Tag Archives: First film

The Maze Runner

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The Maze Runner books upon which this franchise is based weren’t a particularly well-written series to start with, but it was visual and full of possibilities. The books are rushed, focused on a pre-adolescent male mindset in the bodies of post-adolescent boys, and (much like Divergent) over-plotted. And, yes, it still sold millions of copies, which is why it got this chance on screen.

The movie adaptation, directed by first-timer Ball and written by a collection of fairly untried scribes, compressed the already thin material into something even a bit flatter than the original while admittedly solving some of the problem aspects of the world the characters had to traverse in the process. To be fair, as a first feature, after years learning from the graphics side of the industry, Ball delivered a pretty solid result. That doesn’t meant the result is as rich as I’d like, nor does it make it a good movie for anyone over 15, or, especially, anyone female looking for role models.

The main issue is that the targeted audience for both book and movie is primarily tween boys that are just a bit older than the Percy Jackson-set but somehow even a bit more pre-adolescent. With the rise of franchises like The Hunger Games and Divergent, I’d have thought they’d try to hit both the female and male sectors for audience and recognize that kids have a slightly richer experience of the world than we’d like to admit. It didn’t need to be a modern Lord of the Flies, but I would have settled for something closer to the joyous carnage of Battle Royale, or philosophically deeper I Declare War.

Everything for the main character, played well by O’Brien (Teen Wolf), was far too easy. His journey takes him days instead of weeks or months. The writers even took the one female character, Scodelario (Now is Good, Skins), and made her even less relevant than the books did. Despite some good supporting roles by Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones), Poulter (We’re the Millers), and Lee (Nine Lives of Chloe King), the overall effect is one of a rushed story that just wants to get to the next big moment or visual effect and leaves all the emotion, mystery of the place, and thinking behind. There are tons of cuts just as a moment may take place as if the director were fearful of expressing anything emotional (an outstretched hand about to be grasped, but we don’t get to see that moment, for example). Sometimes that can be OK, but it made the world a lot less interesting than it could have been. The book at least tried to create a fully functioning society in the midst of all the weirdness.

On the plus side, the visual effects are stunning and well conceived. They captured the book well and rethought some of the original aspects to make them more believable. The creative minds get another run at the prize in this year’s upcoming sequel (Scorch Trials). I’m hoping that they don’t allow the 100M gross from their previous efforts make them believe they actually succeeded in this first attempt. Without some improvement in script quality, I don’t see the franchise surviving as the audience will continue to narrow and interest wane.

Nightcrawler

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Did you ever wonder where all that crime footage comes from when you’re watching the morning or evening news… or, at this point, scanning news sites? Nightcrawler will make you wish you didn’t. It is a brilliantly dark and twisted view of the industry that is barely removed from reality. It is Man Bites Dog meets American Psycho with a bit of Network thrown in, and Gyllenhaal (Prisoners) does a brilliant job of rolling all of that into a character that is both charismatic and horrifying.

While Gyllenhaal’s Bloom drives the film relentlessly, Russo (Thor: The Dark World) provides him a target and a foil. Her subtle portrayal of a nearly-washed-up, driven woman is powerfully touching when you get past her bluster.  And Ahmed (The Fades) brings innocence and desperation front and center to the story so we can see Bloom operate up close. There is even a collection of real news anchors in the film to lend credibility to it all (though you’d have to know LA news to know that, their personalities certainly ring true for anyone who doesn’t).

Better known for his writing (good and bad) on such films as Real Steel, Bourne Legacy, and The Fall, Gilroy took up both the writing and directing reins here. The result is solid, if uncomfortable, to watch. He remains invisible in the action–the fact that it is a film really drops away as the story unfolds. With the critical success of Nightcrawler, we should be seeing more of his work in future.

This movie was in and out, and back into the theaters over the last few weeks. It is still around, though in limited run as it vies for awards season. The story should also fill a need for anyone seeking out horror this time of year. (It isn’t really a horror film, but it has that sensibility.) I seriously debated with my rating on this one. I don’t know that I could watch it again any time soon, but Gyllenhaal’s performance deserves the push. It is every bit as worthy as the other actors efforts under consideration this year. The film itself is also well constructed with a train-wreck magnetism that is gripping, unlike some of the other vehicles for actors in contention. You watch this movie for the same reason you are riveted to crime footage that is its subject… for the carnage. It isn’t going to be the lightest film you’ll see, but you will remember it.

