Review: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ (And Destiny Awaits)

Here’s the short, short version: J.J. did it. Non-spoiler details to follow.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the Galactic Rodent purchased a franchise from Lucas the George. After hiring Abrams the Promising, it was ordained a new story of heroic deeds and dire villains would be told — different enough, but not too different from the tales of old. As the days grew colder, the masses gathered and waited to hear the new stories, hopeful that they would not be disappointed…and most were NOT disappointed. For three days they heard the stories again and again, and in the castle, the Galactic Rodent smiled.

Well, how ELSE are you going to do a spoiler-free review? The most amazing part of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is how little was revealed in the trailers. Audiences have long been spoiled by studios afraid surprises result in poor sales, that audiences don’t really want to be “surprised.” Maybe that’s true for Transformers movies, but not Star Wars. The secrets are back, and here’s the closest thing to a spoiler you’re going to get without wandering into the comments section: the secret is there are plenty of secrets still unrevealed. While Episode VII introduces a new cast, new situations, high adventure and a conclusion, it’s gone back to its serial roots by saying there’s more to come.
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Review: ‘Carol’ (One Does Not Simply Refuse Cate Blanchett)

A timeless, forbidden, and music-cued affair of the heart.

While working the doll counter at Manhattan department store Frankenberg’s, Therese (Rooney Mara) eyes the beautiful and elegant Carol (Cate Blanchett) from across the room. The attraction is immediate, but in the 1950s, more than a few people have issues with a married mother exploring a same-sex relationship with an available and popular young woman. Consenting adults will be consenting adults, but even while nature takes its course, complications threaten their relationship with the welfare of a child hanging in the balance. Will their attraction be denied or will love triumph all?

Warning: total award bait! A lesbian love affair between two beautiful women? A period piece that denies them the same right that…okay, well, we’re still getting that sorted out 65 years later. Wait, one more: a pretentious “longing desperation” piano/violin/oboe concerto over non-dialogue moments? Yes, you worked very hard on your eight-bar theme song; thanks, we got it. All this aside? It’s good. Both actors contrast and emote the complications of being who they’re expected to be while still trying to find a way to fulfill a need that others may deplore. Unlike Brokeback Mountain, which started early with the controversial same-sex love scene to get it out of the way and concentrate on the aftermath and emotional complication of their sudden but denied relationship, Carol builds toward it, trying to make a gratuitous scene feel as artful as it can. There aren’t many surprises here as the story unfolds by the numbers, but while being expertly shot, acted, and edited, it can’t seem to shake the stigma of being an year-end award generator rather than a meaningful film.
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Review: ‘Crimson Peak’ (Up all night to get Loki)

Remember: “It’s not a ghost story, but it has a ghost in it.”

Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is an aspiring author more interested in becoming the next Mary Shelley than pursuing a husband. Being the late 1800s, her self-made father (Jim Beaver) would prefer to see her married off to local Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), but a destitute aristocrat named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) has caught her eye with his appearance and her mind with his dreams. Seeking investments to restart the blood-red clay mine beneath his English countryside manor owned by he and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), Sir Thomas claims Edith for his wife after Mr. Cushing’s mysterious death. Known only to Edith, a warning from her mother’s ghost is fulfilled when she hears her new home at Allerdale Hall bears the whispered name “Crimson Peak.”

No one can dispute that this is a Gothic tale with all the trappings, but the details vary from viewer to viewer. There’s a reason for this; the story is rather simple but the atmosphere is complex. Writer/director Guillermo del Toro is no stranger to this kind of spooky film but this one boasts fewer monsters than his more recent fare. Main character Edith essentially reveals the rules of the film as she tries in vain to explain to a publisher her own intentions. The problem is one of advertising since the trailers offer little of the plot while celebrating the visuals…and it, like the story, is darkly beautiful. Viewers expecting Hellboy or Pacific Rim may be disappointed, but fans of slow-burn ghostly fare like Nicole Kidman’s The Others and del Toro’s own Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark will enjoy the feel of their skin both crawling and tingling.
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Review: ‘Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials’ (Maze Harder)

Out of the frying pan and into the Scorch.

After only being in the glade a few days, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) has led his fellow gladers out only to be collected by a military group promising to take them to safety; their ordeal with WCKD and maze running is over! In charge of the rescuers is Janson (Aidan Gillen), a guy who can’t seem to help looking smarmy and suspicious (see: “Game of Thrones”). Faster than you can say betrayal, Thomas and the gang are on the run again, this time through the ruins of a city and into the desert-like wastes beyond. Chased by both bad guys and eyeless running zombie things, Thomas has less information than ever about how the gladers can save themselves, but one answer may lie in his former relationship with Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) before they were both sent into the maze.

