Friday, November 17, 2017

Theater Review - From the Author Of

From the Author Of
Written by Chisa Hutchinson
Directed by Jade King Carroll
Where:  Thompson Theatre at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When: Sunday, November 12, 2017, 2pm
Photo by the REP

The University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players have had three prior plays written specifically for them and frankly none of them have really resonated with me.  This is a big reason why my expectations were quite low upon hearing of a newly-written play taking one of six slots of the REP's 2017-18 season.  Color me surprised, then, to find playwright Chisa Hutchinson's From the Author Of an amusing ninety-five minute diversion that takes full advantage of the REP's ensemble, showcasing them to great effect.

Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction writer Meredith Renner (REP member Elizabeth Heflin) has just completed her latest book for which she spent six months living on the streets as a homeless person to try and best understand the plight of the underprivileged in America.  Meredith's tome has been met with harsh skepticism by the leading New York Times book review critic causing many to wonder if Meredith was simply aiming for a giant publicity stunt rather than a genuine attempt at helping to end the homelessness epidemic.  Attempting to better her name, Meredith's team -- including her agent Dax (REP's Hassan El-Amin), personal assistant Samara (Celestine Rae), and newly hired PR guy Angelo (REP's Michael Gotch) -- formulate a plan for Meredith to invite a homeless person to live in her swanky New York City loft.  After much bellyaching, Meredith obliges and invites the brash, sexually charged Linda (REP's Kathleen Pirkl Tague) into her residence and sees her put-together, "normal" life turned upside down.

Part of the excitement of a repertory company is watching the same ensemble play a variety of roles, seeing the similarities and differences they bring to various performances.  Chisa Hutchinson studied what the REP's members do best and then created a funny cast of characters for them to embrace.  Elizabeth Heflin fully embodies the egotistical, sometimes highfalutin Meredith -- a woman who might seem cold or unappealing in lesser hands, but becomes relatable thanks to Heflin.  Similarly, Kathleen Pirkl Tague always manages to make kooky, crazy characters that should be over-the-top seem oddly believable and that's the case here with the caricature that is Linda whose first appearance a little over a third of the way though jolts the production with some much needed vigor.

The play itself plays a bit like a sitcom, filled with short scenes that sometimes end on a kicker of a comedic note.  Many of the characters border on the stereotypical, but Hutchinson and director Jade King Carroll reel in the actors just enough that no one ever feels too one-note.  The set -- a luxurious, monotone NYC loft created by Brittany Vasta -- is surrounded by a rotating outer circle that adds dimension (as well as a neat technical aspect I'm not sure we've seen utilized by the REP yet).  These little things add dimension to what could've been a rote night at the theater and elevate it to a little something more.

From the Author Of isn't a perfect piece -- the resolution feels a bit too pat and, in turn, a bit unsatisfactory; some of the jokes particularly at the beginning as we were getting to know the individualized voices of the characters fall a bit flat; any deeper morality the play is trying to convey didn't land at all for me -- but it's an enjoyable night at the theater.  With a little bit of sexualized raunch and some great performances particularly from Elizabeth Heflin and Kathleen Pirkl Tague, From the Author Of is by far the best original play performed thus far by the REP.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Movie Review - Eye in the Sky

Eye in the Sky (2016)
Starring Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi, Aisha Takow, and Alan Rickman
Directed by Gavin Hood
***This film is currently streaming via Amazon Prime***

In this day and age, the concept of war has shifted from the wide-scale, massive WWII-era attacks against an enemy's large army to a more intimate form of battle where individual terrorists may be targeted in a one-on-one-type tête-a-tête.  This smaller scale level of attack is being even further amplified by the usage of drones -- an eye in the sky that permits us to see things in a more secretive manner.  This new wartime assistant is the subject of director Gavin Hood's Eye in the Sky, a movie that despite being ninety percent talkative exposition somehow manages to create a surprising amount of tension.

British Army colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) has received the news that a British woman-turned-Islamic terrorist along with her husband are meeting several high ranking leaders of a terrorist group at a safehouse in Kenya.  Desperate to catch the traitor, Katherine and the British Army team up with the Americans to utilize drones in order to confirm the woman's presence so they can try and take her out.  However, morality comes into play when it's discovered that bombing the Kenyan safehouse would also harm innocent civilians including a young girl (Aisha Takow) who is selling bread outside the home.

The uniqueness of Eye in the Sky comes from the morality play that's depicted in the film.  Can we kill innocent civilians in order to take out known terrorists?  This conundrum plays out for almost the entirety of Eye in the Sky and the talkative pros and cons yield a surprisingly tense experience.  All of the characters -- Mirren as the Army colonel, Alan Rickman as a British Defense Ministry higher-up, Aaron Paul as a conflicted American soldier having difficulty coming to grips with the notion of possibly killing an innocent child, Barkhad Abdi as an undercover British operative who is onsite in Kenya -- never interact with one another onscreen at the same time.  They're all in different locations across the world and thus are only interacting via phone or video chat and yet, with much kudos to director Gavin Hood, their interactions feel believable and shockingly tense.

I must admit that I didn't expect a whole lot from Eye in the Sky, but I found that it more than delivered on creating an exciting environment, showing us an insider look at an aspect of modern-day warfare with which the public may be unfamiliar.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Monday, October 30, 2017

Movie Review - Fireworks Wednesday

Fireworks Wednesday (Chaharshanabe Suri) (2016/2006)
Starring Hedye Tehrani, Taraneh Alidoosti, Hamid Faroknezhad, and Pantea Bahram
Directed by Asghar Farhadi

I've praised writer-director Asghar Farhadi's ability to craft taut, intimate "thrillers" -- films that take seemingly everyday aspects of life and make them mini-mysteries.  With the Academy Award-winning director's films becoming more popular, one of his first flicks, Fireworks Wednesday, finally made its way over to the United States last year and it shows that even early in his career Farhadi was adept at his craft.

Maid and soon-to-be bride Rouhi (Taraneh Alidoosti) accepts a one-day job at the apartment of a married couple who is preparing to travel to Dubai for a trip.  Upon her arrival, however, Rouhi discovers something is amiss with Mozhdeh and Morteza Samiei (Hedye Tehrani and Hamid Faroknezhad) with Mr. Samiei acting secretive and Mrs. Samiei nervously suspicious.  As the day progresses -- Fireworks Wednesday, a holiday in Iran where this tale takes place -- Mozhdeh reveals to Rouhi that she believes that her husband is cheating on her with their next door neighbor, Simin (Pantea Bahram), a hairdresser who works out of her home.  As the camera shifts focus from Rouhi to Mozhdeh to Morteza to Simin, little bits of truth are revealed allowing this realistic mini-mystery to unfold onscreen at a pace some may find slow, but this reviewer finds intriguing.

Even more than a decade ago, Farhadi (who co-wrote this film) was acutely attuned to the type of films that were going to be his bread and butter -- small scale films driven by a seemingly simple plot where motivations of characters are gradually revealed to the audience in a way that creates tension and excitement from even the most everyday, normal aspects of life.  Add in the sense of intensity oftentimes felt in the oppressed Iranian culture (where many of Farhadi's films take place) and you've got a unique brand of mystery that the director and writer has mastered.  Fireworks Wednesday isn't his best work, but it's darn good.  The cast is stellar, although oddly no one really stands out in this true ensemble piece.  It grows a tiny bit tiresome at points -- Farhadi's films admittedly do have a tendency to do this -- but the payoff is worth the time.

I realize the usage of my wording in that last sentence may be slightly deceiving.  "Payoff" may insinuate some overly DRAMATIC denouement, but Farhadi's "reveals" are never jaw-dropping or mind-blowing.  Their naturalness is always fitting of the story in which they are a part...which is always one of the reasons Farhadi works for me as a director.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Movie Review - 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)
Starring James Badge Dale, John Krasinski, and a bunch of other people who just blend together
Directed by Michael Bay
***This film is currently streaming via Amazon Prime***

If I'm being honest with myself, I forgot I watched this movie.  It's not that 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is bad...it's just that it's generic.  The true story of how a group of soldiers and American government workers attempted to fend off terrorist attacks on an American diplomatic compound in Libya, 13 Hours has all the classic tropes of a war movie and its by-the-book structure becomes laughable at times.

Director Michael Bay deftly walks the line in terms of the controversy surrounding this event, and although he doesn't flat out blame the Obama administration for the deaths that occurred as the situation unfolded, he does infer that the US government was largely to blame for not getting the chaos resolved quicker.  Rarely does any type of criticism of the Left make it to the big screen so at least that's a bit of a breath of fresh air.  Unfortunately, everything else about the film feels stale.

The action sequences are well filmed and exciting, but the character development and quieter moments prove to be lacking.  Beyond James Badge Dale and John Krasinski, every other member of the cast just blends together into this melange of similar-looking soldiers or government workers and attempts at trying to give any of them a backstory -- this one has a kid at home, this one has a kid on the way -- feel cheap and manipulative.  You could certainly do worse than 13 Hours, but I can't tell you that you should rush to see it either.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Movie Review - Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange (2016)
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benjamin Bratt, Mads Mikkelsen, and Tilda Swinton
Directed by Scott Derrickson
***This film is currently streaming via Netflix***

While Doctor Strange is likely the most unique Marvel movie when it comes to the glossy, mind-spinning visuals on display, something about this film didn't quite click for me.  It gave me a Matrix vibe and that's a cinematic series I could never really get behind.  Benedict Cumberbatch makes an incredibly engaging title character, but the time-twisting nature of the piece is a concept that never really appeals to this reviewer and Doctor Strange doesn't change that opinion.

The film's set-up during the first third is where Doctor Strange is most successful which admittedly is a bit surprising because oftentimes it's the "origin story" aspect of superhero movies that feels drawn out and tired.  Here, however, Cumberbatch's dry sense of humor works wonders in creating a winning opening act.  Cumberbatch is the title character, Stephen Strange, an accomplished neurosurgeon whose arrogance is seemingly accepted because of his insane talent in the operating room.  On his way to a fancy shindig, Strange accidentally drives his car off the edge of a cliff.  After intense surgery and rehabilitation, Strange seems to be getting back on the right track except that his hands have suffered immense nerve damage making it nearly impossible for him to perform surgeries.  Strange soon hears of a unique healing experience in Asia which he assumes is medical drelated, but discovers that it's much more spiritually-based, run by a mystic known as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who tells Strange that all the power he needs is in his mind.

Had Doctor Strange decided to not add a big baddie (Mads Mikkelsen) hellbent on taking over the powers of the Ancient One, this film may have been more successful.  Of course, Marvel movies aren't character studies so that was never going to happen, but it's a shame because Doctor Strange stumbles when it adheres too close to the typical superhero tropes.  I didn't care at all about the villain (who is given perhaps some of the least amount of character development for a Marvel villain yet) nor did I find the scenery-warping, time-bending action sequences exciting.  Sure, the action set pieces were visually intriguing -- Doctor Strange really is unique in the way it's styled -- but they lacked the requisite punch necessary to deliver tension for me.  I will admit I was eagerly looking forward to this one because of the fact that it seemed to be a different type of entry into the Marvel canon, and while it is unique, it doesn't quite work.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Movie Review - Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2016)
Starring Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Garrett Hedlund, Makenzie Leigh, Vin Diesel, and Steve Martin
Directed by Ang Lee

Prior to its release last year, there were some high Oscar hopes lobbied about for director Ang Lee's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, but its failure at the box office didn't help it gain any traction during the awards season.  Sometimes deserving movies just slip under the radar of both the public and the cinematic voting blocs...and sometimes movies that people thought were going to be deserving turn out to be epic flops.  The latter is the case here with Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk proving to be one of the worst 2016 movies I've seen yet.

Nineteen year-old soldier Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) has just returned home from Iraq to great fanfare after a video of him attempting to save his superior from Iraqi warriors goes viral.  Celebrated as a hero, Lynn and his troop are being treated like celebrities including being placed front and center in the Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys halftime show.  With Cowboys owner Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin) attempting to broker a deal to make their lives into a movie, Lynn and his mates are faced with attempting to enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame knowing full well that when Black Friday rolls around they have to ship out for another assignment.

The potential for an in-depth look at PTSD is ever present around the edges of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, but the screenplay by Jean-Christophe Castelli and direction by Ang Lee can't find a balance as it attempts to depict the drama of the horrors of war and the semi-comedic satire of our celebrity-driven American culture.  This uneven dichotomy is frankly a failure and leads to one of the most stilted acting ensembles I've seen in ages (including a horrendous performances by Steve Martin).  The film builds itself on being über-realistic, but many of its scenes and most of its dialog never feel real.  Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is just a huge dud.

The RyMickey Rating:  D

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Movie Review - My Life as a Zucchini

My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de courgette) (2016)
Directed by Claude Barras
***This film is currently streaming via Netflix***

I'm a sucker for stop-motion animation and while My Life as a Zucchini may at first glance seem a slightly rudimentary entry into the genre, its colorful yet simplistic visual aesthetic helps to amplify and emphasize the heartfelt story on display that is pretty darn deep for an animated film.  Sure, there have been animated movies that are squarely aimed at adults and obviously there are animated films that simply try to win over kids, but finding that balance between the two is always a difficult task (elevated often in the past decade or two by Pixar).  My Life as a Zucchini finds that balance, and while I wouldn't recommend it for anyone under the age of twelve, it shows that the genre can tell heartfelt stories that appeal across all demographics.

Courgette (voiced by Gaspard Schlatter) is a nine year-old boy who spends most of the time in the attic of his house trying to avoid his alcoholic mother who has been despondent and nasty ever since her husband left her.  A tragic accident ends her life and Courgette is sent to live at an orphanage where he meets a unique group of kids who all have faced similar hardships in life.  Courgette's friendships with this group and his burgeoning parent/child-style relationship with police officer Raymond (Michel Vuillermoz) form the basis of the plot, of which, admittedly, there isn't much of so to speak.

That lack of plot does make My Life as a Zucchini drag a bit in spots -- and considering its minimal 65-minute runtime that's a bit of a surprise -- but director/co-writer Claude Barras' film still works because it doesn't shy away from the realistic, though oftentimes sad story it's telling.  The quirky animation design matches the quirkiness of the characters onscreen, providing a visually engaging film the entire time.  My Life as a Zucchini isn't a perfect animated film, but it's an admirable entry into the genre that proves to be definitely worth seeing.

Note:  This film was viewed in its original French language release.  An American-dubbed version is apparently available as well.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Monday, October 16, 2017

Movie Review - Silence

Silence (2016)
Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Yosuke Kubozuka, Issey Ogata, Tadanobu Asano, Shinya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oida, and Liam Neeson
Directed by Martin Scorsese

I had heard of the epic boringness of Martin Scorsese's Silence and admittedly was hesitant to watch the nearly 165-minute flick, but the story of two Jesuit priests heading to Japan in the mid-1600s to attempt to spread Christianity was surprisingly gripping and beautifully shot and acted.  Could it have been trimmed a little bit more in order to move things along a tiny bit faster?  Definitely.  However, the film is a refreshingly original look at an aspect of life -- religion -- that is rarely explored in cinema by directors as well known and qualified as Scorsese.

The premise of Silence is very simple -- perhaps too simple for a film of its length -- as we follow two young priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) on their journey to Japan as they search for Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who has apparently apostatized (renounced his faith) after horrible torture at the hands of Japanese authorities desperate to eradicate Christianity from their country.  Forced to stay hidden in their search for fear of being caught by the Japanese and the man known as "the Inquisitor" (Issey Ogata) who leads the hunt against Christians, Rodrigues and Garupe secretly administer to the underground Christian community while trying to determine the location of Ferreira.

Scorsese (who directed and co-wrote Silence) has crafted an elegantly gritty period piece, fully realizing the mid-1600s Japanese environment.  Darkened secluded grottos and secret underground basements create a claustrophobic atmosphere that envelops the characters and the audience.  The horror of intense torture isn't sugarcoated making for some intense sequences that add to the seriousness of the journey of Rodrigues and Garupe and make their resolute steadfastness to Christian theology all the more admirable.  [At least it's admirable if you yourself believe in their cause...for others, the mileage may vary.]  While this isn't necessarily an actor-driven piece with any particular stand-outs, Scorsese's ensemble of American and Japanese actors is a very good one, keying in on the pain suffered by the Christians forced to hide their beliefs as well as the driven desire by the non-Christian Japanese to eradicate the religion from their island.

Silence does have a few too many moments of nothingness...a few too many moments of silence perhaps.  While I understand the purposes of these sequences in that they mirror the sequestered nature of the Christians living in Japan, this is still a movie and the momentum of the story is often stunted because of the slower pace.  However, Silence is a film that, in time, I'd like to give another look because these less-pulsing moments may perhaps be more integral to the story than I thought during my initial viewing.  Despite this qualm, Silence is an oftentimes riveting look at an aspect of Christianity that was unknown to me, filmed in a reverent and capable manner.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Movie Review - Rules Don't Apply

Rules Don't Apply (2016)
Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Warren Beatty, Matthew Broderick, Annette Bening, and a slew of other people in cameo-length roles
Directed by Warren Beatty
***This film is currently available via HBO Now/GO***

Howard Hughes was a bit of an eccentric loon who, thanks to his significant entrepreneurial endeavors, was able to have his hands in a multitude of business ventures ranging from creating aircraft to producing motion pictures.  Rules Don't Apply focuses on the latter aspect as an aging Hughes (played by Warren Beatty who also wrote and directed the film) shifts his romantic focus to a young aspiring actress from Virginia named Marla (Lily Collins) who recently moved to Hollywood at the request of Hughes.  Upon her arrival, Marla begins to fall for her driver Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), a Howard Hughes employee, who himself is engaged to be married but also finds himself enraptured by Marla.  This romantic love triangle starts the film off in an engagingly old school 1960s-esque cinematic fashion, but the film quickly starts to fall apart after it introduces its key players.

Filled with a multitude of well-known actors in cameo-style roles, Rules Don't Apply is well-acted by Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich, but their "will they or won't they" romantic story isn't enough of a story to sustain the film's long nearly 150-minute runtime.  Writer/director Warren Beatty seems to recognize this hence the introduction of his Howard Hughes character about thirty minutes into the film, but he fails at making Hughes' storylines captivating.  When Hughes comes into the picture, Rules Don't Apply can't seem to tell who its central character is - Hughes or Marla or Frank - and this leads to oddly edited sequences that create one the most boringly manic all-over-the-place films I've seen in a long time.  A passion project for Beatty who spent a long time getting it to the screen post-production, Rules Don't Apply has some great production values and does feel fittingly 1960s in tone and style, but it ultimately fails in the story and directing department.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Monday, October 09, 2017

Movie Review - Green Room

Green Room (2016)
Starring Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner, Mark Webber, Eric Edelstein, Macon Blair, Kai Lennox, and Patrick Stewart
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier
***This film is currently streaming via Amazon Prime***

Through a friend of a friend, a punk rock band gets a gig at a slummy Neo-Nazi bar in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific Northwest.  Following the show, Pat (Anton Yelchin) returns to the green room to get a phone left behind only to discover a stabbed dead body on the floor.  Privy to this murder, the leaders of the Neo-Nazi group refuse to let Pat and his bandmates (Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner) leave and the quartet is forced to figure out a way to try and save themselves before they end up with the same murdered fate.

Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier has crafted an incredibly tense and utterly frightening film in Green Room, a fantastic follow-up and improvement upon his successful prior film Blue Ruin.  In his two films I've seen thus far, Saulnier is admirably successful in creating a gritty atmosphere and then adding some less-than-kind characters to the mix.  Fully realized and feeling quite lived in, Green Room pulls the viewer into the claustrophobic atmosphere from which we beg to escape much like the trapped bandmates.

The cast -- including the late Anton Yelchin as a band member and a terrifyingly calm Patrick Stewart as the Neo-Nazi leader -- gamely accepts the roles of either the terrorizers or the terrorized, helping to strengthen the intensity of the horrific situation unfolding on the screen.  Green Room isn't an easy sit -- it's quite violent and things don't always turn out well for the protagonists.  However, auteur Jeremy Saulnier has proven once again that he is quite adept and capable of making a film that puts uneasiness and intensity on the front burner.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Movie Review - Cell

Cell (2016)
John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Owen Teague, and Stacy Keach
Directed by Tod Williams

Since I'd read Stephen King's book, I figured I'd give the cinematic adaptation of Cell a try, but it's lack of theatrical release beyond a theater or two certainly didn't instill confidence in its quality...and a viewing of the film showed that the quality simply wasn't there.  The tale of a bizarre epidemic that turns anyone who uses a cell phone into zombie-like creatures could've been a telling take on our electronics-reliant culture, but this piece co-written by King himself isn't the least bit bitingly relevant nor horrifically scary.  In fact, the only thing horrific about it is the hugely incapable direction by Tod Williams who takes moments that could be frightening and ruins them with flourishes of weirdly unnecessary slow motion or inadequately timed jump scares.  Most of the cast is fine, but John Cusack as a father desperately searching for his son in the midst of the chaos couldn't be less emotionally invested it seems -- which is odd seeing as how he's a producer of this.  This one's just a waste of time.

The RyMickey Rating:  D

Monday, October 02, 2017

Movie Review - Sing Street

Sing Street (2016)
Starring Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor, and Mark McKenna
Directed by John Carney
***This film is currently streaming via Netflix***

John Carney crafted one of my favorite movies of all time in Once -- a film filled with hauntingly beautiful music and achingly nuanced performances from two leads who'd never acted in films before.  Carney's music-centric follow-up Begin Again was a bit of a disappointment, failing to capture the magic and heart of his Academy Award-winning 2007 film.  Admittedly, because of the lackluster Begin Again, I was a bit hesitant to watch Sing Street, wary that writer-director Carney was a one-trick pony.  Fortunately, I'm incredibly pleased to report that Carney hasn't lost his touch as Sing Street is full of boisterous charm, cleverly inspired 1980s-style tunes, and joyously innocent performances from a cast of young folks.

With his parents' marriage falling apart, high schooler Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is forced to leave his private school for a free all-boys state school run by the Catholic Church.  The quiet Conor finds it tough to fit in, being immediately bullied by a particularly nasty kid right off the bat.  One afternoon, though, he spots a lovely girl sitting on a stoop across from the school and he gets the nerve to go over to talk with her as a way of trying to impress the others in his class.  The girl -- Raphina (Lucy Boynton) -- is amused by Conor's charm, but she wants nothing to do with him until he mentions that he's in a band and needs a model to appear in a music video.  Despite normally wanting nothing to do with the boys at the school, Raphina is preparing to move to London to advance her career in modeling so she agrees to meet Conor and his band to take the gig in the music video.  The only problem -- Conor isn't in a band so the frantic search to find bandmates and create songs begins.

Set in 1985 Dublin, Sing Street is a charmingly pleasant coming-of-age film that just happens to have some great music added to the mix.  Writer Carney smartly doesn't try and make this film anything deeper than what it is -- two high school-aged kids in Conor and Raphina trying to figure out what to do with their lives.  The joyful exuberance that comes from Conor and his buddies' love of music pours out of every scene and leaves the viewer smiling from ear to ear.  The cast of unknowns -- to me, at least -- is winning and their wide-eyed innocence is believable.

Sing Street really is an ode to the 1980s showing its appreciation for both the music and cinema of that decade through lovingly crafted homages that feel natural as opposed to forced.  While quite different from the depressing (though fantastic) Once, John Carney is back on top of his game with Sing Street which deserved much more love from the public when it was released last summer.  (And how this film didn't get an Academy Award nomination for Best Song is beyond me.)

The RyMickey Rating: A-

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The End of an Era

My little blog is viewed by such a minuscule number of people every day that this news should bring sorrow to very few, but after nine years of typing away my thoughts on WAY TOO MANY movies on a yearly basis, I've decided to call it quits...sort of.

Gone will be the days of full-length movie reviews and the RyMickey Awards.  Instead, it'll shift to a more "journal" approach of simply listing movies I've seen with a few comments so that I'll have a place to look over my thoughts in the years to come.  While I'll still be completing local theater reviews (as those are some of my most highly trafficked posts due to the lack of those reviews across the internet), the full length movie reviews are coming to an end.  I'll still certainly respond to any comments should they pop up and there may be an occasional full-length review here or there, but the time has come for the current iteration to end.

It's a little bittersweet, but if I'm being completely honest, I've become quite disenchanted with the Hollywood machine over the past year.  Their incessant need to lambast anyone who doesn't stand with them as opposed to hearing all sides has changed my opinion about them...and I just find myself struggling to care about their product anymore.  [The fact that I've only seen two movies released in 2017 thus far is a bit of proof to that.]   When I can't watch an awards show or Jimmy Kimmel or a football game without being hit in the face with politics -- politics that either support my beliefs or not -- there's a problem.  I guess as I get older, I'm simply getting tired of being railroaded by a media that refuses to see that there are reasonable people who are conservatives and I have grown weary of Hollywood's two-faced nature. 

Will I still watch movies?  Certainly.  Will I engage in the current Golden Era of tv?  Most definitely. Will I continue going to plays?  Absolutely.  The arts are an important part of our culture.  While I'd certainly like them to be a bit more reflective of all views, I appreciate how they show us opinions or values that may be different from our own.  Unfortunately, it's all too often a one-sided reflection from a group that fails to value any opinion that isn't their own and talks a big talk about "unity," but then fails to come to the table with any modicum of understanding or willingness to negotiate.

This post is by no means an endorsement of the current inhabitant of the White House who could certainly learn a thing or two about unity and open-mindedness.  However, it is because of that person and the media/Hollywood's unwaveringly biased views on him that brought about this change.

I'll be continuing the full reviews for a bit longer as I'm hoping to wrap up my 2016 viewings soon, and I'll complete one final, though truncated, RyMickey Awards season hopefully by November.  And as I said above, I'll not be going away completely.  Perhaps, in time, things will resume back to their original incarnations, but for now I need a bit of a respite.

For those who stop by here every now and again for a look, thanks.  It's been fun.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Theatre Review - You Can't Take It With You

You Can't Take It With You
Written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
Directed by Sanford Robbins
Where:  Thompson Theatre at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When:  Sunday, September 24, 2pm
Photo by The REP

I have some experience with You Can't Take It With You as at least two decades ago I saw a production with my high school class.  Twenty-plus years, however, left me with little memory of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's play except that I remembered a kooky family -- the Sycamores -- was front and center.  Before the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players' production even begins, the lovely lived-in set design by Hugh Landwehr keys us in to the oddities that are to come.  From a large xylophone to a Native American feathered bust to a snake-filled cage, we're aware of the types of characters that inhabit this place.  

The patriarch of the family and the grounded center in the midst of the wackadoodle antics occurring within the 1936 New York City home is Martin (guest actor James Black).  Martin was your average Joe Businessman for decades, but woke up one day and decided that he wasn't happy, leaving his career behind and spending his time attending college commencement addresses.  While that may seem odd, it's nothing compared to the other residents of Martin's home.  His adult daughter Penelope and her husband Paul (REP members Elizabeth Heflin and Stephen Pelinski) spend their days, respectively, working on a variety of poorly written unfinished scripts and building an assortment of firecrackers in the house's basement.  Their daughter Essie (frequent guest Erin Partin) fancies herself a dancer, but she's just plain horrible despite the praises of her husband Ed (guest Lenny Banovez) who spends his time making masks of historical figures, learning new xylophone pieces, and creating just about any pamphlet he can think of on his printing press.  And in the midst of these kooky Sycamores is Penelope and Paul's other daughter Alice (guest Sara J. Griffin) who has a solid head on her shoulders.  Her love for her family is palpable, but she finds herself concerned about how to introduce her folks to her new boyfriend Tony Kirby (REP artist Michael Gotch), the son of a rich entrepreneur who has fallen head over heels for Alice.

This cultural dichotomy is the set-up for much of the humor in You Can't Take It With You and director Sanford Robbins gamely keeps the very large cast honed in on mining laughs from this eighty year-old play.  Sure, some of the jokes may fall a bit flat when viewed from a modern lens, but Robbins doesn't play things tongue in cheek here.  Instead, he embraces the age of the manuscript and tells his fantastic ensemble to play things without the slightest sense of irony.

And that aforementioned ensemble is quite winning.  Kudos to the REP for allowing a wide array of guest actors to really take the ball and roll with this one, freshening up the always solid core group.  James Black's Martin is grounded, witty, and gave me an old school Will Rogers Americana vibe throughout.  Sara J. Griffin is also lovely as Alice and her relationship with Michael Gotch's Tony proves to be much more enchanting and romantic than I was expecting.  Nice turns from Elizabeth Heflin and a hilarious Kathleen Pirkl Tague are also worth applauding.

You Can't Take It With You is further proof that the Resident Ensemble Players can elevate even a dated play and make it feel relevant and alive in front of modern audiences.  Continued excellence in the behind-the-scenes aspects of the production enhance the actors' portrayals and make this a play worth seeing.

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-