"A-well-a, everybody's heard about the bird, b-b-b-bird, bird, bird,… More"A-well-a, everybody's heard about the bird, b-b-b-bird, bird, bird, bird is the word!" Man, these birds are bad enough, so one can only imagine what chaos would befall society if the bees got in on this killing spree, John Burroughs. Seriously, I've heard of California going to the birds, but this is ridiculous. I can torture you all with this nonsense all night, but in all seriousness, there are so many trite things involving birds that I can't believe this seemingly uncreative title wasn't taken, like, a couple hundred times before and after this film. Well, I can understand why no one wanted to try and evoke thoughts of a film this big by naming his or her film "The Birds", and even why no one made a film before this one that was titled "The Birds", because this film actually came out a couple months before "Surfin' Bird", and it doesn't get any older than that. I joke, but this was Alfred Hitchcock's last huge hit, insinuating that he had time to make huge hits prior, and that would be great if this film was by any means "soaring" (Ha-ha-ha-caw!), being an unreasonably two hours reasonably well-spent, but not especially smoothly.
The film is plenty well-developed, with its characters, and its settings, and even its themes, but not with, of all things, it's conflict, for although I can understand the ambiguity behind the birds' mania, and although they attempt explanations way late into the body of the film, it's hard to get all that invested in a conflict so underdeveloped. Well, the conflict at least seems underdeveloped, compared to the other aspects of this narrative, whose build-up segment runs for way, way too long, until it begins to feel aimless, just as the relatively tighter body gets to be draggy itself. Running two hours in length, the film is simply too long, and that's perhaps my biggest problem with it, as the film is all too often all too meandering to be all that engaging, and would be more compelling during its lulls in conflict if it was more genuine. The script is decent, but it holds problems extending beyond the uneven pacing, particularly within its dramatics, as the personal character conflicts feel a touch too Hollywood in their being histrionic, and working to manufacture some depth to a story of limited weight. Alas, screenwriter Evan Hunter can't quite overshadow the limitations in depth within this Hollywood thriller, which are all but overpowered by inspiration to storytelling, sure, but don't do a whole lot at all, much less anything all that uniquely. The film wasn't especially refreshing even for its time, no matter, how much it tried, at least at times, when it wasn't getting too lazy, if not overblown with its exposition and conflicts to truly reward. The film is kind of underwhelming, but it's not as underwhelming as I feared it might be, being bland in more than a few areas, but effective enough in others to impress just fine, particularly on a technical level.
The bird effects have, of course, become rather dated over the years, even with often their being presented in a frantic fashion that is ostensibly intended to give you only so much time to see the seams, yet they hold up just fine, and when their sheer business go accompanied by unique and disturbing sound effects, a sense of pandemonium is sold, and augmented by the staging of the action sequence. As you can imagine, it's a long while before tensions begin to rise, but when they do, the technical value, alone, however dated, thrills, viscerally and as a reinforcement of a sense of consequence to substance. As for the substance, I won't so much so that it's lacking, as much as I would say that it is, in fact, kind of overblown, being dragged out and histrionic, as well as formulaic, although that isn't to say that there isn't still something limited to the weight of this drama, and yet, with that said, the story concept, even for the time, is not as silly as it could have been, holding a chillingly believable primary conflict, behind interesting themes regarding natural tragedies, and even the depths of humanity in times of terror. The more human side of the film is really sold by the performances, which aren't graced with all that much material, but surprisingly stand out when the plot begin to thicken, with most everyone nailing a sense of sheer emotional distraught and human anguish that, when backed by layered chemistry, sell the many conflicts seen in a terrorized community with a convincing intensity that may have been beyond the time, at least in Hollywood affairs. Again, the dramatics get a little too Hollywood histrionic, but in plenty of areas, this film was gutsy enough to transcend traditional, watered down Hollywoodisms, and such audacity still rings true today in its graphic emphasis on disaster and human flaws, sold by the solid performances, both on the screen and off. What truly defines the effectiveness of this film is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock, whose directorial skills are limited by a questionable script, but are inspired enough to play an instrumental role in getting the film as far as it goes, playing up quietness just right to prevent dullness and establish genuine suspense, while placing a harsh attention to violence and claustrophobia in order to really drive the intensity that in turn drives this thriller, at least at times. The film takes much too long to pick up, and it ultimately fails to reward on the whole, but there are plenty of moments that really are more audacious and effective than one might fear, and in between them is a film that entertains enough to join the thrilling highlights in establishing a very decent, if a touch overblown Hollywood thriller.
When the flock has cleared the air, little development to the ultimate conflict and too much development to an overdrawn build-up segment, with the help of some Hollywood melodrama, conventions and narrative thinness, wear the film down until it slips into underwhelmingness, but not so deeply that strong effects and action, interesting thematic depth, strong acting and effective direction aren't able to drive Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" close enough to a rewarding point to intrigue adequately as a flawed, but classic portrait on extreme natural disaster.
2.75/5 - Decent
"I am the Manxman, I am the walrus, goo-goo-g'joob!" Embarrassingly… More"I am the Manxman, I am the walrus, goo-goo-g'joob!" Embarrassingly obvious references aside, it's hard to think of something being older than rock music, let alone a song by The Beatles, although it's even harder to think that there's an adaptation of "The Manxman" that's older than this one. Yup, the Brits were pretty innovative I suppose, which would make sense, considering that they had a gutsiness about them that is very much reflected in this film, which has the nerve to run the sprawling length of almost... two hours. Hey, two hours was sprawling back in the 1920s, because even back then, they knew that people didn't want to dedicate all that much time to silent films... except for D.W. Griffith. Man, and "Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance", on top of being so startlingly long, had some pretty prominent themes on race and whatnot, so maybe the Americans are gutsier than the Brits as entertainers after all, and I mean that metaphorically, seeing as how it's hard to imagine someone having more gut than Alfred Hitchcock. Yeah, yeah, I know, Orson Welles, but you could tell that he wanted to be full-blown British something fierce, just as you could tell that Hitchcock was proud to be British. Even without accents, this film is mighty British, which would be cool and all if those British tropes didn't include some dry spells.
I suppose there's enough going on throughout this quiet affair to keep entertainment value adequate, and it helps that it's hard to find a version not graced by an impressive score incorporation, but after a while, all of the minimalism to storytelling devolves into blandness, as you might imagine it would, given its dated filmmaking style. Natural shortcomings shake the engagement value of this film, as they do with most every silent film, and can even be found within the silence, an unavoidable issue whose lack of voice nevertheless distances you from and thins out a conceptually promising narrative. Of course, I don't know if the narrative is all that conceptually promising to begin with, being an intriguing drama, make no mistake, but a minimalist one whose full potential could by no means be explored during this time, however limited it may be. Honestly, I'm not especially familiar with Hall Caine's original source material's full potential, so as far as I can tell, Eliot Stannard's scenario interpretation is really what's so lacking, but either way, there's only so much diversity to this idea, and it becomes harder and harder to deny that the more the film drags along. I joke about how two hours was considered a hefty length during this era of very simple filmmaking, but at around 110 minutes or so, this film really does feel too long, meandering along material repetitiously, yet still rarely abandoning that classic silent film superficiality that dulls things down a bit. Make no mistake, the strengths are relatively considerable, and I've doubts that this was topped as a silent film-era Hitchcock film, but there's only so much you can do with this material, and draggy, often dry storytelling isn't exactly the way to go. The film is forgettable, but, again, it might very well be better than Alfred Hitchcock's preceding silent opuses, facing its shortcomings, both natural and consequential, and overcoming them enough to keep you, or at least your eyes adequately invested.
