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-

(849)

Knives Out (2019, Directed by Rian Johnson) English 7

Starring Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Lakeith Stanfield, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Christopher Plummer, Michael Shannon, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Lieberher, Toni Colette, K Callan, Frank Oz, M. Emmet Walsh

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(7-Very Good Film)

Intelligent. Crafty. Satisfying.

    You can’t help but try to get ahead of complex mystery plots like this one. You believe that you are clever and that you’ve seen or read every twist. You’re skeptical that any new mystery can surprise you. At the same time, you are hoping that it does. The murder mystery is a genre that will never die out. It’s a never-ending well. A corpse with a hidden culprit has always been and will always be immediately engaging. If someone is killed, people want to know who did it, and so, without complaint or regret, and I’m sure that I’m not alone, I have sat through dozens of mediocre whodunnits and read just as many. Writer-director, Rian Johnson (fresh off of Star Wars: The Last Jedi), has too, and with an apparent love of the conventions of the genre, as well as a knowledge of some of its faults, he’s crafted Knives Out. The result is worthy and exciting, but not quite a knockout. Very few murder-mysteries are.

Starring Daniel Craig as a private detective, Benoit Blanc, hired to investigate the seemingly open and shut suicide of wealthy mystery writer, Harlan Thrombey (Plummer), we meet the large cast of characters made up primarily of Thrombey’s relatives: his daughter, Linda (Lee Curtis), her husband, Richard (Johnson), his widowed daughter-in-law, Joni (Colette), her daughter, Meg (Langford), and his youngest son, Walt (Shannon), with his wife and son. The more characters, the better in murder mysteries, because that means more suspects. We also meet Marta (de Armas), kind and honest, who would seem out of place in a murder mystery. She was Harlan’s nurse and, being unable to lie, becomes Blanc’s ally during the investigation. It’s the character of Marta, and she’s ultimately the main character, who first signifies the slight veering off familiar course that Knives Out takes. She’s right in the center of the action, but we’re told from the start to trust her, to see things from her perspective (not the detective’s), and to have a rooting interest in her. Generally, in whodunnits, my rooting interest is devoted entirely to solving the case. We care what happens to her. We notice when Richard hands her a plate at a party as if she’s the help.

Depth of character isn’t really an option in these kinds of movies. Instead, you’re working with caricatures. Rather than a weakness, I consider that part of the fun. I was aware of Ana de Armas before Knives Out and thought she was quite good in films like Knock Knock and Blade Runner 2049. The problem was that I didn’t like those movies. She makes a real impression on me here. Together with Daniel Craig’s eloquent, thoughtful country detective, the two make an appealing odd couple and are perhaps the movie’s chief pleasure. As for the supporting cast, one of the steady attractions of murder mysteries is the possibility of assembling a large number of famous people. There are a great many roles to be filled in movies like this and Hollywood traditionally fills them with A-List actors. Knives Out goes more for a strong cast of character actors and they do memorable work.

How do you revitalize the whodunnit? The central tropes are firmly established-a roomful of suspects, an isolated location, a brilliant detective, and a finale wherein that detective breaks it all down for us and the characters. Knives Out doesn’t remove any of the clichés. Instead, it plays with plot structure, and, more significantly, demonstrates a level of self-awareness missing from your average, straightforward murder mystery. That said, I wasn’t shocked by the twists. Not nearly. Its solutions are logical and maybe a tad simple. I think I might have enjoyed a red herring or two thrown in at the film’s climax, but I was satisfied.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(828)

Blood and Black Lace (1964, Directed by Mario Bava) English 5

Starring Eva Bartok, Cameron Mitchell, Thomas Reiner, Mary Arden, Lea Lander, Arianna Gorini, Dante DiPaolo

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(5-Okay Film)

Gruesome. Skilled. Disjointed.

A killer in a blank mask. A damsel in distress. I’ve seen enough of these films to know that no one is coming to save her. She’ll die. Much of the director, Mario Bava’s, skill lies in how creatively and artfully he kills off his cast (primarily women from what I’ve seen). By the way, that wasn’t just one scene from Blood and Black Lace that I was describing. That’s about six or seven consecutive scenes. That’s the whole movie, and it would become so influential that it spawned dozens of like-minded pictures to the point that these films became their own sub-genre (specific to Italian cinema) known as Giallo films.

