There are various levels to the filmography of Alfred Hitchcock. The all-time classics everyone has heard of. The Hollywood stylistic experiments. His early formative British and silent work. But perhaps the most enjoyable of these groups to discover as a film buff are the ones not all that many speak about, but that are equally as brilliant to that first group. In my experience they are his best, most pure in genre terms thrillers. Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is one, and happens to be my favourite of his films. And now to that I would add Strangers on a Train (1951), which if it doesn’t quite match that film for me, it manages to pack maybe the best character and best sequence of the director’s career into one film.
Perhaps equalled only by Psycho (1960) in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, this is a quite nasty film. There’s some fuckin menace bubbling along just below the surface. In perhaps the most brilliant sequence of his career, a tense and totally brutal murder takes place at a carnival. This follows a chase with all of Hitch’s hallmarks. The shadows and sounds of the tunnel of love as well as the bluster and bravado of the murderer on a test of strength, just feel so distinctly him. If it sounds utterly all over the shop and out there, it is. I’m not sure any other director could have made it work. The plot carries on, the characters swirling around one another. Hitchcock shows us he is able to elicit incredible tension, just through the length of a tennis match. The events come to a head back at the carnival from earlier in the film. This whole end sequence, sort of sums up his reputation for me. A wildly fun and crowd pleasing denouement to a perfectly, artistically constructed tense thriller. Without giving anything away, it mainly goes down on a carousel, a structure of fun taking on malevolent overtones in a stark way.
Strangers on a Train stands as a monument to Hitchcock’s brilliance as a storyteller. From the very start where our ‘strangers’ are identified only by their feet, the film almost overflows with creativity. But in a highly controlled manner, as Hitch is able to harness his highly original approach in a way that serves story above all else. There is something chilling about the psychological edges of the characters in the film, most notably Bruno. So much of the character comes from the great performance by Robert Walker. Something off with him from the get-go, his unsettling obsession with “people who do things”. The witty and quite modern script, the way Bruno helps a blind man cross the road, gives him psychopathic tendencies that feel both real and harrowing. The plotting of the film hangs off this character too, based around how each character will react to his manipulation. Just as the first trip to the carnival is maybe Hitchcock’s best sequence, Bruno is maybe his best character. Also excellent is Farley Granger, playing the charming tennis player Guy well out of his depth. He almost functions as a measure of normality to consider Walker’s Bruno against.
Verdict: Strangers on a Train is a legit classic Hollywood thriller and sees Hitchcock at the absolute peak of his creative powers. Anchored by a couple of very good performances, the plot gets you so invested in events it will leave you wanting to yell at the screen (or in my case, actually yelling at the screen). Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
A huge month as Januarys basically always are. A pretty positive one though. Plenty of catching up on 2016 releases as well as getting a really good start on this year’s #52filmsbywomen. This update is rather epic, rather late and filled with mainly rather good flicks.
- Bastard (2010), Kirsten Dunst – This Kirsten Dunst directed short looks great, and nicely invokes the classic road movie, even when on foot. A really nicely done piece. The acting is good, the structure is intriguing without being frustrating and the twist(ish) ending turns it into a very clever take on something we’ve seen a million times before. Liked it a lot.
- Chasing Asylum (2016), Eva Orner – A chilling exploration of Australia’s heartless asylum seeker policies. Chronicles the shift from looking after people, to the lust for ‘deterrence’. The huge human cost to ‘stopping the boats’. The direction is workmanlike, especially in the first half. But the film tells a well-rounded tale. It is especially noticeable for taking the time to sketch out the Indonesian side of things too. Crushing, depressing viewing – the fact our country imprisons people who everyone agrees have committed no crime. Shameful.
- The Witch (2015), Robert Eggers – Numerous horror films attempt to weave religion into their stories. And it rarely works. This is one of the best ever examples. The beliefs of the characters are fully weaved into what is frightening in the frontier world of the film. Very scary, but in a unique way. The acting is excellent, especially from the four kids who nail tough roles. The script and the parent characters embody a great religious stoicness and suffering under the weight of this world.
- Under the Shadow (2016), Babak Anvari – An immersive war film as much as a ghost story, situated in the Iran-Iraq war. Also particularly about the societal/parental expectations placed on parents, particularly mothers (which is heightened when the father heads to the front). It’s all filtered through Iranian post-revolutionary society. Some great use of style to suggest the supernatural. A lot of it is about evoking a certain mood rather than all out horror. Talky at times in establishing mythology. And unfortunately when the supernatural elements do erupt, some of the design is sketchy.
