Darke Reviews | Divergent (2014)

Let me open with, no I haven’t read the books. Remember that post on the personal facebook page about having an addiction? That was me dropping nearly $100 ON the Books (and a few others, like a hard cover of Frankenstein, but I digress). Now that I’ve seen the movie I can read them comfortably and know that this review is written from pure objectivity as a film. The girl at the coffee bar told me there was mad crowds for the earlier showings tonight and I find that interesting since my showing (the last of the night) only had about thirty or so in it.

what I truly find interesting is the range of material and world building that occurs within the Young Adult (YA) genre. I am twice the age, or more, of it’s target demographic yet I find the books in many of these series compelling. I suppose it’s ironic that a girl who read The Stand when she was eleven reads Vampire Academy, Hunger Games, and Divergent nearly three decades later. Back to the worlds though, when I was in high school it was the start of an interesting age in YA novels I think. I read Vampire Diaries (and still have my first prints) and the Secret Circle and they were sort of avant garde to my perception at the time. Now such works cover entire rows at the bookstores. They cover the supernatural romance, alternative history, alternative modernism, and dystopian futures.

They also show us who we are as a people and who we can be potentially when done properly. The dystopian futures do this best of all. Hunger Games being one of the stronger examples and now Divergent following close by. Where Hunger Games (movies) has actually kind meandered in showing what the best of us can do in adversity and a world that wants to devour of us; Divergent takes a different tact. They introduce a fascinating caste system (classism?) and promptly throw it out the window with the main character. Yes my review is still spoiler free, if you didn’t know she was different, then you haven’t watched a trailer of this yet and its been nearly a year since the first one. Statue of limitations is past. Deal.

Evan Daughtry (Snow White and the Huntsman, Bay’s TMNT) and Vanessa Taylor (three episodes of Game  of Thrones as a writer and 20  episodes of producer credits) have the task of converting twenty five year old Veronica Roths novels to film. As discussed before it is not an easy task. To be honest, I am not 100% sure they were up to it. Let me explain. Vampire Academy is an abomination of adaptation. It fails on more levels than it succeeds in taking the heart, soul and characters and bringing them to screen. It lacks subtlety in any way shape or form and you may feel dumber (or insulted) for watching it. Hunger Games (book 1) is a near perfect adaptation in terms of book to script to screen. There is very little actually cut from the story and the essence of what was trying to be told was brought to the screen.

In Divergent, we have the story of Tris a girl born to at once the lowest caste and the highest. When being tested and eventually choosing her caste for herself, she goes against the grain and adopts a new family forsaking her life and family before. In the course of training to become one with her new caste she truly comes to understand herself and her true nature. It helps to have a mentor along the way and she finds that in Four. While the discovery of self develops, there are machinations of the castes and politics of a different nature occurring that she is caught up in.

At the end of the movie I had an overwhelming sense of…meh. I wanted to care what happened next. I wanted to care and see more, but I didn’t. That is why I think the writers failed. when I read the book, I hope I can say they did what they could with what they had; but I have a feeling this isn’t the strongest adaptation out there. It’s still a  magnitude better than Vampire Academy or the movie that shares a title with the Max Brooks classic. Even not reading the books I know it is a better adaptation than those two repugnant pieces of cinema.

So if the script wasn’t to blame, then perhaps the directing? Neil Burger, best known for Limitless and the Illusionist (the less glitzy version of The Prestige), is the man to blame I think. He got some things right, but his sense of pacing is way off. The movie runs two hours and twenty minutes and it feels it. The best movies can run that long without the audience noticing. I noticed somewhere around the half way point that they were in no way even close to tying up this story. Its true in keeping with the amount of information in a novel it can increase running time, but a clever or skilled director knows how to mask that. Burger isn’t quite up to the task either. The shots are pretty, the direction of the actors is actually very well done, but the overall pacing allowed me to disengage from the story too often. A real problem towards the climax of the film. There are also some editing, continuity and logic fails that left me wondering.

The acting though. well…what to say there?

