Franchise Fix: The Maze Runner & Maze Runner: Scorch Trials


Director: Wes Ball

Writers: Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, T. S. Nowlin (screenplay), James Dashner (novel)

Stars: Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario, Will Poulter

3/5

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Release date: September 19th, 2014

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 113 minutes


The Maze Runner is yet another entry in the long, unending line of young adult franchise adaptations. Adapting dense, overwhelming content from stage to screen, cinematic YA series’ have to appease the desires of fans, studio executives, and authors. They go one of two ways: critically and commercially successful (The Hunger Games) or flat on their faces (Divergent).

The Maze Runner was seen as one of 2014’s biggest surprises. Overcoming the YA too-many-at-once stigma, this action flick surpassed the majority of YA fluff to deliver on its promises. The plot kicks off in the thick of the action, with Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) waking up in a steel cage being transported to the maze. After meeting key players, including antagonist Gally (Will Poulter), second in command Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and Runner Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Thomas pieces together the system of operations (the ‘Glade’) along with his shattered consciousness.

As the contemporary version of Lord of the Flies, The Maze Runner is one of few YA flicks to connect with a wider audience. Along with our leads, the audience is trapped in the labyrinthine maze setting throughout the 113-min run-time. Like many YA adaptation, the plot relies on world building and exposition to break down its central premise. Giving every aspect a peculiar title (Glade, Grievers etc.), the film never strays too far away from YA convention.

The film is hindered by its third act, explaining the significance of the maze and its place in the dystopian world. However, it benefits from its action-thriller aura. From first-time feature director Wes Ball, the action sequences illustrate the scope and sense of danger the maze offers. As the ultimate obstacle course, the maze sequences add some much needed thrills and chills. Its cast of bright, young actors make the most the somewhat laughable material.

The Maze Runner, the opening chapter of a promising trilogy, is a fun YA adaptation perfect for a Saturday afternoon.

Verdict: A surprisingly enjoyable YA adaptation. 


Director: Wes Ball

Writers: T. S. Nowlin (screenplay), James Dashner (novel)

Stars: Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario, Ki Hong Lee

3/5

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Release date: September 18th, 2015

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 131 minutes


Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, the second instalment of author James Dashner’s franchise, was released at the tail end of 2015’s blockbuster season. Coming off a surprisingly fun first entry, the sequel could have gone either way. Thankfully, the sequel successfully continues this still-promising series.

The Scorch Trials picks up immediately after the events of the 2014 original. Rescued by an unnamed squadron, led by Janson (Aidan Gillen), Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Frypan (Dexter Darden), and Winston (Alexander Flores) finally feel safe. However, Thomas discovers that their new home is owned by powerful organisation WCKD (led by Paige (Patricia Clarkson)), tasked with testing children to find a cure for a deadly worldwide disease. Escaping from the facility, our leads must face the dystopian wasteland to find the resistance (called Right Arm).

The sequel doubles down on everything, delivering an increased amount of exposition, plot twists, flashbacks, and action sequences. The plot, in true blockbuster sequel fashion, lurches from one major set-piece to the next. This middle chapter merely delivers more of the same; carrying the difficult task of continuing the events of the original whilst building towards the third chapter (The Death cure, due for release in 2017). As an extension, this instalment aptly, but unremarkably, sets up the MacGuffins and conflicts for the future.

On its own, this instalment serves to depict the scope and increasing danger of the series’ dystopian setting. The film becomes an extended obstacle course – jumping between chases, gunfights, and fist-fights against WCKD personnel and zombie populations in the Scorch. Dylan O’Brien and Ki Hong Lee pull off the standard action movie running style. Our characters grow ever so slightly in between moments of awe and spectacle. However, with character actors including Giancarlo Esposito, Lili Taylor, and Barry Pepper joining the cast, screen time becomes scarce.

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is a successful but ultimately underwhelming follow-up to the pacy original.

Verdict: A fun follow-up. 

Home Release Round-up: Seventh Son, The First Time & American Ultra


Director: Sergei Bodrov

Writers: Charles Leavitt, Steven Knight (screenplay), Joseph Delaney (novel)

Stars: Jeff Bridges, Ben Barnes, Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander

2½/5

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Based on Joseph Delaney’s novel, The Spook’s Apprentice, Seventh Son is the very definition of throwaway trash. Released to scathing reviews and even worse commercial traction, this fantasy-epic was thrown to the wolves by its studio overlords.

Seventh Son kicks off with the imprisonment of evil witch mother Malkin (Julianne Moore) by knight/monster hunter/badass (Spook) Gregory (Jeff Bridges) after their romance turned sour. The story jumps forward; Gregory – becoming the last of his kind – scours the land for similar demon-like creatures. After Malkin’s prison break, and his apprentice(Kit Harington)’s murder at her hands, hires aspiring local farmhand Will (Ben Barnes) to take up the mantle and save the kingdom.

Faced with an extraordinary share of production issues, Seventh Son is the by-product of blockbuster era gone by. The film languishes in forgettable fluff, once made whole by everything from Ridley Scott’s Legend and the original Clash of the Titans. Like the Clash remake, however, the plot lurches from one monster battle to the next. Lacking original story or character elements, the film goes through the motions.

