West Side Story (2021)
Steven Spielberg, now approaching seventy-five years of age, has experienced such rarefied success as a film director that the man can do whatever he wants. It just so happens he wanted to tackle his first big screen musical, something he’s a little late on considering peers like Martin Scorsese (1977’s New York, New York) and Francis Ford Coppola (1982’s One from the Heart) beat him to the musical punch early. The question isn’t why direct a musical at this stage of his glorious career, it’s why direct a remake of 1961’s Best Picture-winning West Side Story? We already have a perfectly good and revered movie version, and there are other musicals that haven’t even gotten their first big shining moment on the silver screen, so why go back to this particular show a second time?
Once again, we’re following the two New York City street gangs, the Jets, who are made up of Italian and Irish white kids, and the Sharks, made up of Puerto Ricans. Tony (Ansel Elgort) is trying to reform his ways after spending a year in prison for gang violence. The Jets are pleading with him to get back involved, to push back against the Sharks encroaching on their territory. He meets Maria (Rachel Ziegler) at a dance and the two fall instantly in love. The problem is that Maria is Puerto Rican, her brother is the leader of the Sharks, and this relationship would be forbidden and dangerous. Tony and Maria plan to run away together and escape the conflicts of this tragic turf war.
I’ll risk musical theater heresy and admit outright that Spielberg’s West Side Story actually improves on the much-hallowed 1961 original in several ways. The most immediate and obvious is that we have Hispanic actors playing Hispanic characters. No regrettable brown face including the actual Hispanic actors this time (it’s just humiliating to watch Rita Moreno, in her Oscar-winning role, have to be darkened up to be “more Puerto Rican”). That’s a pretty good improvement already, though it’s not unexpected; 1961 was also the year Breakfast at Tiffany’s was released with its notorious Mickey Rooney performance in jaw-dropping yellow face. Granted, jaw-dropping today, not so back then. 1961 was still only a few years removed from John Wayne taping his eyelids back to portray Genghis Khan. This was the unfortunate norm.
Another immediate improvement is the visual dynamism of 60 years of technical filmmaking advancement. I recently re-watched the 1961 original, a film I haven’t watched since probably the 1990s as a teenager, and it’s a relatively good movie but it’s also a good movie of its time, and by that I mean there are limitations to the presentation. One of the most appealing aspects of movie musicals is how they expand upon our humdrum reality, the splashes of color and synchronicity and bold imagination. I’m not saying the movie musicals of the 1960s were particularly lacking, as there are many classics and favorites, but because of filmmaking practicalities and predilections, movies could only go so far at the time. With 60 years of technological advancements, today’s movie musicals, when under the right guidance, can expand the world of song-and-dance fantasy like few of the past. You need only compare the showstopper “America” in both films, the dancing high-point of either film. The original is on a rooftop for its entire duration. The new version is all over the city block, finally culminating on a crossroads and bringing the denizens of the town out in girl power empowerment. It’s such a high-energy and celebratory sequence and the scale and variance really make it feel so much more joyous and exciting. The choreography is also an improvement. Again, not a slight against the 1961 original, but in the ensuing 60 years we’ve also advanced in the technical precision and creativity of dancers. The 2021 West Side Story is impressive top to bottom with the dancing of all the performers, and with Spielberg as director, he wants you to best appreciate their talents while also making the movie as visually dynamic as he can.
Spielberg proves an absolute natural at helming a big movie musical. Nothing against Robert Wise, the 1961 director who helmed plenty of influential Hollywood titles like The Sound of Music, The Day the Earth Stood Still, I Want to Live, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He was also the editor on Citizen Kane. The man clearly knew how to tell a big screen story across multiple genres. It’s not a shame to say his visual prowess doesn’t quite stack up to a Steven Spielberg, who just happens to be one of the most popular and versatile filmmakers of all time. Spielberg’s camera is much more active than the original movie, and he’s consistently bringing us into the scene, having characters duck in and out of frame, and circling around, always interacting with the world. It makes the movie much more visually immersive and exciting, enlivening an already lively number like the dance hall rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks where each side crowds the edges. The movie operates on a high level of visual pleasure because Spielberg knows exactly how to play to the strengths of the musical genre. Spielberg incorporates the location in each setting and has fun visual flourishes, clearly having given great thought how to visualize every line in each song. The opening of “America” involves women placing clothes on a line, and as the clothes move, it reveals our newest chorus member giving voice to the continuing song. The way the camera moves through the neighborhood to note the encroachment of gentrification. The way he frames the faces of our young lovers. The way he uses shadows as menace. The way he makes every space feel like it’s perfectly utilized for the best shots and edits. Now that Spielberg has proven so adept at handling musicals, somebody please give this man another for our collective benefit.
