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Letterboxd Reviews

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

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Theatre Review - The Bells

The Bells
Written and Directed by Theresa Rebeck
Where: Thompson Theatre at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When: Saturday, January 28, 2pm
Photo by The REP

A gorgeous set, sophisticated lighting, and an enveloping atmospheric aural design can't save The Bells by playwright Theresa Rebeck which proves to be a snoozefest despite a game cast made up of the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players.  A tale of a bar owner in the Yukon as he faces the demons of his past, The Bells ultimately is a play that leads to nowhere -- character motivations scarcely are enhanced or developed as its two hours unfold which leads to an ultimately disappointing ending seeing as how the play's conclusion feels like it could've occurred at any point in the story.

At its core, The Bells is a ghost story about Xuefei, a young Chinese man (played by guest artist Austin Ku) who comes to the Yukon in 1899 in search of gold.  He proves successful and in the process meets a young woman named Annette (guest artist Sara Griffin) whose father Mathias (Lee Ernst), owner of the local tavern, is certainly impressed with this foreigner's prospecting abilities.  Tragically, however, Xuefei goes missing soon after meeting Annette, but his presence looms heavy over the community eighteen years later which is when the majority of the play takes place.  Guilt hangs heavy over Mathias from the play's outset as echoes of bells -- a present Xuefei gave Annette -- ring constantly in his mind reminding him of the Chinese visitor who forever changed Mathias' life.

Maybe somewhere there's a good story here, but Rebeck (who also directs this production) drags the whole affair out much too long.  Considering that the character of Mathias barely changes from the play's initial moments to its final scene, there's no reason this play couldn't have been abbreviated to at least a one act production.  Lee Ernst adequately depicts the transgressions of Mathias and the actor has a lot to chew on in terms of emotional backstory, but it all proves disappointing because there's no arc whatsoever for the character.  Ernst's colleagues in the REP also aren't given much to do  as they for the most part depict nondescript townsfolk, but guest artists Austin Ku and Sara Griffin prove to be solid additions to the REP crew with Griffin in particular proving compelling as the strong-willed daughter of Mathias.

Tony-nominated set designer Alexander Dodge manages to create both a believable vast mountain landscape and an intimate, lived-in tavern setting which, along with the beautiful lighting design from Philip S. Rosenberg and an eerie wind-filled sound design by Obadiah Eaves (though the less said about his awkward folk songs that bridge scene changes the better), the under-the-line elements shine in The Bells.  Unfortunately, the play itself is -- ready for this -- unable to get a ringing endorsement from this reviewer.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Movie Review - Bad Moms

Bad Moms (2016)
Starring Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn, Oona Laurence, Emjay Anthony, Annie Mumolo, Jay Hernandez, David Walton, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Christina Applegate
Directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore

I'm not a fan of Hangover-styled comedies where adults act raucous just because they usually can't in their normal lives so admittedly Bad Moms had an uphill battle to work for me, but with its essentially non-existent story, directors and co-writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore have crafted one of the worst films of 2016.  Color me unsurprised upon looking at imdb.com that Lucas and Moore were the genius writers behind The Hangover and its sequels -- certainly shows that their quality of penmanship hasn't improved all that much in the past decade as they still mine for comedy in alcohol, drugs, and raunch but in the basest way possible.

The failure of Bad Moms has absolutely nothing to do with the women at its center -- a trio of moms who find their homelives in various states of disarray as their status as "Mom" has taken over all other aspects of their identity.  Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and Kathyrn Hahn are the reasons I stuck with this one for its entirety -- well, that and the fact that I watched it on a long car ride home from vacation and had nothing better to do.  Together, the trio are engaging and really do attempt to make the most out of a bad situation.

That bad situation, however, is simply unsaveable.  Sure, there are moments of levity -- many of them coming from Hahn's carefree, sex-crazed character -- but this film has almost no story to latch onto and its characters are so underdeveloped that it makes its 100-minute runtime feel interminable.  Were it not for the aforementioned cast -- which also includes Christina Applegate in a thankless and underdeveloped villainess role and Oona Laurence and Emjay Anthony as Kunis' kids -- there would've been no way I could've made it until the end.  Acting crazy doesn't always equal laughs as writers Lucas and Moore have more than proven looking at their resumés.  The public has spoken for some reason, though, and their style of pedestrian screenplay seemingly does the trick -- not for this reviewer, however.

