Doctor Strange

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

Once again a boring story from my younger comic-reading days (approx. 1969-1973): I devoured the Marvel tales of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Iron Man, the Avengers, Captain America, etc.. But I never got much beyond reading one or two issues of Doctor Strange. For some reason, all the magic seemed like cheating; you can always pull an unexpected spell out of your ass, right?

Yes, that's right. All those other comic heros were totally believable for me.

And also, I got the impression that Steve Ditko was writing/drawing Doctor Strange when he was on LSD. (Which turns out to be totally wrong by the way.)

So I was not especially moved to see this movie in the theater. But I noted the good reviews, and lo and behold, I really enjoyed the movie, once Netflix sent it to me.

It is (of course) an origin tale, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. Initially, Strange is a gifted, egomaniacal surgeon. But one fateful night he foolishly pushes his hot car a little too fast, and smashes himself up pretty badly. He won't play the piano again, nor will he be able to do the surgery he's famous for.

So, what to do, what to do? A new career calls: saving Earth from the Dark Dimension and the evil plots of Dormammu. Things look pretty bleak, because Strange is just learning how to become Master of the Mystic Arts, and Dormammu is a pretty bad dude. Nonetheless, … well, you know how these movies work.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well Cumberbatch fit in the role, as in "now I can't imagine anyone else in the role". He also sports a convincing American accent. I don't know anything about acting, but I think that one of the toughest things for an actor to do is spout off lines like "Dormammu, I've come to bargain!" with a straight face. There should be an Oscar for BC for that. (And Tilda Swinton, who plays "The Ancient One", should get two of them.)


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

Clint Eastwood directed, Tom Hanks is Sully, and it's about as good as it could be.

As we all know, back in January 2009, a US Airways flight out of LaGuardia hit a flock of geese as it was ascending, and both engines were lost. Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger kept his head, judged his options and chances, and set the jet down in the Hudson River, just off Manhattan. Thanks to him, the rest of the flight crew, and some quick-thinking rescuers, the fatality count was zero, when it could have been 155. Or more, if the Airbus had crashed somewhere in NYC.

But the entire flight took about five minutes, the rescue took about twenty minutes, how do you make a decent sized movie out of that?

Well, they fudged a bit, turning the subsequent NTSB investigation into more of an Inquisition than it actually was. Playing the primary (and entirely fictitious) heavy is the immortal UNH grad, Mike O'Malley, and he seems (at least for most of the movie) to want to argue that Sully could have made a safer return to LaGuardia, or made it to Teterboro NJ. Spoiler: given the time involved in diagnosis and alternative-weighing, probably not. Sully is vindicated, as also we already know.

Still: Tom Hanks does his usual fine job of getting into his character's skin. Everybody else is good too. It's always nice to see Valerie Mahaffey, who plays one of the passengers. And the special effects are pretty good, too: you'll swear that they just re-enacted the whole thing for the movie.


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

Let's see… IMDB counts 8 Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), and one win. Amy Adams also got nominated (Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, BAFTA, …) for her performance as Louise, the genius linguist academic. So, yes, it's pretty good.

First Louise is shown as an (apparently) single mom raising a cute kid, only to lose her at a too-young age. But then we move to the real plot: 12 huge alien vessels appearing at random spots around the world, their origin and purpose a mystery. Louise is dragooned by a humane but tough Colonel (Forest Whitaker) to attempt to solve the riddles. She's helped out by Ian (Jeremy Renner), an affable theoretical physicist from Los Alamos.

A little slow at times, but that's OK. No-spoiler advice: pay close attention to everything Louise says (in dialog and voice-over) in the early going, as it will help illuminate things later. And afterward, you might want to check out the IMDB trivia page too, if you miss the joke about the names Ian suggests for their alien contacts.

The Good Dinosaur

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

Definitely a minor Pixar effort here. We wisely waited for the DVD to percolate to the top of the Netflix queue.

The plot: you know the massive meteor that (in our reality) hit Earth and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs? Let's postulate it just grazed the atmosphere instead, causing the great lizards to look up briefly, think Huh! What was that?, and go back to their dino-lives.

