Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Movie Review - Holiday Affair

Holiday Affair (1949)
Starring Robert Mitchum, Janet Leigh, Wendell Corey, and Gordon Gebert
Directed by Don Hartman

Holiday Affair has been on my Christmas viewing list for a few years now particularly because of the pairing of Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh in a romantic relationship.  Unfortunately, this Christmas flick doesn't quite work.  Leigh is Connie, a war widow with a young six year-old son named Timmy (Gordon Gebert), who has been in a relationship with lawyer Carl (Wendell Corey) for over a year now.  A few days before Christmas, Connie -- a competitive shopper for a major retailer -- enters the Crowley Department Store in order to determine prices for popular holiday items where she meets Steve (Mitchum), a salesclerk in the toy department.  Connie purchases a train set which she returns a few days later.  Steve believes that Connie is a competitive shopper and he shirks his duty of reporting Connie to the store detective.  Steve's boss discovers this and promptly fires Steve for failing to meet his responsibilities.  Connie ends up feeling bad for Steve and, needless to say, the two begin to have several meetings that lead to tentative romance.

The biggest issue for me in Holiday Affair is that I never really believed that Connie would fall for Steve.  I don't think it is Mitchum's typical tough-guy exterior that's doing the relationship in for me.  Instead, I think it's just the rather silly premise.  To me, there's no reason Connie wouldn't be leaning more towards the steady, kind, and reliable Carl.  Sure, maybe there's some "women love bad boys" kind of thing, but Carl is presented as such a good guy that we actually end up not caring for Connie as she contemplates leaving him.  Janet Leigh tries to get us to understand her emotions, but I just didn't buy into the premise which leaves Holiday Affair ultimately not working.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Movie Review - Remember the Night

Remember the Night (1940)
Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Beulah Bondi, Elizabeth Patterson, and Sterling Holloway
Directed by Mitchell Leisen

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray teamed up for one of the best films ever in Double Indemnity so I was looking forward to their partnership in Remember the Night, a romantic comedy that is quite a departure from the film noir I had seen them in prior.  While Remember the Night is no Double Indemnity the film is moderately successful...although I still find it a bit odd that Stanwyck's rather sassy demeanor garnered her leading lady status in romantic films like this.

Here Stanwyck is Lee Leander, a woman justly accused of shoplifting an expensive piece of jewelry from a department store the week before Christmas.  MacMurray is the prosecuting attorney John Sargent who, after hearing the defense attorney's plea that Lee was "hypnotized" by the glimmer of the jewelry, calls for a recess so the state's psychiatrist who is on Christmas vacation can testify against Ms. Leander.  When the judge agrees, Lee is to be held in jail over the holidays.  John feels a bit bad about this and ends up asking the agreeable bail bondsman a favor to let Lee out for Christmas.  After discovering that as a youth Lee lived just miles from John's hometown in Indiana, the two resident New Yorkers set out on a road trip to see John's family for the holidays with a stop in at Lee's mother's house along the way.  Of course, it wouldn't be surprising if the two begin to feel affection for one another, would it?

Both Stanwyck and MacMurray are good here -- but they're always good in nearly everything I've seen them in.  Director Mitchell Leisen actually does a bit here with shadows and lighting to make his film stand out from the typical holiday norms, but Preston Sturges' screenplay which is strong at the beginning during the courtroom scenes, falters quite a bit as Lee and John take their road trip.  In fact, their journey is almost painfully mundane.  Fortunately, the film picks up again when John makes it to his family thanks to some nice supporting turns from Beulah Bondi and Sterling Holloway (the voice of Disney's Winnie the Pooh, Kaa the Snake, and many more) as John's mother and brother, respectively.

Remember the Night isn't particularly memorable, but it's not cloyingly sentimental either as some holiday flicks are wont to be.  And plus, Stanwyck and MacMurray are always a treat to watch.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Monday, December 29, 2014

Movie Review - Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return

Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return (2014)
Featuring the vocal talents of Lea Michele, Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi, Kelsey Grammer, Hugh Dancy, Megan Hilty, Oliver Platt, Patrick Stewart, Bernadette Peters, and Martin Short 
Directed by Will Finn and Daniel St. Pierre
***This film is currently strewing on Netflix***

$70 million was spent on Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return -- an animated film that picks up right where the popular and iconic 1939 film ends.  Where that dough was spent, I don't know.

Was it spent on a voice cast picked straight out of a 1980s casting call?  Although I can't say anything bad about their work in the film, Dan Aykroyd as the Scarecrow, Jim Belushi as the Lion, Kelsey Grammer as the Tin Man, Oliver Platt as an owl, Bernadette Peters as Glinda the Good Witch, Martin Short as the "evil" Joker, and Patrick Stewart as a tree stump (you read that correctly) likely aren't raking in the dough.  Although rumors of her diva antics run rampant, I can't fathom that Lea Michele's agents were able to snag a boatload of cash for their client either despite the fact that Michele takes on the role of Dorothy.  While all of the voice cast does acceptable work, the money wasn't spent there.

Was it spent on the conglomeration of songwriters (including 90s staple Bryan Adams) who contribute a song or two to the plot?  If it was, that was certainly not money well spent as the songs are laughably disappointing.  Yes, Lea Michele's voice fits many of the ballads well, but the numbers lack emotion and sound much too similar to one another to merit distinction.

Was it spent on the animation?  I sure hope not.  The film looks little better than a cheaply made computer animated tv show.  Yes, some of the design elements are innovative in that they take the world of Oz (originally created by L. Frank Baum although this story [which is a retread of The Wizard of Oz but simply places new characters in the place of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion] is based on the work of his grandson) and shine a light on its fantastical lands, but the characters themselves are wooden, static, and as bland as can be.

So where was that $70 million spent?  Certainly not on this film, right?  They inadvertently added a zero after that seven, right?

The RyMickey Rating:  D

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Movie Review - Jersey Boys

Jersey Boys (2014)
Starring John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Vincent Piazza, MIchael Lomenda, and Christopher Walken
Directed by Clint Eastwood

I grew up listening to the fun 60s pop music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.  The story of how the group formed, became popular, and contentiously began to fall apart is told in director Clint Eastwood's Jersey Boys, an adaptation of the long-running Broadway smash musical.  I've seen the show in New York City and I found it disappointing particularly considering the fantastic songs at the musical's disposal, so I went into the film thinking that it didn't need to do much in order to improve things.

Unfortunately, Eastwood has crafted a lifeless flick without any modicum of fun or excitement.  Bathed in Eastwood's typical muted brownish color palette, the film lacks energy leading to a boring affair.  (Quite honestly, it only comes alive during the film's end credits as a choreographed routine takes place on an obvious soundstage...and even that ends rather awkwardly and uncomfortably with some weird directorial shots.)   It certainly doesn't help that the characters themselves -- however true to life they really are -- are stereotypical Italian American clichés.  On stage, I didn't care for these characterizations either, but at least the broadness of them works a little better where there is a bit more distance between the audience and the actors.  When watching a film, however, we're invited to a more intimate setting and the silly stereotypes are laughable.  John Lloyd Young reprises his Tony-winning role as Frankie Valli, but he lacks the charisma that I assume was apparent on stage to garner him that award.  His Valli is rather emotionless and doesn't carry any gravitas in scenes where emotions are necessary.

