Opening in Las Vegas, October 24, 2014

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This week offers a little Oscar bait (with no bites), some multiplex horror trash, and a surprisingly well-reviewed action picture.

I’ll start with St. Vincent (64), with Bill Murray. Unless it’s Charlie’s Angels or Garfield, Murray is always a pleasure to watch, but mixing him with sentimentality, as this film seems to do, is not a good thing. Claudia Puig: “A film in which precocious kids say things real kids never would, and larcenous drunks come off as adorable.” Despite misgivings, I’ll probably see this.

The surprisingly well-reviewed movie is John Wick (67), which seems loaded with cliches but is getting high marks for its existential dread, and a strong if stoic performance by Keanu Reeves as a hit-man who is revenging his dog. James Rocchi: “Both ludicrous and ludicrously entertaining, John Wick’s stylish look, B-movie vibe and less-is-more, longer-takes-are-stronger-takes approach to action make it a standout.”

In the save it for Netflix category, we have Ouija (39), about the board. I had a Ouija board, never used it, and threw it out in my recent move. I hope that doesn’t come back to haunt me. Robert Abele: “The ghost scenario that this boring, CW-ready, “Scooby-Doo” gang uncovers isn’t nearly as shocking as the blasé attitude they have toward friends dying off.”

23 Blast (45), which I knew nothing about until typing this sentence, concerns a blind football player. Pass. Neil Genzlinger: “Although the film has moments when it’s serious about exploring the challenges that someone in Travis’s situation faces, it ultimately prefers to be just another football movie with a hokey big-game ending.”

Much more interesting seems Dear White People (79) an indie about race relations at a prestigious university. Ann Hornaday: “It’s true that satire is the perfect weapon of reason, and Justin Simien deploys it with resourcefulness, cool assurance and eagle-eyed aim.”

Review: Fury

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I’ll give the Nazis one thing–they established themselves as the villain forever and ever in Hollywood movies. No one cries foul when Nazis are slaughtered like sheep in films, and that includes Fury, which proves that even after 70 years, World War II is still fodder for good movies.

Fury, written and directed by David Ayer, has both new and old elements. It’s new in that, like Saving Private Ryan, to which it owes a great deal, it tells an unfiltered story of war. No more do soldiers just clutch their chest and fall over; these men are decapitated and eviscerated. It’s old in that it tells a basic “war is hell” story that we’ve heard many times over, and in the classic “platoon” structure–this time five men, from various parts of the country, forced to share the cramped space of a Sherman tank.

The film opens with one particular tank, dubbed “Fury” (I spent much of the film wondering what I would have named my tank) returning from an engagement. One man is dead, part of his face left inside the tank, The tank is commanded by Sgt. Collier (Brad Pitt), a fierce leader, and his men are Gordo (Michael Pena), a Mexican-American driver (the troops weren’t integrated yet, so this is as close as we get to diversity); Boyd, dubbed Bible, a very religious gunner (Shia LaBeouf); Coon-Ass, a hillbilly who loads the shells (John Bernthal), and the new recruit, a typist who somehow got assigned to a tank (Logan Lerman).

In another echo of Saving Private Ryan, Lerman is wet behind the ears, and is reluctant to engage in warfare (this is very similar to the character played by Jeremy Davies). He fails to shoot some soldiers because they are children (it is near the end of the war, and Hitler has employed every able person to fight) and causes a man’s death. Later, Pitt will make Lerman shoot a prisoner.

By the end of the film, the notion of having a conscience is pretty much gone, as Lerman is shooting pell mell and shouting, “Fuck you, Nazis!” But before that, we get some very intense battle scenes. I don’t recall any film I’ve seen that has put the viewer in the firefight like this one does. We get the claustrophobia of being inside a tank, plus the nerve-rattling circumstance that you could get your head blown off at any second. In one scene, a German Tiger tank (they were superior to Shermans) engages with five Shermans. Pitt’s remains the only tank left, and the two tanks play a kind of chess game trying to get a good position on one another.

As good as the battle scenes are, the film has an enormous crater in its second act. The army takes over a German town and has a little R&R. Pitt spies a woman looking through a window so he marches into her apartment and finds another woman, a girl, hiding under the bed. He and Lerman makes themselves at home and later Pitt will push Lerman into the bedroom with the young girl. “If you don’t take her into the bedroom, I will,” Pitt says. After the two consummate their relationship, the remainder of the tank crew barge in, acting like baboons. I’m not sure why this scene was added. It shows off Americans as both crude and, in Pitt and Lerman’s case, occasionally kind, but the whole thing is oddly paced, written, and acted. You just want to get back to the shooting.

The climax of the film is when our five, the tread of the tank broken because of a landmine, decide to try to hold a crossroads against an SS battalion of about 300. It answers the question of how many Germans one tank can kill before they run out of ammo. There’s great courage involved, but one has to wonder at their reasoning for staying. Pitt says, “This is my home,” referring to the tank, and we have to speculate on what he has left behind in America, because there is no reference to a home back in the States, a flaw in the script.

The other actors are fine, with LaBeouf, for once, actually disappearing into a character (I read that he refused to shower to stay in character, which annoyed his fellow actors). Pena is one of those reliable actors who is good in everything, while Bernthal plays a character that is pretty vile, except he is given one scene of redemption.

The real stars of the film, though, are behind the scenes. Major props to cinematographer Roman Vasynanov, who casts the film in a perpetual gloom; music by Steven Price, and sound design by Paul N.J. Ottosson. Those bullets and bombs sound very real, and at times I felt the need to duck.

My grade for Fury: B.

Opening in Las Vegas, October 17, 2014

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The big film opening this week is Fury (63), the war film from David Ayer and Brad Pitt, who is once again killing Nazis. Despite the lackluster reviews it’s a must-see for me. Kevin Jagernauth: “It’s not the most complex WWII movie you’ll see, but there’s no denying the blunt intensity of Fury, and even if it doesn’t sustain, Ayer commits to staring straight into hellish eye of war and bringing audiences along to witness every gruesome detail.”

For masochists, or men who have to go to the movies with their wives/girlfriends, there’s The Best of Me (27), another adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks book. Joe Williams: “Sparks would be delighted if this movie were compared to his other story about reunited lovers, but compared to “The Notebook,” The Best of Me is the coffee-stained outline of a sales pitch for sleeping pills.”

The Book of Life (66) is an animated film set in Mexico, but somehow has Channing Tatum as the lead voice. Geoff Berkshire: “The Book of Life is undoubtedly stuffed with more business than its fleet, kid-friendly running time can properly handle. Yet Gutierrez’s confident delivery of the material remains so buoyant and passionately felt throughout that he almost gets away with it.”

Pride (80) is set in 1984 and is about a collaboration between union workers and gay activists in Thatcher’s England. Charles Gant: “While some broad strokes won’t be to everybody’s taste… overall the film is so warmhearted, its themes of friendship and mutual respect so resonant, that few will begrudge it such heightened moments.”

 

 

Oscar 2014, Best Actress: Who’s Due?

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Julianne Moore in Still Alice

Oscar nerds know that a performer does not always win for their best performance. There is a game of catch up played by the Academy that can sometimes last for decades. The best example is when Jimmy Stewart was passed up for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939. He won the next year for an almost supporting performance in The Philadelphia Story, beating Henry Fonda’s far superior work in The Grapes of Wrath. It took Oscar 41 years to even nominate Fonda again, when he won for On Golden Pond.

Another example was brought up in a discussion with a guy the other day. We were talking about Denzel Washington movies, and that he won for Training Day. “That’s because they screwed him over for Malcolm X,” the guy said. There is some truth to that, I think, and I asked him if he remembered who beat Washington that year. “Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman!” Yes, and that was for one of Pacino’s hammiest performances. But he was due.

There are a couple of actresses in this year’s hunt that could be seen as due. It may not be about who was best this year, but who deserves it based on their career achievement. Here are my guesses, in alphabetical order:

Amy Adams, Big Eyes: Adams, only 40, has been nominated five times already. She seems to be loved by the Academy, but not too much, as she’s never won. She’s fast approaching Deborah Kerr territory, and Kerr didn’t win until she got an honorary Oscar in her old, old age. This role is in a Tim Burton film, and while those aren’t Oscar magnets he has directed one Oscar winner (Martin Landau in Ed Wood).

