Monday, January 30, 2012

From the archives: February 2008

Considering how much we normally suffer during the early months of each year, February 2008 was a bit stronger than most Februarys. To be sure, we endured some of Hollywood's typically awful winter cast-offs, such as Vantage Point, The Eye and Over Her Dead Body. The latter left so minimal an impression that I had (mercifully) forgotten all about it, and only vaguely remembered salient details after re-reading my own review.

Sometimes, memory loss is a blessing.

And, yes, the studios brought us the usual disposable romantic comedy, with Fool's Gold ... but fairness demands that I acknowledge having had a good time with it. Far from a classic, to be sure, but certainly an engaging way to spend a few hours.

The month was highlighted, though, by the long-awaited arrival — in our Sacramento Valley market — of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a simply mesmerizing, fact-based drama of courage and persistence in the face of truly dire circumstances. That it's a beautifully made film is mere icing on the cake.

Then, too, this month marked the debut of what has become an annual treat: the road show presentation of the 10 Academy Award-nominated short subjects (five live-action, five animated). I didn't even mind that the animated entries were rather weak; it was marvelous to simply see these films ... although, frustratingly, I'm not sure how you could track them all down at this late date. These programs don't yet achieve after-the-fact video release, although many do pop up on iTunes.

Another strong entry: the fascinating, superbly acted and thoroughly engrossing In Bruges (pictured above), as nifty a study of good and evil as I've ever seen. Part buddy comedy, part horrific crime drama, part fantasy and all parable, it's a twisty, compelling work of art.

Finally, it's always fun to watch what clearly can be recognized as a star-making performance, and that was the case with the darkly hilarious Charlie Bartlett. Anton Yelchin has gone far during the few years since this breakout role; so has co-star Kat Dennings. And being able to share the screen with Robert Downey Jr., in a smallish but equally memorable supporting role? Pure bonus.

Step into the Wayback Machine, and check 'em out:

Charlie Bartlett

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Eye

Fool's Gold

In Bruges

Oscar Short Subjects

Over Her Dead Body

The Spiderwick Chronicles

Vantage Point

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Iron Lady: Sabotaged by a tin script

The Iron Lady (2011) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for some violent images and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.27.12

Here’s the thing:

This film’s title notwithstanding, Meryl Streep’s phenomenal performance notwithstanding, the politically tinged reviews and commentary notwithstanding, The Iron Lady is not about Margaret Thatcher.
Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head, right of center) has no inkling of the verbal
beating he's about to endure, when an unexpectedly spiteful and nasty Margaret
Thatcher (Meryl Streep) decides to belittle him in front of all their Conservative
Party colleagues. As a means of conveying the reason behind her own party's
decision to rebel against her, though, this scene is woefully inadequate.

If you’re expected the saga of the woman who faced “staggering prejudice of class and gender ... to become a lone woman in a sea of men ... doggedly wrestling with a nation in turmoil, in order to wrest Britain from its postwar decline” — quoting from the press notes — well, you’ve wandered into the wrong film.

Director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan have, instead, made a sweet, perceptive study of grief, and the courage required to abandon the memories of a departed loved one: the need to close that door, however reluctantly, and move on.

The protagonist in question happens to be Margaret Thatcher, but that’s almost incidental.

Which, yes, is rather strange ... and artistically selfish. Thatcher’s tumultuous life obviously deserves a thorough, well-researched big-screen biography, but this isn’t that film; Lloyd and Morgan clearly had other fish to fry. And with Streep having so thoroughly inhabited Britain’s infamous, alternately loved and loathed prime minister, nobody else is likely to tackle the role for a very, very long time.

Lloyd is primarily a stage director, best known for her opera productions; she’s therefore accustomed to broad, ostentatious characters who often function more as metaphors than flesh-and-blood people. Her previous movie credits are restricted to a filmed version of Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana, a recent version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and 2008’s big-screen adaptation of Mamma Mia! The latter paired her with Streep, and three years is about the right time for The Iron Lady to have progressed from gestation to awkward life.

To be sure, the larger-than-life Thatcher easily could have walked off an opera stage, and Streep — under Lloyd’s meticulous guidance — delivers the performance of an already magnificent career. The impersonation is stunning; anybody who remembers the way Thatcher dominated 1980s news feeds will be amazed, time and again, by Streep’s dead-on mannerisms, gestures and oddly inflected speech (an affectation Thatcher cultivated in order to minimize her tendency to sound shrill and hectoring).

