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Letterboxd Reviews

So as you know, I stopped writing lengthy reviews on this site this year, keeping the blog as more of a film diary of sorts.  Lo and behold,...

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Theater Review - Once

Book by Enda Walsh
Music by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová
Directed by John Tiffany
Where: Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York, NY
When: Wednesday, March 28, 2pm

Stunningly beautiful with an aesthetic simplicity that allows its music and story to come to the forefront, the new Broadway musical Once is a wonderful piece of theater that is an absolute must-see for anyone who is a fan of the Academy Award-winning film.  With music culled (for the most part) from the movie originally written by the film's stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (who make up the folk rock duo The Swell Season), I admittedly was a bit hesitant going into seeing this.  I love the movie (it's in my Personal Canon), but I was extremely worried that these songs were too emotionally connected for me with Hansard's grittiness and Irglova's fragility (both of whom I've seen give an amazing live concert).  Fortunately, from the opening moments of Broadway's Once, my fears were quickly allayed and there were truly moments of chill-inducing magic playing out before my very eyes.  

The story of Once (both movie and Broadway show) is so basic it's a wonder that someone thought there'd be some form of entertainment in its straightforwardness.  There's an Irish Guy (who remains nameless throughout the production).  He's a guitar player who, when he's not working at his dad's vacuum cleaner repair shop, finds himself writing music that lately reflects a bad break-up with a girl to whom he still holds some feelings.  Then there's a Czech Girl (who also remains nameless) who hears the Guy's music and immediately feels a spiritual connection to him through his lyrics...problem is, she has a young daughter and other entanglements that prevent her from committing herself to any type of relationship with the Guy.  Over the course of a week, the two mutually better each others' lives, but find it increasingly more difficult to be near each other as they continue to be forced to suppress their true feelings.

The Broadway production follows a very similar storyline to the film, but I must admit that if one hadn't seen the film before, it's entirely possible that the simplicity of the scene changes may lead to confusion.  The stage never changes -- as we walk into the Bernard B. Jacobs theater, the stage is set up as an Irish pub from which theatergoers can actually purchase liquor and mingle with the play's cast of characters prior to the show as the ensemble treats us to a nearly twenty-minute "preshow" of sorts (so get there early).  However, since the stage never changes, we in the audience (with the assistance of Natasha Katz's sometimes beautiful lighting) are asked to imagine the scenes in the film that take place, for example, in the music shop where Guy and Girl sing the signature "Falling Slowly" or in the recording studio where Guy takes his shot at fame.  To me, having seen the movie multiple times, I knew where the piece was going and what I was supposed to be imagining.  To someone completely unfamiliar with the work, I can understand a bit of confusion.  This, along with the fact that there were a few scenes of dialog that brought the production to a slight lull at times, are my only qualms...and they're minor qualms at that.

Everything else in this show was worthy of accolades.  Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti have a tough act to follow.  To me, the footsteps of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová are big ones to fill and Kazee and Milioti do so admirably.  Kazee has Hansard's grit (incredibly evident in his fantastic take on "Say It to Me Now"), but he also brings a bit of a slightly smoother Broadway sound (shown in "Gold," a throwaway song for me in the film that's given prime billing [and a stirring a cappella reprise] in the stage show to great effect).  While different from Hansard, it's to Kazee's credit that I was able to completely forget about how great a singer Hansard is while watching Kazee.  

Admittedly, Milioti has things a little easier as Irglová isn't exactly the best vocalist in town, but what Irglová lacks in power, she more than makes up with in emotion.  However (and this is really where Enda Walsh's book comes into play and shines, perhaps even "bests" the movie in this regard), Milioti is given much more humor in Girl on stage than we ever see in the film version.  Milioti is precociously endearing right from her first lines and the audience swoons for her just as the Guy does.  Girl is soft-spoken, yet incredibly sincere and honest...all of which are accurate descriptors of the musical itself as well -- it's a small-scale, quiet piece about the highs and lows of love brought to us by two wonderful actors in Kazee and Milioti whose chemistry is undeniable.

