Archive for May, 2016

Krampus_posterKrampus (2015)

Starring- Emjay Anthony, Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Stefania LaVie Owen, Krista Stadler, Conchata Ferrell, Allison Tolman, David Koechner, Maverick Flack, Queenie Samuel, Lolo Owen

Director- Michael Dougherty

PG-13- sequences of horror violence/terror, language and some drug material

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6cVyoMH4QE

A dysfunctional family gathers to celebrate another Christmas full of drunkenness and disorder when they cross a mystical line in the sand and draw the ire of the demon Krampus — a dark Santa Claus who comes to our world on Christmas Eve to punish the especially naughty. Stranded in a blizzard with no power, the family must come together to survive a night of Krampus and his minions.

It’s possible I like Krampus in theory somewhat more than in practice, but I liked both enough to leave it more or less satisfied with the experience.

It’s fun horror. There’s horror, there’s comedy, there’s horror comedy, and then there’s fun horror — a weird synthesis of horror and comedy where it’s neither all that funny or all that scary, where it’s something closer to The Goonies with creepy monsters and a dash of mean-spiritedness. Fun horror is where you’ll find Tremors, Evil Dead 2, and Arachnophobia. It isn’t something the film industry makes a lot of these days, and I’ve missed it.

As such, I certainly appreciate Krampus for the attempt — and for how much it gets right along the way. It didn’t scare me, nor was it a side-splitter, but I had lots and lots of fun watching it.

Of course, you see a monster movie for the monster, and Krampus has a great monster — a few great monsters, in fact. Krampus himself isn’t on-screen all that often; for most of the film, he’s a distant shadow you catch glimpses of here and there. And the film budgets his reveals very well — you don’t get a good look at him until the final reel, but what you see prior to that does an excellent job of establishing his presence. He’s an extremely well-realized practical effect. You can feel his weight as he clomps around, thick, dirty robes trailing him in the snow. He has a distinctive shadow — bulky, hunched over, with long goat horns. Despite the infrequency of his appearances, he’s instantly memorable, a truly great movie monster.

For most of the film, his minions are doing the dirty work, and they’re a blast as well. They range from funny (his army of murderous gingerbread men) to creepy and unsettling (a giant, man-eating jack-in-the-box). There’s an evil teddy bear with a gaping maw of razor-sharp teeth and a score of goblin-like dark elves. All of these are realized using a mixture of practical and digital effects, and they look great; each monster has a unique look and presence. The movie’s constantly changing its game, introducing new threats that have to be dealt with differently. It’s in complete control of its tone, which is broad enough to accommodate both goofy humor and spooky thrills, sometimes in the same scene (there’s one scene that cuts back and forth between a character in the kitchen fumbling around while he battles the gingerbread men and characters elsewhere trying to survive the man-eating jack-in-the-box that somehow never seems to skip a beat). The film creates a world of its own, rich with atmosphere — the deep blue of the snowy night, combined with the fluid, tangible practical effects, results in a lot of memorable images.

Of course, character is crucial to fun horror — after all, what is Tremors without Burt Gummer? And Krampus has a pretty good bunch. Its approach to its characters is impressively nuanced. It can’t simply make them likable; they also have to be convincingly dysfunctional, enough so that this divine intervention seems somehow justified. The movie strikes that balance perfectly. No one’s a villain; no one’s a hero. Each of them has positive and negative characteristics. You like all of them and find each of them a bit obnoxious. And as the film goes on, nearly all of them get a moment of personal heroic triumph — even (and perhaps especially) the ones who are built up as the unlikable designated casualties.

Despite the broadness of the film’s tone, this family is believably dysfunctional. In fact, my main thought while watching it was, “Aw, man, my family’s totally going to get Krampus’d, isn’t it?” Some of these characters definitely reminded me of members of my own family, including, on occasion, myself.

And all that richness may, in a weird way, be part of the movie’s problem. Structurally, it feels like punishment horror — watching a bunch of unlikable idiots get their karmic comeuppance. But its characters aren’t unlikable, and the film seeds all of them with some level of redemption. This may be a matter of taste; I don’t doubt the film very much intends to be extra mean-spirited and nasty. Its tone is light, but its heart most definitely is not. Still, I think the movie loses control of its thematics in pursuit of that goal.

At any rate, despite its relatively short running time, it feels a bit overstuffed. It sits on its hands too long in the beginning, then drifts along in quiet tension for a while, then suddenly throws a half-dozen monsters at you all at once and keeps driving all the way to the end credits. The character and thematic development seems to spread a thousand different directions with nothing unifying guiding it. Most of the characters don’t seem to have any clear endpoint; at times, it’s hard to tell if we’re supposed to read certain scenes as characters learning their lessons or not.

Still, I had a good time. It’s the creepy, rowdy, dark-hearted sort of fun I want out of a monster movie, particularly one with Christmas motifs. It’s a pretty solid alternative Christmas movie for those of you who need a break from the pervasive cheer of the holiday season.

Hush_2016_posterHush (2016)

Starring- Kate Siegel, John Gallagher Jr., Michael Trucco, Samantha Sloyan

Director- Mike Flanagan

R- strong violence/terror and some language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_P8WCbhC6s

A masked killer (John Gallagher Jr.) stalks a deaf author, Maddie (Kate Siegel), at night in her rural home.

Hush was spur-of-the-moment viewing for me. It wasn’t something I was planning to see, it wasn’t something I’d heard much about, I just needed something spooky, and it fit the bill — and at least appeared to be professionally made, which is more than I can say for quite a lot of small-scale horror. I recognized the director, Mike Flanagan, from Oculus — not a movie I particularly cared for, mainly because everything its characters do from the first frame on is astonishingly stupid, but one that showed potential nonetheless.

Hush is pretty much the same deal, albeit for different reasons. It started out a pleasant surprise and soon became a disappointment. Of course, it was only capable of disappointing me because of that strong start.

There’s an economy to the film early on. It gets the pieces in place quickly and smoothly, establishing its characters to the exact extent necessary and not dwelling on any one point overmuch. It only takes about ten minutes for the killer to show up and the cat-and-mouse game to begin. Despite the abbreviated setup, I never felt like there was something I needed to know and didn’t; more importantly, I felt like I understood Maddie as a character and was invested in her fate.

That’s at least in part because of Kate Siegel’s work in the role. She was an unknown quantity for me going in, but I’m definitely interested in seeing where she goes from here. Her performance in this film reminded me of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s work in 10 Cloverfield Lane from a few months back — not only because they’re both closed-room thrillers (more or less) and because the characters themselves are similar, but because both of them took the script’s limited foundation and filled out the edges. Both of them had to convincingly sell their characters’ gradual transformation into the hero role, taking them from terror and indecision to a determination to survive, without ever compromising that fundamental humanity. In short, it’s easy to root for this character, and there’s something quite satisfying in the moments when she gains the upper hand over her attacker.

John Gallagher Jr. — whom I didn’t even recognize, somehow — does a stellar job as the nameless killer. The film never tells its audience a thing about this guy. I think that’s the right choice; it leaves the audience (as well as the protagonist) in the dark about his motives and weaknesses, if he can be negotiated with, etc. He’s a total stranger. That leaves Gallagher to craft a character in the moment, and he finds a great presence there — this killer is simultaneously terrifying and a bit pathetic. He has the demeanor of a creepy stalker walking over the edge, upgrading to murder. He doesn’t seem to be there for any real reason other than to sate his desire to kill. Gallagher gives him a smugly condescending air and leaves him unhinged enough to feel like a threat; simultaneously, there’s something withdrawn about him. The character doesn’t radiate confidence; he seems like someone who goes unnoticed in his day-to-day life and acts out his bloody power fantasies by night. Maddie strikes a more independent, self-regarding note, so it’s interesting to watch the power dynamics shift back and forth between the two characters.

Plus, Flanagan’s still showing a lot of potential. With Hush, he shows that he’s got a top-notch visual game and can summon unbearable tension with the snap of his fingers. He’ll make something great with the right script.

Hush ain’t it.

It has all the pieces in place for an extremely entertaining thirty minutes or so. It just doesn’t sustain itself beyond that. It’s formless and doesn’t have much going on in the way of story and themes. It’s all spectacle, and that spectacle gets stale in a hurry, especially since the movie spends eighty minutes doing the same thing over and over again. The killer appears, Maddie barely manages to get the upper hand over him, she runs away, she hyperventilates for a bit, repeat for step one. Even at such a short running time, the movie feels like it’s spinning its wheels for a few extra minutes.

It soon becomes clear that too many components of the premise are there solely to prolong things. It’s an interesting idea, but I imagine that an encounter between a serial killer and a deaf person wouldn’t last nearly this long in real life. Either the killer is successful, or the deaf person somehow drives him away immediately. No matter what the end result, I don’t see it turning into a full hour of the two of them chasing each other around a small-ish house.

So the film makes it so that the killer is toying with Maddie. He realizes she’s deaf and decides to make a game out of freaking her out. I buy that; it works for a bit. But when the movie is an hour in and he’s still doing this, even after she’s nearly killed him on multiple occasions, the tension drains and the villain starts to look a bit too stupid. Speaking of stupid, Maddie grievously injures the killer and then runs away instead of pressing her advantage entirely too many times over the course of this movie.

It’s a cycle that repeats and repeats and repeats, and the movie’s admittedly-impressive make can’t overcome the routine nature of proceedings. Sometimes, it only takes one thing going wrong to sink an otherwise decent movie, especially when it’s the story, and that, unfortunately, is what happens to Hush.

Zoolander_2_posterZoolander 2 (2016)

Starring- Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Penelope Cruz, Kristen Wiig, Christine Taylor, Cyrus Arnold, Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, Justin Theroux, Milla Jovovich, Benedict Cumberbatch

Director- Ben Stiller

PG-13- crude and sexual content, a scene of exaggerated violence, and brief strong language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4CL4LNWHegk

The happy ending wasn’t so happy, as it turns out — mere days after its grand opening, male model Derek Zoolander’s (Ben Stiller) learning center collapsed due to shoddy construction, killing his wife (Christine Taylor) and permanently disfiguring his model friend Hansel (Owen Wilson). As a result, Derek was declared an unfit parent and lost custody of his son (Cyrus Arnold). He spent the next fifteen years as a hermit in the New Jersey wilderness. But when he learns that it’s possible for him to regain custody if he proves he can be a good parent, he makes his grand return to the modeling circuit — only to be swept into international intrigue when it’s discovered that his trademark look may be the secret to unravel a plot to murder extraordinarily good-looking celebrities. 

Lord have mercy. People told me this was bad, but… Yeesh. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t…this.

That plot description up there may end up being longer than the review. I haven’t decided yet. I’m losing the will to review bad comedies. I don’t know what to say other than that they aren’t funny, which is such a subjective thing anyway. What am I supposed to do — take you through each joke individually and explain why I didn’t find it funny?

Mainly, the problem is that most comedy functions off the element of surprise — it’s about doing something unexpected, or doing the expected in an unexpected way, or something between those poles. It usually isn’t building the audience up to an extremely predictable punchline and then delivering that punchline straight-faced and without subversion. It’s worse in the case of Zoolander 2, which has a pervasive need to explain what the joke is over and over again. It seemed like all of the biggest bits had five minutes of labored setup followed by another five minutes of careful elaboration. Zoolander 2 sometimes comes off like a movie that’s not as concerned with making you laugh as it is with appearing clever — it’s constantly looking over its shoulder and saying, “See what I did there?”

Also, the celebrity cameos. Good night. This movie suffers from the worst case of “it is inherently funny to see famous people in a movie because *insert quarter for more*” I’ve seen in a while. I looked at a list of the cameos and don’t even remember seeing some of these people. There’s one scene where, in about two minutes, the movie cycles through something like five cameos, most of which do not have any joke attached to them other than the celebrity’s presence.

The movie does have one or two good bits — it pains me to admit it, but I found Hansel’s subplot of learning to love his pregnant orgy while secretly cheating on it with another orgy just stupid enough to be kind of amusing (mainly because of one particular celebrity cameo’s inexplicably committed performance). But even then, it’s something that’s funnier in concept than in practice, since the joke is fundamentally the same every time it appears. And it’s very, very little to work with in a movie that’s otherwise numbingly unfunny and frequently obnoxious.

I’m not really a fan of the first Zoolander. Maybe I should’ve led with that. It has its moments, but I struggle to find the main character anything other than irritating — there’s no character behind the comedy, just mugging and weird voices. I expected to leave this movie the same way I left Dumb and Dumber To — “Well, I don’t like it, and can someone explain how it’s any different from the first one that everyone hates it this time around?” That is not at all what happened. Despite my general ambivalence toward its predecessor, Zoolander 2 is markedly worse in almost every way. It’s early yet, but I feel confident that it will be my least favorite movie of 2016. If it isn’t, well…something wicked sure does this way come.

Captain_America_Civil_War_posterCaptain America: Civil War (2016)

Starring- Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Daniel Bruhl, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Martin Freeman

Directors- Anthony and Joe Russo

PG-13- extended sequences of violence, action and mayhem

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKrVegVI0Us

After an overseas mission ends in disaster, the U.S. government drafts and recommends the Avengers sign the Sokovia Accords — a motion subjecting them to the authority of the United Nations. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) signs right away, as do several others. But Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and a few of his closest confidants are more hesitant. When his old friend Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), still in recovery from HYDRA brainwashing, is implicated in a terrorist attack against the U.N., Cap chooses friendship over the law and takes the response into his own hands, ultimately pitting himself against Stark — and the remainder of the Avengers against one another.

I’m going to try hard not to rehash all the points I made a year ago in my review of Avengers: Age of Ultron, but it remains important that reviewing Marvel movies is, at this point, somewhat difficult. I’ve never envied the job of a TV critic reviewing a show from one episode to another, attempting to evaluate the success of a small component of a larger story without yet knowing what it’s actually trying to accomplish. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, particularly its late Phase II and early Phase III films are giving me a little taste of what that’s like. It forces me to approach a movie like Civil War from a really measured place — depending on where the series goes from here, there’s a potential future where I like this way less and a potential future where I think it’s almost perfect. Other installments in the series will inevitably impact its quality because it, like Age of Ultron before it, is a stepping stone movie.

That’s the necessary background to understanding the position on which I’ve settled with Captain America: Civil War — on its own, it’s a very, very good movie, to the extent that I think Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers are the only Marvel projects I like more; but as part of the larger cinematic universe, several of its implications have me very, very nervous about the future of the series.

Let’s focus on the “very, very good movie” part of that, because that’s definitely the part I’m most excited about. Marvel’s team hasn’t done a movie quite like Civil War yet, and they absolutely nailed it. Emotionally, this is a much more complicated film than the others in the series, most of which have clear good guys and bad guys and a tone of heroism and bombast — you always know who you’re rooting for, and you’re really rooting for them. Civil War is a superhero movie where the heroes are fighting one another, and the actual villains are largely secondary. (And the main villain, Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) still gets an unusually nuanced portrayal that, in moments, makes him a little harder to hate.)

You just can’t play it the same way, not without pulling the rug out from underneath the characters and trying to fundamentally alter the audience’s perspective of them with little or no buildup. Marvel’s spent the better part of a decade making us like these characters; it couldn’t reasonably expect to slide some of them into the villain role without scaring up quite a bit of cognitive dissonance.

So, it doesn’t. The writers behind Civil War invested a lot of energy in ensuring that both sides of the conflict have a really good point and a strong motivation in character. Thor and the Hulk are the only established Marvel superheroes who don’t appear in this, and Civil War throws a few new ones into the mix, so it’s saying something that I understood where nearly all of these characters were coming from and why they lined up on the side they did. Iron Man is nursing a massive guilt complex; Captain America is fresh off the collapse of SHIELD destroying his faith in authority. (One of the most interesting points of this series to date is that Iron Man and Captain America’s arcs have essentially turned them into each other and brought them into conflict at the apex of their development. Originally, Iron Man was the hands-off-my-stuff billionaire uber-capitalist who decried any and all government intervention in his life, even given the kind of reasonable public concern about privately-owned death machines that allow the user to pretty much control the world. Now, after several movies’ worth of confronting his own inadequacy as a human being and a handful of public disasters resulting from his bad judgment, he’s into cooperation and oversight. Whereas Captain America started out as, well, Captain America, a literal symbol of a nation and a government who got his start as a superhero performing in military recruitment shows. Then, his Boy Scout loyalty to SHIELD nearly allowed HYDRA to kill millions; now, he only trusts himself and his closest friends to save the world.)

