I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!: “Divergent”

Divergent poster.I think I need to watch Dominic West dancing in “Pride” first.

(watches clip)

Okay, I’m back.

“Divergent” is based on the first book in a trilogy by Veronica Roth and as is the trend now, this is part of a movie series that will be a quadrilogy. In “Divergent,” we are taken to futuristic Chicago where people are divided into factions. At a certain age, people are tested to find out what faction they will join, but apparently they can choose. Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley) is from an Abnegation family, which means she is from a family of selfless public servants. She is given her aptitude test and it comes out that she is a Divergent, which means she has attributes for multiple factions. She is warned to keep it a secret because Divergents can think independently and can’t be controlled. Tris goes to select her faction and she goes for Dauntless, who are the brave train jumpers who also serve as the military force and are kind of viewed by Tris as the cool kids, which I will get to in a minute. Tris struggles in training, but eventually excels and people become suspicious. Meanwhile, a plot is being hatched by the Erudite, who are the smart people who want to be in power. Oh, and since a love interest is required for film adaptations of Young Adult novels, she falls in love with Four (Theo James).

May we please talk about the beginning logic of the film? I understand the whole faction thing since it’s not too far off from dystopian social structures seen in “The Hunger Games” and the fantastic “Legend” triology by Marie Lu. But with “Legend” we see a similar test where people find out where they belong in life. In “The Hunger Games” there are the 12 districts that each specialize in something and those districts are theoretically keeping the harmony of Panem together. But with “The Hunger Games” there’s a very clear upper-class that is served by the districts. The biggest glaring problem with the social structure in “Divergent” is there’s an entire group known as the factionless who live under the L tracks. They serve no purpose in society and it seems odd that in a society where at least one faction is hell bent on killing those they feel are a threat they don’t go and kill the factionless. They serve no purpose other than to be helped by the Abnegation.

But then there’s the fact that all 16-year-olds get tested to find out what faction they belong in, but apparently they can choose–although Tris makes a comment to Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the Erudite leader, that she would rather people don’t go with a choice that strays from what the test told them. So if people can choose and could be cut from their factions if they don’t pass the training, why does the government even administer the test?

Now that I’ve gotten through the problems with the logic, to the other problems with this movie. Woodley and James are just not compelling lead actors. Her acting feels wooden and stiff compared to the supporting actors and she has no on-screen presence. James at least feels like he’s trying, but he is playing Stock Handsome Love Interest and doesn’t do much with the role. Worse is when Woodley and James’ characters kiss I felt like it warranted a shrug, not a cheer. This is THE couple for the movie and I didn’t care that they finally kissed, largely because I didn’t feel like Woodley had any chemistry with James.

I also don’t really care about the characters. Whenever something happens to a character I find myself being unfazed by it. Characters are killed and there’s no emotional resonance whatsoever because there’s not really a connection the audience can make with any of these characters.

There is also an odd unintentional tonal issue with this film. Tris mentions having respect for the Dauntless and almost admiring them and it’s made very clear they are the security forces in Chicago. This feels a little uncomfortable now because of the dialogue occurring in this country around police shootings and police brutality. We have a film set in Chicago–which has a horrible history of police torture–where the main character chooses to join this group that later in the film, while under mind control, does start murdering innocent civilians. It’s completely unintentional, but that aspect of the script and the character feels a little uncomfortable particularly in the current climate.

The film also has horrible pacing because a good half of the film is spent having the new members of Dauntless be trained. Imagine if the training sequences of <i>The Hunger Games</i> occupied as much time as the actual games. After those are done we leap to the climax of the film, which seems abrupt and comes out of nowhere, as if it was realized something needed to happen other than watch Tris train to be a member of this faction. It’s a joyless slog of a movie which features an ending that led me to wonder why there are three more films after this. On the other hand, a good save in the event the film does poorly like “City of Bones” or many other failed YA film-adaptations.

