Friday, September 19, 2014

The Maze Runner - 2 1/2 stars

It’s been a month since we had a dystopian movie based on a young adult fantasy novel.  Based on the book by Utah author James Dashner, The Maze Runner is a pretty good story idea.  

The movie opens with sixteen year old Thomas waking up in The Glade, a forest area surrounded on all sides by massive stone walls.  He has no memory of who he is or why he is there, but there are about 30 other boys in the same state.  Once a month a new boy arrives, and they have established a community in The Glade.  

It turns out they are in the center of a giant maze.  Every morning the door to the maze opens, and every night the door closes.  Runners are sent into the maze to try and find a way out, and they have to return before the door closes because there are dangerous creatures in the maze.  The creatures are called Grievers, and no one has ever seen them and survived.

That’s a pretty simple setup for a story, and the movie keeps us guessing until the end about why they are there and what’s going on.  Are they being punished?  Are they part of some experiment?  They know someone is in control, because every month supplies arrive along with a new kid.  

One thing that was surprising was the level of violence in this movie.  It’s PG-13, which means we don’t see any blood, but there are still quite a few deaths in this movie.  When the creatures from the maze attack, it’s reminiscent of Starship Troopers.  Those things are quite vicious, and we see a number of the boys stabbed by their deadly tails.  

There were things to like in this movie, but I was disappointed by the lack of character development.  All the characters were flat and two-dimensional.  Thomas is the hero of the story, but we don’t learn much about him other than he is more anxious than any of the others to explore the maze and get out.  And Gally (Will Poulter from Son of Rambow) is the antagonist.  At first, he seems distrustful of Thomas and always walks around with a scowl on his face.  He doesn’t seem to have a problem with the runners trying to find a way out of the maze, but he does have a problem with Thomas fighting the Grievers.  By the end, his motivations don’t make sense, and he’s causing trouble just because the movie needed a villain.

Another problem is the lack of humor.  It doesn’t matter what genre a movie is – every movie needs a little bit of humor.  The characters were so serious all the time, and it got tedious.  Also, the dialogue isn’t bad but it does nothing other than serve the plot.  It would have been nice to see these characters have some fun or have an interesting conversation.  And there are too many scenes of the characters talking earnestly to each other.  The movie is chock full of earnestness.  

The other big problem is that this is going to be another franchise.  Like every other one before it (Twilight, Hunger Games, Divergent), this is the first of a series.  Instead of being a standalone movie, it mostly serves to set up the rest of the series.  The finale is a real letdown because of this.  When we find out why the kids are in the maze, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  But it’s also trying too hard to set up the next movie in the series.

The story would have made a good Twilight Zone episode, but it doesn’t quite work as a movie.  It’s almost good enough to recommend, but not quite.  If you’re a fan of the books, you’ll probably like it better than I did.

This Is Where I Leave You - 2 stars

When their father dies, the Altman siblings come home for the funeral.  They are Judd (Jason Bateman), Wendy (Tina Fey), Phillip (Adam Driver) and Paul (Corey Stoll).  Their mother is played by Jane Fonda.  Once they’re all gathered at the family home, their mother informs them that their father’s dying wish was for all of them to sit Shiva.  This means they all have to stay at the house for seven days and mourn while friends come by to offer condolences.

Each of the siblings has some drama going on.  Judd recently discovered his wife has been having an affair with his boss.  Wendy is dealing with the guilt of leaving her ex-boyfriend who suffered a brain injury years before.  Paul and his wife are having trouble conceiving, and Paul’s wife used to date Judd.  And Phillip is the black sheep of the family.  He shows up driving a Porsche and dating an older woman who also happens to be his therapist.

This is a dysfunctional family comedy that isn’t really much of a comedy.  All the best jokes are in the trailer, but they work so much better in the trailer.  When I saw the same scenes in the movie, they didn’t make me laugh.  The timing was all wrong, and I wish that whoever edited the trailer had also edited the movie.

The lack of jokes wouldn’t be so bad if the movie wasn’t trying so hard to be a comedy.  I got tired of the jokes about Jane Fonda’s boob job, or the kid who’s potty training, and always carrying his little potty around to different areas of the house to poop.  And there are so many stories going on with these characters that it takes the movie a long time to develop them.  I was bored for probably the first hour of the movie.  After that, I was interested in the characters enough that I started to enjoy the movie, but that’s a long time to wait for a movie to grab you.