The interesting thing about the film’s efforts to develop a situation in which both sides are more or less equally right is the side effect of giving this Marvel Comics superhero movie a strange thematic density. It’s a variant on the liberty vs. security debate, one told from the perspective of society’s powerful, the ones asking how much transparency is enough transparency, whether one person’s freedom can infringe upon another person’s freedom, whether tyranny exists in more forms than simply government. Stark thinks the Avengers are at risk of becoming the truly oppressive force and wants them to be answerable to someone; Steve thinks oversight would make them political operatives and restrict them from helping the people who need them most. Neither one of them is wrong. The film challenges both of them — there are, essentially, two climaxes; both Iron Man and Captain America get “What have I done?” moments before they’re over (and yeah, the two prolonged action sequences leave the film a bit exhausting by the end, but it’s a minor point).

It leaves Civil War feeling different from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — a film that’s perhaps a little more engaging than it is fun. An action movie where you aren’t rooting for anyone. A superhero flick where you just want the fighting to stop. Watching these characters fight is like watching your best friends fight.

Which isn’t, of course, to say that Civil War isn’t fun, because it’s an absolute blast in the appropriate moments. The humor still crackles. Plus, the film is an almost endless wellspring of extremely cool action sequences — Civil War, more than any other film in the Marvel canon, really digs for clever and creative ways for the characters to use their powers in battle, and now that Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and other characters with actual powers are in the mix, there’s a lot to work with. The movie attaches such a sense of discovery to its characters’ abilities as well; watching each one come into play is a rush of pure adrenaline.

And the character work, of course, is wonderful — unsurprisingly, as it’s the one sense in which Marvel Studios has always, always been consistent. These filmmakers have successfully made us love each and every one of these characters. They’ve given them distinct personalities and know how to play them off one another — this movie sees Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) interacting with the Avengers for the first time, and his presence immediately changes the dynamic they share.

The new heroes are great, too. I’m not quite as head-over-heels about Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) as other people — his motivation isn’t all that interesting; he chooses a side based on simple revenge rather than ideology, and he seems almost by choice not to interact with the other heroes all that much — but he’s still an interesting and fully realized character, and the ending of Civil War leaves a lot riding on his upcoming solo film. The role, as I hoped, seems destined to make a star out of Boseman, one of my favorite lesser-known up-and-comers right now. Not only does he have the presence and charisma of a bonafide movie star, he’s just plain a really good actor — he’s played Black Panther, Jackie Robinson, and James Brown, and he was totally unrecognizable in all three. The guy has serious range, and I’m really happy to see him finally arrive.

And then there’s Spider-Man (Tom Holland). This seems like a bold statement, especially given the regard many hold for the Sam Raimi movies and the fact that the character is only in this for maybe twenty minutes, but I’m going to say it anyway: I’m pretty sure this is the best Spider-Man we’ve seen on the big screen to date. This character is pure joy; he’s 100-percent the Spider-Man of the comics, a cheerful, geeky kid with a dopey sense of humor and a short attention span. Having an actual teenager play him for once really helps — the age difference between him and the rest of the Avengers really changes the dynamic between them. The character is wide-eyed and curious, essentially an Iron Man fanboy losing his cool over getting invited to join. My interest in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming just increased considerably. If they stick that landing, we may very well have the definitive cinematic Spider-Man.

