Friday, October 31, 2014

"We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes..."

If it's Halloween, that means it's time for your faithful blogger's annual viewing of the best movie of all time -- Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.  I've dwelled on reasons why I deem it so fantastic in the past and I've got nothing new to add this year except to say that if you've never seen Hitchcock's masterpiece, it's time you've done so (and then come back here and tell me about your viewing experience).  I can't imagine what it would've been like to see this doozy of a picture in 1960.  Such a shocker of a film that stands the test of time over a half century after its debut.  Do yourself a favor -- if you haven't seen this mesmerizing classic, give it a watch...and if you've seen it, watch it again.

Previous Psycho Blog Posts

(link takes you to the "alfred hitchcock" label...scroll down a few posts for Hitchcock Fest posts in which I watched all of Hitchcock's American pictures plus four movies he made prior to making the move to the States in 1940...)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Disney Discussion - The Rescuers

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

Movie #23 of The Disney Discussion
The Rescuers (1977)
Featuring the voice talents of Bob Newhart, Eva Gabor, Geraldine Page, and Michelle Stacy
Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, John Lounsbery, and Art Stevens
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***
Summary (in 150 words or less):
When a bottle with an SOS note washes up on the shores of New York City and is discovered by a group of mice, the Rescue Aid Society (a United Nations-type organization made up of rodents) takes on the case of Penny, the young girl who wrote the note.  Penny, an orphan, just wants to be adopted by a loving family, but has instead been taken by the crazed Madame Medusa to Devil's Bayou, a swamp where Penny must search day and night in tiny and tight caves for the gigantic Devil's Eye diamond which Medusa longs to get her hands upon.  Bianca and Bernard, mice members of the Rescue Aid Society, travel to Devil's Bayou in order to save Penny and rescue her from the watchful eye of Medusa.

Facts and Figures
The Rescuers is the Walt Disney Company's twenty-third full length animated feature and it was released on June 22, 1977.

At the time of its release, The Rescuers was the highest grossing animated film of all-time and held the distinction of having the highest grossing opening weekend of any animated film until 1986's An American Tail was released.

The film was nominated for one Oscar for the song "Someone's Waiting for You," but it did not win.

The Rescuers holds the honor of being the only Walt Disney Studios animated film to have an "official" sequel released to theaters.  We'll be discussing The Rescuers Down Under in a few short weeks.

Weird fact:  In the initial storyboards of The Rescuers, Cruella deVil was set to be the villain making a return appearance!

Let the Discussion Begin...
This Disney Discussion venture is actually my second attempt at completing this task.  When I initially started over three years ago, I wasn't watching the films in order and The Rescuers just happened to be a film I watched.  I remembered thinking very fondly of it and I hoped it would retain that positive vibe this time around.  Sure enough, it did.  The Rescuers is top notch Disney with a unique story, clever characters (including a realistically evil villain), and great animation.

The only fault of the film is its music...the discussion of which we'll get out of the way right now.  If you're in the mood for smooth 70s easy listening jams, The Rescuers may fit the bill when those late night infomercials featuring the songs of Bread, Christopher Cross, and Anne Murray aren't available for your viewing pleasure.  Unfortunately the songs (which aren't sung by any characters, simply in voiceover as various montages play out) are the film's definite weak points, but, perhaps knowing this fault, the director(s) kept them to a minimum.  The Oscar-nominated "Someone's Waiting for You" is definitely the best of the bunch and its inspirational lyrics come at a fitting time in the film, but it's still a bit too sugary for my taste.

The Rescuers begins with a prologue -- the first Disney animated film to contain one -- in which we see a kidnapped young girl named Penny on a dilapidated riverboat dropping into the water a bottle which contains a desperate plea for help.  Even in these initial moments, we're already won over by Penny whom the animators draw with such charm and innocence that we can't help but feel for her plight.  Certainly aiding in our rooting interest is the spot-on voice acting from Michelle Stacy whose cadence and tone is spot-on for a six or seven year-old girl character.  Quite frankly, this may be the most believable kid vocal I've heard in an animated film and the movements of Penny realistic depict those of young girl.  Excellent work.

Of course we care for Penny because her innocence stands in such stark contrast to her rather frightening captor Madame Medusa.  Medusa is tall and gangly (much like Cruella deVil), but she exudes depravity and desperation more than any other villain we've encountered previously.  Perhaps it's the run-down riverboat or her bumbling chubby partner-in-crime Snoops or her trashy outfits and make-up, but the "skeeziness" of Medusa surprisingly bases her villainy in a kind of lower-class reality despite the fact that she keeps two alligators as pets.  Medusa's insatiable need for the Devil's Eye Diamond creates a maniacal character that doesn't rely on sorcery and magic, but instead on a realistic drive for fame and fortune which makes the character even scarier as she's seemingly based more in reality than many other villains we've previously encountered.

But what would a film titled The Rescuers be without some rescuers?  Mice Bernard and Bianca (voiced by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor) take on the savior roles and I must admit that I truly enjoyed them both despite the attempts at forced romance thanks to the sex appeal the animators gave Bianca.  (Seriously...Bianca is alluring with her tailored fancy clothing and Hungarian accent.)  Together, the two mice have a nice repartee that makes their scenes a joy to watch.

Sure, the animation isn't exactly top notch here, but it's charming that the simplistic story has somewhat simplistic animation.  With The Rescuers we see a nice change from the humor-based films of late like The Aristocats and Robin Hood to the more serious-tinged films of the past like Bambi.  Granted, The Rescuers doesn't have the emotional depth of Bambi, but it does have a lot of heart and a story that never feels a minute longer than its 77-minute run time.

Random Thoughts
...while watching the film...
  • The crocs Nero and Brutus are like precursors to Flotsom and Jetsom in The Little Mermaid.  Madame Medusa's appearance gives off a slight Ursula vibe as well for some reason
  • Some of the swamp animals look just like some of the audio animatronics in Splash Mountain.
  • The nasty child labor going on here is admittedly a bit uncomfortable.  Poor little Penny having to search for the Devil's Eye diamond in the face of rising water and the risk of drowning...scary stuff...
  • I'm not a cat person at all, but goshdarnit Rufus, the feline at Penny's orphanage, wears glasses and a scarf -- how can I not like that?
Final Analysis
(Does It Belong in the Revered Disney Pantheon and How Does It Stack Up to Past Films?)
The Rescuers was a genuine treat to watch again.  It's fast paced and has two main characters in Bernard and Bianca that are utterly charming thanks to some pleasant animation and nice voice acting from Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor.  The character of Penny, whom the story revolves around, is captivating and moving, tugging on your heartstrings with every word she utters.
The disappointing song selection which dates the film squarely in the late 1970s is really the film's biggest flaw, but its simplistic story still manages to captivate and create tension.  It's easy to see why this film garnered a sequel considering the ease at which you could tell another story involving the two title characters.

I was thrilled to discover that The Rescuers held up on this repeated viewing and I found myself enjoying it even more this time around.  In the previous Disney Discussion, I ranked the film a "B," but as you can see, I've upped that ranking quite a bit and now firmly plant it in the grand Pantheon of Disney animated films.

The RyMickey Rating: A-

Join us next Wednesday for The Fox and the Hound, the 24th film in The Disney Discussion.
***The Fox and the Hound is currently streaming on Netflix, so watch and join in on the discussion!***

Monday, October 27, 2014

Movie Review - Heaven Is for Real

Heaven Is for Real (2014)
Starring Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Thomas Haden Church, Lane Styles, and Margo Martindale
Directed by Randal Wallace

The "religious movie" genre isn't exactly known for quality.  I'm not talking about historical epics like The Passion of the Christ, but instead those lower budget, poorly acted flicks that find themselves being advertised on the Fox News Channel and nowhere else.  With Heaven Is for Real, we get to see what happens when you take that same faith-based quality and put a little money behind, hire Academy Award-nominated and Emmy-winning actors, and bring on a director/screenwriter known for flicks like Secretariat and Braveheart.  The result:  a sugary concoction that's well-acted, but overlong and cloyingly message-driven.

After four year-old Colton Burpo (Connor Corum in a strong acting debut) has emergency surgery following a sky-high fever, he awakens and tells his father and mother (Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly) that he saw Heaven and met Jesus while on the surgical table.  Although dad Todd is a pastor, he has a tough time believing this until Colton tells him things that the boy was completely incapable of knowing -- describing in detail Todd's grandfather whom Colton never met, telling Todd exactly what he was doing while Colton was in surgery, and so on.  This sets up a perplexing inner dynamic for Todd as he wants to believe his son, but discovers that his own faith is being tested.

What saves Heaven Is for Real from going over the edge into a complete saccharine mess are the performances from the entire acting ensemble.  Kinnear delicately balances the faith issues his character faces in a commendable way.  Kelly Reilly takes on the stock role of wife and mother, but gives her character a little bit of bite and sass.  Nice supporting turns from Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale as church members round out the cast and bring a quality to the table we don't usually see in faith-based films.

Unfortunately, the film can't escape the shackles of its PG-rated nature.  There's no bite to any scene.  A visit of Todd's to an atheistic college professor ends with the professor coming off as a bit of a jerk instead of presenting an opposing viewpoint which simply plays into the hands of the movie-going community who flocked to this flick upon its release last Easter.

I will say, however, that Heaven Is for Real does elevate the faith-based movie genre in a way that I think is definitely positive.  The story, while lacking depth, is intriguing (particularly seeing as how it's based on a real-life situation) and had potential to really dive deep into its subject matter.  While it doesn't really go there in terms of depth, I appreciate the ramped-up aesthetics this brings to the genre.

The RyMickey Rating:  C 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Movie Review - The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie (2014)
Featuring the voice talents of Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Charlie Day, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Liam Neeson, and Morgan Freeman
Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

So much hype may have ruined The Lego Movie for me seeing as it was greeted with glowing reviews and much love from the public upon its release in February.  To me, directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller -- who brought us the fantastic Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (and the great 21 Jump Street as well) -- are repeating their same old shtick here with less success.  Perhaps their charm has worn thin as I found much of The Lego Movie's jokes to fall flat and the overall plot to be a bit boring and bland.

The Lego Movie follows Emmet Brickowski (voiced by Chris Pratt), a Lego construction worker who does everything by the book -- he follows directions and instructions to a T.  One evening on the construction site after everyone else has gone home, Emmet falls down a hole and finds, unbeknown to him, the much fabled (in the Lego world in which he lives) "Piece of Resistance" and, after touching it and seeing prophetic visions, Emmet is knocked out.  He awakens captured by Lord Business (Will Ferrell) -- the "mayor" of this aspect of the Lego universe who, Emmet discovers, is out to eliminate free-thinking and imagination.  Emmet is rescued from Business's clutches by Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and taken through a portal to a whole slew of Lego lands in an attempt to hide Emmet and the "Piece of Resistance" from Lord Business.  Emmet discovers on this journey that Lego lore states that whomever uncovers the "Piece of Resistance" is the Master Builder and will bring security to all of the Lego worlds which places unimaginative Emmet in a bit of a pickle since he has never been a free thinker...but now the Lego people must put their trust in him in order to defeat Lord Business.

The Lego Movie works best when the film takes on a variety of pop culture references and brings them to the forefront.  Seeing Lego Batman (voiced brilliantly by Will Arnett) and a variety of other well-known entities interact with Emmet is the most successful aspect of the flick.  Unfortunately, when The Lego Movie focuses on Emmet -- as it does most of the first half of the film -- the jokes don't land with as much resonance and get tired and worn quicker than they should.  Admittedly, my second viewing of director Lord and Miller's Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs didn't hold up, so maybe I've tired of their weird humor, but I'd like to think this impressive team has more to offer in the future.  Unfortunately, The Lego Movie bored me and that's sometimes the worst criticism one can offer.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Disney Discussion - The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

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

Movie #22 of The Disney Discussion
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
Featuring the voice talents of Sebastian Cabot, Sterling Holloway (Winnie), Paul Winchell (Tigger), Junius Matthews (Rabbit), Hal Smith (Owl), John Fiedler (Piglet), Barbara Luddy (Kanga)
Directed by John Lounsbery and Wolfgang Reitherman
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Summary (in 150 words or less):
Three different shorts are merged together in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.  The first deals with the title character searching for honey.  The second brings a windy day to the Hundred Acre Woods with all of the residents fending for themselves against the blustery gusts.  The final tale features Tigger bouncing all over Rabbit's garden which makes some of the residents wish for him to be banished to learn his lesson.

Facts and Figures
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is the Walt Disney Company's twenty-second full-length animated feature and was released on March 11, 1977.

Box office information is unavailable for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is a "package" feature meaning that it consists of three previously released short films pieced together by new interstitial animation.  The three previously released shorts are Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (released in 1966), Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (released in 1968), and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too (released in 1974).

Because of the nature of the shorts' release dates, many say that The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is the last feature film that Walt Disney himself played a part in.  Despited being released nearly a decade after his death, Walt was certainly around for the production of the first two shorts mentioned above.

Let the Discussion Begin...
When your film is called The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, I think the ideal place to start a discussion is with your title character.  Ever the adorable dimwit whose only goal is seemingly to snag as much honey as possible (or "hunny" as it's so amusingly written throughout the flick), Sterling Holloway perfectly voices the tubby creature and creates a character that is undeniably endearing.  The animators certainly crafted a memorably cuddly bear and his popularity over the subsequent decades is obviously understandable.
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh succeeds wholeheartedly when the focus is on Pooh  It's as the film drifts to the other residents of the Hundred Acre Wood where it falters a bit. As was previously mentioned, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is a package film -- it pieced together three previously released shorts with new connecting animation and a new opening and ending in order to reach "full-length" status.  Because of this, there's no driving plot and the film is only as good as the segment you're watching at the moment.  Unfortunately, after an utterly fantastic and charmingly sweet initial segment -- Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree -- the film decreases in enjoyment with each subsequent tale.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the first short's success is its focus on Pooh.  Even when other characters are thrown into the mix -- there's a particularly hilarious scene involving Rabbit after Pooh gets stuck in Rabbit's door after imbibing on a bit too much of the "sweet stuff" -- the fact that these other characters' stories are driven by Pooh helps the segment succeed swimmingly.  There's something so gosh darn lovable about the bear and I really can't stress enough how endearingly sweet Sterling Holloway's voice acting is -- a perfect union of voice and image.
While segment one focuses solely on Pooh's hunt for honey, the second short -- Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day -- introduces us to Piglet who seemingly never wants to never cause a stir amongst his friends and is always bending over backwards to please others even if that means giving his house to Owl after a horrible wind destroys the bird's home.  While Pooh is certainly featured in this segment, his importance in it is diminished and it lessens the enjoyment of the piece.
Pooh's featured even less so in the third short -- Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too -- with our narrator even mentioning that Pooh is being pushed aside a bit in order to place the focus on Tigger.  When it comes to the jaunty, ADD-esque Tigger, a little goes a long way.  And, unfortunately, for me at least Tigger doesn't cut it as someone I want to necessarily spend a lot of time with.  It certainly doesn't help that when placed up head-to-head against the cute-as-a-button Winnie the Pooh, the excitable Tigger can't even start to compete.  So placing the focus on him and the Hundred Acre Wood's cadre of characters who feel that the tiger is a nuisance causing harm to their homes and persons isn't that interesting of a subject.

