Monday, September 25, 2017

Movie Review - The Neon Demon

The Neon Demon (2016)
Starring Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Desmond Harrington, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks, and Keanu Reeves
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
***This film is currently streaming via Amazon Prime***

The fashion industry is a brutal one -- but one can only hope it's not as bad as what's depicted in The Neon Demon which details a profession that eats you up and spits you out...quite literally.  Young Jesse (Elle Fanning) has just moved alone to California in the hopes of making it big as a model.  Told to lie about her age in order to get more jobs, the innocent and naive fifteen year-old girl is nearly immediately fawned upon by some big-name photographers and designers which doesn't sit well with a few struggling industry models (Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee).  Adrift in the cutthroat world, Jesse befriends Dean (Karl Glusman) -- a nice guy who genuinely cares about her success and well-being -- and Ruby (Jena Malone) -- a make-up artist who's intentions may not be as pure as they seem.  As Jesse rises up in the ranks rather quickly, it's only natural that there will be some who want to take her down and they'll stop at nothing to succeed.

Totally original, but also completely full of WTF moments that had me questioning why I was watching, The Neon Demon is a visually stunning film with director Nicolas Winding Refn upping the stylish quotient from his previous endeavors.  That said, once you move beyond the look of things, there's not a whole lot here.  Fashion industry metaphors are obvious and they do nothing to advance the underdeveloped story which eventually devolves into a laughable horror movie of sorts.  Admittedly, the stylization of this film proves to be a near perfect match for the industry it's trying to send up, but with one-note characters and a too-basic story, The Neon Demon doesn't quite make the grade.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Theatre Review - The Mountaintop

The Mountaintop
Written by Katori Hall
Directed by Walter Dallas
Where: Studio Theatre at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When: Tuesday, September 19, 7:30pm
Photo by Evan Krape/REP

The University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players starts off their 2017-18 season on a good foot with their production of playwright Katori Hall's The Mountaintop, a reimagining of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s last night alive.  Unaware of his horrible fate, King prepares for a speech in a rundown Memphis, Tennessee, hotel room only to be visited by a no-nonsense maid named Camae who may not be who she appears to be.  As King and Camae eloquently duel one another, the oratorical peacemaker reflects upon his past work and whether it will have any effect on the future of America.

A two-hander, The Mountaintop lives and dies by the actors playing its two characters and fortunately Hassan El-Amin and Antoinette Robinson -- the two newest members of the REP ensemble -- captivate and completely hold our attention.  El-Amin certainly has a difficult task attempting to embody the well-known and respected strength of Martin Luther King, Jr., but he proves to be up to the job.  El-Amin's commanding presence onstage begins the evening with the stern, buttoned-up public persona for which King was known, but then the actor slowly peels back the layers, seemingly humanizing the character of Martin Luther King, Jr., by showcasing a variety of emotions along with underlying heart and humor. 

Part of the reason King grows looser as the 95-minute production progresses is because of the beautiful and equally strong maid Camae which Antoinette Robinson embodies.  In her debut performance with the REP, Robinson tackles a tricky role in that Camae is a bit of a mystery to both the audience and King, beginning the play timidly and reverently bowing to King, but slowly becoming more emboldened as the evening passes.  To discuss more would be ruining a pivotal aspect of the story, but needless to say, Robinson adeptly balances both sides of her character's emotional journey.  

The chemistry between the two actors is palpable, not necessarily in a romantic way, but in the way El-Amin and Robinson ebb and flow through their characters' strengths and weaknesses.  Kudos to director Walter Dallas for fostering this relationship between his set of actors.  However, despite all the positives, The Mountaintop lacks a bit of momentum, overstaying its welcome by maybe ten or fifteen minutes.  A quickened pace may have solved this problem or it may just be something inherently problematic in writer Katori Hall's piece.  Once again, that's not to say that The Mountaintop doesn't work because it most certainly does.  I just wish it moved along a bit quicker.

The Mountaintop ends in a stunningly vibrant way that stands in stark contrast to the rather straightforward rubrics of a "standard play" that Katori Hall had adhered to throughout most of its runtime.  (In fact, everything up to that point was rather straightforward from the set to the costumes which both appear realistically lived in.)  I'll admit that I'm not sure how I feel about the conclusion, but I'm nevertheless still pondering it more than a day after I saw the piece.  I think all of us in the audience found ourselves pondering it because when The Mountaintop ended on Tuesday night and the lights came up, the audience was silent...a bit taken aback by what we'd just seen.  After we were prodded to applaud, I think we all realized that we saw something a bit more unique than we had expected and certainly a nice start to the REP's new season.

