Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

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

Our fourth summer blockbuster so far, and I confess that I found it near irresistible. Yes, it's commercial and (on a macro scale) predictable. Don't care in this case. I just love seeing dinosaurs misbehave.

Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard are back as Owen and Claire. Their relationship is off again, with Claire overseeing the rubble of the previous movie's theme park and Owen off to the wildnerness, building a cabin, trying to forget. But a big problem intrudes: Isla Nublar is a volcanic island, and its pesky volcano threatens to kill everything in the vicinity. (That park was cursed from the get-go, wasn't it?)

Good news! John Hammond's old partner, Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) is filthy rich, and his company is offering to evacuate as many dinosaurs as possible from the island. But, yes, there's bad news: there's an evil greed-fueled plot behind this offer; Owen and Claire quickly find themselves double crossed and in deadly peril. Which sets the stage for the real fun, which is dinosaur-based destruction and carnage.

Claire has a couple of winning assistants, who help out. And there's a kid. There's always at least one kid in these movies. There's a secret behind this kid, however, and I did not see it coming.

Random thought: whoa, Geraldine Chaplin got really wrinkly. But the last thing I saw her in may have been Richard Lester's Three Musketeers movies and that was—eek!—well over 40 years ago.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

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

This is (spoiler alert!) about how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol, Yes, we kind of watched it out of season. We were inspired to put it in the Netflix queue by watching the trailer for it on a different DVD. Fortuitous!

The premise is that Dickens is going through a rough patch. His early stuff, especially Oliver Twist, gave him fame and fortune. But after a string of relative duds, he's still got the fame, but the fortune has gone a-glimmering. (The movie lists Martin Chuzzlewit as one of the duds, but if I'm reading the bibliography correctly, that book was actually published after A Christmas Carol.)

Dickens needs to come up with a hit, fast. With Christmas on the horizon, what could be more natural? Inspired by a sparsely-attended funeral for a rich guy, various and sundry colorful characters from the London streets, he sets to work. His creative process involves summoning up his characters into his writing room. Most notably, Scrooge, who is given life when Dickens comes up with his name.

In addition to financial pressures, Dickens' domestic life is full of turmoil. Mom and Dad show up, uninvited; his Dad is revealed to be kind of a starry-eyed deadbeat. (Flashbacks show him going off to debtor's prison when Charles was but a lad. Traumatic!)

A certain amount of dramatic tension is unavailable to us because we know how things turn out. We know A Christmas Carol was a huge hit, so getting us to worry otherwise is futile. Dickens toys with killing off Tiny Tim in the book, but we know he doesn't. And so on.

The acting is first-rate. Matthew Crawley himself, Dan Stevens, plays Dickens convincingly. But Christopher Plummer as the Dickens-imagined Scrooge is priceless, and occasionally hilarious.

Like the book A Christmas Carol, the movie The Man Who Invented Christmas is entirely Baby Jesus-free, other than in the title. I'm not a good enough Christian to complain overmuch about that, but it's something other people have noticed.

The Incredibles 2

[5.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Five stars. That's my limit. The stars don't go above that. If they could, for this movie, they would.

I suppose I should say something about the plot. It takes up right where The Incredibles wound up (whoa) 14 years ago: battling the new super-villain "The Underminer". Things don't go well, a lot of hilarious destruction, and all the goodwill the Incredibles built up at the climax of the previous movie is basically squandered in a few minutes.

But they try again, thanks to a megatycoon who wants to bring superheroes back into the mainstream. Helen, as Elastigirl, is the obvious best choice, and what do you know, she's great at thwarting the evil schemes of the (conveniently newly-active) villain "Screenslaver" who can take over peoples' wills by just playing some funky psychedelics on their CRTs.

But is there more here than meets the eye? You bet. Is there a lot of hilarity, as Bob, Mr. Incredible, has to stay at home with the kids and gradually discover (as we know from the last movie) that baby Jack-Jack has powers that make child care … more than a little challenging? Yup.

Edna Mode? Of course, and she's even better here than in the first movie.

It is just so much darn fun to watch. It's smart, funny, and heart-touching. Brad Bird is a genius.

There's an initial animated cartoon, called "Bao". Very moving and (it turns out) symbolic. Also made me hungry, because I don't know anywhere up here in New Hampshire that I can get good bao.

Darkest Hour

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

Why yes, we did watch two Winnie-the-C movies within the span of a couple of weeks. Good catch. This one is much much better. Gary Oldman, playing Churchill, grabbed the Oscar for Best Actor. It also won for "Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling" (because you probably couldn't tell that's Gary Oldman). And it was nominated for four more Oscars, including Best Picture.

