Sunday, October 31, 2010

Movie Review - The Machinist

The Machinist (2004)
Starring Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and John Sharian
Directed by Brad Anderson
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

This one's been in the ole Netflix rental queue for a long time, but I just never got around to renting it.  I'm actually quite happy I did because this odd little film was an interesting character piece that was well worth the watch.

This is the movie that Christian Bale famously lost a ton of weight for.  He looks like an anorexic teenager at a mere 120 pounds.  You can tell he's not healthy and it certainly made is character Trevor Reznik infinitely more believable.  Trevor's problem is that he hasn't slept in over a year.  365 days without sleep can make you a little nutty and not quite at the top of your game.  I don't really want to spoil a lot because I knew nothing except the above going into this film and I think it worked in my favor.  Needless to say, the lack of sleep begins causing some problems in Trevor's life and it slowly begins to spiral out of control.

Christian Bale is pretty great here.  I know there was some talk in 2004 about him getting an Oscar nomination for this role and looking back over the nominees that year, I can't say he would have been a bad choice.  There's more on display than just his frail-looking body.  There's a real character study going on here and Bale is quite adept at letting the audience really feel what's going on in his sleep-deprived mind.  

And despite the fact that Bale got most of the acclaim for the movie, both the director Brad Anderson and screenwriter Scott Kosar provide excellent work in their respective crafts.  Even though there are some fairly obvious plot points, I must say that I found the ending to be moderately surprising and shockingly emotional, and in the case of this movie, I commend both the director and writer for that.

The Machinist is a good little flick.  Nothing groundbreaking or incredible, but a solid mystery-drama with a pretty great performance from one of the better actors of my generation.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Hitchcock Month - Strangers on a Train

This review was originally posted on 2/12/10.

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Starring Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, Robert Walker, Leo G. Carroll, and Patricia Hitchcock
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
I'd rather watch lesser Hitchcock than no Hitchcock any day. There's something about his choice of stories that always win me over. The story in Strangers on a Train is excellent, but it's a shame that good ole Hitch can't seem to ratchet up the tension over the film's run.

Guy Haines (Granger) is a tennis pro who is traveling by train to his hometown to complete a divorce with his soon-to-be ex-wife. On the train, he meets Bruno Anthony (Walker) who conjures up a scheme for the perfect murder -- he could kill Guy's wife, while Guy could kill Bruno's overbearing father. Guy thinks Bruno's simply an odd duck, but when Guy's wife turns up dead and the psychotic Bruno begins stalking the tennis pro, Guy realizes he may be in trouble.

While Robert Walker is riveting as the nasty Bruno, Granger's Guy is a limp noodle, and that's part of the reason the film falls a tad flat. Additionally, with the exception of two key scenes, I never really felt any sense of tension. Hitchcock (and the screenwriters) just can't maintain a palpable sense of excitement. As someone pointed out to me, there's a scene that's played as quite a pivotal moment -- a character attempting to quickly retrieve something he's lost -- that, while dramatically tense during the moment, holds absolutely no purpose to the story. It's there simply to "create excitement" without being the least bit necessary to the plot.

Still, it's worth watching the film simply for Robert Walker's performance. While I didn't love the book either (which I read as part of my Book-a-Week quest last year), I enjoyed it a little more than this flick.

The RyMickey Rating: C

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Movie Review - Legion

Legion (2010)
Starring Paul Bettany, Lucas Black, Adrianne Palicki, Charles S. Dutton, Tyrese Gibson, Kate Walsh, and Dennis Quaid
Directed by Scott Stewart
 ***Currently streaming on Netflix***

SyFy channel movies know they're bad.  The revel in their low-budgetness.  The major studio release Legion, however, feels like a SyFy made-for-tv flick, but it never realizes it's bad.  It doesn't have the winking sensibility that is present in the trashy flicks on tv.

There's really no point in discussing this piece of trash, but the general plot is that God is angry at everyone on Earth and has sent his angels to destroy humanity in some apocalyptic catastrophe.  There is, of course, one hope of life on Earth surviving and that is the baby being born to some young gal named Charlie (Adrianne Palicki) in some diner in Arizona.  All of the angels begin to take on demon-like qualities as they try to attack Charlie and the patrons of the diner.  Fortunately for Charlie, one angel (Paul Bettany) has went against God and is attempting to save Charlie and her unborn savior child.

Any time grown men are walking around with angel wings on their back, it's hard to take things seriously.  And Legion doesn't play up the ridiculous factor nearly enough.  Plus, there's honestly better acting in SyFy movies than in this flick.  Dennis Quaid, Lucas Black, Kate Walsh, and Tyrese Gibson just embarrass themselves.  While Paul Bettany may fare a tad better, he's still godawful at moments.

I've talked enough about this one.  Don't bother.

The RyMickey Rating:  D-

Movie Review - Life as We Know It

Life as We Know It (2010)
Starring Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel
Directed by Greg Berlanti

So, sue me, but I have a soft spot for a good romantic comedy.  While Life as We Know It may not bring anything new to the table, it was a thoroughly enjoyable little flick that provided more than enough laughs to make this a worthwhile watch.

When one-year old Sophie's parents die in a car crash, their will specifies that guardianship of Sophie falls to their best friends Holly and Messer (Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel).  Needless to say, Holly and Messer had never gotten along, but now they must come together in order to raise this cute-as-a-button little girl.  It's probably not difficult to see where this story is gonna go (although, for a while, I foolishly thought the movie may veer onto a different route, but I was mistaken).

Despite the fact that this flick follows many of the standard romantic comedy clichés, it works mainly because of kid.  Triplets Alexis, Brynn, and Brooke Clagett are the stars of this picture and anytime one of the trio is on the screen as Sophie, you can't help but smile.  Both Heigl and Duhamel really come alive in any scene with Sophie and I found them both surprisingly warm and charming.  I really was expecting neither of them to be able to carry this film, but they proved to be quite successful in winning me over.
Unfortunately, where the film lags a bit is in the scenes where Heigl and Duhamel's Holly and Messer explore their relationship with one another.  The second half of the film which focuses much more on the adults rather than the kid isn't nearly as interesting or enjoyable as the first half.  And let me put a moratorium on scenes in which older people smoke pot (or in this case bake it in brownies) in order to relive their youth.  Like last year's It's Complicated in which Meryl Streep and Steve Martin lit up a joint, smoking pot to comedic effect irritates me immensely for some reason.  I'm no prude, but this is just a little movie-going quirk that I have that angers me.  Funny drunks I'm okay with, but funny druggies just doesn't make me happy.  And the thing is this was a plot point that was 100% unnecessary.  It didn't add a darn thing to the movie.

Still, I've got to say that I enjoyed Life as We Know It.  Yes, I know it's nothing groundbreaking, but I laughed a lot more here than in any movie I've recently watched.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Hitchcock Month - Family Plot

Family Plot (1976)
Starring Barbara Harris, Bruce Dern, William Devane, and Karen Black
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
***Currently streaming on Netflix*** 

I don't know if it was simply a case of lowered expectations, but Hitchcock's final directorial effort was much better than I remember it.  Probably over a decade ago, I watched Family Plot and remember abhorring it.  Watching it now, I don't know why as it's really a pleasant and well-written film.  While it's not Hitch's best, this lighthearted murder-mystery is nothing for the great director to be embarrassed about.

There's two storylines going on in Family Plot which eventually converge.  In one plot, fake psychic Blanche (Barbara Harris) deceives an elderly lady into thinking that she has connected with her deceased husband and sister.  The elderly lady desires to find her long-lost living nephew and will give Blanche $10,000 if she can use her clairvoyant powers to reconnect them.  Not being a real psychic, Blanche gets her boyfriend, George (Bruce Dern), to do some detective work for her and they end up uncovering quite a bit more than they anticipated.

Plot #2 involves jewelry store owner Arthur (William Devane) and his girlfriend Fran (Karen Black) and their nefarious ways.  Together, they kidnap well-known dignitaries and hold them for ransom for expensive jewels.  Eventually, these two plots will converge in a surprisingly effective way.

While there's a lighthearted atmosphere in the film, Family Plot never veers too heavily towards the humor side.  There are amusing moments, but with the exception of a slapsticky scene involving Barbara Harris in an out-of-control car, nothing goes over-the-top.  There's a very nice balance on display here in terms of humor and mystery.

Hitch is helped by four actors who all do an admirable job, none of whom were stars which I think helped the movie immensely.  All the actors, moreso than in many other Hitch films, have a real equal footing here -- each of their characters are well-developed and none of them could be called "the lead."  It's a difficult task to have four characters have equal footing, but screenwriter Ernest Lehman (of North by Northwest fame) and Hitch did a great job of spreading the wealth in Family Plot.

I've got to say that this was a pleasant little surprise.  From the great acting to the esteemed John Williams' whimsical and clever musical score, this film is a lot better than I thought it would be.  Would I have loved for Hitch's final film to be more like Psycho or Rear Window?  Sure, but I don't know why I hated this film so much when I was younger.  Family Plot is a film that I would definitely watch again sooner rather than later.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Friday, October 29, 2010

Movie Review - The Amityville Horror

The Amityville Horror (1979)
Starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder, and Rod Steiger
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg

I know it makes me a callous individual and completely unappealing to the ladies, but I'm not an animal person.  I never really had a pet growing up and I have next to nil desire to ever have a pet.  What does this have to do with the 70s horror flick The Amityville Horror?  The final scene involves saving a family pet.  The people don't matter -- it's the pets that really count.  I laughed out loud during the final scene and it ended the movie on an incredibly sour note which is a little unfortunate because for the first half of the film, I was actually along for the ride.

The plot is really simple -- a family is murdered in their sleep in a home in Amityville, New York.  Cut to a year later and newly married husband and wife George (James Brolin) and Kathy (Margot Kidder) and Kathy's three children from a previous marriage are moving into the home.  They're aware of the history the house holds, but it's such a great deal that it's difficult to pass up.  Needless to say, within mere days, the family is finding themselves in the midst of a haunted house with spirits from the past wreaking havoc on the current residents.  

The first half of the film does a decent job of creating a nervous atmosphere, but soon, the film just falls to the typical horror standards.  We get a little bit of The Exorcist when a priest (Rod Steiger) attempts to rid the house of its demons only to find himself being attacked by the devil.  Then we get a lot of The Shining in which a father starts to crumble and begins to turn on his family.  Now, perhaps it's unfair to make that comparison as Stanley Kubrick's The Shining was released a year after this, but the book by Stephen King had already been released and the similarities are too close to be ignored (and The Shining is a whole lot better).

The whole thing's just a disappointment because I honestly thought the film was on the right track during the first hour.  Building the necessary "haunted house" atmosphere little by little, gradually increasing the tension.  However, the last hour just falls apart.  There's absolutely zero scares or thrills and it ultimately just relies on every horror cliché we've seen.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Hitchcock Month - To Catch a Thief

To Catch a Thief (1955)
Starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

There's a winking sensibility on display in To Catch a Thief.  It's a little caper that Hitch doesn't take too seriously which is evident when Cary Grant mugs to the camera, looking at it straight on several times, implying to the audience to just have fun with this one with his suave demeanor.  I don't know if it's just Hitchcock (or Cary Grant or Grace Kelly) fatigue at this point in the Hitchcock Month or not, but I couldn't get into this film in the slightest.  It took multiple sittings simply to get through this one in spite of (or perhaps because of) the two leading stars.

There's an incredibly simple plot.  A retired jewel thief, John Robie (Grant) is accused of a new string of robberies along the French Riviera.  He ends up setting out to prove his innocence, along the way meeting a lovely woman, Francie (Kelly), who quickly discovers Robie's shady past, but ends up falling for him regardless.

One of the problems is that the plot just doesn't go anywhere.  It takes forever to get started and it never manages to pick up any steam.  The finale is probably one of the most boring of any of the Hitch films I've watched, and the supposed "surprise" reveal of the actual thief is easily projected from the very beginning.  Ultimately, the script goes a little more comedic than thriller, but the double entendres (including a ridiculously laughable "fireworks exploding = sex" scene) are just silly rather than sexy.

It certainly doesn't help that I never got any sense of connection between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.  I never bought that the lovely Kelly would ever fall for the aging Grant.  Funnily enough, Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest probably had the same age gap as Grant and Kelly, but I never bought into the relationship in To Catch a Thief, whereas the duo in North was kind of sexy.  When your movie is essentially rooted in a romance between two characters and you don't feel any sex appeal, your film simply isn't going to work...and that's the case here.

Unfortunately, despite the desire to like the flick because of its two main actors, I simply couldn't find a whole lot to like about this one in the slightest.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Movie Review - Monsters

Monsters (2010)
Starring Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able
Directed by Gareth Edwards
***An early review -- This film hits theaters on Friday***

WARNING:  There are some spoilers ahead.  While I don't reveal how the film concludes, I do discuss things that occur near the film's end

Sometimes if a movie manages to have a great look and spectacular acting, I'm able to overlook a major flaw in a story.  However, in the case of Monsters, a new sci-fi flick that is a mash-up of District 9 and Cloverfield (yes, I realize every review you'll read will probably say that, but it's true), there is a key plot point which occurs at the very beginning of the flick that doesn't make a lick of sense.  Becuase of this ridiculous jumping off point, the entirety of the movie found me questioning every single thing that the characters did and wondering why they were so stupid in the beginning.

Six years ago, a NASA probe carrying samples of alien life forms crashed in Central America.  The northern part of Mexico (the land just below Texas) is now under quarantine, infested with super-gigantic octopi (oh...sorry....aliens that look exactly like walking octopi) who make the land essentially uninhabitable for humans.  Andrew (Scoot [not Scott] McNairy) is a photographer who works for some important newspaper guy whose daughter Samantha (Whitney Able) just happens to be in the same Mexican town as Andrew.  When the father asks Andrew to help Samantha get home after she is injured, Andrew reluctantly agrees.

The sane thing to do would be to take a plane home, but maybe I missed the crucial plot point that said planes were no longer in existence six years into our future.  No, instead, these two idiots travel northward towards the infected zone where they hope to catch a ferry that will take Samantha back home to the US.  When they miss the ferry, they of course figure that the next best course of action would be to travel right into the infected zone.  Genius!  Traveling back south again to catch another ferry or a plane...pshaw!  Who needs that?  The fact is that these characters had no need to rush back home.   Nothing tremendously important was waiting for them there (or at least nothing important was relayed to us via the script).  So why in God's name did they get the idea they had to travel right into the alien quarantine zone?  It makes no sense whatsoever.

Add to that ridiculous plot, the incrdibly heavy-handed moments towards the end of the flick where Andrew and Samantha stare at a huge wall that has been erected on the US-Mexico border in order to keep out the (illegal) aliens.  The blatant addressing of the "border" controversy our country is facing is just laughable.  Mexico is depicted as a land full of life, happiness, and exuberant culture, while America is presented as barren, desolate, and crazy (the only person they meet on the US side is literally an insane homeless woman who screams and yells at them while draped in an American flag).