On one final note, this is the second film in this series where there has been an attempted rape of the main character. In “Catch Hell,” Regan Pierce is drugged and Junior attempts to rape him, only to be suffocated by Pierce and then eaten by a gator. In a test given to see Tris’ proficiency as a Dauntless, she is put in a mental simulation where she has a series of trials. In the final trial a virtual Four goes to rape her and she knees him in the nuts and escapes. Please, screenplay writers, for the love of all that is holy, stop using sexual assault as a plot device because you can. Unless you’re going to explore the aftermath of sexual assault, just don’t use it in your plot. Even then I’m not even sure if I want to see sexual assault used as a plot device.

Verdict: Avoid at all cost. You could do so much better things with your time. Even watching “Catch Hell” would be a better use of your time.

I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!: “Catch Hell”

Welcome to “I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!” a new blog post series where I watch movies that sound bad and then write about them, mostly to see if they’re worth watching. The first film is “Catch Hell,” which was written and directed by its star, Ryan Phillippe.

Regan Pierce (Phillippe) is an actor seeking a film to catapult him back to the top. He goes down to Shreveport, Louisiana and stays in the world’s saddest Holiday Inn, preparing to shoot a new film. The day after he arrives, he’s picked up in a van by Michael (Ian Barford) and Junior (Stephen Louis Grush), who are basically the stock terrifying rednecks you find in a movie. They kidnap him, take him to a shack in the middle of the swamp and proceed to torture him over the next few days and leak nude pictures and send anti-Semetic and homophobic tweets from his account as retribution for Pierce sleeping with Michael’s wife, Diane (Joyful Drake).

Oh boy.

The biggest problem is I don’t care about Pierce at all. This is his story, one where he triumphs over his kidnappers and I just don’t care about what happens to him. He, like all of the other characters, feels generic. There are moments in the film where it feels like attempts are made to bring depth to the characters–okay, just Michael and Junior–but it never happens for Pierce. He’s just a generic celebrity. What attempts there are to give the captors depth comes with Junior showing kindness to Pierce and revealing he’s gay and maybe Michael trying to reconcile with his wife. But that’s it.

Another problem with the film is how poorly paced it feels. The first fifteen minutes has moments of trying to feel suspenseful, such as a scene where Pierce is in the fitness center of his hotel, but we just jump to him being kidnapped and then that goes straight to the torturing, which goes straight to 11 in terms of intensity and instead of building gradually. Although this may speak more to Michael being a terrible captor, it doesn’t work dramatically for the film.

The odd thing is the film is somehow entertaining. There are moments meant to be suspenseful that end up being humorous, like Pierce working out in the fitness center as a housekeeper slowly wipes off the window, which does lead to it being an entertaining film. But the film manages to not be unbearably bad because Grush and Barford give fantastic performances in this film. Although they are given rather cartoonish characters to play–Barford more so than Grush–the performances help make the captors a bit human.

The problem is they are not giving transcendent performances in this film that suddenly makes it worth watching. I had already seen Barford and Grush in something and it was “The March” at Steppenwolf, which I enjoyed. The film is ultimately rather dumb in terms of plot points and is supposed to make us rally around someone, but there’s no one worth rallying around. But I have to give it credit for keeping me entertained and not having an entirely baffling premise.

Also, the end credits play over footage of Junior dancing in a gator skin while Pierce laughs. So, that’s amusing and a bizarre note to end on.

Verdict: Skip, but if there’s video of the end credits, watch that because it’s bizarre enough to warrant a watch.

There Are Giants in the Sky

You should see my nectarines. “Into the Woods” is a film people have been anticipating with either glee or dread. On the one hand, it’s an adaptation of a relatively beloved musical–at the very least, one of the most well-known of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals–with an all-star cast that doesn’t leave one largely wondering who thought it was a good idea to cast that actor or actress. On the other hand, it’s produced by Disney and is directed by Rob Marshall, who did the delightful “Chicago”–which along with “Moulin Rouge!” helped resurrect movie musicals–and the bizarre and barely tolerable “Nine,” among other films. (He also did the made for TV movie of “Annie” with Victor Garber, Kathy Bates, Audra McDonald and Alan Cumming, which I truly enjoyed and is the only time I’ve enjoyed “Annie.”)

