Thursday, January 26, 2012

Red Tails

Alternate Title:  Turn Tail and Run

One sentence synopsis:  The first Black fighter pilots fight bigotry and the Nazis during World War II.

Things Havoc liked:  Um...

Er... well...

Okay, so, The Tuskegee Airmen: Back in the closing days of World War Two, when the US army was still segregated, a group of black pilots fought their way through a racist, bigoted system to be allowed to fly fighter planes for their country in the greatest war in history. These men formed the 332nd Fighter Group, four squadrons of black fighter pilots who were eventually assigned to escort heavy bombers back and forth from their runs on Germany. Despite opposition from the finest German fighters and pilots that remained in the Luftwaffe, these men performed brilliantly, losing very few bombers (by some accounts none at all) and shooting down the first Me-262 jet fighters of the war. In performing well above and beyond the call, the Tuskegee airmen contributed to the collapse of the color barriers in the US army and air force, and justly earned a lustrous place in military history. I applaud the notion of making a film about this subject.

The actors in this film vary in quality, but I will admit, the best job is done by the pilots themselves (which is only fair, I suppose). The movie focuses upon a small group of pilots, particularly two with callsigns 'Lightning' and 'Easy' (David Oyelowo and Nate Parker respectively). These two, and the other pilots that surround them, played variously by R&B and hip hop artists, actually manage a decent amount of what I would call real camaraderie in this movie. Scenes of them sitting about playing cards, discussing missions, lying and bragging to one another, actually strike home reasonably well, and David Oyelowo in particular does a pretty decent job with the material he's given. One does get the impression that this could actually be a group of real pilots in a real movie.

Things Havoc disliked:  I could try to get glib here, try to coyly hide what I actually think, but my duty as a reviewer is to warn people when something like this comes about. So let me get right to the point. This movie is an unqualified piece of shit.

I have never in my life seen a movie torpedo itself so quickly out of the gate. The very first line in the movie is a line so transcendentally awful both in writing and delivery that I turned to my viewing companions and whispered "uh oh". Not even Last Airbender managed to make me lose faith that quickly, and when you're causing me to compare your film negatively with the worst movie ever made, you are in trouble.

I'm no stranger to bad writing in movies, but this screenplay is the worst I have seen in a long damn while. Every single line is an abysmal, cringe-worthy, disaster, so bad that I suspect that George Lucas recycled all of the lines that he thought were too bad to fit into the Star Wars prequels into this film. Characters do not stop at stating the obvious, but narrate their own actions to other people in the same room. Officers give lectures about duty, pride, and honor in such an unfathomably schmaltzy, wooden manner that they look and sound embarrassed to be there. Pilots speak to one another using language that no pilot, indeed that no human being in the history of time, has ever pronounced in all seriousness to another person. These lines are not helped by the soundtrack, comprised entirely of faux-patriotic orchestral crap, which succeeds in making the movie worse in direct proportion to how much it plays. When one is listening to an actor recite awful dialogue, it does not improve the experience by having bad Sousa marches swell up every time someone mentions the word "mission".

It's hard for me to separate the terrible quality of the writing from the acting, but the acting here is absolutely terrible. Yes, I praised David Oyelowo, but that's because my system requires me to find at least SOMETHING I liked, and he's simply the least bad of the lot. Terrence Howard, an excellent actor whom I loved in everything from Crash to Hustle & Flow to Iron Man, here turns in a performance that looks like it was generated under the influence of powerful drugs, staring vacantly into space as he recites terrible and cliche-ridden lines about the power of self-belief. Cuba Gooding Jr, who won an Academy Award for Jerry McGuire, here manages to effortlessly disguise whatever talents led the academy to give it to him. Chomping on his pipe as though it were some alien life form he did not understand, his role is completely superfluous, in that he does not one important thing for the entire movie, plot or character-wise. Gooding has been in his share of bad movies before, but manages here to trump everything he has ever done in terms of awfulness, and for a man who last 'starred' in 'The Land Before Time XIII: The Wisdom of Friends', this is not a statement I make lightly.

One might think that George Lucas, who produced this monstrosity and funded it himself, might at least know how to create stunning aerial dogfights and thrilling scenes of combat. One would be wrong. Comparing the action in this movie to a video game is to inflict a grave and unwarranted insult to video games. Planes dash about the air performing maneuvers that are not simply impossible but laughably so, even to someone with no experience at aerial combat. Our heroes have infinite ammunition in their guns, which appear to fire explosive howitzer shells that trigger stupendous explosions in everything they so much as approach. One of the pilots manages to detonate a locomotive, derailing and obliterating an entire train, by firing into it with .50 caliber machine guns for two seconds. One does not have to be a military historian to know that such events are ludicrously impossible, and as though that weren't enough, he turns around later in the movie and does the same thing to a destroyer! Worst of all, these sights aren't just thoughtless eye-candy we the viewers are treated to while the movie winks at us. At one point that same pilot is congratulated by his superiors for having destroyed SIXTY-THREE aircraft in one strafing mission, a number so absurd as to invite ridicule from people with no prior experience with anything military. I have seen five year olds describing the imagined gyrations of their magical starfighters who maintained a better sense of reality than this.

And yet the worst thing of all about this movie, unquestionably, is the subject of Race. The Tuskegee Airmen, beyond being amazing fighter pilots, were trailblazers, instrumental in the first wave of the civil rights movement by proving conclusively that blacks could do anything whites could. Race is central to the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, and yet this movie manages, somehow, to both whitewash away the racism that the airmen faced, and also reduce it to ludicrous cliche. We see the obligatory racist southern senators sitting around talking about how the airmen are incompetent because they're black, and hear the virtuous (and awful) speeches that the officers of the unit give in their defense. But the pilots scarcely seem to realize that race is a factor in their lives, discussing it infrequently and in pathetic sound-bytes that do the subject no justice. When one of our heroes walks into a whites-only officers' club, and is chased away by racist white officers, their insults sound less like biting, shocking incidents of racism, and more like barely-literate idiots reading uncomfortable lines from a cue card. Every white pilot or crewman, without exception, is portrayed as a bumbling idiot (possibly because the actors are all incompetent, and possibly because the writing is so awful), so stupid and uncomfortable with their lines that we can't believe for a second that these people actually believe what they're saying. The turnaround, when our heroes finally start to get recognized by the formerly racist whites, feels contrived and unconvincing, partly because the writing is still awful, and partly because the threat of racism previously felt like a joke. There is (of course) no mention of their struggle in a wider context, no hint of the racism that might await them back home, nor of the struggles they undertook to get as far as they did. The post-script doesn't even mention the de-segregation of the US military. Instead we are apparently meant to believe that racism itself was vanquished along with Nazi Germany. The movie even goes so far as to include a long (and completely pointless) romance sub-plot between one of the pilots and an Italian girl, ignoring the fact that while any two people can fall in love, there is no way on earth that a black man would be permitted to date (much less marry) a white Italian girl in Italy in 1944. Race riots and lynch mobs were formed over less.

Final thoughts:  Sixteen years ago, HBO produced a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen called (appropriately enough) The Tuskegee Airmen. The movie starred Lawrence Fishburne, Andre Braugher, and, of all people, Cuba Gooding Jr. It did not have an enormous budget, nor was it a perfect film, but it managed to express quite expertly what the conditions for these pilots were like, and what obstacles they were faced with and overcame, all without artifice, blame-throwing, or recourse to ugly stereotypes. Compared to that film, Red Tails feels like an ugly slap in the face, not just to the Tuskegee Airmen themselves, but to the fine black actors who starred in this abomination, which may well set the cause of black actors in this country back twenty years. Men of talent created this film. Aaron McGruder (of the Boondocks) wrote the screenplay. Terence Blanchard (of Malcolm X and Bamboozled) wrote the score. And yet whether because Lucas turns everything he touches these days into galvanized crap, or because some collective mania overcame everyone involved, the result was one of the most complete trainwrecks I've ever seen.

