Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Movie Review - Force Majeure

Force Majeure (2014)
Starring Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Vincent Wettergren, Clara Wettergren, and Kristofer Hivju
Directed by Ruben Östland
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

I recently watched Foxcatcher and commented about how the slow pace of the film somehow enriched that experience and made the film better overall.  Quite the opposite could be said about the Swedish film Force Majeure, winner of the Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.  The simplistic story attempts to create some dramatic heaviness by moving at a snail's pace, but instead it just becomes irritatingly mundane and bland.

On a vacation in a ski resort in the French Alps, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two children Vera and Harry (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) are spending a lovely afternoon eating lunch on an outdoor deck.  The resort sets off controlled avalanches in order to keep the slopes safe for skiers and on this particular afternoon, one of the avalanches goes slightly awry and seems to head straight for the dining deck.  In a moment of panic, Tomas runs, leaving his wife and children behind.  Fortunately, there wasn't much to worry about when it came to the avalanche, but Tomas' instincts cause Ebba and the two kids to question whether their husband and father truly cares about their well-being.

Unfortunately, while the premise creates an interesting conundrum for Tomas, I found myself caring very little for the family's questioning of their circumstances.  For nearly two hours, we're treated to a lot of whining from all parties and while the psychological dynamics should've proven fascinating, I couldn't remove myself from this family's plight fast enough.  Bland, boring, yet admittedly visually appealing, Force Majeure can't sustain itself over its runtime and produces only yawns.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Movie Review - They Came Together

They Came Together (2014)
Starring Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Christopher Meloni, Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Jason Mantzoukas, Max Greenfield, Cobie Smulders, Melanie Lynskey, and Ed Helms
Directed by David Wain
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Movie spoofs are always a tricky business proposition with more failures than successes it seems.  The most famous as of late has been the Scary Movie franchise which took on the slapsticky Airplane approach and subsequently withered and died from the get-go for me.  In its skewering of the romantic comedy, They Came Together eschews some of the more blatant physical humor (although it does still successfully go there at times), aiming moreso for verbal barbs (just look at that suggestive title) and observational humor.

Molly (Amy Poehler), owner of a small candy shop, finds her business threatened when the big Corporate Candy Company decides to open up a shop right across the street from her.  When she meets Joel (Paul Rudd), an executive at CCC, Molly can't help but despise him, but as their paths intertwine, love begins to blossom beneath the hatred.  Simplicity abounds in this summary, but the obvious regurgitating of You've Got Mail's story proves to be more humorous than I could've expected.

Poehler and Rudd are always charmingly funny and their performances in They Came Together are no exception.  They have to walk a tricky road in that they're playing overblown caricatures of romantic comedy stereotypes, yet they have to still carry this film as relatable people in order for us in the audience to latch onto the tale successfully.  Director and co-screenwriter David Wain manages to make Molly and Joel well-rounded enough even with their parody-laden characteristics.  Wain throws a lot at the wall and while not all the jokes land, enough of them do making the laughs come quickly enough to warrant a watch.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Theater Review - The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan from the movie of Alfred Hitchcock
Directed by J.R. Sullivan
Where:  Thompson Theater at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When:  Sunday, April 26, 2pm
Photos by The REP

Having previously seen The 39 Steps on Broadway several years ago and walking away with thoughts of "That was okay, but nothing special," I must admit that my expectations were somewhat muted upon hearing that the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players were tackling this madcap comedic play featuring only four actors playing a multitude of roles.  That said, I also recognized that this type of zany comedy is particularly in the wheelhouse of many members of the troupe so the possibility of a nice surprise was definitely in the cards -- and the REP delivered with their best play of the season, saving the best for last by far.

