Bloggers, mind critics and miscellaneous writers on film got 2012 off to a first-class start with the usual wide variety of musings on celluloid-related topics:

Guest blogger and Egbert Sousé fancier Kim Wilson sang the praises of W.C. Fields’ brilliant apologia for the lush life, The Bank Dick, on the Movie Fanfare/Movie Collector’s blog.

Writer David Cairns reported on an obscure 1932 Peter Lorre film, Stupefiants, and the terrible real-life story of its director Kurt Gerron on the Shadowplay site.

TCM “morlock” David Kalat entered uncharacteristically esoteric territory with a patiently detailed explanation of why “persistence of vision” is a myth and just how we really see the movies move.

The Matte Shot blog offered a beautifully illustrated look at the nearly lost art of glass matte painting in the atmospheric genre flicks of Hammer Films.

The Letters of Note site resurrected a famous bitter note penned by a writer scorned, Raymond Chandler’s response to Alfred Hitchcock’s treatment of him during the making of  Strangers on a Train.

Prolific David Cairns made a second appearance this month with a look back at the pros and cons of the 1920 serial Son of Tarzan at Shadowplay.

Scale the heights of movie reading, and click some of these monstrously good links.

January 31, 2012 · Posted in Legends  

Playing the most celebrated trouser role since Cate Blanchett channeled Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, Glenn Close turns in a magnificently underplayed yet magnificently detailed performance in Albert Nobbs.

Albert Nobbs is a waiter in a hotel for the upper middle class in Victorian Dublin. Albert Nobbs is efficient, almost painfully reticent, and such a repressed and private individual that his co-workers refer to him behind his back as “a funny little man.” Albert Nobbs also has a secret, which is that Albert Nobbs is a woman.

Close has created a remarkable characterization in Nobbs, a woman who’s forced to conceal her own sex in order to hold a job that pays better than any of those available to women. Hers is a sad existence, with daylight hours devoted to her bizarre masquerade and the night time utterly solitary, locked within a spartan bedroom and painstakingly counting the money she’s hoarded over the years.

If there’s a drawback to Close’s commitment to the role, it’s that her Nobbs is almost too successful at fading into the background; the few moments in which her character is allowed to briefly drop the deception and let herself feel hope or simple pleasure are bright and lovely flashes of sunshine amid the drizzly Dublin locations. But Nobbs is too sheltered and, as a result, too clueless a human being for many such moments, and while Albert Nobbs is a movie about hope, it doesn’t dispense any of that commodity unrealistically.

The rest of the cast is quite good, with vivid moments contributed by Mia Wasikowska, Pauline Collins and Brendan Gleeson. Most notable is a colorful supporting performance by Janet McTeer that rivals Close’s star turn. Their scenes together constitute most of the film’s dramatic highlights, which is saying something in this movie filled with excellent character work and distinguished by fine and sensitive writing.

One could summarize the whole enterprise as a quirky and classed-up version of a Masterpiece Theatre story, but that’s hardly a bad thing. And any film, whatever it may be reminiscent of, could only be improved by focusing itself around the bravery, commitment and utter humanity that Glenn Close brings to the sweet, sad and memorable Albert Nobbs.

January 27, 2012 · Posted in Now Playing  

There’s a reason that critics and awards committees are falling all over themselves for The Artist – it’s really that good, really that accessible, really that much fun.

What makes this 21st century silent movie work is what makes all the great silent films of yesteryear work, what makes them universal, in fact: the ability of silent cinema to bypass the routine left-brain approach with which post-Jazz Singer audiences have grown accustomed to processing their movies, and to penetrate to that part of us that accommodates our dreams. In some hands, this silent movie that is about silent movies could have emerged as a tiresomely ironic bit of meta postmodernism; but fortunately for us, director Michel Hazanavicius understands what makes silent film work and draws on those strengths. In his hands, The Artist is a dream about a dream, which makes its pleasures doubly delicious.

Highfalutin critic-speak aside, the movie’s considerable charm is due largely to the talent and charisma of its star, Jean Dujardin. The camera loves this guy, and in playing a man for whom the love is mutual, he embraces the entire film and makes us love it along with him.

Armed with Fairbanksian brio and a megawatt smile, Dujardin – who bears a passing resemblance to Gene Kelly both physically and in terms of sheer irrepressibility – plays silent movie star George Valentin. When we meet him, he’s at the peak of his profession – rich, powerful and wildly popular – but when sound becomes the next big thing, he refuses to get on the bandwagon and finds both his career and his life swirling down the drain.

