Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2016: The 5th Wave (dir by J Blakeson)


The 5th Wave, which came out in January of this year (and that really should be all you need to hear), is the epitome of a “Who cares?” type of film.

It’s another YA adaptation, taking place in a dystopian future and featuring way too many characters for its own good.  Aliens have invaded the Earth and they’ve attacked in 4 waves.  There was the 1st wave, which destroyed all of the electricity.  There was the 2nd wave which involved a lot of earthquakes and natural disasters.  I imagine California fell off the mainland during the 2nd wave.  The 3rd wave involved bird flu.  The 3rd wave is important because it killed the mother of our protagonist, teenager Cassie Sullivan (Chloe Grace Moretz).  You can’t be a YA protagonist unless you have at least one dead parents.  That’s the rules of the genre.

The 5th Wave deals with the … well, the fifth wave.  As far as I can tell, the 5th Wave involves turning every human left into a stock character from a YA dystopian novel.  Basically, if you’ve sat through Divergent or The Maze Runner or The Giver or countless other YA adaptations, you already know who everyone is in The 5th Wave.  Cassie is our heroine, which means that she spends a lot of time wandering around in the forest, killing potential threats, and thinking about how different things were back in high school.

And that’s really all she does.

See, The 5th Wave last nearly two hours and not a damn thing happens in the entire film.  That’s because the 5th Wave is all about setting up a sequel.  We meet a lot of characters.  We get a lot of backstory.  Imagine if The Walking Dead did a half-season with 6 shows straight of people talking about doing things but never actually doing any of it. (Oh, wait, they did just do that…)  That’s pretty much what sitting through The 5th Wave was like.  We learn that there are aliens disguised as humans.  We learns that what’s left of the government cannot be trusted and I was totally happy with that plot development because seriously, the government sucks.  As we watch Moretz, Ron Livington, Liev Schriber, and Maria Bello struggle to make some of the most cliched dialogue ever sound compelling, we learn that being a talented actor doesn’t mean that you always get to appear in interesting films.

Things drag on and then they end.  Why do they end?  Because that’s the way YA adaptations works.  Nothing can be resolved in just one movie.  Instead, everything’s about setting things up for the next installment.  At the very least, all YA films have to be a part of a trilogy.  And the third part of the trilogy always requires at least two parts to tell the entire story.  That’s just the way things works.

And really, I thought that Divergent was the most soulless YA adaptation that I had ever seen.  But the 5th Wave makes a strong case that perhaps it deserves the title.

I guess we could wait to see what happens when part two comes out but seriously, who cares?

Playing Catch-Up: The End of the Tour (dir by James Ponsoldt) and Love & Mercy (dir by Bill Pohland)


Two of the best films released last year dealt with troubled artists.

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The End of the Tour opens in 2008, with a writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) getting a call that the famous and acclaimed author, David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), has committed suicide.  After learning of the tragedy, Lipsky remembers a few days that he spent interviewing Wallace 12 years earlier.  Wallace had just published his best known work, Infinite Jest.  At the time, Lipsky himself was a struggling writer and he approached Wallace with a combination of admiration and professional envy.  Lipsky hoped that, by interviewing Wallace, he could somehow discover the intangible quality that separates a great writer from a merely good one.

Almost the entire film is made up of Lipsky’s conversations with Wallace.  We watch as both the somewhat reclusive Wallace (who seems both bemused and, at times, annoyed with his sudden fame) warms up to Lipsky and as Lipsky forces himself to admit that Wallace might actually be a genius.  There are a few conflicts, mostly coming from the contrast between the withdrawn Wallace and the much more verbose Lipsky.  Lipsky’s editor (Ron Livingston) continually pressures him to ask Wallace about rumors that Wallace was once a drug addict.  But, for the most part, it’s a rather low-key film, one that’s more interested in exploring ideas than melodrama.  It’s also a perfect example of what can be accomplished by a great director and two actors who are totally committed to their roles.  Jason Segel, especially, gives the performance of his career so far.

The shadow of Wallace’s suicide hangs over the entire film.  Throughout their conversation, Wallace drops hints about his own history with depression.  Much as Lipsky must have done after Wallace’s suicide, we find ourselves looking for clues to explain his death.  But ultimately, Wallace remains a fascinating enigma in both life and death.

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Love & Mercy (dir by Bill Pohland)

Love & Mercy opens with Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) selling a car to a polite but nervous man (John Cusack).  The man sits in the car with her and rambles for a bit, mentioning that his brother has recently died.  Soon, the man’s doctor, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), shows up and Melinda learns that the man is Brian Wilson, a musician and songwriter who is famous for co-founding The Beach Boys.  After having a nervous breakdown decades before, Brian is now a recluse.  He and Melinda start a tentative relationship and Melinda quickly discovers that Brian is literally being held prisoner by the manipulative Dr. Landy.

