This Is Where I Leave You (2014)

This Is Where I Leave YouWhen Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) catches his boss (Dax Shepard) in bed with his wife (Abigail Spencer), quits his job at the radio station at which he works and receives a phone call from his sister (Tina Fey) informing him that his father has passed away, he naturally assumes that things couldn’t possibly get any worse. He would be wrong. Upon arriving at his family home ahead of the funeral, Judd discovers that despite being an atheist his father has wished that they observe the Jewish custom of shiva. Grounded by mother Hillary (Jane Fonda) for seven days of mourning, Judd and siblings Wendy, Paul (Corey Stoll) and Phillip (Adam Driver) spend the week coming to terms with their loss, their lives and each other as childhood friend-turned-rabbi Charles (Ben Schwartz) oversees the ritual.

The latest film from Shawn Levy, This Is Where I Leave You has been adapted from Jonathan Tropper’s book of the same name by the author himself, and is the latest in a long line of familial dramas to cast comedy actors. Unfortunately, the film is more Brothers & Sisters than August: Osage County, with the film doing little to distinguish itself from the most unremarkable melodramas. Whereas last year’s Oscar nominee portrayed a family intent on tearing itself apart, Levy’s is a much more traditional tale of reconnection and coming together in the face of tragedy. There is much talk of fragility and unhappiness, but ultimately nothing that can’t be more or less fixed in the space of one hundred minutes.

Aiming presumably for tragicomic, the film falls woefully short as the characters prove too false to be funny. Bateman has never been the best dramatic actor, and while his character should be the audience’s focal point he is too smug to be suitably sympathetic. As with Steve Carell in Little Miss Sunshine Bateman appears to have signaled his serious intentions by growing a beard, but it isn’t nearly enough to sell his performance. Fey is clearly struggling too, and seems unsure how to deliver lines in an unconsciously earnest manner. She’s saddled with a romantic subplot that sees Wendy pine for her brain-damaged childhood sweetheart (as played by Timothy Olyphant) that just doesn’t work at all. Everyone else is simply conforming to type, but even safely within familiar territory Fonda, Driver and Stoll fail to make their characters interesting.

While many of the films developments ultimately fall flat, there is the occasional flourish. The family’s relentless teasing of Schwartz’s character (nicknamed Boner) never fails to raise an admittedly modest smile, while Rose Byrne is perfectly watchable as Penny Moore, who had a crush on Judd when they were at school. There is even the occasional show of wit in the Altman residence, usually when the family are lined up for shiva or Wendy’s son “goes potty” in the middle of an argument. Hillary is a celebrity psychologist, and her fictional book’s insights into her four children are often more entertaining than the film’s. For the most part, however, This Is Where I Leave You limits itself to poking fun at Fonda’s fake breasts.

Largely devoid of laughs and lacking in any real bite, This Is Where I Leave You fails as both a comedy and a drama. Worse still, the characters, performances and story absolutely fail to convince. The Altman’s may have spent a week mourning the passing of their father, but you will have likely forgotten all about it minutes after the end of the film.

2-stars

’71 (2014)

71Expecting to be deployed to Germany, Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) of the British Army is instead dispatched to Belfast on an emergency basis. When a riot erupts during a routine search on Falls Road and a soldier is taken down by a projectile, Hook is ordered to pursue a young boy who has acquired the man’s gun. In the ensuing chaos, Lt. Armitage (Sean Reid) calls for his men to retreat, leaving Hook and a comrade stranded and exposed. He manages to escape from the mob shortly after his companion is shot dead, hiding out in a garden privy until nightfall, at which point he sets out alone in search of his barracks. The other soldier’s execution, however, has strained relations between the Official and Provisional IRA, both of whom have now made it their mission to find the survivor before he can reuinite with his regiment.

