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Maze Dead Ends, Bateman Grows Up

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THE MAZE RUNNER is a tightly paced sci-fi/horror flick for the tween set, a dark and violent mystery that doesn't gloss over the child murder so popular in films these days. But while the twists and turns are thrilling, the film's resolution isn't unlike that feeling when your pencil tip escapes the newspaper labyrinth: brief and deeply unsatisfying.

Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) wakes up on a clanking elevator hurtling upward into a verdant square of land surrounded by huge stone walls. There, he's introduced to the ragtag society of teenage boys, who, memories of their previous lives wiped clean, have built a tenuous government and culture of cooperation in the three years since they began arriving. Their goals: get out of the "glade" and find out who they are, who put them there and why.

Everyone in the glade has a role, whether it's farming, building or running. Every morning, a mechanical gate opens at the edge of the meadow, and the selected toughest boys sprint into the labyrinth, trying to map, memorize and learn as much as they can before the gate closes again at dusk. No one who's spent the night behind the walls has survived the mysterious "greavers" who stalk the tangle of desolate pathways. When Alby (Aml Ameen), the glade's de facto leader, is stung by greavers, the mini-society begins to unravel. A girl (Kaya Scodelario) arrives, and the group splits into factions of those who want to remain in the glade and those who want to risk everything by going into the labyrinth.

The movie builds suspense by thrusting us into the world at the same time as Thomas, letting the other characters parse out knowledge of their situation as they would to any newcomer. High-concept sci-fi films like this one work because the storytellers pick rules for the world and stick with them. There are a few "why-don't-they-just" moments, but the brisk storytelling and flashy set pieces move the story along.

The Maze Runner sets an ominous tone early in the film, creating real tension. The labyrinth is genuinely spooky, the action is exciting, the set design is surprisingly evocative, intoning '60s and '70s sci-fi pulp art and Richard Serra-esque industrial ennui.

On its face, this is a Hunger Games retread minus the ass-kicking heroine, but it's also darker — less focused on satire, and more interested in the thrill of the world. It's a mélange of Cube, Battle Royale, Lord of the Flies, and every survival horror and zombie movie in the last 10 years. Theaters are teeming with YA adaptations, and comparisons are unavoidable, but the nods to the film's predecessors are knowing.

The ending spirals out of control quickly, with the big reveal delivered in a one-minute expository video recording (full of its own grisly images) that mostly serves to reveal plot holes. Then the filmmakers double-down with a second twist that still has my head spinning. It assures the audience that there will be sequels, shoehorning in a sales pitch for the planned trilogy, rather than simply leaving the door open. After all that tension and mystery, the poor denouement makes The Maze Runner feel like a commodity, not a film. PG13. 113m.

— Grant Scott-Goforth

THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU. This film hits so many quirky family drama clichés on the nose that it leaves you unprepared for its genuine moments, especially from leads Jason Bateman and Tina Fey. Embarrassing mother? Ne'er do well youngest brother? Lost main character returning home? Pliant and pleasantly eccentric hometown girl? Check 'em all off. But the charm and humanity of a solid cast rescues the movie from its more hackneyed plot points and thin character sketches.

Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) is already in a funk from the end of his marriage when his father passes away. He returns home to mourn with his three siblings, all of whom are struggling with something. The eye-rolling Wendy (Tina Fey) stews in a loveless marriage while her high school sweetheart is stranded in their hometown with a brain injury. Responsible, stiff Paul (Corey Stoll) and his wife (Kathryn Hahn) can't get pregnant. And man-child baby brother Phillip (Adam Driver) is having an Oedipal crisis with his therapist (Connie Britton). Add their mother (Jane Fonda), a child development author who jumps boundaries like double dutch ropes, and it's minutes before people are blurting out secrets, opening old wounds and wrestling on the lawn. On brief escapes from the family home, Judd, wreck that he is, is able to rekindle a romance with an old flame played by doe-eyed Rose Byrne.

The parade of tired tropes wears thin early on, and as the revelations pile up, you start to wonder how many complications a plot really needs. Fonda is stagey as a stock Crazy Older Woman, and Rose Byrne's character only serves as a soft landing for Judd, with no character beyond her quirks. But Bateman's role is right in his wheelhouse, and his shrugging disappointment morphs into hope slowly enough that we root for him. It's odd seeing Fey so bitter, and she pushes too hard at times to shake Liz Lemon's sweetness, but by the end she shows us Wendy's love and guilt without pity. Fey's scenes with Bateman feel like real sibling love, harsh and solid. It's their chemistry that anchors the film when everything else, including the script, falls apart. R. 103m.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Previews

BOXTROLLS. A boy raised by a family of creepy creatures leaves their subterranean home to save them from a human baddie in this animated adventure. With Ben Kingsley and Toni Colette. PG. 97m.

THE EQUALIZER. This was a TV series, right? Denzel Washington stars as a mysterious black-ops type who comes out of retirement to save a young woman from nasty Russian mobsters. R. 132m.

THE SONG. Will success spoil a rising singer-songwriter's happy home? Will a fiddle-wielding temptress lure him away? Is his impressive beard real? PG13. 116m.

Continuing

AS ABOVE, SO BELOW. Archaeologists with GoPros run screaming through catacombs under prime Paris real estate. As the French say, non. R. 93m.

DOLPHIN TALE 2. Did Blackfish bring you down? Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman star in a more upbeat story with a blowhole and a happy ending. PG. 108m.

THE DROP. A robbery turns up old neighborhood secrets in this drama starring Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and the late James Gandolfini. R. 106m.

THE GIVER. A young man's placid dystopia is rocked by the knowledge of how it came to be. Faithful to the book, with Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep. PG13. 97m.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. Unlikely heroes save the galaxy from boredom in this clever, edgy and dazzling sci-fi blockbuster. PG13. 121m.

THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY. A family of Indian restaurateurs is pitted against an established French restaurant owner (Helen Mirren). Warm, sincere, nostalgic filmmaking. PG. 122m.

IF I STAY. Chloe Grace Moretz decides whether or not to go into the light in this surprisingly good drama. Both the emotions and the Pacific Northwest are beautifully rendered. PG13. 107m.

LET'S BE COPS. Two dolts impersonate cops to get free stuff and become popular. R. 103m.

LUCY. Director Luc Besson muddles an interesting idea with half-baked plotting, wasting Scarlett Johansson as a woman with access the other 90 percent of her brain. R. 90m.

NO GOOD DEED. Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson do their best in this home invasion thriller, but the pacing and the story are too slapdash to pull it off. PG13. 84m.

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES. Hollywood unwisely reinvents the origin story and the world's most fearsome fighting team is duller than ever. PG13.

WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES. Whoever you are, Liam Neeson is going to find you and kill you. Or rescue your kidnapped wife. R. 114m.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill and Grant Scott-Goforth

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