The Maze Runner: Movie Review

the-maze-runner-posterI was very excited when I learned that James Dashner’s The Maze Runner trilogy  was going to get the film treatment, more so when I discovered that they were casting some of my favorite young actors like Dylan O’Brien (Teen Wolf), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones, Phineas and Ferb) and Kaya Scodelario (Skins UK, Now is Good). After watching the movie, though, I felt that there was a lot that was missing. The film didn’t quite deliver on the hype it built up in the months leading up to the release.

Thomas (O’Brien) wakes up in with no memory in the company of a bunch of boys living in The Glade. The place operates with each of the Gladers performing specific tasks like a small community. But unlike any regular place, the Glade is surrounded by secrets, mainly as it is connected to a giant maze, in which mechanical monsters called Grievers reside. When the first and only girl is sent to the Glade shortly after Thomas, he feels a connection to the newcomer, and senses that there is a higher purpose to their arrival.

The Maze Runner was a well written book but since it is part of a trilogy, it only manages to tell the first part of the story. The film made sure to stay faithful to the book for the most part and interpreted the book in such an amazing way that each detail seemed to be lifted from the literature, from the Glade to the Maze. Kudos to the CGI team as it was obvious the majority of the movie was shot on green/blue screen.

What I felt that was lacking from the movie was the connection between the characters and the characters’ connection to the audience. In the book, there was a great relationship built between Thomas and the Gladers, particularly Newt, Minho, and Chuck but in the movie, it seemed that all the focus was on Thomas and all the rest of the characters were just gravy. It was such a shame that the characters were not given a bigger chance to shine because the teen that they cast as Minho (Ki Hong Lee) was really very charismatic as a a hero and embodied his literary counterpart really well. As for Newt, my favorite book character, I felt like his film version got the shot end of the stick because the script did not allow for Brodie-Sangster to display the levelheadedness and bravery of the character that made Newt special. Chuck, in my honest opinion was a miscast because Blake Cooper looked to be too old to be that vulnerable. Chuck needed to be smaller and more innocent looking. In the book, he followed Thomas around everywhere and idolized him but in the film, aside from one moment, there was nothing significant that connected them, which made Thomas’s devastation in the end a bit of a overreaction.

I think Gally’s character was the most watered down among all the Gladers. He was neither a bully or a leader and made for an uncertain villain.

While I believe that the proper editing of the source material is essential in making for a successful film adaptation, the filmmakers just simplified most of the events in the book yet failed to establish the essence behind them. Because of this, it lost much of the impact of what the maze truly stood for.

All in all, The Maze Runner relied too heavily on the effects to provide the adventure part of the story and forgot that it had a cast of really strong young actors at its disposal too. I hope filmmakers does better in the Scorch Trials because as it stands, the Maze Runner was a pretty underwhelming beginning to a supposedly action filled trilogy. And with the amount of movies vying for the same market, the sequel should step up its game or become one of those generic movies that everyone just forgot.

Insurgent: Book Review

insurgentSYNOPSIS: Tobias, Tris, Peter and a handful of Abnegation members flee the city to seek temporary sanctuary with Amity, but they discover that the Erudite’s action has split their former faction in half. Some have found allies in Candor while Dauntless traitors led by Dauntless leaders Eric and Max have pledged allegiance to Jeanette Matthews and her mission to rule the government. As Tobias and Tris reunite with their friends, they realize that things will never be the same so long as the Erudite has the power to rule, with her quench to eliminate the Divergent part of her marching orders for her army. As they take the fight to her however, they need stronger allies. The question is – could the allies be trusted to keep their word or do they have an agenda of their own?

I loved the first book in the Divergent trilogy and found myself compelled to grab the second book immediately after finishing the first one. I was intrigued about the extent of the Erudite plot and was amazed by how complicated this book was. There was something going on from all corners but somehow, author Veronica Roth was able to organize the chaos into a gripping social analysis encased in a dystopian fictional setting.

Insurgent attacks all of the readers emotions. With the loss of Tris’s family, they will feel grief and with Tobias’s struggle to come to terms with what happened during his childhood, a more vulnerable side to this competent hero comes to focus. As Tris deals with the guilt about what happened to Will and some choices that she and Tobias don’t see eye to eye on, issues take a toll on their relationship until they are forced to come to terms with each other’s motives.

