The Artist (A-)
U.S.-France: Michel Hazanavicius, 2012, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
The Artist, a movie about the Golden Age of Hollywood, is a superb throwback: a silent film in black-and-white by the French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius. It's an utterly wonderful show: a gloriously anachronistic little film with actors who don't talk and pictures that sing -- and a story full of romance and coincidence, pathos and slapstick, and beautiful people erupting in spasms of comedy and tragedy on sun-splashed Los Angeles streets.
In other words -- unspoken of course -- it's a cinematic feast in the style of the old-time silent movies that flourished from the time of film's invention in 1895 -- or at least since Georges Méliès started telling stories with them before the turn of the century -- until 1927, when Al Jolson and The Jazz Singer made the screen speak and croon and told us we ain't heard nothing yet and, unmaliciously of course, drove a nail in the coffin of the old technology, while ushering in the new.
The Artist isn't just a stunt, though -- and it's also not just a shrewdly knowledgeable pastiche of old time movies, although it's done amazingly in a style that replicates not only their look, but their mood and feeling. It's a movie, in the end, that reminds us of how beautiful non-talkie black-and-white movies can be, of how beautiful any black-and-white movie can be, in the hands of an artist. Or sometimes even in the hands of a fool.
In this film after all, the word "artist" is used with double-edged irony. Hazanivicius celebrates and brilliantly reproduces the film artistry of the silent period, and he proves himself a true silent-picture artist in the process. But actually, the character who thinks he's the artist in The Artist is a dope, a fool with the face and pencil-thin mustache of a silent matinee idol: Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, a swashbuckling lover and superstar, who looks a bit like Rudolph Valentino, and acts like a copy of Valentino and Doug Fairbanks.
Valentin has a great movie girl, a Star Is Born named Peppy Miller (played by Berenice Bejo), and she loves and admires him. But he neglects her at first, rejects the sweet foolishness of the silent movies that made him famous, walks out on his boor of a studio boss (John Goodman as Al Zimmer) and tries to direct and write himself (a mistake) in what he misbelieves is art (another mistake). Poor foolish pseudo-artist! Poor funny Valentino! George winds up in a stripped mansion with no servants (Malcolm McDowell and James Cromwell as the butler and chauffeur who have left), no wife (the vamoosed Penelope Ann Miller, who once played Charlie's darling Edna Purviance) and the most faithful of little dogs (Uggie, a woofing marvel) to keep him company as fate and fire close in.
But George is lucky as well as stupid. And luckily, he not only makes silent movies, he lives in a silent movie, and one of the kind that usually has a happy ending -- and, of course, that has a fetching leading lady to kiss and embrace and dance with before the last blackout.
Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius and star Jean DuJardin made their international mark with two movie parodies -- of more recent movie conventions -- in the James Bond send-ups OSS 117: Lost in Rio and OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, both of which starred Dujardin as the Bond character. Dujardin is ideal casting here: a superlative film actor and a master of physical humor, whose hair takes hair oil like no one's since Valentino. Berenice Bejo is pretty well perfect too; she has a face that breathes the Roaring Twenties and legs that were made to dance a Charleston. Goodman's Al Zimmer, a brutal-looking studio head. looks and sounds as if he could have eaten Harry Cohn for lunch and washed him down with Louis B. Mayer -- but has his good side despite it. And if you want a dog to share your decline with, Uggie's your pooch.
The Artist is pastiche more than parody -- though a very funny pastiche. Hazanavicius isn't really making fun of silent movies. He's actually made a movie that, but for a snatch of dialogue or two, could have played in a silent movie theater back in 1926. Hazanavicius obviously loves silent movies, because he catches their spirit -- the sometimes cockeyed, sometimes poetic essence of the silly romances and comedies and stark dramas and melodramas that the audience loved.
21 Jump Street (C)
U.S.: Phil Lord/Chris Miller, 2012, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Why is it that so many American movie-makers are obsessed with going back to their high school years and trying to make or imagine a success of what was apparently a horrible, angst-ridden, sexually repressed botch of broken hearts, frayed nerves, dictatorial teachers and abject humiliation? We were all Jonah Hills, presumably, but we wanted to be Channing Tatums. And guess what, according to 21 Jump Street? The Channing Tatums sometimes wanted to be Jonah Hills -- at least after he lost a little weight.
