A young woman, torn between two worlds, discovers her voice and her resolve and becomes a champion of her people in the face of tyranny. This trope has long-defined a good chunk of young adult fiction fromThe Wizard of Oz to The Hunger Games, Alice in Wonderland to Divergent. However, those works use allegorical fantasy to safely distance the reader from the tumult of real-life. Oh, and those works all feature a female protagonist who is white. There may be a sidekick or two of color, but that’s it.
Angie Thomas jettisons the allegory and brings us face-to-face with the racism, sexism, and economic disparity crippling our country in her young adult novel The Hate U Give (title courtesy of a 2Pac lyric), now sure-handedly adapted into film by director George Tillman, Jr. (Soul Food, Barbershop, Notorious).
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
African-American teen Starr Carter – portrayed in the film with exceptional fire and presence by Amandla Stenberg (The Darkest Minds) – is a luminous and high-potential presence at Williamson, her all-white, upper-class high school . Her principled parents (Girls Trip‘s Regina Hall and Fences‘ Russell Hornsby delivering just the right mix of haunted bravery and pragmatic compassion) have kept the family residing in neighboring Garden Heights – a hardscrabble community riddled with gun violence, drug lords, and countless dead ends – to remain close to their roots, but they drive their kids to Williamson to give their progeny a leg up on their education. I suspect there is a lot that could be written about those parenting choices (pro and con), but that is the narrative conceit around which The Hate U Give‘s story revolves.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
One night, after attending a house party in her home town, Starr witnesses one of her dearest and oldest friends (a heartbreakingly charming Algee Smith – Detroit) gunned down in a routine traffic stop. The narrative then tracks her challenges overcoming her own fears and those of her parents – re: taking a stand and testifying – as well as her burgeoning realization that her well-intentioned but myopic classmates don’t know the first thing about the daily dangers Starr faces in her own neighborhood.
Tillman’s film is a gut punch, particularly in its nuanced first hour, as we are introduced to Starr’s world(s) and trace the tricky balancing act she performs every day. If there is a flaw in the film, it is that – due to the time-limitations of film versus novel – the Williamson side of Starr’s life is relatively unexplored and her school chums remain ciphers, chiefly providing the occasional plot complication and little more.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
The supporting cast is exceptional: Selma‘s Common as Starr’s loving but arguably hypocritical policeman uncle who collects a paycheck while (sort of) accepting the party line to “shoot first, ask questions later”; Captain America‘s Anthony Mackie as a local drug lord who was once best buds with Starr’s father and whose children remain Starr’s pals; Riverdale‘s KJ Apa wringing his Archie Andrews best from an underwritten role as Starr’s boyfriend; and singer Sabrina Carpenter (“Thumbs“) as one of Starr’s besties who devolves into the junior version of Laura Ingraham before Starr’s very eyes.
Apparently, I will spend this autumn in the multiplex in a puddle of tears. A Star is Born gutted me, and, now, The Hate U Give had the same impact. The latter film grows increasingly predictable as it reaches its climactic moments, but it is so well-executed with such authenticity and is so sensitively relevant to the callous and cruel days in which we are living that I found myself having about 12 ugly cries through its running time. I attribute that, not only to Tillman’s confident and workmanlike direction, but to performances – particularly Stenberg’s, Hall’s, and Hornsby’s – that stubbornly refuse to embrace cinematic escapism. This family is a loving one, rife with disagreements, but ultimately wanting to rise above the fray and simply live.
We all want that. We all need that. We all deserve that. Yet, every day when I read the headlines, that seems to be an increasingly unattainable pipe dream.
“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.” ― Richard Adams, Watership Down
When even our escapist entertainment reminds us of the dystopia in which we are currently living as Americans, you know things are dire indeed. This weekend we took in a Saturday night production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast by our talented pals at Augusta, Michigan’s Barn Theatre and a Sunday matinee of the film adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s young adult novel The Darkest Minds. Both were engaging diversions, and, yet, as I sat through both, I was reminded repeatedly of how disconcertingly life imitates art.
If there were ever a tale as old as time that functions as a parable of toxic masculinity, it is Disney’s take on Beauty and the Beast, adapted from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale first as an Academy Award-winning animated musical in 1991, then as a Broadway stage show in 1994, and finally as a live action film musical in 2017. And it’s made boatloads of cash in each iteration.
Andrea Arvanigian as Belle and Charlie King as Maurice in “Beauty and the Beast” at Barn Theatre.
Let’s see. Belle, a bookish beauty, is caught between two brutes: 1) a misogynistic and vainglorious hunter (Gaston) who sees her as a trophy to be bullied and berated into submission and 2) a literal beast of a man who forces an exchange of her imprisonment for her father’s freedom and locks her in his castle until she succumbs to his “charms.” It may as well be renamed “#MeToo: The Musical.”
