Review: The Artist (2011)

Director: Michel Hazanavicius

*****

Like no other art form or entertainment medium, cinema has undergone an immense process of evolution since the Lumière brothers introduced their invention to the world in 1895. Many great advances have been made in the subsequent 116 years, but there lies the risk that we, in our age of CG effects and 3D technology, may lose sight of where this art form came from. The Artist  is the most wonderful reminder of cinema’s past, and as such ensures its place in the minds of viewers long into the future.

It is often surprising how much sophisticated technology and money is used in the cinematic process; actors can be artificially put in far-flung locales, prematurely aged or touched up or shrunk to miniscule sizes. They can battle aliens, build cities underwater or destroy landmarks with the help of a computer. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) has no such luxuries; his characters cannot even speak. As The Artist immerses us in Hollywood of 1927, many will begin to berate themselves for taking such a simple gift as synchronized film dialogue for granted. Valentin finds his tap-dancing and dashing ways are being left by the wayside as the ‘talkies’ become the talk (no pun intended) of Tinseltown. He also finds he has competition in the form of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a new starlet he helped discover, much to the chagrin of his wife Constance (Missy Pyle). Slowly but surely, Valentin finds his creative voice being silenced once and for all. It’s all unashamedly borrowed from Singin’ In The Rain (Dujardin is a dead ringer for Gene Kelly, bar a John Waters-esque moustache), but like that masterpiece The Artist is a grand homage to the silent era borne from sheer nostalgia and love for the period. Before James Cameron was ever a twinkle in his father’s eye, actors had to rely on their physicality to make an impact; Kelly himself had to ‘sing in the rain’ whilst battling a 103-degree fever. Dujardin and Bejo are the ultimate tribute to those actors’ efforts, dancing and smiling their way through auditions for studio executive Al Zimmer (John Goodman) and basically infecting the audience with their smiles, charms and tricks (check out Valentin’s rapport with his dog, a repeat scene-stealer). Dujardin in particular merits great praise; he nails the taps and shuffles perfectly, but Valentin’s story is bittersweet, and he perfectly conveys the sadness of a man who does all he can to survive in the cruel world of Hollywood, where only the relevant and pretty ones survive. Bejo seduces with a gorgeous smile and warmth in her character, whilst Goodman, Pyle and James Cromwell add the finishing touches to a neat ensemble (though Malcolm McDowell is reduced to a cameo. Pity, that).

Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius is clearly a nostalgic at heart; his previous films with Dujardin, the OSS-117 spy spoofs, are fun little James Bond homages/pastiches. The Artist, however, is a different beast. Hazanavicius commits to the silent treatment, coupling little flourishes of sound and other little modern touches with beautiful black and white cinematography and a peppy score to simultaneously replicate and honour the spirit of early cinema. There is nothing to distract from the actors, and they give themselves fully to ensure your entertainment, just like those stars of old. The Artist is a silent film for those who never watch silent films; it’s so giddily feelgood and reverent towards its inspirations that you will be powerless to resist. The Artist boasts all of cinema’s power without all the technologic fuss. It’s proof that silence really is golden.

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Review: Take Shelter (2011)

Director: Jeff Nichols

****

Every once in a while, a film comes along that almost single-handedly promotes an actor from supporting player to nudging the A-list. Michael Shannon has been a commanding presence in many good and not-so-good films over the last number of years (World Trade Center, Revolutionary Road), with his intense stare and distinctive drawl, Southern fried and thick as molasses. One would wonder if that intensity would translate into blockbuster territory, but he is playing General Zod next, so we’ll see how it goes. The intensity is perfect for Take Shelter; much like its star, it’s an intense and unforgettable piece of work.

If you went through what Curtis LaForche (Shannon) goes through in Take Shelter, chances are you’d be somewhat edgy too. Jeff Nichols’ film opens with Curtis getting caught in a shower of thick oil-like rain. Then he wakes up, goes to his job as a well driller and all is well. That is, until the next stormy nightmare. And the one after that. And the one after that. Like the dreams, Take Shelter grows beautifully in intensity as Curtis plunges further into possible dementia. Are the dreams symptomatic of an illness or of a real impending disaster? Curtis considers both options, seeing a counsellor and building a massive storm bunker, much to the chagrin and upset of Curtis’ wife Samantha (the ethereal Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). As Curtis’ family, friends and job get swept up in his paranoia, Shannon is ever in the eye of the storm. His performance anchors Take Shelter, with a perfectly-defined and exhaustively crafted role. Whether or not he is mentally ill, Curtis is scarily focused and unshakeable, yet is always sympathetic. It will be an injustice if Shannon does not receive serious awards consideration for this role. Chastain and the rest of the support are uniformly excellent, but Shannon is the star on the cusp, and he owns this film.

