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

James Bond movies are (at least for now) must-see-in-theatre movies for us. We boogied on down to the Regal Fox Run Stadium 15 in Newington for this outing. We even splurged on the RPX auditorium, which has a (literal) seat-shaking sound system. Consumer note: this is a stupid gimmick.

I was prepared to be wowed, instead I came away slightly disappointed.

As the movie begins, Bond is in Mexico, on the trail of a baddie. We don't know why, and — as it turns out — his ostensible boss, M, doesn't know why either. But the resulting devastation (can't he just shoot someone?) causes an international incident. Bond's agency, MI6, finds itself under criticism, and the double-0 program might be phased out in favor of panopticon-style surveillance and drones.

We eventually find out Bond's reason for going to Mexico, and the continuation of this project leads him to various scenic locations, always in mortal danger. But his current enemy, the head of SPECTRE, seems to know his every move, and seems to enjoy playing with him like a cat with a mouse.

Therein my disappointment: SPECTRE has all the cards, and the only way Bond survives is because they are setting him up for the finish. It seems that Bond isn't any danger to their nefarious scheme (until the very end, that is): he's an important part of their nefarious scheme.

Which made me think of the Austin Powers quote:

Dr. Evil: Scott, I want you to meet daddy's nemesis, Austin Powers

Scott Evil: What? Are you feeding him? Why don't you just kill him?

Dr. Evil: I have an even better idea. I'm going to place him in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death.

That's probably not what the filmmakers wanted me to think.

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

I think the honest title of this movie should have been Reese Witherspoon Wants an Oscar. Really, she hits a lot of the clichés: she (at times) looks awful; she has many feels; she uses the f-word a lot; her character has had bad things happen to her and made awful choices; she gets a shot at redemption; she also Learns Things About Herself.

And sure enough, she was nominated! But, unfortunately, Julianne Moore was also nominated that year. And her character had Alzheimer's! Sorry, Reese.

Anyway: Reese plays "Cheryl Strayed", and she is hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, solo. She is initially out of shape and incompetent. Flashbacks show us how she got there: an abusive father, a dying mother, broken marriage, promiscuity, drug use, and an addiction to pretentious Simon and Garfunkel tunes.

The scenery along the way is fantastic, so there's that. And there's plenty of ways to get seriously killed or hurt on that kind of hike, and Cheryl discovers most of them, so there's suspense. Her project ran right up against the boundary between "noble quest" and "damn-foolish risk". Still, the movie kept me on her side.

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Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me

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

Back in the day, when I was a young 'un in Omaha, the music scene was far different from the hyper-Balkanized one we have today. Everyone listened to the local AM station KOIL, and it played a hodgepodge. The Beatles, sure, but also Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams. The Stones, Petula Clark, Elvis, the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Roger Miller,…

It didn't hurt that we were in the middle of an explosion of creative diversity. I think hundreds of years from now, musical historians will look back on it as uprecedented.

Anyway, in the middle of it all was Glen Campbell. He had a fine career as a sought-after session musician; he was a Beach Boy for awhile; eventually he became a recording star on his own. He went on to superstardom, occasional movie roles, a career fizzle, multiple wrecked marriages, a scandalous dalliance with Tanya Tucker, booze and cocaine.

But I was pretty much always a fan from the 1960s on. Although I'm not big on country music, he could transcend that easily. It helped that he had the musical sense to sing a lot of Jimmy Webb songs—I can't imagine a better pairing of singer and songwriter. His albums nearly always had some dreadful sentimental glop, but that's (a) show biz, and (b) why we have iPods.

And now he has Alzheimer's. This movie (which I watched off Netflix streaming) is about dealing with that malady, while at the same time going on a farewell concert tour. The result is a mixture of heartbreak and triumph. Heartbreak, because it's clear from the get-go that Glen's disease has robbed him of the ability to recall (for example) where he is, his childrens' names, who the President is, or even what year it is. On occasion, he can become querulous, paranoid, and obnoxious.

But also triumph, because he can still sing strongly (albeit not like in decades back), play genius guitar, and connect charismatically with a live audience. And he can still muster up a joke or two. When informed that he was being filmed for a movie about himself, he says: "Oh. I'll be me." From where they got the movie's title.

Quibbles: it's a little long, nearly two hours. Did we really need fourteen dozen talking-head scenes of his current wife telling us how difficult and unpredictable things are? (OK, probably not that many. But it seemed like that many.)

