Friday, October 19, 2018

DVD Reviews: Cheapo Bin & Double Features

Goosebumps - I picked up a cheapo-bin DVD of this movie at Walmart sometime before I saw the sequel in the theater, and I have watched it several times. It's a hilarious, teen-romancey, spooky movie that approaches the task of adapting R.L. Stine's eponymous series of kiddie horror stories by proposing that the author's monstrous creations can escape from his original bound, typewritten manuscripts and come to life in the real world. In order to trap them, he has to write stories about them using a particular typewriter, ending with the hero(es) putting a stop to their ghoulish rampage. But now, thanks to a nosy neighbor boy who just moved in next door in the sleepy town of Madison, Delaware, the locks have been busted off the manuscripts and the town is being taken over by the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, Slappy the ventriloquist's puppet (DON'T call him a dummy), a wolf man, a giant preying mantis, space aliens with freeze-ray guns, an undead mummy, a very naughty invisible boy, a gang of ceramic garden gnomes come to life, and many more like them.

Playing Stine with what sounds like an unfortunate attempt to fake a British accent is Jack Black, whose film career is pretty much a series of roles that make one squirm and laugh about equally. His cute teenage daughter, who secretly has a deep connection to the author's vibrant fantasy life, is played by the strikinig looking Odeya Rush, who starred in another adaptation of a significant kids' book, Lois Lowry's The Giver. The boy next door, whom I at first mistook for Logan Lerman (late of Fury and the Percy Jackson films), is actually Dylan Minnette, lately more well-known for his lead role in the series 13 Reasons Why. Like Lerman, he has a combination of all-American-boy appeal and the ability to sell the line "That's completely mental" with a look. However, his best asset in this film, in my opinion, is his odd-couple chemistry with Ryan Lee (previously the pyromaniac kid in Super 8), who plays an endearingly dorky kid named Champ. At least 72 percent of this movie's success derives from their from-total-strangers-to-best-buds-in-less-than-a-week patter and their scared-but-excited reactions to a hundred crazy situations that were mostly added in post production - I mean, this is actually billed as a "Sony Pictures Animation" film.

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) The opening credits. Have I ever said this before? In this case, it's because the credits rolled over footage of a car driving through the countryside that strangely made me think of the ghoulishly funny classic film Beetlejuice - and then I noticed that it was set to music by Danny Elfman, who also wrote music for that movie, which also started with footage of a car driving through the countryside. I doubt the visual and musical similarities were unintended. (2) The cameo appearance of the real R.L. Stine, who passes Jack Black in the high school hallway near the end of the movie, playing the new theater director. Basically, you could say that he swapped roles with the actor playing him; Black sells this idea with the Leslie Nielsen-esque thoughtful look that crosses his face at that moment. (3) Every scene featuring the hero boy's clueless, man-hungry Aunt Lorraine, played with comic genius by Jillian Bell. For these reasons and others that could mention, but won't in the interest of saving space, I would actually watch this movie again. And again. It's silly.

It relies too much, perhaps, on animated effects. But something about the fact that it is unapologetically an "animation" product makes me feel more kindly disposed toward it than, say, the latest DC "live action" film, in which there is so much CGI fantasy action that the actors must have spent most of the production standing in front of green screens. You can enjoy and respect a story in which animated fantasy characters share the screen with live actors, even while sniffing at CGI fakery designed around live-action characters. Maybe I'm not a good enough critic to explain it, but there it is. I would see this movie again and again, and still enjoy it, because I think it draws the line between animated fantasy and live-action reality where it belongs.

Man of Steel - Here, on the other hand, is one of those live-action films that suffers excruciatingly from CGI Out the Wazoo. Oh, its poor wazoo! There are long sequences in this movie that are so devoid of the stamp of reality that my eyes, optic nerves, and brain refuse to put together a coherent mental picture of what is going on. Many of the fight scenes are so over-the-top that they make me go "Tsk" and tap my foot impatiently until the next scene begins. Zack Snyder's style of direction makes me wonder about the guy. Given the opportunity to film a thrilling scene of flight or aerial battle with beautiful, crisp imagery that puts the viewer (as it were) inside the hero's tights, Snyder instead shoots it in a way that suggests a distant spectator struggling to focus a handheld camera on a subject that is moving faster than he can keep up. The whole "caught on video by somebody's smartphone" look seems just a bit out of pace with an effects sequence taking place on an alien planet or in an unpopulated region of Earth.

But blowing visual opportunities seems to be the theme that connects all the elements of Snyder's directorial style. Another example is the way he takes Henry Cavill - whose chiseled appearance is 83.7 percent of what made The Immortals watchable, a living opportunity to photograph a perfect physical specimen if there ever was one - and makes him look awkward, alien and at times even ugly. And this is the guy who is supposed to be Superman! I think there was exactly one sequence in the entire movie in which the camera did justice to Cavill's studliness. It was as if Snyder's lens was afraid to linger. Tsk!

