Thursday, July 27, 2017

Movie Review - The 9th Life of Louis Drax

The 9th Life of Louis Drax (2016)
Starring Jamie Dornan, Sarah Gadon, Aiden Longworth, Oliver Platt, Molly Parker, Barbara Hershey, and Aaron Paul
Directed by Alexandre Aja

An oddly captivating huge mess is how I'd describe The 9th Life of Louis Drax, a film that clearly doesn't know what it's trying to be in terms of tone and who it's trying to appeal to in terms of story.  When the film opens, nine year-old Louis Drax (Aiden Longworth) is detailing the eight times he's almost died in his short life -- electrocution, food poisoning, you name it and it's nearly caused Louis to bite the dust.  On his ninth birthday, Louis is taken by his mother Natalie (Sarah Gadon) and his father Peter (Aaron Paul) to a cliffside park where the young boy falls off the edge of a high cliff.  When he's recovered, Louis is in a coma and while at the hospital, Dr. Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan) tries to do what he can to bring the young boy back to consciousness while also unraveling a mystery surrounding just how Louis fell off the cliff.  Did Peter push his son off the cliff as Natalie claims or is Natalie not as innocent as she seems?

That summary fails to include the sea creature that Louis communicates with while in his coma, the psychologist (Oliver Platt) whom Louis sees to try and make him "less weird" as he calls himself, the female cop (Molly Parker) investigating the possible crime who we know is tough because she's chewing gum in the morgue while her male partner tries to hold back from vomiting, the sex scene between Dr. Pascal and Natalie -- all of which add to an incongruous mashup of a movie that at any point feels like a live-action kids film from the 1980s, a poorly constructed murder mystery, or a horror-fantasy flick in the vein of Pan's Labyrinth.

Yet, somehow, I didn't stop watching.  Perhaps I kept hoping that Jamie Dornan and Sarah Gadon's acting would get better.  Perhaps I hoped that the sea monster would be real.  Perhaps I hoped that I wouldn't have guessed the mystery of how Louis fell off the cliff from the get-go.  None of those "perhaps's" became true, however, and instead The 9th Life of Louis Drax is a mess.  There is some interesting direction to be sure, but beyond that there's nothing else worth wasting your time with here.

The RyMickey Rating:  D

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Movie Review - Midnight Special

Midnight Special (2016)
Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard, and Adam Driver 
Directed by Jeff Nichols
***This film is currently streaming on HBO Now/Go***

I legitimately had no clue what I was getting into when I started Midnight Special.  Maybe I'd seen a trailer...maybe...but with the exception of knowing that it was directed by Jeff Nichols -- whose film oeuvre I find decent, yet slightly boring -- I really was coming into this blind.  By the time the credits rolled, Midnight Special lands in that same realm of Nichols' other films -- decent, yet slightly boring although it admittedly is a bit more ambitious in scope than Take Shelter, Mud, or Loving.

Honestly, I'm not going to summarize this one all that much.  I think the lack of knowledge concerning the storyline helped me become immersed much more than I would have otherwise.  Needless to say, the overall gist is that two men (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) have seemingly kidnapped a young boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) who may or may not possess some special powers or secret knowledge that multiple entities including the US government want.

The mix of science fiction, chase film, and family drama surprisingly meld together quite well with Nichols planting the viewer right into the action from the opening scene and gradually revealing the various layers of mystery as the story progresses.  Michael Shannon is surprisingly captivating in a role that requires a bit of heart rather than the typical scary intensity we see from him.  Jaeden Lieberher is also successful as the young boy who may be more than he seems.

Nichols takes his time to craft his characters and in doing so they prove to be fully developed.  He certainly excels in carving out an atmosphere for his economically lower-class characters to inhabit.  It's just unfortunate that his films oftentimes feel so slowly paced.  While a little more plot-driven than his other works, Nichols is still proving to be a director that meanders his way through things.  While I've yet to truly dislike anything he's brought to the screen in his young career thus far, I keep waiting to be blown away and I thought it might've happened with this one.  The first hour is tense and full of edge-of-your-seat moments.  Unfortunately, it devolves a bit in the second half where the pacing becomes a bit of a slog.  Still, Midnight Special is Jeff Nichols' best work yet and he's a director to keep an eye on in the future.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Movie Review - The Fundamentals of Caring

The Fundamentals of Caring (2016)
Starring Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts, Selena Gomez, Jennifer Ehle, and Bobby Canavale
Directed by Rob Burnett
***This films currently streaming via Netflix***

The Fundamentals of Caring could so easily have been sentimentally mushy, but thanks to some irreverent humor and witty dialogue, writer-director Rob Burnett's film is an amusing diversion.  Trevor (Craig Roberts) is an eighteen year-old with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.  Unable to walk or perform typical daily tasks, Trevor's mother Elsa (Jennifer Ehle) hires caregiver Ben (Paul Rudd) to watch over her son while she works.  Ben has his own demons to deal with, but the sarcastic Trevor helps to liven up Ben's life and inspires the caregiver to take Trevor on a road trip to see a variety of cheesy roadside American "attractions" that Trevor has always longed to see.  Along the way, they meet the sassy and strong-willed Dot (Selena Gomez) because every buddy road trip needs someone or something to create a bit of tension.

There is something very rote and "typical" about The Fundamentals of Caring, but the game cast adds a sardonic tone to the proceedings which creates enough humor to liven up the lack of originality.  Young Craig Roberts with whom I am unfamiliar doesn't make us feel sorry for Trevor which is a positive difference here in films of this ilk.  His dry humor along with a surprisingly sassy and capable performance from Selena Gomez (with whom I'm also unfamiliar as an actress) create an atmosphere that consistently brings a smile.  While the film still falls into some familiar tropes -- the less said about the pregnant hitchhiker and the ridiculously obvious conclusion to her subplot the better -- this one is still a pleasant diversion.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Monday, July 24, 2017

Movie Review - Genius

Genius (2016)
Starring Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Guy Pearce, Dominic West, and Laura Linney
Directed by Michael Grandage
***This film is currently streaming via HBO Now/GO***

As the words of Thomas Wolfe were read aloud and his mellifluous prose lyrically opened Michael Grandage's film Genius, I was drawn into this tale about the unique author (played by Jude Law) and his publisher Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth).  However, as I imagine I'd feel attempting to read one of Thomas Wolfe's lengthy tomes, lovely descriptive verbiage can only get you so far -- story also has to have some importance.  Unfortunately, Genius begins to falter as it enters its second half, failing to really take its characters on any type of journeys that weren't obvious from the film's opening scenes.

In 1929 New York, Perkins is reading Wolfe's first attempt at a novel with much aplomb.  Shot down by innumerable other publishers, the hickish-sounding, though verbose Wolfe was taking one final shot, going out on a limb by giving his novel to Perkins who edited and published works by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West).  When Perkins agrees to publish Wolfe's work, a parental-type friendship is formed with Perkins seeing Wolfe as the son he never had.

There is something compelling in the opening act of Genius -- rarely do films translate the art of writing to the screen successfully and this film was first.  However, as it progresses, it falls into stereotypical traps that don't allow its characters to feel fresh.  Its script also grows repetitive -- Perkins continues bickering with Wolfe about editing down his tomes, Perkins' wife Louise (Laura Linney) wants her husband to spend more time with his five daughters, Wolfe's lover Aline (Nicole Kidman) resents Wolfe spending all his time with Perkins -- failing to advance its characters in any substantial way, reiterating the same story notes over and over again.  Director Grandage with his first film has a fantastic cadre of actors at his disposal, but with the lukewarm script, he's unable to really pull anything substantial from any of them.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Theater Review - The Play That Goes Wrong

The Play That Goes Wrong
Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields
Directed by Mark Bell
Where: The Lyceum Theatre, New York, NY
When:  Wednesday, July 12, 7pm
The British drama group The Cornley University Drama Society cordially invites you to their production of The Murder at Haversham Manor, the showing of which they've somehow managed to secure the Broadway Lyceum Theatre.  Headed by Chris Bean (Dave Hearn), the society is a small ensemble, but they feel they've found the perfect production to showcase their talents.  Needless to say, as The Murder at Haversham Manor unfolds it rather quickly becomes The Play That Goes Wrong as everything -- and I mean everything -- that could go wrong does leading to a hilarious night at the theater as chaos reigns on the stage.

In the vein of Noises Off which is a rollicking behind-the-scenes look at the production of a play (review), The Play That Goes Wrong succeeds at hitting all the right notes when it comes to humor -- or "humour" as the Brits like to call it -- the extra "u" is for the added funny, I assume.  Sure, some of the jokes may fall a little flat, but as The Murder at Haversham Manor unfolds, anything and everything you could dream of falls apart -- sometimes quite literally on the Tony-winning set by Nigel Hook.  Chaos certainly reigns amongst the ensemble and while you want to feel a bit bad for the group, you also can't wait to see what breaks down next.

