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Letterboxd Reviews

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

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Movie Review - La La Land

La La Land (2016)
Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, and Tom Everett Scott 
Directed by Damien Chazelle

A few years ago, a movie musical called The Muppets topped my list of Best Films of the Year by tapping into nostalgia and creating a flick that put a smile on my face the whole darn runtime.  "Leave your worries outside that theater door and enter a world of happiness and exuberance," so said Kermit and Miss Piggy.  Five years later, a new duo of stars in Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone asked me to do the same thing with a new and completely original movie musical and I obliged, albeit a little nervously as I was hesitant that the hype surrounding their film La La Land would hinder my enjoyment.  My fears were completely unfounded because once Stone and Gosling popped up onto the screen, that oddly euphoric feeling I felt during The Muppets popped up here as well.  Exquisitely directed by Damien Chazelle, La La Land is a true cinematic musical treat that will get a second viewing by me to see if it can tick up that one level from "A-" land to the mystical world of the hard-to-get "A".

La La Land is certainly not reinventing the wheel in terms of plot.  It's a simple story of boy meets girl and the relationship that ensues after a meet-cute.  The boy -- Sebastian, in this case, played by Gosling -- is an aspiring jazz pianist who adores music icons of yore like Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong, but is finding the modern day crowd reticent to listen to that style of jazz.  It's a struggle to find his place in the music world of Los Angeles which is ready to leave him behind.  The girl is Mia (played by Stone), an aspiring actress who moved to LA from a small town in Nevada, but is finding herself working at a Hollywood studio coffee shop admiring the actresses who come in for a drink instead of actually being an actress herself.  Our boy and girl meet and eventually fall in love, pushing each other to pursue their dreams across a Los Angeles landscape that is pushing against them succeeding.

The simplicity of the story is enhanced twofold.  First, the chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone is incredibly palpable with the two radiating joy in nearly every scene.  The repartee between the two is utterly charming and often comedic, reminiscent of 1940s Katherine Hepburn/Cary Grant flicks (Bringing Up Baby is even mentioned in the film).  Stone and Gosling have shown us their comedic chops and their chemistry before in the wonderful Crazy Stupid Love and the duo doesn't disappoint here.  They nail every emotional iteration their characters are supposed to experience and honestly as soon as they meet in the film, I couldn't help but smile from ear to ear whenever they were together onscreen.  This is essentially a two-charater piece (hence the lack of a Screen Actor's Guild ensemble nomination) and the duo succeed at every turn.  Their singing isn't too shabby either -- granted, neither would win American Idol, but that's part of the charm of the film.  We get more emotion from the lack of perfection in their voices than we ever would from a spot-on singer crooning these tunes.

Secondly, the simple tale is elevated by the glorious direction of Damien Chazelle -- he of the fantastic Whiplash two years ago.  Nothing in the intense and cinematographically dark Whiplash would've keyed me in that Chazelle had this old school-Hollywood romanticism in him, but with the exception of one four-letter word (and the use of cell phones and Priuses and other modern technology), La La Land feels like it could've been made in the golden era of Hollywood musicals.  Odes to Singin' in the Rain and An American in Paris and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (the latter not a Hollywood musical, but you get my drift) are everywhere as a rhapsody of Technicolor hues and stunningly gorgeous lighting are present in nearly every scene which are themselves filled with beautiful costumes and production design.  That aforementioned smile plastered on my face -- part of that was simply from the imagery and colors flashing across the screen.

Admittedly, and perhaps a bit surprisingly, where the film falls the tiniest bit short is in the "musical" aspect in part because there are really only six songs in its 130 minutes.  While the characters are certainly breaking into song, I couldn't help but want more.  I initially thought the film got a little slow in the middle, but upon reflection that was really only because of a lack of songs not because the film itself was actually slow per se.  The songs by Broadway songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are lovely, some soaringly exuberant and some achingly painful, but all (with the exception of an odd opening number that feels the tiniest bit out of place) are intrinsically helpful in advancing the plot.

