Saturday, December 22, 2012

Monday, December 17, 2012

I Did Not Care for 'Hitchcock':

This review is also available in a revised and slightly truncated version at InRO. Below is my original version:

There seems to be some sense that critics have responded unfavorably to Sacha Gervasi’s “Hitchcock” because someone has dared assault ‘our’ (that is, critics) sacred cow. There might be some credence to this claim if “Hitchcock” wasn’t simply an average, run-of-the-mill-mediocrity. Indeed, it’s difficult to muster even some incredulousness in the face of such a simple… bore.
Ostensibly detailing the creation of “Psycho”, from initial idea to selling it (or not) to a skeptical studio, from self-financing to marital discord through editing woes all the way to release, and subsequent success, this story would seem the stuff of interesting drama. And yet Gervasi’s endeavor, along with screenwriter John J. McLaughlin, working from Stephen Rebello’s ‘Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho’, just sits there, devoid of interest. It is certainly some kind of bitter irony that a story detailing one of the great films of all time is itself so monumentally inconsequential. One could ask who exactly this film was made for – those who are familiar with Hitchcock and his work are the most likely to take issue with the film’s many, many liberties, while those with little (or no) knowledge of Hitch, if one could even get them to watch the film in the first place, would be left with little (or no) understanding of what the ‘big deal’ is. Michael Atkinson puts it nicely: ‘The biopic is in many ways a kind of cinema that ferments and thrives on some of its audience's least reasonable instincts. It represents a form of gossip-and-sideshow spectacle that has little, in the end, to do with film, filmmaking, acting or, most of all, narrative. It is no small matter to ask, as movie viewers, why we're watching a particular piece of narrative cinema.’
In what must have seemed on paper as the height of clever self-reference, the film begins with Anthony Hopkins introducing the proceeding movie as if it were an episode of the television program “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with breaking the fourth wall, with Hopkins addressing the audience directly and making droll jokes about Ed Gein and his various crimes. I suppose the whole thing is supposed to set a tone, a kind of playful banter, which wouldn’t be entirely inappropriate regarding a showman such as Hitch. Still, the film varies so wildly from scene to scene that one wonders if even the filmmakers knew if they were making a comedy or not. Hopkins talks to an imagined spectre of Gein throughout the film, in what Glenn Kenny has described as ‘serial killer burlesque’; it’s an absurd rhetorical device that serves mainly as a tool for obvious exposition. Later, when Hitchcock falls ill during shooting, the film presents it as some kind of cumulative explosion, the pressure of his life finally convalescing into literal breakdown as spirit-animal-Gein prods Hitch into delirious fits of jealousy. Hitchcock was, in fact, suffering from a simple flu of some sort.
It’s during this flu-episode that Helen Mirren as Alama Reville is, in the context of the film, finally given her day in the sun. Tending to her ill husband, she’s informed that the set is in shambles, that they are hopelessly behind schedule and that further delays are costing the Hitchcock’s reams of money (the fact that they have mortgaged their home to partially self finance “Psycho” is apparently true). Alma marches onto set and immediately wrangles the crew, determined to get some work done. To drive the point home, there’s some business with some extras in the background literally staring at each other slack jawed, apparently besides themselves that this woman could come on set and command it like a general (or – gasp – like Hitchcock himself. Subtext alert). There’s certainly an