Monday, 6 February 2012

(500) Words review: The Artist

In an underwhelming film year, cinephiles have taken to heart love letters to cinema’s beginnings. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was bestowed with 11 Academy Award nominations, despite its callous haughtiness impeding any love, as it morphed into a lecture. A black-and-white and mostly silent film, The Artist is one behind on 10 submissions.

Hollywood continues to irk even members of its industry with its CGI, quantity-over-quality modus operandi, which has intensified adoration for something as banal as Michel Hazanavicius’s latest picture. That’s not to say The Artist is a bad film. Au contraire. It is charming and a form of escapism within escapism away from the technical ineptitude of many 21st century directors.

And yet it is also very familiar. Actor George Valentin is marginalised once talkies blare out from the studio backlots and becomes depressed, suffering personal and materialistic torment whilst a peripheral silent film extra emerges as a star. It is Sunset Boulevard minus the noir.

Had this been a dialogue-driven film, it would be unmemorable. However seeing an orchestra accompany on-screen soundless film in the opening sequence and Hollywoodland presented in its gorgeous black-and-white Golden Age is undeniably nostalgic.

Technically, it is a superbly made film that it renders the plot as irrelevant. One can surmise how events will conclude, but there are some genuinely impressive feats to behold that quibbling about it feels foolhardy. One shot of Valentin stood motionless on a staircase as the world moves around him is simple yet meaningful mise-en-scène that is also satirically pertinent. Why do most filmmakers shy away from such a practise?

The dapper humour of Jean Dujardin and his dog (played by Uggie, who is deserving of his own Oscar) is genuinely amusing and energises proceedings. Nonchalant supporting turns from actors as diverse as Penelope Ann Miller, James Cromwell and Missi Pyle ensure that the comedy is three-dimensional.

Bérénice Bejo, the female lead and object of Dujardin’s affections, is surely destined to make waves stateside in light of her resourcefulness as Peppy Miller. As poignant as she is vivacious, when Valentin pencils a faux-mole above her lip to provide her with an iconic trademark, she evokes memories of Rita Hayworth’s introduction in Gilda. And it’s that wistfulness which has seen The Artist strike a chord with lovers and haters of art cinema.

Her and Dujardin’s climactic dance is the key to the naysayers’ hearts. The pair practised fastidiously for five months in the same studio which Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly used for rehearsals when filming Singin’ in the Rain, and the end product is hypnotic. The choreography, pace and clickety-clack soundtrack will be remembered as the film’s money moment.

Much was made of Kim Novak’s distress at the use of Bernard Herrmann’s Scene d’Amour from Vertigo when the actress accused the Hazanavicius of filmic ‘rape’ in an interview with Today. Its inclusion for those familiar with Hitchcock’s masterpiece is a distraction, despite it complementing the specific sequence adequately. Images of a crazed James Stewart simply aren’t welcome though.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

(500) Words review: Shame

Sex-fuelled Shame may be, but sexy it is not. Charting the plight of addict Brandon (Michael Fassbender), it revokes the stigma that was that instantaneously prompts humour and is synonymous with Michael Douglas. But in depicting one of human beings’ greatest pleasures, it illustrates the emptiness confidence and forwardness can induce.

Brandon’s life is carefully regimented: work, w**k, s**g, sleep. He is an attractive introvert whose magnetism radiates in whatever environment. In one of the film’s opening scenes, he exchanges glances with a pretty commuter on the train. What begins as a mutual attraction soon spirals as he fixes his glance on the initially flirtatious blonde, who soon becomes uncomfortable under the watchful eye of a sexual predator.

The arrival of his self-harming sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) however disrupts his lifestyle, and soon he has the burden of his sole immediate relative to contend with, haunted by a past event. Mulligan, who has avoided the glamorous route since her 2009 breakthrough An Education, is a fractious foil for her on-screen sibling as the washed-up and starry-eyed Sissy, but both are helpless to aid one another.

And it is that reticence which prevents Steve McQueen’s second debut film from achieving greatness. The dynamic between Brandon and Sissy is as compelling as it is confounding. There are incestuous hints as they confront one another naked as if it were second nature, complemented by a tenderness that is borderline Jekyll and Hyde, but it’s all guesswork.

