I’m finally completely caught up on reviews for the first time since the middle of June. Big moment for me, now I’m going to sleep.
2014, Ira Sachs
In the tradition of Make Way for Tomorrow and Tokyo Story, Ira Sachs has brought us a look into the generational divide as seen through the experiences of an aging couple in his newest feature, Love Is Strange. Updating this theme for the modern age, this New York-set character piece opens up on the beautiful ceremony of Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) finally tying the knot after four decades of being together. Soon after, however, George is let go from his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school and financial complications arise that force the couple to ask their friends and family for a place to stay. This results in the two temporarily splitting up (only in terms of their living arrangements) while trying to find a new home, which sees Ben relocated to the cozy apartment of his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their son Joey (Charlie Tahan) while George crashes with their gay police officer friends Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez).
Sachs and frequent writing partner Mauricio Zacharias set the stage for this touching little film by taking what could have been a somewhat contrived premise and approaching it with such an earnest quality that it never feels forced or manufactured in an attempt to create drama. One of the most surprising aspects of Love Is Strange is the way that Sachs takes something which could have been incredibly plot-heavy and loaded with subplots that are teased along the way and instead turns it into a naturally told story of human beings trying to connect and the way that we can cross lines into each others’ lives. There are no villains, no outwardly menacing characters in Love Is Strange, yet quietly these people struggle in dealing with the intrusions of their friends and family into their every day lives in a way that they had never experienced before. In establishing the relationship between Ben and George, we see two people so familiar with one another that they’re comfortable with all of their flaws and niggling qualities but as the two separate and become acquainted with the lifestyles of others, they become burdens or find themselves burdened by their new surroundings. It’s a familiar story to anyone who has had relatives or friends stay with them or vice versa, and yet Sachs brings it to such vivid, unemphasized life.
There’s an unassuming quality to Love Is Strange that sets it apart from other dramas of its type, ones that would easily find themselves jumping head-first into the theatrics lurking under the secrets that these characters are hiding from one another. Sachs refreshingly avoids any of these journeys into melodrama, which was a welcome treat given that early on it seemed as though the film was opening a lot of subplots that were going to head in that direction. There are clear signs throughout of Elliot having an affair, as well as a largely unspoken realization of Joey’s closeted sexuality, but rather than opening up all of these avenues and trying to cram them into one small movie, Sachs instead elects to tell a story of these people in one specific period of time in their life. Even though the audience can be very aware of these other developments that will eventually more than likely come out and impact the lives of those involved, they’re not for this film to try to artificially conjoin together in a string of big movie scenes — yet at the same time they still influence the relationships between the characters and it’s intriguing to watch them try to ignore all of these signs or perhaps be completely oblivious to them while we are able to look deeper into those hidden layers.
It’s all a reflection of the natural, earnest style of storytelling that Sachs employs and it allows for plenty of alarmingly touching moments over the course of the film. One scene in particular brought me to tears, in which George is suffering through a particularly difficult day and so he travels through the pouring rain to Elliot’s apartment simply so that he can see his love Ben and be held by him. There are very few words exchanged between the two in this scene, and yet Molina and Lithgow have created such a potent relationship with one another that you can genuinely feel the decades of life the two have lived together and the way that they’ve forged an unspoken awareness of exactly what the other needs. The two are barely on screen together, and the movie does an excellent job of establishing them as individual people rather than making it a “relationship movie” that’s only about them in relation to one another, but when they are together you fully get the belief that these two have been together for forty years and have a shared history that we don’t see or hear but can resoundingly feel in the way they communicate and simply exist with one another.
Love Is Strange is loaded with quiet, beautiful moments like this one and it’s a testament to the strength of the writing and Sachs’ seemingly effortless direction that it is able to maintain such a charming, easygoing pace without resorting to any level of superficiality. This may cause the film to feel too slight or insubstantial for some who are instead looking for an indie drama with a lot more punch than Sachs is aiming to deliver, but I found this story to be a remarkably potent one and in the time since my viewing I’ve only grown to look on it even fonder. With a memorable ending that shows us the ways that other people can resonate with us whether or not we demonstrate it to other people, or are even fully aware of it within ourselves, Love Is Strange is lovingly crafted by Sachs and Zacharias and ably performed by his entire cast. This is especially true for his two stars who are deserving of this kind of rich, well-developed material for every performance they deliver but rarely get the chance in their age and industry standing to deliver such quality work. It’s always refreshing to see great actors giving great work when they don’t often get the chance to do so, and refreshing is perhaps the best word to ultimately describe this natural, beautiful and extremely touching little picture.
I imagine the person who just unfollowed me was either a fan of Under the Dome, a fan of The Maze Runner or, ideally, a fan of both.
Tough loss regardless.
2014, Wes Ball
Another week, another young adult franchise hopeful hits the big screen. Adapted from the book trilogy by James Dashner, The Maze Runner is the seventh YA film to hit screens in the past twelve months and while it hasn’t hit the success level of Hunger Games or even Divergent, it seems to have effectively avoided the gallows of recent DOA flops like Vampire Academy and The Mortal Instruments. The “unique” hook in this series is that it’s headed by a male lead (Dylan O’Brien) and the marketing wisely played up the action elements of the plot in order to pull in a broader audience that expanded across multiple demographics and brought in young men and women alike. It was certainly a strategy that worked and with the help of surprisingly strong international grosses out of the gate and an economic production budget ($34 million compared to the $85 million of Divergent or the $110 million of the doomed Ender’s Game), no one should be surprised that Fox quickly made the move to announce a sequel for Maze Runner on their schedule for the same weekend next year.
