29 Days of Romance, Review #9: The Artist (2011)

Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius. Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman. Runtime: 1h 40 min. Released: November 25, 2011.

When I sat down to watch The Artist, I wasn’t sure if I’d love it based on the first scene, as our main character George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), an egomaniacal silent movie star in 1927, stands behind the screen and watches a packed theatre experience his newest film. With it being a silent film, I thought to myself, “I don’t know if this will work for me for the whole movie.” But it really did work for me as a throwback and celebration of classic Hollywood.

George meets Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and the film is about their relationship as George battles his own ego, as a silent star dealing with the future of “talkies” where he believes no one wants to hear him speak in a film and is hesitant to the change.

By 20 minutes into The Artist after I had gotten used to the silence of it, it had completely won me over. That had a lot to do with Ludovic Bource’s outstanding score (the “George Valentin” track is a favourite of mine here). I’ve been trying to focus more on score in films and this is the film for me to do that with because, of course, it’s a silent film and it’s the easiest thing to focus on. It swept me away and without such a strong score, I don’t think this film would work. It made it an experience, even if I was just watching it on a 40-inch screen.

Another scene that just hooked me was the scene where George is in his dressing room and objects around him start to have exaggerated sound but no one could hear him talk. I thought that was so effective, especially how it leads into the Kinograph Studios boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) telling him that talking pictures are the future and he’ll be left behind. Also, that one scene where Peppy is being interviewed and George’s back is towards her, as a parallel for him being the past in the silent era and her being the future for “talkies” is my favourite shot in the film and one that will stick with me.

The most impressive thing about this is how great Michel Hazanavicius’ writing is here (he also directs and co-edits the film). He tells the story so damn well with just music, maybe 15-20 inter-titles throughout and all character action. Some modern films have trouble competently telling its story with a lot of dialogue. The Artist’s story is simple enough, but it’s creative and charming. The characters also feel very real. It’s also made possible by the phenomenal physical performances.

The Artist featured1

Jean Dujardin in The Artist (IMDb).

Before the human actors, I’d also be remiss not to mention George’s scene-stealing Parson Russell Terrier, who brings a lot of comedy to the film. Jean Dujardin is charming as hell as George, smiling his way through the film, and is more than effective in the dramatic scenes, too. Bérénice Bejo is also charming as Peppy as she embraces her stardom. Her performance is still physical but her character is the one in the “talkies” so she spends a lot of the time talking where we can’t hear her. Their chemistry is what makes this shine and they’re both individually great. Bejo hasn’t done any English films yet, so if I must watch more French films to see her act, I’ll happily do it. I’ll do the same for Dujardin, too, though he appeared in The Wolf of Wall Street and The Monuments Men but has gone back to French films since then.

This is a French film that is just about as American as a film can get, celebrating the silent era of Hollywood and convincingly recreating it. It feels like it could have been made in the 20’s, because of two stars who feel like they were born in the wrong generation, especially how well they do their dances and that Fred Astaire-esque dance scene. John Goodman’s physical acting also makes him feel like he could have been an actor in the 1920’s – he plays the cigar-chomping studio head persona so well it would have been a disservice to audiences not to cast him in this role.

My only vague complaint here is that some scenes could have used some talking, especially a scene with Bill Fagerbakke (Patrick Star on Spongebob) as a police officer. I didn’t get what he was saying because I can’t read lips very well, but after looking up the meaning of this scene it works well. Still, if they talk in these moments it defeats the purpose of a silent picture and there are inter-titles at moments where you need to really understand the story.

They don’t make films like this anymore and what Hazanavicius does with this is just special and it’s made me want to seek out more silent films (maybe even watch some of the Charlie Chaplin ones I’ve always been intending to). I think that’s what he just intended to do, to make a great film that feels like Old Hollywood so you’d seek out films you may not typically watch. And surely, The Artist isn’t something I’d typically watch but I totally fell for it. It’s a refreshing (silent) film in a world that doesn’t stop talking.

Score: 90/100

The Monuments Men (2014)

the monuments menReleased: February 7, 2014. Directed by: George Clooney. Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray. Runtime: 118 min.

“The Monuments Men” follows a platoon of unlikely heroes at the end of the Second World War who are tasked with retrieving art masterpieces from Nazi thieves and returning them to their rightful owners. It’s a story about not letting culture die, because if all of this art is to be destroyed, that’s one less piece of history to state that the culture that made it existed.

I think this raises cool cultural ideas because history is an interesting thing, especially seeing and knowing how a culture evolves over time. I’m sure that’s what inspired the real life characters to be a part of this platoon. It’s an educational feature because I hadn’t realized that the Nazi’s stole so much art. The lengths these generically developed characters went through to try to get the art back makes for an okay film.

It’s billed as an action-drama but there’s a limited amount of action throughout, and only a few brief exchanges of artillery, which I find to be a defining trait for any war film. Since that is the case, any action fans out there who are looking for a good war movie with lots of action should seek entertainment elsewhere with the gritty “Lone Survivor.” That one at least has good characters, too. The drama’s okay when it’s happening, but there’s a lot of comedy so its sometimes goofy tone and sometimes serious tone is what makes this have a poor tonal balance.

