Movie Review: ‘Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials’

When we last met Thomas and his teenage companions from “The Maze Runner,” the amnesiac heroes of that dystopian thriller were being whisked away, by helicopter, from their mysterious confinement inside a deadly maze. As its sequel, “The Scorch Trials,” begins, they are being held in another, seemingly impenetrable detention facility, under the supervision of a man (Aidan Gillen) who tells them that they’re on the way to a “sanctuary” where the folks who locked them up in the first movie will never be able to find them again. “How does that sound?’ he asks, with all the sincerity of a politician.

Sounds fishy!

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Even if you’re not familiar with the Y.A. trilogy by James Dasher on which these films are based, anyone who saw the first film knows that no one in this expanding cinematic “Maze” universe is to be trusted. The element of suspicion will serve you well in a sequel — gripping and well shot but overly busy and filled with betrayal — that soon has Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and company on the lam from their saviors and dodging an obstacle course that includes a sandstorm, zombielike creatures called cranks, lightning, distrustful rebels and a doped-up human trafficker (Alan Tudyk) who lures adolescent victims with a creepy rave.

The plot of the first film was elegant in its enigmatic simplicity: Escape from this prison/puzzle and discover who the wardens are. In “Scorch,” the bad guys at least have the decency to advertise. They’re a cabal known as the World in Catastrophe Killzone Department (pronounced “Wicked”), even if it’s not always obvious who they are. As the protagonists flee from WCKD toward a group of freedom fighters known as the Right Arm, “The Scorch Trials” moves through so many colorful crises that it feels like a series of trailers for the next chapter of “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” “Night of the Living Dead” and “Mad Max.” It’s exhausting, yet emotionally unengaging.

Directed by Wes Ball with the same brio he brought to “The Maze Runner,” the film is not without its pleasures, which come from fine performances by O’Brien and a supporting cast that includes Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Patricia Clarkson, Giancarlo Esposito, Lili Taylor and Barry Pepper. It’s not a bad movie. It’s like several pretty good ones.

★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★

PG-13. Contains extended sequences of violence and action, some mature thematic elements, substance use and crude language. 131 minutes.

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‘Happy Birthday’ Is Now Free

You can now sing “Happy Birthday” anywhere you like without fear of copyright lawyers pouncing. A federal judge has ruled that Warner/Chappell, which has been making around $2 million a year from “Happy Birthday to You,“ doesn’t have the rights to the song and never did, reports the Los Angeles Times. The judge ruled that a copyright filed in 1935 and acquired by Warner in 1988 only covered specific piano arrangements of the tune and not the lyrics, the BBC reports. The song started out as “Good Morning to All,“ written by a Kentucky schoolteacher and her sister in the 1890s, and the judge found that there was no evidence that the sisters had even written the better-known lyrics, Ars Technica reports.

Warner wasn’t in the habit of sending lawyers to raid birthday parties, but it did expect to get paid whenever the song was used in ads, movies, or any other profit-making enterprise. Plaintiffs in the long-running lawsuit included the makers of a documentary about the song and singer Rupa Marya, who had to pay $455 for including it on a live album. “I hope we can start reimagining copyright law to do what it’s supposed to do—protect the creations of people who make stuff so that we can continue to make more stuff,“ she tells the AP. Lawyers say they now plan to make the suit a class-action one to force Warner to pay back some of the royalties, the Times reports.

Sean Penn Sues Director Over Domestic Violence Allegations

Oscar-winner Sean Penn is suing director Lee Daniels for comparing him to another actor, Terrence Howard, in terms of their alleged history of abusing women, E! Online reports. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Empire co-creator Daniels discusses Empire star Howard being sued by his ex-wife for domestic violence. “[Terrence] ain’t done nothing different than Marlon Brando or Sean Penn, and all of a sudden he’s some [expletive] demon,“ Daniels says. “That’s a sign of the time, of race, of where we are right now in America.“ Penn’s lawsuit filed today in New York calls that statement “reckless, false, and defamatory,“ E! reports. He’s seeking $10 million in damages.

“Sean has been subjected to false, baseless, and reckless attacks for years, and this is only the most recent example,“ his attorney tells E! The lawsuit alleges Howard has publicly admitted to abusing at least one woman and has been arrested five or so times for violence against women. On the other hand, the lawsuit boasts Penn—who it refers to as one “of the greatest actors and humanitarians of our time”—has never been arrested or convicted for domestic violence. But Slate reports Penn was arrested for allegedly tying his then-wife Madonna to a chair and physically and emotionally abusing her for hours in 1987. Madonna later dropped the charges.

First Black Superhero Gets Fancy New Writer

Fresh off a nomination for the National Book Award, Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates is going where an increasing number of very successful people are finding themselves: the Marvel Universe. Starting this spring, Coates will be writing for Marvel’s Black Panther, the first black superhero, the New York Times reports. Coates tells the Times he’s been a Marvel fan since he was a kid. “It meant something to see people who looked like me in comic books,“ he says. “It was this beautiful place that I felt pop culture should look like.“ Black Panther, who was created in 1966, is going through a recent resurgence with a role in the upcoming movie Captain America: Civil War and his own film to follow.

Coates has been getting rave reviews for his book Between the World and Me, a letter to his son about being black in America, the Times reports. “Coates’ thoughtfulness and the way he writes about race and its relationship to politics, economics, and issues like mass incarceration is respected and virtually unmatched in this country,“ Alex Abad-Santos writes on Vox. “The reality of Coates writing a black superhero is a gigantic step in an industry where female and non-white creators are still a minority fighting for their voices to be heard.“ The Times reports Coates’ Black Panther series will focus on a violent uprising in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, from which Black Panther hails, plus (of course) a superhuman terrorist group.

9 Years Later, a Writer Meets His Kidnappers

In 2006, three teenagers kidnapped Brad Pearson in Philadelphia and repeatedly threatened to kill him as they drove around looking for an ATM. After scoring some cocaine, they finally let him go, much to the surprise of Pearson, then a senior in college. “I tried counting to eight, but all I could hear was the hammer sliding, the click-clack of a roller coaster approaching the top of a hill,“ he recounts in Philadelphia magazine of the gun pointed at his head. “I waited to die, and I prayed.“ He didn’t die, however, and police later arrested Jerry Price, Tyree Brown, and Mordi Baskerville. Nine years later, Pearson visits the two who remain in prison, Price and Brown, and writes about it for the magazine.

His meetings with his kidnappers are not confrontational, more about Pearson trying to figure out what brought the men to that point. Both are remorseful, and both have plans to work with underprivileged youth upon release. Pearson suffered nightmares at the time, but the kidnapping has since made him a “stronger man,“ he writes. “March 27, 2006, is millions of miles away, happening to three different people. Those people came from contrasting worlds and polar communities, brought together by the happenstance and opportunity of West Philadelphia. Now, we’re bound together by that night, but no longer dragged down by it. Now, there are no nightmares, no anger.“

Movie Review: ‘Meet the Patels’

In the opening minutes of “Meet the Patels,” comedian and actor Ravi Patel shares some important facts about himself: 1. He has recently broken up with Audrey, his American girlfriend of two years, whose existence has so far been kept secret from his Indian parents; 2. He is almost 30 years old; 3. He has never been married. This, in Indian culture, is considered “code red,” in Patel’s words.

The rest of this funny, warm-hearted documentary follows Patel’s attempt to undo that state of romantic emergency by finally accepting his parents’ efforts to set him up with potential Indian brides. Meanwhile, his sister, Geeta — also single, also working in the entertainment industry and, with her brother, a director of the film — shoots the entire tumultuous, year-long process. After Ravi circulates his “bio­data,” the Indian match-making equivalent of an online dating profile, through his parent’s vast network of contacts, he embarks on what he refers to as a “world tour of dating.”

To ensure that the sample size of potential soul mates is as large as possible, Ravi travels to several cities across North America to go on blind dates. He introduces himself, at his parents’ urging, to Patel-pre-approved women at weddings. He even engages in pseudo-speed dating at a “Patel matrimonial convention,” a gathering designed to enable U.S.-based Patels to make love connections with other Patels. (As the movie explains, Patel is such a common last name in India that it’s not incestuous for one Patel to get hitched to another. In fact, it’s considered the ideal.)

