Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Theater Review - The Cripple of Inishmaan

The Cripple of Inishmaan
Written by Martin McDonagh
Directed by J. R. Sullivan
Where:  Thompson Theater at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When:  Saturday, January 28, 7:30pm


Photo by Paul Cerro

At a certain point (and perhaps we've come to that moment), I'm just going to sound like a broken record when I speak about the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players' productions.  This company of eight actors is just fantastic and their expertise shines again in Martin McDonagh's darkly comic tale The Cripple of Inishmaan.  The audience is transported back to 1934 and the Irish island of Inishmaan where we meet Billy (or, as the rest of the townsfolk call him "Cripple Billy"), his two foster aunts who have raised him since his parents' deaths when Billy was just a baby, and a few other kooky Irish lads and lassies who find themselves in a bit of a tizzy when local gossiper JohnnyPateenMike makes it known that Hollywood is coming to the nearby town of Inishmore.  In the rather boring (or at the very least simple) town of Inishmaan, this is big news and Billy, with his mangled leg and hurt arm who often spends his free time staring at cows, sees this as an opportunity to possibly escape the doldrums of his lonely existence.

I'm actually quite surprised that playwright Martin McDonagh manages to make this play work.  It's an odd melange of comedy, melodrama, almost Capra-esque sentimentality, and twisted violence that in no way should succeed.  Somehow, though, it does, and it provides the REP with a work unlike anything they've performed before.  While the company often finds itself delving into either just comedy or just drama, Inishmaan is a clever mix, much darker in tone (and nastier in its humor) then we're used to seeing from the REP, allowing the troupe to once again showcase a different side.  It's also nice to see a modern play being performed -- something that I wish the REP would do a tiny bit more and they seem to be doing this year (Noises Off and the upcoming Our Country's Good from the 80s, and this production from 90s).  [Gosh, how exciting would it be to see this troupe take on some modern-day stuff like Doubt and God of Carnage? Then again, when you do Shakespeare as exciting as this production of theirs last year, it's hard to complain about anything this group performs.]

Jumping back to the actors, though, this season has been great because in all the company's productions thus far, we've got to see all eight actors performing (something that wasn't done in seasons past) and there really doesn't seem to be anything these folks can't do.  From the first moment Michael Gotch's Billy walks onstage, you immediately feel for the character.  In a role that I'd assume requires great attention to the actual physicality of the character you're playing, Mr. Gotch imbues Billy with a great deal of heart and vulnerability as well.  Personal favorite Kathleen Pirkl Tague shares much of her stage time with the wonderful Elizabeth Heflin as Billy's two "aunties" and their interactions with one another and their fellow townsfolk are comedic gold.

Kudos also need to be given to Stephen Pelinski whose take on the local gossiper JohnnyPateenMike provides a lot of the play's laughter.  His scenes with his drunk ninety-plus-year-old mother (played by the ever-reliable Carine Montbertrand) didn't really advance the plot a whole lot, but they were some of my favorites in the show.  It was also nice to see the REP welcome back last year's graduate of the university's PTTP program Ben Charles.  Deena Burke, Mic Matarrese, and Steve Tague round out the rest of the stellar cast.

As is always the case with the REP, The Cripple of Inishmaan is top notch in terms of production values.  The scenic design by Stefanie Hansen is wonderful (and garnered applause by the audience as the play opened) and the costumes by Andrea Barrier are also up to the usual standards held by the REP.

If there's something to complain about it lies in the fact that I couldn't help but feel like Martin McDonagh tacked on one too many endings.  The play zips along in the first act, but I felt like the second act could have ended at least two times before it actually did.  Granted, the continuation of the plot towards the end added to the rather enjoyable subversive nature of the play as a whole, but it still didn't quite flow as well as I feel like it could have leading up to the conclusion.  Those are minor qualms, however, as I was pleasantly surprised by this production.  The different tone presented by the REP in The Cripple of Inishmaan is a real treat and well worth seeing.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Movie Review - Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)
Starring Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, and Bailee Madison
Directed by Troy Nixey

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is an okay horror flick that felt like a slightly more adult version of Nickelodeon's 90s series Are You Afraid of the Dark.  Although tense, the film had a rather childlike innocence to it -- no cursing, no blood (for the most part), relying on tense build-ups and taut direction (although only in certain scenes).

That being said, despite a decent lead performance from the young Bailee Madison (whose character Sally started out a bit too one-note bratty to work completely for me) and fine turns from Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce (whose characters aren't given a whole lot to do other than doubt Sally when she says little gnome-like creatures are wreaking havoc on their newly bought hundred-year-old mansion), the film even at 99 minutes goes on too long.  It felt like the story could have (and should have) been told in the 30 minutes that those Are You Afraid of the Dark episodes were given.  The story was just dragged out too long to be effective.  Rather than excite, I found myself bored too many times.

It doesn't help that the aforementioned gnome-like creatures prove to be a little laughable rather than scary (which, once again, makes me feel like it would've been more at home on that 90s Nick show).  I just wanted to tell these folks to stomp on these little devils and run out of the house (because, just like every other horror movie, no one leaves the house until it's much too late to do so).

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Movie Review - Margin Call

Margin Call (2011)
Starring Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgely, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, and Stanley Tucci
Directed by J.C. Chandor

Some movies no matter how well they're directed, acted, or written just don't work for the individual viewer because the subject matter simply doesn't resonate with him.  That's Margin Call for me.  The acting ensemble here is top notch. J.C. Chandor's directing and screenwriting debut is solidly tension-filled and quite impressive (although it does slip into a bit too much moralizing in the second half which diminished substantially the little enjoyment I was experiencing).  Still, the story about the start of the financial meltdown in the late 2000s and big corporate's involvement in forcing massive government bailouts just made me feel kind of dumb because it's something I really know nothing about.  Despite its admirable attempts at "dumbing down" the subject matter, I was still a bit lost at moments which is part of the reason why this flick garners its rating at the bottom of this review.

I'd love to tell you exactly what happened to cause the tension to build in Margin Call, but I'd just be making up what I think happened.  It has something to do with some big investment company wanting to sell off some stocks or something after they discover that if they were to hold onto them their company would go under.  Unfortunately for this company, the person that discovered this issue was just fired that morning, so as everyone attempts to get him back to unveil his findings, he's none to eager to help the bastards that let him go.

The whole thing looks good and feels smart, but I just don't know enough about stocks and mortgages and day trading to comprehend the goings-on here.  It also didn't help that towards the end, the film attempted to bring out the "moral police" by having its characters spout how morally wrong the company's actions were -- and, while that may be accurate, it felt much too preachy and "Occupy Wall Street" to appeal to this viewer.  Acting across the board was great and it was nice to see each actor have a scene or two to act with everyone in the cast in a one-on-one capacity.  But, in the end, this is a movie that I'll never want to watch again.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Monday, January 23, 2012

2012 Academy Award Predicitons

Bold Font Updated Oscar Morning -- 9am


Here's a quick run-down of some major Academy Awards categories to be announced tomorrow morning at 8:30am.  Going into this Oscar season, I've actually seen quite a bit more than I usually have seen at this point.  I've still got some possible awards contenders to see -- War Horse, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Albert Nobbs, to name a few -- but I'm not sure any of these will see a huge amount of traction in the nominations tomorrow.  Anyway, here's my predictions in descending order from most probable/locks to less probable

Best Picture
The Artist
The Descendants
Hugo
The Help
Midnight in Paris

Yes, there could be anywhere from five to ten nominees this year, but I can't help but think in this rather lukewarm year for movies that many of the other flicks just outside the top five -- War Horse, Dragon Tattoo, Moneyball -- may not have many #1 votes coming their way from Academy members which significantly decreases their chances of a nomination (the voting process is much too confusing for me to really understand though).  If something else gets in the mix, I'd have to think it very well could be something like Drive or Tree of Life that has a small, but loyal and rabid following.  The top four flicks about seem definite with Midnight in Paris a toss-up.  I'm not quite sure how to to appropriately predict the awards, but should there be more than five nominees, I see it coming in this order:  6.  Dragon Tattoo  7. The Tree of Life  8. Moneyball  9. War Horse  10.  Drive
Analysis:  So what do I know.  Like I said, I don't quite understand the preferential ballot treatment.  In the end, there were nine nominees and 8 of my first 9 were nominated with the surprise Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close getting the ninth spot.  So, I'm giving myself 8/9.

