Saturday, March 29, 2014

Tacos Al Carbon

I keep hearing that hard shell tacos are not authentic Mexican fare. As sensitive as I tend to be toward such purism.....I still love 'em. It reminds me of my first job, for the fast food chain Taco Viva back in the mid '80s, before Taco Bell pushed East and saturated the country. It was actually not a bad gig as far as these things go. I remember the large plastic cambrios filled with the corn shells stacked on top of each other. Constantly crumbling into jagged shards, rendered unusable (good excuse to eat them!). My duties included stirring the ground beef and making guacamole in the kitchen, which was usually hazy, cloaked in a cloud of marijuana smoke. I can state honestly that I never accepted the reefer back then, but my uniform certainly reeked of it, a real concern when my father would pick me up at 2 A.M. (I mainly closed on weekends).

Taco Bell was an acceptable replacement for several years, when I was less than discerning, but I can't touch it now. Taco Viva had fresh ingredients; I don't think I want to glimpse the behind-the-scenes at TB, lest I want to "run for the border." My first real Mexican food was from the much missed Maya Azteca restaurant, which was on the corner of Congress Avenue and Forest Hill Boulevard in West Palm Beach, FL for about 20 years. It was owned by the parents of friends from church. The Reyes family had owned restaurants in Mexico and northern California years earlier. By the '90s, I was a fixture at Maya, sometimes helping the family close the place on a Friday night before heading downtown with the guys. The taco shells they served were different. They were bent, an odd curvature. The corn tasted better than any shells I had before. I also developed a taste for mole sauce there. I really miss that place (and the entire Reyes family).

Over the past several years I've been hearing about a taco truck in Lake Worth. The business' name: Tacos Al Carbon. A childhood friend I'd reconnected with raved about the place every time I spoke with him. He has a trustworthy palate - he turned me on to Dexter Holland's (lead singer of The Offspring) hot sauce, Gringo Bandito. The truck was very popular, enough so for a small building to be erected on the Lake Worth Road space. Then, 3 additional locations sprang up. Last weekend, my wife and I gave it a try.

The dining room is dumpy. But you're not there for the ambience.  Flourescent lights and their sickly office glow illuminate plastic parrots hanging from the ceiling and wall murals of fruit and a map of Mexico. The floor is sticky and dirty. It's usually crowded, and open 24 hours, though going after midnight may involve more excitement than I'm currently interested in. Continuous Mariachi music pipes in.

But it's all about the food. For my maiden voyage, I stuck with tacos. Six of them (4 would've been plenty). I had two shredded beef, two chicken, and two pork, smothered in cheese, lettuce, tomato. I sampled both of the green sauces our waiter brought: the light one is mild, the darker will tingle the innards of your cheeks. Outstanding. I did have the hard shell options (soft are available). Their corn shells also looked different and had a thicker texture than I've seen. A real delight. I washed it down with a Negra Modelo beer, just as I had at Maya Azteca years before.  The food seems authentic at Tacos Al Carbon, but then I haven't sampled places in Mexico or Texas. I think I went to a place like this in L.A. on my first visit there in the '90s, but I don't remember much.

I will be paying Tacos al Carbon many more visits.

Tacos Al Carbon
4420 Lake Worth Road
Lake Worth, FL  33461
(561) 432-8474

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted

Call me crazy but I found the new release MUPPETS MOST WANTED far more consistently enjoyable than 2011's THE MUPPETS, which was a reboot of the beloved franchise that was based on the beloved TV program created by Jim Henson. While I was delighted by parts of the earlier film, too many musical numbers and story ideas fizzled. And fart shoes?!  C'mon, guys! Much of it felt like a half-hearted attempt to reignite the magic for new generations, while desperately trying to keep their parents - many of whom grew up with those fuzzy crack-ups  - from relentlessly checking their wristwatches. This time, the gags mostly fly, and the songs are great fun. This is despite that much of the film takes place in a gulag in Siberia.

After a self-referential opening, where the Muppets sing that sequels are never as good as the originals, the story follows the gang on a world tour to continue their hot streak after the comeback that closed the last movie.  Ricky Gervais (somewhat restrained) plays Dominic Badguy, a persuasive manager who convinces Kermit the Frog and company to take advantage of their reemergence from obscurity.  But Dominic is actually the world's Number 2 Criminal on the Most Wanted List. Number 1 is Constantine, an amphibian who looks just like Kermit save for a birthmark on the right cheek. After breaking out of said gulag, Constantine manages to ambush Kermit and plant the incriminating distinguishing mark on him, leading authorities to think he is the bad guy, and to throw him in the Russian prison, where Tina Fey plays a warden named Nadya. Meanwhile, Constantine poses as the Muppets' leader and secretly plans a series of heists. He and Dominic schedule shows at venues that are conventiently right next door to art museums.

On the case is Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burr) and Muppet Sam the Eagle, playing a CIA operative. And what an inspired pairing! From their first scene, they prove themselves to be one of the most entertaining crime fighting teams in mainstream movie history. I kid you not.  My favorite bits involve their repeated efforts to show each other up with the size of their badges and Napoleon's constant interruptions of his work with those European workday siestas Americans covet.

The hit to miss gag ratio is quite favorable for MUPPETS MOST WANTED, with the expected pop culture quips and even an Ingmar Bergman reference (with the Swedish Chef, or course). The biggest laughs for me came late in the movie, with the introduction of a gang of infant burglars, a truly hilarious and imaginative creation for the Muppet team. I was in tears. Also, that drummer Animal is integral to the movie's plot doesn't hurt one bit.

As has been the case since the original MUPPET MOVIE back in 1979, there are numerous star cameos, and to reveal them would spoil many of the movie's pleasures. Some are blink-and-you'll-miss 'em. The pop stars featured do some amusing send-ups of themselves.  And look carefully at those gulag prisoners; at least three of them should be familiar to many viewers.

And the songs. Far better than from THE MUPPETS. This time out, I didn't want to slink under my seat in embarrassment during any of them, as I had during Amy Adams' and Chris Cooper's big numbers (possible career nadirs for both). MUPPETS MOST WANTED in fact seems to be offering a commentary, having a bit of fun with that, as when Tina Fey's Nadya (more than once) attempts a solo of her own.

NOTE: Prefacing the Muppet feature is the Pixar animated short "Party Central", featuring Mike, Sullivan, and some of the other creatures from MONSTERS, INC. It's a raucous, fun 10 minutes that seems to be inspired by the idiotic 2012 movie PROJECT X! I enjoyed the short, but, er....maybe parents can weigh in on this one, uh....

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Bling Ring

I especially like films that take an anthropologic approach. No matter what the subject, no matter how vapid or detestable the people to be examined. A documentary feel, maybe slightly stylized, and with a thorough understanding of its world. DAZED AND CONFUSED is probably the best example of such a film with high-schoolers as the principal players. Rick Linklater somehow captured a prism of life that could only be achieved by an insider, yet with an outsider's objectivity.

But this time, I honestly had little desire to spend an hour an a half with a group of bitchy San Fernando Valley teens who idolize the likes of Paris Hilton and Rachel Bilson. The Vanity Fair article that detailed the so-called "Bling Ring" and their long string of successful robberies of Hollywood celebrities was yet another reason, once digested, for readers to lose hope in mankind. Unsurprisingly, in 2011 the Lifetime network made a movie about it.

But then so did Sofia Coppola with 2013's THE BLING RING. That was reason enough for me to give this one a shot. I've been mostly impressed with her four previous efforts, and this fifth one seemed to continue her examination of alienation with a genuine insight not shared by many other writer/directors. And her approach has always been observant, watchful for subtle behaviors. Not overly controlled. In the DVD's making-of doc, BLING RING cast members describe their director as that keen observer, offering last minute advice that really guides the actors, bits of information that will put them in the right frame of mind. More often than not, it shows in the performance. Not just in privileged moments, but in the aggregate.

The talented, mostly unknown cast of THE BLING RING is led by Katie Chang who plays Rebecca, the mastermind and Israel Broussard as Marc, a shy new kid at school who is befriended by and becomes co-conspirator of Katie. Emma Watson, famous for her role as Hermione Granger in the HARRY POTTER films, plays Rebecca, and really gets to shine in her role as a manipulative little hustler who with Sam (Taissa Farmiga) and Chloe (Claire Julien) round out the underage band as they rifle and hang out in the L.A. palaces of Lindsay Lohan and the aforementioned, all who have surprisingly little security protecting their bling. Paris Hilton even leaves sliding glass doors open! She allowed the filmmakers to use her actual house, by the way. Her outrageous shoe closet alone looks to have a monetary value that eclipses the entire movie's budget.

And Paris, the young woman who is "famous for being famous" has her home traversed nearly a dozen times by the Bling Ring, not just for the kids to rob for pieces of jewelry but also to just luxuriate in an environment they so desperately covet. A den of outrageous interior design (complete with those hilarious pillows of Paris' mug) that is a sharp contrast to the teens' cookie cutter Valley homes. Harris Savides' (who died during shooting and to whom the film is dedicated) and Christopher Blauvelt's cinematography really isolates this verisimilitude. Their compositions of the mansions (and L.A. itself) are sometimes sleekly and other times just gaudily beautiful.

The first two-thirds of THE BLING RING wallows in the hedonistic lifestyle of the main characters, who snort lines of coke, get blind drunk in nightclubs, and go on Rodeo Drive shopping sprees with the wads of cash they pilfer from the rich and famous. At times it feels, as it did in the recent THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, that the filmmakers are almost condoning the behavior. Showing how much fun it all is. In the moment, of course, with perhaps a recognizance of potential consequence down the line but, fuck it, life is too short.  That sort of attitude. Then comes the fallout. The wolves get what's coming to them. Was it worth it? Did we enjoy the ride with these characters while it lasted? Hoped they would maybe get away with it?

Scorsese's film is more ambiguous in whatever message it was attempting. Coppola (who scripted) likewise does not judge her characters. She draws them carefully, as wannabes who measure their self-worth by what they see on E! or She does not use her song choices to sneer at these brats, but the commentary is certainly there. She's not mocking. She has a conscience. Her film is not a spoof, even though there are several amusing lines. I was reminded of some of Larry Clark's films about disaffected youth, particularly BULLY. Shades of Tim Hunter's OVER THE EDGE and RIVER'S EDGE also crossed my mind. These are the sorts of "youth films" I want to watch.

But I did find myself wondering: why focus on these people, frolicking in this plastic paradise, when there are so many other stories to tell? Are these petulant twits and their hollow pursuits worth the celluloid (or digital bits)? Sofia Coppola has proven the worth of watching such stories; her previous film, SOMEWHERE, followed a tired celebrity as he slogs around the Chateau Marmont for over 90 minutes. Many found it pretentious and pointless (I saw an oblique poetry). Many others will feel the same for THE BLING RING. I feel both films, and actually, all (even MARIE ANTOINETTE) of Coppola's earlier films successfully understand the weight of inertia of existence. How it can cause one to retreat into oneself or perhaps act out in some (self) destructive manner. Problem is, self-destruction often has consequences for others.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Empty Glass

Pete Townshend's first official solo album, 1980's Empty Glass could be mistaken by casual listeners for an effort by The Who they may have missed. The soaring title track, "Rough Boys", "Gonna Get Ya", and others sport the rambunctious energy, the rebelliousness for which Townshend's primary gig was very well known. Emblematic of, even.

Roger Daltrey was apparently quite disappointed that his band mate chose to use some of these tracks for himself, rather than for The Who's Face Dances, a decent but forgettable effort. It is easy to imagine Daltrey's huge voice on some of these tracks. But on "And I Moved", a not so veiled love song to another man? Or even "Rough Boys", another far less than enigmatic ode to those of similar persuasion? The title track, a thoughtful, perfectly crafted rocker with strong theological undertones, may have worked best for Daltrey, and a version was in fact recorded during the Who Are You sessions.  "I Am an Animal", both delicate and ferocious, might've fit on that album as well.

"Let My Love Open the Door" is easily the best known song, a chart hit and still heard often on rock radio and in movies. It too delves into spiritual territory, perhaps the words of a man emerging from a few decades of excess and looking beyond his own windmill guitar arm, so well known to arena dwellers. "Keep on Working" would signal a trend to follow in Townsend's later work, of experimental rhythms and a move away from the more aggressive rock with which he'd long been associated. But the anger is still there in his middle finger to the press, "Jools and Jim."

Townshend would continue into the 80s with All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, White City, and other works, including several of the Scoop albums with alternate arrangements of Who and Townshend tunes. Each work became more singular, harder to categorize. All are worth exploring.

But Empty Glass, whose title track the author described as,

".... this idea that when you go to the tavern – which is to God, you know – and you ask for His love – He's the bartender, you know – and He gives you a drink, and what you have to give Him is an empty glass. You know there's no point giving Him your heart if it's full already; there's no point going to God if your heart's full of Doris."

is still the crown jewel. Essential listening.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

New York, New York

1977's NEW YORK, NEW YORK is one of those films I'd been avoiding for the longest time. It would come up again and again on my to-see list and I'd always choose something else. Despite the talent behind and in front of the camera,  I just never received encouraging vibes. There were a plethora of negative reviews, sure, but it was something else. The whole project just seemed to cry out "Lumbering, Overproduced Musical." I had little desire to see another, after having watched my fair share, such as Coppola's ONE FROM THE HEART. But this movie was directed by Martin Scorsese in between two of his greatest triumphs, TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL. His inspiration ostensibly in full bloom during such a fertile period.

Scorsese's movie wastes little time disabusing that notion. It's quite a contrast, comparing the terminal opening sequence at a V-J Day dance in NEW YORK, NEW YORK to the bravura wedding and reception that opens another (and far superior) Robert DeNiro movie of the time, THE DEER HUNTER. Both films introduce their main characters with vivid, yet naturalistic performances from the actors. The difference is that in Scorsese's movie we learn within minutes that we really don't want to get to know these people very well. DeNiro plays Jimmy Doyle, a persistent saxophone player who pesters Francine Evans (Liza Minelli), a singer sitting alone and wanting nothing to do with him.

Doyle of course does eventually wear down his quarry. But do we root for this courtship? Hardly. He's a real lout: a self-absorbed, arrogant child, and she's just doe eyed and vapid. Oh, I found myself caring for Francine throughout this very long movie, feeling a bit sad as she is swept along, one demeaning episode after another, to certain heartbreak. Viewers often wonder why nice girls fall for jerks (in real life, too). Guys who smooth talk and promise the moon; their brashness masking incredible insecurity. All of this is workable if the characters are intriguing in ways that allow us to suffer their eccentricities, or are at the very least interesting in even the slightest manner.

And...the energy is not there. The director stages some really elaborate numbers, including stage productions and a movie-within-a-movie, but it's all so, lifeless. Scorsese stated he was attempting to pay homage to the great movie musicals, and had the budget and armies of extras to do it, but something is clearly lacking. It's hard to figure - everything that money can buy is onscreen (including elaborate fake outdoor sets, meant to evoke the artificiality of the movies even during this movie's non show biz scenes).  Even the numerous scenes in Harlem clubs, which should have buzzed with excitement, are bland. There are plentiful jazz solos, but the music is also strangely uninspired. Are the stories of Scorsese's drug abuse during the making of this film true? And can we cite that as to why this film is such a disaster?

I did not detect any contempt in the tone of this movie, if Scorsese was going that route. When Robert Altman made THE LONG GOODBYE, his seething attitude toward Philip Marlowe and the whole genre infected every shot. NEW YORK, NEW YORK is very hard to read. As an homage to Hollywood (and Broadway) glitz, it has its heart in the right place but is a failure. As an indictment of show business, it is half-hearted and stale.

Any magic or spark (including between our two leads) is missing. DeNiro is  repeatedly showcased behaving badly, embarrassing himself and everyone in the room (a hotel lobby scene early on is almost as painful to watch as the hospital scene) with his outbursts and narcissism. He dives head first into the performance, but the effort is for naught. I'd rather re-watch his turn as Max Cady in Scorsese's CAPE FEAR remake, and that's saying a lot.  Liza gets to belt out a few tunes, including the film's title song (immortalized by Frank Sinatra a few years later), and is certainly at home amongst the frolic of "Happy Endings" (originally trimmed in the movie's initial release), but is just so dull here. Lady Gaga fans may enjoy the similarities, though.

Everything leads to a bittersweet finale you've seen in one form or another in countless films, but here it is botched. A sure fire emotional powerhouse of a sequence that is indifferently performed, but at least it's consistent with the rest of the film.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Working Late

Last guy out. That's often been me at the end of the day at several of the jobs I've held.  The one still milling about, sometimes under the toxic bath of fluorescent lights while his co-workers were already long at home having dinner, watching the news, chasing their children, having sex, whatever. Many find this demoralizing, depressing. Many nights, I am invigorated, inspired even.

I realized early on that I am most productive when I work solo. Not only without someone attached at my hip but also in a big empty space, free of other bodies that distract in ways that may be favorable or otherwise. I love having the room to conduct my business in my own style, at my own pace. I can turn off the overheads and crank Michael Hedges or Jeff Beck solos to my heart's content. I once told a friend who was a corporate honcho that I would rather stay later and do everything myself than have assistance. Of course, I was shot back a puzzled expression. My reasoning is mainly because if I do it, I know it's done correctly.  But it's more than that. Yes, I like doing things my own way. If I want to take an extended break, then suddenly be ultra productive in a short space of time, for example. I always worked this way in school, which is why I always dreaded group projects. I guess I don't "play well with others."

True, aside from very early in life I've never been part of a formal sports organization, where one learns teamwork. Never been in the military. You might read this and think I am underdeveloped in some vital way, a sociopath, maybe. But I've observed the work I've done alone versus the fruits of collaboration and the results speak for themselves.

Yes, I realize there are projects that require several in tandem to pull them off. I've happily served on teams to feed the hungry and help the elderly. There have been some jobs where the efforts of one would've obviously been inadequate. But in most of my paying gigs I have found What Works.

But also, there is something about being alone in an office at night that is appealing, something I can't put my finger on. Things are quiet, peaceful. No one is running around with their hair on fire. There's no crappy Flavor of the Month music. No gossip. I can write reports and return messages without the inevitable interruptions that are seemingly endless in the 9-5. Some days, the sound of my own name warms the back of my neck.

It does get eerie sometimes. One hears odd sounds. Did a shadow just pass behind me? Common when you're home alone. But even the minuses are pluses for me. It's my domain. I think on the countless people and exchanges and events that have occurred in those very halls over the years. Like ghosts. It's a little sad; there are some folks I really miss. But it's also so intriguing. To think all that came before, right where you stand. What will happen here in 10 years?

It goes beyond the office. I've always been attracted to desolate areas. I love to gaze through the windows of closed stores. Minimal lighting, nothing stirring. I've walked through empty gymnasiums after a night class and felt the near tangible loneliness. Strangely appealing. To think of the light and noise that fills the space on game night, or during a practice. Then hours later, as if no one was ever there. I like the stillness. Maybe I prefer it.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Out of the Past

Probable Spoilers

There's a lyric in a They Might Be Giants song that goes "...Everyone dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful." I thought of it when I reached the end of 1947's seminal OUT OF THE PAST. Some of the characters do indeed die frustrated and sad, and it is a perfect, tragic close to a twisty story laced with all of the traditional noir elements: double crosses, murder, betrayal, femme fatales. All bathed in glorious black and white and based on the James M. Cain novel with the wonderful title Build My Gallows High.

The ending is not the sort that appeals to viewers' sense of justice, just desserts, or even bloodlust (see SHALLOW GRAVE for all three). At least one of the doomed characters is a decent enough sort. It is typical for a noirish film to feature a poor sap who finds himself in a world of shit he was helpless to avoid. Usually because of a woman he couldn't resist. Maybe a touch of greed. The woman in question follows a model of less than model behavior. And so on..

It must be said that Jane Greer's character, Kathie Moffett, is a bit different than other bitches on wheels of the big screen. She is written with a bit of quiet complexity in Daniel Mainwaring's adaptation. Greer underplays the part, too. Viewers spend OUT OF THE PAST's 97 minutes guessing her next move, and her motives. Is she really just that vicious, pitch black to her soul, or is there some light and empathy within? Many other femme fatales wear their alluring evil on their sleeves. Greer almost makes us feel we've been unfair in our judgment.