FINALLY. Finally a movie that isn’t starring Jennifer Lawrence or Chloe Grace Moretz where the younger (not teen) actors are not card board cut outs. actually in some films the cut outs might have more range. Divergent is not that film. All of the actors do their part and make it work. Shailene Woodley (Tris) who is relatively unknown unless you watched The Descendants or Secret Life of the American Teenager is able to carry the film. She brings the right emotions at the right times. Little body language ticks, eye movements, tears brimming, even posture and walk are spot on. She is engaging. She is believable. Her doubts and the fears she does have are played out beautifully as the character transitions due to her acting. She is also one of the strongest female characters I’ve seen of late that isn’t named Katniss. Theo James (Four) who really only has Underworld Awakening (yummy vampire…bad Jess) to his credit also has an amazing range displayed for someone trying to be stoic. While not as refined as Woodley he is just as engaging and worth watching in the time he is on camera. I have to admit, he’s not bad to just watch either. His acting though lets him bring both a certain physicality his role seems to call for and vulnerability in the right moments.

The remainder of the cast left me a little surprised in the opening credits. Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney (Reacher, I Frankenstein),  Ray Stevenson (Thor, the Punisher was almost unrecognizable), Zoe Kravitz (X-Men First Class), Miles Teller (Footloose, That Awkward Moment), Tony Goldwyn (Scandal, Last Samurai, Ghost), Maggie Q (Nikita, Preist) and Kate Winslet (her heart did not go on) cover the majority of the other roles. Most of them are playing their stereotypes well. To say they were anything other than stereotypes would be disingenous. I like and hate the characters accordingly and find that their performances are everything that they SHOULD be, and I really cannot ask for more than that; and I shouldn’t.

From an technical standpoint, seeing a post apocalyptic chicago was interesting. They did a good job crafting that and setting the stage for the world without going into too much exposition to explain it. The visuals tell a story all their own and thats what they should do. Wardrobe and make up were solid and I have to admit it was nice to see people in NOT black leather jackets at all times. The zip line scene was quite fun and might even be interesting in 3D. It’s something I would do.

That’s my final point before I get near the end (oh hush, I know this is a long one). Movies are about escapism to a point. While I don’t escape into this world as easily as I do others like City of Bones or Beautiful Creatures; I found myself wondering where I would be in this world. Dead probably. That said, it created enough of a world that while I wouldn’t want to go there, I could imagine it well enough to find myself there for two and a half hours. No mean feat really. I didn’t find myself wanting to beat the main character senseless for bad decisions, also a plus. In these facets the movie actually succeeds. It both comments on the class-ism of modern american society, gives an escape and entertains while it potentially informs. It does what a good movie should do.

TL;DR? (finally right?)

Divergent is a good movie. As I just said above, it does what a good movie should. It has the potential to inform you if you look beyond the cover, it can entertain you and can give you an escape from your own world for just a bit. It’s a nice place to visit, but you sure as hell wouldn’t want to live there. If you do, I am concerned for your well being.

Can I recommend it for everyone? No. It has problems in it’s execution that are enough that I wouldn’t highly recommend it. This isn’t Frozen or Avengers. This isn’t quite Hunger Games either and again thats to its benefit.

If you were already interested, you can breathe a sigh of relief.It is absolutely family friendly, but I saw someone’s face melt (Raiders) when I was five and was ok with it.

If you were curious, I can say give it a shot. You can even pay full price and not feel bad for it.

If you were not interested to begin with, you won’t be still and will likely find more flaws in it than I did.

After 300, Need for Speed (still surprised there) and now Divergent March has turned out to be a really good month. Here’s hoping the trend continues!

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Darke Reviews | Need for Speed (2014)

Well, that was an experience. A few reviews back I talked about movies that were better than they had any right to be. Let’s talk for a moment about one of them before I get into this one.

Smokin’ Aces.

This movie has an amazing cast of actors and actresses you know now and in some cases didn’t know then. It has so called A-list actors and at the time some true unknowns like this guy Chris Pine and some other schmuck named Ryan Reynolds. It has a plot that’s so convoluted its Tarantino-esque but is simple and honest at the same time. It knows what it is, tries to be more and actually succeeds. It has beautiful action you get to see, character driven moments that work incredibly well and ridiculous moments that make you wonder what the director was smoking at the time. It ties together almost seamlessly and you need to watch every moment for fear of missing something. To steal from that overblown director Nolan, “it has the ending we need, not the ending we want.” Actually thats a lie it has both the ending we want and need. Even the alternate ending while bad ass isn’t as epic as what we get. We need more movies like that.

