The Invisible Woman

[1.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

One of Mrs. Salad's Netflix pix. Sometimes these work out, other times not. This time, not.

Or maybe I was just not in the mood. The movie is based on the true-enough extramarital affair between middle-aged Charles Dickens (yes, that one) and the minimally-talented much younger actress, Ellen "Nelly" Ternan. Dickens has gotten bored with his pudgy wife. (Although he was interested enough previously to have ten children with her.)

Ralph Fiennes plays Dickens (he also directed). Felicity Jones plays Ms. Ternan. The movie was nominated for the costume design Oscar, ignored for everything else. Understandably, because it's dull. Mostly characters spouting wooden dialogue at each other. Sample, thanks to IMDB:

Charles Dickens: A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is a profound secret and mystery to every other.

Nelly: Until that secret is given to another to look after. And then perhaps two human creatures may know each other.

Arrgh. Shhuuut uuuuup!

Rated R, although I can't figure out why. I may have been napping during the hot stuff. If there was any attempt at humor, I missed that too. There's a low-budget train crash, though.


Last Modified 2015-05-23 2:27 PM EDT
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Avengers: Age of Ultron

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

So I picked a sleepy Monday night, well after the movie's release date to check out my first summer blockbuster. I'm too old to fight with crowds. I think there were fewer than a dozen other people in the large theatre. I did not spring for the 3-D version, and by all accounts I didn't miss much.

Bottom line: I had a lot of fun. I read about the Avengers' nemesis Ultron back in early 70's, back when I could free-ride off a fellow college student's comic-collecting mania. In addition to the superheros from previous installments, we get the Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver here. Cool!

I should talk some about the plot: the Avengers are sent to assault the last Hydra stronghold in some fictional dinky European country in order to recover Loki's scepter, somehow misplaced in an earlier movie. They do, but the "magic" in the scepter is actually technological mumbo-jumbo that Tony Stark feels he can use to defend the Earth against the hostile alien menace that he (correctly) thinks is about to attack.

Stark's high on hubris, and this time it bites him in the ass. What he creates is not the obedient robot he expected, but one who concludes the most direct route to peace is to eliminate the obvious troublemakers: i.e. the entire human race.

There's a lot of frenetic battle, but each member of the team gets a chance to shine, playing a pivotal role in their (oops, spoilers) eventual victory over Ultron. Everyone's brave, and despite occasional violent disagreements, the team eventually peforms brilliantly.

If I had a quibble: things are often way too frenetic, in the sense that you can't quite tell what's going on: everything's a fast-moving blur.


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Whiplash

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

As I type, the IMDB raters have Whiplash as #38 on the Top 250 movies of all time. I really don't know about that, but it's pretty good. Nominiated for 5 Oscars (including Best Picture), and won 3.

The story centers around young Andrew, student at the (fictional) Shaffer Conservatory in NYC. He seems to be a nice enough guy: goes to movies with his dad (hey, that's Paul Reiser); clumsily asks out Nicole, the snack bar attendant at the theater.

But he has a goal: to be a legendary drummer, like Buddy Rich. And he sees a possible path to that goal when Fletcher, conductor of the school's jazz band, happens upon one of his practices. Unfortunately, Fletcher is a volatile, foul-mouthed martinet, who loves to play mind games that terrorize the band members. The unfolding conflict between Fletcher and Andrew is filled with "didn't see that coming" events.

J.K. Simmons—who, to me, will always be J. Jonah Jameson—plays Fletcher, and won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his efforts. My only quibble: I think it should have been Best Actor, period. (Although I haven't seen four out of the five Best-Actor-nominated performances, I can't imagine them being better than J.K.)


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The Imitation Game

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

As I type, The Imitation Game is #209 of IMDB's Top 250 movies of all time. Nominated for eight Oscars, winning one. Don't get me wrong, it's OK. Even slightly better than OK. But…

It is based on the actual life of Alan Turing, ably played by Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch. It centers around his World War II work in Bletchley Park, heading the team that built the "Bombe", an electomechanical gizmo that broke the Nazi's "Enigma" encryption scheme. The movie also has scenes from Turing's early life as a bullied schoolboy, and from the early 1950's with the events leading up to his "outing" as a homosexual, conviction for indecency, and chemical castration. Ms. Keira Knightley plays Joan Clarke, a Bletchley Park co-worker who was as close as Turing got to a female love interest.

The movie is eminently watchable, as Turing struggles with his co-workers, his superiors, and his own prickly personality to accomplish his decryption vision. Cumberbatch is no doubt a gifted actor, and I bet he could play something other than prickly gifted oddballs if given the chance.

Slate has a good article outlining how much the movie diverged from the true story of Turing and Bletchley Park. Unsurprisingly, a lot of things were changed or invented in the movie; that's just how it's done. It seemed to irritate me a bit more than usual, though.

There was a repeated line that took me right out of the movie, though:

"Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine."

This is one of those sappy "inspirational" quotes that might appear on a poster you can buy at Walmart for $5.98. Maybe with a kitten looking bravely at a big dog. I can't imagine a real person saying it in real life.

But it's repeated three times in this movie: once from young Turing's schoolboy crush to Alan, once from Alan to Joan, then from Joan back to Alan. I groaned a bit louder with each occurrence.


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Big Hero 6

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

This year's Oscar winner for best animated movie. And it's from Pixar-infected Disney. So yeah, it's very good.

The setting is explained by IMDB trivia:

… the movie is set in an alternate future where after the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco was rebuilt by Japanese immigrants using techniques that allow movement and flexibility in a seismic event. After the city was finished being rebuilt, it was renamed San Fransokyo due to it being a city with Japanese and American architecture combined.

The result is (sorry for the cliché) a visual feast. The Japanese influence doesn't stop there: I noticed a number of scenes were clearly inspired by Studio Ghibli-style animations.

The movie's hero is Hiro, a kid with a gift for robotic technical innovation. He lives with his brother Tadashi, under the care of their ditsy Aunt Cass. At the start, Hiro's main occupation is hustling patsies at underground robot-fighting matches, but Tadashi successfully persuades him to turn his talents to more productive uses at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. At the peak of his success, however, disaster strikes. (It's kind of dark for a kids' movie.)

It rapidly turns into a superhero-team movie, where Hiro and his friends dedicate themselves to fight the deadly menace. They are aided by Baymax, a health-care robot designed by Tadashi, and heavily modified into a warrior by Hiro. Baymax is both comic relief and emotional peg, and he's a major reason the movie works as well as it does.

The DVD has a short cartoon, "Feast", about a hungry dog, and it is also wonderful.


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Nightcrawler

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

Let's see what genre IMDB puts this in… hm, "Crime, Thriller". OK, I guess. But it's also a pretty wicked, bleak satire on local TV news and MBA-speak. Those are pretty fat, cheap targets for folks in the movie business to disdain, but, OK, worked for me.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a petty thief who yearns to better himself. And, as the movie demonstrates, he'll do just about anything to accomplish that. Problem: his existing "business associates" know that he's a thief, and who'd be stupid enough to hire a thief?

A chance encounter puts him on a possible career path: shooting freelance video for "if it bleeds, it leads" local TV news shows. (Yes, they actually say that at one point.) He finances his startup with a stolen high-end bicycle, gets a fast car, a video camera, and a police scanner. He deludes a stupid young kid into an "internship". And he develops a sordid, corrupt relationship with Nina (Rene Russo), a news producer who's devoted herself enthusiastically to broadcasting stories that appeal to the fear and ignorance of her viewers.

So eventually something happens: Louis gets to the scene of a mass homicide well before the cops do. Will he do his civic duty and help the cops promptly corral the bad guys? Hint: no, he does something entirely sociopathic and creepy.

The movie is not without amusement: in his spare time, Louis has used the Internet to immerse himself in the language of business ladder-climbing and hard-nosed negotiation. Combining this with his genuinely sleazy career and deranged personality… that can get darkly funny.


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Le Chef

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

Possible alternate title: Who Knew Jean Reno Could Be Funny?.

M. Reno plays famous French chef Alexandre Lagarde, of the three-star restaurant Cargo Lagarde and a TV cooking show. He has problems: the restaurant has come under control of a young whippersnapper who wants to dump his old-fashioned cuisine for new-fangled molecular gastronomic offerings. And he's not exactly wrong: Lagarde has gotten into a rut, lazily holding onto the recipes that brought him to past glory, disdaining innovation.

Also, in an irrelevant subplot, he's neglecting his grad-student daughter.

