Monday, September 22, 2014

The Maze Runner

It all started with The Hunger Games. Then came Divergent, and if Divergent took all the drama of The Hunger Games and ran wild with it (which it did) then the latest to join the club, The Maze Runner, borrowed the gritty action and survival, and built a mystery to surround it; a conundrum; a puzzle... like a maze.

But it's counterproductive to compare these movies no matter the similarities -- it seems like any YA dystopian story is doomed to be underrated now, and why? Because there's already one good story like that, so we don't need any more? I beg to differ with that, and so does every rom-com since Sleepless in Seattle, and every superhero movie since Iron Man. Before I start on a tangent, (if I haven't already) I'll say this and move on: The Maze Runner is a solid story that can stand on its own two feet, pays attention only to itself, and has a promising future ahead of it.

Look at these guys. Do you think they care about anything except what is happening right in front of them?

Thomas wakes up one day and has started a new life. He arrives via underground elevator to a large open glade surrounded by towering walls, inhabited by a bunch of boys around his age. He has no memories of his life before and neither does anyone else. Outside the walls is a dangerous maze with no obvious exit, and every day the bravest and fastest of those boys run through the maze looking for the way out. Inside they have a farm, food, handmade buildings, personalized jobs, and safety from vicious maze-dwelling creatures provided by the walls when they close at night. It's almost a nice place. But soon after Thomas' arrival, things start to change.

Like, for instance, a girl crashes the party.

So, I've read these books. I've nearly finished the last one, and I like them. I'll try to refrain from nit-picking details in my book-to-movie comparison, but the fact that I'll be tempted is a very good indicator as to how much I liked them. Likewise, it's a very good indicator to the quality of the film for me to say that I think it's a very good adaptation. The part of me that believes that adage that "the book is always better" balks at every slight change, but the part that understands what makes a good movie reminds me that it's all for the best.

When you feel sad
Or under a curse
Your life is bad
Your prospects are worse...
(brownie points if you know what that's from)

And it really is. As I noticed each change I analyzed its necessity, and honestly, the majority were good, helpful changes that gave the film better flow and structure -- and the rest were neutral at worst. One thing though, that needed no change, and was only improved by additions was the cast of characters.

Thomas isn't a character-type -- he isn't particularly remarkable, or easily defined by ticks, or mannerisms or flaws. But somehow, Dylan O'Brien becomes him fully, and fleshes out the character in a way that is right by the book. It may be a case of a great casting choice, but either way he does a fine acting job. He has the most to do, and does it all with easy believability.

My one complaint would be that he runs funny.

The rest of the characters jump straight out of the page as well. Aml Ameen as Alby, Blake Cooper as Chuck, and particularly Ki Hong Lee as Minho, the most characterized of the characters. The most changed was Will Poulter's Gally -- the character was greatly improved and he dominated the screen. I wasn't a big fan of Kaya Scodelario as Teresa, but the same goes for her book version, so no problem. My personal favorite character of the group Newt was luckily played by my favorite actor of the group Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who got to keep his British accent (unlike the Scodelario and Poulter) and very simply was Newt. I even noticed him slipping in a subtle limp.

Left to right - Newt, Thomas, Teresa, and Minho (and Frypan and Winston). Looking forward to more of all of them -- the year wait for the first sequel will be a long one.

Brutal, in-your-face handheld camerawork created the exact right edgy, gritty ambiance the film needed. It was so perfect that I didn't even mind the side effect -- occasional shaky-cam that degraded some of the action. Director Wes Ball took the style of the novel and amplified it, making a tightly woven unique piece that was thrilling and mysterious, and sets up for the sequels to complete the story with the exact same amount and height of quality with which it was began.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Terry Pratchett's Going Postal

It's extremely obscure, but it warrants a brief mention and review. "It" is a British fantasy period action comedy, (the best things in the world are hard to define, aren't they?) based on a novel by Terry Pratchett, who has written fourty-ish such novels in a loosely connected series starting in 1980--something.

Going Postal cast. Think "Dickens goes crazy and writes fantasy comedies."

The 3 hour mini-series revolves around a con man named Moist Von Lipwig (now you begin to see the comedy style this thing utilizes) who, after a very successful career as a swindler is arrested and hanged for his crimes. The end. Just kidding -- this thing is 3 hours long! Notice I didn't say he died. Hanged only to within an inch of his life (and it's that last inch that has the most significant effect) he is given a choice: reopen the local post office, or walk though a door that leads to a bottomless pit. The choice is obvious; as the postmaster, there's a chance of escape.


