Enough Said

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

Netflix thought I would like this a little better than I did, but that's OK. It's a romantic comedy, but definitely a chick-flick on top of that.

Our heroine is Eva, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus; she (somehow) makes a living as a masseuse. She is divorced, with her only daughter about to head off to college. (All the adults in this movie are either divorced, or seemingly about to be.) She is dragged to a party where she meets (1) Marianne (Catherine Keener), a poet; (2) Albert (the late James Gandolfini), curator of a television archive.

Quibble: Marianne lives a very-upperclass lifestyle on income from her poetry? Sorry, but I can't believe there are more than three poets in the entire country that could do that.

Anyway: Albert is a nice guy, displays a charming geekiness about beloved old TV shows, but he looks a lot like James Gandolfini, and is a self-described slob. You'd think someone who looks like Julia Louis-Dreyfus could aim a little higher. But she's not that superficial, and their romantic relationship blossoms.

And Eva also takes on Marianne as a massage client; their relationship also blossoms (albeit not romantically, it's not that kind of a movie, pal) They dish on their ex-husbands, and their college-bound daughters.

And (sorry for the spoiler, but it's one you'll see in most of the plot synopses): it turns out that Albert is Marianne's ex-husband. All Marianne's denigration of her ex calls into question Eva's relationship with Albert. At least in Eva's mind. Will they survive?

So: a perfectly nice, and often very funny, movie. As I said, a chick flick, but one where the females are often as quirky and flawed as the males. Guys, if you need a movie to give your significant other a break from your steady diet of mayhem, you could do a lot worse.

Bookmark and Share

Guardians of the Galaxy

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

As I type, Guardians of the Galaxy is #41 on IMDB's Top 250 movies of all time. Ahead of … well, ahead of thousands of movies, including The Lives of Others, Sunset Boulevard, and WALL·E. So I don't know about that, but I sure had a good time.

The primary hero is a young Earthman, Peter Quill. In a brief opening scene, we're shown his alien abduction outside the hospital where his mother has just passed away. Years later (roughly present day) he is a full-fledged interstellar Han Solo/Indiana Jones, on the hunt for various valuable trinkets.

But this time he has acquired an honest-to-goodness MacGuffin, a mysterious orb desired by the evil Ronan (who in turn is revealed to be a mere flunky of the even eviller Thanos). Peter is soon on the lam, pursued both by the forces of Ronan, and by the gang of thugs that sent him after the orb in the first place. Along the way, he picks up an odd assortment of allies-by-convenience, who eventually become the titular Guardians: the intelligent-but-deadly raccoon, Rocket; the treelike Groot; green-skinned babe Gamora; brutish convict-with-a-heart-of-gold Drax.

If it were just that, the movie could have been as not-very-interesting as Thor. But someone, I assume writer/director James Gunn, manages to infuse the movie with humor, makes the characters sympathetic and interesting, and fills the screen with inventive visual splendor. Mrs. Salad doesn't like comic book movies very much in general, but gave this her grudging approval.

Consumer note: It's probably worth seeing on the big screen, as we did. We saw it in 2-D, which was fine, but the consensus seems to be that spending the extra money for 3-D, and maybe even IMAX, may be worth it.

Bookmark and Share


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

So, don't mean to quibble, but if the movie is called Her, why does the DVD box have a picture of Him? Just wondering.

Also, just kidding. The titular character is an "OS" (Operating System) installed on the computer of the pictured Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix). He's on the bitter end of a recent divorce. He's good at his job (which seems to be ghost-writing sentimental letters for people too busy or too inarticulate to do so themselves), a gig which is lucrative enough to move him on up into a deluxe apartment in the (Los Angeles) sky. But he's desperately lonely and emotionally shut down.

But the Her OS, aka Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), changes all that. After a few seemingly perfunctory questions, Samantha springs to artificially-intelligent life. She would pass the Turing Test without breaking a CPU sweat, and she quickly goes from her initial role as Theodore's assistant, to confidante, then friend, then (yes) lover.

I kind of knew most of this going in, due to trailers and things heard on the street. I was skeptical: you can make a whole movie out of this idea? Yes, it turns out you can, if you're a filmmaking genius like writer/director Spike Jonze.

Her is, as I type #206 on IMDB's top 250 movies of all time. I don't know about that, but I liked it. It is (arguably) one artsy take on Vernor Vinge's "singularity", but I won't spoil that further.

Aside: I think the movie assumes near the end that the viewer would recognize the significance of the name "Alan Watts". Really? I did, but I'm a geezer who read a lot of goofy stuff when I was young. I can't imagine a lot of other potential viewers being in a similar position.

Last Modified 2014-08-15 9:28 AM EDT
Bookmark and Share

Blue Ruin

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

A surprisingly good low-budget thriller. The "Making Of" feature attached to the DVD reveals the writer/director (Jeremy Saulnier) and the lead actor (Macon Blair) were childhood buddies, making cheesy videos back in the day. They made this flick on a shoestring, even collecting $37,828 via Kickstarter. And yet, I enjoyed it much more than the last Thor movie.

