Archive for January, 2015

Journey to the West (2014)

Starring- Qi Shu, Zhang Wen, Bo Huang, Show Luo, Shing-Cheung Lee, Bingqiang Chen, Sihan Cheng, Xing Yu, Zhengyu Lu, Chi Ling Chiu, Di Yang, Chrissie Chow, Hangyu Ge

Directors- Stephen Chow and Derek Kwok

PG-13- fantasy violence including bloody images, some sexual content and partial nudity

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmKrgPr7PA8

So. I watched a movie last night. I sure did.

I think. It might’ve been a super weird dream. Like, weird on a level comparable to Charlie Sheen’s subconscious on one of those nights he doesn’t remember. I’m so mentally distant from the disparate images I have floating around my brain that I might have decided it was a figment of my imagination were it not for the fact that all of them recur in the trailer I posted above.

It turns out it was indeed a movie. It’s called Journey to the West. And it is the movie to end all movies. Pack it up, cinema. Go home. You’re finished. You have reached the height of your potential. It was a good run.

It’s like…I have absolutely no idea what I just watched. Or if I liked it. I don’t know if it was the greatest bad movie of all time or the worst great one. I don’t know if it was stupid, genius, or stupid genius. But I’m pretty sure it was amazing.

Tang Sanzang (Zhang Wen), a Buddhist on the path to enlightenment, moonlights as a demon hunter, defeating terrifying monsters by singing nursery rhymes at them. (Yes.) On one expedition, he meets Miss Duan (Qi Shu), another demon hunter whose preferred method is ludicrous violence. (She has weird magic rings that she can mind-control by the thousands and cut stuff with.) Thus begins the dumbest romantic comedy of all time, as she falls in love with him at first sight and basically becomes his stalker/potential rapist. It’s a classic opposites-attract situation — he’s a peaceful hobo who loves nursery rhymes; she’s a beautiful woman who likes kicking things in the face. Match made in heaven.

Anyway, they join forces to pursue a new demon, which has taken the form of a morbidly obese anthropomorphic pig that cooks people, because of course it does. They’re also racing against a few other demon hunters who want to cash in on the reward. There’s one guy who fights with the help of giant spirit animals that may or may not be real, because there are also a lot of scenes where he simply fights while growling like a tiger. Another one is an old man with a mutant foot that he uses to step on people. There’s also a sickly bisexual who mind-controls a bunch of daggers that can transform into a giant, flying robot sword. How could I not love this movie, you guys?

It also features the following amazing things:

• A roving land-ship crewed by what appear to be steampunk pirates; the vehicle’s engine is a dude blowing into a giant air sac while four other guys hit it with sledgehammers. The driver is a small child, because of course he is.

• The heroes combating a demon by turning a raised walkway into a slingshot (basically, it falls from its position, and they just start spinning it around), because this movie doesn’t know how to physics.

• GIANT STINGRAYS

• BAD FACIAL HAIR

• EXPLODING SQUEAKY TOY DEMON PEOPLE

• GIANT ROCK MONSTERS

• MONKEYS WITH VAPORIZING FIRE BREATH

• I know I said this already but BACON THAT EATS YOU

• Related ­— CANNIBALISM HUMOR!

• Random musical numbers! The power of dance!

• A tiger man suplexing a giant boar!

• A small child being eaten alive on-screen by a giant fish wait that one is less awesome please disregard (this movie has a morbid sense of humor and/or is just generally morbid; it’s really hard to tell which on account of, well, everything you just read, but yeah, it’s weirdly dark sometimes)

• Villagers killing a giant fish by throwing a fat lady on a big seesaw (happens, like, a minute after the above)

And fear not, all you connoisseurs of cinematic amazingness — all of these things are rendered with the best special effects money can buy (from sweatshop labor)! Marvel as guys punch air while unrelated things happen to somewhat adjacent digital sprites! Also, green screen! Lots and lots of green screen!

You may have noticed I am only listing objective facts rather than writing a review — if you’re a terrible person who hates awesome nonsense! These objective facts are my review — the beginning and end of absolutely everything you need to know about Journey to the West. Good movie? Bad movie? A Jedi craves not these things! A Jedi craves only attractive women arm-barring obese scythe-wielding pigs while a Buddhist monk mouth-kisses the evil out of them and vomits it into an infinity pouch.

I also want to point out that Christian movies would be much a better evangelism tool if Jesus manifested in them as a planet-sized energy being with magma hands. I mean, I’m pretty sure I’m Buddhist now — that’s just science. Those filmmakers should definitely watch Journey to the West and take copious notes. (Note No. 1 — everything is improved by mind powers and land ships.)

This movie is probably terrible, but it is also completely bug nuts, and if you don’t see it, we can’t be friends anymore.

-Matt T.

Fury (2014)

Starring- Brad Pitt, Shia LeBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Jim Parrack, Brad William Henke, Kevin Vance, Xavier Samuel, Jason Isaacs, Anamaria Marinca, Alicia von Rittberg

Director- David Ayer

R- strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language throughout

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-OGvZoIrXpg

I don’t really know what I expected from Fury. The reviews were fine, but everybody stopped talking about it a few months after it hit theaters. Whatever the case, I know what I wasn’t expecting — one of the better war movies in recently memory and one of the most unique ones ever made. This is already a lock for my 2014 Warrior Award, granted (solely in my head) to that one movie every year that everyone liked but nobody liked enough, dang it.

