Divergent

ImageThere is no shortage of young adult novels that encourage the individual and warn against conformity; Divergent is one such novel. However, the film based on the massively popular Veronica Roth novel ignores those lessons and aims to have absolutely no originality or individuality from its acting right down to its execution.

The film opens a la Twilight with a brief and information-rich voice-over that gives us the low-down on a dystopian and futuristic Chicago. Society has been segmented into five personality-based factions: Erudite, Dauntless, Amity, Candor, and Abnegation from which our heroine Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) hails. At the age of 16, Beatrice, later known as ‘Tris,’ must take an aptitude test, which all young people must take in order to discover which faction they would be most apt to join. The test results in a recommendation, but it is ultimately the decision of each individual to select the faction they want to join. The catch is that once a person selects a faction, there is no going back and a rigid training session begins that if not passed results in that person’s dismissal and the shameful label of being “factionless.”

After Tris’s aptitude test comes back inconclusive, she resolves to join the Dauntless faction, dedicated to fearlessness and bravery. If this process sounds similar to another YA novel’s “categorization” element, that’s because it is absurdly similar to the sorting ceremony in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Harry Potter’s uniqueness is a cause for one particular recommendation by the sorting hat in The Sorcerer’s Stone, yet he disregards it to declare his allegiance to another house. Tris’s “inconclusive” test is actually code for her being a unique anomaly within society called a Divergent. Simply put, this means that her aptitude is not wholly within one faction but a combination of them all.

The film’s opening act is relatively interesting and does a passable job of explaining the world these characters inhabit. The problem is that there is not enough “newness” to this story and while the film is just another adaptation of another beloved young adult novel, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be held to the same originality standards as any other genre. Furthermore, once the Tris enters the world of the Dauntless, a whole new bag of issues emerges that sink the film even farther.

Most of the film from this point forward is an excruciatingly long and played out training set-up piece for a lackluster climactic finish. Tris’s struggles at Dauntless are pitted against her secret identify as a Divergent. Will she be discovered? Are there other Divergents? Will she hook up with the hunky “I don’t want to be just one thing,” Four (Theo James)? These questions will be answered, just don’t hold your breath. The film gets so caught up in its own mythology, that it never really even considers convincing the audience why these “Divergents” are so dangerous. Divergents are people who can think for themselves and have multiple skills and talents. It becomes increasingly clear why Erudite faction leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) is not fond of Divergents, but why does the rest of society view them as dangerous? A few tacked on lines of dialogue towards the end attempt to answer this, but not to any satisfaction.

A few words about Shailene Woodley. She has emerged on the scene with great success in films like The Descendants and The Spectacular Now. In Divergent, Woodley’s performance is quite bland and well, wooden. She broods, she emotes with deep and hyperventalative breathing, she conveys confusion at the right times, but she never quite achieves a connection with the audience worth rooting for. Director Neil Burger is at least partly responsible for this flavorless and wishy-washy performance. His direction involves running back to the well of successful YA novel adaptations and hand picking the qualities he thought worked in other places. Woodley gives a very controlled performance and unfortunately the one in control is a strong candidate for being factionless!  D+

Divergent is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes.

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300: Rise of an Empire

ImageLike most people, when I walked out of the theater in 2007 after seeing 300, I immediately asked, “Well, the Spartans were sure amazing, but what were the Athenians doing during all of this?”  Who knew that in seven short years, my answer would arrive in the form of 300: Rise of an Empire!

Now, all of you clamoring for a sequel to 300, hold your helmets.  300: Rise of an Empire is more of a companion to its predecessor than a sequel.  The vengeful and honorable Queen Gorgo (Leny Headey) after having lost her king and husband Leonidas in a tragic battle against the massive Persian army at Thermopylae now looks to protect her City-State of Sparta by laying low and fortifying the city.  In preparation, she begins to tell the story of the God-King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his evolution from child to deity.  The film transitions to “spin-off” as we are introduced to Thermistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), an Athenian general who in a calculated attack against the Persian army at Marathon succeeded in killing Persian King Darius paving the way for his son Xerxes to take over.  Xerxes’s ascension to a God-like status, however is thanks to King Darius’s trusted commander of the Persian navy, Artemisia (Eva Green).  Thermistocles’s plan against Xerxes involves getting all of the city-states in Greece to mobilize and join forces against the Persians, but he is struggling to get any support.

