MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 11 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Extended Sequences of Violence and Action, some Thematic Elements, Substance Use and Language

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Directed by: Wes Ball

Written by: T.S. Nowlin

(based on the novel THE SCORCH TRIALS by James Dashner)

Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, Rosa Salazar, Kaya Scodelario, Jacob Lofland, Giancarlo Esposito, Aidan Gillen, Barry Pepper, Lili Taylor, Alan Tudyk & Patricia Clarkson

Seeing that HARRY POTTER ran its course, TWILIGHT has long since ended and THE HUNGER GAMES is coming to a conclusion this year, it seems like the next two big young adult movie franchises are DIVERGENT and THE MAZE RUNNER, for better or worse. I actually liked the first MAZE RUNNER and considered it be big dumb spectacle. It was an entertaining, ridiculous movie that came across like LORD OF THE FLIES with a maze, monsters and just a touch of RESIDENT EVIL. It also left the door wide open for a follow-up. A mere year later, we have THE SCORCH TRIALS. This sequel holds some of the bombastic charm from the first film, but also seems like a big step down in the newly spawned franchise.

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Thomas and his friends survived the Maze and have been rescued by the mysterious Mr. Janson. Janson runs a safe haven from WICKED (an evil organization that wishes to use these teens for something…no spoilers). Soon enough, Thomas discovers that Janson isn’t quite the hero he’s set himself up as. Thomas and his friends find themselves running once again, but not in a maze. Instead, they’re in a sand-filled wasteland crossed with the zombie apocalypse. Instead of monsters, Thomas now faces off against zombies (though they don’t call them that), harsh elements (including a freaky electrical storm) and WICKED itself.

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SCORCH TRIALS feels like its making itself up as it goes along. The plot is silly, rife with clichés that you’ve seen in plenty of other films/stories, and has moments of obvious CGI. This is a RESIDENT EVIL movie series for kids who aren’t old enough to get into an R-rated movie. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing. I mean that as both a compliment and a detriment. The teenage characters are just as wooden as they were in the first film, but there’s a definite dark streak to this movie. I found myself surprised at how grim things actually get, resulting in one teenager (who was sitting within earshot) swearing after a particularly depressing scene. Plot points that were a mystery in the first film are brought out in exposition. However, these revelations feel lazy and underwhelming (especially the reason for why Thomas was sent into the maze).

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There is still entertaining action to be had in this sequel. I enjoyed the desert wasteland and chase scenes (of which there are many). Though the aforementioned teenage characters may be wooden and unconvincing, the adults seem to be having fun. Aidan Gillen (who plays one of my favorite characters in GAME OF THRONES) is well cast as the villainous Janson. He doesn’t receive a ton of screen time, but makes the most of what he has. Alan Tudyk has a really strange part as a drug-using criminal in the post-apocalyptic world. He has about two or three scenes tops, but sticks out as a “what the hell was that?” character. Giancarlo Esposito stole the show for me as a heroic aid to Thomas. Patricia Clarkson is a bland villainess though and her motivations are as clichéd as you’d expect in a movie that’s derivative of seemingly every apocalyptic science-fiction story ever made. SCORCH TRIALS really bombs in its pacing and ending. This second installment runs 20 minutes longer than the first film, when it has half the story to fill that length of time. There is no satisfying conclusion either. It’s just another obvious cliffhanger setting up for the final film (THE DEATH CURE coming in 2017).

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MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS is not necessarily “good” in the traditional sense of the word. There’s nothing original or creative here (save for the slightly darker tone in a young-adult movie) and it’s riddled with plot holes. However, I still found myself slightly invested for the strange adult characters and sheer spectacle. The movie runs too long for its own good and doesn’t have a satisfying ending. I also hear it’s not a straight adaptation of the novel, so fans of the book might want to prepare themselves for that. As someone who hasn’t read the books and doesn’t plan to, I found SCORCH TRIALS to be a significant step down from the first film, but I didn’t hate it. This is an okay time if you don’t mind turning off your brain at the door.

Grade: C+

THE MAZE RUNNER (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Elements and Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, including some Disturbing Images

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Directed by: Wes Ball

Written by: Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers & T.S. Nowlin

(based on the novel THE MAZE RUNNER by James Dashner)

Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario, Ki Hong Lee, Will Poulter, Aml Ameen, Blake Cooper, Alexander Flores, Jacob Latimore, Chris Steffield, Joe Adler & Patricia Clarkson

In an overcrowded sea of young adult adaptations, THE MAZE RUNNER sticks out in sheer creativity and dark risks. It’s far from the best film of its type thus far in 2014 (that would be FAULT IN OUR STARS) or the worst (DIVERGENT), but I had a blast watching MAZE RUNNER. Think LORD OF THE FLIES with monsters and a maze, then you’ve pretty much nailed the vibe this movie is throwing at the viewer. The characters aren’t well-developed and the plot is dumb as a rock, but the world the film brings to life and the entertainment value nearly makes up for those flaws.

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The story begins with teenage Thomas waking up in a cage-like box rising to the top of a chute. Without a single shred of his memory left (other than his name), Thomas finds himself in a wide open field (The Glade) surrounded by tall iron walls on each side. He’s one of many teenage boys stuck in this structure and learns that a massive maze surrounds them. As if things couldn’t be scary enough already, there are mechanically enhanced monsters (Grievers) lurking within the maze that kill anyone who comes across them. Everything begins to change after Thomas’s arrival and it becomes apparent that time is running out for the boys to escape a horrible death. Thomas must escape from the maze along with the help of those around him, all while with fighting Grievers and battling against the politics of the supposedly civilized Glade colony that also has a savage streak.

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As far as carving out an imaginative world, THE MAZE RUNNER is one of the stronger young adult adaptations. The maze looks incredible, along with shifting walls and monsters inhabiting it. The film also gets away with a surprising amount of dark content for a PG-13. There are creatures killing teenagers, violence amongst the Glade community that goes into LORD OF THE FLIES territory, and a surprising revelation near the end that somewhat reminded me of the RESIDENT EVIL films (visually). The spectacle of the entire movie kept me wildly entertained and I can’t ever say that I was bored or even slightly disenchanted with what was on the screen. The film kicks off with a bang and ends on an interesting (also very silly) note that makes me want to see the sequel (SCORCH TRIALS) next year. On a pure popcorn-munching good time level, I really enjoyed MAZE RUNNER and there are certainly far worse young adult adaptations that have been granted a series treatment (involving sparkly vampires and divergents).

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The film suffers from bland characters and iffy performances. Most of this actors haven’t done anything too notable before this and their lack of experience shows. Some of the youngest performers are far more annoying than compelling. There’s also a casual use of shaky camera work that can become downright headache-inducing once or twice. It’s not as bad as the first HUNGER GAMES, but it still took away from what might have been amazing sequences. Luckily, most of the intense moments involving rotating maze walls (the blade scene is awesome) and monsters are held in a steady, clear view. As creative and unexpected as the climax is, it’s incredibly ridiculous as well. Nothing up to that point in the film prepared me to buy the ludicrous twists the film plants for the obvious next chapter in the trilogy, complete with a cliffhanging final line that did get a chuckle out of me.

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To put it bluntly, THE MAZE RUNNER is a young adult franchise starter with balls. This film tackles an imaginative story in dark ways. Though the plot is pretty ridiculous, I enjoyed it on a sheer spectacle level. Real suspense and adrenaline are given to the viewer, even if it doesn’t fully pay off in the end. As stupid as the last 20 minutes are, I didn’t predict them and I’m sold on watching the sequel (if only for curiosity’s sake). If you want a sci-fi film aimed at teenagers that’s cerebral and covers universal themes, watch THE GIVER. If you want to eat some popcorn, turn your brain off, and have fun, watch MAZE RUNNER. Sometimes, junk food can be as enjoyable as an exquisite dinner. Such is the case with THE MAZE RUNNER.