Avoid the sequel its garbage.

Need for Speed is *not* that level of greatness. Let me get that out of the way now. It is, however, better than it should be. I really don’t know how. I’ve seen all the films that can be seen as inspiration to it in the last decade and a half; such as Fast and Furious (all), Torque, Gone in sixty seconds (yes I know its a remake), Death Race(another remake I know). I’ve seen some of the older films that drove this particular film (no pun intended), Bullit, Smokey and the Bandit, Mad Max and the Wraith (hey I reviewed that one). They loved Bullit enough to show it on a drive in during this movie. Yes, I noticed a movie I hadn’t seen and still knew what it was. Steve McQueen is that iconic.

Back to the point, the movie draws its inspiration from all of these sources and of course the video game that truly it is actually based on from EA games. The plot is as thin as they get and if you blink you miss it, but has a nice working man’s quality to it that I think the writers were able to bring. John Gatins (Coach Carter, Reel Steel, Flight) and I can only assume his brother George (this is his only writing credit), clearly have a love affair with the movies I mentioned. They gave us the working class family that Fast and Furious did, they made them fun and a little interesting.

The story revolves around Tobey Marshall (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul) a young man who inherits his fathers garage and is trying to make ends meet for him and his friends. He gets involved with someone he knows he shouldn’t in an attempt to make things comfortable for that adopted family. Things of course go wrong. When he finally gets out of prison he manages to get himself entered into an illegal race against his archrival Dino Brewster (Captain America’s Dominic Cooper) run by an eccentric millionaire (Michael Keaton).

One thing that can be said is director Scott Waugh knows how to shoot action. After giving us Act of Valor a few years back, Stunt Man turned director knows a thing or two about making a shot look good. Apparently it doesn’t matter if its a car or a man he shoots it well. He lets his actors have their quiet moments and then ramps the action. I was never into cars as a girl, I was all about jets and naval ships. That said his decisions on cars were truly works of art. I was surprised to know some of the makers and models here, the Shelby of course being a beautiful standout. Granted I know for fact Ford pretty much paid for this movie to be a commercial for the mustang. I accept that. I don’t mind movies marketing to me when the product placement makes sense.

Now, obviously we need to talk about the acting for a moment. Whew. Ok. So. Um. I’ve never seen Breaking Bad, so I don’t know what Aaron Paul is capable of but based on the fans of the show it was more than this. This had the amazing disappearing /reappearing accent. An apparent inability to look anyone in the eyes directly or talk above a mumble. I know that he may have been trying to channel some of those iconic drivers of the past but it mostly comes across silly. Dominic Cooper who did an amazing job in the Devils Double possibly suffered brain trauma or his contract said screw subtlety. The word villain is pretty much tattooed on his forehead. Rain Malek (Twilight Breaking Dawn, Oldboy), Ramon Rodriguez (Battle Los angeles, and the thankfully short lived Charlies Angels), and Scott Mescudi (aka Kid Cudi) play Marshalls friends. Each one is surprisingly different and interesting. There’s enough banter and charisma between them that I felt like I was watching actual friends.

Then there is Imogen Poots (Fright Night, Centurion) as Julia Maddon who is surprisingly fun in her role. I acknowledge the fact she’s the female stereotype for the modern car film. In the 60’s to 80’s the idea of a female driver who could keep up with the guys was all but anathema. Now when she gets behind the wheel and shows she can hold her own it is the new stereotype. Death Race and Fast and Furious both give us this new “strong” female who is into cars and can handle them. She’s beautiful and car smart, if only she was a character unto herself and not just the new fantasy for the boys. I will however, take the victory in that we do have a strong female who isn’t just eye candy and thank them for taking steps in the right direction. Imogen brings the right amount of charisma to it to make it work and is generally more interesting than Paul.

