I, the Jury (1953, Directed by Harry Essex) English 5

Starring Biff Elliot, Peggie Castle, Preston Foster, Margaret Sheridan

(5-Okay Film)

Standard. Forgettable. Confusing.

B-Movie all the way, adapting one of Mickey Spillane’s dime store novels into a decent enough but never special noir film. As far as I could tell, the classic protagonist, Mike Hammer (Elliot) wants revenge for the murder of an old friend which takes him through several hard to follow plot points. Like all Hammer stories, it’s impossible to keep up with the mass of characters and their individual motivations. Unlike Kiss Me Deadly (1955), the best Mike Hammer film, here the lack of coherence becomes grating after a while. Elliot does a passable job displaying the violence of Mike Hammer, but can’t capture the intelligence of the character. There are some cool stylistic things that make the movie passable as a means of entertainment, but it shouldn’t be at the top of any lists.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


The Black Dahlia (2006, Directed by Brian De Palma) English 4

Starring Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, Fiona Shaw, John Kavanagh, Rose McGowan

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(4-Bad Film)

Miscast. Underwhelming. Confusing.

Can someone please give The Black Dahlia another shot? Reading that David Fincher was initially attached and wanted to turn James Ellroy’s novel into a miniseries has me mourning what could have been. Too much studio interference apparently caused the director to flee the project, and so David Fincher’s Black Dahlia became Brian De Palma’s Black Dahlia and what a bad film. What a bad, gorgeous film. Brian De Palma’s obviously immensely talented but he’s as susceptible to uneven storytelling as any great director ever. Anyways, this film deserved its Oscar nomination for best cinematography and Mia Kirshner deserved the praise she received for playing Elizabeth Short among the dozens of otherwise excoriating reviews. If you don’t know the story, Elizabeth Short was a 22-year-old girl from Massachusetts found brutally murdered in Los Angeles in 1947. Forty years later, the great Ellroy wrote a fictional, speculative novel about the ensuing investigation. His book is riveting. In this adaptation, detectives Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) join the crusade to catch Short’s killer, both becoming obsessed with the case while dealing with their love for the same woman, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). There are probably other issues but I simply couldn’t get past the cast, primarily the leads. They are bad. They are not Troll 2 level bad, but they are either unconvincing in their roles (Hilary Swank is miscast as a femme fatale despite being a talented actress) or boring in their roles (Josh Hartnett delivers his lines monotonously, especially during the crucial narrations). Plus, I’m not sure the narrative makes sense. I only understood certain aspects by remembering the book.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Strangers in the Night (1944, Directed by Anthony Mann) English 7

Starring William Terry, Virginia Grey, Helene Thimig, Edith Barrett, Anne O’Neal

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(7-Very Good Film)

Modest. Efficient. Suspenseful.

It’s one of my favorite things in life when I stumble upon an old film that I’ve never even heard of and it turns out to be a gem. It’s the equivalent of a great hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Strangers in the Night, directed by Anthony Mann early in his career, stands at just 56 minutes long with no recognizable stars, though I’ve seen the lead actress in a pretty unremarkable whodunnit earlier this year. A marine, Johnny Meadows (William Terry) corresponds with a woman he’s never met named Rosemary Blake during his time in the South Pacific for World War II. Upon returning home, he sets out to meet this girl he’s never seen but has fallen in love with through their letters. Instead, he meets Mrs. Hilda Blake (Helene Thimig), a strange and sinister older woman who claims to be Rosemary’s mother. He also meets a beautiful doctor, Leslie Ross (Virginia Grey), complicating his feelings for Rosemary. It’s a rare film that keeps me clueless about where it’s heading, but Strangers in the Night did just that. It’s a really tight, suspenseful story that offered many surprises.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Young Sherlock Holmes (1985, Directed by Barry Levinson) English 7

Starring Nicholas Rowe, Alan Cox, Sophie Ward, Anthony Higgins, Freddie Jones, Roger Ashton-Griffiths

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(7-Very Good Film)

Vivid. Exciting. Creepy.