As “Chicago” is fun, but not astounding, and maybe the best movie he had made, there was a bit of concern, especially after “Nine.” “Into the Woods,” however, is a faithful adaptation although not incredibly inventive. It will at the very least satisfy most musical theater nerds and provide a good introduction to the show for the uninitiated.

“Into the Woods” follows the familiar fairy tale characters of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), who we know from “Jack and the Beanstalk.” We are also introduced to a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who are childless. They find out from their neighbor, a witch (Meryl Streep), that she placed a curse on the baker’s family that they would not have any children after the baker’s father stole magic beans from the witch’s garden. The witch tells the baker and his wife they can have the curse reversed if they bring her the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, the slippers as pure as gold and the cow as white as milk. The baker sets off on a quest, with his wife following closely behind, while Cinderella tries to go to the festival, Little Red goes to granny’s house and Jack sets off to sell his cow, Milky White, and the character’s paths cross throughout the film. Eventually Cinderella gets her prince (Chris Pine), the baker and his wife get a child and everyone gets their happy ending…until a giant (Frances de la Tour) begins terrorizing the kingdom in search of Jack, who killed her husband when he chopped down the beanstalk.

I should first say “Into the Woods” is not my favorite Sondheim musical–that would be “Sunday in the Park With George”–although I have found as I get older I enjoy “Into the Woods” more. I do not have as much of an emotional stake in this as some people may, but “Into the Woods” still got a lot of play on my iPod in high school and I had a habit in college of watching the PBS film of the original Broadway production. Ultimately, I enjoyed this film possibly more than the musical and found myself getting choked up in some parts.

There are some numbers that are eliminated from the musical, although I only found myself missing “No More,” whose absence is handled well. The movie also tones down the sexual nature of the interaction between the wolf (Johnny Depp, giving what is one of his more restrained performances in the past decade) and Little Red Riding Hood, the brutality of some of the deaths and completely eliminates another character’s death. These changes work in this adaptation since Little Red Riding Hood is played by a girl rather than a teenage girl, although that doesn’t stop “Hello, Little Girl” from still being creepy. The death of both characters are still tragic, although the elimination of the death of Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) does lower the emotional stakes of the witch a bit. (The witch kidnapped Rapunzel from the baker’s parents as payback for the baker’s father taking her greens.)

The musical also isn’t incredibly inspired with how it’s staged. In a way, this works because it avoids from being too inventive and also acts like the characters just sometimes burst into song rather than that they go off into a fantasy world where they sing on stages, as was the case in “Chicago” and “Nine.” The musical numbers largely occur on set pieces where the characters run into each other and sing in the woods, which works and feels safe. There is little in this musical to offend most musical theater fans–I say most because the most ardent will be upset about something. Moments of cleverness in this film arrive with the staging of “Agony,” a comedic self-pitying number from the prince and his brother (Billy Magnussen); and “On the Steps of the Palace,” where time actually stops as Cinderella contemplates her situation.

However, this film is gorgeous to watch and feels natural. It avoids being too chaotic and has performers who never feel stiff. It may have one of the best casts assembled for a movie musical in years where the weakest performance given by one of the lead actors is from Corden, who still gives a good performance, just not as good as the other leads.

Streep’s performance will either be read as another over-the-top performance given by her or one that works well. She twists and contorts prior to her transformation from an old hag to a glamorous blue-haired woman, which is gone post transformation. Her witch sells that she is to be feared and will have revenge without blinking an eye. Once transformed into her younger self, she spends much of the remainder of her on-screen time walking around looking like she’s sick of everyone’s shit, but when she is left by Rapunzel she shows her heartbreak very subtly. During “Last Midnight” her performance builds from the admonishment of everyone to the ache and fury from a woman who is alone, angrily singing the last half of the song. It helps that a furious storm appears, whipping up the leaves, which swirl around her before she disappears, but she breathes new life into the song, making it hers.

Streep doesn’t even give the the best performance in the film, which is divided between Kendrick and Blunt. Kendrick plays Cinderella as clever and caring providing the character with depth. Blunt fills her character with warmth and nervousness where it’s needed while also having a good singing voice. Both her and Kendrick inhabit their characters fully, bringing them to a new life. Every second they’re on screen is a delight.

