50 Years, 50 Movies (1976): Murder By Death


1976

I will turn 50 in November of this year, so my project for 2023 will be to watch and review one movie from each year of my life.  The only qualification is that it has to be a movie I’ve not reviewed previously.  If you have any suggestions for movies from the past 50 years, please drop them in the comments!

Top Grossing Movies of 1976:

Best Picture Oscar Nominees and Winners of 1976:

Other Movies I’ve Reviewed from 1976:

Title: Murder By Death
Release Date: June 23, 1976
Director: Robert Moore
Production Company: Rastar
Summary/Review:

You’ve tricked and fooled your readers for years. You’ve tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You’ve introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You’ve withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it. But now, the tables are turned. Millions of angry mystery readers are now getting their revenge. When the world learns I’ve outsmarted you, they’ll be selling your $1.95 books for twelve cents.

Murder By Death is one of those movies that was constantly shown on television when I was a kid (most likely in an edited format) that I absolutely loved.  I had a feeling this movie would age poorly and I was correct.  Written by Neil Simon, the movie spoofs classic country-house whodunit’s with characters parodying the classic fictional defectives Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Charlie Chan, Nick and Nora Charles, and Sam Spade. The large ensemble cast includes some of the best actors of the generation including Peter Sellers as Sidney Wang, David Niven and Maggie Smith as Dick and Dora Charleston,  James Coco as Milo Perrier, Peter Falk as Sam Diamond,  and Elsa Lanchester as Jessica Marbles.  Alec Guinness also stars as the blind butler Jamessir Bensonmum while Truman Capote makes what I think is his only acting role where he’s not playing himself as the eccentric host Lionel Twain.

The problems with this movie are pretty obvious from the first time we see Peter Sellers in yellowface (why did he keep doing that?) and speaking in broken English, and the “blind butler” and “deaf cook” jokes are painfully cringy too.  I want to say that the cast deserved a better script, but they all agreed to do this movie so perhaps they liked it just fine.  While maybe one joke out of three in this quip-packed movie actually hit me as funny, I have to admit that the talented cast were excellent in their delivery, particularly Guinness, Niven, Smith, Falk, and Eileen Brennan as Diamond’s plus one Tess Skeffington.

By the way, when I was a kid the version I watched always included a cameo scene with Sherlock Holmes and John Watson arriving late, so I’m going to include it here.

Rating: **

 

90 Movies in 90 Days: Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)


I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: Meshes of the Afternoon
Release Date: 1943
Director: Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid
Production Company: Independent
Summary/Review:

Meshes of the Afternoon ranked #16 in the most recent Sight & Sound Poll of The Greatest Films of All Time. The short experimental film by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid is completely silent which serves as a good reminder of the importance of music and sound design to film even if there’s no dialogue.  The movie is reminiscent of Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, which combined with the silence makes it feel around 15 years out of date.  Then again, filmed in the sun-drenched streets of Los Angeles, it also feels like a precursor to film noir.  Ultimately, David Lynch and Jordan Peele would draw inspiration from this film.

The story, as it is, involves a woman (Deren) pursuing a hooded figure with a mirror for a face. She ends up in a house and the sequence loops so that ultimately there are several versions of the same woman.  There are repeated tropes of a key, a knife, and a telephone. Eventually, a man (Hammid) appears.  Is he the hooded figure?

The movie is much darker than the previous movie I watched by the Deren and Hammid, The Private Life of a Cat.  But they share a commonality in the way the camera is moved to provide point of view as well as the exploration of domestic interiors.It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but it does invite one to find an answer to the questions it spurs.

Rating: ***1/2

 

Movie Review: Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)


Title: Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Release Date: November 23, 2022
Director: Rian Johnson
Production Company: T-Street
Summary/Review:

World-famous private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) returns to solve another mystery.  This time the muted autumnal colors of New England are traded for a sun-soaked Grecian island.  The island is owned by billionaire and self-proclaimed tech genius Miles Bron (Edward Norton).  He invites a group of his friends he calls The Disruptors to his island during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic for a murder mystery party.  These include Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe), the co-founder and real brains behind the company with whom he’s had a falling out; Governor of Connecticut Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn); scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom, Jr.); fashion designer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) and her assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick); Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) a “men’s rights activist” video streamer and his model girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline).

Naturally, Blanc mysteriously receives an invitation as well and quickly surmises that everyone has a reason to want to kill Bron.  Soon enough the fake murder mystery turns into a real one.  Johnson does a good job of seeding clues throughout and using flashbacks to fill in the gaps. Craig is excellent at playing Blanc as bumbling when he’s really two steps ahead of everyone else. Monáe also does an excellent job in a role that is more complex than it initially appears.

