A Simple Favor

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

We squoze this Netflix DVD in New Year's Eve, waiting for the ball to drop. By the way, I am not sure why we do that ball-drop thing any more.

IMDB genrecizes this as Comedy/Crime/Drama, which is about right. The five-foot-two Pride of Portland ME, Anna Kendrick, plays Stephanie: a seemingly perfect single suburban-CT mom with a mildly popular "vlog" where she perkily shares recipes, crafts, and homemaking tips. Her cute son, Miles, demands a play date with his new friend Nicky, which kicks off her involvement with Nicky's mom… well, let's call her "Emily", since that's her name in the credits, played by the 5-foot-10 Blake Lively. Emily is foulmouthed, hard-drinking, rich, and, uh, oversharing. Significantly, even with her salary as a NYC PR person for a glitzy fashion company, and her hubby's teaching gig at a local university, she claims to be on the edge of financial ruin.

One day, Emily asks Stephanie for the titular "simple favor": could she pick up Nicky from school and watch him for a bit? Fine, but Emily doesn't appear later to pick Nicky up. Or ever. She goes missing. What happened to her?

From there, the story takes a number of unexpected twists. No spoilers here, at least none other than you can get from the blurbs. A lot of R-rated fun (involving, according to the MPAA, "sexual content and language throughout, some graphic nude images, drug use and violence").

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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

So, as I type, this movie is #29 on IMDB's Top Rated Movies of all time. Reviews have been rapturous. I went in with super-high expectations, dragging Mrs. Salad and Pun Son along with me, and…

Well, it's not bad. Fun, even. But I don't get all the hoopla. I don't think this would even make my top-29 list of superhero movies.

Maybe I just wasn't in the mood.

Anyway, the deal is this: in a closely-adjacent universe (there are little hints that it isn't the same one displayed in previous Marvel movies), there's an African American kid named Miles who gets bitten by the radioactive spider; but there's already a Spider-Man in town, and he's in the process of attempting to foil a nefarious plot hatched by Kingpin and his minions. Said plot involves ripping apart space and time in order to resurrect Kingpin's late wife and son from a different timeline; unfortunate side effect being that the entire world would probably be destroyed.

Anyway, in the first big battle, disaster results. But (side effect) a number of heroic Spider-beings from other continua show up in the aftermath to mentor Miles into superhero-dom and assist him in defeating the bad guys.

A lot of humor, sight gags, apparently Stan Lee's last appearance (his voice anyway), and I didn't fall asleep. But I maybe have an aversion to alternate universes; I don't think much of the gimmick on the Flash TV show either.

The Equalizer 2

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

Denzel Washington is Getting Up There (his birthday, as I type, is tomorrow, December 28, and he will be 64 years young.) He remains a believable action star, however. Here he reprises his role as Robert McCall, the Equalizer. His job is to bring his brand of vigilante justice to the people for whom the normal channels are unavailable or inefficacious. This often requires prodigious amounts of spectacular violence, at which McCall excels.

McCall lives modestly in a working-class Boston apartment, but he's well-off enough to jaunt off to Europe to retrieve a kidnapped child from (what I'm pretty sure is) the Orient Express. Mostly he sticks to home: comforting a Holocaust survivor (Orson Bean, not dead yet!) or mentoring a black kid wavering between thug life and nurturing his artistic talent.

But the main plot is driven by international intrigue: a CIA "resource" and his wife have been gruesomely murdered, the scene set up to look like a murder/suicide. This brings in McCall's old CIA boss, Susan (Melissa Leo) to check things out. Which (eventually) brings in McCall, too. The bad guys handle "loose ends" in the classic bad guy way.

A thrilling conclusion is set in Marshfield MA, seaside during a nor'easter/hurricane. And that's neat too.

Force of Evil

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

Another "thought I would like it better" movie. It even has a little video extra where Martin Scorsese tells us how he saw it as a kid, loved it, and went on to make movies influenced by it. But…

John Garfield plays Joe, a lawyer in the employ of the mob. As the movie opens, he's about to hatch a scheme involving the numbers game in New York City: have the number "776" come up on the Fourth of July, a day when everyone plays "776". This will drive the small-time numbers "banks" into bankruptcy, and the mob can just waltz in, and take over.