  I’ve seen about a dozen now of varying quality and there are certain details that you find in most, if not all of them. Large cast of female characters. This one isn’t true of all Giallo films but it’s true of some of the best I’ve seen (Suspiria, What Have You Done to Solange, Phenomena). You find this a lot in American horror films as well and I don’t think it’s a matter of pure misogyny. I’ve always defended horror films on this matter. I think a woman (or a child) in peril is simply more terrifying than a grown man, and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. The gratuitous nudity in American horror films is a different matter but I haven’t noticed any of that in the Giallo pictures I’ve seen, although the women characters are always gorgeous, regardless of the setting. Another common characteristic is the whodunnit, killer in a mask aspect of all these movies. It’s a gruesome shift from the friendly, witty whodunnit pictures of classic Hollywood that were entertaining but devoid of any malice or horror. Also, Giallo films all emphasize color. Lush, over-saturated color. Even the ones from the ’60s when most films were still using black and white. They all seem to have the same strengths and weaknesses too. Though they may differ in overall quality, all of these films eschew witty dialogue, character development, plot logic, and believable acting in favor of fluid camera movement, mise en scène, set pieces, lighting, and gore. Mario Bava and Dario Argento are masters of the latter crafts. 

Blood and Black Lace features an ensemble cast of beautiful women and creepy looking men all working at a fashion house in…Italy, I suppose. The top-billed character, played by Eva Bartok, is named Countess Christina Como, but then the rest of the characters are Nicole, Peggy, and Greta so I don’t know. I’ll have to pay more attention to the location next time. In any case, one of the girls is killed, and everyone working there is a suspect. Everyone working there is in danger for that matter. You can’t have a slasher film (which Giallo films ushered in) and have only one victim. The majority of Blood and Black Lace is extended scenes of random female characters (all the characters feel random with the complete disregard for development) being killed off. If there’s a plot, it wasn’t understood by me, and the final act, rather than upping the ante, simmers down to a dull rather unsatisfying conclusion. The dialogue and acting are unsurprisingly asinine, and the previously mentioned, generously deemed ensemble acting is actually just an exercise in episodic horror that amounts to an awfully disjointed whole. What stands out and what’s positive about Blood and Black Lace is the visual elements. The killer’s mask, the elegant camera movement, the command of space. Bava is great and he’s done better than this film. What I appreciate most about Blood and Black Lace is the obvious influence it had on much better pictures. As an early example of the Giallo film, it seemed to spark something deeply appealing.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(794)

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 Princess and the Frog (2009, Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker) English 8

Voices of Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Jim Cummings, Jennifer Lewis, John Goodman, Michael Leon Wooley, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Lovely. Old-fashioned. Underappreciated.

       Traditional animation is a thing of the past for Walt Disney Animation Studios. The lovely, hand-drawn, two-dimensional work that made Disney famous (Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Cinderella) has given way to three-dimensional computer animation, first achieved by Pixar (Toy Story), now taken up by just about every American animation studio including Disney itself. Ten years ago, around Christmas, saw the last time Disney released a big-budget 2-D animated flick, The Princess and the Frog, with the more modest release of Winnie the Pooh following 2 years later. Neither film proved a hit financially, though both were critically acclaimed. In the meantime, the computer-animated Disney films Tangled (2010), Wreck-it-Ralph (2012), Frozen (2013), etc., each made at least $450 million worldwide, with Frozen going over a billion on its way to becoming the second-highest-grossing animated film of all-time (not adjusted for inflation). Does this demonstrate that people aren’t drawn to 2-D animation anymore? Has 2-D animation become like black-and-white photography? I don’t think so, though it’s hard to prove. I know it’s different cultures and demographics, but anime is more popular than ever. Your Name made over $350 million worldwide just 3 years ago. And I’ve never heard a kid complain about the animation of Snow White or Pinocchio or The Lion King the way most kids will complain if you try to get them to watch black-and-white classics. So traditional animation doesn’t appear to be “antiquated” in the same way as black-and-white filming.  It’s difficult to put my finger on just what did hold The Princess and the Frog back from becoming the global hit most other Disney princess movies are and I suspect the easy answers aren’t any good. For one thing, traditional animation was floundering for years before The Princess and the Frog. Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, and Home on the Range had varying levels of success but I think it’s safe to say that each of them was disappointing in some way (either commercially or critically). Maybe it’s a case of guilt by association. The Princess and the Frog looks like those movies. Tangled is a huge success. Let’s stop making movies that look like the former and emulate the latter. Whatever the case, it’s a shame that The Princess and the Frog isn’t more appreciated or even seen, because it’s quite a film. It’s not on the level of Disney’s very best but I’d place it on that very next tier which is still pretty special.

