Kubo and the Two Strings

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

Would it be ungenerous to say this is the kind of movie Pixar doesn't seem to want to make any more? Probably. But I'll add another data point when Finding Dory shows up this week.

The opening scene is chilling as a young woman on a flimsy boat battles a raging storm and is washed up, barely alive, on a beach. A cry from a nearby pile of flotsam (or is it jetsam) reveals… Kubo! A baby down to one eye. It's clear that they've just barely escaped a perilous situation.

Skip forward a few years. Kubo and his mother live in a hidden cave above a small town of friendly folk. Mom is near-catatonic, and Kubo makes ends meet by showing off his magical origami talents to throngs in the town's marketplace. But (of course) one night he disobeys Mom's strict rule to get back to the cave before nightfall. And (of course) disaster strikes.

This sets Kubo off on a mission of revenge. He's accompanied by a monkey, mystically generated from an old talisman. And (eventually) a samurai warrior created from a beetle. Perils abound and (slight spoiler) there's eventual victory, but it's bittersweet at best.

Highly recommended. I know it sounds grim from my description, but there's a lot of funny stuff along the way too. Best movie I've seen so far this year. (Heh.)

Hell or High Water

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

As the Boss said: 57 channels and nothin' on. Except more than 57. Unless you follow college football, and care about whether Florida State beats Michigan. (They did, by one point.)

Or if you haven't already seen "The Trouble With Tribbles" enough already. (I had.)

So: to the Netflix DVDs. We turned off Original Captain Kirk and put on New Captain Kirk. If Chris Pine keeps turning in performances like this, he might convince me he has a pretty good acting range.

Pine and Ben Foster play lowlife bank-robbin' brothers down in Texas (the movie was actually shot in New Mexico). For initially undisclosed reasons, they're taking down branches of the Texas Midland Bank, getting away with relatively modest sums. On their trail is a pair of Texas Rangers, an about-to-retire white grizzly (played by Jeff Bridges) and his ethnic sidekick (played by Gil Birmingham).

About to retire? Oh oh.

The Foster brother is an ex-con, and kind of a loose cannon (like Donald Trump!), prone to impulsive and violent behavior. Pine's character is clearly the level-headed one, and his purpose in the escapade is gradually revealed.

Oh, heck, I'll tell you a little: the tedious plot motivator is that banks are out to screw the little guy, and the only decent way to get out from under is to play a little Robin Hood scenario. Given the facts as they are (eventually) presented, it seems it would have been pretty easy to accomplish the same goal legally. But maybe I missed something.

Katy Mixon has a small but important role as a slutty diner waitress. Where had I seen her before? Mostly in ads for her new ABC sitcom, "American Housewife". She's good in this, but not good enough to make me watch something called "American Housewife".

The Infiltrator

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

One for the "Wish I liked it better" classification.

Bryan Cranston moves to the other side of the drug war here, playing real-person Robert Mazur, an undercover agent for US Customs and the DEA. He poses as a money launderer, and the movie details how he wormed his way into the workings of the Pablo Escobar drug cartel.

The standard tropes of the genre are here. Mazur feels some pangs of sympathy for the drug lords he's working to imprison. (They are family guys, just like him!) He has a fake wife, which causes issues for his real wife. The criminals are naturally suspicious, and willing to shoot people on the merest suspicion that they're … doing exactly what Mazur is doing.

The movie is set in the 1980's, there's also a (tedious) political angle involving Reagan, the CIA, Contras, "Just Say No", etc. Drug-smuggler-turned-informant-turned-corpse Barry Seal shows up, fictitiously getting murdered in front of Mazur. CIA hit? Maybe!

On the plus side: the great John Leguizamo has a meaty role. Wish the whole movie had been about his character.

Rogue One

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

Getting one thing out of the way: They should have spent a lot more time and money on the last-scene character CGI; it's deep in the uncanny valley. (No spoilers on who that character is, but fans should be able to guess.)

On the other hand, the character CGI that everyone knows about, Grand Moff Tarkin, is pretty darn good. Although maybe because Peter Cushing looked pretty uncanny in the first place.

Other than that: it's a straightforward yarn about the events leading up to the very first Star Wars movie. If you didn't memorize the text crawl in that one: "… Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet." Here we get to know the spies, the genesis and details of that mission.