George Lucas claimed in the press that one of the reasons he financed this film himself was that Hollywood was unwilling to back a movie that did not have a single significant white role. At the time I praised him for having dared to do what the studios would not, and given a chance for great actors to portray a story that deeply deserved a full cinematic treatment. Having now seen the result, I suspect that the reason he couldn't secure financing is because someone saw the rough cut and wisely ran away. I sat through this movie in mounting awe at the depths to which it fell, wondering at every turn if it could possibly get any worse, and discovering that it could and did. This movie was a complete disaster from start to finish, and I can only hope that those involved will recover from the experience of having produced it soon.

Lord knows it will take me a while.

Final Score:  1.5/10

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Iron Lady

Alternate Title:  Decline and Fall of the British Empress

One sentence synopsis:  One of the most important Prime Ministers of Britain looks back on her career and life.

Things Havoc liked:  Meryl Streep is the greatest actor in the world.  In fact, as far as I can tell, she has been the greatest actor in the world since the early 80s.  Though there are films of hers that I do not care for (Out of Africa), there exists, to my knowledge, no film in which she is not uniformly excellent.  It therefore should come as no surprise to anyone that in The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep does a flawless job playing Margaret Thatcher, a job so perfect that for any other actress it would be considered the performance of a lifetime.  In Streep's case, it's merely January.

Though Streep does not look much like Thatcher did (Thatcher had an very bird-like face in my opinion), Streep evokes Thatcher in mannerism, voice, gesture, and overall presence effortlessly, whether playing Thatcher at the height of her power, or in the midst of senile dementia (more on that in a moment).  She gets across without a word what made Thatcher the Iron Lady, what qualities she evoked that enabled her to become the first female head of government in the western world, how it was that she was able to rule as prime minster longer than anyone else in the Twentieth Century, as well as what attributes finally drove her from power.  Never once in the entire film did I imagine I was watching anyone but Margaret Thatcher, even when the person I was seeing was twenty years' removed from the Thatcher I remember from old footage of the end of the Cold War.  Insofar as a biopic must evoke the character it focuses upon, Streep delivers.

This isn't to say that the rest of the cast is bad.  Jim Broadbent, one of my favorite English supporting actors, plays Dennis Thatcher, the long-suffering husband of the Iron Lady, in a performance that evokes quiet middle-class comfort and quotidian contentment perfectly.  Alexandra Roach and Harry Lloyd (whom I last saw being awesome in Doctor Who) play the Thatchers as young adults, and do credible jobs of portraying the people they would one day become.  Roach in particular never goes completely off the deep end with material that could make Thatcher out to be a shrill lunatic, but instead plays her as a perfectly normal young woman whose sense of social inferiority has simply been amputated.  She seems less angry that men want to dismiss her as merely a young girl (and a grocer!) than completely uninterested in their dismissal.  It is as though she has no time to waste dealing with the very subject of these men's sexism, not even for anger, and so casts it aside without bothering to acknowledge its existence.  Thatcher herself, while a trendsetter, was not a feminist, and the movie does not attempt to turn her into one.

It is perhaps impossible to be neutral on the subject of Thatcher's politics (Roger Ebert spends half his review bashing the Falklands War).  Even today, she is described variously as a miracle-worker and the Antichrist, depending on one's opinion of her cold-war era conservative politics.  To the movie's credit, it neither sides with either camp, nor tries some sort of artificial "balance" between the two sides, but rather presents her politics and behavior as it finds it.  Thatcher's economic policies are given quite a bit of time, and shown to work at times and produce hardship at others.  What is key, however, is that she is given the opportunity to present the rationale and theory behind her politics, in a manner that is neither reverent nor a straw-man designed to make her look evil.  We see why she did what she did, even if we don't agree with it.  Her handling of the Falklands is shown in some detail, and presented as the victory it was, while her pitiless and petty bullying of her colleagues and even cabinet officials is displayed in full, and shown to have real consequences.  Coming out of the film, I could not decide whether I thought the film sided with or against Thatcher on the whole, nor did I believe that the movie had ducked the question.  Such is perhaps the best thing they could have done.

Things Havoc disliked: If only I could say the same about the focus.

