Saturday, December 31, 2011

Theatre: Chess the Musical

 Long before Mamma Mia became a hit, the songwriters of the Swedish group ABBA first dabbled in musical theatre with Chess (lyrics by Tim Rice), inspired by the cold war East vs West rivalry between Russian Boris Spassky and American Bobby Fischer.  Initially performed in 1986, the complex plot line and lyrics have undergone multiple revisions.   I first saw this musical in the late 80s at a Denver Colorado dinner theatre and fell in love with the songs.   The most recent version was staged at the Princess of Wales as part of the 2011 Mirvish theatre subscription series.

In this latest production, Chess opens at the World Chess Championships in Merano Italy with the reigning champion, arrogant American Freddy Trumper playing against Russian challenger Anatoly Sergievsky.   A love quandrangle is formed when Anatoly falls in love with Freddy's coach and former lover Florence, and decides to defect to England to be with her, leaving behind his wife Svetlana and children in Russia.  The game of chess is used as a not too subtle metaphor for the political intrigue and maneuvering that ensues as the Russians try to get Anatoly back and the Americans have their own agenda.  They play on his guilt at "having left his wife to face the music alone", and offer to free Florence's Hungarian father who they claim is not dead as she thought but actually being held as a political prisoner.

The set, costumes and choreography made for visually stunning if somewhat overwrought staging as the chorus were dressed as black or white chess pieces, and also doubled as the on-stage musicians.  It was impressive to watch the chess pieces sing, play horn and string instruments and perform complicated dance moves (sometimes flat on their backs) all at the same time.

 Some of the chess pieces, and in particular the arbitrator of the match were dressed in tight leather with bare chests exposed, giving them a "Village People meet S&M" feel. The arbitrator's look was distracting with his long black coat that seemed stolen from Keanu Reeves' Matrix character.  He should have looked distinguished and authoritative but ended up looking smarmy and sleazy.  In addition the choreography for some of the earlier songs introducing the chess pieces and the chess scene were overtly and extraneously sexual.  This diluted the impact for the one song where the sexuality actually fit and was necessary for the story - the hit song One Night in Bangkok about  the decadence and prostitution scene in Bangkok Thailand.

 The floor of the set is configured like a chess board to further push the analogy of the players as human chess pieces in the game of propaganda and politics.  As each set of adversaries or lovers interact, the chess squares light up to accentuate the drama and excitement of the encounter.  By contrast, the actual chess match itself was choreographed in a deathly slow manner.  Each opponent stared at the board forever before making the simplest move including the standard opening gambit.  Perhaps this was meant to ratchet up the tension and importance of the match but it just seemed silly.  I wanted to shout out "make a move already .. you call yourself a chess master?!?!"

There are some great songs in Chess including soaring ballads like Anthem ("My land's only borders lie around my heart"), heartbreakers such as I Know Him So Well ("In the end he needs a little bit more than me, more security ..") and Pity the Child ("Pity the child, but not forever, not if he stays that way..." ), and catchy beat-pounding tunes like One Night in Bangkok ("... makes a hard man humble, Not much between despair and ecstasy") and The Arbiter ("I am the arbiter and I know the score ... From square one I'll be watching all 64").

However Tim Rice overreaches, especially in the new songs added to the latest production.  It's one thing to write sophisticated lyrics that are sung quickly (ala Stephen Sondheim). But when these words convey important complicated plot points, with many people singing different lyrics at the same time, and to top it off, some songs are sung with heavy Russian accents and use complex chess terminology .. well, it's going to get confusing!   In the song "Soviet Machine", there are the lyrics "Not the score, the witless core of commentators are debating; Come admit, who gives a shit for Elo rating".  These words are so ironic since how many people even know what Elo rating means (a method for calculating the relative skill levels of players in chess - I had to google).  Even the pages of written synopsis in the program don't help much when you can't hear what is being sung.

