Tag Archives: Romance

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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Warm Bodies

Love changes things. It can open one’s eyes, it can remake the world. Maybe it can even raise the dead.

Warm Bodies isn’t “just another zombie movie.” R is one of those zombies who is not like the others. Although he’s not much for words anymore, and although he’s driven to chow down on human flesh with the best of them, inside beats the idealistic heart of a Disney movie protagonist. R can’t dance, and he sure can’t sing, but he’s got the next best thing — a record album collection of popular 70’s and 80’s tunes — and it’s all tucked away in his own little Ariel-esque treasure trove of odds and ends he’s collected in order to remind himself of what it was like to be human, once.

R is trapped in the terrible merry-go-round all zombies face — staggering about, grunting, eating people, falling to pieces — until one fateful day when he and a posse of fellow zombies run into a group of teenagers out on a medicine run. Zombie meets girl, it’s love at first sight, and R’s heart literally skips a beat. Better yet, Julie’s boyfriend just bit the dust, so there’s an opening for a new stiff in her life… or, at least, hope springs eternal for lovelorn teenagers, undead or not.

Warm Bodies (usually humorously, sometimes cleverly) manages to filter a teenage romantic comedy formula through the zombie motif. In fact, the more R changes, the hunkier he becomes… but Nicholas Hoult wasn’t cast just as a pretty face; he believably manages to convey the earnest nuance of a transition from Mr. Zombie Lonely Heart back to something more recognizably human. His love interest, Julie (Teresa Palmer, know for her kick-ass #6 in “I Am Number Four”) is thick-skinned and bull-headed, so it’s believable that she can handle being trapped in zombie territory without freaking out regularly. (There’s only one moment where she surprised me with an unexpectedly subdued response, but the moment passes quickly.)

John Malkovich as Capulet, err, Julie’s father — the survivalist leader with an understandable vendetta against the zombies who ate his wife — plays what screen time he gets pretty much by the numbers, ho-hum. Analeigh Tipton has a nice little role as Nora, Julie’s best friend and co-conspirator, who offers necessary BFF support as the two little lovebirds attempt to bring their two clans together without being offed in the process. It’s all not exactly Shakespeare, but the banter between some of the characters (R and Julie, Julie and Nora) is alternately endearing and amusing. R’s interactions with his “best zombie friend M” (where “best friend” means staring blankly at each other and grunting on occasion) are also drolly funny, and the ever-evolving relationship between them signals how the zombie zeitgeist might be changing for the better.

The movie spends a lot of time developing the relationship between R and Julie, so much that the film feels unbalanced when the endgame is reached and resolves itself more quickly than expected. However, there’s so much good stuff in the first half that it’s not a huge loss, even if it would have been nice to see a little more meat regarding the prejudice inherent between humans and zombies. The visual palette is rich and detailed, with dream and memory sequences in vibrant gold and the color tones moving from cold blues to a more normal range as the story progresses.

Along with a nice parallel where R first protects Julie in his domain, then she later protects him in hers, there are two themes that bring dramatic substance to the movie. One revolves around why zombies eat brains in the first place, creating an even more intense dichotomy of pity versus revulsion for their condition. (It reminds me of discussions I’ve about the nature of vampires being undead who steal life from the living to pretend they are alive, and what moral choice remains to the vampire who wishes to be an agent of good rather than harm.) The other is in the origin of their condition — not just the virus but also a loss of the memory of what it means to be human — and that perhaps a cure relies less in a pill or injection and more in restored connections with those who can help them remember how to find their “way back.” (One might even go so far as to say that Warm Bodies comments on how fragmented human relationship leads to destructive consumerism, although that’s more of an idea for undergrads struggling for a film class term paper topic than something the movie consciously obsesses over.)

Along with the full-length feature, the BluRay contains a few goodies, including deleted scenes and a gag real with a few really funny bits. One of the “must-sees” is “Zombie Acting Tips from Rob Corddry” from Screen Junkies, a mock doc of the actor playing “M” that will leave you laughing and even perhaps a bit disturbed (in the good sense).

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