interesting book to be written about Alama’s contribution to her husband’s work. She has some kind of credit on something like more than 20 of his films, and there’s no doubt that she was a key collaborator. But “Hitchcock” stacks the deck too much in the other direction. There’s no evidence whatsoever that she directed anything during Hitch’s illness, and there is ample evidence that Hitch, once better, simply re-shot most of the footage at a later date anyway. Gervasi does no favors to Alma, feminism, or the historical record by fabricating her contributions to Hitch’s oeuvre while ignoring the very real work she must have done, simply by virtue of that real work being less dramatic. It should also be noted that Hitchcock himself was very effusive and open with praise for his wife. He speaks about her with much regularity in ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’, at least eleven times by my count, behind only David O. Selznick, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant and James Stewart (and tied with Janet Leigh, for the record).
It’s also distressing to see Gervasi use the famous shower sequence as another facile expression of Hitch’s supposed mental state, as he has Hopkins personally pantomime stabbing Scarlett Johansson’s Janet Leigh over and over again. Bill Krohn supplies evidence that the shower sequence was shot over a period of several days separated by weeks, with and without Leigh, and that various pick-up shots were filmed as Hitch assembled a rough cut and decided what was and wasn’t working. Certainly, Gervasi needn’t show such nitty gritty detail in an admittedly popular entertainment, but further obscuring the facts of the sequence to turn it into a wobbly metaphor for an imagined character flaw is, frankly, beyond the pail.                  
Indeed the film seems determined to linger over every supposed salacious detail, any and all possible deviances Hitchcock purportedly indulged in. Hopkins-as-Hitchcock is constantly leering at blonde women, with other characters occasionally dropping the film-crit term ‘Hitchcock blonde’, as if they were retroactively analyzing him. Character flaws become over-simplified cause-and-effect arm-chair psychology: a hard day at the office and a fight with Alma cuts to Hitch furiously wolfing down can after can of pate. Get it? Because he’s a fat man, as if such an insight adds anything to our collective knowledge of the director or what fueled his work.
I’ve barely mentioned the work of Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johannsen, James D’Arcy and others. Frankly, there’s not much to say, as all indulge in the most simplistic characterizations that likely bare little resemblance to the actual people in question. I’ll reiterate, complete factual fidelity isn’t any kind of pre-requisite towards my liking or disliking a project. But these performances border on the cartoonish. D’Arcy, for instance, does a fantastic impersonation of Norman Bates, but ignores the fact that Anthony Perkins was an actor, a skilled performer. The film “Hitchcock” would have us believe that Perkins was, essentially, Bates, with no differentiation between performer and role. The less said about Ralph Macchio’s brief appearance as screenwriter Joseph Stefano the better.
Ultimately, the truly great directors left us their own autobiographies inscribed in their bodies of work – Nick Ray and his doomed romanticism; John Ford and his contradictory celebration of the individual versus encroaching society; Howard Hawks and his stoic sense of humor, and solidarity, in the face of an uncaring and unflinching universe. We can do much better by Hitchcock then indulging in this awards bait mediocrity – we can revisit, and celebrate, his films. Thankfully, they are sufficiently adequate to survive this momentary blip on the pop culture landscape, a movie as sure to be forgotten as the next Oscar ceremony in which it is sure to be ignored.  

