Featured Post

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,...

Friday, April 26, 2013

Movie Review - The Tall Man

The Tall Man (2012)
Starring Jessica Biel
Directed by Pascal Laugier
**This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Jessica Biel isn't a big name star by any means, but I was a bit surprised when I saw The Tall Man in Netflix Instant's mystery section with a release date of 2012 considering that I had never even heard of it before.  Biel is enough of a "celebrity" that I felt like I should have at least seen some reference to the flick in passing.  Nevertheless, I had not, but given the "mystery" element of the brief plot synopsis -- children in the town of Cold Rock, Washington, are going missing and the only lead that the police have is that a mysterious tall man appears to be the culprit -- I figured I'd give it a shot.  While I now completely understand the reason it didn't get a nationwide release in theaters, it's actually a moderately intriguing little flick that isn't anywhere close to perfection, but kept my interest in the wee hours of the morning when I watched.

Jessica Biel is Julia Denning, the town nurse, who keeps her young son Danny isolated from the rest of the run-down and low-income community for fear of him being abducted by the mysteriously dark-cloaked tall man who has kidnapped nearly all of Cold Rock's children over the last few years.  Despite her best efforts, one evening Danny is nabbed right out of Julia's home by the Tall Man and while she tries to chase him down, she doesn't succeed.  And that's when the movie takes a turn that I admittedly didn't see coming -- and is probably the reason why the film languished in its nearly straight-to-dvd hell.

A long-time reader of this blog (and they are so few and far between that I must recognize them when I can) commented on another thread that The Tall Man is an "ambitious failure," and I tend to agree with that sentiment on a slightly lesser scale.  For starters, I don't think the film is a "failure," but I recognize that writer-director Pascal Laugier doesn't quite have the chops for creating the needed tension a film like this requires (although I think part of that may be attributed to what I can only imagine was a lower budget than other films of its ilk).  As the film twists into something completely unexpected, it ends up languishing a bit in dullness rather than ratcheting up the excitement level.  However, the film's overall tone and overarching message certainly falls under the "ambitious" banner that my commenter noted.  I'm not quite sure I bought what it was trying to espouse, but I accept the concept and give props for the attempt from Laugier.

I'm well aware that The Tall Man isn't high caliber stuff.  [Notice how I didn't comment much on Jessica Biel here...there's a reason for that.]  Still, it's unique enough that despite starting it at 3:15am and telling myself I'd get halfway through and then finish it the next day, I found myself watching it straight through.  That's a positive, I'd say, even though it's certainly a bit flawed.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Theater Review - Fever

Written by Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Sanford Robbins
Where: Thompson Theater at the Roselle Center for the Arts 
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When: Saturday, April 20, 7:30pm
***Opening Night World Premiere***

The University of Delaware's Thompson Theater at the Roselle Center for the Arts has been turned into a war zone for the next two weeks as a battle of the sexes unfolds in Theresa Rebeck's world premiere play Fever written specifically for the Resident Ensemble Players, UD's professional acting troupe that has been going strong for five years now.  Two years ago, Ms. Rebeck brought the world premiere of her play O Beautiful to the REP, but I found it a mishmash of stereotypes and hot button political issues thrown against a wall with the hope that something would stick.  Needless to say, I was not eagerly anticipating this follow-up when the season subscription was announced.  Well, I must say that I was pleasantly surprised with this one -- a laugh-out-loud romp that provides a fun night at the theater despite some problems that arise as the evening progresses.

While Ms. Rebeck certainly takes a big step back from the political hotbed that was O Beautiful, Fever isn't without its provocative issues that will certainly have you questioning whether it's okay to laugh at what's taking place on the stage in front of you.  Focusing on the different ways men and women hear and interpret things, the play opens with a young man and woman (Michael Gotch and Carine Montbertrand) sitting at a table in a Midwest bar seemingly on a first date that is quickly taking a turn for the worse.  As tensions rise, french fries, beer, and vitriolic words begin to fly as the other patrons in the bar look on in shocked amazement.

Photos by Paul Cerro

After the young couple leaves the bar, those remaining can't help but talk about the display that just took place before their eyes.  The only problem is that Patrick and Barry (Mic Matarrese and Steve Tague) saw things quite differently than their female counterparts Margo and Laila (Kathleen Pirkl Tague and Elizabeth Heflin), the latter of whom owns the bar which has been part of her family for generations with her husband Nick (Stephen Pelinski).  As the quartet tries to relay the story of the warring couple to Nick, the genders can't seem to agree on anything that took place, setting off their own little firestorms that build and build as the story progresses.

