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21
Sep

The Maze Runner


Maze Runner, The (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

With 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.

20
Sep

Fitzcarraldo


Fitzcarraldo (1982)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A few great movies can be summed up in one word and it is not considered a hyperbole. With “Fitzcarraldo,” written and directed by Werner Herzog, the word is “fearless”—in ambition, scope, and execution. Coming into the picture, I have seen about a half a dozen images of a steamboat atop a sizable hill. I was dazzled then. But actually watching the massive boat being dragged from a river onto land and up a steep slope is something else entirely—it is a spectacle. Knowing that none of the images on screen are made by computer trickery adds to the raw sensation of witnessing something extraordinary.

Brian Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski) has a dream: To build the greatest opera in the South American jungle and have Caruso as his star attraction. Building an opera house will require considerable funds. Since Peru’s rubber business proves to be very profitable, he hopes get into it by purchasing an unclaimed land, one that is teeming with rubber trees. The catch is in order to get there, one must go through dangerous riverbends and rapids as well as survive against hostile native people.

To immerse us in the story, Herzog makes a point to allow the scenes to unfold in a slow but nonetheless fascinating fashion. From the moment Fitzgerald is introduced, we are curious about him because his obsession appears to be indomitable. Kinski is perfect for the role because he creates a character whose frame, movement, and posture communicates a desperation to succeed. His one great failure, which involves an incomplete railway, still hangs over his head and we get the impression that if this latest project were to fail, it just might destroy him. Thus, before the exposition ends, we understand and sympathize with the protagonist. We root for his dream to be realized.

The picture has an eye for nature, from huge trunks of trees being sawed off to the majesty of the river up ahead, and once the journey is over, it feels as though we have gotten a real taste—one that lingers—of the Amazon River. Lesser movies that are shot on location usually fail to capture that feeling of presence. Here, because Herzog is such a perfectionist and he knows exactly what he wishes to capture and convey, we are in the moment every step of the way. The experience is one that is considered to be transportive.

It also has an eye for interesting faces, from Fitzcarraldo and his lover (Claudia Cardinale) to Fitzcarraldo’s motley crew on the ship (Miguel Ángel Fuentes, Paul Hittscher, Huerequeque Enrique Bohórquez). When the camera rests on an indigenous person’s face, whether it be that of a fierce leader or an innocent child, there is a regal quality in the faces without distracting remnants of one trying hard to give a performance. When they look at a distance, especially during a scene where they mourn for their dead, it is almost like they are telling a story. In a way, the film is similar to a documentary in that rawness is valued and treasured. We get a sense of a specific culture.

“Fitzcarraldo” reminded me a sensational feeling when I saw Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Santa sangre” for the first time. Both defy categorization. And both demand its images to be ingrained in our minds so deeply that it sets the bar for other movies of its type—if others directors—future, past, and present—are brave enough to take a similar gamble.

17
Sep

Powder Blue


Powder Blue (2009)
★ / ★★★★

Written and directed by Timothy Linh Bui, “Powder Blue” tells the stories of an exotic dancer, a suicidal man, an ex-con, and a mortician and how their lives are connected to one another days before Christmas Eve. While the picture aims to communicate the sadness in the paradox of living in a hugely populated city yet no one seems to really care, most the scenes, I must admit, made me laugh when it is supposed to be very serious.

For instance, as Charlie (Forest Whitaker) lures strangers to shoot a bullet through his heart for $50,000, the execution of the character’s request lacks a proper build-up that comes across effortless and commanding genuine tension. Although Whitaker’s performance might have been convincing given a proper direction coupled with a script that offers a backbone and supporting substance, it feels very awkward here. The rare glimmers of intensity is a testament to how good Whitaker can be as a raw performer.

