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INSURGENT Review: She Needs to Wash That Man Right Out of Her Hair

Insurgent PosterIn July 2014, a question was posed on Twitter as part of the “Movie Talk on Sunday” weekly event.  That week’s topic was “Women in Film” and the final question was, “To show boys and girls a strong female character they can aspire towards; which films would you use?”  This was my answer, as Tweeted:

“A10) As a father of 2 girls, I’ve never guided them to aspire to be a character in a film.  I’ve guided them to aspire to make films. #MTOS”

I meant it back then.  I meant it yesterday.  I meant it this morning.

And now, having seen Insurgent, the follow-up to 2014’s Divergent, I really mean it – perhaps more than ever before.

Picking up soon after Divergent‘s end, the film opens with its core four characters – former Dauntless members Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), and Peter (Miles Teller), along with Tris’ brother (and Erudite member) Caleb (Ansel Elgort) – living in hiding among the people of Amity on their farm/commune.  Not only is the foursome wanted in connection for the events at the end of the first film, they (and all other rogue Dauntless members) have been framed for the mass murder of all members of Abnegation – a genocidal act orchestrated by Erudite’s megalomaniacal leader, Jeanine (Kate Winslet).  Also being smeared in the Jeanine-controlled media are all Divergents, whom the villainess claims are a threat to life inside the walls of Chicago.

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In reality, Jeanine wants all Divergents rounded up and brought to her because an ancient box discovered in the ruins of Abnegation holds the key to the city’s future, and only a Divergent can open the box.  What Jeanine quickly learns, though, is that not all Divergents are alike, so not just any Divergent can open it, only the right Divergent can open it.  While her troops, including returning characters Eric (Jai Courtney) and Max (Mekhi Phifer), hunt Divergents, Four and Tris are left to manage the aftermath of the decisions made by Peter and Caleb, strike an alliance with the newly-organized Factionless (aka The Homeless), and deal with the introduction of someone from Four’s past.

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There are many problems with Insurgent, including Robert Schwentke‘s uninspired direction; a script (co-written by three men based on a woman’s novel) saddled with overt and tired dialogue, which follows a path that seems specifically designed not to advance a story, but to get to a particular gigantic set-piece near the end of the film); and a leaden performance from Winslet, whose attempt at icy evilness feels more like she’s indifferently detached.

Another doozy is the repeated use of fake-outs – those scenes that have heavy, sometimes plot-changing moments, only to learn a minute later that the heavy moment was actually a nightmare Tris was having or a scene from a simulator she’s attached to.  Like the jump-scare in horror, the fake-out can be an effective device on the audience.  To use it too much, though, breeds viewer apathy.  If something can be revealed as fake at any moment, why should anyone care what happens?

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But the film irreparably damages itself – and quite possibly whatever sequels are left – in how it handles Tris’ character.  When decisions need to be made, Four makes them, not Tris.  When there is a fight (and there are several) and the two are in the fight together, he protects her.  (There is even some subtle blocking of the actors that goes on where Four is in the foreground and on-point for action while Little Suzy Franchise is left watching or following.)

It’s rampant throughout the film.  He leads, she follows.  He acts, she reacts.  There’s even a scene where, faced with being turned over to Erudite by Candor (just trust me), Four insists he and Tris subject themselves to truth serum to prove their own innocence.  Tris has what she believes to be good reason to object to this plan and object she does (albeit passively).  She’s essentially ignored and given the truth serum anyway because it’s Four’s plan.

If I knew nothing of this franchise and saw this movie first, I would bet the house that Four is the centerpiece of the whole thing.  Even his character gets some nice development while her character just does stuff … like cut her own hair.  Tris, you’ve come a long way, baby.

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I couldn’t help but make a quick mental comparison to the other female-led, young adult, dystopian film series, The Hunger Games.  In those films, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is not only the target for the bad guys, she’s the inspiration for the good guys.  In those films, Katniss is protected when she needs protecting, but she is also told to fight when it is time to fight.  In those films, Katniss is the strongest because it’s her story.

In this film – hell, in this franchise – Tris, as a Divergent, is the most special of the special ones, the one who holds the key to what happens next.  But rather than take control of her own destiny (coif-cutting aside) until the end, where even then she can’t just bark an order but instead has to convince Four with, “Just trust me,” she is relegated to playing (essentially) a damsel in distress.  Granted, she’s got a mean right hook when she’s given the chance to use it, but that occasional flash of aggressiveness cannot overcome the way her character is so passively drawn.

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Thinking back to that day Twitter question, I don’t think there is any merit to anyone aspiring to be a character in a film.  I do think, however, there are opportunities to learn things from characters in films, and perhaps aspire to adapt certain positive behaviors, jettison bad ones, or make smart choices in specific situations similar to those situations a character has faced.  Fiction has always been a fertile ground for this sort of thing.  The sole lesson I would teach my daughters after having seen Insurgent?  Ignore everything Tris does.

