Divergent (2014)

Divergent...Released: March 21, 2014. Directed by: Neil Burger. Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd. Runtime: 139 min.

Timing’s an important thing to consider when releasing any movie. With Divergent, one must consider if we truly need another post-apocalyptic YA novel adaptation while The Hunger Games still reigns supreme. I think it makes it easier to compare them, even though they’d still be compared if this were released after Hunger Games concludes its franchise. Perhaps by 2015, this wouldn’t be as successful – it seems people are already feeling fatigued from all of these post-apocalyptic young adult novel adaptations.

Divergent follows Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) whose identity crisis begins when she learns she’s a Divergent, which are members of society who don’t fit into the five factions of this dysoptian Chicago. They threaten society because they’re impossible to control. The film is basically about how Tris is going to fit into society, and she has to pick a faction to become a functioning member of society. She chooses Dauntless, and meets her mysterious boy toy Four (Theo James), and together they must find out the secret of Divergent’s before it’s too late.

Now, I’ll briefly describe the factions. The Amity are farmers who portray kindness. The Abnegation (Tris’ faction of origin) the governing faction, portray the trait of selflessness. Thinking of them Amish, since they don’t believe in vanity, might be a good way to remember them. The Erudite’s trait is intelligence, represented by Kate Winslet’s character. The Candor are brutally honest people who say whatever’s on their minds, so I call this faction the No Lawyers Allowed club (geddit?). The Dauntless, the faction Tris chooses, work as the police force – and their trait is bravery. I think of them as major adrenaline junkies. It’s funny that we’re already seeing Divergent personality tests across the web. (Apparently, I belong in Abnegation or Erudite.)

Anyway, the government believes that by dividing people into factions they will be easier to control, because they can only obtain one basic personality trait and do what job best suits them. The government doesn’t allow them to exercise free-will, either. I think it’s better portray all personality traits, but that’s a no-no, apparently. A lot of this film goes against basic human nature, especially the ‘faction before blood’ mindset. Screw that – my family comes first. The film brings about themes of fear, conformity and individuality, and the writers’ thoughts about these themes are mildly intriguing.

Divergents are also threatening because, since fear wakes them up, they’re a threat. I like the idea the idea of how one must choose their path at an early age (Tris and her brother choose the same day, so it seems it’s between 18 and 21 years old), no takesies backsies, even if they grow as people and change. (A single drop of their blood drops into the faction bowl of their choosing, so that’s official.) Do you choose to stay in your own faction and stay with your family or part ways? Do you really know your true identity at 18 years old? That’s one of the film’s most fascinating aspects, and the most compelling idea the film has. Though, The Lego Movie is a better exploration of conformity out of 2014 films.

I think this would be a good time to get the inevitable comparisons to The Hunger Games out of the way. I think this film’s Divergent member of society is “Hunger Games‘ Mockingjay. Both of these films are essentially about dysoptian futures and overthrowing the government. I think Tris Prior is a more likable protagonist than Katniss Everdeen, but not a stronger character overall.

Katniss is great, but too Condor-ish to be completely likable. Then again, that’s the point but it makes it so much greater when she shows her vulnerable side. Tris is a good character who stands up for her beliefs and other people, which sometimes brings attention to her when she’s trying to show that she’s someone in society who isn’t hard to control. Woodley portrays her well and heart-warmingly in a few scenes. I think her bravery’s admirable, and I’m curious to see how some of her decisions affect her in the sequels. Woodley, a dynamic actress, has a lot of personality. It seems to me that a challenge for her as an actress would be to be antagonized by a character portrayed by Miles Teller (playing yet another douche), who she has a close friendship with – and was his romantic interest in last year’s “The Spectacular Now.” She seems honestly hurt by some of the things she says, and I like that vulnerability.

