‘The Artist’: A Silent Masterpiece

The Artist (2011)
Written & Directed by Michel Hazanvicius
100 mins.

***1/2 (out of four)

By Tim Lucia

Basically a shoo-in for Best Picture at the Academy Awards this Sunday, The Artist is a magical, fun, one-of-a-kind movie experience.  French director Michel Hazanvicius (the OSS 117 films) breaks into American cinema with this magnificent black-and-white, silent film unlike any you have ever seen.  A tribute to classic Hollywood films that all audiences can enjoy.

Hollywood, 1927.  Silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a swashbuckling screen icon, in the tradition of Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino.  He is on top of the world, adored by critics and fans alike, though he is quite self-absorbed.  While on the red carpet at a premiere, he bumps into – literally – the beautiful, young Peppy Miller (Bernice Bejo).  In a wonderfully staged meet-cute, Peppy kisses Valentin on the cheek, and they smile and pose for the photographers, flashbulbs popping like shining stars.

The next day, the headline in Variety reads: “Who’s That Girl?” with their photo on the front page.  Peppy is soon hired as a back-up dancer for the studio.  Then comes the innovation of sound in film.  Talkies become all the rage, and the silent films are left behind.  Peppy rockets to stardom, becoming Hollywood’s newest it-girl, while Valentin’s star falls into obscurity, and his life begins to spin out of control.

The Artist is a once-in-a-generation kind of film, I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it.  The black-and-white photography, coupled with the (almost) silent nature of the film (of course, there is music), suggest a somewhat dream-like experience.  Dujardin’s performance is absolutely mesmerizing, drawing the perfect amount of expression in every scene; he really seems like a silent film star.  Bejo is also perfect as Peppy, her wide mouth, accentuated eyes, traditional beauty and flapper vestements make her the ideal actress for the role.  Rounding out the cast are veteran actors John Goodman (The Big Lebowski), James Cromwell (L.A. Confidential), and Penelope Ann Miller (Carlito’s Way).

Hazanvicius re-creates a time and place that we all know from history, and he does it perfectly.  The Artist really captures the magic of an era in filmmaking that (in my opinion) Martin Scorsese’s Hugo did not do as well.  Though the film is predictable at times (there are a few surprises), I found myself not caring at all, because it was still so enjoyable.  Dujardin is likely to win Best Actor on Sunday, and the film will surely win Best Picture.

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Ladies & Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!

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Calling all filmmakers, videographers, artists, dabblers, dilettantes and dreamers!

The 8th Annual Ellensburg Film Festival is now accepting submissions for consideration in this year’s fest. Check out our website for more information, and submit your work through Withoutabox.com between now and June 30, 2012.

Exhibition dates are October 5-7, 2012, and notifications will be sent out by August 31, 2012.

Cash awards for Best of Fest, Best Feature, Best Documentary, Best Short & Best of (Central) Washington.

Payne’s ‘The Descendants’ is solid, but a bit over-hyped

The Descendants (2011)
Directed by Alexander Payne
115 mins.

*** (out of four)

By Tim Lucia

Director Alexander Payne’s latest effort, The Descendants, is a decent film, but a little bit disappointing (I probably went in with too high of expectations).  Payne loves the hybrid genre of dramedy, again following that pattern here.  After starting his career with the biting satires Citizen Ruth and Election, Payne went on to direct the excellent dramedies About Schmidt and Sideways.  The Descendants achieves some of the same comedic elements and situations as those two films, but lacks the emotional payoff with the drama.

Payne’s films always involve an everyman protagonist who is forced into a difficult situation, and forced to deal with quirky, odd, and somewhat troubled supporting characters.  The Descendants is no different in that respect.  Matt King (George Clooney) is a lawyer in Honolulu and a land baron, entrusted with a large chunk of idyllic paradise on Kauai that has been passed down through the generations from his royal ancestors.  The opening scene fades in on a shot of Matt’s wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) basking in the sun on a speeding motorboat.  The shot then fades out, and we soon learn that an accident occurred, and Elizabeth is now in a coma.  Matt describes himself in voice-over as “the back-up parent”, and now has to care for his two daughters, rebellious 17-year old Alex (Shailene Woodley) and cute 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller).

