Maze of Frustration

The Maze RunnerI went in excited to see The Maze Runner. I haven’t read the books, but they sound cool. Mazes have fascinated me since I was a kid, and this seemed like a rich opportunity to explore their mystery and adventure.

The movie is a good time, for the most part. I don’t watch Teen Wolf and am not familiar with teen heartthrob Dylan O’Brien, but he makes a solid leading man. It’s also nice to see Thomas Brodie-Sangster who nerds know as Jojen Reed from Game of Thrones; he brings real acting chops and credibility to the film. The maze itself is an awesome visual achievement. You really feel its massive scale and power. It seems entirely real, from its cracked and dirty concrete to the vines that have overgrown it. And its terrifyingly rendered denizens are clattering nightmares you won’t soon forget.

Unfortunately, the film is guilty of two major sins: exposition and withholding. As an adaptation, I can almost forgive the first. The movie has to convey a lot of information to the audience or nothing will make sense. But it’s too often done in marathon question and answer sessions, where the amnesiac main character gets stuck tediously interviewing people to find out what’s going on around him. As hungry as we are to learn about this mysterious world, it’s hard not to squirm in your seat during these monster data downloads.

I have a much harder time forgiving the film’s need to withhold information from the audience. It makes for an extremely frustrating viewing experience. I won’t give anything away that’s not obvious from the trailers, I promise, but the film contains some major mysteries that we’re dying for answers to. When the characters on screen actually start to figure things out (or regain their own memories and knowledge), they still don’t tell us what the hell is going on! In one instance, one character blurts that it doesn’t matter. Wrong! It matters to me! Later, when we are finally given what should be real answers, they’re vague and don’t ring true. It’s maddening.

Let’s talk about dramatic irony for a minute. As most writing students know, it occurs when the audience knows something the characters in the story don’t. It creates tension and can work very effectively. We know there’s a monster hiding in the closet as the main character reaches for the doorknob, and we’re climbing backwards out of our chairs in anticipation. Cool stuff. And then there’s the opposite of dramatic irony, let’s call it reverse dramatic irony, where the characters know more than the audience. This can work well in the case of a first person narrative, especially one involving an unreliable narrator. When it doesn’t work, it feels like the story’s creators are fucking with the audience by intentionally withholding. It creates the wrong kind of tension: tension between the audience and the movie. It sucks. This is the main problem with The Maze Runner.

In Robert Rodriguez’s fascinating interview with Quentin Tarantino on El Rey’s exceptional The Director’s Chair, Tarantino talks about toying with the audience:

Tarantino considers himself an audience member. He’s one of us. He knows what our expectations are, and he subverts them. He gives us something fresh and better than what we expect when he makes his “left turn.” He still delivers. He doesn’t withhold.

PierceBrownsRedRisingI recently read Red Rising by Pierce Brown, and I couldn’t put it down. It’s a master class in setting up compelling questions and then providing satisfying answers that also create new questions. By continually deepening the story’s mysteries and shifting the paradigm, Brown creates a powerfully addictive read. And he doesn’t withhold.

It is unfortunate The Maze Runner does. It could have been a truly great experience, perhaps one of my favorite movies of the year. I still like it, sure. It’s well-made and lots of fun, but I wish it didn’t make me so angry.

Of course, now I must read the books. I need some damn answers!

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The Walking Dead

Looks like I can’t cancel my cable just yet.  AMC strikes again with “The Walking Dead,” reminding us of how awesome and compelling television can be.  The first episode blew me away, and I can’t wait to see what the rest of the season holds…

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Favorite Movies of 2009

10. Gamer – I thought the trailers for this movie looked terrible, and I was always the first to bash it…  Until I found out it was a Neveldine/Taylor project.  You know Nevildine/Taylor?  The camp geniuses responsible for Crank?  You should, and you will.  These guys make movies that get me excited about movies.  Gamer is a total ride with a healthy seasoning of satire sprinkled in.  It’s not for everyone, but fans of Army of Darkness, Machine Girl and Dead-Alive will love it.  Grandma should stay home.

9. Up in the Air – Like a punch to the belly, this movie left me rattled and unsteady.  At first, I chuckled my way along, enjoying Ryan Bingham’s airport-centric lifestyle (relating way too much to it) and his adventures and misadventures.  I got caught up in his romance with Alex, and I almost believed that things might somehow work out between them.  I even grew to like the overly serious and earnest Natalie Keener.  But then…  Well, you know.  I walked out of the theatre lost in thought and reassessing my life.  Up in the Air is a powerful piece of cinema, and it deserves the hype.

8. District 9 – I have some stylistic issues with this movie, as it shifts back and forth between being a fake documentary and a regular narrative.  But that’s fine.  I can forgive it.  I have never seen anything like it.

