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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, April 30, 2016

REP 2015-16 Season Round-Up

While I didn't do a round-up of the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Theater group last season, I figured it was time to do it again this year after their engaging 2015-16 season.  While it started out a little on the weak side, all their plays presented in 2016 proved to be worth the price of the season ticket for sure.  Although this is the case every season, this year the actors in the troupe were tasked with some great tonal shifts from play to play.  Seeing the cast take on To Kill a Mockingbird and then switching to the humor of the play like Things We Do for Love seemed especially impressive this season.  Sure, there were a few disappointments (The Patsy and Heartbreak Hotel just weren't plays I could wholeheartedly enjoy), but the REP continues to be a great place to view a varied selection of theater for an affordable price.

While I'll continue to wish that we'd get the university to place its money back in its Professional Theater Training Program for its students so we'd get some fresh faces mixed in with our core REP ensemble, kudos to the REP for bringing in outside cast members this year in some of their pieces including some former PTTP members.  Still, seeing the students grow as actors was one of the great treats of the original purpose of the REP-PTTP partnership so I'll always think it's a shame that aspect of this theater has gone away.  However, the REP still goes on strong, proving to be one of the best art experiences the state of Delaware has to offer.

All photos below by the REP.

Total Number of Nominations
(# of nominations include Honorable Mentions)
(click on titles for links to original reviews)
To Kill a Mockingbird - 6
Red - 5
Things We Do for Love - 3
Wait Until Dark - 3
Heartbreak House - 1
The Patsy - no nominations

Best Costume Design
Honorable Mention: Devon Painter - To Kill a Mockingbird
While I'm oftentimes incredibly impressed with the costume design at REP productions, this year's crop of plays didn't really yield any wow moments in this artistic department.  Rather, the costumes enhanced the characters, but never really clamored for my attention which isn't necessarily a bad thing.  The mid-20th century southern garb by Devon Painter in To Kill a Mockingbird perhaps deserves an honorable mention.

Best Scenic Design
Winner -- Hugh Landwehr - Heartbreak House
Honorable Mentions -- Stefanie Hansen - Red; Takeshi Kata - To Kill a Mockingbird
Although the picture above does a nice job of capturing the richness of Hugh Landwehr's set for Heartbreak House, seeing it in person was a treat.  This was seriously Broadway caliber stuff (particularly after seeing how "on the cheap" Broadway's smash hit The Book of Mormon looked just recently).  The REP always does a fantastic job with their sets and Stefanie Hansen's NYC paint studio for Red or Takeshi Kata's southern neighborhood in To Kill a Mockingbird would've been equally worthy winners.

Best Performances
5. Kathleen Pirkl Tague - Things We Do for Love
4. Deena Burke - Wait Until Dark
3. Stephen Pelinski - Red
2. Sara Griffin (guest artist) - To Kill a Mockingbird
1.  Stephen Pelinski - To Kill a Mockingbird
Honorable Mentions:
Elizabeth Heflin - Things We Do for Love; Mic Matarrese - Things We Do for Love; Michael Gotch - Red

Best Overall Body of Work
Winner -- Stephen Pelinski
I was looking back over my previous REP round-ups and I found it interesting that I've awarded this prize to different members of the troupe every year.  It seems that each member of the ensemble is being given the opportunity to have a season where they can really shine and Stephen Pelinski gets the recognition this year in huge part due to his one-two punch to finish the REP's season as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and Mark Rothko in Red.  Two incredibly different characters believably portrayed by Mr. Pelinski -- one gentle, kind, considerate, yet firm in his beliefs and the other not so gentle, not so kind, not so considerate, yet quite film in his beliefs.  In both plays, Pelinski gets some lengthy monologues and he had no trouble capturing my attention for those extended moments.  With a humorous turn in Heartbreak House plus roles in Wait Until Dark and The Patsy, Pelinski proves that he's pretty darn good at whatever character comes his way.

In terms of other actors giving shining performances this season, guest artist and former PTTP member Sara Griffin (who was quite impressive while in that now defunct program) proved riveting in a pivotal small role as the mesmerizingly petrifying rape accuser in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Deena Burke often finds herself behind the scenes as a dialect coach in many REP productions, but she got a chance to be front and center as the blind leading lady in the thriller Wait Until Dark and she captivated.  Kathleen Pirkl Tague is always a hoot in comedies and her take on the character of Barbara in Things We Do for Love is a bit of a roller coaster ride of believable emotions.

Best Direction
Winner -- Michael Gotch - Wait Until Dark
Honorable Mentions - Sanford Robbins - To Kill a Mockingbird; Ian Belknap - Red

Best Play
Winner -- Wait Until Dark
Honorable Mentions - Red; To Kill a Mockingbird
You don't often get to see thrillers performed onstage because the general consensus is that they simply don't work.  Director (and member of the REP ensemble) Michael Gotch proves those naysayers wrong, however, crafting an edge-of-your-seat ride with his Wait Until Dark.  While it may not have been the showiest or most "important" play of the season, it was the REP's most amusing.  Exquisite lighting and sound -- never have jangling keys or whirring refrigerators been more nerve-wracking -- coupled with Gotch's sensational grasp on how to utilize his set, props, and silence (yes, silence) showcased a masterful control of the tricky genre.  There's nothing wrong with a theater experience just being fun -- and Wait Until Dark had that in spades, hence its victory in both the Best Direction and Best Play categories.

Kudos must be doled at as well to Sanford Robbins' To Kill a Mockingbird and Ian Belknap's Red which helped to close the season with some great work.  While I wasn't quite as enamored with Mockingbird as some other reviewers, it was not a reflection on the production at all, but rather the story itself (it's a lot of nothing for a long time...much like the book itself).  Robbins took a fantastic set of actors and created an experience that felt as if we were right there in 1935 Maycomb, Alabama.  As far as Belknap's Red, it's a production that's grown on me in the days since I've seen it.  Upon its ending, I found it a bit too highbrow at times, but upon reflection, I've come to appreciate its evenhanded questioning of the art world and human nature.  With two great performances, Red ended my REP season on a high note.

Of course, I'll eagerly look forward to the 2016-17 season announcement over the summer.  I appreciated the attempts by the REP to lean a little more modern this year, but I'd certainly never want them to abandon the classics (and if their "every other year Shakespeare" trend continues, I guess we're due for something from the Bard next season).  While I'll always hope for the return of the PTTP, I appreciated the welcoming back of several former members of that group and hope that this trend continues in the future.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Theater Review - Red

Written by John Logan
Directed by Ian Belknap
Where: Studio Theatre at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When: Wednesday, April 28, 7:30pm
Photos by Paul Cerro

I am not, nor do I find myself likely becoming, an "art person."  I don't particularly enjoy going to art museums.  I don't fondly stare at a painting -- be it abstract or not -- and ponder the artist's intentions or how it "makes me feel."  Part of this likely stems from the notion that I can barely draw a stick figure and the fact that I failed "scissors" in preschool (seriously, so I've been told).  I've tried at some of the biggest and the best -- the Louvre, the National Gallery in London, MoMA -- but I'm not roused by the process.  While I don't imagine I'm going to ever change, I won't avoid the proposition of returning to some of those aforementioned galleries, but I won't likely ever seek them out on my own.

I say all of that only to state that I went into the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players' production of the Tony Award-winning Red expecting to be bored out of my mind.  Fortunately, that wasn't the case in the slightest.  Told in their small black box studio, Red weaves the (presumably true-ish) tale of artist Mark Rothko (played by Stephen Pelinski) as he prepares a series of paintings to be displayed at the currently in-construction Four Seasons restaurant in New York City in the late 1950s.  Receiving a $35,000 commission for the work, Rothko hires a young artist named Ken (Michael Gotch) to help him prepare canvases for his very large pieces of art that all have the similarity of being various shades of red rectangles upon red backgrounds.  (Obviously, I'm oversimplifying things so no need for art critics to shame me for my poor man's description.)  As the ninety-minute intermissionless play progresses, Rothko challenges the naïve Ken to open his mind to the various questions that good art makes people ponder, pushing the burgeoning painter to grow in both his own art and his mind.  However, Rothko's aggressive and temperamental teaching methods begin to shape Ken into someone who recognizes faults in Rothko's own beliefs, perhaps reaching that typical point where the student becomes the teacher - a notion that is touched upon more than once as the play progresses.

Amid another gloriously lived-in set by Stefanie Hansen, Pelinski's Rothko and Gotch's Ken really spring to life as they talk their way through the quite verbose work.  There's a type of dance going on between the two REP members -- in words, in movement (our eyes are always darting around the up-close-and-personal staging), and even in the physical act of painting itself which, at times, turns into an almost intimate experience mirroring lovemaking complete with heavy breathing and smoking at its conclusion.  That last comparison may sound odd, but makes a bit of sense -- Rothko is giving birth to these paintings and his attachment to them may seem off-putting at first to someone like Ken, but the sense of boastful pride grows to be understandable.  Arrogance and an oddly fitting hulking machismo radiates from Mr. Pelinski's performance as the gruff, strongly convicted, and brutally honest Rothko who stands in a stark contrast to the initially timid and inward nature of Mr. Gotch's Ken.  The duo captivates and holds the audience's attention with both getting chances to shine in pivotal scenes that reflect their ever-changing points of view.