I've yet to mention that the music in Once is played not by an orchestra in a pit, but by the talented acting ensemble (including Kazee on guitar and Milioti on piano) who hardly ever leave the stage.  Acting, playing an instrument, and dancing all at once at times (in some of the most uniquely "choreographed" numbers I've ever seen on stage crafted by Steve Hoggett whose "title" in the Playbill lists him doing the play's "Movement") is no small feat and the show has talent running throughout the entire ensemble.  [And let me tell you, there's something beautiful in hearing live string instruments take on these powerful songs...kudos to Orchestrator Martin Lowe.]

I'm not a big "standing ovation" guy at theater productions.  I'll certainly applaud whether I like something or not simply to show my appreciation for the hard work of the cast and crew (more vigorously if I really liked something than if I didn't).  But when Once ended, I stood up right away because this is a show that earned that respect.  I'm sure that my love for Broadway's Once stems from the fact that I adore the film.  If you've seen the film and hated it, this musical probably won't do a thing for you.  To me, however, this tale of love, loneliness, and friendship is a winner that is eloquently brought to the stage by director John Tiffany and the talented cast and crew he assembled that make Once something I'll probably be seeing more times than its title.  

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Movie Review - The Thing

The Thing (2011)
Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgarton, Eric Christian Olsen, and Ulrich Thomson 
Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr.

I had seen the John Carpenter's original 1982 The Thing a few years ago and found it to be a perfectly acceptable monster movie.  This 2011 prequel falls again into that "perfectly acceptable" category and may have even ventured into the "good" realm had it not been bogged down by a rather ridiculous third act.

I must be honest here -- I didn't realize that I was watching a prequel at all and only discovered that information when I was looking up a bit of research for this review.  The reason I wasn't aware of that is because this movie is essentially telling the same plot of the original (or at least it seemed to be the same plot to this moviegoer who hadn't seen the original in years).  It's simple -- an alien life form wreaks havoc on a research crew in Antarctica.  There's really nothing else that needs to be said.  We're not reinventing the wheel here.  And that's perfectly fine.  There are some scares here and there -- too few, though -- and the acting is fine although all the characters end up blending together because they're given no discernible personalities.  (Although kudos to Mary Elizabeth Winstead for giving her scientist gal role a strong edge that proved to be compelling to watch.)

Unfortunately, unlike the original which knows what it sets out to be and is admittedly just an alien attack flick, this prequel foolishly (SPOILER ALERT) takes us onto the alien ship in the final act -- a plot point which feels incredibly forced and ultimately unnecessary since what happens on the ship is decidedly pointless in the long run.  (END SPOILERS)  This screeches the film to a halt at the exact point it should be ratcheting up the tension and ends things on a sour note to be sure.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

I'm forgoing my annual St. Patrick's Day viewing of the excellent Once in hopes that I'll see the new Broadway version of it sometime within the next few months. [And I did -- review here.]  I'd like the story to be somewhat fresh, so I'm going to let the Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova film sit on the shelf for the moment.

Here's my review posted last year of the fantastic modern-day "musical" -- part of my recurring Personal Canon series.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Theater Review - Our Country's Good

Our Country's Good
Written by Timberlake Wertenbaker
Directed by Joe Hanreddy
Where: Thompson Theater at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When: Thursday, March 15, 7:30pm

Photo by Nadine Howatt

I should start out repeating what I say whenever I go see a production of the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players -- this crew, from the actors to the scenic designers to the directors to the costumers, is Broadway-caliber.  I realize you may think that would be unattainable at a university level, but these professional actors and their counterparts behind the scenes are top notch, obviously talented, and tremendously appreciated by this theatergoer.

