Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Artist Review

The Artist
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Released in 2011

If you knew nothing of The Artist and sat down in a theater as it started, it would take a good five to ten minutes until you realized it was a silent film. The classic, Powerpoint-goes-analog titles might tip you off, but the protagonist, movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), relies on his body to speak. He watches his newest film from behind the theater’s screen, where on the other side a packed house of suited men and bourgeois women sit, gasping and laughing as if on cue. Valentin enjoys watching himself and his ability to yield such physical emotions from his audience. When the film ends, he jumps onto stage to bask in the applause. His female costar fumes in the wings as he delays her entrance by first recognizing the film’s animal actor, his multitalented Jack Russell Terrier. He throws his arms in the air, makes sweeping bows and even tap-dances under the spotlight, all with that winning smile that says not a word.

We can tell this man is obviously full of himself, for one, but also that his talent, voice and, alas, image lie in his overwhelming, eloquent physicality. Only when Valentin negotiates with the jowly, cigar-chomping studio executive (a magnetic John Goodman) does he talk with any sort of regularity, the dialogue of which we see through interpolated text cards. The people love him, and he scoffs at the prototypical demoes of “talkies,” a noisy bazaar that would surely ruin the spirit of cinema. His alluring protege, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who personifies the American Dream that looks, dedication and even better looks will take you anywhere, catapults overnight to stardom by committing to the new technology. The talkies take over Hollywood in only a few bustling years starting when The Artist does, in 1927, and, with Black Tuesday and the subsequent Depression slamming the country simultaneously, George Valentin falls on hard times. 

Director Michel Hazanavicius stays true to his goal and delivers - and through the Weinsteins, actually distributes - an actual silent film in our ever loud 2011. Iris and wipe edits and a swinging score by Ludovic Bource are what we see and hear. Thankfully Hazanavicius acknowledges his contemporary audience by playing with silent film conventions, adding sound or tricking us with intertitles that may have more than one meaning. 

Watching a silent film, in a theater (truly the only way it can be experienced) reveals small but crucial differences. For instance, only at the most defined moments do sound films ever drop to complete silence. We usually feel quite awkward when the coughs of the audience or yells from the exterior hallway’s Icee-fueled children echo during those excruciating seconds. Bource’s score pulses underneath for nearly the entire runtime, but it is not a heartbeat, and there are little moments of aural blankness that may frustrate modern audiences. If anything, these seconds just emphasize the eminence of images.

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo fill these images with pleasing features and irrefutable likability that will win over all movie lovers accepting of a little change. Dujardin channels silent film icon Douglas Fairbanks as a swashbuckling, thinly mustachioed gentleman with the screeching echoes of fawning fans derived from his namesake, Rudolph Valentino. Bejo’s Peppy Miller boasts elegance and spunk, and both of these actors work tremendous chemistry with one another, as it is their relationship that propels the film. Well, those two and that miraculous dog.

The Artist soars when it stays closest to the ground, in the smallest of moments. The delicate relationship between Peppy and George grows during the multiple takes, all spliced together, when he must dance with her for just a moment but fails to keep his composure after they both drift out of character and into each other’s arms and minds. Or when George sees an attractive set of dancing legs under a curtain and mimics her moves until their barrier disappears and they recognize one another again. This comic foreplay champions the silent film format, and the two rise above any need for the stilted flirtation that Judd Apatow’s crew has brutally bludgeoned us now for five years running. 

The film has such a good heart, and when it tries to prove to us otherwise it almost loses its wings. Hazanavicius milks the melodrama with bipolar sobriety to disrupt the pacing and overarching mood, message. For just another victim to the Great Depression, George should cherish the fame he held compared to the lonely starvation that 99% of artists suffer on the street. Because while George may be immensely likable, what with that grin of gold, he remains self-absorbed and reluctant to change until the most extreme circumstances brought by those he shunned. Not necessarily a role model, but a model at least for the power of fortuitous friendship, whether from his loyal dog, butler (James Cromwell) or Peppy. 

