Sunday, October 23, 2016

Movie Review - Zootopia

Zootopia (2016)
Featuring the vocal talents of Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Alan Tudyk, Shakira, Maurice LaMarche, and Octavia Spencer
Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore

Amusing and creative, Zootopia is an engaging animated film with clever gags, solid animation, and quality voice acting.  While some critics deemed this Disney's best animated film in decades, I'm not willing to go there.  However, once you get past the rather lengthy exposition at the film's outset, its story becomes quite engaging and easily is able to win over its audience of both kids and adults alike.

Zootopia takes us a world that is completely made up of anthropomorphic animals where the concept of predators and prey don't exist; rather everyone coexists peacefully.  As the flick begins, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) has just moved to the big titular city from the small rural town of Bunnyburrow with the aspirations to become the first rabbit police officer in the Zootopia Police Department.  While she eventually succeeds at achieving her dream, she's given very little respect by her superiors -- including water buffalo police chief Bogo (Idris Elba) -- and is tasked with being a lowly traffic cop.  In the course of her mundane duties, Judy runs across sly fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) who she feels in conducting some type of shady business, but she can't quite put her finger on it.  Back at the police station one afternoon, a concerned Mrs. Otterton (Octavia Spencer) pleads with Chief Bogo to search for her missing husband, but when Bogo seemingly pushes Mrs. Otterton aside, Judy jumps at the opportunity to work on a real case.  Bogo, seeing this as an opportunity to get rid of the overly ambitious Judy, tells the rabbit she has 48 hours to find Mrs. Otterton's husband Emmitt or else she must give up her position as a cop.  Desperate to keep her job and prove her worth, Judy tracks down Nick and bribes him into helping her.  The duo travels through the many landscapes of Zootopia and discover a nefarious plot that is turning the now peaceful predators into vicious animals again.

If that seems like a bit of a lengthy summarization, that's because I feel like it is...and that's the biggest problem I had with Zootopia.  The film just takes too long to get rolling -- too much exposition at the start and not enough verve to keep my interest.  Fortunately, once Judy and Nick head out on their mission to track down Emmitt Otterton, things begin to pick up and the film becomes filled with clever jokes and clever humanization of animals.  While the film's script doesn't really lend itself to those heart-wrenching or emotionally uplifting moments we've found in Pixar's films, it still ends up successfully balancing its comedic and dramatic moments in the film's final two acts.

Jason Bateman is perfect casting as Nick with the slick fox emanating Bateman's smart-alecky persona.  Ginnifer Goodwin is spot-on sweet as Judy, a character that could grow irksome in her perfectionism, but doesn't thanks to the vocals provided by the actress.  Nice turns also come from Don Lake and Bonnie Hunt (one of my favorite comediennes) as Judy's parents, the aforementioned Elba as the tough-as-nails police chief, and Jenny Slate as a tiny sheep playing assistant to the mayor of Zootopia.

The animators and screenwriters prove to be clever in their homages to other films and to human existence itself.  Puns abound, but never feel too in-your-face or over-the-top which is a good thing because these plays on words/plays on human culture could've gotten old quickly.  Instead, they add atmosphere to the animal environment.  In the end, Zootopia is a worthy entrant to the Disney animated canon, but it doesn't quite match the levels of the company's best.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Friday, October 21, 2016

Theater Review - Matilda

Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Book by Dennis Kelly
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Where: Sam S. Shubert Theatre, New York, NY
When: Saturday, September 10, 8pm

