REVIEW: “The Birds”

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One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most recognized films is “The Birds” from 1963. In many ways “The Birds” could have been an absolute mess. The concept itself (loosely based on a story by the English author and playwright Daphne du Maurier) could be considered silly and absurd on the surface. In fact many ideas such as this in the hands of many modern day filmmakers end up as originals on channels like Sci-Fi Network.

But “The Birds” isn’t silly, absurd, and it certainly isn’t a mess. It’s a great film that shows what a master filmmaker can do even with what may seem like the craziest concept. Hitchcock liked the idea of random bird attacks from du Maurier’s story and he was enthusiastic about visually creating it on screen. He instructed screenwriter Evan Hunter to create a broader story with more defined characters. The end result was an effective thriller filled with Hitchcock’s signature style and suspense.

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The film featured the screen debut of Tippi Hedren. She plays Melanie Daniels, a beautiful San Francisco socialite who meets a lawyer named Mitch (Rod Taylor) in a pet shop. He’s there to buy a pair of lovebirds, but he ends up more interested in Melanie. They don’t have the best encounter and Mitch ends up leaving empty-handed. Later Melanie second guesses her reaction and after finding a pair of lovebirds traces Mitch to Bodega Bay. Her stay there spans several days and during this time violent encounters with birds begin and later intensify. Soon Melanie, Mitch, and the entire community find themselves terrorized by a wide assortment of fowl.

Hedren was a great choice to play Melanie which clearly emphasized Hitchcock’s eye for talent. Hitchcock was ultra protective of his young female lead and over the following few years their tense relationship would lead to a great deal of controversy. But in “The Birds” Hedren fits nicely into Hitch’s cinematic world. Her performance never resembles that of a newcomer and her pairing with the more seasoned Rod Taylor was a good fit. There some good supporting performances as well particularly from Jessica Tandy and Suzanne Pleshette. I also loved the assortment of peculiar townfolk which gave the community such quirky life.

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Speaking of quirky, the film starts out with a subtle quirky vibe. But as Hitchcock moves us forward the story evolves into something much different. He moves into suspense where he sucks us in with his crafty and methodical buildup before plunging into what could be called shock horror. Through some amazing special effects and his unmatched eye for the camera, Hitchcock unleashes several scenes of unsettling terror that still hold up today. The film is often overlooked and underappreciated especially when lined up next to his other works. But rewatching the film and experiencing again the visual style used to create some of the film’s great scenes reminded me that the movie can’t be shoved aside.

There are a handful of narrative question marks that just don’t make a lot of sense. Also the ending, while stylish and pleasing to a degree, does feel a bit hollow and it left me wanting more out of it. These gripes may be enough to keep it from being considered the director’s best, but they certainly don’t soil the movie as a whole. Actually it’s quite the opposite. “The Birds” remains a wonderful experience. It takes a somewhat wacky concept and brilliantly creates a society turned on its head by the unlikeliest of terrors. Some today may not find it to be as unnerving or as horrifying as it was to those first audiences, but if you allow yourself to get swept up buy the buildup and the ultimate payoff “The Birds” is still extremely satisfying.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

“Stoker” – 4 STARS

STOKER POSTERThere are two things that you’ll instantly notice when watching “Stoker”. First, it’s clear that director Park Chan-wook is a true visionary. Second, there is something seriously not right in the Stoker household. “Stoker” is a twisted psychological thriller oozing with Hitchcockian influence and mixed with traces of classic horror. There’s a good reason for that. The script was written by Wentworth Miller (yes, the guy from “Prison Break”) who stated that he used Hitchcock’s classic thriller “Shadow of a Doubt” to help frame his story. But this isn’t a mere carbon copy. He takes things in a much darker direction which helps this movie stand on its own two feet.

Chan-wook is best known for his “Vengeance” trilogy and for “Oldboy” which is currently being remade by Spike Lee. “Stoker” marks his English-language debut and his fingerprints are all over this film. He takes Miller’s script and instantly incorporates his signature style which works to create a specific mood and tone throughout the picture. And if you’re familiar with his other work you know his films often incorporate uneasiness and brutality. Both are present here as well.

The story centers around young India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska). Her life is dealt a terrible blow when her father Richard is killed in a tragic car accident on her 18th birthday. India was very close with her father, something that can’t be said about her relationship with her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). The two have a strained relationship resulting from Evelyn’s emotional instability and her jealousy of India’s affection for her father. After the funeral, both meet Richard’s brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) who has been traveling abroad for years. Evelyn takes to him instantly but India doesn’t trust him. He has the charm and good looks but there’s something unnerving about this guy.

