Monday, 30 January 2012

Everyone's Talking About It

I've made it quite public that I had my reservations about The Artist. I wasn't a huge fan of silent films, and I had an irrational dislike of the fact that it's won big at every awards show so far (except the SAG Awards... but I'll come to that in a different post because that's a whole different issue). But I thought since there was so much hype about it that it probably needed to be watched, so off Kathryn and I went to the cinema this weekend to see it. And I am so glad we did.

The plot is one of those ones which is mostly lighthearted when played out on screen, but has some quite serious undertones to it. In Hollywood, 1927, silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujarin) is the most sought-after and successful actor out there, until the birth of the talkies puts a stop to his career. Meanwhile, upcoming actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, wife of director Michel Hazanavicius) becomes a household name whilst riding the wave of this new generation of film, but still finds time to provide support for Valentin, who has become financially ruined trying to make his own silent films to compete with the talkies, and consequently sinking into a deep depression.

It's so wonderfully done. Not having lots of experience with silent films, I was unsure as to whether maybe I'd be bored or perhaps unable to follow it with the lack of dialogue (and indeed, colour), but the intertitles are frequent enough to help the audience without appearing so often that it feels like a subtitled film. The two scenes which aren't silent - Valentin's dream scene where everything around him is making noise, yet he cannot speak, and the very last 20 seconds or so of the film - only highlight how wonderful the silent film is. The musical accompaniment is a delight to listen to, reflecting, like a good score should, the emotion and action of the scenes.

The acting is superb. With a silent film, I imagine most actors would tend to exaggerate their physical performances to compensate for the lack of dialogue, but then overdo it and make it look ridiculous. Obviously it's slightly melodramatic because it's all physical performance and facial expressions, but Dujardin and Bejo, as well as the other big-name stars such as James Cromwell, John Goodman and Missi Pyle, don't make it look contrived at all. There's still subtlety about their acting, which from an audience's perspective is a positive because it still seems realistic and therefore still hooks you, whereas if you were constantly looking at someone making grand gestures throughout the film I know I personally would not be able to either take it seriously or even focus on what was actually going on. I also think it's a testament to Dujardin and Bejo for being nominated for a lot of acting awards, considering he only says two words in the whole film and she doesn't speak at all. I think maybe all actors should make a silent film to hone their own acting skills and learn not to rely on a good, wordy script to get them through a film.

If you've read anything about this film, you'll know that the performance of the dog steals the show. I didn't really understand how this could be before I saw it, and kept wondering how an animal could overshadow the human actors - did the other actors lack that much presence or skill that they were outdone by a dog? Well, no, as I've said the actors all give outstanding performances in their own right and should be proud of what they brought to the film, no matter how big their role. But seriously, Uggie the dog is excellent. He got some of the biggest laughs from the audience, and is so talented it makes me feel like I've achieved nothing in my life. I think maybe animals are better suited to silent films since they can't talk anyway, and therefore none of their performance is really lost with the lack of dialogue. That's not to say I'm taking anything away from Uggie, he is splendid and an absolute joy to watch - he's truly one of the most talented actors I've seen in a long time, and the fact he isn't Academy Awards eligable is a crime. It's just nice to know that I'm not the only one who feels this way, as there has been general outcry from the public about his lack of Oscar recognition, but this brings all the more appreciation to his talent, which is a good thing anyway.

I thought before I saw this that Hollywood were getting all dewy-eyed over this because it's nostalgic, much like they did with My Week With Marilyn, I think. I still think this, but I now understand how incredibly charming it is too. Every aspect of the film is exceptional. It's refreshing to see a film that doesn't need to resort to violence, graphic scenes, swearing or any other lower-level techniques to get people's attention and adoration. It's a PG, and it's a real feel-good film, which the Academy don't have a great track record of properly acknowedging, preferring grittier and more challenging material. But really, this is a film that the whole family can see - which usually makes me avoid films, but in this case is a good thing because it can get as wide an audience as possible - and is pretty much flawless.

The one thing I would say, and it's not a criticism of the film really, is don't watch it with other people. Not because it's awkward or embarassing, but because other people can put you off. With a silent film, even with the music, you hear a lot of what's going on around you that you wouldn't necessarily hear otherwise. When people in front of you are rustling a food wrapper loudly, or the old biddies behind you are clucking every two minutes about how glorious it is (which I agree with, but don't voice it during the film!), it can get quite distracting, especially in the scenes where there is no sound at all. One or two other people is fine, as long as you have an agreement not to make noise unless you're laughing/crying/other general reactions to the film.

