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

As I'm sure I've noted before: Mrs. Salad's Netflix picks tend to the offbeat and bizarre. Sometimes based on nothing more than (in this case): "I like Jake Gyllenhaal". Downside: you wind up watching movies like this sometimes. It was named "Best Canadian Film of the Year" at the Toronto Film Critics Association Awards, but truth be told, it might have been a slow year for movies up there.

Spoilers ahead, probably. Adam is a college history prof, who tells his bored students about Hegel's historicism, which Marx abbreviated to "first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." (He's shown saying this twice—heh!). But while watching an obscure DVD movie, Adam notes a bit-part actor who is literally his double. It's Anthony, who's shown to be a dissolute, disagreeable jerk and pervert. Adam and Anthony eventually meet, and before you can say: "nothing good can come of this", it doesn't.

Keep your eye on the spiders, folks.

Problem: like many pretentiously arty movies, this one has endless (but pointless) shots of scenery (especially the ugly Brutalist architecture of Adam's school), Gyllenhaal-as-Adam wandering around looking lost and moody, tricky lighting, and the like. Cut those out, trim some of the gratuitous nudity, and you've got a pretty good 60-minute episode of Night Gallery with room for commercials.

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Manhattan Melodrama

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

Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, William Powell. While I suppose it would be possible for those people to make an unwatchable movie, this isn't it.

Gable and Powell play Blackie and Jim, respectively. They are literally boyhood chums. A tragic riverboat fire bonds them for life, but they take divergent paths: Jim becomes a crusading attorney, destined to root out organized crime and corruption, while Blackie adopts the path of a gentleman gangster, with a slightly off-kilter sense of honor about him.

Myrna Loy, lovely as always, is Eleanor, initially Blackie's moll, but won away (literally) overnight by Jim, as she realizes Blackie's essential disreputableness, and is charmed by Jim's honorable intentions and traditional values.

All this—well, you see the title—sets up inevitable conflict driven by a contrived plot. And it's all pretty good stuff, because those three can make anything believable, and make you care about how things are going to turn out.

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Under the Skin

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

Looking over the reviews, it seems that this is one of those love-it-or-hate-it polarizing flicks. I would bet on a bimodal distribution of user ratings. I come down on the side of "arty, pretentious junk", sorry to the filmmakers.

It did, however, win at the Golden Schmoes Awards for "Trippiest Movie of the Year". So maybe take that as a suggestion as to what you need to ingest to make the movie watchable.

Scarlett Johansson plays (according to IMDB) "The Female". In cooperation with a motorcyclist, she dons the clothes of a recently-deceased woman, gets made up at a local store, and sets off on her mission. Which seems to involve enticing lonely Scottish guys back to her lair where they (under her alien spell) sink into a large dark pool and dissolve. After a few rounds of this, she seems confused and wanders off. But things eventually come to an unsatisfying and ambiguous conclusion.

This is apparently your go-to movie for Scarlett Johansson nudity. But, trust me, it's arty/dark enough to remove any titillation factor. And in between there are more than enough pointless (but seemingly endless) shots of drab Scottish scenery.

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Kingsman: The Secret Service

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

A tongue-in-cheek fantasy spy thriller. We don't get enough of those.

Mr. Darcy himself, Colin Firth, plays Harry Hart, an agent for "Kingsman", a super-secret private espionage organization. In a strained allegory, the agency is run by "Arthur" (Michael Caine); there's a technical wizard "Merlin" (Mark Strong); Harry's code name is "Galahad". You get the idea.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Long ago, Harry's life was saved by the noble sacrifice of a fellow agent. He tracks down the agent's son, "Eggsy", who's living a lower-class life with his slutty mom, hanging out with street thugs. Harry recruits Eggsy into a grueling Kingsman "boot camp", where he competes to be the "last man standing" in increasingly dangerous tests of perilous adventure.

Just in time, too. Because a nefarious plot is in progress, masterminded by "Valentine" (Samuel L. Jackon) and his deadly-but-gorgeous assistant "Gazelle" (Sofia Boutella). It involves massive worldwide casualties in service of (here's a twist) eco-nuttiness.

And also: hey, that's Mark Hamill.

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American Sniper

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

Wait a minute. You're telling me that this movie didn't win the Best Picture Oscar? And it lost to Birdman?!

I mean, I love Michael Keaton and everything. But how does a movie about an unlikeable semi-insane self-centered actor win over this movie?

Oh well. Hollywood. At least it was nominated for Best Picture. (Also: Best Director, Clint Eastwood; Best Actor, Bradley Cooper; Best Adapted Screenplay, Jason Hall. It won for Sound Editing.)

Everyone kind of knows the plot, but: the movie follows Chris Kyle, mostly centered on his exploits in Iraq, trying to save his fellow soldiers from the savage attacks of the insurgents that popped up post-Saddam. There's plenty of ass-clenching suspense and action, but the movie also shows the dreadful toll of war on Kyle, his fellow troops, and his family. It does that without following the easy anti-American tropes of other recent Iraq movies.

It's very powerful, even when you wait to see it on DVD. Recommended.

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Wild Tales

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

I put this into the Netflix queue on a whim. But it's #214 on IMDB's top 250 movies of all time (as I type), and was nominated for Best Foreign Language movie last year. (It's Argentinian, and you should see how it did at the Argentinian Oscars! They thought it was the best movie ever!)

