Reviews — February 22
There’s no time like Oscar season to get caught up on the most popular titles, so while everyone is racing to grab “Flight” and “Argo,” this is a good time to see last year’s Best Picture winner: “The Artist.”
As a Best Picture winner, “The Artist” is something of an anomaly, and that’s not just because it’s a silent black-and white film. Whereas Oscar season is littered with ambitious “message” movies, here’s one that aspires to do nothing more than charm your socks off. Star Jean Dujardin could do that with his smile alone.
He plays a silent screen star in 1930s Hollywood who finds himself marginalized as the studios usher in a new generation of actors for the “talkies,” one of whom is a young dancer (Bérénice Bejo) whose career he helped launch.
When this column features a film that’s 1) black and white, 2) silent, and/or 3) subtitled, I feel like I’m swimming against the tides of provincialism. For modern audiences, “The Artist” has, admittedly, two strikes against it (and never mind that Dujardin’s native tongue is French!), but I am convinced that even if you don’t normally see silent films, you’ll love this one. And hopefully, it’ll put the bug in you to seek out more.
“The Artist” (2011) Directed by Michel Hazanavicius. Starring Jean Dujardin, Bernice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell and Ann Miller. 100 minutes. Rated PG-13 for a crude gesture and one disturbing image.
“Fool’s Puzzle,” which is named for a quilting pattern, introduces Benni Harper, a recently widowed ranch wife turned folk art co-op manager.
On the eve of her first quilt show and craft festival, a potter turns up murdered. Naturally, Benni, discovers the body.
And naturally, she gets in hot water for holding back a few details from her story to the small town’s new police chief, a transplant from the big city, And while it’s obvious to everyone else that the chief would rather date her than arrest her, Benni keeps the hot water running with her smart remarks and desire to solve the crime before he can.
Author Earlene Fowler makes Benni a likeable heroine who’s smart and funny and quite human. Some of the best passages in the book involve telephone conversations between Benni and Dove, her grandmother, who keeps her eagle eye on the younger woman.
Someone takes a few shots at Benni’s house one evening, breaking the porchlight and window as well as her illusion of safety. The police are still on the scene when the phone rings.
“Are you OK?” Dove asks.
“How in the world did you hear about it so fast? And yes, I’m fine,” Benni responds.
“That nosy old fart who lives next door to you,” her grandmother says. “I give him a couple of jars of my clover honey and he keeps me informed.”
“You’re paying the neighbors to spy on me?” Benni asks incredulously.
“I prefer to think of it as bartering,” Dove says.
Despite her grandmother’s concerns and those of the chief, Benni persists in trying to solve the puzzle. She even begins to wonder if finding the answer to the art center murder will lead her to some long-sought answers in her own life.
Along the way, she enlists the help of longtime friends and tries to avoid the gossip of people who’ve known her since childhood — the benefits and challenges of living in a small town.
The mystery often takes a back seat to the relationships in “Fool’s Puzzle,” as in life. It’s an enjoyable, quick read that sets the stage for more stories featuring Benni Harper.
“Fool’s Puzzle, a Benni Harper Mystery,” by Earlene Fowler, 1994, Berkeley Prime Crime Books.