Tag Archives: Kaya Scodelario

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)

I never thought much of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, to be honest. The first one was OK, I suppose, but I’ve actually dozed off in all of them (including the first one) — until now. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales probably should not have been made, but I’m surprisingly glad they did. Somehow, some way, Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg gave this fifth installment of a stale franchise a shot of unexpected vitality.

Set years after the previous installment, On Stranger Tides, the story of Dead Men Tell No Tales follows Henry Turner, the son of Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner and Kiera Knightley’s Elizabeth Swan, as he tries to track down Captain Jack Sparrow. Of course, this sparks a new adventure that feels like a bit of a reboot of sorts, though at the same time there are a lot of old faces and names that keep popping up. If you’ve seen the trailers you’ll know who some of them are. Personally, I thought they should have been kept out of the trailers because they could have been pleasant surprises.

Anyway, it’s another swashbuckling adventure with plenty of action on the high seas, supernatural powers and magical objects, and of course, Jack Sparrow being Jack Sparrow. Like everyone else, I thought Sparrow was hilarious in Curse of the Black Pearl, the first film, but with each subsequent entry I found him more and more annoying and unfunny. Upon Sparrow’s first scene in this film I was already growing wary as it seemed like the same old schtick was being trotted out again, but fortunately, as the film progressed, the directors didn’t overplay his quirks and utilised the other pirates in Sparrow’s crew to share the comedic burden. Depp, for his part, also seemed to have reined in his performance a little, which made him feel less overbearing. Either that or perhaps I had just not seen the character for such a long time that he felt fresher.

Aussie Brenton Thwaites continues to get one notable role after another. This time he is Henry Turner, effectively the “new Will Turner character”, while Kaya Scodelario (from Maze Runner fame) plays new heroine Carina Smyth, effectively the “new Elizabeth Swann character”. They’re both pretty good, without taking away the spotlight from Depp.

As with the other installments in the franchise, Dead Men Tell No Tales has a fabulous villain, this time a ghostly Spanish Captain played by the frightening Javier Bardem. I loved the way Bardem looked and moved, with his hair floating as though he were in water and parts of his face cracking and missing. It might be a little scary for children though.

Visually, the film is absolutely stunning, with amazing CGI effects of the ships and seas that look as seamless as ever. Special mention goes to the anti-ageing effects they plastered on Depp’s face for a flashback sequence. It made me nostalgic and a little sad to remember what a fine looking human being Mr. Depp was back in his heyday.

I know the film has been panned by most critics (27% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I actually thought it wasn’t a bad reboot effort and a fun flick overall if looked upon independently from the rest of the franchise. It has a lively vibe, innovative action and even some decent humour littered throughout, although the I suspect the main reason I enjoyed it more than most people is because I practically have no recollection of the first four films with the exception of a couple of scenes and plot points (that’s how unmemorable I found them). As a result, the viewing experience felt rather fresh, and coupled with low expectations, Dead Men Tell No Tales turned out to be quite a fun ride. At least I didn’t doze off this time.

3.5 stars out of 5

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015)

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The Maze Runner was one of my surprise hits of 2014. I know a lot of people didn’t like it, or even hated it, but I loved the concept, the intrigue and the action sequences. I even went as far as saying that it should be considered an A-grade teen franchise like The Hunger Games.

And so I was very excited to see the sequel that was destined to happen after the first film made back the budget 10-fold. I’ve heard some people say that Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is an improvement over its predecessor, though I must say I respectfully disagree.

I haven’t read the books and don’t intend to, though I hear that the film diverges from its source material quite a bit. The film’s story picks up not long after the first movie ended. The kids from the maze, led by Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), are in danger right off the bat, and shortly after they meet a mysterious new character named Janson — played by Aiden Gillen, otherwise known as the notorious Littlefinger from Game of Thrones. Jason says he wants to help them out, but of course, if you know anything about Littlefinger you’ll know that things aren’t quite what they seem.

