Title: The Conversation
Release Date: April 7, 1974
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Production Company: The Directors Company
Gene Hackman portrays Harry Caul, a surveillance expert for hire in San Francisco. The movie begins with his team recording the conversation of a young couple, Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest) as they stroll through Union Square during lunch hour. They talk as if they have something to hide but their actual conversation appears innocuous. As Caul edits and replays the conversation he starts to hear different things (not unlike Blowup where enlarging a photograph reveals tantalizing details). Caul faces a moral quandary when he believes that if he delivers the recording to his client it could lead to the Ann and Mark’s murder.
Coppola made this movie as a personal project in-between The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II. The story reflects the increasing mistrust of government and Big Business the grew in the turbulent late 60s and early 70s, and inadvertently reflected the Watergate scandal that unfolded in 1974. There are some great scenes of Caul and other surveillance experts at a trade show and party that show the surprisingly sophisticated technology of the era. Harrison Ford has a good small part as a snarky assistant to Caul’s client. The movie is a slow-burn thriller with a fair amount of ambiguity and a surprising twist.
Title: Knives Out
Release Date: November 27, 2019
Director: Rian Johnson
Production Company: MRC | T Street
Rian Johnson pays tribute to Agatha Christie novels and ensemble-cast mystery movies of the 1970s in this movie mystery with a twist. Daniel Craig portrays the eccentric private detective Benoit Blanc with a Southern twang (because it’s a rule among casting agents that Southerners must be played by British actors). He’s called in to investigate the seemingly straight-forward suicide of wealthy mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). An all-star cast portray Harlan’s awful children, grand-children, and in-laws, all of whom have motive to kill him, but the heart of this movie comes in a terrific performance by Ana de Armas who plays Harlan’s nurse and friend Marta Cabrera. I give points to Chris Evans for a remarkable heel turn as Ransom, the biggest asshole of the Thrombey clan.
I went into this movie unspoiled, I don’t intend to spoil anyone else, so here are a few spoiler-free thoughts:
- I didn’t realize the movie is set in Massachusetts, and was filmed on location in various Boston suburbs (including some places I recognized).
- Apropos to Massachusetts, Benoit Blanc talks a lot about doughnuts and doughnut holes.
- The movie is more than a mystery but also a social satire on white American privilege and discrimination against immigrants.
- The final shot of the film is an absolutely brilliant work of direction and cinematography.
Title: In the Heat of the Night
Release Date: August 2, 1967
Director: Norman Jewison
Production Company: The Mirisch Corporation
Set in a fictional Southern town of Sparta, Mississippi, In the Heat of the Night opens in a Norman Rockwell setting that quickly deteriorates into a nightmare scenario. Police officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates) cruises through the town until he comes upon the dead body of a Northern industrialist who is building a factory in the town. Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) tells Wood to check the railroad station for any strangers, and there he finds a Black man sitting all alone and immediately arrests him. The man is Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and he is not a murderer but simply there because he was changing trains after visiting his mother.
It’s soon revealed that Tibbs is a homicide detective from Philadelphia and is let go. But since the Sparta police are obviously incompetent, the widow of the industrialist, Mrs. Colbert (Lee Grant), asks Tibbs to stay and investigate her husband’s murderer. This sets up an uneasy alliance between TIbbs Gillespie as they attempt to work together to solve the mystery. Poitier and Steiger put in excellent, multi-layered performances which are the strength of this film.
Some of the directorial intent about race relations feels a bit clunky today, but I suspect was powerful in 1967, just two years after Selma and as race riots rocked American cities. One standout scene is when Tibbs questions a plantation owner named Endicott. Things get heated and Endicotts slaps Tibbs and Tibbs immediately slaps him back. Endicott asks the police chief “what are you going to do?” and Gillespie says “I don’t know.” It’s clear that just a few years earlier Gillespie would have been required to kill Tibbs or call out a lynch mob (even if he didn’t want to) but things have changed enough at this point that Gillespie can do nothing. Nevertheless, a mob of white men do get together to try to find and beat (maybe kill) Tibbs, adding tension to the investigation.
