Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Artist

SILENCE IS GOLDEN                                   
by Mark Dispenza

One of the year's best films has very little to say, and it's shot entirely in black and white.  The Artist is a homage to the silent film era, but it has decidedly modern sensibilities.

In The Artist French director Michel Hazanavicius takes on the very timely story of a man coping with a traumatic career transition, using the allegorical tale of a silent film star struggling with career obsolescence at the advent of talkies.

The film opens at the 1927 Hollywood premiere of "The Russian Affair," starring George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin with dash and a cheery bravado that channels Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino and John Gilbert, a lesser known actor upon whose life the film is actually based.  Valentin is always accompanied by his co-star (played by Uggie), a Jack Russell terrier with lots of personality.

While clowning for the press in front of the theater, Valentin literally bumps into Peppy Miller, played by Berenice Bejo, a delightful young woman who Valentin quickly discovers to be a natural talent in front of the camera.  Valentin is smitten with her, and as her career climbs to new heights, he particularly delights in their dance scenes together.

Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo

But there are clouds on the horizon for Valentin.  A new technology that allows films to "talk" has become popular, and while Miller's career soars to new heights, Valentin's goes downhill fast.  Hollywood doesn't believe that Valentin is a fit for the new talkies.  John Goodman plays well to-type here as a cigar-chomping Hollywood producer and bearer of the bad news.  

The star goes out on his own, but his films have lost their audience and Valentin finds that he is now a has-been.  His marriage falls apart and he is forced to sell everything he owns just to survive.  All of the bling and flash of his former existence is gone.  His only friends are his trusty canine companion and a loyal chaffeur (James Cromwell) who steadfastly refuses to be fired.  Valentin becomes depressed and even suicidal.  

It's in that state that Miller rediscovers her former mentor and resolves to rescue him from despair.  Unfortunately it's a big job that even the perennially upbeat Peppy will find to be the greatest challenge of her career.  

The Artist is an immensely entertaining film with a big heart.  Seeing it was the most fun I've had since Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, and it's becoming just as popular with audiences.  Dujardin took home the Best Actor award at Cannes, and The Artist quickly became a favorite on the film festival circuit.  

The first half of the film is pure entertainment and will delight you with its very effective tribute to all that was magical and wondrous about movies in the silent era.  I found the downfall sequences in the second half to be overly long and tedious, and it would have certainly benefited the film to have ten minutes or more of those scenes cut.  It's one thing to have Valentin's decline vividly depicted and quite another to experience his torment in excruciating detail.  

Don't be fooled into thinking that The Artist is simply a good silent film that brings to life the nostalgia for a long-lost era in Hollywood.  Although it is that to some degree, this is a complete reinvention of the silent black and white film.  I can't tell you much more than that.  You know... spoilers and all.  

The Artist has Best Picture Oscar buzz, and you'll just have to see it to understand why.   It went into nationwide theatrical release on November 23.  

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Descendants

Love, Loss and Doing the Right Thing                                 
by Zac Sanford

George Clooney heads a terrific ensemble cast in Alexander Payne's new film exploring life and death, love and loss, and the sacrifice of doing the right thing

After bringing several unlikable characters to the screen, Payne returns to the helm after a seven-year hiatus with his most accessible film to-date. It isn’t that Payne makes stereotypical art house fare that is slow and brooding in its undertones. It's just that his characters are at a point in their lives where they come across as bitter, almost to the point of being unlikable.

In The Descendants, Matt King (Clooney) is an overworked, well-paid real estate lawyer living in the paradise of Hawaii. Matt’s voice-over tells the audience that the islands are just like any other place in the country. The locals have the same health problems,and they still have a homeless epidemic.

Matt has every right to be bitter in his assessments. His life is thrown into a tizzy when his wife is sent into a comatose state after a boating accident. He’s always seen himself as the “backup parent, the understudy,” when it came to being a parent to his two daughters. Young Scottie (Amara Miller) is acting up in school and bullying other students. 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley in a star-making role) is off at boarding school like many other rich kids who have acted out during their teen years.

After picking up a drunken Alexandra at her school on the big island, she confesses the reasons why she has been so bitter to her mother in the past, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) has been cheating on Matt. Not only is his wife dying, but now he’s left with questions for which he has no answers.

George Clooney and Shailene Woodley

So in typical Payne fashion he brings the troops together to go on a journey. Not only must they tell the family that they will be pulling the plug on Elizabeth, but Matt has it in his heart to find Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), the man who slept with his wife, so he can pay his final respects. This is where the bond grows between Matt and his eldest daughter, who transforms from the angst-filled teen to his closest confidant and ally.