The movie makes good use of some familiar cast members, such as Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Clark Kent's human parents, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, and Russell Crowe as Jor-El. It also benefits from appearances by Herry Lennix (from the "Matrix" trilogy), Richard Schiff (late of "The West Wing" and "The Good Doctor") and Christopher Meloni (from "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit"). It also makes some lousy use of some, such as super-heavy Michael Shannon, who did not come across as a good actor (though I have previously listed one of his scenes as one of the "Three Scenes that Made 12 Strong for Me"), or Laurence Fishburne, who was wasted on the role of Perry White. The movie might bave been improved if they had swapped roles. It also, if I haven't already made it clear that I feel this way, wasted Henry Cavill on a version of "Superman" who, except right at the climax of the movie, mostly didn't come across as very super at all. Maybe I'm saying this under the influence of a video reviewer who pointed out that this movie's Clark constantly seems to be crying on some woman's shoulder, either Martha Kent's or Lois Lane's. But at some point, I realized that the only spine Clark showed was when, as a boy, he saved the other kids on the school bus, and when, as a man, he volunteered to surrender to General Zod for the good of the human race. Well, there is that bit where he beat up the machine that was turning Earth into Krypton. That was pretty good, too. OK, and that bit on the burning oil platform. All right, so pretty much the whole movie, when he wasn't crying or moping. However, his killing of General Zod at the end seemed more like a display of his frailty than an act of heroism.

Three Scenes that Made It for Me: (1) The flashback to Kevin Costner's death in a tornado, which Clark interpreted later as a sacrifice to protect his secret identity. (2) The line "A good death is its own reward," which a female Kryptonian uses to terrorize Meloni's character, and which Meloni later throws back in her face at a crucial moment. (3) Lois: "Welcome to the Planet." Clark: "Glad to be here."

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children: Here is a dark, magical, scary fantasy story aimed at audiences of ages teen and above, with the trademark weirdness of a Tim Burton movie. Based on the first book in a series by Ransom Riggs, which in turn was based on the author's collection of bizarre vintage photographs, the movie depicts a present-day American boy named Jake (Asa Butterfield, late of Hugo and Ender's Game) who begins to doubt his sanity when he witnesses his beloved grandfather's murder by a giant, eyeball-eating monster that nobody else can see. Then he guilts his self-absorbed father into taking him to the Welsh island where his grandpa stayed as a child, supposedly to help Jake say goodbye, but really to find out whether the spooky stories his grandpa used to tell him might have some grain of truth in them. Instead of an orphanage, however, he finds the ruins of a home that was hit by a German bomb during World War II. Nevertheless, he makes contact with some of the orphans, who are still the same age as when Jake's grandpa left them man years before. Are they ghosts? No. Are they immortal? Not exactly. They're a bunch of "peculiar" children - children with abilities that make them different, like the boy who has bees living in his stomach and the girl who is lighter than air - and they live in a time loop that repeats the same 24 hours over and over, right up to the moment the German shell hit the house. Protecting them is an eccentric woman who can turn into a bird, and who also has the power to control time.

Jake, however, isn't the only visitor to the island who has found his way to these special children. Also searching for them is a creepy man (Samuel L. Jackson) who travels with an invisible, eyeball-eating monster - the same one that got Grandpa. Mr. Barron, as this creep calls himself, is part of a group that means to destroy all the time loops protecting groups of peculiars, devour their eyeballs and absorb the powers of the "ymbrines" that protect them. If that happens, the kids from Miss Peregrine's loop will age rapidly to however many years old they would be in the present day - which would be a bummer for Jake's new friends, and especially the girl he kind of likes. To fight back, they must raise a sunken wreck off the ocean floor, sail it to Blackpool, and battle it out with the bad guys and their pet monsters against the real-world backdrop of the resort town's famous pier and circus. Thanks to their peculiar powers, they'll have on their side the ability to throw fire, bring dead things to life, grow plants at a rapid rate, turn people to stone with a look, and more. But a lot of their chances will finally come down to whether Jake can believe that he belongs with these kids, and finds the courage to fight alongside them.

