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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,...

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Movie Review - Wish You Were Here

Wish You Were Here (2013)
Starring Joel Edgerton, Teresa Palmer, Felicity Price, and Antony Starr
Directed by Kieran Darcy-Smith
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Oh, what joy there is in discovering a little underseen gem of a film and being able to espouse its goodness to others.  Wish You Were Here is one such flick -- a taut, exciting mystery that I heartily recommend.

Steph (Teresa Palmer) and Jeremy (Antony Starr) are all set to travel to Cambodia for a relaxing getaway (with a slight amount of business thrown in for Jeremy).  Looking for a way to spend more time together, Steph invites her older sister Alice (Felicity Price) and her husband Dave (Joel Edgerton), hoping for some quality "sister" time before Alice gives birth to her third child.  While soaking up the sun in Cambodia, the quartet attend a party one evening in which they become intoxicated (or worse) and Jeremy ends up going missing.  Unable to locate him, Steph, Alice, and Dave return to Australia, carrying with them secrets that are gradually revealed as the film progresses.

While the story itself isn't necessarily new, co-writers Kieran Darcy-Smith (who also makes his feature debut directing here) and the aforementioned Felicity Price decide to let things unfold in a non-linear fashion.  While the initial bouncing around in time proves to be a bit disorienting, the debut screenwriters (who are also husband and wife) make a smart decision in the way they decide to tell their story -- just as the characters find themselves in a dizzying spiral caused by the loss of their friend, we in the audience are left a bit discombobulated as well and it's an interesting touch.

What makes the film really pop, however, are the performances of Edgerton and Price.  I'd never seen Ms. Price before in anything and I can only hope that she'll find herself branching out from Australian tv and into more films.  Price's role of Alice is a bit tricky as she's forced to often "react to" rather than
instigate situations.  However, her character's naivete is built out of love for both her husband and her sister and when she's forced to question the people for whom she cares deeply, her emotions are palpably wrenching at times.

Even in lukewarm films, Edgerton usually manages to make an impact.  Here, he plays a conflicted man with secrets that are weighing him down, literally causing him pain from carrying them.  Edgerton is given an interesting character to work with and he absolutely makes us feel for his nice guy thrown into a desperate situation.

In addition to getting great performances from his actors, director Darcy-Smith proves more than capable behind the lens, taking a tricky screenplay and making the pieces fit together effortlessly, slowly and constantly building tension until the film's final moments when the Australia present and the Cambodia past storylines combine.  Kudos all around (including some beautiful cinematography) for a fine piece of filmmaking.  Wish You Were Here is absolutely worthy of a stream from Netflix.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Movie Review - I Give It a Year

I Give It a Year (2013)
Starring Rose Byrne, Rafe Spall, Anna Faris, Stephen Merchant, Minnie Driver, Simon Baker, and Olivia Colman
Directed by Dan Mazer
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

I Give It a Year started out so promisingly.  Through a quickly paced montage, we see how Nat and Josh (Rose Byrne and Rafe Spall) meet and fall in love, leading up to their wedding.  Their reception is filled with hilarity thanks to Josh's best bud Danny (Stephen Merchant), but then the film skips ahead about eight months and Nat and Josh find themselves sitting in a marriage counselor's office talking about how they jumped into things too quickly and may not have been as compatible as they thought.  Through flashbacks we see that Josh has never really gotten over his girlfriend prior to Nat, an American named Chloe (Anna Faris) and the fact that they're trying to remain friends puts a strain on his current relationship.  Nat, on the other hand, is finding herself falling for an American herself -- a businessman (Simon Baker) whose suave and debonair demeanor is a bit more of a perfect match for her than Josh's lovable carefreeness.

Unfortunately, as I look back upon the film, I realize that even the humor that I enjoyed wasn't natural to the film itself.  In those opening minutes, I laughed more times than I can count thanks to Stephen Merchant's inappropriate speeches at the wedding and the reception.  However, Merchant's character seems out of place and affected as opposed to being intrinsic to the plot.  Similarly, the aforementioned marriage counselor (played by Olivia Colman) is a caricature rather than a real person.  The same could be said for Minnie Driver's best friend character whose purpose other than to provide a snarky comment here or there is beyond me.

The film doesn't help its leading actors either.  Rose Byrne and Rafe Spall -- both of whom are perfectly pleasant to watch and are fine in the acting department -- are bland and aren't given anything to do except stand around and get pissed off or glare at their partner so that doesn't help matters either.  Simon Baker is nothing except "The Perfect Guy," so his character is a bit yawn-inducing.  And poor Anna Faris is given a purportedly hilarious scene involving her character's experimentation in a threesome that is so incredibly out of place, I found myself cringing at writer-director Dan Mazur's taste levels.

I Give It a Year wasn't offensively bad, but I can't say it's worth your time either.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Monday, December 23, 2013

Movie Review - The East

The East (2013)
Starring Brit Marling, Alexander Scarsgård, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, Jason Ritter, and Julia Ormand
Directed by Zal Batmanglij

My conservative mindset certainly doesn't necessarily sympathize with the ecological terror group known as The East who take it upon themselves to secretly invade the homes and offices of big businesses and cause great harm to those whom they believe are corrupting the American people and the US soil on which they live.  However, director Zal Batmanglij and his co-writer Brit Marling give us a lead character in Sarah (also played by Marling) who, upon infiltrating the group as part of her job, questions The East's integrity particularly as the anarchist collective revs up their attacks, elevating them to more serious and possibly deadly retribution events.  Through the character of Sarah, a former FBI agent now working for an elite private intelligence firm, the audience at least gets a modicum of moral questioning of the group who aren't quite given a free pass.

Admittedly (and anyone who disagrees with this just doesn't want to face the facts), The East certainly portrays its titular group as the more morally correct figures here.  The group's leader Benji (Alexander Scarsgård) is romanticized by both the lens and the character of Sarah herself.  However, the film doesn't necessarily let the members of The East get off scott free -- and they absolutely shouldn't considering some of the truly terroristic acts they inflict on others.

Brit Marling has been on my list of impressive up-and-coming actresses ever since her turn in 2011's Another Earth and she continued to showcase her talents in the fantastic and underseen Arbitrage (which is streaming on Netflix...so watch it).  It's obvious Marling is a smart cookie -- she co-wrote both Another Earth and this film, both movies that don't dumb down anything for their viewers -- and I love that she imbues her characters with the same intelligence she must carry with herself in real life.

However, once you move behind Marling's Sarah, the film doesn't give its other characters as much depth as they probably should have.  It also doesn't help that the film flounders a bit in its epilogue-like final fifteen minutes.  There's part of me that feels the film cops out a little bit and then there's another part of me that realizes it was really the only way the writers could've ended it without alienating one side or another of the political spectrum.  But then I ask myself, when has alienating one side of the political spectrum stopped Hollywood before?

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Friday, December 20, 2013

Movie Review - Lovelace

Lovelace (2013)
Starring Amada Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard, Sharon Stone, Robert Patrick, Juno Temple, Chris Noth, Bobby Canavale, Hank Azaria, Adam Brody, and James Franco
Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Deep Throat is the highest-grossing pornographic movie of all time.  Made in 1972, at the very least the film grossed $100 million although some estimates have it grossing $600 million (which is seemingly unfathomable for a film that played in only X-rated moviehouses).  The star of Deep Throat was the "normal-looking" Linda Lovelace who became incredibly famous thanks to her...um...oral capabilities. Termed a "sexy Raggedy Anne" by a character in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Lovelace, Linda was seemingly a gal who never imagined becoming a porn star, but was pushed into the industry by her husband who was desperate for money and essentially pimped out his wife in order to keep his head above water.

