Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Movie Review: The Maze Runner

I’m not going to lie to you. I don’t care for the Young Adult genre. Its shining stars are, well, kind of trite. But the purpose of YA is to explore the arena of late adolescence. And the coming-of-age story is really as old as the concept of the story itself. So why am I reviewing The Maze Runner? Literally, the only reason I even know about this series is because Ken Barthelmey did some concept art for the film, namely creature design for the Grievers.

Ken is one of my favorite creature artists, so I decided to check the film out. I haven’t read the book beyond the first paragraph, so I can’t compare the two yet. It’s next on my reading list after I finish the Divergent trilogy. Okay, now to get into the meat of this.

Plot Summary

Spoiler-free Synopsis

Thomas, our protagonist, awakes sans memory in an elevator bound for God only knows where. When he reaches the top, he finds himself among a couple dozen other boys in the Glade, a large, verdant square surrounded by a colossal maze. Only the Runners are allowed to leave the Glade, since the Maze is a dangerous place. Thomas’s arrival signals a change in the status quo, and bad things start to happen: Grievers–the monsters inhabiting the Maze after dark–begin to attack in broad daylight; a girl, Teresa, arrives and upsets the fruit basket; Thomas doesn’t follow any of the rules…you know the drill. Eventually, Thomas becomes a Runner, and he and Minho, the other Runner, find what they think is a way out.

Thoughts

I’ve already mentioned how trite I think the YA genre is. And after watching this movie, I said, “More like ‘The Meh Runner’.” The trailers promise action, thrills, and an immersive, dystopian world. What we get instead is a beautiful world with underdeveloped characters, predictable action sequences, and too many unanswered questions.

The movie’s high point is in the visuals. The Glade captures the feeling of a small, primitive society well, from the foliage to the shelters to the costumes. The Maze itself is reminiscent of ancient ruins, covered in ivy, colossal, mysterious, and dangerous. And I’m very happy that they used Ken Barthelmey’s concept design as the final design for the Grievers without changing much at all. They’re supposed to be terrifying, and they certainly had the potential to be. But they aren’t. Their first scene doesn’t provide much suspense, and of their subsequent scenes, the attack on the Glade is perhaps the best. The only problem is that for most of that scene, the Grievers spend a their time off-camera. When they are prominent on camera, the action suffers from Shaky Cam Disease and Jump Cut Syndrome.

Now for the characters. Some of them are good, like Chuck, Alby, and Thomas. But others leave a lot to be desired, especially Teresa. As it stands right now, she’s little more than a plot device. Granted, this is a trilogy, so she will probably have more of a role in future installments. But all she does is provide a means of escape from the Grievers’ serum, and she has only two vials of antidote, at that. Gally is another one that just feels…off. I don’t know what it is, whether it be his Vulcan eyebrows, his crew cut, or his rapid spiral into vengeful insanity.

I don’t have much to say about the ending. It’s more open than that of The Hunger Games or Divergent, leading right into the next movie, Scorch Trials, which is due out in September. The twisty thing at the end wasn’t something I saw coming, but it wasn’t mind-bending, either.

All in all, the movie wasn’t awesome. But it was good enough to keep me onboard for at least the second one. Not bad for something that I would never have known about if not for my following Ken Barthelmey on deviantART. I give it almost four stars.

Review: Oscar

This week’s short review is of yet another crime comedy set in the first decades of the 20th century, and it also may contain minor spoilers.

Oscar is a 1991 film starring Sylvester Stallone in a rare comedy role, and it is a remake of a 1967 French film of the same name, which is itself based on a stage play by Claude Mangier. It is a hilarious, confusing tale of a mobster who wants to go straight in the waning years of Prohibition, specifically 1931. It was the number one movie in the US for two weeks, but it was nominated for three Razzies. Let’s see if my opinion follows that of its harshest critics.

THE PLOT (MINOR SPOILERS)
Angelo “Snaps” Provolone (Stallone) is a wealthy gangster feared by all, beholden to nobody. But to honor his late father’s (Kirk Douglas) final wish, he decides to go straight, to get out of the business of organized crime, and to become a banker. And he fully intends to do so. Aside from the short prologue explaining the impetus for the plot, most of the movie is set on the day when Snaps Provolone is going straight.

Our story begins when Anthony Rossano (Vincent Spano), Snaps’s bookkeeper accountant pops by for an early morning visit, demanding that Snaps’s number one lackey Aldo (Peter Riegert) wake him early. When Aldo protests, Anthony insists that it is “a matter of life and death.” Needless to say, Snaps is rather upset at the intrusion, and he and Anthony have breakfast in the atrium. Anthony has the chutzpah to ask Snaps for a thousand dollar raise, and Snaps tells him he’s out of his mind. In the course of the conversation, Anthony confesses to stealing petty cash (to the tune of fifty thousand dollars) from Snaps’s operation. But ultimately, his intent is to ask for Snaps’s daughter’s hand in marriage. Needless to say, he doesn’t take this news well, especially after learning that his daughter and Anthony are lovers.

