Maze Runner: The Death Cure (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
One of my main criticisms of “The Scorch Trials,” the direct predecessor of “The Death Cure,” the final chapter of “The Maze Runner” series, is the filmmakers’ inability to focus on which type of picture they wish to create. The middle chapter, while still entertaining as a whole, introduces questions regarding ethics and morality, particularly the subject of consent when it comes to a person partaking in scientific experiments, which impede the breathless momentum of action sequences.
The good news is that such limitation is no longer an issue in “The Death Cure,” based on the novel by James Dashner and adapted to the screen by T.S. Nowlin, because it has made a choice of becoming a full-on action picture, a finale that relies heavily on special and visual effects coupled with convincing sound effects that truly place us amidst the chaos. The bad news, however, is the material assumes that we already know all there is to know about its characters. There is significantly less intrigue here compared to its predecessors. An argument can be made it is all action, no substance.
But a film must be judged by what it aspires to be. As an action film, it moves well despite a hefty running time of almost one hundred forty-five minutes. It helps that the action sequences are grand, but never complicated, and it is a requirement that we understand what is at stake. Perhaps the best example is the excellent first scene where Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his friends (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito) set out to rescue Minho (Ki Hong Lee) from WCKED (Patricia Clarkson, Aidan Gillen, Kaya Scodelario). The train heist is exciting and beautifully executed from top to bottom. Creativity partnered with handful of close calls are employed just like in action movies that demand attention. Had the material managed to keep up such high level of craft, viewers might have forgotten entirely that the film is based on a young adult novel.
But there must be pauses between action where characters speak to one another and decide what to do next. While the dialogue is convincing and never syrupy, especially when it touches upon potential romantic connections, the exchanges fail to go beyond what is required. We do not learn extra, possibly extraneous, information about the central characters aimed to provide viewers another level of connection to the main players. In fact, at times I had the impression that the more silent moments are a chore to shoot. Certainly there is more passion and enthusiasm put into the action sequences compared to the more intimate moments—with the exception of one which reveals the fate of a particular beloved character.
Directed by Wes Ball, “Maze Runner: The Death Cure” offers an occasionally eye-popping closing chapter to a solid series. Perhaps the best thing about it is the charisma of the cast because each face is memorable and every character has a distinct personality. Because there is room for improvement, I can envision the series being remade ten to twenty years from now. Hopefully without the identity crisis.
American Assassin (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Action-thriller “American Assassin” is for the modern American audience: it moves swiftly, action sequences are violent and at times beautifully choreographed, and the screenplay commands a level of intrigue when it comes to the shadowy world of spies and espionage. But what makes it stand out among its contemporaries is a lack of handholding when it comes to the execution of the plot. We simply watch the pieces move across the board as the race to stop a nuclear bomb from being detonated unfolds.
The casting for the lead role is inspired and surprising. Dylan O’Brien does not have the physicality of a typical action star nor does he have a face that screams “Movie Star.” Even though O’Brien looks fit, there are many instances in which his character, Mitch Rapp, whose fiancée was murdered in a terrorist attack, appears as though he would be unable to handle his own against much taller, wider, seemingly stronger enemies. And so there is almost always tension before and during hand-to-hand combat.
The contrast proves refreshing and interesting. It highlights the fact that the character is driven by so much anger and an unquenchable thirst for vengeance that threat of bruises and broken bones would not stop him from accomplishing a mission. The character is fascinating because he likens that of a rabid dog but one that must be controlled by his superiors or risk years of surveillance and undercover work among terrorist groups.
One portion of the film that could have been explored further is the training under a former U.S. Navy SEAL and Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). Keaton, as expected, is able to hit different, sometimes unexpected, notes within a stock character who trains promising young talents. These training sessions not only provide curious details a potential agent might undergo before being deemed ready for the field but they also underline our protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses. We wonder about his weaknesses, specifically, and how it could be exploited later on—more importantly, at what cost.
I admired that an atmosphere is created in that action sequences are not all that important—and yet when it does present these adrenaline-fueled scenes, it excels. The screenplay creates a consistently high level of urgency and so we care about what would happen not only to the characters but whose hands the rogue nuclear weapon might end up. Because director Michael Cuesta has a habit of playing it small, when he changes his approach, viewers are rendered off-balanced in the best way possible.
“American Assassin,” based on the novel by Vince Flynn, has potential to become a profitable film series because a few elements are present that made the “Bourne” pictures highly watchable. The aggressive CIA operative has more layers to him than anger, as O’Brien’s solid performance suggests—especially during scenes between Rapp and Hurley. Here’s to hoping that if there is a next installment, the material expands the picture’s universe, makes its style more specific, and retains the ability to surprise.
Deepwater Horizon (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
Peter Berg’s telling of the largest offshore oil spill in United States history translates into a compelling watch because sentimentality is kept at a minimum, it offers just the right amount of disaster movie elements without sacrificing realism and intelligence, and the director makes a smart choice in spending some time to allow the viewers to understand, and appreciate, what the disparate jobs in the oil rig entail.
We get the impression that we are simply watching people respond to a terrifying, life or death situation. Although there are numerous acts of heroism once the oil rig begins to fall apart, humanism is highlighted behind and despite such actions. The picture makes a point in the first half that these are men and women who have and must have strong professional relationships even though they pull one another’s leg from time to time. Thus, when someone’s life is in danger, it is not about simply saving a stranger. It’s about saving one’s friends who also have lives outside of what they do at sea.
Special and visual effects are highly convincing to the point where it is difficult to discern between, for instance, what is actual fire versus one produced using a computer. One of the standout scenes involves Chief Electronics Technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) and Drill Crew Floorhand Caleb Holloway (Dylan O’Brien) making their way to the other side of the rig in order to shut down a certain mechanism with the hope of avoiding to risk more lives. The seizure-like shaking of the ground they can barely stand on, the blasts of fire seemingly wanting to engulf their bodies whole, and the metallic debris falling all around them work together to create top-notch suspense, thrills, and engagement.
A director who does not understand how to helm an action film might have turned such a sequence, and others like it, into an incomprehensible mess where camera shaking is gravely mistaken as a proper substitute for timing and execution. Berg has an eye for framing movement—the characters in relation to the objects around them—and so our eyes always tend to focus on what we should be paying attention to, thereby avoiding confusion and, worse, headaches. It is easy to take for granted moviemakers who understand how to control nearly every element in seemingly pandemonium-packed action scenes.
But the best scenes, arguably, are the ones that simply take place in a room and there is a war between ideas. Kurt Russell, playing Offshore Installation Manager Jimmy Harrell, and John Malkovich, portraying BP Executive Donald Vidrine, have a solid handle on the dialogue. Nearly every look, body movement, and intonation of words are purposeful. So when the two men clash on how to proceed with their jobs, it is quite enthralling. Sure, we are supposed to take the side of Harrell, but we believe that Vidrine is convinced that what he knows, and therefore the path of action he wishes to take, is right. The script treats everyone as intelligent and so we wish to know what they have to say and why they think that way.
“Deepwater Horizon” is not for viewers must see an action sequence every ten to fifteen minutes. The movie, however, is for those who want to see a realistic interpretation of what did or might have happened during that tragic night on April 20, 2010 that could have been avoided altogether if greed had not gotten in the way of following protocol, if corporate monetary gains weren’t valued over human lives.
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015)
★★ / ★★★★
Having been rescued from The Maze, which turned out to be a sick experiment, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his fellow Gladers (Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario, Alexander Flores, Dexter Darden) thought they have found sanctuary. Their refuge is short-lived, however, when a Glader from another maze, Aris (Jacob Lowland), suspects that there is something sinister going on in the facility where they are staying.
Thomas and Aris investigate and discover that bodies of young people—unconscious, suspended in air, with tubes coming out of them—are being harvested. Thomas and his team escape the facility and take their chances out there in The Scorch, an area of desert land devoid of resources, where there is death… and disease after death.
