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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Movie Review ~ Olympus Has Fallen

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Disgraced former Presidential guard Mike Banning finds himself trapped inside the White House in the wake of a terrorist attack; using his inside knowledge, Banning works with national security to rescue the President from his kidnappers.

Stars: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Dylan McDermott, Ashley Judd, Melissa Leo, Rick Yune

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s been said that timing is everything and if that’s true then the producing team behind Olympus Has Fallen should have listened to that wise old saying when it came time to release their film concerning a hostile takeover of the White House.  Released back in March at the height of tensions between North Korea and the US, the film did respectable business but was nowhere near the type of pre-summer hit that everyone involved must have hoped for.

Truth be told, I’m not sure that the final product would have ever really caught on regardless of when it was released because it’s a largely goofy affair that scores highly on the tension scale but exhausts itself and the audience with melodramatic acting and far too many extraneous plot happenings.  Opening in the shadow of July’s similarly themed White House Down, Olympus never really rises from the ashes of a been-there, done-that vibe that would have seemed more at home in a season of 24.  Oh wait…24 DID do nearly the exact same plot in its second to last season.

Poor Gerard Butler just can’t catch a break when it comes to films.  Though critics may make you think otherwise, he’s never been a true box office draw and a parade of stinkers in the last two years hasn’t helped his clout in Hollywood.  Olympus Has Fallen is probably his best film of the bunch, mostly because it allows Butler’s more macho/muscular streak to emerge rather than bear the weight of the romantic comedy nightmares he’s been stuck in recently.

Here Butler is a former guard to the President, a role he loses after an iffy opening sequence set on an icy bridge involving the First Family.  It’s never adequately explained how/why he gets bumped down a few notches on the Secret Service totem pole but it helps set up his redemption later in the film.  Now he’s a paper pusher with a nice view of his former office from his standard D.C. digs.

When a terrorist attack leaves the White House in shambles and the President and his staff held hostage in an underground bunker, it’s up to Butler to perform a one-man rescue mission by any means necessary.  The bulk of the first half of the film is taken up by the seemingly endless infiltration on 1600 Penn Ave by Korean militants that want the US to pull out of the DMZ between North and South Korea.  To do so would surely mean the fall of South Korea but with the fate of our nation’s leaders at hands what choice do we have.

These kinds of films where US governments are held hostage by a foreign entity always make me squirm because the movies always go the same.  It’s clearly stated that we do not negotiate with terrorists but when you flash a loved one in danger everyone always buckles.  The body count in this one is high which adds some extra suspense in who truly will survive by the time the credits roll.

Working in what must have been left over set pieces from The West Wing, director Antoine Fuqua moves the action around with ease even though most of it takes place in shadowy darkness.  It becomes hard to tell who is who…but when it’s just one man against the bad guys…you just need to focus on Butler and his bone-crushing methods of extracting information about the head villain in charge.

The big bad wolf is Rick Yune (Die Another Day) as one of the least intimidating villains in recent memory.  Though he doesn’t hesitate to put a bullet into more than a few people, Yune’s calm delivery seems more sleepy that sociopathic.  On the opposite side of the hero coin, Aaron Eckhart’s (The Dark Knight, Erin Brockovich) President Asher is underused and not called on to do much but play on his All-American looks to cut a believable presence as the Commander in Chief.

Filling out the cast are several overly earnest performances that never seem to gel with each other.  Morgan Freeman (Oblivion, Now You See Me) is the Speaker of the House that’s thrust in charge when both the President and Vice President become indisposed.  Freeman’s played the President before (in 1998’s Deep Impact) and he’s largely recreating that role here.  Dylan McDermott and Ashley Judd pop up in pivotal roles and poor Radha Mitchell is the victim of overstuffing the turkey as Butler’s wife.  This whole storyline between Butler and Mitchell has nothing to do with the plot and bogs the film down.

Two respected actresses are also on hand and both are fairly disappointing.  Angela Bassett (This Means War) has little to do but give off of looks of both horrified terror and ballsy determination as the Secret Service Director.  With each passing role Bassett seems more determined to simply toe the line and not step out of her comfort zone.  Even worse is Oscar winner Melissa Leo (Oblivion) in an atrocious wig offering line deliverers that seem to be coming via satellite based on the way she pauses before each one.  Leo growls and howls through most of the film…culminating in her unintentionally hilarious recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in pained agony.  For my money, the actresses should have swapped roles…I’m slightly convinced they mistakenly were given the wrong roles and no one noticed until it was too late.

Even with its silly plot contrivances and less than stellar special effects the film does truck along with reckless abandon that entertains more often than not.  You absolutely have to check your brain at the door and be prepared for some slightly tacky moments near the end when people start cracking jokes while standing in the middle of a sea of dead bodies.    A rental at best, Olympus Has Fallen may eventually get the job done but you’ll have to decide for yourself if it’s really worth it at the end of the day.