The movie, as its own entity, is not without its problems, but most of them feel like minor nitpicks in light of what it accomplishes. The themes sort of fizzle out as the action increases; the more serious subject matter makes this the first Marvel movie where the humor starts to run afoul of the tone (the much-talked-about airport battle, while a completely insane, hilarious, and entertaining blast of pure energy and imagination, feels like a complete lark, like the characters just up and decided it would be fun to have a big, stupid fight. That scene makes it much too easy to forget that these are lifelong friends coming to blows over a conflict with global implications.

Nevertheless, mostly, the movie itself is top-notch. If I have any shade to cast over it, it’s because of its position in the larger series, whatever that ends up being. This is something I can’t really discuss without getting into spoilers. I’m not going to directly spoil anything, but reading this part will at least allow you to rule out certain possibilities. If you’re strict about that, you may want to stop reading here.

Here’s the thing — I’m getting to this party later than some critics, but as much as I truly am a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this series needs to establish some stakes, and soon. I gave Age of Ultron a pass on this. It drew some criticism for maintaining the status quo at a point where the series needed to become long-form storytelling rather than little episodes of inconsequential adventure. I disagreed — I could see what Age of Ultron was setting up and felt it best to wait for Civil War, the movie positioned to follow through on that.

Well, I’ve gotten through Civil War, and I’m still waiting for pretty much anything to significantly change in the overarching storyline. Too many reviewers are reducing this to the need to kill off a character eventually, but it’s more than that. This series feels not only like it’s straining to keep all its characters alive but to keep them in the same place. It’s beginning to embody the reason I generally don’t get into superhero comics in the first place — the superhero must always be the superhero, and the trappings that surround that must always be in place, so no matter what storylines, themes, or character arcs are adopted, they must lead back to more or less the same place. Batman can’t ever get over his parents’ deaths, because then he wouldn’t be Batman, and there would be no more Batman comics. All storylines about Batman must, therefore, never actually resolve anything.

I feel like the Marvel Cinematic Universe is getting to a place where it’s looking at the the current storyline’s finale — Infinity War — and saying, “We must eventually have all of these characters on the screen at the same time, fighting as one giant uber-Avengers team, so everyone must stay alive until then, everyone must stay an Avenger, and any storyline or character arc that threatens that must either be abandoned or twisted back so it ends in the same place it started.”

Don’t get me wrong — Civil War undoubtedly changes the status quo more than any other Marvel movie to date. The characters are in very different places at the end of the movie than they were at the beginning. But they’re not quite different enough. I look at the end of Civil War, and I see a whole lot of hedged bets — a whole lot of moving the pieces around so the writers can get all the pieces back to square one when called upon to do so. I’m already dreading what appears to be happening at the end of this movie; it’s what always happens. I’m worried that the next time we see these characters, there’ll be tensions between them, then there will be some outside threat, they’ll re-team to fight it together, and they’ll be all hunky dory once everything’s taken care of. And I’m worried the themes explored here — liberty and security, law and order, freedom from government and freedom from power — will immediately be forgotten. The characters who expressed doubts about the Avengers and their operations will quickly forget them, acting as though nothing ever happened. There’s no guarantee of any of this, of course, but I’ve seen it happen a thousand times. I’m concerned this series is going to get dozens of movies in and reach its grand finale without ever doing anything other than have heroes fight villains.

There are, to be fair, some behind-the-scenes reasons to suspect that the upcoming slate of Marvel movies will be even better than their predecessors — that they’ll take actual risks and stray from their formulas and do interesting things with the characters. But right now, this is what I’m looking at. Captain America: Civil War is a very entertaining movie, but it was supposed to be this watershed moment for the Marvel Cinematic Universe — the proof of the overarching storyline, the movie where everything changed, where the story got complicated. I guess I can’t complain when said movie is individually pretty great. But when a studio’s ambitions are this high, it’s disappointing to watch its films fail to go the entire way.

