Thursday, March 23, 2017

Movie Review - Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)
Starring Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, Sarah Silverman, Tim Meadows, Imogen Poots, and a slew of celebrity cameos
Directed by Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone

Told in a mock-documentary style, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping details the life of Conner Friel (Andy Samberg), the lead singer of the rap group The Style Boyz who shot to popularity over a decade ago.  However, following some internal fighting, The Style Boyz break up and Conner embarks on a solo career wherein he becomes an incredibly successful solo rap artist.  This mockumentary focuses on Conner getting set to release his second solo album and, needless to say, things don't go quite as planned.

The Lonely Island crew of Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer shot to popularity with their viral skits on Saturday Night Live nearly a decade ago and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping certainly hews close to that style of raunchy, pop culture-based humor for which they became well-known.  Much like an episode of SNL, the film works in spurts.  When it's funny, it's oftentimes hilarious; but when it's not funny, it's oftentimes painful.  Even at a short 86 minutes, it's about 15 minutes too long, growing a bit repetitive as it meanders through its very basic plot.  Andy Samberg holds one's attention onscreen and some of the bit cameos are engaging, but it does overstay its welcome.  That said, I laughed out loud quite a bit -- more than I ever thought I would to be quite honest and in that regard Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a success.  However, with a keener group of editors, it could've been even better.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Movie Review - The Meddler

The Meddler (2016)
Starring Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, JK Simmons, Jerrod Carmichael, and Cecily Strong
Directed by Lorene Scafaria

Following her husband's death, widower Marnie (Susan Sarandon) moves from New York to Los Angeles to be closer to her adult daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), a screenwriter coping with a breakup with a longterm boyfriend.  Although she has good intentions, Marnie meddles in every aspect of Lori's life and The Meddler takes this simplistic story and stretches it out over 100 minutes.

While there may seem to be some moderate disappointing shade thrown by this reviewer in that last sentence, The Meddler is a perfectly acceptable comedy with some nice performances.  It's totally watchable and does the job it sets out to do in creating a difficult family dynamic between Marnie and Lori.  Ultimately, there's not quite enough story to prevent the viewer from getting a tad bored in the film's middle acts and what story there is proves to be fairly generic.  However, thanks to Susan Sarandon who really excels here at capturing the overprotective, busybody, stereotypical Italian widower, The Meddler fares better than it maybe even deserves.  I laughed a few times and was engaged in the Marnie character even when her actions were a bit too eccentric to be believed.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Monday, March 06, 2017

Movie Review - Blue Jay

Blue Jay (2016)
Starring Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson
Directed by Alex Lehmann
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

In Blue Jay, former high school sweethearts Jim and Amanda (Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson) meet for the first time in over a decade in a grocery store when Jim returns home to California to clean out the house of his recently deceased mother.  The two decide to go to a local diner to reminisce where there's an immediate reconnection for Jim despite the fact that Amanda tells him that he's married and now the stepmother to two grown children.  Although initially hesitant, something clicks for Amanda as well and the two return to Jim's mother's home where they reminisce about their high school days, what became of them since they broke up, and what could've been had they remained together.

For the film's first half, the connection between Duplass and Paulson is engaging and palpable and I found myself enjoying this obviously low-budget film.  The black-and-white cinematography makes the viewer focus on the story...which works for the first half.  However, the flick begins to drag and the improvisational dialog aspect of the film begins to rear its ugly head.  The short 80-minute runtime starts to feel much longer than it should.  Fortunately, Paulson and Duplass continue to create a believable relationship and their characters' chemistry carries the film even through its roughest times.  Blue Jay showed much promise at the outset, but in the end, it's a bit too short on plot to really make an impact.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Movie Review - Pee-Wee's Big Holiday

Pee-Wee's Big Holiday (2016)
Starring Pee-Wee Herman, Joe Manganiello, 
Directed by John Lee
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Nostalgia is a funny thing.  In the case of Pee Wee's Big Holiday, it allows me to overlook the fact that Paul Reubens' return to the character that made him a giant hit in the 1980s isn't very good.  I fully recognize that the generic plot isn't worth praising and the comedic aspects feel as if they were cooked up three decades ago.  However, because of that kooky thing known as nostalgia, I warmed up to what I was watching and was able to (somewhat) overlook the many foibles of this new film because it reminded me of a simpler time.

