Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Movie Review - Shame

Shame (2011)
Starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, and Nicole Beharie
Directed by Steve McQueen

Shame is perhaps best known as the film in which Michael Fassbender bares all.  For some reason, him going nude got all the press and the movie itself was shafted to a certain extent.  In the end, that's a real shame because Steve McQueen's moving character study about a man's addiction to sex is heartbreaking and touching with a riveting performance from Fassbender and absolutely beautiful direction from McQueen.

The story itself is fairly simple.  As stated above, the film focuses on Brandon Sullivan, a thirtysomething low-level executive in Manhattan who outwardly seems to have everything together, but inwardly finds himself ravaged by his addiction to sex.  Whether it be looking at porn on the internet, hiring a prostitute to fulfill his needs, or simply not being able to make it through the workday without heading into the bathroom to pleasure himself, Brandon has a problem.  And he's well aware of it.  Sex isn't about a "connection" for him...it's about a release that he hopes will be fulfilling, but is always completely empty.

Brandon's not a bad guy, though.  He's good looking and could do seemingly well with women if he wanted, but he is a bit shy which is evident in a lusciously filmed scene about halfway through the movie when Brandon and his co-worker Marianne (a delightful and sexy Nicole Beharie) sit down at a restaurant for a first date.  In a continuous take, we see the two simply talking about the typical "first date" stuff, but we begin to see for the inner workings of Brandon's mind as he explains to Marianne how he never wants to get married and doesn't understand the meaning of monogamy.  It's starting to crystallize in the audience's mind that Brandon, despite his need for sex, is ultimately unable to connect with someone.  His addiction has robbed him from being able to love...yes, that's perhaps an oversimplification of a much larger psychological issue, but that's Brandon's problem at its core.

And not only does this affect Brandon's life sexually, but this inability to love and connect with others also plays a huge role in his relationship with his family including his troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who, despite Brandon's best efforts, moves into his small, sterile apartment in NYC after a falling-out with her boyfriend.  Sissy herself (whose odd story arc and relationship with Brandon is the one minor problem with the film) isn't without her share of pain (much of it seemingly self-inflicted), but she brings out the worst in Brandon...she makes him feel shameful of his way of life and it ends up spiraling him out of control in ways that I really never saw coming.  Towards the end of the film, Brandon's addiction leads him to places that may shock and appall the audience, but they never once rang untrue or felt unrealistic.

The more I think about Shame, the more I grow to be thoroughly fascinated with what I saw onscreen.  I imagine several scenes will pop up in the "Best Scene" category of the "RyMickey Awards" (coming in June) and I'm sure this film will make an appearance in many other categories including Best Actor for Michael Fassbender.  Admittedly, I went into this without many expectations.  I expected to be bored by the story and bombarded by "shocking moments" simply there to provide unnecessary provocation and titillation.  That wasn't the case in the slightest and that's a huge credit to Mr. Fassbender and director Steve McQueen.

Together, they have crafted a movie that doesn't necessarily provide answers or tie things up in pretty bows, but they have created an intimate character study about a man who knows his faults, attempts to correct them (fully realized in a riveting and heartbreaking scene with the aforementioned Nicole Beharie shortly after their characters' first date), but ultimately doesn't succeed.  Towards the end of the film, Brandon finds himself in the midst of a threesome (which he paid to be a part of) and after focusing initially on the writhing bodies, McQueen plants his camera squarely on Fassbender's face...and in his face and in this moment, we see everything that Brandon is and everything he wishes he could be.  This menage a trois is the furthest thing from a pleasurable experience.  To him, an orgasm is full of pain, anguish, and ultimately self-inflicted shame.

The RyMickey Rating:  A-

Monday, May 28, 2012

Movie Review - Battle Royale

Battle Royale (2000)
Directed by Kinji Fukasaku

I'd heard of Battle Royale for years, but the thoughts of it came to light again after the release of this year's Hunger Games which takes many of this Japanese film's concepts and dilutes them down to a teen-friendly entertainment destination.  While there are certainly differences -- the biggest being that the Hunger Games series spends more time outside of the battlegrounds whereas Battle Royale solely focuses on the kill-or-be-killed war zone -- the similarities in premise are eerily similar.  In the end, however, when weighing the pros and cons of each film, they come out about even and I'd honestly be hard-pressed to say which one I like better.