Are we? See for yourself. Also, witness Robert Mitchum as the protagonist, Jeff Bailey. A gas station attendant who indeed has quite a past. When a tough arrives looking for Bailey, we learn the complicated events leading up to his current life and false name. How he was formerly called Jeff Markham, a N.Y.C. private detective who was hired by the wiley Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas, splendidly menacing) to find his missing girlfriend, Ms. Moffett. Bailey relays in flashback the terrible details to his current love interest, Ann (Virginia Miller), a sweet, local girl who is in turn adored by a cop named Jim (Richard Webb), who casts a suspicious eye toward Bailey/Markham.

OUT OF THE PAST travels a familiar noir calculus, but is notable for how low key it is. Director Jacques Tourneur creates a perfect, somber mood. He also allows considerable cigarette smoke to bellow through his movie, enough for the Truth people to possibly be inspired to create another "look how clever we are" cautionary ad.  The movie thankfully does not sport many hysterical musical cues or wake up the neighbors outbursts, so standard in many such dramas. Mitchum's character is an essentially decent soul, a possible patsy, blessed/cursed with a keen awareness of self and his dilemma. Perhaps too observant for his own good. At the same time, indifferent and detached. An archetype and yet original.

Ms. Greer would play the mother of Rachel Ward's character in the 1984 remake, AGAINST ALL ODDS. It did not erase memories of her striking turn in the original. Or the entire picture. Especially not its beautiful ending, with frustrated and sad folks meeting their Maker.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Gas! Or, It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It

Roger Corman is best known as the onetime godfather and reigning kingpin of the low budget feature film.  As founder of New World Pictures, which produced many exploitation movies in the '70s and '80s. Some of them were early efforts from Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, and Martin Scorsese. Prior to that, Corman himself directed many cheapies that delighted drive in audiences. There were several Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, a number of which starred a young Jack Nicholson.

Corman's second to last film as director was the 1970 curio GAS! (also known as GAS-S-S-S-S and not to be confused with a wretched comedy from 1981 with the same name), a film that makes me wonder if it seemed as wacky and disorganized to its original viewers as it does today. Unlikely? Maybe most of the audience that would come out for this sort of movie were under the influence? You know, like, maybe this film works best that way, man? GAS! was one of many Hollywood films of its day attempting to cash in on the counterculture. To make "important" statements within funky cinematic collages that eschewed old school narratives and maybe had some bad words and flashes of skin.  Maybe also trying to ride on the success of EASY RIDER.

Things get off to a bad start during the opening credits, which play over a poorly animated segment that sets up the story. An Army general takes the podium to announce that an accidental gas leak has permeated the globe, killing everyone over the age of 25. We'll follow footloose youths Coel and Cilla (Bob Corff and Elaine Giftos, who resembles Dana Delany) as they set off across America seeking other survivors. They'll meet an interracial couple (Ben Vereen and Cindy Williams), a group of Hell's Angels who act like Establishment types, and a football team whose scoring methods include how many women they can rape (but er, don't worry, dear viewer, it's all done lightheartedly and in the name of Satire). Rape was more apt to be treated this way in '70s films (see WHERE'S POPPA?), and is actually used effectively later on in GAS! when Cilla turns an attempted gangbang to her advantage, a scene that manages a hefty swipe at both the vulnerability of women in exploitation pictures and women's lib.

GAS! is a road movie, a series of blackouts/vignettes that resemble black box theater skits if they ventured outdoors. As expected, it's an uneven, seriously disjointed film that was apparently mutilated in the editing room against Mr. Corman's wishes. At nearly 80 minutes it nonetheless feels much longer as we slog from one variable episode to the next. As with any such enterprise, some ideas work, some don't.  The satire is mostly heavy handed and pretentious, as during a fake gunfight, when instead of firing bullets the participants yell out the names of macho film stars like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood as their ammunition. Or the finale with several characters wearing Ghandi and JFK masks. I did like the use of Harold Robbins novels for firewood. Country Joe and the Fish appear in this movie, as does a young Talia ("Tally") Coppola (Shire).

Corman has a surprisingly steady hand as director, his individual scenes sometimes momentary gems, but they're mostly adrift within an unfocused stew of ideas. GAS! wants to be a stinging jab at hippie culture but ends up entirely embracing it. Those with a strong interest in the time period will yield the most enjoyment. Most will rightly shake (and scratch) their heads.

