The Fifth Estate: Movie Review

the-fifth-estate-movie-poster-copyIn 2010, The Guardian, The New York Times and Le Spegel simultaneously released a story on the Afghan war logs and credited their source as Wikileaks, a website responsible for releasing vital information provided by unnamed sources. The website is founded by the eccentric activist Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a handful of volunteers, including his partner Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl), a computer hacker from Berlin. The story was devoted 14 pages in The Guardian, 12 in the Times, and major coverage by Le Spiegel, and became a major sensation because it entailed the biggest leakage of US military documents in American history. The story catapulted Wikileaks as a legitimate news source when it released the logs without edits but also called to question the ethics behind the move as it imperiled the lives of hundreds American sources in war zones in Afghanistan.

Even before the movie was made, the subject of Wikileaks was already a very controversial one because on the one hand, the site aims to give the public access to free information about corruption and oppression in the world. It was founded to bring down tyranny using information as a tool. However, on the other hand, its refusal to edit information and publish the leaked documents as is including data like addresses and contact numbers of the officials involved in the controversy has been called to question for endangering the individuals and subjecting them to public outrage.

As a former journalist, the dilemmas in the movie proved to be truly engaging. Weighing Wikileaks’ actions against the Journalism Code or the Canons of Journalism was truly baffling. Professional journalists seek vital information and sources of news but as members of the fourth estate, they also serve as gatekeepers of this information, and as such bear the responsibility of crafting the stories that hold merit to the public without endangering the sources of their information or those who may be affected by it. Wikileaks practices journalism to a certain extent — in protecting its sources, and in verifying the validity of the documents that they release on the website. But the handling of the information between the major news networks and the website differs by a wide margin. While The Guardian, Le Spiegel and Times, redacted sensitive information such as the names of government informants in war torn areas, Wikileaks pushed ahead and released over 250,000 war logs to prove that it had no bias and stayed true to its original principles. This resulted in a major catastrophe within the US military and their allies when the information was fully released.

The movie was based on the book written by Daniel Domscheit-Berg after his falling out with Assange over the handling of the Afghan logs and it was only natural for Assange to debunk Berg’s claims. While the movie focused on the dynamics between the two characters (Cumberbatch was spectacular as the weird, often obsessive activist Assange), I was more fascinated in the evolution of the site from breaking small stories to taking down billion dollar financial institutions and an entire dictatorship. I was inspired by what difference conviction and determination can make against those who abuse their power. At the end of the day, it was a matter of trust. Berg trusted in Assange’s ideals and up to a certain point agreed wholeheartedly with what he stood for when no one else believed in him. Its wonderful to see passion like these two shared with their cause, especially in a world of people who couldn’t care less about issues that do not impact them directly. No matter how Assange was depicted in the film, I believe that he was truly a visionary. Not many people could accomplish what he did with the limited resources that he had. And he made it happen. No many people have this gift.

While the relationship of Assange and Berg did not exactly end amicably, I was not really surprised because when two people care about their cause as much as these two, there is bound to be conflict. Still, it gave me a new respect for these two. Imagine, building Wikileaks with just two people, processing all of the information and making a difference in the world by building a network of sources whose identities are protected by layers and layers of code. I admire the principles of Wikileaks even if I don’t totally condone the manner in which they release the information.

All in all, I think The Fifth Estate is a great movie to open society’s eyes to the power of information, and the best lesson in media ethics as one could probably get. An insightful piece of cinema, it inspires people to take action and underscores each person’s responsibility to society. Change is possible and while Wikileaks may not have brought about the holistic change that Assange dreamed for the world, the site did manage to make a difference for a short period in time. And that’s always a good start to start a revolution.

The Giver: Movie Review

The_Giver_posterBefore the dystopian genre became all the rage for Hollywood, there was a children’s book released in 1993, written by Newberry Medal winner Lois Lowry called The Giver. Its about a world that dealt with the aftermath of war by eliminating every element that may cause conflict in the lives of the new world. I read the book a couple of years ago and thought it was shocking, haunting and brilliant, especially for a book targeted at middle schoolers. Now that it merited its own movie, I was curious how the book would translate to the big screen.

Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is a teenager on the cusp of leaving his childhood in a community living peacefully in Sameness — where rules are effected to avoid conflict. Rules like never lie, precision of language, number of children allowed per family unit, taking a dose of daily injections, with all of their actions monitored by the Elders at all times. It is also a world devoid of color and strong emotions, where people go about their business like automatons. During the ceremony where the teens graduate to be members of the community, Jonas is chosen to be the Receiver of Memories, a distinguished and difficult position that only ten years prior, pushed a trainee to ask for “release.” When the Giver (Jeff Bridges) starts Jonas’s training, he encourages him to forego the rules that he grew up with, and instead embrace the joy and pain that comes with receiving all of the memories of the world before them. But as he discovers the wealth of information, his education pushes him to do more to free the people from the Sameness borne from fear of uncertainty.

A lot of anticipation came with The Giver movie, mainly because it was such a well loved book. This came before The Hunger Games, Divergent, Delirium, Matched, Enders Game, Partials, and the whole host of  dystopian novels targeted at young adults. One of the noticeable differences of the book from the movie was the age of its main characters. While movie Jonas was well in his teens, book Jonas was only 12, and of course, the “stirrings” he felt with his friend Fiona, who was also a 12 in the book, was hyped up in the movie version. A lot of people did not like the change but it was completely understandable for the film to age the the characters a little bit because they were going for The Hungers Game market (teens) and they had to have a charismatic cute boy and a love interest to do that. Even Game of Thrones made their characters a bit older because it would be weird to see 13 year old Robb Stark and Jon Snow wielding swords or 12 year old Sansa getting married on cable television.

But messing with the original material comes with pros and cons. And while the movie succeeded in getting its target market engaged in the story because of the teen romance angle, what was lost was the originality of the premise of children being weaned on the illusion of safety in Sameness, which was more shocking and sad.  The part that really spoke to me about the book was Jonas’s youth and the responsibility that he had to bear in wanting to save his community from ignorance of the truth. It was what made The Giver so different from the others in its genre. It was the gradual loss of innocence and call to courage.

I didn’t hate The Giver, or thought it was substandard to the book. I thought it did the material enough justice, but because it came after a parade of other films with the same genre and the same audience, it felt too familiar. Because audiences were already used to kids and teens killing each other to stay alive, or being used for war, the message of the Giver seemed a bit on the mild side and Jonas’ adventure or mission seemed staid compared to the competition. Even the set designs seemed too familiar. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter that it was written first, because it was adapted later than the others, and truthfully, since its the trend in Tinseltown, these YA adaptations have been trying to outdo each other with a vengeance because they’re battling for the same audience.

The Giver had a lot going for it though and its best weapon was Academy Award Jeff Bridges who portrayed the titular role with a vengeance. The contrast of the depths of his emotions to the stoicism of the rest of the community was a master class in acting and his torment at the loss of his daughter was heartbreaking. The best moments of the movie were always with him in the scene. Thwaites was not bad as Jonas but he needs to polish up his acting if he wants to be more than just a pretty face in Hollywood. With the type of roles he’s landing, he shouldn’t waste the opportunity and step up his game. Of the supporting cast, Alexander Skaarsgard really stood out as Jonas’ father. Despite not knowing the gravity of what he was doing, there was a quiet battle raging in him that he struggles against and the subtlety in his acting was great. I loved the slight change in his look when he was forced to bend the rules.

All in all, The Giver was a good adaptation by director Philip Noyce. Sure, it took some liberties with the original material but not enough to destroy the essence of the literature. It took upon itself to expand on some of the events to add to the drama and the suspense and it was a good call to add some spice to the movie for people who read the book so it didn’t become too predictable.

I Don’t Want to Kill You (Dan Wells): Book Review

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I think that means that I have a heart. Who would have guessed? — John Cleaver

SYNOPSIS: Months after John saved five girls from the second demon/ serial killer to come to Clayton County, John Wayne Cleaver is focused on finding the third one, guided only by clues he found from Agent Forman’s cellphone. With a new outlet for his obsession, the sixteen year old sociopath finds himself not so focused on death and destruction, and even finding time and effort to connect with people, most specifically Marci Jensen, the most popular girl in school. Pretty soon, a new murderer surfaces, with an MO that bears a striking resemblance to another killer — the Handyman killer. At the same time, the girls at his local high school keep committing suicide. John realizes with each death that the murderer is drawing closer to him and that in challenging the supernatural, he has put himself, and those that he holds dear in grave danger.

I have been hooked to the John Cleaver series since I first cracked the first e-book and up until the end of the trilogy (I hear that the franchise will continue in 2015, yay!), and I remain a fan of Dan Well’s excellent writing and the steady development of his characters. In the first book I am not a Serial Killer, John was at the tentative stage of dealing with his sociopathy, recognizing the red flags in himself and trying to go against his nature. In the second book Mr. Monster, he tries to wrestle with his personal demons and literally battles against evil head on. This time around, there is a different side to John that is introduced to the book. He is still a sociopath and he still isn’t normal but he seems more in touch with his humanity.

I liked the fact that Marci is introduced as his love interest in this book because Marci has a great personality (and the exact opposite of John). She’s smart, she’s kind, she doesn’t spook easily and up to a certain degree, she understands John better than anyone. I don’t think John has enjoyed anyone’s company as much as Marci and for a while, it was good to see him connect with another person, a person who had the potential to accept him entirely. While Brooke was a pretty acceptable love interest for the first two books, I thought that Marci was a better fit for John as a friend and as a girlfriend. While it was understandable for Brooke to harbor reservations about John, she was quick to drop him like a hot potato without giving him the benefit of the doubt and this, I find unforgivable. I felt like Marci had the potential to be the Shelley to John’s Marvin (Master of Murder, Christopher Pike).

Romantic connections were not the only connections that John made in this book (are we really talking about the same person?) as he had great moments with his mother that were really touching, especially towards the end. He also had insightful conversations with a priest that gave readers a better understanding of John’s convictions. Whereas before, there was great doubt about whether John would live out his most evil fantasies, this book left no doubt which side John was choosing.

Because this was supposed to be the concluding chapter, and because the last book ended so strong with John calling out the demon Nobody, Dan Wells made sure that there was plenty of stuff going on in this book. However, for the first time in three books, he was not able to distract me with his red herrings and I was able to figure out the clues and piece them together before John actually did. It did not make the book weaker than the first two but it just felt different, still in a good way. Its true there were times I wanted to smack John because he was so clearly putting himself in danger — also for his bullheadedness in not accepting his mother’s offer to work on the case together when she finally came to terms with the demon hunting thing.

All in all, I thought that I Don’t Want to Kill You was a very strong finish to the trilogy. It was bittersweet and tragic, and filled with a lot of questions as well as answers about humanity, morality and building relationships. It also gave closure to a lot of aspects of John’s inner struggle as he recognizes the person he wishes to be. It blurred the lines between right and wrong to provoke reaction and thought from the readers. It was engaging from start to finish but while it was a great ending to cap a spectacular trilogy, it left readers (like myself) wanting more of John Cleaver and his adventures. He’s not the most likely of heroes but he has managed to shoot up to my list of favorite characters in three days time. Even if he is sometimes creepy and violent.

Mr. Monster (Dan Wells): Book Review

MrMonster

I’m the demonslayer. Come and get me. — John Cleaver

SYNOPSIS: (Be warned — Some spoilers from Book 1: I am not a Serial Killer up ahead) After killing a demon who kills people for parts in the first installment, life in Clayton County has returned to normal for teenage sociopath John Wayne Cleaver. But after unleashing his alter ego Mr. Monster to slay the Clayton killer, he finds that his dark half isn’t as easy to contain as before. His mom tries to help him out by trying to keep him from thinking negative thoughts but instead of calming him down, her efforts irk him further. He finally finds a distraction when a new serial killer rolls into town, seeming to call out John himself, and he finds himself pushed to his limits — forced to pit his baser nature against what he believes is the right thing to do as he faces off with a new demon, one more sinister than the last.

I devoured Dan Wells’ I am a Serial Killer in half a  day and finished the sequel in pretty much the same time. I must state for the record that while I enjoyed the first book immensely, I was a little on the fence about injecting the supernatural element into it. Halfway into reading the second book however, I realized that I have gotten used to the fantasy elements and they already felt familiar so I was more open and accepting to the idea this time around.

Dan Wells is a great writer, and in Mr. Monster,  he speaks from John’s voice so well — communicating his feelings, his frustrations, his inner conflicts and his genuine effort to be normal that readers’ hearts simply go out to this series’ unlikely protagonist. Its true that the pyromania, deliberately hurting animals and the thirst for violence were truly disturbing aspects of John’s character but readers pretty much know what they signed up for if they read the first book, or picked up one with the title Mr. Monster. The first book was more of an analysis of John’s sociopathy, but in this sequel, his dysfunction has grown much worse — he understands himself and his tendencies better and the struggle is much more complicated now that he is in the throes of adolescence, further complicated by the fact that the subject of his violent fantasies is Brooke, the girl he likes — the same one his mother keeps on pushing at him. The manner in which John processes regular stuff that happens on dates is both hilarious and scary, but it successfully illustrates how inept he is at normalcy and makes sense of his different way of thinking.

As a matter of fact, Wells does such a good job of describing John’s inner struggle (in his personal life) and obsession with the new killer’s MO that when the culprit is finally revealed, readers feel like a rug is pulled from under them because they never see it coming.

And while John’s close call with his demon neighbor was enough of a nail biter, in Mr. Monster, Wells puts him right in the middle of the action — in the face of his inner demons, held captive, pressed for time, with another demon pushing his buttons, challenging him to take the final step and become a demon himself. Suffice to say that what happens in the culprit’s basement is not for the weak of stomach as Wells paints such a vivid picture of torture, and the results of the culprit’s ruthlessness when the bodies are found. It reads like an episode of Born to Kill of Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer. Its truly disturbing.

What’s really great about this book is the narration — they are so expressive that readers feel the suspense of every moment, the feel of captivity, the imminent threat and the spark of hope. Yet, at the same time, it didn’t give everything away.There were still a lot of questions that could fuel the sequels and its pretty evident that John has still a long way to go before he embraces himself fully — both his light and dark side.

All in all, Mr. Monster is  much more brutal, much more raw, much more graphic and leagues darker than the first book, mainly because the villain this time, is pure evil. While John flexes his muscles at using his dysfunction for good, its interesting to see his growing skills evolving along with much more complicated nemesis. It gets pretty exciting to watch John go against meaner and more powerful enemies with each book. Of course, for a sociopath (even one who is trying his best to be a good guy), not everything will turn up roses and John does get his fair share of setbacks but his victories far outweigh his losses. While ideally, John would somehow develop empathy as his story progresses, as a sociopath, its very unrealistic. Still, here’s to hoping that he will succeed in being the good guy. His last statement to another demon makes me hopeful: ‘I’m the demonslayer.Come and get me.” The third book is bound to be epic at this rate.

I am not a Serial Killer (Dan Wells): Book Review

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…the truth was far more terrifying; true terror doesn’t come from giant monsters but small innocent-looking people… People like me. — John Cleaver

SYNOPSIS: John Wayne Cleaver is a 15-year old sociopath working as a part time embalmer in his family’s funeral home. Unlike most people his age, he does not feel empathy for other people, but he tries to hide his abnormality from the rest of the world by pretending to be normal and following rules that are intended to steer him off the path of being a serial killer, of which he knows he has a great tendency for. But when a serial killer strikes in his very own hometown, John is forced to unleash the monster inside him to prevent the killer from victimizing more people from his community.

The first thing that got me interested in reading the book was the title. I am not a Serial Killer had an ominous ring to it, and learning that the main protagonist is actually a 15 year old mortician piqued my curiosity even more.

John Wayne Cleaver, who believes he was named after the serial killer John Wayne Gacy (instead of the actor John Wayne), is really a compelling protagonist. Pragmatic and matter of fact, he analyzes his own personality as clinically as he would the serial killers he is so obsessed about. Its true that its a tad creepy for a teenager, especially one as young as John to be fascinated by death the way that he is but part of the book’s charm is how it successfully manages to get readers to empathize with a character who feels no empathy for others.

John is a very smart character and I’m always a sucker for smart characters. Dan Wells created such a strong personality in John that readers hear his voice loud and clear — his loneliness, his dysfunction, his youth in his first person narrative. I liked the fact that he’s always trying to indirectly get the advice of his therapist Dr. Neblin because he acknowledges that there is something deeply wrong with him. He understands himself and his psychosis really well, and I must say, I’ve learned a lot about sociopaths, murderers and serial killers from him better than any TV show or psychology book. He’s like a composite of Dexter and Norman Bates but readers can tell he is still at the beginning stages because he is still able to understand his limits — what he can and can’t do.

The book changed its tone in the middle and veered towards the supernatural, and although John’s serial killer tendencies were still at the forefront of the plot, especially when he was trying to outsmart the actual killer, it seemed weird and off balance at that point. I thought it would have been much cooler for John to have dealt with an actual serial killer rather than a demon so he could test out his mettle against a like-minded enemy.

I felt like the beginning served as a great opening for a thriller for a variety of demographics but in going the mythical path, it seemed to downgrade itself to the kiddie section, to the Hardy Boys/Scooby Doo audience. This is not to say that the book was not well written because it was marvelous from start to finish. It was a really compelling read but I just felt like John Wayne Cleaver could have done better going head to head with a real live killer. It would have given him more room to learn about himself and his potential future.

All in all, I really enjoyed reading I am not a Serial Killer.  It was suspenseful and tense in all the right moments but it never lost touch of its sense of humanity despite its depiction of the monsters inside regular people (not just John). Seeing as the book is only the first one in a trilogy, it successfully opened doors for future plotlines like John falling in love with Brooke (he is after all a teenager). Also, now that his alter ego Mr. Monster is already out, it would be interesting to see how his two personas will wrestle and who will prevail in the end.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn: Book Review

Dark_Places_coverOkay, so sue me. I am guilty of picking up the book (or in this case, ebook) upon learning there was going to be a movie, but I can’t say that I regret the decision. If anything, it only got be more excited to see the film adaptation of this Gillian Flynn crime thriller.

SYNOPSIS: 24 years after the gruesome murders of her mother and two sisters, Libby Day, the sole survivor of the crime, is confronted by a group called the Kill Club about the possibility that her big brother Ben, may not be the guilty party. Broke and desperate, Libby charges the group to interview “key people” in the murder to help them uncover the real culprit and solve the mystery behind the Satan Sacrifice of Kinakee, Texas.

Gillian Flynn is a great storyteller. From the first page up to the last, she uses a commanding voice that calls on the readers to pay attention lest they miss anything. I liked that the material had a lot of secrets and it got readers excited to find out what happens next. Interweaving events that happened during that fateful day in 1985 with present day, Flynn delivers the events and uncovers the mystery from various perspectives.

She depicts the desperation of Patty Day’s character, the rebelliousness of a teenage Ben Day, the uncertainty of Libby Day and the bitterness of Runner Day’s characters so clearly that readers feel connected to them and develop an understanding for their actions. Even the secondary characters helped build up their affinity with the main cast. An example would be Magda or Krissi Cates’ mother, the Kill Club members, and the townsfolk of Kinakee — their lack of sensitivity and their mob mentality pushes the readers closer to the Days, imperfect as they are.  As such, readers become compelled to formulate their own hypotheses about the murders, getting them invested in the outcome because they want true justice to be served.

I liked that there’s always something to look forward to and each chapter contributes to the suspense as Libby and Lyle get closer and closer to the truth. This is not to say that its not frustrating when despite new evidence and new leads coming to light, suspect after suspect get dismissed from the crime. Its kind of brilliant how Flynn manages, time and again, to pull the rug from under the readers’ feet, prodding them to review the evidence as if they were detectives in an actual crime. This is still happening in page 300, only thirty pages shy of the conclusion.

All in all, Dark Places was a very worthy read. It was graphic but really not as dark as I expected it to be (I was expecting the worst) but it was evenly paced with a lot of interesting characters with a lot of strong presence. Its kind of sad to see how one event can set of a chain of misfortune in the life of others that can never be taken back. Its tragic and its bittersweet and examines how tragedy, desperation and failure corrupts a person. On the flipside, its also about guilt and redemption, and at the end of the day, family, and how far one would go for that connection. It would be interesting how the movie fares because the book kicked ass.

 

The Fault in our Stars: Movie Review

NOW A BOOK, SOON A MOVIE. Ansel Elgort (Carrie reboot and Shailene Woodley (Divergent) snag the lead roles for the movie adaptation of this John Greene book.

NOW A BOOK, SOON A MOVIE. Ansel Elgort (Carrie reboot and Shailene Woodley (Divergent) snag the lead roles for the movie adaptation of this John Greene book.

Pain deserves to be felt. A statement that is totally applicable to The Fault in Our Stars but it was a pain that I was glad to endure for its 126-minute run.

Its one thing to subject yourself to a movie with one sick person in it, but its pretty much torture to sign up for a film with two sick lead characters. This is the reason why I steer clear of Nicholas Sparks movie adaptations (because somebody always dies) but after I read The Fault in our Stars by bestselling author John Green, I knew I couldn’t stay away from this film. I simply had to know how the movie versions of Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters measured up to their literary counterparts.

Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), is a 17 year old suffering from thyroid cancer, whose existence revolves around getting medication, watching reality shows and obsessing over the ending (or non ending) of her favorite book, The Imperial Affliction, written by reclusive author Peter van Houten. She meets the charming one legged cancer survivor Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) in one of the support groups her mother forces her to go to and there begins their epic love story limited only by their numbered days on Earth.

I must say that adapting this book for the big screen was pretty tall order for director Josh Boone, not only because the material was so heavy but because of the hype and the rabid following of this novel. I can think of at least 20 people that I know of that couldn’t help yapping about how good the book was before I even cracked the first page (I agreed with them wholeheartedly afterwards). Luckily, the filmmakers actually did a good job with it.

There is no shortage of quotable quotes in this movie and it was no wonder that the script followed the book almost exactly to the letter. Still, it wouldn’t have been as effective if they had not cast the right people for the right parts. I think they did, for everyone but Isaac, because despite saying the same words as his literary counterpart, movie Isaac (Nat Wolff) always seemed a beat short of everybody else, emotion wise, acting wise. I always thought of Isaac as somewhat spunkier than Wolff’s characterization.

On the other hand, Shailene Woodley as Hazel was awesome. As an actress, she has an uncanny ability to establish a unique chemistry with her co-stars that allows her to connect the characters better. She did this with Miles Teller in The Spectacular Now, and now Ansel Elgort in The Fault in our Stars. Its uncanny because she stars with both actors in the Divergent franchise as siblings (with Elgort) and nemesis (with Teller) and it didn’t seem weird watching them play different roles. There is a certain level of comfort in seeing them together in various roles. Woodley is definitely an actress to watch out for. As for Elgort as Augustus Waters, who has captured the hearts of women and teens the world over in the books, he did a pretty decent job portraying the iconic character, which was pretty difficult because Mr. Waters is totally swoon worthy.

I liked the great soundtrack that the film used (credit to Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott for the score). The selection of songs that were cool and hip countered the rather sad atmosphere that the subject of death always provides. I realize that for these young adult novel adaptations, I always watch out for excellent music (like The Perks of being a Wallflower) because it dictates the tone of the movie and for the most park, its what makes or breaks them.

The Fault in our Stars was a beautiful book with beautiful words that got readers to think about their own mortality. Watching the movie was not as thought provoking as reading the literature but it still managed to evoke the same feelings of happiness and heartbreak. It felt real on another level and that could be counted as a success for the big screen adaptation.

All in all, the movie was an even mix of sweetness, innocence, sadness, hope and love. Its a love story but its also about family, and coping, surviving, and dying.  Despite revolving around death, it was able to evoke something positive out of the sadness as it was tempered with a message filled with meaning, that everybody gets a fair shot at their own infinity like Hazel and Augustus but it is up to them to reach out and grab it. I must admit that real teens don’t communicate as philosophically as these two, but at least the movie shows the reality of what its like to deal with disease and one’s own mortality. And also there’s the peace with the closure. Personally, that makes the film a great big okay on my book. Okay?