Tuesday, 16 January 2018

You Should See This: Jeanne La Pucelle (1994)

What’s It All About?
Jacques Rivette’s two part, five hour and twenty minute, epic documents the last two years of the life of Joan of Arc (Sandrine Bonnaire), from her initial attempts to meet with the Dauphin of France (André Marcon) and convince him that she was sent by God to lead his armies, to her capture and execution.

You Should See It Because
The story of Joan of Arc has always fascinated me; a young woman, just sixteen when she set out, of such faith and conviction that she would put herself not just in harm’s way but insist on being at the head of the army, so certain was she that it was God’s will, and that only she could win this war for the man she saw as the rightful king, and thus God’s representative on Earth. It is no surprise that the story has been repeatedly adapted to film, it is inherently fascinating, dramatic, and provides an irresistibly challenging role for any young actress asked to take it on.

Some versions have taken a ‘print the legend’ approach, but it seems that Rivette has tried to stick as closely as possible to what are seen as most likely to be the facts of Jeanne’s life and death. The film divides into two parts: The Battles and The Prisons, but the splitting of the film feels as arbitrary as the titles of the chapters. It takes over 90 minutes for the first battle to happen in The Battles, and longer for Jeanne to finish her battles and be imprisoned during The Prisons. The way to experience them is as a single narrative. That’s certainly an investment of time, but it allows you to immerse yourself in the story and in the film’s greatest asset; the astonishing performance given by Sandrine Bonnaire.

At 26 when the film was shot, Bonnaire is perhaps outwardly a little mature for the 16 year old Jeanne, but that works for the character because one has to believe that Jeanne must have possessed an air of maturity, a gravitas that would enable her to win followers and to get the Dauphin to entrust her with an army (even if that was the act of desperation that many historians now suspect it to have been). Bonnaire plays Jeanne as an uncommonly centered person, as someone with such belief in both the truth and the rightness of her cause that her certainty gives her the power to brush away concerns and to inspire others. Jeanne is not particularly subtle, but Bonnaire’s work is, she’s often best in quiet moments, letting several thoughts cross her face all at once. An especially good example of this is at the sentencing after her trial, when Jeanne is asked to ‘abjure’, to say that all she did was wrong, that she was never commanded by God, that she should not have cut her hair or worn men’s clothes to fight. She signs, under threat of being burned to death. Bonnaire gives us everything here: Jeanne’s certainty that she is lying by signing this statement, her consideration, her fear, her resignation and her shame. 

This is just one example of how Bonnaire builds a complex portrait of Jeanne, taking a legend and making her human. This is something we also see in the moments that Jeanne isn’t arguing her case, trying to win allies, or for moving ahead to the next battle. Rivette actually has little apparent interest in the battles, instead finding human moments to illuminate his and Bonnaire’s Jeanne. Whether it’s little moments of connection with soldiers who simply want to meet her and be inspired or a beautiful moment when the daughter of one of her captors asks Jeanne to bless her rosary, Jeanne tells the girl to ask her younger sister to touch it instead, that it will just as surely be blessed by her hand, these little scenes bring the character and the performance vividly to life. Just occasionally, we see Jeanne as the young woman she might have been if it weren’t for her calling; a few moments of lightness with her men and with the daughters of her captors. On the other side we see her in brief moments of doubt, or in pain, most notably when she’s told that she is to be burned to death. In that moment all of the toughness that Jeanne was perhaps faking to begin with and which we see grow for real throughout the film is stripped away and there is just a scared little girl. It’s devastating. Bonnaire is certainly a well-regarded actress, but I’ve long thought that she’s somewhat undervalued, and her work here is up with some of the best performances I can remember seeing.

Despite the title of the first part of the film, Jacques Rivette isn’t especially interested in battles. Of the film’s five hours and twenty minutes, perhaps five depict actual battle sequences. What interests Rivette is the process of getting to those battles and Jeanne’s influence during them, whether as a strategist or as an inspirational figurehead. The film shows Jeanne as part of a larger machine of war; an important part, an influential part (at least up to a point) and a forceful part, but a part rather than a general leading her army out from the front. The battles themselves are largely related to us by characters speaking to camera, almost as if this is a retrospective documentary about Jeanne’s life. What we see for the most part are the moments before and after, the interaction between the people fighting these battles is what interests Rivette.

