Tag: shailene woodley


Adrift (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Movies of today tend to forget the importance of an opening sequence. Lesser works offer erratic, uninformative, at times confusing, nonsensical, or boring introductions that have little to do, if any, with what the picture is about. They dampen viewers’ expectations rather than rouse or compel us to keep watching, unblinking. Baltasar Kormákur’s “Adrift” does not make this mistake. He dares to place us after the climax as a young woman wakes up in yacht that had survived a Category 4 hurricane in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We watch her bloodied face and panic-stricken body struggle to find a way out among the debris. We know, and she knows, that the real horror is only about to begin. Kormákur trusts that we can follow the story from there.

Because of the well-written screenplay by Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell, and David Branson Smith, the material works as a survival drama and a romance picture. It presents two timelines: the current desperate situation that Tami (Shailene Woodley) finds herself in and when she meets a British sailor, Richard, (Sam Claflin) about ten years her senior, in Tahiti prior to their four-thousand-mile voyage. Both are equally compelling in completely contrasting ways yet one hinges on the other. For instance, if the relationship were not believable, how could we invest in the couple’s survival? And if the couple’s survival weren’t riveting, what would be the point in learning about their backstory? It is fascinating nearly every step of the way due to its fresh choices.

It takes its time to establish the necessary elements so that we find ourselves relating to whatever is unfolding on screen. Let us take a look at the opening sequence, for example. Notice how the camera slowly underscores the interior of the yacht by carefully pulling back as the lead character attempts to find an exit. The more claustrophobic she feels, the more we see of the interior. A lazier approach would have been to show the subject simply waking up, struggling a little to get up from her initial position, and the first door she touches opens without any trouble.

Instead, by choosing to take the time to show that every decision is not only a struggle but one that may result in vain, it gives the viewer an impression that the journey we are about to go on will command unflinching realism, that there will be unpredictability to it. The opening minutes grips the audience by the throat and it is near impossible to look away.

Woodley and Claflin share wonderful chemistry because they appear to communicate with every fiber of their being. Woodley is particularly impressive. Observe carefully as Tami talks about her family history, where she comes from, what she is running away from, and what she hopes to accomplish from living a nomadic lifestyle. Yes, we hear her words and, yes, we recognize that Woodley’s face and body language are expressive.

But focus on the eyes for minute and do not look anywhere else. She is also saying plenty based on what those eyes choose to focus on, how they look away just a little, when they blink, how tears accumulate just a bit when a deeply intimate detail is brushed upon. I believe that Woodley is one of the best modern performers we have currently because she relies on her instinct. There is not one decision that comes across as mechanical or fake. I love that she is willing to appear on camera even when a certain look on her is unflattering. I admired it further that the director is unconcerned when it comes to showing the couple under flattering light or angle. What they share just need to feel real.

“Adrift,” based on the book by survivor Tami Ashcraft, brings to mind J.C. Chandor’s exceptional “All is Lost” since both are willing to present details that mainstream works may not bother to show or explore. Although this film is less reliant on silence to build suspense, both pictures capture the desperation of being alone at sea for thousands of miles with little hope of rescue and the poetry of having to face one’s mortality.

The Divergent Series: Allegiant

The Divergent Series: Allegiant (2016)
★ / ★★★★

This is yet another movie where it goes to show that the filmmakers can have access to all the special and visual effects in the world but if there is a lack of imagination, strong ideas, or even a smidgen of common sense in the writing to create a convincing and involving story, the project is highly likely to go down in flames. “Allegiant,” the third picture in the increasingly soporific “Divergent” series based on Veronica Roth’s novels, is the weakest entry yet.

The picture makes no effort to fix the many problems that plagued its predecessors. It is merely a boring, long-winded march to a predictable semi-conclusion. I am horrified there is another installment because it gives the impression that this universe has nothing left to offer in terms of intrigue or entertainment. Young adults, who are the main audience of the film, deserve much better than this balderdash masquerading as a teen dystopian future.

