Wednesday, 24 June 2015

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Don and I watched A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence at the Princess Theatre (Edmonton) on Sunday. If reading that title makes you think: “Hmmm, not sure this one is for me,” then let me encourage you to follow your instinct: It’s probably not for you.

Similar to his previous film, 2007’s You the Living, Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a super-quirky brain-numbing series of bizarre, though often hilarious and always beautiful, vignettes. While many of these vignettes seem to have no connection to the others, there a number which feature the same two characters: a pair of salesmen trying to sell silly items that will contribute to people having fun (though they never seem to be having any fun themselves). Watching the unfolding story (such as it is) of these two salesmen is indeed great fun, though some of the best scenes don’t involve them at all.

The two films mentioned above are the last parts of a trilogy which began with Songs from the Second Floor (2000). These three films do not resemble any other films ever made, which is one reason why they are rarely seen or appreciated except by those for whom watching an obscure foreign film with little by way of plot and no obvious connection between scenes is sometimes considered a treat (as it is for me).

The camera in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is as static as in any film I’ve seen, with each scene taking place without any camera movement. The dour characters are almost as static, with little movement by the actors, who often show little or no emotion of any kind (there are a few exceptions). Their faces are pale, as is the cinematography as a whole, making you wonder if they are even alive. 

The scenes are almost too absurd to describe, including a marvellous musical number in a 1943 bar and a visit by King Charles XII (from the 18th century) and his troops to a contemporary suburban bar (all taking place in Gothenburg, Sweden). The vignettes are often very sad and very funny at the same time. Sometimes they are even horrific and funny at the same time. So what is Andersson trying to say? That life can be full of tedium, suffering and even horror (especially in the way people sometimes treat each other) but you can still laugh at the absurd meaninglessness of it? Not sure that’s a sentiment I would want to support, which is one reason why I find it difficult to give Andersson’s films more than ***+ in spite of their obvious genius.

So A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence gets a solid ***+. My mug is up, but don’t assume that this a recommendation unless you’re a fan of arthouse cinema at its most obscure.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Last Days in the Desert

One of the highlights of the recent Movies and Meaning Film Festival was the advance screening of a new Jesus film, Last Days in the Desert, written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, who was at the festival for a Q&A.

My review of the film can be found at Third Way Cafe:

Last Days in the Desert had a number of flaws, including the dialogue, which could have been more creative and insightful, given the material, but it's the best Jesus film since Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, so don't miss it. A solid ***+. My mug is up.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd

Watched this eleven days ago, but have not had the time to write a review.

First of all, I’m a sucker for old-fashioned epics based on nineteenth-century novels. I also think Carey Mulligan is one of the best actors out there. So Thomas Vinterberg’s Far from the Madding Crowd, based on Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, and featuring Mulligan in almost every scene, was almost certain to entertain me. And it did.

Mulligan plays Bathsheba Everdene, a beautiful headstrong woman who inherits a farm in England and has three very different kinds of men wishing to marry her: Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a sheep farmer; William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), Bathsheba’s wealthy and lonely neighbour; and Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a young, charming and handsome (though rather shallow) soldier. Whom, if any, is Bathsheba going to choose, and what will be the consequences of her choice?

The romances in Far from the Madding Crowd don’t always feel credible and Bathsheba is consistently infuriating (as I suppose she should be), but the performances are all excellent and the film is worth watching just to see Mulligan and Sheen perform together. The cinematography in such a film needs to be a highlight, and it was. The score is more than adequate. So I found this film to be a solid, if sometimes uninspiring, piece of entertainment. 

I’m a fan of John Schlesinger’s 1967 filming of Hardy’s novel. It starred Julie Christie, Terence Stamp, Alan Bates and Peter Finch, had a marvellous score, and was a staple of classy late-night TV viewing when I was in my late teens and early twenties. It would have been hard for Vinterberg’s film to match that one in my eyes, and it didn’t, but the style and performances are different enough that I still found the new version very enjoyable. I also suspect that that the new film more accurately reflects the life in England in the 19th century (and Mulligan stands up well against Christie). So I am going to let Far from the Madding Crowd slide just over the line to ***+. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Pride Revisited

I don't usually write a second post for a film, but I need to make an exception this time, because, in spite of my positive review the first time, I got it wrong (and Janelle got it right). 

My Third Way Cafe review of Pride (now found at:, which I watched last October, was overwhelmingly positive, noting that the film’s key themes were empathy and the power of solidarity and that it had one moving scene after another. But watching the film back then in an almost-empty theatre at a particularly stressful time obviously impacted my appreciation for this film, which I awarded only ***+ (though I did note that I almost gave it **** and that it would have made my top ten list in any other year). It did not impact my daughter (Janelle’s) appreciation of the film because Pride was her favourite film of 2014. It was also Walter’s fifth-favourite film of 2014. I did not remember those facts when I watched Pride for the second time (in a theatre) at the marvellous Movies and Meaning Film Festival in Albuquerque this past weekend. 

This time I was surrounded by 250 people who enjoyed the film immensely, though no more than I did. I have rarely enjoyed a film this much more the second time around than the first (and I did love it the first time). Every scene in Pride is pure movie magic. I could hardly stop crying. And yes, it may have some flaws related to structure and predictability, but those flaws pale beside the magic, the humanization and the inspiration. And this is where a sympathetic audience is helpful. Pride is an incredibly inspiring and humanizing story. And even the one character I complained about in my previous review was not handled in a typical Hollywood way. The fact that she was not redeemed is not as important as the fact that she was not punished.

With the help of an extraordinary ensemble cast, Matthew Warchus (the director) and Stephen Beresford (the writer) have turned the true story of the support of lesbians and gays for striking miners  in the UK in 1984 into a masterpiece for our time. 

Indeed, I came away from my second viewing of Pride thinking there are few films more important for our time than this one. Not only am I now giving it the solid **** it deserves, I am making it my second-favourite film of the year in what was, for me, the greatest year in the history of cinema. If you have not yet seen Pride, find it and watch it, preferably with others. It is an absolute treasure that should be seen by all.