(On Cable TV, January 2017) As I write this, it looks as if the Divergent series will never be completed on the big screen: Box-office results for the series (and Allegiant itself) were so bad given the end of the teenage-dystopia craze that plans are now to do the follow-up as a TV movie and/or TV series. For my reaction to this, imagine a tap dance on a grave: Hunger Games aside, the teen-dystopia crash could be seen well in advance by the generic nature of the copycats involved. Allegiant (which was consciously split from its ending in order to make two movies as bigger profits—funny how that didn’t turn out as expected) is an exemplary part of the trend in that it’s utterly forgettable. It blathers on and you don’t even need to pay attention to figure out the various familiar betrayals unfolding on-screen. It gets worse if you do pay attention, given that you can’t assume that the plot-holes dumb twists and unexplainable motivations have been addressed at some point. Shailene Woodley is reportedly dissatisfied that the series is going to TV and the only possible answer to that is along the lines of “boohoo, what did you expect?” She doesn’t even manage to get out of Allegiant with her dignity intact: only Miles Teller does that with a sarcastic character who seems to be as embarrassed as his actor to be stuck in there. No, there won’t be any tears shed about the Divergent series going to TV. I’ll even argue that it should have remained confined to YA books, and then quickly forgotten.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2016) What? Miles Teller playing a cad who learns better?!? Well, yes: for an actor as young as he is, Teller has already developed a strong screen persona that’s part arrogance and part cynicism. Time will tell if he can sustain it (especially given his similarities with a younger John Cusack) but, in the meantime, he’s effective and even entertaining in those roles. In The Spectacular Now, Teller plays a high-school version of a character we usually see in older stages of life: the underachieving boozer/womanizer, getting by on minimal effort and apparently willing to dismiss everything and everyone but secretly harbouring some long-lasting emotional scars. Focusing on a girl as kind of a rebound Pygmalion project seems like a passing fancy at first, but we know it’s not going to be as simple as making his ex-girlfriend jealous so that he can get back with her. Not too far from the recent John Greenish mode of teenage moviemaking, The Spectacular Now does have the grace to play between drama and comedy, with flawed characters, difficult situations, uncomfortable choices and characters growing up. Shailene Woodley is fine as the romantic heroine and Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes a remarkable appearance as an older sister, but it’s Teller’s film. The film is remarkable by what it doesn’t do—namely, fall into the traps of the usual teenage dramedies … although I’m a bit worried that, along with The Way Way Back and other John Green-adapted films, it’s forging a set of new clichés for that subgenre. Time will tell, as time will tell whether this will remain a definitive performance for Teller’s early career.
(On Blu-ray, September 2016) The recent proliferation of teenage dystopias has been made worse by the sameness of their premise and the shameless way they all adopted the same ways to talk to teenagers. As a latecomer to the party, the Divergent series has to contend with a stronger sense of déjà vu, and as a middle volume in a series, Insurgent has a harder time distinguishing itself from other, often better competitors. Here, the nonsensical adventures of our heroine continue without too many revelations: There is now an open rebellion against the established order, and the order doesn’t like that at all. Shailene Woodley does fine as the super-special protagonist, but there isn’t much in this instalment to keep viewers interested. The sole exception worth mentioning are the oneiric segments in which our lead character deals with surreal fantasies: the visual polish of these sequences in fascinating, and for a moment or two the film manages to be better than its own material. (Heck, it even had me unexpectedly patting myself on the back for watching this on Blu-ray rather than DVD.) Then Insurgent goes back to reality, a cackling Miles Teller as the wildcard (the only other actor who manages to emerge from this film with some dignity) and more groundwork laid for the next volume. As I write this, the plans for the Divergent series have almost entirely collapsed, with a planned fourth instalment being either put on hiatus or being redesigned as a TV show pilot. Given the lack of interest of the series so far, I’m not exactly complaining.
