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 that 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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A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby (2019, Directed by John Schultz) English 5

Starring Rose McIver, Ben Lamb, Alice Krige, Honor Kneafsey, Sarah Douglas, Tahirah Sharif, Theo Devaney, Crystal Yu

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(5-Okay Film)

Retread. Predictable. Corny.

There’s no reason, as far as I can tell, that Netflix shouldn’t just keep rolling out these ultra-cheesy, predictable Christmas Prince movies every year. The Royal Baby, the third film in this watershed trilogy, brings back Queen Amber (Rose McIver) and King Richard (Ben Lamb) as they prepare for the birth of their first child and also to sign a treaty that would continue the alliance between their made-up country, Aldovia, and some other made-up country, Penglia. When someone steals the treaty before it’s signed, the king and queen go into detective mode. Enjoyable, treacly to the extreme, A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby is satisfying viewing for those who like laughable, corny entertainment.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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12 Monkeys (1995, Directed by Terry Gilliam) English 10

Starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer, David Morse, Christopher Meloni

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(10-Masterpiece)

Intriguing. Vivid. Thrilling.

The year is 2035. Lions and other feral animals roam the post-apocalyptic cityscape. It’s been nearly 40 years since a deadly virus wiped out most of humanity. James Cole (Willis), a prisoner, is sent back in time to locate the source so that a cure might be created. He gets sent back too far and his pursuit of the virus’ origin is derailed by his being locked up as criminally insane. Based on a short film by Chris Marker, La Jetée, Terry Gilliam uses this intriguing premise to fashion his bizarre version of a classic Hitchcock film (there are several references to Vertigo in the picture). You have a protagonist, Cole, thrust into a situation with dire implications, mostly against his will, who begins doubting his own sanity. Along the way, there are several red herrings and an odd but satisfying romance with his doctor, Kathyrn Railly (Stowe). 12 Monkeys is a skewed vision of the future matched with a delirious odyssey through time. I, for one, have never been able to fully wrap my head around the paradoxes or the implications made throughout the film, but I love these kinds of thrillers. Think of Hitchcock’s 39 Steps, one of the most entertaining films ever made, wherein the protagonist is chained to a woman who loathes him, while unknown enemies chase them. We get that recycled wonderfully here with Cole and Kathryn.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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Take One False Step (1949, Directed by Chester Erskine) English 6

Starring William Powell, Shelley Winters, Marsha Hunt, James Gleason, Dorothy Hart, Felix Bressart, Sheldon Leonard

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(6-Good Film)

Tame. Typical. Solid.

Happily married Professor Andrew Gentling (Powell) reconnects with an old flame, Catherine Sykes (Winters), while visiting California on a business trip. Soon after, she’s murdered and the cops are after the professor for questioning. It’s a prime setup for noir, and Take One False Step delivers on so many fronts that it’s disappointing that it watered down the tone instead of being the dark cautionary tale it set up. First of all, the professor is too much of a saint. Even when he’s having drinks with a woman that’s not his wife, there’s no threat that he’s tempted to cheat. There is genuine suspense in this film, however, and Shelley Winters, as demonstrated on many occasions, excels as a dangerously unstable woman.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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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-

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Murder, My Sweet (1944, Directed by Edward Dmytryk) English 8

Starring Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, Otto Kruger, Mike Mazurki, Miles Mander

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Witty. Fast. Hardboiled.

Raymond Chandler’s immortal character, Phillip Marlowe, gets his big-screen debut in this adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely. Marlowe’s played by song and dance man, Dick Powell, who wanted to expand into dramatic fare and did so successfully, thanks to a strong performance here. Two cases collide for Marlowe as he searches for missing gems that were stolen during a payoff he was paid to monitor. This leads him to the wealthy but dysfunctional Grayle family, a sinister “psychic healer,” and a mentally unstable brute named Moose (Mazurki). Murder, My Sweet is an excellent adaptation and an early example of film noir. It has all of the wonderful conventions of the private detective subgenre: femme fatales (in this case two), a small-time case that unravels into a big one, thugs, murder, mystery. I love this stuff. It’s impressive to me the degree of complexity it accomplishes with such few characters and an economy of runtime.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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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-

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