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Review: Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal

We’re all familiar with the celebrity-driven headlines: “Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman Busted for Paying Beaucoup Bucks to get their Kids into Prestige Colleges!” But they weren’t alone. Dozens of rich parents whose names you’ve never heard of were doing the same. All aided by a sleazebag named Rick Singer who built a lucrative career as an expert manipulator of a college admissions system all too eager to make exceptions and turn a blind eye – if the price was right. There’s plenty of blame and shame to go around.

Review: The Dig

I’ll be the first to admit that I had no idea where Sutton Hoo was or that it was the site of one of the great archeological finds of the 20th century. But watching The Dig certainly placed it in my lexicon. Cary Mulligan stars in this “based on a true story” period drama. She’s Edith Pretty, a young widow with a young son who lives on an estate near a village called Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, England. It’s 1939 and Britain is just being drawn into the war when she hires Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes, Harry Potter, The Grand Budapest Hotel) to excavate some ancient burial mounds on her property. He’s a local man, self-taught, but very knowledgable about archeology. He thinks the mounds could be Anglo-Saxon, but the local museum experts laugh at the idea. They don’t laugh for long.

Review: The Midnight Sky

Not sure what George Clooney thought he was making, but this post-apocalyptic drama is a slog. In it a heavily bearded Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) is left behind at an arctic research outpost by choice after everyone else evacuates. He’s got only one goal and that is to alert Sully and the rest of the astronauts on a distant space mission that they can’t come back to earth because an unnamed disaster has made it uninhabitable. But he can’t reach them. And then he finds a cute little girl named  Iris (Caoilinn Springall) who’s been left behind and the two of them have to make it to another research station across the unforgiving frozen landscape to get to a stronger antenna. Meanwhile, up in space Sully (Felicity Jones) and her crew that consists of her husband Tom (David Oyelowo), Sanchez (Demian Bichir), Maya (Tiffany Boone), and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler) are happily heading home from a mission to scout out a habitable planet, oblivious to what’s happened back home, but growing more concerned each day that they aren’t able to reach NASA – or anyone else for that matter.

Review: Mank

Lovers of Old Hollywood rejoice. David Fincher (Fight Club, The Social Network) has served up a beautiful black-and-white ode to Tinsel Town’s power players and their behind the scenes machinations. Set in the 1930’s and 40s, Mank is the story of the writing of Orson Welles’ debut masterwork Citizen Kane by the alcoholic, bedridden hack Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). His friendship with William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance, “The Crown”, “Game of Thrones”) and his partner Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried, First Reformed, Mamma Mia) was the basis for the film and their relationship is the backbone of Fincher’s. And as Mankiewicz writes from his bed out in the desert, he reflects back on the past decade of his life when he was a frequent guest at Hearst mansion, tolerated for years despite his loutish behavior because he was so amusing.

Netflix Picks: The Life Ahead for a good cry; Other stuff for escapist fluff

I helped myself to a triple serving of Netflix this week and I got it all – a healthy protein, (The Life Ahead), a tasty side dish filled with empty calories (The Princess Switch: Switched Again) and a  dessert (Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey) that was good, if not particularly memorable. The Italian drama The Life Ahead is the strongest of the three – by far. But each has its place, depending on your mood. In a nutshell, The Princess Switch sequel is for everyone who saw the 2018 Christmas romcom starring Vanessa Hudgens in a dual role. This time around, she plays three lookalike characters. It’s easy breezy fluff. Jingle Jangle has a bit more heft as a family-friendly Christmas musical fantasy film with a congenial cast and fantastical set and wardrobe. And The Life Ahead has legendary actress Sophia Loren in her first feature film role in a decade. At 86, she’s still got it.

Review: Operation Christmas Drop

Operation Christmas Drop had me rethinking my somewhat harsh rebuke of Holidate which seems to be doing just fine on Netflix without my endorsement. At least Holidate evoked a reaction. Operation Christmas Drop just… is what it is. A “feel good” holiday romcom devoid of “feels.” There’s nothing particularly terrible about it; it’s simply flat and unaffecting, and the two leads lack the kind of chemistry or cheesy sap that ropes millions into marathon viewings of Hallmark and Lifetime Christmas movies this time of year. There are literally dozens of new offerings coming down the pike, so you may want to wait for those.

Review: The Social Dilemma

Let’s say I write up a quick review on this documentary about the double-edged sword that is social media, search engines and our addiction to smart phones. And then I post the review to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Then you like, comment, or share it (wishful thinking, perhaps). And then you start getting ads and posts relating to what you commented on. And like-minded friends (and maybe a few strangers) weigh in on what you liked, commented on, or shared. And then you start getting all sorts of similar posts and ads relating to the subject matter of this review.

That, in a nutshell, is the point of The Social Dilemma, available now on Netflix. We apparently are all puppets on a social string, manipulated by a small number of engineers in Silicon Valley tasked with monetizing all those “free” services and platforms we devote “x number of hours” to on a daily basis. Cue the alarm emoji!

Quickie Review: Love, Guaranteed

The only thing guaranteed about Love, Guaranteed is that you’ll barely remember watching it. In fact, I almost forgot to write this review. As Netflix original romcoms go, this one is just plain weak. The premise seems engaging enough: An earnest do-gooder of a lawyer named Susan (Rachael Leigh Cook) desperately needs to pay some bills to keep her small office afloat. So she agrees to take the case of Nick (Damon Wayans Jr.), a charming, high-paying client (Damon Wayans Jr.) determined to sue a dating website for fraud. He’s followed all the rules, and the fine print – going on at least 1,000 dates (“breakfast, lunch and dinner”) – but alas, no love match. He not only wants his money back – he wants damages as well. To the tune of, say, one-million dollars. Or at least a half-million. Certainly not the piddly 100k the site owner (Heather Graham) is willing to shell out to settle the case. As if you can really put a price on love anyway!

Review: The Old Guard

In the mood for a superhero action movie? Historical fiction? A supernatural flick? A war drama? Sci-fi/fantasy? A message movie? A hint of romance? A high-octane, double-dose of girl power? The Old Guard is all of the above. It stars Charlize Theron as Andy (aka Andromache of Scythia), the leader of a small army of immortal, centuries-old mercenaries who land in the present-day crosshairs of an ex-CIA operative and a cartoonishly evil big pharma CEO motivated by profits.

Review: The Half of It

If you’re looking for a light as air romantic comedy, Netflix has you covered with its latest Cyrano de Bergerac retread. In this version, set in a Pacific Northwest high school, a Chinese-American girl with prodigious verbal gifts agrees to ghostwrite a love letter for an inarticulate jock to a beautiful girl who becomes the object of both their desires. It’s a sweet version of the old story and surprisingly charming.