Movie Review: The Maze Runner (2014)

October 8, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Like most people who had never heard of the book series, I was hugely sceptical about The Maze Runner, which looked suspiciously like yet another young adult sci-fi action flick trying to cash in on the success of The Hunger Games. Even the film’s very first scene, which I won’t spoil, was rather Hunger Game-sy. But I’m going to defend The Maze Runner against a lot of the unwarranted criticism it has received because it’s actually — despite its rather minuscule budget of $34 million — a very intriguing and original story with a good dose of suspense and action. Sure, it’s far from perfect, but in terms of quality and the overall experience it delivers, The Maze Runner deserves to be in the upper tier of films in the same genre along with The Hunger Games and Harry Potter.

The story follows the adventures of an initially unnamed 16-year-old boy (Dylan O’Brien), who is delivered into a large open space enclosed by a giant mechanical maze. With no memory of who he is or where he is from, the boy is forced to co-exist with a bunch of other boys of all ages, races and sizes, who all appear to have been put through the same experience. It’s a community where everyone has their own duties and roles, and one of the roles is a Maze Runner, someone who spends most of their day in the maze trying to map it and find a way out before the giant metal doors close for the night, ensuring certain death for anyone who fails to return in time.

Much of the film’s appeal comes from the group trying to solve the mysteries of who they are, why the have been put in this bizarre maze and how they can possibly escape it, and of course, what lies on the other side if they do. Like any community, there are conflicting personalities and desires, and a significant portion of the film’s near-perfect 113-minute running time is spent on the protagonist trying to find his place among his peers and the group’s leaders.

The Maze Runner is part Hunger Games, part Lord of the Flies and part Labyrinth, with a big dash of that underrated 1997 Canadian sci-fi horror flick Cube, but I never got the feeling watching the film that it was simply a mishmash of the above. Director Wes Ball, probably best known as a visual effects and graphics artist, does an enviable job of keeping the focus on the character development and playing up the intrigue of the maze by not spending too much unnecessary time in there. The effect is that when the characters are finally in there and running for their lives, the action is that much more riveting and exciting.

The film is not free from usual problems such as plot holes, occasional contrivances and unexplored opportunities, and the ending is largely unsatisfactory because answers are scarce (it is, after all, the first film of a series), though on the whole I had a great time with The Maze Runner. I found the maze to be an interesting and thought-provoking concept, and the action sequences were executed with ample exhilaration. The performances from the young and largely unknown cast was also unexpectedly strong. Dylan O’Brien I knew vaguely from TV’s Teen Wolf , Will Poulter I recognised from the Narnia movies and We’re The Millers, and of course Thomas Sangster is from Game of Thrones, but I was not familiar with most of the other kids (like Aml Ameen, Kee Hong Li, Blake Cooper and Kaya Scodelario), all of whom were solid.

Which is why I take issue with some of the scathing reviews from critics, most notably from Andrew Parker, who called The Maze Runner “one of the worst films I have ever had the immense displeasure of ever sitting through.” Now, Parker is entirely entitled to his own opinion, but the vitriol he spewed out against an adaptation that was technically sound and with holes no worse than most films of its kind was clearly hyperbolic and likely predetermined. No wonder Will Poulter found it difficult to hold back in starting a public feud with Parker on Twitter over the review.

Let’s face it, The Maze Runner probably wouldn’t have been made without the success of films like The Hunger Games, but it’s not fair to single it out for being derivative and opportunistic because just about every film made these days is guilty of that in some respect. The book by James Dashner on which the film was based was actually written before Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games (though published a little later). In the hierarchy of teen flicks released in recent years, I’d place The Maze Runner alongside the likes of The Hunger Games and Harry Potter. It might not come with the same fanfare as Twilight, but it’s definitely above the second-tier adaptation franchises such as Percy Jackson, Vampire Academy, His Dark Materials (Golden Compass), the Tomorrow series (Tomorrow, When the War Began), and Red Dawn (which should really be third-tier).  I was pleasantly surprised by The Maze Runner and I’ll be looking forward to the sequel, set to be released in September next year.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

September 13, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Little boys just love training their dragons. Following the relatively successful How To Train Your Dragon from 2010, Dreamworks is back to milk that cash cow, or more accurately, that cash dragon, with the sequel, How To Train Your Dragon 2.

