Category: Books, Movies, TV & Web

Knives Out

 

A confession: Knives Out is the kind of movie I am predisposed to like before I’ve seen even one second of it. It’s a murder mystery set in a spooky mansion and with an Agatha Christie-like cast of suspects.

OK, I’ll concede that the above synopsis sounds like, oh, maybe 5,000 similar movies. But this time, there’s a decent budget and big-name stars. So bring it on!

Alas, Knives Out is good, but not that special. It’s handsome and well-produced. It’s amusing to watch Daniel Craig channel Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood accent from House of Cards. But the much-heralded plot is nothing you won’t find in scores of Netflix crime shows, or in an old episode of Poirot.

It’s true that you don’t find many mid-budget movies with stories like this anymore. But that isn’t because Hollywood doesn’t make them; it’s because they’ve all moved to TV.  Release: 2019 Grade: B+

 

 

**

 

Parasite

 

Parasite, a black comedy/thriller from Korea, boasts the distinction of being the first non-English-language film to win a Best Picture Oscar. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about it: “The film was considered by many critics to be the best film of 2019 as well as one of the best films of the 21st century.”

I’m not sure if that’s damning critics or damning movies of the 21st century.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed Parasite, in which a rich family is infiltrated by a clan of con artists — think Al Bundy and his goofball brood from Married … with Children, but with Korean faces and street smarts. The elaborate con and the ensuing carnage are all amusing enough but … one of the “best films of the century”? Nope. Not even close.  Release: 2019 Grade: B

 

 

 

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The Dig

 

Here’s a fact-based “prestige picture” that’s very classy, very pretty, and very … bland. Well, at least the second half of the movie is.

Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan are a pleasure to watch in the first half, in which an obscure excavator (Fiennes) finds an ancient Anglo-Saxon ship and a true soul mate (Mulligan) on land the young widow owns in Suffolk. But once the big find is found, the movie bogs down with extraneous subplots about another couple’s romance and looming war with Germany and … not nearly enough Fiennes and Mulligan.

The film would have been stronger had The Dig ditched reality and instead focused more on its two leads. Release: 2021  Grade: B-

 

**

 

The Block Island Sound

 

Most horror movies that are destined to fall apart tend to do so in the third act. Too few of them know how to “stick the landing.” So, kudos to the McManus brothers for pulling off a damn-fine ending in Block Island, in which an unseen force wreaks havoc on an East Coast seaside village.

The problem with this low-budget film is the first two-thirds of it, in which less-than-stellar acting and a plodding plot give no hint of the good things to come. Release: 2020  Grade: B-

 

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I wouldn’t presume to call this a “review” of the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution, any more than I would attempt to “review” the King James Bible. But since I finally got around to reading these historic documents (the book includes the Bill of Rights), let me make a few humble observations:

 

1:  No wonder American society is a mess. The problem is the English language. Nearly every word we use is subject to interpretation — including the words penned by the Founding Fathers. If we could all agree on the meanings of “just,” or “benefit,” or “inalienable rights,” wouldn’t life be peachy keen? Alas, we are an argumentative bunch. 

2:  If we take the original documents at face value, our country is, evidently, saturated with constitutional violations. They say history is written by the winners; constitutional law is all too often defined by those in power. Our judicial system, charged with deciphering the Constitution, is just as susceptible to prejudice as the rest of us.

3:  Those old boys in the 18th century did their best with what they had. So far as I can tell, no other country has done better.

 

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by Anand Giridharadas

 

I wanted to know more about the economic and political forces that drove us to this tumultuous moment in time. But I didn’t want to read more Trump, Trump, Trump. And so I chose Giridharadas’s book, published in 2018, about 1 Percenters and aspiring 1 Percenters and their role in creating our current mess.

I like Giridharadas’s approach to income inequality and what it’s led to: rising populism and social turmoil. Rather than interview politicians and the losers of this economic war — as so many journalists do — Giridharadas grills the “winners” and lets their own words condemn them. Each of them claims a desire to do public good, but nearly all of them find reasons to justify the big-picture status quo, which just happens to let them continue to do well.

Ultimately, the book is about rationalization. It details the decades-long shift of big business from community partners to enthusiastic globalists. It explains how throwing crumbs to the hometown public through so-called public initiatives allows the elites to sleep at night. The author’s interview with wealthy heir/philanthropist Laurie Tisch is telling:

Tisch:  “The people who get to take advantage of the system, why would they really want to change it? They’ll maybe give more money away, but they don’t want to radically change it.”

