Saturday, December 25, 2010

Remaking One's Self: Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much

Hitchcock's 1956 remake of his own British thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) is one of the few cinematic examples on record of a director literally remaking their own film -- Leo McCarey's Love Affair (1939) and his remake An Affair to Remember (1957) is another notable example.  It is also one of the most fascinating projects in the director's oueuvre for many reasons.

There is the use of rich technicolor to identify different locales based on their emotional and geographic climate.  The use of dramatic fades to black to create an atmosphere of sinister foreboding.  The fluidity of the moving camera.  In the 56' version, Hitchcock uses the elegant mechanics of the original plot as a jumping off point to punctuate the humor and suspense (which he retains from the original) with a pointed look at the American nuclear family.  As part of this vision, he subverts the wholesome personas of stars Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, by engaging them in a power struggle that aptly reflects the gender politics of the day.  She is a famous singer.  He is an Indianapolis doctor.  For reasons undisclosed, she gave up her career for him and now does nothing to conceal her bitterness over that fact.

We witness the mature Hitchcock working at the height of his powers; fascinated as much by the behavior of his characters as he is by his virtuoso set-pieces.  The clash between one's vocation and one's loyalty to family is used as both a theme and a device in the story.  Doris' song, the expression of her professional acumen, is ultimately the mechanism that restores the family unit and helps them to conquer an assassination plot.  It is easy to miss the intricacy with which Hitchcock interweaves his themes and thrills, but The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) has always been one of his most watchable films for me.  Hitchcock was hailed as a master technician and his critics used this to dismiss his interest in actors.  This remake proves that as he grew older, he also grew more preoccupied with the social ambiguities between people.  This ambiguity is the principal value he adds to his re-telling.  There are dozens of small details that transcend enrich and deepen the message of the original picture.

For those who don't know: The Man Who Knew Too Much is the story of a young couple whose child is kidnapped to prevent them from trying to stop an assassination plot.   Watch it back-to-back with the (also entertaining) original version and delight in the work of a master storyteller, as he uncovers different layers of meaning within the same material.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Remembering The Shining

Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of the Stephen King novel builds a palpable sense of horror by discarding all the most obvious devices of the genre.  Whereas most horror films are constructed based on the principle of total audience immersion, The Shining works hard to keeps us at arm's length instead.  As with most of Kubrick's films, form mirrors content.   The story centers on the horror of isolation, in both the remote setting of the Overlook hotel and within the Torrance family unit.  Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is rarely seen together with his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their son.  Stylistically, the film is composed largely of wide tracking shots that put distance between us and the characters.  When they are together, as in their initial drive to the hotel, Kubrick cleverly generates a greater sense of distance than when they are apart.   More often they are shown onscreen in pairs, but most of the time they are alone, exploring the haunted chambers of the hotel.  The book is more explicit about Jack's struggle with alcoholism and the demented exploits of the former hotel guests whose spirits haunt the grounds.  Kubrick favors something more ambiguous, forcing the audience to project their own fears onto the characters in order to make sense of them.  The shock images that remain from the book (like a man being phellated by someone in a bear costume) are deliberately stripped of their context.   Even during the broader comedic flourishes of Nicholson's performance, there is an air of foreboding that frightens by juxtaposing elements of the uncanny with more real aspects of the human psyche.  I chose The Shining for my annual scary movie night this year, and now I heartily recommend it to you (if you are someone who enjoys getting into the spirit of the Halloween season).  

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Easy A: The Making of a Star

Easy A, the latest flavor of the month in the teen comedy genre, is a sassy gem, that knowingly touches on the topic of adolescent sexuality.  The pic can be afforded some distinction, for being the only pubsecent comedy in memory that dares to hang a lantern on a group of teens who actually aren't ready to have sex.  As a result, instead of horny, promiscuous, frat boys and sorority sisters we're presented with reconizably human characters that the movie makes us care about.  Director Will Gluck and writer Bert V. Royal probably won't win any Oscars for this subtle perspective shift, but it is cause for minor applause in our current market of gross-out comedies. 

The story follows Olive (Emma Stone), an easily recognizable girl-next-door, who goes to elaborate lengths to conceal her virginity.  In the process of weaving lies about her vainglorious sexual exploits, circumstances compound to make her the most popular and also the most reviled member of her high school.  It's only when Olive realizes how much she's sacrificed for her reputation, that she begin to understand who she really is.  The script is loosely inspired by Hawthorne's "The Scarlett Letter," but cleverness and source material aside, what really makes the movie worth talking about is Emma Stone. 

None of her past roles in projects like Superbad, The House Bunny, and Zombieland could prepare us for the performance she delivers here.  I was mystified. Surely there must have been a prolific career in Danish television or some other remote corner of the world, that I know nothing about. But no, she has simply arrived.  After several character roles performed in relative anonymity, Emma Stone has arrived.   This is a star-making performance, embodied with equal parts charisma, sass and vulnerability.  Even as her character suffers through a spectacular series of humiliations, Stone maintains that aura of mystery, confidence and unpredictability that characterizes a star.  Without her the movie would fail and she brings us onboard instantly.    Emma Stone will be someone to watch in the future.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Toonie Plays a Townie ***

This year the thriller genre has been ressurected, with pictures like The Ghost WriterShutter Island and Inception, upstaging larger CGI-driven movies by placing an emphasis on story and psychology and using practical effects to enhance the narrative.  Now we can add The Town to this list.  Ben Affleck's sophomore directing effort is a taut, canny, thriller in the tradition of the old Warner Bros gangster films that starred James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in the 30's and 40's...and it is absolutely riveting.

The story concerns a crew of armed robbers in Boston's Charlestown projects, who live by an unspoken code, cultivating love and family when they aren't sticking people up.  Despite their brilliant tactics, it doesn't take long before the law catches on to them in the form of stalwart, mercenary, John Hamm, who is one in a cast of standout performances that bring the story to life.  Affleck himself, who has often strained to be credible gives a tough, assured performance as the thief who hungers for redemption and finds it in the person of Rebecca Hall, a hostage that his crew abducts during their inaugural bank heist.  Despite his better judgment, Affleck falls for his former prey.  He is a townie and she is a "toonie" (a word the locals use to slander encroaching yuppies) and this (as they say) is where the plot thickens.

Affleck himself is the ultimate toonie by local standards, based on his success and yet the movie feels like it was directed by an insider.  It's pulpy material to be sure and the story doesn't earn points for originality, but in Affleck's capable hands it does what the best thrillers do: explore the moral implications of crime.  The FBI is personified as a vigilant, but largely unscrupulous force, while the thieves have a backwards sense of ghetto duty.  Yes, the villains are romanticized at times, but Affleck never shies away from the violence of the story or the impact it has on the innocent bystanders who are unwittingly embroiled in it.  It is a world in which anyone can turn a corner into darkness, but once they do they're more or less shackled by their choices.

We sense that many of these neighborhood thugs would have thrown in the towel long ago, if only they could extricate themselves from the bonds they formed along the way.  The friends they needed to rise up are now the very same people holding them back.  In a sense the movie reads like an anagram to Michael Mann's Heat, which was all about avoiding the kind of relationships that Affleck's characters readily embrace.  Ultimately, The Town can't stand up to the best in the genre.  You may find yourself longing for the virtuoso cinematic derring-do of old Hollywood, as visually it resembles virtually any TV police procedural of the moment.  But Affleck makes up for what he lacks in style with genuine grit and authenticity.  I would be lying if I didn't admit that for most of this very tense ride I was sitting in the theater, squeezing my fists and wondering if it might just stick with me a year from now.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Inception ****

Christopher Nolan's new movie, Inception, asks us to imagine what would happen if we could enter someone's dreams to extract information.  Like all of his films, there is great use of editing to layer intersecting plotlines, but Inception officially stands as his most seamless and conceptually ambitious work. 

The story follows Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a master "extractor" who specializes in infiltrating the minds of the rich and powerful.  His crack team of experts includes Ariadne (Ellen Paige), an "architect"who is able to construct and manipulate elaborate cityscapes in the dream world, Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levett), Cobb's resourceful troubleshooter (both literally and figuratively), and Earnes (Tom Hardy) a master impostor who is able to conjure up the image of other people based on some carefully utilized behavioural tics.  Cobb has been exiled from the U.S. ever since his wife took her own life and framed him for her death.  The reason for this is not as mercenary as it sounds, but her suicide has left a powerful imprint upon him -- an imprint that threatens to undermine his work when he is traveling through the subconscious.  

Cobb is offered a chance to go home to America and return to his kids, if he agrees to an assignment that involves hijacking a wealthy heir's subconscious during a 10 hour public flight.  The catch is, this time instead of extracting a thought he's been asked to plant one.  Inception examines the genesis of our innermost thoughts and asks us to consider where they come from.  In the process Nolan comments on the subjective nature of perception and suggests that what we call reality could be just a state of mind.   After all, where do our ideas come from?  How do we know that our waking life is the reality and our dream life is the fiction?  These are hugely ambitious questions and somehow Nolan manages to dramatize them while providing just enough answers to satisfy and provoke.

