Saturday, May 30, 2015

Movie Review - In Secret

In Secret (2014)
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Oscar Isaac, Tom Felton, and Jessica Lange
Directed by Charlie Stratton
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

We have a tendency to think that just because something was written centuries ago, there's an inherent heft and gravity to it.  Émile Zola's 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin is the basis for first-time director Charlie Stratton's In Secret and if the film is any indication, the book Thérèse Raquin could very well be the basis for modern-day soap operas seeing as how cinematically this is melodramatic to the nth degree.

Elizabeth Olsen is Thérèse who as a young girl was sent to live with her aunt Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange) and her sickly son Camille (Tom Felton as an adult).  As Thérèse and Camille age, it soon becomes a given in the Raquin household that the two cousins will marry and start a life together in Paris.  They do just that despite hesitation from Thérèse who feels no semblance of love emanating for or from Camille.  Failing to be sexually appeased by her husband, Thérèse finds herself being drawn to artist Laurent (Oscar Isaac) who frequents the Raquin household for weekly card games.  Their lustiness-at-first-sight for each other fuels a passionate forbidden love affair between Thérèse and Laurent and leads them down a path strewn with tragic consequences.

Skipping over the fact that the story itself is extravagantly hammy and histrionic, director Stratton (who also wrote the screenplay) fails to create complex characters with any modicum of depth.  Considering the chaotic feelings Thérèse and Laurent are experiencing, one would have expected some passion and driving force behind their actions, but their love (or lust?) happens too quickly to create the needed character study for their roles.  These two lovers (and the actors who portray them) are simply going through the emotional motions needed to get themselves to the next plot point.  There's no slow build or momentum and it frankly ruins the piece considering the deplorable depths to which Thérèse and Laurent stoop to continue their relationship.

It certainly doesn't help matters that in the film's second half the character of Laurent makes a complete 180-degree turn from where we in the audience have seen him heretofore.  His actions become inconsistent with his prior demeanor and his motivations become incoherent.  Oscar Isaac attempts to clue the audience in to his character's changes of heart, but we're oblivious to why things are moving in particular directions.  Similarly, Elizabeth Olsen has nothing to latch onto with Thérèse except for the character trait of horny housewife and that's simply not enough to carry a film that is trying to be more art-house than frat-boy comedy.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Movie Review - Decoding Annie Parker

Decoding Annie Parker (2014)
Starring Samantha Morton, Helen Hunt, Aaron Paul, Alice Eve, Marley Shelton, Rashida Jones, Corey Stoll, Bradley Whitford, and Richard Schiff
Directed by Steven Bernstein
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Anyone who knows me knows my teenage infatuation with Helen Hunt.  Quite possibly the only teenager to fall for the Mad About You actress, Ms. Hunt still holds a special place in my heart.  And she's probably the only reason I even thought about watching Decoding Annie Parker.  Debut screenwriter-director Steven Bernstein's first feature film details the true story of Annie Parker (played by Samantha Morton), a Canadian wife and mother who has had her share of tragedy in life with multiple members of her family succumbing to breast cancer.  When she is told that she also has breast cancer, Annie sets off on a mission to learn all she can about the disease, trying to fight the then-popular opinion in the 1970s that there was no genetic familial connection.  In her research, Annie uncovers works by researcher Mary-Claire King (the aforementioned Hunt), one of the few scientists attempting to link breast cancer to genetics.

Bernstein's film bounces back and forth between Annie and Mary-Claire's stories and also meanders to and fro in the realms of comedy and drama.  The opening line of the film is a quote from Annie -- "My life was a comedy.  I just had to learn how to laugh." -- and despite the subject matter, Bernstein attempts to lighten things up.  Unfortunately, he doesn't quite succeed in creating an adequate balance and his script never quite elevates to anything more than a tv movie.

That being said, however, thanks to a nice performance by Hunt and an even better performance by Morton, Decoding Annie Parker manages to be a little better than the sum of its parts.  Helping as well is the true story of Dr. Mary-Claire King, an undersung hero in the field of genetic research whose contributions to the medical profession are nicely documented here.  It's still nice to know that movies have the ability to open our eyes to certain aspects of our history that we know nothing about.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Movie Review - The Lunchbox

The Lunchbox (2014)
Starring Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nakul Vaid, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Directed by Ritesh Batra

In India, there is a fascinating business built upon the delivery of fresh lunches to businessmen.  Men called dabbawallas will pick up hot meals in lunchboxes from housewives and deliver them through a variety of transport -- bike, train, cars -- and then also return the empty lunchboxes back to the housewives.  Studied by Harvard for its surprisingly complex yet incredibly accurate methods of delivery, the whole dabbawalla concept is incredibly intriguing and seems oddly unnecessary to us Westerners who are used to packing or buying a lunch.