The major, abiding flaw of this movie is the lopsided focus that it places upon Thatcher as she is today: old, frail, suffering from dementia, and gradually losing her ability to live and act independently.  Of the two hours or so that this movie runs, I would guess that 40-50% of that time is taken up with scenes of Thatcher in this state, twenty years or more removed from her days of power, watching her struggle to keep names and people straight, or hallucinating the presence of her dead husband.  That is an enormous amount of time, way more than the requirements of a framing plot, and as the movie rolls on, it begins to feel almost perverse, as though the film were glorying in showing the Iron Lady brought down at last by senility and old age.

In fairness, looking back, I don't actually believe that was the intention of the filmmakers, and yet I cannot conceive for the life of me of what they were thinking in presenting the movie this way.  The framing story is of Thatcher trying to let go of her dead husband, whom she still hallucinates, and to move on, which is fine, except that the film is supposedly a biopic of one of the most powerful and influential women of the twentieth century.  As such, we sit there wondering where exactly the filmmaker is trying to go with all of this endless footage of Thatcher barely able to hold a conversation.

To her credit, Streep's performance in these scenes is no less convincing than her performance in the rest of the film, and she even manages to infuse traces of Thatcher's indomitable spirit into them, but ultimately the film is not about Thatcher in her twilight years, and taking so much time up with the senility topic denies the film the chance to explore more elements of Thatcher's career.  Ronald Reagan, whose close relationship with Thatcher was so instrumental in maintaining the "Special Relationship" between Britain and America, is not in the movie at all.  The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War is barely mentioned.  While I applauded the delicate balance that the film took with Thatcher politically, I cannot help but be baffled by its belief that Thatcher imagining her dead husband for the thirteenth time is more important than Thatcher's role in winning the cold war.

Final thoughts:  I almost feel as though I'm being unfair to this movie by criticizing it as I have. It is, after all, in poor taste to criticize a movie for not being another movie. And yet, given what this movie was purported to be, I feel deeply unsatisfied by it. Margaret Thatcher was one of the greatest women in modern history, and deserved to have her story explored and portrayed by the greatest actress in the world. And while that is more or less what happened here, I get the sense that in their haste to tell some other story of their own invention about old age, dementia, and grief, the filmmakers forgot to actually tell the story of Margaret Thatcher.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

Alternate Title:  What do you do with a Drunken Sailor...

One sentence synopsis:  A boy reporter and a drunken sea captain race an evil criminal mastermind to uncover a secret treasure.

Things Havoc liked:  3D animation has come a long way since Final Fantasy, and for the last ten years, people have been trying, off and on, to make fully animated 3D movies. By and large, these have all sucked. Why they have sucked has varied from the normal problems that plague typically bad movies (incoherent plots, bad writing, lackluster voice/character acting, etc...) to reasons tied to the animation in general, particularly the famous uncanny valley effect.

And so we come to Tintin, a movie directed by Steven Spielberg, produced by Peter Jackson, scored by John Williams, and written by Stephen Moffat. With a lineup like that, one expects excellence, and, frankly, one by and large receives it. To conclude the point from above though, while I wouldn't call the animation here perfect, it is very very good animation. Faces are expressive, characters detailed, the visual style is rich and bright and colorful, and while there's still the occasional twinge of the old uncanny valley (mostly from Tintin's face, in specific shots), the characters in general are wisely caricatured enough to avoid it overall. The motion animation is stunningly real in movement and flow, enabling everything from acrobatics to swordfights to subtle character motions during dialogue to be portrayed perfectly. The Polar Express this ain't.

Based on the comics by the Belgian artist Georges Remi (known popularly as Hergé), Tintin's story and feel is essentially a version of Young Indiana Jones, which makes sense given who directed, scored, and wrote this film. The production, directorial, and writing teams associated with this movie have a long, rich history of adventure flicks to their credit, and Tintin fits seamlessly into that stable. The movie wisely eschews telling an origin story for Tintin himself, establishing him at the beginning as a boy reporter who goes on crazy adventures semi-constantly. Think Jimmy Olson crossed with Indiana Jones, and you'll get the proper idea. Though Tintin has been accused of being bland in the past, this movie moves so fast from set-piece to gorgeous set-piece that we never get the chance to notice if he is or not, and Jamie Bell (last seen as a slave in the terrible "The Eagle) voices him well, if not memorably. His signature look from the comics is replicated faithfully, as is his character as a boy scout who is perfectly willing to engage in complete insanity in order to solve this particular crime, mystery, or dastardly plot.