On top of all that, Matt is informed his wife may have been having an affair; and his family desperately wants to sell the land to developers, netting them all a big pay day.  Of course, Matt is conflicted about all of this, but soon realizes the importance of family, despite the pain and frustration they sometimes bring.  

Some solid performances and interesting actor choices fill out the supporting characters; Alex’s dimwitted but likable boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) provides some laughs — Payne loves the dumb-but-lovable boyfriend character (Dermot Mulroney in About Schmidt, Chris Klein in Election).  Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) co-stars as Matt’s father-in-law, Beau Bridges as his cousin, Matthew Lillard (Scream) as a real estate agent, and Judy Greer (Arrested Development) as the agent’s wife — a somewhat normal character which she played well, a far cry from the crazy Kitty on A.D.  (“Say goodbye to these, Michael”).  Clooney shows somewhat of a different side of himself, gaining weight and donning some pretty ugly vestements to play Matt.  This is probably the least attractive he has looked on film, and he plays his role well.

Payne adapts most of his films and does again here, from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.  Although, instead of working with his normal writing partner, Jim Taylor, Payne instead adapted the script for The Descendants with two actors, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.  Though it is a decent film with good performances from Clooney and Woodley, and a setting that would make anyone want to hop on the next plane to the beautiful archipelago that is Hawaii, the film falls short of Payne’s two previous films.  There are some laughs, and plenty of drama happens, but I felt disconnected from it.  There was a lack of emotional impact, and the predictability of some of the situations, outcomes, and characters didn’t help.  A solid dramedy worth watching, but not an absolute must-see in the theater.  Side note:  HBO announced today they are canceling Hung, the dramedy series starring Thomas Jane which was executive produced by Payne.  This should ensure he will be making feature films with more frequency.  The Descendants ended a seven year drought from Payne, he has two new films announced on imbd, one already in pre-production.

Pitt, Miller hit a home run with ‘Moneyball’

Moneyball (2011)
Directed by Bennett Miller
133 mins.

***1/2 (out of four)

By Tim Lucia

Michael Lewis’s non-fiction book Moneyball burned up the bestseller list in 2004, rocketing all the way to number one.  His follow up, The Blind Side, was adapted into a highly successful film in 2009, earning Sandra Bullock an Oscar for Best Actress.  But, the film Moneyball is extremely superior, and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as other great baseball films such as The Natural, Bang the Drum Slowly, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and Eight Men Out.  In my opinion, the little-seen 2008 film Sugar, directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson) and the 1993 kids classic The Sandlot are also up there.

Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane was on top of the world at age 18.  Sports and life came easy to him.  A handsome, All-American athlete, he wowed scouts as a 5-tool player (running, throwing, fielding, hitting, and hitting for power) in baseball, and was also a top-tier quarterback in football.  He was offered a full scholarship to Stanford, but was allured by the promise of a big contract to play pro baseball.  A first round draft pick by the New York Mets, Beane took the money but never panned out as a player, ultimately becoming a bust.

Years later, Beane (Brad Pitt) is struggling to put together a roster for the A’s after losing stars Jason Giambi (to the Yankees), Johnny Damon (to the Red Sox), and Jason Isringhausen (to the Cardinals); all teams with big payrolls.  Oakland has the smallest budget of any team in baseball at $40 million, and Beane knows he can’t compete with these teams in the financial market.  So, he tries something new.  While attending a meeting in Cleveland, he meets Peter Brand — in real life his name was Paul DePodesta (Jonah Hill), a Yale graduate with a degree in economics.  Brand presents his theory of analyzing players through statistics, specifically a mathematical formula known as sabremetrics, which looks at a players’ numbers, namely on-base percentage.  In theory, this would allow the A’s to manufacture more runs with less talent.  This also allows them to get players of value that are overlooked by other teams, who are smitten with the sexiness of the 5-tool, raw talent type of player.

