Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Paths of Glory: “The Maze Runner” is One of the More Outstanding Young Adult Adaptations

Everyone wants to duplicate the success of the young adult phenomenon “The Hunger Games.” And who could blame them? That series of films, so far, is a standout film series surely made to stand the test of time. “The Maze Runner,” adapted from the book of the same name, tries its hardest to capture the same dystopian feel with a more male-centric story about boys and young men trapped within the confines of a gigantic maze. It’s sort of “Lord of the Flies” meets “TheHunger Games” with a bit of “Lost” thrown in for good measure. Is it as good as “The Hunger Games?” No, but why should it be? It feels miles ahead of all other teen centric garbage flooding the multiplexes. It’s thrilling, action-packed, features impressive performances from its young cast, and gives us an undeniably fascinating premise.

Thomas, (played by Teen Wolf’s Dylan O’Brien) who can’t even remember his own name at first, appears in the Glade, a grassy area that’s surrounded by gigantic walls. There are only other teen boys, wearing mostly tattered clothing. No one knows why they’re there, how they got there, or what exactly is going on, except that there are creatures beyond the walls that hang out in the maze that surround the relatively safe central Glade area. He meets some of the other teen boys, one of which is Alby (Aml Ameen) who appears to be the leader of the group. Gally (Will Poulter) also appears to be somewhat in charge but is way more antagonistic. Thomas also meets the most recent addition to the Glade, besides himself, Chuck (Blake Cooper). He also meets the mysterious Minho (Ki Hong Lee) who is a runner. The walls open up in the morning and the runners enter the maze to attempt to find a way out. Every kid seems to have a place within this small group but only certain people are responsible for finding a way out or finding out why they’ve been put there.

It’s a simply fascinating premise that grips the viewer instantly. There are many questions as the film progresses the film uses Thomas for us identify with. He knows as much as we do. O’Brien is certainly charming in his first major lead role and I can easily expect great things from him in the future. The film has an appropriately dark look and tone as many of these young adult adaptations involve depressing post-apocalyptic societies. This film is refreshingly void of any sort of love story. There’s just no time for love even when a girl named Theresa (Kaya Scodelario) is mysteriously sent to live with the boys. Director Wes Ball, making his feature film debut, injects a strong sense of mystery to the proceedings, as the script slowly reveals more and more information. He also unleashes some pretty intense moments which certainly help ramp up the suspense. The creatures, who the boys call Grievers, are appropriately scary and the visual effects are pretty well down for a modestly budgeted movie. I really liked the overall feel, tone, and look of the entire story-driven movie.

You really do get a sense that author James Dasher was heavily influence by the novels “Lord of the Flies” and “Ender’s Game.” I didn't enjoy the “Ender’s Game” film as I never felt invested in the story but here I was in it every step of the way. The ending may leave some people with more questions than answers but it sets up what is sure to be a truly fascinating series of films. For once, I can’t wait to finish reading the book and learn even more about this captivating world.  GRADE: A-

Trailer for The Maze Runner on TrailerAddict.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Brother, Sister: “The Skeleton Twins” is an Expertly Acted, Mostly Depressing Drama

“The Skeleton Twins” should come with a disclaimer. Not because it’s bad or anything but because I can imagine people lining up to see the latest Kristen Wiig comedy expecting “Bridesmaids” and getting “Requiem for a Dream” instead. No, no it’s not that bad but the film deals with the tough subject matter of suicide and depression in a realistic way. It’s never exploitative or heavy handed; it just is what it is. It also features two truly dynamic and wonderful performances from its leads Wiig and her former SNL co-star Bill Hader. If you can go into this little indie gem knowing it’s not exactly a barrel of laughs you will be sad, depressed, but ultimately moved by the film’s interesting story and fascinating characters.

Wiig showed a lot of promise of her real dramatic acting chops in “Bridesmaids.” Sure it was a silly comedy, but go back and look at Wiig’s performance again. It’s alive with drama and subtle nuances of a woman completely overwhelmed and depressed. Yeah she’s hilarious, but she also shows dramatic range which is on full display here. Wiig and Hader (also amazing here) are Maggie and Milo, an estranged pair of adult siblings. They’ve had a rough childhood which can be seen in glimpses. After a failed suicide attempt, Milo goes to stay with Maggie in her upstate New York house. Maggie is married to Lance (Luke Wilson) and they have a rather normal and uneventful life. They’re trying to get pregnant though Maggie isn’t quite ready to have children. Milo is gay and lives the life of a struggling actor in LA. The pair hadn’t seen or heard from each other in ten years and we don’t really know why. This dramatic event just may be the catalyst to get their once close relationship working again.

It’s obvious that Milo and Maggie have a strong connection. We eventually get filled in on their childhood and upbringing. And suicide and depression tend to run in their family. It doesn’t help that they’re mother is basically MIA and was apparently too busy to attend her own daughter’s wedding. These are really sad people. It’s sort of hard to watch. They’re not happy with their lives even if they seem to have things sorted out for the most part. They both sort of think ending it all is the only option for both of them. But they need each other and that is where the true heart of the film lies.

Wiig and Hader have some of the most exquisite chemistry I have ever witnessed in a film. And why shouldn’t they? They’re obviously good friends from their tenure on Saturday Night Live and most likely know each other very well. They’re practically siblings and it comes across magnificently onscreen. Director Craig Johnson, who co-wrote the script with Mark Heyman, has weaved an interesting story for these two fully realized people. The script slowly reveals elements of these sibling’s pasts and we’re filled in on the events that lead them to their current states. The directing is fluid and realistic and the themes are throughout and work (it helps that the sometimes dark story is also set around Halloween).

This is a film that I can certainly recommend if you’re in the mood for something with heavy and dark subject matter. While the characters’ eventual connection is what really lifts this out of depressing territory, the film is rather morose - though with some well-timed bits of solid comic relief. It isn’t what I’d exactly call a feel-good film though when it comes down to it it’s ultimately uplifting. If you want to see another side to two of our best comedic actors working today you’re certainly in for a treat. If you’re expecting a raunchy comedy then you’ll certainly feel tricked.  GRADE: B+ 

Trailer for The Skeleton Twins on TrailerAddict.