Two of the big three Academy Award contenders this year are about looking back on the early days of cinema itself. While Scorsese’s Hugo uses the latest technical whizzbangs to bring to life the idea of early cinema and its novelty and excitement in The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius recreates the techniques of old Hollywood in search of pure nostalgia.
A painstakingly created silent movie with several moments of loveliness, The Artist follows the riches to rags story of screen hero George Valentin and the concurrent rags to riches story of starlet Peppy Miller — who tries to catch him as he falls. The performances of Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo as the two leads are both splendid, Dujardin in particular displays a technical precision that most actors can only dream of.
It’s helpful that pastiche is a French word because The Artist, for all its, ahem, artistry and attention to detail never manages to tell us anything new about creativity, hubris or adaptability. But, come to think it, panache is also a French word and The Artist has plenty of that which may just be enough for a good night out.
Don’t miss the mesmerising documentary, El Bulli: Cooking in Progress which follows Spanish genius Ferran Adrià’s legendary avant-garde restaurant during the long close-season while they develop even more of their weird and wonderful — deconstructivist — dishes, cooked using strange technologies like liquid nitrogen and vacuum chambers.
Structured like one of those backstage putting-on-a-show stories, Adrià’s team struggles with what new to do with sweet potato as opening night approaches and there’s a lovely series of scenes as one chef tries to introduce the idea of a peanut oil and water cocktail that is initially met with skepticism and turns out to be one of the hits of the season.
Every guest gets to sample 40 dishes a night over three hours and, despite all the science, Adrià still finds himself busking his way through some of that first night, paying close attention to customer responses thanks to a huge team of superb front-of-house people.
The great chef himself has the slightly distracted air of someone who is operating on another plane to the rest of us, sitting quietly in one corner of the restaurant sampling every dish even as the patrons arrive, taking notes, dreaming of the next great thing. The famously unprofitable El Bulli has since closed and Adrià is devoting himself to teaching and pure culinary research, no doubt working on things like truffle ravioli in tangerine blossom cooked in a small hadron collider.
Valentine’s Day mawk is provided by The Vow, based on the true story of a woman who suffers a head injury and forgets everything from the previous five years, including the guy she married. Rachel McAdams is the wife — also a sculptor — and beefcake Channing Tatum is the husband — also a record producer.
The biggest problem with The Vow is that McAdams’ character should be the focus — she has by far the most interesting journey even if most of it is internal — but the story focuses on Tatum and what it all means to him, the poor wee thing. And, in a lost opportunity, the team of five people responsible for the script decided to make the conflict between McAdams’ old life and new life about authenticity when it would have been more interesting — and braver — to make it about class instead.
It was at this point that I ran out of space for the Capital Times so — being in energy conservation-mode most of the time these days — I stopped writing. Now it comes to post this piece to F&S and I have to add some thoughts on the three films I didn’t have room for. Not as polished as you would normally expect but will have to do.
Safe House: not nearly as groundbreaking as it’s over-exposed cinematography, pulsating soundtrack (Ramin Djawadi) and shakicam visuals would have you believe, this CIA-conspiracy thriller (it goes to the very top) is a predictable story partially saved by Denzel Washington in intense Training Day mode and Ryan Reynolds given a chance to do a little bit of acting. The Cape Town locations are also well used.
Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace 3D: Oh man, this was so bad, so much worse than I remember it. Leaden storytelling (not just by modern standards but by any standards) and most of Lucas’s visual trademarks — the wipes; the framing — don’t translate well to a post-produced 3D that can’t even make R2-D2 look round.
Killer Elite: The front-runner for worst film of the year, this features some normally reliable male stars (except maybe Robert De Niro) slumming it on a script so bad that I’m sure they had trouble remembering their lines. Jason Statham and De Niro are hitmen and Statham wants to retire. When De Niro is kidnapped by a Middle Eastern sheikh, Statham is forced to return from his outback wilderness for one more — sorry, three more — jobs. Not only is the script awful but it looks like it received further butchering in post to try and make some sense of it — but it didn’t work.
Printed (with exceptions noted) in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 15 February, 2012.