Category: Reviews in Short

Emily the Criminal

 

Aubrey Plaza starring as the tough-as-nails protagonist in a gritty crime drama? Sure, why not. Writer-director John Patton Ford’s low-budget debut feature is a minor masterpiece of tension, pacing, and unexpected turns. Will novice “dummy shopper” Aubrey learn that crime doesn’t pay, or will she live happily ever after?

Bonus: If you don’t know much about the intricacies of credit-card fraud, the burdens of student-loan debt, or the perils of workplace background checks, you will after watching this gem. Release: 2022 Grade: A-

 

**

 

White Noise

 

As far as I’m concerned, the biggest sin any movie can commit is to be boring. No worries on that count with director Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel.

White Noise is (take your pick) a satire on materialism, a family comedy, a drama about infidelity, or a disaster pic about an “airborne toxic event.” It’s all of those, and the mishmash is at times confusing. But Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, as (gasp!) intellectual Ohioans dealing with all the above, keep things interesting. Release: 2022 Grade: B+

 

**

 

The Motive

 

I really like the premise of this Spanish film: a talentless “little man” catches his successful-author wife cheating on him and then, partly as revenge but also because he believes that he, too, can publish a book, concocts a plan.

Acting on the advice of his writing-class instructor (“write what you know!”), he decides to manipulate the lives of his apartment neighbors so that he can draw on their pain for his novel. After all, since his own life is so drab and depressing, why not tap into theirs?

This great premise is undermined, unfortunately, by a twist-ending that is both underdeveloped and unconvincing. Release: 2017 Grade: B

 

 

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Blindfold

 

When I was a kid, I was infatuated with movies like Arabesque, Charade, and the Matt Helm and Derek Flint series, all of which were heavily influenced by 1960s James Bond movies. These flicks would have girls, gadgets, spies, and romance. The heroes were suave (Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, et al.) and the gals were gorgeous (Sophia Loren, Stella Stevens, et al.). And the Bond offshoots were heavy on humor.

But I had not seen Blindfold, another 1960s Bond homage starring Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale.

Now I have seen it, and I can report that the girls, gadgets, spies, and romance are all there, as are the attractive leads. But I deduct points because, unlike the other films in its genre, Blindfold is a bit too tongue-in-cheek, a bit too silly and slight for its own good. I never felt that the dramatic stakes were high, hence, no tension.

And yet I’m tempted to add points because Cardinale, playing the sister of a kidnapped scientist who teams with psychiatrist Hudson to rescue him … well, these pictures:

 

 

Release: 1966  Grade: B-

 

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I See You

 

Helen Hunt and Jon Tenney play a married couple whose family of three is on the brink due to her infidelity. Meanwhile, the cop-husband is assigned a child kidnapping case, and someone — or something — seems to be haunting their suburban house.

Here’s the thing: I am burning out on “supernatural thrillers,” in which any kind of plot snag can be explained away by magical hocus-pocus of the screenwriter’s choosing. So it was a relief to me when, at the midpoint of this well-shot movie, it became less Poltergeist and more, oh, The Silence of the Lambs, I guess. There is a major plot development that changes everything, and mysterious events are (mostly) satisfactorily explained.

But not everything is satisfying. The script is simply too clever by half, with too many coincidences and “yeah, right” moments for my taste. Release: 2019  Grade: B

 

*

 

Don’t Worry Darling

 

Florence Pugh and Harry Styles are living the life in an experimental town on the West Coast. But lurking beneath the village’s 1950s, Ozzie-and-Harriet facade, something’s rotten in the state of California.

Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling is thought-provoking, well-made, and well-acted. It was considered a disappointment upon release earlier this year. Why is that?

I suspect it’s a matter of bad timing. Darling’s none-too-subtle message — The patriarchy is bad! Women are victims! — is propaganda we’ve been bludgeoned with for years now (thanks, The Handmaid’s Tale), and half the country isn’t having it. We’ve seen enough of Hillary and Nancy and Maxine to know that our problems aren’t strictly gender-related; they are power- and corruption-related. Laying responsibility solely on one sex doesn’t cut it.