Although the Four Seasons' popular tunes don't even make an appearance until the 56-minute mark (a huge detriment here that bogs down the film's opening hour to a near glacial pace), once they arrive, they are presented in a better manner than in the Broadway show -- the film's one check in the plus column.  Here, they seem a little less shoehorned in and take place in more natural settings.  (It should be noted that if anyone is wary of watching a "movie musical," all the songs in this film are set either on stage or in a recording studio or something of that ilk.  The characters never break out into song just because they feel the need to do so.)  That isn't nearly enough to save this flick from disaster, however.  Eastwood is not someone I admire as a director in the slightest and this out-of-the-ordinary departure for him into the realm of movie musicals further exemplifies his stodgy, static, and quite frankly boring style of filmmaking.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Movie Review - Anastasia

Anastasia (1997)
Featuring the vocal talents of Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Christopher Lloyd, Hank Azaria, Bernadette Peters, Kirsten Dunst, and Angela Lansbury
Directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

First, let's dispel the notion that Anastasia is a Disney movie.  Upon its release in 1997 and in subsequent years after, the public often assumes that this Don Bluth/Gary Goldman directed feature is a Disney film.  Admittedly, the film arrived at the end of Disney's 1990s animation renaissance and Bluth and Goldman tailored the flick to mirror Disney's successes in that era.  Our title character looks like a mash-up of Ariel and Belle.  The film opens with a song sung by the townsfolk.  The typical fairy tale storyline is certainly present.  But Anastasia is not a Disney film.

That being said, this flick is actually better than I remember it being and, with the exception of one fairly major problem area, Anastasia is a success.  Granted, it simplifies the tale of the Russian Romanov family whose dynasty was overthrown by public revolt, but considering this is a film aimed at children, I'm okay with that notion.  The film weaves its tale around Anya (voiced by Meg Ryan), a teen girl who ten years prior showed up at an orphanage unaware of who she was or how she became abandoned.  It turns out that Anya is the only surviving daughter of the Romanov clan, but she has no clue of her legacy.  Out for a quick buck, young Dimitri (John Cusack) and older Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer) have set out to find a young girl who can pass for the missing Anastasia and present her to the girl's grandmother -- the Dowager Empress Marie (Angela Lansbury) -- to earn reward money.  Little do Dimitri and Vladimir know that Anya truly is Anastasia.

I must admit that I liked the plot above.  I found the premise intriguing and the internal conflicts of the above characters surprisingly mature for a film of this type.  Unfortunately, feeling the need to spice up the plot, the film flounders hugely by throwing in an unnecessary villain in Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd).  Here, Rasputin has sold his soul to the devil and is essentially dead and living in hell where is various body parts fall off for purportedly comedic effect.  Rasputin's one mission in life is to end the Romanov blood line and he'll utilize a variety of witchcraft and sorcery from his underground lair in order to achieve this.  The film doesn't need him whatsoever.  There's plenty of surprisingly emotional conflict to be had without his fake magical powers.  By placing Rasputin at the crux of the flick's denouement, the film falters greatly and ends in a disappointing fashion.

Animation-wise the film is solid, but I don't think it can really compare to the Disney films of the era (although I'll soon find that out as we continue on our Disney Discussion journey).  However, I appreciated the voice acting, particularly that of John Cusack who admittedly isn't doing much else other than being the stuttering John Cusack who we all know, but for some reason proves successful.  I found the songs and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty quite good as well and much better than I remembered them being.  While it's certainly true the songwriters and screenwriters are following the Disney formula, it's a formula that works.

I must say that I didn't go into this expecting to enjoy it at all, but I found Anastasia a surprisingly solid animated film with an admittedly major flaw.  Remove that and the flick would've been great, but with it, it just ends up lukewarm.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Monday, December 22, 2014

Movie Review - What If

What If (2014)
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Megan Park, Adam Driver, Mackenzie Davis, and Rafe Spall
Directed by Michael Dowse

I've started many a review with something along the lines of "I'm a sucker for romantic comedies," and this statement continues to ring true with the absolutely charming What If, a tiny indie flick that was released in a theaters for a quick and decisively financially unsuccessful run this past summer.

Who knew Harry Potter himself Daniel Radcliffe had the wit in him to portray a dryly humorous, self-effacing, and hopeless romantic like Wallace, a med school dropout who meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan) at a party thrown by his best friend Allan (Adam Driver).  Upon walking her home, Wallace learns that Chantry has a longterm boyfriend in Ben (Rafe Spall) and wants more than anything else to simply be friends with Wallace whom she's hit it off with right away in terms of their likes, dislikes, and personalities.  The two were made for each other -- it's obvious.  Unfortunately, Chantry really loves Ben.  Also unfortunately, Wallace finds himself falling for Chantry more and more with each passing month, yet he also drifts further and further from being able to tell her his true feelings as they shift deeper and deeper into the "friend zone."

The film of course veers down an expected path which, I was surprised to discover, I found a tiny bit annoying.  I was hoping for maybe a "twist" at the film's conclusion, but writer Elan Mastai chickens out just a little bit.  Admittedly, I would've probably written the same ending as that's what's totally expected of a film like this, but as the flick came to a close I was hoping I'd be in for something a little off the beaten path.  Still, Matsai succeeds at creating two characters whose wit and dry humor are a perfect match for each other and also truly amusing to watch.  Radcliffe and Kazan are both fantastic in their roles, displaying a great amount of chemistry.  While Radcliffe was quite the surprise (I wasn't a fan of the Harry Potter series, so I was impressed here), Kazan proves once again that she's someone to watch.  I thought she was great in 2012's Ruby Sparks (a very different romantic comedy), but I was quite pleased to see her onscreen again as she hasn't done much since then.

Much like the "sucker for romantic comedies" line, I also tend to pull out the "but it doesn't reinvent the wheel" clause more often than I probably should.  That said, it's an apt phrase for What If...but that doesn't really matter.  What If will win you over with two sweet performances and a youthful cast that imbues humor into a story we've certainly seen portrayed many times before.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Friday, December 19, 2014

Movie Review - Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas (2014)
Starring Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, Joe Swanberg, and Lena Dunham
Directed by Joe Swanberg
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

I am not a huge fan of the mumblecore genre of film which focuses on low budgeted flicks about twenty somethings with much improvised dialog.  I'm not quite sure I've seen a film that prides itself on being a mumblecore-based flick and enjoyed it.  Unfortunately, Happy Christmas doesn't really change my mind.  Writer-director Joe Swanberg's film isn't the least bit exciting or interesting enough for us to really care about anything occurring in it.

The film's premise is pretty simple:  Jenny (Anna Kendrick) just broke up with her boyfriend and moves in with her brother Jeff (Joe Swanberg), his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), and their toddler son Jude (the absolutely adorable and scene-stealing Jude Swanberg).  Although only slightly younger than Jeff, Jenny acts much younger than her twenty-nine years should show.  She immediately hits the town with her friend Carson (Lena Dunham) and after a night of drinking and pot-smoking, Jenny's lackadaisical attitude stands in stark contrast to Kelly's who has to focus on running a household and taking care of young Jude.

Happy Christmas attempts to have Jenny's carefree lifestyle invigorate Kelly to "want more" out of her life, but that storyline just meanders along without ever really making a statement.  Similarly, any sense of a character arc for Jenny is nonexistent.  I'm not quite sure she learns anything from the beginning of the film to the end of it and I'm fairly certain she was supposed to achieve some sort of enlightenment.

While the actors are all decent, Joe Swanberg's script is just too bland to resonate.  Swanberg's young son Jude is fantastic -- although considering his youthful age, there really wasn't any acting involved, just innate charm -- but the young kid can't buoy an otherwise blasé film.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Movie Review - In Fear

In Fear (2014)
Starring Iain De Caestecker, Alice Englert, and Allen Leech
Directed by Jeremy Lovering
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

While the two leads in In Fear -- Iain De Caestecker and Alice Englert -- are certainly appealing and adept at providing the correct amount of the titular emotion, this three person horror flick doesn't quite have the oomph to elevate it beyond the average.  A low budget feature to be sure, In Fear follows Tom and Lucy (played by the aforementioned actors) as they make their way to a music festival at a small town in Ireland.  The couple has only been together for two weeks, but Tom has booked an overnight stay at a small hotel in hopes of wooing Lucy a bit more.  On the way to the hotel, however, Tom and Lucy get lost in a maze of back roads and they seemingly appear to be getting sabotaged by someone moving around signs that lead them back to their starting points.  Unable to figure out a way out of the labyrinthine roads in the dark, with their car running out of gas, and the threat of a masked person popping up every so often in the dark woods in which they are trapped, Tom and Lucy find themselves panicking, ratcheting up their fear -- perhaps unjustly or justly so.

Taking place nearly entirely in their car and in "almost" real-time, In Fear succeeds at creating tension at times.  Admittedly, it takes a while to get started, but I appreciated the opportunity to get to know these two characters whom we spend so much time with.  Unfortunately, in that initial act, I got  the impression that this would be a taut psychological thriller dealing with the way man lets fear take over.  Instead, as the film's final act comes into view, some rather silly backstory involving a mysterious man comes to the forefront and the ending proves to be a bit unsatisfying.

The RyMickey Rating: C-

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Movie Review - Begin Again

Begin Again (2014)
Starring Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine, James Corden, Cee-Lo Green, Mos Def, and Catherine Keener
Directed by John Carney

The shadow of John Carney's fantastic film Once hangs above his latest flick Begin Again and unfortunately, the comparisons don't work in this 2014's film's favor.  Everything from the story to the music to the emotional heart lack when Begin Again is stacked up next to Once.  There's no resonating feeling upon the conclusion of this Keira Knightley-Mark Ruffalo starrer, instead emanating a feeling of light fluff that we've seen before numerous times.

Knightley is Gretta, a songwriter, who moves to New York with her singer boyfriend Dave (Maroon 5's Adam Levine) after one of his tunes hits the charts in a big way after being featured on a movie soundtrack.  Unfortunately, as is seemingly de rigueur for that profession, Dave cheats on Gretta while on a promotional tour and Gretta walks out on him.  Saddened, she finds herself in a bar in which her friend Steve (James Corden) convinces her to sing one of her tunes to the public.

While her song doesn't go over too well, it's a hit with Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a just fired long-time music executive who was drowning his sorrows in liquor.  However, upon hearing Gretta's tune, he finds himself reinvigorated to join the workforce again.

Obviously, Gretta's and Dan's stories merge, but there ultimately isn't that much payoff.  The film goes pretty much exactly where we expect it go.  (Some who've watched the film may argue with that assessment, but I thought it was the only logical way it could go for these characters.)  Unfortunately, neither Gretta nor Dan is all that interesting and while I appreciated their desire to create music for the masses eschewing the corporate bigwigs, their tale just felt empty.

Although the cast is good -- Ruffalo and Knightley are charming and Knightley in particular is really coming into her own as of late in the acting department -- they can't liven up the story enough.  The music, although perfectly acceptable, isn't all that fantastic either.  For a movie ensconced in the music industry, I feel like I should want to download a song or two at the film's conclusion and that didn't happen -- although, admittedly, I did add one song to my iTunes wish list so it may happen eventually.

Perhaps it's unfair to compare this film to Once.  Even if it is, Begin Again is nothing better than average.  Pleasant, but trite.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Monday, December 15, 2014

Movie Review - The Purge: Anarchy

The Purge: Anarchy (2014)
Starring Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, and Zoë Soul
Directed by James DeMonaco

The Purge: Anarchy picks up one year after the original Purge storyline, although the two films share no connection other than the overarching theme of "The Purge" -- a once-a-year twelve-hour period in which American citizens can commit any crime without worry of legal ramifications.  I found the first film to contain an interesting concept but the execution in the story and direction were huge disappointments.  Needless to say, seeing as how the director-screenwriter James DeMonaco returned for a second go around here, I had no hopes for this one -- particularly considering that 2013's The Purge landed on my Worst of 2013 list.

In Anarchy, DeMonaco fleshes out the overarching governmental aspects of The Purge while at the same time nicely balancing a story about a quintet of people who are forced to face the 2023 Purge head-on on the streets of Los Angeles.  We've got a father (Frank Grillo) bent on revenge towards someone who wronged his family, an economically struggling mother and daughter (Carmen Ejogo and Zoë Soul) who want nothing to do with The Purge but are drawn into it by a seemingly random act that perhaps wasn't so random, and a bickering couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) whose car breaks down mere minutes before the start of this year's Purge.  Rather surprisingly, all of these characters' storylines work and although they certainly aren't deep or particularly fascinating, they are a significant step up from the original The Purge which I faulted for some ridiculous plot holes that ruined that initial experience.  In addition, as I previously mentioned, DeMonaco begins to detail the governmental push behind the Purge, hinting at the fact that the government is utilizing this horrid event to cleanse the country of its poor since the underprivileged are the ones taking part in the event the most.

While The Purge: Anarchy is definitely an upgrade from the last film, DeMonaco's script still feels a little bland considering the intriguing concept.  Despite the twists concerning the US government, the story involving the quintet of characters is really just a ninety minute-long cat-and-mouse chase as they try and outrun those Purgers who are hunting them down.  Fortunately, the actors bring a surprising amount of heart and believability to the flick with nary a one of the main five being disappointing.  They certainly elevate their characters beyond the token roles they've been given.  Overall, color me surprised that this franchise improved in its second go-around and has me interested in the third installment.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Friday, December 12, 2014

Movie Review - The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men (2014)
Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Bob Balaban
Directed by George Clooney

Director George Clooney's The Monuments Men definitely feels like a throwback to the days when "Hogan's Heroes" was on tv.  That show went straight for the comedic aspects of WWII, but The Monuments Men attempts to mix comedy and drama and Clooney and his fellow screenwriter don't quite mesh the two together.  Unfortunately, this creates a film that never finds its footing, feeling slightly off balance all the way throughout with the comedic aspects never quite being funny enough and the dramatic aspects never quite mustering up the emotion they likely should.

Clooney's trademark charm is evident throughout the film -- and not just in his acting.  The film itself feels deeply rooted in 1960s cinema, a time when things were perhaps more innocent.  Yes, The Monuments Men is a war movie, but this is no Saving Private Ryan in terms of blood, guts, and action.  Instead, the film focuses on a band of merry older men with backgrounds in art who are brought together to retrieve important European sculptures, paintings, and other artistic media that Hitler's Nazi army took upon their take-overs of various countries.  These men -- played by Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Bob Balaban -- have no military experience yet are thrown head-first into some war-torn parts of Europe where the Nazi regime -- although now retreating as the war comes to an end -- has not quite abandoned.

Unfortunately, Clooney's desire to create a more lighthearted romp with the serious subject matter doesn't work in the film's favor.  While I understand the drive behind the film and Clooney's inclination to imbue comedy into this tragic war, the humor waters down the serious moments whenever they pop up.  Rather than feel an emotional connection to several tragic occurrences that happen in the film, the relationship the audience has with the characters isn't there in the way that it should be which is a big detriment in the film's serious moments.  Perhaps a more deft director could have righted the ship, but Clooney doesn't quite have the chops yet.  I certainly appreciate the charming vibe he brought to the piece, but The Monuments Men simply doesn't balance itself out on the scale between humor and seriousness and this off-kilter nature is its downfall.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Yet another pause in The Disney Discussion is here.  With the holiday season approaching, the time for Disney movies just won't be there, so I'm giving the Discussion a rest until January 7 at which point I'll return with the start of the Disney Renaissance with The Little Mermaid.  Here's hoping the movies of my childhood that hold such a fond place in my memory still hold up today.