The tilt of the head, the forever disapproving gaze — as if everybody else in the room has disappointed Mother, and must atone — the often condescending manner, and, in particular, the walk. Goodness, that walk: that absolutely unforgettable method of navigating down a hallway. Streep nails it all, but not — never — in a way that feels mannered, calculated or otherwise artificial. She simply slips into Thatcher’s skin.

The Grey: Dull, tedious and colorless

The Grey (2012) • View trailer
Two stars. Rating: R, for strong, gory violence and pervasive profanity
By Derrick Bang

Once upon a time, survival dramas were about precisely that: survival.

The courageous triumph of the human spirit. The resourceful — and ultimately successful — struggle to overcome adversity. If necessary, the noble sacrifice of a brave few, to save the remaining many.
Having survived a horrific plane crash, John Ottway (Liam Neeson) circles the
wreckage, seeking supplies that will help him and the few other survivors. As
it turns out, though, those who perished in the crash were the lucky ones; the
rest are about to be stalked by ferocious killer wolves.

Whether treated with grim seriousness (Deliverance) or as a pop-culture sub-genre — think back to all the high-profile 1970s “disaster flicks” — we always cheered the survivors who made it off the snow-covered mountain, or out of the inhospitable forest, the arid desert, the capsized ship or the burning building. It’s the ultimate wish fulfillment; we love to imagine being that heroic, that clever, that victorious.

But somewhere along the way — quite recently, during the past decade — survival films turned into snuff flicks: mainstream cousins of the horror genre’s “doomed teenager” twaddle, where the point is not to celebrate life, but to revel in gory death.

Think back to 2003’s Open Water, when we spent the film’s entire 79 minutes waiting for its two attractive stars to be eaten by sharks. Which they were. Or last year’s underwater caving snuff flick, Sanctum, which followed the more common formula: Only one gets to survive. Everybody else dies, and always stupidly, pointlessly and without the faintest semblance of valiant self-sacrifice.

Just like the nameless, faceless kids who get whittled down to one lone hold-out, in series such as Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and Final Destination.

I’ll leave it to sociologists to discuss what this says about us as a society, in these early days of the 21st century, but I find it rather depressing.

The Grey is just such a film: dreary, hopeless and disheartening. No nobility here. No rewards for hard work or the determined application of human spirit. Just slaughter, with another victim checking out every 15 minutes or so.

The sole difference: Instead of a hockey-masked serial killer, a razor-fingered phantasm or Death itself, the monsters here are wolves.

Regular, normal Alaskan grey wolves.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Tornado Alley: Man against monster

Tornado Alley (2011) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang

At the risk of stating the obvious, these people are out of their minds.

But we do benefit from their dedication.
The tank-like TIV-2 (Tornado Intercept Vehicle) passes probes set up to gather
data about tornadoes, while charging along a country road in an effort to
anticipate when the next big storm will touch down. The goal: to be right at
the heart of the beast, in order to gather footage and additional information
from within.

Given the popularity of the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers series, a big-screen cousin was inevitable; getting a giant-screen IMAX documentary is icing on the cake.

Tornado Alley is an eight-year labor of love by director/co-scripter Sean Casey, who cut his teeth in this field as director of photography for 2004’s Natural Disasters: Forces of Nature. That film profiled the scientists who study volcanoes, earthquakes and tornadoes, with the goal of better predicting such catastrophes in order to grant local populations more time to get the hell out of Dodge.

Casey cheerfully admits having been bitten by the tornado bug during that project; he decided to make his own film, focusing solely on the Great Plains states — the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, eastern South Dakota and Colorado’s eastern plains — that are rather unsettlingly dubbed Tornado Alley. The area is home to 75 percent of the world’s tornadoes, giving scientists — and thrill-seekers — ample opportunity to study the wind-churning monsters.

Casey deserves credit, from the outset, for resisting the urge to present this as “sport” while ignoring the human tragedy involved. He opens his film with scenes of tornado devastation, which immediately puts the situation into perspective: Anything that might help people escape with their lives should be encouraged and embraced.