It also doesn't help the final short that the utterly whimsical songs by the Sherman Brothers peppered throughout the first two shorts are pushed a bit to the wayside.  These charming ditties effortlessly weave in and out of the stories exuding just the right essence of childhood innocence to be absolutely believable in the story's setting.  Quite frankly, while the songs themselves may not be incredibly memorable, their placement in the stories may be the best melding of story and song we've seen yet from the Disney company.
Much like the songs, there's an endearing quality to the way in which the animators pieced together the shorts.  The small interstitials between segments feature turning of animated book pages in which the various Hundred Acre Wood characters walk from page to page as they talk to the film's narrator (voiced with authority and at the same time pleasantness by Sebastian Cabot).  Particularly strong is a lovely final piece of animation added to the film's final moments in which Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh travel throughout the woods talking about how Christopher is growing up, but he won't leave his friends behind.  It's such a small moment, but it's a very "adult" way to bring the picture to a close.

Random Thoughts
...while watching the film...
  • Why have I always had such an averse reaction to Winnie the Pooh?  Perhaps my cynical teenage self found the cute factor too much to take in, but as I've grown older I've apparently become less jaded because the character of Winnie the Pooh is too gosh darn lovable to not enjoy.
  • Winnie the Pooh doing exercises -- too cute, I tell ya!
  • Unlike in The Aristocats where the pencil-lined outlines of some of the characters were distracting, they work here to create a sense of whimsy.
  • While most of the songs are quick little ditties, "Heffalumps and Woozles" goes on far too long and feels like a less exciting version of "Pink Elephants on Parade" from Dumbo
Final Analysis
(Does It Belong in the Revered Disney Pantheon and How Does It Stack Up to Past Films?)
Winnie the Pooh himself is a character that I'd love to spend more time with.  He's so endearing that it's tough not to be enthralled whenever his innocence is onscreen.  It's the other Hundred Acre Wood characters that don't quite match his charm.  Don't get me wrong -- as a whole, the collective cast of characters that Disney animated are certainly enjoyable -- I just wanted the focus to be more on Pooh than them.  

Admittedly, I never thought I liked Winnie the Pooh.  After watching the 2012 film Winnie the Pooh (which we'll obviously explore several months from now), I found myself questioning why I never cared for the character in my youth.  Unlike many other kids, "Winnie the Pooh" didn't really mean much to me.  I've changed my opinion on that now, but I still feel like The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh doesn't quite work as a film.  There are pieces that work okay, but the lack of a forward-moving plot throughout hurts the film as whole.  While it's certainly one of Disney's best "package" films -- remember those horrid Three Caballeros/Saludos Amigos days? -- it's still a "package" film built of previously released pieces.  

All this said, I do think that The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh belongs in the Disney Pantheon solely for the inclusion of Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree which is a splendid piece of animation -- some of the best we've seen so far in our Disney Discussion.  While the film falters a bit after that, I recognize its lasting effect on generations of young kids and for that it's rightfully earned its spot in the Pantheon.

The RyMickey Rating: B-

Join us next Wednesday for The Rescuers, the twenty-third film in The Disney Discussion.
***The Rescuers is currently streaming on Netflix.  Watch and join in on the discussion!***

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Movie Review - Divergent

Divergent (2014)
Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, and Kate Winslet
Directed by Neil Burger

I feel like it's wrong that I didn't hate Divergent.  In reality, it's a bit of a carbon copy of The Hunger Games franchise -- dystopian society in a ravaged United States, different segments of the population broken off into distinct groups, girl savior tries to take down the evil governmental figurehead.  Much to my surprise, however, I found Divergent an interesting enough start of a series of films.  Unfortunately, I'm not quite sure from this point forward how the films progress into something worth watching, but the first flick is at least moderately appealing.

As mentioned, the overarching premise of Divergent is that the residents of the United States -- or at least the residents in the walled city of Chicago -- are broken up into five groups.  Each group represents one of the following qualities -- smart, kind, honest, selfless, brave -- and when teens reach the age of sixteen they must choose which quality they will follow for the rest of their lives after taking a specially designed test that helps them hone in on where they most likely belong.  Teen sister and brother Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) and Caleb (Ansel Elgort) have grown up with parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) who belong to the community of Abnegation which controls the government, but at the Choosing Ceremony, Caleb joins Erudite (the "smart" clique which desires to run the government) and Beatrice joins Dauntless (the "brave" group which is essentially the law enforcement aspect of the society).  Upon joining Dauntless, Beatrice shortens her name to Tris and soon discovers that she may not be cut out for this new life.  However, once you've chosen your community, you're stuck there and if you don't fit, you'll be forced to become homeless out on the streets.

Tris is also faced with the notion that her initial test to determine which group she belonged in came back showing that she was "divergent" -- meaning that she doesn't belong to any one group.  Divergents are not looked upon in a positive light by Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) who sees Divergents as too independently-minded and unwilling to kowtow to her wishes.  While Jeanine seemingly has everyone's best wishes at heart, her only goal is to push Erudite to the forefront of the community and she'll stop at nothing to see that happen.

Admittedly, it's all a bit ridiculous.  And it's all a bit of a rehash of The Hunger Games.  However, I did find myself intrigued by the plot.  Yes, Tris's training goes on for a bit too long and a romance with one of her fellow Dauntless colleagues seems forced and unnecessary (at least this early in the game), but I can't really say I was ever bored.  The acting is more than acceptable for a film like this -- meaning a film appealing to a youthful audience who may not care about such things -- and it elevates the flick to a higher level.

As I mentioned above, however, I can't quite see how this storyline carries on for three more films.  Quite honestly, the film concludes in a way that the story could've just ended and I'd have been fine with not discovering anything else about the community.  How they craft a tale that holds my interest in the future will be difficult and seemingly not possible.  I hope I'm proven wrong.  While Divergent isn't quite The Hunger Games in quality, it's certainly head over heels better than the Twilight saga.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Friday, October 17, 2014

Movie Review - The Judge

The Judge (2014)
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, and Clint Howard 
Directed by David Dobkin

How anyone was expecting The Judge to be a prestige picture seeing as how the man behind the camera brought us flicks like Fred Claus, Shanghai Knights, The Change-Up, and Wedding Crashers is befuddling to me.  Pre-release Oscar buzz and snagging the opening film slot at the Toronto Film Festival upped The Judge's aire of importance.  Admittedly, if you walk into the flick with that mindset, disappointment may set in.  However, if you erase all that talk from your mind, The Judge is a decent paint-by-numbers tale about a family coming together at a difficult moment that surprisingly holds one's interest for (surprisingly brisk) nearly two-and-a-half hours.

