The 5th Wave

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The 5th Wave” comes to us not long after the conclusion of “The Hungers Games,” and it is the latest in a seemingly endless line of young adult book to film adaptations. As a result, I came into this movie feeling worn out even before it started. While the novel it is based on, written by Rick Yancey, might be an interesting read, what unfolds onscreen feels like the same old thing. Only the names and places have been changed to protect the filmmakers from potential lawsuits.

Chloe Grace Moretz stars as Cassie Sullivan, a young teenager (is there any other kind?) who lives a normal life with her family, attends high school where she’s a cheerleader and constantly deals with unrequited love like any other child held prisoner by adolescence. But suddenly an alien ship, which looks like something out of “District 9,” appears in the sky, and the Earth goes through four waves which leave it decimated and on the verge of extinction. All Cassie has left is her brother whom she ends up getting separated from, and from there she is determined to save him from a fate many others have suffered.

This movie does not get off to a good start as the visual effects used to convey the various waves are shoddy CGI, and some scenes end up looking like outtakes from “Independence Day” or any other Roland Emmerich production. When the plot finally gains momentum, Cassie finds herself on the run and forced to defend herself in ways she never planned. She’s also looking for her brother whom she is very close to. Doesn’t this sound like something we just saw?

It’s a shame because the movie does have Moretz who makes this mess more bearable than it should be. Her breakthrough performance in “Kick-Ass” was no fluke and she continues to do strong work in each film she appears in, regardless of whether they are good or bad. She makes Cassie a strong heroine and one whom kids around the same age will easily relate to as she fends for herself in the dangerous world everyone has been thrust into, and Moretz makes you root for her throughout. But even she can’t save this routine young adult movie which has come out way too late.

Actually, what’s especially interesting about “The 5th Wave” is how the female characters are far more interesting than the male ones. It also helps they have such terrific actresses inhabiting those characters, and each of them clearly relishes the opportunity to bring them to life. Maria Bello, sporting a very funky hairdo, makes Sergeant Reznik a slyly manipulative soldier as she forces the children to see the alien threat her way to where getting them to fight for the human race is easy as cake. Maika Monroe, so good in “The Guest” and “It Follows,” makes her character of Ringer a wonderfully tough warrior, and she also skillfully unveils the other layers of Ringer to show us a person who is deeply broken. Along with Moretz, they keep “The 5th Wave” from becoming a complete bore.

The male actors, however, don’t have much to work with and their performances suffer as a result. Nick Robinson plays Ben Parish, the high school football hero who, when he is forced to enlist in the military, is nicknamed Zombie. Zombie proves to be an appropriate name as Robinson has little choice but to give a one-note performance as much of the emotion Ben has experienced in life has long since been drained from his psyche. Then there’s Alex Roe who plays Evan Walker, a man who may not be all that he appears to be. It seems like the screenwriters had some trouble in trying to figure out what to do with this character, and that leaves Roe with little choice but to make Evan far more enigmatic than the character has any right to be.

And let’s not leave out the great Liev Schreiber, wonderfully understated in “Spotlight,” as the movie’s main antagonist Colonel Vosch. It’s no surprise Schreiber can give us such a menacing villain, but there really isn’t much of a character for him to play here. Vosch is merely here as an obstacle for Cassie to overcome, and as a result the actor is wasted in a role which is too unworthy of his talents.

Then there is the love triangle between Moretz, Robinson, and Roe, and after having been subjected to a very similar one between Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth in “The Hunger Games,” I could have cared less about it. I imagine it will give audiences much to swoon over, but it’s a romance that is bland as the male characters in this movie.

“The 5th Wave” was directed by J Blakeson who previously gave us “The Disappearance of Alice Creed,” a neo-noir thriller about the kidnapping of a woman by two ex-convicts. His direction on that film was much lauded by the press, and it makes me wonder just how much control he had over this project. Clearly, the studio is setting this up to be another franchise of movies for young adults to become obsessed over as a sequel to “The 5th Wave” has already been published and a third book is on the way. But it all depends of course on how this one does at the box office and considering how we are all still getting over the end of “The Hunger Games” movies, I’m not sure everybody is in a rush for yet another franchise like it.

Perhaps the target audience for “The 5th Wave” will enjoy it the most, but even they have to be outgrowing these kinds of movies at this point. Sooner or later we have to realize kids grow up and become adults, and even adults can save the world and their little brothers too.

