Category: Books, Movies, TV & Web

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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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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