Thoughts on some recent films

The past week or two has been neat. I've been able to see five movies between Sept. 21 and Oct. 1, a rate of moviegoing not experienced in a long, long time. Over that 10 day period, I had a chance to see Ingmar Bergman's last film, "Saraband," the 1957 classic, "Sweet Smell of Success," F.W. Murnau's symphony of horror, "Nosferatu" (with a live ensemble no less!), Paul Schrader's "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist," and Wong Kar Wai's latest, "2046." And then there was "Scenes from a Marriage," "The Man Who Fell to Earth," and "Shadow of the Vampire" on video. Phew.

To cover all the movies seen in a theater in as easy and accessible way as possible, here are some capsule reviews for your quick consumption:

"Saraband" Ingmar Bergman's apparent last film is an "epilogue" to his earlier "Scenes from a Marriage." But rather than being a catching up with old friends type of story, Bergman takes the problems and concerns of Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and places the burden of them on two new generations: their children and their grandchildren. Another filmmaker revisiting 30-year-old characters would likely take the rosy, things are all better now approach to their reunification. Not Bergman. Things aren't so simple in the real world, and as a result they aren't easy in Bergman's, either. This is a film that could be called "Scenes from a Deterioration" because of how Bergman tears down the lives of everyone in his final work. Yet, "Saraband" isn't a film that leaves you feeling the worst in the world because Bergman realizes that, yes, the world is tough, but it's tough because that's how it is. In his characters we see ourselves, and because they take their lumps yet make it out alive -- albeit not in that beautiful world, Hollywood-esque way -- Bergman is leaving us as an audience with the hope that we, too, will make it through our crises. "Hope" isn't something usually ascribed to Bergman, but he reveals himself as a very hopeful filmmaker in his last work -- even if that hope is tempered by the warts-and-all reality around us everyday.

"Sweet Smell of Success" This is one of the best scripted movies of all time, right up there with "Glengarry Glen Ross," and it doesn't lose any of its impact nearly 50 years out. A biting look at the world of public relations men and unscrupulous columnists in 1950s New York City, "Success" is carried, first and foremost, by its acting. Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis play against type as repugnant, pathetic wretches grasping for some sort of happiness -- bastardized as it may be -- in a dog-eat-dog world. The language that comes spewing out of their mouths is toxic and brutal, matched perfectly with the naturalist direction of Alexander MacKendrick. A classic in every sense of the word, this is a movie that should be seen and cherished as one of the all time greats of American cinema.

"Nosferatu" F.W. Murnau's unofficial adaptation of "Dracula" has most of the major plotpoints of Bram Stoker's novel, but the reason to see it is the beautiful cinematography and Murnau's brilliant direction. "Nosferatu" is a film that, even if you haven't seen it, you've seen it. Murnau's techniques and storytelling style cultivated in this film have been imitated countless times since 1922, but they've been rarely bested.

"Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist" What a strange trip Paul Schrader's prequel to "The Exorcist" took to reach the big screen. After being scrapped because it wasn't gory enough, the prequel was reshot (about 90% of it was, anyway) with some new actors and subplots by Renny Harlin. The result was "Exorcist: The Beginning," a lackluster film that was wholly unmemorable. Except for the fact that it was the result of the sacking of an earlier version of the film. Now, it's part of film history, tethered with Schrader's version. This is a film that is light years better than Harlin's vision. So much so, that it can't be done justice in a capsule review. Check back soon for the full review.

"2046" Beautiful and engrossing, Wong Kar Wai reunites with Tony Leung for this sort-of sequel to his last film, "In the Mood for Love." Like "Love," "2046" is a treatise on the nature of love and obsession and the toll it takes on everyone. Coupled together with a sci-fi story-within-the-story, written by Leung's Chow Mo Wan as a way to reconcile his demons, "2046" isn't simply a retread of "Love." The spectacular special effects work takes "2046" to another level, but the film isn't reliant on them. Instead, the beauty of the fake future world of 2046 accentuates the natural beauty of Hong Kong and Singapore, captured magnificently by Christopher Doyle. The story here isn't really important; it's well-conceived and executed, all the same, but this is a film that should be seen for its aesthetics. In a way that few filmmakers are able to, Wai tells an entire story through looks, textures, and feels. He's a silent filmmaker in that way, but when his characters do speak it's as if they're reciting poetry -- even when they're saying reprehensible things.