Tuesday, December 25, 2012

An Endless, Thoughtless Bloodbath: Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)

by James Hansen 

Over the past few weeks, the internet has been abuzz with critics, pundits, and politicians considering the moral, ethical, and political implications in regard to the representation of violence – particularly torture – in Kathryn Bigelow’s highly acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty. Interest in the movie has grown in large part because of these discussions, almost making an actual analysis of the film itself a moot point. (I’ll still have something to say about Zero Dark Thirty once it opens locally in Columbus.) Not garnering the same amount of controversy prior to its release – aside from a breif dustup when director Spike Lee commented that he will not be seeing the film – is Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Recalling both films now, I have to admit the outrage(ous) [responses] to the films feel somewhat backward. What I want to offer here is a bit polemical as to the reactions each film has received (again, leaving a direct critique of ZD30 for later) which stand as indicative of the relative merits of each film. That is, if Zero Dark Thirty has been, at the very least, a “conversation starter,” a lack of furor over Django Unchained reveals an utter lack of seriousness, the complete absence of even a veiled attempt at critical dialogue, in Tarantino’s blaxploitation-slavery-revenge epic. 

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Friday, December 21, 2012

And Must I Now Begin To Doubt?: On the Disappointments of "Les Miserables" (Tom Hooper, 2012)

by James Hansen

I suppose I would be remiss if I didn’t mention at the start of this review that I grew up as something of a Les Miserables nerd. It’s one of the first (traveling) Broadway shows I ever saw. In high school, I only had a few tapes in my car to listen to on my 20 minute drive to school and the Les Mis soundtrack was one of them. I still randomly quote lyrics from “The Confrontation Song.” So, when several friends, unaware of this fact, wanted to watch the movie, I clammed up, got a bit jittery, and could hardly contain my hysterically nervous trepidation of watching this thing – my thing – with other people. Naturally, they found this hilarious, pressed forward, and demanded we watch it together. We did. And it wasn’t pretty. In fact, I suppose I would be remiss if I didn’t say that this fan of the show found it completely disappointing. 

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Friday, December 14, 2012

The Hobbit (Peter Jackson, 2012)

by James Hansen 

"...Jackson’s unwillingness to streamline anything leaves The Hobbit feeling more like a special-effect sledgehammer set to automatic and left to bludgeon its audience for an interminable running time." 

It’s a little strange writing a review of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit because anyone who has seen his Lord of the Rings trilogy (which is pretty much everyone) already knows exactly how this movie is going to look and operate. Of course, Jackson is using newer technology here – his choice to shoot in 3D 48 fps has been much discussed – and there are new adventures and creatures, but, at the same time, the color pallette, the swooping landscape shots, the near-identical score are all present. Even more than Lord of the Rings, the technology permits Jackson’s supreme indulgence with effects, here building an almost completely animated world in which the characters walk around, eat, drink, walk, run away, fall through things, fight things, and triumph. 

Bilbo’s heroes journey is extremely familiar, but, of course, this isn’t the point at all. The narrative is merely a cardboard cutout for Jackson’s technical wizardry. The Hobbit nearly abandons its narrative every 15 minutes or so to take us into the world of a new creature – glimpses of spiders and dragon, the already familiar home of elves, rock monsters, orc armies, etc. Jackson desperately wants to create an entire world here, but a world not established by space but rather by number of small things in it. Given the film’s epic scale, it does seem a bit strange that, aside from the aforementioned helicopter shots, there is little spatial orientation, often shooting in close ups to reveal the “naturalism” of the creatures rather than establishing the dimensions in which the story takes place. 

Still, this isn’t to say there is no excitement – there are several spectacular sequences – but Jackson’s unwillingness to streamline anything leaves The Hobbit feeling more like a special-effect sledgehammer set to automatic and left to bludgeon its audience for an interminable running time. More so, perhaps a credit to the 48 fps, the motion and color of the creatures is so fascinating and vivid (good thing!) that the main characters seem almost entirely out of place (bad thing!) Undoubtedly, there remains a tension between the effects and the actors, the technology and the narrative. That is, as the creatures become more “realistic,” the actors look more and more artificial. Indeed, if The Hobbit shows us anything, it’s that this fantasy stars a bunch of dudes playing dress up. 

