30 April 2014

The Death of Geriaction


Ah, the 1980s. The muscles were big, the body counts were high and, most importantly, the cash registers were clanging. For many, the 80s (we’ll include the early 90s hangover in this) is considered the high watermark for action cinema, giving rise to stars like Schwarzenegger, Willis and Stallone. Generations both new and old still religiously (and probably correctly) cite Die Hard as the best American action picture of all time, and characters like John Rambo and The Terminator have entered so affectionately into the pop cultural lexicon that they’re effectively pastiche.

However, sometime in the late 90s the production of these features eased up. Some of its stars decided to opt for alternate careers (as a Governor of California, for example), others began to oscillate more comfortably between genres (Willis) and the world simply stopped caring about the rest. But with the success of  2010’s The Expendables and the relinquishing of a specific governmental position, Hollywood recently decided it was time to reinstall these now geriatric meatheads as the kings offilmic carnage. The results haven’t been unanimously successful. Whilst Willis has continued to showcase his lustre with a pair of lucrative (albeit poorly regarded) Die Hardsequels, the rest of these quipping gym rats have found audience approval harder to win, with the latest victim, Schwarzenegger’s Sabotage, opening to a paltry $5 million Stateside. Is there really still room in Hollywood for these oversized titans and their undersized plots? Or is it time to finally hang up the dumbbells and find a cosy retirement home?

I must insist this article isn’t written out of disdain for the past works of these legitimate legends. I love Die Hard as much as the next bloke, and earnestly consider PredatorThe Terminator and Total Recall to be science-fiction juggernauts. I’m the first to admit Bruce Willis is not only a star but also an undervalued actor, and Schwarzenegger’s participation in anything piques my curiosity. However, this newfound trend of placing them front and centre in Hollywood action vehicles seems regressive and I’m clearly not the only person who feels that way. Leaving aside the preposterous amounts garnered by The Expendables flicks (which stirs all these heroes into one almighty beefcake stew), this new wave of geriatric actioners has failed to ignite much interest. Despite mild critical enthusiasm and the presence of an auteur director, Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand could only manage a meagre $48 million worldwide, but even that dwarfs Stallone’s Bullet to the Head, which couldn’t even crawl past the $10 million mark domestically. Even together the duo elicited shrugs last year with Escape Plan, cooking up $25 million in the States (although that movie admittedly fared better overseas). These numbers aren’t those of rejuvenated titans; instead they feel like the final feeble whimpers of a dying bear.

Times have fundamentally changed. The action star and vehicle he inhabits have transitioned, with onus placed on charisma, lean athleticism and a more grounded aesthetic. This isn’t always to the benefit of cinema: I’d take the vibrant presence of Schwarzenegger over the banal wailing of Gerard Butler any day of the week, but audiences are constantly expressing a preference for pictures in the vein of Christopher Nolan’s Inception and protagonists who cut a shape closer to the frame of Ryan Gosling. Maybe it’s the very affection that Stallone and Schwarzenegger embody that has proved their undoing, their irreplaceable personas having become firmly ingrained with the idea of outdated and amusingly ripe nostalgia, a cute by-product of a sillier generation. After all, an action hero needs to be taken seriously.
Yet even that explanation doesn’t hold much weight. Sabotage reportedly courts streaks of grungy über-violence and boasts a less overtly “Arnie” performance from the exgovernor, and yet the film has been ignored, and slated by the few who’ve seen it. It seems that even if these icons leave their goofy pasts in the rear-view, audiences still aren’t buying what they’re pushing.

The Expendables 3 opens this summer and will no doubt post solid numbers, but otherwise the future looks a little bleak for these once unstoppable behemoths. No matter what tonality they embrace, audiences seem intent on ignoring them, abandoning the kitschy charm of an Arnie one-liner in favour of dour monologues courtesy of a Bale or Wahlberg. Maybe in these darker times audiences are pining for a hero who they feel might viably save them, a tough-guy next door as opposed to a cartoony superman who spends six hours a day beside a squat rack. Either way the age of these screen icons appears to be at a close, the shadow of their mozzarella-tinged legacies fading as Hollywood continues to adopt an increasingly sober mood. In a way it’s necessary, and clinging to the past is neither healthy nor artistically fulfilling. Still, the day that “I’ll be back” becomes a defunct and empty promise is one coloured by profuse melancholy.
Daniel Kelly
Originally published by The Boar , 2013

19 April 2014

Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2



The Amazing Spider-Man 2
2014, 142mins, 12
Director: Marc Webb
Writer (s): Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner, James Vanderbilt
Cast includes: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Sally Field, Dane DeHaan, Felicity Jones
UK Release Date: 17th April 2014

2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” was a competent work, but its need for being never felt genuine. Repeating an origin story that a superior film-maker had spent the best part of ten years excavating, the reboot was a digestible summer commodity, but hardly a necessary re-evaluation of everyone’s favourite web-slinger. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” doesn't really make a great deal of progress in justifying Sony’s franchise continuation (at least artistically). The feature manages to ascertain a greater sense of personal identity than its predecessor, but the script’s a mess and much like Sam Raimi’s franchise halting “Spider-Man 3” suffers a severe faulty villain complex.

Peter Parker’s (Andrew Garfield) Spider-Man duties are having a detrimental effect on his relationship with squeeze Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone), leaving the recent graduate with a series of tough personal choices. Opting to preserve Gwen’s safety by ending their courtship, Peter immerses himself in his Spidey routine, attempting to protect a city that’s slowly turning against him. Some support comes in the form of old buddy Harry Osborn’s (Dean DeHaan) mysterious reappearance, but this proves only temporary, as unhinged villain Electro (Jamie Foxx) and toxic secrets from Peter’s past threaten both New York and the hero’s faltering resolve.

A concentrated effort has been made by director Marc Webb to distance this outing from the Raimi originals, opting for a distinctively cartoonish tonality and stylised aesthetic. The action in the first film was well executed but safe; with the sequel Webb goes bigger and occasionally manages better. There’s more dynamism and ambitious composition to the framing here, even if the enlarged scale and quicker pace force the director to adopt a jarringly choppy editorial rhythm. When Webb can find the time to slow things down he picks out some really stunning images; the hero has rarely looked better swinging through concrete jungle than he does in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”. The digitals are seamless and have been arranged to fully exploit the spectacle and athleticism of Spider-Man’s movement, allowing for several breezy and genuinely awing bursts of aerial acrobatics. The combat sequences are less impressive, Webb becoming lost in a mire of video-game likening theatrics, filled with slow-motion and an overbearing aura of falsity as CGI characters bump aggressively into each other. No -the thrills of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” come from seeing the character’s daily grind thoroughly realised, aided nicely by Garfield’s sprightly boy-scout performance.

Garfield’s Parker is a clown with a heart of gold. The actor looks trim and muscular, but also imbues the titular character with a likable softness, especially in his dealings with Gwen. Emma Stone proves his adorable equal, and together they possess a zippy, natural chemistry. Their relationship is the cornerstone of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”, and the young performers do a fine job of articulating a complicated but inherently promising romance. We want them to find happiness together, which renders the third act devastatingly striking. Similarly deserving of plaudits is Sally Field, given only one memorable scene, but able to make her constant presence in the periphery count for something. Her obvious comic skills lightly compliment Webb’s less sombre modality, but she also rises mightily to the few dramatic demands the movie makes of her. One scene between her and Garfield is beautifully pitched and laced with truth. Here she not only convinces, but also unselfishly draws the very best out of her handsome British co-star.

The screenplay is a murky affair and strives to achieve more than is reasonable even for a bulky 142 minute blockbuster. The film introduces two chief antagonistic elements, one atrocious the other ripe with promise. Sadly it fixates more on the former. As Electro Jamie Foxx is distractingly miscast, distilling the character to a geeky, nebbish caricature, one further sullied by a goofy and unthreatening visual design. Foxx never communicates any emotion fierce enough for viewers to respect him as a threat, and his motivations are clouded by broad, unfocused cliché. It’s fitting then that his final showdown with Spider-Man should also amount to one of the less exciting and suspenseful action beats, a broad punch-up that plays constantly in the hero’s favour. More unsettling and rewardingly dense is Dane DeHaan. DeHaan also has to do battle with a script that oversaturates and molests his arc with contrivance, but the actor is able to rise above the mediocrity, convincing as a person dangerously suppressing vast quantities of rage. He’s the villain that proves most interesting and eventually manifests malice. Unfortunately the static Electro takes centre stage, despite the fact he’s devoid of meaningful characterisation or subject to a comfortable thespian contribution. He’s a superficial loner, neither intelligent nor physically imposing, and subsequently devoid of necessary malevolence. The fact Foxx is ill-equipped for such a beta entity only adds insult to injury.

Webb always keeps one eye on the Gwen and Peter dynamic, so it’s no surprise this proves the movie’s worthiest asset. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” sadly feels obligated to fill out its hero’s backstory with an unrewarding parental subplot, leaving Peter to try and riddle the potentially unsavoury reason for his parents’ abandonment of him. This element is the perfect encapsulation of the picture’s scripting mishaps, forcing a baggy and consistently dull addition atop an already bloated and uneven narrative construction. Anytime Peter weeps for his folks, or Richard Parker’s voice crackles over some dated technological device, the movie grinds to a complete halt. We don’t know these people or care for them (despite the efforts of the bombastic opening scene). When it comes to Peter our sympathies extend only so far as Gwen or Aunt May. There’s only so much emotional damage an audience can be expected to absorb and inherit, and the tacked on familial goings on here take the biscuit.

“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” isn't unenjoyable. Webb’s direction is pleasingly giddy, sometimes thrilling and prioritises an authentically heartfelt love story. Elsewhere things are shakier. There are serious faults with the outing (mostly at a screenwriting level), but that air of familiarity that slightly marred Webb’s initial venture still lingers. Maybe it’s time to cast this character aside for longer than 5 years, because for all the amazement he strives to imprint, Spider-Man is honestly starting to taste a little stale. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

17 April 2014

Movie Review: The Other Woman (2014)



The Other Woman
2014, 109mins, 15
Director: Nick Cassavetes 
Writer: Melissa Stack 
Cast includes: Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Kate Upton, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Don Johnson, Nicki Minaj 
UK Release Date: 23rd April 2014

It’s likely that director Nick Cassavetes believes “The Other Woman” to be an empowering mainstream comedy, a flick in which sisters really are doing it for themselves. The reality of the situation is different; the film an imbecilic and withered concoction of flat humour and creepy plotting. “The Other Woman” feels like a calculated attempt to offend audiences, particularly those of the fairer sex, at whom this celluloid dump has been unapologetically marketed. Its character choices and fixation with middle-class strife intensify the nausea, but ultimately it’s the witless writing that sinks the enterprise. Granted, no movie that features multiple poop gags, an impossibly gross Don Johnson subplot and a Nicki Minaj cameo has much of a chance, but a few solid rib-ticklers might just have made it bearable. Instead “The Other Woman” bungles even the easiest bursts of jesting, focusing on its overstretched narrative and deplorable consequences.

After several blissful months of courtship, Carly (Cameron Diaz) is disappointed to find boyfriend Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has a wife. Composing herself and happy to abandon the relationship, Carly is surprised when Mark’s spouse Kate (Leslie Mann) becomes insistent on forging a friendship, eager for advice as to how she should handle her husband’s infidelity. Initially reluctant, Carly eventually agrees to help Kate ascertain a degree of closure, but that only leads them to discover the presence of second mistress Amber (Kate Upton), a younger woman equally disgusted by Mark’s lechery. As a result the trio begin to plot revenge, dosing the cheat with hormone pills and hair-loss products, before moving their game to grander financial plateaus.

There was a time when Cameron Diaz was a livewire asset to any comedy, but that era has passed. Her only interesting work of late has involved squelching her genitals against a car windscreen in Ridley Scott’s deranged “The Counsellor”; the bread and butter of her career (frothy comedy) hasn’t yielded much of worth for some time. “The Other Woman” maintains the actress’ newfound adoration for mundane, non-event cinema, her benign work here a perfect encapsulation of every misfire leading up to it. It’s not just that she’s poor; Diaz seems totally static and unwilling to try, obviously aware of the script’s cruddy stature. She’s not bothered, and it doesn’t translate as laidback charisma, it’s more like the star popped an abundance of Prozac. On the other end of the spectrum Mann goes for broke, proving largely insufferable.  Her onscreen dynamics with Diaz and Coster-Waldau are cursedly artificial, but what’s less forgivable is the sheer volume she insists on raising. Mann doesn’t tell jokes in “The Other Woman”, she screeches them, over-playing every verbal and physical bit painfully. It’s a dire performance, highlighting the comedienne (who has been funny in the past) as one requiring of a tight directorial leash. Cassavetes isn’t fit for the job.

“The Other Woman” wastes no time establishing a sluggish pace and aimless tone, the third act is so scatter-shot it’s as if the final month of principal photography was wholly improvised. Cassavetes (most famously regarded for “The Notebook”) doesn’t provide much zip to the picture, but even the sharpest editorial hands might have struggled with such rancid material. The quips are mouldy, but the arcs and character constructs are worse. The people featured are abominable hypocrites, devoting embarrassing portions of their lives to distorting a dirtbag’s existence whilst seemingly preaching self-sufficiency and moral fibre. The result? A climax that incinerates the wellbeing of another human (both physically and mentally) whilst the girls steadfastly throw themselves headfirst into the arms of queasy male companions and capitalist ascendency. It’s an unsettling resolution that underlines the problems with mainstream pap aimed at young women (boys and money will still define your happiness -just not bad boys) and highlights the thoughtlessness inherent within its plot and corrupting message. “The Other Woman” doesn’t even offer the pleasure of a simple and gentle genre denouement. It’s insistently unsatisfactory and scarring until its final, borderline paedophilic frames.

Coster-Waldau competently sleazes around the feature; his continuing gameness almost redeeming some of the less egregious writing. I’m sure “The Other Woman” will keep his bank account buoyed whilst George R. Martin procrastinates over the culmination of those dratted fantasy novels everybody loves. On the other hand Kate Upton is religiously rejected throughout the feature, although based on what little dialogue she has that’s probably to our benefit. Kitty-kat cuteness and a continentally sized bust don’t a good actress make, the model firing off stilted lines with zero naturalism. The CGI monsters that Coster-Waldau encounters on “Game of Thrones” are probably less overtly fantastical than Upton. I assume the script originally offered her one-dimensional character at least a little more exposure. The subsequent footage was likely less than usable though.

Of course “The Other Woman” tries to engrave its surface with a perception of dramatic integrity, but these instances are ruined by fake performances, Cassavetes’ love of tiresome melodramatic ballads and the shimmering falsity of a high-end shampoo commercial. “The Other Woman” has a hollow look to match its soulless commercial aspirations. It’s a poisonous motion picture, devoid of giggles, resonance or even a slight hint of feminist continuity within its thematic DNA. All this and I haven’t even railed against the dang Nicki Minaj bits yet. Maybe give it a pass guys. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

12 April 2014

Movie Review: The Quiet Ones



The Quiet Ones 
2014, 98mins, 15
Director: John Pogue 
Writer (s): John Pogue, Craig Rosenberg, Oren Moverman
Cast includes: Sam Claflin, Jared Harris, Olivia Cooke, Erin Richards, Rory-Fleck Byrne 
UK Release Date: 11th April 2014

The reinvention of Hammer Studios hasn’t really worked thus far. 2010’s “Let Me In” was a functional but inferior remake of a stronger Swedish picture and 2012’s “The Woman in Black” whilst lucrative, was stricken by anaemia. However these misfits represent the best Hammer has been able to conjure post rejuvenation, and that fact doesn’t change with “The Quiet Ones”. Taking traditional Hammer tropes (haunted houses and sinister intellectuals) and combining them with found-footage shooting feels more desperate than inspired. In the wake of last summer’s “The Conjuring” (which dealt in a similarly jolty aesthetic) “The Quiet Ones” comes off as terribly flat. The casting of Jared Harris proves amusing, but the rest of the enterprise stutters with alarming regularity.

Hired by Professor Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris) to help document a medical experiment; Brian (Sam Claflin) is surprised when it appears the subject is mentally unstable Jane (a lank-haired Olivia Cooke), a young woman crippled with fear and uncontrollable abilities. Coupland is convinced that Jane’s powers can be scientifically explained and thusly cured, using loyal PHD students (Erin Richards and Rory Fleck-Byrne) and assorted technologies to try and unlock the cause of her misfortune. Despite their best efforts, Jane continues ti exhibit strange and destructive supernatural tendencies, which eventually threaten not just the operation but also the lives of those involved.

Approaching a Hammer picture centred on a vast echoic hub of ghostly mischief elicits a certain set of expectations, and they’re pretty frickin’ modest. Pogue at least seems aware of what’s anticipated, beefing up the soundtrack to an incredible volume and keeping the boo moments primed at a swift clip. So regular are these attempted scares that a few can’t help but land, especially during the establishing quarter. Still, the batting average dips irrevocably and the style of the frights quickly descends into tedium; Pogue abusing his sound capabilities like a child trapped overnight in a chocolate factory. He indulges every whim to shock the audience through shrieks, speedily dampening the product, rendering each subsequent supernatural fart less memorable than the last. By the time the first act is over the method has been tortured to death, yet “The Quiet Ones” continues to pummel the ears with its unoriginal blend of thumping and whirring. The cinematography and editing aren't any more encouraging. The blend of Super 8 with upmarket third person perspective worked to destabilise audiences watching “The Conjuring”, lending it an unpredictable roller-coaster aura. Unfortunately despite identical conceptual technique, Pogue’s direction lacks the barmy vibrancy of the aforementioned blockbuster. The cuts are fast and initially sync with the disorienting sounds, but they eventually become tiresome, and his repetitious set-pieces lack imagination or truly disturbing artistry.

Jared Harris sneers his way through the movie gamely, quietly constructing villainy as opposed to advertising it immediately. It’s a nice touch that at least lends “The Quiet Ones” some narrative suspense, Harris getting into the sinister spirit of things confidently when required. Claflin (fresh off “Catching Fire”) is a wet non-presence. We’re supposed to feel for his shy and conflicted character, experiencing the horrors through his naïve camera, but the actor isn't emotive enough to engage. He’s interchangeable with any number of handsome, mediocre young yahoos; much like “The Quiet Ones” is interchangeable with any number of slick, mediocre horror outings. The other college students are equally photogenic, but have even less in the way of screen magnetism.

“The Woman in Black” for all its faults did boast a rich and appreciatively gothic production design; an evident consideration for the way it looked. Little of that has been translated into “The Quiet Ones”, which despite a superficial competence doesn't have a style to call its own. The film has been yanked from the prints of cinema history, dabbling haphazardly with ideas and shots perfected elsewhere. It’s a boring movie to endure, trekking a mundane story and characters across a hollow albeit polished surface. Haunted house enthusiasts and lovers of the occult might be considering giving “The Quiet Ones” a chance, but I guarantee anyone with even post-virginal grounding in this sort of material will find the process trite and unrewarding. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

Movie Review: Calvary



2014, 101mins, 15
Director: John Michael McDonagh 
Writer: John Michael McDonagh 
Cast includes: Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O'Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran 
UK Release Date: 11th April 2014

John Michael McDonagh’s “The Guard” was a darkly-gilded and anarchic debut, a morality tale preoccupied with roving bursts of challenging comedy and a superb exhibition of anti-hero attitude courtesy of Irish national treasure Brendan Gleeson. The duo reunite with “Calvary”; switching their focus from law enforcement to religious institution, taking the narrative to parts of Ireland that make the Galway of “The Guard” look like a hub of metropolitan energy. “Calvary” adopts a bleaker and even more introspective tone than its predecessor, asking questions about faith that the Irish population constantly need posed. The issues it raises have informed Irish public affairs and ethical debate for decades, but rarely have they been so delicately positioned within the sphere of art. It’s a film that should ascertain praise from all sorts of viewers due to its gorgeous form and strong character study, but those with bonds to the Catholic Church or Ireland itself should uncover extra resonance in this ball of subdued fire. There’s a raw honesty and aura of torment to “Calvary” that renders the dying moments of Stephen Frears’ “Philomena” superfluous by comparison.

Whilst hosting confessional at his small Parish, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is mortally threatened by a local with disturbing roots in the Church. Instructed that he has a week to live, Lavelle is left shaken by the occurrence, unsure if the law should be alerted, with little helpful advice coming from his superiors. Throughout the course of the week Lavelle spends his time with an assortment of troubled and disengaged locals, his own faith beginning to creak under the weight of their grim realities and his own impending doom. Heightening the intensity is the reappearance of his troubled daughter Fiona (a believably damaged Kelly Reilly), herself recovering from tragedy and emotional despair.

“Calvary” opens with the fabled confessional that informs the rest of its structure, and immediately asserts Gleeson as its most powerful tool. A static camera watches in close-up as Gleeson is fed repulsive and anatomically accurate recounts of a haunted youth, before being informed of his own forthcoming reckoning. McDonagh’s dialogue succinctly establishes his humanity ("certainly a startling opening line") as he initially struggles to process the starkness of the terrible confession, but it’s Gleeson’s darkened and emotive  features that bring alive the struggles which inform the film’s central arc. The actor is in breath-taking form, casting side the gregarious wisecracking of “The Guard” in favour of pensive and deeply familiar doubt, conjuring a remarkably vivid inner-turmoil. It’s important that McDonagh builds the character as someone of incredible awareness, privy to sins of the past and his own weaknesses. But there’s also stoicism and deep sorrow buried below Gleeson’s gentle stare, a complex and full 180 from some of his gruffer back-catalogue. He’s quiet but never gloomy, the strife and questions that hang over “Calvary” brought to life with reserved force by its leading man.

“Calvary” has satirical and comedic mettle (often embodied by some of the wackier members of Lavelle’s congregation), but even these screen entities are offered real souls by McDonagh’s composed script. There are no saints or sinners in “Calvary”, only real human-beings beset by secularisation, emptiness or pious superiority. McDonagh constructs the script so each supporting figure gifts further richness to Lavelle’s own burgeoning crisis, the film-maker wasting neither performer nor line in pursuit of his open-ended but stunningly delivered final frame. “Calvary” takes place over seven days, but the film sculpts its titchy rural community with an eye for impeccable detail. McDonagh has a proclivity for hard-hitting dynamism and dominant singular essence of character (“Calvary” has atheists, worthless ecclesiastical dignitaries and pragmatic angels) but that doesn’t render the product shallow. In fact it all seeks to deepen the questions of faith and meaning that consume Lavelle.

Aesthetically “The Guard” adhered to a more fixed realism, which is interesting given that “Calvary” evidences increased maturation. The shots of Irish countryside that introduce the picture’s setting have a grey, but intensely poetic tone. The slightly muted pastures and waves coloured by darkening skies have the appearance of paradise before the storm. There’s an incredible beauty and tranquillity to the small town spaces and rocky beaches where much of the film’s action unfolds, but tellingly McDonagh never allows those foreboding clouds to relent. It’s a superb mimic of its leading character’s consciousness; a potentially perfect balance of simplicity and elegance, harassed by an expanding shadow of cynicism and purposelessness. Of course during its final hurrah the movie channels the stand-off DNA of a Western, complete with awed youth, divine heroism and impossible anger. However up to that point “Calvary” has the feel of a fairy-tale, an exquisite never-world; an Enya video without the warbling vocals. I genuinely intend that last comment as a compliment. Whilst Enya’s wailing manipulatively denotes melodramatic significance amid natural landscapes, “Calvary” uses Ireland with sophistication and immeasurably more consideration for character and national identity.

I've deliberately avoided yelling the critical social context at the heart of “Calvary”; the lynchpin of its relation to the Church so to speak. Those with any knowledge of Ireland over the past 60 years will no doubt have predicted the topic, and may even begrudge McDonagh the use of such delicate material. Please don’t. McDonagh never veers into exploitation or showmanship, he only uses the notion to posit vital quandaries and construct characters deeply entwined with the guilt of Irish national consciousness. Crucially “Calvary” isn't anti-organised religion; indeed through the truthfulness of Lavelle it makes a compelling point for its import. Instead the piece fixates on what faith means to certain types, using specific identification with Ireland’s recent past to communicate the issue. Is religion anachronistic, possibly even secondary to new consumer-infused deities? Maybe it’s corrupted beyond usage? Is there a crime too severe for redemption? McDonagh intelligently muses on all these points, and many more besides.

The film’s title is easy to decode yet essential. In fact by underlining such overt biblical reference McDonagh makes the final moment all the more poignant. Our faith will always be in question, but there are figures of decency and virtue worth rallying behind. They carry the burden of our guilt and eternal upset, fighting through immense barriers in the name of righteousness. The least we can do is forgive. It’s in the dramatization of this point, and of a man set down the rocky path of earning salvation that “Calvary” confirms its status as a unique masterwork.  

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

8 April 2014

Movie Review: Divergent



2014, 138mins, 12
Director: Neil Burger 
Writer (s): Vanessa Taylor, Evan Daugherty, Veronica Roth (novel)
Cast includes: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Jai Courtney, Ashley Judd, Miles Teller 
UK Release Date: 6th April 2014

YA (Young adult for the uninitiated) fiction has been a strangely prominent player in the modern cinematic landscape; but to what end? True, the financial results of adapting “The Twilight Saga” and “The Hunger Games” have been immeasurably beneficial for their backers, but a slew of quiet failures have also been simpering in neglected multiplex corners. “Beautiful Creatures”? “The Mortal Instruments”? Or how about this year’s “Vampire Academy”? I’ll bet you’re familiar with Katniss Everdeen, but the likelihood that you devoted time to any of the aforementioned runts is soft. The latest entrant into this oversaturated stable of angst is “Divergent”, taken from Veronica Roth’s 2011 novel of the same name.  Founding its narrative around dystopian tonality and teenage woe (favourite lynchpins of this genre) “Divergent” isn’t much worse than the initial “Hunger Games” outing, although its potential for franchise longevity feels slighter. Whilst that film had the magnificent Jennifer Lawrence, “Divergent” is laboured with a miscast Shailene Woodley, the talented actress unable to connect with the script’s more butt-kickin’ demands. Of course it doesn’t help much that the movie’s thesis on the power of individuality is sandwiched between generic production design and regurgitated character beats. There’s little in “Divergent” you haven’t seen before; even if odd bits and pieces are executed with mild competency.

 In the future Earth has been ravaged by nuclear war, and the surviving population have been divided into five distinct factions. There’s the selfless politicians of Abnigation, the methodical egg-heads of Erudite, the agriculturally fuelled Amity, the maverick police force Dauntless and the unfiltered honesty of Candour. Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) has been raised within the confines of Abnigation, but when the time comes for her to select a faction she opts for the unflinching adventure of Dauntless. Struggling to acclimate to her new surroundings, Beatrice is trained by the mysterious Four (Theo James) and violent Eric (Jai Courtney), the latter taking a vehement dislike to the new recruit. As time passes she grows closer to Four and proves her worth as a soldier, but in the back of Beatrice’s mind is a secret. Beatrice belongs to a breed of humans known as Divergents, rebels who ascribe to no given denomination. With each passing day her superiors grow wary, including sinister Erudite officer Jeanine (Kate Winslet).

“Divergent” reportedly cost $85 million, but unfortunately what’s up on screen looks cut-rate. Neil Burger (last seen directing the enjoyable “Limitless”) opens the picture with a sweeping shot that takes in the entirety of the desolate environment, filled out with solid CGI and a design that effectively communicates the story’s fascination with entrapment. It’s unsettling then to observe the static quality of sets when the tale gets going, large, distractingly empty areas more akin to rehearsal spaces than lavish terrain. There’s a repetitive streak to the look and feel of “Divergent” that robs it of aesthetic joy, its drab sets matching its perfunctory storytelling mechanics with dispiriting measure. The climatic shootouts are particularly unsatisfactory in the way they seemingly recycle imagery and physical space. The post-apocalyptic world of “Divergent” doesn’t feel lived in on the silver screen, but more criminally it only appears half-considered by its creators. There are moments where the Burger who infused “Limitless” with a psychedelic, editorial buzz rears his head; the highlight potentially coming early when a hero is faced with an ominous and eerily extreme jump. Burger’s framing induces welcome vertigo, establishing the enormity of the visual and thematic demands being made of his characters. It’s a simple scene, but one carried off with panache and tension, letting the audience’s imagination do the heavy-lifting. Sadly “Divergent” rarely tasks that faculty again.

Woodley is a superior thespian, but she’s not appropriate for this role. She squeezes some emotion out of Beatrice’s identity qualms, but when left to communicate brutal combat or verbal steel the actress is hopelessly out of sync. Her appearance is weedy and even she evidences zero faith in her ability to land punchy one-liners, leaving us with a hero who feels weak even in presumed sequences of strength. It doesn’t help that love interest Theo James is such a dull presence, although in fairness his broody hunk exists only to elicit swoons and superficial intrigue. The actor is gifted some dramatic motivation on the cusp of the third act, but it feels late, and his relationship with Woodley comes across as forced and sudden. “Divergent” asks viewers to accept the pre-determined fate of these star-crossed lovers, but fails to calculate a discernable aura of heat or attraction during their shared scenes. This romantic arc, which clearly has a big place in the wider universe of “Divergent”, kind of just plops out of nowhere. An idiot could tell that it’s going to happen, but Burger and company give us no reason to believe it should.

Despite a hearty 138 minute runtime “Divergent” actually glides by pretty effortlessly, forcing viewers through some rigorous training before ushering in the notion of corrupt bureaucracy. The shadow of “The Hunger Games” looms large, but “Divergent” at least has the sense to make its villains properly cartoonish, and their thirst for malevolence unabashedly moustache twirling. I’m not suggesting the social critiques that surround its unofficial sibling are complex, but “Divergent” distils the wrong-doing to pure caricature, which is actually good fun. Miles Teller utilises his deft comic-timing as one of Beatrice’s Dauntless rivals, Jai Courtney is unapologetically repugnant and Winslet steps right out of a post-Water Gate comic strip. All three of the performers respond to the base needs of the story vibrantly, using energy as a compensator for innovation. When the feature respects that it’s not hugely highbrow stuff, “Divergent” is pleasantly digestible. Certainly during its extended sequences of merciless inter-faction competition I was rarely bored. There’s pleasure to be derived from the simple intensity of two kids ragging on each other.

That the movie preaches originality is ludicrous, especially given that its opening monologue lays out the world and stakes in painstakingly familiar terms. I’m confident of the direction this fantasy yarn is headed, and its masters would need to be mindful that audiences will eventually tire of “Hunger Games” wannabes. “Divergent” is the movie equivalent of a cheap kebab following a night of heavy drinking. It’s not pleasing to look at, nor does it offer anything fresh or even nutritionally advisable, but in the moment it boasts a certain harmlessness that compliments the undemanding aura of any recreational binge. You will almost certainly regret it afterward though. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014