Thursday, December 29, 2011

Capsule reviews galore!

Hello readers,

Here is a sample of the films Between the Seats watched over the past few days. We hope you enjoy these brief reviews. Coming up over the course of the weekend and into next week is a series of end of the year lists, much like what was done at this time in 2010. Reviews and marathon will resume in regular fashion by late next week. Thanks again for visiting!

The Artist (2011, Michel Hazanavicious)

In an artistically audacious move, director Michel Hanavicious decided to not only make a film which pertains to the misremembered era of silent film, but to make it as a silent film no less. The story begins in earnest in 1927, a time when the fictional silent movie legend George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) was Hollywood's greatest star, appearing in a series of massively adored swashbuckling adventures akin to those of Errol Flynn. A chance encounter with a fan, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), turns her into a movie star and sets in motion the arrival of 'talkies', thus putting Valentin's career in tremendous jeopardy.

Since the earliest reviews for the film (it played at a few festivals in late summer), it was evident that Hazanavicious's The Artist was going to be a critical darling. Having now seen the film a couple of weeks after its Montréal theatrical release, it is quite plain to see why so many people, not just critics, are eating this film up. It is quite cleverly constructed, from the script, to the acting and the direction. Probably if the sole purpose had been to make a silent film, one with no pretension of doing anything more thematically, the film still would have been a nice romp, but it has loftier expectations than just that. The story is about a silent movie star, played with the right amount of physicality and wit by Jean Dujardin (whom I unfortunately only knew from Brice de Nice) who is confronted with the changing times within the studio system as the silent era makes way for that of sound, or 'talkies' as they are described in the movie. The film is thus not merely a technical exercise, albeit a handsomely crafted one, but a bit of a time capsule even within its plot. Now whether Hazanavicious wants audiences to like the movie with a sense of artificial nostalgia (i.e. Liking it because we heartless 21s century people typically treat the silent era as an afterthought and shame on us) is another idea altogether, and one I am not prepared to accept as valid, but as a piece of cinema which not only tells a fun story but feels genuine, The Artist is arguably the film to see during your holiday break. Also, I didn't know who Bérénice Bejo was before heading into this film, but I am going to explore her filmmography for sure. What a fantastic and seductively charming actress.

War Horse (2011, Steven Spielberg)

A mere few weeks after the release of Tintin comes Spielberg's second film of 2011, the unabashedly honest and heartfelt War Horse. Transpiring just before as well as during the first World War, Spielberg's romanticized epic follows the journey of a young plow horse baptized Joey by his young master Albert (relative newcomer Jeremy Irvine) who is determined to help his pa and ma (Peter Mullen and Emily Watson) save the family farm. The first war breaks out and Joey is sold off to the British army, from which point begins his near fantastical story as he falls in and out of a great many characters affected in one way or another by the battles, among them Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, Niels Arestrup, and David Kross.

If there is one thing Steven Spielberg cannot be criticized for, it is giving into our current culture of dark and dreary war films. The director makes a conceited effort into creating a very different sort of war film, one that has not been seen for many years even. The notion and the execution (mostly, not entirely) of the story is rather compelling, with Joey never remaining in the same hands for very long, either because his master(s) lose ownership by circumstance or because they simply die off. This is a war, after all. The result is a very episodic type of movie, something Spielberg proves to be adept at juggling with, even though not all the moments land as effortlessly as one would like. The first section when Joey meets his first and true owner, young Albert, is amusing in its modesty, and another all too short chapter has two soldiers, one Brit and another German, come together briefly to help free Joey from barbed wire on the battlefield. Others feel oddly cheap, like when Joey and another horse find refuge in the barn of an elderly Frenchman (admittedly played very well by Niels Arestrup) and his granddaughter. The accents, the predictability of what happens in that episode, its conclusion, not a lot works in that one. That being said, the film is beautiful to look at, which is not a surprise since Spielberg is a master at getting the most out of his cinematographers and special effects teams. War Horse does not 'wow' as Tintin does, but might be worth your time. Just check your hip cynicism at the door.

Time Bandits (1981, Terry Gilliam)

Terry Gilliam is not the sort of director whose work is easy to digest. One need only be told about his Monty Python background to get a decent enough idea of what might be expected from his films. I myself am not the biggest Monty Python fan, although all of their films do indeed have some moments of brilliance. Here, he shares the story of a young boy named Kevin (Craig Warnock) who loves reading up on history, but whose interests are ignored by his neglectful parents. One night, while falling asleep, a troop of 6 midgets (among them Kenny Baker, known for playing R2-D2), time traveling thieves who take Kevin with them as they voyage further and further back in time to steal precious treasures of histories great figures like Napoleon (Ian Holm), Robin Hood (John Cleese) and Agmemnon (Sean Connery). The Evil Genius (David Warner) is after them however.