Actually, another not-so-positive thing I have to say, and again, I'm not taking anything away from the film (well, maybe slightly) is that the novelty of it has probably helped it be as successful as it has been, not just financially but with it's reception. And this makes me wonder whether there can be more like this. As much as I'd love to spend a whole week watching new-age silent films like this one, will any of them do as well as The Artist? Look at Avatar: that was revolutionary in terms of cinema, and so well received, yet 3D films that have followed haven't fared nearly as well, with critics and audiences already turning against it. If they tried to have a wave of silent films, which now I'm thinking they shouldn't, how long would it be before people were complaining about them and longing for "the good old days" of the talkies? Novelty does win people over, but when that novelty wears off, where does it leave the film? Just something to think about.

Verdict: If you haven't seen this yet, you must. It's the most charming film I've seen in a long time, it's absolutely delightful, and adorable, and, as I've proved, will win over even the most skeptical of audiences. Top marks!


Monday, 9 January 2012

My Top 11 Films of '11

Happy new year to all my wonderful followers and readers!

At this time of year, critics tend to post their lists of their favourite films from the last year, and I thought I'd hop on this bandwagon now that I have an appropriate outlet for this. So without further ado, my top 11 films of 2011 (apparently also known as "films most overlooked in 2011").

11. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

As a Gary 'G-Man' Oldman lover, I was anticipating this film because his performance had been so hyped up in it, with many people calling this the role that will finally give him that long overdue Oscar nomination. Suffice to say, I was very impressed with him. He may not win the Academy Award, and possibly won't even be nominated (he's almost guaranteed to win the BAFTA though, because they are the most biased organisation I've seen in the film industry), but it was good. The cast was amazing, and I think actually Benedict Cumberbatch stole it for me, with his incredibly underrated performance. Overall, it was a little disappointing considering all the hype and anticipation, but definitely still worth a watch for anyone who hasn't already seen it.

10. Source Code

This could quite easily have gone either way in how I reacted to this film. A Groundhog Day-esque narrative with a female lead who I wasn't keen on wasn't getting me overly excited for this before I saw it, but damn was it good. Duncan 'Moon' Jones proves again that he is the sci-fi director of the moment, and Jake Gyllenhaal gives a wonderfully moving turn as a confused army pilot forced to ride the same exploding train over and over again to find the bomber. It's one of the smartest action sci-fi thrillers I've seen in a long time.

9. Thor

Easily the second-best superhero film offered this year (see number 7 for my favourite), Thor gave Chris Hemsworth his first proper leading man role, and he does it perfectly. The film blends comedy, action, family fueds and drama wonderfully, and the special effects are mesmerising. But really, the reason this made my top 11 films of this year is because of Tom Hiddleston's Loki, who steals the entire show, and is the loveliest, most misunderstood supervillain ever. The fact he is returning for The Avengers makes me so excited I could bounce around. And I think I did when I found that out. The odd choice of Kenneth Brannagh as director pays off, and I'm a little disappointed he isn't returning for the sequel. But still, enjoy this one, and watch as a very enjoyable prequel to The Avengers in the spring.

8. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2

Surely everyone's most anticipated film of 2011, there was so much pressure on this film to be good, and it mostly didn't disappoint. I've already written a lengthy blog post containing my thoughts on this, so just refer back to that to see what my verdict was. But still, having grown up with Harry, I couldn't wait for this film, and to use the much-overused-but-very-appropriate-phrase, it was the end of an era. There were tears. There were laughs. There was an unwanted amount of disbelief. But I think it would be doing it a discredit to say it wasn't a great way to say goodbye, and for that reason, it made my list.

7. X-Men: First Class

The number 1 superhero movie of the year goes to X-Men: First Class. Absolutely superb acting from the two leads, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender (we forgive the accent) made it compelling to watch, and it was lovely to see the return of strength to this franchise which had been diminshed somewhat by the previous two offerings. It earned my first five-star review on my blog, with good reason. The plot is engaging, Kevin Bacon clearly relishes in playing a hideous villain, but really it is the chemistry and bromance between McAvoy and Fassbender that seal the deal.

6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I haven't done a blog post on this yet and I don't know whether I'll actually get around to doing it, so I'll put my general thoughts here now. Lots of people, including myself, were a bit skeptical when the Hollywood remake of the cult Swedish thriller was announced to be in production, but as more information came through I began to get a little optimistic that maybe it wouldn't be a remake that completely destroys the foreign original and gets completely slated. David Fincher is one of my favourite directors, so that was the first promising tidbit, and then the cast was announced, it was revealed that it was staying true to the books, and it was being filmed and set in Sweden, as the novels state. It's a very dark film that deals with subject matters that made me feel quite uncomfortable at times, and was clearly given an 18-rating here for a reason. But the whole cast are terrific, Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara in particular, and the plot was very engaging. Yes, anyone who's read the book and/or seen the original film (which I must point out, I haven't yet done either) before knows the outcome of the mystery, and actually it was rather predictable once it got to a certain point within the film, but it was very stylish and I hope they do make the sequels, with the original cast and crew. The titles alone - which were very Bond-esque in the fact that they were put at the start of the film overlaid with a cracking song (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who actually deserve an Oscar for the soundtrack this time, did a great remix of Led Zeppelin's 'Immigration Song') and weird silhouettes of contortionists - deserve a place on the list.