The sets and locations in this movie are superb. The characters, imagery, and atmosphere are all thrilling, disturbing, and whimsical in unexpected proportions. The folks who cast the movie found some really interesting looking kids to play the peculiar children. Though his acting is a little wooden, Butterfield (who is really British) comes across as convincingly American, while Eva Green (who is French) conveys an equally convincing impression of being a vivacious, if somewhat mannish, Englishwoman with the charisma to keep a large group of kids in order. Other assets include Jackson, who gets some of the funniest lines ("You get a breath mint!"), Terence Stamp as the grandpa, Rupert Everett as the bird watcher whose presence on the island irritates Jake's bird-crazy dad, Judi Dench as the ymbrine who attempts to warn Miss Peregrine of coming trouble, Allison Janney as Jake's shrink, the boy who befriends Sherlock in Mr. Holmes (which I so want to see), and the underappreciated Chris O'Dowd (late of Juliet, Naked), whose achievement in convincingly playing a Polish-Jewish-American shlub (Jake's dad) while actually being Irish is actually some top-shelf comic acting, camouflaged in downmarket uselessness. It isn't a movie that is particularly faithful to the source book, but I think it may be one of the book-to-film adaptations that actually improves on the original. I have enjoyed watching it multiple times, and I think I'll be enjoying it again in the future.

Three Scenes that Made It for Me: (1) Jake answers the phone inside the time loop and finds himself talking to a 19-year-old version of his grandpa, whose call is part of Miss Peregrine's daily routine. Jake first pretends to be a new kid at Miss Peregrine's, then blurts out something like, "I'm sorry if I ever disappointed you, and I just want you to know that you were the best grandpa in the world." Young Abe is gobsmacked. Meanwhile, for 30 seconds, Asa Butterfield shines as an actor. It's a hard scene to watch without getting your cheeks wet. (2) The whole circus/pier boss battle, which was invented for the movie and includes Ray Harryhausen-esque animated skeletons, giant invisible monsters, carnival rides, weaponized cotton candy, a real-life aerialist who was cast as a character and did her own stunts, and some plot-heavy business about going back and forth through a time portal that is scheduled to close forever at dusk, and the classic shape-changer shtick where, at a crucial moment, two different people try to prove which one of them is the real Jake. (3) The skin-crawling scene in which the re-animator boy uses the dead body of one of the children (who was killed by a monster the day before the time loop started) as a ventriloquist's puppet. I can't think of many other filmmakers who share Tim Burton's willingness to infuse young adult films with a similar blend of whimsy and ghoulishness. It may not be for everyone, but I like it.

R.I.P.D.This movie, like the Bruce Willis movie Red, was based on a graphic novel and was directed by Robert Schwentke in a manner that frequently apes the look of comic-book panels. Both movies are full of dark humor, violence and action that fiddles with the line between fantasy and reality - although Red doesn't carry the supernatural baggage implied by the phrase "Rest In Peace Department." For some reason, Red was much more successful than this movie. Go figure. I like them both. I understand that my appreciation of this movie puts me at a disadvantage, considering how widely it was panned. I thought it was a gas.

The story involves a present-day Boston cop named Nick (Ryan Reynolds), who gets murdered by his crooked partner (Kevin Bacon) and, upon arriving in the afterlife, is recruited into the R.I.P.D. The department's job is to round up "deados" who are trying to pass as the living, thereby preventing their "soul stank" from corroding the world. Nick wants to go back to his wife, but the Powers That Be have so arranged things that the living see him as a middle-aged Chinese man, and anything he says to explain himself comes out as gibberish. Meantime, he finds himself saddled (all but literally) with a 19th-century lawman named Roy (Jeff Bridges) as his partner and mentor, a situation both of them feel is a punishment, at first. Don't worry, they eventually bond during an outrageous, laws-of-nature-bending race against a conspiracy of deados, who plan to rain hell on earth.

It's a sometimes gross, sometimes campy, dangerous, dizzying ride, with plunges off the sides of tall buildings, vertical chases up them, speeding cars dodging debris from a street lined with collapsing parking structures, gunfights using ammo that erases people's souls from existence, visual gags involving the R.I.P.D. officers' appearance to living people, unsettled issues between Roy and the buddies' superior (played by Red's Mary-Louise Parker), and some lines of dialogue that made me laugh so hard that I cried. While I have them in mind, here are the Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Roy confesses the dark secret of what the coyotes did with his skull. (2) Upon seeing Nick's ex-partner go to visit Nick's widow, Roy gloats about the "pants-down spanking in the supermarket" level of humiliation he must be feeling. (3) Roy (who appears to mortals as a gorgeous blonde) to a guy who approaches him with an offer of a modeling job: "I'm not a piece of meat put on this earth for your gratification, I'm a woman. Respect me or I will castrate you like a three-year-old steer."

If I had room for a fourth scene, it would be the one in which Roy and Nick quiz a deado about Indian food (because, apparently, dead people don't like cumin). You might get the idea that the most entertaining character in this movie is Roycephus Pulsipher. You would be right. But he's in almost every scene, so it's a pretty entertaining movie, in my opinion. You may call me crazy now, but I was also (if memory serves) one of the few people who liked The Fifth Element when it first came out, and its stock has gone way up in the years since then. I think the same might happen with R.I.P.D. Remember I said so when it does.