Julianne Moore, Still Alice: The favorite right now. Moore has been nominated four times without winning, but is older and probably more respected than Adams. She’s in two movies this year that have drawn interest, Maps of the Stars and Still Alice. In the latter she plays a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe she should start writing her speech now.

Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl: The film itself may drop a bit in the Best Picture race, as most see it as a good entertainment but nothing more, but Pike should be on everyone’s lips come nominations. It’s a pleasure to watch an actress play good old fashioned psychotic evil, and Pike nails it.

Reese Witherspoon, Wild: Witherspoon produced Gone Girl, and I’ve spent some time imagining her in the role of Amy, and I think she would have been great. But she’s in this film about a woman who undergoes changes while hiking the Pacific trail. Witherspoon kind of disappeared from good films after Walk the Line, and she seems to be back in a big way.

Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars: I have to take a risk somewhere, and it’s here with Woodley, who has been impressing critics with her roles. She was snubbed for The Descendants, but headlined two major box office hits this year, including TFIOS, where, of course, she played a girl with a disease.

Other possibilities: Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything; Emily Blunt, Into the Woods; Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year or The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby; Hillary Swank, The Homesman; Anne Hathaway, Interstellar. 

Opening in Las Vegas, October 10, 2014

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Actually I’m in New Jersey, packing up the last of my belongings for the movers who are coming tomorrow. The place is filled with boxes, even though I’ve thrown out two dumpsters worth of detritus from the 18 years I’ve here. But it’s on to Vegas, baby!

The obvious Oscar bait this week is The Judge (48), which, judging by the trailer, looks like an attempt to position Robert Downey Jr. for a nomination. I doubt it works, as this appears to be a shameless and mawkish “father and son” movie, which are a dime a dozen. Andrew O’Herir: “The Judge is watchable but thoroughly specious. It’s dull and reassuring, an infantile fantasy of homecoming and forgiveness set in a mythical version of America no one in the target audience has ever seen.” Rex Reed liked it, though.

Universal, even after the horrible Van Helsing, is trying again to revive their monsters in a Marvel Universe type series. Dracula Untold (40), judging by the reviews, is not a good start. Kyle Smith: The origins story Dracula Untold is Dracula unbold — unoriginal, unimaginative and utterly non-unprecedented. This Vlad the Impaler has all the edge of Vlasic the pickle.

For the kids, there’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (54), which seems like not such a terrible thing to have to take your kids to. At least it has Steve Carell. Betsy Sharkey: “At the moment, modestly amusing does not stave off that desire for a really great live-action family film after years of watching the terrain land-grabbed by animation.”

Men, Women, and Children (37) sounds like the most bizarre film of the week, a treatise on how the Internet is bad for us, with a pretty good cast: Adam Sandler (in his dramatic mode), Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, and Rosemarie DeWitt. It was directed by the once heralded but now almost finished, career-wise, Jason Reitman. Joe Morgenstern: “Men, Women & Children touches many nerves, but then pinches and twists them with its ham-handed approach to social commentary. I worry about Mr. Reitman, a filmmaker of consequence who is still too young to be so cosmic. Time to lighten up and come back down to Earth.”

 

 

 

Review: Gone Girl

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Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher, is the hot novel adaptation of the fall. You can read my book review here, and since Gillian Flynn, the author, adapted her own book, there are no major differences between the two. In the hands of Fincher, though, I ended up liking the movie a bit more than the book, perhaps because it’s more entertaining watching despicable people than reading about them.

A quick summation: the Dunnes are an unhappily married couple exiled from New York to Nick’s hometown in Missouri. They are both out of work. On their fifth anniversary, Amy goes missing. The cops, led by Detective Boney (a terrific Kim Dickens) investigate, and all signs point to Nick’s guilt. A media circus descends.

The first half of the film is alternated by current events and flashbacks to the couple’s beginnings, as narrated by Amy’s diary. But can we believe what we are seeing? A reveal about halfway through changes everything. I knew what was coming, but Fincher does well with it (I was completely taken by surprise in reading the book). Therefore it would be unseemly of me to discuss any more of the plot here lest I ruin the effect.

This film is ideal for Fincher’s cold examining eye. Because the two main characters are liars with slippery moral centers, there is no need for warm and fuzzy, which Fincher is not interested in doing. The film unspools in a methodical, police procedural vein, and the more we learn about the two characters the less we like them. That being said, most viewers will probably root for one or the other, if only because we are living out our vicarious evil selves.

Ben Affleck was a perfect choice for Nick. Affleck has always exceeded as playing bland, nonthreatening handsome men. Nick is something of a doofus, a weak-willed guy who is usually depicted in beer commercials. Rosamund Pike is Amy, and this is quite a revelation for an actress most associated with British films. I can’t go into too much about her character because of the reveal, but suffice it to say she makes for one the great villainesses of recent years.

The supporting cast is excellent as well. In addition to Dickens, who serves as sort of the moral compass of the film, Carrie Coon is a standout as Nick’s twin sister, who stands behind him no matter what. “I was with you before we were born,” she says. Neill Patrick Harris is amusing as a former boyfriend of Amy’s, who is so rich his lake house has heated floors. When a character tells him she wants to go to Greece with him, he replies with delight, “Octopus and Scrabble?” which I think would make a great band name. Tyler Perry, as Nick’s lawyer, steals every scene he’s in, summing everything up late when he says of Nick and Amy, “You two are the most fucked up couple I’ve ever met and I deal with fucked up people for a living.” Kudos also to Missi Pyle, who does a wicked Nancy Grace impersonation.

The ending, which disappointed me in the book, is fundamentally unchanged here. It makes sense psychologically, but not for a thriller. The book and the film are very cynical about marriage, likening the inhabitants to prison inmates. Affleck says to Pike at one point: “Yes, I loved you and then all we did was resent each other, try to control each other. We caused each other pain.” She coolly replies: “That’s marriage.” Anyone thinking about getting married may have reason to pause after seeing this film.

Gone Girl is a crackerjack entertainment (it’s fairly long, and takes a while to wind up) but it doesn’t transcend its airport book trappings. It’s not on a level with Fincher’s Social Network; it’s more along the lines of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It makes for a good date night, although married couples may be wary of each other on the drive home.

My grade for Gone Girl: B+.

Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones

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I’ve read almost all of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder novels, including A Walk Among the Tombstones, but happily it was long enough ago that I had forgotten all the details. Therefore I watched this film adaptation, written and directed by Scott Frank, with eager suspense. It’s an extremely hard-boiled private eye mystery, just the way I like ‘em. It even gives shout-outs to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.

Frank, who has done well by Elmore Leonard in two films, does Block even better. There was Scudder movie released many years ago, Eight Million Ways to Die, with Jeff Bridges, that was not a success. Perhaps now, with Liam Neeson as Scudder, still with some of his Taken attitude about him, will get a series going, even if he is a bit old for the part.

Scudder is a former cop who has left the force due to alcoholism. The books consistently mention his AA meetings, and many of the plots start with people he meets there. So does this one, as a fellow alcoholic presents him with a problem: his brother’s wife has been kidnapped. The catch: the brother (Dan Stevens) is a drug dealer. Apparently a couple of psychos are snatching the significant others of prominent dealers, figuring they won’t go to the police. But these guys are really interested in cutting up their hostages into little pieces.

The film is set in 1999,  (the book was published in 1992). The specter of Y2K, which we now was harmless, looms across the plot. It’s impossible to update Scudder, because he doesn’t fit in the digital age. He always uses pay phones, for example, and I believe there are no pay phones on the streets of New York City anymore. He befriends a homeless black teen who actually can use the Internet and fancies himself Scudder’s partner. This plot thread is a bit of a liberal fantasy, but Frank keeps the sentimentality to a minimum.

This is a grim movie. There are some lighthearted moments, mostly with the black kid, but overall it presents the city as a grid of mean streets. Justice is subjective–in fact, there are no police involved in this film at all. The tone and color pattern of the film–mostly grays–will not have you whistling a happy tune, and the closing song, a torch version of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” by Nouela, is the perfect music to grab your coat by.

Frank is also to be congratulated for an extended scene that reminded me of the baptism scene in The Godfather. This time a young woman, at an AA meeting, recites the 12 steps. This is cross-cut with the climactic shootout in a Brooklyn cemetery, and then the denouement in a house a few miles away. It’s powerful stuff.

