Friday, July 01, 2016

Movie Review - I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story

I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (2015)
Directed by Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker
***This film is currently strewing on Amazon Prime***

Much like Mickey Mouse, there's an iconic nature to Big Bird, the lovable childlike yellow bird whom huge portions of the world spent watching as kids.  The innocence of Big Bird stems from Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who has been inside that huge costume since Sesame Street's inception and continues voicing and bringing him to life today.  I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is a lovely documentary that gives voice to the man inside that costume and how his life drastically changed when Jim Henson spotted him at a puppet expo in the late 1960s.

It's tough not to have a smile on your face the whole run time of I Am Big Bird (except for the surprisingly gut-wrenching moment when Big Bird sings at Jim Henson's funeral -- oh man, that nearly got me).  Sure, Spinney has some difficult moments in both his personal and professional life that are chronicled here, but he seems to be a genuinely sweet, mild-mannered, and soft-spoken guy who has lived in an exemplary way, desiring to bring joy to the youth of America and around the world.  This sense of happiness oftentimes had me wondering what exactly the point of the documentary was -- I mean, there's very little dramatic tension -- but then I realized that the point is for people like me to be able to appreciate someone who had great impact on their life.  Through interviews with Spinney, his wife, children, fellow Sesame Street cast members (Luis!  Maria!), and puppeteers, we get a great picture of the man who created not only Big Bird, but also Oscar the Grouch.

As I said, there's very little emotional impact here and writer/co-director Dave La Mattina jumps around in Spinney's personal time line in a way that felt slightly odd to me, but I Am Big Bird still was a joy to watch.  I can't see how anyone who grew up watching Sesame Street on weekday mornings wouldn't get a kick out of seeing the man behind the puppets they love.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Movie Review - Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Starring Chris Evans, Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Daniel Brühl, William Hurt, Martin Freeman, John Slattery, Alfre Woodard, and Marisa Tomei
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo

The casts of these Marvel movies just keep growing -- I can't tag nearly all of those famous people in the labels attached to this review -- but the films following the Avengers team saga keep getting better so I approve of the multiplying ensemble.  Captain America: Civil War certainly has its epic action sequences, but it's the Marvel movie that feels the most grounded in reality -- of course, it's a reality filled with flying, shrinking, web-slinging, and energy manipulating superheroes, but it's the most realistic Marvel depiction of these folks yet.  Without aliens desiring to wreak havoc or supervillains intent on literally raising cities off of the Earth, Captain America: Civil War pits Iron Man Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Captain America Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) against one another as they try to determine the Avengers' place in the world.

Building off the events of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Civil War asks the question as to whether the Avengers do more harm than good.  Following the devastating damage the Avengers helped to cause when taking down Ultron who was intent on destroying Sokovia, worldwide agencies want to make the Avengers answer to a governing body in an attempt to keep them from simply running rampant across the world.  Sure they do good, but the Avengers are also reckless at times.  Tony Stark is amenable to this treatise, but Steve Rogers feels that it will severely inhibit the Avengers' ability to fight evil.  Our superheroes -- Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), and the newest member Spider-Man (Tom Holland) -- take sides, all while Captain America tries to figure out if his former buddy Bucky Barnes AKA the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is responsible for an attack on the United Nations-esque body that is responsible for instituting the Sokovia Accords.

For me -- someone who isn't a huge comic book movie fan, despite having seen all of the new era of Marvel films -- the biggest reason for the success of Captain America: Civil War (which isn't really a Captain America movie so much as another Avengers picture) is that the villains here aren't foreign entities like superhuman computers or outer space creatures, but based in reality.  Add to that, the tension that arises within the Avengers group themselves is surprisingly palpable and dramatically effective.  Plus, in typical Marvel fashion, the film knows when to lighten things up, creating nice pops of humor when the heavier story desperately needs it.  The Russo Brothers who did a great job with Captain America: Winter Soldier do an even better job here and I look forward to what they can bring to the oftentimes over-bloated Avengers films.

The character of Captain America is one that didn't start out successful for me in the slightest.  In fact, the original Captain America film is one of my least favorites in the Marvel canon.  However, as the character of Steve Rogers has grown and developed, he's become compelling and captivating.  Placing him front and center here in a battle against some of his former allies creates what I think is the best Marvel film to date.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Monday, June 27, 2016

Movie Review - Paper Towns

Paper Towns (2015)
Starring Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Halston Sage, and Jaz Sinclair
Directed by Jake Schreier
***This film is currently streaming on HBO Now***

I'm unashamed to say that I was a fan of The Fault in Our Stars, with the film garnering a top 15 spot on my list of 2014's best of the year.  When another one of author John Green's novels, Paper Towns, was adapted for the screen last year, my expectations were somewhat high, although its trailer and reviews were significantly weaker-looking.  While Paper Towns doesn't aspire to be the emotional teenage drama that is The Fault in Our Stars, it also doesn't really succeed at being much of anything, crafting a film's plot around a character who is unappealing and egotistically self-centered which makes other characters' fascination with her irritating as opposed to compelling.

As young kids, Quentin and Margo were great friends, with the adventurous Margo drawing out the more timid Quentin to fun times outside the confines of their respective yards.  Now seniors in high school, Quentin and Margo (Nat Wolff and Cara Delevingne) have drifted apart socially over the past few years despite still living across the street from one another.  Quentin's a little geeky (not overly so, mind you) whilst Margo hangs with the cool kids, but one evening, Margo knocks on Quentin's bedroom window like old times asking him to cause some crazy havoc on her friends who have betrayed her.  Quentin agrees and they have a great night together putting saran wrap on cars and shaving off eyebrows of Margo's former friends.  The next morning, however, Margo is gone...and it's not the first time the now eighteen year-old has run away from home.  Quentin, still reeling from his reunion with Margo, begins to see clues the clever Margo has left behind in order to reveal her location to anyone who may care enough to investigate and Quentin sets out to find her.

Nat Wolff and the two actors playing his buddies - Austin Abrams and Justice Smith - do a lot to make Paper Towns watchable with their witty repartee, as does Halston Sage as Margo's best friend Lacey who can't understand what she did to make Margo so angry, but Lacey's confusion over Margo's sudden departure is part of the biggest overarching problem with the film.  Why exactly does Margo leave?  Why exactly did she turn on her friends after so long, particularly Lacey?  Why exactly does Quentin feel this need to go and find her?  None of these questions are answered satisfactorily in any way and Margo herself as a person seems like someone who doesn't give a damn about whom she hurts or leaves behind.  Yet, despite spending two-thirds of the movie searching for this gal, Paper Towns fails to make me care about or understand why any of the characters care about finding this girl.  Paper Towns was never meant to have the emotional impact of something like The Fault in Our Stars, but I at least hoped it'd resonate as a nice coming of age teen flick which it unfortunately does not.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Movie Review - Batkid Begins

Batkid Begins (2015)
Directed by Dana Nachman
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Batkid Begins is essentially one big, feature-length commercial for the wonderful Make-A-Wish Foundation charity and while it doesn't quite have the dramatic impact I'd hoped considering its emotional story, it's an admirable documentary about changing one cancer survivor's life forever.  Six year-old Miles Scott was diagnosed with leukemia at 18 months old and he battled for years to fight the cancer, finally succeeding.  When approached by the Make-A-Wish Foundation which grants wishes to kids fighting various diseases, Miles' wish was to be Batman -- not just meet Batman, but be Batman.  What started as a modest concept by Patricia Wilson, the head of the Greater Bay Area-based chapter of the charity organization, turned into an epic event attended by 25,000 people as the streets of San Francisco turned into Gotham City for one afternoon to make a young boy's dreams come true as he regained some of his childhood he had lost to battling leukemia.

I can't deny that the corners of my eyes welled up with a few tears as portions of this film progressed, particularly in a quiet moment the day before the City by the Bay's transformation into Gotham in which Miles gets to practice becoming a superhero.  As Miles' story unfolds, you can't help but be moved by this young kid's awe and fascination as his dream of becoming Batman comes true (although, at times, you can also sense an overwhelming aspect of the whole affair to this child).  You also can't help but be amazed at how many people stepped up and volunteered to make Miles' dream a reality.  The short film is innately watchable and well done, but in the end, it's a bit too pleasantly one-note (and this is coming from a reviewer who admires films that carry an old-time sentimental mentality).  By starting the film with images from the amazing day and interviews with Miles and his parents after-the-fact, director Dana Nachman loses a little bit of the impact from the build-up to the eventful day.

While I do have some qualms, it's tough to dislike Batkid Begins.  The feel-good nature of the piece is impossible not to enjoy.  While I had hoped for a little more of an emotional core and a little less of a Make-a-Wish infomercial, Batkid Begins certainly shows the fantastic work of the charity organization and the happiness that it provides to kids who so deserve a little bit of happiness in their lives.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Movie Review - We Are Your Friends

We Are Your Friends (2015)
Starring Zac Efron, Wes Bentley, Emily Ratajkowski, Jonny Weston, Shiloh Fernandez, Alex Shaffer, and Jon Bernthal
Directed by Max Joseph
***This film is currently streaming on HBO Now***

I'm typically not a fan of movies that glorify a drug-filled slacker lifestyle, but color me surprised that something clicked with We Are Your Friends, a film that unjustifiably garnered one of the lowest opening weekend (and grand total) box office grosses ever for a wide release film.  We Are Your Friends is by no means a film without flaws (the film's climactic ending, as an example, comes off more laughable than dramatically effective) but the drubbing it received from the public is a bit surprising seeing how this coming of age film seems like it would've hit home with the college age "finding yourself" crowd.

We follow young twenty-something Cole (Zac Efron), a San Fernando Valley DJ, who spends his free time perfecting his craft by hovering over his computer and hanging out with his trio of slacker friends (Jonny Weston, Shiloh Fernandez, and Alex Shaffer) who all do what they can (including selling drugs) in order to make ends meet.  One evening at a club event where he is DJ'ing, Cole meets James (Wes Bentley), an older, more experienced spinner who invites Cole out for a night on the town, after which they become friends.  The mentor/mentee relationship begins well, but starts to falter when Cole finds himself falling for James's girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski) and an infamous cinematic love triangle begins to form.

The film makes much use of music, detailing how DJs gradually amp up their rhythms to get the crowd in a never-ending groove.  First-time feature film director Max Joseph utilizes a rampant pulsing beat throughout many of the film's scenes that while creating a music video atmosphere also perfectly depicts the places inhabited by the characters in the film.  The frenetic club sequences are nicely balanced by some quieter, more dramatic and character-developing moments and the two distinct filmmaking styles and tones mesh quite seamlessly with one another.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the film's disappointing box office returns (and, quite frankly, one of the reasons I misjudged the flick) is that it stars Zac Efron.  While I'm certainly not saying his performance here should've garnered any modicum of awards fervor, I think the time has come to realize that he's grown into a completely capable and compelling star.  Looking back on my reviews of the young man, he's more than proven he's got what it takes to hold his own onscreen. The days of High School Musical are behind him and perhaps he needs to be taken a bit more seriously.  The rest of the cast is also quite good -- and, with full knowledge of the sexist nature of this upcoming remark -- Emily Ratajkowski is stunningly gorgeous (and holds her own with her slightly underdeveloped love interest role).

It may seem like I'm overpraising We Are Your Friends given the grade it'll be receiving below, but it's not without a few large faults.  By the time the film comes to its conclusion, I never got the sense the character of Cole had gone through a huge growth arc and I think that's supposed to be the emotional core.  The flick's final scene is supposed to be a pivotal moment for the character and the way director/co-screenwriter Joseph has filmed and wrote it, I couldn't help but chuckle a little.  Still, this is his first film and overall I think that there are huge amounts of promise in the director.  Sure, We Are Your Friends oftentimes mimics a music video, but that aspect of it never overstays its welcome.  This one was a bit of a sleeper for me that I almost bypassed -- I'm happy I didn't.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Friday, June 24, 2016

Movie Review - Manson Family Vacation

Manson Family Vacation (2015)
Starring Jay Duplass, Linas Phillips, Leonora Pitts, Adam Chernik, Davie-Blue, and Tobin Bell
Directed by J. Davis
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

I'm not quite sure what I expected Manson Family Vacation to be, but considering it was produced by the Duplass Brothers, known for low budget comedies about thirty-something year-old men rediscovering (or facing the humdrum reality of) their lives, I guess I was expecting a weird humor-filled film that somehow focused on a guy obsessed with Charles Manson.  While the film begins in that vein, debut director and screenwriter J. Davis's first flick becomes a bit more serious than I imagined, adding a surprising amount of depth to a story about two reuniting brothers.