Grade: B

EASY A (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Mature Thematic Elements involving Teen Sexuality, Language and some Drug Material

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Directed by: Will Gluck

Written by: Bert V. Royal

Starring: Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Thomas Haden Church, Patricia Clarkson, Cam Gigandet, Lisa Kudrow, Aly Michalka, Dan Byrd, Stanley Tucci & Malcolm McDowell

Plenty of teenage movies come out every year. Most of them feature an overly cheesy romance full of unconvincing 20-somethings portraying high school kids. Every now and then, a rare film comes along that captures the joys of being young and the adolescent drama that teenagers face on a daily basis. It’s easy to forget how tough times seemed as a high school student. It’s easy to forget how painful insults from your peers could be. Well-done stories about teenagers can perfectly encapsulate all of those feelings in a meaningful and entertaining way for any age group. EASY A is not only one of the best teenage comedies I’ve seen in the new millennium, but one of the best films in that specific subgenre ever.

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Olive is a seemingly invisible good girl in a California high school. After a little white lie about losing her virginity escalates, Olive finds herself as an unwanted center of attention. Using her completely untrue reputation to her advantages, she banks on spreading more rumors about her false sexuality with classmates she really doesn’t sleep with. It’s the ultimate meaning of the term “Let’s not and say we did.” However, the realization of just what sort of trouble she’s getting herself into dawns after losing friends and becoming the ultimate outcast. Needless to say that Olive will do whatever she can to clean up her name.

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Narrated by Olive through a webcam, EASY A feels like a solid young adult novel turned movie. It’s an awesome teenage comedy that has authentic characters. The dialogue doesn’t feel scripted in the slightest. This scenario being shown isn’t exactly out of the ordinary either. It’s about as everyday as a group of kids being stuck in detention together or a girl turning sixteen. Therefore, it’s easy to get emotionally involved with a character as likable as Olive. Emma Stone delivers her A-game as the teenage protagonist. Though her filmography ranges from quality to questionable, Olive is the best role she’s been given thus far and showcases all of her talent as the lead.

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Besides Emma Stone, the entire cast of side characters are great too. Though some of these performers aren’t given a huge amount of screen time, the smallest of roles are memorable in some way. Malcolm McDowell plays the school principal for about five minutes in three brief scenes. Recently I had some girls get on me about my criticizing of Gus from FAULT IN OUR STARS (another good teenage-aimed movie). No guy is as perfect as that one-note character, but Penn Badgley plays Stone’s romantic interest as someone who I believe exists. Meanwhile, Cam Gigadent and a surprisingly tolerable Amanda Bynes are fantastic as Jesus freaks that tick off the viewer. There are plenty of other notable performances (Thomas Haden Church as a teacher, Aly Michalka as Olive’s best friend, etc.), but Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson play the best parents in the world. There’s real chemistry between the two. Their delivery is hysterical but also touching.

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The sense of humor in EASY A is as great as the dramatic angles being presented. Everything is funny but believable. The movie hearkens back to the good old days of John Hughes’s prime and comes as the ultimate homage to 80’s teen movies. Emma Stone’s Olive references these flicks in some of her dialogue. Bert Royal’s script also includes a whole lot of self-aware dialogue poking fun at the clichés in every teenager-aimed flick, but does so in a way that’s fresh and enjoyable. One thing that should also be highly praised is that EASY A is endlessly rewatchable. I’ve seen it about six times since its release in 2010 and it’s just as excellent during (if not improving with) every viewing.

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Through down-to-earth writing, great performances, and genius comedic sensibilities. EASY A is as funny and entertaining as it is emotionally involving. EASY A easily earns a grade higher than the one already in the title. This is an amazing comedy that happens to revolve around teenagers, but will entertain every demographic. There’s no other way of saying this, but EASY A is a must-see!