When his mother passes away, hotshot Chicago defense attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) returns home to a podunk small town in Indiana to attend her funeral.  Estranged from his family having not visited home in years, Hank's return is greeted with disdain from his father Joseph (Robert Duvall) -- the two obviously having had issues in the past that pushed them apart.  After the funeral, Joseph -- the small town's respected judge -- goes out for a drive to clear his mind and the next morning Hank and his two brothers Glen and Dale (Vincent D'Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) discover that their father's car has been in some kind of accident -- a thought that is confirmed as the cops pull up to take Joseph in for questioning for the death of a cyclist who died in a hit and run the night before.  Later charged with murder, Joseph and Hank must attempt to work together to acquit Joseph of the crime, but their complicated past doesn't make things easy.

You know where The Judge is heading right off the bat and you know how it's going to get there.  Script- and dialog-wise, the screenwriters have crafted something that is so incredibly by-the-book, I feel like I could've written it.  Directorially-speaking, David Dobkin didn't do a single thing worth mentioning.  So, how in the world did I find myself maintaining interest in this work?

It all comes down to the very talented ensemble, all of whom elevate the lackluster elements above into something that is able to hold interest.  Admittedly, Robert Downey, Jr., isn't doing anything we haven't seen him do before -- make smart-ass Tony Stark a lawyer and you've essentially got Hank Palmer.  Somehow, though, Downey's charm and humor captivate.  (And there's actually quite a bit of gentle humor which is surprising and welcoming.)  Robert Duvall isn't necessarily reinventing the wheel either, but his character's humility and heart play a nice counterpoint to his son's brashness.  We all know where the story's going to end up, but with Downey, Jr., and Duvall playing off one another, it becomes worth watching.  Add in some nice performances from Vincent D'Onofrio, Billy Bob Thornton (as the prosecutor trying Joseph's case), and Vera Farmiga (as Hank's high school girlfriend) and you've got a cast worth watching.

I look back on The Judge and find many faults with it -- there are so many subplots that weigh down the script that it's almost laughable -- but I also remember it fondly.  There's a simplicity to the overarching story that we often don't see in films today and while some may find it clichéd or treacly, I found it a little bit ballsy in the midst of our crazed society.  It's the kind of movie Jimmy Stewart would've been starring in were Jimmy Stewart alive today -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Disney Discussion - Robin Hood

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

Movie #21 of The Disney Discussion
Robin Hood (1973)
Featuring the voice talents of Brian Bedford, Monica Evans, Peter Ustinov, Phil Harris, Terry-Thomas, Andy Devine, Carole Shelley, Pat Buttrum, and Roger Miller
Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman

Summary (in 150 words or less):
I think we all know this tale, but...there's this guy named Robin Hood (played as a fox in this version) who steals money from the rich to give to the poor.  This doesn't sit well with the rich Prince John (a tiger) who plots to capture Robin Hood and kill him.  Throw in a romance between Robin Hood and his childhood pal Maid Marian, a couple of humorous side characters, and some songs and Disney's version of Robin Hood is complete.

Facts and Figures
Robin Hood is the Walt Disney Company's twenty-first full-length animated feature and was released on November 8, 1973.

Robin Hood was quite the success for the Disney company -- in fact, it was one of the biggest financial successes to date up until that time.  However, it never garnered the enthusiasm and sustaining power of many of the company's other releases.  Still, on a budget of $1.5 million, the film has earned over $35 million at the box office from its multiple releases.

The song "Love" was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song, but it did not win.

Let the Discussion Begin...
Up until this point in the Disney canon, Robin Hood is perhaps the most well-known property that the Disney company brought to the screen.  We all know the story of Robin Hood and Disney's take on it -- making its characters animals -- doesn't really add anything new to the mix.  That said, the film is decent, although it lacks excitement and vigor -- something that Robin Hood tales should seemingly have.
When looking at the character landscape of Disney's Robin Hood, it's unfortunate that the title character and his love interest Maid Marian are the most bland.  While I appreciated Robin's wily and intelligent ways of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, when he and Maid Marian are given scenes together, much of their interaction falls flat.  There's nothing pushing the audience to strongly want these two characters together.  The romance aspect of the film doesn't quite succeed as well as it should.  Perhaps the filmmakers recognized this problem and added the awkwardly placed and treacly song "Love" in order to try and emphasize the romanticism, but the song feels too stuck in the Anne Murray-soft pop-70s era to resonate today.
The star of Robin Hood is the villainous Prince John voiced by Peter Ustinov.  While he never reaches the "look at me" attention-hogging (in a good way) proportions that characters like Ursula or Cruella DeVil achieve, Prince John succeeds because of his irrational temper.  Seemingly calm and normal, he'll flip on a dime becoming angry, irritated, and humorously irrational, only to resort back to sucking his thumb reminiscing about his dearly departed mother when things don't go his way.  I longed for the character to appear onscreen as he added much life into the somewhat dull proceedings.

All the other side characters were pleasant enough, but they certainly emphasize the lack of creativity the animation department was suffering following Walt's death.  Phil Harris -- who voiced The Jungle Book's Baloo and The Aristocats' Thomas O'Malley -- returns as Little John (Robin's right-hand man) and his character is no different than either of those two Harris previously brought to the screen.  Adding to the unimaginative nature of the piece, Prince John has a snake -- Sir Hiss -- as a confidante who hypnotizes people in order to get his way.  Reminiscent of a snake we know from The Jungle Book?
Not only did the animators essentially copy characters from previous films, but they also copied animation!  Rather famously because of a small budget through a process call xerography, during a dance sequence in Robin Hood Disney animators copied previous dance sequences from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Jungle Book, and The Aristocats and placed Robin Hood's characters into the design.  Quite honestly, I didn't notice the issue so for the typical filmgoer this isn't an egregious slap in the face.  However, add this to the fact that those aforementioned characters of Little John and Sir Hiss are seemingly carbon copies of well-known Disney performances and the film never feels like its "own" piece.  (It should be mentioned that the song that accompanies this dance sequence feels totally unnecessary.  The only songs that work in the film are sung by a "narrator-esque" rooster character and they are very few and far between.)

While I've seemingly trashed Robin Hood above, it should be noted that I enjoyed the film.  There are several set pieces that show that the animators' creativity hadn't diminished completely with Walt's passing -- the contest to win Maid Marian's hand and the prison break are two such moments.  With the success of these moments, it's a shame that the film can't bring some heart and soul to the table.

Random Thoughts
...while watching the film...
  • Weird opening credits sequence -- felt very "70s" with some ugly yellow fonts telling us character names, the type of animal they are, and the voice actor. That said, I enjoyed the whistling score/song called "Whistle-Stop" written by Roger Miller that accompanies the opening.
  • Another hypnotizing snake?  Really?

