Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Movie Review - MacGruber

MacGruber (2010)
Starring Will Forte, Ryan Phillippe, Kristin Wiig, and Val Kilmer
Directed by Jorma Taccone

Three times I laughed.  Two times more than I thought I would.  However, at a rate of one laugh every 30 minutes, MacGruber just doesn't cut it.  Considering the fact that Saturday Night Live itself hasn't been funny in years, why would anyone expect a movie based off of an SNL skit to be funny?  Oh...because they can drop F-bombs and show me Will Forte's ass a couple times?  Yeah...not funny.

The only thing saving this from an all-out failure is that I actually didn't mind Val Kilmer as the "evil mastermind" Dieter von Cunth (which I guess is supposed to be a funny name...it isn't) and Ryan Phillippe as Lt. Dixon Piper who is supposed to be MacGruber's voice of reason.  The two of them surprisingly didn't ham things up as much as they could have and it was appreciated.

Go watch MacGuyver -- the source material for this awful flick -- instead.

The RyMickey Rating:  D-

Monday, November 29, 2010

Movie Review - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One (2010)
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, and Ralph Fiennes
Directed by David Yates

I realize that the seventh and final book of the Harry Potter series was long, but, while whoever thought of separating the final film into two parts was a financial genius, the split causes Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One to be a tremendously boring film that fails on all fronts.  When it finally picks up the pace and actually gets going in the film's final thirty minutes, it's too little too late to redeem itself.

The gist of the whole thing:  Teenage wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) has to find some magic objects and destroy them before the evil Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) gets a hold of them and gains a bunch of power.  Potter's friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) are going to help him.

That's it.  Except for the fact that what's listed above is even more than what happens in the film.  I mention that Potter has to find some magic "objects" with an emphasis on the plural there.  Well, he actually only finds one object...in 150 minutes.  Two-and-a-half hours and he finds one frickin' object.  This intrepid quest really goes nowhere for this whole movie.  Instead, we get a bunch of shots of Harry standing around with Hermione and Ron, all of them looking really sad and worried.  There's no arc to the story and not a bit of an emotional arc with the characters.

Let's face it -- Daniel Radcliffe isn't a great actor.  He's rather awkward as Potter and he's not the least bit interesting to watch.  This has always been the case with Radcliffe throughout all the films, so I'm not sure why I was expecting anything different here.  The biggest problem, however, is that in this film Radcliffe is in nearly every single scene.  In the previous flicks, we'd at least cut away (maybe) to a little Ron or Hermione side adventure...and Rupert Grint and Emma Watson could at least hold our attention because of their charisma.  Here, even Grint and Watson are just dreary.  I realize these characters are facing some deadly and dire situations, but there was hardly a smile cracked onscreen the whole time.

David Yates is a more than adequate director and the most positive aspect of the film is the rather adult, simplistic way it's shot.  However, he (and his cinematographer) bathe the film in dreary dank blues and grays.  It's really not even a pretty film to look at despite some rather interesting settings.

All this being said, I was intrigued by the film's final half hour which utilized some very clever animation techniques to tell the backstory of the Deathly Hallows (this scene was the only one that really worked for me).  Ultimately, Part One ended on enough of a positive note to make me interested in knowing the outcome of Part Two.  However, this film should never have been broken up into two parts -- it's a move that will ultimately taint my decision of Deathly Hallows as a whole regardless of how much I like the final act.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Friday, November 26, 2010

Book Review - The Passage

The Passage (2010)
by Justin Cronin

The year is 2018 and FBI agent Brad Wolgast is tasked with traveling around the United States looking for death row inmates to take part in some secret government experiment.  However, when the agency asks Wolgast to bring in a young six year-old orphan named Amy for the program, Wolgast balks but eventually acquiesces, bringing the young girl to a secret facility in Colorado.  While there, chaos breaks out and Wolgast soon discovers that the government has been fashioning an new strain of virus that they hoped would prolong life expectancy but instead turns folks into vampire-like beasts who prey on other humans with predator-like animalistic precision.  Wolgast and Amy manage to escape, but that's just the start of the story that reads like an epic post-apocalyptic journey across a United States that is in complete shambles.

I picked up this book at the library only because I read some article by Stephen King that recommended it (not that that's really a rousing recommendation anymore after his disappointing opus Under the Dome).  However, I really couldn't put The Passage down.  The above summary is really only the first 200 pages and then the book changes entirely in a way I don't want to spoil.  It's that Psycho-like surprise change in tone that made the book stand out to me.  

Cronin has crafted a page-turning thriller here that has me giddily excited that this is part of a proposed trilogy of books.  This isn't "LITERATURE" in the way that snotty and snooty folks would look at books, but this is a fun read that is incredibly "readable" thanks to Cronin's manner of writing.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Movie Review - Fantastic Mr. Fox

Rewatched Mr. Fox again...I really do frickin' love it.  The Kristofferson-Ash stuff is priceless (and the story of a quirky cousin invading one's home and staying for a while is just like my "real life" now which added a rather ironic twist to the whole thing when I viewed it today with him in the room).  My review of the Best Film of 2009, originally posted last year, is below.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Featuring the voice talents of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Michael Gambon, and Willem Dafoe
Directed by Wes Anderson
I can't even begin to tell you how thrilled I am that this movie lived up to all my expectations. I've been desperately trying to not get excited about this film, but from the first preview, I was in love with the look of this thing and I couldn't wait for its release. Unlike some flicks that have had kick-ass trailers this year and failed to live up to expectations (*cough*Where the Wild Things Are*cough*), Fantastic Mr. Fox lived up to and exceeded my hopes for this film.

Mr. Fox (Clooney) has become "domesticated" in his later years. Once a criminal known for breaking into chicken, turkey, and squab farms, his wife (Streep) convinced him to give up that life upon the birth of their child, Ash (Schwartzman). A few fox-years have passed and Mr. Fox, having somewhat of a mid-life crisis, decides to move his family out of the foxhole they reside in and into a tree that happens to face the factories of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, who specialize in raising poultry and making alcoholic apple cider. Mr. Fox's old "wild animal" tendencies arise again and he decides to tackle one last caper. Little does he know that the three factory owners decide to join forces to fight back against the fox and his animal friends.

Quite simply, this film is a joy to watch. The stop-motion animation here is exquisite. I'm a big animation buff and this has got to be the best-looking stop motion animation I've seen on the big screen. The thing that's really neat about it is that it looks totally old-school, bringing to mind the Rankin-Bass Christmas classics like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The stop-and-go style isn't seamless, but that's what makes it so darn cool to watch. The colors, character movements, costumes, and backdrops simply add to the stellar production.

The voice acting -- wow. Sure, you knew you were listening to George Clooney and Meryl Streep, but their subdued voices just fit with the tone of the movie so well. Particularly winning was Jason Schwartzman as Mr. and Mrs. Fox's son, Ash. That character and his relationship with his fox cousin, Kristofferson (which is seriously the coolest name ever), was absolutely my favorite part of this movie.

No doubt the script has a quirky nature that may not appeal to all. It's certainly felt like a live-action Wes Anderson film that just happened to be animated. Granted, I've only seen two of Anderson's other works -- The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic -- but the flick certainly reminded me of those previous works, filled with odd characters and dry humor. As I mentioned above, the production design -- colors, set design, costumes -- was reminiscent of those two Anderson movies I've seen as well. I remember reading a ton of Roald Dahl when I was a kid and I loved all of his books. (Perhaps as one of my final books in my Book-a-Week Quest, I'll wind up reading one of his books again.) His style and tone certainly seems to fit Wes Anderson very well.

I find it much more difficult to write about movies that I love...I simply don't want to write about them, but instead just want to get back to the theater and watch them again. So, this may seem like a lack of enthusiasm, but whatever I say won't begin to convey my love for this movie.

The RyMickey Rating: A

Movie Review - Tangled

Tangled (2010)
Featuring the voices of Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, and Donna Murphy
Directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard

The marketing for this flick was completely unappealing to me (you're really using a dated Pink song in your trailer, Disney?), so I certainly went into this with no expectations.  Boy, was this flick impressive.  Beautiful to look out, very clever and funny, and great characters made Tangled an enjoyable animated flick -- Disney's best since 1996's Hunchback of Notre Dame (which is a personal favorite of mine despite being labeled as flawed by many).

Tangled is a take on the classic tale of Rapunzel (voiced by singer Mandy Moore), an eighteen-year old teen who has magical hair that is coveted by many since it has healing powers.  As a young baby, Rapunzel (who also happens to be princess) is kidnapped by the elderly Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) who uses Rapunzel to keep herself youthful.  Rapunzel, however, just wants to leave the tower -- her prison -- and see the world.  One day when thief Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) happens upon Rapunzel's tower while escaping the palace guards after stealing a valuable crown, Rapunzel convinces Flynn to take her out into the world and see what she's been missing.  Things start at shaky for the odd couple, but, as in the case in most Disney princess movies, love is in the cards, although not if Mother Gothel has anything to do with it.

There's no denying that this is a Disney movie.  It certainly doesn't try to hide the stereotypes nor play them for laughs a la Shrek.  Somehow, though, Tangled doesn't feel like a retread at all.  It manages to provide a fresh take on the genre and it does so in a rather brilliantly comic way.  There's nary a pop culture reference (or, thankfully, bodily function joke) in the movie, but it is certainly Disney's funniest flick since the underrated Emperor's New Groove.  Who woulda thunk that kids (and adults) would crack up over basic slapstick humor?

I'm loving this sudden resurgence of characters actually singing songs in Disney movies that started with last year's Princess and the Frog.  Here, the songs rather effortlessly flow and fit right into the story.  While they're not necessarily entirely memorable, they all are successful in their own way.  In particular, the "villain song" (which always carries anticipatory excitement whenever I watch a Disney flick) -- "Mother Knows Best" --  is a success.  There's a kind of vigor in Alan Menken's music, Glenn Slater's lyrics, and Donna Murphy's snide vocalizing that are very reminiscent of Ursula's "Poor Unfortunate Souls" from The Little Mermaid.  While it doesn't quite reach the levels of that Menken classic (and the best "villain song" from the Disney canon), "Mother Knows Best" is indeed a success.  The other songs aren't quite up to that caliber, but there isn't a bad apple in the bunch.

