Archive for March, 2014

Divergent (feat. Isaac and Jonathan Walberg)

Monday, March 24th, 2014—Film

Divergent (USA 2014, Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi), Writers: Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor; Director: Neil Burger

This Divergent review comes at the request of my eldest nephew, 11-year-old Jonathan. Together, we reviewed The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, with his younger brother Isaac joining us for the second adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ franchise. So I guess Jon got a taste for it, which is pretty cool. And since I passed on reviewing the Ender’s Game adaptation with him, what kind of an aunt would I be if I didn’t step up for Jon’s next request?

Given that it was his idea, I wanted Jon to have a more active voice in this review, so I tasked him with outlining Divergent’s plot: “It’s about a dystopian society where, at age 16, children take a test to see what category they fit in. Everyone fits into one thing only, except those people who fit into more than one, who are called Divergent. Some people see them as a threat to the society. So the movie is about someone who is Divergent.”

Well said, Jon! To that I’ll add that the categories, or factions, are Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite, and that the Divergent person who shows traits from multiple factions is Tris Prior (the excellent Shailene Woodley).

Divergent is based on the novel of the same name, which is part of a trilogy by Veronica Roth. The series draws obvious parallels to The Hunger Games franchise, among them: a strong young female protagonist who exists in a dystopian future and who helps lead the charge against a controlling system that denies individuality and restricts civil liberties; an ardent following at my nephews’ house; and, according to Jon, “really good first two books and horrible third books.” (His words, not mine; I still haven’t read the other books in the Divergent series, Insurgent and Allegiant.)

I prefer The Hunger Games, both in the story and in the telling. On top of what else the series explores, I find its additional commentary on our fixation with appearances, celebrity and others’ lives adds a significant point of interest, not to mention how well the reality show slant lends itself to a visual adaptation. And although I appreciate the notions Divergent explores, like our need to label people and the desire to conform, its world is somewhat underdeveloped.

My nephews think otherwise. (Evidently we diverge.) Both Jon and Isaac prefer Divergent to The Hunger Games adaptations, although they’re still big fans of both series. (And I still like Divergent, on the whole.)

Divergent was really good,” says Jon. “I would say I liked it a bit better than The Hunger Games because it followed the book and they did everything really well. The actors were really good. For both series, the main idea of the plot is really interesting but I found Divergent way more action-packed.”

The movie does take some liberties with the novel, smoothing out a few of the rougher, non-PG-13 bits, removing or downsizing some extraneous characters and, in particular, shaking up the ending a little. But generally, I agree with Jon that the film follows the book quite closely—sometimes to its detriment. It felt a bit like the movie was plodding through each plot point; it was too long and not as well paced as The Hunger Games.

Jon, however, takes no issue with that. He likes that the movie has “no surprises” and is “almost exactly like the book.” He doesn’t find that boring, but rather a testament to its strength as an adaptation.

Isaac, now 10, read the book when he was eight, so he doesn’t remember it very well. His appreciation for the movie stems less from how faithfully it follows the book and more from the premise itself. “I liked Divergent a bit better than The Hunger Games because I think I like the idea better—choosing where you belong vs. playing games to the death,” he says. (Not that Isaac is opposed to violence in general; he also says “I liked when Four [the Dauntless trainer and Tris’ love interest, played by Theo James] beats people up.”)

Jon is a fan of Four, too, although he says Four was the only character who didn’t turn out the way he pictured him in the book. “There’s another book, called Lorien Legacies, where there’s a character name Four,” says Jon. “I pictured him like that guy.”

Four prompts an interesting insight from Jon about the (slim) illusion of choice created by the founders and governors of Divergent’s Chicago, where the story is set. “As Four was saying, he wants to be everything,” says Jon, referring to the scene when Four admits he wants to embrace the traits of all five factions rather than be only one thing. “So it’s like all the people are given the option to choose what faction they want to be in when they’re 16, so it’s almost like freedom. Except it’s not freedom because they can’t be more than one thing.”

I ask Jon and Isaac which faction they would choose if they had to pick one. “I did an actual test on the computer, the Divergent Aptitude Test, and I was Divergent,” says Jon. I tell him that’s probably the point of the test; beyond pure publicity, it aims to reinforce the trilogy’s lesson that we are all more than just one thing. “Yeah,” he says, “almost everyone who takes the test is Divergent. I was Divergent for the exact same things that Tris was in the movie.” (That would be Dauntless and Erudite, as well as her birth-faction, Abnegation.)

If Jon HAD to choose a faction, he says, “Amity would probably be the safest.” But “if Dauntless didn’t have that rule that if you’re below the line [i.e., don’t make the cut during initiation], you’re out, then it would be pretty awesome.”

Isaac has a similar thought. “I’d want to be in Divergent—but does that count or not?” he asks. Assuming it doesn’t count, he says, “If there wasn’t the ‘below the line, you’re out’ rule for Dauntless, I would be that. It’s the most fun.”

I ask Isaac if he would want to live in a world divided so rigidly by factions, and he says, “I would never want that to happen. I wouldn’t like that. I like how it is right now in real life. But it would be cool to try it out for a day, or something like that.”

As long as it’s just at the movies.

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Thank you to Isaac and Jonathan for joining me once again in a movie review, and to their parents for helping arrange the interviews!


