Thursday, January 29, 2015

Movie Review - The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything (2014)
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox (boyfriend), Harry Lloyd (Hawking's friend), David Thewlis (professor), and Emily Watson
Directed by James Marsh

I can't even begin to pretend that anything that comes out of the mind of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking makes any lick of sense to me.  Hence, I was a bit hesitant to venture into a viewing of The Theory of Everything which takes a look at his life, biopic-style.  However, much to my surprise, I found director James Marsh's film to be an engaging look at a young couple (Stephen and Jane Hawking) fighting the odds to try and make it despite the many hardships that accompanied Stephen's ALS diagnosis in his early twenties.

Marsh doesn't hide the fact at any point in time that The Theory of Everything is a romance.  We get beautiful shots of two people wooing each other, winning each other, and, however unfortunate, falling out with each other.  Still, Marsh has crafted a film that in many ways epitomizes what I'd like a lasting romance to be for me.  There's a connection between his two main characters that he manages to capture that's obvious from the very get-go that builds and blossoms as his film progresses.

Of course, there would be no romantic connection between characters if the two actors portraying said parts didn't exude some chemistry and Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones do just that.  I'll admit that I came into this film thinking that it was going to be a showcase for the young Mr. Redmayne (and it was...more on that in a bit), but I found myself pleasantly won over by the lovely Ms. Jones as Mr. Hawking's paramour Jane.  Jones has a very difficult part that I'll admit at first I believed was going to be one note.  Playing the young college age Jane, she's seemingly just your average student who's fallen for some guy.  However, as Stephen's disease begins to rear its ugly head and he gets progressively worse, the strength of character that someone like Jane needs to survive not only for herself but for her husband is overwhelmingly massive, and Ms. Jones exquisitely paints the picture of a woman with a huge weight on her shoulders.  We see the struggle in her every expression and her love for Stephen in each gesture.  Jane is not a cookie cutter person and we discover as the film progresses that she isn't perfect, either, but this well-rounded portrayal by Jones is one of the better female performances I've seen this year.

Of course, Eddie Redmayne rightfully deserves praise, too, in a fabulous portrayal of a man facing head-on a debilitating disease.  There's a joy and vigor imbued into Redmayne's Stephen Hawking at the film's onset that it becomes all the more painful to watch as Stephen is forced to reconcile with the notion that he will become incapable of completing the simplest tasks on his own.  Redmayne certainly captures the physicality -- both vocally and physically -- of an ALS patient, but he also captures the emotional pain that obviously must accompany such a horrible illness.  We see the glimmers of joy in his eyes as he remembers his jubilant past or his love for Jane, but Redmayne also captures the devastation of this extremely intelligent man being relegated to having someone else have to feed and clothe him.  This is an emotional performance -- perhaps the most emotional performance I've seen this year.

Granted, I think the film falters a bit in its final act -- I won't spoil things entirely, but the film asks us to infer a few things regarding possible speed bumps in Stephen and Jane's relationship and I think for a film that's been so honest with us throughout, this vagueness is a bit off-putting.  Still, the flick is full of passion and that emotion is the key to The Theory of Everything working as well as it does.  I've been waiting for a movie this year to hit me on that emotionally guttural level and The Theory of Everything does just that.  You'd be forgiven if your eyes well up a time or two by what you're seeing onscreen with the magnificent combination of two great performances and fantastic direction.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Movie Review - The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game (2014)
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Allen Leech, Rory Kinnear, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance, Alex Lawther, and Mark Strong
Directed by Morten Tyldum

Paced extraordinarily well, fantastically acted, and cleverly written passing through three timelines which dramatically strengthen one other without feeling gimmicky, The Imitation Game is one of the surprise treats of the 2014 Oscar season.  The raves it received should seemingly negate the notion that it could ever be a "surprise," but it's the type of film -- an historical drama -- that one often finds difficult to feign excitement.  However, I found director Morten Tyldum's film to cast a light on a subject with which I was unfamiliar and do so in a manner that was engaging and extremely well executed.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, an incredibly intelligent young man only recently graduated from university with a talent for solving a wide variety of puzzles.  This piques the interest of the British Intelligence Agency who hire Turing to try and decode Germany's encoded messages to one another during the height of WWII.  Germany had created a machine known as Enigma which provided millions of different codings making it near impossible for the Allies to figure out what the Nazis were relaying to one another.  Cleverly, the Germans changed the settings on Enigma on a daily basis so unlike Turing's hired colleagues who put pen to paper in order to solve the intricate Enigma messages (only to be devastated at day's end having their work prove all for naught), Turing believed that the only way the Allies could fight Enigma was to build a machine that matched Enigma's prowess.  Although most thought the quirky sensibilities of Turing pointed towards him being crazy, the genius eventually managed to convince his fellow brainiacs (and the British government) that his plan would be a success.  Needless to say, the Nazis didn't overtake Europe, so -- spoiler alert -- he succeeds.

In and of itself, the historical plot of The Imitation Game is worth the price of admission, but there's a devastating personal aspect as well with Turing discovering his homosexuality as a teenager and having to hide his sexual orientation seeing as how being gay was a criminal offense in England through the 1950s.  This adds another layer to the story and makes Turing's life all the more painful in the end.

Director Morten Tyldum keeps the film moving at a surprisingly rapid clip without any lulls.  He very deftly moves the film from WWII era to Turing's youth (when he's played by the wonderful Alex Lawther) to the 1950s when Turing is being investigated by the police for indecency.  Each of these segments builds upon one another to give us an extremely well-rounded glimpse of the complicated individual that is Alan Turing.  Much credit goes to the young Mr. Lawther who makes it entirely believable that he was playing a younger version of Benedict Cumberbatch's Turing.  Through Lawther's portrayal, we can see the obvious evolution of Turing and I found this a pleasant addition to the film.

Benedict Cumberbatch is surprisingly soulful as the adult Alan Turing.  His unique tics and idiosyncrasies coupled with the extremely intelligent manner of speaking give us a character that while awkward is also heartbreaking without ever feeling treacly or emotionally forced.  His supporting cast includes Keira Knightley, quite good as an intelligent woman with whom Turing finds himself a bit infatuated, and Matthew Goode as another smart codebreaker who finds himself often at odds with the shy, introverted Turing.  There's truly not a bad performance in the bunch.

The Imitation Game could easily have been a boring historical docudrama, but, much like The King's Speech several years ago, it rises above the stolid, heavy feeling that sometimes accompanies period pieces and becomes a movie that emotionally resonates while also teaching a little bit about an important part of our past.

The RyMickey Rating:  A- 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Movie Review - Winter's Tale

Winter's Tale (2014)
Starring Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Eva Marie Saint, and Will Smith 
Directed by Akiva Goldsman

Savaged by critics and ending up on many "Worst of 2014" lists, Winter's Tale doesn't quite reach levels of awful offensiveness in terms of how bad it is, but it certainly misses the mark as an adult morality tale/fairy tale/fantasy/romance.  As the film opens, we see a foreign couple in the early 1900s being refused entrance into the United States because they have consumption.  Sent back to Europe on a boat, they leave their infant son behind in hopes that he'll have a better life.  The son grows up to be Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) who was raised on the rough New York City streets by Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) and the two men couldn't be more different.  Despite rather oddly burying this lede and causing a bit of unnecessary confusion in the film's opening scenes, Pearly works for the Devil, while Peter is a bit more angelic and apparently has been granted the ability to truly help one person in his lifetime.  As Peter ages, this sets up conflict and Pearly sets out to take down the man whom he hoped at one time would be his successor.  This battle between good and evil is set against the backdrop of romance as Peter falls for Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), a rich young woman who is dying of consumption.  And I haven't even begun to discuss the time jump that a little over halfway through the film moves the plot into modern times nor the mystical white horse that sprouts wings and saves the day multiple times.