Expectations were very high when I walked into the Shubert Theatre in New York City to see Matilda, a musical based on a book by Roald Dahl, one of my favorite authors as a kid.  Reviews for the production (which is closing at the end of the year) were very strong upon its opening in April 2013 and I've been itching to see it for quite some time.  Admittedly, it wasn't quite as fantastic as I had hoped -- the problem with going in with such high expectations, I suppose -- but it was still an enjoyable evening at the theater highlighted by what I think are some of the cleverest lyrics I've heard in a Broadway show in some time.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with Matilda is its story in that there isn't much of one throughout the musical's 160-minute runtime.  Our title character (played in rotation by a cast of three young girls -- Ava Briglia at the performance I saw) is a bit of a genius.  With her head always in a book, she's certainly the brightest bulb in the Wormwood family...but that isn't saying much.  Dad (Rick Holmes) is a slimy used car salesman currently caught up in a scheme to sell wrecked cars to the Russian mob and Mom (Lesli Margherita) is an aspiring Latin ballroom dancer -- and neither of them have any time for Matilda.  In fact, as the opening song tells us, Matilda isn't wanted by her parents.  A burden, rather than a blessing, Matilda turned to education for solace from the chaos in the Wormwood household.  Hoping to curb a bit of Matilda's sassiness, the Wormwoods decide to send their daughter to a new school run by a grinch of a woman -- Miss Trunchbull (Bryce Ryness playing in drag) -- whose claim to fame prior to running the school was being a champion Olympic hammer thrower for England.  Rather than embrace education, the Trunchbull instills fear in her students creating an atmosphere of terror which stands in stark contrast to Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood), a fellow teacher at the school whose warm heart and tender nurturing provide the parental support to Matilda that she so desperately needs and deserves.

Sure, that sounds like a decent story, but to me, it's all exposition.  There's very little plot to go around in Dennis Kelly's book for Matilda and as the musical came to its end, I had this feeling of "That's all?"  Granted, in a lesser musical, this may be a bigger problem, but fortunately, Matilda contains some of the most cleverly written songs I've come across thanks to Tim Minchin whose bitingly funny lyrics come at the audience so quickly that I found myself often reacting to his ingenious wordplay in oddly delayed fashion.  Admittedly, the British accents impede some of the cleverness as does the fact that a vast majority of Minchin's work is being sung by kids under the age of 12 whose high-pitched falsetto-esque voices sometimes make some of their singing a bit tough to hear from the stage.  Still, the witty, Roald Dahl-esque lyrics are a true tribute to the musical's source material.

In a show that places young kids front and center for what is likely two-thirds of its runtime, the children in the production must carry a lot of the show's weight and the cast certainly succeeds in that department.  Ava Briglia undeniably holds our attention even when her quiet, subdued Matilda is being bombarded by the quirkier, larger-than-life figures that inhabit her life.  Kudos also to young Evan Gray who nailed my favorite song in the musical - "Revolting Children" - in a showstopping end to the evening.  Rick Holmes and Lesli Margherita as Matilda's parents reveled in their nastiness, making the most of their clever numbers and somehow making their over-the-top characters seem believable.  Bryce Ryness also deserves much credit for exuding an ogreish nastiness in Miss Trunchbull whose favorite saying -- "Children are maggots" -- keys us in to a character who begs for over-exaggeration which Ryness fully takes on.

Matilda is certainly an enjoyable evening at the theater, no doubt about it.  I simply had a case of higher expectations than I probably should have had going into it.  It isn't a perfect musical and, in fact, has a fairly big flaw in the storytelling department in my opinion, but it's cleverly humorous and very much in tone with what I imagine would be Roald Dahl's original intentions.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Movie Review - Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)
Starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, and Nina Arianda
Directed by Stephen Frears

Based on a true story from the 1940s, Florence Foster Jenkins tells the tale of its titular New York socialite (played by Meryl Streep) who has a great appreciation and fondness for classical music and opera.  On a whim and with the support of her husband and manager St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) Florence decides that she is going to showcase her operatic singing at a small recital for friends and other New York elite.  St. Clair hires an up-and-coming pianist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) to be Florence's accompanist and they begin preparing for the recital.  The problem, however, is that Florence can't all.  Her riches have allowed her to be trained by conductors of the Metropolitan Opera, but even these great musical minds can't mold Florence into a good singer.

The relationship between Florence and St. Clair is an unusual one.  Florence had been previously married and through that marriage contracted syphilis, so the couple have never consummated their marriage.  Because of this, despite being married, Florence and St. Clair don't live together with the two having an unspoken rule that St. Clair can see others.  Psychologically, this seemingly has an effect on St. Clair to be incredibly kind and generous to his wife, allowing her to act out her whims regardless of whether she really should, hence St. Clair's insistence that Florence be allowed to sing despite the fact that she simply is atrocious.