All the more apparent here is that the main character, Tris (Shailene Woodley), is far from a fascinating heroine. It is possible that the source material is to blame, but the screenwriters—Noah Oppenheim, Adam Cooper, and Bill Collage—have the duty of making her multidimensional, someone who we can stick by and root for. Instead, Tris is as bland as tap water; in the previous films, she is supposed to be special because she is a Divergent and in here, it is because she is “genetically pure.” The writers fail to turn these labels into more than just words or concepts. Why not show us exactly why Tris is a standout among the rest instead of constantly pelleting us with such nonsensical branding?

I felt bad for Woodley because she is a good performer, especially in more dramatic roles. Here, we see a glimmer of effort being put into her part, notably scenes where she must connect with another character. She has such expressive eyes and her whole being glows.

However, notice how the exchanges barely last more than thirty seconds. Observe how the language is so simplistic, there is nothing to digest. These are not how real people speak to one another in real life—let alone in a situation where you are fighting for the survival of your world. In actual, day-to-day conversations, there are emotions, implications, suggestions, and the like. There is conflict in just talking with one another. Here, the dialogue is so passive, the actors could have been replaced by robots and it wouldn’t have made a difference.

I choose not to provide a summary of the plot because it does not seem to matter at all. I would like to give the writers and filmmakers a pop quiz in order to see if they themselves know what’s going on with the story. I question their understanding because what should be central strands are treated as secondary, tertiary details are introduced somewhat for about fifteen to twenty minutes and then forgotten completely. Meaningful character development is thrown out the window altogether. It’s a disaster.

Seemingly directed by Robert Schwentke without using his eyes—or brain—“The Divergent Series: Allegiant” is an exercise designed to determine who in the audience is willing to endure the most torture. I sat through it only because I have a rule about watching the entire picture prior to writing a review. If you cherish your time, good mood, and energy, steer far, far away.

The Divergent Series: Insurgent

The Divergent Series: Insurgent (2015)
★ / ★★★★

Jeanine (Kate Winslet) has acquired an artifact that she believes to contain an important message from people of the past that would allow current society, divided into four factions (Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite—with Divergent and Factionless as outsiders), to flourish. Jeanine, an Erudite, insists on eradicating the so-called Divergents, a select few who do not belong under only one faction, but only a Divergent can open the box. She assigns her henchmen to capture all Divergents in order to force the latter to go through a series of challenges—via simulations—that must be surmounted in order for the message to be revealed. Meanwhile, Tris (Shailene Woodley), a powerful Divergent, and her friends remain in hiding.

Perhaps it is not a surprise that “Insurgent,” based on the novel by Veronica Roth and directed by Robert Schwentke, is a frustrating sequel to a disappointing and superficial first outing—but one cannot help but feel hopeful. This film offers a relatively solid first half, especially when it comes to the action, but the climax is so driven by empty visual effects that one cannot help but get the impression that the filmmakers, especially the writers who adapted to novel to film, did not even try to create something that is both cinematic and emotionally or intellectually involving.

The hunt for the Divergents is led by the brutish Eric (Jai Courtney). Courtney commits to the role so much that at times I felt the protagonists were running away from a tank or a bull. Look closely at the scene involving a chase through a forest and an incoming train. The sequence—even though it consists of standard action elements—bursts with so much electricity that I felt excited about what else the picture might offer.

But what a nosedive. In between the gun-shooting and chases are puppy dog eyes traded between lovers and the million ways they attempt to communicate how much they care for one another. Remove all of the action and I argue that the romance here is on par with the silliness and superficiality of the central romantic interest in “The Twilight Saga”—only not as suffocating, sticky, and drawn out. The fact that the romantic plot is not relatable universally really drags the picture down because there are actually a few good ideas here. For instance, the material touches upon identity, the value of innate abilities, the importance of choices, the role of self-forgiveness, the dangers of arrogance.

There are also hints of good performances here. Woodley is such an effective dramatic performer that she actually elevates an otherwise stale script simply by making fresh choices through her body language. Even though I could not relate to the words Tris is saying most of the time, I related to her body language. It is the strangest experience but it really underlines the importance of casting choice. Because the film is not completely involving, very slow in parts, at one point I imagined a lesser performer relying solely on words or intonations to emote. Miles Teller, playing a character whose allegiance is hazy at best, is a breath of fresh air here, too.