Successful lawyer Nick (Jay Duplass) loves his job, his wife Amanda (Leonora Pitts), and son Max (Adam Chernik) -- he's got a good life.  When his estranged adopted brother Conrad (Linas Phillips) returns to town unemployed and having sold all of his possessions, Nick feels the need to try and help him, but all Conrad wants to do is take a weekend mini-road trip to locales made famous by 1960s criminal Charles Manson and the members of his commune-like "family."  As they travel, the brothers' past is dug up and underlying tensions rise to the surface all set against the backdrop of a notorious decades-old crime spree.

There's something slightly unnerving about the initial prologue flashed up on the screen at the beginning of the film that states that to this day, Charles Manson still receives 60,000 fan letters a year, so when Conrad's fascination with Manson is revealed, there's an immediate discomfort that sets in.  Manson Family Vacation isn't by any means a horror film or a thriller, but the disquieting aspect runs rampant throughout.  Buoyed by two nice performances from Jay Duplass and Linas Phillips, the flick creates a nice balance between comedy and drama, building a substantive relationship between Nick and Conrad in a short period of time.  It does fall apart a little bit during its middle act, but Manson Family Vacation is a surprisingly deep tale about the importance of family.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Movie Review - Crimson Peak

Crimson Peak (2015)
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, and Jim Beaver
Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Gorgeous to look upon, Guillermo del Toro's gothic horror flick Crimson Peak is sumptuously designed, but considering its ominous appearance, it disappoints by neglecting to create suspense or elicit any sense of dread or fear that should accompany a film like this.  With some of the actors seemingly told to amp up the camp factor, Crimson Peak ends up being a film that had potential, but doesn't achieve what it sets out to accomplish.

Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a young American woman with dreams of becoming a great author someday.  When British entrepreneur Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) visit Edith's father Carter (Jim Beaver) in Buffalo, New York, in order to try and secure money for a clay-mining tool, Edith is drawn to Thomas's mysterious demeanor.  Carter senses something off with the Sharpes and forbids Edith to start a relationship with Thomas.  However, when tragic circumstances arise, Edith ends up marrying Thomas and travels to England to the Sharpes' huge, though run-down estate Allerdale Hall.  Unfortunately for Edith, Thomas and Lucille may be hiding some deep secrets from their new family member, the least of which being that Allerdale Hall may be haunted with ghosts of the Sharpe family's past.

From the outset, Crimson Peak excels in all areas related to design with larger than life, though realistically detailed sets by Tom Sanders and luxuriously extravagant costumes by Kate Hawley (both overlooked by the Academy last year).  However, once one moves beyond the way things look, the film feels empty and fails to deliver on its promise of suspense.  Director and co-writer del Toro can't maintain tension via his story and direction, and considering the foreboding production design it's disappointing that the gothic nature of the horror aspect of the tale falls flat.

While Tom Hiddleston plays things relatively straight, Mia Wasikowska's Edith is too much of a blank, emotionless slate to really carry the film on her shoulders.  Jessica Chastain fares worse, however, as she almost laughably chews up the scenery with her character's chilly vibe.  Some may find her role a bright spot in the film, but I found her performance misplaced amongst the rest of the cast as if she was acting in a different movie than everyone else.  Yes, her portrayal feels very old school 1940s film-esque, but it just doesn't mesh with everything else.  The lack of cohesiveness in the performances is certainly mirrored in the lack of del Toro's ability to amp of the drama and suspense in a film that so desperately requires that tension to exist.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Movie Review - Infinitely Polar Bear

Infinitely Polar Bear (2015)
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Imogene Wolodarsky, and Ashley Aufderheide
Directed by Maya Forbes

I'm sure that director-screenwriter Maya Forbes' semi-autobiographical Infinitely Polar Bear creates at least a somewhat realistic depiction of bipolar disorder, but I unfortunately found much of her flick lacking believability, walking an odd and unbalanced line between comedy and drama and never making the most of either side of that coin.  Taking place in 1978, the tale follows Cam Stuart (Mark Ruffalo), who is hospitalized after a psychotic break.  His wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) takes their two daughters Amelia and Faith (Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide) to a small apartment and is barely making ends meet when Cam is released from the institution.  While Maggie initially wants to keep Cam away from their kids, she soon realizes that as long as he stays on his medication, Cam is stable enough to watch Amelia and Faith.  Maggie decides to head off to college in order to try and provide a better life for her daughters, trepidatious to leave Cam in charge, but confident that this will eventually provide a better life for her girls.

