Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Artist

The Artist is at once both comfortingly familiar and staggeringly original. Most modern filmgoers have never seen a complete silent film, though I would guess that many have at least seen clips. To some, the very idea of a silent film may seem an antique marvel. It’s often said that history is written by the victors, which makes a film like The Artist a near miracle. Several movies have covered the period in Hollywood history where silent pictures gave way to talkies (perhaps most notably Singin’ In the Rain), but none have ever told the story from the side that vanished. The Artist is a rare, delightful gem - a gift not only to cinema lovers but to lovers of great storytelling in general.

The film opens in the late 1920’s at the height of silent film star George Valentine’s (Jean Dujardin) career. He has more than one meet-cute with aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), though circumstances keep the two separated. Miller’s career quickly takes off at the same dramatic pace that Valentine’s slows down, and for the same reason: silent pictures are giving way to talkies. Valentine struggles with his identity and legacy as he fights to remain relevant in a rapidly changing business.

Most of the buzz surrounding The Artist concerns the fact it is almost entirely without spoken dialogue, relying instead on title cards. It is also presented in black and white, was filmed at the older 4:3 aspect ratio, and even uses a slightly lower frame rate to evoke the cinema of the 1920s. However, I feel compelled to make very clear that The Artist’s nostalgic presentation is not a gimmick. Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius demonstrates great understanding of the silent medium, and he uses it to remarkable effect. I’m reminded of Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough film, Memento, half of which unfolds in reverse chronological order; all the hype was about the style, but underneath the hype was a genuine masterpiece.

Silent films require simple, easy-to-understand stories which don’t rely too heavily on dialogue. The dialogue in The Artist is strong and purposeful, but visual storytelling takes priority. I typically prefer black and white to color because of its use of shadow and contrast, but the art direction here goes well beyond maximizing black and white. The framing is consistently intentional, almost poetic; one long shot stuck out where Valentine walks down a flight of stairs as Miller walks up. Even if all title cards were removed, I think the story would still come across.

Lead actors Dujardin and Bejo could not be better. Beyond their considerable talent, both have great faces, great smiles; the leads convey so much through body language and facial expression. Silent films require a different sort of performance, and watching The Artist, it’s not hard to see why so many actors failed to find success when talkies took over. The addition of sound moved cinema closer to the theater in terms of nuance and depth of story, but The Artist reminds us how strong visual melodrama can be. My emotional investment in the characters came about without ever hearing their voices, and that’s the result of masterful storytelling in all departments.

The director’s strong use of the silent medium builds to a finale that could only exist in silent film, cleverly depending on lack of sound for its effect. The Artist works as a nostalgia piece, but it’s much more than that; here is a masterful look at film history, the fleeting nature of fame, and above all, the inevitability of change. At one point, Valentine lights up when he thinks a fan might be approaching, but the woman just wants to pet his dog. Valentine smiles sadly and says (via title card), “If only he could talk.”





For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for a disturbing image and a crude gesture.

The disturbing image involves a character on the brink of suicide placing a gun barrel in his mouth, and the crude gesture comes when a character raises her middle finger. That’s really it in the way of offensive content, though the bigger hurdle for some young viewers will be the overall slow pace and lack of spoken dialogue.

Hugo

Hugo is both a wonderful family film and a movie for movie lovers. It’s equal-parts charming, sweet, intriguing and magical. That may not sound like your typical Martin Scorsese picture, and it’s not, but his trademark craftsmanship is here, along with some new tricks. Most of the best children’s movies have dark sides, and as it turns out, Scorsese’s talents are perfectly suited for this genre. Scorsese’s passion for the project is clear; you can sense his care from the other side of the camera, and the happy ending (and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this film has one) involves film restoration.

In 1931, 12-year-old Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives as an orphan in one of Paris’ grand railway stations. Not knowing what else to do, he continues his missing uncle’s task of maintaining the clocks. He sneaks out occasionally to steal food but is caught and put to work by toy shop owner Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). While working in Méliès’ shop, Hugo befriends Méliès’ goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Hugo introduces her to the station’s secret world of passages and maintenance rooms, and the two work together to solve the mystery of a broken automaton, a mechanical man holding a pen, that Hugo’s father was repairing when he died.

What makes this a movie for movie lovers? You may know Georges Méliès as one of cinema’s most important and prolific pioneers, but even if you don’t recognize his name, you’ve likely seen the iconic image of a spaceship lodged in the eye of the man in the moon from Méliès’ most famous short film, A Voyage to the Moon (1902). Méliès made over 500 films (slightly over 200 of which have survived), but Ben Kingsley plays Méliès as a reclusive, largely forgotten has-been (there is some historical truth to this). Love drives Hugo’s narrative: familial love, friendship, and most of all, love of the cinema.

