Sunday, June 29, 2014

Movie Review - Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, and Brendan Gleeson
Directed by Doug Liman
***viewed in 3D***

Reviews have called Edge of Tomorrow an action-oriented version of the 1990s comedy classic Groundhog Day and that's certainly an apt comparison with Tom Cruise the Bill Murray equivalent here -- a man who is forced to keep living the same day over and over again.  Cruise is Major William Cage, a military man who is the media relations guy for the United Defense Forces, a NATO-fronted organization who finds themselves (in the near future when our film takes place) on the forefront of fighting an alien race known as Mimics who have taken over most of Europe.  Unfortunately for Cage, he's summoned to meet General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) who orders Cage into combat -- an arena that Cage has never found himself in before and one in which he has no desire to take part.  Despite his qualms, Cage is sent to ship out, taking part in a D-Day style Normandy-esque invasion against the aliens in France.  During the invasion, Cage is killed -- however (and this is why that isn't a spoiler), before he dies, Cage is covered in the "blood" of one of the more "sophisticated" aliens which causes Cage to live this same day and this same battle over and over again.  (There's a reason that I'll leave this vague on purpose.)

What Doug Liman and his trio of screenwriters successfully accomplish in Edge of Tomorrow is providing a unique experience each time Cage ends up reliving his day and, because of this, the film never once becomes the slightest bit boring.  Mixed with humor, Edge of Tomorrow actually ends up being one of the better science fiction-action flicks I've seen since in a long time.  Tom Cruise is certainly charismatic as Cage and does a nice job balancing the action and comedic sides of his character.  Emily Blunt plays Cage's confidante on the battlefield -- a warrior woman who, fortunately for Cage, once experienced the same exact thing he finds himself facing, only to lose the ability to relive the same day through an unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate) event that Cage himself needs to be wary of occurring.  Blunt is certainly the "straight man" to Cage's confusion and humor, but she holds her own as the tough gal in what I believe is her first action role.

I'm not quite sure why Edge of Tomorrow did so poorly at the box office although I'm sure it was a mix of things -- the title sucks, the trailer was very weak and unappealing, Tom Cruise himself isn't a draw and hasn't overcome the Oprah couch-jumping thing despite putting out a string of solid movies as of late (last year's Oblivion as another example).  It's rather unfortunate because, despite a "Hollywood-ized" ending (the film's only fault), Edge of Tomorrow is a perfect summer action flick that rocks and rolls its entire run time, keeping the viewer on the edge of their seat.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Friday, June 20, 2014

Movie Review - Man of Steel

Man of Steel (2013)
Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, and Kevin Costner
Directed by Zach Snider

To me, "Superman" has to come with a little bit of fun attached.  Maybe it's the fact that I grew up with the somewhat tongue in cheek Christopher Reeve version or the very tongue in cheek Lois and Clark tv series (a must-watch every Sunday night for me growing up), but Zach Snider's Man of Steel was so über-serious that it sucked all the joy out of a fun character.  Granted, we never get to see the journalist "Clark Kent with Glasses" in this movie -- I assume that's being saved for the sequel if the film's final minutes are to be the fodder for what is to come -- and we're forced to endure yet again another origin story which are two factors leading to the lack of frivolity.  Seriously, do filmmakers not realize that these iconic characters don't need their early life stories told over and over again (I'm looking at you Spider-Man)?

After we're told how Superman makes it to Earth from his home planet of Krypton (therein setting up the villain's plotline as well -- which I'll discuss in a bit), we jump ahead in time about two decades and find that the US government is investigating some strange scientific readings in the Arctic.  Intrepid news reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is on the scene and does a little digging on her own one night, coming upon a Kryptonian space ship wherein she meets Superman (Henry Cavill) who was doing a little digging of his own trying to find his origin.  While on the ship thanks to some weird outer space science, Superman is able to "meet" the holographic image of his father (Russell Crowe) who tells him that Krypton's military commander General Zod (Michael Shannon) is hellbent on finding a way to Earth in order to take it over since Krypton was destroyed decades ago.  Although Superman flies away, Lois is intent on finding out who this man is and discovers that he grew up as Clark Kent in Smallville, Kansas, with a mother and father (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner) who raised him as their own after they discovered his spaceship in their barn.  Eventually, General Zod arrives on Earth and the ultimate showdown begins.

