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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,...

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Movie Review - The Canyons

The Canyons (2013)
Starring Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, Nolan Funk, Amanda Brooks, Tenille Houston, and Gus Van Sant
Directed by Paul Schrader

I will readily admit that the only reason I watched The Canyons is because I expected both the film and its troubled star Lindsay Lohan to land on my Worst of 2013 list.  Color me surprised that Lohan's performance is a intriguingly vulnerable one, tapping in to what I can only assume are her own insecurities as she attempts to get back on her feet after a rough go this past decade.  The film itself...well, I've see worse this year...

The problem with The Canyons is that all of its characters are self-involved, obnoxious a-holes.  They're certainly not enjoyable to watch.  Considering that this is from the pen of Bret Easton Ellis, I'm not particularly surprised as my limited knowledge of Ellis is that these types of characters are his bread and butter.  There's a slightly noir-ish tone to The Canyons with story centering around spoiled rich kid movie producer Christian (porn star James Deen) and his inability to trust his live-in girlfriend Tara (Lohan).  The two have an odd, open relationship welcoming men and women back to their palatial L.A. home to partake in a variety of sexual relations.  However, when Christian suspects Tara may be having a "real" relationship with someone other than his controlling self, he's not a happy camper.

While Lohan embodies the worn-down, world-weary, tough-around-the-edges Tara quite well, the same can't be said for James Deen.  While he certainly tries, he can't quite get Ellis's words to come out sounding believable.  Then again, to Deen's credit, I'm not quite sure anyone could succeed as the character of Christian does get saddled with much of film's attempt at creating "substance" and "meaning" by talking about what his character perceives as problems with society.  This is where Ellis falters in that I have no desire to hear what these vapid characters have to say about anything.  While I think it's supposed to be skewering the elite Hollywood mindset it depicts, it doesn't succeed.

The rest of the relatively unknown cast actually does a decent job, but the surprise of the film is Lohan.  She definitely looks weathered here and a little worse for the wear, but this was a vehicle aptly made for her and her recent troubles.  She channels a bit of the noir dames of the past and was honestly compelling to watch.  Good luck to her in the future and here's hoping she can turn her life around.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Movie Review - Blancanieves

Blancanieves (2013)
Starring Maribel Verdú (queen), Daniel Giménez Cacho (father), Sofía Oria (young), and Macarena García (old) 
Directed by Pablo Berger
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

We all know the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs so telling it in a silent black-and-white format as it is in Pablo Berger's Blancanieves won't throw anyone into fits of confusion.  The question is, though, did this tale really need to be updated in this way?  Ultimately, the answer is no and while I appreciated Berger's screenplay's different spin on the Grimm tale, I found myself fighting boredom and stopping the film multiple times as I viewed it.

Boredom never sets in when the evil Encarna (Maribel Verdú) is onscreen, however.  Unfortunately, when she's not in the picture, Blancanieves doesn't have the emotional push to get me to care about the story which is a little odd considering the fact that this flick actually goes into Snow White's background much more than any previous Snow White movie I've seen.  Here, bull fighter Antonio Villata (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is gravely gored during a bullfight.  While he survives only to be a paraplegic, his grief-stricken pregnant wife dies during childbirth.  Unable to live on his own, Villata's live-in nurse cares for and eventually marries him.  This live-in nurse -- the evil Encarna.

That child that was borne to Villata's wife?  Young Carmencita (Sofía Oria) lives with her grandmother for several years until she dies of a heart attack leaving Carmencita essentially orphaned.  Having never met her father before, Carmencita is taken to his palatial abode, but upon arriving is greeted by Encarna who forces her to sleep in the chicken coop and forbids her to see her father.  Eventually, Carmencita breaks Encarna's rule and her relationship with her father blooms in secret without Encarna's knowledge.  Needless to say, this is where the typical Snow White story kicks in.  Once Encarna discovers this familial connection several years later (Carmencita is now a teenager played by Macarena Garcia), she is banished from the house, hunted down by "the hunter," and meets some dwarfs.

While I appreciate the updating and the fleshing out of the story, the film isn't visually stimulating enough (despite a charming "old" look) or unique enough story-wise to captivate.  Blancanieves really only comes alive whenever the scenery-chewing Encarna is onscreen and that just isn't enough to make the flick work.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Friday, August 29, 2014

Movie Review - Simon Killer

Simon Killer (2013)
Starring Brady Corbet and Mati Diop
Directed by Antonio Campos
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Simon Killer had so much potential as a film -- and then it went and did the whole indie flick thing where its ending proves to be a huge letdown after all this build-up simply for the sake of naturalism. It's a tease, really.  Fortunately, despite the disappointing final act, the first two-thirds of Simon Killer is a rather stunning character study with some compellingly fresh directorial choices (both visually and aurally) that add to the flick's appeal...and make it all the more upsetting that it can't deliver the goods in the end.

Recent college graduate Simon (Brady Corbet) has just broken up with his girlfriend of five years and is visiting Paris to try and get his mind off his longtime lady.  Unable to kick the depression, Simon is persuaded into taking his mopish self into a brothel one evening where he meets prostitute Noura (Mati Diop).  When Noura agrees to see Simon outside of work (still for money, mind you), Simon begins to become infatuated simply with the fact that he's made a connection with someone -- it could've been anyone, but it just so happened to be an incredibly attractive French hooker.  The paid dates eventually fade away and a real relationship begins and Simon comes up with a plan to blackmail Noura's rich clients out of lots of dough by videotaping their sexual escapades and threatening to show their indiscretions to their wives.  The ripple effect of this on Simon and Noura's relationship is a bit more profound than either of them could imagine.

Simon Killer is raw and doesn't mince on being overtly sexualized (it wasn't rated by the MPAA) which adds to director-screenwriter Antonio Campos' voyeuristic take on young lust.  Campos utilizes long takes and somewhat odd, off-putting camera placement to aid with this creepy, constantly lingering feel.  (One take, for instance, plants Campos' camera squarely at the level of his characters' torsos and we only get glimpses of their faces when they sit down.  Of course, this "torso focus" also sexualizes the characters a bit as well.)  A pulsing soundtrack helps to create a vivid world for his two main cast members.

Brady Corbet is frightening here.  At first, we feel for his Simon as we view him as a guy who's having a tough time getting over a break-up.  Soon, however, we see that he's become a bit warped, a bit unsteady, and a bit off his rocker.  It's not that he ever becomes possessive of Noura, it's just that she becomes his life.  I realize that sounds oxymoronic, but she never really becomes his puppet on a string...he's simply is desperate for that human connection.  In fact, their first scene together involves a sexually deviant moment that epitomizes just that -- Simon doesn't need her to physically satisfy him; he just needs to know she's there in order to be satisfied.  (Vague enough, for you?  I just don't want to spoil things.)  Corbet does an excellent job of giving Simon layers that he slowly peels back, becoming a bit more menacing as the film progresses.

