Friday, May 27, 2016

Movie Review - The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book (2016)
*viewed in 3D*
Starring Neel Sethi and featuring the voice talent of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, and Christopher Walken
Directed by Jon Favreau

Exquisitely filmed with some of the best integration of computer-generated animation and live action acting I've ever seen, director Jon Favreau's reimagining of Disney's 1967 version of The Jungle Book is stunning to watch.  Unfortunately, it also left me feeling somewhat bored, pondering the notion why Disney feels the need to keep rehashing their prior successes instead of formulating new and original ideas.  Much like last year's Kenneth Branagh adaptation of Cinderella and, to a lesser extent, 2014's Maleficent, the production quality of these recent live action updates is undeniably stellar, but I have to wonder if I'll ever be emotionally moved by them seeing as how I've already seen the animated originals.

We all know the story here -- Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) is a young boy who was somehow abandoned in the jungle and ends up being raised by a pack of wolves led by Akela and Raksha (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita Nyong'o).  Thanks to a bit more ominous storyline than in the original animated film, it's decided that Mowgli must be taken to the man village to be raised with other humans.  Panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) begins the journey with Mowgli, but they are soon separated at which point the young boy comes across a lazy bear named Baloo (Bill Murray) and a friendship quickly ensues.  With Baloo willing to keep Mowgli company, Mowgli sees no reason to continue on to the man village, but little does he know that the vicious tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) seeks to end the young boy's life.

I'll give the film credit for going darker than the original and giving Mowgli's initial existence in the jungle a bit more of a backstory, but beyond that, the film mirrors very closely to the original in terms of overall plot.  Admittedly, when I reviewed the original, I found it a little episodic and Favreau's version is surprisingly able to solve that issue.  This live action version flows like a more singular piece of material rather than a melange of character meetings.  However, it never gripped me and pulled me in to the story in any way.  There was never any sense of dread for any of the characters nor any sense of excitement because I knew where the story was heading.

Young Neel Sethi deserves a lot of credit.  As the only speaking live-action human in the cast, he more than captivates and holds our attention.  His comedic timing is spot on and considering he stars with a cast of all computer animated creatures, his acting ability deserves commendation.  The voice cast is also stellar.  I loved the mellifluous slyness of George Sanders' vocalization of Shere Khan in the original, but Idris Elba's menacing anger in this updated version may win out for me in the end.  Similarly, Bill Murray as Baloo and Ben Kingsley as Bagheera strike a nice balance of paying a bit of homage to the original vocals while also crafting their own tones.  However, by the time Christopher Walken's King Louie comes into the picture, I found myself shrugging my shoulders and not really caring because I knew exactly what the end result was going to be at the end of the scene.

Admittedly, I find myself in a bit of a conundrum with 2016's The Jungle Book.  I think it's a better movie than the original and the special effects are incredibly realistic, but I also find myself oddly detached from the proceedings in the update because the story is too similar.  Therein lies the problem with these recent Disney updates.  Although they may be well-crafted, they lack any emotional oomph because they don't do enough to reinvigorate or reimagine the stories we know so well.  Maybe my mind will change when next year's reimagining of Beauty and the Beast comes out...but I will not get my hopes up in the slightest.  As for this version of The Jungle Book, it's certainly good, but perhaps it'd be better if you were completely unfamiliar with the Disney source material.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Movie Review - Love

Love (2015)
Starring Karl Glusman, Aomi Muyock, and Klara Kristin
Directed by Gaspar Noé
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

What exactly makes a movie "porn?"  Is it actual non-simulated sex onscreen?  Because if that's the case, Netflix is totally allowing the public to access porn via its streaming service with the movie Love, a flick by odd auteur Garpar Noé whose two previous films I've seen -- Enter the Void and Irrréversible -- place sex front and center in both positive and negative lights.  Love certainly doesn't change that emphasis as this lengthy flick -- clocking in at over two hours - takes a minimal story and amps it up by depicting real sex amongst his actors.  Love actually works for about an hour or so, but then the lack of story really begins to rear its ugly head (ugh...I guess that could be a sexual pun if you so wish) and all we're left with is sex.

And don't get me wrong -- the sex here is filmed in quite an exquisite manner.  Noé knows eroticism, I'll give him that.  But when the nudity is stripped away, the tale of Murphy (Karl Glusman), an American twentysomething living in Paris, is bland.  An aspiring director (because that allows his character to be pretentious by talking about "great" films and their effect on his life), Murphy has fallen for Electra (Aomi Muyock), a French artist, and in order to spice up their love life, they decide to invite their new neighbor Omi (Klara Kristin) to join them for a threesome.  After a very successful ménage à trois, Murphy gets a little overexcited while Electra is out of town and a subsequent one-on-one encounter with Omi leaves her pregnant.  What's an a-hole like Murphy to do?

Told almost entirely in flashback with the bookends of Murphy dealing with the fact that he's a father to his and Omi's newborn son, Love simply doesn't have the story to cultivate interest.  Once we grow acclimated to the risqué sex (which happens about an hour in after the admittedly engaging sexual trio sequence), there's nothing here.  I read an article in which Noé stated that he wanted Love to be like a musical -- in a musical you're always waiting for the next song to come around and here you're always waiting for the sex.  That's all well and good, but in a musical, the songs forward the purpose of the story.  Here, the sex rarely does that.  Sure, there are a few scenes that give us a glimpse into the inevitability of the tortured relationship between Murphy and Elektra, but those moments are few and far between.

