Thankful for World Cinema- The Passion of Joan of Arc

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (Gaumont)

The first thing that needs to be said about The Passion of Joan of Arc in the state it currently exists is that it’s a miracle we have it at all. Several cuts vanished through the years and this one suddenly surfaces in a Norwegian mental hospital 25 years ago. Truly, the salvaging of some of these older films is at times miraculous and lends even more credence to the importance of film preservation. These works of art shouldn’t be lost and we can’t leave it to chance to find wonderful cuts such as these.

Second, is if you’re watching the Criterion collection version of this film opt for the Voices of Light soundtrack. Again an interesting note is that even though music clearly, according to all the records, was played when this film was screened Dreyer has nothing in his notes to indicate what that music should be, which is odd if you see his other work you know how exacting and precise he could be. So this is as close to an “official” score as you get and it is truly wonderfully done and moving and while it claims not to be a score it syncs beautifully with the images and story.

This film should be viewed for the performance of Maria Falconetti alone. It is often cited as one of the greatest in the history of film a fact which is also unique to this film considering how infrequently Falconetti acted on camera, however, this is no rote repetition of consensus. She is marvelous. It can truly be said this performance is well ahead of its time and reads like one of the greats of the 40s who had the benefit of sound. Falconetti needed no sound, no words and carries this film single-handedly in the rare performance that can be called a tour-de-force.

Lastly, there is the story itself and how it unfolds. I think it is likely one that transcends religion. Whether you’re inclined to believe Joan or Arc’s claims or not you see someone being horribly mistreated, you see one of the judges hurting because he believes her and you witness the tragic outcome of the tale.

This film is a masterpiece of silent film. You’ll note as you watch very few titles are actually needed. It manages through it’s unique visual style to communicate its tale very effectively. It is a must see.

10/10

61 Days of Halloween- It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment so I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown (United Features Syndicate)

It’s true that it would be hard to twist the philosophies and beliefs held by any character in the Peanuts gang such that you could call it a horror film. Although I must say waiting annually for a benevolent being only you believe in, having your friends mock you for it, and not seeing it is horrific; It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown cannot be classified as a horror film.

What it is, is a Halloween staple. What are holidays without traditions and for the triad of celebrations near the close of every year these specials are markers and mandatory viewing for each? There are plenty of reasons why.

Firstly, aside from encompassing much of what we already know and love about the holiday it adds some things to the mix and gives food for thought. Linus’s aforementioned obsession with The Great Pumpkin is the perfect illustration of a child’s elevation of the day.

What’s more despite its being loosey goosey with its pace and plot, its whimsy seemingly belying its 25-minute running time there is still a protagonist’s journey. Linus is subject to ridicule, manages to bring one person over to his side temporarily only to see him defeated in the end.

Yet there is still a humanity to it. Lucy, of all people, sets her alarm for midnight sees he’s not in bed and salvages him from sleeping all night in the freezing pumpkin patch.

The voice casting early on in these specials is great and remained so through the years for Charlie Brown specials came for years and years but the likes of Peter Robbins (Charlie) and the scene-stealing Christopher Shea (Linus) had to be replaced frequently as did the other kids.

Of course, you also have Vince Guaraldi’s music. A testament to his lasting impact is that you hear the first few notes of that theme and even without visual aids you know that’s the Peanuts.

It starts with a wonderful dialogue-free sequence where Linus and Lucy pick a pumpkin but it also folds in Snoopy’s plot line, which is typically no more than comic relief, so neatly. In the end he too has a journey, as many kids do, of wild imagination on All Hallows’ Eve.

There is a sequence of animation that has to it a touch of Disney-like surrealism and the whole thing has a much more refined and well-crafted feeling than the more emotionally involving Christmas special.

Yes, this short little film is a Halloween tradition of mine and I could go on talking about it but the bottom line is that it is the best kind of tradition, which is one that you don’t feel is an imposition but rather one that you relish.

10/10

Review- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (Warner Bros.)

