I was at a funeral once and my friend's father had to speak over his 23-year-old daughter's coffin to an entire community of people trying to make sense around one of those freak accidents that just never make sense.
"People say variety is the spice of life," he said, "but it isn't, and my daughter and I spoke about this often. Risk is the spice of life, that feeling of hanging it out there over the edge and seeing what the next moment brings..."
That was almost 20 years ago now and I might have gotten his exact words wrong but that speech has always stuck with me. Risk makes things interesting; it makes the victories sweeter and the hardships harder. In the mountains, risk is the spice of life.
But it's not the spice of Hollywood. Certainly, there are still a few excellent movies coming out of Tinseltown these days, but more and more it seems the big studios are playing it safe creatively and spending all their money on remakes, sequels, and adaptations. Take any comic book, kiddie novel, cookbook or video game that has more than a million units sold and chances are there is a film script (or sequel) in development. Even Pac-Man has his own TV show (again).
Exhibit A: The Maze Runner, opening this week at the Village 8 Cinemas. It doesn't even look that bad — a confused teen finds himself trapped in a quite-nice-except-for-the-trapped-part enclave with a mostly amicable group of peers. Salvation (or is it certain doom?) lies in a constantly changing, danger-filled labyrinth from which no one has ever escaped. But when you're a misunderstood kid with an inner awesomeness no one else gives you credit for... well you gotta try.
Right? Director Wes Ball goes light on the CGI and dishes up what looks like a decent little teen-actioner. Except you can almost see opaque boxes get checked on the screen as The Maze Runner meets the pre-ordained criteria to be a successful young-adult franchise builder — resourceful loner evolves into a leader? Check. Omnipresent threat of Authority? Check. Tagged-on love interest with very little to do? Steely blue eyes? Open ending to help sell a sequel? Check, Check, Check.
Which isn't to say it doesn't work. The action and characters in The Maze Runner are decent and the girl, Kaya Scodelario (Moon, Clash of the Titans) has that Mia Kirshner-circa-Exotica look that never lets you down. The problem is it's hard to appreciate a movie when you know the whole thing is really just the hopeful start of a franchise based on what's working for the other franchises right now. And when you get to be my age, that kind of shit can really bum a guy out.
Because Hollywood, the biggest single producer of "art" on the continent, seems perfectly content to make movies almost solely for kids and teenagers. All the big money goes towards dumbed-down juvenile visions of the world and the adults, by default perhaps, are stuck with a cinematic landscape dominated by Superheroes, animated family flicks and teenage warriors. Even most of the "adult comedies" are Judd Apatow-style stories about man-boy bromances, stunted Billy Madisons and 40-year-old virgins. Watch enough movies and recent articles by critics Ruth Graham and A.O. Scott on "The Death of Adulthood in American Culture" start to seem pretty bang on.
Which sucks, because the best part about being young is not being afraid to take risks, and yet despite shovel-feeding us youthful worldviews (and entire industries promoting the value of looking, feeling, acting a decade younger than we are) there seems to be less artistic risk happening in mainstream cinema than ever before. (Cats like Tarantino, Rodriguez, Spike Jonze, the Coens, Linklater, Aronofsky, Sofia Coppola obviously buck the trend but they're proven renegades who operate much more independently).
Even if variety was the spice of life, Hollywood seems perfectly content to pump out cookie cutter movies and their biggest risks are all financial which, without some kind of artistic payoff, is not really any risk at all. You can't take money with you at the end of the day, but a good story will last forever.
There are also a pair of thrillers playing this week. A Walk Amongst the Tombstones stars Liam Neeson in a hard-boiled detective story with a jumbled plot and a nice B-movie feel, and A Most Wanted Man stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman in his last complete role. Talk about a guy who built his career taking risks (see: Scott J in Boogie Nights).
This one is worth seeing for that guy alone.