There's simply too much going on in Winter's Tale to allow an audience to appreciate any aspect of it.   Based on a book that has had praise heaped upon it, I have to wonder if the fantastical meanderings work better on the page than played out visually on the screen.  This is Academy Award-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman's first feature film directorial gig and he can't formulate a singular vision here which is perhaps due to the fact that his screenplay feels haphazardly crafted.  The acting is okay, but that's admittedly faint praise.  Crowe is hamming it up at times although not necessarily in an awkward way as he is essentially playing an employee of the devil.  Farrell is fine, although he's a bit of a blank slate in some of the film's pivotal moments.  The rest of the cast makes do with what's given to them.

While Winter's Tale certainly isn't the worst film I've seen from 2014, it certainly isn't a winner by any means.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Monday, January 26, 2015

Theater Review - The Millionairess

The Millionairess
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Ian Belknap
Where: Thompson Theater at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When: Sunday, January 25, 2pm

Photos and images from the REP

So far, the 2014-15 season of the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players has been a bit of a disappointing one, but the company typically excels at comedy and while their production of George Bernard Shaw's 1936 piece The Millionairess isn't presenting a mind-blowingly hilarious romp, the play manages enough laughs (or at least respectful smiles) to create a pleasant afternoon at the theater.

Set in 1930s England, The Millionairess of the title is Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga (played by REP member Elizabeth Heflin), a rich woman married to Alastair Fitzfassenden (REP's Mic Matarrese), a man whom she feels is beneath her status and quality of life.  While Alastair isn't exactly faithful to Epifania -- he has a sweetie on the side named Patricia (the always reliable Kathleen Pirkl Tague) -- the millionairess herself isn't exactly tied down to one man either, finding herself prancing about town with Adrian Blenderbland (guest actor John Rensenhouse).  When all four of these characters meet in the law office of barrister Julius Sagamore (REP's Michael Gotch), schemes are hatched by Epifania from divorce proceedings to suicide attempts in order to figure out a way out of her marriage while still maintaining her dignified social status.  Oddly enough, although that seems like a rather elaborate summary, Shaw's play introduces yet another man to vie for Epifania's affections known only as "The Doctor" (REP member Lee Ernst) and it's this relationship between our title character and this mysterious Arabian medicine man that pushes along the remainder of the play.
Where The Millionairess falters is in Shaw's words.  While he certainly is the wordsmith and his humor was likely fitting for the era the work premiered, it feels a little loquacious today.  That isn't to say that as the second act enfolds that this excellent ensemble can't pick up steam from where a somewhat lackluster first act leaves off.  The cast certainly cranks things up a few notches and The Millionairess certainly ends on a high note.  It's not that the first act fails, it's just that the opening scene in particular seems to meander a bit with Shaw too fond of his pen and paper to allow the set-up of the play to be cut a tad bit shorter.  Credit to director Ian Belknap for milking the comedy (both physical and verbal) from Shaw's work.  In the hands of a lesser director, I could see most of humor falling flat for today's audiences and while I don't think everything clicked, considering the fact that the play is nearly a century old Belknap does a nice job.
As is nearly always the case with the REP, we are treated to some fantastic costumes and sets -- this time by Matthew J. LeFebvre.  The last time we saw Mr. LeFebvre's work, it was for the stunning stark scenic design of The Threepenny Opera.  Here, a completely rotating turntable set (a first, I believe for the REP) stunningly gives us three distinct scenes, all of which are beautiful to look at and, in the second act, get a chance to really shine in a funny, clever scene change which actually had the audience applauding.  The costumes are also gorgeous representations of a bygone era.
The acting ensemble does a nice job here as well with Elizabeth Heflin and Lee Ernst in particular stepping up their respective games and playing very nicely off one another.  (Heflin and Ernst also took lead roles in the REP's last production of Macbeth and I enjoyed their repartee here much more than in the disappointing Shakespearean drama.)  Heflin, in particular, is quite good at being obnoxiously self-centered as her Epifania is surprisingly engaging despite Shaw creating what could've been a basic stereotypical haughty caricature.  Guest artist John Rensenhouse also provides a nice counterpoint to Epifania as the uppity Blenderbland.

The Millionairess marks a significant improvement from the REP's earlier productions this season and although it doesn't match some of the hilarious works we've seen from them in the past, it's a solid presentation of the work of a well-known playwright.

Side Note:  It's such a shame that the REP, which started as a training program for UD's Professional Theater Training Program, is unable to continue that important task as of late.  While I truly enjoy the great ensemble of actors, the REP needs an infusion of youthful blood into it like it did in its initial seasons.  The ability to teach should be a university's goal and while I certainly appreciate the fact that the University of Delaware contributes to the wonderful organization that is the REP, I wish they would bring back the PTTP and allow these talented artists to aid up-and-coming onstage and offstage theatrical talent.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Movie Review - Into the Storm

Into the Storm (2014)
Starring Richard Armitage, Sarah Wayne Callis, Matt Walsh, Max Deacon, Nathan Kress, and Alycia Debnam Carey
Directed by Steven Quale

Were I to watch an action movie involving a bunch of tornado chasers again, I'd most certainly watch 1996's Twister if only to see Helen Hunt running around in a white tank top to satisfy my weird fascination with the actress that I used to harbor as a youth.  Is Twister any good?  I honestly don't remember, but I do remember Helen Hunt in a white tank top.  That said, Into the Storm was more enjoyable than I thought it was going to be with surprisingly good special effects considering what I can only assume was a much lower budget than most disaster pics that make it to the big screen.

Unfortunately, as is de rigueur these days, Into the Storm is told via video footage of people "on the ground" -- documentary filmmakers, students working on a time capsule, and two crazy rednecks who want Jackass levels of stardom.  Yes, those last two are legit "explanations" as to why we're watching the footage we're watching in this film.  It's a bit ridiculous.  I imagine the reasoning behind this scripting was to keep the budget lower -- less wide shots of twisters wreaking havoc the small town of Silverton (although we still get some of them which seem oddly out of place) -- but it's one of the film's most disappointing aspects.  When you couple the style of shooting with rather silly exposition for characters in an attempt to make us care about these people -- a father trying to reconcile with his sons, a mom trying to live to see her daughter again, a documentary videographer in it for the "shot of a lifetime" of the inside of the eye of tornado -- the film falls a bit on the flatter side.

Rather shockingly, however, I found Into the Storm to be an enjoyable watch.  Once the twisters start their descent on the small town, the film moves at a brisk pace, utilizing believable effects to depict nature's wrath.  There's certainly no need to go out and rush a rental on this one, but should it pop up streaming somewhere, it's a good enough diversion.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Movie Review - A Long Way Down

A Long Way Down (2014)
Starring Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Rosamund Pike, Tuppence Middleton, and Sam Neill
Directed by Pascal Chaumeil
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Lacking any type of balance, A Long Way Down is a drama/comedy mash-up that's a big ole mess.  Four strangers meet each other on the roof of a high rise building in London on New Years' Eve.  All had the intention of jumping to their deaths because of how horrible their lives were, but none of them go through with it, instead making a pact with one another to keep themselves alive until Valentine's Day at which point they can reassess their standing in life.

This odd premise doesn't crystallize into a proper story at any point in time throughout director Pascal Chaumeil's film.  There are attempts by Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Aaron Paul, and Imogen Poots to round out their characters into more fully realized souls, but they aren't given much with which to work.  Collette fares the best as the struggling mother of a twentysomething son with cerebral palsy, but her counterparts aren't so lucky.  Brosnan as a slimy news reporter, Paul as an introverted musician, and Poots as a politician's rambunctious daughter are all simply caricatures.  Granted, Collette's character's struggle is nothing more than a stereotype as well, but her character's intentions post-suicide attempt are the most believable which is much more than I can say for the rest of the film's depressed quartet.

The RyMickey Rating:  D

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Movie Review - Into the Woods

Into the Woods (2014)
Starring James Corden, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Billy Magnussen, Mackenzie Mauzy, and Johnny Depp
Directed by Rob Marshall

Note: The Disney Discussion will return soon.  In its stead, a review of Disney's latest fairy tale musical -- in live action form this time around.

"Once upon a time in a far off kingdom, there lay a small village at the edge of the woods.  And in this village lived a young maiden, a carefree young lad, and a childless baker with his wife."  The opening line of Into the Woods sets up a broad view of composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and playwright James Lapine's Broadway classic, but the film delves deeper into a world where some of the most well-known fairy tale characters interact with one another popping up into each others' familiar stories and creating some havoc.  Director Rob Marshall does a fantastic job allowing each character's storyline to shine, giving life to Sondheim's tricky lyrical melodies, and creating a film that flows effortlessly from one tale to another.

We have Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) whose evil stepmother (Christine Baranski) and nasty stepsisters (Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch) won't allow her to attend the Royal Ball of the Prince (Chris Pine).  Then there's Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) of Jack and the Beanstalk fame whose mother (Tracy Ullman) forces her son to sell his only friend -- Milky White, a cow -- in order to add to their measly income.  The third storyline deals with a Baker (James Corden) and His Wife (Emily Blunt) who have heretofore been unable to conceive a child.  They discover in the film's opening song, however, that the haggard and ugly Witch (Meryl Streep) has placed a spell on the Baker and His Wife which the couple can break if they bring her "the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold" before three midnights pass.  Add in Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), a giant, and a horny wolf (Johnny Depp) and you've got a menagerie of characters.

The Baker, His Wife, and their plight are the impetus of much of the film's plot as they weave in and out of the various other characters' story lines in order to retrieve the objects from their Witch-sponsored scavenger hunt.  The first half of the film generally follows the familiar fairy tales in their typical fashion, however, as the flick progresses, things start to take a dark turn with these tried and true characters forced to do things that we typically aren't used to seeing them have to undertake.  Ultimately, Sondheim and Lapine seem to be telling us that life can't always be a fairy tale, but we still have to face the good and bad times in the best way we know how.  Yes, these are fractured fairy tales, but they're interesting twists on classics.

Sondheim's songs aren't exactly hummable and with the exception of the title number, you may very well not remember any of them upon the film's conclusion.  However, that's not necessarily a bad thing.  The film is filled to the brim with singing and the numbers flow effortlessly into one another and that's certainly attributed to Sondheim's songs, Lapine's book/screenplay, and Rob Marshall's direction.  Marshall isn't exactly a prolific director, but this is certainly his best film since his Chicago debut.  The film appears richly atmospheric (kudos to the costume and production designers) and places its audience squarely in the titular woods.

Sondheim's lyrics are a tricky beast to wrap your tongue around, but the cast gamely takes on the task of giving life to his words (and his uniquely syncopated rhythms).  James Corden and Emily Blunt are charming, witty, and carry the film admirably.  Lilla Crawford and Daniel Hiddleston are exactly what their young characters need to be -- adventurous, yet longing for guidance.  Meryl Streep hardly ever delivers a bad performance and this is no exception.  Award worthy?  I'm not quite sure, but she doesn't disappoint in the slightest.  Two of the film's best moments, however, belong to Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine whose romantic relationship as Cinderella and her Prince isn't exactly the epitome of perfection.  As Cinderella flees the ball, time stands still and Kendrick sings a lovely tune about how she's unsure of what she wants for her life.  Pine also gets a similarly-themed number about longing, although his slimy, though utterly charismatic and charming Prince has quite a different spin on his wishes and desires.

I will admit that I was expecting to be a little let down by Into the Woods.  Musicals are tough sells sometimes, often feeling hokey or corny unless the right tone is set right at the film's open.  However, from the opening two minutes, I could tell that Marshall was giving us a piece that wasn't ashamed of the notion that it was a musical.  It embraced the genre and, in turn, is the best live action musical since The Muppets in 2011.

It should be noted that I've been holding off writing this review for over a week now.  This is one of those movies that I really liked, yet can't quite get comfortable with expressing my thoughts on it.  Don't let my bland review (which flows so disappointingly for my taste) discourage you from seeing this one.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Movie Review - 3 Days to Kill

3 Days to Kill (2014)
Starring Kevin Costner, Hailee Steinfeld, Amber Heard, and Connie Nielsen
Directed by McG
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

3 Days to Kill has no clue what it is.  Is it an action movie in which an older, grizzled CIA officer discovers he has three months to live and sets out begrudgingly on one final mission?  Is it a family drama in which the aforementioned older, grizzled CIA officer tries to reconnect with his ex-wife and now teenaged daughter whom he abandoned for his job?  Or is a quirky comedy starring an older grizzled Kevin Costner as an older, grizzled CIA officer who can't figure out why his teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) finds him so repugnant?  As the film attempts to meld all three of these varied plots, it becomes a muddled mess with none of the three story lines panning out in any desirable fashion.

Although I thought the flick started out promisingly with a moderately intense opening action scene, things quickly devolve from there.  Costner is actually decent and Steinfeld is charismatic although her character is much too much of a stereotypical jerk of a teenager to give a damn about her various plights.  The less said about Amber Heard as Costner's boss, the better -- her character is just so nebulously vague and odd that I never quite understood who she was or why she was told to act like some S&M vixen throughout.  McG's direction doesn't do any of the actors any favors, failing to find any rhythm in the dramatic and comedic scenes.  (He fares a tiny bit better in the film's action moments, but they're so few and far between that it doesn't much matter.)  This one's big ole waste of time.

The RyMickey Rating:  D

Monday, January 19, 2015

Movie Review - Coherence

Coherence (2014)
Starring Hugo Armstrong, Nicholas Brendon, Emily Foxler, Elizabeth Gracen, Lauren Maher, Alex Manugian, Lorene Scafaria, and Maury Sterling
Directed by James Ward Byrkit
***This film is streaming on AMAZON PRIME***

Holy smokes...this is a weird one that I desperately wish I had watched with someone else to get their opinion on it.  Coherence starts off rather normally with a group of eight adult friends gathering for a dinner party.  It just so happens that a rare comet is passing over earth on this evening and as the dinner party progresses, some weird things begin to happen with guests and their reality starts to bend out of control.

This low budget sci fi thriller is a doozy...and I mean that in the best way possible.  First time director and writer James Ward Byrkit has crafted a film that rather surprisingly pays off and -- I think -- resolves itself somewhat in the end which, considering the sometimes convoluted talk of quantum physics and Schrödinger's Cat, I can't believe I actually understood.  I realize that everything I'm saying thus far may be a huge turnoff to some, but Coherence is a film in which it pays to give it your full attention.  Quite frankly, that's not too difficult to do as I found the ensemble of eight actors -- none of whom you're likely familiar with except for Nicholas Brendan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame -- to be compelling, believable, and incredibly natural with their purportedly mostly improvised dialog.  Before "odd" things start to happen, Byrkit allows the characters to root themselves into the plot with backstories that seem logical and this initial basis upon which we get to know the characters is helpful as the film progresses.

I'm sure next to no one has seen this movie, but I highly recommend it.  It's a tad difficult to discuss without giving away too many details, but color me surprised that this film somehow makes physics comprehensible and oddly intriguing.  Someone please watch this one so we can have a discussion!

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Movie Review - Belle

Belle (2014)
Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Tom Felton, James Norton, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Sarah Gadon, and Matthew Goode
Directed by Amma Asante

Belle is by no means a bad movie, but I'm flabbergasted that this British period piece sits at an 83% Fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.  While it's true that it tells a story we haven't seen before (not easy when it comes to this genre), the film is quite simplistic, lacking a fervent bite that I feel like it could have had.

Belle tells the tale of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the daughter of Captain John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), a well-respected British naval officer who falls in love with a black woman while in Africa who ends up having his baby.  Upon her mother's death, Captain Lindsay takes Dido to England where he asks his uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson) to look after Dido while he's off at war.  Much to their initial chagrin for fear of how this mixed race child will appear to the rest of society, they agree to raise Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) as a free woman along with their other niece Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon).  Years later, Captain Lindsay dies and leaves Dido a significant amount of money.  This dowry is quite appealing to some English men despite the impropriety that stems from the possibility of marrying a black woman.  Although Dido and Elizabeth were quite close growing up, Dido's bequeathment is more substantial than what Elizabeth can offer which sets up much tension amongst the Mansfield's nieces.

Ultimately, this PG-rated film tells an interesting tale -- one that next to no one is familiar with -- but it fails to lift itself to something truly appealing.  The acting is all quite good -- Gugu Mbatha-Raw makes the best of what I think is a surprisingly underwritten role -- but with the exception of one or two scenes, the flick lacks any drive or excitement.  What could've been a somewhat interesting take on racism in the late 1700s devolves into a love triangle that just doesn't carry the same weight as the story deserves.  A nice effort -- with well-done below-the-title craftsmanship and adequate direction -- but Belle misses the mark a little bit.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Movie Review - Wild

Wild (2014)
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffmann, and Thomas Sadoski
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

To begin this review of Wild, I'm going to quote a line from my review of Dallas Buyers Club, a film also directed by Jean-Marc Vallée which went on to win several Academy Awards last year:

"Dallas Buyers Club doesn't have the emotional arcs I want in a film like this.  The film doesn't drive its story forward in such a way that feels exciting or impacting."

Unfortunately, that's the same way I feel about Wild, the true story of Cheryl Strayed, a young woman who, after the death of her mother steered her down a path of alcohol, drugs, and promiscuous sex hurting her caring husband in the process, decides to hike solo the 1,100 mile  Pacific Crest Trail in order to find peace within herself.  Vallée's two recent works simply fail to elicit the emotional impact that their hefty stories should deliver.  Something's missing from Vallée's work and despite his more than adequate visual style, Wild left me feeling empty.

Part of the issue with Wild is its desire to tell a huge chunk of its emotional core in flashback.  The film opens with Cheryl beginning her trek across the West Coast, only allowing us brief puzzle piece-like flashbacks of what got Cheryl to this point in her life.  As the viewers piece together the flashbacks, I found myself frustrated by two things.  First, the flashbacks are very fragmented seemingly in an attempt to not clue the viewer in on everything right away.  Yes, I know the screenwriter may say they're fragmented because Cheryl's mind was wandering as she wandered the trail, but the disjointed nature of the flashbacks proved frustrating to me in part because I felt like they were trying to "hide" key aspects of Cheryl's life until pivotal moments in the hiking portion of her story.  Piggybacking off of that, the second issue is that although they attempted to keep portions of her past secret, it was incredibly easy to infer what had happened, so if any of these hidden aspects of her past were supposed to be a surprise emotionally, they weren't in the slightest.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with these flashbacks and the way they were set up is that they failed to create an emotional arc for the character.  Tossing scenes in seemingly willy-nilly didn't allow for the audience to latch on to Cheryl's admittedly painful early twenties during which she found herself in much turmoil.  Adding to this, Cheryl is a smart cookie.  She's well educated and quite knowledgeable about literature and the arts.  This causes her, in the film's pivotal moments, to speak almost too poetically for her own good.  I will admit, this is more a fault of mine than the film's, but I found myself zoning out whenever she waxed eloquently about a poet or an author.

Reese Witherspoon is good, appearing in every scene of the film, but as I said, I didn't find myself connecting with her character.  I don't think that's a fault of hers, but rather the script and the directing, but I found myself wishing I could've liked her role more.

Despite my qualms, Wild isn't a bad film -- neither was Dallas Buyers Club, for that matter.  Both are just missing that emotional connection that quite frankly should come without question in films like these.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Friday, January 16, 2015

Movie Review - The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Starring Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Matheiu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, and Tony Revolori
Directed by Wes Anderson

Director and screenwriter Wes Anderson's films are always easy to pick out by their colorful visual style, exquisite production design, sardonic, quirky humor, and the presence of Bill Murray, but with the exception of Fantastic Mr. Fox, I always tend to feel that Anderson can't quite craft a great story around his admittedly unique style.  While The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of his better efforts, I still find myself waiting for one of his live action flicks to really grab me and pull me in with its story.

Told in a flashback within a flashback, the film focuses on Monsieur Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge at the prestigious Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka in 1932.  While Gustave runs the hotel with precision, he's also well known amongst the elderly lady crowd for providing something a little bit extra during their stay.  (That "extra" would be sex...in case I was too vague.)  One such lady -- Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis (Tilda Swinton in a ton of make-up) -- has fallen in love with Gustave and while he admittedly reciprocates the feeling to her, he has too many other "duties" in the hotel to fully give himself to her.  However, after she leaves to travel back to her home, Gustave receives word that Madame D has been killed and that he must attend the reading of the will for she has left something to him.  Upon arrival, Gustave learns that Madame D has bequeathed the terribly expensive painting "Boy with Apple" to him much to the chagrin of his relatives.  Not only that, but Madame D was murdered and her sons and daughters are pointing to Gustave as the main culprit.

There are so many great things about The Grand Budapest Hotel that it pains me to not love it more.  Ralph Fiennes is fantastic as Gustave.  The dry humor and wit that exudes from every line reading and every movement from Fiennes is an enviable feat and he really is the unsung hero from the piece.  The rest of the supporting cast is pitch perfect as well with a very nice turn in particular from newcomer Tony Revolori as Gustave's lobby boy/right hand man.  Fiennes is a strong presence in the film and Revolori holds his own, providing his own bit of humor from his reactions to the oddness going on around him.  The cast itself certainly gets the tone of things from Wes Anderson himself who, as a director, has a way of creating humor simply from his direction -- the pan of a camera may be all that's needed in order to elicit a chuckle.  As I watched, I realized that not too many directors have this ability and Anderson understands how to utilize the lens itself in order to create humor.  And the production design -- top notch, melding old school and new school designs with ease, creating a storybook-like world that completely brings us into the fake land of Zubrowka.

But it's that darn story that doesn't quite elevate things.  For about an hour, I was onboard, but the thing peters out towards the end as it shifts from focusing on Gustave to focusing on Gustave's escape plan from those trying to pin him for murder.  I can't say that I want an emotional connection in Anderson's films -- that's not what I'm looking for from his pictures.  But there seems to be some fundamental piece of the puzzle missing in his live action flicks for me that fail to click with my mind on some level as the film progresses.  Perhaps it's just that I tire of the quirkiness after about an hour and I'm left with some pretty basic storytelling in nearly all his films.

