Monday, May 29, 2006

3-in-1 film review: Autumn Sonata, Animal Farm, Bulletproof Monk, and suggestions on ways to find a good film.

Some films are better than others. Autumn Sonata, a 1978 Swedish film, is among the better ones.

I was surprised to see Lena Nyman’s name in the credits. Lena had starred in the fantastic 1960s series of two films, I am Curious (Yellow) & I am Curious (Blue). Surprise turned to disappointment when I realised she played the minor role of the mentally retarded woman with not much screen time. Vivid portrayal though.

Enough about Nyman in a Liv Ullman and Ulgrid Bergman film. Liv Ullman plays Eva, the daughter of Charlotte (acted by Ulgrid Bergman). Both women were excellent actresses, and their expressions conveyed plenty. This was helped by the camerawork, with an emphasis on the actresses’ faces when they speak emotionally strained.

But that is not surprising. What is remarkable are the portrait-like scenes of the mother while her daughter plays one of Chopin’s preludes, a very plain expression, but with alternating undertones of happiness, disappointment and pleasure. Or the scene where Eva reads the contents of a letter aloud to the camera, her eyes piercing the viewer.

It is important to watch this film with the original Swedish audio and read the subtitles, rather than settling for an English dub. After all, the actresses have all the correct intonations in the voice, which in this film, counts a lot more than mere meaning of the spoken words.

Watching Autumn Sonata was definitely 90 minutes well spent.


One of George Orwell’s famous novels is Animal Farm, a satirical novel on Soviet totalitarianism. The 1999 film interpretation of Animal Farm cannot be viewed with the same eye that read the novel; in fact, the film interpretation is a severely diluted version of the original.

The story is narrated by Jesse, a farm dog whose litter of puppies were taken away from her. It turns out they were being groomed to become the private military of Napoleon, who seized power with the help of this Guard. The dog that played Jesse, and voice actress Julia Ormond seemed to fit their roles very well.

Most of the film remains faithful to the book, but there were some inevitable truncations.

The most disturbing part though, was the ending. The timeline in this film continues further than that found in the book, although not much elaboration is given. But the happy ending is not at all impressive. It is a mere return to the status quo, albeit a better status quo than under the previous rulers.

By providing a happy, all-is-well kind of ending, the film seems to shut down any further thought in the viewer’s mind after watching the film. The book ended on a depressing note that was left hanging, a question burning in the reader’s mind. This, is nothing.

I didn’t mind the film, but I think a re-read of the original text would have much more thought provoking and enlightening.


And, now that we have discussed the better films, let’s talk about the horrible one.

Bulletproof Monk (2003) is stuffed full of unimaginative clichés- prophesies, unlimited power, clash of cultures, street-smart daughter of a convicted Russian gang leader who happens to know the differences between Shaolin and Tibetan monks. And of course, a Nazi villain.

The movie concludes on a happy note, with the villain perishing and all. But the way in which it was executed leaves a bad taste in the mouth. The fight scenes are insubstantial, making the victory seem inconsequential.

A good waste of an idle hour or two, if mindless entertainment is your pleasure. Beyond that, Bulletproof Monk is best left untouched.

ps.- To date, this film reaped US$37 million worldwide, in comparison to its production budget of US$52 million. That's how bad it is. [source]


The rate of production of movies worldwide far exceeds the ability of any normal person to watch them all. And to watch lots of bad films just to find the occasional brilliant film is preposterous.

However, there are some filtration methods one can employ to find these rare films. A good film will generally make it across language barriers, receive positive remarks, its popularity persist for years past its release, and transcend technological barriers as the years go by.

If you find a dubbed or subtitled foreign language film in a mainstream movie source, chances is that it was good enough to warrant the effort to introduce it to foreign markets. Similarly, when looking for good English films, it will make sense to search for films that have been released successfully in non-English markets.

Films that can boast being nominated or awarded film prizes must have been markedly different from the rest to deserve that. Still, it must be noted that not all prizes are equal- some prizes are more equal than others. Also, some people prefer the stuff of Cannes than MTV.

A film that does not fade away despite its age should not be overlooked. Especially so if someone takes the time and money to release it on newer media formats, such as a 1950s film on DVD.

Autumn Sonata is one good example. It is old (28 years), yet available at a public library. It was nominated for the Academy Award’s Best Actress in Leading Role and Best Original Screenplay and also won various awards worlwide. It is Swedish, but also released with English subtitles and an optional dubbed soundtrack. It was transferred to DVD format.