Movie Review ~ Voyagers

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The Facts:

Synopsis: With the future of the human race at stake, a group of young men and women embark on an expedition to colonize a distant planet. But when they uncover disturbing secrets about the mission, they defy their training and begin to explore their most primitive natures.

Stars: Colin Farrell, Lily-Rose Depp, Tye Sheridan, Fionn Whitehead, Archie Madekwe, Chanté Adams, Quintessa Swindel, Madison Hu, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Viveik Kalra

Director: Neil Burger

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: It’s an odd thing to look over the IMDb credits for director Neil Burger and see just how many of his films have found eerie similarities in other work.  Though it technically came out first, 2006’s The Illusionist is often dwarfed in memory by Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige which also featured dueling magicians and a woman that causes trouble between them.  The surprise 2011 hit Limitless may have secured some box office clout for Bradley Cooper but it had all the calling cards of a Luc Besson film just without the Frenchman’s guts to go truly wild.  Burger was behind the start of the Divergent series which was on shaky legs even in 2014 when it suffered big time comparisons to The Hunger Games, and this was before it released two more Burger-less sequels that were so bad they didn’t bother to even make the last movie.  Remaking the French blockbuster The Intouchables as The Upside in 2017 seemed like a ghastly prospect but while Burger’s take was harmless it made so much money that who directed it didn’t seem to matter much.

That brings us to Voyagers, which won’t remind you so much of any movie you’ve seen recently but perhaps a book you may have trotted out during quarantine.  Plenty of reviews of Burger’s new sci-fi yarn will correctly label it as Lord of the Flies set in space but to just put it in that ready-made box is doing a disservice to William Golding’s 1954 morality barometer disguised as a dystopian novel as well as this Lionsgate production which is entertainment at its coldest and most obvious.  Yes, it follows an uprising that divides two factions of young adults left to fend for themselves in a solitude from which there is no hope of escape, but Burger doesn’t forget what his job is in this concoction.  His audience isn’t at home under the covers reading a browning paperback by flashlight.  They’re in a theater (if you’re into that kind of thing being fully vaccinated and/or masked up) where this film opens on Friday or, as Voyagers will be in several weeks, in their homes waiting for the fun to begin.

With the Earth’s resources being depleted at a rapid rate, scientists continue to explore the boundaries of space for signs that there could be another planet humans could survive on.  Forty years from now, that planet is found but it will take another 86 years to get there.  A crew will need to be assembled to travel to this new world and report back what they find, but due to the time it will take to get there the crew that starts out the mission won’t be the ones that actually make the discovery…their grandchildren will.  Unable to find a crew of thirty to make that commitment, the team behind the mission resort to conceiving them via IVF with, ahem, contributions from the best and brightest minds of the day.

Watching over these children as they grow (literally) is Richard (Colin Farrell, Dumbo) a scientist that winds up being the sole chaperone when the young crew finally enter space and begin their journey.  Ten years later, the group are now teens that go about their daily ship business with a detached efficiency that’s only upset after Christopher (Tye Sheridan, Mud) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk) stop taking ‘the blue’, a daily dose of liquid they discover has a mood controlling and sensory dulling drug added in.  Free to finally feel for the first time, the rest of the squad follows suit including Sela (Lily-Rose Depp, Tusk) the pretty chief medical officer that’s both a confidant to Richard and his bridge to the other teens.  Sela also begins to catch the eye of the newly hormonal Christopher and Zac, both fueled by alpha male frustration that’s built up for quite some time. 

After an accident leaves them stranded, on their own, and unable to communicate with Earth, at first the niceties of protocol are followed until Zac and others (including Midsommar’s Archie Madekwe) realize that no one is going to hold them accountable for stepping out of line.  They’ve been bred to produce and that’s all so why not take as much as they want, when they want it, while they can?  This pits former friends against one another and forces all to take sides.  The wider the division gets, the larger the danger of everyone losing in the end becomes.   

It’s easy to be a bit confused by Voyagers at first glance.  The trailers make it look like a clunky C-list castoff you’d settle on when all else fails and the poster gives off the impression it’s more of an erotic trip into teen space angst.  So I was surprised that the first half of the film gets off to a rather crackling start, luring the audience in with an engaging premise and laying the groundwork for an intriguing mystery that might factor into the plot (I won’t spoil it).  Burger takes his time with things…at first.  Rather suddenly, however, the rushing begins and the time between realization and full on knowledge of the facts shortens considerably for everyone in the film.  Everyone just seems to “know” what things mean the moment they see them, or if they don’t, they understand it quickly and these leaps are more for the plot to continue to make haste than anything else.

It’s also a bit uncomfortable to watch the teens embrace their hormones with such vigor – one character goes from touching a girl’s shoulder to pretty much honking her breast in an instant.  I know none of them have experienced these sensations before, but have they never read a book or learned about etiquette?  It’s like the scientists taught the boys everything but how not to fondle girls and taught the women all about plant hydroponics yet skipped over the “no means no” conversation.  The male dominance of it all was a bit suffocating and if Burger had just given one female a bit of the nasty business to do instead of relegating it all to the guys it might have come off better.  As it is, the females become galactic wallpaper, aside from the standout Chanté Adams (Bad Hair) as a strict-rule follower that won’t be silenced by the bullies that have risen to power.  While we’re talking about the cast, Sheridan comes across like he always does…perfectly fine but terribly shallow.  If you ask me, Depp reminds me more of her model turned actress mother Vanessa Paradis than her much in the news Oscar-nominated father, and that’s not a bad thing in the least.  The standout in the cast is Whitehead who achieves a goal of creating an oily villain that you can easily root against – none of this ‘redeeming quality’ nonsense.