No one has faith in this system, including manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the team starts the season off terribly.  Beane faces all kinds of criticism, but ignores it, remaining faithful to the system.  With the eventual help of certain ‘moneyball’ additions, namely Scott Hatteberg (Edmonds native Chris Pratt), the A’s begin to turn things around.  The main subplot revolves around Beane’s relationship with his daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey), who begins to take an interest in the team out of love for her father.  Robin Wright also co-stars as Beane’s ex-wife.

Director Bennett Miller (Capote) helms a superb film here, with a very good script from Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, American Gangster, Searching For Bobby Fischer) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, A Few Good Men, The West Wing), two of the best screenwriters in the business.  Miller perfectly blends real-life baseball footage with staged action, and brings the story together in a perfect fashion.  The script is excellent, chronicling Beane’s struggle very well, and Pitt is superb in the lead role.

Moneyball is an outstanding, emotional sports drama.  A crowd-pleaser that really makes you feel for the characters and the team, it sucks you in and takes you on the roller coaster ride that is professional sports.  You don’t have to be familiar with the book, or even be a baseball fan to enjoy Moneyball.  It is an fantastic drama that should earn some Oscar nominations, and deserves a place alongside all the other great baseball films in cinema history.

‘The Ides of March’: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail

The Ides of March (2011)
Directed by George Clooney
101 mins.
***(out of four)

By Tim Lucia

George Clooney’s fourth directorial feature The Ides of March has hit theaters, as the Fall movie season is now in full swing.  Clooney’s first two efforts, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck were met with critical acclaim, the latter earning some Oscar nods.  His third feature, Leatherheads, was met with mixed reviews, but is a fairly enjoyable film in the tradition of classic Hollywood romantic comedies, a la Tracy and Hepburn.  March is his latest, a political drama with an all-star cast; a cynical view on the behind-the-scenes goings on during a campaign.

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is an idealistic staffer for Presidential candidate Mike Morris (Clooney), and a rising star in the political campaign world.  Philip Seymour Hoffman is on board as Morris’ campaign manager, Evan Rachel Wood as a sexy intern.  Against his better judgement, Stephen takes a meeting with the manager of the rival campaign (Paul Giamatti) and hooks up with said sexy intern.  With a reporter (Marissa Tomei) on his case, Stephen is caught between a rock and a hard place, and soon realizes he will have to get his hands dirty, just like everyone around him.

Adapted from the play Farragut North by Clooney, Grant Heslov, and playwright Beau Willimon, March features some very sharp dialogue and solid performances.  Hoffman steals every scene he’s in, Clooney brings a dark mysteriousness to the character of Morris, and Gosling broodingly stares down everyone, as he does so well.  But, the film is too short for its genre, clocking in at only 101 minutes; Hoffman, Tomei, and Giamatti are all underutilized.  Wood’s character was not entirely believable, and the film was fairly predictable at times.

March is a decent and fairly enjoyable film, but it’s not without flaws.  Though I’m giving it three stars, there’s really no need to rush out and see it in the theater.  Clooney will be on the big screen again November 16th with The Descendants, director Alexander Payne’s (Sideways, About Schmidt, Election) first film in seven years (I am excited).  If you need another dose of the brooding Gosling, Drive, Nicholas Winding Refn’s instant cult-classic is also out there, an incredibly directed film which blends action, crime, and romance with shocking violence and a great soundtrack.  Stay tuned for Clooney in The Descendants and 2012’s Gravity, a sci-fi thriller from Children of Men and Y Tu Mama Tambien director Alfonso Cuaron.