Which is why it pains me all the more to say that I wasn't the biggest fan of their latest production --  Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good.  Once again, there's nothing to complain about when it comes to the production values themselves -- the costumes by Martha Hally are sumptuously designed with no expense spared; the lighting and scenic design by R.H. Graham which included a stage completely covered with forty tons of sand was unique and haunting at times; the acting, as always, is wonderful [more on that later].  Yet, despite the many positives, the play itself just plodded along despite ultimately having some interesting things to say.

Set in an Australian prison colony in the 1790s, the play tells the story of a group of convicts brought together by British naval officers to put on a comedic play in hopes that it will enlighten both the criminals and the troops in the newly colonized Oceanic island.  Admittedly, I'm sure if I saw the play again or analyzed it like I used to do in college, I'd find great meaning in Werternbaker's words, but on the surface, all I "got" was the notion of the importance of theater to showcase humanity.  That's certainly nothing to snuff at, but it's just presented in a manner that fails to grab the audience's attention despite this production's best efforts.

With nearly every actor playing multiple roles with varying accents (many of whom change costume and become different characters right in front of our eyes), much credit needs to be given to the insanely talented REP troupe who continue to showcase why they're so beloved by frequenters to their productions.  Although I guess one could say Michael Gotch's 2nd Lt. Ralph Clark is the fulcrum around which much of the play's initial plot spins (he directs the convicts in the play and must convince his fellow officers that this dramatic production is a worthwhile venture), this is truly an "ensemble" production much like the REP's Noises Off earlier this season.  However, unlike Noises Off which focused on eight characters, the fact that Our Country's Good features twenty-two characters ultimately creates a lack of emotional connection.  Considering the horrible predicaments facing some of the convicts in the new Australian landscape, I couldn't help but think I would have felt a little more empathy and sympathy towards them, but the play never focuses on any one character for a long enough period of time in order to create that sense of engagement between the audience and what we're seeing onstage.

Still, let's shift back to the actors and give credit to a few stand-outs which I always like to do in these mini-reviews of the REP's productions.  This time around, I found Elizabeth Heflin to be the real treat to watch.  Although she essentially plays one character for the most part -- lead actress in the play-within-a-play Mary -- it is her portrayal of "Shitty" Meg Long that won me over initially.  In the play for what is less than five minutes, Meg Long is the one single character that had any sense of distinct personality.  Played for comedic effect, Heflin (with help of some spot-on costuming and wig-work) becomes a hideous, lewd old crone with great gusto.  I kept waiting for the character to make a second appearance (which never happened), but the impact of those short minutes with that foul-mouthed woman still resonate.

We also are treated to some lovely work from Deena Burke whose primary character is Liz Morden, a rather curmudgeonly, rough-around-the-edges woman whose personality, while initially off-putting, proves to be her defense mechanism against what she deems are the unjustifiable circumstances into which she's been placed.  Nice work is also provided by Mic Matarrese as the over-the-top "actor" of the bunch and guest actor John Plumpis as both a captain and a convict who steadfastly believe in the power of theater.

Still, overall, I can't help but think that I should have been moved by the plights of these characters, but I failed to have that happen to me.  Not being familiar with this piece of work, I don't know whether the blame falls onto the playwright or the director for that failure, but it's that lack of connection that harms this piece the most.  As I've said, however, the REP is a stellar theatrical production company that is an absolute treasure to those of us in the tiny state of Delaware...even if Our Country's Good isn't showcasing the REP to its fantastic potential.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Movie Review - Silent House

Silent House (2012)
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Adam Trese, and Eric Sheffer Stevens
Directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau

Let's be honest -- if you've heard of Silent House, you're well aware of its reason for existence.  It's an 85-minute film shot in one single take...sort of.  More specifically, it's a film that appears to be shot in one take, but is in fact ten shots ranging from five to ten minutes each masterfully edited together to give the illusion of one continuous shot without any cutting.  In terms of technical achievement, directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau have crafted a nifty looking film.  While not without its directional flaws -- certain "scares" at the start of the film are poorly realized and almost difficult to visually comprehend because they happen so quickly and oftentimes fall out of the single take's frame of vision -- Silent House is still a fun film school experience much like Hitchcock's Rope which utilized the same technique over half a century ago.  Unfortunately, the story takes a foolishly silly twist that fails the movie in the end.

