Sunday, 30 December 2012

Hitchcock (2012)

Boyfriend and I went to see Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi, 2012) last night. It was only playing at one cinema, and at that one cinema, it only had one showing on one screen. We were still the only people in the theatre (which has never happened to us before, and prompted Boyfriend to dash up and down the aisles tossing popcorn in the air). Now, I'm not usually one to buy into conventional claptrap about this generation being the worst one there ever was or anything, but when I saw live bodies that could have been watching Hitchcock filing out of the theatre for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 instead, it sort of gave me a sinking feeling. Like maybe the Mayans were right about the end of the world, and it's just that nobody noticed.

Just as Scarlett Johansson planned.
Hitchcock is a biopic focused on the making of Uncle Alfred's Psycho (1960). It follows the production from pitch to premiere, as Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) strives to prove that he is still a relevant director and his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) patiently (and then less so) attempts to communicate that his real shortcomings are as a husband. Eventually Hitchcock realizes he's been a twat, he and Alma kiss and make up, she helps him re-cut Psycho and it goes down in cinematic history. That's the entirety of the plot, making it the only movie of a reasonable length in theatres this Christmas, as far as I know.

Hitchcock is watchable and enjoyable. I want to say that straight up front, before I start criticizing it. I urge those of you with film-going parents and grandparents to consider taking them to Hitchcock, a movie under two hours long with no dwarves, no syphilis and no dynamite massacres. Newcomer Gervasi's direction is surehanded and charming, and the actors appear to be having great fun (although the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh could only have been made by drawing her name out of a hat while blindfolded: she acts like Faye Dunaway and looks like Grease's Rizzo). Finally, if you're an early 60s freak (which I am), the costumes are to die for.

It is, however, bizarre to me that someone out there decided that the best way to spin a biopic about Alfred Hitchcock was as an autumn-years romance. Every character in this movie is nice, well-intentioned, and considerate (even Ed Gein [Michael Wincott], who appears as a sort of fairy godfather figure to Hitchcock). Our heroes may fall prey to momentary lapses of judgement, but there are no genuine betrayals: and since no one makes any real mistakes, the audience doesn't have to worry, and therefore doesn't have to care.

I want that dress.
The script is also clunkily insistent on reminding filmgoers that This Is The Past: characters are prone to saying things like "Hitchcock, aren't you worried that Psycho will threaten your reputation as a master of suspense, which you made by directing your previous films North by Northwest and Vertigo?" (not an exact quote, obviously, but closer than I would have liked). Similarly, when Hitchcock and Alma mortgage their house to fund Psycho, Hitchcock attempts to spin genuine suspense around whether or not the project will succeed. Personally, I assume that anyone going to see a film called Hitchcock knows the answer to that question.

All in all, Hitchcock is sweet, reverent, and extremely polite: exactly the kind of film that the real Hitch would have hated. Still, if the film can spur even a few holiday moviegoers to pick up Psycho or The Birds and ignore Breaking Dawn - Part 2, I'll endorse it as a Christmas miracle.

Hitchcock's infamous casting couch.
SCENE STEALER: James D'Arcy is almost unbelievable good as Anthony Perkins -- he's got the boy scout smile, the slight stammer, and the eager, hungry gaze down to a T. How did a film that went so wrong with Vera Miles (Jessica Biel?) and Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson???) go so right with Anthony Perkins? And, having done so, why didn't they give him more screen time? He's only got a few scenes, and it's a real drag (ah ha ha ha HA HA HA ha ha ha HA... ha ha).

Friday, 28 December 2012

Les Miserables (2012)

In commercial film, there's not a lot of creative wiggle room. Once a day's work has been committed to celluloid, changes cost amounts of money which are usually not spent. Cutting-floor redemption is possible, but generally speaking, films are eventually "completed" (or more accurately, locked in). The audience not liking this scene or that line might result in bad box office or poor reviews, but -- except in rare instances -- it would kill profits to keep re-shooting, re-cutting, and re-releasing until literally everyone was satisfied. Once a film is done, it's done.

Stage musicals aren't like that. The evolution your average musical undergoes in its journey from paper and piano to the Great White Way is Darwinian. Musicals are work-shopped, toured, translated, revised, recast, and reworked until, often, the final project in no way resembles the original. This fine-tuning can last long after a show opens. Broadway musicals are essentially engaged in a last-man-standing deathmatch. Hollywood blockbusters do a couple weeks, or at most a couple months, in theatres, then they go to DVD. But a musical can perish in under a week, or it can run for over two decades. That means that every facet of a successful, long-running live show has been calibrated for maximal audience enjoyment. Structurally speaking, Broadway musicals are perfect.

Someone working on Les Miserables (Tom Hooper, 2012) didn't get this, and it shows.

Yeah, Cosette, you're cold, we get it.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Streets of Fire (1984)

I make a habit of having a go-to "sad movie" -- not a movie that is sad, but a movie I watch when I am sad, because it will make me happy. For many years, my "sad movie" was Pretty In Pink. Recently, however, Streets of Fire (Walter Hill, 1984) has usurped the niche Pretty In Pink once occupied as my all-natural upper of choice. Whatever you think of the relative cinematic value of Streets of Fire, I challenge anyone to watch it and not come away feeling better about life.

Duel of the fates.
Rock starlet Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) plays a gig in her tough-as-nails hometown and is immediately kidnapped by Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe) and his motorcycle gang. Luckily, diner waitress Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) won't permit such injustice: she summons her out-of-town brother Tom (Michael Pare) to Ellen's aid. Tom descends upon town in a fancy car, getting into verbal or physical fisticuffs with virtually everyone he meets, but somehow finds a willing sidekick in the butch-cute McCoy (Amy Madigan). Reva and Ellen's manager/lover, Billy Fish (Rick Moranis), convince Tom to rescue Ellen -- it doesn't hurt that the price is right, nor that Ellen is an old flame of Tom's. Exactly how Tom, McCoy, and Billy prise Ellen from Raven's clutches is a story too convoluted to detail here. Suffice it to say that when they touch down in the diner, Ellen in tow, they've blown up half the town and are followed by an entourage consisting of a bleached-out, coked-out Ellen Aim groupie and a handful of down-on-their-luck doo-wop singers. Raven attempts to take revenge, of course, but Tom puts him in his place with a sledgehammer and Ellen lives to play another show and continue with her tour.

I hesitate to call Streets of Fire "so bad it's good". It's bombastic, paratactic, melodramatic, utterly unnecessary, totally unrealistic, terrifyingly random and brain-squishingly stupid. But it's not bad. Quite the contrary. How? Why? A, because the mise-en-scene is gorgeous. B, because every performer gives 150% in this movie. This is something that can be hilarious in B-movies where the combined cast is as talented as a high school football mascot, but several of Streets of Fire's actors are exceptional talents who went on to fame and/or fortune. Van Valkenburgh, with her haunted-eyed, autumnal beauty, could have done Chekhov; and here she is doing Streets of Fire instead! C, because the script makes room for four major female characters, three of whom are not even interested in boinking our hero. Passes the Bechtel Test and then some. D, because the soundtrack, holy fuck the soundtrack. You didn't even know this movie existed, but you already have several of the songs it popularized irreversibly seared into your memory. "I can dream about you, if I can't hold you tonight...." yeah, that's Streets of Fire. (Jim Steinman composed most of Ellen Aim's music; if you don't know who that is, here's a reference).

As for the script, well, it's not particularly polished. The characters are needlessly at each others' throats; no one ever says "yes" or "no" where a "fine, dickhead" or "fuck you!" can be substituted.  Also, situations escalate into physical violence with a clockwork regularity that is both stupid and transcendentally beautiful. I will say, though, that despite the schoolyard trash-talk and the hair-trigger tempers, a weird grace eventually surfaces in the relationship between Tom and Ellen. When he bids Ellen goodbye with a smile and tells McCoy, "we were just going in different directions, it's nobody's fault", it's a moment of refreshing emotional maturity in the midst of so much 80s action schlock. (This line does come mere minutes after Tom socks Ellen out cold to keep her from getting in his way, so take that with a grain of salt, I guess).

To sum up Streets of Fire's selling points: there is a Jim Steinman soundtrack. There is kissing in the rain. There is a sledgehammer duel. There is a doo-wop quartet. There is everything you need to shake even the most killer case of the blues. Go watch it already.

