Review: The Maze Runner


Director: Wes Ball
Screenplay: Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, T.S. Nowlin
Novel: James Dashner
Producers: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, Gotham Group, Joe Hartwick Jr., Lee Stollman, Lindsay Williams
Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Aml Ameen, Ki Hong Lee, Blake Cooper, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Will Poulter, Dexter Darden, Kaya Scodelario
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 113 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found HERE

 


Another week, another young adult franchise hopeful hits the big screen. Adapted from the book trilogy by James Dashner, The Maze Runner is the seventh YA film to hit screens in the past twelve months and while it hasn’t hit the success level of Hunger Games or even Divergent, it seems to have effectively avoided the gallows of recent DOA flops like Vampire Academy and The Mortal Instruments. The “unique” hook in this series is that it’s headed by a male lead (Dylan O’Brien) and the marketing wisely played up the action elements of the plot in order to pull in a broader audience that expanded across multiple demographics and brought in young men and women alike. It was certainly a strategy that worked and with the help of surprisingly strong international grosses out of the gate and an economic production budget ($34 million compared to the $85 million of Divergent or the $110 million of the doomed Ender’s Game), no one should be surprised that Fox quickly made the move to announce a sequel for Maze Runner on their schedule for the same weekend next year.

As far as the quality of the film itself — well it seems that The Maze Runner falls in the pattern of these YA movies for me personally in that the ones I actually like are poorly received (Divergent, The Golden Compass) while the ones that somehow skate by with passable reception from critics or somehow even get rapturous praise are ones that don’t work for me on any level. I’m not sure why I keep finding myself coming back to these films with the hopes of receiving some form of entertainment but they can occasionally manage to keep my attention occupied for the better part of a few hours, as Divergent did earlier this year with a well-paced run through its derivative, predictable, franchise-baiting plotline. The Maze Runner doesn’t add anything new to spice up the game, despite its tease of that “unique” quality of being centered on a cast almost entirely made up of young men, but its biggest crime is that for the large majority of its running time it is unrelentingly dull.

These young adult movies have seen some impressive names step behind the director chair but Maze Runner finds itself as the feature debut of visual effects artist Wes Ball and there’s no doubting the fact that this feels like a first-time effort of someone who can’t bring the energy required to keep a film’s pulse moving. Set inside the world of “The Glade”, O’Brien stars as Thomas, a new entrant into this Lord of the Flies-esque society of boys who emerge out of an elevator in the ground to discover themselves stranded alone in a walled-off community with no memory of anything that happened in their life prior to that very moment. In a practically neverending series of exposition dumps over the first act of the film, Thomas is educated by various members of the community on the rules that they have learned to operate with in order to keep the peace between this group of hormonal, angry young men who are desperate for a way out (though oddly they don’t seem to be too upset about their predicament). Surely there was a way to make this necessary divulging of information more palatable than literally doing nothing but having Thomas incredulously ask a bunch of questions and having a character simply explain the answers to him in vivid detail, but apparently Maze Runner’s script didn’t have the wherewithal to conjure anything up.

As he becomes accustomed to The Glade (the name the boys coined for their setting), Thomas’ curiosity gets the better of him and he yearns to explore the mysterious maze that lurks beyond the walls that keep the boys prisoner. Every day a group of runners go out and try to map out the maze, while returning home before the walls shut at night and leave them caught out there with the ravenous, ridiculous-looking monsters known as “Grievers”. It’s all boilerplate YA nonsense without much depth or care for construction thrown in as O’Brien tries to force emotions and reactions out of an uninteresting character and the script struggles to come up with any real twists to keep the plot exciting. Early on, when The Glade’s second-in-command Newt (played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster) tells Thomas that no one survives a night in the maze it’s like the movie is just asking you to be patient and wait half an hour so that you can get to the inevitable scene where Thomas (surprise!) is left out in the maze for a night and lives to tell the tale.

