Category Archives: Half-assed

Jay says: you could do worse.

The Maze Runner Trilogy

Like many of you, Sean and I are experiencing ‘weather’. We’re iced in rather than snowed in, which is just as annoying, and harder on hydro lines. When we do have power, we’re watching a trilogy we don’t give a damn about, which I think is a good strategy. As ice storms go, this one’s fairly benign. When I was in high school, we had a massive ice storm that meant weeks without classes, electricity, flushing toilets, or accessible roads. This one’s only distinguishing feature is that it’s arriving mid-April just to annoy the fuck out of us. Hope you’re all staying warm! What’s it like where you are?

The Maze Runner: Every week for the past 3 years, a teenage boy has been dropped in the middle of a very large, very deadly maze. Those who have ventured in have not returned. Those who remain do so by eking out survival in the middle, where it’s safe if not entirely comfortable. They hold on to hope by telling each other the maze must be solvable, but after 3 years, there have been no breakthroughs. Truthfully, it’s very Lord of the Flies. There are also no girls, which means either all the girls solve the maze easily and disappear, or they’re smart enough not to get sent in in the first place. Then one day, Thomas arrives in the maze, and his presence seems to wreak havoc. He engages with the maze in new and startling ways – ways that may lead to their ultimate escape but in the short term stirs up a lot of life-threatening stuff, of which not everyone is a fan. So of course the camp is splitting into two factions when something even worse shows up: a girl. So you know the maze is about to be solved, because finally there’s some female brain power involved. And it is….but it turns out the maze was only the beginning.

This movie is by-the-book YA programming. There’s very little to the characters since they’ve all had their memories wiped, but the actors are pretty decent. You’ll recognize a Thomas-gif-the-maze-runner-thomas-39099571-500-250few faces – Dylan O’Brien (Teen Wolf, American Assassin, Deepwater Horizon) in the lead role, Thomas Brodie-Sangster (the little guy from Love Actually, partially grown up!), and Will Poulter (with a face destined to play villain after villain, poor guy). The movie is dark, and keeps kids in mortal danger. The world is underexplained and the ending is underwhelming. There’s a strong, interesting premise with a pretty standard execution that adds up to me feeling like I’ve somehow seen it all before.

The Scorch Trials: The kids are helicoptered away from the maze and into a safe house run by Janson  (Aiden Gillen). Turns out, the kids were being experimented upon because they have survived the apocalyptic virus that kills nearly everyone else and possibly the cure is in their blood, but it can only be ‘harvested’, not taken. An organization called WCKD (previously run by Patricia Clarkson) was testing them in the maze and you can understand why the kids are feeling wary of them. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know who to trust out here (and these starry-eyed kids keep on trusting everyone despite constant reminders they shouldn’t). While the first Maze Runner had them running an actual maze, in this one they’re just basically imperiling themselves only to escape and eventually to be caught up in even more preposterous circumstances. They’re basically being chased through the desert by Murphy’s Law.

The Scorch Trials are not as interesting. Oh, it’s action-packed, but the sac is so packed with action that it’s sprung a leak where all the good stuff like plot and plausibility have spilled out.

The Death Cure: We know the kids are the key to the cure and that WCKD will do anything to keep them as research subjects – in fact, WCKD has recaptured some of the group, and now, instead of escaping the walls of a maze, they’ll have to penetrate the walls of the city where they’re holding their friends. It’s more dangerous! More action-packed! With higher stakes! I mean, not really. I don’t think any of this was half as interesting as the maze itself, although this movie does pose one interesting question: should we torture a few in order to extract a cure that would save many?

The Death Cure takes some pretty big logic leaps but it means business: zombies, explosions, action by air, land, and sea. Old friends, new friends. Tragic deaths and new beginnings. And maybe even hope for the future. It’s an adequate goodbye, and a more dignified end to the series than most others in the YA genre, but if you weren’t a maze fan before, this one isn’t going to convert you. It’s bloated and ridiculous, but what else did you expect?

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SXSW: Blaze

Ugh. You know how they say opposites attract? Well, I wish that was more true. I mean, Sean and I are opposites in some ways: he’s quiet, I’m loud; he’s analytical, I’m passionate and creative. But our flaws are all the same, which is deeply unfortunate. We’re both slobs (Sean will no doubt want to argue this, so I will amend: he’s a slob, I’m just too lazy to clean). We’re both argumentative. We both have poor memory. We’re both procrastinators.

When we saw this movie at SXSW, I’m not even sure we’d gone a full block before I’d declared “not it.” I did not not not want to review this movie. Sean acquiesed, and to be fair, I wrote 27 SXSW reviews, and he wrote 5, so he kinda owed me. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s been a month. As you may have guessed, we’re also both Assholes, and we’re both deathly stubborn. We occasionally bring up this review with much throat-clearing, and then we discuss it in that overly-polite way that couples who have been married a long time have in order not to divorce over literally every third conversation they have. Still no review.

So fuck, white flag, here it is:

There once was a Texan singer-songwriter who went by the name of Blaze Foley. He was a good musician but not a super successful one; in fact, he wasn’t very successful at life. He struggled with addictions and pushed away the woman who tried to love him. He MV5BNTAxZWU4MjktYmNkNC00NGRiLTk2MDMtNDhhMjkwMWIwYTUzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzM1MTEwMTE@._V1_accessorized his western wear with duct tape and lived in a tree house with no plumbing or electricity. He was mentally unstable, volatile, poor every damn day of his life, and then he got shot in the gut and died. Lucinda Williams called him “a genius and a beautiful loser.” Townes Van Zandt suggested “He’s only gone crazy once. Decided to stay.” The only hits he ever had were when his songs were recorded by other people, and even then lots were posthumous (Merle Haggard, Lyle Lovett, John Prine). And for some reason Ethan Hawke just really, really wanted to make a movie about the guy. So, using Blaze’s ex-lover Sybil Rosen’s book Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze as his guide, he did.

If you’re a music nerd who knows the likes of Van Zandt, Gurf Morlix, Guy Schwartz, and Billy Block, then this film is the perfect way to worship your duct tape messiah. Ben Dickey in the title role and Alia Shawkat as his bride are both wonderful. But I found the movie sluggish, the content unremarkable. I think Sean enjoyed the film more than I did (at the very least he could argue as to why anyone would want to make a film about this particular life) but he wouldn’t write the damn review so this is what you get: meh.

Of course, screening the movie on Blaze’s old stomping grounds means having a lot of his musician friends in the audience, and later on stage, which was cool. But I didn’t know the man and I don’t think I’d have wanted to. And if Julia Roberts can’t get me to listen to Lyle Lovett then no one can. So this was a lost cause for me, a bore and a chore.  Sorry, Blaze. I hope you’re resting in peace.

 

The Book of Henry

Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is the smartest, most responsible 11 year old you’ll ever meet. He takes care of his little brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) in the schoolyard and he takes care of his single mother Susan (Naomi Watts) financially. I mean, she’s got income, but he’s the financial planner. He even wants to take care of the girl next door who he thinks may be abused by her stepfather, Glenn (Dean Norris). Henry’s heart is as big as his IQ, and he challenges everyone around him to be their best, which can be a lot to live up to if you’re Henry’s little brother, or worse, his mother.

Anyway, Henry is a force of nature and he’s determined to do right by his next door the-book-of-henry1neighbour, Christina. She’s silent on the subject, but he’s seen the bruises and feels compelled to act, even if the adults in his life won’t. His moral compass is ginormous. It’s tricky, though, because Glenn is the police commissioner and may be too powerful to touch. Henry makes careful plans.

But what if an eleven year old boy can’t actually carry them out? His mother finds his notebook and is guilted, and perhaps guided by said compass, to act upon it.

This film was not well-received by critics but was for the most part enjoyed by audiences, including myself. It’s directed by Colin Trevorrow, kind of a departure since he’d previously directed Jurassic World, and is the co-writer of Star Wars: Episode IX. In its way, with its modest budget, The Book of Henry also bears the marks of Trevorrow’s childlike fascination. Henry may be precocious, but there’s a sense of wonder to the movie that’s quite appealing. But it’s also an ambitious movie; its shifts in tone startling at times, and perhaps not always successful.

The characters are inconsistently realistic and their actions even more so, but some terrific performances go a long way to grounding those characters. Naomi Watts is playing an imperfect but loving mother; I don’t know from where she draws inspiration, but she gives Susan a believable base, hard as that may be. Jacob Tremblay has a meatier role than just kid brother but he’s more than equal to the task. He’s already proven he’s more than just an adorable face. Jaeden Lieberher (you know him from St Vincent, and Midnight Special) as Henry has the hardest job of all. Henry is brilliant (he prefers precocious) but he is still a kid, after all, so he has to be steadfast, confident, but still vulnerable. This script asks a lot of its actors and in some ways the cast is what this movie gets most right.

The Book of Henry crosses genres, and that’s its weakness. There’s a silliness that sometimes dilutes the tension. I don’t mind a movie reaching beyond its limits, but this one doesn’t seem to have a firm destination in mind. What movie did you mean to be? I’m not sure. But I still enjoyed it on the whole, even while mentally noting all thing things I could have done better myself.

The Commuter

Michael is 60 years old, and after a lifetime of working hard and doing everything right, he and his wife are living hand to mouth with tuition to be paid and second mortgages due when he gets laid off from his job selling insurance in the city.

On the sad commute home, he meets Joanna, who asks him to do just “one little thing”, an experiment she calls it, because she’s a psychopath. But she’s offering cash money as a reward, so of course he’s tempted. And by tempted I mean he makes a beeline to the washroom to retrieve the money, which of course sets into motion a whole thing.

Liam Neeson gets into another sticky situation

How on earth has it come to this?

Joanna (Vera Farmiga) is asking of Michael (Liam Neeson) quite a lot, in fact: his commuter train is carrying a witness to a crime, and if he doesn’t find and kill the witness, they’re going to kill his whole family, whom he loves, which we know from a montage of monotony\suburban bliss.

I feel like all the right building blocks are assembled here, not least of all a terrific cast, including Neeson and Sam Neill, who make the material better than it is. But the script leaves out essential elements like suspense and intrigue, instead hitting overly familiar beats, which makes the whole thing drab and predictable. It feels plucked out of the recycle bin, which is insulting. Then again, the trailer did everything in its power to warn me away by collecting the 90 seconds worth of interesting, original thought and stringing them all together in a way that then did not play out satisfyingly in the movie. Like, why would a married couple ever remind each other of being married by flashing their rings at each other, EXCEPT in the case that those rings would momentarily become a plot point? I remember making fun of that so bad when I saw the trailer – and I began fancily revealing my ring to Sean so that I could mock the movie even as I cannily avoided seeing it in cinemas by conveniently forgetting that it existed. Ooooh, look, I’m showing you this right you bought me a long time ago that I have worn every single day since to the point where it’s not even considered jewelry anymore, it’s just a slightly shinier piece of my body that’s supposed to discourage others from flirting with me but generally doesn’t.

But anyway, back to the review, the gist of which is: not so much. It’s a mystery that you don’t really care about, a story that isn’t exactly fresh, and a premise that feels pretty goddamn ludicrous. It’s a “what you would do” that could have begun and ended with a simple ‘Don’t talk to strangers.’

 

 

Wonderstruck

Wonderstruck tells two parallel stories, set 50 years apart. In one, a little girl named Rose travels to New York City to track down her mother, a famous silent film star, circa 1927. New York City is no place for a kid traveling alone but Rose, who is deaf, is brave and smart. Meanwhile, in 1977, Ben is another runaway on the loose after his mother dies and an accident leaves him newly deaf. Determined to find the father he never knew, he too heads for New York City. And since you’ve surely seen a movie before, you can probably guess that at some point these stories will somehow intersect.

Millicent Simmonds, deaf in real life, had no prior acting experience before being 20Wonderstruck-web1-superJumbocast, but she wowed both director Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore with her audition. On set she communicated primarily through an American Sign Language interpreter, while Haynes sent many cast members on a walk through NYC wearing noise-cancelling headphones to get a sense of the city’s quiet side. Rose’s portions of the film are shot in black and white, and Simmonds has a terrific face for it – curious and expressive, her eyes lighting the way.

Oakes Fegley plays Ben, a kid who feels orphaned and is further isolated when he loses his hearing. Unlike Rose, his deafness feels more like an obstacle – he  hasn’t yet learned to navigate the world without hearing. And neither have we, but Haynes occasionally immerses us is quiet, the sort of quiet that feels pregnant with possibility.

Todd Haynes is the king of period pieces, and Wonderstruck affords him the opportunity to hit the jackpot: double periods! Nobody could embrace it any better. And he certainly has a knack for delighting us visually, bringing art to life, and cities to life, and museums to life, and inner life to life. What he stumbles with are the required shifts in tone. We flip back and forth between the two children’s stories and Haynes has tried to make each story line look and feel distinct. But those shifts can feel abrupt. Haynes drenches us in visual poetry but there’s an emotional disconnect that kept me from being truly wonderstruck. The sets are great, the costumes are great, the score is really something, but the parts somehow add up to just an okay whole. It lacks in whimsy but there is still joy to be found in discovering something new.

 

 

***And since we’re all here and you’re every so kindly reading, can we just take a minute to consider this: first-run movies are rarely accessible to deaf people. They often have to attend special screenings, or use special equipment, and if those aren’t available, they’re waiting for a DVD. There’s an easy fix. Why not make movies more accessible by simply captioning them?

I Could Never Be Your Woman

This was such a weird movie I’ve waited two weeks to write the review and still haven’t found the angle. Not that it’s urgent: it’s from 2007, so you’re not exactly waiting on the edge of your seat to hear my proclamation. You’ve maybe even already seen it, but then again, probably not. It didn’t exactly make a big splash in the land of movies.

Here’s an interesting thing: it’s a film by Amy Heckerling, the woman who wrote and directed Clueless. This movie is about a woman, Rosie (Michelle Pfeiffer), who writes a MV5BMTk3NDc3ODk2M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNDc3NDI3._V1_TV show that looks and sounds a lot like Clueless. It’s about the very coolest of high school students, and stars adults who don’t quite pull off their roles. Among them – Stacey Dash, a crazy lady who was 28 when she played Dionne in Clueless and 40 when she reprised the role of too cool for school adolescent in this film. Paul Rudd, only a couple of years younger, turns up in this one too, playing a teenager on set and the role of younger suitor to Rosie, who is mortified. And, of course, flattered, and maybe interested.

Not that Rosie has a lot of spare time to consider younger lovers. She’s trying hard to save her show, and to co-parent with her youth-obsessed ex-husband (Jon Lovitz), and to parent her wise-beyond-her-years actual teenage daughter Izzie (Saoirse Ronan in her film debut – yeah, this kid was always going to be a star).