It’s not easy to see a series you love come to a close. It becomes more difficult when you happen to be traveling when that final chapter receives its worldwide release. The difficulties I encountered trying to obtain tickets to a Harry Potter screening in Brazil may make an apropos footnote in another post but here they serve the purpose of stating that: it was hard to say goodbye and therefore it seemed almost fitting that it was difficult for me to make it to my first screening of the film.

While I stand by what I wrote in my series of articles entitled Keys to a Better Life as a Fanboy, hindsight has been beneficial in my viewing of the Harry Potter series; some have aged better than others but I believe, more so with this series than others, that the whole is truly greater than the sum the parts. Only now having seen it all can I truly see the enormity of the series. Whereas in each individual installment there was nitpicking to be done, or ignored, and the franchise became the Susan Lucci of my personal awards, The BAMs, now that it’s at its conclusion I can say it’s the greatest film franchise I’ve beheld.

Now what of this installment, you ask?

Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (Warner Bros.)

Firstly, the issue of cinematic bifurcation needs to be addressed. When Harry Potter announced they split the seventh book of the series into two films it became the thing to do. Twilight followed suit and it seems The Hunger Games will likely do the same and perhaps some others that I’m forgetting. Now I’m not naive enough to believe that the main motivation to do such a thing isn’t financial, however, there exists in this decision artistic possibilities and responsibilities: the possibilities being to cinematically craft as much of the adapted work as possible and the responsibility to make it vital. I also want to clarify that while there might not be the Shakespearean foresight to make a multi-part work such as Henry IV or Henry VI it also was not a decision made retroactively in the editing room so some jets need to be cooled regarding the split-finale phenomenon.

Michael Gambon and Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Warner Bros.)

All series of films have their own inherent logic and language and thus they develop their own shorthand and therefore the bifurcation becomes much less of an issue. This, of course, does not mean that you could walk in cold to Deathly Hallows, Part 2 and get absolutely everything (an example would be how quick and dirty the Polyjuice potion usage is in this film) but conversely I don’t want to be able to walk into the end of a series cold and be able to watch it without wondering what’s happening at some point because it usually means that at some point the integrity of the series has been compromised.

So yes, this film does stand tall on its own as a self-contained piece of art with the above caveats noted. As the trend progresses other films will have this as a barometer as how to handle this adaptation phenomena. My feeling is that works which have distinct tonal differences in the beginning and the end, as this does, (going from foreboding progressing to all out chaos) will be more successful in pulling off this trick.

What this film ultimately does is deliver the desired conclusion to this mammoth story in the desired fashion. The pace of the film can best be described as a slow but steady depression of an accelerator and a very slow release at the end, which for the narrative being conveyed is just about perfect. Mark Day, the editor who has been the unsung hero of the tail end of this franchise, does his best work in this film. He creates the best montage I’ve seen since Up and perhaps surpassed it.

Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Warner Bros.)

Much like the pace of the film the tone is also established immediately. In a fashion not dissimilar to the recent X-Men film the film opens with a series of tense, brilliantly acted interrogatory scenes. The heroic triad is immediately gathering information and plotting their next move.

These scenes are also brilliantly and dramatically lit and also establishes the visual motif of camera movement which is not altogether foreign to Eduardo Serra and it just adds that much more tension and gravitas to all the proceedings.

I try and avoid departmental punchlists replete with commentary but the production and crafting of this film make it such that it’s nearly impossible to avoid. Alexandre Desplat has quickly catapulted to the A-List amongst film composers and his work in this film is absolutely sublime, it’s omnipresent but not overpowering and over-accentuating the film, it’s there for the taking if you want it and if you listen to it in isolation it’s amazing but in conjunction with the imagery sheer brilliance.

Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Warner Bros.)

The Harry Potter films have also been through the years a bastion for lovers of ensemble acting, what’s most enjoyable about this film is that there are a number of paired scenes wherein the supporting players really get a chance to shine and have their moment and each one is more staggeringly great than the last. While I’d definitely contend that the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 was the showcase for Radcliffe, Watson and Grint, however, it should be noted that it is usually they who paired off with these supporting characters like John Hurt as Ollivander who here is pitch perfect and has more screentime than in the rest of the series combined. There’s also Ciarán Hinds who plays Aberforth. Warwick Davis, who does double duty as Griphook and Professor Flitwick, has a very tense scene as the former and is incredibly versatile. Then you also have among the supporting cast the incomparable Alan Rickman who over the course of eight films has steered his character unerringly along a very subtle and incredible arc.