While their relationship in Divergent was at its tentative stages, it becomes more intense in Insurgent as their romantic ties and their other issues (like being in danger and being the target of Erudite’s army for being Divergent, or being involved in the war) intermingle with each other and muddle their relationship. But what I liked despite all of these issues is Tobias’s faith in Tris’s strength and his obvious love for her, that she does not quite see because of her inexperience in dealing with the opposite sex. This is both cute and frustrating. There were times when I wanted to smack her silly for being too dense, but this is part of her character’s charm, in my opinion.

Insurgent gives readers their first glimpse at the factionless as a group. Whereas before, the factionless were merely depicted like the homeless, relying only on the charity of the Abnegation, in Insurgent, their full force is revealed and their leader is also became quite a surprise.

Alliances are tested, doubts are explored, aid comes from the most unlikely of places and betrayal becomes a most painful part of the equation. The second book in the Divergent trilogy did not pull any punches and served up blow after blow with each chapter.
I think the best part about Insurgent, despite it’s prolonged dwelling on Tris’s dilemma to make the ultimate sacrifice, is that each aspect of the book proceeds at almost the same pace and not one angle is left too far behind the other. Everything blows up all at the same time. And while readers will want to take a break after one chapter of intense battling, they would be compelled to go straight to the next page instead to find out the aftermath.

One of my favorite parts of the book is that despite the hit that Dauntless took from the events of the first book, the Dauntless still have the same spirit and courage to pick up the pieces to take the fight to the Erudite leadership. But Jeanette’s conviction that there is something bigger that needs to be addressed (in order to justify her obsession with the Divergent) piqued my curiosity to no end, especially after Marcus hinted at the same information. I knew there was a big picture, but Veronica Roth chose the right moment to drop the bomb, and it worked really well for the book.

Different sides are presented about characters earlier introduced in the first book, but not all of them are pretty. There are times when black is not so clearly different from white and I think these gray areas are what hooks readers into the story. They are drawn into the story and forced to make decisions along with the characters, and as such, they become much more involved about the outcome.

All in all, the stakes are higher with Insurgent and everything is amped up, but even as the story moves forward, and shocks are delivered a mile a minute, the book stays grounded to its source  retains its strengths from the first installment. Its still well written, excellently narrated, and just as exciting as Divergent, perhaps even more. As a penultimate offering, it surpasses all expectations and delivers the action in spades.

Divergent: Book Review

divergent_hqSYNOPSIS: In the dystopian city of Chicago, a faction system keeps order in society. When children reach the age of 16, they participate in a Choosing ceremony which will determine whether they opt to stay with their families in their faction or settle for another faction. Those who are inclined towards courage choose Dauntless. Those who value intelligence choose Erudite. Those who think honesty is the best virtue choose Candor. Those who wish to live in peace and harmony go with Amity. Those who value selflessness and service to others choose Abnegation. In order to help them make their choice, the teens undergo an aptitude test to see which faction they should belong but unlike the others, the choice will not be easy for Abnegation-born Beatrice Prior, because she learns that she has more than one of the virtues and this makes her a rare breed called Divergent. But being Divergent has its risks because there are those who go to extreme lengths to eradicate the Divergent from society because they cannot be controlled, and Beatrice knows that she must hide her secret to survive.

Its weird because I saw the movie first before I read the book, and I loved the movie because there was such a strong chemistry among the cast, especially lead stars Shailene Woodley and Theo James. I was thinking, how could I muster enough enthusiasm for the movie’s origin material when I pretty much know what’s going to happen? Turns out I shouldn’t have worried because even as the movie remained faithful to the main elements of the book, the book was awesome in its own right, possibly even more so because it provided an in depth perspective from Tris due to the first person narrative.

What I loved most about the books was that Tris, despite being a heroine in a dystopian world, was pretty relatable to readers across ages, but mostly with teens because she harbors the same insecurities and the same challenges about making choices, being at a loss about making decisions, making friends, and of course falling in love. I loved that she was a flawed heroine but she was able to overcome her flaws because of her inner strength and her drive t push forward. I loved her innocence most of all because of her upbringing and her occasional prudishness. It’s a refreshing change and a contrast to their liberated way of doing things in Dauntless. She could well be a transfer student from another school — her anxieties were the same as the usual teens, just amplified more because she was going to learn to survive from training after all.

I also loved that the book talked a lot about the people surrounding Tris to give readers a better understanding of her motivations. The movie introduced her friends but did not dwell too much on their personalities and that was understandable yet a shame because they were very rich characters, especially Al and Christina. But I loved Four the most because even from the books, he was the type of hero that readers  find themselves levitating towards. He is smart and shy but sensitive, and makes a perfect foil for Tris because they complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I love that he was the first to say I love you to Tris and that final scene on the train totally made me melt.