Snaps has one daughter, Lisa (Marisa Tomei). But it wasn’t Lisa’s hand that Anthony sought; his affections belonged to Theresa, a young woman who claimed to be Snaps’s daughter so that Anthony would give her a second glance. She shows up soon to apologize for this deception. Meanwhile, Lisa, with the help of the maid Nora, has concocted a scheme to get out of her overbearing father’s household. She claims she is pregnant, and Snaps assumes that Anthony is the father, when the would-be father is actually Oscar, Snaps’s former chauffeur. (You can see how complicated this is getting already. We haven’t even scratched the surface.)

So Snaps tries to trick Anthony into marrying Lisa rather than Theresa. After Anthony realizes the deception, he runs out in a huff. But he returns, saying that he had become attached to the jewels he bought with the fifty grand he stole, and that he would like to buy them back from Snaps using another fifty grand he skimmed from Snaps’s operation.

Meanwhile, Nora tenders her resignation so that she can marry Bruce Underwood, the man Snaps had originally picked out for Lisa. Now we have three identical black bags floating around: one with fifty grand in jewels, a second with fifty grand in cash, and a third which contains Nora’s underwear. These three bags change hands more times than most people can keep track of, and the results are glorious.

I’ll spare you more details; this plot is extremely complicated, and it moves very quickly. But as the film progresses, Snaps gets increasingly confused and runs into more and more trouble as he tries in vain to prepare for the bankers’ arrival early in the afternoon. Twists and turns come right after one another, and by the end of the story, Snaps throws up his hands in frustration and decides to stick with the devil he knows.

THE GOOD
This movie keeps me smiling the entire time. I don’t care what the harsher critics say. This film may try to be funny, but it actually is funny, unlike some others. Granted, the plot is so confusing that you literally have to take notes just to figure out what’s going on, unless you watch it a few times. But that’s part of the fun. Watching Snaps’s world fall to pieces is a joyous experience indeed.

THE BAD
If you don’t like cerebral comedy, then this movie isn’t for you. Like I’ve said before, this plot is so complex and confusing that you will need to either watch the movie several times or take notes in order to fully understand what is going on. Yes, a lot of the comedy can seem forced, but the thing is, it works. Yes, Stallone may not be the funniest comedy actor, but honestly, that’s one reason it’s so funny; he plays the fish out of water very well.

CONCLUSION
Oscar is a confusing, cerebral comedy that a lot of people may have trouble following. I had to take notes to understand exactly what was going on, and even after seeing it a dozen times, it never gets old. This movie is one of my all-time favorites, and I highly recommend it. Buy it if you can find it, but it is also available from Netflix on DVD, and occasionally streaming.

Parents’ Guide
Unlike the last film on the list, Oscar is a much cleaner PG. Violence is discussed, but it is done comedically, and there isn’t much onscreen, aside from Snaps trying to strangle Anthony (again, this is comical), and a car crash at the very end of the movie (nobody gets hurt).

Language is fairly tame. One or two uses of “damn”, and also a couple of uses of “hell”.

Sexual content is also fairly tame, having nothing aside from dialogue, and none of it is explicit. Anthony mentions that he and Theresa are lovers, and Lisa implies that she and Oscar were lovers, as well. Later on in the movie [SPOILER ALERT; stop reading here if you don’t want it], Snaps’s first girlfriend comes by to fill Nora’s position, and through a sarcastic statement he makes, she reveals that Theresa is her daughter, and consequently Snaps’s daughter as well.

Review: The Sting

This review contains minor spoilers.

THE PLOT
The Sting is a 1973 caper film starring Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and Robert Shaw, about the antics of Johnny Hooker (Redford), a grifter from Joliet, Illinois who rips off the wrong man. Set in 1936 at the height of the Great Depression, the film opens when Hooker and two of his partners rip off a courier for crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw), whose goons exact revenge on the gang. This costs Luther Coleman (Johnny’s mentor and one of the three who conned the courier) his life.

Following Luther’s last advice, Hooker seeks the wisdom of Henry Gondorff (Newman) to teach him the “big con” in effort to get back at Lonnegan. At first, Henry is reluctant, but eventually the two of them devise a plan that plays to Lonnegan’s weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. They will sucker him in with a rigged poker game, then get him in on a faux horse racing operation, a foolproof plan that they know will work brilliantly.