Grade: A+

JUMANJI (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Menacing Fantasy Action and some mild Language

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Directed by: Joe Johnston

Written by: Greg Taylor, Jonathan Hensleigh & Jim Strain

(based on the book JUMANJI by Chris Van Allsburg)

Starring: Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce, David Alan Grier, Jonathan Hyde & Bebe Neuwirth

JUMANJI is one of three films featuring Robin Williams that I wore out on VHS as a child (the other two being ALADDIN and HOOK). It was also from an era where family entertainment took more risks and didn’t mind having an element of real danger in any threats being shown. Based on a children’s book of the same name, JUMANJI can be considered somewhat of a scary movie for children. It doesn’t feature any out-and-out monsters, but the idea of having two kids exposed to deadly jungle animals unleashed from a supernatural board game isn’t necessarily going to suit all ages. However, if a child can handle the likes of GREMLINS or HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS, then this should probably be fine. Despite being nearly two decades old, JUMANJI holds up remarkably well.

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The year is 1969. Alan Parrish is a young boy bullied by his classmates and living under the name of his rich factory-owner father. One day, Alan uncovers a mysterious board game called Jumanji buried at a construction site. After beginning to play Jumanji with his best friend Sarah, Alan disappears inside of the game and Sarah is chased out of his house by a pack of wild bats. Twenty-six years later, orphaned siblings Judy and Peter move into Alan’s old home with their aunt and stumble upon Jumanji.  Two rolls of the dice later and they realize that the game possesses some kind of supernatural power and releases something from the jungle each turn (e.g. dangerous animals or natural disasters). It’s up to young Judy and Peter, a now-grown Sarah, and a returned fish-out-of-water Alan to finish the game and end the chaos.

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I didn’t know that this film was directed by the same guy who made HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS and THE PAGEMASTER. While those films aren’t perfect by any means, they inject some palpable danger into usually safe kiddie fare. This film is far from your average kid’s flick. JUMANJI is full of creativity and imagination. The story is fast-paced and danger lurks around every corner. The various threats are likely to get the intended reaction of frightening kids or even scaring adults in some cases. Besides some expected animals from the jungle (e.g. a lion, some monkeys, rhinos, etc.), we do get deadly plants and some freaky looking spiders that pop up near the end. Though the film is not nightmarish, it could easily give kids bad dreams from those spiders alone.

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The characters are well-developed, despite a couple of iffy performances. Without a doubt, Robin Williams is the stand-out as Alan. He’s not so much a comedic figure, but a hero facing his fears. There’s an element of heartbreak to his character and Williams does the best he can with that. This is a kid who’s barely returned to the modern world and is adjusting to everything around him, including one of the more emotional moments of the film that winds up strengthening the relationship between himself and the two orphaned siblings. I didn’t care too much for Judy or Peter at the beginning as they come off as stereotypical kids. After the touching moment with Williams, I bought their characters. This is all in spite of shaky acting from both Bradley Pierce and Kirsten Dunst. Bonnie Hunt is solid as Sarah and delivers more comic relief than Williams, but it’s not enough to derail how dire the circumstances are in this film. Another wise move was casting Jonathan Hyde as both Alan’s tough father and a villainous hunter from the game.

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The movie is not without a few other problems that come in two areas. The humor can be a bit much at points. A band of monkeys make repeated appearances in jokey scenes that almost feel like they’re from a completely different film. Also, there’s an extended sequence with Van Pelt (Jonathan Hyde’s evil hunter) in a store that was too forced and played like a bad slapstick routine. To be completely fair, the movie is based on an award-winning children’s book, so some of the silliness can be seen from the source material. The effects are a blend of practical and CGI. Most of these hold up, but some CGI hasn’t aged too well (e.g. the monkeys and a comical moment involving quicksand).

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Distinct deviations were made from the children’s book and these benefit the movie as a whole. The story is more complicated, rules to the game of Jumanji drive everything forward, and the end result is as enjoyable for adults as it is for kids. The soundtrack is also great and conveys the danger/emotion of certain scenes very well, but not in any over-the-top way that might annoy viewers. Another cool thing is how little details occur around the characters. The movie doesn’t stay confined to within the walls of one house. The world outside plays a big part in the story and plot elements make it apparent that the perils of the game aren’t just affecting the main protagonists. A stampede of large animals running loose on the street and deadly bugs are attacking people around the town. It’s not only the characters’ lives are at stake, but the lives of everyone in the city around them.