The RyMickey Rating:  D-

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Movie Review - Hush

Hush (2016)
Starring Kate Siegel, John Gallagher, Jr., Michael Trucco, and Samantha Sloyan
Directed by Mike Flanagan
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

A surprisingly effective low budget horror movie, Hush introduces us to Maddie (Kate Siegel), a deaf author who lives in a secluded house in the woods.  With this being a thriller, that isolation will ultimately do Maddie harm when a masked man (John Gallagher, Jr.) stalks the young woman and creates a hellish night from which she may not escape alive.

A simple story told in taut fashion, director and co-writer Mike Flanagan and co-writer and star Kate Siegel have created a film that certainly kept me on the edge of my seat.  Sure, there are some moments of ludicrousness (Why is she going upstairs?  Why doesn't she just stay locked in the room?), but Hush overall is an enjoyable watch, filled with those jittery moments that we long for in horror films.  Siegel more than holds her own and John Gallagher, Jr., is deviously horrific as Maddie's unnamed assailant -- together they make what is essentially a two-handed piece immensely watchable.

Yes, this review is short and to the point, but don't let it's brevity fool you -- Hush is worth a watch if thrillers are your cup of tea.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Monday, January 16, 2017

Movie Review - Mascots

Mascots (2016)
Starring Jane Lynch, Parker Posey, Christopher Guest, Fred Willard, Ed Begley, Jr., Zach Woods, Sarah Baker, Michael Hitchcock, John Michael Higgins, Tom Bennett, Christopher Moynihan, Susan Yeagley, Chris O'Dowd, Bob Balaban, and Jennifer Coolidge
Directed by Christopher Guest
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Writer-director Christopher Guest's mockumentary Best in Show which took the audience behind the scenes of a low-rent dog show is one of the best comedies of all time.  A ballsy statement, I'm aware, and one that may not be shared by all, but it's a movie that I find myself cracking up with whenever I put it on.  In a similar vein, his latest film Mascots takes its viewers to the annual Mascot Championships where his interviews with a wacky cast of characters unveil the mask behind some unique college and sport team mascots fighting for the top prize at the event.

Told in a fake documentary style -- the genre of all Guest's films -- Mascots has its moments and is certainly watchable, but it doesn't compare to the genius that is Best in Show (then again, the rest of Guest's films don't compare to that genius either).  Guest allows large chunks of his acting ensemble to simply improvise and while that does provide some clever moments, it also fills the film with a lot of nothing in terms of character development.  Despite only being 95 minutes long, the flick feels much longer with too much focus placed on the mascot bits at the final competition rather than creating well-rounded and interestingly quirky characters.

I'm overly critical here because I know Guest and his ensemble (many of whom were in Best in Show) can do better.  I did laugh during Mascots -- quite a bit actually -- but I wanted more from the film.  The humor came a bit too sporadically for me to truly be able to recommend this one.  Best in Show, however -- get yourself a copy today!

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Friday, January 13, 2017

Movie Review - The Conjuring 2

The Conjuring 2 (2016)
Starring Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Madison Wolfe, Frances O'Connor, Simon McBurney, and Franka Potente
Directed by James Wan

Although Psycho is my favorite film, the horror genre was one that I never explored as a youth, but as I entered by third decade, I found myself exploring scary movies with much more aplomb.  Three years ago, I was quite impressed with The Conjuring and the film landed on my Top Twenty list of 2013.  Director James Wan created a 1970s vibe that gained its scares from tension-filled build-ups as opposed to cheap jump scares and the film itself was one of the best horror films of the decade thus far.  Unfortunately, The Conjuring 2 doesn't quite live up to its superior predecessor, relying on a too-similar story, setting, and atmosphere to really feel like anything other than a rehash.

The Conjuring 2 takes us another journey with the husband-and-wife paranormal investigation team of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) whose talents are called upon to help the Catholic Church investigate a possible demonic presence in Enfield, England, in 1977.  A young teen girl named Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe) has purportedly become possessed and her single mother Peggy (Frances O'Connor) has had to send her other children away from their home for fear of Janet and the demons in their house causing them harm.  With the family desperate for help, Ed and Lorraine start their investigation, but soon discover that the Hodgsons may in fact be making this all up for attention.

There is certainly a foreboding atmosphere present throughout The Conjuring 2 as James Wan definitely has a way with creating scares not through gore and violence, but rather through an ever-building uncomfortable tension.  He also gets great work out of his cast all of whom elevate the horror film to a higher level than most.  Unfortunately, the story here (also co-written by Wan) just feels like too much of the same thing.  Running nearly 145 minutes, there's not enough new story brought to the table and, admittedly, the scares, though effective, also feel a bit repetitive from the first film.  The Conjuring 2 is by no means a bad horror film...it just suffers in the wake of its predecessor to which it hones a bit too close to truly be original.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Movie Review - Lion

Lion (2016)
Starring Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Abhishek Bharate, Priyanka Bose, Divian Ladwa, and Rooney Mara
Directed by Garth Davis

Five year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) do all that they can to help out their struggling mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose) who herself works a laborious job in a small town in India.  One evening, the two brothers take a bike ride followed by a train ride to seek out a new job prospect.  Upon arriving at the train station, Guddu tells a sleepy Saroo to wait for him on a bench in the train station while he goes to find out about the job, but Guddu doesn't return.  A saddened Saroo falls asleep in an empty train car, only to wake up and find the train moving.  1600 kilometers and days later, five year-old Saroo arrives in Calcutta with no money and no real concept of where he lives.  After a series of treacherous events, young Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) who give the boy a proper home in their country.  Twenty years later, an adult Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) begins attending college where his fellow students including his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) spur him on to try and find his place of birth and his biological mother.

Lion tells the true story above in an admittedly generic way, but one that is well acted and solidly lensed by first time director Garth Davis.  Split into almost even and equal parts across the two hour film, both aspects of Saroo's life -- his childhood and young adult years -- feel surprisingly fully realized with neither one getting the short shrift.  Fortunately, both actors playing Saroo are captivating, holding our attention throughout their halves of the film.  

Young Sunny Pawar makes his debut here and his wide-eyed innocence and genuine love for his family is perfectly conveyed at the film's outset which makes it all the more heartbreaking when he is essentially orphaned and forced to realize the horrors outside the walls of his admittedly run-down home.  The chaos of India with its hordes of people would certainly frighten this blogger so I can't imagine how it must've been for Saroo, but Pawar vividly emotes the fear and also the continuing hope that he will be able to return home someday.

Dev Patel is giving his best performance by far here.  His Saroo also begins with a wide-eyed innocence and genuine love for his Australian family at his character's outset.  The genuine appreciation for his adopted parents is evident as he is well aware that he has been afforded a wonderful life for the past twenty years.  Upon entering college and meeting some other students from India, however, memories begin to flood back into his mind from decades ago and Patel does a fantastic job showcasing his character's guilt for being chosen to leave India and for leaving behind his family as well as for even contemplating the notion of beginning a search for his biological mother and the pain that could cause his adoptive mother Sue.

Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara are nice additions to the mix as well although both roles are only truly in service to both iterations of Saroo who is the sole focus of the film.  While Lion never gets preachy in its message about home and family, it is admittedly a bit overly sentimental sometimes.  That's never usually a downfall for this reviewer and that holds true here, but I could see how some may be turned off by the uplifting nature of the piece.  Overall, Lion is a bit generic -- nothing reinvents the wheel here -- but it still delivers a beautiful true story that tugs at the heartstrings every now and then.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Friday, January 06, 2017

Movie Review - Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Gretchen Mol, C.J. Wilson, Tate Donovan, and Matthew Broderick
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

Having high expectations doesn't always hinder one's cinematic experience (see La La Land as a case in point), but Manchester by the Sea is the unfortunate victim of this odious psychological conundrum.  It's not that writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's film is bad in any way, it's just that after months of talk about fantastic performances and gripping drama and depressingly tragic moments, I found myself the slightest bit let down by what I saw onscreen.  While a nice "slice of life"-style film (albeit with some severely sad scenes), Manchester by the Sea rarely grabbed me on an emotional level in the way that I feel it should have particularly given the subject matter.

Casey Affleck is the anchor here as Lee Chandler, a young thirtysomething janitor living in Boston.  His mundane life is interrupted one snowy afternoon when he receives a phone call that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has suffered a fatal heart attack.  Lee makes the two-hour journey to Manchester - his hometown - where he finds himself forced to relive his past and the reasons he left the town to begin with, all the while becoming the new father figure to his sixteen year-old teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) whose mother (Gretchen Mol) abandoned him and his father nearly a decade prior.

There is a heartbreaking backstory that oppresses Lee in his present life and it has weighed heavily on him for years.  Lee's past is revealed to us in spurts by Lonergan in a way that feels natural -- sometimes flashbacks can take away from the current tale, but Lonergan's spacing out of Lee's past adds to the sullen man's characterization.  Casey Affleck nicely balances Lee's past and present, creating two distinct personalities that evolve into one another believably.  His Lee is wrought with pain and desires nothing more than to essentially be punished for his sins, but he also realizes, upon his brother's death, that he is needed to step up to the plate and become a reliable figure in young Patrick's life.

Newcomer Lucas Hedges is a nice counter to the depressed Lee as his Patrick deals with his father's death in a different manner, deciding to act strong as if it doesn't affect him which ultimately leads to one of the better scenes in the film as the gravity of his situation begins to manifest itself.  Michelle Williams has a small, but critical role in the piece and she's given two heartbreaking scenes that give us not only an understanding of her character's plight, but also add a great deal of depth to the character of Lee as well.

Ultimately, though, I wanted to be moved more than I was with Manchester by the Sea.  Given the subject matter -- which you must understand I'm not fully detailing here -- I wanted to be grabbed by Lee's plight and I never quite got there.  Technically, Kenneth Lonergan delivers a somber, intimate film that looks pretty, but the film lingers too long -- at 137 minutes, it's got about forty minutes of lifelessness that could've been left on the editing room floor. While I can't say I was bored per se, the length of the film did affect its dramatic effectiveness.  Sure, Manchester by the Sea has a lot of things going for it -- it's well shot, well acted -- but in the end, it didn't get that guttural emotional response from me that I can't help but think it wanted.  At times, I was moderately moved, but I wanted more.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Movie Review - Arrival

Arrival (2016)
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg
Directed by Denis Villeneuve

While Arrival is most definitely a science fiction film, it doesn't feel like any science fiction film we've seen grace the movie screen in a long time.  Eschewing action or scares for a surprisingly humanistic approach, Arrival continues the intriguing streak of director Denis Villeneuve who has crafted films over the past three years that are varied in their subject matter and approaches, but place humanistic drama front and center.  Villeneuve has yet to helm that "amazing" film for me, but his work is never dull or boring and he has become a harbinger for quality cinema.

Aliens have arrived on Earth.  Across the globe, twelve extraterrestrial spaceships have positioned themselves at various locations, opening their hatches a few minutes a day never leaving their ships, but allowing humans to enter.  Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is summoned by US Army Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker) to come to Montana -- the US location of the alien spacecraft -- to help decipher the language being utilized by the foreign beings.  Almost ink blot-esque in its design, Louise and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) try to bridge the communication gap with the alien creatures who are seemingly peaceful, but, seeing as how they are intruders, are a cause of great concern with the US government headed in Montana by David Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) as well as agencies around the world.  With time ticking on an attempt at diplomacy with the extraterrestrials, Louise struggles to put her past behind her -- she lost a child to cancer a few years prior -- and help save the world from what could be intense warfare.

The most shocking aspect of Arrival is the simplicity of the Eric Heisserer-penned and Denis Villeneuve-directed film.  With nary a jump scare or frightening alien imagery, the film still manages to be oddly captivating as we in the audience utilize Amy Adams' eyes as our own.  As she sees the aliens for the first time, so do we.  As she communicates with them for the first time, so do we.  As she fights the government for more time to determine the purpose of their arrival, we're right there by her side.  Adams carries the picture and she does a great job of conveying Louise's intelligence and perseverance, as well as her growing connection to the extraterrestrials.

