Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Maze Runner

Year: 2014
Director: Wes Ball
Cast: Dylan O'Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Will Poulter, Aml Ameen, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Blake Cooper, Patricia Clarkson


Plot: A young man named Thomas is sent to a mysterious maze, where other boys like him reside, and neither him or them remember anything other than their names. While most of them are content living like prisoners for their own safety, due to many of them getting killed attempting to escape through the maze, Thomas is curious and yearns to find a way out.


Review: Like comic book adaptations, youth adult novels are getting made into films quite rapidly, with this film coming on the heels of Divergent and The Giver this year. I'm not so much a fan of these types of stories, but decided to give The Maze Runner a shot.

The story begins with Thomas, who awakes in an elevator sending him upwards into an area called The Glade, where a group of boys await. They've been there for as long as three years, and like him, they can't remember anything other than their own names. They are divided by classes, depending on what they're good for, and Thomas quickly qualifies to becoming a runner, whose job is to run into the maze and map it out. As time passes, it becomes clear that Thomas is different from them, and the ante is upped when the elevator sends a girl to them.

Director Wes Ball should be commended for allowing sufficient screen time for his actors, including those of the minority race, even though they don't always get better character development. Ball, more often than not, keeps the pace steady, not too fast or slow, allowing the boys to wrestle with the mysteries of the maze, and each other as well, as the audience tries to piece the puzzle with them. It does take a while before we get to see some action sequences, the best of which is in the final third of the film.

Dylan O'Brien, whom I saw last in The Internship, is rather solid as Thomas, the odd one out among them, trying to fit in and yet breaking their rules at the same time. Kaya Scodelario gets too little screen time as Teresa, the first and only girl sent to the maze, but manages to more or less hold her own. Game Of Thrones' Thomas Brodie-Sangster gets more attention than her as Newt, Thomas' ally, with Will Poulter providing a nice contrast as the antagonistic Gally. Aml Ameen and Ki Hong Lee also do well in their roles, though I wished the latter got more development to his character.

The film however suffers from moments of weak dialogue, for instance they keep saying "We call it The (insert name)", or ask rather cliched or obvious questions like "What if they sent us here for a reason?" or "What's that sound?". And like most YA stories, The Maze Runner has its own veteran actor villain, this time it's Patricia Clarkson doing what Donald Sutherland, Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep and Diane Kruger have already done. She does it well, but I just wish they did things differently in order to stand out.

But for what it's worth, The Maze Runner is solid entertainment with a good share of thrilling moments. A sequel is already in the works, so I am hoping this will become better than even The Hunger Games. The potential is certainly there. (7/10)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Signal

Year: 2014
Director: William Eubank
Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp, Laurence Fishburne


Plot: Three friends on a road trip take a detour to find an elusive hacker, only to find something much more sinister.


Review: The best thing going for The Signal is its mysteriousness, and at the same time it may be its own undoing. This is clearly the case when the audience doesn't really know what's going on by the time they reach the halfway mark of this sci-fi picture.

The story focuses on three friends: Nic, Haley and Jonah, who are on a road trip to help Haley move to another college. Nic and Haley are having relationship issues due to the fact that the former is suffering from a debilitating condition in his legs, and the latter moving away isn't great either. During their trip, Nic and Jonah are trying to locate Nomad, a mysterious hacker who has been taunting them, and after tracking Nomad's location, they all go there to discover who he is. But something unexpected happens, and next thing we know, Nic is in an underground facility watched over by people in Hazmat suits, led by Dr Damon, who starts asking him strange questions.

Director William Eubank, who co-wrote the story with Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio, does his utmost best to keep the audience in the dark on what's really going on. He manages to make us care enough about the three kids to want to see them escape the facility (which you know they eventually do) and figure out what's happening. The story drops clues every now and then to pique our interest and keep going until the final reveal at the end, which is a good one. It does come at a price to the audience, which I'll get to in a bit.

Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke and Beau Knapp do great work here as Nic, Haley and Jonah respectively. They genuinely feel like close friends and display the right emotions at all the right moments. Laurence Fishburne is perfect as Damon, being the kind of guy with a calming voice supposedly to disperse your fears, yet there's a sinister tone in there as well, making us realise there's something else going on.

