Thursday, 22 December 2011

Review: The Artist

Rating: PG
Duration: 100 mins

Occasionally Hollywood will warm to a film that doesn't play to the rules of conventionality. In this instance, audiences are presented with a film void of dialogue, relying on visuals, music and action alone to drive the narrative. So accustomed are the mainstream to a reliance on such luxuries, they quickly disassociate with anything other than the confines of familiarity. However, Pixar's 2009 WALL·E proved that silence can indeed work, with the first 45 minutes of said film absent  of word.

A step further is to create a completely silent movie; something that Michel Hazanavicius boldly opts for with   The Artist. Certainly this isn't likely to appeal to the masses, but to more of a niche, whilst avoiding mainstream conformity, thus it naturally becomes optimal Oscar 2012 fodder. In fact, rumour of The Artist sweeping such awards isn't unthinkable with just how well made and refreshingly alternative it is.

Beautifully shot, it's no secret that Hazanavicius has constructed a touching and passionate love letter to the silent era: accomplished entirely with a monochrome sensibility, the entire film cannot help but exude absolute charm. You'll willingly find yourself encapsulated in the life of silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), as we follow his successful career before he meets up-and-coming talent Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who quickly becomes hot property as the newest face of the Golden Age as the era of sound beckons.

For such a premise to succeed, it's essential that the script is tightly and solidly written, which it is. It stands as quite an achievement that a feature length screenplay can withstand a lack of sound, as it is accompanied by a dynamically organised score that adds plenty of atmosphere and personality to each and every scene. In modern cinema, where attention spans are shortening by the hour, The Artist does a fantastic job at maintaining interest throughout, only dawdling upon a rare occasion with mild exploration of Valentin's self pity and contrasting downbeat nature.

The decline of silent cinema is poignantly expressed as we witness the deep despair expressed by George through various nightmare sequences: one particularly exquisite scene introduces subtle diegetic sound as he realises he is powerless in clinging onto something that will soon become obsolete. Such futile efforts build into a self-wallowing state of affairs, which take us through to a strong finale and eloquently poised resolve: a satisfying and whimsical sensation will be felt by the end scene, which forms a superbly nostalgic, wonderfully made and extremely likeable film.

In a year with some accomplished performances no doubt set for a battle for Oscars glory, it's perhaps fitting that one of the most prolific efforts here is from canine co-star Uggie. Not only is he trained to perfection as he meanders in and out of scenes with confidence, but also brings the real heart to the piece: cute in both appearance and action, Uggie serves to drive the narrative and provide a substantial amount of pleasure and laughs in an already winsome film. 

Tonally, and by its very nature, the film requires a certain self-conscious awareness. Subtlety and a degree of tongue-in-cheek endeavour to strengthen the brazen nature of (at times) complete silence and amusing intertitles, executed in a sublime fashion that possesses credibility, deeming it hugely rewarding to experience.

VERDICT: The Artist is undeniably one of the most charismatic and captivating films of the year. It delivers something completely alternative from mainstream repetitiveness: a narrative reliant on memorably charming performances, an inventive and consistently entertaining story, as well as a fantastic score; it retains a familiarity rendering it accessible to everyone. What's more, its poignancy allows audiences to embrace in an era gone-by and appreciate how silence really can be golden.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Review: Moneyball

Rating: 12a
Duration: 133 mins

Hot off the heels of his acclaimed script for The Social Network at this year's Oscars for his scribing efforts, Aaron Sorkin returns with American baseball tale, Moneyball. He's not the only respected affiliate with the project either, as Brad Pitt assumes the lead after an award-worthy performance in The Tree of Life.

Naturally, the theme of baseball is certain to appeal to American audiences, yet alienate others (i.e. the rest of the world), but Moneyball succeeds at not only being about said sport, as it captures the characters and sensibility of what is essentially a drama interspersed with sporting elements.

Based on the true story of Billy Beane (Pitt) as he attempts to rewrite the tactical and managerial style along with newly appointed brain-box tactician Peter (Hill), they commit to turn around the ailing fortunes of the Aukland A's. Beane risks his reputation, as well as his family, as he boldly and almost single-handedly redefines the game from a tactical and statistical point of view.

Upon failing to gain much of a nationwide release in comparison to Breaking Dawn Part 1 at a similar time, it instead relies upon word of mouth to draw in a rather specific, niche audience. Indeed, you will find the performances of the protagonists fantastically poised in relation to the aforementioned Twilight, with Pitt and Hill offering up their best career efforts to date. The Assassination of Jesse James and The Tree of Life revealed that Pitt can slot into roles that require a more depth and subtly as opposed to a Mr and Mrs Smith type. He handles the character of Billy Beane convincingly as he strays from the usual type casting he's received prior in his career. Hill breaks out of his comedy comfort blanket to play straight-up analyst  Peter, who begins to forge a trusting professional and personal bond with Pitt's Beane.

As expected from Sorkin, the script is witty, intelligent and snappy, as it entertainingly flows beyond the constraints of a sports-drama. Certainly character driven in nature, the story explores interpersonal relations, character complexities and dynamics, whether it is in the work space or at home with the family: it all feels strongly connected as a dramatic and interesting study on personalities rather than baseball.

