Category Archives: Mystery

83 of 366: The Black Cat

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There is an owl hooting outside my window right now, which is fitting with my mood after watching the horror classic The Black Cat (and pretty creepy.)

The Black Cat (1934) has nothing to do with owls, rather an actual cat that causes episodes for Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) while staying at the house of his nemesis Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff.) The film’s plot is based on the concept from a story by Edgar Allen Poe.

Of course there is more to fear at Poelzig’s house than cats lurking in the shadows.

As fate would have it, Dr. Werdegast ends up there after a bus accident on the road just below the house along with a young couple who just got married.

Thinking they will all just be there for one night, it becomes clear for Dr. Werdegast and the couple, Peter and Joan Allison, that Poelzig has other plans in mind.

For one, he needs to settle a feud with Dr. Werdegast, or the other way around, going back at least 15 years when the doctor was in jail for a crime  he didn’t commit and meanwhile Poelzig was after his wife and daughter.

I won’t reveal their fate, but from the beginning it’s clear Dr. Werdegast is the good guy here and Poelzig is pure evil.

Lugosi, having played Dracula, and Karloff, known for his performance as Frankenstein, kept those personas in this film through their mannerisms and dialogue, even if it wasn’t intentional.

As far as horror films go, The Black Cat clearly paved the way for styles and plot points used in the genre today yet I don’t think anything like it has been made since then — at least that I’ve seen.

It could be inspiration on some level for any horror film starting with the premise that its characters are stranded in a remote cabin and forced to contend with evil spirits, a serial killer or one of their own. More often than not recent films have the characters willingly traveling to a locale that breeds bad things, The Cabin in the Woods, The Strangers, Creep; whereas The Black Cat truly places unsuspecting characters, at least at first, in a dangerous situation they don’t know is unfolding.

The film builds to be about the feud between Dr. Werdegast and Poelzig and then translates their issues with each other to the fate of the Allisons, who do slowly start to see something is amiss.

Stylistically, the film uses music in almost every scene that borders between light-hearted and a tone more fitting for a horror plot. It also captures the odd architecture and secret passageways in Poelzig’s home to show there is more than meets the eye throughout the whole story.

I will watch for characteristics of The Black Cat in horror films that I see from now on, but for now it’s clear the film set a precedent in the genre while keeping its own unique reputation after all these years.

 

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78 of 366: The Witch

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For fear of being truly haunted by the “witch of the wood,” and because I can’t get The Witch out of my brain, I am skipping ahead one post today. Hopefully my rewind blog on Your Sister’s Sister, movie 77, will push the remaining haunting images from The Witch out of my mind. I do apologize if there are any inadvertent mentions of the mumblecore movement or Mark Duplass here. For all I know, he and Jay Duplass are probably already coming up with a film like The Witch but set in a New York loft as some 20-somethings figure out their lives. I’ll watch it.

Back to the fear I was talking about, I at first didn’t think The Witch was that scary when the credits started rolling. There were a few moments I jumped in the theater, but in the end I was more focused on it being a well-done first feature film by Robert Eggers as he effectively used the mystery of the unknown to scare his audience rather than only loud noises and things that go bump in the night.

My walk to my car under the hazy moon on an otherwise dark street with silhouettes of people in their windows watching television (if they were in fact there) made how scary The Witch actually was set in. Of course the only parking when I got home was by the woods near my apartment building and I was sure I would be sucked in and possessed by something evil.

I could just have a wild imagination because I see a lot of movies and think about them even more, or I’m just a tad delusional, but I do measure the success of a scary film on the effect it has after the fact. The Witch is doing pretty well in that regard.

Eggers, known as a production designer on many short films, set The Witch in the 1630s with a family in New England slowly turning against each other as a supernatural being causes tragedy and cute babies to disappear into thin air (a terrifying scene early in the film.)

The slow burn style Eggers uses to tell the story, influenced by themes of New England folklore and witchcraft, with only glimpses of what is truly evil fits the bill for a horror film even if it doesn’t seem like one on the surface.

The use of the score and sound effects to instill fear was another strong point of the film. There was louder instrumentation even as nothing was really happening and then complete silence in the background of some of the more climatic moments resulting from the family’s strife and belief the children especially are turning into witches.

Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is really at the center of it all and her character truly exemplifies what the family is going through all in one person. She is the hero in some moments and shunned aside in others as Eggers keeps the mystery of her true identity at bay as long as possible.

My recommendation is to go into The Witch knowing things are not always at they seem and then try not to think too much about it afterward, if you have an imagination like I do. (Also park somewhere well-lit near theater.)

74 of 366: Upstream Color

 

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Upstream Color is a beautifully experimental film exploring man’s relationship with nature and at the same time human relationships and love. From there, the film honestly was difficult to understand and, from the brief commentaries I’ve read, it’s supposed to be that way.

Shane Carruth’s (Primer) film festival darling starts with a woman infected with a parasite in her blood stream and evolves from there to a story of survival, independence and the themes I mentioned above, if you choose to interpret it that way.

Carruth, in addition to writing and directing the film, stars in it as Jeff, who later falls in love with the infected woman, Kris.

The film takes a turn from the plot about Kris to their relationship and fight against the world, but there are many other subplots going on that I know fit, but again, didn’t comprehend.

It’s actually a film that I feel okay about not understanding because I think it’s meant to be experienced as a visual film as much as it is a literary exploration of some deep ideas bordering on science fiction.

Carruth effectively balances science fiction with a story about love and presents a project you can appreciate at any level. I think it’s a film worth watching again, for people who have the time (not me), to experience what other themes and meanings stand out without reading any of the analysis available in many places on the Internet first.

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden has a strong presence in the film, both in readings by Kris’ character and physical copies in many scenes. That, combined with many scenes in and about nature, presented the theme that exploring how humans fit into nature was one of Carruth’s ideas.

If you want to dig deeper, Indiewire has a cheat sheet on Upstream Color (I only skimmed it before writing this post) that would be worth reading as well whether you watch the film one or 10 times.

Overall, I like the choose your own adventure style of Upstream Color. Its story is piecemeal and, as I said, can be interpreted at any level of depth and intensity you like or just taken at face value as visually mesmerizing artwork expressing the magic of film and storytelling.

 

 

56 of 366: Laura

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I welcome any excuse to dust off my film textbooks from college, today’s being Laura. The film, (1944), has a reputation as a film noir with a few twists and style points that take it away from being a full display of the genre.

Based on a novel turned play from Vera Caspary, who reportedly wasn’t happy with the film adaptation by Otto Preminger and writers Jay Dratler, Elizabeth Reinhardt and Samuel Hoffenstein, Laura is on the surface a story about a mysterious murder with the themes of love, loneliness and jealously in the background.

Laura (Gene Tierney), well established in her career at an advertising firm and social life, is a sought after woman by Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), her mentor of sorts, and Lt. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) after she goes out of town for a weekend and is supposedly murdered upon return to her apartment.

Lydecker, a well known, self absorbed columnist and radio show host, is enamored with Laura not long after she sees him at lunch and asks him to endorse a pen advertised by her company.

Many of the men in Laura’s life are enamored by her presence. McPherson, having never met Laura, feels the same way as he works on her murder case and spends most of his time her apartment with her portrait on the wall in nearly every scene there.

Laura won an Oscar for best cinematography after its release, an award that probably carried more meaning in that era, as the film effectively uses light and shadows and fade-in and outs to move the story along.

Some of those styles are characteristic of film noir, but in Laura, for example, the shadows are more often cast of individual characters on a wall or street rather than onto each other.

Laura as a character, while the central focus of the film, is also there to show the inner workings of the other characters and their true personas, motives and desires.

Thus the use of individual shadows stresses paying attention to each character alone rather than their relationships with each other. In one scene, however, as McPherson interrogates Laura at the police station, his shadow is cast on her face — showing they do perhaps have more of a connection than meets the eye.

That is one of the few scenes where I noticed a change in the use of shadows, and I found it to be one of the most telling moments in the film.

Overall, I think love is also one of the most prominent themes in Laura through the very end. Characters, whether it be between Carpenter, Lydecker or McPherson and Laura are often asking each other if they love her or if they think she loves them.

Laura mostly switches from the point of view of Lydecker and McPherson and in the end Lydecker, speaking on a radio broadcast, says it best to exemplify the meaning of love in the film.

“And thus, as history has proved, love is eternal. It has been the strongest motivation for human actions throughout centuries. Love is stronger than light. It reaches beyond the dark shadow of death.”

— Waldo Lydecker

 

 

 

 

53 of 366: Heavenly Creatures

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I like making lists and then making them again and then editing them. My downfall is I am often adding new tasks or ideas to a list before I finish anything on it, and then I make more lists and the madness continues.

This could be why I have 327 titles on my Netflix DVD queue and a list of another 243 I removed to save for watching next year … or probably never considering how long they were there before without ever arriving in my mailbox.

I still occasionally get stuck in the pattern of browsing through my instant queue for way too long before picking a movie, but I didn’t have that problem tonight when I spotted Heavenly Creatures.

I knew the film (1994) by Peter Jackson is a 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die recommendation and introduction to the acting careers Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey.

It is also an early film for Peter Jackson before he embarked on his path to bring the Lord of the Rings stories to the big screen.

I haven’t seen those films (I know, I know), but those who have may identify some small connection between Heavenly Creatures and the trilogy in that Jackson brings a bit of fantasy style into the true-crime based story set in 1950s New Zealand.

The platform for visual storytelling is there through the presence of the main characters’, Pauline (Lynskey) and Juliet (Winslet), diary entries expressing their teenage angst and struggles with their families trying to keep them apart.

Lynskey and Winslet’s characters are based on the lives of two girls who formed a fast friendship in their New Zealand school in 1952, much to the dismay of their parents.

They bond over music and movies and being somewhat outcasts in society with no harm done, that is until their relationship and connection progresses too far for their families to handle.

Juliet and Pauline come up with the perfect crime to escape their families and particularly Pauline’s mom, who they think is trying to keep them apart the most.

Jackson and screenwriter Fran Walsh, who is his wife and writing partner on many films, effectively mix the realism of Juliet and Pauline’s world with the fantasies they have through use of visual effects such as digital clay figures, colors and dream sequences.

That is certainly an interesting style to take with a film based on true events and a crime not expected of two teenage girls, but it works all together as a haunting and beautiful character-driven story that set the stage for Winslet, Lynskey and Jackson.

I haven’t been on McSweeney’s site in a long, long time (they have a lot of lists there to bring it full circle), but I also found a funny essay by Harris Mayersohn. 

“This was the last straw. I’m over you. My bedroom is full of bad memories and I must cleanse myself of you.

First go the pillows we once nuzzled. They smell too strongly of your Suave Ocean Breeze-scented conditioner. My tears only amplify their stench. So out the window they go and into the dumpster they’ll stay.”

 

 

 

42 of 366: The 4th Floor

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I didn’t realize it until today, but nothing would be more terrifying than being trapped in an apartment piled with packing peanuts at the hands of your creepy neighbor.

Luckily Juliette Lewis, as Jane Emelin in The 4th Floor, made it out but what she doesn’t know is if her creepy neighbor was really behind terrorizing her for weeks after she moves into her late aunt’s fourth-floor walk up or if it was someone close to her.

I won’t spoil it because the suspense in the film, also starring William Hurt and Shelley Duvall (you won’t recognize her), keeps it going for the 90 minutes of neighborly arguments turned — almost — deadly.

Emelin is dating William Hurt’s character, a television weatherman Greg Harrison, but decides to delay moving in with him to stay where her aunt lived. The fact that her aunt fell down the stairs and died in the very building Jane moved into should have been her first red flag, but she had memories of visiting the building and clearly wasn’t ready for shacking up with her local celebrity boyfriend.

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Fletchels sleeping through The 4th Floor.

That turned out to be a bad decision as the neighborly issues escalated from notes on her door to loud banging, knocks on the door in the middle of the night and eventually the classic mice and maggots infestation trick,

The 4th Floor obviously isn’t the source of William Hurt’s Oscar-winning performance, but it does present just enough suspense and scares if that’s what you’re in the mood for and has a good enough twist ending — even after the packing peanuts scene if you can believe it.