Certainly, motion photography capabilities were seriously limited by 1929, and age matters matters worse as it wears down the prints of this film, but for what it is, Jack E. Cox's cinematography is truly beautiful, drawing in frames of light shadow around emphasized whites that take solid advantage of the coloration limitations at the time in order to give you a sense of subtle visual flare. These hauntingly lovely plays on the handsomeness of this film's distinguished environment not only does justice to the lovely production values, but draws you into a sense of scope within a rather minimalist drama, thus, visual style, alone, guides much of the engagement value of this affair, at least about as much as it can. It's simply too difficult to bring all that much life to this story concept, at least at this simpler time in filmmaking, although that's not to say that the story is without meat, being a romantic melodrama whose layers were still prominent enough, and continue to ring to this day enough to endear, at least on paper. As for the execution, the film succumbs to storytelling limitations of the time, but it really does try in more than a few areas, working to be relatively extensive, if a little draggy in its meditations upon conflict, passion and, above all, characterization. Well, at least the characterization feels distinguished thanks to the performances, which, for their time, in spite of some hammy occasions, weren't too shabby in their projecting charisma and dramatic depth, in spite of a lack of dialogue. What further sells the core of this drama, at least to the best of its abilities, is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock's direction, which is kind of bland in its being more meditative than lively, but has its share of moments of genuine subtlety and grace that may not exactly have been well beyond the time, but carried a heart that cannot pump that much blood into this unavoidably improvable opus, yet has a weight to it that, when really played up, might very well compel, even by today's standards. These highlights in well-aged directorial inspiration are few and far between, and bridged by a questionable story concept and problematic execution, but through all of the natural and consequential shortcomings, there's enough quality to this drama for it to endear, even if it can only endear so much.
Overall, storytelling dry spells make worse the blandness of the silent filmmaking format, while a relatively overlong length gives you plenty of time to ponder upon the natural narrative limitations that secure the final product as yet another underwhelming silent film, no matter how hard it tries with the lovely cinematography, decent acting and reasonably inspired direction that admittedly do enough justice to an intriguing story concept to make Alfred Hitchcock's "The Manxman" a dated, but endearing final effort for Hitchcock as a man of silent cinema.
2.5/5 - Fair
"Torn curtain reveals another play; torn curtain, such an expose!" To… More"Torn curtain reveals another play; torn curtain, such an expose!" To turn off the Television, as the classy little title suggests, this ought to be quite the seductively intense thriller... up until you find out it's mostly a political "thriller". Well, it's a political thriller by Alfred Hitchcock, so a little bit of high tension is to be expected, even if the film does feature Julie Andrews. You've got to give Hitchcock a little bit of credit for sticking with certain stars from his English roots, and not going completely Hollywood, but come on, Hitch, it's hard to not get a little perked up when Andrews is around, even if her co-stars are people who have a tendency to make you think thriller. Oh my, Paul Newman in a political/legal thriller, now that is brand-spanking new... and I mean that seriously, because this film did come out well before "Absence of Malice" and "The Verdict". Wow, it's pretty amazing how Hitchcock did oh so very many films by the time he hit the 1960s, or at least it would be if he was a little more consistent with his thrillers' intrigue. No, this film is fine, but, if you'll forgive my slightly ambiguous reference towards actual torn curtains, there's only so much to keep light from shining on shortcomings, or, for that matter, the characters.
Being so heavily driven by its characters, the film's characterization is layered in its depth, but through only so many moments, because in so many areas, the film feels a touch too underdeveloped for its own good, expecting you to place a fairly thorough understanding through certain developmental ambiguities, but ultimately slipping up on its intentions, even though there's something perhaps too recognizable about the characters and story here. Conventions are often subtle, yet they still stand firm enough to be undeniable as blows to the legs of momentum in this thriller, whose degree of predictability softens some bite in dramatic height within this formulaic narrative, and, quite frankly, doesn't need to be there. There's a decent potential for genuine uniqueness in this political espionage thriller that would have driven the final product's storytelling intrigue a long way, and sure, the execution of this story concept has its refreshing areas, but when the conventions are hit, they hit hard as a reflection of certain laziness. Needless to say, a sense of laziness isn't exactly helped by a questionable pace, for although underdevelopment certainly shaves off a couple of minutes in this almost 130-minute-long thriller, the final product is ultimately overlong, overdrawn with material that spaces out certain segments into unevenness, and isn't even dynamic enough to keep up tension, let alone structural focus. I don't know if the film is unfocused at times with all of its meanderings, but it's certainly aimless, dragging along, even on paper, with a sensitive potential for compellingness that Alfred Hitchcock, as director, shakes, quite frankly, bringing in the thriller to life in plenty of places, while blanding matters up in others with a sense of autopilot which reflects a sense of laziness. There's not much uniqueness or particular inspiration to Hitchcock's direction, and that would be fine if this thriller's juice was richer in other areas of storytelling, which is decent, with strong moments, but ultimately too under-inspired, when not overblown, for the final product to excel. Potential is lost, and reward value is with it, but the final product isn't exactly forgettable, meeting lazy areas with inspired areas, and ultimately crafting a decent interpretation of an intriguing story.
As much as I complain about this film's being overlong in its execution, to tell you the truth, through all of the meanderings that Brian Moore plagues his screenplay with, I can see plenty of meat to meditate upon in this minimalist, but intriguing dramatic thriller, whose political intrigue and human weight blend organically and intelligently behind an at least conceptually layered study on morally questionable characters and biting political tension. There's plenty of potential to Willis Hall's and Keith Waterhouse's story concept, and Moore does it injustice in far too many places for it to be drawn into a truly rewarding final product, yet at the same time, Moore plays a big part in bringing this effort to the cusp of rewarding, through clever dialogue and some tight set pieces to keep you going in between the moments in which characterization proves to be well-rounded. Both undercooked and overdrawn, Moore's script has a glaring inconsistency to it that, if overcome, would have allowed reward value to be firmly secured, yet as things stand, the highlights in Moore's script are pretty solid in their distinguishing depth, further distinguished by a cast that is more consistently solid. Primarily subdued, this dramatic thriller offers only so much material for the esteemed cast to really play upon, yet when the performers are asked to bring things to life, they often go well beyond the call of the duty, and that especially goes for the leads, with the unevenly used Julie Andrews nailing emotional distraught as the love of a man endangered by disturbing misdeeds, while leading man Paul Newman combines his classic smooth charisma with light dramatic layers in order to deliver on a biting atmospheric performance. Well, perhaps Newman is simply playing Paul Newman, but the trademark effective lead presence, backed by a supporting cast rich with talents, - each one of whom stands out at one time or another - carries the film when Alfred Hitchcock isn't doing the job as well as he usually does. That being said, Hitchcock, as director, does get the film pretty far, albeit with a storytelling formula that was, at this point, too tired to be inspired enough to overshadow the underwhelmingness, but still had enough juice to draw a solid bit in the way of intrigue through an audacious attention to gritty detail, if not a thoughtful attention to dramatic layering that engages more than limps momentum out. There are a number of moments in this film that are pretty strong, and while they don't do a whole lot outside of frustrating by providing mere fleeting glimpses into what could have been, they still stand as worthwhile highlights in a drama that is generally engaging enough to serve the patient well with compellingness, however limited it may be by lazy aspects.
When what remains of the curtain is drawn, bite is too obscured by developmental shortcomings, conventions, dragging and atmospheric cold spells to storytelling for the final product to truly reward, but an intriguing story concept is done enough justice by clever writing, solid acting and decent direction to make Alfred Hitchcock's "Torn Curtain" a reasonably entertaining and often compelling espionage thriller, even though it could have gone further.
2.75/5 - Decent
I'd quote Oasis' "Champagne Supernova", but I don't want to condone… MoreI'd quote Oasis' "Champagne Supernova", but I don't want to condone '90s music, and at any rate, it would be way too blasted unfitting, seeing as how this film was made well before, not Britpop, or alternative rock, but rock music itself. Man, this film is so old, but then again, now that I think about it, I probably should work in a reference to some kind of Britpop tune, because this film is about as British as it can get without British accents. ..."Someday you will find me caught beneath a landslide, in a champagne supernova in the sky!" I'm sorry, but, again, even though I don't condone '90s music, after all this talk of that song, I had to just get that out, and it doesn't help that there really isn't much about this film worth "talking about"... if you know what I mean. Yeah, if you think that joke is lame, you might want to see this film, because even Alfred Hitchcock thought it got kind of lame. Okay, maybe this comedy isn't all that fall-flat, but it's a silent film, so don't expect too much in the way of witty lines... unless you feel like reading, you spoiled talkie moviegoer. So yeah, the film is reasonably entertaining, but it's still what it is, for better and for worse.
The film is more fun than one might expect, not unlike many other silent comedies, even those as comically underwhelming as this one, but this is still a silent film, and there's only so much that be done to draw narrative intrigue through a lack of vocal humanity, and it doesn't help that Alfred Hitchcock's and Eliot Sanard's script neither keeps all that consistent in dialogue worth advertising via intertitle, nor, if you will, "tells" you all that much about its characters. Both a fluff piece and a simplistic silent opus, this film should by no means be all that terribly interested in fleshing out its narrative and characters, but there's something about the developmental aspects of this film that is a little too lacking, being all but deprived of immediate background, and offering little in the way of gradual exposition. The film is perhaps a little too underdeveloped with its characters, and that's distancing enough, but the film is perhaps most distancing when it does the opposite of brushing over storytelling and drags its feet with meandering material that, for all the lively spots, blands up something fierce before too long. The film is either entertaining or, well, rather dull, and that is really determined by the humor, which is often flat, or at least dated, to the point of feeling nonexistent for long stretches of time in a film that cannot afford to lose momentum to its fluff if it's to be driven so much by it. Yes, people, at the end of the day, the fluff is what really waters down this affair, which was never to be as fine as the champagne it promotes, due to the sheer thinness of a story concept that thrives on light fun that the execution can't always provide. The film ultimately does enough with little to do its job as a classic piece of light entertainment serviceably, yet the story is so thin, and it's execution is perhaps just as much so, thus, the final product runs the risk of falling to mediocrity. It's just too light for its own good, and yet, it's not so empty that it doesn't prove to be reasonably fun in a lot of ways, falling flat in certain areas, and keeping you going in others, including areas of production value.
Wilf Arnold's potential as art director are pretty substantially limited in this minimalist affair, yet, as a portrait of the rich, this film still holds a fair bit of potential as eye candy that set designer Michael Powell explores reasonably well with his tastes in fine scenery, which is itself explored reasonably well with Jack E. Cox's tastes in cinematography. Dated in most every areas, including technical value, this film doesn't look especially good, especially considering that, with an abandonment of thriller and drama stories, Alfred Hitchcock abandons much of his distinctive plays with lighting and framing to visual style, but there's still enough scope and polish to Cox's lensing to help draw you into the film. Visual style, however lacking, plays a relatively hefty role in sustaining your attention through all of those bland challenges, yet it alone cannot save the engagement value of this underdeveloped, unevenly structured and altogether narratively thin silent movie. No, what can make or break this effort is Hitchcock's and Eliot Stannard's script, which, of course, makes plenty of mistakes along the way, undercooking certain aspects, and meandering with its handling of others, while, dare I say, falling flat with its humor in so many places, and yet, on the whole, this is a clever and often genuinely amusing interpretation of Walter C. Mycroft's story idea, complete with, well, figuratively colorful characters. No matter how lacking in their development, the characters are about as memorable as anything in this forgettable film, and for this, we have to thank the lively and admittedly rarely over-the-top performances, just as we have to thank a certain offscreen performance for its portrayal of the rest of the storytelling aspects. Hitchcock, as director, gave this film the business in retrospect, and quite frankly, you can't help but feel as though there's something lacking in the inspiration behind this film, yet not so lacking that Hitchcock doesn't deliver on enough stylish shots and some tightness to pacing to subtly, but surely, keep you going. Subtle touches can go a long way in this very sensitive project, and I can't promise that they'll be palpable enough to many for the final product to stand beyond mediocrity, but the patient are sure to have some fair fun to meet every bland spell, of which there are many, quite frankly.
When the party is over, the distancing quietness and thin story concept, executed with flatness to development, pacing and certain humor, threaten the final product with mediocrity, overcome by the good-looking production designs and cinematography, clever writing, and decent acting and direction which make Alfred Hitchcock's "Champagne" a reasonably entertaining, if flat comic twist for a legend in dramatic filmmaking.
2.5/5 - Fair
Well, Hollywood, I hope that you had bid a fond farewell to Alfred… MoreWell, Hollywood, I hope that you had bid a fond farewell to Alfred Hitchcock, because with this film, he made his big comeback to British cinema for the first time since 1950. Granted, it's been much longer since this film's release, and we shouldn't be expecting a Hitchcock film in any country any time soon, so I'd imagine we're well used to the magnitude of the event, but hey, it's interesting to see how long Hitchcock waited before coming home, which is why he was the Master of Suspense. Well, I don't know about you guys, but nothing about this title, alone, sounds as though it pertains to suspense, because there's not much subtlety to a frenzy. Really, say what you will about the importance of Hitchcock's Hollywood projects in the '50s and '60s and what have you, but as "Vertigo", "Psycho", "The Birds" and, so help me, "Rope" told us, he was low on creative title ideas for quite some time. Hey, maybe Hitchcock was trying to tell us something with this particular title, for he knew that his time was coming, thus, he decided to throw away all of that suspenseful nonsense and really get crazy, like a frenzy. Oh, how I wish this film really was that exciting, but alas, you must remember that it is a British "thriller", and therefore pretty dry. No, the film is plenty slick, but it's not as much fun as its title might promise, for a couple reasons.
Clocking in a little shy of two hours, the film has plenty of time to build suspense, and boy, it has a tendency to work a little too hard at keeping that up, not so much dragging itself out with filler, but still outstaying its welcome with much meandering material that slows down the momentum of rising tension, however limited it may be by inconsistencies beyond pacing. I don't know if the film is so much all that humorous, or even all that fluffy of a report back to London on the tropes that Alfred Hitchcock picked up during his time in Hollywood, Anthony Shaffer's script, on top of spending too much time with certain segments in material in general, spends too much time with inconsequential, almost tongue-in-cheek lighter segments, broken up by moments of tension that would be more effective if they weren't so forcibly driven into the midst of borderline fluff. Tensions certainly aren't helped by the film's lack of originality, being at least consistent in tossing whatever pacing or tone it's following upon a traditional muder and wrong-suspect tale that is all too predictable to feel all that momentous, just as it's too histrionic to fell that grounded. I don't suppose Shaffer's scripted storytelling is all that far out there, but it's a bit questionable, drawing a borderline barely probable thriller narrative whose holes in full buyability are conceptually problematic enough. Of course, what ultimately secures the final product's underwhelmingness through the story concept is merely natural shortcomings, because the near-two-hour runtime, and the jarring incorporations of more serious tonal aspects, wouldn't be so unreasonable if this story concept wasn't so light in momentum to begin with. I feel that something could have been done to carry this story a fair distance in execution, and highlights in storytelling stand as evidence, yet the consequential shortcomings - of which there are many - ultimately reinforce limitations in intrigue enough to hold the final product back as a relatively underwhelming, somewhat fluffy thriller. There's something ultimately lacking here, but not so lacking that the final product doesn't entertain just fine as a fair penultimate opus in Hitchcock's career, and one that looks good along the way.
Really, Gilbert Taylor's and an uncredited Leonard J. South's cinematography is hardly all that special, but it pays a nice compliment to Alfred Hitchock's distinctive visual style with a lovely pronunciation of color and some subtle plays with lighting that do a decent job of drawing you into the looks of this character piece. Of course, this thriller thrives more on the portrayers of its characters, and while there's not a whole lot of material for anyone to utilized as standouts or anything of that sort, most everyone has a very English and distinguished charisma which sells each individual character, while the occasional dramatic beat reinforces a sense of consequence. The performances are solid, never really standing out, but having a certain realization to presence to help keep you invested, with the help of some pretty decent material, in all fairness. Anthony Shaffer's script gets to be rather uneven in tone and pacing, and quite frankly, it's perhaps a little too blasted British in its overt dryness, whose somewhat subdued approach to heavy subject matter further limits a sense of weight, yet through all of the shortcomings, Shaffer's humor is generally clever and amusing, while characterization proves to be well-rounded enough for you to get a grip on the characters, and the conflicts which follow them. True, there's only so much weight to get a grip on within this somewhat narratively thin and very unoriginal story concept, but potential is here, intriguing as a classic, if sometimes probably questionable study on the hunt for the wrong man in a serial murder case, anchored by the aforementioned charismatic acting and clever script. Of course, what really brings storytelling to life, about as much as it can be with material so thin in concept and uneven in execution, is Alfred Hitchcock's direction, which not only flaunts a handsome visual style, as I said earler, but keeps fairly focused in that classic Hitchcockian manner, focusing on writing wit enough to keep the slow spells from descending into blandness, while playing with a sharp atmosphere during the more intense moments in order to thoroughly chill, and provide glimpses into a more effective thriller. Needless to say, the heights in intensity are few and far between in this sparse affair, and in between that is a thriller that is too held back by predictability, inconsistency and other issues to be all that thrilling, but entertainment value is not lost, sustaining enough intrigue to keep you going, even if it's for only so far.
Bottom line, the momentously and tonally uneven, as well as unoriginal and sometimes histrionic telling of a slightly thin story concept hold the final product back, but decent cinematography, charismatic acting, clever writing and thoughtful direction prove to be enough to make Alfred Hitchcock's "Frenzy" a pretty entertaining and sometimes pretty tense, if underwhelming penultimate project in the career of the Master of Suspense.
2.5/5 - Fair
Huh, and here I thought that Gore Verbinski's "The Ring" was a remake… MoreHuh, and here I thought that Gore Verbinski's "The Ring" was a remake of some Japanese film from 1998, yet apparently its source material goes all the way back to... before they had commercial televisions for ghost girls to crawl out of. Wow, I knew that Alfred Hitchcock was an innovative horror director, but he must have given a couple of people a heart attack in the 1920s, not so much with the ghost girl, but with videos that you could actually watch in your own home. ...So yeah, in case you haven't figured it out yet, folks, either I'm kidding, or "The Ring" really was quite the loose remake, because if you're expecting this to be the natural progression for Hitchcock after the nail-bitingly intense "The Lodger: The Story of London Fog", then, well, you're probably right, because "The Lodger" wasn't too much more exciting than sports. Well, the sport featured in this non-horror drama is, as the title suggests, boxing, which is a lot more interesting than a lot of other sports, so it seems as though Hitchcock even had to bring some intensity to the athletic flicks that he must not have gone on to take the pointers of. Man, the boy got so fat that, um, I don't know, he got too lazy to single-handedly write his own original screenplays. It is interesting how Hitchcock didn't make it that far into his long career as a filmmaker before, if you will, "tapping out" as a sole screenwriter, but if this was to be his only original script, it's about a decent as it can be, considering that silence limits it, and your investment with it.
While Alfred Hitchcock's more dramatic and, if you will, human answer to the, at least at a time, suspenseful "The Lodger", this film may be even less talkative than its predecessor, and a lack of dialogue that is important enough to be set in intertitles dilutes a sense of urgency and distances you, even though your investment was always to be loosened by the silence. Natural technical shortcomings limit engagement value something fierce, and to make matters worse, this film's story concept has its own natural shortcomings, being reasonably interesting and whatnot, yet thin in conflict and sparse in momentum. Just like oh so many of its fellow silent opuses of feature cinema's earlier years, this film is held back by its simply being simple, no matter how much the telling of a such a thin story entertains, at least until pacing issues ensue. In addition to an uneven usage of dialogue, Hitchcock's script also boasts inconsistencies in pacing, managing to squeeze an almost 90-minute runtime out of the interpretation of a thin narrative through some excess in material, while also driving some inconsistencies into tone by incorporating many an overly comical, or at least fluffy touch which breaks relative seriousness. Of course, I strongly stress "relative" when describing the film's seriousness, because yet another classic silent flick flaw is, of course, cheesiness, deriving from anything from hammy humor to subtlety issues which further keep you from getting attached to the narrative that they seem to beg you to be engaged by. Yeah, there's ultimately not much to talk about here, with even the problems being primarily unavoidable, yet that doesn't make them any less problematic, securing the final product as yet another forgettable piece of filler from the silent film era, despite its having such an important name attached to it. Regardless, while the film has your attention, it never lets it slip so far that the final product plummets into mediocrity, doing what it can with such a thin filmmaking style and, for that matter, story concept.