This was a little disappointing. While the first film wasn’t perfect but well-acted; you’d think part 2 would have stepped it up. It could be the fault of the books, but so much of what we discover in The Scorch Trials doesn’t make sense with the world. We’re told the gladers are special – something about being a living cure that can’t be replicated in a lab – and what those who are infected have to put up with or become. Like most of these Young Adult / New Adult stories, this is an adventure masquerading as a dystopian drama, but this production distinctively alternates between high-budget money shots and low-budget pickups, mostly toward the end of the movie. There are scream-at-the-screen worthy moments during these sequences; did they run out of money and/or hoped no one would notice?
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Review: ‘The Maze Runner’ (Maximus Mazicus Runnicus)

The only thing more mysterious than the maze is where Minho keeps getting product for his hair.

A teenager (Dylan O’Brien) finds himself inside an elevator speeding toward the top of a narrow shaft, surrounded by supplies and just beyond the reach of shadowy, screeching humanoids on his way up. When the lift stops, the doors above open into a glade…surrounded on all sides by a thick concrete wall, unclimable and several stories tall. Other boys are already in the glade, treating the newcomer like a new recruit to boot camp. A door into the maze opens at dawn and closes at dusk, presumably to keep whatever roams the maze at night out of the glade, and runners spend the hours in between trying to map a way out. The teen can’t remember who he was before he came the glade, but he soon remembers his name: Thomas.

It seems like a neat idea until it doesn’t: young men seeded into a secluded environment with no memory of who they were but all the basics needed to function, seemingly to solve a maze and escape. Problem one is the maze is kind of lame; yes, something is spooky out there at night, but the kids inside seem a lot more volatile. The second problem is a lack of asking the right questions; if someone comes back and the other kids say, “He’s been stung,” wouldn’t the obvious question be, “Stung by WHAT?” There is a frustrating lack of communication between characters throughout the film, but it still remains watchable in spite of this due to the cast, particularly Dylan O’Brien in the lead role. Otherwise, it has a whole lot of Lord of the Flies meets The Running Man thing going on.
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Review: ‘Hotel Transylvania 2’ (Same plot, different gags, almost as fun)

Remember how the first movie ended?

Well, the kids get married, one thing leads to another, and before you know it there’s a redheaded boy named Dennis (Asher Blinkoff) who’s about to turn five…but is he vampire or human? Dracula (Adam Sandler) is afraid Mavis (Selena Gomez) will leave with her son and live in California where Jonathan (Andy Samberg) grew up. So, once again, Drac enlists Jonathan in a some silly yet hilarity-ensues scheme that could have all been avoided if everyone would just talk to one another, just in time for another reprise of “all humans must die” provided by a last-minute villain and Vampa Vlad (Mel Brooks).

The first Hotel Transylvania seemed like a disjointed monster mish-mash, but after multiple viewings, it actually works better than you’d think. From the manic mind of Cartoon Network alumni creator/director Genndy Tartakovsky and input from plenty of Saturday Night Live folks, including voice talent. While Adam Sandler does voice the main character of Dracula and has a writing credit, this is by far much more of a collaborative effort (ie not really a Sandler movie like this past summer’s dismal Pixels), so you can put your fears aside. Essentially, if you enjoyed the original, you’ll enjoy the sequel, but it’s more of the same.
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Review: ‘The Visit’ (C’mon Baby, Let’s Do the Twist)

Warning: shaky found footage ala junior documentarian.

Two crafty kids attempt to heal rifts in their family: allowing their devoted but lonely single mother (Kathryn Hahn) to take a little romantic time for herself while meeting their grandparents for the first time and spending the week with them. After a train ride into small-town Pennsylvania, Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are picked up by Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), every bit the perfect retiree couple they’d expected from all of their mom’s stories…but something is off. As we wait for the sinister twist we all know is coming, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan plays with our heads and emotions.

We’ve been burned before. The name Shyamalan had become synonymous with “lame twist” before finally just “lame.” The Visit, however, feels like a return to form of films like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Like those movies (and pretty much all of M. Night’s filmography), there is a childlike sense of wonder and dread throughout the movie. In addition to an exemplary cast, the script is keenly aware of not only our horror expectations but our Shyamalan expectations, too, using it against us in the best possible way. By dropping banal hints and believable red herrings, the twist makes perfect sense and even backfills the thinking behind the false clues; it’s a horror film that isn’t a horror film that turns into a horror film.
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