Throughout the film, we are presented with flashbacks to the 1960s and we watch as a young Brian (Paul Dano) deals with both the pressures of fame and his own relationship with his tyrannical father (who, in an interesting parallel to Brian’s later relationship with Landy, is also Brian’s manager).  As Brian struggles to maintain his grip on reality, he obsesses on creating “the greatest album ever.”

Love & Mercy is an enormously affecting story about both the isolation of genius and the redeeming power of love.  Whether he’s played by Cusack or Dano, Brian Wilson remains a fascinating and tragic figure.  It’s hard to say whether Cusack or Dano gives the better performance.  Indeed, they both seem to be so perfectly in sync with each other that you never doubt that the character played by Paul Dano will eventually grow up to become the character played by John Cusack.  Both of them do some of the best work of their careers in Love & Mercy.

Film Review: Vacation (dir by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley)


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Oh, what sweet Hell is this?

I have definitely seen worse movies than Vacation but it’s hard to think of one that left me as annoyed.  As I watched this movie, I found myself wondering how anyone could have made as many wrong decisions while directing one comedy.  Then I remembered that this film had two directors and I was left even more annoyed.  Seriously, couldn’t one of these two credited directors look at the footage and say, “Wow, we’re making a really crappy, unfunny, and mean-spirited comedy.  Maybe we should reconsider the tone of some of these scenes.  Maybe we should just abandon this all together…”

This film is a reboot of the old Vacation movies that Chevy Chase used to make in the 80s and 90s.  (Christmas Vacation is the one that everyone loves but there were others as well.)  In the original Vacation movies, Chase played Clark Griswold.  Clark would always try to take his family on the perfect vacation and would slowly lose his mind as his best laid plans always crashed into a wall of chaotic reality.  The original Vacation films were all uneven but likable, largely because Clark seemed to be so sincere in his madness.

In Vacation, Ed Helms plays Clark’s son, Rusty Griswold.  Rusty is all grown up and living in the suburbs.  He has a job as a pilot for a cheap airline.  He’s married to Debbie (Christina Applegate), who was known as Debbie Do Anything in college.  He has two sons and they’re both annoying.  James (Skyler Gisondo) is overly sensitive and plays guitar.  Kevin (Steele Stebbins) is a psychopath who is constantly bullying his older brother and dropping F-bombs every chance he gets.  (A little kid saying “Fuck,” is only funny the first few times you hear it.  After the 20th time, it just gets boring.)  James sings self-pitying songs.  Kevin continually tries to murder his brother by putting a plastic bag over his head.

Rusty wants to take his family to Walley World, the same destination that Clark wanted to visit in the original Vacation.  This involves driving across the country in an Albanian car that’s always on the verge of exploding.  Along the way, they stop off at various locations and have adventures.

And not all of the adventures are bad.  Occasionally, the film is saved by a funny cameo.  Charlie Day shows up as a suicidal river guide and he’s genuinely funny.  You find yourself wishing that he had a bigger role.  And then there’s a scene where Rusty and Debbie attempt to have sex at the Four Corners and are caught by cops from four different states, all of whom promptly start to argue about who has jurisdiction.

But those scenes are the exception.  For the most part, Vacation is just a parade of uninspired scatological humor and missed opportunities.  When Rusty and the family drop in on his sister Audrey (Leslie Mann) and her well-endowed husband, Stone (Chris Hemsworth), Rusty spends a lot of time talking about how Audrey and Stone are politically conservative.  Once they arrive at Audrey’s home, we are shown a picture of Stone hanging out with Charlton Heston but, otherwise, Stone and Rusty’s political differences are never mentioned again.  And don’t get me wrong — I wasn’t particularly looking forward to having to sit through a political argument between Ed Helms and Chris Hemsworth.  But still, why set up a joke if you’re too lazy to include the punch line?

Of course, the main problem is that you just don’t care about these Griswolds.  As characters, they’re all pretty unlikable and therefore, you really don’t care if their vacation is a success or not.  Poor Christina Applegate!  After holding her own against Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and David Koechner in both Anchorman films, she’s given nothing to do here, beyond being the punchline in a few misogynistic jokes about being wild before marrying Rusty.

As weak as all the characters are, Rusty is the main problem.  He can’t handle the fact that his wife has had more sexual partners than he has.  He can’t discipline his youngest demon child.  He has absolutely no good advice to give to his oldest son.  When Rusty drags them across the country to Walley World, it’s not because he wants them to have a good vacation but because he wants to recreate a memory from his childhood.  If Chevy Chase’s Clark was always unhinged but sincere, Rusty Griswold is just an asshole and it’s impossible to care about him.  It doesn’t help that Ed Helms, as talented as he may be, has a neediness to him that can be amazingly off-putting whenever he’s cast in a lead role.  He always seems to be trying way too hard to convince the audience to love him.