Elizabeth Olsen is Sarah, a young woman who is helping to renovate her father's lakehouse. As the day wears on, Sarah finds herself hearing noises in the boarded up house only to discover that those sounds are courtesy of a home invader who seems intent on harming Sarah, her father (Adam Trese), and her uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens).

Considering the technique used to create the film, a simple story fits the bill and Silent House definitely begins with a simplistic premise.  However, this remake of a early 2000 Uruguayan film piles on a rather unnecessary twist ending that ultimately disappointed me.  Admittedly, even before that, the film felt long at certain points -- I found myself checking the clock several times which is never a good thing, particularly in a film as short as this one.

But despite its problems, the film culls a nice performance from relative newcomer Elizabeth Olsen who is onscreen for close to the film's entirety.  Her character is a bit of an oddball at the film's onset, but Olsen won me over by managing to remain a presence I wanted to watch for 85 minutes.  She proves to be most effective in the moments the film allows her to be silent (a shot of which is provided in the poster above), generating a real sense of fear and tension in simple facial tics and eye-widening -- not an easy task and made even more difficult by the film's usage of long takes.

Still, while I'm an admirer of the technical achievements of the film (which, to also give it credit, I found it very impressive that I kind of forgot I was watching a one-take film about two-thirds of the way), the story just lacked "a reason for being."  Had it gotten rid of the twist ending, I can't help but think it would have been a more effective movie.  Not all horror films need to have a "Gotcha!" moment at the end and Silent House should have abided by that dictum.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Movie Review - Like Crazy

Like Crazy (2011)
Starring Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones, and Jennifer Lawrence
Directed by Drake Doremus

It feels like these indie twenty-something romance flicks are a dime a dozen these days, but maybe it's just that they all kind of feel the same and manage to have the same sort of trajectory.  Guy and girl fall in love, they break up, they get back together, and on and on.  Sure, essentially that's a plot that pretty much describes any romantic film, but with the added "indie" descriptor, it usually means we get some type of quirkiness thrown into the mix.

Sure enough in Like Crazy, the quirks come from the direction which, right of the bat from the very first shot, had me rolling my eyes and cringing in disgust.  Director and co-writer Drake Doremus adopts a voyeuristic approach to the flick and from the very opening scene, I knew it was going to be utterly pretentious...and I wasn't wrong.  Throughout the film which follows the budding relationship of American Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Brit Anna (Felicity Jones), Doremus utilizes a light shaky cam coupled with odd, rather obnoxious framing.  He's a fan of those odd cuts that are becoming more and more prevalent nowadays -- a shot where, as an example, we see someone sitting at a desk, then they cut like ten seconds out and the person's slightly moved, then another 30 seconds maybe, and so and so on to show the (monotonous) passage of time.  Drawing attention to the direction is something I don't always hate, but in a simple movie like this, it's incredibly distracting.  Doremus is able to capture some little moments -- like a kiss here or a glance there -- that are simple, lovely, and heartfelt, but overall, his direction was the film's biggest fault.

As far as the story itself -- which is a rather basic love story about a long distance relationship of the two aforementioned characters -- it works okay (not quite a ringing endorsement, I'm aware) even though it manages to somehow feel much longer than its short 85 minutes (another fault of the director).  Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones are fine and there's a chemistry between the two that works.  However, neither of the characters are really captivating enough to craft a movie around which proves to be a bit of a problem.