Monday, December 08, 2014

Theater Review - Macbeth

Macbeth
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Leslie Riedel
Where:  Thompson Theater at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When:  Sunday, December 7, 2pm

Design Credit: REP

The University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players have previously brought us two great Shakespearean productions in their short tenure -- the fantastical A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2010 that took us to an Elizabethan Neverland and the breathless and sumptuously designed 2012 Hamlet.  Both breathed life into the Bard's words in ways I never expected and I waited with bated breath for 2014's production of Macbeth upon hearing it would be part of the season, continuing on with the REP's apparent tradition of treating us to one of Shakespeare's works every other year.

Unfortunately, this Macbeth falls quite flat.  Director Leslie Riedel's production feels inert, lacking any type of momentum with a title character (played by REP member Lee Ernst) whose purportedly rousing speeches lack the passion and drive needed to have the audience either care about the character's plight or wish for his downfall -- depending on which side of the fence you fall on regarding Macbeth's treachery.  Ernst comes alive as Macbeth in the play's final scenes, but in the nearly 100 minutes leading up to those moments, his lulling and almost lyrical intonations didn't register with this audience member.
Photo Credit: Paul Cerro

Faring better is Elizabeth Heflin as Lady Macbeth whose deviously ambitious mind sets the play's plot moving as she infiltrates her husband's psyche to convince him to murder the king in order to rule Scotland himself.  I only wish her late-in-the-play neuroses were given a little more depth.  Admittedly, it's been probably over a decade since I've had any exposure of any kind to Macbeth.  Perhaps Shakespeare didn't provide any other exposition for Lady Macbeth's character and her spiral to insanity isn't described in detail.  That said, if there is any further explanation, the decision to leave out that seemingly important character trait is surprising.

Presumably, Riedel excised some portions of the play and while this Macbeth (which ran close to two hours with no intermission) moves from scene to scene at a rapid pace, I found it disappointingly empty in terms of connecting with the characters' emotional states.  During an interesting pre-show talkback with Riedel (which proved more fruitful than the play itself), the director noted that he wanted the audience to walk away with the following thought:  "What happens when the good guy does the worst thing?"  Unfortunately, this intriguing question which should make us really ponder the intentions of the play's titular character isn't really broached at all.  We don't feel anything good or bad for Macbeth or his Lady or any of the people they harm.  This production unfortunately doesn't engage its audience in any way.

The REP is always solid when it comes to production values and while the set design by C. David Russell is intriguingly simplistic and modern, the costumes by Martha Hally felt like the weird birth child sired by the leftovers of REP's last production Angels in America and some glitter factory explosion.  (It should be noted, however, the use of puppets to portray the three "prophetic" witches was a nice touch that added a creepy vibe which helped those moments in the play.)  The odd musical score by Charles Gilbert seemed as if it was culled from a Twilight Zone episode and rooted the play in the past rather than making it relevant to a modern audience.

It's unfortunate that the REP couldn't make it three-for-three when it came to their Shakespeare productions, but the high expectations that came attached to Macbeth thanks to the company's previous Bard presentations did not work in this one's favor.  Perhaps Macbeth simply isn't as good of a play as Hamlet or A Midsummer Night's Dream -- I do think there's some truth to that aspect.  However, this production didn't breathe life into the Bard's words at all.

Note:  Macbeth has closed after completing its run.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Movie Review - Pompeii

Pompeii (2014)
Starring Kit Harrington, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Browning, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas, Jared Harris, and Kiefer Sutherland
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

Your guess is as good as mine as to why I watched the special effects disaster that is Pompeii.  I'm sure there's an interesting story dealing with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the desolation of the titular city in A.D. 79 -- it just isn't told here.  Instead, director Paul W.S. Anderson has created a film that looks like a horrible, cheap video game with hammy acting that rivals some of the worst you've seen in a major motion picture.  (Kiefer Sutherland chewing the scenery as the film's "baddie" and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje's stilted spoutings as a "righteous slave" are equally bad.)  Tossing in an awkward romance between a slave and a member of royalty doesn't help matters either.  The fact that this was released in theaters and not straight-to-dvd is unfathomable to me.

The RyMickey Rating:  F

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Movie Review - Enemy

Enemy (2014)
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon, and Isabella Rossellini
Directed by Denis Villeneuve

It's difficult to judge a movie that you liked all the way through only to have the final shot throw everything on its head and disappoint you, leaving you feeling lost, confused, and frustrated.  So is the case with Enemy which stars Jake Gyllenhaal as an intelligent, though seemingly troubled (or perhaps just bored), college history professor named Adam Bell who, while watching a movie one day, sees a man who looks like his twin.  Intent on finding this lookalike, Adam tracks down Anthony Claire and the two find themselves thoroughly confused by their identical looks.  The twists that happen next are best left unsaid, but the tone in which the story plays out is decidedly creepy and a little unnerving.

And that's certainly not a bad thing as director Denis Villeneuve (who brought us last year's Prisoners which also starred Gyllenhaal) certainly succeeds at keeping things a little unsettled as the film progressed.  Unfortunately, the film has an ending that the vast array of the "normal" moviegoing public will find disappointing.  Rather than give us a logical, sensical ending, the last shot throws everything into a confusing loop.  In certain films, that's okay.  We buy in from the beginning that we're going to be watching something to which we have to pay really close attention, but Enemy didn't present itself that way to me.  I was thoroughly interested in the story all the way through, but I didn't find it overly confusing or convoluted.  I thought I was watching a straightforward film that would presumably have an ending that explained itself.  Instead, the final scene left me befuddled to the point that I had to go online to see what others came up with to explain its nonsensical nature.

Admittedly, upon looking up these "answers" from the online community, I appreciated the different ideas they came up with to "solve" the movie.  However, because I didn't realize I was watching something that was going to throw me for this loop at the end, I felt a little let down.  Had I known that I had to really pay attention and really think about possible twists or "solutions" to the strange notion of doubles/twins/look-a-likes that the film sets up, I may have found the ending a bit more palatable.  Don't get me wrong -- I often like movies that throw a twist in at the end and make you question what came before.  However, oftentimes, the director keys you in on the notion that things aren't quite what they seem as the film progresses.  For some reason, I didn't get that from Villeneuve here -- although, in retrospect, I probably should have considering some of the weird quirks he brings to the table.

Still -- and here's the odd thing -- I really liked Enemy.  Jake Gyllenhaal as an actor has really come alive this year and Enemy is perhaps a better role than his already fantastic performance in Nightcrawler.  Here, Gyllenhaal needs to play two roles with differences that at first seem rather large, but grow much smaller as the film progresses.  Two seemingly polar opposite characters gradually find their characteristics and mannerisms morphing into one as Adam and Anthony get to know each one another, however Gyllenhaal is always able to easily allow the audience to delineate which character we're seeing onscreen -- and that's a huge feat as the story progresses and the two characters' lives begin to intertwine.

