For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Artist


A sleeper hit at the Cannes Film Festival last year, The Artist is now a frontrunner to take the Best Picture award at this year’s Oscars. A surprise considering that the film has no bankable stars and was shot entirely in black and white, but it’s even more of a shock considering that The Artist is a silent film. You know silent films, don’t you? They were those movies that started the entire medium back, like, a million years ago, and yes, other than some orchestral accompaniment, they actually had no sound.

Hard to believe, I know. But after seeing The Artist, it’s not difficult to understand what Academy voters love so much about it. Despite a gimmick that suggests something edgy and artsy, the movie is actually a pretty rousing crowd pleaser. The Academy loves movies that get the emotions stirring, but that are also easy to digest (that’s why The King’s Speech upset The Social Network a year ago). How much of a crowd pleaser is The Artist? So much so that our hero, a silent film star named George Valentin, has a sidekick that happens to be an adorable, showboating little terrier.

Everybody loves a cute dog that does tricks. If you don’t, you’re probably made of stone, and if you don’t like The Artist, you probably are as well. Written and directed by Frenchman Michel Hazanavicius, the movie stars Jean Dujardin as an egomaniacal but suave and kindly Douglas Fairbanks-type movie star who resists the emergence of sound out of foolish pride. Valentine also believes that film should stay a silent art form, and to make his case, the movie itself, aesthetically, takes on the characteristics of a silent movie: a quaint, old Hollywood opening credit sequence; inter-titles; a boxier aspect ratio; and performances that stress physicality and pantomime.

Astutely, Hazanavicius knows that to recreate the silent film form is not enough—you have to capture its essence. Famously associated with Charlie Chaplin, the blend of comedy and pathos, in a lot of ways, defines the Hollywood silent era. Hazanavicius takes that principle to the bank. Early on in the film, George meets a beautiful up-and-comer named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), and even helps her with her young film career. The Artist starts out as a darling comedy, utilizing its actors’ charisma, chemistry and physical skills to delight us. Then, as Peppy rises to fame for her roles in Talkies just as Valentin fades into anonymity and poverty for rejecting them, the film becomes the tragedy of a Hollywood has-been left on the outside of a changing industry.

It could be read as a timely cautionary tale to those filmmakers resistant to the ever-advancing wow-factor of 3-D, but The Artist, to me, is not nearly so cynical or foreboding. Like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, it’s a film about looking back at the magic that once graced the silver screen—and attempting to relate its appeal to contemporary audiences with the hope that it won’t be forgotten. In that way, The Artist is wonderful. In other ways, it’s a pastiche—a film buried up to its neck in homage. Hollywood romantic swooning; an avante garde nightmare sequence; and the jagged, imposing shadows and crooked staircases of expressionism: all the big silent movements make appearances, as they should. But when I heard Bernard Herrmann’s yearning, emotive and brilliant Vertigo theme scored over the climax, I thought: how much of this film is borrowed? Does it really have its own identity?

The topic is debatable, indeed. But what can’t be denied or ignored are the astounding lead performances. As Valentin, Dujardin has the slicked hair, Errol Flynn mustache, and dapper grin of a virile presence too comfortable with his own star power. How his character goes from top-of-the-world leading man to Hollywood road kill, forced to auction his possessions after his dispassionate wife (Penelope Ann Miller) leaves him high and dry, is testament to the actor’s range and skill at eliciting emotion. As the pretty ingénue who refuses to forget his legacy, Bejo is an equally engaging emotional force on the screen. Whether smiling big with her bright ear-to-ear grin or wiping away a single tear outside the auction where Valentin’s treasures are being hauled away by strangers, Bejo encapsulates drama’s (and life’s) great pleasures and great sorrows.

Mostly, the film makes the brave assertion that the essence of performance is not dialogue, but the look of an actor’s eyes or the furrow of a brow or the quiver of a lip. More than anything, The Artist makes you appreciate the most fundamental technique and emotional power of fine screen acting. The story itself, an orthodox tale of fall and redemption, serves up several well-delivered payoffs and unfolds with a sweet-natured and clear-eyed approach that’s refreshing in its earnestness, even if it does sacrifice true complexity of character. Ultimately, The Artist is an infectious little movie about what made the silent era so magical, but it falls just short of being a great silent film in its own right—which I believe was its foremost intention.

War Horse


Steven Spielberg is the great sentimentalist filmmaker of his generation. Once in an interview, I heard him describe the first time he ever screened one of his amateur films as an adolescent. He said that he became instantly addicted to the audience’s reactions. The director has worked in many genres, but almost all of his films are guaranteed to have a touch of what I would call Spielberg Schmaltz—a bit of sentimental overkill that plays merely to tug at the tender heartstrings of already susceptible audiences.