Thin to begin with, and simplified further for silent flick viewers of the time, this drama's story concept is lacking in meat, and even mighty histrionic, yet as the ballad of rival boxers and, yes, even a love triangle, it's an interesting idea, so much so to set up a certain immediate intrigue, expanded upon by a fair execution. Alfred Hitchcock, as screenwriter, can only do so much with his interpretation of subject matter so thin, and a lack of both dialogue and consistency in pacing and tone further settle momentum, but there are some clever set pieces, backed by engaging characterization that is done more justice by the performances, which, quite frankly, have aged pretty well, rarely, if ever devolving into the usual hammy over-expressiveness that, at least in this day and age, takes you out of the human depths which were always to be limited in a film without voices. Make no mistake, the film still gets kind of cheesy, but the feeling of charisma and chemistry that is projected with genuineness from most every member of this cast engages through all of the quietness, providing some visual compliments to the narrative's effectiveness which go with the audible compliments. Yes, people, I did just boast about audible compliments, as the score composed by Xavier Berthelot, while formulaic, never abates on much classical energy that, no matter how its interpreted, drives much of the tone and, for that matter entertainment value of this film. The film's musicality certainly looks good on paper, and it's hard to not find a solid interpretation, and speaking of stylistic elements that look good, Jack E. Cox's cinematography, while worn down through the years, does effective justice to Hitchcock's classic tastes in very subtly sparse lighting, and tastes in framing that is broad enough to give you a feel for the environment, but tight enough for you to get a feel on the more intimate intensity. Really, it's Hitchcock's directorial tastes that may very well most secure the final product's engagement value, which is limited, sure, partly by some of Hitchcock's dated touches, even as a director, yet reinforced by the aforementioned attention to subtle visual intensity, as well as other relatively subtle storytelling touches that steadily draw you into the depths of this film and compel with only so much material. Surely, the lack of material really does damage on the film, but Hitchcock does what he can with what he's given, and he ultimately puts up a solid enough fight as storyteller to keep you intrigued, if not entertained, more often than not, even if most every strength is met by issues.
When the match is done, the natural limitations one might expect from a silent film and this premise go stressed by inconsistencies in pacing and tone, as well as by cheesy elements, until the film stands as yet another forgettable silent piece, whose narrative intrigue is done enough justice by decent scripting, acting, scoring, filming and direction to make Alfred Hitchcock's "The Ring" a reasonably intriguing silent drama, despite the shortcomings.
2.5/5 - Fair
Ah, yes, the family plot thickens, and with it, Alfred Hitchcock's… MoreAh, yes, the family plot thickens, and with it, Alfred Hitchcock's kidneys. People, the man went out in 1980, and it's not like we weren't seeing it coming for many, many years by that time, so we may as well have a morbid laugh, something that Hitchcock apparently believed in during his final days. Yup, people, for his last realized stroke... of creativity, that is (Seriously, speaking of "morbid"), Hitchcock decided to go a more comedic route with this film, although he was sure to keep in plenty of dark elements, and I mean plenty. Yeah, folks, don't go thinking that this film's title is short for "Family-Friendly Plot", unless your part of, well, the Bates family, because this story is a "grave" one. Don't worry, this film is a little bit funnier than that pun, and you can gather that from looking at the title, which does, in fact, feature a much better pun. You know, like, a family plot is where they bury relatives, and this film is about a scheme involving a family... right? I don't know if that's more reflective of my being inaccurate about calling this film funny, or a reflection of just how unfunny my "grave story" pun was, but in all seriousness, this is a fair note for Hitchcock to go out on, despite its flaws.
Whether it be because it's even self-aware about its dramatic thinness, or simply because of whatever, this film doesn't put much thought into developing its characters, whose unlikable traits are hard to deny without being veiled by some extensive characterization, and loosen your investment about as much as the many moments in which the film jars in its focal shifts. Something of an ensemble piece, this film juggles several plots, and messily so, giving you time to detach yourself from certain characters the longer the film focuses on others, something that it didn't have to do, and probably wouldn't have done if Ernest Lehman's script didn't go dragged out my meandering bits in material which break up a fair deal of tightness. Yeah, there are plenty of places in which the film feels tight, but in plenty of other areas in this ultimately unnecessarily two-hour-long affair, things outstay their welcome, and such pacing inconsistencies challenge engagement value, not unlike the tonal unevenness. The film opens with a sťance sequence that is so cloyingly scored, overacted and lamely written that it, quite frankly, is rather embarrassing, and after that, the level of cheese takes a serious drop, yet it admittedly rarely, if ever truly dissipates, as certain missteps in dialogue or overblown aspects to humor distance, particularly when they break a certain relative seriousness through tonal inconsistencies that limit a sense of weight to this narrative. I don't suppose the inconsistencies in pacing and tone are as severe as I make them sound, being not much more glaring than the developmental shortcomings that you kind of get used to after a while, thanks to storytelling's and acting's shining a light on the color of this ensemble piece, yet those issues stand, and the more they stick around, the harder it gets to be to ignore how kind of overblown the telling of this story is, for although there's plenty of intrigue to the idea behind this pseudo-thriller, it's natural shortcomings that really hold this thing back. There's only so much momentum and sense of consequence to this not-so lighthearted fluff piece, and while the entertainment value is there, it can't quite make the final product all that memorable, through all the inconsistencies. Consequential shortcomings are almost as recurring as natural shortcomings, but just as recurring as anything are the strengths, of which there are enough to sustain a decent amount of entertainment value, with the help of lively score work.
At least notable as the meeting between two legends of the offscreen aspects of filmmaking, this film sees Alfred Hitchcock employing the great John Williams to compose a score that isn't all that special, is formulaic, and isn't even all that prominently used on the whole in this mostly unmusical film, but it's most certainly rich with much of that classic John Williams color, which, while subtle, helps sustain liveliness, when actually played upon, that is. Needless to say, more recurring than the score work in this ensemble piece is, of course, the ensemble of performers, for although Barbara Harris, maybe even a few other people, gets carried away with some of the film's more cheesy material (Like I said, that opening sťance scene is a bit of a challenge), most everyone in this perhaps overblown cast charms, with the leads nailing their morally questionable characters' sleaze with enough realization to help win you over, despite expository shortcomings. As with many of your trademark dark comedies, this film is driven by thoroughly flawed and often unredeemed characters, and in order to sell them as driving forces in this ensemble piece, it needs the charismatic performances that are found just about across the board in this heathily sizable collection of talents, and might also require some inspiration to writing. Ernest Lehman's script is perhaps the relative weakest aspect of the film, as it bloats its interpretation of a somewhat thin story concept with uneven pacing, while limiting development and control on tonal dynamicity, however limited, yet Lehman still delivers on plenty of wit to dialogue, as well as humor that is never broad enough to be riotous, but still amuses, to some extent, time and again. Cleverness is pretty prominent through the script's dialogue and subtle humor, but also applies to the handling of this narrative, which is dramatically thin, yet tells an interesting tale about several people's varying investigative takes on a case involving a dark family secret, sold in no small part by the colorful acting, scripting and direction. Not counting the ultimately unfinished "The Short Night", this film marked the final project by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock, and no, it's not a terribly worth testament to the late, great filmmakers groundbreaking abilities, yet Hitchcock's direction still carries the final product's engagement value, however limited, as much as anything, framing the film evenly enough to immerse you into the setting of the film, if not immerse you into a degree of intensity, while utilizing a certain steady pacing that, while a little too limp on occasion, thoughtfully soaks up the subtleties that make the film so interesting in so many places. Alas, were the film a little more comfortable in its storytelling, it would have bordered on rewarding, and if the story was a little meatier on top of that, then the final product would have gripped as a grand finale in Hitchcock's career, yet Hitchcock, joined by a team of other talented filmmakers, holds enough of your attention with entertainment value, if not tension, to keep you going, at least up to a point.
