Friday, January 30, 2015

North By Northwest (1959)

Of the three Alfred Hitchcock movies I've watched in the last couple of weeks, North By Northwest is the most conventional, in a Hollywood blockbuster sense (from a 1950s point of view). This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it means that it is more readily accessible and relatively action-packed (I mean, hell, there's even an explosion!) compared to Rear Window and Vertigo.

Cary Grant stars as Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive in New York City, who is unexpectedly abducted and escorted to a wealthy estate where a suspicious man by the name of Vandamm (played by James Mason) - or is it Townsend? - seems perfectly convinced that Thornhill is a secret agent working against his criminal interests. This unfortunate instance of mistaken identity instantly plunges Thornhill (like an unwitting James Bond) into the middle of an undercover operation involving international espionage, resulting in an extended chase across a portion of the American landscape.

The movie thrives on suspense and mystery, but also action, and not a few clever and daring scenes that are positively thrilling (such as the shocking United Nations setup, the iconic crop duster chase, Thornhill's ingenious and hilarious extrication from an auction house, and a climax set on the face of Mount Rushmore - though the latter drags on a bit, spectacular though it is). The movie slows down a bit when it switches gears to develop an off-the-cuff romance (the love interest played by Eva Marie Saint), but even then the danger is never very far off.

North By Northwest is another long movie, clocking in at just over two hours and fifteen minutes, but it has enough humor and thrills to make the time spent watching it sufficiently enjoyable. As I mentioned, it's more accessible than some of Hitchcock's more "specialized" films, but though it's relatively conventional in comparison, and is no less dated than any other films now over half a century old, it is nonetheless a solid demonstration of intelligent, technically proficient, and entertaining filmmaking, worthy of being called a classic.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Vertigo (1958)

James Stewart (who also starred in Rear Window) returns as a police detective who feels compelled to retire after discovering (in a spectacular twilight chase scene over the rooftops of San Francisco that opens the movie) that he suffers from an acute fear of heights. He is goaded into taking one last assignment, however, to tail an old friend's wife (a haunting, haunted Kim Novak), whose husband believes she has been possessed by the ghost of an old ancestor.

Alfred Hitchcock employs his usual creativity as a filmmaker (limited though the technical effects of the time may have been) to bring to life the theme of acrophobia (fear of heights). But though the movie does involve the main character's battle to overcome his fear of heights, it is less the harrowing gauntlet of acrophobic challenges that it could have been, and more a personal study of one man's romantic obsession with a woman, and what it does to him. In that sense, the fear of falling may be related to falling in love, but as this is a Hitchcock film, it's no budding romance, but a neurotic, spiraling plunge into the depths of madness.

The apparent climax to the film seems to come not 3/4 of the way through the movie, followed by a shocking twist that changes the direction of the movie (a technique Hitchcock would perfect in Psycho). Some viewers have criticized the too early placement of a scene that resolves the movie's mystery, but this actually reveals Hitchcock's intention not to tell a conventional murder mystery (instead favoring suspense over surprise), but to focus on the heady effects of obsessive romance on the film's two leads. The denouement following this revelation, however, tends to make the movie feel a bit overlong (with a run time that exceeds the two hour mark), and, like Rear Window, ultimately reaches a conclusion that is startlingly abrupt (if applaudingly stylistic).

Hitchcock's grasp of suspense, characterization, and dialogue is masterful as ever, but he is not without flaw. Vertigo is not an immediately accessible movie, and does not feel altogether satisfying when viewed straight (which probably accounts for its initial panning), although its retroactive reputation as Hitchcock's greatest masterpiece is a testament to the film's intimate personality and ability to inspire obsession in viewers not unlike that the protagonist in the story feels (no less than Martin Scorsese expresses admiration for the film in one of the DVD's bonus features). My own opinion is that this is probably not Hitchcock's best film, and definitely not the greatest movie ever made (not by a long shot), but it demonstrates a talented director's creative attempt at flouting the rules of genre convention, and for that, it earns my respect.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Device (2014)

The Device is - quite unexpectedly - a low budget alien abduction movie masquerading as a big budget alien invasion flick (if the cover images are to be believed). I hate to say bad things about it, because I love alien abduction movies, and though it suffers from its low budget, it's actually pretty good as far as low budget movies go, with decent, if not spectacular, creature effects, and perfectly adequate acting.

But though you can't blame the producers or distributors (or whoever is responsible) for wanting to talk up the movie's appeal, the picture you get from looking at and reading the box is so startlingly different from the product inside that you can't help feeling like you've been tricked. And, what's more, I think you'd actually be in a better position to appreciate the movie for what it is if you weren't expecting something completely different (and better).

