Happy Easter weekend! I wanted to share a few mini reviews of some films released at the end of March. These movies are all available to watch on Netflix: two documentaries (“The Last Blockbuster” and “Operation Varsity Blues”) and the truly needs to be seen to be believed thriller “Deadly Illusions,” starring Kristen Davis.
“THE LAST BLOCKBUSTER” (Netflix)
I’m a big physical media person. I enjoy owning movies I love on DVD and Blu-ray, and if there was still the option, I’d likely still be renting DVDs too. Before the company declared bankruptcy, I went to Blockbuster all the time. It’s how I saw some of my favorite movies, like the original “Star Wars” trilogy. It’s how I discovered new releases and old classics, just by browsing the aisles. It’s how I binge-watched the first two seasons of “Mad Men” before streaming was a thing, checking out one disc of episodes at a time. Any of us who used to frequent Blockbuster have very specific memories associated with that time. But our personal nostalgia doesn’t necessarily make for a good documentary, and that’s where “The Last Blockbuster” falls on its face. Director Taylor Morden’s film reflects on the rise and fall of the video rental giant, while telling the story of the last remaining Blockbuster store in the world, located in Bend, Oregon. The parts of the film associated with the latter are the most interesting, as we get to know the immensely likeable store manager, Sandi Harding, also known as the Blockbuster Mom, as she fights to keep her store open. But the rest of the film almost completely lacks any substance. There is some commentary (featuring some pretty atrociously corny narration from Lauren Lapkus) on the actual business side of why Blockbuster went bankrupt (it actually had little to do with the rise of streaming services like Netflix, contrary to popular belief), but for the most part, the majority of the documentary’s talking heads are white men reliving their nostalgia and mansplaining the ins and outs of the Blockbuster experience, whether they used to spend their evenings there picking out movies or used to work there and tell customers what they should watch. The film isn’t so much about Blockbuster as it is about memories of a time gone by, and it isn’t well-crafted enough to make that approach interesting to watch. Maybe someday we’ll get a movie about the movie rental store that actually lives up to our memories of it—because there’s a lot more there to talk about beyond “I liked walking up and down the aisles.” Guests include Kevin Smith, Adam Brody, James Arnold Taylor, Ron Funches, Brian Posehn, Doug Benson, and Paul Scheer. Runtime: 86 minutes. Not rated.
“OPERATION VARSITY BLUES: THE COLLEGE ADMISSIONS SCANDAL” (Netflix)
In 2019, the college admission scandal topped U.S. headlines, as it was revealed that numerous wealthy individuals, including actors Lori Laughlin and Felicity Huffman, had paid a man named Rick Singer to get their children admitted into prestigious colleges through such methods as manipulating their test scores, passing them off as star athletes, and paying off people in high places at such institutions. The depth of the scandal is brought to life in the documentary “Operation Varsity Blues,” directed by Chris Smith. The film utilizes an interesting approach to tell its story: experts on the subject, including a couple individuals involved in the scandal, serve as talking heads, interspersed between dramatic reenactments of Singer’s wiretapped phone conversations with clients. Singer (played by Matthew Modine), is a major focus of this film, both to its benefit and detriment. I don’t know that we need to get to know Singer’s personality as much as this film seems to think we do (more focus on the students, many of whom didn’t know their parents were doing this behind their backs, would have been nice), but the documentary still does at least make it clear that even without this web of bribes and cheating going on, the entire college admissions system is broken; Singer’s so-called “side door” to get into Ivy League colleges may now be closed, but the “back door,” through which wealthy parents can make large donations to influence the admission of their children to said school, is still very much accessible. And the heavy use of reenactments is a risk that pays off. The start of the film makes it clear that these conversations are real, not scripted, which makes them all the more shocking. And there is enough narration by real interviewees that transition nicely in between those scenes to make them feel like a coherent part of the narrative, not a distraction or an unnecessary tangent. There’s a lot that “Operation Varsity Blues” still isn’t able to cover, but for those looking for an entertaining primer on the scandal, it does the job clearly and concisely. Runtime: 99 minutes. Rated R.
“DEADLY ILLUSIONS” (Netflix)
I don’t really know where to start when it comes to reviewing “Deadly Illusions,” a thriller from writer/director Anna Elizabeth James. If it was meant to be intentionally bad, then it succeeded in spades, but I believe it was crafted in all seriousness, which makes it even worse, because on top of being bad, it isn’t really even fun. Well, maybe it will be fun for some who enjoy cheap erotic thrillers, but James never takes the premise of her story as far as she could, settling for something that’s rather soft and dull instead; an illusion of an erotic thriller, if you will. The film stars Kristen Davis as Mary Morrison, a successful author of thriller novels. Mary seems to have it all: she lives in a fancy house, is happily married to Tom (Dermot Mulroney), and is the mother to twins. When her publisher asks her to write another book, she declines, as she is now raising her kids; but when Tom reveals that he made a risky investment that lost them half their estate, the two million dollar advance is too good to pass up. So Mary starts interviewing nannies to help take care of the kids while she writes, and ends up with Grace (Greer Grammer), a seemingly innocent and squeaky clean young woman who is great with the kids and admires Mary’s work. It’s at this point that “Deadly Illusions” embarks on a series of threads riddled with plot holes. Grace seems to have two sides to her, but apparently Mary does to (she says toward the beginning of the film that she becomes someone else when she’s writing), although we never really get that sense of her. Mary becomes fast friends with Grace, but is also attracted to her for some reason. “Deadly Illusions” is badly acted, the action is poorly staged, and somehow simultaneously confusing and predictable, not to mention much longer than it needs to be. It is without heat, without suspense, and without logic. I’m not saying you should watch, but I’m also not saying you shouldn’t. There’s a reason why it was the number one movie on Netflix for a week, and it isn’t because it’s good. It is merely something that needs to be seen to be believed. Runtime: 114 minutes. Rated R.