This year’s Hugo studied the same era, as well as similar themes like lost fame and unrecognized talent, from the opposite end, with sound, color, CGI and digital 3D. Scorsese knew his subject, French film pioneer Georges Méliès, well and could relate. Michel Hazanavicius here does not make such profound connections, yet nor does he ever fall back on unremembered nostalgia. He has his own story to tell, crafted for an audience in the 21st century. It is Jean Dujardin, though, who connects with his character, and thus the audience, so completely that you may just sift through your brain wondering what old films you saw with tortured star George Valentin. They were black and white and without sound, but alit with a smile fused from the stars. 

Final Verdict:
3.5 Stars Out of 5

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Review

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Directed by David Fincher
Released in 2011

David Fincher’s films center not around story but a mood. An off, hopeless, gnarly mood that about represents where Travis Bickle’s head would be in the 21st century. There are no clean bathrooms in these movies. Longtime collaborator, cinematographer Jeff Cronenwoth, captures the visual aesthetic of this bleakness with jet-black color saturation and disturbing digital clarity. The two could frame a mid-July, Florida sun and make you doubt its warmth. On the other side lies the audio, where sound editors and mixers - led by Ren Klyce and Mark Weingarten, respectively - sometimes muddle the dialogue yet crank up the ambience to build suspense. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross scored The Social Network and return here for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to embarrass all directors who did not approach these two sooner. They channel paranoia and betrayal through this draining din that may as well resonate from the recesses of a aluminum honeycomb, with atonal keyboard strokes over it all. 

I say all this to commend both Fincher and these individual artists who collaborate every time to realize these troubled visions. But I also want to emphasize that all these people are not here to tell a story as much as develop this mood and strip raw its meditators’ humanity, or complete lack thereof. The story they tell here has been told twice before, with Stieg Larsson’s original novel and the 2009 Swedish film adaptation hits already. They all return, Fincher leading it all, for more than an American touchup. 

Larsson’s original story remains mesmerizing and incredibly gripping, no doubt. I had not experienced the story in any complete form yet so the Steven Zaillian-adapted plot provided its own wonder (thus, this review has no prior bias, e.g. my laziness brings objectivity). If Agatha Christie wrote for the heroin chic era and admired the BTK Killer over Professor Moriarty, the resulting potboiler would end up close to this.

Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has just been hired by a retired mogul, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his daughter almost 40 years ago. Blomkvist, an investigative journalist, is good at his job, but not great, shown by his loss in a high-profile libel case against a businessman, Hans-Erik Wennerström. Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), however, is great and nearly supernatural in her computer hacking abilities (not unlike last year’s Fincher subject, Mark Zuckerberg), if brought back down to earth by some severe social problems (ditto the Zuck). The two join - through some awkward serendipity, of course - to pin down who they believe is a serial killer of women, one of Se7en-level brutality.

Lisbeth directs all of her attention to the case on the premise alone, for sexual violence is tied to her own past. If her bisexuality did not already set her apart, her black leather jackets, grotesque piercings and aversion to words certainly do. Her new legal guardian exchanges sadistic rape for the money she needs, and the revenge she takes is almost so sick we feel bad for the scum. Almost. An early scene where a thug swipes her laptop in a train station, only for her to viciously fight back, throws the weak woman stereotype out of the window. Not the crazy woman one, though, for she unleashes a primal roar in the goon’s face that the sound editors wisely masked with ambient train squeals. This freight train will flatten you.

Blomkvist occupies the other side of the coin. It is precisely his slaving to manners that nearly kills him, as he comes face to face with the bad guy yet will not decline a drink in his isolated, dark house. “It's funny that people have a greater fear of offending others than the fear of pain,” the villain sneers, a critique of the genre’s tropes that lead to the audience screaming at the screen, “Don’t go in there!!” 

Daniel Craig as Blomkvist signals a shift in character, one not in control of the situation though more eager than ever to be so. For once, Craig appears weaker than both his enemy and accomplice, and he handles the demotion in stride. The dark palette to the shots even makes that chest that once drove Internet message boards wild only above average. 

Though that role does not scream Oscar in any way, Mara’s Lisbeth Salander does through silence. But we all saw her in the opening sequence of The Social Network as Zuckerberg’s offended girlfriend, and she was so flustered and innocent there. What happened between then and now? The contrast makes her transformation that much more impressive. For such a pretty, delicate-looking girl, her nude scenes bare a rugged, beaten and very sexed though not necessarily sexy canvas. The strange relationship she develops with Blomkvist uncovers real feelings, with hard stares of affection rather than contempt. In a day where stars only grace magazine covers with an army of Photoshop airbrushers, it takes dare and real talent to own a role so punk and unglamorous and find a wounded heart beneath it all. 

Christopher Plummer deserves recognition this year, for he won accolades in Beginners and proves again to show talent, or dash, have no boundary. First of all, look at the man (to your right), and tell me you would want to look any other way at 82 years young. Bravo, sir. But nonetheless, he continues to expose his underrated talents that should soon not go Oscar-less. Actors cry all the time in the movies, but only the best can make you believe it. His character breaks down in one, quick shot with such a rush of feeling that it reminded me acting can not only shock but swoon, even amongst such venomous company. 

That Plummer’s reaction was cut so abruptly contributed to the shot’s punch, letting the emotion exit the screen and finish in the viewer’s imagination. Film editing, the “invisible art” as it is justly called, can go through the motions or turn a decent film exceptional. Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall achieve the latter, cutting a movie that runs a troublesome 158 minutes into a breeze without filler. They throw in those graphic match cuts - i.e. someone closes a window; cut to someone closing a door - but the mastery barrels forward in any of the montages. Investigative work flies by as both Lisbeth and Mikael shuffle through old newspapers and find clues in zoomed photos while Trent and Atticus’ score builds and falls. They work apart from each other as per Lisbeth’s isolated demeanor yet, in two sequences, one of them falls into mortal peril while the other puts together the pieces to save them. Their dependency on each other never finds words but the cross-cutting of images, even when they are a train ride apart, ties that bond. 

I now recall an earlier 2011 film, The Green Hornet, directed by Michel Gondry. The film was mediocre at best, but featured this cool sequence where the camera followed an assassin only for the screen to split in two and follow two new assassins simultaneously, and then four, eight and so on. The montage provided fleeting fun, but aside unmemorable scenes on either side it stood out as rather outstanding in this otherwise forgettable movie. Gondry and Fincher share a similar lineage, as two of the three famous 90s music video directors who later hit it big in Hollywood (the third being Spike Jonze). 

Fincher does not use these “showstoppers.” Instead, he creates a seamless stream of image, sound and music where every piece, at every frame, holds purpose, but conviction only when viewed alongside its appendages. A scene of Mikael nestling with a cat feels as critical to his character as when someone strangles him with a plastic bag over his head. Take a second and picture that latter image. It is as disturbing as you cannot dare to imagine. For while Fincher cannot ultimately escape the pulp that is Larsson’s text, the often ludicrous story keeps us afloat among such unremitting brutality. Otherwise, we might just sink into that starless, unsmiling mood.

Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars Out of 5

Monday, December 19, 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol Review

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Directed by Brad Bird
Released in 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol blasts through all the clog and tedium of the ailing action movie genre with enough dare and bombast to get the blood flowing once again.  This ride is so wild you may overlook the faults at the foundation. I would say I am willing to give it the benefit of my doubt.

Brad Bird’s live-action directorial debut (he was behind The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille) finds real thrills in real places, sometimes really high places like Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Superspy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) scales seven stories of window panes, some 140 floors into the sky, with only these adhesive gloves that, of course, are reliably unreliable. Cinematographer Robert Elswit mortifies the acrophobes in the audience with a slow, peering shot over Hunt’s head as he gazes down to see the aphid cars and Monopoly houses captured with IMAX cameras. Bird admires the power of these cameras, noting how, when Hunt presses his hand against the pane, “you actually see the glass warp slightly because of the pressure of his hand.” You see it alright, and ask your gut too because you can feel it. 