It’s April 1945, and World War II is almost over. The fighting intensifies as the Allies march into Germany. The tide is now clearly in their favor, except on one front — tank warfare, as the Germans’ vehicles are superior to the Americans’ in every sense of the word.

Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) was trained as a typist, but when one of his company’s tanks — Fury — returns short one man, he’s assigned to join the surly, hard-hearted crew, under the command of Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt). But the SS has begun to mobilize against the Allied front, and when the battered crew of Fury finds itself alone between the Nazis and a crucial American position, its members must decide whether or not to take a suicidal last stand.

Fury is a war movie in the truest sense of the word, in that it’s almost impossible to watch. From the outset, it is tragic and almost incomprehensibly brutal. A woeful gloom hangs over everything; the fear and sorrow of the men left alive permeates everything they do as each of them treads ever further into the danger zone, knowing all the while that they need only make it another week or two to survive the war entirely.

Fury doesn’t derive much tension from the objectives of the war — it’s clear from the beginning that the Allies have already won this. All the Germans can do is postpone the inevitable. The film uses that information to heighten the irrationality of all this — men throwing themselves upon one another’s blade for leaders who know their deaths will be utterly in vain.

The film is an oppressive picture of the horrors of war, and it does not budget them based on allegiance. I’ve noticed a trend, of late, to distance the viewer from the actual violence, which I think is a fairly valid approach — one of the central questions of modern warfare is the emotional detachment that technological advances afford. With Fury, David Ayer has dragged us back into the muck. When people die in battle, it’s always messy — and it’s quite often painful. This film doesn’t feel like an ordinary war movie, playing everything with the nonchalant tone of an observer. This is war by way of a horror film, a story that’s grim, frightening, and violent, one where you know a lot of the characters aren’t going to make it and that their deaths will not appear as the “noble suffering” that sometimes typifies war movies, especially those about WWII. It emphasizes the suffering and chaos of combat in such a way that often renders both sides of the battle relatively indistinguishable — you don’t always know what uniform the dying person on screen is wearing, and it doesn’t matter. There are glimpses of humanity throughout, on both sides — and constant brutality as well. The film draws sharp contrasts between the dignity of their lives and the animal suffering of their deaths; the violence in this cuts to the core of you and stays with you long after you see it. Fury is not for the fainthearted — it’s not really even for the strong-hearted, only for those who are ready to engage with it. I often take breaks from the films I’m watching, because I’m bored or because I have something to do or whatever. I did the same for Fury, but only because it cut me so deeply that I needed a reprieve.

A lot of this is the direction. It’s more than enough to make up for Ayer’s much-maligned Sabotage earlier this year. Fury is the sort of movie that’s so pathologically dark and gut-wrenching that it ought to become far too oppressive, drowning out any message that’s hidden beneath the brutality — and to be honest, I’m still not sure how it managed not to do that. This movie is perpetually colorless and overcast; its violence is gory and constant; and it starts out in a place every bit as heartbroken and terrified as where it ends up. But almost every scene feels like a necessary piece of a larger whole, something that feeds the themes in perpetually new and vital ways. Perhaps it’s that the characters still inhabit a more emotionally realistic world, one that allows them to occasionally be humorous or kind or just human in general. Even then, their behavior constantly reveals what the war has done to them, even in those moments where it’s not immediately obvious why. And the fact that Ayer’s tone and visual approach don’t change actually heightens the dissonance of the few peaceful scenes — it keeps you on edge, as if you know these characters are headed for a bad end, even if they haven’t figured out it yet. The cinematography is excellent, and the film is equally adept at capturing both the creeping terror of war and the chaos of battle. The film’s tone stands largely alone in cinematic history; it might not be anywhere near as good as Apocalypse Now or The Thin Red Line, but it belongs in that company if only because of how original it feels. Fury isn’t a war movie so much as a picture of a descent into hell.

On top of that, you have the score. The music is an important component of any movie, but to Fury, it’s vital. There are several categories at this year’s Academy Awards where you could make an argument for Fury’s presence, but in my opinion, its absence in Best Original Score is the only outright snub. Steven Price’s work here is just tremendous, even better than his Oscar-winning compositions for Gravity last year. I have never heard music like this in a war movie; most rely on traditional orchestras and swelling themes reminiscent of those you’d hear at a Memorial Day commemoration. More recently, particularly with the Iraq War, films have adopted a tense, pulsating sort of techno, interspersed with heavy percussion. Fury’s score, like the film itself, belongs more in a horror film; it’s composed of deep chanting, creepy and discordant violins, heavy and rattling beats, and the intermittent, mournful voice of a female soloist. It’s part horror movie, part brutal rock and roll, and part gothic fantasy, like something Guillermo del Toro would make. It sets you on edge even to listen to it alone; in combination with the horrific visions of the film, it’s simply incredible. I can’t do it justice in words alone; take a moment to listen to this.

That’ll keep.

Of course, I’ve criticized war movies in the past for having little to say about their subject other than that it’s ugly and brutal — that’s a point you can make in one scene, and one that is too burdensome for the viewer at length. Fortunately, Fury’s subtext is nearly as intelligent and well managed as what actually ends up on-screen. I’ve been doing my best not to mention American Sniper in this review, because if ever there was a horse that I beat entirely to death, that’s the one, but it’s fortuitous that I saw both films one after the other. I think both of them (especially now that Clint Eastwood has clarified his intent with American Sniper) are approaching war from a nearly identical thematic perspective, but Fury does it a thousand times better.

Now, Fury is a broader film, to be fair, one that focuses on the effect of the war on a number of characters, and not just on the protagonists’ side. American Sniper is about what the war did to a single man. But in examining their main characters, they appear to be exploring the same question — can we justify what this does to the men we send over there? And are the things we do to their souls potentially far worse than the evils they prevented?

The crewmen of Fury are a twisted bunch — four soldiers who have stared so long into the abyss that it has claimed them for its own. It’s possible there’s no going back for them — some because they’ve suffered so much that they’ll never be able to function in peacetime, others because their humanity has been stricken from them entirely and is never coming back.

Each of them is handling the war in a different way. Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena) has developed a morbid sense of humor about everything, seemingly as a defense mechanism, and there’s little sensitivity in him — it’s always the right time and place for a joke, even if someone is melting down right in front of him. Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) has become borderline animalistic — he’s twitchy, unfocused, constantly acting like he’s expecting to be attacked at any moment, lashing out at everyone around him. A somewhat more interesting figure is Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), the token religious crewmate who evangelizes everyone he meets before he even knows their name and speaks predominantly in Bible verses. He’s trapped between the teachings of Christ and what he does in war, even if he doesn’t want to admit it anymore — he feels like someone who had doubts, once, but banished them the longer they served as a liability in his troubled circumstances. Even in its casual army-guy banter, the film is exploring these questions (“You can kill ‘em, but you can’t f—k ‘em,” Wardaddy teases Bible after he admonishes everyone not to allow the local women to lead them astray.)

It’s Wardaddy, unsurprisingly (you don’t cast Brad Pitt for nothing), who ends up the most fascinating character. It’s never directly stated, but you get the sense he’s been at this a lot longer than any of his comrades and has crossed more lines than he can count. In fact, he’s gone so far over that line that he accidentally regained his sanity — but not his humanity. In most situations, he’s a tough, no-nonsense leader, but he regularly betrays a hopeless longing to return to normal. He’s an adult who plays house the way a little boy plays soldier — he tries to afford himself these moments of domesticity that always backfire because his mind his trapped in the war, and he’s always ready for a fight.

It’s through Norman that we see all of this. A character like Norman Ellison is a tough one to do right — he’s an audience stand-in, someone whose purpose is to give us a line into these insane events and give us a human perspective on what happens there. It’s easy for these characters to become boring, to take up more screen-time than they need, or to compromise the arc of the film. Fury, fortunately, manages Norman perfectly. Through his eyes, we manage to see the crew of Fury both as an outsider and, later, as a brother. From the outside, it’s clear how broken these guys are — there’s an extent to which they resemble a herd of buffalo, circled in around nonexistent young, trying to stave off nonexistent wolves. They’re jumpy and aggressive even when safe among their own men. However, the film’s journey also belongs to Norman, and it’s one that finds him slowly becoming one of these guys — both in a good way and a bad way. He becomes a brother to them, and that’s what really makes Fury work — that there’s no character in it so bad that the film considers him or her beneath empathy. The movie makes you care for these characters, even when what they’re doing is unquestionably wrong — it acclimates you to their perspective but knows to consider it apart from the inherent morality of their actions.

Ultimately, the question becomes whether or not these men, if they survive the war, have a prayer of ever returning to society. After what they’ve seen and done, can they ever become human again? Will they ever stop suffering? More frighteningly, will they spread that suffering to those around them? Fury doesn’t definitively answer that question, but I do think it drops the smallest of lifelines, if only to let us know it’s there.

For all it does well, though, it’s clear to me why Fury isn’t quite the awards player I think it hoped to be. David Ayer has a lot to do with what works about it, but he has a lot to do with what doesn’t as well — the flaws that have, for the most part, always been with him carry into this project as well.

One problem is that he’s not subtle, and neither is this movie. He’s deft enough to avoid having his characters simply spell out the movie’s philosophy, but in every other sense, he tends to batter you with it. Here, it manifests mainly in the film’s brutality — the unflinching violence is one of its major strengths, but it occasionally crosses that bridge too far, making the kills so gory that they become totally unrealistic or having its characters behave so horribly that it leaves the realm of common sense.