This movie is set around the events of May 1940, roughly spanning the time between Churchill's becoming Prime Minister (May 10) and Dunkirk (starting May 26). In between is a lot of political skulduggery and uncertainty about the war. Churchill's own Conservative Party machinery doesn't like him much, but they're forced into making him PM due to pressure from Labor opposition. That doesn't stop people like Neville Chamberlin and Lord Halifax from advocating a negotiated capitulation to Hitler's "peace offers".

Churchill undergoes a crisis of self-doubt. Does he really want to preside over what might be a disastrous Nazi invasion of the sceptred isle?

Well, we know what happened. The movie makes things "more interesting" by having Winnie meet with a random sample of British citizens on the Underground to Westminster. This almost certainly never happened. Still, it was in keeping with Churchill's actual personality, as opposed to the previous movie's made-up cowardly persona.

A Walk Among the Tombstones

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

This 2014 movie had been stuck in my Netflix DVD queue for a long time. Finally, the day came when my queue monitor said: get it, or delete it. So I got it.

I am kind of a Lawrence Block fan, especially of the novels involving his alcoholic ex-cop unlicensed-PI protagonist Matt Scudder. There was a previous Scudder movie in 1986, 8 Million Ways to Die, starring Jeff Bridges as Matt. Not quite right. Liam Neeson is a much better choice. And here he is!

Matt picks up his cases by chance; in this case, it's from a fellow addict that just happens to have a drug-kingpin brother. Whose wife was kidnapped, ransom paid, wife returned. But in pieces. Ick!

The kingpin (hey, isn't that Matthew Crowley?) is adverse to getting the cops involved (for obvious reasons). And he's more interested in revenge than justice, anyway. Matt starts investigating, and (of course) gets into a lot of seediness, moral depravity, and violence.

I was also happy to see book character TJ show up. The kid playing him is "Astro"; in addition to being an actor, also a rapper.

Bottom line: it was OK, but there are inevitable problems in translating a good mystery novel into a movie, and this movie doesn't solve all of them.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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

It's impressively acted, cleverly written. Didn't care for the ending. It was nominated for seven Oscars, and won two: Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor.

The Best Actress, Frances McDormand, is Mildred, about as far from Marge Gunderson as you can get and still identify as female. She's difficult, and events have made her more so: months back, her daughter was raped and murdered, and there's been zero progress in the investigation. So to draw attention to this miscarriage, she posts three … well, you see the movie's title. They are designed to let others feel her outrage. (And also make up for the guilt she feels.) The local cops are unhappy, because they know there's no magic spell that can turn zero leads into more than zero leads.

The main local cop, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), is somewhat sympathetic, but he's got pancreatic cancer with a grim prognosis. One of his deputies, Dixon (Sam Rockwell, the other Oscar winner), is a real loose cannon, under a cloud of a torture allegation. (And, give subsequent events, that's an entirely credible allegation.)

The movie proceeds with considerable bad language, very black humor, occasional violence, shocking plot twists, and so on. And then… well, did I mention that I didn't care for the ending?

I searched for enlightenment using Google, and happened upon a New Yorker pre-Oscar essay on the movie by Tim Parks The Feel-Good Fallacies of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”. Keeping in mind that "feel-good fallacies" you might share with a New Yorker writer might be the null set, I think he put his finger on something:

How does a film so empty of emotional intelligence, so devoid of any remotely honest observation of the society it purports to serve, sweep the board on prizes? This in a time when intolerance and gun violence are rife, when both would seem to demand a more serious response. “Three Billboards” gives us a world in which cleverness is all-important. All of the confrontations involve quips; the characters are intelligent only insofar as they know how to attack one another. But it goes deeper. In one of the few moments when the film attempts to suggest real grief on its heroine’s part, Mildred is sitting on the ground, having just witnessed the destruction of her billboards. Beaten, she weeps. Her head drops, she looks at her pink slippers, and the clever script, by the extremely clever [screenwriter/director Martin] McDonagh, has this distraught woman start a hell of a clever conversation between the two fluffy creatures on her feet about what she should do. Grief quickly dissolves into grim comedy, with one slipper deciding that the police had better watch out for Mildred’s response, and the other challenging her to live up to this bold claim. It is at once one of the slickest and sickest moments in a movie that constantly encourages its audience to believe that it is watching something serious while it is actually being fed a diet of eye candy, violence, and standard repartee.

Ouch! Part of this is Park's feeling that Our Times Call For … some different movies, I guess.

Churchill

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

So this movie had the bad fortune to come out near-simultaneously with Darkest Hour, another historical movie about wartime Winston Churchill, nominated for six Oscars, winning two (including Best Actor).

And this movie was nominated for zero Oscars, winning zero. Oh well.

Brian Cox plays the man, and I guess he does a decent job of acting. The time period covered is early June, 1944, the lead-up to D-Day. Ike shows up in the person of John Slattery. Miranda Richardson plays wife Jennie.