Unfortunately, the film fails to present a satisfying payoff.  While it's likely the most realistic way for the film to end, Simon Killer concludes with what feels like a middle finger to the audience.  Still, everything leading up to that is so good, that I can't not recommend it.  It's certainly not for everyone due to its graphic nature, but it's an impressive directorial job from Antonio Campos that makes me want to seek out his prior flick.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Movie Review - Blue Caprice

Blue Caprice (2013)
Starring Isaiah Washington, Tequan Richmond, Tim Blake Nelson, and Joey Lauren Adams
Directed by Alexandre Moors

I remember the Beltway Sniper case of 2002 quite vividly in part because I had relatives who lived nearby as the terror unfolded over the course of several weeks.  That connection to the crime had me interested in seeing Blue Caprice, but the debut film of Alexandre Moors just plays too much like a stereotypical "indie" pic -- lots of deep meditative talking, lots of shots of trees passing by in a car, drab settings, slow pace.  While it seemingly had the grounds for a good story, Moors and the film's screenwriter fail to make the story captivating.

While it's interesting to see how John Muhammad (Isaiah Washington) met the seventeen year-old Lee Malvo (Teguan Richmond) and "corrupted" him/guilted him into obeying his whims, my biggest problem with Blue Caprice is that I never quite grasped why Muhammad was so ticked off to go on his rampage in the first place.  Admittedly, maybe the film attempted to describe it beyond "My Ex-Wife Stole My Kids From Me and The State Always Sides With The Woman," but the snail's pace at which this film's first hour meanders by failed to allow me to watch it without stopping the Blu-Ray multiple times so I may have missed certain aspects of the plot.  Nonetheless, without the reasoning behind the killings, I lost interest.

While the film certainly kicks into gear during the last 25 minutes when Muhammad and Malvo finally make it to the Washington, D.C., area, it was a disappointment overall.  Isaiah Washington certainly gives a good performance, but it's not enough to lift the film from its rather boring laurels.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Movie Review - The Summit

The Summit (2013)
Directed by Nick Ryan
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

So many reviews as of late trying to finish up 2013...so little time...gonna keep this one brief...

The Summit details the story of an ill-fated expedition to K2 -- the second highest mountain peak on Earth -- during the summer of 2008.  Eighteen mountain climbers made the trek up to the apex, but only eleven came back down alive.  This is their story...and a gripping one it is especially due to the fact that the loved ones of those who died aren't entirely sure that they didn't perish because of the misdeeds of others thanks to some poorly managed planning.

Nick Ryan's documentary is a little heavy on re-enactments, but I guess that's inherently due to the fact that cameramen can't make the treacherous climb up K2.  Still, thanks to some tense interviews, The Summit is an interesting, though not necessarily original, film.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Movie Review - Byzantium

Byzantium (2013)
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller, Daniel Mays, and Caleb Landry Jones
Directed by Neil Jordan

As I draw to the end of my 2013 viewing (the RyMickey Awards will finally be forthcoming in September), I often wonder why I feel the need to see as much as I can movie-wise.  What's the point?  Surprises like Byzantium are why I hold off on my awards.  Now, I can't say for certain that Byzantium will land in the top of any of my categories, but I can at least say that this new take on a classic vampire story breathed new life into a genre that's been beaten down to kid-like, laughable levels as of late thanks to the popularity of the Twilight series.

The alluring Gemma Arterton is Clara and when we first encounter her she's stripping in a seedy bar in England in an attempt to bing in an income to look after her teenage sister Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan).  However, Clara and Eleanor have a secret and when one of Clara's customers reveals that he knows Clara is really a vampire, he meets an untimely end that forces the two sisters to flee their apartment for a new town.  As the two immortal women settle in, they become comfortable with their surroundings which is never a good thing considering the secrets that both Clara and Eleanor hide from everyone.

Neil Jordan's film not only tells the modern-day journey of Clara and Eleanor, but also the two hundred year-old story of how they became immortal vampires in the first place.  Both aspects of the effectively woven story written by Moira Buffini are surprisingly solid, each holding its own and deepening one another via their plots.  Jordan's film ratchets up the tension at key points, is nicely shot, and humorously gory at times -- the latter of which actually added some comedic moments to the otherwise heavy plot.

Saoirse Ronan presses on with her monopoly of mopey kid roles, but this works here because her Eleanor feels trapped not only in her sister's shadow, but also quite literally in her never-aging body that doesn't allow her to become close to anyone since her secret will be revealed should she form a long-term relationship.  Gemma Arterton continues to impress, exuding a dirty sexiness when Clara's pimping herself out to get money to pay the rent while also believably mothering the younger Eleanor in an attempt to save her from those who would do her harm.

Byzantium is much more fun than I expected it to be.  With solid craftsmanship on all levels, this one was a pleasant treat.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Monday, August 25, 2014

Movie Review - Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing (2013)
Starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Nathan Fillion, Fran Kranz, Sean Maher, Reed Diamond, and Julian Morgese
Directed by Joss Whedon
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

It always takes me about thirty minutes to get acclimated to Shakespearean dialog.  In those thirty minutes, I often find myself wondering why I put myself through watching interpretations of his work, but I eventually get won over and that's certainly the case here with Joss Whedon's modern-day updating of Much Ado About Nothing.  

Set in a California home, Much Ado tells the tale of Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) -- two former lovers (at least in this production) who have quite a love-hate relationship with one another.  Neither will admit that the other is their true love and instead spend their days poking fun at each other's idiosyncrasies.  Benedick has arrived at Beatrice's uncle Leonato's (Clark Gregg) home for a get-together weekend along with Leonato's good friend Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and Don Pedro's good friend Claudio (Fran Kranz).  Upon arrival, Claudio declares his undying love for Leonato's daughter Hero (Julian Morgese) at which point Leonato offers up to him her hand in marriage.  (So we have two love stories going on at the same time, for those who are already confused by the older English names.)  Unfortunately for Claudio and Hero, things don't go smoothly as not everyone who is partying at Leonato's abode wants the two of them to get married and may do whatever is possible to nix the upcoming nuptials.

I had seen Kenneth Branagh's version of Much Ado About Nothing over a decade ago so the story here was somewhat fresh for me and not immediately resonant in my mind.  I was surprised at how witty I found the dialog (once I got acclimated, as I mentioned) and I found the humorous tete-a-tete between Beatrice and Benedick to be charmingly romantic.  It certainly helps that Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof (two veterans of Joss Whedon tv series) have a fantastic rapport with one another with Acker in particular impressively capable of handling both the comedic and dramatic sides of her character -- a woman who wants to outwardly show independence, but also wants the love of a man to latch onto.

