The Maze Runner

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YA (Young Adult) flicks are going through a rather turgid time currently; Divergent‘s mediocre reviews and the similar reaction to The Giver is earning the profitable genre a bad reputation. And, presently, that’s what the genre represents: an easy way to churn out bog-standard productions and earn dosh following the startling success of 2012’s The Hunger Games. The Maze Runner is just another run-of-the-mill adaptation from a mildly popular YA novel in order to generate plenty of cash, right? Er, no actually. I’d go as far as to say that The Maze Runner is the best YA film in recent years, shadowing the might of even The Hunger Games.

The quality of The Maze Runner lies within the fact that it chooses not to conform to the stereotypes of the YA genre. It’s incredibly refreshing to watch a YA flick without worrying about distracting love triangles, numerous extravagant settings and an easygoing tone that doesn’t quite fit with the material and messages it attempts to send. No, The Maze Runner sets itself apart from its competition – and it would no doubt be receiving much better review if it were not for the negative connotations that its genre has garnered over time.

The plot is deceivingly simple at first – a teenager (Dylan O’Brien) find himself dazedly placed in a maze where other teenagers like him reside, in the same situation. They are trapped in a box – known as The Glade, where an impressive and colossal maze surrounds them, preventing their escape unless they find a seemingly non-existent exit. Here, disputes occur and tension rises, toppling over as the only girl is introduced into the fray (Kaya Scodelairo). As the walls to the maze then refuse to close, the terrible inhabitants of the maze known as Grievers come out to play…

Basically, think a modern version of Lord of the Flies.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is the tone and mood it creates; there is an overbearing sense of urgency, which comes across fantastically to the audience. While many YA flicks don’t encapsulate the looming, dread-foreshadowing tone that may be more suited to their source material (instead resorting to cheap jokes or melodramatic romance), The Maze Runner captures this perfectly. Scenes such as the sprint to escape the closing walls of the maze, and the introduction to the hideous Grievers, are incredibly tense and increasingly stressful (and enjoyable) to watch. The Maze Runner takes itself very seriously, and while that approach has been misused in recent history (Man of Steel comes to mind immediately), it’s masterfully used here to squeeze the largest amount of intensity out of the film as it can muster. Yet while the film is gripping, it’s also contemplative and intriguing, where many loose strands that the plot begins with urges the audience to remain focused.

Another impressive aspect of The Maze Runner is the acting of the main characters. Dylan O’Brien plays both the confused and the increasingly-confident hero extremely well, where his understated performance contains exactly the right amount of both bravado and pretense at knowing how to deal with the situation he’s in. Will Poulter, hot off last year’s BAFTA Rising Star Award, plays fellow trapped teenager Gally with a bullish confidence, his antagonistic intentions contradicted by his good intentions. While he may serve as the antithesis to O’Brien’s protagonist, his performance is both sympathetic and easy to relate to. Thomas Brodie-Sangster (He’s 24! 24!) plays second-in-command Newt with subtle kindness, acted out well enough but mainly used for expositional purposes. Similarly impressive is relative newcome Ki Long-Hee, who plays the main action figure of the film, Minho. His performance carries an air of competence and physicality, a facade that protects his feelings of helplessness towards the situation he finds himself in.

Less impressive is the supporting cast, where the line deliverance is robotic and devoid of any empathy. It’s a compliment to the main cast’s acting (or inversely, an insult to the supporting cast’s) that their performance is so prominent in how lifeless they are. And while the plot is simple, it unravels rather quickly into many loose strands, where only a small amount are tied up (of course, there is 2015’s sequel to look forward to). Finally, despite the stunning CGI, where the maze in particular looks epic both aesthetically and in scale, there are a few short moments where the effects are clear and obvious, though that shouldn’t detract from the film too much.

One of the film’s main criticisms stems from its ending, and how anti-climatic and nonsensical it seems. Of course, the fact that the film is merely the first of a trilogy is neglected, where critics are too hasty in their distaste of the amount of questions the film leaves open by the end of its running time. In terms of its underwhelming nature, it’s representative of its refusal to abide to the YA stereotypes, instead choosing to end on a sombre, intriguing note that will give the audience goosebumps. The Maze Runner is a refreshingly intense, gripping and unique movie experience that will have the audience salivating for more.

