Friday, February 24, 2012

Double Feature Friday: Last Minute Oscar Edition

Double Feature Friday is a weekly post curating two films based on a given theme.

Here's a little secret: the Oscars are this weekend. That's not enough time to watch every nominated film, and frankly, I don't want to be held responsible for you watching Albert Nobbs. If you don't want to be embarrassed at your roommate's Academy Awards party or at the water cooler on Monday morning, I suggest you watch the following two films.

Without a doubt, my favorite film of the year was Midnight in Paris (2011, Woody Allen). The glorious scenery of Europe is a constant reminder of history, drawing up strong feelings of nostalgia. Owen Wilson is phenomenal as Gil, a screenwriter struggling with artistic inadequacy. He embraces the quirky self-deprecating humor so specific to an Allen hero, but he adds a certain charm in the place of overpowering neuroses. His gleeful naïveté and endless longing are endearing; after all, we can all relate to his longing for completion.

Midnight in Paris

His obsession with the past takes him to the 1920's. Certainly, this was an amazing moment in history, with some of the world's greatest writers getting insanely drunk and partying all night while carrying on brilliant conversations. The supporting cast manages to encapsulate the charms (and follies) of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí, and other influential figures of the time. Whenever Gil meets a new celebrity, he exclaims, "Wow, T.S. Eliot!" As an viewer, I too felt the thrill of meeting my idols each time he had a new encounter -- a testament to Wilson's enthusiasm and Allen's writing prowess.

I would be remiss if I did not highlight Corey Stoll's phenomenal turn as Ernest Hemingway. Generally, Hemingway does not tend to elicit much sympathy from modern readers. Stoll captured Hemingway's tortured spirit beautifully, showing how the first World War managed to fracture every man it touched. His speech on the similarities between sex and death was delivered with sharp Hemingway punctuation, but it remained eloquent and moving. His foil to the other rollicking figures shows Gil that every time period has its own struggles, either for or in spite of its prolific art.

Of course, the most important lesson here is that nostalgia is timeless. Adriana (Marion Cotillard), Gil's 1920's love interest, finds herself fixated on the 1890's. No one is ever satisfied with the present; this is especially true for artists. Allen shows that we can carry our nostalgia as inspiration, but it must not cloud the future. This is the perfect statement for this era of his career, and I couldn't have been more charmed by the experience.

On the same theme of nostalgia, The Artist showcases the difficulty of advancement. It's much easier to simply look backwards or continue on the same path than it is to adapt and improve. Like Midnight in Paris, The Artist shows that endless nostalgia is ultimately fruitless -- time keeps moving forward, so it's impossible to stand still.

The Artist

While the film is obviously nostalgic for Hollywood's golden days, it is also daring in its use of silence. Most modern American audiences refuse to even watch subtitles. This makes The Artist's critical and mass success all the more impressive. The casting had a large part to do with this, which I discuss at length here. I won't repeat myself, so suffice it to say that you should watch this film -- not just because it's this year's most buzzed about film, but because it's a damn good movie.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Old White Guy

Some would call Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011, Tomas Alfredson) a stunning achievement in restraint. Others may just call it boring. It's true that the description "Cold War espionage spy film" conjures a certain James Bond-like image, and it's risky to disrupt that with a quiet, slow crescendo. While the narrative does suffer the complications of adaptation, the performances and the visuals truly shine.

It's easy to see why Gary Oldman received an Oscar nomination for his turn as George Smiley*. Much of the role required Oldman to observe and contemplate silently. Many modern actors would falter without dialogue, but Oldman's expressive face adds to the seriousness of the espionage. After all, accusing a coworker and friend of being a Russian spy is no laughing matter, so Smiley takes the job with appropriate emotion. There's no humor for him, no fancy cocktails -- just a man conducting research, interviewing, denying sleep as he searches endless documents for clues. The life of a British intelligence agent isn't filled with glamorous destinations and exciting car chases, but perhaps the intellectual search for a double agent is far more terrifying than the physical pursuit.

The second biggest star in the film is certainly the objects. From typewriters to tweeds, the sets and accessories scream 1970's. Beyond that, the sheer silence of the soundtrack really showcases the importance of objects: the shuffling of paperwork sounds deafening; the buttering of toast is elevated from simple act to condescending torture. Smiley's decision to get new glasses has absolutely no impact upon the plot, but the visual lingering on the identifier holds enormous meaning: he must look closer, have better eyes. This is especially true because the audience is left clueless throughout the entire investigation. We can hazard guesses about the mole, but we have don't have enough information beyond scowls and personal infidelities. We must trust Smiley as we must trust our own glasses to bring us to the truth. As a viewer, it's difficult to place complete faith in a character, especially when all information is withheld. Thankfully, Oldman's performance is convincing enough that he earns our respect and our faith.

