Sunday, March 23, 2014

It's Our Choices More Than Our Abilities - Review of "Divergent"

After seeing Divergent yesterday, it took all my willpower not to march straight back to the box office and purchase a ticket for the next screening (well that, and I was with a friend and we were also both ready to go home). In fact, I'm sitting here thinking "Why isn't this out on DVD yet so I can watch it over and over??" It's just so good!

I hadn't read any reviews for Divergent before seeing it, but now I'm noticing a lot of negative stuff from the High And Mighty Critics (which, just transpose my thoughts on the people who determine Oscar nominees to the Elite Literati Movie Critic class and I think we can all agree on what my feelings on what they think are). To which I reply - bullshit. And I'm going to give my ten minute rebuttal.

Yes, we've all seen that Divergent is being compared to The Hunger Games. But the similarities between the two go as follows:

1 - They're both young adult dystopian novels.
2 - They both have female lead protagonists.

And... that's about it for similarities. Which, I guess doesn't make for compelling print media for the low-information crowd, but whatever. In reality, these two stories are vastly different. And here is where I'm going to enter spoiler territory for both the book and the movie, so if you have neither read the book nor seen the movie, now is the time to turn away (and get yourself to the library or bookstore or movie theater and correct this problem - for it is indeed a problem and lacking on your part).

The story starts out brilliantly with Beatrice Prior (played by Shailene Woodley) narrating the opening while we see images of a futuristic Chicago - which has either severely gone the way of Detroit, or was incredibly made-up in CGI to look like a complete ruin. Beatrice explains that, in her society, people are divided into five factions: Abnegation for people who value selflessness, Amity for people who value kindness, Candor for people who value honesty, Dauntless for people who value bravery, and Erudite for people who value intelligence. And when I say these factions value these traits - I mean that those traits are they're entire lives! Anyone who doesn't live up to the faction ideals is a weirdo at best, Factionless at worst. Beatrice is from Abnegation, but she and her brother Caleb, are old enough to be part of the Choosing Ceremony, where children from the different factions can decide to stay in the factions they were born into, or they can transfer to a faction that they feel they are most suited for. But before Ceremony takes place, they are subjected to a mental test that will tell them where their innate tendencies lie and that's supposed to help them make their decisions.

What I love about the opening narration is that it's not just a straight info-dump - it's also a vehicle to show how Beatrice doesn't know what she should choose. She's never felt totally selfless, but she knows it would hurt her parents if she left Abnegation. She admires Dauntless most of all, but, again, Dauntless and Abnegation are such opposites. Turns out, when she takes her test, she discovers she's Divergent - which is someone who doesn't fit in any one faction. And Divergence is a threat to the society - if anyone discovered she was Divergent, she would be killed.

Nothing like a hefty dose of "You're So Different You Might Die" to usher you into adulthood, right?

At the Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice chooses Dauntless - the brave faction. Although "bravery" most of the time manifests itself more like "stupidity" (they don't get on the train like normal, sane people. To prove they have no fear, they run and jump on the damn thing while it's running at high speeds!)

(We all know which faction I would NOT be joining, right?)

But Beatrice - now styling herself as Tris (because Beatrice is a dopey Abnegation name) - proves herself continually through the eyes of her trainers. Including Four (played by Theo James) - who is the best Dauntless has to offer, and also the most mysterious and the hottest.

What sold me on the book when I read it is also what sells me on this movie - the story and the characters. Not just Tris (although her storyline with her family is compelling as hell), but also Four's background. I don't want to give it away, even though I gave the spoiler alert (some things you have to discover on your own). But I will say that I love how he isn't all broody and emo, like what often happens in popular YA novels nowadays. Even though we're meant to think he's the dark, hot, and grim love interest, there are so many levels to his character - as Tris discovers when Four takes her into his own fear landscape to practice the mental component of Dauntless training.

