Knives Out (B). Director Rian Johnson (Star Wars Episode VIII) got quite a cast to sign on for this stylish new mystery movie. The whole Thrombey family has gathered at the spooky old country home of wealthy patriarch Harlan (Christopher Plummer, The Fall of the Roman Empire) for his 85th birthday party. Then, as so often happens after these dreary affairs, the maid finds poor Harlan dead in his study. Was it suicide or foul play? The list of suspects is long: Harlan’s uptight daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis, Freaky Friday), her caddish husband Richard (Don Johnson, Tin Cup), Harlan’s hangdog son Walt (Michael Shannon, Man of Steel), Harlan’s needy, new-agey daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette, The Sixth Sense), plus a few grandchildren (including Chris Captain America Evans) and a couple of servants. Enter private investigator Benoit Blanc, who is played by Daniel Craig (The Invasion) and sports the broadest Foghorn Leghorn-style southern accent I think I have ever heard. Blanc quickly attaches himself to Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas, Blade Runner 2049) as possibly possessing the key to the whole affair. It’s a fun and twisty ride. As is normal in mystery or caper films, I didn’t really understand what happened, even after it was all explained, but happily there’s this amazing new website called google.com that helped me find people to explain it to me after the fact.
Lolita (B). This past Tuesday evening I took in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita at the Magnolia Theater. I’ve never read the book, so I didn’t quite know what to expect, but of course I knew the gist of the story, so I was prepared for a squirm-inducing experience. A snooty, middle-aged British academic named Humbert Humbert (James Mason, A Star Is Born) moves to a small American town for a summer, and he immediately falls into a lusty obsession with his landlady’s under-aged daughter, who is named Dolores but nicknamed Lolita (Sue Lyon, The Night of the Iguana). I read on the internet that she’s 12 in the book, but Lyon was 15 when the movie was filmed and looked older to me. Skeezy things ensue, and Humbert and Lolita wind up traveling across country together. Shelley Winters (The Diary of Anne Frank) is memorable as Lolita’s pathetic, desperate, and widowed mother. Peter Sellers (Dr. Strangelove) turns in a scene-stealing performance as a bizarre character named Clare Quilty. I hardly know what grade to give this odd movie about an untouchable subject, but I will say I was never bored and didn’t squirm all that often.
The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, by Bob Shacochis (2013). This novel has its strong points, but the cover blurb from NPR calling it the first Great American Novel of the 21st century seems way overblown to me. The book is divided into five major sections, and I thought the first two were the strongest. In “Book One,” the protagonist is a human-rights lawyer who’s called upon to travel to Haiti and help investigate the murder of an American woman—a woman he briefly knew and was dazzled by a couple of years earlier. Book Two is a harrowing look at a (different) woman and her young son trying to escape Croatia to safety at the tail end of World War II. Book Three, which seemed the longest, is about a seventeen-year-old American girl living in Istanbul with her diplomat father. It was pretty good. I thought the last two books kind of went off the rails. Anyway, I thought the writing was strong, but be warned that there’s a lot of sordid stuff in this tale. And, as I mentioned, I didn’t care for the wrap-up.
The 39 Steps (B). Well, I intended to see a movie at the theater today, but I got some bad information from the internet and wound up seeing nothing. So I decided to get some use out of my DVD collection and pulled down The Criterion Collection edition of this 1935 Hitchcock thriller. Robert Donat (Goodbye Mr. Chips) stars as Hannay, an ordinary Londoner caught up in a web of intrigue when he takes a beautiful woman back to his flat one evening and she turns out to be a spy—and gets herself murdered that very night! Suddenly, Hanney is on the run—wanted by the police on suspicion of murder and by sinister spies who are trying to steal British military secrets. On a train to Scotland he has a meet-cute with Pamela (Madeleine Carroll, Secret Agent), and they later team up to try to foil the foreign plot. The film is not terribly suspenseful but has some pleasant romantic-comedy aspects to it. And at 86 minutes, it’s quite efficient. I didn’t watch all the extras that Criterion packed onto the disc, but a short feature about Hitchcock’s film career in England before moving to Hollywood was interesting, and a critic’s discussion of The 39 Steps itself was also interesting and entertaining.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (B). This is a tense, Coen-esque drama/black comedy from Martin McDonagh, who also wrote and directed Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges. Frances McDormand (Fargo) stars as Mildred Hayes, a small-town divorcee who is consumed with grief over the unsolved rape and murder of her teenaged daughter Angela several months earlier. Frustrated with local law enforcement, she rents three billboards just outside of town and posts an inflammatory message aimed at police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, War for the Planet of the Apes). Willoughby is offended but understanding; his violent, racist underling Dixon (Sam Rockwell, Laggies), on the other hand, is infuriated and liable to lash out in any available direction. The ripples spread through the small town of Ebbing as Mildred persists in keeping the billboards up, and secrets are gradually revealed. Great performances from the three main actors, and nice supporting work from some others as well, including Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent), Abbie Cornish (Limitless), and Lucas Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom). But a couple of noticeable flaws (such as Willoughby’s weird use of extreme profanity not just around but at his two adorable little girls) keep this movie out of the top tier, in my opinion. Still, worth checking out. Rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references.
Murder on the Orient Express (2017) (B). Mystery is not really my genre, either for movies or for books, so I went into this new version of the Agatha Christie classic completely cold. (So why did I go see it? Because my favorite pop-culture podcast, The Substandard, recently did an episode about this movie, and I wanted to see it before listening to the podcast.) Given its middling Metacritic score of 52, I didn’t expect great things, and I was pleasantly surprised. Kenneth Branagh (Dunkirk) directs and stars as eccentric Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. After a fun scene establishing Poirot’s Sherlock Holmesian powers of observation and deduction, he boards The Orient Express—a luxury train (the year is 1934) heading northwest from Istanbul. The train is full of colorful characters played by famous actors, including Daisy Ridley (The Force Awakens), Michelle Pfeiffer (Stardust), Penélope Cruz (Volver), and Johnny Depp (The Tourist). Then a passenger is murdered in the middle of the night, and an avalanche halts the train in a remote mountain pass. Can Poirot solve the mystery before the killer strikes again? To me, the whodunnit aspect of the movie is secondary; the fun is watching the peculiar detective interrogate the passengers and sniff out the clues. I enjoyed it.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (D). OK, this art-house flick had a couple of things going for it. Number one, it was directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, who directed the surpassing weird 2016 flick The Lobster. And really number one, it stars the luminous Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge!). Unfortunately, the movie left me cold. Colin Farrell (who was in The Lobster and recently appeared with Kidman in The Beguiled) plays Steven Murphy, a successful heart surgeon who is married to a successful eye doctor (Kidman) and has a beautiful house and two nice kids. But as in The Lobster, everything is just a shade off; everyone is stiff, and every conversation is stilted. And Steven has a mysterious relationship with an odd sixteen-year-old boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk), who imposes himself on Steven more and more as time passes. I can say no more without committing spoilers, but suffice to say there are elements of suspense, horror, and black humor that get ratcheted up the deeper into the movie we go. The performances are good (accepting that the director wanted his actors to act like strange, semi-anesthetized human beings), and none other than good old Alicia Silverstone (Clueless) pops up as Martin’s mom. But at two hours the weirdness went on a little too long for my taste, and I didn’t think the ending was great.