Hitchcock: a master in suspenders

hitchcock movie posterTHE movie Hitchcock is an absolute delight. It stars Anthony Hopkins, almost unidentifiable behind the dapper girth of the titular director, and Helen Mirren as his wife, Alma Reville, and either one is worth the price of admission. What a pleasure to watch these two conspire and joust! And there’s Michael Wincott, oh gravel-voiced villain who, should anything I write ever be made into motion picture, I would beg to have involved. Let’s break the usual casting and make him the damaged good guy, or least the damaged guy of ambiguous morality, up against, say, Edward James Olmos playing against type as the wily villain, or at least, the wily guy of ambiguous morality. But I digress.

Hitchcock is the story behind the making of Psycho, financed by Hitch and his missus when Paramount said no. ‘They just want more of the same,’ Hitch says, or words to that effect. He’s having none of it. He’s bought up every copy of Robert Bloch’s book Psycho he can find just to try to preserve the mystery; he’s not going back to North by Northwest territory now.

There’s so much to love in this tale. It’s cleverly dovetailed by what could be scenes from Hitchcock’s famous television show, starring a brilliant appearance by a crow; the performances are on the money across the board — yay too for Toni Collette bringing it home; and Hitchcock is portrayed with a degree of realism, both good and bad aspects of his character on show. Insights into the Hollywood machine and Hitchcock’s career are also very cool.

There’s a clever score, too, and a final pun that made me chuckle and my wife groan; the movie hits extra heights in its attention to small details. Masterpiece is probably too strong a word, but it’s a damn fine character study of a fascinating couple making an extraordinary film; perhaps file next to Ed Wood.

the girl movie posterFOR contrast, you could check out 2012’s other Hitchcock movie, the HBO-BBC collaboration The Girl, a portrayal of the relationship between Hitchcock and his star Tippi Hedren of The Birds and Marnie.

This is a much more grounded narrative, not quite as accomplished in its attention to details, and Hitchcock is a far less sympathetic character as he sexually harasses Hedren through the course of her two starring roles.

The acting, with Toby Jones and Sienna Miller in the lead roles, is accomplished. It’s interesting to note, also, the difference in how the two movies depict Alma and Hitchcock’s PA, Peggy Robertson.

The behind the scenes of the filmmaking work to illustrate Hitch’s spiralling obsession with his starlet, who gamely resists his advances, even after the trauma of five days of scratching, pecking and pooping on the set of The Birds. The attitude toward the director wanting his ‘cut’ in the industry is underplayed but condemning.

Kind of glad we saw the films in the order we did, not only because of the chronological nature of them, but in the character-destroying depiction of the director offered by The Girl. The relationship with Alma is likewise given a new angle, and the closing scene’s parallel with a key scene in Marnie is so clever. Not quite up there with Hitchcock for focus, but worth the look as the other side of the coin. Or lens.


Hysteria: at the movies and in Emilie Autumn’s Fight Like a Girl

hysteria movie posterTHERE is a moment in the newly released movie Hysteria, which traces the invention of the vibrator in the late 1800s, where the humour to be extracted from doctors masturbating women to release their ‘hysteria’ runs into the horror wall: the feisty heroine, played brilliantly by Maggie Gyllenhaal opposite the rom com’s leading man Hugh Dancy, faces institutionalisation and forced hysterectomy. The engine of her dire straits is her father.

While the movie has its laughs, its social commentary, both of class and sex, is telling. The medical condition of ‘hysteria’ was only dismissed in the 1950s, the movie’s afterword tells us. It takes a lot of Rupert Everett’s hijinks as electrical experimenter and comic moments with mating ducks to relieve that uneasiness.

emilie autumn album fight like a girlSURGICAL maltreatment of women as a way of dealing with perceived hysteria, or lunacy, is very much to the fore in Emilie Autumn‘s new album, Fight Like a Girl, which landed this week. It offers a narrative, musical arc set in an asylum for women — some of the music is from a planned Broadway show — but this is not the home for wayward girls so endearingly and sexily brought to the stage in her previous live show. Rather, this is the surgery where those ‘wayward’ girls are locked away to keep their brash sense of self and identity from unbalancing the patriarchy. Women as objects to be used, as threats to be neutralised, is the theme.

The ranging styles of the songs, from the upbeat defiance of the titular single to the violin ballad of ‘What Will I Remember?’, the vaudeville of ‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’ to the funereal ‘Goodnight, Sweet Ladies’, is clearly rooted in the dramatic production. And what a dark show it promises to be, with drug therapy and incarceration, and threats of sterilisation, rape, mutilation and murder among the offerings.

Tellingly, the album opens with the strongest, most strident songs, giving the impression of a revolution being quashed as the songs then travel into the asylum. A number of shorter tunes, some instrumental, suggest bridges between scenes, before the album draws to a close with the military beat of ‘One Foot in Front of the Other’, a hint of recovery and the promise of round two.

Along the way, there are treats in the minimalist electro of quite terrifying ‘Take the Pill’, harpsichord-driven ‘If I Burn’ and the seven-minute menace of ‘Scavenger’.

She’s quite the multi-talented artist, Ms Autumn, and this album, a different beast with some familiar stripes to her breakout Opheliac, suggests, even after just a couple of listens, further rewards in store.


The Cabin in the Woods: not so much

cabin the the woods posterWe saw Cabin in the Woods last week. The venerable Astor Theatre was packed to the rafters with out and proud nerds. They lapped up the Joss Whedon horror flick like popcorn, cackling throughout and applauding its finish. It was all very mysterious.

The movie was not to my taste, I have to say. Sure, I got my chuckles — just chuckles — from the occasional pithy line, and enjoyed the appearances by former Buffy the Vampire Slayer cast members, but the clever meta content and genre self-awareness seemed to pull back from making any real point — afraid of insulting the fans, perhaps — and the story, engaging enough to begin with as it troped along, slowly sank under the weight of its own increasingly unbelievable world building. Quite strange, how Buffy fought time and again to save the world, and here its ending is applauded. Loudly and possibly sycophantically. Meh.

Meanwhile, on the Astor website it seems the old theatre might be operating under a cloud. That’s a pity.

Prometheus: crash and burn

Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s latest movie:

  • dodgy science
  • unbelievable, and unbelievably stupid, characters
  • questionable narrative
  • In other words, it’s as unsatisfying as the Creationism it appears to espouse. So bitterly disappointing in so many ways, the nicest thing I can find to say about it is that it looked nice. Ben Peek offers a more detailed analysis.
    Me, I’m off to watch Alien, when Ridley knew how to tell a story with heart, and then Aliens, to be reminded how you can actually give a damn for a multi-character movie.

    Dark Shadows shines a light on writing tips

    We saw Dark Shadows last night. Oh my goodness. Michelle Pfeiffer was wonderful, the settings and particularly the porcelain/egg shell witch stuff were delightful, but over all: a train wreck. Still, in an effort to get my money’s worth, I came away with some notes, assembled quickly here (there are spoilers, but I don’t see how anything can spoil the movie more than watching it).


    1. Pick you story.

    Dark Shadows ran as a daily serial for how long? So lots of material to sift through. <I tried to watch the 1990s remake recently: it hasn’t travelled well.> What to include? How about not everything? Save the werewolf girl for later, or at least foreshadow her inner hairiness, for instance. No, when presented with so many story ideas, best to pick just one, and add a subplot or two, but make sure you have that narrative drive from beginning to end. So it might be a love story or a love gone wrong/revenge story; it might be a family drama; it might be a vampire trying to deal with society 200 years later; it might be how a vampire helps a boy and his dead mother find a happy ending. It’s probably not all of those things at once.


    2. Pick your tone.

    So many ways to approach such material… a once wealthy family brought under by a scheming, vengeful witch, and then along comes a vampire from the past to help put things right. Is this a comedy? A kitsch retro bit of fun pie? Is it a horror story, a melodrama, a thriller? Pick one, leaven it with another, and work it, baby. But don’t bounce between them willy nilly, and for pity’s sake don’t suck your few slightly funny gags dry. Alice Cooper’s a girl’s name. Oh my. A family that has the big balls. Oh dear.


    3. Characterisation is key.

    It’s about the people, innit. So you have a cool cast of characters, each with their own thang, and then you give a glimpse of each and forget about them. Instant or reincarnated love? Two people in one house who believe in ghosts? Two hundreds years of obsessive love? Hm, somewhere along the line, they need to meet. But most of all, perhaps, that hero needs to be heroic, not a cad; or if he is a cad, he needs to realise it. But our vampire hero treats the help wrong and, on this occasion, he picked the wrong gal to use and discard, and hell hath no fury, right? What exquisite blackmail it is to have to make love to the pretty witch — tell me again why she still loves the cad? As Depp’s Barnabas admits, he’s not a gentleman.


    4. Story that works for a greater whole.

    So you kill the psychologist and you catch the bad dad thieving and there will be ramifications. Won’t there? You kill a bunch of folks and there will be ramifications … won’t there? History repeats with the torch-wielding mob baying for your blood and — they go home when told to. No, when the hero suffers a setback, it has to have an impact. The worst thing happens and it means something, damnit; it doesn’t get swept under the carpet.


    5. Make sure your theme is up to date.

    So this is probably being overly harsh, but damn.. Dark Shadows seems to have embodied those far simpler times when those with money could get away with anything. Murder is fine as long as the family’s fortunes and social standing is upheld. The staff should know their place and even the most accomplished, self-made witch with 200 years of achievement under her cauldron just wants to be loved.


    A case study of how to do it: after we got home, we had a palate-cleansing viewing of The Addams Family movie. Now that’s kooky.

    Food for thought: Ursula K Le Guin on the book and the reader, plus, the missing ingredient in the Hunger Games movie

    Ursula K Le Guin offers this about the ‘death’ of the book:

    There certainly is something sick about the book industry, but it seems closely related to the sickness affecting every industry that, under pressure from a corporate owner, dumps product standards and long-range planning in favor of ‘predictable’ sales and short-term profits

    Uh-huh. In the Book View Cafe piece, she goes on to talk about the differentiation between books and reading, and the definition of books. Plenty to applaud.

  • And there’s this interesting thought about the structure of writing in the face of technology, specifically the amount of a Kindle book revealed in an Amazon sample. Leave’em on a cliff-hanger, seems to the be the idea. The potential for narrative convolutions is immense. I can’t help feeling that if you’ve read 10 per cent of a book and you still don’t know whether you want to read it or not, the book’s in trouble. But then, I like the slow burn; you don’t have to hook me with a big bang or a plot twist if your voice is on the money.
  • Yay: this analysis of the Hunger Games movie helps explain why I came away feeling I’d been served a snack instead of a meal. Seems there’s a whole layer of social snark that got discarded, as well as the fact that I might’ve misread who was playing games of the heart. All the more reason to read the book, methinks.
  • And in case you missed it: the long list of the Miles Franklin. Lots of memories of the war, family secrets, a little bit of inner city, a touch of paddock, some foreign climes, the way we were and what happens next. That’s all very well, but at this time of the week, I’m thinking Sean Williams in power armour* wins hands down!
  • * See this interview for the background to Sean’s powering up!

    The Hunger Games: a tasty exercise in bread and circuses

    hunger games poster with jennifer lawrenceWe saw the Hunger Games movie on Friday night in a packed theatre heavy on the teen girl demographic, some still in school uniform. It had the hallmarks of a dreadful event — I’m still haunted by the twittering of prats in the back row during the Exorcist redux — but it turned out okay. Those gaps, those giggles, the occasional interjection from a boof in the front row, all added to the ambience. I’m not usually one for interactive theatre like this, but given the arena styling of the Hunger Games, it made sense.

    Premise: a boy and a girl between 12 and 18 are taken by ballot from each of 12 districts, to fight to the death in a controlled landscape arena for the entertainment of the masses. There’s a propaganda element to it, this being the fallout from a rebellion about 50 years ago. This arena is a forest, with controlled bushfires, lots of mobile and embedded cameras, a PA system for ‘Big Brother’ style announcements, and a roof which functions as both bulletin board and artificial atmosphere.

    The movie scored points for not trying to explain everything to do with the back story, but simply hint; the clues were enough to allow suspension of disbelief. Wisely, it took its time getting to the showdown so we weren’t treated to a mere game of cat and mouse. The casting and the performances were spot on. Jennifer Lawrence brings the perfect level of expression to the relatively complex hero of Katniss. The love interest — real or clever survival tactic? — was also deft. Special effects and setting were well done. And the brutality of children fighting 18-year-olds: very nicely handled indeed, neither overdone nor glossed over. It was no coincidence that Roman architecture featured in the cityscapes of the Capitol where the games are held.

    The movie didn’t blow me away but it didn’t bore me witless either and I’m keen to read the books to get the full benefit of the world-building and, frankly, see what all the fuss is about. But I’m not dying to know what happens next, which is curious from a part one of a trilogy. I’m not sure the movie had the time to make all the connections it perhaps needed to, in terms of the games’ impact outside the arena, for instance. In truth, and I know the focus is a little different, I’d rather watch Salute of the Jugger again. Maybe it’s the Rutger factor …

    It was interesting that afterwards in the loo the young boys were discussing the poor tactics that had got half the tributes killed in the first encounter. I wonder if they noticed, or cared, that the heroine didn’t wear PVC and have exposed cleavage? That it was the less-martial lad using emotion and attraction as survival tactics?

    The Running Man and Series 7 are two other movies to have explored the idea of death matches for entertainment, but Hunger Games is riding the books’ fervour; it’s opening weekend has been massive. The YA component makes it confronting and offers a point of difference.

    Meanwhile, Hollywood is already looking for its next big thing: the ‘mommy porn’ of Fifty Shades of Grey is being plugged as a forerunner of a new wave of erotica. Can’t wait to see what the action figures for that one will look like, but I’m guessing they’ll be fully articulated.

    Tinker, Tailor, Soldier … Subtle. And so very superb.

    Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an astounding movie. From the sets, to the camerawork, to the dialogue, to the acting and wardrobe — simply astounding.

    This superb adaptation — the scriptwriters deserve a gong — of the John le Carre Cold War spy classic is directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In — the beautifully filmed Swedish original) and the Swede has excelled again. The movie has a period feel — there’s film grain on the screen and a certain gloomy tint that gives the hint of age — and framing and depth of field emphasise the paranoia and claustrophobia of the era.

    It’s a male tale, as the super spies of British intelligence are caught up in a hunt for a mole, real or imagined, amongst their number. Tasked with flushing out the bad apple is the outcast George Smiley, played brilliantly by Gary Oldman, heading a cast (including Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Rome‘s screen-chewing Ciaran Hinds) who rise to the challenge. Such restrained performances. How refreshing to see a script that uses such minimal dialogue and telling subtext, to see a film that allows the actors to convey so much through body language and expression, that trusts the audience and its own ability to reach them. For instance: a scene in the rain, one man with an umbrella, one without. Nothing needs to be said: their expressions and interaction within that frame tell us all we need to know.

    I loved the Carre spy books when I was a teenager, and enjoyed the BBC TV mini-series they spawned in the 1970s with the perfectly cast Alec Guinness in the Smiley role. This movie has reminded me why: the gloom, the amorality and the understanding of it, the feeling of this being a believable glimpse of the spy game amid the fun and thunder of Adam Hall and Ian Fleming, the use of intelligence and observation rather than muscle and firepower, the damaged characters who know that not all is well that ends well.

    There’s a clever piece of graffiti in the movie, too; while the Circus largely runs on the secretarial power of women officers, and one analyst gets some screen time and there’s one female agent who has a role to play, this is very much a boys club film, as the context dictates. But there, more than once on that wall, is a painted slogan, The future is female.

    Nice, and about as overt as this film gets.

    Smiley’s wife, the sexual relationships of the men, the volume of the silence and stillness, the absence of car chases and biffo: so much cleverness without it being obvious, without it breaking the narrative or the mood.

    The pace is, as with the books, not so much slow as inexorable, and the two hours were over before I knew it. No surprise it has garnered 11 BAFTA nominations. It might only be January, but I can’t help but feel this has to be one of the best movies of 2012.

    It’s a shame Amazon.UK has ended its free shipping deal to Australia (boo!) or I’d be sorely tempted to snaffle the pre-order for the DVD — it’s due for release at the end of the month!


    Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is exquisitely drawn

    girl with the dragon tattoo poster

    I haven’t seen the Swedish movie nor read the Stieg Larsson book, so David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is my first experience of the milieu. And wow.

    The violence — even the coarse language — is restrained. The mystery unfolds gradually and logically, raising the suspense. The titular female lead is both troubled but capable and wonderfully self-sufficient. Lisbeth is played brilliantly by Rooney Mara, and Daniel Craig — showing far more nuances than he’s allowed in the Bond films — is likewise spot on with his portrayal of an investigative journalist whose assignment on an isolated Swedish island forms the spine of the tale.

    The film is shot economically and beautifully, in keeping with the narrative of bad things being uncovered without veering overly into Gothic melodrama, and the performances across the board are understated and a joy to watch.

    And to cap it all off, the soundtrack, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, fits wonderfully, equally as good as their Oscar-winning showing for The Social Network. It makes a creative ambience on the home stereo, too!

    The film has certainly washed away the disappointment of the dull and uninspired Tintin movie, which we saw earlier this week — Dragon Tattoo is a grand way to spend 160 minutes.

    Christmas viewing: Ides of March, Black Mirror, American Horror Story

    I’m starting to quite like George Clooney. I like his attitude. He isn’t afraid to play the non-hero, either. He does subtle and quiet well. We saw one of his latest movies, Ides of March yesterday: it stands out from the pack of twee Christmas fare; our choices were quite limited. The movie tracks the campaign of one of those things they do in America, where candidates to run for president must face off against each other to represent their party … Clooney is the green of the piece, espousing policy that will never be accepted in the American dream however much we might wish, things such as alternative energy and a fair health system for all. And he’s doing well, if only he can win this one state over, it’s all the way to the White House. The focus is on the campaign managers, how they fight for the public’s vote. It’s image and it’s spin and it’s dirty tricks. Ryan Gosling is trying to fight clean. Unspectacular and unsurprising though the movie may be, watching Gosling’s tyro fall is a bittersweet delight. Well played, all.



    To the small screen, and there are two shows we’ve gulped down recently: American Horror Story and Black Mirror.

    American Horror Story puts such a delightful spin on the trope of the haunted house, it is must-see. It doesn’t throw the viewer any bones, either; flashbacks can occasionally be jolting and confusing, but it all comes out in the wash. The ghosts are amazingly well drawn, to the point where it took quite a while to work out just who was haunting who. And Jessica Lange’s performance is to die for. Heh.

    Black Mirror, alas, a mere three episodes of which have been made, is British. Three standalone episodes survey issues of society and technology. The first, a terrorist demands the UK prime minister fuck a pig on national TV, or the kidnapped princess gets it — media and internet communications are in the spotlight. The second, a future world, and celebrity can be the way out of drudgery, but there’s a price… And in the third, what if we all did have implants that allowed us to never miss a thing — memory on instant playback?

    Black Mirror comes from Charlie Brooker, the writer who gave us Dead Set, simply one of the best zombie dramas of recent years, and Black Mirror is likewise sharp and unstinting. Brilliant dialogue, perfectly timed, superb world building without and not needing explanatory notes, effects that enhance without jarring or looking trite.

    And one of the things that makes all three shows stand out is the quality of the acting. From the minor to the majors, the casting on all three is superb. Black Mirror in particular makes impressive use of non-verbal cues — the silence can be so telling. Black Mirror has to be one of the best shows of 2011. Let’s hope there’s more to come…


    Speaking of more, the trailer for David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has me all excited (the eight-minute version moreso; the Trent Reznor-Atticus Ross soundtrack is a delight). Not so much, the last of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, but I’ll go anyway. And Ridley, oh Ridley, you had me all in a fluster about Alien “prequel” Prometheus, and then I was told it’s being shot in 3D, and now you’ve got me all afeared. Thank goodness there’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy on the way: we saw a trailer while waiting for Ides of March, and the cast, the mood … it all looks just bloody brilliant.