Jacques Rivette's JEANNE LA PUCELLE I - LES BATAILLES (1994) in 35mm at Anthology Film Archives
for the first time. Rivette's historically-researched, almost six-hour epic telling of the story of Joan or Arc benefits from not being an abridged or condensed version of the highlights of either the battles or trial/execution of one of he most well-known figures in history. A collection of the casual day-to-day interactions with the everyday soldiers, courtesans, political figures and people inspired by Joan (every time a woman character meets Joan the former is clearly looking up to the latter as an early feminist icon), the collective power of spending so much time with Joan and the people she inspired is deeply felt. On-camera documentary-like testimonials by characters that knew Joan, poor-but-necessary substitutes for the epic action and battles "Jeanne La Pucelle" cannot afford to show us, keep the complex chess-like characters, motives and machinations of kings, political figures and the church easy to follow over several months/years. Rivette keeps cutting to seconds-long black frames after scenes start/end, a reminder that this isn't the full story of Joan of Arc but only a fictitious re-enactment of a moment of reality his camera (like the books/records used to inform the project) was able to record for posterity. There are barely-enough castles and men in horses to sell the illusion that battles for the freedom of nations are being fought (think "Braveheart" at 1/10th the scale), so it's testament to Rivette's skills that "Jeanne La Pucelle" still resonates even with so few actual big sets and even fewer 'money shots' of epic battles to show.
Sandrine Bonnaire really shows her actor chops by making you care for the well-being and emotional state of Joan, going from annoying teenager to horse-mounted warrior that rallies an army purely using body language and poise to try to show what it is that Frenchmen saw in Joan that inspired them to fight the Brits for the liberation or Orleans. The not-fatal flaw of Bonnaire's lead performance is that she's not the same age or looks as she did in Pialat's "À nos amours" in '83, which would have been the perfect time to play Joan. I had to talk myself into buying Sandrine as a teenager saying someone as Joan of Arc would move, talk and carry the weight as she's portrayed here by Bonnaire. Typical of a Rivette film, the other leads and supporting actors (Jean-Louis Richard really stands out as La Trémoille, Joan's eventual nemesis) help immerse one into the world and glacially-paced narrative the man is trying to engage in. Since the narrative is split into two almost-three hour movies the room to breath can sometimes seem dull and pointless (which sometimes it actually is), but it's also fascinating and riveting
... get it? Rivette's JEANNE LA PUCELLE II - LES PRISONS (1994) in 35mm at Anthology Film Archives
for the first time. Wisely choosing not to try to one-up Dreyer's seminal 1928 movie by summarizing the trial portion of Joan's life into one scene (Joan's state of mind before and after that trial is more fertile ground to cover), Rivette's conclusion to his epic "Jeanne La Pucelle" movies carries with it the same economy of epic scenes (i.e. few money shots or action scenes) but ups the character-related pathos tremendously as Joan's fortunes experiences ups and (mostly) downs. The scene when Joan says goodbye to her fellow soldiers after the wars are over and the women related to her captors befriend and admire her (elevating Joan to early feminist icon status) are moving and touching without being sappy, the result of our spending so much time hanging out with these characters. Even knowing how it all ends, thanks to Rivette's commitment to as much of the documented record as possible and Sandrine Bonnaire's body language selling the self-composure and anguish Joan experienced leading up to her passing "Jeanne La Pucelle" ranks up there with the best of the Joan of Arc movie adaptations. It's not perfect (the coronation of the king scene goes on forever) but six hours in the medieval ages have never gone by so quickly or been so enthralling. The somber, respectful silence and suppressed tears (my own included) during the closing credits of "Jeanne La Pucelle II" spoke volumes about the impact these movies had on those of us lucky enough to have seen them in 35mm.Gore Verbinski's PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003) on Blu-ray
for the first time. I might be 10 years late to the party, but got damn it, "Curse of the Black Pearl" is just amazing and at times (the underwater moonlight walk of Barbossa's men to the ship they're about to board, one of many jaw-dropping scenes worthy of the 'movie magic'