And then I would tell them to pick up a camera and go do the whole thing better.


SPRING Review: Creature Comfort

Spring PosterOne of my early assignments for DVD Verdict was to review the Blu-ray for the independent horror film Resolution.  The film is impressive, particularly in how it breathes new life into old horror tropes to produce a film-watching experience I wan’t expecting.  It’s co-directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, and when it was over, I made a mental note to keep an eye out for the duo’s subsequent projects.  I’m glad I made that note; the boys are back and they’re better than before with the wildly ambitious Spring.

Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) has hit a terrible rough spot in his life.  His mother has recently passed away and thanks to a wrong place/wrong time bar fight, he loses his job (at the bar) and is wanted by police.  With no family tethering him to California, Evan randomly choses Italy as his destination to escape law and life.

It’s in Italy that Evan meets Louise (Nadia Hilker), a worldly-wise woman who takes playing hard-to-get to new levels.  But Evan, a stranger in a strange land who has nothing to lose, rises to the romantic challenge the exotic beauty presents.  As their emotional relationship blossoms, Louise struggles with managing a monstrous secret she has no desire to reveal to Evan, but one that might doom the couple’s future.

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I never expected to write the words “great tenderness throughout” when making notes during and after my screening of Spring.  This is supposed to be a horror film; there is no room for warm, enveloping tenderness in a horror film.

But that’s the genius of it: it isn’t a horror film – at least, not a conventional horror film.

Most importantly, it’s a love story (and a damn good one).  There’s no clever meet-cute here; there aren’t switched bags at customs or some language barrier that finds the boy committing to something he didn’t know about.  It basic and organic and works very well: boy sees girl, girl makes eye contact, boy keeps walking (and all with great use of slo-mo and Jimmy Lavalle‘s wonderfully understated score).  Fate intervenes, boy sees girl again and this time he talks to her.

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(There is a powerful chemistry – like, lighting-in-a-bottle chemistry – between the leads.  It’s immediate and intense and sustained and it’s the backbone of the film.)

As she plays hard-to-get and he plays persistent (never desperate), you watch him take two steps towards her for every one she walks away from him, until he finally catches up to her.  It’s watching two people fall in love, but not in a way I can recall having seen on film before.  Others have compared this to Richard Linklater‘s Before Sunrise, and I get that, especially with the gorgeous European backdrop, but the Pucci/Hilker chemistry is weapons-grade, something I didn’t get from Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy, even though I thought they were great in that.

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Woven throughout this love story is a rumination on life, death, and (im)mortality, as well as an examination of spirituality (that doesn’t proselytize).

There is much death in this film, but again, unlike a conventional horror story, it’s mostly tragic as opposed to horrific.  Other than Evan’s mother (and an unfortunate American tourist who, trust me, had it coming), all other deaths serve to drive the conversation; they happen in the past and are used to set a tone, not simply frame a moment.  Evan’s father years past, and a small child in Italy not that long ago, are two, but a surprisingly key loss is that of the wife of an old man named Angelo (Francesco Carnelutti).  Angelo, who gives Evan a place to stay and work, is an old widower who lost his wife too long in the past to remember, but who pines for her to the point of weeping for her at church.  Evan is given plenty to ponder with the death that is around him, even in the context of romance and love.

In fact, all of that tragedy builds to how mortality plays in the relationship struggles between Evan and Louise, but to go any further than that would be to spoil it, which is what makes covering the horror aspect of the film a little tricky.

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There is definitely a horror element to the film (although some might consider it closer to sci-fi).  It is handled marvelously by the co-directors, with enough visual proof to confirm something isn’t quite right about Louise (proof that is exposed a little bit more with every glimpse), but also with enough clever filmmaking to not give anything away until late in the film.

In fact, this is the great blessing that proves to be the film’s minor curse.  For as sensational as the screenplay from co-director Benson is – from its themes to its dialogue and from its romance to its darker side, and especially in how it touches on God but dodges becoming That discussion – it gets lost in the science behind Louise’s secret to the point that it takes you out of the magic.  I understand the desire to make the story as believable as possible, but a tutorial on genetics, no matter how well written, is still a tutorial on genetics.

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Every film should have such a problem, though.  Other than that, everything else behind the scenes fires on all cylinders, particularly the great use of sound to replace the hidden visuals, and gorgeous cinematography from co-director Moorhead.

The ending brought me to tears.  No kidding.

The genius of Spring is that it’s a horror movie that isn’t a horror movie.  It’s a delicate romance and a philosophical drama and yeah, it’s got some horror too, and it all combines to create a wonderfully ambitious film that, like Resolution, breathes new life into an old construct.


