Category Archives: Mystery Film

Shimmer Lake (2017): A Mystery Told in Reverse

I have yet to see a truly great film that is a Netflix original. Almost always the films go from bad to decent, though this is the first one I’ve seen since “Beats of no Nation” that was truly good. “Shimmer Lake” is very Coenesque in execution but doesn’t quite rise to the farcical comedies that pervades most of the Coen works. It is this lack of humor that really brings it down and keeps it from becoming great, though it is still worth checking out.

The film was directed by Oren Uziel who also wrote the film, while being produced by Adam Saunders and Britton Rizzio.

The story a small town sheriff named Walker who is investigating a bank robbery that involves his brother and two ex-friends. The story is told in reverse.

The Pros: The Premise – The idea of a small town bank robbery that turns into something bigger (being told from when the crime is done and the outcome to how it came about) is really cool. The setup was a large part of what kept me watching because I was waiting to learn more the different characters and their relationships. Rainn Wilson has so much charisma and I think having him be one of the first characters we meet who is so connected to the incident really strengthened the film.

The Cons: The Point of the Characters – This is a story full of betrayal and reveals, and at times does have comedy and even real drama between characters before many of them go full evil. It is this full range of character actions and types that fail to be a theme that are the largest con of the film. This film needed a focus for the mystery to truly be more than simply good.

I wish there was more to say about this film, but this is a film that doesn’t really have a larger point. It is a thriller and mystery where the catch is how the story is told (mystery in reverse) versus the point and themes of the story. I’m avoiding spoilers since the reveal is one of the few reasons to see this film but I also found that because it lacked a larger farcical bent or any major theme that was consistent across the board makes it a story that I will recommend but do not consider great. This film strives to be a Coen film when it should have sought more of it’s own voice.

Final Score: 8 / 10 A solid mystery.

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To Catch a Thief (1955): Great Leads But Story Is Only Decent

To Catch a Thief

     Alfred Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors, but this is not one of his better films. The main leads are absolutely wonderful, but the script and dialogue doesn’t go anywhere at times and the motivations behind the villains is non-existent. All of this create a merely okay story that is good only because of fantastic performances by Grace Kelly and Cary Grant.

     “To Catch a Thief” was directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock and written by John Michael Hayes and based off the book of the same name by David Dodge.

     The story involves an ex-criminal and French Resistance fighter John Robie (Cary Grant), fighting to redeem his name and find the real thief. Frances (Grace Kelly) the daughter of the woman whose jewels were stolen works with and against him as the truth unfolds.

The Pros: The World – The world of France is a fascinating place where we meet former French Resistance fighters and ex-pats who make up this world that exists soon after World War 2. So much more could have been done with all of this world and premise…

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful and I can see why it won awards. Hitchcock is great with visual and his cinematographer Robert Burks nails it.

The Leads – Cary Grant and Grace Kelly are some of the best actors of all time and this film, which would have only been okay with other leads, becomes good because of their performances.

John Robie – Cary Grant like Grace Kelly is one of my favorite actors and he shows why in this. He is charming but you see the thief there and you get why he steals too as he explains that some businesses steal too, he is just more blatant about his robbery. We also see in this why he changed and why keeps holding onto what was. Being a thief who was never caught made him famous and he wants to be known for that, even while showing he’s changed because he wants trust and love.

Frances Stevens – Grace Kelly is one of my favorite actresses. The lady has charm and strength and her character Frances feels real. You get why she likes Robie and why she doesn’t trust him too. She is the person looking for excitement and she finds it with this ex-crook and shows that she is his partner in it all.

Okay: The Police Force – They are used for jokes but have some decent moments of humanity with Robie…I just wish we could have got more.

The Tension – The tension is okay but unlike “North by Northwest,” “Rear WIndow” and “Psycho” it never made me feel that the characters were in danger. There was the tension of the hunt for the criminal but it never rose beyond that.

The Cons: The Villains – The villains are weak, good villains could have made this film great but they aren’t given any motivation for what they do.

Danielle – Like her father, I don’t know why Danielle does what she does. She was a resistance fighter so why is she now a thief? I wanted to like her character but nothing is done to present her with depth or motivation.

Foussard – So he is friends with Robie and betrays…why? Why is he stealing in the first place? None of this is known and it is really annoying. The villainous mastermind has to have motivation.