When the play is focused on this comedic, though biting, battle between the sexes, it works best.  [It veers a tiny bit in certain places into "sensationalism" simply for the sake of being "sensational," but after what I saw in O Beautiful in that regard, this one is like a children's bedtime lullaby.]  Rebeck has created a cast of characters who all have a very distinctive voice, but they meld together so wonderfully with dialog that bounces off one another almost effortlessly.  That's not an easy task and much credit must be given for achieving it.  However, rather surprisingly and somewhat disappointingly, the play falters a bit when it shifts to what it perhaps believes is its actual underlying main story.  Nick is finding it increasingly hard to live within the means he desires given the fact that Laila's family's bar is sucking him dry (both financially and emotionally).  While he's tried to keep these feelings a secret from Laila, he's forced to let it all out when loyal patron Patrick sets up a meeting for Nick with someone (Deena Burke) who feels she could find a buyer for the exquisitely hand-crafted bar (that's right...the actual bar within the bar) for quite a handsome chunk of change.  Obviously, this causes great tension between the married couple, but it's half of a story here that I wanted to love, but couldn't connect with in the slightest.

I understand that Nick and Laila's squabbling over the sale of the bar is supposed to be a more subdued version of the frenetic chaos of the younger couple in their bar, but the connections between the two storylines never really clicked for me.  I desperately wanted to give a damn about Nick and Laila, and actors Stephen Pelinski and Elizabeth Heflin imbue genuine sincerity and sympathy into the characters, but, in the play's final scene, in what I can only assume is to be dialog that embodies the heart of the story, the whole thing falls a bit flat.  It's not that it's disingenuous or that it rings untrue...it just doesn't quite manage to ring at all.

This being said, I think Fever is a play that has the potential to be quite successful and transfer really well to other regional theaters across the country.  With a bit more tweaking particularly in the Nick and Laila scenes, Ms. Rebeck has the makings of a solid hit on her hands.  But by saying that, I'm selling this production a bit short and I don't want to do that because despite its imperfections, the REP themselves have a hit on their hands.  With the help of Rebeck, director Sanford Robbins (whose pleas at every single production to make us bring guests to the REP have not fallen on deaf ears with this reviewer) takes this talented group of REP actors and manages to make me forget that I'm watching a cast that I've come to know over the past four years since I've been attending their productions.  Surprisingly (to me, at least), the actors felt fresh and new with some of them giving their best performances of the season.  [In addition to the aforementioned Pelinski and Heflin, kudos to Michael Gotch and a raunchy and saucy Kathleen Pirkl Tague, both of whom were fantastic.  Although, really, across the board raves for everyone in this production.]  Maybe it was the tackling of a modern-day comedy or maybe it was because they were performing in the world premiere of a play, but something about this show gave them a renewed spirit and vigor that made me long for next season to start as quickly as possible.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Movie Review - Robot & Frank

Robot & Frank (2012)
Starring Frank Langella, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Susan Sarandon, and Peter Sarsgaard
Directed by Jake Shreier

In the near future, aging Frank (Frank Langella) is finding himself entering the beginning stages of dementia or Alzheimer's Disease (the specifics are never really discussed in the film).  His son Hunter (James Marsden) lives about six hours away from his father, but still visits him on a regular basis on the weekends leaving his own children behind to care for his ailing dad.  In order to alleviate some of this constant traveling in his life, Hunter decides to buy a robot caretaker (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) who will clean, cook, and keep an eye on Frank's health, reporting back to Hunter when necessary.  Frank is adamantly against this as is his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) who is working in Turkmenistan and can't really prevent her brother from bringing this newfangled technology into her father's home.

Eventually, Frank realizes that he's stuck with the robot so he might as well try and get to understand the technology...and this is where Robot & Frank starts to slowly go downhill.  The film's opening act (as detailed in the first paragraph) is amusing, but as the flick progresses, we discover that a long time ago Frank was a rather brilliant small-time thief who happened to get caught and spend some time in prison.  When Frank discovers that his robot companion has been programmed to do what Frank tells him to do, Frank decides to teach the robot the tricks of the trade when it comes to robbing people and this duo sets out to do some damage in their small town.

