The Death of Stalin

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

It's billed at IMDB as "Comedy , Drama , History". But prospective viewer be warned: it's very dark humor. And as that Stalin t-shirt proclaims: dark humor is like food; not everyone gets it.

But I pretty much got it, I think. It is a based-on-fact movie about the events in 1953, beginning shortly before the Boss's demise, continuing until shortly after his funeral, and the inevitable power struggle is resolved. It is a only slightly sped-up good-parts version of actual events.

It is a satirical picture of a society powered largely by terror. Violence is rarely pictured directly; the movie's R rating is based mostly on its language. If people running afoul of Stalin are lucky, it's off to the Gulag; otherwise it's a bullet in the head. No less fearful are those ostensibly in power directly underneath the Beloved Leader and Teacher of Progressive Mankind. But neither are they bound by any silly rules; when it's clear that there will need to be a new ruler, the competition quickly becomes feral, as former "comrades" realize it's betray-or-be-betrayed.

You ask: how can that be funny? It's hard to explain. Certainly because of all the absurdity involved, and knowing that we're watching this from our comfy couches, and not as a participant or victim.

Acting is first-rate. According to IMDB's trivia page, the director decided to not even try for Russian accents. So Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev sounds… just like Steve Buscemi.

And Michael Palin plays Molotov as the totally craven toady that he was; a Monty Python parody without mercy.

Hail, Caesar!

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

A fun movie from the Coen brothers. Really took too long for me to get around to watching it.

It's the tale of a few days in the life of the Hollywood studio of Capitol Pictures, which is in the business of churning out all kinds of early-50's movies: religious epics, musicals, dramas, comedies, you name it. Overseeing it all is Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin; he's got his eye on everything, moves his stars around movies like pieces on a chessboard, and is always ready to quash some scandal before it can erupt in the gossip rags. Eddie is considering a job offer from Lockheed, and you can see it's tempting to jump out of his world of high-pressure in service of frivolity.

Specifically: one of the stars of the religious epic Hail, Caesar!, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), has been kidnapped by a group of Communist screenwriters. The studio is also trying to transition cowboy-movie star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a more serious flick; the problem being that he's got no idea how to act, or how to lose the oater accent. He's a nice guy, sure, but his new director, Laurence Laurentz, is flummoxed about how to deal with him.

And DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), an Esther Williams-type star of swimming musicals, has a bun in the oven, another potential scandal. Also, she's finding it extremely difficult to fit into her mermaid-tail costume.

Alden Ehrenreich, in case you forgot, and who could blame you if you had, played the young Han in Solo this year. He's much better in this movie.

Also, if you watch it, keep an eye out for Frances McDormand in a brief but hilarious scene. I didn't recognize her until I looked her up at IMDB.

I think there's a underlying religious theme here, but I didn't feel like thinking too hard about it.

Central Intelligence

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

Netflix thought I would like this slightly better than I actually did. But overall, not a bad way to waste an evening.

A twenty-year high school flashback sets things up: student Bob Weirdicht (Dwayne Johnson) is a fat, friendless loser; Calvin Joyner is the generally acknowledged star of the senior class. A cruel prank (near Carrie level) is played on Bob; alone among his classmates, Calvin shows him a random act of kindness.

In the current day, Calvin's life trajectory has not turned out the way anyone expected: he's a midlevel accountant. Although he does have a hot wife, his high-school sweetheart. Out of nowhere, Bob, now calling himself "Bob Stone", shows up, looking like… well, Dwayne Johnson. He is ebullient, ingratiating, pushy, hilarious; Calvin has little choice but to go along on the ride. But it soon develops that Bob's on the run from his employer, the CIA, and needs to go rogue, because he's been set up to take the fall over the theft of critical US secrets.

That's his story anyhow.

Hey, does anyone remember The In-Laws, a 1979 movie with Alan Arkin and Peter Falk? It's a lot like that. Uncredited, as far as I can see.

Anyway, it's rated PG-13 for (I assume up to the PG-13 limit) "crude and suggestive humor, some nudity, action violence and brief strong language." The Johnson/Hart chemistry works OK, Johnson has some strong comic chops, but not enough to support a whole darn movie.

First Man

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

Bottom line: I expected to like this better.

It is, as you have probably heard, a look at the life of Neil Armstrong, first man to set foot on the lunar surface. It covers, roughly, 8 years (1961-1969) out of his 82-year life (1930-2012). But they were probably the most eventful. It is based on a biography by James R. Hansen (who is a history prof at Auburn, not the same guy as NASA's global warming doomsayer).

Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong as a shut-down, closed-off introvert, only emotionally moved by the 1962 death of his two-year-old daughter from the complications arising from her cancer treatment. Other than that heartbreak, the movie concentrates on Armstrong's and NASA's fumbles and bumbles along the way: a dramatic X-15 flight; the near-fatal Gemini 8; the loss of astronauts See and Bassett in a jet crash; the Apollo 1 fire; the crash of one of the lunar lander trainers where Armstrong had to eject.

In addition, a number of Apollo-naysayers are featured: Kurt Vonnegut bemoaning that the Apollo money could be spent on making New York City liveable; Gil Scot-Heron performing his protest piece "Whitey on the Moon". Sigh.

I've seen the major spaceflight movies; this one is notable for portraying (accurately, as far as I know) the noise and vibration involved in strapping yourself to rockets. Somewhat impressive.

The movie looks so hard at the bad and dangerous stuff, the triumphs are glossed over. The actual moon landing is anticlimactic. Buzz Aldrin comes across as kind of a jerk. Armstrong's wife, Janet, has a major role, mainly being worried about Neil not coming back. A major scene shows a quarrel about whether/how Armstrong should speak to his kids before setting off for the moon.

But the movie makes me want to read the book.

Cover Girl

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

This 1944 musical comedy stars Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth. (We got on kind of a Rita Hayworth kick after watching Gilda.) It invites comparison with Singin' in the Rain. And that comparison is: "It's nowhere near as good as Singin' in the Rain." But let me explain:

Mr. Kelly plays Danny, proprietor of a semi-seedy Brooklyn nightspot, featuring vaudeville-style skits and production numbers. Ms. Hayworth is Rusty, one of the chorus girls, and also Danny's sweetheart. Phil Silvers is also in the mix as "Genius", a comic who might have seemed funny in the 1940s.

So Rusty (and the rest of the chorus) notice a ad for a Vanity magazine cover girl. After a series of merry mixups, and the coincidental fling of the magazine's owner with Rusty's grandmother back in the day, she lands the job. And (since she looks just like frickin' Rita Hayworth) she finds herself on the path to glamorous stardom. And wooed by a rich playboy.

Leaving Danny behind? Don't worry, this is a comedy, not A Star is Born.

The script is straight out of Cliché Central. The songs are forgettable. Acting is OK.

But Gene Kelly saves the day when he starts dancing. As usual. And (just like Singin' in the Rain) he makes his dance partners look good too. No spoilers, but there's a number where cinematic trickery is used to give him a very unexpected partner; I'm surprised the technology of 1944 was up to that.

Last Modified 2018-10-11 12:53 PM EST


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

A deeply weird 1946 movie with Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth. Netflix's AI thought I would like it slightly better than I did.

Ne'er-do-well smalltime gambler Johnny (Mr. Ford) is about to be mugged and probably killed in an Buenos Aires back alley, when he's saved by tungsten tycoon/casino owner Ballin Mundson (played by George Macready). I don't think a reason was given for Mundson to be on the scene; even less explicable is what happens next: he invites Johnny to his casino, and after some gay repartee, hires him to do some vaguely-described duties.

The relationship between Mundson and Johnny is tense, and it doesn't get any better when Mundson returns from a brief trip with a new wife: Gilda, played by Ms. Hayworth. Gilda and Johnny are hostile toward each other from the get-go, and, as it turns out, there's a very good reason for that… But that's enough plot description.

Let it be said that there's enough dysfunction in the triangular relationship between Johnny, Gilda, and Mundson to send a marriage therapist into a different line of work. Mundson's tungsten machinations turn out to be a source of dangerous intrigue as well. Rita Hayworth sings and dances. Everybody smokes and drinks way too much.

Oh, and the ending is … well, it's damned odd, given all the ominous foreshadowing.

Please Stand By

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

IMDB genericizes this as Comedy/Drama, which I guess is accurate enough. Netflix's rating algorithm also thought I'd like it, and it was also accurate.

Wendy, played by Dakota Fanning, is autistic. Although I'm not a doctor, I'd say she's a low-functioning autistic. She lives in a San Francisco group home, where she gets supported by sympathetic Scottie (Toni Collette). Her sister Audrey (Alice Eve) has placed her there, worried about whether her autism might bring harm to infant daughter Ruby.

But Wendy (like many autistics) has an unexpected gift. She's a good writer. And a Trekkie. And when Paramount offers a contest to write a script for the next Star Trek movie, she's all over it like a tribble on quadrotriticale.

