Friday, November 3, 2017

QUICK HITS AND MISSES AT THIS FALL'S CINEPLEX


78/52

Is the shower murder from Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO the most iconic scene in film history? Judging by the numerous critical dissertations, scholarly analysis, and endless parodies that have been made of it since the film’s debut in 1960, the answer may very well be yes. Thus, an entire documentary devoted to analyzing it hardly seems excessive. In fact, it really is a must-see for anyone who’s a fan of movies, Hitch, or horror.

The name 78/52 refers to the 78 camera set-ups for that unforgettable scene and the 52 cuts which made up its edit. One could argue that this film could have used a little editing itself, especially the dumb opening which tries in vain to recreate Janet Leigh’s drive in the rain. Still, the rest of the doc is entirely enthralling as it gathers everyone from actress Jamie Lee Curtis to novelist Bret Easton Ellis to provide on-camera commentary about the impact the graphic, meticulously constructed scene had on the movies, society, and even the world of bathing.

The best voices in the documentary are those filmmakers who dig deep into the minutiae like Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo Del Toro, and especially, editor and sound designer Walter Murch. He really dissects the second-by-second of what the Master of Suspense intrinsically designed melding sight, sound, and suggestion. 

The whole of Alexandre O. Phillipe's documentary is a fascinating tutorial on the power of images, sound design, and Hitchcock’s darkly comic sense of humor. Hitchcock famously expressed that PSYCHO was really a comedy. Indeed, when you watch it the first time, it's a horror movie. The second time? It's a dark comedy loaded with all kinds of wit, double entendres, and sexual imagery that would make Larry Flynt blush.

And you’ll never look at shopping for melons the same again after Hitchcock's foley artist explains how it took a range of the fruit to determine which gourd sounded the best getting stabbed. 


SUBURBICON

Good thing that the American Film Institute already chose George Clooney to be their 2018 Life Achievement Award recipient because this film isn’t much of one. Clooney is a talented filmmaker and he’s assembled a tony cast here, with a script worked on by the Coen Brothers, but none of it makes this work.  Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac, among others, flounder trying to play despicable characters in a tone somewhere between BLOOD SIMPLE and THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW.  It has impeccable 1950’s production design, but everything else feels too yesteryear. It’s noisy, garish, and boorish. And its portrayal of the ugliness beneath the manicured lawns and courteous manners of suburban white America is so on-the-nose,  I'm surprised it doesn't need a Breathe Rite strip.

There’s a racial subplot that is meant to be pointed commentary about prejudice, but it gets lost amidst all the violent skullduggery that the actors huff and puff to bring to life. Material like this that is so dark and nihilistic would be better served up dryly, but Clooney wants to deliver an elbow to the ribs every couple of minutes.  My stomach hurt from turning, not laughing.

Clooney has delivered time and time again as an actor, but his helming track record is spotty. GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK? Bravo! THE MONUMENTS MEN? Good night. Good thing he’s getting the AFI honor next year, because this one will likely not figure in any awards race.  



MARSHALL

Speaking of Oscars, this period piece, about a young Thurgood Marshall who went on to become the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice, should have been an awards contender. It too is a timely commentary about racial conflict in America. It has an excellent cast, headed up by Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Kate Hudson, and James Cromwell. And it wisely focuses on a singular case rather than try to be a cradle-to-grave biopic. Unfortunately, the film picks the wrong case to dramatize. 

For starters, the trial concerns a working class black man (Brown) wrongfully accused of raping a white woman (Hudson), and comparisons to the classic TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD do not do this new film any favors. Secondly, even if you don’t know the specifics of that Marshall case, the story's twist can be seen coming a mile away.

Most damaging however is the fact that Marshall wasn’t allowed to argue his case as the judge forbade him from taking first chair due to the black man's out-of-state status. That hoisted all the courtroom theatrics upon the timid local counselor, a young Jewish attorney named William Friedman. He's played here in fine seriocomic form by the talented Josh Gad, but it makes Marshall feel like a supporting player in his own biography. Are studios afraid to let African-American talent carry a film? Does it need a white costar to make it more palatable in the South?  Emma Stone was fine in THE HELP, but Viola Davis was more than capable of carrying that film alone. Same here. Gad is good, but Boseman should be the show.

The direction by Reginald Hudlin and production values are first-rate in this crowd-pleasing film, but the focus of Marshall should have been on something he accomplished as a groundbreaking justice on the highest court of the land. At the very least, by showcasing a case where Marshall plays “Cyrano de Bergerac” to a nervous newbie, the character arc that drives the film is Friedman’s. And that’s hardly just at all.


THOR: RAGNAROK

Who knew that Chris Hemsworth could be so utterly hilarious? I mean, he was funny in the reboot of GHOSTBUSTERS, albeit in an absurdly written part, but here in THOR: RAGNAROK he displays comic inflections and deadpan timing that rival Bob Newhart and Jim Parsons. Is that why the new Marvel Studios film leans so heavily on the comedic, because he's so magical, or have the powers that be decided to ratchet up the comedy across the Marvel portfolio due to the stunning successes of the more frivolous franchises like DEADPOOL and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY? Either way, the audience benefits as this action/adventure movie is more of a hoot than a hero’s journey. 

Heck, this is such a raucous romp, directed with a shaggy ease by Taika Waititi, even the tragic story of Bruce Banner seems lost forever now after this outing. The sensitive scientist and his Hulk alter ego, played once again with intensity and verve by Mark Ruffalo, detour into a sort of Belushi/Farley/Galifianakis frat boy sidekick thing. Then, by throwing Jeff Goldblum into the mix, and directing him to play his dystopian dictator as a loopy loon, you've got a movie with more laughs than any billed comedy this year.

This third in the THOR series is a ton of fun despite a needlessly complex plot, its standard issue intergalactic villainess (Cate Blanchett, slumming), and space ship set pieces that come off like GOTG left-overs. It also comes dangerously close to earning unintentional laughs with its cornball attempts at creating pathos around the raggedy regular folk who become displaced from their homes on planet Asgard. They look like extras who wandered in from the lame sequels to THE MATRIX. 

Still, with witty turns additionally supplied by Tom Hiddleston, Tessa Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Benedict Cumberbatch in a Dr. Strange cameo, and surprise guest appearances by Matt Damon, Sam Neill, and Hemsworth’s brother Luke, THOR: RAGNAROK is the flashlight through a dark and stormy autumn marred by the piggery of Weinstein, Spacey, et al. If only Thor's legendary hammer could obliterate the male monsters in Tinsel Town.

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