Friday, 23 December 2011

THE ARTIST - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Some movies are just REALLY, REALLY annoying.

The Artist (2011) dir. Michel Hazanavicius *
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Ed Lauter, Malcolm McDowell

Review By Greg Klymkiw

I love silent cinema and the odd cusp period of part-talkies (silent movies with a track of sound that included rudimentary sound effects, score and tiny bits of dialogue). In fact, there are so many periods of cinema I love that I often lament how technological advancement in the medium has been so rapid that many magnificent vocabularies of filmmaking were never fully explored/exploited for their full cinematic storytelling potential. For me, silent cinema feels like it was flushed about 10 years too early (even though Chaplin was able to brilliantly keep it alive for many of his own films).

As someone who can never get enough silent cinema, you can imagine my excitement when I heard that a contemporary silent film was made which PURPORTEDLY adhered to all the principals of the medium long-ago abandoned for the onslaught of talkies that began when Warner Bros. introduced their Vitaphone process and unleashed The Jazz Singer upon the world.

That The Artist, was ABOUT the movie business during the waning years of silent photoplays, through to the birth and solidification of sound, made me, in spite of my aforementioned excitement, a tad nervous. I feared the potential of annoying contemporary post-modernist touches could well render the movie into upchuck territory.

I got part of my wish. Sort of.

Unfortunately, the movie still made me want to blow massive chunks.

In fact, the movie - at one point - veered dangerously close to post-modernist territory, but in such a potentially cool fashion that I was convinced, in spite of my post-modern prejudices/fears, it might actually be as great as everyone seemed to think it was.

But no, it wasn't.

The story is slender enough which, contrary to popular belief, is not a bad thing. When a story is simple, there's frankly far more potential for it to be great. Simplicity is often what yields layers of complexity. Alas, not much in the way of complexity is belched out by The Artist.

During the latter stages of the silent era, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is one of the biggest stars in Hollywood - the world loves him, his studio loves him, his dog (and frequent co-star) loves him and, more than anyone or anything he loves himself best of all. His dour wife (Penelope Ann Miller) hates his guts and their marriage is slowly crumbling.

Luckily for George, he meets a young background extra Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and they take an instant liking to each other. George sees star potential in her and he personally grooms her - so well that she becomes a rapidly rising star. Alas, with the birth of sound, George becomes persona non grata with the studio and moviegoers. His wife leaves him while Peppy shoots to the top of the Hollywood heap.

As George plunges into obscurity and bankruptcy, Peppy makes all the strides and gains that elude George. He's too proud to accept help and handouts, but true love prevails and Peppy orchestrates a comeback for George that is genuine and based solely on his talent - involving (UGH!) the very thing they first do together when they meet-cute at the beginning of the movie.

Okay, aside from that last bit, it's a serviceable narrative.

So, why is the movie no good?

First of all, the movie is genuinely silent. It's presented in the original square-box 1:1:37 aspect ratio. It's in black and white (though not all that well photographed). Many of the period details feel right - all of them except for aspects of the film's execution. The performances are all played in the familiar silent movie pantomime. I have no problem with this in theory, but in practice, almost all of the performances are off. The pantomime is either too big or worse, presented with ever-so slight tongue in cheek - as in, "We're just playacting at being silent movie stars in a silent movie, folks. Take it or leave it!"

This is tremendously annoying.

Luckily, leading man Dujardin is mostly in synch with the style of performance and he seldom lapses/resorts to jamming his tongue in his cheek. The camera also loves him and he's got a killer smile in the Clark Gable/Jack Nicholson tradition.

James Cromwell, as Valentin's loyal driver is also terrific - he might actually be the only actor who nails the style with total perfection.

Coming close, but with finally no cigar, is Penelope Ann Miller. This is an exquisite actress who, in the early 1990s seemed poised for superstardom. The camera loved her, she handled her roles (Carlito's Way and The Relic) with gusto and skill and yet, years passed and the roles she really might have benefitted from seemed to pass her by. It's great to see her again. She still has that wonderful camera-loves-her star quality. Unfortunately, she's saddled with what turns into a stereotype instead of a character. It's even borderline offensive that this beautiful 40-something actress is relegated to harridan-status. I kept wondering if there would be some turn to her character - after all, the character of Valentin, her husband, is a genuinely self-centred and unfaithful life partner. She has every right to be annoyed with him.

Finally, though, she follows through with the predictable and takes off, leaving Valentin in a big empty house. There's something vaguely sexist about this and frankly, borderline misogynistic. Instead of relating to Valentin, we actually pitch in with Miller's character and pray that maybe the redemption will come in truly "old-style" fashion with true love between life partners who go off the rails being the instigating force behind Valentin's eventual redemption. But no, the "harridan" clears out and it's up to the most annoying element of the movie to provide the redemptive goods.

