Scenes That I Love: Max Von Sydow Meets Death In The Seventh Seal


The Seventh Seal (1957, directed by Ingmar Bergman)

I had a bit of a panic attack earlier today when I logged onto twitter and I discovered that everyone was both sharing picture of the great actor Max Von Sydow and debating which one of his many roles was his best.

“Oh my God!” I thought, “Max von Sydow must have died!  2018 sucks now!”

I looked over at the trending topics and, to my shock, Max von Sydow was not trending.  However, Mark Zuckerberg was.

“Goddammit,” I thought, “Mark Zuckerberg is totally overshadowing the legendary career of one of the most important actors of all time!”

I was prepared to take advantage of the no-filter atmosphere of twitter and start screaming at people for not showing the proper respect to the life and legacy of Max von Sydow.  Fortunately, before I totally lost my temper, I decided to make sure that my assumptions were correct.  That’s something that I rarely do but I’m certainly glad that I did it this time because, by doing so, I discovered that Max von Sydow was not dead.

Instead, today was his 89th birthday!

Happy birthday, Max von Sydow!

What is Max von Sydow’s greatest role?  There’s so many to choose from.  He’s got a whole new legion of fans as a result of his appearances in last two Star Wars films.  Considering that he’s been an outspoken agnostic, it’s somewhat ironic that his first English-language role was as Jesus Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told and that he epitomized everyone’s idea of the ideal priest in The Exorcist.  He’s played assassins, saints, and intellectuals.  He’s twice been nominated for an Oscar.  When I asked my boyfriend for his pick for Max von Sydow’s greatest performance, he picked the Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon.  Speaking of famous villains, von Sydow also played Blofield in Never Say Never Again and let’s not forget the assassin he played in Three Days of the Condor or his role in Minority Report or his performance as Leland Gualt in Needful Things!  And what about his performance in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or his Emmy-nominated turn in Game of Thrones

Well, I could sit here and spend hours listing great Max von Sydow performances.  But, when talking about the career of Max von Sydow, you have to start with the films of Ingmar Bergman.  And when you talk about Bergman and von Sydow, you have to start with 1957’s The Seventh Seal.

(Some sites claim that The Seventh Seal was von Sydow’s film debut but that’s not true.  It may have been his first film for Bergman but von Sydow actually made his screen debut in 1949.  Before finding film stardom, von Sydow dominated the Swedish stage.)

In honor of both Max von Sydow’s 89th birthday and his amazing career, today’s scene that I love is from The Seventh Seal.  This haunting and atmospheric film is one that you definitely should see if you haven’t see it already.  Here von Sydow’s knight first meets Death (Bengt Ekerot*) and settles in for a game of chess.

Happy birthday, Max von Sydow!

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*While Bengt Ekerot never went on to achieve the type of international fame that von Sydow did, his performance here set the archetype of how Death, as a character, continues to be portrayed in books and films to this day.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Emigrants (dir by Jan Troell)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1972 best picture nominee, The Emigrants!)

Since I’m currently dealing with either a really bad cold or the onset of the flu (let’s hope that it’s the former), I decided that Monday would be the perfect night to stay up extremely late and watch a 190-minute Swedish movie.

The Emigrants was released in Sweden in 1971 and it received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.  Then, it was released in the United States in 1972 and it managed to receive four more Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.  The Emigrants was the third foreign language film to be nominated for Best Picture, the first film to be nominated in multiple years, and also the first Swedish film to contend for the Academy’s top prize.  (The following year, Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers would also become the second Swedish film nominated for Best Picture.)  At the same time that The Emigrants was nominated for Best Picture, its sequel, The New Land, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.  1972 was an interesting year.

The Emigrants opens in 1844, in Sweden.  Karl Oskar (Max Von Sydow) has married Kristina (Liv Ullmann).  Like his father before him, Karl Oskar is a farmer.  It’s an exhausting life.  There is never enough food to eat.  The weather is perpetually gloomy.  The harvest is always disappointing.  As poor farmers, Karl Oskar and his family face constant prejudice.  In Sweden, the only thing more corrupt than the government is the church.  After one of his daughters starves to death, what choice does Karl Oskar and his family have other than to escape to America?

As Karl Oskar’s brother, Robert (Eddie Axberg), explains, the best rice comes from the Carolinas.  The best farmland is in America.  In America, anyone can become rich.  Anyone can walk up to the President and talk to him without running the risk of being imprisoned or executed.  (In 1844, ordinary citizens could stop by the White House and make an appointment to see the President.  This, of course, would change decades later, after a disgruntled office seeker shot President Garfield.)  In America, Robert says excitedly, no one works more than 14 hours a day!  Even slaves can own land and make their own money!