The top actors are not the leads but two very mesmerizing supporting players. Ariana DeBose, previously seen as one of the ensemble members in 2020’s Hamilton, is pure dynamite as Anita. She explodes with verve and personality and attitude and vibrant life, and the camera loves every second she’s on screen. She gets the bigger emotional arc than Maria. She gets the jubilant song, the aforementioned “America,” and gets her crushing moments of heartache as well. DeBose is phenomenal, and likewise so is Mike Faist (Panic) as the leader of the Jets. Like Anita, this character is brimming with anger and attitude and the movie does a much better job than the 1961 film of presenting him with a point of view that can develop some empathy. Faist is lanky yet so smooth in his movements, and he gets more dancing than just about anyone. He’s balletic in his dancing while still upholding his spiky attitude. Both of these actors are so self-assured in their roles, so vulnerable behind the surface, and so accomplished with their dancing and singing that one wishes the movie would devote more time to both of them.
As for our leads, Ziegler and Elgort (Baby Driver) are good but unexceptional as our naifs in love. Ziegler can sing beautifully and definitely has a natural innocence to her appearance. Her eyes are so large and glassy that she reminded me of an animated character at points. Elgort is solid in his singing but I can’t help but feel that he’s been lapped by his co-stars. There is a comic relief musical number, “Gee Officer Krupke,” where the various Jets have fun imitating the nay-saying adults who hastily cast judgement upon these juvenile delinquents. It’s a silly number about guys goofing around and could easily be the first on the chopping block to be cut for time. However, over the course of this fun diversion, I realized that person-to-person in the Jets crew, the same guys that just appeared as background players to fill out a scene previously, how good every person is, and how much more time I wish they had gotten than Elgort. Part of this is that the romance aspect of West Side Story has always been the weakest part of the show. It’s based upon Romeo and Juliet and tied to those tragic plot events, but when both Maria and Tony are ready to run away and marry one another after a single night, and especially after the fateful rumble where Maria is so astonishingly quick to forgiveness (and horniess), the romance plays so incredulously. As a result, the two lovers are essential to the story but also the most boring characters too.
I think the adaptation by Spielberg screenwriting stalwart Tony Kushner (Munich, Lincoln) has smartly updated plenty of political elements, amplifying racial tensions but looking at it over a broader scope. Giving Tony a mentor figure in an older woman who runs her drug store shop, played by Moreno, is a great choice, especially as she represents a medium between the two sides as she is Puerto Rican but her deceased husband was white. It’s smart to have someone from the community and so wise to try and impart lessons to Tony, especially as he wants to change for the better. One update from Kushner didn’t quite jibe for me and felt like token-ism. The youngest member of the Jets, a prepubescent pipsqueak, has been replaced with a trans man fighting for membership. I understand the basic character arc is the same, the outsider trying to be accepted by the group, but the consideration of trans acceptance in the 1960s wasn’t exactly enlightening. The other Jets tease and question the gender identity of the trans man, but this perspective never feels well integrated into the play’s prejudicial world. I suppose more could have been done like having the Sharks harass this character, belittling them over their identity, and then the Jets feeling like one of their own had been attacked and in that they would finally be accepted. Except this inclusion would be around the degradation and potential assault of a trans person, which itself is not the best reason to include a trans character if you’re just setting them up for trauma. I don’t know. This character could have easily been removed if this was all there was.
One other aspect I found cumbersome was the creative decision to not include English subtitles during the Spanish-speaking portions of the movie. I cannot understand the artistic rationale for this at all. Sure, Spanish-speaking viewers will be fine, and I could piece enough together with context clues and my rudimentary understanding of like 75 Spanish words, but what are we accomplishing here? It just feels alienating, and it inadvertently likens the viewing experience to what the Jets are going through, feeling like they cannot fully understand their new neighbors. I doubt that Spielberg and company wanted to reinforce the perspective of xenophobia, but purposely removing a key portion of your movie from the majority audience in the U.S. seems so strange to me. If it was just scant conversations or moments, I’d excuse it, but the untitled Spanish accounts for like ten percent of the whole movie. Imagine watching any foreign movie without the subtitles on screen. How much meaning are you able to devise on your own?
West Side Story 2021 is a good time for fans of musical theater and a testament that just because something is old and beloved doesn’t mean it can’t even be improved upon with the right people and goals. Both movies are about the same length, 150 minutes, which seems the de facto standard for movies this holiday season, and you’d have a good time with either. I think the updated version adds more visual creativity, impressive choreography, and remodeled racial and political considerations to make it land better for modern audiences. It might not have been needed but I’m glad all the same we now have two West Side Story movie musicals to cheerfully tap along to.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Baby Driver (2017)
Car chases are one of the greatest things in movie history. The visceral sensation, the speed, the urgency, the thrills, the syncopation of edits to carry out the escalating collateral damage and stakes, it all works to seamlessly create one of the pinnacles of the moving pictures. If you’re going to create a musical where car chases are the chief instrument, then you could do no better than having director Edgar Wright as the maestro. Baby Driver is being hailed by critics as a blast of fresh air, an eclectic wild ride of an action movie with style to spare. That’s true. Unfortunately, this is the first movie of Wright’s career where it feels like the gimmick is all there is to be had.
Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey) and his crews. Baby was in a car accident that killed his parents when he was a child and he was left with tinnitus (a “hum in the drum” as Doc dubs it). To drown out the ringing, he listens to music at all times, including during those high-speed getaway chases. In his downtime, Baby romances Debora (Lily James) a diner waitress eager to hit the road without a map. Pulled into one more job, Baby is paired with a hotheaded group of dangerous criminals (Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez) that could threaten his future plans with Debora.
Baby Driver is a gimmick movie, but this isn’t exactly unheard of from Wright. Each of his movies has a strong genre angle that can tip over into gimmicky, so a gimmick by itself is not an indictment. This is, by far, the least substantial film of Wright’s career. Let’s study his previous film, 2013’s The World’s End. Like the other entries in the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), that film has a clear adoration for a certain genre and its styling, in this case alien invasion/pod person sci-fi. It didn’t just emulate the style and expected plot trappings of its genre. It spun them in a new direction while telling an engaging story on the strains of friendship over addiction and stalled maturity. It’s the heaviest and most emotionally grounded film in the trilogy. Every single moment in that movie adds up, every line, every joke, every plot beat, it all connects to form an inter-locked puzzle that would make Christopher Nolan whistle in appreciation. It wasn’t just clever plot machinations of genre parody. It was a layered and heartfelt story. It all mattered. With Baby Driver, what you see is pretty much what you get.
It’s a car chase musical, a novelty that certainly entertains with Wright’s visual inventiveness and ear for music. The film has that alluring quality of wondering what will happen next, especially with its extensive collection of songs on the soundtrack. A trip to get coffee can become a long take perfectly timed so that graffiti and prop placement along street windows lines up with lyric progressions in the song. Some sonic standouts include “Bellbottoms” and Queen’s “Brighton Rock” during the climax. There’s a fun sense of discovery with the movie and each new song presents a new opportunity to see what Wright and his stunt performers do. The car chases are impressively staged and the stuntwork has dynamism to go along with Wright’s high-level energy output. The emphasis on physical production goes a long way to add genuine excitement. This isn’t the ricocheting CGI car chase cartoons of the Fast and Furious franchise. As far as gimmicks go, it’s at least an amusing one. Perhaps I’m just a musical philistine, or more likely my brain just isn’t as accustomed to sound design idiosyncrasies, but I actually wish Wright had done more with his central gimmick. I’m fairly certain I missed half of the connections with the music. If this is the film’s calling card then it needs not be subtle; rub my face in all the clever edits and how the gunshots equal the percussion, etc.
The ceiling imposed upon Baby Driver is because of its characters. Wright and his collaborators have done effective work shading depth to genre characters in the past, even Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which examined unhealthy usury relationships and entitlement. The characters in Baby Driver are defined by their archetype designations and often behave in unbelievable ways just because the plot necessitates them. The worst offender is Baby’s love interest, Debora. Her initial scenes with Baby are sweet and work on their own, but when she’s ready to abandon her life for a guy she met days ago, Debora comes across like one of those people who write engagement proposals to incarcerated felons. Her decision-making leaps don’t feel plausible. I don’t think she’s acknowledged her lingering co-dependency issues. The problems are magnified when so much of the second half involves Debora being put in harm’s way or needing to be rescued. Then there’s Baby, a kid with a conscience who uses music as an escape figuratively and literally. He’s too bland and uncomplicated for the lead. Baby takes care of a deaf foster father. He surreptitiously records conversations to remix them into Auto-Tune cassettes. Yes that really is as dumb as it sounds especially when those conversations involve criminals. All we know about Baby is he’s nice, he wants out, and he’s good at driving. Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) doesn’t have the space to do anything but look cool and springy. The supporting characters are assorted hardasses and nincompoops. Foxx (Django Unchained) seems like he’s there always to push contrived conflict.
As a genre movie with above-average execution, Baby Driver is going to be a suitably enjoyable time at the movies for most. Wright couldn’t make a boring movie if he tried. However, it doesn’t feel like he tried hard enough with Baby Driver, at least to make a full-fledged movie. It’s an admirable assemblage of music and visuals but after a while it feels like a collection of music videos, albeit with highly impressive stuntwork. The movie suffers from overblown hype because it doesn’t have the characters or story to balance the action. There isn’t much of an attachment to what’s going on beyond the surface-level thrills of Wright’s central gimmick. As a result, you may get restless waiting for the next song selection to kick into high gear to provide another pert distraction. It feels like the gimmick has swallowed the movie whole and Wright was too busy timing his precise edits to notice the absence of appealing, multi-dimensional characters. Baby Driver is a fun movie with plenty of sweet treats for your senses but it’s too devoid of substance to be anything other than a rapidly dissipating sugar rush.
Nate’s Grade: B
Men, Women, and Children (2014)
Jason Reitman was a director on the hottest of hot streaks with Hollywood. His first three films (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air) were hits but also an ushering of a new creative voice that felt mature, engaging, and immediate. His 2011 film Young Adult was divisive but I loved its nihilistic narcissism and satire. It looked like this guy couldn’t miss. Then in the span of less than a year, Reitman released Labor Day and Men, Women, and Children, two surprisingly misguided movies. Men, Women, and Children aims to be a Crash-style mosaic of modern-life in the digital age, but what it really feels like is a twenty-first century Reefer Madness.
The movie feels like it was made in the 1990s, like it should be a companion piece to the equally over-the-top and alarmist Sandra Bullock thriller, The Net. The movie’s thesis statement amounts to “the Internet is dangerous,” but this is a statement that everyone already acknowledges. The ensuing evidence from Reitman is so scattershot, so melodramatic, and so cliché-ridden, that it feels like an inauthentic lecture that is already past its prime. Firstly, did you know there is porn on the Internet? I hope you weren’t standing up when I dropped that bombshell. The film posits that because pornography is widely available with a few keystrokes, it has desensitized (primarily) male sexuality. It presents a slippery slop scenario, where the user more or less forms an addiction to online porn and has to keep going to more extreme places to chase that new high. This leads to their inability to accept their imaginations for pleasure or actual flesh-and-blood females. It’s not like Men, Women, and Children is a case study but this feels like the same alarmist rhetoric that’s been hashed since the 1970s. The characters are allowed to have their lives ruined by their pornography addictions, but the storytelling feels particularly disingenuous when it’s squared with the film’s heavy-handed message. That core message is about the inability to communicate with the people around us thanks to modern technology meant to connect us 24/7 (oh, the unexplored irony). The message of the movie isn’t anything new or profound but it’s cranked up to such a comically over-the-top measure. I have no doubt the filmmakers were well-intentioned but their heavy-handed and tin-earned approach is a wild miscalculation that makes the film, and its dire message, more unintentionally funny than meditative.
It also hurts the film’s overall thesis/message when there are so many characters and storylines vying for attention. Reitman attempts to cover just about every aspect of Internet ills as if there is a mental checklist. We’ve got the porn addiction (check), there’s also a faltering marriage where both parties seek out online affairs (check), an fixation with online role-playing games (check), exploitation of teenagers for personal gain (check), stilted communication via social media (check), harmful communities encouraging body shaming (check), cyber bullying (check), and let’s just throw in general malaise (check). The plot is stretched too thin by the multitude of storylines, many of which fail to be interesting or find some shred of truth. There are two mother characters in this film that simply do not exist in real-life, at least the “regular” social milieu the film wants to portray. Jennifer Garner’s character is so obsessed with her daughter’s online life that she literally goes through every text, every tweet, every online post, and is also secretly recording her keystrokes. This militantly paranoid mother is such a broad and farcical caricature of parental concern. At the other end of the spectrum is Judy Greer’s mother, a failed actress trying to vicariously live through her teenage daughter. She’s photographing her daughter in provocative poses and outfits with the intent to jumpstart a modeling career, but it sure comes across like jailbait child pornography. There’s little chance a character could be this naïve and self-deluded to justify running a pervy website to market her underage daughter. Both of these characters are so removed from relatability that they become the two opposite poles of the film’s cautionary message.
