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.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Movie Review - Frances Ha

Frances Ha (2013)
Starring Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Michael Zegen, Adam Driver, and Charlotte D'Amboise
Directed by Noah Baumbach
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Reviewers are certainly telling me I should like Frances Ha, a black-and-white modern-day female-focused New York City-set Annie Hall-ish (or Manhattan-ish) take on our title character, a dancer struggling to make ends meet who lackadaisically sits around and talks about absolutely nothing that matters to her obnoxiously arrogant and self-important friends.  As you can likely tell by the tone of that run-on sentence, I'm not going to be fawning over Frances Ha.  Despite attempts by Greta Gerwig -- who co-wrote this film with director Noah Baumbach -- to charm the audience, I ultimately felt annoyed by her character's self-absorbtion...and I think that's the opposite reaction they were attempting to achieve.

Ultimately, Frances Ha has no story and what little story it does have isn't all that interesting because we don't really give a damn about anyone in it.  Admittedly, I summed the proceedings up in my initial sentence.  Frances is a dancer who's barely making ends meet and moves from friend's apartment to friend's apartment while she tries to get her life in order.  It's all well and good, but her friends aren't all that interesting and their conversations are even more boring.

Ugh.  Greta Gerwig tries and she has moments where she's captivating, but I can't help but think she's not an actress I'm going to enjoy.  This is movie #6 of hers that I've watched and I've yet to rank any of them as any better than average.  Frances Ha won't be the one to break that lackluster streak.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Monday, November 18, 2013

Movie Review - The Call

The Call (2013)
Starring Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Morris Chestnut, Michael Eklund, Roma Maffia, and Michael Imperioli
Directed by Brad Anderson

I'm wary to even post this review saying that the Halle Berry-starring The Call is actually decent simply because I know full well that it's a piece of schlock cinema produced by the WWE (that's World Wrestling Entertainment...you know, the same people that bring you fake wrestling on tv).  It's exploitative and, at times, a bit uncomfortable to watch in its ceaselessly violent children-in-peril nature, but it moves along at such a rapid pace that it doesn't overstay its welcome and ends up being a perfectly acceptable B-movie which is all it ever wanted to be in the first place.

Oscar winner Halle Berry is Jordan Turner, a 911 operator who takes a call one evening from a teenage girl whose home is being invaded.  After a series of unfortunate events, the girl is kidnapped and later turns up dead.  With Jordan's actions playing a part in the devastating event, she recuses herself from taking any further calls and begins a job teaching new recruits at the call center.  One day, however, a call is received from another young girl named Casey (Abigail Breslin) who has also just been kidnapped and stuffed into the trunk of her attacker's car.  Casey, armed with a cell phone, dials 911 and ends up speaking with Jordan.  Desperate to seek redemption for her earlier actions, Jordan finds herself doing all she can to help Casey escape.

Ultimately, the story is simple and could easily have been made into a tv movie on Lifetime.  Perhaps that's where it belongs as well, but considering this is now out of theaters and available to view at home, I can't deny that I had a fun time with it.  Had I shelled out $10 bucks I may have been disappointed, but as a rental, it's better than it really deserves to be thanks in large part to director Brad Anderson's quick pace and nice turns from Berry and Breslin.  Yes, it's moderately trashy, but I don't think there was ever any pretense about this being high class stuff.  It entertained me, kept me interested in the story, and I'm not sure I could've asked for more from something like this.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Friday, November 15, 2013

Movie Review - The Host

The Host (2013)
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Diane Kruger, Max Irons, Boyd Holbrook, Chandler Canterbury, Frances Fisher, and William Hurt
Directed by Andrew Niccol
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

After the hell that was the Twilight series -- five movies equaling over ten hours of my life that I'll never get back -- I have no idea why I subjected myself to The Host, a sci-fi flicked based on a novel by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer.  I think the only reason is that I had some faith that Andrew Niccol -- writer of the fantastic The Truman Show -- was scripting and lensing the piece and I hoped beyond hope that he'd bring something beyond a teen romance to this piece.  Well, I couldn't have been more mistaken.