The script, co-written by Payne and Jim Rash, and adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, constantly shifts in tone, never allowing any scene to go too heavy on the melodrama. When things start to get heavy-handed, the tension is interrupted by a bit of humor, usually at the hands of Alexandra’s friend Sid (Nick Krauss). While he is mainly used as comic relief as the dim-witted surfer, he’s actually given one of the better scenes with Clooney.

The rest of the phenomenal ensemble cast includes Robert Forester as the grieving father of Elizabeth, Beau Bridges as the money-hungry Cousin Hugh, who is pushing for the big sale of land, and Judy Greer in an astounding dramatic turn as the wife of adultery-prone Brian Speer. Each are given their moment to shine, especially Judy Greer, who in the past has been relegated to the love interest's best friend in countless romantic comedies.

Judy Greer and Mathew Lillard

My only complaint about the film is the amount of time dedicated to the selling of the biggest untouched land parcel on the islands. The King family are descendants of one of the first royal families of the islands, allowing the parcel to be passed down from generation to generation in a trust. Now the time crunch has kicked in, forcing the family to make a decision on whether to sell the parcel off to a developer, who will turn it into yet another tourist destination. Since Matt is the executor of the trust, he is faced with the dilemma to either sell the land to one of the two interested parties, or to eventually bequeath the land to the state. There are a couple of contrivances that bog down this storyline, and the screen time could have been better used elsewhere.

Ultimately The Descendants is one of the stronger films to come out this year. While the advertising campaign has leaned a little too heavy on the comedic aspects, the film should have a long run as word-of-mouth allows expansion past the typical art house markets. Come awards season several of the supporting players, along with Payne and his writing crew, should grace the stages of award ceremonies for some well-deserved kudos.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


A GUIDED TOUR OF THE DARK SIDE                             
by Mark Dispenza

Incredibly beautiful and cinematic, Melancholia is an allegorical tale about depression by a filmmaker who suffers from the disease. However, before I go any further I must offer a disclaimer, because this film is not for everyone.

Lars von Trier is a genius, but his bouts with depression are legend, and they inform the subject matter of his films across the board (Antichrist, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville).  That is why his work will remain confined to art houses, and that's why his big, undisciplined mouth will continue to create headlines that overshadow the brilliance of his work.  Melancholia was a favorite challenger to The Tree of Life for the Cannes Palme d'or this year until von Trier made a flippant, smartass remark in a press conference that was interpreted to mean he's a serious admirer of Adolf Hitler. That got him negative headlines and banned from the festival. 

I haven't talked to anyone who is lukewarm about Melancholia.  They either love the film or hate it passionately, and those feelings are duplicated across the board in the critical reviews.  One woman who attended a screening at the New Orleans Film Festival tweeted afterward that "Melancholia was two hours and fifteen minutes of escalating tension I could have done without." 

People who MUST SEE this film: artists who don't suffer from depression (doesn't leave many of you, does it?), fans of surrealism, true cinemaphiles, fans of von Trier, people who study the science of the human mind, wedding planners.

People who SHOULD NOT SEE this film:  astronomers, anyone who suffers from clinical depression, teens with an IQ less than genius, people who want to see a "feel good" film, science fiction fans who are expecting an apocalyptic disaster movie that follows genre rules, fathers who are about to pay for their daughter's wedding. 

Kirsten Dunst, Alexander Skarsgard, Kiefer Sutherland & Charlotte Gainsbourg

If you do see Melancholia, you absolutely should see it on the big screen. This is the most beautiful film I've seen in a long time.  If you are a fan of surrealism like me, the opening sequence alone will make you giddy.  Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, a young woman who has issues.  She professes to have premonitions of the future, and the film opens with one.  Justine experiences the end of her life and everyone she loves as a giant planet collides with the Earth and swallows it.

It is the day of Justine's wedding, and we are introduced to her as a happy bride on the way to her wedding reception with the perfect groom, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard).  It is a bright sunny day, and her storybook wedding is taking place at a lavish resort.  Yet everything is not as perfect as it appears.  We soon learn that they are two hours late to their own wedding party, and those guests who are not having a wonderful, inebriated time are getting very upset.

Particularly angry are her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and Claire's wealthy husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), who Claire has convinced to shell out more money than the collective income of an entire city on this wedding of the century. 