Neeson brings the proper world-weariness to the role, though he starts the film with a New York accent that he gives up on in toward the end, his Irish brogue emerging triumphant. Stevens, who is best known for Downton Abbey, is unrecognizable as the drug dealer.

My grade for A Walk Among the Tombstones: A-.

Opening in Las Vegas, October 3, 2014

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The Oscar season finally gets going after a weak September.

The big opening is David Fincher’s Gone Girl (79), which is getting generally good reviews. I’m hit or miss on Fincher–loved Social Network, meh on Zodiac, Fight Club, and Se7en. I’ll see this, if only to see how they changed the book (which I was underwhelmed by). Andrew O’Hehir: “It’s a work of chilly wit and bleak metaphor, an artifice that invites the kind of analytical response where we pull on our chins and discuss how other people, more naive than we, will receive it.”

Annabelle (38) is a sort-of-sequel to The Conjuring, and will probably get lost in the glut of horror movies released around Halloween. Claudia Puig: “Annabelle invites unflattering comparisons with scary movies that came before, but its disparate parts never coalesce into a genuinely fearsome thriller.”

The Hero of Color City (33) is an animated film that looks like Toy Story with crayons. Bill Zwecker: “The best thing about The Hero of Color City is its good voice talent — and its running time of only 77 minutes. Other than that, this is a pretty lame computer-generated animated movie that will likely not engage kids much past the first grade.”

And this week’s kitsch highlight is Left Behind (13), a rapture movie starring Nicolas Cage. This is MSKT3K fodder, most likely. I’m not brave enough to watch it, sober at least. Steve Macfarlane: “Left Behind is one of those films so deeply, fundamentally terrible that it feels unwittingly high-concept.”

Random Thread for October, 2014

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An update on my life: today I had my first day in the classroom, being graded by my observing teacher. I taught Ozymandias, a poem by Percy Shelley, to the honors classes, and Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder to the regular English 10. My teacher gave me a score of 39/40, and said I was a natural. I, of course, used film clips. I showed the very ending of the first Planet of the Apes film for Ozymandias, showing how even the United States will one day be in ruins, while showing the Simpson’s version of A Sound of Thunder (Homer fixes the toaster, which makes it a time machine, where he goes back in time and kills an insect and makes Flanders supreme ruler) in the regular class.

Movies Opening in New Haven – Weekend of September 26th, 2014

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We’ve got an uninspiring Denzel Washington thriller and a gaggle of stop-motion monsters to close out the month of September. Thankfully, next week brings one of the first prestige releases of the Fall, Gone Girl.

The Equalizer: Denzel Washington re-teams with his hit-or-miss Training Day director Antoine Fuqua for this update of the 1980’s television series. Of course, things are a little more “Man on Fire than “lightweight, 44-minute CBS spy drama” here.

The film received the highest test scores for an R rated film in Sony history, although critics seem iffy on the whole thing.  Seems like something best watched on Starz in eight months.

Trailer: Youtube  Rotten Tomatoes: 58%  Metacritic: 57

Personal interest factor: 3

The BoxtrollsStop-motion thing of some kind. I don’t really care, do you? Watch The Nightmare Before Christmas instead.

Trailer: YouTube  Rotten Tomatoes: 71%  Metacritic: 63

Personal interest factor: 0

For classic fare: The Criterion in New Haven is running The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) Friday and Saturday evening and The Hustler (1961) Saturday and Sunday morning.

The Whitney Humanities Center at Yale is screening Carmen Jones (1954) and School Daze (1988) on Saturday as part of their African American Affinity Group Film Festival.  More details here.

Review: The Maze Runner

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TMR  Plots centring around people trying to get out of a seemingly impossible predicament have always been of interest to me. The Twilight Zone was famous for having such plotlines (like in the episode ‘Five Characters in Search of an Exit) and I loved them, trying to rack my brain as to seeing what the solution was to the characters’ predicament.

And this is the main reason I went to see ‘The Maze Runner’: its basic concept of characters in an inescapable predicament was a fascinating one to me. But whereas the Twilight Zone episodes took less than 25 minutes to play through its concept, how would TMR manage to hold one’s interest for its 113 minute running time?

The film begins with teenager Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) waking up in an elevator that transports him into a grassy clearing that’s surrounded by an intimidating and elaborate walls. Like the dozens of teenagers that have arrived there before him, he has no memory of his past except for his name.  The group of kids have been able to make a living in the area but with an elaborate maze beyond the walls and mysterious creatures patrolling the maze, escape seems hopeless. But as another character observes, Thomas is a curious personality and immediately he’s shaking up the community and begins to make them believe escape is possible… but  how and to what?

In many ways, TMR is an impressive work with Wes Ball making a fine directorial debut. He displays a good visual style and sense of pacing that ensures the film is never boring and even gets through the rather clunky chunks of early dialogue necessary to explain the plot (as when the other boys explain the setup to Thomas) as well as possible.  At no stage of its running time does the film ever feel boring.

The film also creates a vibrant and interesting dynamic  between the group of characters within the maze. Particularly pivotal is the strong performance of O’Brien as central character Thomas; he creates the right sense of characterisation of someone while not automatically heroic, driven by his courage and sense of curiosity to become a leader and find a way out of the maze.

There are also other interesting characterisations such as Gally (Will Poulter) who represents someone whose so used to life within the maze that he becomes hostile to anyone looking to change the setup, let alone escape from the maze. However the conflict between Gally and Thomas is rather heavy-handedly showcased.

For roughly three-quarters of its running time, TMR is a very strong, captivating work. Alas, as is the case in so many movies/TV shows about people stuck in an impossible predicament, the resolution is usually the weakest part as plot holes and contrivances come to the fore and TMR is no exception.

The film’s final 15 minutes are a letdown in more ways than one. Not only are the explanations and revelations unconvincing and contrived, but they’re conveyed by a character having to deliver large chunks of dialogue as if they’re saying to the audience, “We can’t think of a viable way to resolve this film so we’ll just provide you with this information”. In a film that has been so cinematically and visually strong, it is a disappointment (also because it’s about setting up a sequel as much as anything).

Despite the disappointing ending, I was mostly positive about The Maze Runner. It’s well made, solidly acted, well directed and a generally enjoyable night out at the movies. It’s box office success is deserved and I’ll be looking forward to the sequel.

Rating: B-

Movies Opening in New Haven – Weekend of September 19th, 2014

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A Walk Among the Tombstones: Liam Neeson stars as a former NYPD officer turned unlicensed private detective on the hunt of a brutal kidnapping ring. Scott Frank (Out of Sight, The Lookout, Get Shorty) writes and directs.

The throwback nature of this makes me a little nostalgic.  It’s the type of wannabe-prestige/early Fall thriller that was commonplace throughout the 90’s and very early 00’s.  Makes me warm and fuzzy inside.

Trailer: Youtube  Rotten Tomatoes: 63%  Metacritic: 53

Personal interest factor: 8

The Maze Runner: A group of young men find themselves trapped in a massive, elaborate maze.  Directorial debut of visual effects artist Wes Ball.

This one is a bit of surprise, in that the trailer is fairly intriguing and reviews are unexpectedly solid for this type of thing. Certainly seems to be a cut above the standard, aspiring YA franchise.

Trailer: YouTube  Rotten Tomatoes: 61%  Metacritic: 56

Personal interest factor: 6

This is Where I Leave You: Generic studio filmmaker Shawn Levy (The Internship, Night at the Museum, Real Steel) attempts to make a transition into more indie-esque filmmaking with this with this dramedy about a family (Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Rose Byrne, Cory Stoll, Kathryn Hahn) dealing with the death of their father.

This cast seems like it could be magical…in a different movie with a different director.

Personal interest factor: 2

Trailer: YouTube  Rotten Tomatoes: 44% Metacritic: 45

TuskKevin Smith’s foray into the torture porn genre stars Justin Long as a podcaster who is abducted and surgically transformed into a walrus by a maniac (Michael Parks). Johnny Depp co-stars.

Personal interest factor: 0

Trailer: YouTube Rotten Tomatoes: 42% Metacritic: 54

For classic fare: The Criterion in New Haven is running The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Friday and Saturday evening and Laura (1944) Saturday and Sunday morning.

