Category Archives: Mystery

Blu-ray reissue: The Man Who Fell to Earth ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

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The Man Who Fell to Earth: 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition                  Studio Canal Region “B” Blu-ray*

 If there was ever a film and a star that were made for each other, it was director Nicolas Roeg’s mind-blowing 1976 adaptation of Walter Tevis’ novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the late great David Bowie. Several years after retiring his “Ziggy Stardust” stage persona, Bowie was coaxed back to the outer limits to inhabit Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from a drought-stricken planet who crash-lands on Earth. Gleaning our planet as a water source, Newton formulates a long-range plan for transporting the precious resource back to his home world. In the interim, he becomes an enigmatic hi-tech magnate (kind of makes you wonder where Bill Gates really came from).

A one-of-a-kind film, with excellent supporting performances from Candy Clark, Rip Torn and Buck Henry. The Studio Canal Edition has a gorgeous new 4K transfer, a second disc packed with extras, and a bonus CD of “Papa” John Phillips’ soundtrack.  Lionsgate will be releasing the domestic version of this set in January 2017.

*Note: Region “B” requires a region-free player (they’re getting cheaper!).

Hitch by ten best

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 13, 2016)

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Today is Alfred Hitchcock’s 117th birthday (well, would have been). It’s a good enough excuse for me to share my picks for the top 10 from the Master’s catalogue of 50+ films:

The Lady Vanishes – This 1938 gem is my favorite Hitchcock film from his “British period”. A young Englishwoman (Margaret Lockwood) boards a train in the fictitious European country of Bandrika. She strikes up a friendly conversation with a kindly older woman seated next to her named Mrs. Froy, who invites her to tea in the dining car. The young woman takes a nap, and when she awakes, Mrs. Froy has strangely disappeared. Oddly, the other people in her compartment deny ever having seen anyone matching Mrs. Froy’s description. The mystery is afoot, with only one fellow passenger (Michael Redgrave) volunteering to help the young woman sort it out. Full of great twists and turns, and the Master keeps you guessing until the very end. The production design may be creaky, but it’s clever, witty and suspenseful, with delightful performances all around.

Lifeboat – This taut, suspenseful 1944 Hitchcock classic (adapted from a John Steinbeck story by screenwriter Jo Swerling) is essentially a chamber piece at sea, centering on a small group of passengers who survive the sinking of their vessel by a German U-boat, which also goes down in the skirmish. A floundering survivor who is later pulled aboard the already overcrowded lifeboat turns out to be a member of the U-boat crew, which profoundly shifts the dynamics of the group. A sharply observed microcosm of the human condition, with superb direction, great cinematography (by Glen MacWilliams), imaginative staging (especially considering the claustrophobic setting) and outstanding performances by the entire ensemble, which includes Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, Walter Slezak, John Hodiak, Mary Anderson,  Canada Lee, and Hume Cronyn.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog – Mrs. Bunting is a pleasant landlady, but we’re not so sure about her latest boarder. There’s a possibility he’s “The Avenger”, a brutal serial killer who is stalking London. Ivor Novello plays the gentleman in question, an intense, brooding fellow with a vaguely menacing demeanor. Is he or isn’t he? This suspense thriller has been remade umpteen times over the last eight decades, but for my money, none of them can touch this 1927 Hitchcock silent for atmosphere and mood. Novello later reprised the role of the mysterious lodger in Maurice Elvey’s 1932 version.

Marnie – I know it’s de rigueur to tout the (dizzyingly overpraised) Vertigo as Hitchcock’s best “psychological thriller”, but my vote goes to this  underappreciated 1964 entry, which I view as a slightly ahead-of-it’s-time pre-cursor to dark, psychosexual character studies along the lines of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park. Tippi Hedren plays the eponymous character, an oddly insular young woman who appears to suffer from kleptomania (which turns out to be the least of her “issues”). Sean Connery plays a well-to-do widower who hires Marnie to work for his company, despite his prior knowledge (by pure chance) of her tendency to steal from her employers. Okay, he’s not blind to the fact that she happens to be a knockout, but he also finds himself drawn to her as a kind of clinical study, due to her bizarre behavioral tics. His own behaviors begin to slip as he tries to maintain roles as Marnie’s employer, friend, lover, and armchair psychoanalyst all at once. One of Hitchcock’s most unusual entries, bolstered by Jay Presson Allen’s intelligent screenplay.

