Category: Books, Movies, TV & Web

by Edgar Rice Burroughs

 

I’m guessing that, like most casual readers, my knowledge of author Edgar Rice Burroughs can be summed up like this: Oh yeah, the guy who wrote Tarzan books.

Turns out Burroughs was a bit more ambitious than that. Turns out he was quite political. But I digress.

The Moon Maid is part one of a trilogy that Burroughs published in the 1920s. On the surface (pun intended), the story depicts a spaceship crew of five landing on Earth’s satellite and discovering a hidden world of warring creatures living in the moon’s interior. There are good guys and bad guys, and our hero finds love with the titular moon maid, a beautiful princess. Pretty standard stuff, what they used to call “boys’ adventure tales.” At least, that was my impression.

But because I was — and still am, really — ignorant about Burroughs’s political leanings, I’m going to conclude this brief review with a Moon Maid summation lifted from a Web site dedicated to Burroughs’s work:

 

The Moon Maid trilogy, which even the fans of Burroughs must admit is rather crude, blunt, or unpolished compared to his other works, has a larger soul and message: Be Prepared! Beware the Politicians! Do Not Disarm! Avoid Communists! Avoid authoritarian rule! Honor and Love Thy Wife! Struggle Against Dictators! Honor Family and Friends! Love Thy Country! Be Free and Independent! Be willing to Fight for One’s Beliefs!

Burroughs made no bones about his political leanings or his fear for the future — not only for America but the world at large. Or, as others might say, perhaps I’m reading too much into The Moon Maid — after all it might be as simple as ERB [Burroughs] the working man artfully figuring out a way to sell a story which had been rejected.

 

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The Night House

 

As I watch most modern horror movies, I activate my mental timer. How long before this film falls apart? Right off the bat? In the middle? Not until the end? I’m counting because almost all of them go bad, eventually.

There is good news about The Night House, starring Rebecca Hall as a widowed woman who experiences ghostly phenomena at her lake house. The story doesn’t collapse until the final act. Most of the film is creepy and — miracle of miracles — does not insult the intelligence. Also, Hall is quite good as the prickly, plucky widow enduring grief and strange visions.

The bad news is that the film’s denouement, praised or soft-pedaled by many critics, is annoying claptrap. It’s kitchen-sink nonsense in which the viewer is forced to reach his or her own conclusion. Was it ghosts? An alternate universe? A serial killer? Occult forces? All of the above?

I call the ending a cop-out. Or “nothing” much. Release: 2021 Grade: B-

 

**

 

Death on the Nile

 

This follow-up to Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express has a bigger budget and a longer run-time than its predecessor. Not a good thing, on either count.

Apparently, most of the budget went to special effects, rather than actual location filming in Egypt. Again, not a good thing. The movie often drags. Need I mention that’s not a good thing?

Branagh again plays Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, this time charged with solving murders on a steamer in the Nile near Egypt’s famed, ancient landmarks. But Branagh sacrifices something that exists in earlier screen versions of the Christie novel — a sense of fun — in service of a more somber tone and a modern obligation to address racism, sexism, classism, and any other “isms” I might be forgetting. Release: 2022 Grade: B-

 

Armie Hammer, left, with Gal Gadot and her ribs (sorry)

 

**

 

A Quiet Place Part II

 

You sit down to watch a horror movie. The director wants to scare you. You know he wants to scare you. The director knows that you know that he wants to scare you. All this knowledge … and yet he still manages to scare you. That’s the sign of a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing.

A Quiet Place Part II is that rarest of sequels, a follow-up that’s just as good as the original. Dad is dead in this one, so it’s up to Emily Blunt and her brood to battle the aliens. It’s just a continuation of the first movie, but who cares when it’s done this well? Release: 2021  Grade: B+

 

**

 

Scream

 

The good news: The “meta” aspect of the Scream franchise hasn’t grown stale in this fifth installment of the series. Also, it’s still amusing when the filmmakers wink at us by anticipating, and then subverting, our expectations. (There’s someone behind the refrigerator door! No, there isn’t! Yes, there is!)

The bad news: The actual killings and plots have gone stale. They simply aren’t very original or scary. Release: 2022 Grade: C+

 

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by Ethel Lina White

grouchyeditor.com spiral

 

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

That line sums up The Spiral Staircase, Ethel Lina White’s 1933 whodunit that inspired a classic movie starring Dorothy McGuire and Ethel Barrymore.

Staircase is a quintessential “cozy mystery” because it checks all the boxes: the obligatory dark, stormy night; a cast of colorful characters who disappear, one by one, from a creepy mansion; a plucky heroine; numerous shady suspects.

Who is killing young girls in the vicinity of an isolated house? Is it the masculine/feminine nurse? The not-so-bedridden, cantankerous old matron? The playful playboy? Is Helen the servant girl destined to be the next victim?

