Friday, October 31, 2008

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of those films that I have been meaning to watch for years. My dad bought the DVD for my mom several years ago, and it has remained on a bookshelf in her study all these years. But somehow I never got around to watching it. I had heard that Maria Falconetti's performance was tremendous, that the film was highly influential, and that many critics upheld it as one of the greatest films ever made. Yet I always resisted, thinking that it would be too long, or too confusing, or too dated, or, frankly, too boring. But seeing as I was home from school today, I thought I should at least give it a chance.

What was I waiting for? The Passion of Joan of Arc is honestly one of the greatest films I have ever seen. I try to avoid statements like that, but I really cannot resist in this case. All of my fears about it being too complex or long were completely unfounded. The film is under 90 minutes long, and the story it tells is very simple. It's not at all a traditional "biopic;" it is only focused on the last days of Joan's life, when she was interrogated and executed by ministers of the Church.

Maria Falconetti, who never again starred in a movie, plays Joan of Arc. She is without a doubt the most extraordinary thing about the movie; I can't imagine what it would be like without her. The film is shot almost entirely in close-ups, and thus relies quite a bit on Falconetti's facial expressions to convey the character. The huge range of emotions that she can express is incredible. Joan's character is established immediately from her entrance. The film's Joan is bewilderedn and frightened, totally overwhelmed by the circumstances she finds herself in. Falconetti never loses touch of the human side of Joan. In other films Joan might be seen as a fearless leader, uafraid to the death. But Falconetti's character clearly struggles with the questions the judges ask her about her relationship with God. She has a huge internal battle about whether to give in and survive or maintain her position. One of the most telling scenes comes when Joan is first taken out to be executed. A priest gives her one last chance to recant, insisting she sign a document that would let her live. Joan hesitates, but then sees a man digging her grave. As he shovels dirt out of the ground, his shovel tosses up a skull. After seeing this, she reluctantly signs the document. Of course, she will later deny this confession and be burned at the stake. Falconetti's performance in this scene, and throughout the film, really needs to be seen to be believed.

But there are other strengths in the film besides the main performance. The director, Carl Theodor Dreyer, uses one editing technique (a quick-cut montage) that I didn't even know was around in the 20's. It is used in the scene where Joan is taken to the torture chamber. The ministers threaten her with torture if she does not sign the document. As a man cranks a spiked wheel, Joan stares on in horror. The scene cuts back and forth between Joan's terrified face, the wheel, and occasionally the ministers. The shots get quicker and quicker until Joan finally faints. This scene is particularly effective, but there are others. Dreyer's use of close-ups and cuts between the various ministers in the interrogation scene are just as effective; they show how overwhelmed Joan is at all of these anonymous faces cursing and condemning her.

The script has no elaborate touches; it is very simple and is based on historical accounts of Joan's trial. However, there are some subtle nuances that occur throughout. For example, there is a great moment when Joan is sick in bed after she has fainted. The bishop tells Joan that the Church is merciful, and always welcomes back a "lost lamb." Joan reaches out her hand to the bishop, seeking comfort. He pushes it away, disgusted at the very idea that she would touch him. There are also some very noticeable Christ parallels throughout the film. I noticed these particularly in the interrogation scene, and also when several soldiers mock Joan and place a sort of makeshift crown on her head - a crown that she later wears when she is burned at the stake.

The Passion of Joan of Arc really is a flawless movie. Maria Falconetti's performance is rightfully hailed as one of the greatest screen performances ever. In addition, the film is fascinating to watch for its innovative camera and editing techniques. Regardless of your religious affiliation or your opinion about Joan, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a groundbreaking film that will deeply touch anyone who is not made of stone.

Verdict: A+

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Simon Birch (1998)

Simon Birch is one of those movies, I think, that can easily be seen as either deeply moving or severely manipulative. I think it is both of those things at different points. To be sure, the film takes several missteps in terms of tone and character. But it also does generate a fair deal of emotion based simply on the story and some terrific acting.

The film tells the story of Simon Birch (Ian Michael Smith), a 12 year-old dwarf growing up in Gravestown, Maine in 1964. Simon, very much a free spirit, is scorned by his parents and frustrates the inhabitants of Gravestown with his outspoken attitude, particularly his belief that God has chosen him to be a hero. However, he forms a friendship with Joe Wentworth (Joseph Mazzello), and Joe's mother Rebecca (Ashley Judd) becomes something of a surrogate mother to Simon. The film is told in flashback, from the point of view of the adult Joe (Jim Carrey), who is visiting Simon's grave and says that Simon is the reason he believes in God.

The search for identity is a major theme in the film. Joe, the illegitimate child of the beautiful Rebecca, is simply trying to figure out who his father is. Simon is trying to discern what God's purpose for him is. These two characters form a bond because they consider themselves outcasts. The script clearly sympathizes with them, but the viewer may not. There is one scene in church where Simon is supposed to come off as intelligent and free-spirited. I just found him obnoxious and arrogant.

Nevertheless, Ian Michael Smith does very good work as Simon. His performance has the humor, charisma and warm-heartedness necessary for the character. Joseph Mazzello is perfectly capable of playing the "normal kid," Joe. But when the script calls for great emotion on his part, his performance leaves something to be desired. Ashley Judd and Oliver Platt deliver solid performances of likable characters.

