The Divergent Series: Allegiant

Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jeff Daniels, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Zoë Kravitz, Maggie Q, Ray Stevenson, Bill Skarsgård, Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts

Director: Robert Schwentke

Writers: Stephen Chbosky, Bill Collage, Adam Cooper, Noah Oppenheim


A typical problem with film franchises based on novels that decide to split their final instalments into two separate parts is that the first half tends to suffer because of it. When the Harry Potter series did it first, and then The Hunger Games afterwards, both of their penultimate chapters served only to set up the finale and therefore did not stand up as individual films with their own self-contained stories. Although I like both of these franchises, watching the first halves of their final episodes proved to be quite tiresome as they required me to sit through two hours of a non-story in order to reach the good parts. When I have to watch that kind of movie in a franchise that I don’t even like, it becomes the Chinese Water Torture. That, in a nutshell, is how I felt watching Allegiant.

Following the insurgency in the previous film and the revelation of an outside colony overseeing their city, Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Christina (Zoë Kravitz) and Peter (Miles Teller) escape Chicago to seek them out. After venturing into the wasteland that is the world outside their city, the group are discovered by soldiers who escort them to the Bureau of Genetic Welfare. There Tris meets David (Jeff Daniels) who explains that Chicago is an experiment designed to fix the damaged genes of their people by isolating them in the hopes that they can eventually birth individuals of genetic purity, the divergents. Tris is told that she alone is pure while the rest of her people are all “damaged”. David explains that he hopes to use Tris to find the answers to their problems and to save their people. Meanwhile Chicago continues to grow restless under the rule of Evelyn (Naomi Watts) as Johanna (Octavia Spencer) and the Allegiant try to stop her from overthrowing the factions and imposing a ruthless dictatorship.

The Divergent series has never made much sense to me with its factions and convoluted rules and whatnot, but this whole idea of genetic experimentation just did my head in. As Jeff Daniels adopted his ‘I am definitely not a villain’ expression and explained to Tris the particulars of their history and the reasons behind the experiment, I gave up on trying to care about four sentences in. While I had my issues with The Hunger Games, at least that series knew to keep things simple. Divergent gets so bogged down in longwinded exposition and feeble explanations that I almost felt like I was watching a Wachowski movie (at least then I might have been treated to some impressive visuals and decent action). It doesn’t help to have a plot that refuses to move along and advance as the themes of rebellion from Insurgent get played out all over again. Most of what happens in the outside world consists of Tris and her friends sitting on their hands as they wait for the film’s two-hour runtime to expire so that the next movie can finally begin. This film has all the aimlessness and confusion of the first two films with an extra dose of mind-numbing boredom thrown in.

Over the course of this franchise Shailene Woodley’s performance has been its one consistent saving grace as she manages to breathe life into what is otherwise a bland and characterless protagonist. In this film however Woodley’s acting abilities cannot do anything for the fact that her character is given almost nothing to do. Most of her screen-time is dedicated towards disinterested conversations between her and David about genes and human nature and how special she is until she proceeds to take part in a climax that I would have called underwhelming if I had actually had any expectations or investment. I genuinely hope this film at least propels Woodley to stardom the same way The Hunger Games did for Jennifer Lawrence because she deserves far better than this. In fact, the rest of this franchise’s cast (minus Jai Courtney) deserve better.

While watching these finale-part-one movies has consistently proven to be a largely dull and tedious experience, at least with Deathly Hallows and Mockingjay I was invested enough in the franchises to follow them through and in the end found the ultimate payoff to be satisfying. This film however has taken everything that I already disliked about the Divergent series and turned it up to 11. The constant exposition dumps, the one-dimensional characters that put great talent to waste, the sheer absence of any sort of inspiration or originality; Allegiant brings all of these elements into full force. Standing as what is easily the weakest instalment in what is already a weak franchise, I can only hope that the climax they are building up to in Ascendant proves to be extraordinary. I won’t be holding my breath though.