There is absolutely no excuse for such a lackadaisical climax. The simulations that Tris undergoes in order to open the artifact are so overdone that the movie ceases to look like a movie but a video game released in the early 2000s. The shards of broken glass, the collapsing buildings, even the debris in the air—they all look so fake that I started to get angry at the thought of how much time and money the filmmakers probably spent on such unnecessary nonsense when all that effort could have been put in sharpening the characters and making the story more engaging. They chose the easier avenue and it shows.


Divergent (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Dystopian Chicago is divided into five factions: Erudite for the intelligent, Amity for the kind, Candor for the honest, Dauntless for the brave, and Abnegation for the selfless—each believed to serve a specific function to maintain peace and order. Young men and women take an aptitude test and the result of the exam gives each participant an idea which faction he or should should join. Typically, a person falls under one category. However, in rare of circumstances, a person may be considered a good for fit more one than one group. These are called Divergent and they are considered a threat to society.

Based on the novel by Veronica Ruth, though “Divergent” offers an interesting premise, it is a problematic picture largely because its exposition is expanded to such an extent that it becomes increasingly clear that it is a movie that never stops beginning. When it does hit its stride eventually, some time after the hour-and-fifteen-minute mark, the film is halfway over and supporting characters that are potentially worth knowing remain on the side. As a result, the material ends up offering very little substance—especially to those, like myself, who have never read the series.

Suspense is absent for the most part. Let us take a look at Gary Ross’ “The Hunger Games.” There is a sense of build-up with scenes that lead up the The Reaping. Silence is utilized in such a way as to highlight the oppression endured by the protagonist’s long suffering district. Here, because the screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor fails to place heavy importance in what is about to transpire—the very thing that will propel the story forward, it feels as though taking the personality-based exam is a piece of cake. Although Tris (Shailene Woodley) is nervous about taking the test, I found myself watching rather passively rather than in anticipation.

Deaths occur later in the picture—which is now expected with films of this type. I wanted to know more about the friends Beatrice has grown close to in her chosen faction (Zoë Kravitz, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Christian Madsen). What about her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort), who joined Erudite, a group that wishes to gain power and control over the city? What are his experiences like at that camp? And when Beatrice and Caleb left home, how did their parents (Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn) cope? These are not deep information about the characters but they are necessary for context.

Instead, we get an abundance of scenes surrounding so-called training: jumping off trains, hand-to-hand combat, target practice… Relatively boring junk, not to mention unconvincing. In my eyes, two of the “leaders,” Four (Theo James) and Eric (Jai Courtney), do not actually lead. They do a lot of standing and looking stern. They are not shown helping the recruits on how to hone their techniques and improve their performances. An exemption is when Four comes up to Beatrice and gives tips—but it is only because he is romantically interested in her. The charade is superficial, obvious, and cheesy—only there to appeal to people whose definition of sexy is outward gestures.

I enjoyed Kate Winslet’s presence as the Erudite leader. She elevates the material because even when her character is not saying a thing, we can tell immediately that she is someone of importance. It is in the way she stands, the way she walks, the way she looks—or not look—at others who she considers to be below her. However, Winslet does not have very many scenes. She did not have a chance to turn her cold character into someone with more substance, a villain with more to her than verbalizing her goal to maintain “peace.”

Directed by Neil Burger, “Divergent” is a mildly entertaining movie that offers standard action behind a premise that should have had more depth. If one were looking for shootouts at the end, one would likely be satiated. If one were looking for romantic glances and flirtations, one would likely walk away swooning. But I am not looking for standard; I am looking for something that attempts to set the bar—or at least meet it. In this respect, the film is a major disappointment.

The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Hazel (Shailene Woodley) has a pair of lungs that is not very good at being lungs. Her thyroid cancer, diagnosed when she was thirteen, has spread downward over time so liquid tends to accumulate in her breathing organ. Thus, she is required to haul around an oxygen tank that will enable her to inhale and exhale with ease.

Attending a support group for cancer patients, one she insists on not attending but does so anyway in order to make her parents feel better, Hazel meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), an osteosarcoma survivor. The cancer was once in his right leg so the doctors decided it had to go in order to save his life. The two have no idea of the love—one that goes beyond cute and romance—that they are about to share.

