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The Artist—Orion’s Take (A Response to Apple)

December 30, 2011 2 comments

After watching The Artist it was hard not to smile—I will bet Apple didn’t even notice that she, too was smiling—which is why I feel it necessary to defend this film as more than a well-crafted but ultimately empty homage.  First of all, the film is beautifully shot: the black and white takes nothing away from the clarity of the scenes—after a nightmare we see the beads of sweat gathering on George Valentin’s forehead, the wrinkles in his bed sheets.  The whole film is sumptuous despite the lack of voices, and I believe nothing of the story was lost because of the format.  But more importantly, this film transcends the familiarity of its story to present a story that is as universal as any story can be—there is a reason romances still dominate the reading of many people everywhere.

To get to the meat of my argument, I believe that the strength of this movie lies in that intangible thing we call a heart: this film has a lot of it.  Yes, the film is no doubt clever (in an early scene the audience in made comfortable with the format through the device of a film within a film—we watch as the audience laughs and cheers silently and suddenly it doesn’t seem so strange) and yes it is excellently crafted (compact, besides a slightly slow middle to end sequence) but what gives this film its shine is the emotional truth of the story.  To illustrate what I think is a major theme in the film, take the relationship between George Valentin and Doris, his wife: words are not needed to express the growing distance between the two.  While some might find it laughable that the only ways in which the growing tension is materialized is in indifference by Valentin as he reads the paper and contemptuous doodling by Doris, major psychological studies have suggested that the two best indicators of a failing relationship are stonewalling (a reluctance or refusal to discuss problems) and contempt.

In comparison, Peppy Miller’s refusal to give up on Valentin even as he rebuffs her and falls into disrepair rings true because even though the two characters are not always likeable, they are better together than apart.  If you define the characters by their flaws, Valentin is a prideful, foolish, and sometimes careless man.  Peppy, on the other hand, is obsessive, vain, and arrogant.  But when put together, we see the gentleness of Valentin expressed in his charming smile, the fire and spunk of Peppy as she fights for the man she has never lost sight of, the way the screen warms up when the two are together.  These are neither good nor bad people—we sometimes forget that movie stars are just regular people who have been thrust into a life where they are venerated as gods—these are people who love and who cry and who have dreams that sometimes are realized and sometimes fall into nothingness.

The acting is a subtle and expert exploration of this character.  Jean Dujardin brings real charm to George Valentin, as well as darkness that melds well with his decline as a star.  Bérénice Bejo is so spunky that she had me chuckling throughout the film, though she also skillfully exhibits the symptoms of obsession in Peppy Miller.

In terms of cliché, I think it is important to note that the director studied the silent films of the 1920s to see how it was he was going to build this film.  The things we consider clichés are simply the essences of the films of the past—the director has no qualms defining the Artist as a melodrama, and melodramas have their own requirements.  It makes about as much sense to decry the elements of melodrama in this film as “clichés” as it does to critique the formal structure of a sonnet as “outdated.”

This film succeeds because it rings true—predictability doesn’t make a story false.  Also, I think Apple misinterprets her desire to see the film end happily as obviousness: I fully expected the film to end in tragedy, but really wanted it to be otherwise.  Apple has a suspiciousness for endings she calls “cop-out” endings, but not all stories end unhappily.  And I think that this is another great strength of the Artist, the ability to give the characters a happy ending, despite how easy it would have been to satisfy our schadenfreude with a descent into hopelessness.  The film doesn’t allow the audience to wallow in despair: it says, “Look at this man, fallen and ready to give up, and see that change is never impossible.”

4.5/5 Waffles

—Orion

See also Apple’s Review and Kathy’s Review.

“I said the hospital, not the morgue.” – on the perfect sliver of doubt in “The Lincoln Lawyer”

December 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Who doesn’t love courtroom dramas?  The sheer episode mass Law & Order has generated is surely evidence enough of our population’s hunger for seeing mystery stories played out.  Why were the original Sherlock Holmes stories so satisfying?  There’s something about seeing a hero outsmart bad guys, weasel their way out of impossible situations, against all odds, and almost always be five steps ahead.  In “The Lincoln Lawyer,” Matthew McConaughey plays a smooth Mickey Haller, who alternates between charm and cheat.

Haller is kind of a sleaze, at first glance; he operates with local bike gangs out of his Lincoln (hence the title), he pays people to make him look impressive, he defends guilty men that other people won’t touch.  However, we see his driver’s loyalty, we see his ex-wife and daughter, and we see him struggle with the guilt that comes in his line of work.  The best part of this story is easily Haller’s character; little details make him seem real: his license plate is “NT GUILTY,” and for such an arrogant jerk, he’s strangely charismatic.