While congrats are certainly in order to director Ian Belknap who has crafted a visually appealing and compellingly acted show, the play itself as written by John Logan at times teeters on the edge of pretension which admittedly echoes my feelings towards the art world in general (hence the whole point of the first paragraph of this review).  When Rothko asks, "What do you see," I want to blurt out, "A red rectangle and nothing more."  This viewpoint is actually mentioned in the play by Rothko himself as he almost sticks his nose up in the air to the uncultured masses who see no value in his work.  Logan's play tries to be more than just "a red rectangle" and I think it truly is -- however, I think it's also a piece that may need to be studied in order to appreciate its full potential.  Seeing it for a brief ninety minutes as words quickly fly at the audience may not allow us to grasp all of the deep meanings Logan is trying to impart on us.  In that way, Red is perhaps much like a piece of art. Looking at it for mere moments may not allow us to fully appreciate what it's offering, but if we examine it more closely, we may begin to "feel" what the artist has given us on the canvas.  Then again, maybe not.  And I guess that's the beauty with art...and the art of theater.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Theater Review - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Written by Simon Stephens
Based on the novel by Mark Haddon
Directed by Marianne Elliott
Where: Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York, NY
When: Saturday, April 23, 8pm

Full disclosure -- At the end of the first act of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a pivotal plot point is revealed.  I misinterpreted this key plot point due to the improper hearing of a simple preposition earlier in the play (and the fact that the play jumped around a little bit back and forth in time at the beginning) and I felt like the biggest idiot for the remainder of the evening.  This may have led to me harboring a bit of ill will towards this otherwise intriguing Broadway production of a seemingly simplistic story about fifteen year-old Christopher who falls somewhere on the autism spectrum and his quest to uncover the mystery of who brutally killed his neighbor's dog one evening. The story is actually very basic (and, in the end, may have worked better as a 110-minute one act play has opposed to the two-act 150-minute piece it is), but the staging is what makes this play shine.
The set is stark - it's as if we're sitting in a black box theater whose walls are covered in shiny cubes with the corners of each cube containing a light.  These cubes may rise or fall depending on the scene, the lights may brighten or change colors, and, at times, the cubes may seem to disappear into the background as a variety of images are projected onto them.  The minimalistic approach may seem odd seeing as how the story is minimalistic as well, but the uniqueness of the set and its rather stylish ways of changing its appearance enhance the story greatly and rather astutely take us into the mind of the autistic Christopher who sees everything in a very binary way.  Kudos to set designer Bunny Christie, video designer Finn Ross, and lighting designer Paule Constable for creating a visually appealing experience.  Credit is also due to Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett - choreographers for the play.  While there's no "dancing" that we normally associate with choreography, there is exquisite movement on display that I couldn't help but find mesmerizing at times -- it was really fascinating stuff.
(Tyler Lea)

Kudos also to director Marianne Elliott for leading the charge in both the fantastic aforementioned design aspects as well as getting a powerful leading performance from young Tyler Lea making his Broadway debut as Christopher.  (It should be noted that Lea didn't originate the role on Broadway, so I'm unsure if Ms. Elliott actually has any role in shaping his personal performance...it's unknown to me if directors make return trips after the original cast goes away.)  Lea never once leaves the stage and he grippingly holds our attention throughout.  There's a strength to Christopher that we witness right away, but also an aching vulnerability.  When Lea cries out in fear and emotional pain after he is simply touched by another human being, we can't help but feel his discomfort and, presumably, his desire to maybe someday be able to accept the comforting touch of another rather than have his mind tell him that isolation is his friend.  Even from the second to last row in the mezzanine, Lea conveys this and more than captivates.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a unique experience and unlike anything I've really ever seen before.  While I didn't love it, I'm thrilled I jumped at the chance to see it because I doubt I'll see anything like it again.  Nice job all around to the folks both behind and on the stage of this Tony Award-winning play.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Theater Review - The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon
Music, Lyrics, and Book by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone
Directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker
Where: Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York, NY
When: Saturday, April 23, 2pm

Hugely popular (although now overshadowed by the mammoth hit that is Hamilton), The Book of Mormon is an incredibly hot ticket in New York City.  I figured eventually I'd get around to seeing it when its allure waned, but I assumed that would still be several years from now.  Fortunately, I was able to snag some tickets to the show for a fantastic price (free!) and I was able to see if all the fuss was truly warranted.  The long story short is that The Book of Mormon is undoubtedly an enjoyable and very funny two-and-a-half hours of theater.  I laughed...a lot...and I was never once bored.  That said, it lacks a little in the music department and since music is a huge part of musical theater it doesn't quite get the raves from me that others have heaped upon it.  Once again, it's still a fun piece, but it doesn't achieve greatness, rather falling in between good and very good on the ratings spectrum.

The premise of The Book of Mormon follows two Latter Day Saint Mormon missionaries as they head out on their first recruitment trip to try and convert people to their religion.  We meet the devout, yet somewhat haughty, Elder Kevin Price (played by Nic Rouleau) who has desperately prayed to be shipped to Orlando for his mission.  Unfortunately, while other new missionaries are sent to locales like France and Japan, Price gets chosen to go to Uganda...which doesn't sit too well with him.  Plus, he's saddled with the nerdy, seemingly unintelligent, and insecure Arnold Cunningham (Christopher John O'Neill) as his partner.  Trying to make the most of it, Price reluctantly starts his journey with Cunningham to Africa only to be told by the town leader (Daniel Breaker) and his daughter Nabulungi (Nikki Renée Daniels) that they won't be converting and Price and Cunningham better watch out for the warlord, General Butt-F***ing Naked, who wreaks havoc on their little village.