– Gus Edgar

7 Films to Watch This Month – October 2014

Gone Girl – 3rd October

David Fincher’s (Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network, Se7en) latest film has been picking up predictably great reviews. Starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl tells the story of a missing wife in a devilishly twisted way.

The Maze Runner – 10th October

Another book adaptation that looks great this month is The Maze Runner – a YA film that doesn’t conform to its genre’s rules, and so doesn’t trip up like Divergent did. The Maze Runner features an array of up-and-coming actors who will be interesting to see on the big screen.

Fury – 22nd October

Sigh…I guess this is certainly a movie to look out for this month, even if it looks incredibly dull for me. Nevertheless Fury has a strong cast (Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, er, Shia LaBeouf) and looks like potential Oscars material (though a very unlikely bet at that). Fury tells the story of an American tank battalion that lurches forwards into Nazi territory.

The Babadook – 24th October

Judging from reviews, The Babadook looks to be the best horror movie of the year. The film takes a simple concept of a familiar childhood story and twists it into a terrifying tale that is sure to frighten its target audience.

Serena – 24th October

Another film that looks for all intents and purposes like it’s made purely for the Oscars season is Serena, a film that looks to contain plenty of drama. Its two main cast members are Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, a pair that is equally likely to excite as it is to grow old.

Horns – 29th October

Starring Daniel Radcliffe in an against-type role, Horns is the dark tale of a guy sprouting horns out of his head following the death of his girlfriend, of which he has been accused of murder. With mixed reviews, Horns may not be for everyone, but it looks to be an enjoyable film that’s as gruesome as it is fun to watch.

Nightcrawler – 31st October

My most anticipated movie of October arrives on the final day; saving the best to last, then. The film focuses on Jake Gyllenhaal, playing a disturbing, ambitious, sociopathic night crime journalist, Lou Bloom. With very positive reviews and a ton of praise heaped on Gyllenhaal, there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t be excited for Nightcrawler.

 

Boyhood

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When it comes to reviewing films, the phrase ‘There’s nothing like this’ or ‘It’s completely unique’ is often overused and misused. In Boyhood’s situation, that same phrase is perfectly applicable – there really is nothing quite like Boyhood and it’s concept.

Taking place from 2002 to the present day, the whole cast grow up – literally – before your very own eyes. While the theme of nostalgia is apparent, that’s not the film’s primary focus. Instead, the prominent theme is simply life as a boy growing up (you don’t say…). Its plot is made up of strands – moments in life that can appear mundane and ordinary but when placed together, hold vast amounts of importance. It’s simply amazing and nothing short of a masterpiece in how director Linklater goes about achieving such a moving film – a film that has the power to evoke emotion from the audience just from the concept alone.

The casting choices are superb. There is an obvious amount of risk in choosing a cast that will grow up together over 12 years. Yet every single member is fantastic in the role they play – subtle acts that increase the realism of the film tenfold. Patricia Arquette is incredible as Mason’s mother. Her understated performance where she balances looking after her children with her relationship issues is both contained and touching. The same goes for all of the actors, really – actions that could come across as annoying or illogical are completely natural and can cause certain members of the audience to reminisce with a tear in their eye.

If there are any criticisms that could be made of Boyhood, it’s that a few scenes feel superficial; crammed in to deliver an important message to the audience about life. A scene in a darkroom where Mason’s photography teacher graces him with lessons on life has a facade of importance – but really is all fluff. And while it is touching to watch the smaller moments of the boy’s life, some do come across as a little too mundane and insignificant to serve any fulfilling purpose in the film.

Yet despite its (very few) problems, Boyhood manages to become one of the best films of the year – a powerful character study that focuses not on a particular young boy, but the concept of a boy and his life in general.

– Gus Edgar

Trailers of the Week: 14/9/14 – 21/9/14

BIG EYES

Featuring a fantastic cast including Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz and Jason Schwartzman, it’s easy to see why Tim Burton’s new film, Big Eyes, is hotly awaited. Whether the true story being displayed on screen is interesting enough to make an engrossing film is up for debate.

