Friday, September 18, 2015


Opening this weekend:

The Scorch TrialsThe screen version of James Dashner’s novel The Maze Runner, released a year ago this month, was about a bunch of teenage boys with no memory, living in an encampment surrounded on all sides by an enormous maze that only opened during daylight hours. At the end they got out, to find they were test subjects of an evil scientist (Patricia Clarkson) in a post-apocalyptic society.

This sequel follows the surviving boys, and one girl, as they escape from yet another sinister complex, only to find themselves in the Scorch, the godforsaken, sandblasted ruin of an American city. As they try to reach a (possibly mythical) resistance, they’re beset by zombies (here called “cranks”) and other menaces, and are pursued all the while by the scientist’s minions.

The first film was fairly routine masochistic young-adult-fiction melodrama, but that mysterious maze gave it a certain fascination, at least until everything was overexplained toward the end. Scorch Trials doesn’t have anything that tantalizing. It’s just a jumble of sci-fi chase movie tropes. Everything seems to have been borrowed from other movies—The Omega Man, Logan’s Run, The Road Warrior, Coma.

Director Wes Ball, who also helmed The Maze Runner, manages the big action scenes well, and several fine character actors—Giancarlo Esposito, Aidan Gillen, Barry Pepper, Lili Taylor and Alan Tudyk, among others—provide some energy. Most of the kids are attractive but on the uninteresting side, with one big exception: a young actress named Rosa Salazar joins the gang about midpoint, and gives Scorch Trials a much-needed dose of soulfulness.

Black MassJonny Depp plays James “Whitey” Bulger, a notoriously brutal South Boston gang boss of the ‘70s and ‘80s, in Scott Cooper’s somber, violent true-crime drama. Cooper’s focus is on Bulger’s unholy alliance with the FBI, apparently the result of the boyhood hero-worship that one of the agents (Joel Edgerton) had for him.

Depp is convincing and scary but repellent, and you may find yourself wondering why you should care about this charmless monster. Not, of course, that he would be less of a monster if he was more charming, but part of the dynamic of the gangster picture is the transgressive thrill it offers in making gangsters so charming we forget they’re monsters while we’re watching.

We certainly don’t forget it here. But the cast is strong—Benedict Cumberbatch stands out as Whitey’s respectable brother—and the movie packs plenty of punch.

By the way, for the tens of readers out there who are no doubt wondering why there was no Monster-of-the-Week yesterday, the feature is on hiatus. Probably at least until October gets here.

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