I still love the musical Chess but I wish they would stop tinkering with the plot since it doesn't seem to help.  In the various versions that have been staged,  they've changed the ending of the big chess rematch (sometimes the Russian wins, sometimes the American wins, in this production the Russian turned British plays another Russian!)  In every case, Anatoly makes the big sacrifice to leave Florence and return to Russia so that she can have her father back.  However they cut out an important piece of dialogue between Florence and the American CIA agent that would have clarified the story.  The result is a piecemeal ending that goes from one huge ballad to another without any fluidity.  I much preferred the plot from the first time I watched this.

Theatre: Ride the Cyclone

Ride the Cyclone, an original musical by Atomic Vaudeville, a theater troop from Victoria B.C., has been described as the "anti-Glee" since it does not have a happy-ever-after plot line and cheery, peppy songs.  Instead it is a wickedly funny dark comedy that deals with somber themes bordering on the morbid.  A better description might be that it is the retelling of "Forever Plaid" for a pessimistically cynical, post 9/11 era.  It played at the intimate Passe Muraille Theatre in the funky part of Queen St West to rave reviews and sold out audiences.

Six teenaged members of the St.Cassius choir from Uranium, Saskatchewan are tragically killed in a roller coaster accident at a local carnival.  Karnak, the carnival's mystical fortune telling puppet, can foresee death (including his own upcoming termination caused by a giant rat that is gnawing at his power cord).  He anticipated the children's demise but regretfully was unable to warn them after being set to "family fun mode" since death predictions were considered to be too gloomy.  As recompense, he gives them a chance to return for a final performance.  Each member has a turn in the spotlight, delivering a brief monologue and song that describes his shortened life and conveys his lost hopes and dreams.  They express regrets about all the things they never got to do - grow up, lose their virginity, get good jobs, leave the shrinking ghost town of Uranium.

As the only gay kid in Uranium, Noel Gruber wanted to escape his boring life.  He longed for a more passionate, dramatic existence full of angst and suffering like characters he found in books and movies.  He fantasizes that he is an opium addicted prostitute in post World War II France and makes the transformation on stage by donning a black wig, lingerie, fishnet stockings and heels.   Thus dressed in drag with cigarette dangling from his fingers, the bluesy cabaret torch number he performs is hilarious.

Ocean O'Connor Rosenberg is the bossy overachiever who struggled to please both her Irish Catholic mother and Jewish father by becoming a champion debater.  Her gospel song "Play to Win" describes the dirty depths she would sink to in order to be the best at all costs (You want to kick out the crutches from a cripple? ... As long as you are winning, who cares!)  In a turning point of the song, the spirit of Karl Marx advises her that "When you're knocking on Heaven's door, it's only your soul alone that's keeping score".

Ricky Potts is the shy, geeky nerd who lives with his grandparents and a slew of cats.  No one listens or pays much attention to him until he transforms into his alter-ego, the sleek, confident, inter-galactical ladies man who is the heroic leader of a planet of cat people.  Dressed like Ziggy Stardust, his song techno rock song "Space-age Bachelor Man" is inspired by David Bowie's "Cat People".  His previously whiny voice deepens as he growls "The fate of a galaxy before you ..Millions of lives in your hand .. I'm a swinging, space-aged bachelor man .. let's dance kitties"

Misha Bachinsky is an angry confused Ukranian immigrant who was sent to Canada for a better life and then rejected by his adoptive family.  He wishes to return to the Ukraine to be with his Internet girlfriend Natalia.  His conflicting emotions of rage and love are expressed through his equally incongruous dancing styles of gangster rap hip hop and ballet.  Natalia is shown as a video projected image and at one point, it actually seems like she is dancing beside him.

While the previous stories were mostly played for laughs, the last two teens tell more poignant tales.

