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November 20, 2012

Hitchcock, the Underdog Auteur

Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock

The first movie director I ever heard of was Alfred Hitchcock. Actually, before I knew there were such things as movie directors, I knew who Alfred Hitchcock was. I used to watch reruns of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" on TV, and I assumed he must have written all those stories until my mom told me he was actually a director, not a writer. Then I heard that Alfred Hitchcock's movies were suspenseful and scary and had lots of murder in them, then I watched Vertigo and Rear Window, and then I thought maybe I should spend the rest of my life watching as many movies as possible.

The name "Alfred Hitchcock" is probably more widely known and recognized than any of his movie titles, and it's been that way since the 1950's. Pretty amazing! That's why it's so strange to see him as he's presented in this new movie, Hitchcock, as a scrappy underdog fighting the studio system to make his radical self-financed experimental art film, Psycho. This is where the movie is best: the scenes about the genius and sweat that went into making Psycho, from the original novel's inspiration by real-life murderer Ed Gein, to the money talks with the studio heads, the bickering with the prigs in the Production Code office over violence and nudity, casting, shooting the shower scene, editing, the score. All the technical stuff is fantastic.

Unfortunately, a lot of the movie deals with Hitchcock's relationship with his wife and collaborative partner, Alma Reville. She's played by Helen Mirren, who it goes without saying is fantastic, but their petty jealousies are nowhere near as interesting as the creative spark at the core of their relationship. Alma was Hitchcock's main collaborator in everything he did, and was already a successful writer and editor while Alfred was still learning his way around a set. (The Times has a great article about Alma in the two recent biopics about the Hitchcocks.)

Even though Psycho was massively popular and pretty much changed our definition of horror movies, it was seen as a risky proposition at the time. One of the reasons Hitchcock is so good at portraying Alfred Hitchcock as an unconventional indie hero is its director: Sacha Gervasi, who's only other feature is a great documentary about a metal band that never quite made it big, Anvil: The Story of Anvil.

Unlike Alfred Hitchcock, Anvil really are underdogs, admired by superstars of rock like Lars Ulrich and Slash, but still plugging away without major success, working cruddy day-jobs and going on depressingly mismanaged tours like an unfunny version of Spinal Tap. Sacha Gervasi calls himself "England's #1 Anvil fan", so this guy knows his lovable losers. I'm really impressed that he captured that same hardcore, outsider spirit in a movie that includes scenes of Alfred Hitchcock writing $900,000 checks and tossing back buckets of foie gras.

November 7, 2012

I don't care, I love Flight

Denzel Washington in Flight

Yay, Obama! OK, back to movies.

Flight is directed by Robert Zemeckis, who also directed Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Contact, and all that weird motion-capture animation stuff like The Polar Express. He makes big-budget crowd-pleasers, and even though I've seen and liked some of his movies, I have never once thought, "I don't know how good that movie's going to be, but it's a Robert Zemeckis picture, so I'm definitely seeing it."

But I did see Flight on opening weekend, and I loved it. It's a lot darker than the trailer makes it seem--I'm not going to give anything away, but it isn't as much of a legal thriller or disaster drama as it appears to be, and it gets into a lot of heavy, serious stuff about the awful things that people with addictions can do. The material is dark, the highs and lows are really high and low, and Denzel Washington, one of America's very favorite people, plays a disturbed jerk doing horrible things. This is not like Training Day, where Denzel was a super charming villain, having so much fun with his bad-guy character that we had to give him an Oscar for it. This guy is an unlikable mess, even if he looks like a million bucks in his pilot uniform and aviator sunglasses (see above).

Denzel is so good that he makes this movie, which is 100% predictable Hollywood formula, and 100% directed by Robert Zemeckis, into something nuanced and smart. This is extra amazing because the script is by someone named John Gatins, best known for anti-nuanced redemptive schlock like Hardball, and robot boxing cheese like Real Steel. Thankfully, Flight shows enormous restraint in not trying to explain why Denzel's character is so screwed up, and just presents him as he is, a screwed up guy in an impossible situation. There is, inevitably, some redemption at the end, but only for maybe 8 minutes after 2+ hours of the real deal.

Here's another knock against this movie: the soundtrack, which uses such absurdly over-played, on the nose songs to narrate the action that it almost ruins important scenes. A character scores some heroin: cue "Under the Bridge" by the Chili Peppers. Here's a drug-injecting scene: how about the drugged-up Cowboy Junkies' version of "Sweet Jane"? It's perfect! Enter John Goodman's scenery-chewing best buddy drug dealer/enabler. Time for "Sympathy For the Devil"! Frankly, it's a miracle no one decided to slap Jeff Buckley's cover of "Hallelujah" on a scene of quiet reflection on the poignancy of drinking a whole bottle of Jim Beam in one sitting.

Despite all that, it all comes together somehow and it's as great as a formulaic Hollywood movie about redemption can be. I'll say it: I love Robert Zemeckis! I certainly didn't think he had something like this in him. Too bad he won his Oscar for Forrest Gump.

November 6, 2012

Working Families Party, moving up in the world

Working Families Party NY State ballot

It's Election Day! And in New York State, that means millions of people are mourning the loss of the old draw-the-curtain, flip-the-thingies, pull-the-lever system that was so mechanically gratifying for all those years. Now we've got illegibly tiny fonts on a piece of paper and broken down scanners. We're bravely entering the world of mid-1990's office technology over here (assuming your polling place is lucky enough to have power.)

But one new development looks promising: the Working Families Party line has moved up, from the last column (E) to the next-to-last column (D)! Every year, more people have voted on the Working Families Party line, and all this voter action propelled the WFP to pole vault over the freaky old Independence Party and wedge itself in next to the creepy old Conservative Party. It's not the greatest neighborhood, but it's a nice progressive spot on an otherwise grim stretch of right-wingness.

Voting for Obama on the Working Families line counts just the same as a vote on the Democratic line, but it speaks more forcefully about wanting a president who sticks up for the interests of regular people.

Google has a helpful map service that finds your polling place, which is nice, but because of storm fallout, this year New York residents can vote ANYWHERE.

Cool! Could this vastly improved change of protocol convince the Board of Elections that we should all be able to go to a website, plug in our address, generate a ballot, and vote for our respective local candidates without having to go to a designated school cafeteria, wait in various lines for an hour while people flip through giant notebooks and figure out which other line we should be standing in, then enter your votes using a freaking scanner? Yeah, probably not.

About November 2012

This page contains all entries posted to Amy's Robot in November 2012. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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