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

Moonrise Kingdom


Moonrise Kingdom

Edward Norton and his band of brown-shirted scouts are out on serious business.

(2012) Comedy (Focus) Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzmann, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban, Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman, L.J. Foley, Jake Ryan, Charlie Kilgore, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Neal Huff, Lucas Hedges, Gabriel Rush, Tanner Flood. Directed by Wes Anderson

 

There is something about young love in the 1960s. There’s something innocent about it, more so than today where kids have access to so much information, both good and bad. Few 12-year-olds are completely innocent of sex in 2012; in 1965 that was not the case.

Sam (Gilman) is a bit of a misfit. He’s an orphan (although it isn’t on any of his registry forms) living with foster parents. He finds great delight in camping with the Khaki Scouts on nearby Prentice Island, of the coast of New England. The island has no paved roads and is mostly uninhabited, save for a family at Summer’s End living in the old lighthouse – the Bishops, whose daughter Suzy (Hayward) is beautiful beyond her 12 years.

Sam met her at a church play when, bored, he went backstage to talk to the girls whom Sam was just discovering. The two began corresponding and soon realized that there was more than just like going on; it was love. Sam is distinctly unpopular, socially awkward and always saying or doing the wrong thing. He likes to puff on a pipe, not so much to smoke but because he likes the gravitas it gives him.

Suzy is a free spirit, whose lawyer parents Walt (Murray) and Laura (McDormand) communicate by bullhorn and display little warmth. Her fellow siblings listen to Benjamin Britton’s symphony on a tiny battery-operated record player that her brother Murry (Flood) hoards jealously.

They decide to run away together, accomplishing the feat in a manner right out of The Great Escape. They hike to an isolated cove over an Indian trail, Sam lugging all the survival gear they could possibly need while Suzy brings a collection of stolen library books (all of which are about strong heroines in magic or interplanetary kingdoms), a collection of 45s, the record player, her cat and a supply of cat food.

When Scoutmaster Ward (Norton) discovers Sam’s absence. He immediately notifies Captain Sharp (Willis) of the island police force – okay, he is the island police force. A search party is mounted and when Sharp stops by the Bishops, it is discovered that Suzy is missing too. All of this goes on while a monster storm approaches the island.

Anderson has a tendency to polarize audiences. Either you get him or you don’t; either you like him or can’t stand him. His movies have a sense of surrealism; just off-kilter enough to leave you off-balance as you watch it. Some people don’t like their realities being messed with but Anderson seems to get his jollies out of tilting people’s perceptions enough for them to gather some unexpected perspective.

Murray is perhaps his favorite actor – he uses him in almost all of his films. He is more of a sidereal character here; the sideshow, not the main attraction. In fact, most of the name actors are. The movie, instead, belongs to Hayward and Gilman. They are not precious as some juvenile actors are, nor do you get a sense that they are play-acting, as most juvenile actors do. Instead, they fill their roles and are at times called upon to do some fairly adult things – kissing, for example, and cuddling. You get the sense of the mutual attraction and Hayward has the kind of ethereal beauty that if it translates into adulthood is going to make her one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood – or the most beautiful women in whatever field she chooses.

Anderson shot the movie in 16mm and overexposed the film a bit, giving it an almost watercolor look. It has a sense of nostalgia, like a movie made in 1965 and only recently discovered but also a washed out look that is warm and inviting. Anderson is a director known for choosing color carefully and the khakis of the scout uniforms, the mustard yellow of their handkerchiefs blend in perfectly with the fields of grass that are slowly browning as autumn approaches. It’s a beautiful movie to look at, even more so in memory.

Critics have been going out of their minds with praise for this one, with several proclaiming it the finest movie of the year thus far. I am not completely convinced of it; there are times that Anderson seems to be quirky for its own sake, plus some of the sets look a little overly much like sets. A more naturalistic environment might have really benefitted as a contrast with the surreal goings-on.

Still, this is a very good movie that is going to be getting a wide opening this weekend. It has already been out in limited release since the end of May and has been doing good business indeed. This might turn out to be the sleeper hit of the summer, much like Midnight in Paris was last year. The Oscars might be remembering it in February much the same as it did the Woody Allen hit as well.

REASONS TO GO: Fine performances, surprisingly so from the juveniles. Laugh out loud funny in places, sweet in others.

