Blue Velvet (1986, Directed by David Lynch) English 9

Starring Kyle McLachlan, Dennis Hopper, Isabella Rossellini, Laura Dern, Dean Stockwell, Hope Lange, Brad Dourif, George Dickerson

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(9-Great Film)

Strange. Illusive. Unforgettable.

Frank Booth: In dreams, I walk with you. In dreams, I talk to you. In dreams, you’re mine, all the time. Forever. In dreams…

There have been hundreds of essays trying to get to the bottom of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Following Jeffrey Beaumont (McLachlan), a college kid returning to suburban Lumbertown after his father has a stroke, Blue Velvet quickly becomes the stuff of nightmares. Jeffrey finds a severed ear walking home from visiting his father and feels compelled to investigate. Like a dark Alice in Wonderland, Jeffrey goes down the rabbit hole and finds himself in an underworld populated by people like the seductive lounge singer, Dorothy (Rosselini), and pure evil in human form, Frank (Hopper). Of the theories I’ve read about Blue Velvet, and most hold water, I like the Oedipal idea wherein Frank represents the father (whom Jeffrey wants to kill) and Dorothy represents the mother (whom Jeffrey wants to sleep with). I also think voyeurism is a huge part of the film, as it is with any film noir or mystery (private detectives are called “peepers” right?). Jeffrey peaks in through the closet door and sees sex and violence. It’s attractive. Blue Velvet is a gorgeous film with a number of wtf moments. My personal favorite is the prostitute jumping up on the car and dancing while Jeffrey is beaten. A strange film for a strange world.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(904)

Harlem Nights (1989, Directed by Eddie Murphy) English 7

Starring Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Della Reese, Michael Lerner, Charlie Murphy, Jasmine Guy, Lena Rochon, Danny Aiello, Arsenio Hall, Robin Harris, Miguel A. Núñez Jr., Berlinda Tolbert

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(7-Very Good Film)

Leisurely. Appealing. Brash.

If anyone remembers Harlem Nights, Eddie Murphy’s lone directorial effort, disappointment or unsuccessful are probably the words that come up quickest. Murphy stars as Quick alongside a terrific cast that includes Richard Pryor, Della Reese, and Redd Foxx among many familiar faces. Murphy and Pryor’s characters run a speakeasy in Harlem during the 1930s and are doing so well that local big-shot, Bugsy Calhoune (Lerner), wants a cut of their action. They have to use their wits to outsmart the gangster. Harlem Nights isn’t funny. Parts of it are humorous and the actors perform with natural charisma but it’s not what you’d expect from a film starring Murphy, Pryor, and Foxx. I’m sure that’s where the disappointment comes from. Aside from that though, I think there’s a lot that is worthwhile about this film. The setting, the score by Herbie Hancock, and the performances above all. Murphy seems to have a deft hand at working with actors. Harlem Nights is better than it’s given credit for.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(899)

Some Like it Hot (199, Directed by Billy Wilder) English 8

Starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, Joe E. Brown, George Raft, Pat O’Brien, Mike Mazurki, Edward G. Robinson Jr.

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Risqué. Skilled. Iconic.
I wrote earlier in reviewing Tootsie that cross-dressing doesn’t hold the same taboo comical effect it once had. Watching Some Like it Hot, imagining how it must have hit in the ’50s is fun, but the film doesn’t need you to make allowances for its time. It’s still funny, bawdy, wild, and a consummately made picture viewed today. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play two down-on-their-luck musicians during American Prohibition. After witnessing a mob hit led by Spats Colombo (Raft), the two disguise themselves as women and catch a ride to Florida alongside an all-female band named Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators. There they meet Sugar, played by the unforgettable Marilyn Monroe. This is a rather long film for a comedy, but it flies by on zaniness and comic invention. There are only a few substantial characters but they’re great characters and even the minor roles are cast perfectly (just look at the faces of Colombo’s henchmen).
-Walter Tyrone Howard-
(894)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956, Directed by Alfred Hitchcock) English 7

Starring James Stewart, Doris Day, Brenda de Branzie, Bernard Miles, Daniel Gélin, Christopher Olsen

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(7-Very Good Film)

Surprising. Astute. Expert.