Now for the downsides. Despite the great story at hand, there were too many questions left unanswered at the end, which I can't mention without giving too much away. Eubank also poorly chooses to use flashes and slow motion to depict his action sequences in the film's climax, when a straight up approach would have been better. 

The Signal is truly a fascinating film, weakened only by its ambiguity and abundance of distractions in its closing moments. (3.5/5)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Lucy

Year: 2014
Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Choi Min-Sik, Amr Waked


Plot: A young woman named Lucy is forced to be a drug mule by a Korean mob boss. But after the drugs gets mixed into her system, she gains super enhancements in her brain capacity and with it, super powers.


Review: If you walked into Lucy expecting a standard Luc Besson action movie, you're in for a surprise. This is one of those rare moments when Besson gives us something more cerebral than stylish. I had read a review that claims this movie is very similar to The Tree Of Life. I can certainly understand that notion now. This pretty much means that there isn't as much action here as you would anticipate from Besson.

Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, a young student in Taipei who is forced by a Korean mob boss (thanks to her shitty boyfriend) to become a drug mule. The drugs gets accidentally mixed into her system and suddenly she gains superpowers and heightened brain power, which she uses to turn the tables on her tormentors. Not knowing what to do next, she seeks out Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), an expert in the human brain on her next step.

For his latest effort, Besson gives the audience a tour into Lucy's steady evolution, by stating the percentage of her brain power as she evolves, using stock footage to symbolise and describe the theories being used and showing what's going on in her body whenever something huge happens. It's fascinating actually to not only experience the theories Besson wants us to learn, but to also watch a different way his protagonist deals with obstacles. For example, why engage in fisticuffs when you can just stop them with your mind?

To her credit, Johansson is in great form as Lucy, especially in the first third of the film when she is at her most vulnerable. Watching her cower in fear as the Korean gangsters messed with her was different from what we'd expect (if she was the Black Widow, the result would be otherwise). She also excels in a poignant scene where she speaks to her mother on the phone, afraid on what she may become imminently. Johansson is simply superb here, even as she becomes more emotionless as she evolves. Freeman is perfect as Professor Norman, being that same guy who is excellent at narration, providing the audience with the human connection necessary to understand the goings-on. Choi Min-Sik of Oldboy fame is also solid as the antagonist Mr Jang while Amr Waked provides the comic relief (and then some) as Del Rio, the Paris police captain.

The film suffers however from massive lapses of logic and a ludicrous third act when Lucy's powers hit the max. It's not just her growing powers that defy logic, it's also many other things, like the severe lack of security at hospitals or the ineptitude of the police. The ending itself is anti-climactic, but it's not entirely unexpected.

At best, Lucy is quite entertaining and dare I say it, educational overall. At worst, you'll wonder what the heck you just watched when it's over. (3.5/5)   

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Expendables 3

Year: 2014
Director: Patrick Hughes
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Mel Gibson, Antonio Banderas, Jason Statham, Wesley Snipes, Kelsey Grammer, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger


Plot: Barney Ross learns that his former comrade turned enemy Conrad Stonebanks is alive despite having shot him dead years ago. Ross retires the old team and forms a new, younger team to go after him, but will his old buddies simply stay retired?


Review: The Expendables films have become not much more than showcasing veteran action heroes square off against each other and side by side. It's basically a mix of hard action and nostalgic moments, but not much else. So needless to say, this third outing isn't very different from the first two, but still quite fun to behold.

In this instalment, Barney Ross runs into Expendables co-founder Conrad Stonebanks, whom he had killed years ago, or so he thought. Stonebanks maims one of Ross' mates, prompting the latter to retire the old team so that he doesn't have to watch them die, and forms a younger team to go after his nemesis. But the old team won't stay down of course, and the young team still needs to learn a thing or two about kicking ass, so a huge collision is forthcoming, which happens in the film's climax.