One of the children who died in the accident was decapitated and therefore unidentifiable.  She is dubbed Jane Doe and  takes over a doll's head as her own,  while carrying around the doll's headless body.  Because of this, her eyes are creepily cold, flat and pitch black and there are golden ringlets in her hair.  Her haunting soprano aria laments not knowing her name or who she belongs to ("No one around to mourn or cry ... Just like a song nobody knows ... A forgotten name, some lost refrain.. Forever eternally Jane Doe").  The others are afraid of her but try to comfort her by throwing a birthday party (signifying her rebirth) to give her a sense of identity.

Finally Constance Blackwood is the chubby, likeable, happy-go-lucky girl with glasses who is constantly condescended to and overshadowed by Ocean.  She is embarrassed of being the only one who is "content to live and die in Uranium" and wants to take risks and for her life to have meaning.  In her monologue she reveals that she did accomplish something significant before she died and in her song she sings "There's nothing wrong with being the nicest girl in town - All that is clear, now that I'm here on my sugar cloud".

 The final scene recreates the dreaded roller coaster accident using creative choreography and very few props.

We found this musical to be fresh and exciting with great songs and back stories that fully flesh out each character in a very short amount of time so that you really care for them all by the end.

In the past few years, we've realized that often we enjoy the smaller plays and musicals more than the big professional productions offered by Mirvish and Dancap.  I hope this play returns for a longer run as I would really like to see it again.  Or at least put out a CD so that I can add the music to my collection.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

AGO - Chagall and the Russian Avante Garde

Prior to seeing the exhibit of Chagall and the Russian Avant-garde at the AGO, I always thought Chagall was a Surrealist like Salvador Dali.  Chagall's paintings of floating people (or sometimes just their disembodied heads) and animals had a dream-like quality that led to my confusion.  What I learned from the audio guide and literature of this exhibit was that Chagall's main motivation for his art was to convey the culture and folklore of his Russian Jewish roots. 

Prominent in the Jewish heritage is the image of the fiddler which inhabits many of Chagall's paintings.  One such painting was bought by Norman Jewison and became the inspiration for his movie Fiddler on the Roof.  The fiddler playing a violin is an important part of many significant Jewish rites including births, marriages and funerals.

The images of people floating in the air, especially the iconic beggar man in the painting "Over Vitebsk", represented the plight of the wandering, homeless Jewish outcasts, who were persecuted and oppressed in Russia and drifted around like refugees.  It was of particular interest to compare two versions of "Over Vitebsk" that Chagall painted (1914 and 1915), with the second rendition displaying Cubism influences.  The church and the snow were depicted with more angular lines in the second painting and the beggar man's face is now obscured.

The Newspaper Seller (1914) reflected Chagall's interpretation of the sobering effects of World War I.  The morose looking vendor seems laden with the burden of the distributing the bad news of more deaths to the people of the town.  This painting hung in the Chagall home and his small daughter always wondered why the man looked so sad and worried that it was her fault.

In contrast, Chagall's happiest painting "Double Portrait with Wine Glass" was created in honour of his marriage to his beloved wife Bella and the birth of their daughter Ida (referenced by the image of a purple angel depicted above his head).  In this painting, Chagall and Bella are both smiling and she has him hoisted on her shoulders - symbolizing her role as his muse and support structure.  I wondered why his head seems slightly detached from his head and why he is covering her right eye but this was not discussed in the audio guide or write-ups.

For me, the most interesting Chagall piece in the exhibit was "The Revolution" which depicts a political scene within a circus motif.  The painting shows angry revolutionaries to the left waving guns and red flags while to the right are the artists, musicians, lovers and wanderers from the pre-war era.  In the centre is a rabbi holding a torah scroll, seated at a table looking rather perplexed while Lenin is balancing on one hand on top of the table.  The imperial Russian flag is trapped between Lenin's legs while the post revolution red flag with the sickle lies on the ground to his right.   Lenin's acrobatic pose indicates how he has turned Russia on its head and divided the factions of the old and new world.

