Category: Books, Movies, TV & Web

by Jeanine Cummins

 

American Dirt is nothing if not controversial, what with its white, European-American author telling the tale of a middle-class Mexican woman whose life is upended — to put it mildly — and who chooses to make a harrowing journey from Acapulco to Arizona with her eight-year-old son in tow. Illegally.

The book’s critics say Cummins took pains to make the story palatable for American readers, and that her heroine, Lydia, is an unrepresentative, atypical immigrant. The critics might be right. What the hell do I know?

The novel was a bestseller last year. But all hell broke loose upon its publication.

The uproar over Dirt brings to mind James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which came under fire for being hyped as a memoir when, in fact, it was fiction. Fact-based or fabricated, Frey had written a remarkable book. Pieces was a marketing failure, not a writing failure.

I can only comment on what I read in American Dirt, and as a work of fiction, it’s a superb thriller.

As for the novel’s politics, yes, it is very one-sided, very pro-immigrant and pro-immigration. There is even one none-too-subtle jab at Trump. But immigration is a huge story, with many subplots.

Someone else could write an equally moving, largely anti-immigration story, I’m sure. A story about an illegal immigrant, a career criminal who wreaks havoc on a small American border town, for example.

American Dirt simply isn’t that story.

 

© 2010-2021 grouchyeditor.com (text only)

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Searching

 

I was wary of Searching because it’s a gimmick movie. Like Unfriended and films of that ilk, the entire story is told from the perspective of a screen — computer screen, cell-phone screen, security footage, you name it. I’m not a fan of the screencast genre because, among other annoyances, I find myself triggered to “interact.” I feel like I should be clicking on buttons or highlighting text. Too much work.

But like the much-maligned found-footage genre, if the screenplay is clever and the direction is skilled, screencast movies can work. Searching succeeds because the gimmick never becomes outlandish, and the script contains several surprises and one nice twist.

Oh yeah, the plot: A widower undergoes every parent’s nightmare when his teenage daughter goes missing. Then he undergoes every technophobe’s nightmare: enduring all those screens to retrace her steps.  Release: 2018  Grade: B+

 

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by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

 

Here’s the thing about current-affairs books — they tend to have a short shelf life. What was eye-opening in 2018 can feel ho-hum today. If you happen to be a news junkie, like me, reading The Coddling of the American Mind in 2021 feels like revisiting old news, even though the book is just a few years old.

And yet that’s a compliment to the authors. So much of what they describe in Coddling — concepts that seemed fresh in 2018 — is now omnipresent on media news outlets. That’s a testament to their powers of persuasion.

What Lukianoff and Haidt describe (in case you haven’t guessed from the title) is the concept of “safetyism” and its harmful effects on society in general, and schools in particular. Safetyism, they claim, is introduced by over-protective parents, continued by college administrators, and then spread throughout the greater society. Hence, the “snowflake.” Hence, social problems galore.

But you probably already knew that. You, like me, should have read this book in 2018.

 

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The Trip

 

I’m not normally a fan of gross-out humor, which is too often witless and juvenile. And I’m not attracted to gore, which I find a bore. So why am I recommending Norway’s The Trip, which is loaded with gross-outs and gore? Because when done right it can be funny, and The Trip is a black comedy that made me LOL — an event so rare for me that when it does happen, I simply must praise the film.

Noomi Rapace and Aksel Hennie play a married couple who are ostensibly taking a relaxing holiday trip to their lakeside cabin. But peace and prosperity are not in their cards. The plot starts out like The War of the Roses, but then … shit happens. Literally. To say more would be a spoiler, so I’ll shut up now. Release: 2021 Grade: B+

 

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I just finished watching There’s Someone Inside Your House on Netflix. In some ways, the movie was comforting. It’s nice to know that 40 years after I was first exposed to this kind of junk, young people are still transfixed by slasher movies in which other young people get slashed.

On the other hand, watching the flick was dispiriting. Since the 1970s, movies like this nearly always featured nubile young starlets getting naked. This was done, presumably, to cater to the lust of males in the audience — not to mention the leering producers and crew on set.