When it's all done and buried, limitations in development and an excess in material beget focal inconsistencies in this ensemble piece, while cheesy occasions and a hint of tonal inconsistency reflect the plot's being kind of thin secure the final product as rather underwhelming, but a colorful score, charismatic performances, clever writing and a reasonably well-structured final directorial performance by the late, great Alfred Hitchcock dig up enough intrigue to endear you to "Family Plot" as a serviceably entertaining affair, improvable as Hitchcock's grand finale though it may be.
2.5/5 - Fair
Ah, yes, "The Lodgercal Song", a classic, pseudo-progressive pop rock… MoreAh, yes, "The Lodgercal Song", a classic, pseudo-progressive pop rock song by Supertramp. Hey, I'm sorry for that lame joke, but a reference to Supertramp works just fine I suppose, because this film, without having any of those delightfully stuffy accents, is mighty British, and you can tell because its antagonist is inspired by Jack the Ripper. Man, you know that when Alfred Hitchcock is hanging around in a film about staying at someone's place for a while, whether it be a hotel or any other kind of lodge, things are going to get nasty, although I don't figure they knew that when this film came out 23 years before "Psycho". Man, as if "Psycho" wasn't old enough for you, this is not simply a pre-talkie, but Hitchcock's first of a disturbing amount of disturbing thrillers, which isn't to say that it's nearly as disturbing as its follow-ups. Come on, people, this is the 1920s, so don't expect it to have the guts to be as brutal as "Psycho", let alone the actual story of Jack the Ripper. Yeah, yeah, Norman Bates was all kinds of messed up and all, but jeez, Jack just didn't mess around, so I'd like to see this serial killer try to be as intense when he has to deal with censors and, of course, stopping every now and then for us to read. Yeah, it had to have been hard to keep up thrilling momentum back in this time, because although film is a fair prelude to Hitchcock's legendary career as a master of suspense, suspense gets kind of worn down by several aspects in this film.
At this time, feature lengths weren't all that high in expectations, yet films still struggled to tighten up their act, and with this particular film, much of what goes shaved off is exposition to get you invested in characters who are distancing enough by being without vocals, until they end up feeling like not much more than devices for the thrills. Needless to say, the thrills are very limited, and quite frankly, that's partly because momentum is as draggy as it is lacking in thoughtful steadiness, as editor Ivor Montagu leaves much fat around the edges through overlong shots, if not repeated visuals, that reflect questionable editing styles, while mere dragging in material reflect questionable storytelling structuring. The film really suffers from much of the uneven pacing that was common in silent films, even thrillers that were ostensibly heavily reliant on momentum, and I reckon it was hard to find a way around that, yet that doesn't make it any less distancing, which isn't to say that common questionable silent film tropes end there. Whether it be attempting to compensate for a lack of flesh-out, or whatever, the film suffers from some classic subtlety issues that may be utilized well enough by Alfred Hitchcock's direction to engage, but often dilute believability, and frequently cheese things up, when backed by hammy visuals that certainly entertain, but more on a comical level than anything. Yeah, pretty much most of the problems that you should expect from this type of dated filmmaking style are present, and prominently so, and as if that's not problematic enough, the story concept itself has predictable setbacks, being thin enough in conflict and momentum in its basic idea, alone. When it comes to the execution, as I've said time and again, the usual silent film problems make the natural shortcomings of an already pretty thin narrative concept all the more glaring, certainly not to where the film fails to entertain, or even engage as a thriller for that matter, yet nonetheless to where you're left with only so much worth remembering. This film is what it is, yet for what it is, it keeps you going through and through, maybe not through all of its problems, but far enough to entertain and intrigue.
Make no mistake, intrigue is there, and it wouldn't be if it wasn't already present within the story concept, whose meat is thin, even without being executed so messily, but was never to be completely cleansed from this opus about a humble fellow being taken in by people who are unaware of his dark past, and of the chase by authorities behind him, and when the execution is inspired, it's hard to disregard that. There's not much to Eliot Stannard's undercooked, when not repetitious screenplay, whose characterization is lacking, and whose subtlety is questionable, yet there's still a decent deal of memorable set pieces, as well as even memorable characters, brought to life by the performers, at least in terms of color, rather than dramatic effectiveness. Relying on expressive acting more than verbal performances in this time of admittedly substantially lower acting standards, the performances are often hammy, sometimes unintentionally hilariously so, yet where I was expecting most performances to fall victim to the questionable standards of the time, most everyone is either controlled enough to project the core of their characters more than the underdeveloped writing, or lively enough to charm. Also about as decent as it is dated is, of course, Gaetano di Ventimiglia's photography, which is comfortably framed, as well as clever in its plays on shadows, and continues to keep up good appearances to this day by remasterings that deliver on fitting color palettes. The strengths just mentioned, from the script, to the acting, to the filming, to even the basic story concept itself, are certainly not all that outstanding, even for the time, but they were decent contemporaneously, and still have fair deal of figurative color to this day, and for this, well, you know who deserves credit. I don't know if I would go so far as to boast that Alfred Hitchcock was nearly as innovative with his handling of this thriller as he would go on to be in later, more revered classics, but you can see some of the potential that Hitchcock went on to fulfill throughout his career within this second feature, and first thriller, whose intensity, however limited, is drawn about as much as it can be by Hitchcock's attention to tight stylization and working with most performers in a reasonably grounded fashion. The film is never all that compelling, at least in this day and age, but Hitchcock is able to sustain enough momentum to entertain, and when the plot thickens, intrigue thickens as well, until you're left with a relatively realized and ultimately fair classic of the silent thriller era, despite its predictable problems.
Once the fog has lifted, through all the usual silent film problems which range from a lack of development and pacing consistency, to cheesiness and a plot with only so much meat, you can find enough, if you will, "color" to the intriguing story concept, fair script, lively expressive acting, clever photography and relatively effective direction which make Alfred Hitchcock's "The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog" an entertaining, if seriously dated first installment in a classic series of thrillers from the Master of Suspense.
2.5/5 - Fair
Steve McQueen is back, y'all, for the film we've all been waiting for:… MoreSteve McQueen is back, y'all, for the film we've all been waiting for: "The Great Escape 2"! ...It's interesting how no one has thought to make that joke yet, but I can't say I'm surprised, given that everyone is so busy going on and on about how bad slavery [b][u]was[/u][/b] and whatnot. Hey, people, I get it, it is a terrible embarrassment in American history, but we've come a long way since then, so much so that we've got a half-black guy as, oh, um, I don't, the leader of this country, and he isn't even good at his job, so can't we just enjoy our historical dramas without going off on yet another rant? Well, maybe I can let it go a little bit this time around if rants like those lead to the making of films like this, and at any rate, this subject matter does deserve respect, thus, we need something this respectable to sensitive subject matter... from the guy who wrote "Undercover Brother" after the last major slave epic. Hey, don't get me wrong, "Django Unchained" is good and all, but don't tell me it didn't get a little bit over-the-top in its portrayal of black people problems and slavery, and not in the usual way portrayals of black people problems and slavery get a little over-the-top. Again, we Americans can get a little unsubtle with our discussions of issues like these, but hey, this film is mostly made by Brits, who I'm sure will be more sophisticated and controlled in their portrayals of important matters that need a genuine hand, even if they are stuck with the black American screenwriter who wrote... "Red Tails". Wow, come to think of it, John Ridley has not had a very respectable streak as a portrayer of black people problems, but, with this big-time, well, fluke, it goes broken today, people, just as the chains of slavery themselves were broken many, many, many, many, many, many, many years ago (Seriously, ranters, don't tell me that Obama got the job because he's politically qualified), which isn't to say that Ridley doesn't still have some rust in his efforts.