In Pee-Wee's Big Holiday, our title character Pee-Wee Herman lives in Fairville, a picturesque small town that seems stuck in the 1950s based off its vehicles and clothing and general aesthetic.  After a signature Rube Goldberg-esque opening, Pee-Wee arrives at his workplace -- a diner where he is the short order line cook.  One afternoon before the big lunch rush, Pee-Wee finds himself alone in the restaurant when a mysterious man arrives.  After he orders a milkshake, Pee-Wee strikes up a conversation with the stranger who turns out to be Joe Manganiello (playing himself), an actor traveling through Fairville on his way home to New York City.  Joe -- a macho, carefree guy --  is seemingly the complete opposite of Pee-Wee whose pleasant, though buttoned-up persona has kept him cloistered in the town of Fairville, unaware of the wonders that could await him outside of the town.  Joe is about to celebrate his birthday and in an effort to open Pee-Wee's eyes to the wonders of the rest of America, Joe invites our title character to his birthday in NYC, but he insists Pee-Wee travel cross-country to get there so that he can truly experience the nation.  After Joe leaves, Pee-Wee ponders the notion and decides to live his hometown behind to take a journey to NYC and along the way he meets a bunch of loony folks who should ultimately make him realize that he should've just stayed home.

I am fully aware that Pee-Wee's Big Holiday is not good.  Its episodic nature grows old fast as some of the characters Pee-Wee encounters simply aren't enjoyable enough to spend ten minutes getting to know.  However, as someone who watched "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" and loved Pee-Wee's Big Adventure as a kid, I found myself sinking in to a warm and comforting nostalgia while watching this.  I laughed a few times and the innocence of the characters reminded me of a simpler time in my life and I'm not sure there's anything wrong with that.  If Pee-Wee Herman doesn't hold a special place in your childhood memories, this one isn't for you at all, but if you fondly remember waking up on a Saturday morning and turning on CBS to watch him prance around his playhouse with Chairy and Jambi and Pterri, Pee-Wee's Big Holiday will be an enjoyable enough ninety minutes.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Movie Review - The Shallows

The Shallows (2016)
Starring Blake Lively
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

In my mind, Blake Lively came to prominence via MTV's Laguna Beach and its various fake-reality iterations.  I never watched an episode, but if I had I would know that Lively never was on those shows acting like some pompous self-centered egotist.  No, she became well known for tv's Gossip Girl, another show with which I have no history, but for some reason find myself assuming is Laguna Beach whenever I hear Lively's name.  I mention this only because my totally false impressions of Blake Lively caused me to scoff at the concept of The Shallows which is essentially a one-woman show about how a med student's surfing trip to Mexico turns horrific when she encounters a vicious shark.  However, following her role in The Age of Adeline (an underrated movie, FYI), Lively proves to be a innately watchable actress who takes control of the screen in a very understated, though believable way.

The Shallows is very simplistic -- it really is just the story of one woman against a shark -- but it's oddly compelling and tense at times thanks to the direction of Jaume Collet-Serra who keeps the film brisk, not overstaying its welcome.  Sure, there are moments that may seem implausible, but in this genre, you either have to accept it or not and this film garnered enough good will that I was willing to buy in to its plot.  Overall, color me surprised that this one was as enjoyable as it was.  It's a nice little sleeper flick if you're looking for a quick watch some rainy afternoon.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Oscar Predictions

UPDATE:  Ugh...a very poor 15/24 showing.  Pretty awful.  A solid ceremony that unfortunately tainted my thoughts about Moonlight which I now see as winning simply because of Hollywood's need to push a liberal agenda -- a tweet from Jessica Chastain post-ceremony solidified this notion for me.  Moonlight is a very good movie, but I can't help but think Hollywood feels the need to "message movie" America now into thinking the way they think (and also make up for last years #oscarssowhite fracas.  Once again, no slight on Moonlight which is great (hence my grade below), but it's a win that will feel tainted even though it shouldn't.

A very quick rundown of predictions this year is below.  I think I'm getting older and more cynical because despite actually enjoying all of the films nominated for Best Picture this year, I'm looking forward to this evening's Oscar ceremony the least of any that I can remember.  Let's just say it's tough being a conservative and a lover of movies on nights like this -- I know I'm gonna be sanctimoniously lectured this evening.  [Links in the Best Picture category are to my original reviews.]