The film begins with a quick glimpse at the modest but happy childhood of heroine, Tatiana (voiced by Rose), and then we flash forward many years to see her as a hard-working adult in 1920’s New Orleans trying to save up enough money to own a restaurant. Tatiana is black, making her the first black Disney princess (the only one to date), so from the very first minute, before we know if the film is any good, we know it’s important, and we hope that it’s good and worthy. I say Tatiana is a good role model for anyone watching. She doesn’t have time for much fun, as she sings in the film’s best song “Almost There,” but she’s not a shrew either. Then there is Prince Naveen (voiced by Campos), a cad, recently cut off from his parent’s money. He arrives in New Orleans with two choices: get a job or marry someone rich. His rogue heart is set on marrying someone rich. It’s noteworthy to me, and it’s one of my few quibbles with the movie, that Naveen is ethnically ambiguous, which is fine, but I really would have preferred a black prince. There’s some good to be found in portraying love between a mixed couple, certainly, but there are so few positive depictions of black males in the media in general that I believe an opportunity was missed. Anyways, Naveen gets mixed up with a local voodoo practitioner named Dr. Facilier (voiced by Keith David and it’s a great voice as anyone who’s seen Gargoyles will remember) and ends up a frog. If he doesn’t kiss a princess by a specific time, he’ll remain a frog for the rest of his life. Finding Tatiana at a costume party and mistaking her for a princess thanks to her costume, he convinces her to kiss him, but she winds up a frog as well. The two travel across the bayou looking for Madame Odie (voiced by Lewis), who might be there only chance at changing back.

As the first attempt by Disney to feature black characters in the lead, The Princess and the Frog is open to intense scrutiny. Maybe it suffered a bit from that, but most of what I’ve heard in the form of criticism is nonsense. I recall Paul Mooney complaining that Tatiana spends most of the film’s runtime as a frog. I say who cares, though that’s not much of a counter-argument. Also, there were questions about the Disney princess formula running out of steam. Perhaps The Princess and the Frog is too traditional. It’s classic formula through and through: princess, prince, music, villain, colorful side characters, animals. I love the formula and don’t think the formula will ever truly die. Tangled came out a year later and resurrected it while Frozen put to rest the idea of stopping Disney princess films for good. I don’t know why but The Princess and the Frog failed to surprise people and somehow Tangled and Frozen gave the impression of something completely new, despite all following that same formula. I happen to think The Princess and the Frog is better than Frozen while Tangled is the best of the three. The Princess and the Frog is one of the most beautifully animated films Disney’s ever produced. It has a cast full of great characters including a standout villain, great music by Randy Newman, and a fun story to get you from the opening credits to happily-ever-after. I suppose it will just have to settle for being underrated.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(776)

Joker (2019, Directed by Todd Phillips) English 6

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

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(6-Good Film)

Solid. 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, 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 slightly better than your average.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(755)

The Three Musketeers (1973, Directed by Richard Lester) English 8

Starring Michael York, Charlton Heston, Raquel Welch, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, Christopher Lee, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Faye Dunaway, Frank Finlay, Geraldine Chaplin, Roy Kinnear, Simon Ward

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Exuberant. Droll. Arresting.

All for one, and one for all. You’re familiar with this mantra, no doubt, whether you’ve read Alexandre Dumas’ classic 19th-century novel, The Three Musketeers, or not. You’ve heard it an endless amount of times, referenced in other works, or perhaps you’ve seen any number of films based on or influenced by said novel. Apparently, there are close to fifty film adaptations, and though I’ve only seen five, I’m willing to claim this, Richard Lester’s 1973 version, is the best of them. It would be tough to beat and it’s certainly the best of the ones I’ve seen, though the George Sidney-directed, Gene Kelly-led old Hollywood version is fantastic fun.

