Friday, May 26, 2017

Movie Review - The Secret Life of Pets

The Secret Life of Pets (2016)
Featuring the vocal talents of Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell, and Albert Brooks 
Directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

There's nothing inherently wrong with the animated The Secret Life of Pets, but this Illumination Entertainment picture (from the company that brought us the mind-bogglingly popular and also mind-numbing Despicable Me franchise) doesn't excite in any way -- visually, vocally, plot-wise.  In the end, it just sort of sits there, creating amusing-enough background noise, but not involving the viewer in any way.

In full disclosure, I'm not a "pet person" so the plot about what happens when owners leave their pets home alone for the day doesn't ingratiate itself to me at all.  Human Katie (Ellie Kemper) and her dog Max (Louis C.K.) have a nice life together in their small apartment in New York City.  Things are going swell for Max, but then Katie decides to adopt another dog -- a big ole mutt named Duke (Eric Stonestreet) -- which sets off a tension-filled fight for dominance between the two canines.  This leads to a romp through the Big Apple with silly story tangents that fail to really create a cohesively engaging story.

Much like other Illumination Animation pictures, the visuals look decent, but never exquisitely intricate or cleverly designed.  The basic nature carries over to the vocal talent which takes a cadre of comedians who give solid performances, but nothing exciting.  The lack of anything truly riveting is a staple of this studio's animated pics and until they up the ante, they'll just be middle-of-the-road like The Secret Life of Pets.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Movie Review - Lights Out

Lights Out (2016)
Staring Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Billy Burke, and Maria Bello
Directed by David F. Sandberg

While not necessarily the most creative horror film of the last decade, Lights Out takes an intriguing enough premise -- a malicious ghostly entity can only attack when it's completely dark -- and creates a solidly tense film interestingly shot by debut director David F. Sandberg in that the bulk of the scares need to take place in as dark of a setting as possible.

The relatively simple plot involves the young twenty-something Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) who had heretofore been somewhat estranged from her mother (Maria Bello) after a difficult childhood coming back into the life of her elementary school-aged half-brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) after he tells her he's unable to sleep because of some scary paranormal activity occurring in their house.  Remembering similar occurrences in her youth, Rebecca returns home to aid her younger brother and unearths some family secrets that may be behind the supernatural doings.

Nothing about Lights Out is mind-numbingly astounding, but everything is solid across the board.  The acting, direction, and story all work together to create exactly what you want out of a horror film -- to get entertainment out of being a little bit scared.  

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Movie Review - A Bigger Splash

A Bigger Splash (2016)
Starring Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes, and Dakota Johnson
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
***This film is currently streaming via HBO Now/Go***

Critics fawned over A Bigger Splash upon its release last summer, but I find director Luca Guadagnino's piece beautiful to look at, but empty in content.  I'm sure there's some deeper meaning than what's on the surface, but for the casual viewer, there's not a whole lot there there and it doesn't arouse enough excitement to warrant a second viewing to try and figure out if it's got more important things to say.

Tilda Swinton is Marianne Lane, an aging rock star who is taking a break in Italy along with her significant other Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts).  On strict doctor's orders, she has been told to rest her voice and not speak and she obliges (throughout most of the film with the exception of flashbacks), but Marianne and Paul's quiet respite is interrupted when Marianne's former record producer and boyfriend Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) and his twenty-three year-old daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) show up and want to have a bit of fun.

The quartet's relationships are tested throughout the weekend...which should provide some modicum of excitement or tension, but it really doesn't.  The film is well acted.  Swinton is always good and she doesn't disappoint here, taking on an oddly Charlie Chaplin-esque persona seeing as how her character is unable to speak throughout the flick.  Fiennes is also endearingly manic crafting an amusing persona that adds comedy to the mix.  Unfortunately, these two engaging performances don't counter the boring, blasé story that envelops the characters.  Sure, the lensing adds a lushness to the proceedings, but nothing plot-wise happens here until thirty minutes remain, pivoting the film in a different direction that feels natural, but not necessarily indigenous to all that came before.  The out-of-left field conclusion at least adds some much needed excitement to the preceding monotony, but it's not enough to save A Bigger Splash which despite pretty visuals, is too bland to matter.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Movie Review - Other People

Other People (2016)
Starring Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon, Bradley Whitford, Maude Apatow, Madisen Beatty, Paul Dooley, and June Squibb
Directed by Chris Kelly
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Eschewing the melodrama (for the most part) that accompanies films of its ilk, writer-director Chris Kelly has crafted a surprisingly light-hearted, emotionally poignant debut feature in Other People which revolves around a difficult subject -- coping with the impending death of a loved one.  It doesn't surprise me that the film is loosely based on Kelly's life seeing as how the film feels believably lived in, managing to meld comedy with drama effortlessly with neither aspect feeling short-changed.

David (Jesse Plemons) is a gay twenty-nine year-old television comedy writer who has moved back home from New York City to California after his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon) is diagnosed with cancer.  With treatment not helping, Joanne decides to quit chemotherapy and try and live the rest of her life to the fullest with her son, two daughters (Maude Apatow, Madisen Beatty), and husband (Bradley Whitford) making the most of their remaining time together.

From the outset of the film, we know that Joanne has died.  Writer Kelly smartly does this so that we in the audience aren't wondering, "Will she make it?"  Knowing that she doesn't, we become more invested in the characters and their journey instead of trying to guess the ending.  Sure, this creates a sense of melancholy from the get-go, but Kelly smarty counters the depressing mood with the character David's humor which he obviously has learned in large part from his mother.  Cleverly choosing comedienne Molly Shannon to play Joanne, director Kelly has an actress obviously well known for her comedic roles, but Shannon is just as good in the quieter, more dramatic moments when the heaviness of her situation rears its ugly head.  Jesse Plemons is also very good here, mining comedy from its deadpan aspects which proves a nice counter to Shannon's more broad type of humor and the two styles work well with one another and also meld nicely with the film's more dramatic moments.

The film falters a little bit when it delves into David's private life -- moments detailing his relationship with his father who has disapproved of his gay lifestyle for the past decade fall flat and feel a little tacked on to the real crux of the story, however true they may be to Kelly's real life.  Still, the film allows the character of David to interact with a bunch of different characters other than Joanne -- his sisters, his grandparents, his ex-boyfriend -- and this variety of relationships creates an incredibly well-rounded character at the center of this little indie film.  This is a fantastic debut for writer-director Chris Kelly and I look forward to seeing whatever he can craft next in his cinematic career.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Monday, May 22, 2017

Movie Review - The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train (2016)
Starring Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Edgar Ramirez, Laura Prepon, Allison Janney, and Lisa Kudrow
Directed by Tate Taylor

When I first saw the trailer for The Girl on the Train, I felt a tinge of excitement.  Was this going to be another successful modern-day Hitchcockian thriller along the lines of the glorious Gone Girl?  I then proceeded to read the immensely successful book and realized that The Girl on the Train was unlikely to be a cinematic treat because the debut novel by Paula Hawkins was a bit of a bust.  Sure enough, the movie ends up being a bust as well, despite a solid performance from Emily Blunt as the titular character.

Blunt is Rachel Watson, an alcoholic divorcée who spends her days riding a train from the suburbs to New York City and back again.  The train passes by her old house which her husband Tom (Justin Theroux) now shares with his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and their baby.  Naturally, the train also passes by the house of Tom's neighbors, the Hipwells.  Scott and Megan (Luke Evans, Haley Bennett) seem like a happy, young couple, but one morning Rachel spots Megan on the porch in the embrace of another man.  Shortly thereafter, Rachel hears on the news that Megan has gone missing and, in her drunken haze, Rachel sets out to investigate.  Unfortunately for Rachel, she herself has no recollection of what she was doing the night Megan was last seen...and the police headed by Detective Riley (Allison Janney) seem to think Rachel may have something to do with Megan's disappearance.

The book was largely an internal piece with the story told through the inner monologues of both Rachel and Megan.  The film tries to tackle this with voiceovers, but voiceovers are always a tricky proposition in movies and having to base a large majority of your plot around them is a bit tiresome.  Emily Blunt is successful in creating the depressed Rachel and nicely embodies the character I envisioned whilst reading the book.  Unfortunately, the screenplay isn't any better than Paula Hawkins' novel with the culprit behind Megan's disappearance surprisingly obvious about halfway through in both iterations.  In the end, what good is a mystery if you can solve it at the midpoint?