Instead of vampires and werewolves, we're subjected to a race of aliens who have taken over Earth.  Parasitically, they've invaded human bodies taking on the appearance of us, but are identifiable because of a silver ring that appears around the eye.  At the start of the film, human Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan) has been captured by a seeker (Diane Kruger) and implanted with an alien life form.  However, Melanie is a strong one and she refuses to have her psyche leave her body.  As the alien sets out on a mission to find other humans to take over, Melanie is constantly yammering and pleading (in an awful Southern accented voiceover) to stop their invasion and find peace with the human race.  There's an awful love triangle that ensues when the alien inside Melanie finds Melanie's younger brother, uncle, and boyfriend -- all of whom have trouble dealing with the fact that the person in front of them looks like Melanie but isn't her at all.

Ugh...to be honest, I'm having trouble writing this one simply because I don't give a damn.  The constantly painful voiceover of human Melanie inside of the now alien Melanie makes this story nearly unfilmable.  Not that it would've been good on paper, but at least in text you can "believe" it a little more.  Here, there's really nothing unique or redeeming about this concept whatsoever.  Seriously, don't make the same mistake I did.

The RyMickey Rating:  D-

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Movie Review - Gravity

Gravity (2013)
***viewed in 3D***
Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Now that my mouth has been relieved of the parched feeling I had from holding my breath for ninety minutes, it's time to hunker down and discuss what may very well be the best science fiction film I've ever seen.  I must say, though, that tagging Gravity with the nomenclature of "science fiction" feels slightly inaccurate to me.  This is a "science reality" film in the sense that every aspect of it could happen right now as I type this.  There are no man-eating aliens or spaceships "light-speeding" through the galaxy or ominous Death Star vehicles roaming the atmosphere above Earth in Alfonso Cuarón's brilliantly directed film.  Instead, a seemingly innocent NASA mission to fix an issue with the Hubble telescope turns horribly wrong when a Russian satellite is hit by a missile, gets shattered to pieces, and sends chunks of debris rapidly hurtling towards spacewalking astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) along with the rest of the crew aboard the spaceship.  Not only does the debris create havoc, but it also halts all transmissions from the astronauts to Mission Control.  Broken off from the rest of mankind, not everyone survives and those that do have any incredibly tough road ahead to try and find a way home.

Moreso than anyone else, Gravity lives and breathes on the vision of Alfonso Cuarón.  As director, Cuarón gives the vastness and openness of space a more claustrophobic feeling than I've ever seen before on film.  With stunning cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezski, Cuarón's camera is constantly spinning, moving around the landscape smoothly and rapidly which, coupled with some exquisite long takes (including an astonishing opening shot that lasts for well over ten minutes) and more than adequate use of 3D, creates a palpable tension that kept me precariously hanging on the edge of my seat the entire ride.  As a co-writer (along with his son), Cuarón eschews the spiritual tone that I somewhat expected to see here and instead focuses his film on the fight to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles both physical and emotional in nature.  We're hit in the gut with overarching theme of man (and in this case woman) versus nature and I must credit the Cuaróns with keeping things simple while still managing to create a nonstop feeling of unease for the audience.

Along for the ride is Sandra Bullock who carries the movie on her shoulders and does so with believability.  A scientist on her first space mission, Ryan Stone has certainly not adjusted to the gravity (pun not intended) of the scope of her work.  As the film begins and she's fixing an electronics panel on the Hubble telescope, you can hear the nervous tension in her voice despite attempts to appear strong to her colleagues.  We know -- just because of the basics of storytelling -- that she'll overcome this jittery anxiousness, but we're never assured she'll escape the hell that space has become for her.  Bullock brings her character's desperate longing for companionship, courage, and will to survive front and center in what is probably the best work I've seen from her.

In this technologically savvy age, one of the greatest compliments I can give a movie is if I never look at my phone once to see how much time is left.  Gravity receives this (perhaps ignominious) distinction.  This is an eighty-five minute roller coaster ride from start to finish and I never longed for it to end.  I can only hope that the unbridled success of this unique vision brings us more smart, expertly acted, and exquisitely directed films in the future.