A lot of expository depth is certainly picked up along the way as this character study progresses, but that's mostly with the lead Soloman Northup figure, who, even then, is given only so much immediate background development, as most supporting roles' characterization feels somewhat forcibly placed, sometimes seemingly for the sake of simply reinforcing thematic depth, rather than dramatic depth, with only so many layers, and therefore only so much subtlety. A common mistake that these films make is ironically dehumanizing its characters, both protagonistic and antagonistic, in order to get the full range of effectiveness out of themes dealing with the dark depths to which a human can plummet, and while this film's characters are well-portrayed enough on paper and in the performances for you to get a fair grasp on their depth, much of the effectiveness of this drama goes diluted by a thinning of characterization within both the brutal slavers and, to a lesser extent, the helplessly enslaved that sometimes, dare I say, thins subtlety, no matter how much Steve McQueen charges his directorial interpretation of a sometimes thin script with, well, maybe a little too much thoughtfulness. Speaking of black heritage, McQueen has his "roots" in dry art filmmaking, and while this film is quite a ways away from being the tedious bore that was McQueen's artistically misguided and atmospherically cold "Hunger", there are occasions in which McQueens gets to be, maybe not questionably offbeat, but a touch too chilled with his thoughtful storytelling, which is piercing when it works, and all but, well, dulls when it doesn't, as it often does once material's momentum lapses. Clocking in at about two hours and a quarter, this film runs a length that I was looking forward to seeing handled, hoping that it would be used to extensively flesh out a narrative with this much depth and dramatic potential, yet what you end up with is much too much meandering fat around the edges that drags out the film, whose seemingly tight length is secured by the moments in which writer John Ridley rather awkwardly rushes through the narrative - whether it be its exposition or its set pieces - in an attempt to make up for lapses in tightness. Really, the pacing inconsistencies, while always glaring, aren't initially that big of an issue, but before too long, pacing problems become the film's biggest issue, as it leaves the final product to gradually descend into empty focus, dragging along as not much more than an aimless study on set pieces without a sense of progression, until you're left with not much to do other than think about the film's other shortcomings, subtle though they may be. This subject matter is sensitive, not just because it's so emotional and important, but because it has a dramatic potential that can either soar or be disappointingly betrayed, and while the final product is by no means a disappointment, its expository shortcomings thin depth, while pacing inconsistencies thin focus, until the film finds itself dragging along, losing momentum, until the excellence that it could have and sometimes does achieve is lost. No, the film isn't as good as they say it is, and yet, boy, it sure is still mighty good, and for all its thin spots and unevenness, it consistently compels, resonates and even haunts, particularly aesthetically.
Needless to say, in order for this subject matter to be sold, the era in which its narrative vehicle is set needs to be sold, and art director David Stein, realizing this, goes all out in using Adam Stockhausen's production designs and Patricia Norris' costume designs to restore the distinguished setting of mid-1800s America a manner that is practically lavish in its intricacy, and goes further polished by Sean Bobbitt's outstanding cinematography, whose tastefully subtle emphasis on lighting compensates for a lack of color flare in establishing a haunting visual style that goes topped only by the film's musical style. Hans Zimmer is arguably the greatest score composer of the modern film industry, so of course I was thoroughly excited to see just how he would interpret this, his first major artistic project in quite some time, and let me tell you that if nothing meets my expectations every step of the way, it is Zimmer's absolutely outstanding musical performance, which is richly dynamic in its themes, each one of which is graced with tightly composed and emotively executed compositions whose aesthetic and narrative are both breathtaking. Whether they be somberly atmospheric compositions inspired by Zimmer's work on "The Thin Red Line", or stylishly intense modernist compositions, maybe even innovations in the usage of improvised instrumentation, most every piece that Zimmer orchestrates is outstanding, both by its own musical right, and as a particularly effective artistic compliment to the selling of the depths of a story whose tellers, to be honest, aren't are consistent in their doing justice to this subject matter. Aimlessly uneven and somewhat thin in its layering, the storytelling could do so much more with this subject matter, but the shortcomings cannot obscure the considerable potential of this important story dealing with the depths of the struggles faced by the enslaved, which could have been made into an excellent film, but is still crafted into a compelling opus, partly by highlights in a script by John Ridley that come in the form of anything from sharp dialogue to fearless set pieces, in addition to more genuine bits of characterization that bring life to the drama's human depth, though not as much as the powerful performances. As solid as this talented cast is, I had my concerns that dramatic material would be written too thinly for this cast to milk its genuine depths for all its worth, yet whether it be because material is realized or simply because the acting is just to doggone inspired, most everyone - whether it be the Paul Dano as a slaver who is sensitive over his power, or Benedict Cumberbatch as a guilty slaver, or Michael Fassbender as a terrifying man who is more Godless than he thinks he is, or Sarah Paulson as a frustrated and emasculating wife of a man who would rather fulfill his physical desires with a woman she considers no more than a disposable tool - has a time to shine devastatingly, and that particularly goes for the emotionally overwhelmed Lupita Nyong'o, as well as for leading man Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose charismatic, intense and altogether penetratingly layered portrayal of a once-free man struggling to keep hope alive in the midst of horrors beyond his wildest imaginations makes him both an immersive avatar for the audience, and a worthy lead by his own right. Ejiofor carries this film, while everyone else proves nothing less than worthy of backing such a remarkable lead performance, and it really is an enthralling experience seeing just what new heights in dramatic acting will be hit next by this esteemed cast, and yet, the performance that truly secures the final product as engrossing in most every other regard is that of Steve McQueen, whose inconsistencies in pacing beget an inconsistency in effectiveness, of course, until the final product finds itself not quite inspired enough to soar towards its potential, yet nonetheless inspired enough for McQueen to prominently utilize scoring and style in order to bring depth to his thoughtfulness, whose audacious attention to dehumanizing brutality - whether it be violent, or degrading, or even sexual - and humanizing heart captures an intensity that is often truly a challenge to withstand, and is sometimes moving (The ending is particularly penetrating), with heights in emotional resonance that provide glimpses of a more realized, perhaps even upstanding drama. Were there more consistency to the realization of McQueen's clearly ambitious directorial efforts, the film really would have stood out, rather than fall shy of being all that strong, at the least, yet they never lose their inspiration, and no matter how much the drama leaves you, or at least me with much to be desired, the patient are sure to be rewarded by this harrowing portrait on humanity as something both corruptible and respectable.
Overall, the film, through blanding atmospheric dry spells and glaring inconsistencies in narrative structuring, gradually loses momentum that was limited to begin with by expository thinning, until the final product falls pretty decidedly short of outstanding, and yet, through excellent art direction by David Stein, handsome cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, great score work by Hans Zimmer, a generally sharp script by John Ridley, strong acting, - especially by Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor - and inspired direction by Steve McQueen, "12 Years a Slave" still stands as a thoroughly rewarding and sometimes dramatically devastating portrait on a dark time of corruption and dehumanization in American history.
