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Archives: Alfred Hitchcock

Today, I’ve added to the site archives my first review of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. It’s an analysis which posted earlier this year for the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival, where I had the pleasure to see the master’s 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much on nitrate at the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. Read my review of this interesting movie and thoughts on its screening, which was introduced by Martin Scorsese (Hugo, The Departed, New York, New York) here. I plan to add more classic film reviews this year.

Though I review movies only informally and occasionally for the blog, I plan to continue. I’m focussing on classic movie analysis, however, based on pictures I’ve seen on the big screen, such as The Man Who Knew Too Much. I enjoyed seeing an Alfred Hitchcock movie on the silver screen, of course, and I’d like to see more of his work and write more, new reviews and analyses, so let me know if you have one or two in mind you’d like me to review. As of now, my favorite Hithcock movie is 1954’s Rear Window, so I may write about this movie next. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in Hitchcock, who is with Howard Hawks and Lasse Hallstrom among my top favorite film directors, I did see and review a 2012 biographical movie about the master of suspense, which is simply titled Hitchcock, co-starring Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins. Read the review here. I’ve seen most of Hitchcock’s movies and many of the TV episodes. I’m also reading Hitchcock/Truffaut (I’ve seen the recent documentary, too).

I first started to take Hitchcock’s work seriously as a student of film during the 1990s while attending Professor Shoshana Milgram’s lectures and classes in Southern California and at several summer OCONs. Her work in film and literature is always deep, serious and thought-provoking. Dr. Milgram really encourages students to see his movies and think about them and she stirred me to appreciate why seeing a movie more than once can be a rich reward for the rational mind. I’ve written my reviews to be read both before and after the reader has seen the movie ever since. Today is Hitchcock’s birthday, so it strikes me as the best day to post my first review of a Hitchcock film to the backlog. I hope you enjoy reading it.


Movie Review: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Movie Review: Atomic Blonde

Conspicuous, gratuitous and more than a splash preposterous, the stylized Atomic Blonde, based on a graphic novel or comic book, moves too slow, picks up speed and ends up making a statement on the world. Like Blade Runner, Chariots of Fire and the cult-punk film Liquid Sky, Atomic Blonde employs 1980s’ New Wave, electronica or punk rock. It’s also in the vein of noirish movies about a femme fatale empowered through extreme use of force, such as La Femme Nikita, its remake Point of No Return and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Bloody, hyper-violent and hyper-realistic, Atomic Blonde plays the 80s tunes to infuse its Dirty Harry-type anti-heroine with a dash of embittered romanticism.

Surprisingly, it works, though it takes too long to get there and Kurt Johnstad’s (Act of Valor, 300) screenplay, based on The Coldest City comics by Sam Hart and Antony Johnston and directed by stunt man David Leitch in his feature film debut, badly needs editing. The plot defies description. The characters almost do, too, except as the body count rises, a band of players emerge in an apparently high stakes, 10-day Cold War spy showdown on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

In a platinum blonde ‘do, sexualized getups, thigh-high boots, pumps and low-tech accessories, Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) stars as Lorraine, the main spy. She’s called to London for an inquiry by superior Toby Jones (Frost/Nixon, The Painted Veil, Captain America). There, she tells a convoluted tale involving a secret list, gunplay and extreme fighting, nudity, Machiavelli, hedonism, lesbianism, a watchmaker, Soviets, East German Stasi agents, Brits and a Frenchwoman who may be an innocent youth. I told you it was convoluted. In fact, Atomic Blonde is overstuffed. Toss in ropes, knives and a peek at Larry Flynt’s raunchy Hustler and this slice of fetishized spy kink belongs in the rough sex trade genre with Harley Quinn, Sucker Punch and whatever emasculating fanboy fantasy’s playing on a device near you.

But the music punches almost as often as the spies, hinting that Atomic Blonde might have a point. With the Clash, David Bowie and Siouxsie and the Banshees on the soundtrack, sampling but not overdoing pouty, punk songs such as “Cities in Dust”, Theron’s vodka-drinking tough character starts to melt, just a little. Of course, her explicitly sexual encounter with Delphine (Sofia Boutella, The Mummy, Star Trek Beyond) helps and not for the reasons you might think. No, Lorraine does not need to dress like a prostitute and neither does Delphine need to dress like a stripper but, then, KGB thugs don’t always bounce back so easily from keys being lodged in their faces, so you go along to some degree.