It's the admittedly odd connection between Meryl Streep's Florence and Hugh Grant's St. Clair that powers the film along.  There is obvious love conveyed for one another, but their unique living arrangements lead both parties to acquiesce to each other's whims.  This blind acceptance leads to quite a few humorous moments, particularly involving Simon Helberg as Florence's accompanist.  Helberg's Cosmé is seemingly only in the film to give reaction shots to Florence's truly horrible voice, but he does so with such aplomb that it's easy to overlook his underwritten character.  Hugh Grant is also charming -- as he is wont to be in films -- but this is really Meryl Streep's film.  Florence is certainly not as complicated a character as Streep as played in the past, but the actress imbues the character with heart, compassion, and a survivor-esque quality.  She's certainly captivating as always.

The film itself isn't quite as successful.  It's by no means bad, but in the end it's very much a throwaway.  There simply isn't a lot here.  Once we hear how awful Florence is, the comedic schtick runs a bit cold.  You can only hear a woman sing off-key so many times before you find yourself looking at your watch secretly urging the film to come to its conclusion.  Florence Foster Jenkins is amusing and lighthearted, but in the end, it's a bit empty.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Monday, October 17, 2016

Movie Review - Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar! (2016)
Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum
Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

I am not the most erudite guy, but I generally like to think of myself as somewhat intelligent.  When it comes to movies, while I'm sometimes up for a mindless comedic jaunt, I also appreciate more nuanced approaches to humor.  With that in mind, I tried to understand what the Coen Brothers were trying to do with Hail, Caesar!, but I must admit that I found myself lost in the scattered, disjointed, and utterly dull satire that lingered on the screen.  Considering the overwhelmingly positive reviews (85% positive on Rotten Tomatoes), I'm obviously in the minority here, however, this flick never once seems to come together as a cohesive whole.

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the head of film production at Capitol Pictures in the early 1950s, but he spends most of his time working as a fixer, trying to keep his top-of-the-line stars from ending up in the gossip pages of well-known columnists like twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton).  It isn't easy and it gets progressively harder when one of the studio's biggest names -- Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) -- gets kidnapped from the set of the studio's big extravaganza Hail, Caeasar by a group of Communist screenwriters.

Were this the only plot of the Coens' Hail, Caesar, it may have been successful, but the duo pepper in a variety of other characters who serve little to no purpose in the film's overarching storyline.  Sure these characters help to create an atmosphere which is admittedly successfully portrayed, but their side stories are so superfluous and unengaged with the main plot line that I felt as if the movie would've worked better as a ten episode-long tv series rather than a self-contained 100-minute movie.  Scarlett Johansson is humorous as a brash, pregnant, unmarried Esther Williams-type synchronized swimming star.  Channing Tatum is fine as a Gene Kelly-esque singer/dancer.  Alden Ehrenreich steals the show as an "aw shucks" Roy Rogers-esque western star/singer.  Still, while these three actors have crafted believable characters, they're not all that integral to the overarching plot.  Unfortunately, that overarching plot is bland and boring and we find ourselves wanting to spend more time with Ehrenreich and Johansson despite the fact that they do little to forward the film.

The flick admittedly looks lush in its period setting and the acting is solid across the board (Ehrenreich is definitely the star of the bunch).  However, production and costume design can only get you so far.  In this so-called comedy, I can count on one hand the amount of times I laughed...and that's a bit of a problem.  The Coen Brothers are admittedly a directorial and writing team who don't always succeed for me, particularly in the comedy world.  Hail, Caesar! is one of those failures.

The RyMickey Rating:  D

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Movie Review - The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans (2016)
Starring Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, and Florence Clery
Directed by Derek Cianfrance

If someone were to come out of The Light Between Oceans and say they were bored senseless, I wouldn't be able to necessarily argue with them.  Writer-director Derek Cianfrance's film is indeed deliberately slow-paced, but to this reviewer it adds much nuance to the film's plot which details the lives of recently married lighthouse keeper Tom and his wife Isabel who live a secluded life on an island, unable to contact anyone on the mainland without the help of a several hour boat ride.  The detachment Tom and Isabel experience is palpably felt thanks to Cianfrance's methodical direction which in addition to looking cinematographically beautiful also gets some emotionally riveting performances from its cast.

Taking place in the early 1920s, Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) is a WWII vet who recently moved to the western Australia coast.  Upon arrival, he is offered a job as a lighthouse keeper on the secluded island of Janus Rock which Tom accepts without hesitation, seeking an opportunity to live alone and reflect upon the horrors of the war.  Tom's seclusion, however, is short-lived as he soon falls for a young woman named Isabel (Alicia Vikander) on one of his visits to the mainland for supplies.  Isabel agrees to marry him and the newly betrothed couple begin their life together on Janus Rock, soon discovering that Isabel is pregnant with their first child.  Ecstatic, the couple prepare for their upcoming arrival, but unfortunately Isabel miscarries which spirals her into a great depression from which she only recovers when the couple discovers that they are pregnant again.  However, this pregnancy is met with the same hurtful result as Isabel loses this child as well.  The confinement of the island coupled with the loss of the two children devastate Isabel, but one afternoon, Isabel and Tom discover a boat floating near the coast of Janus Rock and, upon pulling the craft to shore, they find a weeks-old baby girl inside along with a deceased man.  Because of their seclusion, no one was yet aware of Isabel's latest miscarriage and, after Isabel's insistent pressing of Tom, the couple decide to act as if the baby is theirs.  To say this won't end well shouldn't come as a surprise as upon a visit to shore several years later, Tom discovers a disparate Hannah (Rachel Weisz), devastated that her husband and child seem to have been lost at sea.

The Light Between Oceans is certainly a film in which the human emotional psyche is placed front and center which can lead to an overly melodramatic piece if the director and actors aren't careful.  I'm pleased to report that isn't the case here in the slightest thanks in large part to the performances of the three aforementioned cast members.  Rachel Weisz nicely captures the mournful essence of a recently widowed woman dealing with not only the loss of her husband, but her child as well.  Michael Fassbender's imbues Tom with an icy exterior that melts away when he meets Isabel, only to return when he realizes the gravity of the crime they've committed despite the fact that it has brought the couple much-needed happiness.

The film, however, belongs to Alicia Vikander.  As the film opens, Isabel's youthful sassiness is an attractive asset to the stern Tom and her zest for life doesn't exactly echo the more subdued surroundings of her quiet coastal Australian town.  Capturing the joy of impending motherhood, Vikander also completely embodies the devastation of a woman who loses two children via miscarriage and her brooding pain is palpably felt.  The epicness and freedom their secluded island once gave Isabel now feels lonely, restricting, and painful.  Vikander perfectly captures these varied emotions which take her character on a bit of a roller coaster ride, but never feel out of place.  Together, Vikander and Fassbender (a couple in real life) create a beautiful romance that is dealt many an ill-fated blow.

To me, the film works best in the first two-thirds where the brooding nature and the deliberate slow pace add to Tom and Isabel's plight.  (I will readily admit that this sentiment will not be shared by all.)  The final third is where things begin to derail a little bit and, oddly enough, it's the point when there's the most plot.  Machinations in the story lead the characters of Isabel and Tom to begin to question one another and there's one too many changes in heart as the story progresses.  However, Derek Cianfrance had built up such goodwill in the prior acts that I was willing to overlook it somewhat.  Thanks to some nuanced direction and terrific performances (including the not-yet-mentioned wonderful work from young Florence Clery as Tom and Isabel's child whose acting feels incredibly innocent and natural), The Light Between Oceans is a great start to the awards season.  Unfortunately, I doubt it will be remembered in any capacity come Oscar time.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Movie Review - Sully

Sully (2015)
Starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Mike O'Malley, Jamey Sheridan, Anna Gunn, and Laura Linney
Directed by Clint Eastwood

I have long criticized that as a director Clint Eastwood doesn't create films that garner an emotional connection between the characters and the audience.  There's a disconnect that Eastwood often isn't able to overcome even in films where the kinship should be palpable (ex: American Sniper).  I'm happy to report that isn't the case in Sully, a film that retells the tale of pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and his successful attempt to land a passenger aircraft on the bitterly cold Hudson River on January 15, 2009, after a massive engine failure.  Credit is certainly due to Eastwood for crafting a briskly edited film and capturing a fantastic performance from Tom Hanks as the title character.