The supporting cast also does a stunning job of recreating 70's London. Strong performers like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Mark Strong show the diversity of the intelligence agency: all white men, true, but varying from suave ladies' man to bookish sidekick to roguish working man. The standout to me, however, was Tom Hardy as Ricky Tarr. Undercover, Tarr is the only agent to experience true action. He goes behind enemy lines, defies direct orders, risks serious physical harm, and falls in love. He's defiant of the hyper-intellectual, frigid, unemotional way that his colleagues run their lives; he proclaims, "I want to have a family. I don't want to be like you." Without this foil, the film would just be a bunch of older white guys side-eyeing each other; instead, Hardy brings back the humanity.

Certainly, there are ways that the film could have been improved. The 2+ hour run time requires emotional investment, and the slow pace may be off-putting to some viewers. The slew of tertiary characters can be difficult to keep straight (which is probably the point: they all think the same way, and it's up to Smiley to step outside of the Circus and uncover the truth). And, of course, some real clues about the spy's identity would help pique audience interest and quicken the pace. Expectation is everything with this film. If you think you're going to see an exciting British spy film, you'll probably be disappointed. If you think you're seeing a cerebral film that conjures a London of yore, you're in for a rewarding experience.

* Footnote: While this is Oldman's Oscar nomination, his catalog is lengthy and varied. I'd like to remind everyone that this man played Sid Vicious in the 80's. Let that sink in. Sid Vicious. Now he's nominated for a role that's the opposite of Sid Vicious. So dynamic!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Double Feature Friday: Hitckcock Edition

Double Feature Friday is a weekly post curating two films based on a given theme.

I have a confession to make: I think Vertigo is incredibly dull. That being said, I can agree that Alfred Hitchcock was quite revolutionary and prolific. In particular, his popularization of the thriller and his unique usage of long takes merit high praise from this wee blog. It's a shame that his career is so often defined by a choice few films from late in his filmmaking. The following two films don't feature Hitchcock's signature glamorous blonde actresses, but they are thrilling nonetheless.

Rope (1948) is one of Hitchcock's lesser known gems, despite starring frequent collaborator Jimmy Stewart. Based on the true story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, Rope follows two young intellectuals as they attempt the perfect murder. Their crime is inspired by their professor (Stewart), whose lessons on Friedrich Nietzsche's Übermensch seemingly justifies the taking of life as a means of exercising superiority.


But what's really important about the film is its real-time action. Just a few very long takes, lasting between 4 and 10 minutes, are cut together to make the film appear to be one continuous scene. From a modern perspective, this can make the movie have a very slow pace, but it also makes the tension grow exponentially. As the audience, we feel that we are in the room, waiting for the body to be discovered at any moment. The room becomes claustrophobic, and we desperately want to escape it, for justice to be served, but the film constantly denies us relief. Indeed, the film is not particularly satisfying to watch, but it is an amazing exercise in restraint and viewership -- one that everybody should experience at least once.

So after that film (if you're not totally cursing me), you'll probably be in the mood for something with a faster pace. Look no further than Strangers on a Train (1951). Again, the camerawork makes the audience feel active in the film, but rather than being active participants, we are passive voyeurs. In the opening sequence, the camera moves through the train station, following the feet of our characters, but others travelers sometimes obscure our vision. We witness the actions unfold as though we are fellow passengers and potential alibis.

Strangers on a Train

Again, the antagonist is attempting the perfect murder: two strangers commit each other's murders so that the crimes are completely without motivation and, thus, untraceable. But if Hitchcock has taught us anything, it's that there is no such thing as a perfect murder. With its quick pace and stunning score, Strangers on a Train is an excellent foil to the gradual build of Rope.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Casting and the Artist

Nostalgia is always popular in cinema, and The Artist (2011, Michel Hazanavicius) certainly capitalizes on that. Set during the transition to talking films, the film highlights the ever-changing nature of art and how artists are voiceless -- figuratively and, here, literally -- to stop it. With the rising influence of streaming internet video, piracy, and mobile technology, the question of the artist's voice could not come at a more appropriate time. While the story has been told time and again, the true genius of this picture is its casting. Star Jean Dujardin (George Valentin) exudes classic Hollywood star quality. His performance is highly reminiscent of Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain. From the signature smile to the charming dance moves and charm, Dujardin bares more than a passing resemblance to the classic Hollywood star.
The Artist

Relatively unknown outside of his native France, Dujardin was able to fully embrace the role of Valentin without the celluloid baggage of a well-known American career. If a better known star had filled the role, we would be pondering, "How does George Clooney's career parallel Valentin's?" or "Wow, Brad Pitt is a lot older than I thought he was." Instead, we are able to be fully immersed in history without the burden of modern cinema.