The first two acts of The Maze Runner play out exactly as you’d expect them to, with all of the various details and requisite dynamics sketched in through the thin characterizations of the group’s leader Alby (Aml Ameen, who along with Sangster are the only actors who manage to escape this unscathed), the rote and relentlessly irritating (for no reason other than drama) group villain Gally (Will Poulter, whose acclaim and popularity continues to baffle me as he turns in another dreadful performance), the trite cliche of the young innocent Chuck (Blake Cooper) and so on. Kaya Scodelario shows up midway through as the first female entrant into The Glade, which you would think could turn into an interesting plot point and a shift in the routine of this society but they do absolutely nothing with it and she quickly becomes background noise. My blank expression over the course of the majority of Ball’s film had me wishing for anything interesting to happen that would wake me out of my practical slumber but once the third act came along and threw the wrench in the system I found myself wishing I could go back to simpler times when this was just a maddeningly dull exercise in recycled tedium.

If The Maze Runner was primarily nothing more than a flat, wasted experience then the final stretch was one so unbelievably insipid that I wanted to scratch out my eyes from watching it. The exposition dumps come back in full force, including one of the most unbearable offered up in the film that wastes one of my favorite actors whose role I won’t mention here as not to spoil it for anyone unfortunate enough to see this film, as they explain the position these boys are in, the “truth” of their predicament and where things are going to go in that inevitable sequel that will soon be threatening our cinemas once again. The idea of some answers to these mysteries could perhaps be enticing if I cared about any of the characters, anything about their world, or the film did anything to ignite an interest in its plot rather than offering up vague teases at answers that never come and do nothing but try to hook the bait in for the next entry. Clearly it’s something that worked for some people out there, as The Maze Runner is bizarrely one of the few YA franchise-starters to earn positive ratings from critics and it did remarkably well at the box-office but for this viewer I can’t ever imagine subjecting myself to another journey down this wretched rabbit hole. When that aforementioned great actor states that this part of the journey is over and it’s time to begin “phase two”, I couldn’t believe that Ball didn’t just have them look straight into the camera and accept the joke that all of them must be in on.

  

VIFF 2014 Review: Wild

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Last year, John Curran directed one of my favourite movies of not only the festival but of the year. Tracks starred Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson, a young woman who made a 1,700 mile trek across the desert of Western Australia. This year, Oscar nominated Canadian superstar director Jean-Marc Vallée brings us a very similar story, also based on a real life woman who made an 1,100 mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail.

The similarities between the projects are uncanny. Both are adapted from very personal true stories, both films are directed by men and feature a female lead who is essentially walking her way to self salvation but where Tracks played out like a beautiful, pensive story of self discovery, Vallée’s Wild feels like the flashier, Hollywood version of a similar personal struggle, even if both women arrived at their plan in very different ways and under very different circumstances. The flashiness of Wild isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly when you have a director as talented as Vallée.

Reese Witherspoon commands the screen in her performance as Cheryl Strayed and shows that she’s capable of delivering the goods when given the right material and though Wild doesn’t shy away from showing Cheryl at her lowest points, Witherspoon brings a great emotion to the character which makes her appealing even when she’s at her worst.

Adapted from Strayed’s memoir by Nick Hornby, Wild is far funnier than one might expect from a “hard hitting” movie about a journey of self discovery and it works to great effect. I still prefer Curran’s take on similar material but Vallée and Witherspoon’s effort is certainly worth seeing.

Wild is scheduled for release on December 5th.

Trailer: Inherent Vice

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This is way more comically broad that I expected it to be, but the trailer for P.T. Anderson’s 1960s set ‘beach-noir’ is zany and across the board hilarious. I’m going to call it here, this is Anderson’s The Big Lebowski, if this is any indication.

Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon and Eric Roberts are delivering the goods with no apparent safety net.

Have at it.

Trailer: Black Hat

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The world-hopping cinematography looks good as does the gritty-on-the-ground camera work, but the characters speaking and blunt cut-away graphics are borderline embarrassing. Will we ever get a good ‘hacker movie’? I hope it this is a case of a marketing department failing to sell the movie with any wit, over a case where the film is a blunt and silly as this trailer makes things out. We will not abide another The Net.

Set within the world of global cybercrime, the film follows a convict and his American and Chinese partners as they hunt a high-level cybercrime network from Chicago to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Jakarta. Formerly titled Cyber now titled Black Hat which actually means something, but isn’t much better of a title. The film has a release date of January 16, 2015.

