March 24, 2014

Did not read the books. Did not read reviews going into the film. Did not discuss the story with devotees beforehand.

In a futuristic Chicago, teenagers must decide which of five factions to join when they reach a certain age. Their selections are based on testing and on choice, and the main character, Triss (Shailene Woodley), makes a choice that would be surprising except that viewers have been coached to expect it, and even want it, from the beginning of the film.

The factions represent the predispositions of people in the respective groups. Who doesn’t want to be selfless, peaceful, honest, brave, and intelligent, the characteristics that identify the five factions of the city?

I do, I do!

Except that in this city, the powers that be have determined that separating the factions by the dominant trait is necessary to maintain peace. People who identify with more than one of these traits are classified as Divergent and considered a threat to the city.

One thing I don’t understand, given this narrative framework, is why, then, teenagers are allowed to choose a faction regardless of their test results. I didn’t think about this when watching the film because it is a necessary condition to drive the plot, but now I think there should have been some explanation (or one that I managed to catch) to reconcile the idea of choosing factions with the competing idea that divergence is a bad thing.

I went into Divergent cold except for the preview trailers, which didn’t make me especially eager to see the film.

And…I liked it.

The action sequences are not thrilling. The story is not shocking. The love story is remarkably tender (suitable for younger viewers and offering encouragement to wait for sex until emotional readiness matches desire).

And, let’s be clear, Theo James, as Four, offers plenty in the desirability column; I’m not just talking about his smoldering gaze and expressive lips.

Actually, all of the casting works for me except that three of the male recruits in Triss’ group look too much alike to be clearly delineated, and they don’t look totally dissimilar from her brother, either. Couldn’t they choose some other “types” for those of us who haven’t devoured the books?

Seeing another strong, female lead in the mold of The Hunger Games franchise, is still refreshing after decades of Hollywood treating women and girls as a “niche” audience despite the fact that we are slightly over 50% of the population.

Besides, Divergent is entertaining. I’m glad I saw it and that I went into the screening with zero expectations.




March 24, 2014

I understand intellectually and structurally why these decisions were made even before I read the letter from Robert and Michelle King, co-creators of the series.

CBS Letter

Still, this season has been a train wreck. I have been #TeamWill from the fall because Alicia has become unrecognizable.

Whether it was intended from the beginning or not, Will and Alicia were the emotional center of the show, like Rhett and Scarlett or Rick and Ilsa or you get my point.


The Good Wife

NEBRASKA Revisited

March 16, 2014

I wish I had time to see Nebraska again, but with RiverRun screeners (!) and other movies opening, I don’t right now.

Still, the conversation is ongoing.

Mark: I thought the film was hard on the Midwest.

Me: This never occurred to me. Could it be because I’ve become used to films depicting the South and most rural spaces (so often) with little understanding or nuance? That used to rankle greatly because of my rural, North Carolina roots, but apparently I’ve become desensitized.

Mitch: Stopping off in the hometown did not work for me. It seemed too contrived and too convenient.

Me: Huh? Never occurred to me that this was a problem when watching the film or thinking about it afterward. If circumstances dictate that you need a port in a storm, isn’t someplace familiar where you have roots the likeliest choice? Even if it is an unpleasant place rife with bad memories, a place you left and have seldom chosen to visit, it is still easier to retreat to the known entity to regroup than to go somewhere new, especially when you have few resources.

Jennie: (excerpted comment on the original blog post) I liked it but I found myself very bored. And I really wanted to l like it. It was also very MALE.

Me: (my partial answer to the comment) Interesting. It seemed very rural rather than very male to me. I saw it as a double feature with The Wolf of Wall Street, which is VERY MALE in all the worst ways without a counterbalance of any sort.

Curiously, I found myself thinking a lot of Frances Ha in connection with Nebraska. As unlikely as the comparison might appear at first, the films seem like bookends to me: one female the other male, one urban hipster one rural everyman, one searching character and the other sort of settled but both gentle souls brimming with grace on rambling personal journeys marked by occasional, small insights. Mainly, both Frances and David are kind characters even if a bit downtrodden. And, of course, both films are shot in black and white.

David: The entire film is built on a series of lies.

Me: Wow.

This critique catapulted me into a new way of thinking about the film. My friend David is surely right in his assessment, and if you have a way of looking at the world where things are clearly good or bad and people make choices that are solidly right or wrong, then there is no way around this reading of Nebraska.

But, while I see the truth in David’s assessment, that’s not the world where I live.

Have you ever read the Zen stories “Maybe” or “Is That So?” Or, do you remember the parables of Jesus? For me, choices exist on a continuum where the poles are a lot clearer than the muddied middle, which is not often so clearly good or bad or right or wrong, especially when I am looking outwardly at other people. Looking outward, I realize that I have a partial vision and try to avoid judgments because value systems are often in conflict.

I live in a world marked by paradox, and competing ideas and complexity are part of the terrain.

And, besides, no one is perfect.

What holds it all together? Sometimes the competing ideas co-exist quite easily inside my head. Other times, I rely heavily on grace, forgiveness, and being measured in the judgments I make.

This brings me back to Nebraska and the character of David Grant (Will Forte) who takes his father Woody (Bruce Dern) on a road trip from Montana to Nebraska to a sweepstakes headquarters. Woody has received a letter that makes him believe he has won a million dollars, which everyone around him knows is not real.

