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75 Years Later: Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat’ is Suspense Served By Simplicity

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A bomb explodes beneath a dinner table — that’s surprise. But a bomb that ticks away, unbeknownst to those seated around it? One scenario grants film audiences fifteen seconds of action, while the other can provide fifteen minutes of excruciating tension. No convoluted plot, no puzzle-box story structuring is needed; a simple setup with a clear misfortune as the potential result can be just as effective at keeping eyes glued to the screen as any tangled web a writer may weave. This paraphrasing of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous explanation illustrates how suspense is best served by simplicity, and of all the Master’s masterpieces, there is no greater example of that than his own 1944 gem, Lifeboat.

After an attack by a German U-boat, nine people are adrift in a small lifeboat, stranded somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. Eight are American or British, all former passengers or crew aboard a merchant marine ship once bound for England with supplies, all now desperate survivors of a torpedoed sunken wreck. The ninth castaway is the bomb: the Nazi captain of the very enemy submarine that initiated the destruction, pulled from the water after his own command was also sent to the sea floor during the engagement. Is he truly grateful for the mercy shown by those he tried to annihilate, or beneath the friendly and helpful facade is he secretly plotting against his saviors? Right from the beginning, we’re given all the working elements we’re ever going to have in this story — this is the setting, these are the characters, that is the potential threat. With exposition out of the way, Hitchcock can concentrate on what he does best: lighting the fuse.

There’s always something satisfying about doing as much as one can with as little as possible. Films like 12 Angry Men or Moon don’t have nearly the variety of cinematic ingredients to work with as many others, yet somehow achieve more with less. Limitations often inspire greatness in the arts, as creators are forced to become truly creative in order to overcome everything that would rein them in. Often these restrictions are born out of financing, but it can be thrilling to see them self-imposed, and appreciative juices can easily get flowing when watching a pro at the peak of their powers challenge themselves to the fundamentals.

Hitchcock must have also had a fondness for these types of basic premises — he created similar one-location situations in Rope and Rear Window — but Lifeboat takes this idea to an even more restrained form, in the process attaining a result that may not have been possible with all the normal crutches a Hollywood filmmaker relies upon to maintain variety. By embracing the confinements of the cell he himself created (the movie is based on his idea, originally offered to Ernest Hemingway and eventually fleshed out by John Steinbeck), Hitchcock flourishes within those boundaries, creating a tense allegory about dealing with evil after it has taken everything from you.

The opening sequence of Lifeboat sees the ship go down, and with it the luxury of the options freedom brings. Bits of luggage float in the water, showcasing the various amenities people often surround themselves with — and believe they can’t do without. These conveniences do everything from providing comfort to simply passing the time, tricks that ease the pain and boredom of being, but they also frequently dull the senses. Few are essential, and so those castaways swimming for their lives bypass them without a second thought. Only a wealthy newspaper columnist already safe and dry still clings to her nest of belongings, not oblivious to their ridiculousness in such a primal predicament, but loathe to let go. (However, in a bit of fun punishment, each of her prized possessions are taken from her, one by one, as if the universe — or some director — is sending a message.)

Like life, plots can be frittered away by detail, but by tossing all but the merest cinematic rations overboard, Lifeboat can keep the focus on what much suspense is based around: survival. Stripped of their earthly possessions, the characters are equalized in wealth and status. Thus, they are in a state of pure existence, with only their wits to aid them. Hitchcock surely sympathized, as he aspired to paint a masterpiece while lacking his usual assortment of brushes, tried to figure out how to make ninety minutes on a small boat visually interesting. Still, even in this tiny space, with mere meager storytelling elements at his disposal, the artist’s style looms large.

Without the usual distractions of a normal-sized cast, lavish sets, and location changes, Hitchcock could concentrate on the intrinsic parts of his talent — especially his meticulous nature. He carefully prepared beforehand by using miniatures to “pre-shoot” every scene, then built four different boats for four different purposes: one for rehearsal, one for long shots, one for close-ups, and the last for actually floating in water! He also thoroughly mapped everything out with storyboards, as per usual, but the nature of shooting on the water made naturally some improvisation necessary — some dependence on wits.

Abiding by the less-is-more philosophy, Hitchcock saves visual flourishes for important moments. A close-up of the Nazi’s compass gives the audience its first major plot revelation; we now know something the others don’t. An attractive face coming into frame and focus betrays another character’s true desire (hey, they’re shipwrecked, not dead). A signature push in on a pocket knife over a flame causes shudders — we don’t see its actual use, but we can imagine, and our worst fears are confirmed when an empty boot is tossed our way. Fade outs are common, and scenes take place at all times of day. A storm hits at one point to change things up a bit, keeping us on our toes and making sure we don’t leave the edge of our seats. These are all simple devices, but used masterfully at just the right moments to create unease. By employing such tricks, we are never allowed to settle in, get comfortable, to float. We sense that the longer things go on this way the worse it will get, and we have no way of knowing when or how it will end. All the while the bomb is ticking…

And that’s all it takes. Hitchcock knew this; hell, he made a living off of it. Still, never had he done so much with so little (there isn’t even a musical score, except in the opening and closing credits), and rarely have stories with more complex machinations eclipsed this little film in suspense. Lifeboat reminds us that great creativity can still be displayed on a very small canvas, and that at times the simplest ideas can turn out to be some of the most memorable.

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.

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70 Best Movie Posters of 2019

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Best Movie Posters of 2019

Deciding the best movie posters is no easy task…

I remember when I was younger, I used to head to the video store and rent movies I’d never heard of based solely on the movie poster art. This was, of course, a different time— sure, the internet was a thing, but we didn’t have countless websites, not to mention social media platforms, promoting new movies online with news stories, movie stills, featurettes, teasers, trailers and so on. Not to say that sort of marketing didn’t exist in the past, because it did, but it wasn’t always in your face. For better or for worse, the internet changed the way studios market movies, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the use of a poster to help build excitement and anticipation for an upcoming film. Most posters continue to be an important marketing tool for filmmakers worldwide and so once again, we’ve decided to collect images of our favourite movie posters revealed over the past twelve months. If you checked out our list of the best movie posters of 2018, you’ll remember it included posters for indie gems, thrillers, horror movies, foreign language films, Hollywood blockbusters and everything in between. This year is no different, although it should be said that some marketing campaigns were so good, we’ve decided to include more than one poster for a few select films. Also worth noting, we didn’t include any fan-made poster art below. That out of the way, here are the best movie posters of 2019.

Click on any one of the images to enlarge the posters.

The Best Movie Posters of 2019

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The Piercing ‘Marriage Story’ Is Noah Baumbach’s Best Film to Date

TIFF 2019

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Marriage Story

In 2010, director Noah Baumbach began divorce proceedings with his now ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The divorce was finalized three years later, and since then Baumbach has been in a relationship with actor and director (and occasional collaborator) Greta Gerwig. It’s impossible to view his newest film, Marriage Story, without taking into account his own dissolved marriage; this is a searching, seething work of recriminations and longing that pits two all–too–human parents against each other, and invites the audience to not only imagine which bits of psychic trauma are his own, but also to consider our own relationships, successful or not.

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie, a married couple living in New York City with their young son Henry. The film opens with a montage as Nicole recites the things she most loves about her husband, from the way he can cook and doesn’t mind waking up with their son, to his skill as a theater director. In turn, Charlie narrates his favorite aspects of Nicole, his regular lead actor. There are plenty of opportunities for tears here, but the unguarded emotions of these confessions might get them started right from the beginning. But just as they finish reciting these traits, we’re brought back to reality; these confessions were things that they had written down to read to each other as a kind of peace offering at the start of their mediation following a separation that has led up to their divorce. But Nicole doesn’t like what she has written — or at least doesn’t want Charlie to hear it. And if she won’t go, then it’s not really fair for him to read his. So neither tells each other what they most admire in the other, and instead stop seeing the mediator.

It’s the first strike in Nicole and Charlie’s mutually assured destruction agreement. Though they initially plan on avoiding using lawyers, Nicole gets tipped off to a well-regarded attorney (a funny and ice-cold Laura Dern) who advises her to take a maximalist position in order to ensure she gets half of everything she wants — at the very least. Once she has a lawyer, Charlie tries out a variety of legal counsels (a soothing Alan Alda and a fiery Ray Liotta), but the real conflict comes down to location; Nicole has taken Henry to Los Angeles while she films a pilot, and wants to stay even after it’s finished. Charlie, however, thought they would move back to New York. Each escalation in the feud necessitates an opposing reaction, and the two are driven further and further apart, even as they try to stay close for the sake of their son.

Marriage Story

Baumbach has admitted that some details of the film are based on his own divorce, but he’s also said he interviewed many of his friends who divorced around the same time, as well as lawyers and judges involved in divorce cases. In some ways, Marriage Story isn’t just a portrait of a couple separating, but a primer on divorce court that far surpasses something like Kramer vs. Kramer, which was out of date even in 1979. The film is also an opportunity to observe two of the best living actors at the top of their game. Johansson and Driver have a knack for finding the sweet spot between un-actorly naturalism and the stylistic ticks that we recognize as compelling acting. It gives us a sense that these people were actually a family, and really cared for each other. Baumbach’s script helps; it’s maybe his best writing ever, filled with so many painfully open moments, yet leavened with just the right amount of humor. He’s also as fair as he could be, and neither parent comes off as too saintly or self-centered.