Grade: C+ Continue reading...

Monday, November 19, 2012

Gaming the System: "Wreck-It Ralph" (Rich Moore, 2012)

by James Hansen 

In what is surely the most welcome surprise of the cinematic year thus far, Rich Moore’s Wreck-It Ralph, the latest release from Disney Animation, ingeniously combines the central conceits of both animation and gaming into a thrilling and heartfelt animated film. Moreover, it does so with a regard to history as simultaneously an aesthetic and technological question. If Disney has lagged behind its younger brother Pixar in recent years, Wreck-It Ralph usefully shifts the dynamic back to the kind of risk-taking Disney once took and Pixar overtook before it began inundating itself with useless sequels alongside overconcentration on technique and naturalism, threatening to turn the form against itself and mutate into something “accomplished” yet hyperstatic (a la Peter Jackson). Thankfully, Moore (and co-writers Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee) allows Wreck-It Ralph to ponder where it came from and where it will go next. 

That this all works so well is in large part due to the delicate balancing act of Moore and his screenwriters. Wreck-It Ralph, a Donkey Kong like figure, is the villain of the arcade game Fix-It Felix. After 30 years on the job, Ralph, distressed by his bad guy status, goes on a mission to win a hero medal in order to be seen as a good guy and, thus, welcomed by the rest of the villagers of Fix-It Felix. Here, the rest of the games in the arcade stand-in as a networked world in which characters navigate through electric portals into other (sometimes newer) game spaces. The majority of the film takes place inside the game “Sugar Rush,” seemingly a Mario Kart version of Bratz. Here, a young girl, Vanellope, takes Ralph’s hero medal to cash in for a coveted spot in the Sugar Rush race. Vanellope, a character identified as a systematic glitch, has been banished from racing (thus the space of the actual game) by King Candy. Meanwhile, Fix-It Felix teams up with a Halo-esque female commander, Calhoun, to break into “Sugar Rush” and bring Ralph back before the arcade manager says game-over for the game, unplugging it from the network, leaving homeless characters wandering the portal.

Though this falls into a familiar story of outsider characters finding their place within their changing worlds, Wreck-It Ralph approaches this with a supreme tenderness as it slides between the worlds and the characters come to realize their outdatedness, their glitchy quirks, and their inability to assimilate with their coded, networked spaces. Making ongoing references to strictly defined game code as something to overcome, there remains a tension between the character’s desires and their technological constraints. Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t quite go all the way with its aesthetic – the old, 8-bit game characters are more natural inside their game space and, therein, more alike other characters than different. (This is something of a practical question, as it is unlikely anyone would respond to 8-bit, talking characters versus more natural ones, but it really would have been something if Moore and company would have tried and fully committed to the aesthetic question, actually allowing for the 8-bit world and the modern game world to collide. Can’t have it all...) 

 Nonetheless, the films remains reticent to updating and regenerating as a means of staying alive. Here, Wreck-It Ralph picks up where Enchanted left off. Whereas Enchanted negotiated the ambivalence between reality and fantasy, the real world versus the princess, the two-dimension versus the three-dimension (see my full Enchanted review for more on this), Wreck-It Ralph operates within this interstitial space, brilliantly conceived as a gaming question, where the villain manipulates code to deny the avatars freedom – the very thing that “avatars” supposedly provide the user. This doesn’t suggest, as one may think, that the coded game is seen as pure, manipulable loss, hence reiterating the old analog versus digital, but rather is an embrace of the glitch, of the code as something which can break down, of the individual who embraces assimilation (or, at least, connection) through difference.

Thus, Wreck-It Ralph denies the input/output logic of the coded network and looks instead for a territorializing glitch which can code, de-code, and re-code. The character Vanellope is key here. Befriending both the destructive forces of Ralph and reconstructive help of Felix, she builds, breaks, and rebuilds her car, her code, and herself. Wreck-It Ralph moves through these concerns with great sincerity, delicacy, and heart. Not merely a technological game, the film packs a serious emotional punch, emotions which underly the very issues of individuality, building and rebuilding, deforming and reforming, which are at the core of the character’s (the the film’s) concerns. Moore may still be navigating an undecided space, but, here, it is one that incorporates its history – both good and bad – as it moves along to a new game. Wreck-It Ralph, you may just be our hero.