The 39 Steps isn't a particularly well-known Alfred Hitchcock picture and when I reviewed it as part of my Hitchcock Fest a few years ago, it landed in the middle of his cinematic oeuvre for me.  Much like the film (and the disappointing book upon which it is based), the play details the story of thirty-seven year-old bachelor Richard Hannay (played here by REP member Michael Gotch) who is attending a variety show of sorts when a woman dressed in black fires off a gun and creates a bit of chaos.  Upon leaving the show, Richard meets up with the woman named Annabella Schmidt (a role tackled by REP member Elizabeth Heflin) who informs him that she is on the run from spies who will stop at nothing to ruin Britain.  After obliging to Annabella's request for her to spend the night in his flat, Richard wakes up the next morning to find Annabella murdered, forcing him to go on the run attempting to evade the police while trying to figure out who framed him for murder.

Doesn't sound like a laugh riot, huh?  In the mind of playwright Patrick Barlow, however, the comedy comes fast and furious with a multitude of Hitchcockian movie references thrown in for the fanatics like me.  Part of the fun stems from the fact that although there are upwards of fifty characters in the play, there are only four actors to portray all the roles.  Michael Gotch as the wrongly accused man is our only constant throughout the whole affair and his spot-on 1930s charming persona is a whimsical and hilarious treat.  By his side is the aforementioned Elizabeth Heflin who takes on three female roles, all of which are perhaps the most underwritten in the play.  She's sort of the straight man to all the chaos going on around her and it's a bit unfortunate that most of her one-liners fall a bit flat.
The bulk of the roles in The 39 Steps, however, are played by REP members Mic Matarrese and Lee Ernst whose time on stage seems to never cease as they move from one character to the next with incredibly quick costume changes and varied English accents.  Whether it be vaudevillian actors, a cleaning woman, a Nazi spy, a newspaper boy, or nearly anything else you could imagine, these two tackled an unenviable task with ease, gusto, and humor.

Director J.R. Sullivan makes the most of the intimate Thompson Theater and I have to think that's why this play worked better for me in this setting than it did on the Broadway stage.  The closeness to the actors and their funny actions made the experience much more enjoyable than when I saw this in NYC twenty-five rows back from the expansive stage at the Cort Theater.  Much like the REP's take on Noises Off a few seasons ago (still the most enjoyable REP production I've seen), comedic timing is everything in a play like this and Sullivan obviously worked with his cast of four actors to wring out all the yuks they could in a play like this.

Kudos also to costume designer Martha Haley whose costumes easily take us back to the 1930s and scenic designer Bill Clarke who cleverly utilizes a bevy of everyday items to take the shape of everything from a train to a plane to an automobile.  The clever use of musical scores from Hitchcock films adds a punch to the production as well as being a nice homage to the director's films.

This was truly an enjoyable way to end the REP's somewhat disappointing 2014-15 season.  Both comedies they're tackling here at the end (All in the Timing is also running at the moment and definitely worth checking out) showcase the actors in the troupe and the behind-the-scenes talent to great effect.  I'll be eagerly looking forward to next season's announcement after ending on such a high note!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Movie Review - Life Itself

Life Itself (2014)
Directed by Steve James
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***
One of my earliest film memories occurred on what I can only assume was a Saturday or Sunday evening in February or March of 1992.  I likely pushed my parents to rush home from a dinner at my grandmother's house so I could watch the Siskel and Ebert Oscar special If We Picked the Winners.  You see, 1991 was the first year I'd ever seen a Best Picture nominee in theaters in the year of its release and that film was Beauty and the Beast -- a film which I still hold in incredibly high esteem.  Filmed at the newly opened Disney-MGM Studios, I longed to see if either Gene Siskel or Roger Ebert chose this animated film as their favorite of the year.  Much to my surprise and excitement, Siskel did indeed pick my favorite movie of all time with Ebert mentioning that Beauty and the Beast was his #3 film of the year.  The eleven year-old me was so excited (and I got an odd thrill now when I watched Siskel's announcing of the pick again here).  Somehow, even at that young age, the importance of Siskel and Ebert on the film landscape had already been imprinted upon this film buff.  Even at that young age when I couldn't have even begged my parents to let me watch JFK, The Prince of Tides, Bugsy, or the eventual winner that year in Silence of the Lambs, I was already placing some trust in these two writers known worldwide for their film criticism.  Gene Siskel passed away in 1999 and we lost Roger Ebert just two years ago, but I still find myself heading back to their film reviews every now and then in a late night binge on the internet.

