The Equalizer

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

So this is pretty much a by-the-numbers action flick. But it's got Denzel Washington as the hero, and that's enough to raise it up to four point zero stars right there.

Mr. Washington plays Robert McCall, living a quiet existence in a downscale Boston community (Chelsea/East Boston or somewhere in that area). He takes the Red Line to work at a big-box home improvement store. (Actually, according to IMDB, a defunct Lowe's in Haverhill.) He's affable enough, but essentially a loner.

He's got insomnia, which makes him a regular customer at a seedy all-night diner, where he drinks tea (made from a teabag he brings from home) and reads his dead wife's novels. This leads him to meet "Teri" (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young prostitute who has ambitions to leave her sordid life. (The guy playing Teri's pimp, David Meunier, previously played Johnny Crowder on Justified; pretty much the same sleazy character, except with a Russian accent instead of a Kentucky accent.)

Teri's ambitions are hindered by a brutal beating from Russian mobster/pimp. Which leads McCall to help out, first peaceably, then not so much. It turns out that McCall has (as Liam Neeson would put it) "a very particular set of skills", and he finds himself at war with the entire Russian mob. The Russian mob should have known better.


Bookmark and Share

The Wind Rises

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

A recent offering from the genius Japanese animation folks Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. It's a (highly fictionalized) biographical drama about Jirô Horikoshi, the primary aeronautical engineer behind the WW2 "Zero" Japanese fighter plane. (Which was used to kill a lot of Americans, but Jirô gets a "Werner von Braun" pass for this.)

Growing up in early-20th century Japan, young Jirô is obsessed with airplanes, but his lousy eyesight precludes him from being a pilot. Fortunately (since this is a Miyazaki flick) his future path comes to him in a dream, where he meets his hero, aircraft designer Italian Count Caproni, who doesn't actually pilot his planes either. Jirô sets doggedly on his path.

The story follows Jirô through his education and employment with Mitsubishi. Along the way, Jirô meets Nahoko, the love of his life, during a train trip to Tokyo. Which is disrupted by the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, probably the deadliest in Japan's history; Jirô behaves heroically, saving Nahoko and her caregiver. Various other things happen, including some bad/sad things. It's a little unfocused, much like real life is.

All this is charmingly and gorgeously rendered on the screen, because it's Studio Ghibli. It's a bit of a departure from their usual pure-fantasy genre, but it worked for me.


Bookmark and Share

The Hundred-Foot Journey

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

This is one of those movies I think of as aimed squarely at the PBS demographic. Telltale signs:

  • Helen Mirren

  • France

  • Multiculturalism. In this case: Indian, as in "from India".

  • The resulting cultural clash. In this case: between the frogs and the wogs.

  • Attractive ethnic young person struggling against the odds to achieve personal and professional success. In this case: Hassan is a gifted chef, but will he be able to break into the tradition-bound restaurant scene, and also get the girl?

  • Metaphorical title. It's the distance between the Indian restaurant run by Hassan's dad and the traditional hoity-toity French restaurant across the road. But—wow, man—the real distance in terms of culture and effort is much longer. I mean, think about it, man.

  • Lines of dialogue meant to be inspirational, but come out wooden. ("Five mother sauces. You must find them in your heart. Then, bring them to your pots. That's the secret.")

  • Hugging. Lots of hugging.

You might think I didn't like it. Mostly, I did! But this genre's components are nearly as predictable as your average romantic comedy, slasher flick, or superhero blockbuster.

Anyway: if you have a foodie PBS watcher in the house, you could do worse.


Bookmark and Share

Snowpiercer

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

[Sung to the tune of "Goldfinger" by Shirley Bassey:]

Snowpiercer!
It's the train, the train on a frigid track.
An endless track.
Such a cold piercer!
Get on board, prepare for some abuse.
Avoid the caboose!

Solar heat is a thing of the past,
And the passengers are split up by caste.
Poor shlubs in back know nothing fiercer
Than the guy in charge of the Snowpiercer.
Miserable saps, beware his loyal slaves
They misbehave!


Last Modified 2015-01-06 11:55 AM EST
Bookmark and Share

Moms' Night Out

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

It's good, PG-rated fun. (Why is it PG? MPAA: "mild thematic elements and some action") It was distributed by "Affirm Films", a division of Sony Pictures Entertainment, whose mission statement says it is "dedicated to producing, acquiring and marketing films which inspire, uplift, and entertain audiences." That means there's God stuff.

