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Letterboxd Reviews

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

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Movie Review - To Rome with Love

To Rome with Love (2012)
Starring Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Begnini, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Allison Pill, and Ellen Page
Directed by Woody Allen

There's part of me that's happy that Woody Allen somehow manages to still make a film a year.  [Trivia tidbit:  1981 is the last year he hasn't had a film released...that's a shocking feat.]  Even if his previous one was a clunker, producers still shell out the money for the 77-year-old auteur to write and direct.  Coming fresh off the heels of his biggest financial success in decades Midnight in Paris (a film which I didn't fawn over nearly as much as everyone else), Allen sticks with the European travelogue motif he's explored as of late jetting off to Italy in To Rome with Love.  Admittedly, I was a bit surprised that this venture is comprised of four completely separate shorter films that Allen edits by intercutting them scene by scene.  I initially thought the storylines would come together, but they don't.  Instead, it's four incredibly simple plots that happen to take place in Rome, but never once glorify it or paint the city in the same adoring light in which Allen viewed Paris in his last film.  And, rather unfortunately, none of the stories prove to be engaging enough to make you want Allen to head back to them as soon as he switches to another tale.

The film opens with Hayley (Allison Pill), an American visiting Rome alone, soon after graduating college.  When she gets lost one day, she asks an Italian hunk named Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) for directions and the two immediately hit it off, finding themselves engaged after a very short time.  Hayley's parents Jerry and Phyllis (Woody Allen and Judy Davis) make the trek over to Italy to meet Michaelangelo and his folks.  Jerry was a former music executive and happens to hear Michelangelo's father Giancarlo (Italian opera singer Fabio Armilato) singing in the shower causing the American to concoct a crazy idea to make this singing funeral home owner into an overnight operatic sensation.

We then meet Leopoldo (Roberto Begnini) in his ho-hum, boring desk job.  He's got a wife and kids whom he loves, but he lives a life of very little excitement until one day out of the blue, Leopoldo begins to be followed around by paparazzi.  They track his every move and he becomes an instant celebrity throughout Italy.

There's also a newly married Italian couple Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) traveling to the big city so the husband can try his hand at filmmaking with his inside-the-industry relatives.  However, when Milly leaves their hotel room to get her hair done, the voluptuous Anna (Penelope Cruz) arrives -- a prostitute who has been sent to Antonio's room by accident. When Antonio's relatives (who had never met his new one) barge into the room while Anna is beginning to work her magic on Antonio, the young Italian is forced to pretend that Anna is his wife, much to his chagrin.

Finally, there's another love story, this one involving Americans Jack and Sally (Jesse Eisenberg and Greta Gerwig) who are living in Rome while Sally attends college.  When Sally's friend Monica (Ellen Page) comes to visit from the States, Jack begins to fall for her despite his best efforts.  The supposedly funny bit here is that Jack seemingly has a sometimes-visible self conscious in the room with him in the form of Alec Baldwin who tries to steer Jack in the right and moral direction.

On their own, the individual films may have been cute for about ten minutes a piece, but each is unfortunately drawn out to seemingly interminable lengths.  While the film only runs two hours, all of the stories felt like they could have wrapped up much quicker and the movie would've worked a lot better with much trimming.  It isn't exactly helpful that the acting is simply okay with much of the talent (Eisenberg, Baldwin, Allen, Begnini, Page) simply playing characters we've seen them play before...in better movies.

So, despite the fact that Woody Allen continues to get the dough to make his films, maybe that money could be better spent elsewhere so Allen could take a little bit of a breather to better organize his thoughts.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Monday, February 25, 2013

Oscar Stuff

POST OSCARS UPDATE -- I'm actually pretty happy with my 19/24 predictions...although it didn't win me the Oscar pool at work (but only because I made a change on that ballot from below...aargh!!!).   Certainly the best I've done since I've started this blog.  I took some big risks and only one paid off (Ang Lee in Direction).  That said, in terms of the actual winners, I think most of them are deserving even if I didn't choose them as my "Should Win" winners.

Seth MacFarlane was okay as host.  Certainly better than the stodgy Billy Crystal, but there were a bit too many jokes that fell flat.  And while I appreciate the thought process to make this an "entertainment show," there were a bit too many musical moments.