Writer and director Josh Klausner presents the question of who is really terrorizing Jane up until the end. Is it her neighbor downstairs, the super, her best friend who is jealous of her apartment, the man across the street who she perhaps witnesses commit a crime or someone else entirely?

The 4th Floor, as far as apartment-building centered thrillers goes, is not nearly as weird as Single White Female (at least I remember it being that way) and if nothing else is another excuse to watch William Hurt on screen. Just know that he, and Greg Harrison, will do whatever it takes.

23 of 366: The Imposter

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If you need something to watch instead of trying to crack the Steven Avery case by going through Making a Murderer again (although I wouldn’t blame you) the 2012 documentary The Imposter is another glimpse into true crime that presents just as much mystery and sheds light on a little-known story, at least for me.

It’s best to go into watching the documentary knowing nothing about the story, so I won’t spoil it just in case I am not the only person who hasn’t seen it as a result of Making a Murderer withdrawal.

Director Bart Layton effectively tells the story of a missing boy, Nicholas Barclay, in San Antonio, Texas, his family, and what happened when they thought he was found three years after his June 1994 disappearance.

The story spans from a local mystery to an international search and everything in between to show what people will believe and want to believe and who can take advantage of that.

Layton builds a suspenseful, comprehensive story but also leaves the viewer with an unsolved mystery by the time it’s over. I am sure what happened to Barclay could have been turned into 10 episodes of a show like Making a Murderer, but at the same time I admire how Layton kept it concise and told what he could about the Barclay family and what happened stemming from Nicholas’ disappearance, which remains unsolved.

 

 

 

11 of 366: Altered States

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I still don’t know exactly what to think about Altered States, but I will say I enjoyed pondering the film and William Hurt’s wardrobe  (when he has one) in between writing about money and debt and all that jazz today at work.

I don’t watch a lot of science fiction movies, but I did like the juxtaposition of Eddie Jessup’s (William Hurt) scientific quest to explore sensory deprivation and hallucinogenic drugs against his relationship and family life with Emily (Blair Brown) presented in Altered States.

The effects were impressive for 1980 and really brought out the film’s weirdness and Jessup’s dedication to finding out if different states of consciousness can cross over into reality.

Deep down I like to think that director Ken Russel and writer Paddy Chayefsky, who also penned the novel the film is based on, really wanted the viewer to question how far the characters would go for love or their career, or both.

What would it take for a William Hurt-type in the late 1960s to realize he can be in love?

In this case, it’s some weird stuff that I will never fully understand but he does fall in love. Maybe that’s all he ever wanted. I might watch this movie again someday or read the book, but not in 2016. I have to move on with my own quest. 355 to go!
Stars: 2 1/2 out of 4.
“Turn and face the strange / Ch-ch-changes / Oh look out now you rock and rollers / Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older.”

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

kumikoIf there is one thing I would recommend before seeing Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, it’s actually best to know as little as possible about the true story that it’s based on.

I saw the trailer for the film in February and was fascinated with the premise and portrayal of the quest of a Japanese woman, Takako Konishi (Rinko Kikuchi), to find the money buried in the movie Fargo, which she believed was real.

Watching the film with only that little bit of information in the back of my mind added to the mystery of it and Kumiko’s character as she is seen working in an office in Tokyo while plotting how she will travel to the U.S. to find her treasure.

Interestingly the filmmakers, David and Nathan Zellner, were able to keep away from media coverage of the story they were telling so it wouldn’t influence their creativity while they completed the project, according to an article from Indiewire.

The Zellners, who are brothers living in Austin, started their script for Kumiko in 2001, a year that does coincide with the true story. While they did want to stick to the facts and portray Konishi as an accurate character,  the Zellners also wanted to tell the story in their own way.

They also took their time – 10 years – developing the project. Some of the delay was voluntary, some not, but it proved to be a benefit for the Zellners, who premiered the film at Sundance last year and earned critical acclaim.