With its appealingly conflicted hero and generous sense of humor, “Meet the Patels” has the breezy touch of a scripted romantic comedy. Ultimately, however, this documentary is less about meet-cutes than it is about family, cultural assimilation and the responsibility that a child of immigrants might feel to honor the values of both his parents and his homeland. Ravi and Geeta’s parents, Champa and Vasant Patel — whose marriage was arranged in the early 1970s after they met each other for 10 minutes — get almost as much as screen time as their son, and for good reason. They’re a compellingly complicated unit.

“I don’t know how they fell in love,” Ravi says, “but they are the happiest couple I’ve ever seen.” That happiness radiates off the screen every time the elder Patels good-naturedly tease each other and their kids, whose single statuses weigh heavily on their minds. After a series of unsuccessful setups with Indian American women, Ravi tells his parents that he still feels encouraged because, as he says, he’s “making progress.”

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“You’ll be 60,” his mother complains, mocking his words. “‘I’m still in progress!’”

There’s something weightier underlying what initially seems like standard-issue maternal nagging. The more time we spend with the elder Patels, the more we begin to understand the combination of regret, fear and hope that comes from watching their children absorb American culture and, potentially, lose key elements of Indian tradition in the process. It also becomes clear that the younger Patels are not merely skittish about commitment: They’re afraid of losing some core part of themselves, too. Commendably, the directors peel away these complicated feelings slowly, in a way that never feels heavy-handed.

Because Geeta Patel is often shooting on the fly, many scenes in “Meet the Patels” are poorly lit and haphazardly framed. To counteract this — but also to add more visual texture to the film — some interactions are rendered via animated sequences that, for the most part, get the job done.

But even when the visuals aren’t perfect, it’s impossible not to care about the people on screen.

Come to think of it, that’s a perfect metaphor for the lessons imparted by “Meet the Patels,” a movie that reminds us that any attempt to control those we love is futile. The best we can do is embrace them and let them try to shine in all their messy and unpredictable light.

★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★

PG. Contains mature thematic elements, brief suggestive images and incidental smoking. 88 minutes.

Movie Review: ‘Time Out of Mind’

Decades after “An Officer and a Gentleman,” Richard Gere hasn’t quite shaken the image of the silver fox, even if recent roles have been less swoon-worthy. In “Time Out of Mind,” however, he kisses glamour goodbye as a homeless New Yorker drifting between shelters and park benches.

According to Gere, he’d wanted to play the part for years, but was looking for the perfect writer and director to help transform a somewhat conventional script by Jeffrey Caine. Enter Oren Moverman, the outside-the-box thinker whose credits include directing the Academy Award-nominated “The Messenger” and co-writing “Love & Mercy” and “I’m Not There.”

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As the movie opens, Gere’s George is being kicked out of the apartment where he has been squatting. A contractor (Steve Buscemi) finds him sleeping in the bathtub and forces George to take up his suitcase and leave.

We next see him — through the apartment window — on the street, as we listen to the voice of Buscemi’s character, discussing business as usual. The contrast is powerful: As George meanders through the city, New Yorkers go about their lives, barely noticing him. Moverman continues this leitmotif throughout, filming Gere through dirty windows, in reflection and from the roofs of buildings, partially obscuring George or literally pushing him to the margins of our field of vision, and giving the film a gritty, naturalistic feel.

The loose narrative tightens when George checks into a shelter. There, he meets Dixon (Ben Vereen), a motormouth who claims to be a former jazz musician and who becomes George’s daytime companion. George also spends time covertly following his estranged daughter, Maggie (Jena Malone), a musician and bartender. Like George, the movie sometimes dillydallies, but the unhurried rhythms ultimately have a hypnotic effect.

Though Gere acts his heart out, it’s not always enough to transcend the sense that we’re watching a movie star play a homeless man. When George ascends the stairs of his new shelter, for example, Gere’s posture is that of an executive on his way to a meeting, not a man who has been broken and homeless for a decade. He also doesn’t have the appearance of a man who has been subsisting mainly on beer.

But Gere’s performance more often closes the gap between reality and fiction. Leaving his squat for the last time, as George turns to watch the door close behind him, the mix of fear and resignation is agonizingly palpable. A facial expression is all it takes for us to feel, for a moment, the terrifying reality of life on the street.

★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★

Unrated. Contains sexual content and adult themes. 121 minutes.

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