The story has a pretty good setup – Haller is hired to defend the son of a wealthy family.  Initially assuming his innocence, Haller comes across evidence to suggest otherwise, and complications arise.  There are of course ties to an old case that had long been closed, and there’s one interesting scene where our arrogant protagonist, who goes throughout the whole movie without hesitating, doubts himself.  This sliver of doubt is the most powerful and compelling part of the whole film, much more important than who wins the case or who killed who, and it’s for this single moment that I would recommend the movie.

Overall, 3.5/5 – “The Lincoln Lawyer” is a simple, satisfying sort of film with a strong lead character.  The story itself gives some good twists and turns, but overall, it’s just not that impressive when television shows can accomplish the same sort of feat in half the time.

Best regards,

Apple

“I was blind, but now I see.” – on questions that should have been raised in “Limitless”

December 28, 2011 1 comment

Everyone has heard the myth about how people only use 10% of their brain.  And everyone who has heard the myth has immediately wondered what could happen if more of that potential was tapped into.  “Limitless” is the most recent Hollywood exploration of this concept, and while scientifically laughable, provides an interesting, entertaining ride.  Bradley Cooper plays the main character, Eddie, who chances upon this miracle drug, NZT, through his ex-wife’s brother.  He embarks on a manic journey to turn his life around, from a broke, unemployed, single writer to a rising, genius, multi-millionaire.  This is the most fun of the movie – watching Eddie finally cut his hair, buy new clothes, and shoot up to fame and fortune.

Along the way, it becomes clear that nothing is without its drawbacks – NZT causes Cooper to have blackout-like experiences, where he is constantly active with no sense of time.  It also causes migraines, inability to concentrate, and eventually, death.  Cooper’s girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) takes the drug on one occasion, and she claims that “it changes you,” that it makes you into a different person.  I think this is one of the most interesting ideas of the movie, and wish it had been expounded upon.

Lindy breaks up with Cooper because of his addiction to NZT, and refuses to have more to do with NZT, contrary to most of the other characters in the movie, who, once they get a dose of NZT, can’t seem to get enough.  There’s a Russian gangster, a powerful businessman, and there are many other people who are hinted to be on NZT.  (In an interesting aside, the only other person who quits NZT in the movie is Melissa, Cooper’s ex-wife.  She’s portrayed as a down, exhausted-looking, burned-out sort of character, no longer beautiful or active or intelligent.  I wonder if this is mere coincidence, that the characters who give up NZT are women, while the ones who fight and kill for it are all men.)

By the end, things seem to have spun out of control.  Too many characters get involved in Cooper’s story, and while he’s trying to balance everything in his life, the movie’s trying to balance all the stories.  It’s a rather sloppy ending to an otherwise interesting premise; the writers of the movie become too distracted in all the betrayals and fights that must be crammed in before the end of the movie.  You know that moment when you’re watching a TV show, and it’s already 9:50, and you know it’s going to be a rush to wrap up everything the episode’s trying to address?  That’s what the end of “Limitless” feels like.

Overall, 3/5 – I would have liked the movie much more if there were fewer characters and more time were spent focusing on the changes NZT makes to a person, on a deeper level than simply making them more intelligent.  What are the ramifications of a perfect memory, or lightning jumps of logic and understanding?  Why were some characters able to resist the pill, whereas others used it until it led to their graves?  These are all far more interesting ideas to explore than who kills who.

Best regards,

Apple

See also: Orion’s review (4/5)

“This day, we walk along with death, and laugh at its pale spectre.” – On improperly placed optimism in “Rang de Basanti”

December 27, 2011 Leave a comment

The only movie I watched during my seasonal hiatus from A&O was “Rang de Basanti,” which translates approximately as “Color of Sacrifice.”  It’s a very interesting movie, one that I went into knowing nearly nothing about the plot and actors.  The movie is split into two halves, with an intermission; the first half the movie was lovely, introducing us to the characters’ personalities and lifestyles, while in the second half of the movie, the tone took an abrupt turn for the darker.  I’d like to discuss the film in full, especially the climax, which is what bothered me the most, and so apologies in advance.  I heartily recommend the film, and am eager to discuss what I feel to be an unsatisfying and unrealistic end to what could have been a very successful film with an important political message for young moviegoers.  (So go and watch it, and then come back for the review!)

Sue is a young British filmmaker whose grandfather was a military officer in India during the Indian Independence Movement.  She travels to India to film a documentary about five freedom fighters, eventually making friends with five young students who at first, seem like they couldn’t be farther in personality and values from the men they have been hired to portray.  DJ, Karan, Aslam, Sukhi, and Sonia are young and restless, spending nights dancing and drinking, yet Sue sees potential in them.  Laxman, the fifth actor, is a political party activitist who also joins up, and is much more serious than the rest of them.  The film introduces us to the friends, and we see both love and tension within the group – Sue and DJ fall in love, Sonia and Ajay get engaged, Laxman and Aslam hate each other for their different religious beliefs.  It’s great fun to watch the friendship develop, and to see the boys finally get into their roles.  The film’s intermission comes after a beautiful moment at an archaeological site, Jaipur Fort.

In the second half of the film, Ajay dies in an airplane crash, sacrificing himself to steer the plane away from a city, saving thousands of citizens.  The government and media attempts to paint him as an incompetent pilot, when it is supposedly due to corrupt officials buying damaged airplane parts in order to generate a higher profit margin for themselves.  The group of students hold a public protest because of this, and riot ensues when the police come to shut things down.  The film handles this much well, and we as the audience can slowly see the way acting as revolutionaries will change the way the five boys think.

There is a moving scene when the boys confer, and their conversation almost exactly echoes a scene that they had acted out.  One revolutionary claims that the only way they can be listened to is through violence, another immediately jumps in with plans for weapons, and another adds to the plan – this escalation is similarly brought to life in the present day, as DJ, Karan, Aslam, Sukhi, and Laxman actually shoot and kill the defense minister.  Of course, this backfires when the defense minister is raised as a martyr by the media and government.  Here, the realism of the film ends, and I almost wish the film had as well.

There’s a fine balance between teaching the audience and inspiring the audience.  “Rang de Basanti,” up until this point, actively inspires through the small lens on these students.  What happens next ruins the movie: the students hijack a radio station and broadcast their story while being gunned down by armed troops, and following their deaths, are called heroes for bringing light to a corrupt government.  In this, the movie’s biggest mistake, all of the buildup becomes worthless.  Why wouldn’t the troops simply jam the broadcast frequency through which the students were telling their stories?  By letting the students’ story get heard in this dramatic manner, the director and writers of the movie have given up their previously admirable goal.  While it’s a tragedy that such young students have died, following the young revolutionaries they grew to admire, they got what they wanted: their message about government corruption has been heard and heeded by the public.  Could it really be so easy?  And is violence truly the answer?

The movie is strongest when building up the characters of the students: at first, they are nonchalant and apathetic about the world they live in.  Their attitude is, “how can we change things?” and it changes gradually to an interested, proactive one.  There are cute little snippets throughout the first half of the movie – at one point, DJ, not realizing Sue can speak Hindi, calls her his future wife, after which Sue shocks him by asking for his mother’s blessing in Hindi.  In another scene, the students poke fun at Ajay’s patriotism; as an air force pilot, he is the only truly active member of the group.  They carry him on their shoulders, in a (perhaps too-obvious) foreshadowing of how soldiers will carry his funeral casket home.  There are quite a few stiff moments in the beginning, which make me feel like Sue and Sonia are rather untalented actresses; everything gets better once the five boys enter the picture though, buffering the forced feeling with their charisma and goofiness.

I think my frustration with this movie should be clear by now.  Why would filmmakers waste such great potential and strong characters on a flimsy, Hollywood (or should I say Bollywood?) ending?  Even more frustrating, it seems like audiences and critics are soaking the film up – it has an 80/94% on Rotten Tomatoes.  How irresponsible it is, to merge such a strong beginning with a neat, happy ending; if the directors knew the ending were going to be so unrealistic, they should not have wasted our time trying to make emotions seem genuine!  In my opinion, it’s better to dive fully into the fantastic and take no such false premises about it; even literal time travel would have been better than the poorly edited overlays of modern boy next to historical revolutionary.  (I almost want to go so far as to call this movie disrespectful, to call its optimistic ending  defiling to the memory of the original revolutionaries who actually gave up their lives for a cause they believed in.  But I want people to watch this movie so they can discuss it with me!)

Overall, “Rang de Basanti” is a tragedy – a strong set of characters with intriguing parallels and an extremely strong setup with a cop-out ending.

I look forward to hearing what you think.

Best regards,

Apple

“Mission accomplished!” – On new stars in old genres in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”

December 26, 2011 Leave a comment

What is there to say about “Mission Impossible”?  The now quite aged Tom Cruise (born 1962, whoa) brings us yet another hit installment to the much-loved series just in time for the holiday season.  “Ghost Protocol” brings new team Dunn, Carter, and Brandt (Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and Paula Patton) and a new villain Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist from “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” Swedish version).  I am continually impressed that the MI movies are able to come up with new plots (though they all begin to blur together) and new jokes (though they echo each other more and more) still after all these years.