Another weak strand involves Jack (Ray Liotta), recently released from jail, frequenting a strip club because there is something about the sight of Johnny (Jessica Biel) that piques his curiosity. While inside the strip club, each time he is shown standing about or sitting down staring into nothing, he always looks sad. It is emotionally manipulative because not enough time is invested toward honing in on the character’s sadness and communicating it to us that does not come across preachy.

The convenient flashbacks do nothing to make us more sympathetic and sensitive to the characters’ struggles. If there is one shining moment in the film, it is found in the waitress that Charlie meets in a diner that stands in as his second home. While Sally (Lisa Kudrow) has her own share of problems and sadness, the light within her resonated with me. I enjoyed the way Kudrow allows her character to reach out and help Charlie and yet she isn’t quite sure if she is ready to take on a friend or a potential romantic interest.

Sally and Charlie share several gauche conversations but the way in which they mirror each other’s energy made me want to know more about their relationship and consider ways that could help them to move on from their current problems. What they have is about hope and it is critical to the picture because everything about it is so depressing: the cinematography, the subject matter, and the characters being convinced that there is no escaping their fates.

The storyline that shows potential but ultimately does not deliver involves Qwerty (Eddie Redmayne) and his reclusive existence. We are given information about his life like the fact that his father, also a mortician, recently passed away and that their family business is about to go under due to unpaid bills. Unfortunately, there are not enough scenes of his struggles designed to show rather than tell. What is executed nicely is his interactions with a dog he accidentally had ran over and later taken home. It shows that he is capable of giving love but recent events in his life almost prevents him from going out there in the world and living his life as a young person.

Because “Powder Blue” is so intent on showcasing the seedy environs of Los Angeles, it neglects to paint its characters as real people. It also feels overlong. The problems of the protagonists defines them and the screenplay is unwilling to explore other potentially more interesting avenues.

16
Sep

La fille coupée en deux


Fille coupée en deux, La (2007)
★ / ★★★★

Charles Saint-Denis (François Berléand) is persuaded by a friend to come out of seclusion in the country to promote his most recent novel. While signing books at a local bookstore owned by Marie (Marie Bunel), a big fan of his work, Marie’s daughter, Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier), is approached by the author, at least thirty years her senior, since the two have somewhat met each other the night before while out getting drinks. Charles and Gabrielle eventually start to get intimate but this does not stop Paul (Benoît Magimel), a young man from a wealthy background, from pursuing Gabrielle the TV weather girl.

Written by Cécile Maistre and Claude Chabrol, like a wannabe edgy sitcom doomed to get its plug pulled in its freshman year, “La fille coupée en deux” is deadly dull because the screenplay, for the most part, functions on autopilot. It isn’t that it is hopeless from start to finish. Several points of conflict are introduced like a laundry list but it does not dare to break out of checking off whatever is necessary—and expected—to move the plot forward. Not for one second did I believe that the decisions and behaviors that the characters take part in can happen out there in the world. Even if it were a fantasy, it is the filmmakers’ job to make us believe that it could happen.

For some reason, Paul cannot stand the sight of Charles. Naturally, we assume that the reason would be revealed later on but, much to our dismay, there is no explanation offered. Initially, Charles feels awkward about bedding someone so young and yet neither Berléand nor the filmmakers fail to communicate the excitement Charles experiences in being with Gabrielle. What exactly does he find so alluring about her?

Conversely, aside from Gabrielle’s obvious daddy issues, what does she see in him that make other people’s judgments about them worth enduring? When the two end up in bed together, I expected to feel either creeped out because of the vast age difference or completely believing the romance divorced from the big elephant in the room.

Instead, when I observed them kiss, hug, or touch each other, it is like staring at a slab of frozen meat on a counter—it is there but entirely unexciting. There is a drought of chemistry between the actors and the way the camera maintains a certain level of detachment during the highs and lows of the relationship comes across flat to the point of somnolence.

Eventually, it is Gabrielle and Paul’s turn to make something work. While Paul is a more interesting option than Charles because of his emotional instability, there is a lack of chemistry, too. Magimel’s performance is not controlled enough. Although understandable to an extent because Paul is about extremes, it is expected, I was taken out of the experience when in one scene Paul has an amusing wit and darkness about him but in the next scene, he comes off as a clown.

Directed by Claude Chabrol, “La fille coupée en deux,” also known as “The Girl Cut in Two,” possesses a glimmer of a promising start, with an undercurrent of dark comedy, but the writers fail put any spice into the mix in order to keep us engaged. Since the story is, in its core, about human relationships, it is strange that we neither get to know nor care about the characters’ problems. In the end, it ends up as limp as a bad penis joke.

14
Sep

As Above, So Below


As Above, So Below (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Having found the Rose Key which is crucial in finding the philosopher’s stone, believed among alchemists for having the power to turn base metals into gold or silver as well as granting healing properties and immortality, Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) goes to Paris to visit George (Ben Feldman), a former lover, because she needs help translating Aramaic. Their discoveries suggest that the stone is somewhere in the underground catacombs. But the deeper they get inside, it appears as though the place is exhibiting a life of its own.

The first act of director John Erick Dowdle’s “As Above, So Below” suggests that it is not going to be a very good movie. As a part of the hand-held camera point of view sub-genre, the images on screen are almost incomprehensible. Already it has made a crucial mistake: as if the camera is being held by someone who is having a seizure that looking at the screen for thirty seconds straight is near headache-inducing. But once the story turns its attention to Paris, the material starts to get very interesting.

Aside from the scene in Iran, the first half is inspired—suspenseful because we are curious as to how the clues connect to one another and how, together, they will lead to the stone of interest. I enjoyed following a character who is driven by her curiosity and it seems like she is willing to do whatever it takes to solve the mystery. This gets her, including the party she managed to convince to go underground, into trouble later on. The main character is a heartfelt and subtle nod to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ “The Blair Witch Project.”

Many of the scenes that take place underground are creepy and full of wonder. I will remember the picture for its individual images like the characters having to crawl though hundreds of human bones because the space is so tight, there is no room to stand. A character gets stuck and starts to panic. The camera remains still, as if reveling in his fear. Hyperventilating, he commands the others to keep moving forward and yet we know, deep down, he does not want to be left behind. Bone dusts start to collect on his clothes, his face, the air. Then he hears the squeaking rats underneath the bones.

What we see are not the only things that are scary. Despite being tens of feet underneath the surface of the earth, a telephone rings from a distance. Scarlett, with her curiosity, manages to get herself to pick it up and say, “Hello?” We wonder what we would have done if we were in her shoes. I would have kept right on walking, convinced that nothing good or earthly could possibly come from the other line.

The picture falls apart during the final ten minutes in that it shares similar weaknesses as the first scene from a technical point of view. Overtaken by panic, Scarlett must run, dive, and climb. I found it robotic that in every room there is a scary figure. There are loud sounds but there is no convincing suspense or horror. Clearly, the film’s strength is in its slow unfolding of the mystery’s secrets. Thus, its attempt to “modernize” the material by providing the audience with a barrage of encounters within a very limited time comes across as desperate.

Written by Drew Dowdle and John Erick Dowdle, “As Above, So Below” is a cut above a majority of movies that adopt a found footage style because it is able to take inspiration from good horror films, like Neil Marshall’s “The Descent,” and puts its own spin on the final product. Although it does not offer anything groundbreaking, I caught myself furrowing my brow, anticipating what could be there waiting right around the corner.

11
Sep

Un monstre à Paris


Monstre à Paris, Un (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

A delivery to the botanical gardens goes horribly awry when Raoul (voiced by Adam Goldberg) and Emile (Jay Harrington) decide to step beyond the front door and play with some of the potions while the professor in charge is away on a trip. What results from a chemical mixture is a giant creature, about seven feet tall, with red eyes, hairy, and spikes all over. Soon, the creature is spotted by Parisians and a collective fear in the air grows thick. Maynott (Danny Houston), who is aspiring to become a mayor, takes advantage of the situation by volunteering to hunt down, capture, and eliminate the beast.

Not groundbreaking by any means, “Un monstre à Paris,” directed by Bibo Bergeron, is a nice-looking computer animated picture that offers a few chuckles, songs that are easy on the eardrums, and an extended chase scene near the end that is sure to catch the attention of children under the age of ten as well as adults with nothing much to do. But the problem with the film is that it fails to put anything truly special on the table. It will not be remembered ten years from now.

It starts off strongly. It gives the impression that the lead character is a shy projectionist who cannot find it within himself to ask out a co-worker named Maud (Madeline Zima) on a date. Instead, he daydreams of heroic ways to approach her, like fighting a dragon that emerges from a fountain. This opening scene is cute and effervescent but not so frothy that the possible romance is jammed down our throats.

It has an eye for details. The faces and bodies of certain characters resembles that of food. Look closely and notice Raoul’s face likens that of a banana. Madame Omelette’s body is shaped like an egg. The picture’s playful nature is evident but not overbearing. There is even a running gag involving a thief who appears to be unable to catch a break.

Turning the focus on a singer who is rather moody and up herself is a risk, which is appreciated, but a big miscalculation. Lucille (Vanessa Paradis) comes across as hard, her personality that of sandpaper, but the animation shows her face and body as soft. If the screenplay had offered a deeper and well-ironed story, it might have worked. Here, it is awkward and I found her to be off-putting. She may have the voice of an angel on stage but I would not want to share a meal with her and pretend to be interested in whatever she had to say. I kept waiting for Raoul to snap out of whatever spell he is under and realize that Lucille should be the one wooing him.

The monster is not that appealing to the eyes. He is neither scary nor adorable. I wondered if perhaps it has something to do with the design. Granted, he is supposed to be gargantuan in stature but putting a so-called lovable face on top of that build is, like Lucille, a contradiction that does not work. I might have preferred it if the monster is completely adorable or completely horrifying.

“A Monster in Paris” is a movie that is safe—which makes it boring at times. One of the main ingredients that makes the Pixar movies so successful is that they are willing to take calculated risks whether it be in terms of character design, story, or message. Here, it feels as though it is consistently taking the middle ground. What’s the fun in that?

10
Sep

Chugyeogja


Chugyeogja (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

Min-jin (Yeong-hie Seo), a prostitute, is feeling very ill but her boss, Joong-ho (Yun-seok Kim), a former-cop-turned-pimp, insists that she must go to work because he is convinced that his other girls had ran away. Joong-ho is unaware that their most recent customer, Young-min (Jung-woo Ha), is in fact the very same guy who called for the services of the missing girls prior to their disappearances and Min-jin is about to walk into a trap: Young-min has a predilection for bashing a chisel in women’s skulls.

Written by Won-Chan Hong, Shinho Lee, and Hong-jin Na, “Chugyeogja,” also known as “The Chaser,” is an entertaining thriller in every respect but it commands a distinct edge because it also functions as a critique against bureaucracies in the police force and how, while the rules are meant to protect people’s rights, they also end up costing lives.

The villain and the antihero are equally interesting characters and, coupled with an engaging and often unpredictable screenplay, the film holds resonance. I liked the way Young-min is able to talk about his crimes so matter-of-factly, listening to his gruesome acts of violence sounds like someone giving an instruction on how to make a good stew. Ha makes a smart decision in downplaying his character, even during moments when Young-min is bragging about his so-called accomplishments, which is very necessary because the character is all about not attracting too much attention from the public so he may continue to perform his killings in private.

