The Frozen Ground

[2.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

One of Mrs. Salad's Netflix pix. She loooves John Cusack. But he's not very nice here.

Specifically, he plays Robert Hansen, noted Alaskan serial killer. The movie opens with what should have been near the end: hooker/junkie Cindy Paulson (played by Vanessa Hudgens), frantic and terrorized, tells the cops her tale of horror. Hansen arranged for a simple episode of whoring, but then kidnaps her, chains her up in his den, repeatedly rapes her, and is about to fly her off to a remote wilderness location when she barely escapes.

Unbelievable, but apparently true: the local Anchorage cops do not believe her. Hansen is an unassuming baker, seemingly pleasant, and has an alibi they don't bother to shake. Paulson, on the other hand, is an unreliable junkie who doesn't get along well with cops. So the case goes away.

So it goes, but female bodies keep turning up in the wilderness, all with disturbing forensics suggesting a single perpetrator. A diligent investigator, played by Nicolas Cage, links things up and suspects (correctly) that Paulson has fingered the culprit. But how to get enough evidence to get a warrant?

It's been a long time since Cage and Cusack were in Con Air together. This movie did not make it into A Theatre Near You, pretty much direct-to-DVD. It's a competent police procedural, though.


The Homesman

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

Despite a number of big-deal stars (e.g., Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, John Lithgow, James Spader, Meryl Streep) in major and minor roles, this movie went to DVD after a few microseconds in movie theatres. It is based on a 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout, which I won't be reading anytime soon.

It starts out in a small community in 1850's Nebraska, a bleak and inhospitable place, which nonetheless attracts settlers trying to eke out a living from the unforgiving soil. It's a soul-rotting place for men, and even worse for women: three of them have (to use a clinical term) gone totally bonkers, and the only humane solution is to pack them up and ship them back to civilization. (Surprisingly, Iowa.)

Taking up the challenge is Mary Bee Cuddy (Ms. Swank), a single woman of steely determination. She enlists/extorts the assistance of Briggs (Mr. Lee Jones), a lowlife claim-jumper who she rescues from a frontier-justice hanging.

Things don't go well.

Friends, if your tastes run to feel-good movies that show the noble human spirit triumphing over adversity, against all odds, you'll want to look elsewhere.


The Big Short

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

This movie claims to explore the underpinnings of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, based on Michael Lewis's book of the same name. After viewing it, Megan McArdle claimed: "Feel like it's [sic] enjoyability is probably inversely proportional to your knowledge about the crisis." Good news: by that measure, I know quite a bit about the crisis!

I also found this quote telling, from A. O. Scott's NYT review of the movie: "The Big Short will affirm your deepest cynicism about Wall Street while simultaneously restoring your faith in Hollywood." I'm sure Scott captured, albeit unintentionally, the worldview of the (multimillionaire) filmmakers in constructing this hit piece on capitalism: Us Good/Smart, Them Bad/Stupid. And, obviously, A. O. considers himself and his likely readers to be included in the subset of Us.

Anyway: the movie, like Lewis's book, is told mainly around the activities of a few smarties who saw that the bubble developing around housing mortgages was unsustainable, predicated on ever-rising housing values. Quite understandably, for such is the nature of a bubble, they are out of step with the market mainstream. The movie gets quite a bit of comic mileage out of the Pollyannish attitude of their opponents.

I read Michael Lewis's book back in 2010 and liked it well enough, but noted that it was "wedded to the good-guy/bad-guy scenario of wheeler-dealers duping innocent civilians into taking out huge mortgage loans they had zero chance of ever paying back." The movie turns the volume on this simplistic thread up to 11.

The movie was nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale), Directing, and Editing, and won for Best Adapted Screenplay. Not bad for a movie that's mainly people talking to each other! (With some gratuitous female nudity, meant to illustrate the corrupt debauchery of the Wall Street crowd. Let's hear it for the moral superiority of the Hollywood crowd!)


Bridge of Spies

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

After a long hiatus, we finally start work again on the Netflix DVD stack. (Netflix keeps charging you monthly even when you don't get any new DVDs, so… sigh.)

