“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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“DOWNTON ABBEY” (2010) – Series One Retrospective

“DOWNTON ABBEY” (2010) – Series One Retrospective

The announcement of ITV’s new series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”, had attracted my interest the moment I had learned it would air on American television, during the winter of 2011. I happened to be a fan of Robert Altman’s 2001 movie, “GOSFORD PARK”. And when I learned that the movie’s Oscar winning writer, Julian Fellowes, was one of the series’ creators, my interest soon transformed into anticipation. 

Focused upon a vast estate during the last years of the Edwardian England, “DOWNTON ABBEY” was able to allow viewers to glimpse into the lives of the estate’s owner (or caretaker), Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham; his immediate family; and the family’s servants through seven episodes. This first series began with news of the R.M.S. Titanic disaster in April 1912, which sparked a crisis for the Crawley family. The series ended with the commencement of World War I, over two years later. During those two years, the family endured the loss of two heirs presumptive, a new heir from the wrong social class, a personal scandal for Lord Grantham’s oldest daughter, a series of minor problems and a mystery surrounding his new valet, a pregnancy, a hostile valet, and the youngest daughter’s embroilment in the women’s suffragette movement.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” did not strike me as an original series. After all, I have seen both another television series and a movie with a similar premise – namely the 1971-1975 BBC series, “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” and “GOSFORD PARK” (which had a murder mystery attached to it). “DOWNTON ABBEY” had a good number of plotlines. Two of them are continuing plotlines – Lady Sybil Crawley’s politics and friendship with the family’s Irish-born chauffeur, Bronson; and the fallout from Lady Grantham’s accident, caused by her personal maid, Sarah O’Brien. But the meat of the series centered around two major storylines – the Earl of Grantham’s new heir and his impact upon the family’s fortunes; and the mystery surrounding the new valet, John Bates.

Lord Grantham and John Bates first met, while serving together during the Second Anglo-Boer War, in which the latter was crippled for life. Years later, Lord Grantham helped Bates by hiring him as a new valet. The latter’s arrival (which occurred on the same day that the household learned about the Titanic sinking) sparked a feud between him and the venal first footman, Thomas, who had coveted Bates’ new position. Due to her friendship with Thomas, O’Brien became drawn into the feud. And the two spent the next two years attempting to get Bates fired. Bates acquired his own champion in the form of head housemaid, Anna Smith. By the seventh episode, Bates and Anna were in love. But Bates refused to pursue a romance, due to some mystery regarding his marriage to a questionable woman.

The other major story proved to be a lot more complicated. Lord Grantham’s marriage to an American heiress brought him money for the family estate, unexpected marital bliss, three daughters and no male heirs. Because he had no sons, Lord Grantham’s first cousin became his heir presumptive. And his oldest daughter, Lady Mary, became engaged to his cousin’s son. However, the Titanic disaster took the lives of the two heirs and a new heir was found – a Manchester attorney named Matthew Crawley, who happened to be Lord Grantham’s third cousin. Unfortunately, not only had Matthew been raised in a middle-class environment, he would end up inheriting the Grantham title, Downton Abbey and the money that came with Cora, Lady Grantham’s dowry – money that his three female cousins will never be able to touch following their father’s death. Although most of the Crawley women initially found the idea of Matthew as the next Earl of Grantham abhorrent, both Lady Grantham and the Dowager Lady Grantham decided to consider the idea of Lady Mary marrying him. They saw this as the only means for a member of the immediate family to have access to Lady Grantham’s dowry. This storyline played into Lady Mary’s efforts to find a husband as a way to avoid marriage to Matthew. Unfortunately, her reputation was compromised by a Turkish diplomat, who decided to visit her room during a weekend hunting party. The storyline also played a major role in the on-going rivalry between the much-favored Lady Mary and the ignored and less beautiful middle sister, Lady Edith. This rivalry ended in disaster for both by the seventh season.

I believe that “DOWNTON ABBEY” certainly lived up to its hype. The series turned out to be a sharp and well-written television drama that also proved to be a breath of fresh air. And that is an interesting conclusion for me to arrive, considering that“DOWNTON ABBEY” is not what I would call an original premise. I suspect that Julian Fellowes might have a talent for drama with a multi-class premise within a single setting, as his work with both the series and “GOSFORD PARK” seemed to prove.

Fellowes’ handling of the servants’ storylines and characterization proved to be adept and well-written, but not as complex of his handling of the immediate Crawley family. Mind you, I rather enjoyed the storyline surrounding the John Bates character and the mysteries of his past. Because of his handicap, Bates drew the ire of the other servants, who resented that they had to cover his mistakes caused by his disability. But this resentment transformed into a feud between Bates and the villainous Thomas that lasted throughout the entire first series. The problem I do have with Fellowes’ characterizations of the Crawley servants was that they seemed to lack a good deal of the same complexity that made the Crawley family very interesting. Most of the servants struck me as a bit too likeable – almost to the point of being noble. This was especially true with four of the characters – John Bates, the butler Charles Carson, the housekeeper Mrs. Elsie Hughes and head housemaid Anna Smith. The worse most of these characters seemed to suffer from – especially Bates and Mr. Carson – was pride. The servants did show signs of some moral complexity, when they expressed both surprise and resentment at housemaid Gwen Dawson’s aspirations to leave service and become a secretary.

