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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Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

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

Our track record on summer blockbusters: six so far. Seems like fewer! We saw this one at the Regal Cinemas Fox Run, in a theater with "plush seating" recliners, just like at home. If you have those at home.

Anyway, the movie: Tom Cruise is Ethan Hunt, again, with his IMF teammates Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Benji (Simon Pegg), and Luther (Ving Rhames). Unfortunately, the current CIA head (one of those Baldwin guys) has developed a strong dislike of the IMF's independent and impudent ways, and he wangles the team's dissolution. For libertarians, this is the most unlikely part of the movie: a government agency that actually gets terminated? Hah!

In addition to this friendly fire, Ethan is also set upon by the ultra-secretive "Syndicate" (aka the "Rogue Nation" in the title). It's led by the creepy Solomon Lane, who's responsible for thousands of innocent deaths worldwide. And there's also the beautiful-but-deadly Ilsa—whose side is she on, anyway?

It's very long, 131 minutes, but it's filled with plenty of imaginative action: plane-dangling; chases with cars, motorcyles, and on foot; opera assassination (Turandot, so it's classy); fights with guns, knives, fists, and tranquilizer darts. And the ritual death-defying break-in to the impregnable fortress to … sorry, I forgot what that was for, actually.

In short, all good (forgettable) fun. No illusions that any of these characters exist outside of their action bubble. (Hunt's wife from a previous movie? Gone, baby, gone.)

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

Set in mid-eighteenth century Britain, Belle is a combination of Austen-like soap opera, inspiring (but fictionalized) biography, a little courtroom drama, and social commentary. It's not bad, but "just OK" not great either. It seems designed as Oscar-bait, but did not get any nominations.

The hero is "Dido", the beautiful but illegitimate mixed-race offspring of a British naval officer and a West Indies slave woman. The officer does the right thing, extracting the young Dido from slavery and ensconcing her with his British noble family. Then he's off again doing what British naval officers do, which unfortunately involves him dying.

Leaving Dido in a complex situation: her family has mixed feelings about mixed-race folk; British society of the day was not the most enlightened either. While Dido is charming, intelligent, and beautiful, her Austenesque prospects are not good. (There is a lot of back and forth about who's gonna marry who.)

Complicating things even further is her Uncle William, a judge, who must rule on the case of the Zong, a slave ship that threw its living cargo overboard in order to have enough drinking water for the more fortunate crew.

All in all: watchable, but also missable.

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What We Do in the Shadows

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

It's a vampire comedy. Starring, co-written, and co-directed by one-half of Flight of the Conchords, Jemaine Clement. So of course it's funny. It's R-rated (MPAA: "bloody violent content, some sexual material and language.")

The idea is that it's a documentary, filmed in a reality-TV style. Except the subjects are vampires, four of them living in a unremarkable house in Wellington, New Zealand. They have the typical housemate spats: who's gonna clean up all that blood, stuff like that.

It's a funny premise, maybe a tad too thin when stretched to an hour and a half. Another theatrical-release sputterer, our second in a row. What's the deal there? Maybe it did better in New Zealand.

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The Drop

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

A little crime thriller based on a Dennis Lehane short story; Lehane also wrote the screenplay. The story was set in Dorchester, because, well, Lehane. The movie moves the action down to Brooklyn, and adds a few more characters and plot threads.

The protagonist is Bob Saginowski, a nebbish who lives alone, and works tending bar at his cousin's joint. His cousin is Marv, played by the late James Gandolfini, his last role. The bar is called "Cousin Marv's" and it's a so-called "drop bar", where the primary source of profit is its use as a temporary repository of cash used in illegal transactions.

One night, Bob hears whimpering coming from a trash can; he investigates and pulls out a half-dead pit bull puppy. He also meets Nadia (the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo herself, Noomi Rapace) who helps him nurse the puppy back to health. All would seem to be well, until a local criminal psycho shows up with all sorts of demands. Bob seems totally helpless in the face of malevolent evil. But is he?

Despite all the star power, the movie fizzled in its theatrical release. I was particularly impressed with Tom Hardy: this is the same guy who played Bane? And Mad freakin' Max? And here's he's just a schlub, albeit one with unexpected qualities.

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