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Friday, November 9, 2012

Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)

by James Hansen 

In some ways, this shift is precisely how Holy Motors functions as an ambiguous narrative – one which maintains investment, sincerity, and demands “belief” while at the same time explicitly directing itself toward its own detachment, its irony, its artificiality. These things are never certain, but its all part of the game, part of how culture marks time, part of how we live.

A beguiling hit at this year’s Cannes Festival, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors opens, somewhat unexpectedly, in Columbus today. An ever-playful, generous, and loving celebration of all things cinematic, Holy Motors verges, at the same time, on a mournful, melancholic death drive, which has uselessly dominated discussion of film’s transition to digital technologies. Its incorporation of images from early motion experiments, however, should indicate that this not a movie singularly about the death of celluloid. While it is unquestionably concerned with death, its constantly reshaping temporalities suggest an ongoing reformation – of the image, of the body, of life itself – through performance, recorded motion, and, thereby, cinema. 

Yet, this is already much too academic and gets away from the joyful pleasure of watching a showcase for actor Denis Lavant. Starring as the shape-shifting Monsieur Oscar, Lavant gives the performance of the year, not just because he effectively plays so many roles, but because of the almost primal physicality invoked through each character. While the acts occurring during his “appointments” become increasingly violent as the film progresses, Lavant ceaselessly maintains an extreme energy with each characters, so much so that it comes as no surprise when the events spill over into purposefully flagrant excess. One appointment involving motion capture has been used to discuss Carax’s recognition of the shift from indexical film to binary 1s and 0s of digitally manipulated code; still, it has to be said (and seen) that this remains tied to a body, Lavant’s body, as he sways above, under, and around the body of his female partner. This extraordinarily physical dance is the marvel of the act which transposes itself onto another screen, in another mode, for another purpose. In some ways, this shift is precisely how Holy Motors functions as an ambiguous narrative – one which maintains investment, sincerity, and demands “belief” while at the same time explicitly directing itself toward its own detachment, its irony, its artificiality. These things are never certain, but its all part of the game, part of how culture marks time, part of how we live. 

Going far beyond a bifurcated structure, Holy Motors uses Monsieur Oscar’s appointments as constant disruptions and narratival ruptures, which nonetheless become absorbed in the film’s “reality” as it plays out. Holy Motors has a kind of plasticity allowing it to expand into new places yet always retracting back into Lavant, into the body, into the film. Who were we? Where are we? Who will I be now? Who will I be next? Considering these questions and structure, Holy Motors follows up by Joe’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and transports it into a different type of holy territory – one of flashing lights in the sky (or the back of a car), speaking to each other, waiting to take on a new, angelic, yet earthly forms. Indeed, if the final moments echo back to the beginning of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, then the circle Holy Motors makes isn’t a retread over well-worn surfaces, but an expansive tailspin into new riches. Amen. 

Grade: A
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Friday, September 14, 2012

Reviews In Brief: "Arbitrage" (Nicholas Jarecki, 2012

by James Hansen

Effective in the way that only films with no stakes or logic can be, Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage finds hedge fund executive Robert Miller (serious-faced, yet effective Richard Gere) in a bind after his mistress (who he seemingly makes no effort to hide, giving her major financial support, freely breaking into her house, and flaunting her art events around his office) is killed when he falls asleep at the wheel. With a major financial merger on hold – and the reality that he has committed major fraud to his investors – Robert, desperate to avoid a scandal, calls his dead driver’s son (who he seemingly has no relationship with) to pick him up, take him back to the city, and cover up his lie.

Arbitrage plays this all by the books, as Robert’s daughter Brooke (stoic-faced Brit Marling) and wife Ellen (concerned-faced Susan Sarandon) slowly realize and confront their patriarch about his financial obsessions and how this has “brought down the family,” despite everyone ending up pretty a-ok when all is said and done. Brooke’s naivete contrasts Robert’s assurances, knowing that no matter the outcome he will be on top. Still, Brooke’s brief cover up – “He’s my dad. I have to trust him.” – is so elementary and blandly delivered that any investment in the actions becomes laughable. Not helping matters is the film’s strangest role, the super-invested Detective Bryer (Tim Roth) who apparently has been trying to bring down Miller for years. Or something. How Detective Bryer’s case extends beyond the parameters of an involuntary manslaughter, leaving the scene of the crime inanity and into a full fledged felony of his own that almost goes without mention is unclear. (A late confrontation with a judge who sternly says, “You have to get him the right way” has to make us wonder if this conversation has anything to do with anything that actually takes place in the film, and, if so, exactly how these characters would be aware of it.) Arbitrage may offer some easily digestible entertainment, but its numbers never add up. 
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Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Possession (Ole Bornedal, 2012)

