Category Archives: Movie Reviews

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Director:  Carl Th. Dreyer

France, 1927

The Faces.  It is the faces that haunt you.  The faces of the judges are haughty and sanctimonous.  They sneer and despise.  They are fearful and confused.  The faces of the guards are ignorant and crude.  They are leering and mocking.  They are full of cruel, carnal glee as they torment their prey.

And we see the face of Joan–soft, sweet and innocent.  Seldom are we able to peer into such deep and honest emotion as we do when look at the face of Joan, played with such amazing skill by Maria Falconetti.  She shows a vast range of emotion–from fearful to peaceful, from shocked to amazed, from delighted to despondant.  Her face will haunt you for a long time.

The power of this film comes from Dreyer’s incessant use of close-ups.  They have been used many times before and since, but never with more artistic skill.  The film was shot on an elaborate, expense set, but we rarely see it.  Dreyer’s purpose with the film was not to make a period piece.  He did not want to focus on the externals.  He wanted to focus on the emotional and spiritual core of the story.  This is where the close-ups are effective.  By focusing almost solely on the faces, any artiface and distraction is removed.  All we can focus on is the characters and the spiritual struggle taking place.

The film is ostensibly about the conflict between organized religion and personal piety.  It illustrates this with remarkable skill.  However, Dreyer is so skilled he is able to obtain so much more from the story.  He is able to showcase one woman’s courage and devotness during a period of extreme persecution.  This is not an explicity religious film.

This film is generally regarded as one the greatest, if not the greatest, silent films.  It is one of my favorite films.  It is an absolute masterpiece.  Whatever you think of silent films, you should set aside your preconceptions and watch this film.

Rating: 10/10

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Director:  Mervyn LeRoy

USA,  1932

So begins the gritty prison drama, or at least an early incarnation of the genre.  Paul Muni stars as James Allen, a young man freshly back from WWI who wants to make a name for himself.  Instead of returning to his job at a factory, he hits the road looking for an engineering job.  He soon arrives in New Orleans, where he is falsely accused of stealing $5 and change.  He is sentenced to work on a chain gang.  The inhuman conditions eventually drive him to make a daring (and painful) escape.  He moves to Chicago where he finally gets a job as an engineer.  He works hard for several years, continually being promoted.  He ends up being one of the most respected members of Chicago society.  Along the way he meets a girl who discovers his past.  She uses this blackmail him.  He finally calls her bluff when he wants to marry the girl he loves.  The blackmailer turns him in to the police, who want to send him back to the chain gang.  The city of Chicago does not want him to go.  They feel he had paid his debt to society.  The prosecutors from Louisiana promise him that if he willingly returns, he will be pardoned after 90 days.  He agrees, as he merely wants to move on with his life.  Once back on the chain gang, the prison system soon recants on their promise.  He escapes once again, this time doomed to spend the rest of his life on the run.

It is imminently clear that this film has a social message.  The story is based on the true memoirs of Robert E. Burns.  He had hoped to expose the cruelty of the chain gangs.  One scene in particular that is highly effective is where Allen his plotting his escape.  The prisoners are working on removing railroad tracks.  He asks a fellow prisoner to hit the shackles on his ankles so that they will bend.  He will then be able to slip out of them.  This means that his ankle is being hit with a sledge hammer.  His desire to be free and the escape the torment of the guards is so strong that he is willing to endure this.  In the end it is implied that the injustice of the system has turned him into a fearful, desperate criminal.  He is willing to do almost anything to stay alive and free.

One particular movie that is of the same vein is The Shawshank Redemption.  Both are about a man wrongly accused.  Both are about a corrupt system.  Both involve escapes.  Shawshank is much more about the people and their friendships.  IAAFFACG is more socially aware.  It is effective at making us empathize with the convict.  Paul Muni does an effective job in his role.  He has almost a boyish quality about him.  In this movie it makes him seem like an innocent everyman.  Muni was also in Howard Hawks’ Scarface.  In that film, Muni’s boyish quality makes seem a childish truant, which is what his character essentially is–a heartless, sadistic one at that.

LeRoy’s direction is very good.  His visual style is not overly complicated, but it is nicely creative at times, and far from mundane.  There is a scene where footage of the chain gang working is overlapped with the picture of a calender.  The men are singing and swinging their hammers in time with the music.  The pages of the calender turn with each strike of the hammers.  I thought this was an interesting touch.   The final scene is also very memorable, as James Allen gradually faces into darkness.  Very effective.

Rating: 8/10

Brief thoughts on Eternal Sunshine

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Director: Michel Gondry

Writer:  Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Kaufman writes movies with uniquely bizarre premises and utterly human themes.  In Being John Malkovich, he deals with identity, aspirations, and the hard reality of existence.  Adaptation is about the creative struggle and the need to adapt and evolve with the circumstances.  In Synecdoche, New York he presents us with a stylized look at our perception of life and other people.  In Eternal Sunshine he searches through the meaning of love and memory.  All of these descriptions are trite, insufficient, and probably inaccurate.  They are, however, what I recall learning from and seeing in the films.

I just re-viewed Eternal Sunshine.  I think it is his best script, and one of the best scripts of the 00’s.  In all his films, Kaufman is able to create a bizarre world filled with eccentric characters that are surprisingly like each of us.  I have not had to deal with the rise and fall of a relationship like Joel and Clementine do in the movie.  I have had to deal with the peaks and valleys of ones.  I can most certainly understand the place memory holds in our value system.

I recently saw a lecture on the meaning of happiness.  The speaker noted that there are two main types of happiness:  that which comes from experiencing and that which comes from remembering.  This movie very effectively illustrates that there is a disconnect between the two.  The lecturer noted that people who moved from Ohio to California would say that they are happier.  They aren’t.  They remember the hard winters and are comparing their present experience to their memories.  We tend to filter our memories to extremes, either very good or very bad.  We tend to not place emphasis on the middle.

One of the many problems with Joel and Clementine in the movie is that they place more emphasis on present experience rather than memory.  In the end, Joel comes to realize the importance of memory, and its supremacy to the present.  Even though he knows his relationship with Clementine will probably fail, he is will to move ahead, if only for the pleasant memories of pleasant times.

The themes of this movie are similar to the themes of Dark City, another very good movie.  The two might make an interesting double-feature, even though the forms of the movies are very different.

Rating:  9/10

Playtime

Director:  Jacques Tati

France, 1967

Playtime is as unique a movie as I have ever seen.  It is a film that defies description.  As Roger Ebert says, “[It] is one of a kind, complete in itself, a species already extinct at the moment of its birth.”  It was directed by Jacques Tati, hardly well-known today.  He is the direct predecessor of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.  Tati’s alter ego, M. Hulot, is very similar to those comedy stars of the silent era.

Playtime essentially has no plot.  Rather, it has a series of themes and incidents.  M. Hulot is a character in it, at least on the periphery.  He has traveled to Paris (an ultra-modernized Paris completely of Tati’s imagination) for some sort of business meeting.  What type of meeting it is is rather unclear, and totally irrelevant.  Hulot is just one of many recurring characters in the film.  We are not supposed to know much about them.  They are just part of the landscape that Tati paints.

The comedy that Tati employs throughout the film is far from the physical comedy of the aforementioned filmmakers.  The film is full of sight gags, many of which are readily apparent.  At one point, an American tourist wanders in a building and looks at a travel poster advertising London.  In the picture we see a large, rectangular building with a London-ish double-decker bus in front.  She then walks outside and sees the exact same scene, a large, rectangular building (identical to the one in the building) and a bus (this time a green Paris-ish bus) in front.  At a restaurant, a glass door breaks.  The doorman quickly picks up the handle and pretends to open the door for the customers, even takes tips from them.  Toward the end of the movie, a number of cars travel around a traffic circle while carnival music plays.  All the cars stop.  After a man places a coin in a parking meter, all the cars start moving again.

I really enjoyed this film, though it isn’t easily accessible.  It is pure cinema, to use Hitchcock’s phrase.  That is, it relies solely on images to tell the story, or in this case, stories.  There is almost no dialog.  What dialog there is is completely superfluous.  Someone compared it to 2001, though Playtime has actually less dialog than that.  Most of the scenes are shot from a distance.  There are no close-ups, and very few medium shots.  You are able to see far too much in each scene.  This technique requires you to be observant, as we are not told what to look at.  Many critics have noted that you need to watch this film several times in order to contemplate all there is to contemplate.

One of the main themes is the affect that modern technology has on man, vice-versa.  I was reminded of the writings of Neil Postman, who spoke often of how technology changes the way we view the world.  In Playtime, technology, specifically architecture, determines much about how the characters act.  It is a Huxleyan future, one where people are lulled into ambivalence.

There are many aspects of this film that cause you to think.  There are also many aspects that cause you to smile.  Often, the same part of the film accomplishes both.  That is one mark of a great film, one that entertains while it enlightens.  If you are willing to give it your time, it can reward you greatly.

Rating:  9/10

Gone Baby Gone

Gone Baby Gone is the first film by director Ben Affleck.  As an actor, I am not that impressed with Ben.  As a director, though, he has shown himself very capable.  GBG is about a child abduction case.  It takes place in Boston, MA.  Helene McReady (Amy Ryan) is the drug-addicted mother of the abducted child.  Her sister-in-law, Bea (Amy Madigan) decides to hire some private investigators, Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), to augment the police investigation.  The police captain in charge of the missing children’s division is Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman).  His own child was murdered many years previous.  Patrick and Angie begin to work with the primary investigators on the case, Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton).  Patrick is from the neighborhood, and can talk with people who don’t talk with the police.  As the investigation continues, everyone starts to wonder if they will find the child alive.  Even if they do find her alive, she may not be in good hands with her derelict mother.

This is an emotionally intense movie.  It is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane.  Lehane also wrote the novel on which the movie Mystic River is based.  They are similar movies in that they both are set in Boston, and they both involve crimes against children.  They both contain characters with deep emotional scars.  I think Mystic River is a little better movie.  It affected me much more than GBG.  That being said, GBG is a good movie.  The acting is all very good.  I have been very impressed with Casey Affleck.  He was entertaining in the Ocean’s movies (Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen).  Last year he also appeared in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, opposite Brad Pitt. He was very good in that.  In GBG, he has a youth and innocence that contrasts well with the corruption that surrounds him.

The production design of this movie is very good.  It was shot on location in Boston.  Most of the extras were locals, many of whom are non-actors.  All this gives the movie a very authentic feel.  You get a real sense of the neighborhood.

Ben Affleck does a good job his first time as director.  He doesn’t rely on cheap emotional manipulation, or unnecessary cinematic tricks.  He tells the story in a very straightforward manner.  The pacing is very nice.  He takes the necessary time to tell the story, allow each scene a proper time.  I can’t say he will become as good of a director as other actors (Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford in particular), but he did good with this movie.  It helps that he is from the Boston area.  He was able to apply an intimate knowledge that some one else might now have had.

Though it is gritty, and very emotional (especially for a parent), I would recommend it.  It makes you think about things you’d rather not think about.  I questioned some of the decisions of the characters.  Yet, I wondered how I would react in the same situation.  I didn’t approve of them, but I really could criticize them.  I would recommend you check the content review of the movie before you see it (link to the right).  It is raw, and dark, but if you can deal with that, it is worth seeing.

Rating:  7/10