The film places Sully in a bit of a predicament, opening not by showing the audience the Hudson River landing, but instead in the midst of the build-up to an evidentiary hearing debating whether Captain Sullenberger could've landed his plane at one of several nearby airports as opposed to on the water.  Most of the film is spent doubting Sully's abilities (by both the NTSB and Sully himself) while at the same time the media touts his heroic effort, and this juxtaposition causes the title character to question his actions -- is he really as good of a pilot as he thought he was and does he deserve the praise he's receiving nationwide despite the fact that he saved all 155 souls onboard the plane.  This conceit of placing Sully under fire does wonders for creating a well-rounded title character in that it allows the fantastic Tom Hanks to play someone largely doubting himself throughout the entirety of the film, a man haunted by a frightening event that, for all intents and purposes, ended positively.  Rather than just be portrayed as a outright hero, Hanks is allowed to layer his performance with humility, anger, confidence, weakness, and strength.  Tom Hanks has always been known as the modern-day Jimmy Stewart -- cinema's everyman, cinema's "normal guy."  While there may seem to be a simplicity with playing a regular joe character like Sully, Hanks creates an effortlessly humbling performance which, to this moviegoer, isn't necessarily easy to achieve.

Kudos must also be given to Eastwood whose tautly directed film (which clocks in at a speedy 96 minutes) creates suspense out of a 205-second plane landing and its aftermath -- the results of which we in the audience already know the outcome.  In a successful effort to keep our interest, Eastwood (and the screenwriter, presumably) has his film jump around in time and while we in the audience never question where we are in the chronological timeline, we at least are given a bit of a puzzle to piece together from this admittedly well-known story.  While it gets a tad repetitive towards the end (we essentially get a complete redo of the plane landing sequence which we had already seen less than thirty minutes prior), Eastwood successfully creates a tension-filled movie and doesn't disappoint with his lensing of the initial landing sequence -- a moment we in the audience are waiting for from the outset.

Along with a nice supporting turn from Aaron Eckhart as Sully's co-pilot Jeff Skiles (who is a real-life person I didn't know about in the slightest), Eastwood has created a winner with Sully.  Color me surprised as I didn't think the aging director had it in him, but he proved me wrong with this one.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

TV Review - Crisis in Six Scenes

Crisis in Six Scenes
Starring Woody Allen, Elaine May, Miley Cyrus, John Magaro, and Rachel Brosnahan
Directed by Woody Allen
***This show is currently streaming via Amazon Prime***
I preface many of my Woody Allen reviews with the notion that I've discovered the auteur's work within the past decade, so I'm not really aware of all the movies that he released during the 1970s/80s which most people would deem his best era of work.  I mention this only to say that while I enjoy Woody Allen, I don't hold him up on some pedestal, like some may.  His work in the new millennium is certainly a crapshoot with some films being quite good and some being quite bad. Unfortunately, Allen's first foray into episodic television falls into the latter category as Crisis in Six Scenes feels more like a disappointing two-hour movie broken up into 22-minute segments than a tv show.

Ultimately, it's that lack of "tv feel" that is one of the biggest hindrances to the success of Crisis in Six Scenes.  When formulating a tv show -- even if it's a tv show that has an overarching storyline over the course of its season -- individual episodes tend to have a sense of encapsulation.  Sure, if the "A" storyline runs throughout the season, there's at least a "B" or "C" storyline that wraps up in a comedy's 22 minutes or a drama's 44 minutes on network, cable, or streaming tv.  Here, Woody Allen has none of that.  He has literally just chopped up a movie into segments for a tv show.  Given the streaming format of this show (via Amazon Prime) where all episodes are available at one time, Allen's technique makes no sense whatsoever because he's essentially gipped Amazon out of a tv series and and really just delivered a movie.  I don't think it was Allen trying to reinvent the wheel or try something "different," it was simply that he had no concept of how to craft a television comedy so he wrote a movie and just chopped it up into twenty minute piecemeal segments.

It's not simply Allen's lack of television prowess that hinders Crisis in Six Scenes from working.  Frankly, it's just not all that funny.  Taking place in the 1960s, Allen plays Sidney J. Munsinger, a novelist who has decided to try his hand at writing for television (so meta).  His wife Kay (Elaine May) is a marriage counselor who works out of their fancy home in the fancy suburbs of New York City.  While life is pleasant enough for the aging couple, things begin to spin out of control when hippie revolutionary Lennie Dale (Miley Cyrus) shows up on their doorstep looking for refuge after she fashioned a prison break to escape from jail.  Incarcerated for a radical protest bombing (this is a comedy, remember), Lennie has come to the Munsinger household because when she was a child she had a relationship with Kay and hopes that the elderly Kay will protect her now.

This doesn't sit well with Sidney and in Sidney, Woody Allen's typical neurotic Jewish schtick shines through.  Allen is actually fine, though.  He's playing the same character I've seen him play in everything so if you buy into that -- which I do -- you'll find the series tolerable.  His interactions with his wife Kay as she slowly starts to buy into Lennie's radical philosophies are the best parts of the show.  But unfortunately, there's not much else that Crisis in Six Scenes has going for it.  Miley Cyrus simply isn't a good enough actress to feel believable as the 1960s revolutionary, although, in her defense, she's not exactly gifted a great role.  The rest of Allen's story here feels stretched out in order to accommodate the series' six episode runtime than actually benefit the production.

Sure, there are moments of cleverness and I laughed a few times, but Crisis in Six Scenes is really a bit of a mess.  I was looking forward to this show for some reason and I admittedly binge-watched it over the course of two late nights (so I wasn't inherently turned off by what I saw to stop watching after two episodes), but it was a pretty big disappointment.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Movie Review - Pete's Dragon

Pete's Dragon (2016)
Starring Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, and Karl Urban
Directed by David Lowery

The original 1977 Pete's Dragon doesn't hold a particularly fond place in this Disney fan's heart simply in that it wasn't a staple in my household growing up.  I was hoping that would bode well for the prospects of Disney's 2016 remake, but unfortunately the updated version was a bit of a disappointment.  Although it was well acted, I found the film to be rather dull, lacking enchantment considering the somewhat whimsical subject matter.

While driving with his parents through the forests of the Northwest United States, a horrible car accident occurs and leaves six year-old Pete the only survivor.  Wandering the woods with no one to help him, Pete comes across a green, furry dragon whom he names Elliot and the two become close friends.  Six years later, an eleven year-old Pete (Oakes Fegley) is discovered by Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a national park ranger, who brings the young boy back to town.  Despite having the luxuries of modern-day conveniences, Pete misses his friend Elliot, but he has a difficult time convincing people that his dragon/friend/caretaker is real.

Throw in some bad (though not necessarily "evil") loggers, Grace's somewhat kooky father (played by Robert Redford), and a bit of an unnecessarily destructive climax involving a bridge collapse and you end up having a film that feels like it needed a little more focus in order to succeed.  As mentioned, the acting across the board is quite good, but the cast isn't given much to work with here.  This is a kid's movie about a dragon for goodness sakes -- it should scream "fun" and "enchanting," but director and co-writer David Lowery's film lacks any charm and fancifulness.  While Lowery crafts a film that looks good and creates a believable atmosphere for its characters (including the computer-generated Elliot) to inhabit, I found myself not wanting to spend all that much time with them with the heavy dreariness that seems to permeate throughout the piece.

