The Maze Runner


There's no David Bowie at the center of this labyrinth.

There’s no David Bowie at the center of this labyrinth.

(2014) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Kara Scodelario, Aml Ameen, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Will Poulter, Ki Hong Lee, Blake Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Dexter Darden, Chris Sheffield, Joe Adler, Alexander Flores, Jacob Latimore, Randall D. Cunningham, Don McManus, Michael Bow, Jerry Clark, Gary Hood, Nick Killebrew. Directed by Wes Ball

We generally have a good sense of where we are and who we are. When we wake up in the morning, we know we are in familiar territory, where we’re supposed to be. But what if you woke up one morning and didn’t have a clue where you were – or even your own name?

But that’s what happens to each and every boy in the strange place they call the Glade. A grassy knoll with a small forest surrounded by huge walls, every month without fail an elevator brings up a new arrival and supplies. What doesn’t come up the elevator they grow. It’s a fairly pastoral life. When the boys – and they’re all boys – wake up, they have no memory of who they are, where they are or where they came from. They’re just there. After a day or two, they remember their first name, but that’s all.

This month’s new arrival is Thomas (O’Brien). He is given the lay of the land by Alby (Ameen), the charismatic leader of the boys. Thomas is a curious sort. What’s beyond the walls? The maze. Why don’t you just leave? We can’t. Why not? There are monsters. They’re called Grievers. Nobody who spends the night in the maze survives. Is there a way out? We’re looking for it. We send runners into the maze every day to map it out. We haven’t found the exit yet but we will. How long have you been looking? Three years.

Thomas is befriended by Chuck (Cooper), a younger heavyset boy, and Newt (Brodie-Sangster), a quiet British chap. There’s also Gally (Poulter), a by-the-book sort who detests change and lives in justified fear of what’s out there, and Minho (Lee), the leader of the runners who comes to a grudging respect for Thomas who seems to be a born leader. But who put them there and why?

This is based on the classic James Dashner young adult sci-fi epic, the first of several books in a series. It’s one of those books that, like the TV series Lost always winds up generating a lot of questions and for every question it answers raises two or more new ones in its place.

Definitely meant to appeal to young adolescent boys in the same way Twilight and The Hunger Games appeals to young adolescent girls, in Thomas we have a taciturn, curious and brave young man. Teen Wolf star O’Brien plays him with a kind of blank expression most of the time, pulling out grief and rage when the occasion calls for it. I don’t know if it’s a sign of limited range or that range wasn’t called for here; it left me a little bit cold for the character.

Most of the support is all right, particularly Poulter playing a very different character than his geeky kid in We’re the Millers. Patricia Clarkson stops by for a cup of coffee near the end and Brodie-Sangster is effective as Newt. Scodelario who is the only female with any appreciable screen time seems to have been cast mainly for her resemblance to Kristen Stewart and Lee is actually pretty good as a kind of junior John Cho.

Cooper comes off with the most promise as a more likable version of Chunk from The Goonies. Chuck has a certain hero-worship for Thomas but is capable of standing on his own two feet. Chuck is loyal to a fault and may not have the physical presence of Thomas but has his back unconditionally. Miller captured all of that and in many ways was much more interesting than O’Brien. I’d much rather have spent more time with Chuck than with the more conventional hero Thomas.

The Grievers are nightmarish, a kind of biotech weapon that is part machine and part creature, spiders with silver legs and many, many teeth. They also have stingers that inject a venom into their victims that drives them violently made, wreaking further havoc. The easily impressionable who are prone to nightmares should think twice about seeing this one.

I left characterizing this as a kind of Lord of the Flies with hints of Lost and Divergent thrown in for good measure and that’s as much hint about the rest of the story as I’m willing to give. There is plenty of CGI, most of it okay but none of it really awe-inspiring.

The ending is pretty much there to set up a sequel (which has already been greenlit based on this film’s successful first weekend). There really isn’t any feeling of a conclusion and so I left the theater curiously unsatisfied. I would need another movie to allow me feel like I’d actually seen a complete movie beginning to end.