The main cast is unsurprisingly made up of relative newcomers and it often shows.  Klara Kristin fares the best, but her role of Omi is unfortunately featured the least.  Karl Glusman is passable as Murphy, but about halfway through the film his character gradually begins to become an unwatchable pompous prick and any interest that the audience had in him begins to disintegrate.  Aomi Muyock undoubtedly fares the worst.  In her more quiet moments with her character, she's actually moderately successful, but when she's asked to be angry or upset, she's laughable.  It's in those moments where the audience should've felt some connection and sympathy for her, but instead Muyock is completely unable to draw us in to her character's plight.

Gaspar Noé is an intriguing director.  That said, I think he's the kind of guy who thinks his films are more cinematically important than they really are.  Quite frankly, if you take away the sex from Love, there's absolutely nothing here so any purported idea of importance is hogwash.  He can certainly film a sex scene, but his concept of story here is decidedly limp.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Movie Review - I Smile Back

I Smile Back (2015)
Starring Sarah Silverman, Josh Charles, Skylar Gaertner, Shayne Coleman, and Thomas Sadoski
Directed by Adam Salky
***This film is currently available on Amazon Prime***

Very rarely will you ever see me write that I wish a film would've been longer, but that's the case with I Smile Back, a captivating look the addictions (drug, alcohol, sexual) facing a suburban mother who desperately wants to get better, but struggles to succeed.  Comedian Sarah Silverman takes on a hefty dramatic role as Laney Brooks, a married mom of two whose typical day may include dropping her kids off at school and then driving the minivan to a hotel room for a tryst with her lover who also happens to supply with her with cocaine and prescription meds.  Sounds like a blast, huh?

In the first screenplay by writer Paige Dylan, we get a nicely rounded character in Laney as both the director Adam Salky and actress Silverman herself add depth to the well-written role.  When the film focuses on Laney, it's entirely successful.  Unfortunately, as we branch out to other characters -- particularly when Laney spends time with her children -- some of the dialog feels trite and some of the scenes seem ill-conceived and never really pay off with any dramatic emphasis.  While I understand the importance of showing Laney's downward spiral and how it affects her relationship with her kids, I never found myself latching on to this aspect of the story in a meaningful way and quite frankly, considering the subject matter of a mother going off the deep end, I should've.

However, overall, this is an indie movie that proves to be an unflinching look at addiction.  As mentioned, although I wanted the film to go on (which is certainly a credit to the screenwriter, director, and lead actress), the film ends on a note that causes the viewer to really ponder Laney's past and future journeys.  Silverman (nominated for a Screen Actor's Guild award for Best Actress) is captivating and engaging, showcasing that she definitely has the dramatic chops to tackle a role like this.  Here's hoping we see more of this in her future.  As for the film itself, it's well worth 85 minutes of your time and while it may have a few problems, its positives undoubtedly outweigh its negatives.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Movie Review - Macbeth

Macbeth (2015)
Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, David Thewlis, and Sean Harris
Directed by Justin Kurzel
***This film is currently available on Amazon Prime***

I've always said that you have to be in the mood to watch Shakespeare and I thought I was when I started director Justin Kurzel's iteration of Macbeth...but the heaviness and gloom combined with whispered and sometimes unintelligible dialog (which is never a good thing in a Shakespearean adaptation since the Bard's words are sometimes difficult to grasp) make this adaptation quite a slog.  Truth be told, Macbeth isn't one of my favorite Shakespeare dramas so that may have something to do with my displeasure here, but I had hoped that this cinematic piece would've enlightened me a little bit into Shakespeare's tale of a good guy turned very bad and with one exception that simply isn't the case in the slightest.

Quite frankly, the storyline here, particularly at the beginning, is incomprehensible.  If this were one's first venture into Macbeth, you could never be admonished for not understanding what in the hell is going on.  The heavy Scottish accents, mumbled words, and whispered verse are difficult with which to acclimate oneself.  I tried for forty minutes, but then had to give in and turn on the subtitles -- oh, well.  About an hour in once our title character (played by Michael Fassbender) really takes control of the fiefdom and his wife (Marion Cotillard) begins to recognize the monstrous man she's created, I began to gain interest, but it was too little too late as the dour heaviness of the production just weighs down any modicum of interest.

What the film does do right in terms of the story -- and the few times that the otherwise unemotional and cold Fassbender and Cotillard really shine -- is showcasing the impact that the loss of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's infant son had on them.  The film's most powerful moments revolve around paternity and lineage, and my eyes are actually newly opened to this aspect in Shakespeare's work.  Kudos in that regard to Justin Kurzel, but while his film contains some beautiful stark cinematography which is admirably shot, that aforementioned dirge-like atmosphere never ends.  The bleak and dismal environment isn't the least bit entertaining or captivating and makes this Macbeth an aggravating failure.

The RyMickey Rating:  D 

Monday, May 23, 2016

Movie Review - American Ultra

American Ultra (2015)
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Tony Hale, and Bill Pullman
Directed by Nima Nourizadeh

I recorded American Ultra on the DVR during a free preview weekend of some pay cable network and before watching it, I deleted it.  Did I really wanna watch a movie whose main character is a stoner pot smoker?  In the opening minutes, Jesse Eisenberg's Mike Howell and Kristen Stewart's Phoebe Larson must've lit up at least five times.  Longtime blog readers know that I'm not a huge fan of drugs mixing with comedy -- I just feel it's an easy, cheap way to elicit laughs -- so I actually deleted the film.  For some reason, though, I decided to restore it to my DVR and give it a go -- and I'm glad I did.  American Ultra isn't going to set the world on fire, but its ultra-violent premise yielded enough laughs (in a non-drug-centric manner) and a clever, well-acted story that I found myself pleasantly surprised.

Mike is a convenience store clerk who, when not smoking pot, spends his free time hanging out with his girlfriend Phoebe and writing a comic book about a heroic ape.  One evening, Mike is approached at the store by a strange although very put-together and sophisticated woman (Connie Britton) who begins babbling some nonsensical words to him.  Mike shrugs off the exchange, but minutes later when he's jumped by two guys, Mike goes into violent beast mode, attacking and killing the duo with ease.  Mike slowly begins to realize that he may have been programmed by the government to commit such crimes and now that he's been "activated," some government officials may want him dead.

Moving along at a rather rapid clip, American Ultra smartly doesn't overstay its welcome because its entire story is essentially summed up in that aforementioned paragraph.  Without a huge amount of plot, we're instead treated to incredibly violent set pieces that are played for laughs -- a tricky balance to achieve, but executed successfully for the most part by relative newcomer director Nima Nourizadeh.  Tarantino-level in their graphicness, the violence is undoubtedly over-the-top and at times unbelievable, but the film is able to cleverly get the audience to embrace the insanity because the flick's main character can't believe what he's seeing either.  Stoner Mike's expert combat techniques are just as incomprehensible to him as they are to us in the audience so that surprisingly immediately connects us to the character and allows us to "accept" the elevated violence because we're on the same page as Mike.

Eisenberg and Stewart are a nice match for one another, although neither lights the world on fire here.  They're both a bit too monotone throughout for my liking, but that's really their acting style most of the time, I've always felt.  The supporting cast of Connie Britton and Topher Grace as CIA agents respectively for and against Mike are enjoyable, bringing some additional laughs to the flick.  My review may be slightly overpraising American Ultra which is by no means exceptional, but it was a bit of a surprise for me.  Certainly not for everyone, the flick is much better than I ever expected.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Movie Review - The Keeping Room

The Keeping Room (2015)
Starring Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Muna Otaru, Kyle Soller, and Sam Worthington
Directed by Daniel Barber
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

As the Civil War is nearing its end, three women -- two sisters Augusta and Louise (Brit Maling and Hailee Steinfeld) and their slave Mad (Muna Otaru) -- find themselves surviving, but struggling to keep their small family estate alive and well after they receive word that their father has been killed in the war.  Things take a turn for the worse when two Union soldiers (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) break away from their regiment and head out on a vigilante rampage, running rampant across the countryside killing, raping, and looting.  When the soldiers attempt to ransack Augusta and Louise's property, the three women won't back down, doing all they can to stop the two men from succeeding in their vicious aspirations.

The Keeping Room opens with a heartbreakingly, grippingly violent opening scene that sets the tone for what is to come and while director Daniel Barber and debut screenwriter Julia Hart's film can't quite live up to the power that occurs during those initial moments, there's an interesting premise here even if it isn't always executed to its fullest potential.  Ultimately, The Keeping Room is a little too filled with silences and three ladies staring off into the countryside to really maintain its momentum, but at its crux this tells a story from a unique perspective that isn't often seen.

It's a bit unfortunate, as well, that its trio of ladies is a little uneven in terms of fully embodying the grit and determination needed for their characters.  Most successful is Muna Otaru in her first starring film role, but part of her ability to shine lies in some nice monologues concerning slavery that aren't particularly afforded the other women.  Least successful is Hailee Steinfeld whom I often like, but here she never quite grasps the Southern drawl (a little surprising seeing as how she was great in True Grit) and her Louise is the least fleshed out of all the characters.  Similarly, Brit Marling seems to waver in her accent as well, but Marling always has me wavering myself as to whether I like her or find her disappointing as an actress.  There's something natural about her that I appreciate, but sometimes when she's asked to really emote, I'm left feeling empty -- that doesn't just apply for this movie, but for many I've seen her in.  Somehow, though, Marling is captivating as the lead so she continues to befuddle me a bit.

With a little more experience behind the camera (this is only director Barber's second film) and on the screenplay, The Keeping Room had the potential of being something truly special.  While it unfortunately doesn't quite excel, it still works as a film, giving us a believable story from a perspective that feels original.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-


Saturday, May 21, 2016

Movie Review - Irrational Man

Irrational Man (2015)
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, and Jamie Blackley
Directed by Woody Allen

No one will ever mistake Irrational Man for being one of Woody Allen's masterpieces, but it's certainly not one of his disasters.  A middle-of-the-road dramedy, Irrational Man is Allen's somewhat comedic take on Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train.  Here, troubled college philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) moves to a new university to begin teaching a summer session where he meets engaging graduate student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone).  Although Jill is dating fellow student Roy (Jamie Blackley), she immediately falls for Abe's intelligence and what she perceives as power despite the fact that Abe himself is facing internal strife and what he believes to be an existential crisis.  While Abe doesn't initially return Jill's affections, one afternoon while lunching at a diner, the two overhear a woman desperately complaining to her friends about the unfair judge presiding over the custody hearing concerning her children.  Upon hearing this, Abe thinks that helping this woman whom he doesn't even know may be the key to getting him out of his funk.  And how should he help the woman?  What about carrying out the perfect crime (seeing as how there is zero connection between Abe and this unknown woman) by killing the judge presiding over her custody hearing?

