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Letterboxd Reviews

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

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Movie Review - Passion

Passion (2013)
Starring Rachel McAdams, Noomi Rapace, Karoline Herfurth, and Paul Anderson
Directed by Brian De Palma
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Passion is an English-language remake of the 2011 French film Love Crime, a movie that wasn't very good to begin with, but almost landed in the guilty pleasure realm because of its ludicrousness.  Having disliked Love Crime, I admittedly only watched Passion because of Rachel McAdams' presence which I hoped would make the story a little more bearable.  That didn't happen.

Instead, I discovered that Passion is one of the worst films of the year.  Director Brian De Palma has always been a second-rate (or even third-rate) imitator of Alfred Hitchcock and despite the Master of Suspense's obvious influence on the director, De Palma just can't hold a candle to Hitch and his attempts to do so are laughably bad.  Having seen a few De Palma films at this point, it's obvious why he chose Passion as his passion project -- his first film in over five years.  The lesbian overtures between the two main characters were just too much for the director to pass up considering his tendency to overly sexualize his films to the point of absurdity.  (As an example, the advertising firm that the two main characters work for in this film is named "Koch."  Maybe it means nothing, but with De Palma, my mind went right to the phallic reference.)

There's no subtlety on display -- I don't think De Palma knows the meaning of that word -- and despite getting an acceptable performance out of McAdams (whose role harkens back to her Mean Girls character), Noomi Rapace gives one of the worst acting performances I've seen this year.  Admittedly, it was Rapace's awful performance that kept me watching as I wanted to see if it would land on my Worst Performances of the Year chart for the 2013 RyMickey Awards -- it most certainly will.  Overacting to the nth degree followed by acting like a limp noodle with no emotion, Rapace's eyes are just empty throughout this whole thing.  There was never a moment when I felt anything at all from her.

The film is set up as a power struggle between two women -- McAdams' Christine is a high-ranking executive in an advertising firm and Rapace's Isabelle is one of her underlings -- and when Isabelle creates an ingenious ad campaign and Christine takes credit for it, Isabelle's mind begins to shift towards revenge.  The same problem with the story in the original French film still holds true here -- sleaziness and sexiness doesn't give you the right to toss a believable plot aside and both De Palma's film and its predecessor focus solely on a Cinemax-ian late-night soft-core porny vibe than anything else.  If you want to go that route, go for it, but go all out.  Trying to balance some modicum of seriousness with the Skinemax style won't ever work.

Passion is a truly horrible piece of cinema.  If you're forced to choose between Passion and Love Crime, absolutely take the French flick.  The French language at least sounds a little sexier.

The RyMickey Rating:  F

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Movie Review - Europa Report

Europa Report (2013)
Starring Sharlto Copley, Michael Nyqvist, Christian Camargo, Anamaria Marinca, Karolina Wydra, Daniel Wu, and Embeth Davidtz
Directed by Sebastián Cordero
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Europa Report can't hold a candle to this year's other "lost in space"-themed epic Gravity, but this little low-budget found footage/documentary-style science fiction pic is actually well produced with surprisingly decent special effects and a interesting storyline that is smarter than expected.  Granted, as the film reaches its climax, it teeters out a bit getting too chaotically frantic for its own good, but it still musters up enough goodwill in its previous hour that it makes it worth a watch should its story appeal to you.

A six-person international crew is shuttling their way through space on the Europa One mission -- the first manned attempt to go beyond our moon and eventually reach one of Jupiter's moons, Europa, which is believed to contain water and, henceforth, perhaps additional life forms.  Much of the crew's privately funded mission has been aired on television, but six months into their flight, a solar flare knocks the crew out of communication with mission control.  They continue to proceed (though not without significant consequences) and eventually reach Europa at which point things expectedly take a turn for the worse.

Rather than tell its story in a linear fashion, director Sebastián Cordero and writer Philip Gelatt begin the tale as if we're watching a documentary.  We hear Dr. Unger (Embeth Davidtz), the CEO of Europa Ventures, as she narrates the tale of the six person crew.  We also hear first-hand narration from pilot Rosa Dasque (Anamaira Marinca) as she relays to us what was happening on board the shuttle while the mission was taking place.  With the documentary format and the premise that cameras were strategically placed within the shuttle for the reality tv aspect of the mission, Cordero and Gelatt jump back and forth through time, revealing pieces of the mission gradually.  Admittedly, this non-linear gimmick is probably the most disappointing aspect of the film and really is just a ploy to up the tension. Ultimately, it comes back to bite them as the film's final half hour is told linearly and feels a bit "out of place" amongst the rest of the film because of it.

Still, the director gets some nice performances out of all of his cast including District 9's Sharlto Copley and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's Michael Nyqvist being the "big names" in the group.  The cast of characters is never forced to do anything "stupid" for the sake of the plot and their actions and reactions feel genuine which is a pleasant treat for a movie that so easily could've tried to be a "thriller" or "horror" film.  The fact that Europa Report never went that route is quite admirable.  It never dumbs down its plot which is more focused on "science" than anything else and I'm sure that's the reason why it never made it out of the ten or so arthouses (if that) where it probably screened.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Movie Review - The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Milioti, and P.J. Byrne 
Directed by Martin Scorsese

Much has already been said about the language, vulgarity, and loooong running time of The Wolf of Wall Street and I'll readily admit that it's full of f-bombs, various sexual proclivities, and rampant drug use throughout its 179-minute length.  However, I enjoyed the heck out of this one, finding myself constantly smiling at the sheer absurdity of the whole affair and almost being upset that my humdrum life couldn't hold a candle to the chaotic mayhem of Jordan Belfort's.  Granted, Belfort is a womanizing, scheming crook who contains nary a moralistic bone in his body and he's a horrific sleaze of a guy so my notion of trying to vicariously live like him faded really quickly, but thanks to a glorious performance by Leonardo DiCaprio and some vivacious direction from Martin Scorsese, this movie paints a vivid picture of the true story of the infamous stockbroker who duped thousands of people into losing boatloads of money.

While the overarching theme of the film is about the stock market and that aforementioned duping of the public by Belfort, Scorsese and screenwriter Terrence Winter wisely push that aside instead focusing on the wildly outrageous shenanigans of the rich Belfort (played by DiCaprio) and his cohorts as they spend their (well-earned or illegally earned?) dough on quaaludes, cocaine, prostitutes, yachts, extravagant homes, jewelry, flying dwarfs...I could go on and on.  Seeing the world of excess is admittedly at first a little exciting, but we all know that it's too good to be true.  This fantastical world is ripe for a breakdown and that certainly is the case here with Belfort's fall just as engrossing as his rise up the corporate ladder.

Front and center in nearly every scene of the movie is Leonardo DiCaprio, a guy who I've certainly come to appreciate in recent years for his acting prowess.  However, I've never seen him take on a role with such gusto and joie de vivre as he does here with Jordan Belfort.  With the perfect amount of sly charm, self absorption, self-confidence, financial smarts, and sex appeal, DiCaprio gives a performance that is loose, funny, and captivating.

While DiCaprio's Belfort certainly takes center stage, he isn't alone in shining onscreen.  Jonah Hill is quite good as a Long Island nobody whom Belfort grooms into his right hand man.  The jaw-droppingly gorgeous Margot Robbie plays Belfort's second wife and she's a stunning newcomer I can't wait to see more of in the future.  Additionally, Matthew McConaughey makes the most out of a mere ten minute scene as Belfort's first teacher in the stock trade.  He steals the show right off the bat (which DiCaprio then steals back from him) and sets the movie on a great path right from the outset.

All this praise I'm heaping on the film makes it seem as if this one's ripe for an "A" rating.  Well, that's not going to happen and the reason harkens back to that aforementioned running time.  This thing moves along at a fast clip for its first hour and its last hour takes us on a bit of a different journey with Belfort's world beginning to crumble, but that middle hour leaves a bit to be desired.  We've already borne witness to the hedonistic tendencies of Belfort and his crew and this middle act teeters on actually becoming a bit boring -- there's only so much coke snorting you can take.  Perhaps Scorsese was mirroring the excessive nature of Belfort with the excessive running time, but a trimming of maybe thirty minutes would've put this one right in the running for a top three spot of the year for me.  As it stands now, it's a very good film that could've been near perfect, buoyed by the best performance I've seen in 2013 in Mr. DiCaprio.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Monday, February 24, 2014

Movie Review - Lone Survivor

Lone Survivor (2013)
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Yousuf Azami, Ali Suliman, and Eric Bana 
Directed by Peter Berg

The problem with calling your movie Lone Survivor is that you're giving away the ending with the darn title.  Granted, if I had been "up" on my news, I would've known the true story of Marcus Lutrell (played here by Mark Wahlberg) and his Navy Seal mates who head into the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan in order  to capture or kill al Qaeda leader Ahmad Shahd (Yousuf Azami).  But, having not followed this story, I didn't know the details.  Right off the bat in the opening scene, we see that Marcus has survived this ordeal (with the rest of the movie told entirely in flashback), so not only do I know that only one person survives, but I know who the survivor is.