I must say that credit must be given to the director (who was also the inane writer) for creating some of the special effects.  While the aliens were ridiculous-looking, they still looked decent.  Considering the incredibly minimal budget he was working with, I really couldn't tell where the CGI began and "the real" ended.  So, kudos in that department.  But everything else was painful.

The RyMickey Rating:  D

Hitchcock Month - Suspicion

Suspicion (1941)
Starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

When playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) meets spinsterish Lina (Joan Fontaine) while on a train, he immediately falls for her, and she him.  Their whirlwind romance leads to a quick elopement and they move into a luxurious home which Lina, whose parents are somewhat wealthy, soon realizes may be outside of Johnnie's means.  In fact, seemingly everything is outside of Johnnie's means.  While he may play the debonair charmer, he can't seem to keep a job and spends nearly all his money at the race track.  When Johnnie begins reading the books of the town's local mystery writer, Lina suspects that her husband may be plotting a murder in order to clear his debts -- and she may just be the victim.

Suspicion is a film that works surprisingly well, but, in the end, it never really amounts to much of anything.  At the beginning of the film, Hitchcock takes such care to make it seem as if we're simply watching the ups and downs of a newly married couple.  When the suspicion on Lina's part of her husband finally begins to surface, we start to get genuinely nervous for her because we've come to know both these characters quite well.  In the rather short film (99 minutes), we don't even get the typical Hitchcock "suspense" until nearly an hour has gone by.  That being said, it works in his favor (Hitch knew what he was doing by gradually building the suspense).  Unfortunately, the payoff (which I won't spoil in this post...maybe in the comments, though) is a letdown.  Apparently, Hitch was quite disappointed in the conclusion as well as it was quite a significant change from the novel on which this film is based.

Cary Grant, as always, is quite the talent.  He's able to walk the line from ladies' man to suspected killer with ease.  Joan Fontaine (who was wonderful Hitch's Rebecca, a new favorite of mine) has a shaky start in this one, but once she breaks out of the fuddy-duddy one-note dowdiness that hampers her character at the outset, she is quite a joy to watch.  I really need to delve into her repertoire a little more as I'm not familiar with her work in the slightest.

Overall, Suspicion is a film whose parts are all very good, but they don't quite add up to a satisfying whole.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed watching the film, but the denouement left a bad taste in my mouth that sort of tarnished everything that came before it.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Hitchcock month-long fest is being extended by three days so that I can watch all films in the "modern" Hitchcock oeuvre.  The schdeule for the remaining week will be as follows:

Thursday, October 28 -- Suspicion
Friday, October 29 -- To Catch a Thief
Saturday, October 30 -- Family Plot
Sunday, October 31 -- Strangers on a Train
Monday, November 1 -- Under Capricorn
Tuesday, November 2 -- Saboteur
Wednesday, November 3 -- Psycho

While my annual tradition of watching Psycho on Halloween will certainly continue, I figure that I should end the fest with a look at the best film of all-time.  I'm having a surprisingly fun time with this and am not finding it to be a chore at all, so I figured why not watch all of the flicks.

Hitchcock Month - Torn Curtain

Torn Curtain (1966)
Starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Well, I must say that this was a pleasant little surprise that I didn't see coming.  For years, I never managed to put Torn Curtain into the dvd player despite its acting pedigree of Paul Newman and Julie Andrews simply because it seemed like it was going to be a tremendously heavy-handed spy thriller.  I am pleased to report, I was wrong.  While it is a political thriller, Torn Curtain is actually incredibly watchable with just enough twists and complications to make it interesting, but not too many to make it convoluted.

Paul Newman plays Michael Armstrong, an American physics professor and Julie Andrews is Sarah Sherman, his fiancée and assistant.  When the couple arrives in Copenhagen for a conference, Michael begins acting suspiciously.  Sarah soon discovers that he is flying to East Germany and she begins to believe that he is defecting to the other side of the Cold War.  Sarah sneakily follows him behind the Iron Curtain and eventually discovers that Michael is essentially using his physics knowledge to spy on the Germans while pretending to have become allied with them.  Needless to say, things quickly go awry, and Michael and Sarah soon find themselves on a whirlwind chase through East Germany in an attempt to return home.

Most appealing about Torn Curtain is what I mentioned already -- spy thrillers have a tendency to be overly confusing and that's not the case here.  And it's not like Torn Curtain talks down to the viewers -- this isn't "dumbed down" in any way.  But Hitch and his screenwriter managed to make this more of a "chase" movie with touches of political intrigue than vice versa and the result is a successful genre film.

As a little aside, I also wanted to commend Hitch on his lack of subtitles in this flick.  Michael and Sarah are in a foreign country, unable to speak the language.  Rather than (a) have all the characters speak English and/or provide a translator for the characters, or (b) provide the audience with subtitles, Hitch has the Germans actually speak German (a crazy concept, I know) without providing any clues (other than body language) as to what they're saying.  This puts both the characters and the audience in a state of confusion at times.  This adds immensely to the tension in a way that one might not expect.  Incredibly clever on Hitch's part.

Hitch apparently had a tough time with both his lead actors, but none of that difficulty comes out on the screen.  Newman is quite good and Andrews, while completely underused, is always a joy to watch no matter what movie she's in.  The two of them together may lack a little chemistry (which was apparently Hitch's issue with the stars), but I think they simply weren't given enough to work with to make their chemistry truly gel.  Plus, every single side character was truly fun to watch.  Sometimes in Hitchcock films, the secondary character actors tend to overact, but here, I really liked every single actor onscreen.

While there's no jawdropping set pieces, there are several scenes that are quite tension-filled.  As I said in my review of Marnie, it's nice to see that Hitch didn't lose his touch as he started to finish his career (it's a real shame his two final films -- Frenzy and Family Plot -- couldn't end his career with a bang).  Needless to say, I highly recommend giving Torn Curtain a look-see.  It's one that really didn't appeal to me in the slightest prior to watching it, but it's a film that I will certainly watch again in years to come.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Movie Review - The Town

The Town (2010)
Starring Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Blake Lively, Pete Postlewaite, and Chris Cooper
Directed by Ben Affleck

It's not as if there's anything new story-wise in The Town, but somehow director and co-screenwriter Ben Affleck manages to craft a taut thriller that succeeds in all aspects.  He isn't re-inventing the wheel, but Affleck proves to be a director with a keen eye for knowing how to move a film along at a brisk pace, while developing what could have been stereotypical characters into multi-dimensional personalities that help elevate the film to a whole other level.

Best friends Doug (Affleck) and Jem (Jeremy Renner) like to rob banks...and they're very good at it, eluding the FBI and covering up all of their tracks.  One bank robbery goes a little awry, however, and they need to take the bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall) hostage in order to escape.  While they let the hostage go, it's soon discovered that she lives a mere four blocks from Doug and Jem's home.  The highstrung and uptight Jem wants to do away with Claire for fear of their crime being uncovered, but Doug, the calmer and more caring of the two, tells Jem he'll watch over Claire and make sure she doesn't speak to the FBI.  Soon, a relationship forms between Doug and Claire with Claire completely unaware that she's dating the very man who took her hostage.

Let's call a spade a spade here -- there are clichés abounding in this movie.  We've got the bad guy with the heart of gold, the beautiful girl who causes the crook to question his "career path," and the need to pull off one last heist to name just a few of the commonplace stereotypes we come across.  Still, somehow, everything works in The Town and the reason is that the actors are all top notch, completely embodying these characters...even if we've seen these same characters before.