Note:  There are certainly political undertones throughout the piece and while I didn't stay for the talkback following the production, I'm sure they were discussed there.  Yes, The Mountaintop can certainly feel relevant to today's society, but I think it's a relevant piece to ANY time in ANY society and in that way I think politics can be left out of the discussion altogether.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Movie Review - The Founder

The Founder (2016)
Starring Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, Laura Dern, and Patrick Wilson
Directed by John Lee Hancock
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix**

I can't tell you the last time I ate a McDonald's.  Still, I understand the restaurant juggernaut's appeal of providing cheap eats even if I was forever scarred from eating a McDonald's burger when as a young kid I attended a birthday party held at the fast food establishment and was given a sandwich with ketchup and pickles on it.  Such grossness was never forgotten.  Why am I divulging info such as this in a movie review?  Because The Founder details the formation of the fast food giant at the hands of Ray Kroc whose tenacious "take no prisoners" approach to business helped him become one of the richest men in America.

Kroc's wealth didn't come easy, however.  After struggling for years as a door-to-door salesman of kitchen goods, Ray Kroc (played by Michael Keaton) discovers the quick food establishment known as McDonald's in San Bernadino, California, after that restaurant's owners -- brothers Mac and Dick McDonald (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman) -- decide to buy eight milkshake mixers that Kroc is selling.  The McDonald brothers transformed a drive-in into a walk-up fast-service establishment and found great success selling a limited number of items created in an almost mechanical, factory-like manner.  Kroc finds the process ingenious and convinces the reluctant brothers -- who had been burned by franchisees before -- to allow him to create several McDonald's outposts in the Midwest.  A strict contract detailing conformity in both the way the establishments and the food had to look was agreed upon by Kroc, but Kroc soon decides that he knows much more about running a "business" than the McDonald brothers.  At the very least, the ever-persistent Kroc thinks he knows more about how to make money and he does all that he can to try and bring more wealth into his pocket even if it means reneging on certain aspects of his contract wth the McDonald brothers.

Surprisingly engaging, The Founder owes much of its success to the believably slimy portrayal of Ray Kroc by Michael Keaton.  There's no doubt that Kroc carried a business acumen that would be envied by anyone -- and Keaton's Kroc certainly makes us envious of that aspect of his personality -- but he was also unethically egotistical.  Keaton portrays an outward cheeriness coupled with an "aw shucks" Midwest personality that masks an intelligence that undoubtedly allows Kroc to succeed at branding a commercial business where the McDonald brothers failed.  Perhaps the film could've been a touch more biting in its satire, but as it stands now John Lee Hancock's flick is an enjoyable look at an intriguing figure from the American business landscape.  And even though I've been scarred forever by the ketchup and pickle on that McDonald's burger from my youth, Ray Kroc proved to be a rather ingenious guy and The Founder helps to illustrate that.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Friday, September 15, 2017

Movie Review - A Hologram for the King

A Hologram for the King (2016)
Starring Tom Hanks, Alexander Black, Sarita Choudhary, Sidse Babett Knudson, and Ben Whishaw
Directed by Tom Tykwer
***This film is currently streaming via Amazon Prime***

When businessman Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) travels to Saudi Arabia to hawk his company's holographic telecommunication system to the country's king and government, he's leaving very little behind in the States.  Divorced with a college-aged daughter who wants little to do with him, Alan throws everything into this presentation, but Saudi Arabia isn't exactly the most modernized locale as Alan discovers when his team faces a lack of wifi and sandy floors in their tent located in the desert supplied by the Saudi Arabian king.  The pressure to deliver causes Alan to begin to lose it a bit, coming face-to-face with a late mid-life crisis that unfortunately for him occurs in a foreign country quite different from the one he knows.