REASONS TO GO: Genuinely scary monsters. Some good supporting performances. Definitely for those who wanted to see Lord of the Flies done by the Lost creative team.
REASONS TO STAY: O’Brien is a bit wooden. Unsatisfying ending.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence and some foul language. The Grievers are pretty nightmare-inducing as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fifth movie in which Judd and Freeman have appeared together in.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Divergent
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Definitely Maybe!

Advertisements

Intermedio


While they're both pretty in pink, Molly Ringwald they're not.

While they’re both pretty in pink, Molly Ringwald they’re not.

(2005) Horror (The Asylum) Edward Furlong, Steve Railsback, Cerina Vincent, Amber Benson, Callard Harris, Paul Cram, Alejandro Samaniego, Dean Arevalo, Eric Castelton, Josef Geiger, Richard Miranda, Michael Latt, Serina Latt, Adam Gobble. Directed by Andrew Lauer

We all want to have some sort of control over our own lives. However, it is the things that we cannot control that eludes us and drives us crazy. The things we cannot explain, most of all – how can we control what we don’t understand?

Malik (Furlong) and his ex-girlfriend Gen (Vincent), her friend Barbie (Benson) who incongruously wears a t-shirt that says “Kari” and her other friend Wes (Harris) decide to take a weekend trip to a ghost town. Now this wouldn’t be bad in and of itself but they make a stop at an abandoned mining operation with miles of tunnels that are said to stretch to the Mexican border. Even though Gen and Malik’s fathers both disappeared in those self-same tunnels, the four decide to climb down and take a look for themselves. Poor decision making at its finest.

Once there they run into a couple of drug dealers – Jorge (Samaniego) and Al (Arevalo) with their mute tag-along teen friend Zee (Cram) – hauling in some contraband from Mexico. The armed dealers force the other four to accompany them. This makes no sense whatsoever – why not just shoot them and be done with it? – but fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point of view, they are attacked by vicious ghosts. Or spirits. Or specters. Or whatever you want to call them.

This leads to much screaming, lots of running and some pretty nifty deaths. There seems to be no way out of this maze of tunnels. The criminals and the criminally stupid must join forces to survive but there are some questions to be answered – what are these ghosts and why are they so angry? Who is the mysterious old man (Railsback) and what does he have to do with any of this? And why doesn’t Zee have anything to say?

The Asylum is known for low-budget direct-to-video horror films that often crop up on premium cable movie channels and like many low-budget direct-to-video horror film studios runs the gamut in terms of quality. Certainly the special effects are none-too-special here, a combination of practical effects and CGI that aren’t terrifying at all.

Furlong, who once played John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day has had a checkered career since then that has been plagued by substance abuse and legal issues stemming from domestic abuse cases. He is reasonably talented, particularly when it comes to playing characters with a dark disposition as he does here. I do hope he figures things out and gets his life in order; he’s had a rough life from day one and deserves a little happiness.

Benson, one of the mainstays of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series is reasonably hot although Vincent isn’t hard on the eyes at all herself and essentially, they both are playing generic scream queens (heroine and victim of course). They mostly have to run through dusty tunnels and swear a lot – and I do mean a lot. People offended by bad language will feel their eardrums bursting into flames here.

I like the premise quite a bit and there was a worthwhile horror film to be made here but it’s a victim of lazy writing and a budget that didn’t match their ambitions. Horror movies get a bad rap sometimes for these same reasons; they can’t help the latter so much but the former they certainly can. Cranking out gore for gore’s sake doesn’t a good horror movie make. I hope sometime that producers of the genre will realize that a horror movie is like any other movie in that if you want to make a good movie, you need interesting characters and well-thought out plots. Just throwing a bunch of generic horror film characters into a standard situation – or even a nifty idea – doesn’t really do anything for anybody. This isn’t a total waste of time and energy (I’m an Amber Benson fan admittedly) but it could have used a bit of care and love in pre-production before any film was actually shot.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice concept.  Benson is memorable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poorly shot and so murky in places you can’t tell what’s going on. Sound cuts out at one point. Cheesy CGI.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and gore and a surfeit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Barbie is on crutches in the movie due to an injury actress Amber Benson suffered prior to filming.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not applicable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: From Dusk Til Dawn

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: District B-13: Ultimatum

Wrath of the Titans


Wrath of the Titans

Sam Worthington likes to use the big forks.