moniker) a work of art that happens to also be the first clog of a now-reliable Disney money-printing machine. I have no trouble with that because, frankly, the franchise (at least with Verbinski at the helm, haven't seen the 4th "Pirates" movie yet) has earned its bank by never losing a thrilling sense of fun about itself that its encapsulated in this perfectly-paced (a little too long but it beats the alternative) self-contained adventure that can be enjoyed without the sequels' convoluted plots. Every element of the well-thought out story, every action beat, every disregard for conventional leading man behavior by Johnny Depp (Orlando Bloom takes care of that in his best post-"Lord of the Rings" role), every special effect shot that's not just for show but to advance the plot, every musical note from Klaus Badelt's memorable score (which Hans Zimmer only produced), every authentic prop and still-usable old time ship they got a hold of... everything about this slick Hollywood blockbuster just works as if the ghost of early 80's Spielberg were directing a reincarnated "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in pirate movie form. Frankly I didn't know Gore Verbinski had it in him, but the man can stage and shoot action like the best of them. Writers Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio (who kept, ahem, "writing" the rest of the series), Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert deserve as much recognition for striking that perfect story balance that few mainstream movies achieve in which anyone watching, regardless of age or experience, can lose themselves into the adventure and find something/someone to latch (usually Sparrow/Depp). Kudos to Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer for letting the filmmakers shoot a rather violent PG-13 movie that pushed the house the mouse built squarely into the mainstream of Hollywood filmmaking. To think there was a time Disney didn't want its logo at the head of this movie because it was such a gamble to show the violence of pirates doing their violent things.
Yes, remove Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow away from this movie and it might as well be "Kingdom of Heaven" on water (Depp in "Curse of the Black Pearl" is still technically not the hero that Bloom's Will Turner is set-up to become) but the man needed his co-stars and the production values behind his fey portrayal of Sparrow for the clockwork machinations of the story to run smoothly. Even Sparrow's speech about the Black Pearl meaning so much to him (echoes of which were repeated by Nathan Fillion's character at the end of "Serenity") carries the weight and pathos not of a sad clown or a caricature, but of a real character with depth and dimensions (quirky, odd and whip-smart as well as selfish and unrefined). My only beef with "Curse of the Black Pearl" is with Geoffrey Rush hamming it up way too much for my goat, but at least his Barbossa doesn't get overexposed over three entire movies (unlike the principals, particularly Bloom and Knightley toward the end). "Curse of the Black Pearl" sets up a template the sequels struggle mightly hard to uphold (and one does it better than the other, IMHO) but the primary directives of never taking itself seriously and to always go for broke trying to entertain are carried throughout. Bringing a missing element of fun to a moribund genre that Renny Harlin had killed for good a decade prior? Priceless. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN'S CHEST (2006) on Blu-ray
for the first time. Oh, that's cute. After the first "POTC" movie was a money-maker Disney was more than happy to (a) stick its logo at the start of the sequels and (b) let Hans Zimmer kick Klaus Badelt off the franchise so he can take over the music.
I didn't know until after I saw them that "Dead Man's Chest" and its follow-up (see below) were troubled, rushed and often-improvised productions. Some of these production pains can be felt here in the excruciating running time, slow pace, tons of exposition and obvious need to set-up a third "Pirates" movie, but I honestly thought parts of "Dead Men's Chest" were so damn incredible and fun that I like it as much or more than "Curse of the Black Pearl." While the first film felt like a streak of luck this one walks and talks with the confidence of a bad-ass blockbuster that knows it's going to break the bank, and its felt in every aspect of its cinematic being. Zimmer's soundtrack, though built on Badalet's original score, now has a more peppy beat and even a couple of cues (the cello portions of the Capt. Jack Sparrow song and the theme song at the end) are some of the most incredible music I've heard in a film. I mean, listen to the first 3:40 min. of THIS
and tell me you don't want to hop of a pirate ship and start looking for booty right now! The production values, which were already big in the first movie, are now gigantic and further push the awe and fantasy of sea monsters, cursed pirates, action scenes and slapstick (often all four at once) colliding into an absurdly entertaining romp of swashbuckling delights. The rotating cage escape/chase (a nice chance for the supporting actors to shine) and the sword fights on top/inside/around the runaway wheel could teach Steven Spielberg ("Temple of Doom") and Peter Jackson ("King Kong 2005") how to stage and put together kinetic action scene involving natives/bad guys that can make them look menacing but not silly. Bill Nighy's Davy Jones and his Flying Dutchman crew are frightening, spooky-looking (amazing ILM SFX work on Jones' tentacled face) and truly worthy foes for the heroes to do battle with. And, even though we've seen stuff like it before, the Kraken attack scenes are staged with enough destruction and mayhem (mostly from red shirts but also a few main cast members) to put the rebooted "Clash/Wrath of the Titan" movies to shame.
Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom are still a darling couple (though they spend most of the movie apart, to Elizabeth's and Will Turner's benefit as they grow bolder and less goody two-shoes) and they make great straight men as well as Tom Hollander does colonial imperialist bad guy (Beckett's awesome!
). Jack Davenport having such a crucial role in the story of "Dead Man's Chest" (and set-up for "At World's End") surprised me, but Norrington was a character well worth bringing back after doing such great work in "Curse of the Black Pearl." But man, is Johnny Depp on fire here as Capt. Jack Sparrow. Everyone in the production knew they struck gold with the happy accident casting of Depp the first time, and even though he's excellent in all three of his "Pirate" movies Verbinski deserves credit to not turn any of them into 'The Jack Sparrow Show'
and use the character just shy enough of complete overexposure as the spark that ignites everyone and everything. I don't know why but every time Sparrow turns tail and runs away from trouble (which in "Dead Man's Chest" is the cue to play the captain's heroic theme song) it feels like the greatest moment in movies ever. That to me is they key to the character's appeal: a bold-enough man to lie, steal and get into and out of trouble that's also smart-enough to run away from said trouble (like most of us or a girl would too, but whatever) is a man I'd gladly trust with my life on an adventure in the high seas... from the safety of my recliner chair in front of my 58" Vizio. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END (2007) on Blu-ray
for the first time. The payoff to all the set-ups and double/triple dealings in "Dead Man's Chest" comes to a head in this extremely long, often-meandering, confusing-at-times but still-entertaining conclusion to Verbinski's trio of "Pirates" movies. I know after seeing two of these already that the level of violence and bloodless gore in these Disney movies shouldn't bother me, but I'm still shocked a Walt Disney movie could carry these many red shirts buying the farm or on-camera mayhem. Johnny Depp's Capt. Sparrow is the gift that keeps on giving, here going as far as multiplying into many versions of himself (isn't that what audiences wanted, more Sparrow?) in a surreal, almost 'artsy' mini-movie within "At World's End's" Davy Jones Locker segment (complete with desaturated color) that would have been the movie's highlight if the final Maelstrom battle hadn't happened. This insane display of practical and CG stunt work just doesn't stop, and would feel like an empty exercise in SFX overkill if (a) everyone involved wasn't doing their damndest to sell the life-or-death stakes involved in the outcome (it is after all the climactic battle of a trilogy filled with perpetually-topping-itself action sequences) and (b) Verbinski & his writers hadn't laid enough foundations for the audience to know who is who and their pecking order in relation to what's happening. It's a ballet of practical & CG effects, acting and story/directing so mesmerizing I had to watch it again after finishing "At World's End," which is amazing because it's almost 20-30 minutes of an almost three-hour movies. Plus there's Shipwreck Cove, Jonathan Pryce's touching reveal (nice), the Brethren Court scenes (the right way to do stage a big-star celebrity cameo), the balls-out destruction of Beckett's ship, the opening Singapore action scene (messy and confusing but so much like "Big Trouble in Little China" it's scary), etc. BTW, shame on this movie by nabbing Chow Yun-Fat, one of the most charismatic and engaging stars of the past couple of decades with charisma to spare, and totally wasting him with the underdeveloped-and-quickly-done-away-with role of Capt. Sao Feng.
