The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials

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And the award for most disappointing sequel of 2015 goes to Scorch Trials, the follow-up to 2014’s actually-quite-good Maze Runner. Helmed once again by Wes Ball, the film kicks off right where the last one left us – Thomas (played enthusiastically by Dylan O’Brien) and his group are ‘rescued’ and sent into a menacing facility where other young groups – each previously having their own maze – are waiting for them. Cue an expected escape from the building after Thomas unearths horrifying secrets about who their captors are, with the remainder of the film taking place in the sun-scorched open air, the gang encountering numerous obstacles that move the plot along, though not swiftly enough.

Right from the off, it’s made clear that the novel isn’t being adapted from, but rather being used as a source of inspiration. There are certain elements of James Dashner’s best-seller that remains untarnished, but most of the plot is replaced and restructured in order to either make the flick more palatable to a modern audience, or to avoid breaching the slim budgetary constraints. Though despite the film being limited by its budget, it comes across as a $20m flick rather than $60m, thanks to dodgy effects and the use of shaky-cam to obscure action.

Simply put, the new plot that this sequel has is just not good enough. The directing is admirable, the acting fine – though a league below its predecessor – and the camerawork impressive for a YA adaptation. The plot, however, is deeply convoluted, fatuous, and irritatingly generic. In my Maze Runner review, I praised the film for its refreshing refusal to bow down to YA tropes. Sadly, Scorch Trials doesn’t follow suit, integrating a tepid love plot, uninspired zombies and somehow finding room for a celebratory house-party – yes, in the middle of a dusty, zombie-ravaged world. Revelations concerning the film’s characters and the series’ overarching plot arise every now and then amid the contrived chaos, but you hardly care – you’re just lost trying to find out whether each plot point the film undergoes has relevance or even makes sense in context of the film. Here’s a hint: it doesn’t.

 

– Gus Edgar

Partisan – LFF 2015

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Partisan presents itself as Australian Ariel Kleiman’s feature-film directorial debut, though you wouldn’t realise it from the maturity displayed on screen. The narrative, rather than flimsily structured as some critics have purported, is sinisterly brooding and intentionally thin, giving the film a normality that adds effective contrast to the otherwise shocking subject matter. The subject matter in question revolves around Alexander, a misbehaving child played in a menacingly placid way by  newcomer Jeremy Chabriel, and his unorthodox upbringing; trained to become a child assassin by his father, Gregori (Vincent Cassel), a deceivingly paternal figure with a strong partisan ideology.

The world is seen through Alexander’s eyes, and so many events are inevitably left to vague interpretation, a viewing experience that will frustrate those who prefer complete exposition. There is no background given to the story, or to the characters that are contained within the story. Even the location is ambiguous, the film taking place in an equivocal Eastern European nowhere-land (filmed in Georgia and Australia of all places), where the only prelude is an introduction to Gregori’s preparations, rather than the character itself. His motives are left unanswered, and we can only speculate and watch through Alexander’s eyes as he attempts to raise his growing collection of children to become savage tykes, It’s a brave, refreshing method of story-telling, and one that allows the viewer to develop their own inferences; motifs of inapposite fountains and protective earbuds lend clues to Partisan’s overarching themes, as do allusions to religious imagery of baptism and Gregori’s twisted views that bare similarity to Old Testament beliefs. If I’m sounding unsure, that’s because I am – a revisit to delve deeper into the film’s morals is a necessity.

On a more basic level, Partisan eases by with intrigue effectively maintained. The world-building is immediately captivating, and the story is developed at a pace that suppresses any temptation to reveal the film’s revelations too early. There’s an almost otherworldly, slightly mundane feel to the film that draws the viewer in – callous bombshells are juxtaposed almost immediately by stylistic karaoke – akin to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives – though made all the more unsettling due to the connotations of innocence that the children represent.

Sadly, this isn’t a theme explored enough in Partisan – the film is fairly distant in conveying any emotion felt towards the children. They’re raised and manipulated in a way that should seem sorrowful, but the film doesn’t probe deep enough into this topic, instead more interested in the face value of the events taking place. This disjointedness, or detachment from adversity is partly due to a script that is written in an occasionally stilted style. The film is understated in many respects, but its script is often wholly blunt and unnatural, where “show, don’t tell” is neglected. These moments are rare, but severely jarring, threatening to derail its intent of relaying information via the emotions of characters (close-ups of faces are used abundantly) and images of heavy symbolism.

Cassel executes Gregori with all the complexity he can muster, and manages to pose as a caring but unnerving figure incredibly well. He’s overshadowed, however, by Chabriel, who confidently plays Alexander as an enigmatic figure scarred by his upbringing. Without his coldly inquisitive, underplayed performance, the film would suffer greatly.