As for Theo James’ Four, the character is described as “mysterious” but it feels more like “he’s mysterious because he’s under-developed.” James is forgettable in his role, and his character isn’t anything special. I think the chemistry shared between him and Woodley is believable, but he’s not that great. He’s just there because of the way he looks, sorry for being too much of a Condor with that one. Everyone’s pretty well-cast, from Ashley Judd to Ansel Elgort, but it seems that a lot of these actors just have so little screen time, especially Maggie Q who just gives Tris a tattoo and monitors the dream tests. One antagonizing character is Jai Courtney, who just takes pleasure in bossing people around as a trainer in the Dauntless faction, but he’ll get on your nerves after awhile. So much time is spent in training to be a Dauntless that there’s not much time for anything else. This is really just an initiation film to introduce the characters. I assume the fact that they only foreshadow that there’s something lurking outside the city’s walls suggests they will explore it further in the sequels.

I think the finale is underwhelming, but Neil Burger (who doesn’t bring much style to the film) really does direct the action-packed finale well. Throughout the film, there are a lot of dream sequences, and there’s a serum that allows one’s images in their head to be portrayed on a monitor; I want that serum, because I’d love to rewatch my dreams. There’s another futuristic invention where it doesn’t hurt to get a tattoo, so since I don’t like pain that’d be nice – I could get the Bugs Bunny tattoo I’ve always wanted. There’s a very fun game of Capture the Flag with guns that simulate the pain of real bullets (it makes me think of that paintball version of CTF in Child’s Play 3) and a crazy zip-lining sequence that enables some great imagery and cinematography to take place. The score also fits the film like a glove. Technically speaking, this all looks great – and it’s epic in scale – but only a stern pretty good in many other aspects.

Score63/100

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March 28-30 Box Office Predictions: Swear words and Sabotage of biblical proportions

box office (1)Jason Bateman’s Bad Words is one of the new releases coming out this weekend, but it’s been in limited release since the 14th of March, and has grossed $837 thousand. It premiered at TIFF back in September, and it looks pretty awesome. Since one of the taglines is “suck my dictionary,” I’m really excited. I think it looks hilarious. I don’t think this will gross a lot this weekend; but I think $6.7 million is a good enough expectation.

Noah will be the winner this weekend. I think it’s more than guaranteed it’ll gross around $30 million this weekend, and $40 million is very likely, but I think it’ll be a huge surprise hit, much like last year’s World War Z. It’s of one of the three Biblical movies this weekend; it’s the second one after Son of God, and the next one will be Exodus. This stars Russell Crowe as the titular Noah; and it also stars Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson and Logan Lerman. It’s directed by Darren Aronofsky. I’m ecstatic to see this. The story of Noah fascinates me, and I’m excited to see a new film about it, and I love Aronofsky’s style. I’ve only seen his film Black Swan, but I’m excited to see more. Similar films open to $33.49 million. My prediction for this film is $56.5 million.

Sabotage is David Ayer’s newest film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Malin Akerman and Sam Worthington. I think this film looks promising. Movies similar to this open at $13.86 million. I’m curious to see if Schwarzenegger’s star power and Ayer’s direction will allow this to gross near End of Watch‘s $13.15 million. Both of Schwarzenegger’s starring vehicles since his comeback haven’t grossed double digits in its opening weekend (excluding The Expendables 2). The Last Stand was a fun movie that made $6.3 million in its opening, and Escape Plan made $9.9 million (so close). Since Arnie obviously doesn’t have as much star power as he once did, but I’m going to say this grosses $9.5 million in its opening weekend.

Here’s how I see the Top 10:

1. Noah: $56.5 million
2. Divergent: $28 million
3. Muppets Most Wanted: $10.883 million
4. Sabotage: $9.5 million
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel: $9 million
6. Bad Words: $6.7 million
7. Mr. Peabody & Sherman: $6.3 million
8. God’s Not Dead: $6 million
9. 300: Rise of An Empire: $4.2 million
10. Need for Speed: $3.8 million

V/H/S/2 (2013)

VHS 2Released: June 6, 2013. Directed by: Various including Adam Wingard, Gareth Evans. Starring: Kelsey Abbott, Adam Wingard, Mindy Robinson. Runtime: 96 min.

