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Review – The Artist (PG) [2012]

Star Rating: 5/5

In recent years, Hollywood has been dominated by films with colossal amounts of special effects, outrageous action scenes, and sequels to entertain viewers. Quality acting (the very factor that enables actors to win the prestigious awards) has seemingly become secondary to the aforementioned features for movies. Refreshingly, the French drama, The Artist, in outstanding fashion, illustrates that audiences can still be wooed by a relic of the past: a silent movie.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) dancing together for a film. The two actors have great chemistry on set.

The Artist is set in Hollywood between the late 1920s and the early 1930s. It is about George Valentin (Jean Dujardin – OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, OSS 117: Lost In Rio, The Wolf of Wall Street), a man who has starred in many silent films throughout his acting career. Now though, George is being told by his boss, Al Zimmer (John Goodman – Pope Joan, Red State, 10 Cloverfield Lane), that the times are changing and that cinema audiences want dialogue and fresh faces. (‘Fresh meat’ as Zimmer calls it.)

The fresh faces include an upcoming young, pretty woman called Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo – A Knight’s Tale, Prey, The Scapegoat), who had been randomly photographed with George. Rapidly, she is replacing him. Between her and the Wall Street Crash of October 1929, George’s world is rapidly falling apart. He has to adapt to the times, something he’s loathe to do, or he faces the axe.

The Artist’s plot is straightforward and surprisingly easy to follow. Despite the lack of dialogue, one always understands the situation. The performances from the cast throughout the movie are brilliant. Jean Dujardin plays magnificently as the proud and stubborn actor, who is unwilling to be pragmatic. Bérénice Bejo is superb as the ambitious young actress. John Goodman plays well as the ruthless boss, who realises that public opinion has changed. Penelope Ann Miller (Kindergarten Cop, Blonde Ambition, Saving Lincoln) performs commendably as George’s trophy wife, who has no desire to be with a man whose best years are seemingly behind him. James Cromwell (The Green Mile, 24: Day 6, Still) does a fine job of being George’s loyal valet. And George’s dog, which is linked to him seemingly telepathically, adds a cute, sentimental aspect to the storyline.

Clifton (James Cromwell), looking concerned for his master, George.

But the brilliance of the acting is very different from other exceptional performances, such as Colin Firth’s in The King’s Speech or Christian Bale’s in The Fighter. Remarkably, using body language and emotion, the actors stunningly demonstrate that words are not necessarily needed to portray human relationships and circumstances. Director Michel Hazanavicius (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, OSS 117: Lost In Rio, The Players) does occasionally use bubbles of words to explain the context, which help, but they’re infrequent and hardly worth a mention.

If anything, it is not the words on the screen that aids the audience, but the music. The score greatly aids viewers to empathise with the characters. The 1920s-style music may not be like the enchanting scores of The Lord of the Rings or Inception, but it always captures the mood of the characters in The Artist. Whenever their temperament changes, so does the music to enhance the scene.

The magnitude of the acting and the music are more noteworthy considering that The Artist is a small budget film, which has close to no special effects and action. It is such a wonderful contrast to the (hideous) amount of computer generated images (CGI) and explosions used in most blockbusters today, such as Transformers III and Captain America. Consequently, The Artist feels cleaner and is more pleasant to watch. (Indeed, The Artist almost makes one want to beg Hollywood to fund more movies with fewer special effects and loud bangs.)

Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), George’s wife, disgusted with her husband for being photographed in the papers with a younger, more beautiful woman than herself.

Similarly, the movie has no breathtaking landscapes to charm viewers, like in The Way Back or True Grit. The Artist though captures its era magnificently, from the clothes the characters wear; to their hairstyles (Bérénice Bejo looks strikingly similar to Marion Cotillard in Midnight In Paris); to their cars; to their cameras; to the interior designs of their houses (which have some resemblance to the First-Class rooms and halls in the sunken Titanic). One could perhaps criticise the film for not depicting the Great Depression of the 1930s adequately. Yet, this was not the purpose of the film either, so one should not blame the director on this matter.

On the whole, The Artist is a work of art. It brings us back to pure cinema and makes viewers realise that when a film has acting of such phenomenal quality, then dialogue, special effects and action are not absolutely necessary to make an entertaining and dazzling film.

