Friday, November 21, 2014

Movie Review - Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler (2014)
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, and Bill Paxton
Directed by Dan Gilroy

Despite a great performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, the tale of a bug-eyed scrap metal thief who discovers a penchant for becoming a freelance videographer on the streets of Los Angeles that is Nightcrawler doesn't quite have the bite to fully embrace its obvious attempt at criticizing the news industry's incessant need to shock for ratings.

Gyllenhaal is at his best as Louis Bloom, trimmed down significantly so that his gaunt look stands in juxtaposition to his character's headstrong nature.  Fast talking and quite manipulative, Gyllenhaal's Louis makes us feel uneasy while watching him much as he makes those around him a tad uncomfortable too.  By far the best part of Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal is impressive here fully embodying the character and making the film worth watching for him alone.

Unfortunately, screenwriter Dan Gilroy's directorial debut doesn't match Gyllenhaal's talent.  As a director and in terms of visual aesthetics, Gilroy actually presents a rather fascinating look at the underbelly of a industry and he does so with success in terms of creating a dark and grimy atmosphere.  His screenplay, however, falls a bit short.  First, I never quite bought the concept that a news station would actually purchase and air the rather disturbing images Louis brings to them.  Funnily enough, after watching the film, I've paid much more attention to stories on the local news and none of them have come close to matching the horrors that Louis brings to the newsroom of Rene Russo's Nina, a producer of an early am local news show in LA.  I simply didn't buy into the critique that the film seemed to be selling about local news pushing the envelope.  Had this been a cable news station or perhaps some online news organization, the concept may have been a bit more plausible to me.  I admit that this may seem like an odd fault to find in the film, but not "believing" what it was trying to pitch to me made it more difficult to get behind the flick's premise.

Second, while Louis is a well-conceived (though freaky) character, the rest of the film is inhabited by one note personas that can't hold a candle to Louis's idiosyncrasies.  Russo, in particular, is wasted here, given essentially only reaction shots to Louis's craziness.  Desperate for stories that can keep her job relevant to her bosses, I just couldn't buy into the fact that she would sell her soul (essentially) to Louis to keep her job secure.

Despite my qualms, however, I think Nightcrawler has more pros going for it than cons.  It's a bit slow moving, but Gyllenhaal's presence is so intriguing that you oftentimes forget that not much is going on around him.  It's a decent flick, but not one into which I could completely buy the premise it was selling.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Movie Review - Whiplash

Whiplash (2014)
Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, and Paul Reiser
Directed by Damien Chazelle


"There are no two words more harmful in the English language than 'good job.'"


Whiplash by the viciously harsh college jazz band instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) who cares not a smidgen about his students' emotional well-being, only about doing whatever it takes to get his fledgling musicians to the peak of their performance capabilities.  Not one to mince words (those students easily offended by sexual harassment or foul language need not venture into his classroom), Fletcher invites freshman Andrew (Miles Teller) to sit in and play drums with his elite jazz ensemble at Shaffer Conservatory of Music (a fictionalized Julliard), only to use Andrew's foibles (his mother left him as a kid, his father's failed at achieving his dream as a writer) against him in a wickedly abusive teacher-student relationship.  Verbal abuse quickly turns into physical abuse and Andrew's father (Paul Reiser) begins to question whether Andrew's strive to be the best drummer in his class may be overtaking his common sense in allowing this professor to treat him in such a way.
That strikingly powerful sentiment is voiced in the film

The funny thing about Whiplash is that its story is actually incredibly simplistic, but what it brings to the table is strikingly realistic picture of two men struggling to be the best and their co-dependent bond that links them together.  Fletcher wants to find "the one" -- the student who will become the "new jazz great."  He feels the only way to achieve that is to push his students to places they've never gone before emotionally by never coddling them and treating them as harshly as possible in order to reach this goal.  Andrew has wanted nothing more for his life than to be a fantastic drummer.  He sees Fletcher's tactics as helping him realize this dream and despite his hatred towards the man's caustic nature, he respects him since Andrew sees Fletcher as the only one who could possibly believe in him.  (In a fantastic moment, Andrew's family turns on him, belittling him in a similar way to Fletcher which seemingly makes Andrew wonder where exactly he can turn to for guidance in his life if not to Fletcher.)

While the film makes small inroads towards a romance for Andrew (in a successfully simplistic way, I may add), Whiplash is about its two main characters brought to life by J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller.  While I placed Teller on my RyMickey Awards list of Breakthroughs of 2013, I worried that his characters would be nothing more than smug pricks, but that's not the case here at all and it pleased me considerably.  When the film began I found myself doubting that any sane person would put up with Fletcher's nonsense.  However, as the flick progresses, Teller convinced me that Andrew needed Fletcher in order to succeed, calloused and bleeding fingers and all.  The fluctuating emotions of cockiness to depression were pitch perfect and Teller convincingly portrays the struggle of a gifted prodigy without ever losing a sense of "being normal" which is a characteristic we often see in flicks that focus on wunderkinds.

