WARNING: THE FOLLOWING MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS.
2011 was probably not a good year for many. With most people suffering under the economic turmoil, the perpetuation of the debt crisis, the tsunami that hit Japan, and all of this on top of personal tribulations probably made 2011 a frustrating year to those that try to keep up with the world around them. As for myself, the year was a bit of an odd duck. So why am I associating nostalgia with 2011? What about the movies of this past year make it worth the energy to remember what happened, especially this long after the Academy awards have been handed out?
I feel the more apt question is “Why were the movies of 2011 either tinged or saturated with nostalgia?” Those who observed the ritualistic process of awards season probably noticed that three of the big movies–The Artist, Midnight in Paris and Hugo–had nostalgia as a major thematic element. Beyond these three, we had many other movies that fondly remembered the past or used memory as a narrative device. Super 8 yearns for the days of Spielbergian filmmaking of the 1980’s, the films of J. J. Abrams’ youth, while Steven Spielberg’s war epic War Horse was made with an affectionate touch of the films of Spielberg’s childhood days: the epics that he would have seen on the big screen. The First Avenger: Captain America also follows this pattern of using an older style of filmmaking for a superhero movie while looking fondly on the forties. Finally, you have movies like Tree of Life, Beginners, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that used the memory and its anachronistic way of moving through our minds.
So… why? Why all of this remembering and yearning for the past? Sure there is coincidence involved. Something this massive in terms of connection can never be truly planned. But something had to make the filmmakers look back into the past, right? As mentioned before, 2011 was an odd year. The turmoil over many aspects of life is enough for people to look back at what seemed to be simpler times. We want to be back to a time when things made sense.
We want to be like George Méliès in Hugo when he was making movies in his glass house where our dreams are alive and coming true. We want to be like George Valentin in The Artist: on top of the world and larger than life, before sound came into world of film. We want to be a child and watch movies on a gigantic screen and become mesmerized by the worlds created (hell, I still do this), stunned by the beautiful imagery of a sprawling epic (War Horse) or the innocence captured by the director and writer (Super 8), and not have an idea about the world I have to return to. And even if we never have been like either of the two Georges or that child watching movies in the theater we have still had experiences in life where we know we have felt what they have: that we are in control of our dreams. Anything is possible. We are larger than life and on top of the world.
In the movie, Woody Allen exams that everyone wants to live in the past. In doing so, Mr. Allen comes to the conclusion that those that live in the past are doomed to be blind in the present. Likewise, those that have no reverence for the past are doomed, which is the case with Inez, who cheats on Gil, and Inez’s family, who don’t like Gil because he is “too old fashioned.” The only direction to move is forward, into the darkness of the present while having respect for the old. Woody Allen’s fable on the dangers of nostalgia does not end in tragedy, however, as Gil finds happiness in the end of the movie.
And like that, we must find that balance between past and present. We can find happiness and a sense of meaning and clarity in our lives even when nothing makes sense during our lives. As mentioned, the lenses of retrospect allow us to make sense of life, and this is because we are removed emotionally from the experience. This does not mean, however, that we can throw away the bad, morose parts of our life. Like Jack in Tree of Life or George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy looking back in the past can help us realize where we are in life. We can then use that piece of wisdom to move forward and find clarity in life.
So if you have had a bad year, dear reader, don’t try to forget what just happened. Embrace the past and reflect on its complexity. It still may not make complete sense now, but thing will be more clear than what they were. The knowledge you will gain is going to be invaluable to finding meaning.
When I finished watching Universal’s new animated movie The Lorax, made by Illumination Entertainment (Despicable Me) and adapted from Theodor Seuss Geisel’s children’s book by the same name, I could not help but feel something was off. I could not put my finger on it at the time, but something did not feel right. I wanted to like the movie at the end, as I was moved by the image of one friend embracing the other before the credits started to roll. Despite these feelings, I felt there was little I could fault The Lorax for.
To start, the design for the film is very good. The animators and art director captured Dr. Seuss’ look to his creative world. The color palette is excellent as colors just pop off screen. Even when the protagonist, Ted (Zac Efron), leaves the over produced Thneedville for the dark, polluted outer world to talk to the Once-ler (Ed Helms) in order to find out how to find and plant a tree for his love interest Audrey (Taylor Swift), the use of color is vibrant. The original score is good, and the songs written are bright and boisterous, if a bit over-produced and somewhat forgettable. Being over-produced is not always a bad thing. It depends as to how you want to use your songs, and in the case of The Lorax the songs that are done that way work in its favor after a second thought. Ed Helms as the Once-ler and Betty White as Ted’s Grandma are the best voice actors of the cast, but everyone else does decent work, even if Zac Efron sounds too old to be twelve. To figure out why I did not care for the film I had to ask myself “What about The Lorax did I not like, then?”
