The allure of the Artist, Streep as The Iron Lady and Fullmetal spectacle

by Mark Burger

A loving valentine to the Hollywood of yore, writer/director Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is set at a pivotal time in Tinseltown history: The dawn of sound.

Reflecting that, the film is itself a silent one, filmed in black and white. The Artist pays homage by being the homage — a tricky balancing act that Hazanavicius pulls off with charm and grace.

Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, an established star at the peak of his fame, who becomes enchanted by ambitious newcomer Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) and gives her the big break she’s always dreamed of.

Shortly thereafter, however, with silents being phased out and talkies taking over, Valentin finds his career — and his personal life — in tatters. Peppy’s career, on the other hand, has grown and grown. She’s the new queen of movies, while Valentin is yesterday’s news. It’s an age-old Star is Born-type Hollywood fable, yet no less enchanting because of it.

Dujardin, who bears at least a passing resemblance to such silent matinee idols as Douglas Fairbanks and John Barrymore, and the ethereal Bejo (Hazanavicius’ offscreen leading lady) are a sparkling star duo, supported in style by John Goodman (ideally cast as a blustery studio mogul), James Cromwell, Malcolm McDowell, Penelope Ann Miller, UNCSA’s own Missi Pyle, Ed Lauter, Ken Davitian, Bill Fagerbakke, Joel Murray, Nina Siemaszko and a captivating canine called Uggie.

The actors collectively portray their characters in slightly exaggerated theatrical fashion — much in the style of silent-film actors. Likewise, Ludovic Bource’s score conveys emotion in an expressive manner. Guillaume Schiffman’s black-and-white cinematography and Laurence Bennett’s production design perfectly evoke the era. With so little spoken dialogue, there’s a little bit extra of everything else.

The Artist never condescends to the audience nor, perhaps more importantly, to the material. It’s a simple yet effective tale, not unlike the best-remembered classics from the era it depicts. And at a time when most studio films are predicated more on action and razzle-dazzle than good storytelling, the slyly ironic innuendo is unmistakable.

Meryl Streep’s astounding performance as Margaret Thatcher aside, The Iron Lady is a major disappointment. This episodic, sketchy chronicle of the life of the UK’s first female Prime Minister and longest-tenured PM of the 20th century is a well-meaning attempt to humanize the icon, yet never comes together as a cohesive, compelling whole.

None of that is because of Streep, whose transformation into Thatcher goes a long way toward making The Iron Lady as watchable as it is. It’s yet another triumph for Streep, the latest of many.

Screenwriter Abi Morgan uses the aging Thatcher’s increasing dementia as the springboard for its presentation, as she reflects back on events in her life and career. Like Margaret, the film waxes nostalgic throughout as it stumbles through a condensed, frequently simplified history, not all of it necessarily in chronological order. The Iron Lady’s history is painted in very broad strokes.

Jim Broadbent is, as always, an utter delight as Margaret’s devoted (and sometimes long-suffering) husband Denis, and Alexandra Roach is appealing as young Margaret, whose initial political aspirations were far more modest than she eventually accomplished. Richard E. Grant, Julian Wadham, John Sessions, Roger Allam, Michael Pennington and Iain Glen add weight to their thinly developed although historical characters by sheer dint of their presence.

Not unlike the recent J. Edgar, the film concentrates so specifically on its principal character that the very history he or she affected seems a secondary consideration.

Based on a popular anime series that ran in Japan from 2001-’10 (and currently being broadcast in the US on Adult Swim/Cartoon Network), Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos is a colorful treat for anime aficionados. Even those unfamiliar with the franchise ought to enjoy the amusing comic-book combo of magic and mysticism set in a distant world not entirely unlike our own.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…? Something like that.

There is, as usual, a planetary rebellion brewing against an oppressive military regime. Into this hot zone come the brothers Ed and Al Elric (voiced by Romi Park and Rie Kugimiya respectively), also known as the “Fullmetal Brothers,” because after being attacked as children, Ed’s got a few robotic limbs and Al is a full cyborg.

They’re also alchemists, and they’ve got magic to spare. So do a number of the other characters, including heroine Julia Crichton (voiced by Maaya Sakamoto), undoubtedly named for the late novelist and filmmaker Michael Crichton.

Everyone’s on a quest for the title jewel, also known as the “Star of Fresh Blood,” with which the bearer can boast unlimited supernatural powers. It’s a hot rock, to be sure, and some of the good guys turn out to be not-so-good in their motivations for coveting it. No fair telling who wins, but how many films like this aren’t formulated with a franchise in mind?

(Fullmetal Alchemist is in Japanese with English subtitles)

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