Best Director 
Michel Hazanavicius - The Artist
Martin Scorsese - Hugo
Alexander Payne - The Descendants
Woody Allen - Midnight in Paris
Terrence Malick - Tree of Life
alternate: David Fincher - Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I think the top four are locks with the fifth spot up for grabs.  I guess Spielberg could possibly be in the running, but War Horse has shown up in so few precursor awards that I think its allure has waned.
Analysis:  5/5 -- I went out on a limb with Malick and was apparently rewarded with that guess.

Best Actor
George Clooney - The Descendants
Brad Pitt - Moneyball
Jean Dujardin - The Artist
Leonardo DiCaprio - J. Edgar
Gary Oldman - Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
alternate: Michael Shannon - Take Shelter

Only the top three are locks.  The remaining two spots will be filled by either DiCaprio, Oldman, Shannon, or Michael Fassbender in Shame, all four of whom have racked up nominations elsewhere this season.
Analysis:  4/5 - Despite garnering a Screen Actors Guild nomination, I didn't see Demian Bichir getting in the mix for the little seen A Better Life.  DiCaprio didn't make the cut for the disappointing J. Edgar. 

Best Actress
Viola Davis - The Help
Meryl Streep - The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams - My Week with Marilyn
Glenn Close - Albert Nobbs
Tilda Swinton - We Need to Talk About Kevin
alternate: Charlize Theron - Young Adult

In a perfect world, Theron would be nominated and win (although I haven't seen Swinton or Close's work yet), but I don't really see her name being called tomorrow morning.  Rooney Mara is also in the running for Dragon Tattoo.  This may be the most locked-up category to be announced tomorrow.
Analysis:  4/5 -- I'm a fan of Tilda Swinton's work, and although I haven't seen We Need to Talk About Kevin yet, I'm looking forward to it.  However, the film is a small release and Rooney Mara took that up-for-grabs fifth spot.

Best Supporting Actor
Christopher Plummer - Beginners
Kenneth Branagh - My Week with Marilyn
Albert Brooks - Drive
Jonah Hill - Moneyball
Ben Kingsley - Hugo
alternate: Brad Pitt - The Tree of Life

I'm calling for a Ben Kingsley surprise nomination tomorrow morning.  If the Academy likes Hugo, I think Kingsley's a great choice despite not having turned up in any precursor awards.  This category is the most interesting tomorrow as I think only Plummer and Branagh are locks.  Patton Oswalt also garnered some buzz for Young Adult as did Nick Nolte for Warrior, but those films didn't fare too well with the public so I'm not sure where they stand with the Academy.
Analysis:  3/5 -- My worst category, but also, like I said, one of the most up-in-the-air ones.  The Academy didn't care for (the overrated) Drive so Albert Brooks got sidelined despite having a lot of buzz earlier in the season.  My Ben Kingsley hope didn't come through either, with Max von Sydow for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Nick Nolte for Warrior joining Plummer, Branagh, and Hill.

Best Supporting Actress
Octavia Spencer - The Help
Berenice Bejo - The Artist
Jessica Chastain - The Help
Melissa McCarthy - Bridesmaids
Shaileen Woodley - The Descendants
alternate: Janet McTeer - Albert Nobbs

Top three are locks, but McCarthy and Woodley are vulnerable, but only to McTeer as I don't really see any other actresses being buzzed about for this category this year.
Analysis:  4/5 -- Woodley's buzz for The Descendants had been fading and McTeer had been taking her place in a lot of recent awards, so I probably should've went that route, but figured the Academy might get won over by nominating a "kid."

Original Screenplay
Midnight in Paris
The Artist
Bridesmaids
A Separation
Young Adult
alternate: 50/50
Anaylsis:  4/5 -- Margin Call makes the cut rather than Young Adult (which I put on there for my own personal benefit).  I did call the surprise foreign nom for A Separation, however.

Adapted Screeplay
Moneyball
The Descendants
Hugo
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Help
alternate: The Ides of March
Anaylsis:  3/5 -- My other worst category of the day, although my alternate Ides of March made it in replacing The Help and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy replacing Tattoo.


Overall, I wasn't awful...35/44...still not great...We'll see as the season moves on, but I've got a lack of passion for any of these movies, so it should end up being a rather boring month 'til the Oscars.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Theater Review - Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark

Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark
Book by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Music and Lyrics by Bono and The Edge
Directed by Philip Wm. McKinley
Original Direction by Julie Taymor
Where: Foxwoods Theater, New York, NY
When: Thursday, January 19, 7:30pm



There were such low expectations going into Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark that it really wouldn't have taken much to make me enjoy this Broadway spectacle.  There was no way this much maligned, long delayed, and oft ridiculed production could be as bad as the critics were saying it was, was there?  

Critics don't always know what they're talking about, but in this case, this incarnation of the Spiderman tale (essentially a scene-by-scene retelling of the first movie [showing a sheer lack of creativity] set to horribly crafted music from Bono and The Edge of U2) has been rightly lambasted.  While it has some unique design elements (likely courtesy of the creative mind of Julie Taymor who was unceremoniously dethroned as director when the musical was initially bludgeoned by the press) and some highly technical and genuinely exciting flying sequences in which Spidey flies out over the audience while fighting the Green Goblin, this production is horribly laughable and if the tepid applause after every number was any indication, I was not the only one in the audience unimpressed.

Still, what will likely keep this on the Great White Way for years to come is the high-flying acrobatic work which admittedly is exhilarating to see.  The audience ate that up and it ended things on quite a high note for them.  However, even with that impressive technical achievement, one simply can't ignore the fact that nearly everything else in this musical is laughably bad.  Look beyond the thrilling aerials and there's simply nothing there.

Yes, this is the type of high-flying shenanigans you'll see.  Granted, Mary Jane isn't carried around by the Halloween-masked Green Goblin, but Spidey and his arch-nemesis do fight mid-air and it is pretty nifty.

There is simply an abundance of problems here that I'm not quite sure where to start.  Let's begin with the book.  I should say that I'm no comic book expert, but the plot here is pulled almost directly from the first Spiderman flick.  While that may follow very closely to the origin story of the comic book, I really didn't need to see a complete rehash of how Peter Parker became his alter ego after being bit by a genetically altered spider.  I'd assume there's such a large pool of plotlines to pull from in the comic books, so did we really need Norman Osborne/Green Goblin to be our villain?  Even Broadway's Mary Poppins (which I reviewed earlier this week) changes things around enough to make things stay fresh.  In Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, everything reeks of staleness.