Therein is the Hitchcockian spin in Allen's latest feature film which, when it occurs about halfway through, lifts the flick up from a bit of a slow, predictable start.  Phoenix fits right in to the Woody Allen landscape with his downtrodden professor a perfect match for the actor himself who is quite adept at playing depressed men with a bit of anxiety.  (It wouldn't be a Woody Allen film without anxiety creeping in, right?)  While Emma Stone's Jill doesn't stretch the actress in any way, it's a much better character than her somewhat over-the-top role as a kooky psychic in Allen's last feature Magic in the Moonlight.  In fact, everything about Irrational Man is better than that prior feature, despite the fact that this flick, as mentioned, takes a little while to actually get to the meat of its story.  While Phoenix and Stone certainly try to make their relationship patter click in the film's first half, it really doesn't end up mattering much to the overall story which is no fault of the two actors.  Still, Irrational Man falls into the upper half of the Woody Allen flicks I've seen in terms of quality and story, and, while not perfect, creates an engaging atmosphere that comes into its own as the film progresses.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Friday, May 20, 2016

Movie Review - Self/less

Self/less (2015)
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Natalie Martinez, Matthew Goode, Victor Garber, Derek Luke, Michelle Dockery, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, and Ben Kingsley
Directed by Tarsem Singh

When the aging billionaire Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley) is diagnosed with terminal cancer, his wealth permits him to meet up with a scientifically creative professor named Albright (Matthew Goode) who has created a procedure called "shedding" wherein one's thoughts, consciousness, and "mental past" is transferred into the body of a younger, healthier body.  Hale agrees to the procedure which is successful as Hale's consciousness is placed into that of a younger man (Ryan Reynolds).  As the new "Hale" starts a new life, he begins to have flashbacks involving a woman (Natalie Martinez) and her young daughter (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) whom he never knew.

Who exactly are these two females and why "Hale" is envisioning them are the questions at the center of director Tarsem Singh's Self/less (yes, that '/' is ridiculously part of the title for some reason) which isn't nearly as confusing as that summary may make it sound.  Unfortunately, the premise despite being slightly original feels tired because the screenplay and direction are rote and generic, unable to capture the genuine interest of the audience.  Ryan Reynolds is fine and he, at the very least, makes the flick watchable.  However, Matthew Goode (whom I typically like) is given a role that feels incredibly cookie cutter -- and whose character's motivations are obvious from the get-go.  Also unfortunate, Reynolds shares many a scene with Natalie Martinez, a model-turned-actress who I've seen in a few things now (including an entire season of the tv show Secrets and Lies) and am convinced she can't effectively emote onscreen.  Over-the-top, not believable in the slightest, and oftentimes painful to watch, I don't quite know why she's getting jobs in the entertainment industry.  Maybe she'll grow as an actress, but right now I'm not enjoying what she brings to the table.

Self/less actually isn't quite as painful as this review may make it out to be, but it's certainly not all that entertaining.  It's a bit too much of a slog to sit through in order to make it be considered even average.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Movie Review - The Forger

The Forger (2015)
Starring John Travolta, Christopher Plummer, Tye Sheridan, Abigail Spencer, Anson Mount, and Jennifer Ehle
Directed by Philip Martin

While I'd never find myself urging anyone to go rent The Forger, this little drama/heist flick isn't nearly as bad as its extremely minimal theatrical release indicates.  John Travolta is Raymond Cutter, a con man who strikes a deal with a criminal (Anson Mount) in order to get released early from prison so he can be with his son Will (Tye Sheridan) who has been diagnosed with an inoperable malignant brain tumor.  As a stipulation to his release, Raymond -- a talented artist -- must forge a painting by Monet and then take part in an operation to steal the original from a Boston library.

I will admit that as I typed out that summary, it almost seems a little laughable, formulaic, and overly melodramatic.  And perhaps The Forger is all those things, but I was surprised that I didn't dislike it as much as I thought I would.  (That's a ringing endorsement, huh?)  Travolta is fine throughout, but he comes alive in scenes involving the young Sheridan (also quite good) and the charismatic Christopher Plummer who plays Raymond's father.  The trio of actors make The Forger an enjoyable quick watch.  Now, is this little known film going to set the world on fire as a sleeper hit in years to come?  Not in the slightest, but should it perchance pop up on any streaming entity in the near future, believe me when I say you could do far worse.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Monday, May 16, 2016

Movie Review - The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight (2015)
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, and Channing Tatum
Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino movies piss me off...and I mean that in the nicest way possible.

As I sit and watch them (with the exception of Kill Bill which I admittedly haven't watched in a while), I often find myself cursing the writer-director for being so loquacious, adding scenes that seemingly do little to advance the plot except to showcase his (only sometimes) brilliant ear for dialog.  But by the time most of the conclusions to his films roll around, I end up giving him a pass on the preceding verboseness because he manages to tie things up on such a clever note.  Such is the case with The Hateful Eight - a nearly three-hour epic that features an awful lot of talking, very minimal sets, and a group of essentially eight actors who carry the film very adequately on their shoulders doing Tarantino's Western-Agatha Christie And Then There Were None mash-up justice.