In fact all the actors do a great job but their characters still come off as caricatures.  This makes sense on one level since there all shallow people we see as influencers while Bron is clearly a stand-in for Elon Musk in how he’s a dumb guy hailed as a genius due to his wealth and power.  But I felt the previous film did a lot better at giving more depth to the characters which is the main reason why the sequel, although enjoyable, is not as good as the original. Still, you’ve got to admire the small level of revenge Rian Johnson gets in Dave Bautista’s performance skewering the types of MRA manbaby internet influencers who started the hate campaign against the brilliant The Last Jedi.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: See How They Run (2022)


Title: See How They Run
Release Date: 9 September 2022
Director: Tom George
Production Company: Searchlight Pictures | DJ Films | TSG Entertainment
Summary/Review:

I saw this movie described as “the Wes Anderson-ification of Knives Out” and I can’t shake it out of my head.  It’s definitely a stylish and quirky take on the ensemble cast whodunit mystery and while not exactly like Anderson’s work, it does give one a sense of what it’s like.  It’s also a meta-commentary on detective stories, particularly Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, with the West End theater where it is performed becoming the site of the murder mystery.  The Mousetrap, of course,  is the longest running play in the world having over 28,000 performances at the time I write this. I saw it myself about 25 years ago, and thus am solemnly sworn not to reveal the killer.

Meta-commentary can be a knife’s-edge of whether it will work or not, so fortunately See How They Run also has some enjoyable performances. Set in 1953 when the company of The Mousetrap is celebrating a mere 100 performances, the mystery begins with the murder of the loutish American film director Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody) who is working on a movie adaptation of The Mousetrap even though he’s never watched the play.  The investigation of the murder falls to the world weary and alcoholic Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and his chatty, wise-cracking assistant Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan). Suspects/potential victims include theater producer Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson), script writer Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), and real-life figures such as film producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), David Attenborough (Harris Dickinson), Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda), and Agatha Christie herself (Shirley Henderson).

The movie is not much of a mystery nor is it really a period piece as it’s full of deliberate anachronisms.  The humor is hit or miss, but it’s mostly an enjoyable 90 minutes.  To be honest, Ronan’s performance is delightful and she really carries the film.  Luckily, she’s on screen for most of it.

Rating: ***

 

Book Review: Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia


Author: Kate Racculia
Title: Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts
Narrator: Lauren Fortgang
Publication Info: HMH Adult Audio, 2021
Summary/Review:

Tuesday Mooney is a researcher at a hospital in Boston who looks into the backgrounds of prospective donors.  When an eccentric millionaire, Vincent Pryce, dies at a fundraiser, it kicks off a city-wide treasure hunt for the deceased’s fortune.  Tuesday teams up with her best friend Dex, her teenage neighbor and mentee Dorry, and Arches, the charming son of another first family of Boston.

There is a lot going on in this book with the treasure hunt a fun main plot around which various subplots orbit.  For one thing, Tuesday is dealing with her best friend Abby going missing (and presumably dead) when they were teenagers.  She can still hear Abby’s voice talking with her and advising her as an adult.  Arches, meanwhile, has famously had his wealthy father go missing in a boating incident 6 years earlier, the truth of which is something he is grappling with.  And that’s just scratching the surface.

I think the many stories going on within the novel make it needlessly complicated.  But it’s still a fun mystery/adventure/paranormal/romance novel with a lot of great Boston details.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Enola Holmes 2 (2022)


Title: Enola Holmes 2
Release Date: November 4, 2022
Director: Harry Bradbeer
Production Company:Legendary Pictures | PCMA Productions
Summary/Review:

I enjoyed Enola Holmes when I watched it two years ago, although I probably overrated it in my enthusiasm.  The sequel improves upon the original, partly with the benefit of the origin story being taken care of so that it can jump right into the action, adventure, mystery, and romance. And humor.  This movie is a romp and it will always revert to fun.

Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown), younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft, has opened a detective agency in London.  Potential clients turn her down because of her age and gender, but Enola finally gets a case when a factory girl Bessie (Serrana Su-Ling Bliss) asks for help finding her sister Sarah. Enola’s investigation exposes the cruel conditions that girls and women of the match factory labor under as well as the mystery of why so many of them are getting sick and dying.  Naturally, this mystery ties in with Sherlock’s (Henry Cavill) investigation into blackmailing and money laundering.

A big theme of this film is that Enola’s desire to be independent does not mean that she has to be alone.  Thus she gets an assist from a team involving Sherlock, their mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter), and Enola’s love interest Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge).  It’s a good ensemble cast and they have a lot of good chemistry working together.  The film also incorporates a real historical event, The Matchgirls Strike of 1888 which lead to the Union of Women Match Makers, the first women-lead labor movement in Britain.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections by Eva Jurczyk


Author: Eva Jurczyk 
Title: The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections
Narrator: Hannah Cabell
Publication Info: Poisoned Pen Press (2022)
Summary/Review:

Liesl Weiss is no sooner named the interim director of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at a university in Toronto when things start to go wrong.  A rare Plantin Polyglot Bible is supposed to be the library’s latest prize acquisition but it is missing and the only one who had seen it is the previous director who was incapacitated by a stroke.  Liesl comes to the realization that the Plantin was stolen and it could’ve been an inside job.  Was it Miriam, a librarian who suddenly stops showing up for work just before the book went missing?  Or could it be Francis Churchill, a rare books expert who Liesl is rumored to have had a fling with?