In the end, the odd thing about Enemy is that I want to watch it again.  Although disappointed by the conclusion and let down by the notion that this mystery required more "involvement" from the viewer than I was aware I needed to give it, I liked it quite a bit.  So, if you decide to watch it, my suggestion is to "think" while you view.  Be aware that what you're watching isn't as "straightforward" as you think and that the ending will require you to ponder everything that came before it.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Movie Review - Bad Words

Bad Words (2014)
Starring Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Ben Falcone, Philip Baker Hall, and Allison Janney
Directed by Jason Bateman

When fortysomething Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) walks into a local school spelling bee, enters the contest through a loophole in the organization's rules, and wins thereby sending him to the finals in Washington, D.C., his actions cause a little bit of an uproar and don't sit well with the chairwoman of the competition Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney).  While in the nation's capital, Guy takes the young Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) under his wing, showing the young aspiring spelling bee champion the seedy underbelly of some people's adulthood -- think alcohol, prostitutes, and fast cars. While Guy thinks that his corruption of Chaitanya will help him succeed in the competition, young Chaitanya ends up finding Guy's friendship endearing.

Jason Bateman's directorial debut Bad Words is an amusing flick, though its characters are certainly less than likable.  In and of itself, that's not a bad thing, but the film chickens out a bit at the end by attempting to give Guy a bit of a heart which unfortunately stands in stark contrast to his demeanor in the film's first two acts.

Bateman (as a director and as an actor) is at his best in his scenes with the young Rohan Chand (who certainly brings the necessary amount of charm to counter Bateman's character's snark) and these moments definitely elevate the film beyond the average.  Unfortunately, this sense of comedic timing and witty repartee doesn't manifest itself in scenes with any other characters.  Therefore, the film falls a bit flat when focusing on Guy's backstory (why he took on and spited the national spelling bee) and his relationship with a roving reporter (played by Kathryn Hahn whom I usually like, but found her character here to bring the film to a halt through no fault of her own).  Bad Words works at times, but isn't as fully realized as it could be.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The Disney Discussion - Oliver & Company

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 #27 of The Disney Discussion
Oliver & Company (1988)
Featuring the voice talents of Joey Lawrence, Billy Joel, Cheech Marin, Richard Mulligan, Roscoe Lee Browne, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Dom DeLuise, Robert Loggia, and Bette Midler 
Directed by George Scribner

Summary (in 150 words or less):
Oliver is an orphaned kitten in 1980s New York City who is befriended by laid-back dog Dodger.  Dodger's owner is a pickpocket named Fagin who, on a daily basis, sends Dodger and four other mutts out onto the streets of NYC to scrounge up whatever they can find that's worth any bit of value.  On one such daily mission, Oliver, who had been staying with Fagin, gets picked up by a little girl named Jenny who takes the orphaned kitty back to her home on Fifth Avenue.  Fagin is in a bit of a bind, owing a large sum of money to the ruthless loan shark Sykes, so when he discovers that Oliver was "adopted" by a rich Fifth Avenue New Yorker, his brain begins to shift towards the idea of kidnapping the cat in order to pay off his debts.

Facts and Figures
Oliver & Company is the Walt Disney Company's 27th full-length animated feature film and was released on November 18, 1988.

Oliver & Company made $53.2 million in its original run in 1988 and has grossed $74 million overall domestically.  Interestingly, Disney decided to release Oliver and Company on the same day as Don Bluth's The Land Before Time.  Bluth's film actually scored the #1 spot on opening weekend, but ended up making $5 million less than Oliver in its original run.  However, The Land Before Time proved to be a bigger success overseas than Oliver.  Critics like The Land Before Time better as well. To me, this is the most interesting release date information we've looked at so far.  I'm sure there's a story as to why both animated films aiming at the same market opened on the same date.  Obviously, there was some "stand your ground, Showdown at the OK Corral, who's got the bigger cojones"-type stuff going on, but I have to think that the two movies cannibalized each other in some way.

In the awards races, Oliver & Company failed to garner any Oscar buzz, however, it was nominated for Best Song at the Golden Globes for "Why Should I Worry."

One more interesting tidbit -- Oliver & Company is the first Disney animated feature to have its own department set up exclusively for the purpose of generating computer animation -- cars, cabs, buses, Sykes' limousine, Fagin's tricycle, a cement mixer, sewer pipes, piano, spiral staircase, subway tunnels and trains, and the Brooklyn Bridge were all created with the assistance of computers.

Let the Discussion Begin...
Based on Charles Dickens' lengthy Oliver Twist, Oliver & Company feels like a movie that has much more story to tell than its 73 minutes allows.  Characters aren't really given time to connect with one another before they're whisked off to the next segment of the story.  This unfortunately leads to a slightly episodic tone and a lack of emotional connection with the characters and their plights.  (I knew that Dickens published many of his works in a serialized manner and, upon doing a bit of research, Oliver Twist was one such book.  So, perhaps the novel [which I've never read] is episodic in nature to begin with.)
The animators explored a little grungier side than we're used to seeing in Oliver & Company.  The New York City depicted here is filled with graffiti, trash, and gigantic billboards (the only time product placement finds itself in a Disney animated film), all of which combine to make it feel natural and real.  In addition, rather appropriately, in order to get a dog's-eye perspective of NYC, the film's art director and production designer went to the Big Apple and photographed street scenes from eighteen inches off the ground.  The attention to detail that this created is certainly noticeable.  Not only is the setting appropriate, but the character designs here are also solid.  The members of Fagin's dog crew all feel individualized and the humans each have their own personas as well.  Fagin's lanky physique and heartfelt comedic tone stand in stark contrast to the villainous Sykes' towering and looming figure, each playing nicely off one another and animated in their own distinct tones.  Only young Jenny feels like a "been there, seen that" kind of character, but I think that's more inherent to the generic nature of her storyline than anything else.

Oliver & Company opens with a song and after the last two Disney animated films had all but abandoned the musical genre, this one tries to bring music back to the forefront.  Unlike most other Disney films, each of the movie's five songs were written by different composers.  Although the songs work together in terms of sounding intrinsic to both the characters and the setting, some numbers fare better than others.  Howard Ashman -- who went on to great success in Disney's forthcoming animated features -- co-wrote the film's opening number "Once Upon a Time in New York City" with Barrry Mann.  Sung in voiceover by 80s pop superstar Huey Lewis, the song is a bit laughable in that it sounds like a Christopher Cross ditty reminiscent of Tootsie, but the piece does its job by introducing us to the young kitten Oliver and his plight.
The film's most successful number is "Why Should I Worry" written by Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight and sung by Billy Joel who voices the character of Dodger.  As Dodger careens through New York City, Joel's charisma and surprisingly decent vocal acting chops add quite a bit to the otherwise generic number.  Yet another 80s icon, Bette Midler, provides the voice for Jenny's pampered pooch Georgette and, of course, Midler gets to churn out a tune -- this one co-written by Barry Manilow.  The song introduces us to Georgette and her uppityness (along with her slightly Lauren Bacall-esque looking face), but the number comes on a bit too suddenly and doesn't quite fit in as well as it maybe could.
The less said about "Streets of Gold," the better (seriously...why is this throwaway tune even in this flick seeing as how it's seemingly the birth child in sound and subject matter of both "Once Upon a Time in New York City" and "Why Should I Worry") which leaves us the surprisingly charming "Good Company" -- a montage in which we see Jenny and Oliver's burgeoning relationship.  However, this number also feels the most reminiscent of Disney movies in the past.  Whereas the other songs in the film feel as if they are rooted in the 1980s (an idea which some viewers may very well hate), this one feels a little 1970s-ish.

