Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater

September 2014

The Maze Runner (PG-13)

Directed by: Wes Ball
Starring: Dylan O’Brien
September 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Maze Runner

Not sure I’d want to be part of a world where amnesia is normal.
Although, selective amnesia would be useful for forgetting the less desirable parts of the past.

The box, the tour and three rules.
And a creeper that lurks in the forest.

Ben is banished for breaking the second rule.
Beware the Second Rule! And shouldn’t Thomas start to turn once he’s been bitten by Ben? Oh wait, this isn’t The Walking Dead.

Thomas remembers his name and carves it into the wall.
Seeing all of the scratched out names is a bit unsettling.

Griever descends on Thomas like Shelob.
However, the scene where the giant spider hovers above Frodo in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is far superior to this perspective shot.

A new Greenie arrives with an ominous note.

Markings on supplies: W.C.K.D. Wicked?
Can they make it any more obvious? And what a dumb acronym.

Monolithic walls are quite imposing.
One of the lines from the book perfectly captures the ominous dimensionality of the walls: “Twilight had fallen, and the mammoth walls looked like enormous tombstones in a weed-infested cemetery for giants.” (Chapter 17, third sentence).

Sprinting through the blades...a pulse-pounding sequence.
This is the latest in a long line of genre films where an action sequence was storyboarded as if it were a video game (perhaps with an eye toward being released as a video game). Additionally, the various sections of the maze are like the different levels of a video game.

This just became a horror movie: Night of the Grievers.
And why leave the doors open since the Grievers can climb over the walls and sneak in surreptitiously? I suppose things have to be spelled out for the audience, but wouldn’t it have been even more terrifying if the Grievers had attacked with the doors closed? Oh my God…Grievers! How did they get in?

Griever heads look like cave trolls.
Another LOTR rip-off.

Exit sign. If it looks too good to be true...

Final analysis: a suspenseful mystery that’s fairly faithful to the book with some effective alterations.

2 1/2 out 4 stars. Let’s see what this Phase 2 is all about in the sequel.

It’s been brewing for some time now, what with the myriad similarly themed stories that have over-saturated the market in recent years, but it looks as if this movie has finally ushered in a period of dystopian teen novel can only hope. Coming hot on the heels of The Hunger Games and Divergent, this movie is yet another near-future survival tale that focuses on teenagers in perpetual peril. Unfortunately, the source material here doesn’t have anywhere near the socio-political relevance boasted by those other two, far superior book-to-movie franchises. The story begins with a young man named Thomas arriving at a walled in glade via a metal cargo box. Thomas is immediately greeted by a group of boys his own age and soon enough we’re launched into a Lord of the Flies meets Lost meets Labyrinth adventure yarn with heavy quotations of The Lord of the Rings and Jurassic Park. What works here is the initial mystery which places Thomas in this strange environment with no memory of what his life was like before his arrival. The strange speech, customs and rules of the realm also intrigue in the early stages of the story, but made-up words like shank and klunk soon grow tired. Likewise, constantly being reminded of the rules becomes tedious and annoying. The middle of the movie maintains interest with several frenetic chase scenes and major plot revelations. If there’s one area of the movie that grossly underperforms, it’s the standard, unimaginative, and highly improbable ending. SPOILER ALERT: So the whole plot boils down to the fact that the earth has been ravaged by solar flares and the remnant of humanity lives in a gigantic circular city with the maze inhabiting its center. So then, with limited resources, man power, etc, the maze was erected for the sole purpose of providing a training ground for these kids to run around in? This stretch of credulity reminds me of the original Star Trek episode “The Mark of Gideon,” where the Enterprise visits a planet with overpopulation problems. The inhabitants of the world build an exact duplicate of the Enterprise to lure Capt. Kirk down to the surface. Since the populace is shown living in shoulder to shoulder confinement, isn’t the presence of a 289 meter long starship an illogical misappropriation of space on their overcrowded planet? Though not quite as ridiculous, isn’t building massive, movable walls for an extensive series of mazes an egregious waste of time and money for a species on the brink of extinction (and does humanity really have three years to waste on this pubescent experiment)? And why don’t the Gladers know where the edge of the maze is if they’ve constructed a completed, circular mini-maze in the map room (and how can the model be accurate if the walls change every night)? And why is it that on his first foray into the maze, Thomas discovers a section of the maze that the lead runner has never seen on his daily ventures into the labyrinth? When you actually stop to think about it, the movie’s overarching premise is absolutely ludicrous and many of the crucial plot points are utterly laughable…just like the ones in that bottom barrel Trek episode. The intriguing setup desiccates to dust once the teens reach the control center and the less-than-original, far-from-inspired explanation for the whole mystery is revealed. Also, the project leader’s (Patricia Clarkson) staged death is unnecessary and contrived beyond belief. The teenage boys have a graduation of sorts when they find their way out of the maze, which they quickly leave behind when journeying toward their next challenge—an abandoned city where they’ll doubtlessly run into a division of Dauntless operatives itching for a fight in the sequel. So what’s the movie’s takeaway? Some mysteries are better left unsolved. Or, everything was going just fine before that shuck-face Thomas showed up.

Boyhood (R)

Directed by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane
August 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Painting over height benchmarks...erasing history.
This clever chronological conceit serves as a microcosm for the movie as a whole: there’s a subtle symbolic link between the height measurements on the door jamb and the progressive growth of the children over the course of the film. In a sense, these markings are a type of baton handoff, since the tick marks on the door signify events that have transpired before the story begins. This brief visual device gives us a sense of history and is a springboard for the movie’s action. On another tack, I’m normally not given to bouts of emotion in movies, especially for characters I’ve just been introduced to, but this scene made me profoundly sad. I wanted to yell at the characters to take a picture before painting over the ruler markings. Lost milestones can never be recaptured.

Object lesson about no bumpers in real life.
A good point that’s made on the wrong occasion.

50 cents for the F word.
C’mon, charge him $10. The only way he’ll stop saying it is if it hurts a little.

“Everything’s a line.” Trouble on the home front.

Astros game. Clemens striking out batters half his age. Wonder how he was able to do that.
I apologize for my insensitivity, but this was way too easy.

Hawke has “the talk” with his kids.
Always an awkward topic…especially when broached at a bowling alley. Classy!

Nice long take of Hawke and his son hiking in the forest.
And some great dialog about how perplexing females can be to teenage boys…as well as grown men.

Mason gets a red letter edition and a rifle for his 15th birthday. A mixed message?
I suppose the commonality is that both are types of weapons: a sword and a shotgun.

Darkroom chat...totally demotivating.
How do idiots like this obtain jobs teachers? I’d really like to shove this guy’s face into the stop bath.

Commentary on humans becoming robots is profound.
I’ve used the same argument for why we’ve become so captivated by zombies.

Feeling the weight of the “empty nest” is a touching moment.
However, due to her poor choices in husbands, Mason’s mom brings middle-aged loneliness on herself.

“The moment seizes us.” Interesting life philosophy.
A beautiful location, profound dialog and pitch-perfect acting make this scene a poignant punctuation mark at the end of an elegant, thought-provoking film.

Final analysis: not an earth-shattering story, but a staggering achievement in film.

3 out of 4 stars. An insightful, meaningful survey of modern boyhood, brilliantly acted and directed.

We’ve all seen dozens of movies where different actors were used to portray a character at different stages of his life. Many times, the child or teen looks nothing like the adult version of the same character. Director Richard Linklater has devised a unique solution to this casting conundrum by filming the same actors over a twelve year period. The end result of the director’s audacious and ambitious filmic gambit is nothing short of astounding. By following the same family over an extended period of their lives, the viewer can more readily identify with the characters while also feeling emotionally connected to them. This kind of familial familiarity only comes from well constructed and conveyed character histories. While the adult actors sustain noticeable, yet minor, physical changes over the years, the kids, who were filmed at different checkpoints between the ages of six and eighteen, undergo the more drastic transformations. A perfect compliment to the film’s naturalistic aesthetic, watching the kids’ incremental growth is like experiencing a time condensed overview of the struggles, successes and significant events during their turbulent childhood. Whereas the adult story lines frequently focus on less compelling, soap opera style subplots, the through line involving the children’s journey from K-12 and beyond is thoroughly mesmerizing. In the same regard, even though Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette turn in fine performances, it’s Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) who captivate us throughout the nearly three hour decade-spanning drama with their realistic portraits of modern young people. When all is said and done, it’s the maturation of these two burgeoning actors that furnishes the movie with its groundbreaking novelty. Without their perpetual presence and precocious performances the movie would be just another well acted, well directed drama. So now the question is, does Linklater have another dozen years in him to make the sequel, Girlhood?

When the Game Stands Tall (PG)

Directed by: Thomas Carter
Starring: Jim Caviezel
August 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

When the Game Stands Tall

Nice archival footage of the real team.
Always a plus in these true story sports films.

“A perfect effort from snap to whistle.” I’m inspired.
However, Caviezel’s non-modulating droning isn’t a good match for an inspiring high school coach. Perhaps he’s been playing the soft-spoken John Reese on Person of Interest for too long, but he needed to get more fired up for this role.

Coach throws an opportunity in the trash.
Most people in his position would die for such an opportunity.

Coach survives the widow-maker.
And we’re not talking about a sandwich or burger with that moniker. Nor a movie with Harrison Ford as a submarine commander.

“Lame dad.” Ouch!

He was only trying to help his friend. What a senseless tragedy.

“They’re playing just like us.” Uh-oh!
Whenever you come to such a realization, it’s already too late.