The Emigrants deals with their Karl Oskar and his family’s voyage to America.  Karl Oskar and Kristina do not travel alone.  Kristina’s uncle (Allan Edwall) is with them and hopes that, in America, he will be allowed to freely practice his religious beliefs.  A former prostitute, Ulrika (Monica Zetterlund), is also with them, hoping a new land will mean a better life for both herself and her daughter.  Even Robert’s best friend, Arvid (Pierre Lindstedt), going with them.  It’s not an easy journey.  Not everyone survives the voyage to North America but those that do soon find themselves in a young and untouched country where anything seems to be possible.

Swedish cinema has a reputation for being dark and brooding but those are two words that definitely do not apply to The Emigrants, which is about as positive a portrait of America as you could ever hope to see.  Regardless of whatever tragedy may occur during the journey, this movie leaves no doubt that the journey was more than worth it.  It unfolds at a pace that is perhaps a bit too leisurely but, at the same time, it’s also an achingly pretty movie with shots that bring to mind the best of Terrence Malick.  In fact, there are times when the film is almost too pretty.  It’s possible to get so caught up in looking at all the beauty around Karl Oskar and Kristina that you lose track of the story.  Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann are both achingly pretty as well and, even more importantly, they’re believable as a married couple who are often equally in love and equally annoyed with each other.

It was interesting to go from watching The Grapes of Wrath to watching The Emigrants.  If The Grapes of Wrath was an American nightmare, The Emigrants is about as pure a celebration of the American Dream as you’re going to find.  It lost the Oscar for Best Picture to a far different film about the immigrant experience in America, The Godfather.

The LAFCA embraces Call Me By Your Name!


Awards season continues with the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.  Here are their picks for the best of 2017!

PICTURE: “Call Me by Your Name”
Runner-up: “The Florida Project”

DIRECTOR: Guillermo del Toro, “The Shape of Water” and Luca Guadagnino, “Call Me by Your Name” (tie)

ACTOR: Timothée Chalamet, “Call Me by Your Name”
Runner-up: James Franco, “The Disaster Artist”

ACTRESS: Sally Hawkins, “The Shape Of Water”
Runner-up: Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”
Runner-up: Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”
Runner-up: Mary J. Blige, “Mudbound

SCREENPLAY: Jordan Peele, “Get Out”
Runner-up: Martin McDonagh, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

ANIMATION: “The Breadwinner”
Runner-up: “Coco”

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: “BPM” (Beats Per Minute) and “Loveless” (tie)

DOCUMENTARY / NON-FICTION FILM: “Faces Places”
Runner-up: “Jane”

NEW GENERATION: Greta Gerwig

FILM EDITING: Lee Smith, “Dunkirk”
Runner-up: Tatiana S. Riegel, “I, Tonya”

CINEMATOGRAPHY: Dan Laustsen, “The Shape of Water”
Runner-up: Roger Deakins, “Blade Runner 2049

PRODUCTION DESIGN: Dennis Gassner, “Blade Runner 2049
Runner-up: Paul D. Austerberry, “The Shape of Water”

MUSIC/SCORE: Jonny Greenwood, “Phantom Thread”
Runner-up: Alexandre Desplat, “The Shape of Water”

DOUGLAS E. EDWARDS INDEPENDENT/EXPERIMENTAL FILM/VIDEO: “Purge This Land” from director Lee Anne Schmitt

CAREER ACHIEVEMENT: Max von Sydow

A Movie A Day #327: The Ultimate Warrior (1976, directed by Robert Clouse)


The year is 2012 and New York City, like the rest of the world, has been devastated by energy shortages, wars, and a great plague.  The few survivors now live in isolated communes and are easily victimized by roving gangs of marauders.  (On the plus side, this version of New York City has been spared Bill de Blasio.)  The Baron (Max von Sydow) has managed to keep his people safe by ruling with an iron hand but he knows that it will only be a matter of time until his commune is overrun by the psychotic Carrot (William Smith) and his men.  When a mysterious warrior known only as Carson (Yul Brynner) comes to the commune, the Baron tasks him with a very important mission: help his pregnant daughter (Joanna Miles) escape from New York City and transport both her and some genetically modified seeds to an island in North Carolina.