Still, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a good flick -- certainly one of Anderson's better films -- with fantastic production values and great acting, but it's just missing that last bit of pizzazz from its screenplay.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

2015 Academy Award Predictions

UPDATE IN BOLD -- I didn't do too bad...

I'll be back Thursday morning to see how I fared, but here are some predictions on who will be Oscar nominees come tomorrow morning.  Predictions are listed in the order I feel it will be least likely to happen...



Best Picture
1. Boyhood
2. Birdman
3. Imitation Game
4. Grand Budapest Hotel
5. Selma
6. The Theory of Everything
7. Whiplash
8. American Sniper
9. Nightcrawler

I think there will only be nine nominees, but should there be a tenth (which I'm hoping there will be), I'm going with Gone Girl.
UPDATE:  8/8 -- Look at that...eight for eight...Sure, I thought Nightcrawler would get the nomination, but there just wasn't the love for that one with Gyllenhaal missing a nod as well.

Best Director
1. Richard Linklater - Boyhood
2. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu - Birdman
3. Wes Anderson - Grand Budapest Hotel
4. Clint Eastwood - American Sniper
5. Morten Tyldum - Imitation Game
alt. Ava DuVernay - Selma
Longshot (wishful thinking): David Fincher - Gone Girl / Damian Chazelle - Whiplash
UPDATE - 4/5 -- I don't feel the least bit bad for Clint Eastwood not making the list -- although it's surprising given the love for American Sniper overall this morning.  Instead, Bennett Miller makes the cut for Foxcatcher, yet Foxcatcher can't crack into the Best Picture list?  Weird...and the first time that's happened since the Academy expanded its main category past five nominees.

Best Actor
1. Michael Keaton - Birdman 
2. Eddie Redmayne - The Theory of Everything
3. Benedict Cumberbatch - Imitation Game
4. Jake Gyllenhaal - Nightcrawler
5. David Oyelowo - Selma
alt. Steve Carell - Foxcatcher
Longshot (wishful thinking): Ralph Fiennes, Grand Budapest Hotel
UPDATE:  3/5 -- I thought the love for Foxcatcher was waning, but it did well (still very odd it missed out on the big prize).  American Sniper was coming on strong, but I just thought Selma had something going for it (it finished weak with only two nominations) and there was this tremendous buzz surrounding Gyllenhaal.

Best Actress
1. Julianne Moore - Still Alice
2. Reese Witherspoon - Wild
3. Felicity Jones - Theory of Everything
4. Rosamund Pike - Gone Girl
5. Jennifer Aniston - Cake
alt. Amy Adams - Big Eyes
UPDATE: 4/5 -- I was never on the Jennifer Aniston bandwagon this season, but many were placing her as a lock. However, Marion Cotillard's nomination comes out of nowhere despite being a critic's favorite.  I'm happy to see Rosamund Pike here as Gone Girl's sole nomination -- a film that deserved MUCH better today.

Best Supporting Actor
1. J.K. Simmons - Whiplash
2. Edward Norton - Birdman
3. Mark Ruffalo - Foxcatcher
4. Ethan Hawke - Boyhood
5. Robert Duvall - The Judge
UPDATE:  5/5

Best Supporting Actress
1. Patricia Arquette - Boyhood
2. Emma Stone - Birdman
3. Keira Knighley - Imitation Game
4. Meryl Streep - Into the Woods
5. Rene Russo - Nightcrawler
alt. Jessica Chastain - A Most Violent Year
UPDATE:  4/5 -- The Nightcrawler love didn't span far, so Rene Russo (who was a longshot anyway) didn't make the cut, instead being replaced by Laura Dern whose role in Wild (a review of which is forthcoming) isn't all that impressive.

Best Adapted Screenplay
1. Gone Girl
2. Theory of Everything
3. Imitation Game
4. Whiplash
5. Wild
UPDATE: Shocked, I tell you, that Gone Girl's screenplay didn't make the cut (look, I had it in the #1 slot).  To me, that was the element of the film that was talked about the most upon its release.  No Wild either, with those two screenplays being replaced with American Sniper and Inherent Vice (!!)

Best Original Screenplay
1. Boyhood
2. Birdman
3. Grand Budapest Hotel
4. Nightcrawler
5. Foxcatcher
UPDATE: 5/5

Best Animated Movie
1. The Lego Movie
2. How to Train Your Dragon 2
3. Big Hero 6
4. The Boxtrolls
5. The Tale of Princess Kaguya
UPDATE: Huge shock that The LEGO Movie didn't make the cut (don't get me wrong, I'm pleased).  However, a big surprise that two little known animated flicks -- Song of the Sea, The Tale of Princess Kaguya -- make entries.  Another shock -- I haven't seen a single one of the nominees -- that's got to be a first for me in this category.

The Disney Discussion - The Rescuers Down Under

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 #29 of The Disney Discussion
The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
Featuring the voice talents of Bob Newhart, Eva Gabor, John Candy, Tristan Rogers, Adam Ryen, and George C. Scott
Directed by Hendel Butoy and Mike Gabriel
Summary (in 150 words or less):
Bernard and Bianca are back as the trusted mice from the Rescue Aid Society return to help a kidnapped boy in Australia.  Remember The Rescuers?  Yeah, this is pretty much the same thing.  Poacher Percival McLeach kidnaps young Cody since the boy has knowledge as to the whereabouts of the majestically large eagle named Marahute that lives in the cliffs of the Outback.  McLeach keeps Cody captive until the kid will reveal the location of the eagle and her offspring.  Naturally, Bernard and Bianca try to foil McLeach's plan and save Cody.

Facts and Figures
The Rescuers Down Under is the Walt Disney Company's 29th full-length animated feature film and was released on November 16, 1990.

The film opened with the 24-minute featurette The Prince and the Pauper starring Mickey Mouse.  Unfortunately, despite that addition, The Rescuers Down Under was a disappointment with the film opening in fourth place with only $3.5 million.  While the film eventually went on to make over $27 million, it is the least successful film of the Disney Renaissance era of the late 80s/90s.

The Rescuers Down Under was the first film to utilize the CAPS system by Disney in which artists would hand-draw animated cels which would then be placed into a computer.  They would then utilize digital inking and painting in order to color the cels.  The Rescuers Down Under was also the first film to be entirely finalized on computers -- meaning prior to releasing it to the public, all of the film's elements were digitized.

Let the Discussion Begin...
I discovered on this Disney Discussion journey that I've undertaken that I am a big fan of The Rescuers.  As we head into film #30 next week, The Rescuers, in fact, ranks #3 on my list thus far (of course, subject to change). There was something innocently charming about the film that just clicked for me.  Unfortunately, this sequel -- the first ever commissioned by the feature film division of Disney -- fails to deliver the goods of the original.  In fact, I have to wonder why this film was even created as it is essentially a rehash of the first film almost step-for-step.

First, let's change the setting from a muggy swamp to the dry, arid Australian Outback.  Instead of a young girl being kidnapped, let's replace her with a young boy named Cody.  Let's make the villain a guy this time rather than a woman, but we'll still let him have a reptile as a henchman, however we'll drop the alligators and make it a goanna -- a large lizard native to Australia.  You know, unfortunately, the guy who played the albatross Orville passed away, so let's get John Candy to voice an exact replica of him and name him Wilbur...how clever we are with that Orville and Wilbur Wright in-joke.  We'll still have him act the same way and be a bit of a dunce at flying because there's no need to stretch creatively, right?  And of course we'll bring back Bernard and Bianca, the former of whom will still be a bumbling nervous wreck and the latter of whom will still be an elegant Hungarian rodent.  
"Did we change things up enough," I can imagine the animators asking themselves.  The answer is definitively, "No."  Everything about The Rescuers Down Under (with the exception of certainly better animation techniques) pales in comparison to the original.  The character of Cody is much less cute than the lovable Penny and the screenwriters don't create enough of a backstory to allow us to connect and feel for his plight.  Of course it's awful that a young boy was kidnapped, but we know next to nothing about this kid before he's snatched up.  Similarly, Bernard and Bianca share very few scenes with Cody so even they seem to lack the oomph and drive to save the kid like they had in the original.
Of course, I enjoy Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor's take on Bernard and Bianca, but the two were wasted here.  Their characters take a backseat to Cody and McLeach whereas in the original, it seemed as if both sides of the story -- the human and mouse aspects -- were handled with equality which worked in its favor.  Here, the mice are kind of worthless.  Sure, they save the day, but by that point, I didn't really care.  The animators attempt to throw in a new love interest for Bianca in the dashing outback mouse Jake who aids the Rescue Aid Society workers, but he's not given much to do either and with the exception of a moment or two when Bernard's jealousy rears its ugly head for admittedly charming comedic purposes, the Jake character isn't really necessary.
A minor bright spot in the film is the villain.  Voiced rather hammily (in a good way) by George C. Scott, Percival McLeach is a jerk of a guy, given no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  However, he at least provides some tension in the film along with a few laughs with his hickish tendencies.  While I'd take the original's Medusa over McLeach any day, McLeach does seem a little more based in reality than his villainous predecessor.  I think he's significantly more dangerous too if his final act of deviousness in which he's essentially willing to murder Cody is any indication.
Admittedly, the animation in The Rescuers Down Under is superior to its predecessor, but that's what a decade will do for you in the animation world at that time.  Things look crisper, more colorful, and much more flowing.  The opening shot -- a speedy pan across the Outback -- is glorious and had me utterly excited for the film to kick into high gear.  It never did.

Random Thoughts
...while watching the film...
  • The initial reaction I had when a kangaroo starts to talk to Cody was that of oddness.  I realize that the mice in the original Rescuers talked to Penny, but here the story hasn't really established the human/animal connection yet.  Then, rather oddly, when Cody meets Marahute, the eagle doesn't talk, yet completely understands Cody's dialog.
  • I can't understand why Marahute and Joanna (McLeach's pet goanna) can't speak while all the other animals in the film can.  Can someone explain this hierarchy to me?
  • I miss the original Rescuers.  
  • This made me want to watch Ducktales: Treasure of the Lost Lamp for some reason.  (Yes, these last two random ideas popped into my head whilst watching this one.)
  • My brother calls McLeach an evil-looking Ernest from the Ernest movies of the 80s...I'll never look at McLeach the same way again.
Final Analysis
(Does It Belong in the Revered Disney Pantheon and How Does It Stack Up to Past Films?)
Perhaps it's just anticipation for the 30th film in the Disney Canon, but this 29th film didn't live up to my expectations.  I remembered enjoying it as a kid, but as an adult -- and watching it so closely after the significantly better The Rescuers -- The Rescuers Down Under is just a rehash of its more creative predecessor.  While I certainly welcomed the notion of inviting Bernard and Bianca back to the big screen, it didn't work in the way I thought it would in part because I feel like they pushed those charming mice to the outskirts of the story.  Perhaps better screenwriting would've solved the problem, but in the end, I think our title characters are limited in what they can do whilst saving people -- they're mice, let's not forget.  Unfortunately, this tale doesn't earn a place in the revered Disney Pantheon of animated films.

The RyMickey Rating: C

Join us next Wednesday for Beauty and the Beast, the 30th film in The Disney Discussion.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Movie Review - Devil's Due

Devil's Due (2014)
Starring Allison Miller, Zach Gilford and Sam Anderson
Directed by Lindsay Devlin

Newly betrothed couple visit some island in the Atlantic, get drugged, have some kooky spell put on them that impregnates the wife with demon sperm and makes her have a devil baby.  That's the story of Devil's Due.  We've seen it numerous times before.  We're treated to yet another found footage film -- although this time (like many other times, quite frankly), there's absolutely no reason for the film to be crafted in that manner.  The acting's okay (and I've certainly viewed worse horror films), but there's absolutely NOTHING we haven't seen before on display.  Why did I watch this?  Free HBO/Cinemax/Showtime weekend and Devil's Due was On Demand.  Needless to say, this one isn't worth your time.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Monday, January 12, 2015

Movie Review - Ida

Ida (2014)
Starring Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, and Dawid Ogrodnik
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Perhaps it's just my Polish heritage and Catholic religion driving my opinion on this one, but I found the Polish-language Ida to be a sometimes riveting look at the aftereffects of the Holocaust on someone who never even really lived through it.  Shot in beautiful black-and-white with a simplistic style full of long shots and some interesting camera placement (kudos to director and co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski), Ida tells the tale of a young Catholic novitiate nun (read: "nun in training") named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) who has spent her entire life (as much as she can remember) being raised by nuns.  Knowing nothing else, she expects nothing more for herself than to become a nun.  However, one afternoon she is told by her Mother Superior to explore her heritage by visiting her one surviving relative -- an aunt named Wanda (Agata Kulesza) several towns over from the convent.  Upon her arrival, Anna discovers that her aunt is quite a harlot -- boozing it up, sleeping with a lot of men, dressing scantily at times.  However, perhaps there is a reason for Wanda's lack of morality.  As Anna soon uncovers, her family has a dark, tragic past that not only affected Wanda, but also affected Anna's life in ways she had no idea.

One of the more interesting aspects of Ida is that its two female characters are given a bit of depth and background, making them fully realized beings.  At first, both seem like polar opposite stereotypes -- prudish nun and wild-child aunt -- but as the film progresses, we see that neither are exactly as their initial impressions would have us believe.  The older aunt Wanda, in particular, is a character who is still lingering with me several days after watching the film.  Unfortunately, I'd prefer not to reveal this character's secrets, but suffice it to say once her reasons for her current carefree ways are revealed, I found myself captivated by the struggles she went through in her younger days.  Agata Kulesza is fantastic here -- slowly revealing her character's pain and anguish, and ending the film with such a jaw-dropping moment that while surprising also felt understandable thanks to the actress's fine work on display.  A lovely, rich portrait of a survivor of a difficult era.

With its quick running time (under ninety minutes), Ida may be worth a shot for you if you don't often delve into foreign films.  Yes, its pace is a bit slow, it's in black and white, and it's more interested in giving us quiet moments rather than talkative ones, but the story here is easy to understand and the two main characters give the audience someone to latch onto as we discover their family history with them.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Movie Review - The One I Love

The One I Love (2014)
Starring Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss, and Ted Danson
Directed by Charlie McDowell
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

The less said about The One I Love, the better in terms of its plot.  Let's just say that married couple Ethan and Sophie (Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss) have hit a rough patch.  Ethan cheated on her and Sophie is having a tough time forgiving so their therapist (Ted Danson) sends them to a secluded house in the lovely California hills for a romantic couples weekend.  There, they find themselves reconnecting, but also are forced to deal with a very unusual situation that could either hinder or help their relationship.