Friday One Sheet: Miss Meadows

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Ok, about 50% of movie posters seem to have someone brandishing a gun. So that is nothing new, but contrast the normal, with the particularly conservative floral print dress, and drop it on a blood red field, and yes, key art department, you have my attention. That, and Katie Holmes is headlining films again? Who knew.

Note the white book under her arm, a great detail, considering the story is about an elementary school teacher who moonlights as a vigilante. Who knows if the film will be any good (tone is key to these sorts of things) but the poster did what it should. It made me aware and kind of interested in the thing. The only thing detestable about this design is the upward pointing gun in the logo. With posters from The Drop, and Son of A Gun also featuring the up-pointed gun thing, it’s kind of getting over done.

Oh, and this earlier one, which kind of echoes how the South Koreans make their movie posters, might even be better.

Trailer: Predestination

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The Spierig Brothers’ (Daybreakers, Undead)latest genre romp has time travel paradoxes and Ethan Hawke on the brain. And it is very, very pretty. (And it is very, very good.) Have a look, there is almost no spoilers therein.

From the Robert A. Heinlen novel “All You Zombies” the story of a time-traveling Temporal Agent on his life-long assignment where he must pursue the one criminal that has eluded him throughout time.

Cinecast Episode 367 – Ginormous

After our brief September hiatus we are back to talk about…well…being ‘off the air’ for most of the month. Kurt gives (brief) highlights on the best things he saw at the Toronto International Film Festival. With no interest in either seeing or talking about Young Adult yawnfest The Maze Runner or A Walk Among The Tombstones (aka Taken 4), there is a brief conversation on last weeks’ cinema release, James Gandolfini’s final film, The Drop, a Brooklyn small-time gangster picture which also showcases a fine Tom Hardy performance. We go back to 1984 to re-examine the Joe Dante classic Gremlins. And there is a quite varied Watchlist including The Devil’s Rain, Open Range, Karate Kid III, Night of the Demon and Live.Die.Repeat.

As always, please join the conversation by leaving your own thoughts in the comment section below and again, thanks for listening!


 
 

 
 

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Blu-Ray Review: Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari

Director: Robert Wiene
Screenplay: Carl Mayer, Hans Janowitz
Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover
Producers: Erich Pommer, Rudolf Meinert (both uncredited)
Country: Germany
Running Time: 77 min
Year: 1920
BBFC Certificate: U


As with a number of the classic titles I’ve reviewed here over the last couple of years, Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari (or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari if you couldn’t translate it yourself) is one of the major ‘canon’ titles which has been on my ‘to watch’ list for far too long. Once again, Eureka’s wonderful Masters of Cinema Series has come to the rescue though and released an immaculately restored Blu-Ray (and DVD) of the film, complete with an abundance of special features so that I can finally sink my teeth into this dark and twisted classic of silent cinema.

The film opens with a young man, Francis (Friedrich Feher), telling an older gentleman of the horrific events he endured with his fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover) over the past few months. Francis and his good friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) both fell for Jane on meeting her, but both stated that the other shall be satisfied with the choice she would ultimately make. However, that night they went to the local carnival and entered the tent of Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his somnambulist (a sort of sleep walker) Cesare (Conrad Veidt). The mysterious zombified figure awakened to tell Alan that he would die that night and lo and behold he did. Francis vowed to find the killer, especially seeing as the local police force wasn’t effectively dealing with the situation. Of course the chief suspect was Cesare, but Francis struggled to prove his guilt and various events along the way turned the story in surprising directions, bringing the power and identity of the mysterious Dr. Caligari to the fore. Even when we return to the ‘present day’ there are more twists in store for the audience though and there are still debates as to exactly who played what part in this mystery.

This narrative isn’t always handled brilliantly, rarely making perfect sense and feeling quite muddy at times, but after the whole thing plays out you realise that could well be the idea. Featuring perhaps the first ‘unreliable narrator’, the majority of the film plays out in the mind of the possibly deluded Francis who may or not be being manipulated by the evil (or possibly not evil) Dr. Caligari so a lack of clarity works very effectively in a subtextual sense. The film’s fairly unusual and messy development (inexperienced writers with an experimental idea, the first choice of director – Fritz Lang – being unavailable, and some changes imposed by the producers etc.) may suggest a happy accident though. Whatever the case, the film is certainly more interesting than most from the era due to its structure and twists and these have led to almost a century of discussion among critics and theorists. The film plays havoc with the auteur theory though due to the never fully resolved debate of authorship over the film. The writers Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, designer Hermann Warm, producer Erich Pommer and director Robert Wiene have all claimed or been given credit for the film’s success.

