29 November 2008

OLR: WALL·E (2008)

Both cute and beautiful. (8/10)

d. Andrew Stanton

24 November 2008

Hitchcock | The Skin Game (1931)

The Skin Game (1931)
written by Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville, based on a play by John Galsworthy

I was looking forward to finding out just what a "skin game" is. Turns out, it's English slang for "dishonest trick," which is not really what I was expecting. The tricks are committed by a pair of families who are fighting for control of some land out in the country. It's sort of an upper-class, English Hatfield and McCoy feud.

This film grew on me. It's another melodrama and starts out with a cliched "evil developer wants to force people out of their homes for profit" story. Fortunately, it transforms into a tale of revenge and tragedy as the two families struggle to come out on top. By the end, any cliches from the beginning of the story are completely flipped around: the evil developer Hornblower is beaten and humiliated and the once chivalrous Hillcrist family is wracked with guilt over how far they went to win.

Mrs. Hillcrist is one of Hitchcock's strong matriarchs and my favorite character from the film. While her husband tries to use reason to convince Hornblower not to ruin their countryside with factories -- first meeting with him and then simply trying to outbid him in a land auction -- Mrs. Hillcrist has already hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on Hornblower's family. As becomes clear later in the film, she didn't even wait for her husband's attempts to succeed or fail before employing her own back-up plan. She finds her dirt and immediately uses it to threaten Hornblower when her husband's civilized approaches fail. The scene in which she confronts Hornblower with the dirt and forces him to sign the land over to her husband is almost painful to watch, with the previously supremely confident Hornblower completely deflated by the iron-fisted woman.

My favorite Hitch melodrama so far. (6/10)

Watched the region 1 DVD released by Lionsgate in 2007 as a part of the Alfred Hitchcock: 3-Disc Collector's Edition. There are faint, green, horizontal bands crossing the screen at all times. This is completely unacceptable for a black & white film. I checked the PAL version released by Optimum and it had the same problem. Nice job, StudioCanal.

Guest OLR: The Mask of Zorro (1998)

The kind of grandstanding tribute to old Hollywood that makes me miss the quality of cinema in the 90's. (6/10)

d. Martin Campbell

23 November 2008

Hitchcock | Mary (1930)

Mary (1930)
written by Alfred Hitchcock, Herbert Juttke, Georg C. Klaren and Alma Reville, based on a novel by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson

Shot simultaneously with Murder! Hitchcock would set up for a shot, film the English actors doing the scene and then immediately film the German actors doing the same scene. Yet, Mary -- even accounting for PAL speed-up -- is twenty minutes shorter than Murder! I don't think there were any scenes missing from the German version. Perhaps people speak German faster than they speak English?

There are other differences between the two films. I like some of the actors in Mary more than their counterparts in the other film. The German Sir John is a more emotional character. He seems more disturbed by Mary's (Diana, renamed) imprisonment and I think the actor portrays this better. The German Fane is... well... less gay. The German actor has a deeper, less effeminate voice. He still cross-dresses, but gone is the medium shot of him at the circus, which had illustrated certain contours of his leotard-clad form in the English version. I felt the English Fane was overacting almost to the point of camp in the Hamlet scene; the German version plays this scene more seriously. Generally, the movie is less comedic than the English one.

I think Hitchcock might've been either a little lazier with Mary than with Murder!, or he was refining the film on the second go-round as he went. It feels like some interesting shots are missing from the German version. The cutting between Diana, the weathervane and the shadow of the gallows is gone from Mary for some reason. The shot of Markham walking on Sir John's waterbed-like rug is also cut (a shot I could never figure out, anyway). Those are the two I can remember at the moment.

I wonder why the title change? Why not call this Mord or the English film Diana? I kind of like Mary as a title better. The murder's not really the important part of the film; it's a MacGuffin. Sir John's determination to right the wrong that imprisoned Mary/Diana is the thrust of the tale. In fact, the novel's title is Enter Sir John. Murder! sounds like a British International executive's idea of a titulation to drum up interesting in the film.

Other than a few things, Mary is nearly identical to the English film and shows the same problems and merits. (6/10)

Watched the region 2 DVD released by Arthaus in 2006. It's a horrible print, with constant tape splices and jumps. It's poorly compressed as well. Plus, there are no English subtitles. However, it's the only release of this movie available.

OLR: Deep Impact (1998)

I say it's better than Armageddon and that's just the kind of person I am. (7/10)

d. Mimi Leder

Hitchcock | Murder! (1930)

Murder! (1930)
written by Alfred Hitchcock, Walter C. Mycroft and Alma Reville, based on a novel by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson

I could barely keep my eyes open for this one. The titular murder happens off screen in the first few minutes of the film. When the police arrive, they find Diana next to a dead body and a murder weapon. Sir John ends up serving on her jury and is the only person to think she's innocent. He caves to the pressure from the other eleven jurors and votes with them that she is guilty. After the trial, he's struck with doubt and guilt over this decision and sets out to investigate the murder and exonerate Diana.

Most of the film follows Sir John's investigation of the murder. It's quite dull. It's a bit like an unending interview scene from a Law & Order or C.S.I. or one of those million other police procedural shows. Sir John talks to someone who may know something about the murder, then stares wistfully out the nearest window, pondering the implications of this new info. Repeat and repeat. Eventually, he determines that Fane was the real culprit, who killed the woman so she wouldn't reveal to Diana that he was a "half-caste." Apparently, this meant he had a black ancestor in the recent past, which apparently meant that he was undatable. He was also a transvestite, but this wasn't a secret and didn't seem to have any baring on his eligibility for romance. Go figure.

Though I'm not a fan of the plot, this was the first Hitchcock film that felt like a real movie to me. That is, the technology has finally settled in a form similar to what I'm used to watching. In addition to sound, we've got foley effects for the first time. There are footsteps when people walk, background noises and all of the little sounds we've come to expect on a film soundtrack to flesh out the world we're observing. There's also Hitchcock's first use of an interior monologue used when Sir John is mentally freaking out about the trial while shaving. The camera is more fluid than it has been since the silent era. We get some tracking shots around the sets that are nice. There's a great POV shot when Fane is swinging from the trapeze where we follow his swinging.

Well, I can't say I'm looking forward to rewatching this movie in German next. (6/10)

Watched the region 1 DVD released by Lionsgate in 2007 as a part of the Alfred Hitchcock: 3-Disc Collector's Edition. Nice print and transfer for the most part.

OLR: The Godfather: Part II (1974)

Like being wrapped in a cold blanket of organized crime for three and a half hours. (9/10)

d. Francis Ford Coppola

22 November 2008

OLR: The Pixar Story (2007)

An excellent look at the people who made Pixar, though I wish they'd also squeezed in some technical details about the changes in computing power. (8/10)

d. Leslie Iwerks

21 November 2008

Hitchcock | Elstree Calling: "Sketches and Other Interpolated Items" (1930)

Elstree Calling: "Sketches and Other Interpolated Items" (1930)
written by Adrian Brunel, Walter C. Mycroft and Val Valentine

This revue was made to show off both British International's talent and their new ability to produce talkies. According to the credits, Hitchcock was responsible for "sketches and other interpolated items." From what I've read, people think he directed:

  1. The recurring sketches of Gordon Harker trying to fix his TV.
  2. The sketch where Jameson Thomas shoots his wife and her lover, then realizes he's in the wrong house.
  3. Donald Calthrop's interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew.
Of these, the Jameson Thomas sketch is certainly the most hitchcockian, with its murder and dark humor. The recurring sketch of the broken TV is awful. It's essentially the same scene repeated four times: the man fails to fix TV and his neighbor pops in to tell him how good the show is upstairs on his working TV. This is often accompanied by a sassy slide whistle on the soundtrack. The whole TV angle was a bit confusing to me; I had to look of the history of the TV set, as I tend to think of it as a post-WWII thing.

The Taming of the Shrew bit was the least hitchockian of the three. Throughout the entire movie, Donald Calthrop had been interrupting the show and promising his forthcoming, non-boring Shakespeare performance. I liked these bits. It's amusing to see the slimy blackmailer from Blackmail doing comedy. When the long-promised performance finally arrives, it's all about Calthrop acting like a goofball and people throwing pies in other people's faces (including Bill Shakespeare himself). I think this'll be the silliest thing Hitchcock ever directed.

The rest of the film consists of a series of musical performances hosted by an unfunny Tommy Handley. There are Russian singers, dancing girls and an old woman with a horrible voice singing about always being a bridesmaid. The Three Eddies perform some excellent tap dancing. They're three black men dressed in black face, which I don't even know how to interpret. A morbidly obese xylophone player plays some nice music, then tells a Jew joke. I suppose, this being the 1930s, the producers had a racism quota that needed filling.

Overall, it's an OK show. It's seventy-eight years later and I live in a different country; I'm not really the intended audience of this. However, a few of the musical numbers are quite nice, with my favorites being the Russians and the Three Eddies. (5/10)

Watched a bootleg, as there are no official releases of this movie anywhere in the world. The bootleg was given to me by a generous webmaster of a Hitchcock website. It was a DVD-R of a tape of a BBC 4 broadcast. At the time I got it I couldn't watch PAL DVDs, so I converted it to NTSC. While doing so, I also pitch-corrected the soundtrack. It is a musical, after all: I might as well hear the thing in the correct key. I can't stand PAL speed-up chipmunk voices, either. It didn't turn out too bad, if I do say so.

20 November 2008

OLR: Cinematic Titanic: "The Wasp Woman" (2008)

Just the ticket for after a stressful day at work (hey, a call-back to MST3K 110!). (8/10)

d. Roger Corman & Jack Hill & Sharp-Ford

Hitchcock | Juno and the Paycock (1930)

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
written by Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville, based on a play by Sean O'Casey

Hitchcock's opinion of Champagne is still true, though this film is nearly as bad as that earlier effort. He seems to be repeating past mistakes here. The successful, well-made crime picture The Lodger was followed-up by a depressing adaption of a play. So too this film follows Blackmail. It's taking a while before Hitchcock -- or maybe his producers -- figure out that he's better with crime films than he is with melodrama.

Unlike Champagne, at least this one has a plot. Juno is a long-suffering wife and mother married to a lazy, jobless man ("the paycock", which I assume is a play on the Irish pronunciation of "peacock," as this doesn't seem to be a real word). Their daughter's lawyer boyfriend informs them that they're going to inherit £2000 and the family begins gleefully spending the money before they've got it. Then, the boyfriend skips town leaving the daughter pregnant, the family finds out they're not inheriting much money at all, creditors take every stick of furniture from their apartment and the son is murdered. The film ends with the mother wailing for divine help.

One problem I had with the movie is that it follows the least interesting characters the closest. Juno and "the paycock" are now cliches; nearly every sitcom on TV is comprised of a buffoon husband and a wise, exasperated wife. Much more interesting were the lawyer boyfriend and the angry, one-armed son. At one point, the boyfriend announces that he's a theosophist, shocking the Catholic family of his girlfriend. That was the first and only revelation in the film I found interesting. I wanted to know more about this character. How does an Irishman in a deeply religious society come to these esoteric beliefs? Tell me more! Unfortunately, it's never mentioned again and the boyfriend soon disappears completely from the film. I'm guessing this was merely intended to be an early warning sign that he wasn't going to be an upstanding citizen, given that both the play and film were written by Catholics. Might just as well have put a T-shirt on the guy reading "heretic."

The son was another potentially interesting character mostly ignored throughout the film. He'd lost an arm in the Irish Civil War fighting on the side of the Republicans. He clearly had some psychological damage from the war's traumas and seem to be either snapping at people or hugging his mother like an infant. Unfortunately, he seems to be only a device to add more grief into Juno's life through his murder.

From a cinematic perspective, it just doesn't feel like Hitchcock put too much effort into this one. For the most part, it's filmed as though it's still being performed on stage. There are a lot of static shots and a lot of interiors. There are no dissolves, shots of reflections, people walking on see-through floors or any other interesting bits of photography. Overall, it's a quite dull-looking movie.

Hopefully, this film was just Hitch shaking out the kinks in this newfangled talkie era. (4/10)

Watched the region 1 DVD Released by Whirlwind Media in 2000. The print is in bad shape and badly framed (often, half of people's heads will be cut off). There's no good version of this on DVD, so that's the best we've got. It does come with a vintage Betty Boop short, which is fun.

15 November 2008

Hitchcock | Blackmail (1929)

Blackmail (1929)
written by Alfred Hitchcock, Benn W. Levy and an uncredited Michael Powell, based on a play by Charles Bennett

For the first eight minutes, this sound version is identical to the silent version. There's no soundtrack other than the new musical score. This creates a small amount of suspense which I suspect was much larger for the audiences at the time: when's this newfangled talking picture going to start talking?

When it begins to speak, Hitchcock seems to have immediate grasp of many of the possibilities of the new medium. There's the oft-mentioned knife scene, in which all Alice can hear coming out of a gossipy customer's mouth is "murmur-mumble-KNIFE-mumble-KNIFE." It's a nice way to emphasis the state of mind Alice is in at that moment. There are also multiple instances of people whistling, the artist plays and sings a song while trying to seduce Alice, Alice now owns a canary that sings joyfully during her grim morning after the murder, and cars constantly honk their horns. Yes, someone was definitely having fun on set with the car horn beeper.

The ending of this one is different than the silent version. It's almost happier. I was confused over the silent version's ending: it looked like Frank was surprised when Alice admitted her guilt and he does not reply to this revelation. I wonder if Hitchcock used the sound reshoots to make this clearer? Now, we get a complete explanation out of Alice -- she had no choice, he was trying to take advantage of her, etc. -- and Frank tells her that he already knew. His expression is not so much horror in this version but depression. The sound version of Frank is looking at many years of supporting his girlfriend through this trauma; the silent Frank just looks like he wants to go to the bathroom and vomit.

I hate to be one of "those people," but the silent version is slightly better. I prefer the grimmer ending in the silent version. (6/10)

Watched the region 2 DVD released by Kionwelt in 2002. Strangely, the print for the sound version is in worse shape than the one for the silent version. You'd think it'd be the other way around, giving the historical significance of the sound version. Bad compression on this one as well.

OLR: The Godfather (1972)

Like being wrapped in a warm blanket of organized crime for three hours. (9/10)

d. Francis Ford Coppola

14 November 2008

Guest OLR: Quantum of Solace (2008)

Very tragically suffers from Second Bond Movie Syndrome [SBMS]. (5/10)

d. Mark Forster

Hitchcock | Blackmail (silent) (1929)

Blackmail (silent) (1929)
written by Alfred Hitchcock and an uncredited Michael Powell, based on a play by Charles Bennett

As the story goes, Hitchcock was asked to add a few sound scenes while in the middle of filming Blackmail. Instead, he decided to rework the entire film into a talkie. Even so, he completed the silent version as it was originally intended and it was, in fact, more successful at the box office than its talkie twin (probably due to the fact that not many theaters could handle sound at the time).

Blackmail finally returns us to the territories first explored in The Lodger: crime, guilt, murder. I wonder if it felt like putting on a pair of comfortable shoes for Hitchcock, after spending several years in comedy/melodrama purgatory? He's good at this stuff. Blackmail feels like a nightmare I sometimes have: accidentally -- well, not starting the day intending to -- killing someone, then completely freaking out over what the consequences might be for such a heinous act. I love the scenes after the crime where Alice cannot escape being reminded of what she's done. She constantly sees outstretched hands out on the street, resembling the dead hand of her victim. Her mother wakes her up to the news of the murder. People constantly come into her father's store asking for information on it. Her parents have a bread knife identical to the one she used, and they ask her to use it on a loaf of bread. Her detective boyfriend is put on the case. It's relentless.

One bit I found confusing was how much Det. Frank knew. At the very end, when Alice tells him she's guilty, he looks truly shocked. How could he not have known? What did he think Tracy's blackmail was all about? Why did he steal her glove from the crime scene, then? Was he merely worried that she'd be falsely accused of the crime, thinking she'd left before the man was killed? Maybe the sound version will clear this plot point up?

I'm looking forward to seeing the sound version tomorrow. What will be different? How much did Hitchcock have to reshoot to accommodate the dialogue? I've already created voices for the characters in my head (who all have American accents), so it's going to be odd hearing them speak for real. (6/10)

Watched the region 2 DVD released by Kionwelt in 2002. Same green flashes and bad compression as the movies found in the Early Hitchcock Collection.

12 November 2008

Hitchcock | The Manxman (1929)

The Manxman (1929)
written by Eliot Stannard, based on a novel by Hall Caine

Back to melodrama and love triangles. The story involves two best friends and the woman they both love on the Isle of Man (hence the name... disappointingly, this was not a movie about a half-man, half-cat). Knowing it lacked boxing, I didn't have very high hopes for this one. It's not bad. I found myself getting into the soap opera-style story, wondering what was going to happen next.

One difference between this film and his previous melodramas is that The Manxman is a bit darker. We spend a lot of the movie waiting to see how the tragedy is going to unfold. What'll Pete do when he finds out his wife doesn't love him and his daughter really isn't his? In a way, it's a bit of a suspense film. Instead of a bomb planted under a table, we've got an oblivious, happy man with a load of heartbreak headed his way. I suppose, similarly, we're also waiting to see what will befall high-and-mighty Judge Phil once it gets out that he's fathered an illegitimate child with his best friend's wife.

The movie feels more open to me than previous efforts. Much time is spent indoors on sets, but there are also significant scenes set on beaches, docks, and in the streets of the town they live in. The beach scene, in particular, is beautiful as Hitchcock frames the two lovers through interesting rock formations.

This one doesn't seem to have too many fans -- and I've read Hitchcock wasn't terribly into the movie himself -- but I found it engaging. Not a bad final (sort of penultimate) silent film at all. (6/10)

Watched the region 1 DVD released by Lionsgate in 2007 as a part of the Alfred Hitchcock: 3-Disc Collector's Edition. Nice print and transfer.

11 November 2008

Hitchcock | Champagne (1928)

Champagne (1928)
written by Alfred Hitchcock and Eliot Stannard, based on a story by Walter C. Mycroft

There's just not enough story here. The daughter of a rich man is out of control. Dad cuts off her funds by pretending to be broke. She gets a job at a club. Dad admits he was lying. The End. It feels like Hitchcock is a student with a five page essay due tomorrow and only one page worth of ideas. This is immediately apparent when we spend the first thirty minutes -- one third -- of the film watching the daughter party. Painful.

One bright spot is that Dad is played by Gordon Harker, who's quickly becoming a favorite character actor from this era. Previously, he played the trainer in The Ring and the hilarious handyman in The Farmer's Wife. This time, he gets to ham it up as a rich businessman, chomping on cigars and ordering people around. He also does this twitch thing with just the right side of his face that's great. When he gets upset, the corner of his mouth yanks upwards towards his eye. Nice work.

Hitchcock also does get in a few good shots here and there, as he always does. Apparently, he forced the producers to buy a giant champagne glass so he could get some shots from inside of it. Those turned out nice. I also liked the super-crowded club at the end, with people forced to dance shoulder-to-shoulder and back-to-back. It didn't look like much fun and I think that was the point.

Said Hitchcock of this film to Truffaut: "...probably the lowest ebb in my output." I hope so. (4/10)

Watched the region 2 DVD released by Optimum in 2007 as a part of the Early Hitchcock Collection. They did a slightly better job of transferring this one than they did with The Farmer's Wife. Still, there's an occassional flash of green and the compression isn't great.

10 November 2008

Hitchcock | The Farmer's Wife (1928)

The Farmer's Wife (1928)
written by Eliot Stannard and an uncredited Alfred Hitchcock, Leslie Arliss, J.E. Hunter & Norman Lee, based on the play by Eden Phillpotts

I wasn't expecting a romantic comedy, but here's one following a rather serious boxing movie, a pair of down-on-their-luck tales and an great wrong man story. Fair enough: how would Hitchcock know if he's any good in the genre or likes this style until he's tried it?

I bet this one had the 1920s crowds laughing pretty well. I cracked a smirk or two at certain points, myself. It's pretty standard stuff, though. It's just a Cinderella / Goldilocks love story. The titular farmer plays Goldilocks, who has to try several women in town before he finds one that's just right. Cinderella is his housekeeper, the perfect woman right under his nose that he never notices. These days, it's all kind of a cliche, which is bit hard to get beyond. There's even the obligatory shot of the woman -- previously mousy and now all dressed up and looking pretty -- descending the stairs to everyone's awe.

As the farmer fumbles about for his wife, you can be sure there are plenty of hijinx to be had. Hitchcock seems to be having a lot of fun. My favorite bits include the farmer's handyman, who's forced to wear too-big pants for a dinner party. Throughout the party, he's constantly fumbling with his waist, desperately trying to serve food and not drop his trousers at the same time. Also nice: a boy arrives at the party and immediately spies a tray of sweets. Hitchcock then zooms quickly from the boy's face to the treats, letting us know immediately what's on the kid's mind. Fun shot. The postmistress' tantrum, after a rather amusing berating by the farmer, is also pretty funny.

"You are the first man who has accepted my sex challenge!" says old Thirza Tapper, after the farmer proposes. One neat aspect of watching movies made when your grandfather was a child are the idioms people used that have long passed out of the language. This one certainly caused my eyes to widen a little. I gather she's not talking about the physical act, but rather her gender. Still, I'm not exactly sure what the heck this is supposed to mean. The farmer's the first to ever propose to her, I guess?

Anyway, if you're going to watch a silent comedy, you're going to want to pop in some Chaplin or Lloyd. Hitchcock's probably not the best selection in the world for such a thing. His talent lies elsewhere. (5/10)

Watched the region 2 DVD released by Optimum in 2007 as a part of the Early Hitchcock Collection. The print they used is in great shape. Unfortunately, their transfer of the film is not what it should be. There are periodic flashes of pale green in the whites of this black & white film... completely unacceptable. It also suffers from some mildly bad compression. I liked the subtle piano score, though.

08 November 2008

OLR: Dark City: Director's Cut (1998)

This is a great example of what sci-fi can be, though I'm still not a huge fan of the video game-like psi battle at the end. (8/10)

d. Alex Proyas

07 November 2008

Hitchcock | The Ring (1927)

The Ring (1927)
written by Alfred Hitchcock and an uncredited Alma Reville

A fresh start for Hitchcock. This is his first film for British International Pictures, his first time writing and directing an original script and there are no carryover actors from previous films. There were also no instant marriages in the film. Hallelujah!

There is, however, a love triangle driving the story, so we're not completely free of the melodrama. Luckily, for me anyway, it's embedded in a tale of the world of 1920s English boxing in both the professional realm and in a carnival. Neat. I like seeing glimpses of societies completely new to me. And, for the love triangle, it wasn't as dopey as the triangles in prior movies. Bob, the man trying to move in on Jack's girl, isn't a completely unlikable villain. He actually seems like a pretty good guy, except, you know, for the adultery.

Hitchcock enjoyed his punning on the film's title. There are rings and circles all over the place, starting with the very first shot of a round drum being beaten (which cuts to a spinning carnival ride). Most importantly, other than the boxing rings, are the wedding ring Jack gives The Girl and the snake bracelet Bob gives The Girl. A snake on the sinning lady, huh? Not terribly subtle there, Hitch.

At the end, when The Girl throws her hat into Jack's ring -- cough -- she removes the bracelet and tosses it aside. Symbolically, I suppose, we're to assume that she's throwing away that aspect of her life; that she'll be true to Jack from now on. I dunno, Jack. I might keep an eye on her. I'm betting the second you're dethroned from the heavy weight title, you may find yourself alone on Saturday nights again.

Hitchcock also has a lot of fun with a bunch of mirror shots. You can read a lot into these shots --The Girl is leading a double life with two boyfriends, the carnival boxing versus pro boxing, the wedding ring compared to the snake bracelet -- which can be fun. But I think a lot of it was Hitchcock just trying out visually interesting compositions. He's still stretching his wings at this point and there's a lot of experimenting to do before he figures this movie thing out.

Much more entertaining than the tedious Japanese ghost story movie with the same name. (6/10)

Watched the region 1 DVD released by Lionsgate in 2007 as a part of the Alfred Hitchcock: 3-Disc Collector's Edition. The print could use a good digital clean-up like The Lodger got; there are scratches and dust everywhere, particully near the beginning and ends of reels. Way better than the public domain DVD releases, though.

05 November 2008

Hitchcock | Easy Virtue (1927)

Easy Virtue (1927)
written by Eliot Stannard, based on the play by Noel Coward

That there are no good DVD releases of this film anywhere in the world (check out the excellent Alfred Hitchcock Wiki for DVD recommendations for each film) seemed like it would be a very bad sign. And it was a bit; this is not a great film. It's kind of a gender-reversed Downhill, again with a protagonist fleeing societal shame and not having the best of luck doing so.

Easy Virtue makes its point in a slightly better manner than Downhill. This time, it's fairly clear that Hitchcock doesn't think highly of the upper-class Whittaker family's values. Visually, he reinforces this during Larita's first dinner with the family. They dine in a dark, austere room with enormous paintings of saints towering over the table. Mrs. Whittaker, who instantly hates Larita, seats the newlywed next to her husband's ex-girlfriend instead of her husband. The family dinner table couldn't look less inviting to the newcomer.

One plot point I was horribly confused about for the entire movie was the death of Claude the painter. In the film we only find out he's dead through context (he left his money to Larita in his will). Sure, he was beaten by Larita's husband when they were discovered together, but he seemed fine afterward. Only after reading the entry in The Alfred Hitchcock Story did I find out that Claude killed himself out of shame over the whole event. Apparently, this scene is missing from all existing prints of the film. I'm guessing the suicide had the censors a tad upset.

Again, Hitchcock does sneak in some nice stuff here and there. He starts out by showing us the main character as she looks through the frowning judge's monocle: the woman magnified against a blurry courtroom background. We get some cross-cutting between the courtroom scene and a flashback of the events they're talking about, which I think is a first for Hitchcock. There are some nice dissolves between evidence or people in the courtroom and their prior existence during the affair.

Ultimately, though, this yet another melodrama. I'm growing a bit weary of people falling in love and getting married within seconds of meeting each other. I think it's the silent format that's holding Hitchcock back. With only facial expressions and a handful of intertitles, it's really hard to establish anything resembling deep characterization. I'm looking forward to the characters in his future film who actually have some dimension to them. (5/10)

Watched the region 1 DVD released by Laserlight in 1999. The print they used is well-worn with scratches and dust and hair everywhere. One section appeared to have a series of holes worn in it, dancing along the right side of the frame. The soundtrack occasionally lapses into pops. Acceptably watchable, though.

04 November 2008

Hitchcock | Downhill (1927)

Downhill (1927)
written by Eliot Stannard, based on the play by Ivor Novello & Constance Collier

More a vehicle for the very popular Ivor Novello than an example of Hitchcock as auteur, I think. I'm sure the execs at Gainsborough thought that another wrong man story starring and written by heartthrob Novello would make a great follow-up to the successful The Lodger. But, man, the two films could not be more different.

Most of the style and confidence seen in that prior film is absent from Downhill. For the most part, this is a straight story about a down-on-his-luck man. Roddy, I hope, will be the worst protagonist in any of Hitchcock's movies. It's hard to imagine this character being less sympathetic. He's the son of rich parents who gets accused of -- from what I infer is -- some type of sexual impropriety by a waitress. Determined, for some reason, to protect his friend -- who I gather is the true guilty party -- he keeps quiet about his innocence and allows himself to be kicked out of school. His rich dad doesn't take this news well and kicks him out of the house. Luckily, he inherits £30000 from another relative, which is -- according to online calculators -- between $2 million and $8.7 million in 2008 US dollars. He promptly hooks up with the leading lady from the play he's in and blows the entirety of this amount on her. Once his money runs out, the leading lady drops him like a hot potato and goes back to her leading man boyfriend. Ugh. Things get worse from there, but I couldn't possibly get myself to care. The man's an idiot and deserved whatever happens to him.

The only interesting shot that I can remember starts out by showing Roddy in a close-up, dressed in a tuxedo. Things are looking up! The camera pulls back and we see that he's actually a waiter in a restaurant. Maybe not so up. The woman he's waiting on leaves the table and he slyly picks up her wallet. Oh, he's pretty desperate. The camera pulls back again and we see that all of this is actually taking place on stage, in the middle of a play. Ok, not so bad. It's just about the only playful hitchcockian shot that I noticed. I also liked the sequence in which the curtains are opened on the French man-brothel (is that what that was?). The sunlight shines onto the debauched revelers and Roddy takes a good, hard look around the room in disgust.

One improvement over The Lodger was a drastic reduction in the number of intertitles. Downhill had just the bare minimum of intertitles to convey the plot. I liked this. Silent films, ideally, should tell a purely visual story (like Murnau's The Last Laugh). Hitchcock's getting closer to that ideal here.

Other than those few things, this was awful. I hope the rest of the silents aren't quite as bad. (4/10)

Watched the region 2 DVD released by Japan Home Video in 2002. The transfer is fine, though the image is a bit jumpy at times. The score is borderline annoying, with a ton of repeated cues.