But Wilde has made an entertaining movie and deserves kudos for that. I deduct points only for the plot’s lack of originality (The Stepford Wives, anyone?) — and for the politics of bad timing. Release: 2022  Grade: B+

 

*

 

Smile

 

Here’s an example of the triumph of marketing over substance. In the trailers for Smile, we learn that people inexplicably develop an evil smile right before something dreadful happens. We also see a clip of a truly frightening scene in which a woman runs up to the window of a waiting car and …

Little did I know, when I watched the ads, that those rictus-grins and the car scene are the only high points of this derivative, ponderous movie. We follow a nervous wreck of a mental-health therapist (Sosie Bacon) as she navigates a series of deaths involving the smilers — and a barrage of annoying “jump scares” that do little to disguise how lame the story is.

I suppose if I were 12 and Smile was my first horror movie, I might enjoy it. But I am not, and I didn’t. Release: 2022  Grade: C-

 

*

 

Nope

 

Filmmaker Jordan Peele’s career path is beginning to resemble that of M. Night Shyamalan — not necessarily a good thing. Both directors had early success (The Sixth Sense; Get Out), followed up with decent, if not spectacular, outings (Unbreakable; Us), and then chose a UFO/alien theme for movie number three (Signs; Nope).

Peele and Shyamalan, with their heavy reliance on twists, were both hailed as the second coming of Rod Serling. Peele, of course, injects social commentary into his films; Shyamalan, not so much.

Nope starts out well enough, with a suspenseful buildup as we learn that something scary is in the sky out west. But the second half of the film is a mess. It’s all nonsensical behavior and so-so special effects as brother-and-sister horse trainers (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) do battle with … something.

Shyamalan’s Signs wins the battle of the alien movies, hands down. Release: 2022   Grade: C

 

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The Munsters

 

It’s hard to believe that a two-hour homage to a cartoonish 1960s sitcom might be “polarizing,” but hey, this is the age of Twitter. Everything is polarizing. Especially if you are Rob Zombie, a director known for R-rated fare like The Devil’s Rejects and Halloween (2007). Zombie’s fan-base is typically into sex, violence, and gore — but Herman and Lily Munster? Probably not so much.

And yet, who are we to say that Zombie shouldn’t indulge his inner child? The TV series was not exactly Shakespeare, and neither is Zombie’s film, but it is amusing, nostalgic, and (literally) colorful as hell. Would I watch it again? Probably not. Am I glad I watched it once? Sure.

The plot:  Herman (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Lily (Zombie wife/regular Sheri Moon Zombie) meet and want to get married. There is opposition to this idea. And then … oh, hell. The plot doesn’t matter. Corny jokes, goofy-looking monsters, and the good-natured spirit of the TV show are what matter.

Grading a movie like The Munsters is tough. It depends on the audience. I would guess that kids would say Grade: A. I am guessing that most adults would say Grade: B-minus.

Unless, of course, they were expecting sex, violence, and gore.  Release: 2022

 

 

*

 

Vengeance

 

Writer-director B.J. Novak plays a New York podcaster who travels to Texas to investigate the death of a local girl with whom he had a fling. When Novak’s city slicker meets the residents of a west Texas town, ideologies clash, fish-out-of-water humor ensues, and a family drama unfolds. In short, it’s Meet the Parents wrapped up in a murder mystery.

Wikipedia describes the movie this way: “Vengeance is a 2022 American western neo-noir mystery black comedy film.”

By my count, that’s four genres. If that sounds like a bit much, I think it is. By trying to tackle so many themes, Novak dilutes each of them.

Still, Vengeance is thought-provoking and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. It’s certainly an ambitious movie, and I give it an A for effort but, sorry, I can’t go higher than an overall Grade:Release: 2022

 

 

*

 

The Black Phone

 

It’s 1978, and someone driving a black van is kidnapping kids in suburban Denver.

The good:  Black Phone features nice performances from child actors Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw as siblings living in an abusive home. Their relationship reminded me of Jem and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird (aside from the abuse). The 1970s atmosphere is also quite good.