Ultimately, though, it isn't the story that takes Robot & Frank down a notch.  It's the fact that I failed to find myself connected to Frank in the way that I think was necessary in order for the movie to succeed on all levels.  Frank Langella certainly does a good job here...he's better than the part he's given, in fact.  Unfortunately, considering his condition of a slowly deteriorating memory, I never found myself invested in his plight.  When Frank says to his daughter who desperately wants to take the robot away after several weeks together, "But he's my only friend," I can't help but think that was supposed to hit me in the gut.  It didn't in any way, however, and the fault has to either lie in the direction of first time auteur Jake Shreier and/or the script from first time screenwriter Christopher D. Ford.  Somehow the screenplay and the direction never quite made the emotional connection with me in the way that the film desperately desires and needs in order to fully succeed.  Here's this old guy whose health is fading and he's being reinvigorated by a friendship with someone (or something, to be more accurate) he thought he was going to hate.  There's depth there worth exploring and while I think the film tries, it didn't click for me in the way it should have.

While it may seem like I'm critiquing Robot & Frank in a manner that would deem it not worth watching, it's actually a somewhat solid film with some nice performances from the whole cast.  The problem is that the potential for something greater is always present, but the film is never quite able to grasp it.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Friday, April 12, 2013

Movie Review - Oz: The Great and Powerful

Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013)
***viewed in 3D***
Starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, and Zach Braff
Directed by Sam Raimi

There was no way Oz: The Great and Powerful was going to compare to the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, but I was surprised by what disappointed me the most about this prequel of sorts to that Judy Garland winner.  Rather than be wowed by the "astounding" visuals that can be created by filmmakers 75 years later, I instead found myself longing for the days when computer generated landscapes and backdrops didn't even exist yet.  When Garland's Dorothy lands in Oz, the flowers certainly have a plasticine look to them, but they look more "real" and visually appealing than much of what is seen in Sam Raimi's new take on author  L. Frank Baum's work.  The one lesson I learned from this new film is "just because we can utilize computers, doesn't mean we should."  That's not to say that Oz: The Great and Powerful is horrid.  Comparisons have been made to Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and Oz fares better than that Johnny Depp-starring dreck.  But both films epitomize what is wrong with Disney's desire to "update" these classic films and stories for a new generation -- computer effects may seem to allow for more creativity, but the fact is that filmmakers decades ago had to be much more creative in a hands-on manner in order to get these fantastical lands like Oz and Wonderland to come to life.

Dorothy doesn't make an appearance in Oz: The Great and Powerful.  Instead, this is the tale of how the wizard -- podunk traveling circus magician Oscar Diggs (played by James Franco) -- got to the fantasy land in the first place.  Much like Dorothy, Oscar gets whisked up into a tornado, and when he arrives in Oz, he's greeted by Theodora (Mila Kunis), a lovely looking witch, who tells him about a recent prophecy that mentioned a man much like himself would come to Oz and, with his wizarding ways, right all that was wrong with the land.  Theodora takes Oscar to meet her sister, fellow witch Evanora (Rachel Weisz), in Emerald City where he discovers the abundant riches that the new wizard will inherit...should he manage to destroy the wand of the Wicked Witch who lives in the Dark Forest.  Along the way to destroy the Wicked Witch, Oscar meets Glinda (Michelle Williams), yet another witch, who tells Oscar that it is in fact Theodora and Evanora who are the evil ones in the land.  The question then becomes who exactly is Oscar to trust in this unfamiliar place?

Considering my rant in the opening paragraph of my review, it should come as a surprise that I think the best parts of the movie are the unique computer-animated characters brought to the screen in the forms of Finley (voiced by Zach Braff) -- a monkey who becomes forever indebted to Oscar after the wizard saves him from inevitable death -- and China Girl (voiced by Joey King) -- a tiny porcelain girl from Oz's China Town in which everyone is made of fine porcelain china.  While I disliked the computer generated landscapes the humans travel through in every single scene, I do appreciate the character work that has advanced with computer technology.  Finley and China Girl are able to do a bit more than, as an example, Toto in the original film.  Together, these two characters breathe life and impart much humor into the story...more than any of their human counterparts, that's for sure.