This uniquely Indian concept is the basis for first-time director and screenwriter Ritesh Batra's The Lunchbox which oddly feels like an old-school version of the distinctly American You've Got Mail.  With her marriage a little rocky, Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is trying to win over her husband's affections by cooking him delicious lunches and sending them via the dabbawalla to his work.  When the lunchbox returns empty, Ila is excited that Rajeev (Nakul Vaid) may finally be warming up to her again.  Unfortunately, Ila discovers that Rajeev is not the one who has been receiving her lunches.  Instead, widowed fifty-something Saajan (Irrfan Khan) has been partaking of her meals thinking that they're coming from a restaurant.  Intrigued by whomever is finding her lunches delicious, Ila begins to write notes to her lunchbox recipient and, eventually, Saajan begins to write her back.  The two begin to reveal a variety of secrets to one another and find themselves connecting through the power of words and food.

While the film falters a bit in its final act with an ending that doesn't quite wrap things up, everything up to that point is lovely and charming.  Considering that the lovelorn Ila and the lonely Saajan hardly share a scene together throughout the whole film, relative newcomer Nimrat Kaur and veteran Irrfan Khan do an amazing job at conveying all we need to know through their facial reactions and their voiceover reading of their various notes sent back and forth to one another.  Kaur in particular is captivating in her growing sorrow that her marriage is crumbling and her burgeoning hope that Saajan may be the man to lift her out of her rut.  There's a scene in which Ila is waiting for Saajan at a bar and Kaur's ability to emote her character's nervousness and anticipation is fantastic for someone so fresh to the cinematic game.

Ritesh Batra's film is always charming, but it sometimes wears a little thin.  As mentioned, the film ends ambiguously and while I understand the moralistic reasonings for it (the differences in Indian and American culture are particularly apparent at the conclusion), I found that it left me wanting.  Additionally, for comedic effect, Nawazuddin Siddiqui is thrown into the mix as an apprentice of the retiring Saajan and his character doesn't ever quite click -- proving to be more of an annoyance than a real plot enhancer and Batra unfortunately gives the character much more attention than he should have in the film's second half.  That said, Siddiqui's character Shaikh gives us a rather beautiful adage that carried with me well after the film concluded and has given me something to ponder -- "Sometimes even the wrong train gets you to the right station."

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Movie Review - Robocop

Robocop (2014)
Starring Joel Kinneman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle,  Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, and Samuel L. Jackson 
Directed by José Padilha
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

I've never seen the original Robocop film (my 1980s popular movie oeuvre is decidedly thin), but I knew that the story consisted of a cyborg cop who hunts down bad guys.  Not much has changed in this 2014 remake which stars Joel Kinneman as Alex Murphy, a cop in 2028 Detroit who is near fatally injured when he begins to uncover a large crime syndicate.  Desperate to save her husband's life, Clara Murphy (Abbie Cornish) agrees to allow billionaire Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) to permit his technicians to place pieces of Alex's body (brain, heart, lungs) into a cyborg that will not only allow him to "stay alive," but also allow Alex to become a high tech, state-of-the-art one-man police force.  Sellars has been working on this technology for years, but after a shaky issue in the Middle East in which some of his robots went a little haywire, the entrepreneur feels that this robot Alex will help advance his cause and show the US government that they need to pay for his expertise.

I must say that I was more impressed with Robocop than I expected to be.  Now, that doesn't necessarily mean I thought it was a masterpiece, but I like the fact that it takes its time to get its story going and that it doesn't rely on huge action set pieces in order to get its point across.  Granted (and this may seem like an oxymoron considering what I just wrote), there's a part of me that missed a grand showdown at the film's conclusion, but I appreciate that director José Padilha digs a little deeper into the social, political, and business aspects of the tale rather than just focus on a robot seeking justice.

Admittedly, Joel Kinneman isn't given much to do especially considering the fact that during the film's last ninety minutes all we see of him is his face sitting atop the body of a metal robot.  Still, in everything that I've seen from Kinneman (including the tv show The Killing), he's not exactly an actor that emotes all that much and while I get that he's playing a bit of a robot here, I wanted a little more passion from the actor.  Gary Oldman is quite good as Dr. Dennett Norton, adding a bit more heart and substance to what could've easily been an underwritten throwaway role.  Michael Keaton also carries a bit of impact here as I appreciate that he walks the line of genuine compassion and strong-willed, shrewd businessman without ever being too over-the-top maniacal -- which is where he absolutely could've taken his role as the billionaire Sellars.  Although his motives may be solely financially based, Keaton never allows the character to stoop to a stereotype which helps Robocop immensely, in turn making it a better film.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Movie Review - The Book of Life

The Book of Life (2014)
Featuring the vocal talents of Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Christina Applegate, Kate del Castillo, and Ice Cube
Directed by Jorge R. Gutiérrez

Although visually stimulating, The Book of Life falls into a similar trap I've noticed lately of animated movies being unable to create an appropriate denouement at their conclusions.  It's a bit surprising actually as The Book of Life is quite solid at creating a love triangle between its three main characters, but when it treks into the folkloric and light-hearted Mexican "underworld" in the film's second half, the relationships are muted in a way that is detrimental to the flick's emotional impact.

The film is narrated by museum guide Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) who is showing a group of rambunctious kids artifacts related to the Mexican folktales of The Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten.  The former is ruled over by the lovely La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and is inhabited by the souls of dead who are remembered by those still living making the atmosphere a fun party, vibrantly colored, and full of vigor.  The latter is where those who are forgotten dwell in darkened shadows hiding from ruler Xibalba (Ron Perlman).  At first, I was irritated by the set-up of the museum guide narrator, but as the film progressed, I appreciated the mini-historical aspects her character brought to the story...although I can't help but think that in a better scripted and thought out film this still may not have been necessary.

Nevertheless, La Muerte and Xibalba have a bit of a love-hate relationship going on, constantly battling one another for supremacy.  Upon one of the their visits above ground, they come across Manolo, Joaquin, and Maria -- a young trio of kids who are quite fond of one another with the two boys obviously harboring some love for Maria.  La Muerte and Xibalba make a bet -- if Manolo weds Maria when they get older, Xiblaba can no longer come to the surface and mess with human affairs; if Joaquin weds Maria, Xibalba will take over the Land of the Remembered and La Muerte will be forced to reside in the Land of the Forgotten.  As the kids grow older, Manolo (Diego Luna) becomes a sensitive guitar player who is forced to become a bullfighter by his father, whereas Joaquin (Channing Tatum) becomes quite the ladies' man, known for his machismo and his strength in battle.  Maria (Zoe Saldana) finds herself torn between the two men, both of whom have a genuine love for her.

Well-voiced, the trio of main characters is charming and quite enjoyable to follow.  Additionally, I found the vocal talent of Kate del Castillo and Ron Perlman as the two underworld gods to have an amusingly humorous rapport.  Animation-wise, The Book of Life looks quite interesting.  Since museum guide Mary Beth is telling the story based on artifacts, the characters of Maria, Manolo, Joaquin, La Muerte, and Xibalba all look as if they're wooden dolls -- which actually isn't as weird as it sounds.  In fact, it's a rather ingenious move that gives the film some much needed oomph.

Unfortunately, a major aspect of the film when one of our trio of lovebirds visits the underworld fails pretty miserably and severely hampers the final half of the movie.  There was potential here for something really unique and amusing and while that first adjective still is maintained, the film doesn't keep up it's promise of being boisterously fun.  The Book of Life isn't bad, but it's a bit disappointing considering all the positives it had in its favor.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Monday, May 18, 2015

Movie Review - Tracks

Tracks (2014)
Starring Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver 
Directed by John Curran
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

"I'd like to think an ordinary person is capable of anything."

And with that quote, Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) begins a 1700-mile trek across the Australian Outback on April 9, 1977, with some camels and a dog by her side.  With the exception of occasional visits by National Geographic photographer Rick Smolen (Adam Driver) -- whose magazine is monetarily sponsoring her trek -- Robyn is on her own, struggling to wind her way across the desolate land.

