Hitchcock/Truffaut


The man who is arguably the greatest director of all time frames a point like he frames a shot.

The man who is arguably the greatest director of all time frames a point like he frames a shot.

(2015) Documentary (Cohen) Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, Martin Scorsese, Matthieu Amalric (voice), Wes Anderson, Paul Schrader, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Linklater, David Fincher, Olivier Assayas, Arnaud Desplechin, Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Directed by Kent Jones

Greatness isn’t a title we’re allowed to proclaim for ourselves; it is rather bestowed upon us by those who follow in our footsteps. And, hopefully, an honor bestowed upon a favored few.

Certainly, Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut are worthy of such accolades. Hitchcock, once lauded as the Master of Suspense, was mainly relegated to the standing of a competent director of popular entertainment. It wasn’t until Nouvelle Vague darling Truffaut interviewed him and wrote a book about their conversation that Hitchcock began to be taken more seriously by film cognoscenti.

Much of the documentary is about the conversation between the two legends, with audiotape from the actual interviews that are augmented by film clips and commentary by ten modern directors who are clearly influenced by Hitchcock in particular. I don’t know that the commentary augments the book with much insight other than as to how Hitchcock has influenced modern movies, particularly in how carefully he framed and set up his shots. You might not know it from looking at him, but Hitch was a driven artist who labored intensely to make his vision come to life.

Much has been made of Hitchcock’s disdain for actors and in many ways he used them as living props. He was a visual storyteller more than anything, which makes sense considering he got his start in silent cinema. He worked with some of the great names in Hollywood – Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day, Tony Perkins, Janet Leigh and so on – but for him, they meant little other than how they looked in the shot. He was a master storyteller however and he always got the best from his actors, no matter how much they personally disliked him.

The thing is though; I’m not sure why this documentary exists at all. The book that it is about is a landmark book that essentially provides readers with a Film Directing 101 course and continues to do so to this day. Anyone interested in going into movie production should make it required reading. But the question is what does this documentary give you that you couldn’t get from reading the book yourself?

The answer is not much. Sure some of the director commentary helps, and Jones – whose day job is as a film historian (he also has collaborated in the past with Scorsese, a well-known film buff) – provides some historical context to Hitchcock’s career. Some of the footage of his older films from the silent era and in England in the 30s was stuff I hadn’t seen. I wish there had been more of it.

Certainly there is plenty of interest here and if you haven’t read the book, this is a fine introduction to it. I read it back when I was in middle school and high school and my lifelong love of film was in part primed by it and other such tomes (The MGM Story, for example) for which I’m duly grateful. However, recommending this has to come with a codicil – read the book. If you have more than a passing interest in movies, you should read it anyway.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating insights to some of his classics. Gives a great director his due.
REASONS TO STAY: Couldn’t ya just read the book? Glosses over most of his films other than Vertigo and Psycho.
FAMILY VALUES: Some images of violence as well as suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The conversations, recorded on audiotape and partially on film, took place over a week in a conference room on the Universal lot in 1962.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hitchcock
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: In the Heart of the Sea

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The Grand Budapest Hotel


Caught in the act!

Caught in the act!

(2014) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Matthieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Lea Seydoux, Bob Balaban, Fisher Stevens, Florian Lukas, Giselda Volodi. Directed by Wes Anderson

There was a time when elegance was in fashion, when gentility was all the rage and a gentleman was a gentleman and a lady was a lady. Those days are gone.

A student sits down by a shrine to read a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel. In 1985, a famous Author (Wilkinson) reads the book aloud and tells us about the time back in 1969 when he was young (Law) and visited the namesake hotel of the book in the beautiful Republic of Zubrowka and spoke with the owner of the hotel (Abraham). He, in turn, tells a tale of when he was but a young ambitious lobby boy named Zero Moustafa (Revolori) who came to be taken under the wing of the greatest concierge that ever lived – the legendary Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes).

Gustave has made his reputation by knowing what his clientele needs before they themselves know. He specializes in elderly dowagers, flirting and bestowing on them the sheerest form of flattery, leading them into bed. One of his more devoted clients is Madame D (Swinton), but there are many and nearly all of them blonde.

When one of his clients passes away, Gustave takes Zero to pay his final respects but it turns out that Dmitri (Brody), the manipulative greedy son, is absolutely scandalized that his mother had carnal relations with someone like Gustave whom he considers to be a perverted little bisexual. Dmitri has in his employ Jopling (Dafoe), a psychopathic assassin.

As it turns out Gustave is accused of the murder of his client and jailed. Zero, his devoted protégé and friend and Zero’s fiancée Agatha (Ronan), a comely assistant pastry chef with a distinctive wine-colored birthmark shaped like Mexico on her cheek, will have to overcome the canny Inspector Henckels (Norton) and the ruthless Jopling to help Gustave clear his name.

Anderson has always had a quirky comedic sense that crosses Ernst Lubitsch with the Coen Brothers. This is in my opinion his best film to date, taking all of the promise he has shown in films like Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and delivering on it. The timing is impressive and the film is funny throughout.

In talking about this film one has to talk about the production design. Each time period has a certain color palate which grows more dingy and dreary in 1969 and 1985 1932 however is awash in color, the pink jewelbox of the hotel dominant. Often the movie looks like it was printed on paper, with animated cutouts doing some of the action. The stylized movements of the actors and the oddball facial hair of the men complete the overall air of gentility and hilarity.

Fiennes is perfect as Gustave. Genteel, manipulative, a bit of a cad but with a heart of gold, Fiennes carries the movie in his coat pocket. It is a magnificent performance that unleashes hidden depths from Fiennes who often plays roles that are emotionally closed off. This is right in his wheelhouse and he steps into it and knocks it out of the part with enthusiastic gusto. While I find it unlikely he’ll be nominated for any awards later on for the role, this is definitely one of the best performances you’ll see this year that won’t get awards consideration.