The cover image is something like a cross between Species and Ghost in the Shell, with a naked, crouching woman supported by cybernetic cables. The image on the back of the box features a vaguely robotic-looking alien wreaking havoc on a city street with some kind of badass electromagnetic pulse weapon. Neither of which even remotely resembles anything at all in the movie.

The synopsis plays up the sci-fi alien invasion angle, and while the plot details may not be technically inaccurate, the movie itself does not play as a man vs. aliens standoff (a la Independence Day) so much as a quiet drama almost exclusively limited to three actors dealing with the [personal] experience and [personal] repercussions of alien abduction, after they find a strange black sphere (which never really does anything, beyond the psychological) amid debris from a crash site in the woods not far from their cabin.

As far as the movie itself actually goes, it's not the best alien abduction flick I've seen, but it does pretty well with limited resources. It even manages to throw some original ideas into the mix - as far as I know, those aliens with their genetic experiments have never had to contend with humans deliberately aborting their alien-human hybrid fetuses before. And I can't be sure, but it seemed like in one scene one of the aliens was actually receiving some kind of sexual satisfaction from the human experiments it was doing.

Bizarre, but it puts a whole new spin on an old concept. The aliens themselves weren't the scariest I've seen, but they were intimidating enough, and some of the situations in the movie were effectively chilling - at least to someone like me with a weakness for alien abductions - in spite of a lot of the time being spent on Lifetime drama and wondering why this isn't the movie that was depicted on the cover.

Taken on its own merit, this is, at best, a mediocre alien abduction film (albeit the good ones are few and far between) that probably only alien abduction junkies (like me) will want to see. Still, that's no excuse to bill it as something it's not, and I feel like the deceptive marketing campaign takes something away from the movie - surely, I can imagine it has inspired a lot of disgruntled viewers who were expecting something much different. I honestly couldn't fault them for complaining.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Rear Window (1954)

Right from out of the gate, Rear Window effectively taps in to the audience's voyeuristic impulse. The basic outline of the plot - a journalistic photographer (James Stewart) housebound with a broken leg, bored from six weeks of nothing to do but sit in front of the window - unfolds via a telephone conversation almost in the background, as the camera pans over a fascinating tableau of apartment windows.

The viewer can't help but become absorbed in the curious details of these anonymous people's lives, each one suggesting a different personality, a different lifestyle. The protagonist's simultaneous boredom - and ambivalent fascination - with each of these windows into other people's lives immediately becomes the viewer's. And this is in just the first ten minutes of the movie.

For a time, the protagonist's obsession with voyeurism raises some alarm with his on-call nurse (Thelma Ritter), and glamorous girlfriend (Grace Kelly). But when a few suspicious details linked to a traveling salesman (Raymond Burr) living across the courtyard begin adding up to a picture that looks an awful lot like murder, the desire to look, to pry, to figure out what's going on is downright infectious - the ethics of privacy be damned (much to the chagrin of a skeptical detective played by Wendell Corey).

The movie builds to a fairly tense climax (for its time), even if it takes its merry time getting there. At just barely under two hours, it's pretty long for a movie from the 1950s. However, the characters are likable, even in their imperfections, and their interactions (at times even humorous) are a joy to watch. The ultimate conclusion suits the movie's "murder mystery" atmosphere, although I was hoping for one final plot twist (a la The Simpsons' parody "Bart of Darkness").

But instead of a warning about the ethical concerns of intrusive voyeurism, and how easy it is to jump to conclusions - which could easily become preachy - what we have here is a harrowing glimpse of the horror that occasionally lies just under the surface of everyday life. And that is, perhaps, more suitably frightening. Rear Window is a fantastic movie for its time, and though it has aged a bit in the half century plus since its release, it nevertheless remains compelling, and director Alfred Hitchcock's dedication to the theme of voyeurism is carried through by the filming style in a uniquely effective way.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Alfred Hitchcock's Essentials

I suppose it's high time I familiarize myself with Alfred Hitchcock's oeuvre. In spite of his storied reputation as a director of horror films (or at least the suspense thrillers that passed for horror in those days), I'd only ever watched the obligatory Psycho, and The Birds, which I don't remember being quite as affecting to me personally as the story it was based on.

The golden era of cinema for me was sometime around the seventies and eighties, and I'll readily admit that, although I'm willing to delve back as far as the medium allows, unlike certain modernist snobs - I even voluntarily watched a "hundred movies" pack of "horror" films mostly from the '20s, '30s, and '40s one October before I ever started this blog - I tend to be biased against many of those older movies.