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Movie Review - The Witch

The Witch (2016)
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson
Directed by Robert Eggers
***This film is currently streaming via Amazon Prime***

Subtitled "A New-England Folktale," The Witch takes us back to a 17th century Puritan landscape where William (Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), teenage daughter Thomas (Anya Taylor-Joy), "tween" son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), young twins (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), and baby are forced to leave the established community after a religious disagreement.  Banished, the family stakes their claim on an isolated plot of land that borders a forest, but soon after creating their homestead, their young baby disappears while under the watch of their oldest daughter.  The devoutly religious Katherine is certain that their missing daughter is punishment by God for their Puritan banishment, but William refuses to return to the settled community.  Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse rather quickly with the family finding themselves forced to face demons that may or may not be real.

I wanted to enjoy The Witch more than I did.  First-time writer-director Robert Eggers has certainly crafted an ominous, creepy environment filled with a muted gray color palette that adds to the eerie aesthetic.  The actors -- from the youngest to the oldest -- do a fantastic job ties embodying the inherent oddness of the guilt-ridden early Americana Puritan landscape and help to add to the uncomfortableness that's felt throughout the piece.  Their constant questioning into who to place their trust -- family or religion -- is nicely depicted by the actors and the Eggers' script.  In the end, though, it's a film that doesn't quite have enough story to maintain its ninety minute runtime.  Tightening things up by about twenty minutes would've done wonders to the film and created a tauter, more intense affair.  As it stands now, the slow pace bogs the film down rather than ratchet up the tension.  The Witch works at creating its unique environment, but in the end, it's not a horror film that I ever feel the need to watch again.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Movie Review - Glassland

Glassland (2016)
Starring Toni Collette, Jack Reynor, and Will Poulter
Directed by Gerard Barrett

Two great performances...one boring movie.  That about sums of Glassland -- so much potential and yet disappointingly disengaging.  Writer-director Gerard Barrett has crafted a fantastically emotionally fraught thirty minutes...and then not much else after that.  However, what's good is really good and shows that Barrett has an eye for grippingly emotional heartache.

Jack Reynor is John, a Dublin taxi driver, whose mother Jean (Toni Collette) is drinking herself to her demise.  Living with his mother is a job in and of itself with John having to attempt to watch after her whenever he's not out in his cab.  Finally, after one particularly rough night when he finds his mother unconscious with vomit strewn across her bed, he decides that he has to try and help her kick her addiction, forcing her into a rehab facility.

Reynor is a newcomer to me and shows strength as the beleaguered Jack, creating emotional heft in his grim desperation.  His love for his mother shines amidst his dreary surroundings, but it doesn't come without heartbreak.  As good as Reynor is, Toni Collette is even better, embodying the harrowing downfall of an alcoholic with such painful earnestness that it was sometimes uncomfortable to see her unravel in front of our eyes.

The duo's interactions with one another made me wish that Glassland was a better film, but unfortunately there's not much story here.  Side plots about Jack's friend Shane (Will Poulter) attempting to reconnect with his young son and a human trafficking ring into which Jack is pulled are throwaway stories used only to pad the film's runtime which is already a short ninety minutes.  In the end, Glassland is a bit of a misfire, albeit one with some wonderful and humanistic portrayals.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Friday, May 19, 2017

Theater Review - Tartuffe + REP 2016-17 Wrap-Up

Tartuffe
Written by Moliere
Translated into English verse by Richard Wilbur
Directed by Maria Aitken
Where: Thompson Theatre at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When:  Sunday, April 30, 2pm
Photo by Evan Krape / REP

No review of this per se as this production has long ceased.  A few words simply for my own posterity's sake.

