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
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X-Men: Days of Future Past

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

So, yeah, it's okay. And I'm glad I watched it. But, for some reason, I've always been considerably less enthusiastic about the X-Men than I am about (say) Cap or Shell-head. Even though this one has Jean-Luc and Gandalf in minor roles. It doesn't help that this one works off a time-travel premise that will be totally familiar to anyone who watched the Back to the Future movies or relevant installments of Star Trek.

The movie starts off in a grim future with eternal genocidal warfare between mutants and non-mutants. The mutants are about to be on the losing end, due to the "Sentinels", deadly robots that are able to absorb mutant powers and jiu-jitsu-like reflect them back on the mutants. All this tracks back to the good/bad shape-shifting mutant Mystique, who fatefully killed the Sentinels' inventor back in 1973. That turned out to be a bad call.

So the obvious solution (obvious at least to Professor X, since he was in some of those Star Treks) is to send someone back to 1973 to prevent Mystique from working her murderous mischief. Time-travel turns out to be another handy mutant power. Wolverine is the only practical choice for the trip. And (to avoid a certain class of paradoxes), it involves sending W's conciousness back to '73 to inhabit his then-body.

So: all he has to do is seek out the 1973 versions of Professor X and Magneto, and whatever other X-men they can gather, then to thwart Mystique. There are a number of complications due to the involvement of Magneto, who starts out helpful, but is soon enough up to his old tricks.

So: not a bad flick. Clever and occasionally funny, and seemingly not as tediously didactic as previous entries. (Or maybe I'm just getting used to that.)


Last Modified 2014-12-10 12:16 PM EST
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Edge of Tomorrow

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

I'm sure a bunch of people did this already, but I will compare this movie to the classic Groundhog Day:

  • Both movies involve the hero living the same time period over and over. (The hero's name here is "William Cage", and he's played by Tom Cruise.)

  • He remembers what he did in previous time iterations, but everyone else is living the day for the first time.

  • The other main character is a female named "Rita". (Vrataski, played by Emily Blunt).

  • Cage starts out unlikeable and cynical, but his character improves throughout the film.

  • And Cage's only hope of escaping the time loop is to somehow learn from his past mistakes, go back and try again.

There are differences, of course. Mainly because it's a cross between Groundhog Day and (the good parts of) Starship Troopers.

Instead of simply falling asleep at the end of the day, Cage gets killed, in invariably nasty (but PG-13) ways: his death snaps him back to the start of the loop. He's in a war against alien invaders, and he gradually discovers he's humanity's only hope against certain doom. So he's got that going for him.

It's a lot of fun. Special effects are super-impressive, but (like Godzilla) too many of them take place in the dark. (I think that's how they save money on special effects.) Tom Cruise, no matter how nuts he might be in real life, remains a very fine actor. Emily Blunt… well, wow. Just wow.


Last Modified 2014-12-10 12:16 PM EST
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Still Mine

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

I think I saw this movie on a list of libertarian-themed flicks (Can't find that list now, though.) So into the Netflix queue it went. True enough, its libertarian (specifically: pro-individual, anti-regulation) sentiments are clear. That theme is wrapped around a solid tale of devotion, family, and love.

James Cromwell plays Craig Morrison, a farmer and handyman, working his land outside of St. Martins, New Brunswick, overlooking the Bay of Fundy. He's strongly independent, and more than slightly cantankerous. And he is totally committed to the happiness of his lovely wife Irene (Geneviève Bujold!) They've raised seven kids, all now middle-aged, a few of whom are hanging around.

[Yes, Star Trek fans: Zephram Cochrane and the first Captain Janeway got married and moved to Canada.]

Problem: Irene is gradually succumbing to dementia, and needs a safer environment than their aging farmhouse. And she refuses to move into a home. So Craig resolves to build a smaller, one-level home that would be more appropriate as they grow old.

Unfortunately, Craig is thwarted at every turn by officious local bureaucrats who demand plans, permits, inspectors, and—above all—deference and subservience. Craig tries—he really does—but Irene's deteriorating condition, the oncoming winter, and continuing bureaucratic obstinence are limiting his options. It all heads to a courtroom scene where Craig faces the possibility of jail time and destruction of his new home.

So, yes, it's kind of like a small-scale Atlas Shrugged. There's another scene where Craig attempts to sell his farm's strawberries to a wholesaler; he's informed that new government regulations demand that farmers bring their crops in refrigerated trucks. This makes no sense in Craig's case, but rules are rules, and most of the crop goes to waste.

But the movie doesn't beat you over the head with ideology. The real story is Craig's love for Irene, and his desire to remain independent while caring for her. Mr. Cromwell and Ms. Bujold handle their roles extremely well.


Last Modified 2014-12-10 12:16 PM EST
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Chef

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

Despite having Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansen, and Jon Favreau in the cast list, this is not an Iron Man or Avengers movie. Instead it's a sweet little comedy/drama that we enjoyed quite a bit.

