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

A decent little movie, with Patrick Stewart playing someone who isn't a starship captain or heroic mutant leader.

Instead, he plays Tobi Powell, famous ex-dancer, currently a ballet instructor at Julliard. He's seemingly flamboyant and extroverted in public, but in private he's an odd duck. He saves his nail clippings in a jar on his mantle; his hobby is knitting.

Tobi, by the way, allegedly grew up on a pig farm in Maine, but that Maine accent is nowhere to be seen. (Patrick Stewart didn't try to do a French accent when he was Jean-Luc in Star Trek either. Maybe he doesn't do accents.)

Anyway, he agrees to an interview request from Lisa (Carla Gugino), (ostensibly) a graduate student from Oregon, assisted by her husband Mike (Matthew Lillard). Things go smoothly at first: they meet in a local diner, have some booze and party mix, then move to Tobi's apartment, have more booze, some hash, and more party mix. And it becomes apparent that Lisa and Mike have ulterior motives, as they start asking some increasingly nosy questions. And before you can say "Well, I thought something like that was going on", revelations occur, souls are bared, and cheeks are forcibly swabbed.

IMDB bills this as a comedy/drama, and there are some funny bits. I thought it felt like an adapted play while I was watching, and (sure enough) it was.

All three primary actors do a fantastic job in their roles. I'm not sure the plot stands up to scrutiny, but that's OK.

Back in Time

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

I loved the Back to the Future movies, so I was kind of eager to watch this documentary about it. I was disappointed, as it turns out.

It is about 90 minutes, but seems longer. There are many talking-head segments with both filmmakers and fans.

Michael J. Fox is, of course, interviewed; he does an impressively brave job telling some stories about the film, negotiating with his own body, which is in the cruel grip of Parkinson's Disease. Other actors interviewed include Lea Thompson, Christopher Lloyd, Claudia Wells (Jennifer in the first movie), James Tolkan (Principal Strickland), and Donald Fullilove (Goldie Wilson). (No Crispin Glover or Thomas F. Wilson, unfortunately.) Also showing up: producer Steven Spielberg, writer Bob Gale, and director/co-writer Robert Zemeckis. And good old Huey Lewis, who has wrinkled impressively.

Only about 30% of what these people have to say isn't that insightful or interesting, sorry. There's a lot of inside-baseball studio-politics talk about how the movie got made. Maybe fascinating for denizens of Hollywood, but for those of us in the sticks… eh.

But the documentary also covers the devoted fans. And… wow. Just wow. These folks are devoted.

There are, first and foremost, the DeLorean restorers, spending piles of money to bring back the look and feel of the fabled time machine. One guy owned two. But also: the bitchin' Toyota truck Marty winds up with at the end of the first movie. (Sorry, spoiler alert.) And—this was amazing too—also had a VW bus that was a dead ringer for the vehicle driven by the homicidal Libyan terrorists, for maybe two or three minutes of screen time in the first movie.

As I said: devotion.

Particularly inspiring: these guys, who have driven their restored DeLorean to all fifty states "to raise awareness and funding for Parkinson's Research." Good for them.

Grand Piano

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

A Mrs. Salad pick. She need not reveal her reasons.

Frodo himself, Elijah Wood, plays famed concert pianist Tom Selznick, returning to the stage after a long hiatus; he went into seclusion after an embarrassing freeze-up while attempting to perform a piece widely considered impossible to play. His beautiful, dutiful wife, who is a famous actress, supports and encourages his return.

Unfortunately, he is menaced during his performance by a sniper. Who is in touch with him via earpiece, demanding that he attempt to play the impossible piece once more, perfectly this time, or he will be shot dead. And his pretty wife too!

Also in the audience are Tom's good buddies, Wayne and Ashley. When I saw Wayne, I was sure the actor playing him was Sean Astin. Giving us the long-awaited Frodo/Samwise reunion! But no, it was that guy who plays the nice guy from Downton Abbey. Boy, he and Sean Astin look alike.

John Cusack and Alex Winter play the bad guys. Disappointingly, Mr. Winter neither exclaims "Excellent!" nor "Bogus!".

The motivation behind the whole thing turns out to be ludicrous. We are left wondering: how was that supposed to work exactly?


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

Kind of a downer. Emily Blunt is pretty easy to look at, though, even when she's generally miserable and putting up with various sorts of abuse. Throughout the entire movie.

She plays an FBI agent who does field work in a kidnap rescue team. In the aftermath of a particularly grisly mission in Arizona, a CIA spook (played by Josh Brolin) recruits her into a special operation, one where (he promises) they will be going after the drug kingpins who perpetrated this Arizona atrocity. Also involved is a gloomy Hispanic played by Benicio Del Toro.

