Film #135: The Maze Runner (2014)

mrDirector: Wes Ball
Language: English
Length: 113 minutes
Watched on: 22 Dec 2014

I’m basically right outside the target demographic for this movie now, but since this kind of dystopian YA fiction is so popular now, I thought I should give it a try to see what the fuss is about. I’ve heard The Hunger Games is better, though.

Most of what I’ve already seen of this is people online fawning over the relationship between the two main characters, one of which is a hunky Korean guy, and the other is the scrawny guy from Teen Wolf. I’d been led to believe that there was some kind of ambiguous romance between the two, so let me just start by saying that such a thing was not present at all, besides some very furtive glances, which I don’t think count.

What the film does have, though, is fifteen or so ambiguously teenage boys running around and getting into fights with each other, so I can at least forgive it that much.

The plot is, to say the least, quite complicated. It requires rather a lot of exposition to work out what’s going on, and even then I was left confused by the end of the movie. When your central conceit – in this case that the boys find themselves with a severe case of amnesia in the centre of a deadly maze that they run around to try and get out of – requires that much explanation, it’s time to tone it down, frankly. On a more basic level, the movie borrows a lot from Lord of the Flies, down to having an ersatz Piggy, also the one character that actually looks like a teenager instead of pushing thirty.

What’s more, the actor who did most of that exposition used to be the kid in Love Actually, which made him hard to take seriously. I felt like quoting Malcolm Tucker for most of the movie. Actually, I told a lie, he also looks like a teenager, but I think he’s actually older than me.

So it was a enjoyable enough way to spend a couple of hours on a plane, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch the sequel. I’m still interested in seeing The Hunger Games, though.

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Film #134: Boyhood (2014)

bhDirector: Richard Linklater
Language: English and some Spanish
Length: 165 minutes
Watched on: 22 Dec 2014

When I first heard about this film, Richard Linklater’s magnum opus, it was probably years ago. Its conceit is that it was shot over a period of twelve years, using the same actors – so I think it’s fair to say that the rumour mill has been churning for some time. At first I think I actually assumed that it was a kind of documentary, but it is in fact, apart from the unorthodox method of delivery, a relatively straight-up fiction, albeit one that is heavily character-focused.

I don’t think it’s quite fair to say that nothing happens in the plot – there are a couple of messy divorces, for example, but because the story is told in chunks, usually skipping ahead a few months at a time, key events often happen off-screen. This means that, in the case of the divorces, for instance, we see the events leading up to them and the aftermath, but the divorce itself is more like a footnote. 

For the most part, given the piecemeal nature of the movie, it’s not the events that matter, but the characters and atmosphere. That’s not to say, however, that the events are boring or unimpressive, or that the plot is non-existent. One other work I was reminded of was Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, another lengthy work featuring an abusive stepfather in the second act, and an inquisitive, introverted young boy protagonist.

I like to think that a few years from now, we’ll be looking back on works like this and extolling the zeitgeist they invoke of the early part of this century. Much of it is like a chronicle of the 2000s and early 2010s, in terms of style and music. To me the most obvious point where this was detectable was hearing music. Going into 2012 there was a scene where we could hear Gotye playing in the background, for example. Early on in the narrative several of the characters are discussing the Iraq war. Things like this mean that the work already is acting like a period piece, so it will be interesting to watch it back in another ten years’ time, to see if this kind of effect has increased.

On the other hand, the acting is rather iffy, to be blunt. The main character, the son of the family, is quite wooden for most of the movie, in particular. But I wonder if, like Tintin before him, his passive presence through most of the movie allows the audience to insert themselves in his position more easily, leading them to focus on the other, more vibrant characters. Aside from him, there are some great performances, and I’m glad to hear that Patricia Arquette received an Oscar for her role as the downtrodden mother.

For me personally, I liked the atmosphere of the movie, and I enjoyed the unique conceit. I also identified a lot with certain events in the story – not the abusive part, thankfully, but many aspects of the family depicted in Boyhood were recognizable to me. But I would also point out that I found the film a little bland, and somewhat sanitized. An adjective that I’ve heard used for it and think is the most appropriate is “nice”. It’s not “great”, but “nice” is a good way to describe it. I’ve also heard that it misrepresents the racial makeup of Texas – having never been there, I couldn’t possibly say, but there’s a suspicious lack of Latino people on the whole.

So it certainly has flaws – that’s not a comprehensive list. But at a pinch, I think I’d name it my favourite movie of 2014, because overall I did like it and was emotionally affected by it, despite being underwhelmed. It doesn’t quite scratch up to an all-time favourites list, though. It was nice, that’s all.

Film #133: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

httyd2Director: Dean Deblois
Language: English
Length: 102 minutes
Watched on: 22 Dec 2014

I didn’t realize, but there’s been almost five years since the original How to Train Your Dragon movie came out back in 2010. I was still in university when I saw that movie in York’s City Screen cinema. It’s no wonder, then, that I can’t really remember the plot. However, I do particularly remember it being an unexpected delight.

This sequel just came out last year, and it was the second of four movies I watched on the plane on the way back to the UK in December. As such, I was mildly sleepy, and it was on a tiny screen.

The story takes place in the same setting as the previous one. In this story, humans and dragons are now friends, engaging in such activities as races and competitions around the village. The main character has developed a kind of symbiotic relationship with his dangerous-but-cute dragon Toothless. I think they’re both missing a leg or wing or something, meaning that both need the other’s help to move around efficiently.