As mentioned, it's partly Donna Murphy's vocals that make the villain song a success and Murphy is joined by equally impressive vocal turns from Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi.  Together, this trio provides some of the best voice acting in a Disney flick in years (not to mention that all three are darn good singers).  The wit and humor that they bring to the clever script is a definite plus.  Add to this taleneted group two of the best (and funniest and non-cloying) animal sidekicks we've seen in years and every single character onscreen is a refreshing well-developed treat.

I happened to see Tangled twice on its opening day and I'm incredibly happy to say that the film actually played better the second time around.  Little nuances shined through and the story actually felt like it had a nearly flawless flow on the second watch (maybe it was just the refreshing nap I took before the repeat viewing).  This, to me, is a return to classic form for Disney.  From the music to the animation (which I didn't even discuss, but is rather beautiful, lush, and gorgeous), Tangled is top notch Disney and proves the Mouse House can be a leader in animation and not play second fiddle to Pixar.  I'll even go out on a limb and say that Tangled is better than Toy Story 3 which, although it packed a mighty emotional wallop at its conclusion, dragged on a bit too much for my liking.  Completely unexpected and, for this Disney nut, hopefully a resurgence for Disney animation.

The RyMickey Rating:  A-

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Movie Review - Morning Glory

Morning Glory (2010)
Starring Rachel McAdams, Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton, Patrick Wilson, and Jeff Goldblum
Directed by Roger Michell

I can't deny that the simple presence of Rachel McAdams onscreen makes me kind of giddy.  She's effervescent and completely natural...and so goshdarn cute.  Ms. McAdams alone makes the romantic comedy Morning Glory a lot better than it deserves to be.  Yes, there were some (I'd even go so far as to say several) laugh-out-loud moments, but as a whole, the story just falls into that "been there, seen that before" category which ultimately holds the film back from being an all-out success.

McAdams is Becky Fuller, an executive producer on a New Jersey local morning news show.  When she is let go because of budget cuts, she manages to land a job in New York City and the exec producer of broadcast net IBS's national morning show Daybreak.  Wallowing in last place, Becky has big plans to shake things the show up.  While she likes bubbly host Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton), Becky feels that Colleen needs a nice partner to bounce things off of.  Becky discovers that revered news anchor Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford) is contracted with IBS, but since he was forced out of the anchor position a few years ago, he has simply been earning a paycheck not doing a thing.  Becky manages to convince Mike to join Daybreak, but the curmudgeonly Mike doesn't quite fit the bill wanting to tell hard news stories rather than do the fluff pieces often seen in morning news shows' second hours.  As these stories often go, Becky must convince Mike to lighten up...and it's not a real surprise as to whether she succeeds or not.

What lifts this film up is the performance of the winning Rachel McAdams and the droll Diane Keaton.  Whenever either of these two ladies are onscreen, the film shines.  McAdams, in particular, is someone I want to be the Next Big Movie Star.  While it doesn't seem like it's going to happen (why aren't her flicks ever really successful?), she's a complete joy to watch (and not too bad to ogle over either).

The film falters a bit when it focuses on the men.  Harrison Ford plays the grouchy Mike adequately, but it all felt very cookie cutter, one-note, and caricaturish to me.  Along the same lines, Patrick Wilson plays Rachel McAdams' new beau with zippo charisma and energy.  Granted, his role is written so poorly that he's given nothing to do, but I didn't buy their relationship one bit and the problem lies moreso with Wilson than McAdams.

And its that underwritten boyfriend role that epitomizes what's wrong with Morning Glory.  There's just not much of anything there.  Yes, the ladies of the cast cull what they can out of the lack of story, but in the end, this film brings nothing new to the table at all, feeling like a retread of other generic romantic comedies we've seen before.  It also doesn't help that director Roger Michell (who directed the rather enjoyable Notting Hill) films everything so incredibly generically, too, peppered with moments of odd zooms that stood out to me like a sore thumb.

Despite these qualms, I laughed...quite a lot actually.  There are moments in the film that work really well and that is due to both McAdams and Keaton.  Together they elevate this movie to a bit more than the average rating it deserves.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+


Friday, November 19, 2010

Movie Review - The Social Network

The Social Network (2010)
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hamer, Max Minghella, Rashida Jones, Brenda Song, and Rooney Mara
Directed by David Fincher

I avoided the Facebook thing for as long as I could, but one day in an attempt to look at pictures of some girl who I thought I might want to date, I signed up and began the process of "friending" people.  It's all rather foolish (though not as foolish as Twitter), but there is something to be said for Facebook being the new form of communication.  The final scene of The Social Network hints at the argument that Facebook has distanced people from others rather than brought people closer together, but that's the only moment where I felt the film was trying to say anything deep and meaningful.  Don't get me wrong.  The Social Network is a good film -- well crafted, well acted, and very well written.  But it's not groundbreaking cinema.  Still, in this lukewarm year for film, it's one of the best flicks I've seen in 2010.