Review: Lucy

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For the second time in less than a year, Scarlett Johannson plays a character who disappears into the ether. In Her, she played an operating system, in Lucy, she is an actual human being who achieves 100 percent of her cerebral capacity. The film says that when we do so, we…well, I’m not sure what it says.

Johannson’s Lucy is a girl living in Taipei and attending school. She’s been dating some club rat (he sounds European) who finagles into her delivering a briefcase to some Chinese criminal. She ends up having a bag of drugs surgically implanted in her. When it starts to leak, she realizes she has abilities she never had before.

When the film was released in July there was some comparisons to Limitless, which was also about a drug that enhanced brain power. But this film, written and directed by Luc Bresson, is much more intellectually grounded. Limitless had the main character using his brains to play the stock market, while Lucy is able to read minds and manipulate matter.

I enjoyed most of Lucy, mostly due to Johansson’s performance and Bresson’s winking style. He uses stock footage of the animal kingdom to make his points, such as showing a gazelle being stalked by cheetahs when Johansson is surrounded by bad guys. The script is surprisingly intelligent, especially when Lucy tells brain expert Morgan Freeman that the only unit of measurement that matters is time.

The film offers plenty of mayhem for those that want it–there is a shootout in a library in Paris that offers more bullets than anyone could want–but the film kind of goes off the rails when Johansson is able to travel through time. At this point the film goes out of science fiction into Bresson’s fantasies, I think.

At 89 minutes, Lucy is also briskly paced. Normally an action-picture like this would be a bloated mess, but Bresson wisely boils it down to essentials, and we’re out of the theater in a reasonable time. Driving home, I took the film with me in my mind, looking around and wondering if what Johansson perceived is really the truth.

My grade for Lucy: B.

Opened in America, September 12 2014

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No Good Deed (IMDB rating 5.9) – This generic looking home invasion thriller has gotten lousy reviews from critics (and judging by its IMDB rating, the public) but has exceeded expectations at the box office, in a period where many films have underwhelmed in that area.

Dolphin Tale 2 (6.8) – I didn’t realise until last weekend that this film and its predecessor were directed by Charles Martin Smith, most famous for his acting career including American Graffiti and as the most atypical member of The Untouchables. I did see many years ago his directorial debut ‘Trick Or Treat’ which iirc was mildly interesting.

The Drop (8.0) – This crime film has gotten good critical reviews and is also notable as the last starring role of actor James Gandolfini. His film career didn’t match the success of his iconic TV role but it seemed he was just breaking out into a really rich vein of work before his untimely passing.

Atlas Shrugged: Who Is John Galt? (5.1) – Considering the total disinterest the first two films in this series provided, this surely must be the least desired sequel in modern memory. But going by the trailer it would provide some unintentional humour. Trivia note: on an early 1980s appearance on ‘Donohue’, Ayn Rand said one of her favourite TV shows was Charlie’s Angels.

The Skeleton Twins (7.4) – Opening in limited release with potential expansion later on, this film has gotten good notices so far. However the plotline – estranged twins reunite after coincidentally cheating death on the same day (?!?) seems so self-consciously it seems like a parody of a Sundance film (where it of course premiered). And it co-stars Kristen Wiig who’ve I never particularly rated. But it may be one worth catching up with.

My Old Lady (7.3) – British-American film that has a notable cast including Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith & Kristen Scott-Thomas. Of interest to me is that it’s the directorial debut of veteran playwright/writer Israel Horovitz, whose work in the late 1960s was what first brought Al Pacino & John Cazale to public attention. He also wrote the screenplay for the 1970 campus drama ‘The Strawberry Statement’ which I saw recently; interesting as a historical piece but not a very good film.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (7.7) – This sounds like an unmade sequel to Yellow Submarine but is actually a fascinating concept: a relationship told from three different perspectives. This version is apparently the ‘Them’ version with ‘Him’ & ‘Her’ to be released soon. One worth seeking out I reckon.

The Green Prince (7.0) – Documentary on an individual spying case within the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Take Me To the River (7.9) – American music documentary

Bird People (6.2) – Drama about an American in Paris who has an existential crisis while in a hotel.