Saturday, March 1, 2014


2012's HITCHOCK features Anthony Hopkins, for at least the second time in his long career, playing an infamous, real life figure he looks nothing (or very little) like. Or sounds like, for that matter. In 1995 he portrayed the troubled president in Oliver Stone's NIXON, and despite the surface dissimilarities managed to be wholly convincing. I feel it was mainly Hopkins' skills in conveying the man's tortured soul, his frustration (much the way Frank Langella did in FROST/NIXON) that put it across. In HITCHOCK, he employs a similar mastery of characterization, carrying him over those dozens of moments we just can't forget the director's famous visage, his patented silhouette.

It also carries him through an otherwise bland movie. A theatrical release that down to its essences feels like a television movie, or an E! Hollywood tell-all docudrama.  With John J. McLaughlin's script essentially reduced to a soap opera, HITCHOCK too often plays like a slightly ambitious project made for the Lifetime network.

HITCHOCK follows the legendary director as he struggles to make his landmark 1960 film PSYCHO (and is based on Stephen Rebello's Alfred Hitchock and the Making of Psycho). Despite coming hot off the all-around success of NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Hitchcock is nagged by self-doubt, wondering if he is indeed past his prime and no longer relevant. Some members of the press wonder likewise.

He will also be haunted by recurrent visions of Ed Gein (in some disappointingly cheesy scenes with Michael Wincott, who plays the serial killer) as he begins to consider an adaptation of Robert Bloch's Psycho, which was inspired by the killer's grisly deeds. Hollywood studio honchos would rather Hitch select a "safe" project. Paramount has little faith in this new adaptation, forcing him to finance the movie himself. The Motion Picture Production Code is nervous, especially about that shower scene. The director's well known obsessions with his female stars further adds to a discordant shoot.

All of these elements will provide enough for those already interested in the subject, but are presented in the most flat, perfunctory manner possible. Director Sacha Gervasi demonstrates competence in directing traffic but displays no keen visual sense, other than bathing the proceedings in harsh lighting that makes the film really seem like a made for TV.

What really does in HITCHOCK is a subplot involving Hitchcock's wife (and collaborator) Alma, nonetheless played with sophistication and heart by Helen Mirren. She envigorates each of her scenes, especially those with interplay between husband and wife. Staid long-marrieds who sleep in separate beds and nag each other. You might call Alma a martyr, or even a saint, for tolerating her husband's schedule and pathological interest in his female stars, sirens like Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) and especially Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson).

If HITCHOCK had examined Alma and her eternal patience with more insight, we may have had a strong psychological drama to admire. Instead, the script spends much time on her budding attraction to screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) and Hitchcock's building jealousy - all handled with the skill of your average Harlequin Romance paperback.  To make things worse, those visions of Ed Gein (Hitch's subconscious?) suggest actions for the possibly cuckholded spouse to take. It's an unforgivable contrivance. And let's not mention the happy ending.

All of that is disheartening, and douses hopes that HITCHCOCK could've been a superlative biography. There are telling moments here and there, as when Miles, apparently Hitch's primary object of desire on an earlier picture, tells Leigh about her discomfort with the director, offering that he is at least "not as bad as Orson Welles." It made me begin to think of how I might've constructed a bio on Hitch, one that would focus primarily on Hitch's predilections, his lust/love/paternalism that in some ways echoes Boris Lermontov in THE RED SHOES. But I guess there are books out there you can read on the subject.

Those looking for behind-the-scenes, on-set nuts and bolts examinations of the filmmaking process may be similarly disappointed, though we get some interesting sequences as Hitch guides his crew, when Alma steps in to direct when her husband falls ill, and some hilariously candid assessments of how Hitch really feels about some of his actors, mainly the men like John Gavin. I've read that the director didn't think much of many of his casts, even prompting William H. Macy to explain what he was doing in the ill advised 1998 PSYCHO remake: it was a favor to Gus Van Sant, not because he worshipped Hitchcock.

By many accounts, Alfred Hitchcock was an asshole, albeit a brilliant one. Our society likes to celebrate them, be they entertainers, athletes, evangelists, CEOs. Surely an asshole like Hitch could've inspired a far better movie?