   This is a film that you will probably enjoy if you like Hitchcock as I do. The problem is really the lack of tension and how the motivations of the villains are never explained or explored. This is a film that could have been so much more and I really hope the book at least went into why Foussard and his daughter Danielle became thieves. Check it out if you like Hitchcock, if you don’t it probably isn’t worth your time. It is strong in how he directs the leads and presentation in cinematography, but the script and story keep it from becoming great.

Final Score: 8 / 10

Mulholland Drive (2001): A Delusion, Dream or Alternative Reality Noir Masterpiece

Mulholland Drive

   “Mulholland Drive” was amazing! I tend to be a fan of films that play with the nature of reality and the fact that this happens in the context of a mystery noir where we never quite know which reality is real makes for a whole host of interpretations, all of which have merit and lend strength to the story. It also has the dark that makes David Lynch so fun and has some fantastic acting by the leading actresses.

     The film was directed and written by David Lynch and produced by Neal Edelstein, Tony Krantz, Michael Polaire, Alain Sarde and Mary Sweeney.

    Before the story begins we see a jitterbug competition before we cross onto a silent road where a woman (Laura Harring) is being to Mulholland Drive where is about to be shot. After some teens crash into the car she has no memory and is taken in by Betty (Naomi Watts) an aspiring actress as together they try to figure out who she was. Things are not as they appear to be as we see mysterious forces pressuring a director to a cast a film and changes in reality as the film progresses.

The Pros: The Tone – The tone is dark and mysterious and kicks off with a man being haunted by an unseen force behind a building and this force continues in the words of “Silencio” and a man with a tiny head who controls Hollywood from a stage.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is dark and haunting as well as dreamlike, playing into the themes of dreams, many realities and delusions. Peter Deming did a fantastic job on that.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack compliments the situations really well with some great Spanish Capella, somber instrumentals and of course the jazz feel throughout. Angelo Badalamenti gave great variety to a score that complimented the story really well.

The Characters – The characters are complicated, especially the director, “Rita” and Betty who each have a few different versions of themselves that we see over the course of the film.

The Hitman – A young Mark Pellegrino plays the hitman who Diane pays to kill Camilla and who in the first reality takes out a young actress who was Rita’s roommate. We see him much more active in the first timeline as he messes up an operation to get a black book of info. and ends up having to kill a whole bunch of other people to hide it up. He is good at playing the punk who is out of league and keeps getting into worse situations.

Rita and Camilla – Harring does a great job as the possible former prostitute turned heroine in Rita who is figuring out the world around her and discovers the truth and disappears in the process after finding love with Betty, and Camilla the arrogant premodana who manipulates others for her own ego and amusement. Harring does the two different roles so well.

Betty and Diane – I can see why Naomi Watts won an award for this role. We see her playing roles within roles as she plays characters in scenes as she is applying for parts in Hollywood and we see her as the kind, caring and curious Betty as well as the unstable, angry and broken Diane. Betty’s arc comes full circle at Silencio and Diane’s ends when Silencio is said too as Betty finds peace in her love with Rita and Diane goes insane from a whole bunch of things and takes her own life.

The Interpretations – There are quite a few ways to see what the film is and I’m going to share the interpretations that make the most sense to me.

The Dream – The story is all a dream and nightmare dreamed up by Betty and she is still asleep as all her fears and hopes of having a new life in Hollywood play before her in her mind. We never know if she wakes up or is just jumping between dreams…given the dream jitterbug dream sequence at the beginning and the nightmarish vision at the end with the same people at the end of the Jitterbug opening give credence to this interpretation.

Delusion – The character of Betty is a delusion by the character of Diane who has a crush on Camilla who is getting married to the director. Making Camilla the damsel in distress in her mind was the only way to cope with her situation that eventually lead to her being a prostitute on the streets ready to kill her former friend and lover who had found happiness with another. This is one of the darker ones and the counter to it is the Key and “Silencio” which seem to hint at other realities.

Alternate Realities – There is a supernatural element that pervades the story, from the man behind the building to any seen in Hollywood where we see unhinged characters with power and no people skills who are capable of destroying livelihood. This element is true through both realities making me think that Diane and Camilla are one reality that is true and that the Rita and Betty romance also happened and is true as well but we leave that reality when Rita opens the box to the reality where Camilla and Diane are. I liked this one the best as the mystery is still there and it doesn’t forget the strange forces we’ve seen at work from the beginning of the production.