Writer/director Nichols says the role wasn’t written specifically for Shannon, but he fits perfectly into Nichols’ disturbing vision of a small-town man confronting immense personal demons. Nichols wrings pure drip-feed tension from this scenario, with nightmares combining with the eerie banality of the everyday, culminating in a third act boasting such edge-of-the-seat magnetism as to render you unable to rip your eyes away from the screen. One of the most tense scenes of the whole year involves a man turning a door handle; with Take Shelter, the beauty is in the simplicity. Take Shelter is so unassuming that it’s a difficult film to characterize, and more might be revealed on second viewing. The final reel is either a perfect ending or a cop-out, but by then it doesn’t really matter; Take Shelter and its magnificent leading man will have left their thunderous impact upon you. Ignore it at your peril.

Review: The Descendants (2011)

Director: Alexander Payne

****

George Clooney has played some varied characters in his day, but now comes a different challenge. Brace yourselves; in The Descendants, Clooney is playing a family man! Kids and everything! If nothing else, The Descendants will offer more false hope to all those women who would gladly walk over their own husbands just to stand next to him.

Alexander Payne has made audiences fall for some very average Joes in his films. From Jack Nicholson’s pathetic widower in About Schmidt to Paul Giamatti’s (barely) functioning alcoholic in Sideways, Payne empathizes with the down-on-his-luck schlub. Matt King (Clooney) is different, however. For starters, he lives in Hawaii. As the movies have told us over and over, nothing bad ever happens in Hawaii; it’s nothing but beaches and luaus and contested presidential birth certificates. Yet, in this idyll is Matt, his daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) and his comatose wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie). The film opens with her smiling whilst riding a jetski, and this ride ends in the coma from which she never awakes. As if this wasn’t bad enough, Matt discovers that Elizabeth may have been unfaithful to him. This development comes as Matt tries to reconnect with his daughters and his law firm tries to negotiate a complicated land deal that could make him and his extended family very wealthy. Here are people who have everything they could want but little they need; as they learn, human connections are valuable things. They’re also funny things too, as proven as we watch a father and his teenage daughter bond over finding the guy who slept with their wife/mother. Is this a normal family activity in Hawaii? Answers on a postcard, please.

For all the talk of land deals, strained family relationships and cheating, The Descendants never rings false. It might be a little more keen to laugh at its characters than Sideways, but it’s simply too lovely to let it get out of hand. When Matt and Alexandra finally confront the other man (Matthew Lillard), they question whether or not to reveal all in front of his wife (the ever-wonderful Judy Greer). Any other comedy would have had them drop the bombshell regardless. It might be more cathartic, but then this paradise isn’t that kind of idyll. Payne goes all out to ensure we see the unseen Hawaii. There’s not just beaches and bikinis; there are cities, roads, green verdant hills and real people here too. Adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel, Payne and co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash establish the potentially convoluted and disparate plot strands before tying them together with genuine warmth and plenty of chuckles. When Alexandra reveals her mother’s infidelity, try not to laugh as a paunchy Clooney runs down the street to confront his neighbours about what they know. Clooney forgoes his smarmy ways and embraces genuine affection and that paunch in a touching performance. Any film that brings the best out of Lillard (Wow, Scream was a long time ago, wasn’t it?), Beau Bridges and Robert Forster is onto a winner. Woodley is the best of the bunch, breaking out with a gutsy turn which keeps enough distance yet never lapses into moody teen histrionics. Her performance is much like The Descendants as a whole: initially rather adolescent (yeah, nice patronizing voiceover, George!) before revealing hidden depths and great character. It may not make you want to move to Hawaii but, as The Descendants constantly reminds us, paradise is what you make it.

Review: The Rum Diary (2011)

Director: Bruce Robinson

**

The source novel of The Rum Diary was first written by a young Hunter S. Thompson in the early 1960s, but went unpublished until 1998, when Thompson mania was reaching new heights as Johnny Depp ushered Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas to the big screen. Thirteen years after it was finally published, and six years after Thompson’s death, Depp does the same again with this Diary from the author’s early days, written before he rejected fiction to become the Doctor of Journalism so beloved of many a fan of finest American wit and peyote.