Once again, as is often the case, Disney's live-action remake machine disappoints.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Monday, October 03, 2016

Theater Review - Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot
Written by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Ben Barnes
Where: Thompson Theatre at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When:  Sunday, October 2, 2pm
Photo by Paul Cerro/The REP

So is a play a success if it aims to be boring and succeeds at that?  While some may argue that Waiting for Godot isn't tedious, but rather an engaging 150 minutes of tragicomedy, this theatergoer must disagree.  However, considering this is a play that focuses on the mundanity and repetition of daily existence, I'd say the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players' production of Samuel Beckett's well-known play is a success despite the fact that I never want to see it again.

I had never read Waiting for Godot in any literature class, but its reputation was certainly known to me.  It's been the butt of numerous jokes all of which capitalize on the notion that it's a play about "nothing" -- a bit of a 1950s Seinfeld episode stretched out to over two hours.  Plot-wise, I'd concur - the play is really about nothing other than two hobo-ish tramps sitting around talking (in a very circular way) as they literally wait around for a guy named Godot who -- spoiler alert -- never shows. While there's minimal plot (or, as some would say, no plot), there is something here.  A pre-show talk featuring REP member Steve Tague keyed me in to the notion of the play being about people's daily repetitive lives while also allowing some small, though key, glimpses into the post-WWII era in which the play was written.  

All of that is well and good...but you still walk away from it going, "Is that all?"  It's a play I'm glad I saw, but I'd never recommend it to anyone.  That said, if you're going to see a production of Waiting for Godot, I have to imagine the REP is putting on as good of a one as you're going to get.  The playful, almost clownish repartee between REP leads Stephen Pelinski and Lee Ernst -- the former is as good as always and the latter succeeds in making this his best REP role yet -- makes the play innately watchable despite the fact that you're often admittedly struck dull by the monotony of the piece.  The sometimes quick back-and-forth patter between Ernst and Pelinski oftentimes had a very "Who's on First" Abbot and Costello stylization which at least provides pockets of amusement in the midst of ennui that makes up much of the rest of the dialog.  Nice turns from Mic Matarrese and Michael Gotch round out the ensemble who all deserve the credit for allowing me as a viewer to "hang in there" when many would've baled...or at the very least fallen asleep (as the woman next to me did as well as two people in the front row).

Amid a barren, though starkly beautiful set by Kristen Robinson, to me director Ben Barnes does all that he can with the script and certainly, as mentioned, gets the very best from his cast of actors.  Obviously, those more erudite than me find this play to be a bit of a masterpiece and I'm nowhere near able to agree with that statement.  Surprisingly, though, as I formulated this review, I found myself wanting to read a bit more about the play and research its "meanings" and "reason for existence."  Perhaps I'll do that in time.  In the end, Waiting for Godot wasn't nearly as bad as I expected it to be.  And while I admit that's damning praise, I'm actually very happy the REP afforded me the opportunity to see the piece performed.

Friday, September 30, 2016

The 2015 RyMickey Awards - Best Film

And the 2015 RyMickey Awards come to an end with this year's final category -- Best Picture of the Year.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've become a bit nicer in my old age -- I doled out more B's and above this year percentage-wise than most other years.  Looking back, I may have been a tad too generous, but I feel like I've crafted a really solid Top Twenty list this year full of blockbusters, indie pics, documentaries, dramas, comedies, musicals, animation -- I really ran the gamut of genres which pleasantly surprised me when I began to realize what films made it into my Top Twenty.

I urge my few readers to give a movie or two listed below a chance -- more than half are streaming in some capacity, so check them out if any of them pique your interest.

Best Films of 2015
(SoN = Streaming on Netflix / SoA = Streaming on Amazon / SoH = Streaming on HBO)

#50 - Cinderella   ---   #49- The Peanuts Movie (SoH)
#48 - Manson Family Vacation (SoN)   ---   #47 - The Voices (SoA)
#46 - 45 Years   ---   #45 - Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (SoA)
#44 - Batkid Begins (SoN)   ---   #43 - Grandma
#42 - 6 Years (SoN)   ---   #41 - I Smile Back (SoA)
#40 - Victoria (SoN)   ---   #39 - Everest (SoH)   ---   #38 - Circle (SoN)
#37 - I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (SoA)
#36 - We Are Still Here (SoN)   ---   #35 - The Gift
#34 - Jurassic World (SoH)   ---    #33 - Straight Outta Compton (SoH)
#32 - The Age of Adaline (SoA)   ---   #31 - Spectre