Although the screen was full of color, the visuals never really stuck for me. A movie being a visual art, the visuals are important to the storytelling of a film and nothing really stood out in The Lorax despite the colorful palette. The music, like I said, is enjoyable but forgettable. It took me five listens to each song to have the songs stick in my head and even then Muppet songs kept popping up in my mind when I tried to recall the tunes. Then you have that the character development was lackluster when it came to the protagonist, his love interest, and just about every character that is not the Once-ler. An example is Ted’s mom, who when first asked about trees is disgusted by the very idea. We never really hear her speak much that would incite development past that. Then Ted gets a seed to a Truffula tree, the mom sees the seed starting to bloom, and she instantly loves trees. Nothing was built up for her to change attitudes so quickly. The other thing that felt underdeveloped is the romance between Ted and Audrey. Basically Ted likes Audrey and Audrey likes trees. Audrey tells Ted that she would probably marry the first man who would bring her a real tree. Not that she will marry him just that she probably will marry him. Thus if Ted fails in finding a real tree he can still win Audrey’s heart, and if he succeeds there is still a chance that it will not happen. Therefore the romance adds NOTHING outside a convoluted attempt to have Ted meet the Once-ler! Because someone who is only one, possibly two, generations removed from trees could not be motivated by his own curiosity to seek out the Once-ler. In fact, it is the Once-ler who is the most developed character which is surprising considering he is in the movie for less than half of the movie’s run time.
Also, I just want to point out that the Lorax is sort of unlikable in this movie. Not only does he not see any hypocrisy in having fun with playing cards (seriously, how many trees do you think were cut down just to make that one deck of cards), but the Lorax sends the Once-ler down a river where there is a giant waterfall down the stream that one would assume he would know about, being the mystical protector of the land. Sure, it was not the Lorax’s intention that such a thing would happen because the waterfall is part of a stream that branches off from the main river, but the facts remain that he still tried to send the Once-ler down the river without any regard for what happens. Character deficiencies aside, the Lorax is not completely hatable. In fact, the first scene in which we see the Lorax is actually moving if a little silly. The same thing can almost be said about the bromance between Lorax and Once-ler; their relationship is slightly moving but is hampered by being, once again, underdeveloped.
Then the flood gates opened and everything hit me. Just because characters and plot points are underdeveloped does not necessarily make a movie bad, just bland, and being bland is not justification for my proclamation of something being off. Then I thought of the character Mayor Aloysius O’ Hare, the antagonist voiced by Rob Riggle, who is a very flat, one note villain who just felt thrown in just to add “tension” to the film. But O’Hara does a lot more than just be in the movie, he also simplifies the theme of the movie. It is this character that opens up a can of worms. In the movie, O’ Hare is a CEO of a corporation that sells fresh air and wants the destruction of trees so that air can stay a finite commodity and therefore can be sold. My question is how he is getting such high quantities of fresh air if there are no more tree left? Also, if he is mayor and a CEO of a large corporation, I can only assume that O’Hare’s company is the largest employer in the city. If trees are grown, I wonder how bad the economy will become. Granted, the time it takes for trees to grow will be enough to help shift the economic focus of the town of Thneedville, and it is not like the town does not have other sources of business, unless motor-vehicles were built by O’Hare Air or imported from another town. The thing is that none of these questions reveal the grey areas in the discussion matter. O’Hare is a villain that twirls his invisible mustache while tying metaphorical puppies to the railroads. Making the giant corporation the bad guy when you promote your movie using giant corporations make it seem like the producers do not really believe in the message, especially one that plays off so black and white.
And thus I figured out why The Lorax did not sit right with me. The movie, for the most part, is bland and forgettable minus a few moments. If it were just the vanilla ice cream equivalent of cinema, I would not have as much of an issue with the movie. I like vanilla ice cream sometimes, as do a lot of other people. Some people love vanilla ice cream; I’m not going to hate them for it. But then you have the shakiness of the message which causes problems. If Illumination Entertainment added some of the complexity the theme has to their tale, maybe I would not have the reaction I have. Instead, I have to say that The Lorax is going to be harmless and possibly enjoyable depending on your mood until you start to digging into the film, and I have to say this because while the Lorax may speak for the trees, I must talk for the movie.
