The Artist – Review

The Artist (2011) 

Directed by Michel Hazanavicius. Starring Jean DujardinBérénice BejoJohn GoodmanJames CromwellMalcolm McDowell

In a way “The Artits” is a real love letter to silent movies from the 20s and 30s and to cinema in general. Clearly French producer/director/writer/editor Michel Hazanavicius knows his background in silent films and he understand them well enough to be able to pull off not just something that it’s incredibly reverential to that time and that type of film-making but at the same time clever enough to be appreciated by a modern audience and critics alike.

Hazanavicius seems to have a real understanding of the visual medium and knows how to tell a simple and honest story without relying on cheap special effects or heavy exposition. This is a real return to basics. They say “they don’t make them like they used to anymore”. Well, in this case, it seems that somebody actually has just made it exactly like they used to.

There’s a naive sensibility throughout “The Artist” that’s both charming and slightly infectious and it’s hard not to fall for it.

There are moments of inspired genius at play too: the very first moment we realise that it is actually a silent film we are watching, and so we have to read the expression in the character’s face as opposed to listening to an applause from the audience in a cinema in order to understand the response to a film that’s just being screened. It is a slight shock at first, but it’s also very clever . There’s a wonderful dream sequence with that unexpected twist with a glass (You’ll know what I mean when you see it) and some genuinely sweet moments peppered throughout the film.

And of course all those movie references and in-jokes  everywhere that only a real movie geek can spot. Some of them are more obvious than others, starting from the main character’s name Valentin, which is obviously a reference to silent movie star Valentino and his actual look which clearly reminds us of  Fairbanks from the The Mark of Zorro (incidentally he is also shown watching extracts from it later in the film).

However while I understand and applause the film for its understanding and knowledge of the 20s and early 30s, for some reason I don’t quite feel the same way about all those other “references” from pretty much all sorts of decades. The story itself for example takes from both of Singing in the rain (about a silent movie star struggling with the advent of talkies) to the  and A star is Born (about a movie star in decline), but there are echoes to those classic noir films from the 40s, from Citizen Kane itself (I’m referring to the breakfast montage sequence  transported to the “Artist” to achieve the exact same effect) and classic from 50s from directors like  Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock. Not to mention all those typical stock characters seen hundred of times in other movies (even the dog itself is lifted from the Thin Man).

It does make me wonder… When is an idea considered “non original” and when it’s a clever reference or an in-joke?

If this is a film about the silent era and the time between the 20s and 30s, why is it then referencing so many other later films? What is the point of using the soundtrack from Vertigo (a film made in 1958!!) for one of the final scenes? (In fact there’s been a controversy about this particular issue about the soundtrack of Vertigo).

I have to be honest with you, event though I know I might be very unpopular (everybody seems to love this film and it’s most likely going to be the big winner at the Oscar next February), and it’s maybe because I am so familiar with all the movies that came before and that “the Artist” is “borrowing” from , but once the novelty wore off, I found that the actual story itself quite simplistic and slightly unoriginal. And most important, did it really deserve to be 1 hour and 40 minutes long?

It all works the way you expect it to work, each character is exactly like you imagine they will be, and the ending is exactly like the poster advertises it to be. In the end I couldn’t help feeling that the “mute thing” was all just a big gimmick. And if  we take that out the film, what are we left with? Actually very little indeed. A story we’ve seen a hundred times, predictable at best, with some slapstick humour not particularly funny (yes, amusing a couple of times, but not more than that), some cute moments (the many takes during the filming of the dance sequence being possibly the best), but not that moving or tragic and finally a dog doing the same pretending-to-be-dead joke 9 times (My friend Alec counted them, so I blame him if it’s not actually 9, but you get my point).

So while I admire its technique, its knowledge and those few clever and inspired moments, I couldn’t help feeling that there was not enough to fill a whole 100-minutes film (In fact if it wanted to pay a real tribute to the silent era of film-making it should have been a lot shorter like all those movies were).

Is this really the best film of the year? Does it really deserve to be the Oscar winner of 2012? Will it really sustain many repeated viewings like all those classics it’s constantly borrowing from. I guess only time will tell but I thought it actually had very little to tell.


Tomboy – Review


Directed by Céline Sciamma. Cast: Zoé HéranMalonn LévanaJeanne Disson.