Although I'm certainly no expert on this, Man of Steel certainly feels like it must hold the record for most deaths in a movie.  Granted, we don't see many of these deaths, but during the nearly hour long battle between Superman and General Zod, huge swaths of cities are destroyed and one has to think that the casualties were astronomical.  During this lengthy tête-a-tête, boredom ultimately set in for this viewer.  I was along for the ride for a bit, but then director Snyder just seems to try and want to top himself over and over again with ludicrous one-upmanship.  It begins to wear thin particularly thanks to the drab color palette he conjures up for the piece.

With the exception of the over-zealous (and over-acting) Michael Shannon and his evil minions who chew up the scenery whenever they make an appearance, the acting helps Man of Steel achieve a naturalness that we admittedly don't see in Superman pieces.  Henry Cavill (with whom I'm really not at all familiar) has the down-to-earth All-American Clark Kent-ian vibe to him, but also carries the gravity of the strength of "Superman" quite well.  Although this film didn't really give him the opportunity, I also think he's got the sly comedic chops in him that are needed for the adult Clark Kent journalist role so that's certainly a plus.  Amy Adams brings an intelligence to Lois Lane that I hadn't seen before (sorry Teri Hatcher) and it is somewhat refreshing.  She's still much too intrepid of a character for her own good, but Adams doesn't play her as a damsel in distress (although she is often just that throughout the film).  Nice turns from Diane Lane and Kevin Costner round out the cast.

Man of Steel is decent, but much too dark and serious for its own good.  The Marvel universe has at least latched onto the fact that a little bit of humor has to be instilled into their films in order to poke fun at the ridiculous nature of some of the goings-on.  Man of Steel is just itching for that same dry humor and instead it languishes in a world that's devoid of any joy.  I'd look forward to a sequel out of Zach Snyder's hands, but he unfortunately appears to be back at the helm which doesn't bode well for things to come.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Movie Review - The Frozen Ground

The Frozen Ground (2013)
Starring Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, and Vanessa Hudgens
Directed by Scott Walker
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Poor Nicolas Cage.  He (along with perhaps Cuba Gooding, Jr.) has certainly become the butt of jokes about what NOT to do with your career after you've won an Oscar.  Cage has made low budget B-movies his bread and butter over the last five years so much so that people seem to have forgotten that he could actually be taken seriously.  Perhaps The Frozen Ground was Cage's attempt to show that he isn't the joke people thought he was.  While he certainly doesn't embarrass himself here, Cage doesn't exactly redeem himself fully as Alaska State Trooper Jack Halcombe who is investigating a series of murders of young women in Anchorage in the early 1980s.

Admittedly, Cage isn't solely to blame for his lack of restitution.  First time director and screenwriter Scott Walker's virginal chops are evident as he can't quite craft characters and dialog that ring true or feel fully developed.  While he certainly is respectful of the true story upon which this is based, there's a grittiness that's missing despite his attempts to achieve it.  Admittedly, part of the issue is that Vanessa Hudgens simply isn't believable as a prostitute who is the only victim to escape the clutches of serial killer Robert Hansen (John Cusack).  When she dances on a stripper pole or snorts coke, I found myself laughing when I know I shouldn't.  Once again, like Cage, I'm not 100% sure it's her fault.  As an actress, Hudgens fights an uphill battle trying to rid herself of the "Disney image," but with the right script, she may be able to get there (although I'm also not quite sure she has the ability to successfully blossom into a respectable actress either).

Perhaps I'm being a little harsher on The Frozen Ground than I should because the film is certainly watchable with a storyline that consistently builds tension.  The true life aspect of the whole thing adds a disturbing element that gives us a rooting interest in the characters.  Scott Walker hasn't completely struck out with his first film, but he needs to up the ante a bit for any future projects on his horizon.

The RyMickey Rating:  C  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Movie Review - Escape from Tomorrow

Escape from Tomorrow (2013)
Starring Roy Abramsohn, Elena Schuber, Katelynn Rodriguez, Jack Dalton, Daniele Safady, Annet Mahendru, Alison Lees-Taylor, and Stass Klassen
Directed by Randy Moore
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

I can fully acknowledge that part of the reason I found Escape from Tomorrow oddly intriguing is the fact that I'm a Disney nut.  Then again, considering the fact that I am a Disney nut, I could have very easily despised Escape from Tomorrow since Randy Moore's film was shot in secret in Walt Disney World and Disneyland and paints the company in a slightly sardonic light.  There's no denying that this experimental film is out there, weird, and unusually unique, but the Disney side of things gives the audience a nearly universal textual basis of which its oddness can sit and marinate.