The basic elements of the story are good enough, but as I mentioned, the film oddly leaps from humor to drama, failing to find a balance of any sort.  Mark Ruffalo is one of the biggest reasons for the film's disappointing outcome with his performance feeling like a roller coaster ride of ups and downs.  Granted, I understand this very well be characteristic of one suffering from manic depression and bipolar disorder, but in this movie, the two sides are amped up creating a character that never feels based in any type of reality, making ninety minutes feel infinitely longer.  In the end, Infinitely Polar Bear just doesn't work, taking a serious subject and failing to figure out what exactly it wants say about it.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Monday, June 20, 2016

Movie Review - Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong

Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong (2015)
Starring Jamie Chung and Bryan Greenberg
Directed by Emily Ting
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

A simple two-hander in the vein of the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy, Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong is a winning, effervescent dialog-driven piece about a thirty-five year-old investment banker named Josh (Bryan Greenberg) and a thirty year-old toy designer named Ruby (Jamie Chung) who meet one night when the latter asks the former for directions while at a bar in Hong Kong.  Discovering that she was new to the country, expat Josh walks Ruby to her destination, making small talk the whole time, both aware of the undeniable attraction and connection they are experiencing.  Some unforeseen circumstances occur and their evening comes to an abrupt end, but a year later, the two meet up again while aboard a river taxi and another night of conversation may change the course of their lives forever.

Chung and Greenberg have nice chemistry with one another (they recently married in real life) and I had a smile on my face nearly the entirety of the film watching them "meet cute" in the beautifully filmed city of Hong Kong, but the film lacks the pretension that runs through the aforementioned Before series.  While the lack of pretension should seem like a positive, here it creates moments of simplicity that give this film a slight lack of importance (and don't quite allow the actors to connect as instinctually as they should).  While I found myself rolling my eyes over the literary or artistic babble that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy spout in writer-director Richard Linklater's series, in director-writer Emily Ting's debut film Hong Kong, our duo jabbers on about Seinfeld.  There's nothing wrong with that -- and it actually elicited less of an eye roll from me than the Sunset series -- but it makes the dialog lack a little bite or heft at times.  That said, it also makes it seem more natural to me.  Sure, I may have graduated with an English Lit degree, but I don't go around talking about how important Shakespeare or Chekhov are.  In that regard, I related to Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong moreso that Before Sunset, despite the fact that I recognize that the latter is perhaps a bit better written.  [The lack of cursing or crudeness also made this seem more like my life -- while not rated, I think it'd garner a simple PG-rating.]

It's perhaps entirely unfair to compare Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong to Richard Linklater's series, but Ms. Ting must've known that the similarities would elicit such a response from critics.  In the end, I think that Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong is actually a better film than Before Sunset (sacrilegious to say, I know).  Sure, Linklater's trilogy ends up winning overall because the director has since built two more movies that add depth to his already formulated characters.  But, the naturalness, simplicity, and charm of Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong make it a much more relatable piece to me.  Emily Ting has potential as a director and screenwriter, that's for sure, and her film is a rather joyous look at two people perhaps (or perhaps not) starting out on an unknown journey together.  As I said before, I was smiling nearly the entire time I watched this and, quite frankly, that's praise enough to recommend this, but should you need more of a push, it's also now garnering one of my better ratings of 2015.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Movie Review - 5 Flights Up

5 Flights Up (2015)
Starring Morgan Freeman, Diane Keaton, and Cynthia Nixon
Directed by Richard Loncraine
***This film is currently available on HBO Now***

I've always liked Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton (despite the fact that the latter has played nothing but interchangeable characters in the last twenty years) so I figured why not give 5 Flights Up a shot.  Sure, it's a little comedy that made not a blip on anyone's cinematic radar last year, but the two leads are always watchable, so I gave it a go.

Well, it's a big ole bust.  Freeman and Keaton are charming as Alex and Ruth Carver, an older married couple who, after forty years of marriage, decide it may be time to move out of their fifth floor NYC apartment for the simple reason that they may be getting too weak to climb up the stairs.  Once you move past that charming aspect, though, everything else falters.  Burdened with stories of a dog with a slipped disc, a possible Muslim terrorist running rampant through their neighborhood (despite the obviousness from the get go that this isn't really the case), and Ruth's talkative niece/real estate agent (Cynthia Nixon), 5 Flights Up lacks any modicum of focus.  The two leads can't save the lack of a cohesive story and this whole thing falls terribly flat.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+