Final Analysis
(Does It Belong in the Revered Disney Pantheon and How Does It Stack Up to Past Films?)
Robin Hood isn't particularly bad, but it isn't particularly good either.  It does feel like a rehash of several prior films, but on the positive side, those prior films are good, so at least we're borrowing from solid pictures.  Much like The Aristocats, there's not a lot that's fantastic about Robin Hood, but it doesn't fail in any areas either (except the music department).  Admittedly, part of the moderate success may stem from the fact that I hadn't seen the film in well over two decades, but I still am more than able to recognize its faults.

Unfortunately, though, Robin Hood feels overly generic.  Yes, there are some nice moments, but there's nothing about this film that screams that it was crafted by the artisans at Disney.  And therein is the issue.  Because of that, I can't place it amongst the better films in the Disney Pantheon.

The RyMickey Rating: C+

Join us next Wednesday for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, the twenty-second film in The Disney Discussion.
***The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is streaming on Netflix.  Join in on the discussion!***

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Disney Discussion - The Aristocats

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

Movie #20 of The Disney Discussion
The Aristocats (1970)
Featuring the voice talents of Phil Harris, Eva Gabor, Liz English, Dean Clark, Gary Dubin, Sterling Holloway, and Scatman Crothers
Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
Summary (in 150 words or less):
Paris.  1910.  The feline Duchess and her three kittens Marie, Berlioz, and Toulouse are stolen from the home of their owner Madame Bonfamille by Madame's butler Edward.  The reason -- Madame is leaving her estate to her cats as opposed to Edward when she dies and this doesn't sit well with the loyal servant.  Left for dead in the countryside of France, Marie and her offspring try to find their way home, meeting unusual characters along the way including Thomas O'Malley, a slick smooth-talking alley cat who grows to care for the lost felines on their journey to Paris.

Facts and Figures
The Aristocats is the Walt Disney Company's twentieth full-length animated feature film and was released on December 24, 1970.

This was the first animated film to be produced after Walt Disney's death and although he approved the initial production, Mr. Disney was not involved in the filmmaking process.

Made for $4 million, The Aristocats proved quite successful.  With its multiple releases over the years, the film has made $55 million.

Let the Discussion Begin...
I'm sure that at some point in time in my youth I watched The Aristocats.  However, I didn't remember a darn thing about it.  It wasn't a movie staple in my household, having never owned a VHS of it and the film not really ever airing on television.  So, it was rather refreshing to be able to come to The Aristocats with a blank slate.  And I must say I was pleasantly surprised.

Here's the funny thing about The Aristocats.  As you read this discussion below, you're going to notice that I start off nearly every topic talking about how so-and-so wasn't exactly top notch or overly impressive.  While it's true that there isn't a single aspect of the film that is fantastic, everything that the flick brings to the table works.  Despite not excelling in any one area, the film doesn't disappoint in any one area either, and because of this I found The Aristocats to be successful overall.

Admittedly, the film's story isn't all that impressive.  In fact, when you look at the summary above, you'd be correct in thinking that it's a bit like a rehash of 101 Dalmatians.  Still, somehow, the tale seems fresh.  Granted, there's very little depth here.  Characters aren't really fleshed out in any great manner which leads one to feel that the story's lacking a little heart and soul.

That being said, the sly humor and the quaint voice acting help elevate this to a level above its animal counterparts Lady and the Tramp and the aforementioned 101 Dalmatians.  Yes, while both those films gave their main characters a little more backbone, I found that their stories lagged a bit.  The story behind The Aristocats -- as simple as it may be -- manages to not drag.
I think a large part of the story's success is due to the vocal talent the Disney team culled together for this piece.  Eva Gabor as Duchess is charming and her three kittens voiced by Liz English, Dean Clark, and Gary Dubin are undoubtedly cute in their vocalizations.  The animators certainly placed their focus on these four characters in the film as all exude their own individual personality traits which are quite fun to watch.

After a successful turn as Baloo in The Jungle Book, Phil Harris was brought back to play Thomas O'Malley.  Harris is essentially playing the same exact role he did in The Jungle Book -- a loose, lackadaisical, mellow guy who eventually begins to care for the creatures he's watching over and decides to help them on their path.  While there certainly wasn't a reinvention of the wheel, Thomas O'Malley as a character works, so I'm willing to let the similarities slide.
On the human side of things, I found that the small amount of time we got to spend with Madame Bonfamille and Edward the butler was quite successful.  Although neither are drawn very well -- in fact, Madame is one of the worst drawn Disney characters thus far with blurry pencil lines making up her figure -- their scenes more than adequately set the story rolling.  Edward is by no means an evil genius and he's likely one of the least villainous villains we'll see in this journey, but his bumbling nature allowed the story to take a different turn from its similarities in 101 Dalmatians where Cruella's virulent hatred towards dogs took center stage.

As far as music goes, The Aristocats isn't particularly well known for its songs.  Its title track, sung by Maurice Chevalier is pleasant enough, but its set to pencil-lined drawings which aren't all that interesting (and were perhaps a harbinger of things to come as far as Madame's poorly drawn design was concerned).  In addition to the title track, Disney regulars The Sherman Brothers also wrote the ditty "Scales and Arpeggios," but it's really a throwaway number that while cute doesn't add much to the tale.  
The showstopping number -- and the showstopping scene in the film -- comes with about ten minutes left to go in the form of "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat" penned by Floyd Huddleston and Al Rinker.  As Duchess and her brethren return to Paris, O'Malley takes them to a swinging jazz joint where cats from around the world sing about why it's so great to be a feline.  As psychedelic colors take over the scene, we're treated to a fantastic jazz number that makes me wonder why the scene isn't more well known in the annals of Disney songs.

Random Thoughts
  • There's a dirtiness/grittiness to the animation.  The humans are full of pencil or pen-like lines that seem "unfinished."
  • Not only do we get drunken geese (something we'd never see today in a Disney film), but we also are treated to a Chinese cat singing lyrics like "Shanghai, Hong Kong, egg foo yong / Fortune cookie always wrong."  I miss the days where we didn't have to worry about political correctness...instead, I find myself pointing things out like this in many of these discussions.
  • "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat" is a nicely rousing, very colorful number.  Definitely one of the more underrated musical numbers in the Disney Pantheon of films.
  • The two dogs that make an appearance in this film seem like exact replicas of dogs we've seen in Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians -- they weren't needed at all and their scenes really should have been nixed.
Final Analysis
(Does It Belong in the Revered Disney Pantheon and How Does It Stack Up to Past Films?)
As I've mentioned, The Aristocats doesn't ever overachieve in any aspect of filmmaking.  It cruises along, hitting everything it needs to in order to be deemed a success.  While nothing is mind-blowing, everything works well enough to make this an enjoyable romp.  Color me surprised to place this one above my rankings of Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians as The Aristocats takes a surprise place in the Disney Animated Pantheon.

