Encanto

[4 stars] [IMDB Link] [Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

A free-to-me streamer on Disney+, I was pushed into it by the funny reactions to it on this week's Reason Roundtable and yesterday's story in the WSJ about How ‘Encanto’s’ ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’ Became Bigger Than ‘Let It Go’. (There's a video at that link that shows the movie song being performed in 21 different languages, and the movie has been dubbed into 46(!) languages.)

As Matt Welch said on the podcast, it seems likely that the guy who did the movie songs has a real future ahead in musical theatre.

The movie is notable for how quickly it sets up its premise: in Columbia, a few decades back, a young family is trying to escape a murderous gang. The brave sacrifice of the father enables the rest of the family to escape to a magical valley, where a magical candle enables them to build a magical house, and all the family members and their offspring obtain a magical "gift" superpower at some point: super-strength, healing, climate control, animal control,… It's pretty much paradise.

And all that is related (musically of course) in something like the first three or four minutes.

But there's young Mirabel (voiced by the wonderful Stephanie Beatriz), who (for some reason) doesn't receive a superpower. She puts up a brave front, but she's kind of sad about it. Plus, she has visions of impending doom for the magic house and the village generally.

And there's the mystery of her Uncle Bruno (see above): what happened to him, what's his gift, and can we finally talk about him? (He's voiced by the great John Leguizamo.)

Bottom line: it's a lot of fun, cleverly scripted and well-acted, a (cliché alert) a feast for the eyes.

The Edge of Seventeen

[3.5 stars] [IMDB Link] [Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

I thought Hailee Steinfeld was great in the Hawkeye miniseries. (I don't report on miniseries here, but I liked it a lot.) And I thought she was pretty good in that True Grit remake back in 2011. So when this showed up free-to-me on Netflix, I decided to bite.

It's IMDB genre-icized as Comedy/Drama. Accurate! It's funny in spots, but it's not one of those teen movie raunchfests. Teenager Nadine (Ms. Steinfeld) is very smart, very funny, and very pretty. This should be a recipe for high school success, but she's damaged goods. She's burdened by a flibbertigibbet mother (Kyra Sedgwick), the traumatic death of her father, a can-do-no-wrong handsome jock brother.

Fortunately, she has a steadfast friend, Krista. But (oh oh) Krista gets involved with Nadine's brother, causing that friendship to self-destruct. (Nadine's dysfunctional that way.) There's also a supportive teacher (Woody Harrelson, great). And a geeky just-friends-for-now, Erwin. And bad boy Nick, who's the object of Nadine's fantasies.

Bottom line: a decent movie to watch. R-rated (for "sexual content, language and some drinking - all involving teens"), but nothing I was too embarrassed to watch with Mrs. Salad. Ms. Steinfeld, to repeat, is outstanding.

Till the Clouds Roll By

[2 stars] [IMDB Link] [Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

Another free-to-me Amazon streamer. Summary: it's long, star-studded, only occasionally interesting. I thought it would be better.

It's the biopic of Jerome Kern (played by Robert Walker), starting off with the Broadway debut of Show Boat, to instant acclaim. Taking a cab ride to the post-show reception at the Waldorf, Kern starts reminiscing about his past life to the cabbie, and… well, we get to hear and see that.

Except (as I learned from the IMDB reviews) most of the story he relates is entirely fictional. Apparently Kern's life was even more boring than what this movie made up. Van Heflin plays a fictitious collaborator, with a fictitious daughter, who has dreams of Broadway glory outpacing her fictitious talent. When this is pointed out to her, she fictitously flees, heartbroken. Van Heflin (fictitiously) kicks the bucket, with a deathbed plea to Kern to track her down and make up, which he does.

But the fictitious plot is simply meant to string together the numerous production song-and-dance numbers. Some of these songs are great ("Ol' Man River", "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man", "I Won't Dance", "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes") and the others I thought were pretty forgettable. I did mention star-studded, right? Performers: Judy Garland, Dinah Shore, Angela Lansbury, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, June Allyson, Van Johnson. (I had no idea that Van Johnson was that good.)

Charade

[4 stars] [IMDB Link] [Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

Another Cary Grant movie, an Amazon Prime free-to-me streamer from 1963. With Audrey Hepburn as additional incentive. I watched this long ago; long enough so I only remembered the fuzziest of details.

Audrey's character is disenchanted with her husband, confessing to her friend while at a European ski resort that she's contemplating divorce. (Little does she know that her marriage is already over, her husband having been thrown off a train.) Cary Grant shows up propitiously to make witty conversation… but it's back to Paris for Audrey. Where she discovers that her apartment has been stripped to the bare walls.

Including her clothes! Oh, the humanity! She's a tad more distressed by that than her dead hubby.