As I mentioned above, Oliver & Company feels a bit episodic and because of the need for its various story lines to come together by the film's end, all of the aforementioned songs are placed in the film's opening forty minutes.  Admittedly, the film's rather exciting conclusion doesn't warrant songs, but it will become obvious in future films that Disney's storytellers became more adept at better positioning songs throughout their flicks.
Speaking of the exciting (though ludicrous) conclusion, Oliver & Company is actually quite thrilling in its climactic moments.  Sykes may not have magical powers or sorcery in his grasp, but he's a nasty thug whose evil is palpable.  Unfortunately, he's such a minor character in the film's opening fifty minutes that any fear we're supposed to feel isn't as strong as it probably should be.  While his comeuppance is shockingly brutal, we don't quite feel as "happy" as we should upon his defeat.

Random Thoughts
...while watching the film...
  • As an adult, despite the fact that more than ten years have passed, I still find it a little off-putting whenever I see the World Trade Center's two towers in some entertainment setting.  I certainly don't want these images removed from movies and tv shows, but it does take you out of the piece for a split second.
  • The finale in the subway and on a subway bridge is ridiculous, but surprisingly intense -- dogs getting electrocuted and head-on collisions with subways resulting in flames!
Final Analysis
(Does It Belong in the Revered Disney Pantheon and How Does It Stack Up to Past Films?)
Oliver & Company is an enjoyable enough diversion, but the film lacks a through-line in terms of its story.  I can't help but feel like there were several moments left on the storyboards that never made it to the film that would've helped the audience get to know and connect with the film's characters.  While certainly not a bad film, Oliver & Company never really succeeds at any particular aspect.  It's a bit hollow, lacking the heart that we come to want in Disney's animated films.  I liked the flick (which I hadn't seen in a long time), but I can't say it belongs in the Revered Disney Pantheon.

The RyMickey Rating: C+

Join us next Wednesday for The Little Mermaid, the 28th film in The Disney Discussion.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Movie Review - Locke

Locke (2014)
Starring Tom Hardy and the voice talents of Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Tom Holland, Andrew Scott, and Ben Daniels
Directed by Steven Knight

Maybe I was just remembering the trailer incorrectly, but Locke was not what I expected at all.  Previews seemed to indicate some life or death situation occurring to the title character as he raced somewhere in his car.  Nope.  Locke is a rather simple story of Ivan Locke (played by Tom Hardy), a successful construction worker starting a build on one of the largest high rises in England, who gets a phone call one evening that forces him to abandon both the construction site and his family and drive to London to meet another woman.  I'm leaving the details of the situation out of the picture here because, quite frankly, there isn't a whole lot that happens in this movie and the details are at least an interesting aspect as the bits and pieces are unfolded for us.

Taking place entirely within the confines of Locke's fancy BMW, director Steven Knight does a nice job of keeping the visuals interesting, and while his screenplay does a solid job of detailing Locke's story through the use of a variety of telephone calls Locke makes and receives on his way to London, I didn't care as much as I should.  There's a mundaneness to the proceedings which I think is partly the point -- the universality of "this could be anyone" -- but also makes me ponder why the film needed to be made in the first place.

Tom Hardy is certainly solid here as a family man with an indiscretion that begins a downward spiral for his life and he does a good job holding our interest (which is absolutely necessary considering he's the only person we see the entire film), but I don't know if there's enough oomph here to reasonably say Locke should have ever been made.  I understand why some find this "day in the life" (or, more appropriately "ninety minutes in the life") an intriguing piece of cinema, but for me, it's just okay, leaving me feeling empty rather than any type of sympathy for its main character.

The RyMickey Rating: C

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Movie Review - The Sacrament

The Sacrament (2014)
Starring AJ Bowen, Joe Swanburg, Kentucker Audley, Amy Seimetz, and Gene Jones
Directed by Ti West
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

The Sacrament is a slow burn horror flick that takes its time to unfold which may leave some viewers wanting.  However, if you're willing to sit tight, the film packs an unsettling punch as it unravels in its documentary/"found footage" style of filmmaking.

Loosely based on the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, The Sacrament details the story of Patrick (Kentucker Audley) who receives a note from his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) asking him to come and visit her at a religious commune named Eden's Parish that she's helped build in an undisclosed, secret South American location.  Patrick works for an online news agency and his boss Sam (AJ Bowen) thinks it would be a good idea to write a story about this burgeoning religious group.  So, Patrick, Sam, and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanburg) take a helicopter to the secret location where they meet Caroline and the seemingly "normal" community of people who gave up all their personal belongings in order to move to South America and live together in a peaceful, loving, self-contained community.  Eden's Parish was founded by a revered man known as Father (Gene Jones) who deeply cares for all his "adopted" sons and daughters and wants nothing but the best for them.  However, he worries that surprise guests Sam and Jake will "out" the community to the American media and cause chaos.  Needless to say, things start to go awry.

Taking place over the course of less than 24 hours, The Sacrament works because everything in it could legitimately happen.  There aren't slashers or zombies or witches summoning the demons of hell -- this is simply what possibly could happen when religion gets slightly twisted out of control.  Towards the end of the film, I genuinely got a little uncomfortable in part because of how closely the film resembled the Jonestown Massacre which was the second largest loss of American civilian lives.  Nice performances all around elevate this as well, with particular kudos to Gene Jones as the sleazily southern Father whose docile tone hides a warped religious sensibility.

Although the documentary handheld style works well for the film, there are moments -- particularly towards the film's conclusion as tensions rise -- where the ridiculousness of the genre rears its ugly head.  One moment in particular is nearly laughable in the way the allow the viewer to continue to follow actions which would never ever be filmed.  Still, The Sacrament is a solid "horror" flick that I heartily recommend.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Monday, November 24, 2014

Movie Review - Fading Gigolo

Fading Gigolo (2014)
Starring John Turturro, Woody Allen, Vanessa Paradis, Liev Schrieber, Sharon Stone, and Sofía Vergara
Directed by John Turturro
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Fading Gigolo works best when Woody Allen and John Turturro play off each other with Allen's typical neuroses and Turturro's serious tone juxtaposing surprisingly amusingly.  Whenever their two characters are separated, however, screenwriter-director Turturro's film lags with a romance that never really blossoms to anything captivating.

Woody Allen is Woody Allen -- oh no, wait...he's Murray (who is really just Woody Allen), an aging guy whose used book store is being forced to shut down.  Desperate for money, Murray -- after visiting his dermatologist Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone) -- spitballs the idea of his single buddy Fioravante (Turturro) sleeping with his skin doctor who mentioned that she and her single friend Selina (Sofía Vergara) were interested in having a threesome.  Fiorvante balks at the notion, but then acquiesces, although Dr. Parker wants to "try him for herself" first.  Fioravante discovers that he doesn't mind sleeping with women for money and Murray enjoys the commission he's receiving for setting Fioravante up with the ladies.

In and of itself, the storyline above is at least amusing.  However, Fading Gigolo tries for heart and attempts to achieve that when Murray takes one of his girlfriend's lice-stricken kids to see Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), the widow of an Hassidic rabbi, for treatment.  Avigal is in pain (both physical and emotional) and Murray convinces her to come and see Fioravante whom Murray says is a massage therapist.  Fioravante almost immediately has a connection with Avigal and the two begin a relationship that doesn't exactly go over well with Avigal's Jewish neighbors.

Unfortunately, the whole Avigal story -- which is really the bulk of the movie -- falls flat.  Avigal as a character is emotionally stilted and quite blasé.  While that's no fault of Vanessa Paradis' portrayal, the lack of vigor in her character brings the film to a halt whenever she's onscreen.  I never really believed the connection between Avigal and Fioravante either which I think is important to latch onto in order to care about the proceedings.  The Murray-Fioravante teaming was amusing, but the rest of Fading Gigolo lacks oomph.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Movie Review - Birdman

Birdman (2014)
Starring Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, and Lindsay Duncan
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

Talk about overhyped Oscar bait.

