Review: World War II espionage and a high school redux highlight movies to watch at home
Since World War II, the British film industry has had a knack for telling polished and entertaining stories about the men and women who used their wits and courage to beat the Nazis. Director John Madden’s new espionage caper picture “Operation Mincemeat” — adapted by screenwriter Michelle Ashford from Ben Macintyre’s nonfiction book — isn’t edgy or flashy, but it’s very much in this U.K. tradition of well-acted and gripping war movies. It tells a fascinating tale, snappily.
Colin Firth and Matthew Macfayden co-star as British intelligence officers who take charge of an unusual scheme cooked up in part by their underling Ian Fleming. (Yes, James Bond’s creator.) They supply an anonymous corpse with a fake military ID, and stash phony letters and staged photos on his body to support the illusion that the dead man had a full private life and an important tactical mission. Then they arrange to have him wash ashore in Spain, knowing that the Spanish authorities will secretly share any classified material with the Axis powers — including information meant to draw defenses away from the planned landing site for the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily.
Historically, the success of the real-life Operation Mincemeat was a turning point in the war. But the movie version isn’t really about the invasion, or even the deception. It’s more about the people involved (including a helpful secretary played by Kelly Macdonald), who become increasingly nervous and even guilty about playing little strategy games in comfortable offices while people are dying by the thousands in battle. “Operation Mincemeat” isn’t groundbreaking cinema, but it’s well-crafted and thoughtful; and when the heroes are inventing the personal details for their dead soldier and imagining all the real lives they’re affecting, the movie becomes appealingly bittersweet.
‘Operation Mincemeat.’ PG-13 for strong language, some sexual content, brief war violence, disturbing images, and smoking. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes. Available now on Netflix
The Aussie comedian Rebel Wilson both pokes fun at high school movie cliches and reaffirms their power in the slight but amiable comedy “Senior Year,” directed by Alex Hardcastle from a team-written screenplay. Wilson plays Stephanie Conway, who in 2002 was the captain of the cheerleading team and on her way to being named prom queen, before she conked her head during a pep rally and fell into a 20-year coma. She wakes up with the body of a 37-year-old but the mind of a teenager, and decides to reenroll in school, to achieve the goals she had when she was 17. But Stephanie quickly discoveries that social hierarchies and the path to popularity have changed in the age of social media and progressive politics.
The filmmakers could’ve done more with this idea that high school in 2022 is more welcoming to weirdos, but that there remain some adolescent elites (now called “influencers”). “Senior Year” isn’t really a satire though; and it doesn’t have much to say about the differences between the early 2000s and now, aside from some tossed-off pop culture jokes. This is more of a raunchy and surprisingly sentimental teen-com, about a woman who was once so focused on superficial things that she missed what mattered — including the bond she had with her two nerdy friends, played as adults by Mary Holland and Sam Richardson. “Senior Year” is not an ambitious movie, but it’s mostly a sweet one, and frequently funny.
‘Senior Year.’ R for sexual material, language and brief teen drinking/drug use. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes. Available now on Netflix
There are two main selling points for the offbeat horror film “Monstrous.” One is the commanding performance of Christina Ricci as Laura, a mom fleeing a tragic past by moving to a small town. The other is the picture’s vivid look, which spins a candy-colored version of the 1950s. Ricci, director Chris Sivertson and screenwriter Carole Chrest spend much of the movie’s running time creating a warped mid-20th century reality, in which Laura and her son Cody (Santino Bernard) spend their days feeling out of sync with their new neighbors and their nights haunted by a creature that crawls out of the pond by their new house.
Ricci plays “not quite right” about as well as any actor of her generation, and she really puts across Laura’s creeping sense of dread, as she drinks more, snaps at Cody, and has an increasingly difficult time maintaining her sunny disposition. This gradual breakdown is a buildup to the plot’s big twist — a “nothing is what it seems” switcheroo that frankly arrives too late to be explored as fully as it should. Still, for the most part this is a captivating mood piece, held together by Ricci’s take on a woman who is chasing an impossible idyll while being trailed by something dark and murky.
