Muppets Most Wanted

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

A nice little Muppets movie. Lots of cameos.

The plot kicks off at the end of the previous movie; the Muppets reunited after many years. (As Kermit would say: Yaayyyy!) But what do they do next? Instead of following Kermit's wise counsel to take it slow and hone their craft, the rest of the gang gets taken in by the shrewd conniving "Dominic Badguy" (Ricky Gervais) and go on a world tour.

But—little do they suspect—Dominic is the co-conspirator of Constantine, the most dangerous frog in the world, recently escaped from a Siberian gulag. (Apparently they still have those.) Constantine bears a close resemblance to Kermit, and before you can say "I bet I know what's going to happen next", Constantine has taken Kermit's place and Kermit has been hauled off to Siberia by Gulag warden "Nadya" (Tina Fey).

So while Dominic and Constantine use the Muppet tour as cover for a series of brazen heists, Kermit attempts to deal with his new life as a Zek. (His fellow inmates include Danny Trejo, Ray Liotta, Tom Hiddleston; Stanley Tucci plays a guard.) As you might expect, hijinks ensue.

There's some funny stuff, and (darn it) I like these guys. So, while it lacks the inspired lunacy of Jim Henson, I still had a decent time.

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

A decent, OK, thriller with some sci-fi elements, kind of the same genre as Minority Report, but with a much lower budget.

The hero, John, is a so-called "memory detective"; he has a sort of psychic power that allows him to send someone into a trance-like recreation of past events, and he will just tag along and observe. John has his problems, as scenes of his unpleasant memories of his wife's suicide keep intruding into the recreations. But he thinks he's recovered from that now, and the memory-detective company sends him off to work for a fantastically wealthy, but secretive, couple with a troubled daughter, Anna.

Anna is locked up in her bedroom, courtesy of a past deadly "incident" that she claims she had nothing to do with. John must determine whether Anna is a dangerous whacko (in which case, it's off to the loony bid, as her stepdad wishes) or the victim of malicious evildoers (as her mom thinks). Anna is clearly very intelligent and perceptive, and John is sympathetic. But…

The movie is loaded with red herrings, loose ends, and ominous foreshadowings. In the cold light of day, I have to admit it was pretty silly. But it kept me engrossed while I was watching it, and that's no mean feat for a movie that doesn't involve spaceships.

Mark Strong plays John; he's a fine actor that is well-known for playing cold-blooded villains. (There's a Jaguar commercial that goofs on this.) So it's nice to see him as a decent vulnerable protagonist.

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Too Late For Tears

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

Netflix calls this movie Killer Bait, but it's more commonly called Too Late For Tears; one of those weirdnesses that crops up when an old movie slips into the public domain. Neither title relates very much to the actual plot; for accuracy's sake, it might have been better calledToo Late To Realize That You Shouldn't Have Had Anything To Do With Lizabeth Scott.

Lizabeth plays Jane Palmer, married to Alan (Arthur Kennedy). He's deeply in love (even though Jane's previous husband "committed suicide"), and why not? Jane doesn't look like a murderous sociopath. But by sheer coincidence, a blackmail victim mistakenly tosses a payoff into into their convertible one night on (I think) Mulholland Drive. Alan's impulse is to Do The Right Thing and turn the money in to the cops. Jane, however, is immediately obsessed with keeping the cash at all costs. And, since this is film noir at its noirest, "all costs" means there will be at least a couple corpses involved.

Things aren't helped when Danny, the blackmailer (Dan Duryea) tracks them down and confronts Jane. Also in the picture are Alan's sister, Kathy (Kristine Miller) and a mysterious stranger, "Don" (Don DeFore) who claims to have known Alan back in WW2. Jane needs to outmaneuver them all, with a scheme that involves a lot of ad hoc deception, betrayal, and murder most foul. Will she get away with the loot?

Netflix underestimated how much I'd like this old film noir, but it's the real deal, a story of how one little accident can reveal a character's inner rot and send a lot of the cast into a downward spiral of corruption and ruin. Dan Duryea is especially good as the sleazeball blackmailer who finds that Jane's villainy is too much for even him.

Surprisingly good is Don DeFore, who I remember solely from glimpses on old TV sitcoms: Ozzie and Harriet and Hazel. Here, he's alternatively affable, goofy, and scheming; his big secret is only revealed at the movie's climax.

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A Matter of Life and Death

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

More commonly known in America as Stairway to Heaven, but (not to be confused|nothing to do) with that Led Zep song. We'll go with the original British title here. This movie was made shortly after World War 2, and it's pretty bizarre for the era. Or, in fact, for any era.

David Niven plays Peter Carter, an RAF pilot trying to get his doomed bomber back to Old Blighty with one engine on fire and the surviving crew punched out over the channel. He gets on the radio with June (Kim Hunter), and there's something about his classically British stiff upper lip and her warm American voice that makes them fall in love. On the radio.

After saying ta-ta to June, Peter jumps from the plane before it crashes and—against all odds—survives, getting washed up on the beach. He finds June, they get married, live happily ever after.