There are definite similarities between Tracks and 2014's Wild starring Reese Witherspoon -- the biggest being that they place their focus on a woman desperate to learn more about herself by spending time alone on a long journey.  I wasn't overly enthusiastic about Wild in that I thought the film weighed itself down by being overly intellectual.  That's not the case in Tracks at all (which is a good thing), but, unfortunately, I never found myself truly understanding why Robyn was making this trek across Australia.  There was never an emotional connection made between myself and Robyn, and in a movie in which the focus is solely on one person, I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed.

Mia Wasikowska is able to carry the movie without a problem exuding the strength needed for anyone to be able to complete this mission, but I felt she was underserved by a script that never quite fleshes out the purpose of this trip.  Let's be honest -- no one's doing this for kicks.  There must've been some deep underlying meaning for this and while the film touches a tiny bit on Robyn's relationship with her father being the impetus of the journey, it doesn't delve nearly deep enough to stir up the needed emotions.  The film looks great with its sweeping images of Australia, but it lacks an emotional core at its center.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Movie Review - John Wick

John Wick (2014)
Starring Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, and Bridget Moynahan
Directed by Chad Stahelski

"Keanu Reeves is back!" raved some of the overwhelmingly positive reviews for John Wick upon its release in the fall of 2014.  The story of the title character who seeks revenge on a group of Russian mobsters who kill his newly received beagle -- a gift from his recently deceased wife (Bridget Moynahan) -- John Wick is a series of (admittedly cool) violent fights with the tiniest strand of flimsy story to tie them together.

Reeves seemingly speaks less than one hundred words as a retired hit man called back into duty when the members of a stereotypical Russian mob family pick on him for some reason and to say that the actor "is back" in top form based off this performance is outrageous hyperbole.  Yes, he works well enough in the choreographed fight scenes and he tries his best to engage the audience in his vengeful acts, but there's very little for the actor to latch onto.

The odd thing is that there's some weird sense of potential in screenwriter Derek Kolstad's script with hints of interesting elements.  For example, when Wick heads back into the realm of being a hit man, he sleeps at a hotel that caters to people of his type, keeping their residents' secrets and providing them with the necessary instruments to carry out their assignments.  This is just one of the unique elements present, but very little is done to expand upon them, making me wonder if there was an awful lot left on the cutting room floor...or perhaps it was all oddly surface on the scripted page.

Nevertheless, the incessant fight scenes grow tiresome a little less than halfway through and makes the film's final fifty minutes a slog to watch.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Movie Review - Annie

Annie (2014)
Starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Rose Byrne, and Bobby Canavale
Directed by Will Gluck

The movie musical has been making a comeback in recent years and fortunately the remake of Annie doesn't seem to have caused the genre's demise quite yet despite the fact that it is one of the poorly written and acted movies of 2014.  Quite frankly, there's nothing redeeming about this film.  Will Gluck's horribly conceived direction and devastatingly inane musical numbers in this piece (which he co-wrote) are heinously bad with nary a good scene in the film.  In an age where we have an annual live-sung musical air on network television at Christmastime and successful $100 million-plus grossing theatrical musical releases on a seemingly yearly basis, it's flabbergasting to me that Gluck and his producers thought that this version of Annie would come off as anything other than a horrible joke.

Problem #1 stems from the fact that the songs in this "hip" version of Annie are so over-produced and over-digitized that there's never a moment in this film where we in the audience truly believe that these characters are singing.  Their lip synchs to auto-tuned versions of themselves make all of the actors appear to simply be going through the motions rather than actually feeling what they're singing.  This problem is painfully obvious from the get-go and doesn't get any better as the film progresses.  The lack of emotion in the musical numbers makes the whole film kind of moot -- what's the point if the songs can't carry the true heart of the story?

As for the story, the updating of Annie to the modern era isn't grating all of the time mainly because the overarching storyline is similar enough to the 1982 version (of which I barely remember so there are no childhood memories associated with it).   Here, Daddy Warbucks is now Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a politician who sees political gain in befriending foster kid (not "orphan") Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis).  With the overall premise not changing a lot, perhaps the reason for the remake is because kids today can't relate to a film if it doesn't contain scenes with cell phones or Twitter.  Of course, mentioning Twitter reminds me of the heinous ending in which Annie, who has been kidnapped at the film's climax, is saved by fans of hers (because she's being touted as a celebrity in this current pop-obsessed culture) telling Will Stacks where she is via Twitter.  Even just typing that out has me disgusted.  Let's just call these modernization elements Problem #2.

