Saturday, December 24, 2011

Silents, Please: Artists At Work

Only one silent movie has won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but in 2012, that number might double.

In a world of movies filled with Dolby sound, CGI, Imax and 3-D, the idea of making a silent movie just like the ones in the '20s seems quaint, and maybe crazy. How can such a movie match up to Transformers, Harry Potter, or even Bridesmaids?
Michel Hazanavicius, who was well-known for making two very stylish spy films, came up with a way called The Artist. It has the look of an old silent flick of the 1920s, but has a few modern tricks up its sleeve to tell the story of a silent film star who couldn't accept progress, and played a bitter price, only to recover thanks to a girl who owes her success to a chance meeting.

In 1927, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) was a dashing matinee idol, kind of like a cocky Douglas Fairbanks. By chance, he meets a girl named Peppy (Berenice Bejo, aka Mrs. Hazanavicius). Their meeting makes Variety, much to the concern of George's wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller). To say their passion is rather chilly is putting it mildly. Her favorite pastime is doodling on George's face in the magazines.

Peppy manages to land a job at George's movie studio, and it's clear they have a connection. It doesn't lead to romance, but it inspires her. Then George is hit by a one-two punch: the Crash of 1929 and talkies. Both lead him to a road of ruin while Peppy's star is on the rise.

As I mentioned, Hazanavicius uses some great tricks to keep the story going. When George is confronted by the "threat" of talkies, he finds himself in a world filled with sound, while he stays silent. George and Doris' fading love is illustrated by a scene that may remind people of the "breakfast table" scene in Citizen Kane, which was also a portrait of a marriage gone sour. When George's self-produced movie fails against talkies, he drinks, and sees a miniature version of himself on the bar. Even the marquees show themselves to be a Greek chorus. Why else would we see a movie title called "Lonely Star" just after George is forced to sell his belongings?

Dujardin is wonderful as George, a man who is frightened by the future despite his bravado. His slow collapse is hard to see, and you wonder why he won't take a risk at people hearing him on film. If you notice early in the film, he's interviewed on the radio. Bejo is also dazzling. You can just see her develop her personae from typical girl to movie star. All the while, she never forgets George.
If there's a scene stealer, it has to be Uggie as George's dog. It's a pity he can't be nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
If The Artist comes to your town, please see this movie. It is poised to dominate awards season. There may be some who may dismiss this movie because the fact that it's a silent film is a gimmick. They'd be wrong, of course. Hazanavicius uses the lack of words to its advantage. You don't need Doris to say she's unhappy being married to George. Just see her ruin his pictures. You don't need to hear his despair. Seeing him burn his films but not want to leave the flames is proof. It's all about the visuals.

If I had my way, I'd run this as a doubleheader Hugo, Martin Scorcese's latest movie and proof that he can even do family films. The trailers may suggest it's about a boy who is trying to repair a mechanical man, but it's really how this boy completes a more complicated job: repairing a human soul. Namely, an old man who thought his career in the movies wouldn't be remembered. Thanks to this young boy, it is. I saw it in 3-D only because I wanted to see what it would be like. It looks really good, but 2-D will still do.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

High School Does End, Mavis Gary

Let's be clear about this: Juno MacGuff would be able to handle life after high school...decades, even.
Mavis Gary, however, didn't. Not really.
She's a ghost author for a dying young adult book series. She's in a condo tower in Minneapolis that has seen better days, like her. She wastes time watching reality shows, or sleeping off the night before, with her Breakfast of Champions...Diet Coke.
Now she gets an e-mail from an old high school beau, asking her to visit at the old home town of Mercury and see his wife and new child.
She thinks it's a sign, that she can have a second chance at high school glory.

Thus, Young Adult begins, where Charlize Theron plays a different kind of "Monster": the high school prom queen that was so popular, everyone hated her.
Director Jason Reitman says Theron was only person who would bring Mavis to life, and man, was he right on this one. She plays the girl who's afraid she peaked too soon perfectly.
Still, Mavis hangs on to those years: she still has a cassette mix tape from Buddy Slade, the high school sweetheart in question. She plays "The Concept" over and over. You see t-shirts from the '90s, from the Pixies to the Breeders.
Her plan: to get Buddy (Patrick Wilson) back, despite the fact he's married and with a kid. Hey, it's just baggage to Mavis.