Yes...you read that right. General Butt-F***ing Naked.  That's what you get seeing as how The Book of Mormon is created by the minds behind South Park.  This isn't your typical Broadway show when it comes to humor.  It's decidedly R-rated, raunchy, and bawdy...and it's also funny.  Yes, some of the jokes fall flat (like that general's name) and some are too blatantly pushing the envelope, but the laughs keep coming fast enough that if one fails, there's another one right behind it.  Religion is certainly lambasted here and there were times where this church-going blogger found himself a tiny bit shocked, but I'm a little more open to seeing and hearing various attitudes about things -- that said, for those who like things on the tamer side, The Book of Mormon may not be your cup of tea.
(Nic Rouleau, center, as Elder Price)

The cast overall is pretty solid.  Nic Rouleau is just about perfect as the sincere and resolute Elder Price.  His optimistic attitude carries the audience along with him on his journey.  He's a great comedian, but also a stellar singer, shining on his big comedic ballad number "I Believe" which showcases both his ability to garner chuckles while belting out some big notes.  Nikki Renée Daniels brings a gentleness to the proceedings, but also croons with one heckuva voice on her two big numbers.  I'm still up in the air on Christopher John O'Neill's performance.  I wasn't disappointed in the slightest, but there were moments where I felt like there was a little bit of a lack of energy present in the bombastic and quirky character's demeanor.  That said, I've since listened to the cast recording of the show and I appreciate O'Neill's toning down of the character of Elder Cunningham as original portrayer Josh Gad made the character seem mentally challenged based on the recording.

And it's that recording that highlights the biggest problem with The Book of Mormon -- the songs.  None are particularly bad, but in the end, many of them sound too similar to one another, not being afforded the opportunity to really stand out.  Yes, there are a few great moments -- the opening "Hello" starts things off hilariously simple, the aforementioned "I Believe" is a great humorous ballad, "Baptize Me" is a fantastic duet with a crazily raunchy undercurrent -- but too often, the tunes are forgettable.  The ballads all sound too similar, the group numbers sung by the Ugandans sound too similar, the group numbers sung by the Mormons sound too similar -- there's a trend there.  There's a brilliance in those three stand-out numbers that I wish was carried to all the other songs.  Once again, music, lyric, and book writers Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone don't ever fail here, but I can't help but think the potential was there for something greater.  As an example, twice during the show, they name characters particular names just so they can rhyme them with something in a song -- that's a childish cop-out that someone just starting out in the business would do, not someone like Lopez who co-wrote the songs for the uproarious Avenue Q.  Then again, Lopez is the co-creator of the songs from Frozen which I thought were disappointingly ho-hum, so I'm not entirely surprised I was a little disappointed here.  Perhaps this ends up being a score that grows on me over time, however, so we'll see how I feel about it once I'm a few months removed.  Once again, I was never bored during the piece so that's certainly a credit to the songs, but I wanted a little more variety and oomph to some of the numbers.
(A good view of the simplicity of the set)

The Book of Mormon is certainly an enjoyable afternoon or evening at the theater, but I'm a bit surprised at its continued success as it's a show that not only plays up the raunch, but also tends to look like it's been done on the cheap (the costumes aren't particularly overwhelming; the set is very simple).  Or, perhaps rather than "on the cheap," I should say it lacks the "spectacle" Broadway audiences really seem to crave.  Still, The Book of Mormon is full of laughs -- not quite worth the exorbitant price tag of $180 for the cheap seats, but certainly worth a $100 price point if you can somehow find them.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Theater Review - Things We Do for Love

Things We Do for Love
Written by Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Sanford Robbins
Where: Thompson Theater at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When: Sunday, April 24, 2pm
Photos by the REP / Paul Cerro

While I'm certainly not a know-it-all when it comes to theater -- far from it, honestly -- I like to think that I am somewhat educated on the landscape, keeping up on goings on throughout New York City and our surrounding area.  Somehow, though, despite the fact that British playwright Alan Ayckbourn is incredibly prolific with over 75 plays to his name since 1959, I'd never even heard of him and a quick look at his Wikipedia profile led me to realize I'd only ever heard of one of his many works.  So I certainly entered the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players' production of Things We Do for Love with nary a preconceived notion.  Known for comedies that always have shades of darker elements of sadness and tragedy, Ayckbourn's Things We Do for Love takes a look at the euphoric highs and the desperate lows that accompany the human emotion of love, and the quartet of the REP actors who tackle the play's four characters bring believable emotional shading to the proceedings.