POPEYE

More a teaser than a trailer (fine, I cheated), the new Popeye film that won’t appear on screens until 2016 is sumptuously animated. While I’m not a fan of the voice acting (which is subject to change) and the slapstick humour, I’m sure the intended target audience will be kept entertained.

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in the same film? Fantastic. This looks to have the potential of being a dark horse at this year’s Oscar race, and the trailer shows that – it keeps you hooked without giving too much away.

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN

This trailer filled with dialogue is a stark contrast to the teaser for it released last month. Featuring a huge cast with the likes of upcoming star Ansel Elgort, Jennifer Garner, and Adam Sandler in an actually serious role, this looks good. Surprising, then, that it picked up mixed reviews at the TIFF.

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1

The latest trailer, and the first full one, for the third installment of the Hunger Games saga looks suitably epic. Though I wonder, if we take away all the HG and Jennifer Lawrence buzz, would we assign this as ‘yet another YA flick’ like we’re doing with The Maze Runner?

 

Grave of the Fireflies

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For all the praise I’ve seen Studio Ghibli receive, I’ve never been all too interested in watching their animations. Aside from Spirited Away, which I saw, enjoyed and forgot about a fair few years back, my investment in any of the studio’s films has waned. So then, I realise I’ve made a horrible mistake. Recommended to me with the confidence that it’ll be a ‘cry-fest’ (Just look at the title!), Grave of the Fireflies has assuredly reinvigorated my interest in the studio’s peculiar, heartfelt animations that have a certain type of charm to them – a charm not found in any 3D animation that Disney Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks churn out.

The film takes place in Japan during the final few months of WWII, where American air raids tore through the Japanese towns and villages. It follows Seita, a 14 year-old boy, and Setsuko, Seita’s (very) little sister, through their travails to survive bombings, poverty and malnutrition. It begins by revealing that the two protagonists die during the course of the film – portrayed as spirits shrouded by a red hue, the opening is both harrowing and visually stunning in equal measure. Which really does sum up the film – devastating, though the emotional punch not as powerful as I expected, yet exceedingly beautiful and a perfect portrayal of both the horrors and the idyllic nature of the Japanese countryside.

The score used for Grave of the Fireflies is equally powerful, tragedy conveyed by simple melodies. It’s use brings many moments of genuine joy – Setsuko running around with a group of fireflies is an exceptionally heartwarming moment – but also accentuates incredibly touching sequences – Setsuko’s tear-jerking instances of happiness particularly moving.

That’s not to say that Grave of the Fireflies is a perfect movie. While the animation is fantastic in places, it’s similarly rough and shaky in others. The voice acting feels forced (well, at least the English version) as do many of the characters’ actions (Seita’s aunt’s resentment towards the two protagonists is too drastic a shift in her feelings towards them). And while Setsuko’s death is moving, the fact that the audience expects it negates some of its intended effect.

Yet these few negatives don’t burden this sweet Japanese animation drastically – it remains a touching story with a mesmerising animation style; one that has reintroduced me into the quirky world of Studio Ghibli.

– Gus Edgar

Guardians of the Galaxy

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The reaction to Marvel’s next superhero flick has been more positive than even the optimistic main actor, Chris Pratt could have hoped for. Insanely risky, even for Marvel’s standards, Guardians of the Galaxy features a talking raccoon, a green Saldana and a talking tree. To top it all off, it’s directed by James Gunn, notorious writer of both Movie 43 and Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. Despite all the potential for disaster (there’s plenty), the film has been hailed as an entertaining, feel-good Marvel caper that’s totally original. So then, why’s it more of the same?

There’s a prominent formula that Marvel are seemingly sticking to. An introduction of the main characters as they assemble, a good look at the central antagonist and his motives, and some partially-relevant high-action antics just before a final showdown where everything explodes and the heroes eventually prevail. The same applies to GotG, and even then it can’t clarify the villain’s motives (more on that later). It’s wrong to say that GotG is an original Marvel flick; it’s disappointingly unoriginal, glittered up with colourful aliens and a fantastic 1970s soundtrack.

