Posted in: Alfred Hitchcock, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Guest Contributor

‘Family Plot’: A Diamond in the Rough

by Evan Morgan

Alfred Hitchcock’s career proper begins with a blonde girl’s dying scream and ends on a similarly coiffed woman’s knowing wink. These bookends aren’t indicative of some tonal change over the course of the master’s work; Hitchcock the tragedian and Hitchcock the jester have been here all along, harmoniously sharing the same stage from the start. But it matters that Hitch closes his final film with a sparkle in his—and Blanche’s—eye. For a cinematic genius whose greatest masterpieces plumb the dark depths of primal obsession, chronic guilt, and abhorrent violence, the last shot of Family Plot glitters with a surprising whimsy. And while it’s hardly the crown jewel of his career, Hitchcock bids adieu with a film appropriately studded in gleaming diamonds.

Barbara Harris in ‘Family Plot’

But contra Hitch himself, Family Plot is no simple slice of cake. It oozes with corrosive greed, sadistic sex, and casual death, all festering under the blisteringly omnipresent California sunshine. It slowly peels back the shiny baubles to reveal a world built upon deceit in all its forms: financial, personal, and cinematic. In other words, Family Plot takes place in Hollywood.

The vaguely defined San Fernando setting—a handful of scenes appear to take place in San Francisco—connects the film to Hitchcock’s other California films: Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. And like those films, Family Plot places a clear emphasis on acting. Everyone must, in some way or another, perform a lie to get what he or she wants. Many of Hitchcock’s previous characters were forced to act, as a means to save their skin or hide their sick desires. But something about the Golden State—with its relentless demand for optimism and association with Tinseltown—brings performance to the foreground in the California films. No surprise, then, that Family Plot opens with a spurious, sarcastic séance.

Hitchcock drops us into the middle of one of Blanche Taylor’s (Barbara Harris) psychic experiences. The hints of the supernatural in Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, and The Birds might lead us to assume something genuinely paranormal is going on. But Hitchcock quickly reveals how normal this situation is. As Blanche quickly peeks her eye out from behind her hands—subtly hinting at the film’s final wink—we realize how often she has performed this little masquerade. It’s an amusing moment that sets up the film’s comic tone. But it also cues us to the role acting, and its connection to deceit and money making, will play as the story unfolds.

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Posted in: Alfred Hitchcock, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Guest Contributor

‘Notorious’ – Radioactive Love

by Evan Morgan

In Notorious, love is a weapon more corrosive than a heaping pile of uranium ore. And it has a longer half-life. This Nazi spy story slowly reveals the bruised, battered, but still beating heart pumping beneath its surface. As it does, it emerges as the Hitchcock love story par excellence, a bewitched romance wrapped—like Alicia herself—in shimmering black velvet. If Hitchcock’s films are often accused of coldness, Notorious proves a useful corrective. In Hitchcock’s world, love burns.

But it isn’t love that dominates most of the picture. Sex—at its most venal and transactional—is the driving force that moves the film along. Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia drowns her moral agony in equal parts cocktails and coitus, a tonic perfectly suited for the job her government offers. But it’s not the government that shows up at her home; Cary Grant’s smoothly handsome Devlin crashes her party. Alicia and Devlin’s initial encounter encapsulates their relationship in a single image. Devlin—an almost too perfect name—sits silently in the corner of the frame, back to the camera, shrouded entirely in shadow. Alicia’s drunken come-ons appear to do nothing; he remains an unmovable black monolith. But as the partygoers leave or pass out, the world closes in on Dev and Alicia. Hitchcock swooningly swings his camera around from behind Devlin’s head to frame both of them in the shot. It’s a brief gesture, but it hints at Devlin’s depths. He is already falling in love.

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman

But Devlin has a job to do. Even Alicia’s tender embrace cannot break down his stoic resistance. Much has been made about the famous kissing scene, and Hitchcock’s clever circumvention of the censors. And yes, there is a playfulness to its kiss-dialogue-kiss structure. But that structure also has a thematic purpose. The scene, as Robin Wood notes, poses a “desperate sensuality, [which] betrays the underlying instability” of their relationship. Devlin continually pulls away from her; it is he who won’t utter the word love. He won’t—or can’t—give her the love they both want. And when duty calls, he runs to his boss and gives her up begrudgingly. Grant plays this scene out subtly, seething at his superiors beneath a cool surface. He leaves the room to sell Alicia’s body, but the brief shot of Devlin’s forgotten champagne bottle breaks your heart. It’s the cinema’s most succinct image of love abandoned.

No coincidence, then, that wine bottles come up again. Sebastian’s house is overrun with them—an image that becomes more profoundly sad when connected to Dev’s forgotten bottle. Years of heartbreak cellared away en masse. But these bottles aren’t filled with heartbreak, they’re stuffed with radioactive bomb material; it’s as disturbing an image of obsessed, curdled love as anything in Hitchcock’s filmography.

When Devlin returns to rescue Alicia from Sebastian’s jealous poisoning, finally revealing his love to her, she emerges like Sleeping Beauty from her slumber. Prince Charming has returned to claim his bride. But this is no fairytale ending. There is real pain in Sebastian’s loss. He has shown Alicia deep kindness and gained nothing in return. In love and in Hitchcock, obsession is a one-way street.

More than any other film—with the possible exception of VertigoNotorious most potently distills Hitchcock’s singular vision of love. But whereas Vertigo posits love as an ever-ascending staircase of obsession, Notorious inverses that image: love brings us back down to earth, away from notoriousness and Nazis, and envelops us in the warm pleasure of a lover finally returning our embrace. But Notorious’s final shot leaves Sebastian out in the cold. As he walks back up his own staircase towards certain death, we realize which weapon has truly killed him. Love burns, indeed.

Copyright © 2013 Evan Morgan

Posted in: by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Links, Seattle Screens

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for week of March 1

The New Republic’s Jason Farago worries that Amour might not just chronicle a death but embody one, if it turns out to be the last, grand gasp of a European cinema whose state subsidies are drying up.

Emmanuelle Riva in ‘Amour’

Charles Barr takes the current resurgence in all things Hitchcock as opportunity to argue that the greatest of all cinematic oeuvres is insufficiently recognized as one that’s British, born and bred.

The above link comes from John Wyver, who also spots Henry Jenkins’s four-part interview with scholar Donald Crafton about how animation evolved from exaggerated lunacy into a “realistic” art of performance, indebted to Stanislavsky more than it ever was to the comics pages. Generously illustrated with cartoon clips. (Parts two, three, and four here.)

Speaking of Disney, Brad Bird and screenwriter Damon Lindelof have kept characteristically tight-lipped on details about their upcoming production Tomorrowland, originally called 1952. Recalling a tall tale about government agents and UFOs that legendary animator Ward Kimball loved to pass along, Disney historian Jim Hill thinks he might have sussed out the plot. Via Drew McWeeny.

“When co-star Walter Brennan saw Mitchum in his elegantly rugged costume, he declared, ‘That is the goddamndest realest cowboy I’ve ever seen!’” Imogen Smith on the dark pleasures of noir western Blood on the Moon, and its inspired use of Robert Mitchum’s mesmerizing but untrustworthy rambling spirit.

His review of Glenn Frankel’s new book on The Searchers allows J. Hoberman to consider the real-life events, and the national myths they became, that inspired Ford’s masterpiece.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays

Bigger than life: Giant problems in the movies

Some problems are bigger than others. Jack faces some pretty big ones in Jack the Giant Slayer. Giant problems, you might say, which dwarf mere human concerns both figuratively and literally. An update of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” this fantasy adventure follows a tradition that goes back to David and Goliath: the mortal man taking on the colossally big and strong enemy. Hollywood has replayed that showdown in various iterations for almost as long as there have been movies. Because what’s more impressive than man versus mammoth monster? Here are a few of the greatest, grandest and most unusual giants to rise up on two legs and challenge mankind in the movies, from King Kong to the mutant at the heart of “The Amazing Colossal Man” to the mythical gods and monsters brought to life by Ray Harryhausen.

King Kong meets Fay Wray

King Kong (1933)

The 800-ton gorilla of movie giants.

The king of the jungle of creature features, King Kong is still the reigning heavyweight champ of movie giants. In the days of modern special effects, the stop-motion giant gorilla may not be realistic to contemporary eyes, but Depression-era audiences had seen nothing like it before. The 18-inch creation of modeling clay and rabbit fur was transformed into a fully realized character in his own right, brought to life with personality and passion by the craft of stop-motion animation godfather Willis O’Brien. Movie magic elevates this puppet into a towering beast who fights giant predators in primeval battles over blond beauty Fay Wray and wreaks havoc in the urban jungle of New York to find her once again. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Kong was ostensibly the monster of the movie, but the power of his presence made him a tragic hero in the greatest beauty-and-the-beast tale in the movies.

Continue reading at MSN Movies

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Videodrone: ‘Holy Motors,’ ‘The Loneliest Planet,’ Mizoguchi, and Nazi zombies

Holy Motors (Vivendi) is a film that almost defies description.

From its enigmatic opening scenes, which sends the viewers into a mysterious voyage a la Alice through the looking glass that ends up in a movie theater, Holy Motors is a celebration of the magic, imagination, and primal power of the movies.

Director Leos Carax celebrates his love (as well as his criticisms) of cinema in the modern world through an imagined culture of interactive theater that recreates moviemaking as private performance art pieces executed by freelance performers / directors for audiences unknown. Denis Lavant, the ugly/beautiful primal force of Les amants du Pont-Neuf and Beau Travail, is the committed actor, delivered from set to set in a long white limousine dressing room, the arts equivalent to the traveling office of Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis (I think there is a great double feature to be found here). He transforms from businessman to gnarled old beggar woman to street thug killer to depraved leprechaun troll and beyond, taking on a complete new persona with each costume change.

Behind these unrestrained journeys into all manner of mini-movies is an anxiety over the future of filmmaking and a fear of exhaustion (physical and creative) by the filmmakers, but the determination to keep creating these dreams and the sheer physical commitment to each performance is its own answer. Yet beyond that is the exhilaration of Carax’s flights of fantasy, from the visceral beauty of a motion-capture martial arts dance and gymnastic ballet of sexual congress to passionately overwrought melodramas that could have come out of the 1940s (Hollywood or France, take your pick) to hard-edged crime thrillers with wicked twists that call on us to provide our own backstory. There’s comedy, music, drama, thrills, tributes to the movies, legendary French actress Edith Scob, American beauty Eva Mendes, and Australian pop star Kylie Minogue, but mostly there is wonder and invention and the sheer thrill of cinematic creation. In the words of Lavant’s exhausted creator, it’s all about the beauty of the act, and these acts are nothing if not beautiful.

Blu-ray and DVD, in French with English subtitles (and brief sequences in English language). The Blu-ray also features the 47-minute documentary “Drive-In” with interviews and behind-the-scenes footage (in French with English subtitles) and an interview with Kylie Minogue (in English).  Also available On Demand, on digital download, and VOD.

The Loneliest Planet (MPI), an American independent production shot overseas, stars Hani Furstenberg and Gael Garcia Bernal as a couple backpacking through the back country of Georgia in Eastern Europe, always making an effort to take the road less traveled. This road in this meandering, low-key film leads to an unexpected confrontation, and a startling reaction, that changes things irrevocably between them. Don’t fret if you don’t get any subtitles. We are as much in the dark as to what the locals are saying between themselves as our traveling couple. DVD, with a featurette and stills.