As always, the Barn wows with their stagecraft, turning around a technically complex show with barely a week of rehearsal, all the while smiling and parking cars and mowing lawns and serving drinks and selling souvenirs. Be our guest, indeed!
I’d never seen the stage iteration, and I admit to having some difficulty with the first act which pads out the narrative with some forgettable numbers and comic bits and belabors the Beast’s darker impulses to the point that we begin to lose the sense of isolation and loneliness that humanizes him in the films (not Alan Menken’s and Tim Rice’s finest work – Rice took over for the late Howard Ashman for the Broadway adaptation’s additional material). I now understand why Disney went back to the drawing board with last year’s live action flick, rather than adapt the stage version.
Swiped from Jamey’s Facebook page … sorry (not sorry)!
That said, Jamey Grisham as the titular beast does a lovely job working around those limitations and giving us a Beast who is more of a woebegone man-child than an outright Stanley Kowalski caveman. As I said to him following last night’s performance, his Beast was like a misunderstood pit bull who’d been left at the shelter too long. He looked at me quizzically, but, believe me, for an animal lover like me, that’s high praise. Jamey has the voice of an angel and moves beautifully, but arguably his finest moment is his quietest: when Belle reads King Arthur aloud to the admittedly illiterate Beast. The tender poignancy of Andrea Arvanigian’s Belle sharing a beloved tome with a creature who has never received the most basic of kindnesses is palpable. And the subtle canine physicality that Grisham brings to the scene (how does a Beast sit in a chair, anyway?) is heartwarmingly whimsical.
Albert Nelthropp as Gaston in Barn Theatre’s “Beauty and Beast.”
Albert Nelthropp has a true gift for balancing the cartoonish and the menacing as Gaston. He never misses a comic beat, has a voice (and articulation) that fills the cavernous Barn space, and possesses that rare ability to be likable without losing the utter despicability of his character. Penelope Alex is a lovely and warm Mrs. Potts, delivering the title tune in a soft and lullaby-like manner.
And Hans Friedrichs is having the time of his life as Maurice Chevalier-inspired major domo Lumiere. Few performers could be as elegantly hysterical with (basically) a flashlight strapped to the end of each arm. He and Samantha Rickard as his paramour-turned-feather-duster Babette are a hoot.
Be sure to stick around for the Bar Show, a Barn Theatre tradition where the apprentices take over the Rehearsal Shed post-performance to deliver a kooky comic cabaret with polish and panache. Grisham directs and choreographs (is there anything this man can’t do?) with a zippy but inclusive efficiency.
The Disney theme continues with numbers from Coco, The Aristocats, and The Lion King, plus the lost number “Disneyland” from Marvin Hamlisch’s and Howard Ashman’s musicalization of Smile and a pretty epic opener “The Greatest Show” from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul‘s The Greatest Showman (which, for all intents and purposes, should be a Disney musical … but isn’t).
Video clipsat the bottom of this post.
From musicalized misogyny on Saturday to a sci fi fable on Sunday about children locked in cages by the government, forcibly separated from their parents – The Darkest Minds … I told you our entertainment choices this weekend seemed oddly ripped from today’s headlines. Or I just spend way to much time trolling CNN’s and MSNBC’s websites.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
The Darkest Minds has been unfairly pilloried by critics. It’s not awful. It’s not great either. The cinematic universe is now littered with Ray Bradbury-esque young adult future-shock franchises that aspired to the box office glory of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games but never quite made it past the starting gate: The Golden Compass, The Mortal Instruments,Beautiful Creatures, Percy Jackson, Divergent, I Am Number Four, and so on. Judging by ticket sales this past weekend, Darkest Minds will be in the trash heap of failed young adult film series as well.
That’s a bit of a shame, as I found its depressing and ominous qualities oddly … refreshing (?). It is necessarily discomforting in today’s world to watch a piece of popcorn entertainment depict young children forcibly ripped from their parents’ arms and sent to internment camps for being “different” (albeit in this instance for having super powers). Yes, we’ve covered this territory a lot; hell, it’s basically the same premise Marvel’s X-Men have been milking for nearly sixty years. Yet, it remains timely. Sadly timely.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
The film probably would have worked better as a bleak TV series – something you watch on NetFlix on a grey Sunday afternoon, while still in your pajamas and eating an entire box of Cap’n Crunch cereal.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
In her first live action film (after Kung Fu Panda), Jennifer Yuh Nelson has assembled a capable and transfixing cast, even if they are in servitude to a fairly pedestrian and episodic script. A luminous and haunting Amandla Stenberg (Rue from the original Hunger Games) plays telepathically gifted Ruby Daly – as in all of these sorts of films, she is the Christ/Skywalker/Superman-like “one who will save us all.”
