U.S.: Sacha Gervasi, 2012, 20th Century Fox
Back in 1960, about 40 minutes into Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, costar Janet Leigh flushed the toilet, took off her towel and stepped into the shower in Room 1 of the Bates Motel -- and the movies changed forever. With its nudity, its slashing murders and nervous, stammering motel-keeper and dutiful son Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) -- Psycho ushered in all the sleazy nightmare and B-movie scariness, taboo and macabre that had been hidden away in the '50s in drive-ins and second-run houses, embellishing them with an A-movie cast and a master's technique. Psycho changed how movies were made, but also how they were passed by industry watchdogs, how they were marketed and released, and even how audiences watched them. (Wily director Hitch took a cue from the ad campaign for the French shocker Diabolique, which asked viewers not to reveal the end, and got the theaters to forbid audiences even to enter Psycho midway through.)
The movies changed after Psycho, and so did Hitchcock himself -- as we see in the compelling but not always satisfying new movie Hitchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi and starring Anthony Hopkins as the Master of Suspense and Helen Mirren as his longtime wife and most important collaborator, Alma Reville Hitchcock. Based on Stephen Rebello's book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, it's a bizarre yet informative tribute to a great filmmaker, and the record of what happened when he crossed over the line, making both a masterpiece and a pop culture shocker.
Gervasi's movie takes us from the commercial and critical failure of Hitchcock's 1958 Vertigo (now considered a classic), through the 1959 comeback triumph of North by Northwest, and then through the difficult planning, preparation, frequent interference, sometimes troubled shooting and final release of what quickly became the biggest hit of Hitchcock's entire career.
The cast of characters includes not just Hitch and Alma and right-hand woman Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette), but the cast of Psycho, played by Scarlett Johansson (as Janet Leigh), James D'Arcy (Anthony Perkins) and Jessica Biel (Vera Miles), Ralph Macchio as screenwriter Joseph Stefano, Wallace Langham as titles wizard and shower murder storyboard artist Saul Bass, and Paul Schackman as the indispensable (but eventually dispensed with) composer Bernard Hermann. Even the '60s. Head picture slasher Geoffrey Shurlock is here, played by Kurtwood Smith. And so is Ed Gein (played by Michael Wincott), the real-life grave robber and serial killer who inspired Robert Bloch's original novel.
The movie is a tribute to Hitchcock and his art. But it's a kind of deconstruction of Hitchcock (and Psycho) as well, following the example of tell-all books like Donald Spoto's The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock and even of the last revision of Hitchcock/Truffaut, Francois Truffaut's classic interview with and celebration of one of his favorite directors. In that last anguished hurrah, Truffaut described what he calls the bad luck of Hitchcock's post-Psycho career, including his tortured Pygmalion relationship with Tippi Hedren, the star of The Birds and Marnie. And finally, Gervasi and McLaughlin's (Black Swan) movie is a very affectionate tribute to the woman behind Hitch from the '20s on: his wife Alma (as staunchly played by Mirren) -- who here becomes the heroine of his story, even as he himself wavers between hero and anti-hero, exploiter and artist.
The Alfred Hitchcock we see in Gervasi's Hitchcock, is not always the gentlemanly, deadpan, witty host of the popular 1950s TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents -- where Hitch would introduce the shows (some of which he directed), make rude remarks about the commercials, and tell dark little jokes in bright little sketches. Nor is he the more sober, solemn interviewee of his later years. The familiar mannerisms are there -- the measured East End London accent, the deadpan countenance and owlish stare, the sense of sharing with the audience one macabre joke or wicked little secret. But we also see the more vulnerable, beleaguered Hitch, the one who needed Alma so much. These two performances -- Hopkins as Hitch, Mirren as Alma -- are the best reasons to see Hitchcock.
Rise of the Guardians (B-)
U.S.: Terry Ramsey, 2012, DreamWorks Animation
In the new DreamWorks animated lollapalooza Rise of the Guardians, the rock-'em-sock-'em team the Guardians -- the heroic defenders of childhood myths originally assembled for the "Guardians of Children" book series by author William Joyce and consisting of Jack Frost, Sandy (short for the Sandman), Tooth (short for Tooth Fairy), Bunny (short for the Easter Bunny), and Santa Claus (who has a Russian accent and calls himself "North") -- band together to fight the nefarious Pitch (short, I guess, for Pitch Black). Pitch is a Boogey Man, a sort of WalMart version of Voldemort, who commands a herd of galloping nightmares and aims to bring back bad dreams to all the world's children.
The star of the group is Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine). He's an energetic but somewhat neurotic kid who's upset that he doesn't have his own special Jack Frost Day; he also suffers from the after-effects of a traumatic incident that took place some centuries past in the Land of Flashback. The rest of the childhood fantasy crew try to enlist Jack and supply support and therapy and funny voices.
Pitch is voiced, or sneered, by Jude Law, and the Guardians are played (well) by Pine, Alec Baldwin (as North), Hugh Jackman as Bunny and Isla Fisher as the toothsome Tooth. There are some human kids too, frolicking merrily in the snow, with whom Jack tries to bond, led by cute little animated frolicker Jamie Bennett (voiced by Dakota Goyo).
All in all, they're a pretty colorful bunch, but for the first half or so, despite a rousing Alexandre Desplat score, the movie tended (except for Baldwin) to bore me stiff. Rise of the Guardians, directed by Peter Ramsey, boasts some beautiful visualization, but it was too frenetic and violent. Good and occasionally dazzling as the technique and visuals are here, I still prefer animated films that let you see and savor the pictures and characters, like most of Pixar and classic Disney.
Holy Motors (A-)
France: Leos Carax, 2012, Indomina
Holy Motors is a film of shadows and false faces, of traveling players, of humans and machines, of mirrors and makeup. Behind this bizarre picture -- a quintessentially French, perverse and quite entertaining film by longtime "bad boy" Leos Carax -- lies a near century of movie surrealism: decades of deliberately fantastic, illogical and sometimes pathological/psychological film poems in which the cineaste (Luis Bunuel or Jean Cocteau or Maya Deren or Carax or others) tries to dream on screen and to carry us into his/her maddest reveries.
Here the reveries are mad indeed. A man and a dog wake up in a strange room with a strange door that opens into a strange theater showing a strange silent film. The day is just beginning. For the rest of the film we will follow the (apparently) workday rounds of this man, a traveling player named M. Oscar (played by the defiantly sullen anti-star and Carax regular Denis Lavant), who is driven around in a limousine by a lady chauffeur named Celine -- played by Edith Scob, who long ago played the girl without a face in Georges Franju's 1960 horror-fantasy classic Eyes Without a Face. As Celine takes him around Paris in this journey to the end of the night (at the behest of a mysterious agency represented at one point by Bunuel cohort Michel Piccoli), M. Oscar appears at various places and plays various roles for a strange variety of people.
As far as I could glean, M. Oscar impersonates, with Celine's help -- and thanks to a well-stocked supply of makeup and costumes in the back of the limo -- a financier, an old beggar-woman, a motion capture lover/dancer in a black unitard, a wild sewer-dwelling hooligan named M. Merde, a dying uncle, a charismatic musician, a hired killer and his victim/double, and the lover of a heart-breaking chanteuse played and sung (to the hilt) by Kylie Minogue.
The limousine-set Holy Motors, beautifully shot around Paris by cinematographers Caroline Champetier and Yves Cape, would make an interesting double-feature with David Cronenberg's New York-set limo movie, Cosmopolis; it's just as compelling, less preachy and more poetic. Lavant, who has to virtually carry the movie, gives a fantastic performance, and he's memorably supported by Scob, Minogue, Piccoli, Eva Mendes (as a model kidnapped by M. Merde) and the others. Philistines will no doubt be incensed at Carax's perverse ending and the rest of his film's sheer oddball whimsy and incitements. Art lovers (and lovers of French cinema, from Méliès and Feuillade to today) will be entranced. (In French, with English subtitles.)
Chasing Mavericks (B-)
U.S.: Curtis Hanson/Michael Apted, 2012, 20th Century Fox
The main problem with Chasing Mavericks -- a generally well-done bio-movie about California surfer Jay Moriarity, who became a legend at 16 -- is that the waves have more charisma than the leading man.
Jonny Weston, who plays Moriarity, has curly-frizzy blond locks and a ripped torso, and he even does most of his own surfing. But his amiable but vacuous pretty-boy looks suggest blonde actors like Troy Donahue or Christopher Atkins, summoning up less a great, driven surfer on a date with destiny than a male model with a date at the Santa Monica pier.
