“DIVERGENT” (2014) Review

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“DIVERGENT” (2014) Review

Ever since the success of the “HARRY POTTER” movie franchise, movies based upon teen fantasy and science-fiction novels have been hitting the movie theaters in the past decade or so. The latest teen Fantasy/Sci-Fi to be released is a dystopian post-apocalyptic tale set in futuristic Chicago.

Based upon the first of Veronica Roth’s literary trilogy, “DIVERGENT” tells the story of a 16 year-old girl named Beatrice “Tris” Prior lives in a society in post-apocalyptic Chicago that is divided into five factions based upon human virtues and personalities. They are Amity (peaceful), Candor (truthful), Erudite (intelligent) and Dauntless (brave) and Abnegation (selfless). Tris has grown up in Abnegation, though she has always been fascinated by Dauntless. Her father, Andrew serves on the ruling council along with the head of Abnegation, Marcus Eaton and the head of Erudite, and Jeannie Matthews, head of Erudite. Along with other 16 year-olds, Tris undergoes a serum-based aptitude test that indicates the faction into which they would best fit and informs their choice at the Choosing Ceremony. When Tris takes the test, her proctor, a Dauntless woman Tori, reveals that she has the attributes of all five factions meaning she is Divergent. Tori records Tris’ result as Abnegation, and warns her to keep the true result secret, since Divergents can think independently and the government considers the latter threats to the social order. In the end, Tris chooses Dauntless at the Choosing Ceremony, and her brother Caleb chooses Erudite, taking their parents by surprise.

Tris leaves her home and meets other initiates, including – her new best friend Christina, her other friends Will and Al, and an enemy named Peter Hayes. After they past a series of initial tests, they engage in a long training session conducted by Tobias “Four” Eaton and the brutal Eric in order to become members of the Dauntless faction, which seemed to serve as some kind of law enforcement organization. Although both Tris and Christina struggle at first, they eventually manage to rise in their class standing. During her training, Tris falls in love with one of her trainers – “Four”. More importantly, both of them stumbles upon a plot by Jeannie Matthews, Erudite and Dauntless for Matthews to become “the” leader of Chicago, which includes ridding the community of those considered to be Divergent.

Hmmm . . . what can I say about “DIVERGENT”? I thought it was a decent movie. Its theme seemed to challenge the idea of society being divided by superficial reasons – in this case, human traits. The movie also benefited from Neil Burger’s direction, who kept the movie’s pace energetic, despite its narrative. More importantly, Burger did a great job in creating some first-rate action and dream sequences. I was especially impressed by the last action sequence that featured Tris and Four’s efforts to prevent Jeannie Matthews from forcing Dauntless members to execute those who are Divergent. More importantly, the dream sequences that reflected her fear simulations took my breath away. And I feel that Alwin H. Küchler’s cinematography and Richard Francis-Bruce’s editing really contributed to those scenes.

“DIVERGENT” also benefited from some excellent and solid acting from its cast. Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd were excellent as Tris’ parents – Andrew and Natalie Prior. Unfortunately, they were not in the film long enough to have any real impact upon most of the film, except in the last 20 minutes or so. The movie also featured solid performances from Ray Stevenson, who portrayed Four’s father Marcus Eaton; Maggie Q as Tori; Ben Lloyd-Hughes and Christian Madsen as Tris’ friends Will and Al; Ansel Elgort as Tris’ brother Caleb; and Mekhi Phifer. Kate Winslet, Zoë Kravitz and Jai Courtney all gave good performances as Erudite leader Jeannie Matthews, Christina and Eric. But I got the feeling that their performances were hampered by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay. Winslet’s subtle performance was undermined by her character’s ham-fisted goals for Chicago – a society in which emotions are eventually eradicated. The screenplay did not give Kravitz much opportunity to display her acting skills (unlike her appearance in 2011’s “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”), except in a scene in which she found herself dangling over a ledge, thanks to Eric. The screenplay only allowed Courtney, who portrayed Eric, to sneer a lot, nearly reducing him to a one-note villain.