REASONS TO STAY: May be a little too quirky for some – a definitely acquired taste.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexual content and a good deal of smoking. Also a bit of drinking as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot with 16mm cameras to give it a look like it was made in the 60s.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100. The critics are falling all over themselves with praise.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flipped

CAMPING LOVERS: The woodcraft that Sam espouses to Suzy is actually quite valid and is taught by the Boy Scouts today.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Rock of Ages

Fantastic Mr. Fox


Fantastic Mr. Fox

A Fox family portrait.

(Fox Searchlight) Starring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzmann, Michael Gambon, Wally Wolodarsky, Eric Anderson, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, Jarvis Cocker, Brian Cox. Directed by Wes Anderson

One thing is true of all of God’s critters, two-legged and four-legged alike and that is that we must all be true to our own natures. If that nature invites danger and disaster, can we but follow the path presented to us or can we diverge into safety and security?

Mr. Fox (Clooney) is a chicken thief, and like all successful thieves he survives by being quick-witted and adaptive. His wife Mrs. Fox (Streep) doesn’t really approve of his line of work, but when they nearly get caught she forces a promise from him that he will find a different career path. He chooses the one that may be of all jobs even less reputable than chicken thievery – journalism.

Years have gone by and Mr. Fox continues to live in poverty in a comfortable hole with his family. He has gone straight but only on the surface; in his heart he is a clever chicken thief liberating poultry from farmers who are unwise enough to allow them to be liberated. Despite his lack of financial wherewithal Mr. Fox decides to buy a home above ground in a beautiful tree overlooking the farms of the three men who control the valley they live in (and three of the meanest men you’ll ever meet). While Mr. Fox’s lawyer Badger (Murray) cautions against it, Mr. Fox goes through with his plan to buy the house anyway even though it will put his family in the line of fire. That family is going through enough as it is with the arrival of cousin Kristofferson (Anderson) which further antagonizes Mr. Fox’s teenage son Ash (Schwartzmann) who has a bit of an inferiority complex to begin with.

In order to pay for his new mansion, Mr. Fox supplements his ink-stained wretch salary with a little thieving on the side, along with the help of his friend and general handy-man Kylie (Wolodarsky) who is prone to spacing out at odd intervals. This incurs the wrath of the farmers, led by the rail-thin chain smoker Mr. Bean (Gambon) who has nothing to do with the Rowan Atkinson character of the same name. They declare war on the fox responsible for the filching of their hard-earned wares, forcing the animals to tunnel for their lives. Can Mr. Fox devise a clever enough plan to save the animals and make everything fantastic again?

I want to make it clear from the beginning that I’ve always blown hot and cold when it comes to director Wes Anderson. While his best moments from movies like Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou are arguably as good as any being produced today, he can also turn the quirk factor from charming to overbearing in a heartbeat. He is most definitely an acquired taste and one that I haven’t yet acquired.

However, to my mind this is the best work he’s done yet. The sight gags are often hysterically funny and the tone of the movie is just off-beat enough to be interesting. I suspect that Anderson may have dialed down things a bit in deference to the audience which is bound to include children (the source material is, after all, a classic children’s book penned by Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). In toning things down and making the movie a bit more accessible, he makes the quirky elements all the more effective.

It helps that he has a great voice cast. Clooney is sly, witty and charming in a Danny Ocean vein, with a heaping helping of Everett (the lovable ne’er do well from O Brother Where Art Thou?) thrown in for good measure. Streep is solid as the very much long-suffering Mrs. Fox and Gambon throws the right amount of hissable evil to his villainous Mr. Bean. Most of the others read their lines in a deadpan monotone which makes the humor a bit dry but emphasizes the irony much better. Those who don’t appreciate that sort of humor will probably find this movie frustrating.

I have to make it known that while this is ostensibly a children’s movie, I think adults may wind up finding it more appealing than the wee ones. Kids are not known for being terribly accepting of things that are different than what they’re used to, and some may find the tone strange or the overall humor a bit boring. There are some over-the-top physical gags that will keep ‘em happy but by and large adults will get this a little more than the Nickelodeon set will.