Both child leads have proved themselves in other films and are charming once again here. Few child performers continue their acting careers as adults, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see both Butterfield and Moretz in pictures for years to come. Ben Kingsley gives real depth to Méliès, playing a bitter man tormented by his past failures. Besides the leads, Hugo boasts memorable supporting performances from veterans Jude Law, Christopher Lee, Emily Mortimer, Ray Winstone, and others. Special mention goes to Michael Stuhlbarg as a film historian and to Sacha Baron Cohen, the station inspector. Cohen’s inspector is the closest thing Hugo has to a villain, though he’s ultimately driven by a desire to do good. I was reminded of Inspector Javert in Les Misérables, though as you might imagine, Hugo offers a more lighthearted, comical take.

The train station makes for a great setting. Smoke, crowds, secret corridors, shadows; Hugo instills that essential sense of wonder and mystique present in nearly all great family films. The film is adapted from a children’s book (The Invention of Hugo Cabret), and while I don’t know if the author had Victor Hugo’s work in mind when he named the lead character, Hugo reminded me of Quasimodo living in isolation, helping the city run on time, and dreaming of joining the passersby. The relatively light darkness continually gives way to sweetness and emotional payoff. By the film’s end, I had been thoroughly charmed.

Hugo marks Scorsese’s first (and possibly last?) movie filmed in 3D. The 3D effects are purposeful and much stronger than movies that are shot conventionally and converted to 3D in post production. Still, though the effects work, they don’t significantly improve the viewing experience. Hugo will be just as good on video simply because it’s a great film, and no 3D effect can alter that (Hollywood also has yet to learn that 3D doesn’t make bad films better).

I don’t know if Scorsese will make another children’s/family film, but he’s made a great one: a worthy addition to his considerable library of classics. I think kids and movie lovers will be Hugo’s biggest fans (I’m certain it would have fascinated me as a child), but more than entertain its viewers, Scorsese’s family picture might just educate and inspire a future generation of movie lovers. I can’t imagine a more fitting legacy than that.





For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking.

Hugo has a dream where he opens his eyes in bed to find the automaton looking at him, and then he looks down to see gears and mechanical parts as though he himself is a machine. That bad dream might frighten some younger viewers, though on the whole, this movie isn’t too dark or scary. The station’s labyrinth of tunnels and gears are more intriguing than frightening. Also, a character apparently smokes (in 3D, no less), though its impact wasn’t great enough for me to remotely recall it.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Descendants

The Descendants is a beautiful, thoughtful, sad film. The story unfolds in Hawaii, but as the opening narration tells us, there’s trouble in paradise (“My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise, like a permanent vacation ... are they insane?”). The title has to do with inheritance; the characters in this film are those left behind, and they all carry the weight of what their ancestors (both immediate and distant) entrusted to them. The characters’ lives seem defined by these blessings and burdens that they didn’t ask for but must learn to cope with.

George Clooney plays Matt King, a middle-aged lawyer who is the sole trustee of a family trust that controls 25,000 acres of beautiful Hawaiian land. His struggle with who to sell the land to transpires alongside his personal struggles. Matt’s wife lies comatose after a near-fatal boating accident, leaving Matt with the responsibility of raising his two daughters: Scottie (Amara Miller), age 10 and Alex (Shailene Woodley), age 17. Long-repressed tensions rise to the surface between Matt and his wife, Matt and his girls, the girls and their mother, etc. Amidst jarring changes, Matt struggles to find balance for himself, his family, and the land he loves so much.

Writer/Director Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Sideways) specializes in these funny/sad slices of American life. The Descendants leans more towards drama than comedy, with a few laughs punctuating what is otherwise a somber story, though it’s extremely well-told and occasionally profound. The Descendants successfully blends several thought-provoking ideas into a single narrative. The characters battle deeply with disappointment, with how to respond when you find yourself hurting or hurt by someone you love. It’s also about legacy: what we leave behind. When you think about how your decisions will positively or negatively shape the world for those who come after you, you start making different choices. In a season of crushing loss, these characters surprise each other and themselves with their decisions, and it’s all so fundamental and raw that we understand and empathize, even having never been exactly where they are.

Tight writing and nuanced performances kept me engaged, with George Clooney and Shailene Woodley doing the heavy lifting. Clooney’s acting here has earned considerable acclaim, but while I admire his mature, subtle performance, I don’t see it as career-defining or even as his best work. Days after seeing the film, Woodley’s performance is the one that has stuck with me and continued to resonate. She delivers all the complexity you would expect to find in a rebellious, somewhat-troubled 17-year-old. Folly lays alongside maturity and sweetness shines through angst, a testament to both Woodley’s performance and Payne’s writing.

My biggest criticism is that one of Alex’s friends, Sid, appears much too frequently and contributes far too little to the story. His character rings true, but I mostly just wanted him to get lost (this may have been the intention, but that didn’t make his presence more enjoyable). Most of the characters are so rich and believable, even the ones who only appear for a minute or two. The Descendants is a beautiful movie on several fronts (including its tropical Hawaiian setting) but most especially for its spot-on depiction of flawed people surviving a painful, heartbreaking experience.

Note: What follows is the spoiler-free teaser trailer, as I think the full-length trailer reveals a bit too much.




For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated R for language including some sexual references.

The Descendants has strong language throughout as well as disrespectful exchanges between children and adults. More than the language and heated exchanges, all of this movie’s themes (mainly loss and disappointment) are emotionally mature.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (a far better title than M:I-4 would have been) is a terrific action flick. Four movies in, around the time most franchises are exhausted (here’s looking at you, Pirates), the 15-year-old Mission: Impossible series delivers what may be its strongest installment. The action sequences have never been bigger, the stunts have never been more exciting, and the gadgets have never been cooler (I almost said that the plot has never been more convoluted, but the first film retains that dubious honor).

Tom Cruise reprises his role as Ethan Hunt, IMF agent (Impossible Mission Force) extraordinaire. After a mission at the Kremlin goes horribly wrong, the President disavows the entire IMF by initiating “Ghost Protocol.” Now Hunt and his teammates are on the run from authorities while hunting the terrorist who slipped past them at the Kremlin. The team includes Jane (Paula Patton), new field agent Benji (Simon Pegg), and Brandt (Jeremy Renner), IMF’s Chief Analyst with a mysterious past.

I’ve been a huge Mission: Impossible fan ever since I first saw the television show in syndication years ago. A special blend of elements separates Mission: Impossible from other secret agent fare: plots are complex, requiring attentive viewing (with some impossibly good disguises thrown in), heavy emphasis is placed on team collaboration, thrills derive more from suspense than action, and the gadgets - oh man, the gadgets. Of the four M:I movies, the only one to really get it wrong was M:I-2, as director John Woo tried way too hard to sex things up James Bond style. Ghost Protocol nails all the series’ staples, and even though action outweighs suspense this time around, the action sequences are so fantastic that it hardly matters.

Take the scene where Hunt uses suction gloves to climb up the exterior of the world’s tallest building in Dubai; Tom Cruise used neither a stunt double nor a green screen. Yes, Cruise was secured via multiple cables (which were digitally removed in post-production), but that’s really him climbing around out there 130 floors up, and you can tell. Nearly every sequence delivers that thrill of knowing that the actors trained hard and put themselves on the line. Mission: Impossible isn’t the place for stylized, cartoonish action, and the sequences in Ghost Protocol push the bounds of what’s possible without turning silly. The gadgets follow the same rule as the action: fantastic but not altogether unbelievable.

15 years after first playing Ethan Hunt, Tom Cruise proves that he’s still got it. Say what you will about his personal life (though I think it’s all been said at this point), but Tom Cruise continually pushes himself as an entertainer. Ghost Protocol features some incredible stunts, and I admire the physicality Cruise brings to this picture. However, from the first episode of the TV series on, Mission: Impossible has been about the team, and the cast members play off of each other very well. This IMF team has strong charisma, perhaps the best of any since the team that got killed off in the first half hour of the original M:I film. I especially appreciate Simon Pegg’s comedy; his expert delivery adds comic relief at just the right times.

Pixar veteran Brad Bird has directed a great action film once before with The Incredibles. Ghost Protocol marks his live-action directorial debut, though I’m guessing it won’t be his last venture with flesh-and-blood actors. Bird has a great eye for action and suspense, and I’d love to see more from him. Thanks largely to his direction, this movie had me sweaty-palmed, holding my breath, and opening my mouth in delighted surprise. I would have traded a few of the action-based thrills for a little more suspense (the vault scene in the original M:I comes to mind), but that’s more my preference than a flaw. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is the best old-fashioned action movie I’ve seen in a while.





For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is typical PG-13 action fare, meaning there’s plenty of action and violence but nothing too graphic. The action scenes are loud and intense, but you won’t find any gore. I don’t recall much language, and true to Mission: Impossible tradition, there’s little-to-no sexuality.