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Letterboxd Reviews

So as you know, I stopped writing lengthy reviews on this site this year, keeping the blog as more of a film diary of sorts.  Lo and behold,...

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Oscar Predictions

Update Post-Awards:

18/24 -- I consider that not bad.  Granted, it's only two more than last year's tally, but I feel better about this year...mainly because I picked the contentious Best Picture winner...and also because my sound picks were troublesome and I knew it.  I felt like Mad Max couldn't sweep everything, but I knew that it would, but somehow I just went with Revenant because I felt Revenant was gonna get a little more love...

I'm also happy because I got two of the three short categories correct which I consider a big coup.  

Overall, the ceremony was paced well despite running 37 minutes long.  I thought Rock's opening monologue was decent -- you knew he was going to hit on the OscarsSoWhite controversy and I thought his skewering of the industry was decent.  But then it went on too far.  Once the fantastic Tracy Morgan Danish Girl bit was done, everything else went downhill.  The Girl Scout cookie thing was a cheap ploy to capture the Ellen selfie or pizza delivery thing and it didn't work.  Neither did much else.  So, good monologue, but disappointing the remainder of the show.  (And let's remember that the controversy should include all non-White minorities...not just the one that was promoted so highly in the show.)

Overall, I'm pleased with most winners.  Stallone's loss was sad as I thought he gave a great performance in Creed, but it's always nice to have some surprises.  And speaking of surprises, how about Ex Machina for Best Visual Effects?  That one came out of nowhere and while I'm not quite sure it deserved the win over its competitors, I'm thrilled that the great film got recognition.  Now if only Brooklyn had received some award, it would've been a fantastic night awards-wise.  

Edited: Sun 12:43am

Predictions for Sunday's ceremony are below.  I did awful last year -- 16/24 -- and this year I fear I won't do much better seeing as how the two films that are nearly going to run the table are my least favorites of the bunch, so I'm sure I'm picking things wrong.

Best Picture (listed in order of my own personal ranking)
Room  (A)
Brooklyn  (A-)
The Martian  (B+)
Spotlight  (B+)
The Revenant  (C+)
Mad Max: Fury Road (C- -- review forthcoming)
Will Win:  Spotlight (my "out on a limb" prediction -- I should probably be going with The Revenant)
Should Win: Room
Should've Been Nominated:  Steve Jobs

Best Director
Lenny Abrahamson - Room
Tom McCarthy - Spotlight
Adam McKay - The Big Short
George Miller - Mad Max: Fury Road
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu - The Revenant
Will Win: Inarritu
Should Win: Abrahamson
Should've Been Nominated: Alex Garland - Ex Machina

Best Actor
Bryan Cranston - Trumbo
Matt Damon - The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio - The Revenant
Michael Fassbender - Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne - The Danish Girl
Will Win: Dicaprio
Should Win: Fassbender
Should've Been Nominated: Jacob Tremblay - Room

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett - Carol
Brie Larson - Room
Jennifer Lawrence - Joy
Charlotte Rampling - 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan - Brooklyn
Will Win: Larson
Should Win: Didn't see Joy/45 Years yet and I need a second viewing of Room/Brooklyn to really figure out if I like Larson or Ronan better because both were great
Should've Been Nominated: Alicia Vikander - The Danish Girl (in the correct category)

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale - The Big Short
Tom Hardy - The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo - Spotlight
Mark Rylance - Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone - Creed
Will Win: Stallone
Should Win: Stallone
Should've Been Nominated: Weak year for this category

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh - The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara - Carol
Rachel McAdams - Spotlight
Alicia Vikander - The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet - Steve Jobs
Will Win: Vikander
Should Win: Vikander was great, but she's not a supporting actress rather the film's lead; Winslet would probably get my vote had I a ballot.  Didn't see Hateful Eight
Should've Been Nominated: Elizabeth Banks - Love and Mercy

Original Screenplay: Spotlight
Adapted Screenplay: The Big Short
Cinematography: The Revenant
Costume Design: Mad Max: Fury Road
Film Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road
Make-up and Hair: Mad Max: Fury Road
Production Design: Mad Max: Fury Road
Score: The Hateful Eight
Song: "'Til It Happens to You" - The Hunting Ground
Sound Editing: The Revenant
Sound Mixing: The Revenant
Visual Effects: Mad Max: Fury Road
Animated Feature: Inside Out
Documentary: Amy
Foreign Film: Son of Saul
Animated Short: Bear Story
Documentary Short: Body Team 12
Live Action Short: Stutterer

Movie Review - Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Samuel L. Jackson, and James Spader
Directed by Joss Whedon

Back in 2012, everyone fell head over heels for The Avengers -- everyone except for me, that is.  I didn't dislike the film as my C+ review attests, but I found it overblown and a bit underwhelming with the action sequences working, but many of the dialog and character-driven moments disappointing.  Oddly enough, Avengers: Age of Ultron has just the opposite problem with its character-based scenes working surprisingly well and its action aspects sorely lacking.  Considering both films were written and directed by Joss Whedon, the contrasting differences are a bit startling and, as the rating below will attest, end up being about equal in terms of how I felt overall about the flick.

Once again, our Avenger crew bands together to fight something gigantically evil.  Rather than aliens, though, this time it's a form of advanced artificial intelligence that Iron Man Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr) created in secret in order to try and assist should the world face another huge attack as occurred during the first film.  After a bit of a tête-á-tête about the necessity of AI to help, Tony, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) head out to find Ultron (James Spader), the AI that has created a robot body for himself and set out to destroy humanity with the help of two Russian twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen) who want to bring down the Avengers due to an incident from their childhood caused by one of our fearless fighting crew that changed their lives forever.

Story-wise, I think the film is actually more successful than its predecessor.  I enjoyed the camaraderie between the heroic crew which I felt was sorely lacking in the first film as well as the deviousness of Ultron and the twins.  Knowing nothing about the comics upon which the films are based, Ultron was deliciously snide and humorously villainous.  Perhaps that isn't his demeanor in the comics, but on film, Spader voiced the character with such over-the-top charisma that I couldn't help but long for the character to appear again to liven things up.  Plus, I think it helped things that Ultron's villainous intentions stemmed from the chaos inflicted in the first film.

Unfortunately, the film's action set pieces just didn't work for me.  During the opening scene which includes slow motion AND seemingly sped up moments, I found myself vehemently annoyed, feeling as if I were watching a poorly conceived video game as opposed to a movie.  Fortunately, things got a little better after that, but I still went through the whole movie thinking that the action sequences felt less integral to the plot than nearly any other Marvel flick and were put into place simply because "we need an action scene now."  Whereas Whedon seemingly had control of these moments in the first Avengers, he disappointed here.

Overall, though, Avengers: Age of Ultron works.  The flick is briskly paced and despite disliking the more "intense" moments, I never found them overblown or overlong.  The interplay between the core group of Avengers is growing more natural and I'm oddly looking forward to what the Marvel Universe has in store for these characters.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Movie Review - Out of the Dark

Out of the Dark (2015)
Starring Julia Stiles, Scott Speedman, Stephen Rea, and Pixie Davies
Directed by Lluís Quilez
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Ugh... one of these days I'll realize that horror flicks with limited theatrical releases even if they contain actors I know -- Julia Stiles, Scott Speedman, and Stephen Rea, in this case -- just aren't worth my time...particularly if Netflix has picked up streaming capabilities.  Until that day comes when I recognize this problem that I sometimes have, I'll at least know that I'll have some films filling in the lower rungs of my annual rating system.  Out of the Dark is one of these very films that falls into the lower echelons of the RyMickey Ratings.

When Sarah and Paul Harriman (Stiles and Speedman) head to Colombia for a new job working at the manufacturing plant founded and headed by Sarah's father (Rea), they're expecting a refreshing change of pace from their everyday life.  However, their daughter Hannah (Pixie Davis) begins to start acting odd and the Harrimans soon realize that their house may very well be haunted by ghosts of Colombian children.

Sounds generic enough, right?  I could deal with generic.  The problem here is that director Lluís Quilez has crafted a film that is so utterly dark that I found myself literally unable to see what was going on in the film's purported "horror" moments.  That's a huge issue particularly in a horror film that gains its suspense from jump scares rather than a build-up of tension.  It doesn't help matters that the screenplay attempts to shoehorn environmental awareness into the plot to levels of epic failure.  With the actors left squandering in a listless and lifeless plot, Out of the Dark is truly one of the worst films of 2015.

The RyMickey Rating:  D-

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Movie Review - Sicario

Sicario (2015)
Starring Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, and Daniel Kaluuya
Directed by Denis Villeneuve

A taut and tense look at the drug trade between the US and countries south of our border, Sicario creates some of the most exciting moments captured in 2015 cinema.  It's unfortunate, though, that those edge-of-your-seat segments are interspersed with some dour, dreary, somewhat boring scenes that certainly advance the plot, but do so without the drive and vigor that carries the rest of the film.  Don't mistake this disappointment with detestation, however, as director Denis Villeneuve's flick is well worth a watch with some nice, un-showy, realistic performances from a solid cast.

At the crux of Sicario is Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), a quiet, though strong FBI agent who, after uncovering an horrific drug-related discovery, is approached by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a CIA Special Activities Division officer, to join a task force to pick up a high-profile Mexican drug lord.  Also part of the team is Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), a Colombian partner who holds a great many secrets that cause Kate to doubt the CIA's intentions and her place in their plans.

Admittedly, the less said the better about the plot of Sicario which, while not necessarily confusing or full of out-of-left-field surprises (both positives, for sure), is best seen not knowing about the tension-filled scenes that are to come.  Denis Villeneuve is quietly becoming the go-to director when your film needs to create a sense of palpable human anxiety as his three English-language films have thus far proven.  (See also Prisoners and Enemy for these similar emotional tones.)  With a script by Taylor Sheridan that gives Villeneuve some stellar set pieces with which to build dismay and distress and a pulsing score by Jóhann Jóhannsson that adds excitement, there are many reasons Sicario works.  As I mentioned previously, however, there are too many lulls in the story that drag the movie down.  Villeneuve has yet to create a flick (that I've seen) where he fully harnesses the nervous apprehension present in the script, but he's come awfully close several times.

Emily Blunt takes on the tough gal role again here (after having much success embodying that tone in Edge of Tomorrow) and she proves a worthy lead.  We can see her mind always questioning her surroundings, cognizant of the fact that the people who are supposed to protect her may just cause her downfall.  Benicio Del Toro's character seems quite one note at the start, but as the film progresses, we see deeper layers culminating in a final scene for his character that truly resonates.  Josh Brolin brings a smarminess to his CIA agent role, but he's quite watchable here.  (I say that as Brolin has never been a favorite of mine, but he tackles this role with just the right amount of smug egoism.)

Despite a few issues, Sicario is a really solid piece of cinema.  There are moments in the film -- a great many of them, actually -- that would've landed this film an 'A' grade, but in the end Villeneuve doesn't quite get everything to gel together perfectly...but he's still a director I'm keeping my eye on in the future.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Movie Review - The Voices

The Voices (2015)
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Ella Smith, and Jacki Weaver
Directed by Marjane Satrapi
***This film is currently streaming on Amazon Prime***

More amusing than I expected, The Voices is a dark horror comedy about Jerry (Ryan Reynolds), a factory worker in a small town who had some psychological problems in his past, but has moved on from them...maybe.  You see, with his dog Bosco and his cat Mr. Whiskers talking to him in an angel-on-your-shoulder/devil-on-your-shoulder kind of way, Jerry may not quite be 100% sane yet.  When Jerry goes out to a restaurant with three secretaries from work (Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, and Ella Smith), he begins to think that he may have a chance of starting a relationship with one (or perhaps more) of them...except Jerry's mind has more deviant thoughts and murder is certainly not out of the question.

Embracing the quirky nature of the script, director Marjane Satrapi allows the cast to feel at home with either over-the-top (Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton) or subdued (Anna Kendrick) acting, rather surprisingly meshing the two styles thanks to the dark comedy that runs throughout.  Relishing in comedic gore (which some could admittedly find offensive), The Voices humorously presents the story of a deranged guy desperately trying to better himself with less than successful results.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Friday, February 12, 2016

Movie Review - Every Secret Thing

Every Secret Thing (2015)
Starring Diane Lane, Elizabeth Banks, Dakota Fanning, Danielle Macdonald, Nate Parker, and Common
Directed by Amy Berg

As soon as the opening credits began to roll for Every Secret Thing and the screenwriter popped up as Nicole Holofcener, I found myself getting excited.  Holofcener wrote and directed the fantastic Enough Said, and while Every Secret Thing was certainly a dramatic shift away from that romantic comedy, I still held out hope that I was in for something worthwhile.  Unfortunately, that wasn't the case.

As young girls, Alice Manning and Ronnie Fuller were convicted of stealing and killing a baby and sent to a juvenile detention center for seven years.  Now eighteen and released, another toddler has gone missing and Alice and Ronnie (Danielle Macdonald and Dakota Fanning) are suspected of the crime being investigated by Detective Nancy Porter (Elizabeth Banks).  With Alice claiming that she was innocent of the first crime, she and her mother Helen (Diane Lane) try to cooperate with the police, but feel that they're being targeted simply because of Alice's past.  However, Ronnie claims Alice manipulated her seven years ago and was the true mastermind behind the earlier kidnapping and murder.  Is either girl responsible for the newest crime, are they both playing one another, or are they in cahoots again?

Every Secret Thing takes us back and forth in time, revealing little bits of the story not in a way that is inherently integral to the story, but in a way to manipulate the viewer which proves to be enervating rather than enlightening.  With stilted dialog and blatant direction of actors that makes their "secrets" seem obvious from the film's outset, first-time director Amy Berg and screenwriter Holofcener don't succeed at creating a story that feels anything other than contrived.  Elizabeth Banks is solid as the detective desperate to find the missing child, but Diane Lane and relative newcomer Daniele Macdonald inhabit characters so poorly designed that it probably wouldn't have been possible to come out of this looking good.

The RyMickey Rating: D+

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Movie Review - Love & Mercy

Love & Mercy (2015)
Starring John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, and Paul Giamatti
Directed by Bill Pohlad

Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys was a bit of a songwriting savant making the surf-centric group one of the most popular of the 1960s.  However, Wilson led a troubled life likely brought on by his father's disappointment in him despite his son's great success.  Following a panic attack on a plane, Wilson stops touring and spends his time developing what he thought would be the greatest album ever made -- Pet Sounds.  His intense focus on the album lost him favor with his fellow group members and began the downward spiral in the relationship with his wife.  A few decades later in the 1980s, Wilson finds himself under the care of abusive therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), but begins to fall for car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) who feels that Wilson is being manipulated and over-medicated by Landy so that he can have control over Wilson's fortune.

The story of Love & Mercy spans both eras of Wilson's life with Paul Dano taking on the singer in the 1960s and John Cusack playing him in the 1980s.  The film's clever balancing act of showing us two aspects of the singer's life makes this biographical flick a lot more interesting than I ever thought possible with both eras getting equal play and sharing equal amounts of gravitas.  Dano rather astutely shows us the downward spiral Wilson experienced, while Cusack does a nice job of playing a man desperately trying to break out of his rigidly structured life set forth by his supposed caretaker.