The often capriciously random destruction is painful and heartbreaking, as are the brief glimpses of people wading through the wreckage of their homes ... indeed, of their lives. One wonders, certainly not for the first time, how anybody could stand to live in such natural disaster zones, but the answer is equally obvious: The farmland-laden Great Plains region is too large — and too valuable — not to inhabit.

It’s almost as if Nature has required a dire toll in exchange for such agricultural bounty.

Thankfully, Casey doesn’t linger on these images of misery. Presenting the core topic as a hoped-for solution, his film introduces two teams of storm chasers. The methodical, well-financed scientists of VORTEX2 — Joshua Wurman, Karen Kosiba and Don Burgess — lead more than 100 severe-weather researchers from all over the world, employing state-of-the-art communication and technology to coordinate and position a massive fleet of radar trucks, mobile “mesonet vehicles” and the most sophisticated weather-measuring instruments ever created.

Their goal: to literally surround a tornado, and the supercell storms that form it, in order to gather data throughout the beast’s entire “life cycle” and, hopefully, better anticipate where and when the next one will strike.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Haywire: Trust nobody

Haywire (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, and needlessly, for action violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.20.12

Movies are all about make-believe: our willing suspension of skepticism in exchange for a good time. We tolerate the impossible — varying degrees of the impossible, depending on the genre — because it’s part of the fantasy.
Although her team's human target has been rescued and safely stowed away,
Mallory (Gina Carano) is a consummate professional who hates loose ends. She
therefore pursues the one antagonist who dashes off, even though his escape can't
compromise her efforts. Cue an energetic foot chase with lots of running.

Unfortunately, like a drug addiction that requires an ever-increasing dosage, filmmakers are forever seeking new ways to up the ante and further impress us: to once again deliver a fresh jolt of eyebrow-raising amazement.

Consider the action hero. Back in 1963, the climactic fist-fight between James Bond and Red Grant, in the close confines of a train compartment in From Russia with Love, set a new standard for brutal, claustrophobic mano a mano combat. For the next several decades, film fans and movie stuntmen alike cited that scene as one of the finest ever caught on camera. Indeed, director Terence Young’s work was potent enough to bother British film censors.

Flash-forward to 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum, when director Paul Greengrass and editor Christopher Rouse staged an even more jaw-dropping skirmish in London’s Waterloo Station: a melee involving Jason Bourne and several antagonists that was so ferociously intense, viewers actually applauded as the scene concluded. It, too, felt real.

That’s the key: credibility.

Trouble is, many directors push the envelope too far, particularly in the action thriller genre. Escalate the violence too much — turn the obligatory fight scenes into cartoons, with heroes and villains somehow enduring bone-crushing punishment — and we simply scoff and roll our eyes over the sheer stupidity of the whole thing. (Exhibit A, with a bullet: last year’s laughably idiotic Sucker Punch.)

Director Steven Soderbergh understands this: recognizes how “inflated thrills” have ruined many otherwise decent pictures. Haywire is his captivating, energized response: a spy drama with action scenes — very much in the mold of From Russia with Love, which he cites in his film’s press notes — rather than a wall-to-wall action flick with minimal story and progressively sillier fight scenes.

Soderbergh wants us to believe that the action elements in this film are punishing but reasonable: not so acrobatic or dangerous that a human being couldn’t possibly handle them.

His secret weapon: mixed martial arts champion Gina Carano, whose fighting styles include Muay Thai, karate, jiu jitsu, judo, wrestling, boxing, sambo, kick-boxing and kung fu ... all in a taut and unexpectedly hot bod. At first glance, during deceptively calm moments, she’s precisely the sort of individual who’d be underestimated right up to the moment she’d flip across the room, slam you to the floor and crush the air out of you — permanently — with a vicious, leg-twisting headlock.

Albert Nobbs: Identity crisis

Albert Nobbs (2011) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: R, and too harshly, for sexuality, fleeting (and chaste) nudity, and occasional period profanity
By Derrick Bang

You’ve seen them at parties, silently sitting or standing in a corner, hoping not to be noticed, praying not to be engaged in conversation.

