Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Artist

***included in Brian's Best and Worst of 2011***
Back in September, I stumbled across OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies.  I had seen the DVD cover art before and curiosity finally got the better of me, so I watched it with little to no foreknowledge.  I was treated to a likable and extremely clever (but not as funny) French spoof of 1960s spy movies.  The cleverness of the story made me extremely curious to see more of the director, Michel Hazanavicius, and the star, Jean Dujardin.  As luck would have it, the most acclaimed film of 2011 happened to be The Artist, which paired the star and director once more.
...and the director's wife, who was also in OSS 117.  Nepotism leads to Oscar nominations.

In 1927, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a huge silent film star.  Everything he touches seems to turn to gold, and his skills seem to apply equally to romances, action/adventure flicks, and comedies.
George Valentin: Eastern Orthodox Hollywood icon
One day, while posing for pictures outside his most recent film premiere, George is accidentally bumped by a young lady in the crowd, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo).  Being a suave celebrity, George opts not to punch her in the face, and instead laughs it off and poses for pictures with Peppy, to the delight of all.  Seriously, look at that crowd, they're acting like they're at a bachelorette party.
My personal favorite is the woman by his elbow
Peppy happens to be an aspiring actress that idolizes George.  She manages to get a role as an extra on one of George's movies, and the two show a lot of chemistry and sexual attraction. In fact, the two almost act upon that attraction, but the moment passed and so they went on with their lives.  Young Peppy started to work her way up in the movie business, while George took a slightly different approach.  When the head of the movie studio (John Goodman) shows George a prototype of a film with a vocal track, George scoffs at it, declaring it a toy.  From that point forward, George is fighting a losing battle against the idea of sound in film while Peppy --- being an up-and-comer --- wisely rides the "talkies" to fame and fortune.

I suppose there's a bit more to the story than the rise of one performer and the fall of another, but that's the plot in a nutshell.  If it sounds familiar to you, that's because it should; this basic premise has been used many times over.  What separates The Artist from, say, All About Eve is the choice to make this movie about a silent film actor into a silent film.  To be fair, it's not entirely silent; there are a handful of words spoken and some interesting sequences where sound was selectively added, but the movie on the whole plays like a classic silent movie (just with superior film stock).

The silent movie schtick may seem like a gimmick at first, but it loses that feel after watching Jean Dujardin on camera for a little while.  I don't know if he will ever be able to transform into a Hollywood star (his accent is pretty thick --- not a deal-breaker, but still...), but Dujardin was wonderful in The Artist.  I can't pinpoint exactly why I liked him so much without making it sound like a backhanded compliment, though.  Dujardin is able to act like the stereotype of a mediocre actor; he has expressive eyebrows and a giant smile, which he utilizes in most of his "on-camera" scenes in this film.  He also conveys some very realistic emotions quite subtly in other moments.  It was a well thought out performance that was executed nearly perfectly.
Bonus points for not being stereotypically movie drunk
Bérénice Bejo was likable as the blossoming star, Peppy, but her character wasn't all that deep.  She wanted to be a star, she achieved that goal, and she wanted to help her friend.  We don't actually have to care about her character very much at all --- we just have to understand what she represents to George Valentin.  I think that was a missed opportunity.  Still, she did have her moments; I really liked the playful scene where she pretended to be romanced by Valentin's coat.
How ugly do you have to be to require this much work?
John Goodman was, as always, a welcome addition to the cast.  His character was pretty simple, but Goodman has made a career out of making simple characters entertaining to watch.  I think James Cromwell was under-appreciated for his turn as the loyal manservant to Valentin; Cromwell often is cast as a harsh authority figure, and it was nice to see him playing such a sweet character.  I was a little surprised by how many recognizable Hollywood actors played small roles in The ArtistPenelope Ann Miller essentially just defaced George Valentin memorabilia whenever she was on camera, Missi Pyle was suitably obnoxious as a famous actress, Malcolm McDowell just sat in a scene, Ed Lauter showed up just long enough for his face to ring a bell, and Ken Davitian managed to not be involved in a penis-related gag for a change.  Perhaps the biggest scene-stealer in the film was Uggie, the dog.  The sequences with Uggie were certainly cute, and the animal is clearly very well-trained.  That said, it's a dog; get over it, America.

