Hitchcock


Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock.

Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock.

(2012) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Danny Huston, Jessica Biel, Toni Collette, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Wincott, Richard Portnow, Michael Stuhlbarg, Kurtwood Smith, James D’Arcy, Ralph Macchio, Kai Lennox, Tara Summers, Wallace Langham, Paul Schrackman, Currie Graham, Melinda Chilton, Mary Anne McGarry. Directed by Sacha Gervasi

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most decorated and respected directors in the history of movies. We are familiar with him as a man mainly through his television show and his dry sense of humor, his cameo appearances in his own movies such as Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Strangers on a Train. Few know that as he finished another triumph, North by Northwest, he was aching to redefine himself. He managed to do that with a little movie called Psycho.

Hitchcock (Hopkins) and his wife Alma Reville (Mirren) are reveling in the acclaim for his latest picture. Like the wives of many great men, Alma contributes a great deal to his success although she has been content to remain out of the limelight. However, Hitch’s colossal ego and womanizing has frayed her patience to the breaking point. She assumes he will take on another suspense film for which he has become justly famous.

However, her husband yearns to stretch his wings somewhat which doesn’t bother you – when she discovers that his next project will be based on the Robert Bloch novel Psycho she is horrified. The movie is about a serial killer (who is in turn based on Ed Gein (Wincott) who has been haunting Hitch’s dreams of late) which in that era was unheard of. Until then, movies took the point of view of those who chased killers, not of the killers themselves and particularly not those who were clearly insane.

But as usual, Hitchcock gets his way. However, the studio shares Alma’s concerns. Hitchcock is forced to finance the film himself with Paramount acting only as a distributor. He sets out to assemble the cast which will include Anthony Hopkins (D’Arcy), Janet Leigh (Johansson) and Vera Miles (Biel). The latter Hitchcock had worked with before – until she had dropped out of the production due to her pregnancy, incurring the wrath of the director and he didn’t mean to let her forget it.

Because Hitch is paying for this, things are done on the cheap. Black and white film stock in an era of color. Filming on the Universal lot rather than Paramount’s because studio space is cheaper there. First-time screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Macchio).

But while something amazing is taking shape onscreen, things are in chaos at home. Alma is not just feeling taken for granted, she’s feeling downright ignored. Her contributions, normally appreciated and vital, are being virtually unheard. She is feeling somewhat obsolete, particularly as Hitch pays more attention to Leigh. Alma begins to develop a relationship with budding screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Huston) which drives Hitch crazy with jealousy. Still, as the film comes towards completion, will the movie vindicate the director’s vision – and will it be enough to save his marriage?

History shows that it did and Hitch remained married to Alma until his death in 1980. Psycho remains to this day the most profitable black and white sound film ever and in some ways is the film most identified with Hitchcock. As I mentioned in my review (see link above) this is the movie that ushered in the modern horror genre in many ways with the serial killer POV, the death at an early stage of the film of a lead character, excessive violence (although it seems tame today) and the psychosexual aspects of murder.

But this is a film about that film so we must talk about Hopkins as Hitchcock. Hopkins is one of the ablest actors of our time, having mastered characters both villainous and kind. He assays the character of Hitchcock with the use of a fat suit (Hopkins had just completed a weight loss program and was loathe to gain a significant amount of weight to take on the part of the portly Hitchcock) and an uncanny mimicry of the director’s mannerisms. Does he capture the essence of Hitchcock? I think so, insofar as we know what the essence of Hitchcock is.

There’s the rub, in fact. No disrespect to Hopkins, Hitchcock was and remains an enigma in many ways. He was a very public figure but we never really got to know the man. Sure, there are lots of biographies that talk about his obsession with his leading ladies (that were nearly always blondes), his difficult relationship with his mother, his tyrannical style as a director, his flirtatious nature which most people today would say bordered on sexual harassment. However there is precious little information direct from the source – Hitchcock disliked talking about himself except in very broad terms. Most of the more intensely personal information that Hitchcock ever revealed was in an interview by French director Francois Truffaut years later. Hopkins gives a game try but he’s hampered from the get-go.

Mirren is a different matter. She has as much onscreen personality as any actress alive, perhaps the most of any. She’s like a hurricane bearing down on a peaceful fishing village and as Alma nags Hitch about his weight and drinking, expresses her opinions about the risks he’s taking with their savings and his career or quietly standing off to the side in his shadow, Mirren makes us understand that she was a formidable woman indeed and every part as necessary to Hitchcock’s success as the director himself.

