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.

Movie Review ~ We Are Your Friends

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Caught between a forbidden romance and the expectations of his friends, aspiring DJ Cole Carter attempts to find the path in life that leads to fame and fortune.

Stars: Zac Efron, Wes Bentley, Emily Ratajkowski, Jonny Weston, Shiloh Ferhandez, Alex Shaffer, Jon Bernthal.

Director: Max Joseph

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The few times I saw the preview for We Are Your Friends, my head hurt.  Lots of flashing lights, quick edits, pounding music, and Zac Efron feeling the beat in a tank top under the California sun gave me little hope that the finished product would amount to much.  Then early reports indicated that the film was like Flashdance meets Saturday Night Fever with a dash of Cocktail…and I was officially sold. While the film starts off pretty rough for the first half hour or so, there’s something ultimately winning about it.

Efron (That Awkward Moment) headlines the picture as Cole, a DJ with a heart of gold struggling to break into the big leagues.  Living with a buddy (Jonny Weston, an annoyance in the beginning before graduating to valued asset) and working as promoters of a local club with two other friends (Shiloh Fernandez, Evil Dead, and Alex Shaffer) they live for the Thursday nights that are their reward for a job well done.

But, as in all movies with similar themes, they all dream of something more and the chance to “get out” and make something of themselves.  While the others all have admirable aspirations, it’s Efron that gets the focus as he makes the move from clap trap backroom DJ to working posh pool parties and headlining a summer music festival with his music.

Now, I know absolutely nothing about the DJ culture but I do understand that it’s more than just working two turntables and knowing when to scratch and mix the tunes together.  And, to its credit, the film makes an attempt to explain how it all works, but it’s not enough to clue most audiences in on what exactly is happening when Efron intensely turns one knob up high while turning another one down low.  The only thing we know, from Efron’s brow sweat and dilated pupils, is that it’s important stuff and he’s very good at what he does.

Being mentored by a DJ that many feel has sold out (Wes Bentley, Interstellar) has repercussions for the young upstart.  He learns to follow his internal turntable to churn out better music, yes, but also falls in love with the DJ’s assistant/girlfriend (Emily Ratajkowski, Gone Girl, Entourage, with lips like life preservers) in the process.  At the same time, he’s supporting himself by working for a shady real estate investor (Jon Bernthal, The Wolf of Wall Street), whose methods put him into an even greater emotional spiral.

What’s nice to report about the film is that it’s probably Efron’s best performance to date.  Ignoring a flawed attempt at emoting near the end (must every Efron movie feature him with tears in his eyes?) Efron ably carries the picture to success and seems at ease with the complexities of the DJ scene.  Passages between Efron and Bentley are the best of the bunch, with both actors doing solid work and never coming off as merely pretending to understand what they’re talking about…but actually believing it.

Music obviously plays a big part in Max Joseph and Meghan Oppenheimer’s script and with Joseph directing, the film feels alive with rhythm from the first frame until the last.  Again, I couldn’t tell you a good beat from a bad one but there are enough music consultants and musicians listed in the credits that I’m confident the movie hits all the right notes.  Brett Pawlak’s cinematography may favor lingering on sweaty body parts a little too much (one sequence covers every inch of Ratajkowski’s flesh several times over) but generally it’s a nice mix of California sun and hypnotic club lights.

Owing a lot to the aforementioned Cocktail, the movie may find itself becoming a guilty pleasure down the line.  It’s relatively inoffensive and pleasant enough to not hold too many of its faults against it, buoyed by Efron’s considerable charisma and Bentley’s commanding performance.

The Silver Bullet ~ Welcome to Yesterday

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Synopsis: A group of teens discover secret plans of a time machine, and construct one. However, things start to get out of control.

Release Date: February 28, 2014

Thoughts: Brace yourself for another ‘found footage’ film that looks like a cross between Chronicle and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones.  Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company is releasing Welcome to Yesterday and is hanging their hat on the hopes that audiences are still down for a shaky cam experience.  Me?  I’m kinda sorta mostly probably over it, though I still find myself trying my hardest to go into these formula films assuming positive intent.  What does these films in isn’t always the filming style but that the subjects are beyond annoying…if Welcome to Yesterday has characters we can get behind (like Chronicle) then it may be worth remembering tomorrow.