Category: Books, Movies, TV & Web

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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by Neil Gaiman

 

Fantasy, or “magical realism” when the story is aimed at adults, is not my favorite literary genre. For instance, I was unmoved by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s much-praised, magical-realism-infused One Hundred Years of Solitude. But there are exceptions to my rule.

I find that if I like this kind of stuff, it’s usually because the tale is told from a child’s point of view (or an adult recalling his or her childhood). That’s what I liked about the Harry Potter books, or Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Gaiman’s short novel is a mashup of childhood nostalgia (To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind) and terrors triggered by something out-of-this-world (as in Something Wicked). Ocean’s narrator, now middle-aged, recalls his 7-year-old self encountering a trio of magical female neighbors. The women help him fend off all manner of demons, both fantastic and all-too-real.

Perhaps I’m just an unimaginative, jaded adult, but I enjoyed the book for its circa 1960s nostalgia. Not so much for its magical mumbo jumbo.

 

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by Stuart Turton

 

I can only imagine the time and effort that went into the crafting of this story, in which the hero finds himself charged with solving a murder but with a bizarre handicap: Every time he wakes up, he’s inhabiting a new body, and this new person is also charged with solving and/or preventing death at an old English mansion.

The plot involves too many characters to remember, endless time shifts, and the ever-problematic concept of time travel. Oh, and there is also the body swapping. I get weary just trying to describe it.

I do admire Turton’s self-imposed challenge and his ability, I guess, to successfully weave such an intricate web. But was all that trouble worth it, from a reader’s perspective?

Well, yes and no. Early on, I had to decide whether the book was time-consuming piffle, or if I should just go with the flow. I am predisposed to enjoy murder mysteries, so I chose the latter. There are entertaining, action-packed sequences. But because of that labyrinthine, head-scratching plot, reading the novel was often more chore than fun.

 

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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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I wouldn’t presume to call this a “review” of the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution, any more than I would attempt to “review” the King James Bible. But since I finally got around to reading these historic documents (the book includes the Bill of Rights), let me make a few humble observations:

 

1:  No wonder American society is a mess. The problem is the English language. Nearly every word we use is subject to interpretation — including the words penned by the Founding Fathers. If we could all agree on the meanings of “just,” or “benefit,” or “inalienable rights,” wouldn’t life be peachy keen? Alas, we are an argumentative bunch. 

2:  If we take the original documents at face value, our country is, evidently, saturated with constitutional violations. They say history is written by the winners; constitutional law is all too often defined by those in power. Our judicial system, charged with deciphering the Constitution, is just as susceptible to prejudice as the rest of us.

3:  Those old boys in the 18th century did their best with what they had. So far as I can tell, no other country has done better.

 

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by Anand Giridharadas

 

I wanted to know more about the economic and political forces that drove us to this tumultuous moment in time. But I didn’t want to read more Trump, Trump, Trump. And so I chose Giridharadas’s book, published in 2018, about 1 Percenters and aspiring 1 Percenters and their role in creating our current mess.

I like Giridharadas’s approach to income inequality and what it’s led to: rising populism and social turmoil. Rather than interview politicians and the losers of this economic war — as so many journalists do — Giridharadas grills the “winners” and lets their own words condemn them. Each of them claims a desire to do public good, but nearly all of them find reasons to justify the big-picture status quo, which just happens to let them continue to do well.

Ultimately, the book is about rationalization. It details the decades-long shift of big business from community partners to enthusiastic globalists. It explains how throwing crumbs to the hometown public through so-called public initiatives allows the elites to sleep at night. The author’s interview with wealthy heir/philanthropist Laurie Tisch is telling:

Tisch:  “The people who get to take advantage of the system, why would they really want to change it? They’ll maybe give more money away, but they don’t want to radically change it.”

Giridharadas:  Was there anything she could imagine that would convince them otherwise?

Tisch:  “Revolution, maybe.”

 

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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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