The LEGO Batman Movie

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

Back in 2014, I thought The LEGO Movie was great, and I thought LEGO Batman was one of the best things about it, so I really expected to like this more. But…

It's a lighthearted look at Batman's dysfunctional go-it-alone-ism. On one side, he refuses to accept the help of would-be allies. On the other, he avoids acknowledging the necessity of his relationship with his perennial villain adversaries, particularly the Joker.

That neurosis is tested when Joker is sent to the Phantom Zone, where a lot of bad guys get dispatched at the end of their movies: there's Sauron, Voldemort, Godzilla, Kong, even Jaws (the shark, not Richard Kiel). Joker promptly dumps his old allies (Harley Quinn, Bane, Riddler, …) and uses the new ones to unleash a fiendish plot against Gotham. It turns out that Batman needs the help of his own crew: the accidentally-acquired Robin, Alfred, and Barbara Gordon.

All this is accompanied by a lot of jokes, both inside jokes and outside jokes, and they're pretty clever, and thank goodness for subtitles, because I would have missed a lot of them otherwise. But the teamwork-is-good moral is laid on with a heavy hand, and that doesn't help the movie.

Fences

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

Let's see… One Oscar win (Viola Davis, for Best Supporting Actress), three nominations (Best Picture; Denzel Washington for Best Actor; Best Adapted Screenplay for August Wilson). So, yes it's good. But it's way too long.

Or maybe it's just that I like Action Movie Denzel better than Serious Drama Denzel. Maybe I should bump that Magnificent Seven remake a little higher in the Netflix queue.

Anyway, Mr. Washington plays Troy Maxson, a Pittsburgh garbageman. He's had a rocky life: a talented baseball player, years before that could have brought him riches. A prison stint for homicide. But now (the movie's set sometime in the late 50's) he's settled down in a small house with wife Rose (Ms. Davis) and son Cory. There's a grown son from a previous relationship, who (initially) seems to be a deadbeat with dreams of making it as a musician. There's brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson, Limehouse from Justified!) who's permanently deranged from dreadful war wounds. And best friend Bono, who's a calming and wise presence. Everybody's more or less saintlike, except…

Troy is a complex bundle of love, appetites, charm, frustrations, and rage. There's a lot to admire about him, but also a lot to despise. You can almost see the angels and demons perched on his shoulders. What held my interest was whether his good qualities would prevail over the bad. Unfortunately, the movie went on for a long time after this question was answered to my satisfaction. Everybody just kept talking.

August Wilson wrote the screenplay (uh, before he died) based on one of his many plays. These roots show, as most of the movie is set in the Maxson household.

Moana

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

From the non-Pixar side of Disney Animation, a nice movie set in ancient Polynesia. And yet another girl heroine. Aren't they getting tired of that yet? Never mind, it tells an interesting story about likeable characters.

The title character is young and spunky, but under the thumb of her dad, the island chief, who expects her to take the reins someday. Unbeknownst to everyone, the island is about to be the victim of a slow-moving curse, caused by demigod Maui, who stole a green gem, the "heart of Te Fiti". Gradually, Moana gets her mission: she's got to find Maui, he has to reclaim his demigod powers, and together they have to return the gem to its rightful owner.

And yes, you've seen this exact same movie before. There's a wacky animal companion (Moana points out this cliché herself, so thumbs up for that.). There's a wise mentor. Maui is a wise-cracking sidekick. At numerous points in the movie All Seems Lost. But (sorry, spoiler) Moana's pluck, resolve, and bravery triumphs. So yay!

And, sue me, I liked it. I eagerly await Disney's next cookie-cutter movie, because these cookies are delish.

La La Land

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

This movie won six (count them, six) Oscars and was nominated for eight more. (And, for a few seconds, it won Best Picture.) Don't get greedy, La La Land!

I watched with Mrs. Salad and Pun Daughter, and they were both less than impressed. And here I thought it was a chick flick! Mrs. Salad doesn't like any ending (spoiler alert coming…) that is less than unambiguously happy. And Pun Daughter couldn't see what all the hype was about. ("It's not as good as Hidden Figures.") For the record, I liked it fine, but I was in a forgiving mood.