I think Reitman was looking for something along the lines of American Beauty, but that movie had a group of characters that were fleshed out and given careful attention. The characters in Men, Women, and Children rarely break away from their one-sentence summations. That may be the biggest disappointment. Reitman has been exceptionally skilled at developing characters. However, the people that populate the world of Men, Women, and Children are really just slaves to the film’s message, plot points that rarely break away from their overtaxed duties. The teenage characters come across as the better half, especially a budding relationship between the ex-football star (Ansel Elgort, Fault in Our Stars) and Garner’s daughter (Kaitlyn Dever, Short Term 12). While their story is still underdeveloped, the actors work toward something that approximates reality, which is sorely missing throughout the movie. Sure, Dever gets to say clunky lines like, “I have a secret Tumblr account. It’s the only place where I can be who I am,” but at least this storyline goes beyond the obvious. The anorexic teen storyline has a lot of potential, even if she follows the same steps as every disappointing and disillusioned deflowering tale since Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Even the cheating spouses storyline goes slack, taking on the malaise of Adam Sandler’s character. The greater irony is that both parties use the same online service, Ashley Madison, to cheat on one another, though only Sandler pays for the service. I’ll give you one sense to how poorly developed these characters are. Sandler and Rosemarie Dewitt play Words with Friends in bed. She plays “gaze” (insight: she’s feeling undesired), and he responds with the word “sag” (insight: he’s feeling a deficit in passion).
To make matters worse, the entire film is taken to new pretentious levels of ludicrousness thanks to the entirely superfluous narration of Emma Thompson. She’s a disembodied god commenting on the foibles of these lowly mortals stumbling around, and the narration constantly cuts back and forth to the Voyager satellite and its trek through the outer reaches of our solar system. Huh? Is any of this necessary to tell this story? It creates a larger context that the movie just cannot rise to the occasion. Thompson’s narration provides a further sense of sledgehammer irony, with Thompson’s detached narration giving added weight to describing things like pornographic titles. The movie keeps going back to this floating metaphor as if it means something significant, rather than just feeling like another element that doesn’t belong muddying the narrative and its impact.
The biggest positive the film has going for it is the acting by the deep ensemble. Nobody gives a bad performance, though Sandler does come across a bit sleepy. The problem for the actors is that a good half of the movie is watching characters read or text. Reitman at least gooses up his visuals by superimposing Facebook screens and online texts, but the fact remains that we’re watching people type or scroll through the Internet. It’s not quite cinematic and feels better suited for a written medium (the film is based on a book by Chad Kultgen). You haven’t lived until you watch actors texting for two hours.
At this point in his career, I’m getting worried about the direction Reitman is headed. He started off with four very different but excellent movies, two in collaboration with Diablo Cody. Each was elevated by its careful concentration on character and by its darkly comic worldviews. With Labor Day, Reitman took a sharp left turn into a Douglas Sirk-styled domestic melodrama. It was misguided and corny and could be written off as a momentary misstep. Now with Men, Women, and Children, Reitman has delivered two miscalculated and soapy melodramas that lack any of the acuity and creative voice of his earlier films. Men, Women, and Children especially feels like an alarmist and heavy-handed message about the evils of technology and how it’s warping modern communication; if the film was better written, had fewer characters, had more relatable characters, ditched the pretentious narration, and focused its scattershot message into something more nuanced or definable, then there might be something of merit here. It’s not that the commentary is entirely devoid of merit, but Reitman’s overblown approach does him no service. Men, Women, and Children plays out like a hysterical and outdated warning that is too feeble to be effective and too thin to be entertaining.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Fault in Our Stars (2014)
With a premise involving two teenagers with terminal cancer, you’d be correct to assume that The Fault in Our Stars is a sad experience. It wants to be an unsentimental version of the Big Cancer Weepie, like a more hip version of Love Story. It wants to obliterate your tear ducts but in a way that won’t make you roll your eyes from an overdose of maudlin material. Based upon John Green’s international best-selling young adult novel, the doomed romance of the year has already devastated millions of moviegoers. Is it the feel-bad movie of the summer with a soundtrack Zach Braff would approve?
Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) is a 16-year-old girl dealing with lung cancer. She lugs around an oxygen canister to her group therapy sessions, really to everywhere she goes. Her parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell) try and give her enough space, try to make her feel like a normal teenager, but they all know what is coming. Then one day at group therapy she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), a tall, handsome, effortlessly confident young man in remission himself (he had a leg amputated from cancer). Gus hones his sights on wooing Hazel, winning her over. She resist at first but then finds herself falling for the charming fella (“I fell for him like falling asleep; at first slowly, then all at once.”).