The story is a bit flimsy and a little complex, and descends into a relatively boring bout between two super-dragons towards the end. It’s probably worth not spoiling the second-act twist, as it managed to surprise me a little when I watched it. But aside from that it’s pretty predictable and follows a standard arc.

I wouldn’t say the characters really developed significantly in the movie, which is shame when comparing it to the previous one. Also, I’m pretty sure that the father’s arc is almost exactly the same as his arc in the first movie – basically, he’s stubborn.

The set pieces also left something to be desired. The film is visually very nice, but I couldn’t help but feel there was no continuity between different areas that the characters visit. So much of the movie takes place around sheer cliff faces that it’s difficult to determine whether it’s all on one island, or if the characters are all flying their dragons over to another island. That’s not to say all set pieces; there were a few very good ones in there, but much of it was uninspiring.

And for all the negative points, it’s not like I disliked this movie, by any means. It’s just not up to expectations.

Film #132: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

aBqD3ZDirector: Doug Liman
Language: English
Length: 113 minutes
Watched on: 22 Dec 2014

I got on a plane to go back to the UK in December. As I’m prone to doing, I immediately got to work with the entertainment system. BA doesn’t seem to be as good as the other ones, unfortunately, and although the selection was alright, it was all recent releases, without much in the way of old stuff.

In any case, this seemed like a good enough choice as a first movie, as it’s a relatively low-brow action movie and Tom Cruise vehicle. It’s probably fair to describe it as a cross between Groundhog Day and Mission Impossible, although I’ve never seen Mission Impossible and doubt that it includes aliens to such a degree.

Cruise’s character tries to desert the army because he’s a self-righteous douche who can’t take orders from a superior and gets thrown down on the battlefield with exactly zero experience ready to die at the hands of some spitting alien monster. Then he wakes up again and thus begins what is basically known by everyone as a Groundhog Day loop: whenever he dies, he begins the day again.

But the problem immediately is that we’re comparing this movie to Groundhog Day, one of the 90s’ greatest exports and a literally timeless movie classic. What with Cruise’s wooden acting (although that’s perhaps an insult to trees), Edge of Tomorrow has absolutely none of the emotional depth or grounding that Groundhog Day had. Groundhog Day‘s character development arc included a section in the middle where Bill Murray just starts getting out of bed and killing himself every day through sheer desperation. None such here, although there is, to confirm with the standard Hollywood arc, a section of milder-seeming despair about twenty minutes from the end.

What is does have, however, is both tension and plenty of action, which is what I was actually watching it for, so in that sense it did its job. Could have done without the forced romance, though.

Book #80: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1605)

amsndAuthor: William Shakespeare
Production: 2008, LibriVox
Language: English
Length: 124 minutes
Finished listening on: 13 Dec 2014

I should probably have reviewed this book with the last one, but reviewing two Shakespeare plays, no matter how simplistically, makes me look cleverer.

The problem here is, I read Hamlet in school when I was 17, and went into quite a lot of depth with it. I read this one when I was 12, and have largely forgotten the plot. Without the visual aspect of a play, it was thus much harder to follow than Hamlet was. It was also a lot shorter, and thus flitted by very quickly.

My hook into this play is actually, therefore, an obscure gay movie called Were the World Mine, after a line from this play. A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘s main plot point is some kind of magic that makes people fall in love with others, to comedic effect. The movie’s magic turned people gay, amusingly.

As it was from the same company that produced the Hamlet audiobook, the voice acting was also incredibly variable to the point of distraction. This was also compounded by a very large number of characters, not all of whom I could tell apart by voice alone.

I think if I’m to truly understand this play, I’m going to have to read or watch it rather than just listening. I think I’ll have to give it undivided attention. As it is, I can’t really recall the plot fully other than the bare bones, which is a shame.

Book #79: Hamlet (1603)

hamletAuthor: William Shakespeare
Production: 2012, LibriVox
Language: English
Length: 222 minutes (3 hours 42 minutes)
Finished listening on: 9 Dec 2014

I haven’t properly read Hamlet since high school, nor really any other Shakespeare, so it was interesting to reintroduce myself to it. This was found on a free audiobooks site called LibriVox, which is similar to Project Gutenberg.

On the site, volunteers record themselves reading texts, and it can be uploaded to the site. There were more than one version of many different classic texts. Of course, for plays it is eminently suitable to essentially make an amateur production of the work, which is what’s happened here. The voice work was very variable: some of the actors were very expressive and lent a certain energy to their parts, while others would just read their parts in a monotone. This was especially true of the voice reading the stage directions, as I’d admittedly expect. It was obvious, if not from the variance in accents, that the actors were not in the same room, but recording their parts separately.

I also enjoyed the gender variance of some of the actors. In particular, the actor who played Hamlet was a woman, so it had the effect of making it sound like a lesbian drama between her and Ophelia. Well… almost. Hamlet’s excessively vile misogyny kind of gives the game away, I should think.

Anyway, after having read Ryan North’s take on Hamlet, it was good to refresh myself with the real story. For instance, North made a big deal out of the pirates in the fourth or fifth act, which I couldn’t remember before and thought was just a brief footnote in the real story, but was actually described in more detail than I thought.

One of the other things I thought a lot while listening to this is that it feels a lot more relatable now that I’ve had a bit more life experience under my belt, since the time that I studied it almost ten years ago. I should perhaps clarify, not the horrific misogyny part, but more just the parts pertaining to adult relationships and the like.

Overall, it was an inherently flawed performance, but it was a nice reintroduction to Shakespeare in a more natural way than reading the plays as books would have been. Perhaps I should keep up this intellectual streak.