Friday, 21 September 2007


Movie Review: Capote

Year of Release: 2005
Country of Origin: Canada/USA
Director: Bennett Miller
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener

Plot outline: Truman Capote, during his research for his book In Cold Blood, an account of the murder of a Kansas family, develops a close relationship with Perry Smith, one of the killers (IMDb).

The film tells a fragment of celebrated writer Truman Capote's life story during his research for his book "In Cold Blood", an account of the slaying of Herbert Clutter, his wife and their two children in 1959 in Holcomb, Kansas. With the intention to get a full, impartial story of the killers (Smith and Hickock), Capote begins visiting them at the prison. He's in particular fascinated by Smith whom he finds sensitive, guilt-ridden and remorseful. He spends years visiting Smith regularly and learning about his life. His fascination somehow turns into a friendship, which later turns into an attachment. But Smith refuses to say anything about the night of the killing, which very much upsets him. Getting closer to the execution date, Smith eventually confesses to him in great detail. After the execution he completes the book and it becomes a reflection of the need for a redemption even when circumstances are very grave.

Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance as Capote is outstanding. Catherine Keener's as Capote's fellow writer Nelle Harper Lee is a match. If it weren't for good script and directing, this kind of story (a story of a writer) would easily become boring.

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Master of Suspense: Why is he the best?

Master of Suspense: Why is he the best?

I didn't used to care much about films before. I thought all directors or filmmakers were the same; some produced good films merely because the stories were good, while others produced bad ones because the stories were bad. But, is there really such a thing as a "good" or "bad" story? Or is a story a story, neither good nor bad?

And then it came a time (around 1992) when I watched for the first time an Alfred Hitchcock's film titled "Rope" (1948) in the media room of my university library. The film tells a story of two bright but disturbed young men Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) who plan a perfect murder inspired by lectures on the art or murder once given by their former teacher Rupert Cadell (James Stewart). They invite their former classmate David Kentley (Dick Hogan) - whom they regard as being "inferior" - to their apartment, strangle him and conceal his body in a book chest in the living room. Eager to challenge the "perfection" of their crime and their "superiority", they invite David's family and friends and also Rupert Cadell to their apartment for a dinner party. They even deliberately move the party to the living room and serve the dinner from the book chest.

What strucked me most after watching this film was how simple the story is and yet how extraordinary the storytelling is. The film is thoroughly set in a confined space (one single room!) and seemingly shot in one single take! (Hitchcock later explained that the film was actually shot in 8 takes of 10 minutes each - which was the maximum capacity of a reel at that time; the transitions between reels were hidden by having a dark object as a cutting point). Incredible! One single room, only a few takes, same characters ... from start to finish ... and yet, never had I enjoyed a film with such suspense! A simple story with an extraordinary storytelling. If it weren't for Hitchcock, the film wouldn't be great.

So, what is it that grips audience's attention that makes his films great? After examining many of his films (so far, 32 out of 59), I found one unique element that sets him apart: He gives every character, no matter how small or minor their part is to the overall film, every opportunity to reveal their character in the best possible way; and somehow, someway ... without cancelling each other character out. When a character appears in a scene, they are the lead in that particular scene, giving them the opportunity to perform their best. In other words, every character is the lead in their own right. This style of directing makes every character unique and stand out, and more importantly ... makes the story richer and fuller. In the case of "Rope", who doesn't remember the performance of Mrs. Wilson the housekeeper (Edith Evanson)? She plays only a small role in the film, but she gives a damn good performance in her few minutes appearance.

Another example to see how skillful Hitchcock utilizes this style of directing is in "Rear Window" (1954) (my number 1 favourite). Similar to "Rope", "Rear Window" is shot in a confined space, looking out to the backyard of other apartments. The confined space is where the main story is: L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart), Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly), the detective and the nurse. Looking out through the rear window we see eight other rear windows of other apartments, each belongs to: Miss Torso the ballerina, the sculptor, the newlyweds, the doting couple and their dog, the salesman and his nagging wife, the bachelor/the songwriter and Miss Lonelyheart. Each of them has their own "mini" story to tell. Hitchcock gives each of them, in their own space, the lead in their own scene. He treats each of these "mini" stories as equally important as the main story. Gee ... what a performance given by the wise-cracking nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), she almost steal the show! And what a memorably heart-breaking scene performed by Miss Lonelyheart (Judith Evelyn). And even the dog (the dog!!!), with only a few seconds appearance, gives a dramatic impression to the film. Each of them contributes to the overall story and makes it richer and fuller.

If I had a chance to choose between being a dog (or even a crack on the wall!!!) in a Hitchcock's film or being a person in any other director's film, I would definitely choose the former one. That's how exceptional he is. Since then Hitchcock's work has been influencing many younger directors who come after him. Just to name a few, for example:
Mike Nichol's Academy Award-winning drama "The Graduate" (1968) and Steven Spielberg's debut TV action-thriller "Duel" (1971).

Friday, 14 September 2007

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Movie Review: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Year of Release: 1931
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Cast: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart

Plot outline: Dr. Jekyll faces horrible consequences when he lets his dark side run wild with a potion that changes him into the animalistic Mr. Hyde (IMDb).

Year of Release: 1941
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Victor Fleming
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner

Plot outline: Dr. Jekyll allows his dark side to run wild when he drinks a potion that turns him into the evil Mr. Hyde (IMDb).

I don't know how many times this story has been made into films, at least more than a dozen times. The original story "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is created by well-known Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894); his other famous work includes: "Kidnapped" and "Treasure Island". The book is by far more complete and thorough than the films. The story sets in London in Victorian era (the time when Industrial Revolution reached its height) about a young respectable doctor named Dr. Henry Jekyll who believes the duality of man's nature: a constant struggle between good and evil. In order to prove his theory, he carries out research and develops a formula that can separate and isolate each of the qualities. He tests the formula on himself and he successfuly releases his evil side that transforms him into a wicked monster ... Mr. Edward Hyde. He then lives a double life as Dr. Jekyll who's a paragon of virtue and Mr. Hyde who's nothing but a murderous monster. Soon his evil side takes over his control of his whole self ... he then stays more and more often as Mr. Hyde. This Robert Louis Stevenson's classic was published at the same era as Sigmund Freud's theories of unconscious mind.

Among all the films about this story, there are two that I consider the best. Number 1 is "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" which was released in 1931. The screenplay is superb (it received an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing) and the acting of Fredric March as Dr. Jekyll is as outstanding as his as Mr. Hyde (he won Best Actor in a Leading Role). Number 2 is the remake with the same title which was released in 1941. Spencer Tracy acts superbly as Dr. Jekyll, but he's not considered frightening enough as Mr. Hyde; while Ingrid Bergman plays wonderfully against type. However, the cinematography is superior than its predecessor ... it's always eerily beautiful to see the streets of London at foggy gothic nights in black and white (it received an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography).

My judgement:
***1/2 out of 4 stars for "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1931).
*** out of 4 stars for "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1941).