Who was the greatest film star never to star in a film? Only one answer: Alfred Hitchcock. At the peak of his towering and eccentric career – the end of the 1950s, in which Psycho followed Vertigo and North by Northwest and in which Hitchcock is set – Hitch’s face, voice and name were as famous as those of his leads (Cary Grant, James Stewart, Grace Kelly ... ). His silhouette was more famous. He waddled into frame weekly on his TV series, a monochrome outline becoming flesh, his oracular, clotted-cream voice (the tongue at home in the amply upholstered cheeks) trailering the thrills of the suspense/horror tale to come.
With Psycho Hitchcock was the star who “opened the movie”. He promoted, puffed and panoplied it. He had to. In 1960, as Hitchcock entertainingly narrates, a low-budget black-and-white shocker with no big marquee players (Janet Leigh was yesterday’s name, Anthony Perkins barely even tomorrow’s) was a dumbfounding career move for a man still riding high, in cinemas, on glossy big-budget thrillers. If he wasn’t the critics’ darling yet – the poll voting Vertigo the greatest film ever made was half a century away – he was a ticket-selling tidal force.
Hitchcock gets the media and movie industry brouhaha right. Psycho seemed a deranged project even to Hitch’s wife Alma Reville, played by Helen Mirren with oodles of grace-under-incredulity (though the petite, unglamorous Alma would be flattered by the swish upsizing of her image). Anthony Hopkins dons the facial flab as Hitch, does the voice well enough and the portly-erect, pontifical stature better.
For Psycho trainspotters, director Sacha Gervasi and screenwriter John McLaughlin lay on the treats. We meet “Janet Leigh” (Scarlett Johansson) and “Tony Perkins”, replicated by spitting and stammering image James Darcy. We are on the soundstage for the shower murder. We purr at Hitchcock’s lordly quips, which include his rejoinder to the censor’s admonitions about possible Leigh nudity: “She won’t be nude, she’ll be wearing a shower cap.” (In the event, not even that.)
Only in one area is authenticity sidelined. There is no evidence that the infamous Ed Gein murders, though they partly inspired Psycho novelist Robert Bloch, inspired or even interested Hitchcock. Gein, though, played by Michael Wincott, becomes a phantom interloper and interlocutor in several scenes, a fantasy Hyde to Hitch’s Jekyll. It’s a distracting, irritating gimmick. Truth – in the case of Alfred Psycho Hitchcock versus the laws of plausibility and career probability – is weirder and more spellbinding than make-believe.
Marriage is hell, divorce is heaven and breakdown is a purgatory in between. I Give It A Year, a London-set comedy, is as patchy as a troubled marriage, glum one moment and hysterical the next. Judged by the press show, it sorts those recognising and responding to its take on matrimony from those not. Silence in row A, happy uproar in row B, nervous giggles in row C ...
I loved Stephen Merchant’s tactless, blue-joking wedding speaker who sends the party’s cringe thermometer through the roof. Rafe Spall (boorishly extrovert while simultaneously little-boy-lost) and Rose Byrne (vulnerably sophisticated) are a match made in the world’s worst match factory, crafted to strike a brief, flaring light, then sputter and fizzle. Anna Faris, sweet and pretty-plain, and Simon Baker, a smoothie made from forbidden fruits, are the interloper tempters.
There is a very funny malfunctioning threesome scene, illustrating the asymmetrical warfare of the DIY mini-orgy. (One person always gets dumped on the bedroom floor.) And writer-director Dan Mazer (Borat, Brüno) has an unsparing skill at pushing comic situations to the pain barrier and beyond. These include a relationship counsellor (Olivia Colman) whose own relationship, judged by her off-office screams down a phone line, needs all the counselling it can get.
The British and their hopeless hearts. And sometimes hopeless livers. A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman animates in multiple styles the life and memoirs of the comedian/alcoholic who died in 1989. More than a dozen different artists in different idioms – fauvist, faux-naif, Plastimation, South Park-style cut-out – set the pictures prancing in 3D while the voices of Chapman and co-Pythons congregate on the soundtrack.
It’s a tragicomic tale, an addict’s tale; a tale of high ambition versus low self-esteem. (Chapman never thought he deserved his success.) Perhaps it’s a tale too of post-imperial Britain – Chapman was always a perfect fit in army roles – allegorised in one man’s buffoon tragedy, as world-commanding fame submits to local and human fallibility. The film is an engaging trip: miscellaneous, wittily surreal, with a sadness to lend it a structuring heartbeat.
The romance of distance gives I Wish its teasing lyricism. Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda is a poet-illusionist of cinema. His movies (After Life, Nobody Knows) seem to move when you’re not looking, like grandmother’s footsteps. Two small brothers live estranged by parental separation. One lives with rock singer dad, the other with mum in a town near a grumbling volcano.
A new bullet train line will soon connect the two towns and the boys can reunite. Plus, when two trains pass at high speed – you all know this – they release mystical energy so that you can make a wish. In Kore-eda’s enchanting scramble of seemingly inconsequential scenes, the kids are played by two real-life brothers who are also professional comedians. Irksome precocity? None at all. Everything is fresh in this stations-of-childhood story lit up by stroboscopic flashes of wit, beauty and perception.
Warm Bodies are those of the living in a tale of the undead. Jonathan Levine’s horror rom-com gives the walking corpse genre a Twilight twist, pushing ghoul-fleeing heroine Teresa Palmer into the arms of dead-but-hating-it heartthrob Nicholas Hoult. Hoult looks great with zombie eye shadow and bloodstained lips. (These horror/romance movies are putting the sexy back into the spectral.) The story goes nowhere much after its Eros-meets-Thanatos love coup, except to note that Hoult and some of his confrères may – just may – be returning to a living state. You need to watch these zombies, the film suggests. They look like corpses; they can’t utter plain English; they stagger awkwardly like drunks between lampposts. But don’t write them off. If Richard III can return from a provincial car park, a few bashed-in commoners can make it back, souls intact or resuscitated, from bad trips to shopping malls.
No, sadly, is a no-no from Chile’s Pablo Larraín. Tony Manero and Post Mortem marked him as a film-maker to watch, a gnomic gravedigger in his country’s history, finding a post-ironic treasure or two among the post-junta skulls. No resembles more an artist fallen in a quagmire. Shot in a bog-standard video hideous to behold, it shapes its amorphous tale of ad-men crafting the No campaign in the Pinochet-unseating referendum of 1988. Star Gael García Bernal’s lustre disappears in a straggly beard. The script based on an unproduced play proves that the play impresarios got it right.