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The Martian

[5.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

I was in Nashville, Mrs. Salad was off to her meeting, and I was unenthusiastic about going to yet another money-sucking tourist trap. Nashville, bless its pecuniary heart, doesn't seem to have a lot of free stuff to do. Even its replica of the Parthenon will set you back $6. So I went to the movies. Only slightly more expensive than the Parthenon, even when you splurge, as I did, on 3-D.

The plot is simplicity itself: a Martian exploratory mission finds its survival threatened by a surprise sandstorm which threatens to tip over the rocket they plan to use to get off the planet. So they need to leave in a hurry. But the storm rips off their communication antenna, which careens into hapless botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), carrying them both off into parts unknown. The remaining crew decide that Watney is certainly dead, and take off.

Why did they take a botanist to Mars anyway? The book's in my TBR pile, so maybe that's explained there.

But (guess what?) Watney's not dead. But it appears he might as well be: his supplies will run out long before there's any hope of a rescue mission from Earth. His only hope, as he puts it: "I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this."

What follows is a tour de force of scientific resourcefulness, sacrifice, and bravery. Adding to Watney's efforts, the bureaucratic/scientific maneuverings at NASA/JPL and the returning crew's ship are portrayed, far more interestingly than I would have thought possible. (And it's genuinely funny in a number of spots.)

All in all, thoroughly enjoyable. Matt Damon probably couldn't even cook a potato in real life, but he (sorry) acts the shit out of this role. (Everybody else is fine too, but no question: this is Damon's movie.) The movie is also amazingly realistic: I know (slightly) better, but I can see how some people thought it was (a) based on a true story and/or (b) shot on location.

I'm not sure it's worth seeing in 3-D though.

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Big Eyes

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

Director Tim Burton directs the more-or-less conventional story of Margaret Keane, the artist who became famous for her paintings of kids with eyes the size of billiard balls. I mean to say, they're big. The picture is genre-classified at IMDB as "Biography, Crime, Drama", but the crime is so low-level that nobody goes to jail, and it's also hilarious in spots. Substitute "Comedy" for "Crime".

It starts off when Margaret (Amy Adams) leaves her first husband in the late 1950s and takes off for San Francisco, there to make a living as a starving artist. She gets a job painting pictures on baby cribs; nowadays, that would be some Asian kid's job. In her spare time, she paints portraits on demand at an outdoor art show. There she meets Walter (Christoph Waltz) who takes her under his wing. Gradually, Margaret's paintings develop into a cult item, then (more rapidly) into a mass phenomenon.

Unfortunately, Walter succumbs to the temptation to claim Margaret's work as his own. The general sexism of the era, combined with Margaret's dysfunctional relationship with Walter, make this easy. Margaret is eventually forced out of the public eye, working in solitude, while Walter sucks up the fame, adulation, and riches. Can Margaret claim the recognition due to her, and get out from under Walter's paint-stained thumb?

This could have easily turned into Lifetime Movie fare, but Mr. Burton, Ms. Adams, and Mr. Waltz make the movie into kind of a treat. Worked for me, anyhow.

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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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

OK, it's a fine movie. And I watched the first two, not to mention the three before that. When the Extended Editions come out as an attractive combination, I may take a long look at them.

It's just real hard to get excited about watching yet another two hours and twenty-four minutes of fantastic PG-13 spectacle of fighting, fighting, and more fighting. And sometimes tragic character flaws.

Anyway, when we left the Hobbit, Bilbo, he and his dwarf companions had just awakened the evil dragon Smaug, who has flown off to wreak deadly havoc on Laketown, whose inhabitants have pissed him off by sending the retinue to the castle where he guards his immense treasure. The town is nearly defenseless, because the only townsperson with any defensive talent is locked up in the town jail.

Spoiler: dragon havoc is indeed wrought. But that's just the beginning. Other problems abound: Thorin, the dwarf leader, is succumbing to the madness involved in hoarding great riches. The lovely elf, Tauriel, has taken a shine to one of the dwarves, and that gets her in trouble with the elf king. Meanwhile an orc army is bearing down on the Lonely Mountain, threatening all sorts of nastiness. Gandalf has been imprisoned by the Necromancer. And …

Well, that's probably enough.

Observations: Orlando Bloom returns as Legolas, and it's a sheer joy to watch him in fearless action. I was trying to figure out where I had seen Lee Pace, who plays the snooty elf Thranduil. Ah, it was in the the quirkily charming comedy "Pushing Daisies": he played Ned, the pie-maker with the ability to bring the dead briefly back to life. The guy has an impressive range.

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Million Dollar Arm

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

A PG-rated Disney movie starring Jon Hamm. The mind reels. Slightly.