The bigger problem, though, is that Ayer isn’t always completely in control of his themes, which manifests in a number of ways throughout Fury. There’s the much-talked-about apartment scene, and I’m toeing the critical line in my difficulty sorting out what the movie is trying to say with that bit. (Some of it is clearly part of Wardaddy’s attempts to become normal again, but the rest of it — particularly Norman’s relationship with the girl — sends a lot of mixed messages.) The ending has been subject to debate as well. Some critics have suggested that it could be cut altogether, leaving the fate of the crew in their last stand against the SS ambiguous. I disagree; I think there are components of the ending that add a tremendous amount of value to what the film is saying. However, I do agree that Fury threatens to become too much of an action movie in its climactic scene, and there are a number of decisions made throughout — particularly aesthetic — that strike me as wrong in light of the rest of the film.

But those are two scenes, and aside from a bit of heavy-handedness, the rest of Fury is almost flawless. It’s easily the best war movie since Zero Dark Thirty (assuming you consider that a war movie at all) and might go back even farther than that. It’s an appropriately gut-wrenching and tragic examination of man’s inhumanity to man — a war movie that asks vital questions and forces you to reconsider its subject from the ground up. It’s difficult to see any of this through a simplistic lens after watching it, and I hope — despite its general absence in the awards scene — it finds an audience somewhere.

-Matt T.

Originally, there was a review of American Sniper posted here. It was so long that I posted it in three installments. I decided to delete it. Honestly, I don’t want to wade into that controversy any more than I already have.

I want to make a note of one thing — my reason for deleting it is not that I don’t still stand by what I said. If anything, my problem is that it didn’t go far enough, that I softened my actual opinion about the political quagmire that coalesced around this movie for fear of offending people. That’s why I deleted it — if I’m going to wander into politics, I’d better go the whole way. I don’t think I did.

Anyway, I suppose I ought to leave some sort of mini-review here so the slot isn’t a total waste.

Firstly, on the politics — yeah, the movie’s critics aren’t wrong. It deviates significantly from the facts of the matter, and almost every time it does so, it’s in the interest of cleaning up every possible complication in the story. It’s in the interest of providing audiences with an unchallenging, non-threatening, easily digestible take on what is, in reality, an extremely complex situation. In light of what the film does and doesn’t appear to endorse, I don’t find it the least bit surprising that it unlocked a racist, xenophobic id that centered it in controversy.

But I don’t think the politics of it even matter all that much, in that it’s really not even a good movie. It’s changed the real-life story in order to be more dramatic, but in so doing, it becomes somehow more fragmented and aimless. Bradley Cooper is good in it, but Eastwood’s direction, a handful of moments aside, is sleepy and uninvolved. There’s no noticeable arc to it, and its handling of its emotional undercurrents feels hasty and slapped together — the main character has a conversation one time with one therapist, and that seems to solve his PTSD forever.

So, yeah, suffice to say, I don’t think very highly of American Sniper. And that, at last, is all I have to say about that.

The Two Faces of January (2014)

Starring- Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac

Director- Hossein Amini

PG-13- for some violence, language and smoking

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrRHmhIDfjg

There’s nothing quite so sad as an untrustworthy person forced into a situation where he must rely upon others — particularly when they are equally untrustworthy.

That’s Rydal’s (Oscar Isaac) story. He’s a small-time con-man in Greece, where he makes half his living legitimately, showing visitors around the tourist attractions, and the other half less so — taking advantage of the language barrier to skim a little off the top of all their purchases. When, one day, he sees an American couple — Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette (Kirsten Dunst) MacFarland — who seem a bit loose with their money, he offers his services. However, this is no ordinary pair of tourists — Chester is a stockbroker who made a few promises he couldn’t keep and is now on the run from some dangerous people who want their money back. When they come to collect, Rydal gets in the way, and soon, all three are on a high-stakes chase across Greece.

I think Hitchcock would be proud of The Two Faces of January. Whether by accident or design, it feels very much like an homage to his work. Of course, if he’d directed it himself, we’d certainly consider it lesser Hitchcock, but such is the nature of the business.

While retaining its own voice and visual sensibility, The Two Faces of January has a number of the Hitchcock staples. It’s a low-key thriller with a small cast and limited stakes beyond the concerns of its core characters. The story is one of brokenness and brutality intruding upon the tidy and secure domestic lives of the wealthy and privileged. There’s something sexy about it — not in that it’s sexual, but in its class and reservation. It manages to find unbearable tension in the tiniest moments — not car chases, not gunfights, but scenes of pure character and motive, reminiscent (though, inevitably, never equaling) of the spectacular staircase sequence in Hitchcock’s Notorious.

Where it finds its most significant commonality, however, is in its paranoia. No one in The Two Faces of January is wholly trustworthy, in one way or another, and that’s all the drama this film needs. The structure of the plot is a chase movie — people pursued across exotic locales by gun-toting bad guys — but the execution is anything but. We hardly see a thing of the people after them; we don’t need to. With friends like these, who needs enemies? They’re far more a threat to each other than anything else.

They’re trapped together — Rydal has been implicated in Chester’s crimes simply by having been around him, and if either of them gets caught, the other is going down with him. It doesn’t help that Rydal has fallen for Colette and isn’t very good at hiding it; the feeling isn’t mutual, at first, until the stress begins to break Chester and drive Colette away from him. That only deepens the hatred and mistrust Rydal and Chester develop toward one another, on top of making him suspicious and over-protective of his wife.