Like Crazy ends much like the underseen 2011 sleeper Last Night (which is available instantly streaming on Netflix and comes RyMickey Recommended) and both endings work immensely well, lifting the movie up probably moreso than they respectively deserve to be lifted up.  However, I can't let the enjoyable "cliff-hangerish" ending spoil what ultimately is a disappointment here.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Movie Review - The Guard

The Guard (2011)
Starring Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, and Mark Strong 
Directed by John Michael McDonagh
A 95% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes is usually an indicator of a good flick...however, I'm not one to necessarily toe the company line and I simply could not find myself getting into the Irish dark comedy The Guard.  There are some really solid performances here -- Brendan Gleeson is oddly charming as a kooky Irish police officer forced to partner with an American FBI agent (played by Don Cheadle in an admirable "straight man" comedy role) to hunt down some Irish drug smugglers -- but the thick brogues from the very onset had me struggling to comprehend things, and then once I did settle into the accents, I simply didn't really care about the story and various subplots this flick threw at me.

Honestly, the above paragraph about sums up all my thoughts.  Good performances, but a lukewarm script just made this flick unappealing.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Movie Review - Take Shelter

Take Shelter (2011)
Starring Michel Shannon and Jessica Chastain
Directed by Jeff Nichols

I appreciate a slow-moving drama every now and then.  One that takes its time to depict its characters and slowly roll out its key plot points.  That said, moreso than other flicks, I've got to be in the mood to watch a movie that is methodically paced.  Last year's Meek's Cutoff comes to mind as a movie that fits this description -- the pace was slow as could be and I venture to guess that had I watched it on another day, I may have despised the film.  Take Shelter falls into the same category of slow-paced, character-driven dramas and, admittedly, I stopped watching after twenty-five minutes because I wasn't connecting with the piece at all.  However, once I resumed the film two days later, I found myself intrigued by the interesting character study on display...but still fully cognizant of the fact that this two hour movie was stretched a bit too thin for its story.

Michael Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a loving husband and father, who is holding down a decent construction job that will provide the health insurance needed to have an operation to help his hard-of-hearing young daughter.  However, seemingly out of the blue, Curtis begins having horrific nightmares that begin affecting his ability to function while he's awake.  He begins to have premonitions of a storm of near-biblical proportions and sets out to build a storm shelter to keep his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and daughter safe.  Soon, Curtis finds himself living in a constant paranoid state which makes him anxiously nervous considering the fact that his mother was diagnosed as a schizophrenic at the same age as Curtis is now.

Rather effectively, Take Shelter is both a character piece and a horror film.  In terms of the former, we follow Curtis (Michael Shannon is in every scene) and watch his slow, rather devastating, slippage into possible mental illness.  In terms of the latter, this is a "horror" film only in that there is a palpable amount of tension built by director and screenwriter Jeff Nichols, forcing the audience to question whether Curtis is in fact going insane and, if he indeed is, what type of damage he will cause to those he loves.  By showing us Curtis's dreams and then the aftereffects, Mr. Nichols creates an ominous tone that permeates the entire film and, as the film neared its conclusion, I was legitimately on the edge of my seat wondering which way the flick was going to turn.

Michael Shannon is fantastic and, although I don't know how my Best Actor nominations will turn out when I tackle them in the annual RyMickey Awards in May as that seems to be a strong category for me this year, he was robbed of the buzz that he rightly deserved in the months leading up to the Oscars.  I'm surprised more critic organizations didn't extol his forceful and intense performance.  Once his nightmares begin to rear their ugly heads, he became a scary guy that seemingly could come unhinged at the drop of a hat.  Additionally, Jessica Chastain has more than proven herself in 2011 and is very nice and understated here.  Although her role certainly isn't given as much depth or screen time as Shannon's, she still manages to be quietly powerful in the film's final scenes which proves that she made an impact on me as the movie progressed despite playing things subdued and under the radar.

