WCKD is good
And so is The Maze Runner.
The Maze Runner sprinted through the box office this weekend, almost breaking even on its budget by earning $32 million from the United States alone and solidifying its sequel to release in September of next year. Great for the series: it has established itself as one of those never-ending young adult franchises where it’s up to teens to overthrow a futuristic nation’s corrupt government (which is probably its own genre by now). Also great for audiences: we get more of the series that took off with a great start with almost no legwork.
The Maze Runner is directed by Wes Ball, a newcomer to the director’s chair who should probably stay there. His intrusive camerawork is only complimented by the film’s young crop of stars lead by Dylan O’Brien, who undoubtedly guided his legion of pre-included Teen Wolf fans to theaters. Previously a special effects artist, Ball’s direction stays light on CGI (though the small doses included are eye-popping) and focuses more on the film’s satisfying sets and cast.
I’ve waited long enough, but it looks like there really won’t be an interesting-looking movie to come out after Guardians of the Galaxy this summer. Add that to the fact that I’m now a contributing member to society with actual responsibilities, I didn’t get to the movies too much these past few months.
But that doesn’t mean the movies I did see weren’t good. Overall it was a pretty awesome summer for movies, if a little void of content. But as fall descends its chilly omnipresence over summer’s dwindling sun, it is once again that special time of year where I rank the movies I’ve seen the past season, worst to best.
Better than eleven percent
Phase 2 of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe continues to rule the galaxy of recent action films, because from Iron Man 3 to Guardians of the Galaxy, Phase 2 has yet to produce a film worthy of anything less than an A. Even on an upwardly curved scale, though, Guardians of the Galaxy would score a nearly perfect grade, because somehow Marvel took one of their more obscure, much more bizarre comic series, and crafted possibly their finest film from it.
The film’s cast of characters includes a Parks & Rec actor, Zoe Saldana with yet another colorful skin pigment, a perpetually shirtless alien wrestler, a raccoon, and a tree with a vocabulary that spans 3 words, and it’s easily the strongest cast of characters Marvel has produced. The film’s 2 hours proves ample time to flesh out each character’s quirks, motivations, and genuinely sentimental backstories. Something’s gone right when a tree grumbling its name for the fifteenth time leads to the most powerful emotional catharsis the film has to offer.
I don’t love Lucy
Apparently if humans could use 100% of their brain’s capacity, they would be able to shoot lasers from their mouths, make super computers grow out of nothing, travel through time, and do almost anything else physically imaginable. This doesn’t seem very likely to actually happen, but in the parameters of Luc Besson’s Lucy, it’s the entire payoff.
The action film is built around logistics as likely misconstrued as this, which would have been fine if these concepts had at all been backed up or even explained in the first place. Instead, the audience is bombarded with more questions than special effects as Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy displays an endless arsenal of power and knowledge, with no context on which to place it. This dehumanizes her as a character, which is a problem when the entire film depends on the audience liking her. Johansson luckily pulls through, redeeming the hole-strewn script with a strong performance.
What The Purge: Anarchy has going for it is ambition. Founded on a brilliant premise (almost all crime is legal for 12 hours a year) and backed up with cool, social commentary-lite ideas (an auction-like arena where the wealthy pay to hunt the poor, for instance), Anarchy (as well as the original Purge film) think big, yet execute small. Abandoning almost all horror film classifications for an underwhelming, low-risk action narrative, director James DeMonaco has many great ideas, and no idea what to do with them.
The sequel smartly expands the films’ (series’? soon-to-be franchise’s?) universe beyond the home-invasion setting of the first to the entire city of Los Angeles on annual Purge night. While Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) suits up for some good old-fashioned revenge purgin’, mom and daughter Eva and Cali (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul) are kidnapped from their apartment by a mysterious army of Purgers. Meanwhile, soon-to-be-separated couple Shane and Liz’s (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) car is sabotaged just before the Purging begins, abandoning them downtown with no place to go.
Something’s familiar. 22 Jump Street is 21 Jump Street gone undercover, with slight upgrades in budget and meta humor. The sequel directly takes the storytelling formula from the first and plays around with it minimally, but still manages to deliver the same, if not a bigger, amount of laughs.
Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill have enough comedic chemistry that they could probably compete with the likes of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and both have improved since last time. Tatum especially, who so carefully and cleverly plays the buffoon cop Greg Jenko, who loves to dance and climb buildings but hates to improvise. Hill’s Morton Schmidt is more of the brains of the operation, which is pretty terrifying considering his slam poem dedicated to late college student Cynthia amounts to “Cynthia is dead now” repeated a few times. And he’s supposed to be the one who’s good at improvising.
In a summer that will inevitably contain some truly awful blockbusters that excel at the box office, it’s a shame that Edge of Tomorrow, a witty expedition as well oiled as the machines it features, is doing so not-amazingly in ticket sales. Those lucky enough to see it can attest for its unwavering entertainment value in the form of time travel and robot-verses-demon squid battles, because it’s that kind of movie, and a huge success at it.
In 2014’s iteration of standard Tom Cruise action fanfare, Cruise plays Major William Cage, who is forced to take up combat in the human’s war against invading aliens called Mimics despite not actually being a soldier, thanks to the vague illogic of plot convenience. (Though, it is refreshing to see Cruise as someone other than the guy-in-charge for once). Stripped of his rank, Cage finds himself literally flung into a doomsday battle against the Mimics on the beach, equipped with a highly destructive exoskeleton he spent the previous day not learning how to operate. The humans are taking a slaughtering, except for propaganda figurehead Seargent Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), complete with her tentacle-lopping sword – oh wait, she just melted. And Cage did too, realistically, after a scrimmage with a large blue Mimic known as an Alpha.
What you wanted
For a story about an ill-fated romance between two cancer-stricken youths, The Fault in Our Stars is natural and restrained in bringing the torrential downpour of tears from its audience. Not that the storytelling isn’t worthy of the teenage blubbering it inevitably caused, but the delicate subject matter of youth (or anyone of any age) dealing with cancer is handled with a level of honesty that demands to be simply recognized rather than pitied. The film (and its novel source material written by John Green) uses subtle brutality to prove that any life, no matter how short, can burn as bright as it wants to. This particular film burns radiantly.
Though the dialogue sometimes walks a thin line between genuine life wisdom and assault via Hallmark get-well-soon cards, leads Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort (both now firmly solidified in their own stardom) make even their cheesiest lines heartfelt and natural. The two play a pair of disease-ravaged teens who instantly bond over their mutual dislike of a support group that Hazel’s mom (Laura Dern) forces her to attend in attempts to give her a ‘normal’ teenage social life.
Listen well, all of you
So, this was the curse Maleficent was talking about. After all this time she finally got her revenge on Sleeping Beauty. Adding backstory to an established character is fine, but altering the events of the original tale to make Maleficent look sympathetic is not going to sit well with a lot of people, myself included. It could have been forgivable, however, if the movie had not been awkwardly balanced between uninspired action scenes and painful child-catered sequences. It’s Wicked without the genius and Disney when it wants to make a quick buck while working on better projects.
Thank goodness for Angelina Jolie, whose sleek exploration of the title character is defined by her wonderfully thorny grin and graceful dimensionality. (Not to mention her knife-sharp cheekbones, which she probably uses to open canned goods.) Jolie guides the often-stumbling script with a performance that excels when she gets to be all-out villainous, and stays strong when she becomes an unexpected parental figure to Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning), a plot twist that, for me, was hard to swallow, but irresistible when offered by Jolie.