This small independent film was made for peanuts (Filmed on a Canon 5D and just a handful of people in the crew) and it is unlikely to make any big impact on the box-office. However I’m sure it’ll leave a mark on those few who will actually manage to see it. In fact judging by the recently released long list from the 2012 BAFTA Awards Nominee, where TomBoy shows among some other nominees, it looks like I am not the only person who has been touched by it.

Zoé Héran is absolutely wonderful as Laure, the 10 years old girl who’s just moved into a new neighbourhood where nobody knows her and pretends to be a boy (Michaël) with her new friends. Her performance is one of the best of the year, and possibly among the best ever performances by a child: she not only perfectly captures that innocence that children of that age have, but at the same time she seems to have a deep understanding of the struggle and the pain of her character. Throughout the film she really acts as if she was a real boy in a way that’s so believable that at some point I really started to wonder whether “she” was actually a real “he”. The film knows that and it does play with you by stretching the lie as far as it possibly can, until it decides to show you the real truth in a beautifully handled scene where you do actually see briefly the girl naked. It’s a fleeting moment and the film obviously doesn’t linger on it, but it’s enough to put our minds at rest so that we can carry on enjoying the rest of the story.

The director Céline Sciamma’s ability to film children making it look real is incredible. It feels effortless as if the camera was one of the children themselves and we as the audience are left observing them playing in the forest as if we were spying on them, or as if it was all a documentary. Rarely I have seen scenes with such young children that feel so honest and real: the approach is subtle and light, the atmosphere is almost muted, dialogue to advance the story is used to a minimum and the silences are charged with meaning and intensity.

This is a subject that rarely makes the news, let alone the movie theatres. And it’s so refreshing not just to see it depicted in this film, but to have it told with such an understanding, honesty and open-mindedness.

All this together with the stellar acting from little Zoé make the internal drama of Laure/Michaël even more poignant and powerful.

Be warned, this is a slow film (a very short one too at only 82 minutes), that has “French independent” written all over it, from its pace, to its rough look and its lack of music score, but if you, like me, love films about children growing up, this sensitive, tender and never heavy-handed story might just melt your heart too.

I saw it months ago and I still remember it vividly, so it must have worked on me.


50/50 – Review


Directed by Jonathan Levine. Starring Joseph Gordon-LevittSeth RogenAnna KendrickAnjelica Huston.

When you first hear the words “cancer comedy” your heart will probably sink and your eyes will most likely roll back: spending an hour and a half in the company of a young man who has just discovered he’s got 50% chances of dying from cancer, is not exactly anybody’s idea of a Fun-Friday-night. Also knowing that Hollywood is behind all this and that Seth Rogen (known mainly for his not-too-subtle humour) is involved in it just heightens the suspicion  that this might just be a catastrophic misstep.

However “50/50”  not only handles the cancer subject with respect, honesty and restrains but also gets the balance between both the irreverent comedy and the actual drama absolutely spot on.

Amazingly this is a film that makes you both laugh and cry within the space of minutes: the laughs may be few but they are always carefully placed to exorcise that sense of fear, angst and sorrow that runs through the rest of the movie in a way that never feels forced or gratuitous. It is funny without being flippant and heartwarming without being cheap or cheesy.

Apparently it was Seth Rogen himself who helped writer Will Reiser to cope with the disease and later pushed him to write the screenplay for the film. And this is clearly the work of somebody who’s lived through this agonising experience: there’s a certain rawness and matter-of-factness in the way the details and minutia of what must be like to live with such burden are depicted.

It’s certainly not a masterpiece (some of the secondary characters are fairly sketchy and on the whole stylistically and visually it feels more like a TV-drama than anything) but  it’s very well handled throughout and though the ending might feel a bit too conclusive and rather too optimistic (especially the bit with Anna Kendrick), “50/50” is never exploitive or cheap, it rarely pulls back and it never looses sight of the harsh reality of cancer: chemotherapy is tough, dealing with the illness is no joke for both for the patient and the people around the patient, and people do actually die.

