It's not like I've been going out of my way to see movies that feature Michael Fassbender, I swear. (See last week's Cinema, "Fassbender on A Bender", 19-25 January.) Mainly, it's just an effort to avoid the January graveyard; the traditional dumping grounds for sad franchises with so many sequels that it's absurd--Kate Beckinsale slinking back into a paycheck with Underworld: Awakening. Or misfired, cheap genre fare like the viral advert, The Devil Inside. (For the rest of the story visit a website? Really?)
Fassbender usually attaches himself to projects that have some hope of being good, hence his seeming ubiquity as a lot of December's quality fare rolls out across the country. Steve McQueen's Shame, Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method and now Stephen Soderbergh's Haywire--though to be fair Haywire is a legit January release, and The Bender is only in a supporting role.
But with Haywire, Soderbergh's first real foray into straight-up action, his rep for arty Euro-populist cinema remains intact, while going in a new direction for the wickedly talented filmmaker.
He's dabbled in action a little bit before with 1999's The Limey. And while Terrance Stamp does indeed kill the shit out a bunch of dudes to find the guy responsible for his daughter's death (Peter Fonda), it's still a movie that feels artier than it does asskickier (that's a word now), Soderbergh's direction and fugue-tinged visuals imbuing The Limey with a languorous and dreamlike quality.
With Haywire, he doesn't entirely scrap his non-linear narrative sensibilities, his predilection for controlled, onion-skin plotting (see his most recent, Contagion) or artful visual compositions. But the casting of MMA star Gina Carano as a black ops agent bent on revenge after being double-crossed by her handlers--itself hardly a novel plot--defines Haywire as a different kind of movie for Soderbergh. It's as lean and dangerous as its raven-haired star, yet still drips with its director's signature style.
We meet Mallory Kane (Carano) as she is about to beat the hell out of Aaron (Channing Tatum), a freelance black operative and co-worker who she worked with on a job contracted out by the government, rescuing a Chinese dissident in Barcelona (Anthony Wong). The mission is a success and Mallory returns home with plans to take a long break.
Those plans are thwarted when her boyfriend and the director of the firm that executes the operations (Ewan McGregor) talks her into one last, deceptively simple job: pose as the wife of a British agent (guten tag, Herr Fassbender) on a mission in Dublin. When she grows suspicious and makes a gruesome discovery she realizes she's being set up. The smart, tough and utterly capable Kane sets out to get to the truth, and extract vengeance.
Written by Lem Dobbs (The Limey) the narrative takes a typically Soederberghian back and forth, the fullness revealed as Kane drives her kidnapped companion's car (Michael Angarano), the plot deliberately exposed with each hulled layer. Soderbergh's expert direction plucks all the right notes, never really hitting a snag, with artful visual compositions--he's also the camera operator/cinematographer credited as "Peter Andrews"--framing the lovely European backdrops while his precise editing grants a pronounced cohesion to the bone-crunching action set pieces.
Soderbergh peppers his film with a cadre of fine actors, casually filling roles with guys like Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, McGregor and even Bill Paxton. But this is Carano's flick and the surprising part is that she carries it as well as she does.
While her MMA background clearly qualifies her for the action segments, the film could easily fall if she didn't have enough skill with a camera to make the audience pull for her. She's not getting any noms, but Carano ably plays the part of Mallory, a fairly stoic, watchful character to begin with and keeps your attention.
It's just as tailored a role as porn star Sasha Grey's turn as a rental girlfriend in Soderbergh's 2009 The Girlfriend Experience (the man is eclectic) but here he dabbles in a the more popular transition. Wrestlers cross over to film more readily and much more frequently than porn stars. And maybe Soderbergh feels like he's a bit of both now. He was talking about retirement after Haywire. Thankfully he has three new projects in the pipe, instead.
It's a great, skillfully made action film with just the right dusting of classical influence to pay homage to the genre's forebears. The tone is particularly Bond, which may be at its heart, but the rest is closer to Bourne.
