Saturday, November 24, 2012


Channeling the Master
by Mark Dispenza

In death, as in life, Alfred Hitchcock remains the master of mystery and suspense. Don't go into Hitchcock expecting that the curtain will be pulled back to reveal the master once and for all. You'll be either disappointed or misled.

Filmmaker Sacha Gervasi's interpretation of Stephen Rebello's acclaimed Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of "Psycho" takes considerable liberty and won't bring you closer to understanding what made Hitchcock tick, but it will give you a delightful opportunity to watch a great actor in a stunning portrayal that effectively captures the great director's sly sense of mischief and single-minded pursuit of perfection in every frame of film.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm far from an authority on Hitchcock's life and methods. I wasn't even one year old when Psycho made millions terrified to step into the shower. My age was early in the single digits when I sat in front of the television and watched Alfred Hitchcock Presents with my parents. The power of the man's personality was such that today I cannot recall much at all of the stories on the program, but I remember in some detail Hitchcock's weekly introductory monologues and how much the man intrigued and amused me.

In classic films such as North by Northwest, Rear Window and Vertigo, Hitchcock kept movie audiences in the palm of his hand, manipulating their perceptions with clever camera angles, lighting and cinematic sleight-of-hand. Gervasi's film gives little insight into Hitchcock's masterful technique and creative process, which was revealed in much greater detail in Rebello's source material.

He chose instead to give us a more conventional love story that brings forth the woman in the shadows - Alma Reville, Hitchcock's wife and a woman of considerable creative talent in her own regard. She is played here by Helen Mirren, a terrific casting choice, especially considering that she is teamed with Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock.

Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren

Hopkins so fully immerses himself in the role that many in the audience at the advance screening I attended had to wait for the credits to see who played Hitchcock. The actor effectively captures every nuance of the great director's character. He transported me back to those early days, allowing me to relive the wonder and joy Hitchcock gave me as a television viewer and movie-goer. Watching Hopkins channel Hitchcock and interact so beautifully with Mirren gave me one of the best times I've had at the movies all year. There is Oscar buzz all over this performance.

This is Gervasi's first time out as a feature film director, and despite the liberties he takes with Hitchcock's story, causing some in the film community to cry foul, he has managed to fully convey the sense of wonder that so captivated Hitchcock's audiences. That focus on character is a strength that was evident in Anvil, Gervasi's acclaimed documentary about the Canadian no-hit rock band that redefines the concept of persistence.

Scarlett Johannson

Gervasi cleans up Hitchcock a bit by making light of his alleged sexual obsession with his leading ladies. Hitchcock even manages to have a professional relationship with his shower victim, actress Janet Leigh, played here by the always watchable Scarlett Johannsson.

But then again, this is not a movie about Hitchcock the master of suspense,or Hitchcock the man. This is a movie about Hitchcock the entertainer, complete with all of the illusions he conjured to surprise and delight us.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

Compatible Dysfunction
by Mark Dispenza

"Meeting cute" has been a staple of romantic comedies for decades...until now. Meet Pat (Bradley Cooper), a bipolar train wreck who was just released prematurely on his mother's recognizance after eight months in an institution, and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who deals with severe depression following the untimely death of her husband by sleeping with everyone she comes into contact with. Surely this is a match made in hell...except that it isn't.

They meet for the first time at a dinner given for them by Tiffany's sister (Julia Stiles), who is involved in a clandestine plot to set the two up and make Pat forget about his ex-wife, with whom he is obsessed. He had been arrested and institutionalized when he discovered his co-worker in the shower with her, and then beat the hapless man to within an inch of his life. His ex now has a restraining order against him, a fact to which he pays too little heed.

Pat and Tiffany's first conversation of mutual interest is about the meds they've been prescribed and how they reacted to the side effects. From then on things get rocky. As Pat becomes ever more obsessed with reuniting with his ex,Tiffany hatches a plan to get his attention by volunteering to carry a letter to her. In return Pat must become her partner in an unlikely attempt to win an upcoming ballroom dance competition. Just when you think this whole plot can't get any crazier, it does.

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper

Cooper has proved his worth as a leading man and as a comic actor in films such as The Hangover, but in Silver Linings Playbook, he achieves a depth of character that shows once and for all that he's not just another pretty face. Lawrence (Winter's Bone, The Hunger Games) never fails to astound with her intensity and range, and this film is a case in point. She plays above her age as an older and slightly more mature, if not outright crazy, character and she nails it.

Robert De Niro returns to comedy in top form as Pat's father, who is just as insanely obsessed, but with the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Jacki Weaver continues to add to her resume of recent successes as Pat's mother, who is tirelessly dedicated to restoring order to her home by low-key attempts to tame the restless spirits of the two men she loves.


Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro

David O. Russell, in his follow-up to The Fighter, scores again with another great story about ordinary people who achieve happiness and their own brand of success against the odds. It is filled with quirky characters who look a lot like the people we know, and who can be just as annoying and just as endearing. The script was adapted by Russell from the novel by Matthew Quick.

Not since Moonstruck, my all-time favorite of the genre, have I experienced a romantic comedy that's so much fun, yet so implausibly real at the same time. I highly recommend this film. It may be the most entertaining movie you will see this year.



Saturday, November 10, 2012

A Royal Affair

A Scandalous Affair                             
by Zac Ryan

With a heavy dose of costume drama, A Royal Affair could easily be about today's political climate here in the United States.