Granted, the play adds a ridiculous subplot (which was apparently much more prominent in Julie Taymor's original production before the story got rehashed by the new directing team) concerning the Greek myth of Arachne who was turned into a spider after some tiff amongst the gods.  She becomes Peter's guardian angel of sorts which essentially means she's forced to hang from the rafters in some web-like contraption wailing some horribly treacly encouraging words to our hero.  When Arachne made her first appearance of Act II, the eight-year-old kid behind me literally said, "Jeez, not her again," and I couldn't have agreed more.

It's certainly not just the book that's a problem.  For all the acclaim and prestige U2's Bono and The Edge have in the music world, they're simply not the right fit for the Broadway stage.  Yes, there are some successful moments -- the powerful and sweeping "Rise Above" occurring after Peter's uncle is killed is probably the best visual and aural moment in the production; "The Boy Falls From the Sky" is a typical, though strong, U2 rock ballad; and "If the World Should End" is a pleasant and rather lovely love ballad sung by Peter's girlfriend Mary Jane --  and admittedly the music is okay for the most part, but the lyrics for nearly everything are mind-numbingly awful.  When the line was uttered, "I search through the trash for a melody // that may lead us to dignity // in this junkyard of humanity," I thought it was altogether rather fitting.  The music did feel like it came right from the trashbins of U2's previous works.  [It should be noted that those heinous lines I just typed actually came from one of the good songs I previously mentioned.  If that's from a decent one, just imagine what the bad ones sound like.]

The musical genre is inherently a difficult one for audiences to open up to because it's not based in a bit of reality.  While it's easier to embrace on a stage rather than in a movie theater, you still have to ease the audience into the production numbers.  Multiple times in Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, the characters just began singing out of nowhere.  Peter would say a line and Mary Jane would just start a song, lacking any instrumental intro or build up.  It was just awkward and uncomfortable and felt like there was no communication or camaraderie between the book writers and the lyricists -- something that I have to believe is crucial when producing a musical.  I watched an interview with Bono and The Edge in which the two said they felt no real responsibility for the initial failures of the production.  They did their thing and went away from it.  That in and of itself is part of the problem.  The duo walking away from it all abundantly shows.

And what they have created -- with the exception of those three songs mentioned above -- is just painful.  Songs like "Bullying by Numbers," "D.I.Y World," and "A Freak Like Me Needs Company" are just as bad as their titles make them sound.  Anything requiring the cast to sing together was painful to listen to as the company simply couldn't ever seem to find the right notes.  For instance, I have absolutely no clue what was said in "Sinistereo," a number sung by the play's quintet of reporters, which I'm guessing was supposed to relay to the audience the awful things the Green Goblin was doing around New York City, but could have easily been describing the best way to bake a cake.  I literally couldn't comprehend a thing that was said.  Granted, some of that fault lies in the cast's lack of enunciation (and absolutely horrible harmonizing), but a huge chunk of the problem lies in the music and lyrics.

In the end, though, it's not really the cast's fault that the production is as bad as it is.  Sure, they're forced to spout awful lines and dance some of the worst hip hop choreography I've witnessed, but they do their best.  Reeve Carney as Peter Parker/Spiderman is an adequate Bono impersonator -- I say that because all his ballad-heavy numbers sound as if they'd be right at home on the B-side of a U2 record.  Rebecca Faulkenberry was fine as Mary Jane, but her role is so broad and lacking any real heart that it's tough to give a damn about her relationship with Peter.  Stealing the show is Patrick Page's Norman Osborne/Green Goblin.  As the Green Goblin, Page is given the play's corniest lines, but he is the only person in the cast that exudes any bit of a personality and is a bright spot in an otherwise disastrous production.

While Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark isn't the worst thing I've seen on Broadway (this is) -- the high-flying stunts and heretofore unmentioned impressive sets save it from that dubious honor --  it comes awfully close.  If what I saw was the revamped "better" version, there's a part of me that wonders how godawful Julie Taymor's original vision was because there aren't a whole lot of ways I imagine it could it been worse.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Theater Review - Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins
Book by Julian Fellowes
Original Music and Lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman
New Songs and Additional Music and Lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe 
Directed by Richard Eyre
Where: New Amsterdam Theater (New York, NY)
When: Sunday, January 15, 2011, 1pm




This was my second viewing of Disney's Mary Poppins on Broadway and, much like the first time, it's a musical that works incredibly well, but has a few flaws that prevent it from being "practically perfect" as the title character would say.  Still, despite a few troublesome spots in the production, Mary Poppins is, to me, the epitome of what a old-fashioned Broadway musical is/was full of great songs, humor, huge dance numbers, and heart.

The reason to see this production on Broadway is for the absolutely stunning set design and special effects.  While much of the action takes place in the Banks household, the way the huge house raises, lowers, and switches to different levels is part of the fun of seeing this thing at the New Amsterdam theater.  When you couple that with some great special effects that set the whimsical tone and you're in for a treat.  Right from the very beginning as Mary begins to pull seemingly impossible items like six foot-tall coatracks out of her tiny handbag, a smile popped on my face.  And that's the simplest special effect...I'll leave it a surprise as to what chimney sweep Bert does during Act II's "Step in Time" that brought literal gasps from the audience.

While the production itself is stunning, the whole thing takes a while to get moving.  Unfortunately, Act I has one too many lulls to be truly successful.  When the focus is placed on father George Banks who is having a difficult time with his banking job, the play screeches to a halt.  The classic song "A Spoonful of Sugar" is oddly placed in the storyline and it ruins its effectiveness.  And "Feed the Birds," a lovely song and apparently Walt Disney's favorite, will never be anything but a yawn provider for me (in this play or in the movie).  Fortunately, Act I contains "Jolly Holiday" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidious," two fantastic production numbers, the latter of which is simply magical.

And once Act II comes along, it never stops.  The pacing problems that were evident in Act I vanish and the whole thing moves at a rapid clip.  It certainly helps that Act II introduces a villain that wasn't present in the film for Mary to stand up against.  Miss Andrews (played by a delightfully wicked Ruth Gottschall) was George Banks's nanny when he was growing up and she's an absolute tyrant.  When the two polar opposite nannies begin to duke it out, it becomes one of my favorite scenes despite a lack of the showiness and special effects that are present in much of the rest of the play.  Since Act II veers a little more different when compared to the movie than Act I, I think that helps the boredom factor as well.  Seeing something we aren't quite used to keeps it interesting.

While Steffanie Leigh's Mary had a lovely singing voice, and Gavin Lee who originated the role of Bert on Broadway seemed to be having an absolute blast bringing an effervescent joy whenever he was onstage, there were a few issues in the acting department that I don't remember seeing in my previous visit to Mary Poppins.  Perhaps this is a bit harsh to criticize someone so young, but Kara Oates who played little Jane Banks was nearly indecipherable when she spoke thanks to the shrillness of her voice.  When she sang, things were fine, but whenever she spoke, I hardly ever understood a word she said...this was certainly the most unpleasant thing in the production.  Also, while not necessarily the fault of the actors, the mics on Karl Kenzler's George Banks and housemaid Katie Nanna (played by Kristin Carbone) were so low that it was a strain to hear them which made many of their lines that should have delivered laughs fall on deaf ears.

