#ThrowbackThursday – The Big Lebowski

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Original US release date: March 6, 1998
Production budget: $15,000,000
Worldwide gross: $17,451,873

Okay, I’ll admit it: this is my first time seeing this movie.  Honestly, it just never appealed to me.  I was under the impression that the film was a litany of drug humor, which is something that has never struck a chord for me, as it’s easy and essentially a form of pandering that lacks any true semblance of wit or creativity.  Over the years, however, I’ve attained a strong fondness for Jeff Bridges, so I figured it was about time to give this one a chance and see if it lived up to the long-standing hype.  The Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, are hit-and-miss for me (and only Joel receives a directing credit with both he and Ethan being credited ad co-writers), but I’d been stubborn long enough; it was time for me to finally watch The Big Lebowski.

For those like me who haven’t seen the film, The Big Lebowski tells the tale of the Dude (real name Jeff Lebowski, played by Bridges) as he gets mistaken for a millionaire with the same name (David Huddleston).  When the millionaire’s daughter (Tara Reid) is kidnapped and held for ransom, the Dude recruits his bowling buddies (John Goodman and Steve Buscemi) to help him find her and resolve his role in the situation.

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I’m happy to say that my impression that the film was a drug comedy, like some highly-regarded progenitor to Superbad, was way off base.  Yes, the Dude does drugs, but in no way does this permeate the entire film, neither through the humor nor the narrative.  Surprisingly, the drug references are rather sparse and the Coen brothers instead use dialogue and situational humor to earn their laughs, never relying on the cheap jokes and visual gags that drug humor so easily provides.  There’s a little bit of that (including a highly entertaining dance/dream sequence), but most of the comedy is rooted in the script and the performances.  And it’s genuinely funny.

Jeff Bridges turns in a casually endearing performance as the Dude.  The Dude is surprisingly likeable and even more surprisingly level-headed.  He’s a do-nothing slacker, for sure.  And, being perpetually unemployed, it’s not entirely clear how he pays for . . . well . . . anything at all, really.  So, he isn’t contributing to society in any meaningful way.  But it’s clear that he could.  He’s reasonably intelligent and genuinely cares for other people.  It’s difficult to dislike him, even if he seemingly mooches off of society.  Bridges’s performance only compounds the issue as he injects so much sincerity into the Dude’s every line of dialogue and action that one can’t help but feel drawn to him.

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In discovering the character of the Dude, I also discovered that, rather than being the druggie comedy I expected, The Big Lebowski is actually a fish-out-of-water crime caper.  The Dude doesn’t really belong anywhere.  Sure, he’s comfortable with his bowling friends, but – outside of that one particular hobby – neither of those guys are very much like the Dude, at all.  Buscemi’s Dave is a well-meaning, weak-kneed putz who’s lucky to have found anyone who will spend time with him in any capacity, at all.  And Goodman’s overbearing Walter puts all of his energy into himself while positing a love for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (reminding me of half of my current Facebook feed, in the process).

And if the Dude doesn’t really fit in with his friends, he’s even more displaced once he gets wrapped up with multimillionaires and career criminals.  The Dude wants his life to be as simple and uneventful as possible.  This film is what happens when he is forced to live a life that is the very antithesis of simple and uneventful.  Yet, even though these adventures have been thrust upon him against his own will and doing, when he sees that other people are in danger, he never hesitates to try to help.  At the same time, he refuses to allow these societal bigwigs and bullies to steamroll him.  This duality is the heart of the character and why he has resonated with so many people for almost two decades.

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So, I get it, now.  I understand why people still associate Jeff Bridges with this character and this film.  I understand why people still talk about the film and still make references to it in casual conversation or in other forms of media.  While, for me personally, it doesn’t stand out as any sort of an all-time favorite, I can absolutely see why it does for so many others and I’m glad I finally took the time to check it out.  It’s simply not always the best idea to trust our own impressions of a film, especially when so many others love it.  Sadly, this is another in a long line of films that failed at the box office despite it’s superior quality.  If only America could learn a lesson and start supporting these types of movies more often.  Still, I suppose a post-theatrical-run cult following is better than nothing.  So, if you are like I was and you haven’t checked out The Big Lebowski, follow my lead and give it at least one viewing.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Big Lebowski

Review – Atomic Blonde

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Based upon the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, Atomic Blonde undergoes a change of title (for the better) and delivers on every level I was praying that it would.  Set during the Cold War, the film follows MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) as she endeavors to recover a stolen list of double agents – a list that is cripplingly deadly in the wrong hands.  And the wrong hands, by the way, would be anyone’s hands.