Best Picture -- CORRECT
Will Win:  Argo
Should Win: Argo

Best Director -- CORRECT
Will Win:  Ang Lee
Should Win: Steven Spielberg

Best Actor -- CORRECT
Will Win:  Daniel Day-Lewis
Should Win: DDL

Best Actress -- WRONG (Jennifer Lawrence)
Will Win:  Emmanuelle Riva
Should Win:  Naomi Watts

Best Supporting Actress -- CORRECT
Will Win: Anne Hathaway
Should Win:  Anne Hathaway

Best Supporting Actor -- WRONG (Christoph Waltz)
Will Win:  Robert De Niro
Should Win: Philip Seymour Hoffman

Best Adapted Screenplay -- CORECT
Will Win:  Argo
Should Win:  Lincoln

Best Original Screenplay -- CORRECT
Will Win: Django Unchained
Should Win: Flight

Best Cinematography -- CORRECT
Will Win: Life of Pi
Should Win:  Anna Karenina or Lincoln or Skyfall

Best Costume Design -- CORRECT
Will Win: Anna Karenina
Should Win: Mirror Mirror (or Anna Karenina)

Best Editing -- CORRECT
Will Win: Argo
Should Win: Argo

Best Makeup and Hairstyling -- CORRECT
Will Win: Les Miserables
Should Win: Les Miserables

Best Original Score -- CORRECT
Will Win: Life ofPi
Should Win: Anna Karenina

Best Original Song -- CORRECT
Will Win: Skyfall
Should Win: Skyfall

Best Production Design -- WRONG (Lincoln)
Will Win: Anna Karenina
Should Win: Anna Karenina

Best Sound Editing -- WRONG (Tie -- Skyfall/Zero Dark Thirty)
Will Win: Life of Pi
Should Win: Skyfall

Best Sound Mixing -- CORRECT
Will Win: Les Miserables
Should Win: Skyfall

Best Visual Effects -- CORRECT
Will Win: Life of Pi
Should Win: Life of Pi

Best Animated Film -- CORRECT
Will Win: Brave
Should Win: Paranorman

Best Documentary Feature: Searching for Sugar Man -- CORRECT
Best Documentary Short:  Mondays at Racine -- WRONG (Innocente)
Best Animated Short:  Paperman -- CORRECT
Best Live Action Short:  Curfew -- CORRECT
Best Foreign Language Film:  Amour -- CORRECT

My Reviews of Oscar-Nominated Films

Argo -- A
Lincoln -- A-
Amour -- B
Life of Pi -- C+

Skyfall -- A-
Flight -- A-
Paranorman -- B+
Brave -- B
Ted -- C+
Hitchcock -- C

Note:  The Hobbit (nominated for Best Make-Up/Hairstyling and Best Visual Effects) and Chasing Ice (a documentary nominated for Best Song) are the only films nominated outside of the shorts/documentary/foreign categories that I did not see.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Movie Review - Amour

Amour (2012)
Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, and Isabelle Huppert
Directed by Michael Haneke

As Best Picture nominee Amour wrapped up, I couldn't help but be reminded of Blue Valentine, the 2010 recipient of Best Film at the RyMickey Awards.  Both films had me wanting to fall in love, but at the same time fear the pain that could come from the emotional connection.  While Amour doesn't match the near perfection of Blue Valentine, the French film written and directed by Michael Haneke still provides a heartbreaking look at love through the eyes of an elderly couple who are forced to face some debilitating health issues late in their lives.

Taking place essentially within the confines of a Parisian apartment, Amour begins as a simple glimpse into the world of (presumably) eighty-somethings Georges and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) as they go about their day-to-day living.  However, right off the bat, it becomes apparent that things may take a turn for the worse when while sitting at the kitchen table for breakfast one morning, Anne suddenly becomes catatonic -- unable to speak, move, or react.  But, much like the semi-unconscious state began in a split second, it ends suddenly with Anne completely unaware of what had just occurred.  Unfortunately, this health scare signals the beginning of a downward spiral for Anne who shortly thereafter has a stroke, paralyzing the right side of her body.  Georges has vowed to Anne that he will take care of her and will never allow her to be put in a hospital despite their daughter Eva's (Isabelle Huppert) worries that the caretaker role is adding too much stress to her father's daily life.  Anne tries to make the most of her life, but she slowly begins to recognize the strain she is placing upon her doting husband.