Birdman is the story of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who, in the early 90s starred in a series of popular comic book movies in which he starred as Birdman, but has found his career in a downturn after he refused to partake in the fourth entry of the series decades ago.  Now, in an attempt to revitalize his career and make himself relevant, Thomson is adapting a Raymond Carver book -- "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" -- to the stage by acting, directing, and starring in the production, but is finding the process much more difficult and much less rewarding than he expected.

Of course the "meta" self-referential aspect of Birdman and how it relates to Michael Keaton's own Hollywood trajectory has been much discussed and that's certainly an intriguing aspect to director/co-screenwriter Alejandro González Iñárritu's film.  However, a film needs a little more substance than "meta" in order to work.

Birdman works best and is most interesting when it details the inner workings of putting on a Broadway show and how an actor's dramatic process works.  The script is good at not taking itself too seriously all of the time and the comedic jabs at the entertainment industry and the sometimes self-important Hollywood actors and drama critics are enjoyable.  Unfortunately, whenever the film focuses on Riggan's sense of worthlessness -- which is the key element of the film -- I found myself being bored and completely uninterested.  With his lawyer/agent (Zach Galifianakis) pressuring him to soldier on with the play in order to make much-needed money, his just-out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone) hating her job as her father's new assistant, his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) showing up to support him in his new Broadway endeavor, and his current girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) sharing the stage with him and announcing that she's pregnant, Riggan's world is chaotic.  Despite the constant cacophony, however, there's not much there there.  The script tosses in an element of weird telekinesis thing with Riggan and various objects that I'm sure means something about the guy's emotional state, but just read kooky to me and not the least bit interesting.  (I could delve more into meaning if I desired, but I don't desire.)

Iñárritu presents the film as one continuous take and the technique is admittedly impressive and surprisingly not detrimental to the production.  Rather than stand out, the lack of cuts allows us to constantly be in the moment with the characters, giving a naturalness to the events of the film.  Despite this unique cinematic technique, I was thoroughly impressed with the fact that it never "felt" like a technique.  Kudos for that.

Kudos also to Edward Norton who is the most impressive member of the cast, taking on the role of Mike, a famous Broadway actor who joins Riggan's play at the last minute when one of the cast members is rendered incapable of performing.  Mike butts heads right away with Riggan, and Norton and Keaton's scenes together are the best in the flick.  However, Norton's so good that he makes Keaton look like a bad actor.  Then again, maybe that was the point.  I wasn't all that impressed with Keaton's Riggan, but maybe I wasn't supposed to be.  Maybe he wasn't supposed to be a fantastic actor after all.

I don't know.  I feel like there's so much I could say about Birdman, yet I've funnily enough got nothing to say about it at the same time.  The film is...interesting...but it's not the least bit riveting (a la Whiplash) or touching (a la The Fault in Our Stars) or simply entertaining (a la Gone Girl).  I didn't hate the experience, but I wasn't won over by any aspect of it.  While the behind-the-scenes moments provided a glimpse into a world we don't often see, the characters of Birdman didn't really intrigue me.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Friday, November 21, 2014

Movie Review - Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler (2014)
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, and Bill Paxton
Directed by Dan Gilroy

Despite a great performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, the tale of a bug-eyed scrap metal thief who discovers a penchant for becoming a freelance videographer on the streets of Los Angeles that is Nightcrawler doesn't quite have the bite to fully embrace its obvious attempt at criticizing the news industry's incessant need to shock for ratings.

Gyllenhaal is at his best as Louis Bloom, trimmed down significantly so that his gaunt look stands in juxtaposition to his character's headstrong nature.  Fast talking and quite manipulative, Gyllenhaal's Louis makes us feel uneasy while watching him much as he makes those around him a tad uncomfortable too.  By far the best part of Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal is impressive here fully embodying the character and making the film worth watching for him alone.

Unfortunately, screenwriter Dan Gilroy's directorial debut doesn't match Gyllenhaal's talent.  As a director and in terms of visual aesthetics, Gilroy actually presents a rather fascinating look at the underbelly of a industry and he does so with success in terms of creating a dark and grimy atmosphere.  His screenplay, however, falls a bit short.  First, I never quite bought the concept that a news station would actually purchase and air the rather disturbing images Louis brings to them.  Funnily enough, after watching the film, I've paid much more attention to stories on the local news and none of them have come close to matching the horrors that Louis brings to the newsroom of Rene Russo's Nina, a producer of an early am local news show in LA.  I simply didn't buy into the critique that the film seemed to be selling about local news pushing the envelope.  Had this been a cable news station or perhaps some online news organization, the concept may have been a bit more plausible to me.  I admit that this may seem like an odd fault to find in the film, but not "believing" what it was trying to pitch to me made it more difficult to get behind the flick's premise.

Second, while Louis is a well-conceived (though freaky) character, the rest of the film is inhabited by one note personas that can't hold a candle to Louis's idiosyncrasies.  Russo, in particular, is wasted here, given essentially only reaction shots to Louis's craziness.  Desperate for stories that can keep her job relevant to her bosses, I just couldn't buy into the fact that she would sell her soul (essentially) to Louis to keep her job secure.

Despite my qualms, however, I think Nightcrawler has more pros going for it than cons.  It's a bit slow moving, but Gyllenhaal's presence is so intriguing that you oftentimes forget that not much is going on around him.  It's a decent flick, but not one into which I could completely buy the premise it was selling.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Movie Review - Whiplash

Whiplash (2014)
Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, and Paul Reiser
Directed by Damien Chazelle


"There are no two words more harmful in the English language than 'good job.'"


Whiplash by the viciously harsh college jazz band instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) who cares not a smidgen about his students' emotional well-being, only about doing whatever it takes to get his fledgling musicians to the peak of their performance capabilities.  Not one to mince words (those students easily offended by sexual harassment or foul language need not venture into his classroom), Fletcher invites freshman Andrew (Miles Teller) to sit in and play drums with his elite jazz ensemble at Shaffer Conservatory of Music (a fictionalized Julliard), only to use Andrew's foibles (his mother left him as a kid, his father's failed at achieving his dream as a writer) against him in a wickedly abusive teacher-student relationship.  Verbal abuse quickly turns into physical abuse and Andrew's father (Paul Reiser) begins to question whether Andrew's strive to be the best drummer in his class may be overtaking his common sense in allowing this professor to treat him in such a way.
That strikingly powerful sentiment is voiced in the film

The funny thing about Whiplash is that its story is actually incredibly simplistic, but what it brings to the table is strikingly realistic picture of two men struggling to be the best and their co-dependent bond that links them together.  Fletcher wants to find "the one" -- the student who will become the "new jazz great."  He feels the only way to achieve that is to push his students to places they've never gone before emotionally by never coddling them and treating them as harshly as possible in order to reach this goal.  Andrew has wanted nothing more for his life than to be a fantastic drummer.  He sees Fletcher's tactics as helping him realize this dream and despite his hatred towards the man's caustic nature, he respects him since Andrew sees Fletcher as the only one who could possibly believe in him.  (In a fantastic moment, Andrew's family turns on him, belittling him in a similar way to Fletcher which seemingly makes Andrew wonder where exactly he can turn to for guidance in his life if not to Fletcher.)