Jesse Eisenberg is Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard student who is dumped by his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) while at a bar one evening.  The gal wasn't wrong to dump him -- he was a stuck-up bastard -- but Mark doesn't see it that way.  Instead, this computer-savvy nerd takes to his blog and begins a bitter tirade against Erica.  This then leads to a rather misogynistic website which he formulates and releases on the very same night he was dumped -- a "who's hotter" kind of thing where Mark pitted pictures of two college girls against each other and allowed the public to vote on who was better looking.  When this website crashes the Harvard internet system, Mark gets into a bit of trouble, but that's only the start of his creative brainstorming.

Mark meets the Winklevoss twin brothers (Armie Hammer) and their buddy Divya (Max Minghella) who have an idea to create a dating site for Harvard students only.  The brothers and their pal recognize Mark's computer skills (and recognize that he may need to "rehabilitate" his image)  and hire him to create the code for the site.  Mark agrees to help, but in the process formulates his own idea -- "the Facebook."  With the help of his business-oriented friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield), Mark launches "the Facebook."  As is often the case with surprise successes, though, enemies can be made rather quickly, and Mark's life is no exception.

There's a kind of coldness on display in the flick -- director Fincher uses it to mirror the outwardly emotional coldness of Mark.  And there's not a whole lot of "brightness" onscreen either.  Fincher drapes the film in darkness for a fairly big chunk of the time whether it be in the scenes where Mark is creating the website or the litigation scenes where he's being sued for creating the very same website.  

Speaking of those litigation scenes (which Fincher does a rather brilliant job of balancing and cutting to throughout the whole film), screenwriter Aaron Sorkin amazingly makes them interesting.  It may seem like a simple task, but sometimes putting a lawyer into any scene makes the boredom factor spike greatly.  Not so, here.  In fact, as has been said in many reviews of the flick, Sorkin's screenplay is the true star of the picture.  There's a wit and genuine intelligence on display that isn't commonplace in mainstream films.  I was a big fan of Sorkin's television show Sports Night for the very same reason I'm a fan of his work in this film -- the quick patter of smart speak was welcome in that show and welcome here as well.

It certainly takes a talented actor to make Sorkin's fast-paced dialog work and Jesse Eisenberg steps up to the plate.  His Mark Zuckerberg is zeroed in on one thing -- creating "the Facebook" -- and pushes away everything and everyone else.  There was much talk before the film was released that Zuckerberg came off looking like a nasty guy.  I didn't see it that way at all and I think that's due to Eisenberg's performance.  To me, Zuckerberg was a loner who was not quite prepared for the nearly immediate success that his work would bring him.

While Justin Timberlake proves adequate (I wasn't bowled over by him, although he certainly didn't disappoint), my favorite actor was perhaps Andrew Garfield (who also starred in this year's Never Let Me Go) as Mark's friend and business partner Eduardo.  Eduardo actually has a bit more of an emotional arc (or at least a more obvious one) than Mark and Garfield makes his character the person we in the audience relate to most.

There's nothing really bad to say about The Social Network.  It's a well made smart film the likes of which we don't see onscreen often nowadays.  Across the board, everything is top notch.  That being said, it never really pulled me in emotionally and I think that's because of the "coldness" that I mentioned above.  Still, it's certainly a film I'd recommend and watch again.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Hitchcock Fest Wrap-Up, Part V

And now the Top Ten...Can I even build suspense to the #1 film?




#10 -- Torn Curtain (1966) -- B+ 
I'd actually avoided this film for years despite its "star power" of Julie Andrews and Paul Newman because I was worried it was going to be too "Cold-War-y" for my tastes.  However, I was quite impressed with Torn Curtain's ability to keep me in suspense throughout.  Many set pieces (including the one that uses the pi screenshot above) work incredibly well at consistently raising the tension.  Definitely worth a look.

#9 -- Saboteur (1942) -- B+
Saboteur was actually off of the Hitchcock Month list when I first started and was only added when I tacked on the little addendum to November.  I had already seen the film and didn't remember all that fondly.  I'm certainly glad I watched it again because it is a true glimpse at who Hitch would become.  Hitch has a knack for making "the wrongly accused man" a great central character and here it is no exception.  Yes, there are certainly some dated aspects to the production, but this time around it struck me as an early precursor to The Manchurian Candidate and this film definitely deserves to be in that revered film's company.

Hitch's only remake...and he does much better the second time around.  While I can't dislike Jimmy Stewart at all, Doris Day is the one who impresses in this.  Known for her comedic work, Day is kind of amazing in certain scenes in this film.  I was genuinely riveted in certain moments all because of her acting.  Moments like that don't come often enough in film and there were a few times that happened here.  Another thing to love about this movie is that a good ten minutes of the build-up to the climax are completely dialog-free.  Hitch stages everything with music only and it is stunning to watch a director build tension with only visuals and music and no words whatsoever.

#7 --  The Birds (1963) -- A-
Yes, it's a pure horror film.  Yes, it's kind of silly.  But The Birds works.  It's genuinely eerie and freaky that these damn birds just start attacking and killing people.  Nothing deep here, but it's a fun ride.

