Friday, January 22, 2016

The 5th Wave

Damn aliens!
Yesterday, a fellow critic shared his condolences that I had to go to a screening of The 5th Wave on the eve of my birthday. But what he didn't know is that I am a fourteen year old trapped in a fortysomething's body when it comes to both books and movies: I can't get enough of the whole YA scene, especially when there's post-Apocalyptic stuff going down. And in some aliens for good measure and let's call it a party!

So yes, I had already read Rick Yancey's novel of the same name over a year ago, and I'll have you know that it was one of The New York Times' Best YA Books of 2013. So in other words, it's not Twilight. (Though as you may remember I liked that series, too; I never claimed to be the most discerning reader. It's all about escapism, people.)

There are some YA books I read and I feel like they're just great books, period. Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars are on that list. Then there are others, like Paper Towns (also by Green), or the Divergent and Mortal Instruments series, where I am conscious from beginning to end that I am not the target demographic and I feel a little silly. Not silly enough to actually stop reading these kinds of books, but a tad sheepish nonetheless.

The 5th Wave fell into the "just a good book overall" category for me, which is why I was disappointed when I saw its trailer. First, I thought ChloĆ« Grace Moretz was not the right choice for the lead—she just didn't fit what I had in my head. Second, what little dialogue was highlighted was absolutely generic and awful. So I had extremely low expectations going into the screening.

The good news is that I enjoyed the film and was quite surprised by how much it didn't suck (by Teen Apocalypse Movie standards). The bad news is that I'm not sure I could outright recommend it to anyone who: 1) hasn't read (and liked) the book, and/or 2) is over the age of, say, 23. What seemed to be a lot more logical on paper comes off as totally bananas on the big screen—from how aliens destroy our planet in four "waves," to how we fight back by, um, attempting to turn shrimpy little kids into extraterrestrial killing machines. There are undeniable shades of The Hunger Games in the film that I never picked up in the book, and I can't help but feel like that was an intentional, conscious choice by director J Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed) and the very accomplished screenwriting team of Susannah Grant, Akiva Goldsman and Jeff Pinker.

Don't worry Cassie, I'll just mesmerize the aliens with my dreaminess
So how did CGM do in the Feisty Heroine You Don't Want To Mess With role? Just fine. She wasn't who I had pictured as Cassie, the high-schooler whose perspective we're viewing the alien attacks and aftermath from, but she also wasn't who I had in my head as the lead in If I Stay (yet another YA book/movie I liked), either, and she was able to make that role her own as well. Though some other fairly impressive names and recognizable faces round out the supporting cast of The 5th Wave, if Moretz hadn't been able to pull her weight, it all would've fallen apart.

Instead we have two strong first acts where we see the Earth get destroyed and pretty much everyone on it be killed, learn what happened to Cassie's family, find out what's become of her crush Ben (Nick Robinson, only slightly less scowly than he was in Jurassic World, but still likable), and meet Evan (Alex Roe, almost too pretty to look at), some random guy who saves Cassie from alien snipers but may or may not be completely trustworthy.

In the final act, Cassie is hellbent on finding her little brother Sammy (cute moptop Zackary Arthur from Transparent) and can't stop Evan from tagging along with her. Little do they know that Sammy has been with Ben, a badass chick who goes by "Ringer" (Maika Monroe from It Follows, whose performance is one of the highlights of the film), and a bunch of other little kids who are under the direction of the shady Colonel Vosch (Liev Schrieber). From there, things get even more messed up than they already were. There are some hokey effects that distract from the action sequences, and the dialogue goes from decent to godawful near the end. But to me it was more like the screenwriters knew they were being cheesy, and so it came off as a little "wink-wink" and amusing rather than out-and-out cringeworthy. Which is why I still enjoyed The 5th Wave and didn't walk out of the theater all bitter that Hollywood had ruined yet another good book.

I'm not going to tell you if Cassie succeeds in reuniting with her bro and finally giving him back his damn teddy bear she's managed to carry with her this whole time. Nor will I tell you if any of the aforementioned characters die. And the film ends before we get the final answer on whether humanity survives or the aliens win. However, the bigger question is this: Will this movie make enough green to get a sequel? The book The 5th Wave is based on is the first of three (with the final installment out in May of this year), yet I'm not sure the series has the Twilight/Hunger Games/Divergent-level fandom necessary to translate into profit at the box office. But I was entertained enough to hope it does.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

It bothers me that there's a comma missing after "wrong."As I type out this next statement it seems so so so so very wrong, but after quickly refreshing my memory of Michael Bay's filmography, I've come to the realization that I actually enjoy most of his movies. Which is crazy, because on that same list of titles is one of my most-hated films of all time: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. But the fact remains that you can usually count on Bay for a good time at the theater, assuming you can handle lots of testosterone, boobs and explosions. (Semi-relevant side note: my friend was at the Playboy Mansion a few years ago for work (really!) and he texted me that Michael Bay was there. My response? "OF COURSE HE IS.")

Bay's taken on real events before with Pearl Harbor and Pain & Gain, both of which were critically despised (though for the record I kinda loved the latter). So I can't say my hopes were high for 13 Hours. Then there's the fact that most of what's been in the news more recently about the Benghazi tragedy did not exactly sound like movie material: emails, email servers, Hillary Clinton's emails and email servers, marathon Congressional hearings... blah blah blah... zzzzzz. I realize this is shameful and that I am living up (down) to the overall fairly accurate stereotype of an ignorant American, but I feel it's important to be honest that I didn't know a heck of a lot about what actually happened in Benghazi when I went into this movie.

But Bay knows his audience, and so he's got you, fellow fools. He lays it all out at the beginning, quickly explaining where Benghazi is, what was going on there in 2012, and why that context matters. Then we meet some of the people who were working at both the United States' diplomatic compound and the secret CIA annex about a mile down the road. At that annex was a team of six men who all had hardcore military backgrounds and were in Benghazi as CIA security contractors; the screenplay by Chuck Hogan was based on Mitchell Zuckoff's book, which he wrote alongside the five surviving members of that team.

As impossible as this may be to believe, 13 Hours isn't a political film. I was dreading that it would be, and was therefore pleasantly surprised that it instead focused almost solely on the Americans who were forced to defend themselves and each other when Islamic militants attacked both the compound and the annex. (In retrospect this focus makes sense, given the screenplay's source material).

Let's lighten things up: Pornstache from OITNB and both Jim AND Roy from The Office?!?
A little time was spent trying to differentiate the six beefy members of the security team upfront, with the most time given to Jack (John Krasinski) and Rone (James Badge Dale), who found themselves in a life-and-death situation on the streets of Benghazi just minutes after Rone picked Jack up from the airport—an ominous prelude to what was to come.

When the attack sequences start—and then do not let up for a large chunk of the 144-minute running time—it is often hard to understand exactly what's going on. But I think that was the point. We might be seeing firefights from above, from street level, through windows or from the security team's night-vision goggles, but one thing's clear: it was an all-out shitshow, with the CIA team unable to tell which locals might be on their side versus who might be about to shoot them in the back at any second.

While some of the dialogue in the film is downright embarrassing, I'd still argue that I'm glad it was Michael Bay, of all directors, who made this movie. He kept it about the people directly involved, was respectful to those who lost their lives, and did the right thing by using the Hero Worship filter to depict the actions of a group of people who were profoundly brave and selfless in the face of near-certain death.

But make no mistake: you will not—or at least you should not—leave the theater wanting to pump your fist and holler, "MURICA!!!" You might be, as I was, confused and saddened and angry. And then perhaps you'll also do what I do after seeing any good movie that's "based on true events": get home, smack yourself upside the head and then spend a little time educating yourself on the full story.