The movie centers around harried mom Allyson, who claims to be not "happy". As near as I can tell, this is due to her not living up to her own standards of what a "mother" is supposed to be. Otherwise, she's fine: her kids are rambunctious but loving; her husband (Samwise Gamgee) travels a lot, but is loving; she's got a network of loving friends, a big friendly church, a nice house, and a Sienna minivan.

So she decides to arrange (see title) a "moms' night out" for her and her friends: the pastor's wife, Sondra (Patricia Heaton), and childhood friend Izzy. A fancy restaurant is arranged, makeup is applied, nice shoes are worn, a small non-mommy purse is acquired. And then things rapidly go downhill, because (a) the restaurant misunderstands/loses her reservation and (b) the kids are left with dads and acquaintances, and their childcare skills are weak.

Involved are: bikers, a tattoo parlor, the cops, a parakeet, a pothead, bowling, a nice African-American family, a British cabbie, a high-speed chase, a holding cell, accidental tasering, occasional punching. Good clean fun. It goes on about 10 minutes too long, but that's forgivable. Patricia Heaton is a gifted comic actress.


Bookmark and Share

Interstellar

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

As I type, Interstellar is at position 15 on IMDB's top 250 movies of all time. I don't know about that, but it's still pretty good. So Mrs. Salad and I thought it would be a good idea to catch this spectacular flick before it vanished from theaters. It was more comprehensible than it might have been: I'm a subscriber to Wired, and their December 2014 issue was more or less an a spoiler-free ad for Interstellar, with plenty of hints about the speculative science it involved.

Matthew McConaughey plays farmer/widower/ex-astronaut Cooper. He lives with his 10-year-old daughter (Murph) and 15-year-old son (Tom) on a not-too-distant-future dying Earth. Details are a little hazy, but widespread plant blight has caused famine, nasty dust storms, and (worst) a crippling effect on the national psyche. (In an especially poignant bit, it's revealed that Murph's newest school textbooks describe the Apollo program as a hoax, made up by NASA to bankrupt the old Soviet Union. Hey, it worked!)

Mankind's only hope is to get the hell off the planet. But how? Cooper and Murph stumble across a secret government program: what's left of NASA has discovered a wormhole out by Saturn that leads to another galaxy, and there are a number of possibly inhabitable worlds at the other end. The only thing lacking is a skilled astronaut to pilot the ship, and Cooper is quickly recruited. So they're off, with Cooper leaving Murph and Tom behind, on a mission that has small chance of success, and an even smaller chance that Cooper will return to his kids. Tom's OK with that, but Murph is bitter and resentful.

What follows is a heartstring-tugging family drama intertwined with spectacular hard-as-nails science fiction. I'm pretty sure there's never been as much relativistic astrophysics in any other movie. Kip Thorne, who has been a leading researcher in the field for decades, was an advisor to the film, so technical details are as accurate as you're likely to find.

It's pretty much all good. Acting is first-rate (IMDB counts eight Oscar nominees/winners among the cast). And, well, it's Christopher Nolan-directed. My only gripe is that I couldn't understand some of the McConaughey dialogue, some combination of his Texas accent and Cinemagic's poor sound system.


Last Modified 2015-01-23 2:11 PM EST
Bookmark and Share

The Interview

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

I took my low-courage stand against dictators and rented The Interview via the iTunes store. It was good filthy fun, with (as the MPAA puts it) "pervasive language, crude and sexual humor, nudity, some drug use and bloody violence." It kept me chuckling all the way through.

Given that the movie's premise has appeared ad nauseam all over the Internet during the past few weeks, you probably don't need this plot summary:

James Franco and Seth Rogen, respectively, play Dave Skylark (the dimwitted host of a trashy celebrity interview show) and Aaron Rapaport (his somewhat smarter producer). Stupid as he is, Dave has an uncanny gift for getting his interview subjects to open up on-air to reveal dark secrets. (Eminem: gay; Rob Lowe: bald.) It turns out that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is a fan, and (incredibly) Aaron makes the arrangements for the show to broadcast live from Pyongyang.

But the CIA takes an interest, and persuades Dave and Aaron to attempt to assassinate Kim with a surreptitious dose of ricin. What could go wrong? Everything, as it turns out.

I was impressed: there was nothing here to make a right-wing freedom-loving troglodyte like me toss his cookies. Kim makes an effort to appear human and ingratiate himself with Dave; this works, briefly, but only because Dave is a gullible idiot. The movie doesn't go into the dirty details of North Korean misery and repression, but (hey) it's a comedy, and I don't recall To Be Or Not To Be showing Auschwitz either.


Last Modified 2015-01-06 11:47 AM EST
Bookmark and Share

Joe

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

One of Ms. Salad's seemingly at-random picks out of the Netflix bowl. She liked it much better than I did, and she didn't like it that much.