As the film opens, Jim (Roy Abramsohn) is standing on the balcony of the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World and is told by his boss via a phone call that he has been fired.  Not wanting to ruin his family's final day at the Happiest Place on Earth, Jim, his wife Emily (Elena Schuber) and their two kids Sara and Elliot (Katelynn Rodriguez and Jack Dalton) trek into the Magic Kingdom where Jim becomes a bit too enamored with two French girls (Daniele Safady and Annet Mahendru) who are MUCH too young for him to be eyeing.  These two girls keep popping up throughout the day and as Jim's obsession with tracking them down grows, the "real" world slowly begins to fall apart for him.

I must remind you that at least 65% of the film was shot onsite at Orlando's Magic Kingdom and Epcot or Anaheim's Disneyland.  So while the above summary may not seem all that odd, consider the fact that this was secretly filmed and I give Randy Moore quite a bit of credit for being able to accomplish this task.  One must also keep in mind that although the above doesn't seem odd, the remaining 35% that wasn't filmed onsite at a Disney location is quite trippy.  Let's just say that the final thirty minutes of this thing go off the tracks and you're either onboard or you're not.  Because of my fascination with the previous hour, I stuck with the film, but I can totally understand those who never even made it to the last act.  This one's an odd duck (and, yes, Donald makes an appearance), but I had a bit of fun with it.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Monday, June 16, 2014

Movie Review - August: Osage County

August: Osage County (2013)
Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregory, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Misty Upham, and Sam Shepard
Directed by John Wells

I must admit that I avoided August: Osage County in theaters because I had a disappointing experience with the Pulitzer Prize-winning play upon which the film is based.  Four years ago, I remember heading up to Philadelphia on my birthday excited to see both the Phillies play a day game (this was when they were still moderately good, whereas games now are sometimes greeted with exasperation when I have to go) and then go see August: Osage County on stage at night.  The play had garnered gushing rave reviews and won a slew of awards when it had played in New York City, so I told my family that it had to be good.  It wasn't (and my review reiterated this).  I was greeted with a three hour-and-twenty minute soap opera that seemingly kept trying to one-up itself with ridiculous "surprises."  Needless to say, this previous experience with playwright Tracy Letts' material didn't have me awaiting with bated breath his re-working of his own play for the silver screen.  Color me surprised then when I finally put the Blu-Ray into the player and discovered that Letts pared down his play by over an hour and created something that is still steeped in GREAT melodrama, but works a bit better on the screen than it did on the stage.

With a huge esteemed acting ensemble in tow, August: Osage County tells the story of the Weston family whose patriarch Beverly (Sam Shepard) has gone missing at the film's start.  Ailing matriarch Violet (Meryl Streep) calls her three daughters -- Barbara, Ivy, and Karen (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis, respectively) -- back to their old Oklahoma home to help their cancer-stricken mother find their father.  Taking place almost entirely in and around their childhood home, the three daughters find themselves having to deal with their abrasive and over-medicated mother, her somewhat crazy, though lovable sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), and their own significant others all of whom are creating trouble for their own personal lives.

This is a film that despite being nearly balanced in terms of the gender make-up of the cast is all about the women.  While Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney, Chris Cooper, and Benedict Cumberbatch may try to act like they're important, the core relationship this film is focusing upon is that of Violet and her three daughters and all four of the actresses portraying those characters hold their own.  Of course, Meryl Streep is quite good, playing the incredibly off-putting and sharp-tongued no-nonsense Violet.  In my opinion, however, she's upstaged by Julia Roberts who brings a quiet resilience and strength to Barbara, a character who, in my opinion, is just as much a lead as Violet despite the fact that the film and play may try and convince you otherwise.  Unfortunately (and this isn't Roberts' fault as I felt this was an issue in the theatrical production as well), the character of Barbara is a tiny bit flawed.  [Moderate Spoiler:  Tracy Letts attempts to make us feel that Barbara is "becoming" her mother in terms of personality, words, and actions, but I never was convinced of that.  Despite literally being told, "You're becoming our mother," Barbara is much more grounded than we ever see Violet and, I believe being the oldest daughter, she feels simply that she needs to smack a little bit of sense into her sisters considering that she's had her own troubles and doesn't want to see her siblings fall down a dark path.]