3/5 - Good
That title is kind of lazily thought out, but you have to give it… MoreThat title is kind of lazily thought out, but you have to give it credit for simply being blunt about how kind of harsh this film is, because, make no mistake, there's no delightful volley ball sidekick to get you by in this film. Well, I don't know if all is truly lost, because we've at least found Robert Redford, who is probably so blasted good in this film because he just got back from his own experiences of being trapped at sea, or wherever he's been since "Lions for Lambs". I'd say that there is some jerk out there who says that we actually saw him recently in "The Company You Keep", but I'm sure I'm that one jerk who remembered that "The Company You Keep" exists, because there is more talking in this film than there is of that film. ...Perhaps I should clarify that this film hardly has any dialogue at all, outside of an opening narration and couple throwaway words, including a certain memorable one that I would probably say if I was in this situations, even though I'm not usually one to say it. Man, looking at my self-censorship, I'm such a wimp that I probably wouldn't last out at sea long enough to say the word in question. Well, rest assured that it sums up this film more than the actual line, "All is lost". Well, maybe that line isn't too far off, because as much as I very much like this film, your attention is bound to get lost at times.
Its ambiguity practically a novelty in its celebration, the film pretty much says nothing about the background of its lead, whose struggle for survival would be more immersive if we knew a name or an origin of the conflict, or, well, if much of anything was literally said in this almost silent study on an undeveloped character of only so many layers. Without exposition, and with only so much dialogue, this film sees limitations in acting material for Robert Redford, lapses in material dynamicity, and, worst of all, a sizable riff between you and a nameless central who is well-portrayed enough to be compelling, and whose conflicts are well-handled enough to get you pretty well-invested, yet is secured far from as compelling as a Chuck Noland or an Aron Ralston by admittedly unique, but questionable directorial limitations in expository material. Needless to say, limitations in material for all of J. C. Chandor's meditative storytelling to draw upon leave thoughtfulness to quickly devolve into dryness, for although there's enough realization to Chandor's writing and direction to keep engagement value consistent, with engrossing highlights, pacing is blandly stiffened by a quiet meditation upon only so much material, making it hard to not question the overall length of the drama. I suppose there are enough subtle dynamic touches to the set piece drawing and slightly layered storytelling to keep repetition from becoming out-and-out monotony, but make no mistake, repetition does most certainly stand in this very, very minimalist film which comes out at about 15 minutes shy of two whole hours, and gets there on the wings of aimless set pieces that, in the place of actual exposition, retard momentum something fierce in this overambitious meditative piece. Yeah, ambition is plentiful in this offbeat drama, as you can imagine, and no matter how much of that passion is focused into legitimate inspiration, the attempts to do more with less often end up doing only so much, with one of those deeds being calling your attention just how little there is to work with when it comes to subject matter of this type, for although these survival films have had a surprisingly solid success rate through the years, there have always been natural shortcomings, and that especially goes for this particular bottle drama. A vehicle for minimalist writing, meditative direction and atmospheric acting, this film succeeds on just about all the levels it needs to in order to reward, but it just cannot hope to stand out while it stays so minimalist, quiet and overdrawn, ultimately "sinking" shy of its potential. Of course, by no means is thorough engagement value is itself lost, as most all questionable moves are reasonably compensated for by inspired moves, even those in, of all places, the musical department.
Now, when I say that the score by Alex Ebert, the mind behind Ima Robot and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, is unevenly used, I mean that it's abandoned for long, long periods of time for the sake of keeping things as naturalist is they can be, then popping in from out of nowhere, often where you least expect it, and when it does finally come into play, it's neither especially dynamic nor, for that matter, pronounced, and yet, it is still aesthetically outstanding, with a hauntingly dreamy quality whose atmospheric depth is not only remarkably beautiful, but complimentary to the core of this almost ethereal drama. While dry, this score actually helps tremendously in keeping dullness at bay with its subtle, but no less considerable effectiveness as a stylish amplifier of atmospheric kick, although it's a luxury you only get so much of in a film that, in order to grip, must use its, at the very least, minimalist writing effectively. Oh yes indeed, J. C. Chandor's script is minimalist, abandoning exposition and even much dialogue, yet still retaining plenty of repetitious excesses in material, so it could have seriously put a damper on the final product's overall reward value if the mistakes weren't matched by inspiration, which tightens up more than a few vividly drawn set pieces enough for you to get a feel for urgency through thoughtfulness, truly brought to life in an equally inspired directorial performance. Survival dramas, as I've said time and again, really thrive on the subtle touches which can go a long way in directorial storytelling, and only go so many places if not handled with full realization, and where last year's "Life of Pi" got too carried away with flashiness to be nearly as outstanding as the also stylish "127 Hours", this film gets to be too subdued to be nearly as outstanding as the also meditative "Cast Away", yet, as you can imagine, a film this meditative would have sunk much more deeply as relatively disengaging if Chandor wasn't so inspired as a storyteller whose thoughtful celebration of anything from subtly dynamic visuals to the aforementioned tender score work keeps a consistent degree of aesthetic and narrative intrigue intrigue, if you will, "afloat", and, quite frankly, really resonates with tension and raw emotion once the meditativeness is applied to heights in dramatic material. Subtlety is, of course, a big aspect in this almost wordless, very visual and all around intimate character drama, and such subtlety to this degree can either destroy a film or drive it pretty triumphantly, and while the direction is still not quite stylistically biting or immersive enough to stand out with the likes of "Cast Away" or "127 Hours", inspiration never seems to abate in the offscreen performances by Chandor that match draggy structuring with a rich feeling of depth and light layering that draws you in and often shakes you up, yet wouldn't be so effective if it wasn't so firmly driven by Robert Redford. Constantly working to survive, Redford's unnamed character doesn't have a whole lot of time to sit back and let the humanizing emotions wash over him in order to fully make up for characterization shortcomings, let alone allow Redford to soar as much as I really was hoping he would, so don't go in expecting one of the best lead performances of the year, yet do go in expecting one of the better ones, because as underwritten as Redford is in this film, he effortlessly exudes this atmosphere which combines confidence and anguish in order to sell the layers of frustration and hope in the person who is simply known as "Our Man", punctuated by expressive, if not blunt emotional bursts that remind us of the legendary actor's range, while driving distinct highlights in dramatic effectiveness. This is a one-man show, and Redford carries it every step, row and stroke along the way, with enough conviction for you to all but forget about how underwritten the audience avatar is and become truly invested, maybe not to where you're looking at an all around great performance, much less an all around outstanding minimalist drama, but certainly to where Redford joins his efforts with those of Chandor with enough mutual inspiration to compel pretty thoroughly pretty much consistently.
When all truly is lost, the film washes up shy of its potential, anchored down by distancing limitations in exposition, dialogue, atmospheric kick, structural tightness, and conceptual meat, but still driven far enough by haunting score work, smart scripting, thoughtful direction and a driving, if underwritten lead performance by Robert Redford for J. C. Chandor's "All Is Lost" to stand as yet another flawed, but ultimately compelling meditative survival drama.
3/5 - Good