Blind Spot 27: The Seventh Seal

There are certain rites of passages that go along with being a film fan: certain films or filmmakers that must be seen and experienced to have an understanding of film and how we have gotten to where we are in the artform. These include the films of Akira Kurosawa, Francois Truffaut, Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, to name a few. For the March Blind Spot film I watched my first Ingmar Bergman film, The Seventh Seal, and I can see why it has been such an influential film.

The Seventh Seal is a very creative film about a knight named Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) who is returning from fighting in the Crusades.  He is disillusioned and frustrated about religion, war and the meaning of life, which is understandable after such a brutal, pointless conflict. One day he meets the personification of Death (he looks kind of like what we think of as the Grim Reaper) and to avoid dying, Block invites Death to a spirited game of chess.

The story continues with Block meeting a group of actors who can’t see that he is accompanied by Death. There is Jof, Mia, and Jonas Skat. They all have varying degrees of faith and cynicism. Jof claims to see visions of Jesus and Mary but Mia does not believe her husband. Jonas is basically a womanizing cad

As the group moves along they confront the Black Death and those petrified of its power, and talk a lot about faith and obviously death. Block wants to be an atheist after what he has seen of humanity but there is always something holding him back from making that his belief system. He certainly does not believe in God but he can’t be a confirmed non-believer either so he is in a state of continual struggle and agony. He says:

“Why can’t I kill God in me? Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way – despite my wanting to evict Him from my heart? Why is He, despite all, a mocking reality I can’t be rid of?”

He goes on:

“I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me”

He reminds me of a section of the Book of Mormon where a man requires a sign in order to believe in God (see Alma 30). This unfortunately is not how God works. Jesus even tells doubting Thomas ‘more blessed are they who have not seen but have yet believed’. Those believers have a power in their life, a knowledge of who they are, and where they are going in the afterlife that ,can help them face any pain or evil. It can lead to poor choices when mixed with the desires of men but it still at its core has power.

It is this struggle with faith for Block that is almost as painful as the war itself. It’s an internal war that Bergman seems envious of those who believe and ready to punish them in revenge. One girl is burned at the stake for consorting with the devil, a theologian is beaten and scarred and a band of flagellants beat themselves into submission. All of these images are meant to show the pain of faith and the envy of those who do not believe (and are usually the ones inflicting said pain).

It’s kind of what Martin Scorsese was trying to do in Silence but without any of the impact or effectiveness (I absolutely despised the torture-porn fest that was Silence). In Scorsese’s movie the faithful are selfish and unfeeling because of silence where here they all suffer because of faith one way or another. God never said He wanted weak Saints!

While I certainly do not agree with Bergman’s cynical outlook on faith and spirituality it is still an interesting one. I appreciate he asks the question ‘what will happen to those who don’t believe who die and where is their solace?” I can see how these people are envious of the faithful and in a way want them to feel the pain that they feel.

I have strong faith, but I can see how to some “faith is a torment.” To someone like Bergman, God is silent when He should be saving the world from evil but to believers God cannot violate the agency of man. If he did he would cease to be God (this is a topic for a whole different discussion). He can guide us and comfort us but He cannot force obedience.

The ending with the dance of the dead was interesting because it felt hopeful and joyous after a pretty cynical film, and I like it when filmmakers end their movie on an ambiguous note.

The only downside to this film is I couldn’t help but think about Monty Python and the Holy Grail a lot. They were clearly trying to parody The Seventh Seal in many scenes especially with the flagellants, which is basically recreated in Holy Grail. Obviously that is a little unfair as a criticism but since Holy Grail is the greatest comedy ever made it was a little distracting!

As I am not someone who struggles with faith, I don’t think The Seventh Seal is anything I would ever watch again, but I’m glad I saw it once. I loved the black and white cinematography and the creative choices. It was different and at only 96 minutes is definitely worth a watch. It is a subtitled film (in Swedish) but I had no problem following the captions.

Have any of you seen The Seventh Seal? What do you think Bergman is saying about faith and religion (or the after life?)?

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Tomb Raider Review

After the disaster that was Warcraft you can imagine my hesitation in going to see another action video game-based film but I wanted to support a female-led action film so I went to see the latest Tomb Raider movie. This is directed by Roar Uthaug who undeniably has the coolest name in movies today, and overall its an ok film.

I must admit that I struggled with Tomb Raider for the first act. There was a ton of set up before she gets to the island and aside from a fun bicycle chase it was not engaging me. I even fell asleep and my friend had to elbow me to wake me up…Yikes.

But when she got to the island things got much better, and I particularly enjoyed when they actually got into a tomb and did some raiding! There were some horror elements, and I liked the various booby traps and puzzles. There is a sequence with a key to a door that is particularly entertaining. These scenes are the kind of fun B movie material I expect in a movie called Tomb Raider.

On the other hand, a lot of the movie could have used more silliness. It is way more violent than it needs to be with people getting shot at close range and other pretty brutal moments. All the characters are taking the movie very seriously even down to nobody questioning the validity of a cursed tomb. You think there would be one person saying ‘you are all nuts to believe this hokum’?