21 Jump Street, which is set up as a spoofy knockoff movie-ization of the 1987-91 TV cop drama series of the same name about young DEA agents masquerading as high-schoolers (the show that made a star of of Johnny Depp), is another of that Peggy Sue Got Married-The Best of Times subgenre of comedies about high school years revisited or redeemed. It's about how short, nerdy unpopular Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill, of course) and studly ultra-popular jock-dumbo Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum, natch), who were once stud-vs.dweeb antagonists in some 2005 New Orleans high school, meet up again in cop training in 2012, and become cop-buddies -- each supplying the brains or brawn the other guy lacks.
They're also assigned to what their boss, surly Captain Dickson (Ice Cube, in full snarl mode, with an old NWA song on the soundtrack) describes as a remake of an old, defunct program called 21 Jump Street.
True to the template of buddy-buddy-cop comedies, 21 Jump Street turns these two old enemies into fast friends. In a maneuver that left me pretty bewildered, Schmidt and Jenko wind up getting mistaken for each other, and assuming each other's profiles, and assigned to each other's hand-picked (by Dickson) course schedules.
These brothers in narcdom also set up housekeeping, as fake brothers, in Schmidt's semi-quasi-palatial suburban home (his eccentric parents, Caroline Aaron and Joe Chrest, have his photos all over the walls), and throw wild high school parties there, complete with dope they borrow from the evidence room.
21 Jump Street partisans may say it's supposed to be full of stereotypes and dopey scenes that make no sense. That's entertainment! The movie is a spoof of a sendup of a satire of a knockoff: a satire of itself as well as of movies in general, and even of critics. Well, yeah, granted. Okay. Maybe. I'm perfectly willing to concede that, where this movie is concerned, I'm on the wrong wavelength. But it still seemed a waste of time for the audience, for Jonah Hill and for Channing Tatum.
21 Jump Street was directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the writer-directors of the cartoon feature Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and written by Bacall, who scripted the fairly funny Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World. I'm perfectly willing to give them all the benefit of the doubt. Maybe something horrible happened and this show was the result. But then high school was a horrible, humiliating time, wasn't it? So are a lot of movies. (Extras: Commentary with directors Lord and Miller and the cast; featurette; deleted scenes.)
And Everything Is Going Fine (A-)
U.S.: Steven Soderbergh, 2010, Criterion Collection
"I don't believe in fate. I'm rather a chaos person." -- Spalding Gray
Fate? Chaos? Nell Casey describes Spalding Gray and the opening of his act very well in the little booklet that accompanies the Criterion DVD edition of And Everything Is Going Fine -- which is Gray's last posthumous "monolog" act. It's a very good show and a very good DVD set.
Spalding Gray was the creator/performer of Swimming in Cambodia, Gray's Anatomy, Monster in a Box and dozens of other theater monologues, some made into films, some not. He was a professional storyteller and a very good one, and he had to do it because that was his job, and probably his passion and certainly his art. He was an autobiographical self-dramatist, an embellisher, a strip-teaser of the mind and maybe of the soul. He's dead now, and his friends suspect he threw himself off the Staten Island Ferry and drowned, took his life because he was suffering the pain from a bad traffic accident on a lonely road in Ireland that left him with a smashed skull and some brain damage, and, according to Nell Casey "an orbital fracture, a broken hip, and a permanent limp" -- unable to swim, unable to ski. Unable... So he jumped, maybe. Drowned, maybe. We don't know because he isn't around to tell the story.
He'd tell it better than we could -- wrily, sardonically, wistfully, with lots of detail, with perfect timing, and perhaps with that faint smile playing around his lips. Then he'd take a sip of water -- and we'd look at him, a little startled, and he'd look back, with a bemused half-grin.
On stage, Gray seemed to control his job -- his art, the art of the monologue -- to a very fussy and meticulous degree, even when someone else, like his ex-wife Renee Shafransky, was his co-writer collaborator and director, as in the stage version of Gray's Anatomy. But it always seemed like a one-man-show. He wrote or co-wrote the script, picked the minimalist set, chose the music. That's his notebook, his writing. There must have been somewhere there to switch the lights on and off, but maybe he did that too. Anyway, he tried to give the illusion of someone just strolling in, sitting down and spinning his yarns, riffing, like the guy in the bar, talking about himself, using the notebook to jog his memory every once in a while. "I have a photographic memory," he says several times in this new film, this last film.
His monologues (he always spelled them "monologs") sound very carefully written and worked out to me, and I think he wanted us to realize it -- which is why he races along so much, like an actor rehearsing his lines: to show us he's got it all memorized, every word, every sentence, every anecdote, every embarrassment. At times he seems to go up on his own lines -- he does that once in the tape extra with And Everything is Going Fine, the tape of his very first monolog, Sex and Death to the Age of 14 (first performed in 1979, taped in 1982) -- and then he seems to cover the slip with a sip of water and with the notebook. But maybe this is all misdirection.
Gray could control everything, at least on stage. Life was a different story, as the monologues attest. In his other movies he tells the story and his film directors -- Jonathan Demme for Swimming to Cambodia, Nick Broomfield for Monster in a Box, Steven Soderbergh for Gray's Anatomy -- set the images, do the cutting. But here, in Everything Is Going Fine, Soderbergh has to help tell the story too, has to clip together various bit and pieces from all over, from 90 hours of footage given to him by Gray's partner/widow/producer Kathleen Russo, and by his editor Susan Littenberg. There's more shaping and arranging here, down to the choosing of the image (and sound) that will close the film: Gray outside, surrounded by sunny greenery, talking, smiling, and then stopping as a dog howls somewhere behind him, in the trees. How appropriate, he says, and we think. Gray tries to talk, finally stops. The dog keeps howling. He wins the argument. Curtain. Soderbergh's choice.
Soderbergh is one director whose movies and directions are really hard to predict, except for the Oceans movies. (Ocean's Twelve has to follow Ocean's Eleven, and then comes Oceans Thirteen.) Here, he's obviously trying to give the whole show to Gray, do it the way Gray would have wanted it. The director doesn't comment, except in the interview in the Criterion extras.
What do we learn about Spalding Gray? Not much we didn't know already if we've seen the other films -- although some of us my not have known about the accident, or about the suicide, if it was a suicide. An artist can tell us about himself in ways that can make us better understand ourselves and others. Gray told us things that didn't necessarily help us, because he led a life first of semi-privilege, then of being an artist, an outsider, a Christian Scientist. He was a Wooster Street kook of a guy. He tried to end the story happily once, with a scene we see here, his dance around the table, where he suddenly becomes himself, his wife, his two sons, all gyrating around the room to some joyous rock 'n' roll. But the story wasn't under his control.
Soderbergh steers us gently through Gray's world and life on stage, his last penance for letting his friend suffer. But we all try to avoid pain, unless we're masochists, and then it isn't pain. Gray's compulsion throughout to psychically disrobe, is something many actors feel, many writers too -- and Gray was both. He's done it before, rehearsed it all. And he knows everything as it comes off. Everything but the end. (Extras: "Making of" interview, with Soderbergh, Russo and Littenberg; trailer; booklet with Nell Casey essay.)
Deliverance (40th Anniversary Collector's Edition) (A)
U.S.; John Boorman, 1972, Warner Bros.
Four Southern businessmen, searching for the joys of youth, join together for a Georgia canoe trip on the beautiful but often dangerously turbulent Cahulawassee River. Soon, however, after a violent confrontation with two evil backwoodsmen, they find themselves heading into a Conradian Heart of Darkness.
Jon Voight (as the man of thought), Burt Reynolds (as the man of action), Ned Beatty (as the fat jovial victim, the man of expediency) and Ronny Cox (as the man of conscience) are the white rapids-daring quartet, and they're all aces. (Reynolds has never been better). Bill McKinney and Herbert "Cowboy" Coward play their antagonists, the brutal hillbillies of your worst nightmares -- and Vilmos Zsigmond's spectacular cinematography of the wild river runs and the deep dark forests has a hypnotic splendor, drenching the screen in lyricism and thrills.
Splendid also is Deliverance's famous spine-tingling instrumental scene "Duelin' Banjos," an idyllic early interlude with river-traveller Ronny Cox bursting into a furious banjo duet with a mentally challenged river boy, a number -- according to the Deliverance booklet -- originally written (as "Feudin' Banjos") by the legendary picker Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith. It's one moment of almost celestial lightness and gace, in a movie that often soaks you in pure fear, fills you with horror.
In fact, John Boorman's 1972 film, from poet James Dickey's celebrated novel (Southern poet Dickey wrote the screenplay and appears in a cameo as a burly sheriff), is one of the great dark American adventure movies. It's also the model of a '70s American film classic, typical product of a movie decade that took artistic chances as well as financial ones. Every scene has a terrific mix of spontaneity and elegiac beauty, and the result is a wrenching, unforgettable film experience: a Faulknerian, even Melvillean, plunge into the perils of nature, the terrors of the chase, the contradictions of humanity, and the dark wilderness of the soul. (Extras: commentary by Boorman; featurettes, including the vintage The Dangerous World of Deliverance and the newly made documentary Deliverance: The Cast Remembers; booklet; trailer.)