Just kidding! It turns out that Peter was supposed to die and his survival was due to an extremely rare slipup by the heavenly powers-that-be. Up in the realm of the angels there's much consternation about what to do; the books are out of balance. Peter's summoned to make things right, but he declines; with June he has too much to live for. The resulting conflict brings him to trial. Raymond Massey plays the prosecuting lawyer! (Chosen because of his presumed anti-Brit sentiment: he fell victim to a Redcoat in 1775 Boston.)

There are a lot of movies that revolve around the interaction between the here-and-now world and Heaven. Only in this one is there an effeminate fop who was beheaded during the French Reign of Terror. (He's in a pretty good mood about it though.) Only this one has a ping-pong match between June and a doctor, who's trying to diagnose Peter's "hallucinations" about said fop who's trying to get him Upstairs. Only this one has a camera obscura that the doctor owns as a hobby (seen once, not mentioned again). Only in this one does the good doctor die so that the script can place him as Peter's defense attorney in the Great Beyond. As I said: bizarre.

All kidding aside: there is a lot of dull scenery-chewing speechifying during Peter's trial. Could have done without that.

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The Wolf of Wall Street

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

A bit of Pun Salad trivia: watching this movie means I watched all nine nominees for the Best Picture Oscar for the past year. (Haven't managed to do that since 2010.) The IMDB raters have it (as I type) at #124 on the best 250 movies of all time! I don't know about that, but it was pretty good. Mr. Martin Scorcese directed, and I doubt if he remembers how to make anything other than a good movie.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, and this is the story of his rise and fall in the corrupt world of Wall Street. He breaks in as a lowly phone salesman in a "respectable" (but, in fact, not very respectable) brokerage. And he does OK until the 1987 market crash wipes him and his firm out. Then it's over to an extremely disreputable penny-stock operation, strictly in business to transfer money from gullible customers into brokers' pockets.

Belfort is a master salesman, a charismatic leader, and his appetite for money is unbounded. He quickly strikes out on his own, playing the same sleazy game with a more upscale clientele.

Also unbounded: Belfort's appetite for sex and drugs. One wonders how all his money didn't wind up in the hands of pushers and pimps, but somehow he had plenty left over for a mansion, a Ferrari, a yacht, and a copter and … well, every crass symbol of multimillionairedom you can think of. And who knows how long he could have kept it up, because the SEC was blind to his misdeeds. But there's FBI Straight Arrow Agent Patrick Denham (played by the canonical Straight Arrow, Kyle Chandler) standing in his way.

(There are a bunch of great actors here in addition to DiCaprio and Chandler. Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Jean Dujardin, etc. I didn't recognize Christine Ebersole until I saw her name in the credits, then zipped back to one of her scenes. "Oh, yeah.")

The movie is (whoa) three hours long, and probably could have used some judicious cutting. The rating is R, and the MPAA reasons are: "sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence." If anything, that's understated. You have never seen such over-the-top debauchery and graphic depravity (unless, of course, you get invited to Hollywood parties).

It's also extremely funny. This is probably why it didn't win Best Picture.

True fact: after his prison stint, the real-world Belfort is still around, giving presentations ("Learn The Truth Behind Jordan Belfort's Business & Wealth Success") and you can shell out up to $1999 (at the door) for the "Platinum Experience". But if you're the type of person who would even think of doing that, I think you are not the type of person who would be reading this.

Last Modified 2014-09-14 11:32 PM EDT
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Ernest & Celestine

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

I wanted to like this better. I probably should have liked this better. And (if you like animation, and you aren't averse to "kids" movies) you will probably like this better too. Maybe it was an off night, but it was pretty boring.

Ernest & Celestine is set in a world where bears are the dominant species, and mice huddle in various underground niches. There's a certain amount of friction, no doubt because mice are a perfectly acceptable part of a complete ursine breakfast. Celestine is a very cute young mouse (aspiring dentist) on an undercover operation in the bear world, when she's forced to sleep in a trash can. Ernest is a starving musician when he lumbers into Celestine. After a brief flirtation with one eating the other, they quickly become good friends. But the rest of the world does not accept their forbidden love!

Or perhaps I should say: Ze raist of ze world does not accept zair forbeeden rapport! It's foreign (French/Belgian), but is expertly dubbed into English by a host of fine voice talents (including Lauren Bacall, in one of her last performances). The animation looks as if each frame was lovingly hand-painted. (But wasn't: You can watch a video about the animation process here.) It was nominated for an Oscar (best animated picture)

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All Is Lost

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

An artsy film starring 70s heartthrob, Robert Redford. He's gotten all craggy, and can no longer flash the kilowatt smile, but does a fine job carrying the movie.

And he has to carry it, because he's the only one in it. He is billed as (honest, this is what the credits say) "Our Man". An opening monologue tells us he's in trouble, and he regrets (I think this is the gist) the hubris that led him to his current situation. Which is: stranded in the vast ocean without hope for survival.