Sansho the Bailiff (Criterion), Kenji Mizoguchi’s masterful 1954 film, follows the ordeals of the wife and children of a provincial governor after they are sold into slavery by a vindictive feudal lord. Mizoguchi is the poet laureate of Japanese cinema, gracefully exploring the battered but resilient souls in the cruel worlds of Japan’s feudal past and present. His worlds are hard and unforgiving, the societies brutal, and within them he creates characters of tremendous grace. This is one of his greatest films, and it won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, his third win in three years.

Sansho is not the hero of Sansho the Bailiff, he’s a pitiless slave owner who metes out swift, unequivocal punishment to all slaves captured in escape attempts. The brother, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) hardens over time, becoming tough and unfeeling as he obeys the hard commands of Sansho, but sister Anju (Kyôko Kagawa) remains kind and generous and sacrifices her freedom to save Zushio, which rekindles his knotty heart and soul and resolve. Kinuyo Tanaka, who plays the mother separated from her children and degraded by a life of prostitution. Mizoguchi was famed for his portraits of women. It’s not just about finding the saints among the sinners, but the rich lives of these concubines and wives and actresses and prostitutes, who are supposed to find their identity in the men of their lives and wind up forging their own rich interior lives, even as they wind up discarded by their own society.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Essays

Oscar night: halfway measures

No miserables here: Daniel Day-Lewis, Jennifer Lawrence, Anne Hathaway, Christoph Waltz

For an Oscar year in which several big awards were foregone conclusions, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences soiree this past Sunday included its share of surprises.

It also featured an equable, perhaps accidental, distribution of the prizes among a range of movies. When we consider how set the Hollywood community appeared to be on anointing the sixth-best nominee as best picture, it’s gratifying that 2012 won’t go down in Oscar history as a sweep year.

Yes, as predicted here and just about everywhere else, the George Clooney–Grant Heslov–Ben Affleck production Argo copped the big one. But it won only two others, tying with the execrable Les Misérables and running one behind Life of Pi. Scoring two each on the tote board were Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the James Bond movie Skyfall, and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.

It was Django that drew first blood, with the second supporting-actor win by Christoph Waltz in a Quentin Tarantino movie. As in Inglourious Basterds (2009), Waltz was really a costar rather than supporting player. And once again Waltz gave an impeccably gracious acceptance speech, naming and literally bowing to his esteemed fellow nominees and praising his writer-director through artful repurposing of Tarantino’s own words.

Did Waltz’s sorta-surprise win foreshadow an evening of academy voters taking pointed stands against pinched-face controversy? Django Unchained, an outrageous historical revenge tale framed as a spaghetti Western, had been deplored (especially by people who refused to see it) for its ballsy, N-word–laden take on slavery. What about Zero Dark Thirty—only the for-real best movie of 2012—glibly maligned for endorsing the efficacy of “enhanced interrogation” even though it hadn’t done so?

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Essays

Oscar perspective

[originally published on Straight Shooting]

Best Pictures ‘Argo’ is better than
The Broadway Melody, Cimarron, Cavalcade, The Great Ziegfeld, Gentleman’s Agreement, The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in 80 Days, The Sound of Music, The Sting, Rocky, Gandhi, Driving Miss Daisy, Braveheart, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, Slumdog Millionaire

Best Pictures ‘Argo’ can orbit with
Wings, Grand Hotel, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Life of Emile Zola, Mrs. Miniver, All the King’s Men, An American in Paris, From Here to Eternity, Marty, Gigi, Ben-Hur, West Side Story, Tom Jones, My Fair Lady, A Man for All Seasons, In the Heat of the Night, Oliver!, Midnight Cowboy, Patton, Ordinary People, Chariots of Fire, Terms of Endearment, Out of Africa, Platoon, Rain Man, Dances With Wolves, Forrest Gump, The English Patient, Titanic, Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty, Gladiator, Crash, The King’s Speech