August: Osage County isn't a perfect film, but its flaws abound from the Pulitzer Prize-winning (for some reason) script.  This is absolutely a convoluted family soap opera -- epic almost in its laughable plot twists at times.  Still, thanks to a fantastic cast of actors -- not a single one of whom disappoints in the slightest -- they elevate this sometimes silly material and make us give a damn about this crazy Weston family.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Movie Review - The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
Starring Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Shirley MacLaine, and Sean Penn
Directed by Ben Stiller

There's a lot to admire about Ben Stiller's directorial effort The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in which the daydreaming title character -- a photography manager at Life magazine -- ponders all kinds of fantastical adventures that showcase his imaginative romantic and heroic sides.  However, once the unique direction and pleasant acting are pushed aside, you're left with a film that admittedly has a lot of heart, but very little story and substance.  While the technical achievements and unique execution of the film are stellar, I found myself wishing that the film was about twenty minutes shorter which would've certainly condensed the simplistic story down to a length that would've been more successful.

At the film's outset, Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) has just discovered that Life magazine is shutting down its print edition and many of its employees will be given the pink slip by incoming transitional manager Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott).  When Life's premiere photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) sends Walter a new set of photos, he also includes a letter (which he also forwards to Life's bosses) stating that Picture #25 exemplifies the "Quintessence of Life" (or perhaps the "Quintessence of Life") and should be given prominent placement on the cover of the magazine's final print issue.  The problem -- Walter never actually received Picture #25 or, if he did, he seems to have misplaced it.  Obviously, with his job on the line, he can't reveal this to Ted who wants to see the picture ASAP.  So, with the help of his crush Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), Walter sets out to find where exactly the elusive Sean O'Connell is located in order to try and track down Picture #25.

As previously mentioned, Walter is a huge daydreamer and prior to heading out on his mission to find Sean, his simplistic and lackadaisical life is only ever brightened by the vivid imaginative creations in his mind.  These fantasies are cleverly realized by director Stiller although they begin to wear thin prior to Walter setting out on his trek.  Once on his journey, Walter's daydreams nearly become realities as he's forced to find bravery in himself that he never knew he possessed.  While that message came through loud and clear -- and I found it refreshingly simplistic yet surprisingly grown-up for a PG-rated film -- the outrageousness of certain aspects of the plot dragged down Walter's tale.  His journey to become more courageous, outspoken, and self-assured didn't resonate as much as I would have liked.

As an actor, Stiller is fine (although I think part of the aforementioned lack of resonance does stem a little bit from the fact that he makes his character's emotional journey seem a little too obvious), but the real star is Kristen Wiig who is utterly charming as Walter's crush Cheryl.  Anytime she was on the screen, I found myself smiling and truly rooting for Walter to succeed.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Movie Review - Paranoia

Paranoia (2013)
Starring Liam Hemsworth, Gary Oldman, Amber Heard, Embeth Davidtz, Julian McMahon, Josh Holloway, Richard Dreyfuss, and Harrison Ford
Directed by Robert Luketic
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Considering the thrashing Paranoia received from the critics (earning an abysmal 5% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes), I was expecting the absolute worst from this financial thriller.  Admittedly, the only reason I watched this flick is because I read the book (link here), but (and I recognize this is faint praise) it really wasn't as bad as I expected.  The problem with Paranoia is that the film puts Liam Hemsworth in the lead role and gives him a love interest in Amber Heard in an attempt to skew to a younger audience, but the film's story is about two large techie corporations headed by bigwigs Nicholas Wyatt and Jock Goddard (played by Gary Oldman and Harrison Ford) who are trying to one up each other -- a storyline that couldn't be further away from appealing to youths.  This juxtaposition places Paranoia in a bit of "no man's land" with a too-confusing plotline for the Twitter-verse, but a too simplistic tale for the older crowd.

