Maze Runner: The Death Cure


How can they be surprised at the bad reviews?

(2018) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, Kaya Scodelario, Dexter Darden, Will Poulter, Jacob Lofland, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Aidan Gillen, Patricia Clarkson, Barry Pepper, Nathalie Emmanuel, Katherine McNamara, Walton Goggins, Dylan Smith,  Jake Curran, Greg Kriek, Liza Scholtz. Directed by Wes Ball

 

There have been a number of dystopian sci-fi trilogies in the young adult book market as of late, several of which have been converted to the silver screen. Divergent, The Hunger Games and Maze Runner all feature young heroes who shoulder the responsibility of changing their society for the better. It makes me wonder if that hasn’t rubbed off on the current generation who recently took to the streets to protest a lack of movement on gun control.

However, while one applauds the passion of the Parkland pack, it’s hard to appreciate the cinematic skills displayed on this, the finale of the Maze Runner series. It’s stupefying in its length – two hours and twenty odd minutes – and seems to be repetitive in its action. We learn the horrifying truth about WCKD – that in a latch-ditch effort to find a cure for the disease that has overtaken 80% of he population they have taken to experimenting on young people who have shown immunity to the disease which turns people into ravening homicidal maniacs – zombiesque you might say – that has essentially wiped out civilization in all but the Last City.

The original group of maze runners has shown up on a variety of sides; Teresa (Scodelario) is a researcher for WCKD and her mother (Clarkson) is the head scientist for them. Minho (Lee) has been taken by WCKD and its head security guy Janson (Gillen); Newt (Sangster) has finally come down with the disease while Thomas (O’Brien) is leading the rescue efforts to pick up Minho before they sail to a deserted island to live away from the madness in peace and tranquility.

The trend of dividing the trilogy finale into two separate movies was not adopted here, likely because the filmmakers did enough padding (for example, the opening train sequence doesn’t appear in the book) and still couldn’t fill up two movies. As usual with young adult adventure stories, kids are heroic (mostly) and adults are evil (mostly) and the adults underestimate the kids and don’t understand them – yes, it’s a bit pedantic but I suppose you have to appeal to the sensitivities of the market you’re after.

Sangster is one of my favorite young actors out there but he doesn’t get much to do here until the end. O’Brien shows tremendous potential but he hasn’t really won me over yet – the character of Thomas is just too cliché which is hardly his fault and yes, he imbues the character with nobility but Thomas is so one-note it’s difficult to assess whether O’Brien can pull off a multi-layered performance yet so the jury’s still out in my case.

There are plenty of pyrotechnics and oceans of CGI images and for the most part it’s executed well and why wouldn’t it be? With production delays incurred due to an on-set accident which put out the lead performer for almost a year, the effects houses were given plenty of time to work on the images. Still the story is so weak, the characters so been there done that and the movie way overlong that recommending this film is simply not in the cards. I am not convinced that this is the death cure but it sure is a cure for insomnia.

REASONS TO GO: The pyrotechnics and special effects were nifty in places.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is interminably long, dumb and predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is action and violence, some thematic concerns as well as a smattering of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: O’Brien was seriously injured during the opening train scene when he fell off the top of the train; it took nearly a year for him to recover from his injuries, delaying the release of the film from 2017 to January 2018..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Divergent Series: Insurgent
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Family

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War for the Planet of the Apes


Caesar can be a little grumpy sometimes.

(2017) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karen Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbell, Gabriel Chavarria, Judy Greer, Sara Canning, Devyn Dalton, Aleks Paunovic, Alessandro Juliani, Max Lloyd-Jones, Timothy Webber, Lauro Chartrand, Shaun Omaid, Roger Cross, Mercedes de la Zerda. Directed by Matt Reeves

 

This past summer was largely disappointing when it came to quality blockbusters. Sure, there were the usual suspects; loud sci-fi action, crude comedies, big superhero epics and so on. Mostly all of the high expectations for some of these wannabe billion dollar franchises fizzled out of the gate with only a few exceptions.

War for the Planet of the Apes however was one of the best-reviewed films of the entire summer. That rarely translates to big box office bucks – it didn’t recoup its $150 million production budget at the domestic box office and it finished with under $500 million at the worldwide box office, a decent enough number but surely not to the expectations of the suits at Fox.

The movie was curiously light on action despite the title; what it turned out to be was an ape character study of Caesar (Serkis), leader of the intelligent apes and the Colonel (Harrelson), the militaristic dictator of the remnants of humankind. You see the virus that made the apes smart is making humans dumb as rocks. Few thinking, rational human beings remain. The Colonel thinks all of the apes should be wiped off the face of the Earth so that humans can survive; in his mind, Homo sapiens won’t go gently into that good night.

Serkis delivers the best performance of his diverse career. Caesar is extremely conflicted; he wants peace but there is no reasoning with a fanatic. When struck by a personal tragedy, Caesar feels despair and fury but he is still tempered by the basically decent simian that he is. Of course, he’s an inspiring leader of his tribe who look to him as their savior while to the Colonel he’s a different kind of symbol. Zahn provides comic relief (and pathos) as Bad Ape.

There is a subplot involving a mute human child that ties into the ape movies of the 60s and 70s which aficionados of those films will appreciate; I surely did. There aren’t a ton of action sequences but the ones there are Reeves pretty much nails.

The CGI is surprisingly substandard for a film of this importance; there are some sequences in which it is painfully obviously computer-generated. Good CGI is seamless and fits into “reality” like a glove. That doesn’t happen here and it takes the viewer right out of the film from time to time.

I wasn’t among the critics singing the praises of this film. To my eye, it isn’t as good as the first two films in the series. I’m not sure the studio initially had faith in it either as  the movie could easily end the franchise right here; however with a fourth film already approved by Fox and a strong overseas box office chances are the franchise will continue, hopefully with films better than this one. However it is still a better than average summer movie and despite its flaws one of the best to come out this past summer which isn’t saying much.

REASONS TO GO: Serkis does some of his best work ever here. The Nova subplot is truly captivating.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is sadly uneven and isn’t up to the high standards of the franchise. Some of the CGI looked too much like CGI.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images, plenty of sci-fi violence and battle scenes as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Serkis in interviews promoting the film indicated that this won’t be the conclusion of the series which may come in the fourth or fifth film of the series; in fact, Fox has already greenlit a fourth film in the franchise.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starship Troopers
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mother, I Love You

Phantasm: Ravager


A dramatic background befits the late Angus Scrimm.

A dramatic background befits the late Angus Scrimm.

(2016) Horror (Well Go USA) Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm, A. Michael Baldwin, Dawn Cody, Daniel Roebuck, Bill Thornbury, Stephen Jutras, Kathy Lester, Daniel Schweiger, John Johannessen, Ken Jones, Cesare Gagliardoni, Tim Devar, Vinton Heuck, Jonathan Sims, Kyle Shire, Jay Oliva, Gloria Lynne Henry, Cean Okada. Directed by David Hartman

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In many ways, the late 70s and early 80s were a golden age of horror that ranked right up there with the 30s when Universal seemed to release a classic horror movie every other week. Starting In 1978, low-budget indies were cranked out at an astonishing rate; most were in the vein of Halloween and Friday the 13th, both the 400-lb gorillas of the horror genre of the era, but some were a little bit different.

Phantasm was not a traditional film by any stretch of the imagination; it combines demonic horror, multi-dimensional head-trips and a kind of post-hippie weirdness that created a movie that was both spooky and trippy at once. So what if the mausoleum sets were obviously sets? So what if some of the editing was just a little bit awful? So what if the hot chicks just disappear from the movie without explanation? It didn’t get a lot of love at the box office or even on the home video front, but the love it got was forever, man. The people who got into the whole Phantasm franchise got into it heart and soul supporting it through three additional sequels.

This year has been a godsend for fans of the original. Not only is the original film being re-released with a digital restoration (funded partially by superfan J.J. Abrams) but also the first sequel to the franchise to make it into theaters in 18 years. It will almost certainly be the last, sadly; Angus Scrimm, who played the seminal villain The Tall Man passed away this past January 9th of natural causes at the age of 89. Hopefully he didn’t get sent to an alternate dimension as a misshapen dwarf to be a slave.

Like the original movie, this one is a bit of a mindbender. Reggie (Bannister), the ice cream vendor who has become something of a Rambo-esque warrior battling the machinations of The Tall Man, ends up in several different dimensions; one a post-apocalyptic future in which the Tall Man has won and gigantic spheres monitor the planet, indiscriminately killing anyone whom it seems fit to destroy, and the world is overwhelmed by the yellow-blooded slave-dwarves who resemble Jawas from the Star Wars franchise somewhat.

At the same time, he is in a rest home, infected by a disease released into the world by the Tall Man but in the present. After picking up a beautiful young woman named Dawn (Cody) while out in the desert, he observes her murder at the hands of one of the Tall Man’s silver spheres which uses a fork-like appendage to lock into her forehead, and then a drill spirals into her skull and into her brain. Not cool at all, Tall Man.

Now he is reunited with Michael (Baldwin), the kid brother of Jody (Thornbury) who died in the first movie – except that in the apocalyptic dimension Jody is alive and fighting with Michael and Dawn (who’s alive in that dimension too) against the Tall Man. Reggie seems to be the key to chasing him out of all the dimensions – except that Reggie might just be crazy as a bedbug.

Some of you may have read the synopsis and started to type in a different web address in your browser, but just bear with me for a moment. Yeah, I know it sounds insane and confusing but as you’re watching it things just make a weird kind of sense. Of all the sequels in the franchise, this one comes closest to replicating the out-there vibe of the original and ends up being a little bit of an homage as well as a sequel.

Another thing the movie does incredibly well is capture the 70s horror film vibe that is so very much missing from modern horror films (particularly those of the studio variety) which often feel mass-produced and soulless. Say what you want about the production values (and some of the computer effects are genuinely cringe-inducing), this movie has heart and that counts for something.

Scrimm’s Tall Man is one of the most genuinely scary movie villains of all time; I used to have nightmares about him standing in front of an inter-dimensional rift, pointing a finger at me and intoning “BOYYYYYYY!!!” If you’ve seen him do it in any of the five Phantasm films, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. While many horror movie villains these days are creepy, few are as genuinely scary as the Tall Man.

Scrimm still is a force of nature here but the rest of the cast is just adequate, acting-wise. Mostly original writer-director Don Coscarelli hired people he knew and they’ve stuck with him (and he with them) through thick and thin and there’s something to be said for that. They aren’t likely to contend for Oscars anytime soon, but they do the job as well as they’re able and seeing all the familiar faces onscreen evokes a pretty strong sense of nostalgia, for which there is something also to be said. However, I would like to tell these gentlemen those ponytails just look kind of douche-y on men. There are more Brony tails here than there should be in a single movie. It’s just not right.

There are a couple of other obstacles to giving this a much higher score. The ending is a disappointment and there is also a scene involving a horse which is likely to give animal lovers serious nightmares – if you are sensitive to violence to animals, you might want to think twice about seeing this or if you do, have someone with you who can tell you when the scene ends. I’m not particularly a lover of horses but I found the scene kind of wrenching.

If this is to be the final film in the series and there’s no reason to think it won’t be, it’s a fitting send-off. I hope Coscarelli and his crew leave on this high note. I don’t think Scrimm can be replaced, and putting a different villain in will simply call attention to the glaring absence of the REAL Tall Man. I suspect that the movie will be much more meaningful to people of my age group who grew up with the series rather than those discovering it for the first time; while Ravager can probably be watched without seeing the first four movies in the series, I think it will be helpful to at least be familiar with them before seeing this one. Fans of the series will likely be satisfied with this one. And for my money, it’s kind of comforting to know that in fact they can make them like they used to.

REASONS TO GO: The film really captures the vibe of 70s horror films. Scrimm remains one of the iconic horror villains. It ends up being a nice tribute to the franchise.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit off-putting. The horse scene may be too disturbing for animal lovers. There are too many “Brony tails” for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of frightening images and gore as well as a surfeit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the only film in the franchise not directed by Don Coscarelli who remained with the project as a producer.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Evil Dead
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Day 4 of Six Days of Darkness!

Maggie (2015)


Arnold Schwarzenegger revisits his political career.

Arnold Schwarzenegger revisits his political career.

(2015) Horror (Roadside Attractions) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson, Douglas M. Griffin, J.D. Evermore, Rachel Whitman Groves, Jodie Moore, Bryce Romero, Raeden Greer, Aiden Flowers, Carsen Flowers, Walter von Huene, Dana Gourrier, Amy Brassette, David Anthony Cole, Mattie Liptak, Liann Pattison, Maris Black, Jessy Hughes. Directed by Henry Hobson

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I have not been fortunate enough to raise a daughter. There is something very special about that father-daughter bond from what I’ve seen. While there are some dads who aren’t worth a counterfeit penny, most are quite willing to lay down their lives for their little girls if need be.

Maggie Vogel (Breslin) has a dad like that – Wade (Schwarzenegger) who owns a small farm in the Midwest. Disease has broken out – a pandemic that turns those that contract it into flesh-eating cannibals. They become mindless zombies, if you will. Maggie has been bitten by a zombie and now she has the disease. There is no cure. She will slowly die over a period of several months; the end is inexorable. She’s run away from home, to find herself in a hospital. That’s where Wade finds her.