As far as the quality of the film itself — well it seems that The Maze Runner falls in the pattern of these YA movies for me personally in that the ones I actually like are poorly received (Divergent, The Golden Compass) while the ones that somehow skate by with passable reception from critics or somehow even get rapturous praise are ones that don’t work for me on any level. I’m not sure why I keep finding myself coming back to these films with the hopes of receiving some form of entertainment but they can occasionally manage to keep my attention occupied for the better part of a few hours, as Divergent did earlier this year with a well-paced run through its derivative, predictable, franchise-baiting plotline. The Maze Runner doesn’t add anything new to spice up the game, despite its tease of that “unique” quality of being centered on a cast almost entirely made up of young men, but its biggest crime is that for the large majority of its running time it is unrelentingly dull.
These young adult movies have seen some impressive names step behind the director chair but Maze Runner finds itself as the feature debut of visual effects artist Wes Ball and there’s no doubting the fact that this feels like a first-time effort of someone who can’t bring the energy required to keep a film’s pulse moving. Set inside the world of “The Glade”, O’Brien stars as Thomas, a new entrant into this Lord of the Flies-esque society of boys who emerge out of an elevator in the ground to discover themselves stranded alone in a walled-off community with no memory of anything that happened in their life prior to that very moment. In a practically neverending series of exposition dumps over the first act of the film, Thomas is educated by various members of the community on the rules that they have learned to operate with in order to keep the peace between this group of hormonal, angry young men who are desperate for a way out (though oddly they don’t seem to be too upset about their predicament). Surely there was a way to make this necessary divulging of information more palatable than literally doing nothing but having Thomas incredulously ask a bunch of questions and having a character simply explain the answers to him in vivid detail, but apparently Maze Runner's script didn't have the wherewithal to conjure anything up.
As he becomes accustomed to The Glade (the name the boys coined for their setting), Thomas’ curiosity gets the better of him and he yearns to explore the mysterious maze that lurks beyond the walls that keep the boys prisoner. Every day a group of runners go out and try to map out the maze, while returning home before the walls shut at night and leave them caught out there with the ravenous, ridiculous-looking monsters known as “Grievers”. It’s all boilerplate YA nonsense without much depth or care for construction thrown in as O’Brien tries to force emotions and reactions out of an uninteresting character and the script struggles to come up with any real twists to keep the plot exciting. Early on, when The Glade’s second-in-command Newt (played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster) tells Thomas that no one survives a night in the maze it’s like the movie is just asking you to be patient and wait half an hour so that you can get to the inevitable scene where Thomas (surprise!) is left out in the maze for a night and lives to tell the tale.
The first two acts of The Maze Runner play out exactly as you’d expect them to, with all of the various details and requisite dynamics sketched in through the thin characterizations of the group’s leader Alby (Aml Ameen, who along with Sangster are the only actors who manage to escape this unscathed), the rote and relentlessly irritating (for no reason other than drama) group villain Gally (Will Poulter, whose acclaim and popularity continues to baffle me as he turns in another dreadful performance), the trite cliche of the young innocent Chuck (Blake Cooper) and so on. Kaya Scodelario shows up midway through as the first female entrant into The Glade, which you would think could turn into an interesting plot point and a shift in the routine of this society but they do absolutely nothing with it and she quickly becomes background noise. My blank expression over the course of the majority of Ball’s film had me wishing for anything interesting to happen that would wake me out of my practical slumber but once the third act came along and threw the wrench in the system I found myself wishing I could go back to simpler times when this was just a maddeningly dull exercise in recycled tedium.
If The Maze Runner was primarily nothing more than a flat, wasted experience then the final stretch was one so unbelievably insipid that I wanted to scratch out my eyes from watching it. The exposition dumps come back in full force, including one of the most unbearable offered up in the film that wastes one of my favorite actors whose role I won’t mention here as not to spoil it for anyone unfortunate enough to see this film, as they explain the position these boys are in, the “truth” of their predicament and where things are going to go in that inevitable sequel that will soon be threatening our cinemas once again. The idea of some answers to these mysteries could perhaps be enticing if I cared about any of the characters, anything about their world, or the film did anything to ignite an interest in its plot rather than offering up vague teases at answers that never come and do nothing but try to hook the bait in for the next entry. Clearly it’s something that worked for some people out there, as The Maze Runner is bizarrely one of the few YA franchise-starters to earn positive ratings from critics and it did remarkably well at the box-office but for this viewer I can’t ever imagine subjecting myself to another journey down this wretched rabbit hole. When that aforementioned great actor states that this part of the journey is over and it’s time to begin “phase two”, I couldn’t believe that Ball didn’t just have them look straight into the camera and accept the joke that all of them must be in on.
So excited for the Under the Dome finale tomorrow night, it’s going to be the worst and I can’t wait.
Not knowing whether to answer something publicly or privately is my eternal curse.
You should probably just watch it right now because it’ll make you feel warm and fuzzy like it’s a Christmas movie but it’s also not really a “Christmas movie”, it just happens to be set around Christmas. And not even in like a Shane Black way.
Watching the trailer for St. Vincent and I don’t know, Bill Murray was just such a weird casting choice to play Annie Clark.