Hollywood's endless desire to romanticise Hollywood is reflected, almost annually, on Oscar night; where there's guaranteed to be at least one film about moviemakin' magic, or Hollywood history, or one of the celebrities from within its 'walk of fame' pantheon. Last year's Academy Awards ended up getting swept up in the old-timey fantasia of The Artist, one of the more overt instances of insider back-patting; but it doesn't always have to be so overt, as this year's likely big-winner, Argo, suggests.
It's with some surprise, then, that Hitchcock has been entirely left out of this year's Oscar conversation; even if its absence seems fitting, given that the Academy never actually gave a Best Director statue to its subject. It's a surprise not because Sasha Gervasi's movies is much good - it's not at all; but, then again, let us never forget that Crash was awarded Best Picture once - but because the film so slavishly glorifies Hollywood history, with a parade of familiar figures presented with both an archetypal accessibility and a few insider winks. The film is not particularly well written, and there are times where the dialogue is so spelling-things-out hokey that it brings back memories of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. “Mr. Hitchcock, you've directed 46 motion-pictures, you're the most famous director in the history of the medium,” someone actually says, as one of the first lines of dialogue, “but you're 60 years old, shouldn't you just quit while you're ahead?” This lets you know, instantly, that you're in for something pretty stupid. And, given that it's a portrait of Hitchcock during the making of Psycho, it's no surprise that the opening stupidity is met with a bookend near close. “This could be the biggest success of your career!” Well then, Hitchcockian history for dummies, thanks for spelling it out.
If you need to actually bother to watch the film that comes between this: Hitchcock, like so many of this film-biz biopics, exists only to recreate moments from other, better films; Gervasi, who bumbled his way into credibility with his documentary portrait Anvil! The Story Of Anvil (which was amazing due solely to its subjects), is clearly excited about recreating the amazing opening shot of Psycho, and showing how it was technically achieved; but, you get the sense that he'd never shoot his own dreams that big, what with the mediocre fashion he frames actors and matches shots. The storytelling tries on various gimmicky guises - Hitchcock's marriage becomes a Hitchcockian portrait of paranoia and infidelity; Hitchcock peeps at ladies and harbours his own psychoses; and, in a groanworthy piece of writing, Hitchcock stages imaginary, high-fantasy dialogues with Ed Gein, the real-life serial-killer on whom Psycho was based - in an attempt to convey the notion of art-imitating-life; to create the resonance between the film you know and the film you're watching. It's about the man behind the silhouette, and, in turn, the lady behind the man; Hitchcock eventually settling on 'love story', in an unconvincing fashion, after all its laboured attempts at psychological gameplaying. It's as unconvincing as Anthony Hopkins is, here; and, it must be said, everywhere; he is officially the most overrated thespian in the history of carbon-based life-forms.
Throughout the whole thing, Hopkins is wildly theatrical, utterly mannered, and never looks like anything but Anthony Hopkins doing a bad Hitchcock impersonation. Every syllable he utters crawls out of his mouth like a dying beetle; the dialogue, in turn, flopping, writhing on the ground, half dead. It's unfair to compare the film to the filmmaker. It's, at best, aping, at worst turning into a groaning, sketch-comedy caricature, but, be warned: the great man's name is on the marquee, here, but there's not a single second of anything even remotely approaching greatness, throughout.
Laurence Anyways is, in many ways, the acid test for Xavier Dolan's career. After making the memoirish I Kill My Mother as a teenager, Dolan became a world cinema wunderkind; his second film, Heartbeats, showed even more promise, his pop-song-video stylistic tics being matched with a subtly-black story in touch with the gentle pain and essential emptiness of an early-'20s, urban-hipster type milieu. His third picture - filmed when Dolan was still but 22 - reeks of ambition: a near-three-hour epic about an ongoing, tortured, non-generic love-affair that straddles a decade, from the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s. Due to its wild colour, screechy caricatures, heightened melodrama, and transgender queerness, the film's been compared to Almodóvar, and its not the most flattering comparison. There's nothing, not even for a moment, approaching elegant, almost-experimental screenplay structures that have turned recent Almodóvar films (like, especially, Talk To Her, Broken Embraces, and The Skin I Live In) into fascinating pieces of writing. Of course, even if the comparison is to earlier, more brazen Almodóvar pictures, there's none of the same sense of being able to make the trivial epic and the epic trivial; about making a film that flies by as light, frothy fun even as its harbours untold ripples of transgressive darkness. Instead, the film feels more like some leaden period-piece; a portrait of fated, semi-tragic love that locks us into its suffering, and slowly, slowly, slowly staggers on, over time and tide. In his attempt to do more, Dolan has come out with less. It's not exactly a death blow for his career - he is, good lord, still only 23 years old, and still has time and potential in extremis - but the ascent of Dolan's auteurist star undoubtedly wanes a little.
Gary Hustwit's documentary trilogy on design is a survey of, in many ways, modern life itself; the filmmaker using the familiar micro-history of non-fiction publishing - in which a look at a history of, say, gunpowder or fishing or gardening is a look at the history of homosapiens - as he takes single elements and looking at how they ricochet, endlessly, throughout 21st century existence. His first picture, 2007's Helvetica, seems slight; a portrait of a typeface so familiar as to be banal. Yet Helvetica becomes a symbol of modernism, of branding, of globalisation, and, eventually, the emptiness of modern life; with cross currents of counter-cultural typography alive, here, to show the untapped potential. 2009's Objectified is about industrial design; and, specifically, the design of consumer objects; going from the behemoths of multinational design fetishism - Apple, Ikea, Target - to the idiosyncrasies of specific designers. Here, the ad-hoc mish-mash of 'stuff' suggests the constant consumption of modern existence; and, how, new design is often not an attempt to innovate, but just to make the past model seem passé, and, thus, shill more shit. 2011's Urbanized bites off something far bigger; its look at urban planning being about how, literally, human beings live their life. Those with even a passing interest will know of its stories: the arrogance of 20th century inventions like Brasília, the conflicts and compromises and craziness of Beijing, the brilliant remodelling of Bogotá. Invariably, it touches on sustainability, energy consumption, and the future of mankind; by 2050, 75% of humanity will live in cities, and the rise of subcontinental megacities like Mumbai effectively requires inspired urban planning to verily function; to not drag continue to drag mankind down in the 20th century death-spiral of gas-guzzling energy consumption. Each film is fascinating, and filled with ideas; but Urbanized, in particular, is utterly loaded with them. Taken as a trilogy - as they're being screened, together, at ACMI - they amount to a thorough survey of human life at the dawning of the third millennium.
Veterans lead this week's releases with new albums from Tim Rogers & The Bamboos (Album Of The Week) and Daniel Johns plus albums from Ella Thompson, The Vaccines and Unknown Mortal Orchestra.