Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Our track record on summer blockbusters: six so far. Seems like fewer! We saw this one at the Regal Cinemas Fox Run, in a theater with "plush seating" recliners, just like at home. If you have those at home.

Anyway, the movie: Tom Cruise is Ethan Hunt, again, with his IMF teammates Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Benji (Simon Pegg), and Luther (Ving Rhames). Unfortunately, the current CIA head (one of those Baldwin guys) has developed a strong dislike of the IMF's independent and impudent ways, and he wangles the team's dissolution. For libertarians, this is the most unlikely part of the movie: a government agency that actually gets terminated? Hah!

In addition to this friendly fire, Ethan is also set upon by the ultra-secretive "Syndicate" (aka the "Rogue Nation" in the title). It's led by the creepy Solomon Lane, who's responsible for thousands of innocent deaths worldwide. And there's also the beautiful-but-deadly Ilsa—whose side is she on, anyway?

It's very long, 131 minutes, but it's filled with plenty of imaginative action: plane-dangling; chases with cars, motorcyles, and on foot; opera assassination (Turandot, so it's classy); fights with guns, knives, fists, and tranquilizer darts. And the ritual death-defying break-in to the impregnable fortress to … sorry, I forgot what that was for, actually.

In short, all good (forgettable) fun. No illusions that any of these characters exist outside of their action bubble. (Hunt's wife from a previous movie? Gone, baby, gone.)

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[3.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Set in mid-eighteenth century Britain, Belle is a combination of Austen-like soap opera, inspiring (but fictionalized) biography, a little courtroom drama, and social commentary. It's not bad, but "just OK" not great either. It seems designed as Oscar-bait, but did not get any nominations.

The hero is "Dido", the beautiful but illegitimate mixed-race offspring of a British naval officer and a West Indies slave woman. The officer does the right thing, extracting the young Dido from slavery and ensconcing her with his British noble family. Then he's off again doing what British naval officers do, which unfortunately involves him dying.

Leaving Dido in a complex situation: her family has mixed feelings about mixed-race folk; British society of the day was not the most enlightened either. While Dido is charming, intelligent, and beautiful, her Austenesque prospects are not good. (There is a lot of back and forth about who's gonna marry who.)

Complicating things even further is her Uncle William, a judge, who must rule on the case of the Zong, a slave ship that threw its living cargo overboard in order to have enough drinking water for the more fortunate crew.

All in all: watchable, but also missable.

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What We Do in the Shadows

[3.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

It's a vampire comedy. Starring, co-written, and co-directed by one-half of Flight of the Conchords, Jemaine Clement. So of course it's funny. It's R-rated (MPAA: "bloody violent content, some sexual material and language.")

The idea is that it's a documentary, filmed in a reality-TV style. Except the subjects are vampires, four of them living in a unremarkable house in Wellington, New Zealand. They have the typical housemate spats: who's gonna clean up all that blood, stuff like that.

It's a funny premise, maybe a tad too thin when stretched to an hour and a half. Another theatrical-release sputterer, our second in a row. What's the deal there? Maybe it did better in New Zealand.

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The Drop

[3.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A little crime thriller based on a Dennis Lehane short story; Lehane also wrote the screenplay. The story was set in Dorchester, because, well, Lehane. The movie moves the action down to Brooklyn, and adds a few more characters and plot threads.

The protagonist is Bob Saginowski, a nebbish who lives alone, and works tending bar at his cousin's joint. His cousin is Marv, played by the late James Gandolfini, his last role. The bar is called "Cousin Marv's" and it's a so-called "drop bar", where the primary source of profit is its use as a temporary repository of cash used in illegal transactions.

One night, Bob hears whimpering coming from a trash can; he investigates and pulls out a half-dead pit bull puppy. He also meets Nadia (the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo herself, Noomi Rapace) who helps him nurse the puppy back to health. All would seem to be well, until a local criminal psycho shows up with all sorts of demands. Bob seems totally helpless in the face of malevolent evil. But is he?

Despite all the star power, the movie fizzled in its theatrical release. I was particularly impressed with Tom Hardy: this is the same guy who played Bane? And Mad freakin' Max? And here's he's just a schlub, albeit one with unexpected qualities.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

I had this pegged as a snoozefest, as history-based melodramas tend to be. Instead I was pleasantly surprised. It's not new (from 2003), but Mrs. Salad loooves Mr. Darcy, aka Colin Firth.

It is a fictionalized guess at the backstory behind Vermeer's titular painting. Griet, played by Scarlett Johansson, is a Puritan peasant girl in Delft. Economic necessity gets her work in the Vermeer household; they are also in continual danger of declining economic status should the painter's patron (Tom Wilkinson) lose interest, a matter of great concern to Vermeer's wife and mother-in-law.

Colin Firth plays Vermeer, a typical obsessed moody genius. He notes that Griet is not only beautiful (duh, Scarlett Johansson, remember?) but also has a natural artistic eye. Gradually she gets drawn into his orbit as assistant and model. And… well, you've probably seen the painting.

Surprise: Cillian Murphy in a small role where he is not a slimy villain.

Usually I don't notice cinematography. But I did here: it's very good. In fact, I thought while watching that the cinematographer made a conscious effort to make his shots "painterly", if that's a word. So I checked on IMDB and was gratified to note that the movie was Oscar-nominated for cinematography. And this article seems to confirm my guess about the cinematographer's aims.