7. I Love You, Man – Paul Rudd rules!

6. (500) Days of Summer – Every now and then, a movie comes along that speaks your language so perfectly that it’s a bit unsettling.  Packed with Pixies, Smiths and Star Wars references, (500) Days of Summer hit pretty close to home for me.  Zooey Deschanel’s Summer did nice work challenging Kate Winslet’s Clementine (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) as my all-time movie crush.  What does that say about me?

zombieland-poster5. Zombieland – Pure campy fun!  So much fun!  I cannot wait to buy this movie and watch it over and over again.  Smart writing meets hilarious performances multiplied by a truly warped sense of humor makes Zombieland something special.

4. Watchmen – The anti-comic book graphic novel becomes the anti-comic book movie.  I have never seen more people get up and walk out of a theatre than when I saw this.  Those who came expecting Spider-Man, got a bucket of ice water dumped in their laps.  Zack Snyder again defies expectations and delivers another challenging and memorable experience.  I love this movie.

3. Avatar – Haters can suck it!  While there might not be an original idea in this movie, the execution is tough to beat.  I’ve seen it twice in the theatre so far, and I can’t wait to see it again.  The immersive 3-D experience blew me away, and I really got caught up in the adventure of it all.  Nothing this year rivaled the moment when Jake first rode his Banshee, and the end battle…  Wow.  Hats off to Cameron for making the most expensive movie ever made have such a flagrant pro-environmental message.

2. The Hangover – Probably the funniest movie since Office Space.

startrek2009poster1. Star Trek – I never would have seen this one coming.  As a lifelong Star Wars devotee, I can’t believe Star Trek is my favorite film of the year.  I’ve seen it a number of times now, and I might love it more each time.  I get excited just thinking about it.  Like Iron Man last year, Star Trek does a deft job of combining sharp comedy, solid storytelling, memorable performances, interesting themes, high adventure, stunning action and everything else into a nearly perfect package of awesomeness.

Honorable mentions:

  • Funny People – Fans of stand-up must see this.  It’s flawed but great.
  • Up – Cranky and wonderful.
  • Drag Me to Hell – Sam Raimi returns to his roots.
  • Away We Go – The five people who saw this know how good it is.
  • The Hurt Locker – Boom!
  • Ninja Assassin – More ninjas than you can shake a nunchuck at.

2009 was a great year for movies, maybe the best since 1999.

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Animation Validation

Having a little downtime has allowed me to catch up on movies and other distractions.  Since there are no girls around to scare away, I’ve been indulging my love of comic book-inspired animation.  I’m psyched by what I’ve discovered.

wonderwomanWonder Woman — I’ve never really identified with the iconic, unstoppable heroes DC has offered (except for Batman), and I’ve always related much better to Marvel’s scrappy underdogs and misanthropes.  However, I’m starting to come around.  While the straight-to-video animation isn’t exactly amazing, Wonder Woman works well in every other way.  Clean storytelling and punchy dialogue support a great origin tale that delves deeply into Greek mythology.  Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion revisit their honest and amusing Waitress chemistry to deliver some enjoyable voice work, as does the rest of the solid supporting cast.  All in all, it’s a really good film, animated or otherwise.  DC should be commended.  This one is worth owning.

Green Lantern: First Flight — Here we go again…  Yup, it’s DC.  And yup, it’s good.  Wonder Woman might be slightly better, but this is pretty close.  Again we have a solid story and great voice acting, especially from Victor Garber.  It’s well-done.  It’s fun.  Despite my love for Marvel, I can’t help but recommend it.  Damn you, DC.

The Invincible Iron Man — While it’s not quite up to par with what DC has been offering, I enjoyed it.  I’d recommend it along with Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme as one of Marvel’s best.  Check it out.

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The Forbidden Kingdom

The Forbidden Kingdom

The Forbidden Kingdom tastes a lot like a Happy Meal: familiar and fun but ultimately not that satisfying. The movie stars the kid from Sky High as Jason, along with Jet Li and Jackie Chan playing multiple roles. Jason falls through some sort of dimensional portal and ends up in a parallel universe version of ancient China. He must return a magic staff to the…

Whatever.

Essentially, the thin story nets us an enjoyable Jackie vs. Jet beat down, some impressive visual effects and Jason’s coming-of-age. Maybe I’m being too hard on it. I dunno. I did enjoy the movie, but I just didn’t care. Everything felt too uninspired and by-the-numbers, like a bunch of suits got together and decided to try to make the ultimate family kung-fu movie.

When I think about Sky High, I realize where my frustrations stem from. Sky High is a family-friendly take on superhero movies, much like The Forbidden Kingdom is a family-friendly take on kung fu movies. Fair comparison? Where Sky High managed to surprise me with its imagination, crack me up with its sharp writing and genuinely pull me in, The Forbidden Kingdom offered nothing new and had me checking my watch.

In short, rent Sky High.

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