Hitchcock (2012)

2018 #20
Sacha Gervasi | 92 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Hitchcock

Arguably the most famous film director of all time, it was inevitable that one day there’d be an Alfred Hitchcock biopic. Indeed, as is so often the case in Hollywood with an obvious idea waiting to happen, two turned up at once (the other being BBC/HBO TV movie The Girl). Rather than taking an overview of the man’s life, however, both focus in on the making of a single film — in this case, arguably the one he’s most famous for today, Psycho.

That’s half of what the film’s about, anyway. It’s a mixed success. I’ve no idea how true it is, but the setup — the acclaimed Master of Suspense who’s so established that people are judging him over the hill, determined to do a striking new project no one else believes in to prove he’s still got it — is a good’un. It’s especially effective precisely because it’s about Hitchcock and Psycho: it’s the film that defines him for many people now; so, yes, we know the ending, but that lends dramatic irony — how do we get from that starting point to the acclaimed classic we all know? However, it all feels slightly hamstrung by the filmmakers failing to get the rights to directly recreate any shots from Psycho itself, making it feel like the film is having to constantly pull punches there.

Shooting Psycho

The other half of the film is about a blip in Hitch’s marriage — a storyline which is mostly fictional, unsurprisingly. That Hitch was a pervy old letch shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone anymore, but the way the film decides to draw links between the director and twisted murderer Ed Gein (the inspiration for Psycho) is a bit weird. It feels like the scenes of murder, etc, have been included for mere titillation rather than actually revealing anything about the titular moviemaker.

The latter storyline leads to a reconciliatory ending that is cheese personified. By the scene just before that wraps up the Psycho storyline in a much more effective manner, with Hitchcock listening to the film’s premiere screening from the lobby, ‘conducting’ the audience’s screams during the shower scene. It’s probably the highlight of the movie; the main insight into why Hitch ever did what he did, perhaps. (Well, that and all the lust.)

In the title role, Anthony Hopkins is completely submerged as the big man, helped by a pile of prosthetics. Sometimes I think Hopkins is a distinctly overrated actor, but he’s put the effort in here. As his under-appreciated wife, screenwriter Alma Reville, Helen Mirren is superb as ever. The cast is rounded out by a bunch of decently-served small roles, performed by the likes of Jessica Biel, James D’Arcy, Danny Huston, and, in particular, Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh. She seems to fit the era perfectly. Inexplicably drawing the short straw is Toni Collette, in a totally nothingy role as Hitch’s assistant.

Hitchcock blondes

With a running time that barely crossing 90 minutes before the credits roll, Hitchcock feels very slight. This is a small incident in the long and storied life of the great director; and while it may touch on various themes that concerned his whole career, thereby acting as an exemplification for all of them, it still feels more like a vignette than a full-blown biopic.

3 out of 5

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The Mask of Zorro (1998)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #59

Justice leaves its mark.

Country: USA & Germany
Language: English
Runtime: 138 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 17th July 1998 (USA)
UK Release: 11th December 1998
First Seen: TV, 31st August 2002 (probably)

Stars
Antonio Banderas (Desperado, Puss in Boots)
Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs, The Remains of the Day)
Catherine Zeta-Jones (Entrapment, Chicago)

Director
Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, The Legend of Zorro)

Screenwriters
John Eskow (Pink Cadillac, Air America)
Ted Elliott (Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)
Terry Rossio (Aladdin, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)

Story by
Ted Elliott (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, The Lone Ranger)
Terry Rossio (The Legend of Zorro, National Treasure: Book of Secrets)
Randall Jahnson (The Doors, Sunset Strip)

Based on
The character of Zorro, created by Johnston McCulley.

The Story
After his brother is murdered, Alejandro Murrieta seeks revenge by becoming the protégé of Don Diego de la Vega — the man who used to be Zorro. Alejandro’s nemesis is Captain Love, righthand man to Don Rafael Montero, who 20 years ago killed de la Vega’s wife and stole his daughter — so de la Vega wants some revenge of his own.

Our Hero
A headstrong street thief, Alejandro Murrieta would surely get himself killed were it not for the intervention of Don Diego de la Vega and the training he provides — and his own charm, of course.

Our Villain
Don Rafael Montero plans to purchase California from General Santa Anna using gold secretly mined from the General’s own land. When Zorro’s actions threaten to expose the plan, he decides to destroy the mine and kill its slave workers. As if murdering de la Vega’s wife and stealing his child didn’t make him evil enough.

Best Supporting Character
Anthony Hopkins still seems an unlikely choice for the ageing former Zorro, Don Diego de la Vega, but his performance is perfectly calibrated nonetheless: wise and teasing of his young charge in equal measure. Hopkins also has the remarkable ability to absolutely own every line — reading the quotes page on IMDb, it’s impossible not to hear his voice.

Memorable Quote
“There is a saying, a very old saying: when the pupil is ready the master will appear.” — Don Diego de la Vega

Memorable Scene
Escaping from the villains, Zorro finds refuge in a nearby church, where he hides in the confessional. In comes Elena, wanting to confess her infatuation with the masked bandit. Hilarity ensues.

Technical Wizardry
The key to most good swashbucklers is the sword-fighting, and The Mask of Zorro is up to scratch. Banderas was trained by Bob Anderson, a legendary sword master — he also worked on Highlander, The Princess Bride, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and many more. Not least, he coached Errol Flynn of all people — and Anderson reckoned Banderas was the best swordsman he’d worked with since Flynn.

Making of
Producer Steven Spielberg originally considered directing, but was eventually busy with Saving Private Ryan. Apparently Tom Cruise would’ve been his Zorro. Spielberg’s contributions included putting Catherine Zeta-Jones forward to be cast, and suggesting the epilogue scene (with Alejandro and Elena’s baby) because the original stopping point (Old Zorro dying in his daughter’s arms) was too depressing. At one time Robert Rodriguez was also set to direct — he cast Banderas, and wanted Salma Hayek in the Zeta-Jones role — but he clashed with the studio over budget and, apparently, his concept of the film as violent and R-rated.

Previously on…
The Mask of Zorro was a new, standalone Zorro adventure, but the character has a long screen history — over 40 film appearances, according to Wikipedia, including five serials, plus a dozen TV series and multiple radio dramas. The first was 1920’s The Mark of Zorro, starring the original swashbuckler, Douglas Fairbanks. Better known nowadays is the 1940 remake starring Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone (which nearly made it on to this list).

Next time…
Seven years later, sequel The Legend of Zorro sees Zorro attempt to thwart a threat to California’s pending statehood, this time with his kid in tow. It wasn’t that good. Naturally, there’s talk of a reboot.

Awards
2 Oscar nominations (Sound, Sound Effects Editing)
1 BAFTA nomination (Costume Design)
3 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Actress (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Costumes)

What the Critics Said
“a pointed riposte to those who say they don’t make ’em like that anymore. The return of the legendary swordsman is well served by a grandly mounted production in the classical style [which] favors dashing adventure, dramatic and political intrigue, well-motivated characters and romance between mightily attractive leads over fashionable cynicism, cheap gags, over-stressed contemporary relevance and sensation for sensation’s sake. […] Achieving the right tone for the picture was crucial, as it easily could have tilted either in the direction of old-fashioned stodginess or, more likely in this day and age, of inappropriately high-tech thrills and gratuitous violence. Clearly, everyone concerned, beginning with scripters John Eskow, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and GoldenEye director Martin Campbell, was at pains to endow the story with sufficient dramatic and emotional credibility, and to go beyond glibness in its humor.” — Todd McCarthy, Variety

Score: 83%

What the Public Say
“as this is a Steven Spielberg production, what The Mask of Zorro is really about is the art of filmmaking, and it shows what some imaginative people (director Martin Campbell among them) can do with a movie camera. There are some old-fashioned stunts and physical comedy that are carried off just about perfectly here. And usually, these shoot-the-works movies peter out just before the end credits, but this one has the most satisfying adventure-movie wrap-up I’ve seen in a long time.” — Movie Movie Blog Blog

Verdict

A couple of years after he revitalised the Bond franchise with GoldenEye, director Martin Campbell does the same for a whole subgenre — the swashbuckler — in this fun revival of the masked Californian vigilante. Mixing slickly choreographed action with doses of humour, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously but doesn’t tip over into farce either (traits definitely shared with the aforementioned Bond revival). The result is thoroughly entertaining, and an example of ’90s blockbuster filmmaking at its finest.

#60 will… take the red pill.

Amistad (1997)

2016 #16
Steven Spielberg | 155 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English, Mende & Spanish | 15 / R

Feeling in need of more intellectual fare after helming The Lost World, Spielberg turned to a project already in development at Dreamworks: an adaptation of a non-fiction book about the 1839 mutiny on the slave ship La Amistad, and the ensuing legal battle. Although not poorly received by critics, there’s a sense that the consensus view dubbed it “black Schindler’s List”, the implication being that by aping the earlier film it was inevitably inferior. I don’t think that’s a watertight chain of logic, but, nonetheless, Amistad is clearly a ‘minor Spielberg’.

Despite being “a slavery drama”, most of the film functions as a legal drama: though it begins with the slave uprising, and later has an extended flashback showing their kidnap and transportation, the thrust of the film lies in the courtroom arguments about who owns the ship’s ‘cargo’ and consequently what should be done with them. This is a period when capturing Africans into slavery, and by extension their subsequent transportation, was illegal by international agreement, but actually owning slaves was not yet banned (at least in the US). It’s before the American Civil War too, so there’s a political dimension: if these ‘slaves’ are freed, what tension might that spark between the north and south?

Though Spielberg is certainly not immune to the Africans’ plight — the depiction of life on a slave ship is appropriately harrowing — it’s clear from early on which side he expects us to identify with, in terms of cultural background if not shared morality: as survivors of the mutiny talk the next day, the slavers’ Spanish dialogue is subtitled but the slaves’ African dialect is not. It’s a simple but effective technique to align us with one side — as I say, not morally (in no regard is Spielberg trying to apologise for the slavers), but socially. Unfortunately, it’s not sustainable: later, when we need to understand the Africans to follow a scene’s point, their dialogue is suddenly subtitled, and from then it’s sporadically translated as needed. I can see why that choice was made, but it makes the unsubtitled bits feel like a cheat.

In most other regards, it’s kind of an old-fashioned movie. In a few ways that works: it’s got classical cinematography, both the use of film (obviously, this being well before mainstream adoption of digital) and the framing, the pace, the editing. In other respects… well, it feels very late ’90s now, the overall style of the screenplay and the treatment of the story reminding you that it’s not actually a moderately-recent film (which I guess I’d personally filed it away as, being the most recent of Spielberg’s pre-2010s films that I’d not seen), but is now nearly 20 years old. And, though I may be damned for criticising him twice in as many weeks, John Williams’ score is a little heavy-handed.

This can be said of Spielberg’s approach to the drama, too. Some of the courtroom stuff is suitably mired in legal technicalities and argument, but by film’s end it gets a little bit too… what’s the word? Not “preachy”. Not “sentimental”, exactly, though it’s born of that old criticism of Spielberg. “Melodramatic” may be on the money, though. It doesn’t help that everything reaches a climax — not only narratively, but also in the way it’s written, shot, acted, and scored — only for it to be revealed that it’s just the end of act two. Okay, that’s the truth of what happened (or near enough, for the purposes of this dramatisation), and by adapting it in that way it emulates the emotions the characters experienced; but from the audience’s perspective, you feel like you’ve reached the end… only to be served up another half-hour of movie. And it’s a long film too, so you feel that. It gets by because it’s fundamentally a good film, with strong performances and technical merits, but it’s a little bumpy for a bit.

There also seem to be a startling array of factual inaccuracies to level at the film. As ever with fictional adaptations of real life, it’s a difficult line. No fact-based fiction is 100% like reality, especially when you factor in unavoidable variances in people’s memories and opinions. However, the more serious or famous the events being depicted, or the more they’re being used to indicate some wider point about their setting, the greater the responsibility to present something that is at least passably accurate. I think some would contend that Amistad is not that. I’m no expert, but this section on Wikipedia, which is bolstered by multiple citations to suggest its accuracy, indicates the extent of the issue.

It’s easy to criticise Amistad, because Spielberg makes the production of very good movies look effortless, so the missteps stand out all the more. The story of La Amistad and its ‘cargo’ is a powerful one, and Spielberg has — naturally — turned it into a good film; but by remixing history to over-egg the message, it loses a little something. A valiant effort, but a film like 12 Years a Slave makes many of the same points in a less grandiose manner.

4 out of 5

RED 2 (2013)

2015 #102
Dean Parisot | 116 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, France & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

The “retired, extremely dangerous” agents return for more of the same.

“More of the same” is all the recommendation — or unrecommendation, or disrecommendation, or whatever the antonym of “recommendation” actually is — you really need. This isn’t a sequel for those who’ve not seen the first, because no effort is made to re-establish the world or characters. And if you disliked said forerunner, there’s no reason you’ll find this more to your taste.

If you did enjoy RED (like me), #2 isn’t as good — it’s lost too much zaniness, goes on too long — but it’s a pleasantly entertaining globetrotting action-comedy nonetheless.

3 out of 5