Admittedly, the modern-day updating isn't perfect, but it provides a different point of view than we're used to seeing and creates an easier transition for those who aren't used to seeing the Bard's words play out.  I know Branagh's take on this same material is well-loved, but I don't remember it nearly enough to draw a comparison to this, so instead I'll just say that this Much Ado About Nothing -- a passion project for The Avengers director Whedon -- is an amusing interpretation of a classic piece of literature.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Movie Review - 20 Feet from Stardom

20 Feet from Stardom (2013)
Starring Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton, and Judith Hill 
Directed by Morgan Neville
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

The 2013 Academy Award-winner for Best Documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom references the distance from the background singers to the lead singer on the concert stage.  Always in the background, back-up singers have always found it difficult to make the leap to center stage for a variety of reasons which this documentary by Morgan Neville details.  While certainly easy to watch and enjoyable throughout -- it's one of those movies that makes you smile while you're watching it because of how pleasing and genial its subjects are -- the film lacks some emotional oomph and gravitas.  Despite the plights of some of these ladies, I never really felt bad for them.  Then again, in retrospect, I'm not really sure I'm supposed to feel bad for them.  And that limbo is what made 20 Feet from Stardom not quite connect with me.

The film focuses on four women -- Darlene Love and Merry Clayton (from the 1950s/60s), Lisa Fischer (from the 80s/90s), and Judith Hill (from the aughts) -- and all four have personalities that you immediately find charming and welcoming.  The film paints all of them in a glowing light, having nothing but respect for the oft-unrecognized job that they tackled.  Love and Clayton in particular were often left by the wayside despite playing key roles in many of the era's greatest songs.  Fischer tries for a solo career (and wins a Grammy), but never captures a solo moment for herself.  Hill is just now trying to stretch out from the background to the forefront.  All four of their stories are compelling, but the subject matter is almost treated too trite and sugary for its own good.

However, despite the qualms, I really did enjoy 20 Feet from Stardom.  Great music, amusing personalities...just not quite the impact I was expecting.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Friday, August 22, 2014

Movie Review - Thanks for Sharing

Thanks for Sharing (2013)
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Gad, Joely Richardson, Patrick Fugit, and Alecia ("Pink") Moore
Directed by Stuart Blumberg 
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Much like 2013's similarly themed Don Jon helmed by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Thanks for Sharing deals with sex addiction by placing the hefty subject into the context of a romantic comedy.  Granted, differences between the two films abound -- the most important being that in Thanks for Sharing the addicts have all recognized their problems and are seeking help -- but I think that Stuart Blumberg's flick fares a bit better thanks to some nice performances and a little bit more fleshing out of its characters beyond the almost stereotypical roles that were present in Don Jon.

Mark Ruffalo is Adam, a five-year clean "former" sex addict (addiction is an ongoing battle, hence the quotes) whose regular SAA meetings help him retain his sobriety.  In order to survive, Adam has removed television, the internet, and dating from his everyday life hoping to keep sexual temptations away from him.  However, his sponsor Mike (Tim Robbins), a longtime recovering addict himself, tells him that it's time for Adam to put himself on the market again -- the goal of SAA is to make sex meaningful, not to keep folks cloistered.  Adam ends up meeting Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the two hit it off swimmingly although Adam has to constantly worry about whether his addiction will rear its ugly head again.

The rather charming relationship between Ruffalo and Paltrow's characters certainly buoys Thanks for Sharing and makes the flick enjoyable to watch.  The two actors' chemistry is palpable and Paltrow in particular has a light-hearted humorous demeanor here that made me wonder why she never really made it as a romantic comedy lead actress.

Unfortunately, for all the good that comes with Ruffalo and Paltrow's storyline, we're also saddled with the character of Neil (played by Josh Gad) who is new to SAA and is finding it incredibly difficult to leave behind his old ways.  Neil's way of coping with his addiction is to make jokes, but it seemed a tad off-putting in this flick.  Plus, his character's story arc was a bit too obvious to make me have any rooting interest in his success.  I knew where things were going to end up, so I admittedly checked out a bit whenever Neil was onscreen.

There's a surprisingly nice performance from Alecia Moore (better known as the singer Pink) who shows some potential as an actress as well as a tender storyline between Tim Robbins' character and his drug addicted son played very strongly by Patrick Fugit which help elevate the flick a bit.  Ultimately, Thanks for Sharing is a bit "basic" and "obvious," but it proves to be an enjoyable watch thanks in large part to the amiable cast.  Could it have delved deeper into the world of sex addiction, sure.  But not every film dealing with this disease is going to be Shame -- although I wish they would be.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Movie Review - Parkland

Parkland (2013)
Starring James Badge Dale, Zac Efron, Colin Hanks, David Harbour, Marcia Gay Harden, Ron Livingston, Jeremy Strong, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacki Weaver, and Paul Giamatti
Directed by Peter Landesman

Parkland looks at the immediate aftermath of the John F. Kennedy assassination not through the eyes of the Kennedys or the conspiracy theorists, but through the lens of "normal" folks on the ground in Dallas, Texas, that fateful day in November 1963.  While an interesting concept, the film lacks an emotional undercurrent throughout, forcing the audience to feel distanced from everything despite first-time director-screenwriter Peter Landesman's attempts to pull us in visually with his camerawork.

Landesman's film certainly is a good debut for the director, but considering the heft of the subject matter, the piece lacks that emotional connection you long to feel.  Part of the reasoning behind this is likely due to the fact that Parkland is truly an ensemble piece.  We see the doctors and nurses at the Parkland Hospital (played by Zac Efron, Colin Hanks, and Marcia Gay Harden) trying to save Kennedy at the beginning, but then we're whisked away to meet with Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) to see how he dealt with doling out his famous film to the media and the government.  We also get glimpses into the world of the various FBI and Secret Service agents (David Harbour, Ron Livingston, and Billy Bob Thornton) and their reactions to that day before we're welcomed into the world of Lee Harvey Oswald's brother Robert (James Badge Dale) and crazed mother (Jacki Weaver) and their varied reactions to the horrific events that his brother/son (Jeremy Strong) caused.

Quite honestly, all of these four story threads are quite intriguing and they're all buoyed by strong performances by the cast.  Unfortunately, with the ensemble nature of the piece, we're never with any one of them for any long period of time.  Just when we're starting to feel compassion for the medical workers and their unenviable task that November day, we shift to another storyline.  While I appreciate the different angles Landesman brings to the table, it does keep the audience at an emotional distance from the goings-on.  Nevertheless, Parkland is an intriguing piece that certainly gives a different perspective of the Kennedy assassination and if you're a history buff it's well worth watching.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Movie Review - The Family

The Family (2013)
Starring Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron, John D'Leo, and Tommy Lee Jones
Directed by Luc Besson
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

After a promising opening half hour, the family in The Family begins to wear a little thin.  Robert De Niro is patriarch Giovanni Manzoni, a mob boss who squealed on members of his crime syndicate.  For the past several years, Giovanni has been traveling through Europe with his family under various aliases while being protected by FBI agents (led by a gruff Tommy Lee Jones).  Unfortunately, Manzoni -- who has now taken on the pseudonym of Fred Blake -- can't quite leave his mobster ways behind which forces him to have to uproot his family often whenever he reverts back to his old ways, gets angry, and kills someone.  His family -- wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron), and son Warren (John D'Leo) -- have toughened up because of this and are starting to pick up some of their family patriarch's ways of revenge.

