Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont, 2017)

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Of all the world’s great folk heroes, Robin Hood and King Arthur, Wong Fei-hung and Sherlock Holmes, the Monkey King and Superman, none has been so well depicted in the cinema as Joan of Arc. Her brief, unbelievable yet true story (believing she’s been sent by God to relieve the siege of Orléans during the Hundred Years War and then install the Dauphin on the throne of France, uniting it against the English, she leaves home at the age of 17 and actually does it; then she’s captured, put on well-documented trial as a heretic, and burned at the stake) is a natural for motion pictures, full of war and violence  and androgyny and craziness and faith. The latest director to tackle the subject, following Dreyer and Rivettte, Bresson and Besson, is Bruno Dumont, and his approach is that of the stately rock opera.

We join Jeannette as she watches her sheep on the banks of the Meuse. She sings laments to God for the suffering of her people, wondering how He can let war happen and if the suffering will ever end. This she discusses, in song, with a friend, another girl of about 13, and a nun. The nun is weirdly played by twins, but only addressed as a singular being, one of the many off-hand oddities that are the film’s strongest point. The songs lack much in the way of melody or catchiness, and tend towards a bland kind of 80s European arena rock sound, which isn’t particularly pleasant, but does provide excellent material for one of Jeannette’s singular moves: in the throes of a religious ecstasy she bangs her head like a true Metallica fan. This and other dance moves, stiff and formal, derived as much from 60s dance crazes as medieval poses, are much more successful at conveying the primal weirdness of Jeannette’s belief and the visions that motivate her than the songs, which all kind of sound the same. The lyrics don’t offer much in the way of new answers to the problem of evil, but they do frame Jeanne’s quest as an essentially nationalistic one. On multiple occasions Jeanne rejects the idea that it would be OK if the English won the war, because then at least there would be peace and people would stop dying. This is unacceptable to Jeanne: God has promised France for the French, and anything less is an affront to Him. Nor does Dumont question the veracity of her visions: this Jeanne is absolutely the instrument of God, and the choreography of the dances, unnatural movements caused by non-diegetic and therefore literally otherworldly music, reinforce this idea of a humanity not in control of its actions, merely the tools of a higher, inexplicable, holy, and hard-rockin’ power.

The first two-thirds of the film, comprising Jeannette’s conversations and hopes for a warlord to rescue France, her vision of three saints anointing herself as that warlord, and her later coming to terms with the quest she must undertake, all take place in the same location, the sandy riverbank with sheep milling about in the background. After a break of three years, and a change of actresses, Jeannette, now Jeanne, convinces her uncle to accompany her to the local noble, from whence she will begin to fulfill her destiny. At this point we move to Jeanne’s house, and the shift in location is abrupt and jarring, as if Dumont couldn’t commit to the conceit of having the entire film set in a single location. Similarly his camera position seems only half-thought out, with Jeannette at times looking directly at us while importuning her God (which is therefore us, I guess), while at other times she addresses the sky, while we and the camera sink low to the ground, the sun behind her head giving her the expected halo: we move from God to worshipper for no apparent reason. It looks cool though.

I was extremely disappointed in the only other Bruno Dumont film I’ve seen, Camille Claudel 1915, which seemed to me to be deeply cruel and managed the remarkable feat of making a Juliette Binoche movie boring. This is much better than that, but I wonder what it might have been in the hands of a director with a more musical soul.

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Pitch Perfect 3 (Trish Sie, 2017)

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The latest installment in the Pitch Perfect franchise, about an all-female competitive a cappella group, is as delightfully unpretentious a comedy as one is likely to find these days coming out of Hollywood. Gone are the obnoxious and dull men who cluttered up the fun of the first two films with bland romantic subplots. Missing as well is the undercurrent of loneliness and failure that made the first film (about the unnatural drive to fit in with a group) and the second (about the power of female friendship) surprisingly emotionally resonant. Instead, this time around the young women (college students no longer) find themselves whisked away from their dull entry-level jobs and into a globe-trotting USO show, which offers a chance at international intrigue that, weirdly enough, turns a goofy comedy about singing into the best Fast and the Furious movie of 2017.

