…and the quest to see everything

Archive for December, 2011

Bad-ish Movie: The Artist


The critical praise for Michel HazanaviciusThe Artist baffles me, especially since they say that it captures the silent era that the movie tries to reenact. Thinking about camera movement in those silents, the shot by shot relationships, image quality, the acting, and storytelling. When I look at those categories, The Artist seems to fail in almost all of them.

The characters let us read their lips instead of the inter-titles writing what they’re saying. Understandably, inter-titles are pesky and a silent seems smarter the less inter-titles it has But if Hazanavicius wanted to use those sparingly, at least he could have written a script with more action and direction instead of close human interaction. Besides, silent acting is gestural, intense and expressive – it’s definitely not like watching a movie with the volume turned down. These actors’ styles were too contemporary and introverted for the medium, anyway. At least Singin’ in the Rain had some respect to authentically imitate the silent acting style.

Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), the anti-hero George Valentin’s (Jean Dujardin) extramarital love interest, becomes her rival because her rising star would signal his failing career. Although she would never have been a star the way the movie makes her, her bubbly yet chic personality an alien creäture from the Arcadian yet All-American sweetheart or temptress types prevalent in 1927. Her dark skin, would also make her face prejudices that actresses experience today.

A part of the movie’s conceit is where George ‘refuses to talk.’ From his first scene he’s proven to be insufferable, his cockiness making me root for his failure. His decisions during this period in film history seems stupidly inaccurate because first, there’s the Kathy Selden argument against silent film. Also, when talkies came, most actors hurriedly tried their voices out. An actor’s voice had to sound terrible for him or her to be unemployed while some of them are financially stable enough to quit. It’s still strange to watch George dismiss talkies as a trend, stick to silent movies as an art form, crown himself as the titular ‘artist,’ and financially bury himself in the process (And yes, I know Charlie Chalpin existed). As much as I liked seeing him fail, it’s as if the movie uses a character’s pride to create a forced arc towards downfall.

Its visual language, though beautiful, is anachronistic. Others have compared it to Citizen Kane but watch out for shots resembling those in An Affair to Remember or its use of the music in Vertigo – apparently Ludovic Bource didn’t bother to write a coherent score for the movie – these references grating because they’re not supposed to be there. At the same time I had to consider that not every silent operated the same way. Murnau let his camera creep, Lang occasionally used quick pans while Griffith and most directors preferred short takes and multiple camera set-ups. The Artist, however, is self-indulgent with too much camera movement as well as letting its audience know how long its average shot length is. Sometimes it zooms to a poster that would direct the characters what to do, which is, again, what the inter-titles are for.

But I liked some things. Sound, foley or lack thereof is intelligently used here, especially in the dressing room scene when Peppy closes the door quietly behind her, as if letting us decide to feel whether she’s angry, sad or any emotion we can interpret for her. Despite Bejo being miscast, I kept checking on Peppy if she’s still the same character introduced in the movie, the fan girl waiting for that sliver of George’s presence, that humble struggling actress. I’m not sure if the fame has gotten into her, no matter how soberly she approaches it. But she’s never jaded nor purely cruel. I even like the damn dog, Jack’s (Uggie) rescue mission seeming like a non-sequitur I would see in an actual silent movie.

I understand that we can’t turn back the clock, making the images here look grainy and such. Nonetheless, it is necessary for a contemporary silent film to look and feel like the ones in the past.  Silents aren’t like a genre with arbitrary conventions against which present or future filmmakers can rebel, it’s an actual medium with a relatively strict language. If someone is going to make a silent movie they have to follow some rules.

Even without looking at it from a technical standpoint, it still doesn’t have the same danger, ambition, pathos, comedy and magic that silents do. It relies on cuteness that for me doesn’t sustain itself. It’s disappointing that I can’t share the hype behind the movie, that this facsimile is a really cheap one, making me long for the real thing instead. But then you’re probably normal and don’t see the same problems in this movie like I do.


Scene: Le Cercle Rouge


Jean-Pierre Melville slowly worked himself up to become a master of the cinematic frame in his heist films, culminating to Le Cercle Rouge where he attains a balance between the visual and the narrative. There are many memorable images here, like the police doing a search of rural grounds or leggy nightclub dancers but my favourite will be the one where we’re introduced to Yves Montand‘s character. A secret door opens in his bedroom and animals make their way to his bed, these reptiles and other creepy crawlies symbolic of something haunting this ex-police officer. It’s style and terror within the same scene, making its audience sweat. That or maybe I like that shade of blue.