Blair plays Dwight Evans, who is not a revered ex-Red Sox player, but a reclused bum living in a rusty, bullet-riddled 1991 Pontiac Bonneville just outside a Delaware beach resort. It's easy to make the snap judgment: Probably mentally ill, possibly dangerous.

But those preconceptions are upset when a local cop knocks on Dwight's window one morning. She has news: Wade Cleland, obviously someone Dwight knows, has been released from prison. And Dwight suddenly moves purposefully, with a surprising amount of resolve. (Also surprising: the Bonneville runs. Might be the only Bonneville in America that does.) It turns out that Dwight's out to revenge a wrong done to his family years back, one not made right by the alleged perpetrator spending a few years in prison.

It's darkly humorous in spots, and takes a number of unpredictable twists. The storytelling is masterfully economical (which I guess is a plus if you're low on cash). And I did not realize until consulting IMDB that one of the minor-role actresses playing a member of the villainous Cleland family was previously Jan Brady of The Brady Bunch! Now that's casting against type. (She does not utter "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia" either.)

Bookmark and Share

Thor: The Dark World

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

Watched this for completeness. Because (please don't take away my nerd credentials) I've never been much of a Thor fan. It's a matter of taste, the same way I like watching baseball and football, but find basketball and (especially) soccer uninteresting.

It makes sense to me: obviously guys like Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, etc. are more believable and relatable than a Norse god (but not really a god) with family problems, coming from an invisible alternate reality that gets joined up with ours every so often.

Here, the deal is that Thor's girlfriend, Jane, gets occupied by the "Aether", a bit of mumbo-jumbo desperately sought by the evil elf Malekith and his minions, in order to bring darkness upon Asgard, Earth, and all the other realms in the universe. Thor must enlist the imprisoned Loki to aid in his quest to disinfect Jane and defeat Malekith, and… oh, there's a lot of fighting and fantastic special effects, and etc.

But the actors deserve some sort of award for simply making believe (but not making me believe) that this all makes perfect sense. There are many hints that the screenwriters, at least, aren't taking the scenario very seriously. ("I better get my pants.")

It's becoming a Marvel trademark: yet another movie that involves an epic battle in, above, and around a major metropolis. (London, this time.)

Bookmark and Share

Bad Words

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

Very funny. But in a profane way, so stay away if you're averse to such things. Or under 40. Nobody under 40 should see this movie.

Jason Bateman plays Guy Trilby, an unpleasant middle-aged loser who decides to exploit a technical loophole in the qualifications for a major national spelling bee (not called "Scripps" for obvious legal reasons). The rules merely state that contestants can't have graduated from the eighth grade; and, being a dropout, Trilby hasn't. He also needs a sponsor from an actual journalistic organization, and he's found that with Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), a reporter for the "Click and Scroll" website. Jenny is hoping to get a story out of Guy's efforts, but (sad for her) she lacks even the small amount of self-esteem necessary to keep from jumping in the sack with him.

So Guy's in, in more ways than one. By which I mean "two ways."

And, not satisfied with just knowing how to spell well, he's also not averse to playing nasty mind games to sabotage his stronger opponents. Things go off course when he meets Chaitanya, a cute-as-a-button Indian-American competitor. Due to Chaitanya's persistence, they develop a truly dysfunctional relationship. But are there ulterior motives at work? Yes. Maybe.

A gutsier movie would have stuck with making Guy a total rat bastard to the very end. But (small spoiler) this does not happen. Still very funny though.

Last Modified 2014-08-04 2:55 PM EDT
Bookmark and Share

Dallas Buyers Club

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

What distinguishes this from a run-of-the-mill disease-of-the-month tearjerker from Lifetime Movie Network? Easy, pilgrim: the answer is Mr. Matthew McConaughey. He's a force of movie nature when he wants to be.

Here, Mr. McConaughey plays Ron Woodruff. It's the early 80's and Woodruff is a hard-charging redneck Texas non-homosexual, but unfortunately he's into a lot of other risky behavior, like drug use and unprotected sex. So he finds himself with AIDS, and the doctor gives him 30 days to live.

Woodruff also mixes cocaine with AZT, recipe for dying sooner than 30 days. He finds himself in a Mexican clinic, where an unlicensed doc makes him feel better with unapproved drugs. Which gets Ron's humanitarian/entrepreneurial juices flowing: why, if he takes this stuff up to Texas, he could make some serious money. Only problem being, it's probably only slightly less legally risky to sell FDA-unapproved medications than it is to deal in cocaine and heroin.

Of course, Ron "grows" out of his previous homophobia once he develops face-to-face relationships with his gay clientele. He also wins over Jennifer Garner, a doctor initially by-the-book, gradually becoming more humanitarian.