Following the film, I did a tiny bit of wikipedia research on Linda Lovelace and her story may have easily been sugarcoated for this film which is a love letter of sorts to the woman who only starred in one porn film and then managed to get out of the industry.  Still, despite the possibility of being one-sided, Lovelace is a decent picture...and this is coming from someone who's never particularly fond of biopics.

I typically can't stand Amanda Seyfried, but I think she gives her best performance to date as Linda.  Because of the way the film is cleverly set up, we see Linda's introduction to the porn industry through two different lenses -- one being the "excited" face she puts on for those around her and then, in a flashback, her seemingly true feelings about the industry.  Seyfried embodies both sides of Linda quite well and she absolutely makes Linda a relatable character.

As her husband Chuck, Peter Sarsgaard is a frightening and scary presence.  Having won over Linda's parents with his charm and grace, once married to Linda, his personality changes and his disgusting treatment of his wife is fodder for the second half of the film.  Sarsgaard is always good at playing a creepy guy, but here he successfully adds a menacing aspect that I haven't yet seen from him.

The rest of the cast is full of well-knowns and they all do fine work.  If anything, the film doesn't allow these other characters to develop as much as Linda and Chuck thanks to the brisk pace that the directors employ.  Still, overall, Lovelace is a film that I wasn't expecting anything from, but found an interesting look at an "important" moment in the film industry.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Disney Discussion - Lady and the Tramp

Over the course of the year, we'll be spending our Wednesdays with Walt, having a discussion about each of Disney's animated films...

Movie #15 of The Disney Discussion
Lady and the Tramp (1955)
Featuring the voice talents of Barbara Luddy, Larry Roberts, Peggy Lee, Verna Felton, Bill Thompson, Bill Baucom, and George Givot
Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske

Summary (in 150 words or less):
A cocker spaniel named Lady is gifted to Darling by her husband Jim Dear on Christmas in 1909.  We follow Lady over the span of a few years during which time Jim Dear and Darling have a baby which initially has Lady feeling left behind and forgotten.  When Jim Dear and Darling go away for a weekend and Aunt Clara arrives to watch over the newborn, Lady finds herself failing to get on Clara's good side.  After a chaotic encounter with Aunt Clara's two Siamese cats, Lady meets up with Tramp, a schnauzer, whose stray dog status doesn't match up with Lady's more polished upbringing.  Still, the two hit it off and romance blossoms.

Let the Discussion Begin...
Lady and the Tramp is the Walt Disney Company's fifteenth full-length animated feature film and was released on June 22, 1955.

At the time of its release, Lady and the Tramp was Walt Disney's most successful animated film since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, raking in $7.5 million in 1955 alone.  To date, the film has grossed over $93 million (unadjusted for inflation).

Initially slated to be made in a full frame aspect ratio, Walt Disney decided to make the film in the wider Cinemascope format making Lady and the Tramp to be the first animated film to utilize this aspect ratio.  This wasn't necessarily an easy undertaking for the animators as the wider scope permitted more detail for backgrounds, but less opportunity for close-up shots.

Lady and the Tramp ranked #95 on the American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Passions list -- one of only two animated films to do so.  The film was also named one of Time Magazine's Top 25 Best Animated Films of All Time.

The Characters
(The Best...The Worst...The Villains...)
While humans are the first characters we see and hear in Lady and the Tramp, the film is certainly not in any shape or form about them.  For the most part, they are seen via the perspective of our title canine characters with even their names -- Jim Dear and Darling -- being the pet names the husband and wife call each other rather than their real names.
Instead, we focus on the animals -- the first full-length Disney feature to really do so since 1945's Bambi.  Lady is a cocker spaniel who is living the good life.  She's adored by her owners (the aforementioned Jim Dear and Darling), treated well, and has everything going for her.  Yet, rather nicely, the filmmakers don't make Lady too uppity.  Yes, she knows she has it good, but she's never a character to whom the audience doesn't want to relate.  Had that been the case, the film simply wouldn't have worked.  We wouldn't have cared about a prissy dog's woes.  Fortunately, the writers knew better.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Tramp certainly doesn't have that nice upbringing.  Instead, he finds himself roaming the streets looking for scraps to eat from restaurants and narrowly avoiding capture by the city dogcatcher.  Despite his "status," it's easily understandable why Lady falls for Tramp.  He's not a bad guy at all...he just hasn't been given the opportunities to succeed.
There's no villain in the piece, although Aunt Clara's Siamese cats, Si and Am, certainly cause chaos for Lady which, in turn, pushes her into the paws of Tramp.  Still, the lack of any tension is the film's huge downfall and it's one of the reasons that, despite the fact that the film is nicely animated and briskly told, I found it a tad on the boring side.

The Music
The film is best known for its romantic scene in which Lady and Tramp sit in the alley behind an Italian restaurant and are serenaded with the love song "Bella Notte."  It's a classic moment and certainly the best song in the film.  While there are a few other decent numbers -- the incredibly un-PC "Siamese Cat Song" is quite humorous and enjoyable, but would've never made the cut in today's society -- Lady and the Tramp is not known for its music.  (Of course, I say that and four days after watching it, I still find myself humming "La La Lu," a lullaby Darling sings to her newborn baby shortly after his birth.  That's got to mean something.)

My Favorite Scene
It would be easy to pinpoint the classic spaghetti moment discussed in the music section above, but I think the film's best scene is at the beginning when a puppy-sized Lady is gifted to Darling on Christmas.  Despite Darling's pleas to allow Lady to sleep in their bed "just for one night," Jim Dear feeling one night will lead to an eternity of nights, so he tries to barricade Lady in the kitchen.  The precocious puppy will have none of that.  She manages to pry the door open and sneak into their room and curl up in the bed.  Cut to a fade-out and fade-in on the bed with Lady, now fully grown, snuggling next to her owners.  I found it a humorous way to open the film.

Random Thoughts
  • Lady is given to Darling on Christmas and she's presented in a box with a bow...I didn't see any air holes in that box.  Poor girl...
  • Did they really just feed Lady coffee?  That can't be good.
  • I seriously love the way the Scottish terrier Jock walks.  With his quick pattering of feet, it reminds me a little bit of the Peanuts characters' dance moves.
Final Analysis
(Does It Belong in the Revered Disney Pantheon and How Does It Stack Up to Past Films?)
There's nothing bad about Lady and the Tramp.  Admittedly, I'd be hard-pressed to tell you anything I heartily disliked about it.  However, the film never really "works" for me overall.  Maybe it's the fact that there's no villain to provide tension.  Maybe it's the fact that the story was too simplistic for its own good (seriously, the film's "exciting" conclusion is Tramp chasing a rat out of Lady's house).  Or maybe it's the fact that I'm just not an animal person.  I'm not sure what it is about the film, but I failed to get invested fully in the characters.  The animation here -- presented for the first time in widescreen Cinemascope -- is good and the voice acting is decent.  The characters, however, just didn't jump off the screen the way they did in Peter Pan or even in Alice in Wonderland (the latter of which, I admit, is a more flawed film).  So, despite the fact that I can't necessarily negatively criticize the picture, I'm not sure I'd place it in the Disney Pantheon.

