Hitchcock

In 1959, for many Americans, Alfred Hitchcock was just as familiar as a TV personality as he was as a movie director. In “Hitchcock,” we get both personas.

The movie, starring Anthony Hopkins in the title role with Helen Mirren as his wife Alma, tells the story of the financing, filming and opening of Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” The film opens and closes with Hopkins as Hitchcock delivering his trademark dry humor as he directly addresses the audience, exactly like Hitchcock did on his “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV show.

Hopkins does not particularly resemble Hitchcock, but his portrayal of the large man with the large ego is delivered with a clever mix of gravitas and fun. His relationship with his wife, and her collaboration on a screenplay with a writer played by Danny Huston, provide a good portion of the film’s story. The story of getting “Psycho” made is the other main plot element.

Throughout the movie we see Hitchcock in fantasy segments watching and talking to Ed Gein, the real life man whose odd behavior was the inspiration for “Psycho’s” Norman Bates. We see Hitchcock coaxing terror from Janet Leigh, played by Scarlett Johanssohn, during the filming of the iconic shower scene. We see him reveling in the response from the audience at the film’s premiere.

Hopkins and Mirren are both excellent in this glimpse at their personal and professional lives in late ‘50’s Hollywood. Could they be in line for Oscar nominations? The movie industry loves movies about the movie industry, so the possibilities are good.

Many of us, especially baby boomers, recall the first time we saw “Psycho,” whose story and ending had profound effects on audiences. (I saw it in my dorm cafeteria as a college freshman.) While “Hitchcock” won’t have the same impact as “Psycho,” the characters, story and storytelling are all good. No surprise ending to this review: I like it!

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Killing Them Softly

Brutality, gore and obscene language combine to deliver the year’s grittiest crime drama. Setting the film against the backdrop of the 2008 pre-election financial crisis could have been a genius move, but ultimately is just an amusing juxtaposition.

“Killing Them Softly” is not a classic but has several memorable characters and some funny dark humor.

The story: two novice hoods are sent to rob a card game that’s run by the mob. They’re nervous, but they pull it off. Brad Pitt plays a mid-level mobster whose mission is to avenge the robbery. Pitt tells a mob lawyer, played by Richard Jenkins in one of their many conversations, that he doesn’t like to get into his target’s faces, he prefers to kill them “softly, from a distance.”

He imports a gunman played by James Gandolfini to help with the killing. This subcontracted hitman has addictions, mainly booze and hookers, which render him basically useless. Also in the cast are Ray Liotta and Sam Shepard.

Cinematic highlights include one particularly violent shooting, presented in slow motion a la “Bonnie and Clyde.” Also effective is the movie’s opening whose audio switches sharply back and forth between hard rock music and Barrack Obama campaign speech soundbites.

Throughout the film we see and hear TV clips of George W. Bush making his case to congress for bailout money and references to the ’08 election. The message, apparently, is that the meltdown affected mob finances just as much as it did the rest of America.

To borrow a line from another president, let me make one thing perfectly clear: this is one of the more violent movies you’ll ever see. If that’s your thing, enjoy. If not, stay away.

A Late Quartet

A movie about a string quartet? How tedious could that be? In the case of “A Late Quartet,” not tedious at all—this is a lively, energetic movie about a talented group of musicians, performed by a talented group of actors.

You don’t have to be a Beethoven fan to appreciate “A Late Quartet.” There’s plenty of music, but the story is more about the musicians and their passions, musical and otherwise.

Christopher Walken is a recently widowed cello player who is diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s disease. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a violinist who is married to the quartet’s viola player, played by Catherine Keener. Ukraine native Mark Ivanir is the intense first-chair violinist who wants every note played perfectly.

But musicians do not always play every note perfectly. Christopher Walken’s character has a wonderful scene in the film in which he relates a tale about an encounter with violin great Pablo Casals. The point of his anecdote is that a live performance of music reveals personal interpretation.

The quartet has been together for nearly a quarter century when we meet them. The group is upset first by their cellist’s Parkinson’s, then by Hoffman’s character’s desire to make a change to the group. Then come marital issues between the couple and an upsetting romantic choice by the first chair.

Along with the quartet, a beautiful young actress with the unfortunate name Imogen Poots gives a nice performance as the aspiring violinist daughter of the couple.

