Friday, December 19, 2014

Movie Review - Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas (2014)
Starring Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, Joe Swanberg, and Lena Dunham
Directed by Joe Swanberg
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

I am not a huge fan of the mumblecore genre of film which focuses on low budgeted flicks about twenty somethings with much improvised dialog.  I'm not quite sure I've seen a film that prides itself on being a mumblecore-based flick and enjoyed it.  Unfortunately, Happy Christmas doesn't really change my mind.  Writer-director Joe Swanberg's film isn't the least bit exciting or interesting enough for us to really care about anything occurring in it.

The film's premise is pretty simple:  Jenny (Anna Kendrick) just broke up with her boyfriend and moves in with her brother Jeff (Joe Swanberg), his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), and their toddler son Jude (the absolutely adorable and scene-stealing Jude Swanberg).  Although only slightly younger than Jeff, Jenny acts much younger than her twenty-nine years should show.  She immediately hits the town with her friend Carson (Lena Dunham) and after a night of drinking and pot-smoking, Jenny's lackadaisical attitude stands in stark contrast to Kelly's who has to focus on running a household and taking care of young Jude.

Happy Christmas attempts to have Jenny's carefree lifestyle invigorate Kelly to "want more" out of her life, but that storyline just meanders along without ever really making a statement.  Similarly, any sense of a character arc for Jenny is nonexistent.  I'm not quite sure she learns anything from the beginning of the film to the end of it and I'm fairly certain she was supposed to achieve some sort of enlightenment.

While the actors are all decent, Joe Swanberg's script is just too bland to resonate.  Swanberg's young son Jude is fantastic -- although considering his youthful age, there really wasn't any acting involved, just innate charm -- but the young kid can't buoy an otherwise blasé film.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Movie Review - In Fear

In Fear (2014)
Starring Iain De Caestecker, Alice Englert, and Allen Leech
Directed by Jeremy Lovering
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

While the two leads in In Fear -- Iain De Caestecker and Alice Englert -- are certainly appealing and adept at providing the correct amount of the titular emotion, this three person horror flick doesn't quite have the oomph to elevate it beyond the average.  A low budget feature to be sure, In Fear follows Tom and Lucy (played by the aforementioned actors) as they make their way to a music festival at a small town in Ireland.  The couple has only been together for two weeks, but Tom has booked an overnight stay at a small hotel in hopes of wooing Lucy a bit more.  On the way to the hotel, however, Tom and Lucy get lost in a maze of back roads and they seemingly appear to be getting sabotaged by someone moving around signs that lead them back to their starting points.  Unable to figure out a way out of the labyrinthine roads in the dark, with their car running out of gas, and the threat of a masked person popping up every so often in the dark woods in which they are trapped, Tom and Lucy find themselves panicking, ratcheting up their fear -- perhaps unjustly or justly so.

Taking place nearly entirely in their car and in "almost" real-time, In Fear succeeds at creating tension at times.  Admittedly, it takes a while to get started, but I appreciated the opportunity to get to know these two characters whom we spend so much time with.  Unfortunately, in that initial act, I got  the impression that this would be a taut psychological thriller dealing with the way man lets fear take over.  Instead, as the film's final act comes into view, some rather silly backstory involving a mysterious man comes to the forefront and the ending proves to be a bit unsatisfying.

The RyMickey Rating: C-

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Movie Review - Begin Again

Begin Again (2014)
Starring Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine, James Corden, Cee-Lo Green, Mos Def, and Catherine Keener
Directed by John Carney

The shadow of John Carney's fantastic film Once hangs above his latest flick Begin Again and unfortunately, the comparisons don't work in this 2014's film's favor.  Everything from the story to the music to the emotional heart lack when Begin Again is stacked up next to Once.  There's no resonating feeling upon the conclusion of this Keira Knightley-Mark Ruffalo starrer, instead emanating a feeling of light fluff that we've seen before numerous times.

Knightley is Gretta, a songwriter, who moves to New York with her singer boyfriend Dave (Maroon 5's Adam Levine) after one of his tunes hits the charts in a big way after being featured on a movie soundtrack.  Unfortunately, as is seemingly de rigueur for that profession, Dave cheats on Gretta while on a promotional tour and Gretta walks out on him.  Saddened, she finds herself in a bar in which her friend Steve (James Corden) convinces her to sing one of her tunes to the public.

While her song doesn't go over too well, it's a hit with Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a just fired long-time music executive who was drowning his sorrows in liquor.  However, upon hearing Gretta's tune, he finds himself reinvigorated to join the workforce again.