It’s a powder keg of bad behavior that can only end in misery, and it sure is engrossing to watch it happen. The movie wisely never lets you come to entirely hate any member of this trio, even as it constantly reminds you they are the sole proprietors of their own suffering. When things go wrong, it keeps you cognizant of the fact that these characters deserve it, and there is a sense of bittersweet justice to the whole affair. There’s one particularly great scene where, after a particularly awful betrayal, one character finally catches up with the perpetrator, prepares to confront him, and immediately realizes that there’s no moral ground on which to stand — after all, if the only difference between the con you pulled on him and the con he pulled on you is one of scale, what objection can you really afford to raise?

The Two Faces of January is sharp, lean, propulsive, and rarely boring — halfway because it doesn’t go for the big action beats, rather than in spite of it. It’s the sort of a movie that can afford to stage half its climax as two characters talking to each other — it’s all about who wants what and what, specifically, they have to do to achieve that within the given context.

The Two Faces of January is great at that kind of thing, and as slight as it tends to be otherwise, that’s enough to justify its existence in a climate that doesn’t often afford it. We don’t get many scenes like that one in Notorious, where Ingrid Bergman slowly walks down a flight of stairs while Claude Rains stares her down, deciding whether to turn her in or let her go, and it’s twice as tense as any more visceral action sequence. The Two Faces of January is rife with scenes like that. Combine that with some lovely photography and solid performances, and you’ve got a recipe for a great, low-key thriller.

-Matt T.

Love Is Strange (2014)

Starring- John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Charlie Tahan, Cheyenne Jackson, Harriet Sansom Harris, Darren Burrows, Christian Coulson, Manny Perez, Sebastian La Cause, Christina Kirk, Eric Tabach

Director- Ira Sachs

R- language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XdfA5Ff5e78

There’s a scene in Her where Amy Adams’ character says, “Falling in love is like a socially acceptable form of insanity.” Love Is Strange is a movie that seems to have been built on that premise — but, like Her, not cynically. In fact, after undergoing a recent reckoning with my appreciation of Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight (which you can view in full in the form of a disclaimer I’ve added to that review), Love Is Strange is just what the doctor ordered — a movie about love that understands how bizarre it is even while appreciating the surprisingly perfect amount of sense that it makes.

It’s the story of Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), aging and cultured New Yorkers who, after 40 years together, decide to finally tie the knot. Unfortunately, the archdiocese catches wind of their marriage, and George is fired from his job as a music teacher at a local Catholic school. Ben’s pension isn’t enough to keep their apartment, so they’re forced to sell and look for a new place to live. In the meantime, they ask to move in with their family and friends. None of them have enough space for both of them, so the couple ends up on opposite sides of the city — Ben with a nephew whose family quickly wearies of him and George with a pair of neighbors whose constant partying frays his nerves.

Love Is Strange is reminiscent of Magic in the Moonlight in that both recognize the oddity not just of romance but of familial bonds and the relationships we maintain with those around us. It looks with a sense of bafflement upon the lengths to which we’ll go in order to save our love, the irrational ways that love both props us up and breaks us, the pain we’ll put ourselves through to sustain relationships that sometimes become wholly one-sided. Unlike Magic in the Moonlight, however, Love Is Strange also sees the method behind the madness — how badly, ultimately, we need love, how those relationships imbue our lives with meaning, how they sustain us through the bad times, how desperately, for whatever reason, we need to share our lives with other people.

And I sure do wish I liked it more than I do.

The writer and director, Ira Sachs, has said that the primary inspiration for Love Is Strange was the work of Yasujiro Ozu. I’ve only seen one Ozu film — Tokyo Story — but that’s enough to be able to see those touches throughout Love Is Strange. It’s very much cinema of the ordinary — the everyday, average problems of everyday, average people. It’s approach is extremely understated and almost purposefully anti-dramatic — where other films would try to ratchet up the severity of events as they went on, Love Is Strange never feels like anything more than a 90-minute slice of life.

It’s at its best when it genuinely does feel the most like something along the lines of Tokyo Story — finding those moments of character and genuine emotion that ring so true as to cut deep into your soul almost immediately. Sachs has Ozu’s visual gifts and sense of timing and context — near the end of the film, there’s a prolonged shot of a diner wherein nothing specifically happens; it just lingers there, silent; and that pause and that silence are packed with more meaning than entire scenes in talkier, more narrative films. Somehow, without saying anything, without stacking the deck toward a certain end result, without even adjusting the image, it manages to imply exactly what’s about to happen and leads into an ending that’s powerful in a way that few movies are.

Unfortunately, it lacks the connective tissue that bound Tokyo Story into a cohesive whole. Love Is Strange feels random and unfocused, regularly forgetting the existence of important characters for extended periods of time before gracelessly tossing them back into the mix, constructing dozens of different set-ups that don’t pay off into anything, leaving scenes to happen rather than to bleed into one another meaningfully. I like, on one hand, that these obvious set-ups, such as Ben’s troublesome, anti-social great-nephew, don’t end up in Movie Psychology, waterworks, and a Very Special Message about how it’s important to Respect Your Elders. On the other hand, I equally dislike that it just gets thrown out there and never explored beyond its introduction as an element that exists within the lives of these characters. Seeing the lines between the characters, the plot points, and the thematic content is difficult, sometimes impossible, and keeping track of what this movie’s up to can get draining. It sometimes seems as though it’s putting on airs somehow, doing its level best to be as widely inaccessible as possible. It’s 90 minutes of random things happening, which would be fine if that was somehow the point, but that’s not the sense I got.