I'm perhaps sounding a little down on the flick and I don't want it to come off that way at all because The Town is, in fact, one of my favorite films of 2010 thus far.  So, instead of being negative, let's discuss the positives.

The acting across the board is great.  The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner is playing a completely different character here than his role in last year's Oscar-winning flick.  His Jem is a nasty guy -- not a likable thing about him -- but he's a treat to watch.  Rebecca Hall is also pretty perfect as the innocent Claire.  Anyone who's read my blog knows I like it when characters seem "real" and this her Claire is a perfect example of that.  From the way she moves her eyes to the way she spoke her lines, I kind of forgot I was watching an actress and not a real person.  Plus, you've got great turns from Jon Hamm as the FBI guy searching for Doug and Blake Lively as Doug's drug-addled former girlfriend.

And I didn't even talk about Affleck.  Yes, he was great in the film, but where he really shined was behind the camera.  This is definitely a step up from his previous directorial effort Gone Baby Gone, which, while a good film, lacked oomph.  In The Town, Affleck shows talent in the character-driven scenes, but really excels in the cleverly crafted action sequences.  Affleck manages to make each bank robbery scene seem fresh, never repetitive, and surprisingly nerve-wracking.  I can't imagine that the chase scenes he filmed were easy to capture and I was thoroughly impressed.

Don't think that I'm just giving Affleck props because he's "an actor" and did an admirable job directing "for an actor."  No, he did a good job for any director and I look forward to seeing whatever he tackles next in the directing department.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Hitchcock Month - The Paradine Case

The Paradine Case (1947)
Starring Gregory Peck, Ann Todd, Charles Naughton, and Valli
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

A genuine courtroom drama by Alfred Hitchcock -- something that we really haven't seen before.  Sure, several of his movies feature courtrooms, but in The Paradine Case, the whole film essentially revolves around the trial of Maddalena Paradine (Italian actress Valli) who is accused of murdering her husband.  We never witness the murder (or the planning of it), but instead are introduced to Mrs. Paradine as she is being arrested for her accused crime.  She is met at prison by Tony Keane (Gregory Peck), a lawyer (or barrister, if we're going all British which is where this film takes place) who takes on her case and begins to fall in love with her.  This is bad news for Tony's wife, Gay (Ann Todd), who begins to see her husband slowly slipping away from her and must decide whether it is worth it fight for him or succumb to letting him go.

The romantic love triangle could have been utterly corny, but it shockingly works here.  Courtroom dramas can veer towards the boring side and, surprisingly to me, the love story actually helps ease any type of ennui we're experiencing from the courtroom.  I was actually quite pleased with how Hitch and the screenwriter managed to balance the scenes of the romance and the courtroom to great effect. 

While there's nothing special camera-wise in The Paradine Case, Hitch actually makes the courtroom scenes seem anything but static (which can often be the case in films like this as we often see the repetitive shot of the lawyer, shot of the witness, shot of the lawyer, shot of the witness, and so on and so forth).  Possibly aiding in this is the fact that Hitchcock actually shot ten minute-long scenes using multiple cameras running at the same time, having each camera shooting one of the main characters.  This allowed the actors to create some genuine tension by playing off of each other and not having to go line-by-line waiting for cameras to be moved between shots.  This technique works quite well and impressed me quite a bit.

Of course, that shooting technique wouldn't have made a bit of difference if the actors weren't aiding the director.  In this film's case, the acting really is top notch.  The best performance is from Ann Todd as Tony's wife, Gay.  Her character could have easily been a throwaway, but she adds surprising depth to the role of the typical scorned wife and certainly helps what could have been a painful subplot become the most interesting part of the film.  Gregory Peck (who I disliked quite a bit in Spellbound) is also quite good here as a lawyer torn between two woman, feeling passion for the accused Maddalena and guilt towards his wife.  Once again, this role could have been overly melodramatic, but Peck manages to create a completely believable character, one whose actions I never once doubted over the course of the film.  The third side of the triangle, the single-moniker starlet Valli is serviceable, but it's not really a surprise that this, her first American film, didn't launch her to success.

The Paradine Case is a courtroom drama and it can't escape the confines set up by the genre.  Because of that, it's not as interesting a film as it could be.  The final outcome isn't all that surprising and there's really no tension in the moments leading up to the finale.  That being said, this is a little sleeper from Hitchcock that is certainly worth a watch should it ever stream on Netflix or show up on Turner Classic Movies.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Monday, October 25, 2010

Hitchcock Month - I Confess

I Confess (1953)
Starring Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, and Karl Malden
Directed by Alfred Hithcock
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix*** 

Perhaps the shortest review in this Hitchcock fest...

I Confess is the tale of Canadian Catholic priest Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) who is framed for murder by a church caretaker.  In confessional, the caretaker admits to his crime, but Logan, bound by church laws and vows, is unable to reveal the very clues that would profess his innocence.

I Confess is similar to The Wrong Man in both style and story, but The Wrong Man (which Hitch filmed a few years later) fares a better thanks to the acting performance of Henry Fonda.  In I Confess, Montgomery Clift is a little flat, showing no emotion, and is simply boring to watch.  Also falling flat is Anne Baxter as a woman with whom the priest had a relationship prior to joining the clergy.  Her role is rather silly, hampered by romantic plot points, but by the film's end, her character actually began to grow on me a little bit.

The thing with I Confess is that the film itself is just average.  There's not a single thing in it that stands out to me -- the acting, the script, the direction, the music score, the cinematography -- are all just "oka" and not nearly at the level of the great Hitchcock films.  As I said above, there's a realism present in I Confess that Hitch isn't necessarily well known for and it works, but it's a little disappointing that there isn't something with just a tiny bit of oomph displayed on the screen.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hitchcock Month - Vertigo

Vertigo (1958)
Starring Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, and Tom Helmore
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

It has probably been over a decade since I last gave Vertigo a chance.  I remember thinking that I didn't understand in the slightest where the love for this film was, and I definitely fell into the camp that found it overrated.  Cut to ten years later, and I'm quite happy that I gave this film another look.  I don't know why (although I'm going to chalk it up to a more sophisticated film palette), but I found Vertigo quite an intriguing film that manages to have some great performances from its two leads and some intriguing direction from the Master of Suspense. 

Scotty Ferguson (James Stewart) is a policeman who, after witnessing a fellow officer plummet several stories to his death while trying to save Scotty himself, develops a severe case of agoraphobia (the fear of heights).  Scotty takes an early retirement and is soon hired as a private detective by a former college schoolmate of his, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore).  Worried that there is something psychologically wrong with his wife, Elster wants Scotty to make sure she causes herself no harm.  While trailing the lovely Madeleine (Kim Novak) around San Francisco, Scotty begins to realize that Madeleine is slowly going insane as she seems to believe that her fate will end up similar to that of one of her ancestors who committed suicide.  I hesitate to reveal any more plot, so I'll stop here.  Needless to say, there's romance and thrills along the way, and as is the case in most Hitchcock films, people are not always as they outwardly seem.

I think what bothered me most before when watching Vertigo is that it perhaps seems a little pretentious.  To me, this is possibly the most "adult" film Hitchcock helmed -- it's suprisingly intelligent in its portrayal of its two main characters.  There's very little room for humor and everyone onscreen is tortured in their own ways.  No one's the least bit happy and perhaps that's why I always looked down on it.  I don't know what it says about me now since I like the film, but I guess I'm relating to these tortured souls on a better level.