As we get to know the Manzoni/Blake family, things are actually pretty promising in Luc Besson's film.  However, we soon realize that the folks that Manzoni ratted out a decade ago are on a manhunt for him.  This, unfortunately, is when the film starts to falter.  Rather surprisingly, when it aims for humor, the film succeeds, but the mob revenge plot is a huge failure, lacking any tension or emotional impact.

Michelle Pfeiffer is game as a mobster's moll providing quite a few laughs and young John D'Leo is a true standout as the tough, New York-accented teen who doesn't quite fit in with the kids in Normandy, France (the family's latest hometown).  Unfortunately, the performances aren't enough to breathe life into a plot that nearly put me to sleep.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Movie Review - Red 2

Red 2 (2013)
Starring Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Helen Mirren, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Byung Hun Lee, David Thewlis, Brian Cox, and Neal McDonough
Directed by Dean Parisot

I got a weird joy out of the first Red film -- there was something oddly compelling about seeing Helen Mirren wield huge automatic weapons and fight evil.  Needless to say, I wasn't sure whether that gimmick of old folks doing battle could sustain itself for another flick.  During the first thirty minutes of Red 2, my worries seemed legit as I came this close to stopping the film out of unnecessariness.  I'm happy I stuck it out as Red 2 proved to be an amiable enough way to spend two hours with a nice mix of comedy and action coupled with an ensemble cast that appears to be having a great time working together.

I'm not going to really bother discussing any plot -- old guys and former government intelligence agents Bruce Willis (plus his girlfriend Mary-Louise Parker), John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren (well...their characters) band together to recover a nuclear weapon in Russia created twenty years prior by a English scientist (played by Anthony Hopkins) who believed he was hired to do something helpful for the British and US government.  Plot is almost superfluous here because you're really not getting anything you haven't seen in any other action movie before.

The reason a movie like Red 2 exists is to see the chemistry of the cast.  Bruce Willis and John Malkovich dryly (and drolly) play off each other perfectly.  Mary-Louise Parker is a true joy, providing many more laughs than I ever could've expected as Willis's excited-for-thrills girlfriend as she tags along on her first mission with him.  Anthony Hopkins is fun.  Byung Hun Lee (the rare youthful element here) is quite good, surprisingly funny, and oddly fleshed out character-wise as a hired assassin set out to take out Willis and his cronies.  And then there's Helen Mirren who I admit I have a little crush on and is for some reason oddly attractive as she nonchalantly pours bleach into a bathtub to kill people.  Is that weird?  Probably.

Red 2 probably didn't need to exist.  The first Red explored this same territory and this one doesn't really bring anything new to the table.  However, it is an excuse to get this cast back together and give them another chance to try their hand at comedy.  That alone is worth it.  Is the film perfect?  Nope.  (Remember, I wanted to turn it off during the first act.)  But it's kind of fun.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Monday, August 18, 2014

Movie Review - Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim (2013)
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, and Clifton Collins, Jr. 
Directed by Guillermo del Toro

I'm not sure anyone is more surprised than me that Pacific Rim works.  In fact, it's the movie 2014's Godzilla wishes it could've been.  Director and co-screenwriter Guillermo del Toro injects a lot of fun into his science fiction piece that make this big action pic move at a fairly rapid clip.  With some nice visual set pieces and an unique premise, Pacific Rim is a refreshing change of pace from typical summer blockbusters.

The year is 2020.  For the past seven years, the US and the world have been battling the Kaiju -- an ever-evolving fleet of gigantic monsters who rise up occasionally from a rift in a rim under the Pacific Ocean.  In order to counter the Kaiju, the world banded together and created the Jaeger -- huge robots that are used as hunters and a defense against the havoc the Kaiju wreak on the world.  While successful initially, the Kaiju have adapted to the defense mechanisms of the Jaeger and this savior of mankind is now becoming obsolete.  The Earth's governments declare the Jaeger project to be finished and start about building giant walls around the world's countries where the land meets the sea.  When these walls fail, the Jaeger are pulled out of retirement for one last attempt at defeating the ever-changing Kaiju.

The concept above is rather unique in and of itself, but del Toro adds even more interesting aspects to the mix in the way that the Jaeger are controlled.  Because of their gigantic size, two "pilots" are needed to control a Jaeger from the inside.  These two pilots must essentially "mind meld" in order to get in sync with one another so that the Jaeger's motions are seamless.  Adding to that, the ever-evolving Kaiju allow the monsters to be presented in similar, yet very different ways each time we encounter the beasts.  These unique twists provide just enough differences that make Pacific Rim stand out from something similar like a Godzilla movie.

While not without its faults -- the second to last battle sequence is a big payoff and when you realize there's still another one to come, you wonder why del Toro set up the film like he did; Charlie Day (while funny) plays a scientist in such a wacky way that you feel like you're watching a different movie every time his character is on screen -- Pacific Rim is a winner.  Guillermo del Toro has an eye for action sequences and has moments where heart prevails.  While its overarching story doesn't reinvent the wheel, the initial premise is singular enough that it makes us feel like we're watching something fresh.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Movie Review - Elysium

Elysium (2013)
Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, William Fichtner, Alice Braga, Wagner Moura, and Diego Luna
Directed by Neill Blomkamp

While Elysium takes place in the mid-22nd century, the basis of its plot shows us that the battle between the haves and the have-nots hasn't changed much 150 years from now.  Of course, rich people are bad, poor people are good, and there's no middle ground.  If you buy into this conceit you're probably a liberal, you may enjoy Neill Blomkamp's flick, but I found this dystopian future (so many dystopian futures lately in film) tiresome and obnoxious.

By the late 21st century, Earth has become diseased and polluted.  With the run-down land, Earth's wealthiest inhabitants fled to the space colony of Elysium in order to continue their way of life.  Elysium is just like Earth used to be except for the fact that this controlled environment drifts along through space.  Down on Earth, Max (Matt Damon) is a hard-working guy who's had his share of trouble with the law.  He ends up getting into a horrible accident at work in which he is exposed to a large amount of radiation which only gives him three days to live.  Rather than spend it on the hell that is Earth, he decides that he's going to try and do all he can to get to Elysium.  An associate named Spider (Wagner Moura) agrees to help him, but first he asks that Max steal some information from a powerful executive (William Fichtner) that will allow Spider to possibly take control of Elysium.  Through some convoluted nonsense, Max ends up undergoing a surgery that gives him a powerful exoskeleton that protects him when he goes to meet the exec and...yeah...I'm just gonna stop there, because can you top the notion of a powerful exoskeleton?