It's the new millennium and, in order to keep unruly teens in line, the Japanese government decides that every year it's going to take a classroom of ninth graders, place them on an island, and force them to fight each other to the death in something called Battle Royale.  Somehow, this is supposed to keep teens in check, however, I'm not quite sure how randomly choosing thirty or so kids is going to solve greater problems in Japanese culture.  [The dystopian dynamics of the Hunger Games and the government's influences on its people are much better detailed.]  Still, only one can come out alive and it's certainly amusing to see these kids begin to turn on each other.

Battle Royale is absolutely bloody...laughably so.  But that's really the point.  There's an over-the-top quality here and realism is not something that is even in the dictionary of director Kinji Fukasaku.  And that's not necessarily a bad thing.  It gives the otherwise simplistic storyline a reason to exist while also allowing for the often overacting teens to showcase as extravagant and overdramatic deaths as possible.

This isn't great cinema, but I was hoping for something a little more than what it has to give.  I must admit that I began watching this one evening and got about halfway through and had to stop for the night despite the fact that I was enjoying the campiness of the whole flick.  The next day, I started the movie and found myself almost bored.  Death after death occurs (and we see nearly all of the kills onscreen) and it almost gets tedious.  Still, Battle Royale is fun...a term I wouldn't necessarily use to describe The Hunger Games.  They both have their plusses and minuses, but in the end, they're about the same in terms of effectiveness.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Movie Review - Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)
Starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, and Michael Nyqvist
Directed by Brad Bird

Although Mission: Impossible II was one of my least favorite movies the year it came out, I don't utterly detest the Mission: Impossible series of films.  Maybe it's just the catchy theme music -- which really is one of the best tv theme songs ever created -- but it's probably more that I like the gadgety spy vibe that runs throughout.  I had heard really good things about animation director Brad Bird's first foray into live action filming.  Fortunately, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol did not disappoint and is probably the best action flick to come out of 2011.

Part of the reason for its success is that this Mission: Impossible has an odd joyfulness to it that I don't remember at all in previous incarnations in this series.  There's a humor here that I wasn't expecting and it added a breath of fresh air to the typical explosions and chase scenes that are part and parcel of a film of this ilk.  Certainly much of the chuckles come thanks to Simon Pegg who is the gadget guru Benji, part of the special team headed by Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt, who after being rescued from a Russian prison finds himself on a mission (impossible) to hunt down a Swedish nuclear weapon expert (Michael Nyqvist) deadset on starting a world war.  Aided by Jane Carter (a very solid [and sexy] Paula Patton), Ethan and his team travel from Moscow to Dubai to India tracking down the baddie.

It also helps matters that the story is very straightforward -- read: easy to comprehend.  Sometimes spy films like this tend to throw more info at you than you really need -- red herrings here, ridiculously convoluted background information there.  MI4 doesn't do that at all and I don't mean this as an insult to it.  Don't think that things are overly simplified -- it's just that Brad Bird and his screenwriters have pared things down to be exactly what is needed to make this story fly by.  Bird also crafts his action sequences without the superfluous quick edits and nonstop explosions that are so prevalent in movies today.  There are some genuinely exciting moments here that rely on tension rather than rapid movement to succeed and that's often a rarity nowadays.

Unfortunately, I think the film falters a tiny bit in two areas.  One, Jeremy Renner's character of a government official who is forced to become part of Ethan's team seemed to simply be there to attempt to craft future movies around him.  He isn't really given a lot to do and although he's fine in the role, this is the one point in the movie that probably could've been fleshed out a bit more.  Secondly, the final act of the movie seems almost unnecessary.  When the team moves to India, I couldn't help but think things could've ended in Dubai to much greater effect -- not all movies need to be two hours and ten minutes long.  The final action sequence (which was genuinely tense and exciting) could so easily have taken place in Dubai that the move to India only screamed "Look at our budget!" to me.

