‘The Artist’: silent film speaks volumes

Although “The Artist” contains few spoken words, the film speaks volumes about the evolution of the American motion picture industry.

Written and directed by Michael Hazanavicius, “The Artist” stars silent movie actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). When Valentin bumps into fan Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) at one of his film premieres, he introduces her to a career of dancing and acting in Hollywood.

In 1927, Valentin’s at the height of his fame, but as the silent film declines in popularity and a new invention called “talkies” emerge, silent film dinosaurs (such as Valentin) are becoming extinct; talking motion picture newcomers (like Miller) rise in fame.

Although viewers may wonder how the silent film medium would hold up in the 21st century, these worries are soothed after the first five minutes of the film — where audience members are introduced to the extremely talented and charismatic Dujardin.

With his dark hair, good looks, and winsome smile, Dujardin (a French actor) resembles American film icons such as Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Gene Kelly. Dujardin nostalgically reminds us of classics like “Singing’ in the Rain.”

He’s very expressive and his facial features and body language are like a flip book. From one scene to the next, he flits from happiness to fear and melancholy. Although exaggeration is essential to the silent film medium, Dujardin strikes a believable balance between conveying his feelings and over-exaggerating.

While it is ironic to depict the beginning of “talkies” through an old-fashioned, black-and-white silent movie, “The Artist” proves that this medium can still be an engaging format for storytelling. In one jarring sequence, Dujardin is trapped in a nightmare where he can’t talk, but he can hear the laughter, footsteps and barks all around him. This scene highlights Dujardin’s inner turmoil.

Hazanavicius’ picture would not be complete without the narration of French composer Ludovic Bource’s original score — which fills the silence with romantic waltzes, playful jazzy numbers, dramatic introductions and everything in between. The music — just like the movie — mirrors an earlier time — the tail-end of the roaring twenties and the beginning of a new era.

The movie’s format proves that sometimes artifacts from the past never get old.

“The Artist” was written and directed by Michael Hazanavicius.


‘Life of Pi’: A lesson in piety

“Life of Pi” labels itself as one thing: a story that will make you believe in God.

Imagine getting stranded on a boat with this fellow?

Imagine getting stranded on a boat with this fellow?

Based on Yann Martel’s award-winning novel, “Life of Pi,” the film tells the story of Piscine (sounds like “pissing”) Molitor Patel, also known as Pi — a religious Indian boy who has to move to Canada after his family encounters financial troubles. Pi encounters a minor setback though: when sailing to Canada on a Japanese ship, the ship is caught in a storm. Stranded on a lifeboat as the sole survivor of the storm, Pi is saddled with Richard Parker, the feral Bengal tiger his family kept in their zoo.

Directed by Ang Lee, known for his work in films such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and “Brokeback Mountain,” “Life of Pi” is a visually stunning, cinema-graphic smorgasbord— featuring people swimming among the clouds, fire and lights floating on water, galaxies of stars, and many, many sunsets. However, for a film rooted in a book about faith, its message comes across a little hollow, echoing this line from the film: “Faith is a house with many rooms, and each room and floor is filled with doubt.”

Like faith, “Life of Pi” is frustrating. Albert Camus’s book “The Stranger,” known for its theory of the absurd, even makes a cameo in the film. While “Life of Pi” is supposed to be a very intellectual film, the philosophy is lost in the absurd, trippy, and surrealist images. At times, the film resembles a Salvador Dali painting — only instead of melting clocks, the film features a boy on a boat floating in the middle of clouds. If the 3D open water sequences haven’t made you seasick yet, the beautiful but abstract images will make your head hurt as you try to separate reality from a starved boy’s delusions.

Newcomer Suraj Sharma, who plays teenaged Pi in his first feature-length film, does bring honesty and likability to the otherwise flat 3D film. Sharma dances in the rain with such happiness that the viewer may want to join him. Meanwhile, in one of the highlights of the film, Sharma mourns the loss of his family; the emotion laced underneath his words allow the viewer to feel his pain — which makes his story more believable. After watching Sharma’s performance, the viewer realizes that he or she is invested in the story and character of Pi — even though Pi may prove to be an unreliable narrator.

“Life of Pi” thrives in the living oxymoron, taking you through a safari of the exotic — a tiger named Richard Parker and a hunter named Thirsty, an Indian French-Canadian who believes and practices Hindu, Christianity and Islam. As Pi’s father (Adil Hussain) tells him, “Believing in everything at the same time is the same as not believing in anything at all.”

After watching Ang Lee’s adaption of Yann Martel’s book, you’re not sure what to believe, or if you believe in anything at all. But perhaps, like God and religion, “Life of Pi” is not supposed to make sense.