Crawford manages to provide great sarcasm when it’s needed without it being forced and Huttlestone brings a fantastic eagerness to his role. Elsewhere, Tracey Ullman keeps Jack’s exasperated mother from being too one-note and Christine Baranski tends to steal every scene she’s in as Cinderella’s stepmother.

The film also has lush orchestrations of Sondheim’s score that never feel canned and generally amazing costume designs, although I’m still not sure what to think of Depp’s zoot suit. The film is well-paced, never lagging at all. It even manages to remove parts in Act One of the musical that I felt always dragged the show down a bit.

It is however not a feel-good family film or really even a movie for the whole family. Even if it is not nearly as bleak as the musical, it is still very dark and not something I would take a young child to. If children are taken to see “Into the Woods” the content and themes of the film are worth discussing.

In the end it is one of the better film adaptations of theater to occur in recent years and Marshall’s best film to date*. Although it has some faults, it is enjoyable and manages to simultaneously have a cast of stars–Corden gets to be a star since he won a Tony and is taking over The Late Late Show now that Craig Ferguson is leaving–and a good cast of stars who do not feel miscast. It does not disservice Sondheim’s work and hopefully introduces a new generation to an excellent introduction to a good musical.

*”Chicago” was fun, but not a great film and “Memoirs of a Geisha” was beautiful to look at, but dull as hell.

Boo On You, MSU

For the winter commencement at Michigan State University, where I completed my Bachelor of Arts in Journalism, they have selected Michael Moore–which makes sense since he’s from Michigan and has focused on issues affecting Michigan during his career–and George Will, the Washington Post columnist, to speak.

Normally, I might ignore the selection of the second commencement speaker. I avoid Will’s columns because life is too short to regularly read rage-inducing columns, but the school he is speaking at is what is causing me to comment.

MSU is currently under federal investigation for Title IX violations because they have allegedly mishandled sexual assaults on campus.

Will notably said this in a column on sexual assault on campuses:

[Colleges and universities] are learning that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous (“micro-aggressions,” often not discernible to the untutored eye, are everywhere), and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.

Translation: People want to be sexual assault victims because it gives them privilege. Because that privilege is totally why a lot of sexual assault victims don’t report incidents out of fear of retaliation, stigmatization and people flat out not believing them.

A school under federal investigation for mishandling sexual assault cases has a commencement speaker who said that victimhood “confers privileges” and the Obama administration’s efforts to combat sexual assault on college campuses “vows to excavate equities from the ambiguities of the hookup culture, this cocktail of hormones, alcohol and the faux sophistication of today’s prolonged adolescence of especially privileged young adults.”

(Side-Bar: Can we create a bingo card for columns? I feel like something needs to be marked off every time Millennials are called “privileged.”)

Either this is the perfect choice of a speaker because it shows just how MSU truly feels about sexual assault cases or it is the most tone-deaf selection of a commencement speaker in…a really long time.

MSU’s selection of Will as a speaker is for his contributions to journalism and opinion writing, according to a statement given to Media Matters. Which makes sense since, as I said earlier, the other commencement speaker has made notable contributions to film, among those contributions, highlighting problems in Michigan. Since Michigan State has the image of wanting its students to go out and solve the problems affecting Michigan and the rest of the world, Moore makes perfect sense as a speaker.

Similarly, Will is a columnist who is well known and works at a prominent newspaper. But he wrote that column. He made those remarks. It feels like no one looked at George Will’s Wikipedia article before selecting him to be the commencement speaker to find out what could potentially cause a controversy with selecting him.

I understand that MSU is not trying to make a political statement, they are just picking someone notable and giving him an honorary degree. But this is a slap to sexual assault victims who attend and have attended the school. By selecting someone who has trivialized rape to speak at commencement and receive an honorary degree it in turn trivializes the very real and painful experiences of students who have walked those halls in East Lansing.

I commend the Council of Graduate Students for condemning the selection of Will as the speaker and wanting the resources used to giving Will an honorary doctorate to be used for hiring more sexual assault counselors at the MSU Counseling Center. I can speak from experience that in general the MSU Counseling Center was in a state that could not even adequately meet the needs of a school of the size of MSU. I have seen on Facebook that representatives with the Associated Students of Michigan State University are working quickly so they can have a meeting to denounce Will being a commencement speaker, which is also commendable and I hope the efforts succeed.