The movie is intensely libertarian, making a strident case against the lengthy and bureaucratic FDA process for declaring a drug "safe and effective". In the meantime people are dying. But another (unfortunate) theme strongly implies corruption between the FDA, Big Pharma, and the local doctors who stand to make a bundle off AZT.

It's a nice story, but there's a contrary take at the Washington Post that makes it difficult to buy the movie's medical basis.

Bookmark and Share

The Lego Movie

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

Another movie ostensibly for the kids, but with enough content and originality to make it more than acceptable for Mrs. Salad and I.

It's (mostly) set in a universe of Legos, where things are (mostly) orderly and peaceful, thanks to the grand designs of a godlike creature called (variously) "President Business" or "Lord Business". But Business is increasingly upset with the small amount of chaos introduced into the land by underlying forces of individuality and creativity. So he plans to "unleash the Kragle" which (small spoiler) is a scratched-up tube of Krazy Glue: he'll lock down the rebellious characters into poses they'll hold forevermore.

Opposing Business is a diverse array of characters: "Wyldstyle", a Lara Croft-style action figurine, "Vitruvius", a wise bearded wizard. They draft Emmet into their scheme, because they perceive him to be the "Special", bequeathed with special powers to allow him to defeat Business's evil plot.

Oh, and Batman. Who (of course) introduces himself with: "I'm Batman".

There are fantastic cameos, non-stop action, lots of sight gags (many of which I missed), and PG-safe humor. (Mostly jokes involving the word "butt", and associated concepts. My inner 10-year-old found this amusing.)

And (again, slight spoiler) one Jadon Sand plays the (human) Finn, who's revealed to be the driving force behind much of the action. He's a very talented young man, and no relation.

Bookmark and Share

The Grand Budapest Hotel

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

True fact: I fell asleep trying to watch this at my first attempt. But I was wide awake for my second time, and it was perfectly fine, and very funny. As I type, IMDB has it at #151 of the top 250 movies of all time, and I guess I'm OK with that.

It's definitely the only movie I can recall with a triple flashback: starting in (presumably) the present day, a girl visits a memorial to "Author"; we then flash back (1) to 1985, where "Author" narrates his thoughts on the creative process to an unseen camera; which recalls (2) his 1968 visit to the deteriorating Grand Budapest Hotel, where he meets the eccentric owner, Mr. Moustafa; who (3) describes his "lobby boy" employment with the hotel and his relationship with the eccentric concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), back in the 1930s.

What happens is a shaggy-dog tale of discreet carnal relationships between Gustave and the hotel's wealthy old-lady guests, murder most foul, and a subsequent frame-up of M. Gustave. Gustave and Moustafa must expose the true perpetrators while trying to stay out of jail.

Director/Writer Wes Anderson brings some of his trademarks to the movie: dazzling sets, slow horizontal pans, loopy and hilarious dialog delivered deadpan, an imaginatively complex and original plot. There are also a bunch of fine actors in smaller cameo roles.

If some of his earlier movies left you with a "who cares" reaction, me too. But his last few have worked much better for me, and if you've been avoiding him, give him another try.

Also: watch to the end of the credits for a small treat.

Last Modified 2014-07-28 10:09 PM EDT
Bookmark and Share

Tim's Vermeer

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

A very good documentary about an unlikely subject: a high-tech inventor and entrepreneur, Tim Jenison, decides to duplicate a famous painting by Johannes Vermeer. And (spoiler!) does.

But the details are what makes this interesting. Jenison's background and fortune result from his innovative linking of computers and video, with his inventions in use across the world. But somehow his interest is piqued by an art-history oddity: how did Vermeer accomplish his near-photographic depictions of his subjects, unprecedented in history, and even unusual for its time?

Jenison became acquainted with the theory, explicated by David Hockney and Philip Steadman, that Vermeer was somehow using optical gimmicks to match details and color while he was painting. There's little or nothing in the historical record to back that up, but Jenison starts reverse-engineering a possible mechanism, using only materials and methods that would have been available to Vermeer back in the 17th century Netherlands. After some initial encouraging success, he decides to attempt reproducing The Music Lesson. He duplicates Vermeer's studio in a San Antonio warehouse; he buys props and pigments, and otherwise gets to work.

In the wrong hands, this could have been as interesting as watching paint dry. (Heh.) (And they make that joke in the movie too.)

The nature of Vermeer's genius (artistic or "merely" technical) is apparently still mired in controversy, but the film points out a lot of evidence in the painting pointing to optical wizardry: chromatic aberration, distortion that might have been introduced by a concave mirror in the setup, differences in illumination too subtle for the human eye to pick up itself. I was convinced, but I only heard Tim's side of the story.

The film was produced by the comedy/magic duo of Penn and Teller, with Penn Jillette (a longtime friend of Tim Jenison) providing a lot of narration and Teller directing. Hence, much of the reason Jenison's not just another obsessed geek working on an obscure project is due to piggybacking on Penn and Teller's fame. Which is fine, but makes me wonder: what about all those other guys. Do they have equally interesting stories to tell?

Bookmark and Share