With hearing that V/H/S/2 is stronger than its predecessor, my expectations were slightly higher. What a mistake that was! While this film improves a few aspects over its predecessor, the general quality is worse. It improves on its frame narrative by giving us a stronger and more controlled segment called “Tape 49,” that furthers the mythology of the mysterious VHS tapes. It’s a bit similar to The Ring, if you ask me. The story that ties the segments together is that these two private investigators are looking into the disappearance of a woman’s son. One private eye portrayed by Kelsey Abbott is really cute. The other is a bit of a slime who makes some extra cash by scams; he films married men sleeping with women (Mindy Robinson for her hotness, but she’s been about 107 films and TV shows since 2012… So, porn star numbers, or just random hooker roles, amirite?) and then threatening to send them to the wife of the husband. These characters in the frame narrative get more character development this time around.

I think a good thing about the film is that the runtime has been shortened by twenty minutes. This time there’s only four segments and then one frame narrative that also works as an okay segment. “Tape 49” is okay, a little scary at times, and it’s more focused than the frame narrative of the previous film, but it’s still nothing special.

I’ll talk about the segments I don’t like very much first. The second main segment in the film is called “A Ride in the Park” and concerns a man on a bike ride, and goriness follows. This film shows an interesting POV that allows to see first-hand a transformation into one of horror’s most beloved creature: a zombie. Let the film’s obsession with zombies begin. The segment offers an interesting approach, but I think it’s largely boring. It makes me think twice about having a birthday party in the forest, but it’s just all lame and not scary.

The final segment is also nothing special. It’s set at a slumber party that gets visited by aliens. The “creature” effects are well-done, perhaps all-too-traditional, but still creepy. The cinematography in this one truly takes the viewers out of the experience, as far as I’m concerned, even for found-footage standards. It just makes it difficult to see what’s going on. This also a strange mix of a boring approach to film-making, and a freaky one. The characters are completely unimpressive and it’s all a bit perverted, at times.

There’s one segment called “Phase I Clinical Trials” that is actually pretty good. There’s one short scene in it that isn’t that great, but that’s about it. I think the foreshadowing is well done and the camera angles are great. The perspective is from a man’s eye transplant, because he lost it in a car crash. The perspective is similar to that of “Amateur Night” of the first film. There’s a recording device in the character’s electronic eye. The way things pan out makes me think twice of getting a transplant. The premise reminds me of an episode of the children’s TV show Are You Afraid of the Dark? where a pair of glasses allows the user to see shadows from a different dimension. It’s not the same thing as this, and it’s certainly R-rated here, but I think it has some similarities.

My favourite segment is “Safe Haven.” Well, the first time I watched it was an on-line viewing and there weren’t any subtitles during a segment where Indonesian is the main language (it’s co-directed by director of The Raid: Redemption, Gareth Evans); so do yourselves a favour and don’t watch this on-line, because it’s difficult to find a video with subtitles. But with subtitles, it’s awesome – and I think it helps to watch this segment twice, because I’m still trying to piece together some of the film’s aspects that, at the time seems irrelevant, but ties into the story well. That’s an effective aspect to cinema, and the segment’s very smart. This one has some awesome gore and some effective scares. The basic premise is a suicide cult taken to the extremes in horror. Ti West’s The Sacrament handles a perspective on the People’s Temple aspect, and this handles some suicide cult aspects just as well. The Father loses his ever-loving mind. It seems to me it’s a suicide cult taken to the true extremes, with hinted layers of pedophilia It’s all pretty interesting and completely bat, sh*t, crazy. I won’t spoil any more. It’s just awesome cinema.