Still, those are actually minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things because Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol really excels in all areas -- acting, directing, writing -- where most action movies nowadays fail miserably.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Movie Review - Dream House

Dream House (2011)
Starring Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, and Naomi Watts
Directed by Jim Sheridan

Dream House tries to be a slightly more adult-skewing ghost story, but it unfortunately lacks any scares or tension and the "surprise" twists are telegraphed from the opening moments (and were apparently spoiled in the trailer of which I don't have any recollection).  After watching the film, I discovered that director Jim Sheridan (who crafted a slow and plodding film here) was at odds with the production company throughout most of the filming and neither he nor stars Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz agreed to do any amount of press for the flick upon its release.  They knew they had a stinker on their hands...and they weren't wrong.

Although I could easily spoil things for you as the movie doesn't attempt to hide its secrets, I'll simply state that Dream House revolves around a family who moves into a new home only to discover that several years ago the former owners were killed in a horrible fashion.  Seeing as this is an "attempt" at a horror film, it's no surprise that the events from the past begin to slowly wreak havoc on the events in the present as husband and wife Will and Libby (Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz) must do what they can to keep their family safe.

Ultimately, it's obvious that no one really had fun whilst filming and it shows onscreen.  Everything about Dream House feels heavy-handed, uninspired, and insipidly dull.  Despite an admirable attempt at creating a modern-day adult-centric horror movie, this venture doesn't work in the slightest.

The RyMickey Rating:  D

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Movie Review - Shark Night

Shark Night 3D (2011)
Starring Sara Paxton, Dustin Milligan, Chris Carmack, Katharine McPhee, and Donal Logue
Directed by David R. Ellis
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

I have no one to blame but myself for watching Shark Night 3D -- yes, even when it's not seen in 3D, its extra-dimension moniker still remains attached to the title.  I was hoping for the winking absurdity of Piranha 3D which, even though it's not even remotely close to a good movie, at least set out to make a purposefully corny film.  Unfortunately, while Shark Night 3D is probably well aware of the fact that it isn't a good movie, it doesn't ever embrace its corniness in the way it should have.

I could summarize the movie for you, but all you really need to know is that there's a bunch of sharks terrorizing a group of college kids, chomping them to bits one by one.  There's nothing else you need to know...and there's really nothing else to know.  Movies like this aren't heavy on plot.

Nor are movies like this known for being acting or directing showcases and that isn't the case here either.  Granted, I've certainly seen worse horror movies, but this one really isn't worth the 90 minutes of your time even for a cheap laugh.

The RyMickey Rating:  D

Monday, May 21, 2012

Movie Review - Retreat

Retreat (2011)
Starring Thandie Newton, Cillian Murphy, and Jamie Bell
Directed by Carl Tibbetts

On the brink of divorce, husband and wife Martin and Kate (Cillian Murphy and Thandie Newton) take a trip to an incredibly small island off the coast of England.  With only one house on the isle and with no communication with the outside world except for a rickety CB radio, the couple hope to reignite the passion that's been missing from their marriage ever since Kate miscarried.  However, shortly into their stay, Martin and Kate discover a battered and bruised man (Jamie Bell) who washes up on the shore.  When the man comes to, he relays to the couple that a terrible airborne virus has wreaked havoc on Europe and that the only way to save themselves is to seal up their small island home and try to wait out the outbreak.  Without any form of communication, Martin and Kate are placed into a difficult situation and must make a decision as to whether they can believe this man they just met.

To me, Retreat has a great concept and while it doesn't necessarily succeed fully as a movie, there is enough promise that should the film pop up on Instant Viewing on Netflix, it'd be worth a watch.  Essentially a three-character piece, the overarching premise of the movie works.  Where the movie drops the ball is in the development of the characters -- particularly the couple Martin and Kate.  With conveniently dropped tidbits of information to give us their backstory, any background characterizations we get of the couple are terribly forced and completely unnatural to the storytelling process, providing eye-rolling groan-inducing moments in the film's opening act.

Fortunately, for the most part, the trio of actors is successful at creating the tension needed for this claustrophobic film to succeed.  Jamie Bell (best known for the title role of Billy Elliott over a decade ago) brings out just the right amount of paranoia to always have the audience questioning whether his character of Jack is nuts or legitimately truthful in his panic concerning the virus.  Cillian Murphy is also quite good as the rather subdued husband.  Not wanting to create a stir, his Martin is the more levelheaded of the couple and Murphy allows his character's actions to always seem believable.