This is a human-driven story as opposed to an alien-driven one as is often the case in films of this ilk and Denis Villeneuve keeps the drama high by placing the focus squarely on Adams as opposed to the creatures with which she is communicating.  Beautifully lensed, Arrival is always a visual treat.  Unfortunately, the film takes a twist in its final fifteen minutes that while legit and comprehensible feels a bit tacked on and perhaps unnecessary.  It disappointed me a bit to be honest because up until that point the film had felt "real" and "possible" and then in its final chapter, the script shifts to something a bit implausible for this viewer.  I've discussed this conclusion with others and I'm seemingly alone in my assessment, but the ending concluded things on the tiniest bit of a sour note for me.  I still think Villeneuve is one of the brightest directors working at the moment and this is one of Amy Adams' best roles in a while, but the end just made Arrival a bit of a disappointment for me.  Your mileage may certainly vary and the film is still well worth a watch.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Monday, January 02, 2017

Movie Review - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, and Mads Mikkelsen
Directed by Gareth Edwards

As some may recall, I had not seen a single Star Wars film until last year.  I had gone more than three decades without fully learning about the travails of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia.  That all changed, however, as I watched Episodes IV through VII within the span of 48 hours with the last edition -- The Force Awakens -- landing on my Top Ten films of 2015.  With that newfound appreciation of the massively popular series, I will admit that I actually wanted to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story...but it was a huge letdown for this "newcomer" to the Star Wars pantheon.

A prequel of sorts to Episode IV, Rogue One tells us the tale of how the Rebel forces got hold of the plans for the Imperial's Death Star and were able to destroy it at the end of the 1977 film.  Here, a young girl named Jyn is sent into hiding by her research scientist father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) right before he is captured by the Imperial forces to help with the plans for the planet-destroying Death Star.  Now grown up, Jyn (Felicity Jones) finds herself on the wrong side of the law and imprisoned, but is broken free by the Rebels when it's discovered that her father is trying to send them messages to help them defeat the Imperial armies.  Jyn leads a group of men to retrieve the blueprints to the Death Star which - surprise, surprise - is ultimately successful.

Part of the issue with Rogue One is that we already know the premise of the ending before the film even begins.  This group of ragtag folks - Jones along with Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk (as a smart-aleck robot), Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, and Riz Ahmed - succeeds or else Episode IV would've never happened.  The overarching dramatic tension simply isn't there.  Sure, there are individual moments in Rogue One that may excite, but the overall outcome is already known from the start.  Coming off of The Force Awakens which had quite a few surprises, this film felt like a huge letdown.

Ultimately, Rogue One is just a huge bore.  There are hardly any moments of lightheartedness (like in the form of Han Solo's wisecracks or Ewoks or R2D2) and attempts at laughs via Tudyk's K-2SO fall flat.  With the exception of Forest Whitaker (who is overacting to the nth degree), the cast is fine, but their characters are one-note and utterly bland, giving the audience no one to really latch onto in terms of a character to really relate.  In fact, the only bright spots in the film occur when Ben Mendelsohn takes the screen as the villainous Orson Krennic, the overseer of the Death Star project for the Imperial military.  He revels in his devious role and livens things up whenever he's onscreen which is more than I can say for anyone else.

I have been severely disappointed by director Gareth Edwards previous two efforts -- Monsters and Godzilla -- and Rogue One continues the trend of me not caring for his work.  Much like those other two films, he fails to create a momentum that's sorely needed in an action-centric story.  His key action-oriented scenes do little to enhance the story and are filmed in a bland, almost nonchalant fashion.  Edwards isn't helped by the screenplay which fails to flesh out the characters beyond a most basic set of descriptors, but he doesn't help himself either when it comes to creating a film that builds excitement and tension.  With the exception of the film's final ten minutes which admittedly (finally) holds one's interest, the preceding two hours could've been condensed into a crawl at the beginning of a Star Wars film -- oh wait...it was.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-