The eight-member ensemble of The Play That Goes Wrong is at the top of their game, verbally playing off each other with expert timing.  Of course, the expert timing also comes into play with the innumerable physical comedy routines that run rampant throughout the production.  Even more amazing and truly showcasing the troupe's carefully honed skills is the fact that one member of the troupe was hurt during Act I and was replaced by an understudy in Act II without any issue.  In fact, most of the audience assumed that the replacement actress was actually part of the show, making the assumption that this was simply one of the things that went wrong.  Despite the ensemble nature, a special mention must be made for Henry Shields (who co-wrote the play) whose Robert hams it up in his first production with the Cornley Drama Society.

Comedy is a tricky thing and helmer Mark Bell has directed his cast expertly with perfect timing all around.  Ultimately, The Play That Goes Wrong could've really been trimmed by about twenty minutes, creating a more streamlined one-act production as opposed to a two-hour two-act presentation, but it's tough to really complain when you find yourself laughing from start to finish in The Play That Goes Wrong

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Theater Review - Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day
Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Book by Danny Rubin
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Where: August Wilson Theatre, New York, NY
When:  Wednesday, July 12, 2pm
One may find it hard to believe that the 1993 Bill Murray comedy classic Groundhog Day would make a good Broadway musical, but that's just what composer/lyricist Tim Minchin (whose Matilda recently graced the Broadway stage) and writer Danny Rubin tried to accomplish with director Matthew Warchus' production of Groundhog Day playing at the August Wilson Theatre in New York City.  Despite multiple Tony nominations this year, expectations were a bit muted for me and I'm happy to say I was pleasantly surprised.  While certainly flawed, Groundhog Day provides an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon (at a likely discounted price since the show is simply doing okay attendance-wise) with a great starring performance by Andy Karl who carries the entire show on his shoulders and succeeds at making us give a damn about a rather nasty main protagonist.

Much like the film, the musical follows Pennsylvania weatherman Phil Conners (the aforementioned Tony-nominated Andy Karl) who is forced to begrudgingly head to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover that famous town's Groundhog Day festivities.  Desperate to flee the town immediately following the groundhog's weather prediction, Phil and his producer Rita (Barrett Doss) find themselves stuck due to an unforeseen winter storm closing down all the major highways.  Through some mystical magic, however, Phil finds himself waking up the next day reliving February 2 all over again...and again the next day...and again the next day.  The "why" this is happening makes no difference, but instead the repetition causes Phil to look at his life and determine what kind of man he really wants to be -- the slick, slimy playboy he was before he came to Punxsutawney or a kind, pleasant, and caring guy he finds himself wanting to be whenever he's around Rita.

Mr. Karl is front and center for nearly the entire two-and-a-half hour runtime of Groundhog Day and he's a captivating figure, embodying the manic comedy and brutal desperation facing a man who must relive a single day over and over agin.  Through the songs of Tim Minchin, the smarminess of Phil is perfectly captured by Karl and even though those musical numbers may not be entirely memorable or prove to be of the stand-out nature that you'll be singing them as you live the theater, they still do a great job of adding depth and characterization to the characters voicing them.  There are some failures on the song front -- "Stuck" features an ode to an enema that I never need to hear again (and sounded a bit cacophonous in its layering of counterpoint singers), "Nobody Cares" is a weird country ode to small-town life that while staged hilariously is nothing short of odd, "Playing Nancy" is an absolutely lovely song that opens Act II, but it's about an incredibly minor character -- but I still find Minchin's clever words to be worthy of a listen (much like his work in Matlida).

There's a surprising simplicity to the set and direction of Groundhog Day, but both were glorious -- yes, that's high praise, but worthy.  The main crux of Rob Howell's scenic design is a circular roundtable in the center of the stage with a quartet of circles within it.  The clock-like design mimics the repetitive nature of Phil's days, a clever metaphor via set decoration.  Director Matthew Warchus takes that design and runs with it.  The repetition as Phil tries to unearth what is happening to him could've grown wearisome, but Warchus changes little things here and there to create humor and pathos, and there are truly some genius moments including an amusingly clever suicide sequence in which Phil attempts to kill himself in a variety of ways to no avail.  It was like watching a magic show onstage for five minutes and it was a great feat.