Ethan Hunt and his team of deadly, attractive agents - played by qualifiers Paula Patton, Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner - are teasing physics in Dubai to find some launch codes that could result in nuclear war. It is the Cold War paranoia cow Hollywood has been milking since long before Dr. Strangelove. The “Ghost Protocol” in the title refers to the government’s official disavowal of IMF (the romantic “Impossible Missions Force”), leaving its agents in the dark and branded as terrorists if caught. 

Why all of this happened points back to the film’s early sequence where the team infiltrates the Kremlin to lift a dangerous scrap of intel. A gadget that would make Q proud - a screen that hides the agents by simulating a hallway’s length through detecting an onlooker’s visual focal length - is one piece of this suave heist, an operation that goes astray when the bad guy sets off a bomb simultaneously and pins the disaster on the Americans. Villain and motive established in one, loud bang. 

All of these action scenes - from Hunt’s prison escape at the tune of Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” to the final standoff in a shuffling parking garage - transcend their gimmicky concepts with Bird behind the camera. Recall The Incredibles and the fight in the lava pit between Mr. Incredible and the globular Omnidroid. It was swift, thrilling and even funny when you didn’t expect. Anticipate a similar style here, like when Agent Hanaway (Josh Holloway, forever enshrined as Lost’s “Sawyer”) cuts through a train station crowd to casually inject a target with tranquilizer, sit him down on a bench and push his hat over his eyes. Now this shady courier is no more than a bum. The film opens with Hanaway jumping from a roof, spinning around in mid-air and popping off just two bullets into his two pursuers leaning over the edge. He breaks his fall with a instantly-inflatable mattress, worn like a backpack.

Suspension of disbelief is obviously required. Tom Cruise, who does nearly all of his own stunts (or so says the press release), smacks his head into so many car roofs, window beams and other uncushioned surfaces that the story could morph into the ending of Million Dollar Baby. But the Energizer Bunny keeps going and going, running and falling and running once more. While James Bond may be a debonair gentleman with an edge, Ethan Hunt is a bullet train barreling towards some foreign notion of peace. There is little development in his character, or in any of them for that matter. Each “set piece,” as the critics love to call it, is so front-loaded with its own individual risks and objectives that the overall stakes are lost in the pulsing mass of it all. The madness reaches a point where these scenarios could be shuffled and the story’s sense, or lack thereof, would be about intact.

Tom Cruise and company pick up the pieces from Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec’s weak script to bring life to characters that clearly defy it. Benji, played by Simon Pegg, who filled a similar role of “geek-in-action” as Scotty in 2009’s Star Trek, laughs off Hunt’s orders in disbelief: “Ha! I thought you said the Kremlin.” Pegg provides comic relief in a genre that has lost it (Cowboys & Aliens and Battle: LA, Exhibits A and B). Cruise tackles this role with the full body commitment of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. There is a startling physicality to every movement, even as he swipes across files on a flashy touchscreen that lets the visual effects team show off for a moment. Ethan Hunt may not have the depth of humor or feeling of, say, Indy, but Cruise lights him up and makes it impossible to look away.

The action is so inspired, the pacing so slick and the thrills so visceral (your stomach drops as Hunt slips, your heart races as he sprints down the exterior of Burj Khalifa) that this film reaches an uncanny valley of greatness held back by its own story’s clichés and incoherence. I do not work in the movie business, but I find no sense in piling the finest directors, movie stars, editors and cinematographers onto a script that obviously needs improvement. I speak only out of affection, for I feel this movie could have been a modern action classic. What we have instead is only an IMAX spectacle of brilliant action and undying spirit framed as popcorn art by one of our country’s greatest living directors. Poor us.

Final Verdict:
3.5 Stars Out of 5

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Hugo Review

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Released in 2011

I always ramble on in my reviews about how Movie A loves the art of film (Super 8) and how Movie B stands as an all-out assault to the craft (Transformers 3). Somehow I even managed to testify how The Muppets comments on the nuances of filmmaking. This college freshman is just hopped up on too many film history courses to realize that not everyone makes movies with that meta-theory, this-next-one-goes-out-to-André-Bazin approach. Relax. But now one of the greatest storytellers in film history as well as its most vocal advocate has gifted us Hugo. Those gushing instincts are rushing back. Martin Scorsese did not just want to make this film; he needed to.