While I'm sure there's a story to be told about Gene, Life Itself is a love note to Roger who heroically fought for ten years against various forms of cancer, finally succumbing to the disease after a fulfilled life in 2013.  Director Steve James was invited to film Roger in 2012-13 as he continued to battle his latest cancer diagnosis and the film cuts back and forth between Roger's present struggles and reminiscences from some of Ebert's colleagues and friends.  From his days as an impressively thorough college newspaper editor to his hiring at the Chicago Sun-Times as a movie critic to his fame as part of the dynamic duo Siskel & Ebert, Life Itself doesn't necessarily dig deep, but it paints a nice portrait of a normal guy who happened to be a really fantastic (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) writer of criticism.  I don't know how hard-hitting you can get in a film about a guy as "regular" as Roger Ebert, but the film does touch upon his battle with alcohol, his misbegotten foray into screenwriting, and his rocky relationship with his frenemy Gene Siskel.

In the end, though, it is Ebert's love for movies and his even greater love for his wife Chaz that really shines.  I may have disagreed with him politically; I may have disagreed with him cinematically; but I can't disagree on the fact that he was passionate about what he loved and he wrote about it with such ease and lack of pretentiousness.  If anything, I wanted a little more emphasis on why films were Ebert's refuge.  Why did the movies captivate him?  We don't quite get that here, but I'm certainly heading out to read Ebert's similarly titled book upon which this documentary is based.

I don't think Ebert would have much positive to say about what I write and how I write on this little blog, but I can't help but think that he'd be a little pleased that he and his longtime partner (and foe) Siskel inspired generations of kids like me to love the cinema.  The duo will always hold a place in my heart and Life Itself is a lovely tribute.  The two hours spent with Roger flew by and unfortunately ended much too soon much like the life of Mr. Ebert.

The RyMickey Rating:  A-

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Movie Review - The Babadook

The Babadook (2014)
Starring Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman
Directed by Jennifer Kent
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Much hype has been bandied about concerning how scary and frightening debut director and screenwriter Jennifer Kent's horror film The Babadook is and while the it doesn't quite live up to its buzz, it's still a really good film with some absolutely outstanding performances from its two main cast members Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, both of whom elevate this already good production to something absolutely worth seeing.

Although it's been six years since her husband's death, Amelia (Davis) still finds herself grieving him every now and again as she raises her somewhat difficult, rambunctious, and wildly imaginative son Sam (Wiseman).  Already fearful of monsters lurking in the dark, when Sam discovers a new book named The Babadook on his bookshelf, the rather horrific illustrated children's work about a monster who invades a boy's home at night proves to be highly detrimental to the young boy causing a multitude of nightmares and creating a situation wherein he is simply unable to be around classmates or relatives his age without causing harm.  Amelia is forced to medicate young Sam, but upon doing so, she realizes that Sam's imagination and the creature from The Babadook may not be as made up as she formerly believed.

While certainly foreboding, The Babadook admittedly never really scared me.  I wasn't jumping in fright or covering my eyes out of fear.  However, what director Jennifer Kent does create is an atmosphere in which two characters and their traits inspire all the uncomfortableness and unease that one needs in order for a film like this to succeed.  Something as simple and basic as young Sam gritting his teeth while he's sleeping invokes a sense of discomfort in the audience, but also is a simple way of giving us insight into the fact that Sam is perhaps troubled and that Amelia can't even get relief when the young boy is asleep because of the incessant grinding.  These little details elevate The Babadook to a different level than other horror films.