Okay, look.  There are many things one may look for in a quality film.  Typically, great story and character rank at – or at least near – the top of the list.  And, worry not, Atomic Blonde has a great story and great characters.  But it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t.  Even.  Matter.  Why?  Well, it doesn’t matter because I barely had the energy to invest in the characters and story due to the fact that the rest of the film was routinely, easily, and quite handily kicking my @$$.

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Not only is Atomic Blonde set in the eighties, but it’s also a product of the eighties.  It’s essentially a classic eighties film featuring time-traveling stars and filmmakers from 2017.  The film is unapologetically and casually explicit, with raw sexuality, bone-splitting brutality, and sensibilities from a time when filmmakers worried not about how audiences would react or what fabricated accusations might be hurled at them by people who are looking for a cause where there is none and instead just made the movies that they, themselves, wanted to see.  The result is splendidly refreshing.

While Atomic Blonde does have a layer of depth to the proceedings – especially where Broughton’s arc is concerned, as she searches for anything real in a life constructed of deception – depth is in no way the ultimate goal of the film.  Instead, Atomic Blonde dangles a carrot on a stick to our baser instincts.  It appeals to our senses – our sight, our hearing, our adrenaline, our libidos – and asks us – maybe even forces us – to, just for two hours, stop pretending that we don’t want the things that we want.  It wants us to stop pretending that we don’t enjoy the things that we enjoy.  It wants us to acknowledge that we all have someone we’d love to crack upside the head with a telephone.  It wants us to acknowledge that we have all seen people on the street who we’ve never met, who we’ve never spoken to, yet who could have gotten us to do anything they wanted with just a look or a single word.  Atomic Blonde wants us to acknowledge our primal desires, our biological imperatives . . . our forbidden humanity.  It’s joyfully gratuitous and almost becomes a cathartic viewing experience as it allows us to live out the deep-seeded reality of what it means to be an animal pretending at enlightenment.

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If that isn’t enough, director David Leitch ensnares a cast enriched by stars who are not only favored by general audiences but are well-respected within the industry and the critical community, as well.  I have never heard anyone say anything truly and completely derogatory about Charlize Theron or James McAvoy.  Then we have Toby Jones, John Goodman, and burgeoning star Sofia Boutella and this begins to feel like a prestige film.  They all play their parts flawlessly and I have personally never been as awed by Charlize Theron as I am after seeing this film.  Her Lorraine Broughton is deadly and seductive – the kind of woman that most men (and many women) would love to take to their own home, but not to their mother’s.  Theron is striking in the part, ensuring that every single scene has an impact and taking it upon herself to guarantee that the film will be unforgettable and unavoidable in the midst of a mountain of summertime competition.  Charlize Theron, despite being surrounded by extraordinary talent at every turn, is Atomic Blonde.

The entire film is kind of like that, actually.  Atomic Blonde is the cool kid with a mysterious dark side that you know you shouldn’t hang out with but you’re going to, anyway.  It’s the guy with the leather jacket, ripped jeans, and shades.  It’s the girl with the plunging neckline, knee-high boots, and short leather miniskirt.  It’s that one person who is absolutely cooler than we can ever be, but who makes us feel equally cool when in their presence.

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There are elements that are missing from the film that you can find elsewhere.  It doesn’t have the heart of Wonder Woman.  It doesn’t have the special effects of Spider-Man: Homecoming.  It’s not as poignant as War for the Planet of the Apes.  Or as relatable as The Big Sick.  But, again, it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t have to be the best at everything – or even anything – because it’s the coolest, man!  Atomic Blonde the coolest movie of the year, with the coolest action scenes, the coolest title, the coolest soundtrack, the coolest characters, and a cool new director (who’s coming for Deadpool, next!).  I feel like this is the experience everyone else said they were having with Baby Driver but never quite translated to me.  But I got it in Atomic Blonde!  And you will, too . . . if you aren’t afraid to face your true self.