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As the film comes down to an exciting climax, Alan’s home is in shambles and the experience has almost worn the viewer to exhaustion in a very good way. I was sucked into the world of this movie. It felt like I had gone on for the ride with these characters. The performances aren’t stellar across the board and some of the comedy relief falls flat. Not all of the effects hold up. However, a great deal of respect should be given to JUMANJI as it’s a piece of family entertainment that takes risks and is original. Rewatching a movie like this makes me wish that more films today were original adventures that had big budgets thrown into them. JUMANJI is a rollicking adventure that stands the test of time!

Grade: B+

THE EAST (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Elements, Violence, some Disturbing Images, Sexual Content and partial Nudity

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Directed by: Zal Batmanglij

Written by: Zal Batmanglij & Brit Marling

Starring: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Aldis Hodge, Danielle Macdonald, Hillary Baack & Patricia Clarkson

In his second feature film, Zal Batmanglij is demonstrating a talent for creating smart and interesting movies that rely heavily on characters for story. Zal’s directorial debut was SOUND OF MY VOICE, a film that I really dug until the too-rushed too-vague ending. It felt like he had run out of money on that film and had to end it sooner than he wanted to, which was probably not the case…but you never know. Here Zal is given enough of a budget to have a relatively big-named cast and make a film that feels complete in every way.

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We begin with an announcement from an anarchist group, calling themselves “The East.” They say they’ve targeted three large corporations that profit by stepping on the poor and using unethical practices (creating drugs with awful side effects, dumping waste in public water, etc.) and will attack them in carefully executed ways. Sarah Moss, an undercover investigator, is assigned to make her way inside The East. She will see how they operate, uncover their plans, and ultimately find a sense of meaning in this anarchist group. Her morals and loyalties are both tested and the ever-present threat of The East finding out who she actually is begins to tighten.

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Co-written by director Zal Batmanglij and actress Brit Marling, THE EAST sprung from an interesting research process. Apparently, both Batmanglij and Marling lived a “Freeganism” summer in 2009. They bought nothing, lived off no money by dumpster diving for perfectly healthy discarded food (something that is thrown away all the time) and slept in abandoned houses, while hopping trains to travel. This experience lead both of them to incorporate these elements into the characters in THE EAST and gave them insight into a totally different way of living.

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The script makes the smart decision of putting a possible political and social message aside to tell a story about characters, their decisions, and moral dilemmas. THE EAST could have easily been seen as “a hippie piece of propaganda” and instead it’s a wildly original compelling thriller. There is an increasing amount of solid suspense that ramps up as the film goes along and a few unexpected twists along the way that take the story in new interesting directions.

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My single complaint with the movie is that the first 30 minutes leave the viewer a little lost. We understand that The East is an anarchist group and that Sarah is supposed to infiltrate them, but the process of finding The East themselves is a tad silly. Luckily for Sarah and the audience, it worked in the film’s favor eventually. Other than this portion of the movie, both Batmanglij and Marling have constructed a unique thoroughly enjoyable thriller.

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The acting is fantastic across the board. Not a single bad or shaky performance in the fairly large cast. Speaking of which, I was surprised to see some of the names here. Toby Kebbell (Jonny Quid from ROCKNROLLA) takes a sympathetic turn as the group’s doctor (of sorts) with personal vendetta against a medical company that left him unstable. Patricia Clarkson shows up in a few key scenes as Sarah’s superior with some ulterior motives involving a few of the companies targeted. Shiloh Fernandez (who was amazing in DEADGIRL and so-so in RED RIDING HOOD) plays a character unlike any he’s ever touched. Ellen Page was a wild card for a while, but her character eventually turned out to be one of the best. Alexander Skarsgard knocks it out of the park and finally Brit Marling continues to prove that she’s one of the best little-known actresses working today.

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The conclusion of THE EAST pulls heartstrings and tests the viewer’s side, along with Sarah’s. It’s a polarizing ending that will divide audiences right down the middle. Personally, I thought it closed off in the best way possible. I didn’t predict it. In fact, I thought the film was headed in a complete opposite direction, but THE EAST is a film that will leave you thinking about it long after it’s over. The mark of a truly great film.

Grade: B+

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