July 18, 2010

Strangers on a Train

At the beginning of Strangers on a Train, an eccentric young man named Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) meets a tennis celebrity named Guy Haines (Farley Granger) on board a train. Bruno asks Guy if he wants a cigarette, but Guy says he doesn't smoke much. In a split second, Guy produces a lighter--engraved with the inscription "from A to G" on it--for Bruno to light his with. This bit of minutiae is extremely pertinent to Alfred Hitchcock's movie, probably his best thriller. It's got a better sense of humor than Psycho and it moves along at a sharper pace than Vertigo. Strangers on a Train has all the ingredients of a perfectly entertaining suspense picture, from the touches of black comedy to the often funny characters themselves: Guy is so noble that he's a perfect dupe for the insane Bruno (but he's also good-looking and sharp enough to keep his cool when he becomes a suspect in his wife's murder). And Bruno is undoubtedly one of the creepiest villains among Hitchcock's menagerie of maniacs. Walker seems to be having a thoroughly marvelous time throughout.

The plot involves Bruno's attempt to "swap" murders with Guy. Both men have people in their lives they don't like: Bruno carries a sense of superior contempt for his father, and Guy is trapped in a fizzled marriage to a nasty, greedy woman. (She's a salesgirl who's pregnant with another man's baby.)
I haven't read the Patricia Highsmith novel, which this movie was based on, but I'm almost certain Guy's character was cleaned up in the process of adapting him to the screen. He's completely opposed to Bruno's proposal in the movie version, which allows us, the audience, to root for his triumph without any guilt. What's so interesting is that, while Hitchcock makes Guy's character sort of banal in his goodness, Bruno is so despicably rotten that we're half interested to see him pull it off.

Much about Bruno's psychosis seems linked to his relationship with his mother (Marion Lorne). Lorne injects into her character a sort of aloof amusement at her son's unhinged behavior, and the result is quite fascinating. There's a scene early on where she reveals a painting she's finished of St. Francis. It looks like The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Bruno erupts with devilish laughter, finally composing himself enough to hail the painting as a first-rate rendering of his father. Bruno's mother typically downplays Bruno's tenacious rage, passing it off as a kind of humor only she can understand fully. Hitchcock uses the portrait scene as a moment of comedy where we are laughing despite our feeling that Bruno is truly disturbed--it's as if the murder-swapping ploy that came about in the first part was sort of old hat compared to this sinister little moment.

Bruno's obsession with Guy is clear from the beginning, but as he inflates Guy's involvement in the murder swapping plan, the obsession grows. This shot of Bruno standing in front of the Capitol is one of the most memorable in the film, and it's classic Hitchcock imagery. We can also see the influence of shots like this in later films (such thrillers as Night of the Living Dead and Halloween used similar images of the villain's shape lurking far in the distance--ironically maximizing the sense of danger for the viewer). Bruno is watching Guy from a long ways away, but it's almost as though he can hear every word Guy speaks--indeed, every thought in his mind seems captive to Bruno's eerie prescience.

Strangers on a Train set a new standard for thrillers: it's a cross between film noir and those sophisticated comedies of manners from the 30s and 40s like all the The Thin Man movies and The Philadelphia Story. Bruno is like the creepy brother in The Thin Man if he'd stop repressing his kooky personality. He taps into the morbid repressions of all the other characters in the movie, including Patricia Hitchcock (Hitch's daughter), as Anne's bookish sister, who possesses a strong fascination with murder. When Bruno meets her, she reminds him of Guy's wife Miriam (whom he murdered at a carnival), and the memory triggers an eerie moment in the thriller that pulls us out of the comedy and into the film's dark undercurrent.

This film in particular demonstrates the importance of pacing and building up the suspense, and yet Hitchcock doesn't resort to arbitrary plot devices to move his story along or attempt a superficial development of that suspense. Instead, everything is carefully configured into the story, but the comic touches and the energy from the actors brings it to life. It's no longer something written down on paper: it's a movie, a kinetic experience that involves the viewer in a way that Hitchcock had suck a knack for in his films up until the 1960s.

July 16, 2010


Directed by Christopher Nolan of The Dark Knight (2008), it's like a blend of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Memento. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a dream “extractor,” who makes his living assembling and then inhabiting other people’s dreams in order to steal ideas. Faced with the consequences of failing a mission (his corporation doesn’t tolerate failure), as well as his fugitive status in America (the movie is mostly set outside the U.S., particularly in Paris), Dom assembles a team of fellow dream inhabitors to undertake a new kind of mission: Inception, or the planting of an idea into another person’s mind through dream assemblage and manipulation. Their target is the son of a dying corporate executive (Cillian Murphy, playing against type as a good guy). Murphy was Nolan's villain in Batman Begins and it's difficult here to treat him as the soft-hearted dupe who's a pawn in DiCaprio's ploy. On top of everything else, it seems a sophisticated shrink--or maybe a sophisticated hooker--could have planted the "idea" (dismantling his father's empire) into Murphy's mind without all this dream-meddling nonsense. Meanwhile, Dom has his own demons to fight. His nutbag of a wife (Marion Cotillard, whose character seems like something out of Play Misty For Me) keeps popping up in these dreams and dreams-within-dreams, which of course complicates Dom's mission. If it sounds like convoluted gobbledygook, that’s because it is.

Nolan said he wanted to make a movie that delivered the type of exciting pay-offs he expects at the movies: so that means lots and lots of explosions. Bang, boom, bang is the rhythm of Inception, beating to the signature of an intense, enveloping score (by Hans Zimmer) that at times recalls something Bernard Herrmann might have done for an Alfred Hitchcock picture (particularly Vertigo) except that this score rarely experiences a lull of subtlety. And of course all the booming happens in dreams—which we know are dreams. Nolan (who also wrote the screenplay) has constructed a complicated set of rules in order to protect his story from scrutiny. If you get shot in a normal dream, you just wake up. But if you’ve been sedated before hand and you get shot, you go into limbo and your brain turns into mush. 

The movie—despite its complicated plot—is admittedly exciting and involving in a superficial sort of way. After all, Nolan is one of the best at making the Bang Boom Bang fantasy sleek and shiny looking. But it’s got an inflated sense of grandiosity that you will become acutely aware of if you’re trying to read between the lines. (This seems the case with all his movies.) You leave the theater feeling as though you’ve been bombarded—the whole film is one major sensory overload—which to some is great moviemaking but to others who see it for what it is is just filling space with busyness. How much character development could we have exchanged for all those falling buildings and bombs going off and cars smashing? Indeed, the fact that all this happens in the dreams is a sort of relief--you can simply disengage from it without feeling you're missing anything.

There’s a great line by Edgar Allen Poe: “Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?” John Carpenter used this line to preface his 1980 chiller The Fog, and Inception seems to take its cue from Poe as well, but of course in a very different direction. It has one very intriguing component going for it: The act of going to the movies isn’t so far removed from the act of dreaming. When we go to the movies, we seek escape from reality, and it’s as if time stands still while we’re sitting in the darkened theater. When we walk out, we forgot if it was daylight; or if it’s gone from light to dark, we feel a strange sense that the movie had something to do with the alteration (but in reality the movie only passed the time--it didn't affect it). Inception delves into the subconscious dream state like no other movie before, and Christopher Nolan has plenty of fascinating material with which to work, but we shouldn’t be fooled into believing that this is some kind of masterpiece, even if it’s better than the rest of the summer junk of which it is simply a higher grade. With Joseph Gordon Levitt, Ellen Page (who's got a refreshing air about her as Dom's young protegee), Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileap Rao, Tom Berenger, and Michael Caine (in a thankless role as Dom's father-in-law). 148 min.

July 09, 2010


I skipped New Moon because I saw the first Twilight movie, which was WB-grade storytelling at its finest. Eclipse offers more of the same mixed with a compulsion to become comparable in scale to Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. Armed with a less than exciting threat from an army of new vampires, the Eclipse writers attempt to fill one half of their movie with the impending suspense of an all-out vampires vs. vampires war.

The other half lingers over the love triangle between Bella (Kristen Stewart, who I was relieved to see making fewer facial twitches in her attempt to emote something) and Edward (Robert Pattinson) and Jacob (Taylor Lautner). While both the chemistry and the credibility of a Bella-Jacob relationship is forced, I think Edward and Jacob might want to consider opening up a bed-and-breakfast in Vermont together. I think it was mainly Jacob's shirtless, cut-off jeans look that prompted this reaction. Moreover, it appears that someone (possibly director David Slade or screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg) watched the volleyball scene in Top Gun and decided to recreate it throughout this entire movie.

If Twilight offers anything, it's a chance to keep in touch with fashion. Thankfully, in order to appear in a Twilight movie, one must be beautiful enough and well-dressed enough to grace the cover of Vogue (CGI helps with this process as well). Do the actors ever get depressed seeing themselves looking so perfect on film when in real life they surely must have deficiencies? Perhaps a scar, a mole, a little cottage cheese? I don't think we're meant to put that much thought into this, nor are we meant to wonder at the confused logic informing the motives of the Twilight characters: Bella wants to be like Edward because she doesn't feel normal as a human. Edward doesn't want her to lose her soul, but other than his bleak promise of such a thing happening, he seems to have a pretty good life: nice house, never aging, and sparkling in the sun. It's really just so perfect if you think about it. On the other hand, Jacob has a better tan and there's also the advantage of not having to fill bleak, rainy Washington days knitting shirts for him.

I also thought this movie made a compelling case for the "no means no" slogan. I mean, the way Bella forced herself on Edward like that was just...a sickening abuse of her charms.

Of course, the big question is: Will this series end with a Graduate moment? Where they supposedly get what they want, only ending the film staring bleakly with an expression that reads: "OMG what did we just do?!" ½

July 06, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine

As someone with a fondness for all things 80s, the premise of Hot Tub Time Machine appealed to me: three middle-aged losers (John Cusack, Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry), in an effort to relive their glory days, take off to a ski resort they visited in 1986. Time has not been kind to them or the resort, which is now a dilapidated relic bearing only a faint reminder of happier, more irresponsible days a quarter of a century earlier. Then something strange happens with the help of a hot tub that is apparently a time portal, and the guys (along with Cusack's nerdy 20-year-old nephew) are transported back to that fateful weekend of 1986. The mirror reveals that their youthful appearances have returned (except for the nephew, who technically isn't even born yet). Okay, I laughed out loud a lot during this retro comedy, but as I think back with a more critical mindset, I'm struck by the fact that much of the movie spends its time documenting arguments where Corddry, the biggest loser of the group, makes himself look less and less credible as a human being. Cusack, who is the most recognizable face among the main characters (as well as the only one to have been acting in the 80s), is expected to carry the film but his character isn't anymore well-defined than the others. Hot Tub is typical of today's comedy: it takes refuge in its pop culture references, and forgets that having a compelling and ironic story of its own is the heart of any movie, regardless of the genre. Chevy Chase is wasted in a stupid role as  a mysterious repairman who seems to be aware of the group's time traveling woes, and talks in pseudo-Buddhist jargon (not unlike his character in Caddyshack). Crispin Glover (he played Michael J. Fox's dad in the Back to the Future movies) has one of the funniest parts, as a bellman whose arm--missing in 2010 but intact in 1986--provides a running gag. ½