First Impressions: ‘Drive’

Drive
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by Hossein Amini (screenplay) & James Sallis (book)
100 min.
Rated R

3 1/2 out of 4 stars

By Josh Perrault

Coming into this film it was difficult to imagine what to expect, like how every film should be. Drive blew me away within the first couple seconds of the film. A constantly engaging film that has surprises lurking at the beginning, middle, and end of each scene. Winner of Best Director at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, Nicolas Winding Refn delivers this hypnotic film that stands out from many since Brian De Palma came out with Scarface in the early 1980s. That is to say, I found Drive to have the same fresh feel and stylistic approach that Scarface had, while still keeping some soft edges. Ryan Gosling stars as stuntman and part-time getaway driver known throughout the film simply as the kid, who discovers that a contract has been put on him after a heist goes terribly wrong. Ryan Gosling has increasingly stepped up in book throughout his filmography. We can all agree we remember hearing about Gosling after his breakthrough film The Notebook in 2004. I’ll admit, which I’m sure most men will, I neglected the actor due to his “chick flick” role. It’s unfair, I know, but I’ve also matured since then and have grown to appreciate Gosling immensely. And let’s just say, this film helped. Gosling put his acting chops to the test in this action thriller where he played alongside Carey Mulligan who plays Irene, apartment neighbor and lover interest, and Bryan Cranston who plays Shannon, mechanic and Gosling’s right hand man during his stunts. Along with this already amazing cast comes the great Albert Brooks (Taxi Driver), Christina Hendricks (Mad Men), and Ron Perlman (Sons of Anarchy, Hellboy).

It’s not an exaggeration at all when I say I was literally hypnotized by this film. There is an overall look to the film that isn’t seen much. Like I said, it has a little bit of the feel from Scarface mixed with the grittiness of Taxi Driver and the cerebral effect from a David Lynch film. The soundtrack holds a hint of the 80s, and not to mention the hot pink script font that letters across the screen during the credits. The film may seem to start slow as we get to get a feel for Gosling’s character as well as the ones that become close to him leading to his biggest job ever. By that point the film gets that vibrant look. And by vibrant I mean gory (remember, Scarface). And by gory I mean, you definitely weren’t expecting it. This shouldn’t turn those off from seeing the film though. There may be a lot of intense images and blood, but again it gives it that feel that you don’t find in very many films… which I love.

I can’t stress enough the overall feel of this film and how it differs itself from films today. It’s very cool and hypnotic. From the first scene you’ll find your eyes glued to the screen and never under any circumstance wanting to leave. The cinematography is beautiful, the music is killer, and the acting is superb. And honestly who doesn’t love to find all of those elements in a film?

Flame-throwers, explosions, and a car that serves whiskey

By Josh Perrault

Rolling Stone called it “halucinatory.” MSN called it “a weird mix of John Hughes and Mad Max.”Hammer To Nail called it “an explosive, outrageous, and dynamic first film.” Bellflower is a film following two friends as they venture out into the world to begin their adult lives. All their free time is spent building flame-throwers and weapons of mass destruction in hopes that a global apocalypse will occur and clear the runway for their imaginary gang, “Mother Medusa.” A film about betrayal, love, hate, infidelity and extreme violence, Bellflower is the perfect example of indie filmmaking that breaks through conventional style and sets the bar for the future of filmmaking.

The first feature film of writer/director/actor, Evan Glodell, Bellflower premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and was immediately thrown into the festival buzz due to the film’s distinctive look. With a one-of-a-kind camera designed by Glodell, combining vintage camera parts, and Russian lenses around a Silicon Imaging SI-2K Mini digital camera, with cinematographer Joel Hodge’s shooting style gave Bellflower an extremely rare and distinct look. Bellflower is the first feature production from Glodell’s ‘Coatwolf Productions,’ a production company he created in his early 20s after moving to California with a group of close friends to pursue his dream of becoming a filmmaker. For Glodell, Bellflower was an personal story that included many real life events. In order to create Bellflower, Glodell had to nearly sacrifice almost everything, including his personal belongings and living in the abandoned wing of an office building in order to fund the film. It is truly a work of labor for Glodell and should be a good enough entrance into becoming a known filmmaker.

The film was picked up by Oscilloscope Laboratories shortly after its premier at the Sundance Film Festival, as it continued to hit the festival stops and was shown at this year’s South By Southwest Festival. The film hit theaters on August 5th, 2011 and has been recently added to the 2011 Ellensburg Film Festival lineup. The film will be shown Saturday October, 8th so make sure to get your tickets, this is a film you wont want to miss.