It's not that I can't enjoy them, nor that I don't appreciate them in the context of their time - and there are certainly timeless exceptions that stand out (I was very impressed by the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, for example) - but those old movies often feel dated, and what might have been novel and groundbreaking at the time often loses its spectacle in the context of a modern perspective.

Still, experiencing the results of a celebrated auteur at work often holds a timeless charm. Psycho was, in many ways, a groundbreaking film, and although I never felt it was as compelling as - to choose another vintage classic - Night of the Living Dead, there may be much in Alfred Hitchcock's cinematic style that I've missed out on previously, as an undiscerning amateur. Perhaps a cursory examination of five of his most memorable films will yet yield some insight into the reason he has become such a historical figure...

Rear Window (1954)
Vertigo (1958)
North By Northwest (1959)
Psycho (1960)
The Birds (1963)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

I Spit On Your Grave 2 (2013)

The fact alone that there's a sequel to the remake of I Spit On Your Grave is pretty curious. The purpose of developing a franchise would be to milk money out of the entertainment value of the premise. I could believe it of the original movie from 1978, which was pure exploitation cinema. But the remake seemed to take the subject more seriously, and once it was done, I would have thought it was done. The sequel, however, not being a continuation of the story concluded in the first movie, is actually a transplant of the archetypal plot - a vulnerable woman is brutally gang-raped by a group of men then left for dead, but turns around and exacts sadistic, murderous revenge on her tormenters - into a new setting.

And it does a damn fine job of justifying its own existence, as it's a far more effective and entertaining (even in its cringe-worthy display of grotesqueries, which is admittedly part of the "draw", or at least reputation, of the series) movie than the remake was. I was thinking, after watching the remake, that the basic outline of the story could easily be transplanted to a more believable setting. The over-exaggerated danger of uneducated country-folk has been elevated - thanks to movies like Deliverance, and the Texas Chain Saw Massacre and its progeny - to an exhausting cliche.

And while I Spit On Your Grave 2 channels the xenophobic anxieties of movies like Hostel, and the sex trafficking hysteria exploited by Taken - both no less reliant on culturally insensitive stereotyping - the risks a novice model faces in New York City at the hands of an unscrupulous photographer are at least more logically organic than that of an inexplicably young and beautiful novelist relocated to a similarly inexplicably nice cabin in an otherwise backwards, backwoods, nowhere town, mainly inhabited by sexually-deprived, inbred ingrates. And I say that as one who takes personal issue with the stereotype of creeps using the cover of "art" to exploit vulnerable women (as occurs in this sequel).

Above all, though, the writing and the acting is on a superior level in this movie compared to its predecessor. I was much more easily able to get into the story, and sympathize with the struggle of the characters (well, mainly, the heroine). There were some genuinely moving scenes, especially towards the end (even in spite of the religious undertones), and the revenge was more satisfying, even if as hard to stomach (or watch) as ever (I pray I don't have nightmares of the "vice" scene). If you have to watch just one I Spit On Your Grave movie - and, believe me, I won't think any less of you if you don't want to do even that much - I would pretty comfortably suggest this one, even though it's not as pure as the original from 1978, taking cues from other popular movies of the day. But it's the most polished and professional version of the story, to be sure.

And with all that said, it doesn't seem to me like there's any point in making any more I Spit On Your Grave movies, although this movie does pretty well set up the basic plot to be adapted (mass-market style) to any number of more-or-less modified settings. To do so would pretty much dry up the potency of the series in terms of its social significance, but I guess that's pretty much the point of franchises anyway, right? The one thing a daring and ambitious filmmaker could do, as first suggested to me by Tenzin Swift, that would make filming another I Spit On Your Grave movie a worthwhile endeavor, and one that I would support, would be to invert the formula and have a man take revenge on a group of women after being sexually brutalized by them. Love the idea or hate it, you can't deny that it would get people talking, and the reactions people would have would be extremely insightful, from a sociological perspective. Good art is about exploring the difficult questions in life, not the easy ones.

Monday, January 12, 2015

I Spit On Your Grave (2010)

As a genre fan, I usually ignore it when "normal" people address a brutal horror movie with the question "why would anyone watch this?" But with I Spit On Your Grave, it's actually a legitimate question. I watched the original version from 1978 several years ago, probably inspired by its salacious reputation, and my interest in the inverted morals of the exploitation genre (gratuitous sex and violence for their own sake, without needing to be "justified" by serving a legitimate plot!). Ever since I heard about the remake, it was inevitable that I would someday watch it, as I was curious to see how such a uniquely controversial exploitation flick from the seventies would be resurrected in the twenty-first century.