There wasn’t much of a surprise with Divergent but the book was obviously setting up towards the bigger picture and leaves no doubt that more layers in the plot to eliminate Divergents will unfold in the next installments.

All in all, Divergent was a very strong beginning to the trilogy. I loved to read Divergent because Tris’s voice just seemed to reach out and grab readers into the story. Its explores fear and courage and how people respond to these phenomenon and inspires readers towards the latter.Excellent writing on the part of Veronica Roth, seamless transitioning and a lot of action packed between the pages. Divergent was funny, endearing, exciting and larger than life. It was about family, friends, romance and recognizing the person within and having the courage to be that person. What a great read. My only complaint would have to be that Tobias is not really a super cool name for such a cool guy as Four, but then again, I got used to the same well enough so I guess that nullifies my complaint.

The Maze Runner: Book Review

The_Maze_Runner_coverFor a book with the title The Maze Runner, the lead character surprisingly does very little running.

I’m a big fan of young adult fiction, despite being a full grown adult. I like stories of adventure and discovery and even with volume of YA novels tackling a post-apocalyptic world of late, I still enjoy reading about them. I’ve actually read a review of The Maze Runner several years ago and thought that it would be a great addition to my TBR pile but when I learned that it was going to be a three-part series, I chose to go The Hunger Games route and wait for all three books on paperback before I started reading it. It was a good call on my part (I think) because now, I get to read about Thomas and the Gladers uninterrupted by a long wait.

SYNOPSIS: Thomas wakes up in a lift disoriented and surrounded by several dozen boys in a huge glade, with his memory wiped clean of everything except his name. The glade, it would seem, was part of a strange new environment, which includes a farm, a homestead, a giant moving maze complete with deadly half mechanical half organic monsters called Grievers, who have killed Gladers (what the residents call themselves) for attempting to escape. Thomas has tons of questions but at the same time feels a familiarity with his new surroundings that he can’t quite put a finger on. Things start to get way more eerie when the first girl is delivered to the maze a day after Thomas’s arrival bearing a message that seems to mean the end of the line for the Gladers.

Thomas is pretty much everything that a lead character in a YA novel should be. He’s smart, he’s curious and there’s a certain mystery to his past that makes him intriguing and interesting. Author James Dashner dropped all sorts of bread crumbs as to Thomas’s identity even from the beginning to set him apart from the others, and he lived up to the build-up. The rest of the characters too, were well developed and well written, and readers will find themselves identifying with the characters even as they try to figure out the puzzle that is the maze. My favorites were actually Newt and Minho, two of the Keepers (councilmen) of the Glade – Newt because he is such a strong leader, sensitive but very logical, and Minho because he’s just so brave and cool despite his short breakdown at the Maze. I liked that they had blind faith in Thomas and didn’t judge him when they finally found out what his role in the Maze was, which spoke of great maturity on their part. I especially loved Chuck – he didn’t show it till the end but he was both smart and brave, loyal and innocent to boot.

In truth, The Maze Runner actually reminded me of Harry Potter’s fourth installment The Goblet of Fire, obviously because of the huge maze and the deadly creatures lurking in it, but it was also reminiscent of The Lord of the Flies with the boys building a community and establishing order in their small version of society. But while Lord of the Flies was a subtle political commentary and Harry Potter was focused on the magic and Harry’s battle with the evil Lord Voldemort, The Maze Runner retained its own identity by focusing the mystery of what lies beyond the Glade and the Maze, especially with the group called WICKED, whom the Gladers refer to as the creators.

It was quite creative for Dashner to come up with Glade lingo that ensures that he can pretty much use the f word freely, as would be natural for sixty something boys living in a single space, by substituting swear words with slang that sounds the same and means the same, but is wholesome enough for his young readers. Shuck for the most obvious swear word, klunk for dung, Greenie for greenhorn, are only some of the more colorful ones in the set. I also liked that while there were sacrifices and brutal deaths involved, Dashner left the conclusion to the imagination rather than be graphic about it.

The twist in the end was not all that surprising but it was horrifying to know that WICKED was not yet done with the survivors and that Phase 2 was just around the corner. I was much more curious about what Ava Paige meant when she said Group B. It seemed quite ominous.

