Archives for June 2016

Must See Silent: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

I have mentioned it on several occasions in this space but it bears repeating – in recent years, I have really taken to silent films. There is something equally haunting and engaging about them that feels almost otherworldly. Anchoring our auditory senses in the experience are the musical cues, which themselves are carefully chosen and constructed to tell the story without dialogue. Sometimes, I have observed that if you listen close enough, the musical chords sound like words …

Now I have another favorite to add to my ever increasing list – The Passion of Joan of Arc. Directed by Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer in the French language (for the intertitles), The Passion is a beautiful emotive experience. Although I must admit that I am quite spoiled in this regard, having seen it at TCM Classic Film Festival a couple of months back. This screening of The Passion was shown at the historic Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in downtown Hollywood. Led by conductor Dr. Mark Sumner, Director of UC Berkeley Choral Ensembles and the UC Alumni Chorus, the live orchestra and vocalists performed composer Richard Einhorn’s 1994 oratorio Voices of Light. It was, in a word, a singularly mesmerizing way to experience any motion picture.

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But even putting this moment aside, the visual storytelling is one that is never to be forgotten. Actress Renée Jean (credited in the film as Maria) Falconetti portrays the titular Joan of Arc, as she faces trial and (spoiler alert) execution at the hands of her English captors. The action depicted in The Passion is based on the actual court records of the trial in 1431.

By using EXTREME closeups on Falconettis’s visage, the viewer is in for a fully immersive experience. By the closing acts of the film, I fully understood what many before have told me about this film and why it was recommended to me on several occasions. It is a film and a performance that I easily rank as one of the most beautiful and moving I have seen on the silver screen.

Note: The run time for this film is 82 minutes, which is the restored version. As with so many early films, The Passion also had a varied and curious history. The original master negative for the film was destroyed in a fire in 1929, shortly after the film’s initial release. There are records of various ‘cuts’ of The Passion cropping up over several decades until in 1981, an employee of the Dikemark Hospital, a mental institution in Oslo, Norway, found an original (not master) print in a janitor’s closet.

(Sources: Wikipedia, TCM Film Festival)

High-Rise (2015)

I think my ardent desire to catch High-Rise was inspired, in part, by my inability to catch it when it played at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. So when it was made available for rental early last month, I jumped at the opportunity, gave it a look-see and below are my impressions.

Tom Hiddleston as Robert Laing in HIGH RISE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan

Tom Hiddleston as Robert Laing in HIGH RISE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan

First, for the bad(ish) news. Overall, I was slightly disappointed in the film, in spite of some pretty solid performances and great visuals that capture the setting (mid-1970s London) and symbolize an anarchic dystopia. My disappointment stemmed from the confusion I felt at points of the story. I do attribute this to not having read the source material (a reasonable assessment). However, I generally am of the mind that the best adaptations are able to use the source as a guide and capture the spirit of the source material, meaning that one must not have had read the book, play, etc. to get the sense of what is going on when. But alas, all of that is ultimately subjective, no?

I will say that in the film’s defense, what I did get from my research and in talking to folks who have actually read J.G. Ballard’s novel, that this was always going to be a difficult narrative to transfer to the big screen. In fact, soon after the book’s release in 1975,  producer Jeremy Thomas had been actively working on giving the text the celluloid treatment. He did get the project nearly off the ground in the late 1970s, with Nicolas Roeg directing the film based on an adapted screenplay by Paul Mayersberg. Eventually, that project was abandoned and another failed attempt was made with Canadian writer/director Vincenzo Natali attached to it. Which leads us this Ben Wheatley-directed, Amy Jump-scribed result. (Source: Wikipedia)

As far as the actual plot is concerned, a few details have changed, and nothing that I can see as TOO major, but the premise is the same. We open the film with our protagonist, Doctor Robert Lainge (played Tom Hiddleston), going through his daily routine in what appears to be a dilapidated ruin of a residential tower. Cue the flashback that fills the observer in on what has gotten us to this present state.

As I stated at the open, that while bits of what are going on may get a little muddled in the middle, know this much – we are on a slow and steady decline in the societal and structural (literal and figurative) order. And for those who may have missed some of the visual clues (like me), the dialogue goes a way to provide just enough exposition so you can follow the plot progression.

Along with the aforementioned Hiddleston, the film features an ensemble including Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, and Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss.

So, this may leave many of you wondering – is this a film worth your attention? Well, if you are into dystopian, apocalyptic-adjacent stories, you might want to check High-Rise out. If you fall into this category, my additional recommendation would be to check in with the novel to gain a sense of tone and symbolism for the material. Otherwise, you might get a little lost in the weeds.

Elisabeth Moss as Helen Wilder and Tom Hiddleston as Robert Laing in HIGH RISE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan

Elisabeth Moss as Helen Wilder and Tom Hiddleston as Robert Laing in HIGH RISE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan