Thursday, February 23, 2012

Culture Shock 02.23.12: 'Artist' makes Oscar case loud and clear

"The Artist" is nominated for 10 Academy Awards and is favored to win at least a couple of the top prizes, including Best Picture and Best Director for Michel Hazanavicius.

That's good because "The Artist" is easily the best of this year's nine Oscar-nominated films.

Still, it's a shame that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' antiquated, arbitrary and sometimes just plain bizarre rules — the same rules that allow the Academy to continue ignoring Andy Serkis' brilliant motion-capture performances year after year — don't allow Jack Russell terriers to compete for Best Supporting Actor.

Otherwise, Uggie, who steals "The Artist" as easily as he might steal a sausage, would end the streak of supporting actor wins Christopher Plummer has racked up this awards season.

The Oscars always say more about Academy voters than they do about the year's best films, so it's best not to take them too seriously — or seriously at all most years.

(Nine Best Picture nominees, and the Academy still manages to snub 2011's two best films not titled "The Artist" — "Young Adult" and "Drive"? It's insane.)

When the Academy recognizes the year's best film as such, it's usually a happy coincidence. I think the last time that happened was "Silence of the Lambs" in 1991.

We're due for another happy coincidence, and "The Artist" — backed by the Weinstein Company's hype machine — just might provide it. Never mind all that Weinstein hoopla, "The Artist" is a magnificent, magical piece of work.

"The Artist" is set during Hollywood's transition from silent films to talkies, an era Hazanavicius and cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman capture beautifully in sparkling black and white, taking full advantage of the narrow, old-style 1.37:1 aspect ratio to give us gorgeous vertical scenes such as one taking place on a staircase.

George Valentin (Best Actor nominee Jean Dujardin) is one of the silent era's biggest stars, with a trusty canine sidekick (Uggie) and admiring fans such as Peppy Miller (Best Supporting Actress nominee Bérénice Bejo), herself an aspiring actress working her way up from bit parts in chorus lines.

Peppy's timing is perfect. She has a voice for sound, and the studios are looking for new talent to usher in the dawn of talking pictures.

Meanwhile, George's star is fading, and when his studio drops him, he sinks his own money into making a silent movie — just as the Great Depression looms. Not the best of timing for long-shot bets.

"The Artist" features a solid supporting cast, including John Goodman as a cigar-chomping mogul, Penelope Ann Miller as George's disillusioned wife and, especially, James Cromwell as George's faithful chauffeur. But this is Dujardin and Bejo's movie to carry. And because "The Artist," like the movies it honors, is a "silent" film, they do so without saying a word.

Yet the artist isn't really a silent movie. It uses music, sound and silence to create an alternate universe where everyone "speaks" in title cards and spoken conversations are some scary, science-fiction monster from the future, ruthlessly invading the present.

In that silence, too much is left unsaid. George's wife keeps her unhappiness and disappointments mostly to herself. George and Peppy remain quiet about their mutual attraction. And the secrets they keep from each other could lead to disaster for them both.

Hazanavicius may have a nostalgic fondness for the silent era, but in the end he and "The Artist" side with the talkies — and with talking.

If Uggie could talk, he'd say he deserves that supporting actor award.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Culture Shock 02.16.12: 'Chronicle' chronicles why teens shouldn't have super powers

Super powers are wasted on the young.

Andrew Detmer's life is miserable. He's an outcast at school. His mother is bedridden with pulmonary disease. And his father — stepfather? I was never sure — is an alcoholic who does little but collect dust and disability payments, except for when he takes time out of his busy schedule to slap Andrew around.

That's the poverty-row setup for "Chronicle," the first feature film for both director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (son of director John Landis).

As if looking to make himself even more of a social pariah, Andrew starts "recording everything" with his new video camera. Why? He never says. Certainly not to have evidence against his abusive dad, even though Andrew captures plenty.

Is Andrew just a narcissist in spite of his crippling shyness? That would explain some of what follows.

One day Andrew (Dane DeHaan), his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and Matt's friend, the super-popular Steve (Michael B. Jordan), stumble across a pulsating, crystalline object of presumably extraterrestrial origin and — presto! — all discover they've developed super powers.

From there, our newborn superheroes use their superhuman abilities to make life better for everyone, especially for poor, miserable Andrew and his family.

Stop. That must be a different movie, because that's the opposite of what happens. Even the obvious thought of going to Las Vegas and using their telekinetic powers to strike it rich at the roulette tables, so Andrew can afford the medicine that keeps his mom alive, is beyond our three geniuses.

Instead they practice their abilities by playing practical jokes and, after they get the hang of flying, tossing a football around at (at least) 6,000 feet.

Even Spider-Man tried to profit from his powers before Uncle Ben guilt got the better of him.

We see all of this through Andrew's camera and the cameras of others.

Yes, this is another "found footage" movie, and this time the gimmick doesn't appear to serve any purpose except to provide an in-story excuse for the movie's lo-fi look. "Chronicle" has a modest $12 million budget, and most of it seems to have gone into the grand finale — an old-fashioned superhero smack down at the site of Seattle's Space Needle.

It's not giving away much to say that one of our three super-powered protagonists eventually starts to go bad and must be stopped. Hint: It's probably the one who behaves like a sociopath long before he reaches his Columbine moment.

Before that, though, we watch as Steve helps Andrew use his powers to become popular while Matt goes off on an unnecessary subplot to win the affection of Casey (Ashley Hinshaw), a classmate who, coincidentally, is also recording everything on video — "for her blog," she says.

There might be an interesting movie here somewhere about people who feel compelled to constantly film and take pictures of themselves, but as an undercurrent to a movie about kids who have never heard that "with great power comes great responsibility," it gets lost.

On the flip side, the story of how having super powers changes — or doesn't — the lives of Andrew, Matt and Steve gets equally lost by having to compete with the found-footage approach to the material.

There is no reason "Chronicle" couldn't have been shot as a conventional movie. That "Chronicle" wants to be the latest heir to the checkered legacy of "Blair Witch" and "Cloverfield" only makes the exercise almost as frustrating as Andrew's home life.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Culture Shock 02.09.12: 'Woman in Black' is showcase for post-Potter Radcliffe

The boy who lived is now the man who survived.

He has graduated from Hogwarts, but Daniel Radcliffe is still facing supernatural threats in his first post-Potter film, "The Woman in Black."

In this Edwardian period piece, Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young widower left alone — if you don't count the nanny — to care for his now 4-year-old son following his wife's death in childbirth.

Arthur survived his late wife, but you sense part of him wishes he hadn't.

In the years since his wife's death, Kipps' position at the law firm where he is employed as a lawyer has declined, along with the quality of his work, and he now has one last chance to redeem himself, keep his job and maintain a household for his son.

That means journeying to the countryside to put into order the estate of a recently deceased client, Alice Drablow. But when he arrives in the village near Drablow's crumbling, overgrown house — located deep in a saltwater marsh and cut off from civilization during the high tide — he finds uncooperative villagers and a local attorney who is trying his best to send Arthur packing back to London on the very next train.

You'd think Arthur was in town to visit Castle Dracula.

What the villagers know and Arthur is about to find out, is Drablow's old house is haunted, and the ghostly Woman in Black who haunts it has cursed the village.

Alas, there are no magic spells that can help our hero this time.

From its period setting to its gothic atmosphere to its suspicious villagers, "The Woman in Black" is a quaintly old-fashioned ghost story, hitting all the familiar notes but doing so with such skill it's hard to complain.

This is the movie we've been waiting for the revived Hammer Films to make.

After an unnecessary remake ("Let Me In") and missteps like the Hilary Swank-starring thriller "The Resident," Hammer is back in its element — even if "The Woman in Black" is sorely missing the crimson "Kensington Gore" blood spatter that so enlivened Hammer horrors of old, such as Christopher Lee's Dracula films.

This is almost the kind of movie Hammer made in the 1950s and '60s, but not quite. There are no busty Hammer scream queens with plunging necklines here (a shame, really), and there's no climatic action scene of the sort Dracula and Professor Van Helsing used to provide.