While he’s clearly no action director, Rivette gives us what feels like a realistic portrait of 1430 (though without the visceral grime of something like Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh and Blood) and his grounded camera means that you feel as though you are watching events unfold in a naturalistic way, adding to the humanising effect of Bonnaire’s performance. The film is lengthy and exhaustive, but it’s never dull. The politics are probably not well known to an English speaking audience, but the film, having allowed you to view the events on what feels like an intimate level, makes you want to learn more rather than become disconnected when you don’t have full context. It is interesting what Rivette chooses to leave out. Parts of Jeanne’s journey and her battles are largely described, but there is one other glaring omission. Her trial is dismissed with a single title card, and we are taken directly to her sentencing. I believe that this is essentially Rivette saying that there are already two outstanding films that deal exclusively with the trial, and that we should simply watch one or both of those. Some day I am tempted to try this, slotting a viewing of Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc in when that title card comes up.

Like its star, I don’t know that this film has ever entirely got its due. Some may be disappointed that it doesn’t lean more heavily on depicting the fighting of Jeanne’s war, but for me it’s a riveting exploration of everything surrounding those battles, anchored by an astounding performance that brings a fascinating historical figure to vivid and believable life.

How Can You See It?
Both parts are available on UK DVD from Artificial Eye. There is a slight discrepancy in their pricing on Amazon right now. Part one can be had for under £4. Part two is a little more than £85. I’m not sure why. The DVDs are serviceable, but the source print on Part two is noticeably worse and both would benefit from a proper restoration and a Blu Ray release, perhaps for next year’s 25th anniversary? 

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

You Should See This: In A Valley Of Violence (2016)

What’s It All About?
Having deserted the Army, Paul (Ethan Hawke) is making his way to Mexico. He cuts through a town called Denton, where Mary-Ann (Taissa Farmiga), a young woman who helps run the hotel, takes a shine to him and he makes an enemy of and humiliates local troublemaker Gilly (James Ransone), who also happens to be the son of the town marshal (John Travolta). After he’s run out of town, Gilly and his friends show up for revenge, killing Paul’s beloved dog and leaving him for dead. But Paul’s not dead, and that’s not good for Gilly.

You Should See It Because
I approached this film with a certain amount of trepidation. For a while I had been hearing effusive praise for Ti West’s earlier films, House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers, both of which I found grindingly tedious. I had warmed a little more to his Jonestown inspired The Sacrament, but still wasn’t persuaded that he was the great force in genre cinema that some seemed to consider him. In A Valley Of Violence doesn’t magically make me a fan of West’s earlier work, but to my mind it does see him mastering what I think he’s been trying to do for some time; straddling the line between honest homage, tongue in cheek tribute and making his own distinct entry in genres he loves. In that way this is both his Western (it looks especially to the Man With No Name films and High Plains Drifter) and to some degree his action film (the story, though this may be a coincidence, plays much like John Wick reset in the old West).

There are plenty of reasons that you should see In A Valley Of Violence but the first and most compelling, as it is for so many of the films he’s in, is Ethan Hawke. Over the past few years Hawke has moved increasingly into genre cinema and, while there have been duds like Getaway and 24 Hours To Live, he often manages to find interesting ideas and roles within a genre space. In this way Hawke’s a perfect leading man for West, and ideally cast as the disillusioned soldier who has seen too much blood and killed too many men. Initially, when Paul talks  (mostly to his dog) about his wife, we assume that she died or was killed. Later on, we learn that it is his shame at the man he’s become that keeps him from going back to her, and it’s touches like this in West’s writing and Hawke’s performance that lend Paul some emotional depth, which could easily have gone missing, especially in the bloody second half of the film. The world-weariness of Paul comes through in everything Hawke does here. It’s in the way he talks; a gravelly sound that has to be pulled from him and is often more a grunt than a word, but it’s also in the way he metes out violence. Paul’s violence, his vengeance for his dog, feels like something he’s obliged to do. There’s no pleasure in it, no victory. Violence is unpleasant, he seems to think, but sometimes it’s the principal of the thing.