But as Moist (played by Richard Coyle) gets to know his two strange and quirky postmen, Groat and Stanley (Andrew Sachs and Ian Bonar) and his even stranger parole officer Mr. Pump, who is literally a clay giant called a Golem (he's played by Marnix Van Den Broeke, (Doctor Who fans, take a look at his IMDb page!) and voiced by Nicholas Farrell) and the beautiful but harsh and cold Miss Adora Belle Dearheart (Claire Foy) he begins to soften to his new life. But as soon as he begins to put effort into his new occupation the local villain, Reacher Gilt (David Suchet) and owner of the Clacks, the only other long-distance communication service, is there, determined to do anything to keep his business as the only business.

This is my "confused" face.

I often cannot fathom how some people could possibly not like something I do, especially if it's main perk is comedy. "Everyone loves comedy" I think, "so how could you possibly not like Shakespeare??" But I do understand with Going Postal. It really isn't for everyone. If you like the haphazard comic style of Stardust then you're off to a good start, but then you must also be able to look past some pretty cheap effects and general production. I do bet the book is very good, since the best of the comedy was in the witty dialogue.

Also, the acting ranges from "a bit too much" to super-duper cheesy. Most of the time the cheesiness fits -- I cannot deny that the nature and style of the story practically requires it, but it is still there. It fits most with Mr. Pump's character, whose cheesy physical appearance trumps cheesy dialogue. And with our hero and his aloof love interest, the silliness never much overshadows their charm.

How about that gold suit, though? Shiny.

Moist is like a Flynn Rider come to life, swashbuckling, smiling, and lying his way into a better life -- until he finds something actually worth caring about. And Adora's blatant sarcastic cynicism is a perfect match for him. Their scenes clashing wit together were my favorite; I would've watched three hours of just that. And in a complete turn-around from his long-time role as Hercule Poirot, David Suchet as the villain chews scenery like I've never seen before. I was very impressed -- until I decided there was just too much of it.

"Poirot has been undercover, and has he has discovered the murderer, n'est ce pas? Oui!"

I suppose the plot was a little disconnected too. At the end I felt as if something important had been left out. Actually, thinking on it, I can kind of tell -- it doesn't wrap up exactly the way the silly, quirky style would seem to require. So it left a little wanting -- but still a lot given. When there's a fun start that slowly turns into a slightly muddled ending, it's the first part that holds the most sway with me.

Here's something you should watch though, even if you haven't seen Going Postal, and even if you don't plan on it -- some of the actors goofing off with a choreographed dance to Elvis' Return to Sender -- because, why-in-the-world-not?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Battle of the Five Armies -- New Photo

Like with they did for the first movie (can't remember about the second -- anyone?) Peter Jackson and Co. have released a "tapestry" photo for The Battle of the Five Armies. (Or, as I fondly think of it, There and Back Again. Infinitely easier to type.)

Click here to see the full size.

First of all, I couldn't be happier with the image of Bard's silhouette facing Smaug. Looking so small compared to the dragon, but amazingly epic. As soon as I finish this, I'm going to do some cropping and add it to my computer background slideshow.

Then in the very next frame, we have "what in the world is going on?" It appears that Gandalf will be getting Galadriel into trouble. Not very nice of him.

I also really like the green section of Thorin on his throne, looking kingly and brooding and epic. And Bilbo, great as always, no surprise there.

Tauriel is looking very beat up, but Legolas is still pretty.

There's Thranduil's giant white elk again, and it also looks like one of those five armies has some giant goats at their disposal.

Then there's Thorin again in battle with his nephew's Kili and Fili, looking good.

And Bilbo in the hero shot. I am wondering about the flock (pack? swarm?) of bats above him though. I hope PJ remembered that he's already done giant bats in King Kong.

My excitement for this film has been duly kicked up another notch.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Mockingjay Lives -- New Trailer!

Here's the first full Mockingjay trailer! And looking every bit as good as Catching Fire did, I daresay. There is only one problem I can see, and that is that it's only half of the final chapter of this story. So while I'm glad they're spreading it out in order to include every detail possible, (and it looks like they've figured out how to form the plot to let it stand alone as well as possible) I'm also already dreading the year-long wait that will start on November 21st, right after this one is released.