Much like other teen series that achieve success after the first book, the Maze Runner sequel feels somewhat arbitrary in that it starts resorting to less original ideas. I thought the maze idea was fantastic in the first film, but of course they can’t just recycle the exact same approach. And so the story goes down another well-trodden path — the road trip.

Yes, just like Insurgent, the second film in the Divergent series, Scorch Trials takes the characters on an adventurous journey from point A to point B for some reason. They encounter new people, overcome new obstacles along the way, and try to keep one step ahead of baddies chasing after them.

As a result, the film feels more contrived to me. The intrigue is not built into the plot like the maze, and so screenwriter TS Nowlin and director Wes Ball (who also directed the first film) had to manufacture ways to maintain the mystery. No one they meet is “straight up” — they all act mysterious, don’t answer questions and love to say, “Follow me,” without explaining anything. Honestly, just about every new character that appears on screen utters that phrase.

At 131 minutes, it’s also about 10-15 minutes too long, and watching it I could tell there was fat around edges that could have been trimmed. Yet despite the length, there’s actually not as much character development this time around, though on the plus side we do get to find out more about what’s going on. I also think it’s a smart move to make WCKD, the shadowy organisation seemingly behind it all, morally ambiguous, so that you have to make up your own mind whether they really are the bad guys.

Notwithstanding to the amazing CGI renderings of the desolate landscape of the outside world, the most appealing aspect of the movie is still the action, which is again executed really well, with multiple heart-pounding sequences that kept me on the edge of my seat. There’s a lot of frantic running and chase scenes that utilised the shaky-cam, something I ordinarily hate, though in this case it was acceptable as it did add to the intensity and was used sparingly enough to avoid nausea.

Interestingly, the film also has quite a few horror elements and actually works best when it’s in scare mode (as opposed to mystery or adventure mode). For the video game fans out there, however, the film gave me a sneaking feeling that it was ripping off perhaps the best game of all time, The Last of Us. From one perspective, that’s great, because The Last of Us is so awesome, but on the other it worries me that we’re getting too many Last of Us wannabes, to the extent that when the real Last of Us film adaptation finally comes out we’ll all be too exhausted to be impressed.

The cast was a pleasant surprise to me too. Dylan O’Brien is as good as playing Thomas as he was last time, and the film also brings back the welcome familiar faces of Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster — aka Jojen Reed from Game of Thrones), Minho (Ki Hong Lee) and Teresa (Kaya Scodelario). I liked the dynamics between these characters and was glad that the relationships didn’t veer towards the teen cliches we’ve seen a zillion times before.

Apart from Littlefinger, the biggest new addition to the franchise is Rosa Salazar’s Brenda, yet another actress who has hit 30 still playing a teen. The other notable teen character is played by the film’s third Game of Thrones alum, Nathalie Emmanuel, aka Missandei, who has a small role.

There are lots of big names among the “adults.” Patricia Clarkson returns as the head of WCKD, while Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito, aka the legendary Gus Fring, joins the cast as Jorge, the leader of a new group. Barry Pepper, Lili Taylor and Alan Tudyk all have smallish roles too.

With so many big names and excellent special effects and action sequences, it’s hard to believe that Scorch Trials was made for just $61 million and has already nearly doubled that in box office takings. That means we’re guaranteed to get Maze Runner: The Death Cure, which I am so glad to say WON’T be split into two films. Massive kudos to all involved in that decision.

