Kong: Skull Island

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

I dearly love King Kong movies, but this one … eh.

After a small opening scene set at the end of WWII, we jump forward to 1973, as American troops pull out of Vietnam. That leaves warriors like Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) sad. Fortunately, he and his troops are roped into a mad scheme hatched by Bill Randa (John Goodman): to explore Skull Island, which has only now been discovered by satellite photos.

Of course, we have a general idea of what they'll find. Along for the ride are hero James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and heroine Fay Wray Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). Humor, sort of, is provided by the survivor from that WW2 scene, played semi-crazed by John C. Reilly.

Acting is pretty good, as you might expect with that cast. Special effects are fine, but (honestly) we're used to that by now. There are numerous shout-outs to Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Coppola's Apocalypse Now. These come off as pretentious. Other than that, the script goes through the motions. Spoiler: they don't get Kong off the island, so there's no New York climax with planes and skyscrapers, and only a few characters escape with their lives. There's some effort to be imaginative with the carnage; the best scenes involve Kong fighting off the invading helicopters.

A post-credits scene sets up the patient audience for what comes next. Hint: starts with "God", ends with "Zilla".

Bottom line: I prefer Peter Jackson's version.

Dunkirk

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

[That's not a movie image. Amazon doesn't have one, as I type. I'll fix it someday.]

So anyway: Pun Son and I went down to Newington to check out this critical favorite. I was … not that impressed.

The story (as you've probably heard) is Christopher Nolan's take on the miraculous extraction of hundreds of thousands of Allied troops from the French beaches off Dunkirk. His method is to follow three stories: a not-particularly-brave British soldier trying to get off the beach; a very brave British civilian taking his boat across the channel; an equally brave RAF fighter pilot doing his best to shoot down German planes bombing and strafing the good guys.

There is some timeline trickery: for example, we see scenes of a sinking boat in the channel before we see how its hapless passengers got on board. But other than that Nolanesque touch, it's a straightforward story of bravery and cowardice in the face of horror.

But… well maybe it was because we saw it in an RPX theater, but the bass was boosted up so high that I had difficulties at times hearing the dialog. (The thick Brit accents might have been a factor too.) And—not to sound racist or anything—all those British soldiers kind of look alike. Which ones are we supposed to keep track of, again?

And, all in all, there's not a lot of reason to get involved with any of these characters, with the exception of the determined civilian boat captain.

I kept looking at the actor playing one of the British officers—I've seen him before, where? Ah, IMDB has the answer: he played Jarvis in the late lamented TV show, Agent Carter. He's OK here too.


Last Modified 2017-08-07 9:29 AM EDT

All Nighter

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

One of Mrs. Salad's picks. She apparently has a thing for J. K. Simmons. That's OK, so do I. For his acting talent only, I assure you. Although I admire his hairstyle too. And, for the record, his was the best J. Jonah Jameson portrayal so far in a Spider-Man movie.

The movie is direct-to-DVD, I think; its "Box Office/Business" link at IMDB is grayed out.

It's a cute idea, though. Martin (Emile Hirsch) is a professional banjo player; his relationship with Ginnie (Analeigh Tipton) is serious enough to warrant a meeting with Ginnie's dad (and that would be J. K. Simmons). But Emile is a laid-back slacker, while Dad is a zero-nonsense international businessman with a bespoke suit. The get-together is a slow-motion disaster.

Jump to six months later, Martin and Ginnie have broken up. Dad shows up at Martin's door, looking for her. He can't find her, she's not answering her phone. Not that Martin has any idea where she is either, but he's dragooned into a search through their colorful acquaintances for the remainder of the evening, into the early morn.

Does the Martin/Dad odd couple relationship gradually evolve into a bit of a bromance, based on their mutual like of Bob Seger? Yes, you saw that coming. To its credit, the movie avoids a different cliché (which I won't spoil).

And Mr. Simmons' performance is nuanced and interesting, of course. Wouldn't expect anything different.

Get Out

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

It's that old story: guy meets girl, girl takes guy to meet parents, parents are kind of a nightmare. But in an unusual way, so that's good.

There is a slight racial angle. The guy, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), is black; the girl, Rose (Allison Williams) is white; Mom and Dad (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford, respectively) are also People of Pallor. And they're super rich.

But they're not bigoted. Oh no no. The servants (or are they servants) are black. And at least one of the folks invited to the house for a big party has a young black husband! But as it turns out all those black people are giving off kind of a Stepford-wife vibe. Rose's brother is seriously creepy. And poor Chris keeps getting little hints what something bad is happening. And of course it is.

It's written and directed by Jordan Peele, who actually has (it says here) a white girlfriend, and is himself the product of a black dad and white mom. So it's not as if he's generally against that sort of thing (and of course neither am I), but I'd be asking him about it.