Alan Rickman in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Warner Bros.)

Perhaps what sticks with you most about the film though is the beautiful chaos of it all. The film does not bow down to the artifice of its artform and focus too singularly on any one tragic occurrence and just takes it all in as quick as one might in that moment. Some things just happen and you learn about it when characters do and you don’t know the how and the where just the result.

It almost goes without saying that the effects are outstanding and are the best and most blended of the series. As for the 3D I have not seen it as such but I do want to and have heard that for a conversion it’s a job well done for a detailed summation of that aspect I’d point you towards CinemaBlend who does a great series about the 3D or not 3D conundrum.

Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Warner Bros.)

One of the barometers for the Harry Potter films, and for films in general, that I like to use is how is the ending handled. Now not that it’s a make or break but you do want the film’s last moment to leave a good, lasting impression. For example, I think that The Prisoner of Azkaban really dropped the ball with an ending that was tonally discordant when the darker chapters had just begun and a bit more restraint was needed. This film, however, ends perfectly and as I’d expected the epilogue was more effective on the big screen than it was in the book as it seemed to be created for the big screen.

It is my assessment that Harry Potter is the greatest franchise I’ve beheld and it is to my delight and relief that it has concluded with the greatest cinematic chapter it has yet told.

10/10

Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Warner Bros.)

Review- Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog in Chavet cave. (IFC Films/Sundance Selects)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is Werner Herzog’s meditation on the cave art which was discovered when the Chauvet cave in France was first unearthed in 1994, a sight that is seen by a privileged few human eyes. Meditation is an apt word for it also, for while these examples of cave art are the best preserved, some of the oldest and most detailed we’ve found there’s still plenty about them shrouded in mystery which scientists of varying disciplines are trying to piece together.

This lack of certainty with regards to the subject leads this to be a documentary of a more poetic nature, which makes Werner Herzog the perfect director to tackle the subject. Herzog has shown in his documentary work not only the ability to write illuminating narration and deliver it exceedingly well but also to make almost any subject fascinating, render it in an interesting fashion and find an emotional angle in which to attack it.

The attack in this instance is somewhat deterred by some production restraints that are placed on the film by the curator of the cave. While perhaps there’s too much time dedicated to discussing them they do have bearing on the story in two manners: firstly, it’s a Herzog documentary and whether you like it or not he will be involved in it. He’s not one to distance himself from his subject. Second, it does illustrate the efforts that researchers are taking to maintain the pristine conditions of the cave so they can continue to study it without any more degradation than necessary.

Despite lighting limitations there are many wonderful images captured within the cave and as any true artist would Herzog uses the limitations to his advantage. One prime example which you see frequently is the camera hardly moves, the light pans over to it; the light level changes, shadows emerge and then fade to black. It makes the transition more natural than it would be with ideal lighting conditions and its exploited well.

Heightening the poetry and emotion of the piece beyond what it should realistically be expected to achieve is the music. The scoring of this film echoes a timelessness and a message being conveyed across the aeons that is difficult to communicate in words.

While the film isn’t as tightly edited as it could be there are sequences within in it that are like pieces of music themselves with crescendos and then silences and then the extended montage of just cave images that they were able to shoot closer since research for the year had been concluded.

The interviews are also pivotal, thankfully they weren’t too numerous if anything at times an intercession was lacking but the positive that came from them was that they were revealing attempts to elucidate the impossible.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams owes much of its success and some its struggles to its subject matter. The subject matter couldn’t be more interesting: it’s a fascinating examination of unanswerable mysteries of a bygone era and the dawn of man. However, much is unexplained, which allows your imagination to work and that’s good but leaves you in search of some closure. Regardless, Herzog does add a nice button connecting the cave to the modern day in a very creative way and it’s a film well worth seeing.