Admittedly, there's a comedic trivialness to Things We Do for Love that even as it nears its more tender conclusion it can't quite shake, but despite sometimes feeling like a more upscale episode of Three's Company, the play generally clicks.  At its center is forty-something Barbara (played by Kathleen Pirkl Tague), the rather hard-edged owner of a three story flat in London who is awaiting the arrival of her long lost chipper and bubbly college friend Nikki Wickstead (Elizabeth Heflin) and her fiancé Hamish (Mic Matarrese) who are planning on moving in to the upper level rental unit while their new home is being built.  Living in the basement flat is the awkward and socially inept Gilbert (Lee Ernst), a postman and all-around Mr. Fix-It, who happens to have a thing for Barbara despite her failing to reciprocate his romantic advances in the slightest.  When Nikki and Hamish arrive, seeds of jealousy begin to be planted inside the mind of the somewhat hard-nosed and work-focused Barbara who has never given herself time to form meaningful relationships with men.  As the quartet banter back and forth, the play's eight scenes taking place across eleven days gradually reveal the truest aspects of the characters' personas for both the better and the worse.

(nice shot of the set above -- fully realized main floor, with about only two feet of top floor actually visible to the audience)

The uniqueness of Things We Do for Love isn't found so much in its story, but rather in its set.  Taking place across the three levels in Barbara's abode, we in the audience are able to fully see the main floor living space of Barbara.  Stairs on the left of the stage lead to the upstairs rental unit where we see only from the floor up to a person's knees.  Stairs also lead to Gilbert's basement apartment of which we can only see the ceiling and about two feet below that.  Leaving the upper two-thirds and bottom two-thirds of characters out of the picture during certain scenes, it's often interesting to not only see how the actors utilize their body language to showcase their characters' feelings, but to also see how Ayckbourn cleverly takes advantage of this unique theatrical experience.  I've read that this play isn't often performed because of the sheer difficulty of creating this set, but the REP once again excels in this department (as it so often does) with the work of scenic designer Scott Bradley who creates not only a simple, yet lived-in main apartment for Barbara, but a lushly appointed bottom third and top third of the upper and lower units, respectively.

Coming directly off of the seriousness of To Kill a Mockingbird, director Sanford Robbins changes tone drastically with Things We Do for Love and takes his actors on a different trajectory as well.  The whole cast really shines with each member landing their comedic moments and Ms. Tague in particular excelling in showcasing the arc of her character's motivations as the initially stoic and spikily chilly Barbara travels on many an emotional roller coaster during the play's 150-minute runtime.  Tague rarely disappoints and it's great fun to see her take on a character that veers so different from her last portrayal of the adult Scout in Mockingbird.

The play itself at times feels a little stretched for its somewhat paper-thin (and sitcom-ish) premise, the initial motivation of Hamish to commit an act that sets the play's drama in motion never quite seems fully fleshed out, and Gilbert sometimes feels a bit too over-the-top (although actor Lee Ernst himself is perhaps giving his most amusing performance yet), but Things We Do for Love does a nice job of balancing the comedy at its core and the tinges of tragedy on its outskirts.  It's certainly a pleasant end to the REP's 2015-16 season.  (ed. note: I still have one more production to see, but Things We Do for Love was the last to open this season.)

Monday, April 25, 2016

Theater Week on the Blog

Loyal readers of the blog are well aware that I enjoy taking trips to the theater when afforded the opportunity and, for some reason, the stars aligned this week and I'm seeing four productions over the span of five days.  Come back over the course of the week to find out the shows listed below -- all of which are currently available for you to see as well should my reviews whet your appetite.

Upcoming Theater Week Reviews

Tuesday:  Things We Do for Love
(at the University of Delaware)

Wednesday:  The Book of Mormon
(in New York City)

Thursday:  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
(in New York City)

Friday:  Red
(at the University of Delaware)

Saturday:  The Best of the 2015-16 season at the REP
(a round-up of the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Theater's productions this past season) 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Movie Review - The Intern

The Intern (2015)
Starring Robert DeNiro, Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo, Anders Holm, JoJo Kushner, Andrew Rannells, Zach Pearlman, Christina Scherer, and Adam DeVine
Directed by Nancy Meyers

As part of an outreach initiative, Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway), CEO of the popular fashion e-commerce website About the Fit, creates an internship program to bring in senior citizens to counter the youthful vibe of the workplace.  Recent widower Ben (Robert DeNiro) applies and earns an internship as Jules's assistant.  Despite her initial reticence, Jules soon finds Ben's demeanor and attitude to be a comforting and soothing aspect to her hectic and crazy life as she attempts to balance her work life with her home life being a wife to Matt (Anders Holm) and mother to young Paige (JoJo Kushner).

Writer-director Nancy Meyers' The Intern is full of clichés and silly side characters who bear no import to the overarching storyline, but at the center of the film is Robert DeNiro and Anne Hathaway who create a chemistry-filled dynamic that is irresistibly charming.  Color me surprised, but there is humor and heart in the father-daughter, mentor-mentee relationship that Meyers creates and DeNiro and Hathaway imbue.  While it's obvious where the seasoned, elderly Ben is going to lead the fresh, younger Jules from the very outset of the film, we in the audience don't really mind because of the interaction between the two characters and actors.

While the secondary characters are amusing in their own right, the film doesn't really know what to do with them.  Sure, they play into certain scenes during which the relationship between Jules and Ben flourishes, but in the end they can't help but feel superfluous.  Still, because of the dynamic between the two leads, The Intern manages to be a better, more watchable film than it probably deserves to be, so kudos to both DeNiro and Hathaway for achieving this.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Monday, April 18, 2016

Movie Review - Vacation

Vacation (2015)
Starring Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Leslie Mann, Chris Hemsworth, Beverly D'Angelo, Ron Livingston,  and Chevy Chase
Directed by Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley
***This film is currently available on HBO Now***

Although I can't remember for sure, my first foray into cinematic "almost nudity" may very well have been the original 1983 version of National Lampoon's Vacation.  I probably saw it for the first time several years after its release as an eight, nine, or ten year-old and that image of Christie Brinkley cruising down the highway -- and then later in the hotel pool -- never quite left my cinematic memory.  (Somehow, the possibility of potentially glimpsing Brinkley's breasts was inherently more invigorating to the young me than actually seeing those of Beverly D'Angelo in the film.)  Granted, I haven't seen the original Chevy Chase-starring film in probably close to a decade, but it held up alright upon my last viewing.  So when the 2015 "reboot"/sequel starts up with Lindsey Buckingham singing the iconic-to-me "Holiday Road," nostalgia immediately set in, and while Vacation can't really hold a candle to the original, there are plenty of laughs that make this one a better flick than I was expecting.

Teenage Rusty Griswold is now all grown up (and played by Ed Helms) living with a family of his own in the Midwest.  Rather than head to their typical cabin in Michigan for a summer vacation, Rusty decides to shake things up by taking his wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and two kids James and Kevin (Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins) to the California amusement park staple Wally World -- the very destination coveted by Rusty's father Clark (Chevy Chase) in the 1983 original.  Along the way, chaos ensues -- multiple times -- as seems fitting for the Griswold clan.

I understand that many of the comedy sequences in Vacation overstay their welcome, but a lot of the jokes within those extended moments land successfully.  The success is due in part to the Griswold family quartet at the center of the action.  Helms, Applegate, Gisondo, and Stebbins all succeed at capturing the Griswold humor and heart that made the original so successful.  They hit the jokes they need to hit with gusto and provide a nice center for the action going on around them.

While writer-director duo Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley don't quite capture the same heart that Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo (who also make cameo appearances here) achieve in the first film, they at least provide Helms and Applegate a solid base.  I realize that my enjoyment of this isn't shared by the majority of critics, but even through its faults, Vacation proves to be decent, funny, and well acted.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Friday, April 15, 2016

Movie Review - Experimenter

Experimenter (2015)
Starring Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder
Directed by Michael Almereyda
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

I was not a fan of director-screenwriter Michael Almereyda's other 2015 film, the overly dramatic Shakespearean adaptation Cymbeline, so when I looked at IMDB and saw his participation in Experimenter, I wasn't quite sure what to expect.  However, Experimenter presents interesting directorial and screenwriting techniques which don't quite all work, but at least help to present a more unique biopic film than is typically lensed.

Back in 1961, social psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) formulated a famous experiment in which he tested the complicity of test subjects to obey an authority figure and administer increasingly higher voltages of electricity to strangers. His experiment garnered him accolades and critiques from his colleagues as well as media interest as the years passed.  Milgram's theories proved revolutionary in the psychology world, but the public outcry about his treatment of his test subjects always hung over his works.

Nearly right off the bat, Almereyda takes the unique approach of having Milgram break the fourth wall with the audience.  By having actor Peter Sarsgaard talk directly into the camera, we're immediately jolted into a rather uncommon cinematic situation.  Later, it appears as if Milgram and his wife Alexandra (Winona Ryder) have stepped onto an odd theatrical set with black-and-white scrims as backdrops. Time jumps forward and backward at certain points in the film.  Admittedly, I'm not quite sure if there's a purpose to these unique visual flourishes, but they worked in the flick's advantage by keeping the viewer intrigued without ever seeming too showy or ostentatious.

Sarsgaard is good here as Milgram, although he's fared a bit better in the past.  For a biopic, the film doesn't really give Sarsgaard a lot to chomp on in terms of dramatic moments.  However, he's certainly captivating as is Ryder and the large array of "Hey, I Know That Guy" individuals who pop up for a single scene here or there as either subjects in Milgram's experiments or colleagues of the famous psychologist.  I was always one to say "Phooey!" to psychology in college, thinking that many of the theories were mumbo jumbo, but Experimenter presents Milgram's ideologies in a way that I found accessible and, surprisingly, relatable.  I'm not saying I'm heading back to get a degree in the subject, but the flick is definitely a captivating glimpse into one man's societal theories.

The RyMickey Rating  B-

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Movie Review - Alex of Venice

Alex of Venice (2015)
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Don Johnson, Derek Luke, Katie Nehra, Chris Messina, Skylar Gaertner, Reg E. Cathey, and Timm Sharp
Directed by Chris Messina
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

There's a simplicity to Alex of Venice, the directing debut of actor Chris Messina, that adds charm to the titular character's (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) newfound struggles following the leaving of her husband (Messina), the possible Alzheimer's diagnosis for her father (Don Johnson), and the arrival of her sister (Katie Nehra) who comes to the titular California town to look after Alex's son Dakota (Skylar Gaertner) while Alex works on an important environmental law case.  While that charming simplicity makes Alex of Venice innately watchable, it also doesn't provide much of a backdrop for what should be a slice of life story that feels as if it's trying too hard to cram too many "big" life moments into its short running time.

Winstead is captivating as the beleaguered mother who has spent so much time dealing with work that she's abandoned her family.  Her character feels grounded in reality as do most of the inhabitants of the film including Don Johnson's understated portrayal of an actor coming to grips with the onset of memory loss.  However, the flick -- the first screenplay for two of three credited screenwriters -- feels too kitchen sink-y to really resonate.  Divorce and abandonment and environmental protests and medical issues and even playwright Anton Chekov feel as if the writers just didn't know where to draw the line when it came to editing.  The Chekov inclusion, in particular, feels much too "final college thesis" rather than theatrical film to be anything other than laughable.

Admittedly, I'm making Alex of Venice sound worse than it is.  It's a watchable indie drama with decent performances that unfortunately is hampered by a script that doesn't do its cast any favors.  While it wouldn't necessarily be a bad watch, there are better things to stream on Netflix.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Movie Review - Southpaw

Southpaw (2015)
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Naomie Harris, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Oona Laurence, and Rachel McAdams
Directed by Antoine Fuqua

I am by no means a boxing film aficionado, but perhaps my journey into the realm of the Rocky films earlier this year has soured me to any other film outside of Stallone-headed series.  Granted, it's not like Balboa's story wasn't filled with clichés, but some of the flicks at least felt well-written with realistic dialog.  The same can't be said for Southpaw - a film so riddled with silly words and typical storylines that I couldn't invest myself in what I was seeing despite a decent turn from Jake Gyllenhaal as Billy Hope, an undefeated boxer who, after a family tragedy, finds himself spiraling out of control, struggling to make ends meet and unable to keep his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) who is taken away by Child Protective Services.

Southpaw has moments of almost dramatic brilliance -- a pivotal scene involving Billy and his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) as tragedy strikes; ten year-old Leila angrily and heartbreakingly slapping her father -- but they're surrounded by silliness in a script by Kurt Sutter that does his characters no favors.  It also doesn't help that director Antoine Fuqua's lensing just can't compare to that of Ryan Coogler's who breathed life and vigor into Creed's boxing scenes while Fuqua's appear generic and bland.

Gyllenhaal is solid here, but he's had better performances in the past few years and that's in part due to the fact that Billy Hope feels like an amalgamation of clichéd roles from other sport films.  Forest Whitaker plays Billy's new coach spreading sanctimonious wisdom seemingly culled from self help books every time he opens his mouth.  Oona Laurence is a bit of a bright spot as Hope's beleaguered daughter, but she's given some ridiculous scenes towards the film's end that stifle her character's emotional arc.  Overall, I really don't have much good to say about Southpaw which admittedly is a bit shocking because I had heard plenty of positive things about it.  In this reviewer's opinion, though, it's certainly not even close to being a knock out.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Friday, April 08, 2016

Movie Review- Ricki and the Flash

Ricki and the Flash (2015)
Starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan, Ben Platt, and Rick Springfield
Directed by Jonathan Demme

I wasn't expecting much from Ricki and the Flash and diminished expectations probably worked in the Jonathan Demme directed, Diablo Cody penned film's favor because, when you really dig into things, there's really not much substance in this one.  The story is incredibly simple -- aging bar room rock band singer Ricki (Meryl Streep) receives a call from her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) that their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) has just been left by her husband and has sunk into a horrible depression.  The California-living Ricki returns to Indiana and finds that her family harbors deep resentment for her leaving them behind, forcing Ricki to examine her past and think about changing her future.

That minimal story is nearly overtaken by what seems like eight to ten musical interludes sung by a raspy-voiced Streep whose character's acerbic tongue and edgy attitude are enjoyable.  It's not even that Streep is an awful singer -- she's fully embracing and embodying the aging rock chick persona -- it's just that the film thinks that it can build her character by having her sing U2 and Springsteen songs.  It just doesn't work that way.  In the story moments in which Ricki is dealing with her family, this film is successful, but it just doesn't have enough of them to really click completely.

It's also rather unfortunate that Ricki and the Flash delves into the realm of old people smoking pot for comedic effect which loyal readers will know is one of my least favorite cinematic tropes.  Quite frankly, there's not much I despise more in film than screenwriters stooping to a low level of having their older actors light up in an attempt to show how fun and carefree they can really be.  This alone knocks the grade down a notch or two -- please, please make this concept stop!

That said, as mentioned Streep is quite good here, taking on the comedic aspects of the flick with gusto and also proving to be perfectly believable up on a stage playing a guitar.  Her real-life daughter Mamie Gummer holds her own up against the Legend That Is Streep, but beyond the character of Ricki no one else in the film really has much to go with in terms of character development.  Everything in the flick is very "surface" and while the film is a comedy and doesn't need deep pathos, it definitely needs a little more bite and a little more story for everyone in which to sink their teeth.  As it stands now, Ricki and the Flash is decent -- and better than I could have expected -- but it left me wanting more because it has sparks of great potential that end up just amounting to ho-humness.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Theater Review - To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird
Adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel
Based on the novel by Harper Lee
Directed by Sanford Robbins
Where: Thompson Theater at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When:  Sunday, March 20, 2pm

The University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players' production of To Kill a Mockingbird ended its nearly sold out run a few weeks ago so this review cannot convince you to either attend or skip the show.  With that in mind, however, director Sanford Robbins' staging of Christopher Sergel's adaptation of Harper Lee's iconic book was a lovely two-and-a-half hour piece of theater filled with some stellar performances and a refreshingly large ensemble that breathed new life into the REP's core group of resident performers.

Photos by Paul Cerro / The REP

Although I'd certainly read the novel a long time ago, I really didn't remember anything more than a general overview of the storyline of To Kill a Mockingbird -- and, quite frankly, there really isn't anything more than a "general overview" of a storyline in the play to begin with.  To Kill a Mockingbird isn't so much a play concerned with "plot" -- although the courtroom saga of the falsely accused African American Tom Robinson certainly hangs over the proceedings prior to its taking center stage in the second act -- but moreso about notions of the innocence of youth and the necessity of growing up and seeing things for the way they really are.  We witness the entirety of the story through the eyes of three children -- Jem and Scout Finch (Luke Brotherhood and Evangeline Heflin) and Dill (Carter Weiss) -- and through the eyes of a grown-up Scout (REP member Kathleen Pirkl Tague) as she narrates the tale and reminisces about her time in 1935 Maycomb, Alabama.  What started as a summer like any other turned into a months-long journey into the sorrowful way human beings can treat one another.

At the center of To Kill a Mockingbird is Atticus Finch, the strong, smart, and steadfast lawyer and father to Jem and Scout, played with equal parts authority and compassion by Stephen Pelinski in one of his finest roles to date.  Firmly grounding the tale with his character's morals, yet never coming off as preachy, Pelinski is extremely graceful and endearing in his scenes with his children, but also powerfully persuasive and passionate during his courtroom moments.

Ultimately, though, To Kill a Mockingbird is an ensemble piece and the entire cast really comes together to create an atmosphere that brings the audience into the simplistic and homespun charm exuding from the stage.  The trio of young actors the REP chose to play the youths in the production hardly ever leave the stage, yet they prove themselves more than capable of carrying a show of this magnitude.  Particular kudos to ten year-old sixth grader Carter Weiss who's already been in several shows in the area and garnered quite a few of the play's laughs.  Proving again that the REP is missing out on training the next generation of talent, two former members of the most recent class of the now-defunct UD Professional Theater Training Program make their return to the REP stage with gusto.  Jasmine Bracey takes on the sassy maid Calpurnia and Sara Griffin is fascinatingly riveting as accuser Mayella Ewell.  Griffin, in particular, has proven her talent in past REP productions and in her very short scene in this play, she mesmerizingly petrifies the audience with her character's horrific motivations.

With lovely, spot-on set and costume design by Takeshi Kata and Devon Painter, respectively, and live music under the direction of Ryan Touhey, director Sanford Robbins truly succeeds in transporting us back in time to the South of the 1930s.  This is certainly up there with the better REP productions the company has produced, but it's got some tough competition with winter's Wait Until Dark for the top spot of this year's season -- and, of course, there's still two more eagerly anticipated shows to go.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Movie Review - Mr. Holmes

Mr. Holmes (2015)
Starring Ian McKellan, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour, Hattie Morahan, and Phil Davis 
Directed by Bill Condon

Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellan) has retired to the English countryside in his old age and has hired a housekeeper named Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) to look after his abode.  Her curious young son Roger (Milo Parker) befriends the rather crotchety Holmes who finds himself now dealing with early-onset dementia as he tries to remember his final case that didn't quite turn out the way the well-known detective had planned.

Unfortunately, Mr. Holmes sounds a lot better in theory than in execution.  Take an aging famous detective, have him solve one final case, and get the fantastic and charming Ian McKellan to play him.  The cards were certainly in director Bill Condon's favor with this one.  The film, however, doesn't quite click, never finding its footing between a mystery, light comedy, and drama.  McKellan is certainly game in the role and the young Milo Parker in his first major film role is charismatic and immensely watchable, but the film is filled with too many genres and unimportant stories meshed together to really work.

It's a bit of shame, quite frankly, because I wanted to really like Mr. Holmes, but I found myself uninterested and rather blasé about the whole affair...which is perhaps why it's taken me more than a month to write this simplistic and utterly basic review about the flick.

The RyMickey Rating:  C