The RyMickey Rating:  A

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Disney Discussion - Cinderella

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 #12 of The Disney Discussion
Cinderella (1950)
Featuring the voice talents of Ilene Woods, Eleanor Audley, Luis Van Rooten, Jimmy MacDonald, William Phipps, Lucille Bliss, Rhoda Williams, and Verna Felton
Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, and Wilfred Jackson; Ben Sharpsteen (production supervisor)

Summary (in 150 words or less):
The beautiful Cinderella has constantly been at the beck and call of her stepmother Lady Tremaine and her two stepsisters Anastasia and Drizella ever since her father died when she was a child.  She cooks, cleans, and never has time for herself.  When the king sends out an announcement across the land that all the single ladies (if you start humming Beyoncé now, I apologize) attend a ball in order to be introduced to his son, Prince Charming, Cinderella can't wait to go.  However, her stepmother and stepsisters do all they can to prevent her from attending and they nearly succeed, too, until Cinderella's Fairy Godmother comes along to help our title character be the belle of the ball.

Let the Discussion Begin...
Cinderella is the Walt Disney Company's twelfth full-length animated feature and was released on February 15, 1950.

After the financial difficulties of the 1940s, Cinderella was Walt Disney's return to full-length animated feature films following a series of "package films" that showcased a variety of short animated subjects.  Admittedly, Cinderella was a little bit of a gamble and had the three million dollar production failed, it could have signaled the end of the Walt Disney Studios.  However, the film was greeted with enthusiasm and proved to be very successful which allowed Walt to take on more ambitious projects as well as venture into the new medium of television.  In its first release, Cinderella raked in over $4 million in its initial release -- one of the highest-grossing films of the year -- signaling that the public was clamoring for this type of classic storytelling

Cinderella was nominated for three Academy Awards -- Best Sound, Best Score, and Best Song for "Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo" -- but did not walk away with any prizes.  The film was also ranked #9 on the American Film Institute's Top Ten animated features of all time.

The Characters
(The Best...The Worst...The Villains...)
First, let's just revel in the fact that we're finally back to telling a full-length story after seven years of animated short packages masquerading as a movie.  It's just a treat to finally be past that phase of the Walt Disney Company's oeuvre.  But, even with that in mind, I had to hope that my first visit to Cinderella in well over a decade (and probably closer to a score, in Lincoln's terms) would prove to be a treat.  Fortunately, I wasn't disappointed.

The similarities between the title characters in Cinderella and Disney's first film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs are uncanny.  Yes, Cinderella's hair has been turned a yellowish red, but the two leading ladies were built from the same cloth.  With Disney desperate for this film to be a success, I completely understand going back to the tried and true characteristics that made his first princess tale a winner.  Like Snow White, Cinderella's father has died and she's now under the watch of her stepmother who, while not mixing up deadly potions or talking to a mirror, is a nasty lady.  Cinderella's life is composed of cooking, cleaning, and every other daily chore imaginable.  When we first meet her, Cinderella is singing to a group of mice and birds -- her only friends -- about her dreams and aspirations.  Does that remind you of our introduction to Snow White at a wishing well singing to some feathered friends about her dreams of meeting a prince?  

Despite all these similarities, Cinderella is a more well-rounded character than Snow White, a character whom I thought more than capable of carrying a story, but was rather bland when compared to the rest of that film's cast.  I think part of the reason for the improvement is because the animation has improved greatly since Walt's first attempt at creating a princess.  Cinderella's movements and facial expressions are much better than that of Snow White.  Additionally, the script also allows Cinderella to have a little bit of an edge in that there are hints of sarcasm when things don't go her way.  SPOILER -- She's also given a fantastic last line of the film in which she reveals that she has the matching glass slipper -- it's a deliciously sly "screw you" to her stepmother and stepsisters.  This only proves to endear her to the audience even more because she's the one that succeeds in trumping their evil as opposed Snow White in which the title character essentially dies and is saved by a prince.  END SPOILER

For every protagonist, though, we need an antagonist and Lady Tremaine is a good one.  As I mentioned, there are no evil spells or black magic being utilized here, but the sharp, biting tones of a woman who recognizes that Cinderella's beauty far surpasses that of her own daughters' and will do whatever is necessary to make sure her offspring fare better than her now deceased husband's.  With her rude and childish brethren Anastasia and Drizella by her side, the trio provide humor with their wickedness, but also create a more realistic sense of evil than we saw in Snow White.  (Not that Snow White's portrayal of a villain is bad...in fact, it's more enjoyable in its gothic horror nature than this.)

