Monthly Archives: September 2015

Turns out, there’s still lots of running to be done after life in the ‘Maze’

Um, a little help? ... Anyone?

Um, a little help? … Anyone?

As my kids and I watched the second act of the Maze Runner trilogy, The Scorch Trials, I found myself thinking, “Too bad those kids don’t have Fitbits. They probably get their 10,000 steps by breakfast.”

The tempo and the chase are The Maze Runner‘s greatest friends. Whether it’s balancing on a steel i-beam in a run-down factory while a heavily armed WCKD strike team is breathing down their necks or charging up the remains of a tipped-over skyscraper with blood-thirsty Cranks hot on their heals, director Wes Ball utilizes interesting settings and a cast with seemingly unending stamina effectively.

However, the action can’t cover all that ails the film. One thing that hurts The Scorch Trials is a lack of mystery. Sure, we still don’t know everything – although, by the end, we have a much more complete picture of the situation – but just knowing who WCKD is and their agenda, seeing the Cranks, it takes a little wind out of the sails. The beauty of the first Maze Runner flick lie in part in the overwhelming lack of information about the kids’ backgrounds, why they were where they were and what exactly was going on in the maze. Having faces and names to put with our fears reduces the tension for the viewer, and no amount of running makes up for that.

And while I’m sure Dylan O’Brien – the actor who portrays hero Thomas – is a nice guy, loves his mom and takes in puppies from shelters, his Thomas – the main character – is the least interesting character in the film, in part because of the material, in part because of O’Brien. The majority of the blame should go on the writing. I haven’t read the books, so I’m not sure they share the responsibility, but screenwriter T.S. Nowlin gives O’Brien little to work with. This kid is supposed to be the leader, the savior, which would be fine except I don’t think yelling, “Go, go, go, GO, GO, GO!” over and over again counts as leadership. Thomas’s bravery is never in question, but his decision-making is appalling. Case in point: When entering an unknown settlement with new pal Brenda, Thomas is told to try to blend in. To me that means keep your head on a swivel, nod when the locals make eye contact, look but don’t talk, that sort of thing. To Thomas, that means walking up to the first absolutely blitzed dude he can find (played to the hilt by Firefly veteran Alan Tudyk) in the shadiest hangout in town and start asking very probing questions really loudly. Absolutely awful. It reminded me of Andy Samberg’s Parks & Recreation character, Carl Lorthner. Only Thomas’s actions weren’t a joke. At least they weren’t supposed to be. Unfortunately, while that might be the most egregious act of stupidity Scorch Trials, it isn’t the only one.

O’Brien’s not a guy who elevates the material, either. He doesn’t hold his own against vets like Patricia Clarkson (The Green Mile, 6 Feet Under) and Aiden Gillen (The Wire, Game of Thrones). It’s hard to tell if Gillen’s Janson is smirking because he thinks he’s smarter than the kids from the maze or he’s trying not to laugh when O’Brien emotes. O’Brien doesn’t fare well against his fellow young actors, either. I’d follow Minho (Ki Hong Lee) before I’d follow Thomas. Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) ends up probably being the most interesting character in the film, and Scodelario really handles the subtlety of her role well. Unfortunately, we get little from that character despite her importance.

After two, I’m not that anxious to see the third in the Maze Runner series. I feel like I know most of what I need to know now as far as what is being done to the maze runner kids and why, and I’m betting the third flick, The Death Cure, is going to be even more hammy and ham-fisted than the Scorch Trials. Soft pass.

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Taylor Swift always comes out on top

If you’ve been living under a rock for the past year or so, you probably wouldn’t know that Taylor Swift’s 1989 is the album that defies everything we know about the modern music industry in that the album actually sold and continues to sell. And, of course, since Swift is the biggest international music star since the heyday of Madonna and Michael Jackson, the Bad Blood and Shake It Off singles have been pumped relentlessly by radio.

What you might not know is singer-songwriter Ryan Adams released a 1989 cover album this week. Yup, from Welcome to New York to Clean, Adams took on Swift’s hot tracks. He tweeted frequently throughout the process, even garnering support from Swift as the recording went on.

So how was it? To me, what was interesting was that, as Adams recorded, he talked about a Morrissey-Smiths feel to what he was doing. I, on the other hand, found that Adams’ 1989 sounded much more like a Bruce Springsteen album, maybe not so much lyrically, but the music and Adams’ voice are very much early 1980’s Boss. What I found more surprising is how well it worked for the course of the entire album. Shake It Off goes from being a privileged pop star’s girl-power anthem to the battle cry of a down-on-her-luck working class woman. Out of the Woods is low-key gorgeous, and How You Get the Girl feels like it has more depth. Adams deserves credit for making this gimmick not all that gimmicky.

The one low (or possibly less-than-high) note: Bad Blood, well, it still sounds like Bad Blood. It was the lone track that I knew exactly what it was from the opening tones, and it ended up being the only track where Adams couldn’t seem to shake Swift off. It works, but it’s probably the least interesting of the 13 songs on the album.

No matter what, Swift wins. She already had a hit album and critical kudos with 1989. She’ll probably walk away with a semi load of Grammys next year. Plus, Adams has given her some cred with the indie crowd. I won’t say it’s what Nirvana did with Unplugged way back in the day – because that was pretty big for Kurt & Co. and most of Swift’s fans will never hear Adams’ album – but it could definitely change a few minds and draw new listeners to Swift that previously wouldn’t have given her the time of day.

Plus, with Swift taking all of her digital catalog to Apple, those who use apps such as Spotify – like yours truly – will still get to hear 1989. Just not Swift’s 1989. Sort of.

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The dark side of Wes Anderson

Max Fischer in "Rushmore" is a brilliant young man burdened by the death of his mother.

Max Fischer in “Rushmore” is a brilliant young man burdened by the death of his mother.

There’s always been an aura of sadness to Wes Anderson’s films. Most of that gets credited to the detailed worlds and settings he creates that seem set in some nearby universe that just hasn’t quite caught up to ours, a world where couriers deliver notes, music is played on Victrolas, trains are still an acceptable form of travel and love is pure and untainted by technology, rumor or innuendo. Nostalgia is the culprit, and Anderson knows oh so well how to bow that particular fiddle.

What Anderson’s films really reveal is a desire to return to a time before lost innocence. We see this starting with Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket, in the form of Owen Wilson’s Dignan. Dignan’s lived a sheltered, suburban life, and now, as a 20-something, sees nothing he that thrills him in the future his past has created. He refuses to surrender to ennui and seeks meaning in crime. He sees honor and passion among thieves that he doesn’t see in the landscaped lawns and garden parties that surround him. It’s a romantic notion of a fool or a child playing gangster on the grade school playground, but Dignan is the kind of fool we wish we could be, so we are more than happy to go along for the ride.

That sort of shedding of innocence is common to all of Anderson’s works, whether it’s Max Fischer in Rushmore trying to dig in and hold on to the school that makes him feel close to his lost mother, or Sam’s and Suzy’s 12-year-old love story in Moonrise Kingdom. Anderson’s films give us hope that, even if it’s only for a few fleeting moments, we’ll jump around on an isolated beach dancing to our favorite song or finally get around to writing that stage adaptation of Goodfellas.

Sam and Suzy run off together in "Moonrise Kingdom."

Sam and Suzy run off together in “Moonrise Kingdom.”

Does The Grand Budapest Hotel mark an end to the hope? In many ways, it’s straight out of the Anderson playbook. A once-great, five-star resort hotel is now down on its luck, a faded image of a better time, out of place in the modern world. The characters are unique and quirky – Gustave, the concierge who runs the Grand Budapest, a consumate professional and womanizer of old women; Zero, an immigrant looking to find a place in a world completely unfamiliar to him; etc. – and the action is madcap and frequent.

But Budapest lacks the sunny upside of Anderson’s other flicks. Sure, Max Fischer is forced to leave his beloved Rushmore, but it’s in part because he no longer needs the idealized, isolated institution. Max has found his tribe, weird and varied as they may be, and now he’s ready to face the world. The orphan Sam is no longer cast out and seeking someone to love him, needing to run away to get closer to … something, anything. Someone found him, quite by accident, and loves Sam and is willing to provide him a stability he’s never had.

Budapest‘s end, on the other hand, provides its bleakest moments. Yes, Zero finds a family to belong to after his parents and brothers and sisters are killed in a war they wanted no part of. But Zero’s wife and child die at the hands of a disease that years later is commonly curable. Yes, Gustave finally gets to join the ranks of the wealthy women he has so often pursued, but other than not running the Grand Budapest anymore, his life changes little. His snobbery, so often a source of amusement or even comfort throughout the film, ends up getting him killed by the latest band of war makers to pop up in his corner of the world.

Is this a change in Anderson? Has some of his hope died, whether through personal experience or what he perceives as a flaw in the world around him? It could, of course, be a one-off, that these tragic endings serve this particular story, and, as such, that’s the course Anderson charted.

