Category: Books, Movies, TV & Web

by Edith Wharton

 

Lord knows I’m no Edith Wharton scholar, but after reading her classic novel House of Mirth, I am certainly an admirer. Wharton, herself no stranger to the world of 1905 upper-class society, tells the tragic tale of Lily Bart, a young New Yorker who thrives on beauty and charm … until she doesn’t.

The bulk of the novel is a chronicle of Lily’s thoughts — about wealth, privilege, the lower classes and, in the end, what really matters in life. In other words, there is not a whole lot of conventional “action” in the story. But Lily’s observations are endlessly fascinating and, ultimately, moving.

Today’s readers (especially progressive feminists, I presume) may be horrified by the state of society in early 20th-century New York as depicted in this book. But despite all the progress of the ensuing years, Wharton’s final message is this: Some things never change.

 

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Emily the Criminal

 

Aubrey Plaza starring as the tough-as-nails protagonist in a gritty crime drama? Sure, why not. Writer-director John Patton Ford’s low-budget debut feature is a minor masterpiece of tension, pacing, and unexpected turns. Will novice “dummy shopper” Aubrey learn that crime doesn’t pay, or will she live happily ever after?

Bonus: If you don’t know much about the intricacies of credit-card fraud, the burdens of student-loan debt, or the perils of workplace background checks, you will after watching this gem. Release: 2022 Grade: A-

 

**

 

White Noise

 

As far as I’m concerned, the biggest sin any movie can commit is to be boring. No worries on that count with director Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel.

White Noise is (take your pick) a satire on materialism, a family comedy, a drama about infidelity, or a disaster pic about an “airborne toxic event.” It’s all of those, and the mishmash is at times confusing. But Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, as (gasp!) intellectual Ohioans dealing with all the above, keep things interesting. Release: 2022 Grade: B+

 

**

 

The Motive

 

I really like the premise of this Spanish film: a talentless “little man” catches his successful-author wife cheating on him and then, partly as revenge but also because he believes that he, too, can publish a book, concocts a plan.

Acting on the advice of his writing-class instructor (“write what you know!”), he decides to manipulate the lives of his apartment neighbors so that he can draw on their pain for his novel. After all, since his own life is so drab and depressing, why not tap into theirs?

This great premise is undermined, unfortunately, by a twist-ending that is both underdeveloped and unconvincing. Release: 2017 Grade: B

 

 

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Blindfold

 

When I was a kid, I was infatuated with movies like Arabesque, Charade, and the Matt Helm and Derek Flint series, all of which were heavily influenced by 1960s James Bond movies. These flicks would have girls, gadgets, spies, and romance. The heroes were suave (Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, et al.) and the gals were gorgeous (Sophia Loren, Stella Stevens, et al.). And the Bond offshoots were heavy on humor.

But I had not seen Blindfold, another 1960s Bond homage starring Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale.

Now I have seen it, and I can report that the girls, gadgets, spies, and romance are all there, as are the attractive leads. But I deduct points because, unlike the other films in its genre, Blindfold is a bit too tongue-in-cheek, a bit too silly and slight for its own good. I never felt that the dramatic stakes were high, hence, no tension.

And yet I’m tempted to add points because Cardinale, playing the sister of a kidnapped scientist who teams with psychiatrist Hudson to rescue him … well, these pictures:

 

 

Release: 1966  Grade: B-

 

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I See You

 

Helen Hunt and Jon Tenney play a married couple whose family of three is on the brink due to her infidelity. Meanwhile, the cop-husband is assigned a child kidnapping case, and someone — or something — seems to be haunting their suburban house.

Here’s the thing: I am burning out on “supernatural thrillers,” in which any kind of plot snag can be explained away by magical hocus-pocus of the screenwriter’s choosing. So it was a relief to me when, at the midpoint of this well-shot movie, it became less Poltergeist and more, oh, The Silence of the Lambs, I guess. There is a major plot development that changes everything, and mysterious events are (mostly) satisfactorily explained.

But not everything is satisfying. The script is simply too clever by half, with too many coincidences and “yeah, right” moments for my taste. Release: 2019  Grade: B

 

*

 

Don’t Worry Darling

 

Florence Pugh and Harry Styles are living the life in an experimental town on the West Coast. But lurking beneath the village’s 1950s, Ozzie-and-Harriet facade, something’s rotten in the state of California.

Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling is thought-provoking, well-made, and well-acted. It was considered a disappointment upon release earlier this year. Why is that?

I suspect it’s a matter of bad timing. Darling’s none-too-subtle message — The patriarchy is bad! Women are victims! — is propaganda we’ve been bludgeoned with for years now (thanks, The Handmaid’s Tale), and half the country isn’t having it. We’ve seen enough of Hillary and Nancy and Maxine to know that our problems aren’t strictly gender-related; they are power- and corruption-related. Laying responsibility solely on one sex doesn’t cut it.