It certainly helps that Kent manages to get fantastic performances from her two main cast members who are essentially onscreen in nearly every scene.  Young Noah Wiseman has his debut performance here and while I've heard some call him "grating" or "obnoxious," I counter that by simply saying, "That's the point."  His Sam is supposed to be wearing his mother down, causing her to question her maternal instincts.  Wiseman captures this completely in the film's opening half and then believably switches gears in the second half when the flick calls for him to retaliate against a rather horrific force.

A star should be born based off of Essie Davis's performance as the beleaguered Amelia.  Coping with her husband's death and the stigma of "widowhood" while dealing with a child who can't give her a moment's respite have obviously taken their toll Amelia and Davis shows us this nonstop and incessant feeling of wear and tear with every fiber of her being.  Underneath the malaise and frustration of dealing with Sam,  Davis always gives us hints that her Amelia truly loves her son, so we never get a sense that she has washed her hands of the boy -- she simply wishes for an easier go at things like her fellow moms are fortunate enough to have.  Once again, much like Wiseman, the script asks Davis to tackle the unenviable task of having her character completely switch gears in the film's second half -- into a role which I'll leave mysteriously undefined -- but Davis is absolutely believable and more than able to achieve this with gusto.

Much like the storybook in the film itself, The Babadook as a movie carries a slight sense of darkened fantasy with it in its production designs and lighting which perhaps lull us into a sense of childlike wonderment, contemplating what is around the corner for our two characters with each turn of the Blu-Ray or dvd chapter list.  I look forward to seeing what else Ms. Kent and her two fantastic actors have up their sleeves in the future.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Friday, April 24, 2015

Movie Review - Foxcatcher

Foxcatcher (2014)
Starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, and Sienna Miller
Directed by Bennett Miller

Although the term "methodical" oftentimes carries a somewhat negative connotation, using that word to describe Foxcatcher conveys no ill will towards director Bennett Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman.  Instead, their methodical (which some may call slow or [egads!] even boring) approach of retelling the true story of the relationship between wrestling aficionado John du Pont (Steve Carell) and wrestler brothers Mark and David Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) gives such depth and insight into the characters being portrayed onscreen that I couldn't help but find myself totally captivated and involved in this tragic story from beginning to end.

Knowing full well that the film ends in tragedy, it's often a difficult task to maintain a sense of discovery.  Miller doesn't necessarily hide from the end result as there's always a foreboding sense of disquiet afoot.  However, in a somewhat risky move, Miller takes his time getting to the finale by slowly peeling away the layers of each of his trio of main characters, revealing their initial psychoses which lead them to befriend one another and how their internalized emotions gradually change as their relationships blossom and disintegrate.  This is a film where the absence of speaking says just as much as a spoken word and Miller capitalizes on this beautifully as he brings us into the minds of both the innocent and guilty parties with equal time allotted to both.

Foxcatcher would not have been remotely successful, however, without the work of three fantastic actors -- two of whom are not the least bit known for being able to carry a film of this weight.  While Little Miss Sunshine may have clued us in to the slightly sullen side of Steve Carell, his taking on of the exceedingly wealthy John du Pont is certainly not de rigeur for the actor.  While he has the money, Carell's du Pont certainly doesn't have the social skills, keeping himself decidedly distant in any conversation he carries on, attempting to stay as disconnected as possible -- seemingly the result of a strained childhood relationship with his mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave).  When he finally allows Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) into his life, the sense of entitlement that we witness du Pont feeling (and Carell conveying) is frightening.

Mark, on the other hand, views du Pont as a bit of a father figure seeing as how his parents were not a large part of his life.  From the film's start, Mark is a loner who is committed to his sport.  There's a depression embodied by Channing Tatum that's undeniable and his animalistic monotone delivery of monosyllabic words indicates that he can't help feel that he doesn't belong anywhere.  Upon discovering du Pont's interest in his talents, there are tinges of pride that creep into Tatum's performance which inevitably, by film's end, harm the character as Mark begins to see the man du Pont truly is.