Unfortunately, she lets things go right up until the deadline. And due to unforeseen circumstance, she realizes that the script can't reach Paramount via mail on time. And so she sets out on an Unauthorized Autistic Odyssey to Hollywood, where she can drop off the massive script in person.

Needless to say, things don't go smoothly.

A few random thoughts:

  • We don't get the entire plot of Wendy's script, but from the quoted snippets, I would totally go see the Star Trek movie based thereupon.

  • For those of us used to seeing Dakota Fanning back when she was a child actress, … well, she's all grown up now, playing big-girl roles.

  • It would be easy to make a "problematic" movie with autism as a plot device, but it seems to me that Wendy's disability was treated with sympathy and respect. I haven't researched to find if it angered activists, though. Because I don't care.

  • The movie relies on a lictor ex machina, in the person of Patton Oswalt, who just happens to be… nope, that would be a unnecessary spoiler.

In short, a good watchable movie.

Love Crazy

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

William Powell and Myrna Loy starred in (it says here) fourteen movies together between 1934 and 1947. They had an undeniable chemistry, and the DVD has a trailer that shows that the studio exploited that chemistry in its marketing.

This one is a screwball comedy from 1941, about the midpoint of their collaboration. Bill and Myrna play happily-married couple Steve and Susan, about to celebrate their fourth anniversary when things start going wrong, led off by an unexpected visit from Susan's meddlesome mother. Who is injured in a freak accident. Which sends Steve out of the apartment where he happens to meet an old flame. Who isn't adverse to a bit of extramarital relations, but they wind up in a stalled elevator (manned by—hey, that's Elisha Cook Jr.). Which… well, you get the idea.

After a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications, Susan decides she wants a divorce. Steve's only recourse is to fake insanity (which, given his basic screwball nature, isn't much of a stretch). Because (for some reason) you can't get divorced if your spouse is nuts.

It has a bit of a slapped-together vibe. Like the moviemakers were saying "OK, what should we do today? Hey, how about putting William Powell in drag?"

Everything's funny, though. For some reason, I liked actor/director Jack Carter's repeated line: "The name's Willoughby, Ward Willoughby." For some reason, it gets more amusing every time it's repeated.

Last Modified 2018-09-12 6:57 AM EST

Deadpool 2

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

Let's see… The MPAA rated this R for "strong violence and language throughout, sexual references and brief drug material". That understates it a bit. I waited until Mrs. Salad was out-of-house to watch it.

Mr. Pool, played by Ryan Reynolds, gets a quick comedown from the happily-ever-after ending of Deadpool, when Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) gets seriously killed by (yes) a guy that Deadpool let live in a previous scene. Those guys always come back to get you.

After a gruesome suicide attempt, Deadpool joins up with X-Men member Colossus to perform a goody-two-shoes X-Men-style mission: rescue a misbehaving kid from a mutant re-education center. This is complicated somewhat by Cable (Josh Brolin), a visitor from the future, back to avenge/prevent the deaths of his family at the hands of the future kid. And then…

There's a considerable amount of fighting and imaginative special effects. In addition to the aforementioned violence and language, there's a lot of fourth wall breaking and myriad references to other movies. (Someone should count them.) (Should? Some nerds probably have counted them.)

Not recommended for the easily offended. Or even the uneasily offended.

A Quiet Place

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

Heard good things about this, and they were all true. It would have been kind of neat to come into the movie knowing nothing about the plot, but (alas) in our world, that is not an option.

In fact, if you haven't seen the movie, and you don't know anything about it, I recommend you stop reading right now. As Will Ferrell parodying James Lipton would say: "Go to a place where movies are rented, sold, or seen and rent, buy or see this movie. It is delightful"

Still here? Well, the Abbott family (John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, some kid actors) is trying to survive an alien invasion; they are apparently the last remnants of humanity. The aliens are blind, but hypersensitive to sound, which means the Abbotts have to be, as Elmer Fudd would say, vewy, vewy, quiet.

They don't always succeed at that. And an early scene details the tragic consequences, and causes everyone to not only be scared, but also guilt-ridden for the rest of the movie.

Acting is first-rate, the filmmakers know how to put the scares in. Ending (however) is non-credible, once you think about it for a few seconds. Mouseover if you're inclined: [Mom and daughter invent an impromptu, but effective, anti-alien sonic weapon! Are you telling me nobody else in the entire world thought of that?].

Last Modified 2018-10-05 1:38 PM EST