Monday, July 31, 2017

Movie Review - The Phenom

The Phenom (2016)
Starring Johnny Simmons, Paul Giamatti, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Allison Elliott, and Ethan Hawke
Directed by Noah Buschel
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

A surprisingly serious sports film, The Phenom looks at the effect of immediate superstardom on a young baseball player thrust into the spotlight of the pro sports world.  Johnny Simmons is Hopper Gibson, a high school pitcher who decides to skip college and head straight to the pros when he's drafted by the Atlanta Braves.  Moving up the ranks rapidly, Hopper succeeds initially in his pro debut, but falls apart during a game throwing five wild pitches in one inning.  Unable to get his act together, the Braves send him to sports psychologist Dr. Mobely (Paul Giamatti) where Hopper's past rocky relationship with his mentally abusive father (Ethan Hawke) hints at the young ball player's current lack of confidence.

While The Phenom is admittedly a little slow, it gives a unique perspective for a sports film that we don't often see.  The focus isn't on the inevitable "big game" (or, frankly, any game at all), but instead on the mental highs and lows that come part and parcel with being a major league sports player.  Johnny Simmons is captivating as the title character whose cocky assurance as a high schooler (viewed in flashbacks) morphs into lots of self-doubt as he makes his way to the pros.  Considering that a huge chunk of Hopper's emotional arc occurs inside his head, Simmons succeeds at cluing the audience into exactly what his character is feeling.  Paul Giamatti is also good as the quiet, calming voice that helps Hopper try and become a bit more mentally stable in terms of his presence on the field.

Although The Phenom isn't lensed in any great fashion, writer-director Noah Buschel gives us a different spin on a tired genre.  The insular emotional nature of this piece is a difficult one to tell via a visual medium, but Buschel certainly succeeds on that front.  It's not a perfect film, but it's a good one nonetheless.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Movie Review - Complete Unknown

Complete Unknown (2016)
Starring Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Michael Chernus, Azita Ghanizada, Danny Glover, and Kathy Bates
Directed by Joshua Marston
**This film is currently streaming via Amazon Prime***

When Clyde (Michael Chernus) brings his new girlfriend Alice (Rachel Weisz) to the birthday party of his co-worker Tom (Michael Shannon), he doesn't expect her to be such a hit.  A biologist studying the recent discovery of a new species of frog just outside of New York City, Tom's party guests fawn over Alice's pleasant, slightly shy demeanor and unique job.  Tom, however, recognizes her right away and, as the night progresses, Alice proves to be a different person entirely from whom she initially presented herself.

That summary of Complete Unknown may make the film sound scandalous or even's not. Instead writer-director Joshua Marston's film devolves into a rather boring piece that perhaps thinks it's important, but really ends up feeling rather pedestrian.  Rachel Weisz and Michael Shannon are captivating enough in the first half when there's some unknown tension as the two stare at each other across a room cluing in the audience that something isn't quite kosher.  However, as the second half begins and Alice's truth comes to the surface, it ends up being not all that interesting and the focus on it hurts the film.  This is director Joshua Marston's first English-language film and his eye behind the lens shows promise -- the opening sequence, as an example, sets a slightly creepy tone that the film can't sustain -- but Complete Unknown ends up a disappointment.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Movie Review - 10 Cloverfield Lane

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Starring John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and John Gallagher, Jr.
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg
***This film is currently streaming via Amazon Prime***

Taking place within the same world of its predecessor Cloverfield released eight years prior, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a different beast altogether -- a horror film where monsters take a backseat to the frightening nature of humans.  Distraught over what she sees as a falling out with her fiancé, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), leaves her apartment in New Orleans for somewhere, anywhere.  Her departure is halted, however, when her car is blindsided by a truck causing her to spin out of control and crash.  When she awakens, Michelle is in what appears to be some concrete bunker, the captive of Howard (John Goodman), an ex-Navy officer who claims that above ground chaos is reigning in the form of some apocalyptic event.  Howard is seemingly a bit nutty, but after a few scary events, Michelle and her fellow bunker mate Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) grow to believe that what Howard spouts is actually real, and instead of being a "captive" as she initially thought, Howard's the only thing keeping her alive.  However, there's still hints of distrust amongst the trio because human nature is a fickle and funny thing.

Director Dan Trachtenberg creates a claustrophobic environment enhancing the uneasiness that's already present in both the script (co-written by Academy Award-winner Damien Chazelle) and the characters portrayed by the trio of actors, all of whom hold their own against one another as their allegiances shift scene by scene attempting to figure out who they can trust.  While taking place in the same time period as Cloverfield (presumably, this occurs on the same day as the event in New York City), this 2016 film doesn't really connect with that initial film until its final minutes which does do a little bit to enhance and add to the "Cloverfield" mythology.  (Although, admittedly, these final minutes are actually the least successful aspect of the film.  Despite being well lensed, they stand in too much of a stark contrast to the eighty minutes that came prior.)

Although I think this is an unpopular opinion, 10 Cloverfield Lane is slightly less successful than its predecessor.  It doesn't quite ratchet up the tension in the same way Cloverfield does despite the fact that overall it's a better acted, better produced, and better directed film.  It's a worthy flick and an intriguing addition to what producer J.J. Abrams says is going to be an ever-expanding "Cloverfield" film saga, but it's surprisingly not quite as edge-of-your-seat thrilling as Cloverfield.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Friday, July 28, 2017

Movie Review - Cloverfield

Cloverfield (2008)
Starring Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, and Odette Yustman
Directed by Matt Reeves

Surprisingly more effective than I remember, Cloverfield is a rather intense seventy-minute found-footage sci-fi/horror flick.  Found-footage films often feel like a cheap ploy and, frankly, that's also the case here.  Does anyone really think that goofball Hud (T.J. Miller) would carry around a little camcorder throughout the chaos of some monster invasion of New York City?  Seeing as how we live in some uncomfortably weird digital age in which everyone films everything, maybe it's plausible, but it's the one fault I find in all of these types of films.  Come on -- put down the camera already.

That said, once Cloverfield is through detailing all of its requisite background info on its main characters in its opening twenty minutes, director Matt Reeves' flick is non-stop thrilling.  The audience has bought into the plights of these twentysomething folks trying to escape New York City which is under some kind of attack by some type of creature.  Tense, taut, and exciting, Cloverfield is worthy of another look if you haven't seen it in some time...or in case you wanted a refresher before you watch 10 Cloverfield Lane...the review of which just may happen to pop up tomorrow here.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Movie Review - The 9th Life of Louis Drax

The 9th Life of Louis Drax (2016)
Starring Jamie Dornan, Sarah Gadon, Aiden Longworth, Oliver Platt, Molly Parker, Barbara Hershey, and Aaron Paul
Directed by Alexandre Aja

An oddly captivating huge mess is how I'd describe The 9th Life of Louis Drax, a film that clearly doesn't know what it's trying to be in terms of tone and who it's trying to appeal to in terms of story.  When the film opens, nine year-old Louis Drax (Aiden Longworth) is detailing the eight times he's almost died in his short life -- electrocution, food poisoning, you name it and it's nearly caused Louis to bite the dust.  On his ninth birthday, Louis is taken by his mother Natalie (Sarah Gadon) and his father Peter (Aaron Paul) to a cliffside park where the young boy falls off the edge of a high cliff.  When he's recovered, Louis is in a coma and while at the hospital, Dr. Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan) tries to do what he can to bring the young boy back to consciousness while also unraveling a mystery surrounding just how Louis fell off the cliff.  Did Peter push his son off the cliff as Natalie claims or is Natalie not as innocent as she seems?

That summary fails to include the sea creature that Louis communicates with while in his coma, the psychologist (Oliver Platt) whom Louis sees to try and make him "less weird" as he calls himself, the female cop (Molly Parker) investigating the possible crime who we know is tough because she's chewing gum in the morgue while her male partner tries to hold back from vomiting, the sex scene between Dr. Pascal and Natalie -- all of which add to an incongruous mashup of a movie that at any point feels like a live-action kids film from the 1980s, a poorly constructed murder mystery, or a horror-fantasy flick in the vein of Pan's Labyrinth.

Yet, somehow, I didn't stop watching.  Perhaps I kept hoping that Jamie Dornan and Sarah Gadon's acting would get better.  Perhaps I hoped that the sea monster would be real.  Perhaps I hoped that I wouldn't have guessed the mystery of how Louis fell off the cliff from the get-go.  None of those "perhaps's" became true, however, and instead The 9th Life of Louis Drax is a mess.  There is some interesting direction to be sure, but beyond that there's nothing else worth wasting your time with here.

The RyMickey Rating:  D

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Movie Review - Midnight Special

Midnight Special (2016)
Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard, and Adam Driver 
Directed by Jeff Nichols
***This film is currently streaming on HBO Now/Go***

I legitimately had no clue what I was getting into when I started Midnight Special.  Maybe I'd seen a trailer...maybe...but with the exception of knowing that it was directed by Jeff Nichols -- whose film oeuvre I find decent, yet slightly boring -- I really was coming into this blind.  By the time the credits rolled, Midnight Special lands in that same realm of Nichols' other films -- decent, yet slightly boring although it admittedly is a bit more ambitious in scope than Take Shelter, Mud, or Loving.

Honestly, I'm not going to summarize this one all that much.  I think the lack of knowledge concerning the storyline helped me become immersed much more than I would have otherwise.  Needless to say, the overall gist is that two men (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) have seemingly kidnapped a young boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) who may or may not possess some special powers or secret knowledge that multiple entities including the US government want.

The mix of science fiction, chase film, and family drama surprisingly meld together quite well with Nichols planting the viewer right into the action from the opening scene and gradually revealing the various layers of mystery as the story progresses.  Michael Shannon is surprisingly captivating in a role that requires a bit of heart rather than the typical scary intensity we see from him.  Jaeden Lieberher is also successful as the young boy who may be more than he seems.

Nichols takes his time to craft his characters and in doing so they prove to be fully developed.  He certainly excels in carving out an atmosphere for his economically lower-class characters to inhabit.  It's just unfortunate that his films oftentimes feel so slowly paced.  While a little more plot-driven than his other works, Nichols is still proving to be a director that meanders his way through things.  While I've yet to truly dislike anything he's brought to the screen in his young career thus far, I keep waiting to be blown away and I thought it might've happened with this one.  The first hour is tense and full of edge-of-your-seat moments.  Unfortunately, it devolves a bit in the second half where the pacing becomes a bit of a slog.  Still, Midnight Special is Jeff Nichols' best work yet and he's a director to keep an eye on in the future.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Movie Review - The Fundamentals of Caring

The Fundamentals of Caring (2016)
Starring Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts, Selena Gomez, Jennifer Ehle, and Bobby Canavale
Directed by Rob Burnett
***This films currently streaming via Netflix***

The Fundamentals of Caring could so easily have been sentimentally mushy, but thanks to some irreverent humor and witty dialogue, writer-director Rob Burnett's film is an amusing diversion.  Trevor (Craig Roberts) is an eighteen year-old with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.  Unable to walk or perform typical daily tasks, Trevor's mother Elsa (Jennifer Ehle) hires caregiver Ben (Paul Rudd) to watch over her son while she works.  Ben has his own demons to deal with, but the sarcastic Trevor helps to liven up Ben's life and inspires the caregiver to take Trevor on a road trip to see a variety of cheesy roadside American "attractions" that Trevor has always longed to see.  Along the way, they meet the sassy and strong-willed Dot (Selena Gomez) because every buddy road trip needs someone or something to create a bit of tension.

There is something very rote and "typical" about The Fundamentals of Caring, but the game cast adds a sardonic tone to the proceedings which creates enough humor to liven up the lack of originality.  Young Craig Roberts with whom I am unfamiliar doesn't make us feel sorry for Trevor which is a positive difference here in films of this ilk.  His dry humor along with a surprisingly sassy and capable performance from Selena Gomez (with whom I'm also unfamiliar as an actress) create an atmosphere that consistently brings a smile.  While the film still falls into some familiar tropes -- the less said about the pregnant hitchhiker and the ridiculously obvious conclusion to her subplot the better -- this one is still a pleasant diversion.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Monday, July 24, 2017

Movie Review - Genius

Genius (2016)
Starring Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Guy Pearce, Dominic West, and Laura Linney
Directed by Michael Grandage
***This film is currently streaming via HBO Now/GO***

As the words of Thomas Wolfe were read aloud and his mellifluous prose lyrically opened Michael Grandage's film Genius, I was drawn into this tale about the unique author (played by Jude Law) and his publisher Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth).  However, as I imagine I'd feel attempting to read one of Thomas Wolfe's lengthy tomes, lovely descriptive verbiage can only get you so far -- story also has to have some importance.  Unfortunately, Genius begins to falter as it enters its second half, failing to really take its characters on any type of journeys that weren't obvious from the film's opening scenes.

In 1929 New York, Perkins is reading Wolfe's first attempt at a novel with much aplomb.  Shot down by innumerable other publishers, the hickish-sounding, though verbose Wolfe was taking one final shot, going out on a limb by giving his novel to Perkins who edited and published works by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West).  When Perkins agrees to publish Wolfe's work, a parental-type friendship is formed with Perkins seeing Wolfe as the son he never had.

There is something compelling in the opening act of Genius -- rarely do films translate the art of writing to the screen successfully and this film was first.  However, as it progresses, it falls into stereotypical traps that don't allow its characters to feel fresh.  Its script also grows repetitive -- Perkins continues bickering with Wolfe about editing down his tomes, Perkins' wife Louise (Laura Linney) wants her husband to spend more time with his five daughters, Wolfe's lover Aline (Nicole Kidman) resents Wolfe spending all his time with Perkins -- failing to advance its characters in any substantial way, reiterating the same story notes over and over again.  Director Grandage with his first film has a fantastic cadre of actors at his disposal, but with the lukewarm script, he's unable to really pull anything substantial from any of them.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Theater Review - The Play That Goes Wrong

The Play That Goes Wrong
Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields
Directed by Mark Bell
Where: The Lyceum Theatre, New York, NY
When:  Wednesday, July 12, 7pm
The British drama group The Cornley University Drama Society cordially invites you to their production of The Murder at Haversham Manor, the showing of which they've somehow managed to secure the Broadway Lyceum Theatre.  Headed by Chris Bean (Dave Hearn), the society is a small ensemble, but they feel they've found the perfect production to showcase their talents.  Needless to say, as The Murder at Haversham Manor unfolds it rather quickly becomes The Play That Goes Wrong as everything -- and I mean everything -- that could go wrong does leading to a hilarious night at the theater as chaos reigns on the stage.

In the vein of Noises Off which is a rollicking behind-the-scenes look at the production of a play (review), The Play That Goes Wrong succeeds at hitting all the right notes when it comes to humor -- or "humour" as the Brits like to call it -- the extra "u" is for the added funny, I assume.  Sure, some of the jokes may fall a little flat, but as The Murder at Haversham Manor unfolds, anything and everything you could dream of falls apart -- sometimes quite literally on the Tony-winning set by Nigel Hook.  Chaos certainly reigns amongst the ensemble and while you want to feel a bit bad for the group, you also can't wait to see what breaks down next.

The eight-member ensemble of The Play That Goes Wrong is at the top of their game, verbally playing off each other with expert timing.  Of course, the expert timing also comes into play with the innumerable physical comedy routines that run rampant throughout the production.  Even more amazing and truly showcasing the troupe's carefully honed skills is the fact that one member of the troupe was hurt during Act I and was replaced by an understudy in Act II without any issue.  In fact, most of the audience assumed that the replacement actress was actually part of the show, making the assumption that this was simply one of the things that went wrong.  Despite the ensemble nature, a special mention must be made for Henry Shields (who co-wrote the play) whose Robert hams it up in his first production with the Cornley Drama Society.