On the side of the artists where Chagall sees himself, he has incorporated a retrospective of his previous iconic images including the wandering beggar man, the fiddler, the bride and groom and various animals (seated donkey, lambs).  Chagall has foreshadowed his exile from Russia in this painting since he is not able to fit into the side of the Revolutionists.

Although Chagall was the main attraction of this exhibit, it also featured other artists of the time who took part in the Russian Avant-garde movement including other painters, sculptors, and photographers.  This movement was the artistic expression of the general desire for change in culture, society and arts in reaction to the horrors of World War I.  Gone were the days of neoclassical representations of religious themes and portraits of the Russian aristocracy.  In its place, new styles of modernist art depicted the common man, played with stark dramatic graphics and experimented with abstraction ranging from Cubism to Rayonism to Constructivism.

Spouses Mikhail Larinov & Natalia Goncharova were leaders in the Constructivism movement - art as a practice for social purposes and a political tool for providing message of equality and freedom to the working masses.  Mikhail invented Rayonism which "uses dynamic rays of contrasting color, representing lines of reflected light".  He liked to write words and symbols on his paintings and carried this into his day to day activities.  Mikhail and Natalia used to paint inflammatory words & phrases on their faces and walk around town to provoke reactions.   Natalia portrayed images of hearty hard-working peasants in bright vibrant colours while her evocative painting of a peacock demonstrated her flair for abstract art.

Once again, the AGO has presented an interesting exhibit that expands our understanding of different art styles from different cultures and time periods.

Ed Mirvish Theatre Renaming

On December 6, 2011, David Mirvish gathered press and patrons to the Canon Theatre to make what he called the most personal and important announcement of his professional career.  In honour of his father, henceforth the venue would be named "Ed Mirvish Theatre" after the impresario responsible for reviving the theatre industry in Toronto with the purchase of the Royal Alexandra in 1963.

 A touching biographical short film was played reviewing the business tycoon's many accomplishments including his flagship Honest Ed's store with its annual turkey giveaways, his restaurants that completed the conversion of King St West into the "Entertainment District", the building of The Princess of Wales theatre and the purchase and restoration of the Old Vic in London England for which he was awarded the Commander of the British Empire (which he nicknamed Creator of Bargains Everywhere).

Through it all, it was clear that the one constant, muse and love of his life was his wife Anne, who first shared her affinity for the arts and theatre with him.  He in turn has passed this passion onto his son David, for which Toronto theatre lovers are extremely grateful.

A variety of singers, actors, producers and performers who had worked closely with Ed were invited to pay tribute to him on this special day.   From Les Miserables, Louise Pitre sang "I Dreamed a Dream" from her role as Fantine while Michael Burgess sang Jean Val Jean's big number "Bring Him Home".  Camilla Scott sang "Someone to Watch Over Me" from Crazy for You" and Molly Johnson sang "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess.  Since Ed was named an honorary policeman, the Police choir sang a medley of Andrew Lloyd Webber songs including Phantom of the Opera and Don't Cry for Me Argentina.

Shirley Douglas (Kiefer Sutherland's mother) shared memories about Ed including a story about how horrified the British initially were to have a "Canadian habadasher" buy the Old Vic, only to be quickly won over by his charm and wit.   She then recited his favourite poem "My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose".   Producer Paul Elliot spoke of the many shows he put together with Ed such as Buddy Holly.  Paul described how Ed would always take his performers out for a meal at his restaurants and how he would agree to a million dollar deal on a handshake and then say "Ok, let's go to dinner".  Through it all, Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt from 4 Hands 2 Pianos acted as emcees, introducing each special guest.

Messages from each level of government congratulated the Mirvishes and thanked Ed for all he had done for Toronto.  Stephen Harper and Dalton McGuinty's messages were pre-recorded while Rob Ford showed up in person to present David Mirvish with a plaque and declare December 6 "Ed Mirvish Theatre Day".  All the guests returned to the stage for the revealing of the new "Mirvish" marquee that would replace the old Canon one and they all sang (or tried to sing) "There's No Business Like Show Business".  Apparently no one knew the words other than the famous chorus since they mostly had their backs to us as they tried to read the words displayed on the screen behind them.

