Movie reviews: 'Maze Runner,' blues doc 'Two Trains Runnin'' and "Stupid and Futile Gesture' coming Jan 26
On the heels of the Oscar Nominations this past week, it's time to settle in to see what the movies of 2018 have to offer. If "Maze Runner: The Death Cure" is any indication, the new year will bring us more of the same, as Hollywood looks to existing big-budget franchises to pave its way forward, even if movie-going audiences are clamoring for new ideas to see their way to the big-screen. But this week also offers a powerful dose of hope that 2018 might be a strong year at the movies: A new documentary about blues legends Skip James and Son House is seeing limited release this weekend, and it may just be one of the very best docs of the year when all is said and done.
Trying to capitalize on the traditionally slower time of year at the box office, Netflix has a new original film seeing release as well, but is it just a stupid and futile gesture?
Here are reviews of the new movies seeing release this weekend, January 26th, 2018:
"Maze Runner: The Death Cure"
The once-thriving Young Adult genre has nearly been choked completely out of the cinema as of late, so the aptly named "Maze Runner: The Death Cure", seeks to breathe some life into it with a last, dying breath. Well, it was a good run, but it's time to offer condolences and make funeral arrangements. In this, the third and final "Maze Runner" film, at least we can all celebrate the fact that this chapter wasn't split into two films as was originally planned, which was the annoying trend that was seen with the Twilight and Hunger Games series. "Maze Runner," it's been a good run.
Our hero Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) continues his quest that started in the surprise hit, 2014's "The Maze Runner," that stretched into the less successful 2015 sequel, "Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials." Similar to how there were no Hunger Games by the time the last few "Hunger Games" films rolled around, there is nary a maze to be found in this latest installment. On the surface, this story is a simple good guys versus bad guys tale and...well...there isn't much beneath the surface to be honest.
That being said, "Maze Runner: The Death Cure" is a wonderful movie to look at, the sort of film that is full of CG without ever making you regret it. It has beautiful landscapes, action sequences (like the opening train heist) and settings (the fiery climax is a stellar visual achievement), but you sort of find yourself rooting for the end credits. Sadly, they don't come nearly fast enough, and at well over two hours, this is one "Maze" you'll be delighted to escape from.
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller. Run Time: 2 hours and 22 minutes.
Starring: Dylan O'Brien, Ki Hong Lee, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Giancarlo Esposito, Aidan Gillen, Barry Pepper, Patricia Clarkson.
Directed by Wes Ball ("Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials," "The Maze Runner").
"Two Trains Runnin"
A powerful documentary on social injustice and the civil rights movement, wrapped in the clothes of a Blues documentary, "Two Trains Runnin'" will hit you like a freight train. We haven't reached the end of January, but you can punch your ticket now: "Two Trains Runnin'" is one of the best documentaries of all of 2018.
Documentaries work best when they shed light on an important topic, or maybe teach the audience about something they didn't know before. This one does both of these, but it also tells a "so-crazy-it-must-be-true" story about how two separate groups of three young men - in the midst of desegregation in the South - travelled into Mississippi to unearth some of the greatest Blues musicians the country had ever seen. Unbeknownst to each other, these two different groups were able to locate two icons - one finding Skip James and the other Son House - who twenty-some years earlier had recorded a handful of Blues records but had been completely forgotten and discarded by all but hardcore Blues fans. The two search parties located each man on the very same day, in virtually the very same town, and their discoveries gave both James and House new careers in the twilights of their lives.
But as much as this is a documentary about two Blues legends, it's really about the segregated South and the echoes that still find themselves being heard in today's society. Like two trains heading full speed in opposite directions, the two groups of men that headed down South in search of their heroes had two shockingly different fates. The pain and the struggle of the civil rights movement is made palpable by Oscar-nominated director Samuel D. Pollard, so much so that he is able to define without words what the Blues were all about in the first place. His mixture of images and words - like a great Blues song - may not be technically astounding or may be rough around the edges, but the repeated themes - sung with different inflections and hitting different notes - drives home a very powerful message.
"Two Trains Runnin'" tells an interesting story, but it uses that story only as a means to deliver a much more poignant message about American culture and heritage. Those who fought and died to bring the civil rights movement to fruition did everything they could to get mainstream America to stop and take a long hard look in the mirror. This doc is a reminder of that reflection, and a reminder that the face we see today isn't all that different than it ever was.
Genre: Documentary, Music. Run Time: 1 hour and 20 minutes.
Directed by Samuel D. Pollard ("Chinatown Film Project," "4 Little Girls").
"A Futile and Stupid Gesture"
New to Netflix this weekend is a new comedy-biography that any fan of comedy should seek out. "A Futile and Stupid Gesture" is the story of Doug Kenney, one of the founders of the National Lampoon and one of the unlikeliest success stories in the history of entertainment. Known for its outlandish, boundary-pushing adult comedy but also for its proud irreverence, this is a film that Kenney would have definitely approved of.
Kenney (Will Forte), along with his Harvard pal Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson) started the National Lampoon magazine, which was first published in 1970. As mentioned in the film, the Lampoon filled in a much-needed gap somewhere in-between Mad Magazine and The New Yorker, and was a smash-hit with young adults. Its success would spawn a successful radio show, the likes of which featured Chevy Chase (Joel McHale), Gilda Radner (Jackie Tohn), Christopher Guest (Seth Green), Bill Murray (Jon Daly), Harold Ramis (Rick Glassman) and John Belushi (John Gemberling). If you're saying to yourself, hold on a minute, those are all Saturday Night Live people! Well, you're not wrong, but they all started at the Lampoon (before being poached, as the film suggests, by a young Lorne Michaels). For younger generations, the National Lampoon is only something you associate with movies, like "Animal House" (in which Kenney appears in, co-wrote and produced) or "Christmas Vacation." So Kenney obviously had a great and happy life, right?
Kenney "changed comedy, but could not change himself," the movie tells us, via an imagined "Modern Doug" (Martin Mull). Directed by The State alum David Wain, "A Futile and Stupid Gesture" seems to be infused with the same spirit that Kenney was known for, and it thumbs its nose at things like narrative structure. There may not be a more self-referential movie ever made, but Wain keeps it crackling with a kinetic energy that fuels the movie right through the closing credits (stay for an original tune written and sung by Martin Mull). It's a love-letter to any fan of the National Lampoon and it shoe-horns in as many references as it can to the most beloved and/or controversial bits they were able to pull off. It even addresses the several issues that a critic may have with the film within the film, like when it knowingly admits that the actors playing Chevy, John, Bill and Harold don't look much like their real-life counter-parts. "What, do you think I look like an older Will Forte? Do you think Will Forte is 27?" Modern Doug asks the fourth-wall.
It was not surprising that this movie was entertaining and fun, given its subject. But what was surprising was just how good this ensemble was at recreating some of the most beloved comedians and writers of the past half-century. David Wain gets you to care about Doug Kenney, but only in that Kenney-esque sort of way: Here's something important, but now that it's important let's make fun of it and point out how unimportant it really is. What you come away with however, is that Doug Kenney should be a bigger name than it is, as his brand of outlandish comedy is still present in everything comedy has become today (especially with Wain personally...look no further than his old troupe, The State, or shows that Wain has been involved with like "Childrens' Hospital" or the "Wet Hot" series to see the Lampoon DNA still alive and going strong).
While "A Futile and Stupid Gesture" doesn't feel quite as raunchy as National Lampoon at its best, its a worthy effort at recreating all it stood for. Stupid, well yes, but far from futile.
Genre: Biography, Comedy. Run Time: 1 hour and 41 minutes, streaming on Netflix.
Starring: Will Forte, Domhnall Gleeson, Joel McHale, Thomas Lennon, Matt Lucas, Joe Lo Truglio, Natasha Lyonne, Emmy Rossum.
Directed by David Wain ("They Came Together," "Wanderlust," "Role Models," "The Ten," "Wet Hot American Summer").
All of these movies open Friday, January 26th, 2018. Check here for show times.
Reviews next week include: "Bilal: A New Breed of Hero" and "Happy End."
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