Monday, September 25, 2017

Movie Review - The Neon Demon

The Neon Demon (2016)
Starring Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Desmond Harrington, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks, and Keanu Reeves
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
***This film is currently streaming via Amazon Prime***

The fashion industry is a brutal one -- but one can only hope it's not as bad as what's depicted in The Neon Demon which details a profession that eats you up and spits you out...quite literally.  Young Jesse (Elle Fanning) has just moved alone to California in the hopes of making it big as a model.  Told to lie about her age in order to get more jobs, the innocent and naive fifteen year-old girl is nearly immediately fawned upon by some big-name photographers and designers which doesn't sit well with a few struggling industry models (Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee).  Adrift in the cutthroat world, Jesse befriends Dean (Karl Glusman) -- a nice guy who genuinely cares about her success and well-being -- and Ruby (Jena Malone) -- a make-up artist who's intentions may not be as pure as they seem.  As Jesse rises up in the ranks rather quickly, it's only natural that there will be some who want to take her down and they'll stop at nothing to succeed.

Totally original, but also completely full of WTF moments that had me questioning why I was watching, The Neon Demon is a visually stunning film with director Nicolas Winding Refn upping the stylish quotient from his previous endeavors.  That said, once you move beyond the look of things, there's not a whole lot here.  Fashion industry metaphors are obvious and they do nothing to advance the underdeveloped story which eventually devolves into a laughable horror movie of sorts.  Admittedly, the stylization of this film proves to be a near perfect match for the industry it's trying to send up, but with one-note characters and a too-basic story, The Neon Demon doesn't quite make the grade.

The RyMickey Rating:  C



Thursday, September 21, 2017

Theatre Review - The Mountaintop

The Mountaintop
Written by Katori Hall
Directed by Walter Dallas
Where: Studio Theatre at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When: Tuesday, September 19, 7:30pm
Photo by Evan Krape/REP

The University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players starts off their 2017-18 season on a good foot with their production of playwright Katori Hall's The Mountaintop, a reimagining of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s last night alive.  Unaware of his horrible fate, King prepares for a speech in a rundown Memphis, Tennessee, hotel room only to be visited by a no-nonsense maid named Camae who may not be who she appears to be.  As King and Camae eloquently duel one another, the oratorical peacemaker reflects upon his past work and whether it will have any effect on the future of America.

A two-hander, The Mountaintop lives and dies by the actors playing its two characters and fortunately Hassan El-Amin and Antoinette Robinson -- the two newest members of the REP ensemble -- captivate and completely hold our attention.  El-Amin certainly has a difficult task attempting to embody the well-known and respected strength of Martin Luther King, Jr., but he proves to be up to the job.  El-Amin's commanding presence onstage begins the evening with the stern, buttoned-up public persona for which King was known, but then the actor slowly peels back the layers, seemingly humanizing the character of Martin Luther King, Jr., by showcasing a variety of emotions along with underlying heart and humor. 

Part of the reason King grows looser as the 95-minute production progresses is because of the beautiful and equally strong maid Camae which Antoinette Robinson embodies.  In her debut performance with the REP, Robinson tackles a tricky role in that Camae is a bit of a mystery to both the audience and King, beginning the play timidly and reverently bowing to King, but slowly becoming more emboldened as the evening passes.  To discuss more would be ruining a pivotal aspect of the story, but needless to say, Robinson adeptly balances both sides of her character's emotional journey.  

The chemistry between the two actors is palpable, not necessarily in a romantic way, but in the way El-Amin and Robinson ebb and flow through their characters' strengths and weaknesses.  Kudos to director Walter Dallas for fostering this relationship between his set of actors.  However, despite all the positives, The Mountaintop lacks a bit of momentum, overstaying its welcome by maybe ten or fifteen minutes.  A quickened pace may have solved this problem or it may just be something inherently problematic in writer Katori Hall's piece.  Once again, that's not to say that The Mountaintop doesn't work because it most certainly does.  I just wish it moved along a bit quicker.

The Mountaintop ends in a stunningly vibrant way that stands in stark contrast to the rather straightforward rubrics of a "standard play" that Katori Hall had adhered to throughout most of its runtime.  (In fact, everything up to that point was rather straightforward from the set to the costumes which both appear realistically lived in.)  I'll admit that I'm not sure how I feel about the conclusion, but I'm nevertheless still pondering it more than a day after I saw the piece.  I think all of us in the audience found ourselves pondering it because when The Mountaintop ended on Tuesday night and the lights came up, the audience was silent...a bit taken aback by what we'd just seen.  After we were prodded to applaud, I think we all realized that we saw something a bit more unique than we had expected and certainly a nice start to the REP's new season.

Note:  There are certainly political undertones throughout the piece and while I didn't stay for the talkback following the production, I'm sure they were discussed there.  Yes, The Mountaintop can certainly feel relevant to today's society, but I think it's a relevant piece to ANY time in ANY society and in that way I think politics can be left out of the discussion altogether.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Movie Review - The Founder

The Founder (2016)
Starring Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, Laura Dern, and Patrick Wilson
Directed by John Lee Hancock
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix**

I can't tell you the last time I ate a McDonald's.  Still, I understand the restaurant juggernaut's appeal of providing cheap eats even if I was forever scarred from eating a McDonald's burger when as a young kid I attended a birthday party held at the fast food establishment and was given a sandwich with ketchup and pickles on it.  Such grossness was never forgotten.  Why am I divulging info such as this in a movie review?  Because The Founder details the formation of the fast food giant at the hands of Ray Kroc whose tenacious "take no prisoners" approach to business helped him become one of the richest men in America.

Kroc's wealth didn't come easy, however.  After struggling for years as a door-to-door salesman of kitchen goods, Ray Kroc (played by Michael Keaton) discovers the quick food establishment known as McDonald's in San Bernadino, California, after that restaurant's owners -- brothers Mac and Dick McDonald (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman) -- decide to buy eight milkshake mixers that Kroc is selling.  The McDonald brothers transformed a drive-in into a walk-up fast-service establishment and found great success selling a limited number of items created in an almost mechanical, factory-like manner.  Kroc finds the process ingenious and convinces the reluctant brothers -- who had been burned by franchisees before -- to allow him to create several McDonald's outposts in the Midwest.  A strict contract detailing conformity in both the way the establishments and the food had to look was agreed upon by Kroc, but Kroc soon decides that he knows much more about running a "business" than the McDonald brothers.  At the very least, the ever-persistent Kroc thinks he knows more about how to make money and he does all that he can to try and bring more wealth into his pocket even if it means reneging on certain aspects of his contract wth the McDonald brothers.