This, somehow, doesn't prevent her from dressing in different Givenchy outfits throughout the rest of the movie.

And Cary Grant shows up again! Also Walter Matthau, who explains to Regina that her husband was part of a gang that ripped off a quarter-million payment to the French Resistance during WWII. And the surviving members of that gang show up too: James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Ned Glass. They're all out to find that missing loot, and are willing to resort to threats and violence.

Not that the movie takes that very seriously. (IMDB genres: "Comedy, Mystery, Romance") There's a lot of chemistry between Audrey and Clark, which has her being a lot more sexually aggressive than he.

Being the Ricardos

[4 stars] [IMDB Link] [Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

An Amazon Prime free-to-me streamer. I think it may have a shot at one or two Oscars. (That's as far out on a limb as I'll go for 2022 predictions.)

It's the story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, mainly set around the time a 1952 episode of "I Love Lucy" titled "Fred and Ethel Fight" is performed. There are flashbacks to how Lucy and Desi met, how their career paths unfolded, etc. It takes some liberties with the timeline. Jammed up close to the episode is the "revelation" of Lucy's old Commie ties (which actually happened in 1953), and the Lucy/Desi divorce (not until 1960). But "Little Ricky" was in the oven around that time, and the movie has some fun with the conflict about how to handle Lucy's pregnancy on the show. But Lucy's passion for micro-control over the show, running roughshod over the putative director, the producer, sponsors, the network, even fellow actors is shown in detail.

The acting is superb, as you'd expect. Written (and directed) by Aaron Sorkin, so the dialog is sharp and intelligent. One of those Oscars I mentioned above should really go to whoever transformed Nicole Kidman into Lucy; it's uncanny. The actress playing Vivian Vance is even closer to the real thing, including her voice. In contrast, J.K. Simmons isn't even close to William Frawley, but who cares, he's great anyway.

Only downside: it's a tad long.

Oh, yeah: everybody smokes. The Amazon Prime content advisory: "Nudity, smoking, alcohol use, sexual content, foul language". I missed the nudity.


Last Modified 2022-01-05 4:55 PM EST

Don't Look Up

[3 stars] [IMDB Link] [Don't Look Up]

The first movie of 2022, a free-to-me Netflix streamer. I decided to watch after reading Kevin D. Williamson's (positive) take at the NR blog, which was a response to Kyle Smith's NRPlus (very negative) review. Hey, I'll split the difference; they both make good points.

Michigan State astronomy grad student Kate (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers an incoming comet on her photos of distant stars. She dutifully reports her discovery to her advisor Randall (Leonardo DiCaprio), who does some orbital calculations, and… oh, oh, it's on a direct collision course with our lovely planet in a few months.

So they report this to NASA, which cobbles up a heroic mission to divert the comet at the last minute, and…

Nah. What actually happens is that they get plunked into the dysfunctional (that's gonna be my go-to word for 2022, and perhaps beyond) operations of the US government (personified by President Meryl Streep), hubristic Big Tech (personified by creepy Mark Rylance), air-headed/amoral newscasters (Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett), and American society (portrayed by nearly everyone else). Honest, earnest Kate is quickly chewed up and spit out by this powerful coalition of corruption, stupidity, and greed. Randall goes along to "work within the system" and is soon seduced (figuratively and literally) by it all.

Will humanity triumph and save our planet? Well…

It's way too long, and (as Kyle Smith points out) the writer/director Adam McKay "could not be more ham-fisted if he got 'Hormel' tattooed across his knuckles." But the acting is decent (look at all those Oscar winners and nominees), the special effects are impressive, and the occasional dumb joke got me to laugh.

The Bishop's Wife

[4.5 stars] [IMDB Link] [Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

Mrs. Salad and I watched this 1947 free-to-me streamer on Amazon Prime on Christmas evening. If you've already seen It's a Wonderful Life 459 times, it's a good choice. It was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture; it won "Best Sound Recording".

The Bishop's wife, Julia, is played by Loretta Young, married to the Bishop, Henry, played by David Niven. Unfortunately, the Bishop is obsessed with his work, specifically, the construction of a new massive cathedral, which involves a massive amount of time kowtowing to rich benefactors for donations. He neglects his family, he's stressed out, so he does what comes naturally to one in his position, prays for assistance.

And that prayer is answered in the form of Dudley (Cary Grant), an angel. Yes, a literal one. We can tell because he shows up knowing everyone's name, situation, innermost secrets, … and he can perform minor miracles. (The cute special effects are pretty good for 1947.) And it's Cary Grant, so he's utterly charming and witty. So his task is straightforward, and he nudges everyone onto a "better" path. Except… well, I don't know how theologically sound this is, but he gets pretty involved with Julia. To the point that he spends a lot more time hanging out with her than solving Henry's problem. Will he become a fallen angel? (Spoiler: that's not the way to bet.)