Even the bad Indiana Jones movies are pretty sarcastic and funny, and I wish there had been more of that spirit in Tomb Raider. I realize not everything can be Indiana Jones but even more of National Treasure I would have appreciated. I guess that is more my style for this kind of movie.

That said, my friend did say that it emulated the game very well so I’m sure fans will appreciate those details. And it is an overall entertaining film. It will probably have a low rottentomatoes score, but I bet if you read the reviews they will be on the edge of fresh. It felt similar to last year’s Power Rangers Movie in that regard (I prefer Power Rangers because it had a lot of heart but I think review-wise they will be similar). I would find it hard to believe anyone saying it is Warcraft level bad. It’s solid, watchable adventure movie. I just would have made it a little more fun but that’s me.

The cast also helps elevate it. I really enjoyed Alicia Vikander as Lara. She is a kick butt character but she is also vulnerable and gets beat a lot. I also liked that she has a moment of shock when she realizes she killed a man. It’s in self defense of course, but still I appreciated they had her acknowledge what she had done. You don’t see that in many action movies. Walton Goggins is scary as the bad guy (like I said. He’s pretty brutal) and Daniel Wu is great as Lara’s friend. If they had thrown in one character for comic relief or to be the skeptic (ala Simon Pegg in Mission Impossible) that would have been perfect but it was still good.

Overall, if you saw the trailer for Tomb Raider and it looked like a good time I think you will enjoy it. It’s not perfect but there is enough entertainment there to justify a matinee ticket price. I hope it does decently because now they have set up the world and her skills, I think Lara’s next adventure will be much better.

Pixar 40: Coco

I know I can hear you guys yelling at your screen ‘finally! She posts her review of Coco!’. It is long overdue, but I wanted to do it right because it is a movie that I loved. In fact, Coco was my favorite movie of 2017, and I saw nearly 150 new releases!

One of the great things that Disney has always done for little kids is help them understand the tough things of life. They have never been a studio that is satisfied to just make kids laugh. They took on themes of death, despair, frustration and anger in movies like Bambi, Dumbo, Lilo and Stitch and more. Pixar has also carried this torch with moving films like Up, Toy Story 3 Inside Out and Finding Nemo. Coco continues this proud tradition by being an important film about forgiveness, family and death. It is honest with children about the struggles of family life while still telling an engaging story with a likable protagonist.

Coco tells the story of a boy named Miguel who wishes to sing more than any thing else. Unfortunately his family is against singing and forbids him from entering a local talent show. On the Dia de los Muertos, Miguel decides to take the guitar from his grandfather Ernesto de la Cruz’s mausoleum to use in the show. This act of theft takes him into the World of the Dead where only his dead relatives can see him. He must get a blessing from a relative in order to return to the living and this is where the majority of our story lies. His dead relatives also hate music and want him to disavow it as part of their blessing. Then Miguel meets a man named Hector who is about to lose his spot in the Land of the Remembered unless his picture is placed on the offrenda.

In some ways Coco is predictable. We know that certain story beats are coming, but I thought they were executed really well and so they still worked for me. For example, when Ernesto proves to not be the person he is praised to be on earth it isn’t surprising but it still works because it feels surprising to Miguel. His response feels so genuine and sweet that it involves you into the story and his journey. I also love the way his relationship with Hector grows in a sweet and authentic way.

One of the things that has always bothered me about Bambi is we have this gut-wrenching scene of Bambi‘s Mother getting shot and then she is never talked about again. This is not a problem with Coco. The whole point of the movie is memories and how memories keep those we love alive in a tangible way. The song Remember Me tells us as much:

Though I have to say goodbye
Remember me
Don’t let it make you cry
For even if I’m far away I hold you in my heart
I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart

Remember me
Though I have to travel far
Remember me
Each time you hear a sad guitar
Know that I’m with you the only way that I can be
Until you’re in my arms again
Remember me

My Grandfather died in 2001 and to this day when I think of him I start to cry. I miss him now as much as I did those many years ago. There was never a person like him in my life and there will never another. When I remember it helps me feel him close by and that our love has power to make my life better.

Honoring and finding out more about our ancestry is something that is also a very important part of my religion so the themes of Coco really rang true for me. Miguel begins to understand this importance as he grows increasingly desperate to save himself and Hector. When he is pleading before Grandma Coco it is one of the most emotional moments I’ve had watching a film in a long time. Please Grandma Coco! Don’t forget!

The artistry in Coco is also phenomenal and I love that they introduced me to a whole new culture. Yes, I have seen The Book of Life but that didn’t feel as immersive in Mexican culture as Coco (partly because it is narrated by a white tour guide…). Everything from the marigold petals to the offrendas was moving, beautiful and interesting.

Fortunately, Coco is also very funny with wonderful skeleton gags that will definitely make you smile along Coco’s cute dog Dante getting into trouble. For people that thought The Good Dinosaur was too drab and Cars 2 was too silly, Coco gets the tone just right making it a joy to watch.

Some of Miguel’s family can be a bit off-putting but I think it is similar to the families in movies like Footloose or Dirty Dancing where they don’t want the children in their lives to grow up and make mistakes. They think they are protecting them when they are actually limiting their joy. This is why Miguel’s victory in the end has added meaning and power. He has come to know for himself who he is and what really matters in life- family, tradition, music and love.

