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Maze Runner: The Death Cure

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The Maze Runner films exist in a rather strange section of the YA adaptation niche set up by the trailblazing Hunger Games series. A veritable turducken of post-apocalyptic story tropes (natural disasters, private governmental control, zombies, humanity-threatening epidemic), it started out as a surprisingly poignant parable on what it means to go from a child to an adult.

While this conclusion to that same story doesn’t carry the same deftness of theme, it also doesn’t carry the wonky juggling act that its follow-up The Scorch Trials was stuck with. Things are already looking up with how this wasn’t turned into yet another two-part finale like Harry Potter, Twilight and the now-stillborn Divergent series, and it only gets better from there.

Leading man Dylan O’Brien may fall into the background at times, but he’s bolstered by how everyone around him is on their A-game. From Ki Hong Lee selling the virtual hell he’s stuck in, to Thomas Brodie-Sangster giving the film incredibly dramatic moments, to Kaya Scodelario managing to salvage questionable character decisions from Scorch Trials and turning them into a product of complexity rather than idiocy.

Through them, the immediately tense action scenes hit that much harder, allowing the audience to bask in the chaos going on around them. Some of the bigger moments do hinge on extremely good luck on the part of the characters, with someone showing up just in the nick of time to make things work.

However, between the highly memorable and effective set pieces like the tunnel full of Cranks and the urban hellfire of a finale, along with the pleasantly smooth pacing, those contrivances don’t linger long enough to be a major drawback.

As a conclusion to the story of the Gladers and their fight against the evil corporation WCKD (World Catastrophe Killzone Department, a name that never stops being silly), it wraps up the franchise’s aspirations as thinly-veiled allegory for the responsibilities of adulthood.

But this is something more than that. This film is the final breath of life for an entire sub-genre, the last entry from the film franchises that spawned in the wake of Hunger Games back in 2012. Rather than preparing its audience for life post-adolescence, this seems to prepare us for life post-post-apocalyptic teenage fantasy.

While most of the world is officially burnt out on this latest wave of book adaptations, it seems like the main lessons of that wave concerning how the next generation must be the guardians of tomorrow have been listened to.

One of the bigger recurring trends of last year’s cinematic crop was how children/teenagers are often more adult than the actual adults (It, Jasper Jones, The Book Of Henry, The Glass Castle, etc.) With this film’s grounded but hopeful denouement, it looks like whatever may come next, we are more prepared for it than ever.

 
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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

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Once again we harken back to the Golden Age of Piracy (exact date indeterminate, because anachronisms allow for more fun), where a bold young man by the rather familiar name of Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) quests for Poseidon’s Trident, a powerful magical relic he believes will help him free his father from a terrible curse. He recruits the infamous pirate, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to his cause, along with “woman of science” Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), who should be of use when it comes to unraveling the key clue, “a map no man can read”. He’s going to need their help, too, because not only must the motley crew contend with old adversary Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now commodore of a large pirate fleet, and the British Navy in the person of David Wenham’s officious officer, but a new supernatural threat: the ghostly Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his crew, who want the Trident for their own purposes, and who have a particular grudge against old Jack.

It’s all very familiar stuff, but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable. While 2003’s Curse of the Black Pearl was a surprise hit that not only reinvigorated the moribund swashbuckler genre but managed to make a decent movie out of a theme park ride, by now the films have settled into a familiar pattern, with minor variations for the sake of novelty. There’s a magical MacGuffin, a supernatural villain (the design work on Salazar’s crew is pretty neat, and their cannibalistic ship is a nice conceit), and a host of great character actors hamming it up to good effect (Kevin McNally, Martin Klebba, and Stephen Graham return, while the great Bruce Spence gets a turn as a colonial governor).

At the centre of it all is, of course, Depp’s rock star pirate, and you already know if his schtick is still working for you or not. Line by line and moment by moment he’s a good time for the most part. Captain Jack is basically a living cartoon character by this stage of the game – as his first big action sequence, robbing the bank of St Martin, demonstrates – so we’re never really worried or even too invested in what happens to him. The film tries to compensate this by digging a little too deeply into Sparrow’s unnecessary backstory, showing us why Salazar has vengeance on his mind by means of a de-aged Depp right out of the Uncanny Valley that looks like Tommy Hanson went undercover at a reggae club. Coming hot on the heels of the  striking Young Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, it’s a really jarring bit of work, and out of place in what is nominally a tentpole movie.

Still, it’s a movie with zombie sharks, and that makes up for a lot. Dead Men Tell No Tales struggles in the broad strokes, being too long, too overstuffed, a little too complicated for its ultimate aim, and a little too enamoured of Thwaites’ and Scodelario’s bland central duo (it’s not their fault – they do what they can). But then you get things like Rush’s Barbossa re-imagined as an Epicurean pirate lord, or Golshifteh Farahani as a tattooed sea-witch, or Bardem chewing the scenery as Salazar, stabbing the deck with his rapier as he stalks his prey, and if that kind of thing doesn’t make you smile, you may have issues.

In the end, Dead Men Tell No Tales does what it says on the tin, and that’s fine. It’s a fun romp with the occasional high point and, yeah, the occasional low, but approach it with the right attitude and you’ll have a good time.