Despite being an obviously low-budget production, with studio backlots unconvincingly filling in for a deserted New York, The Ultimate Warrior is an entertaining post-apocalyptic action movie.  Yul Brynner was nearly 60 years old when he played Carson but he still had the intense stare that made him so menacing in Westworld and he still looked credible in the fight scenes.  William Smith was one of the best B-movie villains of the 70s and, as usual, Max Von Sydow brought a lot of gravity to his role.  Best known for directing Enter The Dragon, Robert Clouse was an action specialist and the fight scenes in The Ultimate Warrior are both exciting and realistic.  For those looking for a good post-apocalyptic action movie, keep an eye out for The Ultimate Warrior.

A Movie A Day #226: Citizen X (1995, directed by Chris Gerolmo)


How do you solve a crime in a society that refuses to admit that crime exists?

That is the dilemma faced by Viktor Burakov (Stephen Rea) in the fact-based film, Citizen X.  Burakov is a forensic expert in the Soviet Union.  In 1982, when a dead body is found on a collective farm, Burakov is assigned to investigate.  When seven more bodies are discovered, Burakov is convinced that he is dealing with a serial killer.  The problem is that the official Soviet position is that crime and, especially, serial murder are a product of western decadence.  With his superiors refusing to accept that a serial killer could be active in the USSR, Burakov is driven to the point of insanity as he both tries to stop the murders and keep his job.  Fortunately, he has the Machiavellian Col. Fetisov (Donald Sutherland) on his side but, even with Fetisov’s protection, Burakov is no closer to tracking down the murderer.

Citizen X is based on the crimes of Andrei Chikatilo.  From 1978 to 1990, Chikatilo committed at least 57 murders, with several of his victims being young children.  Though many were suspicious of him, Chikatilo was protected by both his membership in the Communist party and the government’s refusal to allow most of his crimes to be publicly reported.  It was only during the reforms of Perestroika that authorities were allowed to thoroughly investigate Chikatilo’s crimes.  Chikatilo was arrested in 1992 and executed, via a gunshot to the back of his head, in 1994.  In Citizen X, Chikatilo is played by Jeffrey DeMunn, who gives a very good and disturbingly plausible performance as the monstrous killer.

Made for HBO, Citizen X is a low-key but thought-provoking recreations of not just Chikatilo’s crimes but the atmosphere that allowed him to go undetected,  Along with DeMunn, both Rea and Sutherland give great performances.  (Sutherland won an Emmy.)  Max Von Sydow also appears, playing a psychologist who is given the unenviable task of trying to enter Chikatilo’s mind.

A Movie A Day #127: Brass Target (1978, directed by John Hough)


Everything’s a conspiracy!

At least, that is the claim made by Brass Target, a twisty and unnecessarily complicated thriller that argues that General George S. Patton (played here by George Kennedy, who is even more blustery than usual in the role) did not, as widely believed, die as the result of a car accident but was actually killed by an assassin using rubber bullets.  Why was Patton targeted for assassination?  Was he targeted by Nazis angered by Germany’s defeat or maybe Russians who knew that Patton had argued in favor of invading the Soviet Union towards the end of the war?  Would you believe it was all because Patton was investigating the theft of Nazi gold and his subordinates, the flamboyantly gay Colonel Donald Rogers (Robert Vaughn) and Rogers’s always worried lover, Colonel Walter Gilchrist (Edward Herrmann), were fearful that he was getting too close to discovering the truth?

John Cassevetes, who hopefully used part of his paycheck to fund either The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night, or Gloria, plays Joe De Lucca, the burned out OSS colonel who is assigned to track down the Nazi gold but who really just wants to go back home to New York.  Patrick McGoohan, sporting an accent that is supposed to be American, plays De Lucca’s former friend and colleague, Colonel Mike McCauley, who now lives in a German castle.  Max von Sydow is the assassin, who also has a day job as the chairman of a refugee relocation committee.  Sophia Loren plays Mara, a Polish war refugee who, by pure coincidence, has slept with not just De Lucca but almost everyone involved with the conspiracy.  Bruce Davison is the young colonel who acts as Du Lucca’s supervisor.  Even Charles “Lucky” Luciano (played by the very British Lee Montague) is featured as a minor part of the conspiracy.