Based on the acclaimed novel by John Green, “The Fault in Our Stars” is, for the most part, an effective drama about teenagers who have or have had cancer. There is an honesty to the picture that is absent in many other movies that feature characters afflicted by the devastating disease which makes it head and shoulders above films of its type. Pair the quality screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber with a relevant topic—a young person dealing with one’s mortality—and what results is a work with a high level of pathos while elegantly balancing romance, tragedy, and comedy.

The lead performance is outstanding. When I heard news that Woodley would be playing Hazel, I knew she would be perfect for the role because in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” and James Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now,” she has shown that she is not a one-dimensional performer. I feel she has very sad eyes. The longer the camera stares at them, sadder moments are amplified while lighter moments create a fascinating, magnetic contradiction. We always wonder what Hazel is thinking which is exactly the point because even though she may not admit to it verbally, she is afraid to die. In one important scene, she describes herself as a grenade. In some ways, she is.

I wish I can say the same about Elgort. Gifted with angelic good looks, the actor tries to embody the very charismatic Gus and match Woodley’s natural intensity, but he consistently comes up short by comparison. Notice that in some scenes, his character has a limp; in others, it is absent completely.

Some missteps are less elementary. When certain lines are better delivered by relishing every moment, he tends to rush which gives the impression that he is nervous. Perhaps he was intimidated by his more experienced co-star, I do not know for sure, but there are times when he took me out of the moment instead of further getting me into it. Still, Woodley and Elgort do share believable chemistry.

It shows a taste of how scary and ugly cancer can be while still being mindful of its target audience. Keep in mind that the picture is not a documentary about how it is really like for a person to have cancer, but there are enough details to keep one engaged. For instance, it gives us an idea of a routine a cancer patient might have—constant doctor visits, the amount of pills to be consumed three times a day, attending support group, always being watched closely—and how the disease can dig its claws suddenly and let go, for the time being, just as abruptly.

For the most part, its approach is to focus on the emotional struggles of its characters. Best exemplified is the relationship between Hazel and her mother (Laura Dern). Although Elgort is not able to match Woodley’s subtleties, Dern hits the right spot every single time. There are moments when I wished that the story would focus more on the fears shared between a mother and her child.

Dern proves to be a great conduit. She allows those who have never been a parent to feel some of her character’s struggle of being a mother who wants to cherish every moment with her daughter just in case the good days are numbered while at the same time allowing Hazel to live her life the way she wants it. And that means giving her daughter some space, some freedom.

Directed by Josh Boone, “The Fault in Our Stars” is appropriately titled because less discerning eyes can go into it and be convinced that its flaws are negligible, that it is so-called perfect just the way it is—and that is all right. But in my eyes, even though I enjoyed the picture as a whole, there are enough miscalculations to draw a difference between a truly engrossing experience every step of the way and that of a work which requires a bit more fire and polishing in order to set a standard.

The Spectacular Now

The Spectacular Now (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Sutter (Miles Teller) has problem only he is not aware of it. The whirlwind that is senior year has arrived and his peers are eager to move on to the next chapter. Meanwhile, Sutter insists on living in the now and does so by holding onto his hip flask. Taking it out, turning the cap, and pouring the contents onto a plastic cup is almost automatic. It helps to keep things that bother him at bay. Before her newspaper run, Aimee (Shailene Woodley) finds Sutter passed out on her yard. Even though they have been classmates for years, it is the first time they get a chance to really see one another. Aimee is far from the kind of girl Sutter falls for, but there is something about her that he finds alluring.

“The Spectacular Now,” based on the novel by Tim Tharp and adapted to the screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, pierces through the fog of fake, shallow, commercialized teen comedy-dramas and delivers something that, in my opinion, will stand the test of time. On the surface, it might appear to just be another story about a teenager who is afraid of the future so he uses alcohol as a tool to not have to deal with the inevitable. While that is a good starting point, it strives to become so much more.

We get a chance to appreciate why Sutter and Aimee might be a great fit. Right away, we come to understand that Aimee is a person of substance. She is written and played smart but it is the type of intelligence that does not fit the stereotype—so-called nerdy glasses, appearance needing a makeover, awkwardness in the body language. Aimee being smart is communicated through the feeling we get while watching her interact with others.

Meanwhile, Sutter knows exactly what to say and when. We see why guys and girls in his class are drawn to his enthusiasm and ability to entertain. I liked that he is one of the popular guys but he is not a jerk. He can be thoughtful. He can be that guy you can ask to be alone with you and share what’s on your mind—and he will take what you have to say seriously. In other words, there is a reason why just about everyone loves him.

We also get a chance to consider why they might not be a good fit. Sutter claims he is content with where he is in life, but Aimee yearns to do more. I admired that the material juggles tenderness, sweetness, and realism with ease. As a dime a dozen bland, boring, worthless teen pictures have shown, it is far from the easiest task to accomplish. Here, there is not one montage designed to show that the pair is “destined” for each other. Due to the significant differences in their personalities, perspectives, and ambitions, the possibility that what we are seeing is only a temporary experience lingers.

I also enjoyed how Sutter’s ex-girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), is treated by the film. She could have been a one-dimensional mean girl, raging with jealousy every time she sees Sutter and Aimee having fun or just being content to sit next to each other in silence. Instead, Cassidy is treated like a person with real thoughts and concerns. In some ways, she has outgrown Sutter. She knows it—and he knows it, too. As a result, real pain is communicated in their break-up. Looking into what they had becomes worthy our time.

Directed by James Ponsoldt, “The Spectacular Now” underlines humanity above all else. Some scenes are so authentic, I could not help but notice the actors not wearing any makeup at all. Somehow, that made me feel closer to the picture and I suspect others are likely to feel the same. It has been only a year since Stephen Chbosky’s wonderful “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” so I did not expect to encounter such a fresh voice about young adults so soon. It is a most wonderful surprise.

The Descendants

The Descendants (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Matt King (George Clooney) had more problems than he had hands. Within the next several days, he had to decide which multi-million dollar deal to accept which involved selling an untouched piece of land in Hawaii. Since his cousins were in debt, going through with it would help them out immensely. Matt’s wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), was recently involved in a boating accident that forced her into a coma. The doctors informed Matt that there was little to no possibility that she was ever going to wake up. Her will clearly stated that if such a thing happened to her, she was to be taken off life support. Meanwhile, Matt found out that Elizabeth had been cheating on him with a real estate agent (Matthew Lillard). Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, “The Descendants” excelled in shaping individual scenes where Matt had to face another person and the two were required to speak to each other with frankness and at times painful honesty. I found that such scenes were loyal to the theme regarding appearances and how deceiving they could be. A great example was Sid (Nick Krause), a friend of Matt’s eldest daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). At first, it seemed like he was a typical “Hey, Bro!” surfer dude who had a propensity toward saying the most inappropriate things during the most inopportune times, but the scene where Matt found himself so desperate to know what was really going on with rebellious Alexandra showed that Matt and Sid had more common than we were led to believe. Both, in a way, were quite easy to dismiss: Matt with his first-world problem of selling a portion of land and Sid’s easy-going personality. Because the characters, not restricted to the aforementioned scene, were eventually allowed to talk about things that were important to them, often sandwiched between the comedy embedded in the every day, we had reasons to keep watching even though we might expect that not everything would turn out alright. Furthermore, the relationship between a husband so unequipped to handle his household and a wife in a vegetative state was exquisitely executed. I found it a refreshing experience because the screenplay by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash strived to be more than about a man being sad and wishing that his wife would magically wake up. There was an instance when Matt felt he just had to yell at his wife for her indiscretions. It wasn’t pretty and it was uncomfortable, but those were the qualities that made their one-sided relationship feel very real. Most of the time, when a married couple knew that their relationship was on the rocks, they could deal with their issues through words and body language. In other words, the picture found a way to circumvent the fact that a spouse was comatose. The pacing of the film, however, could have used a bit of fire. When Matt, his two daughters, and Sid attempted to track down the real estate agent, there were a number of comedic scenes that did not work and should have been excised to improve flow. “The Descendants,” directed by Alexander Payne, was about how we shouldn’t expect closures that we believe we deserved to come to us passively. Like everything else in life, at least one that’s worth living, closure ultimately feels good because effort is put into it.