Stenberg is a star in the making, so her mere presence makes the film far more interesting to watch than it should be. A la Dorothy in Oz, she has a band of scruffy friends – Harris Dickinson as dreamy love interest Liam, Skylan Brooks as cerebral Chubbs, Miya Cech as mute Zu – who aid and abet her adventures. The foursome are by far the best thing in the film with a chemistry that deserves a far better vehicle to showcase it.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
They are on the run from a rather confusing collection of government entities and rebel factions that have sprung up in the wake of a nationwide virus that has killed 90% of America’s children and left the remaining 10% with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Uplifting, eh?
Of course, all the adults – well-meaning and earnest Mandy Moore (that’s pretty much her range right there), glowering Gwendoline Christie (sadly sans her shiny Star Wars Stormtrooper helmet), and West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford being all West Wing-y as, yes, the President – are on a mission to collect the super kids to do … well … something? Take over the world? Kill the remaining kids? Clean boots and grow vegetables? Heck, I have no idea.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Arguably, the best outcome for the tens of people who will have walked past Mission: Impossible or Mamma Mia! to go see The Darkest Minds is that some of them might be inspired to pick up the far superior Watership Down by Richard Adams and give it a spin.
Ruby improbably finds a paperback copy in an abandoned shopping mall, reads it to her compatriots, and then repeats ad nauseum Adams’ narrator’s memorable caution to “Prince Rabbit” that “all the world will be your enemy.”
Sadly, these days, those words seem more prescient than ever. So much for escapist entertainment.
Increasingly, we seem like a society of hermits, coexisting in our own separate little digital bubbles – a self-enforced solitude sparked either by anxiety or exhaustion or a combination thereof. We interact with each other via screens and emojis and Snapchat filters and snarky GIFs … but we never truly connect.
Maybe I’m just a cranky old man, but I’m fascinated and annoyed by how many people I see grocery shopping, commuting, eating lunch, and so on without ever removing their ubiquitous iPhone earbuds, as if the most mundane activities must all be accompanied by one’s own personal soundtrack or as if to signify to any and all passers-by, “I am not someone who wants to speak to you, to interact with you, or to acknowledge your existence.”
And it is with this conceit that Baby Driver, the latest opus from gonzo director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, World’s End), turns the genres of both the movie musical and the car chase thriller on their respective ears. Literally.
In the titular role of “Baby,” Ansel Elgort (The Fault In Our Stars, Divergent, Carrie) takes full advantage of his pouty good looks – which veer from insolence to wonderment and back again – and of his overgrown puppy dog 6’4″ frame to portray a Millennial whose tortured childhood has led him to a life of a crime as the supremely gifted getaway driver for a smooth-talking, Teflon-coated Atlanta crime boss (a delightfully Yuppified Kevin Spacey).
You see, Baby suffers from tinnitus, acquired as a wee lad in a horrific car accident when his squabbling parents squabbled just a bit too much and neglected to see they were about to ram into the back of a semi. And music – as supplied by a suitcase full of old iPods – is the only thing that soothes his ringing ears (and aching heart).
Furthermore, his love of vintage pop, rock, and jazz helps him escape the personal horror that is chauffeuring Spacey’s gang of sociopaths, which includes a magnificently bonkers Jon Hamm (Million Dollar Arm, Mad Men) and a less magnificently/more annoyingly bonkers Jamie Foxx (Django Unchained, Annie), from heist to heist. Baby, as portrayed in a star-making turn by Elgort, is nearly mute (by choice) and rarely removes his headphones (nor his sunglasses) which irritates just about every Gen Xer/Baby Boomer in his immediate orbit.
What aggravates them even further is that, shielded as he is in his own little tune-filled universe, he is savvier, is a more skilled driver, and is more in command of the details in his environment than all of Spacey’s goons put together. It’s a sly commentary on the evolution/devolution we see generationally in America today.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Similar to Bjork’s Selma in Lars von Trier’s brilliant Dancer in the Dark, Baby’s world is a seamless auditory marvel as day-to-day sounds and movements morph into musical cues he hears through his headphones and vice versa. The car chases (aplenty) are all choreographed to the tunes in Baby’s head, often to the chagrin – and bodily harm – of his passengers. (Baby even turns on windshield wipers in time to the music, when there isn’t a drop of precipitation in the sky.)
The novelty of Baby Driver is in Wright’s direction and staging, if not so much in the plot itself. Perhaps predictably, Baby is a gangsta with a heart of gold, saving what cash he can from his jobs to care for his deaf foster father (portrayed with great affection by CJ Jones) who is confined to a wheelchair. As cloying as that plot detail sounds, it actually is quite affecting and grounds the movie nicely. Baby meets cute with a sunny waitress named Debora, portrayed by a luminous Lily James (Cinderella), and, in turn, Baby plots his (of course) doomed escape from a life of crime.
Things don’t go easily for Baby (nor should they), and the film’s final act gets a bit too bloody for its own good. As a Dolly Parton-quoting postal worker foreshadows to Baby when, unbeknownst to her, he is casing her workplace for an upcoming robbery, “The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.”