Time goes on and additional issues arise, but through it all, the love Georges and Anne have for each other is obvious, despite the incredibly subdued nature of the performances and direction.  Both Trintignant and Riva have the ability with a simple movement of the eye to convey everything the audience needs to know about their characters' relationship.  Even as her condition deteriorates, Georges does all he can to show his love for her, whether that be taking her hand and gently rubbing it to ease her pain or telling her a story about their youth together to fondly remember the past.  Similarly, as Anne may want to give up on life, she shows her love by struggling to stay alive, knowing that her husband doesn't want to lose her.

Despite two great performances (Riva deserves her Oscar nomination...I'm still a bit undecided as to whether she deserves the win), the film does move at a bit of a snail's pace.  Haneke utilizes long takes to seemingly show the dullness of day-to-day life, but I frankly don't care about watching three minutes of someone cutting flowers as an example.  When the movie works, it's fantastic (a pivotal scene towards the end is utterly stunning in the impact its jaw-dropping simplicity makes), but there are a few too many moments of ennui that aren't found in the aforementioned Blue Valentine.  Still, Amour is a good film, but I can completely understand if folks find it a chore to sit through.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Movie Review - 360

360 (2012)
Starring Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, Anthony Hopkins, Ben Foster, Maria Flor, Jamel Debbouze, Lucia Siposová, and Gabriella Marcinkova
Directed by Fernando Meirelles
***This film is streaming instantly on Netflix***

Some people can't stand it, but I'm a fan of films that have seemingly unrelated stories that manage to somehow weave together by the film's end in unexpected ways.  Whereas films like 2009's The Burning Plain and 2006's Babel use this storytelling technique to take on more serious subjects like domestic abuse and gun control, respectively, 360 attempts to utilize its interweaving stories by focusing on love.  However, we already have an excellent movie that does this incredibly well in Love, Actually, and 360 fails at creating the depth needed for its much more serious tone than that 2003 film.

360 opens (and ends...hence the title) with Mirka (Lucia Siposová), a young Slovakian twentysomething getting nude photos taken in an attempt to enter the lucrative world of being an internet call girl.  Almost immediately after having her pictures posted, she's chosen to have a meeting with Englishman Michael Daly (Jude Law) while he's on a business trip in Vienna.  Michael is a married man and, thanks to a serious of events, ends up not going through with the meeting with Mirka.  Little does Michael know that back in London, his wife Rose (Rachel Weisz) is having an affair with a Brazilian hunk named Rui.  When Rui's girlfriend Laura (Maria Flor) finds out about his escapades, she leaves him to head back to Brazil.  On the plane, Laura sits next to John (Anthony Hopkins) an older gentleman who has been looking for his missing daughter for years.  He's flying to Denver because he has been told that an unidentified woman matching his daughter's description has been found dead.  While on a layover in Colorado, Laura meets Tyler (Ben Foster) at an airport restaurant and she sees an opportunity to have an invigorating one-night stand as a means to forget about Rui who has done her wrong.  Tyler, however, has just been released from prison for committing what we can only assume was a horrible sex crime and has to fight the urges to turn into the horrible man he once was.

As these stories begin to link up with one another, the problem begins to arise that we don't really care about any of them.  Somehow, every single one of these stories seems superficial and fails to resonate on any type of emotional level with the audience.  It's not that all these characters are flawed (although most of them are) as a movie full of flawed characters has a tendency to create some intriguing conflict; it's just that none of their stories are given the opportunity to create any impact.  And, as 360 begins to come full circle, we realize that in the end these stories are rather mundane.  This movie by its very nature wants you to look at the grand scheme of things by focusing on more intimate moments, but neither the big nor small pictures are charismatic enough to carry the film.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Monday, February 18, 2013

Movie Review - The Paperboy

The Paperboy (2012)
Starring Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey, David Oyelowo, John Cusack, and Nicole Kidman
Directed by Lee Daniels

I think it's extremely important that you know what you're getting into should you decide to watch The Paperboy, the latest film from Precious director Lee Daniels.  This flick is pure trash...and it knows it.  Reveling in the grainy look and feel of a 1970s low-budget Roger Corman flick, Daniels seems to be intending to make pure pulp and while he succeeds, the problem is that nobody really likes those types of movies for anything longer than about sixty minutes.  At that point, the cheesy music and the over-the-top (or just plain awful) acting wear thin and you find yourself wondering when the hell this piece of crap is going to be over.  That's kind of the case here, too.  I dug the retro vibe (complete with cuts made to replicate missing frames of film), but the story peters out.