With a shaved head, dressed all in black with a tight t-shirt showing off his muscular stature, J.K. Simmons' Terence Fletcher is an imposing figure right off the bat.  We in the audience can't take our eyes off the guy despite the fact that no student is safe from his brutality and manipulative demeanor. It's a privilege to be selected to be in his jazz band -- the oxymoronic notion of that statement isn't lost on the viewer as one has to wonder why anyone would subject themselves to this type of emotional and physical torture.  Towards the end of the film, Simmons has a small monologue (of which the opening quote of this review stems from) and while it doesn't necessarily make us see the character in a new light, it allows us to understand the character's motivations.  Simmons is a powerhouse here and perfectly conveys who Fletcher is by the time the end credits roll.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle (who also wrote the incredibly enjoyable Grand Piano earlier this year -- which is streaming on Netflix, so watch it) is a relative newcomer to the scene, but he brings such a sense of realism to the music world that there isn't a moment in Whiplash that feels disingenuous.  Making a film that focuses on jazz music is a feat unto itself, but finding new and unique ways as the film progresses to showcase a guy banging on a drum shows talent.  The flick feels fresh and vibrant despite oftentimes taking place in small, sterile, music studio spaces.  The struggle and difficult relationship between student and mentor has been tackled in films numerous times before, but Chazelle has created a thrilling experience in Whiplash that I'm still thinking about long after the movie has finished.

The RyMickey Rating:  A-

The Disney Discussion - The Great Mouse Detective

Over the course of the year, we'll be spending our Wednesdays with Walt, having a discussion about each of Disney's animated films...

Movie 26 of The Disney Discussion
The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Featuring the voice talents of Vincent Price, Barrie Ingham, Val Bettin, Susanne Pollatschek, and Alan Young
Directed by John Musker, Ron Clements, Dave Michener, and Burny Mattinson

Summary (in 150 words or less):
London 1897.  Hiram Flaversham, a toymaker (and also a mouse), is mousenapped one evening as his young daughter Olivia hides from her father's captor.  Seeking help, Olivia stumbles upon David Dawson who, after hearing her story, takes her to the residence of the renowned Basil of Baker Street -- the mouse equivalent of Sherlock Holmes.  Basil, along with Dawson and Olivia, begin searching for Hiram only to discover that he's been taken by the nefarious Ratigan who has a plan to overtake the Queen Mouse (ie. mouse equivalent of the Queen Mum) and rule over England's mouse population with the help of a toy Queen built by the toymaker.

Facts and Figures
The Great Mouse Detective is the Walt Disney Company's twenty-sixth full-length animated feature film and was released on July 2, 1986.

Although certainly put into production before the failure of The Black Cauldron, that film's huge budget caused The Great Mouse Detective to find its initial $24 million budget slashed by almost half to $14 million.  Because of this, the film ended up being profitable for Disney although not hugely so as it managed to make $25 million at the box office upon its initial release.

However, Disney was trepidatious after The Black Cauldron that animation was passé and the moderate success of The Great Mouse Detective paved the way for the company's animation renaissance a few years down the line.

Let the Discussion Begin...
I must say that I'm a little bit surprised by my reaction to The Great Mouse Detective.  I was expecting to thoroughly enjoy this one, but I found it disappointingly boring for my taste.  Something about it didn't quite click for me upon this watch and it took me a couple sittings to make it through the short 72-minute film.  The caveat to this aforementioned complaint, however, is that I can't quite pinpoint what I didn't enjoy.  There's nothing egregiously bad about the film, yet there also isn't anything that I can write about with much passion (in either a positive or negative way).  The film sort of just "exists" for me and sometimes that's the worst type of thing for a film to do.
Animation-wise, the film is a solid piece of work in terms of character design.  Despite all being mice, each character has his or her own distinct look and the directors also did a nice job in differentiating the voices of the main cast so that personalities are reflected through the vocals as well.  Admittedly, however, the film fails at really feeling overly theatrical with the exception of the climatic chase scene amongst the working cogs and gears of Big Ben (which utilizes computer animation for the second time in a Disney feature).  While everything is animated with a deft hand (unlike some of that disappointing work we saw in the '70s with The Aristocats as an example), there aren't any particular shining moments.  Considering the backdrop of London that is at this film's disposal, it's a little disappointing.
We seemingly just scratch the surface of the characters as well.  Had the film been a bigger success (and were Disney in the market for producing sequels), The Great Mouse Detective would have been the perfect film to launch a series of pictures and go a bit more in depth with the characters of Basil and Dawson.  Obviously, the overall piece an homage to Sherlock Holmes whom Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had solve many a case and presumably with each new mystery the audience grew to know more about Holmes and Watson.  In this film, we get very little background and very little information as to why Basil and Dawson would've formed any type of relationship.  Sure, they're thrown into a mystery, but I never really felt their connection to one another which, in turn, made me not connect much with the characters.
Surprisingly, I expected Vincent Price's voice work as the evil Ratigan to be...well...more evil.  Instead -- and obviously this is my mind playing tricks on me from my youth -- he's more of a hammy villain than I remembered.  Granted, many Disney villains have a comedic aspect to them, but there's often still this overarching sense of dread.  That never really comes to fruition with Ratigan.  Price, whose voice is oftentimes so deliciously terrifying, doesn't ever come close to that here.  While he has moments of maliciousness, it never really amounts to much.
Perhaps part of that reason is because the first time we encounter Ratigan, he and his lackies sing a song about his maniacal nature.  "The World's Greatest Criminal Mind" is a catchy tune (and actually contains the moment that I think Ratigan is at his most ruthless), but it's played for laughs and it immediately sets up a contradictory notion for the audience.  Is this guy played for jokes or played for scares?  I don't think the film quite knows what to do with him and that's a disappointment.