Despite some sag in the middle which shows some areas where the 108-minute film could be trimmed a bit, Burger gets to a fairly lively final act quite nicely.  While the effects aren’t going to win any awards, for a film of this size and with a cast of this caliber (no shade here, all are decent and acquit themselves nicely in roles that carry troublesome moments throughout) they mostly look good but I’d imagine they’d appear crisper in a theatrical setting.  For fans of sci-fi or space like myself, Voyagers is a worthy watch but know that it’s purely surface level material that is good for a distraction and little more. 

Movie Review ~ The Upside

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A comedic look at the relationship between a wealthy man with quadriplegia and an unemployed man with a criminal record who’s hired to help him.

Stars: Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman, Genevieve Angelson, Aja Naomi King, Julianna Margulies

Director: Neil Burger

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’m going to level with you and let you know that for the most part remakes are just not my cup of tea.  I just don’t see the point of the exercise so unless you are going to go your own way (hello, Suspiria), then I’d rather filmmakers spend their time on creating new work.  Don’t even get me started on American remakes of foreign films, just another way Hollywood plays into the notion that audiences won’t sit for two hours reading subtitles.  Box office notwithstanding, there are but a few examples where an English film has surpassed its international counterpart but there are times when a movie makes the leap over the ocean to our shores without tarnishing our good memories of the original.

Thankfully, The Upside is an example of the happy path a film can take when translated and it has arrived in theaters by the skin of its teeth, nearly lost indefinitely due to a controversy within its production house that delayed its release for nearly a year.  Originally set to be distributed by The Weinstein Company, when the scandal involving Harvey Weinstein sent waves through Hollywood their slate of films set for release were canned and sold off to other studios.  It’s unfortunate The Upside suffered under this melee because, while imperfect, it’s largely an audience pleasing dramedy that feels like the kind of critic-proof feel-gooder that could be a sleeper hit if audiences bite.

Based on Olivier Nakache & Éric Toledano’s The Intouchables from 2011, this is a fairly faithful adaptation of the original work with some modifications that I felt were improvements…but more on that later.  The set-up is still the same: mega-millionaire Phillip (Bryan Cranston, Trumbo) is a quadriplegic looking for a new care-giver who chooses recent parolee Dell (Kevin Hart, The Wedding Ringer) against the advice of his executive (Nicole Kidman, Boy Erased) because he’s the least qualified for the job.  The two are a mismatched pair with Aretha Franklin loving Dell clashing with opera-fan Phillip in fairly benign ways.  As Dell learns more about responsibility after largely being absent from his own son’s life and Phillip gets a new lease on living via Dell’s tough love methods, the two form exactly the bond you expect but don’t arrive there in quite the way you’d think.

Director Neil Burger (Divergent) and screenwriter Jon Hartmere have tinkered with the story, removing some of the more white savior-esque moments from the original which just wouldn’t have gone over well in this age where everything is under a different microscope.  Dell is more of a fleshed out character than his French counterpart was, there’s less imposed upon him but rather he is the driving force in many of the key developments of the movie.  There’s also an interesting splitting of one character into two (kinda) and the insertion of a tense scene between Phillip and woman played by Julianna Margulies (Ghost Ship).  With movies like Green Book running afoul of the PC police, I feel The Upside slides by largely without incident.  In the end I guess you could unfairly boil it down to it being about a rich white guy somewhat educating, and by proxy being educated by, a poor black man but the movie rises above that antiquated trope largely on the strength of its casting.

We talk a lot about chemistry in the movies and how hard it is to come by and it’s clear at this point that Hart can create chemistry with just about any costar you put him with.  Cranston has his moments as well but Hart is what really fuels the film even when it teeters into preachy schmaltz or cornball familiar territory.  He’s dialed his routine down a few notches but that hasn’t diminished his delivery or screen energy.  It’s not hard to see why there was early buzz on his performance being a bit of a revelation.  Confined to a wheelchair and not able to move his extremities, Cranston can only use his face to sell the scenes and it turns out that restraint works wonders for coming across less earnest.  Though saddled with a wig that always seems like it needed to be brushed, Kidman’s tightly wound exec gets to cut loose a few times, though some developments later in the film feel a tad underdeveloped (if not wholly underwritten).

It’s surprising to me how popular The Intouchables remains seven years after its release.  It was the second biggest film in France that year and last time I checked it was #40 on IMDb’s list of Top 250 films…ahead of Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I quite liked the film that inspired The Upside and was surprised at how easy this remake went over with not just me but the audience I screened it with.  The laughs were where they should be and, as expected, when the credits rolled it was met with enthusiastic applause.  This says to me that audiences won’t be swayed by critics thumbing their nose at this decently entertaining buddy film.  I’d still suggest watching the original but if you’ve given that one a spin then there’s no downside to seeking out The Upside.

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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