8/10

Review- The First Beautiful Thing

Aurora Frasca, Micaela Ramazzotti and Giacomo Bibbiani in The First Beautiful Thing (Palisades Tartan)

The First Beautiful Thing is an Italian film which can be characterized in a few different ways but it’s mainly a biopic without the celebrity and a character study without the self-indulgence. It concerns Bruno (Valerio Mastrandrea) who returns home to see his estranged family as his mother is terminally ill in the hospital.

The first interesting thing about this film is that it tells simultaneous tales in a fractured narrative, which unapologetically, artistically flows back and froth in time unannounced. Thus, we first meet Bruno and his sister Valeria when they are quite young and their mother is being awarded “Prettiest Mom” at a beauty pageant at random. This scene is mirrored beautifully at the climax and we truly see why it was so crucial to have that scene be first. Bruno and his mother saw that event in very different ways; Bruno’s view being similar to his father and to an extent it shaped both him and his relationship with his mother.

This film doesn’t put on any airs when dealing with intra-familial relationships and shows them for what they are. Cultural attitudes, the estrangement and the scenario allow them to be more open than they might be otherwise but there’s still a lot of imperfection, unconditional love and silent forgiveness shown throughout. This is a film that could very easily go into over-the-top melodrama but it is beautifully restrained throughout and slowly lets go of the reins allowing for a catharsis only at the end of the film.

This film is littered with very good performances. Ultimately, it’s the kind of film wherein it would get tedious to cite them all when there are many other facets of them film also worthy of attention. However, consider this each of the three main characters have more than one actor playing them. The children have 3 stages: child, teen and adult and there’s a young version of the mother and an elderly one. All of of them are quite strong an each is playing one character in such a way that we can see the trajectory of their life. Bruno, for example, is now professor, afraid of committing, hooked on drugs, stone-faced and wary of seeing his family anew. The actors playing Bruno in earlier moments chronologically have to make this interpretation acceptable and possible and they do.

The film plays out as a tragicomic one as there are certainly moments of genuine laughter and joy and moments that can and likely will bring tears to your eyes. It strikes a delicate balance of poking fun at truths we know about family life and also knowing what draws us in and brings us back home no matter how prodigal we may be.

Similarly coming off an absolutely absorbing and wrenching climax you get a quietly resolute denouement that ends the film on just the perfect uplifting note after the expected occurred.

The First Beautiful Thing, as intimated above, is accomplished technical film. The edit works quite well aesthetically and technically to blend time. The cinematography is often lush and places us in the right perspective to properly absorb the emotion of a scene (whether in overhead, creative over-the-shoulder or wide). The score and occasional use of source music, especially the songs the kids sing with their mother, is spot on.

This is one of the best films I’ve seen to date this year. It’s the kind of film you feel as if you experience not merely watched. It’s engaging on all levels.

10/10

The 83rd Annual Academy Awards

I decided that I would not write during what portion of the red carpet I did watch as attention must be paid. Overall, while in the end there was nothing that will likely go down as a historic Oscar look. It was one of the better looking overall displays I can remember.

I don’t know when this half-hour pre-show started (it wasn’t that long ago). I never really cared for it and it’s a little superfluous and just makes the show end later. Why does it still happen?

Begnini’s celebration is my least favorite acceptance moment. For the record.

You gotta love Steven Spielberg. Wiping the producer’s forehead and giving him water is classic.

Like the opening montage of best picture nominees. Why not the end shot from Inception?

Great opening with Anne Hathaway and James Franco. Great joke in the opening about James ‘appealing to a younger demographic.’ Glad to see the families get introduced.

Tom Hanks presents as Gone with the Windand Titanic get mentioned. Art Direction and Cinematography mentioned early in the show is a nice change. This was not a category I was looking for an upset in Alice in Wonderland takes Art Direction. Shocked.

First, applause of the night upon hearing Wally Pfister’s name called for Cinematography. Very well deserved award. Loved his speech in regards to Nolan.

Another pleasant surprise and the first standing ovation of the night as Kirk Douglas is introduced.

Douglas’s shtick may go down as one of the moments of this year. Also, I have to see Animal Kingdom. It has been decided.

I stand corrected Leo’s speech.