However, Anderson’s films always feel so personal that it’s hard to believe this is a random occurrence or just a part of the story that needed to be told. It’s such a variance that his next film should be the most anticipated of his career. Will it be a return to form? Or has Anderson now evolved like his characters, ready to move on to face a bigger, badder world?

Stay tuned. I will be.

So, ‘The Visit’ wasn’t a tire fire

A grandma's love for her granddaughter is special.

A grandma’s love for her granddaughter is special.

Welcome back, M. Night Shyamalan.

I, for one, have missed you. I loved Unbreakable and enjoyed both The Sixth Sense and Signs. I wasn’t as upset with The Village as many were, but the twist was weak in that it insulted viewers’ intelligence a bit and undermined the film. I never watched Lady in the Water – it seems to be a love it or hate it proposition, judging from the reviews, and I just wasn’t interested – but The Happening was a disaster, in part because it just sort of slowly fizzled out over the course of its running time, and in part because I’m mystified by the appeal of Mark Wahlberg, who never seems to elevate anything he’s in, with the possible exception of Fear. My kids and I watched The Last Airbender, and if it’s possible for a 9-year-old to be “fucking pissed,” that would describe my daughter’s reaction – and mine as well, to tell the truth – after watching the celluloid turd. And I refuse to contribute to the ascension of Will Smith’s kids into the popular culture mainstream – my nightmares are filled with the trailers for a re-make of Wild Wild West starring Jaden – so there’s no way I’m ever watching After Earth.

But deep down inside, I kept hoping that you’d figure it out. You’re a master of tension, ’tis true. But what you also do so well is manipulating the dynamics of small, cloistered groups, primarily family. The tension in your best films isn’t always about the scare. It’s about a mom who thinks her son may be losing his mind, a father trying to hold together his family after the death of his wife, a marriage that is deeply fractured yet neither party can or wants to walk away from it.

In The Visit, you figured it out again. Sure, there’s plenty of creepy shit going on from the time Becca and Tyler start visiting their estranged grandparents, and you play those moments like Peyton Manning threading a ball through triple coverage with time winding down. But that would have mattered less if the viewers weren’t invested in the well-being of Becca and Tyler, two sweet, goofy, smart-ass kids who are still seeking some peace and sanity in the wake of their father’s abandonment. The tension feeds off of that uncertainty and pain as both kids ignore some seriously troubling behavior by their grandparents because these two children want so much to love Pop Pop and Nana and be loved by them, to fill that emptiness in their lives.

Will The Visit be remembered as your masterpiece? No, in part because of the found footage-documentary thing, which I thought worked but probably wasn’t all that necessary, and in part because the twist – while both grounded and well done – isn’t quite the shocker that some of the twists from other films in your catalogue have been. All of that said, this gives fans like me hope that the greatest movie in M. Night Shyamalan’s career might be just around the corner.

And for that reason alone, The Visit‘s worth the view.

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The Disney-fication of the end of the world

The blandest love story ever told.

The blandest love story ever told.

The Giver is about a future civilization that exists on a mesa above the clouds all its own, no one ever going beyond the borders. There are strict rules about the sort of things you’d expect – don’t lie – as well as some more odd demands – don’t talk about the past. Families exist, but they are no longer based on genetics and people are assigned to these units. Everyone takes a daily dose of drugs to essentially neuter them emotionally and sexually. All because of how awful things used to be. Awful how? No one knows. Well, except one guy. He’s about to share the information, possibly with everyone in the settlement. And that may or may not be a good thing.

Not a bad premise. And, according to my daughter and wife, it was a pretty good book. But the movie … not so much.

It’s not that it’s not very good. In its own, clean, superficial way, it’s not bad. But it comes off as apocalypse-lite, a Disney-fied version of what could have been a darker, more interesting film. I kind of kept waiting for Fred MacMurray and the shaggy dog to appear during the black-and-white scenes, it was so pristine, straight-forward and dumbed-down.

I think, in the end, that’s what really ruined it for me, how The Giver insulted my intelligence. At the tail end of the film, our hero – whose name I don’t remember and isn’t worth my time to look up – marches a baby across the desert, feeding the baby with a bottle that seemingly appears from nowhere, and then both dress warmly for the mountain trek with extra clothes that, I don’t know, they picked up at a Dick’s Sporting Goods while we were watching the action back at the settlement. It was egregious and ridiculous, undercutting the seriousness of the moment.

My advice? Skip it. We’re about to get big-screen doses of The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner that will likely far exceed what The Giver has to offer.