We see a bit of the filming of the movie – oddly the iconic shower scene gets very little time here – but then again this isn’t really a nuts and bolts primer about the making of a movie. It’s about how movies get made and in particular this one, which followed a somewhat torturous path to completion. Film buffs will probably be curious to see this but might be disappointed. For one thing, it misses out on some interesting aspects, like Hitchcock submitting an anonymous bid to Bloch for the rights so he could low-ball the author. For another, it does fudge on history although one of the items that critics have been disparaging the most – Alma’s relationship with Cook – is actually true, verified by correspondence between the two.

I found the movie to be an entertainment more than a historical document. As the former, this is a winner. Although I never believed for a moment I was watching the Master of Suspense at work, I felt like I was watching how he might have worked and I am satisfied I got some insight into his creative process. However, as the latter, I don’t think this stands up nor do I think it was meant to. There is enough here to be informative as to how the movie came together and we see some aspects of Hitchcock but again I don’t think we get a very complete portrait of the man. Then again, an hour and a half is really an insufficient amount of time to really get a complete picture of anyone.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating look at the creative process behind one of the most iconic films ever made. Mirren is a force of nature. Of interest to film buffs.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Really doesn’t give a lot of insight to Hitchcock the man. Fudges a little bit on history.
FAMILY VALUES: Some cinematic images of violence, a bit of sexuality and some language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scenes set in Hitchcock’s office on the Paramount lot were filmed in the late director’s actual offices, which are still there.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an amusing cell phone PSA.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $23.6M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shadow of the Vampire
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Darling Companion

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Seraphim Falls


Seraphim Falls

Pierce Brosnan discovers you need a lake in order to go ice fishing.

(2006) Western (Goldwyn) Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson, Michael Wincott, Anjelica Huston, Xander Berkeley, Ed Lauter, Tom Noonan, Kevin J. O’Connor, John Robinson, Angie Harmon, Wes Studi. Directed by David von Ancken

There are things that can’t be left alone, cheeks that cannot be turned. There are crimes so heinous that they cannot stand and if we can’t get justice in the conventional way, we must find a way of seeking it ourselves.

Gideon (Brosnan) is a trapper in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada roasting his dinner over the fire when a shot rings out. Gideon is shot in the shoulder. Not knowing where his assailants are, he tumbles down the mountain, taking as many of his things as he can. He flees to a secluded spot and builds a fire, digging out the bullet from his shoulder with a hunting knife and then heating up the blade to cauterize the wound.

We find out that the pursuer is Carver (Neeson), who has with him a posse of four grim men. While some of his company thinks Gideon is dead, Carver knows he isn’t. They spread out to try and find him – which turns out to be a mistake as Gideon jumps one of the posse and kills him.

Gideon escapes from the mountains and attempts to steal a horse from a homesteader. He is discovered but his wound prompts the family to give him shelter. Realizing that the posse is on its way, Gideon steals a horse anyway. He makes it to a railroad camp where the foreman, recognizing the horse, detains him. He manages to get away and steal another horse and rides into the desert. There he will have his final reckoning with his pursuers. Who will emerge alive?

Westerns are not the most popular of genres these days and quite frankly, the problem with them has been that a lot of the stories are somewhat derivative. This one smells a lot like The Outlaw Josie Wales in construction, and that bothered me a bit. As the film progresses, we get to see why Carver is chasing Gideon (and to be fair, the reason is pretty compelling) and your sympathies begin to shift from Gideon to Carver – but this film is much less successful at making the vengeance seeker seem sympathetic as we were for Josie Wales.

But you can’t really complain all that much when you have an Oscar-winning cinematographer like John Toll at your disposal and he doesn’t disappoint, giving us vistas of snowy mountains, dusty railroad camps and dry, barren deserts. It is as beautiful-looking a film as you’re likely to see.

There are also some close-ups of hideous wounds that will turn the stomach of the squeamish, so be warned about that. However, even the squeamish will enjoy the acting performances here. Brosnan is guttural in his speech resembling Clint Eastwood crossed with Brando in a way, his face careworn and grizzled. The deeds of his past are apparent in his eyes. Brosnan has always had the reputation of being more of a pretty face than a good actor, but since leaving his former job as Bond he has become a pretty decent actor.

Neeson, on the other hand, has always had a good reputation since day one; only lately has he become an action hero. He broods with the best of them and as a wronged man there are few better at inspiring sympathy, although strangely enough he is so brutal early on it is hard to get behind him when the reason for his pursuit is revealed.

The two are supported by a surprisingly solid group of character actors, including Lauter and Wincott as members of Carver’s posse, Studi as a fast-talking Indian trader, Huston as a snake-oil saleswoman and Harmon in a brief appearance as a loyal wife. Von Ancken, who has extensive television experience in his background, does a decent job with the movie but at the end of the day, doesn’t really add anything to a story that’s already been done before.

