The Divergent Series: Insurgent


In the future there will be no chairs.

In the future there will be no chairs.

(2015) Science Fiction (Summit) Kate Winslet, Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Jai Courtney, Mekhi Phifer, Octavia Spencer, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Ray Stevenson, Naomi Watts, Jonny Weston, Daniel Dae Kim, Maggie Q, Suki Waterhouse, Rosa Salazar, Zoe Kravitz, Janet McTeer, Lyndsi LaRose. Directed by Robert Schwentke

These days, dystopian futures seem to be all the rage. No longer does one need to wear shades when viewing the future; we can look forward to darkness, pain, despair and hopelessness. I suppose how we see the future tells us a lot about how we view the present.

For those who don’t remember Divergent or the book series it was based on, the world has been beset by some sort of apocalyptic event and the population has been herded into Chicago and divided into factions according to their gifts – Erudite (intelligence), Amity (peace), Candor (truth), Dauntless (military) and Abignation (service), the latter of which was essentially wiped out at the end of the last movie. There are those who display none of the five qualities; those are called Factionless and live in abject poverty on the edge of society. There are also those who contain two or more qualities – they are called Divergents. Our heroine is one of these.

Speaking of our heroine, now that Tris (Woodley) and her lover Four (James) have foiled the plans of Jeanine (Winslet), the power-mad evil leader of the Erudite faction, they have taken refuge with the pastoral Amity along with Tris’ none-too-brave brother Caleb (Elgort) and the snarky Peter (Teller) who seems to live to push buttons. As for Amity, their leader Johanna (Spencer) is providing them shelter although she’s not entirely happy about it. Jeanine wants to round up the last of the rebellious Dauntless group that has split from the main group that is now commanded by the evil Eric (Courtney) but she seems far more obsessed with a metal box found in the wreckage of the home of Tris’ parents Andrew (Goldwyn) and Natalie (Judd) who both bit the big one in the first film.

That box contains symbols for all five of the factions and seems sealed with even the technology of Erudite unable to penetrate its secrets. Jeanine believes that the box contains a message from the Founders, one which will confirm her campaign to eliminate the Divergents although, ironically enough, it seems that only a Divergent can open the box by passing the simulations of all five of the factions. Naturally Four and Tris are pretty certain that Jeanine must not find out what’s in the box. In the meantime, Jeanine is having Eric and his Dauntless minions shoot nasty little tracking devices that can also allow Jeanine to control the subjects to the point of forcing them to commit suicide.

The odds against Tris and her remaining allies are formidable although she receives an unexpected ally in Factionless who are now being led by, of all people, Four’s mother Evelyn (Watts) who everyone belied was dead and had in fact faked her own death for reasons that are unbelievably flimsy. However, in order to save the Divergents who are being hunted down and forced to undergo the ordeal of the simulations which is killing them off in short order, Tris will have to go to the heart of the beast and face down Jeanine herself.

Somewhat ironically, Insurgent apparently diverges from Victoria Roth’s source novel fairly radically. Being as I’m not familiar with the books, I can’t say whether that’s necessarily a bad thing or not but I can say that the illogical world of the Divergent book series is so full of lapses and plot holes that it’s hard to believe that anyone buys any of this. Any rudimentary student of human nature knows that we are not just one thing; we are many, and to think that keeping all people with a common trait in a society is not a sure way to eliminate conflict. If anything, people with like ways of thinking tend to get in a lot more conflict

The action sequences are pretty good and the special effects are even better, particularly in the sim sequences. There’s definitely plenty of eye candy, particularly for young pre-teen and teen girls who will find young hunks James, Elgort, Teller, Courtney and Phifer making their hearts beat faster than the adrenaline-fueled action scenes.

Unfortunately, one of the movie’s main drawbacks is Woodley. She’s a fine actress as she’s shown in The Descendents but here…I don’t know. She’s supposed to be a strong female role model but she’s stubborn, makes really illogical and foolish choices that put those she’s close to in danger, she wallows in self-pity and she is known to panic occasionally. There are some that will defend her character as being admirable for overcoming her own human frailties and I have to acknowledge that as a salient point, but even so I never really admire Tris so much as feel dismayed by her. Woodley isn’t responsible for the way the character is written but she comes off as shrill here, which is not how Jennifer Lawrence comes off as Katness Everdeen, a female role model who is beset by self-doubt and fear just as much as Tris.