What follows is a warmed over retread of the original 300 plotline, but from an Athenian point of view.  You’ll see Thermistocles give impassioned speeches to his out numbered yet capable army.  In fact, in one scene, Thermistocoles explains how Athenian soldiers work as a unit and protect the man to their left.  This is virtually lifted word for word from a similar speech delivered by Leonidas to hunchback, Ephialtes, in the original film.  You will also see many scenes of fast-paced action with sudden slowed down shots of brutality and buckets of 3-D rendered blood spatter.  What you won’t see is anything reminiscent of the innovative and groundbreaking brilliance of the first film.  The acting is appropriate for its genre, however, and the scene where Thermistocoles meets Artemisia for the first time is compellingly campy, if not borderline pornographic.

The change of scenery from ground war to naval battle is a welcomed change.  The brilliance of ancient sea battles is on full display and does hold your attention.  But it also comes at a loss of some of the greatest stylistic achievements of the original 300.  It is quite clear that most if not all of the sea battle scenes are filmed on a sound-stage.  While the same was true for 300’s epic battle scenes, director Zack Snyder was able to play with shadow, perspective, and light to produce a visually stunning look never before seen on film.  300: Rise of an Empire director Noam Murro’s film is too dark and conventional and at times comes off more as a joke than anywhere near spectacular.  In once scene, Thermistocoles while on board an Athenian ship, suddenly jumps on a horse (that’s right a horse!) and rides across several sinking and/or flaming ships while slaughtering every Persian in his path to arrive face to face with Artemisia for the climactic battle.  #PersianAttackOnHorseback!  Never did 300 reach this level of self-indulgence, which is what helped make it so effective.

300: Rise of an Empire is not a complete failure, but it is another entry in a long line of sub-par second installments.  The franchise is certainly open for more installments and perhaps with the right mixture of writing and creativity, the ship can still be righted.  C+

300: Rise of an Empire is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes. 

Non-Stop

ImageIt all started when the daughter of a man with “a particular set of skills” was suddenly Taken.  Now, following a string of successful “one-man army” style films, 61-year-old Liam Neeson has undeniably carved out a new niche for himself as a no-holds-barred action hero!

Non-Stop is the story of Bill Marks, a U.S. air marshal who finds himself on a trans-Atlantic flight from New York to London.  While in flight, Marks receives a text over his secure cell phone network requesting $150 million be wired into an account or a passenger on the plane will die every 20 minutes.

Soon it becomes apparent that the terrorist did not choose Marks’s plane by accident.  We learn that Marks has had a troubled past; much of it he has tried to erase with alcohol.  40,000 feet above the Atlantic, Marks has no one to trust but himself…and his particular set of skills.

Non-Stop is surprisingly well executed.  Director, Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown) keeps the pace moving and has a lot of fun while doing it.  Much of the enjoyment of the film revolves around trying to figure out who is texting Marks, and Collet-Serra along with the film’s three screenwriters make sure that everyone on the plane is a suspect.  Is it the pretty and anxious seatmate, Jen (Julianne Moore)?  Is it the flight attendant from Downton Abbey (Michelle Dockery) or the flight attendant who recently won an Oscar (Lupita Nyong’o)?  There is no shortage of characters to consider.

The other great thing about Non-Stop is how thoroughly entertaining Neeson has become in these types of roles.  The rugged, broguish Irishman commands the screen even when the character he’s playing is not so confident.  Neeson keeps the audience’s attention and interest even when the story gets convoluted and implausible.

The implausibility of the film’s final act is the only real nit-pick that I can make, but it is hardly an issue when considering the film’s overall premise.  Non-Stop is not the first airplane thriller, and it is keenly aware of this.  Instead of falling into “been there, done that” caveats, Non-Stop builds on scenarios you’ve seen before by including them in interesting ways.  When the passengers catch wind that their plane may be high-jacked, several of them consider ganging up on the suspected terrorist, not unlike the passengers of United 93.  The limitations of technology in regards to air travel is explored, and the technical limitations related to the recent disappearance of Malaysian Flight 370 feel that much more eerie in the wake of this film.

These references to serious issues are not in bad taste but are true conversation starters about the idiosyncrasies of air travel.  There’s that, but then there’s a sudden nose-dive creating a moment of zero-G’s that send a handgun floating right into Neeson’s hand at precisely the right moment.  I’m not sure how long it will be before these Liam Neeson roles begin to seem more funny than fun.  We can probably breathe easily until we see his name in the credits for The Expendables 9: Taken to the MaxB+

Non-Stop is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 46 minutes.