by James Hansen

It isn’t all that surprising that Ole Bornedal’s The Possession is derivative. Exorcism movies all follow the formula set by The Exorcist, which undoubtedly remains the benchmark of the horror subgenre. Nonetheless, several recent films (The Unborn, Orphan) have found ways to blow open the category in relatively interesting, exciting ways. Unfortunately, The Possession is not one of those films – it starts too big, telegraphs nearly all its scares, and never breaks free from its box of horror movie cliches.
The Possession starts strongly enough. A creepy, wooden box sits on a shelf calling to an older woman. Soon, her mouth begins to bleed and, in true PG-13 fashion, she is barely seen being violently thrown around the room by a demonic spirit. (Nevermind why this spirit that feeds on children is attacking an old woman. Spirits have their reasons.) A short while later, a recently divorced father, Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), buys the box for his youngest daughter (an effective Natasha Calis) who has come with her sister Hannah on a weekend visit. In a new house among a developing neighborhood (although there are no neighbors in sight), Emily cracks open the box. Before long, her eyes become distant, her personality changes, her room fills with a swarm of giant moths, and her inner anger transfer to her father who she stabs in the hand with a fork. 

Blame it on the divorce. The confusing thing here isn’t so much stylistic ineffectiveness – although Bornedal relies too heavily on audio crescendos punctuated by a single, deep, pounding piano key – but rather that this is all too much too soon. While the film spends time establishing the supposedly fraught relationship bewteen Clyde and his ex-wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) – Stephanie remains much too flirtacious and Clyde too attached for this to be heading anywhere other than reconciliation – some of the first things we see Emily do – sitting in the middle of her bed, staring in the distance in a room suddenly filled with angry moths – are far too extreme for the attempts at realism (“She’s acting out because you left us!”) that the script pitches. Instead, the parent’s indecision comes too slowly and becomes laughable, just as Clyde’s Google search discovery of Jewish exorcism and complete embracing of the theory comes too quickly. Similarly, too many moments build to family unrest or Emily seeming upset rather than the brooding violence and terror of her body being overtaken. 

By the film’s third act, it is already out of steam. Despite the hilarious discovery of the spirit through an MRI (finally convincing Stephanie that something is wrong) and a pretty spooky culmination of the exorcism, The Possession never really clicks. Its overemphasis on family issues along with its lack of build and repetitive stylistic techniques have it land with an all to familiar thud. 

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Road to Hysteria: Killer Joe

by James Hansen  

...the primary task of Killer Joe appears as a negotiation between ideal and actuality. Playing off various sets of contractions, often within individual characters – save Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) the self-consciously clueless father – Friedkin and Letts thumb at the scales of a balancing act – between innocence and violence, sincerity and theatricality, comedy and horror – which percolates throughout the film, slowly building toward and finally culminating in the spectacularly absurd (yet undeniably vicious) already notorious finale. 

From its opening moments, William Friedkin's film of Tracy Letts's Killer Joe lays out its fantastical artifice and places it in immediate opposition to its supposed southern authenticity. The upbeat soundtrack creates a mismatch with the dark setting and violently barking dog. For an instant, the scene is completely quiet and dry before an enormous downpour begins. Then, as Chris (Emile Hirsch) beats on a door constantly spouting what becomes his entrance refrain (“Shut up, T-Bone!”) while screaming for Dottie (Juno Temple), the camera slowly tracks up the body of the young girl grasping a snow globe as she sleeps. Chris is not met with Dottie’s angelic presence, but instead the exposed genitals of his evil stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon). 

