There are grifters galore in Benjamin Caron’s psychological thriller “Sharper” that opens with what appears to be an innocent love story, set inside a small Greenwich Village bookstore.
That’s where NYU grad student Sandra (Briana Middleton) meets Tom (Justice Smith), the nerdy proprietor. She’s searching for a copy of Zora Neal Huston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” They ‘click’ and move on to a little Japanese restaurant on Mott Street for canoodling over dinner.
But things are not really as sweet as they seem in this whirlwind romance as Sandra eventually tells Tom she needs $350,000 to extricate her drug-addicted brother from serious trouble. Since Tom seems to have access to a seemingly unlimited bank account (which is why he can operate an independent book store), he gives her the money. But then she suddenly disappears.
It turns out that previously vulnerable Sandra was involved with Max (Sebastian Stan), a seedy con man whose fortunes are entangled with soft-spoken, shallow, sociopathic Madeline (Julianne Moore), a scheming Fifth Avenue socialite who is determined to become the trophy wife of billionaire Richard Hobbes (John Lithgow).
Introduced by title cards, the non-linear vignettes reveal the ulterior motives of each of the enigmatic characters.
Deftly written by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka (previous collaborators on “The Sitter”), it marks the the feature film debut of TV director Benjamin Caron (“The Crown,” “Andor”) who juggles the plot’s cleverly unpredictable twists and intriguing turns with deft ease — until the ambiguous conclusion which, unfortunately, falters.
On the Granger Gauge of 1 to 10, “Sharper” is a scamming 7, streaming in Apple TV+.
Knock at the Cabin
For better or worse, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan built his reputation on psychological horror films with twist endings, beginning with “I see dead people” from “The Sixth Sense” (1999). But it hasn’t always paid off — i.e., “Lady in the Water,” “The Happening,” “Signs,” “Old.”
Now with “Knock at the Cabin,” Shyamalan introduces a family held hostage by four home invaders who firmly believe that an apocalypse is coming that will envelop all of humanity.
It begins with little seven-year-old Wen (Kristen Cui) catching grasshoppers and trapping them in a jar. As she crouches in the woods, she’s approached by a gentle, bespectacled stranger who politely introduces himself as Leonard (Dave Bautista), a second-grade schoolteacher from Chicago, noting, “My heart is broken because of what I have to do today.”
Wen is on vacation in rural Pennsylvania with her two adoptive fathers — Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge). When she runs inside to warn them that their peaceful idyll may be over, they try to barricade the cabin — to no avail. Plus, the phone lines have been cut and there’s no cell service.
Along with creepy Leonard, there’s Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a nurse from Southern California; Adrienne (Abby Quinn), a cook at Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C., and Raymond (Rupert Grint), an ex-con who works for a gas company in Medford, Massachusetts.
Wielding weird, homemade weapons, they’ve all experienced portentous ‘visions’ of impending doom and firmly believe that the only way to stop horrific worldwide destruction is for two of the hostages to choose to sacrifice the third.
Adapting Paul G. Tremblay’s novel “The Cabin at the End of the World” (2018) with lots of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, Shyamalan and co-writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman dawdle with the consequences of extreme religious fanaticism embodied by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
FYI: Do you recognize now-grown Rupert Grint as Daniel Radcliffe’s pal Ron Weasley in the “Harry Potter” franchise?
On the Granger Gauge, “Knock at the Cabin” is an ominous 6, streaming on Amazon Prime and Apple TV.
With the enduring success of Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” and its various spinoffs, it’s been established that spaceship adventures attract an audience — initially, at least. Whether or not viewers will stay with Dean Devlin’s “The Ark” for the long haul is another matter indeed.
Best known for “Independence Day,” Devlin and Jonathan Glassner (“Stargate SG-I”) introduce their new 12-episode series with a catastrophe. Set in a future century when Earth has become uninhabitable, the show opens on Ark One, a spacecraft sent on a mission to colonize a planet that is capable of supporting human life.
Lt. Sharon Garnet (Christie Burke) is abruptly jolted out of cryogenic sleep by some sort of crash that kills off all the senior officers/mentors … i.e., “Everyone who was qualified is dead.”
Assuming leadership after this disaster, levelheaded Garnet, whom we soon discover is a clone, and two other junior officers — ambitious Lt. Spencer Lane (Reece Ritchie) and cocky Lt. James Brice (Richard Fleeshman) — are left in charge of the 150 specially selected scientists, military personnel and civilians.
Since they’re at least a year from their destination, food, water and oxygen supplies are extremely limited. Fortunately, dorky agricultural enthusiast Angus (Ryan Adams) stashed a crate of super-rich soil on board so he sets about growing nutritional crops, utilizing manure. And Garnet quickly realizes that nerdy 19 year-old Alicia (Stacey Read), who chatters constantly, has a genius-level intellect.
Plus there’s overworked, exhausted doctor Kabir (Shalini Peiris), the highly principled head of security Felix (Pavle Jerinic), Serbian engineer Eva (Tiana Upcheva), and ‘influencer’ turned mental health consultant Cat (Christina Wolfe). So far — they’re superficial caricatures, not believable characters.
Then there’s the discovery that billionaire William Trust (Paul Leonard Murray), who designed and built the Ark program, is still in cryogenic sleep with his wife Helena (Mercedes De La Cruz) in a secret compartment. Everyone obviously wants to survive but, philosophically, they all have different ideas about how to accomplish that.
Filmed on the cheap just outside Belgrade, Serbia, the casting is obviously international. Production designer Randal Groves combines practical feasibility with the laws of physics, including the utilization of deployable, metallic solar sails that unfold from the hull like golden-hued origami.
On the Granger Gauge, “The Ark” is a cheesy 5, streaming on SyFy on Wednesday and Peacock a day later.
Susan Granger is a product of Hollywood. Her natural father, S. Sylvan Simon, was a director and producer at M.G.M. and Columbia Pictures. Her adoptive father, Armand Deutsch, produced movies at M.G.M.
As a child, Susan appeared in movies with Abbott & Costello, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Margaret O’Brien, and Lassie. She attended Mills College in California, studying journalism with Pierre Salinger, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism.
During her adult life, Susan has been on radio and television as an anchorwoman and movie and drama critic, syndicating her reviews and articles around the world, including Video Librarian. She has appeared on American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies. In 2017, her book 150 Timeless Movies was published by Hannacroix Creek Books.
Her website is www.susangranger.com. Follow her on Twitter @susangranger.