Jon Favreau wrote, directed, and plays the protagonist, chef Carl Casper. Carl is off his game: divorced and poor, spending an inadequate amount of time with his 10-year-old son, Percy. He's the head of the kitchen at a trendy LA restaurant, but he's intimidated by the restaurant's owner (played by Dustin Hoffman). He admits that he and the restaurant are "stuck in a creative rut". Due to an ignorance of how Twitter works, he gets into a stupid flamewar with a restaurant critic.

There are lots of pressures on Carl's life, and it explodes when the critic comes to the restaurant. Carl's epic rant becomes a YouTube sensation. And he gets canned.

Low point. Fortunately, his wife (Sofía Vergara, because I guess they couldn't get Gwyneth Paltrow) is still fond of him, and asks him to come along on a business/pleasure trip to Miami with their son. Her ulterior motive is revealed: she's sweet-talked her previous husband (a hilarious cameo by Robert Downey, Jr.) into donating a beat-up food truck. It's an obvious set up for redemption. Will it work? No spoilers here, but if you can't figure it out, you probably don't see a lot of movies.

It's lots of fun. All the actors are top-notch. I really liked John Leguizamo, who plays Carl's assistant. Slight downside: you might want to pre-plan to go out for Cuban sandwiches after watching, because this movie might make you crave one.


Last Modified 2014-12-10 12:15 PM EST
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Godzilla

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

It could be that I'm growing up. ("About time!" — Mrs. Salad) But I was prepared to have a rockin' good time watching this big-budget resurrection of everyone's favorite Japanese nuclear-powered monster. But instead, meh.

It turns out the movie really should have been titled Godzilla vs. the MUTOs. MUTO == Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism. There are two, boy and girl, initially discovered in pods, in the Philippines by a mining operation in 1999. The boy MUTO travels to Japan to destroy a nuclear reactor and go into a 15-year hibernation. The girl MUTO remains empodded and is toted off to Yucca Flats Nevada, since she's also radioactive.

There are people, too. Sandra Brody (Juliette Binoche) is married to Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and have young son Ford. Sandra and Joe work at the doomed nuke; Sandra perishes heroically during the MUTO's attack.

Flash forward to the present day: Ford is all grown up, and Joe has turned into an Ahab-like obsessive trying to pierce the government coverup of the disaster. Ford arrives in Japan just in time for the reawakening of the boy MUTO, which (of course) wreaks more havoc, bumping off Joe. It then sets off toward America to reunite with the female.

Then Godzilla shows up, because he really doesn't like MUTOs; he's relatively benevolent toward people, even though they have a history of trying to kill him. The three monsters also take in the tourist sights, destroying Honolulu and Las Vegas on their way to rendezvous in San Francisco.

Well, that's enough plot. The overall themes are: incompetence of the Japanese and American governments and armed forces; also, nukes are bad. Most of the action takes place in the dark, which makes it difficult, at least on home video, to discern what's going on. Some of the special effects are impressive, but three stars are generous.

That spooky Ligeti music from 2001 is employed at one point, but the monolith doesn't show up.


Last Modified 2014-12-10 12:22 PM EST
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Muppets Most Wanted

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

A nice little Muppets movie. Lots of cameos.

The plot kicks off at the end of the previous movie; the Muppets reunited after many years. (As Kermit would say: Yaayyyy!) But what do they do next? Instead of following Kermit's wise counsel to take it slow and hone their craft, the rest of the gang gets taken in by the shrewd conniving "Dominic Badguy" (Ricky Gervais) and go on a world tour.

But—little do they suspect—Dominic is the co-conspirator of Constantine, the most dangerous frog in the world, recently escaped from a Siberian gulag. (Apparently they still have those.) Constantine bears a close resemblance to Kermit, and before you can say "I bet I know what's going to happen next", Constantine has taken Kermit's place and Kermit has been hauled off to Siberia by Gulag warden "Nadya" (Tina Fey).

So while Dominic and Constantine use the Muppet tour as cover for a series of brazen heists, Kermit attempts to deal with his new life as a Zek. (His fellow inmates include Danny Trejo, Ray Liotta, Tom Hiddleston; Stanley Tucci plays a guard.) As you might expect, hijinks ensue.

There's some funny stuff, and (darn it) I like these guys. So, while it lacks the inspired lunacy of Jim Henson, I still had a decent time.


Last Modified 2014-12-10 12:22 PM EST
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Anna

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

A decent, OK, thriller with some sci-fi elements, kind of the same genre as Minority Report, but with a much lower budget.

