Standing in the Shadows of Motown

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

The story of the "Funk Brothers", studio musicians that played on Motown records between 1959 and 1972. You know what that means, my friend? It means that they were part of the magic combination that produced wonderful music to which people will listen centuries from now, if not millennia. (Am I exaggerating? I don't think so!) As they note right up front: the Funk Bros. "played on more number ones hits than the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Elvis and the Beatles combined."

The documentary is a combination of archival footage, present-day (well, 2002) interviews, and some dramatic re-enanctments. It's narrated by Andre Braugher. And, best of all: a 2002 live concert with the surviving Brothers backing up performances of the classics by folks like Joan Osborne and Ben Harper.

They came from diverse backgrounds. Some arrived in Detroit from the South as part of the mass African-American post-WW2 migration. Others were natives. Some were classically trained musicians (keyboardist Joe Hunter notes his admiration of Rachmaninoff), others were largely self-taught. They were gathered together by Berry Gordy, harvesting them out of Detroit jazz and blues clubs. (Another shocker: a couple of white guys.)

Like a lot of musicians of that era, a depressing number of Funk Brothers are no longer with us. (But only one was lost to heroin addiction, as near as I can tell.)

I don't want to overstate this: the Funk Brothers were a sine qua non part of the mix, contributing a solid collaborative genius to the Motown magic. And it's a documentary about them. But if I had to quibble: the movie gives pretty short shrift to the headliners, backup vocalists, songwriters, and producers. I'm not sure if anyone has the overall combination of brilliance and luck to assemble such chemistry today. Or ever again?

I ordered the soundtrack. So should you.


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The Croods

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

A perfectly OK, average, by-the-numbers animation. I had slightly higher hopes, but that's the way it goes.

The Croods are a modern stone age family, a page right out of history. Well not that modern: they seem to spend most of their time cowering in a handy cave hiding from various deadly fauna. Sloped brows seem to indicate genes heavily skewed toward the Neanderthal.

Status quo is threatened by "Guy" (Ryan Reynolds), a smart (Homo Sapien?) kid who warns them of impending geologic doom: earthquakes and tectonic lava flows have their cozy cave in the crosshairs. It doesn't help that Guy and daughter Eep (Emma Stone) seem to be destined for self-directed genetic experimentation. Grug, the dad (Nicolas Cage), is frustrated by Guy's know-it-allism and also his designs upon Eep.

Anyway: the family starts its odyssey toward what they hope is safety, but their journey is fraught with peril: colorful sabretooths, carnivorous birds, the ongoing geologic disaster, and internal dissension. Will they make it? It's a cartoon, so what's your bet?

Warning: not an accurate picture of prehistoric life. John Cleese has a writing credit, but Pythonesque zaniness is undetectable.

Bonus: Cloris Leachman plays "Gran", Grug's acid-tongued mother-in-law. She's a hoot. ("I was in love once. He was a hunter, I was a gatherer. It was quite the scandal. We fed each other berries, we danced. Then father bashed him on the head and traded me to your grandfather.") Maybe not enough to get adults to watch the movie in the first place, but enough to keep watching.


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Like Father, Like Son

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

I'm sure this is a pretty good movie. You can see that the IMDB raters gave it high marks, and its awards page is very long, filled with nominations and wins. But it wasn't my cup of sake.

Oh, yeah: it's Japanese, and the version we watched was undubbed, so a lot of subtitle-reading.

The story centers around Ryota, a hard-charging ambitious professional. He's a Tiger Dad to his six-year-old son, very pushy on the piano lessons.

Except that, as it turns out, his son is not (in a biological sense) his son. Babies were accidentally switched at birth! And bio-son is living a lower-middle-class existence with a different (but loving) family miles away.

Multiple problems ensue. Should they go with biology and switch the kids back? It doesn't help that Ryota is seemingly cold and uncaring to both children. The other family is as colorful and warm as Ryota is … not. What will happen?

To quote someone (but not Abe Lincoln): "People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like."


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Philomena

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

A decent movie; it could have been an utter tearjerker, but (no doubt thanks to writer/actor Steve Coogan) it's also pretty funny in spots. Nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture.

Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a Brit whose career is on the downswing. An uppercrust ex-journalist who went to work in Tony Blair's Labour government, he's just been canned on hazy charges of inappropriate language in a memo. He's moping around, looking for something to do. And he hears about Philomena Lee, a retired Irish nurse (played by Judi Dench) who gave birth to an illegitimate son a half-century ago, and (due to circumstances of extreme Catholicism) was forced to give him up while toiling for nuns in a home for wayward girls.