03 November 2008

Hitchcock | The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926)

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926)
written by Eliot Stannard, based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Now I really wish The Mountain Eagle could be found so I could see the transition between The Pleasure Garden and this film. Reading the description in The Alfred Hitchcock Story, it sounds like TME was more in TPG's vein than The Lodger -- melodrama, romance gone bad, etc. -- but maybe it had some visual touches linking it to the later movie?

Visually, The Lodger shows the effect that hanging out with Murnau at UFA had on Hitchcock. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's an expressionistic film, but it certainly has touches of that style. You can see it in Ivor Montagu's wonderful titles filled with geometric shapes and dancing lights. It's apparent in some of the lighting Hitchcock uses: there's a shadow of a cross over the lodger's face at one point as well as some interesting shadows cast upon the walls of the apartment at night. The way he lights faces in this film is also quite striking. Daisy seems to glow angelically, the lodger appears as bright, white ghost and Daisy's boyfriend's face is bordered in angry shadow.

Hitchcock comes up with some of his own really cool visual tricks. The famous see-through ceiling is one example. I love that shot. It's a great example of working around the limitations of no sound using images; it efficiently shows that the family can hear -- and picture in their minds -- the lodger obsessively pacing in the room above.

Hitchcock always called this his "first film." It does have the most hitchcockian plot thus far, with the first appearance of a "wrong man." There are some, though, who think that maybe the lodger really was the Avenger (as he was in the novel). Maybe the man they caught "red-handed" at the end of the film was a copycat? You can't really see what's happening at the lodger's sister's party... maybe he killed her when the lights went out? I don't know. I don't think I can buy this angle. The scariest part of the movie aren't the murders; it's the mindless mob chasing the lodger at the end of the film. If he were really guilty, the mob is suddenly not so unjustified, nor the policeman's jealousy-fueled suspicions. Did Hitchcock really want us to sympathize with the mob and the brutish detective? (7/10)

Watched the region 1 DVD released by Fox in 2008 as a part of the Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection. The transfer is beautiful on this disc.

Hitchcock | The Pleasure Garden (1925)

The Pleasure Garden (1925)
written by Eliot Stannard, based on the novel by Oliver Sandys

Not bad. I was expecting this to be awful. With the exception of The Lodger, it seems as though people rarely have anything nice to say about Hitchcock's silents. To be sure, it's nowhere near the same league as a Murnau film. It's a melodrama, filled with people falling in love instantaneously, betrayals, acts of kindness and a cute dog. Still, I was interested in the story right up until the end.

I was pleased to see Hitchcock's -- for lack of a better word -- cheekiness present this early in his career. The movie begins with a chorus girl performance at the Pleasure Garden. Despite having a front row seat, one of the old men in the audience pulls out a pair of opera glasses. Hitchcock, of course, allows us to see from the old man's point of view and we voyeuristically observe the dancing legs of the ladies on stage for a few seconds. Right out of the gate, he's both playful and playing with the possibilities of film. There are a few touches like this in the movie: Jill callously tilting her head just enough to burn Prince Ivan's cheek. Seeing the ghost of Levett's murdered lover (nice optical, by the way) through Levett's insane perspective.

Especially interesting was the final shot of Patsy and Hugh embracing. Each having lost their spouse/fiancee to betrayals, they've realized that they were meant for each other all along. Except, Patsy's face during this embrace is not quite happy. It bears just a little bit of worried look. I don't know if this was Hitch's doing, or the actress' or just an accident. It puts a nice spin on things, though. Instead of the standard super-OK-happy ending found in most melodramas, this one's a little more realistic. Sure, Patsy's found love again... but what if the same thing happens? How can she dive into another marriage right after Levett's lying and cheating? Maybe she can't? (6/10)

Watched the region 2 DVD released by Network in 2008. It's tinted correctly, alternating between yellow and blue. Unfortunately, the video suffers from poor compression and artifacts abound. This is essentially the only official release of the movie.

02 November 2008

Hitchcock | opening thoughts

I never thought much of Hitchcock until I took a class on him in college. Being a horror guy, I'd always thought of suspense as a dull, watered-down version of horror. It was just plain, realistic drama without a werewolf or vampire to be seen. The short, spring term class I took opened my eyes. In the hands of an expert, suspense could generate scenes as interesting to me as anything involving a maniac in a mask.

This is, by far, the largest of my chronocinethons (not counting MST3K, which wasn't a single person's output). I'll be watching 52 movies, alternate versions of 2 of those movies, a variety show, 2 World War II propaganda shorts and 20 television episodes. This comes out to 101 hours of Hitch, which is stored on 58 DVDs hailing from 5 different countries. Not an easy or inexpension set to complete, this was.

This is also one of the few (Leone probably being the only other) directors I'm doing here that would be film snob-approved. Which is a bit of pressure. A lot of really smart folks have written a lot of really smart stuff about Hitchcock over the years. What the hell am I going to write about after watching these films? I suppose I'll find out once I sit down to do it.

Watching some Hitchcock seems like a fun thing to do as the holidays approach. Who knows? If the timing is right, maybe I can convince family members to watch North by Northwest or Strangers on a Train with me.