Hitchcock reworked the “ordinary man thrust into action” theme throughout his career. This particular film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, is, in fact, a remake of a picture he made twenty years prior with Peter Lorre. This time around, he uses major Hollywood stars in James Stewart and Doris Day. They play an old married couple, Ben and Jo McKenna, who travel to Morocco with their school-aged son. A seemingly random encounter with a Frenchman named Louis Bernard puts them right in the middle of an assassination plot and, making matters worse, their son is kidnapped. Typically grand entertainment by the great Hitchcock, The Man Who Knew Too Much does suffer slightly from being better in its first half (there’s a really effective misdirection in its opening act to follow its intriguing setup) than in its second half, but that doesn’t take away from its charms. The performances are excellent, including Doris Day, whom I’m a fan of, but stood the risk of being distracting in a genre we’re not used to seeing her in. Most of Hitchcock’s films along these lines feature a male protagonist boosted into the espionage world. This film offers an interesting twist in that you have a married couple both thrown in, and Hitchcock lets us know from the start that they’re not great with new situations (Stewart’s character very awkwardly does his best with local customs in a Morrocan restaurant). This makes their later ingenuity and success more appealing.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(876)

Dial M for Murder (1954, Directed by Alfred Hitchcock) English 7

Starring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, John Williams, Anthony Dawson

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(7-Very Good Film)

Tense. Devious. Absorbing.

Hitchcock made so many films-all of them good in my book-a large percentage of them classic. The very best films he made, I’ve seen a few dozen times, so sometimes watching his lesser pictures (and I include Dial M for Murder among these), which are still very good, can be a more exciting experience. This is only my second time seeing Dial M for Murder after first watching it many years ago. It felt fresh. Based on a stage play, it follows a husband, Tony Wendice (Milland), plotting the perfect murder to get rid of his wealthy, cheating wife, Margot (Kelly). Unfolding very neatly from the plan to the execution to the aftermath, Dial M for Murder takes place almost entirely in one room. Hitchcock is masterful in how he constantly but unobtrusively moves the camera and also keeps his actors moving during conversation. It should be the yardstick for how to take something inherently theatrical and make it cinematic. I will say that some of my old disappointment from years ago came flooding back in the film’s final act. I found myself deeply invested in the husband’s schemes and, rather perversely, wanted him to get away with it. While the Chief Inspector character is well-drawn, his methods are unsporting at every turn and I’d have to say illegal. As a result, his inevitable triumph is less than satisfactory to me.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(875)

Time to Kill (1942, Directed by Herbert I. Leeds) English 6

Starring Lloyd Nolan, Heather Angel, Doris Merrick, Ralph Byrd, Richard Lane, Sheila Bromley

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(6-Good Film)

Brief. Light. Appealing.

Raymond Chandler’s series of private eye novels following Phillip Marlowe are masterpieces of style and content for those who are willing to give them their proper consideration (which includes most people now, decades later). I’m guessing back in the day, however, many only saw the style, with early adaptation, Time to Kill, as evidence. Taking Chandler’s third novel, The High Window, and mixing it in with a popular movie series featuring the character, Michael Shayne (Nolan), Time to Kill is awfully slight. About an hour-long and offering very little in the form of stakes, Time to Kill instead aims for humor with quick setups and payoffs. The plot is a bastardized version of the one Chandler wrote. Private detective, Shayne, is hired by a rich old battle-ax to get back a rare coin stolen, convinced that it was her no-good daughter-in-law. The real selling point, as with all films in this series, is Shayne himself. He’s a slick, likable character. Not much of an adaptation though.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(866)

Everybody Knows (2018, Directed by Asghar Farhadi) Spanish 8

Starring Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darin, Bárbara Lennie, Inma Cuesta, Elvira Mínguez, Eduard Fernández, Ramón Barea

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Gripping. Considerable. Adept.