And the verdict? I think the original movie was more enjoyable. The remake seems to emphasize the "we're being brutal to serve a purpose" angle over the exploitation ethos. It's also more violent and less sexual. You could easily argue that this is a good thing, since it serves the "feminist" purpose of being a woman's rape-revenge fantasy (although it will still appeal more to those who enjoy graphic violence and brutality, regardless of the sexual politics at play). And the remake is certainly more effective at this than the original movie was, given that the revenge part is far more driven by violence (actually involving some pretty clever tortures), and less reliant on the almost coy and thus very out of place sexuality of the ravaged victim that the original movie took shameless advantage of in the second half.

But as pure entertainment, I just didn't enjoy it as much. A lot of this was due to a combination of poor writing that relies too much on tired horror cliches (I mean, is it even a spoiler if I tell you the sheriff is in on it?) that inspire more eye-rolling than dramatic tension, in lieu of actual character development and believable plot elements that would tell a more interesting, more mature, and more engrossing story. Also, I found the actors to be very unconvincing, including the lead. They were certainly capable of emoting, but, even in spite of the brutal subject nature of the film, it often felt overwrought and made it very difficult for me to get into the story and the characters' struggles. Emoting is undoubtedly an important skill for an actor, but most important is the ability to make the audience believe the character the actor is inhabiting.

Which is not to say that the original I Spit On Your Grave was a cinematic masterpiece (that's not the reason people still remember it), but it felt more like an exploitation flick, and you had lowered expectations for plot and acting as a result. The modern I Spit On Your Grave really seems to be trying to take itself seriously (at least as a genre film), and so the flaws in the writing and the acting tend to stand out more. I mean, the characters really did not seem believable to me. I know they're supposed to be despicable, but you can make despicable characters that seem like real people. After all, there are people in real life who are despicable. Even the heroine, though, did not put up enough of a fight before she resorted to sniveling tears. I mean, I'm not trying to criticize her for being scared and defenseless, it's just that it felt like she was following a script ("ok, you're the helpless victim, go!") more than occupying the head space of a real person.

Getting back to the question of why anyone would watch this... I wouldn't recommend it for entertainment purposes alone. That probably wasn't the film's intended goal anyway, but I still think they could have done better on that count. As far as it being a grueling experience you could challenge yourself to sit through, it works on that level, although there are better movies out there that are even more grueling that you could challenge yourself to face. As far as it being a feminist's wet dream, I'm sure there are those who would award it value on that count. Personally, I don't think it serves a particularly constructive purpose, however, as neither the villains nor the heroine are realistic enough to make any kind of meaningful commentary on real life. And it really doesn't portray either men or women in the best light.

I don't think it has much therapeutic potential, either, aside from pure, bloody catharsis. But if you're angry about rape, how healthy is it to revel in the sexual depravity of a group of (fictional) lowlife males, and then the graphic violence they're subjected to in revenge? It can't possibly do much for sexual diplomacy. I'm more fond of those movies that more responsibly emphasize how revenge, for better or worse, destroys a person's humanity. Which, if I think about it, is a world away from the glorified sex and violence of the typical exploitation formula. But I don't think that's what this remake was going for. It doesn't feel "deliciously depraved" so much as simply disgusting. Though to some people, that may actually be a good thing.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Sound of My Voice (2011)

I had no idea what to expect from this movie when I hit play, and it turned out that I was totally unprepared for it. Although I can't imagine anything that could prepare you for it. My best guess was that it was a horror. It was thoroughly unsettling, but to call it a "horror" doesn't quite do it justice. It is a piece of art. And, like the best and most effective horrors, instead of violence, it relies on mystery, to keep the viewer guessing. Right from the start, it succeeds in creating that truly terrifying atmosphere where you feel like you can't trust the director, and you don't know where the movie is going to end up, and you just don't feel safe.

On its own, this is a devastating technique, but it fits perfectly with the theme of the movie - a documentarian couple's undercover infiltration of a cult centered around an impossibly beautiful woman who claims to be from the future (a startlingly effective Brit Marling). Filmed mainly from the perspective of the infiltrators (but not in the first person, a la found footage), you feel intrinsically vulnerable, because you honestly don't know what the cult is capable of. Even when it fails to do anything obviously evil, you still can't trust it, especially when you see the effects it has on its members. Yet, at the same time, it is strangely captivating, and you're never quite sure what's true and what's a lie. Without relying on any disbelief-suspending tricks, you witness how this cult manages to seduce people (audience included), even as it fails to provide hard evidence to prove its unbelievable claims. It's devastating. And a haunting piece of cinema.