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Films I Neglected To Review: It Must Be January
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "The 5th Wave," "Martyrs," "Mojave," "Monster Hunt" and "A Perfect Day."

In a never-ending quest to ensure that there is no point in time when there is not at least one or two film adaptations of YA book franchises involving spunky teens battling their way through post-apocalyptic scenarios and, perhaps more devastating, possible romantic triangles involving blandly handsome lads, “The 5th Wave,” the big-screen adaptation of the first part of the series of books by Rick Yancey designed to appeal to the audience that made hits out of the “Hunger Games” and “Divergent” sagas into print and screen blockbusters. The time around, our seemingly ordinary heroine is Cassie (Chloe Grace Moretz) whose life in suburban Ohio is turned upside down, along with everyone else on the planet, one day with the arrival of aliens who begin to systematically destroy all of humanity with a series of four attack waves involving an EMP, massive earthquakes, a supercharged bird flu and alien infiltration among the remaining humans. Now left to her own devices, Cassie tries to make it on foot to a military base where her younger brother (Zackary Arthur) was sent to train for battle against the invaders as they prepare their fifth, and presumably final, wave of attack. While she is on her journey, accompanied by the mysterious-yet-hunky Evan (Alex Roe), her former crush (Nick Robinson), who is now a soldier whose platoon includes her brother and the spitfire Ringer (Maika Monroe), stumble across a devastating secret about the aliens and their secret plans which, once you think about it, are neither that surprising nor especially logical.

One the grand scale of teen dystopian epics, with “The Hunger Games” at the high end of the scale and “Divergent” at the low end, “The 5th Wave” lands almost exactly in the middle. On the one hand, it never plunges the hideous depths of the “Divergent” films and director J Blakeson keeps things moving along quickly enough (though some might object to how he burns through the first four waves before the 30-minute mark). The problem is that there is not a single moment to be had in the film that could be considered fresh or original—it takes bits and pieces from so many other sources that one could go to it with friends and take bets on who can come up with the longest list of obvious sources that have been ransacked here. I was also kind of disappointed by the fact that the film made the correct move in hiring the likes of Moretz and Monroe (who knocked viewers out in last year’s horror hit “It Follows”) and then failed to give them much of anything to do that would make use of their talents. Most infuriatingly, the film is so concerned with setting up the pieces for its forthcoming sequels that it fails to tell the kind of satisfying story this time around that might encourage people to come back for more—after a couple of hours, it just kind of ends in a way that will leave those unfamiliar with the books feeling more than a little ripped off over having only gotten a part of a movie for their ticket price. Because of these failings, I cannot really recommend “The 5th Wave” but for those already predisposed to seeing it, all I can say is that you have undoubtedly seen worse films than this one.

Years after escaping from a mysterious building where she had been systematically tortured as a child, a young woman, Lucie, shows up on the doorstep of an ordinary family and brutally slaughters them all, convinced that a.) the parents were among those responsible for her suffering and b.) that killing them will finally free her from the monster that seems to have been tormenting her since her escape. Anna, her only friend from the orphanage where they both grew up turns up to help clean up after her possibly deranged pal and makes a couple of shocking discoveries that reveal that Lucie was telling the truth all along and that her pain is far from over. If this sounds familiar to you, it means that you have seen “Martyrs,” an exceptionally nasty bit of French torture porn from a few years ago that developed a cult following among those who read “Fangoria”—though not for the articles—for the sheer nastiness on display and the way that it attempted to blend the brutality with certain intellectual ambitions designed to give it slightly more weight than, say, the “Hostel” films. This is not to say that it worked as anything other than a stylishly made barf-bag movie but at least one could give it a little credit for trying.

Now “Martyrs” has been given the inevitable American remake and, perhaps just as inevitably, it isn’t very good. Although the brutality on display is enough to put most people off their popcorn for a couple of weeks, it has been toned down quite a bit. Unfortunately, directors Kevin and Michael Goetz and co-writer Mark L. Smith have also toned down the more intellectual aspects as well, dumbing everything down so that what was once subtle is now spelled out for everyone and giving it a more uplifting finale to boot (not that you will be smiling and singing on your way out of the theater this time around). Oddly, they do make one key change to the original screenplay that actually makes a certain degree of sense but then fail to do anything with it. As the women in peril, Troian Bellasario and Bailey Noble are about as good as can be, under the sordid circumstances, but my guess is that they will be burying this
title in their respective resumes before too long. Unless you are a fan or the original with a morbid curiosity about how it plays with an American sensibility (somehow all of the pseudo-profundities sound better in the original French) or are just plain morbid, you will not be sacrificing anything by giving “Martyrs” a pass.

As a screenwriter, William Monahan has penned scripts for the likes of Ridley Scott (“Kingdom of Heaven,” “Body of Lies”) and Martin Scorsese (“The Departed”) that were successful enough to give him the chance to direct as well. His first effort, “London Boulevard,” had a few interesting moments but for the most part, it showed that he wasn’t nearly as skilled behind the camera as he was behind the word processor. And yet, that film seems like an unquestioned triumph compared to his second directorial effort, the awful “Mojave.” In this horrific blend of European-style ennui and limp Hollywood satire, a pretentious and possibly suicidal filmmaker (Garrett Hedlund) goes off into the Mojave desert—presumably either to cleanse his spirit or kill himself—when he is visited by a grungy drifter (Oscar Isaac) who tries to intimidate him both physically and intellectually in a series of encounters that lead to another person getting killed. Our hero makes it back to civilization and resumes his life of empty sex, pretentious filmmaking and arguing with a sleazy producer (Mark Wahlberg, presumably paying Monahan back for writing his Oscar-nominated role in “The Departed”) and thinks he is home free until the drifter turns up and begins to insinuate himself in the other man’s life.

As nonsensical as this description sounds, it grants the film a certain lucidity that it never bothers to put forth on its own. Everything about it is as awful as can be and then some. The screenplay is such a mess that anyone who can even begin to suss out what Monahan is trying to say deserves some kind of medal and his direction is as flat as the desert—the satire falls flat and the existential drama is handled so awkwardly that it makes “Beyond the Sea” look almost competent by comparison and the performances by Hedlund and Isaac (whose recently elevated profile perhaps seres as the only explanation as to why this is getting even the token release that it has been afforded) are basically jokes. I realize that we are barely three week into the new year but I have a sneaking suspicion that when December rolls around, this will still be riding hight on my list of the worst films of 2016.

“Monster Hunt” is a live-action/CGI animation hybrid that has quickly become the highest-grossing film in the history of mainland China and as goofball fantasy epics go, it doesn’t let a little thing like utter incoherence get in the way of a reasonably decent night of the movie. Centuries ago in a world not entirely like our own, monsters and humans coexisted uneasily until mankind declared war on all monsters and drove them into the mountains. Now, a civil war has developed between several monster factions that have caused the pregnant monster queen to flee to a nearby village and attaches itself to the young and goofy mayor, Tianjin. Following in hot pursuit of the queen are a number of monster hunters, the prettiest of which is Luo Gan (Jia Zhangke). After transferring her fetus to Tianjin (don’t ask), he give birth to an adorable creature that has the power to change the world and he and Luo find themselves trying to protect the young monster from a human madman who is trying to promote a monster civil war in order to provide more exotic specialties to serve the customers at the restaurant he runs on the side. Needless to say, I was pretty much baffled by the entire thing, though not arguably more so than I am with most fantasy epics of note, but just because I couldn’t explain the plot if you put a gun to my hand doesn’t mean I didn’t have a reasonably good time while watching it. It is nuts but it is never boring and the blend of CGI and live-action is better than average. It might be a little too violent for very young kids but anyone who can handle “The Force Awakens” should be able to handle its goofy excesses. Who knows, maybe they can even explain the plot to their sure-to-be-baffled elders.

As the dark comedy “A Perfect Day” opens, a dead body turns up in a drinking well in a small village in the war-torn Balkans, forcing a group of aid workers (including Benicio del Toro, Tim Robbins and Melanie Thierry) to roam the dangerous countryside in search of enough rope to pull it out before it fully contaminates the water but only seem to come up with more red tape at every turn. Instead of trying to turn this story into an earnest-but-dull melodrama, writer-director Fernando Leon de Aranoa has instead chosen a darkly comedic approach along the lines of "M*A*S*H" or "Catch-22" and while the end result does not quite approach those classics, the amusing screenplay and smart performances help keep it moving along without completely succumbing to despair. Some may object to taking a comedic approach to such a serious subject but the lack of aching pretensions works in its favor and holds viewer interest instead of coming across as just another well-meaning bore of a film.

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originally posted: 01/23/16 04:37:55
last updated: 01/23/16 04:54:45
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