“The Scorch Trials,” based on the screenplay by T.S. Nowlin and directed by Wes Ball, makes the mistake of being a sequel that is reluctant to expand its fascinating mythology. Thus, even though the action sequences are kinetic, energetic, and often thrilling, one cannot help but feel there ought to have been more substance—from character development, providing a picture of how the world was like prior to the disease called the Flare, and an explanation of how the disease works biologically. At one point, I felt as though the writing were simplified in order to appeal to the general public.
The chases are executed with a sense of danger and urgency. They do not only occur at night or in the dark although these are the more memorable sequences, particularly one that takes place in a seemingly abandoned shopping center. The director does not mistake shaking the camera relentlessly for suspense. Ball knows when to keep it still, how to quiet a scene, and build a certain eeriness to make us believe in a lived-in world where most of humanity has perished. I am actually interested in seeing Ball handle a horror film since zombie-like creatures run amok here.
What separates this series from lesser dystopian stories is the content of the dialogue. Not once are we ever made to sit through two lovers trying to express their romantic feelings for one another or how much they are willing to sacrifice to be together. Instead, especially toward the third act, characters talk about the trauma of the past, missing memories, passing of friends or loved ones, and not knowing with certainty whether someone they care about is alive or dead—and the torment that comes with it.
As much as I enjoyed the adrenaline-fueled chases and observing how the infected looks (which varies as a group depending on the area), I wished there had been more smaller, quieter moments where these teenagers are allowed to hold extended conversations in their bunks, by the fire, or atop a cliff. These more personal moments work because the cast are composed of real performers capable of invoking the necessary expressions, intonations, and body language to make the scenes convincing. These are not just people who have the right bone structure to look good for the camera.
The villains are not completely established as complex characters—confounding because Patricia Clarkson and Aidan Gillen are actors who are capable of saying a lot by standing in one place and simply breathing a certain way. There are a few lines that hint or express that these two are doing the terrible things they do for the sake of the greater good, but the screenplay does not show enough of their humanity. As a result, when they do something horrible, they still come across like one-dimensional antagonists.
“Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” ought to have had more script revisions in order to reach a balance so that the final product is both an entertaining science fiction thriller and a thoughtful rumination of morality and ethics in connection to our modern society and where we might be heading. Despite its shortcomings, the picture is worth a mild recommendation with the optimism that the filmmakers will take a bit more time to really think about what kind of work they wish to create and get the next one exactly right.
Maze Runner, The (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
His memories erased, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) wakes up in a cage-like elevator, soaking wet, as the clunky box makes its way up to the Glade, a place where a community of boys, known as the Gladers, has formed over three years. They have no idea why they were sent there. Their life is defined by a consistent attempt to find ways of making it out of the surrounding labyrinth which just so happens to change every night.
Come daytime, a gate opens and Runners like Minho (Ki Hong Lee) and Ben (Chris Sheffield) go into the maze, memorize its geography, and try to recognize patterns. While, in theory, it should be relatively safe while the sun is out, it is always a possibility that one might not make it out in time before the gate closes and massive spider-like creatures, known as Grievers, come out to hunt.
Directed by Wes Ball, “The Maze Runner” is an entertaining, story-driven, mysterious, and suspenseful adaptation of James Dashner’s best-selling novel. It is clear that the picture’s strength lies in the rising action because it concerns itself with details, from the specific roles the boys have undertaken in order to create a working community to the curious maze begging to be deciphered. Because the screenplay by Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlin is able to establish the rules with clarity, when such rules are inevitably broken, it is all the more engaging to watch the twists and turns unfold.
It is refreshing to see an adaptation of a young adult novel showcasing a diverse cast. It helps on the most elementary level because there are a handful of characters worth knowing. And yet the film does not rely on race in order to make us remember whose role is what and where one’s allegiance is placed. We get to know what makes Alby (Aml Ameen) a good leader beyond having a strong but not overbearing personality. We get to know what Minho makes a good Runner beyond being able to run fast and being observant. We get to know what makes Thomas the wildcard—the key element that threatens to overthrow a stable existence that has reached a dead end.
I wished, however, that Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), the very first and only girl to be sent to the Glade, had been given more background. Unlike Alby, Minho, and Thomas, we do not get a real idea what makes her special—what specific characteristics or talents she has to offer that might help to establish herself as a critical fragment of the group.
Scenes that take place in the maze demand attention. Especially engaging are sequences where towering metallic structures move on their own and our protagonists are very close to becoming pancakes. Add massive spider-like creatures into the mix and one comes to appreciate an increasing sense of foreboding and danger.
Very close calls made me pull my limbs closer to my torso. At times I even found myself yelling instructions at the screen. It isn’t that the characters exercise bad judgment; it is because the thrills and suspense come hard and fast, left and right that I found myself unable to contain my excitement. Those who have a fear of tight spaces will absolutely get a kick out of this one.
There is a line or two in the film that claims everything is there for a reason in the maze. While certain revelations during the final fifteen minutes might not be convincing enough to some audiences, it worked for me because the answer(s) is not something I would have guessed. It sets up a promising sequel that is likely to feature an entirely new environment and set of challenges. Usually, I dislike attempts made to set up the next chapter. They are usually cheap, obvious, and tacky (Andrew Niccol’s “The Host” quickly comes to mind). Here, it is done with class and curiosity. I felt the protagonists’ emotional and physical exhaustion. But it does not mean they have nothing left to give. This series deserves to continue despite what box office numbers might imply.
Internship, The (2013)
★ / ★★★★
Nick (Owen Wilson) and Billy (Vince Vaughn), a pair of watch salesmen, receive news that the company they work for has shut down. This is most inopportune because, like most adults, they have bills to pay. While searching for jobs online, it occurs to Billy that he and his best friend might have a shot at working for Google. All they have to do is get accepted to a highly competitive summer internship and win a series of challenges against IT-smart—and cutthroat—students hoping for a job right out of college.
There is no denying that Vaughn and Wilson are very good comedic performers, but with a screenplay that is so stale and direction that runs out of energy about thirty minutes in, the hope of saving a sinking ship is null. What we have here is material that should have been filled with whip-smart one-liners about the role of modern technology in our lives, backed with satirical edge—or at least an interesting commentary—about corporate culture, but it settles for being average. I am not a fan of mediocrity.
Part of the problem is that the supporting characters are not asked to do anything other than to serve as weak punchlines. As a result, I found Nick and Billy’s team members to be intolerable. Stuart (Dylan O’Brien), Neha (Tiya Sircar), and Yo-Yo (Tobit Raphael) are supposed to be so intelligent and so driven to succeed that at times they come off unlikable, but the script by Vaughn and Jared Stern does not bother with specifics.
For instance, what does each member contribute to the table? Other than to snag a job after the competition, what is it about working for Google that they find so alluring? Who are they outside of the internship? Because we never learn about them as people with real thoughts and lives outside of the competition, the eventual changes they go through as individuals as well as a team feel completely phony.
It is a shame because the film missed an opportunity to make a real and increasingly relevant statement about human connection. Instead of simply existing as a broad comedy with a frustrating lack of focus, it should have been more pointed with what it is trying to say. All of us have come across really smart people and wondered why they are not more successful or happier in life. The material makes only a small suggestion that social skills, a willingness to express one’s personality, and attempting to get to know others are important elements for success as well as self-fulfillment. It appears as though the material is embarrassed to really get that point across.
The subplot involving a romance between Nick and a Google employee, Dana (Rose Byrne), is desperate at best. The two characters share no chemistry. Notice that their interactions almost always consist of sarcasm. Naturally, they must go on a date eventually. Somehow, we are supposed to believe that the whole charade is supposed to be cute or romantic. I found it insulting because the script assumes that we are idiots.
Directed by Shawn Levy, “The Internship” asks us to invest two hours of our time and it gives less than nothing. We get a couple of jokes about the older generation not knowing terms about the computer or the internet, Asian parents who put too much pressure on their child, and women who work too hard to be good at their jobs. Since no thought or inspiration is put in the screenplay, it ends up wallowing in clichés.