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Critical Consensus: Leonard Maltin and Caryn James Take on “The Artist,” the Oscars and More

Critical Consensus: Maltin vs. James

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of Critical Consensus, a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network (currently in hibernation while we prepare its new design) discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. This week, we turn to two members of the IW blog network, Leonard Maltin and Caryn James, for their takes on several new movies opening during the holiday weekend. The pair also offer some early thoughts on the awards season.

Since Criticwire is currently undergoing renovation, no average grades are available for films this week, but links to individual film pages for new releases follow after the discussion.

Leonard, you’ve written extensively about silent film — not only about individual films, but how films from the silent era continue to entertain contemporary audiences. What do you make of “The Artist,” a new silent film about the beginning of the sound era? Is it in tune with silent film traditions? Or perhaps a modern commentary on an archaic practice?

LEONARD MALTIN: The highest compliment I can pay “The Artist” and its director, Michel Hazanavicius, is that there were times when I forgot I was watching a new movie. I’ve spent a lot of my life watching silent movies and this film actually persuaded me that I was doing that. If it were just a stunt, I don’t think it would be getting the reaction that it is. It’s not a stunt; it’s more of an attempt by a contemporary filmmaker to work in a different medium that what’s used today. He pulls it off with grace and charm.

The film covers a six-year-period, from 1927 to 1932, when the talkies arrived and silent film basically went extinct. To me, the most compelling sequences are those where Hazanavicius actually uses sound effects, moving beyond the boundaries of silent cinema to illustrate the evolution of the medium.

That brings us to “Hugo,” a movie that covers several generations of film production rather astoundingly well, even applying 3-D effects to silent cinema. Caryn, since you just saw “Hugo,” how would you compare it to “The Artist”?

CARYN JAMES: I think they’re completely different. I loved “Hugo” so much. I think it’s a brilliant use of 3-D. It’s this beautiful love story about the movies, as people have called it, but it’s also about the future. I love that Martin Scorsese, a master filmmaker, is taking a new technology and using it beautifully to capture something that moves to the future — it’s about children, imagination, creation, moving ahead. Leonard, I totally respect your opinion on “The Artist,” but I’m coming at this from a completely different point of view. My one-phrase description of “The Artist” is that it’s a beautifully made stunt. It’s backward-looking, whereas “Hugo” is forward-looking.

LM: I share your love of “Hugo,” one hundred percent. I think it’s actually thrilling to watch on several levels. One, because Scorsese and his cameraman, Robert Richardson, and his visual effects wizard Rob Legato, have made such creative and persuasive use of 3-D. But also because they’ve all worked in such harmony to compose this valentine to the past and to the timeless qualities of imagination and a sense of wonder. In all the fantasies we see in science fiction, I don’t get the genuine sense of wonder that I do watching “Hugo.”

There’s a third movie dealing with our relationship to the past opening this week: “My Week With Marilyn.” Caryn, I read a piece you wrote for The New York Times in 2005 about a couple of Monroe biographies released at the same time where you touched on how they emphasize the mythology of Monroe over her actual life. Personally, I think “My Week With Marilyn” does that without adding much to it, but what’s your take?

CJ: What I like about that film is that it’s not only about the Marilyn Monroe character. I went into it very skeptically — as you said, we’ve seen a lot of this before. What I like about it is that it’s about this moment in time when celebrity is changing. I like the contrast between Laurence Olivier’s style of acting and her method and the way that they come from different ages of celebrity. It’s not that we get anything we didn’t know before, but I think that the screenplay, with great economy, shows you some very trenchant things about her — for instance, her relationship with Arthur Miller. With very few scenes, you see the tension of that relationship. That’s so beautifully done. But because the canvas is so much broader than just Marilyn, I went into it thinking one thing, and was very happily surprised to see it was much deeper film than just another take on Marilyn.

That being said, what do you make of Michelle Williams’ performance?

CJ: I think she did a terrific job. She wasn’t sentimental about it, but she captured the frailties of the character. But if it were only about the performance, it would just be one more good Marilyn impersonation.

Leonard, do you feel the same way?

LM: I do. I think part of the film’s ingeniousness is that we first meet Michelle Williams as Marilyn in performance, doing a musical number. That’s where she has to sell us, convince us, that she can embody Marilyn Monroe. And she does — this is where she most closely imitates Marilyn, her moves, her body language, her exaggerated gestures as she sings and dances. They save a close-up for the very end of that sequence, which is very canny. Once we’ve bought into that, we can accept her as the real person more readily. It lets our guard down. I think that’s very clever.

Do you think it’s an Oscar-worthy performance?

LM: Yes. It’s a pretty even-handed account of Marilyn. You see her in character and out of character. Certainly, the mythology grows year by year, and there’s a whole generation that knows her as an icon rather than as a person. This performance shows you both sides of Marilyn, which is why it’s so intriguing.

Moving on from a movie about a sex symbol to a movie about sex, let’s talk about “A Dangerous Method.” Leonard, in your annual movie guide, you’re rather unkind to David Cronenberg’s earlier films, but recently you’ve warmed up to him. “A Dangerous Method” is certainly not the viscerally unnerving experience we’ve come to expect from Cronenberg over the years. I’m assuming that’s a positive in your book.

LM: Well, you know, he didn’t write this film. I liked his last two films very much. My troubles with Cronenberg are about his most visceral, early period, although there’s a lot that’s visceral about “Eastern Promises.” I think “Eastern Promises” and “A History of Violence” are terrific. I think of “A Dangerous Method” more as a Christopher Hampton movie than as a David Cronenberg movie. Hampton wrote the screenplay more than 15 years ago.

And it does feel distinct from Cronenberg in terms of the genre as well. It’s almost more a love story than a history of psychoanalysis.

LM: It is in part a love story, but also such a fascinating character study of Jung and Freud, leaving the Keira Knightley character out of the equation just for a moment. These two men are such mythical figures to us because of the influence they had on the world. Here, we see them as real, flesh-and-blood human beings, with frailties, egos and failings as well as brilliance.

Caryn, as a fan of Cronenberg’s early films, how would you place this film in his career?

CJ: I’m a big fan of Cronenberg, both his early and later work. I would agree with Leonard that this clearly has Hampton’s mark on it as much as Cronenberg’s, but I do think you see a surprising element of Cronenberg here in how well he balances those relationships and the nuances you pick up between them. I think that there is something in the excessive quality of the relationship between Jung and Sabina Spierein (Knightley), and in her own madness, that is of a piece with Cronenberg’s themes throughout his career. There is a dark undertone of obsession here that resonates in everything he has done. But it’s certainly one of the most nuanced things he’s done.

Let’s talk briefly about the awards season. We’ve discussed four films here that you both like quite a bit. Are we leaving anything

LM: We’ve been sort of forced into awards season a little early this year, but we’re not through it yet, so I think it’s a little premature. Caryn and I agree that it would be hard to think of a better movie this year than “The Descendants.” It has so much; it’s such a rich film. I just saw it for the second time, because Alexander Payne visited my class at USC, where we screened the film. I got as much out of it the second time as I did the first. It’s so human. I know that’s a weak word, but I think of Payne as a humanistic writer-director. I really admire his sensibilities.

CJ: I think it’s probably his richest work, and it will be hard to beat for my choice as best film of the year. I hope it doesn’t get overwhelmed by bigger, splashier films. It’s so rich, so deep, and the performances are so understated, I just hope it doesn’t get pushed aside. I can’t wait to see it a second time and I’m not surprised it holds up well.

LM: At the same time, the other four films we’ve discussed all have Oscar-worthy work in them. I already mentioned Williams; I also think Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender are rather extraordinary in “A Dangerous Method.”

CJ: There are a lot performances we haven’t seen yet, too. I haven’t seen Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady,” or Glenn Close in “Albert Nobbs.” I think only “Hugo” is something I would put on the list for best picture.


IW Film Calendar:
Opening This Week | Coming Soon | All Films A-Z

Films Opening This Week:

The Artist (IW Film Page)

My Week with Marilyn (IW Film Page)

Hugo (IW Film Page)

A Dangerous Method (IW Film Page)

The Edge (IW Film Page)

Arthur Christmas (IW Film Page)

The Muppets (IW Film Page)

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