The RyMickey Rating: B

Join us next Wednesday for Robin Hood, the twenty-first film in The Disney Discussion.
***Robin Hood is streaming on Netflix so join in on the discussion!***

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Movie Review - Transcendence

Transcendence (2014)
Starring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Clifton Collins Jr., and Morgan Freeman
Directed by Wally Pfister

Conceptually, Transcendence is probably one of the more interesting films I've seen as of late.  Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is the mastermind behind a sentient computer which he hopes will outpace the human race in terms of intelligence.  While Caster and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) see potential in such technology, there are large swaths of people who fear such work will bring an end to humankind.  One such group -- R.I.F.T., or "Revolutionary Independence From Technology" -- goes to terroristic means in order to get their point across, and after a conference in which Will Caster touts his opinions, Will is shot by a RIFT member who then kills himself.  After a few days, it's discovered the bullet shot into Will was laced with plutonium, thus causing Will's bloodstream to be contaminated with radiation leaving him with less than a month to live.  Desperate for Will's dream about sentient technology not to die with him, Evelyn thinks up the idea to place Will's entire consciousness inside the computer he's developing so that his "spirit" will never die and his intelligence can continue making technological advances.  Unfortunately, things go a bit awry with this plan, creating a bit of havoc and a battle between man and machine.

I don't know about you, but I kind of dig that Terminator-esque Man v. Computer battle being set up. Unfortunately, first-time director Wally Pfister languidly paces the film so that we can't help but be bored by what we're seeing unfold.  It certainly doesn't help matters that Johnny Depp doesn't even appear to be awake -- if he can't be bothered being interested in what he's doing, how in the world are we going to care?  After a promising start, the flick written by first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen begins to unravel and its climactic moments fail to resonate despite the captivating premise.

It's possible that in more experienced hands Transcendence may have been a success, but as it stands now with first timers behind both the lens and the scripting with neither behind-the-scenes aspect able to convince the film's leading actor to appear alive onscreen, the flick falls flat.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Monday, October 06, 2014

Movie Review - Gambit

Gambit (2014)
Starring Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, Alan Rickman, and Tom Courtenay
Directed by Michael Hoffman
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

The fact that Gambit, a film toplined by the quite famous Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz, failed to get a theatrical release of any kind despite the celebrities attached should've keyed me in to the quality of the flick.  In addition, not only were Diaz and Firth starring, but the film was written by Joel and Ethan Coen whom are sometimes worthy of your time.  I admittedly go back and forth on my feelings towards these popular director/screenwriters, but a lot of their flicks are at least solid.  So with this big name Hollywood talent, how did Gambit not even muster a limited release in theaters?

Admittedly, Gambit is not as bad as its lack of a theatrical release of any kind would implicate.  Unfortunately, it's not very good either.  As the film opens, we meet Harry Deane (Firth) who begrudgingly works for the very rich London businessman Lionel Shahbander (Alan Rickman).  Lionel loves art and one of his favorite pieces is a work by Monet called Haystacks, part of a series of paintings focusing on the titular objects.  It's been Lionel's mission in life to get another painting in the series and Deane sees this as opportunity to pull a fast one on his boss.

A piece from Monet's Haystacks series was stolen by the Germans in WWII and, according to legend, was then taken by an American soldier after a successful attack on a German bunker.  Deane comes up with the brilliant idea to find one of this solider's descendants and, with the help of his master art forger (Tom Courtenay), convince Shahbander that a fake Haystacks is in fact the real deal.  In order to milk Shahbander of his money, Deane finds Texas cowgirl PJ Puznowski (Diaz) as the true descendant, but her rough around the edges demeanor will prove quite the challenge for Deane to reel in.

Gambit attempts to ape those classic capers of the 1960s in tone and style, but it never quite gets there.  (Gambit is actually a remake of a 1966 film.)  All the characters are rather one-dimensional, attempts at comedy are lukewarmly successful at best, and the direction doesn't have the vigor needed in order to keep the lighthearted romp briskly moving in an engaging manner.  While I've certainly seen worse direct-to-video flicks, Gambit doesn't change the stigma attached to films that forego the theatrical route.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Movie Review - The Amazing Spider-Man 2

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
Starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Chris Cooper, Colm Feore, Felicity Jones, Paul Giamatti, Embeth Davidtz, Campbell Scott, and Sally Field
Directed by Marc Webb

While moderately better than 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man mainly because we're able to move on beyond the re-telling of Spidey's origin story, there's something about this title character that doesn't quite click with me.  If I remember correctly, there has always been some sly, comedic aspect to Peter Parker whenever he finds himself wearing the Spiderman attire and I find it oddly disconcerting.  When faced with evil villains like Electro (Jamie Foxx), a lowly worker at the Oscorp Power Company whose obsession with Spiderman takes a nasty turn, and the Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan), who was previously Harry Osborn, son of the founder of Oscorp, Spidey just makes jokes.  Because of this, any potential for suspense is oftentimes mitigated.

When compared to the Tobey Maguire/Kirsten Dunst trilogy, I still think Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone fare better in the acting department as both Garfield and Stone more believably inhabit their characters' tumultuous relationship.  With the exception of Jamie Foxx -- who, admittedly, is given a bit more of a stock character type of role than those around him -- most of the acting is solid which certainly helps matters and makes things watchable.  However, I still find myself utterly uninterested whenever Garfield's Peter Parker puts on the Spidey suit.

Perhaps it's the lack of believable special effects.  I commented on this after watching the first film as well, but there must be something about having some guy fly around in a suit like Spidey's that makes things look incredibly fake.  Unfortunately, the fx wizards didn't fix things with this second film -- you're always well aware that you're watching animation onscreen and it's irritating, removing us from the story at times.  While there have certainly been worse superhero films, this new reimagining of the Spider-Man story doesn't really have the cinematic chops to make it worth continuing.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Movie Review - Oculus

Oculus (2014)
Starring Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, and Garrett Ryan
Directed by Mike Flanagan

An evil mirror causes the members of the Russell family to fall apart and become horrible versions of themselves in Oculus, a horror film that had potential but failed to deliver any bit of scares to make it worth your time.  Bouncing back and forth between the 1990s when the Russell kids Kaylie and Tim (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) were young and the current era when they're grown (played by Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites), Oculus begins in the modern day with Tim being released from jail and Kaylie stealing a large mirror from an auction house.  Odd, yes, but we soon discover that Tim killed his father (hence the jail time) with Karen believing that this hundreds-year old mirror changed the perspective of their parents Alan and Marie (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff), causing them to become wicked to one another and their children.  With Tim's help, Karen hopes to document the mirror's supernatural powers and destroy the glass before it harms anyone else.

While the premise is silly, I must admit that it pulled me in.  Unfortunately, after I was enticed by the lack of ghosts and blood and violence, the film never really went anywhere.  Surprisingly, tension never mounts in the "past" story as we're told almost from the beginning how that pans out, and unfortunately the "present" story wears a little thin.  Oculus attempts to blend the two tales together in a way I won't delve into here, but I found that this didn't work after the film's initial attempts.  All of the actors are of a high quality, but they can't elevate this story which just didn't scare me in the slightest.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Friday, October 03, 2014

Movie Review - Gone with the Wind

The review below was posted back in September of 2010.  Unbeknown to me, I apparently watched Gone with the Wind just four short years ago, but for some reason I had blocked it completely from my memory.  This past Wednesday, I watched this classic ten-time Academy Award-winning film again -- this time on the BIG SCREEN -- and I actually think my review below really still tells all my feelings about director Victor Fleming's epic.  