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Review – Atomic Blonde

Review – Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

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There has been a lot of buzz around the latest film from Luc Besson (The Fifth Element).  The trailers and television spots have been eye-dazzling and very encouraging.  Based on a French comic book, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets follows the efforts of law-enforcement agents Valerian (Dane Dehaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) as they must uncover the mystery behind the fate of a formerly-prosperous planet and how that fate is connected to the presence that currently threatens their home – a home which also houses thousands of other species from across all of existence.

Before I get into the film, itself, I want to talk about that title.  Yes, it’s a mouthful, but that’s not the big issue.  The title of the comic book upon which the film is based is Valerian and Laureline.  I hate to create trouble where there might not be any, but that title change is a problem for me.  Narratively speaking, Valerian and Laureline are unquestionably equals.  Sometimes he saves her, sometimes she saves him.  He’s generally the brawn while she’s typically the brain.  That’s a little stereotypical, but it’s a case of stereotyping that is generally accepted as truth and not particularly offensive to most.  Plus, both characters have opportunity to prove that they aren’t unilaterally-equipped for conflict, as Valerian thinks his way out of a situation or two and Laureline fights her way through some conundrums, as well.

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So, why is Laureline not sharing headlining status?  The title of the comic is no worse than the title that Besson settled on.  And not only are the characters a true, even-keeled team, but Delevingne arguably steals the film for herself with a cheeky, charismatic performance that’s sure to catch some attention from important people in the industry.  This is only her second high-profile role.  The first – as Enchantress in last year’s Suicide Squad – didn’t go particularly well.  It was mostly not her fault, as the writing was atrocious, but she was also unable to elevate her character above that issue.  Here, she knocks it out of the park with a turn that electrifies the screen and makes it nearly impossible to look away from her.  She exudes confidence and seems completely at home in the part.  If enough people see the film, this is the role she’ll be remembered for (so far.  We’ll see what’s in her future), rather than Enchantress.  I haven’t seen enough of her, yet, to state that I am unequivocally a fan of hers, but I can say without hesitation that I am a fan of this performance.

I want to talk about Dane DeHaan, too, but I’m not sure if I should.  I want to be unbiased, but there’s just always been something about him that irks me.  I won’t elaborate because I’m not here to insult people who have done nothing to me, personally, over things they can’t even help, but I’ve just had a hard time warming up to him as a performer.  I will say that I didn’t hate him in this movie and that nothing he did, in particular, was bothersome.  So, maybe he can win me over.  I once felt the same way about Kurt Russell, and he eventually converted me, so it’s not unprecedented.  Therefore, for now, I’ll ask you to decide for yourself about Mr. DeHaan.  I hope he does continue to change my mind with future performances.

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Nonetheless, while there are other actors of note in the film (welcome back, Clive Owen!  Where have you been?!), DeHaan and Delevingne are the stars who carry the entire project on their backs from the audience’s perspective and Delevingne does at least as much of the heavy lifting as does DeHaan.  She and her character deserve equal billing, no matter the excuses that were concocted in order to justify the change.

Digging into the rest of the film, I had much more fun with it than I expected to have.  There was never any question that the movie was going to be beautiful, and it is.  There will be a lot of comparisons to Star Wars and maybe some to the market scene in Hellboy II: The Golden Army, but, while there are nods to other science-fiction films and stories of the past, Valerian is very much its own thing.

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The biggest complaint I have seen – and the only one I’ve seen with any consistency – is that it lacks emotional depth.  And, yeah, that’s probably true.  But I really don’t care.  I didn’t pay to watch it based on any “emotional depth” I picked up on in the trailers.  I wanted an escapist adventure full of wacky aliens, quirky and cool leads, and exciting action set pieces.  That’s what I got.  And I even got some pretty decent comedy on top of all of that (the comedy is served in quality, not quantity – a wise choice), which I didn’t expect.  I’m not saying a little thought-provocation or emotional resonance would have been bad.  It just isn’t necessary for this kind of film.  I think this class of critique comes from the very truth that I keep mentioning in my reviews: Marvel has raised the game – and expectations – by crafting each of their films into a total-package offering.  That’s great, but it doesn’t mean everyone else must do the same.  The last thing we all need is for every blockbuster to be a carbon copy of every other blockbuster.  Let the filmmakers decide what offerings they wish to set out for their cinematic buffets.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets isn’t likely to win many awards (maybe some visual effects statues), but it’s still a blast.  It’s a film that needed and deserved an IMAX release but didn’t get one, which I hate.  The screening I saw was slightly out of focus and had muted colors, so I’m anxious to get this one home and really see it pop on my personal television.  I had a great time with it, anyway.  Delevingne charmed me, DeHaan didn’t offend me, and Besson redeemed himself after the credibility-straining Lucy.  There are a lot of theatrical options out there, right now, and Valerian is one of the many that are worthy of your dollar.  (But why that title?)