With a prince that mutters maybe a sentence throughout the movie, the remainder of the characters are presented purely for giggles and they succeed in that department for the most part, although they're given too much screen time for my liking.  Cinderella's Fairy Godmother makes the most of her one scene and her bubbly, though bumbling, personality is a hoot.  I almost wish she had more scenes with which to entertain us, however, she then may have fallen into the trap of Cinderella's mice friends Gus and Jaq and their sworn enemy Lucifer the cat.  This trio of characters, while humorous and nicely animated, are given much too much emphasis.  With the exception of a key scene (involving an actual key) during the film's climax, the threesome are simply there for comedic effect in an attempt to stretch the film out to a more expected feature length.  While certainly amusing, it's much too obvious that these folks are here for padding as opposed to providing any form of character development.

The Music
The music of Cinderella is the first to come from songwriters of Tin Pan Alley and it was the first film to have its songs published and released by the Walt Disney Company -- another added source of revenue for Disney.  Containing six songs, I must say that although there isn't really a bad one in the bunch, I find them lacking the emotional oomph I desired, perhaps in part due to the fact that the story of Cinderella itself is so simplistic at its core.  However, and to the score's benefit, every song fits its scene perfectly.  From the opening "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes" which sets the scene for Cinderella's aspirations to "So This Is Love" which details her dreams coming true, the title character's songs showcase her desire to move out of her life of servitude.  Add in two fun ditties -- "The Work Song" in which Cinderella's mice friends ready her dress for the ball and "Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo" where the Fairy Godmother works her magic on the title character -- and there are certainly some memorable pieces here.  While I think "A Dream Is A Wish..." and "Bibbidi..." have certainly stood the test of time, songwriters Mack David, Jerry Livingston, and Al Hoffman didn't craft truly inspiring numbers to me.  There's a slight genericness to the proceedings that aren't bad, but aren't incredibly creative either.

My Favorite Scene
The film's final moments are quite fun and surprisingly exciting.  With Anastasia and Drizella failing to fit into the glass slipper, the king's Grand Duke is about to leave Lady Tremaine's house.  Cinderella, who was heretofore locked in her room by her stepmother manages to escape thanks to the help of Gus and Jaq and she quickly rushes down the stairs to try on the shoe that she knows will fit.  Lady Tremaine is of course irritated by this and as the Grand Duke begins to walk towards Cinderella with the glass slipper, she trips him causing the slipper to break into hundreds of pieces.  As the Grand Duke starts to cry and Lady Tremaine evilly smirks, Cinderella says not to worry and she pulls out the other glass slipper from her pocket.  It's a "middle finger moment" that brought a smile to my face because it so simply topples the bitchiness of Cinderella's stepsisters and stepmother. 

Random Thoughts
  • The film starts out with the opening of a storybook again!  It made me quite happy that we were returning to the Land of Fairytales for some reason after such a long time away.
  • I had no memory at all that the film opens with our title character as a child.  Granted, it's only for the first thirty seconds, but I had no recollection.
  • Walt definitely harkens back to Snow White in the film's first song with the title character singing to her animal friends who help get her dressed and pretty up her room.
  • As much as I enjoy Jaq and Gus, the extended scene of them trying to snag breakfast out from under the watchful eye of Lucifer the cat, goes on for much too long considering it has absolutely no bearing on any aspect of the plot whatsoever.
  • This is the second Disney movie in a row that features a shattered pumpkin!

Final Analysis
(Does It Belong in the Revered Disney Pantheon and How Does It Stack Up to Past Films?)
Cinderella was never my favorite growing up (it may have something to do with the fact that I have a 'Y' chromosome), but upon this viewing of the popular Disney film, I'd certainly have to grant it admission into the revered Disney Pantheon.  While its story is actually a bit weaker than its similarly themed predecessor Snow White, its title character is given a bit more spunk and personality which picks up some of the slack.  (That being said, why the hell didn't Cinderella just walk out of the house? It's not like her stepmother had her shackled in the attic.)