I have to take about the main leads. Because even though Tris is the main protagonist, Divergent is just as much Four's story as it is Tris's - and as their relationship grows and blossoms into something amazing, it becomes a story of two halves. First of all, I LOVE that their relationship is given time to grow organically, which makes the characters seem even more believable. And I'll be honest, when the trailers and the promo images started coming out, I wasn't sure how I felt about Shailene Woodley and Theo James in the lead roles. But the pair of them totally blew me away! (we're going to blame the marketing department on the low expectations here). Even from the first scene where Tris jumps into the underground Dauntless compound from a five(ish) story building and Four is there to greet her, the whole theater crackled with their chemistry (sorry for the cliche there, but I couldn't think of what else to call it). In their strange little Dauntless way, it was like they were friends right at the offset and then their friendship became something more - especially when Four discovers that Tris is Divergent - but he doesn't report her, even though he's in leadership. In fact it comes out that Four is Divergent as well (this revelation slowly builds up until the climax where the Dauntless are forced to become mind-numbed zombie soldiers thanks to a control serum that doesn't work on Divergents, but they both have to pretend that they are under mind-control in order not to get killed).

The leads are awesome. No doubt about that. But what about the supporting cast?

Well - Ashley Judd is in this movie *sigh*. I'm not a fan of Ashley Judd just because I just find her to be a contemptible person in general. But she plays Tris's mother and I knew she's not in it much and that she dies at the end, so I felt I could overlook her character (but can I just say - I had the hardest time believing that she really had any feeling toward Tris. And when they're running for their lives under gunfire and they're firing back, I was just "Ashley, have you EVER held a gun in you entire life??")

Happily, we have Kate Winslet as the antagonist, Jeanine Matthews. And similar to how Woodley and James worked so well together, Winslet is just as good on her own as the villain. It's evident from the beginning that her character is not to be trusted, but the way she plays it - you want to like her, you want Tris to like her. But at the same time, you know she's bad news. The ending confrontation only shines because of that. So, second only to the relationship between Tris and Four, I adored Kate Winslet in this movie.

The rest of the cast is pretty good. If I had one complaint about the book, it's that there were so many characters and so many names to keep track of. Veronica Roth does an excellent job of keeping track of so many plotlines and personalities, but I had a hard time keeping up in places. Luckily, the movie streamlined a lot of these characters into a core group - and I really only remembered one name - Christina, played by Zoe Kravitz. Mostly because the character made herself memorable and it's a particularly hard name for me to forget :) Christina is a Dauntless transfer from Candor and she and Tris become fast friends. I think she had a love interest of her own in the book, but it was cut from the movie, which I think was a good thing. She had plenty to do as Tris's sidekick (of sorts) and she was the unofficial ringleader of the other Dauntless intiates. And that's all they really needed there - other than that one douchey guy that tried to kill Tris, but he was quickly forgotten (at least, for me).

Basically, Divergent captured the spirit and the tone of the book and gave us all a great look into this world. The set design is amazing and the CGI effects are stellar (my favorite part is the scene with Tris on the zip-line flying through buildings and seeing the city in a way she's never done before - that's where you really feel like she's learning to be part of her faction and you're happy for her). The way they treated Divergent gives me hope for the next movie - which, I find Insurgent to be a weaker story, simply because it gets padded out waaaaaay too much narratively (I think you could cut out 100 pages of that thing). But I'm hoping the movie will pare it down to the essential story elements and that it might be better than the book (which, believe you me, is not something I say very often).

Anyway - Divergent is awesome, just like the book on which it's based (so I guess we can add a third similarity between this and The Hunger Games). If you loved the book, you'll love the movie. If you've never read the book, you'll still love the movie. If you hated the book... well, we need to talk about your life choices.

(More Tris and Four, please!)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hey Disney! The World Needs Frozen 2!

Let me start with this: I adored Frozen. The story, the characters, the music - it was utterly perfect in every way that it could be perfect. I was pulling for it to win Best Animated Picture and Best Original Song at the Oscars (I usually stay out of Oscar season, mostly because I find it to be just a bunch of egotistical jackasses in the middle of a tedious circle jerk over boring movies that are made solely for the Elitist Artsy Snob crowd that John and Jane Q. Public suddenly have to pretend to care about simply because that simpering nitwit anchor on Good Morning America was losing her head over it. Besides, nothing I like ever wins).

Ahem - anyway - Frozen. Loved it to pieces. I bought the soundtrack right after I came home from the movie theater and I've been playing it WILLINGLY nearly nonstop and I have all the lyrics memorized (and I don't even have kids to blame this on).

Having said that - Frozen needs a sequel. Hell, The Incredibles and Cars are both getting sequels (I never saw Cars 2. I thought the original Cars was great and the sequel was completely unnecessary, so in my headcanon, it doesn't exist) - the idea was floated during the Oscars during the acceptance speech for Best Original Song - it's one of the most successful (if not THE most successful) movies Disney has had in a long time - bring back the original cast and animators and make a decent go at it and they could totally take home another Best Animated Picture award! (at least give the public another earworm).

(Before I go on - the following discussion WILL SPOIL Frozen. If you have not seen Frozen - first of all, WHAT??? Get thee to a movie theater or Disney download [I hear that's a thing now] and watch this movie!)

Honestly, with Frozen, we only got half a story. This movie, for all it being based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen and Elsa being the eponymous queen, is Anna's story. Anna is the lonely girl who has to be shut inside the palace in Arendelle because they can't risk Elsa's power becoming public knowledge. Nevermind that Elsa's the one shut up in her room and slowly losing control of her powers with nobody and nothing to help her - Anna is the one we are meant to feel sorry for. It's the perky, happy, cheerful, outgoing sister that takes center stage and saves the brooding, depressed, introverted sister from herself  (I would be lying if this didn't irk me just a tiny bit).

As much as I love this movie, I feel like there is more to the story. How did Elsa come by her powers? Are there others like her out there? Is there more she can learn? Is this something her children will inherit? How will she help them understand this ability?

Now that the setting and characters and backstory of Frozen have been established, I want to see an adventure with Elsa. Anna got her happy ending - let's tell Elsa's story of self-discovery. Because I don't think that she got a whole lot of that ("Let It Go" notwithstanding. Actually, that sequence doesn't even solve her problems. If anything, it made them worse) and she is due for some answers.

I don't proclaim to be the first one to have put forward a possible scenario for Frozen 2 (in fact, if Disney was smart, they already have people on this). But this is what I'd like to see: open with Elsa being Queen of Arendelle, being all queenly and awesome. Anna and Kristoff are perfectly happy with... whatever they're doing. The reindeer and the dopey snowman can be there too doing - reindeer and snowman things. But someone comes to Arendelle with rumors of another Snow Queen in a distant-yet-nearby land. Elsa is intrigued - while she's achieved mastery over her powers, she still doesn't know where they came from in the first place (and her parents never could or would tell her). If there are others like her, shouldn't she help them learn to control their powers? No one should be locked up simply in fear of what they can do. Elsa is determined to seek out this new person and find out what they can learn from each other. Anna and Kristoff are more than capable of taking care of Arendelle in her absence (and if you want a sinister B-Plot to go there, well, go ahead and do it).

Elsa takes off on her adventure (bring along the dopey snowman if you must - but leave those stupid rock trolls behind) with a suitably awesome musical number to accompany the anticipation of meeting someone just like her. Along the way, she meets up with Hans, the disgraced prince who mucked things up royally in the first movie (no pun intended).

Okay - I HATED what they did to Hans. Because here is this immensely likable character that I (at least) fell in love with and he turns out to be the villain. FOR NO GOOD REASON! (if you needed an antagonist, why not that old and crusty mustache dude? Wasn't there enough antagonism from the blizzard and the circumstances of the eternal winter?) But in the sequel - Hans is penitent and seeking forgiveness for his actions. His brothers gave him so much grief over what he did before and have basically kicked him out of their kingdom. The only way he can return is with the power of the new Snow Queen. Elsa initially mistrusts him and he hardly blames her. But through a series of events that writers more clever than I can work out, they end up traveling together (where they're going is pretty dangerous and they both conclude that it'd be safer to do so - even if Elsa refuses to trust Hans for a long time).

