Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Theater Review - The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan from the movie of Alfred Hitchcock
Directed by J.R. Sullivan
Where:  Thompson Theater at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When:  Sunday, April 26, 2pm
Photos by The REP

Having previously seen The 39 Steps on Broadway several years ago and walking away with thoughts of "That was okay, but nothing special," I must admit that my expectations were somewhat muted upon hearing that the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players were tackling this madcap comedic play featuring only four actors playing a multitude of roles.  That said, I also recognized that this type of zany comedy is particularly in the wheelhouse of many members of the troupe so the possibility of a nice surprise was definitely in the cards -- and the REP delivered with their best play of the season, saving the best for last by far.

The 39 Steps isn't a particularly well-known Alfred Hitchcock picture and when I reviewed it as part of my Hitchcock Fest a few years ago, it landed in the middle of his cinematic oeuvre for me.  Much like the film (and the disappointing book upon which it is based), the play details the story of thirty-seven year-old bachelor Richard Hannay (played here by REP member Michael Gotch) who is attending a variety show of sorts when a woman dressed in black fires off a gun and creates a bit of chaos.  Upon leaving the show, Richard meets up with the woman named Annabella Schmidt (a role tackled by REP member Elizabeth Heflin) who informs him that she is on the run from spies who will stop at nothing to ruin Britain.  After obliging to Annabella's request for her to spend the night in his flat, Richard wakes up the next morning to find Annabella murdered, forcing him to go on the run attempting to evade the police while trying to figure out who framed him for murder.

Doesn't sound like a laugh riot, huh?  In the mind of playwright Patrick Barlow, however, the comedy comes fast and furious with a multitude of Hitchcockian movie references thrown in for the fanatics like me.  Part of the fun stems from the fact that although there are upwards of fifty characters in the play, there are only four actors to portray all the roles.  Michael Gotch as the wrongly accused man is our only constant throughout the whole affair and his spot-on 1930s charming persona is a whimsical and hilarious treat.  By his side is the aforementioned Elizabeth Heflin who takes on three female roles, all of which are perhaps the most underwritten in the play.  She's sort of the straight man to all the chaos going on around her and it's a bit unfortunate that most of her one-liners fall a bit flat.
The bulk of the roles in The 39 Steps, however, are played by REP members Mic Matarrese and Lee Ernst whose time on stage seems to never cease as they move from one character to the next with incredibly quick costume changes and varied English accents.  Whether it be vaudevillian actors, a cleaning woman, a Nazi spy, a newspaper boy, or nearly anything else you could imagine, these two tackled an unenviable task with ease, gusto, and humor.

Director J.R. Sullivan makes the most of the intimate Thompson Theater and I have to think that's why this play worked better for me in this setting than it did on the Broadway stage.  The closeness to the actors and their funny actions made the experience much more enjoyable than when I saw this in NYC twenty-five rows back from the expansive stage at the Cort Theater.  Much like the REP's take on Noises Off a few seasons ago (still the most enjoyable REP production I've seen), comedic timing is everything in a play like this and Sullivan obviously worked with his cast of four actors to wring out all the yuks they could in a play like this.

Kudos also to costume designer Martha Haley whose costumes easily take us back to the 1930s and scenic designer Bill Clarke who cleverly utilizes a bevy of everyday items to take the shape of everything from a train to a plane to an automobile.  The clever use of musical scores from Hitchcock films adds a punch to the production as well as being a nice homage to the director's films.

This was truly an enjoyable way to end the REP's somewhat disappointing 2014-15 season.  Both comedies they're tackling here at the end (All in the Timing is also running at the moment and definitely worth checking out) showcase the actors in the troupe and the behind-the-scenes talent to great effect.  I'll be eagerly looking forward to next season's announcement after ending on such a high note!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Movie Review - Life Itself

Life Itself (2014)
Directed by Steve James
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***
One of my earliest film memories occurred on what I can only assume was a Saturday or Sunday evening in February or March of 1992.  I likely pushed my parents to rush home from a dinner at my grandmother's house so I could watch the Siskel and Ebert Oscar special If We Picked the Winners.  You see, 1991 was the first year I'd ever seen a Best Picture nominee in theaters in the year of its release and that film was Beauty and the Beast -- a film which I still hold in incredibly high esteem.  Filmed at the newly opened Disney-MGM Studios, I longed to see if either Gene Siskel or Roger Ebert chose this animated film as their favorite of the year.  Much to my surprise and excitement, Siskel did indeed pick my favorite movie of all time with Ebert mentioning that Beauty and the Beast was his #3 film of the year.  The eleven year-old me was so excited (and I got an odd thrill now when I watched Siskel's announcing of the pick again here).  Somehow, even at that young age, the importance of Siskel and Ebert on the film landscape had already been imprinted upon this film buff.  Even at that young age when I couldn't have even begged my parents to let me watch JFK, The Prince of Tides, Bugsy, or the eventual winner that year in Silence of the Lambs, I was already placing some trust in these two writers known worldwide for their film criticism.  Gene Siskel passed away in 1999 and we lost Roger Ebert just two years ago, but I still find myself heading back to their film reviews every now and then in a late night binge on the internet.

While I'm sure there's a story to be told about Gene, Life Itself is a love note to Roger who heroically fought for ten years against various forms of cancer, finally succumbing to the disease after a fulfilled life in 2013.  Director Steve James was invited to film Roger in 2012-13 as he continued to battle his latest cancer diagnosis and the film cuts back and forth between Roger's present struggles and reminiscences from some of Ebert's colleagues and friends.  From his days as an impressively thorough college newspaper editor to his hiring at the Chicago Sun-Times as a movie critic to his fame as part of the dynamic duo Siskel & Ebert, Life Itself doesn't necessarily dig deep, but it paints a nice portrait of a normal guy who happened to be a really fantastic (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) writer of criticism.  I don't know how hard-hitting you can get in a film about a guy as "regular" as Roger Ebert, but the film does touch upon his battle with alcohol, his misbegotten foray into screenwriting, and his rocky relationship with his frenemy Gene Siskel.

In the end, though, it is Ebert's love for movies and his even greater love for his wife Chaz that really shines.  I may have disagreed with him politically; I may have disagreed with him cinematically; but I can't disagree on the fact that he was passionate about what he loved and he wrote about it with such ease and lack of pretentiousness.  If anything, I wanted a little more emphasis on why films were Ebert's refuge.  Why did the movies captivate him?  We don't quite get that here, but I'm certainly heading out to read Ebert's similarly titled book upon which this documentary is based.

I don't think Ebert would have much positive to say about what I write and how I write on this little blog, but I can't help but think that he'd be a little pleased that he and his longtime partner (and foe) Siskel inspired generations of kids like me to love the cinema.  The duo will always hold a place in my heart and Life Itself is a lovely tribute.  The two hours spent with Roger flew by and unfortunately ended much too soon much like the life of Mr. Ebert.

The RyMickey Rating:  A-

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Movie Review - The Babadook

The Babadook (2014)
Starring Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman
Directed by Jennifer Kent
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Much hype has been bandied about concerning how scary and frightening debut director and screenwriter Jennifer Kent's horror film The Babadook is and while the it doesn't quite live up to its buzz, it's still a really good film with some absolutely outstanding performances from its two main cast members Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, both of whom elevate this already good production to something absolutely worth seeing.

Although it's been six years since her husband's death, Amelia (Davis) still finds herself grieving him every now and again as she raises her somewhat difficult, rambunctious, and wildly imaginative son Sam (Wiseman).  Already fearful of monsters lurking in the dark, when Sam discovers a new book named The Babadook on his bookshelf, the rather horrific illustrated children's work about a monster who invades a boy's home at night proves to be highly detrimental to the young boy causing a multitude of nightmares and creating a situation wherein he is simply unable to be around classmates or relatives his age without causing harm.  Amelia is forced to medicate young Sam, but upon doing so, she realizes that Sam's imagination and the creature from The Babadook may not be as made up as she formerly believed.

While certainly foreboding, The Babadook admittedly never really scared me.  I wasn't jumping in fright or covering my eyes out of fear.  However, what director Jennifer Kent does create is an atmosphere in which two characters and their traits inspire all the uncomfortableness and unease that one needs in order for a film like this to succeed.  Something as simple and basic as young Sam gritting his teeth while he's sleeping invokes a sense of discomfort in the audience, but also is a simple way of giving us insight into the fact that Sam is perhaps troubled and that Amelia can't even get relief when the young boy is asleep because of the incessant grinding.  These little details elevate The Babadook to a different level than other horror films.

It certainly helps that Kent manages to get fantastic performances from her two main cast members who are essentially onscreen in nearly every scene.  Young Noah Wiseman has his debut performance here and while I've heard some call him "grating" or "obnoxious," I counter that by simply saying, "That's the point."  His Sam is supposed to be wearing his mother down, causing her to question her maternal instincts.  Wiseman captures this completely in the film's opening half and then believably switches gears in the second half when the flick calls for him to retaliate against a rather horrific force.

A star should be born based off of Essie Davis's performance as the beleaguered Amelia.  Coping with her husband's death and the stigma of "widowhood" while dealing with a child who can't give her a moment's respite have obviously taken their toll Amelia and Davis shows us this nonstop and incessant feeling of wear and tear with every fiber of her being.  Underneath the malaise and frustration of dealing with Sam,  Davis always gives us hints that her Amelia truly loves her son, so we never get a sense that she has washed her hands of the boy -- she simply wishes for an easier go at things like her fellow moms are fortunate enough to have.  Once again, much like Wiseman, the script asks Davis to tackle the unenviable task of having her character completely switch gears in the film's second half -- into a role which I'll leave mysteriously undefined -- but Davis is absolutely believable and more than able to achieve this with gusto.

Much like the storybook in the film itself, The Babadook as a movie carries a slight sense of darkened fantasy with it in its production designs and lighting which perhaps lull us into a sense of childlike wonderment, contemplating what is around the corner for our two characters with each turn of the Blu-Ray or dvd chapter list.  I look forward to seeing what else Ms. Kent and her two fantastic actors have up their sleeves in the future.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Friday, April 24, 2015

Movie Review - Foxcatcher

Foxcatcher (2014)
Starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, and Sienna Miller
Directed by Bennett Miller

Although the term "methodical" oftentimes carries a somewhat negative connotation, using that word to describe Foxcatcher conveys no ill will towards director Bennett Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman.  Instead, their methodical (which some may call slow or [egads!] even boring) approach of retelling the true story of the relationship between wrestling aficionado John du Pont (Steve Carell) and wrestler brothers Mark and David Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) gives such depth and insight into the characters being portrayed onscreen that I couldn't help but find myself totally captivated and involved in this tragic story from beginning to end.

Knowing full well that the film ends in tragedy, it's often a difficult task to maintain a sense of discovery.  Miller doesn't necessarily hide from the end result as there's always a foreboding sense of disquiet afoot.  However, in a somewhat risky move, Miller takes his time getting to the finale by slowly peeling away the layers of each of his trio of main characters, revealing their initial psychoses which lead them to befriend one another and how their internalized emotions gradually change as their relationships blossom and disintegrate.  This is a film where the absence of speaking says just as much as a spoken word and Miller capitalizes on this beautifully as he brings us into the minds of both the innocent and guilty parties with equal time allotted to both.

Foxcatcher would not have been remotely successful, however, without the work of three fantastic actors -- two of whom are not the least bit known for being able to carry a film of this weight.  While Little Miss Sunshine may have clued us in to the slightly sullen side of Steve Carell, his taking on of the exceedingly wealthy John du Pont is certainly not de rigeur for the actor.  While he has the money, Carell's du Pont certainly doesn't have the social skills, keeping himself decidedly distant in any conversation he carries on, attempting to stay as disconnected as possible -- seemingly the result of a strained childhood relationship with his mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave).  When he finally allows Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) into his life, the sense of entitlement that we witness du Pont feeling (and Carell conveying) is frightening.

Mark, on the other hand, views du Pont as a bit of a father figure seeing as how his parents were not a large part of his life.  From the film's start, Mark is a loner who is committed to his sport.  There's a depression embodied by Channing Tatum that's undeniable and his animalistic monotone delivery of monosyllabic words indicates that he can't help feel that he doesn't belong anywhere.  Upon discovering du Pont's interest in his talents, there are tinges of pride that creep into Tatum's performance which inevitably, by film's end, harm the character as Mark begins to see the man du Pont truly is.

While the film tends to focus on the psychological mindsets of John and Mark, part of the reason for their disintegrating relationship is the brotherly bond between Mark and older brother David played by Mark Ruffalo.  Thinking that Mark needs a little space and time to clear his head after his successful Olympic run and having lived in his brother's shadow for years, David accepts Mark's decision to train at du Pont's newly formed Foxcatcher wrestling facility, but David recognizes Mark's near-immediate lack of commitment to the sport he once loved which causes David to question du Pont's training techniques (or lack there of) and motives.  Needless to say this doesn't sit too well with du Pont and David finds himself in the ominous glare of the wealthy man.  The amiable David isn't necessarily a difficult role for Ruffalo to play (and is certainly the least showiest of the three), but he is the crux of both John and Mark's emotional upheavals by film's end and Ruffalo certainly does a nice job.

Foxcatcher is a warped love triangle of sorts -- and I don't mean that in a sexualized way as the real-life Mark Schultz criticized.  There is a dark comic tinge to all of the proceedings thanks to the obvious jealousy on display by all parties involved, particularly du Pont.  The overbearing sense of power, prestige, and perniciousness that du Pont brings to the party ominously hangs over everything we see.  Bennett Miller elevates the film beyond my expectations thanks to his careful developing of every single character.  Motivations are rarely spoken, but are never vague, and that's an enviable feat which makes Foxcatcher one of the best films of 2014.

The RyMickey Rating:  A-

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Theater Review - All in the Timing

All in the Timing
Written by David Ives
Directed by Stephen Pelinski
Where: Studio Theater at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When: Wednesday, April 22, 7:30pm
Image from the REP

Some may consider it an insult to call David Ives' play All in the Timing a light diversion, but one definition of "diversion" is simply an "amusement," and this Resident Ensemble Players production fits that bill.  While it's certainly lighthearted, All in the Timing is also smart, finding its humor in verbal wordplay and literary and historical references.  While I'm sure I didn't get all the jokes, Ives' play never made me feel dumb for not comprehending a line -- a talent that not all playwrights possess.  The rapid fire nature of the humor makes any jokes that fall flat (or whizz over your head) be immediately replaced by new ones and (REP member) Stephen Pelinski's direction aids his cast of three actors to much success in the intimate Studio Theater at the Roselle Center for the Arts.

In a series of five short vignettes (a total running time of under 75 minutes), our trio of actors -- REP member Kathleen Pirkl Tague and visiting artists Drew Brehl and Torrey Hanson -- take on relationships, what happens when you ask monkeys to try and reproduce Shakespeare, forming a universal language, the awfulness of a Philly cheesesteak (which I can't help but disagree with), and whether Leo Tolstoy is still alive and kicking.  While some of those may not sound like loads of laughs, the humor comes alive thanks to the nice work of the cast.

Surrounded on three sides by audience members, the rotating stage (designed by Stefanie Hansen) provides a unique staging experience for all involved as well as proving an adequate dressing room for the cast who hardly leave the stage throughout the production.  That said, simplicity rules here.  This isn't a play you attend for fancy costumes or exquisite set pieces.  Instead, you're here for the verbal repartee -- and the cast excels in that arena.

While my favorite vignette may have been the first -- "Sure Thing" in which Tague and Brehl play two strangers who meet for the first time in a cafe wherein their meeting resets each time someone says something stupid -- all five segments have their merits.  Particular kudos to returning guest artists Brehl and Hanson who for the first time really get the spotlight placed on them and manage at time to upstage the brilliant Tague -- a feat which is not easy to do considering her talent.  Wordplay is quick and rapid here and all three are more than capable of playing off one another to great effect.

All in the Timing is a nice addition to the six play 2014-15 REP season.  While it lacks gravitas, I actually think it's the best production they've put on this year thus far.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Movie Review - As Above, So Below

As Above, So Below (2014)
Starring Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, François Civil, Marion Lambert, and Ali Marhyar
Directed by John Erick Dowdle

I have no idea if the history behind As Above, So Below has any truth to it, but this horror film steeped in the lore of medieval alchemy is smarter than I could have ever expected it to be.  Granted, once the flick shifts into typical horror mode in its final act, it loses some of the allure it had going for it, but it still ends up being a surprisingly solid 2014 entry in the horror genre.

Told in that ubiquitous found footage style, As Above, So Below tells the tale of Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), a scholar and adventurer who is continuing her deceased father's mission to find the infamous Philosopher's Stone, a substance that will purportedly turn any metal into gold and, in case that wasn't enough, grant immortal life.  Scarlett isn't wanting the stone to turn into some megalomaniacal villain, rather she wants to study its origins and learn from its mystique.  After a successful journey to Iran in which Scarlett uncovers some information concerning the Philosopher's Stone, she heads to France to what she believes is the location of the mystical stone.  After some additional research, she determines that the stone has been placed in a secret passageway of the underground Parisian catacombs -- a place where the French government buried over six million bodies in the late 1700s.  Scarlett gathers a team of folks together to help her explore the catacombs and uncover the stone -- but, as in most horror films, things start to go a bit awry.

Not only elevated by the "history" of the plot, As Above, So Below gets a lift from its main cast of six actors who all play their parts extremely well.  The typical horror stereotypes are abandoned and the actors all get to play as smart scholars or enthusiastic adventurers.  Perdita Weeks as Scarlett is more than captivating enough to carry the film and her character is given a surprising amount of strength, hutzpah, and intelligence.  Granted, she's a bit too eager in the face of obvious danger, but you can't help but have to suspend your beliefs a little bit when you're watching something like this.

With a few jump scares, John Erick Dowdle does his job as a director, creating a few scenes that are certainly quite tense.  Granted, once Dowdle (also the co-screenwriter) shifts the film to pure horror, things take a bit of a downturn, but the build-up to that point is amusingly intelligent enough that I was still willing to go along for the ride.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Movie Review - Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, and Benicio Del Toro
And the voice talents of Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper
Directed by James Gunn

The hit of Summer 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy is Marvel's funniest flick to date and it's those comedic aspects that work the best and give the film its life and vivacity.  Whereas some of the action sequences feel a bit derivative of things we've seen before (not just in Marvel flicks necessarily), the humor keeps Guardians kicking and makes it one of Marvel's better efforts to date.

Despite seeming perhaps convoluted, the overarching premise here is simple -- in outer space, a group of low-level criminals band together to fight a supervillain in hopes of saving their people and making a little money on the side.  While we're not reinventing the wheel, a film like this hinges on finding a credible cast of actors to portray an amusing cadre of characters in order to carry the film beyond the average.  Guardians succeeds undoubtedly as it's the characters (and the actors portraying them) that elevate this film to something worth watching.

Head of the brigade is Peter Quill -- an Earthling abducted when he was a young boy by a group of space pirates who saw potential in him to carry out various petty criminal acts because of his background.  Quill (played amusingly by It Guy of the Moment Chris Pratt) is a ladies' man, a guy's guy, and a self-aware jerk.  Having carried out many a petty crime, Quill is being hunted by bounty hunters as the film opens and, this being based on a highly inventive series of comic books, two of those hunters happen to be a small raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a tree-humanoid-type create named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) whose English vocabulary consists only of the sentence "I am Groot."  Quite frankly, Rocket and Groot make Guardians of the Galaxy the success it is.  Virtually unrecognizable vocally, Cooper's take on Rocket is hilarious giving the genetically engineered raccoon more hutzpah and humorous grit than I ever could have expected.  Add to that Diesel's shockingly amazing ability to convey a variety of emotions simply by spouting the words "I am Groot," and the dynamic duo of Rocket and Groot should be formulating their own spin-off as I type this.

Nice turns from Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista round out the ragtag bandits who end up doing battle against the vicious Ronan the Accuser (a virtually unrecognizable Lee Pace) who is attempting to find the Infinity Stone which will give him great power and set him up to handily defeat his foe in Thanos (a cameo turn from Josh Brolin), widely considered to be one of the most powerful men in the universe.  With this being an origin story for the Guardians and their universe, it's obvious that set-up was going to be needed for Marvel virgins like myself, but the tensions between Ronan, Thanos, and the Guardians felt a bit underserved here.

Director James Gunn certainly ups the humor quotient in Guardians of the Galaxy to great effect, but the action sequences in the film he also co-wrote feel a bit underdone.  Perhaps it's just the silliness of battling in space -- which never feels "real" to me in any film -- but the sense of tension or excitement was never really present for me in any of the flick's action sequences.  Ultimately, this is a real shame because Guardians of the Galaxy attempts to be a breath of fresh air in the Marvel Universe.  While it certainly succeeds at being different, the potential was there for something better and it doesn't quite achieve it.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Monday, April 20, 2015

Movie Review - Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Starring Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, and Toby Jones
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo

I was not a fan whatsoever of the first Captain America film presented by Marvel.  There was something about the eccentric over-the-top villain, supporting actors that added nothing to the story, and a bland leading actor that had me yawning and finding the film the second worst Marvel movie to date (it's only ahead of Thor 2).  Needless to say, because of this disappointment in the first film, I was dreading the second in part because the only thing I liked about the initial installment -- the 1940s setting and aesthetic -- was now going to be completely removed from the equation seeing as at the end of the first film our title character had been frozen and woken up thawed nearly seven decades later.  Color me surprised to discover that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is Marvel's best movie to date and a massive upgrade from its predecessor.

Although he fought alongside all of the Avengers not that long ago, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is still getting acclimated to modern society as Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens.  Working for intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D., Steve goes on various missions alongside Natasha Romanov AKA The Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) under the direction of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who heads the agency.  Fury has doubts about a major new initiative -- Project Insight -- that will utilize three helicopter-ish devices to link to spy satellites and eliminate potential threats before they happen.  After discussing his concerns with project leader and S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), Fury ends up being ambushed by a large group of men headed by a masked man known as The Winter Soldier whose identity will create a bit of chaos for Steve and his fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. colleagues setting up a battle within the falls of the spy agency itself.

Although the film blows it at the end by creating a much-too-long final battle sequence, the build up to that in directors Anthony and Joe Russo's film is surprisingly tense and exciting.  Anchored by a very strong opening scene in which Captain America and Black Widow invade a spy ship, the directing brothers up their game in each subsequent action sequence culminating in an intense showdown on the streets of Washington, D.C.  Unfortunately, that showdown comes in the middle act of the film as opposed to the end, but the lack of a really taut finale actually proved to be less of a let down than I thought perhaps because everything prior to that was so darn good.

As a character, I found Steve Rogers to be bland and lifeless in the first film, but he came alive in The Avengers and continues that streak here.  His repartee with his fellow agents was dryly amusing and Chris Evans more than carries the film with the help of his humorous and captivating co-star Scarlett Johannson.  The duo work extremely well together and create an atmosphere that exudes fun and amusement in all their scenes together.  Nice work from Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie, and Robert Redford round out the very good ensemble.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier works best, however, because I think this is the Marvel film that's most based in reality.  While many of the devices that are utilized and inventions that are created are rather preposterous, the stakes feel the most real here in this film as opposed to many others.  Main characters are put into situations that are incredibly difficult from which to escape and it's entirely possible they won't.  This sense of tension adds a great deal to the impact of the film which is the best flick I've seen thus far come out of the Marvel Universe.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Movie Review - How to Train Your Dragon 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)
Featuring the voice talents of Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Djimon Hounsou, and Kristen Wiig
Directed by Dean DeBlois
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

I have to start this review with a bit of disclosure -- I had some tasks I had to complete while watching How to Train Your Dragon 2 and as the film headed towards its conclusion, I found myself drifting off a tiny bit and not giving the film my complete focus.  I typically try and avoid this occurrence as much as possible, but kudos to the film itself for drawing me back in for its particularly heartfelt finale...which made me all the more disappointed that I didn't give the flick my undivided attention.

By far, the How to Train Your Dragon franchise is Dreamworks Animation's best series of films they've ever created.  From a studio that built itself on pop culture references and "Big Hollywood Star Voice Acting," the Dragon series eschews that to a certain degree -- or, at the very least, places a bigger emphasis on story.  Much like its predecessor, Dragon 2 keeps the focus on now twentysomething Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) who, five years after the conclusion of the last film, has managed to keep his fellow village folk of Berk recognizing dragons' abilities to assist humans.  With his partner in crime Toothless, Hiccup and his dragon friend fly around searching for other dragons in need of assistance which happens to bring Hiccup back into contact with his presumably dead mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) who was supposedly taken by dragons upon an invasion when Hiccup was merely an infant.

Dragon 2 attempts to explore the relationship between Hiccup and his long-lost mother and how this newfound connection affects those around him, particularly his father Stoick (Gerard Butler).  These moments involving the newly reunited family are the film's most effective and are rendered quite nicely from an emotional perspective.  When the film throws in a bad guy in Drago (Djimon Hounsou) who desires to utilize all dragons for their worst potentials possible in order to gain control of various Nordic lands, things falter a bit.  However, and to the film's credit, the character of Drago is responsible for several of the film's most emotional moments so while the villain seemed a little too maniacal at times, this nastiness was put to great effect to forward the story.

Animation-wise, I must admit that I wasn't as wowed as Dragon 2's predecessor, but the film still boasts quality craftsmanship.  I continue to be a little disenchanted with Jay Baruchel voicing Hiccup -- I still stand by the fact that I feel like the voice doesn't quite fit the character or the time period of the piece, but it's not detrimental to the film in any way.  Nice turns from Blanchett and Butler utilize those "star voices" to great effect without drawing attention to their "star status" in any way.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Friday, April 17, 2015

Movie Review - Life of Crime

Life of Crime (2014)
Starring Jennifer Aniston, Mos Def, Isla Fisher, Will Forte, Tim Robbins, and John Hawkes
Directed by Daniel Schechter

Detroit 1978.  Seeing an opportunity, two down on their luck small-time criminals Ordell and Louis (Mos Def and John Hawkes) see an opportunity too good to pass up.  They'll kidnap the wife of prominent, though corrupt, real estate developer Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins) and hold her for ransom.  Little do Ordell and Louis realize that Frank has decided to divorce his wife Mickey (Jennifer Aniston) and instead shack up with the younger Melanie (Isla Fisher)...and Frank may not give a damn that his wife is out of his hair.

Life of Crime begins rather promisingly, walking the delicate line of comedy and heist film, but it unfortunately begins to fall apart after the first act failing to really go anywhere once Mickey is abducted.  Instead, screenwriter and director Daniel Schechter's film just keeps hitting the same beats over and over again.  The acting across the board is surprisingly solid, but the film based on a book by Elmore Leonard is just so far below other Leonard adaptations that the cast can't elevate the material enough to make it a success.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+


Thursday, April 16, 2015

Movie Review - Deliver Us from Evil

Deliver Us from Evil (2014)
Starring Eric Bana, Édgar Ramírez, Olivia Munn, Joel McHale, and Sean Harris
Directed by Scott Derrickson

If you're prone to epileptic seizures, Deliver Us from Evil may be the worst movie ever for you to attempt to watch.  There are more flickering lights than I've ever seen in a film, and when lights aren't flickering, we're treated to much lighting by a flashlight that enters and exits the frame.  Deliver Us from Evil attempts to be a little more "adult" in the horror story its trying to tell and I do give it credit for not appealing to the lowest common denominator of horror aficionados, but the film is a mess in large part due to the direction and screenplay cowritten by Scott Derrickson who can't seem to coax good performances out of his cast and really fails to create a visually enticing film to watch.  (And I liked what he did with his previous venture Sinister, so this was a big let down.)

To make a long convoluted story short, Eric Bana is a cop named Sarchie who teams up with a Jesuit priest named Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez) to solve a series of crimes that are being perpetrated by a seemingly possessed former US soldier home from Iraq.  There are a bunch of initially unrelated puzzle pieces that take much too long to set up -- the first thirty-five minutes seemed to go nowhere -- and although this opening act eventually made sense, I found myself wondering why in the world I was watching these episodic scenes of a cop investigating seemingly unrelated crimes.  The writing here just doesn't settle into place and the dialog between Sarchie and his wife (Olivia Munn) and his partner Butler (Joel McHale) just feels forced and lacking in any realness.