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Review – Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Review – Transformers: The Last Knight

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I have a feeling this is a wasted column.  Let’s be honest; you’ve already made your mind up about this movie.  Most of you probably did so without even seeing it.  So, why should I bother?  Maybe there’s one person out there who actually cares what I think, regardless of their own opinion?  Probably not.  But I should go ahead and write it, just in case!

So, yes, here we are with Transformers: The Last Knight, the fifth film in the franchise helmed by Michael Bay based on the Hasbro toy line from the eighties.  The films aren’t particularly well-regarded among film geeks but they have tended to play well with the masses and have made lots of money for Paramount.

(On an interesting side note, I just got back from Orlando, where I finally got the chance to check out the new Transformers ride at Universal Studios.  I love Universal Studios, but I was disappointed by this particular ride.  It used the exact same format and technology as the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride at their neighboring Islands of Adventure park, with no apparent technological advances, even though the Spider-Man ride is well over a decade older than the Transformers ride.  The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is amazing, though, and the two accompanying rides are better – especially The Forbidden Journey.)

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The film is already massively underperforming in North America (I had a private showing, today), though it’s doing respectable business in the rest of the world.  That’s not altogether different from the last installment, Age of Extinction (the best film of the franchise), and speaks more to American sensibilities than anything else.  Americans will sit and binge-watch 120 episodes of a television show with a single bathroom break but balk at the idea of a fourth or fifth film in a franchise.  This film could be the legitimate greatest movie of all time and three-quarters of Americans would declare that it sucked and subject anyone who liked it to online bullying that would make Randy Marsh proud.  But, as I pointed out in this column, it’s not all about America, anymore.

Having said that, Transformers: The Last Knight is not the greatest movie of all-time.  The story, here, is that the Decepticons are hoping to use an ancient artifact located on (you guessed it) Earth in order to suck the life out of the planet and restore their home world of Cybertron.  Along the way, there is a much-publicized heel turn by Optimus Prime, hoping to inject a fresh little twist into the proceedings.

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It doesn’t help much.  Yes, narratively speaking, there is some new stuff going on in The Last Knight, but it unfolds at such a plodding pace and with such lifeless delivery that I actually once found myself thinking back to the Simpsons ride at Universal Studios.  The movie is, simply put, obnoxiously boring.  Exposition is necessary in all films, but it needs to be done in a way that is every bit as entertaining as the big action set pieces are.  Sometimes, the dialogue is even more interesting, such as in all three Iron Man films.  In The Last Knight, from a very large cast, only Mark Wahlberg, Laura Haddock, and Isabela Moner exhibit any semblance of charisma.  Unfortunately, most of the information pertinent to the overarching narrative is delivered by all of the other characters, with those three simply reacting to those revelations.  And, regarding those other characters, their dialogue is uninspired and so are their performances.  It’s a deadly combination.  Even Anthony Hopkins lazily limps along throughout the movie, bringing ultimately nothing to the proceedings.  The lame, unfunny humor that permeated earlier series installments (other than Age of Extinction) makes a partial return, though it’s not as sophomoric nor as frequent as it once was, so I suppose that’s something.  I found myself just waiting for the big battle at the end, not even caring about why it was happening.

Even worse, once the big battle arrives, it’s almost as boring as the rest of the film.  With maybe one brief exception, there is nothing fresh or even remotely memorable to see.  On top of that, due to the lackluster writing and sleepy performances, there is virtually no personal connection to the battle, so there’s nothing in which to emotionally invest.  Admittedly, Optimus Prime is still great (so is Quintessa and their brief scenes on Cybertron are the highlight of the film), but he’s taken out of nearly the entire movie, scoring maybe twenty minutes of screen time out of the unnecessarily bloated 149 minutes.