Red Notice

[4.0 stars] [IMDB Link] [Red Notice]

I went into this Netflix free-to-me streamer with low expectations. My attitude: "No matter how bad it is, at least Gal Gadot is in it." I was pleasantly surprised.

It's the story of an expert art thief Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds) and his (apparent) FBI nemesis John Hartley (Dwayne Johnson). As the movie opens, Hartley is teaming up with Interpol cop Urvashi Das (Ritu Arya) to thwart Booth's expected filching of one of Cleopatra's three eggs, priceless antiquities from Egypt. As it turns out, Booth has already grabbed the egg before Booth and Das arrive on the scene, but he's still hanging around, which sets off a fanciful action-packed chase scene.

And things just get more manic from there. It turns out there's a buyer willing to may an exorbitant sum for all three eggs. This brings "The Bishop" (Ms. Gadot) into the plot as well, trying to outwit and outmaneuver Booth, while Hartley wants (apparently) to put both in jail.

It's a half-comedy, playing off Reynolds' unmatched skills at banter. The Rock does a pretty good job as straight man. And Ms. Gadot is pretty good too, getting off some zingers on her own.

It seems remarkably high-budget for a Netflix flick. It was released in theaters a week before it showed up for streaming. According to the Wikipedia page, it had a $200 million budget and made "well north" of $2 million in theaters. Wikipedia also claims it got "generally unfavorable reviews", but don't listen to those guys.


Last Modified 2021-11-30 6:58 AM EST

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

[4.0 stars] [IMDB Link] [Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

This movie dropped into free-to-me territory on Disney+, Mrs. Salad and I spent an enjoyable evening with it. She usually doesn't like superhero movies. "Too much fighting." But she liked this one more than average.

I love superhero movies. And I loved it more than average.

In the prologue, we're told of how Shang-Chi's mom and dad met: Dad having acquired the titular Ten Rings, has used their power to ruthlessly conquer some large area of … China, I guess. But a village out in the boondocks has resisted his forces. When Dad comes to see the problem first hand, he's confronted by Mom, they fight to (more or less) a draw, and fall in love. Awww! Just like in real life.

Years later, Mom's dead, Dad returns to his arrogant and murderous ways, and the kids (Shang-Chi and Sister) are estranged. But they keep the mysterious green pendants Mom has given them.

And years after that, Shang-Chi has changed his name to "Shaun", moved to San Francisco, and nabbed a sweet job as a valet parking cars at a posh hotel. He's acquired a best friend, Katy, played by the always-wonderful Awkwafina. Unfortunately, but also predictably, trouble arises when a gang of kung-fu thieves attempt to steal the aforementioned pendant from Shawn's neck, not caring overmuch if they have to remove his head to get it. To Katy's amazement, an epic battle follows, mostly on an articulated city bus. Shaun and Katy survive, but the pendant gets swiped. And Shaun decides to travel to Macau, where his sister is, to inform her she's probably in danger too. Katy tags along.

Well, that's enough plot. It's a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, and there are plenty of cameos from previous entries. (And since I avoided reading spoilers, I squealed with delight at one from Iron Man 3.)

And the ageless, luminous, Michelle Yeoh eventually appears. Worth the price of admission right there.

Black Widow

[4.0 stars] [IMDB Link] [Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

Huh. At Amazon, the DVD is more expensive than the Blu-ray. Well, it showed up for no (extra) fee at Disney+, and I have no interest in a Red Sox-free World Series, so…

It's the origin story of Natasha Romanoff. (I'm not sure if the Marvel movies have ever explicitly called her the "Black Widow" before.) It's pretty dark: girls plucked off the streets or taken from their parents by Soviet Union baddie, Dreykov. Only the ablest survive to go on missions of espionage/sabotage/assassination. A pre-teen Natasha gets implanted in Ohio with her phony "family": dad Alexei, who (somehow) got the super-soldier serum to become the "Red Guardian"; mom Melania, the brains of the cell, and little sister Yelena, (who thinks the"family" is real. Sorry, kid.

After completing the mission, their cover is blown, and they make a harrowing escape to Cuba, reality is revealed to little Yelena, just as she's whisked off for spy training and girl-parts removal. Flash forward to a point in the MCU timeline just around the time of Captain America: Civil War; Natasha is on the run for being on the wrong side. But she gets word that that old baddie Dreykov is still around; way back in pre-Iron Man 2 days, she thought she had killed him in order to win the favor of SHIELD.

So she teams up (after some sisterly-but-really-not fighting) with now-grown Yelena to track down the still-dangerous Dreykov and his deadly army of mind-controlled Widows. Again, involving explosions and lots of CGI.

It's all pretty neat, and the post-credit scene makes me want to see what happens next.