Comedy is a tricky thing and helmer Mark Bell has directed his cast expertly with perfect timing all around.  Ultimately, The Play That Goes Wrong could've really been trimmed by about twenty minutes, creating a more streamlined one-act production as opposed to a two-hour two-act presentation, but it's tough to really complain when you find yourself laughing from start to finish in The Play That Goes Wrong

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Theater Review - Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day
Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Book by Danny Rubin
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Where: August Wilson Theatre, New York, NY
When:  Wednesday, July 12, 2pm
One may find it hard to believe that the 1993 Bill Murray comedy classic Groundhog Day would make a good Broadway musical, but that's just what composer/lyricist Tim Minchin (whose Matilda recently graced the Broadway stage) and writer Danny Rubin tried to accomplish with director Matthew Warchus' production of Groundhog Day playing at the August Wilson Theatre in New York City.  Despite multiple Tony nominations this year, expectations were a bit muted for me and I'm happy to say I was pleasantly surprised.  While certainly flawed, Groundhog Day provides an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon (at a likely discounted price since the show is simply doing okay attendance-wise) with a great starring performance by Andy Karl who carries the entire show on his shoulders and succeeds at making us give a damn about a rather nasty main protagonist.

Much like the film, the musical follows Pennsylvania weatherman Phil Conners (the aforementioned Tony-nominated Andy Karl) who is forced to begrudgingly head to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover that famous town's Groundhog Day festivities.  Desperate to flee the town immediately following the groundhog's weather prediction, Phil and his producer Rita (Barrett Doss) find themselves stuck due to an unforeseen winter storm closing down all the major highways.  Through some mystical magic, however, Phil finds himself waking up the next day reliving February 2 all over again...and again the next day...and again the next day.  The "why" this is happening makes no difference, but instead the repetition causes Phil to look at his life and determine what kind of man he really wants to be -- the slick, slimy playboy he was before he came to Punxsutawney or a kind, pleasant, and caring guy he finds himself wanting to be whenever he's around Rita.

Mr. Karl is front and center for nearly the entire two-and-a-half hour runtime of Groundhog Day and he's a captivating figure, embodying the manic comedy and brutal desperation facing a man who must relive a single day over and over agin.  Through the songs of Tim Minchin, the smarminess of Phil is perfectly captured by Karl and even though those musical numbers may not be entirely memorable or prove to be of the stand-out nature that you'll be singing them as you live the theater, they still do a great job of adding depth and characterization to the characters voicing them.  There are some failures on the song front -- "Stuck" features an ode to an enema that I never need to hear again (and sounded a bit cacophonous in its layering of counterpoint singers), "Nobody Cares" is a weird country ode to small-town life that while staged hilariously is nothing short of odd, "Playing Nancy" is an absolutely lovely song that opens Act II, but it's about an incredibly minor character -- but I still find Minchin's clever words to be worthy of a listen (much like his work in Matlida).

There's a surprising simplicity to the set and direction of Groundhog Day, but both were glorious -- yes, that's high praise, but worthy.  The main crux of Rob Howell's scenic design is a circular roundtable in the center of the stage with a quartet of circles within it.  The clock-like design mimics the repetitive nature of Phil's days, a clever metaphor via set decoration.  Director Matthew Warchus takes that design and runs with it.  The repetition as Phil tries to unearth what is happening to him could've grown wearisome, but Warchus changes little things here and there to create humor and pathos, and there are truly some genius moments including an amusingly clever suicide sequence in which Phil attempts to kill himself in a variety of ways to no avail.  It was like watching a magic show onstage for five minutes and it was a great feat.

While I've praised Groundhog Day rather effusively, there's still something missing from it as a musical and I think it really comes down to lacking a song or two to truly latch onto as you leave the theater.  Sure, Minchin creates character-driven numbers, but they don't always translate to exciting pieces.  And while I praised the set, it is rather sparse.  With Broadway as expensive as it is, you sometimes find yourself wanting more "showiness" because it's "BROADWAY" even if that's an unfair assessment towards a particular show itself which doesn't necessarily call for grandeur.  All that being said, it's a shame that Groundhog Day hasn't really found an audience because it's an admirable piece -- maybe not a $100 ticket-priced piece, but a worthy piece nevertheless.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Movie Review - Deepwater Horizon

Deepwater Horizon (2016)
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O'Brien, and Kate Hudson
Directed by Peter Berg

Forty-one miles off the Louisiana coastline in April 2010, the oil rig Deepwater Horizon is preparing to begin drilling into the ocean floor for BP.  However, BP executives wish to forego some important safety tests and, in the midst of prepping the drill, a catastrophic series of events occurs, wreaking an enormous amount of damage on the Deepwater Horizon, the Gulf of Mexico, and the workers on the rig, eleven of whom died on that fateful day.

Thus is the true story of Deepwater Horizon, director Peter Berg's depiction of the biggest oil spill in US history.  Although there are certainly some big name stars in this -- Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Kate Hudson -- this isn't a movie where "characters" really matter.  Sure, we're introduced to Wahlberg's electronics technician Mike Williams and his caring and doting wife (Hudson), but his character along with Russell's rig supervisor Jimmy Harrell and Gina Rodriguez's navigation officer Andrea Fleytas are nothing more than nondescript entities who are simply a conduit for the audience to bear witness to the horrors that unfolded.

