Monday, March 24, 2014

Divergent in Theaters Now

There's been a lot of speculation about whether or not Divergent, the movie based on Veronica Roth's book, will hold up to the cinematic standards of The Hunger Games or be a flop like many other YA book-to-movie adaptations. I can't say how it will do in the box office since it does seem to have a smaller audience to begin with than The Hunger Games, but as to whether or not the movie is well-done and entertaining enough to compete, I think the verdict is in: YA movies aren't done yet, and this latest addition has enough of both entertainment value and gravitas to at least boost it into the same playing field as The Hunger Games. (I think we still know which would win in a death match.) It helps that their sub-genres and atmospheres are similar and that Divergent is not some supernatural flick about paranormal beings in love with mortal humans. So far, they haven't had much luck in translating those to the screen, no matter how popular the books are. But the dystopian, fight-for-survival stories are somewhat more realistic and have a much broader appeal in our modern world, where many feel like things are going to pot.

I won't go into the plot here. If you want that, see my review of the book series, which I loved. I will say that the movie was very true to the book, no doubt in part due to the author being a co-producer. Certain scenes were cut and trimmed, of course, as they always are, but most of what I expected was there.

I kept hearing good things about the actors before the movie came out. Entertainment Weekly has been gushing over Shailene Woodley (who plays the heroine, Tris) and her co-star Theo James (who plays the love interest, nicknamed Four). The actors look sort of robotic (my husband's term) in photos, but on screen, it's a whole different story. They have chemistry, emotion (Shailene does, anyway; Four is more stoic), and character depth. Even when they are antagonistic toward each other, they are obviously well-matched. Kate Winslet makes a great Jeanine, and the other characters, while not getting a lot of screen time, still fill in the cracks nicely enough. If you want more character depth, you really have to read the books.

Setting-wise, if there was anything that felt off to me, it was the Dauntless headquarters and the depiction of the pit. The screen's version underwhelmed me a bit. From the book's description, I had a much larger vision in mind, something a little more subterranean and rocky rather than man-made and boxy. But the rest of the post-apocalyptic Chicago setting as well as most of the visuals I had from reading the books were a pretty fair match.

The movie's pacing, especially in the first half, was just about right. It's surprising how well the movie hones in and focuses on the main points while still leaving room for a natural development of ideas and themes. It doesn't feel too rushed. However, I thought the second half of the movie was a little slower, and simultaneously a little more rushed, than the first. What I mean is that it doesn't seem to take the time as carefully as it does in the beginning to reel the viewer in to what is going on. Though we still see everything from Tris's perspective, it feels a little less personal. The conflict is big, and without the same emotional connection to it, you begin to feel the movie's length a bit. It runs 2 hours and 20 minutes. But it isn't boring, and I'd much rather have a too-long movie than split the book.

(Minor SPOILERS next two paragraphs) The movie is rated PG-13, mostly for violence. My husband remarked on how more people died than he expected (he has not read the book), but aside from a suicide, most of the deaths are impersonal, the result of remote gunfire. That doesn't include the murders that are only in people's fear simulations. And some of the violence is just part of the Dauntless training: injuries from fistfights and knives. There is later a stabbing.

I don't have many moral concerns with the story. There is no actual sex, though the characters want to. The morality is kind of gray there, but at least, the characters don't go through with it. There is a scene in a fear simulation where Four gets rough with Tris, but she handles it before it goes too far. (SPOILERS end)

Having read the books, I'm a little wary of the future of this series on screen. This installment is a good one, but I think a lot of its entertainment value comes from the training and the beginning development of Tris and Four's relationship. It's a new world, and everything is interesting to the viewer. Subsequent movies won't have quite the same pull, though I think fans will flock to them all the same.

Overall, I was very pleased with the outcome of Divergent on the screen. It's a great adaptation with strong actors who can carry the weight of such a movie. A lot of it depends on them, and they do more than pull through. They are perfect. I'd like to see this movie again, just to soak it all in properly. Four stars.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Veronica Mars in theaters and available online now

If you don't already know what or who Veronica Mars is, this movie isn't for you. But maybe you've heard a bit of the buzz. After all, within hours, Kickstarter raised the minimum funds (two million dollars) from fans of the three-season TV show, which aired 2004-2007. I was a latecomer to the show, binge-watching the first season and a half a couple years ago and then binge-watching the rest of season 2 and all of season 3 in the past couple months before the movie was released. I only stopped the first time because...well, I'd overdosed on it. All that binge-watching and overdosing is because Veronica Mars is simply addictive.

Veronica Mars is the name of a girl who in the TV show was just a teenager, the daughter of a private investigator, trying to solve the mystery of her best friend's murder. In the movie, released ten years after the show first aired, she is ten years older, returning to the seedy, rich town she escaped from in order to help a former boyfriend accused of murder.

For old fans of Veronica Mars, the movie is all you could hope for: same cast, same setting, same detective work, same romantic interests. It's all there, complete with inside jokes. It's basically a glorified episode of the show, and that's where both its strength and weakness lie. If you loved the show, this is more of the same, just set a few years later. But the crime the show would have taken a whole season to solve, the movie solves in fewer than two hours. A bit of the mystery and lead-up and careful unraveling is lost. It's almost too fast and too shallow. The show had time to pull back layer after layer of the town of Neptune's depravity. Veronica had to chase all sorts of bunny trails before she got to the bottom of a crime. In the movie, she's a lawyer who hasn't done any private investigating since she left Neptune years ago, but she dives back in and solves this crime in a matter of days. It's not that it's unbelievable. Veronica Mars is just that good at what she does. But the movie doesn't provide enough time to get the viewer invested in theories and characters.

As far as morality is concerned, Veronica Mars has always been a show about the worst of humanity being rightly or wrongly accused and Veronica getting to the heart of the truth, no matter who is involved. There are some great messages to be gleaned from the show, but there are also moments when the characters are not good role models. The show contains drinking, drugs, sex (both the socially acceptable and the not, though I'm of the opinion none of it is really acceptable), murder, violence, and a slew of other vices. If you've watched any cop shows, there's nothing you haven't seen before...just better packaged with a smart, sassy teen girl (the show, not the movie). The movie is rated PG-13 for sexuality, drug references, violence, and language.

All said and done, this movie is a giant thank-you card to its fans with room left open for more of Veronica Mars in the future. Maybe not a movie, but the story has plenty of potential to keep going in other forms. Three stars.

Thursday, March 6, 2014


I thought I'd read a few books by Lauren Oliver but didn't double check until after I'd read Panic. The author seems to be fairly popular, and her name was familiar to me. I'm not sure if that's why I picked up Panic or if I thought the premise was kind of interesting, probably a little of both. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten my review of the first young adult book of hers that I read, Delirium. I liked her grade school fiction book The Spindlers a little better. The thing is, she does have great ideas. I'm just not so fond of her delivery and style. I'm sure that's a personal preference thing, so readers, please take this review as one person's opinion, and get another before you dismiss this book.

Panic is contemporary young adult fiction set in a small New York town where life is ho-hum and never changes...until, that is, summer rolls around and the game begins. Every summer, the graduated seniors play Panic, a game of dangerous dares and higher and higher stakes with the winner taking home at least $50,000, collected from the student population over the year. The adults know it's played and try to stop it. The risk of arrest is just part of the game. The two judges are a total secret, even to the players themselves, and the locations and dares are kept secret until the last minute.

Money is big incentive to play, but Heather and Dodge have their own reasons on the side. Dodge's sister was injured in last year's game, and he has an opportunity to even the score. Heather will do anything to get her and her sister away from their addicted mom. Heather didn't mean to play, but her options have run out. One way or another, she will escape.

What I like least about this book is the sense of hopelessness and unhappiness that permeates the setting and the plot. The characters are really in a bad place emotionally, and it's no wonder. They live in broken, dysfunctional families in rundown homes. I suppose it is the perfect setting for this kind of book. Who else would be desperate enough to risk their lives for money? But it's so depressing.

I didn't grow up in that kind of environment, and though I know it exists, it's kind of hard to look at. I keep asking myself if I'm just stuck-up and selfish and would avoid that kind of environment if I knew it existed in my neighborhood. I'm trying to be honest here. I would certainly feel out of my element and completely uncomfortable, but I know that's not a reason to turn a blind eye to need. I won't lie and say that I would jump at the opportunity to help people like this; I don't know what I would do. If the opportunity presented itself, I want to believe my heartstrings would be pulled, just as they are for one exemplary adult in the novel. But what complicates the issue a bit here is that this is fiction (based on reality, as it undoubtedly is). I know the world is broken, but I don't go to fiction to remind myself of it. I go to fiction to escape it.

(Minor SPOILERS follow.) Now, books like this can be a great help to teens struggling with the same things, but here's where I have further issues with the book. I'm not sure it offers a way out. In the end, despite everything, the game is played and the game wins. The characters don't learn that they can live without the game. Rather, they benefit from it. It's not that they don't grow, but it doesn't seem like they learn from their mistakes. They just make the best of what they're given, and they learn to live despite the crap. That message is too hopeless for me. As a Christian, I know there is so much more to life, and even though I can't hold a non-Christian author to the standards I hold myself to, the difference in our beliefs is so glaringly obvious it can't be ignored. For me, this book didn't work because it didn't match my values. I'm not talking about the inclusion of dysfunction; I'm talking about the road out of it. The author's answer was an answer for her characters, but it was lacking some things, and it was a temporary fix. It certainly wasn't a universal fix for anyone dealing with the same problems. If I'm going to read a book about hard issues, I want to see light at the end of the tunnel. The light here is faint and doesn't make the read worth the trouble.

Aside from the thematic issues above, there are a few other scenes of moral degradation to be aware of, not deal-breakers, but they do add to the general dark feel of the book. There is some swearing, including the F-word. There are no sex scenes, though there's the implication of past sex and some sexuality. There is a lot of teenage drinking, and some characters deal with addiction.

For me, this book is two stars. It had some potential but didn't realize it. I can't recommend it, even for teens going through similar circumstances. Instead, I recommend Christian author Melody Carlson's True Colors series about teens struggling with various issues. I've read only one, Blade Silver: Color Me Scarred, dealing with cutting, but that was what I was looking for in a book dealing with such depressing but very real problems.