No such luck in There’s Someone Inside Your House. The movie certainly has nubile young starlets, including final girl/star Sydney Park (pictured above). But no one shows skin. (As a consolation for horny males, Park does treat us to tits and ass in her Instagram posts. See below.)

 

 

But I miss the gratuitous skin in teen slasher flicks — or, for that matter, in sex comedies. Everyone involved back then seemed to understand that bare-naked actresses were not essential to the plot, but they got naked anyway. And if this was degrading to the actress, well, she wasn’t held at gunpoint. She got paid. Like starlet Karen Wood in this shamelessly gratuitous — some would say humiliating — scene from 1985’s Screwballs II (originally titled Loose Screws):

 

Karen Wood

 

“I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille.”

 

Not just bare-breasted, but groped as well.


In addition to the cluster of actors, there would also be an off-camera crew taking in the action.


 

The end of the gratuitous nude scene in mainstream movies — what caused this cultural calamity? Was it overzealous feminists? Harvey Weinstein? An Internet where the most disgusting and dehumanizing pornography is just one click away, and a cultural desire to compensate for that by sanitizing mainstream fare? All of the above?

Depending on how despondent we become thinking about the demise of the gratuitous nude scene, we might or might not make this an ongoing category at The Grouchy Editor. We have nostalgia for movies and starlets who knew that what they were doing was naughty — but did it anyway.

 

Karen makes a dash for the exit.

 

Sydney shows us the back door.

 

© 2010-2021 grouchyeditor.com (text only)

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The Voyeurs

 

Here’s the thing about stupid erotic thrillers: If the movie can manage to keep me entertained, I am willing to forgive any number of gaping plot holes, ridiculous twists, and bad acting. So long as the filmmakers don’t take their movie too seriously, neither will I.

Amazon’s The Voyeurs is certainly guilty of the three cinematic sins listed above, but I kept watching for several reasons: 1)  I’m a sucker for movies that take their inspiration from Hitchcock and De Palma, and Voyeurs, in which our heroes make the mistake of spying on their sexy, intriguing neighbors, does exactly that. 2)  The twist ending is unbelievable, sure, but rather than try to hide that unfortunate fact, Voyeurs embraces it. 3)  Star Sydney Sweeney (pictured above), totally unconvincing as a respected optometrist, is utterly convincing as a woman with spectacular boobs.

And Ben Hardy, as the charismatic villain, proves that at least one member of the cast can act.  Release: 2021 Grade: B-

 

Natasha Liu Bordizzo, left, also gets naked.

 

**

 

The Vast of Night

 

Don’t go into The Vast of Night expecting Spielbergian spectacle, a la Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Do go in expecting — dare I say it? — a more realistic depiction of what a visit from space aliens might be like, should the creatures decide to drop in on a small New Mexico town in the late 1950s. Simple, straightforward, and above all, atmospheric as hell, this little film is a creepy gem. Release: 2019 Grade: A-

 

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by Neal Gabler

 

Gabler spent years researching and writing this mammoth biography of the man who, arguably, influenced 20th-century American culture more than anyone else. And Gabler’s painstaking work clearly shows in the finished book. Disney, a notorious workaholic, would possibly approve. I say “possibly” because the man who gave us Mickey Mouse, Snow White, and Disneyland was also a notorious perfectionist.

I have a few of my own nitpicks, along with some praise:

 

Pros:

 

It felt as though two-thirds of the book dealt with two subjects — the creation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the creation of Disneyland. Along with Mickey Mouse, these were Disney’s milestone achievements, so the attention is welcome and warranted.

Gabler’s biography seems fair and balanced. Over the years, Disney has been accused of sanitizing pop culture by removing its edge. He has also been charged with anti-Semitism, racism, and other isms. Gabler addresses those charges, albeit not at great length, and doesn’t shy from depicting Disney warts and all.

 

Cons:

 

I don’t know about you, but what most interests me about Walt Disney is his creative life. Unfortunately, the bulk of Triumph seems more attuned to business majors. There are endless pages about recalcitrant bankers, potential investors, striking employees, and other finance-related matters. You get the sense that Disney was less a creative visionary than a committed capitalist. If so, it was out of necessity rather than desire.