It's my least-favorite movie in the Verbinski trilogy (still haven't seen "On Stranger Tides") but "At World's End" still packs plenty of fun stuff to see, particularly the actors' up/down standing in the series. Bill Nighy's Davy Jones, like Christopher Lee in "Star Wars Episode II," goes from being the menacing baddie of the middle movie in a trilogy into a neutered-and-not-as-feared background player whose heart belongs to Naomie Harris' Tia Dalma (whose relationship with Capt. Sparrow is still a mystery to me) and is just one more special effect during the Maelstrom finale. Thank God Tom Hollander's Beckett and Kevin R. McNally's Gibbs step up as the type of bad guys you love to see get their eventual comeuppance, though Beckett's final scene confuses me. Even good old Jack Davenport's Norrington gets a couple of memorable scenes, though Stellan Skarsgård isn't as touching here as he was in "Dead Man's Chest." Unlike their earlier "Pirates" movies Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom wear out their welcome here, acting/behaving not only inconsistently with their previous character behavior but clearly thinking they're the reason people liked these movies (certainly not during their silly-and-misplaced marriage fight ballet) when Depp and the overall production are the reasons this films resonated. Great last scene between Elizabeth and Will though (after the credits) plus Geoffrey Rush, still in his own planet orbiting near the same planet as Depp's and who mostly sat "Dead Men's Chest" out, benefits the most from his Barbossa schtick not wearing too thin from overexposure.
My critical faculties can pick every little bit of these movies that's flawed or imperfect, but the sweeping scope of these productions (close to $600 spent on making them) and the fact these actors, filmmakers and armies of crewmen pulled off being shamelessly entertaining and turned into an art form over close to eight hours of released work. I can honestly say this is the trilogy I wasn't expecting much from (it's based on a Disney theme ride) that has given me the most so far.BIRDEMIC 2: THE RESURRECTION (2013) in theaters
for the first time. Three years and built-in cult status later, James Nguyen and his cast (many returning from the original "Birdemic", along with a new batch of... "faces") are fully aware of what is expected of them and seem to (a) be trying too hard (look for Whitney Moore kicking bird butt, literally) and (b) repeat the same beats from the first flick. The endless driving footage that opened the first movie? Vietnamese restaurant romantic dinner? Motel room sex scene? In-your-face environmental agenda? Awkward club dancing (with the 'Hanging out with your family'
guy singing)? Hitchcock worship references? Check, check, check, check, check and... he's dead... sorry, check. The SFX & budget plus Nguyen's skills have improved somewhat (i.e. they could afford to rent a boom mike and a tripod with wheels, which I know because I saw them reflected on windows/mirrors... several times!) but the now-expected-but-still-eye-opening overall incompetence, bad acting and willful disregard for the most basic of filmmaking techniques (sound is still muffled and changes from shot to shot, birds are still mostly static, etc.) are back in full effect, and as gut-busting hilarious as ever. Nguyen's new tech toys, unnecessary green-screen photography and low-budget non-bird/blood CGI (hell, they probably spent more money blurring faces/signs in "Birdemic 2" than the entire cost of "Birdemic" several times over), results in some fun stuff that needs to be seen in a 'so bad it's hilarious'
state of cinematic mind.
"Birdemic 2" goes completely and spectacularly off-the-rails several times though, and not in a cute or funny way (if the stone-death silence of the crowd in my midnight theater crowd is any indication). The introduction of cheesy human zombies and resurrected-from-the-past cavemen to the mix of bad things global warming is responsible for, gratuitous sleazy nudity (i.e. boobs) and a never-ending "ending" so insultingly bad/God- awful Nguyen had to put the 'Hanging out with your family' song over the credits (to buy back goodwill from many an upset viewer like myself) are just too freaking much to tolerate even for a bad movie connoisseur. Still, a sequel that catches about 65-70% of the insane chemistry of one of the best-worst movies of the 2000's is worth seeking if you know what you're getting into.NEXT TRILOGY ON TAP: Godfrey Reggio's QATSY TRILOGY.