Tuesday, March 18th, 2014—Film

Enemy (Canada/Spain 2013, Mystery/Thriller), Writer: Javier Gullón; Director: Denis Villeneuve

If you read my Prisoners review, you’ll know how much I’ve been looking forward to the release of Denis Villeneuve’s subsequent film, Enemy. In anticipation, I read José Saramago’s novel The Double, on which the movie is based. This was my second exploration of a film adaptation of one of Saramago’s works, having read and seen Blindness. But unlike with the first experience, this time I had trouble getting through the book.

In writing Blindness, Saramago took liberties with punctuation (i.e., he didn’t use much of it), but it’s even more extreme in The Double, where he spends countless pages detailing inanities in a confusing, repetitive manner. All that made for a bit of a tedious read.

Still, The Double does delve into interesting ideas about identity, perception, purpose and our very existence. So it was worth exploring. But for me, those ideas were better presented in Villeneuve’s film adaptation than in its source material.

In Enemy, as with most film adaptations, the story is pared down from the novel, offering a leaner, and in this case meaner, version of events. (One minor but notable difference is the protagonist’s name: Adam Bell in the movie is Tertuliano Máximo Afonso in the book, a lengthy moniker that its bearer loathes and that is repeated in full every time the character’s name comes up.) Enemy cuts to the chase—even if that chase leads you in circles, after your own tail.

So what’s the movie about? Well, that’s a little complicated, but I’ll start with what happens in the movie. We’re introduced to Toronto-based history professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal), who goes about his dreary, repetitive life, trapped in a cycle of routine lectures (on the ways totalitarian states keep people down), mundane sex (with his girlfriend, Mary, played by Mélanie Laurent) and restless nights. His pattern is shaken up when Adam rents a movie, on a colleague’s recommendation, and discovers an actor who looks just like him.

Adam tracks down the actor, a man named Anthony Claire (also Gyllenhaal), who already operates under a dual identity, having the stage name Daniel Saint Claire. Anthony’s exterior matches Adam’s, but his interior harbours a much darker side.

The men confirm that they are one another’s exact double, complete with matching scars. From there, things really start to unravel, particularly when the men swap women without consulting their partners (Anthony has a six-months pregnant wife named Helen, played by Sarah Gadon; interestingly, he’s also been absent from his acting career for six months—perhaps while embracing a teaching career as Adam?).

Enemy does more than tighten The Double’s plot points; it takes liberties with events, trimming some here, adding others there. But it hits all the unmissable points.

The film also nails the novel’s creepy tone, capturing the feeling of being caught up in the minutia of daily life, of endlessness, pointlessness and powerlessness. Capitalizing on the poignancy of the visual image, as opposed to the written word, Enemy’s cinematography depicts a bleak, dingy cityscape, one that’s yellowed out somehow, like faded images—relics of the past, or a history destined to repeat itself.

Beyond its cinematography, Enemy incorporates a visual metaphor and representation of The Double’s twisted surrealism and sense of being trapped in a web. From the low-angle shots of streetcar wires that hang over the city like spindles, to the appearance of actual arachnids (for example, at an elite sex club, where men stare vacantly as naked women release live tarantulas from captivity), spiders are a recurring symbol in the film.

I don’t want to break Enemy down too much, both because I want to avoid spoilers and because I should watch the movie a second time before trying to really analyze it—the film bears repeating. But it’s definitely not for a lack of material to explore. Enemy, like Drive, is another great candidate for a film essay. Its script is loaded with double meaning and leaves even more open to interpretation than does The Double (as far as I can tell, anyway).

Whereas the book treats the two men, Tertuliano and António Claro, as being quite separate, the movie drops hints that they may actually represent two sides of the same person. We’re given clear evidence that they are two different people, but there are also suggestions to the contrary, letting the complexity and ambiguity of the novel’s themes emerge from the cluttered prose to rise to the surface.

Then there’s the significance of changing the title from The Double to Enemy. The focus is directed away from the notion of a doppelganger and toward the threat it represents, but who is the enemy here—the state? the self?

And so on.

There’s a lot to uncover, and it all culminates in a staggering ending; the final shot is a total WTF moment (and another departure from the novel, although it does bring to mind a line from The Double: “… sometimes dreams do step out of the brain that dreamed them…”). But after the initial shock wore off, I found it to be perfectly fitting with Enemy’s themes, absurdity and apparent quest to get the neurons firing. A more conventional conclusion might have been clearer, but it likely would have felt trite or unsatisfying. As it is, Enemy keeps its viewers dangling, and I think that’s exactly what the filmmakers intended.

Enemy is an interesting study in the possibilities of moving from page to screen. And while its tone, cinematography and trippy dream sequences are reminiscent of the Davids (Cronenberg and Lynch), more than anything else, the artistic choices behind Enemy demonstrate Villeneuve’s own astonishing range; to go from Maelstrom to Incendies to Prisoners to this is quite incredible.

Enemy also features another of Villeneuve’s fantastic casts. Laurent, so great in Inglourious Basterds and Beginners, is in fine form. Gadon, who was excellent in A Dangerous Method, is at least as good in Enemy; her performance earned her a Canadian Screen Award for Best Supporting Actress. (Interestingly, Gadon was also one of the panelists for this year’s Canada Reads competition, defending Kathleen’s Winter’s book Annabel.)

As strong as the other actors are, the film rests on Gyllenhaal’s shoulders, requiring him to do double duty as both protagonist and antagonist (or are they one and the same?). He’s more than up to the task, proving yet again that he’s one of the finest actors working today (see If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet).

With Enemy, Gyllenhaal also reinforces what a remarkable duo he makes with Villeneuve. I look forward to their next collaboration; what form it will take is anybody’s guess.

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For more on the great work of Denis Villeneuve, see my Kickass Canadians article.