The quiet ones. The shy ones. The invisible ones.
Knowing little of intimacy, Albert (Glenn Close, right) believes that merely
stating one's intentions can secure a wife and future happiness. But Helen (Mia
Wasikowska) finds little to recommend this "funny little man," and allows
him to "court" her solely so she can request — and receive — expensive
tokens such as fancy boxes of chocolate.

Albert Nobbs is just such an individual, even more so because he’s a butler employed at Morrison’s, an upscale hotel in 19th century Dublin. Aside from fulfilling their responsibilities, wait-staff during this era were expected to remain unnoticed: never speaking unless spoken to, and then generally replying with nothing more than, “Very good, sir.”

But Albert takes such withdrawn silence and polite reserve to an extreme, even when “relaxing” with his fellow servants in the kitchen; although they respect his devotion to duty and attention to detail, most regard him as a “funny little man.” And nobody has crossed the threshold of his tiny room at the end of a hallway in the attic servant’s quarters.

With good reason, for Albert carries a massive secret, the discovery of which could find him dismissed and on the street, where starvation — at this point during Ireland’s history — was all but guaranteed for those without employment of some sort.

“Albert” actually is a woman, passing as a man in order to “enjoy” the greater status accorded the male gender. What began as an act of desperation, 30 years earlier and at the age of 14, has become such a way of life that Albert has become trapped in a prison of her own design.

That time frame is a bit ironic, since star Glenn Close has been intimately involved with this character since starring in a 1982 theatrical production, adapted from the short story “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs,” by 19th century Irish author George Moore. Close won an Obie Award for her work in the Off-Broadway production; her film career took off that same year, when she co-starred in The World According to Garp.

But she never forgot Albert Nobbs, and no surprise there: He — she — is a fascinating character. The minimalist stage version of this story employed considerable mime, and Close inhabits the role here with balletic precision. Gestures are few, expressions are sparse; we cherish the moments when Albert’s lips flicker into the ghost of a smile, reflecting a secret delight almost never given voice.

Alas, director Rodrigo García’s big-screen adaptation, Albert Nobbs, isn’t nearly as fascinating as its subject. The film is heartbreaking, at times shatteringly sad; an aura of tense expectation hovers over these characters. We expect something dreadful at nearly every turn, starting from the first few moments, when we learn that Albert has carefully saved more than 500 pounds during her years in service; these tips and wages have been recorded carefully in a ledger that is hidden with the money, each evening before bed, beneath a floorboard in Albert’s room.

Nervous anticipation, over what might happen to this treasure that means everything to Albert? Oh, goodness, yes.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Joyful Noise: An irritating din

Joyful Noise (2012) • View trailer
2.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, and too harshly, for brief profanity and a vague sexual reference
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.13.12

It must be January; Hollywood is serving holiday leftovers again.

Despite having its heart in the right place, this film is a mess: too long, too slow, too clumsily melodramatic and too old-school, with respect to its too many songs. Remember the worst 1960s and ’70s musicals, when the story simply stopped every 10 minutes, so that some other cast member could warble a tune?
The Pacashau Sacred Divinity Choir — featuring G.G. Sparrow (Dolly Parton,
center left), Olivia Hill (Keke Palmer, center) and her mother, Vi Rose (Queen
Latifah) — gets plenty of respect in their home town, but the competition is
much tougher during the annual Joyful Noise choir competition.

That’s what we have here: a total throwback. And not in a good sense.

Todd Graf definitely loves the let’s-put-on-a-show genre, having turned writer/director with 2003’s sweet and quite entertaining Camp, which translated the young folks’ performance school template from Fame to a summer camp setting. Graf waited six years before modifying the formula slightly for 2009’s equally appealing Bandslam — new kid in town assembles fledgling rock band, accompanied by his school’s two hottest chicks — and suffered the indignity of copycat bad timing, since TV’s Glee had debuted that same year.

Which brings us to Joyful Noise, wherein Graf has layered the same concept — with less success — onto a church choir setting in the tiny community of Pacashau, Ga.

Unfortunately, Glee has raised the bar on all such performer-wannabe musicals. And that’s the major problem here: An average 42-minute episodes of Glee delivers far more credible angst, integrated much more smoothly with the obligatory songs, than this lumbering, 118-minute behemoth.

Matters aren’t helped by Graf’s kitchen-sink script, which doesn’t overlook a single opportunity for tragedy or misery. He opens his film with a sudden death — an eyeblink cameo by guest Kris Kristofferson — and it’s all downhill from there. Resentful, abandoned wife? Check. With a son who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome? Check. And a daughter suddenly attracted to the newly arrived “bad boy” in town? Check. The small-town setting, with desperate residents losing homes and businesses left and right, due to the lousy economy? Check, check and check.

This is supposed to be a light-hearted, feel-good musical?

Indeed, that’s a serious problem: Graf can’t decide what he wants his film to be. These morose characters are bad enough; far worse are the occasional attempts at comic relief, as when one poor woman — Angela Grovey, as Earla — has a rather disastrous night of passion with a fellow choir member. I can’t imagine what Graf was thinking, with this subplot.

Contraband: Slick, smarmy and suspenseful

Contraband (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for violence, pervasive profanity and brief drug use
By Derrick Bang

Goodness, this is a sordid little piece.

Scandinavian crime thrillers have been on the rise of late, thanks in great part to the Stateside interest in Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy and Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series, the latter recently brought to these shores via actor Kenneth Branagh’s sterling TV adaptations.
Chris (Mark Wahlberg, left) thoroughly hates the idea of "rescuing" his stupid
brother-in-law by embarking on a fresh smuggling heist, but circumstances
have left him no other options. Fortunately, Chris has the underworld savvy
of best friend Sebastian (Ben Foster) to help grease the wheels.

Longtime readers of European thrillers are wondering what the heck took the rest of us so long, of course, since they’ve known about such writers since the arrival of Swedish novelists Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, whose “Martin Beck” series generated some heat here in the 1960s and ’70s. The fourth book, The Laughing Policeman, was made into an American film vehicle for Walter Matthau in 1973; the adaptation was loose, but certainly engaging.

Icelandic novelists belong to this club as well, with Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir leading the charge. All of which serves to introduce Contraband, an American adaptation of 2008’s Reykjavik-Rotterdam, which was Iceland’s official submission for the Academy Awards’ foreign language category in 2010.

This American remake’s pedigree is even more interesting. The Icelandic original, co-written by Indriðason and Óskar Jónasson (the latter also directed), starred Baltasar Kormákur as a former smuggler forced by circumstance to re-embrace his larcenous past; Mark Wahlberg has taken this role in the new version, which is directed by Kormákur.

I can’t think of any other cases where the star of a foreign film — rather than the director or writer — went on to direct an American remake.

Point being, Kormákur certainly understands the atmosphere required by this grim and thoroughly tawdry story. So does first-time scripter Aaron Guzikowski, a former New York ad agency employee who popped up on Hollywood’s radar a few years ago, thanks to a spec script that drew Wahlberg’s attention. And since Wahlberg also is one of the many producers attached to Contraband, we can deduce that he liked Guzikowski’s writing chops.

So do I. Contraband certainly won’t win any awards, but it delivers plenty of tension and a veritable rogue’s gallery of dodgy characters. These are all bad folks, in one form or another; the trick is to make at least one of them a “hero” who deserves our trust and sympathy. In that, Kormákur and Guzikowski succeed quite well, and Wahlberg inhabits that fellow quite credibly.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Whac-A-Mole

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, and too harshly, for brief violence, occasional profanity and eyeblink nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.6.12

If your theater of choice offers the faux “classified dossier” of notes, characters and background information on this film, I strongly suggest you grab a copy.

You’ll need it.

Better still, arrive at least 10 minutes early, so you’ll have plenty of time to study the bloody thing.
Never underestimate the value of an employee who has been recently sacked:
Smiley (Gary Oldman, right) questions former MI6 duty officer Jerry Westerby
(Stephen Graham), while Smiley's younger associate, Peter Guillam (Benedict
Cumberbatch) watches the master at work. The issue at hand: Did a field
operative actually send a message during a crucial operation, or was that a lie?

Although scripters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan have done an impressive job of condensing John Le Carré’s massive, genre-breaking spy novel, the drawback is a sense of having been dropped smack into the middle of an extremely complicated story.