Marty, who has dedicated his career to stories about mobsters, psychopaths and mobster-psychopaths, loosens the knuckles for once to write this loveletter to cinema. Hugo can be labeled “family-friendly” but it speaks strongest to those who have a history with the movies. The darker color palette, 2-plus hour length and deliberately slow pacing may bore kids raised on flashy visuals and simple narrative substance. 

With that said, Robert Richardson’s cinematography and the visual effects department’s work stun from the opening shots where busy clock cogs transition seamlessly into an aerial view of an equally busy Paris. The set design of the train station, where Hugo lives, glorifies the era while still uncovering its grime. Scorsese, who loves tracking shots a la Goodfellas, coasts the camera across train platforms and through steam pipes with precision and purpose. The 3D lends a dimension to help us appreciate it all. Instead of the typical Eraserhead approach equating new technology to a loss of humanity, these beautiful strokes of bustling industry praise the wonder of human progress. The celluloid reel itself was a new step in progressive ingenuity.

Georges Méliès, visionary behind the ubiquitous 1902 classic A Trip to the Moon, explored film’s potential when it was still shunned as a passing novelty. Méliès, the man, lives in the world of this movie. But first he must be found, and orphan Hugo Cabret toils to reunite the spirit of the artist with the current pessimistic shell left of the man. The years between the end of Méliès’ career, brought by World War I, and the early 1930s setting of the film have not been kind. His films are, to his knowledge, all extinct in physical form and memory, and even historians write him off as dead. He has grown bitter with the world and shuts himself and his family off from his former profession and eternal passion. With the help of Méliès’ goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Moretz), Hugo tries to reach the neglected director to show him that his work has not been forgotten.

The movie spends time detailing the biography of Méliès, but its heart lies in young Hugo. More so than any other protagonist in the Scorsese canon, Hugo reflects the man behind the camera. Social outcasts as children, they find solace at the movies. There is a great scene where Hugo takes Isabelle, who has never seen a movie before, to the theatre. Safety Last!, inspiration for the film’s poster and clock tower scene, is screening and Isabelle finds the suspense of a man nearly falling from a building rapturous. You can imagine this scenario as Marty’s perfect date. After the death of his father, Hugo goes to extreme lengths to fix the mysterious automaton connected to film history. Even Hugo’s dreams are shot and cut with the omnipotent visuals of a silent movie. Despite the pressures of his largest budget and targeted demographic, Scorsese answers only to his heart. 

Asa Butterfield hits the pathos that a role of such Oliver Twist lows and highs demands. Chloë Moretz swore obscenities in Kick-Ass, but she speaks with a more dignified maturity here. Both of these young actors have potential to crossover to successful careers as they are already catering to adults more their own peers. The rest of the cast list contains some big names that should be left unseen until the end credits roll. Look for a little romance between two Harry Potter actors, one in a distinct change of form. I will mention Sacha Baron Cohen, agent provocateur in Borat and Brüno, who plays the grouchy station inspector eager to send any stray children to the orphanage. His service in the Great War, where he sustained a crippled leg, has left him cold and lonely over the years, but a lovely flower saleswoman reignites that dormant tenderness. His character is played for laughs in his bumbling chase sequences - where Marty’s soaring camera captures crowd-pleasing physical gags with rare grace -  but he surpasses this caricature to become, like most of these characters, a real person. 

The Inspector and Méliès both lost their way with their loss of innocence, so it takes an innocent soul like Hugo to put them back on track. Brian Selznick’s acclaimed novel, the basis for John Logan’s screenplay, insists humans are inherently good and great art will never die. A heartwarming notion, if a little idealistic. Scorsese’s spin advocates for the preservation of film, something he has long championed. Almost all of Méliès’ reels were melted down to plastic for the heels of women’s shoes, and he thought no one would care. Only by a streak of good luck pursued by Hugo’s goodwill were the remaining works found. 