Everybody in the film plays to their strengths and do what they do best: Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a way seems to play an extension of his character from “500 Days of Summer” (in my view one of the most refreshing comedies of the last few years): he brings with him a charming sweetness which makes him very likable and yet he does it without ever resorting to cheesy or cute winks to camera. In fact quite the opposite, as he’s willing to go that extra-mile to make it all look and feel real (he even shaved his hair in one of the most memorable scene in the film in what must have been a one-take affair). His performance is subtle and mostly underplayed and yet truthful and powerful as his character Adam moves through shock, denial, acceptance, anger, defiance. The whole movie rests on him and if the film works as it does, it has a lot to do with his performance.

Seth Rogen too, as Adam’s best friend, does his usual Seth Rogen stuff, bringing his crass humour with him and yet always rooted to some down-to-heart reality. The relationship between him and Adam is possibly the highlight of the film: never for a moment you doubt that the two of them could be real best friends.

The women in the film are slightly short-changed: the girlfriend character is under-developed and rather annoying, and the subplot with the inexperience therapist sweetly played by Anna Ken­drick feels a bit tagged on. Only Anjelica Houston manages to make the most of her slightly under-written role as Adam’s mother and shines with a couple of Oscar-worthy moments.

The music too, like the whole tone of the film, is carefully balanced, alternating a large amount with pop song (At times it almost feels like a Cameron Crowe movie) and a restrained score by Micheal Giacchino (who seems to be doing everything these days) which never falls into schmaltzy territory.

I am not sure I would want to watch this film again, nor I would be willing to suggest it to anyone who’s looking for a good day out in the cinema, but it’s a brave one and for that it’s to be commended. If only all drama-comedies were so unfussy, courageous, subtle and honest, Hollywood would be a better place.


04 June 2012 – in fact since writing the review above, I have watched this film again, and somehow, knowing the ending, I was able to relex more and enjoy the film even more than the first time around. (I even bumped it up by half a vote). I still feel the all-too-cute resolution with the therapist should have been cut out, but aside from that I think this is one of the strongest film that came of Hollywood last in 2011. Looking back, Joseph Gordon-Lewitt really deserved some award for this!

The Iron Lady – Review

The Iron Lady (2011) 

Director: Phyllida Lloyd. Writer: Abi Morgan. Cast: Meryl StreepJim Broadbent.

What could have been an insightful, challenging and even controversial film about one of the most loved/hated politician of the twentieth century, instead ends up being just an empty vessel for Meryl Streep to showcase once again that she’s Oscar worthy! As if we didn’t know that already… The most Oscar nominated living actress in history really does indeed become the British Prime Minister in the “Iron Lady”. Unfortunately Meryl alone is not enough to lift an otherwise flat and quite superficial biopic.

Some may argue that sometimes her performance veers slightly too much towards parody, but that’s mainly a problem with the staging and the direction of the film itself.

“The Iron Lady” is trying too hard to please everyone that in the end it just disappoints everyone. It wants to be too much like “The King’s Speech” (there’s even a scene which feels lifted directly from it, where Margaret Thatcher is rehearsing her voice… I was waiting for her to stammer at any point), but here the baggage behind the main character is just too big and edgy to get away with such lightness. Margaret Thatcher is a complex character with an even more complex life: to try to reduce it and compress it all into a film of less than 2 hours is a tough task and “The Iron Lady” suffers from trying to do it. Major events like the Falklands war, or the miners’strike,  are given just a few minutes and it all ends up feeling a little bit like reading a page from Wikipedia: yes, all the facts are there, but it all feels a little bit too superficial… And a film about Margaret Thatcher should be anything but superficial.

The film is structured through a series of flashbacks as it also try to give a more intimate portrait of the old Prime Minister in her first stages of Alzheimer. This is probably the most revealing and poignant part of the film (though not without its problems too). Once again Meryl manages to step above the mannerism and the caricature and brings some unexpected humanity into her character as the so-called iron lady becomes now more like an old rusty iron lady or worse a paper-thin weak old woman (with the aid of some impressive make-up. The people behind the make-up in J.Edgar should watch and learn!!): her performance as an old woman is something to wonder at!

However the film doesn’t quite know what to do with all this material and all the characters around Mrs Thatcher. Are we supposed to like this controversial and yet influential British politician? Are we really meant to feel sorry for her? What is it try to tell us by showing the Iron Lady as a weak old woman stricken by illness? It’s all rather too easy to be controversial, and too thin to be thoughtful, too friendly to be considered seriously.

In the end all we are left is a marvellous performance for a film that doesn’t quite deserve it.


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