Surprisingly engaging, The Founder owes much of its success to the believably slimy portrayal of Ray Kroc by Michael Keaton.  There's no doubt that Kroc carried a business acumen that would be envied by anyone -- and Keaton's Kroc certainly makes us envious of that aspect of his personality -- but he was also unethically egotistical.  Keaton portrays an outward cheeriness coupled with an "aw shucks" Midwest personality that masks an intelligence that undoubtedly allows Kroc to succeed at branding a commercial business where the McDonald brothers failed.  Perhaps the film could've been a touch more biting in its satire, but as it stands now John Lee Hancock's flick is an enjoyable look at an intriguing figure from the American business landscape.  And even though I've been scarred forever by the ketchup and pickle on that McDonald's burger from my youth, Ray Kroc proved to be a rather ingenious guy and The Founder helps to illustrate that.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Friday, September 15, 2017

Movie Review - A Hologram for the King

A Hologram for the King (2016)
Starring Tom Hanks, Alexander Black, Sarita Choudhary, Sidse Babett Knudson, and Ben Whishaw
Directed by Tom Tykwer
***This film is currently streaming via Amazon Prime***

When businessman Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) travels to Saudi Arabia to hawk his company's holographic telecommunication system to the country's king and government, he's leaving very little behind in the States.  Divorced with a college-aged daughter who wants little to do with him, Alan throws everything into this presentation, but Saudi Arabia isn't exactly the most modernized locale as Alan discovers when his team faces a lack of wifi and sandy floors in their tent located in the desert supplied by the Saudi Arabian king.  The pressure to deliver causes Alan to begin to lose it a bit, coming face-to-face with a late mid-life crisis that unfortunately for him occurs in a foreign country quite different from the one he knows.

A Hologram for the King is well-acted by Hanks and the rest of the cast, but after about forty-five minutes, the film's lack of a decent plot does it in.  Some weird dream-like sequences that begin to populate the film as it progresses set up some weird tonal shifts...and that's followed by a third act that feels full of some unnecessary side plots that purportedly try and resolve Alan's emotional crises, but end up seeming oddly out-of-place.  In the end, the amiable Hanks can't save the "kitchen sink"-type plot and direction that fail to set up a consistent mood.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Movie Review - The Bronze

The Bronze (2016)
Starring Melissa Rauch, Gary Cole, Thomas Middleditch, Sebastian Stan, Cecily Strong, and Haley Lu Richardson
Directed by Bryan Buckley

Movies that have a disarmingly unpleasant main character have an uphill battle to connect with an audience because we're inherently disinclined to gravitate towards them.  With great writing, this tricky proposition can be successful (see: Charlize Theron in Young Adult), but with a lukewarm script, the nastiness of the unpleasant character can make a film be a chore to watch...and that's the case with The Bronze, co-written and starring Melissa Rauch.  Rauch (best known for her role on The Big Bang Theory, a show which I've never watched) goes all in with the abrasive character of Hope Ann Greggory, an Olympic gymnast who successfully won a bronze medal despite a horrible injury that happened at the Games that nearly sidelined her chances.  She was the golden child following her win -- landing a spot on Dancing with the Stars even -- but a decade has passed and her ability to live off being a celebrity has faded as she finds herself living at home with her mailman father Stan (Gary Cole) who desperately wants his daughter to find a profession to earn some money.  When her former coach dies, Hope discovers that her coach left her half a million dollars in her will if Hope will coach new, up-and-coming gymnast Maggie Townsend (Haley Lu Richardson) through her entire Olympic run.  This doesn't sit well with the lazy, nasty, and uncaring Hope, but the prospect of $500,000 forces her to attempt the task.

Plot-wise, The Bronze has the bones of a perfectly acceptable indie comedy, but Hope is too much of a caricature to craft anything more than a recurring Saturday Night Live skit around.  After you've heard Hope curse at her father or try to undermine Maggie once, nothing is added when she does it again...and again...and again.  The repetition of Hope's unpleasant bitchiness is too one-note, lacking depth.  Without that depth to the character, the audience has no rooting interest for Hope to better herself because we've not become attached to any backstory or history.  Melissa Rauch certainly dives into the crudeness that she's created for Hope, but the spoiled brat we see onscreen just proves to be unpleasant, funny in only mild doses, and unable to sustain the humor across 100 minutes.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Movie Review - Captain Fantastic

Captain Fantastic (2016)
Starring Viggo Mortenson, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Ann Dowd, and Frank Langella
Directed by Matt Ross
***This film is currently streaming via Amazon Prime***

The inhabitants of Captain Fantastic are people with whom I would never ever want to spend any time in real life.  Self-professed hippie Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) has taken his six kids out of the "normalcy" of society to live on their own private family commune in the middle of the Washington wilderness where they kill their own food, learn survival skills, live out of an old school bus, and learn about left-wing philosophies.  Leslie, the matriarch of the Cash family, was recently hospitalized for bipolar disorder and at the end of the film's first act, Ben learns that his wife has committed suicide.  With the kids devastated, Ben decides to put his children on the bus and travel to his wife's parents' home where he will try and convince them to acquiesce to his wife's wishes and cremate her rather than having a church ceremony and subsequent burial.

The bus journey makes up the bulk of Captain Fantastic and while it certainly showcases the bond Ben has with his six children, it does little to make me feel that what Ben is doing is good parenting.  While I recognize that my personal opinion is neither here nor there (Lord knows as a conservative-leaning movie-lover, I'd have to hate half of what Hollywood dishes out), the film wants the audience to believe that what Ben is doing with his wilderness living is the best thing for his kids despite the fact that the film shows us several times that it's not.  The film is inherently set up for us to root for the life of Ben and the kids to remain their current status quo, but we in the audience know that's not what's best for them and by Ben being so stubborn in his ways, I found myself losing interest about halfway through.  Granted, by the conclusion of writer-director Matt Ross's film, Ben eventually realizes that he needs to adjust his kids to some semblance of normalcy in order for them to survive in the real world, but it's a bit too little too late.

Still, despite this, Captain Fantastic is moderately engaging thanks to Viggo Mortensen at its core as the genuinely caring father whose disdain for modern life has transferred fully onto his children.  As for those kids, most of them do nice work helping Mortensen to carry the piece especially young Shree Crooks as the headstrong and inquisitive youngest daughter Zaja.  Obviously your mileage may vary, but something about the motivations of the characters made it difficult for me to buy into this film despite the good performances.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Friday, September 01, 2017

Movie Review - Five Nights in Maine

Five Nights in Maine (2016)
Starring David Oyelowo, Dianne Wiest, Hani Furstenberg, Rosie Perez, and Teyonah Parris
Directed by Maris Curran
***This film is currently streaming via Netflix***

Good performances can't save Five Nights in Maine, a movie that really fails to have a decent emotional arc for any of its characters as it traverses its depressing subject matter.  Sherman (David Oyelowo) has just lost his wife Fiona (Hani Furstenberg) in a horrible car accident.  Prior to her death, she had just talked about going to Maine to see her dying mother Lucinda (Dianne Wiest).  Fiona and Lucinda didn't get along well and Sherman has never cared for his mother-in-law because of this.  However, he feels the need to visit as it was something his wife wanted to do again before her mother passed away.  Over the course of five nights, Lucinda and Sherman discuss a variety of topics as they try to reconcile with one another while dealing with the death of their loved one.

The first half hour of Five Nights in Maine is some powerful stuff.  David Oyelowo is riveting as he is given the news of his wife's death and he's just as compelling in the aftermath where depression rears its ugly head.  The problem with writer-director Maris Curran's film lies when Sherman goes to meet Lucinda.  Lucinda is played by Dianne Wiest as a curmudgeonly stoic witch of a woman which is certainly one way people could react to the death of a loved one, but her complete lack of compassion towards Sherman at the outset seems a bit farfetched.  While Lucinda eventually slightly warms to Sherman, their interaction with one another grows repetitive as Sherman is forced to simply take the unwarranted criticism that Lucinda constantly doles out.  Once again, Oyelowo is very good here and Wiest has moments where she shines, but for the latter her character is so off-putting that it's tough to care about her loss.  Plus, as mentioned above, by the time the film's conclusion rolls around, I couldn't help but think that nothing had really changed between the two characters since their first meeting.  The characters are roughly in the same spot at the end as they were at the beginning and it leads to an unsatisfying eighty minutes.  In the end, it's a real shame because Oyelowo is at his best here, but the lack of an arc for his character brings what could have been a fantastic performance down a notch.  Nice supporting turns from Teyonah Parrris (who continues to shine in everything I've seen her in) and a subdued Rosie Perez also can't help save this one and end up making me even more upset that it doesn't really work in the end.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Movie Review - Passengers

Passengers (2016)
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, and Laurence Fishburne
Directed by Morten Tyldum

There was so much promise in the first hour of Passengers that I found myself wondering why in the world the critics and general public dismissed this sci-fi flick upon its release last Christmas.  And then the second hour happens and all the goodwill engendered vanishes as the film resorts to the typical Hollywood-ization of "bigger equaling better" instead of continuing on with the more intimate tale created at the outset.  The tale of two disparate films that never mesh together, Passengers ends up being an ambitious disappointment which is quite a shame.

Sometime in the distant future, the starship Avalon is traveling to the colony of Homestead II, an Earth-like planet that will hopefully provide a sustainable life for the 258 crew members and 5000 passengers aboard.  It's not a quick jaunt, however -- the journey takes 120 years -- so the people aboard the Avalon are placed into hypersleep due to wake up four months prior to their arrival on Homestead II.  Unfortunately for mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), his sleep pod opens up 90 years early and he finds himself completely alone on the gigantic spaceship with robot bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) as his only companion.  After a year, however, Jim is finally no longer alone when writer Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) is found walking around outside of her pod.

This romance in space is what works so incredibly well in Passengers.  The chemistry between the affable Chris Pratt and the engagingly whip-smart Jennifer Lawrence is compellingly sweet as the duo run rampant through a huge futuristic world.  Their solitary companionship is surprisingly successful.  Unfortunately, the film veers off that path in its final half, forcing the charming duo to engage in a typical science fiction/action scenario that stands in such stark contrast to the lovely romance that precedes it.  Admittedly, there is a twist to Passengers that I'm unwilling to discuss here and the twist is believable and successful in its implementation...which is why it's even more disappointing that director Morten Tyldum's film shifts to genericness at its conclusion.  There was a huge opportunity for this film to be daring particularly in its final act and then screenwriter Jon Spaiths just takes the easy Hollywood way out.  It hurts even more since the first hour of this thing is filled with nice performances and a different perspective on the science fiction genre.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Movie Review - The Wave

The Wave (Bølgen) (2016)
Starring Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp, Jonas Hoff Oftebro, and Edith Haagenrud-Sande
Directed by Roar Uthaug
***This films currently streaming on Netflix***

The lovely town of Geiranger, Norway, is nestled on the base of a beautiful mountainous coastline, and in the early 1900s they experienced a horrible rock avalanche that resulted in homes being devastated not only by falling rocks, but by a tidal wave that formed as the rocks hit the sea.  Patriarch Kristian Elkjord (Kristoffer Joner) is a geologist preparing to move his family from the tourist destination town of Geiranger to Stavenger for a job opportunity, but on his final day on the job, Kristian notices some anomalies in the rock movement.  Pleas to evacuate the town fall on deaf ears when his boss refuses to believe there is an issue, but that evening chaos strikes as the cliffs begin to crumble and the town has only ten minutes to evacuate to higher ground.  Kristian must do all that he can to keep his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) and his two children (Jonas Hoff Oftebro and Edith Haagenrud-Sande) out of harm's way.

A Norwegian disaster flick, The Wave has all the trappings of the stereotypical tropes of the genre, but it nicely keeps the scope and gravity of the event confined to that of the Eikjord family developing a quartet of characters who the viewer learns more about than typical inhabitants of films of this ilk.  Kristoffer Jones and Ane Dahl Torp as the strong-willed father and mother carry the film in their separate storylines -- the couple are separated as is wont in disaster flics like these and must do what they can to reunite safely -- and we in the audience want nothing more than for the couple to be able to reunite.  While the film would never win any awards for its special effects, they're certainly nothing to scoff at either, proving more than capable in their low budget ways.  No one will mistake The Wave for any high art or anything more than a fun diversion, but it's better than its American genre counterparts like The Day After Tomorrow or San Andreas for sure.

The RyMickey Rating:  B- 


Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Movie Review - Free State of Jones

Free State of Jones (2016)
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, and Keri Russell
Directed by Gary Ross

Unfairly maligned upon its release last year, Free State of Jones isn't without its faults, but thanks to strong performances by Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mabatha-Raw, and Mahershala Ali, it's a solid look at a revolt against the Confederacy in the mid-1800s.  McConaughey is Newton Knight, a battlefield medic helping the Confederate Army who secretly returns home after he witnesses the death of his young nephew in battle.  His desertion won't sit well with those fighting against the Union, so with the help of his wife (Keri Russell), Newton hides out at various places in the area before finally having to take up residence in a swamp with several escaped slaves including Moses Washington (Ali) whom he befriends.  While in the swamp, he also comes to know Rachel (Mbatha-Raw), a literate slave, and their friendship leads to a romance.  Eventually, after several failed Confederate battles, more white men come to the swap to hide after desertion and Newton begins to rally these men along with the escaped slaves to form a militia to fight against the Confederate Army's forcible raids of Southern homes for livestock, food, and supplies.  Together, they form the Free State of Jones County and set out to battle the Confederate Army themselves.

The biggest reason Free State of Jones works so well is because of the cast.  McConaughey gives a great performance as the beleaguered Newton, worn down by the death of his nephew and the raiding of the homes of his family and friends.  You can palpably feel his disgust with the Confederacy and their actions and his vigor to try and fight the regime builds crescendo-like throughout the film's second half.  Gugu Mabatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali's characters are slightly less well-rounded, but they nevertheless make their roles captivating.  Mbatha-Raw, in particular, is saddled with the "romance" aspect of the plot and not given a whole lot else to work with, but she's still a great addition here.

The film falters a bit in the pacing by director Gary Ross -- its nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime feels it at times, particularly towards the beginning -- and the fact that a weird time jump to the 1950s that occurs multiple times throughout the piece is strongly out-of-place and unnecessary.  However, this is a better film by far than the somewhat similarly themed The Birth of a Nation which also came out the same year.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-


Monday, August 28, 2017

Movie Review - The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation (2016)
Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Mark Boone, Jr., Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, and Aja Naomi King
Directed by Nate Parker
***This film is currently streaming via HBO Now/Go***

The Birth of a Nation brought with it much controversy prior to its wide release last fall.  Overwhelmingly praised upon its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2016 in part because of the horribly misguided #OscarsSoWhite debate of that year (and receiving the biggest monetary acquisition of any film ever at Sundance), director-writer-producer-star Nate Parker's film found itself under attack upon its wide release thanks to a news story about some possible criminal activities in Parker's past.  Putting all that outside noise aside, The Birth of a Nation certainly places the African American experience at the forefront.  Unfortunately, the movie simply isn't very good.  Shoddily and laughably directed at times, poorly acted in moments, and heavy-handed in its symbolism, The Birth of a Nation's initial praise is an example of a politically-minded provocative film being in the right place at the right time rather than actually being any good.

Based (apparently somewhat loosely) on the real life of slave Nat Turner (played by Parker), The Birth of a Nation takes place in the early 1800s in Southampton County, VA.  Able to read, Turner becomes a slave preacher who is taken from plantation to plantation by his owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) to espouse religion to slaves.  Samuel is financially unstable and Nat's proselytizing is raking in the dough.  Nat, however, finds himself verbally contradicting his inner emotions as he's forced to preach to slaves obedience to their masters.  Although the relationship between Nat and Samuel has been a good one for decades - they played together as kids as a laughable prologue shows us - things take a turn for the worst following a party held at the Turner plantation which causes Nat to plan an uprising against his oppressors in the county.

The Birth of a Nation is difficult to watch in two ways.  Firstly, the film takes a violent turn in its final act and many will not be able to deal with the decapitations and various other horrific deaths depicted onscreen.  Secondly, Parker simply isn't a great director yet.  That aforementioned violent finale proves to be laughable sometimes in the way Parker films his violence.  Rather than be affecting, I found myself uncomfortably chuckling at times because of the way he depicts the horrific event.  (He need look no further than Quentin Tarantino to find a balance in how to showcase violence in uncomfortable situations.)  Unfortunately, this final act isn't the only time Parker's inexperience as a first-time writer and director behind the camera rears its ugly head.  Dream sequences featuring ethereal angels, a few awkward burgeoning romantic scenes with Nat and his soon-to-be-wife (Aja Naomi King), and some weirdly unnecessary location shots are just a few of the directorial and authorial choices that hurt the film rather than help it.  Additionally, Parker just doesn't get good performances from about half of his cast.  While Parker himself is adequate as the main protagonist (although I do wonder if the film would've been more affecting with a stronger actor as the lead), Armie Hammer and Penelope Ann Miller prove to be disappointingly awful at moments which is in part due to their performances, but also due to some of the poor dialog they're forced to spout at various times throughout the film.

Admittedly, the film got better as it progressed (only to regress again when it hits its final violent act).  I was initially prepared to lambast the film, but Parker does kick things slightly into gear in its middle act as the adult Nat is forced to preach in the midst of the painful reality of everyday life for those who are slaves.  Unfortunately, it's not enough to make The Birth of a Nation even remotely close to recommendable.

The RyMickey Rating: D+

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Movie Review - Equity

Equity (2016)
Starring Anna Gunn, James Purefoy, Sarah Megan Thomas, Alysia Reiner, Craig Bierko, Nate Corddry, Samuel Roukin, and James Naughton
Directed by Meera Menon

Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn) is a senior investment banker at a powerful firm headquartered in New York City.  Her last IPO was a bit of a failure upon it introduction to the stock exchange, so her latest endeavor in trying to bring social networking platform Cachet to the market is pivotal to keeping her in the good graces of her bosses.  However, the business world is cutthroat and sometimes even criminal as Naomi faces not only the IPO launch of her career, but also an investigation by government attorney Samantha Ryan (Alysia Reiner) who is looking into fraud with those connected to Naomi including her boyfriend Michael (James Purefoy), a broker who may be involved in insider trading.

I realize that the above may sound uninteresting to those lacking business acumen -- and that includes myself -- but Equity is a surprisingly engaging and exciting film, feeling almost like a thriller as Naomi navigates the tricky business world, trying to make a name for herself as a woman in a male-dominated field.  Anna Gunn of "Breaking Bad" fame is fantastic as Naomi, fighting backstabbing folks of both genders as she struggles to buoy herself after a rocky few months.  Strong and powerful, Gunn anchors the film with the shrewd notion that it's okay to like money...it's okay to want to have money...it's okay to want to be successful.

While the film may not be as cinematic as one would like -- the news of the possibility of a tv series based off the film makes sense -- the film still proves to be provocative in its approach at showing the female side of the financial markets.  Don't let the prospect of the subject matter scare you away from this one.  It's not nearly as complicated as The Big Short, but it's a whole lot more interesting and successful.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Movie Review - Snowden

Snowden (2016)
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Timothy Olyphant, Lakeith Stanfield, Joely Richardson, and Nicolas Cage
Directed by Oliver Stone

I think it's admittedly a little difficult to come to the Oliver Stone-directed Snowden without having some outside feelings towards the title character.  Was Edward Snowden an American traitor or a hero?  This film undoubtedly takes the latter stance with Snowden being treated in an almost saint-like manner at times.  The lack of a balanced look at the polarizing figure is slightly disappointing, but looking beyond that, Snowden is a surprisingly engaging and well-made film that kept my attention throughout and provides a good glimpse (albeit a surface one) at one of America's biggest political events of the new century.

Told within a framing device of his interview with documentarian Laura Poitrus (Melissa Leo) whose film Citizenfour brought his story to even more masses, the film opens in 2013 with Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) taking a huge leap and deciding to release private information he possesses that states that the United States government is spying on all Americans via their cell phones and computers.  The release of this information will undoubtedly cause him to be called a traitor, but after nearly ten years working in various government agencies including the NSA and CIA, Snowden feels that his findings should be made public.  The film then flashes back to the decade-younger Snowden as he gets his first job in Washington, D.C., and he meets his significant other Lindsay (Shailene Woodley).  Praised everywhere for his expertise in computers and coding, Snowden goes from job to job within the government, learning bits and pieces about how post-9/11 it was decided that -- for the safety and well-being of the country -- certain privacy laws would be lessened at certain times.

Frankly, no one is more surprised than me that this nearly two-and-a-half hour movie based on politics kept my attention, but kudos to Oliver Stone (who also co-wrote the film) for keeping the film moving at a solid pace and to Joseph Gordon-Levitt for his solid portrayal of the title character.  While Snowden himself is treated with kid gloves and saint-like (there's a particular moment towards the film's conclusion where a resolute and determined Snowden walks out of a dark bunker with a halo of glorious light surrounding him as soaring music swells in the background), I give props to Stone for depicting both the Bush and Obama administration with equal amounts of distrust.  Somehow, though, even though I liked the film, I can't find myself overly praising a whole lot about it and that's due in large part to the depiction of Snowden as too much of a do-gooder.  It doesn't help that during the film's conclusion, Stone has the real Edward Snowden literally "take the place" of Gordon-Levitt, putting the real figure into the spotlight in a way that detracts from the film in a distracting manner.  The politically-driven Stone had every right to create the film he wanted to create, but the lack of a critical eye towards the title character hurts the film a bit in the end and makes it difficult to praise its more-than-adequate cinematic craftwork.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Monday, August 21, 2017

Movie Review - Edge of Seventeen

Edge of Seventeen (2016)
Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, and Hayden Szeto
Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig

While it's certainly light on substance and not all that unique in its story, Edge of Seventeen works thanks to some cleverly written dialog by writer-first time director Kelly Fremon Craig and a grounded, realistic performance from Hailee Steinfeld as a loner high schooler dealing with a variety of teenage angsty problems.  As Nadine (Steinfeld) maneuvers through the rough road of being a teenager which carries with it fights with her widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and a will-they-or-won't-they flirtation with classmate Erwin (Hayen Szeto), she's also placed in the the difficult position of her twin brother Darian (Blake Jenner) starting to date her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson).  With the help of her caring, yet greatly sarcastic, teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), Nadine tries to come to grips with all that being a teenage entails.

The high school landscape wasn't nearly as treacherous for me as it seems to be for most cinematic teenage characters (this film being no exception), so I oftentimes find the neuroticism of films of this ilk lacking in grounded realism.  Somehow, though, that isn't an issue here as Nadine (who lost her father a few years prior) feels lived-in and believable.  Certainly part of the credit goes to Ms. Steinfeld whose roller coaster of emotions as Nadine successfully translates to the screen.  The other part of the credit falls to director-writer Craig who taps in to the teenage psyche without making things feel over-the-top.  With great performances all around from the ensemble -- there's really not a bad egg in the bunch -- Edge of Seventeen is a light-hearted, fun watch that deserves to be remembered as a solid addition in the "teen coming-of-age" genre.

The RyMickey Rating: B

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Movie Review - Catfight

Catfight (2016)
Starring Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, Alicia Silverstone, Amy Hill, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Ariel Kavoussi, and Giullian Yao Gioiello
Directed by Onur Tukel
**This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Catfight is almost so bad, it's good.  "Almost" being the operative word there, though.  Sandra Oh and Anne Heche at least hold our attention as rival college students who reunite as adults at a ritzy party where Veronica (Oh) brags about her rich husband to Ashley (Heche), a struggling artist acting as a waitress to make ends meet, but the two actresses can't overcome the rather tacky writing and lukewarm direction brought to the screen by Onur Tukel.

At that aforementioned party, Ashley gets so fed up with the haughty Veronica that she initiates a nasty catfight that ends up putting Veronica into a coma for two years.  Upon waking up, Veronica's life has completely turned upside down.  Needless to say, Veronica finds herself questioning her beliefs prior to the coma while also trying to remember exactly what landed her in the hospital in the first place.  Rather than spoil what comes next, let's just say that the rivalry between Veronica and Ashley hasn't come to a conclusion yet and their distaste for one another rears its ugly head for years to come.

Catfight unfortunately is just poorly pieced together and is perhaps trying to be more politically charged than it has any right to be.  Characters are one-note and oftentimes unbelievable -- the less said about poor Alicia Silverstone as Ashely's lesbian lover the better given the fact that her character never once is given any shred of reality in which to inhabit.  The film ends up being very repetitive by the time its conclusion rolls around and although I was moderately engaged that was really only because it was so laughably corny at times.  I've never seen so many poorly filmed punches in my life in a ninety-minute span as I saw in Catfight -- a decent fight coordinator coupled with a director who knew how to shoot fisticuffs would've helped many a scene here.  Once again, this almost reaches levels of absurdist fun, but in the end, it never gets to that point.

The RyMickey Rating:  C 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Movie Review - The Lobster

The Lobster (2016)
Starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, and Olivia Colman
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
***This film is currently streaming via Amazon Prime***

I was so on board with director/co-writer Yorgos Lanthimos' weirdly offbeat The Lobster throughout most of its first hour as its surreal tale begins to unfold.  David (Colin Farrell) has just gotten divorced and in the strange land in which The Lobster is set that means that he must find someone to fall in love with him in forty-five days lest he be turned into an animal.  Yep...I said it was weird.  David heads to a hotel run by a manager (Olivia Colman) who sets up a variety of activities to set people up with someone they can love.  As his days dwindle down and romance seems less likely, David ponders whether an escape is necessary...and that's where the story drastically changes and grows increasingly uninteresting in its second hour.

The comedic satire in the film's opening half creates a world with new rules that are fully embraced by both the film's characters -- which include John C. Reilly as a lisping loner and Ben Whishaw as a limping lover -- and the audience.  I bought into the insane set-up that people would actually turn into dogs or horses or even lobsters if they failed to fall in love, and I found the set-up unique and engaging despite the bleak and sometimes melancholy sadness that permeates the inhabitants of the hotel.  The second half, however, removes us from the hotel setting and things fall apart.  The comedic aspect fades away and the tone of the film shifts into something that disappoints.  (I'll admit to being vague here to avoid spoilers.)

Kudos to Colin Farrell for carrying the film and giving a solid performance as the depressed David who finds himself forced to find true love in a short amount of time.  Creatively, Lanthimos at least envisioned a dystopia that we haven't seen before.  Unfortunately, he can't sustain a two-hour film across this land set up in the way he has.  There was promise here that unfortunately didn't pan out.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Friday, August 18, 2017

Movie Review - The Salesman

The Salesman (Forushande) (2016)
Starring Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, and Farid Sajjadi Hosseini
Directed by Asghar Farhadi
***This film is currently streaming via Amazon Prime***

In the four films I've seen in the Asghar Farhadi directorial oeuvre, it's obvious that he's the current king of the slow burn mystery.  His films are modern day morality plays, creating tension from people's personal decisions rather than shoot-em-up thrills.  The Salesman is no different, but it takes a bit too long to get to its admittedly gripping conclusion.  While this meandering method of storytelling is the calling card of Farhadi, The Salesman is the least successful of the director's films thus far despite delivering fantastically in the acting department.

When actors Emad and Rana (Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti) are forced to leave their apartment after a nearby construction issue condemns their building, the married couple move into a rooftop apartment at a new complex.  Rana returns home following the opening night of their production of Death of a Salesman, with Emad arriving later only to find a bathroom covered in blood and his wife in the hospital after what seems to be a home invasion and attack.  Embarrassed and ashamed by the incident, Rana doesn't want Emad to report the crime to the police so Emad begins to investigate in an attempt to find the perpetrator who has sent his typically jovial wife into a depressing spiral.

What's always admirable about Farhadi is that as a writer he keys in to the slightly repressed Iranian culture and the stigmatization of women in the society.  Rana's shame in being attacked causes the woman to seemingly fear some form of retribution from her culture should she attempt to find the culprit of the crime.  Taraneh Alidoosti heartbreakingly hones in on this shameful notion as Rana, a typically engaging actress who welcomes the gaze of an audience, regresses into a solitary loner afraid of interaction with anyone including her concerned husband.  Shahab Hosseini's Emad is an even-tempered guy even after their home invasion, but Hosseini never lets us mistake that calmness for complaisance.  As his investigation becomes more successful, Hosseini still keeps the outward appearance of his character buttoned up, but also displays an inner rage and anger that he feels towards his wife's assailant.  A third actor -- Farid Sajjadi Hosseini -- also does fine work here as a beleaguered, worn-down elderly man whose scenes opposite Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini prove to be emotionally wrenching.

The three aforementioned actors are reason enough to watch The Salesman, but this is the least successful Farhadi film I've seen from a pacing standpoint.  Farhadi is almost defiantly deliberate in the way he slowly peels back the various layers of his characters and, in that regard, he does a fantastic job creating people who exude "realness" in his films.  However, The Salesman needed just a touch more editing in the middle forty minutes to really create something special (like his gripping film A Separation).  Asghar Farhadi is still a director and writer I've come to admire and I'll continue to look forward to his future endeavors.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Movie Review - The Family Fang

The Family Fang (2016)
Starring Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman, Christopher Walken, Maryann Plunkett, Jason Butler Harner, and Kathryn Hahn
Directed by Jason Bateman

Surprisingly more serious than I expected, The Family Fang is a drama with hints of dark comedy at the edges as we're introduced to the Fang family headed by patriarch Caleb (Christopher Walken in the present, Jason Butler Harner in the past) and matriarch Camille (Maryann Plunkett in the present, Kathryn Hahn in the past) who create performance art by placing the unsuspecting public in difficult situations presented by their family.  As adults, Caleb and Camille's children Baxter and Annie (Jason Bateman, Nicole Kidman) look back on their youth with disdain, feeling that their crazy parents harmed them in their adult careers as a writer and actress, respectively.  When the family is reunited after Baxter has an accident, Caleb and Camille try to unsuccessfully convince their children to help them with another piece of performance art, after which the parents decide to head off to a vacation in the Northeast...only to seemingly be involved in a horrible abduction that leaves them presumed dead.  Despite the police insistence, Baxter and Annie aren't convinced that their parents are actually dead, but rather creating an incredibly elaborate piece of performance art.

The Family Fang has a lot more depth than I expected.  Amidst the odd quirkiness which creates some truly comedic moments is a surprisingly heartfelt family drama.  The dysfunction displayed doesn't seem contrived, but instead feels natural and believable.  Sure, some of the performance art routines perpetrated by the youthful Caleb and Camille are a bit over-the-top and far-fetched, but they do a nice job in helping to build the resentment of Baxter and Annie which is wonderfully captured by the downtrodden, moderately depressed portrayals by Jason Bateman and Nicole Kidman.  The duo of Bateman and Kidman play off each other quite well and nicely balance the darkly comic and darkly dramatic sides present in director Bateman's film.  This is a big step up from Bateman's last directorial venture Bad Words and shows that the actor has definite promise behind the lens particularly in the "dramedy" genre where it's often difficult to create a well-balanced feature.  In addition to the nice performances by Kidman and Bateman, all of the actors portraying the parents are successful as well with particular kudos to Maryann Plunkett as the elder Camille who finds herself questioning in her adult life whether she's done more harm to her children than good.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Friday, August 11, 2017

Movie Review - Nocturnal Animals

Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, and Laura Linney
Directed by Tom Ford

There's a line in Nocturnal Animals in which a character mentions that a book was disappointing because she found her mind drifting elsewhere whilst reading it.  The same could be said for the movie Nocturnal Animals, a film that tells a story within a story with neither tale being quite compelling enough to stand on its own and neither tale meshing together in a way that proves to be an all-around satisfying whole.  In his second film, writer-director Tom Ford (a fashion designer in his other line of work) continues to prove that he's got an eye for the visuals, but that he still hasn't quite grasped the storytelling aspect of cinema.

We're first introduced to Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), an art gallery owner in Los Angeles, as she morosely mopes around her huge house dealing with an obviously unhappy marriage to her husband (Armie Hammer) who himself is facing some financial troubles.  Soon after, Susan receives a manuscript for a new novel from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) and she escapes into the book which features a main character who seems an awful lot like her.  As Susan reads, the novel plays out onscreen -- Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) is driving along a deserted Texas roadway with his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber).  A group of frightening men headed by the skeezy Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) run the Hastings off the road and then kidnap the family.  Tony manages to escape but is unaware of where his wife and daughter are being kept so he finds a small-town cop (Michael Shannon) to set out and try to find his family and enact revenge those who committed this crime.

I'm sure that somewhere in the midst of the two tales there are solid connections -- either via visual similarities or storytelling allusions -- but things never came cohesively together for me.  Plus, the Amy Adams side of things is oddly uncompelling in any way.  It doesn't help that Adams shows nary an emotion throughout, presenting an ice queen persona that doesn't allow the viewer to feel sympathy for her despite her mundane life.  The "novel" storyline fares a little better with Gyllenhaal giving a nice performance as the beleaguered father.  Michael Sheen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson were nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe respectively for their roles here (and Taylor-Johnson even won), but their characters seemed a bit too one-note to garner any real attention for me.  Frankly, the same could be said for the film itself -- it doesn't really deserve to garner any real attention.  I continue to think that Tom Ford has the potential to be something great, but his two films thus far haven't landed him there.  Maybe sticking to lensing things as opposed to writing them is his road to a better directorial future.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Movie Review - Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened

Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened (2016)
Directed by Lonny Price
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

In September of 1981, rehearsals began for the Broadway musical Merrily We Roll Along, the latest from stage superstars director Hal Prince and composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim.  Fresh off a string of huge hits -- Company, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd -- it seemed as if Prince and Sondheim could do no wrong so their tackling of musicalizing a 1934 play that went in reverse seemed a perfect next act for the duo.  Casting teenagers in roles that required them to play adults in the opening scene and then progressively reverse to their high school selves in the final scene where they'd dream about their ambitious lives ahead  unaware of the jaded people they'd become, Prince and Sondheim thought they were creating something ingenious.  Instead, Merrily We Roll Along was an epic failure, closing after just sixteen performances on Broadway.  The "gods" of Broadway had failed and that failure profoundly affected the young cast of actors who set out to a variety of careers realizing that the failure was the Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened.

Director Lonny Price who as a teenager snagged a lead role in Merrily We Roll Along breaks his documentary up into what are essentially two halves -- the first detailing the intricacies of attempting to put on a Broadway show and the second dealing with the lives of the cast of Merrily following its failure.  The first half is infinitely more intriguing than the second.  While some went on to great things on stage and screen -- Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame was a member of the Merrily cast -- others went on to a typical life away from the bright lights of entertainment.  Obviously there's nothing wrong with that, but there's admittedly something not all that compelling about such things.  After a fascinating insider look at the creation of a musical utilizing much footage from rehearsal rooms, this documentary's last act is a bit of a letdown.

While I'm a certainly a fan of "the theater," I'm not exactly all that knowledgable about Stephen Sondheim beyond a few songs or shows, but despite that lack of connection with one of the film's main subjects, I found the first hour of this film quite compelling.  Quite frankly, you could watch the film up until that point and get just as much out of it as watching the whole thing.  What works here works well.  What doesn't work here doesn't so much "not work," but simply falls flat.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Movie Review - Amanda Knox

Amanda Knox (2016)
Directed by Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

A compelling true-life murder-mystery, Amanda Knox delves into the story behind the title character when on November 2, 2007, Meredith Kercher, a young college student studying in Italy, is murdered in the apartment she shared with Knox.  After an investigation by the Italian authorities, Knox and her Italian boyfriend Raffaelle Sollecito were convicted of the crime and sentenced to jail despite their insistence that they had nothing to do with the murder.  The "trial by media" that ensued in the worldwide papers created a frenzy, portraying Knox as a sex-crazed party girl.  However, as time progresses, "stunning flaws" in the investigation and a media frenzy that demanded a "frantic search" for guilty parties may have caused the Italian police to jump the gun when it came to a conviction.

Rather surprisingly, Amanda Knox is fairly even-handed when it comes to its investigation into the crime.  Through interviews with Knox, her boyfriend Sollecito, and the head Italian police officer, we see both sides of the story detailing how Knox could be guilty or how she could be innocent.  While I have a personal opinion given the evidence as presented, filmmakers Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn create a very solid case for either side, adding in rather sly digs at the worldwide tabloid media that drummed up much more excitement and disgusting unjustified indictments than they should have.  Tackling this aspect of this well-known case adds another layer to what could've been a simplistic real-life Law and Order episode, but ends up being something much more compelling.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Movie Review - Krisha

Krisha (2016)
Starring Krisha Fairchild, Robyn Fairchild, Trey Edward Shults, Bill Wise, and Billie Fairchild
Directed by Trey Edward Shults
***This film is currently streaming via Amazon Prime***

The debut feature of writer-director Trey Edward Shults, Krisha is also the debut of actress Krisha Fairchild portraying the film's titular character in a tour de force, oftentimes scary, role as a sixty-something woman who returns home to a family get-together after a ten-year absence.  As the Thanksgiving Day festivities unfold around her, Krisha's desires to reconnect with her son Trey (portrayed by the director himself) and sister Robyn (Robyn Fairchild) begin to fall apart as her past indiscretions rear their ugly heads again and the reasons she abandoned her family come back to the surface.

Krisha is undoubtedly an "indie" piece, obviously low budget taking place in one house on one day throughout its runtime and filled with actors whom we've likely never seen before.  However, Trey Edward Shults and his cinematographer have a keen eye in that their lensing of the picture helps the audience to tap into Krisha's uncomfortable panic as she attempts to reconcile with her family.  Incredibly long unceasing takes or a spinning dizzying camera are just a few of the ways Shults mirrors Krisha's emotional state visually.  Sure, Shults' tale could've maybe used a scene edit or two and I found the film's horror-like score a little off-putting in the humanistic story, but this flick definitely proves that Shults is a filmmaker to watch in the future.

At its center, though, is a magnificent performance from Shults' real-life aunt Krisha Fairchild who brings heartbreak and pain to the title character.  From the opening long-take where we see Krisha put on a stoic front as she meets her family again only to have it begin to crumble as soon as her son decides to all but ignore her presence, it's obvious that Fairchild is the real deal.  As her hopes for a positive outcome begin to diminish, Fairchild perfectly conveys the downward spiral into which Krisha quickly falls, leading to a finale that feels heartbreaking despite its inevitability at the outset.  Krisha isn't a perfect film, yet my grade below may be a bit deceiving (despite the fact that it's a perfectly acceptable grade).  In this film, we see the promise in both its filmmaker and its leading lady, both of whom I'd enjoy seeing more from in the future and both of whom are reasons for any cinephile to give this a watch.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Monday, August 07, 2017

Movie Review - The Program

The Program (2016)
Starring Ben Foster, Chris O'Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace, Denis Menochet, and Dustin Hoffman
Directed by Stephen Frears
***This film is currently streaming via Amazon Prime***

A biopic of fallen cyclist Lance Armstrong, The Program features a strong performance by Ben Foster at its center, but despite a solid start, the film falters a bit in its second half becoming a tad repetitive and lacking the bite that one would hope as we see Armstrong's career ruined at the hands of illegal doping.  Opening with a 21 year-old Armstrong (Foster) disappointingly losing a cycling race in 1994, Armstrong decides to meet with Dr. Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) secretly known around the racing circuit for providing the doping drug EPO to clients.  Stimulating red blood cells to allow for maximum oxygen usage, EPO is a banned substance in the high-profile races around the world, but Ferrari and Armstrong come up with an elaborate plan -- "the program" -- to "hide" the fact that Armstrong is taking the drugs and they prove to be successful with Armstrong winning a race in 1995 shortly after starting the stimulant.  However, Armstrong's cycling is cut abruptly short when he is diagnosed with testicular cancer, but he jumps back from the disease stronger than ever (in part thanks to Dr. Ferrari's doping help) and wins five back-to-back Tour de France races before he retires in 2005.  Despite his fervent denials of doping allegations, Armstrong's storied career begins to fall apart when one of his teammates Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons) tests positive for testosterone and tales of Armstrong's intricate doping program come to light.

The Program is a perfectly adequate depiction of Armstrong's rise and fall and it certainly is intriguing to see how quickly the allure of success caused the renowned cyclist to turn to drugs -- I never knew (or perhaps forgot) that Armstrong was using the performance-enhancing drugs during every Tour de France win.  Ben Foster plays Armstrong with a deviant quietness throughout, narcissistic and pathological in his denials of doping.  Egotistical to the hilt, Foster's Armstrong still manages to be someone that the audience doesn't hate which is a credit to the actor.  While we never accept Armstrong's doping, Foster humanizes Armstrong enough that we find ourselves wrapped up in the cyclist's lie.  Foster himself is reason enough to give The Program a shot.

Unfortunately, the flick falters as it progresses mainly because it grows repetitive in its depiction of Armstrong continuing to elude the cycling community of his actions.  Although reporter David Walsh (Chris O'Dowd) had long thought that Armstrong was not winning by sheer athleticism, when the film focuses on Walsh (upon whose book this film was based), it ends up growing a bit tedious mainly because we already know that Armstrong gets his comeuppance.  There's little suspense and we're simply waiting for the inevitable to occur.  The Program is good enough to warrant a watch particularly if this story is even remotely compelling to you, but I wish it carried a little more punch to take it into a better realm.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Movie Review - High-Rise

High-Rise (2016)
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, and Jeremy Irons
Directed by Ben Wheatley
***This film is currently streaming via Netflix***

High-Rise is like some very weird warped Downton Abbey -- an Upstairs, Downstairs-type situation that morphs into a Lord of the Flies-style war depicting the differences between the upper classes and lower classes in an amped-up, manic manner.  And, just as you'd imagine, the chaos of trying to mix those three aforementioned disparate British classics makes High-Rise a bit of a mess.  Although it's visually appealing with some beautiful sets and costumes coupled with a classically retro 1970s vibe, director Ben Wheatley's film simply doesn't work, overstaying its welcome by nearly a third and devolving into a mess in the flick's second half.

Brain surgeon Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) has just moved into an apartment on the twenty-fifty floor of a new luxury high-rise forty-story tower built by architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) who himself lives in the penthouse with his uppity wife.  The high-rise contains a pool, gym, and even a grocery store, so its occupants find themselves with nary a need to leave.  The further up you live, the ritzier and more expensive your amenities become and the film soon becomes an allegory about class warfare with allusions at the end that capitalism is bad.

This is an odd film -- director Ben Wheatley peppers the flick with weird flash-forwards and it's full of some of the most bizarre characters I've seen in a long time.  The oddness of the whole thing had me intrigued initially, but I soon grew wary, only holding out hope that the allegorical nature would provide some philosophical intrigue.  Instead, the film becomes even odder, full of anarchic nihilism that had me angry I held on for as long as I did and didn't stop the flick sooner.  The cast admittedly gamely bites in to the quirkiness, but it's not enough to save this one.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Movie Review - Elvis & Nixon

Elvis & Nixon (2016)
Starring Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Sky Ferreira, Tracy Letts, Tate Donovan, and Ashley Benson
Directed by Liza Johnson
***This film is currently streaming via Amazon Prime***

Unbeknown to me, there is apparently some famous picture of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon shaking hands in the Oval Office.  Elvis & Nixon is a cleverly retro-stylized film by Liza Johnson that depicts the late December 1970 day when the King (Michael Shannon) demanded a meeting with the President (Kevin Spacey) in order to detail his concerns with the rising drug and hippie culture in the United States.  The stodgy President wants nothing to do with the hip-shaking singer, but he eventually obliges in part due to the urging of his aides (Colin Hanks and Evan Peters) and he ends up discovering that he may have an affinity for the pop star.

The briskly paced flick humorously depicts the obviously quirky "Odd Couple" dichotomy between Presley and Nixon with director Liza Johnson keenly mining the absurdity of the situation for all its worth.  Yet, at the same time, Johnson respects the positions of both famous men, never playing them for fools or suckers, mining laughs from the situation as opposed to at their expense.  Michael Shannon's Elvis gets the majority of the focus and he does a nice job of creating a well-rounded character as opposed to simply an impression of the famous singer.  While Spacey's Nixon is perhaps the opposite -- more of an impression than a fully-realized character -- I found his Nixon spot-on and amusingly engaging.  

I will admit that I wasn't particularly expecting much from Elvis & Nixon and perhaps that's why I enjoyed it so much.  While the trailers certainly depicted humor, I was expecting this to be some sort of history lesson (albeit an odd one) and it's nothing like that at all.  Instead, it's a pleasantly eccentric light-hearted flick that is worthy of a watch.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Friday, August 04, 2017

Movie Review - The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden (2016)
Starring Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Cho, and So-ri Moon
Directed by Chan-wook Park
***This film is currently streaming via Amazon Prime***

There's no denying that director Chan-wook Park has an eye for what looks good on the screen.  His three films I've seen thus far all look lush and are lensed in such a way that one hopes that the story lives up to the beautiful visuals.  Unfortunately, that isn't the case with The Handmaiden, a film that was nearly universally praised upon its release, but feels rather corny to me in the way its story unfolds and the way its cast interprets the material.

A similarity between all three Chan-wook Park films I've seen is their willingness to not shy away from eroticism in varying degrees.  That's certainly the case here as a love triangle is unmasked between three parties of different societal rankings who all harbor secrets in an effort to one-up one another.  Sook-hee (Tae-ri Kim) is a young pickpocket hired by Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) to become the handmaiden to the posh and polished Lady Izumi Hideko (Min-hee Kim).  Lady Izumi lives in an elegant manor with her Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) as her strict guardian.  Count Fujiwara has visited Kouzuki's house at one of the numerous events held there in which Izumi reads sexually explicit literature to groups of men and Fujiwara has fallen for Izumi...or at least that what he pretends.  In actuality, his goal is to have the hired handmaiden Sook-hee convince Izumi that she should marry him; shortly after he will have his wife institutionalized in a mental hospital in an effort to take her savings.  Unfortunately for Fujiwara, Izumi soon begins to fall for Sook-hee, but perhaps Izumi is simply playing Sook-hee for some other form of backstabbing as The Handmaiden is filled with deceit and betrayal...mixed in with a bunch of Skinemax-style lesbian sex.

Although it looks gorgeous and sumptuous, The Handmaiden can't escape the stench of "B-Movie" that permeates throughout.  The story almost feels as if it could've been written by some cheap romance novelist, certainly elevated in visuals by Mr. Park, but weighed down by corniness.  The cast doesn't do the film any favors, hamming it up across the board which seemingly was Park's intention (seeing as how they all act in this manner).  Admittedly, The Handmaiden echoes Hitchcock's works (including the sexualized nature of the entire film), but the plot never elevates itself to something more than a direct-to-video feature.

The RyMickey Rating:  D+

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Movie Review - Trolls

Trolls (2016)
Featuring the vocal talents of Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Zooey Deschanel, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Christine Baranski, Russell Brand, James Corden, Jeffrey Tambor, and John Cleese
Directed by Mike Mitchell
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

In all of my 2016 viewings, animated films have been decidedly lukewarm, failing to truly excite or entertain in any magnificent fashion.  Color me surprised, then, by my reaction to Trolls, a colorful, finely animated, nicely voice-acted, incredibly fun romp.  And the fact that it's brought to us by Dreamworks -- an animation studio that often leaves me disappointed -- is even more flabbergasting to me with Trolls undoubtedly being my favorite animated film the studio has released thus far.

The tiny elf-like creatures known as the Trolls are an incredibly happy group, prone to singing, dancing, and hugging every hour on the hour.  The Bergens, on the other hand, are human-sized goblin-like folks who live in a perpetual state of disappointment, unable to find happiness.  Years ago, however, the Bergens discovered that eating a Troll can provide a feeling of happiness and, because of this, the Bergens rounded up all the Trolls and caged them in a tree in a courtyard in Bergentown.  Every year on Trollstice, the Bergens allow themselves to eat one Troll and be truly happy for a few hours, and this year young Prince Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is going taste his first Troll, feeling contentment for the first time.  The Trolls, however, have finally had enough and plan an elaborate and successful escape from Bergetown thanks to King Peppy (Jeffrey Tambor) and his daughter Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick).  For years, the Trolls lived a blissful Bergen-free life, but following a raucous singing party, the Trolls are discovered by Chef (Christine Baranski), a Bergen banished from Bergentown following the escape of the Trolls.  Chef catches several of the Trolls and takes them back to the now King Gristle, but Princess Poppy along with the help of the only sad Troll around -- Branch (Justin Timberlake) -- set out to save their friends from digestion.

Sure, all of that sounds ridiculous and as I typed it, I couldn't actually fathom how I could've possibly enjoyed this silliness, but Trolls tells its upbeat story well and embraces the sheer frivolity.  The peppiness of the trolls is surprisingly enhanced by well-known pop songs as well as some pleasantly ear-catching original numbers sung by the likes of Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, and Zooey Deschanel all of whom -- as well as the rest of the vocal cast -- create believable voices for their characters.  Animation-wise, I found the computer animation to carry a slight Claymation tone and the environments which the Trolls and Bergens inhabit feel decidedly unique -- bright, cheerful, and arts-and-crafts-like for the Trolls and pointy, dark, and gloomy for the Bergens -- lacking the somewhat generic habitats we sometimes see in the cinematic animation landscape.

Pixar often aims for the heart, but Trolls doesn't even attempt that instead aiming for a visceral euphoria via its music, color, and pleasantly engaging (though simple) story.  While Trolls doesn't attempt to be deep or emotionally-investing in a Pixar-like way, it's fun...and sometimes that's enough.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+