Friday, September 25, 2015

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trial

The Maze Runner hit theaters last year and I was so intrigued by the trailer I read the whole book trilogy upon which it is based before the movie came out. I maintain that the books are somewhat underwhelming overall, but The Maze Runner and its sequel, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015) did a better job telling the story than the books did. However, that doesn't necessarily mean The Scorch Trials was a good movie.
After surviving the maze and being transported to a remote fortified outpost, Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) and his fellow teenage Gladers find themselves in trouble after uncovering a diabolical plot from the mysterious and powerful organization WCKD. With help from a new ally, Aris (Jacob Lofland), the Gladers stage a daring escape into The Scorch, a desolate landscape filled with dangerous obstacles and crawling with the zombie-like virus-infected Cranks. The Gladers' only hope may be to find the Right Arm, a group of resistance fighters who can help them battle WCKD.
So, maybe it's just been awhile since I read the book, but The Scorch Trials are very different from what I remember the book being like. There are some significant changes as the book transitions into a movie. Dedicated fans of the books will be left scratching their heads at the many changes. But the changes are respectable. Director Wes Ball has borrowed one trope after another from superior post-apocalyptic tales for an amusing but overall hollow narrative that moves at a brisk pace. The changes to the movie end up telling a better and more concise story than the book upon which it is based. I became less invested in the books as I went on, but the movie kept me engaged for the most part.
The Scorch Trials relies on the assumption that you have seen The Maze Runner; if you start with this movie, you'll be totally lost. Main characters who are returning from the previous movie are already established. Thomas is able to evolve and develop a bit more. Instead of a brave "new guy" cliche, this storyline answers what makes Thomas such a capable and compassionate leader.  If you were left pining for answers after The Maze Runner's climactic cliffhanger, you'll find The Scorch Trials add some much appreciated context for the Gladers' former association with WCKD, which paints a much clearer picture of why Thomas is a hero both in the maze of the first movie and out in the real world in this movie.
Unfortunately, as O'Brian steps into the spotlight, the remainder of The Scorch Trials cast gets sidelined. Minjo (Ki Hong Lee), Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Newt (Thomas Brodie Sangster), and Frypan (Dexter Darden) are reduced to expository soundingboards for Thomas and other dialogue-heavy characters rather than capable heroes who possess individual skills necessary to the group's survival. Fan-favorite Minho gets a few moments to shine but, like the majority of The Scorch Trials characters, most often he's simply looking to Thomas to call the next shot.
There is a generous amount of CGI used to make the post-apocalyptic world seem more real, but the actual physical sets used were most impressive. There is a scene in which two of our heroes are trying to escape some Cranks by climbing up the stairwell of a decrepit building which has toppled over into an adjacent building. The stairwell is at a highly inconvenient steep diagonal which forces our heroes to be creative while escaping from the crazed virus monsters. This was done with physical sets and left the actors with little wiggle room, which in turn generated some creative camera work.
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is packed with thin outlines and surface-level drama, however it maintains a semi-successful bar of intriguing movie escapism set by The Maze Runner. Fans who enjoyed the first film have a good reason to continue with the movie franchise, as it boasts some good camera work, great effects, and some decent action scenes. I jumped several times, during some particularly tense scenes. The movie lacks character depth (outside of Thomas), features an uninspiring storyline, and hasn't elevated itself to a platform for insight into the human condition (i.e. The Hunger Games theme of self-determination versus totalitarianism). As was the case with the previous installment, It's a decent popcorn flick, but unless you really value the big screen experience, it's a renter.

I understand that the third book in The Maze Runner Trilogy, The Death Cure will not be broken up into a two-part movie as has so frequently been done with Young Adult novels made into movies. Some of the Young Adult novels that have divided the last book into two movies had so little happening in the book that two movies were unjustified. Thank Goodness The Maze Runner isn't doing this! The final movie, The Death Cure is due out February 2017.

What's the best YA novel to transition to a movie in your opinion? Comment below and tell me why!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Duel Review

Steven Spielberg is responsible for some of the best and most iconic movies of our day. It's thanks to him that we have classics like Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, Indiana Jones, Jaws, Jurassic Park, and many others. But even the greatest film directors had to start somewhere. The very first full-length theatrical released film Spielberg directed is Duel (1971) when he was twenty-two years old. It's fascinating to observe Spielberg's earliest work in film to see where he started from and where his skills have taken him.
David Mann (Dennis Weaver), a mild mannered electronics salesman, is driving cross-country on a two-lane highway when he encounters an old oil tanker driven by an unseen driver who seems to enjoy annoying him with dangerous antics on the road. Unable to escape the demonic big rig, David finds himself in a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the monstrous truck. When the pursuit escalates to deadly levels, David must summon his inner warrior and turn the tables on his tormentor.
To be fair, Duel wasn't originally a theatrical release movie. It was a television released movie funded, produced, and distributed by ABC for their ABC Movie of the Week, a weekly television anthology series of made-for-TV movies. Eventually it was released to cinemas in Europe and Australia and had a limited cinema release to some venues in the United States. The film's success enabled Spielberg to establish himself as a film director.
Even for a made-for-TV movie, it's pretty good. The paranoia David has about the demonic big rig is reminiscent of the fear and paranoia so beautifully depicted in many of Hitchcock's films. Taking another page from Hitchcock, young Spielberg doesn't completely show us our "monster," thus allowing the audience's imagination to run away with us. The mind fills in the gaps in full detail far better than the movie could. It's fascinating to see how well Spielberg grasped these film making concepts from such a young age.
Spielberg insisted on shooting on location; that is filming on a highway rather than on a soundstage. I appreciate this because nothing looks worse than a car prop on a soundstage with a green screen backdrop; the actor is obviously sitting perfectly, comfortably still while there is lots of movement outside the windows. Taking the small budget into consideration, the camera work was very impressive. The same scenes had to be shot numerous times with the cameras mounted at different locations on the vehicles. The editing was also impressive, since we always get a clear sense of where the car and big rig are in comparison to each other. Since a bulk of the movie is these two vehicles driving adjacent to one another, I'm sure the editing was tricky, but the result was spot on.
A common Spielberg technique is to capture a lot of energy in a shot with a low angle and fast movement. I think it's safe to say he learned this technique while filming Duel. When we first encounter the Big Rig, we see it from  a low angle as the camera moves in one sweeping shot that moves from David in his car to the big rig in front of him while still in motion. We don't see the whole big rig in the shot, which shows us how very large and intimidating this vehicle is. The big rig is, in fact, a scary looking truck, but the way the camera captures it makes it seem all the more threatening. It's fascinating to see how these techniques that Spielberg is known for, were used early in his career.
Since most of the movie is focused on David while he is alone in his car, Duel doesn't lend itself to a lot of dialogue. Nevertheless, David as a character, is well established and we see him develop and grow as the movie progresses. There is a scene when Duel does something that movies should avoid, and that is have a voiceover to express what a character is thinking. Movies are a visual medium and must rely as much as possible upon showing an audience what is happening or what a character is thinking rather than telling us through voiceover or narration. But Duel manages to do this tactfully. Throughout most of the movie we are shown action that elicits our emotional reactions which are then reciprocated through David's expressions, allowing us to know what he is thinking. But on the few occasions we do hear his voiceover thoughts, they are expressing thoughts and concerns that are more complicated than could be expressed with just a facial expression, such as when David talks to himself as he tries to formulate a plan. I feel like the voiceover is a bit of a rookie mistake, but Spielberg was, in fact, a rookie here. The voiceover is used minimally and effectively and the movie relies foremost upon showing us, rather than telling us, what is going on.
Duel is an gripping cat-and-mouse thriller movie. Since it was a made-for-TV movie of the 1970's, it remains safely in the PG range, even with a couple profane words. It's an exciting, well developed story that reminded me of some classic Hitchcock films on some level. It's not as action-packed as I'm sure some modern audience members might expect these days, but it's still a solid film. Duel's rusted, growling tanker truck is an obvious predecessor to the man-eating Great White of Jaws, and it's every bit as terrifying. If you are a fan of film history, I highly recommend seeing Duel just to see Spielberg's earliest work that influenced his later work. Even if you are not a fan of film history , it's still a good movie and is worth seeing. Just for its historical significance, I'd like to get my own copy of this film.

There are a number of great movie directors out there. What are some early titles from iconic directors that are worth seeing to appreciate their artistic development? Comment below and tell me about it!

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Lunchbox Review

I'm usually not a big fan of romantic films. I do like international films from time to time and films involving food is usually grab my attention. I don't recall where I heard about The Lunchbox (2013), but it's a charming movie set in India, though food isn't such a prominent feature as it was in other movies like The Hundred-Foot Journey. The Lunchbox was still a pleasant, light film even when it sticks to commonly used independent film tropes.
Lonely housewife Ila (Nimrat Kaur) decides to try adding some spice to her stale marriage by preparing a special lunch for her neglectful husband.  Through a rare mix-up of the famous "dabbawalas" of Mumbai (a complicated system that picks up and delivers lunches from restaurants or homes to people at work), the lunchbox Ila prepares for her husband ends up in the hands of Saajan (Irrfan Khan), an irritable widower on the verge of retirement who is frustrated with training his work replacement, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). Curious about her husband's lack of response, Ila adds a note to the next day's lunchbox, and thus begins an unusual friendship in which Saajan and Ila can talk about their joys and sorrows without ever meeting in person.
The dabbawala was something new to me. A dabbawala is a person in India, commonly in Mumbai, who is part of a delivery system that collects hot food in lunch boxes from restaurants or the residence of workers in the late morning, delivers the lunches to the workplace, predominantly using bicycles and the railway trains, and returns the empty boxes to the worker's residence that afternoon. I'm not clear why a lunchbox wouldn't be brought with the workers to their place of employment, but this creates a lot of jobs, so who am I to criticize? Harvard Bussiness School added a case study to their compendium for the dabbawalas' high level of service (equivalent of Six Sigma or better) with a low-cost and simple operating system. It's simply fascinating
When the movie started, I instantly recognized Irrfan Kahn. He's best known for his works predominantly in Hindi Cinema. He's been in a number of American films where I recognized him, such as Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, Jurassic World, and The Amazing Spider-Man. He's very good in this film, and plays a character easy to relate to. Nimrat Kaur is a beautiful woman and displays some above average acting here. Nawazuddin Siddiqui's delivery seems a little stiff at times but he really sells his character's positivity and happiness.
The Lunchbox seems to be a romantic drama sort of story. It's got all the elements of a romance, but even though Ila and Saajan communicate through notes and form an emotional connection with each other, there's not really a romance that forms between them. Frankly, I'm okay with this. Saajan is at an age where he can retire while Ila is still a young mother. I feel that given the age gap between them would make any romantic interests awkward. It's less a love story as it is an evocative portrayal of loneliness.  Saajan and Ila are content to share their thoughts about life and their day with one another and that is sufficient for these characters.
Unfortunately, this epistolary exchange of pleasantries and philosophical musings lends itself to independent film tropes. Independent films often have long dialogues about life, what it is, it's fleeting nature, and how it's full of surprises. That is certainly present here, but it's actually well written and well incorporated and doesn't try to act like it's deeper than it actually is. The characters encounter major life changes, albeit common ones that most people experience; getting married, marriage trouble, problems at work, aging parents, caring for a child, beginning a new job, etc. These can make for some fascinating stories, but I felt the way they were handled here made them seem as mundane as real life actually is. Events seem very ordinary, even if they are well written and well acted. I think the what makes these things so interesting to me as a westerner is it peeks into the lives and customs of average residents in modern day Mumbai. What was happening was less interesting as how it was happening. I think that if this exact same story was set in Seattle, for example, it would be a hopeless bore.
The Lunchbox unknots the trials, tribulations, fears, and hopes of everyday people without the glamour that the city of Mumbai has become synonymous with. It's warm, affectionate, and sweet without being overly sentimental. It may have some independent film tropes but they are well incorporated and are good examples of these tropes. Other independent film makers could learn a few lessons from The Lunchbox. The camera work was solid and well shot. The acting was good and featured a talented cast. The only downside that western audiences might face is that it is not an English film. There are bits of English here and there, but the language used is Hindi with English subtitles. If that is too off putting, you're better off skipping this one. The Lunchbox is a good movie I'm glad I saw it, but it's not likely something I'd go out of my way to see again. It's an above average renter.

Have you seen a particularly good foreign romantic movie? Comment below and tell me all about it!

I loved the lunchboxes used in the film. They're called a "dabba" or Indian-style tiffin box. It's a metal and cylindrical, and comes apart in four tiers making four compartments or bowls. I actually found one of these Four Tier Indian-Tiffin Boxes online. I'd love to have one! Go check it out for yourself!

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Review

Under the best of circumstances I'm not a fan of spy movies. They tend to boast a lot of senseless action with a half-baked story so convoluted it's often hard to know who you're supposed to be rooting for. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) is based on the 1964 television series by the same name. The trailer was just interesting enough to draw me in. The movie itself stuck so fast and true to spy movie tropes that it ultimately won't stand out among other spy films, try as it might.
At the height of the Cold War, a mysterious criminal organization plans to use nuclear weapons and technology to upset the fragile balance of power between the United States and Soviet Union. CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are forced to put aside their hostilities and work together to stop the evildoers in their tracks. The duo's only lead is Gabriella "Gaby" Teller (Alicia Vikander) the daughter of a missing German scientist, whom they must find soon to prevent a global catastrophe.
Initially I thought that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was an original film. I hadn't heard of the TV series at all, and I like to think myself reasonably well acquainted with "vintage" pop culture. The series ran for a good four years and earned a number of Emmy and Golden Globe awards. I have never seen the series, but as I understand it, the film strays from the television show enough that viewers unfamiliar with the original series will still follow its twisting intrigue and understand its nods to other spy satires.
The cast was pretty good overall. I'm not familiar with the leading lady yet, though she did quite well. Apart from her, we've basically got Superman and The Lone Ranger trying to outperform each other. Henry Cavill really shines in this movie and Armie Hammer and his Russian accent tries to keep up. Cavill has got all the charm of a Bond, all the intelligence of a Sherlock, and the leading man potential of Superman. Cavill does some death-defying feats, impresses the ladies, is saving the country, and doing it all with not a spot on his suit or a hair out of place. Cavill has chemistry with pretty much every single person that graces the screen next to him - even the ones who don't actually speak.
Like so many spy movies, there's lots of intrigue and deception. This usually looses me somewhere around the second plot twist, but in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. everything is played by the book and I could ultimately predict where who was going to double-cross who and where allegiances lie. While this caused the story to be predictable and by extension somewhat bland, it was kind of nice to have a spy story I can easily keep up with. There's plenty of spy movie tropes that end up being major plot devices and results in an unremarkable story with some decent scenes here and there.
The trailer for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. used a lot of gratuitous shots of women as romantic interests or eye candy alone. Including a one brief shot of a woman who is naked except for a pair of underwear (and only shown from the back, of course). This misleads us to think there's lots of nudity and sex. While there is implied sex, nothing is ever shown on screen. And the aforementioned near-nude shot is as risqué as it gets. The content of the movie stays within in its PG-13 rating, though some parents may not approve of what short bits of nudity do make it on screen. I also don't think that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. should be written off as a hyper-masculine, anti-feminist film. Gaby is as integral to Solo's mission as Kuryakin is. Gaby is a woman in the traditionally masculine role of car stunt-savvy chauffeur, and even that is far from her only role.
There are a number of funny scenes in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I wasn't expecting that. It really is funny to watch Kuryakin and Solo try to outshine each other. They frequently catch each other trying to plant bugs on their mission partner. When trying to break into an enemy compound, the two go out of their way to make the other jealous of their superior spy equipment. The speed boat scene is probably my favorite; Kuryakin is driving the boat being pursued by enemy henchmen and doesn't notice Solo fall out of the boat. Solo swims ashore, takes out a guard, and casually eats the guard's lunch while watching Kuryakin be shot at and fail to lose his pursuers. The comic relief was very welcome, but didn't do enough to elevate the overall quality of the story.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a decent spy movie that sticks to tried and true spy movie tropes and  it will probably be lost and forgotten among the other spy movies out there before too long. It's as if it tries too hard to make itself similar to other movies and it doesn't give itself a chance to shine. The cast is great and the sets and locations are superb, but the movie tries to distract from its unremarkable story with talented and charismatic stars, glitzy sets, and action scenes. This adds up to an uneven action thriller with just enough style to overcome its lack of substance. If you're into spy movies, it's worth seeing. But it's so unremarkable, that it's not worth the price of a ticket. It's a renter.

What are some of the best spy movies you've ever seen? Comment below and tell me why!