That is an impressive cast for a less than impressive movie.  Brass Target never provides a convincing reason as to why the conspirators would decide that killing Patton was their only option and, once the conspiracy gets underway and the movie starts to follow around Von Sydow for some Day of the Jackal/Black Sunday-style preparation scenes, the search for the Nazi gold is forgotten.  For some reason, though, I have a soft spot for this frequently ridiculous movie.  There are enough weird moments and details, like Vaughn’s twitchy performance, McGoohan’s accent, the way Kennedy blusters about the Russians being rude to him, and glamorous Sophia Loren’s miscasting, that Brass Target is always watchable even if it is never exactly good.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (dir. by J.J. Abrams) Is the Sequel the Fandom Has Been Waiting For


Star Wars - The Force Awakens

[some minor, very minor spoilers]

When I first began this site on Christmas Eve of 2009 I had to thank the excitement I had for event films after seeing and experiencing James Cameron’s Avatar. It was an experience I hadn’t felt since the days of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and, even earlier than that, the original Star Wars trilogy. These were films that fired up one’s imagination, appreciation and love for film as entertainment and art. Some of these films would linger on longer in one’s mind than others, but that first viewing in their initial release would always imprint their effect on each viewer.

When George Lucas announced that he would be returning to that galaxy, far, far away with a trilogy of prequels almost 15 years since the world last saw Return of the Jedi premiere first the first time, the Star Wars fandom were giddy, excited and hyped beyond belief. The Star Wars films and the many spin-offs (novels, comic books, video games, etc.) which came about because of it only whetted the appetites of long-time Star Wars fans for more films detailing the adventures in the scifi universe created by George Lucas.

Yet, the prequels’ effect on these long-time fans would be the direct opposite of the effect the original trilogy had on the fandom. These three prequels (all directed and written by George Lucas himself) would do more than disappoint the fandom. It would create a schism between those who saw the original trilogy as the gateway to their fandom and those younger generation who never saw the original trilogy and had the prequels become their gateway to the fandom. Even to this day there would be some of the younger generation who truly believe that the prequels trump the original three films which began the franchise.

When news came down that Disney had bought Lucasfilm and everything which George Lucas had built and cultivated there was no chance in hell that there wouldn’t be another series of Star Wars despite the disaster which were the prequels. Lo and behold, it didn’t take long for Disney to greenlight the sequel to Return of the Jedi and have it set decades after the events of that film.

So, it is with Star Wars: The Force Awakens that the Star Wars fandom get to see whether their continued faith in the franchise was worth it or if they have been Charlie Brown’d once again and had the ball taken away at the very last second. It’s easy to say that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was great or it was awful. The true answer to whether this film succeeded in what it intended do was a bit more complicated.

Yet, if one was to look for an easy and simple answer then I’m happy to say that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was great. It had it’s moments of logic gap and plot holes, but as an overall finished product the film succeeded in course-correcting the franchise from the nadir it was at with the culmination of the prequels. It wouldn’t have taken much to surpass the very low bar set by those prequels, but The Force Awakens leapfrogged that bar and went even higher.

The film does begin thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi and we find out with the now familiar episode intro crawl that Luke Skywalker has disappeared since those events and the galaxy has remained in turmoil with his absence. The Galactic Empire has been defeated, but in its place a new danger in the form of the genocidal First Order has arisen from the Empire’s remains. Opposing the First Order is a sort of galactic force supported in secret by the New Republic and led by General (not Princess) Leia Organa calling themselves the Resistance. It’s the conflict between these two factions and the search for Luke that forms the narrative base for The Force Awakens.

The film doesn’t linger too long in explaining the events which occurred in that 30-year gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. It doesn’t need it as we’re quickly introduced to the series’ new characters in the form of Poe Dameron, the best pilot in the galaxy, who has been sent on a secret mission by Leia to find the clues as to her brother’s whereabouts. Next in line was Kylo Ren who becomes this film’s analogue to the Darth Vader figure of the original trilogy. Yet, the bulk of the film was told through the eyes of Finn and Rey.  The former is First Order stormtrooper who has seen first-hand what the First Order truly stands for and not for the betterment of the galaxy. The latter is a young woman living life on the desert planet Jakku scavenging the graveyard of starship wreckage from a battle thirty year’s prior.