North by Northwest – I’m hard-pressed to name a more perfect blend of suspense, intrigue, romance, action, comedy and visual artifice than Hitchcock’s 1959 masterpiece. Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason and Martin Landau head a great cast in this outstanding “wrong man” thriller (a Hitchcock specialty). Almost every set piece in the film has become iconic (and emulated again and again by Hitchcock wannabes). Although I never tire of the exciting crop dusting sequence or the (literally) cliff-hanging chase up Mt. Rushmore, I’d have to say my hands down favorite is the dining car seduction scene. Armed solely with Ernest Lehman’s clever repartee and their acting chemistry, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint engage in the most erotic sex scene ever filmed wherein the participants remain fully clothed (and keep hands where we can see them!). Frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s score is one of his finest.

Notorious – It’s a tough call to name my “favorite” Hitchcock movie (it’s like being forced to pick your favorite child). I would narrow it down to three: North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, and this superb 1946 espionage thriller (no, I don’t have a man-crush on Cary Grant…not that there would be anything wrong with that). To be sure, Grant makes for a suave American agent, and Claude Rains a fabulous villain you love to hate, but it’s Ingrid Bergman who really, erm, holds my interest in this story of love, betrayal and international intrigue, set in exotic Rio. Bergman plays her character with a worldly cynicism and sexy vulnerability that to this day, few actors would be able to sell so well.

Psycho – Bad, bad Norman. Such a disappointment to his mother. “MOTHERRRR!!!” Poor, poor Janet Leigh. No sooner had she recovered from her bad motel experience in Touch of Evil than she found herself checking in to the Bates and having a late dinner in a dimly lit office, surrounded by Norman’s unsettling taxidermy collection. And this is only the warm up to what Alfred Hitchcock has in store for her later that evening. This brilliant thriller from the Master has spawned so many imitations, I long ago lost count. While tame by today’s standards, several key scenes still have the power to shock. Twitchy Tony Perkins sets the bar for future movie psycho killers. Anyone for a shower?

Strangers on a Train – There’s something that Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, Rene Clement’s Purple Noon (and Anthony Minghella’s 1999 remake, The Talented Mr. Ripley) all share in common with this 1951 Hitchcock entry (aside from all being memorable thrillers). They are all based on novels by the late Patricia Highsmith. If I had to choose the best of the aforementioned quartet, it would be Strangers on a Train. Robert Walker gives his finest performance as tortured, creepy stalker Bruno Antony, who “just happens” to bump into his sports idol, ex-tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) on a commuter train. For a “stranger”, Bruno has a lot of knowledge regarding Guy’s spiraling career; and most significantly, his acrimonious marriage. As for Bruno, well, he kind of hates his father. A lot. The sociopathic yet silver-tongued Bruno is soon regaling Guy with a hypothetical scenario demonstrating how simple it would be for two “strangers” with nearly identical “problems” to make those problems vanish…by swapping murders. The perfect crime! Of course, the louder you yell at your screen for Guy to get as far away from Bruno as possible, the more inexorably Bruno pulls him in. It’s full of great twists and turns, with one of Hitchcock’s most heart-pounding finales.

The 39 Steps – Many of the tropes that would come to be so identifiably “Hitchcockian” are fomenting in this 1935 entry: an icy blonde love interest, a meticulously constructed, edge-of-your-seat finale, and most notably, the “wrong man” scenario. Robert Donat stars as a Canadian tourist in London who is approached by a jittery woman after a music hall show. She begs refuge in his flat for the night, but won’t tell him why. Intrigued, he offers her his hospitality. He awakens the next morning, just in time to watch her collapse on the floor, with a knife in her back and a map in her hand. Before he knows it, he’s on the run from the police and embroiled with shady assassins, foreign spies and people who are not who they seem to be. Fate and circumstance throw him in with a reluctant female “accomplice” (Madeleine Carroll). A suspenseful, funny, and rapid-paced entertainment.

To Catch a Thief – This is one of the Hitchcock films that are more about the romance, scenery and clever repartee than the chills and thrills, but that makes it no less entertaining. Cary Grant is “retired” cat burglar John Robie, an American ex-pat and former Resistance fighter living on the French Riviera. A string of high-end jewel thefts (resembling his M.O.) put the police on Robie’s back and raise the ire of some of his old war buddies. As Robie tries to clear his name and find the real culprit, a love interest enters the picture to further complicate his situation (an achingly beautiful Grace Kelly). To be sure, it’s fairly lightweight Hitchcock, but holds up well to repeated viewings, thanks to the  chemistry between Grant and Kelly, intoxicating location filming (courtesy of Robert Burks’ colorful, Oscar-winning cinematography), and the delightful supporting performances (particularly Jessie Royce Landis, as Kelly’s mother). The witty, urbane screenplay is by John Michael Hayes (he also scripted Hitchcock’s Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, and the director’s 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much).