Problem #3 is that there's not a single actor here who rises above the shlock they're forced to portray.  Jamie Foxx perhaps comes off best (a phrase I never thought I'd type), but considering he's forced to spit up food at least three times in the movie for purportedly comedic reasons, he certainly doesn't come out unscathed.  Quvenzhané Wallis continues to carry the moniker of "overrated" for me.  The young Academy Award nominee has yet to impress and her take on the title character certainly does nothing to change my mind.  Worst of the bunch, however, is Cameron Diaz whose grating and obnoxious take on the grating and obnoxious foster mom Miss Hannigan is so grating and obnoxious that I can't believe she and the director thought this interpretation would be watchable.  Granted, Hannigan is a sleazy character, but Diaz overtly ups the sex quotient and piles on the vocal screechiness so much so that her scenes are some of the worst I've seen in a movie this past year.  She manages to take two of the film's most underrated songs -- "Little Girls" and "Easy Street" (the latter of which is my favorite from the score) -- and make them unlistenable.  It doesn't help that both of these songs are shot with such awkward cuts by the director that they're not only unpleasing to the ears, but also to the eyes.

I've peppered the above review with a few "nice" words, but I can't stress enough that this version of Annie is horrible.  Absolutely horrible.  There's not a thing redeeming about it, making it truly one of the worst films of 2014.

The RyMickey Rating:  F

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Movie Review - Force Majeure

Force Majeure (2014)
Starring Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Vincent Wettergren, Clara Wettergren, and Kristofer Hivju
Directed by Ruben Östland
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

I recently watched Foxcatcher and commented about how the slow pace of the film somehow enriched that experience and made the film better overall.  Quite the opposite could be said about the Swedish film Force Majeure, winner of the Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.  The simplistic story attempts to create some dramatic heaviness by moving at a snail's pace, but instead it just becomes irritatingly mundane and bland.

On a vacation in a ski resort in the French Alps, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two children Vera and Harry (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) are spending a lovely afternoon eating lunch on an outdoor deck.  The resort sets off controlled avalanches in order to keep the slopes safe for skiers and on this particular afternoon, one of the avalanches goes slightly awry and seems to head straight for the dining deck.  In a moment of panic, Tomas runs, leaving his wife and children behind.  Fortunately, there wasn't much to worry about when it came to the avalanche, but Tomas' instincts cause Ebba and the two kids to question whether their husband and father truly cares about their well-being.

Unfortunately, while the premise creates an interesting conundrum for Tomas, I found myself caring very little for the family's questioning of their circumstances.  For nearly two hours, we're treated to a lot of whining from all parties and while the psychological dynamics should've proven fascinating, I couldn't remove myself from this family's plight fast enough.  Bland, boring, yet admittedly visually appealing, Force Majeure can't sustain itself over its runtime and produces only yawns.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Movie Review - They Came Together

They Came Together (2014)
Starring Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Christopher Meloni, Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Jason Mantzoukas, Max Greenfield, Cobie Smulders, Melanie Lynskey, and Ed Helms
Directed by David Wain
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Movie spoofs are always a tricky business proposition with more failures than successes it seems.  The most famous as of late has been the Scary Movie franchise which took on the slapsticky Airplane approach and subsequently withered and died from the get-go for me.  In its skewering of the romantic comedy, They Came Together eschews some of the more blatant physical humor (although it does still successfully go there at times), aiming moreso for verbal barbs (just look at that suggestive title) and observational humor.

Molly (Amy Poehler), owner of a small candy shop, finds her business threatened when the big Corporate Candy Company decides to open up a shop right across the street from her.  When she meets Joel (Paul Rudd), an executive at CCC, Molly can't help but despise him, but as their paths intertwine, love begins to blossom beneath the hatred.  Simplicity abounds in this summary, but the obvious regurgitating of You've Got Mail's story proves to be more humorous than I could've expected.

Poehler and Rudd are always charmingly funny and their performances in They Came Together are no exception.  They have to walk a tricky road in that they're playing overblown caricatures of romantic comedy stereotypes, yet they have to still carry this film as relatable people in order for us in the audience to latch onto the tale successfully.  Director and co-screenwriter David Wain manages to make Molly and Joel well-rounded enough even with their parody-laden characteristics.  Wain throws a lot at the wall and while not all the jokes land, enough of them do making the laughs come quickly enough to warrant a watch.

The RyMickey Rating:  B