Saturday, March 31, 2012

"The Artist" Reinvents Silent Pictures

O.K. I didn't want to like "The Artist." I've had it up to here with Hollywood remakes. Even Broadway is adapting Hollywood blockbusters for the stage. Is there an original idea out there! At the last Screenwriting Expo, more than one manager insisted that to break into the biz, you should take an old story and put a new twist on it. And to be honest, it worked reasonably well for the Cinderella remake, "Enchanted." (Though the over the top Alladin climax was a mess.)

So I should be morally opposed to, "The Artist," because it puts two old stories together – the over done, "A Star is Born" and "Singing in the Rain." Bigger-than-life movie star George Valentin (Best Actor Oscar winner Jean Dujarin) fades into oblivion with the decline of silent pictures as his young love interest, Peppy Miller, (the lovely Bérénice Bejohe) rises to stardom with the talkies.

French director (Best Director winner) Michel Hazanavicius chose to make a black and white silent picture. I'll admit here that I'm not a big fan of silent movies because I can't stand the fake, theatrical posturing and mugging. But, "The Artist" transcends the limitations of the silent form. Michel reinvents silent pictures by using a naturalistic acting style, exquisite cinematography, and modern storytelling devices such as opening with a silent film within a silent film. But what really makes it stand out are the clever, charming moments. In one touching moment, Peppy snuggles up to Valentin's jacket on the coat rack as if she is embracing the man. The actress is so totally invested in the hug that when Valentin catches her, he flashes a surprised, then amused grin that lights up his whole face. Sigh. Did I mention the incredible chemistry between these two charismatic actors?

A Facebook friend complained that Dujarin won best actor without uttering a word of dialogue. (Did he actually see the film?) But, as they taught us in Film 101, a movie is moving pictures. You should be able to understand the story with the sound turned off. Jean Dujarin, as George Valentin, goes through a full character arch from arrogance to falling in love to hitting rock bottom without the crutch of dialogue. And he kept me engaged in every scene. And he can tap dance! I'd say the Oscar was well deserved.

"The Artist" is more than a homage to the silent film era, it transcends the form. It presents a universal theme: When the old ways no longer work, ego may hinder us from adapting to the new ways, but in the end love conquers all.

It's not hard to see why it won Best Picture. You can see the love in every frame.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"The Descendants"

There are times in our lives when our world comes crashing down and we are completely unprepared. Shocked and clueless, we grope around making awkward attempts to deal with the overwhelming situation or to just get by. Like the day my whole life was thrown out of whack when my husband of 23 years announced he wanted a divorce and moved out that afternoon. I did my share of groping to find my footing - not always handling it with the best of grace.

I guess that's why I relate to Alexander Payne's, “The Descendants.” Payne (and Oscar winning co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) aren't afraid to present a flawed main character, Matt King (George Clooney), who is absolutely clueless about how to handle the life shattering situation he finds himself in when his wife ends up in a coma as the result of a boating accident. To add insult to injury, he discovers that she was cheating on him at the time. It's a one-two punch that leaves him stunned and reeling.

Matt lives in Hawaii, in paradise, but has been so caught up in business transactions that he can't take in the beauty around him. His time has been spent negotiating deals with vacation resorts and condos to sell the pristine forest entrusted to him and the other descendants. This piece of land represents all that he has lost in his life. There was a time that he took his family on regular camping trips there. But he has lost his connection with the land and his family. He has become an absentee husband and father. In fact, he is absent from his own life.

Sometimes it takes a catastrophic event to shake us awake after sleep walking through life. (It took my husband leaving me...) Having been JOLTED awake, Matt is ill equipped to deal with the fall out from the accident on his two troubled daughters. George Clooney brings out the humor as his character gropes around trying to make some sense of the whole mess. When he hears that his wife was cheating, Matt, still in shock, charges off in his clumsy flip flops around a ridiculous circular drive – in search of answers, anything... Later, we can see the inner turmoil in his eyes even as his daughter splashes in the ocean and life goes on around him. Once he has dealt with his own issues, he is better equipped to help others cope with the tragedy. Finally fully awake, Matt sees that he is a part of something bigger than himself. He realizes his responsibility to the land, himself, and those around him. Procuring his place in the world puts his problems in perspective.

As for me, I'm grateful to be awake and learning life's lessons.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Thursday, March 15, 2012

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"

What you might not know about me is that despite a fairly embarrassing learning disability (I was the one kid in my school who was in both special education and the gifted program), I actually have a very active problem solving mind. I loved unraveling the enigma that was the "Tree of Life" for my review on I loved every minute spent solving the puzzle of what really happened behind the gunfight at the OK Corral for my Tombstone comedy. So it's no wonder I greatly enjoyed, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." It basically takes the audience on a problem solving reconnaissance mission. To be honest, I relate to it in other ways as well.

According to his dad (adorably played by Tom Hanks), the way Oskar sees the world is a gift. Oskar's (Thomas Horn) overly active mind continuously scrutinizes the connections he observes in order to make sense of the physical world. Things he can't observe – like people's feelings (including his own) - are elusive and frightening to him. For a boy in need of concrete answers, even the inconclusive results of his Asperger Syndrome test are unsettling.

His dad's gift was to find creative ways to challenge his son. Their favorite games were reconnaissance missions. One such mission was to search the five boroughs of New York for something from every decade. In the process, Oskar spoke to people from all walks of life. The purpose being to overcome his fear of interacting with people. True to form, Oskar comes up with a concrete answer to the riddle – a rock.

When his father is killed in the 9/11 tragedy, Oskar is ill equipped to make sense of the senseless act. His mother (Sandra Bullock) buries an empty coffin in an awkward attempt to make his father's death more real for him and Oskar is outraged at yet another senseless act. Searching for some part of his father to hold onto, Oskar digs through his father's closet and discovers a key inside an envelope with the word BLACK written on it and a newspaper clipping indicating that he should keep looking. Did his father leave him one last message locked away somewhere in the city that only this key can open? The audience is invited along on one last reconnaissance mission. We observe as Oskar constructs an elaborate filing system to chart all the people in the city named Black and set off with him in search of the answer.

Oskar becomes obsessed with this mission because it is the only way he can feel connected to his father. As Oskar compulsively traverses the five boroughs in search of the lock, he inadvertently learns the lessons his father set out to teach him. He makes connections with other New Yorkers with their own stories of heartache from 9/11. The quest gives him a concrete objective enabling him to deal with unmanageable feelings of guilt, fear, grief, and redemption. He faces physical manifestations of his fears – such as crossing a bridge - that he can overcome. The quest gives him a concrete method to deal with a tragedy that makes no sense.

Thomas Horn does a fine job creating a sympathetic character with some very unsympathetic Aspberger traits. The young actor handles both the intensity and humor effortlessly. But not all the credit goes to the actor. For the benefit of the writers out there, I'll share a writing device that the was successfully used by screenwriter Eric Roth. Considerable time was spent setting up the father's love of the boy and his gifts - so we are already rooting for Oskar well before we witness his negative traits (being rude to the door man and the intense meltdowns).

One of my readers suggested that I include more of my opinions on the films. There was one thing that bothered me a bit. The movie went on well beyond the point where I felt there could have been a satisfying ending – presenting several resolutions. But that was the result of the multi-layered story. That's a price I'm willing to pay for a story with some depth.

I believe one reason we go to the movies is to find meaning in the senseless events of our lives. Perhaps there is no way to come to a solid understanding of the senseless act that was 9/11. But "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," offers hope that we can find some comfort in our shared experience and our connections with others.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal