Alfred Hitchcock is noted as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and rightfully so — his body of work comprised of over 60 films is skillfully composed highly dramatic and eclectic from beginning to end. So pulling back the curtain on the legend in his own medium was only a matter of time a how'd-he-do-it biopic that could pay respects to the collected works while revealing the master's process. Hitchcock directed by Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil) pays its respects but also reveals another unexpected quality of the auteur's behind-the-scenes life: it wasn't all that dramatic.
Anthony Hopkins slides into the silhouette of the recognizable director and does a reasonable job nailing his cadence and posture. Side by side with his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) who as the movie reveals was the director's close collaborator Hitchcock strides confidently into the world of independent cinema for the first time balking at studio heads who demand something more audience-friendly than the gruesome Psycho. Investing his own money into the film Hitchcock risks everything to turn the story of murderer Ed Gein into a high art horror picture. He finds a leading lady in Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) a script in a screenwriter with mommy problems and a closeted actor to portray the sexually exploratory Gein.
And that's about it. Hitchcock disguises the usual stresses of moviemaking as major hurdles even representing Gein as a specter who haunts Hitchcock's every decision. Aside from the brief suspicion that Alma abandons him mid-production for charming writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) which feels stuffed in and meandering rather than intrinsic to the making of Psycho there's little explanation for Hitchcock's anxiety and downward spiral. The film even dabbles in Hitch's well-known infatuation with his leading ladies — explored to a terrifying degree in last month's The Girl — but places the director on too high a pedestal to ever dig deep.
The real star of the show — and perhaps one who would have made a better subject for feature film — is Alma a complex second fiddle overshadowed by the greatness of Hitchcock. Mirren once again delivers a lively performance as a woman desperate to live her own life; the scene when she lets loose on Hitchcock is easily the high point of the movie. But like the audience who unknowingly appreciated her work behind-the-camera Hitchcock is too obsessed with the man at the center of it all to open up and give the character or Mirren the spotlight.
Hitchcock's time period flourishes and camera work are presented simply (Gervasi keeps hat tipping to the auteur's oeuvre to a minimum) while Danny Elfman whips up a score that riffs appropriately on longtime Hitchcock collaborator Bernhard Hermann's works. But there's no hook to elevate the film from a puff piece and even the biggest Alfred Hitchcock fan will be grasping for something more.
Having inherited the mantle of the serial killer known as Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) tries to cover his tracks while executing yet another elaborate torture scheme and staying one step ahead of FBI agent Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson) who survived his previous encounter with Jigsaw but may not be so lucky this time around. Like so many horror franchises of recent (and not-so-recent) vintage -- Halloween Friday the 13th A Nightmare on Elm Street -- the latest Saw doesn’t deviate from the formula. Endlessly repeating the same rudimentary elements may spell big bucks at the box-office forked over by the Saw faithful but even die-hard fans will be hard-pressed to find something even remotely new or inventive here. In what must be an effort to mix things up screenwriters Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan revise (i.e. screw around with) some of the earlier film’s plot twists with “new” flashbacks that offer different perspectives than was first depicted. If this is intended to provide surprise to the well-worn storyline it isn’t successful. It only makes a murky story even murkier. Jigsaw may have met his end at the conclusion of Saw IV but Tobin Bell is all over the place this time around seen either in flashback or on television screens. With his menacing whispery delivery Bell can hardly be accused of sleepwalking through his role but one suspects that the basic enticements for him here were top billing -- and the paycheck that goes along with it. The beefy Mandylor skulks his way through the one-dimensional role of Hoffman while Patterson brings a bit of intensity to his role as the dogged Strahm. Betsy Russell fondly remembered as a teen B-movie queen of the 1980s (Private School Avenging Angel) plays Jigsaw’s ex-wife while Meagan Good and Julie Benz (in an ill-fitting black wig) portray two of the latest “players” in the latest Jigsaw puzzle. Shawnee Smith Angus MacFadyen and Danny Glover who all met their onscreen ends in previous installments make token flashback appearances here -- to no discernible effect. Mark Hackl the production designer of Saw II – IV who was originally tapped to direct the fourth installment now makes his directorial debut. As one might expect he retains the decayed urban design of the previous films (which he of course designed) and there are the requisite gallons of gore and guts for those who enjoy that sort of thing. What would the Saw films be without such visceral pleasantries? But for all the technical ingenuity of some of the lethal booby traps there’s a distinct dullness to the proceedings. Saw V is appropriately gruesome but it’s not particularly exciting or suspenseful. As a Halloween scare-fest it’s all trick and no treat … and yes the door is left wide open for another installment. Enough’s enough already.
Hostel: Part II picks up where the first Hostel left off—and then Paxton (Jay Hernandez) wakes up. It’s the last nightmare he’ll ever (be able to) have. Cut to Rome where three American girls—wealthy Beth (Lauren German) sex-craving Whitney (Bijou Phillips) and naïve awkward Lorna (Heather Matarazzo)—have completed their art class after painting a nude model (Vera Jordanova) and are off to Prague via train. While en route they bump into that same nude model who convinces them to change their plans and come with her to an exclusive hot-springs spa in Slovakia. And so their fates are sealed. Once they check in at their hostel with the bellboy who might as well be Satan’s little helper the bidding begins. All around the world the well-to-do-but-not-well-meaning vie for a chance at torturing and savagely murdering these fresh American college gals. And the winners are: Stuart (Roger Bart) and Todd (Richard Burgi) two Americans with WAY too much money on their hands. Thus begins the torturing—of the audience. There is an underrated skill in being able to act scared to death for your life—and in Hostel II’s case whatever prop cutlery was used to poke at the victims’ bodies probably made acting spontaneously easier. Most of the cast however tends to overdo it here. The lone exception is German (A Walk to Remember) making this by far her biggest acting splash to date as the heroine…type. She more so than the others is forced to emote rather than just shriek and she shows ability that reaches beyond horror movies. Phillips (Bully) and Matarazzo (Welcome to the Dollhouse) meanwhile though disparate character-wise both over-act: Matarazzo especially tries too hard to be gawky even if it makes for a starker contrast when her character is well you know. And grossly—pun intended—miscast is Desperate Housewives actor Bart who--no matter the volume and amount of F-bombs he drops--isn’t game for the uber-depravity that writer-director Eli Roth was going for. In fact the foreign unknowns outperform their American counterparts quite a bit in this sequel. First thing’s first: If Hostel II managed to snag an R rating then hardcore porn should be rated G! Now on to writer-director Eli Roth. To his credit the horror god possesses a mind sicker than any other contemporary filmmaker including returning exec-producer/endorser Quentin Tarantino but that doesn’t mean he knows how to tell a story. There's not a whole that goes on between the jaw-dropping scenes of torture the audience has come to half-see which begs the question: Would Hostel II be anything at all if not for said sadism? In addition a lack of true story brings to light another potential flaw in the Roth system—he doesn’t frighten us so much as disturb. But therein lies the good as well. If you like to be disturbed in a strictly I’d-never-do-this-but-maybe-it-happens-somewhere kind of way Roth is most certainly your man. Of course if you like to be disturbed by a film in any way Roth is most certainly your man. He’s got a wild and prolific imagination and when he turns it on the resulting images are unlike anything you’ve ever seen or want to see again—impossible to look at or away from. If only he could expend it on the stuff surrounding the imagery.