It’s fitting that War Horse, a war epic based on a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo about a horse caught between the lines of WWI’s horrific trench warfare, should call to Spielberg like the sirens of cinematic emotional pandering. An innocent horse, the inane brutalities of a human conflict: The concept alone could evoke a cascade of sympathetic groaning.

That said—one couldn’t discuss Spielberg without acknowledging his gift for delivering pure, tactile Movie-Wonder. In one climactic scene in War Horse, the titular colt, startled and fed up with battle, makes a desperate run for it, leaping over barbed wire, into trenches, over machine guns and right through the burning, exploding hell of battle. The scene is wrenching and when it finished, I heard the woman behind me say what everyone else was clearly thinking: How in the world did they film that?

I’m told no horses were hurt in the making of War Horse, but only a master craftsman like Spielberg, with his deft, indistinguishable blend of stunts and CGI, could make that scene seem so astoundingly authentic. War Horse, though, begins far from the muddy brown wastelands and gunpowder smog of the Western Front; rather, the camera soars serenely over the bucolic green fields and pastures of rural England, where a fresh-faced, wide-eyed lad named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) watches the birth of our one-day war horse on the neighboring farm.

Spielberg’s usual cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, turns the landscape into a peaceful, pastoral Eden, rivaling the dreamlike Irish grasses of Ford’s The Quiet Man. The movie’s opening vignette depicts the struggle of Albert’s family to keep their farm, accentuated by a freshly purchased horse—given the moniker Joey—that would rather run than plow, and an evil landowner named Lyons (David Thewlis) who seems to take cold pleasure in displacing and tormenting his tenants.

In its opening 45 minutes (its finest by the way), the film reiterates Spielberg’s uncanny storytelling ability—his talent for giving tremendous dramatic stakes to the most personal and trivial of sequences. It also introduces the film’s best character and performance: Emily Watson as Albert’s hard-edged, no-nonsense mother, who weathers every hardship with a walls-up toughness and protective pragmatism. Most importantly, it forges the relationship between Joey and Albert, one built on kindness, resolve and mutual trust.

That friendship is tested, however, when the bells of war literally begin to ring, and Joey is dragged off to France with a unit of English cavalry. Spielberg’s first argument for war’s wasteful futility comes when that unit, sabers in hand, charges an outpost of German machine guns. After the massacre, Joey gets swapped between several part-time owners: a kindly English officer (Tom Hiddlestone); a couple of AWOL German brothers; and a scene-stealing, provincial French girl named Emilie (played by the adorable Celine Buckens).

When Kaminski’s beautiful English countryside gets replaced by the gritty, ugly, lifeless colors and textures of torn earth and flesh, it becomes clear that Spielberg’s plea for peace is one based on contrasts: the pure vs. the ravaged, love vs. hate, animal vs. man. Honor, loyalty, virtue and friendship are characteristics not exclusive to Man, but destruction on the level of war certainly is. Easy conclusions to make, but they are elegantly illustrated in the way Joey unwittingly flips sides and then ends up smack in the middle of no-man’s-land, a neutral creature in a war fought by the innocent masses, but waged by fatuous politicians. Joey is not just a beast of burden—he’s collateral damage.

Spielberg’s 2½-hour long epic could definitely use some trimming down. And as magnificent of a storyteller as he usually is, War Horse never really finds a solid protagonist. The relationship between Joey and Albert seems central, but then Albert goes MIA for a long stretch before showing up later as a caked-in-dirt doughboy on a mission to find his equine companion. Joey is anthropomorphized from the outset in an effort to make him somehow more relatable, yet a little crosscutting between the two would have been beneficial to the story’s structure and impact.

War Horse trots along on the unlikely chance that, somehow, Joey and Albert will find each other amongst the carnage and get home. Adversely, though, with both heroes in harm’s way, the movie keeps you enthralled with the knowledge that the war cares neither for them nor their friendship. What begins with the greenest of valleys ends with a painterly sunset ripped from She Wore A Yellow Ribbon—the figures in silhouette are wistful signifiers of all that was lost. This isn’t Spielberg’s tidiest foray, but he paints his widescreen with the usual wonder, and even the sap comes courtesy of a truly poignant interspecies bromance.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012



In Carnage, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s drawing room play, The Gods of Carnage, two middle-class couples meet to discuss an incident in which their respective sons had an altercation on the playground. Two unbroken establishing shots bookend the film, and the opening one depicts how Zachary (Elvis Polanski), while being taunted in Brooklyn Park, indifferently wacked Ethan (Eliot Berger) with a large stick, causing damage to his left incisor.

In the aftermath, as we are immediately plopped down in the snazzy apartment of Ethan’s well-off parents, Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster), as they entertain and attempt to smooth over any bad-feelings with Zachary’s posh folks, Alan and Nancy Cowen (Chrisoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), a real-time 80 minutes of pleasantries and nice gestures inconspicuously boiling over into shifting alliances, flaring tempers, and the eponymous carnage unfolds.

