Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Artist

Gliding On A Magic Carpet Through Hollywood's Classic Yesteryear

Jean Dujardin as George Valentin and Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller in Michel Hazanavicius' silent film "The Artist". 
The Weinstein Company   


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, December 22, 2011

Gliding effortlessly on its own nostalgic magic carpet, "The Artist", a stellar, effervescent tribute to classic Hollywood film and the silent era, shines, sparkles and sweetens the heart. 

Michel Hazanavicius directs the story of fallen silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), cast aside by the changing winds of Hollywood's film industry.  The talkies are now the talk of the town in 1927 as the silent era wanes, and dancer-actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) rises from budding star to top-liner, while George, a narcissistic, preening Douglas Fairbanks type, the kind of star institution also seen and parodied in such silent films as John Ford's "Upstream" (1927), quickly becomes a relic. 

A pushy film producer (John Goodman, sublime here) acquiesces to the changes in scenery, technology and stardom.  Soon Peppy Miller is the top A-list star in Tinseltown.  Peppy is just that; full of life and energy, eager to please, with a heart of gold.  Peppy isn't just a star.  Like Mr. Hazanavicius she's a romanticist of film history and has compassion and love for cinema's past the way Martin Scorsese does ("Hugo".)  Peppy loves the ascendancy of her career but loves illusion and love itself that much more.

Meanwhile, the despondent George can't see past his nose, and "The Artist" mires him in the torment that "Citizen Kane" did its title figure.  His beleaguered wife (Penelope Ann Miller) is second fiddle to George's iconic status.  George's dutiful butler (James Cromwell) is indeed that, but you wonder if he's sneering deep within as his self-absorbed boss saunters around looking at double-life sized portraits of his likeness.  There are funny moments sprinkled throughout "The Artist", and I enjoyed each and every moment of this bright, witty film.

"The Artist" floats majestically into your heart with the spirit and gaiety of films like "Singin' In The Rain".  Light, melodic and graceful like a ballet, Mr. Hazanavicius' comedy plays like a musical, and it is pure performance.  "The Artist" is a charming adventure through movie history and it winks at many films along the way.  The joy and wonder of "The Artist" is seen in every frame, neatly choreographed, packaged and designed.  One needn't be an avid student of film history to appreciate or understand the points and heights "The Artist" reaches for.  It's a timeless, universal film that celebrates the medium passionately and is the year's biggest valentine to cinema.  The film will be sure to be a sentimental favorite for Oscar come February.

Filmed in numerous Hollywood locales including Paramount's studio lot, "The Artist" flaunts the excitement and triumph of movies and moviemaking.  The director lauds Hollywood, an institution enduring many changes over the decades while maintaining its allure as the world's headquarters for image-making and shaping.  Cosmetically and otherwise, Hollywood's stable of stars are reinvented in a quest to keep up with shifting winds of change, but poor George is stuck in second gear.  Today, George would presumably be left behind, and likely wouldn't be paid the salaries established actors enjoy today.  Would George be a footnote of film history like Méliés was in "Hugo"?  A waiter or doorman in one of Mr. Spielberg's films?  Would he be ignored?

With its wonderful black and white smoothness and fond nostalgic splendor, "The Artist" is directly relatable to today's Hollywood, where the definition of "celebrity", "star" and "actor" are in some ways interchangeable, influenced more by instant video, Internet, and "reality television".  More significantly, 3D technology is the rapidly-reemerging order of the day after its brief debut in the 1950s.  The much-debated 3D technology, and proliferation of various forms of animation, particularly motion-capture animation, constitutes a much higher percentage of Hollywood film releases today than just ten years ago.

While Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Tilda Swinton and a host of other top actors needn't worry about job security, the 3D format and varied animated forms are Hollywood's bread and butter today and are changing the look of movies as much as the ways of accessing and viewing films is multiplying.  Sure, actors on the big screen won't be completely replaced by computers anytime soon, but this year at the movies has seen the two merge in at least one instance with Andy Serkis inhabiting the skin of a computer-generated ape to great effect in a fine performance in "Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes".  (Mr. Serkis also did well as the CGI-Gollum in "The Lord Of The Rings" film trilogy.)  On a subconscious level "The Artist" foretells all of these transitions of a future time, and a scene with George surrounded by film reels is a telling one. 

Mr. Hazanavicius has the obvious benefit of today to inform the past and the future.  He doesn't have to make predictions or visions of that future to authenticate or anticipate what it may hold.  Hollywood cinema and its ways of counting success are narrowing in some degree box-office marketwise, and to show how relevant "The Artist" and its allusion to change is, two highly successful 1990s films will be re-released on 3D next year: "The Phantom Menace" and "Titanic".

Mr. Dujardin, one of France's comedy legends, shows more range in his acting palette to sustain a comedic and dramatic turn as George Valentin.  The actor brings Chaplin-like economy and appeal to George, suffusing his outmoded onscreen self with grace.  You see Mr. Dujardin tinkering and adjusting his facial expressions like a ticking clock.  Ms. Bejo is a winning performer, and her charm and enthusiasm are infectious, matching her like-titled character pep for pep.  Across the board, the ensemble of actors are pitch-perfect.  Ludovic Bource's, and particularly the great Bernard Herrmann's music is goose-bump inducing, especially near the end, as strains of "Vertigo" score can be heard.

Undeniably "The Artist" is a confection made of yesterday and floats on air, but its surface qualities are hardly a liability.  Its sugar-coated trips down memory lane aren't in vain, and though a film is sometimes shallow it isn't always deficient or inconsequential, just as deeper movies aren't always lasting or impactful.  "The Artist" entertains, period, and without apology.  It dances with illusion and trumpets artistry, inviting its audience along for a crowd-pleasing ride. 

"The Artist", its title a kind of mockery in its own right, is rich in beauty, parody and purpose.  Its spirit harkens back to an industry that had an intimacy in its working relationships before advanced, more efficient communication truncated the sense of closeness between the community of actors, writers and directors.  True, Mr. Hazanavicius' film dissolves quickly after it's over but its magic spell has been cast.

With: Malcolm McDowell, Ken Davitian.

"The Artist" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for a disturbing image and a crude gesture.  The film's running time is one hour and 38 minutes.

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