Director Yaron Zilberman (such an unknown that he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page) who co-wrote the original script, does an excellent job of making these actors appear to be real musicians. (At least to my non-musician eyes.)

Yes, the story is a bit soap opera-ish, but the cast is strong and the music enjoyable. While “A Late Quartet” is unlikely to move beyond art houses, don’t let Beethoven scare you away from a good movie.

Anna Karenina

“Anna Karenina” is set in Russia but, make no mistake, this film is British from head to toe. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

How British is “AK?” Leo Tolstoy wrote the book, but Englishman Tom Stoppard wrote the script and Brit Joe Wright directed. The bulk of filming was done in the UK. And, of course, British actors populate the cast.

Much of this film is shot on and around a theater stage. We see Russian bureaucrats stamping papers in a musical rhythm. Model train sets substitute for exterior shots of trains. These elements and others give “AK” a sort of unreality that adds spice but doesn’t distract from the storytelling.

The plot is a classic tale of love and sex among the privileged class of pre-revolution Russia (1874, to be precise). Keira Knightley, looking impossibly beautiful, has the title role. Her husband, played by Jude Law, is a refined man who (almost) never loses his cool. (Law, who turns 40 in December, plays his most mature role to date.) Anna’s lover is played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. He co-starred earlier this year in a completely different role as a pot grower/dealer in “Savages.”

While riding on a train to Moscow, Anna meets her future lover’s mother who offers her outlook on life. Her credo, approximately, is that it’s better to regret mistakes you make than to regret never having acted on one’s urges. This guidance informs Anna’s aggressive pursuit of her young lover.

Along with Anna’s story, we have the story of her brother and his chronic infidelity. Her brother is played by Matthew Macfayden who, coincidentally, wooed Knightley in 2005’s “Pride and Prejudice.” Then there’s the sweet romance between farmer Levin and Anna’s sister-in-law, Kitty.

One might ask why this story is being told yet again? Previous English language versions have starred Vivien Leigh, Sophie Marceau and Greta Garbo. The reason: It’s a classic.

There are characters in “AK” for most everyone in the audience to identify with. For women, Anna presents a character who risks her unfulfilling marriage to indulge her passion and desire. Are there married women in America today who might fantasize about doing that? I’m guessing there are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life of Pi

“”Life of Pi” is visually stunning and tells an incredible story. But it is not the next “Avatar.”

Director Ang Lee shares many gorgeous images in this movie. From the opening credits with animals galore, to the blendings of sea and sky, to the amazing enchanted island, to the luminous fish—shot after shot is memorable. And the story is pretty good, too.

A clever young man in India shortens his embarrassing first name to “Pi.” He covers his bases with God. He’s a Christian, a Muslim and a Hindu. His family, which owns a zoo, moves to Canada, traveling with their menagerie via freighter. A monster wave sinks the ship and Pi finds himself in a lifeboat with four zoo animals: a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a fearsome tiger. The story is related to a writer by an adult Pi, so we know from the outset that he survived the ordeal.

Most of the movie is set at sea, in and around the lifeboat. The survival instincts of this teenager, along with guidance from a book found in the lifeboat, keep him going through numerous frightening episodes. His “relationship” with the tiger fuels the story’s progress to its conclusion.

Suraj Sharma is the Indian actor who portrays the teenage Pi. His performance is a good one for a movie rookie who is charged with carrying the bulk of the movie’s story. Like Tom Hanks in “Cast Away,” he is the only human on screen for most of the movie.

This is a movie to see in 3-D on a big screen. It is, as they say, “a feast for the eyes.” There is peril and a few scenes that frighten, but “Life of Pi” (rated PG) will thrill kids just as much as it does adult viewers.

Early marketing for “Life of Pi” contained a critic quote that compared it to “Avatar.” Both are pretty to look at and both have compelling stories, but “Life of Pi” doesn’t have the heft of “Avatar.” Enjoy “Life of Pi” for what it is… a solidly entertaining movie. A classic? That’s still to be determined.

Silver Linings Playbook

“Silver Linings Playbook” has it all: love, laughter, tears, mental illness, football, dancing and gambling. It more than lives up to its advance buzz. The story, the characters and the telling of the story are all compelling. Go see this movie!

Bradley Cooper plays Patrick, a man who’s just spent several months in a mental health treatment center after severely injuring his wife’s lover. For now, he’s staying with his folks. He still loves his wife but can’t see her, due to a restraining order. A friend invites him over for dinner where he meets a young widow, Tiffany, played by Jennifer Lawrence.