“Life of Pi” was directed by Ang Lee. The screenplay, based off of the novel by Yann Martel, was written by David Magee.

‘Cloud Atlas’ reaches for the moon

Squeezing six different narratives from different years, places and times into a two-hour-and-44-minute movie may sound like a disaster waiting to happen; however, directors Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski seamlessly adapt David Mitchell’s 528-page science-fiction novel, “Cloud Atlas,” from the page to the silver screen.

The movie weaves together the stories of lawyer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) who is traveling from the Pacific Islands in 1849, gay lovers Robert Frobisher (Ben Wishaw) and Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) in Cambridge in 1936, journalist Luisa Ray (Halle Berry) in San Francisco in 1973, publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) in London in 2012, Sonmi-351 (Doona Bae) and Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess) in Neo-Seoul in 2144, and Zachry (Tom Hanks) and Meronym (Halle Berry) in 106 years after ‘The Fall.’

“Cloud Atlas” reinforces the talent and versatility of the cast of actors, costume and make-up artists. Their combined talents render actors unrecognizable as they act as supporting characters in different narratives. Actors balance playing three to seven different characters that are vastly different from lives to looks to motives. Berry and Hanks frequently switch between distinct accents as they embody people who lived in the past and present versus Zachry and Meronym from the far off distant future. Meanwhile, Broadbent stars at playing an old cranky, manipulative and domineering composer in 1936 and a comical, hair-brained publisher in 2012; the characters are polar opposites, and the nuances Broadbent brings to each character renders them completely different.

Although almost three hours is a long time to sit for a movie, the pacing of the film is excellent. While it may be confusing to watch the short sequences switch in the beginning of the movie, the scenes are engrossing. Once audience members become acquainted with the different stories and plotlines, the editing and screenplay highlights how these different stories and universes relate to each other. Like their previous canon, which includes films such as “The Matrix” trilogy and “V for Vendetta,” the Wachowski siblings force the viewer to think and question reality.

While the production of “Cloud Altas” may seem like a lofty and ambitious goal, the adage is to always reach for the stars… After all, if you miss, you’ll land among the clouds. Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings did more than land among the clouds; their cinematic achievement surpasses new heights and is certainly deserving of a star — if not the moon.

“Cloud Atlas” was written and directed by Tom Tykwer, and Andy and Lana Wachowski — based off of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel.

‘The Imposter’: 99-minute ‘without a trace’ mystery with no answer

When director Bart Layton stumbled upon a real-life case in which a missing child appears to be recovered three years after his disappearance, he found the perfect story to portray in his documentary, “The Imposter.”

Told solely through narration from interviews, “The Imposter” revolves around two separate narratives: the disappearance of 13-year-old Nick Barclays from Antonio, Texas, in 1994 and the story of Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year-old Frenchman who posed as teenaged runaways across Europe. When Bourdin pretends to be Nick, three years after Nick disappeared, the stories of Frederic and the Barclays family intersect, and the Barclays family welcome Bourdin into their home in Texas.
Since the real Nick disappeared, the audience cannot discover what really happened to the boy, so there is a speculative element to “The Imposter.” The narrative structure of the film creates a sense of mystery, and the viewers are trying to figure out what happened to Nick as the story bounces back and forth between Nick and Bourdin. This is an effective technique to create a sense of drama for viewers who may not be familiar with the story, but it can be confusing when the characters are first introduced.

For a story about Nick, the visuals are limited to photographs and amateur family home videos where he is seen goofing off with a camera. The filmmakers attempt to solve their dilemma by telling Nick’s story through Nick’s sister, Carey Gibson; his mother, Beverly Dollarhide; and his uncle, Bryan Gibson to reveal what Nick was really like as well as the circumstances of his disappearance.

Meanwhile, Frederic’s story is also difficult to illustrate. To solve this problem, the filmmakers induct a cast of silent actors as placeholders to dramatize the events Frederic relays in his interviews. Adam O’Brian plays Frederic when he is in a shelter in Spain, while Anna Ruben plays Carey when she goes to Spain to pick up whom she thinks is Nick, but is really Frederic. The actors move the pacing of the film, and separate it from the monotony of interviews.

The dramatizations were a clever way to illustrate the story; however, Bourdin wasn’t the only ‘imposter’ in the film. Sometimes the visuals didn’t match the storyline. During scenes when the re-enactors of the Barclay family and Bourdin are driving around San Antonio, mountains are visible in the background; mountains are not consistent with the geography in San Antonio. The mountains as well as the end credits indicate that the reenactments were shot in various parts of Arizona, not Texas, which lessens the film’s credibility.

If there is any truth to “The Imposter,” viewers learn that Layton knows how to direct a good story.

To see this review in The Ithacan, click here.