The animation is stop-motion and highly textured, with the fur of the animals rippling in unseen breezes along with the grass. Trees bend in unison like an arboreal chorus line, and tunnels are filled with dirt, rocks and roots. It is not specifically realistic, more like hyper-realistic (if you take for granted that foxes walk upright, wear tailored clothes and speak with more intelligence than the average human). Animator Harry Selick, the man who did The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach was originally slated to animate this movie before delays caused schedule conflicts and Selick would go on to do Coraline. Instead Anderson hired Mark Gustafson who did the California Raisins commercials back in the day. Good choice, that.

Pleasant surprises make going to the movies a pleasure. I hadn’t been particularly looking forward to this movie but there’s a good chance this will wind up in our home video collection (which will likely be Blu-Ray by the time it gets out in that format). It isn’t often that I can say an animated feature will be appreciated more by adults than by children, but I think that I can say that with confidence here. Certainly there is that sense of magic and enchantment that is necessary in any animated feature, but with a tone and intelligence that is more adult. In other words, this is a movie that doesn’t talk down to children which is a good thing in my book. Next to Up, this is the best animated feature I’ve seen this year.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of great sight gags and a snappy off-kilter tone make this appealing to fans of indie films and Wes Anderson. Quirky without being overbearing. There are some nice vocal performances, particularly from Clooney and Gambon.

REASONS TO STAY: Although based on a children’s book and marketed to kids to a certain extent, this really isn’t a traditional children’s movie and if your tyke isn’t open to new things, they might find this strange or boring.

FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly salty humor but really suitable for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tree the Fox family lives in is based on a beech tree on the property of original book author Roald Dahl, and Mr. Fox’s study is a near-perfect recreation of Dahl’s own study in his garden hut where he did most of his writing.

HOME OR THEATER: Chances are this will work just as well on a home screen but I kinda liked it on the big screen. You make the call.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: MirrorMask

New Releases for the Week of November 27, 2009


New Release Preview 11/27/09

It's hard to believe these guys are old dogs now.

OLD DOGS

(Disney) John Travolta, Robin Williams, Kelly Preston, Seth Green, Ella Bleu Travolta, Conner Rayburn, Lori Loughlin, Matt Dillon, Bernie Mac. Directed by Walt Becker

From the director of Wild Hogs comes this new comedy that similarly involves older men in a younger man situation. In this case, two successful businessmen on the verge of closing the biggest deal of their careers are derailed by the revelation that one of them is in fact a father and at one of the most critical junctures in their negotiations, will be babysitting his newfound brood. As will happen around kids, chaos ensues.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for some mild rude humor)

Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day

(Apparition) Norman Reedus, Sean Patrick Flannery, Clifton Collins, Julie Benz. This is the sequel to the cult classic penned by Troy Duffy (the making of which was the subject of the acclaimed documentary Overnight). The brothers MacManus who have been taking it easy in Ireland since the events of the first film find themselves compelled to return to the mean streets of Boston when a priest is brutally gunned down.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for bloody violence, language and some nudity)

Fantastic Mr. Fox

(Fox Searchlight) Featuring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzmann, Bill Murray. From the minds of the late novelist Roald Dahl and director Wes Anderson (Rushmore) comes this animated feature that pits a clever, tricky fox against three brutal but not-so-bright farmers.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for action, smoking and slang humor)

Ninja Assassin

(Warner Brothers) Rain, Naomie Harris, Sho Kosugi, Rick Yune. Taken from the streets as a child by the legendary but lethal Ozunu Clan and trained as an assassin, Raizo becomes one of the deadliest killers on the planet. However he butts heads with the clan and is forced to vanish. Now, he finds an Interpol agent who has stumbled upon one of the secrets of the Ozunu Clan and is marked for death. He must protect her – and himself – from the world’s most skilled assassins and try to find a way to bring the clan down for good. This stylized anime/video game hybrid is from V for Vendetta director James McTeigue.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for strong bloody stylized violence throughout, and language)

The Road

(Weinstein) Viggo Mortensen, Robert Duvall, Kody Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron. After a global catastrophe kills nearly all life on earth and ends civilization as we know it, a father and his son make their way across a barren, dangerous landscape trying to avoid predators of the natural and unnatural kind in an effort to make it to the coast and survival. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, this post-Apocalyptic thriller boasts an all-star cast.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for some violence, disturbing images and language)