Review: The Maze Runner

the maze runner poster movie poster one sheetIt’s a dystopic, post-apocalyptic future and teens are being picked on again. They’re not the keeper of the community’s memories, they aren’t supposed to kill each other, they’re just stuck in this massive concrete and steel edifice with only their own wits and guile to make it through each day. In fact, some of the teen boys — and it’s all boys, for no obvious reason — have been in The Glade for years, trying to eke out sustenance while avoiding The Maze. Yes, in case you haven’t figured it out, they’re all stuck in the middle of this massive maze.

Everything revolves around the newest “greenie”, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), who has appeared in the Glade exactly how everyone else has: via a freight elevator that comes up to the surface from a subterranean complex. He’s different than the other boys (of course!) in that he’s driven to figure out what’s going on, what the Maze is all about and why they’re stuck there. The status quo, a fragile society built by old-timer Gally (Will Poulter), Thomas finds completely unacceptable, with its caste system and fear of exploration.

There are a group of boys called Maze Runners who dash into the massive Maze every morning, running up and down the different lanes to map it all out and find a way out. But they have to be swift: the maze closes and leaves the boys in the glade isolated every night at sunset. Anyone left inside the maze at night is killed by the Grievers. Maze, meet Minotaur.

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Who wins: Jesse Stone vs. Alex Cross?

This is a guest piece by film buff Alexander Bailey…

tom selleck in 'stone cold' 2005The moment I heard about the Jesse Stone movie series, I was instantly reminded of the Alex Cross book and movie series. I did what any self-respecting movie lover would do and fired up Netflix to compare them.

The first film in the Stone series is Stone Cold (2005) and the first Cross film is the self-titled Alex Cross (2012). The two have an almost eerily similar premise: A bad to the bone, take nothing from nobody, super detective fights a vicious serial killer who makes the hunt personal. The stories take you through the cat and mouse game of police officers who have both experienced great personal loss as part of catching infamous criminals who had evaded the rest of the police force.

The similarities between these two movies are so comprehensive that writing about the differences is going to be a challenge. Let’s start with their family lives. Both of the detectives were married, and both of them lost their wives. Stone lost his to divorce and Cross lost his wife to a killer he was pursuing. More similarities unfold during the rising action of Stone Cold, when Stone’s girlfriend at the time is murdered. Just like in the Cross movies, the murder was vengeful, done by a killer he was pursuing.

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Compare and Contrast “Emma” vs. “Clueless”

emma movie poster one sheet As part of the Denver Film Critic Association I have apparently gotten myself into something that I might well regret: helping out a school writing class by reading and offering feedback for some young film critics. Their assignment: review and contrast the films Emma (1996) and Clueless (1995).

Which means I also need to watch both these films. Yikes.

My teen daughter laughed and said that Clueless is hilarious, which worries me a little bit, but she also hasn’t seen Emma, so at least I have a designated co-victim for the cinematic extravaganza.

clueless movie poster one sheetStill, what am I in for?

Here’s what IMDb says about the two movies:

Emma: “Based on the Jane Austen novel, “Emma” tells the story of a young woman in England who plays her town’s matchmaker.

“When attempting to match up her friend with the Reverend Elton, Emma starts to run into complications, which multiply amongst themselves with cases of mistaken intentions of love, a cast of supporting characters who each love someone else, but Emma doesn’t know who loves who, and Emma finally realizing the one person she truly loves.”

and

Clueless: “Cher is rich, pretty, blonde, popular and knows how to talk anyone into doing just about anything. When she can’t get a teacher to give her a better grade, she and her friend Dion match him up with another teacher to make him happier… and maybe a but laxer on his expectations.

emma publicity still photo

Publicity Still from “Emma”

“When a girl named Tai transfers to Cher’s school, she and Dion give her a makeover and attempt to find her a boyfriend. Cher soon realizes that she wants a boyfriend herself, but no one seems right. She goes through a spiritual makeover and realizes that there’s more to life than clothes and popularity before she finds the boy of her dreams.”

publicity still photo from Clueless

Publicity Still from “Clueless”

Emma rates a 6.8/10 on IMDb so it’s not horrible, but that’s not a very high score. Clueless? a 6.7. Very similar scores, nothing to write home about in either case.

Well, wish me luck. And I hope that it’ll be worth it by getting some thoughtful and insightful papers from the students who are participating!

