Saturday, April 25, 2015

Hitchcock's I CONFESS

I'm reminded with Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess of the opening narration from Mean Streets (also a film by a deeply Catholic filmmaker, how deep Hitchcock was compared to Scorsese is a discussion for another review), saying "You don't make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets, you do it at home, the rest is BS and you know it." In this story, a man, Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse), who is close with the Church but not a priest, confessed to Father Logan (Monty Clift) that he has killed a man.

Being a man of the cloth and the Church, he can't tell the police about this; It also doesn't help that Logan has a past relationship with a woman (Anne Baxter) who is now (unhappily) married to a local big-wig, and there are some implications of blackmail in the past. Keller could be the type to just be glad to get away with murder simply, but that isn't so much the case - he holds it over the Father, like a kid in a school-yard who has told a secret to another kid and gets to gloat it over him. Don't tattle, or you know what'll happen!

The point Hitchcock is making here isn't something craven like 'Catholicism is stupid'. That may be a thought that crossed my mind once or twice watching it - though without this crux of the faith, that a man who hears confession while in that little box can't say anything outside of it, there wouldn't be much of a film. Hitchcock, as well as the head of the 'Breen' production office (i.e. Censors), were Catholic and took this conflict to heart. So I Confess has this conflict so strong, and is conveyed by the characters caught up in this lie, that it helps push the film forward in a way more as an intellectual tale more than an emotional one.

This is not to say that Hitch doesn't go for emotional moments here, heavens of course he does. Indeed it's almost so extreme one wonders if he's doing it in a mocking way, such as when Ruth (Baxter) has her flashback when speaking to the police about her past with Logan, and there's a romantic style to the filmmaking that is like Vertigo if it was less obsessive and more... sweet, saccharine. Truffuat apparently said in his interview with Hitchcock years later that this was like Hitchcock showing her possibly lying, that there was *more* there between the man and woman, her version of events. Of this, I'm not so sure. So much of the film is told in a straight-forward way, very dramatic, very seriously, that I just take that long flashback - mostly done well with kind of a silent film tone outside of the spot-on narration - that I just take it as a director going for a "sunny" time of the past sort of thing, that one moment we can see Clift smile as Tiomkin's music swells with "joy" of a sort.

Indeed the problem that some may have - and others did when it was released - is that when one comes to a Hitchcock movie, the expectation is for some fun with the is-he-or-not murder type hijinks. Hopefully a look at the synopsis, or just a handful of the film-noir-like stills, will show this is a far cry from Stewart in the wheelchair in Rear Window or Grant in the cornfield in North by Northwest. If anything this is like the test run for The Wrong Man, one of (for my money) his most underrated and powerful examinations of murder in the REAL world (not the 'Movie' world, so to speak, of other 50's thriller fantasies). Though maybe not as rigorous in exploring the theme of conscience over life and death, I think Hitchcock a few years later in Wrong Man got the balance between the emotional and intellectual sides of the script and actors better than in I Confess (hell, Clift even, at times, kinda looks like a younger Fonda). For as much as there is to think about the subjects relayed here, and certainly in a religious context, I didn't always FEEL for the characters, if that makes sense.

Nah, it's not Harry Lime... but it'd be kick-ass if it was, eh?
This is not to say the actors don't try either. It's hard not to see so much conflict in Clift's face, in practically every scene. I'd almost argue there's SO much going on with him, he veers towards the over-the-top in his nuance and internalizations, if that makes sense. More conventional but still appealing are the turns by Baxter, Malden as the cop, and (my favorite) Hasse as the murderer. All of them are exemplary.

And maybe I'm not totally sure what is missing from it being one of the top Hitch films, as the French critics said at the time, those veering from the pack who dismissed it as minor work. I can't see it as a 'minor' work at all - very few of those in the director's cannon - and on top of the cast rarely missing a beat there's the unique setting of Quebec, which gives the story an old-time type of feel. If not for the appearance of an (ironic?) movie theater or cars, one might think it was from the 1800's. For a moment or two, anyway.

Perhaps I wasn't ready for something THIS somber; the funniest moments are unintentional, as a priest's bike falls over in the office at a tense moment, or, most especially, the crowd at the end looks on so harshly veering to the point of the manic. Or it could be making things a little less... chaste, if that's the word, between Clift and Baxter; the script faced the censors - ironically from another ex-Jesuit schoolboy as Mr. Breen, and a plot point about an actual affair instead of just an emotional one was nixed along with an illegitimate child, for me I could do without the latter but the former really would've raised the stakes.

I don't know if it's the BEST Hitchcock cameo, but... damn if it don't look astonishing.

I Confess is a serious film, about what a sin *really* means, and I was glad to take it on those terms, and certainly to see a director known at the time for escapist fare to go for something that posed real questions, of what point IS the breaking point. And it does get better as it goes along to its masterful climax. I just wish it had... more, of what I don't know. A rewatch years from now may be in order, though it just goes to show how much is expected sometimes of Alfred Hitchcock.

Friday, April 24, 2015

RIP Richard Corliss (of TIME Magazine)

 What more fitting way to remember one man who wrote for TIME magazine than... TWO, two men, ah-ah-ah.... alright, enough of the Count, this is sad -

and oddly enough, he had one of the more memorable moments for me in the Roger Ebert doc LIFE ITSELF, as he had written an article sort of attacking the Siskel/Ebert model of criticism, saying that it was killing print criticism, in Film Comment magazine. 

He will be missed. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015


*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Nearly every horror movie in this day and age has people being haunted or chased or beguiled by ghosts and demonic possessors and the like. We live in a world where we can get the likes of It Follows, which takes the slasher movie and innovates it with a fresh approach but, outside of this, takes the time out to give the audience characters who are relatable and likable or, at the least, make the people on screen seem like PEOPLE who are not terrible or awful and, to a point, unrealistic. It takes a combination of those two things to reach for greatness, but a horror movie can still be effective if it has one or the other: believable characters - even if it's just one or two - who have some dimension, or an approach that is cinematic. Found footage movies may be questionable at times for how the characters use the form of cinema itself - why not put down the camera during a particular moment, but I'll get back to that later - but there is a recognizable format for seeing characters on a screen doing things.

Can there be a movie that pulls off the "gimmick" of multiple characters on a computer screen, via Skype, in real time? Maybe. I don't doubt any kind of innovation can work. But is Unfriended "innovative"? No, it's not. With cinema, you can have moments of text on a screen. But to this extent? Half of this movie is AIM-style messaging and facebook back-and-forth. That is not, to my perspective, very cinematic. What is there about all of that text to be much engaging? At times we're simply watching the faces of these teenagers as they type. Only once or twice does anyone even, I don't know, pick up a PHONE to call someone. There were times, many of them, where I wondered to myself: 'Can this even really be called a MOVIE'?

And I get it, sort of. The filmmakers' point is that this is a time where 'Millennials' are living their lives online. But this could still be made compelling IF there were people to care about or fuller stakes or actual, you know, scares. What we get with Unfriended as anything close to a story is that Lauren Barns killed herself following cyberbullying, and a year later as her former friends are chatting on Skype Lauren messages the main girl, Blaire, who's computer-screen we are seeing throughout. It's akin to I Know What You Did Last Summer, only instead of a man with a hook in a raincoat, it's an un-seen "Ghost" of some sort who, over the course of a real-time 80 minutes, takes out the characters one by one via "Games". It's an approach that makes Haneke's Funny Games subtle by comparison.

Unfriended is bad news from minute one. First and foremost, there is not a single identifiable character in the movie, not one. And just when you think you're on a character's side - just due to the usual of 'This is the "Main" character' - that rug is pulled out as well by film's end. These teenagers... there is a tradition of stupid, mindless and obnoxious teenagers killed off for reasons in horror movies for decades. But rarely have I seen one where the characters a) show so little dimension, being navel-gazing bores and worse, and b) when the "secrets" start coming out are even worse than they were before. And can you root for a computer-ghost to kill characters? Do we know enough really about her to care? Or about anyone? Little hints of the pasts of these people are shown, some relationships, but by the time it gets to that it doesn't matter - just get to the next character after that Countdown Clock BS, and show the gruesome carnage.

It's unpleasant to watch not because it's difficult to take the violence, but it's difficult to take the experience as a whole. Because the story and characters are wretched and boring and monotonous, one notices the flaws in the gimmick more and more. And unlike other found footage movies, this one strains credibility even further than before: what is stopping them from just, I dunno, turning off their computers? Would the problem be solved? No, then it would become just another generic ghost-revenge movie that we've already seen. But, and I can't stress this enough, the director and writer (who I believe are in their 40's), seem to have a kind of contempt for these teenagers, and by proxy the audience themselves. And moments where tension could be built up - like when Blaire contacts someone via Chat Roulette (!) to contact the police - it feels like padding, and idiotic at that. Why can't you call the police yourself? Oh, yes, that would require logic.

There are a few moments where I laughed - not for anything exactly genuine, but at characters' actions ("CLICK THE (BLEEP) LINK!") or one death involving a, no kidding, blender. But overall, Unfriended is presented in the guise of being innovative and terrifying, and is actually a pretentious, offensive-to-the-senses experience in "Modern" horror (in air quotes). It's deep down a nasty piece of work (and I don't mean in any kind of complimentary sense) in the ways that a movie should usually matter, even for a shallow horror trip for teens. And it uses cyber-bullying, a real and terrible thing, for exploitative results. It made me feel hateful for everything about technology and teenagers and the world, and myself for having sat through it.
 Bottom of the barrel horse shit.