Featuring James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class, Split, Rory O’Shea Was Here) as one of Lorraine’s Berlin contacts, Atomic Blonde shifts focus at its best with the propulsive energy of The Bourne Identity. This climaxes with amazing shots, camera work and touches, such as a thrilling car chase and the whipping sound of a cigarette lighter’s butane at the point of ignition.

Nearly every spy smokes cigarettes in this movie, which, with the unflinching ease with which the Westerners shoot to kill the Communists, is something of a throwback. Though John Goodman’s character grows more grating with every scene and could have been changed, edited or jettisoned, Atomic Blonde‘s elaborate fight choreography and graphic violence have a kind of realism lacking in most comics movies. You can tell who’s getting hit and you believe it’s real, for one thing. This star vehicle about what’s coming down and what’s not coming down in Berlin in 1989 nicely spins the punk Eighties’ ethos into bloody, bittersweet pulp fiction.

Movie Review: Dunkirk (2017)

Telescoping a major battle in the second world war, writer and director Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) touches on major aspects of war in his harrowing epic, Dunkirk. This movie for Warner Bros. is sufficiently horrifying and powerful and it is also daring in certain respects. Dunkirk is also flawed.

Putting the action to three arenas—land, air and sea—permits Nolan, a talented storyteller and filmmaker, to fold his refined tales into each other neatly and with a strong, meaningful sense of purpose. This he accomplishes with economy, too, bringing Dunkirk in under two hours, keeping his top cast in a proper scale and cutting dialogue down to phrases and brief exchanges. Most of Dunkirk is told in pictures, many of which are riveting. The gray, droning disorientation of days at this coastal place called Dunkirk in the north of France as the Germans push the British to the sea, leaving hundreds of thousands—hundreds of thousands—as sitting ducks waiting to be shot, bombed or rescued. The aerial view of the coast, the tilting views of Spitfires and Messerschmidts, the rolling waves of the English Channel as it erupts in crashes, sinkings, gunfire, torpedoes and the flames of hell on water.

Much of Dunkirk is also told in audio, too, with a Hans Zimmer score which is both too obvious and too much. The droning begins the movie, pegging the film to a ticking clock, and never lets up. Not that any of that is necessary, however, and it’s often distracting, diminishing and detracting from what little’s being said among characters.

But Mr. Nolan knows the stories he wants to show and, to his eternal credit, he wants to show the audience what happened at Dunkirk. This remains his focus, not importing modern ideas into the past, thank goodness, or pictorial fancies and flourishes that have nothing to do with the battle, the war and the civilization desperately at stake. And this—civilization—is very much the point of Dunkirk, again to Christopher Nolan‘s credit. His characters, composited from those hundreds of thousands and those who came to get them out and the nearly 70,000 killed by National Socialist Germans, fight. They fight to live—not to die and not out of duty to the state, the volk or the tribe.

This is an important distinction and essential part of why Dunkirk is emotionally moving; in its two most powerful scenes, Dunkirk affirms the values and ideals of Western civilization.

Christopher Nolan‘s war history movie does so in other scenes, too, such as his shots of a sunny countryside to accentuate that which they’ve fought to preserve and protect. One gets the sense that the writer and director knows on some level that this grand story about soldier and civilian alike uniting to save civilization from barbarians applies centrally to today’s jihadist siege against the West. This is unmistakable if you think, reason and judge and it is lurking nevertheless if you don’t. A combat pilot (Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road) feels for his comrade Collins (Jack Lowden) when he goes after the Germans, for instance, and, because he gets the best view and sense of what this disastrous battle means, he alone knows the widest perspective; he sees the lines of British soldiers on the beaches and he sees the civilian boats racing to the rescue. It’s both wrenching and haunting and he knows what must be done.

“Dead, mate”, “home”, “for the French” are a sample of the sparse words used to punctuate the blistering, whistling battle in action, further underscoring that the Brits act to live, not to serve a fuhrer, and Dunkirk evokes Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan for its capture of the combat. One of the flaws, though, in this otherwise tightly drawn and focused war movie, is its failure to depict what the soldiers say. Half the dialogue, especially in battle scenes, is lost. Sensory immersion is a tradeoff. Subtitles might have helped, not that I’m proposing this as a serious solution, or toning down the self-important score, though I suspect there’s a deeper problem with Dunkirk: it’s hard to follow.