Philomena and Martin form an alliance of convenience: she wants to satisfy her curiosity about what happened to her son, and Martin senses a saleable story which could either warm hearts or break them. His investigatory talents take them both to America, where Philomena's son was adopted back in the 1950's. The story is full of twists and surprising revelations. And (of course) Philomena's and Martin's odd-couple relationship is the source of both humor and "growth". (Neither one has "all the answers", you see.)

Dame Judi is wonderful as always (she was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar), and Steve Coogan does pretty well up against her. It's based on a true story, but indications are it was punched up to give it more of an anti-Catholic and (hey, why not?) an anti-Republican spin. Still a decent flick, though.


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Enough Said

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

Netflix thought I would like this a little better than I did, but that's OK. It's a romantic comedy, but definitely a chick-flick on top of that.

Our heroine is Eva, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus; she (somehow) makes a living as a masseuse. She is divorced, with her only daughter about to head off to college. (All the adults in this movie are either divorced, or seemingly about to be.) She is dragged to a party where she meets (1) Marianne (Catherine Keener), a poet; (2) Albert (the late James Gandolfini), curator of a television archive.

Quibble: Marianne lives a very-upperclass lifestyle on income from her poetry? Sorry, but I can't believe there are more than three poets in the entire country that could do that.

Anyway: Albert is a nice guy, displays a charming geekiness about beloved old TV shows, but he looks a lot like James Gandolfini, and is a self-described slob. You'd think someone who looks like Julia Louis-Dreyfus could aim a little higher. But she's not that superficial, and their romantic relationship blossoms.

And Eva also takes on Marianne as a massage client; their relationship also blossoms (albeit not romantically, it's not that kind of a movie, pal) They dish on their ex-husbands, and their college-bound daughters.

And (sorry for the spoiler, but it's one you'll see in most of the plot synopses): it turns out that Albert is Marianne's ex-husband. All Marianne's denigration of her ex calls into question Eva's relationship with Albert. At least in Eva's mind. Will they survive?

So: a perfectly nice, and often very funny, movie. As I said, a chick flick, but one where the females are often as quirky and flawed as the males. Guys, if you need a movie to give your significant other a break from your steady diet of mayhem, you could do a lot worse.


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Guardians of the Galaxy

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

As I type, Guardians of the Galaxy is #41 on IMDB's Top 250 movies of all time. Ahead of … well, ahead of thousands of movies, including The Lives of Others, Sunset Boulevard, and WALL·E. So I don't know about that, but I sure had a good time.

The primary hero is a young Earthman, Peter Quill. In a brief opening scene, we're shown his alien abduction outside the hospital where his mother has just passed away. Years later (roughly present day) he is a full-fledged interstellar Han Solo/Indiana Jones, on the hunt for various valuable trinkets.

But this time he has acquired an honest-to-goodness MacGuffin, a mysterious orb desired by the evil Ronan (who in turn is revealed to be a mere flunky of the even eviller Thanos). Peter is soon on the lam, pursued both by the forces of Ronan, and by the gang of thugs that sent him after the orb in the first place. Along the way, he picks up an odd assortment of allies-by-convenience, who eventually become the titular Guardians: the intelligent-but-deadly raccoon, Rocket; the treelike Groot; green-skinned babe Gamora; brutish convict-with-a-heart-of-gold Drax.

If it were just that, the movie could have been as not-very-interesting as Thor. But someone, I assume writer/director James Gunn, manages to infuse the movie with humor, makes the characters sympathetic and interesting, and fills the screen with inventive visual splendor. Mrs. Salad doesn't like comic book movies very much in general, but gave this her grudging approval.

Consumer note: It's probably worth seeing on the big screen, as we did. We saw it in 2-D, which was fine, but the consensus seems to be that spending the extra money for 3-D, and maybe even IMAX, may be worth it.


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Her

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

So, don't mean to quibble, but if the movie is called Her, why does the DVD box have a picture of Him? Just wondering.

Also, just kidding. The titular character is an "OS" (Operating System) installed on the computer of the pictured Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix). He's on the bitter end of a recent divorce. He's good at his job (which seems to be ghost-writing sentimental letters for people too busy or too inarticulate to do so themselves), a gig which is lucrative enough to move him on up into a deluxe apartment in the (Los Angeles) sky. But he's desperately lonely and emotionally shut down.

But the Her OS, aka Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), changes all that. After a few seemingly perfunctory questions, Samantha springs to artificially-intelligent life. She would pass the Turing Test without breaking a CPU sweat, and she quickly goes from her initial role as Theodore's assistant, to confidante, then friend, then (yes) lover.