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I stand by my claim that Age of Extinction is actually pretty good and jettisoned nearly everything that people had complained about regarding the series up to that point.  I had hoped that trend would continue, but – alas – it was not to be.  The Optimus Prime arc had some potential but it was largely ignored in favor of everything else that audiences don’t care about.  The series jumped from my favorite installment to now my least-favorite.  Take this information and do as you will with it.  But don’t forget that Wonder Woman is still showing, right down the hall.

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Review – Transformers: The Last Knight

Review – Kong: Skull Island

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I’ve been a pretty big King Kong fan for most of my adult life.  The original 1933 classic was the first special-effects blockbuster that broke every established rule and opened up the world’s collective mind to the potential of film as a storytelling medium.  Peter Jackson’s 2004 remake was a brilliant and poignant love poem to its progenitor that spent the first half of its running time as an excellent drama and the back half as an unparalleled action bonanza (the T-Rex battle may still be my favorite fight ever committed to film).  There have been plenty of other Kong films over the years, but those two are the standouts, and I included them both on my Films That Every Self-Professed Film Lover Should See list that I did over a year ago.  (I plan on doing a follow-up to that list, as soon as I can find the time.)

Now, Kong is back.  This is a new Kong –  a bigger Kong.  And he comes with a new director and a new cast.  The marketing for this one has looked fun, but has also come off as rather empty.  I haven’t been crazy about the lighter tone, though the cast is impeccable.  But the best Kong films of the past have carried with them significant heart and a palpable weight to the proceedings.  I got the impression that this new film (by fledgling director Jordan Vogt-Roberts) contained little-to-none of that.  Was that the case, or just a misrepresentation by the marketing department?  And, if true, would the action and monster mayhem adequately compensate?

It’s always a risk to hire a new director for a film this huge.  Oftentimes, their inexperience shows and lessens the impact and scale.  And then there are other times when a new face comes along with a unique eye, and that’s what Vogt-Roberts brings to the table in Kong: Skull Island.  I would love to know what he presented to Warner Brothers that earned their trust in him as they handed him the reigns to this film, but I suspect it was fresh and unexpected.

The cast is robust and packed with reliable fan-favorites alongside talented rising stars and they work wonderfully together.  John C. Reilly’s character had the most potential for dampening the film’s tone, but Reilly is a seasoned professional and knows exactly where to place his performance on the Humor Spectrum so that he never becomes a caricature.  And get used to seeing Brie Larson.  After winning an Oscar for her genius performance in Room (my favorite film of 2015), Kong is just the next rung for her on the Ladder to Superstardom as she’ll appear in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War as Marvel’s preeminent female hero, Captain Marvel.  Her screen presence in Kong further justifies that casting decision as she stands tall next to the likes of Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Goodman.  Toby Kebbell steps in as well, hopefully redeeming himself in the eyes of geeks around the world after being brutally miscast as Doctor Doom in Josh Trank’s 2015 Fantastic Four film.  No complaints about the cast; they gel well and all translate as natural and believable.

There are numerous callbacks and nods to not only previous Kong films, but other monster franchises, as well.  In addition to those older Kong movies, I saw references to Godzilla, the Jurassic Park films, and even 2008’s The Incredible Hulk.  Vogt-Roberts certainly loves the genre and all of those little Easter eggs will delight anyone with sharp eyes, ears, and the requisite knowledge to pick up on them.

Oh, wait, this is an action movie, isn’t it? No worries; WB and Vogt-Roberts know exactly what audiences are expecting and won’t leave them disappointed.  Vogt-Roberts uses that keen eye of his to deliver some of the most visually innovative action brawls we’ve ever seen.  He keeps the camera wide and slows the action down by just a beat or two in order to ensure that every frame is easily digestible and impactful.  There are no tight, fast shots that will require the viewer to lean over and ask their neighbor exactly what just happened.  Vogt-Roberts has an intuitive knack for this sort of filmmaking and I welcome him to this industry with open arms.

