Silent pictures are truly a lost art form. From the very beginning of the film medium to the rise of "talkies" in 1929, filmmakers had to tell their stories almost exclusively through the use of moving images. The advent of sound was a double edged sword, because it at once freed and restricted filmmakers. While they were able to convey stories and ideas with an ease never before seen, once that sound barrier was crossed few were allowed to go back. Their was just too much money to be made on the other side.
The Artist, director Michel Hazanavicus' love letter to all films that dare to be silent, starts at the tale end of that bygone era. George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin, is a silent Hollywood superstar who is pictured with an adoring fan, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) at the premier of "The Russian Affair". Peppy finds herself on the cover of Variety with everyone asking, "Who is that Girl?" Choosing to capitalize on her 15 minutes of fame, Peppy appears on the Kinograph studio lot for a dance audition, where Valentin chooses her for a part in his picture, "A German Affair". With a little bit of help from George, she finds herself slowly rising up the ranks the picture business and until Peppy is the new toast of the town.
Soon enough it's 1929 and these talking pictures are the new rage, with studios choosing to discontinue production of all silent films. When Kinograph studio boss, Al Zimmer (John Goodman), stops production of his silent pictures, Valentin is appalled, but facts are facts: the world is talking now. No one had ever paid to see him speak before, but now no one will pay unless he does.
The Artist is purely and simply an astonishing piece of movie making. Michel Hazanavicus has given us a heartfelt, humorous and joyous celebration of cinema, while providing a long overdue resurrection to the art that is silent film. The black and white cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman is a sight to behold, beautifully capturing wonderful performances, especially Jean Dujardin as the fading superstar. Jean wonderfully conveys the aura of the classic matinee idol, and the sadness that will come with his inevitable decline.
One can only hope that is the beginning of a lasting resurrection and not just a passing fancy. Filmmakers should not be afraid to make silent films, and I believe the Artist's success shows that there is an audience for quality silent pictures. This could to be a watershed moment in motion picture history, the beginning of a a new era. Or maybe not. We'll just have to wait and see. But this could be the film that really breaks down that barrier that was built so long ago.
Maybe Steven Soderbergh's 2006 film, The Good German, was simply destined to fail. At least from a financial standpoint. During his press junket for his dark comedy, The Informant!, he would make a very interesting admission. When talking about the experience of having to deal with the critical and commercial failure of The Good German, he would say that the film really didn't make business sense. "In retrospect....the idea" that people would be interested in this question: if the production hadn't existed in 1945, what sort of movies would be made? As he put it only about 5 people were really interested by that concept. "I have to be more sensitive to the accessibility of an idea...I wouldn't make the mistake of spending thirty million dollars on such a weird idea."
From a financial standpoint, filmmakers always have to think about box office. As much as the renegade types love to trash the hollywood system, one has to realize that moviemaking is a business. If the executives at Paramount, or Fox or wherever don't believe that your idea is profitable you won't be making any movies. And you certainly be if you aren't responsible.
That means you shouldn't spend 30-50 million on an idea that only a select few would pay money to see. So in a sense they have to play by the studio rules. If can find a way to spend only 10 or even 5 million, then you have room to experiment, because no one is likely to get hurt on such a small budget. And once in a while something that small will catch on. That little film that may seemed like an odd idea, may end up making a 100 million, which obviously a huge profit, as with the case of The Artist.
Then why did something like the Good German fail, and The Artist succeed? Though I can't speak as to the merits of the Artist, since I haven't seen it, I can say that The Good German is a noble but failed experiment in the Soderbergh canon. He certainly gets the look and feel of the 40's American cinema down to a T, but the film just doesn't resonate on an emotional level like it so desperately wants to. George Clooney and Cate Blankett give fine performances, and the score by Thomas Newman is quite good, but it just doesn't to all mesh together. That emotional core that made films like Casablanca, an obvious reference point, such classics seems to be lost among the aesthetic experimentation and war time intrigue.
As important as it is for filmmakers to play by the system's rule, one can't say that you shouldn't buck the suits when they have a bad idea, but it pays to be responsible. It's prudent to finish underbudget and on or ahead of schedule . That's a good formula for a long and successful career.
Any good filmmaker can easily tarnish his reputation to the point were the studios won't want to work with you, and no one is immune to that danger. Even Steven Speilberg, the king of modern Hollywood, had put himself into that danger zone with his 1979 disaster, 1941, a film that came in way over budget and a bit of a flop by Speilberg standards, both commercially and critically.
But there is always and oppurtunity to be had with kinds of experiences. The good filmmakers will learn from their experiences and move on to better days. In the case of Speilberg, following 1941 would come Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a renewed reputation as hollywood's top filmmakers. And he was Mr. on time and underbudget.
Soderbergh would also go on to do much better work wth The Informant, Che and Contagion. It just took a bit of humble pie to get there. The relationship between filmmaker and studio should be one of mutual respect. And as much as the suits should allow the auteurs to make the films they want, the directors should also recognize that they have to be accountable and show some business smarts.
Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a visceral, unforgiving grindhouse thriller like no had ever seen before. It arose during an important transition in American horror cinema. Films like Night of the Living Dead, The Last House on the Left and the seminal Hitchcock shocker, Psycho, had changed the way people would view horror films. Gone were the Universal monsters and other ghoulish creatures of gothic cinema. In it's place emerged a more human monster.
This shift gave ample opportunity for young filmmakers to explore new ground. What emerged from this new freedom is some of the most shocking images committed to film. Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre is arguably the most effective of this new wave of American horror. It concerns the grisly misfortunes of a group of hippie teenagers traversing along the unforgiving Texas summer landscape.
This ill fated crew takes a journey to investigate reports of a string of grave robberies. One these belongs to grandfather of two of our doomed youngsters, Sally and Franklin Hardesty. Rather than finding the grave they cross paths with a clan of redneck cannibals, the perpetrators of the aforementioned robberies. Why would they do such a thing? Apparently for a little bit of interior decorating. Chairs, couches, lamps and other furniture are made from the bones and flesh taken from these corpses
Every horror film needs a boogie man , and we find that boogie man in chainsaw welding thug simply known as Leatherface. What's so clever about this creation is the pure innocence of this seemingly ghastly creature. As horrific as he is, he is really just a child defending his homestead. Gunnar Hansen, the man behind the mask, would later say that he believed that Leatherface was probably mentally retarded, even unable to speak. In order to develop the character, Hansen would spend lots of time with mentally handicapped children.
Much of what transpires over the course of this film has been repeated and copied by so many later films, that one could easily forget how fresh and thrilling this film was in it's time. Despite that potential hindrance, there is a sense of sheer terror that remains intact. The film is a nightmarish fun house of horribly bizarre, macabre creatures and bloodless brutal violence. There are images that have been etched into the mind of all the films eager victims.
Hooper shot this film with skill that is uncommon even by today's standards. But it's success doesn't lie simply in the it's skillful craft, but something much deeper. Past horror films had dealt with horror stories taken from folklore and literature, which in a sense created a wall between the film and it's audience. The films were frightening, but they were safe. No one really feared Vampires, or Wolf-Men or what have you.
But the new breed of horror epitomized by Texas Chainsaw, The Last House on the Left and The Night of the Living Dead tore down that wall. Horror films were no longer safe, and would never be same. Romero, Craven and Hooper wanted to violently shake their audience to their core. And the did that by placing the horror within the familiar. Horror would never be same because the beasts existed in all of us.
Margin Call is tautly paced thriller about the financial collapse of 2008. It takes the form of a life in the day account of a large investment firm, a la Lehman Brothers, and the people that work within it's steel walls. It just so happens that this day is the worst day of thier lives, and the lives of countless others.
This awful day begins with a bit of rapid fire layoffs, sweeping out all of those deemed unecessary. One of those highly dispensable employees is the head of risk management, Eric Dale, (Stanley Tucci). On his way out he hands a highly sensitive file to a younger risk analyst, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto, who also produced the film). Apparently the the information contained on that disk gives very unfortunate bits of information. What Sullivan uncovers releases a shit storm of panic and fear, shaking the very foundations of the firm, and possibly the entire capitalist system.
In many ways Margin Calls brings to mind Kubrick's Cold War comedy, Dr. Strangelove, minus the very dark sense of humor. Much of the action takes place in secret board room meetings, between the some of the top leaders of the financial world, desperate to keep everything from collapsing. But no one else knows whats going on. We all go about our way, oblvious to the fact that our worst days are just ahead.
And it's fascinating to watch these captains of finance tear each other apart, trying to save their status in the world, while fooling themselves into thinking that it's all for the common good.
The cast gives all around top notch performances, and the screenplay by first time director, J.C. Chandor is so good and boiling down a very complicated issue into a format that everyone may understand. It's in that way that he is able to get to the very human drama, that may be lost in the mumbo-jumbo of complicated Wall Street jargon.
And what I found so surprising was the amount of sympathy that is found for these people, who are so often demonized by the masses. No matter how high or low we stand we are victims of the same vicious cycle.
Stanley Kubrick's next film, A Clockwork Orange, is a nihilistic bit of distopic fiction. It follows the misadventures of Alex Delarge, played by Malcolm as if he were the devil's only son. By day Alex is just a harmless hooligan. A kid that would rather spend time at home sleeping, fucking, and listening to his beloved Beethoveen then contributing anything to society. By night he is a raving madman, a raging youth with a lust for rape and violent mayhem.
When Alex commits murder he finds himself in the big house. After exhibiting what appears to be moral reform, with the help of his new pious mentor, he volunteers for an experimental treatment, one that may cure him of his more sinister urges. Despite the potential problems associated with the Ludovico technique, Alex is very eager to experience it for himself, because he is a boy that wants to be good. But can a boy be good if he has no choice?
What's most interesting about this film, beyond Mcdowell's mesmerizing performance, is that nihilistic viewpoint that pervades this picture. Every man or woman in this picture are cynical, slimy, even evil creatures. From Alex himself to the politicians, to the subversive reformers, none of these people are truly good. All are only seeking their own selfish interests with no regard for Alex's well being, and his ability to reach true goodness. The one character that escapes our scorn is the good prison Chaplain, the sole moral voice of the film. Kubrick paints a portrait of a society in complete moral decay.There is a rotting stench in the state of Britian.
At the time of the films release much was made of the violence depicted in the film, which by today's standards are fairly mild. It's never particulary graphic and mostly confined to the first act of the film. The mistake that critics made then, and often make now with more recent fare is mistaking portrayals of violence for endorsement. This is at it's core a film about the nature of morality, and a very moral film in it's own right. It's frustrating to see critics who refuse see morality in films that depict immoral behaviour.
I also wanted to make a comment on Kubrick's technique. You can begin to see the Kubrick look to take shape in 2001, and that look is even more apparent here. Just by observing the lightning, camera movement and composition, one can get the sense that you have entered into the Kubrick universe. To create that look took pain staking work, requiring many, many takes. However, the rewards were breathtaking to behold with perfect cinematic craftsmanship.