  If you like David Lynch or Noirs, chances are you will really enjoy this film. It is a favorite and I liked it more than “Eraserhead” which was a really good film. This film was great at exploring the mind and the themes of illusion, dreams and realities are hard to pull off, but Lynch does so seamlessly. The actresses are amazing too and I really like Rita’s and Betty’s romance as it had so much richness to it as they grew together. This contrasted by the second reality gave the first one strength and gave room for interpretations, which I liked. I tend to like films with clearer answers, but this one was great in how open it was and how it truly let the viewer decide what happened.

Final Score: 10 / 10

The Lady Vanishes (1938): A Political Mystery That Could Have Been Great

The Lady Vanishes Poster

      Alfred Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors, but this is not one of his best films. There are a lot of good ideas here…both in the political mystery and the location that are used, but it is never reaches its full potential. I’ll explain why in the assessment.

    “The Lady Vanishes” was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder and produced by Edward Black, The story was also written by Alma Reville based on the story The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White.

    The premise is that English tourist Iris (Margaret Lockwood) meets a kind old lady named Miss Froy (May Whitty) who takes care of her when things don’t go well as she’s hit on the head twice before entering the train. When she passes out from exhaustion she wakes up to find Miss Froy is missing and no one in her cabin believes that she even exists. From here the story unfolds as works with another passenger she’d had an antagonistic relationship with named Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) to find out why everyone is acting as they are and where Miss Froy went.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Premise – A conspiracy to cover up a lady whose origins are unknown is a fascinating premise, especially when we learn about the politics of the area (Italy) and the time period (Before World War 2) really raise the stakes. The reasons given to Iris on Miss Froy not existing are really good too as she was hit on the head and was suffering from a lack of sleep because of Gilbert causing music and dancing in the floor above her and later harassing her in her room. All these factors strengthen the premise of the film.

Iris – Iris is the main character who drives most of the action. She clashes with Gilbert as he’s hanging out with the locals in the attic and playing music for them to dance too and she knows she needs sleep so she’ll be ready for the train the next day so they clash early on. She also is taken in by Miss Froy who quickly becomes her friend and reveals her selfless side as at the hotel she was being waited on every beck and call and we never saw her act with awareness towards anyone but herself. Miss Froy’s actions change that and when Gilbert is the only one who believes her they form a friendship and later a relationship. Margaret Lockwood did a great job in this role and it was wonderful seeing her go from powerless and spoiled to selfless and and powerful as she takes on armed agents with Gilbert to get Miss Froy’s data to the English government after it’s revealed she’s a spy.

Gilbert – This character starts out really annoying and childish but grows into his hero role and a man who respects Iris. They even get married at the end he’s changed so much as he remembers the tune that is code about Italy’s Alliance for the British government to know. he does a good job rallying people to action is a great contrast to Iris throughout as he is much more open while she is initially much more guarded. Michael Redgrave really gives a good range in this film.

Miss Froy – She starts out as a kindly old lady and is a great caring person…and is shown to be more at the end when she attempts to escape on foot from the train and gives Gilbert the code. We don’t know if she survives but her minor role was really good and she enriches every scene she’s in. May Whitty is fantastic.

Dr Hartz – Dr. Hartz is the government agent on the side of the fascists and is a brilliant opponent as he succeeds at almost all he sets out to do. It’s only because one of his agents messes up that things fall apart and the fact that the members of the train choose to fight him at the end. He is best described as the Noble Bastard as he doesn’t kill Iris and Gilbert and does all he can to avoid violence, only knocking out Gilbert and Iris once they’ve figured everything out. He even wishes them luck once they respect as he seems to have a good idea of threat of war about to come. Paul Lukas does great.

Okay: The Music – The soundtrack isn’t super memorable or great. It isn’t bad either. It’s okay. Louis Levy and Charles Williams soundtrack didn’t create any tension and it really depended on the script and actors for that.

The Cons: Execution of Premise – The execution starts out really slow almost too slow as we spend way too much time in the hotel before leaving which doesn’t really give us good knowledge about characters except that everyone is annoyed at being stuck from the snow. It picks up in the middle but than at the end there is one scene where one of the agents of the Italian government wakes up and holds Iris and two others hostage but his defeat is just glossed over, it’s hard to remember it even happening. This went for character arcs too as most went like this – 1)Resist doing anything. 2) Resist doing anything. 3) Give in and do something. Because of this even though the characters were interesting, they didn’t feel fully fleshed out or real.

Questions – We never know fully who the agents are and who Dr. Hartz serves. This doesn’t help the story as that mystery is part of what drove things. How Miss Froy knew the information is also left in the air as well as the consequences of their escape out of the country. For a movie that became a political spy thriller at the end it should have gone more into the implication of characters and events…instead we don’t get anything and that really brings it down.

      This was a solidly good film, but not great like many of Hitchcocks. There were too many questions and the character changes and how many minor characters were one note characters just didn’t help the plot. It put so much at stake but never fully explained why. The most we can do is guess at the implications given when the movie was made but that still doesn’t give us much to go off of. If you like Hitchcock, chances are you will like this film. I like Hitchcock and the film was good, even with these problems so I’d recommend it.

Final Score: 8 / 10. Solidly good but not a favorite.

Gone Girl (2014): A Dark, Gripping Thriller of Dystopian Suburbia

Gone Girl

I am a fan of David Fincher’s work, and this film continues more of that quality that I’ve come to expect from his films. The films that for me best represent his work are “Se7en,” “Fight Club,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and “Zodiac.” This is similar to those in some ways but is also very much it’s own thing in that the crime  mystery aspect in the end isn’t the point. The point is the characters and the relationship at the core of the film. I’ll get into more details in the assessment.

“Gone Girl” was directed by by David Fincher, Gillian Flynn wrote the screenplay and the book of the same name it was based on (still need to read it), and the producers were Leslie Dixon, Bruna Papandrea, Reese Witherspoon and Cean Chaffin.

The premise is it is the Fifth Anniversary of Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) and Amy has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Due to Nick’s handling of the press and hiding of secrets he becomes a major suspect in his wife’s possible murder. From here the story unfolds as we see how broken their marriage was and the secrets they both held.

There will be spoilers ahead.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Critique of the Media – This film really shows how easy it is to turn a trial into a witch hunt, as Nick’s awkwardness in public turns everyone against him until he comes clean about his affair and tells the world what they want to hear on advice from his lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry). It shows how fickle the court of public opinion is and how cable television can create the story before the story may not be there cause all the facts aren’t in. This was an aspect of the film I really appreciated.

The Mystery – The mystery surrounding both Amy’s point of view and the intentions of Nick are really well done. When you think you have all the facts, something more is revealed that puts things into question. This is done really well at the beginning as Amy’s anniversary clues point towards guilt but something more and as we see more of how Ben is not a good person…no one in this movie is except maybe Nick’s sister Margo (Carrie Coon).

Margo – Nick’s twin sister Margo who is co-owner of The Bar with him is a great character. She is the first outside of Amy to find out about the affair he’s having with his student and her distrust of Amy is found to be genuine. She cares about her brother and does all she can to protect him and we see her good advice go unheeded by Nick in the beginning until it is too late. She really is a great character, and Carrie Coon does a good job.

Tanner Bolt – Tyler Perry is great! The guy is like one of the lawyers of Phoenix Wright and we see him manipulate the court of public opinion for Nick and give him the chance to shape things in his favor. This plays a part later and forces Amy into action. I wish we could have got more of this character. He’s cynical, funny and at the core believes he’s doing good work.

Critique of Suburbia – In this one we see the evils of suburbia and public appearances too as Amy manipulates a neighbor to make the world think she’s pregnant and that Nick killed her because he didn’t want the baby. it is the world of the fake facade that the couple wears for the neighbors and parties and in the end we see it crumble down to see the false faces and mystery underneath. It is here that gossip grows and festers and feeds the media storm.

Detective Rhonda Boney – She has the clearest head in all of this and follows the evidence. She eventually loses the chance to take out Amy though after Amy plays a bigger game and the gets the media and police force on her side after her return. Kim Dickens was good and had great chemistry with all the characters she interacted with.

Nick – Nick is not a good person and I don’t like the character, even if I find him compelling. in the relationship he cheated on Amy, never communicated with her and just assumed things on her. For this reason I actually enjoyed some of the crap that got thrown his way. He was forced to grow and be accountable, which he never had to do before. I do think Amy was in the wrong and she is the antagonist, but Nick is not really the protagonist. He’s one of the players in the false marriage pretending to be someone he isn’t.

Desi Collings – Neil Patrick Harris plays a very terrifying millionaire ex-boyfriend in this…when she comes to him for safety he locks in his Lake House and forces her to become the woman he loved in the past. He never uses violence but the threat is always there, as well as her lack of choice. When they watch Nick’s “confession” and she falls back in love with Nick he turns it off and continues to pressure her to be his. He is an extremely polite and creepy character. I thought he might be the one to kill Amy actually if she didn’t kill herself. Luckily he gets his comeuppance when Amy murders him and makes her escape.

Amy – Amy is a chameleon…whether she was born that way or shaped by her parents who pressured her and made her into their tool for making money off books is unknown but she is smart, cruel and brutal. She is a chameleon because she becomes whatever her lover wants her to be, we see her thinking about this too when she first disappears framing Nick as she sees the different women she could become now. She is a fatalist too and sees completing her revenge with a suicide until she has a way out, which first is though Desi until she finds herself trapped again, like she was with Nick and when she was robbed in the Ozarks. She returns home and has power as the story has been hers all along and she forces Nick to stay. She is the winner of this story and we don’t know her motivations beyond wanting to have others be the way she wants them to be, which Nick becomes…though they are open to one another now. Her faked death leads to relationship honesty and the marriage “healing.” What a fantastic villain she was.

Okay: Amy’s Parents – We don’t really get their motivations and they were experts of the false face. I would have liked more on them to see just how much they shaped her into the calculating, destructive chameleon she is.

The Mistress – Nick’s mistress is kind of a blank slate. We don’t know her motivations for getting together with him and she seems to be there to show us Nick has secrets he’s hiding and a motivation to get rid of Amy. She isn’t bad, but she doesn’t function as much more than a plot device to explore the character of Nick.

This is a movie I’d highly recommend. It has a great critique of relationships, suburbia, and has great characters in the mystery. If you like David Fincher’s work, you’ll like this. If you like dark mysteries you’ll like this, and if you like critiques of humanity (most characters get critiqued in this), you will like this. It is well worth checking out and added to the list of favorite films.

Final Score: 9.2 / 10. Not higher because of how the mistress and parents are handled and the fact that we never know Amy’s motivations fully.

Eraserhead (1977): Man’s Lonely Disconnected Life

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“In Heaven, everything is fine…in heaven…”

-The Pixies

What is life? It is hope, despair, loss, something else or something more? In David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” the answer is despair. I’m going to give a spoiler warning here since it impossible to give a good review and assesment of this movie without giving away the plot. The story is about a man named Henry who is disconnected from all those around him, he learns that he had a child with his girlfriend…this child is Eraserhead…a misshaped creature that represents him and his world. It ends with him killing the child and the implication of himself later as the final scene is him with the mysterious woman who sings at one point in the movie that in heaven everything is fine with them hugging behind a white screen (that may be heaven).

I am a fan of David Lynch. One of my favorite shows is “Twin Peaks,” but where “Twin Peaks” kind of lost focus second season this movie is focused and true to it’s theme the entire way through even as it is extremely surreal and mixes dreams and reality at multiple points…which is very Lynchian.

The film was written, directed and produced by David Lynch.

The story is about Spencer who is isolated from his wife and her family and becomes moreso after his wife gives birth to the mutant Eraserhead. From here he must care for his baby as he finds himself more isolated from everyone around him as the line between dream and reality blurs.

The Pros: The cinematography – “Eraserhead” is beautifully filmed. It is in black and white and uses the shadows to it’s advantage so that the dream world overlaps with the nightmarish dreamworld since both are dark and twisted. It can’t help but draw you in.

The music – The creepy soundtrack adds to theme of disconnect and separation that pervades the film. What songs there are, The Pixies “In Heaven” as an example is presented in an ironic way and makes you question whether there is even a heaven in the universe in the film.

The Story – Is succinct and is good at getting it’s message across. The themes are layered in regards to the disconnect and despair and when something major happens, it just goes deeper into the mind of Henry.

The Theme – The theme of disconnect and loneliness was great as we see Eraserhead and his Father being cut off from everyone and only having one another. It’s powerful as we see what loneliness does to the mind as Eraserhead and his father continue to break down more and more in their isolation.

Okay: The actors – They weren’t really memorable. They did their parts well, but I have no desire to see them in anything else. They didn’t make the source material deeper besides the main lead. The rest were simply additions of his mind almost, which was most likely purposeful.

Cons: The theme – Not in regards to myself. I actually really enjoyed it, but a fair warning to anyone else. Lynch is not for everyone. So the dark and despair may not be your thing for an outing into the mind of a fascinating and talented director.

I would highly recommend this film. It is good at making it’s point and is a powerful exploration of a poor, lonely, disconnected man and the child he helps bring into the world. It can be seen in relation to us to a degree, though I for one tend to see that the human relationships that do exist counteract the disconnect that so often crops up in all of our lives. I would recommend this movie in the exploration of the disconnect and the strange and would this movie is a great introduction to the works of David Lynch.

I would rate this movie 8.75 / 10. Definitely a recommend.