Tiffany also has mental health issues. Following her husband’s death, she received therapy and medications. She and Patrick become friends and she asks him to be her partner in a dance competition.

Meanwhile, Patrick’s dad, played by Robert DeNiro, is revealed to have anger issues of his own—he’s been permanently banned from Philadelphia Eagles home games for fighting in the stands. Dad is a guy who’s lost his job and has turned to bookmaking to get by.

The interaction between these characters and others in the film will break your heart one minute and make you laugh out loud the next. David O. Russell wrote the script and directed the movie. He directed 2010’s wonderful “The Fighter,” which was notable for similar family dynamics. (“SLP” is set in suburban Philly, while “The Fighter” was set in Lowell, Massachusetts.)

The resolution of “Silver Linings Playbook” is satisfying for many reasons, which I dare not reveal here. Just go see this movie!

Sadly, a TV spot for the movie reveals one of the film’s key turning points. I hate when that happens. I encourage you to avoid any TV ads or online trailers before you see “SLP.”

“Silver Linings Playbook” is among this year’s best. Expect award nominations for Cooper and Lawrence and maybe DeNiro. Russell should get a nom for best adapted script and, possibly, best director. Best picture? It should make that list, too.

Breaking Dawn, Part Two

The best parts of “Breaking Dawn, Part Two” are the opening credits and the closing “curtain call.” I have mixed feelings about what comes between the start and the finish.

The majestic scenery of the Pacific Northwest is photographed beautifully for the lead-in to “Breaking Dawn, Part Two.” Bella is now a full-fledged, red-eyed, immortal vampire, capable of amazing feats. Edward and Bella are staying at the gorgeous Cullen home in the woods.

Jacob, who “imprinted” on the newborn Renesmee in “B.D., Part One,” hangs alongside at the Cullen pad. Jacob has to be a sexually frustrated man/wolf as he watches his former flame with his former rival.

The Cullens provide the newlyweds with their own little cabin in the woods, where they enjoy a tastefully romantic roll in the hay before confronting the movie’s big issue: what’s to become of little Nessie (as Jacob now calls her): Will she be mortal or immortal? Should the child go away with Jacob? Will those rival vampires, led by Michael Sheen, want to kill off the Cullens, including the kid?

Sure enough, a showdown is looming. The Cullens recruit vampire friends from around the world—Russia, Egypt, Ireland, South America, etc.—to join in the battle. Jacob promises the wolves will fight on the side of the Cullens. After an extended buildup, the faceoff occurs. What happens next will be revealed if and when you see the movie. No spoilers here.

This is a movie that accomplishes its mission, which is to get Bella and Edward to “happily ever after.” But, after the wedding, conception and birth in “Part One,” this movie is a bit of an anti-climax. “Twilight” hardcores, who’ve enjoyed the first four movies, will have to see this one. Casual fans of the series may want to take a pass.

Was it a good idea to make the final book into a two-part movie? It worked for the Harry Potter franchise; it will likely be a money maker for “Twilight.”

Director Bill Condon adds a nice touch at the end of this, the final (we think) “Twilight” movie. There’s a sort of “curtain call” with a shot of each of the many actors with their names and character names. More directors, especially those leading films with large casts, should do this.

Lincoln

The problems with “Lincoln” include a bad script, a slow pace and a dark, almost monochromatic look. Daniel Day-Lewis as Abe, though, is terrific!

Tony Kushner, who wrote the script, is known primarily as a writer of stage plays. This script is like those written for certain 1930’s movies, which were little more than filmed plays. Too many long, ponderous speeches give “Lincoln” a stale formality that belies the urgency of the situation. Sadly, Kushner’s script sets the film medium back a few decades.

This film moves very slowly. Do not attempt to watch “Lincoln” after having dinner and a couple of drinks. I’m serious. You’ll nod off.

The lack of color is almost distracting. Yes, the story is set in the winter of 1865 and indoor lighting was primitive then, but please, Steven Spielberg, don’t make it so drab.

The reason to see “Lincoln” is to witness another killer performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. He inhabits the role with a surprisingly gentle touch. Unlike the big, boisterous characters DDL played in “There Will Be Blood” and “Gangs of New York,” his Lincoln is subdued. We see him pounding a table in the movie’s trailer, but that’s not the Lincoln we see during the vast majority of the movie.