(You can sort of tell my apathy towards this film by the brevity of each of the sections above.  I'll try and step up my game next time.)

The RyMickey Rating: B-

I'm taking a holiday break from the Disney Discussion since the next two Wednesdays are Christmas Day and New Year's Day.  Join me on January 8 for Sleeping Beauty, the sixteenth film in the Disney Discussion 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Movie Review - Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Denis O'Hare, Dallas Roberts, and Steve Zahn
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

Ron Woodruff is an electrician by day and a bull-riding rodeo wrangler by night.  He's a ladies' man, a guy's guy, and is filled with stereotypical Texas bravado.  So on a fateful day in 1986 when Ron is told by a doctor that he's contracted the HIV virus, he can't even fathom how that would be possible.  To him and all his buddies, HIV and AIDS were exclusively found in the homosexual community and Ron angrily refuses to believe his doctor's diagnosis.  However, after being given a thirty day life expectancy, Ron succumbs to the diagnosis, but starts researching his options on how to survive with HIV.  While the local hospital is experimenting with the FDA-approved drug AZT, Ron travels to Mexico to get a drug cocktail of sorts and the results are fantastic.  Seeing how poorly AZT is working within the gay community of Texas, Ron sets up his own medical distribution center of sorts -- the Dallas Buyers Club -- while constantly battling the government and the medical professionals since his treatments are faring better than what the FDA is providing.

And therein is the true story behind Dallas Buyers Club.  Unfortunately, the rather straightforward manner in which I presented the summary above without a lot pep, pizzazz, or vigor, is the way Ron Woodruff's story is presented to us as well in the film.  While the movie isn't a chore to sit through or boring per se, there's no momentum driving the film along.  The arc of Woodruff -- tough guy who hates homosexuals morphing into less of a tough guy who begins to feel compassion for the gay community -- isn't surprising in the slightest and leads to a film that doesn't really go anywhere since we know where it's going right from the outset.

Fortunately, the film is buoyed by a very strong performance from Matthew McConaughey who famously lost a lot of weight for his role as Woodruff.  McConaughey couples his smooth Southern drawl with an obviously chauvinistic demeanor to give us an initial impression of Woodruff that sets him up as a staunchly homophobic guy.  (I don't mean to imply that a Southern drawl equates with a homophobic mindset -- it's just the way McConaughey carries himself that gives us that idea of the character.)  Rather nicely, the film slowly allows Woodruff to come to the realization that his predisposed ideas about the gay community in Texas were perhaps wrongly skewed and I enjoyed McConaughey's quiet transformation he has Woodruff undergo as the film progresses.

Much awards buzz for the film has been centered around the performance of Jared Leto as Rayon, a transgender woman whom Woodruff meets in the hospital.  Wryly sarcastic and unafraid to fight back against Woodruff's homophobic jabs, Leto's Rayon provides some of the humor this heavy story needs.  However, considering that Rayon herself is fighting for her life having also contracted the AIDS virus, I was expecting to be moved by her story and I never was.  It doesn't help that the character of Rayon doesn't have a "moment" to me -- something that is seemingly important if you want to make it far in the awards race.  This is why it's rather surprising to me that Leto seems to be the early frontrunner in awards prognostications.  Simply dressing up as a woman isn't enough to impress and Leto's character wasn't given enough gravitas to warrant the buzz in my opinion.

The film has a nice, though underwritten, performance from Jennifer Garner as a doctor sympathetic to Woodruff's needs but unable to assist as she's tied to the FDA's regulations.  Denis O'Hare also is quite good as the head doctor at the Texas hospital who's seemingly in the pocket of the FDA providing a nice counterpoint to Garner's character.

Still, overall, Dallas Buyers Club doesn't have the emotional arcs I wanted in a film like this.  The film doesn't drive its story forward in such a way that felt exciting or impacting.  Woodruff's story -- if this film tells the truth (and I have no reason to believe it doesn't) -- is compelling and interesting, but it may have been better served as a documentary.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Disney Discussion - A Brief Hiatus

The upcoming holiday season coupled with a broken Blu-Ray player have hampered my Disney Discussion capability this week.  Check back next Wednesday for an analysis of Lady and the Tramp.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Movie Review - This Is the End

This Is the End (2013)
Starring Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Emma Watson, and Danny McBride 
Directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen

Those who have read this blog in the past may be aware that I don't exactly hold humor derived from drug-induced stupor in the highest regard.  So, considering This Is the End begins with Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel getting high, I wasn't quite sure I was in for something I'd find enjoyable.  Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised by how humorous I found the flick.  With actors Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride essentially playing exaggerated versions of their real-life personas, the film isn't afraid to take jabs at the inanity of celebrity culture and that's the biggest reason This Is the End works.

The plot is fairly simple.  The aforementioned actors have gathered for a party at James Franco's posh abode (along with several other big-name cameos playing themselves as well) when all of the sudden, the apocalypse arrives.  The "good" people are whisked up to heaven in Star Trek-esque beams of light, whereas those less than worthy humans are left on earth desperately trying to hide from the devilish creatures that are sent to hunt them down.  Played for laughs rather than for scares or drama, the apocalyptic story gets a different spin than we've seen before.

Co-directors and co-screenwriters Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen were aware that without their cast gamely poking fun of themselves, this film wouldn't have worked, so they definitely stack the movie with humor related to their cast's "real" lives.  It's these moments where the film certainly shines.  The flick does veer off track a little bit when it actually tries to tell its basic story -- a rather unique criticism perhaps.  I found myself not caring so much about the apocalypse itself and wanted to spend more time learning about Danny McBride's masturbation techniques -- something I never thought I'd say and perhaps will wish I never said.  (Nonetheless, it was a scene that had me cracking up hysterically.)

I've been sitting on this review for over two months now.  I'm not quite sure why, but I think it stems from the fact that while I enjoyed This Is the End, I'm well aware that as a story, it's weak.  Fortunately, the balance of the real-life humor elevates the film to something worth watching.

The RyMickey Rating: B

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The Disney Discussion - Peter Pan

Over the course of the year, we'll be spending our Wednesdays with Walt, having a discussion about each of Disney's animated films...

Movie #14 of The Disney Discussion
Peter Pan (1953)
Featuring the voice talents of Bobby Driscoll, Kathryn Beaumont, Hans Conried, Bill Thompson, Tommy Luske, and Paul Collins
Directed by Hamilton Luske, Clyde Geronimi, and Wilfred Jackson
Summary (in 150 words or less):
The non-aging Peter Pan whisks the three Darling siblings -- Wendy, John, and Michael -- off to Neverland where they meet a wide array of characters including the nefarious Captain Hook who will stop at nothing to capture the film's title character.

Let the Discussion Begin...
Peter Pan is the Walt Disney Company's fourteenth full-length animated film and it was released on February 5, 1953.  

The film was entered into the 1953 Cannes Film Festival, but didn't walk away with a win.  It did, however, receive the honor of being the highest-grossing film of 1953 which was a huge boon to Disney after the disappointment of Alice in Wonderland.  Made for $4 million, the film had made $7 million by 1955 and through subsequent re-releases has a (unadjusted for inflation) gross of $87 million.