Field trip. Some much needed perspective.
Coach Boone (Denzel Washington) took his team on a field trip to Gettysburg in Remember the Titans (2000). The location here is quite a bit different, but the result is similar in that players are forced to look beyond their own struggles and, in this case, see the problems and needs of others.

“Well it sure aint Gatorade.” Ha!
Correction: ain’t has an apostrophe. However, since ain’t ain’t a word and because ain’t ain’t in the dictionary, does misspelling it really matter?

Team sharing session...a nice moment. See, guys can emote.
I’m just glad they didn’t have a group hug.

The first nationally broadcasted high school game on TV is a special one.
An epic confrontation and just what the team needed to get back on track.

Take a knee and raise your hat for a heartwarming finale.
However, part of me sympathizes with the over-competitive dad (Clancy Brown), who wants his son to break the record. You only get one chance in life to achieve something like that. You can always raise a hat after the record’s been secured, right? I know, I know, we wouldn’t have the mushy ending that way.

Final analysis: an inspiring true story about overcoming adversity with courage and integrity.

3 out of 4 stars. A meaningful story with solid performances. A lot of bang for the budget.

Or is it “boom,” as #JohnMadden, who appears in the closing credits, would say?

Based on the incredible real life story of one high school football team’s (the De La Salle Spartans) legendary run of 151 consecutive victories (the longest winning streak of any team in sports history), this film follows in the footsteps of the great gridiron tales of yesteryear. By now, these factual football movies have developed a well-established (well-worn?) formula: archival footage of the original team, reenactments of key games, tragedy befalling one or more of the characters, a caring/inspiring coach, a noteworthy achievement garnering national headlines, etc. Although this film doesn’t have the same financing, production values or cinematic polish as major studio releases like Remember the Titans (2000), Friday Night Lights (2004) or We Are Marshall (2006), the story is worthy of its big screen showcase and the talent on tap (Caviezel, Michael Chiklis and Laura Dern) helps to elevate the material while shrewdly disguising its budgetary limitations. Caviezel is serviceable as Coach Ladouceur, but his monotone delivery belies the passion he seeks to instill in his players…Caviezel only raises his voice during one locker room speech. I have no way of knowing if the actor’s quiet intensity mimics the real coach’s vocal inflections or not (I’ve never met the man), but on the face of it Caviezel doesn’t seem like a natural fit for the part of a spirited football coach. Chiklis provides some comic relief and sage advice as Ladouceur’s assistant coach and, in light of Caviezel’s understated, emotionally vacant performance, is the heart of the film. Dern, as Ladouceur’s supportive wife, makes the most of a limited role, but her talents are wasted on a part that’s completely servile to the exigencies of her husband’s career. The one story line possessing the potential for character complexity is the father-living-through-his-son scenes between uber-controling dad (Clancy Brown) and his star running back son (Alexander Ludwig). Unfortunately, due to standard dialog and minimal screen time, this subplot ends up being the narrative equivalent of an incomplete pass. There are certainly finer examples of its kind in the annals of true story football accounts, but this movie has found its own niche and the fact that it’s also inspirational and family friendly is so much the better.

Calvary (R)

Directed by: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson
August 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

But after the gun smoke dissipates, who will he confess to…another priest?

A startling opening line.
This is actually the second line spoken in the movie, the first by Gleeson. The opening line is definitely startling though, especially when considering the location and function of the discussion.

Redhead commits the “classical error.”
The redhead in question is Gleeson’s screen daughter in the film, played to perfection by Kelly Reilly. In case you’re wondering, Gleeson’s character sired her before he became a priest.

“Bi-polar or lactose intolerant. One of the two.” Ha!
Is this line overdetermined or are people really this dumb?

No asterisk after “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Good conversation.
This scene contains some of the finest, most meaningful, dialog in the movie. Funny how it’s in our DNA to always look for loopholes.

The colossus pees on a painting. Strange!
Strange hardly covers it. This whole scene is extremely disturbing. Irish funnyman Dylan Moran (Shaun of the Dead) turns in a truly offbeat, creepy performance as the emotionally anesthetized rich man who’s relegated himself to a life of isolation and boredom…and truly bizarre behaviors.

The lectern held up well. Can’t say the same for the rest of the church.

The “third act revelation” is a touching scene.
This is the final and finest father/daughter chat in the film.

Sunday. Time to face the music.
Notice that the location of the climactic showdown is similar to where the earlier “third act” interchange took place. Symbolism?

Too much talk about sins and not enough talk about virtues. Good point.
Maybe people would sin less if their virtues were extolled more often.

Final analysis: a heavy film that asks big questions about the injustices of life.

3 out of 4. A tremendous performance by Gleeson and gorgeous Irish vistas are pluses to the glum story.

