Category: Books, Movies, TV & Web

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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Haunt

Above, frightened young people in Haunt

 

Wait …

Sorry about that. That picture is from a GEICO commercial.

 

Above, frightened young people in Haunt

 

I was relieved when Haunt did not open with an aerial shot of young people in a van driving through the country, because way too many horror flicks begin with an aerial shot of young people in a van driving through the country. Alas, my hopes were dashed some 30 minutes later when — you guessed it — young people in a van drive through the country. At night. On their way to an “extreme” haunted house.

I liked the premise of this movie because it’s simple, like most horror movies should be. Terror at a haunted house. If it was good enough for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it should be good enough for Haunt.

But once our heroes arrive at the spooky joint, I was instead reminded of the GEICO commercial in which clueless kids run from a chainsaw-wielding maniac — rather than hop in a running car and simply drive away. In Haunt, our heroes encounter a gang of deranged people who, for reasons that are never explained, decide it would be fun to create an elaborate maze with which to terrorize random young people.

I began clock-watching — always a bad sign — to see how much longer the movie would last. At least the Geico commercial was only 30 seconds long.  Release: 2019  Grade: C-

 

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#Alive

 

If you’re an apartment dweller who lives alone (like me), you don’t get to see many movies that take place in, well, your kind of place. There was Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, of course, but most films seem to be set in creepy houses (horror movies) or sunny, single-family homes (everything else).

So I was attracted to the premise of #Alive, a new zombie flick from Korea in which a young man wakes up to discover that the world outside his upper-floor apartment is overrun by snarling brain-eaters. This isn’t as entertaining as the similar-themed I Am Legend or Korea’s manic Train to Busan, but it will do on a lonely Saturday night. Release: 2020 Grade: B

 

 

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by Julie Schumacher

 

Don’t be misled, as I was, by the blurbs describing Schumacher’s book as a “biting satire” about university politics. The stakes in Shakespeare are too slight (or are treated that way). There isn’t a serious page to be found. It’s more Three Stooges than Catch-22: “verbal slapstick,” I’d call it – but I mean that as a compliment.

I haven’t been this pleasantly surprised by a comic novel since I discovered Janet Evanovich’s One for the Money 15 years ago. Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels and their assortment of New Jersey oddballs are somewhat less-sophisticated cousins to Schumacher’s collection of scholars at “Payne University.”

In most novels with a large ensemble of characters, I inwardly groan whenever the action shifts to some of them. There are always at least a few people who bore or irritate me, and I grow impatient to get back to the characters I really care about. Not so with Shakespeare. Every teacher, student, or staff member Schumacher introduces is a comic delight. 

 

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We Summon the Darkness

 

In old-school slasher flicks, the psychos were usually male and their victims were often female. But this is the post “Me Too” era, and so in We Summon the Darkness the roles have reversed. (OK, so that was a twist spoiler; but it’s not much of a twist.) Yet one thing hasn’t changed over the years: Old-school slashers were generally ridiculous, and that certainly holds true with this 2019 offering.  It’s well-produced — but not so well-written.

Alexandra Daddario plays the alpha of three female dimwits who hook up with three equally dimwitted boys for a night of drinking and games at her parents’ isolated house. Bad things happen. You know the drill. Release: 2019 Grade: C-

 

Sidebar:

Alexandra Daddario, who stars and is listed as one of the film’s producers, gets to flex her acting chops in We Summon the Darkness. I hadn’t seen Daddario in anything since 2014’s True Detective, in which she memorably flexed a few other things (see below).

 

 

The video clip:

 

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by Soji Shimada

 

I guess you could call Shimada Japan’s answer to Agatha Christie, but I wouldn’t put him in Dame Agatha’s league. Crooked House is a locked-room murder mystery with all of the usual ingredients: an isolated group of suspects, most of whom have something to hide, but not necessarily murder; an eccentric detective to amaze everyone with his astounding deductions; and a convoluted, somewhat clever plot.

I say “somewhat” clever because I didn’t buy the resolution to the story, which is more “howdunit” than whodunit. I suppose that, theoretically, it’s possible that the crimes could be committed per Shimada’s plot. But man … it takes a great deal of goodwill on the readers’ part to buy into it.