The first film, I liked four out of six segments; but here, I really only like two out of the five. The frame narrative is okay, and even though this has a more brief runtime and boasts more control, the general quality of the segments is much weaker. At least the segments that I do like are pretty great. Overall, this is a disappointingly weak sequel.

Score55/100

 

I Spit on Your Grave 2 (2013)

I Spit on Your Grave 2Released: September 24, 2013. Starring: Jemma Dallender, Yavor Baharov, Joe Absolom. Directed by: Steven R. Monroe. Runtime: 106 min.

I’ll keep this one short and sweet. This follows the exact same formula as the previous film, except the writers have developed an obsession with feces. This time, the cruelty is uninspired European cruelty. The story follows a woman who is trying to make into the cutthroat world of modeling, and she sees an advertisement for a free photoshoot because she needs more pictures for her portfolio. This puts her on one of the photographer’s radar, who takes a liking to her. A day soon after he breaks into her apartment and rapes her. This shows that he is an unlikable character, and the other characters are just helping him get out of this crappy situation. Well, once they have her captive, it shows that they are just as cruel.

The murders this time around aren’t as great, and the kills in the first one weren’t that good, so that’s saying something. This is all awfully filmed with a lot of despicable characters and an uninteresting lead who has one of the most annoying screams in recent memory. I think the only thing this film does differently from the first is the fact that it shows how the woman managed to survive being left for dead. It’s a decent convenience, but a better convenience would be this film’s disappearance from existence.

Score38/100

Stand Up Guys (2013)

Stand Up GuysReleased: February 1, 2013. Directed by: Fisher Stevens. Starring: Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Alan Arkin. Runtime: 95 min.

On paper, this seems like a great success. It stars veteran actors Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin, working together in a crime comedy that sounds pretty good. The story follows Val (Pacino), who, after spending 28 years in prison, is released and spends time with his best friend Doc (Walken). Little does he know, but later figures out going out on a whim, that Doc is asked to kill Val by a mob boss called Claphands (Mark Margolis) whose only son was killed in a robbery, and it could have been Val’s bullet. And someone has to take the blame. All we know is that Val took the fall for everyone 28 years ago and didn’t snitch. He did his time and jail, and that all makes him a stand up guy.

On paper and translated to the screen are two different things. On the screen, it’s bad; it’s a movie so unrewarding, I grunted throughout the end credits. It’s usually seriously boring, made sometimes okay by a good soundtrack and Walken’s signature dancing. This only has about five chuckles to offer, but it has a few sweet scenes. A scene featuring Pacino dancing with a pretty young thing is random, but sweet. All the jokes involving Viagra, however, are not. There are so many Viagra jokes! We get it, these guys are old, but the film feels very juvenile.

The old folks want to do some living before they die, which could be tomorrow, so they also “kidnap” their old friend Hirsch (Arkin) from a hospice (that doesn’t have particularly good security because they literally walk in and out, what if one of these old folks just wandered off?) and take him out for a night on the town in a car stolen from a few gangsters. That sub-plot gets handled oddly. This is essentially The Bucket List with a few more bullets, busted kneecaps and a lot less laughs.

The thing is, the simplistic plot isn’t that interesting, at least the way it gets handled. The drama tries hard to be sweet and garner any sort-of emotional reaction from the viewer, but it only works to some avail occasionally, but hardly consistently. This is just very boring. There’s a lot of time spent in a residential whorehouse that features a prostitute who’s supposed to be Russian but the only foreign dialogue she speaks is actually Ukrainian; but at least it allows us to see Lucy Punch who’s usually decent. It might have been much funnier seeing her portray the Russian prostitute.

There are also too many warehouse sequences, one of which feels like it ends before it really gets going. They go by this diner a lot; where there’s a waitress who’s the most sincere, cheerful and kindest soul in the film. The character’s name is Alex, portrayed by Addison Timlin, whose beauty and charm injects some desperately needed warmth and energy into this film. She’s one of the only good characters in the feature (at least that care about) and this minor character feels like she gets more character development than Arkin’s Hirsch.

The rest of the actors are well-cast as unremarkable characters. I think both Pacino and Walken show they can still bring it and be strong actors even when they seem to be phoning it in at times, and make the best out of a crappy screenplay. They act well, save one scene at a hospital (the second visit) that is played for comedy but it feels so insensitive that it should have taken a different tonal route. It just isn’t a believable character exchange, and because of that it feels empty. You might know which scene I’m talking about if you see this.

Walken’s character is a lonely guy, and that’s his main development. He’s an artist who paints sunsets; so that’s a nice muse. His and Val’s mutual motivations are not to get whacked, but considering all the steaks Val eats, I think his cholesterol is going to kill him first. Val’s character could get more development with an arc where he’s not used to the drastic changes of the outside world after 28 years in jail. He doesn’t look affected in the slightest, and he seems used to his surroundings. Almost thirty years is a long while, so it’s just a bit unrealistic how well he adjusts to everything.

The character can use all the layers he can get, because he isn’t compelling otherwise. Hirsch is also not that great because we never really know much about him other than he wants to have a threesome before he dies and he was the driver back in the day; but the character just feels like he was wedged in there because who wants to leave Arkin out of this opportunity?

The three actors have a good chemistry, but what does a decent bond do when the formula isn’t all there? Nothing really, they’re just left to flounder in a true stinker of a movie. Walken’s Doc should have just shot Val when he was passed out. It would have saved me a lot of time.

Score38/100

Veronica Mars (2014)

Veronica MarsReleased: March 14, 2014. Directed by: Rob Thomas. Starring: Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Enrico Colantoni. Runtime: 107 min.

Veronica Mars is a film made for the fans, released ten years after the television show’s premiere year. The show, cancelled after three seasons, stars Kristen Bell as the titular Mars, who is resurrected after all this time by a successful Kickstarter campaign (over 91, 000 fans backed the project, their donations totalling over $5.7 million), so this film really isn’t a big risk for the studio. This films follows Mars (Kristen Bell, duh) who is no longer a private teenage private eye. She gets pulled back to her town of Neptune – just in time for her high school reunion – when an ex-boyfriend, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), is embroiled in a murder mystery.

This film brings in some themes of being drawn back to your home town and addictive lifestyles. I think the writers (creator of the show Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero) handle these themes really well. Your home town always calls you back and can trap you even though Veronica is trying to start a new life in New York as a lawyer. (Better to be trapped in Neptune, rather than Uranus. Haha.) That brings about addictive lifestyles, as private eyeing seems pretty fun. There are a few sub-plots that seem unfocused at the time, but in the end add a new layer to the film, like exposing corruption in Neptune.

The great thing about this film is that audience members who are not fans of the show will probably enjoy this, too. It’s a vastly entertaining, clever and effective whodunnit murder mystery. The main suspect is of course found in Logan, but Gaby Hoffmann portrays a crazed stalker who is also a suspect. She is crazed, but she’s also eccentric and actually pretty funny. Hoffmann, a child star known for Field of Dreams and Uncle Buck, is now making a comeback, and I’ve seen her referred to as a new “queen of indie flicks.” I don’t remember where, but it has a ring to it, doesn’t it? She starred in last year’s Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus and 2012, as the titular character, but I turned it off ten minutes in when I realized I’d have to look at those eyebrows the whole movie. (Feels like a good time to quote Walter White from the pilot of TV’s Breaking Bad saying “F*ck you and your eyebrows!”Otherwise, she’s charming. She can’t be so bad if I dedicated a paragraph to her, right?