I used to be a fan of James Franco.  I say "used to" only because I can't help but think he just doesn't care about anything anymore.  Ever since his horrific hosting of the Oscars a few years ago, his attitude has been a complete turn-off to me and his nonchalance is carried to the screen in this obvious paycheck role for him.  His eyes are lifeless in nearly every scene and he lacks the whimsy needed for a character like the Wizard to succeed.  Similarly, Mila Kunis starts off painfully wooden.  As her character's secrets gradually are revealed, she's able to emote a bit more, but it's a rough start for her as well.  Things aren't much better for Michelle Williams either, but the role of Glinda is perhaps the trickiest one of the bunch, so I'm cutting her a little slack.  Glinda's the epitome of good (as we know from the 1939 original) and there's simply not much to work with.  Rachel Weisz certainly fares the best -- I just wish we didn't have to wait nearly an hour to see her character for the first time.

Despite the humans certainly disappointing, the film managed to hold my attention throughout and I can't ever really say I was bored and that's likely a credit to director Sam Raimi.  Raimi starts the film in a lovely black-and-white 4:3 Academy ratio when Oscar is in Kansas and then expands to a color widescreen format when in Oz.  While I thought this may be too much of an homage to the original, it's a device that still manages to work incredibly well -- it's oddly exciting when we get the first glimpse of color.  Raimi also realizes that despite Oz: The Great and Powerful being a family film, it's okay to throw in a few scary moments here and there...and there are a few moments involving those pesky flying monkeys that could easily frighten a young child.  Credit also must be given to some pretty nice 3D work on display.  It's not often that I'm able to comment positively on 3D work, so when I can, I like to point it out and mention that the upgrade may be worth the surcharge.

While Oz: The Great and Powerful may not have me clamoring for the inevitable sequel that will come our way in a few years, it certainly didn't taint the fond memories of its 1939 predecessor.  And it's a step in the right direction in terms of "fantasy remakes" after the heinousness of Alice in Wonderland a few years back.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Movie Review - Bachelorette

Bachelorette (2012)
Starring Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan, Rebel Wilson, James Marsden, Kyle Bornheimer, and Adam Scott
Directed by Leslye Headland
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

The comparisons to 2010's hilarious Bridesmaids have to be expected when it comes to a movie like Bachelorette if only because the movie industry doesn't have too many female-centric comedies in the marketplace, and by having both films focus on a wedding further connects the two.  However, Bachelorette skews much darker in its comedy which creates quite a different tint on the whole affair, allowing writer-director Leslye Headland's play-turned-film to not play like a retread of the Oscar-nominated (and RyMickey Award Best Picture Top Ten finisher) Kristen Wiig film.

Whereas the characters in Bridesmaids were in their mid-thirties and genuinely excited about their best friend's wedding, the late twentysomethings in Bachelorette who were friends in high school look at the upcoming nuptials of Becky (Rebel Wilson) with disdain.    Becky was always the fourth wheel in the group known as "The B Faces," and it doesn't sit well that "the fat one" in the quartet is the first one to get married.  Regan (Kirsten Dunst), like Becky, lives in New York City and has kept in touch with the soon-to-be-bride more than the rest of the group, so she gets the role of Maid of Honor.  Outwardly showing enthusiasm, Regan's ice queen, bitchy demeanor comes out right away as she calls her fellow "B Faces" Gena (Lizzy Caplan) and Katie (Isla Fisher) to tell them the news.  As the group convenes for the wedding weekend, they begin to realize that they haven't changed all that much since high school...and maybe that's not such a good thing.  Katie's still a crazy bed-hopping party girl, Gena's cocaine snorting is still a commonplace occurrence, and Regan's bulimic tendencies still rear their ugly head at times.  None of these girls are the epitome of perfection and there are moments where they're all incredibly nasty to one another, but they're still friends despite their sometimes warped view of what being "friends" actually means.  They have a shared history that continues to bring them close together and, as time has passed, they begin to wonder whether it's maybe time that they all begin to grow up a little bit.