Perhaps I'm being a little petty, but I can't deny that this was a factor for me while watching the film, severely diminishing the tension that absolutely could've been a part of the experience.  Peter Berg does a great job with the action sequences placing the viewer squarely in the heat of the battle in the treacherous Afghan mountains, but he doesn't quite get us to connect with the quartet of American soldiers who are at the forefront of the mission.  Seeing as how there were only four soldiers -- Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster join the aforementioned Wahlberg -- I expected to find myself a bit more invested in their characters, but with the exception of learning a tiny bit about their home lives, I wanted the emotional connection that I never got.  I don't think it's the fault of the actors, but moreso a fault in the script (also crafted by Berg).

Ultimately, I can't help but think I shouldn't have been "trying to guess" which soldier was going to die first, but the title and the flashback set-up inherently made me go that route.  Needless to say, what Lone Survivor excels at is taking us onto the battlefield -- a different battlefield for a different type of war.  These soldiers are heroes and even though I may not have fully connected with their characters, my admiration for them and their sacrifice cannot be denied.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Friday, February 21, 2014

Movie Review - Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013)
Starring Johnny Knoxville and Jackson Nicoll 
Directed by Jeff Tremaine

A Jackass movie with a storyline is seemingly unheard of, but that's what Johnny Knoxville's crew presents to us here with mixed results.  Knoxville is Irving Zisman, an octogenarian who, following his wife's death, sets out across the country to take his grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll) to his biological father.  Irving initially wants nothing to do with Billy, but realizes as they travel together that he's much better suited to watch over the boy rather than Billy's drug addicted parents.  

But let's be honest, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa isn't really about a story.  Sure, it's kind of nice that it's included, but the film's real goal is to rely on hidden cameras capturing Irving and Billy playing practical jokes on unsuspecting victims.  Personally, this is a more enjoyable way to spend ninety minutes than seeing Knoxville and his buddies attempt to maim, harm, and one-up themselves in crazier and crazier ways, but much like the "regular" Jackass movies, certain gags work and certain gags don't.  When Knoxville and company succeed, I found myself laughing out loud, but when they fail, it felt like a bunch of juveniles being jackasses -- fitting, I guess.  I mean, scenes of projectile defecation and male members getting stuck in vending machines can only get you so far in the humor department.

Despite the criticism, I admittedly enjoyed the film.  Yes, there are long stretches where I pondered how long it would be until the movie was over and it's definitely more of a mixed bag than a solid bag of tricks, but my inner rebellious tween had a decent time.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Movie Review - The Way Way Back

The Way Way Back (2013)
Starring Liam James, Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, AnnaSophia Robb, Allison Janney, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash
Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash

Fourteen year-old Duncan (Liam James) isn't too happy to be spending his summer at the New York state beach house of his mom's boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell).  First off, Trent's a bit of a dick who says and does whatever he can to try and motivate the sullen and mopey Duncan to better himself.  Second, Duncan would rather just spend time with his dad than with his mom Pam (Toni Collette).  Nevertheless, his summer plans are set and he's forced to pal around with Trent's buddies Kip and Joan (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet) and Trent's next door neighbor Betty (Allison Janney), all of whom look to alcohol and pot as a means to relive their youth on a seemingly daily basis.  Betty, however, has a daughter named Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) who just so happens to be Duncan's age, but the shy Duncan can't seem to fathom why any girl would care to communicate with him.

So, with his summer home life a wreck, Duncan bikes around the beach town and comes across the Water Wizz water park which he sneaks into one day before being caught by the park's owner Owen (Sam Rockwell).  Owen recognizes that Duncan seems to be a bit down on his luck and offers him a job at the water park which ends up being a life-changing, personality-enhancing experience for the teen.

The Way Way Back is a movie that, in retrospect, seems a little unrealistic in terms of its characters.  Everyone's a little too quirky or a little too humorous to be rooted in reality.  However, writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (in their directing debuts) balance the oddness of comedic characters like Owen and Betty with the genuineness of Duncan, Trent, and Pam, creating a film that had me laughing when I was supposed to be laughing and feeling sympathy when I was supposed to be feeling sympathy.  That may seem like it should be a given, but weighing both sides of that coin isn't always an  easy task for directors -- especially first-timers.

Admittedly, the directors get better performances from their actors that fall onto the comedic side of the tale, especially a scene-stealing one from Allison Janney who had me laughing at (I think) every single line she delivered as Betty, the kooky neighbor who rarely is seen without a drink in her hand.  Sam Rockwell is also slick, smooth, and sarcastically dry humored as Owen, a character who ends up bridging both the comedic and dramatic sides of the story quite well.  This isn't to say that Liam James, Steve Carell, and Toni Collette disappoint in any way, but the film's funnier moments worked a bit better than its dramatic ones.