Difficult to discuss without spoiling things, The One I Love is a unique spin on the relationship drama -- I've certainly never seen anything like it before.  About twenty minutes into the film, something weird happens and the flick takes us down a path that hasn't been trodden (to the best of my knowledge).  While I did find myself twiddling my thumbs a bit during the middle act, The One I Love does a really nice job of creating a believable relationship between Ethan and Sophie at all points in the film.  As they fight at the beginning, I believed their contentiousness, but also believed they wanted to work it out.  As they begin to reconcile, I bought into their rediscovered joy.  As weird stuff begins to happen at the retreat, I understood their reactions to it and how it affected their connection with one another.  Kudos to first-time screenwriter Justin Lader for crafting characters that I could buy into and giving them relatable dialog despite the somewhat unrelatable situation going on around them.

The fim is essentially a two character piece and Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss bring Lader's words to life in a way that feels genuine.  I was drawn in right away by Duplass and Moss who have much more to do here than I can actually discuss.  The film gives them an opportunity to push their characters' boundaries a bit and both actors succeed.

Admittedly, there are times one when ponders whether The One I Love may have fared better as a short film.  While that wouldn't have allowed us to see the progression of Ethan and Sophie's relationship, the twisted premise does wear a little thin at moments.  Still, debut director Charlie McDowell does a nice job getting great performances from his (essentially) two member cast in this wholly unique take on a troubled relationship.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Movie Review - That Awkward Moment

That Awkward Moment (2014)
Starring Zac Efron, Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Imogen Poots, Mackenzie Davis, and Jessica Lucas
Directed by Tom Gormican

At least Miles Teller has given the cinematic world his performance in Whiplash because his character of Daniel in the purported comedy That Awkward Moment rehashes the same fast-talking frat boy we've seen from him so many, many times before.  Mr. Teller isn't alone, however, as Zac Efron takes on Jason, the pretty boy sleaze bag ladies' man -- a character that he tackles in any comedy in which he partakes.  But Mr. Teller and Mr. Efron being carbon copies of former acting roles are just the beginning of the problems in That Awkward Moment -- a flick that has no idea whether it wants to be a raunchy comedy, a relationship drama, or a coming-of-age tale and this melange of ideas fails to allow any one of them to work.

I understand that movies need to relay the broad spectrum of personalities that are evident in the world, but when you choose to place conniving, manipulative man-whores as your main characters, I have a tendency to check out right away.  Maybe it's because I'll never understand how women fall for a-holes like these, but I can't get behind caring for characters whose only goal in life is to get a woman into bed as soon as possible.  I know these types of guys exist in real life (and I know for some otherworldly reason some women are drawn to them), but they're not the type of friends I'd like to hang out with, so when I see them onscreen, I get a little disgusted.  That Awkward Moment attempts to appease my concerns with the character of Mikey (Michael B. Jordan), a smart married doctor who discovers his wife is cheating on him.  Mikey is the polar opposite of Daniel and Jason -- longing for meaning in a relationship and not searching for a one night stand.  This, in turn, however, makes me ponder why in the heck Mikey would be friends with guys like Daniel and Jason which therein defeats the purpose of even having him in the film.  Not only am I disturbed by Daniel and Jason's womanizing, but I'm ticked off that Mikey simply shrugs it all off and coddles their infantile shenanigans.

As far as a plot goes in That Awkward Moment -- there isn't much of one.  "Hey guys.  Let's make a pact to not have any meaningful relationships.  Just sex and that's it," says one of the guys at some point at the beginning of the film.  "Okay," say the other two guys.  Does it come to any surprise that all three of these guys will find themselves falling in love and then trying to hide it from their buddies?  Does it come as any surprise that these guys will end up being pricks to their women in order to hide their burgeoning relationships from their bros?  Does it come as any surprise that these women will accept their guys back after they do horrible things to them?

Predictable, obnoxious, unfunny (I didn't laugh once), and a bit repulsive are the words I'd use to describe That Awkward Moment -- care to watch it?

The RyMickey Rating:  D-

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Movie Review - The Taking of Deborah Logan

The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)
Starring Jill Larson, Anne Ramsay, Michelle Ang, Ryan Cutrona, and Anne Bedian
Directed by Adam Robitel
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

The low-budget faux-documentary horror film The Taking of Deborah Logan was barely released in theaters this past year likely due to the fact that no celebrities make an appearance coupled with the notion that the film focuses on the elderly as opposed to the young.  A deadly combination apparently when crafting a film that has desires of theatrical viability.  It's rather unfortunate because director and screenwriter Adam Robitel's debut film does a decent job of crafting a smarter than usual horror flick.  Granted, it still falls for the typical horror tropes and is a bit stretched out even at its relatively short running time, but The Taking of Deborah Logan feels, at times, like a horror story that could actually happen...and that's saying something considering it's simply another spin at the tried and tested "exorcism" genre of scary flicks.

The faux-documentary style takes shape here in the guise of college student Mia (Michelle Ang) and her cameraman (Ryan Cutrona) researching Alzheimer's Disease by traveling to a small Northeast town to meet with Sarah Logan (Anne Ramsay) and her sixty-something mother Deborah (Jill Larson) who is finding herself in the initial stages of dementia.  What starts off as a rather innocent look at the effects of an horrific disease on a family shifts into documentation of strange goings-on in the Larson's large farmhouse.  Windows closing automatically, weird spatial time issues on recordings, and bellowing voices booming out of Deborah's mouth accompany some of the more telltale signs that Deborah has become possessed -- a notion that doesn't dawn on anyone in the film until much too late (hence the previously stated opinion that the film drags a bit).  Still, despite the typical exorcism characteristics, The Taking of Deborah Logan does add some unique twists on the genre including a rather intriguing backstory that plays into why exactly Deborah may or may not be possessed.

Robitel adds enough "new" to the mix that his film feels fresh.  (There's one scene in particular -- and when you watch this, you'll know -- that had me saying to myself, "I've never seen that before," in a good and interesting [although disgusting] way.)  That said, the found footage and faux documentary horror genre feels so passé now.  (Of course I say this and just this year have seen two really solid flicks in this subgenre in The Sacrament and this film.)  Jill Larson -- best known for being a soap opera actress -- is quite good as the title character.  Her transgression from kindly older woman to deranged lunatic is believable, quite scary, and certainly worth checking out.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The Disney Discussion - The Little Mermaid

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 #28 of The Disney Discussion
The Little Mermaid (1989)
Featuring the voice talents of Jodi Benson, Pat Carroll, Samuel E. Wright, Christopher Daniel Barnes, Buddy Hackett, Kenneth Mars, Jason Marin, Rene Auberjonois, Paddi Edwards, Ben Wright, and Edie McClurg 
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

Summary (in 150 words or less):
When mermaid Ariel saves Prince Eric after he falls overboard from his ship, she falls in love at first sight.  However, when her father King Triton discovers Ariel has gone to the surface multiple times collecting human paraphernalia, he wrecks her collection and forbids her from going above water again.  Ariel is devastated and visits Ursula, a sea witch, who formulates a magic spell that turns Ariel into a human for three days during which she must convince Prince Eric to fall in love with her and kiss her.  Should she fail at this task, Ariel will be under Ursula's command for all eternity.  The trick -- Ariel will be unable to use her voice which is the one thing Prince Eric knows about her as she sang to him upon rescuing him.

Facts and Figures
The Little Mermaid is the Walt Disney Company's 28th full-length animated feature film and was released on November 17, 1989.

During its initial release, The Little Mermaid made $84 million at the box office.  A re-release in 1997 (the same weekend Fox released Anastasia) brought in an additional $27 million.  Worldwide, the film has grossed over $210 million to date.

The Little Mermaid was nominated for three Academy Awards (the first nominations the company received for one of its animated features since 1977's The Rescuers).  The film was nominated for Best Original Score (Alan Menken) which it won.  It also received two nominations for Best Song for "Kiss the Girl" and "Under the Sea," the latter of which took the Oscar.  The film also was nominated for Best Feature Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes -- a huge feat for an animated feature at that time.  "Under the Sea" also won a Grammy for Best Song from a Motion Picture.

In the past, Disney had held off on releasing their films on VHS following their theatrical releases as they felt it would inhibit future re-releases.  The Little Mermaid was the first animated film they released six months following its time in theaters.  The VHS release was a huge success with the company selling over ten million copies in its first year.  This opened the door for all future films to be released on home video shortly after their theatrical showings.

Let the Discussion Begin...
Although this may seem surprising, The Little Mermaid is the first fairy tale animated feature for Disney since 1959's Sleeping Beauty.  In those forty years, many things changed for both the nation and the Disney company itself.  The eighties had been a rough decade for the animation studio and there was a huge worry that the company was on its last legs.  There wasn't much hope for The Little Mermaid, either, with Disney's animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg stating that this "girls' film" wasn't going to be as successful as Oliver and Company.  Fortunately, Katzenberg changed his tune as the production progressed and The Little Mermaid is considered the film that launched Disney animation back into the forefront, starting what many have called the Disney Renaissance.

I'll admit to being a little startled at the film's opening as I found the animation during the initial "Fathoms Below" sequence a little worn-looking, but once the camera launches into the ocean and we see the title card above, my worries abandoned me.  Not to say that the past several Disney animated films we've looked at had disappointing animation -- admittedly, things upticked in the 80s following a somewhat disappointing 70s era of pencil-lined figures -- but there's a quality here that shows that time was spent on all aspects of the film from the main characters to the errant fish floating across the screen.  While I think the backgrounds and landscapes will come into their own a bit more in upcoming films we'll watch, they're certainly not disappointing here.  (I think above ground backdrops fare a little better than those under the sea.)

Speaking of "under the sea," the key reason The Little Mermaid succeeds and the reason this flick stands out from those that came before it is the music by lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken.  Both Ashman and Menken honed their skills writing music for the theater and their songs for The Little Mermaid are certainly the most theatrical we've seen in Disney films to date.  We have rousing chorus numbers, intimate character moments, an opening set piece, a terrific tune for our villain to sink her chops into, and throwaway ditties -- all musical aspects we're likely to see in a Broadway show that have found their way to the big screen.  Of course the key is that these songs need to further the story rather than just sell a record and they do just that.
It's incredibly difficult for me to pick a favorite from the septet of songs.  Admittedly, the film's opener "Fathoms Below" and the throwaway "Daughters of Triton" that introduces us to Ariel's sisters who promptly vanish from much of the rest of the film aren't particularly strong starters, but things pick up quite a bit when Jodi Benson as Ariel belts out "Part of Your World."  The longing expressed in this song is certainly replicated in songs in future Disney films (and we've seen it in the past as Aurora hums "Once Upon a Dream" in Sleeping Beauty or Snow White warbles "I'm Wishing"), but Ariel isn't just grasping for love, she's hoping for a whole new life as a whole new species.  I'm not sure it gets more wishful than that.  Ms. Benson provides the perfect blend of teenage angst and adult maturity in her voice work for Ariel and that's perfectly depicted in this moving song.
To go off on a little tangent about our main character, some criticize Ariel for being a woman who's headstrong and adventurous, yet is willing to give up her voice for a man.  In this day and age of Frozen where the women take charge of things, we're still living in a what some would say a sexist fairy tale world in The Little Mermaid, but I for one don't think you can fault this age-old fairy tale for its perhaps antiquated ideals.  The film's romance between Ariel and Prince Eric is quite charming and adequately handled.  Aiding the romance is the lovely song "Kiss the Girl" in which Sebastian (the crab proxy of Ariel's father King Triton whose job is to look after the King's daughter and reign in her rambunctious nature) attempts to convince Prince Eric to fall for the mute Ariel.  I commented earlier about the above ground landscapes creating great atmospheres and that's the case for this song.    It's a fantastic moment.
Granted, "Kiss the Girl" doesn't have the joie de vivre of "Under the Sea" -- the Academy Award-winning showstopper that truly showcases the talent behind the wordsmith Howard Ashman.  We get sardines beginning the beguine and carps playing the harp for starters and the clever wordplay coupled with the vibrant animation is a match made in heaven.  I can understand why this charmed the Oscar voters.
Perhaps, however, the best song belongs to the villain, Ursula, the gigantic octopus, who tells us her past and hope for her future in "Poor Unfortunate Souls" -- perhaps the best villain song in any Disney film.  There's a cheekiness to her sinister nature voiced with great comic vibrance by Pat Carroll that we can't help but love the vampy nature of Alan Menken's music when it's paired with Ashman's incredibly clever wordplay.  All of Ashman and Menken's songs key us in to the inner feelings of the characters, helping to push the story along all the while being extremely hummable, memorable, and iconic, but "Poor Unfortunate Souls" seems to go above an beyond that.  We not only witness the villain's desires, but we find ourselves privy to our protagonist's dreams as well as she signs away her life for a chance to be with her one true love.
Even a throwaway tune like "Les Poissons" jubilantly sung by a French chef introduces us to a memorable character whose five minute presence in the film adds so much to the rich character landscape.  From Ariel's nervous fish friend Flounder to Prince Eric's stern butler Grimsby to Scuttle the bumbling seagull, none of the characters (except for perhaps the aforementioned sisters of Ariel) feel superfluous even if they actually aren't all necessary in the grand scheme of things.  Screenwriters and directors Ron Clements and Jon Musker have whimsically crafted a great film in which all aspects shine.

Random Thoughts
...while watching the film...
  • Ursula makes an appearance much earlier than I remember...her conniving begins in the first ten minutes of the film as she's popping shrimp into her mouth, lounging around bemoaning the fact that King Triton is the ruler of the sea.
  • I'm all for Ariel having a nifty collection of human stuff, but the books and paintings she has wouldn't cut it in the salty brine of the ocean.
  • Ursula is so deliciously evil.  Her bellowing belly laughs, her sexy movements, her viciously humorous voiceover by Pat Carroll...dare I say that Ursula is my favorite Disney villain of all time?  We'll have to see if this holds up as we progress.
Final Analysis
(Does It Belong in the Revered Disney Pantheon and How Does It Stack Up to Past Films?)
There's not even a modicum of doubt as to whether The Little Mermaid belongs in the Disney Pantheon.  The Little Mermaid started the 1990s Disney Renaissance buoyed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's marvelous score that ushered in a new era of Disney animated musicals.  Everything works here and with the exception of a slightly disappointing opening eight minutes of animation or so, there's nothing to complain about here.  The film moves along at such a brisk pace that you'll never find yourself bored or pondering when it'll conclude.  With the film's songs nicely placed throughout to add depth to characters or lightness to dark moments, directors and writers Ron Clements and Jon Musker proved that they had the chops to create a classic -- one that was a huge step up from their previous effort The Great Mouse Detective.  If you haven't seen The Little Mermaid in ages, wipe the dust off that VHS or DVD and feast your eyes on a modern day animated classic.

The RyMickey Rating: A

Join us next Wednesday for The Rescuers Down Under, the 29th film in The Disney Discussion.
***The Rescuers Down Under is currently streaming on Netflix, so join in on the fun!***