5th-Wave_posterThe 5th Wave (2016)

Starring- Chloe Grace Moretz, Nick Robinson, Ron Livingston, Maggie Siff, Alex Roe, Maria Bello, Maika Monroe, Liev Schreiber, Zackary Arthur, Tony Revolori, Talitha Bateman

Director- J Blakeson

PG-13- violence and destruction, some sci-fi thematic elements, language and brief teen partying

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmxLybfGNC4

In the first wave, they cut the power; in the second, they caused a series of natural disasters; in the third, they released a deadly virus; and now, in the fourth, they’ve taken human form. The survivors of the global alien invasion are few and far between. When chaos strikes, Cassie Sullivan (Chloe Grace Moretz) is separated from her little brother, Sam (Zackary Arthur), who is taken away by military personnel. Having promised never to leave him, she begins an 80-mile trek through forests full of enemy snipers to get to the nearest base.

I started off prepared to say The 5th Wave isn’t as terrible as you’ve heard, but then I started thinking — if the first 20 minutes of the film were as bad as the rest of it, I’d be calling it one of the year’s worst.

Yeah, cards on the table — I was into The 5th Wave through the opening act. Maybe that isn’t the highest praise; even the worst movies take some time before your brain quits on them. But it was less that the movie hadn’t bored me yet and more that there were things I genuinely liked about it. The opening scenes are actually pretty compelling — the gas station encounter to set the tone, then a well-timed flashback to the pre-apocalyptic world that does a halfway decent job of setting up the protagonist. I maintain that Chloe Moretz is very talented and probably on the precipice of taking the world by storm. Her performance immediately makes all the vapid teen drama of the opening tolerable; she brings the right balance of awkwardness, heightened emotion, and self-deprecating humor to the role. And the film then walks us through the first three waves of the alien invasion in a way that recognizes the impact on everyday people, that captures the gradual degradation of society, and even approaches the human tragedy of it all with a certain measured sobriety. Yeah, the special effects aren’t all that special, and the movie is clearly using Cassie’s (often cheesy) voiceover narration as a crutch, but it’s enjoyable to an extent.

When called upon to actually tell a story in the world it creates, it falls flat. When the plot kicks into gear, the movie immediately becomes terrible and never even begins to right itself. Fortunately, the film isn’t particularly effects-heavy after the opening, so the shoddy CGI is only a distraction here and there; everything else only gets worse. The opening scenes have a tendency toward melodrama and attempted poetic thematic statements; the rest of the movie not only continues the trend but drives it straight into the ground.

The 5th Wave is an exceptionally cheesy piece of work — and I’m not ordinarily all that sensitive to cheese. And it definitely leans into unintentional comedy as a result. There’s a sexy lake-bathing scene that’s shot like a perfume commercial; a big thematic scene in which characters hold each other at gunpoint and shout about love (and in which love at first sight is used in place of any character or thematic development at all); set-up for a YA love triangle so stereotypical it almost plays as parody (basically, nice, boring guy and sexy, dangerous guy). The best of it is a character named Ringer (Maika Monroe), one of the child soldiers the army is training to fight the aliens. And she…well, there’s adults trying to write cool teenagers, and then there’s adults who live in the late 90s and look upon minor subcultures with no small amount of trepidation trying to write cool teenagers, and holy smokes is Ringer ever on the wrong side of that divide. Her hair is dyed jet black, she wears an entire container of eye shadow, and she talks like a military heavy/drill sergeant. I’m surprised she didn’t spend the entire movie smoking a cigarette. Maika Monroe has thus far been carving a niche for herself as a modern scream queen in movies like It Follows and The Guest, and the tough, no-nonsense military veteran act just doesn’t look good on her, especially not when the movie’s playing it so simultaneously over-the-top and straight-faced. There was nothing about this character I didn’t find hilarious; I couldn’t take her seriously at all.

Generally speaking, everyone is either miscast, detached, or bad. Moretz is the only one giving a halfway decent performance here. Liev Schreiber doesn’t seem like he could be bothered. Alex Roe is a full seven years older than Moretz and looks it and struck me as somewhat wooden besides; the other point on the romantic triangle, Nick Robinson, might have done something with the part (he wears the horror of what the character has experienced fairly organically), but is presented as such a non-entity. No one other than Moretz, briefly, in the beginning of the film, feels like an actual teenager or child. Part of the reason the child soldier stuff is so unintentionally humorous and even kind of cute is that most of their dialogue could easily be transposed into an adult war film with only minor changes. The film is so much about the loss of innocence, but it takes its characters to that point so quickly. Cassie goes from regular girl to weathered, weary survivor in the space of one scene (and doesn’t really go anywhere at all after that). The script treats its message similarly — there are so many ways it could easily have worked all the flowery stuff about love and friendship into the plot that would both have completed it and even cut back on the cheese a bit. Instead, the movie is a series of incidents with a voiceover narration explaining What We Learned Today.

