Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

Today I’m pleased to welcome a guest writer, my good friend WordMaster, who’s treating us to a review of the 21st century silent film The Artist with minimal spoilers. If you haven't seen it yet and are thinking of hitting the theaters, I highly recommend it. Or you could go watch Tom Cruise try and pass off sorcery as science in the latest Mission Impossible installment. Being classy is such an uphill struggle for me. But honestly The Artist is a great movie, and well, I'll let WM's review do the talking. 

Like so many movies released in 2011, from Hugo and Midnight in Paris to Like Crazy and even Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Artist is about someone who clings to the past, who insists on lingering in some idealized Golden Age even though the rest of the world has moved on. When the movie’s protagonist, the once-celebrated silent film star George Valentin first encounters the burgeoning phenomenon later known as “talkies”, he laughs in scornful defiance, believing with every fiber of his being that this is just a transient fad, nothing more; even when his studio ceases production on all silent films, essentially putting him out of a job, he refuses to accept the fact that he has become passé, that the audience that used to adore him has lost all interest, and starts to produce and direct his own movies. This fall-from-power storyline, made popular by such ancient Greek dramas as Oedipus Rex and Agamemnon, is hardly original, yet Michel Hazanavicious’s The Artist lends it a new poignancy, for in our modern-day world of constant motion, Valentin’s fate seems all too real.

From the second it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last May to apparently resounding applause, The Artist burst onto the scene as a prime Oscar contender. Critics lauded Hazanavicious for his clever ode to the era of silent film, and audiences fell in love with the charming characters (especially the beloved dog Uggie) and winning, feel-good story, which never loses its endearing vivacity, even when it strays down a surprisingly dark road. In short, the movie is almost impossible to dislike.  From the moment the opening credits flicker onscreen in delightful, old-fashioned black-and-white (a touch sure to induce nostalgia in anyone who has seen a movie made before the advent of Technicolor), it sweeps the audience back to a time when sincerity was admired, and the public still swooned unashamedly over the pure ingenuity of “moving pictures”. The whole thing would feel gimmicky if it didn’t feel so real, so heartfelt. For the first ten minutes or so, the mere novelty of it all is its own kind of magic, but then, it wears off, and you’re no longer watching a 21st century silent, black-and-white film – you’re watching a film filled with boundless energy and passion and emotion, one that’s enchanting not because of its old-fashioned visual aesthetic but because it genuinely wants to tell a story, which sadly seems to be quite rare these days, when many filmmakers are content to clobber together a random series of set pieces and call that a “plot”, and even dramas are increasingly described as “character studies” and “explorations”. Needless to say, Hazanavicious pulls it off with seemingly effortless grace. With the help of an animated cast and a vibrant, suitably dramatic score courtesy of Ludovic Bource, he weaves a tale that is simple yet beguiling and, ultimately, heartbreaking, full of humor, drama, pathos, romance and suspense, along with an extra helping of panache.

Speaking of the cast, it’s no wonder Jean Dujardin, a French actor formerly known for the OSS 117 James Bond spoofs, has become a favorite to win the Oscar for Best Actor, a category that will probably include such Hollywood superstars as George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. Blessed with a naturally expressive face and old-timey movie star looks, Dujardin is perfectly cast as Valentin, oozing charisma as he smiles and dances and intermittently raises his eyebrows, and even when Valentin plummets down a death spiral of depression and arrogant self-pity, he remains almost brutally likable; to say that it’s easy to see why he was adored by movie audiences would be a glaring understatement. He also shares some nice chemistry with Bérénice Bejo, who plays up-and-coming actress Peppy Miller with infectious vigor, and despite never saying an audible word to each other, they make an exquisite couple, simultaneously sweet and believable. The rest of the main cast is rounded out by Penelope Ann Miller (Valentin’s wife, Doris), James Cromwell (the butler, Clifton) and John Goodman (the director, Al Zimmer).

But lest anyone get the wrong impression, The Artist is neither stuffy “Oscar-bait” nor a cutesy indie; in fact, with its lighthearted, effervescent tone, it could not be more accessible or crowd-pleasing (though this will inevitably lead some critics and more hardcore film buffs to dismiss it as sentimental fluff). Also, although the marketing campaign has focused largely on the movie’s attempt to replicate/pay tribute to classic Hollywood, its story and themes could not be more timeless or universal: while I can’t say it’s the overall best movie of 2011 (my personal favorite is J.J. Abrams’s Super 8), The Artist does the best job of all the nostalgia-themed films released last year – and there were many – of depicting that intense sense of longing for a bygone era. For unlike most of the other movies, as good as some of them are, The Artist doesn’t simply portray nostalgia as a wistful fantasy but also acknowledges that it is essentially rooted in stubbornness, a refusal to accept change that may not be idealistic so much as willful and irrational. And maybe that is ultimately what makes the movie special, what elevates it above sentimental fluff. For the very existence of The Artist, a 21st century silent film, as well as this recent trend of movies that romanticize the past, is proof that nostalgia is always relevant. It’s a little sad to think that, even after all these years, we are still like George Valentin, struggling to revive silent films. Perhaps the real tragedy is not that the Golden Age is gone but that even today, we still miss it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Film Adaptations and the Dangers Therein