Much funnier than the previous two films, the comedy in Pitch Perfect 3 is almost entirely verbal, disregarding the gross-out jokes of prior films. Much of it is in the form of call-backs, but not simply references to earlier, funnier jokes (as in Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons), but in knowing, muttered asides building on our knowledge of the various characters and the films’ structures. (Missing as well is the questionable characterization of the group’s lone Hispanic member, an immigrant from Guatemala. The film’s one reference to her home country is merely a setup for one of the year’s finest puns). The Bellas classic riff-off game is turned in on itself when they challenge their fellow musicians on the tour, the bizarre rituals of competitive a cappella increasingly absurd in a real world where people can make music with things that aren’t their mouths. Anna Kendrick again leads the way, deadpanning her way through what amounts to the film’s emotional crisis: whether to take an opportunity at solo stardom or remain with the group. While Rebel Wilson finds herself in the middle of an action movie plot, with her estranged father, John Lithgow (the anti-music dad from Footloose) as antagonist. Her series of fights at the climax successfully, I kid you not, calls back to some of Michael Hui’s finest work. The music is much the same as always, though the Bellas are at least this time blissfully free of internal or musical conflict: they function as a team and through years of experience are not lacking in confidence, merely opportunity. No performance has yet matched Kendrick’s chilling “When I’m Gone” from the first film, but the finales have gotten better with every movie, and this one’s choice of song couldn’t be more, well, perfect.

Oklahoma! (Fred Zinnemann, 1955)

The following review of Oklahoma! was originally published in March, 2014 on my website The End of Cinema.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II are generally credited with ushering in a Golden Age of musical theatre, this 1943 play marking the first truly integrated show, with music, lyrics and story seamlessly interwoven. Of course it wasn’t the first (Show Boat did much the same thing 15 years earlier, to say nothing of the operettas from the 19th century onward that did as well, but whatever), but it was a huge hit, inspiring many imitators, some of which are actually good. Similarly, the 1955 film adaptation was followed by a new form of musical film: more or less direct translations of stage musicals, often excruciatingly long, presented as roadshow extravaganzas (more expensive tickets, super widescreen formats, elaborate sets and locations). These films, increasingly bloated and dull, eventually killed the musical as a viable American film genre and played no small role in bankrupting the studio system that had been in place in Hollywood since the 1920s.

Continue reading Oklahoma! (Fred Zinnemann, 1955)”

Office (Johnnie To, 2015)

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The world of Office, the latest from director Johnnie To, is a world without walls. Or, rather, a world where walls do nothing to differentiate space. It’s hard to tell where one place begins and another ends. Each scene takes place in a largely artificial environment where geometric figures and shapes suggest the outline of a room; this strategy essentially means that at any given moment there’s tons of action happening on multiple planes of the frame. Whether it’s a hospital room, a character’s apartment, there is no personal space. There’s only a series of transparent chambers where only emotional/financial transactions can take place.

Chow Yun Fat plays Chairman Ho. While his wife is in a coma, he’s been having an affair with CEO Chang for the last 20 years (played by Sylvia Chang, the film is an adaptation of her 2009 play, Design for Living), and his daughter, Kat, is now working at an entry-level position to gain knowledge of the business. One of his underlings tries to get an accountant to cook the books. Meanwhile Lee Xiang, played by Wang Ziyi (Lee for Ang Lee, Xiang for Dream – aspirational!), also starting at the company, just wants to make a good impression, achieve his dreams and ride that direct elevator to the 71st floor. The film uses all of them to explore certain attitudes and ways of living in capitalist society by testing their bonds after the 2008 crash.

Continue reading Office (Johnnie To, 2015)”

Princess Chang Ping (John Woo, 1976)

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Before he hit it big with 1986’s A Better Tomorrow, John Woo was a journeyman director for hire on the margins of the Hong Kong film industry. He worked mostly in slapstick comedies such as the Chaplin homage Laughing Times with Dean Shek, or the hit Ricky Hui film From Riches to Rags, along with a handful of action films in the established kung fu and wuxia genres, most notably his 1973 debut The Young Dragons and 1979’s Last Hurrah for Chivalry, which is in many respects The Killer with swords instead of guns. One of his oddest films during this period was a musical made for the Golden Harvest studio in 1976, Princess Chang Ping, which plays this week in Scarecrow Video’s Screening Lounge.

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Based on a 1957 Cantonese opera that was itself based on historical events from the late Ming Dynasty (the mid-1600s) and starring actors from an actual opera troupe, in performance it is wildly theatrical, translating the gestural and recitative stage tradition to the big screen. The structure is theatrical as well, made up of long scenes set in a single location, with the actors coming and going developing the plot in song. The first twenty minutes takes place entirely in one throne room location, establishing the romance between the eponymous Princess, daughter of the Ming Emperor, and a young courtier named Chow Shih-hsien. In full view of the court, he woos her with wit and wordplay, a Shakespearean exchange that marks them both as outsiders in the restrictive court world and demonstrates their shared aesthetics and belief system. Things are going well, when Woo, in a shocking cut, throws us outside the palace as cannons roar and the rebels are closing in: the Manchus are about to bring the dynasty to an end. The break in location is more than just a jolt of explosion: it’s a blast of reality into the highly ritualized world of court culture, an intrusion of violence into the ultra-civilized.