veronica-mars-movie-2Anyway, I love the main character of Veronica, who is enjoyable for everyone. She’s a resourceful, intelligent, sexy and funny woman who’s very appealing. We need more of that kind-of character in cinema. Kristen Bell is perfectly cast as her, as I’m sure you already know. I love that little tinkerBell. (Hey, that comment on her cuteness and height could be a good nickname for her. What a happy accident.) Bell can have great chemistry with mostly everyone (her relationship with her boyfriend Piz, portrayed by Chris Lowell, sometimes feels hollow – but that might be the intention) be it her friends in the film or the great relationship she shares with Enrico Colantoni, her on-screen father. I’m sure it’s easier to work again with someone you worked with for three seasons on a show. This is a truly believable dynamic, when Veronica goes away for awhile and then she’s back, and everything goes back to normal. She’s changed, but it’s fun to break out the private eye stuff and do it all again; and for the viewers of the show, they might have changed, but it’s always fun to go for a few hours to the good ole days. I think those meta similarities to the real-life situation express the film’s brilliance.

Veronica Mars is also filled to the brim with cameos, many which take place at the high school reunion. Tina Majorino (from Napoleon Dyamite, who is insanely attractive by the way, but the only thing I saw her in before this was N. Dynamite) has a minor role as her character from the show, Cindy ‘Mac’ Mackenzie, and Percy Daggs III also reprises his role as Wallace Fennel. It seems there are other cameos, but I won’t spoil them – especially because there’s no excitement on my part for the cameos, never having seen the original television show. Well, except when I saw Daran Norris, because I know him as Gordy on TV’s Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide.

This is why another reason why the “Marshmallows” will find more enjoyment in this, especially since I didn’t have knowledge that the fans of the show are called “Marshmallows” during the film. So, I didn’t get the privilege of understanding that joke, but it’s a nice little Easter egg for fans. I didn’t feel out of the loop a lot of the time, though, which is good. (I counted two occasions, at least that I remember.) You’re going to be able to feel like a Marshmallow if you’re a fan of this movie, at least for a condensed time in this effective feature-length episode. The beauty of this mash-up of mystery, drama and great comedy is that it is so entertaining, it makes me want to check out the TV show. I think this is a great time at the movies complemented by a dynamite cast and a great soundtrack.

Score80/100

I Spit on Your Grave (2010)

I Spit on Your GraveReleased: October 8, 2010. Directed by: Steven R. Monroe. Starring: Sarah Butler, Jeff Branson, Andrew Howard. Runtime: 108 min.

Steven R. Monroe’s I Spit on Your Grave is the remake of Meir Zarchi’s 1978 film Day of the Woman, a film so brutal it was banned in many places (a few provinces in Canada, the Phillipines, China). It’s an exploitation flick that analyzes the human capacity for cruelty. It also raises questions of, if you were raped and left for dead, would you seek revenge against those who did it? The film’s premise is that a writer named Jennifer Hills (Sarah Butler) rents a cabin in order to find quiet which will help her finish her novel quicker. A few locals decide to have a little fun with her after the leader is sort-of humiliated at the gas station at which he works. In the meantime their mentally challenged friend (the unconvincing Chad Lindberg from The Fast and the Furious) can lose his virginity.

The crew gang rape the innocent Jennifer and leave her for dead. Revenge tactics ensue. How she gets the materials to conduct these acts of revenge is beyond me, but she does it. It seems like she gets a few of her materials from a different, abandoned cabin she finds in the woods.

The film is just a major exploitation flick that isn’t very good. It’s uninspired redneck cruelty because they think city girls are much too prissy and stuck-up. One of the crew is Damien from Mean Girls. He’s okay in this. Everyone in this is just okay. Butler expresses the human capacity for violence pretty well, but isn’t she becoming animalistic like these Neanderthals? Granted, it’s for inspired reasons, so the film says karma is just a bitch. Horror fans might like this violence, but it’s just okay for me. Cringe-worthy and disturbing in more than a few parts make this film hard to watch. The subject matter should tell you what this film has in store for you.

Score: 40/100