More impressive though, is Andy Serkis' take on Captain Haddock. Since the Lord of the Rings, Serkis has become the reigning prince of motion capture animation, playing everything from King Kong to the lead in the Planet of the Apes. Here he both voices and provides the motion capture for Captain Haddock, a drunken buffoon who is easily the best thing in the movie. Not only is his art design perfect, but he gets some of the funniest slapstick moments in entire film. His characterization is nothing to write home about, a gregarious, drunken Scott who feels like he isn't living up to his family's legacy, but he nonetheless provides great fun whenever he's on the screen.

The rest of the cast varies from decent to good, particularly Daniel Craig as the villain Sakharine (doing what sounds like a sendup to David Warner), and the Shaun of the Dead pairing of Nick Frost and Simon Pegg as the bumbling interpol agents Thomson and Thompson. But the characters in general are meant to take second place to the relentless, frenetic action and adventure going on on-screen. Spielberg is said to have remarked that animation freed him to direct action sequences the way he always wanted to, unlimited by such crass concerns as safety, budget, and the laws of physics. He certainly tries to make the most of it here. Sequences of almost frantic action hit you one after the next, including intricate, complex long-shots of swooping action that leave one dizzy. Many of the set-pieces are very inventive (particularly the dueling shipping cranes), and thanks to the superb motion capture, all of them feel like they have real weight and heft to them, elevating them above what could easily become a particularly well-animated Tom & Jerry cartoon.

Things Havoc disliked:  Except, that is, when they don't.

The temptation with animation, as with any technology that allows more freedom to the filmmaker, is to go completely over the top, saturating the screen with imagery and density of element until the audience is simply buried in effects. This mentality is one of the major things that doomed the Star Wars prequels (one of many, I grant), and Spielberg, no stranger to film-making, wisely does his best to avoid it whenever possible. Action in central and in the foreground, and is not compromised by anything else happening on the periphery of the screen, and several of the sequences are actually very technically impressive, animated film or no animated film. Yet despite the skill on display here, the incredible action and adventure scenes left me... astonishingly underwhelmed. Rather than getting caught up in the awesomeness, I really felt like I was watching a cartoon, wherein the occurrence of strange and fantastic events is not necessarily impressive. Not to say that one can't have amazing experiences in a cartoon, but a cartoon has to craft them more carefully, as the simple sight of amazing action is not going to wow the audience without something else to elevate it. We are all conditioned to expect the impossible in a cartoon, making it that much harder to generate interest when the impossible happens.

And that's really the problem here. The movie, while competent in every level, a piece of flawless execution of filmmaker's art, never really connected with me in any way. None of the adventure, none of the action filled me with the wonder that similar sequences in many live action films I've seen have. As nothing was done particularly wrong in this film, I have to conclude that there's an element to animated films, no matter how close to a live action film they are, are simply not able to work on the same levels as live action ones. Again, I'm not trying to say either that I dislike this movie or animated movies in general, but a sight that would floor me in live action did not do so here.

Final thoughts:  There is nothing particularly wrong with this movie. It is eye-catching, interesting, well-acted, superbly-well animated, shot with care and love, and yet it left me strangely unsatisfied, for reasons I have chosen to attribute to the experiment being performed here. Ultimately, no matter how good the technology, you simply cannot create an animated film in the same manner as a live action one and expect it to work on the same level. That said, the movie does work, firing on most if not all pistons for the vast majority of the time. There are inspired moments ("Hands up!") and even entire sequences ("Crane fight!") that I thought were awesome. But overall, the movie simply failed to connect with me in a way that makes me wonder about the limits of animation. One simply cannot make an animated movie in the same way one makes a live action film, not with all the talent and skill in the world. Such is the nature of film.