Oddly enough, there's not a whole lot of story here, and the one fault of the film is that there are moments here or there where you kind of want to scream, "Get on with it already!"  Still, it's the pacing that really shows a master at work.  The deliberate pacing allows the audience to slowly see the paranoia building up in both Scotty and Madeleine.  By the end, we in the audience are certainly uncomfortable watching what is unfolding before our eyes and I'm not sure that would have been possible if the film didn't slowly build to that point.

There's some beautiful and clever camera work from Hitch and it's obvious that Hitch was in his Golden Era ('58's Vertigo, 59's North by Northwest, and '60's Psycho).  From the exciting police chase opening that starts Scotty on his downward spiral to a trippy Salvador Dali-esque dream sequence (a concept that works much better here than in Hitch's earlier Spellbound), Hitch knows how to create great moments in his films.  Everything across the board is top notch here from the exquisite lighting to the haunting score by Hitch's longtime collaborator Bernard Herrmann.

And I can't forget to discuss the two leads -- Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak.  I'd venture to say that this is one of Stewart's finest roles.  While I'd still say he's charming here (at least in the opening scenes), Stewart is really an incredibly damaged guy in Vertigo for reasons that I really don't want to reveal in case anyone hasn't seen the film.  Love can mess with a guy's mind and Stewart's mind is certainly messed with.  And Kim Novak is looked upon as the quintessential Hitchcock blonde because of this flick, and while she may be sexy and alluring, she's quite an actress, too.  Hers is a difficult role to play (once again, I'm staying vague to avoid spoilers) and I thought she tackled it quite well.  [Hitch, on the other hand, appeared to have a different opinion, saying in a later interview of Novak, "You think you're getting a lot, but you're not."]

If, like me, you haven't given Vertigo a chance in a while, I'd certainly pop in the dvd another time and test it out.  You may be pleasantly surprised.  I know I was.

The RyMickey Rating:  A-

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Hitchcock Month - The Trouble with Harry

The Trouble with Harry (1955)
Starring John Forsythe, Edmund Gwenn, Shirley MacLaine, Mildred Natwick, and Jerry Mathers
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix*** 

The Trouble with Harry is certainly a different film than we're used to seeing from Hitchcock.  It's reminiscent of some Disney live action films of the era like The Shaggy Dog or The Absent-Minded Professor in the sense that it's a very pure and simple ensemble piece, filled with humor that is fitting for all ages.  Yes, the whole film revolves around the death of a man named Harry and the trouble that his demise brings about, but the film isn't the least bit of a thriller.  I think Hitch was going for a comedy, but it never quite reaches the humorous levels that it wants to hit.

Taking place over the course of 24 hours, The Trouble with Harry deals with four quirky characters living in a small town in Vermont and their relationship to a dead man that is found in the forest by their homes.  Boat captain Albert (Edmund Gwenn) discovers Harry's body while hunting for rabbits.  He fears that a stray bullet of his killed the man, so he decides to bury and hide the body.  However, in the midst of hiding the body, Albert is interrupted by some kooky residents of the town, including Shirley MacLaine and Jerry Mathers (the Beaver from Leave It to Beaver!) as a mother and son, and John Forsythe as an artist who decides to help him bury the evidence.  Come to discover, Harry may not have been the nicest guy and it turns out that several of the townsfolk believe they may have killed the man due to some previous encounters with him earlier in the day.

There's no suspense here...not an ounce.  Hitch was certainly going for humor and while he succeeds at eliciting some mild chuckles, it doesn't work quite as well as I would have liked....especially considering the rather pleasant performances.  Shirley MacLaine makes her film debut in this and it's easy to see why she became a movie star.  Besides being cute as a button, she manages to have both an "every-woman" sensibility, while also channeling the quirky next-door neighbor that you've come to know and love.  John Forsythe is rather suave and charming, and it's evident why MacLaine's widowed mother falls for the guy.  The entire ensemble is winning...I just wish they were given more to work with.

The Trouble with Harry is a fine film, but there's not a thing that stands out that would make me really want to watch this again.  It's a nice diversion from typical Hitchcock (and it's probably his best comedy when comparing it to Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the soon-to-be reviewed Family Plot), but Hitch really should probably stick to the thrillers and mysteries for which he is well known.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Friday, October 22, 2010

Hitchcock Month - Marnie

Marnie (1964)
Starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Unbeknown to me when I rather randomly set up the viewing schedule for Hitchcock Month, Marnie is a rather appropriate follow-up to yesterday's abysmal Spellbound.  Both are more character studies than thrillers and both deal with the psychological toll of childhood trauma on an adult.  Fortunately, Marnie fares much better than yesterday's flick and was a little sleeper of a movie for me.  I wasn't expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised.

As I said, Marnie (played by Tippi Hedren) is really a character study of the title character.  She's a thief -- getting jobs at places where she would have easy access to company finances, warming up to her bosses and co-workers, and then, when they least expect it, taking money from them and running.  Through a stroke of fate, widower and book publisher Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) had seen Marnie working at her previous job and was aware of the theft that occurred there.  When Marnie unknowingly applies to work for Mark, he hires her on the spot.  Partly, Mark wanted to play detective, but he was also strangely turned on by a beautiful woman being so devious.  As Mark begins to express his love for Marnie, he soon realizes that she is terribly afraid of men and sex, and he decides that he needs to determine the root cause of Marnie's psychological problems before it causes her to do herself harm.

The headline on the poster is rather appropriate -- Marnie is a sex mystery.  Why is Marnie so afraid of men and what causes her to cower at a man's touch?  While the roots of Marnie's troubles are certainly discovered, the film never dips into the psychobabble that was omnipresent in Spellbound.  Because it veers away from from the "science" behind Marnie's fear, the film actually flies by.  It's actually one of Hitch's longer films (running 130 minutes), but it never dragged.

That's certainly a credit to Hitch who, once again, uses clever shots in order to unconsciously build the suspense for the viewer.  There's nothing visually in Marnie that stands out as a "wow" moment , but Hitch still proves to be a master of where to place his camera and how to allow it move within a scene.

That being said, it is in these later films of Hitch that one begins to realize he was not a fan of modernizing his techniques.  It is fairly obvious that he uses matte shots and green screens, and in the scenes where these special effects are utilized, the film looks cheap and poorly made.  Even by 1960s standards, the special effects shots are a disappointment.  Hitch really needed to step outside of the studio and film on location.  Still, this was his aesthetic that he kept throughout his pictures and, if one is willing to simply be drawn in to his story, it's easy to overlook the artificiality of some of these moments.  [However, I do find it odd that when he shoots in England [a la Frenzy] he seems to be much more prone to step outside the confines of the studio...maybe it's just because English production studios weren't as high tech as American ones?]

Hitch is helped by having the dashing Sean Connery as his leading man.  Even after he does some fairly horrific things to Marnie in order to try and rid her of her psychological entanglements, the audience can't hate the guy.  As far as Tippi Hedren goes, it's kind of easy to see why her career didn't really take off after her one-two punch of The Birds and Marnie.  There's just not a whole lot there -- she's either emotionless or over-the-top, but rarely somewhere in between.  Now, she's certainly adequate as the title character, but it certainly would have been interesting to see someone else in the role.  [Hitch desired Grace Kelly and he almost got her.  Kelly was very intrigued with the script and was ready to make it be a triumphant return to the screen following her marriage to the Prince of Monaco, but troubles in that country forced her to back out.]