 

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by Tucker Carlson

 

There’s a good reason that the left keeps targeting Fox News’s Tucker Carlson with advertiser boycotts. Unlike the Fox anchors who follow his nightly show, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, Carlson is neither a lightweight Trump sycophant (Hannity), nor a smug, intellectually lazy yuck (Ingraham). Carlson is sharp, witty – and often right. In short, to the left he’s a formidable threat.

If you watch Carlson’s show (raising my hand), most of what he covers in 2019’s Ship of Fools is old news. His targets are familiar: Obama, environmentalists, illegal immigration, open borders, and … well, most issues that progressives hold near and dear.  But unlike so many of the talking heads out there, Carlson is passionate and persuasive.

 

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Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich

 

I’m trying to decide what I learned after watching the Netflix docuseries Filthy Rich. Most of what’s presented in the four-part series is old news to anyone who followed the Jeffrey Epstein sex scandal. Epstein allegedly lured teen girls with empty promises and small amounts of cash. He enjoyed relationships with high-powered men like Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, and Alan Dershowitz.

We also get obligatory interviews with accusers like Virginia Giuffre, whose connection to Prince Andrew was also well-publicized (see photo above).

In the end, I didn’t so much learn anything as have my old feelings confirmed. If you have enough money and clout, you can pretty much get by with anything — at least until you’re found dead in a jail cell. Release: 2020 Grade: B

 

                         

 

Virginia Giuffre, above left, alleges she was repeatedly forced to be Alan Dershowitz’s (above right) sex toy when she was still a teen.

 

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Accuser Maria Farmer let Epstein see nude pictures of her teen sister Annie, including the bare-breasted painting shown center above. According to the sisters, Epstein molested both of them. At right, Annie Farmer today.

 

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by Steve Almond

 

I suspect that Almond is mostly preaching to the choir with his book about the evils of American football. If you’re already down on football, you’ll cheer him on. If you’re a fan, you’ll view him as a spoilsport.

Either way, it’s difficult to argue with many of his points. Football does cause brain damage; NFL owners do extort taxpayer money for new stadiums; college student-athletes are anything but; etcetera, etcetera.

Some of Almond’s assertions are questionable. On the “homophobia” alleged to be rampant in the NFL, he drags out the stereotype about how players who dislike locker-room showers with gay teammates are actually afraid of their own sexuality. Does that mean that women who prefer not to shower with males are, in fact, afraid of their own sexuality? Is that a flawed comparison?

But football does present a dilemma. Physical aggression is ancient and part of our DNA. I’m not sure what you do about that other than channel it somehow – like through watching football. My take: It’s best to stop supporting high school and college football. As for the pros, they are handsomely paid and they now know what they are getting into.

Watching football is like watching porn: not good for you but still a component of a free society.

 

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Bad Education

 

Bad Education is intellectually rewarding but emotionally bereft, mostly because there are no characters to root for. And yes, that includes the charismatic high-school superintendent played by star Hugh Jackman.

In HBO’s fact-based film about scandal in Roslyn, Long Island, we watch in mounting disgust as the school officials and citizenry of Roslyn prioritize property values and glossy college resumes over other things. Little things like, oh, millions of embezzled taxpayer dollars. That is, until the high-living thieves are caught by an enterprising student journalist.

It’s highly watchable stuff; I just wish I cared more.  Release: 2020 Grade: B

 

**

 

Downton Abbey

 

At the midpoint of this theatrical offshoot of the long-running British TV series, I began to seriously question my taste and judgment: Why on earth had I slavishly watched nearly every episode (52 of them) of this ridiculous soap opera, which aired from 2011 to 2016? In the movie, the king and queen of England are coming to visit the upstairs/downstairs gang at their fancy digs, and I am supposed to care … why?

But here’s the thing. There is a fine line between warm and fuzzy (a good thing) and cloyingly sentimental (a bad thing), and no one is more adept at finding the sweet spot than Downton creator Julian Fellowes. By the time the credits rolled on this — let’s face it – motion-picture cash grab, Fellowes had worked his magic and I was once again sucked in to the hoity-toity hokum. Release: 2019 Grade: B

 

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