5 Hitchcock Movies in 5 Weeks

ImageAn acquaintance of mine who is also a movie buff is a huge Alfred Hitchcock guy. Apparently there’s a box-set collection of every one of his movies and this friend has it. Having only watched a few Hitchcock movies I asked for recommendations, put them in the Netflix queue, and have watched several over the last few months. My youngest daughter actually watched Vertigo with me, she and my wife both fell asleep during The Man Who Knew Too Much, and they were both in and out of the other options. (But it’s still pretty cool that my 16-year-old daughter watched Vertigo with me.)

Now that my season with Hitchcock is coming to a close now is as good a time as any to document some of my reactions to these movies for the proverbial “record.” Ultimately my rating is a combination of my own opinion and what I’ll just call  “Family Score.” These are not in any particular order:

hitchcock_torn_curtainTorn Curtain (1966)
Torn Curtain stars Paul Newman as an American scientist that publicly defects to East Germany. I’m OK with Paul Newman and I love Julie Andrews. What I’m not OK with is Newman and Andrews waking up together in the same bed in the very first scene — with all its implications. I mean, that’s Mary Poppins! It’s Maria! That being said, I do think Torn Curtain is actually a pretty good movie. Family Score: Unfortunately, I never got over the first scene and for the most part spent my time with Torn Curtain disoriented and in shock. Julie Andrews-as-not-Mary-Poppins-but-also-not-Maria creeped the whole family out and that’s just not right. 3 out of 5 stars.

 

ManWhoKnewTooMuchThe Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
I liked this movie. There were some location shots that were reminiscent of Hitchcock’s work in North By Northwest as well as some comedic moments that worked in a way contemporary dramas work today. Even though I’m not a big James Stewart fan, he and Doris Day do a great job as a vacationing family that stumble on to an assassination plot in Morocco. There’s a famous orchestra scene that might go on a little too long, but you get a lot of things that make Hitchcock Hitchcock in this movie. Family Score: It couldn’t keep my wife awake. Daughter never gave it a chance. By no means is this a viable recommendations for a Saturday at home. 31/2 out of 5 stars.

 

Rope2Rope (1948)
James Stewart is the only actor I recognized in this feature and he doesn’t walk into the frame until the 28-minute mark. Rope is Stewart’s least favorite collaboration with Hitchcock. The entire movie takes place in a single apartment in only 10 takes. Because of that it’s fun to try to find the places where the director cut the scenes. It’s an amazing piece of filmmaking and maybe the most “Hitchcockian” of the movies I’ve watched. The premise is diabolical and strikes the chords you would expect of a psychological thriller. If you read the back story of Rope you will better appreciate its technical achievement. Family Score: Both daughters and my wife passed after repeated invitations to watch Rope (probably because of the title). The DVD sat by the television for weeks. Only for the most artsy. 4 out of 5 stars.

north-by-northwestNorth by Northwest (1959)
This feels like the most commercially driven and commercially successful movie out of the ones I watched. It’s also the one that “beats” like a contemporary thriller. In some ways it’s the opposite of Vertigo, which is much more quiet and introspective. I like Cary Grant in the lead role but it’s one my favorites, Eva Marie Saint, that really makes North by Northwest pop in my opinion. She is flawless. This is the also the movie in the Hitchcockian canon that I’m most likely to watch again. Family Score: By the time I made it to this point I had completely lost my family. But it’s my fault for not beginning the series with something more familiar. I watched North by Northwest alone one Saturday morning. 31/2 out of 5 stars.

 

vertigoVertigo (1958)
If there was ever a movie that didn’t need a plot to be great it is Vertigo. If asked I could probably remember what it is about but that’s not what’s most important to me about this film. Vertigo is without a doubt a frame-by-frame masterpiece. There is one seen during which Kim Novak’s character is looking at a painting in a museum. The scene itself may be less than a minute, but Hitchcock spent a week filming it in order to get the light exactly the way he wanted it. It’s that attention to detail that makes art. You watch Vertigo in the same way you would stare at a Van Gogh or Rembrandt. You take it in. You allow it to work the way its creator intended it to work. Family Score: Not only did my youngest daughter watch it with me, but she watched with me twice.  5 out of 5 stars.