For the rest of the film, the primary task of Killer Joe appears as a negotiation between ideal and actuality. Playing off various sets of contractions, often within individual characters – save Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) the self-consciously clueless father – Friedkin and Letts thumb at the scales of a balancing act – between innocence and violence, sincerity and theatricality, comedy and horror – which percolates throughout the film, slowly building toward and finally culminating in the spectacularly absurd (yet undeniably vicious) already notorious finale. 

Most crucial to all of this is the relationship between Joe (Matthew McConaughey) and Dottie. Both McConaughey and Temple are terrific, giving inspired performances with no reservations. Their opening scene, so crucial to the tone of their relationship, transfers a slightly nervous energy between them into the as-of-yet unrealized potentialities – both high and low – of their characters actions. The scene carefully moves from Joe’s intrusive entrance, met with Dottie’s kung fu, into a calming and spectacularly bizarre conversation regarding Joe’s past, the craziest thing he has seen, and Dottie’s own infantile memory of surviving attempted murder. While the rest of the characters underestimate her, Joe’s fascination with Dottie becomes our own. (Of course, this doesn’t happen without the incredibly tight, brilliant screenplay by Letts, who has already proven himself as one of our most important playwrights.) 

This leads to one of the film’s two great scenes – Joe’s “courtship” of Dottie after being given her by Chris and Ansel as a retainer for his killing service. The scene carefully moves through Joe’s charm and into his commanding, more dangerous role. Dottie transforms from an unaware childlikeness to a knowing and willing participant. All the while, both characters retain some kind of vulnerability and tenderness, perhaps locating it in the foil of the other. 

As the film progresses and the relationship becomes threatened, the carefully composed tone swings a bit more wildly, following the motivations and (ir)rationality of the psychopathic killer and his princess. If Killer Joe gives us something like an unresolved ending – you can almost feel a blackout light cue hit as if on a stage – it is because the film breaks exactly where its task hits its highest point and explodes. Joe’s real, violent self breaks Dottie’s view of his idealized rescue, taking her away from the misery of the South and its misdirected family values. (Letts seems nearly obsessed with breaking down families at the place where they most often meet – the dinner table.) Similarly, the film’s artificiality breaks down amidst the extreme violence, which is certainly meant to provoke a level of disgust even as the stakes become more cartoonish. (A short scene of Dottie’s fascination with a cartoon in a diner hints toward this direction.) Like Dottie and Joe, pushed to their limits, the stable, opposing categories that Killer Joe plays itself off of collide and fall apart into each other. After that, the only thing left is hysteria.
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Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

It hardly seems appropriate to post a review of The Dark Knight Rises today given the horrifying events in Aurora, Colorado. I had plans to write about how Bane seems an insufficient villain, his audio so loud that it places him in an almost different world from the characters (this unrelated from his mask), how Catwoman actually comes out as the strongest character in some respects, how the start-and-stop narrative ends up rushing the ending (the countdown from 23 hours...12 hours...five minutes until the bomb goes off flies by much too quickly, casting aside much real anticipation - or worry - for the end result) and leaves the climax without any of the urgency we found in The Dark Knight, a far superior film that still suffers from an inflated narrative, similarly to TDKR, but is saved by its characters. But that will have to do for now. I don't imagine anyone will object. I simply can't find the gumption to explicate on any of this at the moment. Anthony Lane has written a piece on the shootings, their relationship to film, their senselesness, etc. It is a reflective piece, not perfect, but certainly more important than speaking of the shortcomings of a film which became the stage for such a tragedy. My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Aurora. Continue reading...

Monday, July 2, 2012

Reviews in Brief: Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter (2012)

by James Hansen

It would be easy to attack “visionary” director Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter for its gross historical implications – its trivialization of slavery, Gettysburg, not to mention Lincoln’s own personal matters (his relationship to Mary Todd, the death of his infant son, etc.) Glenn Kenny has gone so far as to claim “It constitutes a moral sin, if not an outright moral crime, and commits a grave insult to history.”

