Tag Archives: mystery movies

Clothes Make the Man

The Outfit

by George Wolf

The opening minutes of The Outfit give us a master tailor named Leonard (Mark Rylance) describing his process. We see him measuring fabric, cutting and sewing while he outlines his skill in sizing up customers to give them what they most deserve.

Wait..is he still talking about suits?

Maybe, maybe not.

The setting is Chicago in 1956, where Leonard and his dreaming-of-a-better-life secretary Mable (Zoey Deutch) conduct business while local mobsters use Leonard’s shop to retrieve messages from a nationwide crime syndicate known as the Outfit.

One night after a shootout with a rival mob, gangsters Richie (Dylan O’Brien) and Francis (Johnny Flynn) barge into the shop in need of help and refuge. Richie, the son of local boss Roy (Simon Russel Beale) has been shot, and soon most everyone involved will have to fight to survive the long night.

Oscar-winning screenwriter Graham Moore (The Imitation Game) adds directing duties this time as well, for a nifty big screen debut that often homages early Kubrick and classic Hitchcock.

Essentially a two-room chamber piece, the film leans on a terrific ensemble to roll out a steady stream of delicious twists, relishing the nimble noir wordplay and skillfully keeping Moore’s sleight-of-hand from tipping its hand too early.

Fellow Oscar-winner Rylance (Bridge of Spies) is the perfect choice to bring Leonard to life, displaying a seemingly casual excellence right in line with who Leonard seems to be. Will underestimating the quiet shopkeeper prove to be a deadly mistake? Or is it Leonard who will learn a painful lesson tonight?

Rylance peels back the layers slowly, and Moore has good instincts for the pacing that allows for maximum fun. Deutch proves again that she’s a natural, making the most of a more limited role that still boasts an impressive ratio of secrets-to-screen time.

Despite getting a little too cute for the room come finale time, The Outfit is a solid directing debut for an acclaimed screenwriter. And while you can’t help feeling that this salute to the brainy introvert may be a personal one for Moore, it’s artful and engaging enough to rope in anyone who loves untangling a well-fitted suit of clues.

Murder Was Again the Case

Death on the Nile

by George Wolf

“He accuses everyone of murder!”

“It is a problem, I admit.”

This playful admission by legendary detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is one of the ways Death on the Nile has some winking fun with the often used, often parodied Agatha Christie formula.

And since Christie’s source novel is one of the works that perfected that formula, it’s smart to acknowledge some inherent campiness while you’re trying to honor the genius of the original construction.

After his successful revival of Murder on the Orient Express in 2017, Branagh is back to again star, direct, and team with screenwriter Michael Green for another star-studded, claustrophobic whodunit.

This time we’re aboard a lavish cruise down the Nile in the late 1930s. Wealthy heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) has just married the dashing Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer), and they’ve invited a group of friends and family (including Annette Bening, Sophie Okonedo, Russell Brand, Jennifer Saunders, Letitia Wright and no-that’s-not-Margot- Robbie-it’s Emma Mackey) to help them celebrate.

Ah, but love and money bring “conflicting lies and jealousies,” and soon Linnet proves wise in putting the world’s greatest detective on the guest list. Murder is again the case!

And when Hercule Poirot is on it – which takes a while – Branagh and Green craft a capable reminder of what makes this formula so sturdy. From the discovery of clues to the requisite red-herring accusations, it’s just fun to feel part of Poirot’s deductive process.

But while Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos expertly utilize the confines of the ship to their advantage, the surrounding locales smack of outdated CGI and land as a disappointing stand-in for the eye-popping wonder of Orient Express.

Branagh and Green also try valiantly to weave a layer of love through the mystery. Opening with a prologue that introduces a decades-old pining (along with Poirot’s keen eye for detail and a dubious inspiration for that mustache), the film’s ambitions for this added narrative weight are worthy, but ultimately add more running time than substance.

The epilogue that checks in with Poirot six months after the cruise lets us know Branagh may have more Christie mysteries on his itinerary, and that’s not a bad thing. Death on the Nile proves that a trusty return to glamour and intrigue can still overcome some excess baggage.

Downtown, Waiting For You Tonight

Last Night in Soho

by George Wolf and Hope Madden

A pair of Beats headphones is Last Night in Soho‘s first clue that you’re not where you think you are.

The sights and sounds of young Ellie’s (Thomasin McKenzie) bedroom scream 1960s London. And though that’s where and when she’d really like to be living, Ellie is a modern-day British country girl, brought up by her Grandparents after her mother’s suicide years earlier.

Ellie dreams of a career as a designer, so she’s thrilled by an acceptance letter from the London College of Fashion. But once in the big city, the shy “country mouse” has trouble adjusting to the pace and the pressures of city life.

Her refuge becomes vivid dreams from the swinging 60s era she celebrates, detailed visions that put Ellie alongside Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young singer looking for fame and fortune among a sea of predatory men.

As Sandie’s trust in nightclub manager Jack (Doctor Who‘s Matt Smith) leads her down a dark and dangerous path, Ellie’s dreams turn truly terrifying. And the deeper Ellie is drawn into Sandie’s world, the more she believes a creepy old dude from her local pub (Terence Stamp) is really present-day Jack, who needs to pay for his past misdeeds with a succession of starstruck London girls.

Director and co-writer Edgar Wright slows his often frantic pace this time, trading those trademark edits for a more languid, appropriately dreamy vibe. His love of color is still front and center, and a giallo pastiche is just one in his Soho arsenal. There’s a time-hopping mystery here, sitting at the center of bloody thrills and a Black Swan-esque exploration of female trauma.

Wright hooks you early with delightful period details and – of course – some effortlessly hip throwback tunes for the soundtrack. His camera is nimble and his faming is precise, often using mirrors to exquisitely blend Ellie’s dreams with Sandie’s past.

McKenzie is doe-eyed perfection as the naive Ellie, an innocent somehow working out her own issues through the tragic past of a kindred spirit. Taylor-Joy is equally wonderful, bringing sad authenticity to Sandie’s quick descent from confident talent to broken soul. Stamp and Smith provide terrific support, eclipsed only by the bullseye casting of Diana Rigg (in her final role) as Ellie’s landlady.

Last Night in Soho is an often glorious mashup of settings and genres, and though you’ll recognize all of them, the package still carries a postmark that’s uniquely Wright’s. Maybe that’s why the resolution lands as curiously rote.

As was the case with the darling zom-rom-com Shaun of the Dead, it seems as if Wright doesn’t have the meanness to make a scary movie. He understands them, clearly, and bends their tropes to his will. Here he pulls apart Hitchcock and Argento to invert the genre’s fetishistic relationship with violence against women. Wright does this with such panache for 2/3 of the film that the final act feels abruptly tidy, too clear a reversal.

Does it spoil the Soho experience? Don’t be silly, baby! This film is a gas, but one that leaves you with with a little reminder that Wright’s most perfectly groovy film is still to come.

Bottle Feeding

The Empty Man

by George Wolf

Okay, so here’s the story: if you’re on a bridge at night and blow into an empty bottle, you’ll conjure the Empty Man. And in three days, he’ll find you.

Right, so it’s a bit of Candyman, some of The Ring, lots of jump scares and kills for Halloween, got it.

I don’t think you do…unless you’ve read Cullen Bunn’s graphic novels.

Writer/director David Prior adapts the series with James Badge Dale in the lead as James, an ex-cop still grieving from the loss of his wife and son. When the daughter of his good friend Nora (Marin Ireland) goes missing, James sidesteps the local Missouri cops for a rogue investigation of his own.

Prior, a video vet making his feature debut, lays down an atmosphere that gets plenty creepy, but seldom horrific. As James digs in, the film becomes a dark mystery, one full of freaky cult members with aspirations of total consciousness and malevolent chaos.

Dale keeps your interest with a terrific performance full of wounded determination, getting solid support from Ireland (plus Stephen Root in a memorable cameo).

But at nearly two hours and twenty minutes, it’s a bit too much of wandering slog in need of a leaner path.

Come in looking for a tidy little slasher, and you’re going to be disappointed. But if you’re down for a dark and moody rumination on grief, metaphysics and itchy brains, you could conjure up worse than The Empty Man.

Mrs. Mystery

Rebecca

by George Wolf

Let’s give credit where it’s due. Remaking a Hitchcock classic takes some stones. Beyond putting aside the inevitable comparisons, you’ve got to find a way to follow your own vision while honoring the elements that make the film worth revisiting.

A look at Ben Wheatley’s resume (Kill List, A Field in England, Sightseers, High Rise, Free Fire) suggests the promise of edge and/or sly wit. But Wheatley’s update of Hitch’s 1940 gothic potboiler Rebecca can never quite fulfill that promise.

Things start well enough. Armie Hammer cuts a detached and dashing figure as wealthy heir Maxim de Winter. Surrounded by luxury on a Monte Carlo holiday in the late 1930s, he still struggles to recover from the sudden death of his wife, Rebecca.

Max’s mood improves when he meets a young ladies’ maid (Lily James), who must sneak away from her employer Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) each time Max sends handwritten invitations for increasingly intimate meetups.

The whirlwind courtship leads to an impulsive marriage, with Max taking the new Mrs. de Winter back to Manderlay, his family’s sprawling estate on the windswept English coast.

The new bride’s welcome, led by Manderlay’s imposing head servant Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott-Thomas, icy perfection), is less than warm.

The memory of Rebecca permeates the house and haunts the new wife. But even as she struggles to compete with the ghost of a seemingly perfect woman, the second Mrs. de Winter is drawn into a growing mystery of what really happened to the first.

James is a natural at delivering the innocence and naïveté of the never-named proletarian suddenly thrust into aristocracy. Likewise, Hammer’s chisled handsomeness and graceful manner make Max’s required mix of societal etiquette and subtle condescension instantly identifiable.

But their character arcs – like much of Rebecca‘s stylish narrative – begin to crumble with each new breadcrumb. Wheatley, going bigger than ever with a veteran writing trio’s new adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s celebrated novel, checks off the revelations in a workmanlike succession that’s almost completely devoid of the suspense and sexual anxiety that propel the original film.

So when the seismic power shift strikes the de Winter’s marriage, it lands as a turn less earned and more like a matter of melodramatic convenience.

It’s all perfectly grand and respectable, but never memorable. And by the time Wheatley’s final shot suggests a haphazard attempt to re-frame all of it, this Rebecca, like the young Mrs. de Winter, has a tough time measuring up.

Beware of Ex-Classmates Bearing Fish

The Gift

by Richard Ades

Joel Edgerton is determined to set our nerves on edge with The Gift, and he succeeds pretty well. The writer/director/co-star knows just how to push the audience’s collective buttons.

The tale revolves around Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall), who no sooner move into their new California home than they run into one of the husband’s old classmates: Gordo. Thanks to Edgerton’s subtly creepy portrayal, we instantly distrust this guy—to the extent that our stomachs tighten a little when Gordo overhears the couple’s new address.

Sure enough, he’s soon showing up unannounced, invariably when Robyn is home alone. Annoyed, Simon recalls that Gordo was always a “weirdo” and suggests that he has the hots for the pretty Robyn. She, on the other hand, thinks he’s just trying to be helpful.

Robyn, as we eventually learn, is not an accomplished judge of character.

As Gordo’s behavior grows more and more erratic, director Edgerton builds tension by supplying a series of shocks constructed in the time-honored fashion: He primes us with scenes of quiet dread followed by a sudden sight or sound. These are fun, especially when experienced with a vulnerable audience.

But Edgerton’s goal ultimately extends beyond eliciting Pavlovian responses. We learn that Simon has more history with Gordo than he’s willing to admit. It’s an ugly history that Simon would like to forget and that Gordo is unable to let go.

Frankly, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the early scenes, with their stock shocks, and the third act, with its unexpected complexity. That’s one of the few signs that this first-time director has more to learn.

A bigger disappointment is that the tale’s female lead is less interesting than her male counterparts.

Edgerton’s Gordo, as stated, is wonderfully creepy, while Bateman’s Simon has a tendency toward ruthlessness that becomes increasingly obvious as the story unfolds. As for Hall’s Robyn, we never quite get a handle on her.

We know she’s an accomplished interior designer, mostly because her husband tells us she is. We also know she has a history of pregnancy-related trauma and addiction. But she mainly comes across as simply a woman in danger—more of a plot device than a flesh-and-blood character.

Hall makes her watchable, but Edgerton’s script fails to make her knowable. The result: Even though The Gift continually scares us and surprises us, it never quite moves us.

Verdict-3-5-Stars