Unfortunately MSU has no intentions of dropping Will as a commencement speaker. I hope they change their minds. If they do not, I will never donate a penny to the university and will leave its alumni association because going forward with Will tells me how they feel about sexual assault and how they treat a pretty vocal amount of people criticizing their decision for a good reason. It tells me the voice of students, faculty, staff and alumni united around an issue does not matter.

I encourage you to raise your voice and sign a petition Ultraviolet has calling for Will to be dropped as the speaker. Tweet, write on Facebook, spread the word. If you’re an undergraduate student at MSU, email your ASMSU representative(s) and tell them how you feel. If MSU keeps him as the speaker, go to the protest that will be held.

Regardless of what happens, it is shameful MSU selected him in the first place.

Update: ASMSU passed a resolution on Dec. 9 condemning Will as a commencement speaker.

What Makes a Musical Artist Belong to a Community?

The finalists for the Radio Milwaukee Music Awards were announced on Tuesday and there were quite a few that weren’t surprises, like GGOOLLDD doing really well in various categories and Marigolden by Field Report being a finalist for Album of the Year because Marigolden is the best album of the year, even when you remove the Milwaukee-specific label. (Disclosure: I am a member of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee and I did vote on the categories for the music awards.)

Piet Levy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel took issue with some of the finalists, comparing it to the Grammy nominations, which seems odd since anyone with access to a computer could vote on the finalists, as is pointed out in his piece. Levy points out that Field Report’s “Home (Leave the Lights On)” was not a finalist for Song of the Year and Vinyl Theater didn’t get anything.

The interesting part of his piece is when he points out the the artists who aren’t particularly based in Milwaukee that are finalists.

The solo artist category might also cause some major grumblings. Nominee Grace Weber had a great year with her new soul-pop album “The Refinery,” and fellow nominee Tony Memmel is a talented singer-songwriter. But neither live in Milwaukee any more; Weber’s been calling New York home for eight years now, while terrific solo artists with noteworthy years, such as Brett Newski, Peter Mulvey, Hayward Williams and Sam Llanas, were overlooked.

Weber is at least treated as a Milwaukee artist. She appeared on Radio Milwaukee’s 414 Music Live, which brings Milwaukee musicians in its studios and have them perform three songs and do an interview. Weber is from Milwaukee, but lives in Brooklyn. There are plenty of great Milwaukee musicians who live in the city, but since Weber is in fact from Milwaukee, I personally see no problem with her being included as a Milwaukee musician.

There are some musicians Milwaukee may rally around because they have a Wisconsin connection. For example, some people may latch on to Justin Vernon and any of his projects a Milwaukee label because he’s from Eau Claire. Never mind that Vernon has actually dissed Milwaukee. Vernon and his projects have received a level of recognition most bands can’t receive, but it seems confounding to give him the level of love he receives from some Milwaukee residents. (There was even Bon Iver day declared in Milwaukee once.) Although there are Milwaukee connections with his projects, do you put a band whose front man said Milwaukee is a “dark, beer-drunk place” on a pedestal?*

Then comes the question of how do you determine if a band does belong to an area. One-half of Sylvan Esso is from Milwaukee, although the band is based in North Caroline. But by the rationale of “Grace Weber is a Milwaukee musician because she’s from Milwaukee” then Sylvan Esso is from Milwaukee and Sylvan Esso is treated by some as a Milwaukee band, from my perspective.

But Weber does come back to Milwaukee and performs on local public radio stations and does interviews. Maybe going to Brooklyn and recording music is best for her career. Milwaukee, after all, is a city where The BoDeans were named Best Milwaukee Rock Band by readers of the Shepherd Express and when I think of The BoDeans, I think, “Weren’t they on the bill for the 1999 Iowa Caucus?” (Tyler Maas and Matt Wild of Milwaukee Record discussed that last bit better than I probably could. The part about The BoDeans being named Best Milwaukee Rock Band, not them possibly playing the 1999 Iowa Caucus.)