When we first meet Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander - soon to be seen in this season's Anna Karenina) she is being whisked away from her home to become the new wife and eventual Queen to her distant cousin in Denmark, Christian VII.  He isn't the most noble of men, but instead, hides behind a bush and is more enthralled with being reunited with his dog than his new bride.  He's a bit of a man-child, a a typical type found in American comedies, but the country and the counsel believes he is a bit insane. The King would rather spend his time bedding countless prostitutes than tending to the issues plaguing eighteenth century Denmark or his bride.

After the King tends to his one duty to the country, having a son, he is off to travel, where he meets the German doctor, Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen).  He quickly becomes the King's closest confidant and personal caretaker, allowing him to slip easily into royal society.  Johann gives Christian the strength to fight against counsel who sees the peasants as second-class citizens, bringing the ideas of the Enlightenment to a country that is still stuck within the Dark Ages.  Struensee notices the King's love for Shakespeare and teaches the King to act in front of his counsel, making sure he knows he is the King and all authority lies in his own decisions.

With the power now back within the monarchy, Christian disbands the counsel and seeks to bring equality among the citizens of the country.  Laws are brought forth to clean up the smell that lingers within the country, to stop the savagery of capital punishment, and bring the country into the new ways of the World.  It is one man, along with his new trusted adviser, against the conservative mindset that has plagued Denmark from moving forward.

But while the King is busy bringing forth change, a relationship brews between Johann and Caroline.  It isn't about the lust between the two, but they see beyond the good looks, and connect on a deeper level based on their love for Voltaire and Rousseau.  What starts out of a connection on an intellectual level becomes one of passion.  Caroline is left in the shadows of the King, one she never felt a connection to on any level, to a connection of mind and body.  And when she finds out she is pregnant, Johann pushes Caroline to sleep with the King once again, considering that they haven't shared a bed in almost a year.  But rumors begin to peculate between the ousted counsel and the citizens of the land, who must try to find a way to overthrow Johann using Charles as his puppet, and get the country back to its roots.

A Royal Affair is superbly directed by Nikolaj Arcel, who co-wrote the script with his long-time partner Rasmus Heisterberg (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).  With a run time of over two hours, the film never slows and the drama constantly builds.  While the history is widely known in Denmark, it may be new to many on this side of the pond.  As we sit a country divided among conservatives and liberals, the period drama gives notice that change can be a good thing, not just for the country, but also for the most common of its people.

While Mikkelsen (best known as the villain in Casino Royale) and Vikander are fabulous in their roles, it is Følsgaard who shines on screen.  He perfectly captures the King as man who feels inadequate in his superior position, and easily jumps between bits of power, mainly through his bits of acting in front of the counsel, to his bits of laughter and slight maniacal demeanor.

The film has already won kudos at this year's Berlin Film Festival for Følsgaard's portrayal of the King, the writing by Arcel and Heisterberg, the Audience Award at the AFI Film Festival, and was recently chosen as the Danish entry into the Foreign Oscar category.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

New on DVD

Now is the Time to Catch Up              
by Mark Dispenza

Halloween is over and if you're a resident of New Orleans like me, you need a break from the week-long party of adult insanity the former family event has become.  The indie film festival season is underway.  Toronto is over, AFI-Fest is in progress and Sundance is on the horizon.  For Hollywood this is the calm before the storm of Thanksgiving weekend holiday season openers.  What is one to do?  Curl up and watch a good movie from the comfort of your home. Fortunately the last month has seen a plethora of top indie film releases.  

The heavyweight of this year's indie films, Moonrise Kingdom is a humorous, quirky and touching story from writer-director Wes Anderson.  A young orphan escapes from a scout-like summer camp to elope with a misfit young girl just as a powerful storm bears down on their sparsely populated island.  A frantic search party forms comprised of a terrific cast of characters, including Frances McDormand and Bill Murray as the girl's parents, Edward Norton as the distraught scout master, Bruce Willis as the lonely local sheriff and Tilda Swinton as "Social Services."  This is as close to a guaranteed good time for all as you can get.

Ruby Sparks
In a wonderful follow-up to Little Miss Sunshine, the writer-director duo of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris deliver yet again.  A writer manifests his idea of the perfect woman into reality and learns that you should be careful what you ask for.  What starts out as light and entertaining comedy has a much more powerful message to impart by the end.  You'll never look at your significant other the same way again. 

Take This Waltz
Writer-director Sarah Polley gives us a smart and sensitive portrayal of a marriage during that risky time when husbands and wives fall into familiar patterns and take the wants and needs of the other for granted. As in many marriages the real cause of this one's demise is rooted in failures of communication and listening.   Michelle Williams nails it in the lead role, assisted in no small part by Polley's remarkably insightful script.  

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
The apocalypse is an event best shared with someone special in this dramedy from writer Lorene Scafaria, who steps behind the camera for the first time to deliver a comic tale that evolves into much more dramatic and philosophical territory by the end.  It's a fun twist on the doomsday scenario that makes up in heart what it lacks in Hollywood-style special effects. With this US national election underway and the economy barely puttering along, you'll realize you could have bigger problems.  

Safety Not Guaranteed
Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza create great romantic comedy chemstry in this unique twist on the mad scientist tale.  Based on an actual newspaper ad, Derek Connally's script goes a step further and imagines a fanciful scenario that brings two quirky and independent loners together on a remarkable adventure.  Unfortunately the film does not realize its full potential due to uninspired directing.