- The Conjuring 2 (2016), James Wan – All the elements that made the first one a legit great are here – Wan’s excellence, the highly underrated core provided by Farmiga and Wilson, assured visuals, evocative period trappings, spooky sound design and a solid build to the plot. And it’s a very good horror flick, but not a great one like the first. Not as immediately engaging or utterly terrifying throughout. And it really feels overlong. The script is a touch weak too, not quite holding the film together as a coherent whole.
- Alexandra (2007), Alexandra Sokurov – Slow paced, low narrative but evocative. A stark, isolated, militaristic world. An intriguing spot for the typical dottering grandma-grandson relations to play out. Lends it a sense of almost absurdism, or at least unease. Interesting use of the colour palette, veering from often washed out to overly bright flashes. Quiet and vaguely worthwhile.
- Divines (2016), Houda Benyamina – A brilliant ode to female friendship & rebellion. Follows an inseparable daughter of an imam and teenager living in a French shanty-style town as they deal with high school with a side of drug dealing. The two lead performances are great and nuanced. Can see the less than desirous circumstances and the ‘spunk’ they have in the face of that. Stylistic moments capture their spirit in a really quite beautiful way. Also about crushing economic reality in contemporary France. Repurposes a traditional gangster arc to totally new ends.
- Triple 9 (2016), John Hillcoat – I dug this film. Some great heist/bank robbing notes. Love Hillcoat as a director. The cast here is flat out incredible. Like so many crime films the plot is unnecessarily complicated. But the motivations of the characters are really solid. Along with Winslet hamming it up as a Russian mob boss, Ejiofor and Mackie give the best performances. Interesting to consider who, if anyone, the good guys are.
- Cinderella (1950), Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske – Haven’t seen this in years and adored it. There are some beautiful themes, especially early. Mainly playing out through her really quite delightful and important affinity with animals. Clean style, both in terms of animation and storytelling. Funny, with lovely songs and a cracker of a jaunty score. In kind of the way of these films, it does wrap up startlingly fast. Charming enough you won’t mind though.
- Coin Heist (2017), Emily Hagins – Cool, classic heist stylings collide with a high school film. Hagins really captures the teen environment beautifully and the actors are very well directed. It’s a flimsy setup for them to attempt such a hugely risky crime. But you just have to put that out of your mind. A unique vibe – all the usual teen film stuff filtered through something a little different. Teen romance you’re actually invested in. And whilst the heist is pretty standard, there’s reasonable tension to it.
- Point Break (1991), Kathryn Bigelow – A goofy classic. A fun script, classily shot. The cast are great. Keanu is full of youthful charisma. Gary Busey’s presence works here. The ‘xtreme’ dialogue is adorably dated. A fucking hot central romance and a freneticism to how the plot unfurls. A real weight to the action and consequences in a way that is rare for action films. Keanu Reeves as Johnny Utah is my everything basically.
- The Great Mouse Detective (1991), Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, David Michener & John Musker – Thin, but fun. The villainous rat is a good presence. There’s no depth to the ripping off of Sherlock stories, but that aspect has some joy to it. Some great characters amongst the middling everything else. Story overall is pretty weak. But the character of Olivia is a great way into it for the audience.
- Krampus (2015), Michael Dougherty – A rather smart Christmas film. Takes aim at the debilitating and embarrassing consumerism of it all. Plus the horrors of family, especially those forced together despite sharing little life experience. Adam Scott is a great, charming presence. Also a good sense of fun to the horror, especially through the very cool & creative killer toy style creature design.
- Barry (2016), Vikram Gandhi – Really dig this biopic approach. Presenting the Obama of the early 80s basically just as a young man trying to find his way, as we all do. Nice, cruisy biopic writing with a cool early hip-hop soundtrack. And the casting is totally spot on too. Rapport and relationships between characters is so genuine and nicely drawn. Manages to straddle the line between not glorifying Obama and also not aiming for a shocking expose of him being a dick. Just a bloke finding his way.
- Steve Jobs (2015), Danny Boyle – One of my absolute favourite Danny Boyle films. Presents Jobs as utterly driven, but also an asshole. A total genius though. And the film is perhaps too keen to ensure you never forget that. But also paints him essentially as just a salesman, through the structure of the three press conferences. He was a complex dude and there’s an art to the way the script brings that out. Certainly shows his missteps. I found the third act to be just a smidge below the quality of the first two, with the melodrama a little strong and unbalanced. A great film though.
- Tales of Halloween (2015), Darren Lynn Bousman, Axelle Carolyn, Adam Gierasch, Andrew Kasch, Neil Marshall, Lucky McKee, Mike Mendez, Dave Parker, Ryan Schifrin, John Skipp, Paul Solet – A great concept for an anthology. The tales all occur in the same town on one Halloween evening. Relatively fun, brightly shot and for the most part light-heartedly gross. The quality is consistent and the efforts don’t feel repetitive. The acting never lets the stories down either. Whilst it’s a fun ride, the lesser entries are those that play it too silly.
- She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014), Mary Dore – Fantastic history of the women’s liberation movement. Both situates it in relation to current struggles for reproductive rights, and delves deep into the history of how it came out of anti-war efforts. Not all glossy, readily exposing the sexism of the movement and its occasional overwhelming focus on middle class issues. Also shows that the movement was not one homogenous group, but a bunch of smaller radical ones. Gets across the sense of power that the movement held, as well as the complexity of concerns involved. Inspiring and emotional.
- Bad Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising (2016), Nicholas Stoller – Really funny. Rose Byrne is an utter star. A rare comedy performer who does not rely on a certain shtick. Can play it different ways. There are bunch of hilarious female performances here. Whilst the story is a rehash, this is a better, funnier film than the first with some tops feminist messaging.
- The Meddler (2015), Lorene Scafaria – Writing is brilliant and true to life. Nails that certain kind of mother at a certain age too. Susan Sarandon manages to bring her to life without cloying. Would have liked more interactions between her and Rose Byrne in the first half. Byrne brings a world weariness to the role we’ve not seen before. Scafaria has this habit of taking you down apparently conventional paths you think you’re going to hate, but she does something so clever, you end up loving it.
- 13th (2016), Ava DuVernay – Basically a perfect piece of documentary filmmaking. Graphics, music editing are all so slick and function together so well. And the talking heads are so damn entertaining and clearly exceptionally knowledgeable in their fields. Tracks the roots of the prison boom all the way through to its explosion. Also examines the racial issues that abound in this space. There’s such a great power to the information being dispensed that it puts you on edge, like a thriller. Some of the facts are so absurd it’s hard to fathom. And at times it hits you in an actual physical way. Plus it has a fuckin incredible hip-hop soundtrack.
Not Worth Watching
- Down Under (2016), Abe Forsythe – Hands down the worst film of 2016. Makes no effort to place the toxic racist culture of the Shire at the heart of this story. Constant, utterly unnecessary homophobic writing. You can definitely make a comedy out of anything. But you have to do justice to the toxicity of the situation. Beyond awful. And not even funny. A problematic use of history.
- The Incredibles (2004), Brad Bird – Still one of Pixar’s very weakest efforts for me. It looks great, has one of my favourite designed worlds from the studio. And it has an ace heightened action/adventure score. But the story and characters just aren’t particularly memorable to me. Also, some of the messaging around exceptionalism is a little iffy. Script is really poor. And the female characters are the most disturbingly skinny I’ve seen in an animated film.
- Allegiant (2016), Robert Schwentke – Some of the younger cast – Woodley and especially Teller – bring a fair bit of charisma. The crumbling futurism visual aesthetic is intermittently cool too. The first smidge is utterly silly, schlocky sci-fi stuff. But then it comes crashing down in a wave of endless exposition and icky themes of genetic purity. Shitty world-building, really bad storytelling and muddled, dodgy thematic concerns.
- La La Land (2016), Damian Chazelle – Pretty insipid. The Gosling jazz stuff is nice and his is a great performance. The Emma Stone Hollywood dreams storyline couldn’t be more old-hat and bland. She is charming. But frankly it feels like the same performance she always gives. Forgettable songs and rubbish dancing. Chazelle seems to be a director with two or three visual ideas he just cycles through. Nothing plot. Ends beautifully though. A sequence that puts the rest of the film to shame.
- Split (2016), M. Night Shyamalan – Crap. Showcases a lot of M. Night’s eye-rolling tendencies – the unsubtlety, the attempted twists, the approach to scares. This film seems to really hate women too. The attempts to transcend a pretty tired subgenre are very uneven in terms of their success. The script is poor and the performances are only average. The use of mental illness to elicit horror is highly problematic.
- Between Cuba and Mexico, Everything is Bonito and Sabroso (2016), Idalmis Del Risco – I was really interested to understand the connections between parts of the two countries. But man this was flat and boring going. Apart from some early scenery, it’s basically all talking heads. Super unengaging for someone without a grounding in the history. Just a lot of academics sitting around talking which makes for pretty shit filmmaking to be honest. So bloody dry.
- Don’t Breathe (2016), Fede Alvarez – For me, a ho-hum, average film. Felt really conservative at times to me. It’s an inversion of the home invasion film, where we follow the intruders. Somewhere in there is an interesting idea about who the real villain is. But they do nothing with it. The style is shitty and there are simple storytelling flaws. Weighted down by logic flaws and the utterly horrific twist. Did not care for it at all.
If you only have time to watch one 13th
Avoid at all costs Down Under