Best Pictures ‘Argo’ can’t touch
All Quiet on the Western Front, It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It with You, Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, Going My Way, The Lost Weekend, Hamlet, All About Eve, On the Waterfront, Bridge on the River Kwai, The French Connection, The Godfather, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer, Amadeus, The Last Emperor, The Silence of the Lambs, Schindler’s List, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Departed, The Artist

Best Pictures ‘Argo’ can’t see with an astronomical telescope
How Green Was My Valley, Casablanca, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Apartment, Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather Part Two, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, No Country for Old Men, The Hurt Locker

Best Picture nominees that lost (top shelf)
Grand Illusion, Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, The Maltese Falcon, The Magnificent Ambersons, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Sunset Blvd., Shane, Anatomy of a Murder, Dr. Strangelove, Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown, Nashville, All the President’s Men, E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial, The Right Stuff, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, Saving Private Ryan, Brokeback Mountain, Winter’s Bone

Best Picture nominees 2012: a ranking
Zero Dark Thirty, Amour, Lincoln, Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook, Argo, Life of Pi, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Les Misérables

Copyright © 2013 by Richard T. Jameson

Posted in: by Sheila Benson, Contributors, Essays

Oscar shows us its boobs: MacFarlane & Co.

God love Tom Shales and this Tweet last night:  “For the first time ever the Oscar show is worse than the Red Carpet crap that preceded it.”

For anyone who does not regularly rejoice in the work of the  former Washington Post TV critic and Pulitzer Prize winner, he blogs here.   For fear of suddenly sounding a whole lot smarter than I have a right to, I haven’t yet read a word of it, beyond his blog headline and this Tweet. Soon as this is posted I plan to luxuriate in Shales’  gentle, dove-like tones, since we seem to have seen the same show.

One of the hundreds of tidbits the Academy chummed to its ravenous readers was an interview with the show’s producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Chicago, The Bucket List, Footloose) who confessed that for years, they’d been dying to stage the Oscars since they’d  knew exactly what they’d do, “But no one asked us.”

Then, for better or worse, they were asked.

Let’s go with the best first.  The awards themselves, over which they had no control, were wide-ranging and generous (if your name isn’t Steven Spielberg.) It seems almost impossible not to love Ang Lee, people seem to beam in his presence, and he returns the favor. The whole theatre seemed to love his winning Best Director for Life of Pi, a seemingly impossible-to-pull-off, spiritually charged and breathtaking film.

Continue reading at Critic Quality Feed

Posted in: by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Links

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for week of February 22

Anonymous Oscar ballot

Seattle screenings and cinema events are surveyed at Parallax View here. Spotlight this week is on Noir City 2013.

Even if Oscar predictions and politicking hold as little interest for you as for me, you can still relish the ballot provided by an anonymous director to the Hollywood Reporter. Not least for the way his explanations of the votes—some reasoned, some petty—ring out with the unexamined jealousy and casual rage of a true insider. Via Richard Jameson.

For decades, as Ted Scheinman tells it, slapstick “flirted with the notion of inflicting serious pain on the dainty female body without quite allowing it to happen.” But now Melissa McCarthy has arrived, and he’s anxious to see if her fearless leaps of knockabout will continue to succeed on her terms or instead be flattened by her crueler, misogynistic collaborators. Also at the LA Review of Books, Julie Cline interviews Errol Morris about Jeffrey Macdonald, the unacknowledged legacy of psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley, and “our almost unfettered ability to foster, create, engender error.”

“”Argus”—good name for a cinema.” In an engrossing bit of literary detection, David Brody hunts down the movie clues—Disney, Garbo—to explain what’s going on in Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, while simultaneously looking at the relative success and failure of some recent movies that attempt something like the “beautiful idea” of an animated tableau vivant that grips the novel’s protagonist. Via David Hudson.