There isn’t much to talk in the technicals. The cars are beautiful. The stunts are clean. The pacing is hit and miss and when it runs a little long in the tooth some times you feel it. There’s a few editing tweaks where I can tell they are shooting at different times of night and day within what is supposed to be the same shot, but thats really the worst of it. Where there is CG in the races, its exceedingly clean and I will again thank them and move on.

TL;DR?

This thing won’t win oscars. It also isn’t razzie worthy either. It actually tries to be a little more than fast cars doing insane things on the road. It doesn’t always succeed but certainly tried with a lot of heart and that definitely gives it some mileage over most of the garbage we’ve been fed this year. The Heart is important folks and surprisingly this one had it.

The movie overall is “Ok”. I was entertained more than I expected, but I went in expecting the worst (Hercules) and got something better. I smiled few times and was for the most part entertained.

If you were the least bit curious, see it for budget pricing, matinee at most. The 3D is cute, but not worth it. Otherwise, it can wait for Redbox and Netflix.

The truly best I can say is it was not the crime against humanity that was expected.

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Depending on the weekend I may be able to get a Veronica Mars review in later. I should have my digital download from the Kickstarter soon. If not next week you get Divergent, Hollywood’s next attempt to bank on the teen novel genre.

Darke Reviews | 300: Rise of an Empire

Ah Zack Snyder, you and I have a love hate relationship. You make such visually stunning movies. You make movies so thin on plot that they are translucent. You have an eye for action that many directors would kill for, yet you cannot let us see all the action with your quick cuts and camera movements. You are a teenage boy playing out his fantasies and whims on the big screen, making money hand over fist despite all logic saying otherwise. Now, you returned to the movie that made you a Hollywood name.

7 years ago, a guy who gave us an interesting yet ultimately hollow remake of Dawn of the Dead was given a book written by the talented Frank Miller. The book was a mere 88 pages of illustration and light text. Snyder then proceeded to faithfully recreate nearly every panel of the book on screen. He proceeded to make a film with a visual style we had never seen. The usage of slow to fast combat had never quite been done in this manner. He didn’t fear blood, violence and style. He was given 65 million dollars by Warner Bros. and turned it into 210 million domestically ($456mm combined). We loved it for all it was worth and ripped it apart in the way that we do in the months to come. He has had 7 years to learn and grow as a director, writer and producer. Has he?

Perhaps so. Indicated by that he didn’t actually direct this. That task fell to unknown director Noam Murro. I don’t think he disappointed. As a writer on this Snyder once again played faithful to Millers 300 sequel “Xerxes”. He was assisted by Kurt Johnstad who apparently doesn’t have blood in his veins only testosterone. Johnstad also wrote 300 and Act of Valor prior to this. Does this man just want to write recruitment videos for the military? He’s succeeding if so. All of that said, this movie actually had more character moments in it than its predecessor but only barely. More epic speeches and only slightly less yelling. It doesn’t do much more than 300 did, but is thankfully different enough to not just rehash the last film.

What it does do however is provider Murro a perfect backdrop with which to craft the art of the film. Now this part may seem strange, but there was a time History channel showed actual history. I know, its surreal. One of the specials they had done was on the battles between Persia and Greece. Murro, Snyder and Johnstad must have seen the same special. For this movie they used actual tactics of the Greek Navy against the Persians. They used ship to ship and naval tricks and tactics used by both sides. Sadly they didn’t put in any of the biological warfare that was also used, but I will take what I can get. Yes, its hyper stylized, dramaticized and not completely historically accurate, but damn it they tried and should get credit for it.

As it comes to the acting the movies strength is here. The movie is filled mostly with relative unknowns who have had small roles in film or within TV. Returning of course is Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones if you didn’t know) who apparently must play truly bad ass women. This is not a complaint, more of a compliment. Though her part is regretfully minor she is memorable. David Wenham appears as a backdrop piece only in his role of Dilios. Rodrigo Santoro gets to go without full make up for a bit as Xerxes again, but is otherwise also little more than backdrop. Even Themistokles, our movies hero, played by Sullivan Stapleton (one of those unknowns) is only somewhat memorable.