This is a common Christopher Nolan problem and it’s not the same as saying it’s too difficult, deep or abstract (Dunkirk is none of those in excess). Titles lack exposition; the audience that knows the history of this major turning point of world history will feel underserved and still want to know more. Those that do not know Dunkirk’s history—almost anyone born after history teachers replaced facts with agendas—are likely to be like, meh, whatevs (confirmed by the chat between smug Millennials overheard after the movie). Dunkirk‘s expository history feels tacked on. Dunkirk’s geography and significance (that Dunkirk led to Churchill’s great line to “Never surrender” is as parenthetical as this is) are too abbreviated.

Those waiting to go home, and those coming for them, keep eyes on the skies in what is primarily a visual motion picture and Dunkirk in this sense is balanced, integrated and framed perfectly for its revolving stories of individual men. Christopher Nolan lets Dunkirk’s men at war go completely to war—there are no opposite sex love stories, for instance—and this is a pointed and proper writing and directing choice because it never lets the audience forget that this is what happened in those days and moments. So, too, is Mr. Nolan’s decision to not show every gash, limb and drop of blood, none of which is needed to dramatize the horror of war. Without leading ladies, gore and, not incidentally, Nazis portrayed as characters—hardly a Nazi appears on screen—Dunkirk leaves its audience as stranded as the soldiers, civilians and pilots fighting to turn an epic loss into a reason to rally for man.

Whatever it’s missing, and it’s missing a lot, this is chiefly what Dunkirk does.

 

Movie Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

The third and final picture in Fox’s latest Planet of the Apes franchise, War for the Planet of the Apes, is a stinker. So much was expected by this fan of the first two films―I also enjoyed Fox’s original 1968-1973 quintet, which I repeatedly saw as a boy in theaters and on TV and video―and so little is delivered from filmmakers, including co-writer and director Matt Reeves. The flat movie fails to engage at every level, starting with characters. But the main problem with War for the Planet of the Apes is a lack of plot, conflict and war. It’s rote and there’s not much at stake.

Consider that the trilogy’s leading character, the chimpanzee Caesar, played by Andy Serkis, who is sufficiently expressive in computer generated or performance capture mode, loses his wife and child early in the plot. This ought to be either devastating or formative or both. But it’s not. This is because the audience is not invested in the murdered characters. Accordingly, the pivotal plot point’s impact is limited. Without proper exposition, the whole plot feels strangely uninvolving. You know you’re supposed to empathize with Caesar, the voice of reason in the series, but it only goes so deep and, with the loss mitigated by lack of development―wife and son screen time goes by in a few blinks―you don’t get absorbed into the rest of the film. No abundance of CG tears and facial expressions can make this crucial event and its aftermath matter.

Caesar’s loss needs to matter very much, too, because it ostensibly serves as the catalyst for major change in his character. Without saying too much, Caesar is haunted by the deaths and rightly moved to seek justice. This entails hunting, tracking and defeating those responsible for the attack, ape and human alike. Quickly deciding that he must do this alone, and leaving his surviving son Cornelius with the tribe, Caesar goes off in search of hostile apes and humans, led by Woody Harrelson (Wilson), essentially and unfortunately playing Woody Harrelson in one of the most hollow performances of his career. What could have been a catalyst for introspection into Caesar’s failed or flawed leadership—really, after 15 years, Caesar still fails to gauge dissent and detect betrayal and hostile threats?—turns into an overly sentimental trek that exists primarily to create and chew scenery, overplay Michael Giacchino‘s sugary score and borrow too heavily and obviously from James Cameron’s Aliens.

Not that the first two films, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, didn’t move the audience to emotion and even get cute here and there. Yet the first two movies, made by the same studio and filmmakers, also provoke thought, which War for the Planet of the Apes does not. At every plot turn, from Harrelson’s sadistic military colonel running an ape slave camp with goosestepping troops one minute and with lousy patrols, training and cohesion the next to a human child wandering into harm’s way as if her entirely war-ravaged, traumatic life had never happened, the jaw drops at the unrealism of the whole, ridiculous thing. During my theatrical showing, one couple started laughing and walked out. At first, I thought they were jumping the gun, so to speak. In subsequent scene after scene of preposterous plot action, I understood what drove them out. Effects are not enough to satisfy an intelligent audience. Recreating tears with skill, ability and precision does not substitute for plot, character and theme.