Final Score:  7/10

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Artist

Alternate Title:  Why the French can't have Nice Things

One sentence synopsis:  A silent film star is destroyed by the advent of talkies, while his one-time protege rises in his place.

Things Havoc liked:    'Tis, apparently, the season for retrospective love letters to early film. First Hugo and now this movie, of all things a black-and-white, silent film dedicated to the last glorious days of, well... silent film. Art-house fare is not my cup of tea, normally, but I started this project so that I would see more than just the occasional blockbuster, so here we go.

The Artist stars Jean Dujardin, a french actor I've never heard of, as George Valentin, a swashbuckling silent film star at the end of the 1920s, an obvious stand-in for the famous (and much lamented) real silent film star Rudolph Valentino. Dujardin's take on the silent film star is frankly the best thing in the movie. In a medium where only expression and mime can stand out, Dujardin manages to evoke great breadth and even subtlety of character through look, posture, and gestures, giving us a character who seems lifted out of a more technically advanced film. The movie starts with him at the top of his career, and shows his ruination as the stock market crashes and talkies become popular. Meeting him on the way up as he slides down, is Berenice Bejo, playing (and I'm not making this up) Peppy Miller, a wide-eyed girl-come-to-Hollywood type who meets Valentin by chance at the beginning and rapidly eclipses him in popularity as the transition to sounded films occurs.

One of the things I like most about this film is that it doesn't turn into a bad ripoff of Sunset Boulevard, Any Given Sunday, or any other damned movie you've seen about one star crashing while another is born. Specifically, the movie doesn't turn the two against one another. Valentin, at the height of his career, is a egotistical showboat, certainly (the sequence where he refuses to stop taking ovations is awesome), but (crucially) not an insufferable prick. When he runs into Miller by chance, and later as she is extra-ing in a scene in one of his films, he is more than willing to humor her, uses his clout to prevent her from being fired, and later offers what turns out to be career-making advice on how to stand out from the crowd of would-be actresses. And rather than paint him as just looking to get laid, the movie seems to show this as a sort of noblesse-oblige act on his part, without condescension or lechery. This establishment helps tremendously, in that it gives him a certain impoverished nobleman air that sticks with him when later he loses everything. His reluctance to be helped out by Miller, when she is the rich star and he a penniless victim, comes across not as conceit, but as simple unwillingness to be coddled.

The rest of the cast, though not as good as Dujardin, do a decent job. John Goodman (of all people) actually comes the closest to Dujardin's skill at silent theatricality, playing the studio boss as a comedic, yet gregarious character. Missi Pyle (she of the angular face) also steals her relatively small role as Valentin's long-suffering co-star. The rest of the cast are certainly competent, if not amazing.

The movie also has fun little meta-touches to it, playing with the conceit of having a silent film in a modern setting. The sequence where sound effects start to occur inside Valentin's dressing room is actually fairly trippy, given that the audience has now had enough time to accustom itself to the lack thereof. Similarly, the ending sequence (which I will not spoil here), is a sort of fun wink at the audience, noting the artifice of the silent movie, while maintaining the style throughout. It's clever enough, I suppose.

Things Havoc disliked:  Silent films, by necessity, relied heavily upon melodrama. Gestures and expressions had to be exaggerated absurdly both because of the limited quality of the film process at the time, the need to stand out dramatically in a black and white medium, and the impossibility of relying on spoken word or sound effects to convey anything. Such melodrama has to be taken with the old films of the 20s and early 30s, but in a modern movie, to a more jaded audience, strikes something of a wrong chord. And while this movie isn't overly melodramatic, and is extremely competently executed, there are sequences (such as Valentin burning his apartment, or preparing to commit suicide, or the antics of the dog) that really come across as hilarious in all the wrong ways. It may not be fair to blame the movie for this, given that it comes with the territory of a silent film, but I have to review these based on what I thought, and what I thought and what the critics thought are not gonna be the same.

And speaking of unfair criticisms...

