Hamilton

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

Consumer note: Amazon link to your right goes to the $72.13 vinyl 4-LP soundtrack. If you buy it, I get a cut!

With our shiny new Disney+ subscription, we watched Hamilton. (I know, Gina Carano. Sorry.) I also know it's a stage play. Still, it was movie-length, so I'm counting it as a "watched movie". It's an impressive effort, watchable all the way through. And I don't really like hip-hop. But as it turned out the songs are less hiphoppy than I feared; the Wikipedia page, the songs also draw from "R&B, pop, soul, and traditional-style show tunes."

It's based on Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton, briefly describing his impoverished early life on Nevis, and really gets going with his move to Manhattan in the auspicious year of 1776. (Update: well, that turns out to be off by three years. My bad for believing everything Lin-Manuel Miranda put in his play. See Wikipedia for that quibble and more, some less quibbly.) He gets education, gets acquainted with the local revolutionary firebrands (including Aaron Burr), eventually joins up with George Washington in the Revolutionary War.

His success there jumpstarts his political career; it also sows the seeds of resentment and jealousy among his counterparts. He turns into a Constitutional madman, writing many Federalist Papers in defense of the new plan of government. When the dust settles, he's named the first Secretary of the Treasury, and eventually draws even more ire from Jefferson and (oops) his former friend Aaron Burr. We all know how that turns out.

There are a number of other plot threads involving romance and family, mostly tragic in nature. Comic relief is provided by actors portraying George III, Lafayette, and Jefferson.

The show caused me to try to put Chernow's biography on my get-at-library list. Ack, Portsmouth Public Library seems to lack a copy. What's up with that? Well, if they ever let me back into the UNH Library… .


Last Modified 2021-04-11 9:13 AM EDT

Soul

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

Pixar's latest, brought to us via our shiny new Disney+ subscription. (Yes, I know: Gina Carano.)

After the movie, Mrs. Salad echoed what I was thinking: Gee, this really isn't a kid's movie. The protagonist is an adult, confronting subtle adult issues. The meaning of life, for example. It's madly entertaining, full of visual treats and gags, but I can imagine a 12-year-old puzzled by what's going on underneath all that.

Joe is a middle-school music teacher, confronted every day with indifferent talent-free kids. Out of the blue, he gets a chance to divert his life onto its dream path: an audition playing piano with a famed jazz combo. He aces the audition, is on his way home in oblivious ecstasy, when…

He falls into a manhole and (apparently) dies. Whoa.

But then it's off to the afterlife. Which is much less heavenly than I've been led to expect. It's more like a university, with bureaucrats and well-meaning counselors. Joe's reluctance to follow the newly-expired crowd accidently finds him in the pre-life area, where souls are awaiting download into newborns down on Earth. There, he runs into "22", a soul who's actively resisting the normal flow there. She's OK with never moving into a human. Joe hatches a scheme to hitch onto her credentials in order to reanimate his (as it turns out) mostly dead body.

And there's a lot of merry mixups following that. But also some Lessons Learned. Which (I was kind of surprised by this) are not actually stupidly sentimental.


Last Modified 2021-03-29 7:01 AM EDT

Guys and Dolls

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

(In honor of Damon Runyon, I am not using contractions in this post.)

Amazon Prime's "Content Advisory" for this 1955 movie warns of "Drug use, foul language, sexual content".

Maybe Amazon should have a Content Advisory Advisory: "Do not take our Content Advisory seriously".

Although I was a little surprised by the big dance numbers featuring the "Goldwyn Girls". For 1955, they were pretty risqué. (I had previously only seen a production of Guys and Dolls given by a local company outside in Prescott Park (Portsmouth NH) years ago. Not quite the same as the flick.)

It is set in the seamy/glitzy world of NYC gambling, based on a couple of Damon Runyon stories from the 1930s. Frank Sinatra plays Nathan Detroit, who is looking to set up a locale for a crap game that will not be detected by the city cops. He is also trying to avoid marriage to 14-year fiancée Miss Adelaide. All he needs for the former goal is a thousand bucks to nail down a venue, which he lacks. But he spots Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando!), a known sucker for unsafe bets. Nathan wagers Sky that he will not be able to take Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) down to old Havana on a date. Sarah is the earnest missionary to the sinful at the "Save a Soul Mission" (think Salvation Army), so that is indeed a challenge.

Things proceed predictably, pretty much. The Runyonesque stilted dialog is amusing, at least for a while.

It was nice to see Marlon Brando in a comedic/musical role. But I see Gene Kelly wanted the Masterson role, and I have to think he would have been a far better choice.

The Blue Gardenia

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

A free-to-me Amazon Prime streamer from 1953. I was expecting something a bit grim (IMDB genres: "Crime, Drama, Film Noir", directed by Fritz Lang) but it starts out almost as a screwball comedy: three young ladies sharing an LA apartment in 1953. Norah (Anne Baxter) is a phone operator awaiting her boyfriend's return from dodging Commie bullets in Korea. Her roomies are Sally (Jeff Donnell), a ditz who loves reading lurid crime novels by "Mickey Mallet"; and Crystal (Ann Sothern), kind of a slut, who gives out their phone number indiscriminately. For example, to Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr!) a painter who's kind of a cad and a Lothario. Wisecracks are exchanged.

One fateful night, Norah celebrates her birthday by getting dolled up and setting her candlelit dining table for two. A picture of her absent boyfriend props up his latest correspondence, and she eagerly opens it… to find a Dear Jane letter! ("Dear Baby, Welcome to Dumpsville. Population: You.")

Despondent, she's easy pickings for Harry, who calls for Crystal. They meet at (finally!) The Blue Gardenia a swanky Polynesian club. (How swanky? Nat King Cole is the piano player/singer.) Norah consumes way too many Polynesian Pearl Divers with Harry's encouragement. Then it's off to his swinging bachelor pad, where he… well, you can guess. Norah resists, everything gets hazy, and the next morning, Harry's dead on the floor.

I think I've just described about half the movie. It takes its sweet time getting there. It falls to newspaper reporter Casey Mayo (Richard Conte) to track down Norah and get to the bottom of what really happened.

So eventually there's some seamy behavior and tricky cinematography. And George Reeves shows up as a detective with a pencil-thin mustache. Nearly worth the price of admission right there.

Coming 2 America

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

A long-awaited (OK, probably not that long-awaited) sequel to Eddie Murphy's 1988 Coming To America. Whoa, it's been that long? Over thirty years?

But he's still funny. As host, he provided Saturday Night Live with its best episode last season. (And managed to remind everyone that SNL isn't really that funny any more.)

The premise is that King Akeem (Eddie) discovers he has a biological son, caused by a one-nighter with Mary Junson (Leslie Jones!) back on his previous visit to Queens. And it just so happens that Akeem's needs a male heir. (His marriage to Lisa having only provided daughters. Lovely, smart, funny daughters, but still.) There's a tribal rival, General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), who poses a threat to Akeem's peaceful and prosperous kingdom otherwise.

So (see the title) it's back to Queens to retrieve the young man. Who's OK with all the fabulous riches and power, but not so much with fitting into the royal expectations.

It's all silly fluff, drags a bit in the middle, but overall a lot of fun. Arsenio Hall is also back as Akeem's buddy Semmi. And, like the previous movie, they don a lot of makeup to play hilarious other roles. Besides Eddie and Arsenio, there are a lot of additional returnees from the 1988 movie: Shari Headley, James Earl Jones, … IMDB lists 25 overlaps between the two.

Also: Morgan Freeman. Gladys Knight. Tracy Morgan. John Amos. How can you say no?

The Rhythm Section

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

Yeesh. Didn't care for it at all. Should have believed the mediocre IMDB rating.

Blake Lively plays Stephanie, who loses all her family in a plane crash which turns out to have been a terrorist bombing. That turns her into a drug-abusing whore. When it's revealed to her that the bomber is alive, she tries to shoot him, but loses her nerve. And that brings her to Jude Law, who recruits her to assume the identity of a dead female assassin…

Oh well, it gets pretty convoluted. It's all dark and gritty, and manages to make the beautiful Blake Lively unattractive nearly all the way through. It's another entry in the crowded "thriller with a deadly female protagonist" sub-genre. And it was a box-office bomb. Maybe this will signal the movie-making moguls that replacing James Bond with a girl is a mistake? (In fairness, Barbara Broccoli has seemed to say there's no danger of that.)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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

A western from the Coen brothers. Why did I wait so long to watch?

It's a collection of six stories, even down to the visual aid of the stories being contained in a old-fashioned book, pages turned to captioned color plates. (I'm old enough to remember those. I guess the Coens are too.) Each yarn involves death, in one way or another. In some the take is darkly humorous. In others, tragic.