Overall, The Way Way Back isn't revolutionary or particularly inventive, but it's a rather sweet, funny coming-of-age tale that's enjoyable for the whole family to watch together.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Yet Another Break for The Disney Discussion

I'm not giving up my quest of re-watching all of the animated movies in the Disney catalog.  It's just that I'm facing a glut of 2013 movies that I need to take on before the annual RyMickey Awards roll around.  Rest assured, The Disney Discussion will return in late March/early April!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Movie Review - Nebraska

Nebraska (2013)
Starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, and Bob Odenkirk
Directed by Alexander Payne

Nebraska is a beautifully sweet film.

I'd leave the review at that and just let you discover for yourself the simplicity of Alexander Payne's gem (charmingly written by Bob Nelson in his screenwriting debut), but I do feel like I need to give this flick a bit more of its very deserving due.

On the surface, Nebraska is the simplest of stories.  An older man receives one of those junk mailings that says he's won a million dollars (which he obviously hasn't) and, despite his family telling him otherwise, sets off to trek from Missouri to Nebraska to claim his prize.  With a stubborn father hellbent on picking up his winnings, his son decides to drive his dad to Nebraska, along the way discovering things about his father that he never knew.

A road trip of discovery.  You'd think, considering that we've seen this tale told dozens of times before, that Nebraska wouldn't resonate at all, but it absolutely works.  Bruce Dern plays the cantankerous father Woody, a guy who likes to imbibe quite often and, on the surface, seems as if he's headed down that Alzheimers-esque road of quiet forgetfulness.  Yet despite the slow-paced gait and the mumbled words, Woody's certainly "all there" -- yes, he may not be thinking quite as clearly as in his youth, but Dern shows us Woody hasn't forgotten the pain of his past and the hope for his future (however false that hope may be).

Countering Woody's millionaire aspirations is his son David's attempts to bring his father back to reality.  Thanks to Will Forte, best known for his work on Saturday Night Live, the audience gets to see Woody through his son's eyes -- a son that respects his father, but also ponders what made the man into the hard-drinking, perhaps rough-around-the-edges, guy that raised him.  Forte's role here is understated, yet important.  It's obvious he finds the whole premise a bit ridiculous, but he recognizes that his worn-down and beleaguered father feels that he needs to accomplish this task in order to provide for his family.

(June Squibb plays the hilarious wife who can't understand why her son David is kowtowing to his crazy father's whims and she's certainly a hoot whenever she's onscreen.  Kudos also to Bob Odenkirk who has a nice role as David's older (and more successful) brother.)

The problem with this review of Nebraska is that I'm really not getting across anything I want to get across about this movie.  I've moderately praised Bruce Dern's great performance.  I've placed my comments about the marvelous June Squibb's performance in parentheses (parentheses!?!?) seemingly indicating that I didn't enjoy her role nearly as much as I did.  I've thrown one positive sentence the screenwriter's way.  I haven't even touched on director Alexander Payne's ability to capture small town Americana in a way that feels both entirely respectful and the tiniest bit mocking at the same time (in beautiful black-and-white cinematography no less).  I've got so much I'd like to say about Nebraska, but I can't find the words to say it.  In fact, I've been sitting on this review for OVER TWO WEEKS now, not being able to formulate the words as to why I truly enjoyed this film as much as I did.

Perhaps the reason is because the beauty of Nebraska lies in its authentic simplicity and sometimes  authentic simplicity is incredibly tough to describe simply because it feels so goshdarn real.  It's a film that never once feels forced, yet instead feels like a slice of life.

So instead, I'll stop this review here and reiterate my first sentence of this review:  Nebraska is a beautifully sweet film that, despite this incredibly lukewarm and disappointing critique, is positively worth seeing.

The RyMickey Rating:  A-

Monday, February 17, 2014

Movie Review - The Croods

The Croods (2013)
Featuring the vocal talents of Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Cloris Leachman, and Clark Duke
Directed by Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

When a movie like The Croods gets nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature instead of a movie like Monsters University, I can't help but shake my head.  One-note in its story about a father who "can't let go" of his growing daughter, any attempt for heart and emotion here is thwarted by the fact that the writers (who are also the directors) hit us over the head so many times with this notion.  Having heard the Nicolas Cage-voiced Grug tell his daughter Eep (voiced by Emma Stone) to "be afraid of what's out there beyond our cave" for seemingly five times during the film's first act, I checked out right away.