Melville’s Le Doulos


I like how Jean-Pierre Melville depicts the French urban landscape in his films, especially in Le Doulos as its characters walk under bridges, sandy dunes and landfills or patchy parks. The homes, within crowded neighborhoods or otherwise, are safe houses with stolen jewelry, money and weapons.

As if these places are where characters burrow or hide or run but never strolled on or enjoyed. And pardon the cliché but it’s the France that the tourists don’t see, a France that surprisingly seems more American, dusty and dirty.

Maurice Fuguel (Serge Reggiani), just coming out of prison, involves himself in another murder/robbery/chase scene. Then he goes to his apartment where his girlfriend Therese (Monique Hennessy) is staying.

When he opens a door, a shadow appears, cool in his uniform trench coat, turning out to be his best friend Silien visits and enters the movie. Silien at first seems like a secondary character until we quickly realize the actor playing him – Jean-Paul Belmondo – and at this point we’re anticipating more excitement.

Which he brings ten minutes later as he returns to the apartment, finding Therese alone. It’s disturbing to watch him brutalize her, the delivery of his threats showing either a great, risky performance or a great, risky moment within an otherwise decent performance. What feels more uncomfortable is how the movie tries to convince us that the beating is for the greater good – he forces her to give information that might save his Maurice and his friends from a heist that will definitely go bad.

The movie introduces another female character, Silien’s ex-girlfriend Fabiene (Fabienne Dali), a woman with an equally terrible past whom he’s attempting to rescue. Melville tries to show the opposites between these female characters but they are still within a limited spectrum – passive and victimized.

Silien hijacks the movie with the best intentions. Even if he’s a police informant his loyalty is with the underworld, trying to correct the wrongs. The film’s last scenes are its weakest as he explains why some of his friends had to experience arrest or murder.

Patching things up, eventually the best friends plan to move to an orchard outside the city. Silien even tries to being Fabienne along. But then the enmity between friends produces unexpected problems, the dream of finishing with their criminal life becoming a foggy dream.


Bergman’s The Virgin Spring


The Virgin Spring seems to ask: Why are teenage girls perpetually dumber that we expect them? Tore (Max von Sydow) sends his daughter Karin (Brigitta Pettersson) out on a simple errand but within her little pilgrimage she does things that common sense would tell the audience not to do.

Why would she go into a dark forest without hesitation or go on without her escort? Why would she let herself get distracted by suspicious looking men?

This movie seems different from Ingmar Bergman‘s later, more excellent films because of its straightforward approach towards storytelling, but he comes up with a great formula nonetheless. He compartmentalizes every part of the narrative, the script firing off one section or character evenly.

And I know that Hollywood rules don’t apply to him but I also somehow applaud his decision to show a graphic sexual assault but not a murder. In 1960.

It has a straightforward enough of a message but we can also dig for the complexities within this cautionary tale. We can say that this movie exposes the arbitrary and cruel nature of violence, as she’s taken away without warning.

Instead of saying ‘bad things happen to people,’ we can say that God punishes a girl for her lack of judgment, innocence, gullibility, altruism and obliviousness.

They aren’t necessarily vices but I assume that contemporary audience’s eyes see her qualities as flaws working against her survival. We’re not looking at her merely as a victim because a victim is a blank slate and she is not.

And as much as it is about Karin it’s also equally about the people around her, and through them Bergman finds room for complex character studies within this simple movie. An example is Karin’s more beautiful yet pregnant escort Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom).

In the earlier part of their journey they argue about Karin dancing with the father of Ingeri’s child, being doubtful of anyone’s purity. She leaves Karin for a while, making a pit stop at a cabin and then running away to follow Karin from a distance.

Ingeri inadvertently watches as Simon and his cohorts assault her. Keeping her pregnancy in mind, she also behaves as if constantly troubled, and being a constant survivor doesn’t help her guilt and powerlessness.

There’s also Tore and his reactions towards the news of her daughter’s violent murder. As luck would have it, Karin’s murderers would ask to lodge in his home. He avenges her but his act doesn’t satisfy him.

The titular spring appears where her body is found, a sign of her family’s redemption. But since the movie has gotten to the point in depicting Tore’s part of the story, it shows a family with one less child, a community broken from a future that could have been.


The Mill and the Cross


From what seems like ages ago I reviewed Lech Majewski‘s The Mill and the Cross (click on link for longer review), the perfect movie for aficionados and retentive history buffs, watching people suffer through period correct beauty. Getting top billing are veteran actors like Rutger Hauer, Charlotte Rampling and Michael York, adding gravitas to an already intellectual subject. It’s no longer in theatres in Toronto, I hope it wheels itself into your city. I was a little too nice on my review but it’s still worth checking out.

Here are other movie reviews that got no comments – me pooping on Hobo with a Shotgun, my lukewarm reaction to the myth making in Page One.