The reluctant protagonist is Jyn Erso; at a young age her father was dragooned into the rewarding field of Death Star design by the slimy Orson Krennic. Jyn grows up keeping her head down, but the Rebel Alliance finds her, and none too gently uses her as a tool to track down her dad, so he can be assassinated.

But things don't go quite as planned, and the assassination mission turns into the plan-stealing mission. We know how it turns out, but don't know the details.

The movie is a warts-and-all picture of the Rebels: the ostensible mission leader, Andor, murders an informant near the beginning of the flick to avoid compromise. (Arguably worse than Han shooting first, right?) And there's a lot of friction in the Alliance between peaceniks, surrender monkeys, militants, and warmongers. The Empire has some of that too, as we know from other movies: Tarkin and Krennic clearly despise each other, and claw for the favor of their superiors.

People who have panned this movie have a point: The Magnificent Seven (at least the Yul Brynner version) showed how to make a movie about a ragtag team fighting evildoers against the odds. Rogue One doesn't compare well on that score: characters are undeveloped, and the underlying "moral complexity" is, at its heart, brattish.

But that's easy to ignore when you just want to be a kid again. On that basis, I had a good time.


Last Modified 2016-12-29 9:26 AM EST

Remember

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

Finally got around to watching a Netflix disk we've had sitting around the house since early October. (Savvy consumer: shake your heads and sorrowfully note that we're not getting our money's worth out of our Netflix DVD plan when we're this poky about watching stuff they've sent.)

But Remember is a intensely watchable movie, starring Christopher Plummer as Zev, living in an Assisted Care facility, in the middle stages of dementia. He wakes up calling for his wife, having forgot that she passed away a week ago.

Zev's friend Max (Martin Landau) gently reminds him of a promise he made: once Ruth died, Zev would go on a little mission out in the big wide world. Max provides Zev with a wad of Benjamins and a detailed letter describing, step by step, what Zev is to do. We're kept mostly in the dark, however: the nature of Zev's quest is revealed mostly in his actions. (Bruno Ganz, the actor who played Hitler in Downfall, appears. Hint, hint.)

They really have lax security at that Assisted Care place, though. Tsk!

The movie is full of suspense and Shocking Plot Twists, expertly acted by all involved. It's always nice to see Dean Norris, Hank Schrader himself; does he play a good guy here? At first, it seems that way!

Hacksaw Ridge

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

Pun Son and I saw this in the Newington Mall multiplex, our theatre of choice. Sensitive souls should note the MPAA reason for its R rating: "intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images". If anything, that's understated. War is Hell.

It's the mostly-true story of Desmond Doss, a small-town Virginia kid (played by Andrew Garfield, who overdoes the Virginia bumpkin thing), whose early traumatic experience with internal family violence has turned him into a Conscientious Objector, but one who decides his duty lies in signing up with the World War II Army. This distresses his family, and also his sweetie back home. And that distress is well justified, as his unit gets shipped to Okinawa. Resulting in… well, you can reread the MPAA description again.

Graphic violence aside, it's pretty much a standard war movie, focusing on Desmond's journey from Virginia, through boot camp (where his CO status is threatened, and he's the target of abuse as a result), and eventually to Hell.

Vince Vaughn plays Desmond's sergeant for both (inital) laughs and (later) drama. Nice, but…

Hugo Weaving, Elrond himself, plays Desmond's tortured-soul father. If he doesn't win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, there ain't no justice.

Frances Ha

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

This 2012 movie has received the Criterion Collection treatment, so it's arty. It had been sitting in my Netflix queue for a long time, and it was available for streaming; I hit the button. It stars Greta Gerwig as the titular Frances, and she also co-wrote with her "partner" Noah Baumbach, who directed.

Frances has dreams of being a dancer in New York City. (A respectable one, leaving her clothes on.) Even my untrained eye can tell that's a misguided career choice, bordering on delusional. She's tall, noticeably non-willowy, and clumsy. Still she persists.

She lives with her college best friend, Sophie. Their relationship is complicated by the men in their lives. Frank and detailed discussions of their sexual behavior are included, and I would imagine at least some theatre presentations were marred by people in the audience shouting "Too much information!" The movie covers a few subsequent months, as Frances' declining professional life is paired with personal changes.