The only reason this doesn’t have a perfect score is the unnecessarily convoluted structure of having a student sitting by the grave of an older author who talks about his younger self hearing a story from an old man who tells about what happened to him and his mentor as a young man. The problem with peeling back the layers from an onion is that someone inevitably ends up in tears. Nonetheless this is a terrific movie, quirky but funny and satisfying and thoroughly enjoyable.

REASONS TO GO: Imaginative and funny. Fiennes is transcendent. Clever for all the right reasons.

REASONS TO STAY: The beginning is unnecessarily complicated.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of ungentlemanly language, some unseemly violence and some naughty bits.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of the fictional Republic of Zubrowka where the film is set actually comes from a Polish brand of vodka.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hudsucker Proxy

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Fireflies in the Garden

A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noel)


A Christmas Tale

Even now, most red-blooded men wouldn't mind having Catherine Deneuve under their tree.

(IFC) Catherine Deneuve, Matthieu Amalric, Melvil Poupaud, Chiara Mastroianni, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Anne Consigny, Hippolyte Girardot, Emmanuelle Devos, Emile Berling, Laurent Capelluto. Directed by Arnaud Desplechin

Christmas is a time for families to gather, no matter the distance. Sometimes the distance isn’t just physical and geographical, it’s emotional as well.

Junon (Deneuve) and Abel (Roussillon) Vuillard are the parents of three adult children: Elizabeth (Consigny), a neurotic playwright, Henri (Amalric) the charming but destructive black sheep and Ivan (Poupaud), the peacemaker between the children. After a disastrous business venture five years prior, Henri who had misappropriated funds from the theater he co-owned was bailed out by Elizabeth on the condition that she never have anything to do with him again and that he be banished from any family event that she was also attending.

Junon and Abel also had a fourth child, Joseph, who would have been the eldest but had died in childhood of leukemia. Now, Junon has developed it and the children and grandchildren (including Paul (Berling), son of Elizabeth who has mental problems) are being tested for compatibility to donate bone marrow for a transfusion.

Because it is Christmas, the decision is for the children to come to the Paris home they grew up in and so they do, families in tow; Henri’s flamboyant girlfriend Faunia (Devos), Ivan’s beautiful wife Sylvia (Mastroianni), Elizabeth’s mathematician husband Claude (Girardot) and cousin Simon (Capelluto), a lovesick tortured artist (sounds like the name of a band to me).

Spending time in closed quarters begins to force the family to deal with the tensions and feelings that have been dormant due to distance. The family dynamics begin to distend, change and convulse under the weight of Junon’s illness, the always-present specter of Joseph hovering sorrowfully above the family table and the family politics that create enemies out of brother and sister.

I’m deliberately trying to reveal as little of the plot as I can. One of the things that works about the film is the little subplots and interrelationships that are only seen as threads of the tapestry, but in the final couple of scenes it’s as if the camera pulls back and the tapestry is finally seen as a whole.

None of these characters are perfect and few of them are even likable. Junon is not the best of mothers, playing favorites with her children but loving none of them as much as she loves herself. Deneuve is still radiantly beautiful at age 66 and as elegant as she has ever been. Her Junon seems an improbable match with the more gnome-like Abel, but there is a certain amount of affection between them.

Amalric is one of my favorite French actors today, and anyone who saw him in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is likely to agree (he also played the villain in Quantum of Solace and was one of the best things about it). His Henri is fully aware of his familial role as an absolute jerk and has embraced it, but not without cost. Few actors in France can hold their own with Deneuve but Amalric is one of them and he does here.

One of the more interesting asides of the movie is the casting of Mastroianni as Sylvia. If the name sounds familiar, it should be; she’s the daughter of Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni and…Catherine Deneuve. The facial resemblance to her mother is marked; I think the casting is meant to imply that Ivan married a girl who not only was much like his mother emotionally but also facially as well which is a little bit creepy but there is a certain delicious irony to it.

At times the squabbling and some of the family skeletons seem a little bit too forced and that takes away from the film’s realism. What I like about the movie is that the characters are very human and far from perfect; this is a family that has issues, a whole lot of them as a matter of fact. As I said earlier, some of the main characters aren’t even that likable but every last one of them is compelling. Other critics have said that they have uncovered further subtleties upon repeated viewing of the movie; I haven’t had a chance to do that yet but I suspect I’ll have the same reaction.

If you’re expecting a Hollywood feel-good family Christmas movie, you’re going to open up a big box of disappointment. If you want to feel good without being manipulated, this is going to be more your speed. I wound up with a warm, Christmas feeling that was so genuine that I didn’t let go of it for days. Christmas isn’t about the perfect family; it’s about the family we actually do have, warts and all. The Vuillards aren’t always lovable but there is love and it is real. That’s the Christmas we may not generally wish for but it’s the one we usually get and to be honest, the one we usually remember with the most fondness.

WHY RENT THIS: The themes of redemption and forgiveness are particularly heartwarming given the seasonal tale. Deneuve is captivating and still absolutely gorgeous.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The squabbling and family dynamics sometimes seem a little bit more over the top than real.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality, foul language and lots and lots of smoking – hey, they’re French.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Desplechin has been nominated for eight Cesar Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscar) and four Golden Palms (a prestigious award handed out at the Cannes Film Festival) but has yet to win either.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD and Blu-Ray are available as a part of the prestigious Criterion Collection. They contain a copy of Desplechin’s one hour documentary L’Aimee which is about the selling of his childhood home and directly prefaces the tone of A Christmas Tale. There is also a booklet containing an essay from critic Phillip Lopate about the film and its impact.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues.