Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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

A very pleasant surprise. Netflix's guess was that I would like it. I was dubious, because it seemed like a too-obvious effort to squeeze some more dollars out of Harry Potter's fan club. But—ha!—it turned out to be a movie with an interesting story, sympathetic characters, a daft sense of humor, and imaginative visuals. Go figure.

Of course, it's the first of five projected movies. Those could be worse. We'll see.

It's set in the Harry Potter universe, but in the 1920's and in New York City. Our hero, Newt Scaramander, arrives from England with a case full of magical animals, and promptly loses control of one of them—a cute little guy, who loves to filch shiny objects: coins, jewelry, etc.. Newt's efforts to retrieve the little dickens causes a certain amount of hilarious mayhem; he attracts the attention of the American magical community, and also acquires a non-magical sidekick, Jacob Kowalski, an agreeable schlub who has dreams of opening a bakery.

Unfortunately, Newt gets tangled up in the conflict between the American magical bureaucracy (MACUSA), a disgraced magical investigator, an evil wizard (pre-Voldemort), and a know-nothing "New Salem" church group, looking to burn the witches. Uh-oh!

Especially good was Dan Fogler, the guy playing Jacob. Deserved an Oscar, he did.


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

A Mrs. Salad pick. I'm not sure if she knew what she was getting into, because this is one grim movie. And it's long, too. The R-rating from the MPAA is for "brutal bloody violence, strong sexual content including disturbing behavior, graphic nudity, and language." IMDB indicates that it made the rounds of numerous film festivals, but didn't seem to get a theatrical release before coming out on DVD. Yes, it's a little arty. And long. Did I mention long?

It consists of four "chapters", and (I said it was arty) they are not in chronological order. It is set on the American frontier in the days of semi-lawlessness. It follows the travails of a young woman, "Liz", who's initially semi-happily married, a tongueless mute, and also a midwife. But one day a new preacher shows up at their church, and Liz gets a very worried look on her face. With good reason, as it turns out.

I can't recommend this movie wholeheartedly, unless you enjoy being dragged through a lot of perverse sex, gruesome violence, and disturbing degradation. And there was one "Oh, man, they're not gonna go there, are they? … Oh, crap, they did." moment for me. Might be more for you.

Acting's good, though. And I stayed awake.

Murder on the Orient Express

[2.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Both Mrs. Salad and Pun Son were enthusiastic about seeing this in the theater. I was less so, but OK. With Kenneth Branagh, how bad could it be?

Well. The theater has comfy reclining seats. I fell asleep. Despite a number of elbow-pokes from Pun Son, I missed a lot.

I usually say something about the plot, so: It's set in the 1930s. On a famous train. There's a murder. Hercule Poirot is on hand to figure it all out, and does.

It made me wonder just how such movies get made, especially since there have been a couple of decent treatments of the Agatha Christie novel already. Actors must be suckers for the opportunity to dress up in period costumes, affect accents, and chew scenery.

It also made me remember the first movie in which I saw Kenneth Branagh: Dead Again, in which he also played a detective. And, hey, Derek Jacobi was in both movies as well!

I liked Dead Again a lot better. It would have made Murder on the Orient Express a lot more interesting if they had imported more of the cast from Dead Again: Emma Thompson instead of Judi Densch; Andy Garcia instead of Johnny Depp; Wayne Knight ("Oh, hello, Newman.") instead of Josh Gad; Campbell Scott instead of Willem Dafoe; Robin Williams instead of … well, I guess that's not an option.

Daisy Ridley can stay, though.

Man Up

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

A very good screwball romantic comedy, set in England. As near as I can tell, it didn't make it to US theaters. Shame on us.

To start, it follows Nancy (played by Lake Bell), a thirty-something man-shy cynic; she's grown weary of her friends' never-ending efforts to set her up. Due to a Rube Goldberg-style cascade of circumstance set off by a chance encounter with a bubbly young girl on a train, she accidentally/impetuously: finds herself on a blind date with Jack (played by Simon Pegg), a soon-to-be-divorcee looking to restart his life.

They hit it off, thanks to a lot of drinking and a fondness for American movie quotes. But there are complications: an "accidental" meetup with Jack's ex-wife, and the guy she left him for; a goofy sorta-pervy ex-schoolmate of Nancy's who's still infatuated with her.

We laughed pretty much all the way through. Can't ask for more, really.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

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

A thoroughly enjoyable superhero movie.

A short prologue establishes the premise: Michael Keaton is busy cleaning up the devastation in the aftermath of the first Avengers movie—you remember, the one with the Chitauri invasion. He and his crew find all sorts of neat technology, on which they expect to make some money, but then government bureaucrat Tyne Daly shows up, summarily fires them, and sends Keaton and his crew on a criminal path with the gadgetry they manage to hold onto.

Years later, Tony Stark recruits Peter Parker/Spider-Man for help in his spat with Captain America. This gives Peter some starry-eyed visions about someday becoming an Avenger, but Tony clearly wants the teenager to lower his sights, becoming (and I quote) a "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man", rescuing kittens from trees and apprehending the occasional local hoodlum.

But one night he notices some thugs using Chitauri tech to rip off an ATM…

Despite this being yet another Spider-Man reboot, the filmmakers eschew the usual origin yarn; in fact, they leave that kind of hazy. Peter's infatuation is with neither Gwen Stacy nor Mary Jane Watson, but with Liz, a beautiful fellow student.

Bottom line: it's a lot of fun. Tom Holland is excellent and believable (to the extent that any of these flicks is believable). No surprise, Michael Keaton continues to be a great actor. And (comic book faithfulness be damned) Marisa Tomei makes a very, very hot Aunt May.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

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

I noticed that this movie was available "for free" (with Amazon Prime), Mrs. Salad was off to do her Day-of-the-Dead thing, so I watched this with my dog. Better than I expected! I read the book a year ago and still remember most of the plot details; I can report that the movie does a half-decent job of hitting most of the main plot points.

After some inadvertent heroism bringing bad guys to justice (in an unnecessarily complex way), Jack resolves to visit Susan Turner, the comely lass (Cobie Smulders, woo!) who has his previous job with the Army's MPs. As in the book, she's somewhat intrigued by the dent left in her desk during his tenure, which he made with some miscreant's head. But when he gets there, Susan's been arrested and jailed on a trumped-up charge, and her life is (obviously, to Reacher) in terrible danger.

So, as in the book, Reacher engineers a nifty jailbreak, and he and Susan are off to investigate the real villains. Complicating things somewhat is a paternity suit against Jack. So they also track down the alleged daughter, Samantha; at first glance, it's completely credible that she's an apple dropping near the Reacher family tree.

There's a cute bit of blink-and-you'll-miss-it trivia that I'll just drag in from IMDB:

Source novelist Lee Child, author of the 'Jack Reacher' novels, has a brief cameo as a TSA agent who is seemingly ambivalent to the fact that Jack (Tom Cruise) does not really match the stolen ID he is using to board the plane. This is a nod to Child's support of the "controversial" casting of the diminutive 5'7" tall Cruise as Child's 6'5 tall," 250lb weighing, and 50-inch wide-chested character of Jack Reacher. Despite a lot of fan backlash at the casting of Cruise, Lee responded: "Obviously, Tom Cruise doesn't match the physical description of Reacher in the books, but the movie is not going to match the book anyway."

Mr. Child is a good sport about this, which may be related to the suitcases full of money he gets from the filmmakers. Which is fine, and I enjoyed the movie, and I like Tom Cruise, but: really, we should be seeing Kiefer Sutherland in this role.

Last Modified 2017-11-05 9:58 AM EST

Trust Me

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

I like Clark Gregg. I liked him in The New Adventures of Old Christine, I liked him as Phil Coulson in all those Marvel movies and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. And I saw his smirking face on the DVD box for this movie, and expected a light-hearted comedy that gently lampooned Hollywood and its denizens. (In addition to being the star—he's in every scene, I think—Mr. Gregg wrote and directed the movie.)

Oops. Maybe I should have read the plot synopses a little more carefully. Well, it never hurts to be surprised, I guess. The IMDB says "Comedy, Drama". I say, more like "Film Noir".

Anyway, the plot: Mr. Gregg is Howard Holloway, a "struggling" agent specializing in child actors, because he once was one. (We hear how his acting career got derailed late in the movie.) His efforts are often thwarted by the machinations of the relatively despicable people he has to deal with: parents, competing agents, conniving producers.