Director James Watkins, in only his second feature, opts for a more sedate approach with his adaption of Susan Hill's chilling novel — perhaps too sedate, as the slow burn is sometimes more slow than burn.

But it pays off in the movie's pervasive sense of dread — which follows Kipps through the dim, dusty corridors and out to the misty woods. Mood trumps gore every time.

The deliberate pacing also gives Radcliffe a chance to show us what he's got, and he delivers an understated performance that would make his Hammer predecessor Peter Cushing proud. Radcliffe's Arthur Kipps is a haunted man long before he sets foot on the marsh and glimpses the spectral woman who haunts the place.

Outside the estate's dreary ruins, the former Harry Potter is again aided by able British supporting actors, like Roger Allam as Kipps' boss and Ciarán Hinds as the village's one helpful and skeptical resident, Mr. Daily.

Naturally, however, Mr. Daily reeks of someone hiding a dark, terrible secret. It's that kind of movie — the kind of horror movie they don't make enough of anymore.

But with Hammer back, maybe this is just the beginning.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Culture Shock 02.02.12: 'Shazam!' isn't just a magic word anymore

You can call him the World's Mightiest Mortal. You can call him the Big Red Cheese — his arch-nemesis does. But don't call him Captain Marvel.

The superhero some mistakenly called Shazam is getting a new name.

Now, the Superhero Formerly Known As Captain Marvel is, officially, Shazam. That means the arguments I've had about how his name is Captain Marvel and Shazam is just the magic word he uses to become Captain Marvel have all been in vain.

But how did we get to the point where a character who was once the world's most popular superhero can't go by his original name? It starts at the beginning.

Captain Marvel first appeared in 1940 in the pages of Whiz Comics No. 2. For most of the decade, Captain Marvel's comic-book adventures were so popular they outsold Superman's and inspired a 12-part Republic movie serial, "The Adventures of Captain Marvel."

This annoyed Superman's publishers at what would eventually become DC Comics. So, they sued Captain Marvel's publisher, Fawcett, for copyright infringement, claiming Captain Marvel was too similar to Superman. Fawcett dragged out the suit until the 1950s, when comic-book sales declined and Fawcett left the business.

Afterward, Captain Marvel's main writer, Otto Binder, moved to DC to write Superman, and when he did, Superman's stories became almost as bizarre and surreal — and entertaining — as Captain Marvel's had been.

So, who was copying whom?

In the 1970s, DC took the next step by licensing Captain Marvel outright and publishing new Captain Marvel stories. But by this time, Marvel Comics has come along and created its own Captain Marvel, the trademark to the original having expired while no one was paying attention.

Over the years, Marvel Comics had published several characters named Captain Marvel. Most of them are currently dead. But a new one always shows up or a dead one becomes temporarily undead just long enough to ensure Marvel Comics keeps the Captain Marvel trademark.

It's never-ending payback for DC's having filed that stupid lawsuit way back when.

DC can publish the original Captain Marvel, and it can call him Captain Marvel. But it can't use Captain Marvel as a title or on merchandise. So, since his revival, the original Captain Marvel has appeared in comics titled "Shazam!"

A '70s Saturday-morning TV show featuring Cap was called "Shazam!" too, and eventually people began to think the character's name was Shazam because that's what the title said.

It's like how some people think the name of the creature in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" is Frankenstein, even through the book's title clearly refers to the creature's creator. We call these people "illiterates."

Also, for the record: Steely Dan is a band, not one guy.

So, DC Comics is finally giving in to the popular misconception. Now DC's Captain Marvel is Shazam. But I'm not sure this is an improvement. Apart from surrendering to people who can't bother to remember the character's real name — which is rather like letting the terrorists win — Shazam is problematic, too.

Anyone who grew up in the 1960s probably thinks of "Shazam!" as Gomer Pyle's catchphrase. (He was referring to Cap's magic word, but how many people know that?) And kids nowadays think of Shazam as a smartphone app that identifies music.

Shakespeare said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But is the same true for a Big Red Cheese?