And Then There Were None (2018, Directed by Rene Clair) English 10

Starring Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, June Duprez, Louis Hayward, Roland Young, Richard Haydn, Judith Anderson, Mischa Auer

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Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None was a dark, terrifying murder mystery set on a remote island, and possibly one of the earliest precursors to the modern slasher.  In her novel, eight strangers and a married couple meet, all with criminal secrets, for what was supposed to be fun and games, but turns out to be psychotic retribution, as one among them is a killer, picking off the others one by one. This 1945 adaptation, due to restrictive production codes, couldn’t match its source’s ferocity, so instead, it provides a witty, stylish, and entertaining thriller, light on scares, but full of suspense. By going with all character actors, the film lets you know that any one can die over the course of the movie, whereas a movie star would have to survive until at least the end. Breaking the fourth wall with the character introductions was just one of director, Rene Clair’s numerous wonderful touches. Droll. Skillful. Hair-raising.

Sex in Film isn’t Interesting

Here comes an article from the old cantankerous man in me: every other Hollywood R rated film has one: the obligatory sex scene. On average, it’ll last 5 seconds, with an emphasis on the upper body, accompanied by bedroom sounds. It’s not difficult to picture the behind the scenes mechanics of a Hollywood sex scene. Many actors have spoken about how awkward they can be. Setting aside the tedious details of how simulated sex scenes are done, attempting to look past any prudishness I have, I simply don’t think sex scenes are ever very good, and that’s not reserved for Hollywood. Perhaps there’s a bias that comes with being an American, but for me, as opposed to violence in film, sex scenes, in general, are not interesting cinematically. Sex scenes, simulated or unsimulated, are not romantic, they’re not sexy, they’re rarely realistic, and they’re always reduced to the same level (regardless of the acting or technical talent involved).

I can think of one handful of exceptions, but the majority of sex scenes aren’t sexy. When I think of sexy or romantic scenes across film history, I think of Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps playing basketball together in Love and Basketball (2000), Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis sharing a passionate kiss at long last in Witness (1985), James Stewart and Donna Reed sharing a phone call in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson struggling over a soppy book in Remains of the Day (1993), Daniel Day-Lewis unbuttoning Michelle Pfeiffer’s gloves in The Age of Innocence (1993), just off the top of my head. These scenes all built up dramatic tension through writing, acting, staging, what-have-you. How many different ways can you stage a sex scene? What’s the last sex scene that was filmed in a way you hadn’t seen before? I don’t think it even matters, because my main grievance with sex scenes, and maybe this only applies to me, but they all work on the same level, and sure they’re appealing on a base level, but not on any level I respect. Have you ever watched a sex scene and been impressed or moved by the performances? I haven’t. It doesn’t matter if it was Oscar winner Cate Blanchett or Playboy Playmate Shannon Tweed, no one is watching the acting. No one is thinking about the movie. If there is nudity involved in a scene, no one is thinking period. Can anyone relate Little Finger’s back story (this is a Game of Thrones reference, so not a movie, but my point remains)?

Violence in cinema can serve any number of purposes. It can give a film weight (Unforgiven), setup suspense (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), provide dark humor (Pulp Fiction or Fargo). Violence can even be aesthetically beautiful (which I’m sure many object to) as in Jean-Louis Trintignant’s sacrifice in The Great Silence. Nine times out of ten, sex scenes are just there for me to ignore awkwardly with my family.

-Walter Howard-

Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear (1945, Directed by Roy William Neill) English 6

Starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Dennis Hoey, Aubrey Mather, Paul Cavanagh

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Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) is called in with his earnest sidekick, Dr. Watson (Bruce), to investigate the deaths of two members of a secretive club, whose deaths were preceded by threatening letters. The remaining five club members fear for their lives, while it becomes clear that one of them is likely behind it all. Rathbone and Bruce, who played the iconic pair, more times than anyone are in their element here. Rathbone always looks amused and one step ahead of the rest, while Bruce provides the comic relief and every now and then stumbles on to some important clue. The film, short and sweet, wraps up with a very satisfying conclusion. Suspenseful. Assured. Solid.