Problem: Joe's brother, Leo, owns one of those banks. Although expressly forbidden to do so by his gangster boss, Joe tries to warn Leo about what's going to happen. Leo declines the help; he's got nothing but contempt for his mobbed-up brother.

Of course, Leo's operation is also, technically, illegal. He's just small-time, though, so it's OK.

Joe tries Plan B: call in the (corrupt, of course) cops to raid Leo's operation. This doesn't go well. In addition, Joe catches the eye of the lovely, innocent, Doris, who works for Leo. (Yes, she's "innocent" despite working the numbers racket. Everything's relative.)

It's a film noir, so consequences are dark and tragic. There are a lot of visually striking noirish shots.

The director/screenwriter, Abraham Polonsky, was blacklisted for not "naming names" for HUAC. (He was, however, a Communist Party member, so ick.

John Garfield "acts" by (unfortunately) yelling a lot.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

[1.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

The Netflix algorithm thought I'd like this a lot better than I did. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood.

The story is that Donna (Meryl Streep in the first movie) has kicked the bucket, leaving her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and widower (Pierce Brosnan) bereft. The movie also does an origin story, describing how Young Donna (Lily James) came to be impregnated with Sophie and wind up on that picturesque Greek isle owning a hotel. There's a lot of bouncing back and forth between past and present.

Oh, and Cher shows up, playing Donna's mom, Sophie's grandma. Also: Andy Garcia as (ta da!) "Fernando". What's he doing here? C'mon, guess. I bet you're right.

And mostly it's just an excuse for big dancing/singing production numbers with more ABBA songs. Unfortunately, they used all the really popular ABBA songs in the first movie, so the ones here are mostly second-string; I didn't even recognize some of them (but I am not really an ABBA fan).

Still it's kind of a hoot to see Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgård, and Colin Firth try to dance and sing. They look like they're having a good time. (Although whenever I see Stellan Skarsgård in a movie, it makes me want to watch The Hunt for Red October again.)

She's Funny That Way

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

Why yes, we did watch two screwball comedies in a row. Good catch. This one's from 2014, and it languished in my Netflix queue for a few years due to Netflix's algorithm's prediction that I might not like it much. But I have a little script that tells me, in essence, among other things: "Either bump this movie to the top of the queue, or delete it." And I did the former.

Anyway: it was directed and co-written by Peter Bogdonovich, who made some great films in the 70s.

Director Arnold Albertson (Owen Wilson) checks into a fancy hotel under a fake name, and immediately makes arrangements for an "escort", Isabella Patterson (Imogen Poots), who turns out to be a hooker with a heart of gold, and acting aspirations as well.

Without going into detail (because the details are ludicrous), the plot quickly involves more and more goofy characters: an actor in Albertson's play (Rhys Ifans); Albertson's wife (Kathryn Hahn); Isabella's totally unqualified shrink (Jennifer Aniston); an Isabella-infatuated judge (Austin Pendleton); the playwright (Will Forte). Unexpected and surprising relationships between characters are revealed as the movie progresses. There are a lot of slamming hotel room doors and suspicious looks.

I had a good time watching. One neat bit for me: a lot of actors from Bogdonovich's old movies have roles here: Austin Pendleton, Tatum O'Neal, Colleen Camp, Cybill Shepherd, Joanna Lumley, and maybe others I've missed. Bogdonovich must be a good guy to work with.

The Awful Truth

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

A fine screwball comedy from 1937 that somehow I've managed to miss up until now.

Noted screwballer Cary Grant and Irene Dunne play upperclass socialites Jerry and Lucy Warriner. Jerry fibs to Lucy about his recent whereabouts (I don't know where he went, but it wasn't Florida) and Lucy shows up after being out all night with a suave male companion. Mutual suspicion breeds mutual distrust, and before you can say "can't we discuss this as adults", there is mutual agreement on a divorce. The only issue is who gets the cute doggie, Mr. Smith. (After some shenanigans, Mr. Smith goes to Lucy, with visiting rights to Jerry.)

But there's a 90-day wait before the divorce becomes final, and the remainder of the movie chronicles the misadventures of the (obviously still in love) couple as they struggle to come up with new partners and lives. Will they concede the obvious and get back together? Spoiler: yup.