Seeing as how Max is trying to bring down Elysium (or at the very least make it more open to the general populous), many on Elysium aren't happy about this including Elysium's Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster).  Foster employs some weird accent (part South African-part Annoying) and couples that with some awkwardly-mannered jerky movements that make her presence off-the-charts odd (and not in a good way).  Toss in a weirdly overacting Sharlto Copley as some Elysium agent living on Earth who attempts to take out Max and Matt Damon ends up looking like one of the best actors ever to grace the screen in comparison.

Elysium looks ragged and worn-down from the outset (which I guess is the point), but it couldn't even visually intrigue me to make up for the lukewarm story and horrid acting.  It certainly doesn't help that the overarching theme of "rising up to defeat the man" felt tired and irksome.  Neil Blomkamp may have had success with the Best Picture-nominated District 9 (which I thought itself was overrated), but this just felt like more of the same in all aspects and it pales in comparison.

The RyMickey Rating:  D

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Movie Review - Oldboy

Oldboy (2013)
Starring Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Michael Imperioli, and Samuel L. Jackson
A Spike Lee Joint
***This film is currently steaming on Netflix**

Maybe it's just because I haven't seen the original, but I don't quite understand what all the uproar was about when Spike Lee's remake of the Japanese film Oldboy came out last year.  To me, Lee has produced a slick, exciting, well shot (though somewhat ludicrous plot-wise) revenge film that moves along at a rather rapid pace.  I found the piece quite effective in mood and tone with a strong leading performance by Josh Brolin.

It's 1993 and Joe Doucett (Brolin) is a sleazy alcoholic advertising executive who fails to give his wife and daughter child support on a recurring basis.  One evening, after a failed meeting with a client, Joe gets himself drunk to a point of unconsciousness while walking along the city streets.  When he awakens, he finds himself in a hotel room from which he cannot escape.  While imprisoned, he sees on tv that his wife has been murdered and that he is the prime suspect.  Despite his pleas, his captors never reveal their faces and keep him locked in the room for twenty years at which point he is inexplicably released back into the world.  His ordeal, however, is not over.  Once out, Joe receives a phone call from a mysterious man who tells him that he has three days to figure out why he was imprisoned or else his (now twenty-something) daughter will be killed.

Ultimately, Oldboy is saved by both Spike Lee's unique and refreshing swift direction and Brolin's compelling performance as a man who, despite his slimeball personality before, never deserved to be put into the horrifying predicament he was placed.  Beyond those two things, the plot of Oldboy revels in lunacy.  I won't even get into Sharlto Copley's over-the-top B-movie level villain and the absolutely insane reason behind imprisoning Joe for twenty years.  It's laughably bad -- and surprisingly uncomfortable to watch play out.  However, despite this pretty major plot point issue (and a few other rather disturbing storylines that I won't delve into for fear of ruining the film for you), I still found Oldboy to be a unique piece of American cinema that pleasantly surprised me.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Movie Review - Unfinished Song

Unfinished Song (Song for Marion) (2013)
Starring Terence Stamp, Gemma Arterton, Christopher Eccleston, and Vanessa Redgrave
Directed by Paul Andrew Williams
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

There's an overwhelming sense of sentimentality in Unfinished Song that you either buy into or don't. Fortunately, I did and I found this little seen British dramedy quite a charming surprise.  The story is quite simple -- Marion (Vanessa Redgrave) is dying.  Cancer has taken its toll and she doesn't have very long to live.  She wants to make the most of her final months so she joins a choir of elderly folks headed by the young and chipper Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton). Elizabeth doesn't want her choir to be looked at as a bunch of old fogies so she has them sing modern songs ("Let's Talk About Sex" by Salt 'n' Pepa, "Love Shack" by the B52's) in unique ways.  Marion loves the concept and it makes her incredibly happy, allowing her to forget about her illness.  Her curmudgeonly husband Arthur (Terence Stamp), however, finds the whole thing ridiculous.

It's not difficult to see where writer-director Paul Andrew Williams' film is going to go.  Of course Arthur's going to have a change of heart, but there's something about the innocence coupled with the natural and "real" performances from Terence Stamp, Vanessa Redgrave, Gemma Arterton, and Christopher Eccleston (as Marion and Arthur's adult son) that make Unfinished Song much more compelling than it probably has any right to be.  Stamp, in particular, manages to make a stock character -- Grumpy Old Man -- into someone that you not only root for, but desperately want to realize the error of his crotchety ways.  His final scene -- good luck trying to keep your eyes dry.  I managed to avoid the tears, but I can totally see how it could cause the waterworks to open up.  [I must say that I rewatched the scene on YouTube and sure enough, it caused a tear to fall.]

Don't misunderstand -- Unfinished Song isn't necessarily a great film.  We've seen everything it presents here before (including the tired trope of old people saying things "young people say" for laughs), but if you're willing to buy into the concept, I can't help but think you'll be won over by the sheer niceness of it all.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Movie Review - The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)
Starring Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, James Gandolfini, and Alan Arkin
Directed by Don Scardino

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is one of those comedies with characters who have no basis in reality, are sometimes funny in their idiocy, but then become completely unbelievable when the script attempts to make them "more real" and "give them heart" by the film's end.  When you've created a character who bears no resemblance to an actual human being (as is the case in the title character played by Steve Carell), I have a tough time connecting...which is fine if you're going to make the character dumb and keep them dumb (which is a hard task to accomplish and still make them interesting to watch for two hours).   However, on the flip side, making a character over-the-top, unbelievably stupid, and a callous jerk and then expecting me to believe that they can become an incredibly intelligent and caring individual is a bit of a stretch that hardly ever works...as is evident here.

As a kid, Burt Wonderstone was a bit of a loner, but on one of his birthdays his mother bought him a magic kit and his life forever changed.  Burt partnered with his childhood friend Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) and the duo rose to fame as two of the most famous magicians of all time, earning a coveted headlining spot on the Las Vegas Strip playing to sold out crowds night after night.  The world of illusions is changing, however, and when the David Blaine/Chris Angel-esque Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) pops up on the Strip filming his tv show, the stuck-up Burt and the polite and slightly timid Anton are in for a rude awakening.  As Steve performs crazy acts like cutting open his skin and holding in his urine for a week all in the name of magic, Burt and Anton are pushed to the wayside in favor of this newfound form of illusion.

I laughed a few times during The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and despite my aforementioned qualms about stupid characters, Steve Carell does manage to play them quite well.  It's not his fault that during the film's second half, the screenwriters try to do a 180-degree turn for his character and attempt to make him intelligent and kind overnight.  It just doesn't work and neither does attempting to shoehorn in a romance between Carell and his "beautiful assistant" Jane (played by Olivia Wilde) who despised Burt one day and then loved him the next.

