[Screen It]


(2011) (Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo) (PG-13)

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Drama: A silent film star must contend with the threat of "talkies" threatening his career, all while a young starlet quickly rides that new medium to fame.
It's 1927 and George Valentin (JEAN DUJARDIN) is a beloved star of silent films, many of which feature his cute dog as his co-star. That, and the fact that the pooch also upstages her in real life doesn't sit well with George's wife and actress, Doris (PENELOPE ANN MILLER). But George doesn't seem to care, especially since he has loyal chauffeur Clifton (JAMES CROMWELL) at his beck and call.

And then there's the fact that George is the big attraction at Kinograph Studios run by Al Zimmer (JOHN GOODMAN). In fact, the actor has so much power that he casts an extra he previously bumped into at a premiere, Peppy Miller (BERENICE BEJO), into one of his films. But Al sees that times are changing and wants to move over to the new format of "talkies," something that George thinks is a silly fad.

Over the following years, and as Peppy's star rises at the studio, George must contend with his career, marriage and lifestyle he had grown accustomed to diminishing until he's a shadow of his former self.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
Hollywood is well known for trying any number of gimmicks to get moviegoers into theater seats. The most recent, of course, is 3D, even if this is the third attempt at the format. In years past, it was the bass-happy Sensurround, while more successful audio additions were Dolby, THX and surround sound. Back when TV arrived on the scene, movies suddenly went wide in their dimensions. And going even further back, there was the addition of color to a black and white world, and before that the introduction of sound into an otherwise silent film experience.

The latter had the greatest impact in terms of changing filmmaking and theatrical presentation. Theaters had to install speakers and jettison the piano or organ players (and sometimes orchestras) that provided the soundtrack. And many of those who were stars in the silent era didn't make the transition over to the "talkies" for a variety of reasons, such as possessing a less than pleasing vocal quality and/or the inability to articulate well enough for the new medium.

The tale of such a Hollywood star having to contend with a major upheaval in his world is the gist of "The Artist," a terrific flick that's both loving homage to and a play on the trappings of silent films and Hollywood of old. Presented in black and white and in the old, pre-wide screen framing format of 4:3, and mostly (but not entirely) free of audible dialogue, the movie has become quite the favorite of movie reviewers and Hollywood insiders with a taste for nostalgia. Whether it catches on with audiences outside of the art-house film circuit remains to be seen, but I think if filmgoers give this a chance, they may just like or even love what's offered.

And that's the story of one George Valentin (a terrific Jean Dujardin), the big silent film star of his era (the late 1920s). When the head of his studio (John Goodman looking the part, including puffing on the obligatory big cigar) decides that talkies are the future of filmmaking, the star balks. In his place comes the rising star of ingénue Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, radiating movie star charisma) who becomes the next big "it" girl in Hollywood, and who George literally bumped into earlier at one of his premieres.

The rise and fall of stars isn't anything new - either in the real world or Hollywood's fictionalized view of that -- but writer/director Michel Hazanavicius manages to make it all seem fresh but also familiar, as if watching a classic movie of a bygone era that we've seen before. That, of course, is the point, and he pulls it off magnificently, with lots of loving and nostalgic care.

One doesn't need to be a film buff to enjoy what's offered, but those who are will recognize scenes and shots purposefully cribbed (in composition) from various classic films, all of which adds to the fun. Others, though, may view all of the rising/fall star symbolism (the protagonist going down steps while his replacement is going up, drunkenly imagining his character in vastly reduced size, his character sinking in quicksand in one of his movies, etc.) as a bit obvious and/or thick.

Again, however, that's the point as the offering is mirroring how films behaved way back when, when subtly wasn't exactly their strong point. The same holds true for all of the exaggerated mugging to get across emotions and such to viewers, a point that's actually addressed in the film, but also something that the filmmakers slowly move away from as the story unfolds in their own bit of symbolism regarding the change in movies.

The song and dance numbers are glorious, the actor's dog and movie co-star is cute as can be, and various moments are quite memorable. One involves a nightmare where the protagonist experiences sound for the first time (and we hear the foley effects as they occur, just like him).

The best, however, and one that reportedly was improvised, is when the young actresses snoops around the actor's dressing room. Finding his jacket and top hat on a coat rack, she envisions it's the man and they "dance" and embrace, with her slipping her arm down one jacket sleeve to stand in for his arm, complete with a passionate embrace. It's a brilliant scene, and Dujardin and Bejo share a great chemistry when they're really together (rather than in woman and jacket form).

Composer Ludovic Bource's score is really a character itself, both another bit of loving homage as well as a tool for imparting mood, emotion and more. It should easily win many awards for best score, while the pic and those involved in making it will surely earn their share of nominations and possible wins.

Having watched this first for our award voting purposes and then again for this review, I liked the film even more the second time around. For this reviewer, that's saying something, and this film says a lot, without saying nearly any words. It's one of the best of 2011 and rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed December 2, 2011 / Posted December 23, 2011

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