Monday, February 13, 2023

Mystery Monday: Hush

Kavya Trehan In "Hush" (2018)

The impact of some films is ruined if a reviewer blathers on about it. This is one of those. Watch this one minute of cinematic brilliance. You won't regret it!

Hush (2018)
Starring: Kavya Trehan and Joy Chatterjee
Director: Kssheetij Saini
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Monday, January 9, 2023

Mystery Monday: Pretty Penny

Katie Hayek in "Pretty Penny" (2012)

Katie Penny knows how to make your money go far. Today she'll share her secret with you.

Pretty Penny (2012)
Starring: Katie Hayek
Director: Mark Pontz
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Monday, November 7, 2022

Mystery Monday: Curriculum Vitae

I am finding so many neat mini-mystery/crime dramas on YouTube that I have decided to breathe a little life back into Watching the Detectives... and this ole blog as a way to perhaps call attention to these great gems among the vast collection of videos. I hope you enjoy these offerings as much as I did!

Look for another short film here on the second Monday of every month. I might step up the frequency if interest warrants it. Hell, I may even get around to posting a new review or two.

But, today, I'm starting this new phase of Watching the Detectives with something short and excellent.

Cirriculum Vitae (2017)
Starring: David Alizadeh and Sam Chaginy
Director: Yousef Bilal
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Also, please join me at my YouTube channel. It's pretty random what I do over there (which is, of course, a recipe for NOT succeeding on YouTube), but I would love to fail in front of an audience!

Meanwhile, here's a song that's thematically appropriate for today's short film... and just a great tune in general!

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Why Santa might not have been to your house (yet)

I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas (or a Happy one), and possibly even a Joyous Chrismakwanzaka. If there are those out there who Santa hasn't visited yet (like me... sigh), he was delayed in California.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Ritchie and Statham go dark in 'Wrath of Man'

Wrath of Man (2021)
Starring: Jason Statham, Holt McCallany, Josh Hartnett, Jeffrey Donovan, Scott Eastwood, Niamh Algar, Chris Reilly, and Laz Alonso
Director: Guy Ritchie
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

A new hire at an armored car company (Statham) is far more than he pretends to be and has taken the job to find out who was behind the a violent robbery that led to the death of his son.

Jason Statham and Josh Hartnett in "Wrath of Man"

"Wrath of Man" is a grim, action-oriented thriller that surprised me in several different ways. All of them good.

First, I thought I had figured out the general gist of the movie, based on the preview and prior experience with Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham films. I was convinced that it was going to be a mix of action and comedy--even if perhaps a little darker--than their previous films together; I was fully expecting to see "Undercover Boss, but with Guns and Explosions". Instead, what was delivered was a deadly serious, unforgiving tale of corruption and revenge, with a side-dish of heist action, where everything is bleak, what comedy that is present is mean-spirited sarcasm, no one is innocent, and everyone comes to a bad end. It's all so well-done, however, that while is wasn't the movie I expected, it was still entertaining.

Second, although I was wrong about the the nature of this film going it, once I realized what I was watching, I guessed almost everything about who the bad guys were and where it was going. (It was about halfway through the movie before I had EVERYTHING figured out, because the story is told out of order). In just about every way, this film is a throwback to the dark crime dramas of the 1970s, storywise, stylewise, and so on. Everything here is so well executed by the director and technical crew, and so well performed by the actors that it didn't matter that things kept going where I thought they'd go. I was watching such a perfect homage to old-time crime dramas, crossed with more modern cultural sensibilities, that it might have been frustrating if things didn't go as expected. 

Third, the unrelenting bleakness of the didn't bother me in the least. I can't go into too much detail without spoiling the story, but when I said above that everyone comes to a bad end, I am no exaggerating by much. One character who appears to die was even in the middle of a redemption arc, and, if I was watching a lesser movie, I might have been bothered by that, but here it just seemed in keeping with the darkness of the world and let me tune more strongly into the anger of the Statham character. I'm one of those sappy people who likes to see the good characters in a story come away with something of a future (even if it's not a bright one), and the bad characters getting the punishments they deserve (and perhaps even more), but the excellent pacing and acting and everything made me feel okay about the outcome. (It might also have helped that I got to see more than a fair share of street justice being meted out against the most vile sorts of human beings as the film unfolded.)