While some of the supporting characters have some depth to them – particularly Spencer and Kim as the leaders of their respective factions Amity and Candor, and Courtney as the deliciously evil Eric – the acting here tends to the scene chewing sort. I can live with that though ahead of the movie’s two most egregious sins; first, that in order for audiences to make sense of this movie you need to either be familiar with the first film or the book series. Those who aren’t are going to have a very hard time following this, so it doesn’t stand on its own very well. Secondly and perhaps more damning is that the movie follows the young adult franchise formula to the “T” – a plucky heroine of strong will is reluctantly put into a heroic role while deeply in love with hunky hero who steps aside to be second banana to his girlfriend who saves the day with her self-sacrifice and love for her man, not to mention wicked fighting skills.

Yeah, you’ve seen it all before and done better than this. This is definitely a step backwards from the more entertaining first film. I really can’t recommend it other than to those who really liked the first movie and are eager to see the franchise played out to its conclusion which, true to recent young adult book series form, will see the final book in the trilogy split into two movies. After this debacle, I’m not sure I want to see either of them.

REASONS TO GO: Some very intense action sequences. Some decent supporting performances by Courtney, Spencer and Kim.
REASONS TO STAY: A lot of over-acting. Requires that you either are familiar with the books or saw the first movie. Too much like other young adult franchises.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of action violence, some foul language and thematic elements and brief sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the first movie was filmed mostly in Chicago (where the action is set), the sequel was mostly filmed in Atlanta.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Host (2013)
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: People Like Us

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Much Ado About Nothing (2013)


There's nothing quite like a civilized after-dinner cocktail.

There’s nothing quite like a civilized after-dinner cocktail.

(2013) Comedy (Roadside Attractions) Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Sean Maher, Spencer Treat Clark, Riki Lindhome, Ashley Johnson, Emma Bates, Tom Lenk, Nick Kocher, Brian McElhaney, Joshua Zar, Paul Meston, Romy Rosemont, Elsa Guillet-Chapuis, Sara Blindauer. Directed by Joss Whedon  

When William Shakespeare wrote “the play’s the thing,” movies hadn’t been invented yet. I wonder if he had been born in modern times if he’d have written something different. Certainly the way that comedies and dramas are written have changed in the intervening years, not to mention how they’re performed – and received.

But some things haven’t changed – human nature, for one. We are as prone to meddling in each other’s lives as we always have been. We can still laugh at buffoonery. And love can still be found in the unlikeliest of places – and the unlikeliest of couples.

The Southern California home of Don Leonato (Gregg) is all abuzz. Don Pedro (Diamond) is coming to visit for a few weeks, his retinue including the young Claudio (Kranz), the somewhat malevolent Don John (Maher) and the soldier Benedick (Denisof). Leonato’s daughter Hero (Morgese) has goo-goo eyes for Claudio but her cousin Beatrice (Acker) has nothing nice to say about men in general but Benedick in particular. Beatrice and Benedick have a past but there is nothing but constant sniping at one another between them now.

Pedro, seeing the state of things, vows to help create a match between Claudio and Hero, who stands to inherit Leonato’s substantial fortune. On a lark, Claudio, Pedro and Hero decide to get Benedick and Beatrice together just because they think they can – only Don John has plans to sabotage everything.

Much Ado About Nothing has been described as Shakespeare’s love letter to love and it does seem to indicate that much of what is wrong with the world can be cured through the love of a good woman (or a good man). I can’t say I disagree; love is what makes this world bearable, with all the pettiness and dishonesty we all deal with on a daily basis. As human beings we are all flawed but it is in love that we find our noblest aspirations and features.

Whedon filmed this during a break in his Avengers duties and it seems to have re-energized him. He’s also been a long-time admirer of Shakespeare and conducts regular readings of his plays at his home, so the thought of a director as connected to sci-fi and comic book movies as Whedon is isn’t as radical an idea as it might seem.

Loving Shakespeare and capturing his essence are two entirely different things however. I’m definitely down with changing the setting from 16th century Messina to modern Santa Monica, and I’m even more down with filming the proceedings in glorious noir-ish black and white. I’m also for keeping the Bard’s original dialogue because you simply aren’t going to improve on that.

However, Shakespeare’s language has a certain rhythm that is very different than our own, and while I don’t think one has to be a stentorian Englishman in order to deliver it properly, you certainly have to be able to make it sound organic and authentic. Sadly, not all the actors were successful in that regard.

Fillion, as Constable Dogberry, is perhaps the most successful. Dogberry is comic relief through and through and Fillion gets the nature of the character as a bit pompous and a bit foolish but also a bit thin-skinned. He gets the subtlety of the character and so makes him the fool without making him a caricature. Acker, as Beatrice, also gets the nature of her character as well as the rhythms of the speech; while when certain actors say “How now?” with a bit of a smirk, she instead treats it as language she uses every day and that really is the secret – every word sounds natural coming out of her mouth.

 

I like the atmosphere of upscale SoCal hipster that Whedon creates here. It serves the play well, and while nearly all the action takes place in a single location, it never feels stage-y at all.  Whedon adds a lot of physical business that enhances the comedy nicely (as when Claudio intones “I would marry her were she an Ethiope” in front of an African-American woman whose expression is just priceless). Although Da Queen would have preferred a color presentation rather than black and white, I liked how it gave the movie a kind of timeless look.

Friends of mine who had trouble following some of the dialogue because it is in Elizabethan English still managed to love the movie in spite of it. Don’t let that keep you away though – I think you should be able to follow the movie just fine even if a few phrases and words might throw you every now and again – you’ll figure it out.

For those who aren’t into Shakespeare and wonder what all the fuss is about, this is a nice starting point. For those who love Shakespeare and wonder what sort of liberties have been taken, fear not – this is still the Bard, despite the modern setting which simply reminds us how timeless his wisdom and prose are. Any movie that can do both of those things for two different kinds of audiences is a winner in my book.

REASONS TO GO: Very funny in places. Some very good performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the actors really didn’t get the nuances or the rhythm of the language of Shakespeare.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some brief drug use as well as a bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was mostly filmed at Wheden’s own home over a 12 day period.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100; the critics liked this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Taming of the Shrew

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Family Tree

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring


 

The Lord of the Rings; Fellowship of the Ring

Now there’s an idea for the Kentucky Derby – arm the jockeys with swords.

(2001) Fantasy (New Line) Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Sean Bean, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Marton Csokas, Andy Serkis, Sarah McLeod, Peter McKenzie, Harry Sinclair, Sala Baker. Directed by Peter Jackson

 

There was much concern when it was announced that the classic Lord of the Rings trilogy was going to be made into movies that it be done right. Anything less than a classic movie would be heartbreaking to the millions of readers who love Tolkein’s work, let alone the smaller but very vocal crowd of the Middle Earth-obsessed.

Middle Earth is threatened by a grave power. A prologue shows us how, thousands of years prior to this story, a wizard king named Sauron (Baker) crafted a ring to dominate all the races of the land – human, elf and dwarf – and give Sauron ultimate power over Middle Earth. The bravery of Isildur (Sinclair), a human king, defeats Sauron’s plans; Isildur’s greed, however, causes the ring to escape destruction and allow Sauron to eventually return. The ring ultimately falls into the hands of an adventuresome hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Holm) who brings it home to Bag End, in the village of Hobbiton, where it remained dormant.

Now, it is many years later and Bilbo is readying for a massive party to celebrate his 111th birthday. His old friend Gandalf the Grey (McKellen), a powerful wizard, arrives to celebrate with a wagon chock full of wonderful fireworks, and is greeted by Bilbo’s nephew, the bookish Frodo (Wood). Bilbo is worn out, although he looks much younger than his years would indicate. He wants to see the Misty Mountain again, and dwell among the elves in peace so he might finish the book he is writing of his adventures, “There and Back Again.”