Like Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing, Bruce Robinson’s adaptation has a choice: please the fans or reach beyond to the ‘fucking reptile zoo’ that is the cinema lobby. Gilliam kept it niche but, in adapting and directing this most reluctant of debut novels, Robinson opts for the latter; to judge from the confused and utterly reprehensible blather emanating from those pus piles of teenagers sitting in the row behind this critic at the screening, he may have made the wrong choice. Watching functioning alcoholic Kemp (your Thompson stand-in for the evening, played by Depp) try to write anything for an English-language rag in 1960s Puerto Rico is not the trip we’ve been promised. If the film is not bathed in sunshine reflected off the blue waters and Amber Heard’s ruby lips, it’s a grimy little cesspool inhabited by wimps and/or drunks with little concern beyond themselves (though personal hygiene isn’t a priority either). When not sneering at incompetent editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins and a horrible toupée) Kemp gets into hijinks accompanied by photographer Sala (a sweating and roly-poly Michael Rispoli) before being roped into a property scam by Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart in ‘smarmy bastard’ mode) and eyeing up Sanderson’s fiancée (Heard, hubba-hubba). All these plots have moments to seduce the eye and tickle the funny bone (Giovanni Ribisi, take a bow as a pickled cousin of Jack Sparrow), but all the jewel-encrusted turtles in the Caribbean can’t overcome episodic plotting that drops plotlines and picks up others on a whim. Thompson appreciated a certain disorder, but this is insanity at its most inane. There are episodes (dropping acid, rescuing a car, running from local yokels), but there is no story. Laughs come only in perioic fits, whilst attempts at Thompson-esque melancholy feel shoehorned in; like rum followed by an absinthe chaser, these disparate elements simply will not mix.

If you want a definitive take on alcoholism from Robinson, Richard E. Grant did it best whilst demanding “cakes and fine wine!” Thompson has been better handled on celluloid (for best results, try Where The Buffalo Roam); The Rum Diary is just too unwieldy to survive the transition from page to screen. His leaping from styles of Mencken to FitzGerald to Hemingway and to his own inimitable style held the ramshackle plots together on the page; there’s no such luxury here, only a dissatisfied mess from people too blinded by Thompson’s brilliance to notice.

Review: Contagion (2011)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

**

Watching Contagion, the first thing you’ll notice is the many close-up shots of hands. Hands touching doorknobs, holding glasses, cupping faces. As Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) points out, we all touch our faces on average 3-5 times every waking minute. Considering hands are a primary means of spreading disease, isn’t it a wonder we haven’t been wiped out by some nasty bug long ago?

After dallying in apparently experimental films, Steven Soderbergh turns his attention to potential blockbuster territory. Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from a business trip to Hong Kong feeling unwell. Her husband Mitch is worried, but she dismisses it as jetlag. In movies, it’s choices like this that get you killed, and so it proves as Beth succumbs to seizures and dies in the emergency room. If that sounds like a spoiler, don’t worry; all this happens within the first 10 minutes of Contagion. It had to, because there are many other storylines that are gasping for air. There’s the rush for a cure, led by CDC head Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Dr. Hextall (Jennifer Ehle, possibly the best thing in the film). There’s the attempts by Dr. Mears to control things on the ground following Beth’s death. There’s also the plot about paranoid blogger Krumweide (Jude Law) who claims to have discovered an alternate cure for the virus. Law, with his cocky disposition and snaggletooth grin, is a repeat scene-stealer here, and lightens the oft-overbearing atmosphere of Contagion. Given the plot, a sombre tone is to be expected, but that’s no excuse for the lack of emotional involvement here. Scott Z. Burns’ script squeezes too many characters and plotlines in and the net result is our failure to engage with hardly any of them. Gwynnie’s gone in a flash, a subplot involving Marion Cotillard’s WHO doctor and a kidnapping feels like an afterthought, and great character actors like Ehle, Bryan Cranston and John Hawkes are left to pick up whatever scraps of runtime are left. Soderbergh’s in too much of a rush for character; the timeline leaps forward weeks at a time, and any sense of jeopardy evaporates pretty quickly.