The premise is this: someone’s bombed the Kremlin and set up IMF.  Hunt’s team takes the blame for it and are disavowed, and are on a journey to not only save the world, but to save the world without all the backup that they’re used to.  What’s the next movie going to have as an additional challenge, no gadgets or computers allowed?  Anyway, the pace is always brisk, the technology is always cool, and the team dynamics are solid.  There’s plenty of homage to previous films – at one point, Brandt leaps down a tunnel and lands just centimeters from a turbine (Hunt jumping down and landing just centimeters from a touch-sensitive floor, anyone?).

There’s the usual rough and tumble fight scenes in the traditional style (this is no Bourne movie), car chases, and break-ins.  There’s the usual beautiful-woman-dress-up-and-seduce scene.  The team struggles to get by losing a member, fights with each other, but makes up nicely.  I guess after enough action movies, everything just feels the same.  So how does “Mission Impossible” survive?  And not only survive, but garner 90%+ on Rotten Tomatoes?  I’m guessing it’s the cycling of new characters thrown into time-proven successful scenarios.

Nyqvist always looked a little too stern to me in “Dragon Tattoo,” and I think he is better suited as a villain than hero; he does an excellent job as a nuclear extremist here.  Renner, from “The Hurt Locker,” is excellent as always, though the writers stretched things a little to give him an unexpected background/twist, perhaps the weakest part of the whole film.  Simon Pegg provides nice comic relief, though I’d prefer him next to Nick Frost as the never-smiling Officer Angel (“Hot Fuzz”!).  And of course, Cruise has his iconic long, windblown hair and sprint scenes.

Overall, 3/5 – great fun and entertainment for a Christmas release with some fresh faces, but there’s only so many times I can cheer for secret agents shouting “mission accomplished.”

Best regards,

Apple

“I won’t talk!” – On the differences between classic and cliché in “The Artist”

December 25, 2011 1 comment

After a long hiatus, I’m excited to return to Apple&Orion with a Christmas review!  Along with Orion and our guest critic, Kathy Huang, I spent the afternoon watching “The Artist.”  It was hard to find a theatre playing it, as the film has limited release, but we were able to meet up at the Regal Lincolnshire Cinema.  The limited release isn’t surprises: despite sweeping the Cannes festival and pulling in six Golden Globe nominations, “The Artist” is not only filmed in black-and-white, but is a silent film.

Surprisingly, the lack of color and spoken dialogue did not cause as much of an intrusion as I expected it to.  It was actually really easy to get used to, definitely more so than 3D glasses, and allowed us as the audience to devote our attention to visual cues.  The premise is simple: George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a famous movie star whose career takes a punch with the introduction of the talkies.  Simultaneously, newcomer Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) rises to fame, riding on the crest of this new technology addition to cinema.  It’s clear from the beginning that George and Peppy are attracted to each other, and that their careers are on opposite trajectories; in one scene, Peppy and George bump into each other on a staircase, with Peppy on a higher flight, actively leading the conversation.

From the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, where “The Artist” claims a remarkable 100% from Top Critics, 97% from all critics, and even 90% from an unusually positive audience, I was expecting a mindblowing experience.  However, I was disappointed to find a relatively predictable storyline, with bland characters that I didn’t particularly care for.  The best actor was by far the dog, a little terrier named Uggie.  There’s a happy ending, fitting for a holiday film, but I found the whole thing rather slow-paced.  Orion insists that there are many references that we simply miss, being much too young to ever have seen a black-and-white film, much less a silent one.  However, there is a line between classic and cliché, and at least for me, “The Artist” dabbled too much in predictability to be worth recommending.

If anything, I have to say that the form rescues the film from sheer drudgery.  There are so many little places where it’s clear the filmmakers are playing with us, and these are the strongest parts of the film.  In the first scene, we watch an audience watching a silent film, with captioned words and an orchestra providing the music; in another scene, after the idea of talking films is introduced, George suddenly notices the sound his cup makes hitting the table.  It’s little moments like these that justify the film’s form as silent, and I also appreciated how the soundtrack was able to really inform us of emotions, even without dialogue.  There are quite a few conversations where characters speak that are not followed by captions, and so the audience is left wondering, but many times, we realize that it doesn’t matter what was said.  This in and of itself is an interesting effect, and I wish it had been played with more in the film.

Overall, 3/5 – an interesting play with form, but a much plainer film that I had been expecting.  See it if you’re interested in a unique experience, but don’t expect to fall for any of the characters.

Merry Christmas,

Apple

See also: Orion’s review; Kathy Huang’s guest review!

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