Still, even with a few problems, Mary Poppins is everything a Broadway show should be.  You'll certainly have a lovely day at the theater with this one.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Movie Review - The Iron Lady

The Iron Lady (2011)
Starring Meryl Streep and Jim Broadbent
Directed by Phyllida Law

Much like last year's The King's Speech, I went into The Iron Lady thinking I was going to be bored learning about a piece of British history, but hoping that my qualms would be squashed.  Unlike The King's Speech which proved to be thoroughly entertaining and heart-warming, The Iron Lady is simply yawn-inducing and cold.  Please don't get me wrong here -- Meryl Streep is amazing as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  There's part of me that wanted to be able to come on this blog and type that Streep finally blew it and gave a crappy performance, but I'm really beginning to think this lady can do no wrong.  She is riveting.  It's the story crafted around her and the rather silly direction that drags this one down.  There was part of me that was hoping I'd at least feel a little loyalty towards the "character" of Margaret Thatcher onscreen seeing as how her conservative nature is something I lean towards politically, but when I'd already checked my watch ten times in the first forty minutes to see how much longer this flick was going to go on (and that's no exaggeration), I knew this simply wasn't working for me.

When the film opens, we see an aged Margaret Thatcher, retired from her political life, sitting at her kitchen table with her husband Denis (Jim Broadbent).  As she discusses an increase in the price of milk, it is revealed that Margaret is simply talking to herself.  Denis has died, but a senile Margaret can't seem to let go of her husband's presence.  As the troubled Margaret tries to deal with her husband's death, she remembers back upon her life from her humble beginnings as the daughter of a grocer to her rise to power in the Conservative party of Great Britain.  Unfortunately, those flashbacks lack any bite, leaving Thatcher much more two-dimensional than three.  Important moments in Thatcher's political career are seemingly glossed over rather than examined and debated.

Still, what saves The Iron Lady from being an all-out failure is Meryl Streep.  She loses herself in Thatcher and we forget that we're watching Ms. Streep.  Of course, kudos to the make-up department for making Ms. Streep utterly unrecognizable as an old woman, but beyond that, the woman has the ability to lose herself in these characters.  Even before that opening shot I describe above, we get an image of an elderly Margaret Thatcher walking along the streets of England.  From this moment as Streep slowly makes her way through the town, I was won over.  There's something about Streep's ability to pick up on the littlest nuances of people (the way elderly feet shuffle along the ground, for example) that amazes me.

Of course, Streep's performance doesn't save the movie from being a train wreck.  Well, a "train wreck" is probably the wrong terminology to use because you'd probably be morbidly fascinated with watching a train wreck whereas The Iron Lady does nothing but make you twiddle your thumbs out of ennui.

The RyMickey Rating:  D

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Movie Review - Another Earth

Another Earth (2011)
Starring Brit Marling and William Mapother
Directed by Mike Cahill

I don't really have a whole lot either good or bad to say about Another Earth which unfortunately causes it to languish in the middle-of-the-road which isn't exactly a great place to be.  A mix of a science fiction and character study, Another Earth takes place in the present (I'd assume) as a mirror image of planet Earth has taken residence in our sky.  The planet not only has landscape features similar to ours, but also contains duplicates of every single person on our Earth.  Obviously, this causes quite a stir with many folks, including young twenty-something Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) who enters a contest in order to fly to what is not-so-cleverly monikered Earth 2.  

Rhoda longs to escape her world because she hasn't exactly had a past that fills her with pride.  When she was 17, she was involved in a horrible car crash in which she hit Yale music professor John Burrough's (William Mapother) vehicle, killing his wife and young child.  This sends John into a horrible depression which he still hasn't come out of four years later as Rhoda is released from prison.  When Rhoda realizes that John is still living in her town, she decides to visit him and apologize for all the pain she has caused him.  However, Rhoda's brave attempt doesn't work as she can't quite muster the nerve to tell him who she really is and instead pretends to be a cleaning woman.  As she visits him week after week, an odd relationship develops with Rhoda's secret always looming over her.

The premise, though far-fetched, sounds very good, but it lacks a bit in execution.  Unfortunately, I think the problem lies in part in the indie feel -- the lack of production money perhaps hurt this film a tad on the science fiction front.  It doesn't help that Brit Marling and Mike Cahill's screenplay is peppered with both a few too many scenes of Rhoda moping around her house and a ridiculous subplot involving a blind Indian custodian who "teaches" Rhoda how to be a better woman.  There's really never a point of respite from the grief and the constant heavyhanded nature isn't all that enjoyable to sit through even for only ninety minutes.

Also, while I enjoyed Brit Marling's performance as Rhoda, I never thought William Mapother brought anything to his character.  Granted, I think the script didn't help him any by sticking him with a rather one-notish demeanor -- cranky, depressed man -- for the first sixty minutes, but I shouldn't have been laughing like I was at his portrayal of a crotchety guy.

Still, despite the faults, I admire Another Earth for at least being a little bit different.  It takes a tale about grief and suffering and adds enough of a twist (and an interesting "hopefulness" thanks to Earth 2) that makes it intriguing.  Add a great final moment (somewhat similar to one of my other favorite endings this year from the little-seen-film Last Night) and there are reasons to give this one a shot.  While it'll likely end up with the very same "middle-of-the-road" feeling for you as it did for me, it's still an okay flick if you're looking for something a bit different. 

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Movie Review - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Dencik, and Mark Strong 
Directed by Tomas Alfredson

Man, this British spy flick is the kind of movie that tries its very best to make its viewers feel dumb.  In the end, I don't think ("think" being the operative word here) I misunderstood Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I certainly didn't get anything out of it either.  There's a story here...one much simpler than the convoluted mess onscreen would have you believe.  In early 1970s Britain, the British secret service has been infiltrated by a traitor who is working for the Russians, stealing information and delivering it to the Soviets.  It's up to George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to figure out which of his co-workers is the mole.  The problem here is that this tale is told so mundanely that it's tough to get involved with anything taking place onscreen.  When the film's climactic moment -- the reveal of the spy -- is relegated to a small throwaway shot, I think I literally threw up my hands in disgust.  I waited two hours for that?!?!

Tomas Alfredson's film looks great as if it were made in the very 1970s it so creatively depicts.  The costumes and set direction are spot on and the cinematography is gorgeous at many moments.  Alfredson always manages to create beautiful things to look at and is quite the master here and composing an appealing visual display, but that can't hide the fact that the film feels like it goes nowhere (although it certainly saves the film from being an all-out disaster).  While I don't need my spy dramas to be all Bourne Identity in terms of pace (in fact, I'd rather they not be filled with the freneticism of the Bourne series), there's got to be some semblance of either action or tension and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has neither.

It's a shame, really, because in addition to the lovely visual aesthetics, the cast of British men is quite good, although a few of them seemed to find themselves wallowing in boredom without any twinge of life in them.  Oldman is fine (but I found his role lacking any type of character arc and rather one-notey although he played that note very well), as is Benedict Cumberbatch who plays his protégé of sorts.  But I can't shake the fact that I feel like this talented cast wasn't given much to do, and what they were given to do, they were directed to act as stern and emotionless as possible.

Without a doubt, this will likely be the lowest rated film to land on any of my RyMickey Awards lists for 2011 (which, knowing me, likely won't start up until after the Oscars roll around) thanks to the look of the piece, but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a movie that simply shouldn't have been made.  While there's maybe something there with which to create a story, it simply wasn't done in a way that works in the slightest.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Movie Review - The Game

The Game (1997)
Starring Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, and Deborah Kara Unger
Directed by David Fincher
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Ludicrous is the word to best describe David Fincher's The Game in which rather cutthroat businessman Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) gets more than he bargained for after he signs up for a unique leisure "experience" given to him by his wayward troubled brother (Sean Penn).  The gift is a game crafted to test Nicholas, pushing him to extremes he never thought possible in his well-ordered and rigid life.  As the game begins to unfold, Nicholas's life slowly unravels as he loses control of everything he held dear to him.

I mention "ludicrous" above for the sheer fact that The Game's script relies on so many things to happen at precisely the right time in order for the plot of the movie to work.  The slightest alterations would seemingly ruin Nicholas's "game" set up by the entity known as Consumer Recreation Services and it really just reeks of unbelievability.

Yet -- and I felt this way when I watched it years ago -- The Game is a movie that I enjoy despite the ridiculousness of the whole affair.  Yes, it runs on too long and has one too many twists and turns at the end.  Yes, the plot is absolutely preposterous.  But I still like it.  Michael Douglas is solid, but admittedly, I'm not sure this role was a real difficult one for him to undertake as Nicholas is like many of his other characters.  David Fincher directs with a nice touch, but on this viewing of the film, I couldn't help but think he and his editor could have used the scissors a bit more.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Personal Canon - Beauty and the Beast

The Personal Canon is a recurring column discussing my favorite movies of all time.  While they may not necessarily be "A" rated, they are the movies that, for some reason or another, hold a special place in my filmgoing experience.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)
[in 3D in select movie theaters]
Featuring the voice talent of Paige O'Hara, Robby Benson, Richard White, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, and Angela Lansbury
Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise


Where does one even begin when writing about a movie that they absolutely love?  Right up there with Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Psycho (and only a smidge behind that horror classic), Disney's Beauty and the Beast is my (2nd) favorite movie of all time.  I don't know if it came along at the right time in my youth (I would have been eleven at the time it was released), but something just clicked from the first time that I saw this film.  A meld of lovely hand-drawn animation, the best musical score ever written for the screen, and a simple story with charming characters, it's easy to see why Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  [And let's be honest, if the field wasn't opened to ten nominees in the past two years, there's no way Up and Toy Story 3 would've been nominated, so part of me still feels that Beauty and the Beast is rightfully the only "real" animated Best Picture nominee.]

There's no way anything I write here is going to do this movie justice or truly depict why I think this movie is so special.  I don't even know if I can pinpoint and express all the reasons I love it so much.  However, watching it again on the big screen was a real joy.  [Although I'd love to see it with the non-necessary 3-D which, while not detrimental to the film in the slightest, didn't do a thing to enhance the experience.]  Animation-wise, it's amusing now to look back and see how far we've come in two decades.  The shift from hand-drawn to computer animation is certainly the key change, but even from a hand-drawn stand-point, the advancements have been huge.  That isn't to say that Beauty and the Beast looks out-dated or passé, but it is interesting to note that what was perfectly acceptable back then (most notably background characters standing perfectly still rather than have some motion to them) would never be kosher now.  Still, the film looks stunning.  Even with the darkening caused by the 3-D glasses, it looks bright and vibrant.  Scenes like the ballroom dance are gorgeous on the big screen and haven't lost any of their awe-inspiring wonder over the last twenty years.

The simple story is enhanced by charming songs crafted by the duo of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.  The songs come naturally here, fitting in perfectly, enhancing and advancing the characters' storylines rather than stopping the story cold.  It struck me as I was watching the film this go-around (which was my first watch of this movie in probably close to five years) just how witty the late Howard Ashman's lyrics were.  One need look no further than "Gaston" than to see this on display where Ashman manages to rhyme "expectorating" and "celebrating" with great ease (and a lack of any feeling of force).  That isn't to give short shrift to Alan Menken's music either which runs the gamut from Broadway showstopper (in "Be Our Guest") to introspective (the often overlooked "Something There") to expository ("Belle" tells us all we need to know about several major characters within the first five minutes of the movie) to love song ("Beauty and the Beast"), each, with the help of Ashman's lyrics, hitting exactly the tone they set out to achieve.

Even at age eleven, I guess I was predestined to like this as I was already being groomed to be a Disney fan by my parents which may very well explain why I liked Beauty and the Beast so much back then.  However, the love for this flick has continued on for two decades and I think it's because it combines so much of what I look for in a great movie coupled with the love I have for the genre of animation.  It's got fantastic visuals, strong characters, comedy, drama, a great villain, wonderful songs, and beautiful animation.  All of that is coupled with a story that despite its simplicity resonates with audience of all ages.  This isn't a children's film -- this is simply a film.  It doesn't try to appeal to the six year-old in the audience any more than it tries to appeal to the sixty year-old in the audience (heck...what six year-old would get the classic Cogsworth joke "If it's not Baroque, don't fix it?" which still made me crack up even though I knew it was coming).  Often, this lack of trying to pin down an audience proves to be a failure for movies, but in the case of Beauty and the Beast it's what makes it so successful.

Much like when I wrote my first thoughts on Psycho on this blog, nothing I can write for Beauty and the Beast will be able to give justice to my thoughts on it (and anything that I do write about it will just be a disappointment when I go back and look at it two weeks from now).  So, rather than ramble on, I'll just bring this review to a stop only to say that I can't recommend enough that you go check this masterpiece out on the big screen once again.

The RyMickey Rating:  A+

Check out the other films in my Personal Canon like Return to Me and Once by clicking this link.

Movie Review - Carnage

Carnage (2011)
Starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, and John C. Reilly
Directed by Roman Polanski

Based off a Tony Award-winning play, Carnage graces us with a quartet of wonderfully talented actors in a showcase for their skills.  However, the film which takes place in real time mostly within the confines of the apartment of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) should have felt more claustrophobic than director Roman Polanski is able to provide.  It's not that a movie like Carnage which is essentially four people talking with each other for eighty minutes should be "tension-filled", per se, but as the film progresses, there should be an ever-escalating sense of excitement...a building towards something grand at the conclusion.  It's not that the ending of the flick disappoints, but the roller coaster ride the film should have provided was full of too many valleys and not enough hills.

After their two sons get in a tiff on the playground resulting in one striking the other with a stick causing damage to two teeth, the aforementioned Longstreets get together with Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) to try and patch things up.  Things begin quite civilly, but it's soon obvious to both parties that despite being on their best behavior, the "adults" here are really just play-acting, trying to put on their best fronts.  As criticisms of the others' parenting skills begin to be bandied about as if they were deadly bullets, the two couples begin to devolve into children fighting on the playground, albeit with a much better vocabulary.

Carnage certainly succeeds because of the four actors onscreen.  The very nature of the project calls for the quartet to be viewed pretty much the entire time (one would assume in the play, the actors would never leave the stage) and each holds their own with no one overshadowing anyone else.  It's always nice to see Jodie Foster onscreen (which actually happened twice this year with this and The Beaver) and here she's at her most neurotic.  It doesn't help her character that John C. Reilly as her husband tries to be the peacemaker rather than stand up for his wife.  If I had to choose a standout star from the bunch, it would have to be Reilly who has the comedic chops for a role like this.  In the end, he seems the most relatable to me (perhaps the reason why I liked him the most) in that, at times, his character appears to spout what the audience is feeling about these childish adults.

Kate Winslet is also wonderful as the uptight Nancy and she works very well with Christoph Waltz who continues to prove that he is quite adept at dark comedy (a category in which one could certainly place 2009's Inglourious Basterds).  Carnage is a film all about about personal interactions and it is pivotal that the cast mesh and flow together which is successfully achieved here.