I actually really enjoyed the original (review here), which was an entertaining, sweet little story about the friendship between a kid viking called Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his cute but powerful dragon Toothless. It’s not one of the more memorable animated features in recent years, but it’s in the upper echelons in terms of quality, excitement and fun.

In the sequel, Hiccup and Toothless are back, five years older and closer than ever. Pretty much all the old cast is back too, with Gerard Butler playing Hiccup’s father, Craig Ferguson as Butler’s right hand man, America Ferrera as Hiccup’s girlfriend and Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as fellow viking friends. Cate Blanchett also joins the cast as a female viking whom I won’t spoil.

Since learning about prejudice and making peace with the dragons in the first film, everyone in Hiccup’s village of Berk has changed for the better. But of course there is a brand new villain (Djimon Hounsou) hell bent on conquering all dragons for his own benefit, and it is up to Hiccup and Toothless to try and stop him with the help of their family and friends.

I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by How To Train Your Dragon 2, which is as good as its predecessor when it comes to visual thrills and tugging the heart strings. The story itself is relatively stock standard, predictable even, so film’s biggest strength lies in the stunning visuals from all the dragon-riding action sequences that make fine use of some creative and skilled camera work. The dragon designs, and especially all the beautiful mix of colours, really added to the visual feast the film provides.

It’s more or less a continuation of both Hiccup and Toothless’s coming of age, and I’m glad to say that the title is not misleading because there actually is more legitimate dragon training in the film. Like its predecessor, it’s not the funniest animated film out there, but How To Train Your Dragon 2 more than makes up for the dearth of laughs with the exciting action sequences and emotional resonance.

Last word: A good film for the family that builds upon the solid foundations of the original by taking things to a new level.

4 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

August 20, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Sequels to thrillers — even ones that aren’t very good — are never as good as the original. Or at least that was what I thought before I watched The Purge: Anarchy.

The Purge (review here) was a promising film released last year that failed to live up to expectations. It revolved around the concept of a yearly Purge, where all citizens are free to do whatever they want — steal, rape, kill — without any legal repercussions whatsoever. It’s supposed to cleanse the soul, or something like that, so that they won’t feel the urge to do it on the 364 other days of the year. Apparently, it works, as violent crime has become almost nonexistent.

Notwithstanding an all star cast including Ethan Hawke and Game of Thrones queen Lena Headey, The Purge missed a great opportunity to create something thought-provoking and original, instead opting for a typical home invasion thriller involving creepy, deranged, mask-wearing intruders. It had its moments, though the experience ultimately felt hollow.

On its face, The Purge: Anarchy seems like one of those B-grade, straight to DVD type sequels. No returning actors or characters (I believe with the exception of one), no big names, and noticeably less marketing. And yet, somehow, it ended up being a more rewarding experience than the original by taking a approach that better utilizes its unique premise.

Instead of focusing on a single family in their home on the yearly Purge night, Anarchy splits the attention between three groups of people with different motivations and socioeconomic backgrounds — a Hispanic mother and daughter pair (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul) caught up in the carnage when their apartment is attacked; a white couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) trying to get to safety after their car broke down; and a police sergeant (Frank Grillo) hell-bent on seeking revenge against people who he believes ruined his life.

In contrast to The Purge’s creepy, claustrophobic atmosphere, Anarchy is more of a direct action thriller with a typical narrative thread in which a group of people must come together for a common cause: survival.

By taking this approach, Anarchy is able to explore the concept of the Purge with more depth and from more perspectives than its predecessor. It tackles the question of why the Purge was implemented in the first place and ponders the social, political and economic fallout from such a decision. Who does the Purge benefit most? Which people are most vulnerable? Are the underlying justifications more sinister than we realize?

This is not to say Anarchy is a great film. The film had a budget of just 9 million, and sometimes it showed, from the distinct lack of star power To the largely unimpressive action scenes. There is nothing special about the acting, and the stock standard characters were often annoying in their stereotypical reactions to situations. I also expected more originality and creativity in some of the deranged discoveries you would come across in a world like this, but they ended up being rather uninspiring and predictable.