The film is about 45 minutes too long, but the soap opera is a surprisingly effective romance spearheaded by Vivien Leigh whose performance so easily could've stooped to over-exaggeration, but she somehow manages to reel it in with her character's sassy (read: bitchy) demeanor.  Scarlett O'Hara as a character really stands the test of time and Leigh is really giving a classic performance.

While I may not love Gone with the Wind as much as others, I can see why it's considered a classic.  From a cinematic perspective, it really is a work of art considering the era in which it was made.  It really does stand the test of time.  I only hope I remember in the years to come that I enjoy it...for some reason, this is a movie that I groan about whenever it's brought up as a "classic."  However, it deserves that moniker.  

Original Review from September 2010 is below:

Gone with the Wind (1939)
Starring Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Hattie McDaniel, Leslie Howard, and Olivia de Havilland 
Directed by Victor Fleming

The only problem with Gone with the Wind is that it's too long.  Clocking in at 238 minutes (that's two minutes shy of four hours) if you include the "entrance," "intermission," "entr'acte," and "ending" music as it would have been presented in 1939, the film slowly meanders along its soap operatic path.

Here we're presented with the Civil War -- North against the South -- but it really doesn't matter.  That's just the backdrop to the epic love story between the headstrong southern belle Scarlett O'Hara and the philandering Rhett Butler.  Rhett falls for Scarlett, but she's in love with the bland Ashley (that's a guy), but Ashley's marrying his cousin (as they were wont to do back then), the heartwarming Melanie.  Such drama!

Yes, it's silly, but the story is surprisingly effective.  I dare anyone to deny that Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara is a bitch, but that's what makes her so interesting.  Yes, she's the biggest flirt in all of Georgia which angers all the women in town, and, after she steals the men away from their ladies, she simply breaks their hearts, but she's really just a woman trying to make it in a male-dominated world.  While it may seem like she hasn't changed a bit from the opening reel to the closing one, the fact of the matter is, she really has grown to be self-sufficient (despite her endless reliance on men).  She did what was necessary to survive -- more than she ever thought she would be able to do.

And that's what makes her so attractive to the womanizing Rhett.  Clark Gable plays this Southern Casanova with wit and charm, always well aware of Scarlett's manipulations and never allowing her to walk all over him.  Plus, he gets to spout some great lines -- the most famous being "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn," but my favorite being "You need kissing badly.  That's what's wrong with you.  You should be kissed, and often, and by someone who knows how."  Coming out of anyone else, it may sound silly and trite, but coming from Gable, it's kind of fantastic.  Without a doubt, both Gable and Leigh (the later of whom won an Oscar) are stellar here, rising above the melodrama and making the film much better than it has any right to be.

Aided by a rather touching performance from Olivia de Havilland as Melanie, the woman who unknowingly shatters Scarlett's dream of being with her perceived true love Ashley, and Oscar-winning Hattie McDaniel as Mammy, the house servant with the voice of reason, director Victor Fleming manages to pull out some amazing performances from his actors.  Fleming also crafts a beautiful looking film as well.  There are some wonderful shots here -- ones that resonate even hours later -- Scarlett walking through a field of wounded soldiers, a beautiful red-hued sunset at the O'Hara plantation named Tara to name just two.  The use of Technicolor (in its early stages) and a sweeping Max Steiner score are both stunning, adding some oomph to the already powerful images.

If only the film were an hour shorter.  A three-hour running time would've been perfect.  At four hours, this film's pushing its luck.


The RyMickey Rating:  B (9/2010)
The RyMickey Rating:  B+ (10/2014)

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Theater Review - Angels in America: Millennium Approaches

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches
Written by Tony Kushner
Directed by Steve Tague
Where: Thompson Theatre at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When:  Sunday, September 28, 2pm
Image by the REP

I remember watching Philadelphia shortly after its release on home video in 1994.  I would've been just into my teen years and I recall being excited about being able to watch this Academy Award-nominated film because it was rated PG-13 (as R-rated dramas weren't necessarily a regular occurrence still at that age).  I'm thinking that this was probably my first exposure to anything remotely related to homosexuality and I found myself quite moved by the plight of Tom Hanks' character.

As I sat and watched the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Player's first production of their 2014-15 season Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, I had to wonder whether it would've impacted me in a similar way as Philadelphia had I seen in upon its first presentation in the early 1990s...because as it stands now, Angels in America feels like a not-too-successful snapshot of the initial impact of AIDS.  Maybe Philadelphia doesn't work now either...but Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play feels like a piece that won that coveted award simply because its judges felt like they needed to dole it out to something that "felt" important two decades ago.  Don't misunderstand -- I'm sure this play made an impact simply due to its desire to bring to the masses a depiction of the disease that initially found itself ravaging the homosexual community.  Overall, however, I just don't think the play's all that good -- its importance seemingly stems from its initial "exposé"-style feeling as opposed to anything artistically brilliant.
Photo by Paul Cerro

I'm sure there's purported deep meaning in many of the vignette-like pieces on display in Angels in America, but on an initial viewing, I didn't grasp any depth.  Instead, I saw a play that focuses on three men all dealing with AIDS and homosexuality in various ways, but whose stories seemed very "surface," lacking emotional depth and a powerful through-line with which to connect.  Perhaps the center of the piece is REP member Michael Gotch taking on the character of Prior Walker who, in his very first scene, reveals to his boyfriend Louis (guest artist Paul Hurley) that he has contracted AIDS.  Second, there's Roy Cohn (REP member Stephen Pelinski), a closeted gay lawyer whose brash personality is tested when he also contracts the newly discovered AIDS.  Lastly, Joe Pitt (REP member Mic Matarrese) is a Mormon lawyer who finds himself questioning his sexuality as his marriage to Harper (REP member Carine Montbertrand) begins to fall apart thanks to her pill-popping attempts to escape her own unhappiness.

Here's the thing about Angels in America -- these three characters have potential to tell a good story.  You can see it from the outskirts of all of their tales.  Admittedly, I was intrigued to discover where their story leads them in Part Two: Perestroika, so I did look up a summary of the continuation upon my return home from this production.  That said, nothing that writer Tony Kushner does here with any of these men feels anything other than formulaic.  Attempts at deep thought feel silly, dream sequences seem out-of-place and unnecessary, and I never once felt any type of connection with anyone onstage.  After the wonderment of last season's Wit which similarly dealt with how health and the health care system affects us all, this was a huge letdown from a dramatic point of view.

That said, the play once again proves that the Resident Ensemble Players are a fine group of actors.  This time around I found myself impressed with Michael Gotch who made the most of his character Prior's storyline as he not only has to deal with his deteriorating body but also his deteriorating relationship.  The standout in the ensemble, however, was Stephen Pelinski whose gruff, fast-talking Roy Cohn breathed a much needed vigor and vibrance into the production.  (Pelinski also takes on another small role as one of Prior's ancestors and he does a great job there as well.)  Also, once again, Kathleen Pirkl Tague brings great realism to a very small role as Joe's conflicted mother who finds it difficult to deal with the notion that her son may be gay.