Jason Statham in "Wrath of Man"

Although it is almost two hours long, "Wrath of Man" feels much shorter. There isn't a single moment in this movie that's wasted, nor a single scene that feels padded or drags on; even the 20-minute plus gun battle that's part of the film's climax remains fast-paced and tense, which is something of a rarity. The universally excellent performances of the cast members also helps to keep things moving. Jason Statham is excellent, playing his usual tough guy but far colder and with more understated lethality than I've ever seen before, but we also have Josh Hartnett in a role that he was far more effective in that I initially thought he'd be--that of a weaselly armored car driver who likes to talk tough but is anything but; Jeffrey Donovan as the charismatic and detail-oriented leader of a military until turned armored car robbers; Holt McCallany as the perhaps a-little-too-friendly training officer at the armored car company; and Scott Eastwood as the ultimate scumbag. The film revolves around Jason Statham's character, with Jeffrey Donovan also occupying a key point in the story, but as perfect as both these actors are, neither performance would have come across as excellent as it is if it hadn't been for the equally brilliant performances by the supporting castmembers--or, for that matter, an attention to detail that's rarely seen anywhere. It's rare that I feel like I need to watch a movie a second time--there are just too many films and books and graphic novels I need to get to--but this is one that I think I should watch again, just to see what I may have missed.

I went to see "Wrath of Man" in the evening on opening day. There were only 12 people in the auditorium, which, even by the Covid-19 standards these days was light. I hope it's not a sign of the box office to come for this film, because I think it deserves to be seen. And if you enjoy Jason Statham and brutal 1970s-style heist films/crime dramas, I think this is a film you'll love.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The OTHER 'Maltese Falcon' Adaptations

Most film buffs have at least heard of the 1941 film "The Maltese Falcon" with Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sidney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre, Few know that it's a remake of a 1931 picture of the same name, and even fewer know that a third adaptation was released in 1935, titled Satan Met a Lady.

In this post, I review the two lesser-known film adaptations. Both have strength and weaknesses that make them worth checking out.

The Maltese Falcon (1931) (aka "Dangerous Female" and "Woman of the World")
Starring: Ricardo Cortez, Bebe Daniels, Otto Matieson, Dudley Digges, Uma Merkel, J. Farrell MacDonald, and Thelma Todd
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After his partner is murdered, private detective Sam Spade (Cortez) finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into involvement with a growing assortment of odd characters, each of whom may be the murderer, as they chase each other in search of the elusive treasure known as the Maltese Falcon.

Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels in "The Maltese Falcoln" (1931)

This review of the 1931 film draws on my experience with both it and the better-known version from 1941 that stars Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. If you haven't see the 1941 version, I recommend holding off until you've seen this one. The later adaptation is the superior film, but the 1931 version has its strengths as well. It pales a little in comparison to what is an undisputed masterpiece, but it has some strengths that the other film couldn't possess.

Since both films adapt the same novels, the story lines are mostly the same, as are the characters and their relationships to each other. The films also share the similarity that the characters that come in and out of the story are more fun to try to puzzle out than the intersecting mysteries of murder and treasure hunt.

One very important difference between the films is the nature of the main character, Sam Spade. In the 1941 version, Spade is a dour, snarling man that is being worn down by the world, but in the this one, Spade smiles his way through even the most deadly of encounters, having fun laughing at danger while chasing after everyone with a nice pair of breasts. Where the later picture is film-noirish in its tone, the 1931 version hews closer to the pulp fiction stories in the magazines of the time; they were stories about tough people doing nasty things, but jokes were being cracked and lots of fun was had along the way. The two Sam Spades are the main source of these differences.

Bebe Daniels in "The Maltese Falcoln" (1931)

While Ricardo Cortez is the undisputed star of the film, I think Bebe Daniels (who by the time this film was made had already spent nearly two decades in front of film cameras, enjoying a career that survived not only the transition from child to adult star but also the technological leap from silent to sound films) deserved the top billing she has in this picture. She's a far more effective "mystery woman" than Mary Astor, in no small part due to the fact that there's no dancing around the fact that she uses sex and her good looks as lethal weapons. After having watched Daniels in a number of silent movies she made as a teenager--where she played everything from a loyal girlfriend, to a con-artist, to a girl coyly as much on the make as the film's male lead--it was interesting to see her play a character who is apparently rotten through and through. On many levels, the more overt approach this film has to Sam Spade's womanizing and the sexuality of the film's femme fatale makes the characters more interesting and a little deeper.

For example, the affair that Spade is having with Ida Archer, the wife of his murdered partner, is not just hinted at here; it's out in the open, and it's used more effectively as a plot point and as a looking into the nature of the characters than in the 1941 version. At one point, Spade treats Ida Archer extremely coldly, given the affair, and depending on how you choose to interpret that in the context of when he's doing it, it shows that there's a truly vile human being hiding behind that broad smile, or Spade is just as devious  and calculating as the crooks he is trying to deal with throughout the picture. (Personally, I like to think it's the latter, a notion I'll come back to below.)

I found this to be a very entertaining movie when taken on its own terms. When compared to the 1941 version, the supporting cast can't hold a candle to their counterparts, with the exception of Effie the Secretary; I really enjoyed Uma Merkel. Thelma Todd is more memorable than the Ida Archer in the 1941 version, but that's more because her relationship to Spade is more blatant than anything she does as an actress here.

Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez in "The Maltese Falcon" (1931)

One part of the film that I initially didn't like, but which grew on me as I thought about it, was the final scenes between Spade and the "dangerous female", Wonderly. My initial reaction to the film's wrap-up was that it was another one of those Hollywood insta-romances that have spoiled so many otherwise good movies for me... but then it dawned on me that there was more to the scenes than that. It struck me that those closing interactions between the two characters were a redemption of sorts--their sexual fling had reawakened some of the humanity that they had buried deep within themselves, and despite their natures, they had actually connected on a real and emotional level. Ultimately, it was too late for either character to derive any happiness from this realization, as the many lies and deceptions they engaged obscured their emotions even from themselves. (Cortez's expression when the truth about where he and Wonderly truly stand with one another is probably the best bit of acting he does in the entire film.)

Satan Met a Lady (1936)
Starring: Warren William, Bette Davis, Marie Wilson, Porter Hall, Arthur Treacher, Maynard Holmes, and Alison Skipworth
Director: William Dieterle
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A womanizing, crooked private eye (William) re-connects with his ex-partner (Hall) in time to start a new scam. Things quickly turn deadly as a woman as corrupt as he is (Davis) draws him into a murderous struggle over an 8th century artifact that legends hold is full of jewels.

Marie Wilson and Warren William in "Satan Met a Lady"

"Satan Met a Lady" is one of three adaptations from Warner Bros. of Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon", coming between "The Maltese Falcon" (1931) and "The Maltese Falcon" (1941). It's both the one that's furthest afield from the source material as well as the weakest. The weaknesses don't arise so much from seemingly arbitrary cosmetic changes (the criminal mastermind is a fat woman instead of a fat man, the treasure-stuffed McGuffin is a drinking horn instead of a falcon sculpture, the Sam Spade character is named Ted Shane, and so on), but from the characters and even some of the characterizations and the fact that this is either a comedy that's for the most part unfunny, or a mystery that's not terribly engaging..

The biggest problem with "Satan Met a Lady" is its 'hero', Ted Shayne (played by Warren William). Shayne is a man with absolutely no redeeming qualities--he's self-centered, arrogant, lazy, completely untrustworthy, and not half as witty as he thinks he is, and nowhere near as charming and handsome as the script makes all the ladies in the film think he is. Shayne such an unpleasant character that my favorite part of the film is the ending, which I won't comment on, because it'll spoil some of the few truly good minutes of the film.

It's a shame that the script isn't better--with either sharpened comedy or dramatic tension, and with more sensible reactions from most of the female characters, and at least one redeeming quality given to Shayne--because every cast member makes a fine accounting of themselves, given the shoddy material they are working with. 

Warren William and Bette Davis in "Satan Met a Lady"

William and Bette Davis are especially fun to watch together, since we have two perfectly cast actors, playing two equally vicious characters who recognize each other as the villains they are, and who know that each is just looking for a chance to mess with the other. If the script had been better, I suspect these scenes could have been absolutely brilliant.

As for "Satan Met a Lady", it's not a terrible film... it's just not very good. It's not going out of your way for. However, it's included in the three-disc Special Edition of The Maltese Falcon, together with the two good versions. In that case, it's an inoffensive "bonus" feature that you save for that day when you've got nothing else to watch.

You can get all three versions "The Maltese Falcon" and some great bonus features in the two-disc set The Matese Falcon: Special Edition. It's a great value, and I think it's a set any lover of classic mystery movies will enjoy.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Good film dragged down by one character

Scoop (2006)
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Hugh Jackman, Woody Allen, and Ian McShane
Director: Woody Allen
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Sondra (Johansson), a bubble-headed journalism student, is contacted by the ghost of recently deceased journalist Joe Strombel (McShane). He wants her to write the scoop he didn't have a chance to: That the dashing and handsome man-about-town Peter Lyman (Jackman) is actually a serial killer. With the help of a third-rate magician (Allen), Sondra goes about getting close to Lyman in order to gather the evidence needed to prove Strombel's accusation from beyond the grave, and get her scoop of a lifetime. But what will Sondra do once she starts falling in love with Lyman?

"Scoop" is a lightweight mystery comedy. The mystery isn't really much of a mystery, and the comedy is of a type that will make you smile rather than laugh.

The characters are, for the most part, well enough acted and the story moves along in a straight-forward fashion, unburdened by a desire on the part of the writer/director to show off his cleverness by throwing in either painfully predictable "twists", or developments that are completely unsupported by the plot. Allen avoids the very thing that dooms many movies of this type that are being made by younger, hipper filmmakers. My hat is off to him for not trying to make this movie seem any deeper than it is, but simply letting it stand as the plain little movie that it is.

I am also impressed by the way that an element of the film that bothered me at the beginning turned out to be one that I very much enjoyed by the end. There are scenes of characters on board Charon's barge as it crosses into the Afterlife, and the first couple of times Allen cut to this mystical scene, I was irritated, because I didn't feel it fit the nature of the film, despite the fact thee's a ghost popping in and out of the story. I felt it was too much of a fantasy element for a film that is, basically, grounded in the modern, everyday world.

However, by the end of the film, Allen pays off the River Styx scenes to the point where, looking back, they're probably the funnest part of the film.

One thing that isn't as fun is the character Allen plays in the film. His character is so socially awkward and downright dumb that it's painfully embarrassing to watch him attempt to mingle at the parties Sondra drags him to in her quest for dirt on Peter Lyman. It also doesn't help anything that there doesn't seem to be a connection between Allen and Johansson on screen--yes, they are delivering lines from the same script on the same set, but there's no sense that either actor is really paying attention to what the other actor is saying or doing. There's no spark between the two and the comedic timing of every scene they have together is likewise off.

(It's tempting to say that Allen has "lost it" now that he's in his 70s, but this isn't so. He does fine in his scene with McShane, and he's okay when interacting with bit players and even Jackman... there simply seems to be something absent between him and Johansson. However, Allen must be happy with the result, because Johannsson starred in at least one more Allen production.)

I think anyone who enjoys watching the lighthearted mysteries from the 1930s and 1940s will get a kick out of "Scoop". Those out there looking for a film with "twists" or lots of sex and violence are going to be bored. (Although Johansson fiills out a swimsuit quite nicely.)