  • The production was engaging and well-acted although in these over-the-top farcical plays, the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players sometimes chew the scenery a bit more than necessary, crafting comedic "caricatures" as opposed to comedic "characters."
  • Beautiful set -- as is typical of the REP's productions.  Hugh Landwehr's three story abode featured clever touches that added a lived-in sensibility to the atmosphere.  Looking back over my previous reviews, Mr. Landwehr has teamed up with director Maria Aitken before at the REP for Heartbreak House and while his set doesn't quite match the exquisiteness and uniqueness of that prior attempt, it comes close.
  • Speaking of Aitken, she keeps things briskly moving along and while I did find a bit of fault with some of the performances, Aitken gets her cast to land all of the comedic bits in great fashion.  I certainly laughed and enjoyed myself over the course of the play's two hours.
  • As I'll discuss below, fresh faces are growing increasingly important for the REP (in my opinion) and co-stars Kristin Villanueva and Justin Keyes as two lovers were welcome additions to the cast this go-around.
This REP season overall was a bit of a disappointing one.  The first show of the season -- God of Carnage -- ended up being my favorite piece of the season.  I really think the REP excels nowadays with modern works because it allows the ensemble to explore a more modern sensibility in terms of acting.  These "current" works are few and far between for them and I think it freshens things up.

While I appreciate the consistency of the ensemble, it proves to be a double-edged sword.  Some of their actorly mannerisms have now grown so well-known to this frequent theatergoer that it hinders my ability to see the character they're creating.  While I still thoroughly enjoy longtime REP members Stephen Pelinski, Kathleen Pirkl Tague, Elizabeth Heflin, Michael Gotch, and Mic Matarrese, it's always nice to see some fresh faces thrown into the mix.  This season Hassan El-Amin was added to the ensemble and I hope he'll continue to get some prominent placement in upcoming shows.  I'll also continue to hope that the University of Delaware's theater program brings back its well-regarded PTTP training program for graduate students.  Nothing quite compared to that fantastic 2010-11 season of ten productions featuring both the resident ensemble plus the talented student cast.  I miss those days, but unfortunately this just doesn't seem like something the University wishes to bring back.

Regardless, the REP continues to excel at creating exquisite environments -- set and costume design never disappoint and are sometimes worth the price of admission alone.  Unfortunately, something just didn't quite click with me this season.  With the exception of The Bells -- seriously, the REP can drop its fascination with Theresa Rebeck -- nothing outright disappointed, but nothing roused me enough to tell others to check out the production.  I'd usually write my reviews as soon as I'd get home in hopes that maybe one person out there would say to themselves, "Maybe I should check out that production of Noises Off or A Midsummer Night's Dream or Wait Until Dark or The Glass Menagerie."  This season -- not so much.  I'm always happy to be afforded the opportunity to see plays I've heard so much about -- The Elephant Man, Waiting for Godot, Clybourne Park -- but had never seen even if they end up leaving me feeling lukewarm rather than captivated.  Still, here's hoping for a return to form with the 2017-18 season!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

TV Review - Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies (2017)
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Zoë Kravitz, Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Scott, James Tupper, Jeffrey Nordling, and Iain Armitage
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
***This show is currently available via HBO Now/Go***

I don't usually delve into television all that much here on the blog, but the star wattage of HBO's Big Little Lies was undeniably calling for me to at least check out the first installment of this seven episode limited series.  Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley headline this intriguing mystery series set in the beachfront community of Monterey, California -- a town where the wealthy adult inhabitants trash-talk one another behind their backs as if they were petty high school gossipers.  As the series opens, someone has died at a hugely popular fundraising event for the town's public elementary school.  We don't know who is dead, but we know that the police are investigating the scene as if something malicious occurred.  As the various residents of the community talk about the backstabbing, strong-willed moms and dads who attended the event, we flashback a few weeks to the start of the school year and that's where all the fun begins.

Single mom Jane Chapman (Woodley) has just moved to Monterey with her first-grade son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) who is quiet, subdued, and perhaps a bit of a pushover -- traits Jane carries as well which don't particularly fit in with the uppity community of Monterey.  After the first day of school, Ziggy is called out in public by classmate Annabella as having tried to choke her during class.  Annabella's mother is Renata Klein (Laura Dern), a strong-willed executive whose guilt about returning to the workforce makes her virulently appalled anytime her daughter is wronged.  Ziggy denies hurting Annabella and the wealthy Madeline Martha Mckenzie (Reese Witherspoon) immediately comes to Jane and Ziggy's aid, in large part because Madeline and Renata are seemingly the two den mothers of distinct large packs of Monterey elite with neither caring for one another in the slightest.  Madeline is also good friends with Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman), a retired lawyer and mom of twin boys, and while Celeste is a little more hesitant to simply believe Ziggy's innocence, she's frankly got more personal things to be worried about -- she's in the midst of a horribly abusive relationship with her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) that she can't get out of...or perhaps doesn't want to remove herself from.