Happily, I can also state that there is meaningful subtext for those who wish to see it.  John Goodman’s opening line sets the tone, but it goes deeper than that tongue-in-cheek jab (that I’ll let you discover for yourself).  This story largely takes place in the seventies, against the backdrop of post-Vietnam America.  Every character in our cast is hurting and licking their wounds in some form or another, desperate for anything that feels like a victory, whether of the personal sort or in the broader, more patriotic sense.  And then . . . they find themselves on Skull Island.  There are no true villains in the film.  But as each character’s individualized versions of “victory” begins to manifest, conflict naturally occurs and the cast becomes fleshed out, believable, and empathetic.  Mix in the theme of man versus nature, and Kong: Skull Island exists (and succeeds) on several different levels.  And, as a result, it should please all types of moviegoers.

I’m not going to say that Kong: Skull Island is as strong as Peter Jackson’s remake, because it isn’t (it lacks the poetry and heart of that film), but I suspect it will be more of a widespread crowdpleaser than that film, due solely to its significantly more abbreviated runtime.  But it’s also a completely different film than that one, with a different story, different characters, and different goals.  If you like Kong/giant monster/Kaiju films at all, you owe it to yourself to check this film out.  I can’t fathom how anyone with a predilection for this sort of thing could possibly be disappointed by it.  If you haven’t indulged in giant monster movies, this could be a great place to start.  In any event, Kong: Skull Island is a raucous event of a movie that exists on whatever level the beholder chooses to view it (hopefully in IMAX 3D.  Or at least in 3D.  Feel it; don’t settle for looking at it.).  If you want to have nothing less than a fun time escaping at the movies, Skull Island should be your final destination.

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Review – Kong: Skull Island

#ThrowbackThursday – The Artist

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Original US release date: November 25, 2011
Production budget: $15,000,000
Worldwide gross: $133,452,856

There are some films that – while popular and well-received – are never really given their full due.  I feel like Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist is one of those films.  I’m not so much referring to his peers and those within the industry.  It was nominated for ten Academy Awards in 2012 and won five of them, including Best Picture.  But, despite being a hit with audiences, as well (it grossed nearly nine times its production budget), I have always been under the impression that the genius of the film was lost on many.

Set in the late ’20s, The Artist follows silent film actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) as he struggles with the introduction of talkies into the motion picture scene.  Frankly, the overarching storyline is the only real issue I have with the film, as it’s been done before in two other very famous films that focus on that same transition.  Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times was his own personal metaphor on how the introduction of talkies led to his feelings of irrelevance.  And then Singin’ in the Rain tells the story of an entire movie studio having to deal with the transition to the talkies.  So, this idea had been addressed before.

The Artist is a little different, however, in that it’s not a metaphor, as with Modern Times, and it’s a more singular, personal story than Singin’ in the Rain.  At the height of his popularity, Valentin meets a young wannabe starlet by the name of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and gives her a few pointers.  Her career takes off and she shoots to superstardom with the advent of sound, while Valentin’s career falls off, as he is unable to make the transition.

The film, itself, is – with a couple of brief exceptions – a black and white silent film.  This choice isn’t just for the sake of cosmetic serendipity.  The story is told from Valentin’s perspective.  His whole life is black-and-white silent filmmaking.  Therefore, his story is told as a black-and-white silent film.  It seems obvious when one thinks about it, but so many think that filmmakers do things “just because it’s different or it looks cool” without any regard to the creative implications behind it, as if these people are independent professional wrestlers.  No, there’s actual thought put behind these choices and simple, but poetic, choices like that often make the difference between good films and great films.

That is, they make the difference as long as everything else around those choices holds up.  And, in this case, everything does.  I can’t speak highly enough about the cast.  In what is yet another component of this film that largely goes unappreciated, the entire cast had to forget everything they had ever been taught about acting and instead do the opposite.  When acting in film, the general line of thinking is to act from the neck up – with your voice, face, and eyes – and keep the gesticulating to a minimum or at least to a more natural level than on television.  Everyone is so large on a movie screen that wild body movements come off as too much and as overacting.

But in this film, no one can use their voice.  So everything else needs to be big in order to communicate their message to the audience.  For the moments where the message is a little more complex, they have the assistance of the traditional dialogue cards, but there aren’t a whole of those and the storytelling is almost entirely dependent upon the cast’s ability to communicate without words.  It must have been one of the more challenging projects of each of their careers.