In my opinion, the movie featured three first-rate performances. One came from Miles Teller, who portrayed Tris’ antagonist, Peter Hayes. Unlike Courtney or even Winslet, Teller was given the opportunity to portray a more well-rounded character. And he certainly made the best of it. I also enjoyed Theo James’ performance as Tris’ trainer and love interest, Tobias “Four” Eaton. Granted, his character struck me as a typical leading man in a production that featured a female as the lead character. Think Angel from“BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER” or Edward Cullen from the “TWILIGHT”movies. But I also liked how James balanced Four’s growing feelings for Tris and his dread of his abusive father. The star of the movie is, of course, Shailene Woodley. In fact, I believe she gave the best performance as the complex, yet youthful Tris Prior. I am not surprised that she managed to carry this movie on her shoulders with ease. I had seen her in the 2011 film, “THE DESCENDANTS” and knew she had the talent and presence to do the job. Some have been calling her as “the next Jennifer Lawrence”. I disagree. Woodley is not the next anyone. She is her own self. And I would love to see her and Lawrence in a film together, considering how talented both are.

And yet . . . I do not love “DIVERGENT”. I believe it is hampered by too many flaws to make it a personal favorite of mine. One . . . I found the movie’s setting a little . . . questionable. A society that is divided by human virtues? Huh? It is possible that author Veronica Roth had used this division to expose how human beings judge others, based upon superficial reasons. But humans have judged each other for reasons more shallow than personality traits – class, race, gender, religion, nationality, region, etc. I wish that Roth had considered another means to divide her society, especially since selflessness happened to be one trait. And I do not believe that selflessness exists or that human beings are capable of it. And what the hell is up with the younger members of the Dauntless faction running, jumping and leaping all over the damn city? One of the movie’s characters – Christina – viewed these actions as crazy. Perhaps. But it struck me as a stupid and immature way to prove one’s courage. And why would the more adult members of Dauntless allow this? Why would Roth? As much as the screen chemistry of Woodley and James impressed me, I was somewhat taken aback by their on-screen romance. In the novel, Four was an 18 year-old. I read somewhere that his character aged by six years in order for the role to fit James. If so, I think it was a mistake. By allowing Four to be older, his sexual tryst with Tris transformed into an act of statutory rape. It smacked of the Buffy/Angel romance from “BUFFY” and I have always loathed it. Unless sex between an adolescent and a young adult is considered legal in Roth’s literary world. And I was less than impressed by the movie’s narrative structure. At least three-fourths of “DIVERGENT” focused on Tris’ training with the Dauntless faction. By the time the conflict against Jeannie Matthews’ efforts to take over Chicago manifested, the movie had at least 20 to 30 minutes left of running time. And the whole conflict struck me as pretty rushed.

What really bothered me about “DIVERGENT” was its lack of originality. Many have compared it to “THE HUNGER GAMES” saga, created by Suzanne Collins, due to both stories featuring an adolescent girl in a dystopian post-apocalyptic society. But“DIVERGENT” seemed to borrow from other literary/movie/television franchises. Mind you, there is no law that a story like this have to be completely original. One would be surprised at how many novelists and moviemakers borrow from other source materials. But . . . Roth’s efforts to put her own twist seemed to fall short. And the movie’s screenwriters seemed incapable of improving her flaws. It is bad enough that the movie setting and leading character strongly reminded me of “THE HUNGER GAMES”. We have the psuedo-Buffy/Angel romance between Tris and Four. The Choosing Ceremony for Chicago’s adolescents strongly reminded me of the Hogwarts School Sorting Hat (which should have been burned) from the “HARRY POTTER” series. And Jeannie Matthews’ goal of suppressing human emotions makes me wonder if the character was a fan of “STAR TREK” and a Vulcan wannabe.

“DIVERGENT” is not a bad movie. It featured energetic direction from Neil Burger, some decent performances, and especially an outstanding one from lead actress, Shailene Woodley. But it failed to impress me, due to some unoriginal and flawed writing, along with a great lack of originality. Like I said – “DIVERGENT” is not a bad movie. But I find it hard to regard it as a very good movie, let alone a great one.

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“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (2004) Review

Below is my review of Disney’s 2004 adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel called “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”

 

“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (2004) Review

The year 2004 marked the umpteenth time that an adaptation of Jules Verne’s travelogue movie, ”Around the World in Eighty Days” hit the movie screen. Well . . . actually, the fifth time. Released by Disney Studios and directed by Frank Coraci, this adaptation starred Jackie Chan, Steve Coogan, Cécile de France, Ewan Bremmer and Jim Broadbent.