As the wedding party goes on late into the night, Justine's depression kicks in and the perfect wedding shatters like a broken mirror.  Udo Kier provides comic relief as the wedding planner who watches helplessly as his masterpiece is systematically destroyed by the ultimate Bridezilla.  "She has ruined my wedding.  I will not look at her."

By the time the evening is over, Justine's wedding party, her storybook marriage and all of her relationships, except for the long-suffering Claire, lie in shambles. 

A few months later, Justine's mental condition has seriously deteriorated, and Claire convinces John against his better judgement to allow her into their perfect lives (fabulously successful husband, lavish estate, perfectly adorable little boy, not a care). 

But something else has intruded on their world.  A giant planet called Melancholia has emerged from behind the sun and taken off on a collision course with the Earth.  Can you imagine anything more allegorical than a huge threat that hides behind the sun and is named after a term for clinical depression?  For those of you that took this seriously and judged the film based on real world science, I implore, "get a grip."

As Melancholia looms larger in the sky, Justine watches her rock, Claire, begin to panic and deteriorate into anxiety.  Her husband John's faith in the precision of science has betrayed him, and there is nothing they can do about it.  On the other hand, Justine becomes the calm center of reason.  After all, she knew this was coming.  She was proved right, and Claire might as well accept their unavoidable fate.

I wish I could share with you the final scene of the film, but I don't want to break my own rule of minimizing spoilers.  Its symbolism is genius and it is terrible and beautiful at the same time.  It continues to haunt my mind.

Dunst won Best Actress at Cannes, and unlike the film, has been the subject of glowing critical reviews.  After many career misfires like Marie Antoinette, Dunst has finally landed a role that stretches her as an artist and displays the range of professional excellence she is capable of.  

Like von Trier himself, I believe this film has been widely misunderstood and misinterpreted.  As a journey into the mind of someone who is clinically depressed, its brilliance rivals Akiva Goldsman's depiction of schizophrenia in A Beautiful Mind, although tellingly, this story is not even remotely as uplifting.  In future years when cinema historians look back on this film, I believe Melancholia will be judged in retrospect as the cinematic masterpiece it is.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Like Crazy

A Modern Day Romance                            
by Zac Sanford

Young lovers struggle to hold onto passion against the challenges of career, distance and Homeland Security in Like Crazy. The tightly constructed scenes feature mostly improv dialogue that give this Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize winner an air of authenticity that is a refreshing deviation from the typical blueprint of Hollywood romance films.

Anna (Felicity Jones), a journalism major from the UK, falls for Jacob (Anton Yelchin), but instead of professing her love for him, she leaves him a four-page note proclaiming her feelings. In the end, she hopes that Jacob won't think she's crazy, which brings a slight smile to his face. Over the course of a couple months, the two fall madly in love and seem perfect for one another, but the looming end of school, and the expiration of Anna's student visa, quickly throw the first kink into their relationship.

Instead of heading home, Anna decides to stay with Jacob through the summer, ignoring the rules of her student visa. After Anna returns home from a holiday with her parents, she is refused re-entry by US Customs. She calls Jacob, who is awaiting her arrival at the airport, and tearfully informs him that she's being sent back home. He promises he will do whatever he can to get back together with her.

This is only the first of many bumps that plague their relationship over the years. No one is sure how much time passes between scenes and the times in which they can reconnect as the film flawlessly jumps in time. Eventually work gets in the way. Anna lands a promotion that keeps her in the UK, while business is booming at Jacob's furniture design company. But they do whatever they can to be together, mainly leaving Jacob to make the jaunt across the pond as Anna's immigration privileges are being appealed by her family attorney.

Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones

As more and more time passes between each and every trip, jealousy and new relationships begin to blossom for both of them. It is only the reconnection and being in the presence of one another does their true love spark fully once again.

Writer/director Drake Doremus doesn't allow the film to follow the stereotypical formula of the Hollywood romance. The handheld camera gets in close and gives the film a voyeuristic feel. The script (co-written with Ben York Jones) was assembled more as an outline, leaving the actors to improvise their lines, giving the film an aura of authenticity.

The stars have a real chemistry that shines through, especially Jones. She brings her character to life with the understated delivery of her lines, allowing a look or a smile to deliver more than words ever could. It is not a surprise that she won a grand jury prize for acting at this year's Sundance Film Festival.  Like Crazy also features Jennifer Lawrence (Oscar-nominated for Winter's Bone last year) as Anna's rival for Jacob's affection.

This is a modern day romance that shows the highs and lows of being in a long distance relationship. The stars shine and should receive many more kudos as the awards season kicks into high gear.