As much as I liked Carell, I disliked Jim Carrey.  While Carell can play someone over-the-top and still make them watchable, Carrey plays over-the-top in such an obnoxious way that it gets old very quickly.  That's been his MO for years, however, so it's not like it's anything new.  Rather surprisingly, with comic "greats" like Carell and Carrey in the mix, the actor who actually comes out on top in terms of comedy is Steve Buscemi.  There's a charm he carries when he's doing comedy that makes him relatable and enjoyable to watch.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Movie Review - The Company You Keep

The Company You Keep (2013)
Starring Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Terrence Howard, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brendan Gleeson, Brit Marling, Sam Elliott, Stephen Root, and Jackie Evancho 
Directed by Robert Redford

Just take a look at that talent listed above -- that's a helluva lot of names, most of whom are known for giving good performances.  Robert Redford's film The Company You Keep (culled from a script by Lem Dobbs) plays like a novel, introducing each of these actors for a chapter and then having them disappear.  This episodic nature proves very tedious about halfway through once we realize what's going on.  It fails to allow us to connect to anyone...then again, I'm not sure we really want to connect with any of these people.

The film opens with a brief flashback in newsreel/news footage form about a series of protests in the 1960/70s by a homegrown American "terrorist" group known as the Weather Underground -- a real-life "activist" group that bombed government buildings and banks as public demonstrations to gain notoriety in an attempt to overthrow the US government for what they perceived as wrongdoings during the Vietnam era.  The last blip of the flashback tells us about a 1980 bank robbery in which a civilian was killed and how the three people responsible are still at large.

Cut to present time and Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is arrested when buying gas at a convenience store in New York.  Solarz was one a Weather Underground member and one of the three people responsible for that ill-fated bank robbery that resulted in a death.  She had lived her life -- got married, had kids -- but the guilt of that day always stayed with her and Solarz, a Vermont resident, specifically crossed the New York state border to buy gas in order to get arrested and turn herself in.  This sets the FBI on a hunt for Solarz's colleagues in the crime, while also piquing the interest of Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), a young reporter at the local Albany newspaper.  Shepard ends up discovering more than the FBI (which doesn't sit too well with the FBI chief played by Terrence Howard) when he uncovers the fact that a local lawyer named Jim Grant (Robert Redford) is actually Nick Sloan, a presumed dead Weather Underground member suspected of taking part in the murder at the bank in 1980.  When Shepard confronts Grant about this, Grant immediately grows suspicious that the FBI will soon be on his tail and he sets off across the country trying to evade the FBI, while also trying to clear his name.

While the premise above is actually interesting that all takes place in the film's opening thirty minutes after which things quickly fall apart, digressing into scenes in which Redford's character meets up an old, hardened former Weather Underground member who then gets tracked down by the FBI just as Grant manages to make an escape.  This seriously happens four or five times and maybe it could've worked if any of these scenes ended up being anything other than two old people reminiscing about how shitty the government's treatment of the less fortunate is.  (Of course, the majority of these old fogies are now living in expensive houses, sailing yachts, or working at prestigious universities...so their sympathetic allegiance with the poor feels disingenuous...then again, that's the good old liberal mindset, ain't it?)

There are a couple of decent performances here -- LaBeouf is strong as the go-getting reporter, Sarandon makes the most of her small role with a particularly good scene in which she explains her actions -- but the typically strong cast isn't given much to work with and Redford doesn't really pull great performances from their small parts.  For someone who was a supposed sex symbol and movie star back in the day, Redford himself is uncharismatic and particularly bland here which is a disappointment considering he and LaBeouf are the only two actors who we see throughout the entire film.  The Company You Keep may very well have the most prestigious cast assembled for a 2013 film, but despite the high quality of actors, Robert Redford's film just meanders along for two hours failing to be anything more exciting than a game of "Which Celebrity Will Appear Next?"

The RyMickey Rating:  C- 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Movie Review - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
**viewed in 3D***
Starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Toby Kebbel, and Gary Oldman
Directed by Matt Reeves

2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a big surprise for me.  I wasn't expecting anything other than some corny mess (Tim Burton's previous attempt at a reimagining of the franchise had ruined things), so when the film worked, I was thoroughly impressed.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes in fact landed at #13 on my Top Films of 2011 list.  Needless to say, because of how much I enjoyed that film, I was worried that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes wouldn't be able to hold a candle to it -- I'm very happy to say that my worries were unfounded with Matt Reeves' film taking the franchise in a different direction while still maintaining the "intelligent summer blockbuster" title of the previous flick.

At the end of Rise, ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) has escaped from the experimental medical testing facility where he was held captive and runs off into the San Francisco woods with his fellow apes. As Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens, we see that Caesar is the head of a large society of all different types of simians and they've made their own habitat in the woods.  Caesar has a teenage son, a pregnant wife, and the respect of his fellow apes.

If you remember, when Rise ended, some form of simian flu had infected the human population and we were just beginning to see it spread around the world.  In Dawn, we discover that massive amounts of humans died and those that are living (and immune to the disease) are camped out in barricaded towns, trying their best to survive without electricity, clean water, and basic needs for living.  Hoping to take advantage of a broken dam on the outskirts of San Francisco to create power, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his wife Ellie (Keri Russell), his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and a few others head into the woods near Caesar's sanctuary.  When they meet up with the apes, tension is high.  Caesar agrees to allow the humans to fix the dam, but this doesn't sit well with all the apes including Koba (Toby Kebbel) who feels like the humans will simply wreak havoc once they get their way.

This sets up an incredibly interesting dynamic -- Caesar must try to play both sides in order to keep peace, but neither side fully trusts Caesar and both opposing factions ultimately do things to cause his leadership role to come into question in terms of its effectiveness.  This is a complicated conflict and one that I found refreshingly intellectual for what easily could've been a throwaway summer popcorn flick.

The true success of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, however, comes from the special effects department.  Much like my awe of the first Apes film, I found myself utterly enthralled with the motion capture of Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbel, and all the other actors and actresses who lent themselves to become apes for the film.  The first twenty minutes (maybe more) features nary a human onscreen and you never once felt like you were watching entire scenes of computer generated footage.  There's a seamlessness between the "real" and the "effects" that quite simply provides some of the best visual artistry you'll ever see in a film.  I really have to commend the whole team of fx folks behind this series because they are masterful magicians.

Perhaps it's unfair, but I'm still finding it a little difficult to figure out where someone like Andy Serkis ends and the computer masterminds that create the appearance of Caesar begin.  Serkis certainly brings a lot to the character -- in Dawn, his Caesar is the main character undoubtedly.  This is his film and Serkis (and his fellow effects artists) have crafted a character that grabs the audience and gets them to fully empathize with an ape.  Kudos also to Toby Kebbel whose Koba is frighteningly scary at moments and is probably one of the better "villain" characters I've seen in a movie in a long while.

