The religious supernatural in film: they walk among us

December 6, 2007

With the release of the famously controversial The Golden Compass (the least religiously-oriented of any of the books in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy) upon us, what better time to look at the use of religion in film?

I’m not talking The Ten Commandments or The Passion of the Christ here – after all, that’s just obvious Biblical stuff. No, what’s more interesting is the real world reinterpretations of Judaeo-Christian religious mythology on the big screen that are not taken directly from holy texts; films that look at what religious mythology would exist or appear as if seen face-to-face, directly, in “real life.” More Stigmata, less The Nativity Story.

In other words, if it’s all true, and the battle between Heaven and Hell is right here beside us (as John Constantine might say), what could you see around the corner tomorrow, when you thought you were just coming home from work?

Not surprisingly, or perhaps very much so, horror is the key proponent of religious mythology in film. From The Omen to The Devil’s Advocate and Constantine (the latter two both with whoa-man Keanu Reeves, but more on that later), the devil, Hell and all that implies have been a goldmine for thinking man’s horror and non-thinking man’s horror alike – and classic and classically horrible alike. What better way to instill fear than to tap into what we’re already afraid of, or at least what we already recognize as being evil?

Christian religion is a whole mythos full of extremely recognizable characters and tales, from exorcisms to the ten plagues of Egypt, with which to terrify eager audiences. Satan himself, naturally, is the most popular target, portrayed in film as everything from a powerful guy in a crisp white suit to a Wall Street banker to… a lawyer in a crisp New York suit. Hmm, I’m sensing a theme here – but it could just be me. Perhaps filmmakers just take that whole “sell your soul” for money thing a little too literally.

Not to be outdone, of course, the good side has its say as well, with angels making a rousing play for the dominance of Good on the big screen. Apart from Tilda Swinton as Gabriel in Constantine and Emmanuelle Béart as Angel (just the one name, like Madonna) in Date with an Angel, celluloid angels also seem to be predominantly male. Nicolas Cage (who kind of goes the other way in Ghost Rider – man, you never can tell about someone), John Travolta, Christopher Lloyd, Denzel Washington, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and European actors Otto Sander and Bruno Ganz have all played angels. Wow, male actors do get all the fun… and I thought actors liked the evil parts (rogue angels don’t count, Damon and Affleck).

And then there’s the epic, all-encompassing look – because someone has to do it, and high fantasy clearly has a head start on the whole supernatural war between good and evil shtick. The genre definitely takes its share, both in film and in print (I’m on to you, Tad Williams. A martyr nailed to a tree and the Mother Church? Plus a king named Prester John? Very subtle.). The classic example of course being C.S. Lewis’s Narnia epics, but Philip Pullman is now jumping into the fray as well with his trilogy’s move onto the big screen.

In the end, what this probably all comes down to is our intense desire to know – what’s out there, what the world is, if there is a God of some kind. And movies have swooped down to help fulfill that need in a more visual way, bringing oral and printed tales of deep-seated beliefs and fears to life.

Ahem, well, with all that “deep” stuff out of the way, let’s get to the lists. Here’s a quick guide to religious phenomena in film, through horror and fantasy, and even into romantic comedies (intriguingly, angels are more prominent here). Not everything is here, I know, but this isn’t just a film + religion = here kind of list. Nevertheless, hopefully it’s somewhat of a good overview. And hey, it looks like that reading of The Divine Comedy I did in college will finally come in handy.

All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

– Dante’s Inferno

My personal favorites are marked with a *.

HORROR

Ah, the Devil, a principal character or idea in almost every movie in HORROR. Sadly, like all big stars these days, he’s decided to move on from the silver screen and star in his own comedy TV show: Reaper. And yes, he wears a suit in that one too.

Honorable mention achievement awards to Keanu Reeves and Gabriel Bryne, who both have two films a piece on this list. That Neo certainly likes films of biblical portent…

* Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – Starting off our trio of “um, I think there might be something wrong with my child” flicks, this Roman Polanski horrifier stars Mia Farrow as a mother suspicious that her unborn child might be, well, evil. Of course, they also live in a massive, Renaissance, anyone can tell I’m haunted apartment building in New York (the real-life The Dakota building in Manhattan), which can’t help.

* The Exorcist (1973) – Probably fairly obvious what this one’s about, if not from the title directly than from the impressive multitude of parodies, sequels, prequels, remakes, supposedly related films, mediocre comparisons, etc. etc. Infamously starring Linda Blair as the jointless possessed child, and directed by William Friedkin.

* The Omen (1976) – Finishing off the trio, this horror classic stars cute little Damien (Harvey Stephens) as pure EVIL. Ah, fun times. Also starring Gregory Peck and Lee Remick as the child’s parents. Remade in 2006.

The Seventh Sign (1988) – Demi Moore is the only person who thinks the apocalypse is real. And it’s coming. Soon. Why can’t it ever be coming, like, 50 or so years from now?

* The Devil’s Advocate (1997) – Let’s just say that it’s not only an expression in this film. With Keanu Reeves as a newly hired Manhattan lawyer whose new boss might be a bit more than he seems – as he is played by Al Pacino, who do you think the boss really is? Also with Charlize Theron as the wife slowly going the Ophelia route (i.e., total insanity), and Gladiator‘s Connie Nielsen. Written by Michael Clayton director Tony Gilroy, who also wrote the Bourne films and the cult love story The Cutting Edge.

End of Days (1999) – In a world where the devil (Gabriel Bryne) walks among us, only one man can save us from eternal torment and he is… the governor of California.

Stigmata (1999) – Another Gabriel Bryne appearance in the same year (and, actually, this one was released a few months before End), but this time as a priest instead of Satan. Interesting. Patricia Arquette may be experiencing stigmata, or the physical manifestations of Christ’s wounds from the crucifixion. Determined not to be a one-note thriller, Stigmata was also a bit controversial with its none-too-positive view of organized religion (in other words, ever-popular target the Roman Catholic Church). If you know what The Golden Compass is about, same general idea, smaller scope.

The Ninth Gate (1999-2000) – Another Roman Polanski flick, but sadly, not quite Rosemary’s Baby. Nevertheless, it’s got Johnny Depp trafficking in mysterious rare books that may or may not (I’m going for “may”) summon the devil.

Lost Souls (2000) – Winona Ryder. The Antichrist. Mediocre entertainment unfolds.

* Constantine (2005) – I’ll admit it, I’m a closet Keanu Reeves fan. Scorn his acting abilities if you must, but he headlines a solid portion of my favorite films. The minimalism works for me. Plus, I clearly have a thing for Rachel Weisz horror, as I also have The Mummy on my repeat viewing list. And, okay, this isn’t exactly true to Alan Moore’s blond-haired antihero from the original comics, but it’s still cool thriller entertainment. Look for Shia LeBoeuf in his sidekick days (see I, Robot) as Reeves’s, well, sidekick. Also starring Swinton as Gabriel, Gavin Rossdale as Balthazar and Djimon Hounsou as Papa Midnite (that actually is his character’s name). Plot: Reeves is John Constantine, a chain-smoking cynic condemned to Hell who is trying to make amends by helping to send demons back where they came from. Weisz is a cop who doesn’t believe her sister really committed suicide. They cross paths. Coincidence? Ah… no.

The Reaping (2007) – Um, not the best… but it’s, ah, recent, and, um… about the ten plagues. With a 7% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Well, you can’t win ’em all, Hilary.

Other notable horror: Technically, The Mummy is about ancient Egypt, but it’s got a more interesting version of the ten plagues in it (sorry, Reaping), so why not. I would include Stargate as well, but I think that’s definitely stretching it. And it’s not really horror. Oh well.

FANTASY

The Chronicles of Narnia – With Disney’s release of the first installment in 2005 (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and Prince Caspian in 2008, C.S. Lewis’s Christianity-laced fantasy tales have been brought with much commercial success to the visual generation. Only five more left to go! Can’t deny I’m excited for a film version of Voyage of the Dawn Treader (est. 2010) with an actual budget… In any case, whether or not you like the religious layers in these stories, I have to say that when I read this series as a child, I had absolutely no idea of any religion at all (could the same be true for young readers of The Golden Compass?). And to be honest, I was disappointed and felt almost betrayed when I found out – my own little loss of innocence (things aren’t always exactly what they appear to be???) – although the last book in particular made a lot more sense.

The Golden Compass (2007) – The epic fantasy book gets a * but after an early glimpse at conflicting reviews for this film (UK’s Guardian vs. Times – may the person you agree with most win!), I’ll have to wait and see on the movie. For more on the plot, religion and controversy, click here.

OTHER COMICS-TO-FILMS

* Hellboy (2004) – Guillermo del Toro’s cult classic about a big red demon with horn issues who works for the government’s paranormal bureau – which, no, is not situated in Area 51 for once. Starring Selma Blair, John Hurt and Ron Perlman as Hellboy.

Ghost Rider (2007) – Well, if you make a deal with Mephistopheles, you gotta know weird things are gonna happen. Nicolas Cage gets to have a head that’s actually a skull which is constantly on fire (must be a burning bush kind of fire) and take people down. Doesn’t sound too bad.

COMEDY

* Wings of Desire (1987) – The Cannes award winner about two angels (Ganz and Sander) who wander unobserved through Berlin, this German film tells of Ganz’s angel’s growing love for a woman who can’t see him. Bonus points for including a character modeled on epic-maker Homer! Peter Falk (Columbo, The Princess Bride) also makes an appearance. If the plot sounds familiar to you but you don’t recall subtitles and/or German, see Angels, City of below.

Date with an Angel (1987) – This (literally) glowing movie stars Béart, Michael Knight and Phoebe Cates in a light (and regrettably dated) combo of Wings of Desire and Splash. Similar, at least in title: I Married an Angel, based on a play.

* Angels in the Outfield (1994) – A warm-hearted remake of the 1951 film of the same name, this Christopher Lloyd-starrer features a very young Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young foster child who wishes his favorite baseball team, the Angels (get it?), would win the pennant. Angels, including Lloyd, respond to his request. Sigh, angels never respond to my requests.

Michael (1996) – As in, the Archangel Michael (John Travolta). With wings and everything, including a drinking problem. Also with William Hurt, Andie MacDowell (as the obligatory “expert” on angels), Bob Hoskins, Jean Stapleton, and Joey Lauren Adams. Directed by Nora Ephron of You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle fame.

The Preacher’s Wife (1996) – Another remake. An all-star cast (Whitney Houston, Courtney B. Vance, Gregory Hines, Lionel Richie) is featured alongside Washington’s turn as an angel named Dudley (played by Cary Grant in the original) who arrives to help “fix” the family’s problems. Unfortunately, the movie is not as good as the cast warrants.

Deconstructing Harry (1997) – A Woody Allen comedy that takes a detour into Hell, with Woody’s own unique vision of the levels in Dante’s Inferno. I think that pretty much explains the whole movie. Oh yes, and Billy Crystal is the devil with a devilishly sinister plan to ruin the world through air-conditioning.

* Dogma (1999) – Shockingly, another controversial one. And from Clerks auteur Kevin Smith? Who would’ve thought? No sailboats here, this comedy about some seriously annoyed angels on the warpath takes a bevy of stars (Damon, Affleck, Rock, Hayek, Carlin, Lee, Garofolo, Morissette, Rickman, Jay and Bob) and gives them lots and lots and lots to say about organized religion. Copious amounts of dialogue in a Smith film is odd, I know. Amid all the anger over its portrayal of Catholicism, and many thousands of hate mail letters, a disclaimer went up before the movie that, among other things, dissed the platypus (can you believe it? the nerve).

City of Angels (1998) – Wings of Desire, Meg Ryan-style. Cage shows up as the angel who falls in love.

Bedazzled (2000) – Besides Deconstructing Harry, this is the only comedy on the list that deals with the devil. Of course, Elizabeth Hurley as Satan isn’t exactly scary, or at least not in the typical horror genre sort of way. Brendan Fraser makes another appearance here as a schlub willing to sell his soul for the lively Frances O’Connor (Mansfield Park!). Without appearing desperate, naturally.

Down to Earth (2001) – Yep, it’s a remake. What a surprise. This one goes all out however, as it’s actually a remake of a remake of a play. Who said there were no new ideas. Chris Rock stars as a comedian who is accidentally killed and returns to earth as a loathed rich man. I have to say, Chazz Palminteri and Eugene Levy as angels? I’m a little afraid.

Bruce Almighty (not Evan Almighty, it’s just Noah’s Ark so I don’t want to hear it) – This 2003 film takes an amusing look at a few days in the life of God (Morgan Freeman), through the contortionist that is Jim Carrey. Jennifer Aniston also stars as the long-suffering love interest.

OTHER

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – If you’ve somehow managed to avoid this Frank Capra classic through countless holiday seasons, kudos to you. Either way, you probably know what this is about and, yep, that angels are indeed involved.

To see a more comprehensive list of angels in film, click here.

For more on Satan in pop culture, click here.

Pure and disposed to mount unto the stars.

– Dante’s Purgatorio


Beowulf

December 1, 2007

Well, it’s not your grandfather’s Beowulf, and certainly not your great-great-great-great… (one more) great-grandfather’s, I can say that. I mean, yes, technically it does take place in ye olden times, but I at least can’t remember seeing many mentions of gold stilettos in the Germanic history textbooks. (if you don’t know who wears those stilettos in the film, you’ve been living under a rock – I’ll give you a hint, the actress’s name rhymes with Brangelina).

Of course, just because the film’s plot has almost no relation to the original epic poem doesn’t mean that it’s bad. In fact, it’s quite good. See, imagine you like the characters of the whole Romeo and Juliet tale – Romeo, Juliet, that disease-obsessed Mercutio guy – but don’t quite like how that whole star-crossed lover thing plays out. So you take those three characters, a few major plot points (like, well, location and, um, some fight scenes) and put it all together into a new story. And that’s pretty much what Beowulf is, with a new story that’s not half-bad. It’s got temptation, greed, lust, and the mother of all vicious cycles (literally). It’s mythic, unexpected, haunting, and very Neil Gaiman (who helped write the script).

And that’s the interesting thing about this film, which was directed by The Polar Express‘s Robert Zemeckis. With all the hyped 3D animation technology (the film’s all in performance capture animation – remember Gollum from LOTR or The Polar Express?), massive fight sequences and “I am Sparta!” – sorry, Beowulf – trailers, you would think the action scenes, cool technology factor and well-toned people would be the film’s main strengths. Story be darned. But with performance capture making all the characters look like they took a major overdose of Botox, and some ho-hum, anti-climactic adventure scenes, the plot is what redeems (somewhat, anyway) the whole thing. Although, okay, all that body candy is nice too. For all gender orientations.

Many of those with me at the theater noted the hindrance of expressionless characters, uneven pacing, and shrug-inducing action sequences – although some may have used the verb “to suck” in various forms instead of that exact language – but everyone came away taken with the story. It almost makes you wonder what the film could have been if its production hadn’t been so focused on working with this style of filmmaking. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, does unlimited access to technology corrupt limitlessly? No between-the-lines reference to another filmmaker intended.

And I almost hate to say it, but yes, Angelina, the centerpiece of the plot and the most intriguing character, was actually the best part of the film.


No Country for Old Men

November 28, 2007

The first thing you notice is the quiet. You forget how crucial, how instrumental (pun, I admit it, intended) a movie’s score is, until you barely hear one. Would Jaws have been nearly as scary without those thumping beats? Is Darth Vader as imposing and intimidating without John Williams’s triumphant, lordly intro?

Thrillers and horror in particular make use of music’s impact – telling you when to feel worried (that crescendo of anticipatory sound), and when to realize it’s over through the film’s score. In fact, the only silence you usually get in these film genres is that heartbeat before something attacks, the crescendo and then the hush before the blow.

Yes, the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men does have a score – it says so in the credits (and it’s apparently composed by Carter Burwell, a Coen staple) – but I can’t for the life of me think where it was. Fortunately for my sanity, I’m not the only one; The New Yorker calls the score “little more than a fitful murmur.”

The lack of sound does something both freeing and frightfully disturbing: it makes you feel for yourself. The score doesn’t tell you when the implacable, psychopathic killer Anton Chigurh (a darkly humorous and impassive, walking undead Javier Bardem, with that now infamous head of hair) is going to attack – there is no build up, no musical signals to warn you about what is going to happen. Just like Chigurh’s odes to Two-Face (he too sometimes flips a coin to decide a victim’s fate), just like life, the musical score, or lack thereof, lets you feel the full impact of randomness, helplessness, and the petrifying nature of an unknown future, whether that future is one second or one lifetime away.

The score also has an accomplice in No Country‘s dialogue and cinematography. There is no real shouting, no screaming for blood or mercy. Lots of grunting though, accompanied by some knowing smiles and measured talk. There are also barely any camera shots that anticipate what’s going to happen, no panning out to show you that there is probably something or someone lurking just out of sight, in that dark corner of the garage. It shows you what’s happening, the faces of the people involved and the lifeless, stretching scenery around them, and that’s about it. What comes, comes.

And that’s the soul of this disquieting (sorry, just couldn’t stop myself) adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s critically acclaimed novel of the same name. It’s quiet, deliberate, direct, unflinching; an unguided tour of flat, dispassionate reality. Well, almost unguided, anyway. The closest thing you get to a guide is the sheriff, played with deep sadness and one eyebrow raised by Tommy Lee Jones. But even as he narrates portions of the tale, the sheriff, on the trail of Chigurh and that killer’s own target Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), doesn’t know what’s coming any more than you do. As he himself says, he’s “outmatched.”

The story of a man, Moss, who stumbles across a drug deal gone bad (it’s so bad even the dog is dead) and thinks he can get away with its left-behind spoils of 2 million bucks, No Country coolly states that this is the way things are, or can be, take it or leave it. As Moss runs from Chigurh’s relentless hired killer, you sometimes think he’s in (way) over his head, but sometimes not. You are sometimes sure Chigurh is going to attack with that cattle gun, and sometimes not. You sometimes think Moss and his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) will maybe, just maybe get to enjoy the money in the end, but often not. It’s bleak, but it’s not apologetic. It just is.

Which is why the appearance of Woody Harrelson’s cocky hired gun (Carson Wells) in a sleek, big city office, sitting before Stephen Root’s sleek, big city desk (he probably has 50 red staplers in there) seems so out of place. Wait, is this a movie again? Nothing against Woody, or certainly cult fave Root as a drug businessman, but their polished Hollywood demeanor, with Woody’s cool drawl, feels like a whole different movie. From the silent tumbleweeds of reality to the glossy halls of a Hollywood drug man is a bit of an unsettling leap for this darkly murmuring film.


The case for “Dial M for Murder”

November 7, 2007

It’s no secret that Alfred Hitchcock is the master of suspense. And really, anyone who can make a flock of birds, a shower, and even a bouquet of flowers absolutely terrifying, for many, many years, is clearly not someone to be trifled with. Of course, what Hitchcock is most known for is his complex, often dizzying, psychological thrills of horror (or at least some sort of terror), such as Psycho, Rear Window, or Vertigo – plus North by Northwest, certainly dizzying in its own right but not really “scary,” although it’s possible that some people may have nightmares about being chased in endless corn fields, I can’t really say.

