Movie Review ~ The Divergent Series: Allegiant

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The Facts
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Synopsis: After the earth-shattering revelations of Insurgent, Tris must escape with Four beyond the wall that encircles Chicago to finally discover the shocking truth of what lies behind it.

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts, Jeff Daniels, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Keiynan Lonsdale, Jonny Weston, Mekhi Phifer, Daniel Dae Kim, Nadia Hilker, Bill Skarsgård

Director: Robert Schwentke

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  When Divergent was released in 2014, the hope was that it would be Summit Entertainment’s answer to The Hunger Games gauntlet thrown down by Lionsgate, a rival studio.  It wasn’t.  Actually, Divergent was so airless that when its sequel (Insurgent) rolled out a year later I didn’t even bother to see it.  What’s the point of continuing on with a series if the audience doesn’t really care about characters played by actors that don’t seem to care themselves about anything more than their paychecks and the perks of an international press tour.

In preparing for Allegiant, I went back and re-watched Divergent to see if my original feelings held up.  Boy, did they ever.  I still find Divergent to be a major bore, peppered with blank performances, spotty special effects, and a plot so convolutedly serpentine that it winds up feeling like it’s being made up on the fly and not adapted from the first in a series of bestsellers by Veronica Roth.  I continue to have a major problem with the violence towards women, grimacing each time the film finds our heroine getting beaten about the head and face by a male peer.

Since I’m never one to skimp on my homework, I gave Insurgent an overdue spin and to my surprise found it more than marginally better than its predecessor.  It’s still hopelessly devoid of point and general interest but with a new director (Robert Schwentke) and better special effects, the overall feeling of the series as a whole was that it was finding its footing (though I don’t feel like a series should ever need to take an entire first chapter to work out the kinks).

So going into Allegiant I was ready to see it improve upon the previous entry.  With the same director returning along with its cast made up of representatives of young Hollywood supported by several Oscar nominated/winning veterans there was surely hope to be had.

Wrong.  So very wrong.

First off is that Allegiant continues the unfortunate trend of studios with dollar-signs in their eyes and opting to split the final installment into two movies.  It worked for Harry Potter, it kinda worked for Twilight, and it definitely worked for The Hunger Games…but Allegiant is not destined to be put into any marginally successfully category because it’s actually the worst entry yet.  Instead of besting Insurgent, it falls far behind Divergent thanks to uninspired performances, downright lousy special effects, and the cold hard truth that the whole series is not about anything.

If you haven’t seen Insurgent yet, you best stop reading now because it’s impossible to discuss this one without letting a few spoilers slide by.

Jeanine is dead.  And Kate Winslet must have been so happy she wasn’t contractually obligated (like Ashley Judd seems to be) to appear in installments after her character was shot down by Evelyn (Naomi Watts, The Impossible, acting like her life depended on it in a brunette wig).  The message received at the end of Insurgent suggests that outside the wall that surrounds Chicago is a population waiting for the divergents to appear.  With the faction system breaking down and naysayers unlawfully executed, it’s more important than ever to scale the massive wall and hope that what’s outside is better than what’s inside.

When her brother (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars) is lined up to be next on the chopping block, Tris (Shailene Woodley, The Descendants) and Four (Theo James) escape with him and their friends (Zoe Kravitz, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now, and Maggie Q), literally walking up the wall through an electrified fence.  Before going over the wall, the screenwriters trim the escapees by one in a most unceremonious fashion…losing one of the more interesting characters is a bummer for us but good for them because they’re spared from what happens next.

Outside the wall is a wasteland, a fleshy red landscape irrigated by a red rain.  Why?  The film never says…probably because it just looks good and goes with the costume design. Salvation comes when the group is rescued and brought to what used to be Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, though it’s been redesigned to look like the first pass of architectural model by a grade school student with no eye for functionality.  Ruled by David (Jeff Daniels, The Martian, with sad eyes that tells us he can see his career fading) who’s focused on separating the “pure” from the “damaged”, a divide arises between Tris and her friends that will call into question their, um, allegiance.

To say more would be giving the wafer thin plot more time than it deserves.  It’s just a bridge between Insurgent and 2017’s Ascendant so really what’s the point of catching this one in the theaters?  It’s a waste of time and everyone onboard seems to know it.  Schwentke is coasting in his director’s chair…so much so that he decided to jump ship and not come back to finish the series.  The special effects look like they were from a computer game you’d play between commercial breaks of a new episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and the acting is absolutely dreadful.

Woodley has been someone I’ve kept an eye on for a while now but instead of getting more acclimated to her heroine role, she seems more uncomfortable than ever.  A solid dramatic actress she may be but an action star she’s not and never will be.  With her huge saucer eyes and dirty blond bob, she doesn’t even look the part.  James fares better as her love interest and brawn of the group, but the two have precious chemistry to suggest that we should care whether they wind up together or not.  Watts, Daniels, and Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station) feign attentiveness while Teller hams it up with one-liners that rarely drew much of a reaction from the nearly 500 audience members I saw this with.  And I can’t even go there with the dreadful extras that have been assembled.  All of them look like they’ve been recruited from a pep rally in a juvenile detention center.

As I was leaving the theater I was walking behind a major fan of the series that was shaking her head and exclaiming that the filmmakers totally ruined the series with this one…so you don’t just have to take my non-fan word for it that Allegiant is a lousy waste of space.

The Silver Bullet ~ Men, Women & Children

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Synopsis: A look at the sexual frustrations that young teenagers and adults face in today’s world.

Release Date: October 3, 2014

Thoughts: Earlier in 2014 Jason Reitman had what some consider his first real stumble with the coolly received Labor Day.  I was one of the few that seemed to absolve it from its awkward assembly and languid pacing because it’s clear that Reitman is a filmmaker that knows exactly what he’s doing and what he wants to say.  With October’s Men, Women & Children, Reitman is taking a page from the American Beauty experience and digging under the perfect veneer of a suburbia and its inhabitants.  With its tantalizing images played over a silky update of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”, I get the feeling Men, Women & Children has the potential to truly put Reitman on the A list if handled correctly.

Movie Review ~ The Fault in Our Stars

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Hazel and Gus are two teenagers who share an acerbic wit, a disdain for the conventional, and a love that sweeps them on a journey.

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Willem Dafoe, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Mike Birbiglia, Lotte Verbeek, Emily Peachey 

Director: Josh Boone

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: After reading several early rapturous reviews of John Green’s 2012 novel The Fault in Our Stars I, like all my good bandwagon hopping peers, snapped up a hardcover copy to say I owned it and then let it sit on the shelf where it gained a fine layer of dust.  When it was announced in 2013 that the film version of the novel was hitting theaters in 2014 I dusted off the book and carried it around with me with the best of reading intentions…only to see it make its way back onto the shelf, unread.

Suddenly, it’s 2014, I’m seeing the film in a week, and my guilty procrastinating personality kicks into high gear and I finally crack open the book.  The rest is history…the kind of superior reading experience that maybe I was always destined to have.  Green’s novel, told from the matter-of-fact perspective of a girl dying of lung cancer, was a humorous, heart-string tugger that never felt sorry for itself or resorted to cliché to keep its audience tearing through the pages.  In the novel, love is found between protagonist Hazel and charming Augustus at the very worst time…when death is standing at the door.

Too many films adapted from popular novels suffer by comparison because they either fail to capture what made the action on the page so special or change too much so the product is unrecognizable to fans.  That’s not the case here, thankfully, so while it does retain some of the more problematic passages that made the novel perfectly imperfect, its devotion to being faithful made me respect it even more.

I can’t say for sure, but had I not known while reading that Shailene Woodley (The Descendants, The Spectacular Now) was playing the lead I think I would have always imagined her in the role. As it is, after seeing Woodley’s sensitive take on the character I can’t imagine any actress out there today could have done the role justice as well as she does here.  As in the novel, Woodley’s Hazel is strong yet vulnerable, direct but caring, and wise well beyond her young years.  When she meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort, last seen playing Woodley’s brother in Divergent) in a cancer support group, she finds a kindred spirit that shows her she’s got a lot of living left to do…and wants to live it with her.

Director Josh Boone teams with screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber in bringing this sentimental tear-jerker to audiences without letting the film with such a melancholy subject feel too heavy.  The beats are all in the right place and the film enjoys a good hour of splendid magic before veering (like the novel) into a subplot that (like the novel) just didn’t work for me.  To say what this tangent is would be to betray what happens later in the film so I’ll merely say home is where the heart is.

As far as differences between the novel and the film, most are too small to report back on.  Even though the flash-forward opening moments of the movie had me on edge, it wasn’t the deal breaker it could have been in less devoted hands and thankfully, Boone and co. have figured out a way to smooth over (not change) the ending to be more cinematically sound.  As Hazel’s dad, Sam Trammell isn’t as weepy as the novel implies, bringing a welcome stoicism absent on the page that makes him more equal partners with his wife and daughter.  It’s hard to believe there was a time I wasn’t a fan of Laura Dern, never really warming to her performances.  However Dern (Smooth Talk, The Master, Jurassic Park) delivers moving work here as Hazel’s mom, further cementing my admiration for her talent.