The year is 1969 and we find ourselves in the steamy city of Lately, Florida, where a man named Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) is on Death Row for killing a local sheriff.  Newspaper reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) grew up in Lately and finds himself returning to his hometown to investigate what could have been a wrongful conviction for Van Wetter.  While at home, Ward and his younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) meet up with the beautiful, though incredibly trashy, Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) who has been communicating with Van Wetter via mail for several months and now finds herself engaged to the man without ever having seen him in person.  Charlotte is sex (or sleaze) personified, but the young Jack instantly falls for her "womanly" charms, finding it difficult to go through days without seeing her despite the fact that the feeling is never reciprocated in his direction from Charlotte.

I will admit that I give Nicole Kidman some credit here for slumming it and she really comes across as the most believable and even honest character of anyone.  She embraces the slutty sleaziness and creates a character that is quite memorable.  As for the others in the cast, they don't fare nearly as well.  Efron's actually fine, but I thought maybe we'd see some dramatic stretching for him in this role and his character is unfortunately a bit one-note.  McConaughey really isn't doing anything we haven't seen from him before and the journey his character undergoes is ludicrously ridiculous.  And the less said about John Cusack the better.  He's definitely in the running for Worst Performance of the Year.

At its heart, The Paperboy is a young man's coming of age story...because once you get peed on by a chick, you're simply not a kid anymore.  You're officially a grown up.  Yep, in perhaps the film's most talked about moment, Kidman's Charlotte pees on Efron's Jack after the young guy gets ravaged by a swarm of jellyfish.  And that, folks, is the kind of movie you're getting with The Paperboy.  It's weird, off-the-wall, and at times enjoyable.  But then things go over-the-edge (as in the aforementioned scene) and you just shake your head in disbelief at what's unfolding.  Sleaze and trashiness are fine but in mild doses, and this one lingers a bit too long (with a final act that just doesn't really work).

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Movie Review - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis
Directed by Mike Nichols

Having seen Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf recently on Broadway (review), when I saw this pop up during Turner Classic Movies' 31 Days of Oscar, I had to check it out.  I'm not going to delve into anything much here in this sorry excuse for a review except to say that while this movie was well acted and nicely directed, there's something a bit more magical about watching a quartet of actors onstage than onscreen.  Don't get me wrong -- Elizabeth Taylor (in only the second thing I've seen her in) is great as the drunken Martha and her real-life hubby Richard Burton is also strong has her onscreen hubby George.  Still, there's something invigorating about this story unfolding onstage.

That said, one of my qualms about the story while staged -- why the hell didn't party guests Nick and Honey (played here by George Segal and Sandy Dennis) get up and leave this disaster of a nightcap get-together?  In the film, with the luxury of being able to open things up beyond a single set, George and Martha actually attempt to take the duo home via car and while the quartet eventually returns to their original location, it still made a bit more sense to me than in the play.

I also must point out that while it certainly might have been that I had just seen the play a mere two weeks before watching the film, but I felt like I needed the intermissions that the play provided to let things sink in.  As a film, despite being nearly an hour shorter than the play, it dragged on a bit, and I found myself longing for the respite that a play can sometimes provide.

The film also makes the somewhat ambiguous ending onstage much clearer and foreshadows the conclusion a few times throughout so as to leave the audience completely aware of what they witnessed rather than have them questioning anything.  Admittedly, I'm not sure which I liked better.  I enjoyed leaving the stage production wondering if "I got it."  Turns out, I did.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Movie Review - Ted

Ted (2012)
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Joel McHale, Giovanni Ribisi, and Seth MacFarlane
Directed by Seth MacFarlane

Thanks to a convenient wish on a star that came true, Josh Bennett has grown up with a real-live teddy bear as his best friend for over twenty years.  Josh (Mark Wahlberg) certainly hasn't kept the bear a secret, seeing as how Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) made appearances on Johnny Carson's late night talk show decades ago, but both Josh and Ted's celebrity has faded as all flash in the pan news stories are wont to do.  Josh now works at a rental car dealership, and Ted stays home, smokes weed, has sex (somehow) with skanky women, and is pretty much that college buddy or coworker you know who has refused to grow up.  While Ted's an all around lovable guy, his rowdy ways don't sit well with Josh's longtime girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) who, finally fed up with Ted's shenanigans, gives Josh the ultimatum to either have Ted move out or lose her forever.