01 November 2008


I had a nice holiday today. To match my daughter, who was Supergirl, I dressed as Clark Kent for work. That is, I dressed in suit pants, a white shirt and a tie with a Superman T-shirt showing through the unbuttoned white shirt. I also ordered the official DC Comics "Clark Kent Eyeglasses" to wear (who knew?), though I could only tolerate them with the cheap, plastic lenses popped out. Not the most original costume in the world, but people really dug it. I got lots of nice comments from folks and my picture taken a couple of times. And to all the skeptics out there: the glasses-as-disguise thing really does work. I normally don't wear them... just by putting them on, I had people I know staring right at me, not able to figure out who I was for a beat or two.

I don't what the deal is with the hospital, though. I probably saw only 4 other people in full-on costumes today... this being a place that employs thousands. I also found out from our daycare lady that the public schools don't allow the kids to wear costumes to school anymore. What's the deal, man? Why all the dressing up hate? There's one day per year where you get to walk around pretending to be someone else and you don't want to do it or aren't allowed to? Bummer.

Afterwards, for the first year ever despite living here for seven years, I passed out candy to trick-or-treaters. Only six groups stopped by -- half of them being the local daycare kids and a third being teenagers collecting cans for charity -- but I thought it was fun. Not sure on the protocol these days with regards to quantity. I just gave 'em a handful of candy and didn't worry about it.

Then, it was movie time. The final day of the final week of Halloween:

Bride of Frankenstein trailer (1935)
Night of the Living Dead trailer (1968)
Merrie Melodies: "Hair-raising Hare" (1946)

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) directed by Chuck Russell
Freddy at the top of his game, both cruel and funny. I love his processed, deep voice in this one. Half the time it sounds like a growl. It fits him perfectly. I think this sequel's Freddy makeup is my favorite as well. It gets more plastic looking in later movies. To me, Freddy puppeting Phillip around by his tendons remains the most disturbing image in the entire series. I'm still trying to figure out all of the Freudian implications of the phallic Freddy-snake eating Kristen. Freddy's repeated use of the word "bitch" to refer to his female antagonists may, just may, indicate he's a bit of a misogynist. Also: Dokken rules! (7/10)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre trailer (1974)
A Nightmare on Elm Street trailer (1984)
The Simpsons: "Treehouse of Horror: The Raven" (1990)

Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (2007) directed by Lloyd Kaufman
Not quite the head explosion that Citizen Toxie was. I ordered this with two-day shipping from Amazon to be sure it got here in time to watch on Halloween. A new movie from Lloyd is a rare event indeed and I've got the trailer for this one practically memorized after watching it for two years. It's essentially Troma's version of Fast Food Nation (the book, not the shitty movie), but with song and dance numbers. I wasn't expecting those. They're pretty much contained in the first half of the movie and kinda come too close together for my liking. The lyrics, of course, are funny, with plenty of references to body parts and functions. Unfortunately, I found that the songs slowed the movie down, spacing out the scenes of extreme gore more than I would've wanted. What I liked about Toxie 4 was the nearly nonstop mayhem and insanity on the screen. Poultrygeist is a much calmer movie... at least for the first half. When the chicken zombie plague finally arrives, we start to rock-and-roll without stopping.

Speaking of extreme gore, this is definitely the gooiest Troma movie thus far (which is saying quite a bit). I can't wait to watch the documentary on the bonus disc, just to see how many times the poor PAs were forced to clean up the gallons and gallons of fake blood that got constantly sprayed everywhere. I'm pretty sure Poultrygeist beats out Dead Alive / Braindead for the most fake blood sprayed into the air. It definitely beats it for most objects ramming through anuses. Also: they put a camera in the toilet bowl... for when Joe Fleishaker uses it. Man oh man. I love you, Troma.

Holy crap! A Troma movie in real anamorphic widescreen (not the letterboxed 4:3 atrocity found on the Toxie 21st anniversary disc)? Awesome! And the transfer's even good. Wow! Troma's getting classy here. Color me impressed with this 3-disc set. (7/10)

Candyman trailer (1992)
Dagon trailer (2001)
Mickey Mouse: "Lonesome Ghosts" (1937

Halloween (1978) directed by John Carpenter
The granddaddy of slasher films. Watching it in HD this year for the first time was a treat. I'm so familiar with the movie -- specifically, the one DVD that I've been watching for a decade -- that suddenly having all of this extra detail in the picture was like someone wiped the haze from the screen. Fun stuff. (9/10)

The seventh and final Halloween Jones Soda flavor is Blood Orange, a new one for this year. But, you know, it's just orange pop. There's nothing at all different about it except that it's dyed a slightly darker shade of orange than a Faygo orange pop. Meh. Jones really dropped the ball on the glass bottle flavors this year. Bring back red licorice!

And, that's it for the Six Weeks of Halloween. Celebrating Halloween for this long is great. By the time I've finished, I'm good and done with the holiday. I feel like I've got as much out of it as I could. I'm looking forward to watching non-horror movies in the near future for the first time in a month and a half. That'll be a treat.

Supergirl Begins.