#6 --  Shadow of a Doubt (1943) -- A-
A lovely little film that's a departure from Hitch in that the film takes place mostly in small-town America.  Imagine it's 1943 and you're in a theater and you realize that the town that's onscreen is very much like your own.  And then Hitch introduces a murderer into the mix (and that ominous train carrying said murderer in the picture above is now draping the town with shadowy deviousness).  Some terrific performances from Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten buoy the film.  Shadow of a Doubt is a film that I appreciate much more now that I've gotten a little older.  It isn't the least bit showy...but not everything has to be.

#5 --  Vertigo (1958) -- A-
I never "got" this film until this viewing as part of the month-long Fest.  Now, I can't wait to watch it again.  Some of Hitch's best visual work is on display (as depicted in that rather beautiful shot above) in perhaps Hitch's most "adult" film.  All the characters are tortured in their own ways and things don't exactly end happily for most of them.  Part of me wanted this to fall outside of my Top Five simply because my Top Five is already filled with "classics" and I hoped to have something "fresh" in it...but these top flicks of Hitch's are revered for a reason.

#4 --  Rebecca (1940) -- A-
Perhaps the only film in my Top Five that may not fall on the lists of many others, Rebecca was a film that I was not expecting to love, but kind of adored.  Part of that love comes from the two ladies above.  Joan Fontaine as the unnamed twentysomething who meets and falls in love with the dashing Max de Winter and Judith Anderson as the creepy, maniacal maid Mrs. Danvers who wants this new ingenue out of Mr. de Winter's house both make this movie shine.  Hitch's only movie to win Best Picture, there is a kind of "richness" on display that is reminiscent of other films released around this time (Gone with the Wind as an example) that isn't all that common in many of the director's other films...but Hitch manages it all quite well.

#3 --  Rear Window (1954) -- A
The movie that made Jimmy Stewart one of my favorite actors of all time.  I saw this so long ago (it was definitely one of my first experiences with Hitchcock), but it still holds up so well all these years later.  To think that every single scene is shot in Jimmy Stewart's character's apartment or as a view from his window is kind of a directing tour de force.  And Grace Kelly looking all sexy.  What's not to love?

#2 --  North by Northwest (1959) -- A
I didn't think Rear Window could get knocked out of spot #2, but North by Northwest surprised me this time around.  Cary Grant is absolutely winning in this and Eva Marie Saint is his sexy counterpoint.  Watching this film this time around, I was bowled over by Ernest Lehman's screenplay.  I truly think it's one of the best written films of all time.  From the dialog to the plot, everything works so ingeniously.  And Hitch lenses everything so well.  Dare I say that perhaps later viewings might actually kick this rating up to an elusive 'A+'?  I could see it happening in a few years.

#1 --  Psycho (1960) -- A+
Nothing needs to be said other than the following:  The Best Movie of All Time.

And there you have it.  The month-long celebration of Hitchcock has come to a close.  There were some flops, but some definite winners.  One must remember that I'm a somewhat harsh critic and I typically say that anything I rate a 'C' or higher is something that I'd recommend for others to see.  With that being the criteria, 25 out of the 34 movies I watched, I'd recommend.  Not too shabby.

There were definitely some surprises in the mix that fared much better than I expected -- Torn Curtain, Marnie, The Wrong Man.  

There were certainly some films that I expected much more from -- Lifeboat, Dial M for Murder, Strangers on a Train.

But I also found some new classics for me -- Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, Saboteur.

Overall, this whole thing solidified one thing -- Alfred Hitchcock is my favorite director and that's probably something that will never change.  He is the Master of Suspense, and with "suspense" being perhaps my favorite "genre" of cinema it doesn't get any better than putting a Hitchcock film in the dvd player and giving it a go.  75% of the time, you're gonna get something good...and even in the bad, there's gonna be something worthwhile there.

So, do yourself a favor and rent a Hitchcock film if you don't own one.  You won't be disappointed.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hitchcock Fest Wrap-Up, Part IV

Continuing the wrap-up...

#20 --  Foreign Correspondent (1940) -- B-
After a slow start, Hitchcock soon shows his visual skills in this flick from his early career.  There are several rather stunning set pieces that get a little lost in a simply "little better than average" film.

#19 --  The 39 Steps (1935) -- B-
I'd seen the play based off of this movie and read the book this movie was based on and was disappointed in both.  The film is the best of the three, but it didn't win me completely over. Still, this is pretty darn good early Hitch and moderately okay overall Hitch.

#18 --  Rope (1948) -- B-
As a film lover, I can't help but be fascinated with Hitchcock's long takes in the film Rope.  However, the film (which I remember really liking in the past) was a bit talky this time around and Farley Granger (on the left above) who nearly single-handedly ruined Strangers on a Train by his crappy acting almost does the same thing here.  Even looking at the picture of him above makes me cringe.

#17 --  Suspicion (1941) -- B-
Suspicion features some good acting from leads Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine, but with a title like "Suspicion," one would expect moments of suspense.  However, there's not a minute of tension in the film's first hour and the ending is a bit of a letdown.  Nevertheless, I liked the film, but longed for it to be better.