White might not be in Agatha Christie’s league as a writer, but in terms of giving the reader exactly what he or she wants, The Spiral Staircase is topflight.

 

Film vs. Book:

  • The 1946 Robert Siodmak movie made several improvements to White’s novel — the killer’s motivation, for one. In the film, the murderer seeks to rid the world of “imperfect” women. McGuire’s servant girl is mute; not so in the book. Improbably, the novel’s killer is motivated by some nonsense about overpopulation.
  • The titular spiral staircase is more prominent in the film. The book was originally, more aptly, titled Some Must Watch.
  • Siodmak’s film was clearly an inspiration for director Bob Clark’s 1974 movie Black Christmas (the infamous “eyeball” shot; the killer is in the house!).

 

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The Rental

grouchyeditor.com rental

 

Director Dave Franco’s The Rental is a flawed movie. It’s a “slow-burn” thriller, and slow-burn is often code for “boring until something finally happens.” The plot is predictable and the last act, in which something finally does happen, is not particularly original.

But all of that is nitpicking. The Rental, in which two couples encounter terror at a beach house, is more than anything else skillfully done. The “slow” scenes are absorbing, seductive, and creepy. There is at least one truly scary bit.

There’s a reason that suspense films — unlike, say, romantic comedies or many dramas — are considered a director’s medium. The acting and story can be serviceable, but if the movie works, it’s because the dude behind the camera knew what he was doing. Release: 2020  Grade: B+

 

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by Barry Eisler

 

I guess if you’re a fan of this kind of fiction (I generally am not), you could do worse than the generically titled The Chaos Kind. Or perhaps not.

Stop me if any of this sounds familiar: We meet a tough-guy operative named Dox, a sniper who works for the government and who is very tough. But he is hilarious; so hilarious, in fact, that we are repeatedly reminded of his great wit. We also meet a deaf man who is likewise a hired killer and who is even tougher than Dox. And we meet a hulking man who might be the toughest of them all.

And the women! Oh, my, these members of the killing team might seem girly on the outside, but don’t you dare mess with them. In some ways, they are even tougher than the men!

But not to worry; despite their violent skills, deep down they all have hearts of gold. They like animals, young children, and victims of sexual abuse. In this book, they are out to save the world from a Jeffrey Epstein-like predator/mogul who has videos of powerful men abusing young girls. There are lots of standoffs and shootouts.

Problem is, the characters are all so interchangeable, all so one-dimensional, that reading the book is a mind-numbing waste of time.

 

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Nightmare Alley

 

Critics love movies like this one because they check so many boxes: impressive cinematography, big stars, somber tone, striking art direction, etc.

Let me add a few boxes of my own: Nightmare Alley is too long, there are very few, if any, relatable characters, and did I mention that it’s too damn long?

That’s a bit harsh. As always in any Guillermo del Toro film, the visuals are gorgeous. The subject matter does require a serious tone. And yet ….

I kept comparing the movie to Double Indemnity, another noir about a doomed con man (in Alley, the grifter is played by Bradley Cooper). Fred MacMurray’s insurance agent in Indemnity had a more wrenching downfall because — until he fell into the clutches of femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck — he was an average Joe. He was relatable. Cooper’s con artist is a bad egg from the start, so it’s hard to much care when things go sour for him. Release: 2021 Grade: B

 

**

 

Werewolves Within

 

A small group of local yokels are trapped in a snowbound country inn — and one of them is a surreptitious werewolf. What’s not to like about that setup?

Werewolves is silly and predictable and yes, you’ve seen it all before, but in the hands of director Josh Ruben, it feels fresh and fun. Release: 2021 Grade: B+

 

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The other day at work, a colleague casually mentioned that he’d rewatched the 1972 schlock masterpiece Frogs. That got my attention. I, too, had watched the so-bad-it’s-good horror flick just a few days earlier.

“Did you see it on Svengoolie?” I asked.

His eyes lit up. Of course he had.

 

 

Svengoolie, for the uninitiated, is the name of a long-running, Chicago-based syndicated show that airs Saturday nights on MeTV. My colleague and I are fans. I suspect we have lots of company.

Once a week, a mustachioed, portly vampire with dark circles under his eyes hosts a two-hour retrospective, mostly of B-movies from the 1950s-1970s with an emphasis on science fiction and/or horror. The schlockier the movie, the better.

Svengoolie introduces the films and, during breaks, peppers the show with skits, parody songs, and viewer letters. And puns. Lots of puns. There are occasional guest stars, some of whom you might even recognize:

 

 

The show is aimed at kids, so you won’t find I Spit on Your Grave here. You will, however, find movies like It! The Terror from Beyond Space, Them! and, as I said, Frogs.