This was an extremely emotional ceremony.  It was touching to see all the love and admiration conveyed for Ed Mirvish, especially from David who was beaming with pride.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas Carol Reading at Church of the Redeemer

The Church of the Redeemer at the corner of Bloor St and Avenue Road seems hipper than your average religious establishment.   From its inclusive and welcoming sign during Pride Week to advertisements for Rock Eucharists like the one featuring tunes of "Crosby Stills and Nash", this church seems to offer something for everyone.

Each year although they may not be officially on the program, they usually seem to have something set up for Nuit Blanche, and many times the exhibit is more interesting than the officially sanctioned ones.

At Christmas time,  Church of the Redeemer holds an annual reading of Charles Dickens' famous tale "A Christmas Carol" featuring local celebrities.  This 8th year's lineup consisted of comedian, TV and theatre actor Sean Cullen (The Producers, Saint Ralph), politician Bob Rae, singer and harpist Loreena McKennitt, Marilyn Lightstone and Cedric Smith (both actors on the TV show Anne of Green Gables/Road to Avonlea). 

Each personality read one part of the short story, playing all the roles in their section.  While they were all used to public speaking and projected clearly and loudly, it was evident which ones were the actors.  Sean, Marilyn and Cedric added inflections, accents and emotions to bring their characters to life while Bob and Loreena merely read the words (although being a singer, Loreena had the most beautiful dulcet reading voice I'd ever heard).  In between each reader, Christmas music was played including two glorious songs sung by McKennitt while she played the harp.

The reading was a charity event to raise money to support the church's lunch program  which serves hot breakfast and lunch to the poor every week day.   The reverend Andrew Asbil provided the introduction and closing remarks for the proceedings.  He told an amusing anecdote as a preamble to explain how important the lunch program was to the community.  He was an excellent speaker and listening to his voice was mesmerizing which I guess is an important trait for his field.

Since Rich loves it so much, I have been exposed to numerous renditions of "A Christmas Carol" including the Alistair Sim black and white movie, and watching the play put on by the theatre group Soulpepper.  But this is the first time I've heard the actual text of this classic tale read aloud.  It was an interesting experience.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Holt Renfrew Windows

 We love walking by the Yorkville Holt Renfrew on Bloor Street because they always have the most innovative and interesting windows.  Although it took our second viewing before we realized these were not random holiday images, this year's Christmas theme played out the carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas".  In retrospect, how we did not recognize the drummers and pipers decked out in Holt's casual wear and the elegant looking bird in a shimmering evening gown sitting in a twirling pear is rather perplexing.  I guess we were just so overwhelmed by the overall beauty of each window that we didn't connect them together.

We are always excited when Holt Renfrew changes their window displays.  Prior to the Christmas windows, they recreated iconic movie characters, wardrobe and scenes. It was so much fun trying to identify the movies.  Some were obvious including "Say Anything" where John Cusack holds up the boom-box, Legally Blond's shocking pink outfit, Rocky's grey sweats and boxing gloves, Annie Hall's masculine Bohemian look or vamped up Jessica Rabbit in slinky red.  Some took more of a guess and we weren't sure if we were correct - there were possibly tributes to The Birds, Aviator, Clockwork Orange, etc.   And some we just had no clue - what movie involves a man trying to lift a rowboat?
This year's Toronto International Film Festival involved a clever paparazzi spoof with various scenarios of reporters trying to appear incognito in Groucho Marx style fake glasses/rubber nose and moustaches while following young starlets. In a previous year, the TIFF tribute went for classic movie glamour with mannequins dressed like Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart type characters.