It's viewing experiences like Marnie that make me happy I'm doing this month-long tribute to Hitch.  This is a flick that isn't particularly well-known, but I think it may be Hitch's last very good film (I still have Torn Curtain and Family Plot to view which were released after Marnie, and although I've never seen the former, I have seen the latter and, if memory serves me correctly, it isn't very good at all).  It's definitely worth a view if you've never seen it before.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Movie Review - Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go (2010)
Starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins, and Andrea Riseborough
Directed by Mark Romanek

There's a moment towards the end of Never Let Me Go where Andrew Garfield's character Tommy lets out a guttural, primal scream of anguish, pain, and bewilderment after learning some devastating news.  In that moment, I admittedly got chills.  It's a real shame that the remainder of the film couldn't elicit a single emotion from me one way or the other.  What could have been a powerful story about friendship (and in a broader sense, the implications of science and government impeding upon personal freedoms and choices) turns out to be simply a very well-acted flick that carries little emotional resonance.

In order to not spoil anything in the film, I'm simply going to copy and paste my summary from my book review with a few minor changes.

Never Let Me Go is a science fiction film in the loosest sense of the word.  There's not a hint of apocalyptic tones, nor does it take place in a future overrun by new technologies.  It actually takes place in Britain from the late 1970s-1990s and it's really a world similar to what we live in today.
The only real difference revolves around the young students at Hailsham, a private school that keeps its students far away from the outside world.  The students, including our narrator, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), and her friends Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield), are told right from the start of their schooling that they are "special" and will hold an important place in society as they grow older.  While they live a seemingly happy existence, as they head into their teen years and early twenties, they begin to realize their true purpose in life which leads to some students longing for a little something more.
In a nutshell, that's the tale.  The reason why these Hailsham children are "special" is where the emotional impact of the film should arise, but the film never really gets off the ground in that department.  I can't help but think that since nearly the entirety of the book was told in the mind of young Kathy that it was difficult to transfer to the screen all those inner emotions that were so easy to connect with while reading the novel.

The flick isn't a failure by any means and that is thanks to the great work of nearly all the actors that grace the screen.  Carey Mulligan is proving to be a force to be reckoned with.  Despite her melancholic tone throughout the whole film, she is a commanding presence.  Andrew Garfield (who I need to see in The Social Network still) was also quite good and, as I mentioned above, has the one moment in the film that actually hit me at an emotional level.  Supporting turns from Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins, and Andrea Riseborough (who I saw and greatly admired in an Off-Broadway play last year) also added to the caliber of talent onscreen.

Keira Knightley, however, was a bit unimpressive.  In seemingly every single one of her movies, she does this incredibly odd thing with her chin and lower jaw when she talks. I think it's her way of trying to make her voice sound tougher and grittier, but all it does is tick me off.  [It's shades of good ole Kristen Stewart biting her lip in those damn Twilight movies.]  Admittedly, in Knightley's defense,  I think the character of Ruth in both the novel and the film is certainly the toughest for the audience to connect with, but in the film, the character's motivations are never quite clear.  [They were a little clearer in the book because we at least had an idea of Ruth's motivations thanks to Kathy's narration.]

The film was adequately shot, but director Mark Romanek doesn't really do anything special with his camera.  I think there were certain shots that were supposed to resonate with me on a visual and visceral level, but they didn't succeed.  Still, this is only his second film and I thought the direction was serviceable.

Needless to say, I was disappointed with Never Let Me Go.  It isn't a bad film, by any means, but it's a story that simply didn't translate well from the book to the screen.  The poignancy that made the book special wasn't present in the film at all.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Hitchcock Month - Spellbound

Spellbound (1945)
Starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

This will be film number twenty-one of the Hitchcock month-long fest and it is the most dated and melodramatic by far.  I'm not a fan of psychobabble and this film is full of it, trying to muster up some suspense by talking about psychoanalytical theories.  It just falls completely flat and very badly so.  It never drew me in from frame one and even moreso than Lifeboat (which I can at least appreciate for the concept), Spellbound is the worst Hitchcock film I've seen thus far.

Ingrid Bergman is psychoanalyst Dr. Constance Peterson who works at a mental hospital.  When the director of the hospital is forced into retirement, new director Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck) arrives and much too immediate to be believable, Constance and Anthony fall in love at first sight.  However, Constance soon begins to suspect that something is awry and sure enough she is correct.  It turns out that the man who is saying he is Anthony Edwardes is not Mr. Edwardes at all.  This impostor tells Constance that he believes he killed Edwardes, but his amnesia is not permitting him to remember anything, the least of which his own name.  Constance is certain he is not Edwardes' killer (because she couldn't fall in love with a killer) and she uses her psychoanalysis to dig deep into this nameless man's mind to determine what he really knows about the mystery behind Edwardes' murder.  If it all sounds convoluted and confusing while you were reading that, that's because it is.

Problem number one with the film is that it relies much too heavily on psychoanalysis as a plot device.  It's incredibly talky and the attempts at creating suspense are all done via Freudian dialog which just doesn't work.  The mysteries are solved by analyzing "Edwardes'" thoughts, not by uncovering physical clues, and it all just reeked of baloney to me.  Granted, I really despised my psychology classes in college so maybe it's just a bias on my part towards the entire concept of the film.

Still, it doesn't help that both Peck and Bergman are as about as exciting as watching paint dry.  Hitch, combined with a lukewarm script, can't cull anything out of these two.  All of the secondary characters are ridiculous caricatures as well. 

And it's not just the script and the actors that are a problem either.  The musical score by Miklós Rósza is painfully overbearing (how it won the Academy Award that year is beyond comprehension).  I rarely comment on scores unless they're excellent or awful and this one certainly falls into the latter category.

Spellbound is one of those movies that people who don't like old films can point to and say "See how corny and overwrought everything is from the music to the acting to the dialog?  How could you possibly like watching black-and-white films?"  Spellbound truly is full of every old-school film cliché. The only thing saving this from an 'F' is that I usually reserve that for films that are overtly offensive to me and while this doesn't quite hit that level (a Salvador Dali-inspired dream sequence is at least a little unique), it fails pretty miserably.

The RyMickey Rating:  D-

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hitchcock Month - The Wrong Man

The Wrong Man (1956)
Starring Henry Fonda and Vera Miles
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The Wrong Man is Hitchcock's only film based off of a true story (although I guess it's true that Psycho's Norman Bates is based off of a real person) and the entire film is a departure for Hitchcock.  There's a grittiness on display here that reminded me a bit of 1930s flicks like The Public Enemy or Scarface (not the Pacino version) or maybe 1950s flicks like On the Waterfront (which I've admittedly only seen in bits and pieces).  The film contains nary a comedic moment and Hitch takes the material very seriously.  What could have been standard movie-of-the-week material is elevated by Hitch's ability to pace the film very well and create some unique shots with his camera.

The plot is simple.  Henry Fonda is Christopher Emmanuel "Manny" Balestrero, a man charged with several counts of armed robbery who must do all he can to convince the court of his innocence.  Meanwhile, his wife (Vera Miles) slowly begins to lose faith that her husband will win his case and begins to go insane, wracked with guilt for a slew of reasons that I won't get into here.

This is certainly the saddest Hitchcock film I've seen thus far.  As I said, there's a realness on display here that is unlike anything I've ever seen from Hitch.  We don't get relief from comedic side characters.  Instead, side characters such as Manny's son provide us with some genuine heart-wrenching moments, rather than moments of laughter.