Marriage Story ends in a circle of sorts with the discovery of Nicole’s notes about Charlie’s best qualities. Their marriage was effectively over before the film even started, but I kept thinking back to that lovely introductory scene. How might their journey to divorce progressed if they had the courage to speak openly to each other in that one moment? Perhaps something might have been better. Marriage Story doesn’t harbor any of those romantic illusions, however; once it’s over, it’s over.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 12, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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Don’t Be Sad ‘A Rainy Day in New York’ Never Made it to Manhattan

Spend this rainy day playing a board game or something

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Rainy Day in New York

You do not come to late-era Woody Allen for anything resembling true originality. He is the drunken piano man, riffing off the same old hits in the same old bar, hoping that nostalgia will hit a chord with somebody. As in Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine, or even Irrational Man, his output over the last decade can still bring up moments of true inspiration and fresh-feeling angles on the same old tales, even if the plot-lines feel somewhat familiar. In the best humanist cinema, like that of Rohmer or Ozu, this repetition can make you see the same thing in a slightly different way. The same cannot be said of A Rainy Day in New York, a film so derivative it feels like it came out of an auto-generator, making me feel nothing but contempt for the waste of so much talent. If you are an American Woody Allen fan sad that this movie never made it to Manhattan, there’s honestly no need to be.

Timotheé Chalamet stars and narrates in a performance so poor that he must be happy this film hasn’t released back in the States. He plays Gatsby Wells, a student at upstate Yardley College, a place he detests yet tolerates because his beloved girlfriend Ashleigh (Elle Fanning) — heiress to a rich banking empire in Tucson — also studies there. As a writer for the University paper, she gets the chance to interview famous director Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber), giving them the possibility to explore New York together. Yet when they arrive there, a series of misunderstandings, mishaps, and fear of missed opportunities keeps them perpetually apart, handing them the chance to explore romance with others — including old flames, movie stars and, of course, high-priced escorts. 

Although his first name is Gatsby, Wells better resembles the other great male of 20th century American literature: Holden Caulfield. Like the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, he is born of massive privilege, shunning his supposedly phoney origins while still visiting the fanciest hotels and drinking in the fanciest bars. There is perhaps some kind of interesting modern portrait of New York privilege in here, but Woody Allen is simply not the right director for the material. It’s like asking a jazz pianist to bash out a techno tune. 

And just as Allen’s blinkered view of New York blinds him to the real world and its contemporary concerns, Chalamet’s nostalgia act cannot find a way to escape Woody’s wooden writing. The sensitive, pretentious, sensual young man who turned in such a deeply felt performance in Call Me By Your Name could be a natural fit for a Woody Allen character, if only he actually leaned into what makes him a great actor instead of trying his best Woody Allen imitation. While some actors can do Woody Allen well (Kenneth Branagh is uncanny in Celebrity, while Larry David is great in Whatever Works), Timotheé Chalamet has neither the studied talent to impersonate well, nor the arrogance to put his own distinctive stamp on it. Elle Fanning is similarly dire; playing both an intrepid, impetuous journalist and a thick floozy, she carries neither the charm nor the wit to make her a compelling co-lead.  

A Rainy Day in New York

I don’t blame either actor; they’re young, and there’s a feeling that they weren’t given much direction. In fact, almost every aspect of A Rainy Day in New York feels underdeveloped, underwritten, and under-thought. This is a film so lazy that it even recycles the ending of Midnight in Paris, perhaps hoping that the audience developed amnesia since 2011. Even Allen’s trademark eye for Manhattan is missing. Filming here properly for the first time since 2009, the city no longer seems like much of a character by itself, and instead comes off as it would in a generic TV Christmas Movie. 

While Allen’s early 00s work — easily his worst period — is characterised by its TV-movie lighting, his collaborations over the past ten years with cinematographers such as Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love), Javier Aguirresarobe (Blue Jasmine), and Vittorio Stororo (Cafe Society, Wonder Wheel) elevated his films’ look considerably, even when the writing may have been lacking. Sadly here, the legendary cinematographer behind Apocalypse Now and The Conformist — despite what seems like his best efforts to light generic hotel rooms with warmth and vibrancy — cannot save A Rainy Day in New York at all, which feels even more rushed and cut-to-pieces than usual. This is really only for die-hard Woody Allen completists; casual minds need not bother.

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