 

Maleficent: Story of Healing … or Corrective

Maleficent_live_actionIn terms of review, Maleficent is a good—not great — movie. Jolie’s performance in particular is worth noting and I thought the special effects were actually utilized with some measure of restraint—a welcome respite these days. Although the story at times is disjointed, the overall impact is still somewhat powerful. Performances outside of Jolie are unable to match her intensity but I think the biggest downside to Maleficent is how it departs from the original 1959 version of Sleeping Beauty. The differences were noticeable and even jarring at times, but surprisingly I didn’t have a hard time getting past it.

I’ve been in several exchanges in which the general impression of Maleficent was underwhelming. I get that. It’s by no means a kid’s movie and it departs rather radically from what most consider “Disney.” But that’s actually what makes this movie work for me. For one thing, fairy tales are usually dark and it doesn’t require much to realize that many of Disney’s films include a villain that represents the worst kind of evil in the world. Scar is a murderer. Cruella De Ville is a puppy killer. (What can be worse than that?). Jafar is willing to leave Aladdin in an underground cavern to die a slow death. So Maleficent, in that respect, is true to the genre.

As the movie unfolds, however, a couple of surprising narrative threads come to light. First is the unexpected healing, redemptive journey that Maleficent is on. Her story begins in the Eden-like land of the Moors before heartbreak and betrayal of the highest order put her on a path toward the Maleficent we know from the original Disney feature. The revisionist twist here is that the title character is a victim. Moreover, she is a victim betrayed by love —specifically “true love’s kiss”— in an intense scene charged with sexual violation. Instead of giving in to the resulting pain that could easily usher in the well-worn path of destruction, this story offers an alternative redemption that progresses at a very believable pace. This a matter of identity. Trauma—particularly the trauma experienced by Maleficent— has the potential to send us spiraling into a false identity. We see Maleficent, however, recover her identity throughout the movie’s narrative. In short, it’s a story of healing and recovering something of what’s truer of about herself than what she has become. Maleficent’s path to healing and redemption became the primary story driver for me. That is, when I wasn’t wondering internally, “How are they going to pull this off?”

Second, and perhaps even more interesting, is Maleficent as a corrective heroine relative to the traditional Disney princess. Disney heroines have traditionally been portrayed a certain way. That is, she is beautiful but deprived; she possesses inner strength and resolve but needs help; her dreams require a rescuer; yes her dreams are realized but it requires a little ingenuity and a lot of patience. Beginning with 2009’s The Princess and the Frog this prototype began to change. Tiana has her own dreams and ambition. She doesn’t really need a prince. And she’s not only willing to do the work to create a desired outcome for herself but has already started the process when we are introduced to her.

Maleficent —while not a princess, still close as the apparent sovereign of the Moors — continues this course correction and probably turns it up a notch.  Not only is romantic love not at the heart of her transformation, but the prince, now king, is actually the antagonist. In the signature scene of the movie it is Stefan, the king, that is on his knees in complete deference to the female lead. But this Maleficent is is acting out of the trauma of betrayal, not the character she will become through her relationship with Aurora. The victim through the first third of the movie, Maleficent finds her heart and identity through relationship apart from romance —in defiance of romance in fact. This film, as others like it, show us that romantic love may not be the ultimate human experience—or at least not the most redemptive one. Suffice it to say, very different from my expectations going into this movie, Maleficent is very human.

I like the traditional Disney princess and all the happy endings. But I’m also not opposed to a bit of revision like what we’ve seen in the last 5-6 years. Cinderella and Belle are great but Maleficent and Tiana are even more complete characters and they also require a little more of us.

We Bought a Zoo: Because Sometimes Crazy Is Just What We Need

 

Matt Damon and Cast

We Bought a Zoo is a good movie. I just listened to Filmspotting‘s list of top 10 movies of the year and you won’t find We Bought a Zoo there or probably any other list of the critically acclaimed. (Of course I’ve only heard of a handful of what they did mention.) And it shouldn’t be. The plot is simple and even predictable. Damon is effective in the lead and Scarlett Johansson redeems recent performances, buy neither blows you away. Thomas Hayden Church is the hammy pessimist. John Michael Higgins and Elle Fanning are show stealers. And it works. It’s good. Sitting there in the theater it hit me that, with the over-dramatic, computer generated, and suped-up special effects, the art of the good and pleasant movie is somewhat lost these days. We Bought a Zoo is just … good.

We narrowed our list of potential movies to Sherlock Holmes, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and We Bought a Zoo. I don’t know how you go about making the decision at your house, but for us deciding which movie we’re going to watch gets tough once we get the decision down to three. It came down to this: Cameron Crowe. He struck magic with Jerry Maguire. Hit Oscar with Almost Famous. Became iconic with Say Anything. Entered the vernacular with Fast Times. And struck a profound chord with Elizabethtown. Suffice it to say, Crowe is one of our favorites. And even though it felt like he didn’t really know how he wanted to shoot this movie or where he wanted to insert those great lines of his, he’s still Cameron Crowe and he can still bring it. In We Bought a Zoo Crowe creates more than a few magical moments.

What was best about We Bought a Zoo, though, was much simpler. Our world is anything but certain these days. The economy remains a mess and lots of us are upside down on our houses as a result of another bubble gone “poof.” It can and is hard for a lot of people stuck between stagnation on one side and inability to act on the other. Damon’s character, Benjamin Mee, is facing a circumstance that should resonate with all of us. Far from a passive type, Mee is living an adventure when we are first introduced to him. But then he is invited into a greater adventure by the Larger Story of life. He responds by taking a chance. He takes a shot. At its heart, We Bought a Zoo is about a dad that responds to life’s call and does something right. When faced with one of tough life decisions, he chooses to act.

Our decisions in these moments are not always the right ones. But the important thing, it seems, is to make a decision; to take your shot. And that’s what Benjamin Mee does. He does something many would call crazy—and they would be right. But in taking his shot Benjamin Mee is taking ownership of his life and the future of his family. That’s always a good story. Agonistes recommends We Bought a Zoo as a show of support for the people that make good movies.

Finding a Place for The Help

 A friend asked me this week, “So did you like The Help?” We’re all used to the question. It’s a familiar entree into a discussion about a particular movie—or it can also be an opportunity to give a short answer and move on. It comes as no surprise to you that most of the time I already have a position in mind before the question is asked. It’s just what I do. But where The Help is concerned, when I looked at my friend, ready to give an answer, I was unable to answer the question. I couldn’t answer the question because I’m having a difficult time responding to The Help, written and directed by Tate Taylor and based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett.

The Help is a very well-crafted movie. The stakes are high—survival, identity, even life and death, the story compelling, and the characters are strong. The photography is sufficient but director Tate Taylor seems to get enough out of his ensemble cast to make up for a lack of memorable shots. (But with emotionally charged material like what we’ve got in The Help, the “Don’t blow it” rule is definitely in play.) There are several really good performances but I thought Cicely Tyson (Constantine) and Bryce Dallas Howard (Hilly) were the most powerful. It’s also worth noting that I enjoyed my first Emma Stone experience and thought Viola Davis was effective in her role as Abileen Clark, the impact character that tends to drive the story. With ten nominations for Best Picture these days … who knows. It wouldn’t be a shocker to see The Help make the list in February. This movie feels important.

So I guess you could say that, yes, I liked the movie for its artistic and cinematic merit. Its content, however, left me a tad disconcerted. The Help is one of those films that rolls the proverbial snake over to reveal its terrible underbelly. The snake in this case is 1960s Jackson MS. And the underbelly is the servile industry of Jackson’s urban elite—or maybe its middle class. Regardless, there is a gentile crowd whose insensibility is on display as perhaps the most natural and subtle form of depravity I  can remember seeing on the big screen. As a result I’ve had a really difficult time taking a position on this movie. On the one hand I believe that it’s healthy and productive to revisit even the most painful moments of our past. There are lessons both to be learned and remembered. On the other hand there is a part of me that very much wants to put issues like those raised in The Help to bed once and for all.

And then there’s the tension that emerges from the nature of this fiction. I’ve got to give Stockett and Taylor credit for their creativity. Technically speaking, The Help had a touch of Renaissance drama story-within-a-story to it that gives it a classic vibe. I love what this kind of presentation asks of its audience, too. But a message this strong and sensitive needs more spine than mere fiction has to offer. In other words, writers don’t have to work hard to make a community, people group, or in this case entire region look bad. It’s easy. Accordingly I really wish this story wasn’t made up. And then I catch myself thinking that and feel ashamed because the better thing to wish for is that it never happened. I think maybe that the net effect is that  it feels less than honest to me. Not that Stockett isn’t justified or that the ethos is inaccurate—because it definitely is true of 1960s South and most likely still true to a greater extent than what anyone cares to admit today—but that these nameless and faceless individuals deserved their own voice. Not Stockett’s. This is not criticism of the author or her craft. It’s just commentary.