Nevertheless, sometimes his other films get left behind, Dial M for Murder among them. Certainly a famous title, and yes, it was remade as (the critically disliked: 55% on Rotten Tomatoes – ouch!) A Perfect Murder in 1998, but not often listed among his true classics. In fact, upon its release, Variety said in a review that:

Dial M remains more of a filmed play [the movie is based on a stage play by Frederick Knott] than a motion picture, unfortunately revealed as a conversation piece about murder which talks up much more suspense than it actually delivers… There are a number of basic weaknesses in the setup that keep the picture from being a good suspense show for any but the most gullible.

If that is the case, then, well, I’m not afraid to admit that I do in fact believe that gullible isn’t in the dictionary, finding the film made up more of the “elegant coils of murder drama,” as the New York Times said in its 1954 review, than drooping waves of lackluster suspense.

In fact, in today’s Lost age of hyper-convoluted stories, and seriously overwhelming numbers of characters and plot lines (Wait, what happened in Syriana again? And I really have no idea what happened in The Number 23 – see Cracked’s article), it’s soothing, in a Zen sort of way, to watch a well-acted, well-thought out, basically bloodless, complicated but not labyrinthine, and just plain enjoyable movie of edge-of-your-seat suspense. Think Law and Order: Criminal Intent via Sherlock Holmes and Murder on the Orient Express, but with less detective and more murderer.

Taking place for the most part in just one apartment (it was based on a play after all), the film tells the story of, as I say in the Hitchcock cheat sheet:

[…an] ex-tennis player Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) and his extremely carefully planned plot to kill his wife, wealthy Margot Wendice (Grace Kelly), for her money and because of an old (now ended) affair with Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men…

And to be completely honest, I literally was on the edge of my seat during much of its hour and 45 minute run. My friends even started bouncing up and down in their chairs (whether or not they would admit it later on) in the excruciatingly anticipatory climax – where all the different moments and setups lock thrillingly into place. Like Ocean’s Eleven and The Sting, it has the very satisfying adrenaline rush from plans gone very well (and very awry). True, it’s not Ocean’s Eleven in the sense that there’s no glitz and glamor here (apart from Grace Kelly, of course, who brings, well, grace with her wherever she goes), no Las Vegas lights, and it’s all talk and not much dramatic action. But, as anyone can tell you who’s heard Verbal Kint speak, talk can be a powerful and riveting tool in the story of a criminal.

So if you like elegant murder mysteries with evolving dénouements, then get some popcorn now and watch one of Hitchcock’s best, without having to turn on all the lights.

As Hitchcock once famously said, “As you have seen on the screen, the best way to do it is with a scissor.”

(Trust me, that’ll be meaningful once you watch the film.)

Click here to go to CNN’s nice little “Celebration of Alfred Hitchcock” article. And here to go to the Alfred Hitchcock cheat sheet, which covers all of his classics.


Michael Clayton

October 16, 2007

The phrase “a George Clooney thriller about lawyers from the guy who wrote all three Bourne films” (Tony Gilroy, who also directed the film) probably evokes a certain type of film. Perhaps a high-octane courtroom drama, a more action-packed A Few Good Men and/or any film adaptation of a John Grisham novel. All told, of course, with that trademark Clooney twinkle in the eye (you know what I’m talking about).

Well, let me just say this – Michael Clayton is NOT that film.

If that’s what you were expecting, you will most likely come out of the movie theater disappointed – as some people clearly seemed to be in my theater. (I’m looking at you, not-so-subtly grumbling guys in front of me!)

To keep on this film-to-film comparison track, picture Michael Clayton more like this: if you considered Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck to be a Red Scare thriller of hand-clenching suspense, then you will think Michael Clayton is quite the thrill ride.

Otherwise, think of it as the structural plot of a thriller like The Pelican Brief (environmental theme and all) set in the quagmire of law firm morality from A Devil’s Advocate, minus the horror, and well, presence of the Devil – yet shot with the quiet, reflective silences and elegant, almost calm, pacing of Good Night, and Good Luck.

Gilroy, who actually helped pen Devil’s Advocate, noted in Entertainment Weekly that:

The idea [for Michael Clayton] came during [1997’s] The Devil’s Advocate. We were tailing all these law firms in New York, and I was really kind of shocked and fascinated by all this stuff that was going on behind the scenes — that there was this whole back of the house, the kitchen area of the restaurant. And I thought, God, that’s really untouched. Nobody’s done a movie about that. And I started talking to people, and soon I said to myself that this is a whole ecosystem that hasn’t been tapped in the movies.

And the film is mostly an exploration of the human effects of the legal profession – a quote-unquote serious film’s “portrait of a lawyer as a middle-aged man” trapped in the skeleton (or at least marketing machine) of a star-driven thriller. The movie certainly has the plot of a thriller, with the necessary conspiracies, cover-ups and imminent danger – but even its most climactic scenes, full of confrontation and menace, are at a low boil, treated slowly, carefully, contemplatively, and often silently, leading to an ending that leaves you feeling a bit, well, empty, that you were waiting for something that never came. The typical thriller’s catharsis is never fulfilled. Where is the rush of adrenaline, the feeling of triumph or at least the satisfaction of completion, the tying up of loose ends? Not here – but then, this is not that kind of film.