A Hologram for the King is well-acted by Hanks and the rest of the cast, but after about forty-five minutes, the film's lack of a decent plot does it in.  Some weird dream-like sequences that begin to populate the film as it progresses set up some weird tonal shifts...and that's followed by a third act that feels full of some unnecessary side plots that purportedly try and resolve Alan's emotional crises, but end up seeming oddly out-of-place.  In the end, the amiable Hanks can't save the "kitchen sink"-type plot and direction that fail to set up a consistent mood.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Movie Review - The Bronze

The Bronze (2016)
Starring Melissa Rauch, Gary Cole, Thomas Middleditch, Sebastian Stan, Cecily Strong, and Haley Lu Richardson
Directed by Bryan Buckley

Movies that have a disarmingly unpleasant main character have an uphill battle to connect with an audience because we're inherently disinclined to gravitate towards them.  With great writing, this tricky proposition can be successful (see: Charlize Theron in Young Adult), but with a lukewarm script, the nastiness of the unpleasant character can make a film be a chore to watch...and that's the case with The Bronze, co-written and starring Melissa Rauch.  Rauch (best known for her role on The Big Bang Theory, a show which I've never watched) goes all in with the abrasive character of Hope Ann Greggory, an Olympic gymnast who successfully won a bronze medal despite a horrible injury that happened at the Games that nearly sidelined her chances.  She was the golden child following her win -- landing a spot on Dancing with the Stars even -- but a decade has passed and her ability to live off being a celebrity has faded as she finds herself living at home with her mailman father Stan (Gary Cole) who desperately wants his daughter to find a profession to earn some money.  When her former coach dies, Hope discovers that her coach left her half a million dollars in her will if Hope will coach new, up-and-coming gymnast Maggie Townsend (Haley Lu Richardson) through her entire Olympic run.  This doesn't sit well with the lazy, nasty, and uncaring Hope, but the prospect of $500,000 forces her to attempt the task.

Plot-wise, The Bronze has the bones of a perfectly acceptable indie comedy, but Hope is too much of a caricature to craft anything more than a recurring Saturday Night Live skit around.  After you've heard Hope curse at her father or try to undermine Maggie once, nothing is added when she does it again...and again...and again.  The repetition of Hope's unpleasant bitchiness is too one-note, lacking depth.  Without that depth to the character, the audience has no rooting interest for Hope to better herself because we've not become attached to any backstory or history.  Melissa Rauch certainly dives into the crudeness that she's created for Hope, but the spoiled brat we see onscreen just proves to be unpleasant, funny in only mild doses, and unable to sustain the humor across 100 minutes.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Movie Review - Captain Fantastic

Captain Fantastic (2016)
Starring Viggo Mortenson, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Ann Dowd, and Frank Langella
Directed by Matt Ross
***This film is currently streaming via Amazon Prime***

The inhabitants of Captain Fantastic are people with whom I would never ever want to spend any time in real life.  Self-professed hippie Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) has taken his six kids out of the "normalcy" of society to live on their own private family commune in the middle of the Washington wilderness where they kill their own food, learn survival skills, live out of an old school bus, and learn about left-wing philosophies.  Leslie, the matriarch of the Cash family, was recently hospitalized for bipolar disorder and at the end of the film's first act, Ben learns that his wife has committed suicide.  With the kids devastated, Ben decides to put his children on the bus and travel to his wife's parents' home where he will try and convince them to acquiesce to his wife's wishes and cremate her rather than having a church ceremony and subsequent burial.

The bus journey makes up the bulk of Captain Fantastic and while it certainly showcases the bond Ben has with his six children, it does little to make me feel that what Ben is doing is good parenting.  While I recognize that my personal opinion is neither here nor there (Lord knows as a conservative-leaning movie-lover, I'd have to hate half of what Hollywood dishes out), the film wants the audience to believe that what Ben is doing with his wilderness living is the best thing for his kids despite the fact that the film shows us several times that it's not.  The film is inherently set up for us to root for the life of Ben and the kids to remain their current status quo, but we in the audience know that's not what's best for them and by Ben being so stubborn in his ways, I found myself losing interest about halfway through.  Granted, by the conclusion of writer-director Matt Ross's film, Ben eventually realizes that he needs to adjust his kids to some semblance of normalcy in order for them to survive in the real world, but it's a bit too little too late.