Yes, I realize the brief summary may create some confusion, but that's not even half of the web of interpersonal relationships that play a role in Big Little Lies and despite the tangled web, it's all incredibly crystal clear where and when allegiances are forged and tensions are raised.  David E. Kelley's script is pitch perfect at creating an uppity liberal atmosphere where wealth and bitchiness equals power.  Yes, the women presented are all strong, but they're all battling with the fact that they feel they have to exhibit nastiness in order to get their way in their town.  This inner conflict in all of them -- they so obviously don't want to act the way they do -- is a pivotal aspect of the character development here and Kelley nails it.

Not only does Kelley succeed, the actresses in this piece are all stellar.  Shailene Woodley is an actress I hadn't yet loved, but here she's spot-on as the beleaguered mother who desperately wants to believe her child's innocence, but begins to question it as the community begins to rally against her.  Reese Witherspoon is perhaps the best she's ever been (dramatically speaking) as Madeline whose past indiscretions begin to rear their ugly heads as the series progresses.  For the first several episodes, I thought she was going to be the MVP here, but then along comes a tour de force performance from Nicole Kidman in the final three episodes and I had to concede the MVP title to her.  As a bruised and battered wife who feels unworthy of love and affection, her Celeste is heartbreakingly numb to her surroundings and her pain is palpable throughout.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee (whose previous films Wild and Dallas Buyers Club failed to impress me) not only gets great performances from his trio of leading ladies, but from his entire cast including Laura Dern, Zoë Kravitz, and the young Iain Armitage.  Along with a heavy dark, muted color palette that morosely paints most of the visuals, Vallee's camera often lingers in scenes, making us as viewers sometimes feel uncomfortable as we impede on the lives of these strong-willed, flawed women.  In the end, though, we don't want to leave.  At seven episodes, Big Little Lies was much too short.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Movie Review - Café Society

Café Society (2016)
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Corey Stoll, Jeannie Berlin, and Anna Camp
Directed by Woody Allen
***This film is currently streaming on Amazon Prime***

Café Society is a nonstarter when it comes to a Woody Allen movie.  There's nothing about it that really pops, but there's nothing about it that's bad enough to rouse hatred.  In the end, it's just a middle-of-the-road flick from a prolific auteur who has maybe run out of ideas when it comes to comedy despite still having some life in him when it comes to writing and directing dramas.

It's the 1930s and Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) isn't happy working for his jeweler father in New York City so he decides to move to Los Angeles where he gets a job running errands for his uncle Phil (Steve Carell) who is one of the biggest agents in Hollywood.  At his uncle's office, Bobby meets secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and immediately becomes infatuated with her.  Unfortunately for Bobby, Vonnie happens to be secretly seeing her married boss, Phil, but she's aggravated that he won't leave his wife despite promises that he will.  With Phil leaving her in limbo, Vonnie acquiesces to Bobby's advances, but their relationship eventually causes some tension between Bobby and Phil, leaving the young man to head back home to New York City where a whole second half of the story begins involving a ritzy supper club.

And therein lies the biggest problem with Café Society -- it's two disparate stories that don't really mesh together as well as they should.  The film really is broken into two halves and while neither half is disproportionately worse than the other, it just doesn't really click as a whole.  Fortunately, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart have nice chemistry (in what I believe is their third film together) which helps Woody Allen's words come to life.  Anna Camp, Parker Posey, and Blake Lively take on cameo-sized roles and inject a lot of character into them as well.  In the end, though, Woody Allen may have been better served if he just chose one half on which to focus.  Still, Café Society isn't the worst of Allen films, but it's certainly not the best.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+