The Essentials: Notorious (1946)

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“Say it again, it keeps me awake.” – Alicia (Ingrid Bergman)

“I love you.” – Devlin (Cary Grant)

Notorious was the first of Hitchcock’s American films to feel essentially American, a brewing pot of genres mixed together to create something sublime. It was his first post-war film, and thus the transitory picture that turned him from a filmmaker into a box office behemoth. The romantic thriller also showed the Master of Suspense playing around with techniques that were orchestrated so expertly, it did not take long before he earned that moniker.

His 1946 thriller was chilling and prescient in regard to the recent events on the world stage – the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of the Holocaust – but kept with the impeccable style and macabre sensibilities that made Hitchcock stand out even more from the film noirs of the period. It opens in a Miami courtroom in April 1946, as an American spy for the Germans receives a guilty verdict for treason. His daughter, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), walks out of the trial with little reaction. Instead of wallowing in misery, she hosts a soirée for her friends and family. There, she pours a drink for a man who the camera cloaks in shadow, his back turned to us for a full minute before revealing it is a sly cop named Devlin (Cary Grant).

Devlin and Alicia drink, tease each other and get in a bit of trouble – although Devlin’s badge keeps them in check. The cop reveals he had her bungalow wired for months during the trial to make sure she was not an accomplice to her father. The two fly to Brazil and fall deeper in love, although Devlin reveals he wants her to seduce Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), her father’s pal that the cop believes still has ties after the war. Sebastian was once in lover with Alicia, so she has what it takes to infiltrate his home and figure out if there are still shady dealings happening behind closed doors.

Notorious was Hitchcock’s most appealing film by that point in his career, mostly due to how many genres it crosses. There are elements of detective noir, suspense-thriller, spy flick and a romance with a love triangle. Working with a taut, terrific story from legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht, Hitchcock was able to keep the sinister undertones and the sly humour on the same page without having all the tones and moods feel uneven.

The key to making this cocktail go down easy is Grant and Bergman, who share some of the most scintillating chemistry that Hollywood audiences had ever seen. Due to the restrictive Hayes Code, kisses in American movies could only last for three seconds. In a few very erotic scenes from Notorious, Grant and Bergman intertwine in each other’s arms, nuzzling and feeling each other’s faces between these short kisses, keeping to the strict rule but feeling more intimate than much of what audiences had seen on the screen before. Hitchcock rarely cut when the camera was tight on the two actors – Grant and Bergman shared such an intoxicating chemistry that it seems like Ted Teztlaff’s camera does not want to separate them. The only times it pulls apart from the actors are when Alicia and Devlin are in disagreement.

As per the passionate romance, Hitchcock brought many of his most expressive techniques to make Notorious achingly romantic and stylish. The director uses some daring filmmaking tricks to display the enormous size of Sebastian’s home. When Alicia walks to the front door upon her initial visit, her shadow reaches the door long before she approaches and knocks, thanks to the noir-like lighting. In one glorious tracking shot, Teztlaff’s camera pans over the enormous lobby of Sebastian’s home before zooming in to a pivotal object clasped in the palm of Alicia’s hand.

Meanwhile, in one of the film’s climactic scenes, Hitchcock sets the action and observations on a long staircase the character walk down. Through careful editing, the director makes the staircase longer, holding the suspense while clearing up where the characters stand as they weigh the life-and-death options in their midst. By this point, the audience is so gripped by the wavering romantic tics of the love triangle that the stakes feel even more riveting.

Hitchcock adored telling stories about enigmatic, two-sided people, but he does not leave a twist that betrays the emotional purity of the love story. Alicia and Devlin are romantically involved more than the vast majority of the couples in the director’s films, and he manages to make the affair tender without piling on a sap that would offset the rich world of deceit and corruption he wanted to expose. In one of the most beautiful shots of the director’s oeuvre, Alicia slowly lowers binoculars while at a racing track, where she stand alongside Devlin – who she snuck away to see – to reveal tears. “Dry your eyes, baby,” her beau replies. “It’s out of character.”

Notorious is one of Hitchcock’s first films to have the wicked mother as antagonist. Sebastian’s nasty mom, played by German actor Leopoldine Konstantin, has an outstretched grip over her son and finds a terrible away to punish Alicia when she finds out his new wife may not be who she seems. The overbearing mother is a Hitchcock trope used most memorably in Psycho, but is just as potent here. His 1946 thriller is the filmmaker’s finest romance, but with such unforgettable characters and unbearable suspense, is also one of his most deeply satisfying slices of cake.

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Review Tuesday: 5/27/14 (Ida, The Normal Heart, Tom at the Farm)

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EDITOR’S NOTE: As you may have noticed, from time to time, scheduled films in my Essentials column do not get posted. As I re-watch the films before I work on the column, if one title is not as good as I remembered and I do not think it deserves to be written about, I will not do a feature on it. Hence, my disappearing take on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca on Friday. With that said, prepare for a column on the terrific thriller Notorious this week.

At first glance, Ida (B+) feels like a film that Ingmar Bergman would have made in the mid-1960s, in the shadow of his thematic trilogy about faith. Bleak and harshly beautiful, the drama from filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love) examines the life of one Polish orphan from a convent who decides to explore the world outside in the week before taking her vows.

The titular character, known at the nunnery as Sister Anna, is played by Agata Trzebuchowska and has a porcelain, heart-shaped face that acts more like a mask than a surface for expression. In the opening scene, she restores a statue of Jesus before carrying in to its place, a podium in the snow just outside the convent. The early scenes at the nunnery emphasize the film’s boxy, Academy-ratio presentation, as Pawlikowski positions the camera in a place so that the characters’ faces only take up the bottom third of the frame. The top-heavy photography, from Lucasz Zal, suggests that there is both a heavy spirit looming above Ida, as well as a potential emptiness in her religious calling.

That doubt takes centre frame when Ida visits her aunt, a brazen, hard-drinking judge named Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza). Wanda explains to her niece that her real name is Ida Lebenstein and she is Jewish. Ida became an orphan when her parents were murdered during the war. She cannot see their graves, because they do not have any. The two women – a pairing that Wanda jokingly quips is “the little saint and the slut” – set off on a road trip to find out her parents’ burial place and learn more about their deaths.

However, their discoveries are no funny business. Ida is searching for connection. While much of it comes from her kneeled prayers next to her hotel bed, she soon finds an attraction to a boy, a jazz saxophonist played by Dawid Ogrodnik. Considering the lack of a soundtrack, when music does come, it makes an indelible impression on the protagonist. There is something entrancing about the cries of John Coltrane that attracts her to the pain and the liberty of musicians. However, is she a pained character, or one looking for her own freedom?

With a pure, plain face, filmed in gentle black-and-white, Trzebuchowska is a witness to the shadow of history as it looms over the cafes and churches in Poland. She is magnetic, wearing a mask of grace and reluctance, uncertain of whether to tether to a past she is trying to understand or a future she is unsure if she really wants. Her unblemished face speaks volumes about the blemished society she steps into. Pawlikowski also has Zal shoot the film in a sterile black-and-white, a touch that expresses how the setting and characters have not yet been revived from the devastation of war.

Ida is low-key, gentle and observant, but the stain of the Holocaust shadows over many scenes of this tragic drama. Whether it is a symbol of hatred – the shape of metal bars take on the shape “SS” – or the silence permeating through the soundtrack as Ida steps out into a frosty winter or a deserted forest, the war serves as a haunting backdrop for the character’s journey. Pawlikowski’s film is a brisk and somewhat abrupt 80 minutes, which may be too thin for audiences hoping for clear answers. Heavy, bold and austere, Ida would fit anywhere within Bergman’s late canon; as for 2014, it is a sometimes ambiguous but entirely gripping drama that reflects on the shadows of war from a compelling perspective.

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This weekend, the film adaptation of Larry Kramer’s stage play The Normal Heart (B) debuted on HBO. While not the incendiary and urgency work it once was, the performances are so terrific that this chronology of the early days of AIDS still feels potent. Check out that review here. Another review of mine on We Got This Covered is for Xavier Dolan’s blistering psychological drama Tom at the Farm (B). He just won the Grand Jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his sixth film, entitled Mommy, but his fifth film is opening in limited release across Ontario this week. It is right in line with the Québécois director’s other tales of sex, identity and family politics. You can find that review here.

A Rant of Rhyme and Reason: What Price, Cineplex?

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Back in the 20th Century, when Famous Players had not yet merged with Cineplex Odeon, the exhibitor had the slogan, “Big Screen. Big Sound. Big Difference.” During the voracious expansion of multiplex cinemas during the last years of the 1990s – theatres with majestic names like Silvercity and Coliseum, which offered stadium seating and carnivalesque lobbies with fast-food options – the tagline for some of the cinemas read, “Go big or go home.” The main argument, as you have probably noted, is that the grandness of these big, state-of-the-art theatres, was optimum to getting the most from your moviegoing experience.

As more multiplexed popped up, so did the competition. With more big-screen theatres filtering through the suburbs and shopping malls, more low-key theatres with art-deco design, sloped floors and fewer screens were forced to close. In 2014, however, almost every movie house in Canada is under the name Cineplex Entertainment. As of May 9, all of the AMC locations have either closed or been sold to Cineplex or what is left of Empire theatres.

So, without the competition to keep bringing audiences in, the heads of Cineplex decided that the next step is to potentially charge moviegoers an extra couple of dollars to sit in the middle rows. Cineplex chose the Varsity Cinema to house this experiment, to be tested out later this year. I doubt the plan is going to work.

For many years, big theatre chains have had a backward thinking of how to optimize one’s moviegoing experience. Recently, Cineplex Entertainment introduced UltraAVX, an auditorium fitted with a better sound system, slightly larger screen and the chance to reserve your seat in advance. There are also several more IMAX auditoriums in theatres across the country, but the scope of the sound and silver screen is so comparable to UltraAVX that it is hard to tell the difference. Meanwhile, new VIP cinemas charge patrons more for a relaxing theatre experience, including cushier seats, extra legroom and even tray service and licensed drinks if you get to the theatre early enough.

The issue with this is that it does not really matter whether the screen is bigger, the sound is more enhanced or the seats are more comfortable. If you go to a VIP screen and you have chatty patrons sitting behind you, the surcharge is not worth it. Likewise, if you reserve your seats to The LEGO Movie in the middle of the auditorium, only to be surrounded by a bunch of chatty eight-year-olds, that feature was hardly worth the investment.

Currently, I am sitting in a library near my house as I write this column. The library recently closed the main area for sitting, reading and working on its main floor for about a month to renovate. They replaced this lounge area with larger tables, bigger seats and more places to sit. However, the people chatting near me, distracting me as I work on this rant, are making this experience worse. No matter how plush the seat I am at, it simply does not matter: trying to work at a quiet space like a library just does not work when you are surrounded by disrespectful people who forget to drop the volume.

Regardless, nobody should ever feel that the best way to watch a movie is at a place other than a movie theatre. It ranks far above your television, as well as your computer screen. There is only one supreme way to experience the arts and entertainment, and it is in the intended space: with a hundred-foot screen in front of you and surround sound coming at you from all sides. It does not matter if you are watching a big-budget action movie or a serious, character-driven drama. Movies are made to be seen with an audience on a silver screen in the darkness.

The problem is that more people are turning away from the theatres. With more options at home (like Netflix) and a more compressed waiting time between theatrical and home video release – it used to be around six months, now it is closer to four – audiences just do not have the need to run out to a film anymore. And experimental schemes like asking people to pay more money to sit in a certain spot of the auditorium are stupid. How good the movie is has no effect on how plush the seats are or if your legs can stretch a couple of fewer inches.

In practice, it should work. People pay more money to sit in business class to get a more comfortable flying experience, so why is a couple extra dollars thrown toward a movie seat matter? Certain cinema chains in the United Kingdom already charge more for a more premier seating in cushier seats and offer more legroom. Regardless, there is little stopping crowds from switching seats once the lights dim.

Nevertheless, Cineplex Entertainment is wealthier and has more control of the marketplace than it ever has before. Yet, they still need to resort to stunts like this to make more profits. The exhibitors forget that the key to drawing audiences back into the cinema is by giving them an incentive to do so. Almost every time, that incentive will be more reasonable ticket prices.

Want to get people into the theatres in an age of Netflix? Easy, Cineplex. Start charging less for the movie. If anything, theatres should be experimenting with a plan to give customers the option to pay for a monthly membership. What Cineplex or Rainbow Cinemas can do is allow memberships at a cost of $30 a month per person. This would allow people to visit their cinema as often as they want each month for a low price. If you would see six movies each month, you would do so at five dollars apiece. That creates more value and more awareness of the great films that are out. (With fewer dollars headed to each showtime, moviegoers may even be enticed to spend more on popcorn, helping the theatre chains even more.)

Some chains in Europe are already offering these monthly memberships. For casual moviegoers, this will spur crowds to see more movies, which will offer them exposure to trailers for more movies. It feels like a win-win situation. Give people more value and they will come. Segregate the moviegoing experience and turn a mass medium into one full of luxuries the average person has no interest in and people will choose to stay home. Viewers should not need to pay for a better seat, if the most comfortable seat for many of them to watch a film is on their couch or in their bed.

Movie theatre conglomerates will never make the moviegoing experience perfect, but they can open audiences up to ways that slightly less-than-perfect experiences are not rip-offs. As it has always been, going to the movies should always be an optimal entertainment experience. You should not have to pay top dollar to get that experience. If you are not giving audiences value for their entertainment dollar at a rate that can compete with other media, people will have no interest in going big. They will just stay home.

Review Monday: 5/19/14 (Godzilla, Million Dollar Arm, Young and Beautiful)

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Before launching into a franchise with a storied, 60-year history and a summer tentpole with a $160 million budget, director Gareth Edwards made Monsters, an eerie thriller shot for $500,000. Edwards made the film’s visual effects from his home computer and store-bought programs. He also watched a lot of Steven Spielberg’s blockbusters. You can feel the presence of the Jurassic Park director on nearly every frame of Godzilla (B-), his 2014 update featuring the King of the Monsters that makes up in gripping action-oriented gusto what it lacks in commanding characters. Essentially, Godzilla keeps the B-movie flavor of stale character tropes and groanworthy dialogue, but these elements hardly matter during the A-rate action sequences. As for your average summer blockbuster since Spielberg created that term, Godzilla is a heart-pounding spectacle that lacks the substance to make it heart wrenching.

Our hero is Ford Brody, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, whose surname has to be an homage to Roy Scheider’s police chief in Jaws. Brody lives in San Francisco with his beautiful wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen, unfortunately bland) and son. His father, Joe (Bryan Cranston), lives in Japan and used to be a nuclear plant supervisor. However, when mysterious seismic activity trapped his wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche), inside the plant 15 years earlier, Joe quit his job and devoted his life to figuring out what caused those tremors. He believes that the plant’s collapse was not due to an earthquake but a military cover-up and ventures into the quarantined island to search for evidence.

Joe begs Ford to rejoin him in Japan on his crusade for the truth. What evidence do they find in this forbidden zone that forbids trespassers? A contingent of scientists, including the mostly bewildered Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his nearly-mute assistant, Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), studying the quarantined area and keeping a close eye on what really destroyed the plant: an unidentified terrestrial creature. This creature, nicknamed the MUTO, has to find his mate. However, there is another massive monster whose name you probably know trying to make headway and protect civilization from these sinister, breeding beings.

Taking a cue from Jaws’ shark and Jurassic Park’s T. Rex, Edwards teases Godzilla’s appearance. By delaying the monster’s entrance, Edwards builds unrelenting suspense and excitement. When the King of the Monsters makes his mark, he screeches with a stunning venom that rattles the speakers the same way the T. Rex’s to-the-camera roar in the rain from Jurassic Park arrested viewers 21 summers ago. However, the human characters barely leave a footprint. They react to the monster’s gigantic size in that awestruck pose Spielberg fans know well, the camera zooming in on their gaping mouths and baffled stares into the distance. With the exception of Cranston, who munches on his lines with courage and vigor, bringing dignity to ornery one-liners, the rest of this impressive ensemble reacts more than acts.

The human drama is compelling to a point, but the onscreen heroics of the young Brody matter very little once the spellbinding monsters start battling on the streets of a smoldering San Francisco. (Even David Strathairn shows up as an admiral about two thirds of the way through but, despite a minute-long, introductory tracking shot that teases his up front reveal, he ultimately gets little to do.) After the suspenseful build-up of the first hour, the human characters have miraculously little to do to affect the terrestrial battles. Sure, people are always the ones in peril – in one of the film’s most tense scenes, Godzilla approaches a bridge crowded with a traffic jam of cars, including a bus with Brody’s son on board – but the personal hook remains an afterthought.

For his leap forward into buffo blockbuster filmmaking, Edwards does a solid job paying tribute to his precursors. His efficient pacing, matched with stunning effects work and gripping action sequences, turns Godzilla into a tense trip to the multiplex. Meanwhile, a score from Alexandre Desplat thunders and gallops through the action sequence with the frantic, minor keys that should make viewers recall John Williams’ darker collaborations with Spielberg. In a post-9/11 era of action filmmaking, however, being a popcorn blockbuster without any secondary thrills – riveting character drama, a thoughtful reflection on current political strife – just doesn’t work as well as it used to. As popcorn entertainment goes, Godzilla is gargantuan fun. As drama, it is stifled and hollow.

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For those uninterested in massive monster mayhem, my reviews for Million Dollar Arm (B-) and Young & Beautiful (B) are also finished on two of the entertainment outlets I write for. Million Dollar Arm is a by-the-numbers sports drama that is so finely acted and inspiring that it becomes hard not to root for. You can find that review here, on We Got This Covered. Young & Beautiful is an absorbing erotic drama from French auteur François Ozon, with a star-making performance from Marine Vacth. That review is on Toronto Film Scene, and can be found here.

The Essentials: The 39 Steps (1935)

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Alfred Hitchcock has probably made a dozen films that are better and are more enriching experiences than The 39 Steps, of stories littered with more darkness, sexual tension and unbearable, unbeatable suspense. However, his 1935 classic is purely entertaining, a slice of cake that only anticipates the type of baker – or plot thickener – Hitchcock would become during his legendary Hollywood career. It is probably the most well-known of his British films, and was recently adapted into a play that critics boast is a comic delight. It is perhaps not as iconic a thriller, comedy or adventure as the director’s escapist flicks from the 40s and 50s, but it indicated that Hitchcock would soon reach dizzying heights.

Adapted from John Buchan’s novel, we follow Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian vacationing in London. After an evening out to vaudeville stage, which is interrupted by a gunshot, Hannay makes cute with a young woman Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim). Back at his place, she says that there were two men at the theatre trying to kill her. “Sounds like a spy story,” Hannay quips. “That’s exactly what it is,” she pipes back, serious. Smith asks him if he has heard of the 39 steps, but she does not elaborate. The 39 steps are an early example of a term that Hitchcock would champion and popularize: the MacGuffin. The MacGuffin is a significant device in storytelling that spurs the action. In Pulp Fiction, the mysterious briefcase is the MacGuffin. In Titanic, it is the necklace, and in Citizen Kane, it is the identity of Rosebud.

Before Hannay can find out more about that answer, Smith is stabbed. He finds her body with a map of Scotland in her hands. Hannay boards a train to Scotland, only to find the story of her murder is in the paper and he is a prime suspect. So, he must evade the police, while also getting to the bottom of who murdered Smith and find out what the MacGuffin really means. (If this set-up sounds familiar to casual Hitchcock fans, then yes, you probably remember the first hour of North by Northwest.)

Robert Towne, now and forever the screenwriter of Chinatown, once said that “It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with The 39 Steps.” It boasts many of the elements that audiences would come to expect from a Hitchcock film, including the close calls. Here, a man shoots another, only to survive since the bullet is lodged inside a hymnal book a character gave him in an earlier scene. Also present are other stock components of Hitchcock’s thrillers, like ordinary people witnessing extraordinary events and fugitives on the run from the authorities. Oh, and it also has the spicy romantic angle – it introduced the appearance of the icy, enigmatic heroine that is one of the Master of Suspense’s staples. Here, Madeleine Carroll plays the blonde.

The substance of much of Hitchcock’s oeuvre also depends on his style. Hitchcock often employed the point-of-view shot to align the audience with ordinary men and women, as well as those with more troubling backgrounds. On the train, we are in Hannay’s perspective as he reads the newspaper story about the woman’s death, only to look up and see a bespectacled man eyeing him suspiciously from the other side of the compartment. The camera then lingers on Hannay as people discuss the murder. When aligning the audience with our wronged hero, Hitchcock makes us witnesses to knowing stares and suspicious glances, which only entices more suspense.

Meanwhile, the director shows a capacity to film large-scale action set-pieces, including several dark chases across a mountainous countryside, full of varying levels. The camera races through the rapids and over the rocks. The silhouetted characters bust through the country, lit only by the sunset or the gleaming moonlight. Here, he bathes the black-and-white film with oppressive, billowing smoke in the countryside, the foggy wilderness apt considering the ambiguity of the central mystery. Hitchcock proves that he is adept at framing and bringing the most in visual space. In one scene by the end, as Carroll’s Pamela stands on the stairs overlooking a hotel lobby as some scheming spies discuss some essential plot details, much of the explaining happens in one long take.

The 39 Steps is a taut, thrilling yarn that pushed Hitchcock forward in the minds of Americans who were not as familiar with his earlier British films. Since its release, he stayed in the forefront of the consciousness of American cinema. The film should be the first one screened in an “Introduction to Hitchcock” seminar, and for good reason. While not the most elaborate or thematically rich of his iconic filmography, it offered the delicious recipe to his jaunty, thrilling films he would direct later.