The Giver

A cool blue young adult sci-fi romance scene.

A cool blue young adult sci-fi romance scene.

(2014) Science Fiction (Weinstein) Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Odeya Rush, Taylor Swift, Cameron Monaghan, Emma Tremblay, Renate Stuurman, Vanessa Cooke, John Whiteley, Kira Wilkinson, Jefferson Mays (voice), Jaime Coue, Thabo Rametsi, Vaughn Lucas, Meganne Young, Katharina Damm. Directed by Phillip Noyce

Utopias aren’t everything they’re cracked up to be. In fact, there are those who believe that the human animal is incapable of living in a Utopian society for very long; we’re apt to mess it up entirely because we can’t be trusted.

In a Utopian future, war, poverty and hunger have been abolished. People live a peaceful existence in the Community. They take their medication every day, are admonished to speak with a precision of language, apologize for every possible perceived mistake and accept the apologies of others, and live in a world free of color and powerful emotions.

It is a world in which wise elders make the decisions that determine the shape of your life. After a period of nurturing (kind of like schooling) they are given their jobs – mostly tasks like gardening, drone piloting and for certain women, birth giving. There is no Big Brother but a Chief Elder (Streep) smiling benevolently on her flock.

Three friends – Jonas (Thwaites), Fiona (Rush) and Asher (Monaghan) – are eagerly awaiting the ceremony that will elevate them from childhood into productive adult lives. They are all smiling, happy sorts who are satisfied that their lives are going the way they should be.

At the ceremony, Fiona is given nurturer (basically the care giver for babies until they are assigned to a family) as expected and Asher – the class clown – is given drone pilot, monitoring both the Community and the territory beyond the boundary which is barren and uninhabited. However, oddly, Jonas is skipped over. Jonas’ mom (Holmes) – the security chief of the Community and one of the Elders – and Dad (Skarsgard), essentially the community’s doctor, exchange puzzled, troubled looks but at last Jonas is given a tremendous position at the end of the ceremony. He is to become the new Receiver of Memories.

Since the world basically fell apart and the Community sprung out of it, all memories of what preceded the Community have been deliberately removed from the population. Only one man, the Receiver, is allowed to possess those memories and from time to time, use them to advise the Elders on matters that fall outside the normal range of happenings.

The current Receiver doesn’t just tell the new one the tales of the distant past like some sort of Homer. Instead, he clasps hands with the new Receiver and the memories are transferred to him, in this case Jonas. That makes the old Receiver, Jonas tells him wryly, the Giver (Bridges).

The memories change Jonas. They begin to revive color as he sees colors that the memories identify as Red, then Blue, then Yellow. The primaries begin to combine and a whole palette is revealed to a wonder-filled Jonas. That’s not all Jonas receives though; he begins to experience emotions and stops taking his medication which further allow him to experience everything that’s new. His training allows him to lie because the Receiver must conceal these things from the members of the Community.

He discovers things like snow, which doesn’t exist in the climate-controlled Community, and sledding. He also discovers love, which doesn’t exist in the Community and whose concept is confusing to those he tries to explain it to. He soon realizes one thing – he’s falling in love with Fiona, and she might be falling in love with him.

But that’s not all that Jonas discovers. Conformity is everything in the Community and not everybody conforms easily. The Giver who is certainly a non-conformist has been tolerated because of his position but there have been tragedies. Things happen to the babies who don’t meet the minimum weight and length and a baby named Gabriel that Jonas has begun to develop a great deal of affection for may be targeted for those things.

Jonas realizes that the people have had too much removed from them, including their freedom but more importantly the essence of who they are. He will try to save Gabriel from being removed from the community – and at the same time removing himself to pass the barriers of memory. Once he does, the Giver believes that all those memories, emotions and colors will be restored to the Community members. And the Chief Elder will do anything to keep that from happening.

Based on the beloved young adult novel by Lois Lowry, Australian director Noyce takes on a book that is fairly complex and full of metaphors. He’s not always successful here. The look of the film is pretty exciting. The film switches from black and white at the beginning, slowly adding colors as Jonas’ perception begins to expand. The effect isn’t unlike the dining rooms on the Disney cruise ships that change from black and white to color over the course of the meal.

Bridges, resembling the late James Coburn in looks here, has been a huge admirer of the book and has been trying to get the movie made since the 90s, at the time with his father Lloyd in the title role that he plays in the final version. You can see him channeling his Dad, down to the way he clips the dialogue into groups of phrases the way his Dad did. It’s actually kind of sweet.

Streep, allowing herself to look older with little make-up and long silvering hair, doesn’t get a lot of screen time but she has that polite menace that have made certain villains memorable. Like all of the citizens of the Community, she stays on a fairly even keel most of the time.

Therein lies the challenge of the movie. The very essence of the community is emotionlessness. It’s the whole point for its existence. That’s great on the printed page but in a movie, it turns into a bunch of Stepford teens. The overwhelming politeness makes you want to do something unbelievably rude just to get these people to react. I don’t doubt that’s the effect the filmmakers were going for but it can be distracting when you’re trying to follow a story that’s plenty deep as it is.

I haven’t read the book although I’m told it’s amazing so I’m not sure how closely this sticks to the narrative – again, I’m told that it is fairly close but there is some material that is new to the movie. There are some issues that I have with the logic of the overall concept. For example, what’s the need to eliminate the perception of color from the citizens of the Community? I understand the metaphorical reason, but it seems a bit unnecessary. Perhaps I’m just being dense.

Also near the end, after seeing bicycles as the only means of transportation for the whole movie, motorcycles suddenly show up. And not only does Jonas ride the motorcycle (apparently he has the memory for it), he’s able to make a nearly impossible jump from the Community down to the badlands outside the barrier – all with a baby mounted on the front of the bike. Jonas may have the memory of how to ride a motorcycle and even how to jump a motorcycle but he doesn’t have the memory of how to defy physics. The baby should have gone flying like a football through the uprights. Three points!

I like the look of the movie; the Community is clean and futuristic and park-like, while the Giver lives on the outskirts in a mansion that looks not unlike a Romanesque temple that overlooks the clouds and a single tree visible beyond the barrier. It’s visually striking.

Still, despite that I left the movie feeling somewhat unfulfilled. Not that it isn’t entertaining nor can I say with absolute certainty that this is a movie you should avoid seeing. It has its merits. However, I can’t say with absolute certainty that most viewers are going to appreciate and enjoy the movie either. Most folks, I think, are going to react much the same as I did – neither liking nor disliking the film, but not remembering much of it after the final credits are over. For a movie about memories, there’s a certain irony in that.

REASONS TO GO: Streep and Bridges are terrific as always. Some interesting visuals.
REASONS TO STAY: Lapses in logic.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild violence and some mature thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep shot some of her scenes in England (the rest of the film was shot in South Africa while she was shooting Into the Woods.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100.


Waltz with Bashir (Vals Im Bashir)

Waltz with Bashir

Smoke on the water, fire in the skies…

(2008) Animated Feature (Sony Classics) Starring the voices of Ari Folman, Ron Ben-Yishai, Ori Sivan, Ronny Dayag, Shmuel Frenkel, Zahava Solomon, Dror Harazi, Mickey Leon, Yehezkel Lazarov. Directed by Ari Folman


War is often ascribed certain characteristics that certain segments of society deem glorious. In truth, war is an entirely different experience for those who actually fight it. Only generals and civilians can admire war; those in the trenches rarely do.

This is a unique combination between documentary and animation; the voices we hear are those of the actual participants, including Folman the director. What occurs is that one of Folman’s friends, Boaz (portrayed here by Leon) has been having this unnerving recurring dream of being chased by 26 dogs, all threatening and all menacing. Boaz believes that this dream is connected with his service in the First Lebanon War in which both he and Folman fought in the Israeli army.

In Folman’s case, he can’t remember anything about his time in the war. He seems to have blacked it all out. Determined to fill in the blank spot, he contacts other soldier friends, a psychologist and a reporter. He begins to suss out memories of the massacre of Muslim and Palestinian civilians by the Christian Phalangist militia members in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps which were carried out in response to the assassination of Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel by a terrorist who was later thought to be acting on the orders of Syrian intelligence (although at the time that wasn’t known).

The more Folman digs, the more he discovers about his role in the war. However were those memories truly his or were they inventions of his guilty conscience of being aware of what was going on in the refugee camps without taking action to stop the genocide of innocents?

The massacre is a very sensitive topic in both Israel and Lebanon (where this film is officially banned to this day). The investigation into it by the United Nations has not painted a pretty picture about the Israeli military or the government of Lebanon. There is evidence that the Israeli military, while not active in the massacre, was at the very least complicit in the crime and was fully aware of what the Phalangists were up to.

Here in the United States we are woefully ignorant of what goes on in the rest of the world when we are not directly involved. I can’t say I knew much about the First Lebanese War nor anything about the massacre before seeing this film. The images here are both stark and dream-like. Folman spent three years animating this film with an entire staff of eight animators (a single character in a Hollywood animated feature will often utilize dozens of animators) and while it might look otherwise, not a single frame was rotoscoped (a style of animation in which the animation is drawn over filmed content for a realistic look – Ralph Bakshi’s work is an example of this type of animation).

Folman uses color to an advantage, often changing the palette to underscore powerful images. Those images are often brutal, sometimes comical but almost always compelling. The one real issue I have with the film is that the movie can move from hyper-real to surreal in the blink of an eye, which can be jarring. Of course, in this instance, dreams and reality merge to a certain extent to form memory and who’s to say which is which?

This is a powerful movie that may not necessarily be for everyone; some of the imagery is graphic ad disturbing. It was nominated for a Best Foreign Language film Oscar and could ┬áhave easily have gotten Best Picture and Best Animated Feature nods as well. It remains a massive critical favorite and is one of the most important films to come out of Israel in the last decade. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea but should be at least considered for viewing for those who are looking for powerful movie viewing experiences.

WHY RENT THIS: Gripping and horrifying. Unique animation style. The ending is intensely powerful.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The intensity may be too much for some. Occasionally moves from the hyper-real to the surreal without warning.

FAMILY VALUES: Even though this is an animated feature, it is not for kids – there are scenes of wartime atrocities, graphic sex, brief nudity, extreme violence and some disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first animated feature to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a Q&A session with director Folman from an unnamed screening or festival screening of the film; there’s also a nifty featurette on the process that went into the unique animation style of the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11.1M on an unreported production budget; chances are the movie made back it’s production costs.



NEXT: Silverado