It is actually a collection of six shorter movies, with no particular relation other than having characters dropped into stressful situations. The IMDB lists the genres as "Comedy, Drama, Thriller", but be warned, the comedy is pretty darn dark.

Summaries: (1) passengers on a plane flight realize they seem to have more in common than one might expect; (2) a waitress and a cook at a late-night restaurant deal with an unpleasant customer; (3) a road rage incident on a remote highway escalates dramatically; (4) a demolition engineer reacts poorly to having his car towed by a rip-off company (yeah, they have those in Argentina too, I guess); (5) a father tries to cover up his son's involvment in a fatal hit-and-run; and (6) a bride discovers her new husband's infidelity and turns her wedding into an emotional roller-coaster.

I enjoyed some more than others, but all were watchable. It put me in mind of the old "anthology" TV shows, like Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Certainly such a series could thrive in these days of cheapie video?

Last Modified 2015-07-08 5:01 AM EDT
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Jersey Boys

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

As a kid, songs by the Four Seasons were in my soundtrack. Like most baby boomers, I suppose. I wasn't a major fan, but I can still rattle off (at least partial) lyrics from their hits.

So this was a natural choice for the Netflix queue. It is based on the hit Broadway musical, and directed by the immortal Clint Eastwood. It relates the story of how the group came together, their connections (mostly innocuous) to mobsters, inner frictions, family woes, and—well, I think it hits every cliché about celebrity rise and fall you could imagine. But I suppose sometimes things are clichés because they're based in fundamental truths. Millions of years of evolution did not prepare mere humans to deal with superstardom.

It's a pretty good yarn—I stayed awake for the whole thing, anyhow, which is increasingly rare these days. But it's way too long (134 minutes). I was surprised to learn that the songs were actually performed live on set by the actors, many of whom were from the Broadway cast. They're good!

Christopher Walken appears as a benevolent gangster, I kept wishing for him to drop a "more cowbell" line.

Rated R, entirely for bad language. (Except in New Jersey, where it's rated "G": a child is likely to hear far worse in the home.)

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

I kind of got a big fat spoiler for this movie by noticing that it's based on the short story "'—All You Zombies—'" by Robert A. Heinlein. I read that back in the early 60's; I still remember the Shocking Plot Device. So I expected the same thing here, and was not disappointed.

The protagonist, played by Ethan Hawke, is a time-travelling secret agent, trying to prevent a terrorist known as the "Fizzle Bomber" from blowing up a bunch of people in 1975. An initial attempt failed badly, leaving him seriously defaced (literally). He tries again, though. Along the way, he poses as a bartender, where he becomes acquainted with a younger person who entertains him with biographical stories, both lurid and heartbreaking.

Ethan Hawke always seems to look like he was just badly beaten up, and is about to get re-beaten soon. This role is no exception.

It's a very arty take on a story I remember as being as straightforward as a time-travel yarn can be. (I also remember it as being pretty filthy for an Omaha pre-teen, but what are you going to do?) But (ahem) unlike Starship Troopers, it's essentially faithful to its source material, and I think Heinlein would have approved. The movie's IMDB trivia page describes a number of fortune cookies in the movie for Heinlein fans. I'm ashamed to say I missed most of them.

Consumer note: as I type, the Blu-ray is cheaper than the DVD at Amazon. What's up with that?

Last Modified 2015-07-02 4:31 AM EDT
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[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A PG-retelling of the Sleeping Beauty legend, where Maleficent isn't bad, she's just misunderstood. And a little hot-tempered, but who could blame her?

The premise is that a human kingdom and a magical fairy kingdom live right next door to each other, and they don't get along well. This is primarily the humans' fault, being all greedy and ambitious and … well, human. Maleficent is the fairy kingdom's most powerful defender against human aggression, which royally pisses off the royals. What follows is betrayal, anger, revenge, and how that all plays out against young Aurora, the human princess caught up in the battle between her father and Maleficent.

Angelina Jolie plays Maleficent, Elle Fanning is Aurora. It's full of special effects. (Angelina Jolie sometimes looks to be a real-life Special Effect, so it's appropriate she's here.)

I liked it a little better than I thought I would, because Disney can still tell a pretty good story when they want to. I was a little surprised by the PG rating; there's a lot of violence, so I thought it would be PG-13. But I guess it's "fantasy" violence. It's OK when fairies do it!

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The Double

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

Giving this a whole two stars is kind of a stretch. It's arty and pretentious. I nodded off for long periods. When I do that during other movies, I sometimes feel obligated to re-watch the DVD to at least fill in the gaps; I didn't feel that obligation here.

Anyway: it's based on the Dostoyevsky story of the same title. (Considered by most critics to not be one of his better efforts.) Jesse Eisenberg plays nebbish Simon, working at a soul-draining job in some unspecified bureaucracy, disrespected and ignored by everyone.

Things change when James shows up. He's everything Simon is not: charismatic, interesting, popular. But here's the thing: James and Simon look exactly alike. (My keen eye discerned that this was primarily due to both roles being played by Jesse Eisenberg.) The two develop a relationship, but it's an unhealthy one.

The setting is dark and surrealistic, with absurdist and stilted dialogue, and unbelievable characters. Basically, a 93-minute nightmare for Simon, but I don't think he wakes up. Or, if he did, I missed it.

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