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Killer Joe:

a few words on William Friedkin's new film over at InRO. Take a look, yes?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Run For Cover:

(note: I started composing this brief essay well over a year ago, hence the references to Ray’s then current centenary celebration, as well as the just published biography that I still have yet to read. I dug this piece up and determined to finish it, partially due to the just released blu ray of the film, courtesy of Olive Films, but also as a kind of farewell to my friend Jake Barningham. We spent many an afternoon together discussing Ray (amongst many, many others), and ‘Run For Cover’ was something of a pet project for both of us, a kind of orphan film, with no reputation (that we were aware of) and no critical exploration. The time that it’s taken this piece to gestate also represents some kind of golden age for contemporary Ray fans: along with the new high def ‘Run For Cover’, Olive films is also releasing ‘Johnny Guitar’ for the first time in the U.S., and a restored version of Ray’s last film, ‘We Can’t Go Home Again’ has played the festival circuit courtesy of Oscilloscope Pictures. Let’s hope that their impending DVD release also includes the recent documentary ‘Don’t Expect Too Much’, directed by Ray’s wife Susan.)

1955’s ‘Run For Cover’ contains a key Nick Ray image: it’s a static composition, with James Cagney slumped asleep in a rocking chair, an injured John Derek prone in a bed, reflected in a mirror to Cagney’s left, while a stoic Viveca Lindfors looks on, standing in a doorway frame right. It’s another makeshift Ray family, the young person isolated offscreen, existing only in a mirror-image, while Cagney and Lindfors have seemingly swapped gender roles – he is matronly, looking over the sick ‘child’; she stands alone, looming larger in the frame than both, almost as if standing guard, in the doorway. It’s surprising, with how much dysfunctional families play a part in Ray’s filmography (as well as its ironic counterpoint, the seeking out of non-traditional family roles), that any Ray biographer would skip over the film altogether. However, that would seem to be the case with Patrick McGilligan’s new ‘Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure Of An American Director’

Timed no doubt to coincide with Nick Ray’s recent centennial, McGilligan’s book marks what is, to the best of my knowledge, the first serious attempt at a Ray biography in English. Unfortunately, simply glancing at the title makes me cringe – ‘the glorious failure’ subtitle is an immediate red flag, stating at the outset a thesis that I simply can’t get behind – implicitly suggesting that the figure in question is worthy of study (‘glorious’) while McGilligan nonetheless hedges his bets with a pseudo-romantic notion of the neurotic, tragic artist. As Jonathan Rosenbaum and others have suggested regarding Orson Welles, the establishment has a vested interest in labeling mavericks ‘failures’, rather than suggesting that they are actually independents who only sometimes navigated the mainstream. Having not actually read the book in question, it was a review in The AV Club that initially irked me. Vadim Rizov writes ‘for the most part, McGilligan’s book is strictly a biography, avoiding criticism or analysis, except when connecting Ray’s most wounded protagonists—most famously James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause—to events in the director’s life. The only implicit criticism occurs whenever McGilligan cursorily skips over what he considers a lesser title (Party Girl, Flying Leathernecks, Run For Cover).’

Never mind that ‘Party Girl’ is one of my favorite Ray films (or why one would bother to discuss a great artist without ‘criticism or analysis’); ignoring ‘Run For Cover’ strikes me as inexcusable. I’m not suggesting that it’s some kind of masterpiece, but it is a fascinating ‘in-between’ film, in this case, falling squarely between ‘Johnny Guitar’ and ‘Rebel Without a Cause’. ‘Run For Cover’ carries on Ray’s critique of the American mob-mentality started in ‘Guitar’, as a local posse targets Cagney and Derek, whom they believe to be train robbers; that they succeed in maiming Derek leads to the narrative proper. Cagney spends the better part of the film caring for the wounded Derek, then trying (and ultimately failing) to reinitiate him into masculine society. Derek’s ultimate betrayal of his surrogate father precedes the dysfunctional family of ‘Rebel’, as Derek repeatedly tries to wrest away from Cagney’s influence, crumpling under perceived pressures – he’s not as ‘manly’ as Cagney, and will lash out violently in retribution – although there is a tragic, stingingly bitter reunification at the film’s end. Derek redeems himself, at least in Cagney’s eyes, but too late to alter his doomed fate. Ray carefully modulates genre expectations throughout the course of the film. Cagney and Derek ‘meet cute’ by almost shooting each other in a bit of macho posturing, and their subsequent discovery of a bag of money causes further pause – the audience waits as Derek contemplates shooting Cagney in the back and running off with the loot. Once he decides otherwise, and the pair set off to return the money, one assumes that their interpersonal conflict is over and that more conventional male, father/son bonding will take place. After Derek is shot by a bloodthirsty posse assuming them for thieves, Cagney begins the slow process of healing him, mentally and physically, with the help of Viveca Lindfors.

It’s here that Ray’s interest in psychodrama really takes hold, as Cagney first pushes too hard, then doubts if his course of tough love is actually working, while Derek preens and whines, his lack of courage and fortitude contrasted with Cagney’s quiet stoicism. More plot unfolds that’s too dense to fully recount here, but sufficed it to say that Cagney’s mysterious past catches up with him, once again leading the town folk to attempt a lynching, and Derek’s status as inside-man on a town robbery reveals that his dubious character has fallen squarely on the side of outlaw. Some of Ray’s liberal leanings come in to play here, with the above mentioned condemnation of a small town mentality that jumps immediately to violent action, coupled with Cagney’s determination to convince them that he’s served his time (although Ray stacks the decks just a bit by suggesting that he was actually innocent and that his noble character didn’t necessarily need to be rehabilitated).

 (side note: what a great triple feature this would make with Dwan’s ‘Silver Lode’ and de Toth’s ‘Riding Shotgun’, both from 1954, and both dealing with ‘ordinary’ citizens devolving into vicious lynch mobs; I’m no expert, but I think it’s safe to assume some undercurrent of cold war/blacklist era fatigue/critique.)

 Run For Cover has one of the great tragic endings. After pursuing Derek and the gang across another deadly Ray landscape, there’s a final shoot out in an abandoned church. Derek gets gunned down, but not before saving Cagney with his dying breath. The redemption in a church nicely mirrors the previous betrayal set in a church, a nice bit of doubling that simultaneously invites a religious reading while suggesting the cruel vicissitudes of an uncaring universe (where’s the hand of God when you need it?).

Ray’s career has always attracted gawkers and gossip hounds, what with the drinking, drugs, infidelities, exile to Europe, the collapse of 55 Days at Peking and his possible bi-sexuality. Arguably, one doesn’t ultimately need an unsavory account of Ray’s tumultuous life – has any artist put so much naked emotion on the screen? His obsession with damaged, violent men, the women who (usually fail to) help them, familial betrayal, the dark underbelly of Eisenhower era prosperity, youth struggling against a society that doesn’t want them, or can’t understand them, ethnic outsiders and lynch mobs. Ray’s ultimate biography is in the film’s themselves, and we could all do well to watch more of them.

Saturday, July 21, 2012


I realize that it's about two months too late, but nonetheless, here's some thoughts on Ridley Scott's 'Prometheus' for InRO. As I mention in the piece, I've virtually no interest in the (typical) internet debate that's sprung up over various theories on the film's exegesis, but instead try to parse some of Scott's visual ideas (of which there are many, most of them fairly sophisticated). Feel free to call me dumb and/or disagree in the comments dear readers.

Viewing: 07/11/12-07/18/12 (My Week with Jake):

A final week of film screenings/viewings with my dear friend Jake Barningham; he and his better half have departed these United States for greener pastures abroad. I wish them the best of luck, and this is what we watched together before he left (a thousand thank you's to the gracious Fred Camper, who facilitated our last day of film watching from his personal collection):

Redline 7000 (Howard Hawks)
 Every Night Dreams (Mikio Naruse)
The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock)
Day of the Outlaw (Andre de Toth)
Ramrod (Andre de Toth)
Seven Days (Chris Welsby)
The Man Who Invented Gold (Christopher Maclaine)
What Goes Up (Robert Breer)
Chartres Series (Stan Brakhage)

Masterpieces, all, and a fitting farewell to one of the greatest film lovers I know. Godspeed sir.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Coming Soon, the return of 'The Mann Silhoutte':

Viewing, 4/19/12 - 5/23/12:

The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Hark Tsui); This Is Not A Film (Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb); The Rising of the Moon (John Ford); Rookie of the Year (John Ford); Gideon of Scotland Yard (John Ford); Life Without Principle (Johnnie To); The Woman (Lucky McKee); Shark Night (David R. Ellis); The Avengers (Joss Whedon - I refuse to use the inane possessive 'Marvel's The...'); Headhunters (Morten Tyldum); Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle (McG); Killer Elite (Gary McKendry); Fright Night (Craig Gillespie); Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson); A Return to Salem’s Lot (Larry Cohen); Faust (Aleksandr Sokurov); A Dog’s Life (Martin Fric); Edge of Hell (Hugo Haas); Hit and Run (Mikio Naruse); Essential Killing (Jerzy Skolimowski);

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Deep Blue Sea:

some words on Terence Davies's beautiful The Deep Blue Sea for InRO, current frontrunner for best film of the year status.