Notice the differences in the way Young-min behaves when he is surrounded by a group of people versus having a one-on-one conversation. There are two different performances. Joong-ho, on the other hand, is quite a lively character with an abrasive sense of humor. I enjoyed the scenes between he and his lowly assistant, Oh-jot (Bon-woong Ko), because the latter almost always receives the short end of the stick. The protagonist’s enthusiasm is also what made him questionable, almost dangerous. When he hopes to accomplish a task, he is willing to go great lengths even if it means disregarding the rules that he knows are there for a reason.

Kim plays his character with such rabid rebellion, at times it makes us wonder whether we should root for him the entire time. The picture does not provide easy answers and I think the point is for us to decide for ourselves if, in this case, the end truly justifies the means.

The chase scenes are first-rate because we get a real sense of geography. It really looks like the chases are taking place in real winding and confusing alleys—various angles of slopes for good measure—found in poor neighborhoods, from the broken glass waiting to be stepped on by someone unwisely walking around without slippers to the awkward black garbage bag waiting to be rummaged by a gang of starving cats. The setting offers natural obstacles for the characters and, in turn, enhances our experience of watching the action unfold.

However, the film, directed by Hong-jin Na, loses bit of power during its final act. The expectation is for Joong-ho and Young-min to have some sort of duel; we want to see it but is it actually necessary? I was not convinced that it needed to happen not only because they are shown in a fight early on but that it also lessens the picture’s message about red tape.

9
Sep

Lone Survivor


Lone Survivor (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

A four-man reconnaissance team (Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster) is assigned capture and kill Ahmad Shah, a Taliban leader known to have murdered U.S. Marines. Though the four manage to reach an area in the mountains where they are able to track the person of interest, they learn that comms are down and are eventually discovered by goat herders—an old man, a teenager, and a little boy. The group is divided when it comes to what to do with them, but Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy (Kitsch) decides to let them go as he and his brothers in action race to the peak of the mountain to establish communication and request rescue.

Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor” is a success in that it highlights rather than glorifies what soldiers do by showing the ugly, the messy, and the painful. In this case, first impression proves misleading. I found the expository scenes to be too shiny and beautiful with typical exchanges of tough males bonding and men racing to the finish line as the sun rises. It all feels too much like a commercial or a recruitment video and I was expecting the worst. But once it reaches somewhere near the twenty-minute mark, it gets the tone just right. Finally, it is on the right track with what it wants to show.

The picture is at its peak during the action sequences. When it is silent in the woods and the crosshairs of a weapon search for a kill shot, sans distracting score meant to amplify already tense moments, it is most magnetic because only one of two things can happen: the shot is either going to hit the target or it is going to miss. Either way, his friends are going to know that their enemy is near so that bullet better make contact because it would mean one less person shooting back. Odds do not look good when it comes to four against twenty or more—even if the former are highly trained.

The environment is alive. Yes, the Taliban is the enemy but so are sharp rocks, great heights, and slippery gravel. In one of the most harrowing sequences, Murphy and his men decide to jump off a cliff. It is impressive because the terrifying sounds are able to match the intense images. Bodies rolling down a slope as limbs and faces hit tree trunks, branches, smaller boulders, and their own weapons invoke horror—not horror in terms but fear but horror in terms of shock. To escape from their enemies, these men are willing to jump off a cliff without even thinking twice about it. Because so many hazards are on the way, they could have died even before hitting the bottom.

The title reveals the inevitable and so each of the three deaths must count. And they do. Despite the screenplay not offering much in terms of subtle characterization, the men that will fall are easy to distinguish physically and in general personality. Since Murphy is the leader, I expected him to get most of the attention. On the contrary, his men—Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg), Danny Dietz (Hirsch), and Matt Axelson (Foster), arguably, get a bit more opportunities to shine. That is a small but nice surprise.

“Lone Survivor” does not set a standard by any means but it is engaging, entertaining, and sad once one is reminded that it is based on a true story. Though liberties are likely to have been taken in order to dramatize certain accounts, I could not help but think of real sacrifices that real soldiers make out there.

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