I hardly ever quote other reviewers when I complete reviews, but I was very curious about any negativity flung this play's way considering for years I'd heard nothing but avid fawning over it.  I came across a review by Lee Seigel in the very liberal New Republic magazine that states, "Angels in America is a second-rate play written by a second-rate playwright who happens to be gay, and because he has written a play about being gay, and about AIDS, no one -- and I mean no one -- is going to call Angels in America the overwrought, coarse, posturing, formulaic mess that it is."  Of course, I agree.  There's no bite here -- attempts at politicizing things by crassly calling out Reagan-era politics aren't fleshed out, the Mormon angle of the character of Joe is an afterthought failing to tackle "religion" with any substance, Jewish characters spout biblical references that fail to have any impact.  The play lacks a punch as it limply meanders to its three hour conclusion and while it may be politically incorrect to say so, that's this critic's opinion.  "Masterpiece" as it's previously been called, Angels in America isn't.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Disney Discussion - The Jungle Book

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

Movie #19 of The Disney Discussion
The Jungle Book (1967)
Featuring the voice talents of Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, Louis Prima, George Sanders, Sterling Holloway, J. Pat O'Malley, Verna Felton, and Bruce Reitherman
Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
Summary (in 150 words or less):
A young boy named Mowgli is raised in the jungles of India by a pack of wolves.  However, as Mowgli grows older, the wolves worry for his safety with the reappearance of the tiger Shere Khan who hates man.  In order to protect Mowgli, the wolves enlist panther Bagheera to take the human boy back to the man village where he can live in less fear.  Along the way to the village, the reluctant Mowgli meets a series of animals that remind him how much he loves jungle life.

Facts and Figures
The Jungle Book is the Walt Disney Company's nineteenth full-length animated feature films and was released on October 18, 1967.

The film was the fourth highest grossing picture of the year and worldwide has grossed over $205 million to date.  Adjusted for inflation, The Jungle Book is the 29th highest-grossing film in the US.

The song "The Bare Necessities" was nominated for Best Song at the 1968 Academy Awards, but it did not win.

This was the last film to which Walt Disney lent his personal touch as Mr. Disney passed away ten months prior to its release.  Interestingly enough, the film had a bit of a rough road to the screen as the Disney crew's first crack at it with director Bill Peet at the helm felt a little too intense and serious for Walt's tastes.  Director Wolfgang Reitherman came onboard and Walt told much of the film's crew to not read the book as he didn't want the novel's serious tone to impede on the more comic creativity he wanted to display.

Let the Discussion Begin...
The Jungle Book is perhaps the most episodic animated film we've seen to date in this discussion (although Alice in Wonderland still may take the cake there).  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does cause the film to lack a bit of forward momentum.  As Mowgli moves from character to character on his journey to the man village, excitement fails to be generated despite the fact that each character he meets brings a unique personality and perspective to the proceedings.

Beyond the lush, colorful landscape created by the animators which is absolutely beautiful and some of their best work yet, it's the characters in The Jungle Book that really make the film come alive.  While Mowgli himself is a bit of an emotional blank, the clever friends (and enemies) he meets along the way -- all accompanied by a song that suits their demeanors -- are fun additions.
For the first time, Disney's team chose some well-known names to voice their characters whom the animators claim helped shape their animated images.  Perhaps most familiar and most entertainingly infectious is comedian Phil Harris' voicing of Baloo, an affable, lovable, carefree bear whose easygoing nature doesn't sit too well with the uptight panther Bagheera who is tasked with delivering Mowgli to the man village.  (Bagheera is voiced by Sebastian Cabot, perhaps best known for his role on Family Affair.)  Aided by the delightful song "The Bare Necessities" (by Terry Gilkyson), Baloo jumps right off the screen and into our hearts as he befriends Mowgli with his lackadaisical style of living.
Also quite fun in band leader Louis Prima's take on the jazz riffing orangutan King Louie.  When Louie's fellow simians steal Mowgli from Baloo and take the boy back to their lair, they press the human for the secret behind "man's red flower" -- AKA "fire" -- in the swinging tune "I Wan'na Be Like You."  Unable to help him, Louie and his crew start to get a little manic with Mowgli in one of the film's most creative and exciting set pieces.
We also meet a Beatles-esque quartet of vultures and a military pack of elephants along the way, but of the remaining characters, the stand-outs are villains Kaa the snake and Shere Khan the tiger.  Voiced by Disney regular Sterling Holloway, Kaa's soothing demeanor oftentimes lulls Mowgli into a false sense of security as the constrictor attempts to have Mowgli for breakfast.  However, Kaa is played for humor, whereas Shere Khan is strictly all evil business.  Not even making an appearance until about two-thirds of the way through the film, we'd heretofore only heard about his voracious hatred of man only through the fearful words of others.  However, his menacing walk and mellifluous talk by George Sanders brings just the right tone to the villain.

Musically, The Jungle Book is the best thing we've seen in a while from the Disney company.  Walt Disney brought back the Sherman Brothers after their first attempt at animation in The Sword in the Stone and their work here is charmingly successful.  All of their songs -- from the swinging "I Wan'na Be Like You" to the lullaby-esque "My Own Home" to the barbershop vulture quartet's "That's What Friends Are For" to the hypnotic "Trust in Me" -- fit perfectly with the characters singing them.  Oddly enough, as I mentioned above, the film's most memorable number -- "The Bare Necessities" -- was not written by the Shermans, but instead by Terry Gilkyson who had written a large number of songs for the film prior to it being overhauled which left the majority of his work on the cutting room floor.
The film utilizes a beautiful, lush color palette to tell its tale and the animation is successful.  Unfortunately, the story can't match everything else that's brought to the screen.  Perhaps Walt's hand at trying to make things lighter and more airy caused the story to lose any sense of purpose.  Comedic bits outside of the songs fall flat -- and are even repeated despite being unsuccessful the first time around -- and I found myself itching for a serious moment or two to connect me to Mowgli's plight.  Yes, that's maybe a bit harsh, but it really does lack a momentum to push us through its 75 minutes.  

Random Thoughts
  • The film's opening credits feature some strong orchestral scoring by George Bruns.  While the score during the actual movie itself doesn't quite match its overture, this is one of the more unique scores we've heard so far.
  • Also, in regards to the opening credits -- back to that good ole standby of a book opening to start the film!  This despite the fact that I've heard Disney's version bastardizes Rudyard Kipling's tome.
  • "My Own Home" would/could never be written today with the lines "'Til the day that I am grown / I will have a handsome husband / And a daughter of my own / And I'll send her to fetch the water / I'll be cooking in the home."

Final Analysis
(Does It Belong in the Revered Disney Pantheon and How Does It Stack Up to Past Films?)
While I'd love to say that Walt's last personalized animated film allowed him to go out with a bang, I can't and there's part of me that thinks he's at fault for requesting the lighter mood for the flick.  Granted, I have no idea how the first attempt at a script panned out and perhaps it truly was awful, but the episodic nature of the film as presented here isn't successful.  Now, the film certainly isn't bad.  It contains some of the best songs we've seen yet in a Disney film sung by strong characters (in turn voiced by great performers) and some beautiful animation, all of which certainly works in The Jungle Book's favor, but the lack of a solid story brings this film to a screeching halt.  This one ends up being a borderline Pantheon film -- arguments for inclusion and exclusion could be made and I wouldn't be disappointed with either decision.

The RyMickey Rating: C+

Join us next Wednesday for The Aristocats, the twentieth film in The Disney Discussion.
***The Aristocats is currently streaming on Netflix, so watch it and join in on the discussion!***