I said at the start of this review that I believe Maze Runner is on the same level as the Hunger Games franchise  not necessarily as good, but at least they share an identical plane. Admittedly, Scorch Trials has its fair share of flaws and for me is a notch below its predecessor, but the more I think about it the more I like it, and I am still of the opinion that the notion stands.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Maze Runner (2014)

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Like most people who had never heard of the book series, I was hugely sceptical about The Maze Runner, which looked suspiciously like yet another young adult sci-fi action flick trying to cash in on the success of The Hunger Games. Even the film’s very first scene, which I won’t spoil, was rather Hunger Game-sy. But I’m going to defend The Maze Runner against a lot of the unwarranted criticism it has received because it’s actually — despite its rather minuscule budget of $34 million — a very intriguing and original story with a good dose of suspense and action. Sure, it’s far from perfect, but in terms of quality and the overall experience it delivers, The Maze Runner deserves to be in the upper tier of films in the same genre along with The Hunger Games and Harry Potter.

The story follows the adventures of an initially unnamed 16-year-old boy (Dylan O’Brien), who is delivered into a large open space enclosed by a giant mechanical maze. With no memory of who he is or where he is from, the boy is forced to co-exist with a bunch of other boys of all ages, races and sizes, who all appear to have been put through the same experience. It’s a community where everyone has their own duties and roles, and one of the roles is a Maze Runner, someone who spends most of their day in the maze trying to map it and find a way out before the giant metal doors close for the night, ensuring certain death for anyone who fails to return in time.

Much of the film’s appeal comes from the group trying to solve the mysteries of who they are, why the have been put in this bizarre maze and how they can possibly escape it, and of course, what lies on the other side if they do. Like any community, there are conflicting personalities and desires, and a significant portion of the film’s near-perfect 113-minute running time is spent on the protagonist trying to find his place among his peers and the group’s leaders.

The Maze Runner is part Hunger Games, part Lord of the Flies and part Labyrinth, with a big dash of that underrated 1997 Canadian sci-fi horror flick Cube, but I never got the feeling watching the film that it was simply a mishmash of the above. Director Wes Ball, probably best known as a visual effects and graphics artist, does an enviable job of keeping the focus on the character development and playing up the intrigue of the maze by not spending too much unnecessary time in there. The effect is that when the characters are finally in there and running for their lives, the action is that much more riveting and exciting.

The film is not free from usual problems such as plot holes, occasional contrivances and unexplored opportunities, and the ending is largely unsatisfactory because answers are scarce (it is, after all, the first film of a series), though on the whole I had a great time with The Maze Runner. I found the maze to be an interesting and thought-provoking concept, and the action sequences were executed with ample exhilaration. The performances from the young and largely unknown cast was also unexpectedly strong. Dylan O’Brien I knew vaguely from TV’s Teen Wolf , Will Poulter I recognised from the Narnia movies and We’re The Millers, and of course Thomas Sangster is from Game of Thrones, but I was not familiar with most of the other kids (like Aml Ameen, Kee Hong Li, Blake Cooper and Kaya Scodelario), all of whom were solid.

Which is why I take issue with some of the scathing reviews from critics, most notably from Andrew Parker, who called The Maze Runner “one of the worst films I have ever had the immense displeasure of ever sitting through.” Now, Parker is entirely entitled to his own opinion, but the vitriol he spewed out against an adaptation that was technically sound and with holes no worse than most films of its kind was clearly hyperbolic and likely predetermined. No wonder Will Poulter found it difficult to hold back in starting a public feud with Parker on Twitter over the review.

Let’s face it, The Maze Runner probably wouldn’t have been made without the success of films like The Hunger Games, but it’s not fair to single it out for being derivative and opportunistic because just about every film made these days is guilty of that in some respect. The book by James Dashner on which the film was based was actually written before Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games (though published a little later). In the hierarchy of teen flicks released in recent years, I’d place The Maze Runner alongside the likes of The Hunger Games and Harry Potter. It might not come with the same fanfare as Twilight, but it’s definitely above the second-tier adaptation franchises such as Percy Jackson, Vampire Academy, His Dark Materials (Golden Compass), the Tomorrow series (Tomorrow, When the War Began), and Red Dawn (which should really be third-tier).  I was pleasantly surprised by The Maze Runner and I’ll be looking forward to the sequel, set to be released in September next year.

4 stars out of 5