The star himself, as Clayton, convincingly portrays a weary, weary (and I mean those italics) man. No twinkle in his eye this time, Clooney embodies a man treading a life he’s no longer sure he wants, or even understands. The movie spends time with his son, his extended family and his (doomed) attempts at a life outside of law – creating a complex portrait of a man over the course of a few short, but momentous, days in his life.

Sydney Pollack also appears as the man dragging Clayton into the quicksand with a smile, and Tilda Swinton – as a corporate lawyer stuck in a hole she just keeps digging herself into – is almost terrifying as the literal personification of a nervous breakdown, her widening eyes seeming to virtually darken to black as she buries herself further into her nightmare. And Tom Wilkinson as a star lawyer who may have lost his marbles and just doesn’t want to find them again, somehow manages to find the humor in both this film and dangerous insanity.

In other words, this is a great film – but if you’re looking for the fun thrills of a fast-paced conspiracy, this is not the film for you.


Alfred Hitchcock cheat sheet

September 25, 2007

Sure, you know he’s famous, and you know his name is associated with some movie involving a shower, a knife and a crazy guy in a motel, but what else do you really know about Alfred Hitchcock and his movies?

And so Buttercups and Ravenwood presents… Alfred Hitchcock.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents

Bitty bio: Actually born before the turn of the century (1899), Alfred Hitchcock truly witnessed the entire evolution of cinema – from silent films, to talking black and white, to color. The British son of a Roman Catholic greengrocer, he first entered the film industry through art design and directed his first complete film in 1925, the commercial flop, The Pleasure Garden. He then went on to direct (and produce) more than 60 feature films. He also appeared in uncredited roles in many of his own films and ran a successful television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents / The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (remember that silhouette?), for a decade.

As a classic director, he naturally never won an Academy Award for Best Director, although his film Rebecca did win the Oscar for Best Picture (he did not produce that film and thus, did not get the Oscar for it). He did, however, get that popular consolation prize, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, from the Academy for his efforts in 1968. He died in 1980. And by the way, that’s Sir Alfred Hitchcock to you.

Here (what I believe anyway) are his most classic and/or famous films, in chronological order:

For those who want to keep the ending a mystery…

The Man Who Knew Too Much – And you thought the title of that Bill Murray film was just a clever invention. This 1934 film (remade in 1956 by Hitchcock himself and with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day starring) concerns a vacationing couple (Bob and Jill) who are passed valuable information about an assassination plot from a dying spy. To prevent the couple from revealing what they know about the plot, the people behind it kidnap the couple’s daughter, Betty. The movie follows the couple’s attempts to get her back.

The 39 Steps – Based on a novel by John Buchanan, this is a classic tale from 1935 of espionage and an innocent man on the run from the law (no, not “The Fugitive”). It involves a Canadian man (Richard Hannay, played by Robert Donat), essentially an innocent bystander, who is swept up in a world of spies and assassins after witnessing a fight at a London theater. He is accused of killing Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), a spy who was murdered while she was in his apartment, but not before she told him of an organisation called “The 39 Steps” that was out to get her.

Rebecca – Starring Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter and Joan Fontaine as the new Mrs. de Winter, this 1940 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic novel tells the story of a young woman who meets and soon marries the rich Maxim de Winter only to find his house haunted (figuratively but perhaps also literally) by the spirit of his late wife, Rebecca. The housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, in particular, loved Rebecca and does everything in her power to make Mrs. de Winter feel unwanted and, essentially, to drive her mad. As noted above, it won Best Picture (and Best Cinematography).

Shadow of a Doubt – Supposedly Hitchcock’s own favorite, this film noir from 1943 concerns Charlie Newton (short for Charlotte), played by Teresa Wright, who receives a visit from her favorite Uncle, Charlie Oakley (short for Charles), played by Joseph Cotton. After a detective reveals that her uncle is a suspected serial killer (the ominous-sounding “Merry Widow Murderer”), Charlie begins to become suspicious of her uncle’s increasingly condemning behavior.

Notorious – From 1946, this dark romance / spy film starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains concerns the wild daughter of a German spy (Bergman as Alicia Huberman) who is asked by a government agent (Grant as T.R. Devlin) to spy on her father’s Nazi friends in Brazil. Alicia falls in love with Devlin, but he needs her to marry one of the Nazis, Alex Sebastian (Rains). Agony ensues.

Strangers on a Train – Not just a CSI episode, this 1951 film (yet another literary adaptation, this time from Patricia Highsmith) tells of two, uh, strangers who meet on a (you guessed it!) train and discuss murder. Guy Haines (Farley Granger) will murder the father of Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) and Antony will murder Haines’s unwanted and unfaithful wife, thereby allowing them both to committ murder without getting caught (because neither one actually has a connection to their respective victims, get it?). Haines thinks it was just “idle” talk (yes, I can see how he would make that mistake…), but then his wife is murdered. Hmm.