Take Shelter is a nice film -- given an R rating only for one scene of language -- that if only it had been trimmed down a tad would've been a great film.  Still, it's one worth renting as a good psychological tension-filled drama with a great performance from Michael Shannon.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Book "Review" - The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending (2011)
Written by Julian Barnes

I haven't done a "book review" in a while...mainly because I haven't read anything in a while, so bear with the probable lack of anything substantial being said below.

Julian Barnes' concise 163-page novel The Sense of an Ending has just that -- a sense of an ending, but a conclusion that failed to fully satisfy which is a bit of a disappointment considering that I was loving the book up until the final ten pages.  Now, I must say that the whole ending is stewing in my mind and begs to be discussed with others.  This rapidly sent me to the internet to figure out what others thought of the ending which provided me with several "A-Ha!" moments of revelation that I missed (and apparently many others missed based off my searches) that make me want to head back and read the book a second time around (and considering that I finished the whole book off in two sittings spread across about 120 minutes that would be an easy task).

The tale mainly focuses on our British first-person narrator Tony Webster's relationship with schoolmate Adrian and how their bond changed drastically after their graduation from secondary (high) school.  While Tony thought that he perhaps left this fractured friendship behind after a tragic turn of events for the duo in college, this kinship rears its ugly head nearly forty years later as a sixty-something Tony is forced to face his past that he attempted to bury long ago.

What stood out to me in terms of theme and what ultimately hooked me and made me grow to love what Julian Barnes has to say is the book's take on "history" and how as time passes we shape history to be what we want to remember rather than what actually occurs.  This sense of being honest with one's self is beautifully developed throughout the short novel.  Our present is built off of our past actions -- both good and bad -- and it is only by looking at the entirety of our personal history that we can truly know the type of person we are today.

Anyway...I'll bring this book "review" to a close since I'm not very good at these.  Still, The Sense of an Ending is a very good (and easy) read that is full of much more depth than I expected.

Movie Review - Ladybug Ladybug

Ladybug Ladybug (1963)
Directed by Frank Perry
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

I legitimately have no clue how Ladybug Ladybug was even added to my Netflix Instant Queue, but it somehow made it there.  Admittedly, when I read the little synopsis, I thought it was some artsy 1960s British flick, so imagine my surprise when one of the first people onscreen was a young Mr. Feeney from "Boy Meets World" playing a principal of an elementary school speaking in an American accent (as apparent prep for that classic 90s TGIF classic show in which he ended up playing, yep, a principal).  Nevertheless, despite not being British, there is an artsy -- or perhaps student film-ish -- tone on display here and while I didn't dislike the movie, it does move at a snail's pace that may not be appealing to all.

Director Frank Perry picked a bunch of unknown child and (at-the-time) adult actors to take part in this commentary/diatribe against the Cold War.  In the film, the nuclear bomb alarm at the elementary school begins to go off and, after determining that the alarm went off at the nearby high school, the principal decides to send all the children home despite having no information as to whether there is a true attack imminent.  Since many of the children live close to the school, groups led by teachers begin to walk back home, all the while talking about the possible causes and effects of a nuclear bomb dropping on their small rural community, none of them knowing if this is simply a drill or prep for a real attack.

And that's it...it's a talky picture with children doing most of the talking.  Unfortunately, some of the child actors fare better than others and while there are a few interesting moments, for the most part, the conversations are basic and elementary -- which, while making what the kids say seem apropos for people their age, didn't really make for very interesting commentary for the adults watching.

Still, Ladybug Ladybug is an interesting film.  I realize "interesting" is an adjective that doesn't really convey a sense of "good" or "bad," but I'm kind of landing in the middle on this film.  On the one hand, it's a nice glimpse at our country's neuroses at a certain point in our history.  On the other hand, its 88 minutes seem incredibly drawn out, despite carrying a solid amount of realism.  And -- SPOILER ALERT -- I now know that the infamous refrigerator bomb shelter scene in the latest Indiana Jones movie simply copied that outrageous moment from this flick.

The RyMickey Rating:  C