Obviously, Gretta's and Dan's stories merge, but there ultimately isn't that much payoff.  The film goes pretty much exactly where we expect it go.  (Some who've watched the film may argue with that assessment, but I thought it was the only logical way it could go for these characters.)  Unfortunately, neither Gretta nor Dan is all that interesting and while I appreciated their desire to create music for the masses eschewing the corporate bigwigs, their tale just felt empty.

Although the cast is good -- Ruffalo and Knightley are charming and Knightley in particular is really coming into her own as of late in the acting department -- they can't liven up the story enough.  The music, although perfectly acceptable, isn't all that fantastic either.  For a movie ensconced in the music industry, I feel like I should want to download a song or two at the film's conclusion and that didn't happen -- although, admittedly, I did add one song to my iTunes wish list so it may happen eventually.

Perhaps it's unfair to compare this film to Once.  Even if it is, Begin Again is nothing better than average.  Pleasant, but trite.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Monday, December 15, 2014

Movie Review - The Purge: Anarchy

The Purge: Anarchy (2014)
Starring Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, and Zoë Soul
Directed by James DeMonaco

The Purge: Anarchy picks up one year after the original Purge storyline, although the two films share no connection other than the overarching theme of "The Purge" -- a once-a-year twelve-hour period in which American citizens can commit any crime without worry of legal ramifications.  I found the first film to contain an interesting concept but the execution in the story and direction were huge disappointments.  Needless to say, seeing as how the director-screenwriter James DeMonaco returned for a second go around here, I had no hopes for this one -- particularly considering that 2013's The Purge landed on my Worst of 2013 list.

In Anarchy, DeMonaco fleshes out the overarching governmental aspects of The Purge while at the same time nicely balancing a story about a quintet of people who are forced to face the 2023 Purge head-on on the streets of Los Angeles.  We've got a father (Frank Grillo) bent on revenge towards someone who wronged his family, an economically struggling mother and daughter (Carmen Ejogo and Zoë Soul) who want nothing to do with The Purge but are drawn into it by a seemingly random act that perhaps wasn't so random, and a bickering couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) whose car breaks down mere minutes before the start of this year's Purge.  Rather surprisingly, all of these characters' storylines work and although they certainly aren't deep or particularly fascinating, they are a significant step up from the original The Purge which I faulted for some ridiculous plot holes that ruined that initial experience.  In addition, as I previously mentioned, DeMonaco begins to detail the governmental push behind the Purge, hinting at the fact that the government is utilizing this horrid event to cleanse the country of its poor since the underprivileged are the ones taking part in the event the most.

While The Purge: Anarchy is definitely an upgrade from the last film, DeMonaco's script still feels a little bland considering the intriguing concept.  Despite the twists concerning the US government, the story involving the quintet of characters is really just a ninety minute-long cat-and-mouse chase as they try and outrun those Purgers who are hunting them down.  Fortunately, the actors bring a surprising amount of heart and believability to the flick with nary a one of the main five being disappointing.  They certainly elevate their characters beyond the token roles they've been given.  Overall, color me surprised that this franchise improved in its second go-around and has me interested in the third installment.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Friday, December 12, 2014

Movie Review - The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men (2014)
Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Bob Balaban
Directed by George Clooney

Director George Clooney's The Monuments Men definitely feels like a throwback to the days when "Hogan's Heroes" was on tv.  That show went straight for the comedic aspects of WWII, but The Monuments Men attempts to mix comedy and drama and Clooney and his fellow screenwriter don't quite mesh the two together.  Unfortunately, this creates a film that never finds its footing, feeling slightly off balance all the way throughout with the comedic aspects never quite being funny enough and the dramatic aspects never quite mustering up the emotion they likely should.

Clooney's trademark charm is evident throughout the film -- and not just in his acting.  The film itself feels deeply rooted in 1960s cinema, a time when things were perhaps more innocent.  Yes, The Monuments Men is a war movie, but this is no Saving Private Ryan in terms of blood, guts, and action.  Instead, the film focuses on a band of merry older men with backgrounds in art who are brought together to retrieve important European sculptures, paintings, and other artistic media that Hitler's Nazi army took upon their take-overs of various countries.  These men -- played by Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Bob Balaban -- have no military experience yet are thrown head-first into some war-torn parts of Europe where the Nazi regime -- although now retreating as the war comes to an end -- has not quite abandoned.

Unfortunately, Clooney's desire to create a more lighthearted romp with the serious subject matter doesn't work in the film's favor.  While I understand the drive behind the film and Clooney's inclination to imbue comedy into this tragic war, the humor waters down the serious moments whenever they pop up.  Rather than feel an emotional connection to several tragic occurrences that happen in the film, the relationship the audience has with the characters isn't there in the way that it should be which is a big detriment in the film's serious moments.  Perhaps a more deft director could have righted the ship, but Clooney doesn't quite have the chops yet.  I certainly appreciate the charming vibe he brought to the piece, but The Monuments Men simply doesn't balance itself out on the scale between humor and seriousness and this off-kilter nature is its downfall.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Yet another pause in The Disney Discussion is here.  With the holiday season approaching, the time for Disney movies just won't be there, so I'm giving the Discussion a rest until January 7 at which point I'll return with the start of the Disney Renaissance with The Little Mermaid.  Here's hoping the movies of my childhood that hold such a fond place in my memory still hold up today.


Monday, December 08, 2014

Theater Review - Macbeth

Macbeth
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Leslie Riedel
Where:  Thompson Theater at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When:  Sunday, December 7, 2pm

Design Credit: REP

The University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players have previously brought us two great Shakespearean productions in their short tenure -- the fantastical A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2010 that took us to an Elizabethan Neverland and the breathless and sumptuously designed 2012 Hamlet.  Both breathed life into the Bard's words in ways I never expected and I waited with bated breath for 2014's production of Macbeth upon hearing it would be part of the season, continuing on with the REP's apparent tradition of treating us to one of Shakespeare's works every other year.

Unfortunately, this Macbeth falls quite flat.  Director Leslie Riedel's production feels inert, lacking any type of momentum with a title character (played by REP member Lee Ernst) whose purportedly rousing speeches lack the passion and drive needed to have the audience either care about the character's plight or wish for his downfall -- depending on which side of the fence you fall on regarding Macbeth's treachery.  Ernst comes alive as Macbeth in the play's final scenes, but in the nearly 100 minutes leading up to those moments, his lulling and almost lyrical intonations didn't register with this audience member.
Photo Credit: Paul Cerro

Faring better is Elizabeth Heflin as Lady Macbeth whose deviously ambitious mind sets the play's plot moving as she infiltrates her husband's psyche to convince him to murder the king in order to rule Scotland himself.  I only wish her late-in-the-play neuroses were given a little more depth.  Admittedly, it's been probably over a decade since I've had any exposure of any kind to Macbeth.  Perhaps Shakespeare didn't provide any other exposition for Lady Macbeth's character and her spiral to insanity isn't described in detail.  That said, if there is any further explanation, the decision to leave out that seemingly important character trait is surprising.

Presumably, Riedel excised some portions of the play and while this Macbeth (which ran close to two hours with no intermission) moves from scene to scene at a rapid pace, I found it disappointingly empty in terms of connecting with the characters' emotional states.  During an interesting pre-show talkback with Riedel (which proved more fruitful than the play itself), the director noted that he wanted the audience to walk away with the following thought:  "What happens when the good guy does the worst thing?"  Unfortunately, this intriguing question which should make us really ponder the intentions of the play's titular character isn't really broached at all.  We don't feel anything good or bad for Macbeth or his Lady or any of the people they harm.  This production unfortunately doesn't engage its audience in any way.

The REP is always solid when it comes to production values and while the set design by C. David Russell is intriguingly simplistic and modern, the costumes by Martha Hally felt like the weird birth child sired by the leftovers of REP's last production Angels in America and some glitter factory explosion.  (It should be noted, however, the use of puppets to portray the three "prophetic" witches was a nice touch that added a creepy vibe which helped those moments in the play.)  The odd musical score by Charles Gilbert seemed as if it was culled from a Twilight Zone episode and rooted the play in the past rather than making it relevant to a modern audience.

It's unfortunate that the REP couldn't make it three-for-three when it came to their Shakespeare productions, but the high expectations that came attached to Macbeth thanks to the company's previous Bard presentations did not work in this one's favor.  Perhaps Macbeth simply isn't as good of a play as Hamlet or A Midsummer Night's Dream -- I do think there's some truth to that aspect.  However, this production didn't breathe life into the Bard's words at all.

Note:  Macbeth has closed after completing its run.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Movie Review - Pompeii

Pompeii (2014)
Starring Kit Harrington, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Browning, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas, Jared Harris, and Kiefer Sutherland
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

Your guess is as good as mine as to why I watched the special effects disaster that is Pompeii.  I'm sure there's an interesting story dealing with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the desolation of the titular city in A.D. 79 -- it just isn't told here.  Instead, director Paul W.S. Anderson has created a film that looks like a horrible, cheap video game with hammy acting that rivals some of the worst you've seen in a major motion picture.  (Kiefer Sutherland chewing the scenery as the film's "baddie" and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje's stilted spoutings as a "righteous slave" are equally bad.)  Tossing in an awkward romance between a slave and a member of royalty doesn't help matters either.  The fact that this was released in theaters and not straight-to-dvd is unfathomable to me.