Dial M for Murder – From 1954 and based on a play, this tale of suspense concerns ex-tennis player Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) and his extremely carefully planned plot to kill his wife, wealthy Margot Wendice (Grace Kelly), for her money and because of an old (now ended) affair with Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men… The movie was remade in 1998 as A Perfect Murder, starring Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow and Viggo Mortensen (pre-Lord of the Rings, Mortensen actually also appeared in a remake of Psycho with Vince Vaughn later that same year).

Rear Window – The classic voyeur film, this 1954 movie (yes, based on a short story) stars Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly. While spying on his neighbors, Stewart as photographer Jeff (stuck in a room due to a broken leg) begins to think that a murder has occurred in one of the neighboring buildings. Kelly plays Jeff’s girlfriend, the model Lisa. For you trivia/remake people, this movie was remade in 1998 with Christopher Reeve as the friendly neighborhood peeping tom, and also inspired 2007’s Disturbia starring Shia LaBoeuf.

To Catch a Thief – Pretty light-hearted for a Hitchcock film, this romantic intrigue from 1955 is set on the French Riviera and deals with an ex-jewel thief, John “the Cat” Robie (Cary Grant), who doesn’t want to get blamed for a recent string of jewel thefts. To catch the actual culprit, he gets to know the people he suspects are the next victims, wealthy Jessie Stevens and her (surprise!) beautiful daughter Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly).

Alfred Hitchcock Presents… – Arguably one of the things Hitchcock is most famous for, the opening credits of this long-running show (the silhouette, the music, the somber “Good evening”) are iconic. Starting in 1955, the show was renamed The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1962 and extended to a full hour. It ended in 1965 (but lives on through iTunes!). Each episode was a different story of mystery or drama, and featured many famous (or soon-to-be-famous) guest stars, such as Dick Van Dyke, Bette Davis, Steve McQueen, Robert Redford (who just loves his classic mystery TV shows with famous opening sequences by the show’s creator – he also had a main role in an episode of The Twilight Zone a year later), and yes, William Shatner. You can listen to the show’s theme music, Funeral March of a Marionette, by playing the video below.

Vertigo – A head trip of a movie, this 1958 thriller with Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak tells of retired, and acrophobic (really, really afraid of heights – in other words, someone who has height “vertigo”), detective John “Scottie” Ferguson and the favor he does for an old college friend, Gavin Elster. Elster believes that his wife Madeleine is possessed by the spirit of her dead great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, (yes, you heard right) and asks Scottie to follow Madeleine to confirm his suspicions. Scottie does, but gets a little too involved in this case. If you know what I mean. Which I’m sure you do.

North by Northwest – You’ve probably all seen that scene of a guy running from a low-flying plane through a corn field at some point or another (or you’ve seen one of the many imitations of it). Well, that scene is from this iconic 1959 thriller starring Cary Grant as ad exec Roger Thornhill and Eva Marie Saint as the mysterious Eve Kendall (trivia: Saint won an Academy Award for her role in On the Waterfront and, yep, that was her as Martha Kent in Superman Returns). As a suspense thriller, this movie naturally has many twists and turns, but essentially it tells the story of Thornhill and his unfortunate escapades after being mistaken for government agent George Kaplan. Thornhill travels all across the country, pursued by policemen (who believe he has murdered someone), in an effort to find the real George Kaplan.

Psycho – Showing the lengths to which someone will go to win the coveted “Best Costume” award, someone actually dressed up as the “Shower Scene” from this classic Hitchcock horror film at a Halloween costume party I attended. I won’t go into the details, but let’s just say that fake blood, a shower curtain and a skin-colored body suit were involved. Although you may not have seen the film, almost everyone has heard of the fateful (and fatal) meeting between the owner of the Bates motel, Norman Bates as portrayed by Anthony Perkins, and Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane. This 1960 film was, naturally, based on a Robert Bloch novel, who actually based his own work on the real life of Ed Gein, a serial killer. The movie follows the investigation into the mysterious circumstances behind Marion’s and other disappearances at the Bates Motel.

The Birds – Continuing on his horror streak, this 1963 film is another (albeit loose) adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier story (see Rebecca for the other). Rich Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) encounters attorney Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) at a pet shop – they’re both, surprise surprise, buying birds – and ends up following him to his family home on the coast. Soon, the small town is being viciously attacked by flocks of birds. Trust me, it’s scarier than it sounds.

For a complete list of Hitchcock’s many titles, go to IMDB.com.

Alfred Hitchcock

SPOILER ALERT

SPOILER ALERT

…and those who don’t.

The Man Who Knew Too Much – (1934) The assassination attempt (of a diplomat, as it turns out) at Albert Hall in London is prevented by Jill, who screams, thereby distracting the shooter. The shooter escapes to his hideout, but is followed by the police, who lay siege to the place in a gunfight modeled on a real gun battle in London in 1911. Jill, an excellent shooter, kills one of the kidnappers holding Betty, the police breach the building, and Betty is saved.