Review: The Giver

the giver movie poster one sheetIt’s the future and after some sort of presumed apocalyptic event, society has been rebuilt with all emotion, all differences, all fear and joy removed. The village is neat and symmetric and the family has been replaced by a unit, mother, father, two children of different ages, each in their assigned domicile. Reflecting this is the black and white cinematography: this particular future really is colorless, not just in terms of skin color, but in terms of the entire range of human experience.

Based on a book of the same name, The Giver stars Brenton Thwaites as Jonas, a boy who has had the ability to see and experience more than just the grey of his world. He’s turning sixteen and while his friends Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeya Rush) are assigned specific jobs in their Ceremony of Growth, Jonas is left for last and assigned the unusual role of Receiver of Memory. If you’re sensing an echo of the setup of the recent teen sci-fi thriller Divergent, you’d be right. Jonas has all four qualities that the Council seeks in a Receiver; intelligence, courage, integrity, and wisdom. Tris, in Divergent, learns she doesn’t fit in either, but unlike Jonas, it’s up to her to escape the bonds of the society and find her own role.

The Giver of Memories is played by Jeff Bridges, in a role quite reminiscent of his role as “cultural village elder” Flynn in Tron: Legacy. It’s his task to act as a human storehouse of all the memories of humanity, all the emotions, experiences that have been banned from the community. Leading the Council of Elders is The Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) who masks her own sense of the loss of their collective humanity in a passion for order, logic and what’s best for everyone.

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Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

tmnt teenage mutant ninja turtles 2014 one sheet posterMichael Bay hired director Jonathan Liebesman and brought back the somewhat radioactive Megan Fox as the human lead in yet another remake of the amusing children’s tale Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. What’s Liebesman done before? Battle: Los Angeles (an incoherent mess) and Wrath of the Titans (a me-too Greek mythology flick). His lack of experience creating a polished film shows, and while Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is true to the comic book origins of the tiny box turtles who grow up in the NY sewers to become smart-aleck ninjas, but it’s a dry exercise in how to string action sequences together into a tired, trope-ridden story.

There’s no story art, no Oscar-worthy cinematography, no acting that really…

Oh, I can’t go on. It’s a live-action movie with a ton of motion capture about four 7-foot turtles who have human facial expressions, adore pizza and have been taught by their genetically tweaked rat sensei to be wicked good ninja warriors defending the streets of New York from bad guys. What the heck did I expect?

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Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

guardians of the galaxy one sheet posterI really liked The Avengers, but there’s something inherently a bit dry about a group of self-important goody-goody characters. It’s the problem of Superman and Captain America (and yes, I know that Superman isn’t one of the Avengers. And never shall DC and Marvel overlap at the cineplex, alas). In fact, the only character who was any sort of relief from the tone was Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr), but his was a more abusive wit coming from a place of ego and hubris. Tedious, really, and Stark is my least favorite character in the entire Avengers squad.

Enter the far more goofy, satirical Guardians of the Galaxy. Imagine a cross between The Avengers and, ohhhh, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Then add world-class visual effects and a ton of sly references to other films, cinematic and cultural history and memes, and you’ve got a film that’s a surprisingly good time at the cineplex!

The story focuses on Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) who is abducted from Earth as a tween immediately following the death of his mother. The kidnappers are a group of space pirates called Ravagers, led by the slightly crazy Yondu (Michael Rooker). Zoom forward and Quill has snuck onto an alien world to acquire a sphere-shaped alien artifact that contains the Infinity Gem. He steals it in a scene that’s a delightful homage to Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in the blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark, just to find out that everyone wants this thing, including the evil Ronan (Lee Pace) and his loyal servant and violent henchman Korath (Djimon Hounsou).

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Review: Hercules

hercules 2014 dwayne johnson movie poster one sheetI should start by clarifying which version of the oft-told Hercules story we’re talking about, because it’s not the animated feature from Disney and it’s most assuredly not the banal early 2014 The Legend of Hercules with Kellan Lutz in the title role. I’m talking about the summer release with the always popular muscleman Dwayne Johnson in the title role, as released jointly by Paramount and MGM.

First the perhaps surprising news: I quite liked and enjoyed Hercules, finding it an unexpectedly deep story with a good cast and, of course, lots of great visual effects, even if occasionally they were a bit splatter-y for my tastes. And I’m a long time fan of Dwayne Johnson, though I swear the man gets more bulky and muscular in each film he makes, leading me to wonder what he’s going to look like in another 4-5 years.

The film is based on the Steve Moore & Admira Wijaya graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars and is directed by the always competent Brett Ratner with a production team that looks like it came directly from the set of 300 and 300: Rise of an Empire [my review: 300: Rise of an Empire]. Maybe all these mythological Greek movies just share props and costumes, actually.