This isn't to say that Bachelorette ends on a sensitive up-with-people note.  These characters aren't "changed" in miraculous ways by seeing their child-like mannerisms.  Instead, the movie concludes with them simply glimpsing the fact that it's likely time they try to turn into adults as they head into their third decade and maybe Becky's wedding is the impetus to getting that ball rolling.  Kirsten Dunst and Lizzy Caplan succeed the best at coming to this realization for their characters.  Both Dunst and Caplan are given nice arcs and they surprised me by making me give a damn about their rather loathsome characters by the end of the film.  I don't watch Girls on HBO, but I imagine that the reason it's buzzed about (I refuse to say successful because less than two million people watch it per episode and yet it's praised like it's a huge hit) is that it showcases twentysomething women in a light that typically isn't shone on them.  That's definitely the case here and Dunst and Caplan are able to imbue their characters with enough depth to make the film overall a success.

That isn't to say that Ms. Headland's script gives adequate dimensionality to all characters.  Isla Fisher's Katie is decidedly one-note in her party hard attitude and Rebel Wilson's Becky is simply like every other character Wilson has played before meaning she'll make fun of her weight and then act "funny-cute" followed by being "funny-tough."  (Seriously, I just do not get the fawning over her, although I will say Wilson comes off surprisingly good here, it's just that she isn't adding anything new to her repertoire.)  Each lady also has a guy that she hooks up with the night before the wedding and only Adam Scott's Clyde as Gena's high school boyfriend is given anything to work with, but the story isn't really about the men, so I feel like this isn't as much of a letdown.

Qualms aside, however, Bachelorette is a really good film.  It's surprisingly funny, mining laughs from not only pop culture references that are perfect for my age bracket (ie. the age bracket depicted in the film), but also very naturally from the characters themselves.  Thanks to some nice performances from Kirsten Dunst and Lizzy Caplan and a solid (though not perfect) script, this one is absolutely one of the better comedies to come out of 2012...and it's streaming on Netflix...so watch it.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Movie Review - The Raid: Redemption

The Raid: Redemption (2012)
Directed by Gareth Evans

I'm not sure I've ever seen a film as violent as The Raid: Redemption...at least not within recent memory.  I'm also fairly positive that I've never seen an Asian martial arts-type flick in my life (although I remember growing up seeing some dubbed edited versions as I flicked through local tv on a Sunday afternoon).  So the only reason this was really on my radar was because of some surprisingly fantastic reviews it received upon its release plus some glowing recommendations from co-workers.  While there's admittedly very little story here, The Raid: Redemption is a pretty great action movie filled with some incredible fight sequences and some very tense moments making this one of the better films to come out in 2012.

What little story there is involves a police unit heading into a fifteen-story high rise apartment building in Jakarta, Indonesia, to take down a drug kingpin named Tama (Ray Sahetapy) who is the unit's scummy landlord.  We meet policeman Rama (Iko Uwais) in the opening scenes which show us that he's an expectant father and is quite honestly the only character trait attributed to him.  But the lack of character development surprisingly didn't bother me in the slightest.  Instead, as Rama and his fellow officers make the climb up the fifteen stories fighting off Tama's goons along the way, we're treated to some amazing fight sequences that are choreographed with such precision that it really made me wonder how in the hell they were done.

Writer-director Gareth Evans eschews the quick cutting we're used to seeing in American action movies and instead allows the camera to linger over certain action sequences.  That's not to say we're treated to overly long shots, but there was never a manic sense given to the editing of the fight scenes.  I will say that I was a bit worried at the start of the film.  Things were overly dark and there were some moments where I wasn't quite sure what was going on because of how lowly lit everything was.  However, about thirty minutes in, things brighten up (and the cast is whittled down thanks to the various deaths) and the film becomes much easier to follow.  Evans treats us to several sequences of genuine tension including one involving a hidden closet and a machete that will undoubtedly appear in my favorite scenes of the year list.  Yes, there are some moments of cheesiness whenever Evans actually tries to tell a story rather than focus on the action -- including a reveal for Rama about a family member involved in Tama's seedy underworld -- but the director never lingers on them for too long since he knows quite well the emotional moments can't hold a candle to the fight sequences.

Quite honestly, there's not a lot to say about The Raid: Redemption because if it's a film you want to see, I've already said enough to convince you to watch it, and if it's a film you don't want to see, you checked out when you read the first sentence of this review.  That being said, it's not a film I'd say was in my "wheelhouse" whatsoever, but I found it refreshing (albeit uncomfortably violent at times) and am quite happy I checked it out.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+