* ½ out of * * * *

 

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It Follows

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To me, “It Follows” was to 2015 as “Honeymoon” was to 2014; an infinitely creepy horror movie deserving of the attention many low-budget movies don’t always get. It’s a mesmerizing and terrifying piece of work which invites comparison to some of John Carpenter’s best films, and it’s smart enough not to reveal every single detail of its story. Like the best Hitchcock classics, it strings you along to where you keep guessing as to what’s behind the cinematic madness all the way to the very last frame.

“It Follows” opens up on a teenage girl fleeing her home in terror, and we’re not sure why. The next day she is found murdered and her body is contorted in ways which make it look like a yoga exercise gone horribly wrong. From there we meet Jay Height (Maika Monroe) who swims alluringly in the family swimming pool, and it’s hard not to be sucked into her realm as a result. After making out with her boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary), he renders Jay unconscious and takes her to an abandoned building where he says he has passed on a curse to her. As a result, an entity which can only be seen by those who have been cursed will follow them, and once they are dead it will go after the person who gave it to them.

It’s an ingenious concept for any horror movie as this is the kind of curse which doesn’t invite an easy explanation. We can’t be sure of what the curse is, and as a result our imagination runs wild with endless possibilities as to how it can appear to us. Now I know a lot of moviegoers are desperate to have everything explained to them, and they will probably have serious issues with “It Follows” as a result, but I loved how this is a film which keeps its secrets close to the vest as revealing any of them could make the whole endeavor fall apart irrevocably.

This is only the second film from writer/director David Robert Mitchell whose previous credit was “The Myth of the American Sleepover.” I liked how he just immerses us into the lives of these young characters to where he has the viewer in a trance. It’s certainly one of the most atmospheric horror films I have seen in a while, and even the cheap scares thrown in have a stronger impact here than they do in the average scary flick.

Mitchell has given us a horror film with real down-to-earth characters which is very commendable as this genre usually benefits from having the opposite kind. Horror movies these days are typically reduced to having one-dimensional characters to where you find yourself rooting endlessly for the masked villain to decapitate them in the worst way possible, but this is not the case here. As a result, the horror feels a lot more real as these characters fight to escape from a deadly force only they can see.

Mitchell also has a very strong cast to work with as well. Chief among them is Maika Monroe who plays the movie’s main protagonist, Jay Height. Monroe was terrific in the criminally underrated thriller “The Guest,” and she succeeds in giving us a strong female heroine who is vulnerable but not too vulnerable to let this evil spirit take her down. Strong performances also come from Keir Gilchrist as Paul, Jay’s friend who has a not-so-secret crush on her, Lili Sepe as Jay’s sister Kelly, Daniel Zovatto as Greg Hannigan, and Olivia Luccardi as Yara.

In addition, “It Follows” features a very cool and utterly visceral electronic score courtesy of Disasterpiece. I grew up on the electronic scores of John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, and I think it’s great this kind of film music is making a comeback in movies like this, “The Guest” and “Ex Machina.” Disasterpiece has created a memorable score which is at times lovely and thoughtful, and at other times highly unnerving as it goes out of its way to sound like it will overload your stereo speakers with no mercy.

Mitchell only had a budget of $2 million to make “It Follows” with, and he certainly made the most of it because the movie looks like it cost so much more. Also, he got to film it in Detroit, Michigan, a city which, despite its problems, has proven to have a very unique look other American cities do not possess. This is a wonderfully creepy, suspenseful and terrifying movie which stands out among many others in its genre, and it leaves the viewer with a lasting impression as the ending makes clear the terror is far from over. And I don’t just say this because RADiUS-TWC, the company that distributed it, is already thinking about a sequel.

It says a lot about a movie which manages to maintain a strong level of suspense and tension from start to finish, and “It Follows” is just the latest example of that kind of cinematic experience which, these days, no longer feels all that rare to us.

* * * * out of * * * *

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The Guest

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I went into “The Guest” knowing almost nothing about it. I was expecting something very artistic and the kind of movie Hollywood studios wouldn’t have the guts to finance these days, but what I got instead was the kind of thriller similar to those from the 1980’s like “The Hitcher.” I kept wondering why the Sundance Next Festival would allow something so formulaic to play at this festival, but when the filmmakers came out after a screening to talk about “The Guest,” it then became clear it was actually meant to be an homage to those thrillers we all grew up on. As a result, I quickly saw the movie in a different light.

But even before this revelation, I had to admit “The Guest” is a thriller which packs a mighty punch and left me on the edge of my seat throughout. It grabs you by the throat and holds you tightly within its grasp, and a lot of that is due to the infinitely charismatic performance by Dan Stevens who portrays the guest of the movie’s title.

“The Guest” starts off with an introduction to the Peterson family who are still grieving over the loss of Caleb who was killed in Afghanistan. Then a man knocks at their door and politely introduces himself as David (Dan Stevens), a friend of Caleb’s from the military, and he is here to fulfill a promise to his fallen comrade. David tells Laura (Sheila Kelley) and her husband Spencer (Leland Orser) he has no wish to overstay his welcome, but they become insistent he stay at their house to where he quickly becomes the best houseguest anyone could ever hope to have as he helps out wherever and whenever he can. But just as in life, we can’t help but think no one can be this nice without being somewhat psychotic.

Some of “The Guest’s” best moments come when David looks out for the Peterson children, Anna (Maika Monroe) and Luke (Brendan Meyer). Luke is having some major problems at school as he is the target of bullies who beat him up at any given opportunity. Now I have seen this scenario played out in many movies, and it used to tug at my emotions in a very strong way. But watching it in “The Guest” gave me that primal beat up the bullies feeling I haven’t felt in the longest time. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see David is going to give these jerks a taste of their own medicine, and watching him do so is a perverse thrill.

Anna is less quick to warm up to David even after he goes out of his way to get a keg of beer for her high school friends. From the start she is suspicious of who he really is, and those suspicions are confirmed when a number of strange events start happening around town. Of course, her dad can’t see him doing anything bad and chides his daughter for even thinking such a thing. After all these years, teenagers are still forced to deal with their parents’ hypocrisy, and that’s even with actors like Leland Orser playing the father.

As you can see, “The Guest” travels down the road of familiar genre conventions and delivers them to the audience in a way which feels both potent and fresh. The violence in the movie is more brutal than in others I’ve seen recently, and there are several scenes which shocked me I haven’t been shocked in a while. No character is on safe ground here, and anyone is expendable in a way those actors in “The Expendables” movies ever are. At the same time, the movie has a sharp sense of humor which shows just how much fun its filmmakers were having with the material.

“The Guest” comes to us from director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, the same two who gave us “You’re Next.” I came out of this movie wondering if they had as much playing around with the slasher genre in “You’re Next” as they did with the thriller genre here. Having interviewed them both the following day for the website We Got This Covered, I can tell you they absolutely did as they talked about combining elements from “The Terminator” and John Carpenter’s “Halloween” to make this movie a reality.

Furthermore, “The Guest” comes equipped with a terrific electronic score courtesy of Steve Moore which recalls the great 80’s electronic film scores like Mark Isham’s “The Hitcher” and the “Halloween” scores of John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, particularly the one they did for “Halloween III: Season of the Witch.” Anyone who knows me best knows how much of a sucker I am for this kind of movie music, and I was digging’ Moore’s score right from the first note as it adds the ominous atmosphere we will be venturing through when David makes his entrance into town.

Seriously, this movie really does belong to Stevens who is best known for playing Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” the TV show everyone seems to be watching except me. He exudes endless charisma and makes you believe how lethal David can be when you look right into those beautifully steely eyes of his. I’m not kidding when I say he has a stare which can cut through you with a laser from a mile away. Stevens also infuses a number of his scenes with a twisted sense of humor, and this is especially the case when he coolly manipulates Luke’s principal to where he realizes suspending this young man from school might actually be hazardous to his health.

“The Guest” falters a little towards the end as the filmmakers get too enamored of the foolishness of their character’s decisions. It also has one of those horror movie endings which imply how evil can never die, and it feels a little soft compared to what we have seen in other films of its ilk. At the same time, it could mean that Wingard and Barrett will reteam for “The Guest 2,” and it would be fun to see how they would play around with the conventions of a sequel.

Seriously, “No Good Deed” could only dream of being as thrilling as this movie, and it starred Idris Elba for crying out loud. “The Guest” gleefully plays around with all the things we remember from the ultra-violent movies from our past, and I found myself enjoying it a lot even as things got increasingly nasty. Just when I thought I knew how this movie would play out, it quickly shifted gears and took me for a loop.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to buy this movie’s soundtrack.

* * * ½ out of * * * *