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Hancock and Hitchcock: Movies viewed

HANCOCK (2008) stars Will Smith as the drunken, reckless, possibly immortal metahuman whose interventions cause more property and collateral damage than they’re worth, only he can’t seem to care. Jason Bateman plays a PR Man who offers to give Hancock a makeover into the kind of hero people want to be around — but why does his wife find Hancock so familiar? This is mostly a collection of familiar comics cliches — Hancock himself amounts to Superman with Guy Gardner‘s personality — but I’d suggest double-billing it with the superior The Old Guard for another immortal hero. “Do I have permission to touch your body? It’s not sexual.”

Alfred Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND (1945) stars Ingrid Bergman as a pychoanalyst who falls for Gregory Peck as the new head of the clinic she works at, replacing her mentor Leo G. Carroll. Unfortunately it turns out Peck is an imposter and an amnesiac whose traumatic memory loss may be in response to murdering the real doctor; can Bergman find out the truth before the cops catch up with them?

Lovers On The Run (and posing as married) is familiar Hitchcock stuff but this lacks the tension of Thirty-Nine Steps or Young and Innocent; the police are ineffective so the real tension lies in Bergman’s efforts to break through to Peck’s repressed memories. It doesn’t work but the surreal nightmare sequence designed by Salvador Dali (see below) is certainly memorable.

Peck is another problem, a movie newbie who isn’t strong enough to make his role work. Bergman, however, is great. While the movie trots out the standard cliches of the era that as a professional Bergman is a cold fish who can’t be a real woman (“Women make the best psychiatrists until they fall in love, then they become patients.”), she’s the one who drives the action. Despite falling love she remains a good enough psychoanalyst to crack the case and expose the real killer; Peck is the equivalent of the pretty-girl romantic lead who needs the hero to save her. “You are going to hate me a lot before we’re through.”NOTORIOUS (1946) reunites Bergman and Hitchcock for one of the latter’s classics — though before this rewatching, I’ve never really liked it (I’ve no idea now why not). Bergman plays the patriotic daughter of an American Nazi, drowning her shame in wild parties and booze (the Production Code tidied this up a bit). American agent Cary Grant romances her, then reveals he wants her to spy on Nazi Claude Rains, who’s engaged in sinister doings in South America. Bergman agrees, becoming first Rains’ lover, then his wife, but will he catch on? Does Grant care about Bergman or is she just a tool for him to use?

This is a first-rate film all around, though it took a long trail to get there. Hitchcock, screenwriter Ben Hecht and producer David Selznick fought over lots of elements (Selznick vetoed having the Rains and Grant characters go over a cliff together) and the Production Code wasn’t happy with even a hint of immoral behavior (there are hints, but during the post-war period the Code’s Joe Breen loosened up some, particularly on prestigious A-list films). The final results are well worth seeing. “It’s a lot of hooey — there’s nothing like a love song to give you a good laugh.”

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Christmas, ghosts and aliens: movies viewed

It’s time for Christmas movies again, but of course with Alien Visitors underway, I have other films mixed in

I kicked off my Yuletide viewing with the lesbian Christmas rom-com HAPPIEST SEASON (2020) in which Mackenzie Davis asks girlfriend Kristen Stewart to come home and meet the parents (Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen). Only on the drive there, Davis reveals that oh, I didn’t actually come out to them last summer, so you’ll have to pretend to be my roommate. Once they arrive, she proceeds to blow off Stewart to hang with her old friends, leaving Stewart bonding with Davis’ ex (whom Davis did not treat well, it turns out). While the movie explains Davis is terrified of disappointing her parents by coming out to them (and a gay friend points out that’s entirely possible), she still comes off as a jerk; if the leads and the supporting cast weren’t so likable I doubt this would work. “I’m not shaming you, I just think the choice you’re making is dumb.”

PARANORMAN (2012) is an unimpressive, dreary film about a teenage boy who’s an outcast in both his family and his small town because he sees dead people. Then it turns out he’s the only one who can avert an ancient witch’s curse on the community but will anyone listen? There’s something dismal and downbeat about this that didn’t work for me, and the Outcast shticks are too cliche to engage me.. “Not believing in the afterlife is like not believing in astrology.”

KRONOS (1957) is the Giant Robot Film With a Difference, the difference being the utterly nonhuman appearance of the eponymous mechanoid (“It’s been named Kronos for the terrifying giant of Greek mythology!”) feeding off human energy sources while mind-controlling scientist Morris Ankrum to further its agenda. This starts weak — the character bits at the start aren’t as winning as they’re meant to be — but picks up steam as it progresses. “I can’t get over the feeling this is the calm before the storm — and at any moment the storm is going to break.”

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) remakes the Don Siegel film, setting it in San Francisco and making it a metaphor for the death of the counter-culture: pod people carry on the same jobs the originals had (from their perspective they are the originals, but improved), but simply stare listlessly at the walls between tasks, rather than talking, stretching, reading … As director Philip Kaufman says, they’re the kind of employees and consumers big business would love to have, with none of that annoying individuality gumming up the works. The F/X get heavy-handed in spots but overall this is an excellent remake — though I could have done without longtime friends Brooke Adams and Donald Sutherland turning out to be secretly in love (a trope I dislike enough I’ll probably blog about it t some point).. “Why not a space flower? Why do we always expect metal ships?”

After reading in Superman vs. Hollywood about the genesis of SUPERMAN III (1983), I’m inclined to think part of the problem is that the Salkinds just took all the ideas they’d considered in production and didn’t let go of any of them: there’s Superman battling his own dark side, a killer computer (the book suggests it’s a holdover from when Brainiac was going to be the villain), Robert Vaughn doing a Luthoresque tycoon (watching so soon after the first two films, I can appreciate how much his dialog resembles Gene Hackman’s) and of course Richard Pryor as a computer super-hacker. The book says Pryor had mentioned during an interview that he’d love to be in a Superman film; given he was an accomplished, successful comedian, the Salkinds snapped him up, then Warner Brothers refused to let them trim him back any. The results is Pryor taking up way too much screen time for the caliber of his performance with the plot awkwardly filling in around him.

Another problem is that Margot Kidder and the Salkinds no longer being on speaking terms, the film sidelines Lois in favor of Annette O’Toole’s Lana Lang. I like O’Toole but as Siskel and Ebert observed, her romance with Clark makes Superman irrelevant; if Clark was merely the good-natured, gentle guy he seems to be, nothing would have changed. That’s a poor substitute for the Clark/Lois/Superman triangle. And there’s the oddity of Vaughn’s bimbo girlfriend hiding the fact she’s a genius (“How can Kant say that absolute categories can’t exist in transcendental thought?”); I like the idea, but it needs a payoff that never materializes.The film’s only saving grace is that Reeve still delivers; his evil Superman is surprisingly good. “You know what I hate? Greed.”

A cast including diva reporter Tallulah Bankhead, U-boat captain Walter Slezak, swabbie William Bendix and radio operator Hume Cronyn are stranded in a LIFEBOAT (1944) after Slezak sends a merchant marine vessel to Davy Jones (his sub was hit soon afterwards). Now the survivors have to work together despite personal issues, political conflicts and the question whether they can trust the stinking Nazi. This is a Hitchcock film I admire more than I like, but I do like it and there’s a lot to admire in the tight little one-set film (not so tight behind the screens — Hitchcock finished it late and over budget). “He’ll eat our food, drink our water and double-cross us the first chance we get.”

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Small-town Hitchcock, Evil Superman and some TV viewed

Rewatching SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943) in the course of an Alfred Hitchcock rewatch makes me appreciate how much it has in common with HIichcock’s earlier films — not just the camera work but the quirky supporting characters, the family dynamics (reminiscent of some of the parts of Young and Innocent, for instance) and a female lead becoming restless in her current station (as Hitchcock Romance says, similar to Joan Fontaine in Rebecca or Suspicion).That said, this film still feels unlike anything else of Hitch’s work. Joseph Cotton is Charlie, the “Merry Widow Killer,” who escapes a police dragnet and holes up in a small town with his relatives, including his namesake “Young Charlie” (Teresa Wright). It’s a warm, vibrant town where everyone knows everyone and where Henry Travers (as Wright’s dad) and coworker Hume Cronyn can happily dicker over which mystery’s method would work best in real life; it makes for a sharp contrast with Charlie’s view of the world as a cesspool where dog eats dog. Can Charlie hide there? Will detective MacDonald Carey open Young Charlie’s eyes to the threat? This one remains a personal favorite. “This world is a hell — why does it matter what happens in it?”

BRIGHTBURN (2019) is an obvious Superman riff in which a young couple rescue a baby from a downed space capsule; when his powers manifest as a tween he immediately begins using them in bad ways, from killing people who diss him to stalking the pretty classmate he’s crushing on. Dark Superman is an idea that has been done a lot — Super-Menace in the 1960s (depicted by Curt Swan here), Stalinist and Nazi alt.Supermen in recent years and the Superman-inspired Irredeemable — and all of them better than this; as Rolling Stone‘s review puts it, it’s like a sub-par version of The Omen where everyone who gets in the kid’s way dies horribly. The implication here is that Brightburn is some form alien advance guard (voices in his head keep telling him to “take the planet”) though that makes him less interesting than if he were just corrupted by power.  “My real parents were — superior.”

The third season of YOUNGER (s2 review here) has Liza and Josh coping with familiar relationship issues (he wants kids; she’s done with that) and the added sexual experience age gives her (“Everything I want to try, you already did with your husband.”); at work Liza and Kelsey have to deal with a tech bro millionaire moving in and trying to remake the publishing house. Once again things fall apart at the season ender when Josh catches Liza kissing her boss just when he was about to propose (he conveniently forgets giving her permission to stray at least once in an earlier episode); more interesting is Liza finally confessing the truth to Kelsey. Still fun. “You put your workout bench in my bedroom?”

The BBC’s 1981 miniseries of DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS is more faithful to the John Wyndham novel than the film version, with the exception of making the triffids a much larger menace earlier on. The faithfulness has both good and bad sides, the good being that the triffids are just as alien as in the book and without the convenient weakness that ensures their destruction in the movie. On the down side, this carries over Wyndham’s sexism (“Most women want babies — husbands are just a means to an end.”) and bogs down in talk as we get away from the imminent triffid threat and into the mundane job of rebuilding civilization; focusing primarily on the triffids turns out to have been a wise move on the film-makers’ parts. And like Wyndham the prospect that blind people from before the catastrophe might have some useful advice doesn’t occur to anyone, nor does anyone even consider that the blindness might be temporary, which would complicate the moral calculus. All that said, this did have some excellent moments.

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A saboteur, a superman and assorted aliens: movies viewed

Some years back I caught SABOTEUR (1942) for my film book Screen Enemies of the American Way (you’ll notice the paranoid warning in the poster about “the man behind your back!”). Rewatching now, I can see how much it fits the old of 39 Steps and Young and Innocent, with Robert Cummings framed as an Axis saboteur, going on the run to find the real criminal and falling in love with Priscilla Lane in the process; it also foreshadows North by Northwest in having the final showdown on top of an American monument (the Statue of Liberty here). This has some great little details like the way the Nazis talk about their families, but overall it’s merely competent, not stellar. “Don’t tell me my duty — it makes me sound so stuffy.”

SUPERMAN (1978) was an immense landmark in its day, a serious superhero film in a time when superheroes on screen were defined by the Adam West Batman rather than Tim Burton’s Batman or the MCU. My big complaint when I first saw it was that despite it’s many merits, the comic relief bits (Luthor’s lackeys Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty) detracted from the whole; now I find them forgivable.  The film starts in the icy, crystalline world of Krypton, with Marlon Brando as Jor-El, then shifts to small-town America for the Kents (Glenn Ford plays Pa Kent) to find a crashed spaceship and realize the toddler inside it is no ordinary boy; finally we get Metropolis, where we go pure comic book.

After reading about and writing about INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1958) for Screen Enemies, I honestly don’t think I have any new insights, other than how darn good it is (despite a couple of howling errors in logic). Well-acted but also creepy as hell in a way earlier stories on this theme, such as Heinlein’s Puppet Masters, weren’t; where Heinlein’s a flat out warning against tyranny, the pod people replacing us with emotionless doubles is creepier and much more flexible as a metaphor (a point I’ll come back to in its own post). “Love. Desire. Ambition. Faith. Without them life’s so simple.”

FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR (1986) was an excellent Disney movie that Disney unfortunately marketed as an E.T. knockoff (it isn’t). A boy walks home through the woods in 1978 only to arrive home eight years later; what the heck happened? And what’s his connection to a UFO government scientist Howard Hesseman is investigating? Sarah Jessica Parker has a small bit as a helpful intern. Well worth watching. “Oh my god, you’ve seriously never seen a music video?”

THE MONOLITH MONSTERS (1957) follows the standard tropes of 1950s monster movies — strange things happen, monster is identified, science finds counter-weapon — but the creature is unique: meteor fragments that grow when exposed to water, forming monoliths and then shattering under their own weight. The fragments then grow and break, scattering the pieces across the landscape — and guess what, a typical small town is sitting right in their path! With a creature that can’t be reasoned with or intimidated any more than a Terminator, what can the town do? An effective low-budget film. “It’s the commonest material you can find — but everywhere it turns up, somebody dies!”

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Suspicion and Doom: movies viewed

When I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s SUSPICION (1941) in college, I found the ending frustrating and unsatisfying to the point the whole movie fell apart. Rewatching, I see I was right about the end (spoilers will follow) but the film up to that point is very good. Joan Fontaine plays Lina, the spinsterish daughter of a wealthy family (I’m impressed she’s able to come off quite different from her Rebecca spinster — smarter and more confident, though just as frustrated with her current role in life) who meets, falls for and marries the charming Johnnie (Cary Grant).  Only after the wedding does Lina learn the downside: Johnnie’s a spendthrift who optimistically thought she had money enough to support them.

Johnnie doesn’t run out when he’s wrong, but he can’t stop spending money they don’t have, gambles compulsively and steals from his employer, lying to her all the while. Then Lina develops a suspicion that he’s found a solution: murder her for a life insurance payoff. She doesn’t want to believe it but after Johnnie’s best friend Nigel Bruce dies before reclaiming the money he loaned Johnnie for a failed investment scheme …

The original plot would have followed the novel Before the Fact: Lina lets Johnnie poison her but then he unwittingly mails a letter to Lina’s mother spelling out what he’s done. Justice will be served. However suicide was banned by the Production Code and RKO’s production head freaked out about Grant as a villain, even trying to cut out all the scenes that made him look bad (the 100-minute movie ended up 55 minutes before RKO put the footage back in). So we get an ending in which it turns out everything was in Lina’s head; Johnnie’s actually going to take the “honorable way out” and poison himself. She convinces him, instead, to come home, face the music and start over.

I’m sure that ending could have been made workable, but here it’s an unsatisfying anticlimax. Even if Johnnie’s not a murderer, he’s been a really bad husband — lying, irresponsible, selfish — and the ending doesn’t convince me he’s really changed. That said, it’s great looking and well acted, with Fontaine snagging an Oscar for her role. “I think I’m falling in love with you and I don’t quite like it.”

SUPERMAN DOOMSDAY (2007) was in my queue even before I started Alien Visitors (which will include a chapter on alien superheroes), though it won’t get more than a passing mention. The first in a line of DC Universe animated films, producer Bruce Timm deliberately broke with the DCAU in voice casting and visual style; Adam Baldwin plays Superman, who wages the fight of his life — and death — against the near-unstoppable alien juggernaut Doomsday, much to Lex Luthor’s horror (“Something I’ve dreamed of for years was taken away from me by an intergalactic soccer hooligan!”). After creating a Superman clone to serve as his proxy, Luthor feels better, but then the clone starts to develop ideas of its own … Some of the visuals didn’t work for me but overall very good; the fate of Toyman is a genuine shock. Anne Heche plays Lois, James Marsters voices Luthor and DCAU veteran Cree Summers plays Lex’s sidekick Mercy Graves.  “At least I get to kill Superman after all.”

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Cross country trips, Romanian tragedy and more: movies viewed

LOVE ON A BET (1936) is a fun It Happened One Night knockoff in which Gene Raymond’s future as a theatrical producer hinges on his ability to leave NYC penniless in his underwear and arrive 10 days later in Los Angeles — in those pre-interstate highway days, a much more impressive feat than it is now — with clothes, $100 and a girlfriend. He soon finagles his way into traveling across country with fortune-hunter Wendy Barrie and her snarky aunt Helen Broderick, but will the burgeoning Raymond/Barrie romance survive when she learns she’s his ticket to fame and fortune (I hadn’t realized that particular rom-com plot went back that far)? A fun one.“I despise the odor of toasted marshmallow.”

MR AND MRS SMITH (1941) is Alfred Hitchcock’s only screwball comedy, the result of Selznick renting him out to RKO after Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent, though Hitch claims he chose it primarily because Carole Lombard wanted to be in one of his movies. Robert Montgomery discovers his affectionately squabbling marriage to Lombard is technically invalid but handles the reveal so poorly she walks out and starts over with Gene Raymond, this time as Montgomery’s blandly wholesome partner. This was an uninspired film but it turned a profit for the studio and proved Hitch could bring in a film without busting the budget. It’s also less of an outlier in Hitchcock’s work than I used to think, not that far from Rich and Strange or the rom-com bits of Young and Innocent, so perhaps the story appealed to Hitchcock as much as working with Lombard. “That’s fine — after I die, she gets the furniture.”

THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU (2005) takes place over one night in Bucharest (it’s unclear if he actually dies at the end, but he clearly doesn’t have long) as the sick, pained drunk goes from hospital to hospital under the care of a kind but weary paramedic, only to encounter overworked doctors, arrogant doctors and exhausted doctors all coping with forms, bureaucracy and personal lives — it felt like Grey’s Anatomy or E/R without the compassionate doctor showing up to save the day. Given how universal these issues are, I’m surprised there hasn’t been an American remake. “These neoplasms are Discovery Channel stuff!”

For the first few minutes I wondered if E.T. — THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982) wasn’t going to work for me on rewatching (for Alien Visitors, of course) but before long I found it as charming as I did first run. Elliott (Henry Thomas) discovers a kindly alien who loves Reese’s Pieces (one of the great successes of product placement) and helps him hide from Peter Coyote’s Men in Black while “E.T.” tries to figure out a way to phone home. This is seen almost entirely from Elliott or E.T.’s perspective, or occasionally Elliott’s little sister (Drew Barrymore) which works remarkably well. On one of the special features Stephen Spielberg says although it was a personal film he figured it would only appeal to fans of Disney’s live-action kidvid of the time (trust me, this was not a compliment) and felt quite stunned when it became a critical and commercial hit (Peter Coyote talks about how the crew on the movie he was making when E.T. hit the theaters started treating him as a lucky charm). The sentimentality that works here would bog down a lot of later Spielberg films, but that’s no reflection on this film, which deserves its spectacular success.“It’s a miracle, and you did the best that anybody could do.”

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Reporters, voyeurs and horror: this week’s viewing

I’ve never been a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940) but I find myself appreciating it more as part of my ongoing Hitchcock viewing: making the first third of the film a comedy makes more sense when compared to The Thirty-Nine Steps or The Lady Vanishes. It still doesn’t work as well as they do though.Joel McCrea plays a crime reporter whose boss ships him off to Europe on the theory a hardnosed investigator with a nose for news will get better scoops than foreign correspondents who just send in the latest government press releases. In Europe McCrea falls hard for Laraine Day, daughter of peace activist Herbert Marshall — this is where the comedy comes in — and meets with a prominent Dutch politician who’s a key player in whether Europe goes to war or not (I don’t really see how the guy could have stopped it, but I’ll accept the premise). When the politician is apparently murdered, McCrea realizes the man was an imposter; Nazi agents have kidnapped the real pol to get the truth about his secret treaty negotiations. Can McCrea rescue him in time? “Your childish mind is as out of place in Europe as you are in my bedroom.”

sex, lies and videotape (1989) blew me away when I saw it in theaters, between it’s frank, unconventional discussions of sexual dysfunction and the presence of Andie McDowell and Laura San Giacamo as sisters in Baton Rouge. They’re in a triangle with McDowell’s husband Peter Gallagher but when his college friend, voyeuristic James Spader shows up, the triangle becomes unstable.

Rewatching now I think that, as Roger Ebert put it, the results are more clever than enlightening; I don’t find it convincing that everyone has as much self-awareness as they do, let alone that they can discuss themselves articulately and without any impulse to lie or shade the truth. This problem has turned me off several Woody Allen films over the year but here the movie holds my interest, primarily because of the strong cast and their relationships. It is more clever than enlightening but it is very clever, and that was good enough. “What would you know about a normal frame of mind?”

I watched AMULET (2020) as part of a streaming program by the local Carolina Theatre but it was definitely not worth the price (but hey, I can say that about lots of films I’ve seen at the nearest multiplex). Nun Imelda Staunton sends a burned-out foreign veteran to move in with a woman and her deranged mother. Everything’s dark and moody with occasional shocks (and to their credit they are indeed shocking) before we learn Mom is a demon the woman is reluctantly forced to watch over. And from there, we accelerate to an ending that made absolutely no sense. I do not recommend it. “Forward is not the only way, Tomaz — there are other roads.”

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Haunted by the dead (movies and TV)

William Marshall’s Mumuwalde died at the end of Blacula but in 1973’s SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM he rises again, courtesy of an angry voodoo practitioner who hopes to use the vampire’s power to seize control of the local cult from gifted priestess Pam Grier. Needless to say, resurrecting a vampire does not work out well for the dude.This is more of a straight horror film than its predecessor; where Blacula centered on the love between Marshall’s Mumuwalde and Vonetta McGee, this one is mostly the vampire killing and turning Los Angelinos, who in turn kill more; it’s about two-thirds done before we get to the plot hook of Mumuwalde wanting Grier to exorcise his vampire side. I’ve gone back and forth over which one is better (I’ve watched these more than once) and this time out the first film gets the nod, if only for Scream wasting Grier (she has little to do but cry and shriek). “Vampires can’t be photographed — every ten-year-old knows that!”

REBECCA (1940) was the first movie in the Alfred Hitchcock/David O. Selznick collaboration and it proved a spectacular success for both men. Joan Fontaine plays the never-named heroine of Daphne DuMaurier’s bestselling novel (Selznick insisted on keeping the no-name element, believing it would make her easier to identify with) who meets and charms brooding, intense Maxim DeWinter (Laurence Olivier). When they marry and return home to his magnificent country estate, Mrs. deWinter discovers she’s living in the shadow of Maxim’s dead first wife, Rebecca — magnificent, beautiful, charming, the perfect hostess and upper-class wife; Maxim’s housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) never lets Fontaine forget what a pale shadow of Rebecca she is. Little does Fontaine guess the true story of her husband’s first marriage …

As film historian Leonard Leff says, the film drew on the strengths of both men. Hitchcock had a great sense of visual style and pacing; Selznick had an eye for story and for what audiences wanted, as well as what the Production Code would allow. Along with playing down Mrs. Danvers’ repressed lesbian desire for Rebecca, the film couldn’t use DuMaurier’s version of her death — that knowing she was terminally ill, Rebecca provoked Maxim into murdering her — which violated Code clauses on suicide and getting away with murder. The solution is forced (in the final confrontation Rebecca trips and dies!) but the film’s strong enough I don’t care.