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Uncle Charlie volunteers to move in to help the family out. Evelyn is thrilled which does more to strain her relationship with India. The story unfolds and we quickly sense Charlie is up to no good. But there’s a lot more going on than anyone realizes. Most of the film deals with the tension between India and her Uncle. Her suspicions of Charlie are valid but neither she or the audience can figure the guy out. But it’s not as if she’s completely stable. She’s a very dark and brooding recluse. She lives in her own little world which is made clear by a couple of scenes that take place at her high school. The contrast between home and away is profound. Her nature and Charlie’s creepiness make for some good, eerie conversations between the two. But there’s also an undeniable psychosexual tension that permeates each scene. It’s a key part of the movie’s overall weirdness that sometimes has you squirming in your seat.

Wasikowska is an young actress that I’ve always been impressed with. She gives another solid performance here although the material doesn’t require much in terms of range. Throughout the entire film she maintains the same blank expression regardless of what’s happening. It’s nothing that allows her to flex her acting muscle yet it’s strikingly appropriate for this story. I also thought Kidman was really good. She takes on a smaller role, but her strong performance brings more to her character than you might expect. But for me Matthew Goode is the real standout. From his first appearance in the cemetery overlooking his brother’s funeral service, Goode maintains an eerie presence. He slithers around the Stoker’s secluded two-story estate channeling his best Joseph Cotton from “Shadow of a Doubt”. I loved what Goode did with the role and for me he helped give the movie the creepy intensity it was shooting for.

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But I think my favorite thing about “Stoker” was the undeniable style of Park Chan-wook. I loved what he was doing with his camera and I never grew tired of his perspectives. There’s such artistry at work as he uses strategic close ups, moving cameras, and specific framings of shots. Chan-Wook also left indelible images carved into my mind. He gives the film a real horror movie feel with chilling shots of things like a crawling spider, a hair on a bar of soap, or a pencil sharpener. He also gives the movie heightened senses particularly in the area of sound. It may be voices, buzzing house flies, or even the crumbling of a boiled egg’s shell. All of this contributes to letting us know everything’s wrong in their world. I mean even the end credits are backwards and scroll down instead of up.

All of the amazing visuals and strong acting really worked for me. But some will assuredly be turned off by the movie’s bloody and violent final act. In a way I can understand why but not necessary due to the blood. I’m just not sure that the ending works that well storywise. That aside, “Stoker” is a strong film, dark and unsettling but still wickedly entertaining. It’s most certainly not a film for everyone. But it should be seen even if only for Goode’s devilishly good performance and the stylistic visionary direction. Lucky for me, I found there to be more to like than just that.

“Hitchcock” – 4 STARS

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You know, I just love movies about making movies. That’s one reason I thought the movie “Hitchcock” would be right up my alley. Another reason is that it’s about one of cinema’s greatest directors – Alfred Hitchcock. Yet another reason I was interested was because of the fantastic cast specifically Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as his wife Alma Reville. These and several other yummy ingredients had me really hungry for this film and after seeing it I can say that it’s quite satisfying.

But enough with the gastronomical analogies. “Hitchcock” takes place during the filming of arguably the director’s most popular and groundbreaking film “Psycho”. The movie begins just after the release of Hitchcock’s wildly successful “North By Northwest”. He still owes Paramount Pictures another film but he’s struggling to find the right one. He also feels that the studios and press believe he is past his prime and he wants to pick a bold project that will prove otherwise. He finds himself attracted to a Robert Bloch novel titled “Psycho”. He convinces Alma and his agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) that it’s the right choice but he has a harder time with Paramount president Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow). They finally reach an agreement where Hitchcock agrees to fund the picture for 40% of the profits and a Paramount distribution.

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It’s really fascinating to watch the behind-the-scenes process and how Hitchcock labored to make “Psycho”. But a bigger and even more enjoyable part of the movie focuses on Hitchcock’s relationship with his wife. Hopkins and Mirren are a joy to watch. The two veteran performers dissect this marriage with surgical precision, bringing out so many interesting aspects of it. There’s a clear love that they both share for one another, but there’s an equally clear strain on their marriage brought on by the financial stress of funding the movie and by Hitchcock’s own negligence, pride, and fear of failure.

Hitch is betrayed as a self-assured man on the outside but he clearly has uncertainties on the inside. He has a wandering eye for his leading ladies and has a tendency to overindulge in food and drink – something Alma stays on him about. Alma is a talented writer herself and her uncredited contributions to Hitchcock’s creative process prove vital. Her growing frustrations lead her to begin her own collaboration with fellow writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), something Hitchcock disapproves of. All of these pressures begin to wear on Hitch and ends up threatening the completion of “Psycho”.

As I alluded to, one of the real strengths of this picture are the performances. Mirren rightfully earns her award nominations that she has received. Hopkins does a fine job fleshing out this complex director under a coat of heavy prosthetics. He nails all the mannerisms and postures and his speech is almost perfect. But there’s one thing I struggled with. I never could quite get past that I was watching him do Alfred Hitchcock. Take Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in “Lincoln”. I was so drawn in by his work that I forgot I was watching an actor play Abraham Lincoln. I never quite got to that point here. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not a bad performance by any means. But I never completely bought into the idea that I was watching Hitchcock on screen.

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I also have to mention the other supporting performances that I really enjoyed. I’ve liked Michael Stuhlbarg since seeing him in the Coen brothers film “A Serious Man”. He’s good here too. I was also impressed with Jessica Biel as Vera Miles. She’s an actress I normally don’t care for but she gives a nice subtle performance that works really well. But an even bigger surprise for me was Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh. I’ve never been completely sold on Johansson as an actress but I love the Janet Leigh she portrays. She’s beautiful and sexy but she’s almost a stabilizing influence on Hitch. She’s a lot of fun to watch in the role.

“Hitchcock” has a hard time escaping that biopic feel but it’s still a really good film. I think my love for the director’s movies and my particular affection for “Psycho” added a sense of nostalgia to my viewing, but there’s a lot more to this picture than just that. There are many clever little inclusions that go hand-in-hand with Hitchcock. For instance look closely and you’ll find his shadowy silhouette that fans of his will instantly recognize. Then there’s the cool opening and closing of the film that hearkens back the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” days. These nifty treats fit in well with the solid script and wonderful performances and anyone with the slightest interest should come away well pleased.

5 Phenomenal Actors Who Never Won an Oscar

A few weeks ago I looked at 5 phenomenal actresses who were never given an Academy Award despite their incredible talent and strong careers. Today we are focussing on the men. I found this to be a much tougher list to put together. The number of great actors that never won the highest acting award would surprise you. And I found it incredibly difficult to leave certain names off this list. But I think a great case can be made for the five that made the cut. Now, as with the ladies, Lifetime Achievement Oscars don’t count. I’m talking about men who never received the heralded Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor awards. With such a healthy selection, it would be silly to call this the definitive list. But it’s clear that these 5 Oscarless actors are certainly phenomenal.

#5 – FRED ASTAIRE

While I’ve never been a huge fan of musicals, I’ve always appreciated the amazing contributions Fred Astaire made to the once flourishing genre. So it came as a big surprise to see that Astaire never won an Oscar. Now he did receive an honorary Academy Award after one of his retirement stints. But he was never recognized for his acting. Astaire was an amazing talent both with his dance and with his voice. But he was also a talented and always likable actor who made many quality films. There was a lot of doubt about whether he would make it in the movie industry but he would end up putting that to rest. He will always be recognized for his collaborations with Ginger Rogers. The two made a total of ten movies together including “Top Hat”, “Swing Time”, and “The Barkleys of Broadway”. He was superb in “Holiday Inn” alongside Bing Crosby. He would also make many well-received movies with the likes of Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn. Fred Astaire made many films that should have garnered some Oscar attention. And this is coming from a guy not that crazy about musicals.

#4 – LEONARDO DICAPRIO

From an early age, Leonardo DiCaprio defined himself as an exceptional actor through several incredible performances. He first caught the attention of movie fans with his portrayal of a mentally handicapped boy in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”. This would earn him his first Academy Award nomination. He would star in several recognizable films before making his big splash (pun intended) in James Cameron’s mega-hit “Titanic”. Following it, he began a defining collaboration with Martin Scorsese in films like “Gangs of New York”, “The Aviator” (which earned him his second Oscar nomination), and “The Departed”. Hey would then earn a third nomination in “Blood Diamond”. He would continue to do top-notch work particularly in “Shutter Island”, his fourth movie with Scorsese, and the fantastic “Inception” with director Christopher Nolan. DiCaprio has an impressive resume and several intriguing roles lined up. He’s earned his numerous nominations but cases could be made that one or more of them could have translated to wins.

#3 – ROBERT MITCHUM

It’s hard to believe that an actor who was so highly revered and with so many good movies on his resume never received an Academy Award for his work. Such is the case with Robert Mitchum. Mitchum really made a name for himself in the film noir genre with movies like “Crossfire”, “Out of the Past”, and “The Big Steal”. He also starred in “The Story of G.I. Joe”, a solid picture that would earn him his one and only Academy Award nomination. After playing in a variety of roles, Mitchum would give a mesmerizing and menacing performance in “The Night of the Hunter”. The rest of Mitchum’s career would feature numerous Oscar worthy performances in some really good films such as “The Sundowners”, the creepy “Cape Fear”, “The Longest Day”, “El Dorado”, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”, and “Ryan’s Daughter”. Mitchum had a recognizable look and unmistakable voice. But he also had a booming screen presence that made his performances all the more memorable. It’s truly amazing that the Academy never recognized him for his work.

#2 – JOSEPH COTTEN

Joseph Cotten had a long film career that spanned over five decades. He was an actor that was always working but was never quite as popular as many of Hollywood’s big names. But personally I loved Cotten and he starred in some of my favorite classic movies. You know things are good when one of your very first feature films in the beloved “Citizen Kane”. Cotten’s performance as Leland stands out and it’s one of the film’s many strong points. After another wonderful collaboration with Orson Welles in “The Magnificent Ambersons”, he would star in one of my very favorite Alfred Hitchcock pictures “Shadow of a Doubt”. In it he delivers yet another true Oscar-calibur performance. The 1940’s were a great year for Cotten as evident by his work in “Gaslight”, “Portrait of Jennie”, and a spectacular movie that I think may offer his very best performance “The Third Man”. While not as strong as the 40’s, the rest of his career would offer several memorable roles in films like “Niagara”, “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte”, “Soylent Green”, and “Airport ’77”. It’s stunning to me that Cotten never garnered any recognition from the Academy especially for his early work.

#1 – CARY GRANT

It almost doesn’t seem possible. Has Cary Grant really never won an Academy Award especially when considering his brilliant resume? Nope, he never won an Oscar and he was only nominated twice! In 1970 the Academy did give him a “We Feel Terrible for Always Passing You Over” honorary Academy Award, but that doesn’t make up for the shunning. Cary Grant’s career stands on its own and it goes without saying that it was a great one. Grant’s good looks and undeniable charm always translated well to the big screen. He gave so many brilliant and charismatic performances from the 1930’s until his retirement in the mid-60’s. Instead of giving a history, let me just name some of the wonderful films he’s been in and you explain to me how he never won and Oscar – “Bringing Up Baby”, “Gunga Din”, “His Girl Friday”, “The Philadelphia Story”, “Penny Serenade”, “The Talk of the Town”, “Arsenic and Old Lace”, “Notorious”, “To Catch a Thief”, “Houseboat”, “North By Northwest”, “Operation Petticoat”, “Charade”. There are several other great Cary Grant pictures but I think you get the point. He was a wonderful actor who always commanded the screen. He also gave us some of cinema’s greatest films.

There you go. Those are my five phenomenal actors who have never won an Oscar. What say you? Agree or disagree with my list? Please take some time to share your thoughts on this week’s Phenomenal 5.

THE THROWDOWN : Norman Bates vs. Jack Torrance

Wednesday is Throwdown day at Keith & the Movies. It’s when we take two movie subjects, pit them against each other, and see who’s left standing. Each Wednesday we’ll look at actors, actresses, movies, genres, scenes, and more. I’ll make a case for each and then see how they stand up one-on-one. And it’s not just my opinion that counts. I’ll share my take and then open up the polls to you. Visit each week for a new Throwdown. Vote each week to decide the true winner!

*Last week the zombies (70%) annihilated the vampires (30%) in our horror movie frightfest.*

This week’s Throwdown is a bit of a stretch but it still should be a lot of fun. In keeping with my ’10 Days of Horror’, today we’re looking at two well-known hotel attendants who, let’s just say, have a few issues. Now I know Norman Bates and Jack Torrance’s connection to their hotels/motels are considerably different. But they have more in common than you might think. More importantly, both have gained an almost iconic status in the horror movie genre so why wouldn’t we let them square off? Here’s the question – which is the better/creepier hotel working madman? Is it Norman Bates or is it Jack Torrance. As always you make the final decision. Vote now and defend your favorite. It’s up to you!

NORMAN BATES vs. JACK TORRANCE

I still remember the first time I saw Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in the Alfred Hitchcock classic “Psycho”. You immediately know that there is something not quite right about him. As the owner of the isolated Bate’s Motel, Norman’s creepiest feature is his flirtation with normalcy. You watch him and he seems like a nice guy but there is that sense of unease that makes him a chilling character. Of course we find out that he is a deranged serial killer with a special “affection” for his dear mother. Norman has given us many great horror moments, none better than the shower scene murder of Janet Leigh. He appears in several other “Psycho” sequels but it’s the original 1960 masterpiece that still resonates.

“Heeeere’s Johnny!” How can you forget Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”? While I’m not one that thinks “The Shining” is the horror movie classic that many do, I still really like the film mainly due to Nicholson’s whacked out performance. Jack Torrance isn’t the owner of the Overlook Hotel like Norman Bates. He’s a writer who’s hired to watch over and maintain the isolated hotel through the harsh winter offseason. The problem is that Torrance isn’t the most stable of men. His writer’s block and cabin fever don’t mix well with the supernatural presence in the place and before long he flies off the rails. He shares conversations with ghosts who soon convince him to murder his family. He takes off, axe in hand, to do their bidding.

This wraps up my ’10 Days of Horror’. So, which of these two crazy caretakers is the creepiest? Which hotel/motel would you be the most eager to avoid? Both have earned there spots in horror movie history. But it’s you who decides who’s really the best maniac of the two. Vote now and make your choice known!

5 PHENOMENAL HORROR MOVIES

THE PHENOMENAL 5

What better way to start my ’10 Days of Horror’ than doing a Phenomenal 5 on the greatest movies of the genre (according to me of course). This is certainly a wide open list and everyone has their opinions. But this is the one genre where I can list my top 5 without hesitation. The horror genre goes way back to the silent movie era and it has kept audiences fascinated ever since. These 5 frightening films are the ones that I can’t get enough of. For me, they are the best of the genre and I truly love each. So here we go. Now considering how broad a subject this is I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. But you can’t deny that these 5 horror movie classics are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “PSYCHO”

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece “Psycho” has arguably the most well-known scene in horror movie history. But there’s also so much greatness wrapped around Janet Leigh’s memorable murder in the shower at the hands…err, knife of Norman Bates. Anthony Perkins is as creepy as they come and you know there’s something not quite right about the guy from the first moment you see him until that final unnerving grin. And of course there is his macabre relationship with his dear, dear mother. For my money “Psycho” is brilliant and it’s the perfect mix of mystery and horror presented with the sharp style of a master filmmaker. It has its share of detractors but I will always love it.

#4 – “HALLOWEEN”

Oh there are so many things I love about “Halloween”. The great John Carpenter gives us a host of special ingredients that makes this film unforgettable. “Halloween” gives us the quintessential scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis. It gives us the frightening Michael Myers. It gives us Donald Pleasence’s wonderfully goofy prophecies of doom. And how can you forget the simple yet to haunting piano score by Carpenter himself. Working with an incredibly small budget, the movie still broke new ground and invented the great horror movie cliches that are still imitated today. It’s a horror movie classic and the king of the slasher sub genre. It also still entertains me just as much as when I first watched it.

#3 – THE EVIL DEAD

In 1981 two young new filmmakers, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, made what would become one of the scariest horror movies of all time. “The Evil Dead” is another example of creating a great horror film with a tiny budget. It’s a highly influential picture that spawned two great sequels. It’s the story of five college kids who spend spring break in an isolated cabin in the woods. They accidentally release demons who begin killing them one by one. “The Evil Dead” is one of the few movies that I would call genuinely scary. The creepy concept and disturbing makeup effects still stick with me to this day. And of course it introduced us to the wonderful character Ash. This is a horror treasure that beats anything that comes out these days.

#2 – “THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE”

For years I thought “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was based on a true story. It was one of the most frightening movies I had ever seen. It’s been years since I found out that the story is purely fictional yet the movie still has the same effect on me today. Tobe Hooper directed, produced, and co-wrote the film that was made for under $300,000 and featured a cast of unknowns. The story of five friends who encounter a cannibalistic family in rural Texas didn’t rely on a buckets of blood and gore for its frights. Instead Hooper creates a disturbing sense of uneasiness with this material alone. Throw in Leatherface and pinches of dark comedy and you have one of the greatest horror movies of all-time.

#1 – “NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD”

I never have a hard time telling people what my favorite horror movie of all time is. George Romero’s classic “Night of the Living Dead” was the first horror movie that really effected me. This is the film that put zombies on the map and there have been countless imitators since. As with the others on this list, Romero uses a small budget and no-name actors yet develops a horror picture that is unlike any other. Expertly crafted and wonderfully unsettling, “Night of the Living Dead” sets its creepy tone early and keeps it through so many clever techniques. I love everything about this true classic. It’s not just my favorite horror movie, it’s one of my favorite movies of all-time.

There they are – 5 Phenomenal Horror Movies. As I mentioned, this is a broad list and everyone has their favorites. But I’ll put my five up up against anyone’s. These five films showed that if you’re creative and skilled you don’t need loads of money and big backing to make a great horror picture. So what did I miss? What would you have included on the list? Which of my choices do you disagree with? Please take time to comment below.