Fair enough. But perhaps what is most shocking about ALVH is its complete cinematic incompetency, even on the most basic level. It isn’t merely that the film bounds from vampire slaying to actual historical events, thereby leaving its own revisionism in the dust, but that the movements happen so quickly and so insignificantly, that they are constructed so sloppily and, frankly, embarrassingly, the film never reaches a high level of absurdity to allow for the pomposity of visually confusing fight scenes amongst a sudden fleet of crazed horses, a misbegotten invasion of a Louisiana plantation to save Lincoln’s African American companion (no matter the vampiric annihilation of seemingly hundreds of slaves), or nighttime raid of a railroad that methodically burns to the ground. Instead, ALVH hops, skips, and jumps over everything it sets up leaving a trail of emotional and narratival confusion. With storytelling this lazy and images this haphazard, the most baffling thing about ALVH isn’t its premise or its historical sins, but rather that a major studio ever let it out of an editing room. Continue reading...

Monday, February 6, 2012

Out 1 Film Journal's Top 13 Films of 2011

by James Hansen

At this point, there isn’t much left to say about The Year in Movies 2011 Edition. It may have been a down year for Hollywood – at a year-end party, many in my local critics group, for instance, mistakenly characterized it as a bad year for movies because of this – but, looking at this list, it is hard to remember a year with so many masterpieces. (Credit to that same local critics group for awarding my best film of the year as the most overlooked. Deservedly so.) And, considering further the films that didn’t make this particular list, it seems safe to suggest that 2011 was actually quite miraculous. Ambitious films continue to be produced; even if they are locked away for years and arrive in a somewhat fractured condition.

Then again, it could be precisely this fractured impulse which drives many of the best movies being made today. Although many of these films arrive at this through different means, pristine, perfectly polished works evoking past eras and the Hollywood “ideal” seem of less and less interest. Instead, this movies on this list deal with a sort of brokenness and disunity, often operating not only on the level of narrative, but also holding a deeper relation to questions of art, artifice, form, and life. Perhaps this is what led this critic to dismiss several acclaimed efforts to restore the picture-perfectness of the past. This isn’t meant as an inherent rejection of nostalgia, but of how the past becomes filtered through movies into our present moment. The best films this year didn’t show a desperate longing to reunite with a golden age, but of the past’s ability – through certain fracture – to explode the current moment and bring to it a vibrancy of past moments, characterizations, and ideals.

For the sake of sanity, I have limited this list to feature films. In some ways, I already regret having done this. Significant short films continued to be made – largely in “avant-garde circles" – and they deserve further recognition. Having attended both Ann Arbor and Views in 2011, and becoming more and more enmeshed with experimental film as part of my program of study, I feel more equipped to say something about these works which still don’t get the attention they deserve. But I still have a difficult time judging hand-processed 16mm films and Season of the Witch. Because of this, I have also made a (shorter) list of best short films. The list is somewhat conflated given when I saw the films (some from Views 2010 – which I did not attend – premiered in Columbus in 2011; and then I attended Views 2011, so those are included as well). If this is confusing, I apologize.

On with the show...

James Hansen's Top 13 (Features)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
2. House of Pleasures (Bertrand Bonello)
3. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan)
4. A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)

5. The Pettifogger (Lewis Klahr)
6. Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
7. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
8. Make It New John (Duncan Campbell)
9. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
10. Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird)
11. Putty Hill (Matt Porterfield)
12. Drive (Nicolas Windig Refn)
13. Poetry (Lee Chang-dong)

Best Director
Bertrand Bonello - House of Pleasures

Best Actress
Anna Paquin - Margaret (with apologies to everyone in House of Pleasures)

Best Actor
Michael Fassbender - A Dangerous Method (with apologies to Gary Oldman)

Most Overrated
Midnight in Paris

Top 7 (Shorts)
1. These Hammers Don’t Hurt Us (Michael Robinson)*
2. Cry When It Happens (Laida Lertxundi)*
3. Slow Action (Ben Rivers)
4. Ricky (Janie Geiser)
5. Words of Mercury (Jerome Hiler)
6. The Return (Nathaniel Dorsky)
7. Trypps #7 (Badlands) (Ben Russell)

*I want to make specific reference to a wonderful program at the Wexner Center – "Look At Our Life Now" – which showed these films, as well as several others which have remained with me throughout the year. It was the best curated program of shorts I saw all year. Chris Stults and Dave Filipi (and anyone else involved) deserve an award for this, or at least some recognition. Take this as the latter.
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Friday, January 13, 2012

Fight The Future: "The Artist" (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011)