Ultimately, that's the biggest issue with Deepwater Horizon as a film -- Berg is more interested in upping the ante when it comes to the action than dealing with the human side of things.  Sure, the BP guys are the big baddies, but their manipulative business acumen is never really explored.  Similarly, for the "good guys," there's minimal backstory and what little there is you almost wish Berg had left out because of its stereotypical simplicity.  Deepwater Horizon isn't a bad film by any means, but it's very rote and by-the-book in every aspect from the initial character development in the very first minutes to the written postscript right before the credits roll telling us about the real-life people involved.  I almost feel that I'd have been more invested seeing a documentary of the events rather than a fictionalized depiction even though Berg is certainly adept at creating some exciting action sequences in this new age, true life Poseidon Adventure of sorts.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Movie Review - Queen of Katwe

Queen of Katwe (2016)
Starring Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, and Lupita Nyong'o 
Directed by Mira Nair
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Ten year-old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) lives a difficult life in one of the poorer sections of Kampala, Uganda.  With her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o) raising Phiona and her three siblings on her own, the wise-beyond-her-years Phiona often spends her days doing what she can to give her mother as much assistance as possible.  One afternoon, however, she stumbles upon a missionary program headed by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) that teaches young Ugandan children how to play chess.  Feeling out of place and a bit guilty for slacking when it comes to helping her mother, Phiona finds it difficult to initially fit in, but Robert soon discovers that Phiona is incredibly talented when it comes to the strategic game of chess and he must struggle to help her realize her full potential.

Thus is the true story of Queen of Katwe -- a well-acted, well-directed, and modest little film that weaves a tale that feels familiar, yet foreign.  The foreignness stems from this taking place in Uganda, a place where admittedly us Westerners are innately unfamiliar.  Director Mira Nair uses the Ugandan landscape to help fully develop her characters in ways that aren't all that common in a PG-rated film about sports.  And yet it's that commonality of being a "sports film" that weighs down Queen of Katwe and doesn't allow it to really expand into something breathtaking or stunning.

Although it's unable to escape the clichés inherent in its genre, there are some great performances that more than lift Queen of Katwe into something that's worth a look.  As the adults in the piece, David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o provide solid anchors for the cast of completely unknown young actors to play off.  Front and center through it all is Madina Nalwanga as Phiona who more than captures the struggles facing poor Ugandan youth and the joy that triumphing against adversity can bring.  It's the performances here that make this film better than its average script allows.  Nair's film could've used a few more edits -- it slogs a bit in the middle with some repetitive moments that really don't add to the characters who were well-established in the first act -- but Queen of Katwe still works for the most part.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Monday, July 17, 2017

Movie Review - Criminal

Criminal (2016)
Starring Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Alice Eve, Gal Gadot, Michael Pitt, Jordi Mollà, and Ryan Reynolds
Directed by Ariel Vromen
***This film is currently streaming via HBO Now/GO***

Not that it matters to this reviewer at all, but for some reason I thought Criminal was a Ryan Reynolds-starring film.  Considering this was released shortly after the huge (unwarranted) success of Deadpool, perhaps the marketing did genuinely play up Reynolds' involvement, but let it be known that the actor is barely in this piece.  Reynolds is Bill Pope, an American CIA agent working in London who has recently been in contact with a hacker known as The Dutchman (Michael Pitt) who broke into a variety of computer programs and gained access to a slew of worldwide nuclear codes.  The Dutchman was working for Xavier Heimdahl (Jordi Mollà), an anarchist who, upon discovering the Dutchman's betrayal, sets out to find Pope and find out where the CIA agent is hiding the hacker.  Pope refuses to talk and Heimdahl has him killed.  (I promise, that's not really a spoiler as it happens within the first fifteen minutes of the film.)  London CIA head Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman), who is also unsure of the Dutchman's location, contacts Dr. Micah Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) who has been working on an experimental treatment for the government where he implants the memories of one individual into another.  Considering the risky operation, the CIA chooses a nasty convict, murderer Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner), to test the treatment and, needless to say, Jericho doesn't necessarily follow orders when he's finally released from his isolated prison cell leading Agent Wells and his team to not only have to save the world from the Dutchman's boss, but also try and round up a criminal whom they've set loose in the city of London.

A long summary, yes, but the details at the start of Criminal are the most important...and frankly, the beginning is the only time this movie really works.  Sure, there's an obvious ludicrousness to the medical notions discussed, but it was at least moderately intriguing and slightly different which is more than can be said about the film's second two-thirds which devolve into a rote action chase film.  It's fun to see Kevin Costner as a bad guy -- albeit a bad guy with the memories of a good guy which sets up a slightly complicated character for Costner to sink his teeth into -- but the film Costner's Jericho Stewart is inhabiting is just too typical and ho hum to really become invested.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Movie Review - Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad (2016)
Starring Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Cara Delevingne, Jai Courtney, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ike Barinholtz, Ben Affleck, and Viola Davis
Directed by David Ayer
***This film is currently streaming on HBO Now/GO***

After the disaster that was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, there was an inevitable sense of dread as I began to watch Suicide Squad, the next film to unfold in the DC Universe.  Yet somehow, despite the horrid reviews (or perhaps because of them lowering expectations), I found this irreverent comedy-action piece a tiny bit better than the film that preceded it.

***SPOILERS from Batman v Superman below***

Notice that I just said "a tiny bit better" because in the end Suicide Squad is pretty bad as well.  However, at least writer-director David Ayer tries to inject a little bit of fun into the proceedings as it introduces a motley crew of imprisoned criminals brought together by government intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) in an attempt to help America fight big-time criminals following the death of Superman.  Unfortunately, bringing this whole group together in a single film gives little time to develop backstories beyond those of ace sniper Deadshot (Will Smith) and psycho criminal Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) who happened to be the love interest of the criminal mastermind Joker (Jared Leto) prior to her incarceration.  There are other folks that make up the squad including an alligator guy, an Australian bloke, and some Asian girl, but they are so disturbingly pushed to the sidelines that their existence in the film ends up being laughable by the time the credits roll.  And let's not even discuss the villain -- an evil spiritual entity that enters the body of archeologist June Moore (Cara Delevingne) and then proceeds to create zombie-like creatures that run rampant.