There’s a series of mystery novels-for my money, the best series in all of literature-written by Ross MacDonald and featuring his ace detective, Lew Archer. I think about a certain quote from time to time, written, not in one of those books, but about the series as a whole. I’ve tried for a while now to find out exactly who said it to no avail, but it goes something like this, “Most mystery writers write about crime. MacDonald writes about sin.” With the amount of time I’ve spent reading, rereading, or thinking about Lew Archer’s cases, I come back to this quote often. It’s perfect. It’s exactly and succinctly the distinguishing characteristic of MacDonald’s writing and what I love most about his novels. I was reminded of this quote again while watching Asghar Farhadi’s most recent drama, Everybody Knows. Farhadi, an Iranian director, has made a number of great films in his own country (A Separation, The Salesman, Fireworks Wednesday) and abroad (The Past). He’s won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film twice. Only the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Vittorio De Sica, and Frederico Fellini have won that award more times. I have no idea if Farhadi has ever read a Lew Archer novel, but he works in a similar vein. He takes the holistic view of each mystery he untangles. Every character has secrets. Every character’s actions affect someone else in the story significantly. Every character has motives. Motives for Farhadi, and for me, are more interesting than the crime itself. None of his films that I’ve seen have that kind of Agatha Christie summation at the end that’s tremendously satisfying but also simplistic. It’s a release of tension and when you know everything, when you understand completely, you don’t have to spend any more time thinking about what happened. Farhadi never gives you that satisfaction. He never releases the tension.

His most recent film, Everybody Knows, takes place in Spain; a small town, apparently near Madrid. Cruz stars as Laura, returning home from her life in Argentina to attend her younger sister’s wedding. Laura has two children, a girl named Irene and a younger boy named Antonio, and an Argentinian husband, Alejandro (Darin), that most people in her hometown imagine to be a big-shot, stemming from the devout Alejandro’s generous donations to a local church. Bardem stars as Paco. He’s never left their hometown and from the beginning of the movie, we get the sense that he’s pretty popular. Paco’s married to Bea but they have no kids together. Laura and Paco used to be together and they’re both so attractive, you can imagine how admired they’d be as a couple in such a small town. Everything, every relationship, every past mistake, becomes important later on when Laura’s daughter is kidnapped and held for ransom. Everyone becomes a suspect. The kidnappers send their demands to Paco, as well as Laura (who would seem to be the natural target) and the characters, like us in the audience, wonder why would they do that? The things the friends and family members say to each other while they’re wondering form the real basis for the film. What’s interesting about Everybody Knows and, again, Farhadi’s films in general, are the minor twists. This is a very small town he’s using here and everyone knows each other. A lot of what’s revealed is already known by most of the characters. It’s us in the audience who are in the dark; who are learning as the film unwinds. The reveals, the would-be bombshells, the secrets aren’t very secret. The character’s responses suggest that it’s more about hearing it said out loud than it is what was said. The performances, from the supporting cast to the stars, are unaffected and observant. I admired little moments like when Paco has just learned something momentous. The next five to ten seconds or so are devoted entirely to this character thinking; no one speaking. I also appreciate Farhadi’s most common motif throughout his films of kids as witnesses; kids on the periphery of the main plot but still affected by the drama. That Farhadi can not only successfully tell an engaging story in another language, using a separate culture, but for him to make this film, Everybody Knows, fit so comfortably with the rest of work is an impressive testament to his skill. Whether working in his native language, Persian-A Separation, About Elly, etc.-or French-The Past-or now, Spanish, he’s an auteur. His vision transcends and shines through. Everybody Knows is yet another occasion.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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