The 39 Steps – Hannay, after a cross-country chase, ends up back at the same London theater watching the same show with Pamela, a woman he met while on the run (she doesn’t want to be with him and betrays him repeatedly to the police). He discovers that the man headlining the show (“Mr. Memory”) is actually part of the “39 Steps” organization, and gets him to reveal what the organization is and what their plans are (building a silent aircraft). One of the men behind the organization, Jordan, shoots Mr. Memory and tries to escape, unsuccessfully.

Rebecca – Maxim de Winter tells the story of the “real” Rebecca, a manipulative and unfaithful wife whom he did not love. Telling de Winter she was pregnant with someone else’s child, he wanted to kill her, but she fell and hit her head, dying by accident instead. Later it is discovered that she was not pregnant, but instead had learned she had cancer and wanted to provoke de Winter into killing her. After learning about Rebecca’s illness and that de Winter and his wife will be returning to the house, Mrs. Danvers sets fire to the mansion. The last shot is of the mansion, with the married couple outside and safe, being burned to the ground.

Shadow of a Doubt – Uncle Charlie is the serial killer. He attempts to kill his niece several times, eventually trying to throw her from a train bound for San Francisco. They fight, and Uncle Charlie is the one who falls off the train and dies under the wheels of a train coming from the other direction.

Notorious – Sebastian finds out about Alicia and gradually begins to poison her. However, Devlin discovers what he is doing and takes Alicia out of Sebastian’s house, warning him about what will happen if Sebastian’s friends find out what was going on (Alicia a spy and so on). As Devlin takes Alicia away, Sebastian is left to his fate at his friends’ hands, who would not hesitate to harm him.

Strangers on a Train – Antony stalks Haines, incessantly reminding him to keep up his part of the bargain. Eventually, Antony confides what’s going on to Anne, the woman he loves, as Antony tries to turn the police onto Haines as the murderer of his wife. In the end, Antony and Haines struggle and Antony dies, crushed by a merry-go-round. However, in his hand is a lighter, a piece of evidence that implicates him in the murder of Haines’s wife. The last scene is Anne and Haines on a train together, walking away from a stranger who is attempting to make conversation.

Dial M for Murder – Margot manages to kill Swan, the attacker hired by Tony, by stabbing him with scissors. To cover everything up, Tony then tries to make it look like Margot planned to kill Swan, rather than killing him in self-defense. However, the inspector on their case (Hubbard) discovers that Tony is the one behind it all when Tony accidentally reveals that he knows the hiding place of the key Swan used to get into the apartment.

Rear Window – Jeff was right and he did see a murder. The murderer throws Jeff out the window, attempting to kill him, and is then arrested by the police. Jeff doesn’t die, but breaks both of his legs, and lives happily ever after (or so I assume, but this is Hitchcock after all) with Lisa.

To Catch a Thief – Yes, John “catches the thief,” a young girl named Danielle. John is cleared and ends up together with Frances at his vineyards in the south of France.

Vertigo – Madeleine commits suicide from a bell tower and dies. Scottie tries to save her but can’t, due to his vertigo. Scottie goes into despair, and eventually becomes obsessed with a woman, Judy, who looks just like Madeleine. However, it is revealed that it was all a scam – Judy was actually hired by Gavin to pretend to be his wife and convince an esteemed detective, Scottie, that she was possessed and had committed suicide (when in fact, Gavin pushed the real Madeleine from the tower), so that Gavin could literally get away with murder. Scottie confronts Judy with the truth at the bell tower itself, and frightened by the appearance of a third person at the top of the tower (who turns out to be a nun), Judy stumbles and falls to her death. Scottie looks down at her body, his vertigo now gone.

North by Northwest – Oh dear. It’s very complicated. Essentially, Eve (revealed to be the bad guy’s girlfriend and then revealed again, this time for real!, to be a government agent) helps Thornhill get national secrets away from the bad guys. There is a struggle on Mt. Rushmore, the police shoot the bad guy, Thornhill saves Eve’s life, and they end up together.

Psycho – Although the murders seem to have been committed by Bates’s mother, it is revealed in a famous twist that it is in fact Bates, dressed up as his mother, who has committed them. His mother, whom he murdered, is now a preserved corpse in his basement. Nice and creepy, right? The movie ends with Bates in a prison cell, now totally crazy (as if he wasn’t already crazy enough).

The Birds – After several deaths, panick ensues. Mitch, Melanie, Mitch’s sister Cathy, and his mother Lydia board themselves up in a house and survive a massive bird attack, but Melanie is severely injured after they think the attack has ended. Mitch, Cathy and Lydia drive Melanie to the hospital, surrounded by a sea of birds. The birds do not attack and they drive off safely.


Quotes

September 21, 2007

Vertigo

“Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere.”

For more on Vertigo, check out the Alfred Hitchcock cheat sheet.