One of my cheapo-bin purchases was a $5 double-feature set of Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, neither of which I had previously seen. (I have since seen most of a sequel to the former, London Has Fallen, on my parents' cable.) Experiencing them both for the first time, back to back, was an interesting exercise in comparing two movies that go in quite different directions from the same basic premise, kind of like when my college buddies and I rented Wyatt Earp and Tombstone one weekend for a VHS movie marathon. What they have in common is, basically, that bad guys take over the White House with an agenda that, among other things, includes forcing the President to give them the power to launch the nation's nukes. The executive mansion gets shot all to hell. Lots of people get killed (more, however, in one movie than the other). A nefarious agenda nearly brings down the federal government. And the one super-capable dude who can stop it isn't even, officially, part of the president's protection detail. Now that I see it put that way, there really are a lot of things these flicks have in common. Both movies were very entertaining, and each had advantages over the other. But rather than keep you in suspense, I'll say right now that I had more fun watching White House Down. Before I get to the reason why - I guess you'll have to endure some suspense after all - let's say a bit about each movie, so you can remember which is which.

Olympus Has Fallen is the one in which lanky, square-jawed Aaron Eckhart, as the President of the U.S., gets taken hostage in his own subterranean bunker by a North Korean terrorist who somehow faked his way into the White House as part of the South Korean prime minister's security detail. His ex-bodyguard, played by Gerard Butler as a stone killer with a heart of gold - he particularly likes driving a knife into a bad guy's brain - runs flat-out from the Treasury Building to find the White House all but completely taken by hostile forces, but he gets in by a follicle and wages a one-man guerilla campaign against the boss villain's goons. Things start to look up when he safely extracts the president's young son from the mansion, but with nuclear launch only seconds away, he has to fight a martial-arts championship match over the president's bleeding but under-utilized torso. The film also stars Morgan Freeman as the Speaker of the House, who does an admirable job of running the government while the president is incapacitated; Dylan McDermott as a highly placed traitor within the Secret Service; Angela Bassett as the head of the Secret Service; Robert Forster as a military mucky-muck; Pitch Black co-stars Radha Mitchell and Cole Hauser as (respectively) Butler's wife and the ill-fated presidential bodyguard who (if memory serves) delivers the movie's title as his last words; Rick Yune (Die Another Day and The Fast and the Furious) as the boss bad guy; Ashley Judd, the first lady whose death in the opening scenes explains why Butler isn't in the White House when the bad guys throw down; and Oscar-winner Melissa Leo (The Fighter) as a scenery-chewing Secretary of Defense, whose survival is one of the nicer surprises in an otherwise bloodthirsty movie.

Three Scenes that Made It for Me: (1) Getting the kid out of danger. I don't care that it defused (diffused?) a lot of the suspense. I couldn't stand having him in there any longer. (2) Morgan Freeman tells off Robert Forster. I think if they costarred in a movie a year, on the condition that Morgan got to tell off Robert each time, audiences would pay money and applaud at that scene. It isn't just that Morgan Freeman is the coolest man on earth, but that Robert Forster has such a knack for playing SOBs that the combination just gels. (3) Butler: "Sorry about the house, sir." Eckhart: "It's OK. I believe it's insured."

White House Down is the one in which Obama-esque President Jamie Foxx is saved from Eckhart's trapped-in-the-presidential-bunker ordeal by a hunky civilian (actually, the House Speaker's bodyguard) played by Channing Tatum, who just happened to be taking the White House tour with his teenage daughter, after unsuccessfully interviewing for a job as a presidential bodyguard, when all hell broke loose. All hell, in this case, was unleashed with (spoiler alert!) the connivance of the head of the presidential detail, played with superb villainy by James Woods. Another member of the conspiracy is revealed much later, but I won't spoil that one for you. A cat-and-mouse game ensues, with Foxx and Tatum using dumbwaiters, tunnels, elevator shafts, and other little-traveled pathways to elude capture by Woods' goons. Most of the goons seem to think their objective is to steal a truckload of money, but Woods harbors a darker, deadlier plan that involves, you guessed it, the president's nuclear launch codes. Meantime Tatum's daughter teams up with a comically nerdy tour guide (Nicolas Wright of Independence Day: Resurgence) to do a little villain-foiling of their own. Also appearing in this film are familiar character actors Richard Jenkins as the Speaker and Michael Murphy as the Vice President; Maggie Gyllenhaal as the Secret Service babe who commands her agency's response to the situation from outside the White House; Jason Clarke, who played Ted Kennedy in Chappaquiddick, as the head bad guy under Woods; Lance Reddick (Fringe, the John Wick movies) as a high-ranking military guy; Matt Craven (Indian Summer, Resurrection) and Jake Weber (Medium) as a couple of Secret Service guys; Peter Jacobson (House) as the Veep's weaselly aide; Kevin Rankin (Breaking Bad, Justified) as the loud-mouth gunman tasked with watching the tourists; Patrick Sabongui (Barry Allen's police captain on The Flash) as the first heavy to die, and Falk Hentschel (Hawkman on The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow) as the one Woods kills after he raises a qualm of conscience; and Jimmi Simpson (Westworld) as the flamboyant computer hacker whose self-inflicted, accidental demise plays as black comedy.