Honorable Mentions
  • #30 - Me and Earl and the Dying Girl - (B) - A hip irreverence makes this cancer comedy a winner (SoH)
  • #29 - Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief - (B) - One-sided, but rather damning in its indictment of this unique religion (SoH)
  • #28 - The Girl in the Book - (B) - A sleeper film with two very nice female performances at its center (SoN)
  • #27 - The Hateful Eight - (B) - Typical Tarantino, and while I'd like to see him branch out a little more, this is a solid piece squarely in his wheelhouse
  • #26 - In the Heart of the Sea - (B) -  Much better and much more interesting than its lack of box office implies (SoH)
  • #25 - Beasts of No Nation - (B) - A sad tale detailing a horrific atmosphere that is occurring in our world today (SoN)
  • #24 - Anomalisa - (B) - A unique animated tale for adults
  • #23 - Sicario - (B) - Frighteningly realistic in its take on the US/Mexico drug war
  • #22 - About Elly - (B) - Another interesting flick from director Asghar Farhadi that details cultures unknown to most Americans (SoN)
  • #21 - Shaun the Sheep Movie - (B+) - Wonderfully animated and very clever in its ability to tell a story with hardly a word spoken

And the Top Twenty Are...

#20 - Amy - B+
Amy Winehouse never really impacted by musical landscape and it certainly didn't help that her heavily scrutinized public life made her quite unappealing to me.  However, this documentary told completely through interviews with Amy's family, friends, and the singer herself details the tragic story of Ms. Winehouse's early death at the age of 27.  Director Asif Kapadia never presents Amy as a victim, martyr, or saint, but hearing her own words describe the pleasure of the addictions that led to her downfall makes the singer's tragic end all the more poignant. (SoA)

#19 - McFarland, USA - B+
We've seen this underdog sports story many, many times before, yet thanks to a heartwarming turn from Kevin Costner, a well-cast group of unknown actors portraying the McFarland High School track team, and a sentimental story that comes off surprisingly non-treacly, McFarland, USA is a sleeper hit that hopefully more people will come to appreciate in years to come.  

#18 - Danny Collins - B+ 
Danny Collins is an example of one of those little hidden gems that I love to come across over a year of film.  The talented cast take what may have been a typical dramedy about an aging rockstar (albeit with some very clever dialog) and transform it into something more engaging than could be expected.  Underrated and under-seen, Danny Collins is one you should definitely add to your viewing queue. (SoA)

#17 - Inside Out - B+
I didn't hold quite the same affinity towards Inside Out as most critics, finding the film to be a bit lacking in the "heart" department despite attempts by the screenwriters and directors to try and pull on the heartstrings a few times.  For that, Inside Out doesn't land in the upper echelon of Pixar films story-wise for me.  However, visually, it's a bit of a masterpiece.  With wonderfully developed characters expertly voiced by their respective actors, Inside Out is a clever piece of animation.

#16 - The Last Five Years - B  
Attentive readers will notice that my RyMickey Rating for The Last Five Years is a 'B' which is lower than the previously discussed five films in this list which all garnered a 'B+'.  However, The Last Five Years provided a unique experience for me.  I know it's a flawed film.  But I really like it.  Detailing the story of the relationship of Cathy and Jamie, the film is told in a unique manner -- Cathy's side of their story is told from the end to the beginning, whereas Jamie's side of the story is told from the beginning to the end.  The two sides of the story intertwine creating a sometimes disconcerting experience, but an immensely watchable one.  And it's a musical with some heartbreaking and heartwarming songs from composer Jason Robert Brown.  All I'll say is give this one a chance.  It will not be for everyone -- in fact, I've shown it to a few people who think it's one of the worst things they've seen.  But, as I quote at the top of my blog, "The joy of watching arguing about them."  (SoN)

The Top 15 will be revealed by clicking that tiny little "Read More" to the lower left!