London Film Festival 2011 Diary: Day 19

THE ARTIST (Michel Hazanavicius)

I often find myself in a small minority on films that get a lot of critical praise – witness my reaction to last year’s LFF hit Black Swan – and I was nervous about whether I would have to again make myself unpopular when it came to The Artist, which has played to wide critical and popular acclaim at festivals since Cannes. Well, I needn’t have worried, because The Artist is charming, beautiful, hilariously funny and just about as good as you’ve heard.

It takes place in Hollywood between 1927 and 1932, as silent films were replaced talkies. Silent comedy star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is on top of the world in 1927, but when the talkies come in he is let go by his studio and his attempt to launch a new silent film flops badly. At the same time, young Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) is rising through the ranks (with a little early push from George), and becomes a big star in talkies. A few years on Peppy sees the chance to help George relaunch his career.

The Artist is a real feelgood film, in fact I’ve seldom been to a screening – press or public – in which there was such palpable warmth. Right from the start, as we see an audience enjoying George Valentin’s latest film, we are drawn inexorably into the world of silent cinema, not just by the absence of dialogue and sound effects, but by the way the film is framed (in the 1.37:1 Academy ratio that films were shot in at the time), and even by the precise hue of the black and white in which it is shot, which has much more greyscale in it than the sort of stark black and white we most often see when the format is used now.

There is, of course, a period of adjustment in coming to this film, and the choice to present the opening as a film within a film is the perfect way to do that. Once those five minutes are over we have become used to the slightly heightened acting and to the lack of sound, and I believe people will stop thinking about it and relax into enjoying the bouyant tone and perfectly judged performances.

The casting is clever (John Goodman, shouting soundlessly, a perfect idea) and the performances are articulate without becoming pantomimic (it’s a fallacy to say that subtle acting is the preserve of the talkies, you can look as far back as Lillian Gish or even to this film for evidence of that). Stars Dujardin and Bejo are both quite wonderful; light on their feet to play the physical comedy and articulate as dramatic performers too, both, if there is justice, should get many award nominations and a great deal of work on the back of this film. There are also a selection of great supporting performances, notably from Goodman, James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller, who I’ve always liked, and was very pleased to see as Dujardin’s wife. There is also a dog, which very nearly steals the whole film.

I really hope that mainstream audience will have the patience to connect with The Artist, yes, it’s made in a style that is now unfamiliar to most filmgoers, but the emotion and the comedy are beautifully conveyed physically and through the articulate but never instructive score. There is perhaps a slight sag in the film at the beginning of the third act, as the pace flags just a bit and the tone becomes a little darker, but that is more than mitigated by how downright enjoyable and entertaining the rest of the movie is. Honestly, if you don’t enjoy The Artist, you may wish to check that you have a soul.

4.5 / 5

SNOWTOWN (Justin Kurzel)

Justin Kurzel’s first feature film is based on the story of Australia’s most prolific identified serial killer, and as befits a film about that kind of subject it is difficult, dark, violent and disturbing. It’s also something of a mixed bag.

The film is about John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), who, when we find him, is living with divorced mother Elizabeth Harvey (Louise Harris) and her children, who range from about 20 to about 9. When the children, including 16 year old Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) are exploited by a paedophile living next door, Bunting begins harassing him until he leaves the area. Soon, Bunting’s actions become even more extreme, and friends and acquaintances start vanishing. As his crimes increase in violence and frequency, Bunting draws Jamie into his gang of accomplices.

The film that Snowtown most clearly echoes is John McNaughton’s classic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, like that film, this one is an intimate, street level, view of a brutal and largely motiveless series of crimes. Bunting, however, seems more outwardly normal than Henry, and Daniel Henshall – impressing in his first film – plays him as a manipulative and cunning psychopath. It’s a chilling and incredibly realistic piece of work, and you never question either how dangerous Bunting is or how he seduces people into doing what he wants. The other performances, also largely by non-actors, are equally powerful, with leads Harris and Pittaway impressing most.

There are many standout scenes here; of particular note are the brutal murder of Jamie’s stepbrother (the first Jamie participated in) and the long, haunting, journey to the last, senseless, crime, culminating in the last shot of the film, which, while it shows nothing, might be the movie’s most brutal moment. Unfortunately the film is also full of longeurs, with many scenes (repeated dinner table discussions of how paedophiles and gay people should be dealt with), that simply restate things we’ve already seen and heard. Tightened by half an hour, Snowtown would feel much more consistent, and maintain the taut, brutal tone of its best moments. Visually it’s impeccable though, and Justin Kurzel clearly has a big future behind the camera. For me this is a more interesting film than the overrated Animal Kingdom and if nothing else it serves notice of a lot of impressive raw talent.

3.5 / 5

CHILDREN WHO CHASE LOST VOICES FROM DEEP BELOW (Makoto Shinkai)

Anime is something I am slowly discovering, and I have lately been impressed with the work of anime auteurs like Satoshi Kon and Mamoru Hosoda, and I’ve been meaning to catch up with the work of Makoto Shinkai – who has been described as the new Miyazaki – for some time, but this is the first time I’ve managed to do so.

Children Who Chase… is about a young girl named Asuna, who spends her evenings after school looking for the same beautiful song that she once heard on her quartz radio set. One night, however, she is attacked by a monster and saved by a mysterious boy named Shun. Shun is a warrior from Argatha; a mystical realm that ‘topsiders’ are forbidden to enter, but soon, thanks to her substitute teacher who is searching for Argatha believing that he can go there and bring his wife back from the dead, Asuna finds herself in this magical land, and in danger.

For a children’s film, this one is massively complex, dealing with concepts of reality, religion, life and death which even some adults will struggle with and trying to unite them with two stories of personal loss; Ausna has lost both her Father and Shun, while her teacher has lost his wife, and both have lost other, more intangible, things. For the most part, Shinkai weaves his themes into the narrative well, not letting it overwhelm the interpersonal story between Asuna and Shun’s brother Shin (who she meets in Argatha) or between Asuna and Mr Morisaki, and finding time for a smattering of exceptional action scenes too. However, the film gets quite heavy handed in its last ten minutes or so, and the themes begin to block out the character drama as Shinkai draws everything together in a rather melodramatic conclusion.

That said, the film is stunning to look at, and much more thoughtful than most family fare ever attempts to be, it’s also emotionally engaging and exciting for the most part, and the pace is generally kept very high. Oh, and if you can tell me you knew where this film was going then you, sir, are a liar. It doesn’t always make the philosophy and the story entirely comfortable next to one another, but that shouldn’t discourage you from seeing this intriguing and unusual film.

3.5 / 5

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