Then again, the songs are just one key musical element of La La Land as Chazelle not only utilizes lyrics, but also some lovely dance sequences to enhance the musicality of the piece.  Incredibly reminiscent of the extended dances in the aforementioned Singin' in the Rain and An American in Paris, Chazelle allows dance to advance his simplistic plot, elevating our character's emotions and feelings through this form of media which is obviously something the modern moviegoing audience doesn't see everyday.  Admittedly, these moments in the 1950s Hollywood films always fell flat for me (the titular ballet scene in An American in Paris puts me to sleep), but thanks to the dazzling original score by Justin Hurwitz which melds old Hollywood and jazz along with extended takes with few cuts and edits by Chazelle, I was onboard.

I was hoping that Damien Chazelle was a director to watch after the intensely exciting Whiplash, but with La La Land he shows us a completely different side of his aesthetic.  The romance, humor, and happiness that jumps off the screen allows us to leave any troubles outside the confines of the four walls of the theater and embrace an old school cinematic mentality that is far too uncommon in modern film.  The simplicity of the story elevates Chazelle's visuals, Gosling and Stone's chemistry, and the music itself in La La Land with all aspects melding into a gorgeous cinematic treat that I'll certainly be exploring again in the near future.

The RyMickey Rating:  A-

Movie Review - Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters (2016)
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Andy Garcia, Neil Casey, and Chris Hemsworth
Directed by Paul Feig

There was much brouhaha over the fact that 2016's iteration of the classic Ghostbusters was being fronted by a quartet of women instead of a quartet of men.  Internet taunts and nasty comments were bandied about by anonymous individuals behind computer screens about how women aren't funny and couldn't possibly headline of film of this ilk.  While that's all certainly uncalled for, what's really unfortunate is that this version of Ghostbusters isn't good -- those initial trailers which were ridiculed across the World Wide Web were justly criticized because director and co-writer Paul Feig has crafted a numbingly painful supernatural action comedy that starts off incredibly promising and then begins to fail set piece by set piece until it makes its way to its disappointingly dull finale.  And the worst part of it is that it's not the fault of the quartet of actresses onscreen, yet the foursome shouldered much of the criticism lodged at the film.

Quite frankly, a plot summary isn't really necessary here -- four gals get together and eventually try and hunt down some ghosts before the supernatural beings take over the city of New York.  Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy take center stage during the film's initial scenes as a dueling duo who once worked together before drifting apart and I must admit that I found myself laughing out loud more than once as they tossed one-liners back and forth at each other.  Thirty minutes in and I was wondering why in the world this flick was so lambasted upon its release.  Gradually, Kate McKinnon works her way into the mix as a kooky mechanic of sorts (her role was praised the most, yet I found it a bit one-note and reminiscent of many an SNL character of hers) and Leslie Jones gets added as an NYC subway operator who calls upon the ghostbusting gang to investigate an occult occurrence on a subway track.  McKinnon and Jones are both fine, but they begin to take away from the more successful camaraderie of Wiig and McCarthy.

And then writers Paul Feig and Katie Dippold just throw everything down the drain with attempts at creating a variety of set pieces in which our female quartet fights ghosts and the whole movie falls apart.  The action aspects are a jumbled mess.  The comedy bits become tired.  Worst of all, the whole film becomes dreadfully boring.  Feig (as a director) has had his share of hits and misses in my book, and this falls on the miss side.  While I would've loved to have seen a resurrection of the Ghostbusters franchise, this female-fronted flick just doesn't fit the bill as the ladies here aren't helped by the behind-the-scenes team.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Movie Review - Loving

Loving (2016)
Starring Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Marton Csokas, Nick Kroll, and Michael Shannon
Directed by Jeff Nichols

Just because a movie tells an important true story doesn't necessarily mean it's good.  Unfortunately, that's the case with Loving which details the circumstances that led to the Supreme Court hearing Loving v. Virginia which ruled that interracial marriages were constitutional.  Director and screenwriter Jeff Nichols gets really nice subdued, lived-in performances from his leads, but the film is tediously numbing, embracing the "everything's slower in the South" mentality and failing to really create any momentum as it progresses.

"I'm pregnant" are the first words we hear as the film opens as Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga), a young black woman, sits on a porch nervously waiting for a response from her boyfriend Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), a white man.  As a smile forms on Richard's face, the two decide to get married, but due to laws in Virginia where they currently reside, they must travel to Washington, D.C., to get a marriage license.  Even after they return to Virginia as husband and wife, Mildred and Richard have to walk on eggshells because the concept of an interracial romance was not looked upon kindly by those in their neighborhood.  Shortly following their wedding day, the couple is awoken in the middle of the night by a police raid on their house which sends both Richard and the pregnant Mildred to jail for sleeping in the same bed together.  Upon their release, they are tried in court and through a plea bargain set up by their lawyer, the couple are forced to leave Virginia in exchange for not facing any jail time.

Over the course of the rest of the film, we see how Mildred and Richard deal with their extradition from Virginia, being forced to leave their families behind and start anew on their own.  Eventually, after nearly a decade, the couple's case is tried before the Supreme Court, but the film doesn't focus on this aspect of their story as much as I'd expect.  The end result, as a matter of fact, feels oddly rushed and almost tacked on which seems a bit odd considering it's the impetus behind their story being told cinematically in the first place.  

The quiet nature of the film grows boring quickly, but Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton both give understated, yet powerful performances where more is told through their eyes and facial expressions than any actual words.  Both Negga and Edgerton have crafted characters that feel lived-in and natural to the 1950s/60s world they're inhabiting in the film.  The connection between the two of them feels credible and Negga in particular is captivating in the strong, yet subdued way she carries herself as Mildred.

The film itself, though, simply wallows in blandness.  Repetitive shots of bricklaying or car races or a laughably silly closing image of a rope hanging over a tree (that is used as a children's plaything but is obviously harkening to its similarity as a noose) feel unnecessary and unimportant to the plot.  There's an appreciation to the notion that Jeff Nichols focuses mainly on the couple rather than the important civil rights battle of their triumphant story, but the quiet nature of the piece almost creates a lack of compassion for these two because the film feels a need to be stoic and calm rather than a little passionate.  Loving is well-acted and it's certainly an interesting story, but in the end it's more likely to put you to sleep than elicit any other emotion.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Friday, December 09, 2016

Theater Review - Something Rotten!

Something Rotten!
Music and Lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick
Book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell
Directed by Casey Nicholaw
Where: St. James Theater, New York, NY
When:  Thursday, December 1, 7pm

While no one will ever mistake Something Rotten! as high art, it's one heckuva fun musical that will undoubtedly have you smiling from its opening minutes to its curtain call.  The Kirkpatrick siblings Wayne and Karey (who have written music for my favorite current musical group Little Big Town which surprised me) have crafted a cadre of songs that are cleverly staged by director Casey Nicholaw in the grandest of Broadway fashion that make Something Rotten! one of the more enjoyable and whimsical nights that you'll have at the theater...but you've got to see it quickly if you want to see it on Broadway as it's ending its run on January 1.

It's 1595 in London and William Shakespeare (Adam Pascal) is the talk of the town, adored by his fans and lauded by his peers -- all of his peers but one.  Nick Bottom (Rob McClure) can't stand the prolific Bard.  A fellow playwright, Nick is admittedly jealous of Will and the praise heaped upon him, so he decides to visit soothsayer Nostradamus (played by understudy David Hibbard at my performance) to ask him what audiences will be clamoring for in the future.  After a fantastical production number in which Nostradamus predicts that the future of theater lies in this thing called "A Musical," Nick sets out to write one of these odd, contrived "musicals" where people just break into song to convey their feelings.  What's the focus of Nick's musical, you may ask?  Nostradamus predicts that Shakespeare's greatest play will be the epic, deeply moving "Omelette" -- say it out loud...notice any similarity to Shakespeare's "Hamlet?"  Yep.

Monty Python-esque in some of its humor (although much better than Spamalot which was a disappointment), Something Rotten succeeds because of its humorous music and lyrics and Casey Nicholaw's direction of said songs.  There are several epic production numbers.  When "A Musical" is performed towards the beginning of the play during which Nostradamus riffs on a variety of popular theatrical moments from Annie to The Music Man to Rent to Avenue Q (to upwards of fifteen more), I didn't think the production could continue conjuring up the epic enthusiasm present in that showstopper.  Fortunately, I was wrong.  Towards the end of the second act, we're given another roof-blowing moment in which Nick's "Omelette - The Musical" is staged and it's possibly even more fun than everything that came before it.  The play nicely mixes some other musical styles into the mix - a little gospel, some rock, quite a bit of tapping - and Nicholaw keeps the whole thing running at a nice pace (although there were a few lulls here and there, particularly towards the end of the first act).