The problem that kills this movie is that it is (apparently) nearly completely divorced from historic fact. Churchill is painted as an ardent opponent of the Allied invasion plans, insisting on a broader attack front, coupled with diversionary strikes in the Aegean and Norway. (He's haunted by the WWI disaster at Gallipoli, you see.) He is a constant incompetent thorn in the side of Ike and Monty. When his efforts to influence the invasion plans are thwarted, driven by vanity and guilt, he demands to go into the battle himself, taking the King along as well.

And, finally, when that's vetoed, he prays—literally, on his knees—that God send bad weather in order that the invasion be called off.

None of this happened. See, for example, Andrew Roberts' review, documenting that the flick "gets absolutely everything wrong".

I'll give it 1.5 stars for getting something right: Churchill did, apparently, smoke cigars and drink a lot.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

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

So we managed to see this summer blockbuster-that-wasn't before it vanished from local cinemas. Avast: spoilers there be, below this line. Proceed with caution.

We pick up Han when he's a minor thief under the thumb of crime lord Lady Proxima on the ship-building planet of Corellia. (As you may remember, the Millennium Falcon was described as a "Corellian freighter" in the original movies.) Han has big plans, though: to escape Corellia and Proxima (not necessarily in that order) with his sweetie Qi'ra, get his own ship, become a pilot, and from there, make an honest independent living as a smuggler.

Things go awry. Many things. He worms his way into a band of thieves led by Woody Harrelson, their do-or-die mission to swipe a load of valuable hyperfuel for their employer, Paul Bettany. Things still go awry, and Han keeps getting further behind in his quest for independence.

Things we see: Han meeting Chewbacca; Han meeting Lando; Han (eventually) getting his hands on the Millennium Falcon; Han shooting first. We get additional confirmation of what we knew from past movies: Han likes to think he's an in-it-for-himself scoundrel, but at heart he's like a Chandler private eye: "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world."

Real spoiler here: no Jabba. Hence there's a big gaping hole that could be (but probably won't be) filled by a second Solo movie, detailing what happens with Han and Qi'ra (now shown to be in thrall to Darth Maul) and Jabba on scenic Tatooine.

Thor: Ragnarok

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

Due to our pokiness in watching Netflix DVDs (as well as our stingy reluctance to shell out additional money to Regal Cinemas) we watched this entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe after we watched Avengers: Infinity War, the events in which transpire after the ones here. We'll atone for this sin one day, no doubt. But there was a lot of "Oh, so that's what happened."

Anyway: as we begin, Thor has been captured by Surtur, a big demon-type monster. Odin has removed himself from the Asgardian picture, preferring the scenic fjords of Norway.

Aside: My Norse blood probably triggered my skepticism at this point: that doesn't look like Norway. And it wasn't. IMDB reveals "Norway" to be (probably) Dirk Hartog Island, Australia. Nice view, but not a believable substitute.

In addition, Loki has stepped into Asgard's power vacuum, causing all sorts of mischief. Thor escapes, spectacularly, from Surtur, grabs Loki, sets off to find Odin, runs into Dr. Strange, who assists. It turns out Odin is dying, which will release Thor's previously-unknown evil sister Hela. So the guys must do battle with her, and that doesn't turn out well, with Thor being bundled off to Sakaar, where Jeff Goldblum is the "Grandmaster" in charge, sponsoring gladiator-like duels. And guess who else is in his clutches? Yea, it's the Incredible Hulk!

And things proceed from there.

The filmmakers ramped up the Guardians of the Galaxy-style jokiness here. It's pretty funny in many spots. And Stan Lee… ah, there he is.

Avengers: Infinity War

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

It looks to be a bountiful summer for movie blockbusters, and it seems this will be one of the blockbusteriest. So Mrs. Salad and I travelled down to Newington on a rainy Sunday afternoon to check out Marvel's latest effort.

Mrs. Salad's thumbnail review: "So much fighting." Mine: "Cool!"

Anyway: this is the big lollapalooza that the movies have been foreshadowing for about six years: Thanos is coming to town, looking for those "infinity stones" that have been carelessly scattered around the galaxy. Oh, but he has a noble purpose in mind: slaughter of half the population to forestall scarcity and ecological disaster.

Yes, Thanos is evil, but he's also a moron. Given that we're also seeing easy interstellar travel and limitless energy sources, it's difficult to imagine that it wouldn't be simple to arrange prosperity for all sentient creatures. Certainly simpler than his herculean efforts to obtain the stones.

But that wouldn't make much of a movie, I guess. As we begin, the Avengers have split up, thanks to the spat in the previous movie. And a few members are totally MIA. But (fortunately) those lovable Guardians of the Galaxy stumble in to assist. And Doc Strange, Mister of the Mastic Arts. A lot of battles ensue over far-flung planets and Earth. All winding up in a big showdown in Wakanda.

And a truly shocking conclusion. Albeit one with enough ambiguity to gift us with overwrought fanboy speculation until the next movie comes out next year.