The film takes place, as the title suggest, around a myriad of areas contained within the galaxy. Opening with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as a child stating farewell to his mother, he is quickly whisked away into space and the rest is history. The opening credits feature his attempt to steal an orb with an unknown power set to Redbone’s Come and get Your Love (fantastic), setting the scene for what I expected to be an awesome watch. After his travails, he’s swiftly captured and reluctantly teams up with the aforementioned set of characters, Rocket the Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Batista). Of course, they’re rough with each other at first, but then grow to like their teammates and end up as an (admittedly odd) group of buddies.

Which leads to one of my major qualms of Guardians of the Galaxy – it’s incredibly clichéd and only has a facade of quirky characters to shield criticism from most reviewers. A good portion of the characters aren’t fleshed out, generic to the point where they become caricatures. The main antagonist – Ronan (Lee Pace) has incredibly unclear motives where it’s easy to assume that he seeks world domination simply because he’s assigned as the bad guy. His villainy is exaggerated tenfold, almost to the point where it’s ridiculous. The main protagonist, Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill has nothing interesting going for him. He’s arrogant and irritating, and sure, he develops to take responsibility and becomes a better person, but I still wasn’t invested in his character. Gamora, meant to be a strong female character, is identified fairly early on as Quill’s love interest and is set aside until the end for the predictable big kiss. The only other notable female character – Nebula (Karen Gillan) has barely five minutes of screentime (though I’m sure she’ll return for the second installment). Michael Rooker’s Yondu is incredibly irritating and stalls the film whenever he’s on screen. Similarly annoying is Rocket – intended to be portrayed as the badass of the group, this intention is laid on so thick that it’s hard to resonate with him. Instead, he comes across as obnoxious and only obnoxious.

Yet it’s not just the generic characters that Guardians of the Galaxy suffers from. Most of the film’s jokes fall flat – including nearly everything that Rocket says and a running ‘I am Groot’ joke that gets increasingly more boring every time it’s uttered. Sure, wit is present, and Drax’s moments where he takes everything literally is a great example of this. So why can’t there be more moments of this comedic ingenuity?

I want to clarify – I don’t dislike GotG as much as I purport. Despite my problems with the film, it has a decent entertainment value with some admirable sequences (the prison-escape scene comes to mind) and one of the best soundtracks of any film released in 2014. It may not be as good a film as you’d expect after all the praise dished out towards it, but Guardians of the Galaxy may still be worth watching if you’re looking for an enjoyable film with little substance but plenty of action.

– Gus Edgar

The Grand Budapest Hotel

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So, The Grand Budapest Hotel is certainly my favourite film of 2014 so far, and is perhaps Anderson’s finest film to date. Which is saying quite a lot; every Anderson film I have seen thus far (Moonrise Kingdom, The Fantastic Mr.Fox, The Darjeeling Limited, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Royal Tenenbaums) have all been individually outstanding and hard to top. Yet Wes Anderson delivers the goods once again with a crazy plot, an impressive Ralph Fiennes performance, eye-globbering visuals and his classic traits shining through the film.

The story, told in the present day in the past in the past… in the past, follows M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) as a camp concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and his faithful lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), for the majority of its running time. It’s essentially a game of cat and mouse as the story circles around a valuable painting known as “Boy With Apple”. That isn’t the half of it, of course, but to explain the plot any further would take up too much space.

As does the vast amount of actors swamping the film, although they never seem out of place (aside from a brief cameo from Anderson regular, Owen Wilson). Oft-criticised before its release that it was Anderson’s ensemble film, with a plot that would potentially be burdened by its cast, I couldn’t disagree more. The film flows eloquently and is extremely fast-paced, but it still allows for character development, the main recipient being M.Gustave. Fiennes is excellent with a role that Anderson stated, and I would have to agree with him on this, was “made for him”. He plays camp surprisingly well, and his moments of foul-mouthed temper are perfectly played out. Revolori is also great, acting in a more observant than active role, only playing second fiddle to Fiennes. He plays the emotion weaved throughout his character in a brilliantly understated way. Out of its mammoth supporting cast, Jeff Goldblum stands out, a particular museum scene with an abrupt ending being a highlight of both Goldblum’s performance and the film as a whole. Dafoe an Ronan both do a decent job with the roles they are given, although Brody can’t escape from his stereotypical “bad guy” outfit.

The outstanding visuals are accompanied with a seemingly-neverending soundtrack that isn’t like anything I’ve ever heard before. The soundtrack sums up the movie: simply wonderful, original, and from the heart.