In addition to trying to solve the mystery, Liesl has to deal with people questioning her ability to do the job as a woman.  The university president certainly doesn’t want to make the theft made public because it would frighten off donors.  Working in an academic library myself, the absolute most accurate part of the book is the university’s need for reputation management and placating wealthy donors above everything else.  But it’s also a great mystery with a very satisfying conclusion.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Scary Movie Review: Hereditary (2018)


Title: Hereditary
Release Date: June 8, 2018
Director: Ari Aster
Production Company: A24 | PalmStar Media | Finch Entertainment | Windy Hill Pictures
Summary/Review:

Hereditary is not a movie one can really summarize so I’ll keep this short.  Annie Graham’s (Toni Collette, in a brilliant performance) family is not a happy one.  Her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is easygoing but seems helpless when dealing with conflict.  Her 16-year-old son Peter (Alex Wolff) is shy and tries to connect with kids at school by smoking pot. 13-year-old Charlie (Milly Shapiro) appears most troubled of all, with nervous tics and macabre hobbies. The movie establishes a pattern of mental illness and dysfunction in this family exists even in the best of times.

The film begins with the funeral of Annie’s mother (Kathleen Chalfant) who has died after a long descent through dementia.  We learn very quickly that Annie and her mother did not have a good relationship. Shortly into the film, a tragedy strikes the family and things begin to go off the rails.  Annie begins to feel some solace when a new friend from a support group, Joan (Ann Dowd), shows her how to perform a séance to communicate with the dead.  The trouble is, the spirits she reaches are malevolent.

While there is considerable gore in this movie, I feel it’s real scares come from the long, slow building of tension and uneasiness.  In fact, I like the first half of the movie where troubled family relationships are viewed through a horror lense more than the second half when the more supernatural aspects of the story become more apparent.  Regardless, Ari Aster makes just about everything in this movie creepy, even the miniature dioramas that Annie makes of scenes from her life.  Watch this film with the lights on and with good company!

Rating: ***

 

Movie Review: The Double Life of Veronique (1991)


Title: La double vie de Véronique / Podwójne życie Weroniki
Release Date: 15 May 1991
Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski
Production Company: Sidéral Productions | Zespól Filmowy “X” | Norsk Film | Canal+
Summary/Review:

The Double Life of Veronique is not really a movie that can benefit from being summed up or explained, so I’ll try to keep this short.  In Krakow, Weronika (Irène Jacob) is a young and up-and-coming choral vocalist.  At one point she sees a French tourist taking photos of a protest who looks just like her.  Meanwhile, in Clermont-Ferrand, France, music teacher Véronique (Irène Jacob) feels grief for something she cannot explain. She soon finds herself in a mystery of receiving phone calls and packages from an inscrutable puppeteer/children’s book author, Alexandre Fabbri (Philippe Volter) that seems to connect to her existentialist crisis.

Like a lot of European art films, The Double Life of Veronique doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but is compelling in the manner of a half-remembered dream.  There are lots of shots of looking through doors and windows, reflected images, and inverted camera obscura effects for people who enjoy symbolism.  Alexandre is kind of creepy, but again, this is a French film, so I guess he’s supposed to be romantic.  Irène Jacob is terrifically expressive in her dual role and I think the film owes a lot of what works to her performance.  This is definitely a film about feelings rather than plot, and Jacob brings out those feelings.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein


Author: Elizabeth Wein
Title: The Pearl Thief
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: Los Angeles : Hyperion, 2017.
Summary/Review:

Part of the cycle of loosely-tied together novels about women during World War II, The Pearl Thief acts as a prequel to Code Name Verity.  The novel’s protagonist is Julie Beaufort-Stuart, the Scottish aristocrat who is one of the two main characters of the earlier novel, and is set one year prior to the war when she is just 15.  She returns home her family estate from boarding school to find herself embroiled in a mystery regarding the disappearance of a scholar working with artifacts recovered from their property.

Julie is a great character, impulsive and bold that make her stand out among the staid expectations of her time and class.  Much of the novel explores her new friendship with the siblings Ellen and Euan McEwen, who are members of Highland Travellers’ community that camp nearby.  The trio get into many adventures, and they encounter much prejudice against the Travelers (which Julie attempts to shield with her privilege). The book also explores Julie’s romantic attraction to Ellen and to an older man named Richard revealing her burgeoning sexuality (and hooray for bisexual representation!).

This is the first book by Elizabeth Wein that I don’t love, but it is a great character study even if I found the narrative to be a bit slight.

Rating: ***