Unfortunately, the human struggle in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes isn't nearly as exciting as the ape drama and the film lags a bit whenever the focus is on the homo sapiens.  Attempts at trying to create a backstory for several of the characters to give them some emotional traction flounder a bit.  Because of this, I think Dawn is just a smidge less successful than Rise -- however, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes could easily end up on my Best of 2014 list when that rolls around next summer.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Movie Review - The Iceman

The Iceman (2013)
Starring Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta, Chris Evans, and David Schwimmer
Directed by Ariel Vromen
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

I found myself kept at a distance from the plot and characters in director Ariel Vromen's film The Iceman based on the true story of Richard Kuklinski (played here by Michael Shannon), a regular joe (well, actually a porn editor with an anger issue who perhaps killed a man or two who made him angry) who gets mixed up with mobster Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) and ends up becoming one of Demeo's most trusted and talented hitmen, murdering over one hundred targets across a thirty year span.

Shannon certainly tries to bring dimensionality to Richard, but the script oftentimes feels like it's trying to hard to show us that he's a family guy (married with two kids, nice house in the 'burbs, etc) who gets mixed up with the wrong crowd.  Ultimately, this urge to kill seemingly was in Richard's blood from an early age -- we see key plot points before Kuklinski meets Demeo that appear to prove this -- yet the film still attempts to show him as a guy with heart.  Sure, he may love his wife (played by Winona Ryder) and his two daughters, but the film doesn't ever allow us to empathize with him perhaps because Shannon never once plays Richard as any modicum of "warmth" or "tenderness."  Frankly, we don't feel too bad for his family as the harsh Kuklinski receives his inevitable comeuppance (this is a mobster movie and all mobster flicks feature this ending as protocol it seems, so that's not really a spoiler), yet the screenwriters keep trying unsuccessfully to get us to relate to him.

Perhaps the even bigger issue is the fact that as Richard grows into one of the most successful mob hitmen of all time, his hits blend into one another and never carry any weight or meaning.  While there certainly are underlining plot lines about Demeo believing that some on his crew are betraying him, all of that is brushed under the rug incredibly quickly to allow Shannon to angrily hold a gun to someone's head or slit their throat.  Without any meaning behind the assassinations, we lose any sense of plot.  There's probably an interesting story behind Richard Kuklinski's success in the mob -- The Iceman doesn't provide that.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Movie Review - The English Teacher

The English Teacher (2013)
Starring Julianne Moore, Michael Angarano, Greg Kinnear, Lily Collins, and Nathan Lane
Directed by Craig Zisk
***The film is currently streaming on Netflix***

When Jason (Michael Angarano) returns to his small Pennsylvania hometown after spending a few years in New York City trying to make it as an aspiring playwright, he's greeted kindly by his former high school English teacher Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore) who is thrilled to have a student who has gone on to write a play (despite the fact that it's never been produced).  After meeting with her school's drama teacher Carl Kapinas (Nathan Lane), Linda decides to produce Jason's play with Carl for their high school dramatic production.  Along the way, however, Linda and Jason begin to have a relationship beyond teacher-former student and complications arise that may affect Linda's typically mundane and rote life.

Unfortunately for Julianne Moore, she's yet to star in a comedy that I've really enjoyed (yes, that includes The Big Lebowski which I think I highly overrated when I watched it several years ago).  The English Teacher does nothing to change this thought of mine.  Moore herself isn't the problem -- I think she could do decent with comedic roles if she'd only choose comedies that were actually funny.  All of the actors here are actually game and try their hardest in their roles, but even their significant acting chops couldn't elicit a single laugh from me.  Moore's facing a mid-life crisis, Angarano's trying to figure out his path in life, and Kinnear's attempting to become a better father to Jason, but none of these plot points are funny -- and therein lies the problem.

There's a sweetness that permeates through The English Teacher that is moderately enjoyable, but director Craig Zisk's first feature film is too trite and ultimately too bland to merit your time.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Friday, August 08, 2014

Movie Review - Blackfish

Blackfish (2013)
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

I've been to Sea World numerous times.  Despite the efforts of documentary Blackfish, I'd probably go back.  Granted, the allure of the marine amusement park has faded as I've gotten older, but when I have kids, Sea World can certainly be on the vacation agenda.  To me, Sea World's conservation themes and its ability to pique a young mind's interest in marine life is worthy.

That said, I'm not oblivious to some of the disappointing tactics Sea World seems to be employing per director Gabriela Cowperthwaite's interviews with several former Sea World employees.  Granted, you're absolutely only getting one side of things in Blackfish as every single interviewee bashes the theme park, so you must take the film's accusations with a grain of salt -- acknowledging them, while at the same time realizing that Cowperthwaite absolutely has an agenda here.  Now, most interviewees are former Sea World employees who worked hand in fin with the killer whales that take center stage in this film.  Throughout their tenure, they seemingly didn't speak up with their concerns about these whales' treatments and now, via a change of heart, many of them are environmental activists.  That's all well and good, but to me there's a slight discrediting that comes along with that in that you made your living by taking part in the very thing you're now chastising.  Granted, that isn't to say that what they say about Sea World and its rules and actions are wrong (who the heck knows?)...it just comes tainted.

Blackfish revolves around the death of a killer whale trainer named Dawn Brancheau who died in 2010 after Tillikum, a male killer whale, attacked her.  This is certainly a tragic story and the film delves into the background of Tillikum to try and convey that the whale was psychologically damaged by his previous owners (a small scale Sea World-type marine park in Canada) and this pain came with him when Sea World bought him.  Unfortunately, the film just feels so one-sided in its agenda to "free the whales" that Cowperthwaite loses some credibility for me.  Admittedly, the film intrigued me enough after watching it to do a bit more research and it turns out that Brancheau's family didn't feel that the film reflected their feelings concerning Brancheau's death or Sea World.  (I was a bit surprised that the Brancheau family was nowhere to be seen in the film with the exception of a very small coda at the end...now I know why.)

Blackfish is certainly an entertaining film and one that does call into question some of Sea World's practices, but I can't help but think that this blatant propaganda could've fared better if it presented anyone who claimed Sea World does things right.  They don't at all and for that Blackfish's one-sidedness is also its downfall.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Movie Review - Maleficent

Maleficent (2014)
Starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Sam Riley, and Brenton Thwaites
Directed by Robert Stromberg

Perhaps it's faint praise to tout Maleficent as being better than Disney's recent live action interpretations of Alice in Wonderland and Oz: The Great and Powerful considering that the former was horrendous and the latter was nothing to write home about.  Still, if Disney's going to insist on reinterpreting family classics, they're gradually starting to learn from their previous disappointments.

Moreso than their previous attempts, Maleficent draws greatly from Disney's animated classic Sleeping Beauty (yes, the Disney Discussion will be returning in September after a very long hiatus), twisting that story to its own whims.  In the animated film, Maleficent was pure evil, but here this formerly friendly fairy only turns fiendish when a neighboring kingdom's ruler tries to take over her home.  Years later, still hellbent on revenge thanks to an additional subplot involving stolen fairy wings (naturally), Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) hears that King Stefan and his wife are expecting a baby.  When the young Aurora is born, Maleficent appears at the festivities and curses the girl to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into an unending sleep upon her sixteenth birthday only to be awakened by true love's kiss.  Sound familiar?  The remainder of the tale follows the storyline of Sleeping Beauty quite closely -- three fairies Knotgrass, Flittle, and Thistletwit (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple) -- raise the growing Aurora (played by Elle Fanning as a teen) in the woods away from all civilization in hopes that this will keep her safe.