Nonetheless, Baby Driver is a high-octane summer blast, with choreography that would make Gene Kelly swoon (albeit involving a rogues’ gallery of classic cars and rat-a-tat machine guns) and with a soundtrack to die for. Any film that manages to incorporate Blur’s quirky “Intermission” into an ominous set-piece, that can use Dave Brubek’s “Unsquare Dance” to make a routine coffee run seem Fosse-esque, and that can find a way of making Young MC seem hip again is ok in my book.
It’s only a shame that Wright didn’t just go ahead and have his thugs burst into outright song – I mean he has hammy-a$$ singers Spacey, Foxx, and Elgort, not to mention Paul Williams (!) in his cast. At times, Baby Driver seems like more of a musical than La La Land did. Maybe a movie mash-up of Guys and Dolls and The Fast and the Furious is next on Wright’s cinematic agenda. If so, I’ll be there.
I think I’m supposed to hate Suicide Squad, at least according to Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe I’m just a contrarian or I truly do have lousy taste, but I was entertained by David Ayer’s scruffy take on DC Comics’ classic Dirty Dozen-homage. Could it have been better? Um, yeah. Is it some cosmic train wreck that has destroyed cinema forevermore? Nope.
In full disclosure, my objectivity may be clouded. A bit. I still have the sense memory of holding the first issue of John Ostrander/Kim Yale’s 1987-comic-reimagining in my grubby eighth grade hands. (See cover below.) Suicide Squad had been around since the 60s, but, under the watch of husband/wife team Ostrander and Yale and inspired by the then-recent DC Universe-rebooting one-two punch of Crisis on Infinite Earths and Legends, the Squad went from being a dull paramilitary outfit (a cut-rate Mission: Impossible) to a gonzo bucket of colorfully costumed sociopathic misfits who agreed to take on covert missions in order to commute time from their lengthy prison sentences.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Ostrander and Yale galvanized the team around new character Amanda Waller, the Squad’s tough-as-nails government handler for whom Machiavelli and Mussolini were likely matinee idols, and the Squad’s adventures became a bruise-black satire on the endemic overreach and inhumanity inherent in America’s military-industrial complex and criminal justice system.
Funny how little things change in 30-some years.
As Warner Brothers’ DC Entertainment continues to play catch up with the brighter, more engaging, critically acclaimed work of direct competitor Disney’s Marvel Studios, DC’s latest cinematic adaptation Suicide Squad plays well to the insiders (geeks like yours truly) but may stumble a bit with the casual moviegoer. That’s a shame. This material is rife with opportunity for timely and pithy allegory in a world where terror is combated with more terror and where politicians distinguish themselves through schoolyard taunts. Ostrander and Yale were pretty damn prescient.
Regardless, Suicide Squad is a pip, particularly in its first hour; Ayer, via narrator Waller (played with crisp gravitas by the ever-dependable Viola Davis [Prisoners]), fires off a visceral roll call of the scuzziest villains this side of Roger Ailes. Margot Robbie (The Big Short) as Harley Quinn, Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) as Deadshot, and Jai Courtney (Divergent) as Captain Boomerang have the most arresting (pun intended) moments throughout, popping off their glib one-liners with an undercurrent of soulful pathos. Jay Hernandez (Friday Night Lights) as the tragic El Diablo and Joel Kinnaman (Robocop) as the Squad’s field lieutenant Rick Flag are compelling and pleasantly understated, given that, respectively, one shoots fire from his hands and the other is dating a sorceress. You know, just a typical Tuesday.
Other cast members get a bit lost in the movie’s manic shuffle of CGI zombies and its “Now, THAT’S What I Call Hip-Hop” soundtrack. Cara Delevingne (Paper Towns) as Enchantress, Karen Fukuhara as Katana, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (The Bourne Identity) as Killer Croc eke out a memorable moment or two in this overstuffed flick, which is more credit to their talents than to Ayer’s screenplay.
Oh, yeah, and then there’s Jared Leto. The Joker. I may be in the minority, but I find Leto exhausting and a bit desperate. Always have. I believe his revelatory and nuanced and humane turn in Dallas Buyers Club may have been the exception and not the rule for his particular filmography.
Leto’s work in Suicide Squad as The Joker makes Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter look like Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski. Leto has expressed some crabbiness that so many of his scenes in Suicide Squad ended up on the cutting room floor. The powers-that-be (and whatever ADHD-addled focus group edited this thing) should have cut them all.
Yet, the narrative is stubbornly beholden to shackling Robbie’s much superior Harley Quinn to her comic book beau onscreen. To be honest, Harley would have been just fine without her “Mistah J.” And so would we.
After the first hour, alas, Suicide Squad devolves into the kind of muddy, mundane comic book movie that typically inflicted cinemas in the 90s. An ill-defined villain stands on a rooftop somewhere waving his/her arms around and speaking in an ominously metallic voice borrowed from the witness protection program. A sea of computer-generated minions construct a death-ray/cloud-thing that will annihilate humanity and demolish a number of stop-motion-photographed international landmarks along the way. Consequently, Suicide Squad isn’t a movie about which you should give much thought after viewing … but it could have been.