Director George Clooney is just too eager to please with this one, because he adds so much funny banter it makes many scenes feel quite goofy. I’m one for comic relief in dramas, but the comedy takes too much precedence here for a film billed as a wartime drama, and there are even a few scenes that don’t complement the story, and could just be seen as mere opportunities for the actors to remind us that they can be funny every once in awhile. The scenes are funny, but it leaves me thinking “Well, it might have been funny, but how pointless was that?” There is also one scene that’s pointless, but not that funny, it just feels hollow. Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who seems to be Viktor Stahl’s secretary. Stahl is one of the Nazis responsible for hiding the art, and when Claire spots him moving the art to another location via a train, she says “I see you Stahl!” He looks at her, hops on the train and starts shooting at her as it’s going along. Well, he’s not going to hit her at the distance they are from each other; so is he trying to be menacing, or is he just trying to lighten his gun for no apparent reason?

At least the humour hits when it isn’t too predictable, and they have to spice up a plot so simplistic somehow, if there’s not much action going on and if the characters aren’t the best overall. It’s difficult to remember what exactly their role is within the platoon, but they are introduced at the beginning of the film at their work – in one of those early-on recruiting sequences. Clooney is simply the leader of the platoon, the Lieutenant. Hugh Bonneville portrays a man named Donald Jeffries, who gets the most character development as a recovering alcoholic. Matt Damon portrays a painter who is best characterized as a man who cannot speak French to save his life, as the French person he speaks to tells him to speak in English after two sentences.

As previously mentioned, Cate Blanchett’s Claire is Stahl’s secretary, and also a valuable intelligence source. Bill Murray portrays an architect but really only gets depicted as a guy who likes to tease Bob Balaban, who looked like he was directing a stage play in his recruiting scene where George Clooney just sits behind him smiling. John Goodman portrays Walter Garfield, a sculptor who might as well just be the Funny Guy. Jean Dujardin plays a character I’d just refer to as The Guy Who Can Actually Speak French. The cast does their best because they all do get a few laughs in, and it’s quite an ensemble; but when their characters are generic like this, it’s hard not to think that a certain few (Clooney and Damon in particular) are surprisingly phoning in their performances.

To me, this feels like a film with a clear A to B plot. Only a few surprises, a few brief action scenes, but enough humour to keep viewers mildly entertained throughout. The tonal choice to be serious at times, and often too goofy, is fatal. I don’t know if Clooney intended to make this part caper part wartime drama feel as goofy with its humour as “National Treasure” (a fun movie) at times, but that’s the result. Compared to his [Clooney’s] other works as a director, this is disappointingly sub-par.

Score55/100

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

wolf of wall streetReleased: December 25, 2013. Directed by: Martin Scorsese. Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie. Runtime: 180 min.

I’m not going to claim that I’m an expert on anything movies just yet, especially not on films by Scorsese – hell, I haven’t even seen “Goodfellas” yet (something I plan on changing this weekend). All I know is this is a freaking awesome film. This is based on the true story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), from his rise to a wealthy stockbroker living the high life to his fall involving crime, corruption and the federal government.

Belfort made a lot of his money in the pennystocks after the market crash in 1987, where he started his own company. His commission would be 50%, so even if he had someone invest $10, 000; he would still be getting $5000. At one point, Belfort explains a bit how stockbroking works, and since the writers know most of us aren’t following what he’s saying, he gets to the point, and says all we have to know is it isn’t legal. The fourth wall is broken a lot, which is amusing.

The film is downright hilarious; its type of comedy is dark, oh but it is the funniest film of the year that isn’t primarily a comedy. This is a tale about amoral behaviour, but it’s not as if the crew members are advocates for this kind-of behaviour. They’re compelling characters, either way, and likeable for drug crazed folks. It’s a similar case with “Pain and Gain,” but it’s not like the characters in this film are full-blown psychopaths like in “P&G.” They’re cheating people, but they’re not killing anyone. They’re just greedy and really love money. Belfort is a sex and drug addict who really likes this drug called Ludes, it was around as a sleeping pill, but if you could last fifteen minutes on it without falling asleep, you’d get a wicked high. The characters are hilarious on these ludes, by the way. DiCaprio portrays Belfort to near-perfection, causing heartbreak in the viewers here and there. He has some true power in this role, and it’s compelling when he realizes how he often hurts the people around him.

Jonah Hill plays his best friend Donnie, a man with big pearly whites and a really funny personality. He’s one of those characters that does some stupid stuff, but you still like him a lot even after he does it. The plot follows the trouble Belfort faces and the colourful characters he meets along the way, and it’s so nice to see Ethan Suplee again in a small role. Matthew McConaughey teaches Belfort the ropes of the stockbroking business and how to be a better one – lots of jerking off and lots of cocaine. As you can see, the film can be a bit filthy with all of its sex and drugs – but it’s often sexy. A lot of the sexual acts are over-the-top and therefore just really funny; so if you see it with your parents, you’d be entertained and might feel uncomfortable at the same time. This has spectacular pacing for a film that’s three hours long, and it has some compelling character development. I like the way it shows how money can change a person. The stockbroking game is a crazy life, apparently, but it helps make this film entertaining and great, and my favourite of the year. I really can’t wait to see this again.

Score100/100