Renaissance Men of the Cinema
Welcome to the first installment of “Renaissance Men of the Cinema.” In this article I write about men and women who either pioneered the art of cinema or whose influence and/or personal interests went beyond the celluloid. It is my mission to bring these people to the forefront of the reader’s mind, causing them to seek out the artist’s work and history.
Paul Robeson may not be a very familiar name. I doubt many will even know who I am talking about. You may recognize Robeson through this:
Ol’ Man River became a song that would forever be associated with Robeson. Over the course of his life he would changed the lyrics of the song to compliment his world views. These changing views would cause Robeson to advocate for civil rights that would cause him fall into obscurity. So, if Robeson is not really a well known figure in today’s age why am I choosing to write about him? The fact that the cast of Jersey Shore are better known than someone who actually deserves to be recognized and has a great legacy is enough of a reason, but there is more to the story.
It was only a little over a year ago that I heard of Robeson. I was hanging out in the office of my Acting II professor with a couple of my colleagues waiting for class to start. After a bit of conversation one of my fellow classmates point to a picture of a man sitting on a table. “Who is that?” he asked. My professor looked at the picture, smiled, and said “That is Paul Robeson. He was a great actor and singer…” He continued on about how Robeson studied and practiced law as well as being a performer on a world stage. Since then, I wanted to look more into Paul Robeson’s work. When it came time to start this new series, I figured an actor who studied and practiced law while performing on a worldwide level would be a good start. Little did I know how much more to the man there was to discover.
Over the course of his life, Robeson faced much adversity. Born in 1898, Robeson was the youngest of five children of a prominent family in Princeton, New Jersey. After a disagreement between his father, Rev. William Robeson, and the congregation of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in 1900, William Robeson was forced out of his ministry and had to work odd jobs. Three years later, Robeson’s mother, Maria Bustill, died in a house fire. William ended up moving his family into an attic of a friend due to the financial instability. It was not until age 12 that Robeson’s father found stability in a parsonage.
Two years later, Robeson attended high school where he acted in the school productions of Othello and Julius Caesar, sang in the choir, and dominated in sports, which incurred prejudice and racial insults from competition. Robeson continued with his education at Rutgers University, becoming the third man of color to attend the school. There he excelled in his academics, joined the debate team and glee club, and played football after passing extra “tests” set by other student trying out. In his junior and senior years, Robeson became Rutgers first All-American for football. Robeson was also voted as the valedictorian by his classmates, and in his speech Robeson called for the equality of all Americans.
After college, he went to study law at Columbia School of Law in New York. In order to help pay his way through school, Robeson continued to play football in the National Football League, where he played for the Akron Pros and later the Milwaukee Badgers. Outside of football season, Robeson performed Off-Broadway where he caught the eye of playwright Eugene O’Neil. Through O’Neil, Robeson performed on Broadway in The Emperor Jones, where he achieved success despite his lack of proper training in acting. The story goes that part of the script called for Robeson, as Brutus Jones, to whistle with his hands in his pockets. After Robeson told O’Neil that he could not whistle, O’Neil suggested that he should improvise by humming or singing. Robeson chose to sing, and the rest became history.
After his success on Broadway, Robeson starred in his first movie entitled Body and Soul in 1924. Body and Soul saw Robeson playing a duel role as an escaped convict posing as a preacher of a small Baptist church and his long-estranged twin brother. A race film directed by Oscar Micheaux, Body and Soul had Robeson play a very dark character in a role that involved a very cleverly shot scene that heavily suggested that a rape occurred. Controversial for have a member of the cloth performing a supposed rape, the censors eventually allowed film to be screened with the scene intact for reason not completely known, though it is believed that it is maybe because of the racial thought at the time that a black man would be more likely to commit a rape. This would be the darkest role Robeson ever played, but it would also gain him even more notoriety, though not like what was to come.
In 1928, Paul Robeson played Joe in the London production of Show Boat. His portrayal of Joe, as well as his version of Ol’ Man River, became the standard of which the role would be judged. It is also a role that would cement Robeson as an icon of his time. After his performance, he continued to perform concerts all over the world.
One concert became that of legends in 1936. During the Spanish Civil War, Robeson performed a concert in a small town where a battle was taking place. According to records, the fighting stopped for an entire day after Robeson’s deep baritone voice was put over loud speakers. It is here where the words of Ol’ Man Riverfirst changed, from “I get weary, and sick of trying/ I’m tired of living, and scared of dying” to “But I keep laughing, instead of crying/ We must keep fighting, until we’re dying.”
In total, Robeson starred in eleven movies. Each movie showed his natural acting ability at a time when system and method acting were not yet taught in America. More so, all of his films post-1930 features his singing voice. Even the film version of The Emperor Jones, which featured almost no singing outside of the one scene previously mentioned, added a back story to the character of Brutus Jones just to allow Robeson more screen time to sing. And as his celebrity status grew, he only became more selective of his roles. Robeson chose only roles that would, in his opinion, bring dignity to his people. The film he claimed to be most proud of, The Proud Valley, featured an integrated cast and a positive view of coal miners and labor workers.During the outbreak of World War II, Paul Robeson was selected to sing Ballad for Americans, which was used to stir up patriotism for the fight over seas. And at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral, Robeson was elected by his fellow actors to read their farewell to the president. It was also around this time that he would play the title role in Shakespeare’s Othello on a Broadway stage. It would later be known as one of the best performances of the character and the longest running production of a Shakespeare play in Broadway history, playing for two years.Robeson started touring Europe at the end of World War II, performing concerts throughout the continent. It was during this time that the lyrics of Ol’ Man Riverchanged once more; adding a new opening that went “There’s an ol’ man named the Mississippi, That’s the ol’ man I don’t want to be,” and “Get a little drunk and you land in jail” changed to “Show a little grit and you land in jail.” Robeson also started talking out at his concerts, advocating for civil rights across the world. This caused an uproar in the town of Peekskill, New York, during the start of tour for his return to America. Not long after this uprising, The United States Government revoked his visas to travel outside the States, fearing his conflicting beliefs of the time could ruin America’s reputation. This caused him to be blacklisted, and as a result Robeson swore to never act again.
For the next ten years Paul Robeson practiced law in the courts, civil liberties, and for cases he felt that injustice was done. At the same time began fighting the Supreme Court on his ban from leaving America. After ten years, he finally won the battle and gained his right to leave the country, but the damage was done. He never performed on the grand scale he had in the past. After two small tours in Europe and Australia, Robeson retired from performing and took residency in Philadelphia where he lived out the rest of his days.Paul Robeson was the true embodiment of a renaissance man. He used his standing as a world icon and his arts to push his beliefs in civil rights while at the same time he practiced law and protected those he felt were wronged. A proven intellectual, Robeson helped shed light on a dignity his people own, and he peacefully faded into the shadows after his fight was won. While his name may not be as well known as it should be, his is a legacy that will always be felt.
The sound of silence has not been this sweet in a long time. Nor has black and white been this colorful. I know I’m talking in clichés here, but I cannot help myself. The Artist, which earned ten nominations from the Academy, is such a charming gem that I might as well call it fabulous. Who knew a silent film made in this modern era of filmmaking could be this good? Maybe myself, given that I love silent film and know that The Artist is a silent movie with about 75 year of sophistication.
The film follows a familiar path using the formula set by movies like A Star is Born and Singing in the Rain. This make the movie what I call a “formula film,” or a movie that relies on tropes and familiar and sometimes overused plot line. Romantic Comedies, Slashers pics, and Action films are some of the movies that tend to fit into this category. As a person with a degree in physics, I do not think that just because a film is formula based makes it a bad movie. The use of a formula depends on what derivation was used, is it algebra based, calculus based, or differential based. In terms of film, this is basically what the creative team did to make the movie unique. For instance, the original A Star is Born was a romantic drama, Singing in the Rain a musical comedy, the 1954 remake of A Star is Born was a musical that kept the dramatic bits, and The Artist is a silent film. More so, what variables are used should change the outcome of the equation used. The variables in filmmaking are many. Such things like the writer, producers, director, and actors can change a lot about how the film will look and feel, as will the sets, the cinematography, the editing, the music, how sound it incorporated, and so on. In short, it is not what the formula is but how it is executed.
The Artist is well executed, using the grandiose appeal of the movies to its advantage and making seemingly extreme choices feel natural. The movement of the camera is always expressive. A high angle shot panning away from a subject, for instance, adds a lot of emotion much to a scene. Each cut has a meaning, whether it is to tell a joke, add more emotion to the film with a cutaway, or keep the tempo of the film. A good example of most of this is at the beginning.
The picture opens with a movie in a movie with “A Russian Affair” starring George Valentin (Jean Dujardin); a successful movie star of the silent screen. As the action takes place on screen, it cuts to the backstage where the cast and producer of the movie wait to hear the audience’s reaction to the picture. After a clever use set and camera movement, we see George watching himself with a confident grin. He does not believe he is larger than life, he knows he is. Despite the hubris, George Valentin, never makes the character unlikable. Dujardin is so charming and expressive that the character does feel larger than life.
After a standing ovation from the audience, George celebrates the success by hogging the spotlight. He even pushes his co-star, played by Penelope Ann Miller who is channeling Linda Lamont, out of the spot light and off the stage. She processed to flick him off as he continues to play it up for the audience. The festivities move outside where he poses for pictures until a member from the crowd, played by Bérénice Bejo, bumps into him by accident. George is amused with this and continues the photo shoot with Bérénice’s character. We find out that her name is Peppy Miller and that she is trying to break into Hollywood. Bejo’s character is not the most difficult of roles, but she plays Peppy with such enthusiasm at the beginning of the movie that it is hard not to like her.
The story progresses as the technology allows for sound to be added to movies, causing the company to let go of George. George tries to fight the action, but ultimately leaves the company. We get a scene where George and Peppy meet on a stairway. They catch up on the times and Peppy reveals she’s been signed to a contract to be in the talkies. George takes the news with a genuine but forced grin. He tries hard not to descend the steps any further, trying desperately to hold his place in Hollywood, as Peppy continues to ascend the stairs, effectively taking over his spot. We continue to watch George’s downfall, going from deity to common man with the failure of a movie he produces and getting hit hard by the stock market crash. Through his eyes we see Peppy taking his place as the person people pay to see as every movie she’s in becomes a hit.
This is where the movie shines. The characters could have easily been one dimensional, but Dujardin and Bejo add layers to their performances that make Valentin and Miller feel real. Every action feels right even when they get extreme. Writer and director Michel Hazanavicius is sure to raise the stakes further with each scene until the climax, making sure to keep reminding us of the larger than life appeal of the movies.
The story is told with a sweet and tender touch and the framing is clever, as is the use of use of the sets. More than that,The Artist is about something, and while it may not convey anything complex the movie does not have to be so. The Artist is a celebration of the movies, old and new. It’s the celebration of art and how new technological developments should be embraced and accepted, yet the old forms of art should still be respected and used if the artist feels that it is the right choice. It is through this we find more meaning in the movie, such as how a person can fall behind or feel replaced by technology, or how people can find means of expression from the new. It’s just that sometimes we can find something new in the old ways.
When I finished watching The Ides of March I pretty much wanted to curl myself up into a ball, not because the movie–co-produced, co-written, starring, and directed by known political activist and movie star George Clooney–presented new, dark truths about the human existence or politics. Rather, it was how the themes were presented. The Ides of March is a complex political thriller following Stephen (Ryan Gosling), a young, bright eyed political idealist who is working on the campaign of presidential candidate and front runner of the Democratic Primary, Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney).
The film opens with Stephen at the podium before a debate is to take place in Ohio. “I am not a Christian. I am not an Atheist. I’m not Jewish. I’m not Muslim. My religion, what I believe in is called the Constitution of the United States.” Ryan Gosling says these lines with conviction, signifying his character’s belief not so much in the statement but, as we find out later, in Governor Mike Morris. This devotion to the man ultimately brings Stephen’s downfall after he makes the choice to meet with the campaign manager of the opposing campaign Tom Duffy, cynically played by Paul Giamatti. This meeting causes campaign manager Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Stephen’s boss and mentor, to start to question his loyalty after Stephen chooses to withhold information about the meeting until things seem too late. The plot thickens as Stephen has a fling with an intern played by Evan Rachel Wood.
While the dialogue is sharp and the pacing is taut, it is the subplot of Stephen’s affair with Molly the intern where problems arise. Evan Rachel Wood’s character feels more like a plot device than a character or a person despite Wood’s valiant performance. The events surrounding the subplot are generic and unbelievable. This is a bit disappointing because these events could actually happen, but actions and plot points blow up way too fast for things to be completely realistic. In a film that supposedly takes place in the real world, this is a problem.
Despite the glaring flaw, The Ides of March is still effective. Writers Clooney, Grant Haslov, and Beau Willimon are not too concerned with the realism in the plot as they are with the overall theme. It is the dedication with the theme, which shows a genuine belief in the subject matter, along with the existential presentation, well framed images, slick pacing, and great performances from a majority of the cast that gives the movie its power. I just wish the direction would have been a bit more stylish as opposed to the gritty realism. Maybe then the subplot would make a better fit.
Switch to our mobile site