Gondorff poses as a boorish bookie named Shaw, while Hooker poses as his disgruntled employee Kelly. After losing a particularly high stakes poker game to Shaw, even after cheating, Lonnegan is livid, and Kelly comes by to collect Shaw’s winnings. When he does, he confides to Lonnegan that he wants to take over Shaw’s operation, and that he needs a powerful man like Lonnegan to accomplish the task. Lonnegan agrees to test the waters, but he isn’t too trusting of Kelly. The initial test works, and Lonnegan gets in up to his waist, then up to his neck before the ultimate con is pulled off in the very satisfying end.

THE GOODThis movie’s screenplay is based on real-life capers committed by brothers Fred and Charley Gondorff, so the characters are in some ways based on real people. This is one point of the movie that I have no complaints about whatsoever. The main characters are all very convincing, especially because they have such great people behind them (namely, Redford, Newman and Shaw).

The plot is rich and detailed, and it plays right to my inner intellectual. Once I was able to noodle the whole plan through, I found it to be deliciously ingenious. The whole time, oblivious Lonnegan is Gondorff and Hooker’s plaything, and their revenge on him for Luther’s death is sweet indeed.

THE BAD
I have few complaints about this movie, but no movie is without sin. First, I want to say something about the pacing. Oh my word, the pacing. The first half of the movie is some of the slowest paced cinema I have ever seen, outside of 2001: A Space Odyssey. You have to wait an hour before anything really exciting happens, and even then, the exciting parts are drowned out by the absolute banality of everything that surrounds them. Rather than two hours, the same story could have been told in an hour and a half, maybe even an hour and fifteen, and it would have been just as good a movie. But this is just my opinion.

Second, I want to contrast the preceding with the last half hour of the movie, which is paced way too fast. You spend all this time trying to think through this incredibly complex plot, and then all of a sudden, a wild Plot Twist appears! And it’s not even a good one, either! It was contrived from the very beginning, when Lonnegan sends his best hitman after Hooker (whom he has never seen and doesn’t know is also Kelly). This hitman’s identity, aside from his name, is purposefully obscured throughout the entire movie, and for what reason? To justify the existence of a plot twist. I mean, this film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. But it wastes a perfectly good plot twist on crap!

Also in the last half hour of the movie, we see Lonnegan’s downfall and the second plot twist of the movie, which is actually a pretty good one once you understand it. But that’s the problem. You have to really think about it to understand what happens there at the very end. And in this era of mind-imploding plot twists, this one is mediocre at best. They should have stuck with just one rather than trying to cram two into the last quarter of the script. Seriously, I’m still grumpy at the total randomness of the first twist.

CONCLUSIONHonestly, I watched this primarily because the WWU Drama Department is putting on an stage adaptation of this film in the spring. I wanted to know what I would be signing up for, were I to audition (and I probably won’t, considering how busy I’ve been). I’d heard of it, but it wasn’t something I would have rushed out and seen. Maybe that’s why it’s been sitting in its Netflix sleeve for almost the last two months (I got it on October 10th).

Yes, the film was entertaining. It had a rich and complicated plot, which I love. It had great characters and great people giving them life. It even had its comedic moments, most notably the poker game that gives us a glimpse of just how good a conman Gondorff really is. (Seriously, it’s the best scene of the entire movie, and it goes to show just how great Paul Newman was.) But these great moments are tarnished by the slow-moving plot and the contrived hitman identity plot twist in the last quarter.

That being said, I give The Sting four out of five. It is at its core a shining example of a caper film, and while it isn’t my favorite ever, I say that you should definitely watch it if you can. You can find it easily on Netflix.

Parents’ Guide
This film takes place in an era when the n-word was bandied about like just another term. It’s used several times when referring to Luther Coleman, who is a black man, and at one point somebody calls Hooker a “g******ed n***er lover”. The movie is also from an era before PG-13, which is the modern-day rating it should have received. The language used is far above the PG level, with “sh**” being uttered several times, but it is thankfully free of F-bombs.

Also, there is one scene near the beginning of a movie that gives a peak at a burlesque act at a Vaudeville show. Two women are shown wearing tasseled pasties and lingerie. Aside from brief shots of the two main characters in bed with their women (no nudity, and sex is only implied), this is the only sexual content in the movie, and while it isn’t nudity in the canonical sense, anybody at the MPAA would consider it such, and so should you.

There is some violence, but in my experience, this is somewhat of a given for caper films. There are several fist fights. One character is killed off screen, thrown out a window. Another character is shot onscreen by Salino the enigmatic hitman. Yet another character is shot in the forehead, but considering the era, this isn’t too graphic. Finally, in the last scene of the movie, two characters are shot, one in the back, and one in the stomach. Any blood shown in the movie is obviously just red dye.