The film is bolstered by the talent of Oneohtrix Point Never’s emphatic, evocative score, connoting an epicosity and grandeur that does well to balance Partisan’s small-scale location. Though as far as small-scale films go, Kleiman thrives in presenting Partisan as having huge repercussions. The themes are ambiguous but not impenetrable, the pacing slow but never dull, and the final scene will linger on in an exceptionally powerful manner.

– Gus Edgar

Macbeth

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“I dare do all that may become a man. Who dares do more is none.” utters Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth, in a heavy Scottish accent, in a hushed tone, amid a racketing score. Macbeth’s mantra may as well be anything else – you can’t hear the dialogue anyway. It is clear that director Justin Kurzel prioritises the visceral over the cerebral in his endeavours to display Shakespeare’s tragedy for the umpteenth time. At first, its style seems like its the right choice; this Shakespearean adaptation is not like any other. Sadly, a terrific nous for visual flair is heavily burdened by inane plot choices, poor pacing and poorer character development.

It’s a wonder how Macbeth – Shakespeare’s shortest play – somehow feels both needlessly long and clumsily rushed. There are notable omissions of the playwright, where stylistically showy battle scenes with heavy use of slow motion and colour, but poor cogency and fluency, are substituted in instead. It’s a brave choice, but a foolish one – amid the chaos of sword-wielding and slaughter, the actual action is obscured inanely by frantic camera movements and Fassbender’s increasingly-tedious piercing gaze. Oddly enough, it’s reminiscent of 300. Only a little bit more arthouse, and a little bit more precious.

The film’s quiet moments of reflection don’t fare well either, even if you do actually understand the murmured dialogue. Fassbender tries his hardest to bring life to the titular character, but his stilted delivery (Kurzel at fault, rather than Fassbender himself) and rushed descent into madness diminishes any nuances that the character could possess. The plot jumps from days to months without any indication (Unless that indication was a brief unintelligible whisper), and as such, Macbeth’s madness doesn’t have any forewarning – he is sane, and, at once, insane. Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth suffers from the same pacing problems; her demise is sudden, and due to the little screen time or dialogue afforded to her, there’s no emotional attachment to give her big scene any heft. I’m a huge fan of Cotillard, but she’s disappointingly tame, appearing disinterested and straining for an accent that doesn’t exist.

It’s not all negatives, however. Kurzel makes good use of lighting and hues, and has a stylistic approach with bags of potential – though perhaps not suited to Macbeth. The score, when not shrouding the script, serves well to heighten the tension of the battle scenes. And as a Shakespearean adaptation, it’s an ambitious, admirable effort. Unfortunately, it’s not a successful one; like Macbeth himself, Kurzel dares to do all, but ends up as none.

– Gus Edgar

Beasts of No Nation – LFF 2015

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Netflix’s first foray into feature films looks to be a wise, wise choice; there’s been talk of Beasts of No Nation becoming a major Oscar contender by the end of the year, and it’s not hard to see why. The film follows Agu, a West-African child that, after being separated in vicious circumstances from his endearing family, is forcibly enlisted and raised by a ruthless yet engaging ‘Commandant’, to become a child soldier. It’s harrowing, relevant subject matter, and the film doesn’t shy away from the tragedies and awful consequences that arise with the recruitment of youngsters to fight in a savage, territorial war.

The film starts off harmlessly enough, with a smiling Agu (played terrifically by first-timer Abraham Attah) cheekily attempting to sell an ‘imagination-TV’ with his friends. The comedy and joy is quickly diminished, and the descent into ferocious, troubling war is cleverly contrasted by its jubilant epilogue. Director Cary Fukunaga, of True Detective fame, excels in crafting sequences of intense, tragic warzones; encapsulating Beast of No Nation as a whole, they’re brave, visually mesmerising and unafraid to detail the immense bloodshed. These scenes are shot by Fukunaga himself, where the camerawork is used wonderfully – particularly in an overwhelmingly powerful tracking shot – to capture both the sorrow and the survivalist instinct of the men shown on screen. It’s kinetic and stylistically superb, but doesn’t burden the terrifyingly realistic action.

Abraham Attah is a revelation as Agu – emotionally astounding and maturely performed. It’s testament to Attah that he matches – and often goes beyond – the more showy, brutal performance by Idris Elba as Agu’s commandant. Elba adds complexity to a character that wisely avoids becoming melodramatic, completely transforming into his taxing role.

Due to its subject matter, the film is unavoidably emotional and upsetting to watch, with many scenes difficult to sit through without covering your eyes at the horror of it all. Aided by Dan Romer’s unusual, effective synthetic score, there are many tearjerking moments that beautifully evoke anguish of Agu’s situation, yet it never feels like the film is manipulative or overly preachy. One scene, around halfway into the film, shows white tourists indifferently snapping photos of the war-stricken battalion as they pass by; Beasts of No Nation’s message is clear. Something needs to change.

– Gus Edgar