For the majority it is easy to forget the primary aim of retelling the story of one man's brash tactics in the world of baseball, as the dialogue and layered characters drive the piece in a stand-out manner. However, the film as a whole does feel a little bit too long, especially during the final third when the deals are made, the season is over and the on-pitch action ceases. The ending is constructed a little too neatly as it slows down drastically as it approaches the two-and-a-half-hour mark.

Even though the final half hour of the narrative falters, it doesn't alter the enjoyment during the previous two hours: sharp, funny scenes allow audiences to warm to the characters, as a likeable story begins to shine through the locker room and corridors of the Oakland A's stadium.

Whilst the finals scenes wither, one notable point of mention comes in the middle of the action, as Billy and Peter take part in a snappy and superb office scene with a series of phone calls as they attempt to bluff and double bluff rival managers with various player deals. By its nature an entertaining few minutes, the clever writing and subtly gel well: one moment Billy will be offering a player to one team, then proposing a different deal to another seconds later, as Peter keeps another on hold in an attempt to offload to them. The scene is typified as deals swing their way as the closure culminates in a comical fist pump courtesy of the now confident Peter.

VERDICT: Moneyball is, for the most part, an engaging and pleasantly entertaining drama that encumbers the world of baseball without completely alienating a non-acquainted audience. Excellent acting strengthens the solid script, only marred by the latter stages that lose its initial spark and drags on too much.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Review: Las Acacias

Rating: 12a
Duration: 82 mins

In the event of winning the Caméra d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Pablo Giorgelli's low-key story of a lonely South American trucker was never going to penetrate the mainstream market, but seems to have made a dent amongst the critics.

Starring Germán de Silva as long distance trucker Rubén, one day he picks up a pre-arranged 'special cargo' on his journey from Asunción del Paraguay to Buenos Aires in the form of Jacinta (Hebe Duarte) with an unexpected addition of her small baby. 

The film plays out as a road movie, albeit it a subtle and, for the most part, silent one. Giorgelli insists on stripping the narrative to its bare bones, presenting us with delicately drawn out shots that offer real-time observations on the characters and the world around them. The extreme subtlety works in gradually layering a relationship between the two as it becomes difficult not to be swept along with the boiling passion and sadness buried within Rubén.

Tonally the narrative offers little in entertainment in the traditional sense. We see a mere exploration of human emotion and minimal interaction eloquently progresses as their trip does, but at an ultra slow pace: the lingering glances, prolonged interior car shots, the painstakingly slow pans all make it feel much longer than the 82 minute running time suggest.

The semi-nonchalant performances won't capture everyone's imagination, let alone attention, as Las Acacias has to be described as the ultimate slow burner, yet it's delightfully charming and inevitably rather touching, especially in its conclusion.

VERDICT: One of the most pleasant aspects of this is the inclusion of baby Anahi, in what is essentially a love story, as the toddler offers a charming and likeable addition to the tension and frequent silence of the adults, rendering Las Acacias an interesting film that won't suit all tastes, but suffices as an alternative choice.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Review: The Thing (2011)

Rating: 15
Duration: 103 mins

The film industry is in free fall. A bold, yet unspecific statement for sure, but when talking about the unoriginality in film-making, it suddenly becomes applicable. Nothing, it would seem, is sacred. Not even the classics - with a remake (of a remake) of Scarface in the works amidst numerous others - are safe. Even the ones that weren't commercially successful are inexplicably becoming hot property in the remake-stakes, which leads us onto Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. and his prequel of John Carpenter's classic, The Thing.

Providing you're familiar with the original, this new addition will strike as overly familiar  based on the trailer, thus seemingly pointless. For a prequel, the entire narrative feels spookily familiar to Carpenter's: the narrative plays out near enough the same, bar the beginning and the end, with some scenes simply replicating those we've seen that work far better with Kurt Russell, which begs the question: is this not more of a remake rather than a prequel? Lazily, it feels more like the former.

The script practically mirrors its predecessor aside from a team of scientists that discover an Arctic-buried spacecraft as a team of specialists are called in to assess the find before things inevitably turn ugly. Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), is drafted in to team up with existing personnel, including Carter (Joel Edgerton), as the extra terrestrial is taken back to base for analysis. Cue typical run-of-the-mill sequences intended to scare and make audiences jump, yet fails to capture the close-quarters tension to much effect. Nor does the setting ever make you claustrophobic with its poor execution and somewhat stale setting. Furthermore, the brilliant paranoia of Carpenter's classic is dispelled, instead substituting it for cheap horror that doesn't quite hit the mark at any point. 

Interestingly, the film attempts to reinvent the male dominance in the Russell and co horror master class, asserting Kate as a Ripley-type lead. Not only that, but the patriarchal casting that perhaps seems dated today now includes obligatory female characters that merely serve as an aversion to sexism. Ironically though, Kate is typecast as the invaluable, but sexually desirable team member who is essential to the  point of investigation. 

The Thing encroaches on the original rather than making any real attempt to innovate as a worthy addition. Aside from its overt decision to empower women and under-use Joel Edgerton in a supporting role, it plays out a generic horror film, offering little in terms of genuine shocks or jumpy moments. An effort to evoke terror never builds any momentum as we are subject to various filmic references such as the familiarity of Alien in certain locations and (oddly) Jurassic Park of all things.

VERDICT: To approach The Thing as a standalone entry is the best way to look at it. Inevitably those who have seen the original will feel vastly underwhelmed and more often than not disappointed. It's an average horror film at best as it mildly entertains, but seems confused as to whether it is indeed a prequel or simply a disguised remake.