As that scenario plays out, there are moments of outright melodrama, but they’re extremely well acted by Dujardin, and by the time those scenes are played out we’ve been so thoroughly seduced by classic silent technique that we’re willing to follow him into areas that would have been dismissed as over the top 70 years ago. For the most part, however, this is a film unashamed to be funny and romantic, filled with characters we care about and told in terms that are unabashedly and unfailingly entertaining.

Dujardin is matched in charisma by the incandescent Berenice Bejo, who embodies Jazz Age perkiness in her performance as Peppy Miller, an ambitious movie extra who Valentin befriends at a crucial moment in her nascent career. With the advent of sound, she begins a rise to stardom as rapid as his own descent, their paths diverging until circumstances reunite them years later.

The stars are supported by some first-class talent, notably John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller and Malcolm McDowell. Shot on authentic old Hollywood locations in vibrant black and white, Hazanavicius’ film recaptures the past in a manner more authentic than nostalgia, making full use of period techniques from optical transitions and montage to a dramatic race against time featuring a plucky Jack Russell terrier. Though nearly a century old, those techniques still work beautifully.

This silent is golden.

January 21, 2012 · Posted in Now Playing  

With The Iron Lady, the whole is definitely less than the sum of its parts. In fact, there’s one part that’s greater than all the rest of it put together, and that’s the part played by Meryl Streep.

Streep plays the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a bravura performance which puts the film that houses it to shame. She’s supported by some accomplished actors in a movie that’s lovingly produced, but the whole enterprise is so devoid of a point of view that the sole impression it leaves is not one of watching a movie, but rather that of having sat through a 105-minute-long monologue by an immensely talented actress. Her work is meticulously constructed, but the filmmakers have given it no context. It’s a priceless jewel in a lackluster setting.

The real-life Thatcher was a polarizing figure, and an argument can be made that the damage she did to her country lingers to this day. Whatever one’s political leanings, the film’s failure to present either dissenting opinions of her actions or even a convincing argument for them renders the whole thing pointless. It isn’t so much an interpretation of history as a mere collection of stand-alone episodes drawn from the past.

Related through flashbacks from Thatcher’s final, failing, days as an isolated widow who’s losing her faculties, the story of her life is told in beautifully mounted vignettes. The scenes in which Streep interacts with Jim Broadbent – whose turn as her cheerfully self-effacing husband Denis is by far the most effective supporting performance in the film – are alternately sad and charming, and the moments in which we observe Thatcher’s stiff and chilly manner with her own children are intriguing…but those brief hints at a deeper picture are only frustrating reminders of what a vacuum Streep’s beautiful work exists in. It’s a terrible waste of a magnificent acting job, an exercise in missed potential.

January 17, 2012 · Posted in Now Playing  

Gary Oldman pulls off something resembling a miracle in the new version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, matching a classic performance by Alec Guinness while managing to outshine an ensemble cast of some of the most brilliant British actors working on the screen today.

Oldman plays George Smiley, the wily old spy who has figured prominently in some of novelist John le Carre’s most celebrated work. Early in Tinker Tailor, Smiley and MI6 chief “Control” (the wonderful John Hurt) are booted from active service after an operation aimed at ferreting out the identity of a double agent goes disastrously awry. Some time later, Smiley is recruited by a government official to conduct a secret investigation into the identity of the mole, who the now-dead Control had suspected of being one of the men who have ascended to power in the spy organization.

In his first English-speaking film, director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) and screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan have crafted a sharp and moody adaptation that conjures the drab and tacky existences of ‘70s British civil servants, as well as the casual brutality and systemic paranoia of those engaged in all levels of international espionage. It’s a complicated story with many players to keep track of, and enjoyment requires audiences to pay careful attention for the entire 127-minute running time. It’s more work than most movies require these days, but it pays off handsomely.

Oldman makes a less crumpled and considerably less sardonic Smiley than Guinness’ turn in the 1979 miniseries version, but he’s an equally fascinating character study, a man whose emotions and razor-sharp intellect are buried so deeply beneath his cryptic exterior that it’s almost impossible to tell how very dangerous he is.

He’s given outstanding support by Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds and last year’s Oscar winner Colin Firth as the main suspects, each as accomplished and nearly as charismatic as Oldman himself. Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Tom Hardy are equally good as lower-echelon spies caught up in the net of this sad and hazardous conspiracy.

Some critics have complained that this adaptation of the novel is too dense and complicated to follow, but this isn’t Tinker Tailor for Dummies. The 1979 miniseries was equally dense, and that was more than twice as long as the current film. Le Carre’s work is distinguished by its complexity and refusal to pander, and this absorbing new version does a commendable job of bringing that author’s work to the screen. It’s a first-rate piece of work by everyone involved, and first-rate audiences should thoroughly appreciate its uncompromising vision.

January 16, 2012 · Posted in Now Playing