St. Vincent

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The improbable is always more interesting than the benign, though depictions of both can be used to great effect. Film tends to live at the edge of the improbable. The improbable is not impossible… the trick is to keep it on the the right side of believable, which this film does.

The story in St. Vincent is fairly well trod, with some nice additions: precocious kid gets mixed up with a curmudgeonly adult and everyone learns something about themselves, life, and others. It has echos of films as old as The Bad News Bears with some flavor of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Little Manhattan, not to mention dozens of others as far back as The Little Rascals and Shirley Temple. That doesn’t diminish this movie, it simply lives in good company. In especially the more modern cases, it is the cast and director that make the story work better than the script would appear to offer.

In fact, not only does the story of the film flirt with the improbable, its very existence on screen bordered that dark country: this was writer/director Melfi’s first feature film. Melfi’s move from long-time producer to director helped him pick up some significant talent to compliment his own.

First and foremost, Murray (Hyde Park on Husdon) delivers an incredibly nuanced performance that reeks of people we’ve all met as we were growing up. He takes a cliche and turns him inside out before your eyes without once blinking (OK, he does blink once). The performance is everything we love about his greatest characters and yet new and without the explicit crutch of his very identifiable humor and delivery. The humor is there, but transformed into this new character and without any wry winking to the audience.

Supporting Murray, in his first role (another improbability), is Lieberher, who you will certainly be seeing more of in the years to come. He and Barosso (Robot and Frank) are an impressive  couple of young actors. On the adult side we get McCarthy (Gilmore Girls), who shows why she had become so requested of late, but with the kind of control that makes her work so endearing and which has been missing since her breakout in Bridesmaids. Watts (Birdman, Adore), almost unrecognizable as the pregnant Russian stripper, takes a standard, absurd role and relationship and drives it through to the end. In much smaller roles, O’Dowd (The Saphires) and Howard (Prisoners) add important moments and characters to the world.

This film has likely been over-hyped by now. And though it is getting over-shadowed by other small films crushing in late in the awards season, it is worth your time to see. The performances are entertaining. The story affecting. The direction deft. And Murray, if you like him at all, will surprise the heck out of you.

Maleficent

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Let’s start with the obvious: the film is bloody gorgeously designed. From landscapes to make-up to costumes, it is a feast. This is probably due to first-time director Stromberg applying his vast f/x background to the production. It works, minus the oddly proportioned, somewhat plastic-y looking fairy trio of Staunton (The Girl), Temple (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), and Manville (An Adventure in Time and Space).  Where his chops failed him was controlling the the cast and the plot.

Jolie (The Tourist) chomps into the movie with fervor, enjoying every minute of her character and journey. Who wouldn’t? The journey, however, is muddled. The intent is clear, but in attempting to bolt on Maleficent’s motivations, they ended up with some joins that just didn’t quite match up cleanly; Woolverton and the studio were afraid of going too far afield from the original material as we knew it—primarily from the 1959 Disney film. The world that was created was incomplete, but showing us just enough to make that frustrating rather than a short-cut. The marsh lands clearly have an interesting history and way of functioning, but we get little of that and have little understanding of how it all works.

Other than Jolie, only Riley (Byzantium) manages any kind of an interesting journey from his crow perspective, and does so with little dialogue and just a few looks (and some of those are CGI). The rest of the main cast, Copley (Europa Report), Fanning (Ginger & Rosa),  and Thwaites (The Signal) are cardboard cutouts of the fairy tale, all at extremes and never really going beyond that. Most of the side characters and creatures are also just a tad too cutely designed at times. McTeer (The Honourable Woman) doing the narration was quite a nice surprise, but the conceit and final pay-off at the end didn’t work given the story they told… and to explain that would require a spoiler, so just think about it when you watch.

The movie is certainly worth seeing once. Depending on your particular tolerances, you may enjoy it more than once. I wish they’d had the guts to move further from the original and give us a real story. Despite their attempt to mirror the success of Frozen in plot design, it falls apart because of the lack of story created. I couldn’t even give this a grrrls tag because the motivations of the strong women are all driven by male choices and in reaction to those outcomes. Not even Maleficent stands on her own in this case.

While the recent Hercules certainly failed on many levels, at least that film tried to remake the story in a way that allowed us both what we knew and what they wanted. But Woolverton, who also gave us the rather weakly written Alice in Wonderland, is more of librettist to the Disney opera… they assume you’re there only for the visual music; the words are just around to paste the scenes together.  So go and enjoy the music, but don’t expect to connect with the characters in any real way.