The Artist won Best Picture (and so many other awards) for a very simple reason: it’s an incredible film.  It was difficult to make, it conveys a relatable and emotional tale about a man facing his own irrelevance, and everyone involved in the production fulfills their roles flawlessly.  That’s hard to argue against.  This is exactly the kind of outside-the-box filmmaking that theoretically pleases audiences and wins awards.  This time, fortunately, The Artist fulfilled its potential in both arenas.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Artist

109. Patriots Day

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When I first saw the opening seconds of the Patriots Day trailer, I briefly thought it was another, late-running trailer for Deepwater Horizon.  Of course, it became clear that it was a film about the Boston Marathon bombing in fairly short order, but the similarities shouldn’t be surprising.  Both films star Mark Wahlberg and are directed by Peter Berg.  Berg has a very distinctive style and Patriots Day falls right into his wheelhouse.  I remember the bombing well as my employer at the time was actually there and running the marathon.  He luckily escaped unscathed but not everyone was so fortunate, and it was a harrowing experience for the entire country and especially for anyone who was in attendance at the race.  Recalling the events, I walked into the film expecting a gripping and emotional thriller.

I was kind of right.  I’ll start by saying that the events as they play out in the film jive very closely with what I remember as the story was unfolding on the news in 2013.  If there were narrative liberties taken, they weren’t readily apparent to me.  The cast is strong and Mark Wahlberg gets to show off a little bit.  It’s a star-studded group of talented people, with Wahlberg, J.K. Simmons, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, Michelle Monaghan, and Melissa Benoist all delivering the goods.  Only Wahlberg has what amounts to a leading role, however, and he does good work.

The film is very much a Peter Berg film.  He and Wahlberg are going to become a lower-profile version of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp if they aren’t careful, as this is their third pairing as director and actor since 2013’s Lone Survivor and the second in the last three months.  And, by the way, Berg has now only directed four films, beginning with 2012’s Battleship.  That film stands apart from the latter three, but the more recent trio are all gritty true stories, star the same actor, have the same tone, the same look, and the same feel.  I suggest that Berg start displaying a little more versatility, but who am I, right?

Having established all of that, as I watched the film, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between how I was feeling and how I also felt as I watched Hidden Figures.  There is nothing overtly wrong with the film.  The dialogue is a little flat, but I’ve heard much worse.  The performances are strong, even if many of them are abbreviated.  The story is an important, modern reminder that, even with many police officers behaving in grossly inappropriate ways, there are more of them that do what they’re supposed to and do it well.  So, I should have been significantly more engaged on an intellectual and emotional level than I was.

I think the issue is in Berg’s delivery.  The film is immensely muted, both visually and sonically.  Even during the bombing, itself, the movie has a sleepy tone that lacks a permeating energy that is quite frankly necessary for this type of story.  There is almost no sense of urgency, which boggles my mind.  Almost immediately after the bombing, with the perpetrators on the run and the clock ticking, Wahlberg’s Officer Tommy Saunders, who was at ground zero . . . goes home and starts to get in the shower?

Look, maybe that’s what he really did.  If so, that’s fine.  But sometimes, liberties do need to be taken in order to give a film the burst of energy and the pacing that it needs in order to achieve its goals.  Once that first bomb goes off, the remainder of the story should demand the viewer’s attention.  There should be no quiet moments.  No down time.  No opportunities for a pee break.  These people attacked a country and a city.  They killed and maimed.  The anger and sense of emergency should be unrelenting and palpable.

The only time I got that impression was during the nighttime, suburban street showdown between the suspects and the authorities.  It’s a great scene, with a grand sense of scale.  It’s made even better by the complete lack of a score – much like the T-Rex attack in Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park – that serves to help the audience forget that they’re watching a film and grounds them in reality.

All told, the second half of the film is better than the first half.  And none of it is bad.  It’s just lackadaisical.  And this story deserves more than that.  Also, while I maintain that every story has a right to be told, I question the wisdom in making the bombers into bigger stars.  Other potential criminals are often motivated by the idea of fame and this sort of thing does nothing to dissuade that notion.  I see both sides of the argument, here, but it nags at the back of my mind, regardless.

There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours than by catching Patriots Day, but there are much better ways, too (like this.  And this.).  I applaud the attempt and the intent behind the film and everyone involved clearly worked hard on it.  But a seeming lack of perspective lessens the impact of the narrative and could leave some feeling unfulfilled.

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109. Patriots Day