It’s through Rey and Finn that the audience learns through their adventures upon meeting up with each other on Jakku what has transpired since the Rebellion destroyed the second Death Star and killed Emperor Palpatine. To these two characters, the events from the original trilogy seem to have passed beyond the realm of history and become more like legends and myths to the younger generation. Through a combination of fear and awe, Ren and Finn get introduced to some of the original trilogies main characters (Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca and even Admiral Ackbar). These are the stories they’ve been told of growing up come to life right in front of their eyes and their reaction mirrors those of the audience who haven’t seen these characters in anything new and relevant since the end of Return of the Jedi. The reaction alone to seeing Han Solo and Chewbacca alone seemed like the fandom’s collective cheer for the good that has been missing with the franchise for over 30 years now.

The Force Awakens is not a perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Like mentioned earlier, the film does suffer from some gaps in story logic and plot holes. As with most J.J. Abrams directed films he had a hand in writing the script and one could see where he sacrificed coherent storytelling beats for something that just pushed the story along the path he wanted the film to take. For those who have been steeped in Star Wars lore and backstory, this would be easily explained as the Force nudging, guiding and, if all else fails, pushing the characters onto the right path, but for the casual viewers it would come off as story beats of convenience.

As a story to bring back the faithful and lure in those still uninitiated to the franchise The Force Awakens straddles the line between nostalgia and trying to bring in something new to the proceedings.

Let’s begin with the former and just say it now that The Force Awakens does follow some major story beats directly from A New Hope (to a smaller effect from Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi). One could almost say that this film was a sort of soft reboot of the original trilogy with how it lifted ideas from them and through some writing and directing recombination come up with something new, but still very familiar for hardcore and non-fans alike.

Does this decision to lean heavily on the original trilogy for ideas hurt the film? For some it might be a bit too distracting to recognize too many callbacks to those earlier films, but for most it’s a reminder of what the prequels lacked and that’s the sense of adventure and fun. There was never anything fun about the prequels. The Force Awakens brings it all back and for most viewers this is the course-correction the series has needed since the last images from Revenge of the Sith faded away from the silver-screen.

Even the new characters introduced in this latest film were an amalgamation of the main characters from the original trilogy. Where Abrams and Kasdan changed this up a bit was to go beyond just creating new analogues for the classic characters of Leia, Han, Luke, Chewie and R2D2. They opted to take all the qualities fans loved about those characters and mixed them all up to be used in the roles of Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren and BB8.

As the standout character in the film, Rey (played by find of the year Daisy Ridley) would bring back memories of not just the young and hopeful Luke from the original trilogy, but also some personal traits of Leia and Han. The same goes for Finn who at times reminded us of Han’s roguish charm to Luke’s naivete of his role in the larger world he has finally witnessed for the very first time. For the half-empty crowd this might look as lazy character development, but those who see the film with the half-full mindset would easily latch onto these new characters. Characters who now take on the responsibility of moving the franchise beyond the nostalgia of the original trilogy and erasure of the disappointment of the prequels to new adventures with the next two films.

So, is Star Wars: The Force Awakens worth returning back to the franchise after the prequels or is it too much of a rehash of the original three films? The answer to that is a definite yes despite some of it’s flaws. For some the very flaws some have pointed out (too many callbacks, sort of a reboot, etc.) was what made the film a fun time to be had. It’s a return to the comfort zone the fandom missed with the prequels.

Will the next two films in this new trilogy follow suit and just rely too much on nostalgia to continue trying to satisfy it’s massive audience? Or will Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow (director of Episode VIII and Episode IX, respectively) move into new territory with minimal callbacks to those earlier films? We as an audience will have to wait til 2017 and 2019 to find out. Until then enjoy what Abrams and Lucasfilm has accomplished with The Force Awakens. A film which has reinvigorated a film franchise that has seem some major lows, but one which also happens to be one hell of a fun ride from start to finish on it’s own merits.

P.S.: Some controversy has arisen since the film’s release concerning the character played by Daisy Ridley. Some have been very vocal about calling her Rey character as a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the accusation that the Star Wars films have lacked for a strong female lead. An argument that’s as misguided and misinformed as that of the films being whitewashed. The films in the franchise have always had strong female characters. The accusation that Rey as a character in The Force Awakens is such a “Mary Sue” (a female character written and created to be the best at everything, no flaws) ignore the details in the character’s development.

What’s sadder is that some of the very people (film critics and writers) who in the past have complained that major films (especially blockbusters) have been lacking in very strong female characters have been the very same who see Rey as a negative and a character too good. This despite the character following in the very same footsteps in how her predecessors have been written (Luke, Han, Anakin). It’s an argument that is sure to bring heated debate among fans and detractors, but one that takes away from the performance of Daisy Ridley who should be one of the many breakout stars to come out of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.