The Three Musketeers, like many 19th-century novels, is fairly long (around 700 pages ), and so, any film adaptation is going to have to make do with a fraction of the plot and story development of its source material. It’s for this reason that I would welcome a mini-series adaptation (apologies if it exists already, I’ve never seen it). Director, Richard Lester, best known to this day for directing the spirited Beatles’ flick, A Hard Day’s Night, teamed up with writer, George MacDonald Fraser, best known for his series of Flashman books, and together- I’m not sure whose decision it was, but it proves wise-their Three Musketeers basically cuts away all of Dumas’ subplots. Here, beginning like the novel and all adaptations, young, provincial Frenchman, D’artagnan (York), is ready to leave the nest and, after his farewells with his parents, travels to bustling Paris where he hopes to make it as a member of the King’s guard, a musketeer. Upon arrival, his unrefined country ways rub several people the wrong way and he, confident young man that he is, accepts three duels on his first day, each with a musketeer; one with the stoic Athos (Reed), another with the extravagant Porthos (Finlay), and a final one with the devout Aramis (Chamberlain). Before he gets a chance to fight any of the three, however, an encounter with henchmen working for the devious Cardinal Richelieu (Heston) sees him teaming up with them instead. Later on and now friends, D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis attempt to thwart one of the Cardinal’s plots by sneaking into England and recovering jewels given by Queen Anne of Austria (Chaplin) to her lover, the Duke of Buckingham (Ward). Faye Dunaway and Raquel Welch play love interests with Dunaway as a femme fatale of sorts, Milady de Winter, and Welch as a spotty but beautiful dressmaker, Constance.

There’s a sequel released just one year later (1974) that I haven’t seen and I can only assume covers more of Dumas’ epic saga. If so, I like that approach. The Three Musketeers warrants two films. At the same time, the clandestine mission to recover the Queen’s jewels has always been my favorite chapter in Dumas’ serial and makes for a fine standalone film and what a spectacular film Lester’s made. It’s marvelous to look at and a witty, almost irreverent take on the swashbuckler tale. Each frame is elaborately designed and each scene offers some surprising, humorous visual detail. I love the swashbuckling adventure stories of old. They’re close to extinct nowadays and that’s a shame because films like Captain Blood, Adventures of Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro, or this one are fun, attractive, romantic, and exciting, while a great deal of modern action flicks are flat and boring. The one criticism I have of this Three Musketeers is that it’s less concerned with the characters’ and their development than other iterations and the three musketeers, in particular, are short-changed a bit. Only Oliver Reed as Athos makes any real impression thanks to his charisma and physical presence. I’m going to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt though and imagine that the characters will develop more in the second part. To be continued…

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(747)

R.I.P.D (2013, Directed by Robert Schwentke) English 4

Starring Ryan Reynolds, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Bacon, Stéphanie Szostak, Mary-Louise Parker, James Hong, Mike O’Malley

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(4-Bad Film)

Shoddy. Unoriginal. Dumb.

Some bad films reveal themselves on reflection. I made it through Tom Cruise’s The Mummy reboot thinking it was okay, and only later did I determine that no, it was not okay. It was quite bad. For me, there are a number of bad films in this category-X-Men: Apocalypse seems to grow worse in my memory with each passing year-but then you have films that are just immediately bad. The first frames scream out, “Get ready. You’re in for a trainwreck.” R.I.P.D is one such film. Actually, the first couple of minutes are so bad that they lowered my expectations to the point that the subsequent 90 minutes or so slightly exceeded them. It’s in these opening minutes that we are introduced (through a pointless framing device) to “deados,” bloated, repulsive monsters conjured up with the worst CGI money can buy ($140 million somehow, if Wikipedia can be believed) and the main antagonists of R.I.P.D. It’s difficult to overcome poor special effects (not to be confused with dated effects), and it would take a far more original premise than R.I.P.D offers to do it.

Nick Walker (Reynolds) is a hardworking Boston cop, blissfully in love with his wife, Julia (Szostak), but he’s recently stumbled into an easy payday with his partner, Bobby (Bacon). You know, an under-the-table kind of payday-the kind that gets you investigated by internal affairs-in the form of stolen gold. When Nick’s conscience wins out and he vows to return the loot, Bobby kills him, and Nick ends up lending his soul to the Rest in Peace Department for a chance at returning to Earth and wrapping up unfinished business. He’s partnered with a wily veteran from the old west, Roycephus “Roy” Pulsipher (Bridges), as they hunt down the dangerous deados I mentioned earlier.