At the party, Frodo’s friends Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin (Boyd), get into mischief involving Gandalf’s fireworks, setting the tone for their roles in the tale. Bilbo makes a sudden and startling departure at the party’s conclusion, using the ring to become invisible. The wizard immediately realizes that there is much more to Bilbo’s ring than even he had realized. He confronts Bilbo and convinces his old friend to leave the ring to Frodo. Gandalf warns Frodo, “Keep it secret; keep it safe,” then rides off to find out the truth of this ring.

When Gandalf returns to Bag End it to urge Frodo to flee. Nine ghastly riders, the nazghul, have been dispatched to retrieve the ring, which by Gandalf has determined to be THE ring. Frodo’s friend, gardener Sam Gamgee (Astin) overhears some of the discussion and is confronted by Gandalf, who asks what he heard. “N-nothing important. That is, I heard a good deal about a ring, and a dark lord, and something about the end of the world, but please, Mr. Gandalf, sir, don’t hurt me. Don’t turn me into anything… unnatural.”

Sam is sent to accompany Frodo. The hobbits run into Merry and Pippin, who are pilfering vegetables from a farmer. The reunion, however, is brief; the hobbits are nearly discovered by one of the terrifying and mysterious riders nazghul.

In the human town of Bree, they meet the ranger Aragorn (Mortensen), who saves them from a disturbing attack from the nazghul, and sets out to lead them for the elven settlement of Rivendell. However, the nazghul catch up to them at Weathertop, an ancient fortress, where Frodo is stabbed with a poisoned blade. Aragorn drives off their foes and steps up the pace to go to Rivendell, desperate to save Frodo. They are met along the way by Arwen (Tyler), an elven princess and daughter of Elrond, who puts Frodo on her horse and rides a thrilling race against the murderous nazghul. Gandalf, in the meantime, has been imprisoned by Saruman (Lee), head of his order, whom he had gone to consult. Saruman, believing that Mordor cannot be defeated this time, has decided to ally himself with Sauron. Gandalf finally manages to escape, using a giant eagle to fly from Isengard, the wizard’s tower which is Saruman’s base, but not before learning that Saruman is breeding an army of Uruk’hai, a crossbreed of orc and goblin that have none of the weaknesses of either race and many of the strengths.

Elrond calls a council to determine the fate of the ring, and after some deliberation, decides to send a small party to Mordor, to Mount Doom itself, to destroy the ring. This despite the objections of Boromir (Bean), son of the Steward of Gondor, the ruler of that land in the stead of a king who is lost – a king who turns out to be Aragorn, who doesn’t want the job.

There is much arguing and distrust among the races as to who will bear the ring, but finally Frodo speaks up and declares that he will carry the ring to Mordor, though he doesn’t know the way. Gandalf pledges to assist him, as does Aragorn and Boromir, as well as an elven prince named Legolas (Bloom) and a warrior dwarf named Gimli (Rhys-Davies). Sam, Merry and Pippin also proclaim that they are going wherever Frodo goes. Thus is formed the Fellowship of the Ring (cue dramatic orchestral music).

On the eve of their departing, Arwen presents Aragorn with a token of her love; Aragorn begs her not to give it to him, knowing she would give up her immortality for his love, but she gives it to him nonetheless. The fellowship then departs for Mordor.

The way is hard. In a snowy mountain pass, Saruman attacks them magically, forcing them to go the one way Gandalf didn’t want to travel; underground, through the mines of Moria, where Gimli’s cousin rules.

After surviving the attack of a hideous kraken at the gates of the mines, the Fellowship travels into Moria, and it becomes obvious that the entire colony of dwarves has been massacred. They are attacked just then by orcs, goblins and a massive cave troll and when it appears they will be surrounded, something frightens the thousands of orcs and goblins off; it turns out to be a balrog, a fire demon from the depths of the earth. Gandalf fights off the balrog, but then is yanked off a precipice, and is lost to the Fellowship.

Disheartened, the survivors of the fellowship make their way into Lothlorien, stronghold of the high elves, where they are greeted by King Celeborn (Csokas) and the ethereal Queen Galadriel (Blanchett), who allow the weary travelers rest. After receiving gifts of elven cloaks, waybread and other items, the Fellowship resumes its journey, now by river.

At camp they are ambushed by the Uruk’hai, Boromir is confronted by his own weakness, and the Fellowship is broken, with one member giving his life in battle.

The Lord of the Ring: The Fellowship of the Ring is a captivating, compelling movie that is only the first step in a journey that will take us to the eventual fate of the ring, of those who bear it and of those who seek it as well. Given the performances here, it is easy to care very much about who gets there and in what shape they are in when they arrive. It is a journey we can all take together.

The visuals are stunning, jaw-dropping at the time this was released. The elven communities of Rivendell and Lothlorien are beautiful in an alien way, blending naturally with their forest environments. Hobbiton in the Shire, where Bilbo and Frodo live, looks exactly as I imagined it, calm, peaceful and rustic but with a hint of the English countryside implicit in every nook and cranny. The ruins of ancient kingdoms, statues of forgotten kings and warriors dot the journey’s landscape, giving the world an old and lived-in appearance. The attention to detail in establishing each individual place in the movie, each with its own specific character and feel, is nothing short of astounding.

Jackson has an epic palette to paint his picture, and he uses every color imaginable. The bright colors of the Shire contrast with the dark, stormy terrain of Mordor; the Elven territories are in a perpetual autumn, as their race prepares to leave Middle Earth, lending a further poignancy to the tale. Jackson obviously holds the source material in high regard, and stays as true to Tolkein’s words as is possible.

Wisely, the various characters are developed slowly, becoming who they are during the course of the movie. There is not a disappointing performance throughout; Mortensen carries a quiet intensity as Aragorn, McKellen a grandfatherly presence as Gandalf. The extras are well-cast, helping set the background tone in each location; folksy and a bit comic in Hobbiton, suspicious and tense in Bree, graceful yet sad in Lorien.

What makes this so successful a movie is what I would call a sense of place throughout; the architecture, scenery and characters all contribute to the overall mood. Middle Earth becomes a living, breathing place because of it, and the rich textures of Tolkein’s world come to life before our very eyes.

Overall, this can only be called a labor of love, and that love can clearly be seen on the screen in every frame. Jaw-dropping special effects and eye-popping scenery from the wilds of New Zealand dazzle at every turn. Howard Shore’s haunting score serves to enhance the film, and having Enya contribute a pair of vocalizations to the movie is a wise move; her ethereal voice is perfect for it. When this was released back in 2001, it not only met the high expectations of those anticipating (myself included) but exceeded them. It has, with its successors, become a true classic, a movie that I happily watch over and over again and enjoy almost as much as the first time I saw it.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing spectacle, faithful to the book and exciting and heartwarming all at once. A modern classic that still bears repeated watching.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you’re not into fantasy, you’ll surely hate this.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some scary images and an epic battle sequence that depicts plenty of hacking and chopping.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Most major films have from time to time more than one unit shooting simultaneously, generally just two or three. There were occasions when this production had as many as ten units shooting at once.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There have been several different releases of varying size of the film and there are so many different and fascinating features that listing them all for each edition would take up far too much space here.  Suffice to say that you will essentially have a choice of two different versions of the film; the two hour-plus theatrical release and the nearly four hour extended director’s cut. The latter only last month arrived as part of a box set to take advantage of the renewed Middle Earth fervor generated by the Hobbit trilogy, the first film of which arrives at Christmas this year. Even the bare bones DVD editions have plenty of wonderful features so that no matter which version you choose you’ll have plenty of things to occupy many hours of viewing time but the extended edition Blu-Ray has enough special features (some brand new) to make even the hardiest of Frodo fans faint.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $871.5M on a $93M production budget. The movie was a gigantic blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avatar

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Straw Dogs (2011)