Best Picture (in order of my preference)
La La Land -- A-
Moonlight -- A-
Lion -- B
Arrival -- B
Hidden Figures -- B
Hacksaw Ridge -- B
Manchester by the Sea -- B
Fences -- B
Hell or High Water -- B-
Will Win/Should Win: La La Land

Best Director
Will Win/Should Win: Damien Chazelle - La La Land

Best Actor
Will Win/Should Win: Denzel Washington - Fences
Very tight race between him and Casey Affleck (Manchester). 
Note:  Did not see Captain Fantastic yet

Best Actress
Will Win/Should Win: Emma Stone - La La Land
Note:  Did not see Elle or Jackie

Best Supporting Actor
Will Win:  Mahershala Ali
Should Win:  Dev Patel
Note:  Did not see Nocturnal Animals

Best Supporting Actress
Will Win/Should Win:  Viola Davis - Fences

Animated:  Zootopia
Cinematography:  La La Land
Costume Design:  La La Land
Documentary Feature:  OJ: Made in America
Documentary Short Subject:  Joe's Violin
Film Editing:  La La Land
Foreign Language Film:  The Salesman
Makeup and Hairstyling:  Star Trek Beyond
Music - Score: La La Land
Music - Song: City of Stars - La La Land
Production Design:  La La Land
Short Film Animated: Piper
Short Film Live Action: Ennemis Interieurs
Sound Editing: Hacksaw Ridge
Sound Mixing: La La Land
Visual Effects: Jungle Book
Writing - Adapted: Moonlight
Writing - Original: Manchester by the Sea

Friday, February 24, 2017

Movie Review - Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures (2016)
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, and Mahershala Ali
Directed by Theodore Melfi

There's something so refreshing about the simplicity and basic nature of Hidden Figures and its engagingly pleasant and uplifting story that it's awfully tough not to enjoy director Theodore Melfi's film as it jauntily prances across the movie screen.  The great trio of black actresses at the film's center -- Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe -- do a fantastic job of sugarcoating the fact that the film's screenplay is riddled with one-note white supporting characters and its direction is full of clichés.  However, despite the lack of edginess and its rather elementary (and rudimentary at times) treatment of race relations in the 1960s, Hidden Figures is immensely enjoyable and held my attention as the true story of the three fascinating lead characters unfolded.

Hidden Figures succeeds not because it's got great direction or plot, but because it's a mainstream Hollywood film that capably tells an unknown true story headlined by three charismatic lead actresses.  At the forefront is Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Goble, a rather genius mathematician who worked for NASA at the Langley Research Center in Virginia.  After working in the segregated computer lab, Goble is called up to help the head of the Space Task Group Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) as his team attempts to launch an American into space.  Henson's Goble is an extremely intelligent woman, but she's also a caring mother to her three daughters who faces all the challenges thrown at her with perseverance ever after losing her husband a few years ago.  Henson is captivating at the center of the film, balancing heart and humor with ease.

Perhaps the bulk of the film's humor (and this is a surprisingly funny piece at times) is supplied by Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, the requisite sassy gal who longs to get her Masters in Engineering but isn't allowed because of Virginia's segregation laws.  While not known for acting, Monáe has proven to be an intriguing newcomer in the field with her work here and in 2016's Moonlight.  She has a presence onscreen that emits strength and grace and she's someone I'm certainly going to pay attention to in the years to come.

The only actress Oscar-nominated for her role here is Octavia Spencer, who plays Dorothy Vaughn, the supervisor of the "colored" computer room.  Spencer is essentially playing the same role here that she played in her Oscar-winning turn in The Help, but she's admittedly good in that no-nonsense type role.  Here, Spencer takes on the motherly role with ease, but I honestly think she's the least impressive of the acting trio -- not saying that in a derogatory way, just in the fact that her role seems the most generic.

The three actresses make this film shine.  Unfortunately, some of what goes on around them proves disappointing.  Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons are given rote, been-there-seen-that roles as 1960s white folk seemingly opposed to integration only to have their eyes opened up when they see what other groups have to offer.  Their evil side-eyes and brusque mannerisms are so utterly stereotypical that it sometimes proves laughable as opposed to impactful which is a shame because I'm sure that these three real-life ladies faced some true opposition to their emergence in NASA.  Kevin Costner bucks the trend as Goble's superior, but it's a bit too little to help.