If you noticed the "CIA" reference above, you will have accurately guessed that things are not as they initially appear. Ms. Blunt is perplexed, as her law-enforcement instincts are thwarted at every turn. She finds herself in mortal danger, and not just from the bad guys.

Arty (Oscar-nominated) cinematography. Ms. Blunt also handles an American accent well. Without going into spoilers, the plot's assumptions about the moral depravity of Our Side strains credulity. At one point, when confronted with his barbaric ways, one of the Bad Guys disclaims something much like one of the anti-drug commercials from the good old days: "I learned it by watching you!"

Love & Mercy

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

I am somewhat surprised at how much I liked this movie.

It's the based-on-true-fact story of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Paul Dano plays 1960s Brian, the mentally fragile musical genius, abused by his dad, obsessed with competing with the Beatles and Phil Spector. But he pursues his creative vision, putting himself at odds with (most notably) bandmate Mike Love.

But tragedy is in the offing, because adding large amounts of psychoactive drugs to an already unstable personality is not a good idea. The ambitious Smile project crashes and burns, and Brian retreats into seclusion, paranoia, and morbid obesity.

Interleaved with the young-Brian story is the middle-aged Brian story: here, he's played by John Cusack. We first see him popping into a Cadillac dealership to impulse-buy a Fleetwood from beautiful salesperson Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). Brian is sweet, but clearly still mentally damaged. Still, he and Melinda strike up a relationship, only to run into the opposition of shrink Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Landy keeps Brian on a tight leash, feeds him copious amounts of different drugs, and is generally controlling and abusive. Can this unlikely romance be saved?

All four primary actors here deserve Oscars. Just wanted to point that out.

There are quibbles. There's the usual problem with biopics, wooden dialog that's used to explicate what's going on. ("I'd like to make a toast. To 'Good Vibrations', Brian's pocket symphony to God. And the biggest selling single the Beach Boys ever had. Ever!") And VanDyke Parks shows up (as a pretentious twit), but his role is not developed at all.

One of the plot points is the relative commercial failure of the Pet Sounds album. That must be true, a matter of historical (heh) record. But back in 1966 Omaha, I thought it was fantastic; so did my friends at the time. And when I got to college, everyone I knew there loved it too. This is probably the inverse of Pauline Kael's provincialism on Nixon. But I didn't feel particularly avant-garde back then.

The November Man

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

Pierce Brosnan as a retired spy. But (in case you were wondering) not particularly Bond-like.

His character is Peter Devereaux, living the quiet life in Switzerland, retired from the CIA after a botched security operation led to the death of an innocent bystander. We don't get to see much of that quiet life, though, because he's called back into action to extract Natalia, a CIA spy, planted in the inner circle of the slimy Russian pol, Arkady Federov.

The plot immediately gets very twisty. There are more than two sides, and they are all trying to kill each other. It's not bad guys vs. good guys, either: it's pretty much bad guys vs. even worse guys. The Macguffin is the elusive "Mira", a Chechen refugee who has damning information about Federov. And there's also a subplot involving Devereaux's ex-protégé, Mason, learning how to be as deadly as Devereaux was. Will he be Devereaux's undoing?

Also un-Bondlike is the R rating for "strong violence including a sexual assault, language, sexuality/nudity and brief drug use." Very gritty unpleasant stuff.

Mr. Holmes

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

I've been a minor Sherlock Holmes fan for about a half-century now, and I'm kind of a sucker for various efforts to leech (heh) off his continuing popularity. For the record, I didn't much care for reinventing Holmes as an action hero; I watch Elementary, which is OK, but often doesn't play fair with the viewer; I like the mind-twisting Cumberbatchian Sherlock quite a bit.

In comparison, this movie deals with a near-canon Holmes, portrayed masterfully by Ian McKellan. It's set in a universe where the stories were written by Dr. Watson, not A.C. Doyle. It takes place mostly in 1947, when the great detective has long been retired (in Watson's words) "living the life of a hermit among your bees and your books in a small farm upon the South Downs." There are three intertwined plot threads: (1) Holmes' interaction with the young son of his current housekeeper (played by a near-unrecognizable Laura Linney); (2) flashbacks to his recent trip to Japan to retrieve "prickly ash", said to assist in maintaining mental acuity in the aging; (3) which he needs to try to untangle exactly what happened years ago in the case that led to his retirement: a wayward wife's inexplicable obsession with lessons on the armonica.