There aren’t many options and none of them are real hopeful. She can be left in the hospital where she’ll be sent to quarantine, eventually to be given a very painful death. She can go home and stay there until she turns, in which case she’ll get a very painful death. Or she can go home and her father can end her existence in a more humane way. Wade chooses the last option.

Things are breaking down back at home. Wade’s second wife Caroline (Richardson) – Maggie’s mom passed when she was a little girl – and her two kids with Wade Bobby (A. Flowers) and Molly (C. Flowers) don’t really understand what’s going on, although Bobby sort of does. Eventually Caroline packs up the kids and sends them to live with an aunt, joining them herself. While she does understand what’s going on, she doesn’t get why Wade would put their two healthy children in harm’s way for the sake of a daughter who is dying. Wade doesn’t really have an answer for her that she understands.

Maggie hooks up with an old flame back at home, Trent (Romero) who also has the disease. He doesn’t want to go to quarantine – he’s heard that the conditions there are terrifying. He locks himself in his room and only Maggie can talk him out but the local sheriff (Griffin) and his mean-hearted deputy (Evermore) drag him away to quarantine anyway. Maggie knows that she doesn’t want a similar fate for herself.

But the signs are getting more unavoidable. She finds live maggots in her arm. When she cuts open a finger, she feels no pain – and oozes viscous black liquid instead of blood. She regularly vomits up horrifying liquids. She can feel her humanity slipping away. The question is, does Ray have the strength to let go of his daughter and spare her things even worse?

=Zombies are a hot commodity in terms of film and television, with The Walking Dead being the number one show on TV as this is written. However, Maggie really isn’t about zombies; they are barely part of the landscape here. We see little violence involving zombies, although on the few occasions where there is some it is sudden and horrifying. No, Maggie is about death and dying – and given the subject, yes the tone is bleak and grim.

Schwarzenegger is of course first and foremost an action hero but the man is not far from his 70th birthday and action roles don’t really suit him anymore. Given a chance to show his dramatic chops, Schwarzenegger actually shines and comes out with the best performance of his storied career. His Wade is gentle, honest and loyal but he is also very conflicted. He knows what’s best for his daughter, but finds it hard to even consider letting her go, even to the point of possibly letting her suffer. It makes the movie’s denouement even more poignant. I truly hope that Schwarzenegger gets more roles like this in the coming years; he can certainly handle them.

Breslin is already a known quality. She started out as a child actress and became one of the best juvenile actresses in history. As a young woman, she shows she can handle much more layered, complex roles. She has all the skills to be one of her generation’s most successful performers, with the kind of talent that wins Oscars and carries lead roles in important franchise films.

There are plenty of pastoral images that indicate a lifestyle that’s both rural and satisfying. Perhaps there are a few too many of those; at times the filmmaker seems a bit more in love with the style over the substance which is a bit of a shame because the substance here is pretty outstanding. Hobson has a background in making titles and graphic design and certainly his expertise shows here which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but hopefully for future films he’ll give a bit more emphasis to the story.

Oddly, the zombies here are some of the least effective ever seen onscreen. Even during the few attack scenes, they are never as menacing as they are in other presentations. The process of becoming a zombie is given more attention, which is proper and it IS fascinating, but we never get a sense of what the end result is. Becoming a zombie is bad here because it is in other movies for all we know. I would have preferred to see some graphic displays of why becoming a zombie is such a horrible fate. There is a whole lot of weeping over it though.

Also, for a zombie apocalypse, life is going on pretty well as it had before. We don’t get a sense of civilization breaking down whatsoever. But then again, why does it have to? An outbreak of zombie disease doesn’t have to signify an apocalypse, although the zombie inconvenience doesn’t sound nearly as interesting.

There is a lot to recommend this movie, particularly the acting (who’da thought) and the concept, but I think the movie could have been an absolute classic with surer hands at the helm. A little less rumination and a little more action would have benefitted the movie overall.

WHY RENT THIS: This is one of Schwarzenegger’s best performances of his career if not THE best and Breslin is nearly as good.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The zombies aren’t used effectively and the film gets way too schmaltzy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of gore and some disturbing zombie-related images as well as a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Schwarzenegger, who really loved the script, did the movie without taking any sort of payment. The film crew also used the same home and surrounding property of the house in Looper.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are some surprisingly lengthy interviews with members of the cast and crew, as well as an Ultraviolet digital copy of the film on the Blu-Ray edition.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon Prime, iTunes, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.4 million on a $4.5M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life After Beth
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Day 3 of Six Days of Darkness!

World War Z


Flying zombie, disinterested extras.

Flying zombie, disinterested extras.

(2013) Action (Paramount) Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Matthew Fox, David Morse, Ludi Boeken, Fana Mokoena, Elyes Gabel, Peter Capaldi, Pierfrancesco Favino, Ruth Negga, Moritz Bleibtreu, Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove, Fabrizio Zacharee Guido, David Andrews, Vicky Araico. Directed by Marc Forster

When in the midst of a global pandemic, the sheer magnitude and scope of the carnage can be overwhelming. You can’t wrap your head around it. Instead, everything boils down to the basics – protecting yourself, protecting your family.

Gerry Lane (Pitt) used to work for the United Nations as an investigator into human rights abuses. He was put in harm’s way frequently, going to some of the worst cesspools of humanity that you can imagine. Tired of being away from his family and knowing his marriage wouldn’t survive much more of him being away and in jeopardy, he retires and goes home to Philadelphia to be the dad to his daughters Constance (Jerins) and Rachel (Hargrove), not to mention husband to his wife Karin (Enos).

But all of that turns upside-down after being caught in a traffic jam in which seemingly normal humans turn into super-rabid flesh-eating ghouls, zombies for lack of a better term. He manages to steer them to safety in the apartment of a Hispanic family whose son Tomas (Guido) shows a bond with Gerry’s daughters. Gerry gets a call from his old U.N. boss Thierry Umutoni (Mokoena) who offers to airlift Gerry and his family (which now includes Tomas) to an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic. Gerry is in no position to turn it down.

But there’s no such thing as a free ride and Gerry is expected to earn his keep. Umutoni wants Gerry to find the source of the plague so that it might be cured. Gerry doesn’t want to leave his family but the U.N. Military Commander (Dale) essentially blackmails Gerry into it so off he goes with gung-ho U.N. research virologist Dr. Fassbach (Gabel) to find out how to stop this plague which will wipe out civilization in a matter of days if it isn’t stopped.

So begins the roller coaster ride as Gerry and his team go from place to place in a desperate race against time to find the cause of the plague and somehow cure it before civilization collapses entirely, and that collapse is coming almost as fast as the terrifyingly speedy zombies who seem to have the upper hand.

This isn’t a typical zombie movie in which entrails and blood form the main fascination. While there is some leg munching, we rarely see the zombies in close-up except in the last third of the film when Lane is in a World Health Organization research facility in Wales and has a close encounter with a tooth-clicking zombie that is as terrifying as the opening Philadelphia sequence is. If only the middle third was as good as the opening and closing sequences.

There is a lot of carnage but most of it is off-screen. People do get killed but we rarely see it precisely, making it a definite PG-13 kind of movie. There will be those who miss the explicit gore that comes with a zombie movie but I didn’t think it necessary myself here.

Those who loved the Max Brooks book this was based on will miss a lot more than gore. The movie follows the book only in the barest of chalk outlines. While some of the characters from the book appear here, it is often in different contexts. The tone and themes of the book are essentially gone, along with the whole conceit that this is an archival document of a war that had already ended.

Pitt is one of the more appealing actors in Hollywood and he uses that here to make Gerry a character with a bit of a one-track mind – getting back to his family. Da Queen loved that the U.N. Observer was so…observant. Watching him connect the dots was fun, although not as fun as watching the zombies crawl up a stone wall like ants. While the digital zombies lacked character (the way that you get zombie character in such things as The Walking Dead) it is certainly fun watching them swarm. It emphasizes the inhuman portion of them.

This is basically Pitt’s show. He is onscreen nearly every moment and the focus of all our attention. Few of the other characters are developed at all, if any and for the most part even Pitt’s Gerry is kind of one-note. Still, the suspense of walking in dangerous areas with zombies about is impressive and I found myself on the edge of my proverbial seat for much of the movie. Think of it as extra icing on the zombie cake.

REASONS TO GO: I really liked the Brad Pitt character and his performance. Zombies like ants; great visuals!

REASONS TO STAY: Fans of the book will be very disappointed. A little all over the place plot-wise.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s quite a bit of zombie violence, some disturbing images and some intense sequences of suspense.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Matthew Fox’s role was originally much larger and was to be set up to be the human villain for the expected sequel. However after multiple re-writes the role was slimmed down to just five lines of dialogue.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100; the film got surprisingly decent reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Darkest Hour

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: White House Down