Earth to Echo

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A rather sweet film that comes across as Chronicle for the tween set with a dash of Batteries Not Included. It doesn’t quite have the smooth believability of similar “last day together” stories, like Stand By Me or even The Kings of Summer, but it has fun, and even moments of catalyst.

The young cast is competent and, to a degree, known. The most recognizable is Astro (Red Band Society), who continues to build his career nicely, if monotonously. It isn’t that he can’t act, but he’s been somewhat typecast. Newcomer Halm actually has the best and most complex role in the piece, and I expect to see him more often in the future. But suggesting there are any great performances to be had is an overstatement. They are competent and working with weak material; good enough for the intended audience, but a bit cringe-worthy for adults.

To be fair, as a first feature for Green and Gayden, it is impressively put together. It isn’t brilliant, but it will certainly entertain  younger viewers who are just gaining their mental independence. This film plays nicely into that sense of life. And the effects are relatively well done, imparting real personality to the biomechanoid, Echo. Sure it is manipulative, but sometimes that what you go to a movie for.

Feel free to turn it on for your tweens, but you can do better for yourself, even for the 90 minutes it would absorb.

Floating Skyscrapers (Plynace wiezowce)

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Many films tackle the subject of sexual awakening and sexual choice. Most movies in the genre focus on a single person and do it with humor or high drama. Skyscrapers takes on the subject in a quiet, intense way. There are often long moments of silence with a single character on screen or two characters unable to speak as it examines several points of view and the effect of various revelations. By the end the movie is either hyper-realistic or, perhaps, moves slightly into physical metaphor. Honestly, however you interpret it, it is powerful.

Do be warned, this is not a happy movie. The emotions and the debris left in the wake of statements and decisions are painful. But first-time writer/director Woszcynski allows the moments to play out in their own time, forcing you to deal with and consider the moment rather than quick-cutting to the next bit of dramatic action. You have to have guts to do that as a director and as an actor. And, it should be noted, the actors fully commit to their roles, loving and loathing their characters at all the right times.

Interestingly, Woszcynski takes the film visually to the edge of noir, artfully constructing frames and setting off characters from one another that echo that era of cinema. This informs the whole film in a very unexpected way, though not directly commenting on the story. Add to the mix a sense of Polish culture and society and you’ve got a rather unique film if not an entirely unique plot. This is far from a ground-breaking view of the world or this particular situation, but it certainly heart-wrenching, and open to seeing many sides of the story.

Life After Beth

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There is great potential here that, sadly, is never fully realized. When writer/director Baena (I Heart Huckabees) tackled his first directing job, he hadn’t noticed that his script had a metaphor running wild. If this had been a short story, a poem, or a 3-5 minute film, that would have been fine, but it just didn’t work at full length.

Part of the lack of success for this film was the earlier release of Warm Bodies, which shambles some of the same paths, or even In the Flesh, Le Revenants, Shaun of the Dead and Fido. Each of these other stories made the over-used tropes their own and found an emotional truth in them. In other words, my expectations were rather high.

DeHaan  (Amazing Spider-Man, Kill Your Darlings) tries mightily to keep the movie and emotions grounded. He is the calm amidst the clichèd storm around him. Even Plaza (Safety Not Guaranteed), despite the outrageous catwalk she needs to navigate, manages to keep herself well on track to the very end… and blows away her last few moments wonderfully.

But the rest of the cast, other than Kendrick (Rapture-Palooza),  is allowed to be too broad; Baena clearly thinking that the two young lovers would be the calm in the storm of crazy. Instead it continually undermines the stability of the world and story. This is unfortunate as there is a pile of underused talent filling in the cracks of the film. From Reiser to Reilly, Shannon to Hines, and even Garry Marshall (in a really silly cameo), the adult cast arrives with over a century of practice and aren’t allowed to use their capabilities. The most abused of the cast is the remaining younger actor, Gubler (Criminal Minds), who comes across as incompetent in his role.

Normally I wouldn’t spend so much time  on a film that disappointed me, but there was potential here. And, for a time and in some ways, the movie almost touched on that possibility. My frustration with that, tasting the bitter in a potentially perfectly planned sauce, drove me on today. Personally, I’d say skip this one unless you’re a DeHaan or Plaza fanatic. Hopefully Baena learned a lot from this outing and can apply it to his next. He is a talented writer with a wicked imagination. In this case it was his untried directing chops that needed sharpening. I’ve not given up on him yet.

Obvious Child

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Obvious Child is funny but also painfully open and honest… and probably one of the weirdest romantic comedies you’ll see. It’s up there with Harold and Maude, though for very different reasons even if it hits on similar themes.