Just about all the characters are very very rich, and this was in the midst of the Great Depression. Audiences didn't seem to mind, though; it won an Oscar for Best Director (Leo McCarey), and was nominated for five more, including Best Picture.


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

So, beguiled by the neat trailer, and undeterred by some mediocre reviews, Pun Son and I went to the Newington multiplex to see this. I assume the premise here is: let's make a mashup of a war picture and a horror picture. Why? Because we can.

It starts out as a war picture: a fleet of C-47s headed over France on the eve of D-Day with a bunch of paratroopers inside. Their mission is to take out a radio-jamming station just off the Normandy coast. Unfortunately, in a horrific display of special effects, German anti-aircraft guns destroy most of the planes and nearly all the soldiers. Just five guys—oops, make that four guys—make it to the ground in one piece. But their seemingly doomed mission must carry on.

As expected, they run into the local French Hot Resistance Babe, who both helps out and adds complications. But what's with the old lady hiding away in the FHRB's spare room? As it turns out, she's the victim of Evil Nazi Research, an effort to develop a serum to produce near-indestructible soldiers. But there are bad side effects out the wazoo. So the good guys aren't just fighting Nazis, they're also fighting Evil Nazi Zombies.

(Where are you going to put your Evil Nazi Research Lab? I'd suggest in the same building as your Evil Nazi Radio Jamming Station. I see synergistic results.)

So, it's OK. As I said, the special effects are very good. The plot is ludicrous and clichéd. I could have waited for the DVD.

Last Modified 2018-12-04 6:06 AM EST

The Death of Stalin

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

It's billed at IMDB as "Comedy , Drama , History". But prospective viewer be warned: it's very dark humor. And as that Stalin t-shirt proclaims: dark humor is like food; not everyone gets it.

But I pretty much got it, I think. It is a based-on-fact movie about the events in 1953, beginning shortly before the Boss's demise, continuing until shortly after his funeral, and the inevitable power struggle is resolved. It is a only slightly sped-up good-parts version of actual events.

It is a satirical picture of a society powered largely by terror. Violence is rarely pictured directly; the movie's R rating is based mostly on its language. If people running afoul of Stalin are lucky, it's off to the Gulag; otherwise it's a bullet in the head. No less fearful are those ostensibly in power directly underneath the Beloved Leader and Teacher of Progressive Mankind. But neither are they bound by any silly rules; when it's clear that there will need to be a new ruler, the competition quickly becomes feral, as former "comrades" realize it's betray-or-be-betrayed.

You ask: how can that be funny? It's hard to explain. Certainly because of all the absurdity involved, and knowing that we're watching this from our comfy couches, and not as a participant or victim.

Acting is first-rate. According to IMDB's trivia page, the director decided to not even try for Russian accents. So Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev sounds… just like Steve Buscemi.

And Michael Palin plays Molotov as the totally craven toady that he was; a Monty Python parody without mercy.

Hail, Caesar!

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

A fun movie from the Coen brothers. Really took too long for me to get around to watching it.

It's the tale of a few days in the life of the Hollywood studio of Capitol Pictures, which is in the business of churning out all kinds of early-50's movies: religious epics, musicals, dramas, comedies, you name it. Overseeing it all is Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin; he's got his eye on everything, moves his stars around movies like pieces on a chessboard, and is always ready to quash some scandal before it can erupt in the gossip rags. Eddie is considering a job offer from Lockheed, and you can see it's tempting to jump out of his world of high-pressure in service of frivolity.

Specifically: one of the stars of the religious epic Hail, Caesar!, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), has been kidnapped by a group of Communist screenwriters. The studio is also trying to transition cowboy-movie star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a more serious flick; the problem being that he's got no idea how to act, or how to lose the oater accent. He's a nice guy, sure, but his new director, Laurence Laurentz, is flummoxed about how to deal with him.

And DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), an Esther Williams-type star of swimming musicals, has a bun in the oven, another potential scandal. Also, she's finding it extremely difficult to fit into her mermaid-tail costume.

Alden Ehrenreich, in case you forgot, and who could blame you if you had, played the young Han in Solo this year. He's much better in this movie.

Also, if you watch it, keep an eye out for Frances McDormand in a brief but hilarious scene. I didn't recognize her until I looked her up at IMDB.

I think there's a underlying religious theme here, but I didn't feel like thinking too hard about it.