It is based on a true story: Hamm plays sports agent J. B. Bernstein, who has set up a small independent agency with a partner and savvy administrative assistant. They are failing, unable to compete with the big boys. What they need is a Big Idea, and J. B. gets one while channel surfing between an Indian cricket match and "Britain's Got Talent" (the Susan Boyle episode, coincidentally). Hey, what if we set up a reality-TV talent search in India for cricket bowlers to see if they could throw a baseball with speed and accuracy enough to get a shot at a Major League Baseball contract?

Well, that's exactly what happens. It is very formulaic, following (as the astute Mrs. Salad predicted) the Bad News Bears plot recipe right down the line: amusing misadventures based on cultural clash, occasional doom-threatening crises, mistakes are made, lessons are learned, and does everybody wind up more or less happy? No spoilers here, but what do you think?

Lake Bell plays J. B.'s tenant and eventual romantic interest. (Which apparently accurately reflects reality.) Alan Arkin is a crusty agent, and Bill Paxton is a crusty coach tasked with providing the Indian prospects with enough baseball skills to get them to (at least) single-A minor league level. Acting talent raises the quality of the movie to overall watchable.

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The Theory of Everything

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

This movie won an Oscar for Eddie Redmayne, who plays physicist Stephen Hawking. Good for Eddie, but as this WaPo story notes, a majority of best-actor wins since 1988 (Dustin Hoffman for Rain Man) have gone to those portraying a character with some sort of malady or disability. So Eddie kind of got a leg up on the competition, so to speak.

The movie also got nominated for Best Picture, Felicity Jones (playing Jane Hawking, Stephen's first wife) was nominated for Best Actress, and there were also nominations for "Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay" and "Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score". The movie was based on Jane Hawking's memoir of their relationship—making it a bit light on the physics.

The movie follows the arc of the Hawkings' relationship. They met at Cambridge in the early 1960s, when they were both students. In brief, Stephen developed Lou Gehrig's disease, he and Jane got married, they managed to have kids, but (spoiler alert) their relationship grew strained, and they both Found Other People: Stephen with one of his nurses, Jane with Daredevil.

It held my interest, which is saying something for a movie of this type. I knew next to nothing about Hawking's personal life. The consensus seems to be that the movie makes him "nicer" than he is in actuality; that's understandable. But I tend to cut geniuses with serious debilitating illness some slack.

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[5.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

We waited until it was almost too late to see Ant-Man in a theatre. I'm certainly glad we caught it in time; it's a pretty wonderful movie.

The story: once, long ago, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) was the Ant-Man, with shrinking powers and the ability to communicate with actual ants to command them to his will. A tragic outcome to one of his missions caused him to retire from the superhero game, and to withdraw his shrinky technology from use by others.

In the present day, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is released from San Quentin, where he was doing time for a Robin Hood-style caper. He struggles to make an honest living and be reunited with his beloved (utterly cute) daughter Cassie. Spoiler alert: he becomes the new Ant-Man in order to save the world from Pym's old protégé, Darren Cross, who's on track to rediscover Pym's secrets and sell them to the highest bidder.

Physics majors (like me) will need to temporarily forget their education about various conservation laws and the square-cube principle. But once you've done that, have fun. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, the movie intertwines its ostensibly serious world-in-peril plotline with abundant jokes and hilarious sight gags. This is tough to do right—even the genius Brad Bird didn't quite get it right in Tomorrowland—but it really worked for me.

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Safe House

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

An action thriller with Denzel Washington! What could go wrong?

Well, for starters, he plays Tobin Frost, kind of a bad guy. A disgraced CIA super-agent, who has spent years on the run, allegedly freelancing his intelligence services to any and all enemies of the US.

Well, that's the story anyway. But after a transaction with a similarly disenchanted MI6 agent in Capetown, he finds himself hotly pursued by a shadowy assassination squad, one with an uncanny ability to track his every move. His only recourse is to turn himself into the American consulate. Which in turn puts him in the titular "Safe House", a dumpy suite of drab rooms maintained by young CIA agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds). Weston has been in this position for a year, hardly anything ever happens, he's totally bored. Frost's arrival is an unexpected fireworks show.

But much, much worse, because the assassination squad knows that Frost is there, and is still out to get him. Pretty soon Frost and Weston are on the run together. Car chases, gunplay, knifeplay, fisticuffs, explosions, betrayal happen apace.

It would be pretty ludicrous if not for Denzel's acting talent; Ryan Reynolds does pretty well for himself too.

Funny: Brendan Gleeson sports an American accent, and does OK with it.

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