With constant life and death stakes and the certainty of a young life, it would be easy for the film to go overboard with its emotional histrionics, and yet the real grace of the film is its more realistic approach to portraying this life. It just doesn’t seem fair for someone so young to be stricken with a deadly disease that will pluck him or her from the Earth before settling into adulthood, but these things happen. Hazel and Gus are characters that aren’t begging for sympathy or even special treatment; they’re tired of being treated like lab specimens too fragile to be left on their own. It’s easy to lose the person when the outside world completely identifies them as afflicted. The skill of this movie is that it’s heavy with drama and sadness but it doesn’t quite overwhelm, at least until the last act. Until then, much like the characters, the movie finds the moments of happiness, connection, and tenderness with human contact. You feel the bursts of nerves and excitement over the flirty connection between Gus and Hazel. You’ll enjoy the couple-y moments they share, finding their own identity as a pair, like claiming “okay” as their own secret coded language. You’ll feel warm and fuzzy over that first kiss. It’s a winning pairing that produces a steady stream of sweet exchanges and discoveries. This is something of a silver lining movie that can make you ruefully smile through your tears.
But as a Big Cancer Weepie, and with two suffering lovers, there is a definite cloud that hangs over the entire movie. You’re nervously waiting for some sort of turn for the worse. From a storytelling standpoint, I think every ticket-buyer knows with two cancer-stricken leads that at least one of them will be dead before the end credits. And so we wait for the bad news, wait for that other shoe to drop, and this unsettling dread permeates the first half of the movie, tainting all those happy couple moments. Gus and Hazel have several cute moments, but I found myself holding back, waiting for the proverbial hammer to drop on their small shared happiness, and sure enough it will come. The entire third act is dominated by one character’s descent into terminal. For the sake of spoilers I won’t say which, though readers with keen analytical skills can likely guess which of the pair is more expendable from a plot standpoint. It’s at this point when the movie transitions from sad to full-blown weepie, looking to draw out every last tear. With the diagnosis set, our couple heads toward that date with oblivion, and we get all sorts of weight heart-to-hearts, teens grappling with their own legacy, and even a practice funeral for friends to say exactly how much the soon-to-be-departed loved one mattered. Every step is wrung out, even to the point of one last letter/message before death that serves as the closing, considerate voice over. It’s hard to resist the cumulative effect of all these big dramatic plays at your emotions (I got teary at several points but held my ground).
The question arises at what point is this blatant emotional manipulation? The first half of The Fault in Our Stars finds a balance between the heaviness and the levity of first love, grounding its characters and their emotional highs. However, with that aforementioned turn of sullen events, the plot then becomes one long series of Sad Ruminations. What will the friends do without their pal? What will the family do? What does this harsh realization do to other terminal characters and their own family relationships? What about coming to grips with certain death? And then there’s the practice funeral. For a movie and a set of characters that refused to dwell in a pit of sadness, that’s all that the second half of the movie feels like. It also feels like the two-hour-plus plot is overextended to squeeze in one sad ruminating scene after another. In a way, it reminded me of the onslaught of emotional punishment that was the last act of Marley & Me, an otherwise enjoyable movie that devastated every dog owner by its conclusion. It feels a bit much.
And this leads me to another issue with the adaptation process, namely that Gus is actually a character with little depth to him. He’s a smiling, immensely likeable figure who doggedly pursues Hazel and falls for her hard. But what is he as a person? He’s overly confident, compassionate to others, witty, charming, but these are more superficial descriptions than deeper analysis. I suppose one could argue he’s just decided to embrace life smiling, but for the most part Gus comes across as a prime figure of squishy wish fulfillment. He’s too good to be true, and with a lack of stronger characterization, that’s the way he plays. Now, I certainly liked the character and found Elgort (Divergent) to be a charming lad, but when the film transitioned to sadder territory, my feelings felt blunted. I would have felt more for this couple had Gus felt more like a real person.
It’s a good thing then that Hazel is the protagonist and main point of view, especially when Shailene Woodley as lead actress. I’ve raved about Woodley before, particularly last year’s underrated Spectacular Now, but every new leading performance is further proof that she is one of her generation’s best young actresses. There is no artificiality in this woman’s body. Her performances are master classes in exuding naturalism, blending into the character, finding subtle ways to express a wide range of emotions; seriously, this woman can express so much just with a tilt of her head and the right kind of smile. Woodley is terrific once again, instantly locking in your sympathy. Her trial of love and suffering run the danger of being heavy-handed but Woodley seamlessly anchors the movie, guiding the audience back to her sphere whenever things get too overwrought. When she tears up, I teared up. When she unleashes a howl of grief, I had to fight every impulse in my body to join her. Her chemistry with Elgort is suitable if unspectacular, but Woodley sells every emotion and without a hint of artifice. If she were in a Big Cancer Weepie, you’d never know it given the skill of her performance.