Suggestion: if you can swing it, watch as a double feature with the documentary Tim's Vermeer.

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Ex Machina

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A pretty good movie for those who like R-rated material (according to the MPAA, "graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence") broken up with sophomoric discussions of artificial intelligence. That's me!

The movie's protagonist is young Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a fine programmer working for "Blue Book", identified as the pre-eminent search engine company in the world. He wins a work contest, and the coveted prize is to spend a week with the reclusive Blue Book founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his remote wilderness retreat.

But not is all as it seems: instead of just hanging out, Nathan tells Caleb that his purpose is to evaluate Ava, a robot who's the very latest AI development. Can she pass the Turing Test, showing that she has human-level intelligence?

But before Caleb can say "waitaminnit, that's not how the Turing Test is supposed to work" (and he does), we meet Ava (Alicia Vikander), who's not only smart, but beautiful, at least her humanoid parts. (See DVD box at right… no, your right.) And (once again) things are not what they seem.

The movie is a tad arty at times (for some reason I've become sensitive to this), but the script is clever and the acting is first-rate. (Both male actors, Gleeson and Isaac, are in the new Star Wars movie.) Isaac is really good, managing a complex character who's full of brilliance, deceit, charisma, arrogance, and megalomania. Special effects (mostly Ava) are very good. Scenery (even setting Ava aside) is pretty good too.

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[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Truth be told, I could have waited for the DVD, but (on the other hand) I chuckled all the way through.

This is an origin tale of sorts for the Minions, first seen in the Despicable Me movies. We are treated to their Darwinian evolution: a species inordinately attracted to evil bullies of whatever stripe, to offer assistance in whatever schemes they devise. Minions aren't evil themselves, mind you. Nevertheless, it's fortunate that they are so inept that their minionitic assistance more often than not works to the doom of their villainous masters.

Their disastrous service to a would-be world conqueror in the nineteenth century leads them to decades of arctic exile. Their society stagnates without servitude to some wrongdoer, so in 1968 they send forth three brave souls (Kevin, Bob, Steve) out into civilization to find a new bad guy to sign up with. This leads to many adventures, but eventually settles down to work for Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock) and a plot to steal Queen Elizabeth's crown.

I wonder how they reproduce. Do they reproduce? They all seem to be males, at least they have male names. But they don't seem to have … well, from what we can see, they're pretty smooth all over. They're very tough, perhaps they are immortal.

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[2.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

As I'm sure I've noted before: Mrs. Salad's Netflix picks tend to the offbeat and bizarre. Sometimes based on nothing more than (in this case): "I like Jake Gyllenhaal". Downside: you wind up watching movies like this sometimes. It was named "Best Canadian Film of the Year" at the Toronto Film Critics Association Awards, but truth be told, it might have been a slow year for movies up there.

Spoilers ahead, probably. Adam is a college history prof, who tells his bored students about Hegel's historicism, which Marx abbreviated to "first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." (He's shown saying this twice—heh!). But while watching an obscure DVD movie, Adam notes a bit-part actor who is literally his double. It's Anthony, who's shown to be a dissolute, disagreeable jerk and pervert. Adam and Anthony eventually meet, and before you can say: "nothing good can come of this", it doesn't.

Keep your eye on the spiders, folks.

Problem: like many pretentiously arty movies, this one has endless (but pointless) shots of scenery (especially the ugly Brutalist architecture of Adam's school), Gyllenhaal-as-Adam wandering around looking lost and moody, tricky lighting, and the like. Cut those out, trim some of the gratuitous nudity, and you've got a pretty good 60-minute episode of Night Gallery with room for commercials.

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Manhattan Melodrama

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, William Powell. While I suppose it would be possible for those people to make an unwatchable movie, this isn't it.

Gable and Powell play Blackie and Jim, respectively. They are literally boyhood chums. A tragic riverboat fire bonds them for life, but they take divergent paths: Jim becomes a crusading attorney, destined to root out organized crime and corruption, while Blackie adopts the path of a gentleman gangster, with a slightly off-kilter sense of honor about him.

Myrna Loy, lovely as always, is Eleanor, initially Blackie's moll, but won away (literally) overnight by Jim, as she realizes Blackie's essential disreputableness, and is charmed by Jim's honorable intentions and traditional values.

All this—well, you see the title—sets up inevitable conflict driven by a contrived plot. And it's all pretty good stuff, because those three can make anything believable, and make you care about how things are going to turn out.

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Under the Skin

[1.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Looking over the reviews, it seems that this is one of those love-it-or-hate-it polarizing flicks. I would bet on a bimodal distribution of user ratings. I come down on the side of "arty, pretentious junk", sorry to the filmmakers.

It did, however, win at the Golden Schmoes Awards for "Trippiest Movie of the Year". So maybe take that as a suggestion as to what you need to ingest to make the movie watchable.

Scarlett Johansson plays (according to IMDB) "The Female". In cooperation with a motorcyclist, she dons the clothes of a recently-deceased woman, gets made up at a local store, and sets off on her mission. Which seems to involve enticing lonely Scottish guys back to her lair where they (under her alien spell) sink into a large dark pool and dissolve. After a few rounds of this, she seems confused and wanders off. But things eventually come to an unsatisfying and ambiguous conclusion.

This is apparently your go-to movie for Scarlett Johansson nudity. But, trust me, it's arty/dark enough to remove any titillation factor. And in between there are more than enough pointless (but seemingly endless) shots of drab Scottish scenery.

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