The Decalogue: Ten (1989, Krzysztof Kieslowski)

Part of me desperately wants Ten to be intentionally over the top. The episode opens with a song about breaking the Ten Commandments. The Decalogue. And then the rest of it is just more of wondering if director Kieslowski and co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz are serious.

The episode is about two brothers–straight-laced, boring Jerzy Stuhr and–literally–a punk rock star played by Zbigniew Zamachowski. Zamachowski is the good looking one, Stuhr is the heavy. You know he’s the heavy because Kieslowski gives him a couple absurd tough guy scenes. Why are there tough guy scenes?

Because the brothers’ father has just died, reuniting them, and they discover he had a million dollar stamp collection. It’s de facto zany, only Kieslowski refuses to acknowledge the absurdity.

Ten’s also not well-made. Jacek Blawut’s photography is terrible, Zbigniew Preisner’s music’s weak, Kieslowski’s composition, the acting. It’s tragically awful.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski; written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieslowski; director of photography, Jacek Blawut; edited by Ewa Smal; music by Zbigniew Preisner; production designer, Halina Dobrowolska; produced by Ryszard Chutkowski; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Jerzy Stuhr (Jerzy), Zbigniew Zamachowski (Artur), Henryk Bista (Shopkeeper), Olaf Lubaszenko (Tomek) and Maciej Stuhr (Piotrek).


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Shame (1968, Ingmar Bergman)

Shame has three or four sections. Director Bergman doesn’t draw a lot of attention to the transition between the first parts, he hides it in the narrative. Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow are a married couple living on an island following a war. Not much information about the war, but they’re concert violinists turned farmers. Their problems are relatively trivial–von Sydow’s unsuited for their new life–and their bickering, while not exactly cute, reveals their tenderness and partnership.

Bergman moves Shame from this domestic drama territory into what should feel more familiar–von Sydow and Ullmann are suspected of being collaborators. Bergman is precise with everything related to the context of the war. He moves the war–its machines, its soldiers–through the existing setting. Through fantastic photography from Sven Nykvist and editing from Ulla Ryghe, great sound design, the war, which can’t surprise von Sydow and Ullmann, can’t surprise the viewer either. Except to recognize the lack of reaction. Bergman doesn’t desensitize, he encompasses the viewer in the despair.

And then Shame changes again. Because the viewer’s already submerged, the change isn’t jarring. It’s almost tranquil, even as the film’s action becomes more and more perilous, the relationship between von Sydow and Ullmann becoming poisonous just to observe. Everyone is trapped, viewer included.

The film hinges on the performances, of course. von Sydow and Ullmann are both extraordinary. He gets better material second half, she first.

Shame’s exceptional. Bergman’s conciseness, Ullmann and von Sydow; so great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman; director of photography, Sven Nykvist; edited by Ulla Ryghe; production designer, R.A. Lundgren; produced by Lars-Owe Carlberg; released by AB Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Liv Ullmann (Eva Rosenberg), Max von Sydow (Jan Rosenberg), Sigge Fürst (Filip), Gunnar Björnstrand (Jacobi), Birgitta Valberg (Mrs. Jacobi), Gösta Prüzelius (the vicar) and Hans Alfredson (Fredrik).


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Spirit of the Marathon (2007, Jon Dunham)

Director Dunham’s thesis for Spirit of the Marathon is a little iffy. He clearly wants to show the differences and similarities between marathon runners–Dunham and the rest of the crew have zero presence in the documentary, which is fine (eventually). He goes from the people doing it for fun, to people doing it for personal achievement, to people competing for the win. He does a fantastic job evening out the attention he gives each subject.

But he doesn’t really learn anything. Or, if he does, he doesn’t tell. The film ends with postscripts, catching the viewer up with the Spirit’s ostensible subjects. Only, Dunham completely changes how the documentary functions once it gets to the Chicago Marathon, where all the subjects are running.

And the marathon stuff is fantastic. Christo Brock’s editing is great throughout Spirit, but the flow of the actual marathon is phenomenal. It races past, with Dunham concentrating most of the attention on the two professional runners. It becomes a traditional sports movie narrative and no one else’s story is particularly interesting, even when it hints at high drama. There just isn’t time for the regular folks.

Spirit of the Marathon is a little shallow, but it’s never insincere. It’s just too bad Dunham couldn’t figure out a way for the marathon to be glorious for everyone, not just the professionals. He was undoubtedly restricted while shooting the actual marathon but his solution makes those postscripts seem disingenuous on the documentary’s part.

Still, pretty good.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Dunham; directors of photography, Dunham and Sarah Levy; edited by Christo Brock; music by Jeff Beal; produced by Dunham and Gwendolen Twist; released by Image Entertainment.


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American Splendor (2003, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman)

American Splendor has a little too much going on. Directors Berman and Pulcini seem to want to do something different–Splendor opens as a cross between a docu-comedy and an attempt at time period preciousness (which gets them into trouble later as the film doesn’t progress, visually, out of the eighties). Paul Giamatti plays Harvey Pekar from the sixties through the nineties. Harvey Pekar narrates and gets interviewed.

Berman and Pulcini don’t really give Giamatti a part so much as a comic book character. Splendor is the dramatized true story of Pekar, who dramatized his own life in a comic book. So it’s a comic book adaptation once removed or something. The filmmakers don’t actually do anything with it–Pekar, in the narration, recounts how he’d become a quirky, exploited outlier at the height of his eighties celebrity, but the filmmakers don’t do it much different.

Then Hope Davis shows up as Pekar’s wife. And Pekar’s wife shows up for a bit too in the interview sequences. If Berman and Pulcini only give Giamatti a caricature based on Pekar to play, they give Davis even less. When there is actual dramatic material–cancer, a foster child–the filmmakers go straight to summary. Splendor’s all artifice.

Maybe if Berman and Pulcini were better directors–Terry Stacey’s photography, presumably on location in economically depressed Cleveland saves a lot of the visuals–the film would work out better.

Giamatti’s really good, he just doesn’t have much material.

Splendor’s too slight.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman; screenplay by Springer Berman and Pulcini, based on comic books written by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner; director of photography, Terry Stacey; edited by Pulcini; music by Mark Suozzo; production designer, Thérèse DePrez; produced by Ted Hope; released by HBO Films.

Starring Paul Giamatti (Harvey Pekar), Hope Davis (Joyce Brabner), James Urbaniak (Robert Crumb), Judah Friedlander (Toby Radloff), Joyce Brabner (Real Joyce) and Harvey Pekar (Real Harvey).


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