The movie belongs to the character who was once in the title of the film, Artemisia. Eva Green (Casino Royale, Kingdom of Heaven and the abomination that was Dark Shadows) is center stage here. The camera loves her, the plot loves her and even as the villain of the movie you cheer for her. Every scene she is in, she commands. She is watchable, she is a gothic beauty that is magnificently psychotic. She’s a Wednesday Addams in Greece. All of her scenes, even one that is pretty much unnecessarily long, she is in control. She is not passive in the movie and joins the battle as quickly as anyone else. The subtle nuances she brings in the quiet moments are what make her whole and keep her from being the caricature that Xerxes was. Does it sound like I am in love? Perhaps so.

Sadly, the movie comes with its flaws as well. Much like Hercules earlier this year, apparently 3D now means you must have motes floating in every…frakking scene! Seriously, if there were that many embers of the fires in the air people would be incinerated from the inside out. It actually was distracting me in some scenes where we were supposed to focus on the characters. There’s even more blood splatter in this movie than 300 if you can believe that. I am not sure if thats good or bad yet, but it’s there. The hyper stylized colour pallette of 300 has also returned, though it doesn’t always seem present which is a little off putting. There was one scene where I am reasonably certain every character in it was a CGI render. If it wasn’t it was *really* bad CG colour correction and overlay on those characters that turned them from men to something I’d expect to see in a video game cut scene. Not good guys. Not good there at all.

There are some editing issues as well. In 300 we are introduced to characters that we are supposed to care about and we learn, care or not, their fates. Here, we are introduced to characters we are supposed to care about and apparently the editors forgot that. There are a few characters you may like, but didn’t rate high enough to know their ultimate fate; which is surprisingly in question. Also the strength and skill of both Greek and Persian changes depending on whom they are fighting. If we don’t care the persians die, if we care the greeks die. If you can tell me the characters name they are pretty awesome in battle, otherwise well…yeah.

TL;DR?

This movie made me smile. It’s the movie I have been waiting 66 days for. The first movie this year I can say with satisfaction is GOOD. It’s not great folks, but damnit it is both good and entertaining. It has its completely over the top ridiculous moments, but it is the work of art it needed to be and is reasonably solid throughout.

That said, its not for all audiences. I won’t deny the eye candy on either side of the gender roles, but this won’t be your *average* date movie and certainly isn’t family friendly. If you have a date who wants to see this and you want to see it. Go. Dear gods go. Otherwise, just go!

If this is how the spring blockbuster season starts, there’s hope for the movies this year yet.

Next week, I feel the need, The Need for Speed. – No I don’t think it looks good, but what the hell.

Darke Reviews | Pompeii (2014)

What is a guilty pleasure movie? In some previous reviews back in October I indicated some of the movies weren’t good, but were in fact my guilty pleasure. What does that mean? Do I actually feel guilty for enjoying the movie? Not really. It does however mean that I am taking enjoyment from a film that I know is not all that good. There are plenty of films out there that meet this criteria. Sometimes it’s ok for a film to not be good, but still be entertaining. That of course gets into the question of what is a “Good film”. I mean if a film entertains you doesn’t that mean it’s good?

Well no. A combination of things make a movie good – for me. Thats the key here, its very subjective as is all forms of art to the viewer. I think the Mona Lisa is the work of a master with subtle nuances in the color and design. Do I enjoy looking at it? Would I want a print of it? No. Conversely, I have art on my wall that is not nearly as finely crafted, but gives me pleasure to look at. It’s the same with movies. There are films that are masterworks of their craft and films that do all the things right that they can and are “good” or “great”. Then there are ones that fail at many elements that show an artists touch yet are still entertaining. Schindlers List, a masterpiece, but is it entertaining to me? No. Starship Troopers, fails on many levels, but is eminently entertaining.