In addition to "The World's Greatest Criminal Mind," two other songs are found in the film, but neither resonate much or do anything to advance the plot.  The Black Cauldron succeeded in part because it didn't contain superfluous songs -- The Great Mouse Detective would've been wise to nix its tunes as well.

Random Thoughts
...while watching the film...
  • The nastiness of Ratigan is shown early on when Bartholomew, one of Ratigan's men, calls him a "rat" as opposed to a "mouse" and the evil genius rings a tiny bell that summons his cat Felicia who promptly eats Bartholomew.  It's rather ingeniously set up in shadows and surprisingly packs an evil punch -- the only truly evil punch in the film.
  • Cigarettes and booze in Disney animated movies...aah...the good old days of less than thirty years ago!  Throw in sultry cancan dancers and you've got stuff you'd never see in Disney movies now!
  • The voice of Flaversham sounded so familiar -- Alan Young was also the voice of Scrooge McDuck!  It was nice to hear him in a feature-length motion picture!
Final Analysis
(Does It Belong in the Revered Disney Pantheon and How Does It Stack Up to Past Films?)
Although I didn't remember it all that well, I did have fond memories of The Great Mouse Detective, but they unfortunately did not prove warranted upon this viewing.  The film just fails to garner any excitement for any aspect of its production.  When everything is just average, your film can't really overcome that.  Because of this notion, The Great Mouse Detective will not be joining the fellow members of the revered Disney Pantheon.

The RyMickey Rating: C

Join us in two weeks  for Oliver and Company, the 27th film in The Disney Discussion.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Movie Review - Gone Girl

Gone Girl (2014)
Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Missi Pyle, Patrick Fugit, Casey Wilson, David Clennon, Lisa Banes, and Sela Ward
Directed by David Fincher

From a story perspective, Gone Girl is my kind of movie -- a suspense thriller with twists and turns galore that never feel forced or simply added for "Gotcha!" moments.  When his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) finds himself at the center of a controversy with the media (including a pushy Nancy Grace-esque commentator played by Missi Pyle) who presume his guilt and local law enforcement who also find many things about him questionable.  However, as the film unfolds, we realize that things are not always as they seem and believable surprises await around many corners.

It's tough to delve into exactly why I love Gone Girl so much without revealing spoilers, so I'll leave the summary above as the only plot points to be revealed (and spoilers will come with the inevitable Year in Review posts sometime next year).  Needless to say, it is the plot and the script by Gillian Flynn (who also penned the novel upon which the movie is based) that is the star of the show here.  While the acting, directing, and other aspects of the production are all solid, it's the intricate plot and the devious nature of our main characters that really pushes this story over the edge.  Multiple times during the movie, the audience whom I watched the film with let out sounds of audible shock.  Oftentimes in films, these shocking moments don't resonate because we don't find them a natural progression for the characters that inhabit the screen.  However, in Gone Girl these moments are legitimate paths that we believe are set for the characters.  Flynn takes moments that could've absolutely been ridiculously off-the-wall and makes them innately plausible.  It's a task that isn't easy, but rich character development is essential for this to occur and that's certainly achieved here.

Hand-in-hand with that essential character development are actors who can bring to life what Flynn puts on the page and there's not a bad apple in the bunch in Gone Girl.  From headliners Affleck and Pike to the lesser known Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens to the "I can't believe these guys are in this" Neil Patrick Harris (as a former obsessive lover of Amy's) and Tyler Perry (!!) (as Nick's well-to-do intelligent defense attorney), all rise to the occasion.  Essentially playing two different roles thanks to flashbacks, both Affleck and Pike bring to life the joy of the initial pangs of love along with the ennui and frustration that so many marriages suffer after the honeymoon phase has dissipated.  Gone Girl tackles what happens after the facades of first impressions are broken down and the two leads do a fantastic job of bringing this to life.