The movie is about how legend Jay fell in love with the ocean, and how the ocean swept him away. It's a bravura story. We first see Jay at 9 (played by Cooper Timberline). He tries to navigate some heavy waves and nearly gets smashed on the rocks, and he meets his eventual mentor/teacher Frosty Hesson (played with lots of surly, intent looks by Gerard Butler, who also helped produce). Frosty saves Jay from that first smash-up. He also knows the location of the seemingly mythical Mavericks, and Jay follows him (on the roof of Frosty's van), to discover them for himself and get to ride them someday. Frosty, recognizing a surfer obsessed, decides to save him again by teaching him the way of the surf: physical, dietetic, athletic and spiritual.
This thorough, almost priestly, preparation, is also observed by the rest of a generally good ensemble: Jay's troubled, often frazzled mom Kristy (Elisabeth Shue, looking great in a frayed role), Frosty's sprightly, self-sacrificing wife Brenda (Abigail Spencer), assorted beach bullies and fellow surfers, and the blond Kim (Leven Rambin), Jay's soul and inspiration.
Chasing Mavericks had two very good directors working on it: Curtis Hanson (who made the modern neo-noir classic L.A. Confidential) and Michael Apted -- who does the wonderful British Up documentary series, and who finished up the film when Hanson had health problems. They both do a pretty good job here, though Hanson obviously wanted something more, and though there was probably an inevitable fracturing of the show's style.
Jay Moriarity is a great movie subject, and Chasing Mavericks actually has a great story. But the waves take over. They curl, they crash. They tower up toward the sun and clouds. There's just no upstaging them.
Red Dawn (D)
U. S.: Dan Bradley, 2010-2012, MGM
Red Dawn, a thoroughly idiotic movie, is a remake of John Milius' Cold War bang-bang fantasy of the same title. That 1984 jaw-dropper was an action teen movie about high school footballers, led by Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell, battling a Soviet invasion in Colorado.
1984, the height of the Reagan era, was probably a good time for the original movie. I doubt a good time exists for its dopey, off-the-wall cinematic descendant. Here, in the new Dawn -- directed by Dan Bradley and written, or maybe scribbled, by Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore -- the setting is Spokane, Washington, and the fearless young guerrillas-to-be play for the local football team, the Wolverines. But that's only the beginning. In the raging world battle to come, after a parachute invasion of Spokane by the North Korean army, the guys reassemble with the prima donna quarterback Matt Eckert (Josh Peck) and are led, more decisively, by Matt's stoic Marine vet older brother Jed (Chris Hemsworth). Their foes are that sizable but inept mass of invaders from the land of Kim Jong-un.
Wait a minute. North Korea? Really? (Dennis Rodman, take note.) The movie begins with a football game, which the Wolverines lose, then proceeds the next morning to that air assault on Spokane, with nobody offering resistance except the quarterback, his teammates and his older pre-Thor brother. For most of the movie it's just the Wolverines, and a few outsiders, against the Korean red hordes, led by the photogenic, but somewhat impotent, Col. Cho (Wil Yun Lee), who keeps spotting the Wolverines and letting them get away. If you're wondering why North Korea and the fumble-fingered Col. Cho would want to invade a city like Spokane, instead of just dropping a bomb somewhere, and probably missing -- well, wonder away. As far as I could tell, it was all part of a bizarre war plan, preceded by a prologue of TV appearances by Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, all warning about coming cyber-wars.
Actually, there's a simpler explanation. The villains in the script and movie were originally Chinese, but MGM had financial problems, the movie was shelved, and then, after Hemsworth became a bigger star, and worries arose about losing Chinese box office, the show was digitally altered and reworked to turn all the Chinese references into North Korean ones.
That new change proves even more wildly implausible than the Chinese invasion in the earlier version, and the Soviet invasion in Milius' original. North Korea may have a fraction of the U..S.'s population, a fraction of our weaponry and nuclear arsenal, a fraction of our computer hackers, and a fraction of our Hollywood screenwriters and FX experts. But their invasion, at least as this movie imagines it, is astonishingly successful, triggering what seems to be a total collapse of the U.S. air defenses, TV networks and ground, sea and air troops, including the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Coast Guard, all local police departments, Civil Defense, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, all local gun clubs and the Marines (except one).
There's nobody, it seems, who can fight these bastards and withstand their deadly parachute drops but a few football buddies hiding out in the woods.