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The Man from Earth (reviewed by Ben)

You’ve probably noticed that most of the movies we review on this page are successful, or at least well-known. So you might be surprised th...

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Hitchcock (reviewed by Dad)

The kids have only had a smattering of Hitchcock films over the years (I can recall watching 39 Steps and North by Northwest with them, so they still have a long, long way to go).  Even so, it seemed like watching 2012’s Hitchcock, which tells the story of the making of the director’s famous horror hit Psycho, would be something Ben would appreciate.
Hitchcock was late in the Hollywood stage of his career when he decided to take a risk and make a film based on Robert Bloch’s best-seller inspired by the notorious Ed Gein murders of the 1950s.  Gein was the first serial killer since Jack the Ripper to gain pop-culture icon status, inspiring a number of horror blockbusters – including Silence of the Lambs and Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The studio, which just wanted more installments of Hitchcock’s “innocent man mistakenly caught up in intrigue” shtick, weren’t interested. But “Hitch” and his wife Alma Reville were ready to go back to their roots and do the unexpected, as they had done earlier in their careers.  And so, one house mortgage later, Psycho was financed and ready to cast.
Speaking of cast, Anthony Hopkins – even in a fat suit with distracting facial prosthetics that always seemed at risk of melting off – pulled off the old master’s intonation and mannerisms.  And Helen Mirren as his equally talented partner was riveting as her husband’s equal, even if the script upped her historic role in the making of Psycho (allegedly at Mirren’s request).
As much as I enjoyed the chemistry between the two stars, and the energy modern Hollywood always gins up when making movies about its own past, some key blunders made the film much less than the sum of its parts.
To begin with, by focusing on the strained relationship between Alfred and Alma, the bio-pic created the impression that Psycho was driven as much by Hitchcock’s psychological fragility as his craftsmanship.  A scene (I’m guessing fictitious) in which Hopkins grabs the knife in order to create Psycho’s famous shower murder on his own (all the while imagining he’s eviscerating his wife’s imagined lover and the various Hollywood studio types standing in his way) reinforces the notion that Psycho is the product of the director’s id.
But, as aficionados know, the key to Hitchcock’s directorial success was his absolute control over every aspect of the filmmaking process, a mastery which allowed him to manipulate his cast and crew to get what he wanted from them – not be manipulated by them, or by the pressures of production schedules.
I was also disappointed by how much of the making of Psycho wasn’t in the movie.  Sure, there was the aforementioned shower scene recreation, and a few other brief moments where you got the feel of being on the set of an old time Hollywood production.  But nothing gave viewers the sense that being on the set of a Hitchcock production was anything special.  Hitchcock’s ability to leverage his own brand to create buzz was also alluded to late in the picture, but only for the sixty or so seconds needed to explain why Psycho was a hit despite indifference from its studio-distributor.
The film also uses two narrative devices – one in which Hopkins interacts with the real Ed Gein (actually actor Michael Wincott playing Gein) and one which recreates the droll openings and closings Hitchcock began and ended episodes of his TV series with – both of which were incompatible with each other and with the rest of the picture.
As you can tell, it is only film snobbery that forces me to point my thumbs down on a homage that should have been more homagey (is that a word?).  Ben – might you have anything kinder to say?

Ben replies: Not much kinder, I’m afraid. I am not particularly familiar with Hitchcock but I still found this 2012 miss a bit disappointing. The biopics I’ve seen have all followed the delivery-room-to-the-funeral-ceremony formula. I though this film might be better because it chose to focus on a short period of time in Hitchcock’s life, especially one so iconic, but it was also disappointing in that respect.  Notably; the filmmakers made the Oscar-baity decision to cast Hollywood stars as every famous name involved with Psycho, including Hopkins, Mirren, and Scarlett Johansonn and James D’arcy as Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins respectively. Good acting on the part of the great Anthony Hopkins, but other a bit a waste of a biopic. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Birdman (Reviewed by Ben)

You may have noticed that most of the films we talk about on this blog are pictures we enjoyed, that is to say “we recommend this film to you.” This one will be a little different. Last week, we watched Birdman, nominee of eight oscars and a winner of four. We finished with a pretty similar consensus: Birdman was junk.

The film is the pretentious story of the pretentious, unlikable Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a superhero action star of the past now trying to make a name for himself in a (you guessed it) pretentious Broadway play. The drama he generates with his fellow actors, family and theatre technicians is the focus of the film. 

Riggan’s constant search for recognition as a true dramatic star is countered by the voice of Birdman (his original superhero persona) in his head, telling him to forget the stage and do “Birdman 4” instead. The supporting characters are slightly more interesting than Keaton, like esteemed star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) who Riggan miraculously gets to join his play, his rehabilitated daughter (Emma Stone), and his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough). As Riggan spirals into madness, the film gets more and more abstract, until you finally give up on trying to understand what each moment means. It might sound subtle and brilliant. It is not. 

For a movie I dislike, this 2014 film did have some great elements. One of those is the directorial style of Alejandro G. Innaritu which makes the whole films look like one continuous shot which, in a better written story, could have kept the viewer engaged. But the movie’s script failed to bring the audience on an engaging journey, instead dragging us through melodrama that amounted to not that much. The acting is actually great on the part of Norton, Stone, Naomi Watts and Keaton in a couple of less-overacted scenes, but Suicide Squad reminds us that good actors does not a great movie make. The beauty of the shots and acting did not save this movie from being a slog, but also did not prevent it from securing a place at the Oscars. 

Despite all this criticism, the movie did have one standout scene that remains with me in which Riggan’s sub-conscious goes berserk and he imagines himself as Birdman, flying through the city, the superhero he once was. It was the one “deep” moment that really made me think, but I’ll let you decide what it means.

All in all, not a movie for kids. Brief drugs, swearing, sex and enough references and bad examples to keep fans of Superbad, The Wolf of Wall Street and the first two season of South Park happy. Not fun for the kids and, to be frank, probably not fun for the adults.

Dad replies: I probably disliked the film a little less than Ben, although we agree on all of its shortcomings: a main character we failed to care about performing a play that looked like a bore to everyone in the film and real-world audiences.  The “theatre as redemption” theme has caused more than one film star to go off the rails (John Turturro in the 1998 Illuminata comes to mind).  And Birdman is one more data point that magic realism still hasn’t made a successful translation to the screen. Still, as a big Michael Keaton fan I was glad to see him get the recognition he deserved, even if he deserved it for different work.