This adaptation of Verne’s novel started on a different note. It opened with a Chinese man named Xau Ling (Jackie Chan) robbing a precious statuette called the Jade Buddha from the Bank of England. Ling managed to evade the police by hiding out at the home of an English inventor named Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan). To keep the latter from turning him in to the police, Ling pretends to be a French-born national named Passepartout, seeking work as a valet. After Fogg hired “Passepartout”, he clashed with various members of the Royal Academy of Science, including its bombastic member Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent). Kelvin expressed his belief that everything worth discovering has already been discovered and there is no need for further progress. The pair also discussed the bank robbery and in a blind rage, Phileas declared that that the thief could be in China in little over a month, which interests “Passepartout”. Kelvin pressured Phileas Fogg into a bet to see whether it would be possible, as his calculations say, to travel around the world in 80 days. If Fogg wins, he would become Minister of Science in Lord Kelvin’s place; if not, he would have to tear down his lab and never invent anything again. Unbeknownst to both Fogg and “Passepartout”, Kelvin recruited a corrupt London police detective named Inspector Fix to prevent the pair from completing their world journey. However, upon their arrival in Paris, they met an ambitious artist named Monique Larouche (Cécile de France), who decides to accompany them on their journey. Ling also became aware of warriors under the command of a female warlord named General Fang (Karen Mok), who also happens to be an ally of Lord Kelvin.

I might as well make this short. ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” did not do well at the box. In fact, it bombed. In a way, one could see why. In compare to the 1956 and 1989 versions, it took a lot more liberties with Verne’s original story. Phileas Fogg is portrayed as an eccentric inventor, instead of a Victorian gentleman of leisure. He takes on a bet with a rival member of the Royal Academy of Science, instead of members of the Reform Club. Passepartout is actually a Chinese warrior for an order of martial arts masters trying to protect his village. Princess Aouda has become a cheeky French would-be artist named Monique. And Inspector Fix has become a corrupt member of the London Police hired by the venal aristocrat Lord Kelvin to prevent Fogg from winning his bet. Fogg, Passepartout and Monique traveled to the Middle East by the Orient Express, with a stop in Turkey. Their journey also included a long stop at Ling’s village in China, where Fogg learned about Ling’s deception.

Some of the comedy – especially those scenes involving Fix’s attempts to arrest Fogg – came off as too broad and not very funny. Also, this adaptation of Verne’s tale was not presented as some kind of travelogue epic – as in the case of the 1956 and 1989 versions. The movie made short cuts by presenting Ling and Fogg’s journey through the use of day-glow animation created by an art direction team supervised by Gary Freeman. Frankly, I thought it looked slightly cheap. I really could have done without the main characters’ stop in Turkey, where Monique almost became Prince Hapi’s (Arnold Schwarzenegger) seventh wife. It slowed down the story and it lacked any humor, whatsoever. I am a major fan of Jim Broadbent, but I must admit that last scene which featured his rant against Fogg and Queen Victoria on the steps of the Royal Academy of Science started out humorous and eventually became cringe-worthy. Poor man. He deserved better.

Did I like ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”? Actually, I did. I found it surprisingly entertaining, despite its shortcomings. Jackie Chan and Steve Coogan made a rather funny screen team as the resourceful and clever Ling who had to deceive the slightly arrogant and uptight Fogg in order to quickly reach China. Cécile de France turned out to be a delightful addition to Chan and Coogan’s screen chemistry as the coquettish Monique, who added a great deal of spark to Fogg’s life. Granted, I had some complaints about Broadbent’s performance in his last scene. Yet, he otherwise gave a funny performance as the power-hungry and venal Lord Kelvin. It was rare to see him portray an outright villain. And although I found most of Bremmer’s scenes hard to take (I am not that big of a fan of slapstick humor), I must admit that two of his scenes left me in stitches – his attempt to arrest Ling and Fogg in India and his revelations of Lord Kelvin’s actions on the Royal Academy of Science steps.

There were many moments in David N. Titcher, David Benullo, and David Goldstein’s script that I actually enjoyed. One, I really enjoyed the entire sequence in Paris that featured Ling and Fogg’s meeting with Monique and also Ling’s encounter with some of General Fang’s warriors. Not only did it featured some top notch action; humorous performances by Chan, Coogan and de France; and colorful photography by Phil Meheux. Another first-rate sequence featured the globe-trotting travelers’ arrival at Ling’s village in China. The action in this sequence was even better thanks to the fight choreography supervised by Chan and stunt/action coordinator Chung Chi Li. It also had excellent characterization thanks to the screenwriters and the actors. One particular scene had me laughing. It featured Coogan and the two actors portraying Ling’s parents during a drunken luncheon for the travelers.