Three Scenes that Made It For Me: (1) Tatum's daughter, meeting the president during the tour, tells him that her dad is going to be on his Secret Service detail, because Tatum wasn't quite honest with her about how his interview went. Foxx, who is quick to take a man's measure, leans close to Tatum while they shake hands and says, "You shouldn't lie to your kid." (2) The good guys try to get Woods' wife to talk him out of doing all kinds of evil stuff. Acting all confused and hurt, she gets on the phone, goes all cold and tells him, basically, "Screw them. Screw them all!" (3) The speed with which Tatum's character goes from zero to hero: After winning a fight with a bad guy while searching for his daughter, he is monitoring the bad guys' walkie-talkie chatter and recognizes a place they're mentioning as the door he is walking by. Tempted to keep walking, he hesitates a moment, says something like "I am so stupid for doing this!" and proceeds to rescue the president before Woods can trap him in the bunker.

So, here are some of the reasons I think White House Down is more fun to watch than Olympus Has Fallen. First, Tatum comes across as a bit more of an "everyman." His character isn't the stone killer Butler's is; he's just an underachieving ex-soldier who isn't quite meeting the needs of his ex-wife and their teen daughter - but when they are separated in a deadly crisis, he goes into Wreck-It Ralph mode and would tear the White House to pieces with his bare hands to get her back safely. People who encounter him early in the movie don't look at him with much respect; but the longer he keeps himself and Foxx alive, the more respect you see in their eyes and hear in their voices. In short, it's fun to see him grow into a hero, whereas Butler's problem, if he has one, is an excess of heroism that, under such circumstances as the movie depicts, comes in very handy - but usually doesn't. He doesn't have trouble relating with people because, like Tatum, he still needs to grow up a bit; his reason is that he is already so far above everyone else.

For another thing, or maybe a different side of the same thing, Tatum's character has a more marked sense of humor, which both keeps him relatable and provides a steady supply of comic relief. This needs to be tapped now and then to keep the tension from exhausting the audience. Also, the fact that he looks fetching in a filthy tank top is a nice counterbalance to all the ugly stuff depicted in the movie. Butler's flak vest is perhaps a more sensible look under the circumstances, but it's also that much more serious of a movie. It's all drama, which only occasionally opens a relief valve - which perhaps explains why I chose the Three Things that I did. Tatum's flick, on the other hand, is pure escape. And as far as I'm concerned, that's the biggest reason to go and see a movie about bad guys blowing up the White House.

Third, I think Woods and his goons, assembled by using America's Most Wanted as a shopping list, are a more entertaining bunch of villains than Yune's. Americans can watch Butler carve them up without remorse because they're, like, a bunch of foreigners whose actions are an act of war. Woods, Clarke, Hentschel, Rankin and Simpson - well, maybe not Simpson - are Americans whose motives the audience can understand, if not sympathize with. Even while we enjoy seeing them thwarted, their feelings register on more of a human level; we almost pity them as Tatum comes after them one by one; and that adds a layer of complexity to what might otherwise be pure popcorn movie.

On the other hand, the damage done to the U.S. government isn't taken as seriously in the Tatum flick as in the Butler one. Olympus Has Fallen is earnestly presented like a worst-case scenario, while White House Down comes across more like a Die Hard on Pennsylvania Avenue, with a touch of Scooby-Doo sleuthery at the end. Between the two movies, you see four nuclear helicopters getting blown up by surface-to-air missiles, a presidential limo trashed in a madcap chase across the White House Lawn, the Capitol rotunda blown up, the White House set on fire, the Vice President's airplane shot down minutes after the schmuck invokes the Presidential Succession Act, the demise of platoons of soldiers and security personnel, and the wanton destruction of a priceless German clock among other historical artifacts. But to its credit, the ending of Olympus Has Fallen responds to all this the way a real government would, looking back with somber respect for fallen heroes and moving forward with serious resolve. White House Down, in contrast, concludes with an energy-sapping wink of romantic comedy and the last-moment revelation (for little dramatic effect) of one more villain in the dastardly conspiracy. Judged by their endings and their overall realism, OHF is better than WHD; but for pure, popular entertainment, it's White House Down for the win.

The original Red is another violent, action-packed, funny Robert Schwentke film derived from, and retaining some of the stylings of, a graphic novel. Its sequel, which I found with it in one of those cheapo double-feature DVD sets, moves on with a different director and a less conspicuous comic-bookiness. I like them both, in spite of what everyone else says, although I admit that they're a little over-the-top and silly - knowingly, I think. They feature Bruce Willis as a retired CIA hit-man who is finding life after wet work to be rather dry. About the only fun in his life on the "Retired, Extremely Dangerous" list is pretending to have trouble getting his pension check so he can chat up the cute girl at the call center in Kansas City (played by Mary-Louise Parker). Then someone puts out a kill order on both of them, and they go on the run - as awkward a way to start a romance as there ever was. Joining them one by one in their mission to learn who wants them dead and why are fellow ex-spooks played by Morgan Freeman (first movie only), John Malkovich, Helen Mirren and a Russian-accented Brian Cox. Among the antagonists, sympathizers, psychos and "it's complicated" types that they meet, between the two movies, are characters played by Karl Urban, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ernest Borgnine, Richard Dreyfus, Julian McMahon, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, David Thewlis, Neal McDonough, and Byung-Hun Lee.

To be sure, Movie 2 seems longer than necessary by about a quarter. Just when you think it's almost over, a new act opens in an entirely different country and you realize that you just have to cross your legs and try to hold it in; or, now that you have it on DVD, pause it and make a potty stop. Also, Mary-Louise Parker isn't everybody's cup of tea. I, personally, enjoy her "This is so cool!" reaction to everything going on around her, after she gets over her initial skepticism (which is to say, her attempts to escape from Willis after he apparently kidnaps her, even though she admits this isn't her worst first date). She carries the point of view of the ordinary person caught up in extraordinary doings, and adds a certain comic spark of her own - particularly in Movie 2, when she seems more gung-ho about their life of adventure than Willis is. Malkovich's paranoid character is another layer of fun on top of that, almost worth watching both movies on his own account. The sociopathic romance between Mirren and Cox is just one phony Russian accent short of Boris and Natasha; shamelessly silly, disturbing, and yet somehow endearing. Each new principal character the series adds brings memorable chemistry to the ensemble. Seeing some enemies brought around to become allies, and others get theirs in spectacular style, just put the last perfection on it. You never know, until almost the very end, who the real threat is and how the good guys will escape. So, yeah, it all comes at the cost of a long time seated. But, provided you have plenty of recreational food and drink, and a willingness to hit "pause" for a toilet break, you can do it.

For this "Three Scenes That Made It For Me," I'm going to combine both movies: (1) Byung-Hun Lee, after being strip-searched for weapons and issued a kimono, kills a man with a piece of folded paper that his victim unwisely handed to him, and walks away without anyone noticing that he did it. Things that can only happen in Korea or Japan, eh? (2) Morgan Freeman has two death scenes, both of which involve fakery or deception, but in opposite ways - first, you believe him to have been killed, when he hasn't; then, you think someone else was killed, but it was him. Did this filmic chiasm happen by design, or is it just an artifact of "keep the audience guessing" ethic that drives this series? Dunno. (3) Bruce Willis' fight with Karl Urban in the latter's office at CIA Headquarters. They both get badly hurt, but the way they hurt each other is super-entertaining.

Maybe the fact that I can say this, and I'm probably not alone at that, is a sign that movies like this are subtly turning viewers into the kind of sociopaths they depict. To be sure, McDonough's character took casual murder to lengths that made me squirm practically every time he appeared on screen. Urban's first scene involved a killing carried out so cold-bloodedly that it still chills me to think about it. The profession that all of these people are in is, no bones about it, reprehensible and to sympathize with one group of them against another seems superfluous. But still the film allows you to reason, at some level, that these are retired people who served their country honorably and have been put out to pasture, where (with the exception of Mirren) they represent a danger to no one until someone threatens to harm them. And by the end of each movie, you realize that a lot depends on them stopping whoever started the fight. Nevertheless, there is a certain romance in the last century's darkest shadows, and these cheesy (yes, knowingly!) movies invite viewers to indulge in it. I'm up for the invitation.

Three Movie Reviews

The House with a Clock in its Walls - The first of two Halloween-themed Jack Black vehicles that came out practically on top of each other, this movie was based on a beloved book by John Bellairs. It is perhaps for the best that I hadn't re-read the book for several years before seeing this movie, so my impression of it as a fan of the book is that it was pretty faithful to the source material. More importantly, as an amateur judge of filmmaking, I thoroughly enjoyed this spooky, magical family movie.

It's all about a somewhat pathetic boy named Lewis Barnavelt (less pathetic in the film than in the book, as I recall), who loses both his parents and ends up being raised by his uncle Jonathan. Then he finds out that Jonathan and the neighbor lady, Mrs. Zimmerman, are a warlock and a witch, and that the house and its grounds are full of weird stuff, such as carnivorous topiary and friendly furniture. It also has a dreadful book that Lewis is warned never to touch (but of course, he disobeys), and an ominous ticking inside the walls that Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman worry about, when they aren't bickering like an old married couple. Unfortunately, having his best friend at school turn against him is the least of little Lewis's problems. Soon he is being drawn into a plot to end the world by an evil wizard from beyond the grave.

The cast is just right. Jack Black is much better in the role of a midwestern sorcerer, without the unconvincing fake British accent he affects in his Goosebumps role. Also, Uncle Jonathan is much more loving and lovable than his R.L. Stine persona, and his chemistry with Mrs. Z (Cate Blanchett) is terrific. As Lewis, Owen Vaccaro makes a promising lead-role debut; he previously played Will Ferrell's stepson in two Daddy's Home movies (I haven't seen either) and has played somebody's son in a couple other films. The vulnerability of these characters is a Bellairs trademark. Kyle MacLachlan takes a villainous turn as the wizard Izard; seeing the little people thwart his plan is truly a pleasure. Not to be glossed over is the production design of this film, which created a nostalgic look for its 1955 small-town-Michigan setting and the even more historic Izard mansion, not to mention Uncle Jonathan's old beater of a car.

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) Mrs. Z remarks, "He's so weird," when Lewis demonstrates his unique style of making magic. (2) Naturally, the jack o'lantern attack. (3) Lewis' dodge-ball revenge on the best friend who betrayed him.

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween - Going into the second kids' movie that came out around Halloween and featured Jack Black, I was a little nervous about his performance. I liked the original "Goosebumps" movie, but only in spite of Black's performance as R.L. Stine, the author of the spooky kids' book series on which the movie was based. Black played Stine as a prickly intellectual with what sounded like an unconvincing fake British accent. It wasn't his best work, and I say that fully aware that I'm talking about Jack Black, whose performances regularly make me wince. This sequel, however, took the prudent step of relegating Black's character to an almost superfluous bit part. It also replaced the hero teens from the original movie with an entirely different group of kids who come across the nefarious Slappy (a living ventriloquist's puppet who absolutely hates being called a "dummy," also voiced by Jack Black) and unwittingly aid him in his comeback, via an unpublished R.L. Stine manuscript. You know, because the monsters created by Stine always stir up trouble when they escape from his books.

In this instance, Slappy hatches a plot to turn the town's Halloween decorations into real monsters and, basically, unleash Halloween-ageddon. The kids fight back, supported in part by that crazy neighbor who goes way over the top with holiday decorations. It's a funny, goofy, special-effects-driven thrill ride for kids that I thought hit all its marks and didn't fail to entertain, in spite of having a little-known leading cast. With its present-day setting, it contrasts nicely with the season's other Black/Halloween flick. However, because I left the writing of this review in "pending" mode for way too long, I'm afraid I can't remember it in enough detail to provide my usual "Three Scenes that Made It For Me." Sorry!

First Man - This movie about Neil Armstrong's journey from testing experimental aircraft to planting the first human bootprint on the moon was a visually stunning, emotionally overwhelming powerhouse of a historic biopic starring Ryan Gosling. It spotlights the strains on the legendary astronaut's marriage, his emotional unavailability, his devastating grief after the death of his daughter, his tough relationship with his two sons, and the losses of many of his colleagues in a variety of crashes and accidents leading up to the Apollo program. Normally, at this point in the review, I would recite the names of a bunch of people in the film's awesome cast, but if you're reading this, you're on the internet; so use it.

As I've mentioned before, I've been operating on a minimum of recreational online time for a while now, so unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to write this review until months after posting it with a "review in progress" blurb. Ordinarily, that would mean that I couldn't recall enough detail to provide my customary "Three Scenes that Made It For Me." In this case, however, the film made a very strong impression on me, so here goes: (1) Armstrong shuts himself in his study during the reception after his daughter's funeral and puts her charm bracelet, with beads spelling her name (Karen), in his desk drawer. This moment of repressed emotion pairs beautifully with a scene of healing toward the end of the movie, when the astronaut extends his space-suited hand over the rim of a lunar crater, opens it, and lets that charm bracelet fall into the darkness below. (2) Armstrong's wife (played by Claire Foy) blows up at him, in a display of emotion that pushes the needle into the red that stands out all the more after the stifling emotional repression previously depicted, and forces him to talk to his sons about the risk he is taking in his voyage to the moon - and what an awkward conversation that proves to be. (3) The stunning moonscapes depicted as the lunar lander descends, and after it lands.

As for the gripe some people have that the movie glosses over the planting of the U.S. flag, an omission that allegedly serves some anti-American interest or at least aims to appeal to people who don't love mom and apple pie, eh. I didn't even think about this until somebody quizzed me about it after I saw the movie. I thought I recalled seeing somebody digging a hole that I presumed was for the flagpole; though maybe he was taking a soil sample. I thought the movie's focus on Armstrong's personal experience was what made the moon scenes powerful. The film is unafraid to depict this American hero as a marginally functional person who must have been tough to live and work with. In fact, I think that insight into Armstrong's character does a lot to explain just how the U.S. achieved a moon landing when the science and technology that made it possible were so sketchy. Also, I am fascinated by the idea of solving a big problem by breaking it into smaller problems and solving each of them separately, which is depicted as a key to achieving the seemingly impossible feat. But it's the achievement of Mrs. Armstrong being able to reach out to and touch Mr.'s heart that is finally the central miracle of this story. What a cool surprise that is. And what a tremendous impetus this film is to follow the directing career of Damien Chazelle, whose only previous feature films were the Oscar-worthy La La Land, Whiplash and some obscure film about a jazz trumpeter. If this guy keeps going like this, he is going to be mentioned in a lot of awards buzz in movie seasons to come.


by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 14+

Subtitled The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds, this book (as I read it) is somewhat successful as a novel, although it was originally three novellas: Legion and Legion: Skin Deep, both previously published, and the brand-new Lies of the Beholder. Its main character is a unique genius who has learned to function, and indeed to excel, in spite of a devastating mental illness. Stephen Leeds has an extreme form of multiple personality disorder that would be a constant, debilitating torment, if not for the ability to converse with his alter egos that he learned from a similarly afflicted woman, the love of his life. Now he can say, "I'm perfectly sane. It's my hallucinations that are mad."

Using an indescribable combination of eidetic memory and mental division of labor, Leeds has the ability to become a world-class expert on anything in only minutes or hours. Each new specialty is embodied in a different personality that he can see, hear, and converse with. They are so real to him that he has to buy plane tickets for the ones he takes along on his globe-trotting, mystery-solving, troubleshooting career. Luckily, he makes enough money at it to keep them in a mansion with plenty of rooms for all of them. Nevertheless, his trouble distinguishing real people from imaginary ones makes it difficult for him to spend much time among the former, while his latest spate of cases have a weird way of putting the latter in danger.

His cases involve an artifact that could disprove at least one major religion, a piece of technology that could turn every person's body into a supercomputer, and the ultimate threat to his own piece of mind. Other than that, I don't want to say anything that might spoil your discovery of this book's psychologically gripping adventures. It's yet another example of Brandon Sanderson's peculiar way of building fascinating and totally original fantasy worlds that perhaps take some time to absorb, but that will stay under your skin forever afterward. Forward in brainy concepts and character drama but not at all behind in action, thrills and surprises, this book (typical of his work) is a completely satisfying piece of entertainment.

There are two types of Brandon Sanderson novels: Ones that I wholeheartedly recommend, and ones that I look forward to reading. For more examples of what Sanderson can do, see Elantris, The Rithmatist, Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians and its four sequels, the two Mistborn trilogies starting with The Final Empire and The Alloy of Law, and the Reckoners trilogy starting with Steelheart. Or, if you prefer, join me as I discover Warbreaker, Skyward, the Infinity Blade titles Awakening and Redemption, the Stormlight Archive trilogy starting with The Way of Kings, the Cosmere novels starting with Sixth of the Dusk, and (if I live long enough to get that far in the series) the concluding installments of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time cycle.

Deep Freeze

Deep Freeze
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the 10th Virgil Flowers novel, the Minnesota Burea of Criminal Apprehension's most easy-going investigator returns to Trippton, the riverside town where he previously arrested the entire school board for murder. This time, he is called out to catch the killer of a beautiful banker who was apparently killed by a fellow member of her high school class reunion committee.

While Virgil gets closer to figuring out who done it, several red herrings are dragged across the trail - including a rough-trade boy toy, a married ex-boyfriend with an explosive temper matched only by that of his wife, a transgender ex-husband whose business is on the rocks, and a couple whose hopes for a business loan were about to be shot down by the victim.

Even though the reader knows who killed the homecoming queen right from the start, it is thrilling to watch Virgil and the characters around him navigate the perils of Trippton - including a killer who is prepared to kill again if it serves his interests. Meantime, the main character continues to reshape the idea of a tough-guy detective, as he continues to exhibit a reluctance to carry a gun, gets beaten senseless by a group of women, and has his beloved pickup shot out from under him.

It's sexy, funny, murderous fun with a slice of life in a small Minnesota town that cuts through all the layers of the social pie. It also serves a bracing snort of local color at the time of year when the Mississippi is frozen over, a side of Minnesota that many miss because they flee to warmer climes during the winter. I myself did most of my John Sandford reading from the relative warmth of Missouri; this was my first return to his series of mystery thrillers since I moved back to Minnesota last winter, and I believe in the lyric precision of his landscape writing more strongly than ever.

The 11th Virgil Flowers novel, published in October 2018, is titled Holy Ghost. Meantime there are going-on-29 Lucas Davenport novels, some of which also have Virgil as a character; the latest is currently Twisted Prey. Enjoy!