John Lithgow and Alfred Molina ended up being the anchor that pulled me through it. Those two are always great, but they’re doing something genuinely special here. With the help of Sachs’ writing and direction, they create two full, interesting, and likable characters whose easygoing chemistry is immediately endearing. They’re both extremely cultured — George is a musician, and Ben is a painter — but their approaches are different. Ben is interested in a bit of everything and not all that critical — “I don’t mind a little embellishment,” he says of a concert that frustrated George. He’s a more outgoing person and the one most likely to be cracking jokes. He’s also clingy and talkative and rapidly gets on the nerves of just about everyone but George. George is quieter and more focused. He’s logical and a touch more responsible, a problem-solver who approaches everything in a clear and concise way. In social circumstances, he’s fine with sitting quietly and letting everyone else talk. He’s an introvert who needs substantial time alone in order to function but isn’t mean or cold. The way they come together to make one whole person is extremely believable. It’s one of the best-written relationships in any movie this year.

It’s that, ultimately, that makes Love Is Strange worth seeing. It’s one of those movies that I wanted to like a lot more than I ultimately did — especially since it has these great characters who are outright screaming to be in a great story. It’s an admirably low-key and appropriately visual relationship film, but the core of it is too loose to be truly substantial.

-Matt T.

The Maze Runner (2014)

Starring- Dylan O’Brien, Aml Ameen, Ki Hong Lee, Blake Cooper, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Will Poulter, Dexter Darden, Kaya Scodelario, Chris Sheffield, Joe Adler, Alexander Flores, Jacob Latimore, Randall D. Cunningham, Patricia Clarkson

Director- Wes Ball

PG-13- thematic elements and intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, including some disturbing images

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64-iSYVmMVY

The Maze Runner is either another one of those bad movies that just pressed enough of the right buttons for me or a testament to how being really good at just one or two of the most important things can have a very large impact on how enjoyable the end result is. I say that because The Maze Runner is one of those movies that are pretty entertaining and also pretty difficult to defend.

A boy with no memories other than his name — Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) — wakes up in a darkened elevator that carries him to The Glade. It’s a small patch of field and forest surrounded on all sides by an impenetrable fortress. There are other boys there — some have been there as long as three years, but all are in the same state, with no memories of life before The Glade. Over the years, they have formed a semi-functional agrarian society, under the leadership of Alby (Aml Ameen), the first arrival. They are always trying to get out, though. Beyond the walls is The Maze, which changes daily and is fraught with numerous perils, not the least of which are the Grievers — enormous, partly mechanical monsters that no one has seen and lived to tell. Every morning, the doors open, and the Runners search the maze for a way out. The doors close at night, and those who fail to make it back in time are left to contend with the Grievers.

The community has begun to settle, slowly accepting the Glade as its permanent home. But the arrival of Thomas stirs things up — the Maze changes, and the Grievers become more bold and deadly. It soon becomes clear that they need to find a way out, and soon, or none of them will ever make it out at all.

None of it makes a lick of sense. Trying to piece it together on the larger whole — that way lies madness. The central mystery here is obvious: Why are the boys there, and who sent them? And even though I’ve seen the movie, I only kind of have an answer to that question — it’s super vague, and I start hedging on it the second my brain starts going, “But wait, what about that thing that happened earlier?” I don’t ordinarily do this — the remainder of the trilogy has been greenlit for production, and I like to go into things unspoiled when possible — but after seeing The Maze Runner, I headed straight to Wikipedia and read the plot descriptions for the sequels to get a full picture of who’s responsible for what and what motivated them. If anything, I left even more confused. The details of this whole thing are as opaque as a Shane Carruth film. There are so many twists and turns in the plot that ultimately end up leading to nothing — it’s never explained why they happened or how they contributed to the situation being devised against the boys or what motivated the hands behind the scenes to do any of it in the first place. After spending the first half hour of the movie explaining everything about The Glade in excruciating detail, the resolution to the mystery that drives the plot clocks in as a chaotic, 30-second monologue that keeps everything purposefully vague.

I suspect we’re going to learn more in the sequels, which I both understand and am annoyed by. The Maze Runner very much ends on a “to be continued” note; you don’t feel it building toward an ending so much as you suddenly realize that the music and visuals are suggesting that the credits are about to hit even though only, like, 10 percent of your questions have been answered. I suppose I do understand it — this is a story being told long-form, and unlike other movies that come up with arbitrary excuses for sequels or that split standalone works into multiple parts, this one was always intended to be told that way. Still, I wish it had found some way to structure itself into something self-contained that doesn’t feel like a prolonged tease for a movie you won’t get to see for another year. The Lord of the Rings is a single story told over three films, but each one of them works on its own to at least a certain extent. I know that’s an unfairly high bar, but still.