I don’t want to get bogged down by that too much though as, in my mind, a review should be more focussed on how well a film works rather than who was responsible for it doing so.

And Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari still works extremely well. I think the decades of hype and expectation I had coming into the film perhaps prevented me from giving the film top marks, but the reasons for why it has remained so well respected for so long are blatantly clear. Front and foremost is the film’s extreme expressionistic style. Caligari is cited as being hugely influential on film noir, horror movies and more, but, as a few critics and theorists have pointed out, very few, if any, films have actually copied its daring visual-art-infused approach. Rather than simply playing with lighting and camera angles to make dark and unsettling visuals, the sets are crafted in bizarre angles and shapes, and shadows and light patches are literally painted on to the walls. Even the make-up and costumes are exaggerated by strong blacks and whites. This all creates a creepily disorientating and surreal atmosphere, acting as a construct of Francis’ mental state. The closest modern filmmaker I can think of who adopts a vaguely similar style is Tim Burton, but even he doesn’t push the boat out as far as Weine (or whoever was in charge) did. I imagine he’s seen the film a few times though.

What’s interesting about the style is that if you take individual elements of the sets and production design they look rather crude and simplistic, but when presented as a whole within the construct of the film they help create a hugely effective and stunning vision. In fact, I found several shots so bizarrely beautiful I wanted to freeze the frames and hang them on my wall.

Perfectly complementing the bold style are two big but perfectly measured performances from Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt, playing the chief ‘villains’. Krauss is the archetypal evil scientist character for the most part as Caligari, coming across as genuinely unpleasant and fiendish, before presenting a wholly different side after a revelation in the film’s later scenes. Veidt grabs your attention from the moment Caligari opens his cabinet (or rather coffin) and Cesare’s eyes slowly flicker open. He’s a great presence in the film, especially during his still quite shocking abduction of Jane. Like Veidt, he also gets a chance to subvert his character in the final minutes.

Although it might not feel as perfectly formed and fully gratifying as some of the other silent greats like Sunrise or The Passion of Joan of Arc, Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari remains a daring and hugely influential (even if was never fully copied) visionary masterpiece. It was possibly the first (successful) true art house feature, pushing the boundaries of what cinema could mean and how it could be presented. Don’t let that put off those who favour more mainstream fare though, as this is also unsettling and pacey enough to keep modern horror fans thoroughly entertained despite the lack of gore or action. So do yourself a favour and tick this off your ‘to watch’ list like I did. You’ll probably want to see it again too, which is more than can be said for a number of the textbook ‘required viewing’ titles.

Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari is out on 29th September in the UK on dual format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. I watched the Blu-Ray version and I must say, it looked spectacular. There’s a caption at the beginning stating that the first reel was originally lost so was reconstructed from various sources, but even this portion of the film still looks pretty damn good for its age. The rest of the film is astonishing though. The picture is so clear and detailed it practically feels as though you’re there on set. Colour tinting is kept as it is believed to have been intended and works effectively to my eye. The score comes through very nicely too, I watched the 5.1 mix, but you can also listen in stereo.

On top of a magnificent transfer, you get a whole host of special features too. One featurette is on the restoration process itself, which lets you fully appreciate the work that went into it. The end of this places the new restoration side by side with a previous one and an original print to show the difference, which is remarkable.

Also included is a new and exclusive audio commentary by historian David Kalat, which makes for a fascinating and detailed listen, Caligari: The Birth of Horror in the First World War, a new 52-minute documentary on the cultural and historical context of the film, You Must Become Caligari, a roughly made but informative and mildly quirky video essay by David Cairns, and a reissue trailer.

Plus, being a Masters of Cinema release, you get a hefty booklet which includes a collection of stills, an essay from Lotte H. Eisner, the original Variety review of the film and restoration notes and credits.