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Demolition

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis

Director: Jean-Paul Vallée

Writer: Bryan Sipe


Sometimes when I watch a film that is clearly trying to say something profound and I find that I don’t understand it, I’ll often wonder whether the fault is with me or with the film. Is the film really saying nothing of value or am I just missing it because I haven’t thought enough about it? Other times however I know straight away that there is no need to ask myself that question. Either it possesses a genius that is self-evident or it has failed spectacularly. Demolition is one of the latter. It tries so hard to be deep and thoughtful that it completely misses the target and fails to reach any sort of a meaningful resolution. Through its attempts at providing social commentary, its blatantly obvious metaphors and its moments of forced emotion the film tries to present itself as being intelligent and insightful. Instead it achieves the exact opposite.

When his wife dies in a car crash Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is rendered into a kind of stupor where he feels detached from everything around him. He finds himself unable to mourn for his wife and alarms everyone, especially his boss and father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper), with his seeming aloofness and indifference. He is no longer focused on his work, he lies in his bed wide awake for hours on end and he speaks to everyone he comes across glibly and apathetically. When the vending machine at the hospital fails to produce a packet of M&Ms for him, he decides to complain to the machine’s company in a series of letters that detail the entire history of his relationship with his late-wife for context. The company’s head of customer services Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) is moved by these letters and reaches out to Davis. With her help and that of her teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis) Davis attempts to build a new life for himself by destroying (or demolishing if you prefer) his old life.

It is clear that Demolition wants to say something deep and insightful about life and loss, new beginnings, the pursuit of happiness and the nature of change. However Sipe’s script tries far too hard at this and ends up becoming almost a parody of the kind of film it’s trying to be. The film wants to be quirkily unbelievable, in that it depicts two unlikely characters finding each other in an unlikely way, but ends up being wildly implausible. Davis speaks and writes as if every statement he makes is intended to be profoundly contemplative, almost as if he thinks he’s the first person to think any of these things, but just comes across as superficial and hollow. Some of his insights are downright laughable such as in one particular instance when he asks, “do you ever feel like everything is a metaphor?” (a question that is almost worthy of an ostentatious high school English essay). Any hint of complexity and perceptiveness gets lost in the film’s attempts to be cute and quirky, allowing cheap sentimentality to undermine and destroy whatever depth this film might have had.

In fairness to the film there were some moments that I enjoyed. One scene I enjoyed was when Davis meets Karen’s son for the first time and is met with a barrage of F-bombs. Davis puts Chris in his place by explaining to him that “fuck” is a fantastic word and that he undermines it by overusing it. Another scene I liked was where Davis and Chris find a gun that belongs to Karen’s boyfriend and decide to try it out. What follows is incredibly silly but it is also the funniest scene in the film. A few highlights however is not enough to save a film that had me rolling my eyes at its cutesy tone, one-dimensional characters and weak philosophy. There is nothing believable about how Davis and Karen become friends with one another and little chemistry to speak of. Chris is a decent character but is still a victim of the script with its embarrassingly hollow dialogue.

For a film that wants to be intuitive and meaningful, it takes a frustratingly safe approach to its concept. Instead of really trying to confront its themes of loss, sorrow and rebirth, it throws in some light comedy and half-baked philosophies that end up undermining the story. It wants to convey this fantastical feeling of wonderment and chance by having its two unlikely characters meet in an unlikely way and finding both of their lives to be richer for it, but it simply isn’t smart enough to pull it off. It is too farfetched, too schmaltzy and too senseless. The deeper meaning that the film thinks it is finding is clichéd and trite and falls short of anything close to profundity. Neither the story nor its characters feel real; therefore the emotions they are trying to inspire don’t feel real. The result is an aimless, overdone and empty film.

★★

The Divergent Series: Insurgent

Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Octavia Spencer, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Naomi Watts, Kate Winslet

Director: Robert Schwentke

Writers: Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Bomback


Marking the latest addition to the increasingly popular YA genre, Insurgent is the highly anticipated sequel to last year’s Divergent. Therefore I’m going to briefly share my feelings on the first film before diving into the second one. Simply put, I really did not like Divergent. I’m not against the YA genre (I do think The Hunger Games series is rather good); I just found this particular film to be boring and stupid. The main character is wholly uninteresting (despite being portrayed by an incredibly talented actress), the story is tedious and clichéd, and the universe that they inhabit with all of those rules about factions and Divergents and whatnot does not make any sense whatsoever. Defenders of the film claim that it all makes much more sense if you’ve read the books, but doesn’t that defeat the purpose of adapting it into a film? Anyway, to go into more detail than that would take up too much space, so suffice it to say that I was not looking forward to watching the sequel.

Insurgent picks up right where Divergent left off with Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James, who has yet to adopt a different facial expression), Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and Peter (Miles Teller) on the run from the Erudites. They find sanctuary at Amity, under the protection of Johanna (Octavia Spencer), and try to keep a low profile. The memories of her late parents and of Will, the friend she killed in the last film in order to save herself, are now haunting Tris’ dreams and are weighing heavily on her conscience (which apparently is as good a reason as any for Tris to give herself a stylish haircut). Meanwhile Jeanine (Kate Winslet) has uncovered a mysterious box that was found in the home of Tris’ parents which supposedly contains a message from the city’s founders and can only be opened by a Divergent. She thus orders her troops to lead a citywide manhunt to capture any and all Divergents. The fugitives are soon forced to leave Amity when Eric (Jai Courtney) shows up and is tipped off to their whereabouts by Peter.

As they make their escape Tris, Four and Caleb encounter the Factionless. One fight later Four ends it all by revealing his real name to them, Tobias Eaton. This revelation allows the party safe passage into the Factionless base where they are taken to meet Evelyn (Naomi Watts), the leader of the Factionless (who apparently have access to ample weapons and resources despite being declared outcasts by the rest of the factions) and also Tobias’ mother. She appeals to Tris and Four, declaring her intention to lead a revolution against Jeanine and how she needs their help to form an alliance with the Dauntless to aid her. Tris and Four do not want to go to war and are only interested in finding their friends. However as the hunt for the Divergents grows, as the unrest between the factions becomes greater, and as Tris’ presence becomes more dangerous to those around her, she comes to realise that she cannot escape who she is and that she cannot run away from this fight.

Although Insurgent suffers from many of the same weaknesses as Divergent, it is nevertheless a clear improvement. Tris, while still lacking in personality, is at least given a mildly interesting story-arc about overcoming the guilt of her parents’ deaths and Woodley manages to give quite a good performance despite sparse material. The film also has some visually stunning moments, particularly the dream sequence from the trailer in which Tris attempts to save her mother from a burning building, and also boasts of some excellent production design. Some actors from the previous film, particularly Kate Winslet and Miles Teller, were able to deliver notably better performances as they became more accustomed and more comfortable in the skin of their characters. Of all the new characters, Evelyn was a welcome addition through the virtue of having an actual personality (and the badass outfit certainly doesn’t hurt). There is however little else to praise about this film.

Insurgent, like its predecessor, suffers from a severe lack of reason and logic. This universe simply doesn’t make any sense and too many questions are left unanswered! What exactly are Divergents and why do they seem to possess special abilities that other people lack? Is it because they are more capable than everyone else or are they biologically different? Why are they considered to be inherently disruptive to the natural order of things? How is being Divergent any different from being Factionless? How does the revelation at the end explain anything or make any sense? The film never provides an adequate answer to any of these questions and ultimately builds up to a twist ending that only brings up even more questions. The film also suffers from an illogical plot, an overcomplicated setting, and bland characters with inconsistent motivations (seriously, what the hell is Caleb’s deal?). This film may not be as soulless as the first film was, but it was still trying and unsatisfying to sit through. The next film better damn well have some answers.

★★

While We’re Young

Cast: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin, Adam Horowitz

Director: Noah Baumbach

Writer: Noah Baumbach


Growing old is strange. It can creep up on you before you realise it and, when you do, you start to wonder where all the years went. It is often perplexing, difficult, and even scary once you realise that you’re not as young as you once were. In While We’re Young we are presented with a couple who have suddenly become aware of this. Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are a middle-aged couple who have lost their youth. Josh, a documentary filmmaker who has been stuck on a project for the past ten years, has lost the spark, the drive, and the fervour that he had possessed as a young man. Cornelia is an aging housewife who has lost her energy, her spontaneity, and her thirst for adventure. The two of them live a quiet, settled, comfortable life and have convinced themselves that it is the life that they want. However, beneath their complacency, there is a clear sense of unfulfillment. Both of these characters have deep regrets, unrealised potential and quashed dreams that they keep hidden from those around them, from each other, and perhaps even from themselves. They have resigned themselves to a life of apathy.

However everything changes when Josh meets Jamie (Adam Driver), an aspiring documentarian in his mid-twenties who emulates Josh and his work. Jamie and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) are everything that Josh and Cornelia are not. They are young, energetic, impulsive, idealistic, carefree and fun. They live in the moment and every day is an adventure for them. The two of them live an unconventional (hipster, for lack of a better word) lifestyle complete with old vinyl records, video cassettes, and home-made avocado flavoured ice cream. Josh and Cornelia become close friends with them as they set out on a journey to recapture their lost youth. The journey proves challenging as Josh and Cornelia struggle to keep up with their young friends, but they carry on regardless with all of the enthusiasm that they can muster. From a bike ride around the city to a hip-hop dance class to an ayahuasca ritual, the two couples partake in activities in which the generational gap between them makes for a funny and interesting viewing experience.

Ben Stiller shines out amongst the impressive cast as the proud but dissatisfied Josh. He resents himself for not living up to his potential as a filmmaker but is too stubborn to ask for any help on his decade-long project, least of all his father-in-law Leslie (Charles Grodin), a renowned and accomplished filmmaker who originally mentored Josh as a documentarian. He instead adamantly proceeds to figuratively bang his head continuously against a brick wall as he vainly tries to complete what he hopes will be his magnum opus. When Josh sets out to help Jamie with his own project, he both admires and envies him for his energy, his resolve, and his confidence. Jamie is a man who knows what he wants and how to get it, two qualities that Josh lacks. When Jamie’s project stumbles into something bigger and more substantial, Josh starts to resent him for his good fortune and the admiration he receives and becomes all the more bitter about his own vacillation and impotency. Stiller plays his character with enough empathy and humanity that Josh always remains both appealing and relatable throughout the film.

While We’re Young tackles many interesting and complex themes. It discusses what it means to grow old and to retain one’s youth. It is often said that you are only as young as you feel, and so this film tests the reality of that assertion. The film examines the gap that exists between the generations as the two couples spend their time together and learn from each other. Although they are younger, Jamie and Darby appear to be the wiser and more experienced of the two couples, in some respects at least, and seem to have their lives figured out. As they spend more time together, Josh and Cornelia start to wonder what it is they want out of life and whether or not they’ve been going about it the wrong way. The role of the documentary is also given a large focus as the film discusses what it means to tell real stories and, on a broader level, what it means to tell the truth.

The highlight of this film is Baumbach’s script. The dialogue has a real Woody Allen feel to it, in that the discussions held are intelligent without ever being pretentious. The humour is funny but stays grounded without ever veering into the silly or the ridiculous. The characters are authentic and are never boring. Baumbach tackles the depressing themes of getting old and losing one’s youth with such heart and wit that While We’re Young comes across as an enjoyable, bittersweet film.

★★★★