Animation-wise, The Croods is solid in terms of its main character design (although the humans are slightly blocky in nature and aren't anything overly special) and the voice acting is all fine considering the fact that the script is so lukewarm, but the story just falls flat.  After an earthquake boots them out of their safe cave home, the Crood family -- headed by patriarch Grug, his wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), their eldest daughter Eep, son Thunk (Clark Duke), toddler Sandy (who rabidly attacks everything like a dog), and mother-in-law Gran (Cloris Leachman) -- are forced to explore the rest of the Earth.  Their travels eventually lead them to meet a young man named Guy (Ryan Reynolds) who convinces most of the Crood family -- excepting Grug --  to follow him into this new fascinating world outside of their cave.  With Guy and Grug at odds with one another, it shouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that Grug's rough exterior and his inability to allow his family to take risks will eventually be softened.  It's this constant bickering between Guy and Grug that gets to near-monotonous levels and fails to allow the story to grow beyond its basic premise.

I won't even explore the fact that this film takes place during prehistoric times -- an era that featured a multitude of fascinating creatures -- yet contains a vast array of Dr. Seuss-ian landscapes filled with animals that would be right at home in his books.  Why create fake animals?  Just another one of the story flaws that is a bit mind-boggling to me in its stupidity.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Friday, February 14, 2014

Movie Review - Drinking Buddies

Drinking Buddies (2013)
Starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston
Directed by Joe Swanberg
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Kate and Luke (Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson) work at a brewery together.  They're good buddies who constantly flirt with one another, yet remain only friends because they each have a significant other -- Kate's been dating Chris (Ron Livingston) for eight months, and Luke's been with Jill (Anna Kendrick) for years.  While each couple seems happy together, it's obvious that Kate and Luke have an attraction to one another and a friendship that seems destined for romance.  This connection is further explored when the two couples take a trip to Chris's cabin in the woods for a "couples weekend" and Chris and Jill also find themselves compatible with one another, leading to a quartet that is ripe for break-ups.

The problem with Drinking Buddies is that the relationships between all four of the central characters are much too obvious.  There's no subtlety present -- we know right off the bat Kate and Luke are more compatible than Kate and Chris, and it's obvious that Chris's book-smartish nature fits more with Jill's demeanor.  Since the unraveling discord of the relationships never comes as a surprise, the suspense of the story is who will take the plunge and kiss off their significant other first...and that's just not a gripping enough story as presented here, effectively making the ninety-minute runtime feel longer than it should.  While the cast tries to sell the story (with dialog that seems improvised...and that's not necessarily a good thing), the supposed comedy that is Drinking Buddies  didn't cause me to laugh much at all.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Movie Review - Short Term 12

Short Term 12 (2013)
Starring Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, and Keith Stanfield
Directed by Destin Cretton

I'm not sure there's a movie created that doesn't want us to connect with its characters.  I'm not saying we have to like the personalities that a film presents, but the goal of a filmmaker and screenwriter is to get us to feel something about the people onscreen whether that be a good or bad attachment.  Destin Cretton's Short Term 12 had me empathizing with what I saw more than any other movie I've seen (thus far) from 2013 and it's that type of emotional rawness I've been waiting to see this year.

Grace (Brie Larson) is the lead supervisor at a temporary shelter (a "Short Term" facility) for troubled foster teens.  She's quiet and private, yet darn good at what she does, garnering much respect from both the kids and coworkers she helps.  However, while Grace desperately tries to get "her kids" to open up to her, she has an incredibly difficult time following that guidance herself, particularly to her long-term boyfriend and co-worker Mason (Delawarean John Gallagher Jr in an understated, yet important role).  Grace isn't without her share of baggage (of both the old festering and new panicky kinds), yet she pushes everything unhealthily inward.

I'll leave the summary segment of this review at that as Short Term 12 is better to just see unfold in the natural and simplistic, though never "easy," way its story is unveiled.  Along the way, we meet two foster kids in particular who resonate with both Grace and the audience -- eighteen year-old Marcus (Keith Stanfield) who is on his way out of Short Term 12 and the younger Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) who is just beginning her stint there.  Both Marcus and Jayden shape Grace's life in ways she likely never would have dreamed possible, yet in a manner that never rings false or condescendingly sentimental.  Writer-director Destin Cretton could've easily taken any one of his characters down the cheap path of maudlinness, but that never happens for a second.

Cretton also gets amazing performances from his cast.  Brie Larson is fantastic as Grace, perfectly balancing the somewhat tricky aspects of a character that asks her to console others despite the fact that she can't do the same for herself.  Her Grace has a quiet strength that makes it all the more difficult to watch as we long for her to reconcile with her past and come to peace with whatever demons may have crossed her path.  We want to console her...and that's not a bad thing at all.