Backed by Film4 and Screen Yorkshire, penned by a Scottish playwright and directed by French first-timer Yann Demange, ’71 was always going to be an outside look at The Troubles of Northern Ireland. It was a complex, confused and critical period in the nation’s history, and Gregory Burke manages to capture the essence of it without going into too much detail or making his film explicitly about the conflict. A briefing at the film’s outset outlines the situation, effectively setting the scene and establishing the stakes, before shrinking its focus to concentrate almost exclusively on Hook and the unique set of obstacles that stand in his way. Context is completely inconsequential; all that matters is that there is a man behind enemy lines, out of his depth and in mortal danger.

Skins and Starred Up actor Jack O’Connell stars as Private Hook in what might be his most impressive performance to date. Although he has clearly come a long way since his (already acclaimed) debut in Shane Meadows’ This Is England, he has fostered a screen image that has so far produced few significant deviations. ’71, on the other hand, sees the actor leave his days of teenage delinquency and petty thievery behind. He’s a man, a soldier, a guardian, and — for perhaps the first time in his extant filmography — is essentially a good guy. He’s as compelling and charismatic as ever, only this time there’s a vulnerability to his character that makes him sympathetic too. It’s thanks to this newly responsible persona — and not through any melodramatic manipulations on the filmmakers’ behalves — that you desperately want to see Gary Hook survive his ordeal.

Demange doesn’t make things easy for his protagonist, throwing terrorists, bombs and corruption in his way as the situation continues to deteriorate. The action, which kicks off almost immediately upon Hooks arrival and doesn’t let up until things finally come to a head at a tower block caught between competing factions, is both blistering and breathless — particularly at its outset as Hook is chased through side streets and over walls as his pursuers take pot shots behind him. Even in the film’s few moments of relatively calm there is the unshakeable sense that something horrible is about to happen — as Gary is lead to safety by a young loyalist (a scene-stealing Corey McKinley) or nursed back to health by a sympathetic ex-serviceman (Richard Dormer). Acts of brutality are perpetrated by everyone, regardless of age, religion or political affiliation, and Gary receives beatings from them all at various points throughout the narrative.

’71 shoots first and asks questions later, preferring to pursue its wounded protagonist through derelict streets rather than chase elusive answers through the mists of time. Half thriller and half anxiety attack, Demange’s exceptionally visceral debut will leave you vicariously battered and bruised.

4-Stars

Love, Rosie (2014)

Love RosieRosie Dunne (Lily Collins) and Alex Stewart (Sam Claflin) have been best friends since they were kids. As they grow up, however, they each begin to develop deeper feelings for one another; but unsure whether their desires are reciprocal they decide to refrain from telling the other how they truly feel. In his hurry to lose his virginity, and after a drunken kiss at a school party which Rosie doesn’t remember, Alex sleeps with Bethany (Suki Waterhouse) — one of the most popular girls in class — instead. Hurt, Rosie retaliates by sleeping with Greg (Christian Cooke), only to wind up pregnant with his baby. As Alex goes off to Harvard to study medicine Rosie gives birth back in Britain, and over the next ten years they each go through their own romantic troubles as they continue to miss each other’s advances.

A romantic comedy adapted from the novel by Irish author Cecelia Ahern, Love, Rosie follows in the footsteps of fellow adaptation One Day in charting the ever-shifting relationship between one couple over the course of several decades. In this vein, and bar a childhood prologue, the roles are played by the same actors throughout, from their Sixth Form, MSN-messaging school days right through to their late twenties/early thirties. It requires a considerable suspension of disbelief to accept Claflin as a teen (he looks absolutely ridiculous in school uniform) or Collins as a woman approaching middle-age (by film’s end she looks barely ten years older than her supposed daughter), but for the most part they just about convince.

This is largely down to the strength of their performances, and even in its shakiest moments their chemistry is enough to hold the film together. In isolation, it’s Collins who really stands out, as it’s her individual story that ultimately proves the most engaging of the two. Her character has the most going on, as she struggles to raise a child, mourn a parent and work a part-time job in a hotel as a cleaner. (How nice it is to see characters in a comedy working relatively normal jobs.) She clearly has the most at stake, too, and while many of her lighter scenes are commandeered by new best friend Ruby (Jaime Winston) she absolutely sells the more difficult moments pertaining to decisions to have the baby, re-engage with her child’s father and fly out to Boston to be best (wo)man at Alex’s wedding.