Director Patrick Hughes, working on a script co-written by Stallone, does a decent enough job with the material, keeping things flowing smoothly with two big action set pieces in the first third of the film before throwing in an even bigger sequence in the final third. The middle portion consists of Stallone and old acquaintance Bonaparte (played by Kelsey Grammer) recruiting the young team, and a handful of rather hilarious moments ensue.

It's interesting to note that Stallone has given more time to the action veterans newly added here as compared to his usual co-stars, which means that Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews and Randy Couture get less time to show off here. (Sorry Jet Li fans, he gets even less here than previously, so you might want to skip this film) Wesley Snipes makes good use of his screen time as Dr Death, showing the kind of charm we haven't seen since Demolition Man (where he fought Stallone). Mel Gibson is absolutely delightful as the villain Stonebanks, making him more than a match for Stallone. But the prize for best performance goes to Antonio Banderas as Galgo, the Spaniard soldier desperate to join Ross' crew. Who would have thought Banderas was capable of comedy like this? It's almost like he's being Puss In Boots all over again, but even better.

Glen Powell, Kellan Lutz, Victor Ortiz and MMA fighter Ronda Rousey make up the young team, though only the former two make an impression. Ortiz is forgettable and Rousey has zero acting skills. Arnie gets credit for just showing up (it's what he does best) while Harrison Ford makes good on his CIA agent character, and he actually does better than Bruce Willis, who got cut for asking for more dough.

The thing is, with The Expendables, what you see is what you get. You get action, tough talk, lots of cheese and illogical situations (like why are all the bad guys terrible marksmen?). But if you don't mind all that, it's always fun to watch these guys go at it. 

Verdict: If you enjoyed the first two, you'll love this one. (3.5/5)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Year: 2014
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Cast: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Pete Ploszek, Jeremy Howard, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Danny Woodburn


Plot: Four mutant turtles team up with aspiring reporter April O'Neil to stop a devastating attack on New York City.


Review: It's been seven years since the last TMNT film, and that last one was an animated version. This time they're going back to live versions, but thankfully the level of CGI has improved a lot since then.

Being a Michael Bay production, the turtles in this film is reminiscent of the robots in the Transformers films, only less annoying. At the very least, their humor hits the mark more often than not. But it still isn't as sharp as the humor in the original cartoon of the 80s.

Anyway, in this story, April O'Neil, struggling reporter for Channel 6 News, discovers acts of vigilantism performed by mysterious people, but no one believes her, not even her fellow cameraman Vern Fenwick. Then one night she runs into them and finds out they're mutant turtles, and they come from something her late father worked on in a lab many years ago. In the meantime, the treacherous Foot Clan led by Shredder, have a plan to destroy New York City, and the turtles are pertinent to the plan.

If one were to make comparisons between this and the Transformers films, it can be said that this TMNT adaptation is much closer to the original than the former ever was to their cartoon. They may have changed the turtles origins a bit, including Splinter's origins too, but the general feel of the film is pretty close to the cartoon. The action sequences are also not too shabby, though it doesn't really pick up until the third act when the turtles are sliding down a snow mountain in a huge truck with the bad guys in pursuit.

Megan Fox, still looking as hot as ever, does a decent job as April, though I wished there was more depth to her character, as in more chances for dramatic impact. Will Arnett provides good comic relief as Vern while William Fichtner as always does not disappoint in the villain role of Eric Sacks. The four guys playing the turtles also deserve credit, as well as Johnny Knoxville, who lends his voice to Leonardo.

The villains however are rather weak. Sacks, although a textbook villain in the way he conducts business, is the only one that stands out. Shredder, played by Tohoru Masamune, comes off like a caricature, and with that heavy costume on, resembles a rejected version of the Silver Samurai from last year's Wolverine film. The CGI for Splinter is also rather disappointing. And one can't help but feel that the entire plot is really simplified so the kids will get it and enjoy it.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles overall is a lot like the 2007 animated cartoon in terms of quality. It's not bad, it's enjoyable enough and has plenty of entertaining elements. But brain food this certainly isn't, and you should keep that in mind. (3.5/5)

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