First, as you are possibly aware, it's kind of a musical, with periodic breaks for singing, dancing, and general fantasy. But (unlike most musicals) it's very self-aware about that. Underneath that, it's the story of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and fundamentalist jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). They both have their career dreams. After "meeting cute" (he honks at her on a crowded LA freeway, she flips him half a peace sign), they gradually fall in love. And this love turns out to complicate their dreams. What will give way?

The acting is impeccable, the musical numbers are creative, And it's the second movie in a row we watched with J. K. Simmons. How could I not give it at least four stars?

The Mummy (2017)

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

I have about the same reaction as reviewers: eh, fine. And-don't tell Pun Son, with whom I attended—I fell asleep during the early part of the movie. That's never a good sign of movie quality.

Tom Cruise plays two-fisted soldier of fortune Nick "Nick" Morton. He is unfortunately around when the tomb of an evil ancient Egyptian princess is disturbed, and her aura (or something) infects him with a curse. He is destined to help her plans for world domination (or something), and frankly, it looks pretty bad for the good guys here. Nick would prefer to not be cursed, and in this effort he is assisted by the gorgeous Jenny, an archeologist secretly working for… Dr. Henry Jekyll. Who has, as you probably know, monstrous issues of his own.

The special effects are fine, especially a plane crash that you might have seen in the trailers. There are some laughs, too. (Pun Son doesn't like humor in his monster movies, but I'm OK with it.)

This movie is allegedly part of Universal Studio's plan to reboot its stable of monster flicks. Next up, according to today's WSJ is Bride of Frankenstein, due in 2019 with Javier Bardem as the Monster. This, despite disappointing box office results.

The Meddler

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

A good example of how you can make a movie watchable by flooding the zone with excellent acting talent. The actors here I've heard of: Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, J.K. Simmons, Cecily Strong, Michael McKean, Jason Ritter, Casey Wilson. And in minor blink-and-you'll-miss-em roles: Robert Picardo, Harry Hamlin, Laura San Giacomo, Bill Fagerbakke, Randall Park. They didn't skimp on the payroll here, and it shows. Everybody else is good too, but it's an unusual movie where I recognize so many of the actors.

Ms. Sarandon plays Marnie, mother to Lori (Ms. Byrne). Lori's in the divorce process, and she's pretty broken up about it. Marnie doesn't help much; the main problem is she's widowed, and that Lori's now her sole focus, and Marnie's looming ever-presence makes Lori realize that there's not much going on in her life otherwise.

Lori's in the TV biz (by the way), and her job requires her presence in New York. (It's not clear if it's a requirement, or just a convenient excuse to escape.) So Marnie makes do: she happens on a movie set and gets accidentally hired as a walk-on (where she meets divorced ex-cop "Zipper", J. K. Simmons' role); she offers to finance Cecily Strong's fancy lesbian wedding; she drives her Apple Store guru, Freddy, to his community college classes. Hilarity ensues.

It's kind of a chick flick, but it doesn't take itself seriously, and it pinballs from one charming low-cliché scene to another. It won no awards, but if you're looking for a decent popcorn movie….

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

[4.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

So Mrs. Salad and I decided to stretch our legs a bit, and went to see this at the Regal Cinemas down in Newington. Why, I remember the days when we had to traipse down to Peabody or Lawrence MA to see first-run flicks. And they didn't have reclining chairs in stadium seating. Also, the special effects were cheesy.

And don't get me started on the popcorn.

Where was I? Oh, yes. This movie is a lot of fun. It takes up where the previous one left off, with a shaky quintet of Guardians taking on dangerous missions for hire, like defending a trove of some sort of space batteries against a rampaging monster. This is meant to illustrate (a) the team's bungling-but-eventually-successful approach to dire threats, but also (b) how the team gets exposed to some of those threats, when the thieving Rocket filches some of the batteries they were just hired to protect.

So the Guardians now have another entire planet pissed at them, but they escape with the unlikely help of Kurt Russell. Slight, trailer-level spoiler: he's revealed to be Peter Quill / Star-Lord's father! But is there more there than this joyous reunion seems to be? Hint: yes.