Adding to the across-the-board acting superlatives, both Keith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Dever give bravura performances.  Stanfield's Marcus is quiet (much like Grace), but it's moreso out of defeat than anything else.  He's been at Short Term 12 for a not-so-short term and his sense of worth has been deflated exponentially.  Stanfield so easily could've taken this his character in an overly harsh or overly sympathetic direction, but he finds the happy medium and embodies what I think may be one of the best characters we've seen onscreen this year.  Young Ms. Dever takes the the opposite approach with her Jayden who's not afraid to get rambunctious, yet eschews that bellowing personality at times in order to show that she's really just a young girl unable to cope with what the adults around her have put her through.  Both get scenes that had me this close to tears simply because in the short time I'd been given to get to know these characters, empathy had taken root.

And that empathy is what makes Short Term 12 the winner that it is.  This film could've easily turned into an ABC Afterschool Special if it so desired, but Dustin Cretton instead creates an authentic atmosphere with characters who never once feel "forced" into any action they're undertaking onscreen.  Dialog never rings false, so much so that I sometimes found myself marveling at the sheer simplicity of what Cretton wrote -- how did the most basic of words convey so much emotion?  Because of this naturalness, we in the audience immediately become intimately involved with the film...and it's really a beautiful thing.

The RyMickey Rating:  A

Monday, February 10, 2014

Movie Review - Disconnect

Disconnect (2013)
Starring Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Frank Grillo, Michael Nyqvist, Paula Patton, Andrea Riseborough, Alexander Scarsgård, Max Thieriot, Colin Ford, Jonah Bobo, Norbert Leo Butz, Haley Ramm, Kasi Lemmons, and Aviad Bernstein
Directed by Henry-Alex Rubin

Disconnect is one of those movies where a bunch of apparently unrelated storylines have tenuous connections that allow the players from one tale to have interactions with players from another tale.  I typically really like these kinds of films and while Disconnect generally works, it's not nearly as deep and profound as it aspires to be.  Taking on the internet, Disconnect attempts to tell us that we enter this (not so) newfound technological breakthrough at our own risk -- but is that really new information for us?  Aren't we all aware that bad folks are ready to prey on us online?

Still, despite the obvious, we are treated to some good stories here.  The best involves a young high school kid named Ben (Jonah Bobo) who just so happens to look at two of his classmates Jason and Frye (Colin Ford and Aviad Bernstein) in a disdainful way as they play a trick on someone in a mall.  Jason and Frye get ticked off and decide to get back at the shy introvert Ben by befriending him on Facebook with a fake female profile.  Ben finds himself falling for this fake profile as Jason and Frye continue escalating the relationship until Ben is eventually humiliated at school.  Needless to say, the humiliation ends in tragedy, changing forever the lives of Ben, his parents (Jason Bateman and Hope Davis), and Jason and Frye.

Another major story revolves around a news reporter (Andrea Riseborough) who investigates and befriends a young man (Max Thieriot) who was willingly hired to work on an internet porn site catering to those wanting to video chat with young men and women.  The final tale focuses on Cindy and Derek Hull (Paula Patton and Alexander Scarsgård), a couple who recently lost their only child.  While Derek tries to suppress his grief by online gambling, Cindy has taken up visiting grief community websites where she befriends a guy who says he recently lost his wife.  When the Hulls find their credit cards maxed out and their savings depleted, they begin to investigate whether Cindy's online "friend" is the culprit.

While all of these stories are perfectly acceptable and never teeter into "boring" territory, they also fail to be fresh.  I couldn't help but feel that I'd seen all of these tales told before on daytime television.  Thankfully, the acting ensemble is all pretty great from the youngest actors to the oldest ones and they elevate the material beyond the obvious.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Theater Review - The Mousetrap

The Mousetrap
Written by Agatha Christie
Directed by Steve Tague
Where: Thompson Theatre at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When:  Saturday, February 1, 7:30pm
Photos by Paul Cerro

I've felt no need to rush this review because if you haven't already snagged tickets to the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players' staging of Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, you're out of luck because the production is sold out.  Opened in 1952 in London, The Mousetrap is the longest-running play of all time and it's easy to see why -- there's a genericness to it that allows it to appeal to every member of the audience.  That may sound like damning praise and while there's admittedly a hint of snark there, I still found myself having a fun time trying to guess whodunit in this clever murder mystery.  The Mousetrap doesn't try to be deep (which is sort of what I meant when I used the descriptor "generic"), but it doesn't need to be.  During intermission the crowd was certainly abuzz as they placed their bets on who was the murderous culprit, and after the play's conclusion, the lobby was loudly filled with voices trying to either pay up or collect on their hunches.

As is typically the case with every REP production, we're treated to high quality theatricality.  The scenic design by C. David Russell comes complete with falling snow outside a towering set of windows at the English country retreat known as Monkswell Manor and the costumes (also by Russell) are certainly befitting of the period without ever being too showy.  Lighting design by Matt Richards also deserves credit as it really helps to signify the passing hours of the day in great fashion (as well as providing an intensely ominous moment when the dastardly murder is committed).  REP member Steve Tague's direction keeps the play moving at a brisk pace and also very slyly gives moments to each member of the cast that make us question their innocence in this game of cat and mouse.