#16 --  The Paradine Case (1947) -- B
This is probably the highest film on the list that the most people will dislike if they watch it. A huge chunk of the film takes place in a courtroom which interested me, but I could see it wearing thin for others.  Surprisingly, though, the film really comes alive in what could have easily been a throwaway plotline -- when lawyer Gregory Peck begins to fall for his client, Peck's wife, Ann Todd (pictured above) begins to get a tad jealous.  Todd is able to elevate the soap-opera-y aspect and raise it to another level that was completely unexpected to me.


#15 --  Family Plot (1976) -- B
This may very well have been a case of lowered expectations making something seem better than it actually is, but I remember watching Family Plot (Hitch's last film) several years ago and despising it.  This time around, I found it a fun diversion with hints of comedy and a surprising amount of amusing mystery.  It's not top tier Hitchcock and I'd love for his last film to have been a classic, but this isn't something Hitch should be ashamed of at all.

#14 -- Sabotage  (1936) -- B
Although Hithcock would later call the scene one of his worst cinematic offenses, the screenshot above of a young kid getting onto a bus carrying packages that, unbeknown to him, contain a bomb was shockingly well put together and genuinely exciting.  This was the first film that I watched in the fest and I admittedly was not expecting much.  However, this early Hitchcock film manages to build suspense even though we know right from the opening moments that the main character is a deadly saboteur seeking to harm the people of England.

#13 --  The Wrong Man (1956) -- B
This film was such a departure for Hitchcock that the typical Hitchcock cameo within the film is nearly nonexistent.  Instead, Hitch appears in shadow in the opening shot stating that the film is a true story about a man wrongly accused of a crime.  This is Hitch's grittiest film with nary a bit of humor.  With a great performance from Henry Fonda, The Wrong Man was a true surprise for me and one I'd watch again.

#12 -- Notorious (1946) -- B
If there's one film that I want to rewatch on this list, it's Notorious.  I feel that perhaps my rating is too low on this one.  To me, the film had a rough start.  As I've said in a previous wrap-up, Ingrid Bergman always seems rather cold to me and it took me quite a while to warm up to her in this film.  I found it very difficult to believe that Cary Grant would fall in love with her immediately after he met her.  However, once the story really kicks in and Bergman's character becomes an undercover spy to help America infiltrate a Nazi ring in South America, the film really starts to shine.  The final scenes are quite good and made me think that I need to view this one again.

#11 --  Marnie (1964) -- B
People complain about Tippi Hedren's acting skills and while it would've been nice to see someone else in the title role of Marnie, the film is still a very interesting character study.  One of Hitchcock's most overtly sexual movies, Marnie's past has shaped the woman she is now -- a person incapable of loving anyone...especially a man.  Sean Connery plays the man who wants to love her and he's a good fit for the role.  An interesting film...one that may not be suited for everyone's tastes, but I certainly appreciated the different feel Hitch brought to this one.


#s 10-1 coming soon...

Movie Review - Babies

Babies (2010)
Directed by Thomas Balmes
***Currently streaming on Netflix***

Babies are cute.  And this film does nothing to dispute that notion.  Then again, the film also says next to nothing, showing not an ounce of depth or weightiness.  Ultimately, I'm not sure why Babies was ever made...but it was a moderately enjoyable eighty minute distraction that made me smile, laugh, and kind of wish I was a father.  [Plus, for all you lovers of National Geographic-style nudity, there's probably more breasts and bottoms per minute than in any film you'll see this year.]

As I said, I don't quite know why this film exists, but it follows around four babies over the course of their first years -- Ponijao from Namibia, Mari from Japan, Hattie from San Fransisco, and Bayarjargal (the only male) from Mongolia.  Obviously, there's quite a difference in the environment in which these kids are raised and I couldn't help but kind of feel bad for US resident, Hattie, whose parents are certainly raising her with their hippie mindset fully in place.  I couldn't help but think that the filmmaker was taking slight jabs at industrialized society -- the parents of Mari and Hattie were depicted (to me at least) as a little foolish.  But, I'm probably just reading into things way too much.

Anyway, this short little review has rambled all over the place, but the movie does that, too -- moving from cute baby to cute baby.  But, you know, sometimes cute babies are fascinating to watch.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Theater Review - Our Town

Our Town
Written by Thornton Wilder
Directed by Jewel Walker
Where:  Thompson Theater at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware)

Nothing pleases me more than to be able to say that the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players (REP)  are back in full form with their production of Our Town which is ending its short run this upcoming Sunday.  The first two productions of this ten-show season -- The Homecoming and The Importance of Being Earnest -- didn't exactly bowl me over with a chief problem being that I could see a definite gap in performance levels between the students of the PTTP (Professional Theater Training Program) and the professional actors of the REP.  Fortunately, in Our Town any previous "talent differentials" are pushed aside and both troupes stepped up their game, presenting a lovely tale of life and death in small town America at the turn of the 20th century.

Some of you may recall my Book-a-Week Quest last year and Our Town was part of that quest.  Needless to say, I didn't care for it (the review is here).  While I commented that it may simply not read well on paper, I found it to be very simplistic...too much so.  I quite honestly didn't understand why it was so revered.

