I'm in the midst of reading Brian Kellows's insightful biography of Pauline Kael. (An interview with Kellow about the book is coming up in our January 2012 movie issue.) Kael was the famously irascible film critic for the New Yorker who was renowned for championing passionate, exciting movies that lifted audiences out of their seats and defied expectations.
In her prime, Kael had the power with a rave review to turn a movie into a hit. However, with the age of the Internetin which everyone's literally a film critic and those of us who have some experience at the job find their reviews reduced to stars, numbers, balloons, asterisks, or summed up with percentages at Rotten Tomatoes or MetraCriticcan any critic hope to drive an audience to a theater?
That thought has been on my mind a lot with regard to The Artist. From the rapturous critical hosannas and awards that have greeted the picture months before its release, I'm obviously not the only one who has been yearning for a movie that reverts to a classic Hollywood formula for its inspiration. However, is it possible that wiser mainstream audiencessapped by the onslaught of negative media and endless promotion of "reality stars," and both revved up and desensitized by violent, frenetic video games masquerading as blockbusterswill take this delightful silent movie, filmed in glorious black and white, to their tech-happy hearts?
I don't give a fig what the box-office numbers will be, but this is one time (okay, maybe not the only time) that I want you to listen to all those rave reviews (including this one). Drop your cynicism and see The Artista movie that is so old-fashioned from beginning to end that it's literally a breath of fresh air. French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius, along with stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo (Hazanavicius' wife), have wrought what is essentially a silent variation of A Star Is Bornthis time without either the tragic majesty of the Garland-Mason version or the phony rock-'n-roll ickiness of the Streisand-Kristofferson '70s remake.
The Artist, rather, is an effervescent, melodramatic though gentle edition of the tale. It's 1927 and Dujardin, as matinee idol George Valentin, finds that his glorious career is suddenly a shambles thanks to the introduction of sound. This innovation in movies brings along with it a desire for new stars, and studio boss John Goodman is happy to provide them. During a chance meeting during the premiere of his last great success, George has accidentally met and fallen instantly for Peppy Miller (Bejo), whose moniker perfectly describes her zippy personality. In true A Star Is Born fashion, his career decline mirrors her rise. By 1932, broke, drunk, with even his loyal chauffeur (James Cromwell) gone and only his faithful pooch for company, George is near the end of his rope when Peppy reappears, offering a happy resolution to his career doldrums.
Dujardin, who may be familiar to audiences as the star of two French James Bond spy thriller send-ups (also directed by Hazanavicius) has the perfect matinee-idol good looks, happy-go-lucky grin, pixilated exhilaration of the period and the slapstick timing of Harold Lloyd. In addiiton, Bejo captures some of the innocent flirtation of the flapper stars like Anita Page and Ruby Keeler (rather than Crawford, who always seemed a little too knowing, even at the outset of her career). The affectionate tone, reminiscent of Singin' in the Rain, never falters and, not surprisingly, the cinematography of Guillame Schiffman and Ludovic Bource's music score are essential components to the movie's zippy impact.
Hazanavicius has avoided the gimmicky traps a modern-day silent movie might imply. He and his talented cast and crew have, instead, wrought a movie that flickers with the intensity of some of those enduring silent classics that inspired itand to which, if I don't miss my guess, it will join in that esteemed category.
The same energy is apparent at the outset of The Adventures of Tintin, director Steven Spielberg's latest action-adventure picture that also looks to Golden Age Hollywood for its inspiration. The movie, based on the comic books of the Belgian artist Herge, date back to 1929; for Spielberg, with his enthusiasm for Saturday-morning serials (previously explored in the Indiana Jones series), that must have proven irresistible. He has assembled his usual crack team and delivered a movie that utilizes the stop-motion animation technique with admirable results. It's basically an extended, animated variation on the Young Indiana Jones TV show, with much of that series' vibrancy and innocence.
The movie follows Tintin (voiced with assurance by Jamie Bell), a young (he looks to be about 19) investigative journalist who gets involved in an ever-spiraling web of mystery and intrigue. Accompanied by his faithful canine companion Snowy, Tintin is quickly immersed on a quest for buried treasure. Chased by master criminal Sakharine (voiced by Daniel Craig) and his henchmen, Tintin eventually picks up another accomplice to help him, the drunken sea captain Haddock (voiced by Andy Serkis).
The arrival of Haddock, with his thick Scottish brogue (which wears thin very quickly) and annoying drunken tantrums, has the effect of stopping the picture cold, and his arrival is also accompanied by one endless action set piece after another. Spielberg just can't seem to help himself and as the action sequences accumulate without a respite between, what had been a bracing, adventure yarn for kids of all ages descends into a charmless, increasingly chaotic last half that leaves you feeling pummeled rather than enervated.
New Year's Eve for Movie Lovers: Get ready to set sail for the 4th annual Camp Midnight presentation of the camptacular disaster flick, 1972's The Poseidon Adventure on Sunday, December 31 at the Music Box Theatre (3733 N. Southport). This year, as in the past, Dick O'Day (my alter ego) will bravely captain our film going passengers on a pre-show voyage (beginning at 11 p.m.) that includes party favors, a champagne toast, comp drink ticket, '70s cruisewear costume contest (with prizes), and an interactive screening guide. As always, I'll be joined by David Cerda, artistic director of Handbag Productions, to provide running commentary throughout the film along with members of the Handbag theatrical troupe.
The screening of the film will be timed so that theater patrons and their celluloid counterparts will celebrate midnight at the exact same time. It will also feature original bonus material that Hell in a Handbag created. Also, we must be doing something right because a certain venue in Arizona has copied each campy element of our fabu-lush event for its own rip off Poseidon NYE although, unfortunately, they'll have to do without our inspired invective and creative sartorial splendor, not to mention our unique tackiness. www.musicboxtheatre.com
Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.