It is a little bit difficult to make heads or tails about Time Bandits, and the more thought is put into it, the more I am convinced that that is what lends it its charm, among other things of course. It isn't as if the midgets receive any sort of valuable lesson by the end, or that even Kevin, the protagonist, has learned anything in particular. In fact, despite showing some reluctance in the early goings (stealing from Robin Hood doesn't fit well with him), he helps them out pretty much all the way through, so the viewer is essentially having to follow and accept as heroes a bunch of crude crooks as they make fun of and take bounty away from famous historic figures. The level of humour and adventure vary as well, at times playing things which remind us this is essentially a film for kids, other times taking things a step further, with some creepy looking villains and unexpectedly violent deaths. At some point, because the tone is a bit all over the place, one doesn't really know what to expect from the film anymore, which can be seen as a very good thing. A lot of kids films play things too safe and grow boring and predictable because of that. Time Bandits is clearly playing fast and loose with the rules to making a family film at times, especially near the end when things do get pretty nutty. I myself came away from the movie with mixed feelings, but in a good way, if such a thing is possible. It's weird and goes against the grain compared to so many other kids films, but in a refreshing way nevertheless. Great end credits song as well. Bless you, George Harrison.

The Eagle (2011, Kevin Macdonald)

Kevin Macdonald has somewhat of an iffy track record in my books. After the compelling, thrilling Last King of Scotland, he followed up with the immensely disappointing State of Play. What is more, this new effort starred Channing Tatum, an actor who has earned his share of criticism, a lot of it very much deserved. The Eagle follows in the footsteps of Neil Marshall's Centurion, functioning as a spiritual sequel of sorts (although that was never the intent), with a young Roman captain, Marcus Acquila (Tatum), who sees himself posted in Northern Britain, where his father had been before him. The latter was part of the infamous Ninth Legion, which vanished off the face of the Earth 20 odd years before, along with it the coveted Golden Eagle, a symbol of Rome. Marcus's desire to find the eagle takes a hit when he himself takes a serious hit during battle, earning him an honourable discharge. Not one to give up, he decides to travel beyond the most northern Roman walls in Britain into the yonder with his slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), who happens to be a native of Northern Britain. Just how much can Marcus trust him though?

Colour me tickled, The Eagle turned out to be a very solid movie. Tatum's presence was, admittedly, one of the factors which discouraged me from checking out the film any earlier, as were lingering misgivings aboutdirector Macdonald's previous flop. There must be something about Roman epics that fails to resonate with contemporary movie goers given the timid reception the film received upon its release. Its stay in theatres was not particularly long either. I guess that Gladiator boost is definitely over. What makes The Eagle a compelling film is its reliance on interesting characters as opposed to giving in to only epic action and sweep. Granted, there is a sense of sweep, but it lies more in the jaw dropping landscapes Marcus and Esca traverse in their search for the long lost titular object. Macdonald and his cinematography crew should be given a round of applause for this is a magnificently good looking movie. As mentioned above though, the movie is definitely concerned with its two central figures, who find themselves in vastly different positions of power. How do they put their trust in one another and can they even really do it at all? The film even takes it a step further with our duo encountering a tribe of Esca's people, thus flipping the positions of power upside down. Both Jamie Bell and, yes, Channing Tatum, are good in their roles. Maybe Tatum is not given that much to do, but he handles the material rather well, or at least a hell of a lot better than I was expecting.

A Hard Day's Night (1964, Richard Lester)

Just finished this a mere couple hours ago and I don't have all that much to say. This is one of Lester's first feature length films, and what better way to earn some name recognition then by directing what amounts to a promotional piece for the hottest band on the planet at the time, The Beatles (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr). This space would be reserved for a plot synopsis, but Hard Day's Night truthfully does not possess much in terms of plot. The Beatles and their managing team go from one place in Britain to another by train because they have a televised show later that evening. Wild, British 60s humour ensues as do obligatory musical numbers.

No story, just The Beatles being themselves around their managers, Paul's fictional grandfather and a bunch of girls. It is hard to gauge how one approaches this sort of film. It looks pretty good, although that was never going to be an issue since it was promoting The Beatles (it had to look hip regardless). The music rocks with the exception of a song or two. I think what makes this movie tick more than anything else is that is presents itself as a fictional version of what The Beatles went through on a daily basis. The screaming fans, the overbearing manager, the annoying studio television newspaper people they had to deal with. It isn't as if Hard Day's Night is making a whole lot of material up, yet this remains a piece of fiction. That meta aspect frees the cast to do what they want in more ways than one while still remaining somewhat true to themselves, even though by the end the viewer has not learned anything. They were very young in '64 and liked to goof around as much as possible. The one stretch that is sort of unique is when Ringo leaves the band for a while in order to live a free life. It comes across as an unexpectedly touching few minutes, but who really thinks he won't be banging those drums later on that evening for the show?...

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