‘Monstrous.’ PG-13 for terror, thematic elements and brief violence. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. Available in select theaters and on VOD.
Writer-director Sebastian Godwin’s short and startling “Homebound” starts out as a domestic melodrama and turns into a psychological thriller; and Godwin always seems aware that there’s rarely much difference between the two. Aisling Loftus plays Holly, the young lover of the middle-aged Richard (Tom Goodman-Hill), who after a whirlwind romance brings her to his ex-wife’s lavish country estate, to meet his three kids. When they arrive, the ex is mysteriously absent and the children are unusually bratty — though Holly can’t tell whether something is amiss or if Richard’s permissive parenting has spoiled his brood. “Homebound” burns too slowly in the early going, but the tension and confusion in the first half eventually explodes into chaos. Throughout, Loftus gives a gripping performance as a woman desperate to make a good impression on a family that may be evil.
‘Homebound.’ Not rated. Running time: 1 hour, 11 minutes. Available in select theaters and on VOD
The documentary “Castro’s Spies” covers the story of “the Cuban Five” — a group of undercover agents who posed as anti-Castro defectors in 1990s Miami. Directors Ollie Aslin and Garry Lennon mainly stick to the facts of the case, using new interviews and declassified footage to lay out the particulars of the operation, which involved infiltrating the refugee aid organization Brothers to the Rescue. Personal reminiscences about how it felt to be a patriotic Cuban adjusting to life in the United States are kept to a minimum; and the film loses some flavor as a result. But “Castro’s Spies” becomes genuinely challenging once Aslin and Lennon get to the trials of these men, who argued they were acting within the bounds of U.S. law to push back against the actions of a country that had interfered in Cuban affairs for more than a century.
‘Castro’s Spies.’ Not rated. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. Available on VOD
At the start of Mackenzie G. Mauro’s debut feature “Exposure 36,” the world is three days away from ending and everybody knows it — though not everybody has been inspired to live their lives any differently. Charles Ouda stars as Cam, a drug-dealing New York photographer who plans to spend his final hours taking pictures and getting wasted, until he learns that an acquaintance is missing and decides instead to do one last good deed. It takes a while for this plot to kick in, and Mauro (working with his brother Montgomery, the film’s producer) doesn’t seem all that committed to it. The movie becomes noticeably clunky whenever anyone stops to explain what’s going on. But “Exposure 36” has stretches that work remarkably well — and feel incredibly relevant — as a moody portrait of a city emptied out by a crisis, left to people unwilling to accept that their round-the-clock party may be over.
‘Exposure 36.’ Not rated. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. Available on VOD
Also on VOD
“The Sadness” is an extremely gory horror movie about a zombie plague that sweeps across Taipei, turning the infected into violent maniacs. This splatter-flick is meant to test even the strongest stomachs, though it’s also notable for being one of the first of these kinds of films to comment on the recent pandemic — which changed a lot of people’s presumptions about how our society might respond to a raging apocalypse. Shudder
“The Village House” (released in India as “Gamak Ghar”) is like an art exhibition crossed with an Ozu-esque “times change” social drama. This lovely, melancholy film — written and directed by Achal Mishra — follows one old house in the Mithila region of India across 20 years, in a series of short, artfully composed scenes, as the lively family celebrations of the late 1990s give way to tension in the 2000s and then decay in the 2010s, once the older generation dies off and the younger generation stops coming. Available on VOD
Available now on DVD and Blu-ray
“Dog” is a likable and moving road trip dramedy, with Channing Tatum playing a psychologically scarred Army vet who agrees to transport a recently deceased friend’s cranky pooch across the country — a favor that allows both broken creatures to heal. Warner Bros.
“Pushing Hands” was the 1991 feature film debut of the future Oscar-winning director Ang Lee, co-written with his frequent collaborator James Schamus. Sihung Lung plays an aging martial arts instructor who moves in with his son and daughter-in-law in New York, where at first, he struggles to adjust to the culture, until he meets a woman he can bond with over their old lives in Beijing. The new Blu-ray edition includes a conversation with Lee and Schamus. Film Movement
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