Category: Reviews in Short

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

 

 

 

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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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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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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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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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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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