The animation in Cinderella is fine -- with Cinderella herself a bit more detailed than Snow White -- but Walt wasn't reinventing the wheel here.  The backgrounds are basic and lack intricacy although, admittedly, they're grandiosely gothic when we're in Cinderella's home which added to the idea that our title character is being trapped by her stepmother.  Still, I couldn't help but think that many of the scenes appeared as if they were being "filmed" on a "soundstage."  By that, I simply mean that there's an unrealistic simplicity to many scenes.

I think the biggest flaw in Cinderella comes from the intense focus on Gus and Jaq's tete-a-tetes with Lucifer.  Although I didn't time it, it feels as if half of the movie deals with these characters' battles with one another.  While certainly appealing to children, these scenes harm the overall impact of the story.

Still, despite its simplistic story, Cinderella is a welcome return to form for Disney.

The RyMickey Rating: B

Join us next Wednesday for Alice in Wonderland, the thirteenth film in The Disney Discussion.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Movie Review - Somebody Up There Likes Me

Somebody Up There Likes Me (2013)
Starring Nick Offerman, Keith Poulson, Jess Wexler, Stephanie Hunt, and Megan Mullally 
Directed by Bob Byington
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Somebody Up There Likes Me is a weird one.  There is an offbeat deadpan aesthetic to this that will either win you over or bore you to pieces from the get go.  I was willing to accept that comedic tone, but the dry humor wore thin about halfway through and it turned into an almost interminable affair.  Still, I found the first 35 minutes of this rather short film quite humorous as we meet Max (Keith Poulson) who, in one of the film's opening scenes, walks in on his estranged wife sleeping with another man.  He confides in his good friend Sal (Nick Offerman) who tells him he's better off without a woman considering the malaise he's felt ever since he got married several years ago.  At this point, the film then begins to time travel into the future in roughly five-year increments, following the lives of Max and Sal and their relationships with women, with each other, and with their business.

Even with the time jumping, the characters never age and this clever and unique method of telling a story is somewhat captivating...at least initially.  However, as time progresses (in both the story and the film itself), the absurd and somewhat surreal style along with its aloof tone wears thin.  I always find myself enjoying Nick Offerman's dry humor and that's certainly the case here.  Keith Poulson is also engaging enough as a lead despite the fact that he's purposefully one-notish, but its his character's inherent nonchalance and the film's same "attitude" that disappoints after time.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Movie Review - Enough Said

Enough Said (2013)
Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Toni Collette, Ben Falcone, Tracey Faraway, and Tavi Gevinson
Directed by Nicole Holofcener

Movies like Enough Said don't get made nearly enough nowadays.  I mean, honestly, when's the last time you've seen a romantic comedy focusing on normal folks in their late forties/early fifties falling in love?  It doesn't happen and maybe it should.  Writer-director Nicole Holofcener gives us two characters who are wholly relatable with whom, after a short ninety minutes, we long to spend more time.  What more can you ask for from a movie like this?  The characters make or break a movie like this and in Enough Said I wanted to continue alongside their charming journey to see where it will take them.

Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a masseuse who enjoys her job and loves her teenage daughter Ellen (Tracey Faraway), but finds herself missing that special someone after her divorce a few years prior.  Still, she's come to terms with the fact that love probably isn't in the cards for her.  When she accompanies her good friends (Toni Collette and Ben Falcone) to a party, she meets Albert (James Gandolfini), but doesn't find him attractive in the slightest, even telling him that to his face.  However, she decides to agree to a first date with Albert simply because she hasn't been on a date in quite some time.  While things don't go swimmingly between Albert and Eva, there's something there...that little indescribable spark.  They have much in common and, with both their daughters heading off to college in a few short months, they're in need of some companionship.

One of the biggest reasons Enough Said succeeds is because there's an awkwardness between Eva and Albert that Holofcener isn't afraid to dwell upon.  Things aren't precociously perfect or devastatingly awful between the couple as we often get in movies and choosing the middle ground and not one of the two extremes is a nice change of pace.  Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and the late James Gandolfini are huge keys to the film's success, utterly charming whether they're alone or together onscreen.  Gandolfini is the complete opposite of Tony Soprano here, abandoning any sense of that "tough guy" persona for which he's so well known and fully embodying the softy that is Albert.  Louis-Dreyfruss, heretofore known for her somewhat abrasively comedic roles on tv, takes on her first leading film role and has no problem whatsoever getting the audience to embrace her.  She's not a perfect mom and doesn't claim to be, but that makes her character all the more relatable.  Louis-Dreyfuss carries the movie without a problem and I'd love to see this down-home persona in more movies down the line.