However, something about the flick doesn't quite click and I have to think the problem lies in the direction since the blame certainly doesn't fall onto the actors.  I have to wonder what this story plays like on a stage where all four actors are present all the time.  In a film, we cut away to certain reactions and only every so often are treated to shots with the entire quartet in our field of vision.  If we had that stage-like ability to constantly be mindful of all four actors, I have to wonder if the edge-of-your-seatness of the "what are they gonna say next" tension inherent in the script would be elevated.  Of course, Roman Polanski wasn't going to shoot the movie with nary a one shot of of an actor, but it simply further goes to prove the difficulty at times of transferring plays to the big screen.

This isn't to say that Carnage is a failure.  It's far from that.  There are many laughs to be had and for sheer acting talent, the film is recommendable.  But if the film has done anything, it's made me desperate to want to see the film performed by a talented stage ensemble (**cough**I'm talking to you, University of Delaware Resident Ensemble Players**cough**).

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Friday, January 13, 2012

Movie Review - Point Blank

Point Blank [A bout portant] (2011)
Starring Gilles Lellouche, Roschdy Zem, Gérard Lanvin, and Elena Anaya
Directed by Fred Cavayé
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

A perfectly acceptable French thriller, Point Blank doesn't overextend its welcome.  Instead, it gets in, tells its story, and wraps things up (credits and all) in 84 minutes.  If only US audiences didn't feel cheated by such short running times...

Granted, the tale that director and co-writer Fred Cavayé borders on ridiculous, but we typically don't go to action flicks (even foreign ones) expecting a coherent plot all the time.  Here, Samuel, a male nurse (Gilles Lellouche), gets tangled up in a web of mystery after he saves one of his patients, Hugo (Roschdy Zem), from dying.  A mere twelve hours after coming to Hugo's rescue, Samuel's pregnant wife (Elana Anaya) is kidnapped.  Samuel is told that unless he manages to find a way to get Hugo out of the hospital within three hours, the kidnappers will kill his wife.

While Samuel doesn't quite go all Liam Neeson-in-Taken, there certainly were hints of that film on the outskirts of Point Blank's plot.  Taken did things a bit better, but the angry husband revenge plot is one that can more than hold its own in even some of the most silly settings.  In fact, had this simply been a vengeful hubby flick, Point Blank may have been a bit more enjoyable, but the writers throw in some more complex than necessary plot points involving corrupt governments and police units without elaborating on them.  And therein lies the film's problem...I more than appreciated its quick pace and nonstop feel, but in the end, I actually felt like I was slighted in the explanation department when it came to the film's big conspiracy it tries to depict.

Still, if you're interested in a quick diversion into "Foreign Film Land," you could do worse than Point Blank which turns out to be anything but boring.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Movie Review - The Help

The Help (2011)
Starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Cecily Tyson, Mary Steenburgen, and Sissy Spacek
Directed by Tate Taylor

While no one will mistake The Help for a great piece of cinematic art, there's something endearing and all-together crowd-pleasing about Tate Taylor's second stab at directorial work.  Thanks to one of the best casts assembled for a film in 2011, the ladies of The Help raise what may have been a rather fluffy piece about the civil rights movement in 1960s Mississippi into something much more compelling.

Twenty-three year old Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) is an aspiring author who, in an attempt to win over a well-to-do big city publisher (Mary Steenburgen), decides to write a book filled with the musings and daily routines of the African American maids in her town in Mississippi.  Naturally, because of racial tensions a half century ago, Skeeter has to keep her meetings with Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) -- a maid and nanny to her employers with a strong, yet seemingly silent personality -- and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) -- a sassy gal who after being fired by the uppity Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) finds herself working for the eccentric Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) -- a secret.  Yes, I've thrown out a lot of names there, but the crux of the story remains the same -- we're looking at race relations between whites and blacks in 1960s Mississippi and for most those relationships still weren't ideal.

This is territory we've seen explored before in movies and it's not that The Help does anything particularly unique.  It uses stock characters (Bryce Dallas Howard's bitchy Hilly is particularly one-note despite attempts to add depth thanks to an enjoyable performance by Howard), a grooving 60s soundtrack, and feels like something right out of the Steel Magnolias or Fried Green Tomatoes early '90s era in looks and tone.

However, the film succeeds thanks to a cast devoid of one bad egg.  Even when the story falters -- let's just leave the attempts at Skeeter trying to find love on the cutting room floor in the director's cut, shall we? -- the ladies simply compel you to keep your eyes fixated on the screen.  Emma Stone is charming in what is one of the lesser developed characters in the script.  Jessica Chastain (Hollywood's It Girl in 2011) was a hoot as Celia, getting opportunities to showcase her comedic and dramatic talents.  The movie kicked into high gear once Chastain's character was introduced and she lit up the screen whenever she appeared.  Similarly, Octavia Spencer provides some light moments, too, and once Chastain's Celia comes in to the picture, the character of Minnie is given a much greater depth than the rather one-notedness she had the beginning of the film.

Still, when one remembers The Help, their mind will immediately shift to Viola Davis who gives a moving, quiet, and powerful performance.  There's a fierceness in her eyes throughout much of the film -- a pain and anguish that she doesn't really express vocally, but is intensely felt nonetheless.  This type of understated performance is the opposite of showy, but demonstrates why Davis is worthy of all the Oscar buzz she's been receiving.

I really don't have a whole lot bad to say about The Help which I must admit surprises me.  Even if the film was a bit flawed here and there, it's still overwhelmingly enjoyable to watch.  Sure, writer-director Tate Taylor doesn't take too many risks, but he culls some amazing performances from a talented group of ladies.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Movie Review - Apollo 18

Apollo 18 (2011)
Starring Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen, and Ryan Robbins
Directed by Gonzalo López-Gallego

Apollo 18 is yet another horror film of the found footage genre.  Here, we find out that after the seventeenth Apollo mission, NASA shut down the moon mission program.  Little did we in the public know that NASA sent an eighteenth mission to the moon only for the three astronauts on that fateful trek to discover alien life forms on the lunar surface.

Despite a few tense moments, even at 85 minutes, Apollo 18 overstays its welcome and fails to have any lasting impact.  It's not that the film is egregiously bad, but it simply isn't scary enough to merit the time spent watching it.  It's almost worse to neither be a good nor bad horror movie...stuck in the middle is sometimes more of a failure than being either great or heinous.  With that said, I'm not sure Apollo 18 is worthy of many more words written about it, so I think I'll end this review right here.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Movie Review - All About Eve

All About Eve (1950)
Starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Hugh Marlowe, and Gary Merrill
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Look no further than All About Eve to find proof that just because a film wins Best Picture doesn't mean it will stand the test of time.  Nominated for a whopping fourteen awards and winning six, the flick is badly in need of an editor as it feels every minute of its lengthy 138-minute runtime thanks mostly to an off-putting and uncomfortably stagey performance from Anne Baxter as the title character, a small-town girl who travels to New York City with hopes to befriend stage star Margo Channing (Bette Davis).  Why Eve's rather obsessive behavior upon their initial meeting is rewarded by friendship from Margo is one of the bigger flaws of the film and makes the entire premise begin on rather shaky ground.  Nevertheless, it soon becomes obvious that Eve has an unnatural fascination with Margo, but those around the big star like her friend Karen (Celeste Holm), Karen's playwright husband Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), and Margo's movie star boyfriend Bill (Gary Merrill) think Margo is simply jealous of the youth of Eve.  However, it is soon discovered that Margo's inclinations about Eve are correct as Eve begins to take over everything in Margo's life.