Still, despite this, Captain Fantastic is moderately engaging thanks to Viggo Mortensen at its core as the genuinely caring father whose disdain for modern life has transferred fully onto his children.  As for those kids, most of them do nice work helping Mortensen to carry the piece especially young Shree Crooks as the headstrong and inquisitive youngest daughter Zaja.  Obviously your mileage may vary, but something about the motivations of the characters made it difficult for me to buy into this film despite the good performances.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Friday, September 01, 2017

Movie Review - Five Nights in Maine

Five Nights in Maine (2016)
Starring David Oyelowo, Dianne Wiest, Hani Furstenberg, Rosie Perez, and Teyonah Parris
Directed by Maris Curran
***This film is currently streaming via Netflix***

Good performances can't save Five Nights in Maine, a movie that really fails to have a decent emotional arc for any of its characters as it traverses its depressing subject matter.  Sherman (David Oyelowo) has just lost his wife Fiona (Hani Furstenberg) in a horrible car accident.  Prior to her death, she had just talked about going to Maine to see her dying mother Lucinda (Dianne Wiest).  Fiona and Lucinda didn't get along well and Sherman has never cared for his mother-in-law because of this.  However, he feels the need to visit as it was something his wife wanted to do again before her mother passed away.  Over the course of five nights, Lucinda and Sherman discuss a variety of topics as they try to reconcile with one another while dealing with the death of their loved one.

The first half hour of Five Nights in Maine is some powerful stuff.  David Oyelowo is riveting as he is given the news of his wife's death and he's just as compelling in the aftermath where depression rears its ugly head.  The problem with writer-director Maris Curran's film lies when Sherman goes to meet Lucinda.  Lucinda is played by Dianne Wiest as a curmudgeonly stoic witch of a woman which is certainly one way people could react to the death of a loved one, but her complete lack of compassion towards Sherman at the outset seems a bit farfetched.  While Lucinda eventually slightly warms to Sherman, their interaction with one another grows repetitive as Sherman is forced to simply take the unwarranted criticism that Lucinda constantly doles out.  Once again, Oyelowo is very good here and Wiest has moments where she shines, but for the latter her character is so off-putting that it's tough to care about her loss.  Plus, as mentioned above, by the time the film's conclusion rolls around, I couldn't help but think that nothing had really changed between the two characters since their first meeting.  The characters are roughly in the same spot at the end as they were at the beginning and it leads to an unsatisfying eighty minutes.  In the end, it's a real shame because Oyelowo is at his best here, but the lack of an arc for his character brings what could have been a fantastic performance down a notch.  Nice supporting turns from Teyonah Parrris (who continues to shine in everything I've seen her in) and a subdued Rosie Perez also can't help save this one and end up making me even more upset that it doesn't really work in the end.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Movie Review - Passengers

Passengers (2016)
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, and Laurence Fishburne
Directed by Morten Tyldum

There was so much promise in the first hour of Passengers that I found myself wondering why in the world the critics and general public dismissed this sci-fi flick upon its release last Christmas.  And then the second hour happens and all the goodwill engendered vanishes as the film resorts to the typical Hollywood-ization of "bigger equaling better" instead of continuing on with the more intimate tale created at the outset.  The tale of two disparate films that never mesh together, Passengers ends up being an ambitious disappointment which is quite a shame.

Sometime in the distant future, the starship Avalon is traveling to the colony of Homestead II, an Earth-like planet that will hopefully provide a sustainable life for the 258 crew members and 5000 passengers aboard.  It's not a quick jaunt, however -- the journey takes 120 years -- so the people aboard the Avalon are placed into hypersleep due to wake up four months prior to their arrival on Homestead II.  Unfortunately for mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), his sleep pod opens up 90 years early and he finds himself completely alone on the gigantic spaceship with robot bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) as his only companion.  After a year, however, Jim is finally no longer alone when writer Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) is found walking around outside of her pod.