Of course, the fact that I’m unsatisfied by the answers does imply a certain interest in the questions, and the fact that I wish the story resolved better probably means I cared about what was going on a little. It certainly helps that the movie’s emotional needs are more immediate than its larger implications, so even though everything starts to collapse in retrospect, in the moment, you know exactly where the characters are, what they’re doing, and why.

Also, I admire its efficiency. The movie grounds itself in exactly one perspective — Thomas — and doesn’t leave that. It’s also purely chronological, never jumping backward or forward in time to try to flesh out some backstory. I like the way it drops you directly into the middle of this situation — the first shot is Thomas waking up in that elevator — and just lets it unfold. We experience everything that comes after directly through his point of view — we know what he knows and nothing else. I don’t think there’s a single scene in this movie that he’s not in; Thomas is our anchor, and the whole movie is paced around him.

Thus, it manages to achieve a certain momentum that gets lost in a lot of other teen dystopia movies (still the weirdest ongoing cultural trend, by the way) that are equally confusing but spend more time trying to consolidate all that information. It’s almost like The Maze Runner knows it’s going to end on a disappointing note, so it spends the rest of its time trying to soften the blow.

I also like that, even though it’s a part of the future dystopia subgenre, it mostly feels like its own thing. It does have a few aggravating tendencies — as you’ve seen in this review already, everything must have a Name and if it’s a verb repurposed as a noun, even better. (We also eventually get a name for the force behind the Maze, and it’s all kinds of stupid.) It’s also definitely a post-Hunger Games movie in that we have sooooo gotten beyond our aversion to kids dying in movies, because holy crap this movie is insanely brutal. But there isn’t much of the usual revolutionary undercurrent, and the only female character who appears doesn’t immediately get shoehorned into a romance (particularly one with a third wheel). It’s visually unique, too; other recent teen lit movies have basically lifted entire shots from one another, but The Maze Runner is mostly crafting its look from scratch. From what I’ve read, director Wes Ball studied Terrence Malick, of all people, before making this. And, um…there isn’t much Terrence Malick here, obviously, but it also doesn’t owe many debts to its closest counterparts either, which is good enough.

Other than that, it’s hard to say. It’s got a mostly winsome young cast, I guess? I mean, Thomas is kind of a cipher, but at least he’s a likable cipher. Anyway, I think having a cipher is probably best for a movie this exposition-heavy. I think it’s the pacing, mostly, that saves this movie — it always feels like it’s going somewhere and peels back the layers on that mystery wisely and, for the most part, at the right intervals. They mostly don’t add up to anything at all in the end and collapse once considered in the light of the larger picture, but you don’t know that while you’re watching it, so it works. (Well, I guess you know that now. Sorry.) And hey, at least it’s going somewhere and doesn’t feel too padded out.

They say it’s not the destination, it’s the journey, and I think that’s why I’m giving The Maze Runner a pass even though none of it holds up. The non-ending and all of its non-answers are disappointing, but at least you care enough to get there. The movie still feels purposeful throughout, even though it eventually turns out it was just running you in a circle — hey, kind of like a maze! I made a maze pun! I’m totally a real critic now; this review is over. Bye.

-Matt T.

Unbroken (2014)

Starring- Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Takamasa Ishihara, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney

Director- Angelina Jolie

PG-13- war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrjJbl7kRrI

(WARNING: I’m going to spoil this thing. It’s a highly publicized true story, so I don’t really consider it possible to do that, but in case you have no idea who the real man was and are going into this totally blind, consider yourself warned that I’m going to go over basically the entire plot.)

Unbroken is neither as bad as I feared or good enough to be worthy of the incredible true story that inspired it.

Not that I really blame it for that — if I were a director, I wouldn’t touch this movie with a 10-foot pole. I can think of only so many ways to condense this story into one film and have it work in any meaningful sense. I’ve already heard people saying that this story is better suited to a television miniseries than a singular film, and that seems right to me.

The story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), honestly, could be a trilogy of films, each one with enough material to sustain itself and then some. It’s the sort of thing that, had it originated in fiction, I would’ve called far-fetched. You know what they say about the truth, I suppose. This was a man with more experiences in five years of his life than most people have in their entire family trees.

You’ve got the rags-to-riches sports movie. He started out as a poor Italian kid in constant trouble with the law and always on the precipice of being sent to reform school. He discovered he had a gift for track and field and quickly became a high school athletic superstar — eventually being sent to the Olympics on a team that included Jesse Owens. Then, you’ve got the war movie — World War II broke out, Zamperini joined the Army, went overseas, got up to the standard heroics. Then, you’ve got the survival movie — his bomber crashed in the open ocean; he and only two other survivors were stranded on a raft at sea for over a month, hounded by sharks and, at one point, fired upon by a passing enemy plane. They were rescued, eventually — by Japanese soldiers, and thus begins the POW camp movie. Zamperini, because of his fame as an Olympic athlete, became the favorite prisoner of the camp’s ruthless commanding officer, Watanabe, a.k.a. The Bird (Takamasa Ishihara), who devoted all of his efforts to breaking him. Zamperini survived, of course, and returned home. That was where the standard Oscar drama began — he suffered from severe PTSD and turned to alcoholism before converting to Christianity during one of the big revivals, overcoming his personal issues, and making a big return trip to Japan to personally forgive all of his tormentors.