What brought him to this pretty pass? An eight-day flashback tells the story: Our Man is sailing solo across a remote region of the Pacific, when a cast-off shipping container rams the side of his boat. This causes some flooding, which knocks out his electronics, and sets him on a slow-motion disaster course. He is resourceful and tenacious, and you could learn a lot about handling yourself in a maritime crisis just by watching this movie. The only real question is: will he make it? No spoilers here! The movie is artsy enough to leave it in doubt.

I stayed awake, which is high praise for a movie with close to zero dialog and not a lot of scenery.

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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

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

This movie was an attempt to reboot the "Jack Ryan" franchise, but it bombed at the box office, and there's no indication of any more movies about the Tom Clancy hero in the pipeline. It also receives a mediocre score from the IMDB raters.

I, on the other hand, enjoyed it quite a bit. After a steady diet of comedies, animation, comic-book sci-fi, "respectable" dramas, and documentaries, I was probably starved for a present-day action thriller.

Jack's character (played by Chris Pine) is established masterfully in the first few minutes: he's patriotic, brave, brilliant at establishing connections on sketchy evidence. Unfortunately, he also nearly gets killed when his helicopter is shot down in Afghanistan. While in rehab he meets his bride-to-be, Cathy. (The young Anne Archer is played by Keira Knightley.) He's also sought out by CIA honcho Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) who's impressed with his record. And he's hired as a covert operative, working at a Wall Street firm, tracking financial movements that might foreshadow a terrorist attack.

And of course, he finds one, masterminded by the shady Russian oligarch Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh). Also, of course, Jack is the only one who can suss out the additional information about the scheme, and he's sent off to Moscow. And—I'm not sure Tom Clancy would have approved of this—Cathy, clueless about Jack's secret life, manages to tag along. She will play both a damsel-in-distress and invaluable ally in the upcoming action.

Now, in the cold light of day, much of the plot and most of the action is semi-ludicrous, but that didn't stop me from having a good time watching. Chris Pine makes a fine addition to the I-played-Jack-Ryan club, other members being Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin, and Ben Affleck.

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Standing in the Shadows of Motown

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

The story of the "Funk Brothers", studio musicians that played on Motown records between 1959 and 1972. You know what that means, my friend? It means that they were part of the magic combination that produced wonderful music to which people will listen centuries from now, if not millennia. (Am I exaggerating? I don't think so!) As they note right up front: the Funk Bros. "played on more number ones hits than the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Elvis and the Beatles combined."

The documentary is a combination of archival footage, present-day (well, 2002) interviews, and some dramatic re-enanctments. It's narrated by Andre Braugher. And, best of all: a 2002 live concert with the surviving Brothers backing up performances of the classics by folks like Joan Osborne and Ben Harper.

They came from diverse backgrounds. Some arrived in Detroit from the South as part of the mass African-American post-WW2 migration. Others were natives. Some were classically trained musicians (keyboardist Joe Hunter notes his admiration of Rachmaninoff), others were largely self-taught. They were gathered together by Berry Gordy, harvesting them out of Detroit jazz and blues clubs. (Another shocker: a couple of white guys.)

Like a lot of musicians of that era, a depressing number of Funk Brothers are no longer with us. (But only one was lost to heroin addiction, as near as I can tell.)

I don't want to overstate this: the Funk Brothers were a sine qua non part of the mix, contributing a solid collaborative genius to the Motown magic. And it's a documentary about them. But if I had to quibble: the movie gives pretty short shrift to the headliners, backup vocalists, songwriters, and producers. I'm not sure if anyone has the overall combination of brilliance and luck to assemble such chemistry today. Or ever again?

I ordered the soundtrack. So should you.

Last Modified 2014-09-08 2:52 PM EDT
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The Croods

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

A perfectly OK, average, by-the-numbers animation. I had slightly higher hopes, but that's the way it goes.

The Croods are a modern stone age family, a page right out of history. Well not that modern: they seem to spend most of their time cowering in a handy cave hiding from various deadly fauna. Sloped brows seem to indicate genes heavily skewed toward the Neanderthal.

Status quo is threatened by "Guy" (Ryan Reynolds), a smart (Homo Sapien?) kid who warns them of impending geologic doom: earthquakes and tectonic lava flows have their cozy cave in the crosshairs. It doesn't help that Guy and daughter Eep (Emma Stone) seem to be destined for self-directed genetic experimentation. Grug, the dad (Nicolas Cage), is frustrated by Guy's know-it-allism and also his designs upon Eep.

Anyway: the family starts its odyssey toward what they hope is safety, but their journey is fraught with peril: colorful sabretooths, carnivorous birds, the ongoing geologic disaster, and internal dissension. Will they make it? It's a cartoon, so what's your bet?

Warning: not an accurate picture of prehistoric life. John Cleese has a writing credit, but Pythonesque zaniness is undetectable.

Bonus: Cloris Leachman plays "Gran", Grug's acid-tongued mother-in-law. She's a hoot. ("I was in love once. He was a hunter, I was a gatherer. It was quite the scandal. We fed each other berries, we danced. Then father bashed him on the head and traded me to your grandfather.") Maybe not enough to get adults to watch the movie in the first place, but enough to keep watching.

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