This is Nolan's densest, most accomplished film yet.  It raises the bar on the gritty spectacle of The Dark Knight, it teases you with more mysteries than The Prestige and it achieves a breathtaking visual scope.  Inception captures the logic and tempo of the subconscious like nothing I have ever seen before.  A movie about such an epic subject is bound to occasionally sacrifice character to concept, but Nolan deftly juggles the various ingredients of his dream world and does so with more cinematic imagination than any movie since Spielberg's AI: Artificial Intelligence.   Unlike A.I. however, Inception is seamless.  It ends on a pitch-perfect grace note that promises to linger long after the lights have come up.  Production design and cinematography are all one-of-a-kind and truly groundbreaking.  The only weak link is the dialogue, which (at times) is too heavily expository.  Still, nothing can diminish the thrill of a populist film that is able to subvert expectations and deliver as many surprises as this one.  Inception is a mind-blowing work of pop art.  It's the movie to beat this summer and for the rest of the year.  

Friday, March 5, 2010

Na'vi Ennui

Moviegoers who found themselves wrapped up this past year in the emotional powerhouse that was Twilight: New Moon, are no doubt part of the worldwide audience that has swooned for James Cameron's tiny little film called Avatar.  An audience that has helped catapult it into cinema box office history.  In fairness, this is money Cameron didn't need after his last forgotten work Titanic -- the former highest-grossing blockbuster of all time.  The most important thing is that in this difficult economy, investors as diverse as  David Beckham, Andrew Lloyd Weber and Guy Ritchie were able to recoup their investments and even claim a healthy return.  

Oh, to have attached your name to such an important and revolutionary film.  The craft on display here deserves special mention, for rarely have I seen such a meticulously choreographed synchronicity of mechanical moving parts.  The explosions, the gun-fights, the clash between man and nature.  Anyone who admired the subtlety and nuance of Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel or Paul Blart: Mall Cop, is bound to get a lot out of it.  In the midst of all the hype, I was so certain I missed something the first time around, that I went back tonight on Oscar weekend to delve deeper into the story and try to uncover it's hidden layers.  

Watching Avatar the second time, I learned two valuable lessons: 

1) Money and land are the twin pillars of civilized society and they must be obtained ruthlessly, even it means plundering natural resources and displacing thousands of people. 
2) The Iraq war was necessary and humane -- particularly for all the innocent civilians who were caught in the crossfire.  Note: only discerning viewers will be able to pick up on this hidden allegorical subtext. 

On Sunday night Avatar is certain to win a well-deserved Oscar for Best Visual Effects and probably also the trophy for Best Picture.  The movie has aptly been compared to D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation -- a film that introduced moviegoers to a new kind of cinematic spectacle, but the comparison ends there.  Birth of a Nation now rates as one of the most searing, politically incorrect, films of the early 20th Century while Avatar in contrast is a model of liberal values. James Cameron's empathetic portrayal of the Na'vi tribe is bolstered by a deep relationship to his computer generated characters who in turn have a deep relationship with their genetically matched human counterparts in the film.  

Instead of falling back on that pedestrian and (let's face it) predictable phrase: "I love you," the characters in Avatar look into each other's eyes and exclaim with the utmost sincerity "I see you."  A more succinct and incisive look at love has not been captured on film since Hayden Christensen joined hands with Natalie Portman in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and proclaimed:  "I don't like sand. It's coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth." This is the kind of writer that James Cameron has matured into.  He even created his own language for the film -- which rarely sounds like gibberish and only occasionally sounds made up.  The man is a visionary.  

Cameron dreamt up this entire world and he alone deserves the credit for those glorious blue people and their pet dinosaurs, not to mention Sam Worthington's "now he's Aussie, now he's American" accent.  This is attention to detail at it's finest and great movies are all about the details.   At this point you may be picking up on a slight undercurrent of sarcasm, so please, let me assure you with absolute sincerity from the bottom of my heart:  Avatar is not one of the best movies of 2009 or any other year.  It's an over-hyped, over-blown, over-indulgent b-movie that takes itself too seriously to be enjoyed for what it is.  But please, I implore you to buy a ticket if you haven't already.  David Beckham and Andrew Lloyd Weber need your support.

Besides, the world needs more movies like this.  In time, perhaps we can even learn to replace those cloying moments of intimacy that we must all suffer through in our daily lives with the razzle-dazzle of larger-than life, stereoscopic, indulgence.