This is not how things happened in real life. The story of Georges Méliès is largely factual, but the boy Hugo is a manifestation of a very creative mind. No, Marty is not urging you to drop your pursuits and become a lab rat at The Criterion Collection. He wants you to appreciate the significance of art’s most vulnerable medium, and not just its aesthetic value. Only film can bring dreams to life, in one place, where children and elders can watch together and await the adventure ahead or nod at the superimposition of image with their own past. This truth reaches all ages and all years, from film’s invention to this day. And with more kids like Hugo - perhaps even those watching this film - the future will be safe, too. Children are the future, after all, even in the past. 

Final Verdict: 
4.5 Stars out of 5

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Muppets Review

The Muppets
Directed by James Bobin
Released in 2011

There is a classic scene in the French film Amélie where the protagonist sits in a movie theater and says her favorite thing is to “look back and watch people’s faces in the dark.” The camera pans to the side and reveals faces of content, captured by the screen and lost in its world. It is great commentary on the power of cinema, but it is also the same image you would find at a screening of The Muppets. Grins stick from start to finish in this ode to happiness. This is a film that reveres the spectacle of classic Hollywood, when a physical set or stirring musical number needed no excuse. 

“Life’s a Happy Song,” penned by Flight of the Concords half Bret McKenzie, opens the film and signals the return of those elaborate music breakdowns against a proud soundstage. Gary (Jason Segel) and his Muppet brother Walter sing about the joys of life by rhyming “life’s a leg of lamb” and “with someone there to lend a hand.” The opening number alone features cameos from Feist to Mickey Rooney. The game of celebrity I Spy that has served as a constant in all Muppet features resumes in a shower of green. A partial list of guest stars includes Jack Black, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Dave Grohl and even James Carville for good measure. James Bobin, the director, and writers Segel and Nicholas Stoller stuffed so many guest spots in here that they had to leave some on the cutting room floor. Those they axed? Only Ben Stiller, Ricky Gervais and Lady Gaga. Big money flowing through this one.

Even Chris Cooper, one of our era’s greatest supporting actors, fills in for the one-dimensional villain with a paycheck likely dwarfing his award-winning work in American Beauty and Adaptation. Cooper knows this character does not call out for recognition in Oscar season, so he steps back and has fun with this meta-caricature as he directs his goons to “maniacal laugh” when the sinister music they all hear starts. He plays the subtly-named Tex Richman who plans on tearing down the classic Muppet Theatre to dig for oil. (Why do I see oil wells smack in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard not sliding with the world's most powerful liberals?). Of course, it is only up to Walter and his new friends - Kermit, Mrs. Piggy and all, though the inexplicable absence of Rizzo upsets my 90s Muppet film diet - to put on one more show to raise enough money to save the place. A little suspension of disbelief is required for a film that insists a felt frog maintains a Beverley Hills mansion all by himself. 

Therein lies the wonder of the Muppets, as it refuses to shun the ridiculousness of its premise and instead wield it as its greatest strength. Why waste time with establishing shots and introductions when you recruit the whole Muppet gang with an American montage? That’s right, call it a montage, don’t fear its name; it has been shamelessly pummeled to death by those who hold it close as their stock narrative technique. Why travel by car when it takes ten seconds by map? And everyone knows you can only clean a filthy room when 80s workout music pumps on the soundtrack. The film does not just parody but champions the cliches of the medium, which is needed more now than ever as 3D action flops and flashy comedies try to pass off their formulaic dreck as inspired (looking at you, Immortals and The Hangover Part II). This labor of love from Jason Segel and Stoller embraces the art of film, its own beloved namesake, and you, goddammit. The Muppets speaks with love and laughter, somehow balancing innocence and self-aware reflexivity to cut through maudlin artifice and believably arrive on a happy note. And with the way things are going right now, don’t you just need a hug?

Final Verdict:
4 Stars out of 5