(2012) Swords and Sandals Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Sam Worthington, Rosamund Pike, Bill Nighy, Edgar Ramirez, Toby Kebbell, Danny Huston, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, John Bell, Lily James, Sinead Cusack, Alejandro Naranjo, Freddy Drabble, Kathryn Carpenter. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman

 

Most remember Clash of the Titans from 2010 and maybe the original back in 1981. The first film was a Ray Harryhausen camp classic while the newer one was a massive hit, although it took a lot of critical hits. Much of the criticism was aimed at the 3D process which was tacked on at the end of post-production and quite frankly was one of the worst 3D conversions ever.

The new film picks up 10 years after the last one left off, with Perseus (Worthington) burying his wife and trying to raise his son Helius (Bell) simply as the son of a fisherman. That proves difficult when your father is Zeus (Neeson), the king of the gods. Zeus shows up unannounced to Perseus’ new home to tell him that a storm is brewing. The people of Greece have lost faith in the gods and no longer pray to them. Without the prayers to bolster them, the powers of the gods are waning which is not necessarily a good thing. Perseus, however, refuses to leave his son’s side.

Many years earlier the gods had imprisoned the Titans after Kronos, the father of Zeus, Hades (Fiennes) and Poseidon (Huston) tried to kill his kids. There’s tough love, but that’s going a little bit too far don’t you think? Anyway the three men defeat their dad by combining their three weapons – Hades’ pitchfork, Poseidon’s trident and Zeus’ thunderbolt – all forged by Hephaestus (Nighy). The trio banish Kronos and his Titans to a special prison designed by Hephaestus beneath Mt. Tartarus. Now, with the power of the gods ebbing away, the walls are beginning to crumble. Once those walls fall, Kronos will be released from his prison and the universe will be remade in the wrathful titan’s image – and it ain’t a pretty picture.

When Hades and Ares (Ramirez) turn on Zeus and deliver him to Kronos, draining Zeus’ power to hasten the release of Kronos. In return, Hades and Ares will retain their immortality. It becomes obvious that Perseus will have to get involved despite his misgivings. He seeks out Queen Andromeda (Pike) for help, mainly with releasing the son of Poseidon, Agenor the Navigator (Kebbell). Agenor in return will help find Hephaestus who will in turn show them the back way into Tartarus. Time, however, is of the essence.

Like its predecessor, the movie is effects-laden and cursed with a back-end 3D conversion process. Much of the movie takes place underground so the lighting is dim to begin with; the 3D makes it even dimmer, so much so that some of the action is difficult to make up. Because of Kronos’ volcanic nature, there is much smoke and ash everywhere which also makes viewing difficult. Those who have a choice should really consider seeing the movie in standard form.

That said, the movie isn’t as bad as some critics are letting on. I’ll grant you that Worthington is a little flat in places but Fiennes and Neeson are delightful in their godly roles and Pike is a marvelous warrior Queen. The movie is entertaining to the max and delivers on the thrills and while some of the monsters are a little bit out of left field (like the enormous Cyclops and the snottastic Minotaur), they are at least fun to watch.

There’s plenty of swordplay and Agenor supplies some comic relief. All in all, this is mindless fun that doesn’t demand much of the viewer and returns plenty in terms of your entertainment dollar. It’s the kind of movie you can go to and shove your problems away for a couple of hours with a bag of popcorn and an ice cold soda in the darkness. Movies like this are the reason going to the movies is so fun.

REASONS TO GO: Mindless, fun entertainment. Fiennes and Neeson are wonderful.

REASONS TO STAY: Too dark for 3D. Worthington is a little bit bland in the lead.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fantasy violence not to mention a few disturbing monster images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gemma Arterton was supposed to return to the series as Io but was unable due to scheduling conflicts, so her character was killed off-screen. Alexa Davalos was also supposed to return as Andromeda but was “unavailable” so Rosamund Pike was re-cast in the role.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100. The reviews are mainly negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Immortals

M.C. ESCHER LOVERS: The sets in Tartarus have an Escher-esque quality to them.  