Even so, if I’m being completely honest, I was not bored watching The 5th Wave. It’s just that most of what I enjoyed about it was not meant to be enjoyed in the way that I did it. It had just enough straight-faced, unintentional silliness to amuse me here and there. It’s clear to me that my taste in so-bad-it’s-good is pretty different from most people’s, so I’m not going to recommend it (and it’s not like I plan to watch this movie again). For the most part, it’s a generic young adult dystopian future novel adaptation (seriously, this is the weirdest thing to have ever become a thing), and I suspect most of you can predict your response based on that.

Son_of_Saul_(poster)Son of Saul (2015)

Starring- Geza Rohrig, Levente Molnar, Urs Rechn, Sandor Zsoter, Uwe Lauer, Christian Harting, Kamil Dobrowoloski, Jerzy Walczak

Director- Laszlo Memes

R- disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wMzPztPavs

Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig) is a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, tasked with carrying bodies from the gas chambers to the ovens. When he finds the body of a young boy he believes to be his son, he hides it and becomes determined to have a proper ceremony and burial.

I’ve always disliked talking about Holocaust movies — really, movies about real-life tragedies in general. It feels cold to pick apart such films any analyze whether and how they “work.” In a way, it’s almost like making the events they depict about you — “How best could they present this information so as to make it more engaging to me personally?”

So I think I’m going to keep things brief today — just long enough to tell you that Son of Saul is a good film and captures an interesting perspective on the events it depicts.

It takes a limited perspective on the events surrounding the Holocaust, more along the lines of The Pianist than Schindler’s List. It’s one man’s story — even more so than usual in this case. Saul Auslander is so much the sole focus of this film that there’s hardly a single shot in which he does not appear.

That’s because of the film’s unique visual approach, which seems to comprise the majority of its critical reputation. The camera is almost anchored to Saul; for most of the film, it’s positioned over his right shoulder, following him from one place to the next. When he stops and interacts with another character, the camera goes to his face and very rarely cuts away. Son of Saul is composed of a lot of long takes — there are cuts, but they’re used sparingly.

It’s the sort of visual approach I expected to get on my nerves, but it turned out to be the perfect choice for this story and the way the film tells it. You follow Saul as though you’re right there with him; you see what he sees.

That’s important, because Son of Saul is very much about its protagonist’s perspective. It isn’t enough to tell his story; the film attempts to put you in his shoes and make you see the world the way he sees it. The story is, in a way, the anti-Life Is Beautiful, offering a more realistic take on a character in a similar situation. As the film goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that the horrors of the concentration camp have not only numbed Saul, they have broken him. He’s unwell, living in a sort of fantasy world he’s created for himself, a narrative of normalcy he’s using to feel something, to be human, to possess some level of dignity. That’s why he latches onto this boy; that’s why he becomes convinced the child is his son; that’s why he becomes so doggedly determined to have a proper burial, at the risk of his own life and even, occasionally, the lives of others.

The effect of the film is numbing. It captures what we would call the banality of evil. The majority of its horrors occur off-screen, or just at the edges of the frame, something Saul glimpses but doesn’t look at — another reason the aesthetic choices are so effective. It doesn’t really rub your nose in it but allows it to sink in gradually, to process its darkest implications thoroughly. It isn’t aiming for the broad scope of the events; you won’t find an examination of the circumstances that created the Holocaust here. It’s about one man and the impact of human hate upon his mind. It’s about how that same man responds to being stripped of his humanity, and the way that response becomes a domino effect, for better or worse. The film lingers when it’s over — it’s crushing and not easily forgotten.