Among five releases this week, the highlight is a film nominated for ten Oscars, The Artist. Shot in black and white and almost entirely silent, the film recaptures the joy and splendor of Old Hollywood. The result of this retro-styled work is a truly postmodern experience, sidestepping the traps of hokey melodrama.
For other new releases aiming only to be pure entertainment, there are three options. Jack and Jill is a comedy that gives the viewer a chance to see Adam Sandler in drag to play two roles. The Awakening, a thriller staged in the period between the two World Wars, is set in a boarding school supposedly haunted by the ghost of a child. And finally, we have the rerelease of Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace. Fans (and some unwary uninitiated and presumably young viewers) will now be able to watch the epic space tale unfold in 3D; George Lucas's superficial prequel that tells the origin of the series's most notorious character, Darth Vader. Enjoy the popcorn.
It’s difficult for the average moviegoer today to fully realize the trauma that took place when the motion picture industry changed from silent works to films with recorded sound. As actors became heard, a new way of expression took form at the expense of another, and great artists of the silent film era couldn’t adapt to the new format.
In many cases, they had to watch from the side-lines as their careers floundered. That transition period and its consequences were portrayed in classics such as Singing in the Rain, by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, and, now, by Michel Hazanavicius's Academy Award-nominated film,The Artist.
More than merely referencing that transitional time, The Artist brings it back to life in a deliciously daring fashion: the film is silent, black and white, and filmed in a squared-off aspect ratio (instead of the current widescreen, rectangular size), typical of cinema in its early stages. It's through that window that we follow the fall of star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) all the way to oblivion, from the moment the new technology arrives, he finds himself without a place in the industry.
Parallel to Valentin’s career’s undoing, we witness the rise of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). The deep and extremely beautiful bond that forms between a reluctant Valentin and Miller ties the plot together and leads us to a dénouement that celebrates cinema itself and the endless possibilities it offers.
Hazanavicius composes a narrative that, while silent, it speaks volumes. The way he uses images, the soundtrack – and lack thereof – to convey sound (like the audience clapping, ‘heard’ through Valentin’s facial expressions) as well as emotional information (the final silent moment between Valentin and Miller) is simply superb. The Artist brings back the joy of cinema's past and becomes a warm embrace to any person who, with or without a knowledge of film history, loves the medium.
Dir. Michel Hazanavicius, USA/France/Belgium, 2011. Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman. 100 mins.
Dennis Dugan (from I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and You don’t Mess with the Zohan) drives this car crash of a film with Sandler once again riding shotgun. Together they’ve already made seven films. Like the rest of them, this one’s also, at least theoretically speaking, a comedy. In it, the lead – a successful professional in advertising – receives a visit from his sister on Thanksgiving. She, however, refuses to leave, setting up a scenario in which hijinks are most likely to ensue.
Sandler does double duty as both twins, making his way through fits of low-brow humour to arrive at a predictably preachy and redeeming ending. In all fairness to Sandler, his career has had good moments – like his performance in Punch-Drunk Love, a beautiful picture, which got Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, There Will be Blood) the Best Director award in Cannes. Of course, Jack and Jill is a different form of art. Katie Holmes plays Sandler’s wife and Al Pacino makes an appearance as himself, like he's been doing since the late nineties.
<Dir. Dennis Dugan, USA, 2011. Adam Sandler, Al Pacino, Katie Holmes. 91 mins.
In 1921, while England is still recovering from a World War that ended three years earlier, a specialist in investigating alleged supernatural phenomena is called to a boarding school – the site of a supposed haunting by the ghost of a child. The usual narrative arc for this kind of thriller is the journey from skepticism to doubt and, from that, to the final development, with small or great scares sprinkled along the way, depending on the viewer’s susceptibility.
In its favour, The Awakening has an above-average cast in which Rebecca Hall (Vicky, from Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Dominic West (from the TV series, The Wire) and Imelda Staunton (who has an Oscar nomination under her belt for Vera Drake and had a ‘deluxe’ supporting role in two Harry Potter films) give some dramatic credibility to whatever is happening onscreen. That said, in his debut feature, director Nick Murphy proves himself capable.
Dir. Nick Murphy, Inglaterra, 2011. Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton. 107 mins.
A 3D rerelease of the first of the subpar prequels of the Star Wars saga, launched sixteen years after Return of the Jedi, and the last instalment of the original trilogy, returns once again to theatres.
Cronologically, The Phantom Menace marks the beginning of the six-film story that will eventually give us Luke, Han Solo and, well, ewoks. In this first part, we meet Anakin Skywalker, our Darth Vader-to-be, still a child.
Now, thanks to George Lucas’s mad marketing skills, the audience can watch a three-dimensional version of the unimaginative and barely-there direction, uninspired dialogue and uneven pacing of a product that is far from doing justice to the impression made by its predecessors, especially The Empire Strikes Back. We must however, give credit where it's due: in the middle of an avalanche of CGI effects that try to make up for Phantom Menace’s numerous faults, Pernilla August’s turn as Shmi, Anakin’s mother, shines. August gives the character something the film lacks: soul. It might not be enough to get the people who are immune to the Star Wars’s ‘magic’ to leave their houses to face a crowded movie theatre, but it’s, at least, something.
Dir. George Lucas, USA, 1999. Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman. 136 mins.