Speaking of the cast, I think this showed the group in their best light yet this season.  Together, they have a way of elevating something as silly and almost "throwaway-ish."  (Yes, I realize I may seem like I'm belittling Christie's work again, but I only use that term as a reference to the fact that we're not seeing something that highfalutin critics would deem "high art" like Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller.  Anyway, back to the actors...)  The ever reliable Kathleen Pirkl Tague commands the stage as the haughty and stuck-up Mrs. Boyle who manages to get on every guest's nerves at one point or another.  Getting to show off her comedic chops, Tague is wonderful as always.  Elizabeth Heflin and Mic Matarrese are also quite good as Monkswell Manor owners Mollie and Giles, a newly married couple embarking on their first weekend with guests staying in their home.  Heflin, in particular, excels at providing some great comedic moments with the simple twist of head, wink of an eye, or muffled sarcastic put-down.  Kudos also to Deena Burke as the masculine Miss Casewell, Michael Gotch as the intelligent Detective Trotter, and guest artist Jeffrey C. Hawkins as the Andy Warhol-esque Christopher Wren.  Every character has their secrets and the entire cast is quite adept at peeling the layers back ever so slowly to reveal what they're hiding.

I've always wanted to see The Mousetrap and I'm glad I've finally gotten a chance.  Is it high art?  No.  Characters are a bit stereotypical and Christie's plot could've easily found its home in an episode of Murder, She Wrote or Matlock (two shows I much enjoyed in my mystery-loving youth, by the way).  But it's lasted as long as it has because Christie creates an atmosphere that has the audience constantly second guessing themselves and it certainly provides a fun night at the theater...and there's nothing wrong with that.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The Disney Discussion - The Sword in the Stone

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

NOTE:  From here on out, I'm changing up the landscape of the Disney Discussion.  Rather than be broken into sections, I'm just going to write my thoughts in a more straightforward fashion.  I'll still be discussing the essentials -- story, animation, music, characters -- but all in one fell swoop.

Movie #18 of The Disney Discussion
The Sword in the Stone (1963)
Featuring the voice talents of Sebastian Cabot, Karl Swenson, Rickie Sorensen, Junius Matthews, Ginny Tyler, Martha Wentworth, Norman Alden, Alan Napier, Richard Reitherman, and Ronald Reitherman
Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman

Summary (in 150 words or less):
In sixth century England, the king has died and there is no heir to his throne.  Magically, a sword in a stone appears with an inscription that states whoever pulls out the sword from the stone shall be king.  Decades pass and no one has been able to succeed.  Meanwhile, wizard Merlin tries to help a young servant nicknamed Wart (real name Arthur) become more educated while at the same time helping to boost his self esteem and confidence.  It should come as no surprise that this young boy is being shaped by Merlin with the characteristic makings of a king.

Facts and Figures
The Sword in the Stone is the Walt Disney Company's eighteenth full length animated feature film and was released on December 25, 1963.

The film was a moderate success, becoming the sixth highest grossing film of 1963.  Although the film was generally positively reviewed, critics did feel it paled a bit in comparison with Disney's prior efforts.  

The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Score, but did not win.

Let the Discussion Begin...
Before I even begin, I have to say that I'm not sure I've ever seen The Sword in the Stone all the way through.  If I have, it was at least twenty-five years ago and it certainly didn't resonate with me.

And there's likely a reason it didn't resonate...it's simply not that good.

For starters, let's take the plot.  The overarching nature of attempting to find a replacement for the deceased king is a concept that is appealing, however, this aspect of the story is essentially abandoned after the prologue and isn't really picked up again until what could essentially be called the epilogue.  Instead, the film focuses on the characters of the magical wizard Merlin and his newly discovered gangly protégé Wart.  I'm not quite sure of Merlin's motivations for helping Wart except for the fact that Merlin is clairvoyant of sorts in that he can see the future.  One assumes then that Merlin saw Wart's potential in being a potential replacement for the king and took in upon himself to shape this young boy into a well-rounded individual with the skills necessary to carry the royal name.
Unfortunately, the film never really makes Wart's progress interesting.  In order to "teach" the young boy, Merlin turns him into a fish, a squirrel, and a bird.  I'd assume that each iteration of Wart was supposed to teach him something new, but if this were to be the case, the writing was much too vague to make that apparent.  Instead, we just get cute vignettes of fish Wart being chased by a larger fish, squirrel Wart being pursued by a lusty female squirrel, and bird Wart being captured by the mean(ish) sorceress Madame Mim.  While these tales contain some whimsy, none of them are interesting enough to carry the film and they are immensely repetitive.