(On Cable TV, August 2015) I really wasn’t expecting to like this film as much as I did. Or even, having recently seen a friend die of cancer, to like it at all. But The Fault in Our Stars prides itself on being quite unlike any of the other cancer movies out there in telling us about two teenagers meeting at a cancer support group. The sarcastic dialogue and caustic gallows humor that follows is almost immediately charming in its own way, with both Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort being likable teenagers stuck in terrible situations. Heartwarming without being cloying, merciless without being hopeless, The Fault in Our Stars makes much out of depressing material – it’s an enjoyable and funny film about something terrible and sad. The stars motif is interesting, the comic set-pieces are memorable, and Willem Defoe brings an element of mystery, then frustration in the mix. The script is on-point and if the film does feel a touch too long during its Amsterdam segment, it’s ruthlessly curt coming back from it as it destroys expectations. Telling you more about the film would be a disservice; take a look and enjoy it for yourself.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) Sometimes, I wonder if growing old isn’t best characterized by the ability to recognize patterns and realize that they will go away in time. This probably comes alongside a certain jadedness and inability to experience things as-new. So it is that in the middle of The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner and The Giver (and I may have forgotten a few), it’s all too easy to see that we’re in the middle of a teenage dystopian mini-trend, one that can’t help but go back to common elements that seem repetitive when seen in close proximity. Uneasy teenager with special abilities marginalized by rigid post-apocalyptic society, going up against authority figures to break the system? I may be anticipating here, but check, check and check. At least Shailene Woodley can sustain the demands of her role, and the technical presentation of future Chicago (walled-off as it is) is interesting enough. The film has bits and pieces of passing interest despite riffing off an increasingly common sub-genre template: Maggie Q and Zoe Kravitz have good small role, while Kate Winslet has somehow earned a place as an authority figure. Various up-and-coming actors surround them, even though they’re not asked to do much here. Fans of well-developed science-fiction will roll their eyes at the nonsensical, precedent-less society here presented, or at the dumb-as-rocks plot that unfolds. Otherwise, there really isn’t much to say here about the film: It’s bare-minimum effort SF for teenagers, and it’s unlikely to distinguish itself enough to become a reference even five years from now. On the other hand, Woodley and her cohort will be able to parley the success of the film into higher-profile jobs, so it’s not as if the film will be a complete loss. (I suspect that it may become a key piece of whatever “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” game will be played in the future.)
(On Cable TV, May 2014) I watch a curiously low number of straight-up dramas, usually out of an unfair suspicion that they are not as interesting as my usual genre movies. But then there are films such as The Descendants, absorbing from the get-go and witty enough to keep my attention until the end. Adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel (a literary origin that can be felt in the complex back-stories for most characters) by veteran screenwriter/director Alexander Payne, The Descendants works partially because it never quite does the expected thing, and partly because it can count on an exceptional, world-weary performance by George Clooney. Expectations are quickly subverted, as the opening monologue discusses the disillusionment of day-to-day life in Hawaii and then moves on with a surprising lack of sentimentality in discussing the burden of a man dealing with the terminal coma of his wife. (It’s a measure of how unconventional The Descendants can be when the brain-dead wife gets verbally harangued on her deathbed by grieving family members no less than three times.) When the quasi-widower discovers the unfaithfulness of his nearly-ex-wife, it’s up to him and his daughters to deal with the situation. Blend in an extended subplot about land stewardship, and you’ve got the makings of an interesting script no matter the execution. But Payne’s touch suitably lets Clooney own the lead character, and display a wide range of emotions that more than reaffirm his abilities as an actor. Shailene Woodley has a career-launching role as a teenage girl who ends up far less rebellious than initially portrayed, while Robert Forster has a small but remarkable role as a punch-happy older man. (Judy Greer also makes a striking appearance as a cheated-upon wife who’s a great deal less forgiving than she initially appears.) Often unexpectedly funny, The Descendants offers a slice of life for characters thrown in a difficult situation, eventually reaching an accommodation with their new circumstances. By the time the film ends, we’re reasonably certain that they will be all right… which is for the best given how much we’ve learn to like those characters.