Once the film was over, my mentality (temporarily) switched from not wanting to know anything to wanting to know everything about the story. I wanted to know more about Kumiko’s character and why she thought what she saw in the movie Fargo was real and that it was her destiny to find it. Now, having thought about it for a day, I am satisfied with the mystery and unknowns the Zellners presented in the film while appreciating their technique in cinematography, writing and storytelling.

The film was made both in Japan and Minnesota and the transition from one location to the next and the differences between the cultures exemplified Kumiko’s struggle as she tries to find her treasure and — ultimately — happiness.

Visually, the composition of scenes with Kumiko in Tokyo compared to the sudden stark winter landscape she faced, seemingly without fear, was stunning to watch.

Music, by The Octopus Project, added to the haunting components of the film and overall the instrumental soundtrack was fitting to accompany Kumiko on her journey.

There was a small amount of humor in the film, but for the most part I found it to be sad and dark and hard to watch at times, even with the way the Zellners chose to portray the end to the story.

I know I’ve said it before, but movies can be a escape, especially for me. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is easy to get lost in and think about what the journey was like for her and the people she did meet along the way.

Maybe this is all too much information about the film and true story anyway, but keep an open mind about it and I definitely recommend seeing it. It turns out it is doing well in the theater and there will be at least another week of shows in Minneapolis.

Follow your destiny. It’s on page 95.

That is all.

Spring

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“Love comes around a couple of times, if you’re lucky.”

There is nothing like a good love story. There is also nothing like a good monster love story.

I didn’t know that until seeing Spring last week, but Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Resolution) make the genre work on screen.

Similar to Resolution, the story in Spring builds at a slow place with an even mix of mystery and suspense while the characters and plot are developed.

Evan is one of the main characters in Spring and the story focuses on his decision to travel to Italy as a way to escape his past and struggles in life. Evan quickly finds friends to backpack with and meets a local student, Louise, during their travels.

Evan is instantly smitten with Louise and drawn to her, but she is hesitant to go out with him. As fate would have it, they keep running into each other after Evan stays in the city where she lives and finds a job on a local farm.

The backdrop of a foreign country really works for the film, not only because of the scenery Moorhead and Benson were able to capture, but also because it adds to the feeling that Evan doesn’t really know what he is getting himself into by living in a new place and pursuing Louise.

Evan is persistent with Louise and the resulting first date scene between the two characters is one of my favorites in the film. Both characters are still of a bit of a mystery to each other at this point. Evan isn’t revealing all of what brought him to Italy while Louise remains secretive about her background.

Evan’s place in life is one where he is seeking happiness and a new start and he seems to think he has nothing to lose with Louise.

At her request, Evan writes Louise a note at the end of their date to convince her to continue to spending time with him.

The contents of the note aren’t revealed, which only adds to the mystery of the film and Louise’s character. Louise is hesitant to be with Evan for a reason that becomes more and more clear as her character develops. It’s evident Louise sees something in Evan she doesn’t want to, or perhaps can’t, resist.

They become close after only a few days but Louise still manages to avoid Evan at times, perhaps to protect him. But Evan is convinced Louise is the love of his life and continues to have no fear, even when he should.

He does find out what Louise is being so secretive about, I won’t spoil it, and it is a turning point for both characters and their relationship.

Moorhead and Benson’s choice to slowly build to the point when Evan knows Louise’s secret, while giving the viewer tidbits of it here and there, is effective and provides a platform to conclude both the love story and mystery at the same time.

Maybe this is TMI (meaning I don’t know if I want to share this) but I was actually in tears during the ending of the film and I don’t cry from movies all that often.

Sometimes a good love story will just get to you, even when it is mixed with a bit of fright and blood and gore. Moorhead and Benson’s talent for character development while building suspense and fear in their audience shows in Spring, especially through the visual effects and soundtrack.

If there is an underlying theme of the film, perhaps it is people aren’t always who they appear to be and you need to take some chances in life.

Spring has been popular on the film festival circuit and had a short run in Minneapolis. More details on where to see or buy the film are on the Drafthouse Films website.

In other news, I need to see Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter this week as it also will only be in the theaters for a few more days. I’ll report back and one of these days I’ll finish my drafts about Wild Tales, Merchants of Doubt and Ballet 422.

That is all.