R.I.P.D reeks of rotten ideas left over from the Men in Black franchise. A clandestine agency charged with saving the world seemingly every other week. Bizarre creatures. Odd couple buddy-action-comedy. It’s derivative. So, too, is the traitorous partner element. It’s all been done before which is no great crime in cinema, but then you add in the bad special effects and lifeless action sequences. The central relationship between Bridges’ ridiculous cowboy and Reynolds’ straight guy works better than expected. Bridges’ over-the-top schtick scores some laughs and the two actors are naturally likable.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(679)

Midsommar (2019, Directed by Ari Aster) English 9

Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Vilhelm Blomgren

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(9-Great Film)

Beautiful. Disquieting. Distinctive.

     I’m not going to take sides-though it’s largely the male characters who suffer in this film, you could counter that it’s a consequence of their mistakes-but it’s established from the beginning of this two-and-a-half-hour descent that its protagonists, Dani Ardor (Pugh) and Christian Hughes (Reynor), are in a bad relationship, growing more and more toxic, and it’s from this relationship that the rest of the film spews. They’re a ticking time bomb; the kind of couple that ruins parties and makes everyone around them feel awkward. They made me feel awkward sitting in the theater eating Sour Patch Kids. We learn in the opening scene that Christian’s ready to break up with her. His friends, most forcibly Mark, a loudmouth played by Will Poulter, urge him to end things. They have a trip to idyllic Sweden approaching and Mark points out the potential barrage of foreign beauties waiting for them, Christian included if he can simply rip the band-aid off. Dani senses the truth. She has a troubled sister and leans on Christian too much. Instead of breaking up, however, Dani receives a phone call that leaves her shattered, Christian incapable of being honest with her, and the film, Midsommar, off to a gruesome start. And so, instead of a guy’s romp in Sweden for the Summer, Christian brings Dani along, as they visit Hårga, a commune, and home of Pelle, one member of their group. What follows makes Midsommar the wildest film I’ve seen in a long time, a great one and a first-rate horror flick.

    Writer-director, Ari Aster, referred to Midsommar as a ” breakup movie dressed in the clothes of a folk horror film.” Many classic horror flicks build from realistic, fundamental fears. Rosemary’s Baby deals with anxiety about childbirth. The Exorcist features a mother helplessly watching her daughter go through an illness of sorts, but the immediate comparison or influence here is The Wicker Man. Not Nicholas Cage’s hilarious remake but the unforgettable original starring Christopher Lee. You can’t make a film about a sex cult and not be influenced by The Wicker Man. Midsommar even ends with a sinister image of a pyre burning as we process what’s led to this point, but Midsommar is otherwise a very different film. The more apt comparison for me is Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. You have a group of outsiders-Christian, Dani, Josh (Harper), and Mark later joined by Brits, Simon and Connie-who are invited into a secluded, idyllic space and who are slowly excluded one by one after revealing their character. While the temptations in Willy Wonka’s factory were candy and chocolate, the commune in Midsommar seduces with flirtatious red-heads and ancient secrets. It’s emotionally scarred Dani who emerges, like Charlie, victorious in the end. What makes her so worthy? Like with Charlie, I’d say it’s humility. Christian and his group of college graduate students seem awfully entitled; entitled to privileged information, entitled to pissing on trees at random. It’s at the end when Dani wears the crown that Midsommar feels like a sordid fairy tale. To go from albatross around her boyfriend’s neck to become a queen is the stuff of fantasy and works in making Midsommar dreamlike but also touches seriously on how cults operate. They make her feel special, call her queen, and offer an escape from difficulties in reality.

There’s been much said about the look of Midsommar. From the moment the trailer dropped, we’ve known that Aster has fashioned a nightmare in the midst of broad daylight. More than that though, he’s made a film that’s gorgeous; a film that grows in visual splendor as its story becomes increasingly hellish. It’s clear that he’s an exciting new filmmaker with a grim eye for family drama and in his lead, Florence Pugh (previously unfamiliar to me), he’s found an actress of unique, innocent features to carry the weight of all the ugliness of Midsommar. She’s terrific.