Sadly, as is so often the case with rom-coms of this kind, the will they/won’t they plotting wears a little thin after a time. Reticence, missed opportunities and regrets may be part and parcel of life, but they’re not exactly conducive to good drama. The more the screenplay contrives to keep them apart the less easy it is to sympathise with the characters in question, for the longer it is strung out the more they seem to be the architects of their own unhappiness. It’s unfortunate at first, then repetitive, and finally becomes so frustrating that you simply will for them to compromise and the story to conclude. Instead of relating to the characters you begin to query them. How is Rosie, a single-mother with a part-time job, able to afford to live alone and take so many flights out to the States?

It may be messy, and there will undoubtedly be those who take immediately against its cheesiness, but for anyone able to forgive Christian Ditter’s film its flaws Love, Rosie is charming enough to compensate. It’s a Brit-com in both the best and worst sense of the term: occasionally embarrassing but for the most part really rather endearing.

3-Stars

The Raven on the Jetty (AIFF 2014)

The Raven on the JettyThomas (Connor O’Hara) has just turned nine, and his mother (Helen Teasdale) has agreed to split his birthday with the boy’s estranged father (Robert O’Hara). After a trip to Thomas’ grandmother’s (Anne Fraser) house and a brief outing to the beach, she drives him out of the city to an isolated cottage somewhere in the Lake District. With instructions to call her should any problems arise, Thomas is left in the care of a man  who hasn’t seen him in years. Out in the country and away from the city’s digital distractions, Thomas begins to explore the natural world — becoming increasingly fixated on death and decay along the way.

My HeyUGuys review: With writer-director Erik Knudsen also credited as cinematographer and editor, and various other members of the crew assuming dual roles on the movie, you want to be able to say nice things about it. This is clearly a passion project, and a lot of work must have gone into its execution. But as nice as the film might look (courtesy of its Lake District setting) and as competent as the performances might be (the O’Haras do a decent enough job, all things considered) there’s no getting away from the fact that The Raven on the Jetty doesn’t have an awful lot going for it. Even at just 88 minutes in length, it drags. There’s no drama or peril, no substance or style.

It’s not entirely clear what Knudsen is hoping to achieve with his film. Is it an indictment of technology? Are we supposed to assume that it is Thomas’ obsession with video games that predisposes him to chase birds with his remote-controlled car or later aim at them with a homemade slingshot? There’s an animated cut scene early on which implies that he sees the world as a platformer game but that’s swiftly dropped until much later in the film, only to remain unexplained and unresolved. Or is it a meditation on divorce, and the unintended side-effects of leaving a boy to grow up without his father? As for the eponymous raven: what is it supposed to represent, if anything? I guess we’ll never know.

Knudsen’s direction is only slightly more successful than his screenplay. The framing is fine but a largely static camera compounds an already stilted experience in a film severely lacking in fluidity or dynamo. Attaching the camera to Thomas’ mothers car solves the problem for a time, but once he’s in the company of his father things once again grind to a halt. Instead the characters spend their time walking towards or away from the camera, but perspective is no substitute for motion — especially in a motion picture. There’s precious little dialogue either as Thomas is for some reason mute, meaning that there is often nothing to listen to but un-filtered background noise picked up by the boom mic. Whether intentional or not, the soundtrack consists mostly of bird call and wind.

Really, the only remarkable thing about The Raven on the Jetty is the filmmakers’ apparently devil-may-care approach to health and safety. Bored of the unending silence and stillness, the mind is as quick to wander as the eye. The risk assessment must be longer than the script, you can’t help but muse, as O’Hara picks up an axe, leans over a well, spies on a naked woman, pokes a dead bird with his shoe and hops over a barbed wire fence. At first you think it might be leading somewhere (down the well, perhaps), but like everything else in the film it ultimately serves no purpose at all.