Other than its trappings, performances and shockingly raw subject matter, what really sets this film apart is its unique twist on the murder mystery formula. To whit, Gleeson knows who the murderer is early on in the story, but the audience is left in the dark as to the identity of the killer—and there are plenty of possible suspects among the Irish village’s salty citizenry. The kicker is that the homicide hasn’t yet occurred and that the targeted victim is Gleeson. As a “good” priest, Gleeson will become the sacrificial lamb for the heinous transgressions (the kind you’ve heard about in the news) of unethical priests. Gleeson overcomes the urge to skip town and finds the resolve to face his accuser, a la Christ before Caiaphas, the high priest. As Gleeson approaches his would-be assassin and his own personal Calvary, the mystery transforms into a thriller that will leave the audience gasping for air. Cannily penned and helmed by John Michael McDonagh, Calvary is a multifaceted gem with much to say about the human condition. As Gleeson conducts his priestly duties, such as confession, communion, visitation, etc, the audience picks up clues along the way. This procedural element is a clever device for drawing us into Gleeson’s world while also introducing us to his parishioners, one of whom has murderous intentions toward him. The movie features numerous one-on-one conversations between Gleeson and one of the various supporting characters, and all of these exchanges are rich with meaning and laced with subtext. There’s a good deal of character complexity here and many questions are left unanswered, like: does Gleeson, who struggles with the bottle and shoots up a pub, even qualify as a “good” priest? Also, the startling final scene opens up mind-blowing implications and invites multiple readings. Any way you look at it; this is a smart, sullen and sordid story. However, if you disagree with my assessment, I’ll happily acquiesce. I’m not going to make this a hill to die on.

The November Man (R)

Directed by: Roger Donaldson
Starring: Pierce Brosnan
August 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The November Man

Taking pictures of pictures in Moscow.
Sounds easy enough, but it’s a dangerous occupation. Especially if you forget to return the key.

“42 is complete.” Now you’ve gone and made Brosnan mad.
Brosnan’s Bond always had to work really hard to dispatch bad guys, but his character here is more like 24’s Jack Bauer…casually strolling along and downing assailants as if he’d memorized enemy emplacement patterns in a FPS video game.

“Atrocities are like reality TV.” Hmm...
The film is pretty soft on social commentary, but this is one instance where ethical criticism is dispensed. And it’s a point well made.

Brosnan finishes his pupil’s training. An incisive scene.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this scene has a surprisingly sharp edge.

Brosnan extracts information by playing an old Russian game.
I don’t think I’d wait until after the second click to divulge the intel though. Either squeal from the start or hold out to the bitter end…that’s the way I see it.

Corrupt agent discovers Brosnan’s “soft underbelly” and exploits it.
This plot point is poetic injustice since having a relational liability is precisely what Brosnan warned his protégé about from the very beginning. Do as I say not as I do, apparently.

Final analysis: a decent yarn with foreign flair and some pulse pounding action scenes.
But don’t expect Bond or Bourne levels of high-octane chase/fight scenes.

2 1/2 out 4 stars. Brosnan isn’t Bond anymore, but he’s still respectable in action roles.

Kudos to the movie’s casting department because this project was a perfect selection for the gracefully aging action star. Brosnan is in remarkably good shape, so espionage yarns with moderate action work are still on the table for the spy genre stalwart. Let’s cut right to the chase, this is a well acted/directed/written political thriller with beautiful European locations and a clutch of adroitly choreographed action sequences. If there’s a drawback to the film, it’s the story’s first twenty minutes, which play an elaborate game of hopscotch all over Europe while setting up the plot and key players in this international intrigue. The rapid globetrotting is exhausting, not to mention confusing, and needlessly muddies the premise to the point where we don’t know what the movie’s goal is or even where in the world the bulk of the action is going to take place. Or even if we’ll care once we figure these things out. Once the story finally settles in, which is right around the time Operation 42 is executed, the enjoyment factor begins to gradually increase since at least we know which direction the plot is headed in at that point. The reemergence of Brosnan’s former pupil is an engaging subplot, but one gets the sense that far more dramatic intensity could’ve been extracted from this teacher/student dynamic. The “enemy holds the hero’s loved one for ransom” followed by “hero exacts revenge on enemy and rescues his captive family member” is a standard ending for this genre…it would’ve been nice to see something a little less conventional here. My only other criticism of the story is the head-scratching explanation for why Brosnan’s nickname is the movie’s title. Even after its meaning is interpreted, the appellative doesn’t seem to have much relevance to the story, relegating this intriguing title to the expansive ranks of dumb movie names. And why release a movie with November in the title in the month of August? Since it isn’t a blockbuster action picture anyway, this film should’ve been released in the fall. Bottom line: Brosnan is no longer Bond, nor does he need to be. Brosnan can churn out movies just like this one for many years to come until he decides to hang it up in the December of his career. Now that metaphor actually makes sense!