malick)

A very Malickian movie, with fields of grain and far more voiceover than dialogue. Absolutely full of camera movement, all of it motivated by place or action, and brilliant associative editing. Maybe a few too many shots with the sun right behind the foreground person’s head (this happens in most of the shots), but a beautiful, breathtaking movie to watch – and to hear, with appropriately big music by Hanan Townshend (returning from Tree of Life).

As for what actually happens in the movie, I’ll need to watch (happily) some more times, or refer to film writers and/or philosophers. Ben Affleck is our central/absent hero, with hardly any lines, as the film takes the POV of the women with him. First Olga Kurylenko (of a recent James Bond movie) comes from France to Oklahoma with her daughter, leaves again when Ben won’t marry her. Rachel McAdams (of a recent Woody Allen movie) takes up with Ben, but this doesn’t last long, and Olga returns without her daughter, marries and later divorces the stoic Ben. Meanwhile Javier Bardem (of a recent James Bond movie and a recent Woody Allen movie) is a local doubting minister who knows all three primary characters but doesn’t play a central role in their story, spending more time among the poorer citizens. The great DP Emmanuel Lubezki (nominated this year for Gravity instead of this) rightly described it all as abstract – and as usual, rumors abound of major actors and storylines that didn’t survive into the final edit (they’re not in the DVD extras either).

Not as straightforwardly religious (or as straightforwardly anything) as I’d heard, and possibly even less narrative than Tree of Life. Malick increasingly makes all other films seem unaccomplished and inadequate. Looking for articles I’m surprised at how many critics hated the movie, are tired of Malick’s techniques, say the characters and story are over-familiar. These critics have no love in their hearts.

M. Koresky:

He was once a myth, and many seem to have preferred him that way—with hallowed artists, absence is easier to confront than presence. He’s now a constant in our film culture, a searching, grasping, wrestling artist. … he seems to be discovering the world anew right along with Marina; this is a searching, selfless filmmaker, imagining the point of view of a good-hearted, soulful, and terribly solitary woman. In this way, To the Wonder is like the more elegiac second half of The New World — everything following Q’orianka Kilcher’s marriage to the laconic yet loving husband played by Christian Bale — stretched to feature length, a fish-out-of-water tale that finds beauty and harmony in disruption and estrangement.

Red Hook Summer (2012, Spike Lee)

Not a Do The Right Thing sequel at all, except for some embarrassingly distracting cameos by Spike as Mookie, still delivering pizzas. Except for Clarke “Lester Freamon” Peters’s performance and one crazy shot when his church’s holy-cross-shaped fluorescent lights reflect in his eyes as he goes on a defensive preaching rant, almost the whole movie is embarrassing.

Frohawked Atlantan kid named Flik Royale (okay, the names are good) is dumped on his grandfather Enoch in New York for the summer. They don’t get along, grandpa forbidding junk food and yelling about Jesus all the time, and Flik hiding behind his iPad and hanging out with asthma-having girl Chazz. What do we know will happen when someone in a movie has asthma? Yeah, that happens. Flik almost bonds with his grandpa after Enoch’s friend gives him some good advice, but suddenly a dude named Blessing crashes into the church accusing Enoch of child abuse years ago in Georgia. This takes over the movie – the preacher gets beat down by some gangster kid who’d stolen Flik’s iPad earlier, and Isiah “Sheeeeeeee” Whitlock “eeeeit” Jr. appears as Detective Flood in his third Spike joint. Then Flik, having learned nothing but at least made a friend in the asthma girl, goes home.

Thomas Jefferson Byrd of Girl 6 and He Got Game plays a drunk deacon. A character named Mother Darling is played by Tracy Johns, star of She’s Gotta Have It. Movie has a couple of blatant Michael Jackson references (note Spike’s other movie this year is an MJ documentary) and some amusing DTRT references: the phrases “do the right thing” and “that’s the truth, ruth” show up in the dialogue. Seems harmless until “do the right thing” comes back as a terrible song towards the end. Overall the music is innocuous, picture is unexceptional (with digi noise) and dialogue is groany.

We Have a Pope (2011, Nanni Moretti)

I only know Moretti from a couple of cute shorts in different anthology projects. This could’ve been another cute short – I expected something weightier, but it had little to say about the Pope, Vatican, religion, just an occasionally funny little story about an elected pope who disappears, spends some time on his own, and returns to proclaim that he can’t accept the job.