That's some bad hat, Harry.
SCENE STEALER: This is a tough one, but since I've already talked up Deborah Van Valkenburgh and Diane Lane isn't exactly an overlooked talent, I'm going to go with Amy Madigan as McCoy. Before they cast Amy Madigan, this part was written for a male, which means McCoy spends most of her time giving Tom useful advice and being a badass and no time whatsoever flirting with him (his one halfhearted attempt is shot down with "you're not exactly my type"). What was the last movie you saw where an elfin blonde babe punched out a bartender for being too slow with the tequila?

She looks so angry at that pole.
Also, honorable scene stealer mention to the bar dancer played by Marine Jahan -- whose short haircut, athletic build, and aggressive dance moves all create an androgyny that's ahead of the game given that Streets of Fire was released in 1984. Online sources suggests that Jahan identifies as female, but the first time I watched this movie, I was really impressed that an 80s blue-collar beer-and-wings bar would hire a drag queen stripper.

Friday, 14 December 2012

The World Is Not Enough (1999)

The fact that Skyfall has a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes while The World Is Not Enough (Michael Apted, 1999) is sitting at 51% is scientific proof that there is no god.

As scientific as this nuclear physicist's hot pants.

Monday, 10 December 2012

The Dark Crystal (1982)

I am here to shit all over your childhood by stating what should be obvious to anyone not blinded by nostalgia goggles: The Dark Crystal (Jim Henson and Frank Oz, 1982) is a terrible movie.

"WHAT DID SHE SAY??????!!1"
Jen (Jim Henson) is a "Gelfing", an innocent doe-eyed creature ("last of his kind", except not) cared for by the sagely "Mystics" (bald, wizened llamas) and reviled by the wicked "Skeksis" (desiccated ostrich corpses). Jen is sent on a quest to find the Dark Crystal. He finds it. That is all the synopsis I can even be bothered to write. I am not going to delve into the minute details of this stupid movie.

I guess that it is good that I finally watched The Dark Crystal. I was getting nervous that I'd seen so many B-pictures that I'd lost the ability to know whether a movie was bad. Now I know that I can still tell if a movie is bad. This movie is bad.

Before you start sharpening your pitchforks, I'll sum up the reasons why (in three "P"s, no less).

1) The puppets.

The blonde one does look sort of like Taylor Swift.
Enjoy your stay in the uncanny valley. The Skeksis and Mystic puppets are serviceably outlandish, but the Gelflings look like human children with pointy ears. In addition to being utterly fucking creepy, their expressionless faces belie every moment of emotion and high drama in the film. What's that, Jen? Your best friend, the only other living member of your race, has been stabbed to death? Have you considered feeling an emotion about that?

I simply don't understand the choice to use what were basically toddler puppets for the Gelflings. Why not either cast real kids, or make the Gelfings fantastical creatures, in line with the Skeksis and Mystics? As it is, they combine the worst of both worlds. Jim Henson's later, better, puppet extravaganza Labyrinth (1986) gave in and featured a live-action human heroine in a Muppet world, so at least we know he learned from his mistakes.

2) The plot. The Dark Crystal has one, but I can't follow it, and I'm damn sure most kids can't follow it (who knows, maybe the average 8-year-old is smarter than me, but realistically, I doubt it, because what is my liberal arts degree good for if not overanalyzing literature). This might be acceptable if The Dark Crystal's story was in any way unique or novel, but it is Hero With a Thousand Faces bullshit on autopilot. Virtually every attempt to add interesting complications to the story results in a plot hole, and and an asinine twist ending unravels more loose ends than it ties up.

3) The pacing. This movie moves at an utter crawl. It is slow to an extent that is barely comprehensible. I have a theory that over-indulged puppeteers basically turn into doting parents: so thrilled by their creations that they can't understand why no one else cares that their baby can walk and talk. To an extent, this is understandable, but listen, Dark Crystal moviemakers: when you're putting your climax on hold to feature an interminable puppet dinnertime scene, you're doing it wrong.

The Dark Crystal is what would happen if you took Labyrinth and sucked out all the things that made it good, leaving an empty celluloid husk. The Dark Crystal is capable of making people physically ill. Please, if there is a child (or an adult) you are thinking of exposing to The Dark Crystal, don't. Just don't. Every genius misfires at least once, and this was Jim Henson's turn.

Did I stutter?
SCENE STEALER: There is no scene stealer. This movie sucks.