Like any good Alfred Hitchcock film, the biopic of the “Master of Suspense” is built carefully, throws in a couple of twists and has plenty of blonde leads.
Centered on the famed director during the time he made perhaps his most well-known film, 1959’s “Psycho,” “Hitchcock” is lighter fare than most of his own works but offers a rare glimpse at the genius who shaped much of modern cinema and storytelling.
Weaving in and out of narrative and “real life,” the film starts out with a bang, quickly followed by the theme music to Hitchcock’s television series, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” and the man himself (played by a heavily made-up Anthony Hopkins) giving one of his characteristic introductions to the story. Hitchcock is looking for his next project, and none of the ideas seem new or challenging enough.
But when his secretary, Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette), hands him a copy of “Psycho,” a story based on the crimes of Ed Gein, Hitchcock is smitten — far more than his producers and the movie studio. Their reluctance wanes into hesitant acquiescence when Hitchcock agrees to waive his director’s fee and finance it himself (which he accomplishes by mortgaging his Hollywood home).
The plot needs to be reworked a bit, he acknowledges, but that is easily done by green screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) — and then heavily edited and improved by Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). Hitchcock hires Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) to play his murderous lead, and finds Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) to play the “Hitchcock girl.” For her sister, he pulls in Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), with whom at least this movie’s version of Hitchcock has had somewhat of a falling out.
Hitchcock becomes obsessed with the project, as he is wont to do with his films, but this time Reville, usually an integral part of the process, is left out in the cold and becomes swept up in her own endeavor, writing a Hitchcock-esque screenplay with the flirtatious Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). As the pair become more deeply involved in their respective goals, the threads of their marriage become loose and start to unravel. And as their union becomes rocky, those distracting projects, too, stumble and falter and threaten to fail.
Based on a book by Stephen Rebello, “Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho,” this portrayal of Hitchcock is, I believe, somewhat toned down from the real deal. However, Hopkins plays him well, giving him credibility as he overtly pours himself into the project and obsesses over his beautiful leading ladies while internally seething over what he feels is a great betrayal by his wife. Mirren’s performance also hits solidly as a brilliant writer and editor trying to keep a stiff upper lip while feeling like she has been relegated to her husband’s considerable shadow.
As for the actors playing other actors, Johansson, D’Arcy and Biel all do their roles proud, particularly Johansson. The scenes filmed for the movie are also well-recreated and feel authentic.
And just one point of interest: Hitchcock is shown in several scenes conversing (in his imagination) with Gein, whose powerful mommy issues and penchant for collecting body parts and dressing as a woman were brilliantly molded into a sympathetic Norman Bates. This was a fitting revisit to the disturbed man for Hopkins, who famously played Hannibal Lector, also heavily based on Gein.
Perhaps where the movie is strongest is in conveying the emotion and energy of the moment to the audience. When Hitchcock bustles to get his movie in motion, the quick clip of scenes and shots bids the audience follow. When the project starts to lag, the cuts become longer and the tempo drops. This is not a movie about a man — this is a movie about a movie, with the man being secondary to his creation. Literally a love story about Hitchcock and Reville, the movie also feels like a love story about the work they did together.
Running time: 98 minutes
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Running time: 166 minutes
It’s much lighter fare than its world-saving sequel “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy,” but “The Hobbit” brings a sense of adventure and discovery to Middle Earth.
The first of three movies based on J.R.R. Tolkein’s 1937 novel, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” introduces us to a younger Bilbo Baggins than was shown in “LotR” (though Ian Holm’s older Bilbo is present, too). As a younger hobbit, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) was content in his comfortable, quiet life. A surprise visit from the wizard Gandalf (again played by Ian McKellen) and a subsequent invasion of sorts by 13 dwarves turned his world upside down and flung him hairy-feet first into an adventure.
The dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), recruit Bilbo on the advice of Gandalf to be their 14th member (because 13 is unlucky) in their quest to reclaim their kingdom that had been stolen by the dragon Smaug. Early on their journey they run into mishap after mishap. First, the group is nearly eaten by three mountain trolls, and then the band is captured by a vicious colony of goblins. It is in the goblin kingdom that Bilbo first encounters Gollum (Andy Serkis) and finds the One Ring central to the plot of the sequel.
Once again, director Peter Jackson has turned the idyllic landscape of New Zealand into a lush, magical world. The performances, scenery and special effects are all as polished as fans have come to expect from the franchise, and the reprised roles of McKellen, Serkis, Christopher Lee as Sauron, Hugo Weaving as Elrond and Cate Blanchette as Galadriel are all solid and consistent with their former performances. Freeman balances Holm’s previous performance as the older Bilbo with Tolkein’s characterizations and spins a new, believably bewildered but surprisingly brave hobbit. Armitage also gives a strong performance as a gruff but regal ruler trying to reclaim his home.
Along with the single novel, Jackson has drawn from Tolkein’s supplemental material and expounded upon events described only in passing from the original text and thrown in a few new bits of his own. This works in the case of the wizard Radaghast (a delightful Sylvester McCoy), of whom I hope we see plenty in coming movies, but not quite as much for the invented orc determined to get revenge against Thorin and the other dwarves.
The movie’s only real fault is starting off a bit slow, which I guess is hard to avoid when dealing with such relatively little source material to spread over nearly nine hours of film in all. “The Hobbit” is also the first commercial film to be filmed in and released with 48 frames per second (twice as fast as the 24 frames per second films typically use). Not many theaters in the country — only about 10 percent — are capable of running at that rate, and those that are, at least in Utah, are also running it with 3D. I found the increased film speed to be distracting through most of the movie, though the 3D gave added depth and made battle sequences more intense. I would recommend sticking with the 24 fps, at least until the technology has been perfected.
Running time: 130 minutes
Cinematic risks are generally good things, and save us from theatrical ennui and blandness. The thing about risks, though, is that they can backfire — especially if they make the movie inaccessible to part of the audience.
The risk of placing most of the movie adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic Russian novel on or around a theatrical stage, or at least sort of, was a diversion from typical period dramas and had artistic merit, but it rendered the already-bulky story almost impossibly confusing for those not already familiar with the source material — which, basically, means it failed at effectively adapting the book.
Anna Karenina (Kiera Knightly) has it all in Russian aristocracy, and her life, though perhaps not bursting with excitement, is fulfilling. That life, though, is shattered when she meets and becomes smitten with Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) while visiting her philandering brother, Stiva Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen). Vronsky follows her home from Moscow to St. Petersburg, where their connection quickly develops into a full-blown affair, unraveling things with her overly serious husband, Alexei Keren (Jude Law), and ultimately driving her to suicide.
Her story is paralleled by a contrasting story of love centered around Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a rural land owner who becomes smitten with Oblonsky’s sister-in-law, Kitty (Alicia Vikander). The tumultuous passion that becomes Karenina and Vronsky’s relationship is starkly compared to the constancy and fidelity that Levin shows Kitty, even in the face of initial rejection.
The acting is superb across the board, and the filmmakers take full advantage of the glitz and luxe that defined 19th-century Russian aristocracy. However, the use of the stage makes it difficult for the uninitiated viewer to keep track of exactly who is doing what where and why. I think I understand the artistic motivations to do this better now than I did when I initially wrote the review, but it still made it too difficult to be widely understandable, much less appreciated — which, unless I’m mistaken, is what movies generally go for.