Having said that, Anarchy does do better than its predecessor in making the most of the premise, resulting in a more complete and satisfying film. Given that the Purge happens every year, this is one of those franchises that can roll out a new film every summer. And apparently the wheels are already in motion for a third film, a prequel that well look at the events surrounding the very first Purge. Maybe it can continue to iron out the kinks and become one of those film series that can keep improving as it expands on the world it has built.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

August 17, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I hadn’t initially planned on watching the latest Marvel entry, Guardians of the Galaxy, which seemed like a strange turn for the multi-billion-dollar film franchise into less grounded, more childish territory with a talking raccoon and a giant walking tree. Word of mouth that reached me all said it was “OK” or “Pretty good,” though I was astounded by the number of positive reviews I saw online, including an incredible 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. Considering Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, probably the best movie of the year (let’s face facts here), only got 91% (about 9% too low), I knew it was only right for me to lay down some dough to watch Guardians on the big screen.

My verdict trickles closer to the word-of-mouth reviews I personally encountered, which is that it’s pretty good, definitely better than original expectations (from the time I saw the trailers), but not quite as good as the glowing reviews it’s been receiving. It’s solid popcorn entertainment, plenty of fun, frequently funny and always engaging, though ultimately still a second-tier franchise when ranked among its peers in the Marvel universe.

The core of the story is virtually identical to The Avengers – a bad guy teams up with another bad guy (with resources) to get their hands on a powerful object, and the only people who can stop them is a team of heroes with different strengths and conflicting personalities. The first half introduces the characters as they “get to know each other,” so to speak, and in the second half they learn to work together and become greater than the sum of their parts. Sound familiar?

Instead of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and The Hulk (plus Black Widow and Hawk Eye), we have Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) — a wise-cracking, smart-aleck human thief abducted by aliens as a child; Gamora (Zoe Saldana) — a green humanoid alien surgically enhanced by her father and the film’s antagonist to be a killing machine; Drax the Destroyer (David Bautista) — a powerful pink humanoid alien with lots of scars/tattoos and bent on revenge; Rocket (Bradley Cooper) — a CGI talking genius raccoon made from lab experiments; and Groot (Vin Diesel) — a CGI tree-like humanoid with lots of special abilities but a limited vocabulary.

It’s not the Avengers, but this bunch is still pretty solid team where each member plays off the others really well. Chris Pratt, all buffed up for the role, is a larrikin whose sole remaining connection to Earth is his cassette walkman and classic mixtapes, a gag the film executes wonderfully without milking it. He’s no slouch, but his main purpose is to play the human character we can connect with and to provide the laughs. Zoe Saldana, having played a blue alien in Avatar, goes green this time, and she’s the straight face of the group, while David Bautista is the hothead/meat-head with a broken heart. What surprised me were Rocket and Groot, both of whom I thought were going to be lame, but instead they probably turned out to be the film’s most likable characters. Considering the overall tone of the film, a talking raccoon and a walking tree didn’t feel out of place at all.

The supporting cast is also formidable – Glenn Close, John C Reilly, Benicio Del Toro, Karen Gillan and Djimon Hounsou, with Michael Rooker (Daryl’s hillbilly brother from The Walking Dead) as Star-Lord’s mentor, and The Hobbit elf Lee Pace as the destructive villain, Ronan the Accuser, who is no doubt powerful but somewhat lame because of his typical (boring) motivations.

The best way to describe the film’s general feel is cheeky and exciting. Apart from the introductory sequence, none of the film is based on Earth, meaning it’s all crazy alien business we don’t have to take too seriously. Overall, the film’s laugh quotient isn’t as high as I expected, especially because the humour is sometimes obvious and geared towards younger/dumber audiences. I personally thought there could have been more wit and sharper jokes, though it’s still frequently amusing enough to make the film a fun ride.

The action is varied and visually spectacular — largely thanks to superb special effects we tend to take for granted these days. It’s not quite edge-of-your-seat stuff, though it’s clever, creative and amusing enough to be plenty of fun.  And importantly, it feels as though the action never stops. Even when there’s no fighting there are always people walking, in the forefront or in the background, and if they’re standing still it’s because they’re on a speedy spacecraft. It gives the film a frenetic pace that never seems to slow.