Walt Disney intended for Peter Pan to be his fourth animated film and work was begun on the film as early as the 1930s, but WWII brought a stop to production.  Throughout the downtime, various changes to J.M. Barrie's original story were proposed, but in the end Disney decided to stick close to the original source material.

Peter Pan is the final Disney-produced animated film to be released by RKO Pictures.  After this film, Disney founded his own distribution company.  Also interesting to note, Peter Pan is the last animated feature in which all of Disney's Nine Old Men worked together.  So, this was the end of an era in more ways than one for the Disney team.

The Characters
(The Best...The Worst...The Villains...)
What's unique about Peter Pan is this is Disney's first full-length animated feature to place a male front and center -- a human male, that is.  (Yes, Pinocchio had a male character as the lead, but was he really human?  Not until the final moments...I rest my case.)  Heretofore, Disney's leading stars have been ladies and now we finally get a guy's perspective at the forefront.  I must admit that it was a refreshing change.  Granted, our title character is a bit of a rapscallion, but his joie de vivre and youthful exuberance (brought to life in part thanks to a nice vocal performance from Bobby Driscoll) is unique thus far in the Disney landscape.
As is often the case in Disney's films, for every protagonist there is an antagonist and Peter Pan is no exception, bringing to the screen the iconic role of Captain Hook.  Hook is an interesting character in that in our first glimpse of him, he's seen shooting one of his crew members simply because he wouldn't stop singing.  This tells us right off the bat that Hook isn't a guy to be take lightly.  However, as the film progresses, we see that the character of Hook is placed into more comedically treacherous situations and the bumbling nature of his first mate Mr. Smee never really permits Hook to gain that maliciousness that is so common amongst Disney's villains.  While some would criticize this atypical villain characterization, I loved Captain Hook.  I've always viewed Hook as a melodramatically over-the-top kind of guy -- the perfect character for a proper British actor to sink his teeth into and have a lot of fun.  That's the case here with Hans Conried perfectly embodying the role.  Carrying on the tradition of the stage play, Conried also plays the role of the father in the Darling household and it's interesting to see how the persona isn't all that different from Hook.
Speaking of the Darling household, Peter Pan wouldn't be complete without the siblings our title character brings to Neverland.  Older sister Wendy (voiced with motherly compassion by Kathryn Beaumont, Alice in Wonderland's title character) and her brothers John and Michael are, like the aforementioned Hook and Peter, wonderfully animated.  The animators were really getting into the swing of creating smooth, realistic movements and all three were given unique personalities.
Considering that in all previous incarnations of Peter Pan, Tinker Bell was simply a spot of light that bounced around the stage, the Disney animators took it upon themselves to give this character a face and body for the first time.  According to Leonard Maltin's wonderful book The Disney Films, Disney was quoted in a magazine article as stating that Tinker Bell was modeled after Marilyn Monroe who was rising in popularity around the development of this film.  If there's truth to that statement, it's certainly believable as Tinker Bell, despite her nymph size, exudes a sassy sexiness.  She's well endowed both in front and behind -- a characteristic that the animators use in a comedic bit at the beginning of the film as she finds herself unable to fit through a keyhole -- and has a "mean girl" attitude that is absolutely conveyed despite the fact that she says nary a word throughout the whole film.

All this and I've failed to mention the rambunctious Lost Boys, the adorable Darling dog Nana, and I've only given a passing word on the humorous Mr. Smee.  Quite honestly, the film is full of rich characters and the Disney folk have J.M. Barrie to thank for that.

The Music
I don't know why, but I remembered music playing a much more pivotal role in Peter Pan than it actually does.  That isn't to say that there are some stand-out numbers (two, in fact), but the remainder of the tunes are throwaways and one, in particular, should've been left on the cutting room floor.  (And, in retrospect, I imagine the PC Disney Police wish it never made it into the film as well...but more on that later...)
The film's most iconic song is Sammy Cahn and Sammy Fain's "You Can Fly, You Can Fly, You Can Fly," but perhaps most interestingly, it starts off as simply rhythmic talking.  Peter starts talking the words and the Darling children pick up where he leaves off, but none of the characters burst into song.  Instead, as Peter, Tink, and the Darlings fly out over the beautifully animated London landscape, the Jud Conlon Chorus omnisciently takes up the banner of doing the actual singing.  It's actually a rather brilliantly conceived scene.

The other standout song is "Following the Leader" (by Oliver Wallace, Ted Sears, and Winston Hibler), but it's admittedly a bit of a unnecessary piece that doesn't advance the story so much as it gives the animators a chance to wow us with their brightly colored backdrops as well as giving us quite a few chuckles as the previously serious John takes the Lost Boys (and his constantly lagging-behind younger brother Michael) on a journey to find Neverland's tribe of Indians.
And as for those Indians...well, this is where I imagine the current crop of Disney management wishes Walt had the foresight to know what would've been deemed "improper" in future decades.  I probably don't have to say anything else other than the title of a song for you to know where the un-PCness lies -- "What Makes the Red Man Red?"  Um...yeah.  Personally, I'm not offended by the song's subject matter -- what offends me is that the song is horrible.  That said, I'm happy Disney didn't remove the song from the recent Blu-Ray release (as we've seen them do with flicks like Fantasia and Melody Time) as retroactively making things politically correct in this manner makes us forget our past.

My Favorite Scene
I think the aforementioned songs -- "You Can Fly" and "Following the Leader" -- are the best portions of the film.  Both are whimsically enjoyable and beautifully animated.  This film, more than any other so far in this Disney journey I've embarked upon, was actually most difficult to pick out a favorite scene.  And that's not because I didn't like it -- in fact, it's been one of my favorites thus far.  Instead, I think the difficulty stems from the scenes in the movie flowing rather effortlessly from one to the other.  The movie felt "whole" rather than feeling like "individual set pieces," if that makes any sense.

Random Thoughts
  • The film starts with a male narrator introducing us to the Darling family.  The omniscient voice, however, is abandoned after about two minutes.  It's something I absolutely don't remember and don't feel was necessary in the slightest.  We didn't need the exposition provided by the narrator to grasp the story.
  • This is the first film in this Disney Discussion where the musical score (here by Oliver Wallace) was noticeable to me.   Peter Pan has a three note trill that pops up often when he appears and it's still stuck in my head hours later.
  • I certainly remembered that Tinker Bell wasn't fond of Wendy's encroachment into Peter Pan's life, but she's nearly as evil as Captain Hook in that she sets out to kill Wendy right off the bat out of sheer jealousy.  
  • I've already mentioned the sexy design of Tinker Bell, but then the animators throw in half-clothed mermaids as well.  It's not surprising to me that some in the public weren't fond of these more curvy designs.
  • Shadows play a major role in the beginning of the film and I very much enjoyed the way the animators utilized them.
  • On tapes and cd's from my youth and in a piano book collection of Disney songs I own, the tune "Never Smile at a Crocodile" is given prominence.  Much to my surprise, the song was cut from the film.  Although the music appears in the movie as a prelude to the Tick Tock Crocodile's appearances, there are no lyrics in the film.  While it's probably a good choice story-wise to abandon the lyrics, I was taken aback by their absence.