– Gus Edgar

Holy Motors

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I’m not even going to bother trying to explain the meaning of Holy Motors, a bizarre, wonderfully eccentric film featuring a crazed performance from Leos Carax regular, Denis Lavant. That’s not to say that Lavant is the only actor that steals the show during his generous screentime; Kylie Minogue (yes, really) and Eva Mendes both make odd, hilariously puzzling appearances in what can only be described as cameos.

The film has a deceivingly simple premise: Mr.Oscar (his first name is never mentioned) has been tasked with 9 appointments that he must fulfil during the course of the day. Then things take off; ranging from becoming a family member of a house full of chimpanzees, stabbing a replica of himself and participating in stop-motion shenanigans, Lavant uses all of his acting capabilities to put on a show for the audience (often literally).

The symbolism behind Holy Motors is alluded to plenty of times, but is never really explored enough to make it seem as if it’s the film’s focal point. It’s an idea that seems clever and inventive, but when stretched over the course of 1 hour and 40 minutes, it loses its intrigue fairly quickly. A good example of this would be a scene where Mr.Oscar puts on the disguise of an elderly gentleman on his death bed. It’s an odd scene that, while making a subtle point to the audience, kills off any momentum the film has.

Nevertheless, Holy Motors looks fantastic and has many scenes of real genius (but lack importance too). A scene where Mr.Oscar runs across a graveyard terrorising citizens and munching on bouquets of flowers is a joy to watch, while Kylie Minogue’s brief appearance where she belts out a solo is moving and fascinating in equal measures.

The best way to approach the oddities of Holy Motors is to throw logic and reasoning out the door. You must accept that the occurrences of the film make sense to someone, and live with that. If you achieve that, you can experience an oddball adventure with many stunning scenes. Its ending may leave you flabbergasted, but you’ll be flabbergasted for days on end.

– Gus Edgar

The Act of Killing

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Seems like I have a love for documentaries. The few I have seen (I for India, The Imposter, Exit Through the Gift Shop) have all been excellent, and this is certainly no exception. Yet despite how enthralling this film is, it’s a horrible watch. The Act of Killing documents Indonesian gangsters (responsible for the murder of thousands of “communists” in the 1960s), and specifically a gangster by the name of Anwar Congo, as he attempts to make his own film going into detail about how the gangsters exterminated those that he deemed evil. Instead, as this film and his film drive on, he comes to terms with the horrors of what he has done. Yet that’s not to state that Congo is a decent man. No, he’s despicable, his complete lack of remorse incredibly surreal. One particular poignant scene involves a man talking about how his step-father was dragged away and found dead in an oil rig, laughing sadly as he tells the story. Raw scenes like these feature heavily in this film, and it’s all the better for it.  If you do watch this, don’t think that you’re not going to come out a broken man.

– Gus Edgar

Man of Steel

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While the trailer for the new Man of Steel roared with entertainment and excitement, the film whimpered with waning enthusiasm. In truth, the film could’ve been a lot worse. Previous editions had failed to capture the power and riveting nature of Superman. This film gradually managed to achieve that, but it wasn’t without its faults.

The film indulged in destruction. Action scenes were never without a building or two crashing to the ground, windows being ripped off or stone pillars breaking in half. Sure, action is good. Right? Sadly, too much action leads to a boring, poorly directed film (see: Total Recall (remake)). Whilst it certainly wasn’t as bad as Total Recall’s unsightly remake, parts were unfortunately reminiscent.

A sad side effect of the relentless action was that the few sentimental scenes didn’t come into fruition. Instead, the film became boring and drab, its serious nature wearing off on the viewer. Superhero flicks, such as Iron Man 3, kept humour to keep the audience entertained; Zack Snyder’s choice to exclude it was poor, and one of the key factors as to why this film will annoy rather than impress.

That’s not to say that the film was entirely bad; each actor played their part sufficiently, Cavill being one of the better Supermen. And if you get past the Spy Kids-esque speed of the action scenes, the action is great. Unfortunately, a combination of action upon action, cliches being thrown at you and a drab overall feel to it makes this film is very much a forgettable one.

– Gus Edgar