Millions of years pass, evolution does its thing, and now dinosaurs have invented language, tool-making, and agriculture. But no machinery, they rely on their brute strength to clear their fields, plow the earth, and build rudimentary structures.

Into one such farming family is born Arlo. He's relatively small, clumsy, and cowardly, but loved anyway. It's what dinosaur families do. But Dad's patience is tested when Arlo can't manage to do one simple thing right: kill a pesty "critter" who's been stealing corn from their farm. In the effort to "man up" Arlo, Poppa unthinkingly leads them into a dangerous situation, and before you can say "hey, they're not going to go all Lion King on us, are they?" … yeah, that's exactly what they do.

So Arlo is now small, clumsy, cowardly, and under extreme levels of guilt. This causes him to go off after the "critter", which is (well you can see from the DVD picture over there) is a cave-boy. Yes, evolution has allowed a more-or-less-human species, although they seem to have a lot of canine qualities too: howling, panting, scratching… (The critter eventually gets named "Spot".)

Arlo's critter-bashing quest quickly goes awry, and he finds himself lost, and his only option is an uneasy alliance with Spot. And… well, I'm pretty sure you can figure out the general outlines of the plot from there. It's pretty generic.

Pixar renders the dinosaurs cartoonishly, which is a little surprising. They appear to be made of the same rubbery stuff as their sold-at-WalMart action figures.

But (on the other hand) Pixar has gotten really good at environments and landscapes. Some of the scenery seems photorealistic and breathtaking.

And there are a few indications that there's still brilliant cleverness at Pixar. Arlo and Spot encounter a seemingly-wise-but-actually-confused Styracosaurus named "Pet Collector" who delivers a short but hilarious bit of dialog. (Spoilers in IMDB's "quote" section if you must, but it's almost worth sitting through a lot of the movie's sentimental dreck instead.)

The Great Wall

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

Pun Son and I went to see this before it disappeared from our local theatres. His choice.

Consumer report: I dozed fitfully during the first half. In terms of grabbing the viewer's interest right from the start, I'd have to rate that a failure. But things seemed to perk up at the end. So overall, three stars ("OK"). I don't think I was snoring. Had I been snoring, I'd knock it down a star.

Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal play a couple of mercenaries on their way to China to pick up some black powder. You know, the kind that explodes. They figure this is their road to riches if they're able to make their way back to Europe with a decent amount. That's illegal, but they are used to doing illegal sorts of things.

Unfortunately, they arrive in China during one of the every-sixty-year outbreaks of monstrous giant carnivorous lizards. Each one has, like, 298 razor-sharp teeth. They are, it turns out, what the Great Wall was put there to protect against.

So Matt plays the reluctant hero, throwing his mad archery skills into helping the Chinese fend off the pesky lizard onslaught. He gets less reluctant as time goes on, as the beautiful soldier Lin Mae captures his heart and draws out his better nature.

I guess this did OK in China, but not so well here in the US.

Finding Dory

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

Coincidentally, we watched the Finding Dory DVD soon after the movie was snubbed for an Oscar nomination. While two non-Pixar Disney animations (Moana and Zootopia got nominated? Pixar, it's time to step up your game.

That's not to say it's bad. It's pretty good. But not in the league of Up, The Incredibles, Toy Story [1..3], etc.

Anyway: you remember Dory from Finding Nemo, the cute little blue fish with short-term memory troubles. She now realizes that, hey, she had a mom and dad way back when. And she misses them. But all she can remember is the phrase: "the jewel of Morro Bay, California". Can that possibly be enough?

Well, (spoiler) sure it is. But only after numerous misadventures, involving a lot of fishy characters, and general hilarity. And the voice of Sigourney Weaver. Nemo and dad Marlin are back, but there's also Hank, a cranky octopus missing one arm. (So, as Dory points out, a "septopus". With her memory issues, how did she get up to speed so well on ordinal prefixes?)

Consumer note: fans of Finding Nemo will want to watch a post-credits scene.

Consumer note 2: the DVD also includes the short Piper, which was Oscar-nominated. It's pretty good too.

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