The real star of the show here, though, is Elizabeth Banks in what is really a break-out role for her as the elder Wilson's girlfriend Melinda.  Banks takes what could have certainly been a throwaway role and gives Melinda depth, strength, and conviction that I wasn't expecting in the slightest.  While it's true that much of her role is reactionary to Wilson or Landy's actions, Banks imbues Melinda with so much intelligence behind her eyes.  There could have been a huge amount of sentimentality or sheer mushiness in a role that requires an actress to "save her beau" from himself, but Banks tells us more from her heartfelt, nervous, contemplative gazes than I've seen in many other roles this year.  It's truly a stellar performance and one that captivated me from the moment she stepped onscreen.  If anything, it was slightly detrimental to the earlier Brian Wilson story because Banks is so good here that I wanted the story to pivot back to her.

Love & Mercy is a nicely directed, nicely written film that definitely deserved some awards attention, but failed to garner any.  If anything, see it for Elizabeth Banks who proves that she's much more of a talent than many of us thought, but even taking Banks out of the equation, the flick is a biopic that lacks much of the sentimental gooeyness that often accompanies the genre.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Movie Review - Shaun the Sheep Movie

Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)
Directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak

I can certainly understand why Shaun the Sheep Movie failed at the US box office.  [And it's not just because of that awful title.  I mean, where's the "The" at the beginning?  Or where's the "The" between "Sheep" and "Movie?"  Just odd.]  There's absolutely an innate Britishness to the proceedings and when that's coupled with a film in which there is no dialog and only sound effects, it's understandable that it could be a bit off-putting for the masses.  However, it's a darn shame because Shaun the Sheep Movie is an amusing, fluffy (no sheep pun intended), lighthearted romp that had me smiling quite a bit and laughing out loud more than I did during Pixar's lauded Inside Out which, while good, lacked a little something in the emotion department for me.

Shaun the Sheep Movie doesn't necessarily aim for the warmth of a typical Pixar movie, but that heart is still there below the surface as our title character -- a small sheep named Shaun -- finds himself disenchanted with the rigamarole of everyday life and decides to try and plan a day of rest and relaxation away from his owner -- The Farmer -- who, while kind to his sheep doesn't realize the monotony of their existence.  Unfortunately for Shaun, his plan goes awry when after locking the Farmer in a trailer, the vehicle becomes unhitched and sends the guy careening through the streets of London, eventually hitting his head and losing all memory of his former life.  When the Farmer doesn't return, Shaun and his fellow sheep head to the Big City to try and bring back their owner.

While I've always held a fondness toward stop-motion animation, Aardman Animation Studios (who were really one of the premiere stop motion producers in the 1980s/90s) hasn't been tremendously successful when translating their British sensibilities to theatrical features, not quite hitting the mark in my opinion.  Shaun the Sheep Movie changes that as it finds a great balance between animation, humor, story, and all-around animation quality.  The story by Mark Burton (who also co-directed) keeps things simple and short -- which is a good thing as I found myself getting a tiny bit restless towards the end of this dialog-free picture -- and the overall colorful aesthetic and charming sentimentality won me over from the opening scenes.

Shaun the Sheep Movie definitely flew under the radar at the box office, but I highly recommend checking it out as its simplicity is one of its biggest virtues.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Movie Review - Phoenix

Phoenix (2015)
Starring Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, and Nina Kunzendorf
Directed by Christian Petzold
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

German film Phoenix details the story of Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a Holocaust survivor who returns to Germany after being horribly disfigured by the Nazis.  With the help of friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), Nelly undergoes reconstructive surgery which alters her appearance somewhat which worries Nelly because she has been told that her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) is still alive.  Desperate to find her husband again, Nelly refuses to believe Lene's assertions that Johnny turned his own wife over to the Nazis in an attempt to save himself, so Nelly sets out in search of Johnny and successfully finds him at a cabaret bar named Phoenix.  The ever-conniving Johnny doesn't recognize Nelly, but believes that she bears resemblance to his presumed dead wife, so he asks Nelly (who has told her husband her name is Esther) to "play" his wife in order to get the inheritance Nelly is owed due to her dead relatives.  The question then remains did Johnny actually deceive his wife and send her to the concentration camps or was Lene incorrect in her assumption.

The problem I have with Phoenix is that the plot is a whole lot more interesting in theory than it actually appears onscreen.  There's a tension that comes even from just reading that storyline above that should feel resonant in the film, but it's simply not there.  Part of that stems from Nina Hoss's portrayal of Nelly as an incredibly quiet and weak woman.  While I'm not faulting Hoss -- surely, a Holocaust survivor would feel torn down and diminished -- her meek demeanor oddly made the film difficult for me to become invested.  I readily admit that it should've worked as I found her character's actions and emotions totally believable, but for some reason it failed to pull me in.  Perhaps it's the all-around gloominess of the piece coupled with the bleakness of the main character, but Phoenix doesn't hit the mark for me despite an intriguing premise for a story.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Monday, February 08, 2016

Movie Review - The Big Short

The Big Short (2015)
Starring Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Adepero Oduye, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, and Brad Pitt
Directed by Adam McKay

I know that The Big Short is a well-made, well-written, and well-acted film.  The issue is that the film which delves into 2007-08 the financial meltdown in which the housing market went belly up causing catastrophic damage to regular folks and the crooked big banks simply didn't resonate with me likely because I had no personal attachment to the crisis.  Granted, I don't need to have a personal connection to a film in order to become invested in it, but the overarching theme kept me at a bit of a distance despite being cleverly directed by Adam McKay so that the hefty and complicated subject matter seems a bit more relatable (and understandable) to the average moviegoer.

Quite frankly, there's no reason to delve into the story aspects of The Big Short in any greater detail than has already been mentioned because the film is a bit too complex to really simplistically explain.  Needless to say, the flick focuses on three groups or individuals who attempt to bring attention to the impending meltdown and are greeted with blank stares and laughs by those in charge.  Christian Bale is hedge fund manager Michael Burry who discovers the unsteady housing market and tries to use this to his advantage.  (Burry, admittedly, isn't really trying to "solve" the meltdown problem, he's just the first person who realized he may be able to use it to his advantage.) Steve Carell plays hedge fund manager Mark Baum who is approached by trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) to do the same thing Burry is doing, although Baum (whose Wall Street trader brother met an unfortunate demise) tries to uncover how the government is allowing it to happen.  Finally, up-and-coming young investors Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) uncover paperwork by Vennett that reveals his thoughts on the crisis and enlist the help of noted financial guru Ben Rickart (Brad Pitt) to make money on the housing collapse only to have a change of heart as they realize the chaos that the collapse will cause.

All of the aforementioned actors do an admirable job of making their sometimes convoluted plots seem understandable and there's not a weak link in the cast.  That said, as I mentioned before, there's a lack of connection for me here that I wasn't quite able to overcome.  While the film doesn't necessarily play like a college finance course, it sometimes doesn't quite succeed in altogether abandoning that mindset.  McKay (who co-wrote the film with Charles Randolph) does some clever cutaways with celebrities to try and make the intricacies of the convoluted housing trade at least comprehensible, but in the end, there's somehow a lack of dramatic tension and human connection here.  The Big Short is still a surprisingly enjoyable watch, but it just never quite hit home with me despite a valiant effort.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Movie Review - Spotlight

Spotlight (2015)
Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d'Arcy James, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci
Directed by Tom McCarthy

There's a straightforward, no-frills temperament to the true story that is Spotlight that is oddly refreshing in a cinematic era in which we find ourselves often wowed by exquisite cinematography or fancy special effects or even edgy scripts.  Director and co-screenwriter Tom McCarthy has crafted a film that not only honors the young victims sexually abused by Catholic priests, but also pays tribute to investigative newspaper journalism, a seemingly dying industry that proved vital in exposing this particularly heinous injustice.

When new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) is hired at the Boston Globe in 2001, several reporters find themselves on edge worried about their jobs, particularly Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton) who heads up a four-person investigative journalism team known as Spotlight who take months to research issues in order to produce incredibly in-depth articles.  The team -- which also includes Michael Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Matt Carroll (Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d'Arcy James) -- is stripped of their current investigation and tasked by Baron to look at possible sexual abuse crimes within the Catholic Church after the editor reads about a low-rent lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) who is representing several alleged victims, purporting that the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law, is simply moved offending priests from parish to parish after being faced with claims of abuse.

Spotlight unravels like an intense mystery -- albeit one in which the audience already knows the horrific outcome -- and director and co-screenwriter McCarthy does an admirable job of keeping us invested in the proceedings especially when a whole lot of names come in and out of play and the legal logistics of things may seem too heavy for the average moviegoer.  While certainly a film that respects the atrocities the victims of the sexual abuse faced, Spotlight also is a great homage to print journalism which has certainly suffered in the wake of the internet and 24-hour cable news (both of which have likely harmed the "institution of journalism" in irreversible ways with in-your-face biases).  The acting ensemble is an incredibly solid one with no one single actor "standing out" -- and that's a positive in a film like this.  There's a "no one is greater than any other" mentality and given the teamwork necessary for the Spotlight writers to pull off this investigation, the ensemble blends into one another quite well.  Kudos also must be lauded on the many actors playing sexual abuse victims who undoubtedly add the heart and gravitas to the story.

This movie hit close to home to me as a Catholic and perhaps my views are skewed because of it, however, I think it's an important flick for people of my faith to watch.  There was some horrific wrongs inflicted on a great many people and we must face our misdeeds in order to try and move past them as best we can.  Spotlight was an engaging experience for me and a well-made film on top of that.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Movie Review - The Visit

The Visit (2015)
Starring Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, and Kathryn Hahn
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

With their father having left their mother (Kathryn Hahn) a few years ago, Becca and her younger brother Tyler (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) push their mom into going on a cruise with her new boyfriend.  Their mother obliges and sends Becca and Tyler to see their grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) whom their mom hasn't spoken to in nearly twenty years following a fight after which she ran away.  Recognizing the need for possible reconciliation and at the wishes of their grandparents who recently attempted to communicate with their daughter again, Becca and Tyler  head off only to discover that Nana and Pop Pop exhibit some disturbing behavior that may be hiding some dark secrets.

Told in a documentary style of filmmaking -- Becca is a budding filmmaker who wants a recording of her familial history -- M. Night Shyamalan's The Visit builds its tension at a gradual level, but is a bit too full of holes and contrivances (to suit the first-person style of direction) to fully succeed.  That doesn't mean The Visit isn't moderately successful...because it is.  A huge part of the success is the solid acting of Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould who admittedly aren't given much depth with which to act, but at least carry the film with aplomb.

While it's true Shyamalan fell off the wagon, I never was willing to give up on the director because I always felt -- even in his truly worst films -- there were slight glimmers of promise.  I'm hoping The Visit is a step back in the right direction for him (even if it isn't perfect) and we can see more from this suspense-driven auteur in the near future.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Friday, February 05, 2016

Movie Review - People Places Things

People Places Things (2015)
Starring Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall, Stephanie Allynne, Jessica Williams, Michael Chernus, Gia Gadsby, and Andrea Gadsby 
Directed by Jim Strouse
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Simple, yet charming, People Places Things tells the story of graphic artist Will Henry (Jemaine Clement) whose longtime girlfriend Charlie (Stephanie Allynne) reveals that she is leaving him on their twin daughters' fifth birthday.  Will spends a year focusing on teaching and when one of his students (Jessica Williams) sets him up with her English professor mother Diane (Regina Hall), Will begins to realize that there may be life for him outside of Charlie.

While I recognize that Jemaine Clement's dryly humorous personality may not be for everyone, I was a big fan of his short-lived comedy series Flight of the Conchords and Clement's tone is very similar in director-writer James Strouse's film.  Clement exudes a lackadaisical, yet caring nature and he brings a heartfelt (and sometimes heartbroken) drollness to the film that many actors may find difficult to convey.  Regina Hall provides a nice counterpoint, playing a very intelligent woman who wants her college age daughter to realize her mother can be strongly independent, yet also wants to find that special someone with whom to share her life.

No one will ever mistake People Places Things for being incredibly deep, but it brings a believably humorous treatment to a somewhat hefty life situation.  Clement and the cast do a great job of carrying both the comedic and dramatic moments of the film.  Sometimes these low-budget indie comedies can seem too "edgy" or "hip" for their own good.  That's not the case here in the slightest -- if anything, Clement's character is a bit of an anti-hipster (despite being a comic book artist).  I appreciated this tone that writer Strouse brings and I'm definitely interested in seeing his work in the future.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Theater Review - Wait Until Dark

Wait Until Dark
Written by Frederick Knott
Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher
Directed by Michael Gotch
Where: Thompson Theater at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When:  Wednesday, February 3, 7:30pm

Photo by Paul Cerro

As director Michael Gotch states in his very short note in the program for the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Player's production of Wait Until Dark, "Everyone says the stage thriller is extinct."  Quite frankly, as I headed into this show this evening, I was trying to ponder if I've ever seen a thriller on stage before and I believe the answer is no.  Why is that...especially considering that the film director I admire most is Alfred Hitchcock?  The answer is right there in Gotch's statement -- "Everyone says the stage thriller is extinct."  For those fortunate enough to snag tickets to one of the last four productions of Wait Until Dark, however, they'll realize that the stage thriller genre is alive and kicking at the REP in what is their most enjoyable production since the fantastic Wit back in 2014.

Obviously, when it comes to thrillers, the less known about the plot the better, but the general overall gist concerns a recently blinded woman named Susan (played by REP member Deena Burke) who is preyed upon by the unkempt, sleazy Carlino (REP's Stephen Pelinski) and the menacing Roat (REP's Lee E. Ernst) because they believe she may know where a doll containing some valuables is located within her basement flat in Greenwich Village.  Even if you've seen the Audrey Hepburn-starring film, you're in for a treat (particularly if you haven't seen it in a long while like me and have forgotten some of the more twisty elements that pop up throughout) as the play moves along at a solid clip while Susan tries to figure out what exactly is going on around her.

A play like this wouldn't work without some exquisite attention to detail in a few areas.  For starters, lighting and sound needs to be top notch and Eileen Smitheimer and Barry Funderburg respectively have crafted an incredibly believable environment in which the tale unfolds.  Never have a few matches or the sounds of slamming doors, keys in locks, or whirring refrigerators been more enervating.  Of course, director (and fellow REP actor) Michael Gotch must also take huge credit for this play's success as well (especially considering this is a genre that we typically don't see performed).  I'm not sure I've ever heard an audience so goshdarn quiet as when Stephen Pelinski skulks around onstage in the play's opening moment.  As we waited on the edge of our seats to find out what was going on -- in the play's opening moment, I repeat -- I knew that Gotch had an incredibly solid grasp as to how to make the evening be an entertaining one.  His use of sets, props, lighting, sound, and silence (yes, silence -- I've never been so embarrassed to have my stomach growl or hear the stomach growl of the two people sitting on either side of me) showcase his masterful control of the genre.

Gotch gets some great performances from his cast as well with Deena Burke giving her best performance I've seen yet.  She more than carries the show as the newly blinded Susan, perfectly conveying the character's desire for independence, yet her slight guilt and disappointment at needing to rely on others at times.  Stephen Pelinski is always one of the REP's most reliable actors and his take on the slimy Carlino is spot on.  Mic Matarrese (of the REP) as Susan's husband's WWII friend and guest actor (and UD student) Pratigya Paudel as a bratty teenage next door neighbor lighten up several scenes and help to shine a better light on Susan's difficult lifestyle.  I must admit that I was a bit nervous when the play began and Lee Ernst seemed to be falling into his mannered vocalizations (albeit it with a gangstery-type swagger), but his character grew to be much more developed and enjoyable as the play progressed.

Needless to say, Wait Until Dark is a wonderful theatrical experience.  Even when they choose disappointing plays, the REP always is known for their quality of production.  Here, the REP chooses what some may consider a "lesser play" (if only because it doesn't hold the same gravitas as something from Shakespeare or Shaw or Tennessee Williams) and gives us something most audiences of live theater haven't seen before -- an edge of your seat roller coaster ride.  Seriously, snatch up the remaining tickets, folks.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Movie Review - What Happened, Miss Simone?

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
Directed by Liz Garbus
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

First off, it's time to get some more Nina Simone music than the very measly amount I currently have sitting in my iTunes library. The obviously feminine, though slightly masculine-y bass of her voice exudes a sly coolness that can't be ignored or denied.  That said, as I discovered in the Oscar-nominated documentary What Happened, Miss Simone, the life of the strong-willed jazz singer was troubled by things both in and out of her control.

Simone's jazzy soul sound was epitomized by her introduction of classical concepts into the jazz world.  A classical pianist, Simone found herself rising in the ranks of the jazz world after being discovered playing the piano in a bar in Atlantic City.  She eventually married her husband Andy who pushed her incredibly hard even after the birth of their daughter Lisa.  Likely because of both the difficulties she had with her husband and her own personal beliefs, Simone found herself keying in to the Civil Rights movement and began to write less marketable (though perhaps more weighty) songs.  Gradually, Simone shifted towards the violent side of the movement, saying at concerts, "Are you ready to smash white things?  Burn buildings?  Kill if necessary?"  Naturally, this caused her career to suffer and Simone lost her appeal with the public.

Liz Garbus's documentary utilizes archived interviews with the singer as well as her personal journals to give us an intriguing glimpse into the life of a talented performer.  In addition to being treated to some lovely performances by Simone, conversations with her daughter Lisa inform us of the imperfect character of the singer.  The flick overstays its welcome a little bit with more than a few moments of repetition in the film's second half, but What Happened, Miss Simone still proves to be worthwhile particularly if the rich-voiced jazz singer has ever captivated you with her tone.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Movie Review - Room

Room (2015)
Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, Tom McCamus, and William H. Macy
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

The biggest compliment I can pay Room is that I wanted director Lenny Abrahamson's film to be Boyhood-levels of epicness in terms of length.  I found myself so incredibly enveloped and taken in by the story of the flick's two main characters that I didn't want to leave their journey.  When something like that happens in a movie theater, you know you're in for a treat and Room is a fascinating film that captivated me like no other I've seen from 2015.

I had such high expectations for Room simply based on its initial reviews and a broad concept of the story that I tried as hard as I could to stay away from learning anything about it prior to seeing the film -- and somehow I achieved that goal, not even watching a trailer for the film.  So, with that said, if you'd like to have as "pure" of an experience as me, perhaps you should stop reading now.  For those who wish to continue, be prepared for some gushing.

Told in essentially two acts, Room details the story of five year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his Ma (Brie Larson).  Jack and Ma (whom we later learn is named Joy) live in a ten-by-ten room, never glimpsing the outside world except for the sky through a small skylight.  As we wonder why these two people are stuck in this tiny place, Joy's story is gradually revealed and we come to understand that she was kidnapped as a teenager and has been held captive for seven years.  Jack has never once been outside Room (as he calls it) and his Ma has made up a variety of stories to tell him about how everything outside of Room is fake and their abode is the only thing that's real.  Every Sunday evening, Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) pays a visit, bringing Jack and Ma's weekly allotment of food, but Ma never lets Jack meet Old Nick, forcing Jack to go to bed behind doors in Wardrobe whenever he is due to arrive.  Needless to say, despite bringing them sustenance, Old Nick isn't a good guy and on Jack's fifth birthday, Joy begins to have the courage to contemplate an escape plan.