In what seems to be a recurring feature now (a previous installment featured Janusz Kaminski) Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan sits down with Roger Deakins to explain the method and reasoning behind ten of his iconic shots—one of which, Fargo‘s opening drive, he’s gentlemanly enough to admit was second unit.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Seattle Screens

Seattle Screens: Noir City 2013

Noir City 2013, my favorite Seattle festival of the year, opens for a week of double-feature showings (and one triple-feature) of classics, rarities, rediscoveries, and restorations. I preview the opening night program of two Cy Enfield pictures, the independently-made Try and Get Me! (1950), rescued and restored thanks to the efforts of the Film Noir Foundation, and The Hell Drivers (1957), at Seattle Weekly here, and recommend a few highlights from the 15-film program. But most of these films are new to me and not (or no longer available) on home video, so this festival will be one of discovery (hopefully) for me as well.

While most films are screened on 35mm, there are new 4K digital restorations of Billy Wilder’s Hollywood Gothic noir Sunset Boulevard and Blake Edwards’ sleek thriller Experiment in Terror, the two most familiar films in the line-up (and both available on Blu-ray and DVD), and a double feature of Noir 3D from 1953 – Inferno, a rare sun-blasted color noir with Robert Ryan, and Man in the Dark with Edmond O’Brien—on DCP digital prints (which, frankly, is a lot easier than trying to get 3D prints to work well, or at all).

Returning to Seattle screens is The Window (1949), the “boy who cried wolf” noir and the first film restored by the Film Noir Foundation (festival founder and ever-present host Eddie Muller brought it to SIFF years before he brought Noir City to Seattle) and The Chase (1946), a Cornell Woolrich adaptation that played in SIFF’s archival line-up just last year. The former creates a marvelous atmosphere of a sweltering New York summer in the city in the oppressive urban clutter of tenements and apartment houses where a bored young kid sees a murder committed across the alley, and the latter puts a surreal twist to classic noir elements in the story of a shell-shocked veteran (Robert Cummings) who gets tangled up with a Miami mobster and his desperate wife and slips into a nightmarish B-movie exaggeration of the nocturnal criminal world.

I look forward to discovering the rest, including the newly revived Native Son (1950), an adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel starring the author himself, produced in Argentina with a French director, and a pair of pre-code dramas—A House Divided (1931) from director William Wyler and Kiss Before the Mirror (1933), directed by James Whale between Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein—that aren’t noir by any definition but are arguably noir ancestors with some family resemblances.

Complete schedule here, along with ticket information. Passes for the entire program are also available.

In a timely bit of programming synchronicity, Northwest Film Festival presents a revival of Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man (1964), a drama of African-American working class life in sixties America. The synchronicity? On Monday, February 25, Noir City offers a pair of films with African-American protagonists: the above-mentioned Native Son and the 1949 Intruder in the Dust. Showtimes here.

Also at NWFF is American.Film.Week, with seven new film from American independent filmmakers playing one film a night. See schedule here.

And at SIFF Film Center this Saturday and Sunday is the South Asian International Documentary Film Festival. Details here.

Opening this week: Bless Me, Ultima, an adaptation of the Rudolfo Anaya’s novel of Mexican-American life in 1940s America by director/screenwriter Carl Franklin (I review it at Seattle Weekly here) (area theaters), John Dies at the End from Don Coscarelli (reviewed by Tom Keogh) (Varsity), Dwayne Johnson in Snitch (area theatres), the horror film Dark Skies (area theaters), and the documentaries Sound City from Dave Grohl (Sundance Cinemas) and Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary (a “worshipful biopic” according to Robert Horton at The Herald) (Grand Illusion).

Visit the film review pages at The Seattle TimesSeattle Weekly, and The Stranger for more releases.

View complete screening schedules through IMDbMSNYahoo, or Fandango, pick the interface of your choice.