The hero, John, is a so-called "memory detective"; he has a sort of psychic power that allows him to send someone into a trance-like recreation of past events, and he will just tag along and observe. John has his problems, as scenes of his unpleasant memories of his wife's suicide keep intruding into the recreations. But he thinks he's recovered from that now, and the memory-detective company sends him off to work for a fantastically wealthy, but secretive, couple with a troubled daughter, Anna.

Anna is locked up in her bedroom, courtesy of a past deadly "incident" that she claims she had nothing to do with. John must determine whether Anna is a dangerous whacko (in which case, it's off to the loony bid, as her stepdad wishes) or the victim of malicious evildoers (as her mom thinks). Anna is clearly very intelligent and perceptive, and John is sympathetic. But…

The movie is loaded with red herrings, loose ends, and ominous foreshadowings. In the cold light of day, I have to admit it was pretty silly. But it kept me engrossed while I was watching it, and that's no mean feat for a movie that doesn't involve spaceships.

Mark Strong plays John; he's a fine actor that is well-known for playing cold-blooded villains. (There's a Jaguar commercial that goofs on this.) So it's nice to see him as a decent vulnerable protagonist.


Last Modified 2014-12-10 12:30 PM EST
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Too Late For Tears

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

Netflix calls this movie Killer Bait, but it's more commonly called Too Late For Tears; one of those weirdnesses that crops up when an old movie slips into the public domain. Neither title relates very much to the actual plot; for accuracy's sake, it might have been better calledToo Late To Realize That You Shouldn't Have Had Anything To Do With Lizabeth Scott.

Lizabeth plays Jane Palmer, married to Alan (Arthur Kennedy). He's deeply in love (even though Jane's previous husband "committed suicide"), and why not? Jane doesn't look like a murderous sociopath. But by sheer coincidence, a blackmail victim mistakenly tosses a payoff into into their convertible one night on (I think) Mulholland Drive. Alan's impulse is to Do The Right Thing and turn the money in to the cops. Jane, however, is immediately obsessed with keeping the cash at all costs. And, since this is film noir at its noirest, "all costs" means there will be at least a couple corpses involved.

Things aren't helped when Danny, the blackmailer (Dan Duryea) tracks them down and confronts Jane. Also in the picture are Alan's sister, Kathy (Kristine Miller) and a mysterious stranger, "Don" (Don DeFore) who claims to have known Alan back in WW2. Jane needs to outmaneuver them all, with a scheme that involves a lot of ad hoc deception, betrayal, and murder most foul. Will she get away with the loot?

Netflix underestimated how much I'd like this old film noir, but it's the real deal, a story of how one little accident can reveal a character's inner rot and send a lot of the cast into a downward spiral of corruption and ruin. Dan Duryea is especially good as the sleazeball blackmailer who finds that Jane's villainy is too much for even him.

Surprisingly good is Don DeFore, who I remember solely from glimpses on old TV sitcoms: Ozzie and Harriet and Hazel. Here, he's alternatively affable, goofy, and scheming; his big secret is only revealed at the movie's climax.


Last Modified 2014-12-10 12:29 PM EST
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A Matter of Life and Death

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

More commonly known in America as Stairway to Heaven, but (not to be confused|nothing to do) with that Led Zep song. We'll go with the original British title here. This movie was made shortly after World War 2, and it's pretty bizarre for the era. Or, in fact, for any era.

David Niven plays Peter Carter, an RAF pilot trying to get his doomed bomber back to Old Blighty with one engine on fire and the surviving crew punched out over the channel. He gets on the radio with June (Kim Hunter), and there's something about his classically British stiff upper lip and her warm American voice that makes them fall in love. On the radio.

After saying ta-ta to June, Peter jumps from the plane before it crashes and—against all odds—survives, getting washed up on the beach. He finds June, they get married, live happily ever after.

Just kidding! It turns out that Peter was supposed to die and his survival was due to an extremely rare slipup by the heavenly powers-that-be. Up in the realm of the angels there's much consternation about what to do; the books are out of balance. Peter's summoned to make things right, but he declines; with June he has too much to live for. The resulting conflict brings him to trial. Raymond Massey plays the prosecuting lawyer! (Chosen because of his presumed anti-Brit sentiment: he fell victim to a Redcoat in 1775 Boston.)

There are a lot of movies that revolve around the interaction between the here-and-now world and Heaven. Only in this one is there an effeminate fop who was beheaded during the French Reign of Terror. (He's in a pretty good mood about it though.) Only this one has a ping-pong match between June and a doctor, who's trying to diagnose Peter's "hallucinations" about said fop who's trying to get him Upstairs. Only this one has a camera obscura that the doctor owns as a hobby (seen once, not mentioned again). Only in this one does the good doctor die so that the script can place him as Peter's defense attorney in the Great Beyond. As I said: bizarre.

All kidding aside: there is a lot of dull scenery-chewing speechifying during Peter's trial. Could have done without that.


Last Modified 2014-12-10 12:28 PM EST
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