Dujardin's excellent acting certainly goes a long way toward making the whole silent-film-thing less of a gimmick and more of an interesting choice, but it is the direction of Michel Hazanavicius that truly makes The Artist and interesting film to watch.  There are very few directors currently working who are willing to make interesting choices while making a film.  Those choices don't necessarily have to work (Malick, I'm looking at you), but their films are usually made far more enjoyable when they do.  Hazanavicius took a high concept and managed to add a solid story and some excellent acting to it.  While I like the choice he made, I still think the story is a bit weak and uses the silence to help mask that problem.  On the other hand, Hazanavicius also used the silence to convey some not especially subtle, but still easily overlooked character moments.  I really liked that Penelope Ann Miller was wearing a different piece of jewelry in each of her scenes; the audience knows she's unhappy because she keeps marking up every picture of George she can find, but I thought that was a nice additional touch.  What I truly appreciated in the film was Hazanavicius' frame composition.  It pops up periodically throughout the movie, but the symbolism on the movie studio staircase after Valentin was fired was gorgeous.  The Artist is a movie that understands film style and uses it to convey ideas with images, instead of through exposition, and that was a bit of a treat for me.

The Artist is a very clever film that deserves accolades for daring to do things differently.  Are you going to like it?  Well...that's a tough call.  On the plus side, it is a huge change of pace from anything else that came out last year.  It is also well-acted and well-directed, so if you like examining cinematography or acting subtleties, this should be a good time for you.  On the other hand, it is still a silent movie, and that might make the film drag at times for the less snobby film fan.  It's certainly a cute movie, but it doesn't have a whole lot of depth; the best trait The Artist has is just how clever it is, but that might not be a strong enough selling point for everyone.

Saturday, March 3, 2012


*** included in Brian's Best and Worst of 2011***

I've always been a big fan of baseball statistics.  You know the old saying, "those who can do, those who can't obsessively memorize meaningless numbers."  I don't know exactly what it is about baseball stats that has always enthralled me.  Sure, there's the feeling of superiority you get when you have trivia answers carved into your mind, but it goes deeper than that.  I've always liked looking at numbers because it helps me discover things that I might have never appreciated otherwise.  For instance, did you know that former pitcher Bret Saberhagen once finished a season with more wins than walks allowed?  That's ridiculous!  It's amazing!  It's unheard of...unless you do a Google search.  Not surprisingly, I have been interested in sabermetrics for a while now and was eager to see Moneyball when I heard that the book was being made into a movie.  As exciting as statistical analysis is to me, I recognize that the subject could very well make for a dreadfully dull movie experience for 99% of all people, alive or dead.  And yet, Moneyball has been widely acclaimed.  How the hell did they pull that off?

In short, the answer to that question is, "By making smart choices."  By balancing the information that baseballs fans enjoy with a universally understandable dramatic story, the filmmakers made a surprisingly appealing sports movie that features surprisingly little focus on the games being played.

Let's look at the fan stuff first.  When the Oakland Athletics ended their season in the 2001 playoffs, general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) knew that his team, which had played so well that year, was going to be pretty terrible in 2002.  The team's three best players were all free agents, and Oakland is a small market team, which meant that the team's best players were definitely going to sign lucrative deals with bigger market teams, like the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. 
I think I see the cause of Oakland's woe: there's an attendance problem
Beane had three gaping holes to fill in his team, and he did not have the money to sign equally talented players, nor did he have up-and-coming youngsters ready to fill those spots.  There was no way on Earth that Beane would be able to build a competitive team, at least not by using conventional baseball logic.  Enter Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a quiet number cruncher with an economics degree.  Using sabermetrics, Brand saw potential in players that other teams undervalued.  Brand believed that the Athletics could field a competitive team, but they would have to favor players that specialize in some of the less flashy aspects of the game.
Like telephone courtesy
Billy and Peter build a team that can theoretically win, despite loud and frequent criticism from the media, baseball scouts, and even Oakland's own manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  By following sabermetrics, Billy and Peter were ignoring the way players had been valued for the last hundred years of baseball.  If they failed, which pretty much everybody expected, Billy and Peter would be job-hunting before the end of August and the whole sabermetrics thing would be dismissed.  However, if they managed to field a winning team made from under-appreciated scraps from around the league, they would change baseball forever.  Of course, to do that, they actually have to win...
Pictured above: optimism