Incidentally, Rusty and the family do make time to visit Grandpa Clark.  Chevy Chase looks even worse than he did on Community and it’s all pretty boring.

My advice would be to take a vacation from seeing Vacation.

Film Review: Drinking Buddies (dir by Joe Swanberg)


Drinking Buddies is one of the best films of 2013.

It’s important to state that from the beginning because it can be difficult to explain the appeal of Drinking Buddies.  In fact, it can be argued that nothing really happens in the film.  For 90 minutes, we follow four likable and familiar characters as they drink, talk, flirt, and occasionally fight.  In many ways, this is a very funny film but it’s definitely not a comedy.  It’s a serious movie that’s notable for lacking any real drama.  Instead, it’s a warm and sympathetic portrait of life as it’s lived.

Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wilde) both work at a Chicago brewery.  Luke is an almost stereotypical nice guy while Kate is good at her job but totally neurotic with almost every other aspect of her life.  When we first see them on-screen together, it’s easy to assume that Kate and Luke are in a relationship.  However, despite being perfect for each other, Luke and Kate are both involved with others.  Kate is involved with Chris (Ron Livingston) while Luke is trying to get over his nervousness over the prospect of getting married to Jill (Anna Kendrick).  After the four of them go on a camping trip with each other, Kate and Chris break up and Luke is forced to deal with his feelings for both Kate and Jill.

Now, I knew that sounds like the set-up for a romantic comedy, the type where Chris would turn out to be a complete cad and Jill would be so obviously wrong for Luke that the audience would be openly rooting for Luke to dump her so he could get together with Kate.  However, and this is what makes this film brilliant, Joe Swanberg isn’t interested in making a film full of romcom stereotypes.  If anything, Chris and Jill are both portrayed as being far more sympathetic than either Luke or Kate.  (Livingston and Kendrick have an extended picnic scene that should be remembered as one of the best cinematic moments of 2013.)

In the end, Drinking Buddies doesn’t do anything that you expect it to do.  Swanberg is less interested in romance and more interested in observing and celebrating the friendship of these four characters.  This is one of those unexpected films where every single detail rings true and you end up feeling as if you could hop a plane to Chicago and find any of these four characters living their own lives beyond what the audience has been lucky enough to observe.

How good is Drinking Buddies?

I don’t even drink and I still loved this movie.

Film Review: Body Shots (dir. by Michael Cristofer)


(Spoilers)

Recently, I saw a 1999 film called Body Shots on the Fox Movie Channel.  If you look at the poster at the top of this review, you’ll see that Body Shots was apparently advertised with the boast: “There are movies that define every decade…”  That’s true.  It’s also true that, every decade, there are movies that define self-importance and pretension.  Can you guess what Body Shots defines?

Since Body Shots claims to be a film that exposes what secretly goes on in American society, I figured I would start this review by sharing a secret of my own.

Ready?

I love over-the-top morality tales.  I love movies that attempt to expose 20something for being the shallow, terrible people that older people believe us to be.  Every decade sees at least a handful of these films.  Typically, they are made by male filmmakers in their 50s and they attempt to paint an accusing portrait of the foibles of youth.  These films assure the older generation that their children have all grown up to be a bunch of drug-abusing, heavy-drinking, over-sexed degenerates.  It’s a proud of tradition of American cinema and television, one that includes everything from the crazed pot smokers of Reefer Madness to The Newsroom’s Jeff Daniels announcing that my generation is the “WORST.  GENERATION.  EVER.”

Typically, dreadfully earnest filmmakers who think that they are making an important statement about the future of human society are responsible for these films.  That the filmmakers often turn out to be so totally out-of-touch and histrionic just adds to the campy charm.

Body Shots is a part of this tradition.  According to the imdb, director Michael Cristofer (who is currently appearing on Smash) was 54 years-old when he made this film about 8 decadent 20-somethings who spend a decadent night at a Los Angeles nightclub and then have to deal with the consequences in the morning.

For the first part of Body Shots, we’re introduced to the 8 main characters (4 men and 4 women, which works out nicely as far as pairing off is concerned).  While they’re all generically attractive (and, at times, interchangeable), they are also each meant to represent a different take on sexuality and relationships.

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The men:

Rick (played by Sean Patrick Flannery) is a lawyer.  He doesn’t have much of a personality but he’s in the most scenes so I guess he’s supposed to be the protagonist.  Flannery is required to awkwardly deliver the line, “Hey, Penorisi, have another cocktail, why don’t you?” not once but three time.

Mike Penorisi (played by Jerry O’Connell) is a professional football player who drives a Mercedes and who spends almost the entire movie struggling to keep his hair out of his eyes.  We know he’s a jerk because Jerry O’Connell plays him and he does things like shout, “If pussy’s on the menu, I’m there!”  (Seriously, Body Shots?)