There are moments in Enough Said that feel a little bit sitcommy -- particularly in scenes involving Eva's client Marianne (Catherine Keener) who just so happens to be Albert's ex-wife unbeknown to Eva who constantly has to hear Marianne spout off everything that was wrong with her former spouse -- but they're still funny and work overall in the grand scheme of things.  Kudos to director and writer Nicole Holofcener (who also directed Please Give which I enjoyed a few years ago) who has crafted a movie that both you and your parents and your grandparents can enjoy without being too cutesy for you or too raunchy for your grandma.

Lovely.  Charming.  Go see it.  Enough said.

The RyMickey Rating:  A-

Friday, November 08, 2013

Movie Review - The Counselor

The Counselor (2013)
Starring Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, and Penelope Cruz
Directed by Ridley Scott


Although reviews for The Counselor were mostly negative, the positive notices it received were intriguing enough to have me check this out before Ridley Scott's film made a quick escape from theaters.  With a cast that certainly adds some good pedigree to the adult drama, I was hoping that maybe author Cormac McCarthy's screenplay (his first) would be reminiscent of the solid No Country for Old Men and The Road -- two films based on his novels.  Unfortunately, that wasn't the case and the fault mostly falls on McCarthy himself as he seemingly finds it difficult to create dialog that sounds genuine and authentic which causes much of the movie's scenes to feel forced and contrived.

For a film that's basis is double-crossing and drug dealing, The Counselor is surprisingly simplistic and that's not necessarily a bad thing.  Sometimes adult-driven thrillers feel that there's a need to pile on twist after twist and it's almost a welcome change that this flick takes a quieter route.  The Counselor opens with much of the background plot work already having taken place.  We meet the title character (whose name is never provided to us) played by Michael Fassbender, a lawyer in the southern US who, in need of some quick cash, agrees to assist in a massive drug trade with the help of a rich guy named Reiner (Javier Bardem).  Things quickly start to turn for the worse with the Counselor fearing for his own life as well as that of his wife (Penelope Cruz).

Although not original, the story itself works, however, as we discover within the first ten minutes of the film, the type of dialog or scenes that work in a book don't always translate to a movie and Mr. McCarthy seems to have trouble with this concept.  McCarthy absolutely has an ear for slick verbiage, but it seems more suited to the page, coming off as stilted and uncomfortable when spoken.  It's unfortunate because there are flashes of brilliance at times when it comes to what is being said and how McCarthy intriguingly spins words, but I couldn't help but think as I was watching the film that people never speak like this to one another and that makes things feel fake.

For the most part, the actors do their best with the dialog and try to make things work.  Michael Fassbender continues to impress and is truly becoming an actor that will draw me to his movies.  Javier Bardem also does a nice job of playing Reiner, a smarmy guy with both an edge and a heart of gold and I enjoyed his interactions with Fassbender in particular.  However, Cameron Diaz as Reiner's girlfriend nearly ruins the goodwill created by these actors.  She, in particular, is completely unable to wrap her lips around the tricky dialog she's forced to spout and she decides to simply enunciate everything as clearly as possible -- perhaps as a character choice or perhaps to pretend she actually understands what she's saying.  Rather than exude sexiness -- which her character is clearly supposed to do -- she comes off laughable.

While it's clear The Counselor doesn't work, I'm happy I watched it.  I wouldn't recommend it, but it's an interesting failure.  Director Ridley Scott has created a slick adult thriller filled with violence and sex -- there's a scene with Cameron Diaz on the hood of a car that I likely soon won't forget -- but it never comes together.  The film looks fantastic (kudos to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski), but it can't overcome McCarthy's clunky tale which I'd love to read as a novel, but would rather not have seen on a movie screen.

The RyMickey Rating: D+