The book upon which this film is based was admittedly a light, fun read, but skewing younger may have been the flick's downfall.  The aforementioned Hemsworth and Heard are both lovely to look at and are actually surprisingly confident in their ability to carry the film, but they just don't fit here.  Perhaps I'm remembering incorrectly, but the book seemed to focus on a thirtysomething guy who fits this high-tech, gadget-filled, "smart" environment a little bit better.  I can't help but think that a few more years and wrinkles on Hemsworth's character Adam Cassidy -- an up-and-coming techie who agrees to snoop on Goddard's company after he gets in trouble with his former boss Wyatt -- would've helped the believability factor a bit.

Undoubtedly, there are better films streaming on Netflix at the moment, but Paranoia moves along at a solid clip and if you're in the market for some mindless entertainment this may just fit the bill.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Movie Review - The Book Thief

The Book Thief (2013)
Starring Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Ben Schnetzer, and Emily Watson
Directed by Brian Percival
The Book Thief feels like a low-grade Diary of Anne Frank and, despite being nicely acted and adequately directed, it's one of the least interesting World War II-era films I've seen.  After given up for adoption by her mother, young Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) is taken in by Germans Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson).  Liesel's only possession is a book she stole from a gravedigger at her younger brother's funeral and she finds herself bonding with Hans over her desire to learn how to read and become better educated.  With Hitler's army on the rise, Hans and Rosa agree to hide a young twentysomething named Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jew whose parents were good friends with the Hubermanns prior to Hitler.  The dynamics of this new "family" shape the remainder of the movie...which really doesn't become any cohesive shape at all.

The Book Thief fails to resonate in the slightest.  The family dynamic (which is certainly supposed to be the emotional crux of the film) fails miserably and there's not any unique "war" situation brought to the forefront at all.  With neither family or war packing an emotional punch, the film plays like a WWII film aimed at ten year-olds and, let's be honest, that age bracket would have zero desire to see it in the first place.  And, if they did want to see something of that nature they'd be much better served watching Anne Frank.

The RyMickey Rating:  C- 

Monday, June 02, 2014

Movie Review - Godzilla

Godzilla (2014)
Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olson, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, and Juliette Binoche
Directed by Gareth Edwards

Perhaps being my most eagerly anticipated film of the summer (which looks incredibly weak overall movie-wise) did Godzilla in, but I found this reinvention of the classic Japanese monster movie a pretty big disappointment.  Part of me respects the fact that director Gareth Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein were ballsy enough to keep the title figure off the screen for all but (seemingly) ten minutes of the film, but the other part of me can't help but think they squandered away their money shots with the creature.

However, let's just say that I'm fine with Godzilla not being the film's focal point.  That notion would be totally true if the film's centerpiece -- the humans who are facing an epic battle between Godzilla and to Mothra-esque creatures -- had any modicum of interesting storyline to latch onto.  There's actually been much talk about Aaron Taylor-Johnson (whose US solider character is the lead) and his inability to emote properly, but I found that the script didn't give him a damn thing to do.  For a film that follows this guy around and tries to make us connect with him by giving him a plotline about returning home to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) after visiting his crazy father (Bryan Cranston) in Japan, Taylor-Johnson is in this movie solely to react to the CGI-ness of the monsters rampaging around him.  Without being the impetus of a single plot point, I found myself detached too much from his character and the story.

In the film's opening act, we are given a bit of background which admittedly does a decent job about setting up how Godzilla and these two gigantic winged creatures he fights manifested themselves thanks to radiation in the 1950s.  This is essentially where the rest of the film's cast -- Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, and Juliette Binoche -- come into play.  Watanabe and Hawkins are here simply to elucidate the scientific goings-on, Binoche is essentially a walk-on cameo, and Cranston -- well, I'm warning you that I'm about to say something that Breaking Bad fans (myself being one of them) may find utterly sacrilegious -- overacts to a point of oddness.  Cranston's character is the first major player we meet in the film and at first, I actually thought Cranston was paying homage to the 1960s Godzilla films of yore.  However, as the film progressed, I realized that no one else was playing up the "corny factor" and that Cranston was just doing some schticky overly dramatic thing on his own accord.

If the fact that I've not talked about Godzilla much in this review seems a little odd that's because, as I already mentioned, Godzilla isn't in the flick all that much.  Once again, for me, this would've been a perfectly acceptable conceit had the humans in this story been given any type of emotional arc I could've looked to for some meatiness in terms of plot.  With that not being given to me, Godzilla ends up falling flat.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-