Final Analysis
(Does It Belong in the Revered Disney Pantheon and How Does It Stack Up to Past Films?)
I won't deny that Peter Pan has its faults -- the Indian subplot was actually completely unnecessary -- but I had a smile on my face pretty much from the get go while watching this one.  While Alice in Wonderland felt like the animators failed to create a cohesive film, Peter Pan (based on another famous British novel) comes together fantastically.  The colors, the animation, the voice acting, the story -- all of it works swimmingly.  Peter Pan doesn't necessarily have any "WOW" moments, but it's delightful and completely enjoyable...so it absolutely deserves a spot in the revered Disney Pantheon.

The RyMickey Rating: A-

Join us next Wednesday for Lady and the Tramp, the fifteenth film in The Disney Discussion.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Movie Review - Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives (2013)
Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Vithaya Pansringarm
Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

I'll be completely honest right up front and say that I didn't get Only God Forgives at all.  Then again, I'm not sure there was much "to get."  Blanketed in a sea of deep reds and blacks, Nicholas Winding Refn's film is well shot, but that's all it has going for it.  While it looks pretty, there's just nothing for the viewer to care about in the slightest.  The little story there is -- a man seeking revenge against the police officer who killed his older brother -- is generic, but it should at least stimulate a little bit of excitement in the viewer.  Instead, Refn (who is lensing his own screenplay) bathes his characters in an emotionless moroseness.  If they can't get riled up about anything, how in the hell am I supposed to give a damn about these characters' plights?

Ryan Gosling (who also starred in Refn's Drive) is Julian, a shady character in Bangkok's criminal underworld (although what he actually does isn't really specified), whose brother (also a shady character) is murdered thanks to a nefarious plot set up by Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the head police officer in the area.  When Julian's mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) hears of the news, she travels from London to Bangkok in order to seek revenge for her son's death.  Julian, who heretofore was an empty, emotionless void, tries to muster up some modicum of energy to help his overbearing mother in her quest, but he finds himself depressed by the power-hungry role his mother plays in his life.

Ryan Gosling wanders around aimlessly saying next to nothing (he probably speaks ten lines throughout the entirety of the piece) while Kristin Scott Thomas chews up the scenery (in a refreshing way given the monotony of everything else) as the vicious Crystal.  Ultimately, the problem with Only God Forgives is that it's overbearingly plodding, slow, and depressing...and absolutely not worth watching.

The RyMickey Rating:  D

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Movie Review - Frozen

Frozen (2013)

***viewed in 3D***
Featuring the voice talents of Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, and Ciarán Hinds
Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee

Unlike some, hearing that Frozen was going to be an all-out old-school animated Disney musical was a huge plus for me.  I grew up in the days of The Little MermaidBeauty and the Beast, and Aladdin -- movies that relied on their songs to both advance the story and add depth to their characters.  Of course, that was the era of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman whose respective music and lyrics felt necessary to the plot rather than seeming superfluous to it.  With Ashman's passing in the early 90s, Menken still carried on the tradition and did so rather successfully.  As of late, however, Disney has veered away from the movie musical in large part likely due to the success of Pixar's films which were never music-based.  With 2011's Tangled, Disney rehired Alan Menken and were treated to their most successful animated movie in well over a decade, but the film wasn't as musically "full" as prior flicks, containing only four full-length numbers.  Although the trailers for Frozen weren't entirely appealing, the Disney fan that I am still had high hopes because of the apparent return to their 90s-era all-out musical.  Unfortunately, with some new lyricists and composers at the helm, Frozen just had me longing for the glory days of the Menken/Ashman 90's with the music proving to be a hindrance rather than a help to the overwhelmingly enjoyable plot and characters.

Admittedly, none of the songs by the husband-and-wife team of Robert Lopez (music) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (lyrics) are unlistenable (with the exception of the final number of the film).  However, there are two main problems that are major factors in the disappointment.

  1. First, the lyrics at the beginning of nearly every song are incredibly childish.  Let's reminisce about Beauty and the Beast for a moment.  Howard Ashman wasn't afraid to use a word like "expectorating" in a song for fear that kids wouldn't "get it."  He used it...and it opened up my vocabulary to a new word!  Here, the Lopez duo keep things incredibly basic.  Best known for their Tony-winning Broadway play Avenue Q (which was hilariously ribald), the twosome also wrote lyrics and music for the Finding Nemo musical show in Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom.  Although that forty-minute Broadway-style show is a visual treat, the songs are incredibly pre-schoolish and the same thing could be said of what we're given in Frozen.  In nearly every song, the lyrics begin with incredibly basic words that eventually shift to something a little more complex.  Quite honestly, they all get to a "good place," but they never start out promisingly.
  2. Secondly, there's a lack of cohesive flow in the film from where the dialogue ends and the songs begin.  To me, this is as much a fault of the directors as it is the songwriters.  Unfortunately, this bumpy transition is off-putting more than once and it's typically never a problem for me in Disney films, so I just have to think something didn't quite mesh with the composers and the director.
My problem with the music is very unfortunate because, overall, Frozen is pretty fantastic.  It's the story of two sisters -- older Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) and younger Anna (played by Kristen Bell) -- who were best friends growing up.  Elsa was born with the power to make anything turn to ice just by touching it, and after a horrific accident that nearly kills Anna when they were young, Elsa decides to isolate herself completely from Anna, never speaking to her or seeing her.  Years pass, Elsa and Anna's parents -- the king and queen of Arendelle -- die, and Elsa is set to become queen.  However, things go horribly wrong at the coronation ceremony and Elsa's powers are revealed despite her desperate attempts to mask them.  Embarrassed and ashamed, Elsa runs away in an angry rage, turning the whole sunny town of Arendelle into a snow-covered icy wonderland.  While the villagers want to crucify Elsa, Anna knows that her sister is good-hearted and kind-natured and sets out across the snowy tundra to find her and prove her goodness.

With a fantastic voice performance by Kristen Bell, Anna is the spunky lead, unafraid to speak or mind or stand up to a chauvinistic male.  Anna finds herself caught in a love triangle between Prince Hans (Santino Fontana) and "ice seller" Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), yet she needs neither of them to be happy. It's a pleasant change of pace from the typical "princess" stories we've come to expect and, with a nice twist at the end of the film, I imagine parents of young girls will be pleased with Anna becoming a figure of admiration for their daughters.

I also found the character of Elsa full of depth despite the fact that she definitely takes second billing when compared to her sister in terms of time onscreen.  Elsa so easily could've been turned into a completely "evil" character, but the writers crafted her as a character who has absolutely no desire to have her icy powers.  She's wary and nervous of the pain she could inflict with them.  Broadway star Idina Menzel's vocal performance gives Elsa a strength that, much like her sister, is refreshing in a Disney animated film.  

Frozen has an awful subplot (perhaps worse than my issues with the music) involving some trolls who raised one of Anna's suitors, Kristoff, since he was a youth.  I couldn't help but think they were added for a money-making ploy to sell some toys.  Similarly, one would think that the supporting character of Olaf, a snowman created by Elsa after she runs away from Arandelle, is present purely for merchandising opportunities.  And, to be completely honest, Disney's going to sell quite a few Olaf plushes this holiday season.  However, the reason they're going to be flying off the shelves is because the character is hilariously enjoyable, yet heartwarmingly sensitive.  Voiced by Josh Gad, the joie de vivre of Olaf is infectiously refreshing and his song is perhaps the best fitting musical number in the film.

