“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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Favorite Films Set in the 1900s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies (so far) that are set in the 1900s decade:

 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1900s

1 - Howards End

1. “Howard’s End” (1992) – Ismail Merchant and James Ivory created this exquisite adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel. The movie starred Oscar winner Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham-Carter, Samuel West and Oscar nominee Vanessa Redgrave.

2 - The Assassination Bureau

2. “The Assassination Bureau” (1969) – Oliver Reed, Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas starred in this delicious adaptation of Jack London’s unfinished novel about a woman journalist who uncovers an organization for professional assassins. Basil Dearden directed.

3 - A Room With a View

3. “A Room With a View” (1985-86) – Ismail Merchant and James Ivory created this excellent adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel. The movie starred Helena Bonham-Carter, Julian Sands, Daniel Day-Lewis and Oscar nominees Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliot.

4 - Gigi

4. “Gigi” (1958) – Oscar winner Vincente Minelli directed this superb adaptation of Collette’s 1944 novella about a young Parisian girl being groomed to become a courtesan. Leslie Caron and Louis Jordan starred.

5 - The Illusionist

5. “The Illusionist” (2006) – Neil Burger directed this first-rate adaptation of Steven Millhauser’s short story, “Eisenheim the Illusionist”. The movie starred Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell.

6 - The Great Race

6. “The Great Race” (1965) – Blake Edwards directed this hilarious comedy about a long-distance road race between two rival daredevils. The movie starred Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood.

7 - Flame Over India aka North West Frontier

7. “Flame Over India aka North West Frontier” (1959) – Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall starred in this Imperial adventure about a British Army officer who serves as escort to a young Hindu prince being targeted by Muslim rebels. J. Lee Thompson directed.

8 - Meet Me in St. Louis

8. “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944) – Judy Garland starred in this very entertaining adaptation of Sally Benson’s short stories about a St. Louis family around the time of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition World’s Fair in 1904. Vincente Minelli directed.

9 - The Golden Bowl

9. “The Golden Bowl” (2000) – Ismail Merchant and James Ivory created this interesting adaptation of Henry James’ 1904 novel about an adulterous affair in Edwardian England. The movie starred Uma Thurman, Nick Nolte, Kate Beckinsale and Jeremy Northam.

10 - North to Alaska

10. “North to Alaska” (1960) – John Wayne, Stewart Granger and Capucine starred in this surprisingly fun Western about how a mail-to-order bride nearly came between two partners during the Nome Gold Rush. Henry Hathaway directed.

“THE ILLUSIONIST” (2006) Review

“THE ILLUSIONIST” (2006) Review

Neil Burger wrote and directed this loose adaptation of Steven Millhauser’s story called “Eisenheim the Illusionist”. This story about a magician in turn-of-the-century Vienna starred Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell.

The movie’s plot focused upon the romance that had first formed between the magician Eisenheim (Norton) and his childhood friend, the socially superior Sophie, Duchess von Teschen (Biel) – a romance that ends up threatening the political plans of Crown Prince Leopold of Austria-Hungary (Sewell) and Chief Inspector Uhl’s position with the Vienna police and his role as the Crown Prince’s henchman. ”THE ILLUSIONIST” began in the middle of the story – with Chief Inspector Uhl revealing Eisenheim ‘s background and childhood friendship with Sophie. The movie continued with the events that led to the Crown Prince’s interest in the magician – Eisenheim’s arrival in Vienna, his reunion with Sophie during a performance and a special performance by the magician for the Crown Prince and his entourage, in which Eisenheim embarrasses the prince for a brief moment. Sophie appears at Eisenheim’s quarters to warn him about his actions at the royal palace. The two end up declaring their feelings for one another by making love. After Sophie reveals Crown Prince’s Leopold’s reasons for proposing marriage – he needs her Hungarian family connections to build a power base strong enough to usurp his father from the Imperial throne – both come to the conclusion that Leopold would never let her go. Even if they decide to make a run for it, the prince would hunt them down and kill them. Realizing this, Eisenheim decides to unfold plans that would allow Sophie to escape from Leopold’s clutches and guarantee the couple’s future safety and happiness.

I have never read Millhauser’s story about Eisenheim. But I must admit that I became enamored of Burger’s cinematic adaptation since the first time I saw it. The story possessed many elements that made it entertaining and unique for me. One, it had plenty of romance, due to the romance between Eisenheim and Sophie; along with the love triangle between the two and Crown Prince Leopold. It had intrigue from the plot centered around the Crown Prince’s efforts to rid Eisenheim as a rival for not only Sophie’s affections, but those of the Austrian people. It had mystery thanks to Eisenheim’s mind-blowing magic, Chief Inspector Uhl’s attempts to expose it, and the tragic events that dominate the film’s latter half. And Crown Prince Leopold’s plans to dethrone his father, along with his competition with Eisenheim for the Viennese public’s affections gave the movie a political tone. It simply had everything and Burger managed to combine it all with a superb script.

