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The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015)

Maze-Runner-The-Scorch-Trials-PosterIt’s called The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, though the trials appear more as “general struggles,” The Scorch appears as but a brief expanse of desert before the mountains, and then there’s the lack of any and all maze running (there is plenty of running, however). This sequel to the YA-inspired hit lives up to my biggest worry: the only thing interesting about this franchise was the maze, and now that’s gone. The mystery of the maze, and its cool factor, gave this story something memorable. Now it’s just generic YA pap. Beyond its boring protagonist, it would be a scorch trial for me to even assign description to these characters. They don’t even get one note to play; they have no notes. That’s because so much of this tedious and bloated sequel is our group of maze survivors running from one outpost to another, seemingly safe and then predictably not. It’s a plot routine that gets redundant quickly, and yet little else seems to occur. They go from stop to stop gaining characters but little else. The momentum feels stalled and there’s no sense of direction to guide the characters. It feels so aimless and dull and far too flimsy to justify even half of the movie’s 132 minutes. I just don’t care about these characters so I rooted for the bad guys. Weirdly enough, the bad guys use tasers and the good guys use bullets. There are some scant highpoints, namely the direction of Wes Ball, who finds ways to make the chase sequences visually stylish and fleetingly exciting, and a self-destruct sequence set to a Patsy Cline tune. There’s enough to get your hopes up before the grim reality of the overwhelming onslaught of YA tropes comes crashing down again. Can we stick these dumb kids back inside a maze already?

Nate’s Grade: C

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The Maze Runner (2014)

MV5BMjUyNTA3MTAyM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTEyMTkyMjE@._V1_SX640_SY720_If anyone can reasonably explain to me the end of The Maze Runner in a way that makes some tangible amount of sense, I will give you money. The latest YA-franchise-in-the-making starts off with a storyline that reminded me of Rod Serling. We follow a group of teen boys, memories wiped, as they wake up in the center of a giant mechanical maze. Who put them there? Why? What’s on the other side? As long as the maze and the mystery of it are front and center, the film works, twisting in intrigue. However, when the story veers away to the characters, mostly flat archetypes, and their new society, that’s when I started getting sleepy. You got this awesome huge maze to explore, kids. The film ends up being an exercise in less-is-more restraint when it comes to sustaining a mystery and knowing what points to emphasize and which to skip over. There’s a girl brought into their camp, the first, which they say should be a big idea and change the social dynamics of a group of boys, but it doesn’t. There are silly mechanical spider monsters that scamper through the maze, as if the filmmakers felt a giant maze wasn’t a sufficient enough obstacle and selling point. Scattered flashbacks early on spoil who is responsible for the maze, but when we get to the actual ending, the rationale for who built this large contraption and for what purpose doesn’t add up, like, at all. An explanation wasn’t necessary, but if they needed a quick one I would have accepted, “Aliens did it because.” There’s already a planned sequel in the works. My idea: the kids escape the maze only to discover… they’ve just entered a larger maze. Then they escape that maze only to discover… you get the idea. The Maze Runner is moderately enjoyable. Just don’t expect to enjoy, understand, or even accept the ending and its implications.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Shutter Island (2010)

This was a pulpy B-movie put together with A-movie artistry. In a year that had some artistically polished genre movies, Shutter Island was Martin Scorsese’s return to genre filmmaking and he brought with him an entire team of experts and professionals. The movie is playful and intriguing, engaging the mind enough for a crime thriller that appears to be a straight-forward mystery but then shows flashes of being about something more, something darker. And when you’re dealing with a movie with Holocaust flashbacks, dead kids, Nazi doctors, mental asylums, well you know you’re not going to be reaching subtlety even with a stick. But the way Scorsese orchestrates all these foreboding elements, tying together various plotlines, and working at different levels to satisfy the informed and uninformed, right before delivering a dynamite twist that calls for further investigation and rewatching, well it’s nothing short of masterful. Shutter Island may not be anything more than a souped-up B-movie, but with this level of artistry, it’s also one of the most entertaining films of the year.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Easy A (2010)

Usually when I think “teen comedy” I think lowest common denominator and a pitch straight down the middle of the plate. Will there be fart jokes? Probably. Will the climax taken place at the prom? Absolutely. Does Easy A do either? Not a chance. This is the sort of teen comedy that would have greatly appealed to me back in my own days of high school institutional education.

Olive (Emma Stone) is a high school senior that gets good grades, behaves well, and spends her weekends hopping around her bedroom and singing a song she can’t get out of her brain. She’s not into parties or idiots or anything remotely dangerous. Then her world turns upside down when she fibs about losing her virginity. Suddenly Olive is branded as the school’s hussy. Inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous character, Olive decides to embrace the rumors, accessorizing her wardrobe with plenty of scarlet “A”s along the corseted bust line. Olive’s gay friend asks her for a huge favor: he wants to use her fake notoriety to lose his virginity. The two will attend a party, find a room, and dramatically interpret animated sex. It works like a charm. Her pal is given a free pass, some extra popularity, and it isn’t long before other downtrodden high school rejects seek a similar deal. Outraged at Olive’s lack of shame is Marianne (Amanda Bynes), the school?s busybody and leader of a vocal Christian abstinence program. She doesn’t know whether she wants to save Olive or banish her.

All hail the coming of Emma Stone, comedy goddess and future heartbreaker. Easy A is a fantastic showcase of the many strengths of this irresistible actress. After several supporting roles in films like Superbad and The House Bunny, this is the first opportunity for Stone to have a film where she gets to be the lead, and trust me folks, this won?t be the last one. Stone has a great way of becoming instantly empathetic and, much like the film, being brainy and playfully risqué at the same time. Watching the success of Stone is like watching the road not taken by Lindsay Lohan (be careful whose advice you take, Emma). Stone makes her good times seem effortless, like she really is having a blast playing up her bad girl image. Her facial expressions and sarcastic, know-it-all line readings help push her comedic range even further, and yet she remains completely empathetic the entire time. Stone is the kind of girl that other girls would want to hang out with and guys would crush on. It is impossible to not love this actress, and she makes Easy A easily enjoyable and downright effervescent at times.

The rest of the cast is having just as much fun with the material as Stone. Chief among them are Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as Olive’s hyper-literate parents. They may seem like they stepped off the train from a Diablo Cody movie at first, but you will quickly get used to their glib rapid-fire repartee. Some might dismiss them as kooks. Thomas Haden Church (Sideways) tries to make the glamorous movie idea of the Hip Teacher into a droll square and succeeds admirably. There’s even Lisa Kudrow (TV’s Friends) as a guidance counselor and Malcolm McDowell (Halloween) as a blasé principal (“This is public school. If I can keep the girls off the pole and the boys off the pipe, I get a bonus”). Then there’s Bynes (Hairspray, She’s the Man) in what was billed as her final film performance before hastily retiring from acting, and then following in the footsteps of other famous retirees like Michael Jordan, Stephen King, Jay-Z, and Brett Farve, and hastily un-retired. She has her cutesy, dimple-faced shtick she cling to, but what happened to her? Her face looks very swollen, like she had an allergic reaction on every day of shooting. It looks like someone inflated her head with the plot to turn her into a Macy’s Day balloon. I started to get concerned for Bynes by the end.

While Stone is the number one, two, and three reasons for seeing this movie, Easy A doesn’t let down her efforts. This is a teen comedy that might just be light years ahead of the pack. There are jokes guaranteed to go over the heads of a majority of audience members, from wisecracks about Sylvia Plath to French wordplay to the Kinsey scale. You’re not going to find any of that stuff in your typically brain-dead Freddie Prinze Jr. vehicle (is it just pathetic to keep holding onto a 10-year-old anti-FPJ grudge? The answer is, “No!”). Though I died a little inside when the movie resorts to explaining the plot of The Scarlet Letter to Joe Public; however, this intellectual Cliff Notes salve was saved by Stone bemoaning the idiotic 1995 Demi Moore film that takes some of the sharpest deviations I’ve ever seen from a classic literary adaptation (“If I have to grade one more paper talking about Hester Prynne taking baths all the time?”). The dialogue is routinely snappy and occasionally barbed, which is a bit of a surprise. It’s witty, a little cheeky, but it doesn’t go over the line or play for the easy gross-out gag. It?s a well-constructed, well-executed teen comedy that has a playful zing, a facetious tone that celebrates literature and makes being smart sexy.

While sex is at the forefront of the plot, the film does not treat the serious subject matter with flippancy. There’s some heavy stuff about what it means to sell out your ideals, prostituting yourself in more ways than the obvious. Olive begins her crusade as a means of taking ownership of her reputation and as an amusing character to play. But then as she dives ahead, accepting gift cards for her imaginary yet cred-boosting favors, the bloom of idealism dims and the meaning of her crusade become murky. What point is she trying to prove, exactly? In the end, is there a sharp difference between being a prostitute and being a “prostitute”? How big of a distance can irony give you? Easy A may have its fun when it comes time to doing the deed (I was howling with laughter about Olive chastising her first “client” about his comment on the aroma of sexual intercourse), but this is a teen movie ready to accept the consequences of its actions with a clear and level head.

Not everything hums with precision. Easy A can be faulted for being too reverential and referential to 1980s teen comedies. Its ambition to be a modern-day member of this group is a bit too in-your-face. The abstinent Christian opposition feels too broadly drawn and setups for cheap shots and some downright mean punchlines. This movie is better than stooping to tin-eared caricature. The relationship between Olive and her best friend (Alyson Michalka) is vastly underdeveloped. The emergence of a Herpes outbreak also seems a little tacky, especially given its salacious carrier (trying hard not to spoil plot reveals). Then there are simply questions of believability. I?m not expecting a journalistic document of the American educational system, but since when was a high school student losing their virginity scandalous gossip? Why would Olive become the talk of the town by doing something that, according to the CDC, 80% of men and 75% of women have accomplished by age 19? Now, later in the film, the whiff of prostitution would definitely create a stir in the social gossip machine, and with technology, a rumor can spread at the speed of texting.

The film follows a well-worn path and owes a serious debt to the teen films of the 1980s, but Easy A is a winning teen comedy thanks to a snappy script, a playful sense of the taboo, and the courage to shoot for a higher level joke, also Stone’s charismatic comedic performance makes the grade. The entire movie has this bustling, quirky energy to it that feels un-labored. They make it all look so easy. Despite being a thorough genre flick, it is lifted thanks to its zesty writing and acting. In the most simplistically crass terms, Easy A scores.

Nate’s Grade: B

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

George Clooney’s pet project is articulate and a tad dull. The black and white cinematography is elegant; you can practically taste all the smoke onscreen. The idea of press vs. fear-mongering politician is very relevant today, and the film?s insight into the running of TV news is really interesting, but this is a movie that works best as a study and not as strict entertainment. It?s not stuffy or ideologically overwhelming; in fact it’s easy to follow and easy to get into, even if it leans too heavily on speeches. Clooney, as I predicted, is transforming himself into a terrific director with a great feel for his material. With Good Night, and Good Luck it seems like he got exactly what he wanted, regardless if an audience is going to walk away feeling they got their money’s worth.

Nate’s Grade: B

Pieces of April (2003)

The set-up for Pieces of April, a low-budget film starring Katie Holmes, is a pastiche of familiar independent film elements so much so that it could across as parody. Holmes plays April Burns, a beleaguered teen living on her own in a grungy New York apartment. Today is Thanksgiving and her family will be stopping by for a grand Thanksgiving meal prepared by April. Her cantankerous mother (Patricia Clarkson) is ailing from breast cancer, and when she tries to think of one good memory she’s had with April, she can only conjure memories belonging to younger daughter Beth (Alison Pill). She also will be introducing her family to her new boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke of Antoine Fisher). April has 24 hours to cook a memorable meal for her family and it could be the last Thanksgiving they spend together.

In the world of independent film, it seems like there’s a whole sub-genre of movies that revolve around chaotic Thanksgiving dinners and dysfunctional families. The holiday setting, her mother’s cancer, April’’s spirited attempts at autonomy in the big city, interracial dating and an apartment complex full of cute oddballs all seem like tried-and-true staples of indie film.

Pieces of April was written and directed by Peter Hedges, writer of What’’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and co-writer of About a Boy. His pedigree would certainly state that he knows something about family drama, and Pieces of April is a nice continuation of his observational humor. Hedges has a skilled confidence in his writing. The characters feel real and we gravitate to their vulnerability and hope. We see every sincere detail of April’s plight to make her family proud. The choice to shoot Pieces of April on digital video adds an extra element of intimacy, like we’re trapped inside a home video.

Holmes gives her best performance to date. April, with patches of bright orange hair and arms enclosed with bracelets, is a sweetly vibrant character. When a neighbor asks about her relationship with her mother, April describes herself as the first pancake. “She’’s the one you’’re supposed to throw out,” another neighbor explains. Holmes’’ performance is like a slow simmer of frustration, optimism and determination that wins your heart. Her more dramatic moments of helplessness and disappointment are quite affecting.

The supporting cast for Pieces of April is top-notch. Clarkson gets some weighty moments as the ailing mother, like when she runs out of the car in tears because she can’t afford one more bad memory with April. She gets the showy part but enlivens every moment. Oliver Platt further feeds my theory of his quest to be in every movie ever. In Pieces of April he plays the put-upon father who frets his wife could pass any moment. Pill shines as the hyperactively cheerful and overachieving Beth. Her cherubic cheeks and glowing smile leave an indelible impression, and makes me question if her face ever got sore from excessive smiling.

Pieces of April is a pleasurable little comedy that’s borderline touching. It’’s not much more than a small slice of family drama, but with excellent writing and strong acting, Pieces of April distinguishes itself as more than a collection of familiar staples, and as a warm and quietly charming homespun comedy with an extra helping of heart.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Station Agent (2003)

This is the most charming film of 2003, and I’m not just saying this because I had an interview with one of its stars, Michelle Williams (Dawson’’s Creek). Fin McBride (Peter Dinklage) is a man with dwarfism. With every step he takes every look he gives, you witness the years of torture he’s been through with glares and comments. He’s shut himself away from people and travels to an isolated train station to live. There he meets two other oddballs, a live-wire hot dog vendor (Bobby Cannavale) and a divorced mother (Patricia Clarkson). Together the three find a wonderful companionship and deep friendship. The moments showing the evolution of the relationship between the three are the film’s highlights. It’s a film driven by characters but well-rounded and remarkable characters. Dinklage gives perhaps one of the coolest performances ever as the unforgettable Fin. Cannavale is hilarious as the loudmouth best friend that wants a human connection. Clarkson is equally impressive as yet another fragile mother (a similar role in the equally good ‘Pieces of April’). The writing and acting of ‘The Station Agent’ are superb. It’s an unforgettable slice of Americana brought together by three oddballs and their real friendship. You’ll leave ‘The Station Agent’ abuzz in good feelings. This is a film you tell your friends about afterwards. There’s likely no shot for a dwarf to be nominated for an Oscar in our prejudiced times but Dinklage is deserving. ‘The Station Agent’ is everything you could want in an excellent independent movie. It tells a tale that would normally not get told. And this is one beauty of a tale.

Nate’’s Grade: A

The Green Mile (1999)

A prison in the heart of the deep South during the era of the Great Depression is not usually the locale you’d find a somber tale of earnest discovery and passionate awareness to the follies of life. Yet here arrives the long anticipated The Green Mile, the second in tag-team efforts from director Frank Darabont and novelist Stephen King in their own genre creation of nostalgic feel-good prison flicks. All the swelling hype could manage to make the movie seem overbearing, but if you’ve got a free afternoon and a butt made of steel then try The Green Mile.

Darabont seems like the perfect visual interpreter to King’s epic narrative spinning of good, evil, and all that fall between. The movie moves at the pace of molasses and clocks in at over three hours in length. Not exactly audience friendly fodder but one and all will be grateful for the decisions taken to build character development and tension instead of blindly rushing through.

Tom Hanks plays a prison guard on the Death Row block of a Southern penitentiary. Despite the bleak and grim surroundings his humanity still shines through. He escorts and oversees the final moments of many men’s remaining breaths along the final walk of green linoleum tile to the electric chair. Enter one mysterious morn John Coffey (Michael Clark Duncan), a towering giant that seems to break all the rules each of the guards on cell block E has come to realize through their years. Coffey has been convicted of the rape and murder of two little girls, but as Hanks soon learns things aren’t always what they seem. The 7-foot miracle worker displays scenes of empathetic healing like to Christ himself. Hanks views are turned and his eyes open, and that’s just the beginning of the heartstrings being pulled. To release anymore of the plot would be a crime punishable by Ole’ Sparky himself in the Green Mile.

The pacing is smooth and wrings out every droplet of mystery and drama needed. The Green Mile‘s comprehensive fable quality transcends the period just like The Shawshank Redemption did as well prior. ‘Mile’ should be expected to be a front-runner for Oscars when balloting begins.

The ensemble acting is magnificently eclectic and truly inspiring. Hanks’ name is so synonymous with Oscar that he might as well shave his head and paint his body gold because come nomination time this man’s name is going straight to the ballot. Other stars give thoughtfully deep and refreshing performances guaranteed to turn a few heads. Duncan’s gentle child-like giant is serene and a benevolently touching figure of innocence and warmth. But one can not forget the presence of a very special rodent by the name of Mr. jingles that deserves billing above the credits itself for the quality performance it puts on.

The Green Mile is a sad, touching ,and rather powerful movie that speaks to the viewer’s emotions and gladly earns every one of them. In the end The Green Mile is nothing beyond a long yarn of a fairy tale; but one told so exceptionally, one performed so extraordinarily, and one directed so deftly that you’ll gladly journey down that mile with ease.

Nate’s Grade: B

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