Giridharadas:  Was there anything she could imagine that would convince them otherwise?

Tisch:  “Revolution, maybe.”

 

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The White Tiger

 

In The White Tiger,  a man from a low caste in India hopes to rise in society by becoming a rich man’s chauffeur — but he eventually decides that a more cynical, even murderous, approach is the way to get ahead. I learned some things from the film. I got to witness some of the horrific conditions for the poor living in India without actually living among the poor in India.

But that was also my problem with the movie: It was interesting, but not especially involving. It’s a well-produced film and its populist message is timely, but when the end credits rolled, I thought, “That’s all?”  Release: 2021  Grade: B

 

**

 

Happy Times

 

A Jewish family gathers around a dining table, bickering and sniping at each other about the shortcomings and sins of their husbands, wives, and cousins — nothing new about that in a comic movie. But what distinguishes writer/director Michael Mayer’s Happy Times is the dramatic segue from a comedy of ill manners into something quite different when simmering tensions boil over into all-out, murderous mayhem.

Happy Times came as a pleasant surprise, possibly because other reviews of the film are either lukewarm or non-existent. But I was consistently amused and often delighted by the family members, whose hang-ups range from mild neurosis to full-blown psychopathy. It’s impossible to predict which of them will snap at a moment’s notice; more than once, I lost track of who had offed (or apparently offed) whom. But that didn’t matter because Mayer’s pace is frenzied and the characters — all of them — are comic gold. Release: 2019  Grade: B+

 

A dinner party from hell.

 

Liraz Chamami plays a model housewife — not.

 

 

 

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The Vanished

 

The Vanished, a Netflix thriller about a couple (Thomas Jane and Anne Heche) whose child goes missing during a camping trip, is reminiscent of a famous movie that debuted some 20 years back. (I can’t reveal the name of that earlier film, because citing it might serve as a spoiler for The Vanished — you’ll know precisely what sort of twist to look for.) The older movie played things straight and its surprise ending was a memorable shock to the system.

The Vanished, however, veers repeatedly into camp territory. Some lead characters are downright goofy (are we witnessing bad acting or bad dialogue?). Sadly, this bizarro-world tone worked as a spoiler and allowed me to predict “The Big Twist” well before its emergence. But the journey to that twist was never boring and was entertaining in a guilty-pleasure kind of way. Release: 2020  Grade: B-

 

Bonus Cheesecake

 

Aleksei Archer (above left with Anne Heche) plays a supporting role in The Vanished, that of a camping neighbor who is continually ogled by Thomas Jane while she is in various stages of undress. We are all about advancing the careers of aspiring starlets, so please enjoy these pics of Aleksei’s assets:

 

 

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by Tana French

 

What to say about the ambiguous ending when it pops up in books and movies? Some people like it, others are outraged. I happen to think that when it works, it can be brilliant. Case in point:  1974’s Black Christmas, in which the audience never finds out who the killer is. Hey, isn’t that what sometimes happens in real life? But when the ambiguous ending does not work, well … heavy sigh.

French’s debut novel gives us not one but two mysteries, one about a cold case involving some missing children, the second about a recently murdered girl. If you expect that by the end of the book you will have satisfying answers to both mysteries, well, French does provide one resolution.

Another issue:  The author’s decision to go with first-person narration by one of the protagonists, a male cop, doesn’t always pan out. It occasionally comes off like a female writer’s idea of how the straight man’s thought processes work. For example:  Reflecting on a recent romantic conquest, our man doesn’t think of the actual act; he ponders his lover’s hair, or some such thing. Nice try, but no cigar.

For the most part In the Woods is a compelling read. French is a talented writer whose prose I enjoyed, and I was never bored. Yet that ending simply feels like a cop-out.

 

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Knock Knock

 

Normally in movies like Knock Knock, director Eli Roth’s (sort of) home-invasion thriller starring Keanu Reeves and two young beauties, the audience has someone to root for. I couldn’t find anyone I liked in this mash-up of Fatal Attraction and Lolita; I pretty much wanted everyone to go down. Which removes a lot of the suspense from a suspense film.