Woody is an alcoholic who doesn’t think clearly, and he’s not such a nice guy. But, his son David goes with him on the trip largely to give his father a shred of dignity at the end of his life.

David is not perfect. He resorts to a childish prank, predicated on making people who have belittled and taken advantage of his father think that he may have won some money after all. Is it a mature choice? No. Does it make Woody a better person? No. Is it an outright lie? I’m not sure. That’s where seeing the movie again would come in handy.

But, does that matter to me? I don’t think so.

For me, this is David’s story, not Woody’s story, and David is patient, kind, gentle, forgiving, and growing in grace.

I also have to say, to go back to Jennie’s comment, that what I like most about David Grant may be the balance he strikes as a man who is defined by, and apparently comfortable with, traits that we often associate with the feminine.

So, Mark, Mitch, Jennie, and David are all astute viewers who offer compelling insights and arguments about meaning framed by their own experiences and perspectives. I see a somewhat different film based on my own.

Let the conversation continue…



March 15, 2014

What happens when a high-achieving, Japanese businessman learns that his six-year-old son was switched with another baby boy in the hospital at birth?

Please dash out to the theater and find out for yourself.

This is a lovely, thought-provoking film with truthful performances all around, good writing, and direction that is elegant and nuanced just like the film’s musical score.

When two families are dropped into turmoil after the switch is revealed by hospital administrators, there is a convergence of class struggles, changing cultural attitudes toward work and family, longstanding marital tensions, and unhealthy parenting relationships imported from childhood into adulthood.

One of the particular joys of watching Like Father, Like Son is growing to care deeply about the characters and having no idea from scene to scene what will happen next.

Anyone who has ever loved a child will be engaged and moved. I highly recommend this beautiful, tender film.

Like Father, Like Son


March 15, 2014


Though intriguing from time to time with a cast of actors I generally like (Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore are at the top of the list), there are enough holes in this story to drive a taxiing plane through.



March 13, 2014

In an article published on September 8, 2013 in The New York Times, Rachel Donadio reports that director Paolo Sorrentino’s stated purpose with his film The Great Beauty is to convey a general atmosphere.

This he does exquisitely and has the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film to prove it.

A 65-year-old writer – is he a blocked novelist after publishing a wildly successful book in his youth or a working journalist who has more to report than to say? – enjoys a lavish birthday party that is just another in an endless swath of such affairs. Then, he begins to reflect on his life.

Is this all there is? For Jep Gambardella (the wonderful Toni Servillo), it seems so.

If Sorrentino’s purpose is to point out the vacuous core beneath the elegant surface of the highest reaches of Italian society cutting across the arts, politics, and religion (a Cardinal who prefers to discuss the preparation of rabbit dishes than meatier subjects), then he succeeds brilliantly.

His evocation of this atmosphere (or maybe it is just the conga line) makes me think of another extravagantly rendered story of excess and emptiness (at least for the first portion), the pro-Castro propaganda film I Am Cuba. But, the latter film complements jaw-droppingly extravagant visuals with a firmly etched thesis (agree with it or not).

There is something that is not quite reconciled for me in The Great Beauty.

Jep wanders the streets of Rome and notices the joy of children and playful nuns. He sees the vibrant colors all around and even pictures indelibly beautiful images of the ocean on his bedroom ceiling. He eats well and drinks well and has the opportunity to engage art of various types and stripes whenever he chooses.

But, what does he make of the riches before him?

He is silent.

He doesn’t write beyond his assignments. He doesn’t convey much to us beyond his observations that at the age of 65 he no longer wants to spend time on anything he doesn’t want to do and his assertion that what is here is all there is.

You might argue that what is here (in his world) is quite enough.

Surely, the images are lush, richly saturated, artfully composed. I was awash in their beauty as one after another they unfolded on the screen. I carry with me the ceiling of sea and the panoramic view of the Coliseum from Jep’s balcony and one particular shot of an uncommonly beautiful staircase spiraling ever upward. I won’t forget wonderful sequences like that of soon-to-be saint with a flock of migrating birds. And, there is music…

These are the pieces, but what of the whole?

This is the problem for me.

Despite the beauty, elegant and engaging moments, and the good performances, I think there is more than what is here in the material world even if we restrict ourselves to considering the characters at play in the film.

Jep’s interior life, the little we know of it in snippets, like his observation early in the film that he came to Rome in his 20s and partied his way through the decades wanting not only to attend but also to have the power to declare which parties are failures, is not rich enough for me to form a connection with him while nothing about his exterior life changes. While there is much to recommend the film, something is missing for me.

Is this a great film? Possibly.

Did it move me? No.

Is it worth seeing? Sure. See what you think…

The Great Beauty

Charlotte Screenings of LIVING IN THE OVERLAP

March 11, 2014

The Charlotte Film Lab and and the LGBT Community Center are sponsoring two showings of Living in the Overlap at 3 p.m. and at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 22nd at the LGBT Community Center (2508 N Davidson St, Charlotte, NC 28205).

Charlotte Film Lab

Tickets are $5 for Charlotte Film Society Members and Students with a valid ID and $10 general admission. Co-directors Mary M. Dalton and Cindy Hill will participate in a Q & A session following each showing.

LITO poster