I can’t imagine there will be much surprise for anyone who watches The Fault in Our Stars. Two young lovers with terminal cancer have a way of writing itself. What separates this story from other sappy tearjerkers is its presentation and perspective. This is a movie that flirts between jaded and maudlin, scoffing at the overt sentimentality of grief culture yet finding a middle ground that feels humane and honest and earned. Woodley’s strong, emotive performance helps ground the film even when the long string of manipulation begins. I wish Gus was a stronger character rather than a charming romantic compliment, a dream boyfriend who indeed comes across as too good to be true. I wish the movie also would not get swallowed up by the heavier elements it found balance with before. With all that being said, this is an engaging drama first and an amiable romance second. You may see the end coming from the start, but the same can be said about all of us. We all know how our own story is going to end. The only difference is the people we touch in between the start and the stop. That is our lasting legacy. The Fault in Our Stars is more a journey than a destination, and it does enough right with enough sincerity and intelligence to endure the pain.
Nate’s Grade: B
High school for many was a personal version of hell, with its class system and pressure to conform. Divergent built a whole future dystopia around this relatable concept. The problem with the movie is that the source material doesn’t think that much further.
In the future, 100 years after a great war that scarred the world, the survivors have holed up in the remains of Chicago with a large fence as their protection. The government decided to split off into five different factions, each with their important purpose. The five factions (Abnegation, Candor, Erudite, Amity, and Dauntless) work in harmony. Tris (Shailene Woodley) comes from a family of Abnegation, the selfless ones who run the government, though Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the head of Erudite, would like her faction to be on top. At the choosing ceremony, a candidate can select which faction they wish to live within. However, if rejected, that person will be factionless and on the outskirts of society. Rather than choose the comfort of her boring life, Tris decides to join Dauntless, the faction in charge of the security of the city. Before she can say goodbye to her family, she’s off joining a new one, but Dauntless has many tests to weed out the weak. Paramount in her mind is the fact that Tris is told she’s a divergent, one who doesn’t fit neatly into any one of the factions. Divergents are being singled out and executed because they are feared; they can’t be so easily controlled. Tris has to prove herself against tough competition in Dauntless while hiding her true divergent nature.
Having not read the best-selling Young Adult books, I went into Divergent and walked away entertained enough though questioning the larger appeal. My movie partner told me that the adaptation hews closely to the book, fitting in all the major plot beats; she even said it was a better adaptation than the first Hunger Games, so fans should be relieved. What the movie came down to was one long plot about Tris getting through the Dauntless tests. It’s like a post-apocalyptic Full Metal Jacket, just minus the war half. With this tight focus, the film actually plays better and is easier to digest. The stakes are made clear and the hurdles are easy to understand. In a way it reminded me of the Ender’s Game film where we watch a recruit move up the ranks of their sci-fi training, though Ender’s was better at establishing dimension to its world. I did like the small touch that the Abnegation people won’t allow themselves to see their reflection because they see it as vain. I could have used more touches like that.
There are simple pleasures watching Tris, the plucky underdog, rising to the challenge and besting her snobby peers. The games get more intense and Tris learns from trial to trial, eventually learning how to hide her divergent nature by blending in against her nature. There’s also an intensity to this world that’s appreciated; people will die if they can’t keep up (there is one shocking sequence where a batch of jealous recruits literally try and kill Tris). The physical trials are fun but the mental ones are even more entertaining because they function around the candidate’s fears. It’s a tad lazy to simply broadcast a character’s fear for them to confront in a dream, but it provides some creepy imagery and new wrinkle for Tris to master. Even the requisite romance that every YA property has to have is handled respectfully without overdoing it. The mentor/teacher relationship with Tris and Four is a natural conduit for their budding romantic feelings, though James (Underworld: Awakening) looks way older than Woodley (The Descendants). In reality, he’s 30 and she’s 22, though she’s supposed to be… 17? 18 years old? I don’t know but it just didn’t sit right.
Where the movie gets into problems is the larger world outside those Dauntless camps. It feels too ill defined and purposely vague. What’s on the other side of the giant electrified fence (hopefully dinosaurs)? I suppose that’s what sequels are for (they’re already filming the second Divergent for March 2015). The world just feels too small even for one city, and the history doesn’t feel integrated into the cultivations of this society. In a sense, the movie doesn’t give you enough to go on with its world building and spends far too much time dragging out its story. At a hefty 142 minutes, a time frame becoming de rigueur with YA adaptations, the film feels laboriously padded. I kept thinking the movie was going to check out at any moment, robbing me of some semblance of a complete ending. Fear not, there is an ending, though one that feels far too definite to continue a franchise. The bad guys are so obviously guilty, that even while still being at large, it’s hard to fathom a scenario that doesn’t unite everyone against the common threat. Does every YA post-apocalyptic mold eventually lead to unlikely heroes becoming the focal points of revolutions? I’m being facetious, but also highlighting just how derivative this movie is. Divergent borrows from its larger influences liberally, having enough story sense to know how to construct a satisfying tale of heroes and villains. It’s a well-polished film thanks to director Neil Burger (Limitless) but it’s also lacking necessary elements to distinguish it from the glut of dystopian imitators and predecessors.