While some bands in Milwaukee seem to gather a huge following after a short time period–I was at GGOOLLDD’s performance on 414 Music Live and that was one of the largest turnouts I’ve ever seen–the question comes as to if they can make it big outside of Milwaukee. I can yell on Facebook and Twitter all I like that you need to listen to GGOOLLDD and The Living Statues, but it might not make much of a difference to someone in Ypsilanti, Mich. or Chicago if those bands don’t get air time or ever perform there.

At the end of the day Weber is from Milwaukee and she did release a great album. There are bound to be people who will complain because there is always something for people to complain about. If Weber moved to Brooklyn and said “Yeah, Milwaukee, I’m from there. But it’s just a bunch of people who drink constantly. It’s so sad.” It seems more of a situation of someone from the area going and making an awesome album Milwaukee residents can be proud of. If you live in the city or were raised in the city, you get to be an artist who can call that city home. Those things ultimately influence your art. And, yes, some artists were left off, like Hayward Williams, but that happens with awards.

If we want to consider Weber a Milwaukee musician, go ahead. Lines should be drawn at some point as to what makes someone a Milwaukee musician, but I don’t think places like Radio Milwaukee should start putting a residency requirement on bands to be eligible for the award.

*Vernon was in a band called DeYarmond Edison with Chris Porterfield, who is the frontman for Field Report. So Vernon does have bands with Milwaukee connections. It’s just that Vernon isn’t the Milwaukee connection. Also, go listen to Marigolden.

The Problems With the Ice Bucket Challenge

By now you’ve probably seen videos of people having buckets of ice dumped on their heads, be it on the news, on Twitter or on Facebook. The challenge is part of an effort to raise awareness for the ALS Foundation. The challenge is fairly simple: Someone has a bucket of ice dumped on their head and then challenges three other people to have ice dumped on them. The process is then repeated. Get ice dumped on you, challenge three more people. The catch is if you don’t participate in the challenge you then have to donate $100 to the ALS Foundation.

Right there is the first problem with this challenge as it frames donating money to the ALS Foundation as a punishment. It essentially says, “Oh, you don’t want to have ice dumped on you? Guess you’re chicken. Guess you’ll have to donate $100 to the ALS Foundation.”

However the ALS Foundation did issue a press release calling recent donations to the group as a result of the ice bucket challenge “unprecedented.” This is good to see even if the way you are urged to donate money is framed oddly. It could also mean enough people getting ice dumped on them are saying, “Hey, this is for the ALS Foundation,” leading people to then look into the group and what ALS is and then give money.

The challenge has led to a variety of people having ice dumped on them. Conan O’Brien, Matt Lauer and Ethel Kennedy have had ice dumped on them. Maybe you’ve seen your local meteorologist participate in the challenge or your best friend from high school do the same as well. Even President Barack Obama was challenged to participate, although he chose to donate $100.

The scope of people participating in the challenge certainly seems to be very large, but at the same time there are people on social media who are participating in the challenge and not mentioning the part about the ALS Foundation. As a result the true purpose of the challenge can be lost and it seems it is starting to be lost.

The troubling part of the challenge is still the fact that it is framed as “Have ice dumped on you or donate money.” As a result people participating in the challenge can come off as “I would rather have ice dumped on me than donate to a charity that has a really good purpose.”

Although the ice bucket challenge is proving to be great for the ALS Foundation since they’ve seen a huge increase in donations, it might be time for groups to rethink using viral content for good causes. Often the efforts seem to be misguided–remember that time you were supposed to post your bra color on Facebook to raise awareness for breast cancer?–and the purpose gets lost as more people spread it around social media.

Some Thoughts On Same-Sex Marriage in Wisconsin

A United States district court judge overturned Wisconsin’s same-sex marriage last Friday, which initially seemed like a really great thing.

In various counties same-sex couples have already gotten married, while other counties have declined to issue marriage licenses largely because they find the language in the ruling to be too vague. There is also the issue that country clerks could face serious legal repercussions.

But let’s go back to 2006 for a moment to provide some context about same-sex marriage laws in Wisconsin.
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