The Artist (2011, Michel Hazanavicius) – Despite all of the critical backlash surrounding The Artist’s Best Picture win last year, it’s still a damned good movie and one that was head and shoulders above almost every other movie that came out in 2011. A winning and charming tale that cleverly melds silent movie references with the modern conventions they would end up becoming, it feels simultaneously nostalgic and brand new at the same time.
In 1927 at the height of his career as a silent film actor, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) scoffs at the notion that sound (other than music from the orchestra pit) will ever catch on in motion pictures. Resistant to change, the overly prideful George watches his star plummet over his steadfast refusal to talk, while a former silent dancer he helped discover on accident named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) becomes a superstar. Slowly, thanks to the declining US economy and the disastrous reception to a self financed passion project, George begins to lose everything thanks to his stubborn nature.
It’s all purposefully corny and over emotive, but that’s the point, and Dujardin and Hazanavicius hold it together quite nicely. As with any silent film, the musical score is the key to driving the story, and composer Ludovic Bource has crafted a note perfect assembly of pieces old and new. It would also be a bit of a misnomer to say that the film is traditionally 100% silent as several sequences use simple sound effects to convey emotion and despair. Silent purists might see that as a bit of a cop out, but within the narrative structure of the film it makes perfect sense.
The Blu-ray transfer looks nice, but it also makes the ongoing case that Black and White photography doesn’t translate all that well to Blu-ray, with the picture occasionally looking unnaturally grainy. The sound design does wonders for the film’s score and limited use of sound, though. Special features include a trio of featurettes with cast and crew about the making of the film (one a 45 minute Q&A) that cover relatively the same ground, and amusing blooper reel, and an interesting, but all too brief look at shooting on location in Los Angeles and attempting to recreate the period look. It’s a great movie to own, but this edition might be just a placeholder for something grander in the future.
Sound of Noise (2010, Johannes Stjarne Nilsson, Ola Simonsson) – Another film coming from minds across the pond making great use of sound is the Swedish import Sound of Noise, a winning and thoroughly engaging pseudo-heist film about a band of hipster musicians on a terrorist-like crusade to save the city they love from “shitty music” and the one man who can stop their reign of sonic terror.
Based on the short film Music for One City and Six Drummers from the same filmmakers, his winner of Best Picture at Fantastic Fest and a winner of the Young Critics Award at Cannes tells the story of Amadeus Warnerbring (Bengt Nilsson), a tone deaf detective with a hatred for anything musical who gets called to the scene of what police believe to be a drunk driving accident, but is actually the first in a series of cluse leading to a terrorist organization of six master drummers from different musical disciplines (led by female logistics leader Sanna Persson and composer/all around pompous douche Magnus Borjeson) determined to commit four “attacks” throughout the city to forward their agenda.
Silly, but thoroughly kinetic despite a slight lag around the 45 minute mark, the visual and auditory inventiveness of the film adds sparkle to an already witty and warm screenplay. It’s easy to see both sides of this crime sage, which essentially equates to a piss take on Michael Mann’s Heat remade by someone making fun of Pitchfork. In addition to being tone deaf – and in a nice twist unable to hear sounds from anything the perpetrators touch or play on – Amadeus has some pretty understandable reasons for not liking music, and at the same time, the compositions from the generally unhappy musicians offer them the only happiness they can find outside of meaningless paying gigs they feel are beneath them. Then again, they’re also breaking the law and about as hipster as you can get, so there’s also that against them, and Amadeus can be an insufferable and ignorant boor at times.
There aren’t any special features on the DVD, but the sound design deserves special attention since it’s mainly the reason the film exists. The four “movements” in the film all have unique mixes depending on their setting, be it at a bank, a power station, in a hospital and nearly killing a patient, or getting revenge on a symphony with a bulldozer. It’s smart, funny, and clever enough to make one wish it got a theatrical release here so it could be watched in an auditorium with a great sound system.
21 Jump Street (2012, Phil Lord and Chris Miller) – One of the year’s biggest hits and one of the best films of the year so far, 21 Jump Street effectively sends up the buddy cop action-comedy genre while simultaneously reviving it. Featuring great leading performances from Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, it’s a loving shot in the arm to the famed television series it bears almost no resemblance to and easily the funniest example of the genre in quite some time.
Following a botched drug bust, former schoolmates and current partners on the police force Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) are assigned to the newly revived Jump Street program. The fringe operation of the police force takes the youngest looking officers and assigns them to local high schools to stop crime amongst youngsters. Jenko and Schmidt are assigned to a high school where a band of eco-conscious and astoundingly tolerant cool kids have been dealing a new mind altering drug called HFS out of the yearbook offices. After mixing up their assigned undercover identities on the first day of school, the vastly smarter Schmidt is assigned to blow off classes and track meets to get closer to the cool kids, while Jenko is tasked with infiltrating the AP Chemistry class to find out who’s cooking the drugs and how.
What could have very easily turned into “Superbad with guns” or a meta-commentary on nostalgic television actually stands firmly on its own merits. A huge amount of credit has to go to the talent behind the camera on this one. First time live action feature directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, TV’s beloved Clone High) and writer Michael Bacall (co-writer of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, working from a story co-written by Hill) bring an earnest degree of silliness to the proceedings. Not once does the film work very hard to make the audience buy into the ludicrous premise, but it allows the audience ample opportunity to simply have a fun time.
Lord and Miller have a great eye for visual gags thanks to their animation backgrounds, and they adeptly work them into some increasingly complex action sequences as the film goes on. People don’t just get shot. They get shot in comedically horrifying ways. Things don’t always blow up the way they should. And sometimes, just to walk into a room, you need a box full of doves to make your presence known. At times it borders dangerously on parody, but the filmmakers and writing team have done a great job of balancing the real and the surreal. It feels realistic as a teen film and a buddy cop parody without ever talking down to either audience.
The Blu-ray includes a jovial, joking, never for a moment all that serious commentary from Lord, Miller, Tatum, and Hill and a plethora of featurettes that all serve unique purposes without ever being redundant, including a look at the film’s not-so-much-a-surprise-anymore cameo from a member of the original TV cast and a look around the set courtesy of Rob Riggle, who shines here as a lecherous gym teacher. There’s also a whopping 30 minutes of deleted scenes, many of which would have been good enough to actually make it into the final cut of the film. Add to that a gag reel and two minutes of deleted riffs from Ice Cube (who plays the film’s requisite angry, black captain), and this becomes an indispensable package for a movie that could’ve very well been rather dispensible.
Bending the Rules (2012, Artie Mandelberg) – At one point WWE Studios looked like it could become the heir apparent to Cannon Films, the studio famed for making some of the best low budget schlocky action films of the 1980s following the gleeful stupidity of films like The Marine and the direct to DVD Behind Enemy Lines sequel that inexplicably took place in Columbia. But thanks to an increased production schedule and a desire to turn most of their sports entertainment superstars into movie stars, they’ve fallen into a cycle of churning out mostly contrived fare that’s not even really bad enough to be that memorable. Starring recently retired Canadian wrestler Edge (Adam Copeland) and fading 90s relic Jamie Kennedy, the inert buddy cop movie Bending the Rules aims higher than it probably should, and instead of focusing on action and comedy (two things the WWE intrinsically understands), this sloppy, overplotted mess carries all the emotional weight of a shrug.
The very basic plot can be summed up in a single sentence, but no one involved with the production seems to think that was enough. A disgraced and irreverent New Orleans police officer about to be indicted on charges of corruption (Copeland) finds himself caught up in a case that has targeted the Assistant DA that wants to put him behind bars (Kennedy). If there had been just something simple to hang all of this on, it could’ve been some great Saturday afternoon fare, but thanks to some lacklustre direction and one of the most overstuffed scripts in recent memory. It’s ridiculous in a bad way instead of a fun way.
Copeland does well with a somewhat standard role, showcasing his talents for comedy and action, but the script doesn’t do Kennedy any favours as he often seems confused just how he should be playing his character who just has things literally pigpiled on top of him. In addition to being disliked by the rank and file officers he holds to a higher standards, the character also has his family’s beloved restored Studabaker stolen, his wife leaves him, a crazy former actress mother (Jessica Walter) who thinks her cancer riddled, possibly senile dentist husband (Phillip Baker Hall, looking way too nice to be suffering from cancer) is having an affair that Copeland has been asked to investigate, and he’s been targeted by a death row inmate due to be executed later in the week.
There’s absolutely no accounting for pacing here as Mandelberg races through the film to get it all done in only 82 bafflingly incoherent minutes where Copeland and Kennedy are forced into literally explaining away the abundance of plotting and characterization instead of focusing on making a fun and silly buddy flick. Instead, we’re forced to wait a full 30 minutes for anything to really take shape, then 30 minutes of decidedly unfunny shenanigans, and a 20 minute conclusion that has to go back and explain a twist ending for five minutes without it ever making any sense before just throwing up its hands and ending out of nowhere.
The DVD has about 25 minutes of special features and the picture and sound quality are probably as good as the film is ever going to appear. There’s a making of featurette that’s oddly as unfocused as the movie. It seems like it wants to talk only about Edge, but it ends up being Edge having to explain a bunch of behind the scenes anecdotes. A featurette about Kennedy and Copeland’s chemistry hints at something that could’ve been a better film. There’s also looks at the cars of the film and the cast and crew talking about an aborted alternate ending that wouldn’t have added anything or made any sense in the first place.