But in my opinion the standout of the cast is David Strathairn, who plays Reverend Russell. His character is stiff and strict and is thus in direct conflict with Simon for most of the movie. However, it soon becomes apparent that there is more to Russell than meets the eye. Yet even in his early scenes Strathairn never dissolves into caricature. His Russell always seems to be haunted; he is clearly hiding something under his calm and composed facade. What he is hiding becomes all too clear by the end of the film. Strathairn is a celebrated character actor who has gained deserved acclaim in recent years, with his Academy Award-nominated performance in Good Night and Good Luck and his role in The Bourne Ultimatum. This performance shows just how much Strathairn is capable of; he turns a minor supporting role into a full-fledged human being.

Yet despite its strong cast, Simon Birch has some serious script flaws. As mentioned before, the character of Simon does not always come across as likable as he is supposed to be. Also, there is one scene involving a Christmas pageant that dissolves into rather cheap, crude humor. And finally, the script often bashes the viewer over the head, telling them what to feel.

There is one simple but very moving scene that is a happy exception to this tendency. I won't reveal the full details, but suffice to say it occurs after a sudden tragedy that Simon had a big part in. It is late afternoon, the day is getting darker, and Simon is running away. A wide shot shows Simon stopping at the middle of a bridge and looking toward the sky in desperation. He is dwarfed by his surroundings. He yells out to no one in particular: "I'm sorry!" He turns around and repeats it again. The scene is touching because it seems like a genuine outcry of grief, there are very few gimmicks to tell us what to feel. I wish the same could be said for the rest of the movie, which is narrated by Jim Carrey and tends to be sentimental and mushy.

Still, Simon Birch is an effective movie. Despite some script imperfections, it does derive a great deal of emotional power from its touching story and excellent cast.

Verdict: B -
Note: Thanks to Amy LaCombe, one of my Dad's colleagues, for the suggestion to review this movie.

You can see that bridge scene I was talking about here. It takes place from 7:53-8:24.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Sting (1973)

When I first heard the news that Paul Newman had died this past September, I reacted with a fair amount of surprise. Not at the screen icon's death, but rather at my realization that I had never seen one of his films all the way through. How had this happened? I certainly knew who he was, both from his major film roles such as Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and yes, from the salad dressing. But somehow I had never really seen him in action. I remember seeing about half of Cool Hand Luke on Turner Classic Movies once, but I never watched the whole movie. Soon after Newman's death, I added Cool Hand Luke and The Sting to my Netflix queue, which were by all accounts two of his best films. Turns out Luke was temporarily out of stock, so I settled for The Sting, and popped it into my DVD player this weekend.

The Sting tells the story of Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford), a con man in 1930s Chicago. When one of his fellow friends and "grifters" Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) is killed by Irish mob boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), Hooker seeks revenge with the help of Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman). Together, the two grifters set out to pull a "big con" on Lonnegan.

That can only begin to describe The Sting, however. The plot takes several twists and turns over the course of the story. I won't begin to describe exactly what happens, because frankly I did not understand every twist myself. But The Sting really is not about following the plot to the letter. Most of the sheer entertainment from the film comes from the collaboration of Newman and Redford, who had previously worked together on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Both performers are charming and affable, particularly Newman. Redford has more of a dramatic role; he is playing a character who is essentially a very lonely person. But as strong as the two actors are together, Newman is arguably stronger alone. Perhaps his best scene comes in a card game with Lonnegan, in which Gondorff pretends to be a drunken businessman. Newman's arrogant, drunken, carefree character plays wonderfully off of Robert Shaw's uptight mob boss Lonnegan. It should be noted that in addition to Newman and Redford, Shaw is excellent in the villain role.

Another virtue of The Sting is that it never takes itself too seriously. Although the film does have moments of darkness, it generally has a light, comedic tone. This is established from the very first scene, which shows a Chicago with a very bright color palette. The film is also accompanied by a jaunty ragtime score, which adds to the mood.

The Sting is first-class entertainment. It is an unpretentious and consistently entertaining caper film graced by three top-class actors. If you have never seen a Paul Newman film, you owe it to yourself to check this out.

Verdict: A -


Hello everyone...and by everyone I mean the five people that might actually read this blog. For those who don't know me, I'm Sean, I'm 15 years old and ever since I can remember I have loved movies. Over the years, I've had numerous different cinematic obsessions. It started, I think, with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Then Star Wars, which I was lucky enough to see for the first time on a big screen when I was 6. After Star Wars, it was Indiana Jones. Then Spielberg's films in general. Then The Lord of the Rings. Several years later, The Godfather. I could go on, but you get the idea.   

Anyways, I recently decided that one of my goals in life is to become, for lack of a better phrase, "film-literate." First step? Prowling through my 1,oo1 Movies You Must See Before You Die book and, well, doing as the title suggests. That's probably an impossible goal, but it's a place to start.  I've also been reading a lot of Roger Ebert's reviews, particularly in the Great Movies section of his website, which contains some of the most insightful reviews I have ever read. Both of these sources have opened me up to a whole new possibility of what a movie can be. I recently watched (and was astounded by) Federico Fellini's 1963 film 8 1/2 and realized just how little I know about foreign film. Clearly this is something I need to rectify. 

Tonight, I was talking at dinner with my parents today about how I would love to become a film critic. It seems a perfect fit for me; it combines two of my hobbies - writing and watching movies. Besides, ever since middle school I've been accused of being "too critical" of movies. I always took that as a compliment, even if it was never intended as such. My dad suggested I start a blog to practice writing reviews. And that is how this blog was born. It's primarily for me - a way for me to keep track of all the movies I watch, and to practice writing movie reviews. I might stray from topic eventually, but for now I'm sticking solely to movies. Thanks for visiting, and enjoy!