Thandie Newton, on the other hand, is an actress that has fallen out of my good graces in recent years.  Last year, she landed on the the RyMickey Awards' Worst Actress list for her work in For Colored Girls, but she's certainly better in Retreat than she was in that Tyler Perry flick.  However, the same critique of Newton that I mentioned when discussing her Worst Actress "award" -- that she "plays anger and frustration with this incredible screechiness that is so overpoweringly unbelievable" -- still rings true here. Granted, it's not nearly as bad here, but it still rears its ugly head.  She's a beautiful woman, but when Newton is forced to get really gritty, she just can't succeed.

Still, while Retreat may not be without its faults, it's still a movie that is worth a watch.  I was a bit worried that with the premise, I was inevitably going to be disappointed with the ending, but to its credit, the film manages to provide an satisfying conclusion that surprisingly appeased this reviewer's rather critical palette.

The RyMickey Rating:  C


Friday, May 18, 2012

Movie Review - Albert Nobbs

Albert Nobbs (2011)
Starring Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, and Janet McTeer
Directed by Rodrigo García

Albert Nobbs is, quite possibly, the most boring film released in 2011 -- and in the year of J. Edgar, The Iron Lady, and Anonymous that's saying something.  However, unlike J. Edgar which had a decent performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, The Iron Lady which had a worthy Oscar-winning turn from Meryl Streep, and Anonymous which had some interesting visuals, Albert Nobbs has absolutely nothing going for it.  Nothing at all.  This "dream" project of Glenn Close is dreadfully monotonous and torturous to sit through and without even a captivating performance with which to breathe life into it, Albert Nobbs is a period piece that really shouldn't even exist.

Sorry, but the raves that came in for Glenn Close's Oscar-nominated performance as the title character -- a woman who has dressed as a man for decades in order to keep a job -- were completely unwarranted.  As Albert Nobbs, Close is emotionally one-note, appearing "stoic" throughout and very little else in terms of notable characteristics.  As Albert struggles to find a woman to spend his life with, training his eye on young co-worker Helen (Mia Wasikowska), I found my eyes wandering around the close quarters of my plane home from London.  Not even the Oscar-nominated turn from Janet McTeer as a fellow woman who lives her life as a man (with a heckuva lot more charisma than Close) can do anything to save this film from simply floundering.

With awkward direction and a horrible subplot involving Wasikowska's character and her relationship with a conniving young handyman (Aaron Johnson), this is a movie in search of itself.  Seemingly as much time is spent on the young lovers storyline which goes nowhere as is spent on Albert's -- and neither of them are worth paying any amount of attention to.

The RyMickey Rating:  D-

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Movie Review - A Separation

A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin) (2011)
Starring Peyman Moadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini, Sarina Farhadi, and Kimia Hosseini
Directed by Asghar Farhadi

From the opening scene of A Separation -- a long, unmoving, single take of an Iranian couple in a family court discussing the wife's desire for a divorce from her husband -- I knew that this narratively simple story was going to pull me in with some winning performances.  Even watching it on a screen the size of my hand and surrounded by strangers on an airplane, Asghar Farhadi's Academy Award-winning film drowned out my less-than-ideal moviegoing atmosphere and fully captured my attention.  This Iranian film -- which I was incredibly wary of seeing when it was at the local arthouse for fear of boredom -- has managed to become one of my favorites of 2011.

With conditions in Iran worsening, Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to take her eleven year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) and leave the country.  However, unable to convince her husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) to come with her and abandon his Alzheimers-inflicted elderly father, Simin files for divorce.  When the judge fails to grant her request, Simin moves out of their house causing Nader to hire Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to look after his father while he is at work.  With her family's income hurting, Razieh keeps her job a secret from her husband (Shahab Hosseini) since Muslim customs state that no woman shall be in a house with a another woman's husband without her own husband or another woman present.  Unfortunately, a series of small events balloon into something much more major and a seemingly "innocent" separation of a husband and wife could lead to a tragic set of events for a father trying to do his best to provide for his fracturing family.