CE Jenkins

Remember that time that the movie of your favorite book/sequel to your favorite movie came out? How you followed its development with excitement over the months before it hit the theatres? How you went into the film in a haze of blind faith and enthusiasm, and left the theatre with the feeling that all the good had been leached from the world and the urge to join some kind of nihilistic cult? Because I remember. Oh yes. I remember.  
Keanu 30 minutes after seeing the latest Shrek installment. Seriously guys, just let it die. Or kill it with a shovel. Either works.

Now, I’m not saying that movie adaptations are always destined to fail; some of my favorite movies are based on an original work, such as LOTR. What I am saying is that when Hollywood cooks up the movie version of a book you enjoyed, the stakes couldn’t possibly be higher for your movie-going experience. Few things hurt more than being shut in a room and forced to watch your favorite franchise defiled on a forty-foot screen for an hour and a half. Need I bring the painful memories of The Last Airbender and Eragon to mind?
I thought my heart had healed. But no, the sight of this movie poster still makes me want to gouge my eyeballs out with a plastic spoon.

But the crushing betrayal of certain failures hasn’t been enough to deter most of us from resignedly shelling out every time they club a concept over the head and drag it onto the silver screen. Somehow that tiny sliver of a chance that they might not completely butcher it is enough to make us go pay ten bucks to confirm that they did. Alright, maybe I’m being a little gloom and doom here. Like I said, good movie adaptations/sequels exist; the key is surviving all the other stuff. And even a good adaptation can be easily ruined by a slew of factors unique to films based on other work. So here are a few tips and thoughts on my process for getting the most out of your movie-adaptation experience.

·         Think of the movie and its source material as two separate entities; ideally, the filmmakers should have done so as well. Movies and books are worlds apart from each other, and the source material often requires a whole lot of translation before they’re suited for the big screen. Sometimes a scene that works great on paper just doesn’t have the same ring to it aloud; other scenes have to be modified or cut out entirely to fit the 2-hour screen life. But if you can try your best not to spend the whole time comparing the film to the original, it will make it a whole lot easier.

·         Don’t read the book/comic/whatever right before you see the movie. Preferably, you won’t have referenced the source for quite a while when the movie comes out. That way you go into the movie with a clean slate, or at least a slate that’s been smudged around a bit. Reference the source right before, and you’ll spend the whole movie thinking about how they left X out, or how they totally didn’t get what the author was going for in Y. Instead, go back to the original a bit after you’ve seen the movie and re-read it then. You’ll still pick up the parts the movie may have goofed, but it won’t be as obnoxious as having to watch them play out on the screen as you writhe in anguish in your seat.

·         Watch the previews. If it looks iffy in its two-minute incarnation, prepare yourself for more of the same when you see the movie for real. Of course, there will always be good movies with poor previews and awesome previews advertising comparatively bad movies, but they’re often a decent indication of what to expect.

·         Lower your expectations. This one is rather obvious. If you go in expecting Lord of the Rings you’re going to spend the whole movie noting every time it falls flat. If if you go in accepting the fact that the movie might not be amazing, the bad parts will be taken for granted and the good parts will redeem it. If you go in expecting The Room, then you may want to reevaluate why you’re seeing this movie in theatres.

Oh yes. That’s why.

·         Buy popcorn. Or candy. Or one of those dubious “blue-flavored” icee drinks that inevitably spill in your lap or make you need to pee really badly. The delicious(?) food will help keep you in a forgiving mood, and when you’re imagining crushing the director’s bones between your molars the crunchy popcorn helps make it more vivid.

Stop trying to convince me that blue is a legitimate flavor. I’ll still drink it anyways.

                Of course, there will always be some franchises that you’re so emotionally invested in that the most you can do is bring some ice chips to masticate and try not to rip the stuffing out of your seat every time they misquote a line. For example, if Avengers is anything less than orgasmic I will write a strongly-worded letter to Joss Whedon then wrap it around a brick and throw it through his front window. And if the Hobbit fails to make me cry my frontal lobe into a napkin at least three times, I will fly all the way to New Zealand to tipi Peter Jackson’s house. And then I will set the toilet paper on fire.

I know, I have too many movie-related-feels this year. I can’t possibly be expected to hold them all in one non-psychotic vessel.

Photo References: 
Blue Raspberry: