Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson
Directed by: Sasha Gervasi (“Anvil! The Story of Anvil”)
Written by: John J. McLaughlin (“Black Swan”)
It would be a tough assignment for any director to capture someone as influential a filmmaker as Alfred Hitchcock much less try to understand what all the moving parts inside his head are doing. Director Julian Jarrold (“Brideshead Revisited”) and HBO attempted to do it this year with “The Girl,” an unmoving, made-for-TV movie about Hitchock’s obsession with actress Tippi Hedren during the shooting of “The Birds.”
In “Hitchcock,” director Sasha Gervasi (“Anvil! The Story of Anvil”) and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin (“Black Swan”) choose another of Hitchcock’s classic films, “Psycho,” and try to pull back the curtain to reveal some of the behind the scene issues Hitch confronted while making a film inspired by serial killer Ed Gein. Unable to earn financing from his studio (although he had just made “North by Northwest” and “Vertigo,” which are now considered by many as two of the best films ever made), Hitch (played here glibly by Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins) decides he will finance the movie himself. His wife Alma (Oscar winner Helen Mirren) stands by him as always for support.
Living with one of the greatest filmmakers of the era, however, is no easy task. “Hitchock,” while it does give us a interesting glimpse of the moviemaking process, is more a movie about Hitch and Alma and how they are able to work through their marital issues while in the spotlight. Unlike “The Girl” there is really no mention of Hitch’s sexual advances toward his leading ladies. In “Hitchcock,” Scarlett Johansson portrays Janet Leigh, whose relationship with the larger-than-life title character is played as professional. Sure, it’s not very hard to make Hitch seem like the creepy old man making the pretty blonds in the room uncomfortable as he ogles over them for far too long (there is a scene where he peeks at an undressing Vera Miles through hole in the wall), but “Hitchock” is less about his perverseness and more about the motivation behind the man making the movies. Still, it comes up short in that aspect.
While Hopkins and Mirren are wonderfully cast in their roles and do everything they can to create this loving albeit strained relationship, what goes wrong with “Hitchcock” comes from the odd changes in tone and stagnant script. A few scenes are written with Hitch having imagined conversations with serial killer Ed Gein. McLaughlin might’ve thought this would give insight to the dark places Hitch had to be to make a movie like “Psycho,” but each of these talks feels like an unnecessary interruption.
Acting aside, “Hitchcock” is a disappointment. Instead of making a film with Hitchcockian flare, Gervasi should’ve concentrated on making a film about the man – a cultural icon of the 20th century who deserved more than getting showering over with plenty of narrative inelegance.
Starring: Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastin, Sam Worthington
Directed by: John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”)
Written by: Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass”), Jane Goldman (“Kick-Ass”), and Peter Straughan (“Sixty-Six”)
A friend turns to me an hour into the stimulating espionage thriller “The Debt” during a scene when retired Mossad secret agent Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) deplanes in the Ukraine only thinking of her intended target.
“It’s Jason Bourne’s grandma,” he tells me as Mirren bobs and weaves like a spy 30 years too late for the start of the Cold War. I’d join in with a couple of old-lady jokes if I wasn’t so convinced Mirren could probably Krav Maga my ass into couscous.
All teasing aside, Mirren proves she is one tough homemade cookie as she continues to explore more vivacious supporting characters. It was only a year ago in the action comedy “Red” when she showed us how trigger-happy she could be as a contract killer behind a semiautomatic. In “The Debt,” which is based on the 2007 Israeli film “Ha-Hov,” Mirren loses the smirk and gets serious when a dark secret from her paramilitary past is dug up after the death of a colleague.
Constructed by intense scenes shifting back in time to a young Rachel (Jessica Chastin) and her male cohorts (Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) hunting down a merciless Nazi monster (Jesper Christensen) in East Berlin in 1965, director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) allows the leisurely-paced narrative to unfold naturally when their mission goes awry.
Chastin carries most of the film’s emotional weight although a melodramatic love triangle doesn’t do the script any favors. Her interaction with Christensen in their handful of unnerving encounters set the tone, which is elevated by some dank-looking cinematography and grim location choices, specifically for the flashbacks.
Unpredictable throughout, “The Debt” may harp on the fine line between fact and fiction a bit much, but with Mirren in the passenger’s seat, there’s little chance the film isn’t going to reach its final destination with some style, class and riveting insight.
Starring: Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner
Directed by: Jason Winer (debut)
Written by: Peter Baynham (“Borat”)
Late comedian Dudley Moore should not be turning in his grave. Merely turning would not get him far enough away from the disastrous remake of his 1982 classic “Arthur,” a film British actor Russell Brand somehow botches up. “Arthur” follows a rich, alcoholic playboy who throws a tantrum when his mommy arranges his marriage. No, instead of just turning in said grave, Moore needs to actually dig another one inside the one he’s already in and crawl into that. In small doses (like Will Farrell), Brand, who has an uncanny resemblence with Skeletor if Skeletor had skin, can have some great moments (his Aldous Snow character in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Get Him to the Greek” is annoying and charming all at once). In those movies, however, he either had a supporting role or was leaning on someone as talented as Jonah Hill. In “Arthur,” Brand is bare-boned and all by himself, which doesn’t do him any favors. The man-child character has been done well plenty of times before, but in “Arthur” the classic story sadly takes a nosedive and becomes laughless.
Starring: Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren
Directed by: Robert Schwentke (“The Time Traveler’s Wife”)
Written by: Jon Hoeber (“Whiteout”) and Eric Hoeber (“Whiteout”)
Never mind the swift hand-to-hand combat skills Zoe Saldaña shows off in “The Losers” or the way Angelina Jolie leaps off highways and onto the tops of big rigs in “Salt;” nothing says sexy CIA spy like Dame Helen Mirren playing shoot-’em-up behind a semi-automatic.
In “Red,” an action-comedy adapted from a limited DC Comics series short for “retired, extremely dangerous,” gray hair proves to have a correlation not only with experience and ingenuity, but also an itchy trigger finger when a team of former black-op CIA agents reunite for one last cross-country firearms romp before their Social Security kicks in.
Playing a tough old dude again (most recently in a forgettable “Expendables” cameo), Bruce Willis has a little fight left in him as Frank Moses, the youngest of the retirees who has been spending his free time watching his avocado plant sprout two measly leaves and making excuses to phone flirt with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), the woman who cuts his pension checks.
When Frank becomes the target of a group of hit men, he kidnaps Sarah to ensure her safety (worst way to get a date ever) and rallies his squad of former colleagues, including retirement home resident Joe (Morgan Freeman), paranoid spook Marvin (John Malkovich), and hobbyist/freelance contract killer Victoria (Mirren), to break into CIA headquarters and expose a major political cover-up.
The mission isn’t all that challenging for director Robert Schwentke (“The Time Traveler’s Wife”) and screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber (“Whiteout”), who allow the geezers to come and go as they please with tons of firepower but precious little explanation. More importantly, the script maintains a playful tone and rarely takes any shortcuts by harping on the obvious, like in 2000’s “Space Cowboys,” meaning no jokes about MediCare, wrinkly asses, and drinking Ensure.
Instead, “Red” relies on its talented cast to deliver the shrewd sarcasm and a few far-fetched action sequences that make most of the film so enjoyable. While Freeman and Parker are underutilized for the most part, Malkovich is able to chew up scenery effortlessly (grenade baseball should be an Olympic sport), and Willis gives Die Hard fans reason to expect more yippee-ki-yaying before it’s all said and done.
Sure, comic-book-inspired movies don’t necessarily get better with age, but just because our heroes are on the wrong side of the half-century mark doesn’t mean things have to go downhill fast. With “Red,” it feels good to pump the brakes a bit and revel in the ridiculousness of it all.
This review originally ran in the San Antonio Current Oct. 13, 2010
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Helen Mirren, Ryan Kwanten
Directed by: Zack Snyder (“Watchmen”)
Written by: John Orloff (“A Mighty Heart”) and Emil Stern (“The Life Before Her Eyes”)
The sharp visual style of director Zach Snyder transfers over surprisingly well into the animated genre in the filmmaker’s first attempt with “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.” Not without its narrative flaws, “Guardians” is still a darkly-imagined technical wonder and a rare case in recent animated films where 3-D actually adds to the experience.
In “Guardians,” owl brothers Soren (Jim Sturgess) and Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) are kidnapped by a flock of evil owls led by their queen Nyra (Helen Mirren) who is eager to turn them into slave laborers. The brothers go their separate ways when Kludd finds honor in serving the queen, while Soren escapes to search for the mythical Guardians of Ga’Hoole, warrior owls who are the only answer to defeat Nyra and her army.
Adapted from the first three books in a series written by Kathryn Lasky, there are points in “Guardians” where the names of characters and locations can be a bit difficult to follow especially for the young demographic Warner Bros. is aiming for. It’s evident when the trailer mentions the film has the same producers as “Happy Feet” but doesn’t include Snyder’s past accomplishments: “Dawn of the Dead,” “300,” and “Watchmen.” Also, the soundtrack includes grating music by the band Owl City.
With “Guardians,” Snyder is still able to work with the elements of fantasy that were his calling card in his more graphic projects. Instead of zombies, Greek warriors, or superheroes, he is able to make these majestic birds come to life in the same way.
When the incredible attention to detail emerges is really when the film takes flight. Add to that a classy British voice cast to give life to all these beautifully-rendered birds and “Guardians” becomes an animation like none you’ve seen this year.
Starring: Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Christopher Plummer
Directed by: Michael Hoffman (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”)
Written by: Michael Hoffman (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”)
While “The Last Station,” a melodramatic period piece on 19th century Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, might not find the literary scholar in all of us, there’s no denying the major influence the writer’s work has had on generations of free-thinking minds. From Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr., Tolstoy, who wrote such well-known novels such as “War and Peace,” “Anna Karenina” and “The Kingdom of God is Within You,” is regarded by many as a one of the greatest storytellers in all of literature.
Portraying Tolstoy at the age of 81 is an icon in his own right, 80-year-old Canadian actor Christopher Plummer, who began his professional film career in the last ’50s and is best known for his role in “The Sound of Music” and his Tony Award-winning work on Broadway. As Tolstoy, a part that earned him the first Academy Award nomination of his career this year, Plummer is fantastic. Accolades are also well deserved for Oscar winner Helen Mirren (“The Queen”), who plays Tolstoy’s wife of 48 years, Sofya. The role earned her a fourth Academy Award nomination.
The acting talent is limitless in “The Last Station,” which also stars Oscar nominee Paul Giamatti (“Cinderella Man”) and up-and-coming Scottish actor James McAvoy (“Atonement”). In the film, McAvoy plays Valentine Bulgakov, a young and impressionable essayist who becomes Tolstoy’s personal secretary. Like his role in 2006’s “The Last King of Scotland” where he plays Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s private physician, McAvoy’s Valentine is at the center of a delicate, emotional, and historical narrative. This one splits Tolstoy between his family and his faction.
The year is 1910 and Tolstoy has built a substantial following of people who live life according to his philosophy, which includes celibacy and passive resistance. Known as Tolstoyans, a Christian anarchist group formed by Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti), the advocates regard Tolstoy as a prophet. In “The Last Station,” Vladimir sends Valentine into the Tolstoy estate to spy and report back family news from inside the household. Vladimir is worried Sofya will ruin the commune’s plan to indoctrinate the public with his beliefs. She wants the rights to her husbands work after he passes away, but Vladimir argues the work belongs to the people. Tolstoy, himself, seems bewildered at the thought of having to choose between his wife and the man who could help seal his legacy.
While “The Last Station” might feel a bit stuffy and slowly-paced for some viewers, director/screenwriter Michael Hoffman (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) has created an intelligent drama based on the intricacies that evolve when relationships and ideals collide. As Mrs. Tolstoy, Mirren is memorable when revealing her character’s frustrations as she slowly loses her husband to the world. McAvoy, too, holds his own alongside the veterans by creating a sympathetic character lost between his idolization of a flawed master and his better conscience.
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams
Directed by: Kevin McDonald (“The Last King of Scotland”)
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan (“Lions for Lambs”), Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”), Billy Ray (“Breach”)
There will never be another newspaper film like “State of Play.”
While it might be a bit extreme to say Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams are on the same tier as Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford’s Woodward and Bernstein in the 1976 media epic “All the President’s Men,” no one has ever come as close to capturing the true meaning of investigative journalism in the print media. Even with some sensationalism thrown in for flavor, “State of Play” is smartly done.
For the generation who like their news in short blurbs written by bloggers who use Wikipedia as their main source, this definitely won’t resonate with you. For those who still value the art of in-depth reporting and the way an actual newspaper still feels between your fingertips, “State of Play” is as tightly written as a front-page story grinded out on an unapologetic deadline by a veteran reporter.
Based on a 2003 British TV miniseries of the same name, “State of Play” follows old-school Washington D.C. scribe Cal McAffrey (Crowe) in the middle of a political scandal that slowly reels him personally and professionally. The mistress of his old college friend, Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), has died of an apparent suicide, but with some exceptional fact digging, Cal uncovers other circumstances that could prove to be damaging to some governmental bigwigs and to himself on an ethical level.
There to pick up the slack as their scowling editor (Helen Mirren) keeps a sharp eye on her staff is internet reporter Della Frye (McAdams), whose blogging abilities are just impressive enough to provoke Cal’s traditional stance on his lifelong career. “I’m just trying to help you get a few facts in the mix the next time you upchuck online.”
Still, a little new blood never hurt anyone especially with someone as hungry for a newsworthy story as Della. Crowe and McAdams’ chemistry blends well from the start and only strengthens as the political thriller dashes in and out of some sharp turns and detailed storytelling. It’s easily the best newspaper movie since 2003 “Shattered Glass” and the most intelligent film to be released in the first third of the year.