Anyway, there’s three paragraphs to distract from the fact that I still can’t quite make a pronouncement. The truth is, there’s some juicy satire here. It has lots to say about a woman’s insecurities, and generational differences in falling love, and the impossible standards of show business. But for every great little quirk (many provided by Ronan – her character parodies songs sort of a la Weird Al, but with a feminist twist, likely years beyond her grasp) there’s a lot of rom-com cliches to wade through. But there’s the added bonus of Tracey Ullman as a personified Mother Nature, guiding us through the dark forest of female self-esteem. Heckerling clearly has a lot to say and I bet this film was quite personal to her, but she spirals out of control a few times. In the end, if you’re a sucker for Paul Rudd (and let’s be honest: who isn’t?) or if you’re curious how a little girl with a strong Irish lilt fares blasting out the angry lyrics of a certain Canadian songstress, go ahead and look this one up.

Newness

Two horny millennials, Gabi and Martin, listed as DTF in their social dating aps, meet up one night for some NSA fun. The sex is so hot, they accidentally fall in love. They’re both as pretty as they are restless so it’s a surprise to both of them that their one-night stand turns into a live-in relationship. This is unfamiliar territory amid their hookup culture and they have to invent games and rules to keep things interesting, but connecting is actually refreshing, and they’re intoxicated with that first blush of love. But as the newness fades, the lengths they’ll go to to keep things spicy become extreme.

Open relationships are not for everyone. I’m pretty okay about anything consensual that makes people happy and fulfilled, but let’s be honest: open relationships are hard to

Nicholas Hoult open relationship movie Newness

Um, no shit.

maintain. Also true: monogamous relationships are hard to maintain. Half of those end in divorce. Some people think they can solve the challenges of monogamy with polyamory and perhaps some are right. But if it’s difficult to make one person happy, it’s much harder juggling two or more.

Gabi and Martin are of a generation needing constant stimulus and feedback. They’ve gone from a phone full of potential lovers to one, single lover, night after night. At first it’s exhilarating to fall head over heels, but eventually monogamy starts to feel constrictive. Relying solely on each other to have their needs met becomes “boring.” So they open things up. Soon they’re swiping left and right harder than they ever did before. Does this save their relationship, or does a certain ugly green monster pay them a visit?

Laia Costa and Nicholas Hoult slide into their roles effortlessly. The camera is penetrating, the script languid. We get sucked down the rabbit hole of their relationship along with them. And you know what? Down there, it looks exactly the same as all relationships from the beginning of time. And it’s kind of dull. Director Drake Doremus doesn’t really have anything new to say. You don’t so much root for the characters as you root for their mistakes to catch up with them. Which is probably quite a bad sign, in retrospect.

Miles

Ron’s heart bursts while reading the Saturday morning paper in his lazy-boy. He leaves behind a wife, Pam (Molly Shannon), and a teenage son in his senior year of high school, Miles (Tim Boardman). His family is devastated, but not in the usual way. Miles is desperate to escape the confines of his small town for film school in Chicago next year, and Pam has been slowly asphyxiating in her crappy marriage for years. Turns out Ron wasn’t a very nice person, and he recently used his son’s college fund to buy his mistress a Corvette. The mistress is the only one without dry eyes at the funeral.

Pam copes by flirting with a widower (Paul Reiser) in her grief group, and by threatening the mistress, and the mistress’s mother. Miles copes by joining the girl’s volleyball team. Apparently it’s the only scholarship he’s eligible for.

The movie is set in 1999, which means the AV club consists of rolling a large tube TV around on a trolley and chatting looks boxy and pixelated and awful. But it still encompasses a pretty big chunk of the plot. There’s really to recommend setting the movie in 1999 except it’s based on a true story, which is also an awkward implication.

But anyway: we’re going to rock the boat in small town wherever, circa 1999, when boys didn’t play on girls teams and coming out to your parents was still an occasion. So maybe there’s still room for this kind of courage, whatever that means. There’s an effort here to be relevant but the truth is, our protagonist is narrow-minded in his own way. He sees only his own needs and wants, not the larger picture, so it’s hard to really extrapolate the kind of meaning that would make this film feel satisfying.