Why this particularly lengthy explanation? Because it ties to the works of the director of Pompeii – Paul W.S. Anderson. As always before writing my reviews I go over director, writer, and actor filmographies. I reviewed Mr. Anderson (and if you said that in your head like Hugo Weaving – points for you) and his work. I must admit while none of his movies can truly be called “Good” I actually enjoy every…last…one. For those not as versed, he is behind all five Resident Evil films, Soldier, Event Horizon, AVP, Death Race, Mortal Kombat and the recent Three Musketeers.  Few of which can be argued as being good, but have elements to them that are well, in a word arguably good. I find all of them actually fun to watch and have done so multiple times. This is why I went into Pompeii expecting nothing good, yet came out vaguely entertained.

Vaguely. This is perhaps the weakest of his films to date. Some of his previous ones are self aware enough to know they are bad (Resident Evil 4,5,6) and others strive for something more and achieve it (SOldier, Event Horizon). This is one that never apparently tries to be more than it is. It barely tries to do anything other than take itself too seriously for what the director and script are capable of. This could have been Titanic. This wanted to use history as a beat, but not truly use it for what it could have. The science, the history, Pliny’s journal and the remnants of what was found in the shadow of Vesuvius all could have driven the story forward without being the plot. They could have been respected, they could have been used at all.

They weren’t.

Instead we were given the opening of Conan, the love story of Titanic and the plot of Gladiator. There was not an original idea or element in this movie. A better director could have done something with that, but alas Anderson is not that director. The writers of course get the blame for the material. We begin with Janet Scott Batchler, the last thing she worked on of note was Batman Forever. I think I need not explain further on her. Her husband Lee is also a credit here (but sadly not a credit to script writing) who assisted in Batman Forever. The final writing credit, and you know the rules now on three writers or more, is for Michael Robert JOhnson, who gave us the 2009 Sherlock Holmes, which was actually pretty good. The writing here was just lazy.

This is the story of a man whose people, “The Celtic Horse People”, were killed by romans when he was just a boy. He escaped the massacre and was in turn sold into slavery. In the way of such tales, he of course becomes a fearsome gladiator that is moved from the lands of the British isles to Italy to fully make money off of his prowess. Along the way the slave/gladiator falls for a rich noble of the roman empire who of course falls for him as well. Over the course of three days, in which they spend approximately five hours together they form a deep and meaningful relationship all the while he is fighting as a gladiator. Oh and there’s a volcano that erupts too. Thats not a spoiler. It’s a movie called Pompeii.

Kit Harrington is our lead actor as “The Celt”, best known for his work as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones he doesn’t show any more range than he does as Snow. He does however show that he can actually kick ass and fight with passion. He also shows his six pack. Dayum. He’s pretty but has the acting range of Kristen Stewart and Keanu Reeves. Emily Browning plays Rose, er Cassia, our roman love interest. She is doe eyed most of the film but thankfully not entirely helpless. She’s actually the most interesting character in the movie. She has inner strength, cunning and even a bit of a vicious streak. Browning also gets better looking the dirtier she gets and less doe eyed she gets. The movie also has the talents of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, the second most interesting character. That is to say he feels like a whole person. There’s also Jared Harris, Carrie Anne Moss and a surprise presence of Kiefer Sutherland. I didn’t even know he still made movies anymore.

What of the production? The science of the eruption (to my knowledge) is off just enough to feel wrong to me. The effects of it themselves are solid. They fit with Andersons usual work with clearly being CGI but better than we get in plenty of other feature films. Certainly the best CG we’ve seen this year. The editing though. Look I get how hard editing is. You have to watch time stamps and sync sound and video and make sure everything is perfect. You have to cut scenes that are perfect save for a single element or piece them together in a way no one can tell there’s something wrong. So why in all of that work did someone miss Harrington being called “Snow” in one scene and “Kit” in another.

TL;DR?

Between the blatantly recycled plot, mediocre acting, only average effects, it shouldn’t be surprising that the movie delivers a colossal “meh”. I *was* entertained, but not as much as his other works. I shouldn’t laugh as people are dying, yet I did.

I know its been out a few weeks now, but if you haven’t already give it a pass. Judging from its box office receipts most people knew this. You can watch it on Netflix or Redbox or something later when you need some noise in the background while doing something you actually care about.

All of that said, prior to tomorrows review of 300 Rise of an Empire…

What are *YOUR* guilty pleasure movies?