Michel Piccoli (in two of the movies I anxiously want to see from this year’s Cannes festival) is the confused pope and Jerzy Stuhr (star of Kieslowski’s Camera Buff) is a large-faced official spokeman who tries to take care of the situation. Moretti himself plays a psychiatrist hired to visit the vatican and help the new pope, but when the pope escapes (covered up by Stuhr by having a guard hide in the pope’s quarters, eating expensive food and rattling the curtains to indicate his presence) Moretti has nothing to do and isn’t allowed to leave, so organizes a volleyball tournament, dividing the cardinals by home country – my favorite part of the movie. Piccoli meanwhile visits Moretti’s estranged wife Margherita Buy. You’d expect something to come of this, soon-to-be-divorced psychiatrists each treating the same troubled pope, but no. The movie really amounted to a pleasurable afternoon watching the great Piccoli, nothing more.

The Guardian points out that the movie got mixed reviews from Vatican reviewers, then proceed to give it a mixed review themselves. In competition at Cannes the year Tree of Life won.

Moretti quoted in Indiewire: “People may have wanted me to do something different, but I wanted to surprise them actually. Some people thought I’d denounce some areas of the Vatican but that is why I chose not to do that… I wanted the story to be a surprise.”

The Flowers of St. Francis (1950, Roberto Rossellini)

A very light-hearted, beautiful, episodic film about a group of monks who follow St. Francis. I didn’t know Rossellini was capable of humor and lightness – this comes as pleasantly surprising as Smiles of a Summer Night. The monks look silly running everywhere they go, and they take in a village idiot who never quite gets the hang of things, so I thought for a while that this was a religion-mocking predecessor of Life of Brian, but the underlying seriousness about their faith and Francis’s lessons on humility come through by the end.

Rossellini:

“As the title indicates, my film wants to focus on the merrier aspect of the Franciscan experience, on the playfulness, the ‘perfect delight,’ the freedom that the spirit finds in poverty and in an absolute detachment from material things. . . . I believe that certain aspects of primitive Franciscanism could best satisfy the deepest aspirations and needs of a humanity who, enslaved by its greed and having totally forgotten the Poverello’s lesson, has also lost its joy of life.”

I. Francesco returns from Rome with his companions, having been given the Pope’s permission to preach. Someone has taken over their old hut, so they wander off in the pouring rain to build a new one.

II. Brother Ginepro gave away his clothes to a beggar. Francesco tells him not to do this anymore.

III. Francesco talks to birds. Wrinkled ol’ Giovanni The Simple is given permission to join the group. I can’t remember where I read this, but it said the actor who played Giovanni was too drunk to learn any lines, so they’d shove him in front of camera to improvise his scenes. He’d played a monk earlier in L’Amore.

Francis with bird:

IV. Sister Chiara comes to visit, has dinner with Francesco. It’s said that she first became a nun in their chapel, but I thought they just built the chapel in the middle of nowhere. Guess not.

V. Troublesome Ginepro cuts off the foot of a neighboring farmer’s pig to offer to a sick comrade. The farmer gets understandably angry. Ginepro tries to apologize.

VI. A wordless section: “How San Francesco, praying in the forest at night, met the leper.” Francis silently commisserates.

VII. Ginepro again, makes enough stew to last two weeks so the guys don’t have to stop preaching to cook. Francesco is impressed, gives him permission to go preach, but he must always begin by humbly saying “Baa, baa, baa, much I say, little I do.”

VIII. Ginepro “baa baa”s his way into a violent village of warrior-thugs, who beat the shit out of him and play jumprope with his body. He gets a private conference with heavily armored warlord Aldo Fabrizi (the priest of Rome Open City – I didn’t recognize him in the mop wig and fake mustache) who finally figures out that Ginepro is obviously not a threat.

IX. Francesco is sad because he sees a bandit killed. He and brother Leone try to preach at a house but get tossed out into the mud. He explains that this suffering is “perfect happiness.”

X. The group breaks up. Francesco has everyone spin in circles until they fall down dizzy – whichever city they’re now facing is where they must go preach.