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Why MTV’s ‘Scream’ did and didn’t work

Familiar, but not the same.

Familiar, but not the same…

Writer’s note: This was initially, accidentally published before completion. So if some of this looks familiar, well, it might be. Also, there are going to be some spoilers, so you were warned.

Two reasons to like the Scream series on MTV …

  1. MTV pays due tribute. The disfigured, outcast madman from years before, the person who is not among our new Scream-ers but at the center of its mystery, is killed at a lake, an homage to Friday the 13th. That’s probably the least subtle nod, and there are tips of the hat to Halloween and Saw, as well. Hell, at one point I was sure I saw an exterior shot that had to be the old Buffy Summers’ residence. But what I thought was both fairly daring and a great change that set the show apart from the movies is the new mask. That’s precisely the sort of change that usually drives genre fans bugshit. But the mask wasn’t just changed for the sake of change. The change is tied to the new story, and it’s still true to the movie mask. It was a small but key change, and shows some of the thought that went into this endeavor.
  2. The ending. The creative team had me fooled, no doubt. I was convinced it was the sheriff and his son behind the murder. Then the killer was revealed, and it appeared that there was only one, which would have been a change from the original. But as the very end showed, there was at least one person who had regular contact with the killer prior to the murder spree. We don’t know the depths of said person’s involvement, but it’s a peek at what we might expect next season. It was a nice move that saved a somewhat anti-climactic season finale.
Yes, the dialogue was bad, but it wasn't that bad. ... OK, it was pretty horrifying.

Yes, the dialogue was bad, but it wasn’t that bad. … OK, it was pretty horrifying.

Three reasons not to like the Scream reboot.

  1. The dialogue. It’s bad. It’s awful. It’s atrocious. It’s … so bad we might need a new word to describe it. Part of what made the original Scream movie so fresh was that, unlike the many horror flicks that it was parodying, the kids were fairly smart, aware and funny instead of just attractive, dim-witted meat for the slasher grinder. MTV’s Scream often acts like it uses some random, genre-based, dude-bro/basic-bitch phrase generator to come up with dialogue. Among the adults, it’s hyper-serious and too spot-on. When some truly terrible phrase exits the mouth of one of the actors, it’s hard to stay in the moment within the drama. Noah, the series horror-movie fan stand-in for Jamie Kennedy’s Randy, is forced to spew half-assed, poorly set-up monologues far too frequently. The overall dialogue is so bad, even my 13-year-old daughter mocked it with regularity. Something to work on for Season 2.
  2. The cast and the characters they play. I thought, when it came to the adults, the casting was pretty well done. But with the teens … I think it can be summed up by Bella Thorne’s appearance in the pilot. The Disney star is the token big name who bites it in the opening scene, a good choice to relate to the target audience. However, unlike Drew Barrymore in the original Scream, we’re in no way sad to see Thorne’s Nina bite it. Drew’s character is a little catty and flirty, but also genuine and a fighter when the knives come out. Thorne is convincing as a bitchy teenager, but it’s a wasted performance because it isn’t what we need from the character. We need to have a rooting interest in Nina, but that’s not developed. It’s a poor match for Thorne, and it was the wrong way to go for the character. And that sums up plenty of the younger cast members in Scream. With the possible exception of Bex Taylor-Klaus’s outcast lesbian Audrey, there are too many poorly thought-out characters played by actors who don’t have the chops to elevate their roles.
  3. The ending. Yes, I know I just praised the ending. But the problem with the end is related to issue No. 2 above. Amelia Rose Blair, who plays podcast journalist Piper Shaw, is horrible. The wardrobe people put a pair of horn-rimmed glasses about two sizes two big on Shaw in an attempt to make her look like a Smart, Serious Journalist. She mostly looks like a kid who stole her dad’s eyewear. Plus, Blair can’t pull off acting concerned or intelligent, as if she’s never had the opportunity to witness or experience either. And when the big reveal comes that she’s our killer, she’s about as scary as a toddler dressed as a vampire heading out to trick-or-treat. I think the storyline could have worked much better had the Scream folks found an actress who could carry the weight. Blair was not the right woman for the job.

In the end, MTV did just enough to get me back for the second season. The first season was uneven but entertaining, and the set-up for the next round seems promising. Plus, my daughter and I had a lot of fun MST3K-ing from the cheap seats as the body count rose. Bonding over buckets of blood will keep us engaged for at least one more go ’round.

And now I’ll let my daughter’s words wrap this piece up. “She can’t carry everything she needs for school in that bag. My biology book wouldn’t even fit in there. … What kind of school is this?”

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