While the film makes small inroads towards a romance for Andrew (in a successfully simplistic way, I may add), Whiplash is about its two main characters brought to life by J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller.  While I placed Teller on my RyMickey Awards list of Breakthroughs of 2013, I worried that his characters would be nothing more than smug pricks, but that's not the case here at all and it pleased me considerably.  When the film began I found myself doubting that any sane person would put up with Fletcher's nonsense.  However, as the flick progresses, Teller convinced me that Andrew needed Fletcher in order to succeed, calloused and bleeding fingers and all.  The fluctuating emotions of cockiness to depression were pitch perfect and Teller convincingly portrays the struggle of a gifted prodigy without ever losing a sense of "being normal" which is a characteristic we often see in flicks that focus on wunderkinds.

With a shaved head, dressed all in black with a tight t-shirt showing off his muscular stature, J.K. Simmons' Terence Fletcher is an imposing figure right off the bat.  We in the audience can't take our eyes off the guy despite the fact that no student is safe from his brutality and manipulative demeanor. It's a privilege to be selected to be in his jazz band -- the oxymoronic notion of that statement isn't lost on the viewer as one has to wonder why anyone would subject themselves to this type of emotional and physical torture.  Towards the end of the film, Simmons has a small monologue (of which the opening quote of this review stems from) and while it doesn't necessarily make us see the character in a new light, it allows us to understand the character's motivations.  Simmons is a powerhouse here and perfectly conveys who Fletcher is by the time the end credits roll.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle (who also wrote the incredibly enjoyable Grand Piano earlier this year -- which is streaming on Netflix, so watch it) is a relative newcomer to the scene, but he brings such a sense of realism to the music world that there isn't a moment in Whiplash that feels disingenuous.  Making a film that focuses on jazz music is a feat unto itself, but finding new and unique ways as the film progresses to showcase a guy banging on a drum shows talent.  The flick feels fresh and vibrant despite oftentimes taking place in small, sterile, music studio spaces.  The struggle and difficult relationship between student and mentor has been tackled in films numerous times before, but Chazelle has created a thrilling experience in Whiplash that I'm still thinking about long after the movie has finished.

The RyMickey Rating:  A-

The Disney Discussion - The Great Mouse Detective

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 26 of The Disney Discussion
The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Featuring the voice talents of Vincent Price, Barrie Ingham, Val Bettin, Susanne Pollatschek, and Alan Young
Directed by John Musker, Ron Clements, Dave Michener, and Burny Mattinson

Summary (in 150 words or less):
London 1897.  Hiram Flaversham, a toymaker (and also a mouse), is mousenapped one evening as his young daughter Olivia hides from her father's captor.  Seeking help, Olivia stumbles upon David Dawson who, after hearing her story, takes her to the residence of the renowned Basil of Baker Street -- the mouse equivalent of Sherlock Holmes.  Basil, along with Dawson and Olivia, begin searching for Hiram only to discover that he's been taken by the nefarious Ratigan who has a plan to overtake the Queen Mouse (ie. mouse equivalent of the Queen Mum) and rule over England's mouse population with the help of a toy Queen built by the toymaker.

Facts and Figures
The Great Mouse Detective is the Walt Disney Company's twenty-sixth full-length animated feature film and was released on July 2, 1986.

Although certainly put into production before the failure of The Black Cauldron, that film's huge budget caused The Great Mouse Detective to find its initial $24 million budget slashed by almost half to $14 million.  Because of this, the film ended up being profitable for Disney although not hugely so as it managed to make $25 million at the box office upon its initial release.

However, Disney was trepidatious after The Black Cauldron that animation was passé and the moderate success of The Great Mouse Detective paved the way for the company's animation renaissance a few years down the line.

Let the Discussion Begin...
I must say that I'm a little bit surprised by my reaction to The Great Mouse Detective.  I was expecting to thoroughly enjoy this one, but I found it disappointingly boring for my taste.  Something about it didn't quite click for me upon this watch and it took me a couple sittings to make it through the short 72-minute film.  The caveat to this aforementioned complaint, however, is that I can't quite pinpoint what I didn't enjoy.  There's nothing egregiously bad about the film, yet there also isn't anything that I can write about with much passion (in either a positive or negative way).  The film sort of just "exists" for me and sometimes that's the worst type of thing for a film to do.
Animation-wise, the film is a solid piece of work in terms of character design.  Despite all being mice, each character has his or her own distinct look and the directors also did a nice job in differentiating the voices of the main cast so that personalities are reflected through the vocals as well.  Admittedly, however, the film fails at really feeling overly theatrical with the exception of the climactic chase scene amongst the working cogs and gears of Big Ben (which utilizes computer animation for the second time in a Disney feature).  While everything is animated with a deft hand (unlike some of that disappointing work we saw in the '70s with The Aristocats as an example), there aren't any particular shining moments.  Considering the backdrop of London that is at this film's disposal, it's a little disappointing.
We seemingly just scratch the surface of the characters as well.  Had the film been a bigger success (and were Disney in the market for producing sequels), The Great Mouse Detective would have been the perfect film to launch a series of pictures and go a bit more in depth with the characters of Basil and Dawson.  Obviously, the overall piece an homage to Sherlock Holmes whom Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had solve many a case and presumably with each new mystery the audience grew to know more about Holmes and Watson.  In this film, we get very little background and very little information as to why Basil and Dawson would've formed any type of relationship.  Sure, they're thrown into a mystery, but I never really felt their connection to one another which, in turn, made me not connect much with the characters.
Surprisingly, I expected Vincent Price's voice work as the evil Ratigan to be...well...more evil.  Instead -- and obviously this is my mind playing tricks on me from my youth -- he's more of a hammy villain than I remembered.  Granted, many Disney villains have a comedic aspect to them, but there's often still this overarching sense of dread.  That never really comes to fruition with Ratigan.  Price, whose voice is oftentimes so deliciously terrifying, doesn't ever come close to that here.  While he has moments of maliciousness, it never really amounts to much.
Perhaps part of that reason is because the first time we encounter Ratigan, he and his lackies sing a song about his maniacal nature.  "The World's Greatest Criminal Mind" is a catchy tune (and actually contains the moment that I think Ratigan is at his most ruthless), but it's played for laughs and it immediately sets up a contradictory notion for the audience.  Is this guy played for jokes or played for scares?  I don't think the film quite knows what to do with him and that's a disappointment.

In addition to "The World's Greatest Criminal Mind," two other songs are found in the film, but neither resonate much or do anything to advance the plot.  The Black Cauldron succeeded in part because it didn't contain superfluous songs -- The Great Mouse Detective would've been wise to nix its tunes as well.

Random Thoughts
...while watching the film...
  • The nastiness of Ratigan is shown early on when Bartholomew, one of Ratigan's men, calls him a "rat" as opposed to a "mouse" and the evil genius rings a tiny bell that summons his cat Felicia who promptly eats Bartholomew.  It's rather ingeniously set up in shadows and surprisingly packs an evil punch -- the only truly evil punch in the film.
  • Cigarettes and booze in Disney animated movies...aah...the good old days of less than thirty years ago!  Throw in sultry cancan dancers and you've got stuff you'd never see in Disney movies now!
  • The voice of Flaversham sounded so familiar -- Alan Young was also the voice of Scrooge McDuck!  It was nice to hear him in a feature-length motion picture!
Final Analysis
(Does It Belong in the Revered Disney Pantheon and How Does It Stack Up to Past Films?)
Although I didn't remember it all that well, I did have fond memories of The Great Mouse Detective, but they unfortunately did not prove warranted upon this viewing.  The film just fails to garner any excitement for any aspect of its production.  When everything is just average, your film can't really overcome that.  Because of this notion, The Great Mouse Detective will not be joining the fellow members of the revered Disney Pantheon.

The RyMickey Rating: C

Join us in two weeks  for Oliver and Company, the 27th film in The Disney Discussion.