Category Archives: Movies

Gone Girl

Gone Girl is one of those movies that grew on me — I started indifferent to Ben Affleck’s presence and to dialogue that sounded too scripted and not organic enough, yet soon enough the film drops into a fairly straightforward engrossing plot that then remarkably shifts gears at the midpoint and becomes…. something else… and yet this turn of events leads to the kind of conclusion that now disturbingly sticks with me even a few hours after the final credits rolled and I suspect will continue to grow over time. (Accordingly, it’s one of those movies that, the less you know going in, the better.)

The film plays with perspective and truth a great deal, although by movie’s end we have a decent understanding of the most important facts of the story. It’s unclear for a while how reliable the different narrators are, and meanwhile there’s an underlying interplay with the US media which is constantly spinning stories and judging people in the court of public entertainment. What is guilt and innocence but the stories we spin based on the facts we find most interesting and that resonate with core feelings within ourselves? The movie highlights how fictions are not merely the product of the spinners but the audience as well, by how they respond to and modify the narratives with their own energy. Everyone is complicit in the convenient twisting and pillaging of the facts, until public opinion and cultural narrative become the only story that matters.

There are some scary channelings going here: Missy Park is like Nancy Grace’s twin sister, both Affleck and the plot borrow strongly from the Scott Peterson debacle over the murder of his wife Laci, and even Carrie Coon reminds me a bit of a less quirky Joan Cusack. Tyler Perry is particularly at ease at spinning a likable amalgam of every high-profile defense attorney we’ve seen in the media, without the whiff of snake oil. (Even more remarkable is his claim in interviews that he would have likely walked away from the movie if he had known who David Fincher was or the popularity of the book, as he brings an effortless good-naturedness to his role that helps anchors the film.) The only unfortunate casting for me was Neil Patrick Harris (Barney, Dr. Horrible), as I kept imagining to be inwardly smirking over his most serious lines, but that’s a minor quibble.

The movie spends some time exploring the question of who Nick Dunne is — a wonderful husband unjustly accused, a narcissistic philanderer who removed an inconvenient spouse, or something else? But it’s the movie’s opening question that grows to dominate the movie: Who was/is this woman named Amy Elliot Dunne AKA Amazing Amy? Gone Girl is ultimately focused on the questions of who we are, what we want, and who we will pretend to be in order to get them.

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Oculus

As far as horror movies go, Oculus is a decent example of what you can do with a small cast, limited set, and reduced budget. (Oculus rang in somewhere around $5 million and already has made 5-6x that much.) The uncomplicated color pallete remains effective; the minimalistic soundtrack (quietly relentless) becomes unnerving. All the acting is solid, although its Karen Gillan’s unapologetic candor as the older sister Kaylie that really sells the movie.

The storyline is simple. A rehabilitated psychiatric patient is reminded by his sister of his promise to help her destroy the evil mirror that caused their parents’ deaths and originally committed him. Act I manages to keep us teetering between which sibling is actually crazy; Act II then plays out the endgame of that decision while shifting ambiguity directly onto the characters’ perceptions of reality. (I was reminded strongly of an old X-Files’ episode, “Field Trip,” where Mulder and Scully find themselves breaking through various levels of a mutual hallucination and wondering in the end how they might ever recognize they’re actually free of the delusion.) How can you possibly emerge victorious when you can’t even be sure what is actually real?

The simple high concept is sold through the underlying tension and narrative craftsmanship. Flanagan takes the ballsy approach of flipping back and forth between the time lines — the characters both as children and as adults — and we learn as the current timeline proceeds what unfolded in the past. It’s like telling two stories simultaneously (a fast-paced variation on the narrative structure of Stephen King’s “It”). Despite a stream of edits and pacing nightmares, Flanagan never really loses the narrative thread, it all remains coherent, and I found this slipping back and forth between the time streams to be one of the more interesting as well as provocative parts of the movie, as there is a bit of the child in the adult and a bit of the adult in the child.

Childhood is a precarious time, especially in dysfunctional families, and it’s not just the physical harm that children are far more susceptible to, or the lack of power (no money, no social networks, no physical mobility to escape danger), it’s their as-yet amorphous perceptions of the world coupled with their need for their parents to calibrate reality. Since rejection and judgment by the parents is easily blamed on one’s own deficiencies as a human being, it’s so easy to lose one’s way, whether that dysfunction is organic in nature or instigated by the workings of a potentially evil supernatural force. (And since I keep tossing in references to other movies, might I mention Kubrick’s “The Shining” here?)

Here in Oculus, Daddy broods, swears off personal hygiene, and starts fiddling with the revolver in his desk; Mommy imagines him cheating, stops making meals, and finally goes rabid-dog cray-cray; it’s up to Kaylie and Timmy to figure out both their parents are nuts, that it’s not their fault (nor their parents), and then determine what reality is and how to save themselves even if Mommy and Daddy are too far gone to salvage. You kinda don’t blame either of them for being a little whack as young adults, after what they’ve been through; most adults wouldn’t hold up nearly as well. But it makes you wonder, if they had just both been a LITTLE more sane, if they could have just said, “Forget this,” walked off, let someone else deal with the mirror, and lived happily ever after? Mental health is reflected not just in how we chase what we chase but in what we realistically can choose to stop chasing.

It’s unfortunate that it feels like Flanagan wrote himself into a corner, as it’s not clear how the movie could have ended less predictably than it did. In this case, it was the journey that was the most fun, but oh what a journey it was.

3.5/5

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Up front, I’d like to give the guy who created the final trailer for Walter Mitty an award.

I remember seeing that trailer in late Fall 2013, leading up to the Christmas Day release of the movie; and I remember being dazzled at just how good that trailer was… nodding toward that abyss of existential angst underlying any human ego and offering to provide one man’s way of soaring above it — all with triumphant music, stunning color, and a resolutely resonant Ben Stiller… although underlying it all, I found myself skeptical of any of it being real. It was like falling in love with someone across a crowded room, thrilling over the mere sight and sound of them, yet knowing full-well that things could likely flop if you ever dared actually approach them and find out who they truly are.

And that’s how the movie worked for me.

The issues come at the start and last a good half-hour or more into the story. The movie is flat… very flat…. to the degree I almost stopped watching. Stiller does best when he’s allowed to create energy on-screen… but the interpretation of Walter Mitty is so restrained and internalized that Stiller isn’t really able to engage anyone or anything until later in the movie as he begins to explore his own self-expansion. Beats drop out of the dialogue, there are long pauses where someone should be responding, and Mitty just… stands there. Or says something inconsequential. It’s hard to care about a character who doesn’t seem to care.

Adam Scott as Hendricks, the “professional head chopper” who decimates the Life mag staff, comes off as a brittle and annoying twerp (with a paste-on beard, to boot!) who no respectable company would have taken seriously enough to hire. Again, the tone issue is a killer; if Walter Mitty weren’t so flat and humorless, then maybe we could view Hendricks as caricature, but it just doesn’t gel.

Fortunately, Wiig (as the potential love interest of this isolated man), MacLaine (as his independent and engaging mom), and Penn (as the almost-but-not-quite MacGuffin of this “coming to terms with self” story) do a lot to both anchor and energize the movie before it completely deflates. Even Patton Oswalt’s rather random character (the eHarmony service rep who jovially pesters Mitty throughout the movie) is more entertaining.

The movie comes more to life when Walter finally does something “crazy” (mostly out of desperation — he’s too professional to quit trying, even after it doesn’t matter) and takes off for Iceland, to track down photographer O’Connell and acquire the missing “negative #25”. In the process, he ends up having to take more risks than he’s reduced himself to over the years, reacquiring a spark for life he once had but then had forgotten.  Some of the depicted events are unbelievable, yet the landscapes and depicted events are the most stunning parts of the movie  — far more compelling than the character of Walter Mitty.

And ah yes, where is that mysterious “negative #25” that is “lost” in the early part of the movie, instigating Walter’s decision to take a risk? Well, I imagined it going one of two ways, and it was my second thought that proved true. No real surprises there. The content itself kept me guessing ’til the end, yet left me unsatisfied with its conventional sentiments. I thought the ending would be… bigger?

Maybe it was that trailer that I couldn’t get out of my head. You know, the one that made this a story larger than Walter Mitty, a story that encompassed all of humanity. The one that sent my pulse pounding, my heart racing, spurred a desire to just drop all the dead weight of my day and look for more meaningful ways to spend my time. The one that suggested a large lesson — that life is not meant to be managed or processed, it’s meant to be lived, and the risks we take for the things we desire and love (rather than just hiding in our heads) are what ends up contributing to our eventual satisfaction.

So live, Walter. And let’s live, all of us… not the secret life, but the real one.

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Godzilla (2014)

Never have kaiju been so loud, so big, and so bad.
(And did I say LOUD? And BIG? And BAD?)

And never have some of the best actors in the industry been so wasted.

I wasn’t expecting a character drama, not at all; I was just looking for some hardcore monster-on-monster cagematching; but as Pacific Rim showed, a small, small investment to make your characters distinguishable from each other goes a long, long way. THAT movie wasn’t high drama either, but at least I had a sense of who people were and what they wanted, and it enabled me to care about what happened, mourn over the losses, laugh at situational humor.

Godzilla only really has one character whose motivations you understand, and that doesn’t last long; and the rest of the characters are just filler. David Strathairn? Elizabeth Olsen? Ken Watanabe? Juliette Binoche? Bryan Cranston? Wasted or close to it. You could have cast this movie with nobodies and it would have trawled in the same box office haul, and the movie would not have been any worse for it.

(But it’s so LOUD! and BIG! and BAD!)

And no, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is not a bad actor in his own right, but his character here is just debris bounced from disaster to disaster, with little motivation of his own (except maybe “Homeward Bound,” kaiju eiga style). Which leads to probably the biggest reason why none of the human element worked:

The movie is not about the people, it’s really about the monsters — yet they spend 75% of the movie on the people without doing much with them.

The people never are able to stand in the way of the monsters, their efforts are obviously pointless from the start. Humanity’s only hope is Godzilla… and he shows up on his own to kill the other kaiju in order to “balance out nature.” He’s like starvation to an overpopulation of deer or a bolt of lightning to balance out electron quotas — the naturalistic deux es machina trashing the behemoths that humanity cannot, and he comes, he conquers, he descends to the ocean depths in glory at will, and one day he shall come again to judge the living and the dead kaiju alike, selah and thanks for all the fish.

(And “Gofira” is also terrible at cleaning up after himself, you’ll need one hell of a pooper-scooper… but I digress.)

((But wow, did I say it was LOUD? and BIG? and BAD?! ))

Godzilla is in essence the anti-Cloverfield. Cloverfield is in essence a love story using a city-razing monster as a backdrop, so keeping the monster hidden makes sense  and increases tension. Godzilla is really a monster movie that tries to use a love story as a backdrop (Dad wants to get home!), yet much of the movie focuses on Dad’s wanderings rather than on the Daddy Monster of them all. MOAH MONSTAH PLEEZ.

I still dream of a 90-minute IMAX 3D extreme-combat bonebreaking downtown-trashing smörgåsbord of destruction.

PS. Was that a handful of Zip disks being portrayed as antiquated technology? Oh horrors!

2.5/5

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Amazing Spider-Man 2

ASM2 seems to be one of the most heavily reviewed movies out there right now, being at the start of “blockbuster” season before the glut, but individual responses almost seem dependent on coin flips: Rotten Tomatoes seems split pretty much down the middle, and for every reviewer that hates this movie, another one enjoys it. I admit how disconcerting it’s been to read reviews that take an axe to the same ideas and scenes I found myself appreciating.

Where did it fall for me? No, it’s not a classic within “genre movies” like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, or Wrath of Khan; and it’s not as solid as Avengers or Iron Man; but I still enjoyed it my viewing of it in the IMAX 3D. The opening sequence (a semi-routine Spidey heist-chase) is one of the best. And in this movie, Garfield continues to expertly convey the wisecracking variation of Spider-man, along with Peter’s skills as a gearhead… something Maguire’s version veered away from.

Some of the more personal scenes were moving enough to tear me up. Sally Field might not look like Aunt May in the way Rosemary Harris did, but she’s far more able to move me with the transparency of her agony over her evolving relationship to Peter and his own complexes. There is some great directing work when Harry and Peter meet for the first time in years and the mood has to shift abruptly from that awkward distance between long-separated friends to reexperienced comraderie.

And of course, it’s amazing how Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield can construct a realistic relationship through the intimate rhythm of their banter with dialogue that, on paper, is rarely ever a completed (even half-completed) thought. I believe they love each other when I see them — I believe so much. They’re like two parts of the same person, they can’t help but be together.

I didn’t mind flashbacks to Gwen’s dad (since a neurotic Peter who doesn’t deal directly with his emotions would necessarily be besieged through his subconscious by broken promises). I didn’t mind that there were in total “three supervillains” in the movie because none of them were on screen at once; only one is the primary villain, another’s predictable development is tracked steadily throughout, just in time to appear for a brief but significant encounter; and the third villain plays the same role that the Underminer did in The Incredibles, so he doesn’t even really count as being in the movie. I didn’t mind Electro’s plot arc, which if you break it down to the basics, is pretty similar in beats to Doc Octopus’s in Spiderman 2 [bad accident, recuperates, first encounter, villain hones his goals, final encounter]. And all these characters had clear and reasonable motivations for their behavior — you see it all unfold onscreen.

I didn’t mind that the movie also toyed with the resolution of Gwen Stacy and her romance with Peter. You pretty much have to live under a rock to remain unaware of the plot spoiler from the comic series, so it’s inevitable that you’ll start the movie feeling some anxiety. The movie plays with this, consciously. But every time it bluntly foreshadows one outcome, it’ll renege a bit later, leaving you wondering whether (a la The Walking Dead) a character’s fate on the big screen can truly be set in stone on the pages of a flimsy comic book.

I had a few regrets, one being that Chris Cooper got barely any screen time. (That guy is just too damn good to be resigned to a cameo.) Another was Kafka, the mad scientist who seems so much a cliche — although, if you’re a comic fan, you’ll recognize that name as being from the actual book. The “crossover clip” in the credits really came out of left field. The board meeting scene was pretty sketchy, writing-wise. And so on.

But like I said, it’s not high art. It could have been better, yes. But it doesn’t mean it wasn’t enjoyable for me, or that I couldn’t see moments of perfection within it. I came to see an action picture that would also move me on occasion with some authentic interactions among the cast, and that’s what I ended up getting. But there were things here that should remain burned into Peter’s psyche in regards to all of his important relationships, and I expect to see them followed up on in ASM3 if there is to be authenticity.

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Noah

While not a literal translation of the Old Testament story, “Noah” serves as a unique and decent-enough adaptation with some beautiful visuals and engrossing action sequences. Crowe brings solidity and weight to the role of this apocalyptic prophet, and even his occasional bit of singing (to address another amusing and tangential question) is commensurate with the movie’s needs.

Unfortunately, while Aronofsky offers some intriguing exploration of Noah’s prophetic visions and psychological headspace, on the large scale “Noah” is not one of his most resonant works. Aside from any fantastic quirks, the movie seems a bit more straightforward than Aranofsky’s other efforts (especially Black Swan and The Fountain); the director’s touch is most obvious during Noah’s prophetic dream sequences and the way he doesn’t flinch when showing the horrific outcomes of individual choices. Violence and emotions in this movie at times can be raw and explicit.

While Aronofsky has not literally recreated the story as Western Christians learned it as children on Sunday morning, it’s clear that he did his homework since even the stuff that left Baptists squirming in their seats has basis in Christian lore. For example, according to Genesis, there were angels that fell to earth to bed human women, and the offspring of that damned union were referred to as the Nephilim or (as often translated, correctly or not) “giants.” The Book of Enoch delineates further, listing the names of these fallen angels (called Watchers) as well as the specialized information that each imparted to humanity much as the Greek Hephaestus and Athena shared knowledge of the arts with men.

Aronofsky adapts this source to support the themes and plot  of his narrative. Here, the Watchers were angels who came to earth against the Creator’s will out of compassion for humanity, so He punished them by stripping off their wings and smothering their holy brilliance within grotesque shells of twisted stone. Now shambling rock giants, the Watchers bequeathed their knowledge to humanity, but men were unworthy and used that knowledge to not just destroy each other but lay waste to the planet. By the time Noah comes around, the world more resembled “Mad Max” than any proverbial paradise. Seeing the extent of their mistake, the Watchers finally threw in their lot with Noah, the Creator’s foreordained; and the Creator’s response to that choice can now provide a moral map to Noah as he struggles to reconcile the Creator’s judgment with His mercy. (The Watchers not only offer insight into the divine heart but also patch up weak spots in the narrative’s hull, justifying how Noah could feasibly construct such a huge boat so quickly, as well as defend it against the desperate human hordes that would steal it to survive.)

Aronofsky liberally adds other details to the mix. The character of Methuselah helps explain everything from where all the wood came from to how barren women might eventually become pregnant. He also establishes the character of Tubal-Cain not just as a physical foil but a moral contrast to Noah: The men offer competing visions for humanity between which Noah’s children must eventually choose, and Aronofsky avoids the temptation to stack the deck. Tubal-Cain raises some good points.

While none of those particular details occur within the Genesis account, they all help set up Aronofsky’s point of interest in Noah: How does a prophet of doom perceive and process the notion of mercy… if such a thing is even possible? Prophets are naturally severe in personality and perception, they foretell judgment on the community for good or ill; and for a man to persevere in such a large undertaking in the face of permanent human extermination would suggest that Noah by nature was an unyielding man, full of conviction that humanity deserved death for its crimes against innocent creation.

Aranofsky not only explores how that perspective might have developed in Noah as a boy, but he accentuates that bent to its logical conclusion and thus sets up the largest moral crux in the movie. Noah’s family is not exempt from corruption, they are all as human as those whom the Creator has destroyed; they are all descended from the first two people who ruined Paradise. So he must consider, what if his family was not chosen to be saved and restart the race of men, but chosen simply to bring the innocent animals to safety and then to complete the destruction that the Creator began, to prevent the world from being ruined yet again? Because of the severity of his loyalty, Noah must contemplate terrible actions in order to remain faithful to what he perceives to be the Creator’s intent, regardless of the cost to his family and whether anyone agrees with him. That final struggle, the battle within Noah’s heart, is one reflective of human beings in general: Is there a way to reconcile judgment with mercy… and how?

Even after Noah makes his decision, there are still ramifications to his past choices that the family must deal with. Perhaps the earth has been wiped clean of its current corruption, but only the future will tell whether that choice was effective.

 

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August: Osage County

“August: Osage Country” sometimes feels like sticking your arm into an exquisitely designed, finely-sharpened meat grinder; yes, the machine might do its job well, but why would you want it to? In this earthquake of a story, you are looking at the remains of an expensive china shop with few items surviving intact… and then the movie proceeds to smash those as well.

AOC covers the period directly following a family cataclysm that brings all the crows home to roost, so we can see how things shake out. There are three generations represented in the movie (and a fourth, by proxy), although the main story revolves around the caustic reigning matriarch (Violet) addicted to prescription meds and her three grown daughters who’ve never really escaped from under her damaging shadow even if two left town long ago. One suspects early that the queen tyrant is beyond redemption and the only reason to deal with her is simply so that the grown daughters might have a fighting chance.

These three sisters, now in their 40’s, could be viewed as classic birth-order personalities: Barbara the oldest is the battler and will inherit her mother’s mantle if the kingdom survives Violet’s decline; Ivy is the caretaker, the quiet “girl next door” who has developed a successful strategy of invisibility and acquiescence; and Karen spins her legitimate desire for love and light into a hood to pull over her eyes, too fragile to face the dark. You could also view them via psychologist Karen Horney’s classic “positioning” theories. Barbara “moves against” Violet, as the best defense is a good offense; Ivy “moves towards” Violet by caring for and accommodating her; Karen “moves away” by leaving the house and surrounding herself with everything her mother is not.

But in the end, what you get is one daughter who is becoming her mother in the process of fighting her; another whose life is slowly being leeched dry; and a third who is too weak to properly care for herself. In the Weston family, you’re either a victim or a victimizer… or you cash yourself out while you still can.

While it’s difficult to feel sympathy for Violet, later in the movie she relays a story to her daughters involving her OWN mother that provides a necessary insight as to how she might have become the woman she is. It’s a simple story, offered without analysis; but I was immediately struck by the thought that, however bad Violet appears, she might actually be progressive. The sins of the mothers are visited upon their daughters, and crazy begets crazy begets more crazy, but maybe (just maybe!) if the sisters develop enough perspective, they might lift the Weston name another footstep out of the muck and one day win the family free.

As I noted earlier, the movie is well-acted, yet not necessarily enjoyable due to the constant barrage of emotional violence. I grew up in a dysfunctional house with its own share of sick behaviors and interfamily conflict, but even that was nothing as terrible as what I saw in AOC. It’s difficult to watch people hate each other this openly and this much, with the camera able to capture every sordid snarl, eye twitch, and half-muttered (let alone bellowed) invective. I suspect the grand physical gestures (there’s even a full-out fleshpile at one point) and wild emoting are necessary in a stage setting so that a distant audience can recognize what is happening; but due to the camera zoom such intensity here is jarring at best. Collesium spectactors who cheered over tiny lions devouring tiny prisoners in the arena center would have freaked had the entire massacre happened in their laps. 

Streep (the queen bee), who is almost always interesting, can switch from bat-shit crazy to mesmerizing contemplativeness during her quieter monologues, then back again. Roberts (the heir apparent) also is at her best; the disappointment and underlying anger she holds towards Mommie Monster is physically etched on the lines of her face and stark downward slashes of her mouth; when Barbara finally decides enough is enough, we know that Violet’s reign is hastening towards an end.

But at times both of these actors shine too brightly for the camera, and it is the more subtle performances of the ensemble that linger.

Julianne Nicholson (who deserves far more attention) plays the middle daughter as an apropos blend of smothered frustration and uncertain bravado in search of a voice, and Lewis — although it’s much like other roles she is known for — provides desperately positive chatter that suggests she knows deep-down she’s running but just doesn’t have the strength to face reality head-on.

Margo Martindale as Aunt Mattie shows a penchant for destruction as strong as her sister Violet but releases it more as a slow poison that nags and nibbles, eroding will and strength until nothing is left. Cooper plays the simple but kind-hearted uncle who finally gets in a good speech when his patience runs out. Cumberbatch, playing against many of his recent roles, is the gentle cousin emasculated by his mother’s incessant criticisms who badly wants to be worthy of (and strong for) the one woman who values him.

And then of course there is Sam Sheperd as Beverly Weston, around whom the plot centers despite his absence, and whose short scene is laced with sad knowing sweetness and more perspective than all the other characters combined.

The play’s original ending cuts off a few minutes before the movie ending, with Violet reaping the inevitable consequences of her tyrant’s reign. The movie tries to be more upbeat by overtly suggesting all three daughters might salvage something out of this mess, and that perhaps — just perhaps — upbringing is not destiny after all. That maybe even those badly damaged by the sins of their families can still find their day in their sun. Is it enough? I don’t know. I hope it is.

3.5/5

 

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The LEGO Movie

The LEGO Movie is one of the pictures where the less said about it ahead of time, the better. So I won’t say a lot about the specifics.

But I will say that this movie works on so many levels at once, it’s clear that despite the ease with which it unfolds on the screen, the lines and plot and themes were carefully thought through. This movie was lovingly crafted, and with deep respect for its audience. What comes off as cliche in other movies did not scan as cliche here.

It works as a pop-culture smorgasbourd (anything from fantasy and comic book tropes to science fiction movies and Saturday morning cartoons).

It works as a nostalgic peek at the toys that multiple generations have built with.

It works as a humor Gatlin gun, one laugh flung right after the next so that you might miss a few zingers if you’re not attentive.

It works as a self-referential story with strong overtones of The Matrix, dovetailing the efforts of freedom fighters to overthrow a despotic regime with one LEGO figure’s quest to find meaning for himself.

It works as an exploration of the relationship between parent and child — what kinds of expectations exist and what kinds of interactions are ultimately productive for everyone.

It works as a criticism of cultures that alternately squelch out creativity and freedom in favor of mindless productivity and efficiency, while at the same time frantically stoking the self-indulgent fires of each individual’s imagined self-importance.

It also works at the best kind of advertisement, not just as a venue for multiple product placement or by presenting options for what one can build with LEGOs, but by respecting and encouraging the creative spark that exists in EVERY person regardless of whether someone is zany or traditional, old or young. It says that we all can be remarkably inventive, regardless of our personality style, without a quiver of exploitation or snark in its voice.

And this last bit, in a movie that could have easily veered into becoming mostly cynical or somewhat trite, that could have favored part of its audience at the exclusion of other parts but didn’t, is what makes it truly remarkable.

4.5/5

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Divergent

One of Divergent’s strengths is that it isn’t “The Host” or “I Am Number Four,” but every time the movie almost becomes interesting, it swerves back to the format’s conventions.

Divergent is one of those vague post-apocalyptic tales that looks like it was paid for on someone’s credit card despite an $85 million budget.  It looks like it was shot in the ghost city of Pripyat, Ukraine; there are very little special effects (aside from maybe parts of the “fear” sequences and the short-lived zipline scene); and the prop lists consists of a train always running in the same direction, a springy net, an assortment of plastic guns, and whatever non-descript clothes the characters wear on their backs.

(As “The Host” exemplified, sometimes less is, well, less.)

People have labeled “Divergent” as “Hunger Games Lite,” which is understandable but rather unfair because “The Hunger Games” at least seems to make more sense. A revolution against the ruling class leads to the subjugated provinces being forced to pay tribute and having their children drafted into annual games for sport? That story is an old one; I can buy it.

What we have here, though, is more of internalized angst — the unnuanced adolescent quest for identity coupled with typical cynical mistrust of the system — externalized into a contrived plot. The remnants of Chicago have been divided into five rigid factions to which everyone must belong; and unless you’re “Divergent” (i.e., don’t fit into the system), you’re presented as part of the uninspired 95% — soulless, uninventive drones who just follow orders and support the establishment. Rebel against the system? Any sane person would, or at least set up a council populated by people from all the factions; but apparently few of the adults have any backbone or common sense, so that job is going to fall to the kids. The movie seems to be a cross between flipping the bird at tests like the popularized Myers-Briggs Trait Inventory (MBTI) and the typical unease teens feel at the thought of selling out one’s ambitions to find economic and social security in an undesirable career.

Woodley plays Beatrice (later renaming herself “Tris,” which sounds less stodgy), a daughter of Abnegationists who has reached the age of choice, but of course she tests as a multiple (Divergent) and ends up choosing Dauntless — which is not just the most exciting-looking faction but the one most convenient for the plot (since it allows for fighting and action sequences — the movie would far slower if she had picked the equivalent of the farmers, altruists, lawyers, or brainiacs). While they’re supposed to be cops and soldiers, Dauntless seems to spend the days and nights running around town whooping like drunk frat boys on the last day of class, climbing stuff and jumping off things. I suspect their mortality rate is much higher than the other factions.

Woodley is never quite convincing as a girl with enough edge to stay in the game; underneath she seems soft rather than hard. It’s telling that, no matter what trouble she gets herself into, her eyebrows and hair remain picture-perfect or merely mussed in the way a model’s would be. However, she and Tobias (Theo James, noticeably older than his character but more than adequately solid and empathetic) hold the movie together; both are likeable and relate well to each other, and I wanted to see them happy.

The movie trundles on by the numbers, each beat as predictable as the rails under a train track. Tris is the underdog but manages to make each cut mostly because she doesn’t quit. Tobias, the hot, kind, quiet guy, of course falls for her. And of course he is Divergent as well. (Believe me, that’s not really a spoiler.) She manages to bump a few times into Jeanine, the head of Erudite who also serves as the movie’s baddy; and Winselt plays the role with perfunctory coolness that doesn’t fool us for a second about her regard for Tris as more of a structural nuisance rather than an interesting rarity. Toss in some predictable family tragedy to clean up loose plot threads + provide additional motivation for Tris to really rebel, and you’ve got your setup for the next movie.

I can’t speak for Roth’s original text (which I haven’t read but suspect was deeper), nor for the travails of condensing this book to the screen, but the movie as completed seems overgeneralized — vague and thin. What would have happened if the factions and adults had been treated less as cliches? What if the deck hadn’t been stacked so much in favor of the Divergents? I’m hoping that later movies will reveal substantial reasons that could justify the existence of the faction system, or at least why the authorities fear those who have no regard for the establishment aside from simply the threat of losing their power.

You don’t necessarily need to be Divergent in order to be cool.

 

2.5/5

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Movie 43

I’ll just come right out and say it: I think it’s silly to give a comedy movie a Razzie award. I think the Razzies should be aimed towards movies that try to be taken seriously and yet end up being impossible to see as anything but a big joke.

Comedy is also in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. You can figure this out just by seeing what comedy shows are on television and noting the vast degree of difference — even if we just focus ones that actually have developed followings, we’ve got anything from All in the Family, Cheers, The Facts of Life, and The Office to Futurama, Archer, Robot Chicken, Kids in the Hall, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. And that’s barely scratching the surface. Typically what one person thinks is funny, there’s someone else in the world who thinks it’s stupid. That’s the nature of comedy.

Movie 43 can deservedly take some crap (literally) for catering to the lowest-common denominators: scatalogical and sexual humor. While compilation comedy movies like “The Kentucky Fried Chicken Movie” and “Amazon Women on the Moon” (both of which are worth seeing, btw) manage to vary things up and branch into the silly with only a few nods to sex, Movie 43 can’t seem to move away aside from the topic — well, aside from a clip about a pissy little leprechaun, that is, and another one about how blacks dominate basketball. But it doesn’t mean that none of the clips are amusing, if you can handle the subject matter.

It’s also rather amazing at the degree of talented actors who agreed to play a small role in the movie — we’re talking about Academy-Award winners/nominees here. There’s at least one star in every clip who is high-profile in the acting business, as well as the thin but sometimes amusing storyline that connects everything involves Dennis Quaid, Greg Kinnear, and Seth MacFarlane, among others. (I guess I’m just amused that Dennis Quaid can actually come off looking like a crackhead living in a Dumpster behind Sears somewhere.) I’m not sure what favors g0t called in here, but someone was really saving up for a long time.

Not all of the segments are as funny as others. Some might even be (as expected in a string of comedy sketches) offensive to some. My personal favorite is “Homeschooled,” starring Naomi Watts and Liev Schrieber (ironically, a couple in real life) as parents raising their teenager at home while trying to provide him with an “authentic high school experience” … which ends up being full of enough existential angst, alienation, and social rejection/abuse to give some of us flashbacks of our own miserable teen years. (You have been warned.) But I still laughed at some of the fake ads, the Speed Dating bit (with a pervo Batman trying to help Robin — impeccably cast as Justin Long — score with the ladies), and even the opening clip with Hugh Jackman as the guy who has dangly bits hanging from his throat and Kate Winslet as his unsettled date gets some mileage.

No, it’s not high art, but was it the worst movie of the year enough to win the Razzie? Do we laugh at something because it’s funny, or do we think something is funny because we laughed? Well, as Veronica says, let’s not have another chicken or egg debate…

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