If only Ted had stopped there.  But, no.  Much like a meandering episode of Family Guy, writer-director Seth MacFarlane's live-action film debut throws a bit more at the audience -- a snobby love interest for Lori (Joel McHale) and a kidnapping plot involving an obsessed fan (Giovanni Ribisi) of Ted's which results in one of the most ridiculous (and utterly unfunny) climaxes this year -- and the goodwill that MacFarlane gains from a rather hilarious opening hour is tossed out the window.  It's rather unfortunate because I laughed out loud multiple times during the film's opening two acts, but I'm not sure I even cracked a hint of smile during the final forty minutes -- and in a comedy, that's a problem.

Nevertheless, Ted does have a lot of positives going for it.  For one, the Ted special effects are quite impressive and worthy of some commendation.  Secondly, I give MacFarlane credit for crafting half of a good film and while that sounds like damning praise, I mean that fully as a compliment.  I wasn't expecting much from him -- I like Family Guy, but can only take it in mild doses -- and he proved me wrong.  Lastly, Mark Wahlberg actually didn't suck here.  For the 2010 RyMickey Awards, I awarded Mr. Wahlberg the dubious honor of Worst Performance of the Year for his role in The Other Guys and said, "Wahlberg and comedy do not mix."  While his role here isn't over-the-top fantastic by any stretch of the imagination, he was certainly bearable (pun slightly intended).

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Movie Review - The Queen of Versailles

The Queen of Versailles (2012)
Directed by Lauren Greenfield
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Director Lauren Greenfield lucked into this film, that's for sure.  When she initially started lensing The Queen of Versailles, Greenfield probably simply thought she was going to shoot a movie about the building of the largest single family home in the United States.  David Siegel and his decades-younger wife Jackie own Westgate Resorts, the biggest vacation rental time-share business in the United States.  Raking in the dough as people fork over their money thanks to the late-2000s bank-lending fiascos we've all heard about in the news, the Siegels decide to build a huge mansion outside of Orlando modeled after the gigantic ostentatious French "chateau" Versailles.  As the new decade begins, Westgate and the Siegels are forced into crisis mode as their completely legal though money-hungry ways force them into crisis mode.

As we see the Siegels working on their gigantic home, I was moderately shocked at how down-to-earth David appears to be.  He recognizes the extravagance, but kowtows to his wife and her wishes.  Like David, Jackie also acknowledges the craziness of her wishes.  She came from nothing and is incredibly grateful for everything that her husband can provide for her, but since he can provide for her, she might as well take advantage of it.  (And personally, I see nothing wrong with that in a capitalistic society.)  While Jackie does come off as a stereotypical bimbo in both appearance and oftentimes in her words, she's never really painted as someone who should be ridiculed.  She's simply shown as a lucky lady who happened to marry a guy who gained much success.  As their lives begin to fall apart around them, we can't help but feel a tiny bit for the Siegels who, like the lower and middle classes who were simply approved for loans they could't afford, were screwed over by the reckless lending of the banks.

For the most part, The Queen of Versailles works, but I can't help but think it would have been more successful had it clocked in at under an hour as a short-form documentary.  The film stays much too much past its welcome as the Siegel's lives begin to unravel, turning into something that verges a bit too close to mocking them for their financial success-turned-failure.  Verging on a Kardashian-like E! Network docudrama, when the focus shifts to marital dissent, it feels too voyeuristic in a way.  Still, The Queen of Versailles does paint a nice picture of an important event in our new century, hopefully shedding some light on the human side of the corporate failures that led to the current recession.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Monday, February 11, 2013

Movie Review - The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Starring Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Matthew Modine, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine
Directed by Christopher Nolan

I've been avoiding reviewing The Dark Knight Rises for nearly a month now and the only reason I can think of is that after concluding this film there was just a sense of apathy that has only increased as time as passed.  It's not that this final chapter in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy is bad -- it's slightly better than the Batman Begins origin story, but not nearly as good as The Dark Knight -- but it's really just feels most genericly superhero-ey of the three flicks.

We've got our good guy Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale whose teeth-gritting toughness as his alter ego has worn out its welcome by this point) who has put Batman to rest after the masked vigilante took the blame for killing Harvey Dent in the prior film.  However, evil rears its ugly head again, this time in the form of Bane (Tom Hardy) who vows to fight the capitalistic rich pigs of Gotham by taking all of them down and suppressing the poor himself.  Throw in a petty thief named Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway) who will later turn into the slinky Catwoman (although I'm not sure that name is ever uttered in the movie), a new love interest for Bruce in the form of Wayne Enterprises board member Miranda (Marion Cotillard), and a young cop named Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who tries to be the voice of reason to motivate Batman to come back to Gotham after Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) almost resigns himself to the fact that the masked man won't return and the cast for this one is pretty much complete.