Although Dujardin is a fresh face in Hollywood, the film does feature many familiar names. Perpetual second fiddle Missi Pyle also harkens back to Singin' in the Rain with her performance as Lina Lamont-style diva Constance. John Goodman was born to play a sleazy Hollywood executive. Despite the film's silence, you can still perfectly imagine Goodman's trademark voice booming through the speakers as he grins and smokes giant cigars. Popular actors James Cromwell and Malcolm McDowell also lend their capable expressions to the cast. And, of course, it goes without saying that Uggie delivers the best canine performance of the year.

My one complaint about the film is the casting of Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller. The young Miller is a rising star who becomes a box office sensation. Unfortunately, Bejo's performance is missing the star-quality that her character supposedly possess. She has neither the screen siren sex appeal of Jean Harlow or the spunk and moxy of Katharine Hepburn. While Miller almost has the can-do-good-girl essence of Ginger Rogers, she is ultimately a flat character who does not possess clues to be easily located within the historical context. Instead, she is more of an avatar for the viewer to participate in the film, to attempt to rescue Valentin from himself. In this regard, her performance is satisfactory (if still a bit empty). Despite this, The Artist lives up to its promise of showing the artistry of Hollywood with a wink and a nod.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Double Feature Friday: Alien Edition

Double Feature Friday is a weekly post curating two films based on a given theme.

If you remember the 90's (and I hope that you do), you should recall America's obsession with extraterrestrials. From The X-Files to Fire in the Sky, Americans wanted to believe in aliens more than ever before. This double feature is a salute to that special paranoid time.

1996 was a great year for America. With a strong economy and political stability, the country was at its peak. It is from this position that they felt threatened by outsiders who could disrupt American domination. Aliens, of course, are the perfect culprit: amorphous, unknown beings that pose a risk from every direction. It is at the height of the alien obsession that big budgets and famous stars combined to create Independence Day (Roland Emmerich). The movie poster's famous image of the White House exploding was enough to make even the most neutral American bleed stars and stripes. (Sure, the film destroys countless other global landmarks, but that doesn't hit home quite so much.)

Independence Day

But for Americans to truly love the movie, they need to rally behind an American hero. Enter Will Smith. At only 28 years old, Smith was beloved as a comic actor and sometimes recording artist. Independence Day was his first shot at a large, serious role. Despite the film's incredibly standard plot, Smith managed to combine his classic humorous hubris with the Air Force of Tom Cruise a la Top Gun to create a character that we truly want to kick alien ass, win the girl, fly really fast planes, and get an award from the president.

And speaking of the president, Bill Pullman gives an amazing performance as President of the United States. Perhaps it's his vulnerability, perhaps it's his everyman quality, but it's almost certainly due to his highly presidential mane of hair. (Sidebar: Every so-called film writer has a certain obsession. Mine's Bill Pullman's hair. Deal with it.)

Bill Pullman's hair

So after you've enjoyed the high budget special effects of Independence Day, Mars Attacks! (Tim Burton) will seem downright hokey. That's because it really is. Released in the same year, this film takes a decidedly more humorous approach to fears of alien invasion. Burton's references are one part 1960's drive-in monster flick, one part Star Trek, one part Ed Wood, and a heaping portion of comic books. To his credit, Burton had not yet become completely obsessed with Johnny Depp; instead, he had a phenomenal cast including Glenn Close, Annette Benning, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, exploitation queen Pam Greer, and the President of the United States himself, Jack Nicholson.

Mars Attacks!

The true brilliance of the film was that it showed the absurdity of an alien invasion. Do we really think that aliens will be terrifying (like in Independence Day) or nearly humanoid (like in pop culture)? It's just as likely that they'll have humorously grotesque exposed brains, isn't it? And in such a critical global crisis, do we really think that the president or some cigar-smoking pilot will be able to stop the invasion? Is it any less likely that yodeling will kill the aliens? Okay, Burton really takes the genre to the extremes, but it's all for fun. After all, what good is an alien movie if it doesn't have Sarah Jessica Parker's head surgically attached to a chihuahua's body?