Well, this is definitely a play that gains a great deal from watching rather than reading (as is the case with most plays, of course).  Taking place on a barren stage with only two tables and several chairs, director Jewel Walker (who also takes on the role of the Stage Manager) is able to create the whole town of Grover's Corner, New Hampshire out of very little...and the audience wholeheartedly believes that it is a real town rather than just a dark stage.   Right from the opening lines, there's a soothing tone to Walker's Stage Manager.  He's wise beyond his years and it offers somewhat of a calming effect to the whole affair.

The play revolves around two families -- the Webb family and their daughter Emily and the Gibbs family and their son George.  Living next to each other for years, Emily and George develop a friendship that gradually turns into love which unfortunately leads to tragedy (and each of the three acts mirrors those three stages).  With these young characters at the forefront of the play, I was a tad worried that the REP actors that I've come to know and love were going to be pushed to the sidelines.  However, I was completely won over by the PTTP actors in this production with the lovely and charming Sara J. Griffin's portrayal of Emily amd the engaging Ben Charles's role as the doe-eyed innocent George taking center stage and showcasing their talent.  These two single-handedly changed my mindset on the REP's season and made me feel a tiny bit guilty for resenting the fact that the PTTP students were infringing on the REP actors' stage.  [What can I say...I missed seeing the talented REP troupe take center stage.]  Really and truly, I greatly enjoyed the performances of Griffin and Charles who manage to gracefully and believably move from the innocence of childhood to the reality of adulthood.  I very much look forward to seeing their next roles this upcoming season.

Additionally, from the PTTP side of things, kudos to Jasmine Bracey as Emily's mother who certainly held her own in scenes with my favorite REP actress Kathleen Pirkl Tague (oh, how I missed you the first two productions this season!).  The acting across the board was really top notch, but I'd also like to point out a nice turn from "guest actor" John Rensenhouse, a graduate of the PTTP in 1981, who managed to create quite a few humorous scenes out of his role as Emily's father.

While it's not my favorite thing I've seen from the REP (last year's productions of I Am My Own Wife, Death of a Salesman, and She Stoops to Conquer are going to be tough to beat), Our Town is certainly the best thing I've seen this season from the company.  Seeing the play performed live, the simplicity of the play as written slipped away a bit, revealing a much deeper underside about life, death, love, and the importance of living and cherishing even the most mundane of moments (at least that's what it meant to me in this totally non-in-depth analysis...I could be totally out in left field, but I guess that's what makes theater so interesting).

You've only got two more chances to see this (Saturday and Sunday at 2pm), but it's well worth checking out if you're able.

Hitchcock Fest Wrap-Up, Part III

Continuing on with a brief look back at each film in the Hitchcock Fest...

#26 --  Dial M for Murder (1954) -- C-
Perhaps I just wasn't in the mood for this film at the time I watched it, but Dial M for Murder didn't win me over this time around.  I know I've seen it before and I remember liking it, but this time around the production just seemed very dry.  Despite a few good scenes, the story seemed more suited for the stage rather than for film.

#25 --  Topaz (1969) -- C
This espionage thriller works quite well for the first half, but the second half turns into a nighttime soap opera and falls apart.  

#24 --  I Confess (1953) -- C
As I'm discovering as I read through Hitch's biography, Hitch grew up Catholic and his religion certainly shaped him.  Catholicism is front and center in I Confess, the tale of a priest wrongly accused of murder.  Unfortunately, the film's a tad on the melodramatic side and Montgomery Clift's portrayal of the wronged priest (which is actually quite praised by most reviews) didn't work for me at all.

#23 --  The Lady Vanishes  (1938) -- C
This early Hitchcock film about a lady who vanishes on a train trip through eastern Europe would have worked much better had it all been set on a train.  However, the first thirty minutes of the film are just unnecessary filler and bring the flick to a screeching halt before it even begins.  Cut out the first act and you're all set with a decent movie.

#22 --  Strangers on a Train (1951) -- C
Admittedly, this was the only flick in the Fest that I didn't watch in the month of October.  I watched it last February and didn't rewatch it.  However, the problems with the flick were twofold to me.  One, Farley Granger's character is such a limp noodle that he makes his scenes nearly unwatchable.  And two, while Robert Walker makes for a nasty bad guy, there were scenes towards the end of the film that were simply there to "create excitement" rather than forward the plot.  That's very anti-Hitchcockian to me, seeing as how he usually utilizes tension to advance the story to great effect.  Needless to say, this film is loved by many...just not me.

#21 --  The Trouble with Harry (1955) -- C+
A light-hearted mystery-comedy, The Trouble with Harry is perfectly acceptable lesser-tier Hitchcock to me.  The acting is very good and the script is fine, but it's not quite funny enough to work as a comedy and certainly not thrilling enough to work as a mystery.  It falls awkwardly in the middle of the two genres and the balance isn't quite as good as it should be.

Up next...#s 20-11...

Hitchcock Fest Wrap-Up, Part II

Alright, so we're wrapping up this month-long Hitchcock Fest with a rundown from the Worst to Best films I watched by the Master of Suspense (not that the Best should be any type of surprise).  Today we'll look at #s 34-27 with a snippet of my final thoughts for each film.