The disadvantage of this film compared to The Avengers is that the characters themselves, as great as they are, don’t generate any excitement. With The Avengers, much of the attraction comes from the concept of putting all these fantastic superheroes together. With Guardians of the Galaxy, however, most viewers outside of hardcore fans won’t know who our heroes are, meaning more time has to be spent building them up from scratch. The Avengers superheroes already have cache entering the film, whereas here they have to earn our trust and affection. On the other hand, the advantage of this set-up is that there are no expectations or baggage. We expected The Avengers to deliver; no one really expected much out of Guardians of the Galaxy, allowing it to pleasantly surprise. Full credit has to go to director James Dunn (who also co-wrote the screenplay) in taking what was probably an experimental franchise — a year before the release of The Avengers 2 – and turning it into such a good-natured, family-oriented hit.

I’ve seen some people write that Guardians of the Galaxy is better than The Avengers, but that’s just borderline insaniquarium. Calling it “Baby Avengers,” however, would be doing the film a disservice. It is what it is: two hours of top-notch popcorn fun that’s quickly forgotten as soon as the credits roll (or in this case, the conclusion of the crazy post-credits scene).

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: 22 Jump Street (2014)

August 13, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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21 Jump Street, the big screen adaptation of the late-80s TV series that made Johnny Depp famous, is somewhat of a minor miracle. Everybody expected it to suck, and suck badly,  and yet it somehow became one of the surprise hits of 2012, featuring irreverent and self referential humor fueled by the seamless chemistry between the two leads, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.

The film’s unexpected fortune is a fact that the inevitable and obligatory sequel, 22 Jump Street, makes fun of very early on, and it goes even further than that by dishing out pessimistic predictions for what will happen the second time around.

It’s the type of humor and wit that made the first film so enjoyable, but at the same time, it also serves as a self fulfilling prophecy — because admittedly, 22 Jump Street genuinely isn’t as good as its predecessor. That’s not to say that the film is not still significantly better than most comedies that get turned out these days. In fact, there’s a good chance it will end up as one of the better comedies of the year. 

Hill and Tatum return has the ultimate odd couple — one physically challenged and the other mentally — who are thrust back into the undercover business because it’s the only thing they haven’t yet screwed up. And so their superior, Ice Cube, sends them to college to figure out who has been selling a dangerous new drug to students.

The central premise is almost exactly the same except it is set in college, and the writers know only too well the pitfalls of such a by-the-numbers sequel. But instead of trying something drastically different, the film embraces its destiny.

In 21 Jump Street, the film made fun of how high schoolers these days are different to what they were back in the 80s, and it also flipped what we had expected to happen to the characters, making Hill popular and Tatum miserable. Of course, in 22 Jump Street, the roles are predictably reversed once again, with Tatum becoming a football star and Hill failing to catch up because of his physical shortcomings. It’s the old “we know that you know that we know what should happen” joke, if that makes any sense.

Apart from this one big in-joke, the strengths of the sequel are almost identical to that of its predecessor. Hill and Tatum have a legitimate bromance; their chemistry and the weight they feed off each other come across as effortless and genuine. I’m guessing that some of the biggest laughs in the film were probably improvised. There’s also some solid slapstick, farcical action, and of course a lot of trippy craziness. Those who understand Hill’s brand of awkward, outrageous and random humour will likely get the most out of it.

The supporting cast is also very solid, with Ice Cube seemingly (I say seemingly because I can’t remember) given a bigger role this time around, and newcomers such as Peter Stromare, Amber Stevens and Nick Offerman, with cameos from Queen Latifah, Dave Franco and Rob Riggle. The standout, though, has to be Jillian Bell, basically a psychotic anti-version of Jonah Hill. Former pro hockey player Wyatt Russell, who has been in This is 40 and Arrested Development, also does a great job channeling his inner Owen Wilson as Tatum’s new BFF.

There are no major problems with 22 Jump Street except that some of the jokes don’t work or come across as a little repetitive, and the unfortunate thing with having such a great introduction (which this film did) is that there is inevitable disappointment when the rest of the movie fails to live up to it. 22 Jump Street opened with a bang, but there was a lengthy portion in the middle — primarily college life — that sagged, though luckily shifting the scene to Spring Break in Mexico towards the end breathed some much-needed fresh life back into its system.

The verdict? It may not be as witty as it thinks it is and the edges may be somewhat rough and coarse, but 22 Jump Street is definitely still funny and enjoyable enough to warrant a viewing. Considering how badly it could have gone, the end result also passes as a minor miracle.

3.75 stars out of 5

 
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