There are some good performances here including a nice, biting turn from Bette Davis as star Margo Channing.  And, at times, the script is a nice look at the backstabbing world of the theater, delving into some biting behind the scenes chicanery at times.  However, the character of Eve is so goshdarn horrendous that I never gave a damn about anything in this movie.  I'm not sure if it's the character itself or just the absolutely horrible performance given by Anne Baxter (who was nominated for an Academy Award for this).  Her line deliveries are undeniably forced, and even from the very first moment we glimpse Eve, Baxter fails to create any semblance of a believable character.  This is a huge problem in a movie called All About Eve since Eve is the character whom all other plot points revolve around.

This "classic" had been in my Netflix queue a long time and I had always looked forward to watching it.  However, despite a script that at least provided some interesting ideas, All About Eve simply doesn't work.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Movie Review - Hugo

Hugo (2011)
Starring Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Michael Stuhlbarg, Helen McCrory, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, and Jude Law
Directed by Martin Scorsese

Perhaps Hugo means a bit more to me, a guy who studied a bit of film in college, than the average viewer, but your ever so humble reviewer found Martin Scorsese's homage to early cinema a visual treat, a fanciful adventure, and a bit of a cinematic film lesson all wrapped into one.  Admittedly, I'm not a Martin Scorsese devotee (I've maybe seen six of his movies and most of those are from the last decade), but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that Hugo's whimsical and gentle nature is not a style that would typically be attributed to the much-lauded director.  Still, while Hugo is certainly a film that you can take the whole family to watch, it shouldn't be mistaken for a "kiddie" picture.  Instead, its message about preserving film history for future generations hit a nerve in this filmgoer who already misses the pre-digital days pined over in Hugo in which the actual flickering of a shutter flashed light onto a silver screen in a darkened room.

When young Hugo Cabret's (Asa Butterfield) father passes away, he is sent to live with his uncle in a small "apartment" behind the gears of the giant clock in a huge Parisian train station.  Hugo spends his day fixing and setting the various clocks in the station while also snatching up a few croissants and bottles of milk for a bit of sustenance always being mindful of the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) whose goal in life seems to be snatching up orphaned children and sending them to the dreaded orphanage.  On one afternoon, Hugo attempts to steal a toy from the toy shop in the station run by Georges (Ben Kingsley) only to find himself caught by the grumpy owner who forces Hugo to work for him rather than turn the kid over to the Inspector.  As Georges begins to discover some of Hugo's secrets, Hugo and his new friend, Georges's goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), begin to discover a few secrets about Georges as well which explain why he is the curmudgeon that he is.

While appearing to be a simple tale, there's great depth here as (SPOILER ALERT) Georges is discovered to the famous filmmaker Georges Mélies who magically created some of the earliest, yet hugely complex for their time, cinematic tales.  A true visionary, Hugo turns into a beautiful remembrance of this oft-forgotten director (and older cinema in general), with Scorsese giving time onscreen to such classics as Mélies's  Le voyage dans la lune (from 1902) and the 1923 Harold Lloyd-starring Safety Last.  By acknowledging what came before him and embracing the simplicity of those earlier tales while at the same time crafting a completely "modern" tale utilizing beautiful 3D technology and computer effects, Scorsese has made a film with a lovely blend that balances both the past and the present.

Along with some stunning visuals, Scorsese has culled some very nice performances from Chloe Moretz (of Let Me In fame) and Asa Butterfield, the latter of whom uses his wide eyes to convey moments of both heartbreaking sadness and ebullient joy.  Ben Kingsley as the famous director who had to give up his passion is at first a tiny bit off-putting in his sheer grouchiness, but as his tale is slowly unraveled, his character is given much more depth than I ever could have expected at the film's outset.  [There's an extended sequence where Georges details the reasons he was forced to give up filmmaking that is touchingly handled by both Kingsley and Scorsese.]  Sacha Baron Cohen adds an appropriate amount of humor and there are some lovely small supporting turns from Emily Mortimer, Frances de la Tour, and Richard Griffiths whose roles as Parisian train station customers and workers brought a smile to my face.

2011 (or more specifically that final two months of 2011) seems to be a year where films about moviemaking have been given a chance to shine.  From My Week with Marilyn to The Artist, it's been a treat for a film lover.  Hugo is the latest addition to that mix and it's a beautifully crafted film to watch with a charming story to admire as it unfolds.  Time to go and watch some more Mélies...those few college film class viewings weren't nearly enough.

The RyMickey Rating:  A

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Movie Review - My Week with Marilyn

My Week with Marilyn (2011)
Starring Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Watson, Derek Jacobi, Julia Ormond, Dominic Cooper, Dougray Scott, Zoë Wanamaker, and Judi Dench
Directed by Simon Curtis

I say this whenever I write of review of films like these, but I am not a fan of biopics.  I greatly admire actors who are able to mimic the well-known personas of others, but oftentimes, I find myself left completely empty by the films they inhabit which all seem to want to tell the same tale -- more or less -- about the character's rise from adversity to something greater.  While My Week with Marilyn certainly follows the biopic formula, it fortunately only gives us a glimpse at the sexy and alluring Marilyn Monroe (played quite well by Michelle Williams) during a brief stint in her life when she traveled to London to make the film The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier (played over-the-top [although I imagine Olivier was that way in real life] by Kenneth Branagh).  Giving the audience only a small chapter of the well-known Monroe's life proves to be a much better moviegoing experience and allows the viewers to infer how events prior to making this film, her time during the filmmaking process, and her years after starring in The Prince and the Showgirl all shaped her into the tragic figure she became.  The sheer fact that we're allowed to "infer" things is a welcome relief in this day and age when we're always hit over the head with everything as filmgoers.

The film -- which is a showcase of the power struggle between Monroe and Olivier during the making of the frivolous romantic comedy in 1956 -- can be summed up in one good line spoken by Dominic Cooper (I believe) portraying Marilyn's manager Milton Greene:  "[Sir Laurence] is an artist wanting to be a film star; [Marilyn] is a film star wanting to be an artist."  The two just don't mesh, but by the end of the filming process they've perhaps made each other a bit better at their craft.  Although this struggle between the two powerhouse actors is certainly front and center, the "My" in My Week with Marilyn refers to the young 23-year-old Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a young Brit who, despite his parents' disdain, travels to London to work on the set of the Olivier picture.  While performing the task of the third assistant director -- essentially a glorified intern position -- he befriends Marilyn whose method acting techniques are causing huge issues with the cast and crew of the production.  The two bond and, as any young man would be, Colin becomes quite enamored with Ms. Monroe who despite having just married her third husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) is already having some marital issues which may very well work in Colin's favor.

As a fan of movies, admittedly it's fun to see "behind the scenes" stories like these and this film is no exception.  The scenes on set with the bombastic Olivier and out-of-her-element Marilyn are brilliantly funny -- Branagh's Olivier, in particular, is also a hoot as he grows ever more exacerbated in the scenes.  Admittedly, I'm not all that familiar with Olivier, but I can't help but imagine Branagh's rather snooty interpretation of the guy -- who not only acted in The Prince and the Showgirl, but also directed it -- is spot-on.  Adding to the excitement is a very nice turn from Judi Dench playing Dame Sybil Thorndike who becomes somewhat of a loving mother to Marilyn on set and a hilarious turn from Zoë Wanamaker as Paula Strasberg, Marilyn's famous acting coach in the Stanislavski acting method which created much tension with Olivier.

The film falters a bit, however, when we walk away from the movie set.  Most notably, there's a throwaway subplot involving a romance between Colin and a young costume designer (played by Harry Potter's Emma Watson in a completely thankless role) that could have been (and should have been) left on the cutting room floor.  Additionally, as Marilyn begins a downward spiral after several difficult weeks on the set, the film shifts much too awkwardly from a light comedy to a rather serious look at the toils and troubles that made up Marilyn's life.  The tonal shift never quite finds an appropriate balance which is a shame.