Slate and Lacy deliver wonderfully layered performances in a wide range of situations. Both manage to keep a surface of broad comedy, underpinning it with depths of pain, joy, confusion, and frustration. Which makes this all sound dire and heavy, but it isn’t. It just feels real, for all the absurd coincidences and extreme situations. What makes it work is the unjaundiced eye of the director, who keeps it all on keel.

When Robespierre set out to adapt and direct a full length version of the original short of the same name, she dove in teeth and breast bared. The love and lack of judgement of her subject comes through clearly. It is also clear that there is a strong personal connection to the events; a clarity of experience and an anger at how the rest of the world likely reacted. That is a leap as an audience member, but the extreme control of the story in order to keep it from making a statement, to keep it matter-of-fact, had to come from somewhere. More importantly, she succeeds in allowing the story to tell itself. Any judgement is brought by the viewer, not the movie.

I’d heard a lot about the film before seeing it. A bit more than I wish I had. It is every bit as good as I’d heard from the festival circuit. In its own weird way, it is a date movie, but not a first date film to be sure! But it manages to be aimed at Millenials without excluding older viewers and it is, at its core, romantic (and a bit desperate) which gives it a broader appeal than it may appear to target. Certainly there are other similarly age-bracketed films out there, but this one feels more honest than most.

Radio Free Albemuth

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Philip K. Dick stories are notoriously difficult to adapt to screen. Blade Runner is probably the best known and most successful example of one that went well. So many others have failed. What Blade Runner did right was not lose track of the internal battle that is part and parcel of Dick’s philosophies. All of his stories are intensely introspective and questioning of life and the meaning of it all, highly psychological and dubious of reality. Most films focus on big effects and action to keep it all going and drop the “boring” bits.

Radio Free Albemuth takes the opposite approach, focusing almost entirely on the philosophical and dialectic. It is incredibly topical (both when it was written and, scarily, now). It is a quiet, intense film that, despite its writing and directing faults, manages to stay interesting. That remains true even as it drifts into open discussions of religion and mythos that may not match your particular beliefs.

Scarfe (Hell on Wheels) and Whigham (True Detective, Boardwalk Empire) lead the film with what can only be described as an extremely understated approach. Some aspects of that work wonderfully–recognition of big things doesn’t have to have nefarious music and hair pulling to be interesting. However, it also makes some of the tension vanish from the screen.

This is where new write/director Simon really got lost… when to raise the energy levels. On the other hand, even if he didn’t use them well, he landed some solid talent, including the leads and smaller roles for Tenney (The Closer) and Alanis Morissette.

There is a lot to think about in this film. Much is put straight in your face by having the characters discuss and question it. But there are subtle layers as well, not to mention reveals. For those that like to chew their movies a bit and have them spark thoughts, it isn’t a wasted evening. If you want high tension, explosions, and chase scenes, you’ll likely fall asleep or curse the person who made you watch the film. Me, I sorta liked it, again despite all its many faults. In some ways it reminded me of Primer, which is unabashedly low energy, low budget, and philosophical. Primer is a better conceived plot, but for the right audience, Albemuth is an interesting watch.

Bad Words

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For a lot of good laughs, and not a small amount of heart, this is a great film to throw in (though definitely a hard PG-13). I imagine it will even rewatch well, and I intend to find out down the road. As a director, Bateman’s (Arrested Development) got a good new path ahead of him and an eye for wickedly funny scripts like this first, evil little confection from Dodge.

Bateman is also one of those incredible actors that can make the nastiest insults work without making you cringe (overmuch, anyway). His bite always has heart; it is a characteristic that has been evident in his work since he was a young kid (It’s Your Move).

Opposite Bateman, Chand (Warner and Serkis‘ new Mowgli coming in 2016) delivers a great performance in a breakout role. Hahn (Secret Life of Walter Mitty), Janney (Trust Me), and Hall flesh out the rest of the plot and world nicely if all just a tad broadly.

Bad Words is Bateman’s first time directing a feature film, but you’d never know it from the quality of the movie. His years in front of the camera and directing TV episodes prepped him well to deliver this very darkly comic tale of … well, that would be telling. While there are few real surprises in the film, there are some nice themes and turns that are worth experiencing without having them spoiled before you go into them.

Curl up with someone whose humor is just a tad twisted and pop this in for a fun night. I’m assuming you have a twisted sense of humor on your own or you’d not likely be reading this blog.