Month: March 2014

The Heroine’s Journey in Divergent

Shailene Woodley and Theo James in Neil Burger's "Divergent"

Shailene Woodley and Theo James in Neil Burger’s “Divergent”

I will begin this review by saying that I have never read any of the books in the Divergent series upon which the film Divergent (and presumably its sequels) is based. For one thing, the series is for a young adult audience and sadly I am not a “young” adult. But I don’t think my familiarity with the property upon which Divergent the movie is based actually matters; films that are based on books should stand on their own, referencing the original, but never duplicating it. Furthermore, the filmmakers have no obligation to give us the book in movie form. On the contrary, they have an obligation to make a film that is a creative work on its own, despite its original concept coming from another medium. So, anyone who is looking for me to compare/contrast with the book should move on at this point.

Divergent is one of numerous stories in the adolescent coming of age in a post-apocalyptic world subgenre that has emerged over the past few years. Part science fiction, part heroine’s journey, Divergent centers on Beatrice (Shailene Woodley), a young woman who has come of age in a future world where society is broken up into factions: Erudite (the smarty pants set); Abnegation (the do-gooders); Dauntless (the free, wild, risk takers); Amity (peaceful farmers); Candor (those who value honesty and truth above all – curiously made up of lawyers in this film); and the factionless (those who don’t belong anywhere). As Beatrice considers whether to stay in the faction of her parents, Abnegation, she is given an aptitude test that shows she is “divergent”– she can fit into any of the five factions and is therefore a threat to the powers that be. Renaming herself “Triss,” Beatrice chooses to join Dauntless, the faction to which she is most drawn, but she keeps her divergence a secret until it must reveal itself.

Woodley gives a compelling performance here. I’m not sure what to expect from her in the future, but I saw a degree of subtlety and depth in her that could grow into a meaningful career if she chooses her roles carefully. She’s beautiful, but in a dark, intelligent way and she seems to understand how to use her physical presence in a role like this. I look forward to seeing her in something outside of the teen movie phase of her career.

It is no wonder that this film is more popular with audiences than critics (according to Rotten Tomatoes); it is, after all, a fairly standard heroine’s journey, with a strong female teenager finding herself through a host of physical and psychological challenges thrown at her by a society run by power-mad intellectuals. David Edelstein, in his review on Vulture.com, tells us to ignore the underlying message of the film (that intellectuals are ruining the world) in order to enjoy the film, which he agrees is an entertaining one with a very good performance by Woodley, as well as her stunningly handsome costar Theo James, with whom she has great Hollywood chemistry. Kate Winslet plays Jeanine Matthews, the Erudite faction leader who is busy tracking down divergents to kill them because they threaten the order of the system, which in turn protects us all from human nature (a major weakness in her eyes). She plays this role as a stiff, unemotional, and condescending woman, and as I watched this movie, I knew that would be a point of contention for those of us who enjoy looking at subtext, who value education and intellect, and who know that in the real world, the lack of intellectualism is the problem. But at the same time, Winslet’s Jeanine rang true for me. I have worked in academia for over 15 years and I swear, I have met this woman! But more importantly, I don’t think that subtext supercedes the other, more generic one, which tells the audience (presumed to be young adults and teens) to find out who they really are and then be that person no matter what society tells them. It’s standard YA novel/coming of age movie messaging, but it is to this reviewer much more clearly articulated than the anti-intellectualism, especially considering the intended audience.

But even if you do take Edelstein’s advice and shield yourself from the aspects that seem more conservative and even reactionary, Divergent is not bad. Director Neil Burger has a strong visual sense and the dystopian world he creates is delightfully dark. The film’s editing and sound design work well with the neo-Surrealist imagery in a number of sequences involving the unconscious mind as characters face their darkest fears. It all adds up to an overall entertaining, if not particularly groundbreaking, movie.

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Do Not Avert Your Eyes

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in "12 Years a Slave" (2013)

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave” (2013)

It has taken me a while to write about 12 Years a Slave, which I saw several months ago, because so much has already been written about it. But with the film now back in theaters on the Cape, now is as good a time as any to weigh in. But also, as I hear more and more from people who have avoided it for fear of being too deeply affected  by it, I want to encourage you to see this film in a movie theater, while you still can. Although it is already available on-demand and probably will soon be on Netflix, the theater affords us a dedicated space for connecting with the characters and with the past that is not easily duplicated at home.

When I was 11 years old, my father took me and my brother to see Alan J. Pakula’s devastating Sophie’s Choice. While the horror of the Holocaust had already been brought to my attention by my Jewish grandmother (only in passing, like when a movie about it might have been on TV), and the film itself did make an impression on me, my deepest memory of this movie is of my father uncontrollably sobbing in the car afterward. He tried to explain to us why the choice Sophie had to make broke him down like that (for those who haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you – go see it and then read this), and I think we got it on some level, but not completely. His reaction is testament to the power of the film, and it may be one of the things that drew me to study film later, in fact.

Sometimes movies are extremely difficult experiences and I don’t think that is a bad thing.

As you probably know by now, 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, is based on the diary of Solomon Northup, a real-life African-American from New York State who, despite having been born a free man, spent 12 years as a slave in the South after being kidnapped. The film shows us his journey from freedom through slavery and back again, with some of the most wrenching, magnificent moments coming at the very end when Northrup finally does return home.

The film, while widely praised, has had some detractors who found the director’s choice to not allow us to look away (by cutting or moving the camera to a safer angle) too extreme for the violence and degradation represented here. But for me, the scenes in question are necessary and as uncomfortable and difficult as they need to be. They are not the most devastating of McQueen’s choices.

Much critical attention has been paid to a particularly violent scene in which Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is forced to beat a fellow slave, Patsey (Nupita Nyong’o) because her slave master (Michael Fassbender) is unable to do it himself. Yes, this scene is very hard to watch, but for me it is the more subtle scenes that are the most affecting. For example, there is an absolutely breathtaking scene where Northup is strung up to be lynched, but is saved at the last minute. While he waits to be cut down–his neck still in the noose, but feet lightly grazing the ground, enough to stay conscious–McQueen gives us a long-shot so we can see the other slaves, many of whom are children, going about their business as though nothing out of the ordinary is dangling from a tree. It is like a dream, but not. No one flinches, no one cries or screams, no one is surprised. The sounds of daily life, mixed with the birds chirping and sounds of an otherwise pleasant day, go on. It isn’t that McQueen is trying to show that these people don’t care about each other, it’s that this is the routine humiliation and violence of everyday life for them. That moment saddened me so deeply; it was more powerful a statement than anything I’ve seen on film in recent memory–certainly with regard to slavery.

The performances in 12 Years a Slave are flawless. Ejiofor’s powerful, subtle performance drew me in, and made me not only think about, but really feel, as a free person, what it would have been like to suddenly lose my freedom with no real hope of returning to my family and my life. And at the same time, while I did not identify with the white plantation owners/slave masters, I also saw greater depth in them than I had before. The direction is powerful and the editing choices, deliberate, painful, and beautiful in a way. And that is my point: something can be horrific and revolting to watch and yet profoundly beautiful in its embrace of the cinematic potential.

In some respects, it resembles Roman Polanski’s brilliant 2002 Holocaust film The Pianist, also based on the records of a survivor. In that film, Adrien Brody, (who plays the lead character) slowly descends from being an attractive, talented, middle-class young man to a half-dead, starving fugitive from the Nazis. Again, this is a painful film, but I can’t imagine a more cinematic and beautiful telling of Wladislaw Szpilman’s true ordeal. And yet, portrayals of Holocaust suffering–as devastating as they are in many, many films–seem to have obtained a level of acceptance that we still do not have, at least in the U.S., for slave stories. Perhaps Americans can’t stomach our own past, preferring to look at the atrocities of other cultures from a safe distance across the ocean, but I don’t think that’s it. I think we just haven’t been offered the opportunities to revisit this aspect of American history because we don’t have a lot of writers and directors interested in pursuing it. It’s taken a British director to bring this point home and he does so with great skill.

What do we want out of our movies? Is it only an entertaining escape, a good story, a pleasant evening with a friend? Why are our expectations–no, our demands–so low when it comes to this art form. When you’re at the movies, in the dark, looking up at that screen, you should be given an experience to take with you. And whether it is a thrilling, tightly constructed cinematic adventure like Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (especially so in 3D), or a piece of our history that we haven’t truly come to terms with even 150 years later, we should be made to feel something substantial. Filmmaker Werner Herzog has said, “the poet must not avert his eyes,” and neither should the  audience.

What’s Old is New at the Chatham Orpheum

Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe, and Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s classic 1959 film “Some Like It Hot.”

I’ve seen Singin’ in the Rain (1952) numerous times; sometimes I watched pieces of the film on television on Sunday afternoons at my grandmother’s house, another time on video for a film course. It is one of just a handful of exceptions to my general anti-musical genre tastes. So when I saw that the Chatham Orpheum Theater was showing the film last week, I made sure I went. My only regret is that I didn’t bring my 10-year-old son to see it with me; what an introduction to film history it would have been.

The role of the repertory cinema is one that’s all but forgotten for most people. Once home video had saturated the American market, even urban cinephiles abandoned these noble institutions in favor of curating their own home libraries, complete with DVD sets including marvelous extras like behind-the-scenes documentaries and director’s commentaries. But as much as I value DVDs for their extra resources and as much as I understand the appeal of curling up on the couch to watch Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) or Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), there is no way to really feel the magic of these movies without going to see them in a dark theater with no reminders of your real life at home and only the occasional interruption from the sound of a neighboring filmgoer coughing in the dark. And for young people, it is truly the best way to appreciate films from the pre-video era, as they were meant to be seen.

Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Singin’ in the Rain is a great example because it’s a film made over 60 years ago about the conversion from silent to sound cinema, a time that is nearly 90 years ago now. I had always been drawn to this film and I always knew it was specifically because of Gene Kelly, but it was only looking up at the screen last week, focusing completely on the movie, that I truly understood Kelly’s choreography, the somewhat surreal “Gotta Dance”/”Broadway Melodies” section, and the way Kelly’s movements differ so strongly from those of his co-stars Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds. Of course, all three can dance, but if you just watch the “Good Morning” dance scene, Kelly’s connection to the music and the rhythm of the piece runs so deep that it appears completely effortless, as though the music and his body are physically connected in a way that Reynolds and O’Connor are just not capable of. On the small screen, it appears as silly but entertaining, but larger than life on the big screen, the fluid beauty is marvelous.

This is why I am so thrilled that finally someone on Cape Cod gets it! The Chatham Orpheum will be showing old movies in special screenings throughout the year. Singin’ in the Rain was this past week, but coming up is another one of my favorites, Some Like It Hot (1959), in which Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play musicians who have to perform in drag in order to get a gig with an all-girl traveling band that includes Marilyn Monroe as a sexy ukulele player. I’ve seen this movie easily 25 times, but you can bet I will be there to see it on the big screen next week. (It’s showing on March 13 and 15).

On March 27 and 29, the Orpheum moves ahead to something more recent, Howard’s End (1992). Like most Merchant-Ivory films, this one is sure to benefit from the focused atmosphere of the movie theater, allowing the atmosphere of the period (it takes place in England at the turn of the 20th century) to seamlessly take over our suspended notion of time and place. Then, on April 10 and 12, the Orpheum brings another film from the classic era, George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1940), which I also can’t wait to revisit. This Academy Award winning film features Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in a screwball comedy with fantastic, fast-paced dialogue and zany antics that made that genre so endearing.

Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s brilliant “North By Northwest” (1959)

The last revival on the schedule so far is Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant Cary Grant starrer, North By Northwest (1959). What a great film to take my son to as an introduction to the brilliance of Hitchcock. This is a film whose very design demands the large screen and the experience of watching something with others who care about great movies and don’t mind leaving their email inboxes, Twitter feeds, and Facebook updating until long after the lights come up and we all return to our “senses.”

For complete details on these special screenings, visit the Chatham Orpheum Theater or give them a call at 508.945.0874.