In some ways Coco reminds me of Coraline. Both movies are about young children who must learn to love and forgive their imperfect families and go into a magical world that tempts them to throw off that family. They both must fight for who and what is right (and they are both visually stunning films to boot!). Miguel just like Coraline learns the value of a single human soul and once he understands that he will do anything to save Hector. It’s the connection with the Other that separates us from the animals and this connection continues after death with our memories. This is the message of Coco.

Coco is a triumph in every possible way. The message is beautiful. The animation is stunning. The music is touching. The look at Mexican culture is immersive and wonderful. It’s the last original film we will have from Pixar for a little while, and I am going to treasure it.

Overall Grade- A+

A Wrinkle in Time Review

For years I have heard the novel Wrinkle in Time is ‘unfilmable’, and I always wondered if this was true. The book is very special and not something that I fell in love with until I was an adult. It was too out there for me as a child but I read it about 5 years ago and was deeply moved by its story and the journey of forgiveness that Meg goes on.

I have read so many YA novels that have felt cold and cynical (cough Hunger Games cough) but Wrinkle in Time is the opposite. In many ways it is like The Giver, a story infused with hope and a character that comes to see their divine potential. Unfortunately like The Giver, the introspection that makes A Wrinkle in Time work as a novel is difficult to translate to the big screen. I was very hopeful that Ava DuVernay would be able to make it all work but sadly the new film from Disney is a frustrating experience.

A Wrinkle in Time tells the story of a girl named Meg (Storm Reid) who’s father has left on a scientific quest and has been gone for 4 years.  She has a younger brother Charles Wallace, who is a genius, and a boy named Calvin whom she has a crush on (Calvin is so great in the book but just kind of there in this film). Unfortunately with the loss of her father, Meg struggles to connect with other students, and is angry with her life situation. One day she is surprised by 3 magical visitors, Mrs Witch, Mrs Whatsit and Mrs Who, and she is led by them to help rescue her father.

This is all in the movie but it isn’t executed in a compelling way. In the book Meg is forced to make choices that cause her to grow and most importantly forgive. Here she is more told she is great and a warrior  but without having to make the hard choices. The ending of the book is much more convincing because it is her choice to confront the evil (even against the advice of others). In this film, it is more like she is presented with images, speeches and emotional things but never grows as a person. She feels the same at the end as at the beginning just more tired.

I said on twitter that it kind of reminded me of a Terrence Malick film but with a scifi story wedged in. I suppose one could go and enjoy A Wrinkle in Time on a visual level like a Malick film but at least his films have consistent characters who you follow throughout the art piece. Here we are introduced to characters that are then given very little to do besides present options to Meg and give speeches.It all becomes kind of tedious and frustrating.

A movie with a similar goal that works way better is 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are.  This is based off of the Maurice Sendak children’s book and sends its child on an existential fantasy. However, Max is forced as king to make real choices and his character grows so that he’s ready to forgive his Mother at the end of the movie. All the characters in Where the Wild Things Are give speeches but they also are well developed with conflict and personality traits that they struggle with. It makes the existential stuff work because we love the characters so much where A Wrinkle in Time let’s us down in that department.

I might also compare A Wrinkle in Time to 1981’s Time Bandits. Both films are messy and try to offer existential lessons (with similar villains) to kids. However, at least to me, Time Bandits is actually funny which makes it more enjoyable. Kevin has to face off against Evil but that is only after he has proven himself to be the smartest person in several time periods. He actively doesn’t take the advice of those around him but has to figure things out himself, which is very empowering to little kids.  By the end, he has become an independent character that is able to see past the greed that blinds so many others and defeat Evil. Time Bandits is also written by the Monty Python folks so it is at least has some humor in its favor.

Sadly A Wrinkle in Time wasn’t able to make Meg’s journey a compelling one. I struggled to stay interested as she was presented with advice and speeches but never asked to make choices. It’s frustrating because I love the source material and it had so much potential with a great cast and production values. Unfortunately, the script just couldn’t get there.

My advice is watch Time Bandits or Where the Wild Things Are instead or even better read A Wrinkle in Time!

Overall Grade- C-

I should add that the diversity in the cast is amazing and should be encouraged in future films.

Modern Mouse Radio: Life Lessons of Disney Princesses

Hey guys! I hope you are all doing great! Most of you know that I have a little podcast called Rachel’s Reviews  that I am extremely proud of. If you aren’t subscribed you should be because I produce pretty engaging content, much of it focusing on Disney and animation. Well,  last week I had the tables turned and I got to be interviewed on a podcast for once!

Josh over at the Modern Mouse podcast asked me to join him and talk all about Disney Princesses both official and not quite canon. In particular, we asked the question ‘which of the ladies carry the most social change and the best life lessons.”

I personally think all of them can teach you something and be a good example for kids but it was great having the discussion with Josh.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-lessons-disney-princesses-modern-mouse-radio-185/id1118717435?i=1000404142734&mt=2

https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/network-1901/e/53506883