So with a story that's weak and characters that don't really add anything to the plot, I'd at least hope that I'd visually have something to look at.  That isn't the case either.  The animation here is lukewarm at best, with nary a visually stirring moment in which to go "WOW!"  There's a looseness to the lines of animation that worked so well in 101 Dalmatians, but fails to impress here and ultimately looks a little sloppy.  Backgrounds look like they were done on the cheap and the muted colors aren't striking in the slightest.
When I first saw the names of Richard and Robert Sherman pop up on the screen during the opening credits, I was excited.  The songwriters of the fantastic Mary Poppins score were given their first shot at the animation realm with this one.  How had I not known the songs from this growing up?  Well, that became obvious after watching it because none of the songs the duo created are any good.  Relying much too heavily on nonsensical rhymes and words (something that worked so well in Mary Poppins with Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious), there's not a hummable song in the bunch and certainly not one that's worth downloading for play on my iPod.  A rare misfire in the Sherman Brothers canon that's for sure.

Random Thoughts
  • The song "Higitus Figitus" is a poor man's version of "Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo."  They should've left that one on the cutting room floor.
  • Since Merlin can see into the future, he often makes references to things that haven't been invented yet.  While these were likely meant to be humorous, they all fall flat.  Even the self-referential one at the end in which Merlin states, "You never know, Arthur.  One day you may be in a motion picture," just elicited an eyeroll from me.
Final Analysis
(Does It Belong in the Revered Disney Pantheon and How Does It Stack Up to Past Films?)
Poor Sword in the Stone.  This was never caught on in the Disney legacy with its songs, characters, and plot essentially forgotten about in subsequent decades.  I'd be upset about that if it were actually worth being upset about, but the fact of the matter is The Sword in the Stone is simply not worth remembering.  Up to this point in the pantheon of Disney films, it's the worst full-length story we've seen presented to us.  (Some of those "package" films we watched last year fare worse still.)

I will admit that I was hoping for a little surprise here -- a film I didn't remember would come along and provide enjoyment and make me wonder why in the world I never gave it a chance in my youth.  That unfortunately didn't happen.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Join us two Wednesdays from now for The Jungle Book, the 19th film in The Disney Discussion.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Movie Review - Her

Her (2013)
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, and Olivia Wilde
Featuring the vocal talent of Scarlett Johansson
Directed by Spike Jonze

Full disclosure:  I watched Her immediately following shoveling a ton of snow and my tired body and rattled brain likely wasn't ready for the serious tone displayed by writer-director Spike Jonze.  While I appreciated the somewhat depressing look at love and intimacy presented by Jonze, I'm fully aware that a second viewing a few years from now may give me a greater appreciation of the film -- or may simply confirm my feelings that Her is good, but nothing more than that.

Joaquin Phoenix is Theodore Twombly, a thirtysomething guy who works as a writer of sorts.  You see, the film takes place in presumably the not-so-distant future and Theodore gets hired by regular folks to pen love notes or write personalized letters to their significant others.  (Odd, but kind of ingenious in the way it furthers the "lack of personal connection" in relationships that the film wants to highlight.)  Having just separated from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and going through some rough divorce proceedings with her, Theodore downloads a new operating system for his computerized devices that is programmed to carry on conversations with its user.  Named Samantha (and voiced by Scarlett Johansson), the app quickly becomes a huge part of Theodore's daily life and, perhaps despite his best efforts, he becomes romantically attached to it/her.

Perhaps the reason for my lack of utter enjoyment of Her is the fact that I can't help but think that it paints a rather grim picture of our future.  While I loved Jonze's rendering of our country's upcoming years (set design and costumes were really top notch -- not too futuristic, but just enough to make their points), it's ultimately a bit disheartening.  While I think the film attempts to aim for your heart, it never really struck me there.  Phoenix is quite good as the lovable, though inherently sad Theodore, and it's incredibly easy to see why he fell for the sultry voice of Johansson, but despite their relationship being surprisingly believable, it was a tiny bit flat.  Perhaps that was the point, however -- a relationship with a "thing" rather than another person is going to be lacking that intimate connection.  (And see, as I type this, herein lies why I probably should watch this again...I'm liking it more as I ponder the film's conceptual ideals.)

With a great supporting turn from Amy Adams (is it wrong that I found her geeky character here much sexier than her alluring turn in American Hustle), Her is worth a watch, but I will admit that I'm a bit surprised it cracked the Best Picture list of nine.  Then again, as I mentioned, perhaps I wasn't in the right mindset and it may need another viewing in time.

The RyMickey Rating:  B