Imagine seeing the world for the first time -- quite frankly, we can't even begin to contemplate what the cacophony of sounds, the frenetically paced movement, and the sheer brightness of something as commonplace as sunlight would be like to us if we were seeing it for the first time.  So imagine how little five year-old Jack feels upon stepping outside Room for the first time.  Not only is he seeing the world for the first time, but he's also dealing with the fact that for five years, his mother has told him that Room is real, while outside Room is fake.  Pitch-perfectly portrayed by young Jacob Tremblay, we as adults are taken in by the nine year-old actor who is depicting the awe-inspiring, frightening, and bewildering emotions of his character with such precision and childlike innocence that it's a wonder this little guy hasn't been on the cinematic radar sooner.  The youthful zest for curiosity is ever-apparent in Jack, and Tremblay -- who is just as much a lead as his counterpart mother -- deserved to be recognized by the Oscars rather than be ridiculously overlooked.  (Admittedly, one of the reasons for this is that the film studio was marketing him as a supporting actor while he is very much the lead here which may have led to some split voting amongst Academy members unsure of which category in which to place him.)

Brie Larson popped onto my radar with the brilliant Short Term 12 -- my #2 movie of 2013 (it's streaming on Netflix so there's no excuse for not seeing it) -- and her choice of Room as her next "serious drama" was yet another reason this flick was on my Must See 2015 Movies.  Room is really a tale of two movies for the actress.  In the first half, despite obviously being deprived of the outside world, she exudes both a strong will for survival and a desperately loving demeanor to her son to whom she is his only source of communication, compassion, and contact.  By the time that second act rolls around, though, Larson is able to really run a gamut of believable and thought-provoking emotions -- some that I wasn't expecting despite all of them being perfectly legit.  Obviously, it was going to be a change of pace -- and a difficult one at that -- acclimating her son to the world outside of Room, but Joy never could have expected how difficult it would be for her to return home to her mother (Joan Allen) whom she hadn't seen since her teen years.  I found it utterly fascinating to see Larson's Joy almost revert back to her stubborn seventeen year-old self once the weightiness of the real world -- and the choices that led to her being captured and those she made while being captured -- began to reign down on her.

Larson in particular owes a huge part of her character's depth and intricate emotions to screenwriter Emma Donogue who is adapting her own novel (which I now cannot wait to get my hands on).  Donogue nails the tricky and tenuous emotional roller coaster for not only Larson and Tremblay's characters, but also for Joan Allen whose role as Joy's mother and Jake's grandmother is also a delicate balancing act.  Without ever feeling strained or cloying, Donogue's script is a riveting one, packed with heart, compassion, and gutsiness.

Director Lenny Abrahamson is not a name I am particularly familiar with and his one prior film I had seen -- Frank -- didn't quite gel.  Fortunately, everything comes together here brilliantly.  Not only does Abrahamson master the mother/son emotional relationship, but he proves that he's also a master of creating suspense thanks to the edge-of-your-seat nature of Jacob and Joy's escape from Room -- a ten minute sequence that runs the gamut of emotions from fear to joy to sadness to compassion.  Considering that the first hour of the film takes place entirely within the confines of Room, Abrahamson keeps the audience riveted and fascinated by the proceedings, and once we step outside of Room, the film doesn't lose any momentum.

A lot of times when I see a movie I really like, I hold off on writing my review as I'm not quite sure how I want to frame my thoughts.  With Room, it was the exact opposite.  I wanted to hash this one out as quickly as possible to get out "on paper" the emotional impact this flick had on me.  I can't recommend this one highly enough.  Get yourself to Room immediately -- I think I'll be heading back as well.  As I said in my first sentence of this review, this was a film I didn't want to end.  I wanted to find out more about all of the film's inhabitants as I rooted for them to find the happiness they so richly deserved.

The RyMickey Rating:  A

Monday, February 01, 2016

Movie Review - Tangerine

Tangerine (2015)
Starring Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O'Hagan, James Ransone, and Alla Tumanian
Directed by Sean Baker
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Tangerine is known on the cinematic landscape for two things:  1) it was filmed entirely on an iPhone 5S; and 2) it's one of the first films featuring real transgender actresses that's been widely praised and awarded by the indie circuits of Hollywood.  With a 96% positive rating on RottenTomatoes with over 100 Fresh reviews, I decided to check this one out and to this reviewer it's another case of rewarding something that's not necessarily deserving just because it places emphasis on people that aren't necessarily represented on film.

Just released from a 28-day stint in prison on Christmas Eve, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) meets up with her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), both of whom are transgender prostitutes, who tells her that Sin-Dee's boyfriend (and her pimp) Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her.  This sends Sin-Dee on pre-Christmas race through Los Angeles to find Chester and the girl he screwed while Sin-Dee was incarcerated.  Taking place over the course of a day, Tangerine is a bit of a monotonous one-note flick with a crazed Sin-Dee going nuts trying to find those who did her wrong.

A comedy, the flick feels like a one-joke wonder that would've fared better as a short film rather than a feature length one.  The acting is all over-the-top although Mya Taylor actually shows sparks of promise and is really the only person in the film who manages to display more than one emotion.  Director and co-screenwriter Sean Baker's film looks good -- it's surprisingly crisp and clear for being filmed on an iPhone and there are moments that feel truly "cinematic" (obviously in a basic sense).  Unfortunately, filming on the iPhone also shows that not everything one thinks should be filmed really should be -- and Tangerine probably shouldn't have been filmed (at least as a feature).  The universal praise heaped on this one seems as if the critics were trying to either "save face" or "seem cool."  It's plain and simple just not a great film.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-