M. Porro: “Rossellini said that his film was a humble and austere work, realistically describing the spirit of the story. … In the cinema, biblical and evangelical subjects took the form of big American films. Think of a film like The Bible by John Huston, The Robe, King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told. The rhetoric of these films interferes with the spiritual message.”

Santa Sangre (1989, Alejandro Jodorowsky)

This was pretty incredible. Nude man in asylum thinks he’s a monkey. Flashback to when he was a young boy in a false mustache in the circus, watching a tattooed hottie force a deaf-mute girl to walk a burning tightrope. The boy’s mom is chief priestess at the santa sangre temple, which is torn down after being disavowed by the church, claiming the armless woman they worship is not a saint. Later she catches her awful drunken husband with the tattooed lady, and he cuts off her arms then kills himself, and the young mime tightrope walker is driven away from the traumatized boy.

Then after that first 45 minutes, the unthinkable happens: the movie got boring. Later I changed my mind about this, figure it just changed mood and speed and I wasn’t able to follow along, because retracing the story through the million screenshots I took, it sure doesn’t look boring. Anyway, now the boy and his armless mom have a stage act where he hides behind her, being her arms, imagining himself invisible. A bunch of people, including the tattooed woman and a cross-dressing wrestler, get brutally murdered – mother commanding son to kill with his/her hands. He hooks up with his midget best friend from the circus, who may have never existed. Only when he finds the mime girl does he stand up to his mother (and stab her to death), then he and the girl walk outside to start a new life together. No just kidding – they walk outside to find themselves surrounded by police.

Too old to play the young lead himself, Alejandro has his son Axel play the lead, with younger son Adan as young Axel, Blanca Guerra (also in Walker) as his mother and Guy “Dean’s brother” Stockwell as his father. It’s possibly the most coherent Jodorowsky movie I’ve seen, a true horror bursting with ideas and excellently filmed. I hope all the dead or dying animals were just special-effects this time.

D. Lim (who also makes a howler mistake, calling La Cravate a lost film years after it was rediscovered and issued on DVD):

Psycho is hardly the only cinematic influence on Santa Sangre. The circus grotesquerie suggests Fellini, though Tod Browning’s big-top movies Freaks and The Unknown are perhaps even more relevant. James Whale’s The Invisible Man is glimpsed on the television at one point. Also apparent is the lurid imprint of the film’s producer and co-writer Claudio Argento, brother of schlock-horror maestro Dario. But for all its sundry inspirations, Santa Sangre never seems derivative. Jodorowsky’s anything-goes alchemy has a cumulative power, as does the documentary energy of his location photography. It’s a movie bursting with life — interrupted frequently by processions and pageants, shot in actual slums and red-light districts.

You can’t tell from the dim screenshot that this is a white bird rising from an open grave:

The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle (2009, David Russo)

This came recommended by my Sundance-attending coworkers, and I would have eventually sought it out myself once I realized that the great Russo (Pan With Us + Populi, two of my favorite short films) had made a feature.

Ethyl:

Once it started (actually, as early as when I saw the “sponsored by credit card company” DVD menu) I realized I was in for a Sundancey indie toilet-humor quirkfest, not my favorite kind of thing, but it was hopefully to be more Donnie Darko than Waydowntown. First half was entertaining as all hell, with fabulous editing, surprisingly good music (by “Awesome”) and some of that chaos-reining stop-motion from Russo’s shorts. After a while it gets quieter and slower, becomes a slave to plot and its characters’ emotional arcs and gives me more time to wonder at the allegory, if any. Wouldn’t call it a hidden masterpiece, but it surely lived up to potential. Make more movies, Mr. Russo.

Little Dory and buddy O.C.:

Dory quits his datameister gig in a huff, and goes religion-hopping while working as a janitor with punk artists Ethyl and Methyl (fake Stanley Kubrick in Trapped Ashes) and O.C. (of Clay Pigeons) and Weird William. Natasha Lyonne (Slums of Beverly Hills) gives them test batches of experimental self-warming cookies, to which they all become addicted, and which cause the men to give birth to fluorescent blue fish, which makes them quite emotional and gives Dory new religious meaning to ponder. Finally he decides not to shut down the evil corporation that’s sneaking awful chemicals into junk foods, but to let the cookies into the world, to allow other snack-craving men with meaningless lives to experience the pain and joy of creating new aquatic life.

Buy from Amazon:
The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle DVD