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This sets up the first of several Woovian dilemmas, conflicts between moral codes that drive so many of his later films. The Emperor, rather than let them be taken alive, orders his wives and children to kill themselves before he does the same. The older women do so, with much wailing, but Chang Ping herself doesn’t want to die (she’s just found a guy that really understands her!). In a rush, her father resolves to do it himself (for her own good) and draws his sword (here the play differs from history: according to tradition, the Emperor severed her arm. In one version of the tale, she becomes a martial artist and leader of the anti-Manchu resistance, known as the One-Armed Divine Nun). Merely scratched, the princess survives and goes into hiding. One day, the prince (he survived too, being haplessly knocked unconscious in a manner befitting a young scholar caught up in a battle), having assumed she had died, runs into her at a monastery. They rekindle their love affair, but soon more people discover her secret and she becomes a pawn in the remaining Ming elites’ attempts to ingratiate themselves with the new Qing Dynasty. Chang Ping and Shih-hsien confront the new Emperor (played by the same actor as the old Emperor), resolved to do the honorable thing regardless of what they must sacrifice to accomplish it.

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This is the progression of most of Woo’s best heroes. First an instantaneous connection with someone who shares their understanding of the moral universe (think of Chow Yun-fat with Danny Lee in The Killer and with Tony Leung in Hard-Boiled). In the gangster films its a shared Code, based on ideas of honor that go back centuries throughout martial arts literature. Such sparks dominant Woo’s career from his debut to his latest film The Crossing, where the connection is explicitly romantic. Eventually, in most cases, the connected pair will find themselves in a stand-off against the forces of the world at large, opportunistic villains motivated by greed or ambition some other base motive. Usually the result is a sacrifice of some kind, as one hero (or both) trade their life for the survival of innocents or simply to prove a point. Thus it’s easy to see why Woo would have been drawn to this story, as opposed to other popular opera films, say something like Li Han-hsiang’s Beyond the Great Wall, in which a Princess is used as a dynastic pawn in a Mizoguchian tale of the historical oppression of women. In Woo’s films, of course, the heroes are almost always men. Princess Chang Ping is a notable exception, especially when you consider that the prince Shih-hsien is also, in following Chinese operatic convention, played by a woman.

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The film isn’t as glossy or elaborate as the huangmei films the Shaw brothers specialized in before they shifted into martial arts movies (Li Han-hsiang films like The Love Eterne or The Enchanting Shadow) but as mid-70s Golden Harvest productions go, it’s pretty ornate (helped no doubt by the fact that it only has three or four sets). Woo’s camera moves fluidly, emphasizing the theatricality of the world and performances rather than reinforcing it to an alienating degree. He’s said it was one of his favorite of his early films, the one he had the most fun making and the joy is evident on the screen. Woo’s musicality is an underrated aspect of his film style, not just in the oft-stated relation between his balletic action choreography and the dance film, but simply in the way his best films use music to convey emotion, connecting events and people across space and time. This is the case here, as an opera film the music is inescapable, but also in the synth-pop soundtracks of his late 80s masterpieces and the lush Taro Iwashiro scores of his 21st Century epics. One of the weird things I’ve found in watching a rewatching a ton of Woo films in preparation for an upcoming episode of the They Shot Pictures podcast (should be out early next week) is that my enjoyment of his films is almost directly proportional to my enjoyment of their scores. There might be a chicken and egg relation there, but who knows.

Princess Chang Ping plays Thursday, August 27 Only in the Scarecrow Video Screening Lounge.

Oklahoma! (Fred Zinnemann, 1955)

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The Cinerama’s Saturday Classics series concludes this weekend with the laser projection of 1955’s smash hit musical Oklahoma!. The following is the review I wrote of the film last year, after finally bringing myself to watch it all the way through.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II are generally credited with ushering in a Golden Age of musical theatre, this 1943 play marking the first truly integrated show, with music, lyrics and story seamlessly interwoven. Of course it wasn’t the first (Show Boat did much the same thing 15 years earlier, to say nothing of the operettas from the 19th century onward that did as well, but whatever), but it was a huge hit, inspiring many imitators, some of which are actually good. Similarly, the 1955 film adaptation was followed by a new form of musical film: more or less direct translations of stage musicals, often excruciatingly long, presented as roadshow extravaganzas (more expensive tickets, super widescreen formats, elaborate sets and locations). These films, increasingly bloated and dull, eventually killed the musical as a viable American film genre and played no small role in bankrupting the studio system that had been in place in Hollywood since the 1920s.

Continue reading Oklahoma! (Fred Zinnemann, 1955)”