If I were pressed to question logic, I would ask the protagonists what they are doing visiting a pagan cult and what did they expect? Unlike the characters in Scream, these guys haven’t seen enough horror flicks apparently, because Midsommar unfolds precisely how you’d expect it to aside from precise, disgusting detail (now I know what the blood eagle is, thank you Ari Aster). That I can know what’s going to happen and still be shocked and floored by how it happens is a sign of tremendous skill and talent by those who made this film.

     -Walter Tyrone Howard-

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Apocalypse Now Redux (1979, Directed by Francis Ford Coppola) English 10

Starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Laurence Fishburne, Harrison Ford, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Frederick Forrest

(10-Masterpiece)

Awe-inspiring. Sublime. Masterful.

   Apocalypse Now in its own abstract way shows the horror of the Vietnam War as a symptom of human darkness. Scene after scene demonstrates the idea of nobody being left untouched by the war, and yet the film never lingers on any individual or setting long enough for us to feel any real heaviness towards what we are watching. The violence seems gratuitous, which is odd in a war movie. When a character is killed, we sense that it wasn’t supposed to happen, or that it didn’t have to happen. And there aren’t any abiding sentiments from the protagonists signaling us to care about the carnage and death occurring on screen. Everything that happens just happens, and our guide through this hellish odyssey, Captain Willard (played perfectly by Martin Sheen), has long since given up trying to do anything about it. When a young sailor under his command gets a little too gung-ho and guns down a local family, killing two, and wounding a third, Willard finishes the job and essentially tells the crew to get back to work. He has a job to do. He must find a wayward Colonel (Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando as almost a boogie man) who has set himself up as a god in Cambodia. Willard has no interest for the majority of the film in distractions. He calmly sits and waits while the crew busies themselves with Playboy bunnies that are flown in for military enjoyment. All of these elements, I believe, are to serve the narrative’s ideas of disenchantment, apathy, and, principally, chaos. Clearly, critical things are happening constantly, and yet, nothing really matters. The consequences are quiet, emotions are muted.

There are a number of supporting characters, memorable characters at that, but most of them are one dimensional. Again this serves the narrative in leaving us with the stoic, contemplative Willard as our key. The beginning scene illustrates his loss of stability and perhaps sanity. He has fever dreams, and shadow-boxes the demons in his empty hotel room, wearing only his skivvies. He is no longer fit for anything but battle. During his journey, he meets several characters that are used more to represent an idea than to act as believable human beings. We are introduced to Robert Duval’s character (Kilgore) as he looks to, but never actually does, give water to an enemy soldier with his guts hanging out. Kilgore just wants to surf. Willard’s narration lets us know that Kilgore is the kind of guy that you know will survive the war. Laurence Fishburne is a black teenager that dances to the Rolling Stones on the way to battle. He dies listening to a tape-recording of his mother’s voice as she wishes him safety. The naval leader of the boat voyage (another stoic type and everyone’s image of a chief) is killed by, of all things, a spear. These parts serve to underline the madness of it all. I spoke earlier of disenchantment because no movie makes clearer the disenchantment of the United States towards our first real military failure. In the film’s most famous scene, evoking a sense of ambiguity, Willard hops along for an invasion of a Viet Cong base as Kilgore leads his men in helicopters across picturesque skies blaring Wagner’s Rise of the Valkyries. It is a glorious image. The music is triumphant. The violence is exciting and beautiful. Is Coppola glorifying war? It’s been said that the scene was used by the military for troop morale. I believe though, that in the context of the film, the scene serves as another piece of absurdity to an abstract picture. When you consider that the whole reason for the air strike is basically so that Kilgore has a nice place to surf, no amount of excitement or beauty could justify the violent means to his ridiculous end. Politically, the film is very ambiguous. Does war turn men into Kurtz?  When Willard finally makes it to Kurtz, the latter makes a sort of crazy man’s sense to Willard. And when Willard completes his mission and kills Kurtz, the natives bow before him; he has taken Kurtz place. Willard and Kurtz appear to be two sides of the same coin as the expression goes. Both resigned. Willard resigned to do his job. Kurtz resigned to the Godlike status bestowed upon him, and finally to his assassination.

There is a scene of Willard walking through a massive forest completely dwarfed by nature, and I wondered about man’s significance. Kurtz does not put much importance in the life of an individual, but in the forest scene, I wondered if the film was making the same point: we are all just dust in the wind. What does Willard go back to? With redux opposed to the original, I like to imagine him going back to the French woman, but again we are left with more questions than answers.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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