The creations are always vibrantly colourful, whimsical and cause you to stop and take a look which is half the battle in window display advertising.  Viewing the Christmas scene almost made us want to buy a bagpipe!  However sometimes I wonder if one gets so enamoured by the overall scene that the actual clothing being hawked becomes almost incidental.  Regardless, I can't wait to see what comes next!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Theatre: Love Lies Bleeding

Ballet and Elton John don't seem like concepts that would go together, but the modern dance performance of "Love Lies Bleeding" does just that.  Choreographed by the artistic director and performed by members of the Alberta Ballet, "Love Lies Bleeding" interprets songs by Elton John and Bernie Taupin to tell a story loosely based on John's life and career, using a stand-in character called "Elton Fan".

To the tune of such hits as "Bennie and the Jets", "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", "Rocket Man", as well as lesser known gems such as "Madman Across the Water" and "Have Mercy on the Criminal", the ballet chronicles Elton Fan's rise to fame and success, succumbing to the lures and temptations of drugs resulting in addiction,  discovering his sexuality, dealing with AIDs and finally finding love with a character named "David".

The show starts off with a brief scene of Elton as a small boy,  riding in a circles on a tricycle while the demons of his future sit shaded in the background watching.

Prominent on the set is a huge electronic screen that sits catawampusly askew, adding visual imagery to the interpretation of each number.  That shattered glass is depicted in this seemly innocent scene of a child at play seems to be a harbinger of things to come in Elton's life.

The costumes for each dance are varied, imaginative, vibrant and colourful.  In the first number, the dancers are dressed in blue and white baseball uniforms reminiscent of Elton John's 1975 concert at Dodgers stadium.  Elton Fan starts off as a naive spectator wandering the theatre aisles, but soon is lured onto the stage where he signs a lucrative contract and hits the big times.  This sports analogy is used to represent Elton John's own propulsion into rock super-stardom.  Also symbolic seems to be the dark sunglasses that Elton Fan dons at this point.  He wears the shades throughout most of the show as he battles the demons of fame, drugs and coming to terms with homosexuality until the very end when he finds love and salvation, sees the light and finally removes the glasses.

Both Elton Fan and his entourage go through costume changes on every song.   The chorus of androgynously portrayed dancers often wear skin-tight leotards and bowler hats, or appear provocatively in various states of undress.  In some scenes, male dancers appear in full out drag with outfits that seem to be taken right out of "Priscilla Queen of the Desert".  Elton Fan's flamboyant wardrobe ranges from cowboy hat and chaps to circus master to Louis XIV-esque wig and robes.  At one point he is playing at the piano wearing a crown and royal red cape.

If you look back at photos from Elton John's own wild fashion history, you can clearly see the inspiration for these costumes.  John was the successor to Liberace and the precursor to Lady Gaga.

The dancing styles are varied including everything from traditional ballet pirouettes, twirls and leaps, to Bob Fosse-esque jazz moves (hence the bowler hats) to tap and break dancing.

In one particularly memorable dance, Elton Fan is dressed appropriately as a "Rocket Man" complete with glowing lights and a sparkling flare, while the same song is played.  He performs the dance in roller skates, whipping back and forth across the stage.  At the climax of the number, a white line is projected on the the giant screen.  Elton Fan is lifted up and carried across the screen as the white line contracts to represent him snorting cocaine.

Towards the end of the show when Elton starts to find salvation to the tune of "Someone Saved My Life Tonight", he is attached to a wire by "angels" and soars to the air to perform a beautiful aerial acrobatic dance.

In the end when he finally finds his true love David, they perform a pas de deux where David lifts Elton up in the air several times.  In our performance, Elton Fan is played by miniscule Japanese dancer Yukichi Hatttori while David is played by Kelley McKinlay who is much larger in stature, as shown in this newspaper photo of the two practising together.  In other performances, the two men switch roles and I thought about how much more difficult it would be for little Yukichi to lift Kelley!