In his eighth film as a director, The Hateful Eight unfolds across six chapters detailing how a group of people end up seeking refuge at Minnie's Haberdashery in Wyoming during a horrible blizzard in the time shortly after the Civil War concludes.  Arriving just before the snowstorm really hits is John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter, who has the elusive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in tow ready to reap his reward upon delivering her to the authorities in Red Rock.  Ruth arrives at Minnie's with Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) - a Union major in the Civil War - and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) - the newly appointed sheriff of Red Rock.  Pent up at Minnie's already are four men whom are immediately distrusted -- Bob (Demian Bichir), a Mexican who claims he's working for Minnie who has left to see her sister several miles away; Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), an Englishman who is also a hangman; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a cowboy just passing through; and Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), a Confederate general.  With a large bounty on the head of Daisy, John Ruth questions his safety and perhaps he is justified.  As the night unfurls, secrets and motivations are revealed as one by one people begin to bite the dust.

There's no doubting that The Hateful Eight moves at a slow pace -- many of the reviews and personal comments I heard from people stated that "nothing happens" until the last hour.  While it's certainly true in that there's not much plot per se in the film's first half, there is a sense of character building that I must admit is Tarantino's forte.  We get a real sense of who these characters are by the dialog they speak and their interactions with others.  Yes, it's true that the characters present are racist misogynists (of which there was much hoopla upon the film's release), but that's Tarantino's modus operandi across his last three films (for better or worse).  And, admittedly, that's part of the reason for my first sentence of this review in that I can't help but think that Tarantino sticks too closely to what has worked for him in the past -- films broken up into chapters; films told out of order or with massive flashbacks; brash language; insanely rough violence; characters all cut from the same cloth in terms of personality -- rather than branching off in unexpected directions.  Kudos to him for finding a niche that works and sticking to it, but I do long for something new and fresh from the guy.  However, The Hateful Eight works so maybe I should just let him do what he does.

As far as the small cast, most successful at settling into their characters are Jennifer Jason Leigh (Oscar-nominated for her role) and Kurt Russell taking center stage in a film for the first time in a long time which this reviewer found to be a bit of a pleasure.  Leigh and Russell have a lot of interactions with one another and right off the bat the two click with Leigh portraying the tough as nails criminal and Russell playing the tough as nails bounty hunter, neither liking each other, but quite literally linked together by chains.  Samuel L. Jackson is certainly entertaining and a captivating entity, but he's the only one of the group that feels as if he was transplanted from a more modern time into the past.  He doesn't necessarily take us out of the era, but his character never quite clicks realistically.

The Hateful Eight will never be a film for everyone -- it's undoubtedly a Tarantino film and if they're not your cup of tea, this will not be for you either.  Yes, it's too long and that harms it, but it's definitely on par with the director's efforts as of late which have all been quality flicks that would all fare a little better if an editor tried to trim things a little more.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Movie Review - Dope

Dope (2015)
Starring Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Zoë Kravitz, A$AP Rocky, Keith Stanfield, and Kimberly Elise
Directed by Rick Famuyiwa
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Dope starts out quite clever, amusingly smart and engaging -- there's seriously a joke about Neil de Grasse Tyson and Ice Cube that lands so humorously in the first few minutes that my hopes went sky high.  While director-screenwriter Rick Famuyiwa's flick doesn't quite maintain its momentum after some great opening moments, Dope still provides a rather unique glimpse at African American culture.

Malcolm (Shamiek Moore) is a high school senior growing up in Inglewood, CA.  Obsessed with 90s rap culture, Malcolm also finds himself getting trashed on by other students for liking "white stuff" like skateboards, comics, "TV on the Radio," getting good grades, and applying for college.  It's that last "white thing" that's prominently on Malcolm's mind when the film opens.  Desperate to head to Harvard, things are going rather swimmingly for Malcolm until he's convinced by his friends and fellow geeks Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) to attend the birthday party of drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky) at a popular club.  Malcolm obliges in part because he knows that Dom's on-again/off-again girlfriend Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) will be there and Malcolm hopes to make an impression despite the fact that he's not exactly adept with the ladies.  However, the party gets raided by the police and Dom hides his stash of dope in Malcolm's backpack unbeknown to the high schooler, leading to a chaotic series of events that turns Malcolm's life upside down.

While Dope maintains its insightful humor throughout, I could't help but think that it lost a little bit of its original point of view once Malcolm becomes an unwitting drug dealer.  Directorially, Famuyiwa always keeps things sly, both visually and story-wise, and he gets some great performances out of his three main cast members.  Shameik Moore, in particular, is a fresh-faced newcomer who more than carries the film with his exuding of both intelligence and street smarts, and Tony Revolori and Kiersey Clemons (the latter, a sassy tomboy lesbian) add authenticity to the proceedings.  Beyond this trio, however, the film finds itself teetering a little bit, unsure of whether it wants to stay based in reality or go a little over-the-top and whenever it veers towards the latter, I found myself disappointed and removed from the story.  Still, Dope's aesthetic and main performances provide a unique experience that I wish was a bit more carefully executed throughout.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-




Saturday, May 14, 2016

Movie Review - Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015)
Starring Dylan O'Brien, Ki Hong Lee, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Jacob Lofland, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Aiden Gillen, Lili Taylor, Barry Pepper, and Patricia Clarkson
Directed by Wes Ball

I still stand by original notion that the overarching plot of the Maze Runner series is perhaps the most interesting of all the dystopian teen epics that we've seen over the past several years.  In the original film, a group of teens was thrown into a deadly labyrinth which, upon their escape, they discover was run by a group called W.C.K.D. in order to experiment on the young.  At the end of the first film, the surviving teens are helicoptered out of the maze facility presumably being taken to safety, however, as The Scorch Trials begins, we see that Earth as we know it is in shambles -- a desolate dust storm where the only survivors seem to live in a facility run by those who saved the kids from the maze.  The teens soon begin to realize that those who saved them may not be their saviors, but may in fact want to harm them.  Led by Thomas (Dylan O'Brien), the group manages to escape the facility, only to find a world overrun by zombies (yeah...) as they try to find safety.