When they get to where they're going, they discover a kingdom much like Arendelle (just colder). They are refused entrance into the kingdom for reasons that no one can explain (sound familiar?) Hans, being the youngest of so many brothers and having been picked on a good portion of his life - which included being locked out of the castle - finds a way inside the palace of this new kingdom (as an aside, Elsa is impressed with his secret-passage-finding skills). Guards catch them and they're thrown into prison and they discover a child who has snow powers and has been hidden away by her parents. Only, much worse than Elsa ever was. Where Elsa was at least kept in her bedroom, this child is a prisoner and treated very poorly (as poorly as you can get away with in a Disney movie, that is). Elsa promises to get the child out and teach him/her (no reason it couldn't be a boy with these powers. Again, writers more clever than I could take it from here) to control these powers. Hans has been picking the lock throughout this touching interlude and finally breaks them out. Only to find out that this child's mother is the Original Snow Queen - that is, the Snow Queen that Elsa's curse came from. There's some contrived reason that this Snow Queen took out her anger on Elsa's parents - curse the firstborn child, and all that - but this Snow Queen is impressed by Elsa's mastery of her powers. The Queen tries to tempt Elsa to turn to the dark side - citing that people will never understand her powers and she needs to be around people like her (HOORAY for conflict of character!), but dear sweet Hans steps in with the whole "Being a Villain Isn't All It's Cracked Up To Be" speech (which could very well be directed at the writers of the first movie, in a meta sort of way) and Elsa finds the resolve to refuse the Snow Queen's offer. The Snow Queen is pissed and vows revenge on Arendelle and zips out there to do her thing (it's magic, dammit!) Now, the mission is to get to Arendelle before she destroys everything - and that could coincide with the sinister B-Plot that Anna and Kristoff are dealing with. Elsa and Hans and company go tearing off after the Snow Queen with not a whole lot of ideas of how to stop her, only that it must be done. They get to Arendelle, Big Ass Showdown between Elsa and the Snow Queen, the Snow Queen is defeated, Elsa and Hans kiss (oh come on - you had to know that was coming), Elsa teaches the Snow Queen's little prisoner how to be utterly awesome with his/her powers, and Elsa is the Queen of Arendelle and the Queen of Winter and pretty much just rules up and down the land.

Yeah, it's kind of rough, but it's a start. It opens up doors for Elsa's character to be explored and gives her room to grow and become more than the shy, depressed, introvert that Anna was tasked with saving in the first movie. Bonus points for redeeming Hans from a fate that was totally unnecessary and totally unwarranted. And no annoying rock trolls.

If nothing else, this gives me something to work into fan fiction.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Preemptive Critic - The Giver

This book tops my Greatest Books Written in All Of Our Lifetimes and Beyond list (that I made up). While not necessarily the granddaddy of all dystopian fiction - it's more like a beloved aunt. Certainly it's an intro to dystopian novels for younger readers (I first read it in fourth grade and LOVED IT). The book is much more homespun and personal - a moral tale about the power of memory and remembering the bad things as well as the good and having the ability to make your own choices and taking responsibility for those choices - leaving the great and the grand world-building for future franchises to tackle.

This book was one of the first books that I CHOSE to read for myself (other books I read in elementary school, while fantastic and lovable and enjoyable, were actually given to me by my parents or teachers). I read my first copy of it to pieces - literally! It completely fell apart and I had to get a new one - which is about the same time I found out that there were sequels (while not as compelling as the original, were still very good). I hold The Giver in such high esteem in not only my bookworm career, by my entire life! So, when I heard that a movie of The Giver was going to be made, my very first thought was "Please for the love of all that is good and holy do NOT screw this up!"