Ayer (End of Watch) is sharp enough to assign Smith’s Deadshot a quip about how silly and cliched that apocalyptic denouement can be (yet somehow the filmmaker is too lazy to actually devise a fresh third act). Smith intones, “Let me guess. We’re going to the swirling ring of trash in the sky now. When does this end?” Indeed, that is the question. I’m guessing Marvel’s acerbic Deadpool would have had an answer. And an inventive one. Maybe Will Smith and Ryan Reynolds can plot a cross-studios team-up for their next outing.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
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Indiana’s Gov. Mike Pence signs this (unnecessary) law in … private? Who invited the Mel Brooks movie extras?
Oh, Indiana, my Indiana … home of my upbringing and constant source of horrified bemusement and righteous indignation in my adulthood.
The latest and greatest affront to all creatures great and small in Indiana is the so-called “Religious Freedoms Restoration Act,” which, no matter how you want to spin the rhetoric, is intended to make the narrowly-defined, faith-based, mid-century (you pick the century) morality (?) of a bunch of Bible-thumping, pitchfork-wielding Hawthorne caricatures the law of that land wherever and whenever you try to go buy … baked goods?
And, yes, I’ve heard the rationalization that, “Well, all these other states had it, and Bill Clinton, the big ol’ dirty heathen, put this in place over 20 years ago at the Federal level, so why are Audra McDonald and Miley Cyrus and Angie’s List being so mean to us. We are just good Christian folks here.” Riiiight. And if Jimmy jumped down a well, would you all go, too? Please? There’s nothing nice about this legislation (or its timing); it is quite simply petty, spiteful, vindictive, and mean.
I had a Facebook “debate” with a soon-to-be-former Fort Wayne newscaster on another former Fort Wayne newscaster’s wall, and I ended my remarks thus, “If Indiana doesn’t want to LOOK bad, stop passing legislation like this that really only serves the purpose of MAKING INDIANA LOOK BAD. (Not to mention pandering to the blood lust of a certain fringe demographic to secure their future votes – the same people who claim to want ‘small government’.) And, yes, all those other places that have this legislation look bad too, but this is the freshest one. Congrats.”
To be clear, losing one’s cultural hegemony does not qualify as “persecution.”
(And don’t even get me started on the fun, wholesome family pastime of “pig wrestling” in Indiana and other states. Yes, that is a thing. Sadly. I can’t imagine this is what Jesus had in mind. Just sayin’. Oh, I do digress. This is a blog about movies, right?)
It is with this mindset last night that I set forth on a double feature of Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie and Robert Schwentke’s Insurgent. While neither film is Tolstoy, it is interesting how both traffic in themes of persecution, isolation, pogrom-like social mandate, and government and big business collusion run amuck.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Chappie, the more ambitious of the two, is directed by Blomkamp, who specializes in such Bradbury-esque allegory and class-warfare dystopia as District 9 (segregation) and Elysium (healthcare). With Chappie, he pilfers his narrative from a hodge podge of references: Oliver Twist, Pinocchio, Robocop, Short Circuit, 2001 to varying degrees of success.
The plot is rather simple: a military-industrial complex (headed up by Sigourney Weaver at her most teutonic) is supplying Johannesburg (which must be the “new” Beirut in film) with a fresh supply of robot cops, who, in their emotionless, unrelenting style can put a steely hard thumb in the heart of crime. Her star employee (Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire) has invented the “robo-cops” but wants to introduce free-thinking sentience to the strange rabbit-eared creatures.
His rival at the company is Hugh Jackman being all “bad Hugh Jackman” … which basically means him glowering while saddled with a awful mullet haircut and Steve Irwin/Croc Hunter wardrobe choices. Crikey those shorts are short! Jackman’s character has created the Dick-Cheney-special of all robot law enforcement: something called the “moose,” a tank-like device that, in Jackman’s words, isn’t a “godless creature” (vis a vis the autonomous robo-cops) but is rather a machine that will be, um, super efficient at killing people … a lot of people. (I didn’t say the metaphor was subtle here, just appreciated.)
Patel ends up creating one robot with a winning personality – “Chappie” – a baby Energizer bunny who likes He-Man cartoons but gets in with the wrong crowd (a set of “gangsters” who make the acting work of Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel seem subtle by comparison). Chappie causes all kinds of ruckus when Jackman realizes he can leverage Chappie’s very existence (and the uncontrollable nature of his robot brethren) to unleash discord and create the kind of violent societal conflict that makes people want to sign over any and all civil liberties. (See a pattern here?)
Chappie (the film) is interesting if a bit recycled/derivative, and it runs out of steam at the 2/3 mark. I grew very tired of Chappie’s family of thugs and would have enjoyed more development of the Patel/Jackman rivalry. Simplistic as it is, their characters’ implied debate of creator rights vs. created rights, independent thought vs. jack-booted control, authentic innovation vs. corporate profiteering is timely, frightening, and essential.