Despite the dearth of emotion or intelligence, the action sequences – along with the CGi creations – are almost worth a watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The actors all put on a brave face, with Jeff Bridges hiding behind a thick (British?) accent and overall charisma. Moore, coming off her Oscar-winning performance in Still Alice, chews up the scenery. Up-and-comers Barnes and Alicia Vikander handle themselves eloquently.

Verdict: A silly, forgettable fantasy-epic.


Director: Jon Kasdan

Writer: Jon Kasdan

Stars: Dylan O’Brien, Britt Robertson, Craig Roberts, James Frecheville

3/5

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The First Time is one of few films focusing on that scary, interesting era in everyone’s life. After the initial boyfriend/girlfriend stuff, the first physical encounter can spell immediate success or instant disaster. The film takes it on with considerable care and thought.

The First Time, in true teen dramedy fashion, follows the hit-and-miss life of Dave (Dylan O’Brien). Dave is a high school senior pining after long-time friend Jane (Victoria Justice). Stuck in the deadening abyss known as the ‘friend zone’, Dave watches on as Jane hooks up with one guy after another. One night, at a sex-fuelled house party, Dave meets Aubrey (Britt Robertson) and his life takes an immediate turn for the positive.

This coming-of-age dramedy pays homage to 1990s independent filmmakers known for human moments more so than plot. Mimicking Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith’s works, the film works best during extended conversations between our lead two characters. Unlike most contemporary movies, it makes a point of focusing on dialogue, human interaction, and on-screen chemistry. Its highs and lows thrive on O’Brien and Robertson’s effervescent performances.

Writer/director Jon Kasdan, brother of Jake (Sex Tape, Bad Teacher) and son of acclaimed filmmaker Lawrence (Star Wars), clings onto his less-is-more approach a little too far. The supporting characters, including Aubrey’s older boyfriend Ronny (James Frecheville), are pushed into the background.

Verdict: A solid, harmless date movie.


Director: Nima Nourizadeh

Writer: Max Landis

Stars: Jessie Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton

2/5

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Director Nima Nourizadeh is an up-and-coming comedy director known primarily for Project X; one of the past decade’s most unlikeable movies. Writer Max Landis, known for Chronicle and a Man of Steel rant on YouTube, is one of contemporary Hollywood’s most divisive figures. Put them together and you get American Ultra – a derivative, pointless action-comedy.

American Ultra focuses on pot-smoking layabout Mike Howell (Jessie Eisenberg) in Liman, West Virginia. Mike, cared for by his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), envisions a better life via his collection of graphic novel illustrations. Meanwhile, at Langley’s CIA headquarters, agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) learns that Mike, sole survivor of a particular sleeper agent program, is to be eliminated by Adrian (Topher Grace).

Light on action, laughs or anything of substance, this action-comedy creates a fan-fiction-esque universe of bizarre, over-the-top plot points, characters, and actions sequences. Talking down to their audience, Nourizadeh and Landis present simplistic, juvenile depictions of everything including relationships, stoners, and, well, basic human traits. Mike and Phoebe are caricatures, defined only by ticks and forced backstories. However, Eisenberg and Start, two of the 21st century’s most divisive performers, elevate their roles with undeniable chemistry.

The film’s strange anti-establishment agenda paints a concerning portrait of American security agencies. Landis and co. restrict the CIA players to caricatures and cyphers, using operation titles like ‘Tough Guy’ and ‘Ultra’. Character actors including Grace, Britton, Walton Goggins, and Bill Pullman are restricted to unlikeable, incompetent characters illustrating the CIA as horrific, bloodthirsty morons.

Verdict: A messy, obnoxious action-comedy. 

Home Release Round-up: Hot Pursuit, The Longest Ride & Last Cab to Darwin


Director: Anne Fletcher

Writer: David Feeney, John Quaintance

Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara, Robert Kazinsky, John Carroll Lynch

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Last year, Reese Witherspoon earned yet another Academy Award nomination for her magical performance in docudrama Wild. Judging by Hot Pursuit, it is clear she may be an abysmal loser. This Road trip-comedy highlights a scary trend – that descent between an actor’s Oscar-calibre project and their paycheck-grabbing follow-up. It is an abysmal, insensitive effort fuelled by poor decisions and Hollywood power.

Hot Pursuit sees Rose Cooper (Witherspoon), benched after an unfortunate tasing incident, struggling to balance an intense work ethic with her personal life. Busting out of the evidence locker, she is assigned to protect a cartel informant and his wife Daniella (Sofia Vergara).

Despite the 87-minute run-time, Hot Pursuit reeks of a rushed production struggling for content. What follows is a ‘hilarious’ and ‘wacky’ assortment of sketches and set-pieces. Very little works about this bland, derivative road-trip comedy. Playing up to stereotypes, the film pulls out and dusts off every cheap, lame gag against women and Hispanic people.

Witherspoon, producing and starring in this mess, claimed the film was part of her company’s movement for strong female characters. Menstruation jokes and weird accent gags fail to warrant even a quick chuckle. Its lead characters are inhuman and insensitive, struggling to grasp human emotions and common sense.