Architect Reeves and his artist wife represent the Southern California 5 Percent, a vapid couple with perfect house, perfect kids, and perfect dog. Genesis and Bell (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas), who inveigle their way into Reeves’s house when his wife and kids are gone, represent entitled young people. When it turns out that the girls have something more sinister in mind than just sex, the battle begins. Like I said, I didn’t care who won.

But it’s competently directed, and the performances of Izzo and de Armas are spot-on chilling. Izzo, by the way, was Roth’s real-life wife at the time. Judging from the amount of skin she displays in this and other Roth productions like The Green Inferno and Aftershock, the couple seemed intent on becoming this decade’s answer to Brian De Palma and Nancy Allen.  Release: 2015   Grade: C+

 

Above, Izzo gives her all for director Roth and actor Reeves.

 

**

 

The Social Dilemma

 

“Everything in moderation.” 

 

(I didn’t attribute the above quote because if you do a search on it, you’ll find that it’s credited to everyone from the Apostle Paul to Oscar Wilde to Jimmy Smits. In other words, it’s like everything else on the Internet: untrustworthy.)

 

To me, The Social Dilemma is most powerful in its last half hour. Until that point, the Netflix documentary offers nothing particularly new. It’s a critique of the power of advertising on human psychology, something we’ve known about for a long time, especially since the advent of TV. But in the final third of Dilemma, when the film depicts the impact of Facebook et al. on countries like Myanmar, the Philippines and, yes, the United States, and how their misuse can undermine democracy and the very social fabric, well, that’s the frightening part.

Google, Facebook, Twitter, and their media cousins care only about attracting eyes and keeping them. If that means sensational clickbait and fake news that leads us to tear each other to shreds, oh, well. We can’t say we didn’t “like” it.  Release: 2020  Grade: A-

 

**

 

The Invisible Man

 

The best parts of this retelling of H.G. Wells’ science-fiction novel reminded me of the basement scene near the end of The Silence of the Lambs. Imagine Clarice Starling hunting and being hunted by an invisible foe – but in this case many times over the course of a two-hour film. That’s the predicament faced by Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man, in which a violent ex uses invisibility to stalk and torment her. Much of what transpires doesn’t pass the logical smell test, but then it is a movie called The Invisible ManRelease: 2020 Grade: B+

 

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Edited by Sun Yung Shin

 

I’m not going to pretend that I have any special knowledge about how to improve race relations in this country. But I do think a good place to start is by reading books like this, in which an old white boy like myself (born and raised in Minnesota) hears the stories of people of color who also live here. Editor Shin compiled 16 essays written by Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans who are either lifelong Minnesotans or transplants to the state, all of them hoping to break through the stereotype of “Minnesota Nice” to take a deeper, often troubling, look at what makes this region tick.

As you might expect from any compilation of essays, some of the stories are more resonant than others. One essay, “Disparate Impacts,” left me thinking, “This isn’t particularly good. The author isn’t very skilled or talented, and she is blaming systemic racism for her own personal failings.” Another essay, “People Like Us,” had me thinking, “This guy really nails it. ‘Minnesota Nice’ is a misnomer; it’s actually ‘Minnesota Polite’ laced with passive-aggressiveness.”

But most of the stories left this impression: “Wow. I had no idea.”

 

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by Sidney Lumet

 

We often hear movie directors described as artists (the good ones) or box-office kings (all too often, the bad ones). But I think that the best of them might better be described as superb “craftsmen.” They don’t just mold the story and the actors; they are on top of every technical detail. Think of Alfred Hitchcock — or Sidney Lumet.

Making Movies is a great book for film students and film nuts (people like me). It is not for you if you are seeking juicy gossip about celebrities. You’ll also be disappointed if you are interested in biographical information about Lumet. Other than a few brief mentions of his wife, there is next to no personal data.

But Lumet, who died in 2011, directed some of my all-time favorite films, including Fail Safe, The Verdict, Dog Day Afternoon and Running on Empty. Behind-the-scenes details about any of those gems are catnip to me. This book is loaded with them.

Some of Lumet’s observations about the trials and tribulations of making films are dated, because this was published in 1996, long before digital movies and streaming services like Netflix became commonplace. But what hasn’t changed is the passion and devotion to a single goal common to most great movies — and great moviemakers. For that sort of thing, this is a book for you.

 

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