I would be remiss if I didn’t crow about Sharlto Copley’s stellar motion capture work as Chappie. His is the most fully-realized characterization in the film as our heart aches for this innocent, animal-esque creature desperately trying to survive and thrive and feel and love in a muddled world that he didn’t (nor wouldn’t) create. That performance is a keeper and likely deserves a more substantive film.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Insurgent continues in this near-future-there-but-for-the-grace-of-someone-goes-our-society vein. It is the second part of the young adult series Divergent, based on the books by Veronica Roth and starring Shailene Woodley and Theo James along with Kate Winslet, Miles Teller, Ashley Judd, Ansel Elgort, Jai Courtney, Maggie Q, Zoe Kravitz, and Octavia Spencer. Naomi Watts joins the fun this time as yet another mysteriously motivated, first-name only “faction leader” … actually make that “factionless” leader – the nomadic “Evelyn.”
I noted in my review of Divergent (here) that, as young adult fantasy series go, this one is closest to something I can stand. It’s obviously not as popular as Hunger Games or Twilight, but, for me, it offers a more humane and humanistic look at our collective foibles.
Again, this ain’t deep stuff and it’s just as violent (if not more so) as those other series. However, the little socialist in my heart finds the central conceit of the Divergent books/movies very appealing: a culture that has decided to solve its problems by segregating its people along personality lines being rocked to its core when a young woman emerges who demonstrates exceptional abilities across the continuum of all those very traits (heaven forbid!). It’s not deep, but it’s feminist (lite), it’s inclusive, and it’s a wonderfully educational metaphor for young people to understand that a society is strengthened not weakened by diversity. Again, not subtle, but obviously much-needed right now.
Insurgent as a film feels like a bit of a placeholder as the series kicks into high gear with the upcoming final two installments, and that’s ok. Woodley has done stronger character work elsewhere, but those key moments where she needs to telegraph her utter frustration with her role as society’s new messiah are delivered with aplomb. That’s pretty much all she needs to do here.
James, still Anthony-Perkins-on-steroids, does a better job this time establishing that he isn’t just all smoldering petulance but that he has a heart and a brain. Winslet continues to be an icily bureaucratic delight as the calculating Jeanine, whose nefarious actions at every turn belie her hollow rhetoric for “peace and unity.” (Sound familiar?) Finally, Miles Teller mounts a much-needed charm offensive in this installment, no doubt realizing that this isn’t Ibsen and the dour delivery from everyone in the first film was a bit of a buzz kill. He is a charmingly oily sparkplug as the dubiously motivated Peter.
When one’s soul is at sea because the world and its leaders seem hellbent on plain meanness, it helps to see a couple of movies (even if they aren’t that terribly great) that reflect a point of view that some of us do see through this insidious crap in real time. The fact that hundreds of people might be like-minded enough to put together a film (or two) for the masses that might sow some seeds of popular dissent? Well, that’s the kind of balm I go to the movies to receive. It’s the end of the world as we know it … and I feel fine.
Reel Roy Reviews 2
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I will admit that Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy is just not exactly my cup of tea. My first exposure was the initial episode in the cinematic franchise, starring Jennifer Lawrence. My biggest issue, ultimately, may have been with the marketing, which likely didn’t do the movie (or its source material) any favors.
Y’see, I grew up in a small town, the daily paper of which now peppers its pages every fall with one image after another of young bow-hunting girls and their “prizes” – bloody deer carcasses. Lots of them. One sad image after another of a toothy kid, grinning madly, not as if they’d just won a science fair or a spelling bee, but because they killed some defenseless creature. And that bugs me. Are these kids the target audience for these movies? Or are people who find this kind of “sportsman”-proselytizing offensive the audience? I don’t know.
The reason I share this bit of soap-boxing is because the original film seemed oddly positioned at some strange Venn Diagram nexus where Harry Potter-philes and Twi-hards meet neurotic survivalists and Cabela’s frequent flyer-card holders. I wasn’t exactly sure the core demographic, and perhaps Hollywood was trying a bit too hard to appeal to all comers. I heard a lot of rhetoric that somehow Katniss Everdeen, “the girl on fire,” with her furrowed brow and propensity for zapping squirrels and people with her trusty bow and arrow was a great antidote to the Disney princess affliction that was miring our nation’s young women in a malaise of pink chiffon. Maybe. But are those the only two choices? Archery and violence or toddlers and tiaras? Sigh.
Well, I guess I played my hand a bit early on this one, eh?
Said marketing/positioning celebrated the games aspect of the narrative, while missing entirely the inherent social satire. Granted, the marketers likely chose the more sale-able commodity, but, for someone persnickety like yours truly, this approach has made it that much harder for me to warm up to this particular franchise. (Divergent is more my speed.)