Wonder Woman

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

I couldn't find anyone in the Salad family to go see this movie with me. Sigh. So on a sultry evening when Mrs. Salad was off at a church event, I got a second-row ticket at the Regal Cinema in Newington, and…

I should mention that I think Gal Gadot deserves an Oscar for this performance. I swear that if she looked me in the eyes and said "I am an immortal Greek goddess, brought up by Amazons on a supernaturally hidden island", I would say "Uh, OK. What can I do for you?"

Also, if Gal Gadot looked me in the eyes and said "I am the cousin of a Nigerian astronaut who was sent on a secret mission to a Soviet space station back in the 80s", I would also probably say "Uh, OK. What can I do for you?" And then we'd get into the details of my bank account numbers, etc.

Anyway: Ms. Gadot plays the mature Diana. She's always been an out-of-place rebel there on her Amazonian island. (Because she's the only kid. They're all women, duh.) One day a World War One-style biplane penetrates the island's cloaking device, and crashes offshore. She rescues the pilot, and he's Captain Kirk! And—oh oh—he's being pursued by World War One-style German troops. There's a fierce battle, but the Krauts are no match for Diana, the Amazons, and Captain Kirk. (World War One Germans aren't as bad as World War Two Germans, but it's close.)

This leaves an unstable situation on the island; Diana and Captain Kirk set off on what they perceive to be different missions. Needless to say, they're both slightly wrong about that, and what ensues is a good deal of comic-book battling. It's a lot of fun.

Baby Driver

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

Like all thinking individuals, I have made a point to see all and any movies with titles taken from 47-year-old Simon and Garfunkel songs. Next up is Bridge over Troubled Water, a based-on-actual-events story of the 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse, starring Denzel Washington as a crusty civil engineer whose warnings go unheeded, and Kirsten Dunst as "Lady in Car".

No, just kidding. Heh. Although I would go see that movie.

The IMDB raters currently have Baby Driver as #146 of the Top 250 Movies of all time. And I'm like: please. It's neat, yes. But better than Fargo? The Big Lebowski? Or… again, please.

"Baby", played by young actor Ansel Elgort, is a troubled young man who has been roped into the job of "getaway driver" by criminal mastermind "Doc" (Kevin Spacey). His goal, of course, is to do One Last Job, and then he's off. Reinforcing that desire is his meeting of lovely young Debora (Lily James), who's amenable to them driving off into the sunset, but she's blissfully unaware of the nature of his day job.

Also complicating things are the violence-prone members of Doc's heist teams, always threatening to shoot, maim, or otherwise obliterate anyone standing in their way, or people who might get in their way. Also, criminals double-cross each other a lot. Everyone knows that.

The "relatively innocent getaway driver" genre isn't exactly fresh, but writer/director Edgar Wright manages to make it a lot of fun to watch. He's very good at choreographing on-screen action and visual gags with the movie soundtrack. Especially pay attention during the opening scenes.

I knew I'd seen Lily James before, but could not think of where. As it turned out, 'twas in a totally different context: she was Lady Rose in Downton Abbey. She makes a seamless transition to Diner Waitress.

Florence Foster Jenkins

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

While watching Florence Foster Jenkins, I found myself wondering, of all things: in what genre does IMDB classify this? As it turns out: "Biography, Comedy, Drama". I suppose that's fair enough.

It's based on actual people, as they existed in 1944 New York City. Sometimes, after watching "real people" movies, I'll dig up one of those articles that describe how much artistic license is taken in putting a good story on the screen. I felt no desire whatsoever to do that in this case, because I really would rather think things happened just like this.

The titular Florence is played by Meryl Streep; she's an heiress, devoted to promoting musical performances in NYC during WW2. She's married to charming and debonair St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). And her dream is to transcend her moneybag role and actually give a vocal performance in Carnegie Hall.

Problem is, she is a very bad singer. It's not that she has no talent; in fact, she's extremely talented at singing badly. You, or I, or 99 out of a hundred people picked off the street could do better. But she's blissfully unaware of this. So she arranges for lessons and a dedicated accompanist (Cosmé McMoon, played by Howard Wolowitz himself, Simon Helberg), and aims herself relentlessly at her goal.

To the movie's credit, this is not simply a laff riot. Florence may be deluded about her talent, but there are other things going on with her, and they come out gradually. Her relationship with her husband is, um, unconventional, and that complexity is tastefully revealed too.

Simon Helberg is a pleasant surprise, especially if you've only seen him on The Big Bang Theory. He's a pretty good actor! (Although I kind of knew it, because I was impressed with his small role in A Serious Man.) He's also a decent piano player; he and Ms. Streep performed all the music here.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

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

The Salad family has fond memories of the animated version. It came out in 1991 when the kiddos were just old enough to enjoy it. I think we still have the VHS tape rattling around in a closet somewhere (although the VCR needed to play it is long gone). It was the second flick in Disney Animation's resurgence, after The Little Mermaid. And now, since CGI can do magic a quarter-century later, they brought out this live-action version. Cool! Although the kids have moved out…

The story's still the same, a heavily embellished version of the original fairy tale: an ill-behaved prince treats an importuning crone uncivilly; as a result, he's turned into a … well, you know what. A number of his innocent servants are turned into houseware as well.