As a child of the South I’m familiar with the peculiar servile industry The Help uses to advance its plot. I can remember adults of my early adolescence working alongside black women of the day. It seemed benign enough to me. I certainly do not remember any uncomfortable moments and do not recall the tension that is definitely present in the movie. And that is what bothers me. William Faulkner’s Quentin Compson concluded that his Aunt Rosa told him the story of the south over and over because “we breathe the same air.” Collectively, the South has come into a unique ownership of this problem. In the end The Help isn’t about what’s going on in the movie or what may or may not have happened in 1960s Mississippi or any kind of statement that may be made about today. In the end it’s a movie about honesty and dishonesty. It is not about understanding, but an effort to understand. Or as Kathryn Stockett has posted on her web site:

But what I am sure about is this: I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially the 1960’s.  I don’t think it is something any white woman, on the other end of a black woman’s paycheck, could ever truly understand.  But trying to understand is vital to our humanity. 

Cheering Secretariat

Secretariat at the 1973 Belmont Stakes

After experiencing Disney’s Secretariat and its heavy-weight cast of Diane Lane, James Cromwell, John Malkovich, and Scott Glenn I’ve got to agree with Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times:

“So why, when I saw the race in the film, did I have tears in my eyes?” he writes. “It was because ‘Secretariat‘ is a movie that allows us to understand what it really meant. This isn’t some cornball formula film. It doesn’t have a contrived romance…. It is a great film about greatness, the story of the horse and the no less brave woman who had faith in him.”

I’m surprised, to be honest, at what is mostly high-praise for a move that might have come off as a little too “feel good” and perhaps formulaic—usually anathema to Hollywood critics. I detected neither, but rather a movie that not only reminds us of our great stories at a time when good stories are hard to find, but also what is required when pursuing something significant.

My family and I couldn’t help but compare Secretariat to Seabiscuit on the way home from the theatre. For most part we agreed that Seabiscuit was still the better movie, but where the simple art of storytelling is concerned—Secretariat is hard to beat. Regarding performances, Diane Lane is great as Penny Chenery even if she does borrow from Streep’s Karen and Bullock’s Leigh Ann Tuohy. But it is Malkovich as trainer Lucien Laurin and the horse itself, as it should be, that emerge as the true vehicles of this great story.

My favorite part? There’s a scene during the Belmont Stakes—the last leg of the Triple Crown—in which the director chooses to allow the action to go silent as Secretariat opens that now-famous margin between himself and Sham. It’s during this moment that both those on screen as well as those in the theater are given the opportunity to drink in this epic, yet fleeting, moment of greatness.

In the end, as Ebert says, Secretariat is a great film about greatness—on multiple levels. It’s also cool how the Book of Job makes its way into the narrative. And I don’t remember another movie experience in which those on-hand actually cheered during the show.

1998 In Review: Best Movies

A recent Filmspotting podcast featured a conversation about the best movies of 1998. I had forgotten how good 1998 was for movies. Looking back at that year, it might have been the best year for movies for a decade or more—certainly since. You can see their lists by clicking here. (And let me tell you that you’re going to be surprised with at least one of them. Certainly can’t cite Matty and Adam as movie snobs.) In the spirit of keeping the conversation alive, here are my top 5 movies from 1998:

5. Pleasantville I’ll admit that this one might best be categorized as a guilty pleasure. I loved Joan Allen and Jeff Daniels. William H. Macy is always a hit. The way director Gary Ross expressed “coming alive” as moving from black and white to color was marvelous—and profound. And for the first time we really get to see the promise of Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, and Paul Walker.

4. The Truman Show Because it works so well as a metaphorical expression of the Christian faith. Truman has to face his fears—and whether you’re in a controlled environment or not, fears are always “real.” And even though Ed Harris over-dramatizes his role as Christof, he still gives us plenty to chew on. But what I loved most were the aspects of liberty Truman comes to embody for all those “hostage” to his fiction. In a sense, the viewing audience plays every bit the captive as Truman himself. And so as Truman “dies” to the world, so the world becomes free through his process. Although he is dead to the world, he is alive in the world. Well played.

3. Shakespeare In Love So maybe the movie has some problems. If so, writing isn’t one of them. I have maintained since that Shakespeare In Love is one of the wittiest, most clever screenplays ever written. The way Tom Stoppard inter-weaves his own story with those of Shakespeare—particularly Romeo and Juliet—is masterful. As a big Christpher Marlowe fan I absolutely loved the way Kit Marlowe was written into the story. And even Ben Affeck reminds us why we liked him in the first place as Ned Allen—actually playing the show-stealer that Mercutio really played, so much in fact that some scholars believed Shakespeare had to “kill him off” just like Affleck’s Allen. It’s that kind of stuff that makes Shakespear in Love so wonderful.