Admittedly, I knew very little about this movie going into it and that's why I've attempted to leave the summary above as vague as possible.  It's not that there are surprises around every corner -- the story is actually quite simple -- but it's riveting in its realism.  There's a naturalness on display here that isn't present in many films.  It is as if we're watching a real family going through a difficult time and that's certainly a credit to the actors who all appear so genuine that they convince us completely of their feelings towards one another -- whether that be compassion or distaste or a tricky combination of both.

It's also extremely interesting to get a glimpse at both a modern-day Iranian Muslim family and the court system of that part of the world.  Granted, were I familiar with either of those topics, A Separation may have lost a bit of its freshness, but since I'm not knowledgable on either of those subjects, it was a bit eye-opening for me and an intriguing look at everyday life on the opposite side of the world.  Still, in the end, I keep coming back to the simplicity and the naturalness of everything here -- the direction, the story, the acting.  Everything in A Separation has an authenticity to it and, as a film, it doesn't attempt to make judgments as to who is right and who is wrong.  Writer-director Asghar Farhadi allows the audience to try and make that determination on their own which, at times, is an incredibly difficult decision to make which further is a credit to his ability to craft a realistic portrayal of family life.

The RyMickey Rating:  A-

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Movie Review - Chronicle

Chronicle (2012)
Starring Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, and Michael B. Jordan
Directed by Josh Trank

One of these days, the "found footage" concept is bound to bite the dust, but for some reason it's a fad that is fairly consistently successful in part because it seemingly can produce movies on the cheap.  Although not a horror film like most of the "found footage" flicks that have come before it, Chronicle has all the staples I've come to find in the genre -- a focus on youth, unknown actors to project a sense of "realism," and an hour of nothingness followed by a third act that works incredibly well, but can't quite make up for the failings that came before it.

When three high school friends find what appears to be a sinkhole in a junkyard and go into it to explore, they come out of the hole with superhuman powers.  Cat-like reflexes, the ability to move things with their minds, and flying are just a few of their newfound attributes.  Unfortunately, for about an hour, the film does nothing except throw some horrible dialog at us while this trio marvels at their cool new talents. Sure, we're tossed some character scenes most involving the videographer Andrew (Dane DeHaan) and his abusive out-of-work father that are supposed to build up and give credence to the film's final act, but these attempts at providing depth are really just laughable and much too obvious in their foreshadowing of the film's conclusion.

Ultimately, though, the film's final twenty minutes are a pretty exciting (although insanely ludicrous) thrill ride.  It's a shame that director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis don't provide, respectively, enough visual stimuli or meaningful plot to make the rest of the film live up to the finale.  It doesn't help matters that this is probably one of the worst "found footage" films in terms of camera shots -- the superpowers of our heroes allow the camera to float in midair beside them so we're not always seeing a first-person look of things like most other films in this genre.  This should've been unique, but instead proves off-putting in many scenes.  And don't even get me started on where the heck the cameras are for the final scenes...how they were getting filmed is beyond me.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Theater Review - Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim 
Directed by Jonathan Kent
Where: Adelphi Theatre, London, England
When: Saturday, April 28, 7:30pm


In what will likely be my only instance of seeing live theater in Britain, I am incredibly pleased to report that Sweeney Todd was the dark, morbid tale I was expecting -- and it was great.  I don't dislike the Johnny Depp-Tim Burton movie adaptation as much as others (although it did seem to lack any modicum of fun which, despite the freakish storyline, this work should have), but seeing Stephen Sondheim's wickedly delightful tale unfold on a stage with two fantastic lead performances was wonderful.

Although probably most famous for being a musical about stuffing humans into pies, Sweeney Todd weaves the tale of the title character, a barber who was banished from London after evil judge Turpin begins to lust after his wife.  Sweeney (played by Michael Ball) covertly returns to London and takes residence in piemaker Nellie Lovett's shop.  Mrs. Lovett (the delightful Imelda Staunton) tells Sweeney that his wife killed herself after Turpin raped her and that Sweeney's teenage daughter is kept locked away by Turpin.  Sweeney vows revenge and begins a murderous rampage that helps Mrs. Lovett's ailing pie shop as she brainstorms the devious idea of stuffing Sweeney's murder victims into delicious meat pies.