Guarded, Brandon daren’t divulge his torment to any of his conquests or confidants. He feigns ignorance when his adulterous boss (James Badge Dale) informs him that his work computer was removed due to the sheer volume of pornography that corrupted the hard drive. It flirts with the possibility of resembling an AA meeting however the question ‘why?’ is never answered.

Fassbender, arguably the greatest actor in the world at the moment, gives a fantastic and fearless performance. He is charming, repulsive and scary yet his dialogue-free moments wallowing in his own self-pity are so poignant that he effortlessly draws sympathy.

When Brandon is engaged in an orgy and on the cusp of climax, he suddenly looks, via a combination of lighting and expressive acting, skeletal. It is the denouement to a degenerative and desperate night, and he finally reaches depravity in what may or may not be the addict’s moment of clarity.

McQueen’s long takes don’t daunt his actors. Fassbender, Mulligan and Badge Dale revel in the extended license for expression, and the film is more believable for it. Sean Bobbitt, his cinematographer on the testing Hunger, returns to capture the seedy and the swanky New York locales.

Harry Escott’s suite which accompanies Brandon is a sensationally cinematic 12 minutes of music that proves that the violin is an instrument unparalleled in tugging on the heart strings. Although a tracking shot following Fassbender’s protagonist jogging through the sleepy streets of the Big Apple is hamstrung to the sound of an incongruous classical melody.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

(500) Words review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

‘I can’t take it anymore,’ mourns Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) after he receives another pressed flower reminding him of his torture. Almost immediately Karen O’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song then plays over an anarchic, Bondian credits sequence, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s tone is firmly established.

Tauter and sleeker, David Fincher’s version is so impressive an upgrade on the 2009 Swedish adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bruising novel that even Lisbeth Salander might say ‘thank you’.

Smarting from a libel loss, Daniel Craig’s journalist Mikael Blomkvist is summoned by Vanger to his home in Hedestad to investigate the 40-year unsolved murder of his niece Harriet. Promised damning evidence to aid his libel appeal, Blomkvist explores the ‘detestable’ Vanger family, eventually with the aid of punk hacker Lisbeth (Rooney Mara).

Benefitting from a bigger budget, Fincher’s gritty version is more filmic than Niels Arden Oplev’s equivalent, which resembles a TV movie more as a subsequence. Steve Zaillian’s script wisely eschews dwelling on Lisbeth’s past and although the film’s too long, this is not the fault of the tidier screenplay.

Jeff Cronenweth’s unmistakable cinematography from Fight Club and The Social Network heads outside from dank apartments to confront the biting Swedish winter with chilling gusto, but he is definitely the indoors type. This is exemplified by the key scenes involving rape and the victim dealing with the aftermath.

These are visceral to the point of genuine discomfort. Some attendants had to exit their screenings briefly, so traumatic was the scene composition and Mara’s display of helpless distress. Yorick van Wageningen, who plays the predatory perpetrator Bjurman, admitted that he locked himself away in his hotel room sobbing after filming it.

Mara is sensational. Her unassumingly dry humour and quietness for someone so loud in appearance are juxtaposed considerately within an exceptional performance. Whereas Noomi Rapace lacked likeability, Mara’s incarnation is sweeter and more affecting, that slight frame and shyness draws greater affection and ironically yearns for mollycoddling.

Support is strong too. Craig exudes a bumbling charm whilst rocking chic investigative garb for the middle-aged man in one of his best roles for years. He revels outside of the PG-13 comfort zone taking on grittier roles – be it a bleeding Bond, a roughed-up drug dealer or a crestfallen hack, the greater the demand the greater the performance. And on the subject of great performances, Plummer’s is a deliciously concise turn that, like Mara, balances gravitas and jocularity expertly.

Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor return to augment Fincher’s atmosphere with another understated score which encompasses the Scandinavian wilderness and mystery lurking within the Vanger estate. Meanwhile the use of Sail Away will have tarnished whatever affection you may previously have had for Enya’s finest.

Disappointingly the whodunit factor is ignored when the film may have benefitted from the fillip of tension. But as an impartial and moderate examination of femininity, it is a fascinating dissection of female vulnerability and determination.