The film’s story centers on Lincoln’s efforts to get the 13th amendment passed and put an end to slavery. He knows that the war is likely to end soon. He plays politics and cuts deals to persuade members of Congress to pass it before hostilities end.

Supporting cast includes Sally Field as wife Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as son Robert, Hal Holbrook as a liaison between warring parties, Tommy Lee Jones as congressman Thaddeus Stevens and a chubby James Spader as political operative.

Director Steven Spielberg has made a flawed movie, which, nonetheless, will be shown in high school history classes for decades to come. Despite the shortcomings of “Lincoln,” the movie, we get a good impression of Lincoln, the man. Instead of thinking of him as the stoic figure on our money and in portraits and statues, we can now think of him as a living, breathing man. That is “Lincoln’s” saving grace.

 

 

Skyfall

“Skyfall” is the best of the James Bond movies starring Daniel Craig and one of the better Bond films of the entire 50-year series. The action, the locations and the characters are engaging from the first frame to the last.

It starts with an incredible chase scene that involves motorbikes on Istanbul rooftops and hand-to-hand combat atop a moving train. Bond is trying to grab a computer drive that contains the identities of several agents who have infiltrated terrorist gangs. He fails.

He goes to Shanghai—which looks gorgeous in an establishing shot—to get the drive and gets into more hand-to-hand combat. In a stylistic shot from director Sam Mendes, part of the battle is fought in the upper stories of a high rise, in silhouette against the night sky.

Next on the Bond “Skyfall” tour is Macau, in coastal China, near Hong Kong. Here he meets a mysterious woman who takes him to meet Raoul Silver, played with panache by a blonde-haired Javier Bardim. Silver may be the first gay Bond villain. Turns out he’s a former British agent who was captured by the Chinese and has now become a cyber terrorist.

Bond returns Silva to London but, dang it, he escapes and more bad things happen. Bond retreats to his boyhood home in Scotland. He purposely leaves a trail to lure Silva for their ultimate face off.

Among the film’s other characters and actors: The great Judi Dench as M; a new Q, a young geek of a guy, played by Ben Whishaw; Albert Finney as the gamekeeper of the Scottish estate; Ralph Fiennes as a British government official with authority over the spy agency.

There are a couple of nods to the Bond of days gone by, including the use of a classic sports car with special weaponry. And, Miss Moneypenny is back. And while we don’t hear Bond proscribe his preferred technique, we do hear him tell the bartender, “Perfect,” when his drink is poured from… a shaker.

“Skyfall” lacks a classic Bond babe but introduces an attractive, flirty woman we can hope to see in future 007 films.

Despite being a tad too long, “Skyfall” will thrill you and entertain you. If you are a Bond fan to any degree, this is a “must-see.”

The Sessions

Is it okay to laugh at a handicapped guy?  In this case, yes. Mark O’Brien has a wicked sense of humor. He would appreciate your laughter.

John Hawkes is emerging as a brilliant actor, although most folks don’t know him. He received an Oscar nomination in 2010 for his work in “Winter’s Bone” and will likely get another for his portrayal of real life character Mark O’Brien in “The Sessions.”

O’Brien was stricken by polio as a child. As an adult, he is in an iron lung for several hours each day. He hires caregivers who help him participate in life. He attends the University of California in Berkley. He is a virgin.

O’Brien hires a sexual surrogate, played by Helen Hunt, to introduce him to the ways of sex. Their sessions, which contain graphic nudity, are often funny and sometimes touching (pun intended). Despite the nature of these scenes, they are neither shocking nor erotic.

Between their therapy sessions, O’Brien seeks counsel from his priest, played by William H. Macy. The priest sanctions the liaisons and listens as O’Brien relates his experiences.

As the story continues, O’Brien develops affection for Hunt’s character. She, however, is married and keeps things professional. Mostly.

Because O’Brien is an intelligent man with that sharp sense of humor, we don’t feel as sad for him as we might for others with a similar handicap. He is one of the most interesting real life characters depicted onscreen in some time. Hawkes brings him to life beautifully.

“The Sessions” will not be a big box office hit and may not be shown beyond the artsier movie houses. But, for grownups, this movie delivers the sensitive telling of a sweet story and strong performances from the trio of lead actors.