#34 --  Spellbound (1945) -- D-
One would think that with two big stars -- Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman -- something much better would have come out of Spellbound.  However, the two stars are awful and have zero charisma with each other.  The film is incredibly dated and simply doesn't translate well to today's day and age.  The only thing saving this film from an 'F' is the Salvador Dali-inspired dream sequence, a snapshot of which can be seen above.

#33 --  Lifeboat (1944) -- D-
Talk about boring.  Lifeboat is a film that I had been looking forward to watching, but it's one that I will never watch again.  One would think that being confined to a small space (the entire film takes place on a lifeboat) would cause tensions to rise, but there wasn't a moment of suspense here.

#32 --  Stage Fright (1950) -- D
Stage Fright isn't so much a movie as it is "The Marlene Dietrich Show."  The gravel-voiced Dietrich is such a caricature of herself that there's no disassociation between her and her character and it completely takes you out of the movie.  Not that there was a whole lot of movie there to begin with...

#31 --  Frenzy (1972) -- D
Yep.  That above is supposed to be a serious shot in Frenzy, Hitch's only R-rated film and only film with nudity.  What made Hitch Hitch was the fact that he always had to allude to the horrors that he depicted onscreen.  When he's allowed to show the crimes (as he is here), it just doesn't work.  Maybe someone's tongue really would stick out if they were strangled by a necktie, but it doesn't mean I want to see that.

#30 --  To Catch a Thief (1955) -- D+
Another flick I was looking forward to that fizzled.  Not much chemistry between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly and not much of a story either.  Add in a completely obvious villain and it's a movie that just doesn't have much going for it.

#29 --  Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) -- C-
In the picture above, the man in the front kidnapped the daughter of the man in the back.  One would think that the man in the back would be beating up the man in the front, trying to get his daughter back.  He doesn't.  Instead, he eats sandwiches with the kidnappers.  If anything, I think my C- rating may be a tad high for this one.  Watch the remake by Hitch which you'll see much further up this list.

#28 --  Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) -- C-
A flick lacking any amount of mystery, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is Hitchcock's one true comedy.  An apparent love letter to the lovely lady above, Hitch did the film as a favor to the actress Carole Lombard, a comedienne whom Hitch greatly admired.  Unfortunately, the flick just isn't funny.  But I do kind of want to go rent some Carole Lombard movies.

#27 --  Under Capricorn (1949) -- C-
The second Ingrid Bergman movie in this bottom of the barrel list (it makes me kind of want to watch Casablanca again to see if I even like her in that).  A period piece that's more of a drama than anything else.  What is interesting and what perhaps makes this worthy of a rental for film fans is Hitch's utilization of the long take in this film.  There are actually some stunning shots with some beautiful camera movements...the film ain't so stunning and beautiful, though.

Tomorrow...#26-#21...

Friday, November 05, 2010

Movie Review - Splice

Splice (2010)
Starring Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, and Delphine Chanéac 
Directed by Vincenzo Natali

Splice seems to be asking the question as to whether science has gone too far when it comes to cloning. While the film offers an answer, the implications of cloning are somewhat brushed aside to allow room for some cheesy horror story to play out.  A better balance between these two sides would have made for a much better movie, although the flick is not a complete misfire.

Partners in both research and in romance, genetic engineers Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) have successfully spliced together genes from a variety of creatures to create a brand new species of animal that will hopefully allow for some great medical breakthroughs with regards to curing various diseases.  Unwilling to stop there, the duo decides to splice human DNA into their next creation.  The hybrid human is successfully brought to term, but the creature has much more aggressive tendencies than regular humans.  Nonetheless, Clive and Elsa decide to watch over the creature and study its growth while attempting to keep it a secret from their colleagues.  As the creature grows and begins to take on more human characteristics, Clive and Elsa find themselves growing emotionally closer to the creature becoming more and more like parents and giving it the name of Dren.  It shouldn't be much of a surprise to discover that things slowly begin to spiral out of control and Dren's animalistic tendencies begin to suppress the human characteristics creating a bit of chaos.

I actually bought into the premise which certainly works in the film's favor (although it did remind me of some other movie that I can't quite put my finger on).  The problem really lies in the fact that the horror side of the film just isn't all that scary.  When Dren, who started out more animal-like, begins to shift from human back to animal again, the special effects (which should have elicited some excitement or tension) veered towards the cheesy side.

It doesn't help that both Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley are about as exciting as watching paint dry.  It amazes me that Brody actually won an Oscar because in every single thing that I've seen him in post-Pianist, he is emotionless.  [I need to go back and watch The Pianist and see if he's as good as I remember.]  I've also seen Polley in a few things and, like Brody, she's just vacant all the time.  There's very little chemistry between these two supposed lovebirds.

Surprisingly, though, I wasn't completely turned off by Splice, but I can't really pinpoint anything beyond the premise that really won me over.  My rating below may seem a tad high based on my review above, but it falls into that "Meh" category that I wouldn't exactly recommend to people, but wouldn't tell people to shy away from.

The RyMickey Rating:  C