2. Rushmore I honestly don’t have a reason for liking this movie so much. I love Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic) and his quirky style. Bill Murray is good. Connie Nielsen is convincing. Jason Schwatzman as Max has a weightiness in Rushmore that can’t be ignored. Maybe I like it for reasons just too simple to articulate, or maybe I like it because it’s just such a quaint expression of humanity as well as wonderful commentary on the confusion of growing up that emerges so recognizably:

Margaret—You’re a real jerk to me, you know that?
Max—I’m sorry, Margaret.
Margaret—Well anyway, nice to see you.

1. The Thin Red Line Without a doubt. I’m so glad this movie is getting its due even 12 years later. It was up for best picture, but was generally considered only the 2nd best WW2 movie of 1998 (Saving Private Ryan). But, hey, it’s not Terrence Malick‘s fault that Tom Hanks has put the entire movie-going world into some sort of deep and sinister trance. I’d watch The Thin Red Line over and over again just for the haunting, poetic voiceovers from Ben Chaplin and Jim Caviezel—but there’s more. This is one of the most beautiful movies ever made.

Why Avatar?

Three parts Dances With Wolves and one part The Matrix with a dash of Cameron’s own Alien, Avatar is not normally the sort of movie that I’ll make a point to see. It’s not that I’m a movie snob, it’s just that (… well, maybe I am a snob) that the trailer wasn’t all that appealing and none of the reviews nor was the word-of-mouth particularly convincing. The sum of it wreaked “commercial” to me. Added that 3 hours is hard to come by these days, it was easy to avoid. However, in the case of Avatar we’ve got a phenomenon that’s only seen every now and then. The way it screamed  by Titanic for the all-time box office record for gross receipts was shocking. When that happens I think you’ve got to answer the question, Why? What makes one movie every 10 years or so such a cultural phenomenon? What is it that touches us so deeply about Avatar?

The story itself is not the star. With the direction in Cameron’s hands the goal of the story is this: just make sense. The heavy-handed political statements, at least in my opinion, were distracting. Regarding the performances, with due respect to Giovanni Ribisi, only Zoe Saldana made any sort of impact for me personally. She played Neytiri— the love interest, and Pandora guide, of protagonist Jake Sully. Everyone else, including Sam Worthington, were just stand-ins—more resulting from writing than their mastery of their craft. A pastor friend of mine tweeted that while Avatar was a great movie, its message is a dangerous one. With more than hints of Gaia, New Age-like thinking, and mysticism, I understand where he’s coming from, but this wasn’t any more of a problem for me than buying into The Force in Star Wars.

So after all that I’ve got to say that the star of Avatar is Pandora. And what touches us so deeply is not the special effects and visual delights of Avatar, but rather the evolving romance between Pandora native Neytiri and US Marine Jake Sully. These two elements work in concert to create, what is for stretches of Avatar, one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. Pandora is actually alive with both beauty and danger. Its intrigue invites us into a dreamscape reminiscent of Eden in its never-ending beauty, mystery, and its layers of life to be discovered.

Jake Sully is a warrior without equal, but even he needs a guide into the depths of Pandora. There is love and beauty to be found. But just like in life, to find extremes of either requires risk. So on one level Neytiri is Virgil to Sully’s Dante. And somehow this is believable. It could be that the believability finds its origins in Genesis—Genesis 2:18 to be exact. It is here that God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper for him.” I’ve read that the word for “helper” here is better translated as “lifesaver alongside.” Or as I would rather translate it: “warrior with.” Just as Eve was created to be Adam’s “warrior with,” Sully and Neytiri also enjoy a relationship predicated on romance, adventure, and devotion. Theirs is a desperate partnership of sorts. The idea of Sully and Neytiri exploring all that is the  locus amoenus of Pandora together as warrior and warrior-with strikes a chord at the deepest levels. It’s also an image very difficult to duplicate in today’s world thus the success of the fantasy world of Avatar.

So it could be that Avatar taps into our heart’s recognition of the greatest story—the story of Eden. The original story. It could be that our hearts, collectively, have the capacity to recognize the epic story of the Garden of Eden that has a cameo here in Avatar. It could be that the appeal of Cameron‘s Avatar is due not to anything that Cameron has done so much as the door that Eden’s recollection opens into all of our souls; our longing; and our desire. Could be.