The RyMickey Rating:  F

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Movie Review - Enemy

Enemy (2014)
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon, and Isabella Rossellini
Directed by Denis Villeneuve

It's difficult to judge a movie that you liked all the way through only to have the final shot throw everything on its head and disappoint you, leaving you feeling lost, confused, and frustrated.  So is the case with Enemy which stars Jake Gyllenhaal as an intelligent, though seemingly troubled (or perhaps just bored), college history professor named Adam Bell who, while watching a movie one day, sees a man who looks like his twin.  Intent on finding this lookalike, Adam tracks down Anthony Claire and the two find themselves thoroughly confused by their identical looks.  The twists that happen next are best left unsaid, but the tone in which the story plays out is decidedly creepy and a little unnerving.

And that's certainly not a bad thing as director Denis Villeneuve (who brought us last year's Prisoners which also starred Gyllenhaal) certainly succeeds at keeping things a little unsettled as the film progressed.  Unfortunately, the film has an ending that the vast array of the "normal" moviegoing public will find disappointing.  Rather than give us a logical, sensical ending, the last shot throws everything into a confusing loop.  In certain films, that's okay.  We buy in from the beginning that we're going to be watching something to which we have to pay really close attention, but Enemy didn't present itself that way to me.  I was thoroughly interested in the story all the way through, but I didn't find it overly confusing or convoluted.  I thought I was watching a straightforward film that would presumably have an ending that explained itself.  Instead, the final scene left me befuddled to the point that I had to go online to see what others came up with to explain its nonsensical nature.

Admittedly, upon looking up these "answers" from the online community, I appreciated the different ideas they came up with to "solve" the movie.  However, because I didn't realize I was watching something that was going to throw me for this loop at the end, I felt a little let down.  Had I known that I had to really pay attention and really think about possible twists or "solutions" to the strange notion of doubles/twins/look-a-likes that the film sets up, I may have found the ending a bit more palatable.  Don't get me wrong -- I often like movies that throw a twist in at the end and make you question what came before.  However, oftentimes, the director keys you in on the notion that things aren't quite what they seem as the film progresses.  For some reason, I didn't get that from Villeneuve here -- although, in retrospect, I probably should have considering some of the weird quirks he brings to the table.

Still -- and here's the odd thing -- I really liked Enemy.  Jake Gyllenhaal as an actor has really come alive this year and Enemy is perhaps a better role than his already fantastic performance in Nightcrawler.  Here, Gyllenhaal needs to play two roles with differences that at first seem rather large, but grow much smaller as the film progresses.  Two seemingly polar opposite characters gradually find their characteristics and mannerisms morphing into one as Adam and Anthony get to know each one another, however Gyllenhaal is always able to easily allow the audience to delineate which character we're seeing onscreen -- and that's a huge feat as the story progresses and the two characters' lives begin to intertwine.

In the end, the odd thing about Enemy is that I want to watch it again.  Although disappointed by the conclusion and let down by the notion that this mystery required more "involvement" from the viewer than I was aware I needed to give it, I liked it quite a bit.  So, if you decide to watch it, my suggestion is to "think" while you view.  Be aware that what you're watching isn't as "straightforward" as you think and that the ending will require you to ponder everything that came before it.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Movie Review - Bad Words

Bad Words (2014)
Starring Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Ben Falcone, Philip Baker Hall, and Allison Janney
Directed by Jason Bateman

When fortysomething Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) walks into a local school spelling bee, enters the contest through a loophole in the organization's rules, and wins thereby sending him to the finals in Washington, D.C., his actions cause a little bit of an uproar and don't sit well with the chairwoman of the competition Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney).  While in the nation's capital, Guy takes the young Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) under his wing, showing the young aspiring spelling bee champion the seedy underbelly of some people's adulthood -- think alcohol, prostitutes, and fast cars. While Guy thinks that his corruption of Chaitanya will help him succeed in the competition, young Chaitanya ends up finding Guy's friendship endearing.

Jason Bateman's directorial debut Bad Words is an amusing flick, though its characters are certainly less than likable.  In and of itself, that's not a bad thing, but the film chickens out a bit at the end by attempting to give Guy a bit of a heart which unfortunately stands in stark contrast to his demeanor in the film's first two acts.

Bateman (as a director and as an actor) is at his best in his scenes with the young Rohan Chand (who certainly brings the necessary amount of charm to counter Bateman's character's snark) and these moments definitely elevate the film beyond the average.  Unfortunately, this sense of comedic timing and witty repartee doesn't manifest itself in scenes with any other characters.  Therefore, the film falls a bit flat when focusing on Guy's backstory (why he took on and spited the national spelling bee) and his relationship with a roving reporter (played by Kathryn Hahn whom I usually like, but found her character here to bring the film to a halt through no fault of her own).  Bad Words works at times, but isn't as fully realized as it could be.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+