Nice chemistry is also had between Affleck and both Ms. Coon and Ms. Dickens, though in different ways.  Coon's Margo -- Nick Dunne's twin sister -- is perhaps the character the audience latches onto the most because she is tasked with being the most levelheaded of anyone onscreen.  She tells it like it is to her brother and becomes frustrated with him (much like the audience) when he does stupid things that point towards his guilt in the disappearance of his wife.  The loving repartee between Affleck and Coon makes them completely believable siblings.  Countering that, the contentiousness felt between Affleck and Kim Dickens' detective Rhonda Boney is a nice aspect of the story as well.  Much like several relationships in the film, Nick and Rhonda's attitudes towards one another fluidly shift as the movie progresses, but Dickens brings a tough, though deliberately smart quality to what could've been a rote character in a film like this.

Director David Fincher places the focus of the flick on two things -- how the media shapes the way we act and how the way we act is shaped by how we want to impress others.  These two incredibly similar concepts intertwine to great effect in Gone Girl which I think is a better film overall than his much revered The Social Network a few years ago and may very well be his most entertaining film to date.  Stretching to a nearly two-and-a-half hour length, the epic nature of this one couple's lies, love, and emotional compromises moves along at such a rapid pace that I found myself longing for the film to continue on for another hour, wanting to know how various characters' lives were affected by the film's final outcome.  Fincher pieces Flynn's screenplay together like a puzzle and as the picture becomes clearer we see just how disturbed Amy and Nick's relationship truly is, was, or perhaps will be.

The RyMickey Rating:  A/A-
(Note:  I usually don't ever find myself indecisive with my letter grades.  I'm hemming and hawing a little bit here, but needless to say, either grade above is FANTASTIC.)

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Movie Review - The Other Woman

The Other Woman (2014)
Starring Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Kate Upton, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Taylor Kinney, Nikki Minaj, and Don Johnson
Directed by Nick Cassavetes

It's unfathomable to me that a movie as heinous as The Other Woman made nearly $85 million.  It's kind of amazing what the American public will tolerate in their romantic comedies -- a genre that's admittedly difficult to perfect, but is also difficult to screw up this badly.

In one of the most grating performances I've seen in a long time, Leslie Mann is Kate King, the do-good housewife of Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a businessman who often travels for his job.  In his travels, he sleeps around on Kate -- her shrill demeanor likely pushed him over the edge, but that's not really an excuse...I guess...although Kate is seriously one of the most obnoxiously shrill characters I've seen put on film.  Two of Mark's conquests are lawyer Carly (Cameron Diaz) and jobless twentysomething Amber (Kate Upton), whom Kate discovers after doing a little digging on her husband.  None of the three ladies knew about one another, but they decide to team up and enact revenge on Mark by doing such things as putting strong laxatives and female hormones in his drinks like any grade-schooler would do to prank an enemy.  Perhaps funny for a twelve year-old, but these are adult women here.  It's really just pathetic.

Perhaps attempting to create some woman's empowerment-type picture, screenwriter Melissa Stack's film is an embarrassment and most of the fault lies in her childishly immature script.  However, the other huge blot of horror in The Other Woman is Leslie Mann's performance.  Grating, obnoxious, and painful to watch, Mann is just atrocious here.  (Just look at her in that poster!  It's annoying just looking at that!)  At first, I was giving Mann the benefit of the doubt thinking that it was the script's fault, but Mann also must take the heat here.  She's simply not funny in any scene and her character is so immature that it made me understand why her husband would want to cheat on her.  Any type of empathy I was supposed to feel towards Kate was completely negated by both Mann and the role the script gave her.

Yes, Kate Upton is gorgeous and Cameron Diaz is actually decent, but the film is a train wreck and one that should be avoided at all costs.

The RyMickey Rating:  F

Friday, November 14, 2014

Movie Review - St. Vincent

St. Vincent (2014)
Starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O'Dowd, Terrence Howard, and Jaeden Lieberher 
Directed by Theodore Melfi

St. Vincent treads familiar territory.  There's nothing that happens at the end of director-screenwriter Theodore Melfi's flick that you couldn't have telescoped from the first fifteen minutes.  However, the familiar story of a curmudgeonly old man who befriends an ostracized young kid only to have both their lives changed for the better is buoyed by some great performances and a charmingly funny script.

Bill Murray is the Vincent of the title, but the saint moniker is certainly questionable.  He's a cantankerous old man addicted to alcohol and gambling with a penchant for a certain Russian "lady of the night" named Daka (Naomi Watts) whom he just so happens to have currently knocked up.  Recently divorced nurse Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) moves in next door to Vincent with her young son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) and Vincent reluctantly agrees to babysit the kid after an incident at school leaves Oliver stranded without his keys to the house.  Oliver clicks with the no-nonsense Vincent, and Maggie agrees to allow Vincent to continue to watch her son.  Needless to say, Vincent gets Oliver into some crazy situations while Oliver begins to soften Vincent's hardened exterior.

At the helm both directorially and script-wise, Theodore Melfi is perfectly adequate.  His script is sweet and gentle with three well-rounded main characters in Vincent, Maggie, and Oliver.  While the rest of the cast (the aforementioned Watts and Terrence Howard as a bookie, to name a few) are left to make the most out of more caricaturish characters (Chris O'Dowd succeeds the best at this as Oliver's schoolteacher who happens to be a hilarious priest), Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, and Jaeden Lieberher get some nice plot lines to build their acting around.

Don't get me wrong -- I truly enjoyed Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, but every role she's tackled in movies since then seems like a rehash of that same character.  Here, she's kind, sweet, and still funny as a good mom who's finding it difficult to transition to being husband-less.  I've recently been re-watching Gilmore Girls on Netflix and that show along with this role in St. Vincent remind me that McCarthy has what it takes to bring more than just hilarious raunch to the table.

Making his debut, young Jaeden Lieberher has the comic chops to stand opposite comedic heavyweights like Murray and McCarthy.  In his debut performance, Lieberher's Oliver gives a believable performance and is hopefully racking up additional roles in the future.

But St. Vincent is Bill Murray's movie.  While Murray's Vincent isn't necessarily an unknown character to anyone who's seen films like this, Murray brings a good amount of heart to the role that makes the title character into a more well-rounded individual.  His character goes through quite a few ups and downs (the "downs" of which get much more serious as the film progresses), but Murray does a great job of keeping that tinge of humor always believably present.  It's a nice role in a nice movie.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Disney Discussion - The Black Cauldron

Over the course of the year, we'll be spending our Wednesdays with Walt, having a discussion about each of Disney's animated films...

Movie #25 of The Disney Discussion
The Black Cauldron (1985)
Featuring the voice talents of Grant Bardsley, Susan Sheridan, Nigel Hawthorne, John Byner, and John Hurt
Directed by Ted Berman and Richard Rich

Summary (in 150 words or less):
Assistant pig keeper Taran is tasked with guarding a pig named Hen-Wen that has oracular powers.  When Hen-Wen "sees" that the horrid Horned King is hellbent on finding the mysterious Black Cauldron, Taran whisks Hen-Wen to safety only to be captured by the Horned King.  After discovering the location of the Black Cauldron via Hen-Wen, the Horned King sets out to track down the Cauldron which Taran, after escaping from the king's clutches, tries to find before the evil ruler.

What makes this Black Cauldron important?  There was once a king so cruel that even gods feared him.  Since no prison could hold him, he was thrown alive into a crucible of molten iron which was shaped into a cauldron holding his demonic spirit.  Evil men searched for the vessel, knowing that whomever possessed it would have the power to resurrect an army of deathless warriors...and rule the world.

150 words exactly...whew...

Facts and Figures
The Black Cauldron is the Walt Disney Company's twenty-fifth full-length animated feature film and was released on July 24, 1985.

Not only was the film the most expensive animated film ever produced (at that time), but it also tied Cleopatra and Heaven's Gate as the most expensive film of all time at its release.  With a $44 million production budget, The Black Cauldron only earned $21.3 million at the box office.  The film did so horrible, that Disney didn't even release it on home video/dvd until 1998 -- more than ten years after its initial release!

The Black Cauldron is the first Disney animated film to be rated PG.

Let the Discussion Begin...
Perhaps it's just because the stench of failure that surrounds The Black Cauldron makes one think they're in for something horrid, but I found this animated flick to be a refreshing change of pace for the animation studio and a unique entry into the annals of Disney animated films.  No one will ever mistake The Black Cauldron for classic Disney, but this little seen flick deserves more praise than it receives (especially considering it's one of the "black sheep" in the Disney canon).

While I'm certain I've seen The Black Cauldron in my youth, it's been well over two decades since I'd had any exposure to it whatsoever so I was able to come at this flick with an untarnished eye.  Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised by the high caliber of animation on display from a new era of artists.  The past few films -- The Aristocats, The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound -- while solid, weren't particularly strengthened by their animation.  That's certainly not the case in The Black Cauldron with the animation elevating the film beyond what its story brings to the table.  (It should be noted that this was the first time animators used computers to aid them for certain pieces of content and the hand-drawn and computerized aspects blend seamlessly.)  Dealing with many rich brown hues, the animators create a landscape that instantly stands out from other films in the Disney canon.
Since I just mentioned story, let's start there.  The Black Cauldron is probably more reminiscent of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit in tone rather than any other Disney film.  (I say this not being an aficionado of either of those, so don't pounce on me if that's incorrect.)  Set in a fantasy world that's even less of a reality than Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, The Black Cauldron finds our protagonist Taran facing a world that's decidedly ominous and scary.  When the film delves dark, it's actually successful -- the first twenty-five minutes is filled with both the necessary story exposition and a surprising amount of excitement   In the opening act, Taran is captured by the horrid Horned King who is cloaked in much shadow at the beginning of the film only to discover that he's seemingly not-quite human at the film's end.
It's during the second act when attempts at catering to the young'uns take over that the film falters.  Introductions to fairy sprites and a cute (though underdeveloped story-wise) sidekick for Taran named Gurgi fail to resonate.  If anything, the film's quick running time doesn't really allow for any of the characters to get much of a purpose, backstory, or reason for the audience to latch onto them.  Let's be realistic here -- this is a Disney film that introduces a female character into the mix and doesn't have her become romantically involved with the main character.  That's unfounded!  The plot certainly didn't call for a romance to develop, but it kind of points to the lack of relationship development on display.  (The film's biggest fault is that it hinges a key piece of plot on Gurgi and Taran's relationship -- a relationship that isn't really developed to a meaningful point.  Sacrifices are made by both characters for reasons that aren't believable because we in the audience don't feel that these two characters are emotionally connected to one another.)
Although the lack of character development is a significant fault, its effect is mitigated a bit by the fact that the overarching storyline isn't afraid to skew a bit more mature than the cutesy flicks that immediately preceded this one.  I imagine there may have been quite an uproar upon The Black Cauldron's release with the fact that it's premise involves a search for a demonic apparatus, but folks seem to forget that Snow White and Sleeping Beauty aren't exactly full of sunshine and lollipops.  Those old school Disney films of yore contained villains that were pure evil to the core so a character like The Horned King fits right in with The Evil Queen and Maleficent.

This is the first Disney animated film to come along that contains no songs whatsoever and I think that was definitely the right choice by the filmmakers.  A nice score by Elmer Bernstein meshes well with the visuals and any songs would've proven to be superfluous while also likely taking away from the serious tone established by the piece.

Random Thoughts
...while watching the film...
  • This is the first Disney animated film to not have opening credits detailing cast and crew.
  • I remember a quick-service restaurant named "Gurgi's Munchies and Crunchies" in Walt Disney World -- I didn't realize that not only was this an appropriate name for an eatery, but it's also a phrase that's repeated by Gurgi often.
  • "You don't mind if I pluck your harp, do ya handsome?" Sure, a horny witch said this to a guy with a harp in his hand, but the innuendo is there. 
Final Analysis
(Does It Belong in the Revered Disney Pantheon and How Does It Stack Up to Past Films?)
The shock of the following statement merits that I get it out in the open right away -- The Black Cauldron has earned a spot in the revered Disney Pantheon of animated films.  The film isn't perfect, but its status as a flick that needs to be shoved into the Disney vault and never released is unwarranted.  Personally, I would've loved to have seen what sequels could have been created to allow us to better explore this world and the characters that inhabit it.

It's certainly darker than some of its animated predecessors, but this is a flick that I must strongly urge you to rent from Netflix.  You'll likely be just as surprised as me by how much you enjoy it.

The RyMickey Rating: B

Join us next Wednesday for The Great Mouse Detective, the 26th film in The Disney Discussion.
***The Great Mouse Detective is currently streaming on Netflix, so join in on the discussion!***

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Movie Review - Neighbors

Neighbors (2014)
Starring Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Lisa Kudrow
Directed by Nicholas Stoller

Despite proving to be funny at times, Neighbors is a one-joke movie that wears old fast.  About 25 minutes in, I found myself looking at the clock as I was having a difficult time determining how there could be any more plot to milk from this simple story of married couple Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) who have their world turned upside down when a fraternity headed by Teddy and Pete (Zac Efron and Dave Franco) move in next door in their quiet suburban neighborhood.

I was willing to forego the notion that not a single other neighbor is disturbed by the raucous parties that take place at the newly formed frathouse.  (Yes, the film attempts to explain this off, but it's an utterly ridiculous explanation.)  The problem is that the premise of this flick is so simplistic that even at a ninety-minue runtime, it can't flesh out the plot because there's nothing to flesh out.  Frat guys do crazy things and married couple -- who were hoping to be hip enough to be buddies with the frat -- get angry when they realize they're not as young as they used to be.  There's not much more than that.  While some of the frat's raucous pranks and the married couple's reactions are funny, they're just comedic bits that don't really add up to much of a plot.  As an ongoing skit on SNL, this may have worked, but forming an overall movie from this is a bit weak.

That isn't to say that Neighbors didn't make me laugh -- it did so multiple times thanks to the good performances from Seth Rogen (who is essentially playing Seth Rogen), Rose Byrne (who has a nice comedic deadpan style to her), and Dave Franco (proving as of late that he's less smarmy oncreen -- and that's a good thing -- than his more famous brother James).  Color me surprised, however, that the star of the show is Zac Efron whose frat president Pete is suave, debonair, yet also sneaky and underhanded.  Presumably Efron's been trying to break away from his High School Musical image over the past several years and he's surprisingly good as he makes fun of his toned body and spotless image.

Director Nicholas Stoller does have some inspired moments -- a rave party showcased some nice directorial flourishes -- but Neighbors unfortunately doesn't amount to much despite the good stuff it has going for it.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Monday, November 10, 2014

Movie Review - The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)
Starring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Nat Wolff, and Willem Dafoe
Directed by Josh Boone

Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is a teenager with terminal thyroid cancer.  Although the past few years have been promising for her, she still is faced with the fact that her cancer will be her demise.  In order to try and make her feel better, her mother (Laura Dern) insists that Hazel attend a teen cancer support group where she ends up meeting Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) who lost his leg to bone cancer.  Hazel and Augustus become good friends with Augustus instantly falling for Hazel...and Hazel not quite reciprocating that affection.

One of Hazel's favorite books is by the reclusive author Peter van Houten (Willem Dafoe) who now resides in Amsterdam.  Because he loves her company, Augustus ends up using his "wish" from the Make-a-Wish foundation to visit Amsterdam with Hazel to meet van Houten and, while on the journey, Augustus and Hazel both grow to appreciate one another more than they ever thought possible.

Aww...sweet and saccharine-sounding, right?  Well, sort of.  The Fault in Our Stars succeeds because it delicately balances the standard romantic film tropes with the more sarcastic and biting edge of modern society.  In fact, Hazel begins the film with a voiceover stating that everyone longs for a happy ending -- but that's not in the cards for her life story.  Her cancer forces her to look at life with a different mindset and that mindset creates a film that while certainly a romance also bases itself in a realistic setting.

As a thirty-something male, I can't help but think I shouldn't have been won over by this film, but I was.  With a screenplay that never places "CANCER" front and center, yet also never pushes it aside as an afterthought, The Fault in Our Stars takes what could've easily been a "disease of the week" TV movie and creates characters to whom you can't help but relate.

It certainly helps that both Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort are so good in their roles.  Ms. Woodley is proving herself to be quite adept in bringing a nice realism to her teenage characters (what with the fantastic performance in the teenage drama The Spectacular Now last year) and I find her a refreshing change of pace from the cookie cutter types of performances we often see in teen pics.  Elgort is new to the movie scene, but I found him charming and charismatic here.  Some have said his Augustus comes off as too perfect, but considering his character's challenges, the optimism rings true as someone who is trying to make the most out of what life has offered him.

The teen drama has seen a definite uptick in quality over the past few years and The Fault in Our Stars is the latest solid addition to the genre.  I'm utterly surprised I enjoyed it as much as I did, but this one isn't just for the teen market and to pigeonhole it as such is an unfair assessment.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The Disney Discussion - The Fox and the Hound

Over the course of the year, we'll be spending our Wednesdays with Walt, having a discussion about each of Disney's animated films...

Movie #24 of The Disney Discussion
The Fox and the Hound (1981)
Featuring the voice talents of Mickey Rooney, Kurt Russell, Pearl Bailey, Jack Albertson, Sandy Duncan, Corey Feldman, Keith Mitchell, Paul Winchell, and Jeanette Nolan
Directed by Art Stevens, Ted Berman, and Richard Rich
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Summary (in 150 words or less):
When a young fox named Tod is orphaned after his mother is killed by a hunter, Tod is "adopted" by the kind elderly Widow Tweed.  While wandering through the woods one day, Tod meets young hound puppy Copper and the two bond quickly.  When they discover that they only live down the road from each other, the friendship grows even more despite the fact that Copper's owner Amos Slade and Slade's older hunting dog Chief would almost disown Copper if they knew it was occurring.  Time passes, fall turns to winter and winter to spring, and an older Copper has become quite the fierce hunting dog which doesn't bode well for Tod who now discovers that Copper's loyalties may not lie with their friendship.

Facts and Figures
The Fox and the Hound is the Walt Disney Company's twenty-fourth full-length animated feature and was released on July 10, 1981.

At the time of its release, The Fox and the Hound was the most expensive animated film produced with a budget of $12 million, however, it was a financial success, garnering $65 million over its multiple releases.

Let the Discussion Begin...
Prior to the release of The Fox and the Hound there was an epic shake-up among the ranks of Disney animators.  In 1979, many artists including Don Bluth (of An American Tale fame) left Disney in a dispute over creative and financial differences.  According to Leonard Maltin's book The Disney Films, Bluth said that "we felt like we were animating the same picture over and over again with just the faces changed a little."  This walk-out forced The Fox and the Hound to be delayed by more than six months.  This film did mark a turning point for Disney animation with some of Disney's "Nine Old Men" (nine animators who started working with Walt at the onset of the animation studio) working with new blood and essentially handing over the reins to them.  Funnily enough, The Fox and the Hound mirrors the fractious atmosphere in the animator's workroom with the film failing to cohesively come together.

The first half of the film is more successful than the latter and I think, as silly as this sounds, it's because of the "cute factor."  The younger versions of fox Tod and dog Copper (voiced by Corey Feldman and Keith Mitchell, respectively) exude humor, innocence, and genuine heartfelt emotions.  We can't help but feel an immediate connection with this duo as their friendship blossoms.  If only they could've stayed young forever...

Unfortunately, when the story shifts to the adult versions of Tod and Copper (now voiced by Mickey Rooney and Kurt Russell, respectively), things begins to fall apart.  The set-up for the dissension between Tod and Copper is decent -- older hunting dog Chief is hurt after chasing Tod which leads Copper to stand up for his fellow canine and turn against his longtime buddy Tod.  However, the separate stories for Tod and Copper that occur after this aren't all that intriguing.  Copper, unfortunately, gets the short end of the stick as his tale is nearly abandoned during the film's latter half.

Instead, we find ourselves following along with Tod who leaves Widow Tweed's and strikes out in the wilderness on his own where he immediately falls in love with a foxy fox named Vixey (voiced by Sandy Duncan).  This subplot is a redux of the Bambi "twitterpated" scenario, but much worse and decidedly more tacky.  Accompanied by the heinous song "Appreciate the Lady," part of me felt dirty during this segment of the film.  Tod finds himself swooning over his first glance at the female physique.  Big Mama (an owl...yet another Bambi homage, it seems) tells Tod that he's going to get "a whole lot of satisfaction" if he just "appreciates the lady / ...[and then he's] gonna be appreciated right back."  It is a bit off-putting, that's for sure.  And it's not a good song at that.

Music is admittedly not The Fox and the Hound's selling point.  Beyond "Appreciate the Lady," there's only one other number that stands out -- "Best of Friends" -- but the song about the burgeoning friendship between Tod and Copper comes a bit too early in their relationship to really resonate.  The film's plot doesn't really call for music, so I wish the animators would've just abandoned the notion of needing songs to push the plot lines along.

Animation-wise, The Fox and the Hound is solid.  In fact, the film's climatic scene involving a bear attack is frighteningly well-conceived.  The tension created in large part due to the animation adds significant gravitas to a second act that found itself floundering.  (Considering that the film doesn't really have a "villain" per se, this climatic bear scene really does a fantastic job creating a sense of excitement.)  While the rest of the film doesn't do anything mind-blowing, considering the chaos surrounding the production, I find the overall aesthetic of the film to be one of its saving graces.

Voice-wise, the cast is quite good and does a lot to elevate the tale beyond the average.  However, I must point out that Disney's insistence on creating comedic side characters wears out its welcome with The Fox and the Hound, particularly with the character of the woodpecker Boomer.  It's not the character of Boomer is particularly enervating, it's just that the voice actor behind the bird -- Paul Winchell -- does absolutely nothing to differentiate the bird from his voice as Tigger, complete with the "whoo-hoo-hoo" laugh.  Boomer is certainly a throwaway character with absolutely no importance to the plot and could've (and should've) been eliminated.

Random Thoughts
...while watching the film...
  • The opening credit sequence lasts nearly five minutes, yet it's quite an impressive, though incredibly simplistic, set-up.  We see panoramic, though static (ie. with no moving animation) shots of a forest set to a calm score by Buddy Baker accompanied by chirping birds.  Suddenly the images grow darker, the score grows more intense, and we realize that something ominous is about to happen.
  • Contrary to the aforementioned Paul Winchell's Tigger-like vocal acting (of which I wasn't a fan), I enjoyed hearing Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory's Grandpa Joe -- Jack Albertson -- voicing the hunter Amos Slade.
  • SPOILER ALERT -- The scene at the film's conclusion in which Copper stands in front of Amos in order to stop him from shooting Tod is surprisingly emotional.  The look in Copper's eyes says it all.

Final Analysis
(Does It Belong in the Revered Disney Pantheon and How Does It Stack Up to Past Films?)
I watched The Fox and the Hound a little over two years ago when I initially attempted to start an "analysis" of Disney's animated features.  Back then, I found myself pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this somewhat forgotten Disney feature.  Unfortunately, the film didn't hold up upon a repeat viewing.  While certainly pleasant, there's just too much here that doesn't quite work to make it a stand-out film.

The animation is also quite solid (although beyond the climax there isn't anything mind-blowing) and the voice acting (with the exception of the aforementioned Paul Winchell) is perfectly suited for the characters.  However, the film loses a bit of focus whenever it shifts away from the relationship between Tod and Copper and, unfortunately, as the two friends grow older, my interest in their characters waned a bit.  Yes, the filmmakers do a good job in allowing us to understand their affection towards each other as young animals, yet grasp why they drifted apart as they aged.  However, things just don't quite come together as a full package making it not quite worthy of placement in the Disney Pantheon.

While I criticized the film quite a bit above, it should be noted that The Fox and the Hound isn't a bad film.  It's a flawed one and one that had great potential, but it doesn't manage to cohesively bring its two acts together.

The RyMickey Rating: C+
Join us next Wednesday for The Black Cauldron, the 25th film in The Disney Discussion.