The problem is that despite the film's nearly three-hour runtime, the cast isn't given a whole lot to do. Bane as a villain is a disappointment especially coming after the one-two punch of Heath Ledger's Joker and Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent in the last film.  The motivation of taking down the upper class is fine (despite it sort of feeling like a retread of Ra's Al Ghul's evil plans in the first film), but the screenwriting duo of the Nolan brothers fail to make the story resonate even in these heightened economic times.

Gordon-Levitt and Hathaway were certainly welcome additions and it was nice that ample time was spent on their storylines since (as I mentioned above) Bale's incredibly one-note performance while in his Batsuit had worn out its welcome.  Unfortunately, Tom Hardy fails to really make an impression as Bane.  After the whimsically evil performance of Ledger's Joker, having Hardy behind a mask for the whole film and failing to see a single facial expression from our central villain is a bit of a letdown that isn't his fault in the slightest.

In the end, Nolan's Batman trilogy is solid, but it's not nearly as fantastic as fanboys and critics would have you believe.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Friday, February 08, 2013

Movie Review - Side Effects

Side Effects (2013)
Starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, and Catherine Zeta-Jones
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

When leaving the theater after watching Side Effects, the first word that I thought of to describe the film was "pulp," but that implies a sense of cheap sensationalism that doesn't befit this taut, effective thriller in the slightest.  Instead, I'll say that Steven Soderbergh's latest and reportedly last film echoes back to the days of classic film noir (a genre which oftentimes had an elevated "pulpy" sensibility) and, dare I say, is quite Hitchcockian in tone and execution.  Soderbergh has created a flick with many more twists and turns than I was expecting, many of which may be jaw-dropping, but all of which prove to be fitting to the overall story.  

As the film opens, twenty-eight year-old Emily (Rooney Mara) is eagerly awaiting the release of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison.  After serving four years for insider trading, Martin is ready to jump right back into the business end of things, but Emily finds herself quickly slipping into a depression.  After a suicide attempt, Emily begins seeing psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) who puts Emily on a series of anti-depressant medication.  Seeing little to no improvement and after talking with Emily's former psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Dr. Banks puts Emily on a new drug named Ablixa.  Unfortunately, one of the side effects of Ablixa is blackout-like sleepwalking.  While in one of these blackouts, Emily commits an act that places her into a mental institution and the questions begin to arise as to who exactly is to blame.

The film does take a little bit to find its balance and several of the actors, particularly the overly glum Rooney Mara and the rather one-note Catherine Zeta-Jones (who we know we're supposed to think is sexy because she wears tight skirts and thick-rimmed glasses like a librarian from a young kid's wet dream), are curious enigmas that certainly had me doubting Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns' screenplay during the first half.  [It should also be noted that I couldn't buy for a second that Channing Tatum was a smart, Wall Street-type stockbroker.] However, much to my delight, as the film heads into its final hour, puzzle pieces begin to fit together and twists, turns, and double crosses veer the flick on a decidedly different course than one expects at the onset.  It's at this time that the film shifts focus from Emily and towards Dr. Banks who is rather unexpectedly facing the brunt of the blame for his patient's criminal act.  Jude Law very nicely balances his character's need to find out the truth behind the questionable new drug while at the same time hoping that his findings won't prove him criminally culpable.  

No one's going to mistake Side Effects for a cinematic masterpiece, but it's fun, smart, and very nicely places you on the edge of your seat for a good bit of its running time.  Sex, violence, and drugs -- a potent combination, but one that always has the potential of creating a good amount of riveting drama as is the case here.  A very nice start to cinema for me in 2013.

The RyMickey Rating:  B
To my few legit commenters, bear with me for the next few days.  I've been inundated with spam as of late, so I'm hoping a few days of utilizing some word verification will shy the spammers away from commenting.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Movie Review - Django Unchained

Django Unchained (2012)
Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, and Samuel L. Jackson
Directed by Quentin Tarantino

There aren't any surprises in Django Unchained.  This is just like every other Quentin Tarantino movie you've seen.  The dialog is clever.  The acting is all above average.  The violence is outrageously over-the-top.  The direction is off-the-wall at times, but totally enjoyable.  In other words, Tarantino doesn't really bring anything new to the table here, but what he does provide is a flick that you know is inherently his own.  I will admit that I have to be in the mood to watch one of this auteur's films simply because they walk the fine line between serious film and B-movie exploitation, but admittedly that tricky balance is what makes Tarantino the filmmaker he is.  While Django Unchained is much too long for what is an incredibly simplistic story (perhaps his most basic to date), the thing still works...as long as Tarantino is your cup of tea.