That's the somewhat-interesting-if-you're-a-baseball-fan plot.  For casual fans or baseball ignoramuses, though, there is still a rich story.  This isn't just another story of the unlikely team becoming impossibly successful --- this is the story of a man who has essentially bet his entire livelihood on an untried and ridiculed concept, and how that stress affects his life.  This isn't about the 2002 Oakland Athletics.  This is about Billy Beane's quest to show value in people thought to be disposable by everyone else and prove that the total can be greater than the perceived sum of its parts.

To pull off that sort of "man against the system" story, though, you need an effective lead actor, since the film will inevitably focus on him.  Luckily, Brad Pitt continues his string of interesting roles (which essentially describes his post-Mr. and Mrs. Smith career) in Moneyball.  This role could have been horribly overacted, because so much of it involves self-doubt and depression.  Pitt conveys most of this through nonverbals --- he seems to favor staring --- which is nice, because he almost never raises his voice, which means there are no Pacino-esque moments.  In many ways, Pitt does his best to channel Robert Redford at his smartest and most charming in this role, and he is largely successful.  Pitt has better comic timing than Redford though, and a lot of Pitt's recurring mannerisms --- like incessantly eating on-screen --- shine through enough to make this more than simply an homage to Redford.
He can't close his mouth.  It's filled with sunflower seeds.
I seriously loved Pitt's performance.  It's underplayed, but extremely effective.  I also genuinely enjoyed his interactions with Kerris Dorsey, who played his daughter.  Speaking of Dorsey, I was surprised to find that I liked her.  Most of the time, the child actors who play characters visiting their "weekend parent" tend to annoy me.  Dorsey was pretty likable, despite some unfortunate bangs, and surprised with her musical talents, too.
A lot of attention was given to Jonah Hill's first dramatic role, and he's definitely solid in it.  He's likable as a fish out of water, but I don't understand the degree of recognition he got for this role.  Does he deserve credit for his work here?  Absolutely, if only for the wheeling and dealing phone scene.  I disagree with his Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, though; he was good, but there were better choices available.  Philip Seymour Hoffman didn't add a whole lot to this movie; he certainly wasn't bad, but the role was a lot simpler than he typically plays.  Robin Wright doesn't have much screen time, but she doesn't add much anyway, which is about par for the rest of the cast.  This movie lives and dies on Brad Pitt's performance.
He pinkie swears it'll be good, though

Moneyball is only the second full-length feature film from Bennett Miller (the other is Capote, which might explain Hoffman's presence), but he has an excellent grasp of the drama in this tale.  As I have already mentioned more than once, Moneyball could have --- maybe even should have --- been an awful viewing experience for most people.  It takes the slowest American spectator sport and gets rid of the action, focusing on politics and number-crunching instead.  And he managed (along with an Aaron Sorkin screenplay co-credit) to make this film feel like a personal journey of a man trying to prove his worth.  I also loved how he used Pitt in this movie; he was unafraid of silence on the screen, and that made for some surprisingly touching moments.

The best thing about Moneyball is that the events portrayed here happened recently enough for many audience members to recall the ending.  I knew how the A's season ended in 2002, and yet I never felt a sense of dramatic letdown.  That's because the drama is in Beane, and not entirely based on the fate of his team.  This is just a smartly-written, well-acted, and well-directed picture.

And if you were wondering what the song Billy Beane's daughter was singing was, here's the original version: