The Bedroom Window (1987, Directed by Curtis Hanson) English 6

Starring Steve Guttenberg, Elizabeth McGovern, Isabelle Hupert, Paul Shenar, Brad Greenquist

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(6-Good Film)

Far-fetched. Stylish. Gripping.

      Cops are generally useless in movies like this one. If you have a thriller and the main character isn’t a cop, then most likely the cops are going to be completely unhelpful in the film. They’ll probably accuse the protagonist of something he didn’t do or arrive at the scene too late or get killed by the bad guy despite years of training while the film’s hero (an average male) is able to defeat that same bad guy. The Bedroom Window takes this cliché to an infuriating extent.

Terry Lambert (Guttenberg) leaves an office party early one night to begin an affair with his boss’ wife, Sylvia (Huppert). As their night winds down, Terry steps out of the room for a minute and Sylvia gazes out the window. At that moment, she witnesses the assault and attempted murder of a young woman, Denise (McGovern), by a pale, red-headed figure who then runs off. Not wanting to speak with police and risk having to testify in court where her husband would find out about the affair, Sylvia parts and resolutely decides not to speak of what she witnessed, content enough that the woman she saw was spared. Days later though, another woman is raped and murdered in similar circumstances to the attempt she witnessed. Terry, feeling a sense of civic responsibility, goes to the police and pretends that he witnessed the crime, feeding them information that Sylvia (who agrees with the plan) gives him. Lying to the police is not a great idea, but the way Terry’s life spirals out of control, as a result, is extreme and a little hard to believe. The first problem comes when Terry’s asked to look at a police lineup and pick out the assailant, where he meets Denise. The film, interestingly, loses its way later on, just when it starts to resemble other thrillers we’ve seen before, specifically the classic Hitchcock pictures. Hitchcock loved thrusting ordinary men into extraordinary situations, and the way Terry goes from key witness to lead suspect is very reminiscent of a famous scene in North by Northwest. It’s not that I have an issue with wearing the Hitchcock influence so conspicuously. A number of excellent films have done that: Charade, Blow-Out, Ghost Writer. And Hitchcock, also, wasn’t always interested in perfectly logical plotlines. My problem is that in The Bedroom Window, the rewards don’t always outweigh the frustration caused by maddening character decisions. Doing my best not to spoil anything, there’s one moment where Terry is left holding a freshly stabbed body and flees as the cops approach despite not having any weapon on him. If he had just waited, couldn’t he have just told the police, “how could I have stabbed this person if I don’t have a weapon?” As I said, logic is not paramount.

Aside from the frustration I felt watching the incompetent police in The Bedroom Window, and the silliness of some of its contrivances, the film is a perfectly serviceable thriller. It’s very good at times and its trio of leads (Steve Guttenberg, Isabelle Hupert, Elizabeth McGovern) as odd as it seems on paper, is the one atypical touch of an otherwise familiar thriller.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(777)

 

The Glass Key (1942, Directed by Stuart Heisler) English 7

Starring Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Brian Donlevy, Joseph Calleia, William Bendix, Bonita Granville

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(7-Very Good Film)

Gripping. Enticing. Cool.

Early adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel featuring Donlevy as Paul Madvig, a big-time crook and political organizer, and Alan Ladd as his right-hand man and best friend, Beaumont. Their small empire runs into trouble when Paul alienates another powerful crook, Nick Varna, at the same time falling in love with a politician’s daughter named Janet (Veronica Lake), who happens to be the sister of a man he’s thought to have killed. It’s up to Beaumont to clean up the mess, and untangle the mystery, as he fights off the growing attraction between himself and his best friend’s girlfriend. Slick noir, with excellent supporting turns from Joseph Calleia and William Bendix. Ladd and Lake are justifiably a classic screen couple. Their smoldering makes the all too neat ending not only passable but completely satisfying.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(773)

The Ref (1994, Directed by Ted Demme) English 8

Starring Denis Leary, Kevin Spacey, Judy Davis, J.K Simmons, Christine Baranski, Glynis Johns

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Funny. Sharp. Black.

A skilled and ruthless burglar named Gus (Leary) gets trapped in small-town Connecticut suburbia after a botched robbery. With the police securing the town’s exits, Gus is forced to hide out while he comes up with his next move, choosing at random the home of Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur (played by Spacey and Davis). Unfortunately for him, the old married couple is deeply dysfunctional, and their marriage problems spill out even as he holds them hostage. Though slightly stagey and contrived, the film does a nice job of sustaining its premise through its runtime, and the performances from the three leads are excellent. These are great roles for Davis and Spacey, and they make the most of them. The idea of suburban life not being all it’s cracked up to be is probably a film cliché at this point, but The Ref represents one of the better entries with that material. Better than the more lauded American Beauty in fact.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(766)

 

Veronica Mars (2019, Season 4) English 8

Starring Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Enrico Colantoni, Percy Daggs III, Francis Capra, Clifton Collins Jr., Patton Oswalt, Max Greenfield, Dawnn Lewis, Ryan Hansen, J.K Simmons, Mido Hamada, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Izabela Vidovic

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(8-Exceptional)

Engrossing. Fast-moving. Frustrating.

Veronica is back, 12 years removed from her last appearance on television and 5 years removed from her big-screen come back. Originally starring on the CW, Hulu takes over this season and seems to be a great landing spot. There’s no rust. Season 4 kicks off fast and speeds through to an overall satisfying end. Veronica (Bell) and her dad, Kieth (Colantoni), get wrapped up in a local mystery as someone is killing off the spring-break crowd. Seeing as their city, Neptune, California depends on the spring-break crowd for business, a bit of a Jaws situation occurs where the authorities don’t want to take the proper precautions out of fear for local commerce. It’s an involving case and all of the new characters are welcome additions. Perhaps taking a page out of the phenomenal series, Fargo’s book, Veronica Mars season 4 is a sprawling saga with a lot of interesting characters and strange moments. J.K Simmons, Patton Oswalt, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Izabela Vidovic, and Clifton Collins Jr make strong impressions. Unfortunately, much of the original cast is short-changed. Wallace is barely a part of this season, Mac doesn’t show up at all. Worse for me than that is my memory of Veronica not matching what she’s like in this season. She’s often the least likable character. That turns out not to hurt the show too much. It’s only the very end and I mean the last few scenes that had me scratching my head and apparently many fans up in arms.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(765)

Joker (2019, Directed by Todd Phillips) English 7

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Brian Tyree Henry, Marc Maron, Brett Cullen, Frances Conroy

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(7-Very Good Film)

Memorable. Gripping. Derivative.

The world can seem pretty dark when you’re depressed. No film off the top of my head paints a more vivid picture of this than DC’s newest flick, Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, perhaps a surprising choice after a couple decades worth of comedies (The Hangover trilogy, Old School, Starsky and Hutch), and starring Joaquin Phoenix, following in the footsteps of a couple iconic film Jokers (Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger) and one lousy one (Jared Leto). This Joker is a film in close-up. Even when the camera pulls back, the focus remains, the cast, the plot, the tone all revolve around its titular “hero,” here named Arthur Fleck. It’s his world. That may seem like an odd thing to say about a character struggling as profoundly as Fleck is over the course of this movie, but we see Gotham as he sees it. He’s an unreliable narrator. The extent of how much of what we’re seeing is influenced by Fleck’s mental state is, I believe, debatable, but, in any case, the Gotham we see is a hellish landscape populated by powerful bullies and hostile bottom-feeders. Fleck just wants to bring laughter into the world.

The movie kicks off: 1981, Gotham City. Living with his mother and struggling through a dead-end job as some sort of clown-for-hire, Fleck kills a group of yuppie jerks on the subway one evening. It’s a downward spiral from there with fate offering one blow after another to make Fleck break down. The list of his life struggles throughout the film would seem over-the-top, maybe melodramatic if the tone wasn’t so consistently grim. He loses his job, has the funding for his medical treatment cut, gets beat up a couple of times, etc. The most interesting part of Joker is its take on Gotham. It’s a city cut-off from the rest of the world. I don’t recall any mention of life beyond its city limits. Where did everyone else go? It’s like the setting of This is the End, where most people have gone off and those left are expected to rot. It’s also a world without superheroes. There’s no Batman, no Superman, nor anyone else from DC’s roster of supers. There don’t seem to be any blue-collar heroes either or average men looking out for their peers. Thomas Wayne, usually portrayed as a champion of lost causes, is played here by Brett Cullen as another big-money politician. Fleck idolizes late-night host Murray Franklin (De Niro) but that plays out in predictable yet satisfying fashion. Ultimately, Fleck’s gradually building Joker persona makes sense (perhaps this is what some object to) and he becomes a wake-up call to a large portion of Gotham’s citizens (reminding me of the “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore scene in Network).

Films like these, where the protagonist descends into madness are rarely made and difficult to watch. If done right, they can be fascinating but can hardly be considered fun experiences. I would argue that Joker is done right (Phoenix is mesmerizing in the role), though it’s not easy to remember a mainstream movie this polarizing in recent years. Is it irresponsible? Is it validating angry loners? I don’t buy those indictments in general. I don’t believe films are responsible for social ills the way that some do, so I feel no need to defend Joker on that level. It’s a good film, a very good film, not a great film. It has too many endings for one thing (I prefer a strong abrupt finish to letting a film like this peter out with several long sequences). It’s also too reminiscent of Scorsese’s classics Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy without deriving any value from those influences. Some argue that it’s a breakthrough comic book film. I don’t give it that much credit. Did it change the rules of comic book adaptations or surprise us with the direction it went in? No. Spiderman 2, The Dark Night Trilogy, Unbreakable. Those were the game-changers.  Joker’s simply better than your average.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(755)

 

 

Kiss the Girls (1997, Directed by Gary Fleder) English 6

Starring Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Cary Elwes, Tony Goldwyn, Bill Nunn, Jay O. Sanders, Jeremy Piven, Brian Cox, Richard T. Jones, Tatyana Ali

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(6-Good Film)

Absorbing. Typical. Effective.

Mysteries go down pretty easy and don’t have to work very hard to be interesting. If a film lets you know that there’s a killer and you don’t know who it is, most people will want to find out. Kiss the Girls gives us a killer wearing a mask; the simplest means of setting up a whodunnit. The killer, Casanova (self-named), abducts beautiful, intelligent women for his collection, then sadistically has his way with them hidden away in his underground lair. One of the girls abducted, Naomi, is the niece of brilliant D.C detective Alex Cross, played by Morgan Freeman, who joins in on the manhunt after a promise made to his sister. Ashley Judd is another of Casanova’s intended victims, only she escapes and helps Cross catch the bad guy. Most films of this sort are pretty shallow and formulaic. Kiss the Girls does nothing to break that mold, but it is competently made and benefits from outstanding leads in Freeman and Judd.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(750)

 

American Made (2017, Directed by Doug Liman) English 6

Starring Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, Domnhall Gleeson, Lola Kirke, Jesse Plemons, Caleb Landry Jones

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(6-Good Film)

Solid. Interesting. Unspectacular.

Barry Seal, a TWA pilot in the ’70s, spirals into the ’80s as a gun and drug-runner for the CIA, Pablo Escobar, and much of Central America. I knew none of this, and as a story, apparently true, I found it fascinating. As a movie, I found it competently done, but rather safe. Tom Cruise plays Seal, and he still has enough star power and charisma to guide us along the course of the film. I feel American Made aimed for some of that Wolf of Wall Street chaotic, stranger-than-fiction true story energy and it only partly comes off. It’s a good film, but not one you need to see twice.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(748)