“I’m Banksy”
-Justin Timberlake

Awesomely amazing line.

I said it previously I would be rather happy if The Lost Thing got animated short. Congratulations.

Toy Story 3 wins Best Animated Feature. I knew that already.

Didn’t really like that Screenplay got the short shrift in terms of presentation. No excerpts or anything. Surprised but gladdened by the win for The King’s Speech. I also think that winners should realize there are 23 other winners who all deserve their time to do their thanks and shouldn’t risk taking some time from others.

I want to see In a Better World but am a little surprised it won. It’s the 3rd Danish winner and surprisingly the first since 1959.

Am I the only conspiracy theorist who thinks clips are based on one’s chances of winning? That was not the best scene for Mark Ruffalo at all.

Best part of Bale’s speech was his saying he’d dropped the F-bomb enough already. Oscar-winner or not he’s had plenty of other wonderful and worthy performances not the least of which is the one that launched his career many years ago, Empire of the Sun. All roads lad to Spielberg.

I’ll bet the theme from E.T. has been played at the Oscars every year since 1982. It always makes the closing medley.

OK, so does Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch winning mean that the trend away from composers towards current/former recording artists is going to stick?

First, winner I was extremely geeked about in a while. Sound mixing goes to Inception. And there goes another sweep in the sound categories. I wish I had stats for it but I bet it happens a lot. I have also enjoyed how everyone is thanking Chris Nolan first, almost as if they are trying to subtly point out his being snubbed for Best Director.

I really wish that more time would be spent on the technical awards maybe a special after the earlier presentation. Some really awesome technology gets kind of glossed over.

I need to look into the other Make-Up nominee that I hadn’t heard of, The Way Back. Looks sweet.

Leave it to President Obama to have the best choice as best Oscar-winning song. I’m a little tired of these categories that flex their nominations between three and five. Pick a size. Really, only four songs were nominated? Why? The process is intricate but music is where you can add to your appeal if you’re looking to boost ratings. I was floored when “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” won that scored high enough to be nominated and win but yet this year songs by Eddie Vedder, Alanis Morissette and Justin Bieber didn’t?

Kudos to Luke Matheny not only on the win but on plugging all the nominees who are iTunes. They were great.

The best, most entertaining part of the night was the musical montage.

Inside Job wins and now I never want to talk about Banksy again.

Billy Crystal comes on for a bit. Always glad to see him back.

Inception wins visual effects and stops Alice’s unthinkable streak.

Jude Law and Robert Downey, Jr. should do something together that’s not as “Holmesy” that was pretty funny stuff.

Listening to the other nominees actually got me rooting for Randy Newman for the first time in years. Some sleepy stuff in there.

Complete and utter failure this year in the “In Memoriam” montage. Firstly, with the lives singing people who were shown didn’t get their due applause like they did in previous years and first the SAG Award show excluded Corey Haim and now the Oscars did too. I assure you he is missed by many film fans and is exclusion is a joke.

Tom Hooper wins for The King’s Speech. Dare they split it?

Best story told by a winner tonight has to be Hooper’s tale about how his mom found out about the play and said “Tom, I just found your next film.”

They were at it again. Kevin Brownlow is a man who has more than earned his Life Achievement award. For all intents and purposes he pioneered preservation and restoration of films and brought many silent films back from the dead. Here is a link to Kevin Spacey’s speech about him at the Governor’s Ball.

I also found it a little humorous that they said Jean-Luc Godard was sorry he couldn’t be there.

This congratulatory intro to lead acting categories is also making it take a lot longer than it has to.

It looks like there’ll be no surprises in the acting categories.

Congratulations to Colin Firth for his win. It’s his first but it shouldn’t be. If you haven’t seen A Single Man you most definitely should. It’s good to know that some people do get their due.

Listing the previous winners and nominees in the Best Picture category is a great way to lead off the Best Picture montage.

The King’s Speech wins Best Picture and now I can rest comfortably.

The finale was a fanastic and needed addition to the show. It was either ending on a jubilant note or a down one based on where my rooting interest were. if they keep this up it’ll be a fantastic close every year. Great job, P.S. 22.