“Cinema...appeases a certain sense of nostalgia that lies dormant in our hearts, nostalgia for countries never seen that will perhaps never be seen, but where it seems that we have already lived in a preceding life.” Fausto Martini, 1912

by James Hansen

In his book Eye of the Century, Francesco Casetti quotes Italian journalist Fausto Martini, who wrote the following in 1912: “Cinema...appeases a certain sense of nostalgia that lies dormant in our hearts, nostalgia for countries never seen that will perhaps never be seen, but where it seems that we have already lived in a preceding life.” Now, one hundred years later, cinema still presents us with this same does of nostalgia. From this, it could be argued that nostalgia itself is the cinematic (rather than merely photographic) condition. Without going too far into these issues – not to mention the significant changes brought on by a perhaps more contemporary condition in which irony and sincerity are a double-sided coin – it can be noted that many popular movies of 2011 provided heavy doses of nostalgia: The Help presented a dangerous nostalgia by overlooking its own preconditions; Hugo, the best and worst children’s movie about film preservation ever made, made a case for remembering histories and the enchantment of living within them; similarly, Midnight in Paris stumbled through its own enchantment with various time periods, ostensibly making a case for “the present,” as long as it involves a foreign country and beautiful companionship. The latter two films reflect Martini’s quotation – both Scorsese and Allen showcase the wonders of the past and suggest different alternatives for how those pasts cast be incorporated into the present. Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist further illustrates this nostalgiac tendency. However, unlike Scorsese or Allen, Hazanavicius offers little in the way of contemporary relevance. Rarely has a film ever been so autonomously nostalgiac; if ever there were a definition of nostalgia-for-nostalgia’s sake, The Artist is it.

Of course, this isn’t to say The Artist is without its pleasures. (And I imagine that some have no problem with the appeasing pleasantries of the nostalgia-for-nostalgia condition.) Starting in 1927, The Artist tells the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent film star at the peak of his powers. With a trusty canine sidekick by his side, George is, at all moments, a performer, sometimes to the ire of his castmates and producers. Soon, he runs into Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a cute, young girl with a sly smile. Before long, George’s producers are telling him about talkie pictures – the wave of the future! – to which George firmly resists. Almost overnight, old-timey George is released and the up-and-coming Peppy takes his place. (Have no fear: George has invested well enough to make a major motion picture completely independently and release it to theaters.)

Historical problems aside for the moment, Dujardin and Bejo are both very charming. Though several of the best scenes are drawn from other silents, they provides the scenes with a certain energy that isn’t built into the insipid screenplay. Dujardin won the award for Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival. He is in control of the film at every moment – and his period-based pantomime creates some genuinely smart and touching moments. Valentin’s nightmare sequence – in which interrupts his quietly controlled world – creates a visceral affect, signaling the true shock and radical change that sound brought to the center of movies.

At the same time, there is something missing at the heart of The Artist. Its final moments come off as cheap and easy. The much-discussed inclusion of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score indicates not only a complete disregard for the period detail which supposedly define the film, but also an amateur, lack of control by the director and editor refusing fairly simple, logical parameters in order to flash their cinematic playfulness. Why make this a silent film at all? Similarly, the cheap thrills and laughs of the Oscar-hopeful dog ultimately ring false and completely vapid – both in a literal Lassie rescue and in a dumbfounding use of intertitles toward the end of the film. Ultimately, a place is found for our hero (thanks to the beautiful woman who he brought into the biz): The Artist pivots on simple-minded history – if only silent stars weren’t so stubborn and put on dancing shoes! – that ignores its own subject matter.

Unquestionably, there is something in The Artist’s (or any) transitional focus which could echo the current state of filmgoing, even if it’s merely in striving to replicate a similar experience which is being lost. Perhaps people will see The Artist who have never seen a silent film before and it will draw them into the silent film world (although, given its slow, rollout, limited release strategy, one has to wonder about its effectiveness.) But, in the end, The Artist reads silent films as pleasant, but cheap – simple-minded sight gags for the world filled with sound. The tide has turned. Put on your dancing shoes, get a dog, and a beautiful girl, or be left behind. Its seeming cheerfulness ends with a menacing grin. In looking back in the manner of nostalgia-for-nostalgia’s sake, The Artist unwittingly sees itself as an outmoded commodity – one with a history, and one without a future.

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