All in all, The Maze Runner was a great read. It was exciting and engaging in all the right parts. I would have liked more things to happen inside the maze to level up the feeling of danger and despair but I might be getting that in the next books so for now, I am content. What I really liked about the book was Dashner’s high level of sensitivity for his young audiences, and that is why The Maze Runner is highly recommended for young readers with a taste for adventure. Adult readers who are more aligned with the writing style of Suzanne Collins might not be as satisfied because this book has less intensity but Thomas and the Gladers are a likeable lot and it would be hard not to cheer them on, especially since they have displayed such marvelous qualities of great literary heroes.

Bates Motel Season 2: Series Review

Bates-MotelAnd the plot thickens…

After the mysterious death of Norman’s teacher Ms. Blair Watson, Norma (Vera Farmiga) and Norman (Freddie Highmore) welcome new friends into their lives. Norma meets Christine, a socialite who takes an immediate liking to her, and Norman forms a bond with Cody, a troubled girl whose rebellious personality is the exact opposite of Norman’s uptight upbringing. While Norma continues to oppose the construction of the bypass by forming an unlikely alliance with Nick Ford, a dangerous man who holds real power in the town, Norma’s estranged brother Caleb makes an appearance that disrupts Norma’s fragile relationship with Dylan (Max Theriot), who is dealing with troubles in his own professional life. Apparently, the drug bosses are becoming frisky and combative with each other following the death of one of their own and its up to Dylan and Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) to restore some sort of order in White Pine Bay’s drug trade.

I was very impressed with Bates Motel’s pilot season and I am even more astounded by its second season. The show just keeps getting better as more layers to Norman’s mental illness is uncovered. I think aside from the strong performances of the cast, the show was really able to explore the possibilities of Norman’s early life, his dysfunctional family, and his gradual descent into madness and this hooks audiences to the show, present company not exempted. What I liked about the progression of the story is actually the writers’ ability to leave audiences wondering about a question left as a cliffhanger in the final episode of last season — the death of Blair Watson. The question about whether or not Norman was responsible for it was not a main highlight of the storyline but it was always there, skimming the surface and ready to be brought out at any point of the season. The uncertainty of the answer made viewers obsess about it even as the Bates dealt with various issues that pitted them at the center of almost everything essential happening in White Pine Bay, and the manner in which the issue was resolved was absolutely brilliant.

The shifting dynamics in Norman’s family was also part of the show’s major draws. Whereas before, it was only him and his mother, Dylan — towards the end of the last season was already becoming the balancing factor in the dynamic, which was only torn down and rebuilt throughout this season. Dylan had a bigger role in Season 2 because much of the storyline revolved around him and his issues. The way he begrudgingly protected his family despite feeling like an outsider for the most part, was really sweet. Its a weird description for such a dark show but there were just moments where viewers would just want to give the characters a big hug. Sure, Emma was sometimes annoying in wanting to stick her nose in everything but she genuinely cared for the Bates so its not hard to forgive her. And I kinda liked her letting her hair down with Gunner, who was such a cutie. I’m a bit sorry that his character just disappeared.

I also loved the underlying sexual tension between Sheriff Romero and Norma Bates. These two were adorable in their encounters and I would very much like to see them get together in future seasons. It just worries me though when the characters I like get close to the Bates because a lot of them die. Seriously. But aside from the chemistry, these two actors were outstanding — Vera as the mother who would stop at nothing to protect her son and Carbonell as the lawmaker who is trying his best to bring justice to the crimes in his town.

All in all, Season 2 was much stronger because of the brewing distrust between mother and son as Norman learns about what he is and what he is capable of when he has his blackouts. As the series moves forward, it was cool to see Norman foreshadowing the Norman Bates of the 1960 Psycho, in which the series was inspired. The taxidermy in the living room, channeling his mother, and having monologues and the rage — all of it was excellently depicted by Freddie Highmore and while before he had an air of innocence about him because of his youth, there is no doubt that he is not normal, not by any stretch of the imagination everytime he flies off the handle. Its interesting to see how this show goes. There is just so much potential.

Elysium: Movie Review

elysium-movie-2560x1440Its 2154 and the earth as we know it is in shambles. The rich and powerful have left the planet and built a paradise of a space station called Elysium where there is no poverty, no disease — where citizens live in luxury oblivious and uncaring about the plight of those who still live on the planet. Max (Matt Damon) is an ex-convict trying to get his act together by keeping his job at a droid manufacturing company for slave wages and inhumane working conditions. When he is accidentally exposed to a toxic dose of radiation due to a workplace accident, he receives news that he has only five days to live. Left with no choice, he returns to the underground to do a final job for Spider (Wagner Moura), whose business is to smuggle humans to Elysium, in exchange for a one way ticket to the space station and the medical care he needs to survive. With his luck though, the job turns out to be more complicated than he expected and he becomes the subject of a manhunt by the ruthless Defense Secretary Delacroix (Jodie Foster) and her psychotic mercenary Kruger  (Sharlto Copley).