One movie. You’ve got one movie to tell that story. There’s no way you could ever convince me to try that; you just couldn’t.

So, I do have to give Unbroken some credit for what it does right — beyond the obvious stuff, naturally, like making Roger Deakins your cinematographer or having the Coen brothers smooth out your script.

Firstly, it’s not as obnoxiously Oscar-y as you might expect. It has its moments, particularly early on, where it threatens to get overly maudlin, but mostly, it doesn’t seem too impressed with itself. The cast isn’t reaching for the stars to get nominated; a lot of moments are played in a much lower key than is typical of the genre. It’s stripped down, not very star-studded, and fairly down to Earth, for the most part.

Jack O’Connell makes for a good Louis Zamperini. It’s not, as stated, the sort of performance that’s going to get him awards attention; I’m not certain it should, either. But it is one that might make him a star, or at least set him on that course. The movie doesn’t dig that deeply into who Zamperini was as a person, so he mostly ends up being the relatable everyman. It’s O’Connell who keeps that from being boring, giving the character the right amount of nuance to suggest some depth that we’re not seeing directly. He imbues him with the down-home-American-go-getter likability that a story like this needs. You’re not going to learn a lot about who Zamperini was, for the most part, but you will like him. Unbroken is largely a simple film, so that’s enough for its purposes.

I would say that I was on board with Unbroken for the first hour or so — from his childhood through his ordeal at sea. I didn’t necessarily think it was great, but I did find myself wondering if critics had sold it a touch short. Again, the story was very simple and not all that philosophically involved, but there was enough happening with the characters that it felt like it was going somewhere and was, at least, capturing the right spirit.

It’s when Zamperini ends up in the POW camp that the whole thing loses steam, and it actually surprised me how quickly and how dramatically I lost interest in the film as a whole. Unbroken strikes me as being the film some people accused 12 Years a Slave of being — a meaningless parade of human suffering and brutality, persisting at length and without variation until the movie arbitrarily decides to end. I disagree with that assessment of 12 Years a Slave — I think that film contextualizes the unraveling evils of slavery as part of the gradual degradation of its main character’s humanity; everything is part of a larger arc.

Unbroken, on the other hand, struggles to place these events within the context of Zamperini’s emotional development. The real man cited the events on the raft, where he promised God that if he survived the ordeal, he’d become his servant, as giving him the faith to survive what went on in the camp. The movie, I think, agrees with that, in that it does show that scene. However, it does nothing to connect that to what happens later on in the camp, so upon Zamperini’s arrival there, the whole thing grinds to a halt. The film seems to know what it’s about, or at least what it is about this story that interests it — Zamperini’s incredible resiliency in enduring all of these trials. And it shows that but doesn’t attach it to any arc or allow us to get any sense of what’s going on in its protagonist’s head. As soon as the movie gets to the camp, it becomes scene after scene of The Bird inflicting horrible abuse on Zamperini, over and over again, and Zamperini not breaking — for reasons that are totally unknown to us, the audience. It makes his eventual emotional triumph over The Bird something that doesn’t really come from anything we can identify — the resolution of a character arc to which we were not witnesses. The segment of the film that covers the POW camp — and it’s at least half the overall run-time — feels stretched thin as a result, something meandering and largely purposeless in the choices it makes.

The film is interested mainly in Zamperini’s superhuman endurance, but it also solid itself heavily on the forgiveness and redemption inherent in his story. To have excised this element almost entirely from the story itself is one of the strangest — and most wrong — decisions it makes. Honestly, as inherently cinematic as it is — and as big a deal as it would be in the life of any person other than Louis Zamperini — I’d cut his participation in the Olympics before I’d cut what happened to him after the war was over. What happened to him then entirely changed the context of what happened before — it’s no longer a story of someone surviving great hardship; it’s a story of someone healing, moving on, and reaching a hand back to try to help others do the same, even those who don’t deserve it.

The movie seems to have some sense of this, as an early scene shows a young Zamperini in church, where he’s clearly affected by a somewhat on-the-nose sermon about forgiveness. This ends up being emotional context for a title card at the end of the movie, which is an incredibly strange way to tell that part of the story — and undersells it tremendously. It comes off as though the film felt obligated to include this, so it just hashed it out as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. It’s nowhere near the decision that unmakes the movie, but it definitely strikes me as one of the weirdest.

Some of this, again, is unavoidable. You’re not going to tell a story as expansive as Louis Zamperini’s in one movie without making crucial cuts and being painfully selective in your focus. Part of Unbroken’s problem may be that it simply tries to tell too much of it, so little of it gets the room it needs to develop into something more than staged reenactments of historical events. In the scheme of it, though, the parts that do have that space to breathe still don’t work like they should — Unbroken has all the necessary elements in play but just can’t connect the dots the way it needs to. It’s got the who, what, where, and when down pat — it just skimps on the why. You get a perfect sense of the trials Louis Zamperini endured — what’s missing is the spirit that got him through it.

-Matt T.