Henry Fonda is pretty fantastic here.  Like Jimmy Stewart, Fonda is your regular everyman.  Unlike Stewart who oftentimes seems to have a slight "winking at the audience" smirk or smile on his face, Fonda is the "serious" everyman.  Fonda's role certainly adds a bleakness to the film that we're not used to seeing from Hitch's actors.  Vera Miles is also quite good as the beleaguered wife, but unfortunately, her insanity plot, while true to life, seems almost tacked on in the film.  While there's a great deal of time spent on her problem, it seems too secondary to ever gain any traction.

I'm gonna paraphrase a quote from director Peter Bogdanovich who said that The Wrong Man shows a restraint that we're not used to seeing from Hitchcock.  That's an accurate assessment of the film -- it's what makes the film unique to the Hitchcock oeuvre and one that I recommend to see a different side of the Master of Suspense.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Hitchcock Month - Stage Fright

Stage Fright (1950)
Starring Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Wilding, and Richard Todd
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
***Available streaming on Netflix***

The less said about this Hitchcock flick the better, I think.  Stage Fright is one of the few Hitchcock flicks to employ a surprise "twist" ending, but that's the only thing that's the least bit interesting about the movie.  [And it was highly criticized upon its release.  In fact, Hitch himself says that the event that leads to the twist was one of his most disappointing directorial choices.  I, for one, thought it was rather ingenious.]

The biggest problem with the flick is that the plot is nonexistent...and it continues on and on for nearly two hours.  We're let in on the major conflict of the movie in the very opening scene.  A young man named Jonathon (Richard Todd) is having an affair with the well-known theater actress Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) who arrives on his doorstep one afternoon stating that she has killed her husband.  Jonathon helps her cover up the murder, but he is soon forced to go on the run when the police begin to suspect him for the crime.  He meets up with his friend Eve (Jane Wyman), an aspiring actress, who agrees to help him hide from the authorities.  While Jonathon is hiding, Eve decides to try and trick Charlotte into revealing that she is the killer.

All that plot occurs in the first thirty minutes.  After that, the film is filled with fluff and conversations that go nowhere to advance the story.  There is never a moment of suspense -- Eve and Jonathon are never put into any kind of dangerous situation to make us fear for their safety.  It's just all so blah...something that Hitchcock rarely is.

Unfortunately, the acting is bland as well, with Jane Wyman not being the least bit captivating as the main character and her co-star Marlene Dietrich overacting as if her life depended on it.  Things certainly aren't helped by the fact that Hitch shoots Dietrich as if she were a "STAR" with soft lighting and odd, awkward camera angles that simply take the viewer out of the movie rather than make them feel connected to it.

Of course out of all of the wonderful films I've looked at thus far, Stage Fright is one of the few streaming on Netflix and while I'd love to recommend it so folks can join in a discussion, I can't see anyone really wanting to waste their time with this one.

The RyMickey Rating:  D

Monday, October 18, 2010

Hitchcock Month - Rear Window

Rear Window (1954)
Starring Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, and Raymond Burr
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Whenever we watch movies, we're kinda being voyeurs.  Secretly looking into the lives of people we don't know, watching their every move, and judging them based on their actions.  My recent viewing of the reality-driven documentary Catfish coupled with watching Rear Window on the same day made this voyeuristic idea really stick in my craw.  I'd love to say that this flick (which is deemed a classic by nearly all) doesn't work just to be a contrarian -- but it works on nearly every level.

Jimmy Stewart is L.B. Jefferies (Jeff, for short), a world-traveling photographer who is stuck in his apartment with a broken leg.  To pass the time, he stares out his window and watches neighbors in his courtyard apartment complex.  What starts out rather innocently turns into something frightening when he believes that one of his neighbors (Raymond Burr) killed his wife.  With the help his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), Jeff attempts to solve the alleged crime.

Let's start by saying that similar to Hitchcock's Lifeboat which was contained to the boat itself, the camera in Rear Window never leaves Jeff's apartment.  Yes, we see outside the apartment, but we only see it through Jeff's eyes.  We see what he sees (including a sexy introductory first-person shot of Grace Kelly moving in on us with her crimson red lips slightly parted for a kiss that we'd certainly be happy to give her).  We are the voyeur just as he is the voyeur.  In my opinion, moreso than in any other Hitchcock film, the viewer is transported into the movie and essentially becomes L.B. Jeffries. 

And let's be honest -- with the alluring Grace Kelly by your side, who wouldn't want to be in Jimmy Stewart's shoes?  Kelly, whom I thought was rather flat and cold in Dial M for Murder, is charming here, as is Stewart (but when isn't he charming).  Raising the flick to another level is Thelma Ritter as the abrasive, yet kind nurse whose line deliveries are good for a chuckle nearly every time she speaks.  Plus, add in the rather amusing cast of neighbors whom we come to know through our view from Jeff's window and all of the acting is top notch.

What really amazes me about the flick (and what I foolishly didn't really notice until this viewing which is why I'll keep mentioning it) is what I already stated above -- we never leave Jeff's apartment, but somehow Hitchcock manages to keep moving his camera so the viewer never gets bored.  With the exception of Psycho, this very well could be Hitchcock's best directed film.  It may not have the extravagance of North by Northwest or the cleverness of Rope's long takes, but Hitch has crafted a film that literally places the viewer in the shoes of the main character -- a rather unique and difficult task that he acheives with seemingly great ease.

The RyMickey Rating:  A

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Hitchcock Month - Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)
Starring Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The only true comedy in Hitchcock's American filmmaking repertoire, the problem with Mr. and Mrs. Smith is that it simply isn't all that funny.  Despite some decent performances from Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery, the two actors aren't given much to work with from the script.

Genuinely devoid of all thrills, this flick really is unlike what we have come to know and love from Hitch.  David and Ann Smith are a married couple, living together quite happily, although not without their problems.  One morning, after a spat, Anne asks David if he would marry her again if he had it to do all over.  David bluntly states that he wouldn't, although he notes that he still loves her very much.  That afternoon, David is visited at his office by a man who tells him that due to an unfortunate series of events, David and Ann are not legally married.  The man also happens to visit Ann who is certain that David will remarry her that very evening.  David, feeling a bit guilty for his previous comment, wants to woo his "wife" back slowly, but Ann takes David's nonchalance as his desire to end their relationship.  While Ann begins to start dating other men, David does all he can to win Ann back.

The premise is silly, but the problem with this screwball comedy is that it just isn't funny.  I admittedly chuckled once or twice, but it just lacked laughs.  I don't think it's the fault of Lombard or Montgomery or even Hitch himself, but it just doesn't work.  There's not really a whole lot to say about the film because there's nothing offensive or agreeable about it.  Granted, it's not a horrible flick, but it's just not a movie that I can recommend.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Theater "Review" - The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest
Written by Oscar Wilde
Directed by Steve Tague
Where:  Thompson Theater at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)

Once again, here's some thoughts on theater for a very limited audience of my already very limited audience on this blog.

My fellow theatergoer pointed out what could possibly be our biggest issue with the Resident Ensemble Players program at the University of Delaware this year -- Where have all the actors and actresses that we have come to know and love watching over the past two years gone to?  They've been replaced by grad students?  Pshaw!  (I say that with sarcasm because the students in UD's Professional Theater Training Program certainly did fine work in this production).  The problem lies in the fact that we've grown to truly enjoy the works of the REP company as a whole.  We truly love seeing actors fully immerse themselves in completely different roles for each play.  And now (rightly so considering this is a university setting), the REP actors are sharing the stage with these newbies of the PTTP (once again, please note the sarcasm)?!  And the real question is where the heck has the brilliant Kathleen Pirkl Tague gone to?  

