Movie Review ~ Hitchcock

The Facts:

Synopsis: A love story between influential filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock and wife Alma Reville during the filming of Psycho in 1959.

Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Danny Huston, Toni Collette, Jessica Biel, Michael Stuhlbarg, James D’Arcy, Michael Wincott, Richard Portnow, Kurtwood Smith

Director: Sacha Gervasi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  After a disastrous first screening of Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s agent (Stuhlbarg) suggests “Maybe we should cut it down and release it as a two-part special for television”.  It was at that point in this breezey but hollow biopic of the Master of Suspense that I thought what a great suggestion that is that the filmmakers should have taken to heart.  Instead of giving us a film that feels like a full meal, we are served appetizers that don’t totally cure our hunger.

That’s not to say Hitchcock (adapted by John McLaughlin from Stephen Rebello’s biography “Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho”) doesn’t have its saving graces because it does acquit itself somewhat with several fine performances and a dishy behind the scenes vibe that movie buffs will enjoy.  On the other hand, I left the film feeling like I watched a movie made up of anecdotes rather than a fully formed idea.  The synopsis indicates it’s a love story between Hitchcock and wife Alma Reville…OK…but then it veers off into a psychoanalysis of Hitchcock and his hang-ups on blonde bombshells….OK…yet it turns again to a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Psycho…OK…or is it really about the greater price of fame and notoriety both Hitchcock and Alma encountered?  All interesting ideas for a picture on their own but somehow they don’t work when layered on top of each other.

Being the movie buff I am, I quite enjoyed peeking into how Hitchcock discovered Psycho and against all odds made one of the classic pictures in American cinema.  Recreating the experience of filming the movie was interesting to watch unfold…as were the performances of D’Arcy (Cloud Atlas) as Anthony Perkins and Scarlett Johansson (Marvel’s The Avengers) as Janet Leigh.  Both actors steer clear of outright imitations and instead deliver convincing performances that really do remind you of these stars.  Johansson in particular doesn’t resemble Janet Leigh but I’ll be darned if I didn’t do a few double takes when hearing her speak in Leigh’s voice and nail her softly nuanced facial expressions.  Biel (Total Recall, The Tall Man) too doesn’t remind me of Vera Miles but the actress is nicely restrained in her brief scenes. 

Supporting actors get the job done, I s’pose but I’d love it if Huston could get out from under these boorish types of characters.  Collette is delightful as always and Wincott is effectively creepy acting as a bizarre muse to Hitchcock in the guise of an imagined Ed Gein. 

In promotional materials and trailers, Hopkins gave off the proper vibe as the famous director of the title.  Still…something about seeing the full performance didn’t ring true if I’m really being honest.  The dimensions are all correct and if you close your eyes the voice is almost there…but it was close but no cigar for me.  With the aid of a portly fat suit, Hopkins fills the room with his presence…but his wildly inconsistent hair and facial make-up spoil it all and you may find yourself wondering why half his face is one color and the other half is another.  While not a big budget film, I think more attention to the make-up detail would have helped Hopkins come to a more fully realized performance.  I’ll add that while the voice was going in the right direction…something about his slow delivery suggested the man was mid-stroke.

That leaves us with Mirren who simply towers above all else in the film.  As inconsistent as the film may be, it’s absolutely saved by her contributions as Hitch’s burdened wife.  Clearly his biggest supporter and best confidant, she never got the recognition she deserved and many credit her influence as the true genius behind the man.  Mirren understands this and never plays the role as so put-upon you couldn’t understand why she’s sticking around.  This is a woman who knows that with every film her husband will obsess over details and fret about success…and she takes it all in and helps him through.  The film is most successful when Mirren is taking control of whatever situation needs to be leveled off.  It probably helps that since Alma isn’t a familiar Hollywood figure, Mirren’s performance isn’t held under the same magnifying glass that Hopkins is. 

Director Gervasi achieves a nicely period looking film that does feel like it was meant for the small screen due in no part to its trim running time.  Had this been released on television (like the recent HBO Hitchcock piece, The Girl) I think it would have been a bit easier to forgive some of the film’s faults.  Like 2011’s My Week with Marilyn and The Iron Lady, this is an uneven film with a powerful female performance at the center.  Everything else just feels like window dressing.

Movie Review ~ Anna Karenina (2012)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s timeless novel.  The story powerfully explores the capacity for love that surges through the human heart. As Anna questions her happiness and marriage, change comes to all around her.

Stars: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson

Director: Joe Wright

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  ‘Tis the season for grand costume dramas adapted from classic literature and the holiday is off to a good start with this adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Russian drama of alienation, deception, and doomed love.  Though Anna Karenina has been seen on screens both big and small since film was invented, this 2012 version is ablaze with passion framed within a highly theatrical landscape that is both inviting and cold.  Think Moulin Rouge! meets Merchant Ivory. 

Now don’t roll your eyes…Moulin Rouge!  has its rabid fans as well as those that wrote off Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 musical as MTV hyper cut filmmaking but it reintroduced some needed theatricality into film that had been lost for some time.  I consider Anna Karenina a sister film to Moulin Rouge!…meaning that if Moulin is the excitable sibling that can’t sit still, Anna is the lovelorn romantic that dreams of something bigger and better.

Re-teaming for the third time after collaborating on Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, director Wright and star Knightley have brought in playwright Tom Stoppard to lend his distinct voice to the telling of this sad tale.  Stoppard has cleared away some of the muck in Tolstoy’s hefty (but well respected) tome and let previously underplayed storylines come to the forefront with ease.  Though the story is clearly centered on Anna and her affairs of the heart, under Stoppard’s pen we are treated to some beautiful moments from our secondary characters.

Wright has consistently given Knightley her best work (and led her to an Oscar nomination for Pride and Prejudice) and Anna Karenina is no exception.  I’ve found Knightley to be a hit or miss type of actress – her screeching performance in 2011’s A Dangerous Method almost broke the camel’s back and her work in the little-seen Seeking a Friend for the End of the World didn’t do her any favors .   Thankfully, she’s ended 2012 with a searing take on the Russian wife swept away into a sea of deceit spurred on by an unfaltering love.  Though she knows it will lead to no good, she can’t pry her heart out of the trouble it’s getting into.

As the two men in her life, Law and Taylor-Johnson are interesting choices to stoke the fires of her heart.  Law, with a balding pate and stuffy demeanor shows us his struggle more than he actually lets us see behind his cold exterior as Anna’s husband that tries to save her from ruin.  Taylor-Johnson is the young buck who catches her eye and falls just as hard for her without remorse of consequences.  It can be frustrating to see some of the choices our characters make…but our actors make these choices appear unavoidable.

Secondary love stories are usually introduced for comic effect in classic literature but Stoppard has given a nice sheen to Gleeson’s courting of Vikander’s pretty princess.  Though she only has eyes for Taylor-Johnson’s character, a shift in her heart happens on screen that is a wonder to behold – and it’s not just because Taylor-Johnson goes after Knightley instead.  Gleeson and Vikander share one of the best scenes of the year…a wordless exchange where they literally spell out their feelings for each other.

On its own, this Anna Karenina had all the elements to make a perfectly respectable motion picture but Wright takes it several steps further by setting the film in a theatrical environment that adds a magical touch.  Largely set in and around the stage of an ornate theater, Wright lets the camera push through the scenery into a Narnia-like world that exists behind the curtain.  Scenes are shifted in front of your eyes to new locations with striking detail.  Production designer Sarah Greenwood should keep Oscar night free because her lavish sets and ornate design will earn her a nomination without question. 

Even highly theatricalized, the film doesn’t seem gimmicky.  It would have been so easy to take this too far and make the film much too strident in its artifice but it always seems to work like it should.  Sometimes it feels like the concept has been forgotten but soon Wright sweeps you back into the backstage drama that plays out.  Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey creates a hypnotic pulse that the film hums along to…a dance sequence is played out with breathless beauty that captivates you fully. 

It’s a film that has been on my mind as the days go by but be aware that, like Shakespeare, there is a period of adjustment you must get through with Anna Karenina. When the film began I wasn’t sure this was going to be something I would enjoy as much as I dd.  The first fifteen minutes or so just spills over the audience and it’s up to you to hunker down and get up to speed.  For those that do, you’ll find a clever and visually stunning film experience that is good fodder for a wintery day at the movies.

The Silver Bullet ~ Now You See Me

Synopsis: FBI agents track a team of illusionists who pull off bank heists during their performances and reward their audiences with the money.

Release Date:  June 7, 2013

Thoughts:  I’m all for movies that have a few nice tricks up their sleeves and Now You See Me looks to have some nifty ones waiting for us.  Though not being released until June of 2013, I have high hopes for this caper film that boasts an impressive lineup of character actors from Morgan Freeman to Woody Harrelson.  Never being a huge fan of Jesse Eisenberg (who essentially plays the same character in each film…he’s like an American Hugh Grant), I’m willing to give him another chance with this one.  Movies about magic can be difficult because audiences don’t always like to feel like a film is pulling a fast one on them…but the premise looks interesting, the cast is appealing, and arriving at the start of the summer movie season could be a nice counter-programming move to the bombastic flicks that will surely be occupying every other theater at that time.  Count me in for this.

Movie Review ~ Wreck-It Ralph

The Facts:

Synopsis: A video game villain wants to be a hero and sets out to fulfill his dream, but his quest brings havoc to the whole arcade where he lives.

Stars: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Ed O’Neill, Mindy Kaling

Director: Rich Moore

Rated: PG

Running Length:  101 minutes

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Nostalgia filmmaking is not for everyone.  As much as something can seem like a slam dunk on paper, movie studios tend to tread carefully with films that might appeal to audiences that don’t go to the movies quite as often as they used to.  If they get it wrong, they’ve alienated your base demographic and the repeat business is a bust.  If they get it right, they guarantee their product has a longer shelf life.  Thankfully, the makers of Wreck-It Ralph fall into the latter category and have delivered a high gloss animated comedy that is a mostly winning treat.

I’ve always appreciated that the Walt Disney Studios haven’t been afraid to look for anti-heroes when creating new work.  The central character in Wreck-It Ralph is the ‘bad guy’ in an 80’s style video game that longs to be a winner.  Now, he’s not asking to be good necessarily…he just wants to win the coveted medal that his nemesis Fix-It Felix achieves every time he defeats Ralph.  We are given an inside look at the world inside Ralph’s game and see what happens when the arcade closes and the work day ends for the inhabitants of the game.

Yeah, there is more than a passing connection to Toy Story in that aspect but the similarities end there.  When Ralph goes “Turbo” (explained in greater detail with a neat-o double twist) and leaves his game for greater glory, he sets off a series of events that threatens to pull the plug on several games.  Along the way he enters a first person military game and then winds up in a Candy Land-eqsue racing game (Sugar Rush) where he meets a mischievous glitch that may hold the key to salvation.

The film is a candy color-ed adventure that works on several levels.  It’s quite creative in its employment of familiar characters to anyone that ever had an Atari or Nintendo growing up.  There are enough in jokes and references that don’t go too far over the heads of youngsters that adults will get a kick out of things as well.  It’s also (per usual Disney fare) a strong morality tale of being happy with yourself for who you are, not what people may label you as being.

Reilly is a nice choice to voice Ralph…his genial lunk headed-ness comes across well in an easy-going delivery that allows audiences to feel empathy for our nice-bad guy.  Silverman goes wild as glitch Vanellope and Lynch does her normal shtick as a hardened soldier that falls for Felix (McBrayer).  Tudyk channels Ed Wynn as the crazed King Candy who is intent on keeping Vanellope out of a big race that the film speeds toward.

With the added benefit of some swell 3D and a perfected Disney sheen, Wreck-It Ralph is an enjoyable film that probably goes on ten minutes too long.  It’s in these extra ten minutes, gathered from various scenes along the way that you start to feel a bit bogged down by some unnecessary restatements of thoughts/ideas the film has already made clear.

With a curious lack of strong family fare this holiday season, it’s no wonder that Wreck-It Ralph has cleaned up at the box office the past few weeks.  It’s getting some competition in the next few weeks but expect this one to stay on top of them all a while longer.  It’s typically strong Disney fare that has its heart and brain in the right place.

The Silver Bullet ~ World War Z

Synopsis: A U.N. employee is racing against time and fate, as he travels the world trying to stop the outbreak of a deadly Zombie pandemic.

Release Date:  June 21, 2013

Thoughts: Though not arriving until June of 2013, World War Z’s first trailer presents a fairly detailed description of the zombie apocalypse epic we’ll be lining up for next summer.  Helmed by Marc Forster (who might be done nursing his wounds from Quantum of Solace) and starring top tier A-Lister Brad Pitt, I found myself enjoying the trailer but getting the churning feeling like we’ve seen this all before in Independence Day and I Am Legend.  Why not just replace Pitt with Will Smith and call it a day?  I’m a bit zombie-d and end of the world-ed out so forgive me if I say I’ll for sure see this but I won’t be counting down the days.

The Silver Bullet ~ Gambit

Synopsis: An art curator decides to seek revenge on his abusive boss by conning him into buying a fake Monet, but his plan requires the help of an eccentric and unpredictable Texas rodeo queen.

Release Date:  TBA

Thoughts: With a script from the Cohen Brothers that’s adapted from a late 60’s British caper film (starring Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine) and a game cast, this looks like a slyly fun movie that might just end up to be a harmless blip on the radar for all involved.  Early word on the film is that it’s a marzipan treat that will be pleasing to view but nothing much more than that.  Sometimes, that’s OK…as long as everyone is on the same page.  Cameron Diaz will never be a real leading lady in my book but Colin Firth seems to be on his game here.  Never count out Alan Rickman as he likes to keep things fresh and fun.