Final thoughts:  There are great silent films. City Lights, Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Gold Rush, Battleship Potemkin, October, Out West, The Passion of Joan of Arc, The General, The Kid... I could go on. These films pushed the bounds of their medium to the utmost limit, and are justly regarded as great works of art. There is, however, a tendency among film critics to regard silent films as more 'worthy' than sounded films, and black-and-white films as more 'intellectual' than films in color. Permit me now to quote Roger Ebert's review of this film:

Is it possible to forget that "The Artist" is a silent film in black and white, and simply focus on it as a movie? No? That's what people seem to zero in on. They cannot imagine themselves seeing such a thing. At a sneak preview screening here, a few audience members actually walked out, saying they didn't like silent films. I was reminded of the time a reader called me to ask about an Ingmar Bergman film. "I think it's the best film of the year," I said. "Oh," she said, "that doesn't sound like anything we'd like to see."

Here is one of the most entertaining films in many a moon, a film that charms because of its story, its performances and because of the sly way it plays with being silent and black and white. "The Artist" knows you're aware it's silent and kids you about it. Not that it's entirely silent, of course; like all silent films were, it's accompanied by music. You know — like in a regular movie when nobody's talking?

With respect to Roger Ebert, and to the rest of the film critics of the world:  Fuck yourselves.

A film's choice of medium, style, and content, are artistic choices, not moral agents. The decision to film this movie in black and white and in silence was one made by the director and producers, insofar as they believed that the film they most wanted to create necessitated these means. It was not done because silent films are inherently more virtuous than sounded ones, nor black and white films rendered more intellectual and highbrow than their colorized counterparts.  A film is rendered into great art based on what it contains, not what it does not contain. Great children's movies are not defined solely by their lack of violence and sex, but by the artistry, imagination, and sheer bloody-minded work that elevates them to a higher level. And while it is certainly possible for a black and white, or even a silent film to be excellent, even in modern times (consider Schindler's List), they are not made so purely by lacking sound and color. Spielberg's choice of filming in Black and White for Schindler's List was inspired, in that it lent a style and an feel to the film that color would have leached from it. It does not, however, follow that a preference for films shot in glorious color, or with full sound and voice, is the mark of a boor and a hick. Black and White stiffens the film, reduces its depth of space, alters and, yes, limits the ability of the camera to find expansive angles or shades of metaphoric meaning within the visual art style. Silence goes much further, eliminating the possibility of lengthy dialogue or intonation, preventing the editor from using sound as a tool to supplement the action, and forcing the actors to over-emphasize their actions to compensate, eliminating subtlety and fine characterization. Neither of those things are to say that silent or B&W films are all bad, but the medium as a whole was immeasurably enriched by the development, first of talkies, and then of color.

In painting talkies as nothing more than pedestrian garbage suited for easily-amused audiences looking to oggle pretty women (as this film somewhat does), the movie seems to regard the development of sound in films as a net-loss to the artistic merit of film. And in regarding those who prefer color or sound in their films as uneducated rednecks, most movie critics seem to be indicating the same. I would ask these critics if any of them would prefer to see the Godfather done silently? Or Fantasia in black and white? And I would further ask how preferring these films over those of the 20s and 30s is somehow evidence of an uncultured heathenism. After all, of the hundreds of great directors and filmmakers to be found in Asia, America, and Europe over the last fifty years, working both within and without the studio system, how many chose to produce their magnum opuses without benefit of sound or color? Yes, there are films such as Schindler's List, Raging Bull, Great Dictator, and others, I know. But contrast that with the libraries of films made with these benefits.  Is this because directors like Lars von Trier, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, or Werner Herzog are all in the business of making only lowbrow trash to appease the masses?  Is that what Aguirre, the Wrath of God was?

Of course nobody is suggesting that. They are instead however constructing a world wherein The Artist is a good film solely because of what it lacks, rather than because of what it contains. Though I place myself in poor company, I choose to act otherwise. The movie is a perfectly workmanlike exercise in filmmaking, but is only that: A melodramatic, overacted film elevated by (admittedly very) good performances and a few quirks.

The simple lack of sound and color does not make a damn bit of difference.

Final Score:  7/10

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

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