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Review – Red State (18) [2011]

Star Rating: 3/5

When one arranges a one night stand with someone they have not met in person via the internet (especially from a dodgy website), one is never certain if he/she is going to be a victim of a scam or something worse. Red State, whilst not about the pros and cons of adult-dating websites, illustrates the potential risks involved.

Travis, Jarod and Billy-Ray reading a message from Jarod's phone. The thee of them are so happy that they are (finally) going to end their 'loser status' by breaking their virginities.

Red State is loosely-based on the Westboro Baptist Church, which Louis Theroux has done two documentaries on. Set in the ‘bible-belt’ of America, three social misfits – Travis (Michael Angarano – Almost Famous, 24: Day 6, Noah’s Ark: The New Beginning), Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun – Love At First Hiccup, Chalet Girl, Neighbourhood Watch) and Jarod (Kyle Gallner – The Haunting in Connecticut, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Jennifer’s Body) – have organised, via an internet chat-room, for the three of them to enjoy, together, the pleasures of Sara (Melissa Leo – Frozen River, The Fighter, Predisposed). Little do they know, though, that Sara is a part of the Five Point Church, a cultist Christian sect. After driving to her caravan, Sara uses this as an opportunity to capture the three teenagers and bring them to the church to be ‘tried’ for homosexuality, a crime punishable by death for this sect.

The cops soon learn that the church has the boys. Led by Joseph Keenan (John Goodman – The Big Lebowski, Monsters, Inc., The Artist), the cops intend to take the compound by storm, leading to a bloody confrontation.

Red State is a strangely gripping, highly unpredictable film, and has some surprisingly intelligent humour (which would have been so much funnier had not all of the jokes been used in the trailer). At 88 minutes, the movie is short, so audiences are unlikely to lose focus; especially, since the last half an hour is virtually a shoot out.

Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) addressing his congregation, who hang on to his every word as if he is Jesus's modern day reincarnation.

Whilst gunfire and explosions uphold (or regain) the attention of the viewers, it is the acting of two members of the supporting cast, Melissa Leo and Michael Parks (From Dusk Till Dawn, Kill Bill I & II, Argo), that make Red State worth watching. After her Oscar-winning performance in The Fighter, Leo gives another fantastic performance as one of the mad members of the church. As Sara, the fanaticism in Leo’s eyes is frightening, as is her belief in the cult. Parks, playing Pastor Abin Cooper, also plays very well, even if he is not spectacular. The passion he shows for the ideals of the church (without bursting into laughter) could easily make one believe that he is crazy in real life.

The rest of the cast are pathetic. The acting from the three social oddballs is atrocious, and the dialogue between them is just as bad. The amount of swearing, before and during captivity, is disgraceful. That the dialogue between them may reflect the language used by teenagers in ‘middle America’ or elsewhere is not the point. As a consequence of this, and their general performances throughout the film, viewers are unlikely to feel any empathy towards their characters.

Indeed, audiences are unlikely to come away feeling empathy for any of the characters, regardless of what they may think of the acting. In Red State, no-one is portrayed as a ‘good guy’, even the cops that are sent in to deal with the hostage situation. As one watches the melee unfold, one is likely to wonder if events like this actually take place in America, or if this is just a gross and gory exaggeration of the truth; for this film does not shy away from graphic bloodshed.

A man (Cooper Thornton) given a 'fair trial' for the 'crime' of homosexuality before the members of the church.

Although one may find the amount of violence a trifle unnecessary (not that that is grounds for criticism), one will almost certainly feel that the film needs better production. The choreography is appalling to the point of amateur, since many of the scenes jerk into place rather than smoothly link. Just as sloppy are the special effects, which appear painted in as an afterthought by the director, Kevin Smith (Dogma, Clerks II, Zack & Miri Make A Porno). The music may not be awful, but it is certainly nothing noteworthy either.

Over-all, Red State is an oddly enjoyable movie. Many aspects of the film are pitiable, but the performances of Melissa Leo and Michael Parks save the movie from near disaster. That there are people in real life who believe in similar ideals as zealously as members of the Five Point Church gives Red State some chilling realism. Moreover, the film may even have a (strong) message: don’t arrange a one night stand on the internet without knowing who you’re getting into bed with.

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