Shawn (played by Brad Rowe) is a friend of Rick’s.  He’s a nice guy and he says things like, “Sex without love equals violence.”  (And, again, seriously?  Agck!  If a guy ever said that to me, I would be out the door so quick…)

Trent (played by Ron Livingston) is Shawn’s roommate.  We’re continually told that Trent is a loser but, since he’s played by Ron Livingston, he’s also one of the only likable people in the entire film.  Trent is crude and obsessed with sex but, as opposed to everyone else in the film, he’s at least honest about it.  Unlike the rest of the cast, Livingston is intentionally funny.

The women:

Jane (played by Amanda Peet) is kind of Rick’s girlfriend.  Like Rick, she really doesn’t have much of a personality and she’s mostly distinguished by being an absolutely terrible dancer.  (Unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t seem to realize just how awkward Peet looks out on the dance floor.)

Sara (played by Tara Reid) is Jane’s best friend.  She’s blonde, drinks to excess, and is open about her sex life.  So, naturally, the filmmakers go out of their way to punish her during the film’s second half.

Whitney (played by Emily Proctor, from CSI: Miami) is another blonde who drinks to excess and is open about her sex life.  In order to keep us from confusing her with Sara, the filmmakers have Whitney sodomize one of the men with a dildo.

Emma (played by Sybil Temchen) is depressed and worries that people can tell that she “hasn’t gotten laid in months” just by looking at her.

Anyway, these eight characters spend the first part of the movie getting ready to go out, going out, meeting up, hooking up, and occasionally telling us their thoughts on sex and relationships.  And by telling us, I mean that, in a technique beloved by first-time playwrights who have yet to learn anything about being subtle or allowing characters to reveal themselves organically, they literally look straight at the camera and deliver monologues about what they’re looking for in life.  I suppose this is all supposed to make us feel as if we’re getting an intimate look into the inner angst and secret loneliness of these characters but the monologues are all so awkwardly written that they just make the characters seem even more shallow than before.  Trust me, I could have happily lived my entire life without having Jerry O’Connell staring straight at me while discussing oral sex.  (“No teeth!” Jerry grins.  BLEH!)

And yet, I still enjoyed the first part of Body Shots, precisely because the characters were so shallow and the movie was so unintentionally over-the-top in its efforts to paint the Los Angeles nightlife as the equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah.  The scenes where the women were getting ready to go out for the night all had a ring of truth of them and Ron Livingston (who appeared to be the only member of the cast to understand just how silly a film Body Shots would ultimately turn out to be) was a lot of fun.

Even better, once everyone gets to the club, Michael Cristofer decides to earn his auteur credentials by tossing in every trick he can think of.  Scenes where the action is needlessly sped up follow scenes that play out in slow motion.  The camera glides through the club, focusing on all the neon while a generic beat blasts in the background.  The walls are covered with graffiti that reads, “Swim At Your Own Risk” and “No Diving” and you better believe that the camera lingers over every letter.  Meanwhile, Amanda Peet dances awkwardly while trying to give Sean Patrick Flannery a come hither look while Emily Proctor passes out shots and Jerry O’Connell keeps tossing back his hair.  And then Ron Livingston shows up, straight from a golf course and – you’ve got it! – still dressed for his game.

Seriously, it’s all so stupid and silly and over-the-top unbelievable.  And, of course, while all this going on, the characters still find the time to stare straight at the camera and tell us their feelings about bondage and whether or not true love actually exists.  Cristofer is trying so hard to say something profound and he fails so completely that it’s actually a lot of fun to watch.

Unfortunately, during the second part of the film, Body Shots falls apart.  The next morning, Sara shows up at Jane’s apartment and says that Penorisi raped her.  Penorisi is arrested and claims that the sex was consensual and that Sara was just upset because he accidentally called her “Whitney.”  We get flashbacks to both Mike and Sara’s version of the events.  While they each tell a different story, Cristofer seems to be implying that, regardless of who is telling the truth, it wouldn’t have happened if Sara had not been out drinking and flirting.

To be honest, it’s pretty fucking offensive.

If the first part of Body Shots appeared to have been made by an out-of-touch guy with good intentions, the second part is the work of a moralistic hypocrite.  What makes it even worse is that the film ends without resolving the case.  I’m sure that Cristofer would argue that the open ending was meant to make the audience think about what they had just seen but, ultimately, it feels like a cop out.  It’s almost as if Cristofer reached a point where he said, “Okay, I’m tired of making this movie.  Let’s just quit.”

And considering how the second half of the movie plays out, you can’t really blame him.  Still, the first part of Body Shots is unintentionally hilarious and a lot of fun.  Just don’t watch past the 45-minute mark.