Blessedly, The Hunger Games film series has evolved and moved past the gimmicky hook of watching teenagers slaughter each other before national audiences in an oppressed dystopian near-future. (Gee, why is it that I don’t get that these flicks are good wholesome family fun?!) This brings us to the third installment in the franchise (after The Hunger Games and Catching Fire), the awkwardly titled The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.
Those of you ready to jump down my blogging throat in dismissal of my critique of the series’ omnipresent marketing framework? How’s about you read that title again: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. And convince me that the third book in this literary trilogy was not unnecessarily hacked into two parts to fill Lionsgate’s coffers with extra coin. Just sayin’. (No, I’m not the first to point this out, but it seems a fair critique on all fronts.)
This latest film continues the revolution that Katniss began fomenting in Panem (the future stand-in for an America run into the ground, no doubt by a lethal combo of Democrats and Republicans). Mockingjay spends the bulk of its running time underground, quite literally, as Katniss and her pals find themselves sequestered away in the mysterious District 13, a militarized sector that all had thought long-destroyed.
District 13 is the home of the Rebel Alliance (oops, wrong franchise) … the rebellion led by President Coin (Julianne Moore, a subtle-yet-steely breath of fresh gravitas) with the assistance of games-maker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman, sadly a bore in one of his final roles), weapon-smith Beetee (always sparkling Jeffrey Wright), and fashionista-cum-PR-wonk Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, a standout as she curdles Effie’s cartoonish buffoonery into sharp social commentary). The saving grace of these films has always been in the casting (Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz have both done some of their best work in the series), and this entry is no exception.
Unfortunately, Jennifer Lawrence and her bag of actorly tricks are starting to show some wear and tear with Mockingjay. The film is two hours of treading water before the big blowout with movie number four, and Lawrence suffers for it. (As do sidekicks Liam Hemsworth as Gale and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta.) Lawrence, saddled with what appears to be an Elvira wig from a bad Halloween costume, glares and pouts, glowers and mopes, without a heckuva lot to do. There’s a lot of talking and talking and talking about various political machinations, most of which bored me silly, and, by the time, Lawrence loses her sh*t in the third act because Peeta is in some grave peril (yet again), I found myself giggling and not one whit concerned for any of these thinly drawn characters.
Here is the interesting concept that Mockingjay (Part 1!) presents, however: wars are won and lost not by bravery or valor or even violence, but by public relations. The sly-est and most engaging moments in the film are when the forces of good and bad start to blur in their relentless uses of videographic propaganda (kinda like our fall election). The first two films laid this groundwork with jack-o-lantern-headed reality TV pundit Caesar Flickerman (a truly unhinged Stanley Tucci) and his broadcast of the super-violent Hunger Games as both public diversion and punitive restraint (boob tube as carrot and stick). This latest entry shows how that machine is employed in times of great social unrest, echoing eerily some of the latest trials and tribulations affecting race relations in present-day America.
For a series so superficially savvy about the strategic implications of marketing and PR on societal oppression, you’d think The Hunger Games’ real-world advertising campaigns wouldn’t seem so tone-deaf. At one point, Effie hisses with glee at Katniss, “You are going to be the best-dressed rebel in HISTORY!” Banks as Effie clearly gets the irony of that line and zings it to the rafters. But, then, I remembered seeing a Katniss Barbie doll (dressed in the same chic skin-tight jump suit) at Wal-Mart earlier this Black Friday “sell, sell, sell!” week, and I realized how hollow that irony actually was. Talk about winning the battle and losing the war…
What has happened to me? Have I been taken to the dark side by young adult fiction? Or are the cinematic charms of Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort simply to blame? (Wow, those are some monikers – what is with every millennial having a kooky name? God love yuppie parents and their precious aspirations.)
First, I lavished praise on Divergent (see here) starring Woodley and featuring Elgort (as her brother). Now, I find myself equally enthused about The Fault in Our Stars, the film adaptation of John Green’s worldwide bestseller about young cancer patients finding love for the first time. This go-round, Woodley and Elgort aren’t siblings, but rather are the oncologically-challenged paramours in question. (That took a bit of getting used to after Divergent‘s familial dynamic. Just sayin’…)
Nothing about this movie, in the abstract, is something I should have liked. I don’t like sappy love stories (e.g. Nicholas Sparks!). I don’t like cancer dramas where illness becomes metaphor for tragic courage (e.g. Love Story!). I don’t like teen angst played out by beautiful people who’ve never had a zit in their lives and live in “middle class” homes that look like spreads in Better Homes & Gardens (e.g. pretty much any show that doesn’t feature superheroes or monsters on The CW and ABC Family … and even a few that do!).
However, I found The Fault in Our Stars quite remarkable. The film is too long by a good 20 minutes, and it has its fair share of After School Special stomach-turning goop. Yet, it also has a poignant spikiness and warm-hearted cynicism that I found refreshing.