I wish I could say that this version of ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” is the best I have seen. But I would be lying by making such a statement. To be honest, all three versions I have seen are flawed in their own ways. This version is probably more flawed than the others. But . . . I still managed to enjoy myself watching it. The movie can boast some first-rate performances from the cast – especially Jackie Chan, Steve Coogan and Cécile de France. And it also featured some kick-ass action scenes in at least three major sequences. Thankfully, it was not a complete waste.

“LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD” (2007) Review

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“LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD” (2007) Review

When I had first heard about a third sequel to the 1988 action blockbuster,”DIE HARD”, I thought that Bruce Willis must be very desperate to revive his career. Aside from the 2005 hit, ”SIN CITY”, he has not appeared in very successful movie in nearly a decade. The last movie in the ”DIE HARD” franchise had been released in 1995. Twelve years seemed like a hell of a time to release a new sequel. And to be honest, successful action flicks about cops have rarely been successful since the dawn of the 21st century. Needless to say, I did not harbor any hopes of this being a first-rate or successful film.

Then other facts and rumors about this new movie began to reach my ears. First came the title – ”LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD”. It seemed very cheesy to me. In fact, it still does. I also heard a rumor that the John McClane character had left the New York Police Department to work for Homeland Security. Thankfully that turned out to be nothing more than a false rumor, for I had envisioned scenes filled with constant flag waving and patriotic rhetoric. Then I learned of the tidbit that McClane’s character would be battling foreign-born computer terrorists. This sounded oddly familiar. In fact, it brought back memories of the 1995 Sandra Bullock film, ”THE NET”. Well that rumor proved to be half-true. The two main terrorists – portrayed by Timothy Olyphant (“DEADWOOD”) and Maggie Q (“MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3”) – turned out to be American-born. In the end, ”LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD” not only proved to be worthy of its three predecessors, I thought it was just as good as the first film.

Despite its cheesy title, ”LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD” had the good luck to possess an intriguing and damn good story. A former Federal employee named Thomas Gabriel (Olyphant) decides to attack the U.S. infrastructure during the July 4 holiday, through the use of high-tech computer programming. Before the September 11, 2001 attacks, he had warned his employers that any high-tech terrorist could bring about the country’s downfall through similar attacks. When they failed to listen and ruin his reputation and career, he decides to get his revenge with the help of his assistant and lady love, Mai Lihn (Maggie Q). Gabriel tricked several hackers, including one named Matt Ferrell (Justin Long) to create several programs to achieve goals. Then he proceeds to infect the hackers’ computer systems with a virus before killing them off one by one. When Ferrell hacks into the FBI, the latter sends the NYPD to arrest the remaining hacker still alive – Ferrell. Lieutenant Detective (Willis) is assigned to deliver the young hacker to Washington D.C. What started as a simple, delivery assignment turns into a full-scale hunt and destroy mission to take down Gabriel for both McClane and Ferrell.

Moviegoers and film critics tend to focus upon the action sequences for movies like those in the ”DIE HARD” franchise. But for me, exciting action sequences alone does not make a movie. Certainly not sequences like the one that featured McClane and a military jet. I really could have done without that little moment. For me to truly enjoy a movie like ”LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD”, I also need a first-class story and good performances. Fortunately, the movie possessed all three – a first-rate script penned by Mark Bomback, exciting action sequences and an excellent cast led by the superb and always entertaining Bruce Willis. I want to point out that he was especially assisted by Olyphant, who portrayed a very intelligent and sinister villain; and Justin Long, who as Ferrell, managed to create great screen chemistry with Willis.

And believe it or not, director Len Weisman (“UNDERWORLD” and “UNDERWORLD EVOLUTION”) managed to bring it all of these elements together to create an exciting thriller that left me on the edge of my seat . . . instead of boring me out of my mind. To my utter surprise, Weisman actually managed to keep the ”DIE HARD” franchise fresh. And if he and Bruce Willis ever decide to consider it, I would not mind seeing a fifth movie.