2-stars

The Bridge Rising (AIFF 2014)

The Bridge RisingFor centuries the only way for citizens of Skye to cross Loch Alsh was by ferry, until in 1995 a bridge was opened connecting the Isle of Skye to the mainland (via the small island of Eilean Bàn). Although hailed as a technological marvel by many the bridge wasn’t without its detractors, most of whom lived on Skye itself. An organisation, called SKAT, was soon established by islanders who opposed the government’s imposed tolls, which cost drivers using the Skye crossing fourteen times as much as those using other such toll bridges. Though ultimately successful in their campaign to abolish the fee, the endeavour took a toll of its own.

My HeyUGuys review: For people of a certain age in Scotland, myself included, the independence referendum seemed almost unprecedented in scope. Normal people who had never shown an interest in politics before were picking up placards and producing propaganda, the international press was showing an almost absurd interest in the parliament at Holyrood and the key figures involved had been campaigning for well over a year. For the people of Skye, however, indyref 2014 must have seemed like small fry, a flash in the pan, a passing fad. SKAT’s campaign lasted for almost a decade.

At first you may wonder what all of the fuss was about. Skye is the second largest island in Scotland, has a population of roughly 10,000 people and boasts a number of well-stocked towns and villages. It seems reasonably self-sufficient — though now of course it has a whopping great bridge connecting it to the mainland, and the mini-metropolises of Dornie and Plockton. The protests were often so good-natured that you couldn’t imagine there was all that much at stake. The sticking point, however (and it really was a sizeable spanner in the works) were the tolls, which by all accounts were tantamount to extortion. It cost a shocking £5.40 to drive your car across the Skye Crossing in its heyday — each way! — and double that if you dared to trail a caravan along for the ride. It cost the local populace dearly, and threatened to devastate the tourist trade.

There’s no denying that Robbie Fraser has found an interesting subject for his documentary; this relatively little-known episode in recent Scottish history is not only sobering but still relatively nascent — not so much with regards to the recent referendum but certainly in the case of Turnberry and Donald Trump. The villain of the piece is not the Tories or the English (at least, not entirely) but corporate America. According to the film — and, it seems, history — the money raised was not being invested back into the roads or used to benefit the local community but was instead disappearing overseas. Unfortunately, the Bank of America declined to comment and remains conspicuously quiet throughout the film. By contrast, the other interviewees — protesters and politicians — are incredibly candid about the whole thing.

This renders the film utterly one sided, as islanders and mainlanders alike refer abstractly to the alleged real culprits and — with them — the other half of the story. Instead, Fraser zooms in on the minutiae of the situation — the personalities involved and the individual protests they put together. It makes the story more personal, undoubtedly, but at the price of narrative coherence. The mark of a good documentary is the ability to find the universal themes in obscure topics — to appeal to the widest audience possible, no matter how esoteric the subject — but Fraser gets so caught up in the specifics that he risks alienating his audience. It’s nice to meet the people involved, but the film becomes so bogged down in personal rivalries, parish politics and PFIs that it all gets a little confusing and impenetrable. You can’t replicate reality in 94 minutes but you can tell a story.

One of the most effective elements of the film has nothing overtly to do with Skye at all. Scenes from a Scotland-set black and white film are interspersed throughout the documentary — completely irrelevant to the subject at hand and yet strangely apt at the same time. It adds to the film’s light-hearted tone, but is little more than another distraction. The simple pleasure of these isolated skits only emphasises how convoluted the rest of the film has become. You want to feel solidarity for the people of Skye, to cheer them on as they take on the government, the establishment, corporate America, anyone really who stands in their way, but instead you begin to cool to their cause. SKAT has ruined lives, not simply causing rifts between members and inconveniencing the poor men and women whose job it was to collect the toll but contributing to the Procurator Fiscal’s apparent nervous breakdown.

While not as compelling as You’ve Been Trumped, nor as gripping as Fire In The Night or The Great Hip Hop Hoax, The Bridge Rising is a welcome continuation of the recent resurgence in Scottish documentary filmmaking. The setting is beautiful, the subject is scandalous and the characters are engaging (rivals Robbie The Pict and Andy Anderson could have easily sustained their own documentary) but in choosing complexity over clarity the filmmakers have sort of lost the plot.

3-Stars

The Way He Looks (AIFF 2014)

The Way He LooksLeonardo (Ghilherme Lobo) may be blind, but he’s not about to let that stop him from living a full and normal life. His parents, however, are unconvinced, and insist on knowing his whereabouts even when he’s with longstanding best friend Giovanna (Tess Amorim). Desperate for independence, he looks into the school’s exchange programme, discovering an American agency which specialises in blind students. This surprises Giovanna, who has long suspected that their friendship might be on the verge of becoming something more. Their relationship is further strained by the arrival of Gabriel (Fabio Audi), a new student for whom Leo soon develops feelings of his own. Her friend’s plans to leave may be on hold, but Giovanna’s relief is short-lived.

Brazil’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards, The Way He Looks debuted in Scotland at the Aberdeen Film Festival shortly after its UK premiere at London Film Festival. Adapted from director Daniel Ribeiro’s own short film, I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone, it also sees actors Ghilherme Lobo, Fabio Audi and Tess Amorim reprise their roles. Far from feeling like a 17-minute short stretched to feature length, however, The Way He Looks has been given a new focus, a full compliment of supporting characters and a more developed story.  It also has a great soundtrack.

Lobo is terrific in the leading role, doing little to draw attention to himself and yet proving quietly captivating nonetheless. Leo longs not just for independence but for intimacy, and it’s his own conflict of interests that produces much of the drama. Mostly, however, the film is pleasantly understated. The film is full of firsts for the character — first drink, first dance, first kiss — and each is handled as sensitively as the next. There is such gentleness to it, both in Lobo’s performance and Ribeiro’s direction, that even the simplest scenes leave a lasting impression — be it Leo smelling his friend’s forgotten jumper or idly pressing his lips against the screen while showering. It’s so tender; so tactile.

Both Leo’s blindness and sexuality are well handled, receiving ample attention without ever being allowed to dominate the narrative. The school bully, Fabio, naturally has an axe to grind, but their antagonism is never central to the story — instead it feels as incidental as the traits he seeks to mock. When Leo and Giovanna fall out at a house party hosted by fellow student Karina, it has nothing to do with the fact that Fabio tried to trick him into kissing a dog and everything to do with their own frustrations and jealousies. As far as Leo knows his best friend has just “saved” him from kissing the prettiest girl in school. Giovanna and Gabriel, meanwhile, are great characters in their own right, and their scenes together in Karina’s toilet are some of the film’s best.

Minor quibbles aside (the exchange programme is left dangling while Giovanna’s story is perhaps too neatly resolved) The Way He Looks is an endearing, insightful and even strangely innovative look at adolescence — seen for once not through fresh eyes but a different sense entirely: touch.

4-Stars

 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesWhen a fire broke out at her father’s mutagenics lab, April O’Neil (Megan Fox) secretly rescued the endangered test subjects and released them into the nearest sewer. Years later, while working as a reporter for Channel 6 News, she encounters them once more, now mutated into a team of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — consisting of Leonardo (Johnny Knoxville), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Raphael (Alan Ritchson) and Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) — and their rodent sensei, Splinter (Tony Shalhoub). She shares her discovery with Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett), her cameraman, and Eric Sachs (William Fitcher), an old friend of her father’s. Unbeknownst to her, however, the latter is actually in cahoots with Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), an evil martial arts master who — acting through his Foot Clan — has been terrorising New York for years. In fact, it was her father who had started the fire, all those years ago, in an attempt to keep Project Renaissance out of Sachs’ hands.

Even as superhero origin stories go, the formation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is particularly elaborate, convoluted and preposterous. Director Jonathan Liebesman tries to get everything in there — the catchphrases, the supporting characters, the pizza — but in the process of doing so makes everything even more contrived. In this latest incarnation of the story April once owned the turtles as pets, Splinter learned ninjitsu from a pamphlet blown in from the gutter and Sachs’ need the turtles’ blood in order to produce an antidote for a toxin his master is preparing to unleash on New York City — for monetary gains. It doesn’t require a suspension of disbelief so much as a complete dismissal of it.