The bad:  In an otherwise cookie-cutter kidnapping movie, it would be wise to have a memorable villain. Alas, Ethan Hawke isn’t likely to make anyone forget Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter. Despite wearing an obligatory serial-killer mask, Hawke oozes all the menace of a fly on the wall.

Release: 2021  Grade: B-

 

*

 

Halloween Ends

 

Halloween ends? Well, the movie’s midsection is certainly endless.

After a nifty opening scene involving a child and his babysitter, the audience spends the next hour (or more) following two troubled and morose young people as they act … troubled and morose. Michael Myers, apparently as bored by this twosome as we are, is nowhere to be seen.

Not so for Jamie Lee Curtis, reprising yet again the beloved scream queen Laurie Strode. You might expect that Laurie, now much older and presumably wiser than when she first encountered Michael Myers, will use her experience and wits to finally triumph over the masked boogeyman.

But this is 2022 and the age of “you go girl” superheroes, and so aging Laurie is asked to dispatch her nemesis, mano a mano, using her brute strength. Because that’s believable.

Sure. OK, whatever. Stupid.

Release: 2022  Grade: C-

 

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Amor Bandido

 

Amor Bandido (Bandit Love) begins like any number of forbidden-love dramas. An older teacher (Romina Ricci) is having an affair with her teenage student (Renato Quattordio), and the two of them decide to run off together. At this point, the only real suspense is wondering how long before we get to see the first sex scene (answer: 27 minutes). But at the midpoint, the movie makes an unexpected shift from taboo-romance to outright thriller, and the genre shift pays off.  Release: 2021 Grade: B

 

 

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Uncharted

 

Here’s the best way to approach a popcorn movie like Uncharted: You switch off your brain and hope the film doesn’t drag, that the special effects are fun, and that the lead actors are amusing. Forget about plot and logic. The flick can be stupid; it cannot be boring.

That’s my excuse for enjoying Uncharted, starring Mark Wahlberg, Tom Holland, and Sophia Ali as squabbling, globetrotting treasure hunters.

The climax features helicopters lifting two ancient ships out of the ocean and into the air and … it’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve seen on the screen. But it wasn’t boring.  Release: 2022  Grade: B-

 

 

The one missing element that prevents Uncharted from achieving classic guilty-pleasure status is movie-star skin. That’s a shame because Sophia Taylor Ali is in the film. As consolation, here is Sophia in a butt-revealing scene from The Wilds:

 

 

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The Deep House

 

The Deep House has a brilliant premise: a young scuba-diving couple explores an underwater haunted house — and all hell breaks loose.

The French-produced, English-language horror flick also boasts impressive direction. Much of it was filmed in a large water tank, into which sections of the artificial house were lowered. The payoff is one creepy shot after another.

Unfortunately, what (ahem) sinks the movie are its annoying protagonists. The boyfriend is exceedingly arrogant and condescending; his lady friend is cowardly and stupid. Much of their dialogue is insipid. I wanted the haunted house to get them both.

I give Deep House an A for effort, but because of those irritating leads and a few script issues, I give the movie itself:  Grade: B-   Release: 2021

 

**

 

The Lost City

 

Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum play, respectively, a romance novelist and a book-cover model who find themselves hunting for treasure on a tropical island. Love and thrills and silliness ensue.

If that sounds a bit like Romancing the Stone, with a dash of The African Queen tossed into the mix, I’m certain the effect was intentional. Lost City, alas, falls short of those earlier romantic-comedies because often it’s just too darned silly for its own good. Tatum’s male model, for example, comes off more like a developmentally challenged adult than a quirky charmer.

But Brad Pitt is hilarious in a supporting role. Release: 2022 Grade: B-

 

Bullock eyeballs Tatum’s taters. Which begs the question: Does his ass make an appearance in all of his movies?

 

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Dashcam

 

My goodness. There sure are a lot of liberal snowflakes masquerading as “film critics” at Rotten Tomatoes. Their verdict on Dashcam star Annie Hardy — both the character she plays and the character she is — is near unanimous. Here are a few excerpts:

 

 

Clearly, they disapprove of Hardy. Even when they approve of the movie itself.