Witherspoon and Vergara’s talents are thoroughly wasted here, with the Modern Family actress forced to wheeze out a Fran Drescher impersonation. Witherspoon Texan caricature is sure to offend, sidelined by cheap jokes about her appearance. Comedians Mike Birbiglia and Jim Gaffigan are stuck in unfunny, one-scene roles.

Verdict: A offensive waste of talent, money etc.


Director: George Tillman Jr.

Writer: Craig Bolotin

Stars: Britt Robertson, Scott Eastwood, Jack Huston, Oona Chaplin

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The Longest Ride is yet another instalment in the never-ending line of Nicholas Sparks romantic-dramas. Building upon his vast sums of money and followers from The Notebook and The Lucky One, his latest adaptation may be the best one by default.

The Longest Ride follows senior year arts student Sophie Denko (Britt Robertson). Forced out of her sorority dorm by her friends, she meets big-time bull rider Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood) at the local rodeo. Collins, one of the Professional Bull Riders on tour, is coming off a major incident at his last event.

This Sparks adaptation is divided into two familiar but effecting tales. One concerns the relationship between our two sparkling leads, featuring a cacophony of Sparksian clichés including shirtless people, the rain, and a late-night swim in a lake. The other delves into the deeper elements, chronicling a love story set in WWII-era America between Ira (Jack Huston) and Ruth (Oona Chaplin).

Both plot-threads intersect at appropriate moments, succinctly complimenting one another. Sophie and Luke’s conversations with the elderly Ira (Alan Alda) accentuate the film’s impressive performances. Director George Tilmman Jr. (Notorious, Faster) wrangles strong performances out of his young leads. Robertson, known for Tomorrowland, is the next blonde charmer. Eastwood, displaying his father’s charisma and good looks, is a worthy candidate for the next big superhero franchise.

Despite the tried and true formula, The Longest Ride is one of the biggest surprises of 2015. Tillman Jr. and co. provide a fresh take on the material for girls and boys to enjoy.

Verdict: A sweet, good-natured romantic-drama. 


Director: Jeremy Sims

Writers: Reg Cribb, Jeremy Sims

Stars: Michael Caton, Mark Coles Smith, Ningali Lawford-Wolf, Jacki Weaver

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Australian cinema ranges typically between dark, brooding drama (Strangerland) and over-the-top comedy (The Dressmaker). Hollywood and foreign film continually give us works that sit in between these polar opposites. Last Cab to Darwin, at the very least, makes a gracious and worthwhile attempt to balance drama and comedy with ease.

Last Cab to Darwin chronicles the professional and personal aspects of taxi driver Rex(Michael Caton)’s life. The sole taxi driver in Broken Hill, New South Wales, his days and nights begin to blur together. By day, he drives around town helping everyone out. By night, he visits his local pub, chats with his mates, before listening to his records alone. His neighbour/lady-friend Polly (Ningali Lawford-Wolf) is his one true source of comfort.

Rex is told that his cancer, despite having previously been operated on, has spread throughout his body with a vengeance. Given three months to live, Rex takes up an offer from GP and euthanasia activist Dr. Nicole Farmer (Jacki Weaver) in the Northern Territory to be her first patient once the law comes through.

You guessed it, Rex takes his taxi across the country and over great, red plains to die on his own terms. Based on Cribb’s 2003 theatre production, Last Cab to Darwin is the outback cinema version of comfort food. The narrative hits the familiar beats, with Rex encountering a wide array of archetypes and situations putting his life into perspective. Bouncing off Tilly (Mark Coles Smith) and Julie (Emma Hamilton), Rex, thanks to Caton’s touching performance, is a determined, fascinating character.

Last Cab to Darwin, fusing familiar narrative with serious topic, is a defining contemporary Australian flick.

Verdict: A true-blue road-trip dramedy. 

Poltergeist (Home Release) Audio Review: Rotting Remake


Director: Gil Kenan

Writer: David Lindsay-Abaire

Stars: Sam Rockwell, Rosmarie DeWitt, Jarred Harris, Jane Adams

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Release date: May 22nd, 2015

Distributor: 20th Century Fox 

Country: USA

Running time: 93 minutes


 

2/5

Review:

Ricki & the Flash (Home Release) Audio Review: Miserable Meryl


Director: Jonathan Demme

Writer: Diablo Cody

Stars: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield

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Release date: August 7th, 2015

Distributor: TriStar Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 101 minutes


 

2½/5

Review:

The Voices (Home Release) Audio Review: Ragin’ Reynolds


Director: Marjane Satrapi

Writer: Michael R. Perry

Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver

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Release date: April 30th, 2015

Distributor: Lionsgate

Country: USA, Germany

Running time: 104 minutes


 

3½/5

Review:

Dope (Home Release) Audio Review: High on Life


Director: Rick Famuyiwa

Writer: Rick Famuyiwa

Stars: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, A$AP Rocky

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Release date: June 19th, 2015

Distributor: Open Road Films

Country: USA

Running time: 103 minutes


 

4/5

Review: