WEEKEND REVIEW ROUNDUP: SEPTEMBER 18 – 20

Four movies, three based on real stories, two well worth seeing, all releasing on one weekend. Let’s do this.

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The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

It’s only been three years since The Hunger Games launched the genre into high gear but we’re already at the point of saturation with young adult novel adaptations. Instead of new and exciting series, most studios are content to regurgitate rote formula in a new, barely different package.

Enter The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trails, another in the line of unspectacular post-apocalyptic flicks for young-uns, this time with more running than you could ever ask for. Whereas the first Maze Runner was Lord of the Flies-light, Scorch Trials goes for a much different tone as an I Am Legend/The Walking Dead/Resident Evil imitation, with nothing innovative to show for.

With no story element that doesn’t come off as contrived and a cast verging on having no charisma, the only strength of the film comes in its chase scenes, which are passably exciting enough to make you forget how boring the rest of the film can be.

Like other films of its ilk, Scorch Trials ends on a set-up for the next film but judging by this film alone, there’s not much to get excited over.

4/10

 

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Black Mass

Johnny Depp hasn’t really acted in a while. Sure, he’s pretty regularly been in movies in the past few years, slathered in makeup with some silly voice or another, but it’s rarely measured up to many of his early performances. Not only is it great to say that Depp acts up a storm as Whitey Bulger, but also that Black Mass as a film is gloriously grim and fascinating.

Dramatizing the stranger than fiction story of how Bulger struck an unholy alliance with the FBI and rose through the ranks as a Boston crime kingpin, Black Mass is a testament to strong acting and dedicated tone. Director Scott Cooper takes a solid script about a villain’s reign of terror and brings dark and brutal excitement into the mix, all while giving the cast enough reign to consistently turn in great performances.

Depp has an intensity to him that I feel like he’s been saving for a role like this. He completely immerses himself in the character and sets the malicious and imposing mood for the rest of the film. So many exchanges between characters are charged that you as an audience member are almost giddy from the anticipation for bad things to happen.

It’s because of Black Mass‘ unconventional story that this approach works. Bulger is by no means a protagonist but he is the focus of the story, which allows for such a dark approach. This is not a story of good cop goes after bad criminal — more like bad cop helps really bad criminal — which just comes off as more interesting anyway.

Depp’s performance shouldn’t be counted out for special notice in the coming months but it would be a shame to go without recognizing Black Mass as one of the better, more sinister crime dramas of the era.

8/10

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Everest

I was not prepared for Everest. Having long-ago seen the IMAX documentary and recalling things did not necessarily end well, I knew the story was getting a dramatized retelling and that’s it.

What actually went down should really be described more as an experience.

Everest is not a movie chalk full of narrative depth or flashy writing. It’s an exhausting, yet harrowing account of the events of the 1996 disaster on Everest, told as true to the experience as possible (which can admittedly result in some pacing issues.) This movie is an exercise in feeling what the characters do. Frigid winds blow off the screen and work their way into your bones while each grueling step in a place with almost no air comes off like a marathon.

Director Baltasar Kormakur wanted to make a film that conveyed the feeling of being on Mt. Everest for the 99 percent of people who would never experience it. For better or worse, he succeeded. Our main character, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), says early in the film that Everest is mostly a lot of pain, and that’s really what the cast and filmmakers convey perfectly. Within the adversity the cast/characters face in the elements, and with the help of some beautiful cinematography and an award-worthy score by Dario Marianelli, a noticeably moving film about mankind against nature emerges — one that does not sugarcoat the truth behind how this event ended.

There’s something beautifully tragic about the end of this film that reveals it not as a pure product, but as an attempt for film to mimic life. It’s up to you how close you want to be to a story so stark.

Everest opens in limited special IMAX screenings Sept. 18 before hitting wide release on Sept. 25.

7/10

PAWN SACRIFICE

Pawn Sacrifice

The story of Bobby Fischer, one of the greatest chess players of all time, is one of the relationship between brilliance and madness. The dynamic of watching Fischer battle against his own growing schizophrenia, while also climbing to the top of the ranks against the Soviets for the title of world champion should naturally be a winning concept.

Unfortunately, Pawn Sacrifice is an interesting story that isn’t told very interestingly. Tobey Maguire, Peter Sarsgaard and Liev Schrieber all give good performances by any criteria. However, the movie seemingly can’t decide if it wants to be a character piece or a film about propping up unstable talent for symbolic reasons (because the two approaches certainly don’t mix), and meanders on for way too long in uncertain spaces. The best scenes in the film, while not really trying to make chess more accessible, are the showdowns between Maguire and Schrieber, but how we get there is a mixed bag.

Making the film even harder to swallow is the part about how Fischer really comes off as an asshole. His rants quickly go from amusing to insufferable and stay that way. Unlikable characters can be totally fascinating but characters you can’t sympathize with are a problem. Ultimately, in spite of the cast and chess sequences, Pawn Sacrifice can’t pull a win because of this.

5/10

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