Perhaps I’m just a contrarian, or maybe I enjoy a movie heroine who sticks it to the (woke) mob, but I had no problem with Hardy. Playing a Yank in England who gives a ride to the wrong woman, Hardy is foul-mouthed and crass. But she’s also clever and amusing. In fact, she’s the best thing about the movie, which is otherwise just another routine live-stream/cellphone-cam exercise in cheap thrills. The plot makes no sense and the director substitutes frenzy and gross-outs for genuine suspense and scares.

But to those RT critics, Hardy commits the unpardonable sins of mocking liberals, smoking cigarettes, and belittling virus lockdowns. And masks. And vaccines. She likes Trump. She kicks demon ass.

I liked this girl.  Release: 2021  Grade: B-

 

 

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The Night House

 

As I watch most modern horror movies, I activate my mental timer. How long before this film falls apart? Right off the bat? In the middle? Not until the end? I’m counting because almost all of them go bad, eventually.

There is good news about The Night House, starring Rebecca Hall as a widowed woman who experiences ghostly phenomena at her lake house. The story doesn’t collapse until the final act. Most of the film is creepy and — miracle of miracles — does not insult the intelligence. Also, Hall is quite good as the prickly, plucky widow enduring grief and strange visions.

The bad news is that the film’s denouement, praised or soft-pedaled by many critics, is annoying claptrap. It’s kitchen-sink nonsense in which the viewer is forced to reach his or her own conclusion. Was it ghosts? An alternate universe? A serial killer? Occult forces? All of the above?

I call the ending a cop-out. Or “nothing” much. Release: 2021 Grade: B-

 

**

 

Death on the Nile

 

This follow-up to Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express has a bigger budget and a longer run-time than its predecessor. Not a good thing, on either count.

Apparently, most of the budget went to special effects, rather than actual location filming in Egypt. Again, not a good thing. The movie often drags. Need I mention that’s not a good thing?

Branagh again plays Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, this time charged with solving murders on a steamer in the Nile near Egypt’s famed, ancient landmarks. But Branagh sacrifices something that exists in earlier screen versions of the Christie novel — a sense of fun — in service of a more somber tone and a modern obligation to address racism, sexism, classism, and any other “isms” I might be forgetting. Release: 2022 Grade: B-

 

Armie Hammer, left, with Gal Gadot and her ribs (sorry)

 

**

 

A Quiet Place Part II

 

You sit down to watch a horror movie. The director wants to scare you. You know he wants to scare you. The director knows that you know that he wants to scare you. All this knowledge … and yet he still manages to scare you. That’s the sign of a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing.

A Quiet Place Part II is that rarest of sequels, a follow-up that’s just as good as the original. Dad is dead in this one, so it’s up to Emily Blunt and her brood to battle the aliens. It’s just a continuation of the first movie, but who cares when it’s done this well? Release: 2021  Grade: B+

 

**

 

Scream

 

The good news: The “meta” aspect of the Scream franchise hasn’t grown stale in this fifth installment of the series. Also, it’s still amusing when the filmmakers wink at us by anticipating, and then subverting, our expectations. (There’s someone behind the refrigerator door! No, there isn’t! Yes, there is!)

The bad news: The actual killings and plots have gone stale. They simply aren’t very original or scary. Release: 2022 Grade: C+

 

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The Rental

grouchyeditor.com rental

 

Director Dave Franco’s The Rental is a flawed movie. It’s a “slow-burn” thriller, and slow-burn is often code for “boring until something finally happens.” The plot is predictable and the last act, in which something finally does happen, is not particularly original.

But all of that is nitpicking. The Rental, in which two couples encounter terror at a beach house, is more than anything else skillfully done. The “slow” scenes are absorbing, seductive, and creepy. There is at least one truly scary bit.

There’s a reason that suspense films — unlike, say, romantic comedies or many dramas — are considered a director’s medium. The acting and story can be serviceable, but if the movie works, it’s because the dude behind the camera knew what he was doing. Release: 2020  Grade: B+

 

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