One couldn't help but think Tague woud have fit in tremendously well in this production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, a witty play that admittedly has probably lost a little of its luster since it was first presented in 1895.  The definition of farce is comedy that is derived from extravagant situations, mistaken identity, verbal humor, and a fast-paced plot, and Earnest pretty much fits the bill on all those levels.  The only issue is that I know there was more humor to be derived from the dialog that I simply wasn't getting because of Wilde's use of words that aren't common in today's society.  To a much lesser extent, Earnest is like reading or watching a Shakespearean play -- you're not going to understand everything while you watch it.  Some of the humor just isn't going to work.  An example -- there was some talk about Germans here that I'm sure was supposed to be humorous, but it just flew right over my head.  I'm sure with any type of research into the time period I'd understand fully what was so funny about it, but sitting in the theater, I just didn't get it.  [I'm not going to delve into a summary of any sort -- wikipedia the plot if you're interested.]

Nevertheless, this is certainly a well-presented production.  The sets are of a quality I'm used to seeing from the REP and the costuming department certainly had a fun time developing some of the pieces.  That said, however, the whole evening lacked a little bit of energy (which, once again, could be the fault of the material, or may not be) and it felt like at moments the cast was stepping on the laughs of the audience, moving ahead before the audience was finished chuckling.

Moving on to brighter things, stand-out actors are Carine Montbertrand as the rather eccentric Miss Prism and Mic Matarrese as the somewhat absent-minded Reverend Chasuble.  The two, whose characters harbor loving desire for one another, work incredibly well together (which was evident in Matarrese's small, but incredibly funny role in last year's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui which starred Ms. Montbertrand).  It's a shame that they're only on stage for such a limited time.  Elizabeth Heflin's arrogant though prim and proper Lady Bracknell certainly grabs your attention every time she takes the stage. 

Overall, this Earnest is a fine production whose faults, I think, lie more in the play itself than in how the play was presented.

Movie Review - Catfish

Catfish (2010)
Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

Talk about a movie that was marketed all kinds of wrong ways.  I completely understand that documentaries aren't big sellers, but setting your trailer up as if you're going to be witnessing some kind of horror show in the film's final act, coupled with the "DON'T TELL ANYONE THE SECRET OF CATFISH" buzz ultimately had to have set this movie up for financial failure.  The failure stems from the fact that this is by no means a thriller, by no means a horror flick.  Instead, Catfish is a surprisingly gripping personal story that is kind of a microcosm of the effects virtual communication is having on our society as a whole.

Rest assured, I won't reveal what the studio doesn't want me to reveal in this review (the comments, should there be any, are another story, however).  Nev Schulman is a photographer living in New York City whose pictures of dance have been posted in various newspapers.  When eight-year old aspiring artist Abby sends Nev a painting of one of his pictures, he begins a Facebook friendship with Abby and her mother, Angela, who live in a small town in Michigan.  As time goes by, Nev is introduced to other members of Abby's family included her older sister, Megan, with whom he quickly becomes enamored.  They begin a long distance relationship consisting only of phone calls, texts, and Facebook messaging.  However, things come to light that make Nev question the relationship and he decides to explore the situation a bit further by trying to have a face-to-face meeting with Megan and her family.

As I said above, there's no horror here or shock value.  Instead, Catfish is a real-life human drama that unfolds in a brisk fashion and never left this viewer the least bit bored (I never checked my phone once for how much time had elapsed...which rarely happens).  The film wouldn't work in the slightest if Nev and his fellow filmmakers (directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman) weren't such seemingly nice guys.  Surprisingly, from the get-go, I immediately liked all three and wanted to see good things happen for them.  I wanted Nev to get to meet this gal with whom he instantly had a connection. [MILD SPOILER AHEAD.]  Even when things start to go awry, the trio of guys take the high road which allows the audience to not only feel for them, but also feel for Angela and her family.  What could have turned into a nasty attack piece is instead fundamentally a sorrowful look at what society has become today and how emotional connections are being made only via a keyboard and cell phone rather than via personal physical interactions.  [END MILD SPOILER.]

While the marketing sets this film up as a gimmicky flick, it's not that in the slightest.  Instead (in somewhat broad terms), it's a poignant tale of unrequited love and the sorrow one endures when they must give up one's dreams.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Hitchcock Month - Notorious

Notorious (1946)
Starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Although I'm not through even half of Hitchcock's repertoire at this point, Notorious may be the sexiest movie he ever made.  Granted, that's a 1940s version of sexy, but there's no denying that Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant make quite an alluring couple.  Her cold demeanor and his warm charm mesh quite well together on screen and combine to create a rather steamy romance in the midst of this espionage thriller set in the early 1940s.

After her father is convicted of being a Nazi spy, Alicia Huberman (Bergman) throws a party -- in part to drown her sorrow and in part because she's kind of a drunk.  A guest to the party invites T.R. Devlin (Grant) and Alicia and Devlin immediately have a romantic connection.  However, Alicia soon discovers that Devlin is an FBI agent who wants Alicia to infiltrate a group of Nazis who are now living in Rio di Janeiro, Brazil.  Initially angered, Alicia's love for Devlin and desire to "make up to America" for her father's wrongdoings compel her to agree to Devlin's request.

Unfortunately, complications arise as soon as Alicia's work begins.  Devlin's superiors decide that in order to best defeat this group of Germans, Alicia must seduce one of the men --Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), a friend of her father's.  With Alicia becoming a modern day Mata Hari, Devlin begins to get jealous and his relationship with Alicia becomes strained.  Giving away much more would be a disservice if you've never seen the film before, but, suffice it to say, Notorious is certainly a spy story, but it's also (and perhaps moreso) a love triangle, and the combination of the two creates a rather interesting film.

While I do like Ingrid Bergman as an actress, I can't help but think she's alway a little stoic and icy in her acting.  While that's the case here as well, her part requires that of her.  Alicia is caught between two loves -- a love for her man and a love for her country.  She is, for lack of a better term, whoring herself out.  The irony of it all is that she's doing this because of her love for Devlin.  This conundrum is explored quite well by both Bergman and the screenwriter and what could be a tricky unbelievable character is given motivations that are easily understandable.

Even though Cary Grant gets top billing on the poster, the film really belongs to Bergman.  That being said, while Grant definitely plays his charming self at times in Notorious, his character has a much darker side.  His Devlin has fallen (and fallen hard) for Alicia, but he must sacrifice her in order to fulfill his duties.  The audience can see the jealousy that is eating away at him and, considering Grant isn't necessarily all that well known for playing anything other than a romantic lead, he does a great job here.  [This actually may be my favorite Grant role that I've seen.]

To not mention Claude Rains here would be remiss.  Rains' Alex, the Nazi whom Alicia must seduce, is actually incredibly sympathetic.  He's a nice guy who's also fallen head over heels in love with Alicia.  Hitchcock has a way of crafting films in which you slowly begin to feel bad for the bad guy and he does that here to great effect.  Yes, we know that Alex is trying to do harm to the country, but by not making him the quintessential villain, Hitch plays with the audience a bit. 

All that said, I wasn't digging this movie much in the middle acts.  Something just wasn't clicking with me.  In retrospect, I think it was simply that I wasn't in the mood to watch it because looking back on it, I can't really think of anything I disliked.  Having said that, perhaps my rating below should be taken with a grain of salt.  I'd like to watch this one again in the near future to see if my feelings change for the better because I think they would.  Nevertheless, Notorious certainly has three of the most complicated and intriguing characters I've seen in Hitch's work to date and, I'd venture to guess that these may be the three most complicated and interesting characters in all of his oeuvre.

The RyMickey Rating:  B