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Review: Lucy

lucy movie - scarlett johansson - one sheet posterThere’s a certain story arc that just about every Luc Besson film has in common, a theme likely inspired by Hitchcock, of the “everyman” caught up in events far beyond their understanding. Even the earliest Hitch works like The 29 Steps explore this theme to great effect. It works well because we then quickly identify with the protagonist and yearn to see them succeed and overcome the challenges that they encounter on their quest for the mythic happy ending.

Besson, however, is in love with American action stunts and cinema by directors like Michael Bay (Transformers), so all of his films are characterized by that regular guy caught up in events but also by this guy turning out to have astonishing martial arts or fighting skills, skills that would give even James Bond a run for his money.

Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is the logical next step in this formula, a scroungy, down-on-her-luck American girl living in Taiwan and hustling to make ends meet. As the film progresses, she turns into a proto-human, a woman who evolves beyond all human limitations and, ultimately, in a sequence surely inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, beyond even a corporeal existence.

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Review: Earth to Echo

Earth to Echo movie poster film one sheetThere’s a clear innocence about the family cinema of previous generations that seems to have been lost in the current crop of movies. In older films, families work together, albeit with some struggles, and children are pleasant and get along pretty well with each other. It’s not all peaches and cream, of course, because there’s some dramatic tension needed to propel the story forward (bad parenting in Mary Poppins, a child who has to recognize that her fill-in parents love her in The Wizard of Oz, and the wave of dysfunctional families in the Disney oeuvre) but still, there’s always a happy, wish fulfillment ending.

Then there are the classic 80’s family films that have an entirely different sensibility about them, most notably E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and The Goonies. Both classics, and while this critic must admit he’s never liked E.T., there’s something about the sarcastic vibe of The Goonies that makes it one of the very best films about childhood from the perspective of the child. The dialog in particular is brilliant at capturing that deep, awkward love children have for their friends, even as they razz each other.

Earth to Echo is a clear descendant of these two 80’s films, with a bit of the enjoyable, but flawed, 2011 film Super 8 added to the mix [read my review of Super 8]. And it’s great fun, even if there’s a bit too much found footage for some tastes.

The biggest problem with Earth to Echo is that I felt it was too intense for the pre-tween set (I wouldn’t take my 10yo daughter to see it, for example, though I know my 14yo would love it), though, to be fair, I only recently let her see The Goonies and she was alarmed by some of the chase and fight scenes.

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Review: Snowpiercer

Through a happy coincidence, a friend invited me over to watch the English-language Korean release of the sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer. The US distribution rights have been purchased by The Weinstein Company and it’s scheduled for a US release on June 27, so this review is of what’s possibly a slightly different version (though industry buzz is that the changes that TWC asked director Bong Joon Ho to make were all rejected).

snowpiercer one sheet posterI’m a sucker for apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies, as I have written about before, whether the plague is zombies, alien invasions, pandemics or just vague nuclear warfare. There’s something about prying open the veneer of civilization to see what’s inside that I find quite fascinating.

Snowpiercer, however, can’t decide whether it is a socially aware post-apocalyptic movie or a horror film and instead tries to meld the two with only limited success. Based on the acclaimed 1982 French graphic novel La Transperceneige, the film begins with a series of radio broadcasts that explain that the nations of the world got together to combat global warming by seeding the clouds with a chemical called CW-7. It backfires and the entire world is plummeted into an ice age.

Everyone dies, everything is a frozen wasteland, except the lucky people who were on Snowpiercer, a self-contained 1001-car long train that continually circumnavigates the globe.

The majority of the film takes place 17 years after the disaster and the train’s first, second and third class accommodations have devolved into a very strange universe where the wealthy enjoy the luxuries of the front cars while the rabble, the great unwashed are trapped by force into the last grouping of cars, dirty, angry, kept at bay by armed guards, and fed gelatinous bars of protein (you don’t want to know how they’re made but you’ll find out anyway).

The leaders of the downtrodden are the young, headstrong Curtis (Chris Evans) and the wise old Gilliam (John Hurt). Curtis and his buddy Edgar (Jamie Bell) are fed up with their terrible treatment and are determined to storm the front cars of the train and take over, regardless of the cost. When the weird Mason (Tilda Swinton) shows up with a retinue of guards to take a couple of under-5 children, the class war erupts, and when Gilliam is killed, Curtis wreaks his revenge by murdering Mason in cold blood. Class warfare is rough stuff.

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