She later meets Matt, played by Patton Oswalt, who had a locker next to her back in high school but she didn't seem to notice. She just knew him the guy who was beaten and crippled by football players who thought he was gay. Once people found out Matt wasn't gay, they didn't care about him anymore. Despite this, he's managed to move on. He's there as Mavis' sounding board, and also her conscience. Oddly, they even have a connection. Oswalt is great at this role, and it's too bad he's not getting more love from award shows. Hopefully, Oscar will fix that.

But just as Juno was Ellen Page's show, Young Adult is Theron's show. It's a story of a girl who desperately wanted to feel as special as she thought she was back at Mercury High School. It's safe to say she couldn't do it. Would her reunion with her friends in Mercury change all that?

She does use her visit, and her occasional eavesdropping of "typical teens", to write the final "Waverly High" book, or try to. In it, she casts herself as "Kendall Strickland", who trying to figure out life as graduation nears. It's a clear parallel to what's happened to Mavis.

Theron should easily make the final cut for Best Actress at the Oscars, and two scenes will guarantee that. The first is when Mavis is at a local bar, seeing Buddy's wife's band play. Once they play "The Concept", which Mavis thinks is HER song with Buddy, the look on her face says it all. The other scene is the naming ceremony for the baby at Buddy's house. Just look for it. It will lead to probably the most unlikely and tender love scene in the past 20 years. Credit writer Diablo Cody and Reitman for pulling these moments off.

So, if you want a more realistic rom-com, Young Adult is for you. Check it out, guys. I predict it will get nominations for Best Actress and Original Screenplay, and maybe a longshot for Best Director. At least the Critics Choice Awards are giving it the love it deserves.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Cinematic Titanic Returns..Finally..on DVD

It's been more than a year since Cinematic Titanic, one of the Two MST3K alumni groups, has released a DVD. The crew (Joel Hodgson, Trace Beauleau, TV's Frank Coniff, J. Elvis Weinstein and Mary Jo Pehl) have been busy touring the nation, spreading their mirth and movie riffing far and wide. They were even in my neck of the woods, namely UC Davis, but I couldn't make it.

Well, just in time for the holidays, the CT gang has the perfect companion to the Santa Claus Conquers the Martians DVD: War of the Insects, aka Genocide, a turgid Japanese drama that, according to Joel, is the type of movie that "needs a good Gamera attack". I saw the CT gang riff this movie live in August 2010 at the Castro in San Francisco. My review of that performance is here, but here's the plot: a cheating husband named George is seen with a foxy blond named Annabelle ("From eternity to here?") who is actually a mad scientist. She wants to unleash insects to destroy all humans. Meanwhile, A US Air Force bomber crashes after a huge swarm of bees attack it. No, really.
Another group of officers show up to look for the bomb, unaware they're already in a bomb...namely this movie. Add the fact George is arrested for murder, and his wife Yukari is pregnant, and you start wishing Godzilla would show up to put them all out of their misery.

This performance was taped in September 2011 in Minneapolis, the birthplace of modern severe movie criticism. Compared to the Castro performance, they added a lot of new jokes, and changed their anti-Glee riff. The first riff on what Michelle Bachman's first day as president was kept, along with J Elvis' haunting song at the end. I liked the DVD show more only because I could hear the movie better. Some of the highlights:

Charley, one of the Air Force guys, goes nuts when he sees a bee outside the plane:
MJ: His memories of watching the History Channel have haunted him forever

The owner of the bar is happy to see new customers thanks to the bomb search:
Frank: It's like a stimulus package with dead people.

Dr. Komura is still upset over being attacked by an insane Charley, who was laughing and shooting a pistol. "I don't understand at all.."
Joel: Who would ever vote for Rick Perry?

Dr. Nagumo allows himself to be bitten by the poisoned bees to see why they are attacking humans. He convulses, hallucinates and babbles like Charley
Joel: Insects, peppermint, meaningless nouns

Annabelle explains her plan to Nagumo: "Genocide. The extermination of man. That's what I've been waiting for."
Joel: That, and Star Wars on blu-ray (which finally happened a few days after this performance)

And Trace summing the whole thing up: I always thought the end of the world would look like Carrot Top.
There also also jokes about Piers Morgan, Monty Python, Bewitched and David Carradine.

Aside from the movie, there are clips of the live show, with audience members raving about it, along with trailers to Danger on Tiki Island, East Meets Watts and The Alien Factor. This may suggest they are abandoning studio shows, where they pretend to be trapped in an underground facility, forced to riff on bad movies for future generations for some reason or other. There is supposed to be a new DVD called Rattlers, where mutated rattlesnakes cause havoc.

You can order DVDs and get a schedule of their 2012 tour at