Despite stretching to nearly three hours, the story of Django Unchained is relatively simple and lacks the epic scope of most movies this length.  German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) has come to mid-1800s America for the prospect of making some easy money capturing bad guys and the biggest baddest guys of them all are the trio of the Brittle brothers.  The only problem is that King doesn't know what the Brittle brothers look like.  However, he soon discovers that the brothers recently sold away a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) and King decides to set out to find him in order to have Django assist in capturing his former captors.  [It should be noted that all that story above occurs before the movie and is simply implied.  I only include it to show you how measly the rest of the story really is.]  King meets up with and frees Django, discovering that the former slave has a flair for shooting guns and utilizes him to assist him in making a boatload of money.  In an effort to show his appreciation, King agrees to help Django track down and attempt to free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

And that's it in a nutshell.  Two sentences stretched out over three hours pretty much sum up what we see onscreen.  Somehow, though, Django Unchained works because of clever sequences filled with witty repartee and wordplay.  Still, it's quite obvious that the film didn't need three hours as there were certain scenes that, while enjoyabe, could have just been completely snipped out without any damage to the overall product.  At the heart of the story is Django's desire to be with Broomhilda, but we never even make it to the Candie Land plantation until over halfway through the film.  With the emotional crux of the film riding on Django's reunion with his wife, it's just too long of a tease to get to that point.

While the film is called Django Unchained and I will admit that this is one of the few roles in which I could actually stand Jamie Foxx as a performer, the film belongs to Christoph Waltz who once again makes the most out of a nice role written for him by Quentin Tarantino (Waltz placed second on my 2009 Best Actor List for his Oscar-winning work in Inglourious Basterds).  Whereas Waltz's Hans Landa had meatier villainous tendencies behind him, his King Schultz is conceived a bit one-note, but Waltz makes the absolute most out of what he is given, hitting just the right amount of humor and a surprising amount of heart.

Mr. Dicaprio takes on a different role than we're used to seeing from him as the rather disgusting Calvin Candie who has a penchant for watching his slaves fight to the death in brutal one-on-one boxing matches.  Considering this is the first image we see of Calvin, his deviant nature is apparent right from the beginning.  DiCaprio, however, imbues Calvin with an odious Southern charm -- his sly smiles attempt to hide his repugnant nature.  It's a nice change of pace for the actor.  The film also contains some nice work from Kerry Washington and a surprisingly strong turn from Samuel L. Jackson whose role is actually surprisingly deep.  As Mr. Candie's head house slave Stephen, Jackson takes on a complicated character who proves to be just as damaging to his fellow African Americans as their Caucasian owner.

Ultimately, I respect Quentin Tarantino for who he is as a director and writer.  However, with the exception of Kill Bill (which I'm due to rewatch to determine whether it's as good as I hope I remember it being), I'm not sure Tarantino has it in him to create anything more than fun romps.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with a cinematic jaunt, but a "jaunt" implies something fleeting and Tarantino does need to learn how to trim his ideas into something a bit more cohesive.  Still, Django Unchained is a good film filled with everything Tarantino does best...though it may certainly not appeal to all.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Movie Review - Les Misérables

Les Misérables (2012)
Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Isabelle Allen, Daniel Huttlestone, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Helena Bonham Carter
Directed by Tom Hooper

Goodness, there really isn't any modicum of happiness in Les Misérables.  The title is certainly apropos, hinting about the miserable existence of the characters we'll meet, but I still expected maybe a hint of joy.  However, you certainly don't feel uplifted walking out of the film.  That being said, I mean that not as a slight towards Tom Hooper's adaptation of the long-running and tremendously popular musical version of Victor Hugo's lengthy tome.  Many claim that Hooper stole away David Fincher's Best Director Oscar when he triumphed over The Social Network with The King's Speech back in 2010, but my RyMickey Awards crowned Hooper the winner that year and Les Misérables does show that The King's Speech wasn't just a fluke.  More on Hooper later, though...