To paraphrase the divisive film writer Scott Weinberg, I wrote review for ANOMALOUS MATERIAL between March and November. My reviews were atrocious.


Melancholia


Because of Breaking the Waves, every time I hear Lars von Trier‘s name I remember this Bowie song. Let’s play it, shall we?

Her’s my write-up of Lars’ new movie Melancholia at Yourkloset. Within this movie I can see Lars’ earlier work, like the wedding in Breaking the Waves, the mob mentality in Dogville and the depression in Antichrist. It operates like a contest – whoever has the most complex and human approach to depression wins. There’s Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a disastrous bride and a vessel of depression who somehow marvels and is relieved that a planet, also called Melancholia, dangerously approaches to evaporate the Earth. She’s the one most of my friends can relate to either because of personal reason. Or because of Dunst, arguably giving her best performance within a career unfolding just as me and my friends were growing up. There’s also her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland), the most blindly optimistic character who steadfastly holds on to a rational belief system.

Justine is sympathetic enough but I wouldn’t pick her or John as someone I can relate to. That honour belongs to Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). She’s the one who’s probably read all the books about psychological health and help and thinks that she’s sent on this earth to help her sister even if the latter doesn’t want to be helped. The one worried with real problems, the maternal instinct to both coddle and abscond her sister when she thinks she needs to do so.

She’s also the false image of normalcy that I assume many people with depression learn to act out, that layer vulnerable to anxieties outside and underneath. So which character here do you relate to the most?


Guilty Pleasure: Happy Feet 2


That time when you show your kid appropriate, child-friendly films and then ten years later, he or she decides to dive into art house cinema and admits years after that “Hey Mom/Dad, some of the effects in Terry Malick’s The Tree of Life remind me of the marine life scenes in George Miller‘s Happy Feet 2!” and you shake your head in dismay because you have brought up a Philistine, spreading his mashed potato cultural knowledge into this God-forsaken world.

Yes, I’m stupid enough, comparing those movies not because of some overlapping aesthetics but also because they share the same themes. Childhood, resentment, self-reflection. Both films star Brad Pitt. Instead having a wife or eldest son to reach out to the universe beyond them, his character, Antarctic-residing Will the Krill does all the questioning. He’s resentful of being second to the bottom of the food chain, he’s frustrated by the limits of the swarm, he’s not your regular krill. And instead of stasis, he takes his questions to a further level and explores life outside the swarm. His intelligence is proactive instead of an introvert’s tendency to just contemplate. He decides to live with the motto of “I want to eat something that has a FACE!” which Pitt says with his comically Southern bravado. His friend Bill the Krill (Matt Damon) reluctantly joins him in his voyage.

And it’s with his adventurous eyes that we see this movie’s depiction of the lush marine life, the krill transparent, the jellyfish luminescent, the ice shards glinting. These scenes show the greatest use for the 3D medium, letting us go deep into what’s on the screen instead of it splashing on to us. I can imagine some of the younger members of the audience sympathizing with these krill, the discovery more magical because they’re so little and the world so large it envelopes them. It’s a bit scary but it’s also a lot of fun. Pitt and Damon play second-fiddle in an all-star voice cast,working as intermission acts to what’s happening to the larger land birds. But these scenes makes us almost forget that there’s another world above them, a world with the titular happy feet.

Over sea level, things are more inconsistent when in comes to tone. The movie actually begins with a crystal-like green iceberg, menacingly drifting from one section of the Antarctic coast going eastward to the Emperor penguin land, where Mumble (Elijah Wood) and the rest of his song-and-dance colony live. This movie is one of the few instances where I preferred a simpler arc from peace to a disequilibrium. I didn’t need the iceberg prologue. It was enough to see the penguins behaving erratically when their coastline – and therefore, their food supply – gets blocked. The second half of the movie containing these troubled scenes also involves penguins from other colonies/different species coming towards the crisis zone, most of these new characters leaving the scene because they’re found to be quite useless.

But what counts here are the characters, the movie’s saving grace. For some reason, Mumble and his wife Gloria’s (Pink) kid Erik (Ava Acres) do his own exploring where he inadvertently sees older penguins try to mate, the movie incorporating that adult subject into a universal theme of belonging that the young penguins yearn. As Mumble, Wood adds his eternal youthfulness, brave as a young father who’s perpetually learning and making unconventional friends along the way. Pink, replacing Brittany Murphy as Gloria is a more mature and altruistic presence in the colony, encouraging her family – and the young audience – to persevere in hard times. These characters teach kid-sized lessons but if that doesn’t satisfy you, at least it’s still a visual treat on the big screen.