The cast are excellent, including C. Aubrey Smith as a local constable, Nigel Bruce as a friend of Maxim’s and George Sanders as a cad. Fontaine, a newbie, does some remarkable work; when Maxim tells her how he really felt about Rebecca you can see the mix of emotions chasing over her face. “I love you my darling, I’ve always loved you — but I always knew Rebecca would win in the end.”

DC’S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW started out the 2020 season with the Legends battling “echoes,” dead souls of evidoers sent up from Hell to wreak fresh havoc; behind it lies Astra, a young woman with a bitter vendetta against John Constantine (which he admits is justified). Midway through, however, things shift into higher gear as we learn Astra’s patron in Hell is Lachesis of the Fates, with a plan to recover the shattered loom with which they wove destiny and use it to revoke humanity’s free will.

As usual, there were some inspired moments this season, such as nerdy Gary adopting a dog that turns out to be the hellhound that drove Son of Sam to kill. The goofy tone works against it though, and the dystopian fate-ruled world reminded me too much of the series ender of The Librarians. I’m still watching but it doesn’t click with me the way it does with several TV critics. “I only exist because my father traveled back in time to his high-school reunion and had sex with my mom in a broom closet.”

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Hitchcock and Selznick: two great tastes that taste great together

After making Jamaica Inn in England, Alfred Hitchcock jumped to Hollywood for the next phase of his career, making movies for producer David O. Selznick. While I’ve had Leonard J. Leff’s HITCHCOCK & SELZNICK: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood on my shelf for a few years, I figured I’d pick it up as it covers the era in which Hitchcock made Rebecca, Notorious and Spellbound for Selznick, moving from a respected British director to an American superstar.

Joining forces made sense to both parties. Hitchcock needed Hollywood cred to play in the big leagues; Selznick, an independent producer who aspired to make A-list films (most notably Gone With the Wind) wanted Hitchcock’s talent. At the same time it was an awkward pairing: Hitchcock didn’t want the producer interfering in how he made movies and Selznick didn’t let anyone at his studio make movies without his input (in the form of long, copious memos).

Hitchcock is often portrayed as an auteur whose vision was so strong, writers and producers had almost no effect on the final product. Leff argues that on the contrary, Selznick’s movie savvy was as essential to their collaborations as Hitchcock’s genius. Hitch focused heavily on visuals and style, believing that how the movie was shot and edited was the key to audience reaction. Selznick forced him to pay more attention to story and character; he also had an eye for what would and wouldn’t fly with the Production Code (toning down the implied lesbian lust Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers had for the late Rebecca, for instance).

Leff goes into detail about how the two creatives, whether locking horns or working together, gave us Rebecca, Spellbound and Notorious (Selznick loaned Hitchcock out to other studios in this period for a few more movies) though the magic of their collaboration fell apart on The Paradine Case. He concludes that it would take another decade or so after Hitchcock and Selznick parted ways before Hitchcock would reach the same level. These aren’t my favorite of Hitchcock’s movies, so I’ll be interested to see what I make of them rewatching. The book itself is definitely worth reading if you’re interested in Hitchcock, Selznick, or behind-the-scenes Hollywood stories.