Woodley is lovely as “Hazel,” the film’s narrator and protagonist – a young woman who has spent much of her young life in hospitals, who lugs around an oxygen tank, and who obsesses about “the only honest book about death” she’s ever read – An Imperial Affliction. She is sick of being sick, but she’s also up-to-here with well-meaning folks who push her to join prayer circles and support groups. (I don’t know if it’s happenstance or by design that the film is set in Indianapolis, but Hazel’s eyeball-rolling, scorched-earth reaction to a class held in a Hoosier church basement by a twee born-again sitting atop a latch-hook-rug depicting the “heart of Jesus” had me at “hello.”)
Woodley and Elgort (“Gus”) meet cute in the church parking lot, when he, also a cancer sufferer, offers her a cigarette. See, he carries a pack around at all times, never lighting them, both for shock value and because, after losing one leg to cancer, he likes to “keep death between his teeth,” one unlit cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips.
Never ooky, always honest, continually charming, Elgort and Woodley are a luminous screen couple. Yes, the specter of cancer is always near, but the film deftly skewers Camille-esque cliche by depicting the realities of the illness and the pharmacological insanity of modern healthcare without devolving (much) into maudlin soap opera.
People who know they are dying can be really sh*tty with the healthy and unhealthy folks around them, but they also can tap into an exuberance for living life that the rest of us can’t hope to touch. The movie captures both with subtlety and nuance, with much credit going to its talented young co-stars.
Laura Dern is her affecting, capable self as Hazel’s pragmatically optimistic mother, and Willem Dafoe is a quiet hoot as Hazel’s literary hero, the author of An Imperial Affliction, who, let’s just say, doesn’t feel one iota of condescending compassion for “Make-a-Wish” kids.
At one point, Dafoe hisses, “I refuse to pity you in the way to which you have become accustomed,” seemingly putting Hazel in her place for once and for all. What he fails to realize is that Hazel, full of a self-awareness few ever achieve, wants neither his pity nor his kinship. She simply wants truth and respect. That‘s a fine summer movie message in my book.
Anyone who has followed this blog for a while knows that I am not exactly a fan of young adult fiction or the various movies it has spawned over the past 10 years. Twilight makes me snoozy; The Hunger Games leaves me peckish (and cranky), and gooey dreck like The Mortal Instruments just gives me a sugar headache.
Imagine my surprise, then, at how much I enjoyed Divergent. I’ve been dragging my heels to see it, waiting until the last possible moment, as it has been in theaters over a month. In fact, my showing tonight only had one person in it: me.
It is yet another dystopian fantasy in which society has (more or less) survived some unidentified cataclysm. A new order has been put in place to keep all of us well-behaved, monochromatic, and … a little dull. In Divergent‘s case, humanity has been organized into factions according to some key defining personality trait; for example the Dauntless are courageous or the Abnegation are selfless or the Erudite are, well, really smart.
Akin to Harry Potter’s famous sorting hat, teens in this society are forced to choose which faction will serve as their tribe/home for the rest of their days. Said coming-of-age ceremony seems to involve hallucinogenic drugs, plasma screen televisions, and some very unfortunate outfits that appear to have been designed by Eileen Fisher on a very bad day.
Shailene Woodley, portrays “Beatrice,” the heroine of our tale. She is a member of Abnegation, the selfless folks, and her parents are played by Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn (who are always so good at being stately and worried). Beatrice’s father serves some role in local government, though I wasn’t ever entirely clear what. All I could figure is that society is now led by a rather boring yet politely dysfunctional city council from hell.
Unsurprisingly, the parents in Divergent-world are hopeful that their children end up staying in the faction of their birth, but that is not always the case. Hence, the title “divergent” pertains to young people who defy tidy categorization. This diversity of thought and attitude seems to be the bane of existence for Kate Winslet’s “Jeanine” who heads up the power-hungry Erudite clan – as indicated by her smart Hillary Clinton haircut and Donna Karan-esque navy blue suits.
The bulk of the film is spent setting up the rules of this future society and, when Woodley is in fact revealed to be “divergent,” tracking how she will survive a society that doesn’t much want her in it. She is mentored by the hunkily haunted “Four,” portrayed by newcomer Theo James, channeling an Anthony Perkins-ish, glowering charm.
I found the proceedings much smarter than what is typically on display in these kinds of films. I suppose the casting of Winslet is a sign that director Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless) had something greater in mind for this one. It reminded me at times of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron, both of which depict near-future societies whose well-meaning, peace-keeping totalitarianism results in widespread mediocrity and a crushing fear of the unique. Orwell’s allegorical legacy continues … praise be!
At one point, Winslet’s character ominously declares, “The future is for those who know where they belong.” Perhaps its just my paranoid middle age speaking but our society today seems to fear the unknown more than ever. The cinematic parable of Divergent (and its two planned sequels) strikes me as so powerful at this precarious cultural crossroads where we find ourselves. So, for once in my movie-going life, I’m actually looking forward to the second installment in one of these teen oriented sci-fi fantasias. Heaven help me.