Fortunately, never once does Ms. Williams' performance shift into a caricature of Monroe which it so easily could have done.  Surprisingly, however, Williams ends up shining in the more intimate moments of the film's second half rather than the comedic realm of the first half.  This ends up working in the movie's favor as us viewers can latch on to Williams' performance when the film -- which becomes a bit too psychoanalytical for its own good -- begins to falter.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Friday, January 06, 2012

Movie Review - Tuesday, After Christmas

Tuesday, After Christmas (Marti, dupa craciun) (2011)
Starring Mimi Branescu, Maria Popistasu, and Mirela Oprisor
Directed by Radu Muntean
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Nothing like a film about adultery to provide copious amounts of Christmas cheer.  This Romanian drama centering around a man (Mimi Branescu) who, unbeknown to his wife (Mirela Oprisor), is having an affair with a younger woman (Maria Popistasu) is often tedious to sit through, but there are aspects that I still found myself admiring even though I was often anxiously awaiting the film to end.

First, it's quite commendable that director Radu Muntean often utilizes long, uncut, extended shots of dialog (sometimes upwards of ten minutes).  This technique forces the viewer to stay with the actors/characters even within uncomfortable situations.  The lack of a respite in the most difficult scenes is actually quite powerful.

Of course those scenes would never work if the acting wasn't good and the three Romanian leads all held my attention.  None of them blew me away with their acting work, but they all hit the right emotional notes at the appropriate times in the story.

However, in the end, Tuesday, After Christmas is a rather mundane affair.  There's a part of me that believes this may be the one of the "most real" depictions of an affair on film...it's just normal people with no bells and whistles.  But that "true life" aspect doesn't make a very compelling film.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Movie Review - The Adventures of Tintin

The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
Starring Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Nick Frost, and Simon Pegg
Directed by Steven Spielberg

I really wanted to like Steven Spielberg's animated The Adventures of Tintin, but despite what is certainly the best motion-capture technique I've ever seen, the action adventure flick (which reminded me of a kiddie version of the Indiana Jones flicks) lacks a story that ever captured my imagination.  While I'm completely unfamiliar with the apparently very popular European comic book series upon which the film is based, I can certainly see the promise that lies within the story -- a young reporter embarks on a variety of adventures with his trusty four-legged canine friend Snowy -- but must unfortunately state that it simply wasn't executed well in this cinematic incarnation.

In this first film of what is likely to be a series (the movie is doing exceptionally well overseas despite poor box office results in the US), Tintin stumbles upon the mystery of the sailing ship known as the Unicorn.  While wandering in an outdoor market one day, Tintin (voiced and "acted" by Jamie Bell) buys a small replica of the ship, but soon discovers that the model contains a secret message of sorts that is desperately wanted by the sinister Ivan Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig).  Sakharine goes so far as to kidnap Tintin and keep him hostage on a boat sailing to the Middle East.  Tintin soon discovers with the help of the captain of the ship Haddock (Andy Serkis) that Sakharine is in possession of two Unicorn ship replicas and their secret coded messages and is now in search of the final model to decipher the code and discover the location of a huge amount of buried treasure.

In and of itself, the plot is serviceable, but I couldn't help but be rather bored by the whole affair.  Subplots are thrown in involving Haddock's alcoholism, two bumbling Scotland Yard twin detectives (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) in search of a serial pickpocket, and the pirate-inspired ancestral pasts of both Haddock and Sakharine.  None of these garnered any interest from me in the slightest and they take up large parts of the film.

Spielberg certainly utilizes the ability to move his camera wherever he likes rather brilliantly thanks to the wonders of animation including a stellar "one-shot" chase sequence through the small, cluttered streets of the Arab city of Bagghar.  I also found most of the action sequences to be well executed and I very much liked many of Spielberg's rather ingenious ways of changing scenes (for example, the wide expansive ocean turns into a puddle on the streets of London in a seamless fashion).

Still, even with some nice work from Jamie Bell and the ever-reliable mo-cap actor Andy Serkis (who actually is given the opportunity to be quite funny here to great effect), I found the whole thing a bit boring.  Visually, The Adventures of Tintin is stunning from the very opening scenes (including a lovely "true" animated opening credits sequence accompanied by a charmingly light and airy John Williams score), and the film continues to show the improvements in motion capture technology, but the whole movie just felt like a series of set pieces without any real connection.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Movie Review - Young Adult

Young Adult (2011)
Starring Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, and Elizabeth Reaser 
Directed by Jason Reitman

Mavis Gary is a bitch.  There's really no need to bite my tongue when saying that because it's true...and in her heart, she knows that's the case.  She was the popular one in her high school in Mercury, Minnesota, a small town outside of Minneapolis, and nearly two decades removed from those days of making out with boys in the forest behind the school during lunch, Mavis, the now popular young adult novelist with a fondness for any kind of liquor (played brilliantly by Charlize Theron) is still as self-centered as ever living the big city life in Minneapolis.   After receiving an e-mail announcing the birth of their baby from the wife of her former high school beau Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), Mavis gets the crazy idea to head back to Mercury and attempt to rekindle her relationship with Buddy.  Yes, that's right...Buddy just had a kid and Mavis is trying to steal him away from his wife.

That's the kind of abhorrent character Charlize Theron is given here to portray in a screenplay from Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody.  Mavis is unlikeable at the start of the film and she's no more appealing at the film's end which may explain why this flick has ultimately failed at the box office.  We in the audience don't see a character arc from bad to good.  Instead, thanks to a powerful scene at the film's end in which Mavis is actually encouraged to continue her uncouth ways, Mavis ends the film perhaps even worse than at the film's start.  That isn't to say that Mavis doesn't have revelatory moments in which she realizes some of her faults, but she doesn't necessarily feel the need to change her actions...a ballsy move in which Up in the Air director Jason Reitman fully succeeds.

Mavis's brief moments of revelation often come courtesy of Mercury resident Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt).  Although Matt and Mavis had lockers next to each other in high school, they barely spoke a word to one another.  Matt has had his own share of troubles as the victim of a hate crime back in high school when a group of jocks mistook him for being gay and severely beat him.  After that incident, he isn't afraid to tell Mavis his true thoughts as he finds her plan to reunite with her married ex-boyfriend a horrible idea.  Oswalt, best known for his role in King of Queens, is allowed to be the voice of reason here as the conduit that makes a movie with a character as unlikeable as Mavis more watchable and relatable to the viewer.  

The key to the film's success, however, is Charlize Theron.  Even though a thirtysomething Mavis is childish in her actions, Theron's Mavis is always thinking and it shows courtesy of the slightest of eye movements or brow furrowing -- granted, her pondering may not necessarily be "correct" or "appropriate," but Mavis's mind is always whirring with ways to make things better for herself.  It takes talent to make a reprehensible character desirable to spend 110 minutes with (those Hangover guys fail miserably in this department) and the beautiful Theron is fun to watch.  As mentioned above, much credit also needs to be given to Diablo Cody who dropped the pop culture heaviness and catchphrases that proliferated her earlier films like Juno and Jennifer's Body and graduates to a much more adult theme here.

Cody has crafted a character most actresses would be too afraid to sink their teeth into -- one who hardly ever finds herself in the good graces of the viewing audience.  Thankfully, Charlize Theron was more than willing to tackle the tricky Mavis Gary and has given one of the best performances of the year.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+