Thankfully, Liebesman is aware of how ludicrous it all sounds, and rather than aping the self-serious schtick of producer Michael Bay’s own Transformers franchise he seems perfectly happy to embrace the concept’s inherent silliness. As a result Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is far more entertaining than anyone could reasonably have expected, and this is in large part down to how self-depricatingly funny it is. Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Evan Daugherty’s screenplay references everything from Nolan’s Batman and the mysteries of Lost to its own cinematic and television heritage — as well as addressing an earlier iteration of the script featuring a controversial extra terrestrial origin for the characters. “Aliens?” April asks, “No, that’s stupid”. You can’t help but smile.

Amazingly for four motion-capture characters often performed and voiced by two different sets of actors, Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelango have real chemistry. Their redesigns may not be particularly handsome but they are incredibly expressive, and their scenes together are a joy to watch  — whether they’re facing off against the foot or goofing off with each other. Liebesman perhaps more than any previous franchise director has really pushed the immaturity of his teenage heroes, and this comes to the fore in two of the film’s most entertaining set pieces — first during a car chase down a snowy mountainside in which Michelangelo tries to save April and “that old guy” (Arnett) from certain death and later in an elevator on their way to battle Shredder when the foursome burst into song. Even Fox is quite good fun as April, an aspiring journalist who is tired of doing puff-pieces and wants to break her own story.

Though far from great, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn’t bad either. In fact, it’s the best film that Michael Bay has put his name to in years, producing more memorable moments than his four Transformers movies combined.

3-Stars

The Rewrite (2014)

The RewriteSince winning Best Screenplay at the Academy Awards in 1998, Keith Michaels (Hugh Grant) has been struggling to replicate the success of his debut — the seemingly universally adored Paradise Misplaced. His latest pitch — a Jack Nicholson vehicle about a man who attends his own funeral — is proving impossible to sell in a landscape of kick-ass heroines and Young Adult fantasy, leaving him with no option but to accept the teaching residency offered up by his agent, Ellen (Caroline Aaron). Within hours of arriving on campus at Binghampton University, Michaels has slept with a student, Karen (Bella Heathcote), offended a tenured lecturer (Allison Janney) by insulting her beloved Jane Austen and dismissed his class for a full month having concluded that writing is something that simply cannot be taught. With the help of mature student Holly Carpenter (Marisa Tomei), however, Professor Michaels begins to come around to his new profession.

It’s nice to have Hugh Grant back. Since Did Your Hear About The Morgans bombed in 2009 the actor has almost disappeared from our screens. A shame, really, not simply because he used to be such a familiar screen presence but because the films he has done since have been some of the most interesting of his career so far. He was the voice of Pirate Captain in Aardman’s Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists, maintaining his trademark wit and charm while still exploring new territory, while in Cloud Atlas he broke character completely, appearing alternately as a racist reverend, a Korean rapist and a tattoo-covered cannibal. The Rewrite isn’t quite as drastic a departure, but it’s still a slight deviation from the norm.

Out of touch with the movie business, estranged from his 18-year-old son and “just a little bit tired of women’s lib”, Michaels doesn’t have many friends when we meet him. That doesn’t immediately change when he moves to Binghampton, a small college town in Upstate New York that’s almost as miserable as he is; but according to the long distant weather forecast things are looking up. The endgame might be largely predictable, but the route taken is full of surprises. Writer-director Marc Lawrence asks some interesting questions about how much a screenplay can reveal about the writer, and Michaels’ conversations with Carpenter on the subject of the stories they tell are often well-observed and interesting to watch. The same is true of his relationship with Karen — her screenplay is about an innocent girl’s troubled relationship with her father, and she’s taken aback when Michaels’ reveals that the father character is actually the more compelling of the two.