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Brothers Bloom

This review is spoiler-free.

I like this movie. I want to buy it on DVD and put it on a rotation of movies I watch whenever I don't know what I want to watch, because they're perfect for any occasion. Other movies on that list are The Truman Show, Minority Report, Tangled, Super 8, and Master and Commander. It's a pretty exclusive group.

I'm surprised I hadn't seen this before now -- it's a rom-com-con! An adventurous romantic con comedy starring Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel Weisz, by the Brick and Looper director Rian Johnson. There's no way to spin those pros to make the film they represent look uninteresting in my eyes.

My second, and current favorite Rian Johnson film.

I saw Brick a few weeks before The Brothers Bloom, (so I was able to appreciate the Brick actors' cameos) and now I just need to see Looper before Star Wars Episode VIII comes out to keep on track with my Rian Johnson movies. I'm loving his writing and directing style, which, while noticeably unique, doesn't seem to be about branding a movie with a particular, trademarked feel or look, but rather is a result of his general understanding of what makes a good movie -- something on which I happen to agree with him.

The Brothers Bloom owes all (okay, most) its goodness to one thing: its script. It was the first thing in the beginning that piqued my interest when I noticed that the entire opening sequence rhymed. Yes, that's right. And it wasn't a dramatic poem or anything, just a narrator, casually giving the pint-sized Brothers some back-story -- some rhyming back-story.

"As far as con men stories go, I think I've heard them all. Of grifters, ropers, faro-fixers, tales drawn long and tall. But if one bears a bookmark in the confidence man's tome. It would be that of Penelope, and of the brothers Bloom."

The Brothers Bloom are Stephen, the older, Mark Ruffalo, and Bloom, the younger, with no first name, Adrien Brody. They are con men, ever since they grew out of being con-children. Stephen is the mastermind of the duo and protective of Bloom, who participates in Stephen's cons like Michael Phelps participates in the Olympics -- like a champ, and star of the show, but for the last time (until next time). Bloom wants to live a life unwritten by his brother, and Stephen wants to give him what he wants... right after the next con.

After the opening rhyme, we are introduced to the adult Brothers, and the script settles into a very straightforward witty comedy -- with a side of off-kilter coo-coo as the Brothers' silent, scene-stealing Japanese assistant Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) casually strolls in, lighting her cigarette with a blowtorch. (Eat your heart out, Wes.) Bloom and Stephen may not be as obviously strange as she, but they have their quirks and complexities aplenty. Stephen makes a fine controlling, but sympathetic older brother, who always gets his way with a smile, and Bloom is a great "vulnerable antihero"; for his brother's stories, and in real-life, whether he realizes it or not.

Guesses as to how Bang Bang got her name? Her motto is, "When you're done with something, blow it up."

The script takes its merry time establishing the Brothers' relationship, defining Bloom as the main character, and revealing his plight -- all evidence to the fact that this script respects and values its characters. Then the plot begins. Oh, but I haven't even mentioned Rachel Weisz yet. Now I have. She, as Penelope, the Brothers' "last" mark, rivals Bang Bang with her idiosyncrasies and quirks, but they never overshadow her charm, or make her aloof. Unsurprisingly, she becomes the romantic interest for our (vulnerable anti-) hero.

The epileptic photographer and the discontented hero.

As you should expect from a con movie, then begins those little nuggets of information that, upon a second viewing (or later in the first if you're quick) you fully realize how they fit into the puzzle. And about the time the plot begins is also about the time that the high-flying high comedy starts to slowly faze out, and in its place comes plot developments, and the more serious matters the characters face. Especially Bloom, who takes everything very seriously, especially falling in love. This transition takes place so slowly that it takes to the climax of the film to be complete, and even then the comedy isn't all gone. However, in the third act, things degrade slightly into confusing, (only slightly, mind) and the film's solid footing begins to slip. In the end it doesn't exactly deliver on what it seemed to promise at the beginning. What it does deliver may not be mind-blowing, but is perfectly right for the story it succeeds. 

All you need to know about these characters' personalities can be gleaned from this one photo.

I want to tell every detail of every hilarious joke, and all the complexities and heart of the plot, explaining why I think this movie is so great, but that would take forever, because it won me over by winning me over and over and over, every new moment impressing me more than the last. I was won at the rhymes. I was won at the appearance of Brody and his bowler. (If there's one thing Adrien Brody is good at, it's acting. If there are two things, it's acting and wearing classy hats.) I was won at Bang Bang's entrance; at Bloom's musical epiphany; when Penelope says it totally is an adventure story, and at every moment she's proven right; plus every moment that made me laugh -- and there were mounds of those. By the end I didn't even need to be won again, but at that point, how in the world could I not be?

"We're all of us marks in our own cons."

I should add that none of the actor's performances were at all bad. Quite the opposite. They all made endearing characters worth cheering for. The filming style was very pleasing, light and crisp, and complemented the humor only slightly more than the drama. The score was absolutely lovely. And though it's set in modern day, it has a mishmash vintage feel going, with grand, unique, results.

I set high importance on those things -- only together do they make this movie hit that sweet spot like it does, but I said it before: it's all owed to that wonderful sturdy base of a script. There's not one dry scene to be found, as if Stephen were its author, since, as Bloom says, "Stephen writes his cons like dead Russians write novels, with thematic arcs, and embedded symbolism..." and stuff. And as Stephen said, "the perfect con is where each one involved gets just the thing they wanted." Well... I don't know if I've been conned, but I did get just the thing I wanted.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Upcoming Movie Roundup - September

Whew! Last month Guardians of the Galaxy released, and did amazingly, and I adored it. So much so that I saw it twice within four days and practically forgot about all the other movies releasing in August. Of course I wasn't expecting much out of them, and probably will see The Giver eventually in spite of it's slightly disappointing reception.

But there are no Marvel movies coming this month, so back to reality. (Unless you count The Winter Soldier's DVD release!)

First we have "Proof that Dan Stevens really has moved on very far from Downton Abbey -- in two parts."

The Guest
Sept. 17th (limited); R
First, The Guest which looks like a oddly creepy, suspenseful and then very violent thriller. Stevens is an American soldier who, after his fiend dies in combat goes to stay with his family as per his request to make sure they're doing okay. Except that there's no way that's all that's going on. And whatever is going on will likely be gory and and strange and mysterious (and well-reviewed, it currently sports %100 on Rotten Tomatoes) and will probably remain mysterious to me for a considerable amount of time. I can't even decide if Dan Stevens is the good guy or the bad guy of this movie.

A Walk Among the Tombstones
Sept. 19th; R
Then there's this one, which actually features Liam Neeson in the starring role. He is an ex-cop-turned shady private investigator, and Dan Stevens is a shady drug dealer who hires him to find the serial killers who murdered his wife. The Guest may be getting critical praise, but this one seems more likely for popular success -- a straightforward violent shoot-em-up featuring Liam Neeson not having to follow any laws? People like those. I gave up on trying to find this film's trailer on YouTube, so if you want to see it, here's a link to it on Rotten Tomatoes

The Maze Runner
Sept 19th; PG-13
This is what has all my interest for this month. The book is currently sitting directly to my left, and I am anxious to start reading. Though it's unlikely to replace The Hunger Games as my favorite dystopian teen work of fiction, it has plenty to recommend it and set it apart -- at least enough to be enjoyable. The fact that the leading character is a guy, and it isn't written in the first person already differentiates it considerably. Besides that, the movie caught my attention with the casting of Will Poulter, aka the very deserving Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and probably the best thing about the The Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster, aka Ferb Fletcher, the silent wisdom of the Phineas and Ferb duo, and everything else from Doctor Who, to Love Actually, to Game of Thrones. I don't however, have any clue who the guy playing the main character is.

The Boxtrolls
Sept. 26th; PG
If I were to venture a guess, I would say that this seems most likely to be the most successful movie of this month, (at least of the ones I've chosen to write about) the cute and original claymation about trolls that live underground and use boxes for clothes. If I've just  made it sound utterly boring that probably somewhat reflects my opinion of the movie. Some things inexplicably never spark an interest, and this has been one of them, in spite of its cast including one of my favorites Elle Fanning. Of course, I've only seen the teaser trailer, so maybe a full trailer will help. If you'll excuse me.... ... Hmm. Okay, so there's a plot and stuff, that's always a good sign.

What's on your radar this month?