The cast in ”THE ILLUSIONIST” contributed to the movie’s superior quality, as well. Edward Norton was superb as the magician Eisenheim. Despite being the movie’s main character, he did a great job in conveying the character’s many personality facets – including his love for Sophie (which makes this role one of Norton’s most romantic), and his contempt toward both Crown Prince Leopold and Chief Inspector Ulh Even more importantly, Norton managed to convey some of these emotional aspects of Eisenheim’s personality, while retaining the man’s enigmatic nature. Jessica Biel literally glowed as Sophie, Duchess von Teschen. Frankly, I believe the character might be one of her best roles. Biel had portrayed Sophie more than just an elegant and charming woman from the Austro-Hungarian ruling class. She revealed Sophie’s inner sadness from her earlier disrupted relationship with Eisenheim and fear of facing a lifetime with the odious Crown Prince. Speaking of which . . . kudos to Rufus Sewell for portraying one of the most complex screen villains in recent years. Sewell’s Leopold was not simply a one-note villain who sneered at everyone he deemed inferior to himself. The actor portrayed the prince as an ambitious and emotional man who desired respect and even love from the public and those close to him. Yet, despite this desire, he seemed capable of returning such feelings to others, especially Sophie, due to his arrogance and vindictive nature. But if you had asked me which performance in ”THE ILLUSIONIST” really impressed me, I would have to say Paul Giamatti as Chief Inspector Walter Uhl. Giamatti either had the bad or good luck – it depends upon one’s point of view – to portray the most complex character in the movie. This is a man torn between his curiosity over Einheim’s talent as a magician, his ambition to be more than just a policeman, and his sense of justice and outrage toward the tragic event revealed in the second half. Giamatti’s Chief Inspector Ulh is a man literally torn apart over toward whom he should direct his loyalty. And the actor did a superb job in portraying every nuance in the character. In my opinion, he managed to dominate the film without being its main star.

I really do not have much to say about the film’s production values. Granted, production designer Ondrej Nekvasil; along with costume designer Ngila Dickson, and art directors Stefan Kovacik and Vlasta Svoboda, did an admirable job of re-creating turn-of-the-century Vienna on the screen. And yet . . . aside from Dickson’s elegant costumes, I found the movie’s Viennese setting to be slightly colorless. And empty. The setting lacked the color of that particular period shown in other movies like 1969’s ”THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU, LTD” and 1976’s ”THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION”.

Despite my complaint against the film’s colorless production designs, I have to give kudos to Neil Burger for writing a rich adaptation of Millhauser’s story. He also did an excellent job of conveying his vision of the story through his direction of the crew and a cast of talented actors that included Norton, Biel, Sewell and Giamatti. ”THE ILLUSIONST” is a beautiful and mysterious love story filled with magic and political intrigue. After six years, I still find it enjoyable to watch.

“LIMITLESS” (2011) Review

“LIMITLESS” (2011) Review

When I first saw the movie trailer for the new “techno-thriller” called “LIMITLESS”, I must admit that I found myself intrigued by the plot’s premise. But I never felt any real anticipation to see the movie. Its premise struck me as the type that could easily make or break a film. 

Based upon Alan Glynn’s 2001 novel, “The Dark Fields”“LIMITLESS” told the story of a New York City writer named Eddie Morra, who is approached by his former brother-in-law (also drug dealer) to try out a new experimental drug. According to brother-in-law Vernon Grant, this NZT-48 has the ability for humans to access 100% of the brain’s power, as opposed to the normal 20% (which is in reality, a myth). Eddie accepts, and, much to his surprise, the drug works, allowing him to finish his book. Determined to continue using NZT-48, Eddie returns to Vernon for more of the drug. He runs a few errands for Vernon, returns to the latter’s apartment and finds him dead. Eddie also finds a large supply of NZT-48 hidden in Vernon’s oven. Thrilled by the impact of NZT-48, Eddie turns to the world of finance and attracts the attention of a high powered businessman named Carl Van Loon. He also attracts the attention of a Russian gangster named Gennady, from whom he borrowed money in order to enter the stock market on a large scale. And Eddie eventually discovers that the mysterious person who had killed Vernon, has been stalking him. Even worse, he learns from his ex-wife Melissa that anyone who ceases to use NZT-48 for a period of time, risks his or her health