And the last one is metaphoric, with five travelers in a stagecoach hurtling toward Fort Morgan. With a corpse up top, it turns out. Their dialog turns contentious, philosophical, generally loopy. And somewhat riveting. And as it turns out… (Oh, yeah, one of the passengers is Mary Beth Lacey herself, Tyne Daly. It's great to see her.)

If you watch it, you might want to brush up on the cast list ahead of time. I didn't recognize Stephen Root, for example, underneath a massive amount of facial hair.

[Consumer note: I usually put up an Amazon link to the DVD or streaming video up there on the right. There's no DVD yet, and Amazon isn't gonna link to a Netflix streamer, of course. The link will take you to a book containing the screenplay.]

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

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

I'm pretty sure The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is on every list of "Movies Guys Should See". Deservedly. I've seen it before, I think as a teenager. When I noticed it was Amazon Prime-available, I put it on.

US Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) are headed back to a small town for the funeral of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Everybody's surprised at that, because Tom was a poor nobody. But Stoddard decides to come clean about the events of many years ago… flashback time!

Back to the days when the town was a barely-civilized oasis in an essentially lawless territory. Stoddard is incoming as the town's new lawyer, but the stage he's on is waylaid by a vicious psychopathic trio of villains, let by (guess who) Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Stoddard stands up to the thieves when they threaten an old lady, but he's savagely beaten and left for dead.

But he's not dead, and is in fact rescued by Doniphon, taken to town where he makes a semi-miraculous recovery thanks to nursemaiding by a young Hallie.

The problems soon become obvious. The town is successfully terrorized by Valance and his thugs. Stoddard is an idealist, thinking that the rule of law must be brought to the territory. Doniphon is a cynic, scorning Stoddard's pacifism, but (on the other hand) grudgingly respecting him for his bravery. Complicating things quite a bit: Doniphon sees Hallie as his girl, and he's fixin' to propose once he gets his ranch house fixed up. But Hallie is increasingly drawn to Stoddard … It's a neatly choreographed conflict.

A large number of fine supporting actors show up. Andy Devine as the town's cowardly ineffective lawman; Edmond O'Brien as the drunkard editor of the town's newspaper; Woody Strode as Doniphon's buddy/partner; Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin as Valance's assistant thugs.

Tenet

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

It's all Christopher Nolan, folks. Director, Producer, Writer. It's famously incomprehensible, and I'm at that age where I don't comprehend the incomprehensible easily.

I got it, though. Mostly. I'd probably get it entirely after rewatching it five or six times, and reading a bunch of explanatory know-it-alls on the web.

Here's the deal (and stop reading if you don't want things spoiled): bad guys from the future are looking to destroy our world, so they've provided time-travel tech to a present-day bad guy, Sator. Who is, in return, attempting to reassemble … something nasty, an algorithm that will aid in humanity's destruction.

The gimmick with the time-travel thing: going back in time works, but you continue moving backward in time when you disembark. (There's a handwave to Feynman's wacky idea that a positron is just an electron moving backward in time.) And of course, the rest of the world appears to be moving backward to you. This gives rise to some pretty neat special effects.

All this is (eventually) revealed to the protagonist, helpfully named "Protagonist". His goal is to defeat Sator's scheme, and hopefully also save Sator's beautiful wife and cute son in the process.

So that's it. Now to look for some websites to tell me how mistaken I am in my analysis.

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things

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

Encouraged by a review I saw somewhere, and not wanting to watch another episode of the increasingly dour Blacklist, I switched to the new Roku, and watched this on Amazon Prime. Even better than I expected! It's smart, funny, moving, well-acted, … that's fine by me.

It wouldn't hurt if you've seen Groundhog Day. (I've watched it probably a dozen times.) Because we come in where our hero, Mark, has been dropped into one of those temporal loops, he's already figured it out, and he's gotten to the point where Bill Murray was about 80% of the way through his movie: choreographing his day down to the second. Doing good deeds, trying to put the moves on a pretty girl, stuff like that. Until midnight, when he's transported back to his bedroom for another trip through the same day.

But one day he meets Margaret, who's also aware that she's temporally trapped. (This is something that never happened to Bill Murray.) They travel through their town, looking for amazing moments (aka, "Tiny Perfect Things"): an eagle grabbing a fish from a lake, an impromptu concert from a music store's after-hours custodian, …

But Margaret has a secret, preventing her from Taking Things To The Next Level with Mark. Mark, being a gentleman, takes that about as well he can. But he starts trying to find ways to break out of the loop. An ambition Margaret doesn't share.

If you're looking to fill a 1 hour and 36 minute hole in your life, and you have Amazon Prime, this is a pretty good choice.