Category: Movies

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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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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The Mule

 

In the crotchety-old-man phase of Clint Eastwood’s long career, I prefer his 2008 drama Gran Torino. But The Mule, directed by Eastwood in 2018, is very much a “Clint Eastwood movie.” That means I’m on board.

Eastwood’s Earl Stone is an elderly ne’er-do-well who stumbles into a new career as a “mule” for a Mexican drug cartel. Earl capitalizes on his harmless appearance to transport cocaine and other bad things from state to state.  The question is, how long will his luck hold out?

If you prefer a goofy, affable Eastwood to a cantankerous, retired Dirty Harry — the Eastwood we got in Gran Torino — then Mule may appeal to you more than it did to me.  Release: 2018  Grade: B-

 

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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

 

 

**

 

Yesterday

 

Maybe to some eyes and ears, Yesterday is a bit on the schmaltzy side. To me, it’s simply “old-fashioned.” And these days, when it often feels as if every new film is a downer, filled with cynicism, realism, and snark, old-fashioned comes as a relief. Even if it is a bit schmaltzy.

Himesh Patel is amusing, and Lily James is charming in this romantic fantasy about a musician who, for some unexplained reason, suddenly joins a very exclusive club: a handful of people who remember The Beatles. And Coca-Cola. And cigarettes. Patel introduces John and Paul’s music to the world and subsequently becomes a star in his own right. Or in his own wrong.

Aside from the premise, everything else in Yesterday is familiar. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, boy learns valuable lesson. In the meantime, we hear lots of Beatles songs. I’ll take that kind of old-fashioned any day. 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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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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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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