Well... having only seen the trailer, I'm not saying that they did screw it up. But I'm not not saying it either (hovercraft? motorcycles? daily injections? WTF???)

I preemptively do not like this movie. But I'll probably still see it in the faint hopes that they did not just totally crap all over my childhood.

(In a completely unrelated subject, io9 has an article about terrible movie trailers for movies that are awesome).

Thursday, March 13, 2014



omg squeeeeeee!! (English translation here)
Just to give you all an idea of why this is such a huge deal - nearly everything to do with Sailor Moon went out of print around 2003 (or thereabouts) and there was absolutely no new content. Anywhere. No repeats of anime, no reprints of manga, no toys being made - NOTHING. Sure, the live-action series came out in 2004 (which I have not seen 'cause... I have this thing about the bits I've seen. Like... it's going to be weird watching it. Maybe I should just suck it up and try it for real) - but that was it. To borrow a phrase - Moonies were kind of experiencing Wilderness Years of their own.

Then the 20th Anniversary happened in 2012, and The Powers That Be opened the floodgates. Manga reprints, new toys and T-shirts, a new stage musical, and HOLY CRAP A REBOOTED ANIME! SLATED TO BE RELEASED SUMMER 2013! IS THIS THE REAL LIFE??

Except Summer 2013 came... and it went... And there was zero news about the anime. No casting or artwork or ANYTHING! The fans would go ape over the latest lipstick line - but I was all "Yeah, yeah, shiny pretty stuff - oooh, that Sailor Mercury Figuart looks awesome (my birthday's in a few months, FYI) - BUT WHERE THE CRAP IS THE ANIME???"

Friends, Romans, Countrymen - we wait no longer. Today, the official Sailor Moon website put up a countdown in the animation section of the site (which, I suppose they're going to go through with because... why the hell not?) and then the above image and text was leaked by someone in the Toei Animation offices and the internet went wild (MoonKitty has the full rundown of everything we know - which looks so much less anemic than it did yesterday).

I am super-stoked about this. Sailor Moon was my gateway into anime when I was thirteen (I have a younger sister to thank for that - much to my parents' chagrin) and even though I went through a period of time where I kind of distanced myself from it (to my great shame) - I've come back in recent years and I cannot WAIT for this! It's influenced me creatively in so many ways and it represents a bright spot in my junior high and high school years (which generally just suck for everybody all the way around. Show me someone who loved middle school and I will show you a flaming hot liar). For a lot of us in the 90s, the Sailor Scouts (shut up, I'm a dub baby) were our first foray with female superheroes and that means a great deal (a team of interplanetary princesses who double as superheroes and kick ass in high heels and have their own unique personalities and are the bestest of best friends and there's a super-awesome love story thrown in for good measure - what's not to love?)

I'm still not totally sold on July being the final release date because it's been pushed back so much since the initial announcement and I'm pretty skeptical still, but even so - there's only one thing for it. WE DANCE!

(What did y'all think we were going to dance to?)

EDIT: Interestingly enough, all this comes the day after I changed my laptop's wallpaper scheme to Sailor Mercury. Serendipity, indeed.

Also - there will be reviews. Look forward to it! :)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Preemptive Critic - Mr. Peabody and Sherman

When I was a kid, The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show was a staple of my "Old School" cartoon viewing (along with Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, of course). One of the cartoon segments within Rocky and Bullwinkle was Peabody's Improbable History all about a genius dog, Mr. Peabody, who teaches his young charge, Sherman, about history by the use of the WABAC machine to time travel to those historical time periods (gee - where have I seen that premise before?) I adored Mr. Peabody's adventures and it came to the point where I only watched Rocky and Bullwinkle reruns just for those short cartoons. When I learned there was going to be a Mr. Peabody movie, I just about leaped out of my theater seat with glee.

Simply by way of nostalgia, I preemptively love this movie.

(But I will go postal if they screw it up).