This romance in space is what works so incredibly well in Passengers.  The chemistry between the affable Chris Pratt and the engagingly whip-smart Jennifer Lawrence is compellingly sweet as the duo run rampant through a huge futuristic world.  Their solitary companionship is surprisingly successful.  Unfortunately, the film veers off that path in its final half, forcing the charming duo to engage in a typical science fiction/action scenario that stands in such stark contrast to the lovely romance that precedes it.  Admittedly, there is a twist to Passengers that I'm unwilling to discuss here and the twist is believable and successful in its implementation...which is why it's even more disappointing that director Morten Tyldum's film shifts to genericness at its conclusion.  There was a huge opportunity for this film to be daring particularly in its final act and then screenwriter Jon Spaiths just takes the easy Hollywood way out.  It hurts even more since the first hour of this thing is filled with nice performances and a different perspective on the science fiction genre.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Movie Review - The Wave

The Wave (Bølgen) (2016)
Starring Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp, Jonas Hoff Oftebro, and Edith Haagenrud-Sande
Directed by Roar Uthaug
***This films currently streaming on Netflix***

The lovely town of Geiranger, Norway, is nestled on the base of a beautiful mountainous coastline, and in the early 1900s they experienced a horrible rock avalanche that resulted in homes being devastated not only by falling rocks, but by a tidal wave that formed as the rocks hit the sea.  Patriarch Kristian Elkjord (Kristoffer Joner) is a geologist preparing to move his family from the tourist destination town of Geiranger to Stavenger for a job opportunity, but on his final day on the job, Kristian notices some anomalies in the rock movement.  Pleas to evacuate the town fall on deaf ears when his boss refuses to believe there is an issue, but that evening chaos strikes as the cliffs begin to crumble and the town has only ten minutes to evacuate to higher ground.  Kristian must do all that he can to keep his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) and his two children (Jonas Hoff Oftebro and Edith Haagenrud-Sande) out of harm's way.

A Norwegian disaster flick, The Wave has all the trappings of the stereotypical tropes of the genre, but it nicely keeps the scope and gravity of the event confined to that of the Eikjord family developing a quartet of characters who the viewer learns more about than typical inhabitants of films of this ilk.  Kristoffer Jones and Ane Dahl Torp as the strong-willed father and mother carry the film in their separate storylines -- the couple are separated as is wont in disaster flics like these and must do what they can to reunite safely -- and we in the audience want nothing more than for the couple to be able to reunite.  While the film would never win any awards for its special effects, they're certainly nothing to scoff at either, proving more than capable in their low budget ways.  No one will mistake The Wave for any high art or anything more than a fun diversion, but it's better than its American genre counterparts like The Day After Tomorrow or San Andreas for sure.

The RyMickey Rating:  B- 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Movie Review - Free State of Jones

Free State of Jones (2016)
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, and Keri Russell
Directed by Gary Ross

Unfairly maligned upon its release last year, Free State of Jones isn't without its faults, but thanks to strong performances by Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mabatha-Raw, and Mahershala Ali, it's a solid look at a revolt against the Confederacy in the mid-1800s.  McConaughey is Newton Knight, a battlefield medic helping the Confederate Army who secretly returns home after he witnesses the death of his young nephew in battle.  His desertion won't sit well with those fighting against the Union, so with the help of his wife (Keri Russell), Newton hides out at various places in the area before finally having to take up residence in a swamp with several escaped slaves including Moses Washington (Ali) whom he befriends.  While in the swamp, he also comes to know Rachel (Mbatha-Raw), a literate slave, and their friendship leads to a romance.  Eventually, after several failed Confederate battles, more white men come to the swap to hide after desertion and Newton begins to rally these men along with the escaped slaves to form a militia to fight against the Confederate Army's forcible raids of Southern homes for livestock, food, and supplies.  Together, they form the Free State of Jones County and set out to battle the Confederate Army themselves.

The biggest reason Free State of Jones works so well is because of the cast.  McConaughey gives a great performance as the beleaguered Newton, worn down by the death of his nephew and the raiding of the homes of his family and friends.  You can palpably feel his disgust with the Confederacy and their actions and his vigor to try and fight the regime builds crescendo-like throughout the film's second half.  Gugu Mabatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali's characters are slightly less well-rounded, but they nevertheless make their roles captivating.  Mbatha-Raw, in particular, is saddled with the "romance" aspect of the plot and not given a whole lot else to work with, but she's still a great addition here.

The film falters a bit in the pacing by director Gary Ross -- its nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime feels it at times, particularly towards the beginning -- and the fact that a weird time jump to the 1950s that occurs multiple times throughout the piece is strongly out-of-place and unnecessary.  However, this is a better film by far than the somewhat similarly themed The Birth of a Nation which also came out the same year.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-