It's a mix of hilarity, action, and gooey sentiment. Fortunately, the hilarity is very hilarious. (Although I'm easily amused.) Everybody's good, although the very end is a little dragged-out. Dave Bautista, playing Drax, seems to be having a lot more fun this time out; he has some of the best lines.

Doctor Strange

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

Once again a boring story from my younger comic-reading days (approx. 1969-1973): I devoured the Marvel tales of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Iron Man, the Avengers, Captain America, etc.. But I never got much beyond reading one or two issues of Doctor Strange. For some reason, all the magic seemed like cheating; you can always pull an unexpected spell out of your ass, right?

Yes, that's right. All those other comic heros were totally believable for me.

And also, I got the impression that Steve Ditko was writing/drawing Doctor Strange when he was on LSD. (Which turns out to be totally wrong by the way.)

So I was not especially moved to see this movie in the theater. But I noted the good reviews, and lo and behold, I really enjoyed the movie, once Netflix sent it to me.

It is (of course) an origin tale, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. Initially, Strange is a gifted, egomaniacal surgeon. But one fateful night he foolishly pushes his hot car a little too fast, and smashes himself up pretty badly. He won't play the piano again, nor will he be able to do the surgery he's famous for.

So, what to do, what to do? A new career calls: saving Earth from the Dark Dimension and the evil plots of Dormammu. Things look pretty bleak, because Strange is just learning how to become Master of the Mystic Arts, and Dormammu is a pretty bad dude. Nonetheless, … well, you know how these movies work.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well Cumberbatch fit in the role, as in "now I can't imagine anyone else in the role". He also sports a convincing American accent. I don't know anything about acting, but I think that one of the toughest things for an actor to do is spout off lines like "Dormammu, I've come to bargain!" with a straight face. There should be an Oscar for BC for that. (And Tilda Swinton, who plays "The Ancient One", should get two of them.)

Sully

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

Clint Eastwood directed, Tom Hanks is Sully, and it's about as good as it could be.

As we all know, back in January 2009, a US Airways flight out of LaGuardia hit a flock of geese as it was ascending, and both engines were lost. Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger kept his head, judged his options and chances, and set the jet down in the Hudson River, just off Manhattan. Thanks to him, the rest of the flight crew, and some quick-thinking rescuers, the fatality count was zero, when it could have been 155. Or more, if the Airbus had crashed somewhere in NYC.

But the entire flight took about five minutes, the rescue took about twenty minutes, how do you make a decent sized movie out of that?

Well, they fudged a bit, turning the subsequent NTSB investigation into more of an Inquisition than it actually was. Playing the primary (and entirely fictitious) heavy is the immortal UNH grad, Mike O'Malley, and he seems (at least for most of the movie) to want to argue that Sully could have made a safer return to LaGuardia, or made it to Teterboro NJ. Spoiler: given the time involved in diagnosis and alternative-weighing, probably not. Sully is vindicated, as also we already know.

Still: Tom Hanks does his usual fine job of getting into his character's skin. Everybody else is good too. It's always nice to see Valerie Mahaffey, who plays one of the passengers. And the special effects are pretty good, too: you'll swear that they just re-enacted the whole thing for the movie.

Arrival

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

Let's see… IMDB counts 8 Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), and one win. Amy Adams also got nominated (Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, BAFTA, …) for her performance as Louise, the genius linguist academic. So, yes, it's pretty good.

First Louise is shown as an (apparently) single mom raising a cute kid, only to lose her at a too-young age. But then we move to the real plot: 12 huge alien vessels appearing at random spots around the world, their origin and purpose a mystery. Louise is dragooned by a humane but tough Colonel (Forest Whitaker) to attempt to solve the riddles. She's helped out by Ian (Jeremy Renner), an affable theoretical physicist from Los Alamos.

A little slow at times, but that's OK. No-spoiler advice: pay close attention to everything Louise says (in dialog and voice-over) in the early going, as it will help illuminate things later. And afterward, you might want to check out the IMDB trivia page too, if you miss the joke about the names Ian suggests for their alien contacts.