Despite its rather horrid premise, Sweeney Todd manages to be darkly humorous thanks mainly to Mrs. Lovett who is marvelously portrayed here by Imelda Staunton.  Staunton -- best known to American audiences for her role as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter movies -- may not be the best singer, but she brings much needed comedic timing to the heavy affair.  Her interactions with the equally impressive, though frighteningly brooding Michael Ball were the best parts of the production...and ultimately make some of the scenes in which neither of them are involved a bit of a letdown only because these two leads were so electric that you wanted the story to always be revolving around them.

Still, this Stephen Sondheim musical is widely regarded as one of the best musical theater pieces ever written and it's easy to see why.  With two hefty roles, a unique story, and cleverly wry lyrics, it has the hallmarks of what one looks for in a musical.  This production re-imagined by director Jonathan Kent updated to 1930s London rather than the usual mid-19th century in which the play was initially written is visually sparse, but oddly spot-on in the urban aesthetic it desires to achieve.

Sweeney Todd wasn't necessarily the first choice to go see in London, but I'm certainly glad we decided to go this route.  The great reviews this production received were certainly warranted.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Movie Review - Puss in Boots

Puss in Boots (2011)
Featuring the voice talents of Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, and Zach Galifianakis
Directed by Chris Miller

The Shrek franchise is not one I'm fond of in the least.  While its pop culture sensibilities and cheap attempts at humor changed the animation genre, I don't think it did so for the better and, fortunately, we're seeing a shift away from that.  Quite surprisingly, Puss in Boots, a spin-off of the Shrek flicks, tells a pleasant story riffing on Mother Goose tales, but leaves the pop culture references behind.

Admittedly, I watched this while on a plane so I failed to get a good look at the animation since the screen was literally the size of a large index card, but I was impressed with the story this was trying to tell.  After learning that Jack and Jill have magic beans that will grow a magic beanstalk, Puss (Antonio Banderas) sets out on a mission to find them in order to gain access to the golden eggs laid by the golden goose at the top of stalk.  He teams up with fellow sassy cat Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and his former childhood friend Humpty Dumpty (Zack Galifianakis) and adventures inevitably ensue.

Even with the short 85 minute running time, the film felt a tad "empty" in terms of story, but I give Puss in Boots credit for taking a different tonal approach from its Shrek predecessors and doing so successfully.  Rather than mean-spirited (which Shrek sometimes feels to me), the flick contains amusing characters that are more than capable of holding their own with the fairy tale fables played for their charm rather than for a snarky joke.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Monday, May 07, 2012

Movie Review - Abduction

Abduction (2011)
Starring Taylor Lautner, Lily Collins, Alfred Molina, Jason Isaacs, Maria Bello, Michael Nyqvist, and Sigourney Weaver
Directed by John Singleton

I should have known that in the first scene when high school senior Nathan Harper (Taylor Lautner) and his two buddies get excited about going to the home opener of the Pittsburgh Pirates season that Abduction was going to be lacking in realism.  I mean, it's the Pirates...does anyone get excited about them?  Still, I told myself to suspend disbelief for a few more minutes and give what was one of the worst reviewed movies of 2011 a chance.  In the end, and I've used this criticism before, Abduction is a movie that I can't help but feel I could've written in my childhood "novel" writing days where dialog was cheesy, characters were ill-conceived, and plots were by-the-book.

I'm only familiar with Taylor Lautner from the Twilight films and I always thought that he was the strongest part of that series -- I confess that I was probably quite wrong in that assessment.  Lautner here is simply painful.  Mugging for the camera and overly mannered, he's the opposite of charming and charismatic.  Here, Lautner is Nathan, a typical high school senior.  When working on a research paper with his childhood friend Karen (Lily Collins), he comes across a picture of his four year-old self on an internet site for missing persons.  Just as he confronts his folks (Jason Isaacs and Maria Bello) about his discovery, their house is broken into by some foreign baddies and Nathan and Karen are forced to go on the run.

How a film so obvious and surprise-deficient managed to snag people like Maria Bello, Alfred Molina, and Sigourney Weaver to join the cast is beyond me.  None of those names are given anything to do here and it's completely obvious this was a "paycheck only" movie.  Lily Collins comes off as okay -- I'll reserve judgment on her until I see a bit more.  She's certainly attractive, but she isn't given a whole lot to do here and what she is given is mind-boggingly bland.

But the biggest problems with Abduction are the "star" Lautner whose faults I mentioned above and the director John Singleton who has done such a poor job crafting this movie that I have to think someone off the street could've done better.  Fight scenes are poorly choreographed and edited, transitions are abysmal, and Singleton fails to get a good performance from his lead.  To me, despite the simplicity of the plot, the fault with this movie lies squarely with Singleton who is to unable to bring anything to the table.  Abduction may not be the worst movie of the year as some may have called it, but it's certainly not any good.

The RyMickey Rating:  D

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Movie Review - The Darkest Hour

The Darkest Hour (2011)
Starring Emile Hirsch, Olivia Thirlby, Max Minghella, Rachael Taylor, and Joel Kinnamen
Directed by Chris Gorak

While visiting Moscow, a group of five twenty-somethings -- three Americans, an Australian, and a Swede -- manage to be some of the few survivors when an alien life-form comes to Earth one night and annihilates much of the Earth's population.  The aliens are essentially invisible, but sometimes appear to the human eye as visible electric currents that completely disintegrate to dust any living organism they touch.  Overall, the premise of The Darkest Hour had maybe a bit of promise, but in execution, it's basically a glorified SyFy Channel movie that found the budget to include 3D effects in its theatrical release.

Although it may have been difficult to craft a horror film featuring a nearly invisible foe, had The Darkest Hour been successful, it may have been unique enough to at least be worth a watch.  However, the film is a bore of a sci-fi/horror amalgamation in which its ninety minute runtime is its only positive.  There's very little tension and the main characters are all so incredibly underdeveloped that it doesn't matter in the slightest when they get zapped by the aliens.  While the actors all try their hardest, the inane dialog they're forced to spout makes them all look sillier than they deserve to appear.

The RyMickey Rating:  D

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Movie Review - Sarah's Key

Sarah's Key (2011)
Starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Mélusine Mayance
Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Benefiting from a nice performance from Kristin Scott Thomas as Julia Jarmond, a modern-day journalist writing an article about the horrible 1942 Vel' d'Hiv roundup in Paris, France, during which the French government collected all Parisian Jews to be sent to concentration camps in Germany, Sarah's Key is a low-key glimpse of a horrid piece of little known (to me, anyway) French history.  The film is a good one, but it doesn't quite ever reach the emotional level it should -- it strives to be touching, but it ends up lacking that extra something that connects the audience to the characters it presents.

The film jumps back and forth in time between 1942 and 2009, following two story arcs, only one of which really carries any weight which ultimately is the main reason Sarah's Key lacks the heart that is expected when dealing with such a weighty topic.  The 2009 story involves the aforementioned Julia on a mission to discover all she can about the Vel' d'Hiv movement only to uncover that the apartment she and her family are renovating was the home to a Jewish family in 1942 who were taken away in the round-up.  The story then jumps back to 1942 where we find the true soul of the movie as it follows ten year-old Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) who lived in the apartment and whose family was taken in the Vel' d'Hiv.  However, ingenious Sarah lies to the French police when they ask about the whereabouts of her younger brother and she hides him in a locked closet telling him not to come out until she returns to get him.  As Sarah gets taken to various locations throughout France, she refuses to give up hope on returning to save her brother and will do whatever necessary to get home.

Obviously, Sarah's story is where the film really shines and young Mélusine Mayance more than holds her own in carrying her scenes.  Unfortunately, despite Kristin Scott Thomas's ability to continue to be a strong presence in nearly every film I've seen her in (and her strength in this film as a British actress taking on the role of an American who speaks fluent French), Julia's half of the film isn't nearly as riveting as the half focusing on Sarah.  They try and give Julia a problem -- she's pregnant "late in life" and it causes some issues with her marriage -- but when you put that up against "the Holocaust," it's not exactly an even match-up.

While it isn't perfect, Sarah's Key is still a tale worth telling with some very good acting and a story that, despite only half working, keeps one's interest.  The Vel' d'Hiv is something I knew nothing about and it's a shocking and horrifying peace of our world's history.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Movie Review - Moulin Rouge

Moulin Rouge (2001)
Starring Ewan McGregor, Nicole Kidman, John Leguizamo, Richard Roxburgh, and Jim Broadbent
Directed by Baz Luhrmann

As I sit here thinking back on my first viewing experience of Moulin Rouge in probably close to eight years, I'm hemming and hawing about whether this film belongs in my Personal Canon.  I very much appreciate director Baz Luhrmann's "throw everything at you" manic-style direction and insanely quick editing, but at the same time, it's that non-stop sensory overload (particularly during the film's first act) that takes the flick precariously close to cheesiness.  Once he calms down the bombastic nature of the whole affair and gives the film a chance to breathe, Moulin Rouge is a lovely musical that remains surprisingly "hip" and cutting edge over a decade after its initial release.

The doomed tale of a Parisian courtesan named Satine (Nicole Kidman) and her lover Christian (Ewan McGregor), a bohemian poet who treasures "truth, beauty, freedom, and above all else, love," Moulin Rouge is a simplistic tale wrapped up in truly gaudy paper.  Tasked to create an elaborate musical in order to turn the dance hall -- The Moulin Rouge -- into a more prestigious "theater," Christian quickly falls for Satine, the star of the burlesque , but Christian and Satine's love affair is doomed right from the start as the Moulin Rouge's proprietor, Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent), has promised Satine in marriage to "The Duke," the play's investor (Richard Roxburgh).

Utilizing pop songs in rather unique ways -- forming medleys, creating dance mixes, and more -- Moulin Rouge doesn't have a single original tune in its repertoire.  Sure, the lovely ballad "Come What May" hadn't been heard before this film, but it was in fact not written for this movie (hence the reason it wasn't nominated for an Oscar for Best Song...although the film itself was nominated for eight Oscars, deservedly taking home two for its exquisite set design and beautiful costuming).  Admittedly, it's a bit odd at first, hearing such iconic songs as Elton John's "Your Song" or The Police's "Roxanne" in a different manner than what we're used to, however, any odd feelings we have quickly vanish when the lovely voices of Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman croon to each other.

That isn't to say that the music works entirely.  As I mentioned, the manic nature in the film's opening half hour throws more songs at you than you can register...and it's a bit off-putting at first.  And, unfortunately, as the film continues, we're treated every now and then to the occasional odd scene that simply doesn't work.  For example, the "Like a Virgin" number featuring Zidler and The Duke makes me cringe.  It stops the film dead in its tracks just when the love story was picking up steam.  And the uncorked champagne symbolizing "sexual release" is childish and laughable.  Still, there's more good than bad when it comes to the music and there are some truly magical moments (the aforementioned "El Tango de Roxanne" stunned me the first time I saw it and still resonates today...but I'm a sucker for stringed instruments and this tango lets the orchestra shine).

Certainly lifting Moulin Rouge up beyond the sporadic silliness are three fantastic performances.  For the first time while watching the movie, I greatly appreciated Jim Broadbent's role as Zidler, who outwardly is the hard-edged boss, but inwardly truly cares for the ladies working at his establishment.   Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman give some of their best performances of their careers.  McGregor is sweetly charming as the lovesick Christian -- it's easy to see why Kidman's Satine would fall for him.  Kidman is surprisingly sexy, but full of heart.  Sure, it's that typical "prostitute with a heart of gold" character we see often in movies, but it works here...I mean, the whole movie is filled with characters who are broad archetypes, but with the insanity of the visuals, it's surprisingly rather pleasant to have characters that aren't bogged down with anything more than basic traits.

In a way, Baz Luhrmann is like Quentin Tarantino in that I'm not exactly certain either director has any original ideas themselves.  Instead, they take their vast knowledge of film and create loving homages to movies they adore, honoring them while crafting something unique unto themselves.  Filmmakers like Luhrmann and Tarantino are tricky for me to critique in that sometimes I'm great admirers of them and then other days I may think of them as hacky auteurs.  And it's that very reason why I'm not sure if Moulin Rouge belongs in the Personal Canon.  I appreciate its insanity, but there are moments where that craziness is a directorial crutch that impedes the evolution of its story.  Nevertheless, this is still a film I admire greatly...even though I'm completely cognizant of its faults.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+