Enter Jacky Bonnot (played by Michaël Youn), a youngster with a creative mind, a gifted palate, a seriously pregnant girlfriend, and an irritating manner of hectoring customers that prevents him from keeping any kind of cooking job longer than 90 minutes or so. Fate throws Jacky and Lagarde together, and they plot to save Lagarde's job, and Jacky's culinary career.

It's French, with English subtitles. It's also very sitcom-formulaic, but it worked for me. Probably its French pedigree fooled us into thinking it was more sophisticated than it actually was. Make it American, with (say) John Noble and Jim Parsons in the starring roles and it probably wouldn't work at all.

Or maybe it would, because those are two seriously talented guys.


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Fury

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

Fury! Alas, not about the wartime exploits of Sergeant Nick Fury and the Howling Commandos. Here, it's a word painted on the cannon barrel of a WWII tank commanded by Brad Pitt.

It's set in the closing days of the war in Europe, April 1945. There's still a lot of fight left in the Nazis, though. And the titles at the movie's beginning note that the Sherman M4 tanks used by American forces were outmatched by the Germans' Panzer/Tiger tanks in both offense and defense. Eek. (They ain't kidding about that either: A popular non-fiction book about the armored Army in WW2 is titled Death Traps.)

Brad and his longtime tank crew have been fighting in North Africa, France, and Belgium. But one of their gunners literally had his face shot off in their last battle, so into their close-knit group comes replacement Norman, an Army clerk-typist who's been forced into a combat role. Initial relationships are rocky; for one thing, the tank crew seems to have run out of patience with obeying the Geneva Conventions. (OK, they didn't exist until later, but you know what I mean.)

To enjoy this movie, you can get overly disturbed by (as the MPAA says): "strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language throughout". War is Hell, and the movie is not shy about demonstrating that.

There might be some symbolism/deeper meaning stuff going on here. Someone over at IMDB insists that it's Moby Dick in a tank, but that stuff goes over my head.


Last Modified 2015-03-18 1:32 PM EDT
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Boyhood

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

As I type IMDB ranks this as #181 of its Top 250 movies of all time. I didn't like it quite as much as the IMDB raters did. Although it was nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Picture, it only won one for Best Supporting Actress, Patricia Arquette. (I find that a somewhat surprising win, but I haven't seen the movies with the other nominees.)

Anyway, you probably know the gimmick: the movie was filmed over 11 years (May 2002 - August 2013) with the same actors. This worked pretty well for me. It focuses on Mason, starting when he's seven years old, living with his mom (Ms. Arquette) and bratty sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director/writer's daughter). Mom has split up with bio-dad Mason Senior (Ethan Hawke), but he's still an occasional presence.

So, what happens? Basically, time. Mom gains and sheds a couple husbands (apparently driving both of them to drink, one to physical abuse). The kids do kid stuff appropriate for their age, including sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. Dad eventually becomes respectable, but not respectable enough to avoid giving Mason Jr. some poor advice about relationships.

It sounds as if it might be boring. Some people have found it very boring. Not me, though, because even though the problems of these four little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, I still found them interesting enough to want to know what happened next.

However: it's long (2.75 hours) and drags significantly in the final third. Maybe you'll want to hit the play-faster button on your remote?

I can't help but wonder if they're secretly working on Manhood, to be released in 2025 or so.


Last Modified 2015-04-14 8:37 AM EDT
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The One I Love

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

I didn't know much about this movie going in; it was one of Mrs. Salad's picks. Just the Netflix description:

Confronted with the potential end of their marriage, Ethan and Sophie take off for a weekend together, hoping to negotiate their future. When they reach their idyllic destination, however, the couple strolls into a bizarre new brand of trouble.

Ethan is played by Mark Duplass and Sophie by Elizabeth Moss. Their whiny mutual insecurity is played for some very subtle humor at the start. They go to a marriage counselor, and before you can say "Hey, that's Ted Danson", they are off to a very nice estate where they are to spend some time alone together.

Except: are they really alone? Pretty soon the movie takes an unexpected turn into what Sophie calls "Twilight Zone" territory. I can't really say any more here without spoilers, but it's a very clever script that sneaks up on the viewer.

I was impressed by the acting talent of both Mr. Duplass and Ms. Moss. But (again) I can't go into much detail about that without spoilers.


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