Sadly, the film falls largely flat elsewhere. It would be unimaginative to suggest that The Rewrite could itself do with a rewrite, but Michaels’ lectures on the subject of narrative often serve to highlight its own deficiencies. The lecturer asserts that in cinema character is key, and yet the supporting characters in The Rewrite are about as unremarkable as they come: a Star Wars geek who can’t write anything else, a deadpan girl who secretly cries at Annie Hall and a tote-loving Jane Austen lecturer who has never heard of Clueless. The biggest waste is J.K. Simmons’ Dr Lerner, who can’t talk about his family for more than fifteen seconds without weeping with joy. And that’s about it. If even Simmons struggles to make a character work you know that something somewhere has gone horribly wrong. The only real exception is Emily Morden as Andrea Stein-Rosen, a gullible fangirl who takes the bait every time Michaels’ drops a name, but all of her best bits are in the trailer.

Ultimately, The Rewrite isn’t funny or scathing enough to make the necessary impression. In fact, it might have helped if Lawrence had taken his own screenwriting class before setting out.

2-stars

The Maze Runner (2014)

The Maze RunnerThomas (Dylan O’Brien) enters The Glade through a dark hatch, in a service elevator shared with a small herd of goats. He can’t remember anything, though his fellow Gladers assure him that his name at least will return in time. In the meantime, leader Alby (Aml Ameen) takes him on a tour of the immediate area, explaining that The Glade sits at the centre of an elaborate and so far impenetrable maze which is explored by runners during the day and closed to the community at night — at which time it is patrolled by arachnoid killing machines. Thomas isn’t like the others, however: he’s inquisitive, he dreams of life beyond the perimeter walls and — after entering the maze after hours — becomes the first person to survive a night outside of the The Glade. When a girl (Kaya Scodelario) — the first ever — follows Thomas through the hatch, it becomes clear that things are changing. If they are to embrace that change, however, Thomas and Teresa will first have to convince the more conservative among their ranks.

With Young Adult adaptations continuing to dominate the box office, The Maze Runner is the latest attempt to duplicate the success of The Hunger Games and its sequel Catching Fire. While the box office results will not be known for some time, there’s no denying that Thomas is the most likely contender to Katniss Everdeen’s crown yet, succeeding where the likes of Divergent and The Giver have so far failed in establishing a different and equally dynamic dystopian setting. The characters might not be as well drawn as Katniss and company (though Thomas certainly isn’t without his flaws), but the relatively small scale and uncomplicated premise actually serve in the film’s favour. There is undoubtedly more to the story than we see here, but with four books in James Dashner’s series still to adapt director Wes Ball has wisely left much of it unexplored, ready for the sequels.

Opening with Thomas already in the elevator, Ball forgoes any formal introduction and instead leaves his audience to work things out at the same pace as their protagonist. Information isn’t exactly forthcoming, but what The Maze Runner may lack in psychological complexity or socio-political satire it more than makes up for in visceral action. If you thought the Cornucopia scene from the first Hunger Games film was tough for a 12A you’ll be running to the censors after five minutes in the maze. The opening act isn’t exactly uneventful — Thomas has a number of disagreements with his fellow Gladers, before being set upon by a rabid runner — but once he enters the maze to save Alby and another boy called Minho (Ki Hong Lee) Ball ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels. It’s an astonishing set piece, and subsequent forays into the maze are often as nail-biting as they are breathtaking.

The film has a fantastic aesthetic, and builds an atmosphere which is as fraught as it is fantastical. Despite the film’s relatively modest budget it is utterly convincing — this can be attributed at least in part to the impressive talents of its young cast (particularly O’Brien and Will Poulter as the aggressive Gally) but plaudits must be paid to the sterling efforts of an undoybtedly resourceful special effects team. The maze is quite simply spectacular — epic, imposing, beautiful — and is populated by creatures that genuinely unsettle. At points it feels more like an episode of Lost than your typical Young Adult adaptation, and if anything it’s a shame that more time couldn’t be spent exploring its various sections and uncovering their secrets. The maze is so effective and evocative that you don’t want to leave it behind, particularly as what we see of the outside world through Thomas’ feverish dreams and fractured memories points towards a far more familiar future for the franchise.

Although not without its derivative qualities, The Maze Runner still feels remarkably fresh and exciting. Whether it can sustain a series or not is beside the point — for now it is simply one of the best science fiction movies of the year.

4-Stars

Gone Girl (2014)

Gone GirlWhen — on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary — Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns to his marital Missourian home to find the front door open and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing, he doesn’t think too much of it. He calls the police, of course, and co-operates fully with their subsequent investigation, but shows very little sign that anything is out of the ordinary. From the sofa at his sister Margo’s (Carrie Coon) house he watches as the media latch on to the story and refuse to let go. Soon, everyone in town seems to think that he’s responsible for his wife’s disappearance, including Detective Rhonda Boney’s (Kim Dickens) partner Jim (Patrick Fugit), and before long the entire country seems to be demanding his arrest and — this being Missouri — execution. When traces of Amy’s blood are found at the crime scene, and incriminating evidence is found in her poorly hidden diary, Nick has no option but to hire a defence attorney — none other than celebrity lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry).

Needless to say, things are not quite as simple as they initially seem. This is David Fincher, after all, director of Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac, and it’s safe to assume that his involvement guarantees a certain level of not only narrative but subtextual complexity. A return to form following his uncharacteristically unremarkable remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the film dispenses with the gimmicky title sequence and other franchise-building concessions to focus on the thing that Fincher does best: stand-alone stories with a sting in the tail. This isn’t your traditional murder mystery, not least because of the uncertainty surrounding whether anyone was actually murdered, nor is it a simple subversion of the trope. Gone Girl isn’t about Amy’s disappearance, at least not initially, but about the way that the world reacts to it. Are murders inherently mysterious? Or is that mystery inferred by society?

Nick — beautifully played by a perfectly cast Affleck — doesn’t seem particularly piqued by the possibility. (This is Affleck, after all.) His lack of concern incenses the media, but compared to his new set of circumstances his response doesn’t seem unusual at all. Not only has Nick seemingly lost his wife, but he’s become a news story, a local celebrity and a murder suspect at the same time — subject to absurd and almost obscene levels of scrutiny as he’s simultaneously put on trial by the police, the public and the press. Fincher isn’t just interested in justice, however, and spends as much time exploring Nick’s marriage as he does Amy’s alleged murder. Was he a good husband? What is a good husband? Is there really such a thing? Ultimately, Nick is just a normal human being trying to live a normal life, but it soon becomes clear that the narcissistic, news-guzzling, narrative-obsessed society in which he lives isn’t about to let something as mundane as that happen.

What they really want is a victim, and when Nick fails to conform to their requirements they villainise him instead. Amy, meanwhile, introduced in flashback through passages from her journal, doesn’t have to live up to anyone’s expectations (though Pike, it must be said, wastes no time in exceeding them anyway). Whether her husband killed her or not doesn’t seem to matter; society has the heroine it wants and will go to great lengths to keep her innocent and unimpeachable. That’s what makes the last act so interesting, not simply because it finally pits both legal justice and social order against one another, creating one of the most absurd scenarios presented on screen this year, but because it challenges these very gender stereotypes. The introduction of Tanner Bolt is the catalyst for the former, and when on his advice Nick prioritises public image over perceived innocence the film changes tone completely, but Amy is not to be underestimated. Gone Girl is, perhaps unexpectedly, the funniest film of Fincher’s career, and if the first half sets itself up as a taut thriller the second half delivers a darkly comic satire. Each as accomplished at the other, but both running out of steam towards the end.

The problem, however, is that having primed his audience for one thing he can’t help but disappoint them when he instead delivers another. As much sick, subversive, scathing fun as Gone Girl undoubtedly is, it’s also incredibly unsatisfying, particularly as Fincher — directing a screenplay written by the author — tinkers with Gillian Flynn’s original ending. Like so many of Fincher’s films, it’s more concerned with making its point than bringing the story to its natural conclusion. Justice may be on the menu, but though the demand is there he seems reluctant to actually serve any.

4-Stars

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