Bridge of Spies was directed by Steven Spielberg. It's got your Tom Hanks. It was nominated for Best Movie and Best Original Screenplay Oscars, and the guy playing the Commie spy, Mark Rylance, won for Best Supporting Actor. So, yes, it's not bad. But it's "not bad" in a respectable, take-no-chances way.

It is "based on true events", which in this case means "we can make stuff up to keep the viewer interested". The true events here center around the swap of Soviet spy "Rudolf Abel" for U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers and minor league prospect grad student Frederic Pryor. And maybe a third-round pick in the 1961 NFL Draft? The unifying character played by Mr. Hanks is James B. Donovan, a boring insurance lawyer "volunteered" to defend Abel after his apprehension in 1957.

Donovan is a straight-shooter, believing that Abel is entitled to a full 21st-century understanding of his rights, even though it's 1957. Arguably, those rights were violated, and Donovan did so argue all the way to the Supreme Court, who ruled against him 5-4 in 1960.

At the height of the Cold War, this didn't make Donovan a popular figure. (Although the film chooses to illustrate this by having Donovan's house shot up from a car passing by, which didn't happen.) Nevertheless, Donovan finds himself back in the thick of it when he's asked to unofficially negotiate the swap in 1962.

So: not bad for a movie that's basically people talking to each other. (One exception: the U-2 shootdown scene, which is fantastic.)


Captain America: Civil War

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

Another summer blockbuster; we avoided the crowds by cleverly attending a Wednesday evening showing. As I type, it's number 121 on IMDB's top 250 movies of all time, ahead of Chinatown and The Great Escape. Um.

And, oddly enough, the second blockbuster in a row featuring the heroes mainly whacking on each other, spurred by controversy about collateral damage caused by previous world-saving outings. This one succeeds a little better, but the point remains: just what deep-thinking moral lessons are there to be drawn from a situation taking place in an alternate universe infested by superheros, supervillains, and supertechnology, nearly completely untethered from the laws of physics?

But still, it's a pretty good yarn. Aunt May gets younger each time I see her. Specifically, this is the first time she's played by an actress younger than I. Sigh.


Batman v Superman

Dawn of Justice

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

I had a day off, so boogied on over to Newington to catch a late morning/early afternoon screening before it vanishes from theatres. I think there were five other people in the auditorium.

I read all the vitriol directed at this movie, but wound up liking it anyway.

Most of the plot is right up there in the title. Batman/Bruce Wayne has gone a little bit around the bend in his pursuit of evildoers, and he's more than a little irked at how the Superman/Zod battle from the previous movie trashed Metropolis and left thousands of collateral-damage casualties. Superman, for his part, is unfond of Batman's increasingly violent vigilantism.

Add Lex Luthor to the mix, who's eager to encourage the mutual irritation of our heroes into a deadly duel. And Lois Lane, always in peril. And—you probably already have heard—a reclusive female superhero, famous for her Lasso of Truth, Bracelets of Submission, and Bazongas of Awesomeness.

It's fun, but honestly, it's also way long, and I invited disaster by not timing my restroom visits better. And, geez, the plot is mystifying: just what is Luthor trying to accomplish here? At least the Gene Hackman version from 1978 (!) had a clear, if ludicrous, goal in mind. And our superbabe: exactly why is she doing what she's doing at the beginning? If any of this was explained, I missed it.

Also it's kind of pretentious: someone should tell the scriptwriters that's it's pointless for us mere mortals to draw coherent moral lessons from the travails of superheroes. Don't bother!

Along with the pretentiousness comes humorlessness. Although Jeremy Irons as Alfred delivers some good acerbic lines, the funny banter between B & S ("I thought she was with you.") comes as kind of a shock when it finally arrives.


Last Modified 2016-04-25 5:54 AM EDT

Wild Card

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

Usually I prefer to watch movies the old-fashioned way: on DVD from Netflix. But, at loose ends one evening, I decided to scan through the Amazon Prime offerings, found this Jason Statham movie, and—hey, I like Jason—decided to check it out.

Surprise number one: screenplay by William Goldman. Mr. Goldman will turn 85 years young in August, and (let's check IMDB) his previous screenplay was in 2003 (Dreamcatcher, not well reviewed). It is based on his novel Heat, and this is the second movie version, the first being with Burt Reynolds in 1986.

If you need reminding about William Goldman's screenwriting skills, just check out the list at the above link.

Surprise number two: it's not mindless non-stop action. Statham plays Nick Wild, an actually interesting character. He scrapes by in Vegas, picking up (very) odd jobs here and there. He dreams of hitting a big (half-million dollar) jackpot and retiring to seaside bliss.

His primary task here: avenging the savage beating of a hooker by local hoodlums. And he's also babysitting a nebbish who wants to frequent the local casinos without getting robbed.

Never fear: there are a few scenes of action, and Statham's character is just tragically flawed enough to keep you guessing about the eventual outcome. It's not a fantastic movie, but good enough to watch if you don't have anything else in the queue.


Selma

[2.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Honest, I really wanted to like this more than I did. Salad family trivia: It was the only Best Picture Oscar nominee we hadn't seen from last year.

It starts out recreating a horrible moment in history: the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls, aged 11-14. And then a dramatization of Annie Lee Cooper's—Oprah!—failed attempt to register to vote at the Selma courthouse. (She successfully recites the preamble to the Constitution. She knows there are 67 county judges in Alabama. But—oops!—she can't name them. Sorry, Annie.)

Into this steps Martin Luther King Jr. and various less-famous activists from the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It's decided to use Selma as a symbol to pressure President Lyndon Johnson and the US Congress to pass Federal voting rights legislation. Over the period of a few months this gives rise to a massive violent confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in addition to the deaths of other protesters.

What's good: the main black actors do an uncanny job of recreating their characters. David Oyelowo as Dr. King and Carmen Ejogo are especially good. (In contrast, Tom Wilkinson and Eli Roth are never that convincing as LBJ and George Wallace, respectively.)

Not so good: the characters tend to sermonize at points when, in real life, they would be speaking more normally. And the movie takes pretty unexcusable liberties with actual events. It's important to get things right.


Big Ass Spider!

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

How can one not help but like a movie titled Big Ass Spider!. Yes, with the exclamation point. Like Airplane! or … well, it turns out to be way more common than you might have thought.

It stars Greg Grunberg as the good-hearted exterminator Alex Mathis. Alex is excellent at his profession, because (he claims) he can think like the pests he is hired to eliminate. Never mind that his most loyal customers tend to pay him with fruitcake instead of dollars. He's doing what he loves.

But a nasty spider bite takes him to the local hospital. Which, coincidentally, also contains a morgue dealing with a corpse, which … aieee! … is serving as a hatchery for a mutant breed of killer arachnid. Look out, morgue attendant! Ooops, too late.

Pretty soon, the US Army is revealed to have been the source of this horrible experiment gone awry. Leland Palmer himself, Ray Wise, shows up as the Army officer in charge of capturing or killing the Big Ass Spider, and he's accompanied by fetching Lt. Karly. But it soon becomes apparent that they need the exterminating help that only Alex can provide.

It's not exactly sophistated humor, but I am easily amused, and chuckled throughout.


Rise of the Guardians

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

Another ostensibly-for-kids movie that Mrs. Salad and I thoroughly enjoyed. Part of the secret was revealed in the credits: based on a book by William Joyce. We used to read his wonderful books to the kids. A lot of his genius shines through here, in both the inventive animation and the storytelling.

The main protagonist is Jack Frost: his origin is mysterious, in the sense that he doesn't remember how he got to be Jack Frost at all. But he enjoys giving kids snow days and fun times in the frigid temperatures.

Still, something's missing. He's given a chance to find it when he is invited to go on an important mission with the good-guy Guardians: Santa, Sandman, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. Their nemesis is "Pitch Black", aka the Boogeyman. He has a nefarious plot to defang the Guardians by making the children of the world disbelieve in them. And henceforth the world shall be in the thrall of darkness, fear, and hatred.

It's fun to have a bad guy that's really bad.

It's full of beauty and humor. Plenty of sight gags in Santa's workshop.