Kids come for the funny costumes, the skits, the songs, and the corny puns. But the, ahem, “viewers of a certain age” stay for the trivia. At some point in each episode, Sven provides amusing background on the featured movie’s cast and crew. Last week, during a screening of It! The Terror from Beyond Space, we learned that nearly every member of the cast had guest starred on Perry Mason. (If they didn’t appear on Mason, you can be sure they were on Gunsmoke.)

That might not interest you (or the kids), but it’s catnip to we, ahem, viewers of a certain age.

In the screencap below from Frogs, for example, do you recognize the handsome young man pictured at left?

 

 

Here he is again in a recent photo:

 

 

When my work colleague and I were kids, we didn’t have Svengoolie, or even Elvira. We did, on the other hand, have this magazine:

 

 

Svengoolie preserves the spirit of Famous Monsters of Filmland. I propose we give a hand (literally or not) to Rich Koz, the man behind Svengoolie’s mask. Koz (pictured below) writes every show and performs most, if not all, of the voices. He’s been doing it since 1979.

 

 

Check it out. If you like what you see, you can comment live on Twitter during Saturday night episodes.

And you can even buy a t-shirt. But no personal checks.

 

 

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Ingrid Goes West

 

Aubrey Plaza plays dour and damaged Ingrid, a loser from Pennsylvania who moves west to stalk her idol, an Instagram “influencer” named Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen). Ingrid uses deceit to successfully penetrate Taylor’s inner circle, and hilarity results. Uh, not really.

Ingrid Goes West aspires to be All About Eve for the social-media generation, but there’s a crucial difference. In Eve, the characters were snakes — but snakes with charm and wit. In Ingrid, the characters are snakes, but shallow and witless.

Only in the third act does the movie come to life, when Ingrid sheds her creepy stalker persona and reveals herself to be a genuine human being. Release: 2017  Grade: B

 

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by Julian Sancton

grouchyeditor.com Madhouse

 

Madhouse depicts an amazing, grueling adventure of which I had never heard. Why is that? I suspect that, if ever someone decides to make a movie of this harrowing ordeal, only then will it stick to the public imagination.

In short, what happened was this: In 1897, the converted whaler Belgica set sail from Belgium to Antarctica, hoping to conduct scientific research and make history by penetrating deep into the southern continent. Early in 1898, the ship became wedged in pack-ice. There it sat, crew aboard, for nearly a year.

Sancton relies heavily on officer diaries to describe the frigid nightmare that followed, in particular the words of Frederick Cook, the colorful American who served as ship’s doctor, and the strange Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who would later become a world-famous explorer.

 

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Two

 

A man and a woman, strangers to each other, awaken naked in a bed and discover they have been surgically sewn together at the abdomen. Who would do this to them, and why?

From its synopsis, I expected Spain’s Two to be cheap exploitation, inspired by the cult success of The Human Centipede. But I was mistaken; the movie is neither cheap nor exploitative. Rather than Centipede, the movie it most resembles is Brian De Palma’s Sisters, steeped in psychological horror. At a brisk 71 minutes, the film nevertheless leaves a lasting impression. Release: 2021 Grade: A-

 

 

For those of you intrigued by Two for its more prurient elements — such as naked actress Marina Gatell, 42 — check out 2009’s Little Ashes, below. From her full-frontal shots in Two to her fairly graphic backside exposure in Little Ashes, Gatell clearly places a lot of trust in her directors.

 

Above, Gatell braves cold weather in Two

 

Above and below, Gatell braves the camera’s lens in Little Ashes

 

**

 

Photocopier

 

Such a difficult movie to review. Technically, it’s top-notch. The acting is uniformly excellent, and the direction is flawless, at times even inspired. And yet — to this American — the film’s premise is patently absurd. Or is it?

Shenina Cinnamon plays an Indonesian girl (“Sur”) who, after attending a celebratory party with a group of artists, wakes up the following day and learns that someone took “selfies” of her during the night and posted the embarrassing pictures online.

The movie then becomes a mystery/thriller, with Sur enlisting the aid of anyone she can to find out who did this to her. Her quest makes for compelling drama.

And yet … the selfies are not nudes, nor are they particularly salacious — to my Western eyes. Apparently, in Indonesia relatively tame images are enough to ruin careers and irreparably harm reputations.

One more quibble: I thought the ending was overly artsy and pretentious. At least to my Western eyes. Release: 2021 Grade: B+

 

*

 

 

Unlike starlets from the West, whose social media posts might make Hugh Hefner blush, Indonesian actress Shenina Cinnamon’s posts are indicative of a conservative (repressive?) culture. The pictures above and below are about as provocative as you will find on Cinnamon’s Instagram page.

 

 

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