Brick (2005) Writer/director Rian Johnson has masterfully distilled the tropes from classic noir to tell a tale of drugs, murder and greed, set around a high school milieu. Despite the modern setting, it could have easily taken place in the ‘40s, with a few minor tweaks. Joseph Gordon-Levitt channels Bogie and Mitchum as Brendan, an introspective fast-talking loner who’s trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together after his ex-girlfriend turns up dead. As he gets roughed up in the process of his investigation, he encounters many familiar genre characters: a kingpin, (aka: The Pin) played by Lukas Haas, the muscle (Noah Fleiss), and a femme fatale (Nora Zehetner). Modern audiences unaccustomed to the source material probably didn’t know what hit them, but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a rare high concept film that works.
Rating: ****. Available on DVD
Jar City (aka: Mýrin) (2008) Baltasar Kormákur directed this somber, slow burn mystery/thriller from Iceland, about a world weary police inspector (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) on the trail of a murderer. He uncovers a small town’s secrets, dealing with suppressed memories, rape and a rare congenital brain disease. In the midst of the investigation, he must contend with a strained relationship with his troubled daughter. Jar City gradually reveals the pieces of an elaborate puzzle, set among a harsh, unforgiving landscape. The performances are uniformly superb, and the film’s pervasive moribund atmosphere will continue to stick with you, long after the final scene.
Rating: ****. Available on Hulu
Think Fast Mr. Moto (1937) Okay, forget for a moment that Austro-Hungarian actor Peter Lorre is playing a Japanese character, and focus on his fine performance as the diminutive detective in this first of a series of films. Lorre (thankfully without the embarrassing makeup used in many similar productions of the era) immerses himself in the role, as an amateur detective who uncovers a diamond and drug-smuggling operation based in Shanghai. Moto befriends a playboy businessman (Thomas Beck) from a shipping firm, who becomes the unwitting pawn in the smuggling ring’s illicit activities. Lorre does a nice job with what he has to work with. Given the material, he handles his character with dignity, keeping this from being an artifact from an unfortunate period in Hollywood history. His Moto is clearly the smartest guy in the room wherever he goes, proving Lorre could really carry a film.
Rating: ***½. Available on DVD
Murder in the Museum (1934) The mystery is the least interesting thing about this film, directed by Melville Shyer. But the opening setting in a freak show is worth the price of admission. After a prominent politician is shot, a snooping reporter and an inquisitive young woman (John Harron and Phyllis Barrington) try to discover the identity of the assassin. The ensuing police procedural and intrigue are nothing you haven’t seen before, but anyone fascinated (as I am) with freak shows will find much to enjoy in the first half. Henry B. Walthall is good as Professor Mysto, who performs feats of illusion.
It’s an amusing glimpse into a lost era as we observe the side show talker go through his spiel (“…for 50 cents, half-a-dollar!”).
Rating: ***. Available on DVD
The Bat (1959) This mildly entertaining throwback to the whodunits of yesteryear, which originated from the 1920 play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood, was already filmed twice before, as a silent and a talkie. $1 million in stolen bank funds goes missing, and a shadowy killer with a claw hand is on the prowl. Agnes Moorehead plays mystery novelist Cornelia van Gorder, who lives in a spooky mansion where the money is supposedly hidden. Meanwhile, as the victims add up, everyone, including the butler is a suspect (spoiler: he didn’t do it). Vincent Price received top billing, but doesn’t appear nearly enough.
Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Hulu
You’ll Find Out (1940) What can go wrong with a spooky house mystery featuring Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi? Sadly, these film greats only appear in supporting roles, as charlatans attempting to swindle a young heiress and her eccentric aunt out of their family fortune. Most of the film involves big band leader Kay Keyser and comic personality/musician Ish Kabibble (ask your grandparents) in a series of musical numbers and unfunny comic routines. If you’re a big band aficionado you might find lots to like, but fans of Lorre, Karloff and Lugosi will probably be disappointed. Of the three, Lugosi fares the best with the flimsy material he’s given, as a fake medium who conducts elaborate séances. It might be worth a look, but be sure to lower your expectations.
Rating: **½. Available on DVD