In the latter two, of course: Not All Is As It Seems. Holmes' efforts are complicated by his failing memory; he keeps track of really important stuff by making notes on his shirt cuffs.

No crimes. Still fun, though.

Jupiter Ascending

[1.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Folks dump on the Wachowski (uh) siblings for not making a single good movie since The Matrix. Not me; I liked Speed Racer just fine, and Cloud Atlas even better. Even though both were box office duds.

Not so with Jupiter Ascending; it was yet another B.O. bomb and its dudditude (or bombosity) was richly deserved.

Jupiter is a young lady (Mila Kunis), a Russian immigrant living in Chicago, whose barely-above-poverty-level life is consumed by her drudge-filled job in the family cleaning business. But (suddenly) she turns out to be the genetic duplicate of the deceased matriarch of a rich family, part of a spacefaring civilization that routinely "harvests" the inhabitants of planets by turning them into attractive blue powder, used in manufacturing longevity drugs for the elite.

Now, there's a lot of mumbo-jumbo here. Jupiter's genes make her, according to the rules, the monarchical owner of Earth. This poses a threat to the existing members of her genetic family, and each makes a play to either do away with her, or to co-opt her (and then do away with her). Fortunately a studly young bounty hunter/mercenary, "Caine Wise" (Channing Tatum) gets on her side.

A number of things irritated me. And I'm going to tell you about them, sorry:

  1. The movie seemed to be aimed squarely at the fantasies of a 14-year-old girl: plucked out of her menial existence and suddenly everyone's calling her "Majesty", and she gets to wear nicer clothes and make goo-goo eyes at Channing Tatum.

  2. Over and over again, Caine (literally) swoops in to save Jupiter's bacon at the last possible second. (When I say "literally": he has special boots that allow him to swoop.) I lost track of how many times this happened.

  3. Gratuitous swipes at capitalism throughout. The baddest of the bad guys has a soliloquy extolling the system that just happens to be built on the sudden termination of billions of innocent lives: the human population is a "resource waiting to be converted into capital", whose purpose is "to create profit." The Wachowski's need to read some stuff from my other favorite sex-switcher, Deirdre McCloskey.

    But most of all:

  4. The movie managed to put me to sleep both times I tried to watch it in the evening. I finally managed to see the whole thing by waking up early and watching at 2x normal speed. I certainly believe the filmmakers dropped a bundle on special effects; unfortunately, they also managed to make spectacular palacial sets and epic battle scenes utterly boring. At least for me. YMMV, as they say.

Watching this movie made me wish they made a movie based on Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy instead. Sort of a similar plot. Go ahead and make Thorby a girl if needed. It would be difficult to do worse than this.

Cop Car

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

Reviewer's note: the best movie I've seen this year. So far.

The plot device is ingenious: two small-town kids run away from home, out into the rural wilderness, as kids do at times. Hiking cross-country, they come across a … police vehicle, apparently abandoned. Daring each other, they work up a foolish mutual courage. First to touch it, then to get into it, and—hey, the keys are here!—then to start it up and …

Little do the kids know (but we do, because of a flashback): the car is there because Sheriff Kevin Bacon parked it in an out-of-the-way location, the better to dispose of a body. Immediately we suspect that this is not normal good police procedure, even out in the boonies. And we're right: when he returns for his vehicle, he is nonplussed to find it not found. He immediately realizes this makes his life a whole lot more complicated, as he needs to retrieve the car, hide its loss from the inquisitive dispatcher (voiced by Kyra Sedgwick, Kevin's wife), and probably murder the kids to cover things up. Sticky!

Well, things get interesting from there. We don't learn much about anyone's back-story, and the ending is slightly ambiguous, but that's OK. I stayed awake through the whole thing, and that's getting to be my standard of quality movie-making.

Shaun the Sheep Movie

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

Obtained this from Netflix knowing nothing about Shaun the Sheep, but acquainted with the work of Aardman Animations through Wallace and Gromit. It is ostensibly for the kids, but you can see what the DVD box over there claims: "Will delight kids and adults alike". This is true.

Shaun is a bit of a scamp, as it turns out. The grind of doing the same thing on the farm every darn day has come to bug him a bit, so he decides to hatch a wacky plot to fool the farmer that runs things. His scheme goes way off the rails, and before you know it, everyone (save the pigs) are in the "Big City", trying to avoid the Animal Control officer, and make their way back to rural bliss.

There are gags of all sorts, many of which will go right over the tiny heads of young 'uns. (Like a Hannibal Lecter sight gag.)

I looked in vain for the subtitle setting. Then felt kind of sheepish (pun intended), as it developed that the movie is dialog-free.