Under the guise of good will, generosity, and the best interests of their children, the two couples are, at least superficially, after some kind of reconciliation between their two boys, but they are somehow, innately, drawn toward conflict with each other. Like Polanski’s first and maybe greatest film, Knife In The Water, Carnage is about human behavior in small spaces—the idea that whenever human beings come in close contact, there is always the possibility of disaster. In Knife In The Water, however, danger seemed unavoidable, inevitable; in Carnage, it’s when you want to scream at the screen (Just Leave Already!) that you realize that the characters are compelled to stick around by something greater than themselves: humanity’s magnetic pull toward self-destruction.

Carnage is in good cinematic company, too. When it seemed that this uncomfortable visit was never going to end, and niceties had gone fatally south into too-much-information territory, I couldn’t help but think of Mike Nichols’ masterful Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And the fact that these four lavish-living people—Alan with his BlackBerry that won’t stop ringing, Penelope with her do-gooder book on Darfur, and Michael with his 20-year-old scotches and cigars—can’t seem to get anything meaningful done recalls the ineffectual diners of Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Shot with wide angle, unnatural close-ups and pretty window light, with mirrors and reflections that stress duality and suggest themes far more encompassing than the plight of the bickerers inside the narrative, Carnage is an experiment in the human proclivity for conflict—a theme Polanski, a notorious misanthrope, has spent much of his career preening through with a fine-toothed comb. “These people are monsters!” spouts Winslet’s Nancy after the booze has been uncorked and all courtesies have sailed out the window. I wonder: what monsters is she referring to exactly?

Before the film’s short runtime is up, the veils of patience and dignity that outline the effective performances dissolve into shouting matches of the pettiest malice. The film ends just in time too (another twenty minutes of it might have been insufferable). Polanski knows how to quit when he’s ahead. Carnage’s ironic final bookend seals the deal: if the rest of the world’s creatures can find a way to make it work, why can’t the privileged and college-educated four at the movie’s center spend one hour together without coming apart at the seams? To ponder that question is to wonder, at least on some level, how human beings can become monsters.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo


I totally understand the backlash engendered by all these “Americanized” versions of foreign books and movies. I know Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish version of Let The Right One In was certainly more affective and atmospheric than Matt Reeves’ American remake. I know a perfectly good Swedish adaptation of Steig Larson’s bestseller, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, came out only two years ago, and I agree Americans should get over their juvenile fear of reading subtitles or watching movies without recognizable Hollywood stars. But that doesn’t mean one should disregard David Fincher’s expertly made and wholly compelling Dragon Tattoo reincarnation out of narrow minded principle. Even if it is a Hollywood version, it’s still breathtaking in its directorial bravado, pacing, and lead performance.

In that performance, Rooney Mara (The Social Network) nails the tricky role of gothic Swede Lisbeth Salander, the computer hacking virtuoso, investigative prodigy, and beating heart of Larson’s book and Fincher’s film. At the same time taciturn and crying out, Salander is in her very appearance a statement on modern youth’s ironic desire for self-alienation: she has bleached eyebrows to accentuate the numerous piercings jutting masochistically through her face; she’s pale as a ghost cause her diet consists of McDonald’s fries and cigarettes; she enjoys the pain of the needle, so her body’s littered with tattoos, including the eponymous one strewn on her upper back; and she adorns an androgynous get-up of black leather and baggy pants over massive army boots. Her face is perpetually sullen and conveys an attitude that screams don’t-fuck-with-me.

Of course, Lisbeth is not only scary looking; she’s scary smart. Like the Medea of cyber retribution, she can get at someone’s bank accounts, police records, or personal information as easily as a normal web browser checks their e-mail. (Hell hath no fury like Lisbeth on her Mac Book!) An orphan and ward of the state, with a long history of sexual and mental abuse, Lisbeth, early in the film, makes an example out of a portly caseworker that should have kept his hands to himself. “What they say about me is correct. I am psychotic,” she says, gleaning over him with a demon’s eyes smeared with mascara. At least, that’s what she wants people to believe. It protects her—like the helmet she throws over her messy spiked hairdo when she rides off on her motorcycle like a bat out of hell—and keeps anyone from getting too close.

The dramatic thrust of the film, however, involves Lisbeth partnering up with an investigative reporter named Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), who finds himself on a remote Swedish island, hired to solve the 40-year-old mystery of an aristocratic family’s missing member, a young girl named Harriet. At 155 minutes, editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall pace the film magnificently; it never gets dull for a moment. Much of the runtime crosscuts between Blomkvist’s methodical investigation, while hauled up in a guesthouse in the wintry Swedish countryside, and Lisbeth’s troubled life back in Stockholm. Soon the two team up. Since she was the one who did the initial background check on Blomkvist for his employers, he recruits her once his deduction finds a possible link between Harriet’s disappearance and a long uncaught, religiously driven serial killer of women. It fans her vengeful flames, so Lisbeth hops on board.

As with his last serial killer endeavor, Zodiac (a lower-profile film that I believe may turn out to be his masterpiece), Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo is hyper meticulous. It zeroes in on the finest details and oddest particulars of an investigation marked by old school obsessive intensity and 21st century technological know-how. Fincher takes Larson’s formulaic mystery and gives it the energy, focus and style of cinematic web browsing. From photographs, news clippings, police reports, and online databases, Blomkvist and Lisbeth are able to fit the pieces together and make discoveries that no one could make in 40 years. On a desolate and ghostly island teeming with red harings, the two know that the killer is in their midst; he’s both a mouse click away and rapping ominously at the door.

In its cinema-on-Ritalin kind of way, the film suggests that today’s hackers who will be tomorrow’s problem solvers. And precisely because Lisbeth is an outcast—more comfortable in front of her computer than with people—she can thrive in a world with a growing disharmony between tech-kids and the rest of humanity. She’s ahead of the societal curve. In a thematic link to Fincher’s last piece, The Social Network, Dragon Tattoo is about a world that’s more connected than ever before, but, ironically, haunted by the impersonal chill that ersatz connection has left in its wake. The movie’s last and most poignant implication is that perhaps Lisbeth Salander was looking for a way to connect person-to-person all along. Maybe her appearance was a façade covering her emotional battle wounds. Fincher once said that he was interested in “movies that scar”. His latest great film takes us to the edge of healing those scars, before trashing the sentiment and riding off alone—like a Fordian hero—into the snowy Scandinavian night.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows


I find it peculiar that Guy Ritchie would be a studio’s first choice to helm the screen adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories of the famous British detective, Sherlock Holmes. The vast majority of the director’s films are about skin-headed London roughnecks and gangsters who spit inexplicable gutter slang and beat each other into bloody pulps. His work seems to be the working class antithesis to Doyle’s British-genteel pop mysteries, and his characters the unwashed counterparts to an intellectual criminologist like Holmes.

Instead of changing his style to suit the source material, Ritchie has molded and manhandled the material to fit his own brand of ultra violent, British grunge cinema. Audiences responded favorably to the alterations in 2009’s original Sherlock Holmes film, so for this sequel, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, Ritchie focuses even less on the mystery aspect and more on Holmes as a pugilistic combatant with a heightened sense of meticulousness and intuition. Game of Shadows has all the intelligence of a soccer hooligan’s ninth pint pontificating. It’s a pub-crawler’s Who Done It?

In this episode, Holmes’ Scooby Doo mystery involves foiling the plan of an arm’s dealer named Moriarty (Jared Harris), who seeks to use the late 19th century’s burgeoning Anarchist movement to goad Europe’s industrial nations—notably France and Germany—into global war. After he dispenses with the competition, Moriarty will be free to supply both sides with the weapons they need to annihilate each other.

Ritchie’s energy infused, but pallid style—including his drab and colorless Victorian London—shows a complete disregard for Holmes’ famous investigatory particulars. Richie’s not a director of fastidiousness, but of headlong pace and knuckle-to-nose brutalities. Luckily for him, he has a star with enough charisma and class to pleasantly fill the lackluster gaps between all the fisticuffs. Robert Downey Jr. is again cast as Holmes, and the actor plays the iconic Scotland Yard sleuth with a cadence of rapid fire, delirious eloquence and eyes that look dilated and possessed to the point of hyper vigilance. “I see everything, it’s my curse,” he whispers.

This side of Johnny Depp, no one plays a better half-drunk eccentric than Downey Jr. His Holmes is a master of clinical insight (he sees life like a chessboard, always ten steps ahead) and a master of disguise, but he’s forlorn, even if he’d never admit it. He clings to his tumultuous partnership with one Dr. Watson (Jude Law, an actor who’s proven most adept at playing sidekicks and villains), who professes to want rid of his narcissistic companion so he can marry his sweetheart Mary (Kelly Reilly). That doesn’t stop Holmes from hijacking their honeymoon and forcing Watson to accompany him on his mission.

Game of Shadows is enjoyable in measures, mostly due to the banter and interplay between Downey’s Holmes and Law’s Watson, the clown and the straight man, respectively. As the movie clips along, hitting several highly charged climaxes, it becomes difficult to overlook its perfunctory plotting, shallow characters, and choppy construction. Of course, asking for elegance or depth from Guy Ritchie is like asking for a soufflé from a chef who specializes in two quid meat pies: You get what you pay for. Alas, I think my money is worth a little more than what Game of Shadows so brutishly concocted.