But Wilde has made an entertaining movie and deserves kudos for that. I deduct points only for the plot’s lack of originality (The Stepford Wives, anyone?) — and for the politics of bad timing. Release: 2022  Grade: B+

 

*

 

Smile

 

Here’s an example of the triumph of marketing over substance. In the trailers for Smile, we learn that people inexplicably develop an evil smile right before something dreadful happens. We also see a clip of a truly frightening scene in which a woman runs up to the window of a waiting car and …

Little did I know, when I watched the ads, that those rictus-grins and the car scene are the only high points of this derivative, ponderous movie. We follow a nervous wreck of a mental-health therapist (Sosie Bacon) as she navigates a series of deaths involving the smilers — and a barrage of annoying “jump scares” that do little to disguise how lame the story is.

I suppose if I were 12 and Smile was my first horror movie, I might enjoy it. But I am not, and I didn’t. Release: 2022  Grade: C-

 

*

 

Nope

 

Filmmaker Jordan Peele’s career path is beginning to resemble that of M. Night Shyamalan — not necessarily a good thing. Both directors had early success (The Sixth Sense; Get Out), followed up with decent, if not spectacular, outings (Unbreakable; Us), and then chose a UFO/alien theme for movie number three (Signs; Nope).

Peele and Shyamalan, with their heavy reliance on twists, were both hailed as the second coming of Rod Serling. Peele, of course, injects social commentary into his films; Shyamalan, not so much.

Nope starts out well enough, with a suspenseful buildup as we learn that something scary is in the sky out west. But the second half of the film is a mess. It’s all nonsensical behavior and so-so special effects as brother-and-sister horse trainers (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) do battle with … something.

Shyamalan’s Signs wins the battle of the alien movies, hands down. Release: 2022   Grade: C

 

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by Emile Gaboriau

 

I can hear it now: Monsieur Who?

Edgar Allan Poe is often cited as the father of the modern detective novel, and everyone is familiar with Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary sleuth Sherlock Holmes. But I’m guessing that few readers are aware of the link between Poe and Doyle: French author Emile Gaboriau, who penned detective novels clearly influenced by Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and in turn a major inspiration for Doyle’s Holmes.

I suspect Gaboriau’s novels have slipped into relative obscurity because they lack Poe’s mastery of mood and Doyle’s strong characterizations. Monsieur Lecoq, a young, ambitious policeman whose chief attributes seem to be self-doubt and confusion, isn’t particularly memorable, and Gaboriau’s prose can be a bit wordy and dense.

Still, if you’re a fan of 19th-century crime fiction, Lecoq’s investigation of an enigmatic man accused of a triple murder is an entertaining read.

 

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The Munsters

 

It’s hard to believe that a two-hour homage to a cartoonish 1960s sitcom might be “polarizing,” but hey, this is the age of Twitter. Everything is polarizing. Especially if you are Rob Zombie, a director known for R-rated fare like The Devil’s Rejects and Halloween (2007). Zombie’s fan-base is typically into sex, violence, and gore — but Herman and Lily Munster? Probably not so much.

And yet, who are we to say that Zombie shouldn’t indulge his inner child? The TV series was not exactly Shakespeare, and neither is Zombie’s film, but it is amusing, nostalgic, and (literally) colorful as hell. Would I watch it again? Probably not. Am I glad I watched it once? Sure.

The plot:  Herman (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Lily (Zombie wife/regular Sheri Moon Zombie) meet and want to get married. There is opposition to this idea. And then … oh, hell. The plot doesn’t matter. Corny jokes, goofy-looking monsters, and the good-natured spirit of the TV show are what matter.

Grading a movie like The Munsters is tough. It depends on the audience. I would guess that kids would say Grade: A. I am guessing that most adults would say Grade: B-minus.

Unless, of course, they were expecting sex, violence, and gore.  Release: 2022

 

 

*

 

Vengeance

 

Writer-director B.J. Novak plays a New York podcaster who travels to Texas to investigate the death of a local girl with whom he had a fling. When Novak’s city slicker meets the residents of a west Texas town, ideologies clash, fish-out-of-water humor ensues, and a family drama unfolds. In short, it’s Meet the Parents wrapped up in a murder mystery.

Wikipedia describes the movie this way: “Vengeance is a 2022 American western neo-noir mystery black comedy film.”

By my count, that’s four genres. If that sounds like a bit much, I think it is. By trying to tackle so many themes, Novak dilutes each of them.

Still, Vengeance is thought-provoking and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. It’s certainly an ambitious movie, and I give it an A for effort but, sorry, I can’t go higher than an overall Grade:Release: 2022

 

 

*

 

The Black Phone

 

It’s 1978, and someone driving a black van is kidnapping kids in suburban Denver.

The good:  Black Phone features nice performances from child actors Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw as siblings living in an abusive home. Their relationship reminded me of Jem and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird (aside from the abuse). The 1970s atmosphere is also quite good.

The bad:  In an otherwise cookie-cutter kidnapping movie, it would be wise to have a memorable villain. Alas, Ethan Hawke isn’t likely to make anyone forget Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter. Despite wearing an obligatory serial-killer mask, Hawke oozes all the menace of a fly on the wall.

Release: 2021  Grade: B-

 

*

 

Halloween Ends

 

Halloween ends? Well, the movie’s midsection is certainly endless.

After a nifty opening scene involving a child and his babysitter, the audience spends the next hour (or more) following two troubled and morose young people as they act … troubled and morose. Michael Myers, apparently as bored by this twosome as we are, is nowhere to be seen.

Not so for Jamie Lee Curtis, reprising yet again the beloved scream queen Laurie Strode. You might expect that Laurie, now much older and presumably wiser than when she first encountered Michael Myers, will use her experience and wits to finally triumph over the masked boogeyman.

But this is 2022 and the age of “you go girl” superheroes, and so aging Laurie is asked to dispatch her nemesis, mano a mano, using her brute strength. Because that’s believable.

Sure. OK, whatever. Stupid.

Release: 2022  Grade: C-

 

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by Robert Bloch

 

My apologies, Robert Bloch. I underestimated you.

When it comes to Psycho, the legendary horror film, I’ve always assumed it was a product of its director’s genius. I still believe that, but until I read Bloch’s novel, I had no idea that Alfred Hitchcock relied so heavily on Bloch’s written words and basically transferred the story, with just a few tweaks, onto the silver screen.

Or as the master of suspense put it himself, “Psycho all came from Robert Bloch’s book.”

Everything you love about the movie is here in the novel: Norman (and Norma) Bates, the shower scene, the old house on the hill, the detective’s murder and, oh yes, the creepiness. Reading the book is like reading Hitchcock’s screenplay.

Again, my apologies to Robert Bloch.

 

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by Fred Van Lente

 

Let’s face it: When you pick up a book like Ten Dead Comedians, you aren’t expecting Tolstoy or Hemingway. You are looking for escapism.

Van Lente’s high-concept plot is enticing: Based on And Then There Were None, the story has a gaggle of comedians picked off, one by one, on a secluded Caribbean island. Who’s doing it? Who cares?

The comics are clearly based on well-known personalities, including (I presume) Joan Rivers, Margaret Cho, Carrot Top, and Larry the Cable Guy. (I could be wrong — it might be Kathy Griffin, Jeff Foxworthy, Louis C.K., Sarah Silverman, or composites of the above. You tell me.)

As in real life, some of the sparring, dying characters’ verbal zingers hit the mark, others fall flat. The book confirms what you probably already suspect: You want your favorite comedians on stage in a club; you do not want them living next door to you. They are often unpleasant people.

Aside from its ending, which doesn’t stretch credibility so much as demolish it, the book gits-r-done as an amusing time-killer.

 

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Amor Bandido

 

Amor Bandido (Bandit Love) begins like any number of forbidden-love dramas. An older teacher (Romina Ricci) is having an affair with her teenage student (Renato Quattordio), and the two of them decide to run off together. At this point, the only real suspense is wondering how long before we get to see the first sex scene (answer: 27 minutes). But at the midpoint, the movie makes an unexpected shift from taboo-romance to outright thriller, and the genre shift pays off.  Release: 2021 Grade: B

 

 

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by Patricia Highsmith

 

If you’re not familiar with suspense novelist Highsmith (1921-95), there’s a good chance you are familiar with the movies adapted from her books. I’m thinking especially of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley.

I’ve read just one of her novels, Ripley. This is what I wrote about it in 2004:

 

[Highsmith] draws us into the sociopathic mind of Tom Ripley, a small-time con artist who makes the leap into full-fledged murderer. As Ripley connives his way into the world of privileged Americans in Italy, Highsmith tells us what “Tom wanted,” and what “Tom felt” and, before long, we are so seduced by Ripley’s good fortune, charm, and cleverness that we nearly give him a pass when “Tom’s wants” include bludgeoning people with boat oars and glass ashtrays. Ripley then becomes sort of a cross between Dostoyevsky, with Tom’s cat-and-mouse games with the police and his (fleeting) sensations of guilt and paranoia, and Nabokov, with our protagonist justifying his actions to himself, and to the reader. Clever, clever stuff; and highly entertaining.

 

I also wrote that the book wasn’t perfect:

 

Highsmith uses a plot device that Agatha Christie sometimes employs, and which never fails to annoy me. She has Ripley interrogated twice — once as himself, and once posing as one of his victims — by the same Italian policemen. At close quarters. We are asked to believe that the police are foolish enough to believe that Ripley is two different people merely through his use of hair coloring, and eyebrow pencil, and changing his pattern of speech. I don’t buy this when Christie does it, and I don’t buy it here.

 

To her credit, in Plotting Highsmith acknowledges struggles with the police-procedure aspects of her books. She cites the danger of portraying cops as unrealistically stupid.

 

But mostly, the book is an enlightening description of the writer’s lot: the plot snags, “writer’s block,” and the hassles of everyday life that threaten to undermine a good book. (Stephen King also deals with these “mundane” obstacles in his On Writing, which is also quite good.)

 

 

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