Meanwhile, in the nearby provincial village, young feminist Belle and the villagers view each other with mild hostility. (Except for male dimwit/hunk/villain Gaston, who pines for her hand in marriage.) Her dad loves her, though. But he bumbles into the Beast's castle, and to rescue him, Belle must submit to captivity.

You probably knew all that plot anyway.

The tunes are still very catchy (still stuck in my head, in fact), the script is captivating and clever enough, and all the actors are talented. For some reason, the live-action versions of Lumière, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, Chip, et al. came off as a little creepy for me, but I'm not sure why.

Hidden Figures

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

Pun Daughter thinks this is the best movie ever. And it was nominated for three Oscars (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay). And (sorry), I'm like … meh.

It's the story of three African-American women working for NASA as "computers" in the early 60's, in Virginia's Langley Research Center, back when calculations were arduously chunked out on huge electomechanical contraptions. (Oddly, there's nary a slide rule in sight, I'm not sure how accurate that is.) Langley was, and is, in Hampton VA, in the deep southern, segregated, part of the state, and as you can imagine, that's an issue.

The primary focus is on Katherine Gobel Johnson (played by the great Taraji P. Henson), recognized as a math prodigy from a young age. Her efforts on calculating the trajectories of the early Mercury flights (Shepard, Grissom, Glenn) are covered.

Also Dorothy Vaughan (played by Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer), NASA's first African-American manager. Seeing the future was dim for human "computers", she taught herself FORTRAN, and then taught it to the ladies under her wing,

And, last but not least, Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe), another whiz in math and science. She had aspirations (and qualifications) to be an engineer, but had to take some formal classes at the then-segregated Hampton High School. A dramatic courtroom scene in the movie, where she gets a judge to force her admission.

No question: the story of these women is interesting and dramatic. And it would make for a pretty good movie.

My main problem with the movie is that it badly trashes actual history in order to make a "good story". Although the movie explicitly places itself in 1961-1962, a lot of the stuff portrayed actually happened well before that. In one ludicrous scene, a gathering of Langley techs is lectured on the difference between suborbital trajectories (like Shepard's) and orbital trajectories (like Glenn's); that's something that would have never happened, since everyone, down to the NASA custodians, probably knew this already.

In one of the demonstrations of Katherine's genius, she's portrayed at figuring out a supposedly top-secret fact that the Redstone rocket was incapable of putting a Mercury capsule into orbit, and everyone's in awe. In fact this was well-known at the time. Like, even to ten-year-old kids. Me.

Shepard's flight is described by a TV news reporter as reaching "an altitude of 116 miles per hour" and would land "about 35 miles off the coast of Florida". Eesh! In fact, the flight had an apogee of about 116 miles, reached a speed of 5,180 mi/hr, and was recovered around 300 miles downrange from Cape Canaveral.

John Glenn was shown to demand that his re-entry trajectory be recomputed by the "smart one" (Katherine) on the day of his flight as more or less a sine qua non of him getting into the capsule. That would have been interesting, and the history is unclear, but there's no way Katherine could have done recalculation on the day of the flight as shown.

Glenn's flight is shown to be planned for seven orbits, but was abruptly cut short to three because of an anomalous reading showing the capsule's heat shield might have come loose. In fact, three orbits were always planned, although there was a lot of understandable concern about the heat sheild.

I may sound like a cranky quibbler, but (honestly) all this impaired my enjoyment of the movie. It's as if a movie about the American Revolution climaxed with a dramatic horseback swordfight between Generals Washington and Cornwallis, after Cornwallis had killed George's best buddy, the Marquis de Lafayette. ("Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert! Nooooo!")

Logan

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

An R-rated swan song to Logan/Wolverine and Professor Xavier, at least in their Hugh Jackman/Patrick Stewart incarnations. As I type, the IMDB raters have it pegged as #144 of the best movies of all time, and I can't go quite that far.

It's the year 2029, and all the mutants have been killed, captured, or driven way underground. And (at least Logan believes) there have been no new mutants born for years. Logan works as a limo driver, and takes care of Professor X, who's safely hidden away in a bleak industrial landscape. Prof X is succumbing to the ravages of age, which in his case means the occasional mindstorm, laying telekinetic/psychic waste to people and objects in the area.

Enter nurse Gabriela, who's got a young mute child, Laura, in tow. Would Logan and Charles mind taking her up to North Dakota? Unsurprisingly, Laura is being murderously pursued by an Evil Corporation; this puts Logan and Charles in their sights as well. She's eventually revealed to be Logan's "daughter", although that's not through traditional baby-making processes.

As I said, it's rated R, and that's for "strong brutal violence and language throughout, and for brief nudity." Among other things, the damage done by Logan's claws is the explicit version of what was only hinted at in the PG-13 movies. More generally, the bloodshed is graphic and unremitting. And the movie doesn't have any compunction about killing off sympathetic characters.