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Silence that says so much

'The Artist' offers nostalgia, plus subtle dig at modern cinema

You know it’s February when the awards-season backlash begins against the movies getting the awards, the chorus growing that the films so honored, whatever the year and genre and stars and director and other details, are not that great.

This time around, the praise, and the resistance, centers around a single unique piece of work called The Artist. At the outset it was hailed as a unique masterpiece, a love letter to early cinema. Now it’s an overrated curio that was too derivative in the first place.

What’s the truth? Well, having seen it, I can tell you that the bad words don’t apply. The Artist gives us an all-too-brief glimpse into a long-forgotten era of entertainment and, in the process, offers a subtle, and spot-on, dig at the modern film world and all the tricks used to draw us in.

You know the basics by now. Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a big film star in the late 1920s who sees his glory eclipse in the transition from silent pictures to talkies, just as Peppy Miller (Berniece Bejo), a starlet he accidentally bumps into on a red carpet, takes over Hollywood.

Of course, it’s an amalgam of Singin’ in the Rain and A Star Is Born – no secret there. Pieces of Citizen Kane also pop into the story on at least two occasions, as anyone familiar with the Orson Welles masterpiece will quickly point out.

To explain this movie’s magic – and the acclaim – we must go to several sources, starting with director Michel Hazanavicius. Totally unknown except in his native France, Michel set out to recreate early Hollywood and, in every way, succeeded.

First, he shot in gorgeous black and white. As with the silents, there’s script cards (but not too many), wipes, fades and all the tricks moviemakers had to use before sound took over.

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