What is it about the ’80s aesthetic that I respond to so strongly? Even in minor works or light entertainments such as Young Sherlock Holmes, it keeps me coming back. Nicholas Rowe plays the famed detective in his teenage years with Alan Cox playing Watson. They befriend each other while investigating the mysterious deaths of three men that seem linked to an underground cult with mystical powers. Like most ’80s family films, Young Sherlock Holmes has its creepy moments. Many of them actually. Perhaps it’s the combination of light adventure with dark, surprising horror I find in so many ’80s pictures that I enjoy so much. One could quibble that Young Sherlock Holmes solutions are overly simple (the unknown villain goes by a name that is just his real name spelled backwards), but the film is successful as entertainment.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Angel Heart (1987, Directed by Alan Parker) English 8

Starring Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, Lisa Bonet, Charlotte Rampling, Stocker Fontelieu

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Dark. Evocative. Haunting.

There are two movie formulas that always leave me satisfied. One belongs to the western genre: a town bullied by outlaws finds help from a vigilante outsider. The second is the private eye subgenre: a world-weary gumshoe accepts a seemingly innocuous case that develops into the biggest case of his career. I love mystery and femme fatales and tough-talking men and all that comes with this latter plot. Angel Heart, starring Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro, is such a film. Beginning in 1950s New York, Rourke plays Harry Angel, hired by De Niro’s Louis Cyphre to track down a lost jazz singer named Johnny Favorite. His investigation leads him to New Orleans and a cast of characters involved in the dark arts including the beautiful Evangeline Proudfoot (Bonet). As the plot thickens, Angel Heart morphs from a private eye drama to a supernatural thriller, and the ending, absurd and abstract as it is, floored me. Mickey Rourke is a special actor; inherently interesting, exciting, with great emotional range. His revelation scene opposite a terrifically understated De Niro is a tour de force.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Holmes and Watson (2018, Directed by Etan Cohen) English 4

Starring Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Rebecca Hall, Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan, Ralph Fiennes, Kelly Macdonald, Pam Ferris, Hugh Laurie

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(4-Bad Film)

Crude. Ham-handed. Bomb.

Roger Ebert had a theory about comedies only working if the characters weren’t in on the joke. Michael Scott in The Office, for example, has no idea how ridiculous he is. This theory explains in part why Holmes and Watson, yet another take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, doesn’t work. The actors, including stars Will Ferell and John C. Reilly (hilarious together in Talledega Nights and Step-Brothers), are too aware of their punchlines. There’s a lot of mugging and hammering home each obvious line. The plot offers little to amend for the lack of wit as Holmes and Watson set out to catch a mysterious threat to the Queen posing as Moriarty. Not the worst movie ever made, but probably the worst Sherlock film.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Shanghai Surprise (1986, Directed by Jim Goddard) English 4

Starring Sean Penn, Madonna, Paul Freeman, Richard Griffiths, Philip Sayer, Victor Wong

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(4-Bad Film)

Miscast. Miscast. Miscast.

A pair of missionaries in China-one, a beautiful, if stuck up blonde named Gloria Tatlock (Madonna)-enlist the help of a sleazy expatriate, Glendon Wasey (Penn), to track down a haul of opium that could help them nurse their suffering patients. Shanghai Surprise isn’t as complete a disaster as contemporary critics deemed it. It has an engaging setting, some exotic appeal, and a couple of decent songs by George Harrison, but it is bad. Mainly, because Madonna is so bad. I’m not particularly tough on actors. I love Bloodsport and Red Sonja for example. But romantic comedies depend so much on chemistry and strong lead characters. The writing perhaps deserves some blame but there’s no getting past how badly out of her element Madonna is. I don’t buy her as a prim missionary and she’s not a good enough actress to sell it.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-