But, by luck, he happens on his Big Chance: an extraordinarily gifted 13-year-old actress, Lydia, whose drunkard father is schlepping her around to casting calls. Can Howard help start her out on a solid career and also maintain his soul?

I liked the movie. Mrs. Salad hated the ending, but (once I got the genre right) I kind of saw it coming.


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

A horror movie based on an old Stephen King novel. It's got high production values and excellent special effects. But…

It's set in the largish Maine town of Derry, sometime in the late 1980s. As it turns out, the town has been cursed by periodic appearances of the evil clown Pennywise, who's especially fond of luring young people to their doom. The townspeople mostly live in fear/denial of this unfortunate happenstance.

But this time he's up against a group of young "losers". The leader is a stammering kid who's lost his kid brother to Pennywise. There's a black kid, a Jewish kid, a kid who's too smart-alecky for his own good, a fat kid, an asthmatic, and a girl who's been branded a slut.

Gosh, this sounds a lot like Stranger Things, doesn't it? Even though I know that it was Stranger Things ripping off paying homage to Stephen King, my movie-brain kept seeing the causality go the other way. And I also couldn't help but notice how manipulative the whole lovable-losers-vs-evil schtick was.

Still, a decent yarn. Along the way, there's a lot of grossness, scariness, occasional humor. It's long, and (I assume) they didn't want to make it longer by spelling out where Pennywise came from, the nature of his relationship with the town [it's pretty clear that some adults are at least semi-complicit], nor [semi-spoiler] what happened to all those kids at the end, or what the red balloons mean.

One from the Heart

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

This movie came out in 1982; I remember saying to myself "Francis Ford Coppola, Teri Garr, how bad could it be?" But I never got around to finding out. It was a box office disaster, gone from theaters in an eyeblink. It was still a few years before VCRs were common, so it slipped through the cracks.

But I noticed that it was streamable via Amazon Prime. And so I decided to give it a try. And I can see why some people hated it back then. It wasn't like anything else: a simple story buried in quirkiness and garishness. (Since then, Baz Luhrmann has taken over this creative space, I think.) More to the point, it wasn't like the four previous movies Coppola directed, which were: (1) The Godfather; (2) The Conversation; (3) The Godfather: Part II; and (4) Apocalypse Now. Whoa.

Anyway, it's about Hank (Frederic Forrest) and Frannie (Teri Garr), who have been living together in Las Vegas for years, but can't seem to reconcile their differences: she's looking to be carried off on romantic getaways, while he's looking to put down domestic roots. On their Fourth of July anniversary, an argument escalates into Frannie walking out on Hank. ("You stupid bastard, Hank. She looks just like Teri Garr!")

Frannie and Hank find consolation and advice from close friends (Lainie Kazan and Harry Dean Stanton, respectively). And they wind up canoodling with interesting new people (Raul Julia and Nastassja Kinski, respectively). Will they return to each other, or will one or both wind up with another?

The whole movie was shot inside a studio, including a replica of Las Vegas' McCarran Airport - complete with a jetway and jet airliner. Impressive! But maybe also ill-advised, as it led to Coppolla's eventual bankruptcy.

One review I read trashed Teri Garr's dancing. I thought she did fine.

Much of the movie is accompanied by songs sung by Tom Waits and … again, whoa … Crystal Gayle. There's an odd couple for ya, but Ms. Gayle did a fine job singin' with Mr. Waits.

The Accountant

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

Netflix's auto-rating system thought I would like this movie, and they hit the nail on the head. It's an intelligent crime thriller, with stellar acting. (Two Oscar winners, Ben Affleck and J. K. Simmons. Two other Oscar nominees, Anna Kendrick and John Lithgow. And some folks who'll be recognized someday, I'm sure.)

Mr. Affleck plays "Christian Wolff" (an alias), a high-functioning autistic, and he's in the titular occupation. His claim to fame: he helps all sorts of people (often bad people) track down financial irregularities in their (often criminal) enterprises. That's an extremely lucrative, but also extremely dangerous, calling. So far he's survived. But a brash young DOJ agent is tasked with tracking him down. Also, his newest assignment for an ostensibly honest tech firm turns out to be as dangerous as the ones he accepts from mobsters.

The main narrative is punctured with flashbacks to "Wolff's" family history and influences. This doesn't seem necessary, until it is. Stay with it, and pay attention. This movie does a better job of tying up loose ends in unexpected fashion than any I've seen recently.