While I've praised Groundhog Day rather effusively, there's still something missing from it as a musical and I think it really comes down to lacking a song or two to truly latch onto as you leave the theater.  Sure, Minchin creates character-driven numbers, but they don't always translate to exciting pieces.  And while I praised the set, it is rather sparse.  With Broadway as expensive as it is, you sometimes find yourself wanting more "showiness" because it's "BROADWAY" even if that's an unfair assessment towards a particular show itself which doesn't necessarily call for grandeur.  All that being said, it's a shame that Groundhog Day hasn't really found an audience because it's an admirable piece -- maybe not a $100 ticket-priced piece, but a worthy piece nevertheless.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Movie Review - Deepwater Horizon

Deepwater Horizon (2016)
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O'Brien, and Kate Hudson
Directed by Peter Berg

Forty-one miles off the Louisiana coastline in April 2010, the oil rig Deepwater Horizon is preparing to begin drilling into the ocean floor for BP.  However, BP executives wish to forego some important safety tests and, in the midst of prepping the drill, a catastrophic series of events occurs, wreaking an enormous amount of damage on the Deepwater Horizon, the Gulf of Mexico, and the workers on the rig, eleven of whom died on that fateful day.

Thus is the true story of Deepwater Horizon, director Peter Berg's depiction of the biggest oil spill in US history.  Although there are certainly some big name stars in this -- Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Kate Hudson -- this isn't a movie where "characters" really matter.  Sure, we're introduced to Wahlberg's electronics technician Mike Williams and his caring and doting wife (Hudson), but his character along with Russell's rig supervisor Jimmy Harrell and Gina Rodriguez's navigation officer Andrea Fleytas are nothing more than nondescript entities who are simply a conduit for the audience to bear witness to the horrors that unfolded.

Ultimately, that's the biggest issue with Deepwater Horizon as a film -- Berg is more interested in upping the ante when it comes to the action than dealing with the human side of things.  Sure, the BP guys are the big baddies, but their manipulative business acumen is never really explored.  Similarly, for the "good guys," there's minimal backstory and what little there is you almost wish Berg had left out because of its stereotypical simplicity.  Deepwater Horizon isn't a bad film by any means, but it's very rote and by-the-book in every aspect from the initial character development in the very first minutes to the written postscript right before the credits roll telling us about the real-life people involved.  I almost feel that I'd have been more invested seeing a documentary of the events rather than a fictionalized depiction even though Berg is certainly adept at creating some exciting action sequences in this new age, true life Poseidon Adventure of sorts.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Movie Review - Queen of Katwe

Queen of Katwe (2016)
Starring Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, and Lupita Nyong'o 
Directed by Mira Nair
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Ten year-old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) lives a difficult life in one of the poorer sections of Kampala, Uganda.  With her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o) raising Phiona and her three siblings on her own, the wise-beyond-her-years Phiona often spends her days doing what she can to give her mother as much assistance as possible.  One afternoon, however, she stumbles upon a missionary program headed by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) that teaches young Ugandan children how to play chess.  Feeling out of place and a bit guilty for slacking when it comes to helping her mother, Phiona finds it difficult to initially fit in, but Robert soon discovers that Phiona is incredibly talented when it comes to the strategic game of chess and he must struggle to help her realize her full potential.

Thus is the true story of Queen of Katwe -- a well-acted, well-directed, and modest little film that weaves a tale that feels familiar, yet foreign.  The foreignness stems from this taking place in Uganda, a place where admittedly us Westerners are innately unfamiliar.  Director Mira Nair uses the Ugandan landscape to help fully develop her characters in ways that aren't all that common in a PG-rated film about sports.  And yet it's that commonality of being a "sports film" that weighs down Queen of Katwe and doesn't allow it to really expand into something breathtaking or stunning.

Although it's unable to escape the clichés inherent in its genre, there are some great performances that more than lift Queen of Katwe into something that's worth a look.  As the adults in the piece, David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o provide solid anchors for the cast of completely unknown young actors to play off.  Front and center through it all is Madina Nalwanga as Phiona who more than captures the struggles facing poor Ugandan youth and the joy that triumphing against adversity can bring.  It's the performances here that make this film better than its average script allows.  Nair's film could've used a few more edits -- it slogs a bit in the middle with some repetitive moments that really don't add to the characters who were well-established in the first act -- but Queen of Katwe still works for the most part.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Monday, July 17, 2017

Movie Review - Criminal

Criminal (2016)
Starring Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Alice Eve, Gal Gadot, Michael Pitt, Jordi Mollà, and Ryan Reynolds
Directed by Ariel Vromen
***This film is currently streaming via HBO Now/GO***

Not that it matters to this reviewer at all, but for some reason I thought Criminal was a Ryan Reynolds-starring film.  Considering this was released shortly after the huge (unwarranted) success of Deadpool, perhaps the marketing did genuinely play up Reynolds' involvement, but let it be known that the actor is barely in this piece.  Reynolds is Bill Pope, an American CIA agent working in London who has recently been in contact with a hacker known as The Dutchman (Michael Pitt) who broke into a variety of computer programs and gained access to a slew of worldwide nuclear codes.  The Dutchman was working for Xavier Heimdahl (Jordi Mollà), an anarchist who, upon discovering the Dutchman's betrayal, sets out to find Pope and find out where the CIA agent is hiding the hacker.  Pope refuses to talk and Heimdahl has him killed.  (I promise, that's not really a spoiler as it happens within the first fifteen minutes of the film.)  London CIA head Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman), who is also unsure of the Dutchman's location, contacts Dr. Micah Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) who has been working on an experimental treatment for the government where he implants the memories of one individual into another.  Considering the risky operation, the CIA chooses a nasty convict, murderer Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner), to test the treatment and, needless to say, Jericho doesn't necessarily follow orders when he's finally released from his isolated prison cell leading Agent Wells and his team to not only have to save the world from the Dutchman's boss, but also try and round up a criminal whom they've set loose in the city of London.

A long summary, yes, but the details at the start of Criminal are the most important...and frankly, the beginning is the only time this movie really works.  Sure, there's an obvious ludicrousness to the medical notions discussed, but it was at least moderately intriguing and slightly different which is more than can be said about the film's second two-thirds which devolve into a rote action chase film.  It's fun to see Kevin Costner as a bad guy -- albeit a bad guy with the memories of a good guy which sets up a slightly complicated character for Costner to sink his teeth into -- but the film Costner's Jericho Stewart is inhabiting is just too typical and ho hum to really become invested.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Movie Review - Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad (2016)
Starring Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Cara Delevingne, Jai Courtney, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ike Barinholtz, Ben Affleck, and Viola Davis
Directed by David Ayer
***This film is currently streaming on HBO Now/GO***

After the disaster that was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, there was an inevitable sense of dread as I began to watch Suicide Squad, the next film to unfold in the DC Universe.  Yet somehow, despite the horrid reviews (or perhaps because of them lowering expectations), I found this irreverent comedy-action piece a tiny bit better than the film that preceded it.

***SPOILERS from Batman v Superman below***

Notice that I just said "a tiny bit better" because in the end Suicide Squad is pretty bad as well.  However, at least writer-director David Ayer tries to inject a little bit of fun into the proceedings as it introduces a motley crew of imprisoned criminals brought together by government intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) in an attempt to help America fight big-time criminals following the death of Superman.  Unfortunately, bringing this whole group together in a single film gives little time to develop backstories beyond those of ace sniper Deadshot (Will Smith) and psycho criminal Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) who happened to be the love interest of the criminal mastermind Joker (Jared Leto) prior to her incarceration.  There are other folks that make up the squad including an alligator guy, an Australian bloke, and some Asian girl, but they are so disturbingly pushed to the sidelines that their existence in the film ends up being laughable by the time the credits roll.  And let's not even discuss the villain -- an evil spiritual entity that enters the body of archeologist June Moore (Cara Delevingne) and then proceeds to create zombie-like creatures that run rampant.

Despite the music video-esque series of introductions we get to each member of the Suicide Squad (which became immediately ridiculous by the time Ayer introduces his second or third character), I was onboard during the film's opening act.  As Amanda Waller rounds up the criminals, something was working for me and then it all devolves into the horrible dark and dreary DC Universe aesthetic with an hour-long finale that isn't the least bit compelling.  Unlike many I've spoken to about this disappointing flick, I didn't dislike Jared Leto as the Joker (although I'm obviously not attached to these characters in any shape or form) or Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn (who at least injected some light humor into the darkness that surrounds her), and I actually think Will Smith plays a nicely grounded character in Deadshot.  Still, Suicide Squad isn't good and it continues the rather abysmal track record for DC.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-