While the film tends to focus on the psychological mindsets of John and Mark, part of the reason for their disintegrating relationship is the brotherly bond between Mark and older brother David played by Mark Ruffalo.  Thinking that Mark needs a little space and time to clear his head after his successful Olympic run and having lived in his brother's shadow for years, David accepts Mark's decision to train at du Pont's newly formed Foxcatcher wrestling facility, but David recognizes Mark's near-immediate lack of commitment to the sport he once loved which causes David to question du Pont's training techniques (or lack there of) and motives.  Needless to say this doesn't sit too well with du Pont and David finds himself in the ominous glare of the wealthy man.  The amiable David isn't necessarily a difficult role for Ruffalo to play (and is certainly the least showiest of the three), but he is the crux of both John and Mark's emotional upheavals by film's end and Ruffalo certainly does a nice job.

Foxcatcher is a warped love triangle of sorts -- and I don't mean that in a sexualized way as the real-life Mark Schultz criticized.  There is a dark comic tinge to all of the proceedings thanks to the obvious jealousy on display by all parties involved, particularly du Pont.  The overbearing sense of power, prestige, and perniciousness that du Pont brings to the party ominously hangs over everything we see.  Bennett Miller elevates the film beyond my expectations thanks to his careful developing of every single character.  Motivations are rarely spoken, but are never vague, and that's an enviable feat which makes Foxcatcher one of the best films of 2014.

The RyMickey Rating:  A-

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Theater Review - All in the Timing

All in the Timing
Written by David Ives
Directed by Stephen Pelinski
Where: Studio Theater at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When: Wednesday, April 22, 7:30pm
Image from the REP

Some may consider it an insult to call David Ives' play All in the Timing a light diversion, but one definition of "diversion" is simply an "amusement," and this Resident Ensemble Players production fits that bill.  While it's certainly lighthearted, All in the Timing is also smart, finding its humor in verbal wordplay and literary and historical references.  While I'm sure I didn't get all the jokes, Ives' play never made me feel dumb for not comprehending a line -- a talent that not all playwrights possess.  The rapid fire nature of the humor makes any jokes that fall flat (or whizz over your head) be immediately replaced by new ones and (REP member) Stephen Pelinski's direction aids his cast of three actors to much success in the intimate Studio Theater at the Roselle Center for the Arts.

In a series of five short vignettes (a total running time of under 75 minutes), our trio of actors -- REP member Kathleen Pirkl Tague and visiting artists Drew Brehl and Torrey Hanson -- take on relationships, what happens when you ask monkeys to try and reproduce Shakespeare, forming a universal language, the awfulness of a Philly cheesesteak (which I can't help but disagree with), and whether Leo Tolstoy is still alive and kicking.  While some of those may not sound like loads of laughs, the humor comes alive thanks to the nice work of the cast.

Surrounded on three sides by audience members, the rotating stage (designed by Stefanie Hansen) provides a unique staging experience for all involved as well as proving an adequate dressing room for the cast who hardly leave the stage throughout the production.  That said, simplicity rules here.  This isn't a play you attend for fancy costumes or exquisite set pieces.  Instead, you're here for the verbal repartee -- and the cast excels in that arena.

While my favorite vignette may have been the first -- "Sure Thing" in which Tague and Brehl play two strangers who meet for the first time in a cafe wherein their meeting resets each time someone says something stupid -- all five segments have their merits.  Particular kudos to returning guest artists Brehl and Hanson who for the first time really get the spotlight placed on them and manage at time to upstage the brilliant Tague -- a feat which is not easy to do considering her talent.  Wordplay is quick and rapid here and all three are more than capable of playing off one another to great effect.

All in the Timing is a nice addition to the six play 2014-15 REP season.  While it lacks gravitas, I actually think it's the best production they've put on this year thus far.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Movie Review - As Above, So Below

As Above, So Below (2014)
Starring Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, François Civil, Marion Lambert, and Ali Marhyar
Directed by John Erick Dowdle

I have no idea if the history behind As Above, So Below has any truth to it, but this horror film steeped in the lore of medieval alchemy is smarter than I could have ever expected it to be.  Granted, once the flick shifts into typical horror mode in its final act, it loses some of the allure it had going for it, but it still ends up being a surprisingly solid 2014 entry in the horror genre.

Told in that ubiquitous found footage style, As Above, So Below tells the tale of Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), a scholar and adventurer who is continuing her deceased father's mission to find the infamous Philosopher's Stone, a substance that will purportedly turn any metal into gold and, in case that wasn't enough, grant immortal life.  Scarlett isn't wanting the stone to turn into some megalomaniacal villain, rather she wants to study its origins and learn from its mystique.  After a successful journey to Iran in which Scarlett uncovers some information concerning the Philosopher's Stone, she heads to France to what she believes is the location of the mystical stone.  After some additional research, she determines that the stone has been placed in a secret passageway of the underground Parisian catacombs -- a place where the French government buried over six million bodies in the late 1700s.  Scarlett gathers a team of folks together to help her explore the catacombs and uncover the stone -- but, as in most horror films, things start to go a bit awry.

Not only elevated by the "history" of the plot, As Above, So Below gets a lift from its main cast of six actors who all play their parts extremely well.  The typical horror stereotypes are abandoned and the actors all get to play as smart scholars or enthusiastic adventurers.  Perdita Weeks as Scarlett is more than captivating enough to carry the film and her character is given a surprising amount of strength, hutzpah, and intelligence.  Granted, she's a bit too eager in the face of obvious danger, but you can't help but have to suspend your beliefs a little bit when you're watching something like this.

With a few jump scares, John Erick Dowdle does his job as a director, creating a few scenes that are certainly quite tense.  Granted, once Dowdle (also the co-screenwriter) shifts the film to pure horror, things take a bit of a downturn, but the build-up to that point is amusingly intelligent enough that I was still willing to go along for the ride.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Movie Review - Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, and Benicio Del Toro
And the voice talents of Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper
Directed by James Gunn

The hit of Summer 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy is Marvel's funniest flick to date and it's those comedic aspects that work the best and give the film its life and vivacity.  Whereas some of the action sequences feel a bit derivative of things we've seen before (not just in Marvel flicks necessarily), the humor keeps Guardians kicking and makes it one of Marvel's better efforts to date.

Despite seeming perhaps convoluted, the overarching premise here is simple -- in outer space, a group of low-level criminals band together to fight a supervillain in hopes of saving their people and making a little money on the side.  While we're not reinventing the wheel, a film like this hinges on finding a credible cast of actors to portray an amusing cadre of characters in order to carry the film beyond the average.  Guardians succeeds undoubtedly as it's the characters (and the actors portraying them) that elevate this film to something worth watching.

Head of the brigade is Peter Quill -- an Earthling abducted when he was a young boy by a group of space pirates who saw potential in him to carry out various petty criminal acts because of his background.  Quill (played amusingly by It Guy of the Moment Chris Pratt) is a ladies' man, a guy's guy, and a self-aware jerk.  Having carried out many a petty crime, Quill is being hunted by bounty hunters as the film opens and, this being based on a highly inventive series of comic books, two of those hunters happen to be a small raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a tree-humanoid-type create named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) whose English vocabulary consists only of the sentence "I am Groot."  Quite frankly, Rocket and Groot make Guardians of the Galaxy the success it is.  Virtually unrecognizable vocally, Cooper's take on Rocket is hilarious giving the genetically engineered raccoon more hutzpah and humorous grit than I ever could have expected.  Add to that Diesel's shockingly amazing ability to convey a variety of emotions simply by spouting the words "I am Groot," and the dynamic duo of Rocket and Groot should be formulating their own spin-off as I type this.

Nice turns from Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista round out the ragtag bandits who end up doing battle against the vicious Ronan the Accuser (a virtually unrecognizable Lee Pace) who is attempting to find the Infinity Stone which will give him great power and set him up to handily defeat his foe in Thanos (a cameo turn from Josh Brolin), widely considered to be one of the most powerful men in the universe.  With this being an origin story for the Guardians and their universe, it's obvious that set-up was going to be needed for Marvel virgins like myself, but the tensions between Ronan, Thanos, and the Guardians felt a bit underserved here.

Director James Gunn certainly ups the humor quotient in Guardians of the Galaxy to great effect, but the action sequences in the film he also co-wrote feel a bit underdone.  Perhaps it's just the silliness of battling in space -- which never feels "real" to me in any film -- but the sense of tension or excitement was never really present for me in any of the flick's action sequences.  Ultimately, this is a real shame because Guardians of the Galaxy attempts to be a breath of fresh air in the Marvel Universe.  While it certainly succeeds at being different, the potential was there for something better and it doesn't quite achieve it.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Monday, April 20, 2015

Movie Review - Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Starring Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, and Toby Jones
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo

I was not a fan whatsoever of the first Captain America film presented by Marvel.  There was something about the eccentric over-the-top villain, supporting actors that added nothing to the story, and a bland leading actor that had me yawning and finding the film the second worst Marvel movie to date (it's only ahead of Thor 2).  Needless to say, because of this disappointment in the first film, I was dreading the second in part because the only thing I liked about the initial installment -- the 1940s setting and aesthetic -- was now going to be completely removed from the equation seeing as at the end of the first film our title character had been frozen and woken up thawed nearly seven decades later.  Color me surprised to discover that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is Marvel's best movie to date and a massive upgrade from its predecessor.

Although he fought alongside all of the Avengers not that long ago, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is still getting acclimated to modern society as Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens.  Working for intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D., Steve goes on various missions alongside Natasha Romanov AKA The Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) under the direction of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who heads the agency.  Fury has doubts about a major new initiative -- Project Insight -- that will utilize three helicopter-ish devices to link to spy satellites and eliminate potential threats before they happen.  After discussing his concerns with project leader and S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), Fury ends up being ambushed by a large group of men headed by a masked man known as The Winter Soldier whose identity will create a bit of chaos for Steve and his fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. colleagues setting up a battle within the falls of the spy agency itself.

Although the film blows it at the end by creating a much-too-long final battle sequence, the build up to that in directors Anthony and Joe Russo's film is surprisingly tense and exciting.  Anchored by a very strong opening scene in which Captain America and Black Widow invade a spy ship, the directing brothers up their game in each subsequent action sequence culminating in an intense showdown on the streets of Washington, D.C.  Unfortunately, that showdown comes in the middle act of the film as opposed to the end, but the lack of a really taut finale actually proved to be less of a let down than I thought perhaps because everything prior to that was so darn good.

As a character, I found Steve Rogers to be bland and lifeless in the first film, but he came alive in The Avengers and continues that streak here.  His repartee with his fellow agents was dryly amusing and Chris Evans more than carries the film with the help of his humorous and captivating co-star Scarlett Johannson.  The duo work extremely well together and create an atmosphere that exudes fun and amusement in all their scenes together.  Nice work from Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie, and Robert Redford round out the very good ensemble.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier works best, however, because I think this is the Marvel film that's most based in reality.  While many of the devices that are utilized and inventions that are created are rather preposterous, the stakes feel the most real here in this film as opposed to many others.  Main characters are put into situations that are incredibly difficult from which to escape and it's entirely possible they won't.  This sense of tension adds a great deal to the impact of the film which is the best flick I've seen thus far come out of the Marvel Universe.

The RyMickey Rating:  B