It would have been nice to have more detail about Disney the private man. But really, I got the impression that the man who led “the triumph of the American imagination” was, in day-to-day life, a bit dull. No carousing or womanizing or politics or scandal of any sort. He comes off as someone you’d admire, but probably not care to socialize with.

 

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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

 

I had low expectations for this Hollywood-machine product. Big budget, special effects, and movie stars slumming for large paychecks, I assumed. Well, what a pleasant surprise: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is no cinematic masterpiece, but it is clever and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan and Jack Black play teens who, thanks to a magical video game, find themselves transported into a deadly race in the heart of a jungle — and into the bodies of adult avatars. (In one case, this means a teen girl inhabiting the body of a portly middle-aged male.) It’s all very silly, sure, but it’s also fast-paced and crowd-pleasing. The only drawback is a villain who is generic and bland. Release: 2017 Grade: B+

 

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Contagion

 

For about an hour, Contagion is superb: eerily prescient, educational, and a first-rate thriller. Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 drama about a killer virus that originates in China and then spreads worldwide pushes a lot of emotional buttons, in no small part because it so accurately predicts much of what COVID 19 hath wrought. Soderbergh ratchets up the tension as health officials race to find the source of the virus and then, hopefully, to produce a vaccine.

Yet the second half of the movie is oddly anti-climactic. As the story shifts to less-than-compelling subplots involving those health officials and regular folk, the suspense peters out. Release: 2011 Grade: B

 

**

 

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

 

The gist: A young girl and her pals discover an old book that conjures monsters bent on avenging injustices perpetrated by the citizens of tiny Mill Valley. I realize I’m not the target audience for this movie, which could be described as Nancy Drew meets Guillermo del Toro (he’s a producer and writer). The target audience would be young teens. But still, it would be nice if Scary’s plot wasn’t so derivative and predictable. You can usually guess what’s going to happen five minutes before it does.

Also, much like its plot, the film’s politics are about as subtle as a severed toe in your stew. Every time someone passes a television (this is 1968), we are reminded just how bad “Tricky Dick” Nixon was. And the chief sin in Mill Valley seems to be a white male population that is 95 percent racist.

On the plus side, the movie does look good (I sense del Toro’s influence), the monsters are amusing, and it isn’t boring — just annoying. Release: 2019 Grade: C

 

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The Hunt

 

Is it possible to be both entertained and depressed by the same movie? It is, if that movie is The Hunt, the controversial “elites vs. deplorables” thriller from last year.

A plot synopsis — rich “elites” kidnap and hunt poor “rednecks” — can be misleading at best, harmful at worst. I got the blues during the film’s opening scenes because, satire or not, the story was too credible: There really are progressives and conservatives who would like to kill each other. Is that what passes for entertainment these days?

But for a Hollywood product, this movie ain’t what you might expect. And Betty Gilpin might be the best female action hero since the Alien films gave us Ellen Ripley. Release: 2020 Grade: B+

 

**

 

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

 

Ask a modern-day movie fan to name the most important (or best) family-oriented film of the 1930s, and chances are that he or she will cite The Wizard of Oz. But to Depression-era audiences, the biggest gobsmack of the decade was probably Walt Disney’s Snow White, which predates Oz by two years. Filmgoers had never seen anything like it: a feature-length, Technicolor, animated motion picture.

I hadn’t watched Snow White in many years, but I’m reading a biography of Disney, so now seemed like a good time to revisit the fairy-tale classic. Two things stood out for me: The story is likely a feminist nightmare, with Snow White’s fondest desire being to marry a prince and move into his castle. Not to mention her three prized attributes: cooking, cleaning, and physical beauty. But as an artistic milestone and a tribute to the Disney staff’s blood, sweat and tears (the movie was three years in the making), Snow White was, and remains, a monumental achievement.

(By the way, I can’t be the only one whose favorite character is Grumpy, can I?) Release: 1937  Grade: A

 

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