Add to that the already stated disappointing direction and Derrickson's belief that flickering florescent lights are the only things needed to develop tension and Deliver Us from Evil just doesn't work.  While the final exorcism sequence is a bit compelling and saves the film from being a total disaster, this one just disappoints all around.

The RyMickey Rating:  D


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Movie Review - Draft Day

Draft Day (2014)
Starring Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Denis Leary, Frank Langella, Chadwick Boseman, Josh Pence, Sean Combs, and Ellen Burstyn
Directed by Ivan Reitman

I've never been a football guy and I likely never will be.  I've never gotten excited over who the Philadelphia Eagles choose in the annual NFL draft so the concept of a film revolving around this day didn't exactly scream fascinating to me.  The fact that Draft Day kept my interest is a feat unto itself and the notion that I found it somewhat enjoyable is nothing but surprising to me.

Kevin Costner is quite captivating as Sonny Weaver, the general manager for the floundering Cleveland Browns, who wakes up on draft day to his girlfriend and co-worker Ali (Jennifer Garner) telling him that she's pregnant.  As if draft day wasn't strenuous enough, now he's got this whopper in his back pocket all day (and, really, let's be honest, if Ali is the football fiend that her high-paying job at the Browns says she is, she should have known better than to reveal this big news on draft day).  Nevertheless, the claws are out for Sonny from the fans, the potential draftees, the coaches and players currently employed by the Browns, and the owner of the team (Frank Langella).  One wrong move and Sonny will seemingly be out of a job.

Draft Day works best when it places Sonny in moments where football decisions are front and center.  (No one is more surprised than me that I just wrote that sentence.)  Clouding his day with family problems -- the new fatherhood, his mother (Ellen Burstyn) attempting to make him feel guilty for forgetting about his dead father (and former Browns coach whom Sonny himself fired when the team failed) -- just bog the film down.  I guess part of me understand why these issues are present in an attempt to appeal to the masses, but the inner machinations of an NFL draft day are more than interesting enough.  Livelihoods are truly on the line and Draft Day does a pretty darn good job of making that evident.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Movie Review - Wish I Was Here

Wish I Was Here (2014)
Starring Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Pierce Gagnon, Joey King, Mandy Patinkin, and Josh Gad
Directed by Zach Braff

Wish I Was Here is no Garden State, but I appreciate what film director and screenwriter Zach Braff brings to the table.  There's a melancholic happiness (oxymoronic, I know) that seems to permeate throughout his two feature films that gives the audience the appropriate balance of sadness and joy for the characters he creates.  Unfortunately, there's a failure to connect on an emotional level present in Braff's second feature which is a somewhat large flaw given the film's storyline.

Braff has grown up since Garden State and here he plays Aidan Bloom, husband to Sarah (Kate Hudson), father to Grace and Tucker (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon), brother to Noah (Josh Gad), and son to Gabe (Mandy Patinkin).  Aidan has always longed to be an actor, but he finds himself struggling as of late to find roles, forcing his wife to be the family's sole breadwinner.  When Aidan discovers that his father has failed to pay the semester's tuition at Grace and Tucker's rabbinical private school, he meets with Gabe only to discover that his father's once-in-remission cancer has reared its ugly head again and he must use his grandchildren's tuition money to pay for experimental treatment.  With his kids forced out of school, Aidan finds his life turned upside down as he takes on home schooling in addition to trying to take care of his ailing father.

Wish I Was Here works best when it focuses on the immediate household of Aidan -- his relationship with his kids, his relationship with his wife.  When the film ventures outside of the home -- to Noah who has had a rocky relationship with Gabe all his life; to Sarah at work who's dealing with an unseemly co-worker; to some odd daydreams that find Aidan in a spacesuit -- the film feels like its lost its way.  Zach Braff and his brother Adam don't quite narrow the focus enough and it ends up proving detrimental to the crux of the story which is Aidan's relationship with his father and his coping mechanisms with feeling as if he was never good enough for his dad or a good enough man for his own family.  This film should've had moments that grabbed me -- and it didn't.

That said, Braff deserves additional opportunities and the fact that he's only made two films so far in a decade is a bit disheartening.  Quite frankly, I love the tender, charming, and melancholic happiness (there's that oxymoron again) that's seemingly inherent in his creative process.  He's got something and I wish he'd be given the opportunity to explore his talent behind the lens and on paper a bit more.  I may not have loved Wish I Was Here, but I certainly recognize the potential that is there in Mr. Braff and I hope we don't have to wait another ten years to see some more output from him.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Monday, April 13, 2015

Movie Review - Beyond the Lights

Beyond the Lights (2014)
Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver, and Danny Glover
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood

From a young age, Noni always had some strong vocal chops and her mother Macy Jean (Minnie Driver) took full advantage of trying to exploit them at local talent shows around London.  As time passed, that exploitation found itself being amplified many times over and twentysomething Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) finds herself on the cusp of superstardom after having been featured in the successful songs of a famous rapper.  After winning a Billboard Music Award for her collaboration, Noni finds herself devastated as opposed to happy as her industry is simply pushing her sex appeal rather than her talent.  Saddened, Noni attempts to commit suicide by jumping off her hotel balcony, stopped only by the valiant efforts of a young cop named Kaz (Nate Parker).  Regular guy Kaz reminds Noni that she's worth more than the music industry is making her out to be and, much to her mother's chagrin, Noni begins to question her calling in life.

Beyond the Lights certainly has something to say about the music industry's incessant push to sexually exploit its female stars and director-screenwriter Gina Prince-Bythewood places this misogynistic tendency front and center in the film's less successful first half.  While I certainly understand the importance of setting up Noni's sexualization, these attacks of the industry as a whole seem too obvious and sometimes over-the-top.  As the film progresses, though, and Noni begins to question the true price of fame on her psyche, Beyond the Lights blossoms into something with much more depth than we're used to seeing.

At the center of the film is a nice performance from Gugu Mbatha-Raw who shows us a complicated woman in Noni.  The allure of fame, the need to please her mother, the vulnerability she feels when she discovers she may want something different for herself -- all mix together to create a complex creation that really comes alive in the film's second half.

Similarly, Mbatha-Raw's performance is matched by Minnie Driver whose role as Macy Jean could've simply been that of a typical stage mom, but instead is a smart woman whose drive for herself and her daughter was never meant to be destructive, but may well just be that.  While Macy Jean may see Noni falling apart at the seams, she pushes these issues away in order to travel on the road to success.  Macy knows that her daughter's got a set of pipes, but she also knows that the only way to stardom is through the lens of the male gaze coupled with female objectification.

Beyond the Lights is much more successful in its second half as Noni comes to grips with leaving behind her fame, disappointing her mother, and falling in love with a man who has drastically changed her outlook on life.  It's in this part of the film that I feel Prince-Bythewood gives us a taste of something we don't often see in films, abandoning some of the stereotypical tropes of the first half and allowing us to glimpse the slow unveiling of Noni's true self beyond the lights of fame.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Movie Review - Two Night Stand

Two Night Stand (2014)
Starring Miles Teller and Analeigh Tipton
Directed by Max Nichols

Watched only because I have some weird fascination with Analeigh Tipton ever since Crazy, Stupid, Love and because I'm still attempting to find out how I feel about Miles Teller, Two Night Stand is a generic sex comedy that isn't bad, but certainly isn't anything worth seeing.  Tipton and Teller are Megan and Alec -- two lovelorn souls who meet on a hook-up site for a one-night stand.  Purely looking for sex, Megan gets up to leave the next morning only to find herself snowed in with a Snowpocalypse wreaking havoc on New York City.  Of course Megan and Alec find each other repulsive at first, but as they're forced to spend another night together, their hatred turns to humorous adoration as it should in every single romantic comedy ever written.

Fortunately, Tipton and Teller work well together and exude a believable chemistry which is important considering that this is pretty much a two-person film.  Unfortunately, the film feels long (even at eighty minutes) and too often finds itself resorting to the typical tropes that found me rolling my eyes -- let's get high together (ugh), let's have something really silly happen to the woman in that Meg Ryan-y kind of way that will make the guy and the audience find her all the more charming (double ugh).  It's not that Two Night Stand is offensive in anything it presents, it's just that it isn't original in the slightest.  It's one of those movies that as it ends you simply say to yourself, "Why was this even made?"  And that's perhaps the most damning criticism of all.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Movie Review - White Bird in a Blizzard

White Bird in a Blizzard (2014)
Starring Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez, Gabourey Sidibe, Thomas Jane, and Angela Bassett 
Directed by Gregg Araki
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

I don't quite know if White Bird in a Blizzard was attempting to be an awful film on purpose, but director Gregg Araki certainly has crafted a film in which every character inhabiting it feels as if they are fake.  Actors are seemingly instructed to play their roles in an oddly one-note fashion, almost as if we're watching some crappy high school play unfold before our very eyes.  If you're angry, be really angry.  If you're sad, be really sad.  If you're sexually aroused, be really turned on.  By playing every emotion to the nth degree, no emotion rings true and White Bird in a Blizzard falls apart nearly from its first moments.

When Kat Conners (Shailene Woodley) is in her final year of high school, her mother Eve (Eva Green) goes missing.  Her father Brock (Christopher Meloni) is devastated, but Kat feels oddly unemotional about the whole disappearance.  Instead, she finds herself becoming more sexually awakened in the absence of her overbearing mother.  Jump to the spring of her first year in college and Kat returns home on spring break and she uncovers a few secrets regarding her family that maybe should never have been uncovered.

I've read two novels by Laura Kasischke whose book this film is based upon and I find her works oddly pulpy and somewhat silly in their mysteries.  White Bird in a Blizzard follows this same line and although she didn't write the screenplay, her tone runs throughout.  However, Mr. Araki who directed and also wrote the screenplay decides to embrace the pulp, but unlike film noirs in the past where the pulpy, seedy nature of their stories elevated the actors, Araki doesn't find that success here.

Shailene Woodley perhaps comes off best as her character is at least given a scale of emotions to play off of, but even she is playing things to extremes.  Worst by far is Eva Green.  Quite frankly, I'm not quite sure who to blame here.  Ms. Green has never been someone who I've looked at as a talented actress, but she's just laughably bad here.  That said, Araki writes her mother character as so oddly un-human with nary a recognizable characteristic that I wonder if Araki is truly the one at fault here.  Either way, this central character whom the whole story revolves around is an unmitigated disaster and sinks the movie.

The RyMickey Rating:  D-

Friday, April 10, 2015

Movie Review - Tusk

Tusk (2014)
Starring Michael Parks, Justin Long, Genesis Rodriguez, Haley Joel Osment, and Johnny Depp
Directed by Kevin Smith
***This film is currently streaming on Amazon Prime***

While I've never seen The Human Centipede, I have to imagine that Kevin Smith saw that infamous horror film and figured he could do better.  With Tusk, he attempts the horror-comedy genre after a pretty successful attempt at straight horror with 2011's Red State.  Here, successful L.A.-based podcaster Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) travels to Manitoba, Canada, to interview a YouTube sensation for his show.  Upon arrival, his interviewee has died, leading Wallace to a bar to drown his sorrows where he comes across an ad seemingly written by an old man who has spent his years on the sea with stories to tell searching for someone to rent a room at his house.  Desperate to not return home with nothing, Wallace decides to head two hours away and interview the seafarer.

Upon arrival, Howard Howe (Michael Parks) seems like a hoot of an old man with stories to tell about his time in WWII fighting alongside Ernest Hemingway or the time his ship was all but destroyed leading him to swim to a little spit of land with only a walrus as his companion.  Wallace is certainly intrigued by Howard's stories and the old man confined to a wheelchair seems harmless enough.  However, as Wallace drinks down some tea, he soon discovers that his beverage has been spiked.  When he awakens, Wallace realizes that Howard's time spent with that walrus may have formed a rather disturbing bond for which Howard will stop at nothing to have again.

Michael Parks who was so good in Red State doesn't quite match his performance in his last Smith film, but he certainly gives a valiant effort.  His role here doesn't have nearly the depth of the crazed preacher he inhabited so well before, but Parks can certainly play scary.  Justin Long is playing a bit of a jerk here, but once horrible things start happening to him, his fear is palpable.  The surprise in Tusk is Genesis Rodriguez as Wallace's girlfriend who actually has a few emotional scenes that ring quite true amidst the insanity that is going on around her.  Also, it's nice to see Haley Joel Osment coming back into the movie fray again.

Tusk isn't particularly good filmmaking -- its a bit too wry and self-deprecating for its own good -- but I must admit that I was never bored and I found the whole thing oddly intriguing.  Obviously, writer-director Kevin Smith was going for the absurd and in the film's final act things do begin to shift a little too over the top, but the build-up to that point does surprisingly contain a nice amount of tension.  Still, the tonal imbalances hurt this one a bit as it never quite finds its footing.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Movie Review - The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (2014)
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, and Stanley Tucci
Directed by Francis Lawrence

Admittedly, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 doesn't really go anywhere and it ends on roughly the same emotional note at which it begins, but I found the continuation of the dystopian saga oddly intriguing in that we've finally moved on from the arena-esque battle-to-the-death melees and have instead shifted focus to what has always been most intriguing about the series -- the government's manipulation of its people and those who try to rise up and fight those in charge.  While many critics harangued the cash grab to split Mockingjay into two parts, I couldn't help but find myself thoroughly involved in the goings-on of Part 1 of this final installment.

Following the nasty Quarter Quell in which President Snow (Donald Sutherland) forced previous Hunger Games winners to come back and fight to the death, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and a few of her fellow Tributes were rescued by the secret District 13 of Panem.  Headed by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and aided by President Snow's former colleague Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Katniss is asked to become a propaganda tool for District 13's attempts to overthrow Snow.  After reluctantly agreeing, Katniss heads out across the various districts, filming and seeing first-hand the damage that Snow and his government is inflicted on the lower class districts.

Of course, this wouldn't be a Hunger Games film if there wasn't some love triangle angle and Katniss still finds herself torn between her two men -- Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who valiantly tried to save his people when District 12 came under attack but now resides in District 13, and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) who was taken by Snow after the Quarter Quell and is being manipulated by the government to spout Snow's agenda.  Katniss' struggle over who to love still continues here without any real resolution.

I know that I shouldn't care for Mockingjay - Part 1 and I should be ticked off that the Powers That Be stunted the momentum of the franchise by separating the final part of this trilogy into two installments, but despite the slower pace, I think that this first installment works.  Maybe it was just the change of pace from the war games-style flick to a revenge/vengeance-style film, but I found the film totally watchable and able to hold my attention.  Admittedly, Jennifer Lawrence's take on Katniss is wearing a little thin and her range of emotions is anything but subtle, but the rest of the cast helps carry the film beyond typical teen fare.  The addition of Julianne Moore here is a welcome treat who manages to elevate the whole affair and gives her character a surprising amount of hutzpah in just a few scenes.  Overall, color me surprised considering the critical thrashing this film received upon its release.  This edition of Mockingjay has me looking forward to the finale of this surprisingly enjoyable series.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Movie Review - Cinderella

Cinderella (2015)
Starring Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Stellan Skarsgård, Derek Jacobi, and Helena Bonham Carter
Directed by Kenneth Branagh

While director Kenneth Branagh's live action retelling of Cinderella certainly doesn't reinvent Disney's animated film to any great lengths, the story of our title heroine who falls in love with a charming prince while attending a lavish ball is given a little more depth in a screenplay by Chris Weitz that fleshes out the backstories to our title character, her prince, and her evil stepmother.  While this apparent trend of Disney remaking its animated films in live action form is a little worrisome and seemingly lacking in the imagination upon which Walt Disney founded the company, should any forthcoming reboots match the class and charm of this production, the company may win me over.

At the heart of Cinderella is an absolutely lovely performance of Lily James as the title character.  In the film's opening moments, we see how the deaths of her mother and father affect her, shaping her into woman who, despite adversity, still carries on the mission of her parents to be kind and generous to all.  This little bit of extra background makes Cinderella a much more well-rounded character and gives Ms. James a little bit of development to sink her teeth into.  The heartbreaking moments upon hearing of her parents death are handled just as nicely as when James is asked to look in awe upon an opulent ballroom or fall head over heels for a prince she just met.  To me, Lily James is the epitome of what Cinderella should be and she is one of the biggest reasons the film succeeds.

Of course, the counterpoint to Cinderella's kind heart is the conniving nature of her Stepmother played with gusto and on-point scenery chewing by Cate Blanchett.  Also given a bit of backstory, the audience is given the chance to discover why she becomes so nasty to her stepdaughter and this added bit of depth gives at least a little bit of reasoning behind her actions.  Cloaked in some elegant garb, Blanchett snarls and jabs at Cinderella yet still manages to avoid being too cartoonish.

Cartoonish may be a descriptor that could be ascribed to Helena Bonham Carter's Fairy Godmother, but Branagh and Weitz smartly decide to keep her role small, similar to the animated film.  Adding a nice amount of comedic relief in the middle to the film, Carter's quirkiness doesn't overstay its welcome.  We also get a nice turn as well from Richard Madden as the Prince who gets more screen time and more background than nearly any other Disney film prince we've seen before.

In this day and age of modernization and experimental reboots, Kenneth Branagh instead decides to play things old-fashioned -- and there's an unmistakeable charm that accompanies this decision.  Sumptuously designed and elegantly filmed, by eschewing the cynicism we may have come to expect in something like this, Branagh has crafted a rather timeless film in Cinderella that will last through the ages.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Friday, April 03, 2015

Movie Review - Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014)
Featuring the vocal talents of Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter, Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Stanley Tucci, Lake Bell, Patrick Warburton, and Allison Janney
Directed by Rob Minkoff
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

The voiceover talent of Ty Burrell and Max Charles as the amiable titular characters Mr. Peabody & Sherman -- the former an incredibly intelligent dog and the latter his adopted elementary school son -- really do all they can to make this animated film come together, but something doesn't quite click in this Rob Minkoff-directed piece.  Based off a segment from the Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon series, the characters Peabody and Sherman are amusing to watch and, as I previously stated, Burrell and Charles breathe life into the characters, but the punny humor of the old tv show doesn't translate as well as it should to the big screen.

The dog and his human son have had many adventures thanks to Peabody's WABAC machine -- a time machine that allows Peabody and Sherman to travel anywhere in the past they'd like.  While this travel has certainly provided an education to Sherman, Peabody makes the determination that he needs to send his son to a real school.  On his very first day, Sherman gets into a fight with obnoxious bully Penny (Ariel Winter) which results in Penny's parents coming over to Peabody's luxurious abode to hash out punishment.  While there, Sherman invites Penny into the WABAC machine and the two young kids create a bit of chaos that may even be difficult for the genius Peabody to resolve.

Animation-wise, we're looking at typical Dreamworks stuff here -- it's not bad, but there's certainly nothing beautiful about what we're seeing (although Peabody and Sherman themselves are amusingly drawn).  Despite some nice voice work for our titular characters, the story feels episodic -- we move from one period in history to the next -- and the through-line of Sherman trying to make Penny a better person doesn't work or appeal to this viewer.  Mr. Peabody and Sherman isn't bad, but it didn't quite come together in the end.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Theater Review - The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Directed by Scott Schwartz
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Peter Parnell
Where: The Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, New Jeresy
When: Wednesday, April 1, 2015
One of these days, I swear I'm getting back on track with my Disney Discussions and when I do, The Hunchback of Notre Dame will be one of the first featured.  In my mind, Hunchback is in my Top Three Disney animated movies of all time (and I hope it stays there upon a rewatch), so when I heard that the long-gestating stage adaptation of the musical had moved from a successful run in Germany, been reworked, and was premiering in the US, I jumped at the chance to check this out.  Hopes were very high -- perhaps unfairly so -- and while I can't say I loved everything about the production I saw at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, it's certainly a worthy adaptation that feels (and this is a good thing) even decidedly more un-Disney than the film itself (which is already one of Disney's darkest films to date).  

The musical follows a similar storyline to the movie, so no need to rehash it here, however, there is certainly more depth given to all of our leads in Peter Parnell's book (with the exception of one which I'll discuss in a bit).  Perhaps the biggest change (beyond the play's finale which rejiggers things dramatically in ways that more closely mirror the book and create a less than fairytale ending for all parties involved) is that the stage adaptation makes Quasimodo the nephew of Frollo who here is not a judge as he is in the film, but the Archdeacon of Notre Dame.  Quasimodo's father, Jehan, was a free-spirited man standing in stark contrast to the firmness and purported piety of his brother Frollo who found sanctuary in the church.  When Jehan is stricken with disease, Frollo is called to his bedside and asked to take care of Jehan's son (born of a gypsy woman who also died).  Upon seeing the disfigured infant, Frollo reluctantly agrees but only under the notion that he will lock this deformed being in the church's bell tower forever.  This familial connection (which I'm not even sure is in the book -- the wikipedia page doesn't inform me of that) gives a powerful and almost heartbreaking undertone to all of Quasimodo and Frollo's scenes together and is a much welcomed addition.
The much darker conclusion truly makes us question "who is the monster and who is the man" as one of musical's lyrics asks us.  While Frollo certainly still retains the "evil crown" in this piece with his maniacal lusting after the alluring gypsy Esmeralda and his unjust treatment of his nephew, our title character certainly isn't the beacon of morality at the play's end which makes one leave the theater feeling as if they've seen a surprisingly adult production as opposed to one produced by Disney.  Unfortunately, the play still hasn't quite found the right balance in terms of how far "adult" to take things and part of that stems from the new songs created by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.  While not all disappointing (new song "Top of the World" is lovely), several are laughably bad and pedestrian at times.  Schwartz's lyrics in "Rest and Recreation" -- a number created to introduce us to ladies' man and French soldier Phoebus -- feel as if some horny twelve year-old was reciting what he thought would win him a woman.  Menken's flamenco-esque opening to "The Tavern Song (Thai Mol Piyas)" almost elicited an audible laugh from me as it rather bluntly introduces us to the seedy brothel-esque establishment frequented by the Parisian gypsies.  New tunes "Esmeralda" and "In a Place of Miracles" have potential, but get bogged down by a few too many voices thrown into the mix.

However, the songs we've come to know and love from the film all shine and more than once I found myself getting chills as I saw these soaring classics being performed live on stage.  The orchestrations by Michael Starobin, sound design by Gareth Owen, the huge choral ensemble by the Continuo Arts Symphonic Chorus, and the fifteen piece orchestra (larger than some Broadway productions) conducted by Brent-Alan Huffman are spectacular, adding such fullness and vigor to the already powerful songs created by Menken and Schwartz.  Admittedly, I found myself missing some of the film's incredible Latin chants in the play's first act, but was absolutely thrilled when the wonderful choir (who remain onstage throughout the entire play) began singing several of them in Act II.  Some of the reworked songs don't quite land as well as they do in the film -- I thought the opening number "The Bells of Notre Dame" lacked a little of the drive that catapults the film's momentum so well and usually rousing "Topsy Turvy" was burdened with the addition of the truly awful aforementioned "Rest and Recreation" interspersed throughout it -- but overall the movie's songs truly come alive onstage.
Menken and Schwartz's songs for Hunchback are not easy ones to sing, but this production has found a stellar cast that more than ably handles the unenviable task.  Although the titular character certainly takes center stage often, this play really has two co-leads with the other being Patrick Page's Frollo.  I had seen Page previously (in a musical that's best not to mention by name) and found him to be the only shining thing in that disastrous production.  Here, Page proves that when placed in a better work, he can shine even brighter.  With a booming, bellowing voice, his Frollo is at his best as he explores his seedier side lusting after Esmerelda in the wonderful "Hellfire," but what I found equally intriguing is how Page imbues a more dulcet, soothing, and fatherly tone when speaking with Quasimodo.  There's more depth in this villain here than in the film and his makes the character much more interesting.
Samantha Massell took on the role of Esmeralda the evening I saw the production and it's one of those cases where I doubt I would've known she was an understudy if there wasn't a little piece of paper in the program telling me so.  "God Help the Outcasts" is a heartbreakingly beautiful number in the film and the stage production creates a similarly eloquent experience.  Esmeralda is also given a (somewhat) new duet with Phoebus called "Someday" (created for the film, but nixed) that gives both characters an emotional moment towards the film's end that epitomizes much of the play's overall themes.  It's a gorgeous quiet number in a play that finds much of its power in bombast (once again, not a bad thing).

"Someday" is also the only moment in which Phoebus feels realistically human.  Unfortunately, this character portrayed by Andrew Samonsky is the play's weak link.  Samonsky's voice is certainly well-suited for the machismo of the character, but Parnell's book makes Phoebus disappointingly one-note and cartoonish.  In the film, this cartoonish nature doesn't grate, but in the play, it doesn't translate well standing up against the realistic intricacies of the other characters.  Rather interestingly, the book to the play takes the film's most joyous (though cunning) character in Clopin and downplays his comedic tendencies quite a bit.  Erik Liberman does a nice job in the role -- and I appreciated the new nuances he gives many of his numbers whether that be from him or from Menken/Schwartz -- but there's a certain joie de vivre missing.  (Admittedly, the whole play could stand a few more "happy" moments -- a new song "Flight into Egypt" in which Quasimodo's saintly statued friends sing to him provides the night's only true laugh thanks to a decapitated singing sculpture.)
Of course, in a musical called The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it's important for the actor portraying the titular character to be able to handle the weight assigned to the role and Michael Arden is giving a Tony-worthy performance on the Paper Mill Stage.  When Arden walks onto the stage at the start of the play, he stands fully erect, transforming into the deformed hunchback before our very eyes, imbuing him with both heartache and strength.  Quasimodo here is portrayed as partially deaf adding another layer to the character that Arden fully takes on successfully.  Although the play abandons the three comedic gargoyles, Quasimodo still finds himself talking to a bevy of statues in the bell tower (all portrayed by the ensemble) and Arden's ability to connect with even this "simplest" and "undeveloped" of characters is an admirable feat.  All that and I never even discussed Arden's magnificent singing voice.  After his first number, I turned to my brother and said, "That guy can really sing."  Just wow.
The set design by Alexander Dodge is ready to go to a Broadway stage right now -- it gets a surprising usefulness out of what is essentially an unchanging set, managing to create the bell tower, the church, a jail, and the streets of Paris without any confusion to the audience as to where we are at a given time.  (The lighting by Howell Binkley certainly aids as well.)  The cast could all certainly make the transition too with Arden and Page, in particular, giving stellar turns as the familial adversaries.   Much like the beginning of the play in which Arden transforms into Quasimodo right before our very eyes, the conclusion of the musical does just the opposite of that, but not before the rest of the cast creates an incredibly memorable moment by "deforming" themselves in a way to create unity with our befallen title character.  I found this to be a stunningly emotionally befitting ending to The Hunchback of Notre Dame -- a musical that with some work on the story and, in turn, some of the new music, would be more than ready to make its way to the Great White Way.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Movie Review - Frank

Frank (2014)
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Scoot McNairy
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

There was something so promising about the quirky (yet not too quirky) and whimsical opening thirty minutes of Frank that I was hoping the inner smiling that was going on in me would continue as I watched director Lenny Abrahamson's film unfold.  That was not to be, however, as the second thirty minutes of Frank felt simply like a rehash of the first thirty minutes (with no real significant changes) thereby causing me to check out of the film as a whole just as it decided to get serious during its final thirty minutes.  Unfortunately, Frank only works a third of the time -- and that just doesn't cut it.

Domhnall Gleeson is Jon, a struggling young artist who wants nothing more than to have a successful career in music.  While walking along the British shores one afternoon, he sees a man attempting to drown himself in the ocean.  The saved man happens to be a keyboard player for the weird alternative band The Soronprfbs and Jon is invited on a whim to join them for the evening and replace the suicidal pianist.  When Jon arrives at the gig, he discovers that the lead singer is a guy named Frank (Michael Fassbender) who wears a large papier-mâché head which he never removes.  While certainly odd, Jon joins the band as they embark on an odyssey of creating their next album.

Gleeson is one of the decade's most promising rising stars for me and he doesn't disappoint here either.  From the very beginning of the film, he exudes a natural charm that makes it impossible not to root for his character.  Taking a more comedic turn than we're used to seeing from him, Michael Fassbender also proves to be compelling as the title character, bringing a surprising amount of heart, humor, and expression to a role that hardly ever allows us to see his facial expressions at all.

Unfortunately, despite these two rather good performances, Frank flounders as it progresses which is a shame because it starts so very promisingly.

The RyMickey Rating:  C