Roman J Israel, Esq

Roman Israel is part of a two-man lawfirm: he does the research and the writing, while his partner makes the court appearances. But when his partner is suddenly taken out by a heart attack, it becomes clear that the firm isn’t financially solvent, and that Roman (Denzel Washington) is ill-suited to work both sides of his cases. When a large firm comes to swallow him up, headed by George (Colin Farrell), it looks bleak for Roman’s future.

But the interesting thing about Roman is that he uses the law for social justice. He’s been working on a case for years, maybe decades, that he believes could reform the system. topelementHe is well-respected by activists and has collected clients simply by treating people like human beings. George decides to keep him around, thinking it might be good for his firm to do a little pro-bono for once. This is weird timing for Roman, who has just decided that he’s tired of working for ingrates and wouldn’t mind making a little money for once. And that’s the frame of mind he’s in when he makes a terrible, unethical, life-changing decision that could ruin or cost him his life.

There is no doubt that Denzel Washington turns in a stirring performance. Roman Israel is conflicted but he asks a lot of interesting philosophical questions. However, the performance does not make the movie. Everything else is a mess. I never fully understood what the movie was telling us: is Roman autistic? Why is he so bad with people, so out of touch, so obsessive? And it turns out that this was the least confusing part of the movie, because once it branches out from character study to mild intrigue it really spirals out of control. There’s no focus. For a film that seems poised to preach about morality, my biggest concern was whether I could write a review for a movie I walked out on.

Roman is a little too quirky and the script is a lot too unbelievable. Nothing came together for me and I was not entertained or even interested. Pass.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture

A Futile and Stupid Gesture is a Netflix original film that takes some chances. Netflix knows it has some leeway for experimenting in film, and this one was a particularly obvious choice for a little outside-the-boxing. It’s a biopic of sorts for Doug Kenney, the founder of National Lampoon. He was a funny guy who coloured outside the lines and this movie is a fitting tribute to him; it keeps you guessing.

Told in retrospect and narrated by an older, wiser, omniscient Doug Kenney (played by Martin Mull) who watches the events of his life unfold with a little disdain and a huge grain of salt. This device allows for a fair amount of editorializing and joke making at his own expense.

Will Forte plays Kenney, ages 18-33, and despite the fact that he’s 46 in real life, he’s a A-Futile-and-Stupid-Gesture-trailer-700x300great choice. He can pull off the sadness and the savage humour, playing it straight, breaking the fourth wall, talking directly to us, talking to himself. Doug Kenney was the Harvard editor of the Lampoon, and he had such an epically good time just fucking around with his good buddy Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) he decided to just keep it going and took their little humour magazine national. And as if the phenomenal success of the National Lampoon wasn’t enough, they expanded into radio shows, during which they enlisted the talents of Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, Christopher Guest, and Gilda Radner. And then they started writing movies like Animal House and Caddyshack.  And while some might feel content with having their dreams come true and writing the most successful comedy movie EVER, Kenney never can be. He tries to fill the hole in his heart by shooting stuff up his nose. It’s a circuitous route that doesn’t work very well, but  not for lack of trying.

Director David Wain assembles an incredible ensemble to help him out, and by incredible I mean, lots of recognizable faces, but not necessarily well-suited for the parts. Joel McHale gets to play Chevy Chase, and even though the two were on a TV show together for many years, it’s like McHale doesn’t realize he’s a real person with tonnes of footage on which he could base his performance. Instead he does Joel McHale in a bad wig and unless someone is loudly calling him Chevy, I forget which one he’s supposed to be.

I admire this movie more than I like it. I think it’s okay, and at times quite funny, and probably worth a watch if you don’t mind weird stuff. But the thing is, the writers and director are a complete mismatch. The writing is unconventional and wacky and striving for something extra but the director is a little more conservative and a little less inspired so the whole thing just sort of clashes awkwardly. Forte and Gleeson are kind of wonderful though – maybe a little futile, but definitely not stupid.