The movie's leading lady, Bérénice Bejo, has to be one of the most annoying actresses to ever foul a big screen. Endlessly perky and one of these appalling actresses who appears to never close her mouth - always pushing, ever-so effusively, how "likeable" she is, Bejo is one of those loathsome screen personalities you just want to punch in the face. Add this to the fact that she's playing a character infused with only a surface warmth, when in reality she's deep down, a manipulative opportunist.

We have a perfect formula here for super-maximum annoyance.

There's also something not quite right about Bejo's "look". Based on that alone it just doesn't logically cut the mustard for Peppy to become such a big star. If I had to try and put my finger on it, I'd say she feels too exotic for 1930s audiences to accept her the way they do within the context of the movie itself. She's not blessed with "quirky" looks, mind you - a tender mercy if there ever was one - but she sadly feels like Carmen Miranda without the fruit basket hat or worse, Maria Montez without the jungle setting and Jon Hall by her side. What the role could have used was a contemporary actress who has either a Katherine Hepburn or Carole Lombard-like look and performance style.

A number of other characters in the movie don't "look" right for the period. Even the way they comport themselves - their gaits, gestures, facial expressions - all seem out of place. Or worse, they look right, but deliver cruddy performances. Christ, at certain moments I felt like I was in James Cameron's Titanic which sported one - count 'em - performance that felt vaguely Edwardian (the inimitable Billy Zane).

A good example of this in The Artist is John Goodman, an actor I love. He looks right in his role as the studio mogul, but sadly, he really is too big. His physical girth is fine, by the way. He carries it well and it's right for both the character and period. Alas, his performance is just one massive tongue in cheek.

One of the supremely annoying aspects of the movie is how it abandons the promise of something that happens relatively early on. The first chunk of the movie is set during the silent movie period and stylistically (aside from the abovementioned aesthetic indiscretions) it's constructed and rendered as a silent movie circa 1927/28. I was able to stick this part out with a relatively modest degree of annoyance.

In terms of story, when sound starts to rear its ugly head, there's a genuinely terrific sequence where Valentin wakes up only to discover and be terrifyingly aware that every physical movement he makes is accompanied by huge sound effects. It's a great scene (patially thanks to Dujardin's fine performance) and one that actually made me a bit excited - in spite of my usual trepidation over "post-modernism" in movies when it's obvious and worst of all, just plain doesn't work.

My immediate delight, the gooseflesh radiating from me, had to do with the fact that FROM THIS POINT ON, I supposed the movie would proceed with the technical and stylistic advancements of that period of film history and that our story would actually proceed in a way that would get progressively modern (albeit in subtle and reasonably accurate baby-steps). That said, I had one fear during this sequence and I even remember thinking, "Oh God, please don't let this JUST be a dream."

What do you think happened next?


It was all just a dream - kind of like the season of "Dallas" just after J.R. Ewing was shot.


To say I detested this movie is an understatement. Once again, it seems that (here it comes, folks, my familiar refrain) PEOPLE WHO SHOULD KNOW BETTER are wildly extolling the virtues of this execrably directed homage to a vocabulary of cinematic storytelling that still had so much more room to expand and deepen. Maybe audiences and critics are so starved for something different than the norm that they're happy to embrace ANYTHING that veers away from the expected.

Sorry, but that's just not good enough for this fella'. I want my homages to bygone days to be, like Coca-Cola, the "real thing". I want my filmmakers dabbling in celebrations of cinema to actually know and love cinema more than life itself. Scorsese's Hugo works so beautifully because it's infused with that director's love and breadth of knowledge and appreciation for all the glories of the medium.

The Artist feels, frankly, like an overlong Mel Brooks movie parody without the laughs and genuine love for the movies it lampoons. I probably should have suspected as much. Somehow, I managed to repress the fact that director Hazanavicius made two loathsome movies (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio) that parody James Bond pictures in such a foul manner that they make Blake Edwards Pink Panther movies, the Dean Martin Matt Helm series and even the horrendous Johnny English franchise collectively resemble bloody Jonathan Swift.

Worst of all, The Artist feels like a Guy Maddin movie without Guy Maddin.

I can't think of anything more annoying than that.

Oh, and please don't get me started on the use of Bernard Hermann's Vertigo score in this abomination. Hazanavicius is such a fake he can't even expunge his trite "homage" without defaming the memory of Hitchcock.