Monthly Archives: March 2012

Midnight in Paris (2011)

A peculiar fate binds love and Paris—and apparently, romance movies. From Maurice Pialat’s depressingly sober À Nos Amours to the more buoyant Paris, Je T’Aime, directors have shown a penchant for charting out love affairs in Paris. Woody Allen’s latest film is no exception. The opening scenes of Midnight in Paris showcase picturesque views of the city: a boat crossing the Seine, the iconic Moulin Rouge windmill, café sidewalks in the rain. The montage runs too long for my taste, but it does establish the city’s grandeur—curiously, not as a city of attractions (although there’s that), but as an everyday residence, where one can gladly brave occasional showers without an umbrella. But in case three full minutes of postcard pictures isn’t enough to hammer home the idea, Woody Allen further underscores the point with an actual line in the movie: “That Paris exists and anyone could choose to live anywhere else in the world will always be a mystery to me.”

Indeed, Paris has held firm to its reputation as a magical place, where—at least for those “temporarily passing through”—logic takes a back seat and anything can happen. In this enchanted realm, inhibitions are relinquished by the mere mention of the city’s name. Following this tradition, the film sets at its center the nostalgic malaise of urbanites, the longing to transport oneself to a different era: “That’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying.” But although Midnight in Paris indicates disconnection and discontent, watching it made me feel fulfilled, in no small part because of the fantastic vicarious experience it provides. Maki and I easily identified with Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), an aspiring novelist whose literary career is built on Hollywood screenplays. Visiting Paris with his fiancé (Rachel McAdams), he feels inexplicably drawn to the city, where on a midnight stroll he discovers an anachronistic world and a girl named Adriana (Marion Cotillard).

I thoroughly enjoyed this film, but I also understand that it’s not for everyone. For one thing, not all would appreciate its myriad references, which are what make the movie so gratifying. In one scene, we meet T.S. Eliot. In another, we hear Salvador Dali exclaiming, “I see a rhinoceros!” It’s both absurd and exciting. Although selective in its viewership, Midnight in Paris promises an amusing ride, filled with surprises that make you hungry for the next adventure.

‘No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.’

‘If it’s bad, I’ll hate it. If it’s good, then I’ll be envious and hate it even more. You don’t want the opinion of another writer.’

‘I believe that love that is true and real creates a respite from death. All cowardice comes from not loving, or not loving well, which is the same thing. And when the man who is brave and true looks death squarely in the face…it is because they love with sufficient passion to push death out of their minds, until the return that it does to all men.’

‘The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.’

‘You know, I sometimes think, how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city? You can’t.’

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The Artist (2011)

As this year’s Oscars Best Picture, The Artist seemed like a logical (and somewhat necessary) follow-up to Hugo. It opens with silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin)—proud, confident, and self-possessed, a performer clearly at the top of his game. A chance incident allows him to meet aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), whom he marks with a beauty spot to help boost her career. Two years later, Kinograph Studios decides to work exclusively on talkies, signing Peppy on as a fresh face. Soon, Peppy’s burgeoning career overshadows George, obliterating silent films and plunging him into despair as a new, talking world pushes its way to invade his private silence.

Michel Hazanavicius stakes a gutsy gamble with The Artist, but it’s a wager the director unmistakably wins. His film flaunts clichés that contemporary moviemakers go through great lengths to avoid. The characters are flat, simple, one-dimensional; the plot is predictable; and the comedy is of the slapstick variety, complete with charming stunt dog. But even with this, the film offers an endearing sincerity that’s become a rare commodity nowadays. On another level, it pulls off its flagrant use of conventions because that’s precisely the point.

Despite its seeming transparency, The Artist succeeds as a project of imaginative proportions. Here we have a black-and-white movie depicting the decline of silent films alongside the invention of talkies. What’s laudable about the work—and what belies its outward simplicity—is how it replicates this same tension both in form and elsewhere within the narrative. The movie’s central issue involves a man’s inability to reconcile his silence with the world’s celebration of sound and dialogue. “Why do you refuse to talk?” his wife asks. Eventually, even the act of talking becomes hostile for George, and he covers his ears in futile defense.

A product of magnificent filmmaking, this movie indeed surpasses Hugo (hampered as it is by family drama ambitions) but, between the two, The Artist holds less emotional resonance. This might not constitute valid criticism—since it’s a byproduct of the film’s aforementioned simplicity—but it’s an observation nonetheless. Hazanavicius’ ode to cinema is beautiful in the same way that distant scenery is beautiful. Maki and I watched Midnight in Paris that same day, and although we both concede that The Artist is definitely more accomplished, we also agree that—literary biases avowed—the former, like Hugo, hits closer to the heart.

‘I’m unhappy, George.’ ‘So are millions of us.’

Hugo (2011)

Set in 1930s Paris, Hugo centers on its title character, a clockmaker’s son who lives within the walls of a railway station. Orphaned and abandoned, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) steals food to survive and filches mechanical parts to complete his father’s project, the restoration of a broken automaton. When toy merchant Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) catches him red-handed and takes a valuable notebook from him, a desperate Hugo turns to the man’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Moretz), for help. Together, they repair the automaton and discover its link to Georges’ secret past, opening up an adventure much bigger than the one they first imagined.

While Hugo generally sustains its fantastic veneer, ill-considered sequences at times break the illusion—the most jarring being a painfully blatant statement of theme. But despite such identifiable blunders, the movie leads you inside worlds far from familiar: gigantic clocks forming intricate mechanical lacework, books spiraling toward the ceiling, tiny toys lining a shop from end to end. In Hugo, your world is scaled down to one city, one train station—where your biggest enemy is the inspector, and the orphanage your worst nightmare. Visually, all this is rendered in spectacular 3D. The opening scenes take your breath away: the onrush of steam in your face, the crowd parting to let you pass—almost, almost like you’re really there. In a word: captivating.

Magnified to gorgeous proportions, Georges’ masterpieces compel the viewer to consider and appreciate the many layers at work in Scorsese’s fim. Although marketed as a heartwarming family drama, the movie’s principal accomplishments lie elsewhere. As a children’s movie, Hugo may fail to mesmerize very young audiences, but does wonders in capturing the hearts and minds of more mature viewers. Whatever the dissenting few may say, I consider this film a success in the seamless unification of its elements: an orphan searching for his father’s presence, an artist struggling to reconcile with a bitter past, and—between them—a mysterious, broken automaton carrying a crucial message. Apart from Butterfield’s inconsistent performance and some awkward exchanges between the two children, I have no real complaints. My eyes blurred over several times while watching this film—at times out of sadness, more often out of sheer awe. I am grateful to Maki for dragging me to its last screening in Metro Manila. Hugo in 3D is definitely something I would not have wanted to miss.

‘We could get into trouble.’ ‘That’s how you know it’s an adventure.’

‘Why should I believe you?’ ‘Because…because it’s true!’

‘If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, look around. This is where they’re made.’