Despite the music video-esque series of introductions we get to each member of the Suicide Squad (which became immediately ridiculous by the time Ayer introduces his second or third character), I was onboard during the film's opening act.  As Amanda Waller rounds up the criminals, something was working for me and then it all devolves into the horrible dark and dreary DC Universe aesthetic with an hour-long finale that isn't the least bit compelling.  Unlike many I've spoken to about this disappointing flick, I didn't dislike Jared Leto as the Joker (although I'm obviously not attached to these characters in any shape or form) or Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn (who at least injected some light humor into the darkness that surrounds her), and I actually think Will Smith plays a nicely grounded character in Deadshot.  Still, Suicide Squad isn't good and it continues the rather abysmal track record for DC.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Movie Review - The Accountant

The Accountant (2016)
Starring Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, John Lithgow, and Jean Smart
Directed by Gavin O'Conner
***This film is currently streaming via HBO Now/GO***

I can't say anything particularly bad about The Accountant, but I can't say anything particularly good either.  That damning middle ground is never a good thing.  Ben Affleck is the title character, a seemingly mild-mannered accountant from a small town outside of Chicago.  Little do his clients know that Christian Wolff, the meek, high-functioning autistic man hiding behind thick-brimmed eyeglasses, is actually a trained hit man who runs the accounts of several of the world's most infamous criminals.  When he's hired by the Living Robotics Corporation headed by scientist/creator Lamar Blackburn (John Lithgow) and his sister Rita (Jean Smart) to determine how they're leaking money, Christian and LRC's internal auditor Dana (Anna Kendrick) find themselves in the midst of a huge conspiracy that will lead them into a world of danger.

Much like his role as Batman, Affleck's Christian is depressingly emotionless which is credited to his character's autism, but ends up creating a very bland main character.  There are moments of humor that pop up adding a much needed perk of energy to Affleck's performance, but in the end, it's a rather monotonous portrayal which is perhaps the reason I can't quite throw a ton of support behind the movie.  Fortunately, the rest of the cast perks things up, with a particularly intriguing performance from Jon Bernthal as a fellow hit man.

Surprisingly violent (not that there's a problem with that), The Accountant meanders back and forth between an action piece and a drama and the balance is never quite perfected by director Gavin O'Conner.  While it's a better than average film, I wanted to like it more than I did, but the sum of its parts don't quite add up to a solid whole.

The RyMickey Rating:  C+

Friday, July 14, 2017

Movie Review - Race

Race (2016)
Starring Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, Carice van Houten, Eli Goree, Shanice Banton, David Kross, Barnaby Metschurat, and William Hurt
Directed by Stephen Hopkins
***This film is currently streaming via HBO Now/Go***

Better than I expected, Race is an extremely typical biographical retelling of the life of Jesse Owens, 1930s Olympic racing star, anchored by a fine performance by Stephan James as Owens.  While Owens certainly faced racism in the United States as he attended college in the mid-1930s, this film places most of its emphasis on the 1936 Olympics which took place in Germany just as Hitler was gaining power.  Facing anger from the African American community on the homefront for agreeing to compete in the games taking place in a decidedly racist country, Owens stands up to the Nazi regime by competing and succeeding at the Olympic games.  Admittedly, I wasn't too familiar with this piece of history and I found the story quite compelling.

The aforementioned James -- with whom I'm unfamiliar -- nicely conveys Owens' internal conflict about whether his competing in the Olympics is simply foolish self-centered pride or a ballsy attempt at giving a giant middle finger to the Nazi way of life.  As Owens' college coach Larry Snyder, Jason Sudeikis' role provides a change of pace for the actor known for his comedic chops.  Nevertheless, the film works because the story is so interesting.  Perhaps those familiar with the tale will find the rather rote, by-the-book way director Stephen Hopkins runs things a bit bland, but Owens' courageous life reeled me in and made me forget a little bit that the flick itself was just another biopic -- one of my least favorite genres.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Movie Review - Lamb

Lamb (2016)
Starring Ross Partridge, Oona Laurence, and Jess Weixler
Directed by Ross Partridge
***This film is currently streaming on Amazon Prime***

I don't even really know what to say about this one.  How do you write a review about a movie that, at its conclusion, made you feel so wildly uncomfortable, disconcerted, and unsettled?  Lamb begins rather innocently with fortysomething David (Ross Partridge) dealing with the loss of his father.  Following the funeral, while sitting in a parking lot, David is approached by seventh-grader Tommie (Oona Laurence) who asks him for a cigarette.  Tommie looks like a burgeoning prostitute, adorned with high heels, a hot pink purse, and a short skirt and David decides to take it upon himself to help the young girl out of the inevitable hole she's going to slide down if she continues on this path.  They form an odd friendship that then morphs into a kidnapping situation (albeit a voluntary one on Tommie's part) as David takes Tommie to his father's farm to show her the beauty of the world outside the slummy and slimy part of town in which she lives.