The bubbling score from David Holmes is another in a long line of killer Soderbergh soundtracks (I still spin Out of Sight fairly regularly) which helps cement the level of expertise Haywire is steeped in on almost every level.
I heard stories about how some filmgoers in the U.S. and U.K. have asked for refunds after learning that The Artist is a (mostly) silent film. It must be the same crowd that bitches about subtitled films and eats up the latest Adam Sandler abortion like it's a Cinnabon.
But the trailers that might have enticed some to see The Artist probably should have kept the most superficial ticket buyers away--they being averse to black and white films, as well.
To be honest, I'm not sure who would complain about The Artist. Not old people. It certainly hasn't been many critics. The Circle I belong to voted it their best picture of 2011. It swept last week's Golden Globes and looks to represent well in this week's Oscar nominations.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent film star in the late 1920's and at the peak of his career. Adored by the crowds and the press alike Valentin is, more or less, a massive douchebag. He shows his faithful dog sidekick, Jack (Uggie the dog) more affection than his wife (Penelope Ann Miller) and winds up falling for a younger, up-and-coming actress, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) whose rising star eventually eclipses that of Valentin's with the invention of "talkies".
His wife leaves him and he doesn't give a rat's ass ("I'm unhappy," she says to which he responds, "So are millions of us.") since he's arrogantly decided to make his own film ode to his new crush Peppy with Tears of Love.
He tries to kill himself when the film tanks because his sense of pride demands he be as big a self-involved dick as possible. But when his attempt to immolate himself and his life's work fails--an epic fuck-up considering the nitrate bomb he sets alight--he tries yet again to kill himself after figuring out that the woman he adolescently adores is his only, emasculating hope for relevance.
So yeah, I'm not as huge a fan of this story as some because I can't find much to like about George Valentin. That and The Artist is somewhat the cinematic version Squirrel Nut Zippers. Remember when they charted in the '90's? That big band trend that counted on being different and fizzling as quickly as it came. I don't think The Artist is attempting to start a trend, clearly, but it is counting on its concept to stand out. It's easy to set yourself apart when your only recent predecessor is Mel Brooks' 1976 film, Silent Movie (a funnier flick that embraces its gimmick much more genuinely).
As it stands, though, The Artist is a gorgeous looking film and not half bad as a comedy. Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius clearly has a love of the era and its icons and he applies his comedic chops from the OSS 117 films to get some knowing chuckles.
The Artist is often helplessly cute, but it's really the exacting attention to the stylistic details that makes it the visual feast and period homage that has gotten so many to fawn over it.
Hazanavicius, with his go-to cinematographer, Guillaume Schiffman really nail the lighting and richness of the black and white compositions, and a couple of neat sequences where Valentin dreams of sound or is drunkenly hallucinating his cinematic alter egos, miniaturized and attacking him in his stupor.
Adeptly playing with the native 1:33:1 frame of the period, Hazanavicius exhibits scholarly expertise of the look and sound (with Ludociv Bource's fine scoring) of the silent era, the great production design sealing the visual deal. While it's a pastiche in almost every sense, it does succeed at pulling off its conceit elegantly and sumptuously.
The performances are just as game and do the most to remind why silent film acting is a lost art. Jean Dujardin is uncanny as George Valentin and Bérénice Bejo is perfect as Peppy Miller, a lovelorn loser whose ambition never supersedes her talent or inexplicable love of Valentin.
Penelope Ann Miller ably plays the most thankless part, while John Goodman as the director and James Cromwell as Valentin's man-servant warmly fill the periphery. They all utilize their talents, acting without sound (one of the film's better gags involves Goodman's clear verbal bluster being translated into short title cards that read like, "Okay, let's shoot it again.") excellently despite the concept's contrived nature.
Because that's what it is. The whimsicality is not lost but by design there's no other film like The Artist out right now. As a member of the Year in Film 2011, it feels desperately original while never being as genuine as its influences.
But if you want your money back because it's a silent movie, you are an asshole.
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