I just can’t wrap my head around the world of Divergent. It lacks the clean clarity of, say, The Hunger Games, where the game is kill-or-be-killed and it’s very much a class warfare allegory. In Veronica Roth’s novel, the post-apocalyptic Chicago is divided into five factions but this isn’t a caste system. The different factions are looked at as equals, meant to cooperate harmoniously. So there goes any sort of class conflict when the factions are presented more as lifelong clubs. The design is that branching people off into five groups will somehow prevent the strife that lead to the unnamed war of the past. This doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me. Why would limiting people’s options for careers and lifestyles eliminate conflict? I understand the not so subtle message about conformity and the strength in controlling others, but it still doesn’t hold. Then there’s the notion that a divergent is a dangerous rogue, but it’s not like the divergent are mutants or genetically different. These are just people who don’t fit neatly into one of the five faction options. If you eliminate the conformity obsession, who cares? It’s only an aptitude test in the end, like what you take in middle school that say, “Hey, you like drawing, maybe you’d like to be a police sketch artist” (true personal anecdote of mine). It’s not something that looks deep into the souls of boys and girls and presages their future. It’s an aptitude test for crying out loud. The world of Divergent also feels strangely unfulfilled, with too many lingering questions about the logistics of how this future Chicago is able to function. There’s a confusing aura around this world and it doesn’t get explained because we spend so much time in Dauntless boot camp.
There was a weird motif I kept noticing throughout the film and that’s the future’s unsafe disregard for medical safety. The Dauntless kids are all about the running, jumping, punching each other in the face, but it all begins at their choosing ceremony. The candidates walk to the front of an auditorium, slice their palm with a ceremonial knife, and then squeeze blood into a bowl representing the faction they select. Of course they reiterate “faction before blood” so it’s a little strange that the ritual involves their blood. Anyway, what I picked up was that every candidate was using the same knife, only with he most perfunctory of wiping the blade. That is just unclean and a way for blood-based disease to spread. Then later during the mental round of testing, Four injects Tris and himself with the same needle. Clearly these post-apocalyptic people have forgotten all about AIDS and other deadly diseases. Why else would Jeanine be so calm as her hand is covered in someone else’s blood? I’m surprised she just didn’t lick it for effect.
The actors are all well cast for their parts, with Woodley again proving herself as one of the best young actresses today in Hollywood. Her part isn’t anywhere as complex or demanding as her terrific turn in The Spectacular Now, but she’s able to slide in emotion where possible, expressing much through the power of her eyes. She’s a heroine you want to root for, and when she goes into badass mode it feels earned. James is suitably hunky while still being mysterious and broody. Interestingly enough, Miles Teller, Woodley’s onscreen beau in Spectacular Now, is here as a bully and Ansel Elgort, who plays Tris’ older brother, will soon play Woodley’s onscreen beau in The Fault in Our Stars. It’s like this weird cross-section of Woodley’s film history of boyfriends. The adults do fine jobs with their limited time, with Winslet (Labor Day) being a better realized version of what Jodie Foster was possibly going for in Elysium. My favorite adult actor was Jai Courtney (A Good Day to Die Hard, Jack Reacher) who hasn’t found the right fit for his talents, until now (he was great on Starz’s Spartacus TV show). As a no-nonsense Dauntless captain, he’s imposing in many respects and also intriguingly devious. He’s a grade-A heavy and adds a jolt to the scenes he’s in.
Poised to be the next YA breakout franchise, Divergent will likely be a hit with its target audience and reap the rewards at the box-office, though I think its flaws will hold it back from being embraced by a wider audience with no affiliation with the books. It’s an entertaining story with good actors and enough well constructed payoffs, but it’s also confusing, vague, and lacking enough urgency, class conflict, and developments to parlay into a more interesting story once Tris graduates from the Dauntless ranks. As a standalone film, Divergent works enough and duly entertains, thanks again to Burger’s visual sensibilities and the strength of Woodley. I’m just not invested at all in this world or its larger characters to compel myself to find out what happens next. I ravenously tore through the Hunger Games books, but to each their own. As a big screen sci-fi film, it’s strange that Divergent would work best in its smaller moments and settings. It’s too bad the movie doesn’t diverge enough from the pack of YA-modeled adventures. Well there is one thing to look forward to: I’ll see if I get my wish for dinosaurs in March 2015.
Nate’s Grade: B-
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