December 2012


hitchcock

Think of Alfred Hitchcock and somewhere near the top of the list of things you’re likely to have pop into your head is going to be one particular movie. Even people who haven’t seen it are going to have an idea what you’re getting at if you make a YEEEE!! YEEEE! YEEEE!! noise and stabbing motion with your hand, although I suppose some must find this synonymous with Phoebe from Friends. Thankfully, Hitchcock has little, in fact nothing, to do with Phoebe from Friends and everything to do with Psycho and its director.

We pick up the story of Hitch and his screenwriter wife, Alma Reville (the wonderful Helen Mirren), shortly after the release of North by Northwest. The movie is a hit but the finicky press are demanding something new, suggesting that the old man has had his day. After a not exactly tiring search, Hitch happens upon a Robert Bloch novel inspired by the Wisconsin serial killer, Ed Gein. It’s a horrid tale of murder, incest and cross-dressing, not exactly high in the Hollywood list of prerequisites in the 1950s and despite Alma’s advice and alternative suggestion of a screenplay by Whitfield Cook, Hitchcock is determined that Psycho will prove his critics wrong.

The quality on screen is undeniable and Anthony Hopkins, prosthetics, paunch and all, does a very good impression of the great man. Arguably too good, for it’s a strangely cold affair where nothing feels at stake and nothing much feels connected, due in part to the awkwardness of Hitchcock’s character and mannerisms. Hitch and Alma have shared thirty years together at the time when Psycho was in production and while there is a hint of a professional history, there’s no shared emotion. Are we supposed to care that Alma may have an affair with Cook? Or that Hitch is going to try like a bear with Janet Leigh? Even if I didn’t know that these things didn’t happen, I’m not convinced I would have. Perhaps this is all accurately portrayed but if so, it leaves a very bland taste in the mouth.

Nor is there any jeopardy when it comes to the making of Psycho. Despite the hurdles in its path, we all know it’s going to be made and despite the initial reluctance of Paramount to give it a general release, we all know it’s going to be a massive success. There’s not even much in the way of tension in the search for the movie’s leading actors. Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) and Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) more or less drop themselves into the respective roles.

So for a movie about the Master of Suspense, director Sacha Gervasi is not exactly sending pulses a-racing. The closest we come is when Hitch is visited by the ghost of Ed Gein who seems to appear to impart useful information, as I’m sure the imagined spectres of all serial killers are apt to do. It’s a brave step but ultimately a clumsy one as thanks to the reaction hidden beneath Hopkins’ rubber face, it never feels truly assured.

It’s not a bad movie, is pretty enough to look at and provides a handful of chuckles but given the talent on view in front of the camera, it could, and probably should have been much better.

Django-UnchainedThere’s a fun game to be played at each new Quentin Tarantino movie. It’s called How Many Nods Can You Identify? You know, those little tropes that Tarantino employs to give fans of the genre something to nudge each other in the ribs about. In this, his love letter to the spaghetti western with a blaxploitation post-script, we have a rather old school Columbia logo, Corbucci style fonts, wide shots of men on horseback riding through canyons that zoom in very suddenly indeed, a soundtrack including Ennio Morricone. The bingo card quickly fills up.

The time is 1858, two years prior to the Civil War rather than two minutes to seven o’clock. Jamie Foxx plays the titular Django, a slave freed from his chains by German dentist-cum-bounty-hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) for his ability to identify a band of criminal brothers with a price on their heads. After dispatching these ne’er-do-wells, Django reveals his desire to rescue his slave wife from the clutches of evil plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). By this point, our dentist is rather taken by Django’s bounty hunting prowess and the fact that Mrs Django speaks German only cements Schultz’s resolve to help out.

There’s another trope in Tarantino movies and that’s of unexpected cameos doing surprisingly good turns that make you think, “Oh yeah, I wondered what had happened to so-and-so.” The so-and-so this time is Don Johnson of Miami Vice fame and … em … well, Miami Vice fame and he fills the boots as different-from-DiCaprio evil plantation owner Big Daddy rather splendidly.

The leading actors couldn’t be better. Foxx’s quiet smoldering is a perfect counterpoint to the delicious eloquence of Christoph Waltz who is, as you’d expect, rather excellent as Dr. Schultz. I dare say the role was written with him in mind, particularly with the whole German thing mentioned above. It’s difficult, though, to watch his performance and not think there are similarities to another Christoph Waltz performance. Swap his 19th century snake oil garb for a Nazi uniform and his mannerisms and knowing could’ve been in Inglorious Basterds. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I don’t think, but it somewhat accentuates the similarities of role and character that inhabit the Tarantino universe. Is Tarantino’s spaghetti western so different from his war movie? And is that so different from his kung fu movie?

The downside of the acting talent, as per usual in most Tarantino flicks, is Tarantino himself. This time round, he really excels himself in a bad way by inexplicably attempting an Australian accent. And by being a bit fat. Thankfully, unlike his gut, his role is a small one although it did leave me with a continuity question. Would there really be Aussie accents in the South in the 19th Century? Really?

Going into the film, I was aware of its reputation for excessive violence and I have to say, for the first couple of hours I was a little confused. Yes, there’s plenty of blood and guts during these opening 120 minutes but it wasn’t anything I’d describe as excessive or noteworthy. And then the last forty-five minutes happened. Throughout, however, the violence is mostly comic book and there’s enough wonderful black humour, even in the bloodiest moments, to keep it from being a bleak affair. Perhaps it strayed too far into misplaced farce territory, but the scene with a cameo from Jonah Hill and Ku Klux Klan members having wardrobe malfunctions was hilarious.

Along with lots of profanity, bursts of violence, an outstanding soundtrack and incredible dialogue, another guarantee you get from a Tarantino movie is that it’s going to be too long. In this regard, he definitely doesn’t disappoint. The initial set-up where Django and Schultz kill the evil brothers caters for the first forty minutes or so and spending forty minutes on something you then discover isn’t even the main thrust of the movie is a bigger disappointment than learning QT has an acting credit. There is also no shortage of slow motion establishing or build up shots.  While most of these were very pretty, it was hard not to think yes, I appreciate this, but can we now get back to the story, I’ve got a home to go to.

There’s a final box in Tarantino Bingo. Did I enjoy it? Yes, of course I did. Downsides notwithstanding, and of the other movies I’ve seen recently that have tickled three hours, this is the one that’s sparked most conversation. It didn’t perhaps feel like it was the shortest but it delivered the best entertainment. Consider the boxes ticked. House!

hobbit

I can’t quite remember if I was nine or ten when I sat down at my mother’s old typewriter and wrote Jaws 3. Clearly, the version I pecked out didn’t go on to become the movie we all know and hate, and nor was my manuscript in 3D. I do, however, recall that it was all written in upper case and in a stunning and frankly unpredictable crossover twist, it featured Asterix The Gaul. Round about that same age, whatever age that was, I read The Hobbit for the first time and for the life of me, I can’t remember it being over a thousand pages long. I could’ve sworn it was under three hundred. But I must be wrong because in the opening installment of his much anticipated return to Middle Earth, it takes Peter Jackson the best part of three hours to cover the first six chapters. I also don’t remember all the dwarves being Scottish. How time blurs the edges of memory.

As a refresher, then, The Hobbit takes place decades before The Lord of the Rings and tells the tale of Bilbo Baggins, an unassuming creature who would rather indulge in smoking his pipe and eating regular meals than he would partake in anything adventurous. The bad news for him is that Gandalf the wizard and a band of Celtic dwarves require his services as a burglar in their quest to reclaim their homeland and a bunch of gold from the dragon Smaug. Along the way, they’ll encounter trolls, orcs and goblins and at no point will smoking breaks, three squares a day, or safe return be guaranteed. It’s an exciting tale that requires little in the way of concentration which, at 169 minutes, is just as well.

So why is it so long? Well, Jackson uses more than the original novel for his source and reaches out to the appendices of The Lord of the Rings along with other posthumously published material. While this does round off some of the plot points and provide a fuller explanation of the purpose of the quest, it does stray so far in places that it wouldn’t be a complete surprise to learn a scene or two was based around Tolkien’s shopping list. If there’s a film that could be doing with an appendectomy, this is probably it.

That said, when we first see The Shire and Bag End, there’s that warm, familiar sensation of homecoming. Even reading the title in its familiar font was enough to make me smile. Visually and atmospherically, it’s as resplendent as expected. The spectacular battle sequences, particularly in the Goblin cave, excite and dazzle. The swooping panoramic vistas are awesome. Insert some more superlatives here. Complaining too much about length, then, feels as churlish as inviting a group of beloved friends round for tea and then moaning when they hang around for half an hour more than expected and don’t tidy up behind themselves.

Armed as he is with a pair of exceptionally expressive eyebrows, Martin Freeman (The Office, Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) is perfect in the role of reluctant hero Bilbo Baggins. He’s utterly convincing in his initial weariness as he drags his hairy hobbit feet behind the gung-ho dwarf posse and if the movie itself is indulgant, his performance is beautfully understated. He even has the good sense to look like a young Ian Holm. Ian McKellen’s portrayal of the oft AWOL Gandalf is more light-hearted than in The Lord of the Rings but no less enjoyable and while most of the band of dwarves are interchangable, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott and Richard Armitage stand out.

Arguably, though, the showstealer is Andy Serkis, who once more dons the Suit of Many Dots to be motion-captured as the CGI’d Gollum. He’s even more lifelike and tangble here and the tragedy of his character is positively Shakespearian. The scene where he exchanges riddles with Bilbo is fantastic fun and given what we know of the events to come in The Lord of the Rings, the scene provides an interesting conversation piece around consequentialism.

Okay, so it’s overlong and takes half an hour to get going and yes, fine, there’s an awful lot of sitting around talking about stuff that’s already happened and, alright, at times it feels like a documentary about a hiking holiday through Middle Earth and perhaps, just perhaps, a couple of two hour movies may well have been a more favourable idea than a trio of three hour movies but once this story is told, that’s it. There’s no more Tolkien for Peter Jackson to tell. We’ll be done with his vision of Middle Earth. For the time being, then, I’m happy enough to go there. And back again.

Les MisérablesPicture the scene. Two men in an abandoned warehouse, guns drawn, each aiming for the other one’s head. Ominous music underlies the scene. One man is calm. The other is obviously nervous. A bead of sweat forms then quickly scurries down the latter’s temple. You can sense, just by looking at him that he wants to swallow a mouthful of saliva. He needs to swallow a mouthful of saliva. But he can’t. The stand off holds for seconds but it feels like a minute. Something, anything, surely has to give. It’s coming. The music swells then stops and then … they start singing.

See, this is the problem I have with musicals. Suspension of disbelief isn’t enough. Disbelief has to be further suspended. Perhaps with some invisible wire. Or a sophisticated airflow. Because otherwise, there’s no earthly reason why people would sing while in the situations they find themselves. Or if they do sing, there’s no earthly reason why everyone else in the scene should know the words.

It’s safe to say, then, that I went to see Les Misérables with fairly low expectations.

For those who have managed to avoid the Victor Hugo novel or the West End / Broadway adaptation that’s been doing the rounds for the last quarter century, set in revolutionary France, it tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), released on parole after 19 years on the chain gang, striving to turn his life around despite the attentions of Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) who is hell bent to send him back to prison or kill him. After becoming something of a successful businessman, Valjean meets Fantine (Anne Hathaway), struggling to support her illegitimate daughter by selling her body in every conceivable manner. After a fashion, Valjean becomes responsible for the raising of the child.

It’s a storyline that has a typically epic, overblown feel to it, but from the first scene, it’s a visually stunning piece of cinema. Without the  constraints of the stage, director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) opens the work up, lets it breathe and throws in a sprinkling of CGI wherever it seems merited. Contrasts between wide and close shots have the desired effect and it probably took five minutes before I realized that everyone was singing.

So storywise, it’s fine. And even the singing is forgivable for the most part. There is a problem that there are only a few really, really well known songs in the production and there does seem to be an awful lot of singing words in a monotone fashion when simply speaking them would work arguably better but the big ticket items certainly deliver. Anne Hathaway’s Oscar-worthy delivery of I Dreamed A Dream is spellbinding; all the more so for being done in a single take, close focused and brimming with enough emotion to make your goosebumps get goosebumps. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, Master of the House delivered by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen is a big, overdone production that works brilliantly as an ensemble piece.

Despite my initial concerns, then, for the most part it’s a very impressive experience with a couple of antipodean reservations.

While Hugh Jackman is a great presence, his vibrato becomes tiresome after a while and he struggles a little in the higher register. However. More worryingly, his countryman, Russell Crowe, is awful. Truly diabolical. He can’t sing and in a musical, that’s going to present a problem or two. He growls his way through most of the lyrics and, in a cast that seems infinitely more comfortable with the task in hand, he has the appearance of the kid in the nativity play who knows all the words but none of the meaning. He focuses so much on giving us something resembling a tune and hiding his accent that he forgets that he’s also supposed to act.

My final grumble is why, despite the obvious French leanings, does all the supporting cast have to be under the impression that they’re in Oliver? Seriously, I had no idea that so many Cockneys played a part in the French Revolution.

These complaints aside, this is a strangely entertaining movie, much in the same way that Black Swan kept my attention despite my lack of interest for the medium. Give it a shot. If you don’t walk out whistling Do You Hear The People Sing then The Marseillaise probably won’t be far from your lips. It may be a while before you want to think of Waltzing Matilda.