I kind of knew most of this going in, due to trailers and things heard on the street. I was skeptical: you can make a whole movie out of this idea? Yes, it turns out you can, if you're a filmmaking genius like writer/director Spike Jonze.

Her is, as I type #206 on IMDB's top 250 movies of all time. I don't know about that, but I liked it. It is (arguably) one artsy take on Vernor Vinge's "singularity", but I won't spoil that further.

Aside: I think the movie assumes near the end that the viewer would recognize the significance of the name "Alan Watts". Really? I did, but I'm a geezer who read a lot of goofy stuff when I was young. I can't imagine a lot of other potential viewers being in a similar position.


Last Modified 2014-08-15 9:28 AM EDT
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Blue Ruin

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

A surprisingly good low-budget thriller. The "Making Of" feature attached to the DVD reveals the writer/director (Jeremy Saulnier) and the lead actor (Macon Blair) were childhood buddies, making cheesy videos back in the day. They made this flick on a shoestring, even collecting $37,828 via Kickstarter. And yet, I enjoyed it much more than the last Thor movie.

Blair plays Dwight Evans, who is not a revered ex-Red Sox player, but a reclused bum living in a rusty, bullet-riddled 1991 Pontiac Bonneville just outside a Delaware beach resort. It's easy to make the snap judgment: Probably mentally ill, possibly dangerous.

But those preconceptions are upset when a local cop knocks on Dwight's window one morning. She has news: Wade Cleland, obviously someone Dwight knows, has been released from prison. And Dwight suddenly moves purposefully, with a surprising amount of resolve. (Also surprising: the Bonneville runs. Might be the only Bonneville in America that does.) It turns out that Dwight's out to revenge a wrong done to his family years back, one not made right by the alleged perpetrator spending a few years in prison.

It's darkly humorous in spots, and takes a number of unpredictable twists. The storytelling is masterfully economical (which I guess is a plus if you're low on cash). And I did not realize until consulting IMDB that one of the minor-role actresses playing a member of the villainous Cleland family was previously Jan Brady of The Brady Bunch! Now that's casting against type. (She does not utter "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia" either.)


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Thor: The Dark World

[2.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Watched this for completeness. Because (please don't take away my nerd credentials) I've never been much of a Thor fan. It's a matter of taste, the same way I like watching baseball and football, but find basketball and (especially) soccer uninteresting.

It makes sense to me: obviously guys like Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, etc. are more believable and relatable than a Norse god (but not really a god) with family problems, coming from an invisible alternate reality that gets joined up with ours every so often.

Here, the deal is that Thor's girlfriend, Jane, gets occupied by the "Aether", a bit of mumbo-jumbo desperately sought by the evil elf Malekith and his minions, in order to bring darkness upon Asgard, Earth, and all the other realms in the universe. Thor must enlist the imprisoned Loki to aid in his quest to disinfect Jane and defeat Malekith, and… oh, there's a lot of fighting and fantastic special effects, and etc.

But the actors deserve some sort of award for simply making believe (but not making me believe) that this all makes perfect sense. There are many hints that the screenwriters, at least, aren't taking the scenario very seriously. ("I better get my pants.")

It's becoming a Marvel trademark: yet another movie that involves an epic battle in, above, and around a major metropolis. (London, this time.)


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Bad Words

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

Very funny. But in a profane way, so stay away if you're averse to such things. Or under 40. Nobody under 40 should see this movie.

Jason Bateman plays Guy Trilby, an unpleasant middle-aged loser who decides to exploit a technical loophole in the qualifications for a major national spelling bee (not called "Scripps" for obvious legal reasons). The rules merely state that contestants can't have graduated from the eighth grade; and, being a dropout, Trilby hasn't. He also needs a sponsor from an actual journalistic organization, and he's found that with Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), a reporter for the "Click and Scroll" website. Jenny is hoping to get a story out of Guy's efforts, but (sad for her) she lacks even the small amount of self-esteem necessary to keep from jumping in the sack with him.

So Guy's in, in more ways than one. By which I mean "two ways."

And, not satisfied with just knowing how to spell well, he's also not averse to playing nasty mind games to sabotage his stronger opponents. Things go off course when he meets Chaitanya, a cute-as-a-button Indian-American competitor. Due to Chaitanya's persistence, they develop a truly dysfunctional relationship. But are there ulterior motives at work? Yes. Maybe.

A gutsier movie would have stuck with making Guy a total rat bastard to the very end. But (small spoiler) this does not happen. Still very funny though.


Last Modified 2014-08-04 2:55 PM EDT
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