On the other side of the spectrum, there was Thomas and O’Brien, who turned out to be villains of the story. Well . . . at least Thomas did. I must admit that O’Brien’s hostility seemed to be stemmed from her resentment toward her position as a servant. And she proved to be horrified and remorseful that she had caused Lady Grantham to miscarry an unborn child. Thomas, on the other hand, proved to be a thorough villain. Not only did he make several attempts to remove Bates as Lord Grantham’s valet, he also expressed callous disregard toward the death of second footman William Mason’s mother and Lady Crawley’s miscarriage. By the seventh season, he was fast becoming a one-note villain. And I found it disturbing that the series’ one true villain was not only a servant, but also a homosexual. Thomas’ sexual persuasion allowed Fellowes to provide him with one moment of sympathy, when he was rejected by a visiting aristocrat (Charlie Cox) that proved to be his former lover. It is possible that I am putting too much into this, but having the series’ one unrepentant villain also be a homosexual strikes me as slightly homophobic.

Fellowes handled the characterizations of the Crawley family with a complexity that I found a lot more satisfying. The series’ two most complex characters turned out to be the older Crawley sisters – Lady Mary and Lady Edith. Both proved to be decent women that had to deal with their own personal angst. Lady Mary had to deal with her damaged reputation and resentment toward her father’s interest in her cousin Matthew Crawley. And Lady Edith had to endure her parents and grandmother’s lack of attention. However, Lady Mary and Lady Edith’s sibling rivalry also proved how ugly they could become. Lady Mary seemed very unsympathetic toward her younger sister’s emotional plight. And Lady Edith’s resentment led her to expose her sister’s late night encounter with the Turkish attaché, Mr. Kemal Pamuk. After discovering Lady Edith’s treachery, Lady Mary sabotaged the younger sister’s developing romance with the widowed Sir Anthony Strallen.

The rest of the Crawley family seemed less complex than the two older sisters. But they had their share of flaws. Superficially, the Earl and Countess of Grantham seemed unusually tolerant toward their servants, for members of the aristocracy. Yet, Lord Grantham did reveal his willingness to make his chauffeur, Tom Branson, a scapegoat for his youngest daughter’s political interests. And both he and Lady Grantham’s cool dismissal of the plainer Lady Edith’s chances of matrimony struck me as rather callous. The Dowager Lady Grantham initially came off as a snobbish, blunt and a bit too reactionary. And yet, she also had a sharp wit that many found entertaining. She even managed to warm up to her son’s middle-class heir and the latter’s mother. Speaking of Matthew Crawley, he seemed like a sympathetic and strong-willed character. And yet, I got the distinct impression that he also had a chip on his shoulder and a tendency to make assumptions about others – especially Lady Mary, with whom he had fallen in love. And his mother, Mrs. Violet Crawley was a decent, forthright woman and former nurse, who also came off as what the British would describe as a swot. In other words, she sometimes came off as a know-it-all prig. The only member of the family, whose complexity seemed to be at the same level as most of the servants, was the youngest daughter, Lady Sybil. Fellowes nearly portrayed her as a lively, upbeat, compassionate and forward-thinking young woman, with a deep interest in politics. In other words, she came off as a bit too ideal in my taste.

For me, the best aspect of Series One was the storyline featuring the effects of no male heirs and the estate’s entails had upon the Crawley family. Fellowes must have put a great deal of effort into creating it. Looking back, I am surprised that so many plots had such a strong connection to this storyline regarding the new family heir and the entail. Who would have thought that the sinking of the Titanic would prove to have such a strong impact upon the Crawley family? Especially upon the lives of the two elder sisters – Lady Mary and Lady Edith – and their cousin Matthew? To avoid a future in matrimony with Matthew, Lady Mary set out to find a rich and socially acceptable husband. Unfortunately, a late night encounter with a Turkish diplomat during a family-hosted hunting party left a whiff of scandal in Lady Mary’s wake. And due to Lady Edith’s resentment toward her older sister, she quietly revealed the true details behind the death of Mr. Kemal Pamuk to the Turkish Ambassador, the whiff developed into a full grown scandal that tainted Lady Mary’s reputation.

As much as I admired the series’ writing, there were some aspects of it that left me scratching my head. I have already complained about Fellowes’ occasionally one-dimensional characterization of most of the servants and Lady Sybil. I also have a complaint about another character. Although his characterization of the Dowager Countess was basically ambiguous, the character strongly reminded me of another that Maggie Smith had portrayed in “GOSFORD PARK” – namely Constance, Countess of Trentham. Only her character in the 2001 movie seemed a lot more subtle. And there is also one aspect of the Lady Mary-Mr. Pamuk storyline that troubled me. All those who knew about Mr. Pamuk’s presence in Lady Mary’s bedroom never bothered to question how he discovered her bedroom in the first place. Well, both Anna and Lady Grantham had jumped to the conclusion that Lady Marry had invited the attaché into her bedroom. But not even Lady Mary bothered to question his presence in her room. She never expressed one question. If she had, she and her mother would have eventually discovered that the only person who had the best chance of revealing her bedroom’s location to Mr. Pamuk was Thomas. The footman had served as the attaché’s temporary valet during the hunting party.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” proved to be a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean . . . and deservedly. Despite some of its flaws, it was a well made and well written television series. This first series allowed viewers a glimpse into the world of the British aristocracy and its servants during the last two years before the outbreak of World War I. Now that war was declared in the seventh episode, I look forward to seeing how the series will handle the Crawleys and their servants’ experiences during the war. But if Series Two will cover World War I, does this mean that “DOWNTON ABBEY” will continue on into the period between the world wars – the same period now being covered by the recently updated “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”? I guess we will have to wait and see.