O’Connor, Straughan and director Tomas Alfredson simply assume that we’ll be able to pick up what we need to know, concerning roughly a dozen characters, as the film progresses. This already difficult task is further complicated by a raft of flashbacks, often arriving without warning; heck, we don’t even learn that this is 1973, until a ways into the unfolding plot.

Nor is that all; we’re also expected to understand British Cold War politics and immediately grasp the internecine squabbling that infects the upper-echelon members of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, reasonably well known by spy buffs as MI6, but here always code-named “the Circus.”

Ah, yes: That’s another thing. This story is rife with jargon, and not simply the terms and code names given field agents or their operations. You’ll need to grasp the purposes of lamplighters, scalphunters, wranglers and shoemakers, suss the distinction between mothers and debs, and understand the differing responsibilities of ferrets, housekeepers and janitors.

Mind you, I eat this stuff up, and O’Connor and Straughan work hard to make things clear in context. But much as I enjoyed the Machiavellian maneuvering among the characters played by this sublimely talented cast, this is a film that only die-hard Anglophiles could love ... and even they would be well advised to have read Le Carré’s book first.

More than anything else, Alfredson captures the grim atmosphere of despair that permeates Le Carré’s novel: the bleak misery of a working environment where trust is a fickle commodity at best, and loyalty often is for sale to the highest bidder. The people at the Circus can’t have normal relationships; by definition, they always worry about motivation and deception.

Establishing this unsettling, unstable mood is what Alfredson does best, as he demonstrated so well with the intriguingly inverted “vampire dynamics” of Let the Right One In (the Swedish version). We’re uneasy at all times, worried that our central character — veteran agent George Smiley, played with thoughtful precision by Gary Oldman — will make a fatal mistake while pursuing the clandestine assignment with which he has been charged.

And “fatal” covers a lot of territory, as well. In this world, disgrace and dishonor are far worse than mere death.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Artist: Artistry in every sense

The Artist (2011) • View trailer
Five stars. Rating: PG-13, and quite needlessly, for a fleeting vulgar gesture
By Derrick Bang

I know what you’re thinking.

Bad enough this film is black-and-white, and set in the late 1920s and early ’30s, but it has a French director and two French stars, and — worse yet — it’s silent? With only dialogue cards to convey the story? Seriously?
Having lost his career with the advent of talkies, silent film star George Valentin
(Jean Dujardin) sadly watches some of his former hits, and wonders if anything
can be salvaged from his former career. To make matters much worse, a young
woman who played a bit part in one of his previous pictures now has become
a sensation: first of the new breed of "modern" movie stars.

I can hear the clanking sound of eyes rolling across the land.

Well, get over it.

My Constant Companion, probably more dubious than most of you, would have preferred to stay home; she came along — quite reluctantly — because she’s a good sport (and because it’s part of her job description). She sat, arms crossed, as the film began: daring it to touch her in any manner.

Five minutes in, she was laughing with giddy delight. Half an hour in, she was at the edge of her seat, nervously clutching her hands together. An hour in, the tears began to flow.

Mind you, she’s not an easy sell.

Director Michel Hazanavicius, who so marvelously sent up James Bond-style spy films with his two OSS 117 comedies, has delivered a sumptuous homage to early Hollywood: a cleverly crafted, magnificently executed and superbly acted drama that deftly conveys cinema’s early years while using those very conventions to do so.

This isn’t merely a gorgeous film, although it’s that, as well; cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman’s work is luxuriously crisp, as always was the case with the best black-and-white films (which, darn it, simply looked better than many of today’s full-color cousins). The scene compositions, camera angles and staging always are flawless; Hazanavicius never has Schiffman go in for an unnecessary close-up.

Schiffman also works superbly with light and shadow, allowing various shades of gray to subtly dictate our response to a given scene.

Mostly, though, this film works because its story unfolds effortlessly — without, trust me, any force or contrivance — thanks to the consummate acting of stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo. They’re simply amazing. Hazanavicius places heavy demands on both; they must convey a wealth of emotions mostly through body movement and facial expressions ... and they do so.

Every time, in every scene.

Dujardin and Bejo act the way Fred Astaire danced: with an ease, grace and instinctive “rightness” that quickly works a magical spell that we’re all too willing to fall under. This is true cinematic “sense of wonder”: We are, as viewers, transported back to whatever moment it was, when first we fell in love with movies.