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New films: Hitchcock, Playing for Keeps, Somewhere Between

Directed by Sacha Gervasi

There’s a similarity between the new film “Hitchcock” and “Lincoln,” which opened and was reviewed three weeks ago. Both are films about strong, well regarded men at the top of their respective professions, who had impressive and broad-ranging careers and life stories that could be adapted into  films of epic proportions. But, instead, both films tackle a very specific time period and project, relatively late in their respective careers, in an attempt to illustrate the men and their temperaments and achievements through those specific chapters in their lives.

In “Lincoln,” the focus is on the passage of what would become the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, outlawing slavery. It’s very well produced and well acted, but that limited scope may not be what all people want to see in a film about Abraham Lincoln. In “Hitchcock,” the focus is on the production of “Psycho,” but the film manages to capture a sense of a broader timeframe through reminiscences and relationships.

Following the release of “North by Northwest” in 1959, Alfred Hitchcock was at the top of his game, and his celebrity, with dozens of films under his prodigious belt and a growing presence in the burgeoning world of television. But he faced criticism and personal uncertainty that ranged from accusations that he was repeating himself to suggestions that he should retire. So he found himself looking for a project that would both prove that he still had it and also surprise people by not being what they might expect of him. He found that project in an unlikely tale of a murderer that was inspired by the crimes of Ed Gein. However, this wasn’t a story that appealed to investors or to the studio and in order to get it made, the film was funded by Hitchcock and his wife and partner Alma Reville, herself a talented editor and writer.

“Hitchcock” does a number of things very well, showcasing the filmmaking process, the deal-making that was necessary to get “Psycho” off the ground, and the complicated relationship between Hitchcock and the under-appreciated, under-recognized Reville. But it does these things without blindly championing Hitchcock himself. He could be hard and demanding to work with, was most likely hard to be married to, and was a pretty creepy guy in many respects, including his working relationships with his actresses. It’s a portrait of a talented but flawed man and of a successful but not always happy marriage and working partnership, carried by the wonderful performances of Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren in the two lead roles.

It’s not a perfect film, and there’s one recurring theme or device that’s a little distracting at times, but on balance it worked for me, managing to do several things well. And, at just 98 minutes long, it doesn’t just avoid being an epic, it’s positively brisk.


Playing for Keeps
Directed by Gabriele Muccino

“Playing for Keeps” is an awful movie that somehow manages to salvage almost nothing from an decent cast that includes Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Uma Thurman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dennis Quaid, and Judy Greer. It’s hard to imagine throwing that group together in a room with no script at all and coming up with something any worse than this.

The basic premise is of an ex-soccer player (Butler) trying to get his life together, and moving to be close to his ex-wife (Biel) and their young son. When taking their son to soccer practice, he spontaneously begins coaching the team and is asked by the other parents to continue, whereupon assorted relationships begin and much awkwardness and bad filmmaking ensues.

The main problem is that the movie feels as though it was written and directed by committee, possibly two separate committees, who couldn’t decide what kind of movie they wanted to make. At times it’s an almost raunchy sex comedy, with Butler being hit on by multiple soccer moms (Zeta-Jones, Thurman, Greer), and in these moments it isn’t a film you’d particularly want your kids to watch. At other times it’s a father-son bonding movie, interspersed with moments of romantic comedy and more significant family drama. But it never sticks with any genre long enough to do them justice and the end result is a failed mashup that seems as though it wouldn’t please a fan of any of them.

In fairness, I say “seems” because whereas I gradually disliked the film more and more, the test audience was far more positive about it. But, as of the time of writing this review, the film has failed to garner even a single positive response (out of 34 posted reviews) from critics on the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, so it may be another example of the divide between critics and audiences looking for a little escapist fun.


Somewhere Between
Directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton

In 1979, in an attempt to cope with a rising population, China passed its controversial One Child Policy, limiting families to a single son or daughter. However, for cultural reasons, sons were considered more desirable, and the Policy resulted in a great many abandoned children who found their way into orphanages (despite often not being orphans) and into international adoptions. According to the documentary “Somewhere Between,” 80,000 of these children were adopted into American families.

When filmmaker Linda Goldstein Knowlton adopted a Chinese girl, she wondered what her daughter’s experience would be, growing up as a child of two countries. So she set out to find teenaged adopted girls from China, living in other American families, who might share their lives and experiences.

This is a fascinating film because it manages to successfully merge multiple topics that are each quite profound. The topic of adoption by itself can raise passions and arguments about adoptees having access to or knowledge about their birth parents – but these are girls who were often abandoned in a country with a vast population, thousands of miles away. Some don’t even know their own birthdays, having been assigned a best estimate by an orphanage, and information about the birth parents is generally even more scant. Others have strong childhood memories, including of being left on a city street by a family member. On top of that, there’s the question of the immigrant experience and fitting in, in a country with a completely different culture and where you’re always an outsider, not just because you don’t look like everybody else, but because you also don’t look like your own adoptive parents.

The girls followed in the film are remarkable young women of great talent, but they share a sense of questioned identity, both personal and cultural. One describes herself as a “Banana” – yellow on the outside and white on the inside, and another makes the same reference using the label “Twinkie.” One of the other girls says she feels more like a “Scrambled Egg,” because the elements of her identity, still using a yellow and white comparison and contrast, are too mixed up to separate so cleanly.

Some of the girls in the film are members of a global support organization for Chinese adoptees and they travel extensively to spend time with both other adoptees and other parents and prospective adoptive parents. On one of these trips, two of the girls meet the founder of another group of international adoptees who is very much of the opinion that such adoptions should stop, based on discoveries that many of the adoptions and supporting paperwork are falsified.

The girls also have varied contact with China, with some having other adopted siblings and one family dedicating time and resources, and many trips, to helping orphanages.

As one of them decides to attempt to find her birth parents, in what seems like an impossible dream (and I won’t tell you what happens), we see an odd variation on the missing child poster. Generally the “do you know this child?” question isn’t being asked by the child herself.
One recurring theme is a desire to be good at something, to succeed in life, to overcome the sense that at one point in their lives they were considered worthless and disposable, perhaps more so than with other adoptees. They don’t know the specific circumstances of their births and abandonment, but they do know the Policy and the cultural imperatives that caused their adoptions. And this also gives rise to gender-related concerns – they weren’t just considered worthless, they were generally considered worthless because they were girls.

One of the girls describes herself as being on “a journey going backwards” as she delves into her own past and her roots. And it’s an interesting journey to watch. Whatever somebody once thought of them, these are strong, smart, and capable young women. The film doesn’t definitively answer the questions generated, but it does have the potential to increase the awareness and understanding of the bi-national adoptive experience, and in a manner that’s touching, uplifting, and thought-provoking.


"Hitchock" opens today at the Tower Theatre and at Olympus Point in Roseville. "Playing for Keeps" opens in wide release. "Somewhere Between" opens at the Crest Theatre.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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