Part of the problem with filming westerns is that there are fewer and fewer locations to shoot them in. That is sad in a big way – westerns have a lot to offer and it’s a pity that more of them aren’t made. While the movie is set shortly after the Civil War (which figures heavily into the plot), this is definitely a movie about the West and not the war, although the director has stated that this is an anti-war film with parallels in our current Iraqi conflict.

In all honesty, I couldn’t see those parallels except in a very broad, very general sense. I tended to prefer the first half of the movie which was action-packed and featured Gideon getting out of one situation after another, over the second part where there was more of a 70s acid western feel to the film. If either of those scenarios suit you, by all means rent away. If not, keep on riding cowboy.

WHY RENT THIS: Awesome cinematography and nice performances from Brosnan and Neeson, as well as the fine character actors in the supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Odd near-hallucinatory sequences near the end of the movie detract from it.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some brief language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first Western for both Brosnan and Neeson who in separate interviews said they really loved shooting this film because of their mutual love for the genre as kids.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget; I’m betting this probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Bad Teacher

What Just Happened


What Just Happened

De Niro contemplates the images of his latest film in the anonymous darkness of a theater.

(Magnolia) Robert De Niro, Catherine Keener, Stanley Tucci, Robin Wright Penn, Sean Penn, Bruce Willis, John Turturro, Michael Wincott, Kristen Stewart. Directed by Barry Levinson

It is said that in space no-one can hear you scream. In Hollywood, not only can everyone hear you scream, chances are the rights to it are in turnaround.

Ben (De Niro), a veteran Hollywood producer, is at a photo shoot for a Vanity Fair feature on the 50 Most Powerful People in Hollywood and he is miffed at where he is placed on the set. In a town where perception is everything, he finds himself off to the side, away from the true power brokers. For a producer, the perception of powerlessness can make his job damn near impossible.

Ben’s latest project, a Sean Penn (played by himself) vehicle called Fiercely, is at a test screening attended by the hard-as-nails studio boss Lou Tarnow (Keener). The test scores are a disaster. Not only is the hero killed at the end of the film, so is his dog, brutally shot by generic Eurotrash hitmen. The movie is scheduled to open the Cannes Film Festival in less than two weeks and Ben is ordered to change the ending or else the vindictive Tarnow will bury the film, preventing its release in any form.

When the news is presented to the film’s manic English director Jeremy Brunell (Wincott), he has a meltdown, not wanting to compromise his artistic vision. Still, those problems pale in comparison to Ben’s next project, which is set to begin filming in ten days. It’s star, Bruce Willis, shows up to the set bloated, grossly overweight and even more terrifyingly, with a beard that would do Stonewall Jackson proud. The film’s backers are threatening to halt production and sue everyone, including Willis’ neurotic and hypochondriac agent (Turturro). To make matters worse, the film’s writer (Tucci) is having an affair with Ben’s ex-wife (Penn), who Ben wants to get back together with despite their attempts at “breakup therapy” which smacks of L.A. flightiness.

While Ben navigates a personal life that is nothing short of a minefield, his professional career is threatening to implode. And buddy, nothing is harder to come back from for a producer than the perception that he is ineffective.

Director Levinson also directed the satire Wag the Dog which skewered politics and Hollywood on the same spear, but this doesn’t have the bite that the other film possesses. The movie’s worst quality is its blandness, and that prevents the movie from being rated highly. What the film has going for it is that the cast is exceptional, led by De Niro who can make ordering a ham sandwich compelling. Willis and Wincott take the over-the-top route, which works out nicely. However, it also serves to illustrate the movie’s other glaring flaw – the characters feel more like caricatures than real people. It’s hard to get behind a movie when the characters in that movie are unbelievable.

There is a fascination with peeking behind-the-scenes in Hollywood. We all have visions of massive egos jousting for higher perches in the pecking order, and to a certain extent that’s true. There’s a certain vicarious thrill with watching rich power players grovel and from time to time get put in their places and that’s the attraction for What Just Happened. It’s unfortunate that a cast this talented and a director with the abilities of Levinson couldn’t have made a better movie, but even their lesser efforts are worth a look.

WHY RENT THIS: An insider’s look at Hollywood from a consummate Hollywood insider. An outstanding cast, led by the always watchable De Niro. Willis and Wincott in particular, give over-the-top performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie falters when covering Ben’s personal life. While some of the scenes are based on real-life incidents, the characters don’t feel reel. The satire is bland, the kiss of death for satire.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is pretty salty and there are some scenes of violence, sexuality and drug use. Probably a bit rough for the younger sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the book the movie is based on is non-fiction, the book’s author, producer Art Linson, chose to film it as a fictional work with fictional characters.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Traitor