Thursday, February 16, 2012

Good "Artist" and Good "Luck."

Of course, you didn’t hear it here first, but The Artist will likely win this year’s Oscar for Best Picture. Several recent events predict this: The film just won best Picture at the UK BAFTA Awards; Best Picture at the Critic’s Choice Awards; Best Picture (musical or comedy) at the Golden Globes.

The dog even won a Golden Collar Award for its acting, making him the most important canine star since Benji.

When the dog wins, it pulls everyone else along on its leash.

As usual, these awards and nominations do not predict The Artist’s future status as cinematic art. My snark aside, I liked the film, which I finally saw the other night, and came away with the same feeling I had for last year’s winner The King’s Speech: Good stuff. No Citizen Kane.

The Artist floats like a silver bubble as it cleverly evokes silent movies. Light and graceful, it bursts quickly, its French airiness and silver atmosphere its most memorable qualities.

Jean Dujardin is excellent as the silent film star unable to adapt to the coming of sound. I liked especially winsome, wide-smiling Bérénice Bujo as the young starlet who supplants Dujardin in Hollywood’s fickle affections. She reminded me much of another favorite actor of mine, Barbara Hershey.

I also appreciated the nod toward Fred Astaire at the end and the long quotation from Bernard Hermann’s most poignant score, Vertigo.

I could say that the nicest thing about The Artist is that it took a French filmmaker, Michel Hazanavicius, to remind modern Hollywood and its young fans of the wonderful, vibrant past they’ve so ruthlessly forgotten.

Except that it wouldn’t be quite accurate. This is because of some interesting cross-fertilization: It took an American, Martin Scorsese, to remind the very same audience of the depth and richness of cinematic history—as it started in France a hundred years ago--with his wholehearted, passionate Hugo, another Best Picture nominee.

That one that may go down as one of Scorsese’s masterpieces when history’s dust settles a little. Hugo reaches further and delves deeper, with greater feeling, in ways that the light-footed The Artist doesn’t. Watching Hugo, I saw the history of movies unfold before me in deep and astounding ways. 

One critic complained that Hugo is greatly overstuffed, but doesn't that describe the history of the movies? Stuffed full of wonder.

I greatly hope that both films will increase mainstream moviegoer interest in silent films. But I’ll keep breathing normally in the meantime.

Will I be sore when The Artist wins and Hugo doesn’t? No, I’ll just say “told you so” while mildly marveling at how the new Oscar voting rules give spectacular farragoes like Inception and widely disdained movies like Extremely Loud . . . a shot at Best Picture. When a film like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy doesn’t get in that chorus line, then something might not be working.

While many of you are watching next Sunday’s Oscar telecast, I’ll be watching the fifth episode of the mini-series Luck on HBO.

Luck is a drama set in the world of 21st century horse racing, once the Sport of Kings, now a footnote that gets our eyes only around Kentucky Derby time.

Too bad, because horse racing is one thrilling sport and its world a great setting for storytelling. Luck is quite a series and promises much, at least so far. Created by David Milch, creator of the truncated masterpiece Deadwood, it’s pungent, exotic, and colorful as it intertwines its many stories into a unique skein of drama and intrigue as bright as the sunlight on a jockey’s silks. The racing sequences are breathtaking and powerful, conveying the thrill and danger to both horse and rider. You feel like you’re in a saddle beside them as they pound along the track.

Does it reach the Shakespearean heights of Deadwood? No, at least not yet, for several reasons. Despite the looming legends of Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, very few of the characters have yet to seize my attention and fascination the way say, Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen or Timothy Olyphant’s Seth Bullock did.

I’m not yet absorbed by the schemes and plots of Abe Bernstein (Hoffman) and Walter Smith (Nolte). Bernstein, an ex-con and gambling executive, is seeking revenge against his former associates, for good reasons, but why I should be compelled, I’m not sure. His project comes off pretty dry and passionless. I also spend too much time wondering if Smith (Nolte) will sink into Alzheimer’s, not about his plans for revenge through a triumph on the race track.

More intriguing to me is Escalante (John Ortiz), an enigmatic, callous and crooked trainer whose wide eyes well conceal his inner life, and the team of four hapless scuzz-ball bettors who wind up big-time winners (among them Ian Hart); they’re closest echo to the wonderful world of Deadwood and are worth following even as the other story lines bump about in the stables and boardrooms.

Also Milch’s approach to dialogue and his actors is problematic. As several critics have said, the actors deliver their lines in such low-key ultra-naturalistic fashion that it’s like listening to someone chew caramel.

This is especially bothersome, in part because horse racing, especially the betting, is fairly complicated with rituals, rules and a complex betting scheme that can baffle outsiders, even someone who enjoys the sport on occasion, as I do. (After every episode, I wish I had $300 to fritter away on a Sunday at nearby Golden Gate Fields.

But I’ll be there February 26 instead of tuned to the Oscars (about which I’ll explain shortly). Luck’s world is so exotic when compared with what’s offered most of the time elsewhere, I cannot resist. Sooner or later, I hope, it’ll come thundering out of the gates and gallop into greatness.

Anyway, the cable mini-series is where it’s happening, as far as film artistry goes, these days.

At least I think so. What about you?

(re-edited 2/17/12)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield
Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.


Julie Schauer said...

Thanks, I'm off to see "The Artist" right now........but now I'm also convinced that "Hugo" is a must see.
(was not planning to see it)

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks, Julie. I hope I was of some encouragement!