Though I don't usually like dance or ballet, I was enthralled by this show.  The familiar songs with lyrics that were brilliantly reflective of the storyline, the innovative dance moves and the amazing costumes all made this a thoroughly entertaining experience.  The more conservative people in the audience had to brace themselves for the overt homosexual components (revealing costumes, gay embraces and kissing), but should have known what they were getting into when attending an "Elton John based ballet".  Our show, which was the premiere, was dedicated to the Toronto Gay Straight Alliance who were in attendance in full force judging from the huge roar of approval.

A filming of the show will be broadcast on CBC on April 9, 2012, 9pm.  I have this marked on my calendar and look forward to seeing it again!

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Movie: The Artist

I won tickets to the preview screening of the movie "The Artist" before its general theatre release. This movie previously played at Cannes and TIFF and won rave accolades at both festivals. It had made our short list of TIFF movies for this year but did not make our final cut.  We regretted this decision after hearing the reviews, so we were very excited for this chance to see it.

The Artist is a modern day take on the black and white silent film of the early 1920s.  George Valentin is the reigning silent film heart throb while Peppy Miller is an up and coming young actress who gets her start with a small part in one of his films.  As Peppy's popularity rises, George's fades when he can't make the transition to talking movies because of his heavily accented voice (which we don't hear until the last seconds of the film).  Although no dialogue is spoken between them, the love story between the star-crossed pair, whose careers are on opposite trajectories, is vividly portrayed and deeply felt.

Any similarities to Singing in the Rain are clearly intentional. French actor Jean Dujardin ,who plays George, could be Gene Kelly's twin especially when he flashes that familiar smile that lights up a room.  George's brassy blond costar,  who also has trouble transitioning to talkies, is clearly modeled after Jean Hagen's character Lisa Lament while Argentinian actress Bérénice Bejo's aptly named Peppy is every bit as cute and perky as Debbie Reynolds.

Much of the comic relief of the movie is provided one of the most talented dogs ever captured on film.  The jack russell terrier, who looks like Eddie from Fraiser, stole every scene that he was in.  This little dog exuded personality and stuck faithfully by his master through all his trials and tribulations.  Carrying on the Singing in the Rain analogy, I guess he represents the Donald O'Connor sidekick character.

The opening scenes felt like a "meta movie" as we sat watching a silent movie featuring an audience watching a silent movie starring George Valentin.  A scene where Peppy expresses her affection and gratitude for George by acting out an embrace with his jacket plays out as an extremely touching pantomime.

What starts off as a light hearted film becomes more of a melodrama as George falls into poverty and despair while Peppy secretly, then actively tries to save him.  A scene from his last movie (a flop) acts as a metaphor for his career as he sinks slowly into quicksand and then disappears.

The movie is full of clever shots and creative camera angles with what seems like homages to Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard. A scene where George trashes a room filled with reels of his old movies but saves the reel of his first film made with Peppy is reminiscent of the one where Charlie Kane trashes Susan's room but saves the snowglobe.

Although silent for most of the movie and accompanied by a soaring score in the tradition of such movies, there was a brief and innovative use of sound in the middle of the film.  In a dream sequence where George remains mute and unable to speak, he suddenly hears sounds and voices all around him.  This nightmare effectively communicates his fears of the new world of talking pictures and its affect on his livelihood.  After such a long period without dialogue, suddenly hearing speech is intentionally jarring.

Despite the leads being French and Argentinian, there are some well known American movie stars in supporting roles.  Penelope Ann Miller plays George's neglected wife, John Goodman is the head of the movie studio and James Cromwell is George's loyal chauffeur.

While The Artist is a loving tribute to the era of silent pictures, it has a modern sensibility to it, as the acting, gestures and facial expressions are more subtle and less exaggerated.  This is a very special movie to be appreciated both for its artistic merit and excellent story telling.  I was fully invested in these characters and their story and was riveted to the end.  I hope this movie gets noticed for the Oscars.