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Movie reviews: ‘The Fifth Wave,’ ‘Anomalisa’

Sony Pictures

By Tim Lammers

“The Fifth Wave” (PG-13) 2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Yet another chapter has been opened in the young adult novel-turned-teen movie genre with “The 5th Wave,” a familiar feeling alien invasion thriller that’s only saved by an interesting beginning and a good cast.

Chloe Grace Moretz stars as Cassie, a high school teen whose life changes dramatically in a day when a monolithic alien ship suddenly appears over her hometown in Ohio. After hanging silent over the city for 10 days, all hell breaks loose when the ship attacks the planet with an earth-shattering electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, which all but destroys the power grid. Dubbed the “first wave” of attacks, the situation only gets worse, as the second wave brings earthquakes and tsunamis that wipes out the coasts, and the third wave brings a lethal, mutated version of the bird flu, which decimates the population.

Those immune to the flu survive to experience the fourth wave, where the unseen aliens – dubbed “The Others” — begin to take over the bodies of some humans and use them as hosts. Worse yet, the surviving children and their parents are separated in the chaos, leaving the kids in fear of The Others and in some cases, each other, since it’s believed the fifth wave of attacks will be the one that ends it all.

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The foundation of “The 5th Wave” is interesting when you consider that the first three attacks, in particular, are based on plausible events feared by today’s populous. There’s no question the shutdown of the power grid would cripple the nation, if not the world, and result in chaos. In addition, we’ve all seen how deadly earthquakes and tsunamis can be, and a global pandemic (think Ebola virus) is a fear that no one wants to even think about.

“The 5th Wave” begins to stumble with the fourth wave, however, when The Others, who managed to wipe out a good portion of the world’s population with relative ease from their mothership, seem to take on the trait of human stupidity when it comes to inhabiting earthlings’ bodies. They were certainly prepared in their efforts to take over Earth, yet clearly didn’t think out the endgame.

Hoping somehow to replicate the success of such YA movie hits as “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” series, “The 5th Wave,” like its predecessors, clearly borrows from other well-established source material. In this case, the movie was clearly influenced by such sci-fi hits as “District 9,” “Independence Day,” “Deep Impact” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” with a little bit of “Alien” thrown in for good measure.

Fortunately, like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” sagas, “The 5th Wave” benefits by having a great lead with Moretz, a burgeoning teen actress who burst onto the scene with a controversial turn as the foul-mouth pre-teen superhero Hit Girl in the dizzying action-adventure “Kick-Ass.” She maintains a steady presence in “The 5th Wave,” and she has a stable of veteran co-stars including Liev Schreiber, Ron Livingston and Maria Bello to balance out the cast. The film mainly, though, focuses on Moretz and her younger co-stars, including impressive turns by Nick Robinson (“Jurassic World) and Maika Monroe (“It Follows”) as two of Cassie’s allies in the fight against The Others.

The survival of the series clearly will depend on the film’s performance at the box office, which will be interesting to see play out, since there wasn’t the usual amount of YA fanfare surrounding this film going in. If it does succeed, an open ending clearly will see “The 5th Wave” expand into something bigger – and hopefully better. As it stands now, this wave isn’t that big of a catch.

“Anomalisa” (R) 2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Being John Malkovich”) brings his unique vision to the stop-motion animation realm with “Anomalisa,” a groundbreaking yet bizarre drama about Michael Stone, a famous author suffering a midlife crisis. The groundbreaking aspect is that it’s an R-rated use of a medium usually reserved for family films, and the bizarre part is that it’s, well, driven by an off-the-wall Kaufman narrative. Duke Johnson (“Moral Orel”) co-directs, while David Thewlis stars as the voice of Stone and Jennifer Jason Leigh voices the title character, a young woman who has a strange effect on him.

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Movie reviews: ‘Hot Pursuit,’ ‘The D Train’

Sofia Vergara and Reese Witherspoon in 'Hot Pursuit'

By Tim Lammers

“Hot Pursuit” (PG-13) 1 star (out of four)

The trail goes cold almost immediately for Sofia Vergara and Reese Witherspoon in “Hot Pursuit,” a dreadfully unfunny road comedy that’s every bit as bad as the film’s excruciating trailer suggested it would be. Following a clever opening title scene that shows younger versions of Witherspoon’s character literally being raised in the back of her policeman father’s squad car, the film takes an immediate nosedive once the actress herself appears on-screen, as she desperately attempts to force humor at every turn.

Witherspoon plays Rose Cooper, a straight-laced, strictly by-the-book Texas police officer inspired by years on the beat with her late father. Tasked with protecting Daniella Riva (Vergara) – the high-maintenance wife of a government informant set to testify against a vicious cartel boss at a Dallas court hearing – Cooper is willing to risk her life to protect the woman, even with would-be assassins and crooked cops only steps behind them.

Given their respective histories on film and television, there’s no question that Witherspoon and Vergara can act given the right material; it’s just that the regurgitated story in “Hot Pursuit” gives them no choice but to force out their lines in the hopes of eliciting a few laughs.

A somewhat baffling choice for a screwball comedy role, Witherspoon is totally out of her depth as the ever-perky Cooper, and comes off as hopelessly annoying as she rapidly rattles off her dialogue. Meanwhile,  Vergara, who’s been quite funny on TV’s “Modern Family,” seems nothing but uncomfortable as she plays along with the story’s antics. At least her character is given a bit of a plot twist, but even as that is revealed, “Hot Pursuit” falls lock-step back into its march toward a predictable ending. Somebody needs to get on the case to investigate how such a disastrous project like “Hot Pursuit” got the greenlight in the first place.

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“The D Train” (R) 2 stars (out of four)

Board with caution “The D Train,” a dark comedy starring Jack Black and James Marsden that ultimately ends up feeling more creepy and awkward than funny. On one hand, it’s a relief that the film avoided the cliches and predictability of the class reunion comedy sub-genre; yet on the flip side, the film is hard to warm up to, since neither Black’s nor Marsden’s characters are particularly likeable.

Black stars as Dan Landsman, a socially-inept, lonesome loser on his high school class’ 20th reunion committee, who’s struggling to convince his old classmates to attend the bash in Pittsburgh. Dan’s luck appears to change, though, when he by chance spots Oliver Lawless (Marsden) – the most popular guy in his graduating class – on TV one night in a national television commercial.

Rationalizing that more alumni would attend the reunion if they knew Oliver would be there, Dan becomes obsessive about snagging the “big star” to return home. Fabricating a story for his boss (Jeffrey Tambor) to fund a trip to California to reacquaint himself with the “cool kid”-turned-actor, Dan’s lies begin to pile lies upon lies, and his new bromance with Oliver quickly begins to spin out of control with completely unexpected results.

Black and Marsden are great at bringing creepy and smarmy vibes, respectively, to “The D Train,” but the film will likely find audiences shifting in their seats rather than laughing out loud. There are funny moments in the movie to be sure, it’s just that without a clear protagonist in the piece, the film has a hard time gaining any momentum. We know something significant is bound to happen as Dan spins his yarns and Oliver plays along, and that unpredictability is part of the appeal. In the end, “The D Train” is a risky comedy that seems to have all the right elements, but just can’t find the right tone.

Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.

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