I'm certainly going to give Frozen a second chance and maybe it'll redeem itself upon another viewing. With a fantastic story and unique characterizations when compared to prior Disney princess films, I find myself wishing that the songs didn't leave me so cold.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Disney Discussion - Thanksgiving

The Disney Discussion will return next Wednesday with a look at the Walt Disney Company's fourteenth feature film Peter Pan.  In the meantime, feel free to peruse the previous thirteen Disney Discussions by clicking this handy dandy link.  Did Snow White and Seven Dwarfs win me over?  Did Dumbo soar?  Which of Disney's "package films" of the 1940s was a surprise hit for me?  Answers can be found via that link!

Also, despite the fact that we're taking a little hiatus from spending this Wednesday with Walt, check back early on Thanksgiving morning when you're putting that twenty-pound bird in the oven for a review of Disney's newest animated film, Frozen.  Will it earn a place in the revered Disney Pantheon?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Movie Review - The Sapphires

The Sapphires (2013)
Starring Chris O'Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, and Miranda Tapsell 
Directed by Wayne Blair
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

There's something very generic about The Sapphires, an Australian import about a quartet of Aboriginal teens and twentysomethings in the 1960s who, after singing together their whole life, form a Motown-style music group.  It's Dreamgirls-lite, if you will.  However, despite the fact that it certainly doesn't reinvent the wheel, I enjoyed my time getting to know the true story of these ladies and their musical journey which takes them to Vietnam during the war in order to entertain the troops.

Chris O'Dowd is the only "name" in the cast and he takes on the role of Dave Lovelace, manager to this quartet of ladies -- three sisters and a cousin.  O'Dowd provides the humor, but he also is a bit of a father figure to the young group who come to him for advice that he's not afraid to dole out in the slightest.  The actresses that make up the quartet are unknowns to me with Deborah Mailman playing the oldest sibling Gail, nicely embodying the "mother" role.  Gail starts as the lead vocalist for the group, but when Dave pushes the ladies to take on the Motown sound he soon comes to the realization that the youngest sister Julie is the true star which certainly causes a bit of tension amongst the group.  Julie is played by Jessica Mauboy, an Australian Idol finalist, and she's got one heckuva voice.  Acting-wise, she's not asked to really do much beyond sing, so I'll reserve judgment until we see something else from her, but she certainly does a fine job with what she's given.

The Sapphires really isn't anything special, but there's something calming and heartwarming here despite its simplicity.  Considering it's streaming on Netflix, if you're looking for something "nice" or are in the mood to hear some great 60's music, you could certainly fare worse.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Monday, November 25, 2013

Movie Review - 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave (2013)
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Scoot McNairy, Taran Kiliam, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, and Brad Pitt
Directed by Steve McQueen

Director Steve McQueen is fairly new to the feature film scene, but his fantastic 2011 flick Shame put him onto my radar so I came to 12 Years a Slave with high expectations.  McQueen absolutely has an eye behind the camera that I find interesting, but this film lacks a tiny bit of drive to push the story along which knocks the otherwise well-done film down a notch or two.

Based on a true story, 12 Years a Slave tells the tale of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freed black man living quite well in New York in the 1840s with his wife and two children by his side.  A musician by trade, Solomon is approached by two men (Scoot McNairy and Taran Kiliam) who desire to hire him to play music on tour with their traveling circus.  Solomon agrees and travels to Washington, D.C., where the two men wine and dine him one night to the point of Solomon getting drunk and passing out.  The next thing Solomon knows, he's chained in a dark room and his two new "employers" are nowhere to be found.  Solomon quickly comes to the realization that he was drugged and, despite his pleas, he is sold into slavery and shipped down to New Orleans where he's given the new name of "Platt" to try and conceal the fact that he was ever a free man.

The film then follows Solomon through a series of owners.  The first, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a good man who recognizes the intelligence and education of Solomon.  Despite Ford's kindness, Solomon still finds himself working the field under the watchful eye of the nasty John Tibeats (Paul Dano) who resents the fact that Solomon is so respected by Ford.  Eventually, things get to such a boiling point between Solomon and Tibeats that Ford decides he must sell Solomon in order to keep unity amongst the slaves and the ownership.  Unfortunately for Solomon, his new owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) isn't nearly as benevolent as Ford.  Epps, who owns a cotton plantation, could care less about Solomon's education -- he only wants to know how much cotton he can pick in a day.  Adding to the tension, the married Epps is having an affair (however one-sided it is) with female slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) which doesn't sit too well with Epps' wife (Sarah Paulson) and causes moments of chaos on the plantation.

I fully understand that this is a true story of a horrific journey of one man's life -- so who am I to knock it.  I will say, however, that the episodic nature of the tale -- as evidenced by the summary above -- does make the film feel a little disjointed and doesn't quite allow it to ever gain a driving momentum.  Once we finally get to the climax of one tale (the Ford chapter, as an example), we're sent to the next segment where we essentially have to start things all over again.  It's not as if either story isn't worth telling -- they certainly show the varied lives slaves may have endured in the 19th century -- but the screenplay by John Ridley, while good, doesn't quite succeed at keeping the story moving at a typical movie's pace.  Then again, maybe it's this screenplay's slow pace that attracted Steve McQueen to the project.  Many would say his previous film Shame had that same methodical tone to it and I wouldn't necessarily argue with them.  Shame was telling one story, however, whereas 12 Years a Slave almost feels as if it's telling two or three.

Still, despite my qualms, I don't want my criticism in any way to make it seem as if I didn't like the film.  This certainly is not a chore to sit through and I found the story rather fascinating in that Solomon Northup's tale of a free man being resold into slavery is something I'm not quite sure we've ever seen captured on film before.  McQueen doesn't shy away from the hardships slaves faced on a daily basis and the director seals his status as a filmmaker to watch with an incredibly long and unceasingly uncomfortable single-take scene towards the film's end of a brutal beating.  Although this long take filled me with an uneasy dread, I was fascinated by McQueen's technique, forcing the viewer to "stay with" the scene never allowing us to turn away to get a respite from the horrors endured by some African Americans in the 19th century.

There's an understated demeanor to Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance that endears him to the audience.  Behind his eyes, you can always see the longing to return home to his wife and children, but the fear that it may never happen.  Ejiofor gives a strength to Solomon that is admirable and is a commanding presence despite the character's oftentimes repressed nature.  Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender are two of today's most talked about actors and here they're playing complete opposite sides of the spectrum in slave owners Ford and Epps.  The audience immediately admires Ford's humanity which stands in stark contrast to the bitter anger that permeates seemingly through the pores of Epps.  Fassbender is at his best in scenes involving Sarah Paulson as his wife and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o as his lover.  Fassbender excels at radiating jealousy and he's near perfect at playing such a nasty guy.  However, Paulson and Nyong'o are equally as good at playing the two women he loves.  Paulson's bitterness is spot-on (albeit incredibly nasty) and Nyong'o's pain at being forced to accept being raped on a regular basis is absolutely painful.  I will say (and this harkens back to the screenplay's problems a tad), I wish Nyong'o had a little more to do.  This actress is certainly forced to run the spectrum of emotions (brutally so, at times) and I realize this is Solomon's story, but I wanted a little more depth for Nyong'o to sink her teeth into.