Star Wars: more than just a fandom

Note: this blog post was originally an answer to somebody on the NaNoWriMo Facebook group who asked why people hated the Prequel Trilogy. It isn’t actually a review, but I’m putting it in that category anyway.

I think what it boils down to is that the dislike is either conditioned (like hatred of Nickelback by people who have never heard them) or inherent only in those who look at it from the wrong perspective.

I was nine when I saw The Phantom Menace. I loved it. I thought Jar-Jar was funny, I thought Jake Lloyd was a great actor, and I scoffed at the thought that Senator Palpatine and Emperor Palpatine were one and the same.

I was twelve when I saw Attack of the Clones. I loved it. I thought Padmé was hot. I thought Hayden Christensen was a great actor. (You can see a trend here.) I facepalmed when Jar Jar basically brought down the Republic singlehandedly, but I forgave him because he was a few fries short of a tool box.

I was fifteen when I saw Revenge of the Sith. It was dark, gritty and, frankly, traumatic. I was no longer star-struck by the actors I saw on the screen, but rather by the raw emotion when Anakin roared at Obi-Wan, “I hate you!” This was May 2005, only a couple of months after I had started my first novella in March, so I saw it through the eyes of a storyteller rather than those of a listener.

That brings me to my point. I never looked at Star Wars as cinema. I looked at it as a story, especially because I kicked off my writing hobby around the end of the prequel trilogy. I honestly think that people don’t give it a fair shake, and I have a number of reasons for my hypothesis.

First, they want nostalgia. Much of the hate comes from people who were young when the original Star Wars, A New Hope, was in theaters. It was a new and groundbreaking sword and planet space opera with lovable characters and a glorious setting. The Empire Strikes Back contained what I would argue to be the greatest plot twist of all time. And Return of the Jedi tied everything together in an epic conclusion (with Carrie Fisher in a metal bikini to boot).

The Phantom Menace leaned heavily upon its stunning visuals rather than an enthralling story. You have dazzling martial arts displays, beautiful locales, and action-packed space battles. But that feeling of nostalgia isn’t really there.

Second, some people argue that George Lucas wanted to squeeze every last drop of money out of his Star Wars empire, and that he could have done this without creating crappy prequel movies. Of course George Lucas wanted to make money hand over fist, which he has been over the years through licensed merchandise, the Expanded Universe, the Special Edition, and so on. But I see George as an artist who is constantly trying to improve his works. And he created the prequel trilogy to finish the story he started in the 1970s.

Third, Star Wars admittedly doesn’t make for the best cinema. Yes, you have better and better visuals as you progress through the prequel trilogy. But throughout the prequels, you have substandard casting for Anakin. You have the hackneyed romance between him and Padmé Amidala, especially as displayed in the Naboo scenes in Attack of the Clones (how not to do an on-screen romance). And to compound it, there is the ever-present menace of Jar Jar Binks, a character whom many people (not me) find insufferably annoying, be it his high-pitched pidgin (that comes down to taste), that his character is fundamentally racist (that’s a stretch), or that his naïveté knows no bounds (I can’t argue there).

Ultimately, I think most of the hate stems from the fact that many people think of it as two trilogies and constantly compare the two. The classic trilogy suffered in the area of visuals as compared to the prequels (notwithstanding that the classic trilogy has amazing visuals for its time). The prequel trilogy suffers in the area of story as compared to the classic trilogy. Where the classic trilogy was cohesive and exciting, with the aforementioned biggest plot twist in history, the prequels are shaky and predictable. But this is only because we knew exactly what was going to happen. People wanted new surprises, when there were no new surprises to be had.

For twenty years, we had all known that Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader were one and the same. We had known that a volcano had scarred him for life, forcing him to wear the suit. We had known that Padmé was going to die. We had known about the Clone Wars. We had known that Palpatine was going to become the Emperor. But people still wanted the same space opera that the classic trilogy was famous for being. That, they didn’t get. Instead of action and adventure, they got a plodding march through a quasi-literary fiction novel: an analysis of Anakin Skywalker’s descent into madness. Instead of ending high and light, the prequel trilogy ended dark with death and desolation, with fear, anger, hatred and suffering, with the rise of the Darth effing Vader. It’s no wonder people were disappointed. Unless they saw it coming, like I did.

If anybody is to give Star Wars a fair shake, they need to look at it as an insoluble whole, as a single story. They can’t compare the classic and prequel trilogies. Doing so can only lead to the Dark Side, where Star Wars is just another fandom. But Star Wars is much more than that. It is one of the most significant pieces of literature of the twentieth century.