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Vampires, Hitchcock, Nazis and witches: movies and TV

BLACULA (1972) doesn’t have the best vampire makeup (though it must have been the first, or one of the first films to show vampires changing their face before they kill) but I still enjoy the story of how Mumuwalde (William Marshall) makes the mistake of trying to enlist Count Dracula’s support in his 1700s anti-slavery campaign, for which the arrogant count bites Mumuwalde, then leaves him chained in a coffin for 200 years. When a couple of swishy gay antique dealers (and there’s a lot of “faggot” tossed around too) buy up Dracula’s furnishings and transport them to Los Angeles, Mumuwalde (the “Blacula” name is only used once in the film) awakens, discovers Vonetta McGee is the lookalike of his long lost wife — now if he can only stop pathologist Thalmus Rasulala and McGee’s sister Denise Nicholas from realizing what he is and stopping his seduction. This is annoyingly inconsistent on the vampire rules (they rise instantly or after dying depending on what the plot calls for) but the leads are strong enough to make it work. Elisha Cook plays an ill-fated morgue attendant. “Look around this room — memorize every corner — for it will be your inglorious tomb!”

Alfred Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES (1938) starts off as a quirky rom-com, with soon-to-be-married Margaret Lockwood stranded at a small European inn where she makes the acquaintance of Michael Redgrave — the most obnoxious, irritating man she’s ever met! — as well as cricket obsessed Brits Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, adulterer Cecil Parker, brilliant surgeon Paul Lukas and May Whitty as an elderly British governess. After Lockwood, Whitty and the others board the train taking them home, Whitty vanishes — but everyone in the carriage with her and Lockwood insists there never was an old woman there. A set-up that’s been reused countless times, this is an excellent mix of romance, comedy and suspense. “It has always been my contention that Hungarian Rhapsody is not their national anthem!”

When kindly Cornish squire Charles Laughton helps innocent virgin Maureen O’Hara reach her relatives at JAMAICA INN (1939), O’Hara is blithely unaware that not only is the inn the center of the local wreckers, Laughton is the secret master; before long, however, she’s working with undercover man Robert Newton (who would later play Long John Silver in Treasure Island, one of the classic pirate performances of all time) to save his life and take down the gang. This was the first of Hitchcock’s three Daphne DuMaurier adaptations, and tanked miserably, as it wasn’t at all what was now defined as a “Hitchcock film.” That said, I did enjoy watching, though it’s definitely not A-list — for Laughton to capture O’Hara at one point she basically has to walk up to him and let him tie her up. This wraps up the Hitchcock DVD set I’ve been watching, but it won’t be hard Netflixing the rest of his films. “Nature has been against you from the start — and everything else has been against you since.”

Taika Waititi’s  JOJO RABBIT (2019) is a bizarre black comedy in which a ten-year-old Hitler Youth discovers Mom Scarlett Johansson has a Jewish girl living in their attic, plunging him into an agony of uncertainty about how to deal with this demonic creature (“They have batwings and climb down chimneys to eat German children.”) — and what if his imaginary BFF Adolf Hitler finds out about it? With Sam Rockwell as a gay Nazi and Rebel Wilson as a proud Aryan Woman (“I have born 18 German babies!”) this definitely isn’t for everyone but it worked for me; I’d probably suggest John Boorman’s Hope and Glory as a double bill for another (but less off-the-wall kids’ eye view of the war. “I don’t want you to kill yourself over me, which a couple of girls have done in the past.”

The TV series MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM is set in an alternate history where witches ended the colonial-era witch hunts by offering to put their magic in the service of the military. In the present day we follow three teenage witches in basic training — general’s daughter Abigail (Ashley Nicole Williams), idealistic volunteer Tally (Jessica Sutton) and rebellious draftee Raelle (Taylor Hickson). Complicating their struggle to make the grade is the Spree, a terrorist movement dedicated to ending the militaristic use of magic, and whose undercover agent Scylla (Amalia Holm) becomes Raelle’s lover.

I really liked this. It’s an overwhelmingly female cast, sex-positive and just plain good. I’d like a little more on the backstory (we know that the U.S. map is different, and that WW I was fought in 1908-11, but not much more) but the front story holds me fine. And I really like that “the work” (AKA magic) is performed by singing — it makes for a nice change from the usual “magic as psi-power” approach TV takes. I look forward to S2 with pleasure. “Once I forced her to eat part of a dead pigeon.”

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