MAN FROM RENO Review: I Want You to Notice When I’m Not Around

Man From Reno PosterOne of the Film Independent Spirit Awards categories I don’t get to vote in is the John Cassavetes Award (it’s instead given by a panel of judges).  To be eligible for the award, a film’s production budget must be less than $500,000.  Past winners include The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Station Agent (2003), and Middle of Nowhere (2012).  Although I don’t get to vote in this category, I still try to see every nominated film.  This past voting year’s nominee slate included Blue Ruin, It Felt Like Love, Land Ho!, and Test.  It also included Man From Reno, the only film of the five I was unable to catch before the awards were handed out, but one the film’s producers were kind enough to let me screen in advance of its March 27th limited US release.

Aki Akahori (Ayako Fujitani) is a successful Japanese crime novelist whose “Inspector Takabe” series of books has made her a literary celebrity, but she’s tired and she’s been harboring a secret that has weighed on her for years.  Without warning, she abandons her latest press tour and flees to San Francisco to sort out what’s going on in her head.  While in the City by the Bay, she meets Akira Suzuki (Kazuki Kitamura), a handsome and mysterious fellow countryman who flirts with her – and hard.  Not just alone but also lonely, Aki takes advantage of her temporary anonymity and has an affair with the charming stranger.  But when he disappears from her hotel room, other strangers – strangers not so handsome and far too mysterious – start asking her questions she can’t answer.

During the same period of time, Paul Del Moral (Pepe Serna), the sheriff of San Marco County, an area just south of San Francisco, accidentally strikes a pedestrian with his car on a foggy night.  Circumstances surrounding the pedestrian … a Japanese pedestrian … are curious, but before Del Moral and his daughter/deputy Teresa (Elisha Skorman) can question the man, the stranger disappears from the hospital.

Many questions lead to few answers (and beget more questions) until the paths of Aki and Del Moral finally cross and the two can compare notes to figure out where their missing men went.  If only it were that easy.

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Holy wow.  I did not see Man From Reno coming.  This thing is sneaky good.

And what makes it so good is how co-writers Joel Clark and Michael Lerman, along with writer/director Dave Boyle, take elements of several styles of crime storytelling, strip those elements of all cliché, and reconstruct them into a mystery that comforts you with its surface familiarity and then seizes you with its deep intensity.

The most obvious trope the film turns on its head is that of professional crime author by day/amateur crime solver by night, but Aki Akahori is no Jessica Fletcher, and that’s a good thing.  Aki is a troubled soul with a secret that has haunted her to the point of desperate measures, but stripped of all melodrama. Fujitani plays Aki with delicately unsure measure – a woman weary of success yet awkward in anonymity.  As for her sleuthing skills, she’s better left to writing fiction than solving fact, another refreshing take on the character type.

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The “small-town sheriff taking on a case the likes of which he’s never seen but one he just might be smart enough to figure out” device is another crime fiction standard Boyle and Co. do fine things with.  Del Moral is unburdened by stereotypes that have come before him; he is neither down-home folksy nor backwoods Sherlock, nor is he that world-weary cynic who saw enough of the big city to relocate to a simpler life in the twilight of his career.  He’s a sheriff doing his job, following leads and putting things together, with enough complexity of character to introduce potential conflict in the investigation.  Serna’s matter-of-factness with the character is so genuine it’s refreshing, like he’s hitting a reset button on something we’ve seen too many quirky versions of.

Reno also borrows elements from film noir (although it isn’t neo-noir, which is perfectly fine too), stranger-in-a-strange-land tales, a hint of South Korean crime thrillers, and it even offers everything from a juicy red herring to a friend for Aki who knows her secret AND has some smarts to help her out (but not BAIL her out).

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Oh, and the last 30 minutes of film are glorious; the story accelerates in a frenzy of unraveling revelations, yet continues to toss in additional mystery and doubt that it still finds time to address while the clock winds down.  As for the end, it is deliciously satisfying.

The real star of the film, though, is Boyle.  His filmmaking instincts are sensational.  Every scene is so well-blocked and every shot shot so well-considered, plus he isn’t afraid of big, sumptuous shots in his intimate thriller, and he treats the viewer like an intelligent adult by occasionally ending a scene a few beats early for the sake of artistic impact, but never at the expense of story.  Couple this this with gorgeous lensing from cinematographer Richard Wong, and you have something that is as beautiful to look at as it is satisfying to consume.

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I’ve watched Man From Reno twice now, and when it hits home video (please?), it will find a spot on my (top) shelf next to other modern crime classics, both domestic and foreign, like The Usual Suspects and I Saw the Devil. It is a glossy retro mystery thriller that only hints at cliché and then reminds you, scene after scene, how much better it is than that. The slow-burn of the film’s first two acts ignites in the third with a sublime ending worthy of SoKo cinema, and one that Hollywood should take note of.