While Poitier and Steiger stand out, some of the other performances are weak. Particularly, Anthony James who portrays the diner proprietor Ralph straight out of Southern Gothic nightmare and Quentin Dean, whose bit part as a pregnant teenager seems to be based on a school play performance of Mayella Ewell. But by and large this movie stands the test of time. Oh, and the bluesy soundtrack by Quincy Jones, with Ray Charles singing on the title song, is absolutely perfect.
Release Date: December 28, 1945
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: United Artists
I’m a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, Ingrid Bergman, and Gregory Peck, but this is not their best work. The main setting of the film is a psychiatric hospital and the characters are psychiatrists, but the melodramatic and amateurish presentation of psychiatry hurts the film. I don’t know, maybe this film appeared cutting edge to audiences in 1945.
Bergman plays Dr. Constance Petersen, a skilled and competent psychoanalyst who nevertheless is mocked and derided by her male colleagues (a realistic if frustrating portrayal). Unfortunately, the story seems to buy into their sexism as Constance falls in love with a patient and rather unprofessionally goes on the run with him as she seeks to save him. That patient is Peck’s character, initially thought to be the new hospital director, Dr. Anthony Edwardes, but soon revealed to be an impostor. Peck’s character suffers from amnesia, a guilt complex, and a phobia of parallel lines on a white background.
Their romance and attempts to “cure” him don’t come off as particularly realistic, but I do like how Constance is able to piece together the mystery of what happened to the real Dr. Edwardes. There’s also a great dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali which, although it is full of corny psychoanalytic symbols, is visually stunning. This is not a great film, but an enjoyable enough mystery/thriller with two of the great actors of the time. Also, if you’re my children and you come into the movie with 15 minutes left, you will have a lot of questions.
Title: Shadow of a Doubt
Release Date: January 12, 1943
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Skirball Productions
Shadow of the Doubt answers the question “what if a noir thriller crashed in a family sitcom?” Joseph Cotten is Charles Oakley, a man on the run, who decides to lay low with the family of his sister, Ann Newton (Edna May Wonacott), in Santa Rosa, California. There he is reunited with his teenage niece and namesake Charlie (Teresa Wright), who adores him. Over time Uncle Charlies strange behavior and the arrival of detectives makes Charlie suspect that her uncle is the Merry Widow Murderer.
Unlike Suspicion, the plot is never ambiguous about Uncle Charlie’s guilt, so its more of a story of what Charlie can discover and if she can avoid becoming a victim herself. Amidst the noir thriller bits there’s a lot of comic family squabble and a romantic comedy as Charlie is wooed by one of the detectives (Macdonald Carey). Teresa Wright positively shines in this movie, which was her first top-billing, and it makes me wonder why she didn’t become a bigger star. Joseph Cotten, who I’ve liked in other films, seems to be mailing it in on this one.
Title: Loving Vincent
Release Date: September 22, 2017
Director: Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman
Production Company: BreakThru Productions | Trademark Films
A team of Polish and British filmmakers explore the legacy that Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh left behind in France after his death through experimental animation. Each frame in the film is hand-painted in oils in the style of Van Gogh, bringing to life the people and places he painted. This approach was previously used in a segment of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990), but it doesn’t make it any less wondrous to watch, especially for a Van Gogh admirer.
The story takes place a year after Van Gogh’s death when Armand Roulin (Douglass Booth) is tasked with delivering a letter from Vincent to his brother Theo. Traveling to Auvers-sur-Oise, Roulin learns that Theo has also died, but feels compelled to continue searching for a recipient for the letter. The movie plays out like a mystery as Roulin interviews people who knew Van Gogh, and the his actions and moods on his last day are teased out. The story does drag a bit, but the film is kept alive by its outstanding visuals as well as the voice cast featuring stars like Jerome Flynn, Saoirse Ronan, and Chris O’Dowd.
Just an aside, many years ago when I saw an exhibit of Van Gogh’s work at the Museum of Fine Arts, I decided it would be funny of someone made a sitcom about The Roulin Family. Seeing Armand as well as his father, the postman Joseph Roulin, as characters in Loving Vincent is a big step toward seeing my vision come to life.
Author: Ridley Pearson
Title: The Kingdom Keepers: Power Play
Publication Info: New York : Disney/Hyperion Books, c2011
I was disappointed in the previous installment of the Kingdom Keepers, but the series regains its footing in the fourth book. The narrative is less bloated and even when the Keepers hit a snag in one of their moonlight adventures in the Disney Parks, it feels plot-driven rather than a dead end.
There are five Kingdom Keepers, with Finn the leader getting most of the attention, and Philby growing to be the co-leader. The other Keepers and the two Fairlies, Amanda and Jess, have had a lot to do in previous books, but this is the first book in which Willa has a big part, and it’s really great to see her character grow.
Willa is also present for a new factor in this books when she meets (and is helped) by Ariel, the Little Mermaid. The villains – known as the Overtakers – have featured prominently in the series, but this is the first time a good Disney character plays a role with hints that more good characters are looking for a leader to drive them to action. Later, Minnie and Pluto play a big part. It’s very bold for Pearson to wait until the fourth book to introduce this game-changing factor to the novels!
Author: Ridley Pearson
Title: The Kingdom Keepers: Disney in Shadow
Publication Info: New York : Disney Editions, c2010.
In the third books of the Kingdom Keepers series, the story is starting to wear thin. This book is much longer than its predecessors and feels bloated. There are a number of false starts to getting the plot moving that don’t really add anything as far as character beats go. There’s also a love triangle crisis among Finn-Amanda-Charlene that comes out of nowhere and seems unnecessary.
Nevertheless, when the action gets going, the Kingdom Keepers stay up all night fighting the Overtakers in Epcot in attempt to rescue their mentor Wayne. The action culminates in a full-on tech rehearsal of Fantasmic! where they battle of good versus evil is very real. I think the final sequence stands well by itself and if the novel were trimmed down to simply support it, the novel would be a much better addition to the series.
Release Date: May 11, 1931
Director: Fritz Lang
Production Company: Nero-Film A.G.
Continuing with German cinema, this film by Fritz Lang (who also directed Metropolis) is a thriller/procedural drama that basically invented the noir genre. Peter Lorre, an actor I’ve always liked in his Hollywood films, had is first major role as the serial killer of children, Hans Beckert. Depicting a serial killer on the silver screen and the way the story unravels is strikingly modern, and is about 30 years of Hollywood doing something similar.
The film begins with chilling sequences of children chanting about murder and then Beckert luring away a girl while whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” In the panic that follows, people turn on one another with suspicion, and the police crack down on the criminal underworld. The city’s mob bosses decide that they also need to track down the murderer, and the scenes of cops and criminals preparing for a manhunt are intercut, with it being deliberately hard to tell which group is which.
Beggars are able to track down Beckert who then hides in the office building. The criminals seek him out using all the means at their disposal, including rather comically drilling a hole through the floor to access a locked office on a lower level. Once they’ve captured Beckert, the criminals put him on a mock trial. These scenes feel didactic as Lang’s characters overtly explain the moral message to a sick society, which is a weak way to conclude the film. The command at the close of the film to watch our children seems torn out of the present day manual of helicopter parenting. Nevertheless, the film on the whole is a compelling drama.
Author: Ridley Pearson
Title: The Kingdom Keepers: Disney At Dawn
Publication Info: New York : Disney Editions, c2008.
Finn, Charlene, Maybeck, Willa, and Philby return for another adventure as the five young teenagers who defend Walt Disney World from the villainous Overtakers. The story begins with a parade celebrating the return of the kids’ DHIs (holographic hosts who work in the Magic Kingdom), but the appearance of their friends Amanda and Jez forebodes dark times ahead in the Most Magical Place on Earth.
Amanda and Jez are orphans with magical powers only just being revealed to the rest of the Kingdom Keepers, and the are known as Fairlies, as in “Fairly Humans.” When Jez is abducted the Kingdom Keepers not only need to find her but also avoid falling asleep and having their DHIs trapped in the Overtakers’ new server. They spend the day at the Animal Kingdom struggling to keep awake as they solve these mysteries. Charlene gets a particularly good boost in her character as she gets to disguise herself as DeVine, the camouflaged, stilt-walking performer, for reconnaissance purposes.
Aaaaaaaaand, the novel ends on a cliffhanger, meaning that my daughter and I will most certainly be reading the third book in the series.