Ultimately, I have no clue what Lamb is trying to convey.  David is fully aware that his actions could be construed as those of a pedophile, but he's not one...or is he?  In the film's final moments, the "L" word gets thrown around and when you bring "love" into this equation it starts to make things a bit gross.  I understood what Tommie was getting from the relationship -- a chance to escape her lazy parents and her untrustworthy friends with someone who seems to genuinely care about her well-being -- but what was David's reasoning to embark on this adventure?  It's still unknown to me.  This odd relationship never gelled and only succeeded in making this viewer highly uncomfortable.  In what is essentially a two-hander, Ross Partridge and Oona Laurence are both fine, but Partridge who also directed and adapted this film from a novel is never really able to define why his character does what he does.  With the protagonist's motivation for his increasingly odd actions left unexplored, the film feels unbalanced.  Maybe your mileage will vary and I will admit that I wasn't ever bored watching this odd piece, but I simply can't recommend Lamb.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Theater Review - Waitress

Music and Lyrics by Sara Bareilles
Book by Jessie Nelson
Directed by Diane Paulus
Where: Brooks Atkinson Theater, New York, NY
When: Saturday, June 25, 2pm
Charming and moving, Waitress provides its audience with a completely enjoyable two-and-a-half hours of musical theater.  While it may not be the most ostentatious in terms of set design, costumes, or choreography, it makes up for its lack of show-stopping set pieces by giving us a set of characters we can latch onto, root for, and genuinely care about as it progresses.  Couple its completely enjoyable score by pop singer Sara Bareilles with its current stellar cast and Waitress is undoubtedly worth the price of admission.

Based on the 2007 film written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelley, Waitress tells the tale of Jenna, a diner waitress and pie maker who is stuck in an incredibly unhappy marriage.  Thinking she may finally break free of her husband Earl, Jenna discovers she is pregnant and her dreams about escaping from her husband begin to crumble like a poorly made pie crust.  Depressed, Jenna's visits to her gynecologist Dr. Jim Pomatter are a bit of a pleasant respite.  However, the doctor-patient relationship quickly shifts to one of romance with Jenna and the doctor entering into an affair despite the fact that they are both married.  Needless to say, hilarity and drama both ensue.

Much like the movie, the story of Waitress isn't anything to write home about.  It's rather basic and its characters (beyond Jenna and Dr. Pomatter) aren't particularly fleshed out.  That said, the core eight person cast imbues charm and emotion into their performances, creating a surprising amount of depth for some underwritten roles, particularly Charity Angél Dawson and Caitlin Houlahan as Jenna's girlfriends and fellow Joe's Diner waitresses Becky (the sassy one) and Dawn (the shy one).  Each getting their moment to shine, Dawson and Houlahan add heart and humor to the proceedings.  Speaking of humor, Tony nominee Christopher Fitzgerald steals his scenes as Ogie, the rather nerdy prospective beau of Dawn.  His "Never Ever Getting Rid of Me" number towards the end of Act I is hilariously brilliant, enthusiastically performed, and incredibly endearing.

Ultimately, though, the success of Waitress really lies solely on the performance of the title character -- Jenna -- played by recent addition to the cast Betsy Wolfe.  Blessed with a stunningly beautiful voice, Wolfe's Jenna is pessimistically optimistic about things meaning that she nearly always has that hint of seeing the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.  Onstage for nearly the entire 150 minutes, Wolfe more than holds our attention, hitting all the right notes both vocally and emotionally for her character.  Perhaps because she was so new (I believe she'd only been in the role for about a week when I saw her), I felt the slightest lack of chemistry between Jenna and Dr. Pomatter (played by Chris Diamantopoulos) in the opening act -- the closing number of Act I "Bad Idea" should've been ripe with sexual tension, but it was missing that for me.  However, as Act II rolled around, the two actors blended together quite nicely.

As mentioned, there's a simplistic atmosphere to Waitress, although from the moment you enter the Brooks Atkinson Theater and the scent of freshly baked pies enters your nasal passages, you have a sense that you're in for something special.  Sara Bareilles' score sometimes sounds a little one-note, but its overall aesthetic fits right in with the characters.  It delivers exactly what is needed in terms of relaying information about the emotions, motivations, and priorities of the musical's ensemble.  One song in particular -- "She Used to Be Mine" -- may be one of the best written for the stage in the past several decades.  Coming close to the conclusion of the show, it conveys Jenna's entire emotional journey through song taking the audience along for the ride and it's a powerful moment that strongly resonates as we exit the theater with a giant smile on our faces.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Movie Review - Don't Think Twice

Don't Think Twice (2016)
Starring Mike Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher, and Chris Gethard
Directed by Mike Birbiglia
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

There's a naturalness to the two films I've seen directed, written, and co-starring stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia.  In Don't Think Twice, much like his directing debut Sleepwalk with Me, Birbiglia has a way of writing and acting that feels lived-in, believable, and pleasant.  That last descriptor is admittedly an odd one, but Birbiglia realizes that there is something to be said for "normal," pleasant people.  We laugh, we cry, we hang out with friends, we don't do anything crazy...but we live a good life.  In just two films, Birbiglia has tapped into that for me and it's something I eagerly look forward to seeing again from him.

Birbiglia is Miles, an improv comedian and part of the New York-based improv sextet The Commune.  The troupe is in a bit of trouble with their tiny theater being put on the real estate market. Still, they hope to stay together, but things start to fall apart when one of their members lands a job on a popular sketch comedy show a la Saturday Night Live.  The group now finds themselves faced with the notion that now as thirtysomethings they may finally have to hunker down, change their life plans, and come to the realization that a career in comedy may not be in all of their futures.

Humorous and heartfelt, Don't Think Twice succeeds in large part thanks to the comedic sextet at its center.  Along with Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher, and Chris Gethard create an atmosphere that feels improvisational, yet narratively flowing.  While laughs are front-and-center, a gentle earnestness is also present, creating believable drama in everyday situations from the sickness of a parent to the ups and downs of a romantic relationship.  Birbiglia doesn't aim for big comedic or dramatic moments, but rather allows quiet, intimate scenes to tell us all we need to know about his characters.

This is one of those little-known gems that I hope to come across whilst reviewing movies every year.  I encourage you to give this one a go -- I don't think you'll regret it.  Hopefully, Mike Birbiglia won't wait four years before crafting another gem of a comedic film.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Movie Review - The Fits

The Fits (2016)
Starring Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblitt, Lauren Gibson, and Da'Sean Minor
Directed by Anna Rose Holmer
***This film is streaming via Amazon Prime***

Toni (Royalty Hightower) is a bit of a tomboy, training in the boxing ring with her brother (Da'Sean Minor) at a local community center in Cincinnati.  The eleven year-old girl thought she was satisfied being one of the guys, but she finds herself yearning to take part in the award-winning girls' dance team that trains in the same facility.  Unbeknownst to her brother, she goes to the dance tryouts and earns a spot in the troupe, but soon after several of the female team members start getting ill, having terrible, frightening spasms during practice.

The question of what exactly is causing these fits takes center stage in The Fits, the debut feature from writer-director Anna Rose Holmer, but it's not really what the film is about.  That said, I'm not really sure what the film is about.  At its crux, The Fits the story of young Toni trying to find herself, but the sickness infecting the girls overtakes things with its metaphor-like elusiveness standing in for either puberty or teenage anxiety or maybe even environmental safety.  The lack of a solid conclusion irritated me more than intrigued in large part because the film was set up as being based fully in reality and as the flick progresses, it unfortunately loses that grip.

I would've never guessed that The Fits was the debut acting performance for young Royalty Hightower.  Director Holmer really gets a lived-in, emotional, and physically engaging turn from the young actress.  It's Hightower's performance that kept me intrigued throughout the short 70-minute runtime.  Unfortunately, the rest of the film falls flat for this reviewer which is a hugely unpopular opinion amongst critics who were much more captivated than I was.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Movie Review - Team Foxcatcher

Team Foxcatcher (2016)
Directed by Joe Greenhalgh
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Foxcatcher was one of my favorite films of 2014, garnering a top three berth on my Best Pictures of that year (along with multiple other RyMickey Awards).  The story of how the wealthy wrestling enthusiast John du Pont murdered Olympic wrestler David Schultz is a fascinating one so I was looking forward to the Netflix documentary Team Foxcatcher in hopes to find out a bit more information concerning this oddly intriguing and incredibly sad story.

While Team Foxcatcher is a success, it doesn't particularly add a whole lot of info to the tale beyond the fictionalized movie from three years ago.  Sure, we get detailed interviews with a variety of wrestlers who trained at the du Pont compound in Pennsylvania.  David Schultz's wife is front and center in several interviews describing the pleasant and caring du Pont who had lulled the family into a sense of community only to slowly show his mentally unstable colors as the months passed on.  It's all compelling, no doubt, but if you'e seen Foxcatcher, director Joe Greenhalgh's film is a bit of an unnecessary viewing experience.  (It also doesn't mention David's brother Mark who was also a wrestler and lived on the Foxcatcher compound.  Mark's absence is obvious to anyone who had seen the fictionalized film and his participation here would've undoubtedly added depth to the whole flick.)  Team Foxcatcher is a good film and an interesting glimpse into (some) of the key figures of this horrific event, but unless this story is truly a compelling one for you (as it was to me), you're better off just watching the slightly superior narrative film version.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Movie Review - Remember

Remember (2016)
Starring  Christopher Plummer, Bruno Ganz, Jürgen Prochnow, Heinz Lieven, Henry Czerny, Dean Norris, and Martin Landau
Directed by Atom Egoyen
***This film is currently streaming via Amazon Prime***

A rather simplistic revenge drama steeped in historical intrigue anchored by an appropriately melancholy performance from Christopher Plummer, Remember proves intriguing.  While director Atom Egoyen's film is a bit episodic because of the nature of Benjamin August's screenplay, this unique tale is an interesting success.

From the moment they met each other in the nursing home, Zev Guttman (Plummer) and Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau) recognized each other -- decades ago they had been in the same Jewish concentration camp together.  Having survived that ordeal, Zev and Max begin to formulate a plan to seek revenge on their block attendant Otto Wallisch who, after an extensive amount of research, they know emigrated to America under the alias Rudy Kurlander.  Following the death of his wife, Zev sets out to find Kurlander and kill him.  Unfortunately, Zev suffers from dementia and with his memory failing him, this proves to be a difficult task.  As he travels across the country meeting with a variety of Rudy Kurlanders in an attempt to find the man who wreaked havoc on the Guttman and Rosenbaum families (as well as innumerable others in the camp), Zev desperately tries to remember a past that is quickly fading from his mind.

The key to Remember is Christopher Plummer.  The 87 year-old actor is in nearly every scene of the film and Zev's deterioration is palpably sad to watch.  Story-wise, as mentioned, it's a bit of a stilted flick made of of chapter-like scenarios, but these similarly themed scenes build Zev's paranoia and emotional commitment to finding the man who harmed him long ago.  Interestingly, Remember is a Holocaust pic that is unlike any Holocaust pic I've ever seen.  The elderly vigilante angle in this serious drama is certainly unique and while the end cheapens the proceedings before it by a smidgen, Remember is one you should add to your queue and not forget to watch.

The RyMickey Rating:  B