Woodley and Elgort have chemistry for days, something the movie would have been D.O.A. without.  Largely thanks to Woodley’s earthy presentation of a dying girl and Elgort’s laid-back approach to a devil may care boy The Fault in Our Stars becomes more than a disease of the week three hanky weeper.  A well made film crafted by people who obviously cared about the book quite a lot, there’s little fault to be found here.  A nice bit of counter-programming for audiences already weary with effects heavy blockbusters.

 

Movie Review ~ Divergent

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In a world divided by factions based on virtues, Tris learns she’s Divergent and won’t fit in. When she discovers a plot to destroy Divergents, Tris and the mysterious Four must find out what makes Divergents dangerous before it’s too late.

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoё Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Kate Winslet

Director: Neil Burger

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 139 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  I knew from the early previews of Divergent that it was going to be derivative of several other films released in the past few years.  And hey, I get it, studios have been scouring the bookshelves of young adults for the next big thing and Veronica Roth’s bestselling trio of futuristic novels was a tantalizing treat that could capture males and females in that prime target market studios gnash their teeth for.

Trouble is, the film that’s been made out of Roth’s first novel winds up being so cobbled together from other, better, books/films that by the end of the numbing 139 minute running length audiences may feel like they’ve been barreled over by this Frankenstein of a film.  Considering the caliber of the cast and the impressively mammoth production design, that’s pretty depressing because had director Neil Burger and screenwriters Vanessa Taylor and Evan Daugherty trimmed some of the fat, a true franchise starter could have emerged.

You know the drill… a futuristic society that appears utopian really hides dystopian tendencies that threaten the lives of everyone.  The good are really bad and those considered bad are really good.  The opening narration from Beatrice (the usually stellar but oddly uncomfortable Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now, The Descendants) lets us know this world is divided into five factions and the time draws near for her to choose which group she wants to belong to.  Does she stay with the good Samaritan faction her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) raised her in, does she go with the one a never fully realized loopy test assigns her to, or does she choose her own path?

Without spoiling too much, Beatrice (soon to be just Tris, if you’re nasty) finds herself in a tribe that will challenge everything she knows to be true while putting her life at risk from the very people she thinks are her friends.  It’s a tricky set-up and the exposition of such is handled well…but it all seems to be in service to future films not yet greenlit.  That leaves newcomers to Roth’s world in a paint-by-the-numbers environment where everyone is exactly who they appear to be, though the film would have you think its throwing you off the scent at every corner.

Like Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games and its sequel, Tris is a symbol of heroism for young girls/women but unfortunately lacks the overall growth that made Everdeen such a relatable character that could cross gender lines.  Tris never seems to overcome her weaknesses and hang-ups, not helped by Woodley’s awkward approach.  I’m a big fan of Woodley and can’t quite decide if it’s her performance that I didn’t care for or the milquetoast character she’s bravely tackling.

Alarming in its violence, especially toward women, I never could figure out what kind of film Divergent was aiming for.  Equal parts Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Host, Beautiful Creatures, Vampire Academy, and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, it never breaks away from the pack to blaze its own trail.  Though a huge bulk of the film centers around Tris being brutally trained by faction leadership, there’s never a decisive moment when Tris takes her life into her own hands.  Though the make-up team ably shows the bruises and effects of her training, Woodley’s flowing locks seem straight out of a Pantene ad.

Rounding out the cast are Theo James, a Franco family look alike that is a surprisingly strong leading man for Woodley, Jai Courtney (Jack Reacher) as a tattooed ruffian keen on taking Tris down, Miles Teller (That Awkward Moment) as a classroom foe, and Ansel Elgort (Carrie) as Tris’s brother who makes an equally tough decision on his future.

Then there’s Kate Winslet (Labor Day) and here’s where I’m treading lightly.  You see, I’m a huge Winslet fan so saying anything bad about her is tantamount to breaking my own heart.  However, in her first attempt at villainy I found her wanting.  As a politicized blonde ice queen she’s not benign enough to share the bad with others and she’s never evil enough to justify our needing to see her taken down spectacularly.  I don’t think it’s necessarily her fault but Winslet has the star power to tailor the role to her talents.  Go bad or go home, I say.  Pregnant while filming, she’s almost always shown with a large notebook in front of her stomach and one close-up scene clearly is a reshoot with her hair and make-up not matching shots before and after.

As the intended start to a major franchise, Divergent doesn’t make the case for a sequel.  When the film was winding toward its conclusion, I realized that I had no investment in what happens next.  If the second book is adapted into a film, I’m hoping for a new team behind the scenes that will help move the film into an event that leaves audiences excited.  The cast is ready and willing…now the material just needs to be there.