However, unlike the previous Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent keeps a careful eye on Aurora and begins to feel sorry for what she's done to the girl who played no part in harming her.  This gentle, kind, magnanimous Maleficent is the change -- and it's not necessarily a change for the better.  For starters, Angelina Jolie is fantastic when she plays the title character for all her deliciously over-the-top scenery-chewing evilness.  Let's face it -- Maleficent is a quintessentially evil character and Jolie really embodies that aspect of the role.  However, when the film forces her character to downplay the nastiness and embrace niceness, things begin to falter a bit and become much less interesting.  Jolie certainly still is a presence, but it's not quite the presence we really long for her to be here.  Fortunately, as Jolie's Maleficent turns disappointingly kind, we're also able to see the innocence of Elle Fanning's Aurora which she displays perfectly to a tee.  You can almost see why Maleficent decides to befriend Aurora -- almost -- until you realize that this bastardization of a true cinematic villain is kind of boring to watch.

Still, despite my qualms which I admit are rather important in the grand scheme of the film, I liked Maleficent.  Maybe it's because I went in with such low expectations, but Jolie's performance certainly is solid.  I only wish she was able to be as gloriously evil as her title character should've been allowed to be.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Movie Review - The Hunt

The Hunt (Jagten) (2013)
Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp, and Lasse Fogelstrøm
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

I'm not quite sure how I'd react were I placed in the same situation as Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a kindergarten teacher unjustly accused of sexually molesting a young girl in his classroom.  I'd think I wouldn't be nearly as calm as Lucas who, although certainly seething inside, outwardly appears almost nonchalant.  Perhaps that's the reason why I never quite connected with the rather horrific totally plausible premise in The Hunt, a Dutch film nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year's Academy Awards.  Although he's certainly put through the ringer, Lucas keeps his cool through the false accusations which not only affect him, but those around him like his teenage son (Lasse Fogelstrøm giving a tortured performance -- one that I'd like to have seen from Mikkelsen's character).

While Mikkelsen gives a fine performance (although, like I said, I never quite connected with Lucas's resolute nature), the star of The Hunt is young Annika Wedderkopp who plays Klara, the kindergarten-aged girl who makes the false accusation towards Lucas.  What starts as a completely innocent white lie quickly steamrolls out of control for the young girl.  Wedderkopp perfectly plays the subtle nuances of a kid who knows what she's doing is wrong, but can't figure out how to make it right.  When all these adults are pressuring you into thinking a certain way, what's a kid to do?  You almost feel as if we can see young Klara's inner mind trying to think things through and make things right.  There's a palpable sense of guilt emanating from Wedderkopp's performance and it's rather captivating and heartbreaking at the same time.  (There's also a rather cute "Bewitched-style" nose twitch Wedderkopp brings to the table that may be character-driven or may just be a quirk of her own, but it's a subtle nuance that reminds us that we're watching an innocent girl here who's trying her best to fix her mistake.)

The Hunt had the potential to be fantastic, but for some reason the main character's emotional arc never really registered with me for whatever reason.  Your mileage may vary when it comes to him (Mikkelsen won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for this so it connected with some folks), but it shouldn't keep you away from watching the film which is certainly worth seeing for young Annika Wedderkopp's acting debut.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

What I'm Listening To -- Billy Joel

If you were to ask me my favorite musician of all time, I'd undoubtedly say Billy Joel.  When I was growing up, I started playing the piano at the ripe old age of four and I continued taking lessons well into my twenties.  Throughout those pre-teen and teen years, I'm not sure I would've continued had it not been for a fantastic piano teacher and Billy Joel himself.  You see, it was cool (in my eyes) to play the piano because he did.  His music, while nothing overly fancy or overly stylized, told stories that I loved to hear.

This past Saturday, I finally got a chance to see my favorite musician in concert at Citizens Bank Park on a beautiful, surprisingly cool, summer evening and I wasn't disappointed at all.  (Well, I wish he played for longer than the two hours and ten minute set, but other than that slight qualm, there was no disappointment.)  Backed by a great band -- complete with a percussion, horns, and a few guitars -- Mr. Joel sat down at the piano and the man sang us his songs.  With the audience singing along to classics like "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" and "Piano Man," Joel peppered the setlist with a few lesser known tunes -- "Zanzibar," anyone? -- that showed that the scope of his music is much broader than the casual listener would think.

The aforementioned "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" was certainly a standout for me -- it's one of my dad's favorite songs and was always a goal to be able to play it flawlessly on the piano (which happens every now and again).  That and "Piano Man" gave me chills.  However, I found newfound admiration for the throwaway ditty "Uptown Girl" which opened the stellar five-song hit-packed encore, was moved by a powerful rendition of "Goodnight Saigon" during which service men came onstage to sing the heart-wrenching chorus, and enjoyed special guests Boyz II Men as they dueted with Joel on "The Longest Time" -- a song he rarely plays at concerts.  Other highlights -- "Pressure," "Vienna," "Movin' Out," "Big Shot," I could go on and on...

Admittedly, the Billy Joel concert on Saturday, August 2, may not have been the best concert I've ever been to -- McCartney still probably takes the top prize -- but it was certainly my favorite.  I've been listening to Joel's music non-stop since Saturday and that proves the success of the show.  (It also made me long for a new cd...but I respect him for realizing that he may have said all he had to say musically.)  I look forward to seeing Joel live again and may have to head up to Madison Square Garden in the future to check him out on one of his monthly shows there.

(Note:  Gavin DeGraw opened for Joel...the less said, the better...)

Billy Joel Setlist -- Citizens Bank Park -- August 2, 2014
1.  A Matter of Trust
2.  Pressure
Your Song -- snippet
3. The Entertainer
4. Vienna (Audience choice selected over Summer, Highland Falls)
Gonna Fly Now -- snippet
5.  Zanzibar
6.  The Longest Time (with Boyz II Men)
7.  New York State of Mind
Expressway to Your Heart -- snippet
8.  Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)
9.  Goodnight Saigon
10.  Allentown
11.  My Life
12.  She's Always a Woman
13.  We Didn't Start the Fire
14.  Highway to Hell (full song sung by Billy Joel's roadie)
15.  Don't Ask Me Why
16.  Scenes From an Italian Restaurant
17.  The River of Dreams (featuring "Summer in the City")
18.  Piano Man

19.  Uptown Girl
20.  It's Still Rock and Roll to Me
21.  Big Shot
22.  You May Be Right
23.  Only the Good Die Young