Unfortunately, the musical's book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell doesn't quite match the fun of the show's songs.  Tired jokes about Jews and Puritans and women and homosexuals felt like they were written by folks from the 1960s and come across as sophomoric..  I mean, the uptight Puritans have a repressed homosexuality -- haven't we seen that numerous times before?  I'm all for a bawdy joke and I hate the politically correct society in which we currently live, but these jokes were just weak.  The play's core relationships work, but many of the side characters -- placed in the play specifically for a humorous effect -- wind up falling flat.

The acting, for the most part, was as solid as they come on Broadway.  Rob McClure as Nick Bottom more than held my attention with a nice voice and great comedic timing.  John Grisetti as his brother Nigel played nicely off of McClure and Grisetti's secret romance with Puritan Portia (Jenny Hill) led to one of the night's most surprisingly entertaining production numbers.  Adam Pascal was also amusingly entertaining as the egotistical ladies' man Shakespeare.

Is Something Rotten! the best thing I've ever seen on Broadway?  No.  But it's one of the most enjoyable 150 minutes I've spent in a theater.  As someone with a degree in English (whose final thesis focused on Shakespeare) and a fan of all types of theater, this musical felt tailor-made for me and it more than exceeded my expectations.  Fun all-around and absolutely worth seeing, Something Rotten! is indeed anything but something rotten.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Movie Review - Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Starring Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, and Teresa Palmer
Directed by Mel Gibson

Hacksaw Ridge is an engaging film of two disparate tones that surprisingly and seamlessly meld together under the direction of Mel Gibson.  Certainly a difficult sit for its last hour which gives the audience one of the most realistically violent portrayals of war I've ever seen captured on film, I never found myself bored or uninterested in the true story of conscientious WWII objector and soldier Desmond Doss even during the film's first ninety minutes which plays like a 1940s style Hollywood wartime romance.  However, while Gibson succeeds at blending two distinct genres (and infusing some amusing humor), his film sometimes plays a bit too hokey due to some of his directorial flourishes and some of his cast's one-note "podunk country" characterizations.

Andrew Garfield portrays Doss who grew up in Lynchburg, Virigina, during the Great Depression.  A near tragic childhood incident in which Desmond could've killed his brother instills a deeply religious belief system into his young mind, with Desmond carrying the missives of the Ten Commandments with him throughout this life.  When WWII begins, Desmond feels that he must enlist to serve his country despite the urgings of his parents (Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths) and his girlfriend Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) to remain in Virginia and do his part on his home soil.  Filled with patriotic pride, Desmond heads off to basic training to be a combat medic where he immediately finds resentment amongst his fellow soldiers for his refusal to carry a weapon, taking on the role of a passive conscientious objector as he abides by the commandment that he "shalt not kill."  Many attempts are made to relieve him of his duties, but Desmond perseveres and is allowed to head over to Japan with his regiment (after a quick wedding to Dorothy, that is).  It's there where the American troops engage in an epic battle to take over Hacksaw Ridge from the Japanese -- a brutal melee during which Desmond proves his worth and his unimaginable bravery without ever picking up a weapon.

Desmond Doss's story on the battlefield is an amazing one -- one that deserved to be brought to the screen.  His tale is treated with reverence by Gibson (and the screenwriters) and it's certainly an odd thing to see religion and faith be treated with respect in a mainstream big budget movie.  For that, I commend Gibson, but I also feel that there were moments when visually the director decides to paint a too blatantly Jesus-esque depiction of Doss.  Slow motion edits and obvious cinematographic overtones hammer home the comparison a bit too bluntly (and actually caused me to laugh at one point in time -- something that was certainly not the intention).  In a similar fashion, during the film's first half, much of cast is forced to portray one-note characters, particularly that of Desmond's father Tom played by Hugo Weaving.  Weaving is the quintessential country bumpkin -- an alcoholic, abusive, slow-talker who is eventually won over by his son's backbone -- and he's playing a joke of a role that feels as if it could've been culled from a Duck Dynasty episode or a human version of The Country Bear Jamboree.  Quite frankly, it's a bit embarrassing, as is the typical array of characters Desmond meets in his army regiment from the tough-as-nails Smitty (Luke Bracey) who refuses to accept Desmond until a pivotal moment changes his worldview to a comedic Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) who puts Desmond through a tough struggle to stay in the army.  Granted, Desmond's army buddies fare better than his father, but the script does these side characters no favors.

Andrew Garfield and Teresa Palmer come across much better and their love story is peppered with several meet-cutes and blinky-eyed 1940s flirting, but it works in the environment set up by Gibson.  Admittedly, this romance stands in huge contrast to the incredibly violent though brutally realistic war scenes in the film's second half, but Gibson manages to stage both disparate segments with confidence, allowing Desmond's religious faith to remain a strong focus amidst the chaotic freneticism of the violent Hacksaw Ridge battle.

In the end, Hacksaw Ridge is a successful film and portrays a story that will instill a great deal of pride in Americans who give the film a watch (even those inherently anti-war and anti-violence).  Gibson really does do an excellent job in showcasing and merging the brutality of war with the gentle strength of faith and character in Desmond Doss.  I just wish the screenplay could've allowed for a more well-rounded portrayal of the cast outside of the film's central romantic relationship.  It's good to see Mel Gibson back behind the lens again and even if he adds in a few too many flourishes, he proves he's an adept auteur.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Thursday, December 01, 2016

TV Review - The Jinx

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst
Directed by Andrew Jarecki
***This series is currently streaming via HBO***

Having heard great things about the six-part documentary The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, I figured I'd give this HBO series a go despite the fact that I knew about the big bombshell it manages to drop (which I will discuss below, so be warned).  In the end, the documentary feels too long-winded to prove totally successful and ends on a disappointingly unfinished note (particularly if you're already aware of the aforementioned bombshell going in), but I still found myself intrigued by the story of the rich New York socialite Robert Durst and the crimes he has been accused of committing.

In 2010, director Andrew Jarecki released his fictional film All Good Things which was based on the life of Robert Durst, the son of a real estate mogul in NYC, who was passed over as head of his father's company in favor of his younger brother.  Robert was intrigued by the film that focused on his life and he contacted Jarecki and offered to be interviewed about the crime depicted in the director's film.  Much like the movie, Durst's wife Kathie had gone missing in 1982 and while Durst was thought by friends to be connected to his wife's disappearance, the police and district attorneys could never get enough evidence to garner a warrant.  Cut to decades later in 2001 and Durst finds himself living in a seedy house in Texas where he gets accused and placed on trial for killing and dismembering his elderly next door neighbor.  Durst is rather shockingly acquitted of the crime, but still finds himself dealing with the looming notion that he killed his wife.

That looming notion ends up being at the heart of director Jarecki's six-part miniseries The Jinx.  Jarecki started out his documentary as perhaps just a glimpse at an eccentric character who may or may not have been responsible for his wife's death.  At the very least, Jarecki saw the opportunity to craft a series around a man who had obviously been accused of doing a great many horrible things.  However, as his investigation into Robert Durst grows deeper, his interviews with people at the heart of Kathie's disappearance (as well as the Texas death) cause Jarecki to "go detective" and attempt to determine whether Durst really did kill his wife as so many of their close friends believed.

Unfortunately, The Jinx suffers from being about two episodes too long with the whole proceeding feeling rather drawn out.  That's not to say that the in-depth look at Robert Durst isn't captivating...it's just it could've been more effective had it been a little more taut.  In addition, I found Jarecki's ending to be disappointing.  Jarecki held onto the ending - which SPOILER ALERT has Durst seemingly admitting to the crime - until it aired on HBO last year, keeping the big reveal a secret from even the cops.  Because of this, there's no resolution to the six hours we've seen prior.  We don't know whether Durst gets his comeuppance or whether he walks away scott free.  (Durst has also been accused of another murder of his close friend for which he was recently charged in California.)  It proved to be a let down after I had given so much time to the story.  Had I watched it live, I may have been blown away, but watching it so many months after and knowing "the big reveal" left me wanting more to come after that "big reveal."  In the end, I think I have to reluctantly not recommend The Jinx despite the fact that I rather enjoyed it while watching.