Contagion does manage to create a palpable sense of paranoia, and it does reflect how vulnerable our society can be when faced with panic. Despite this and some strong performances, however, Contagion never sticks. The focus is always on the virus, and not the people carrying it. The characters here are cyphers for Soderbergh paranoid pacing and plotting, and the film suffers for treating them as such. For a film about a virus, Contagion is disappointingly sterile.

P.S. Don’t think Elliot Gould’s character’s crack about blogging being ‘graffiti with punctuation’ wasn’t noticed!

Review: The Ides Of March (2011)

Director: George Clooney

***

The Ides Of March would like to believe it’s a great political movie, with profound truths to impart and real relevance in our increasingly cynical world. It has this potential, but then we meet our protagonist and these possibilities go right out the window. Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is the deputy campaign manager for Mike Morris (George Clooney), a candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination. It’s a wonder Meyers has this job at all because he’s a complete boy scout; he believes passionately in Morris and his policies, and is determined to get him to the White House. Has no-one ever told this guy that nice guys finish last, especially in politics?

Compared to the rallying cry against paranoia that was the excellent Good Night, And Good Luck, Clooney’s latest outing as director is not so black and white in its characterizations. Meyers is a saint, but he’s about to be sorely tested. He’s tempted by an offer to work for opposing campaign manager Duffy (Paul Giamatti), which can only test the patience of Meyers’ senior Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman). A power struggle might be enough for a guy to contend with, but then there’s the senator (Jeffrey Wright) who’s reluctant to back Morris, the flirty intern (Evan Rachel Wood), the snooping reporter (Marisa Tomei) and the newly-unearthed skeletons from Morris’ closet. There’s a lot going on in the script (co-written by Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon), and Clooney gets through it all efficiently. The Ides Of March goes at a neat little pace; in fact, it’s too neat. The 100-odd minutes rush by, and though some of the material should test the conscience, don’t expect to march out from the cinema geared for protest. The Ides Of March is a well-intended but too clean-cut piece of agitprop. It wants to be regarded in the same company as All The President’s Men, but the fact that politics is full of backstabbing and shady people will not be a revelation to many.

Even if its lessons are outdated, TIOM still has a certain craft to it. It’s an engaging enough piece, with enough twisting plot strands to keep you involved to the end. Gosling provides the charm, which contrasts nicely with Clooney who gives a more sinister performance than we’re used to from him. The supports adds plenty of colour (Hoffman and Wood especially), and it does tickle enough grey matter to give pause. It just won’t be a very long pause. The Ides Of March is another likeable entry on Clooney’s directorial CV but, as good as it is, it’s simply not cynical enough to be the paranoid classic it yearns to be.

Review: The Future (2011)

Director: Miranda July

**

There’s one quick way to tell whether or not The Future will be to your liking. It’s narrated by a cat. Yes, that’s right, a cat. If that sounds too whimsical or plainly silly for your taste, then Miranda July’s latest film is best avoided. Indeed, it’s best avoided anyway.

July’s previous film Me And You And Everyone We Know was whimsical but also emotionally relevant with great performances. In The Future July plays a similar character to the one she played in her previous effort; a slightly eccentric dancer. July’s Sophie and her boyfriend Jason (Hamish Linklater) are about to adopt the afore-mentioned cat (Paw-Paw, voiced by July), but it causes them to rethink their lives. They decide to quit their jobs and pursue the projects they never got the chance to do before the cat moves in in 30 days. Sophie begins filming herself dancing, whilst Jason dumps his role as an IT customer service rep to sell trees. There’s a lot to be said for the carpe diem mentality, but there’s only so much diem these characters can carpe before you feel like slapping them and telling them to pull themselves together. Even before their decision to provide the feline with a family and leaving work, the lead characters appear too louche and uninteresting for us to care, as evidenced by Sophie’s liaison with a printer (David Warshofsky). Like so many occurrences in The Future, it’s not explained or justified, it just happens. July and Linklater make for a twee little couple but, much like the movie, you’ll either be charmed by their happy-go-lucky attitude or annoyed by their quirks.

July’s script is too full of quirky whimsicality for it to be anything more than mildly amusing at best (some of the laughs may be intended, some may not) and very annoying at worst. It’s hard to extrapolate any particular kind of commentary from this pile of sugar. It’s even harder to take any lessons on love seriously when Jason actually asks the moon for advice, especially when the moon actually replies! The Future boasts a few mirthful moments, but it spends most of its time groping for depth in amongst the quirkiness, with annoyingly hipster-ish characters and a narrating cat with a grating voice. The Future is best left behind in the past.