Bateman, Fey and Fonda were all disappointments in this movie, but Adam Driver was fun to watch.  The movie got entertaining every time he was on screen, and I wish his character had been on screen more.  There is one really fun scene where the brothers sneak away during temple to get high.  

In the hands of a better director, this might have been a pretty good movie.  The material is there and these actors are really good.  But Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Real Steel) isn’t the right director for this kind of material.  Big disappointment.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Drop - 3 stars

Based on a short story by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River; Gone, Baby, Gone), this is a crime drama set in Brooklyn.  Tom Hardy stars as Bob Saginowski.  He tends bar at Cousin Marv’s, a popular neighborhood bar which also doubles as a money drop for Chechen mobsters.  Bob is quiet and shy.  He knows who he works for, but he isn’t involved in any criminal activity.  He kind of just keeps his head down and does his work.  But we get the impression that he wasn’t always that way. 

One night a couple guys rob the place.  The Chechens don’t really care who robbed them, they just want their money back.  So it’s up to Bob and Cousin Marv (the late James Gandolfini) to either find the robbers, or come up with the money themselves.  Another storyline concerns Bob adopting an abused dog he rescued, and his new friendship with Nadia (Noomi Rapace from The Girl with the Dragon Tatttoo), who helps teach him how to care for the dog.

What’s interesting about this movie is that the story is the least interesting part of it.  There isn’t all that much plot to speak of.  What I liked about the movie is the performances.  Gandolfini is always good, and here he easily embodies this guy who used to be somebody powerful but now has been kind of beaten down by life.  He lives with his sister, and most of their conversations have to do with whether to take their father off life support.

But the movie belongs to Tom Hardy.  He’s one of those actors who disappears into his characters.  He does a good job with the Brooklyn accent and it was amazing watching him be so interesting while doing so little.  

There were a few problems with the movie.  There’s a running storyline with the detective investigating the robbery that doesn’t go anywhere.  And too much screen time is devoted to Bob trying to care for the dog.  The movie dragged in a few places, but most of the time I was absorbed in the story and enjoying watching these actors.  It’s especially sad to realize that this is the last time we’ll get to see a new James Gandolfini performance.

Despite those problems, I enjoyed this movie.  It’s not as good as Mystic River or Gone, Baby, Gone but it had the same feel, with the same working class type of characters.  The neighborhood and the characters felt very authentic, and I was surprised how gripping and intense the climax of the movie was.  This movie is definitely worth seeing.

Dolphin Tale 2 - 2 1/2 stars

This is a movie about a boy and his dolphin.  I didn’t see the first Dolphin Tale (2011), but from what I’ve read, the Clearwater Marine Hospital rescued an injured dolphin and named her Winter.  Winter’s tail has to be amputated, and she is fitted with a prosthetic tail.  This not only allows her to swim without injuring herself, but she becomes an inspiration to everyone.  

In this movie we see how many people come visit the aquarium to see Winter.  She’s especially popular with disabled children and wounded war veterans.  When Winter’s companion dies, they have 30 days to find a new companion for her (USDA regulations say dolphins can’t be housed alone).  If they don’t find a new companion for her, Winter will be moved and the aquarium will be shut down.

That’s the main source of drama in the story.  The other bit of tension is about whether Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble), the boy who works there and is closest to Winter, will leave town to study for three months at a prestigious marine biology program in Boston.  

This is a nice, pleasant enough movie for kids.  Watching it, I was reminded of movies they might have shown us in elementary school.  There’s nothing offensive to kids, it’s not too intense or scary, but it’s too safe and uneventful.  I was bored most of the time.

It was interesting at times to observe what the daily routine is at this place.  Both movies were “inspired by true events” and there really is a Clearwater Marine Hospital.  Over the end credits, we get to watch actual video footage of events depicted in the movie.  That was probably my favorite part of the movie, and I wouldn’t mind seeing a documentary about Winter and the aquarium.

I took my niece and nephews to see this movie (ages 5 – 10), and they enjoyed it.  So based on that, I’m going to say that it’s enjoyable enough for kids and the story is moderately engaging.  But unless you have kids who really want to see this, there’s really no reason to go.