Blu-ray reissue: Mulholland Drive ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2015)

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Mulholland Drive – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

David Lynch’s nightmarish, yet mordantly droll twist on the Hollywood dream makes The Day of the Locust seem like an upbeat romp. Naomi Watts stars as a fresh-faced ingénue with high hopes who blows into Hollywood from Somewhere in Middle America to (wait for it) become a star. Those plans get, shall we say, put on hold…once she crosses paths with a voluptuous and mysterious amnesiac (Laura Harring). What ensues is the usual Lynch mindfuck, and if you buy the ticket, you better be ready to take the ride, because this is one of his more fun ones (or as close as one gets to having “fun” watching a Lynch film). This one grew on me; by the third (or was it fourth?) time I’d seen it I decided that it’s one of the iconoclastic director’s finest efforts. Criterion’s sparkling transfer brings new depth to the light and shadow of Peter Deming’s cinematography. Extras include new interviews with Deming, Lynch, Watts and Harring.

The art of storytelling: When Marnie Was There ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 11, 2015)

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Japan’s Studio Ghibli has consistently raised the bar on the (nearly) lost art of cel animation (don’t get me started on my Pixar rant). While it’s sad that the undisputed master of anime (and Ghibli’s star director), Hayao Miyazaki, has now retired, it is heartening to know that the Studio still “has it”, as evidenced in this breathtakingly beautiful new anime film from writer-director Hiromasa Yonebayashi.

The story (adapted from a book by the late British author and illustrator Joan G. Robinson) centers on a 12 year-old girl named Anna (voiced by Sara Takatsuki in the subtitled Japanese version that this review is based upon). Anna, a budding artist, is an insular foster child whose health problems precipitate an extended visit to a seaside town, where she will stay with relatives while she mends. While exploring her new environs one day, she espies a rundown mansion at the edge of a marsh. She finds herself strangely drawn to the place, but doesn’t understand why. Unwittingly stranding herself there when the tide rises, she is rescued by a crusty (yet benign) fisherman. As night begins to fall, she thinks she sees lights in the windows of the abandoned structure. A mystery is afoot.

I don’t want to give anything away, as many twists and turns ensue, with a 4-handkerchief denouement that will leave only those with a heart of stone unmoved. It’s really a lovely story, with some of the most gorgeous animation I’ve seen from Ghibli. Gentle enough for children, but imbued with an intelligent, classical narrative compelling enough for adults. No dinosaurs, male strippers, killer androids, teddy bears with Tourette’s, explosions, car chases or blazing guns…just good old fashioned storytelling.

The antisocial network: The Sisterhood of Night ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 11, 2015)

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Jeez…adolescence was traumatic enough before the internet and advent of cyber-bullying (yes, I’m that old). Unfortunately (and perversely), it’s become much easier for the perpetrators and that much tougher on the victims. Your tormentors no longer have to hang out after school, bundled up for inclement weather, waiting for you to finish with chess club so they can stomp on your glasses (or worse). Now, they can chill out in the comfort of their parent’s basement, cloaked in anonymity, as they harass, denigrate, flame, impersonate, or stalk ‘til the cows come home (with virtual impunity).

But hey, enough about our comment section (you know I’m a kidder).

They are certainly not kidding around about the darker side of social media in The Sisterhood of Night, the debut feature film from director Caryn Waechter. Adapted by Marilyn Fu from a short story by Steven Millhauser, it’s a sharply observed, contemporary take on the Salem witch trials. The “sisterhood” in question is comprised of an insular trio of high-school students (Georgie Henley, Willa Cuthrell-Tuttleman, and Olivia DeJonge), who make a pact to disengage from social media; opting instead for late-night gatherings in the woods.

What they “do” there (wouldn’t you like to know?) is a mystery; and in an era where people compulsively hit “send” to share too much information about what they’re up to every waking moment, this secretiveness naturally makes them suspect. For personal reasons (which I won’t reveal here) one of their classmates (Kara Hayward) starts her own nasty whisper campaign about the girls on her low-traffic blog, igniting a firestorm of small-town hysteria, which escalates into a media feeding frenzy.

This film blindsided me, going in some unexpected directions. It was also deeper and more emotionally resonant than I had anticipated (judge not a movie by its trailer, which suggested something along the lines of Heathers meets The Virgin Suicides). The performances are all quite good; especially from the four leads, with excellent support from Kal Penn (as a guidance counselor) and Laura Fraser (as the mother of one of the girls). Sensitive direction, atmospheric photography by DP Zak Mulligan (particularly for the night scenes) and a moody score from The Crystal Method rounds things off nicely.

My life in ruins: The Two Faces of January **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 11, 2014)

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There’s something that Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, Rene Clement’s Purple Noon (and Anthony Minghella’s 1999 remake, The Talented Mr. Ripley) all share in common (aside from being memorable thrillers). They are all based on novels by the late Patricia Highsmith. Hossein Amini’s directorial debut, The Two Faces of January, is the latest Highsmith adaptation…but that may be all it has in common with the aforementioned. Then again, perhaps only time will tell us that for sure (and it wouldn’t be the first time that History has proven me an ass; but I digress).

While Highsmith’s pet recurring character Tom Ripley is absent in this outing, we do have our requisite Young American Abroad Who Becomes Ensnared In Intrigue (bet you’re glad I didn’t say that he “gets caught in a web of deceit”). His name is Rydal (played by Inside Llewyn Davis star Oscar Isaac), an Athens-based tour guide/con man who scams tourists. He may have more than met his match when he runs into Chester (Viggo Mortensen), an apparently well-to-do American who is traveling through Europe with his young wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst). The three become quick friends. Too quickly. From the outset, Rydal and Chester circle each other warily, in such a way that telegraphs to the viewer that Someone’s Gonna End Up Dead. But who is conning who?

Don’t worry, I harbor no spoilers. If you’re an old-school mystery fan, and you’ve already read enough to be intrigued, I won’t stop you from buying a ticket. Just be forewarned: while this all sounds very Hitchcockian…don’t expect another Strangers on a Train here. The performances are good (Mortensen in particular) and the location filming is lovely, but there is something curiously static about the production. Maybe it’s because feels like something you might stumble across on PBS while channel-surfing on a Sunday night? I can’t put my finger on why it didn’t work for me. That’s the mystery…

The big whirl of little atoms: Particle Fever ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 15, 2014)

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What I know about particle physics couldn’t fill a flea’s codpiece. And if you’re like me (isn’t everyone?), I’d bet you don’t spend a good deal of your day contemplating quarks, hadrons, mesons or baryons (wasn’t he a famous English poet?). Nonetheless, I found Particle Fever, physicist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson’s documentary about a group of folks who do spend a good deal of their day thinking about such things, to be much more riveting than I had expected. Levinson documents the years of experiments and painstaking analysis that led up to the astounding announcement in 2012 that scientists had successfully identified the elusive “Higgs boson” (aka “The God Particle”), which could be the crucial key in proving that The Big Bang is, well, more than just a “theory”.

Levinson gives equal time to the empirical and theoretical schools of thought on this groundbreaking discovery. The former group is represented by the physicists who work at CERN, which houses the Large Hadron Collider (an immense complex that resembles the set of Metropolis), and the latter by academics and theoreticians. While largely concerning itself with the parsing of the scientific minutiae, it is the sometimes uneasy yet necessary yin-yang partnership between those camps that lends the film a very human center. One theoretical physicist sums it up best when he bemusedly wonders aloud if this discovery makes the previous 40 years of his life meaningless. Higgs boson only knows…

SIFF 2014: This May Be the Last Time ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 31, 2014)

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Did you know that the eponymous Rolling Stones song shares the same roots with a venerable Native-American tribal hymn, that is still sung in Seminole and Muscogee churches to this day? While that’s far from the main thrust of Sterlin Harjo’s documentary, it’s but one of its surprises. This is really two films in one. On a very personal level (similar in tone to a 2013 SIFF documentary selection, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell), Harjo investigates a family story concerning the disappearance of his Oklahoman Seminole grandfather in 1962. After a perfunctory search by local authorities turned up nothing, tribal members pooled their resources and continued to look. Some members of the search party kept up spirits by singing traditional Seminole and Muscogee hymns…which inform the second level of Harjo’s film. Through interviews with tribal members and musicologists, he traces the roots of this unique genre, connecting the dots between the hymns, African-American spirituals, Scottish and Appalachian music. The film doubles as a fascinating history lesson, as well as a moving personal journey.

SIFF 2014: Lucky Them ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 31, 2014)

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This wry, bittersweet road movie/romantic comedy from Seattle-based director Megan Griffiths benefits greatly from the pairing of Toni Collette and Thomas Haden Church, playing a rock journalist and first-time documentarian (respectively). They team up to search for a celebrated local singer-songwriter who mysteriously disappeared. What they find may not be what they were initially seeking. It reminded me of the 1998 UK rock ‘n’ roll comedy Still Crazy. And for dessert, there’s a surprise cameo!

SIFF 2014: Kinderwald **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 24, 2014)

If Terrence Malick had directed The Blair Witch Project, it might resemble Lise Raven’s naturalistic period drama, set in the backwoods of 1850s Pennsylvania. The story centers on the reaction of a clannish pioneer community after two boys mysteriously vanish from their family’s encampment. While one gets a sense that the film was a labor of love for its creator, any noble intentions are undermined by a dull script and stilted acting. On the plus side, it is nicely photographed and imbued with period flavor; however, despite a compelling setup, the narrative itself wanders off and gets lost.