The Bird with The Crystal Plumage (1970, Directed by Dario Argento) English 7

Starring Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Eva Renzi, Mario Adorf, Enrico Maria Salerno

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An American tourist, Sam (Musante), in Italy witnesses a near fatal attack on a woman in an art gallery, but failed to get a clear look at the would-be assassin. Local police believe the attack is part of a string of recent murders, and hold Sam as a key witness, hoping that he’ll recall some important detail that will lead to the killer. Director, Argento, works in almost exclusively in this genre, with several variations of this same plot. His talent lies in his staging, framing, and elegant camera movement, which is on full display in this, his debut. Incredible mise en scène.  Most notably in the key early scene in which Sam witnesses the attack, with its snow white interior, wall of glass, and the night time merging to delirious effect. Dialogue, acting, and character development are of little importance in his films. I will say The Bird with the Crystal Plumage offers a solid mystery plot with an excellent conclusion. Surprising. Striking. Lurid.

Boogie Nights (1997, Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson) English 8

Starring Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, John C. Reilly, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Heather Graham, Nicole Ari Parker, Thomas Jane, William H. Macy, Don Cheadle, Phillip Baker Hall, Alfred Molina

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Sweeping view of the late ’70s porno scene, and Eddie Adams, A.K.A Dirk Diggler’s (Wahlberg) career ups and downs rising from busboy to star before hitting rock bottom in the early ’80s. There are at least a dozen indelible characters in Boogie Nights, from director and self-fashioned auteur, Jack Horner (Reynolds) all the way to the lovesick Scotty (Seymour Hoffman), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s prodigious skill is constantly on display. Many consider Boogie Nights his first masterpiece, but it falls just short, in my book, of the likes of his later films like Magnolia, The Master, or There Will Be Blood. Certain aspects feel derivative of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and at times the overtly comedic tone which makes the film a blast to watch, hold it back from ever being truly moving. Dazzling. Hysterical. Riveting.

North and South (2004, Directed by Brian Percival) English 8

Starring Richard Armitage, Daniela Denby-Ashe, Sinéad Cusack, Tim Pigott-Smith, Lesley Manville

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Margaret Hale (Denby-Ashe) is a spirited, opinionated girl who moves with her parents to the wildly different, industrial town of Milton. There, she catches the eye of hardened factory boss, John Thornton, whom she mostly despises, and befriends a family of aggrieved workers. Adapted from the classic Elizabeth Gaskell novel, this television serial captures her work splendidly, with a standout performance from Armitage as John Thornton. Something of a working class Pride and Prejudice with top-notch production quality and performances. Outstanding. Faithful. Substantial.

To All the Boys I Loved Before (2018, Directed by Susan Johnson) English 6

Starring Lana Condor, Janel Parrish, Noah Centineo, Israel Broussard, King Bach, John Corbett

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High schooler, Lara Jean Covey (Condor), is the introverted type with a close relationship with her family-widowed father, and two sisters, one older named Margot (Parrish), and one precocious younger sister named Kitty. She also has a hopeless crush on her childhood best friend, Josh (Broussard), who happens to be dating Margot, or was dating her until they broke up just before Lara’s new school year. Lara channels her love for Josh into a series of love letters. She’s always written a love letter for every crush she’s ever had, meant to be seen by no one. Somehow, they get out (it’s no great mystery how, but I won’t mention it here), and Lara goes to school to find several former crushes now know about her feelings. She’s especially mortified to find that Josh received his letters, and her solution is to pretend to date another boy, Peter (Centineo), with the two  starting a fake relationship together for separate reasons. A contrived, predictable plot like the one this teen rom-com works from is not a problem when it’s written and performed as expertly as it is here, by relative newcomers no less. Many scenes you will see coming, but no bad scenes, no shortage of likable characters and genuinely cute moments rather than cutesy drivel. Disarming. Sweet. Satisfying.