Joe, the title character, is played by Nicolas Cage. He inhabits a desperately poor area of (I think) Texas, an unending sprawl of destitution. (The nicest structure that appears on film, I think, is the local whorehouse.) Nearly everyone is overly fond of alcohol and cigarettes. The local cops can only hope to keep a lid on overt lawlessness, and they don't do such a hot job of it.

Joe is an ex-con trying to go straight, but he has serious anger issues. In what may have been a metaphor, had I thought about it hard enough, his job is to manage a work gang that's poisoning junk trees in order to make room for a future woodlot. It's dirty and arduous work, but it keeps him honest-but-poor.

In comes Gary, a 15-year-old from an extremely dysfunctional family. His dad is a (literally) murderous drunk, who terrorizes his mom and probably sexually abuses his mute sister. But he's relatively clean, wants to work hard. Joe takes a shine to him.

And then: mostly depressing stuff happens. It goes on and on. And (spoiler alert) nearly everyone winds up dead.

Not my cup of tea, although the IMDB raters have it slightly above mediocre. IMDB trivia saith that the guy who played Gary's father was an actual homeless guy plucked off the streets of Austin; he died, back on the streets, a few weeks after the filming. Now that's authenticity. Not that it's fun to watch.


Last Modified 2014-12-29 6:40 AM EST
Bookmark and Share

What If

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

Not to be confused with the book What If? by Randall Munroe. (Which I got for Christmas, thanks very much.) And, despite the title, it's not one of those imaginative movies that explores what someone's life might be like if they'd made one simple decision differently. Instead, it's a nice little romantic comedy, and it's perfectly OK at that level.

As you can probably tell from the Amazon link image over there on your right, one of the stars is Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, playing a slacker named Wallace. You might be less familiar with the female lead, Zoe Kazan, who plays an amiable goofball named Chantry. (She's Elia Kazan's granddaughter.) The movie works due to their winning chemistry, and above-average dialogue.

Mr. Radcliffe is British, Ms. Kazan is American, so (of course) the movie is mostly set in Toronto, with them both playing Canadians. (According to Wikipedia, there was a minor controversy about the movie's "entirely caucasian cast". Even though Toronto has, using the language of modern racial pigeonholers, a 49% "visible minority population", they're invisible here.)

Anyway: Wallace is in a lengthy funk from his betrayal by his previous girlfriend. He meets Chantry at a party, and is enraptured by her clever banter. But she lets him know right away: she has a boyfriend named Ben (a nice guy), so it's strictly a let's-just-be-friends deal. So that sets up the conflict: Wallace doesn't want to break up Ben and Chantry. But he doesn't want to lose her either.

There is the usual array of friends and relatives, all happy to offer advice and to serve as plot devices.

As near as I can tell, this movie spent about 10 minutes in theatres before going to DVD. Is it impossible to make a financially successful PG-13 romantic comedy these days?


Last Modified 2014-12-29 6:49 AM EST
Bookmark and Share

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

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

A must-see-in-theatre for us, as I'm sure the filmmakers coldly calculated.

At the end of the previous movie, our reluctant heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) had been rescued from near-death by revolutionaries eager to take down the oppressive government of Panem as symbolized by its ruthless sadist leader, President Snow (Donald Sutherland). But one of Katniss's boyfriends, Peeta, remained behind. Katniss is pretty irate about that. It's apparent that she loves Peeta slightly more than she does her other boyfriend, Gale.

The revolutionaries are based in "District 13", long-supposed to have been destroyed by Panem. But they're living in a deep underground complex, full of weaponry and spirited people. They are led by President Coin (Julianne Moore) with assistance from Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and some other folks from previous installments. Coin wants Katniss as an inspirational symbol to lead the revolt. Katniss is more concerned about getting Peeta back to safety, and she uses that as a bargaining chip.

As a number of reviewers observed: for a two-hour movie, not too much happens. There are a few conflict scenes where the ruthless forces of Panem take on the plucky dissidents. But the main plot driver is a mopy Katniss pining for Peeta's safe return.

So: it's OK, but clearly just setting up moviegoers to shell out for another ticket next November. And, God willing, we'll be there. I haven't read the books, so I (honestly) don't know how things turn out. At times it appears the District 13 allegedly-good guys are nearly as power-hungry as the Panem thugs, and some of the scenes where Coin addresses her minions give off a Triumph of the Will vibe. So maybe it will turn out to be one of those meet-the-new-boss-same-as-the-old-boss deals? Don't tell me.


Last Modified 2014-12-08 3:29 PM EST
Bookmark and Share