5. True Grit

One of the most overlooked films of this year, especially when awards season approached last January, was this one. Like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I'd never seen the original, but as a big fan of the Coen brothers I was excited to see their latest offering, which was brilliant. Jeff Bridges was outstanding as Marshal Rooster Cogburn, and I actually think Hailee Steinfeld deserved the Best Supporting Actress awards over Melissa Leo, but hey, I seem to be one of the only people giving this film the attention it deserves. Unorthodox casting of Matt Damon was pulled off completely, and he was another one who didn't get the recognition he deserved this year, with The Adjustment Bureau also getting overlooked. It's definitely awarded my "Most Underrated Film of 2011" award (that I just made up. The King's Speech probably gets the most overrated award).

4. Black Swan

Yes, the "lesbian ballet film" earns a space in my top 11 this year. Watching it first time round, I was impressed, especially by Natalie Portman who completely deserved her awards for this, but it didn't strike me as being absolutely amazing. After watching it again (and again and again...) though, it was brilliant. Darren Aronofsky should have won all the best director awards for this. The cinematography and special effects are stunning, but really it's the engaging, original script of a mentally unstable athlete striving for glory, which Aronofsky of course has previous experience with, having directed The Wrestler, that really sells the film. It's dark, disturbing, but beautifully made and with an amazing score that I'm actually listening to as I write this. Just don't watch it with your family. Especially your mother.

3. The Fighter

Another film about an athlete striving to succeed! Except of course, this is completely different to Black Swan, and not just in terms of their athletic fields. This is much more of a drama focusing on the complexity of family life and the conflicts between the family members. Mark Wahlberg was snubbed after not getting nominated for this role, though I think his quiet voice of reason in this gets overshadowed by loud, brash but wonderful performances by the supporing cast of Christian 'Jesus' Bale, Amy Adams (in a career-best, I think) and Melissa Leo, with the former and latter of course walking away with many awards. Truly an amazing film to watch; if you haven't seen it yet, do it.

2. Water for Elephants

No, this was not the best film of the year, on my list or many other people's. But it makes number 2 on my list because it really was very special to me. It was based on one of my all-time favourite books, starring some of my all-time favourite actors, and subsequently containing one of my all-time favourite scores. It was my first ever review on this blog, and if that wasn't enough, I also got tickets to the premiere, to walk the red carpet and see it before anybody else. But aside from that, it's the most visually stylish film I've seen this year, and certainly my favourite period-piece. The acting was superb, with Robert Pattinson in particular shining in his first big role since Twilight began. It's no secret that I'm a fan of his, and I was so pleased that he was able to properly showcase his acting ability in this. Also, I think it has been overlooked in the 2012 awards season in terms of the technical side of it: the cinematography is beautiful and the costumes are splendid. I also think I felt every emotion it's possible to feel during a film during this, and I've never cried so much inexplicably watching a film before. I honestly can't even explain why, but the ending sets me off every time I watch this. Kathryn and I were weeping for about half an hour after it finished, and that isn't even an exaggeration; they were cleaning the theatre around us. So, because it was so personal to me, it's ranks as my number two film of the year.

And number one?

1. Super 8

It was the most flawless film of the year. I cannot fault it at all. The acting is amazing, the special effects are stunning, the banter between the young characters is a highlight, and it's so refreshing to have a truly brilliant original script from Hollywood. And what have they done? OVERLOOKED IT. I cannot comprehend how this isn't sweeping the boards. Everything about it is perfect. This is a prime example of the hatred that academies seem to have for sci-fi films. But you forget it's even catagorised as that, because for the most part it's a mystery, a suspense, and a comedy, with a side of tween love-triangle thrown in there. Writer/director JJ Abrams (Lost, Star Trek) is fast becoming one of my favourite directors, and his creativity and originality is incredible. Filled with fantastic one-liners as well, it's suitable for pretty much everyone over the age of 10, and everyone should see it. The fact that I cannot find a fault in it at all, and that it's one of my absolute favourite films ever now, is why it clinches the top spot on my list.

Do you agree? Drop me a comment below and share your thoughts.

See you in 12 months for this year's summary!