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey


Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

Elmo and Friend

(2011) Documentary (Submarine Deluxe) Kevin Clash, Whoopi Goldberg, Frank Oz, Rosie O’Donnell, Joan Ganz Cooney, Fran Brill, Caroll Spinney, Martin P. Robinson, Bill Baretta, Jim Henson, Bob Keeshan, Kermit Love. Directed by Constance Marks and Phillip Shane

 

Dreams come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some dream of being an artist, or an astronaut or a hero. Other dreams are smaller than that – some in fact downright pint-sized. Some dreams come covered in fur and foam.

Ever since he was a kid in Baltimore, Kevin Clash dreamed of being a puppeteer. One look at Sesame Street and he was hooked. So much so that he made his own puppet – out of the lining of his father’s overcoat. Rather than getting a spanking, he got encouragement which I believe qualifies his parents for instant admission to heaven right there.

While most kids in his working class neighborhood were playing sports, Kevin was putting on puppet shows. His early shows caught the eye of a children’s show host in the Baltimore area and before long Kevin was performing on television.

After graduating high school, he went to New York City to work on the old Captain Kangaroo show as an onscreen actor and puppeteer but his heart still belonged to Jim Henson and the Muppets which were just starting to take off. Kevin had learned everything he knew from watching Sesame Street but he needed to know more.

For that he needed a mentor and he couldn’t have asked for a better one than Kermit Love. Love was one of Henson’s go-to guys in terms of building and designing Muppets and although the name recalls one of Henson’s other creations, Kermit the Frog was actually created by Henson years before he met Love.

Love encouraged the young African-American puppeteer and gave him good career advice throughout Clash’s career. With Love’s encouragement, Clash got to work as a puppeteer on a Sesame Street Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade float which led him to getting a gig on Sesame Street itself.

It was there when a frustrated senior puppeteer threw a furry red Muppet at Clash and said “See what you can do with him” that Elmo was born. With the piping high voice and the insatiable need for hugs, Clash immediately saw that Elmo represented love. Children all over the world responded to Elmo, realizing that he needed them as much as they needed him.

This would take a toll on Clash’s marriage and home life. Although his relationship with his daughter seems to be pretty good, he expresses regret that he missed a lot of her childhood. Unfortunately, not a lot of that is explored to any extent in the documentary. In fact, we don’t even learn when or why his marriage ended (although given the time demands on Clash and his insistence that he do everything Elmo-related himself the reasons seem somewhat clear).

In fact it could be said that the documentary doesn’t really deal with anything negative at all. We get a sense that Kevin had a difficult time in establishing his career, but it’s mostly glossed over. We are told he got teased as a child but we don’t get to hear what he thought about it.

Clash is an intensely private and shy person who doesn’t really like talking about himself which is awfully ironic because he plays a character who certainly isn’t shy about expressing his feelings and actually teaches kids how to express theirs. We never hear about how or even whether his ethnic background was an issue in his career – one thinks not, but his is the only African-American face we see among the puppeteers in the movie with the exception being an aspiring puppeteer – a young girl from Atlanta whom is looking for mentoring from Kevin the same way Kevin looked to Kermit Love.

The stories are heartwarming at times – enough so I probably rated the film a little bit higher than I would have normally. We see Kevin’s reaction to a dying child wanting to meet Elmo, or Kevin’s reaction to the death of Jim Henson – but there is little flesh added to the story. We hear the how, the who, the when, the what but rarely the why. It took the filmmakers six years to film this and it’s disheartening that I know little more about Kevin Clash than I could have read in his online bio.

On the surface, Kevin is a great subject for a documentary but this isn’t a great documentary. I would have liked to get inside Kevin’s head and heart a little bit more, find out more of the process that brought Elmo from felt and foam into flesh. In that sense, this film could have learned from Henson himself; the characters should be more than just what you see on the surface. They are made real by what animates them. I would have liked to have discovered more about what animates Kevin Clash.

REASONS TO GO: Genuinely heartwarming. A few tugs at the heartstrings.

REASONS TO STAY: The documentary structure asked some questions I wanted answers to late in the film and bounced back and forth in the linear timeline a bit too much.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a drug reference and a couple of mild swear words but okay for most Sesame Street-aged kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bleibtreu provided the voice for Flynn Rider in the German version of Tangled.

HOME OR THEATER: Should probably be seen at home, although if it is playing in a local art house it wouldn’t hurt to give it a bit of support.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill begins!