From the start, there is a certain familiarity to the Earth depicted in this movie. The feel of the movie also has a hint of deja vu. The reason? Director Neil Blomkamp, who helmed the 2009 surprise hit District 9 also directed Elysium. He even cast Sharlto Copley, his breakout star in D9 as a villain this time and I must say that this was a great move to showcase the actor’s versatility. What I liked about District 9 when I first saw it was the rawness and the grittiness of an earth in desolation. While District 9 was shot documentary style, Elysium managed to retain the same conditions and make it work for a mainstream approach.

Matt Damon is a fine actor, and an intelligent one. He adapts to different types of roles like a chameleon and he doesn’t even break a sweat doing it. In Elysium, he manages to pull off the portrayal of a man desperate to do anything to save himself, and show his inner turmoil between doing the right thing and getting what he needed. I think his best scenes were with him and Julio (Diego Luna) although I would have appreciated more dramatics on this part to boost his motivation to get back at the government, and the his last scene with Spider in Elysium. I think what is lacking in the movie are the scenes that solidify  Max’s rage to justify  his final epiphany. Had these scenes been properly established, I have no doubt that the film could have given Gladiator a run for its money.

While Jodie Foster was supposed to be the main villain, Sharlto Copley kind of stole the show from her with his unintelligible dialogue and general lack of hygiene. It kind of made him seem more menacing somehow. He reminded me of Megatron in the desert especially when he was wearing a tattered cloak in the boonies.

Elysium had a lot going for it. Good action sequences, great CGI and a solid story with an underlying social commentary about politics that mirrors current world scenarios. Human smuggling, poverty, inequality, all in glaring contrast to the elite who vacation in France and St. Tropez, who have access to luxuries and the finest wine.

All in all, Elysium managed to balance out the dramatics with the action, making for one engaging film that is visually and emotionally compelling. As far as Sci Fi goes, it is not as good as District 9 but  it held its own as a standalone.

White House Down: Movie Review

White_House_Down_Theatrical_PosterWhen I first heard that there was another movie coming out about the White House being attacked by terrorists, so soon after watching Olympus Has Fallen, I kind of immediately had reservations about seeing it. On the surface, the plot was too similar not to make any comparisons between the two movies but when I finally buckled down to see White House Down, it was  an entirely different experience altogether.

John Cale (Channing Tatum), an ex-Marine who served three tours in Afghanistan only wanted two things when he went to the White House for a job interview — a) get a job in the President’s Secret Service, and b) make it up to his daughter Emily (Joey King), an 11-year-old political blogger, for missing her performance at her school’s talent show. When a group of armed extremists execute an assault on the White House, it is up to John to save President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) and the 60 hostages trapped in the Capitol.

From the beginning, it was obvious that White House Down was going for a different vibe from the hard action and emotionally exhausting Olympus Has Fallen. Despite the similarities in the plot and movie elements, WHD chose to cast a younger, fresher, slightly goofier lead character in John Cale who balances zingers and witty one liners with the weight of the crisis. I was expecting Jamie Foxx to break out the yuks too but I guess that would have been uncharacteristic for the leader of the free world. Joey King, who played John’s daughter Emily, is also a young actress to watch out for. Not only is she beautiful but she portrays her role so seamlessly and blends well with all of the other characters in all of her roles. Also noteworthy is James Woods who played disillusioned Secret Service boss Walker. But then again, he’s James Woods. He can do no wrong.

What’s great about White House Down was that the story was more plausible and allowed the film to have more dimensions. It allowed itself to pace itself in a way that introduced levels to the plot. The story took detours before the reveal of the real mastermind and this was great for the audience because involves them in the story.

All in all, WHD was not just an action movie but it was also a buddy comedy and in a sense, it was also a family drama. It made watching the White House burn more fun (I’m looking at you director Roland Emmerich). But let’s face it, it was the Channing Tatum show and Jamie was really only there to lend the support. The way the film turned out, Channing totally deserved the limelight. A great watch. It totally had me alternately laughing my head off and biting my fingernails.