***Moderate spoilers ahead only if you've lived under a rock during this awards season***

The epic Les Mis is overarchingly the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man imprisoned for over a decade for stealing a loaf of bread in early nineteenth century France.  When released, Valjean is told that as a parolee he must periodically check in or else face heading back to prison.  Valjean, however, wants to leave his past behind him and manages to find himself a successful businessman running a factory of sorts that employs a bunch of lower income women, one of whom is Fantine (Anne Hathaway).  It is soon discovered that Fantine has a young child which I guess implies she's a whore (although I found myself questioning this whole plotline), throwing the other ladies into a tizzy causing Fantine to be fired and thrown out onto the streets unbeknown to Valjean.  Forced to do whatever she can to provide for her child whom she has sent to live with others, Fantine sells all that she can (her hair, her teeth, and her body) and eventually dies, but not before Valjean meets up with her again and promises her that he will take care of her young child Cosette (Isabelle Allen).

Time passes and Cosette grows up (and is now played by Amanda Seyfried), but Valjean still finds himself constantly on the run from his former captor, Officer Javert (Russell Crowe) who is on a mission to get Valjean back behind bars for breaking his parole.  Every time Javert discovers their location, Valjean and Cosette are forced to move, but when Cosette sees the dashing Marius (Eddie Redmayne) across a crowded street, she instantly falls in love with him (and he with her), wanting to stay with him rather than travel elsewhere with Valjean. Marius is quite politically minded, wishing to overthrow the French government to provide a better environment for the lower classes (or something like that...it's probably a pretty important part of French history that's glossed over in terms of depth here).  We then add Eponine (Samantha Barks) into the mix who secretly loves Marius and also happens to have a connection to Cosette in that Eponine's father and mother (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) were the ones who watched after young Cosette over a decade before.

Whew...that seems like a lot to take in...and it is.  However, with all that story and character connections, you'd think there'd be more depth and weight to the story.  Unfortunately, the fact that this is a musical takes away a bit of the gravitas that I imagine is present in the novel.  I am certainly someone who appreciates musicals and am definitely aware that most musicals utilize their songs in order to advance the story.  Because of this technique, oftentimes the plot in musicals is simplified, but Les Misérables is a story that shouldn't be simplified.  The songs, while beautiful (though perhaps not as memorable as I expected them to be seeing as how I was not familiar with this musical at all), made this heavy story seem more one-note than it should be.

For the most part, the performances were fairly solid.  Mr. Hooper did a smart thing considering the operatic nature of the piece in having his actors sing live rather than lip sync as is the case in most musicals.  This allows for quite emotional, real, and true moments to be present, best exemplified in Anne Hathaway's showstopping number "I Dreamed a Dream."  Utilizing one long take with the camera focused solely on Fantine, Hathaway won herself the Best Supporting Actress Oscar with a riveting and heartbreaking rendition of the only song I'd heard from this musical prior to watching the film.  For some reason or another, I had never listened to the lyrics clearly enough to comprehend the utter sadness and devastation that Fantine feels while singing this song, but Hathaway made me fully understand the pain of her once hopeful character.

The other standout to me in the ensemble was Eddie Redmayne who has a lovely voice and is also granted a Hathaway/Fantine-like moment at the film's conclusion with "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" as he looks back on the revolution of the lower class and the many friends he lost in the battle.  There is also nice work from West End performer Samantha Barks in her first film role.  Hugh Jackman has been a bit overpraised for his work here, but it was still perfectly acceptable, and, on the other end of the spectrum, Russell Crowe has been a bit too harshly criticized as I thought his gruffer voice suited his part fine.

Tom Hooper has done a nice job filming this operatic musical, but even he is unable to assist the hefty story not coming across with the importance it likely should.  That's just an inherent flaw of the musicalization of a work such as this.  When French Revolution aspects are thrown aside for a love story between characters simply because it suits the music better, there isn't much Hooper can do.  Yes, the film has a murky, grayish-brown quality that does grow a bit tiresome as it heads into hour two, but I fully respected Hooper's hand-held, close-up style that he's actually been taken to task for.  It does allow for the focus to be placed on the characters rather than their surroundings, bringing more emotional power to the songs.  Still, despite some nice music, I can't help but think Les Misérables shouldn't have ever been made into an opera as the story seems to call for much more plot than a simplified musical can allow...then again, millions upon millions of theatergoers will disagree with me on that one.

The RyMickey Rating: B-