I liked Greta Gerwig a lot in the quirky comedy Damsels in Distress. She's not quite as likeable here, but still managed to hold my what-happens-next interest.

Trivial points:

  • "Hey, isn't that Kylo Ren?" Yes, it was.

  • Also in a small role: Grace Gummer, Meryl Streep's daughter.

  • IMDB reports that Ms. Gerwig appears in every scene; apparently that's unusual.

  • In a sweet move, Frances' parents are played by Ms. Gerwig's actual parents.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

[1.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

I can't say I'm proud of having watched this. Only excuse: Mrs. Salad was out of the house, and I didn't want to watch anything that she might possibly want to watch down the road. No problem there.

It's not exactly thought-provoking. About the only thought provoked, in fact: shouldn't there be an apostrophe in the title word Scouts?

Anyway: Ben, Carter, and Augie are the few remaining scouts under the reign of "Scout Leader Rogers" (David Koechner). Ben is the normal one, Carter the world-weary cynical one, and Augie the gung-ho one; Carter has convinced Ben to ditch Augie and Rogers and go to a hot teenage party instead. Unfortunately, everyone's plans are waylaid due to (guess what) a zombie outbreak, thanks to carelessness at a nearby lab.

What follows is R-rated zombie comedy, as the kids try to rescue their peers and escape with their non-zombified lives. I laughed occasionally, but there's considerable smuttiness, including genitalia gags (one male, one female, only one graphic, both disgusting). A complete waste of time, yet it held my interest better than Inferno for some reason.


Last Modified 2016-11-12 4:39 AM EST

Inferno

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

Mrs. Salad loooves fellow Granite Stater Dan Brown, devouring his books as they come out. And we've always managed to see the resulting movies in the theater. So …

Brown's hero, Robert "Mary Sue" Langdon (Tom Hanks), wakes up in a hospital with no memory of how he got there. In fact, he guesses he's at Mass General Hospital, and he's astounded to find he's actually in Italy. He has a head wound apparently caused by a bullet graze, and his only link to sanity is that plucky rebel from the Rogue One trailers, Felicity Jones, here playing his attending physician.

Before you know it, there's another attempt on Langdon's life, and he and Felicity are off on a Europe-spanning cat-and-mouse chase. It turns out that a madman has developed a nasty bioweapon that threatens to take out most of humanity; the madman is a dedicated Malthusian who sees this as a good thing. Langdon disagrees.

There are a number of shadowy people with various motives involved, enough to keep Langdon and Felicity on the run while they track down various inconveniently-placed clues to determine the location of the weapon. Beware, movie-watcher: all is not what it seems. At least I'm pretty sure it's not, I really got lost at times in all the convolutions.

There's some first-rate acting talent here, not the least because the actors are asked to spout some pretty lunatic dialogue. I think there should be a special Oscar for that. Tom Hanks is always good. I especially liked Irrfan Kahn as an unflappable, deadly, and ambiguous menace. But I liked him in The Lunchbox even better.

The Major and the Minor

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

One of Mrs. Salad's Netflix pix, and she made a good choice this time. I surprised myself with how charmed and amused I was while watching this classic screwball comedy.

As the movie begins, Miss Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers) is not making it in 1941 New York City. She's an in-home scalp-massager (really), and when a randy client (Robert Benchley) gets the wrong idea, she decides to pack it in, go back to small-town Iowa, and settle for the young man who's (apparently) still waiting for her.

Problem: she can't afford the full-fare train ticket from NYC to Iowa. So she poses as an almost-12 year old! She manages that well enough to get on board, but her fraud is soon detected, and she has to deceive Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland), a teacher at an Illinois military academy, in order to avoid getting tossed off the train.

Hence the Major/Minor title. Complications ensue, of course, since this is a screwball comedy. Susan finds herself enmeshed in the workings of Kirby's school; she fools everyone, save for Kirby's fiancee's younger sister.

Yes, there's a little bit of dancing. I think this was part of the Hays Code: if Ginger Rogers is in a movie, she's gotta dance.

This was Billy Wilder's American directoral debut, and he also co-wrote.