Movie Review – Marnie

Marnie (1964)
Written by Jay Presson Allen
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

All good things must come to an end. Marnie would mark the downturn of Alfred Hitchcock’s directorial career. He’d just come off a fantastic streak of films: Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds. That many consecutive movies that immediately became iconic is quite an achievement, so it is a little unfair that critics turned their noses up so hard at what Hitch released for the rest of his career. On the other hand, he set the standard so high that we expect something brilliant. Marnie has all those things you expect in a Hitchcock movie but done so much more clunkily, with a deep strain of misogyny boring through the entire production. In some ways, Marnie is Hitch letting the mask slipping and showing too much of his true self to us.

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Movie Review – North by Northwest

North by Northwest (1959)
Written by Ernest Lehman
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

In my opinion, Alfred Hitchcock’s best works are his dark, psychological films. But, he did manage to deliver something outside of the box with North by Northwest. This is a classic Cold War espionage story about a case of mistaken identity and the fallout that ensues. It’s filled to the brim with Hitchcock’s wry humor and livened up by screenwriter Ernest Lehman. The final product is a lavish and certainly expensive film with the production traveling across the United States as its protagonist tries to get to the bottom of how he became entangled in this mess.

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Movie Review – The Kid Detective

The Kid Detective (2020)
Written & Directed by Evan Morgan

When I was a kid, I was a fairly regular reader of the Encyclopedia Brown book series. Brown was a middle school student who worked as his neighborhood’s local kid detective. Each book had around ten interlinked stories that end on a cliffhanger. The reader is expected to notice an inconsistency in a suspect’s dialogue that hints at their guilt. I can say only once do I remember solving the mystery before checking the back of the book for the answer. Brown has served as an inspiration for many other kid detectives and many satire pieces on the genre recently. I recall The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno and Donald Glover’s Mystery Team as pieces of media that touch on the concept of child detectives turned adults.

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Movie Review – The Wrong Man

The Wrong Man (1956)
Written by Maxwell Anderson & Angus MacPhail
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

You know something is immediately different when Alfred Hitchock himself appears on the screen, in the shadows, to tell us this film is based on actual events, unlike his other pictures. The picture is in black and white and, while the credits tell us the score is by Bernard Hermann, the music is more sedate than we expect from that composer. Events happen on screen in almost methodical fashion, people walking from one place to the other, little emotion. The first display of emotion by a character, fear, leads to everything falling apart for one person whose life ends up in tatters by the end of our tale.

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Movie Review – To Catch a Thief

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To Catch a Thief (1955)
Written by John Michael Hayes
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

To Catch a Thief is an uncharacteristically glamorous affair for Hitchcock, lacking the dark psychological edge most audiences associate with his work. He always liked to have beautiful women in his cast and handsome actors, but usually, somewhere in the story, it would delve into twisted territory. But this keeps things focused on jewel theft in the French Riveria and one man trying to clear his name. It does feature mistaken identity elements, a common trope in Hitchcock’s work, but it lacks the suspense found in films like Rear Window and Dial M for Murder.

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Movie Review – Rear Window

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Rear Window (1954)
Written by John Michael Hayes
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

I first saw Rear Window when I was a child on our local unaffiliated network that aired whatever they could get their hands on. I was probably 10 or 11, but I remember being absolutely caught up in the way Hitchcock told the neighbors’ stories without much dialogue and even illuminated our protagonist in the way the images cut between these other people. This is a genuinely tense & thrilling murder mystery that uses its setting to its fullest. I think Rear Window is an excellent example for filmmakers with limited budgets and filming spaces to take advantage of every facet of that room or building to create a truly suspenseful story.

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Movie Review – Dial M for Murder

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Dial M for Murder (1954)
Written by Frederick Knott
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

1954 was a big year for director Alfred Hitchcock and marked what critics refer to as his “peak years.” This is the period most people think of when they hear the filmmaker’s name. His television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, would start in 1955 and run for a decade. He’d helm pictures like Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, and more. In 1955 Hitch became an American citizen and began making his pictures for Paramount. He would work with some of his best actors like Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and Grace Kelly. He’d also infamously terrorize actress Tippi Hedren in The Birds & Marnie, revealing some genuinely dark and disturbing psycho-sexual issues of his own. Hitchcock was a very problematic guy but at the same tapping into the depths of the human psyche.

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Movie Review – Traffic

Traffic (2000)
Written by Stephen Gaghan
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh’s career has been one of the most eclectic and prolific of most modern directors. It was a slow burn, though. His directorial debut, sex, lies, and videotape, was a massive breakthrough in 1989. However, for all his promise, it led to a decade of commercial failures and an embrace of independent filmmaking and experimentation. It was 1998’s Out of Sight that changed things and led to his reemergence as a mainstream film director. Soderbergh never lost sight of those formative experimental years, and Traffic served as a bridge between more conventional filmmaking and the director’s insistence on playing with form and presentation.

Traffic is a film based on a BBC mini-series that follows three separate but intersecting plots centered around the War on Drugs in the United States & Mexico. In Tijuana, we follow police officer Javier Rodriguez (Benicio del Toro), who is brought into General Salazar’s inner circle, a high-ranking official that wants to take down the Obregón brothers who head the local cartel. Rodriguez and his partner become further intertwined with Mexico’s corruption, quickly realizing every side is out to have a piece of the drug trade and is only interested in eliminating the competition.

In the Midwest, we meet conservative judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is appointed to head the President’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. It becomes clear to Wakefield from his predecessor and longtime staff members that the War on Drugs is unwinnable, but he keeps moving forward with the transition. Meanwhile, his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) has become involved in drugs, her latest vice being freebasing cocaine. She and her boyfriend (Topher Grace) hole up in a cheap motel room where they spend the day blasting their minds with drugs. When her addiction comes to light Wakefield and his wife (Amy Irving) struggle with the best way to help their daughter.

The final plotline centers on Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who’s husband is arrested by the DEA for his role as a drug trafficker. Meanwhile, DEA agents Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Castro (Luis Guzman) are leading the investigation on Ayala’s operations, which also involves surveilling his wife. Helena finds herself becoming financially desperate. People whom her husband owes come around making threats, and she finds herself reaching the edge. Gordon and Castro get their hands on a significant witness against Ayala, Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), whose testimony makes him a valued asset of the US government and the cartels’ target.

Soderbergh bit off so much with this film and does an excellent job developing each plot thread, allowing light crossing over but making sure each story has its own complete arc. One technique he uses to help the audience is by using three different color correction techniques for each story. Rodriguez’s sun-bleached Mexico story is shown in an overexposed sepia, Wakefield & his daughter’s journey through addiction is presented in a stark, cold blue. The California storyline looks the most conventional, with colors just slightly oversaturated. Soderbergh was an early adopter of digital filmmaking, and it shows here as those first cameras could show a lot of grain & distortion in the video. This was a detractor in some pictures, but here it helps with the cinema verite style that Soderberg was going for, a semi-documentary atmosphere with handheld camera work.

The best thing about Traffic is how Soderbergh presents the War on Drugs as an unwinnable conflict. Wakefield delivers a speech in the third act about how we are asked to go to war with our own children, and that understanding and offers of help will do more to curb the desire for drugs. The film does an excellent job of showcasing how overly complicated and pointless the mission to wipe out drugs is. It’s pointed out early in the movie that the cartels would have no power if the demand in the white suburbs of America weren’t there. The very law enforcement that claims to be fighting the spread of drugs regularly turns out to be on cartels’ payrolls.

The way Soderbergh delivers this message is not through the characters didactically spouting platitudes (I’m looking in your direction, Aaron Sorkin!). He keeps that documentarian style that distances his own views from the characters and never editorializes things. A few moments, particularly with the Wakefield character, come close to that, though, but the director manages to avoid going over that cliff into a movie of the week.

Traffic’s biggest problem is the scope of its story and how, even with a three hour running time, so many characters are still relatively undeveloped. I have to think that the original television version could do this, but you lose that in a feature film. Caroline is a non-character for most of the movie, just a drug-addicted teenager with minimal other defining characteristics. I also think Helena deserved some more development because we see her story arc rushed along to make her the head of her husband’s operations without really seeing her struggle along the way. Traffic certainly still holds up, one of those movies that created an aesthetic for the 2000s that is even mimicked today.

Movie Review – Sexy Beast

Sexy Beast (2000)
Written Louis Mellis & David Scinto
Directed by Jonathan Glazer

Jonathan Glazer has been working in the performing arts for over thirty years, starting as a theatrical director and building a reputation for himself in the world of music videos through the 1990s. He was responsible for some iconic Radiohead, Blur, and Jamiroquai videos, which displayed his creativity and ability to build powerful moods through images and music. Glazer also directed some brilliant advertisements, with his Levis ads being some of my favorites. So before he had settled on a feature film debut, those who were aware of Glazer’s talents knew he was going to make incredible movies. That debut ended up being 2000’s Sexy Beast.

Gal Dove (Ray Winstone) is a retired English criminal living happily in Spain with his wife, DeeDee. They have been joined by friends Aitch and his wife, Jackie. Every day is spent lounging by the pool, eating at fantastic restaurants, and drinking wine as they joke about the old days. It all comes crashing down when Jackie receives a call from Don Logan (Benjamin Kingsley), a criminal associate and cold sociopath they thought was a memory. Don shows up demanding Gal take a job being offered by crime lord Teddy Bass (Ian McShane). Gal doesn’t want to go back to that life and wants to be left alone, but Don’s insistence and eventual violence are pushing him into giving in.

Sexy Beast is a gorgeous mood piece. The characters are incredibly well-written, but what makes the film are the stylistic flourishes Glazer adds on. The entire movie, despite some intense and violent moments, is overflowing with passion and love. Gal is whole-heartedly devoted to DeeDee, a fact that Don Logan knows and attempts to undermine by digging up sordid details of DeeDee’s past. She has already shared these with Gal, and his pain is less about the besmirching of his honor but knowing how much it must hurt for DeeDee to be reminded of regrettable choices. 

Before we see Don Logan on screen, we feel his presence. The movie opens with an iconic scene of a boulder that nearly kills Gal and falls into the swimming pool behind the house. Later, Gal has a dream about a monstrous anthropomorphic rabbit coming to gun him down. These are all portents of something terrible on a direct path to ruin the idyll that Gal and his friends have created. When Kingsley shows up as Don on the screen, we immediately understand the characters’ gloom. 

Don is this angry, little dog that just won’t let go. He tries to engage in social niceties, but it’s clear he’s disinterested in it all. He wants to make sure he dominates the space and that people do as he says. Don doesn’t show emotions; he assumes behaviors he’s observed in people but delivers them awkwardly. One minute, Don pretends to want to know what you’ve been up to, and in a hairpin second, he switches to not giving a shit and getting down to business. A compliment can transition to a ribald joke about your wife moments later.

I’m not such a great fan of Kingsley. He can be excellent in the right roles, but more often than not, I think he picks terrible projects, and it ends up being embarrassing. Here we get to see a side of the actor not glimpsed often. Gone is the fatherly gentleness of Gandhi, and in its place is a vicious pit-bull of a human being. It becomes evident that the story cannot end in anything but violence when such a person is present. Gal is steadfast that he won’t do the job, and Don cannot handle this fact. The madman teeters between angrily accepting the decision to physically strike Gal to the floor when he doesn’t comply.

Jonathan Glazer picked a fascinating film to begin with, the most accessible film in his very selective film directing career. When you look at his later two features, Birth and Under the Skin, they are very different in aesthetics, themes, and tone. Unlike his contemporaries, Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, Glazer is a more versatile filmmaker. You might not always know a movie is a Glazer work because he is malleable without losing his insistence on smart stories and striking visuals.

Movie Review – Seven

Seven (1995)
Written by Andrew Kevin Walker
Directed by David Fincher

There is a depth of humanity in Seven, hidden beneath the stylized neo-noir aftermath of violence that its detectives stumble across in crime scene after crime scene. David Fincher movies often get swallowed up in the fervor over aesthetics and jolting set pieces that we often forget the richly developed characters that make up his world. Detectives Somerset & Mills and Mills’s wife Tracy are beautifully written roles performed by actors who understand nuance’s power. The infamous finale of Seven, a scene that has somewhat become a parody in the pop culture in the ensuing decades, almost brought me to tears this time around. I empathized with the trio of protagonists so that this final obscenity tore right through me.

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