12 Years a Slave isn't an easy watch, but it certainly illustrates a point in our history that needs to be remembered and explored.  I'm happy that Solomon Northup's bittersweet tale has been told and it's a film that's so close to being great, but misses the mark a tiny bit in just a few key areas.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Friday, November 22, 2013

Movie Review - Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips (2013)
Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, and Catherine Keener
Directed by Paul Greengrass

The true-life plot of Captain Phillips is incredibly simple.  Our title character -- Richard Phillips -- is captain of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship traveling along the east coast of Africa past the country of Somalia to the west.  Notorious for being an area heavily frequented by pirates, Phillips (played by Tom Hanks) and his crew cautiously make their way past Somali waters, only to find themselves being attacked by a small pirate boat with a crew of four headed by a young Somali man named Muse (Barkhad Abdi).  The setting eventually changes to a much smaller lifeboat, but, ultimately, the same overall perspective doesn't really change as we're still dealing with the concept of an innocent man fighting for his survival.

Somehow, though, despite the lack of a truly complicated story, Captain Phillips overstays its welcome by quite a bit.  I realize we're dealing with a true story here, but director Paul Greengrass doesn't quite succeed at keeping the tension ratcheted up at all times.  When we're dealing with the more massive scope of the bigger cargo ship, the ever-moving camera of Greengrass fits quite nicely adding to the constant tension felt by Phillips and his crew.  However, about halfway through when the scene shifts to the smaller lifeboat inhabited by Phillips and his four captors, I couldn't help but think Greengrass wasn't able to adapt and this portion of the film fell rather flat for me, seemingly dragging for much longer than he intended.  I find this rather odd as Greengrass has proven he can work under more constrained conditions as his United 93 takes place inside the cramped confines of an airplane and holds a place in my Personal Canon.  Something didn't click here, though.

What Greengrass does successfully accomplish is to pull a very nice performance out of Tom Hanks.  When the film begins, Phillips is just a normal guy talking with his wife (Catherine Keener in what essentially amounts to a cameo appearance) about their kids as he drives to the airport.  When he arrives on the Maersk Alabama, his only perspective is moving the cargo from Point A to Point B.  However, as soon as the threat of pirates becomes imminent, we see Hanks' Phillips flick a switch and become a quiet hero -- someone who puts himself in the line of fire before his men, doing whatever he can to keep his people safe, while, at the same time, creatively "scheming" to make sure he's always one step ahead of his captors.  We can sometimes see Phillips' inner mind working, planning out his strategy, and I found it interesting to watch.  By the film's end, Phillips has a moment for his bottled up emotions to come steaming out and the scene solidifies the performance as being one of Hanks' best of the past decade.

In the end, however, Captain Phillips is a film that should've been tense and riveting throughout, but it really isn't all that successful in achieving that goal in its second half.  The flick works for the first hour -- the scene of the pirates invading the cargo ship is stellar -- and its final scene is riveting, but overall, this one proved to be a disappointment for me.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Theater Review - The Servant of Two Masters

The Servant of Two Masters
written by Carlo Goldoni (translated and adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher and Paolo Emilio Landi)
Directed by Paolo Emilio Landi
Where: Thompson Theatre at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When: Saturday, November 16, 7:30pm

Photo by Paul Cerro

The University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players' production of The Servant of Two Masters starts out with an image of fantastic directorial inspiration -- one that had the audience applauding right from the start...and rightfully so.  (I'll leave the specifics vague to permit future guests the same surprise I experienced.)  Combined with the wonderful scenic design of Scott Bradley and the lovely costume design by Santi Migneco, Italian director Paolo Emilio Landi has transported his audience to the beauty of 18th century Venice.  Presenting a Commedia dell'Arte theatrical form of acting, this adaptation of 18th century playwright Carlo Goldoni's work feels like a bit of a change from recent comedies performed by the REP.  With much of the cast wearing masks, we're treated to verbal puns, double entendres, improvisational moments, and slapstick humor.

However, as is typically the case in seemingly every single solitary comedy written prior to 1850, much of the comedic elements of the storyline stem from mistaken identity.  Not knowing anything about the play prior to its start (and not having an opportunity to read the playbill before the show began), my heart sank a little when I discovered this plot point.  While certainly not the fault of the REP, I took a little more for me to become invested in the rather stock story the play presents of servant Truffaldino (played by new REP member Lee Ernst) serving his two masters Beatrice Rasponi (Kathleen Pirkl Tague) and Florindo Aretusi (Mic Matarrese) without either of them knowing about the other.  This proves to be a tricky task, particularly because Beatrice is actually dressed up as her dead brother Federigo in order to try and claim a stake in his profits prior to his death.  Those stakes are dowry money which means that Beatrice has to pretend to be in love with Clarice (guest actress Erin Partin) who was set to be betrothed to Federigo.  But, since things are never easy in 18th century Italy, Clarice, assuming Federigo was dead, is now set to be married to her true love Silvio Lombardi (Michael Gotch).  What chaos!  And all of this is presented to us as if a troupe of actors arrived on the scene (which harkens back to that wonderful opening moment I alluded to above), meaning character is broken at times as the actors deal with "real life" struggles.

With all that story, you'd think that the play's 165-minute running time would've been jam packed full of plot, but this is one of those plays that feels like a good hour could've been excised and it would've made a tighter, more successful experience.  Fortunately, the second act does move by a bit quicker than the first as the loose ends come together, but as much as I like spending time with the REP, the troupe has a tendency to choose some lengthy productions (particularly in their choices of comedies).  I realize this is a silly qualm, but it seems to be one that may be worthy of a look in the future.

Having already mentioned the fantastic set and costumes, let's shift focus to the always reliable REP troupe who don't disappoint.  The star of the show this time around to this reviewer was guest actor Erin Partin who has essentially become a glorified REP member without the title over the past year having appeared in numerous productions.  Partin seems to be channeling Jean Hagen's Lina Lamont character from Singin' in the Rain complete with high pitched vocals and incessant crying spells.  She takes what is a "dumb" character and elevates the humor beyond the obvious.  Kudos, for sure.

With funny and reliable turns from REP standards like the aforementioned Tague, Matarrese, and Gotch (along with a small, but humorous role for Carine Montbertrand), The Servant of Two Masters is the "welcome party" for newest troupe member Lee Ernst.  Ernst's Truffaldino (who is probably best described as a glorified jester moreso than anything else) hardly ever leaves the stage once he makes his first appearance and in seemingly every second he's onstage he's moving.  Whether it be the constant quick patter of his feet or the nonstop twisting of his hat, I have to imagine that Ernst is a tired guy at the play's end.  His character is an endearing one and thanks to some of the play's calmer moments, Ernst gets us to connect with both Truffaldino and the actor playing him within this traveling Italian troupe.  After a tiny role in the REP's previous production this year, I look forward to seeing what else Ernst brings to the UD community in the future.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Disney Discussion - Alice in Wonderland

Over the course of the year, we'll be spending our Wednesdays with Walt, having a discussion about each of Disney's animated films...

Movie #13 of The Disney Discussion
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Featuring the voice talents of Kathryn Beaumont, Ed Wynn, Jerry Colonna, Richard Haydn, Sterling Holloway, Verna Felton, J. Pat O'Malley, and Bill Thompson
Directed by Clyde Geronomi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske; Ben Sharpsteen (production supervisor)
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Summary (in 150 words or less):
When a young girl named Alice becomes bored while practicing her school lessons, she follows a frantic White Rabbit down a rabbit hole to the crazy world of Wonderland where she meets a nutty cast of characters who, through their absurdity and weirdness, make her realize her life wasn't as bad as it seemed.

Let the Discussion Begin...
Alice in Wonderland is the Walt Disney Company's thirteenth full-length animated feature film and was released on July 26, 1951.

With a budget of $3 million, Alice in Wonderland's $2.4 million take was considered a disappointment and the critics greeted the film with lukewarm reviews.  However, as the 1960s and 1970s arrived, the film garnered a newfound appreciation amongst the "drug culture" in college towns and Disney gave the film its first theatrical rerelease in 1974.

Alice in Wonderland was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Musical Film, but failed to win.

The Characters
(The Best...The Worst...The Villains...)
With the lack of a really strong story, Alice in Wonderland can take pride in the fact that its entire zany cast of characters is skillfully animated and perfectly voiced.  In the past, Disney had filmed live actors performing particular scenes for his animators to study to make movements as real as possible.  With the production of this film, a full-length live action film was shot featuring many of the actors who provided the characters' voices which is part of the reason the film took over five years to create.
Our title character continues the trend of having a little bit of a spunky personality like the title character in Cinderella, but admittedly here it sometimes comes off as childish obstinance, although I think that's the point in that they're showing her precociously adventurous spirit.  Still, voiced incredibly charmingly by Kathryn Beaumont, Alice is the one sane element amidst a bunch of loonies and her calmness is sometimes a welcome respite from the chaos that surrounds her.
Directing animator Ward Kimball (one of Disney's famous Nine Old Men who helped shape the face of Disney animation in its early stages) stated that he feels that the film "degenerated into a loud-mouthed vaudeville show...with each [animator] trying to top the other guy and make his sequences the biggest and craziest in the show.  This had a self-cancelling effect on the final product."  This is certainly true and while characters such as The Mad Hatter, the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, and Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum are all amusing and expertly animated, their personalities are all trying to vie for the audience's affection much moreso than in other Disney films.  Once again, the animation techniques on display are top notch as is the vocal talent behind the characters (particularly Ed Wynn's hilarious well-known take on the Mad Hatter), but there's no depth to anyone which is a bit of a shame.
The villain of the piece -- the Queen of Hearts -- is actually the last main character that Alice meets, not making an appearance until an hour into the seventy-five minute film.  Bombastic with a strong personality, the Queen is quite funny despite a seemingly one-joke presence revolving around chopping off people's heads.  

The Music
Music plays a key role in Alice in Wonderland.  I'm not sure five minutes go by without another tune popping up as seemingly every character Alice meets has his own tune to accompany his segment of the film.  I say this not as a detriment to the film.  In fact, while you won't necessarily be humming every tune upon the film's completion, I found them all amusing in their own ways.  From the incredible simplicity of something like the Caterpillar's "A E I O U" which is essentially just a repetition of a bunch of vowels in a Ravi Shankar-ish Indian tone or the sheer nonsense of a throwaway like "The Caucus Race" which is a string of prepositions, there's something fun going on with the music of Alice in Wonderland.
One of my favorite songs in the mix is "In a World of My Own" (written by Bob Hilliard and Sammy Fain) -- the first one we hear in the film following the title song during the credits.  Sung by Alice in a calm and mannered tone, she daydreams about being whisked away from the mundane upper crust British world she calls home and venturing into a land where "cats and rabbits would reside in fancy little houses" and "all the flowers would have extra special powers."  Foreshadowing what is to come for her, the scene was beautifully animated and had me promisingly looking forward to things (which is why it's all the more unfortunate I was a bit disappointed).

My Favorite Scene
Building off of the music section, my two favorite scenes contain two great songs.  Certainly the most amusing moment in the film is the famous moment when Alice stumbles upon the Mad Hatter and March Hare's tea party during which they celebrate their unbirthdays.  With Ed Wynn and Jerry Colonna's fantastic vocals, "The Unbirthday Song" is a rousing number (and probably the most famous in the film) that integrates perfectly into the scene surrounding it.  In a zany film like this, you'd assume laughs would come rapidly, but that really isn't the case.  However, I was smiling from ear to ear when these kooky guys took center stage.  Although I've already lauded him, it really can't be mentioned enough how much Ed Wynn contributes to this scene with his take on the Mad Hatter.  It's an iconic performance that holds up many decades later.
On the other end of the spectrum,  my second favorite moment in the film occurs when a very small Alice wanders into a bed of flowers and encounters some of the most delightful creatures Disney animators created for the film.  As the towering flowers chat with their new human friend (whom they later determine to be a weed in an attempt to get rid of her), they sing the almost lullaby-esque "On a Golden Afternoon" which introduces us to bread-and-butterflies, rocking horseflies, dog and cat-erpillars, and literal recreations of "tiger" lilies to name a few.  Perhaps these creatures were found in Lewis Carroll's book, but the animators' abilities to cleverly bring them to life were a treat.

Random Thoughts
  • Lewis Carroll's name is misspelled in the opening credits as "Lewis Carrol."
  • Verna Felton moved from the lovely and kind Fairy Godmother in Cinderella to the nasty Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland in back-to-back Disney animated films.
Final Analysis
(Does It Belong in the Revered Disney Pantheon and How Does It Stack Up to Past Films?)
While the Alice in Wonderland story never really appealed to me as a child, I was hoping a change of heart may have taken place as I added on a few years allowing me to appreciate Disney's take on this supposedly classic children's tale.  Unfortunately, that didn't pan out.  While certainly better than the Johnny Depp-starring version of a few years ago, the surreal episodic nature of Lewis Carroll's story just doesn't work for me.  In the Disney Discussion for Pinocchio, I commented on that tale's episodic nature, but it's nothing compared to Alice in Wonderland which moves incredibly rapidly from Alice's meetings with one character to the next only to essentially never hear or see these characters again for the remainder of the film.  As a matter of fact, Alice in Wonderland almost feels like Disney's reverting back to the "package films" of the war era.  

Admittedly, I truly adored the animation here with each character given his or her own unique animated style and mannerism.  Top notch vocal talent elevates every scene as well and, thus far, I think Alice in Wonderland is the best showcase for how the right voices can improve scenes, characters, and even an entire movie.  Honestly, it's in the animation and vocals where Alice in Wonderland excels and on Blu-Ray the colors pop beautifully off the screen.

Unfortunately, the story just doesn't work for me and for that reason Alice in Wonderland doesn't quite land in my version of the revered pantheon of Disney films.  That said, I wouldn't put up a fight if anyone felt it belonged there -- it has its merits, but they're not quite enough to tip it over the edge for me.

The RyMickey Rating: C+

I'm going to take a little breather next week with the Thanksgiving holiday.  I've also got a bunch of current movie reviews to catch up on.  So, join me two Wednesdays from now for Peter Pan, the fourteenth film in The Disney Discussion.