Viewing, 4/6/12 - 4/18/12:

Rampage (William Friedkin)
Flash Point (Wilson Yip)
Ip Man 2 (Wilson Yip)
Time Crimes (Nacho Vigalondo)
Not Quite Hollywood (Mark Hartley)
Machete Maidens Unleashed! (Mark Hartley
The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)
Lockout (James Mather/Stephen St. Leger)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Viewing, 3/28/12 - 4/5/12:

The Hunger Games (Gary Ross)
Battle Royale II: Requiem (Kinji Fukasaku, Kenta Fukasaku)
Mandrill (Ernesto Diaz Espinoza)
Kiltro (Ernesto Diaz Espinoza) W/O
Mirageman (Ernesto Diaz Espinoza) W/O
Fascination (Jean Rollin)

a massively mediocre week of movie watching for yours truly.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Viewing, 3/17/12 - 3/25/12

Carnage (Roman Polanski)
The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies)
The Exile (Max Ophuls)
History is Made at Night (Frank Borzage)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
The Raid (Gareth Evans)
Merantau (Gareth Evans)
Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku)
Hard Target (John Woo; work print director's cut)

Monday, March 19, 2012

Viewing, 3/9/12-3/16/12

Outrage (Takeshi Kitano)
An Heir (Jean-Marie Straub)
To the Devil (Claire Denis)
Memories of a Morning (Jose Luis Guerin)
Once Upon a Time In Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Kill List (Ben Wheatley)
The Long Day Closes (Terence Davies)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
Fast Five (Justin Lin)
Possession (Andrzej Zulawski)

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Turin Horse:

it might be futile to talk about Bela Tarr's 'The Turin Horse' in just a few hundred words - if any film demands a book length study, it's this one. But I take a stab at it regardless over at InRO. Expect much more on this film as soon as it gets a real Chicago release (this was written after a screening at last year's CIFF).

The Grey:

A few words on Joe Carnahan's 'The Grey' for InRO.

Saturday, February 4, 2012


some thoughts on Steven Soderbergh's Haywire for In Review Online.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Top Ten (or 20):

As an infrequent contributor to In Review Online, they were kind enough to invite me to take part in their end-of-year best films extravaganza (I also blurbed Film Socialisme for their staff aggregate best list). The below list is what I sent them, although I hasten to add two caveats: I was told that de Oliveira's The Strange Case of Angelica wasn't eligible for inclusion, nor Costa's Ne change rien, as both were technically 2010 releases (you'll hear more about this in another post coming soon - yes, I'm gonna bitch about it); I neglected to include Andre Ujica's The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, surely some kind of masterpiece. I hope that my oversight reflects not on the film itself and simply on my own inexplicable ineptitude. If anyone is interested, the InRO list was, to the best of my knowledge, ranked via each participants specific placement. With that in mind, I decided not to play the numbers game, as Film Socialisme would be my number one choice regardless of what list I was making or for who I happened to be making it for. Which is a long winded way of saying that the placement of my top five adequately reflects my enthusiasms for each, while the placement of the remaining titles is largely arbitrary.

1. Film Socialisme
2. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
3. Certified Copy
4. Poetry
5. Change Nothing
6. The Arbor
7. The Four Times
8. Martha Marcy May Marlene
9. The Strange Case of Angelica
10. 13 Assassins
11. Meek’s Cutoff
12. Nostalgia for the Light
13. Fast Five
14. A Dangerous Method
15. Drive
16. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart
17. The Ward
18. We Need To Talk About Kevin
19. Miss Bala
20. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
21. Attack the Block
22. Goodbye First Love