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31 Days to Scare ~ Carrie (2013)

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: A reimagining of the classic horror tale about Carrie White, a shy girl outcast by her peers and sheltered by her deeply religious mother, who unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom.

Stars: Chloë Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Judy Greer, Portia Doubleday, Alex Russell, Gabriella Wilde, Ansel Elgort

Director: Kimberly Peirce

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  Here’s the cold bloody truth about this remake of Brian De Palma’s 1976 film adaptation of Stephen King’s book…it’s just totally unnecessary.  Now I’m not crazy about remakes in general, especially when they’re taking a film that was already well-respected to begin with – so the question must be “What will a new take on the film bring to the table?” 

When director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) was asked this question the answer seemed to be that her vision of King’s novel would follow the book more.  That’s a valid argument and we’ve certainly seen that King’s work can be interpreted different ways…one need only watch Stanley Kubrick’s big screen treatment of The Shining and compare it to the more faithful (but less interesting) television miniseries to see that the material lends itself to reinvention.

Knowing this, I still had reservations about seeing a new version of King’s famous story about a shy girl with a zealot for a mother that enacts a furious vengeance on her high school tormentors.  I just didn’t see any point to it…could Chloë Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass 2, Dark Shadows) have that same vulnerability Sissy Spacek so wonderfully tapped into?  Would Julianne Moore (Don Jon, Non-Stop) chow down on the role of Carrie’s fanatical mother with the same glee that Piper Laurie took?  And what of the final denouement at Carrie’s prom…without the benefit of De Palma’s use of split screen and Pino Donaggio’s tingling score could it have that same terrifying impact?

Sadly…this remake lives totally in the shadow of the original and doesn’t do itself any favors by not taking the kind of risks that Peirce seemed to promise.  While Moretz’s take on Carrie is less simpleton than Spacek’s, I have a continued desire to shout “Stop mumbling” whenever she’s on screen.  Kudos goes to Moore for going all the way with the crazed mama role, though Laurie ultimately remains the victor only because her mania was always simmering rather than boiling, though I have to say that Moore was probably the only choice for the role the way screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa have fashioned her.

Then again, I found myself at times wondering what I would have thought of the film if it hadn’t been a remake.  I’d have nothing to compare it to so it would have wound up being another high school set thriller with a decidedly interesting edge.  So it’s not so much that the film is bad, because with its unusually strong performances (including Portia Doubleday as queen bee Chris and Gabriella Wilde, Endless Love, as sensitive Sue) and controlled style it’s a perfectly decent, if uninspired, effort.

The other big problem is that the majority of the audiences know how it’s going to end.  That’s not just because they’ve  seen the original because I’d bet the majority of the young audiences won’t even know films existed before 1990, but because the trailers and posters have showed our young star bathed in blood and not enjoying her prom in the least.  In De Palma’s version, Carrie’s destruction of the prom was truly frightening as she has a mental break and uses her telekinetic powers to ensure no one gets lucky.  With Spacek’s wide-eyes peeking out from a blood streaked face, all she had to do was move her eyes and De Palma’s split screen showed the result.  No such invention is used here and that results in Carrie’s vengeance coming across as more calculated and decision-oriented.  Spacek simply lost it, Moretz is in control…and that changes our allegiances in some way.

In the grand scheme of things, this remake is not the worst that could befall an adaptation of a Stephen King novel (coughcoughTheLawnmowerMancoughcough) but I just wish that if they HAD to remake it…they had done it with a greater conviction and purpose.

The Silver Bullet ~ Carrie (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: A sheltered high school girl unleashes her newly developed telekinetic powers after she is pushed too far by her peers.

Release Date:  October 18, 2013

Thoughts:   My first impression of the remake of Carrie wasn’t too positive until I was set straight that director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) is going back to the source material for her version of Stephen King’s novel.  While the original film took a few liberties with the book, word on the street is that Peirce and screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa are paying attention to the tone and details that made King’s tome so popular over the years.  While the first trailer offered more of a tease at things to come, the second preview shows us stars Julianne Moore and Chloë Grace Moretz (Dark Shadows) in action as a mother-daughter duo with some serious issues.  Moore is the unhinged religious zealot with a telekinetic daughter (Moretz) who has a very unique prom night.  All of us remember the prom sequence but what I’ve always liked about the book and 1976 original was the strong framework that sets-up the final act – without that the story wouldn’t work so I’m hopeful Peirce uses her gift at creating alienation to good effect.  Originally planned for a March release, Carrie was wisely moved back to October to better place itself in the midst of Halloween horror fever…let’s hope it doesn’t get lost!