On this point, War for the Planet of the Apes‘ theme is lame. Aside from being predictable, and every major development lacks imagination, the meaning of the movie is safe, tame and purely serves the status quo. Its Judeo-Christianity—the movie proposes that to forgive everyone, including the mass murdering tyrant, is divine—contradicts its righteous bloodlust, which apparently on the movie’s terms is morally acceptable if judging one’s identity solely by one’s species. That might not matter, or it might matter less, if War for the Planet of the Apes, which I opted for over comic book-based movies (which I wasn’t in the mood to see), had been entertaining. A zoo chimp adds nothing and might even be mildly annoying. It’s a mystery why filmmakers dispensed with clever references to the original series, such as Maurice’s name (Maurice is the best thing about War for the Planet of the Apes), which would have made this movie tolerable. Naming a character after a car and Forbidden Zone-type scarecrows do not count as clever; they come off as add-ons.

Instead, this curious departure from superior previous entries is puzzling, plodding—with long, boring stretches without action—and, because it overplays its contradictory themes, pretentious. I can’t begin to count gaping plot holes but let me point out that mortal wounds probably take their toll before days-long treks across deserts, mountain ranges and promised lands. A movie called War for the Planet of the Apes ought to at least have a strong sense of conflict. War for the Planet of the Apes does not. Like its number of references to the first movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which is zero—Caesar apparently has no interest in reflecting on his life in whole—ape leader Caesar’s climax comes to a low, flat and empty end.

Movie Review: The Mummy (2017)

Tom Cruise stars in Universal’s The Mummy, which looked like it might be a throwback to classic horror movies. In spite of Cruise, whose movies are often almost as formulaic as his acting, I wanted to like The Mummy. With David Koepp, whose cinematic adventure stories (Jurassic Park and Spider-Man, and also the underrated Zathura) can be enjoyably childlike, as a credited screenwriter, I knew it might be fun (and, to some extent, it is).

There’s more to The Mummy than Koepp’s storytelling and Cruise’s appeal, however. The more that’s piled on, the less engaging it gets. Russell Crowe (Man of Steel) as a mysterious Dr. Jekyll and steampunk atmospherics might have infused The Mummy with psychological subtext. But the movie is diminished by bad acting (not Crowe’s), flat directing and poorly written lines.

“You have been selected as the vessel of the ultimate evil.” Audiences might have reason to expect such a line in a comic book-based movie and Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll as the default narrator of this retelling of the mummy as monster delivers it as best as he can. As with so much of The Mummy, it stands out for its silliness, exacerbated by the unevenness of the whole movie. Corpses from the Crusades, a plot point which starts things off, might also have been developed into an interesting subplot. But, they, too, are depleted and reappear predictably and without finesse. This tale from the crypt of a power-lusting, tattooed, erotic zombie (Sofia Boutella) in black-haired bangs borders on camp.

With an Egyptian backstory, the plot about this bloodthirsty monster being “mummified alive” sticks to its pretzel-twisted logic. Wasting Courtney B. Vance as a military leader, Cruise and sidekick roam Iraq with the U.S. military while searching for treasure to loot. Indeed, Cruise for the first half is like a sobered, showered and shaved cousin of Captain Jack Sparrow. He’s a scoundrel, a thief and a looter, as when he forces his partner to join him on a dangerous mission, which turns out badly for the sidekick. Cruise’s character is as lovable a wreck as Sparrow, which is not meant as a compliment.

None of the characters in The Mummy are sympathetic, which derives from the picture’s theme that everyone, including Jenny the archaeologist (milquetoast Annabelle Wallis) is flawed and that life’s a grand trick to redeem oneself. Again, it might have all clicked into place on its own terms—opposing views aside and despite the generics and histrionics—had the parts been affixed rather than discarded amid silly distractions. For example, following a harrowing plane crash, Jenny and Cruise’s character stop for a beer. This after he went down with the plane and miraculously survived; no scars, no serious shock, no blood, bandages or medical treatment, just bar banter.

Add a sandstorm, corpse close-ups, spiders, parasitism and necrophilia and The Mummy tops implausibility with effects over essence. It may look exotic, but it starts to get incomprehensible. An Arab terrorizing London with a looming threat of mass death heightens the ghoulishness (now that’s bad timing). Cruise’s character is drawn to the berserk mummy as to a siren which is more puzzling than involving until you realize that it sets up The Mummy‘s point that one must “sacrifice for the greater good”.

In short, it’s a newly rearranged blend of stuff you’ve seen and heard before. This includes overstylized films such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, the atrocious War of the Worlds (complete with Cruise’s character running with the apocalypse) and Cruise’s own immortal ghoul vehicle, Interview with a Vampire, only with milder homoeroticism, and, of course, the superior World War Z. The Mummy is not awful. It’s merely mediocre. It might have been better.