The Scorch Trials starts out incredibly promising as, much like the teens, we in the audience try and determine who's good and bad.  Unfortunately, once the teens escape, the premise of the sequel begins to fall apart.  I mean, zombies?  Really?  Sure, the plot was already ludicrous with the whole maze and then a burgeoning conspiracy, but I had bought into the proceedings...and then you add zombies to the mix?  Ugh.  That said, if I were to remove the zombies from the equation, The Scorch Trials would've been equal to its predecessor.  Yes, it's the middle film of a trilogy so it's really just a stepping stone to the inevitable finale, but there was potential that was squandered with those damn zombies.  I'll still be there for the final movie as I still think the premise is unique enough to warrant its existence -- I haven't given up on the series like I did with Divergent -- but I must say I'm a little disappointed with this one.

The RyMickey Rating: C

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Movie Review - Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Starring O'Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown, Jr., Aldis Hodge, and Paul Giamatti 
Directed by F. Gary Gray

I can't say that I'm surprised the Academy didn't include Straight Outta Compton in their list of Best Picture nominees this year.  Not only is the subject matter not exactly in the Academy's wheelhouse, but the film never really steps out of the typical biopic genre in a way that's overwhelmingly or cinematically amazing.  Don't mistake the last sentence for a lack of enthusiasm from this blogger - Compton is a solid film, but it's not a top ten contender.

Like many of those unjustly ridiculed Academy members, I couldn't have cared less about the subjects of Straight Outta Compton seeing as how rap music has no place on my iPod.  However, the creation and subsequent dismantling of the rap group NWA in the late 1980s/early 1990s yields a decent story that proves to be surprisingly capable of keeping my interest.  Rappers Eric "Eazy-E" Wright (Jason Mitchell), Andre "Dr. Dre" Young (Corey Hawkins), and O'Shea "Ice Cube" Jackson (O'Shea Jackson, Jr.) each had varying degrees of difficulty in their life in Compton, California.  Eric was into the drug trade, Andre was an aspiring DJ having trouble at home with his mother, and Andre was a high school student harassed by police simply for living where he lived.  The three end up banding together (along with two other members) to create a rap album which is met with success in the local area, piquing the interest of Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who eventually ends up managing the group sending them on a nationwide tour after their subsequent album which includes the controversial song "F*** tha Police" detailing injustices at the hands of law enforcement becomes a breakout hit.  The aftermath of the very un-PC song and the subsequent skyrocketing success leads to quite a bit of tumult within NWA as Ice Cube begins to question whether Jerry is really the man to lead the group to all of their dreams.

Despite following a typical storyline of a group of nobodies becoming immensely successful only to be broken apart by fame, Straight Outta Compton never has that VH1 Behind the Music feel to it in part thanks to the controlled and steady direction from F. Gary Gray who allows his film time to develop the characters at all aspects during their career.  We get time before they're successful, during their peak of fame, and post-NWA careers and this permits to audience to see the varied emotions and motivations of each of the three key members of the group.  With its lengthy, nearly 150-minute runtime, Gray doesn't rush things which is surprisingly a positive especially considering this reviewer's distaste for movies that overstay their welcome.

That said, despite the time spent delving into Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube's personal stories, the screenplay (the only Oscar-nominated aspect of the film) sometimes feels oddly rushed and slipshod. Incidents that led to Ice Cube's distrust of police, as an example, feel pedestrian and forced as opposed to impactful.  Similarly, scenes depicting the LA Riots in the early 90s lack an emotional resonance and feel slightly laughable rather than riveting.  The film falters when looking at these "big picture" aspects of society, but wholly succeeds when looking at the individual struggles facing its three main characters.

Part of the reason for that success is the aforementioned direction that permits the characters' personal lives to resonate at a slowed-down pace, but the bigger surprise here is the group of three relatively unknown actors who capture the lives of rappers Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube.  I'd be hard-pressed to choose who I liked best out of the trio of Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins, and O'Shea Jackson, Jr (the latter of whom hasn't acted before and is the son of Ice Cube).  The film gracefully moves in and out of the lives of all three and each actor more than stands his ground and makes his aspect of the story riveting.  By the time the end rolled around, I'd say Jason Mitchell may eke out the MVP award simply because his character goes through a bit more of an arc and personal struggle, but all three are impressive and really elevate the proceedings.

In the end, I can't blame the Academy for the failure to nominate Straight Outta Compton.  It's a very good film, but even I can't place it in the top ten of the year.  Will it pop up in a few RyMickey Award categories?  It's possible, but even if it doesn't quite make the cut, I must admit that I was quite surprised to have enjoyed it as much as I did.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Movie Review - Maggie

Maggie (2015)
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, and Joely Richardson
Directed by Henry Hobson
***This film is currently available via Amazon Prime***

In Maggie, America is facing the ravages of "The Turn," a pandemic ravaging the country that causes those infected to gradually over a six-to-eight week period of time devolve into zombies.  However, during those two months after being bitten, the lives of the infected are somewhat normal and most of them continue to live at home with their families.  That's the case for teenager Maggie (Abigail Breslin) who, after becoming infected, returns to live at home on the farm with her dad Wade (Arnold Schwarzengger), stepmom Caroline (Joely Richardson), and two step-siblings.  Wade and Maggie face the inevitable as the weeks progress with both realizing that they're going to be tasked with difficult decisions in order to save the lives of those they love.

Maggie is undoubtedly a different kind of zombie movie.  It's certainly a slow burn with admittedly little happening throughout its run time.  A character piece, first-time director Henry Hobson's film is low on plot, but high on showcasing the relationship between a father and daughter, both of whom love each other, but recognize that a huge sacrifice is ahead of them.

In perhaps his most understated and most dramatic role yet, Arnold Schwarzenegger eschews the machismo that we've come to expect and admirably tackles being a sensitive, caring father.  His Wade is a man of few words, but Schwarzenegger absolutely captivates here, telling us a lot of what we need to know through his sullen demeanor and tired eyes.  Breslin doesn't quite fare so well at first, but as the film progresses and Maggie's situation becomes more dire, we finally get some emotional struggle in her character which helps to endear her to us in the audience.

Maggie has its issues -- the biggest being that despite only being ninety minutes, it feels a bit draggy particularly in the opening half -- but it's intriguing nonetheless simply for presenting a dramatic view of an extremely popular sub genre.  It's certainly not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but it has its moments and it proves that Schwarzenegger actually can act.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Movie Review - Sisters

Sisters (2015)
Starring Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ike Barinholz, Maya Rudolph, John Leguizamo, Bobby Moynihan, James Brolin, and Dianne Wiest
Directed by Jason Moore

Every review of Sisters that I read seemed to indicate that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler deserved a better film than what was placed in front of them when it came to this flick, but, if I'm being quite honest, I'm not sure they do.  I say that not nastily, but simply to indicate that Fey and Poehler are known and acclaimed (quite deservedly) for the their work on the small screen.  Not every tv star (and certainly not every Saturday Night Live alum) is worthy of a big screen career.  And there's nothing wrong with that.  Perhaps in time I'll be proven wrong when it comes to Fey and Poehler's cinematic ventures, but Sisters is not doing the very funny duo any favors.

Drawn out for an interminably long duration, Sisters gives us Maura and Kate Ellis (Poehler and Fey) -- two sisters who return to their childhood home in Orlando after they've discovered that their aging parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) have just sold it so they can move into a retirement community condo.  Angry that their parents would do such a thing without consulting them, Maura and Kate decide to live it up one last time in the house and throw a party for all their high school friends like they did in the old days.  This leads to fellow SNL and variety show actors and actresses hooting and hollering it up in sketch-like scenes that do little to forward the actual plot of the film.  (Not that the film had much of a plot to start...)

There are laughs to be had in Sisters -- and, in fact, there are moments that sustained extended laughter for me which is never easy to do particularly when you watch a movie alone in your home -- but the bigger comedic bits aren't the least bit intrinsic to the plot.  Rather than add to the story, they make you feel as if you're watching an SNL-type show where only a few of bits are actually humorous and then you get angry at yourself for wasting so much time watching it.  [Therein is the reason I refuse to watch SNL anymore.]  The script by Paula Pell (an SNL writer herself) is a sketch in search of a full-length plot and it never gets there.

As far as Fey and Poehler go, the latter fares a tiny bit better than the former, but both aren't given much with which to work.  Perhaps one of these days, the two actresses will be given a movie part really worthy for their obvious comedic talent, but Sisters does not deliver in that department.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Friday, May 06, 2016

Movie Review - Serena

Serena (2015)
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Rhys Ifans, David Dencik, and Toby Jones
Directed by Susanne Bier
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

A bit of a countrified film noir, Serena is the tale of timber empire head George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) whose success in the 1929 Smoky Mountains has led to a rather prosperous community amongst his workers. Upon a visit to the more cultured big city, George meets Serena (Jennifer Lawrence), immediately falls for her, and marries her right away.  With her family having worked in timber, Serena steps up and begins to take charge which doesn't sit too well with some of the workers.  While George accepts and is actually quite pleased with his wife's demeanor and candor in his workplace, he also discovers that she has an awful jealous streak and that she may be a bit more conniving than he ever imagined.

Serena stars two big name celebrities, yet found itself sitting on the shelf for quite a while, finally getting a very limited release in early 2015.  That's oftentimes a death knell for films and while Serena isn't horrible, it's got a myriad of issues that is never quite succeeds in overcoming.  While Cooper and Lawrence are fine (and they actually have some nice moments individually), their chemistry is a little lacking, but there's part of me that wonders if that's the fault of the film's editing which is quite muddled.  There's a tendency for director Susanne Bier and her editor to linger on shots longer than is really necessary, creating an odd tone and timing throughout the piece.  In addition, the character of Serena herself is so quickly introduced and placed front and center that she fails to really resonate with the audience.  Lawrence attempts at giving a well-rounded performance, but the motivations of the character feel slight, forced, and disappointingly fleshed out.  By the time the film takes on the more noirish tone in its final act, Serena feels as if it hasn't earned that tone thanks to the way the editing and characters have played out prior.

There's no doubt that you could fare worse than Serena and I could understand the allure of wanting to watch it because of the film's two stars, but don't say I didn't warn you about the lackluster nature of the piece.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Movie Review: Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)
Directed by Alex Gibney
***This film is currently available on HBO Now***

Lately, I've found myself really fascinated by the concept of Scientology.  As one of the talking heads in Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief mentions, I've been drinking the Kool Aid -- not of believing Scientology, however, but in watching people deconstruct the church's claims.  There's something incredibly impressive about this belief concept created by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard back in the 1950s with the writing of his book Dianetics and the fact that he (and current Chairman of the Board David Miscavige) have crafted something that forces believers to pay incredibly large sums of money in order to have access to the fundamental rules of the religion.  Sure, you may say that Catholics, as an example, donate to their Church as well, but (a) it's not mandatory, and (b) the Catholic religion doesn't refuse to talk to you about all aspects of its belief system if you don't pay up.  Seriously, the heads of Scientology have a good thing going in terms of raking in some dough.  That said, I'll refrain from discussing my views on Scientology itself and instead just state that Alex Gibney's documentary is a truly fascinating deep dive into this incredibly controlling religion.  (Yes, I'm well aware that some may consider all religions controlling to a certain respect, but I'm not sure that's an inherently bad thing as there's something to be said for religions creating a moralistic set of rules people tend to follow.)

Nevertheless, Going Clear is certainly a lambasting of Scientology and its unique nature.  Since the 1980s, Scientology has recruited many big names from entertainment into its realm -- Tom Cruise and John Travolta being the two biggest -- but there have also been quite a few who have broken away from the Church to speak out against it.  Here, director and 35-year Scientologist Paul Haggis breaks his silence, as does 13-year member actor Jason Beghe, both of whom discuss what they believe to be nefarious aspects of the religion.  However, filmmaker Alex Gibney makes sure that we're aware that Scientology wasn't just for celebs.  Tom de Vocht (right hand man to chairman David Miscavige) and Marty Rathburn (Miscavige's top lieutenant) were in the intimate circle at the high reaches of the Church and both recently left after years of abusing people personally (and being abused themselves) in order to carry out the whims of Miscavige.

There's no denying that Going Clear is one-sided, but until very recently (even after the release of this film), the Scientology community did not give interviews repudiating statements given by others going against the Church.  (That isn't to say that they didn't personally attack those who spoke out as is depicted in the documentary through a variety of methods...they just didn't do so publicly.)  This one-sided nature obviously doesn't tell the whole story, but it solidly depicts those opposed to the religion's somewhat seedy tactics.  The film goes on a little long (although it's definitely much more detailed than I expected which is appreciated at times) and it would've played a little better if we heard a bit from the pro-Scientology side of things, but it really is a fascinating glimpse at an unusual group.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Movie Review - Unfinished Business

Unfinished Business (2015)
Starring Vince Vaughn, Tom Wilkinson, Dave Franco, Nick Frost, and Sienna Miller  
Directed by Ken Scott
***This film is currently available on HBO Now***

I wasn't expecting much from Unfinished Business...and boy did it deliver!  There is not a single redeeming thing about this film with the exception being that Sienna Miller is easy on the eyes and that alone is not worth a damn thing.  The premise revolves around businessman Dan Trunkman (Vince Vaughn) who leaves his job at a major company after his boss (Sienna Miller) demands he take a pay cut.  Refusing to agree to this request, Dan sets out to form his own small business to compete against the job he just left.  With the help of an older employee who was also let go (Tom Wilkinson) and a young man who failed to get a job at the bigger company (Dave Franco), Dan and his two employees head around the world to try and secure that "one big get" that will put them on the map.

Horribly directed (it's one of those movies where the camera is behind a person and you hear them talking, but their mouth is obviously not moving), horribly written (one of the running jokes is that Dave Franco's character's last name is "Pancake" -- funny?), and acted in a ho-hum manner (presumably because the cast knew what utter dreck this was), Unfinished Business is truly one of the worst films of 2015.  Admittedly, I almost stopped watching this one halfway through in order to allow it to live up to its title, but I decided to finish it so I could give it the worst grade possible.

The RyMickey Rating:  F

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Movie Review - Ant-Man

Ant-Man (2015)
Starring Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Anthony Mackie, Judy Greer, Abby Ryder Fortson, and Michael Peña
Directed by Peyton Reed

Congratulations are in order to Marvel Studios who has managed to consistently deliver films that audiences clamor to see at the box office.  Having tackled their marquee superheroes, they've begun heading into the lesser known characters starting with 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy and continuing with 2015's Ant-Man, the tale of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a thief who is released from prison and finding it tough to make a living outside in the real world.  Desperate to reconnect with his daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) but without any money to provide child support, Scott agrees to take part in another heist at the home of the rich Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas).  Unfortunately, upon breaking into the home's safe, Scott discovers simply a suit rather than any money.  He takes the suit and ends up trying it on, only to shrink to the size of an ant.  Pym finds Scott and asks him to go on a mission to infiltrate the workplace of Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) who is trying to use the shrinking technology that was created by Pym to create weapons of war.

Ant-Man is a perfectly acceptable film and all aspects of it -- from the acting to the direction to the script to the special effects -- are enjoyable, but I didn't find myself fawning over it which, admittedly, is the case with many of the Marvel films for me.  Rudd is engaging as the lead character and it's nice to see Michael Douglas take a central role in a popular movie.  Corey Stoll is amusingly evil as well and his final showdown with Ant-Man is actually one of the best final battles yet in a Marvel film simply due to the fact that director Peyton Reed doesn't take things too over-the-top and allows the flick to breathe a little bit rather than feel like a nonstop unending action sequence.

But still, considering the raves this one got by people over the summer, I was perhaps expecting a bit more.  Don't mistake me -- Ant-Man is one of Marvel's better efforts, but I longed for a little more.  Perhaps when its sequel rolls around and we're given less of an origin story (which always tend to be boring), we'll be in for more of a treat.

The RyMickey Rating:  B