Director Theodore Melfi doesn't reinvent the wheel here in any way, but in the end, that's okay.  Hidden Figures was meant to be a crowd-pleaser, not a deeply innovative piece.  In that sense, it's entirely successful.  In the end, though, it lacks the gravitas or uniqueness to really make a cinematic impact, but the story of the three ladies at its center is certainly a worthwhile historical footnote to learn about.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Movie Review - Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Featuring the vocal talents of Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, and Matthew McConnaughey
Directed by Travis Knight

The stop-motion animation from Laika Studios is always exquisite.  When their films begin (be it Coraline or Paranorman or The Boxtrolls) I find myself completely enthralled by the hand-crafted nature of the work and that awe was no exception with Kubo and the Two Strings, the company's latest venture.  Unfortunately, as is also the case with films by Laika, I find myself disappointed with the story and the company's inability to pace their films properly throughout.  Promising starts always lead into disappointing middle acts which are sometimes lifted in the finales.  Gorgeous animation can only get you so far.

That isn't to say that Kubo and the Two Strings is bad by any means.  It certainly is successful during its first half when we are introduced to our title character, a young one-eyed boy (voiced by Art Parkinson) who lives in a secluded cliffside cave with his depressed and sickly mother.  Every day, he makes the trek to the Japanese village near the cave to regale the townsfolk with a glorious story about a warrior who defeats an evil warrior -- all told through magical origami that comes to life when Kubo strums his guitar.  (Yes, it sounds odd, but it's rather beautifully imagined.)  Kubo has always been told to return home before dark, but one day Kubo attends a festival in town during which the living townsfolk create remembrances of the dead.  Enthralled by the festivities, Kubo stays out too late and the ghostly visages of his mother's two sisters Karasu and Yukami (Rooney Mara) come to try and steal Kubo's good eye in order to give it to his grandfather who, legend has it, stole his missing eye.  Kubo's mother fends off her two sisters and tells Kubo to run away and hide.  Upon waking up the next morning, Kubo is greeted by Monkey (Charlize Theron) which seems to be a real-life iteration of a wooden snow monkey figurine he had his entire life.  Together, Kubo and Monkey trek across the landscape of Japan in order to find the pieces of a magical armor that will protect Kubo from his grandfather who obviously wants to do him great harm.

In and of itself, that aforementioned story is engaging, unique, and melds modern and historic Japanese traditions.  However, once Kubo's trek starts, Kubo and the Two Strings loses much of its dramatic tension, essentially becoming a road movie with Kubo meeting the warrior from his stories (Matthew McConaughey) who helps the young boy and monkey on their quest.  Sure, there is some nice repartee between the voice actors with the trio of Theron, McConaughey, and Parkinson creating an enjoyable listening experience.  And, as mentioned before, the animation throughout the entire film is stellar.  Lush landscapes, gorgeous costumes, and fascinating imagery populate the entire film, creating a visually stunning experience.  However, the story falls apart a bit and while the animation saves it -- this one ekes out a win for me thus far when it comes to the animated films of 2016 -- I really want Laika to step it up in the story department because they've got the goods visually that's for darn sure.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Monday, February 20, 2017

Movie Review - Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water (2016)
Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Gil Birmingham
Directed by David Mackenzie

As Hell or High Water opens, brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are robbing the small-town Texas-Midland Bank.  Sure, Tanner's been in jail before, but in general the duo seem like nice enough guys...they're just desperate to save their deceased mother's estate which was just recently discovered to be sitting atop a vast supply of oil.  However, a disastrous reverse mortgage set up by Texas-Midland Bank has the agency wanting to seize the house from the Howard family leading the brothers to formulate the plan to rob the bank's branches and then give the money back to the bank in order to save their property.  The Howards continue on their mission while being pursued by a duo of Texas Rangers -- the retiring Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and the up-and-comer Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) -- eager to stop the culprits before they steal any more dough and perhaps do something more deadly.

Much like is typical in the Western genre -- at least for this reviewer -- Hell or High Water is a very slow starter.  Director David Mackenzie's film is lullingly dull in its first forty-five minutes when it comes to plot.  Sure, the rapport between the Howard brothers and the two Texas Rangers provides heart and humor, but the film was lacking forward momentum and drive.  (Once again, this seems typical of most westerns for me, so your mileage may vary.)  The film's second half picks up the pace, racing forward as the two aforementioned duos meet each other following an intense bank robbery, ending the film on a much better note than it started.

While dull at times, the main quartet of four actors solidly delivers.  Ben Foster is charismatic as Tanner whose unhinged personality ultimately overtakes his more subdued brother Toby who is subtly played by Chris Pine with just the right amount of emotional pain to make me truly believe his character's descent into crime.  The two feel incredibly natural together, coming off as believable brothers despite their distinct personalities.  Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham play splendidly off of one another in large part thanks to the wonderfully witty and natural dialog conjured up by screenwriter Taylor Sheridan who has a keen ear for the spoken word (even if the film's plot leaves a little to be desired).

The acting certainly elevates the whole film and is undoubtedly the reason for giving this one a go.  Mackenzie as a director creates an incredibly taut and exciting final act, but unfortunately, the build up to the final moments is a bit slow.  This is a capable film that is perhaps more highly praised this awards season than it should be, but I imagine that's in large part due to the fact that the film ends much more enjoyably than how it begins.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Movie Review - Moonlight

Moonlight (2016)
Starring Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, André Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris, and Mahershala Ali
Directed by Barry Jenkins

I will readily admit that I wasn't expecting to care for Moonlight in the slightest.  Preconceived notions about a plot revolving around a gay black kid's struggle led me to believe that this couldn't be further from a movie with which I would connect.  However, thanks to a realistic screenplay and a unique directorial structure (both created by Barry Jenkins), Moonlight moves along a fast clip as it explores a central character who we can't help but connect with regardless of our race, gender, or sexual orientation.

Told in a triptych fashion with three segments detailing the life of young Chiron, Moonlight allows us a glimpse into the world of a black child trying to come to grips with who he really is.  We first meet Chiron as a child (played by Alex Hibbert) when he earns the nickname "Little" for his meek, tender personality.  While hiding from bullies in an abandoned hotel room, Chiron is discovered by drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) whose kind persona causes Chiron to open up to him as he questions what makes him so different from the other kids his age including his friend Kevin (played as a child by Jaden Piner).  Chapter Two opens with a teenage Chiron (now Ashton Sanders) still finding himself struggling as an outcast, but beginning to truly understand who he is thanks to Kevin (now Jharrel Jerome).  As an adult, the Chiron in Chapter Three (now Trevante Rhodes) seems to be a completely different person as he deals with the aftermath of a monumental decision he makes at the end of the previous chapter.  His life seems to be on a particular path now (perhaps different than he could've imagined), but that changes when out of the blue he receives a phone call from Kevin (André Holland) with whom he'd fallen out of touch with during high school.

Moonlight seems overly basic when crafting a summary, but admittedly its strength isn't in its plot per se, but in its characters and their awakenings as they discover their paths in life.  Thanks to the rather tender portrayal by young Alex Hibbert of Chiron as a child and the heartwarming camaraderie brought to the screen by Mahershala Ali as his adult father figure, we in the audience are immediately drawn into Chiron's story.  Add to that the fact that his mother (Naomie Harris) is more focused on where to get her next stash of drugs than her son's well-being and we can't help but feel sympathy for Chiron's plight.  Somehow, Barry Jenkins and his casting director give us three (unknown) actors in Chiron who seamlessly meld into one another each taking on the quiet, subdued character creating more depth as the film progresses and ending with a final segment that proves heartbreakingly sad and emotionally effective in its simplicity.  While it's true that Mahershala Ali is getting the bulk of the awards season talk from the film, it's Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes who carry the bulk of the emotion in the film.  In fact, Ali is perhaps the slightest bit overpraised in his role which is quite small.  While he has one very heartwarming scene, I found the performance to be nice, but not overwhelmingly "awards-worthy" by any means.  Similarly, Naomie Harris is a bit too histrionic in her too-stereotypical role as Chiron's drug-addled mother.  There's little depth and originality to her character which felt too stock and rote to this reviewer.

Moonlight is well-directed for sure, but feels "independent" all the time (a la Boyhood from a few years ago although this is a superior film).  That's not really a criticism, but it's not able to break out of the "low budget" feel like the similarly independent Room was last year.  Still, I found myself drawn into this tale much more than I ever thought I would which is a huge credit to writer-director Jenkins and his outstanding ensemble of actors playing Chiron and Kevin.  Together, those six actors created an intensely personal and emotional tale that is surprisingly resonant to audiences across all spectrums.

The RyMickey Rating:  A-