I must admit that I was very impressed by “LIMITLESS”. First of all, I feel that Leslie Dixon wrote an excellent screenplay that had at least one or two minor flaws. I could not compare his screenplay to Glynn’s novel, because I have never read the latter. A family member who had read the novel informed me that Dixon did maintain the first person narrative, allowing leading actor Bradley Cooper to provide a first-rate narrative. Dixon also maintained the novel’s peek into the human psyche and our desire for power, prestige and money through any means possible. A good example of this desire came from the main character’s willingness to use the NZT-48 to make more money and at the same, not bother to hide his accomplishments. This unwillingness on Eddie’s part to bypass open acknowledgement led to a great deal of unwanted attention from people like Carl Van Loon, Gennady and his murderous stalker. One would think that“LIMITLESS” could easily be an ode to human brain power. And yet . . . I found it ironic that despite using 100 percent of their brains after using NZT-48, characters like Eddie and a few others failed to consider all aspects of their situations. And this failure either endangered their lives . . . or ended it. So, exactly how limitless was this drug?

As I had stated in the above paragraph, there were a few aspects of the movie’s plot that I would consider as flaws. After an encounter with the Russian thug Gennady, Eddie found himself without a NZT-48 pill and his life endangered. He had to go to his girlfriend Lindy’s office and recruit her to fetch his supply, which he had hidden inside her apartment. On her way back to her office and Eddie, Lindy found herself being followed by Eddie’s mysterious stalker. Why was he following her? How did he know that she had Eddie’s supply of NZT-48 on her in the first place? How did he know that she had gone to her own apartment for Eddie’s pills? I am certain that someone can explain this . . . mysteryto me. Because I still cannot explain it. In the movie’s final sequence, which featured a last meeting between political candidate Eddie and Van Loon, the latter revealed his knowledge of the NZT-48 pills that Eddie had been taking, his purchase of the company that had been manufacturing the drug and his shutdown of Eddie’s private supply lab. Exactly how did Van Loon find out about the NZT-48 drug? Who told him? Because the businessman never did reveal how he had found out. The only thing he was ascertained of was Eddie’s occasional bizarre behavior.

I was very impressed by Neil Burger’s direction of the film. One important factor to the success of the film was that Burger managed to maintain a brisk pace throughout the entire film. And this is an important factor for me, because if there is anything that will divert my attention from any movie, it is slow pacing. Two, with cinematographer Jo Willems, and editors Tracy Adams and Naomi Geraghty; Burger presented this tale with original photography and editing that at times I found rather mind blowing. One of my favorite sequences featured Eddie’s discovery that the NZT-48 drug allowed him transport from one location to another without his knowledge. I felt as if I was on a PCP trip, while watching the sequence, without feeling any confusion whatsoever. Another favorite sequence of mine featured the last meeting between Eddie and Van Loon, at the former’s campaign headquarters. It was a sequence filled with snappy dialogue, great pacing and superb performances by both Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro. Overall, I think that Burger’s original direction did justice to Dixon’s script and especially to Glynn’s novel.

The cast for “LIMITLESS” was outstanding. Tomas Arana gave a quiet and intense performance as the mysterious man in the tan coat, who was stalking Eddie. And Abbie Cornish was intelligent as Eddie’s book editor girlfriend, Lindy. Aside from one sequence, I thought her role could have had a stronger presence. On the other hand, Anna Friel made the most of her one scene in the movie, as Eddie’s former wife Melissa Gant, who had also taken the NZT-48. I was also impressed by Johnny Whitworth’s performance as Vernon Gant, the drug dealer who had hooked Eddie on to NZT-48. Sleaze had never looked classy. Welsh actor Andrew Howard injected style, if not class into his role as the Russian thug Grennady. And he did so without developing his character into a cliché. It has been a while since I have seen Robert DeNiro in a worthwhile role. And I must say that I found his portrayal of the subtle and intelligent Carl Van Loon as one of his best in several years. He was right on target in portraying a no-nonsense and powerful businessman that had risen to the top by his own intelligence and hard work. But the man of the hour . . . or movie was Bradley Cooper. And he gave a complex and superb performance as the novelist, whose life is changed by one little pill. Cooper proved that he had what it takes to become a Hollywood powerhouse, as he guided the role of Eddie Morra from a sad sack loser to a self-assured think tank through various little triumphs and setbacks. He certainly deserves to become a full-fledged star, thanks to his performance in this movie.

“LIMITLESS” has its minor flaws. After all, no movie is perfect. But I must admit that I found it a very entertaining and intelligent film. Director Neil Burger did justice to both Alan Glynn’s novel and Leslie Dixon’s first-rate script. And he had a superb cast, lead by a very talented Bradley Cooper to help him. This is one movie I can never get tired of watching.