Ti West seems to favour a slow burn approach to pacing his films. For me he took this to painful extremes with House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers, but here I felt that he was building to something. Nothing much happens for some time during the first scene in the saloon in Denton, but we’re getting a sense of the place of all the characters in the town: Gilly the one who is likely to fly off the handle, the one his friends look to for both guidance and permission. All the while, Hawke sits at the bar, trying not to be noticed, hoping he won’t be drawn into something. West draws tension from Hawke’s stillness in this and other scenes, contrasting it with Ransone’s increasingly nervous energy. This translates to the second half, an extended sequence that sees Paul hunting down the three men that helped Gilly kill his dog (one of them, almost inevitably, played by Larry Fessenden) while the marshal and his men try to gain the upper hand. West allows this to play out with a mix of humour and tension. Rather than exploding in a barrage of bullets he keeps the gunshots rare, the characters have to choose their moments to fire, which makes each more effective, both within the story and in the effect it has on us. 

The time that West takes setting up the town pays off in the action of the second half because he gives us a real sense of place. The space is well established and the confrontations often unfold in wider shots, giving us a clear sense of the spatial relationships in the action. West is clearly enjoying himself when he’s paying explicit tribute to the westerns he loves (the animated titles, for instance, riff brilliantly on the Man With No Name trilogy) but he’s also capable of finding many striking images of his own, especially as we see Hawke and Travolta move around the town, looking for a way to get the drop on each other.

For all of this tension and violence, In A Valley Of Violence also has a vein of humour running through it from the opening scenes of Burn Gorman’s drunk travelling priest to the climax with Gilly growing ever more frustrated, stuck in a hotel room protecting his fiance (Karen Gillan, THIS close to overplaying) and her sister (Farmiga). However, it’s John Travolta and his interplay with Hawke during the long gunfight that provides most of the laughs here. Travolta is clearly relishing this part. He plays the marshal as though he’s a distant relative of Broken Arrow’s Vic Deakins with a very stupid and disappointing son, whose messes he is well used to cleaning up. Travolta has always been a bit of a ham, and his is one of the bigger performances here, but set against Hawke’s much more inheld work it makes for an interesting contrast, and Travolta seems more engaged here than he has for years. 

The humour is one of the chinks of light that shines through this dark tale, the other is Taissa Farmiga. Farmiga, as I mentioned in this series’ piece on The Final Girls, is a wonderful actress who hasn’t yet had the project that has propelled her into the public consciousness in the same way as her sister Vera (it’s coming, she’s the lead in the next Conjuring prequel). As Mary-Ann, Farmiga is the one friendly face Paul encounters in the town, she’s bubbly, enthusiastic, welcoming and instantly drawn to both Paul and his dog. There are two sides to this; one is that Mary-Ann is exactly the kind of upbeat, sweet-natured, person we see but, on the other hand, Farmiga plays her with just a hint of desperation. For me, there’s a sense that Paul might not be the first man passing through that she’s tried to get to take her away from all this or, if he is, it’s because he is literally the first man to have passed through Denton in months. None of that is stated, but it’s there just behind Farmiga’s outwardly warm performance, especially in the scene between her and Hawke just before he goes back to Denton to find Gilly.

In A Valley Of Violence strikes me as the film that Ti West has been striving to make for years, this time his slow burn pacing really works, set against black humour, a love of genre and a clutch of excellent performances, all of which are very different in tone but somehow gel into an interesting whole. West has been working in TV since this film, but I’m genuinely interested to see where he goes next and whether he can take his particular style into yet another genre.

How Can You See It?
All Blu Ray versions are the same, coming with just a making of featurette in terms of extras, but delivering an excellent image and sound.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

You Should See This: Barely Lethal (2015)

What’s It All About?
Agent 83 (Hailee Steinfeld) has been raised since she was a baby as part of a project known as Prescott, which trains young women to become undercover assassins. She’s always been taught to avoid any attachments but, at 16, 83 just wants a little normality, like what she’s seen in teen movies. When an op goes wrong 83 escapes, using a student exchange programme to become Megan Walsh, from Canada, and to try to have a normal high school experience. Prescott, however, has other ideas.

You Should See It Because
Barely Lethal came out around the same time as Violet and Daisy, which also toplined a talented young star (in that case Saoirse Ronan) as a teenage assassin. Often, when two similarly themed movies are released in quick succession, one will end up hitting reasonably big and the other disappearing. In this case, both movies essentially vanished, neither rating a UK cinema release. For my money it’s Barely Lethal that is worth digging up.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Top 10 of 2017

The Twin Peaks The Return is a film/isn't a film furore, the Netflix Cannes drama, the Oscars mixed envelopes... 2017 has been anything but dull in the world of cinema. Forget the predictable "Cinema is dead" think pieces, cinema is alive and kicking, and it has been a particularly interesting year, where we revisited universes we never thought we would see again (Twin Peaks, Blade Runner), where a few established talents arguably made their best films, where kween Laura Dern slayed, and where a runaway indie film was in every conversation. We are giving you our favourite films of 2017:

The Anti-Star Wars of The Last Jedi

Posted by Andy Zachariason

SPOILERS AHEAD! Early on in Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi, we finally meet the reclusive and legendary, Luke Skywalker. Rey hands him his lightsaber and Johnson holds for a moment as we lean in to see how our hero will react. Luke comically tosses the lightsaber over his head down a cliff, and walks away. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is deconstructionist Star Wars; a film that rejects its past and the very idea of being a Star Wars film until it can find its way through the wreckage and forge a new future. The Force Awakens was an album of greatest hits that was about stumbling into the footprints of myth and then turning around only to realize you've become that exact myth. Johnson's The Last Jedi follows this thread of myths and legends in thematically exciting manner that breaks down the structures of Star Wars (the Jedi, the Sith, the Resistance, the First Order) and playfully subverts the moments and iconographies that make up this saga.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

You Should See This: The Final Girls (2015)

A quick note before we begin. You’ve probably noticed that this feature is no longer going under its original name, Why Haven’t You Seen…? This is because a reader who is also a friend on Twitter pointed something out to me about that title. He said that it was making an assumption and that “I love this and think you might too” is a better message than “catch up”. He was correct. 

To be clear, WHYS was always supposed to be a series enthusing about things that I suspected readers might not have seen yet, but I never wanted that to come across as me scolding you. If it ever has I apologise. That’s why I’ve changed the title of the series; I want to invite you to movies, not tell you off for not having seen them yet. 

So, without further ado… You Should See This

The Final Girls (2015)
What’s It All About?
A parody of and commentary on 80’s slasher films, The Final Girls sees Max (Taissa Farmiga) and her friends sucked into Camp Bloodbath, a cult slasher film that Max’s late mother (Malin Akerman) starred in in 1986. Inside the movie they must survive being pursued by Billy Murphy while Max tries to rescue Nancy, her mother’s character.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Why Haven't You Seen...? Three Wishes For Cinderella (1973)

What’s It All About?
The story is, but for a few details, the Cinderella story that we’re familiar with. Cinderella (here called Popelka and played by Libuse Safránková, who was also in Karel Kachyna’s The Little Mermaid, which I reviewed for this column a few months back) remains an orphaned girl, treated as a slave by her stepmother (Carola Braunbock) and stepsister (Daniela Hlavácová). There is still a royal ball, still a slipper that must fit the girl the Prince (Pavel Trávnícek) is going to marry but this version has no fairy Godmother, no Pumpkin coach and no ticking clock to midnight. Instead, Popelka wishes on magical hazelnuts and her wishes manifest as new clothes for each occasion. It is, essentially, a version with much of the Disneyfication stripped out.