'Divergent' is a cool ride

By Tom Von Malder | Aug 08, 2014
Photo by: Summit/Lionsgate Home Video Theo James and Shailene Woodley star in "Divergent."

Owls Head — Divergent (Summit Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 139 min.). Yes, if one wanted to be critical, one could find many similarities to other films, especially "The Hunger Games," but this film, taken on its own, is a fun ride that makes you want to see what comes next, and seldom feels bloated, despite its length. One quickly comes to care about the main character, and her journey towards adulthood.

Shailene Woodley plays Beatrice Prior -- soon to be known only as Tris -- in a post-war Chicago, 100 years after the city suffered heavy damage. (One of the real pleasures of the film is how this damaged city is portrayed by the computer-generated effects. The only traffic is an occasion el, and the city is surrounded by a huge wall.) In an effort to repeat the mistakes of the past, society is divided into five factions: Amity, who are the farmers; Erudite, who are the smart ones; Candor, the ones who favor honesty; Dauntless, who are fearless and thus the protectors or police; and Abnegation, those who help others and run the government. However, we quickly learn that Erudite, in the person of leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet), feels it should be the governing faction and is planning to seize control by force. When a child reaches the mandatory age, he or she is tested to see what their strengths are and which faction they belong in; however, they can also chose any of the factions, but the choice is a one-time thing; you are stuck with that faction for life, or if you flunk out you become factionless.

Beatrice and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) are to make their choices on the same day. Both grew up in an Abnegation home -- their parents are played by Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd. Beatrice's test showed strengths for Abnegation, Erudite and Dauntless; the rare multiple qualification means she is a Divergent, someone the Erudite seek out to kill because their minds are too flexible. As expected, both siblings pick a different faction than their parents'. Caleb chooses Erudite and Beatrice selects Dauntless and shortens her name to Tris.

For the next portion of the film, Tris goes through rigorous training, with the knowledge that half of the initiates will flunk out. She gets some timely tips from mysterious trainer Four (nice-on-the-eyes Theo James), although both of his secrets were obvious from the start. This is the sequence that could have been pared down, but there are some effective moments, like when Tris gets to zipline from a high point in the city (and even go through a ruined building). The last third of the film deals with trying to thwart Erudites' mind control plot and governmental takeover. Even though there are two more books in the series, the film resolves most of the immediate questions -- and kills off quite a few major characters -- rather than having a cliffhanger ending. In all, the film is very entertaining.

Bonus features include a four-part look at making the film (47:17), which includes interviews with the actors and author Veronica Roth and looks at the actors' training, the first day of shooting and the computer graphics; audio commentary by director Neil Burger and a second audio commentary by producers Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher (they bring up the point that Woodley and Elgort play siblings in this film, but lovers in "The Fault in Our Stars"); a closer look at the factions (14:51, exclusive to Blu-ray); four deleted scenes (4:27; one shows a trainee has been stabbed in the eye to cause him to flunk out). Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 3 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Noah (Paramount, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 137 min.). This is sort of the Noah one knows from the Old Testament (in which, by the way, Noah never utters a word), but co-writer/director Darren Aronofsky has taken a lot of liberties. Probably none so more than the introduction of the Watchers, fallen angels who have turned to giant stone creatures (looking a bit like crabs) that do the actual building of the ark and help defend Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family from the unruly mob led by Tribal -cain (Ray Winstone).

Noah, who as a child saw his father murdered by Tribal-cain, is a descendent of Seth, the other son of Adam and Eve, who went on a different path from sibling Cain, after Cain slew Abel. In fact, Noah and his three sons are the last of Seth's line. His sons are Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll). In addition to the external threat from Tribal-cain and his followers, there is internal strife, as Ham is distraught that he does not have a wife. In fact, only Shem has Ila (Emma Watson), a barren young woman Noah rescued while going to see his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Noah is a man who loves the Earth and its wonders, but accepts that God needs to cleanse it by destroying mankind, even if that includes his family. We also see Noah as a man of action, a fighter.

From a technical viewpoint, the film is stunning. Just some of the epic moments are the spontaneous growth of a forest from one seed, getting the animals and birds on the ark and the flood itself. There also is a cool four-minute animated creation story. Extras include a three-part making-of feature (60:22) that includes the five weeks of filming in Iceland, working on the ark exterior and working on the ark interior. All are very worthwhile. One nice touch has Aronofsky bring on camera the elementary school teacher he had when he won a school contest with a poem on Noah. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.75 stars

Lullaby (Arc DVD, R, 117 min.). Get out the tissues, this is a guaranteed weeper, especially for anyone who has lost a parent. The film is told from the viewpoint of estranged son Jonathan (Garrett Hedlund of "Friday Night Lights"), 26, who is summoned back by his family because his father Robert (Richard Jenkins in a moving performance) is finally dying after a 12-year battle with cancer (he was initially given only six months to live). However, tired of all the surgeries and procedures that are getting him only one or two hours of consciousness a day, his father has decided to stop taking his medicine and to have the respirator turned off.

We first meet Jonathan in trouble for smoking in the airplane restroom. Despite his numerous disagreements and arguments with his father (several are shown in flashbacks), Jonathan does not want his father to die this way. His sister (Jessica Brown Findlay of "Winter's Tale" as Karen) is a lawyer and she actually files for an injunction to stop what she calls an assisted suicide. Wife/mother Rachel (Anne Archer) is also shattered by the decision, but tries to bravely fight through, even holding a Seder for Robert in the hospital's chapel. Helping Jonathan during this time is an unlikely ally, Meredith (Jessica Barden), a 17-year-old terminally-ill cancer patient. The film's only misstep is a hokey legal argument by Karen, trying to convince Robert to change his mind for their sake. There are no bonus features for this first-time directorial effort by writer Andrew Levitas. Grade: film 3 stars

The Final Terror (1983, Shout! Factory, Blu-ray plus standard DVD, R, 84 min.). What happens when you only kill three people in a horror film and contemporaneous films kill by the dozen? Well, you get neglected, as did this film directed by Andrew Davis. It actually was kept in the can for two years, only released after Daryl Hannah had success in "Blade Runner." When made, Joe Pantoliano, who plays weird bus driver Eggar, was the most known of the actors, but several cast members went on to solid careers, including Rachel Ward, Mark Metcalf and Adrian Zmed.

The film send off a group of young forest rangers into a remote setting to do some clean-up work and to have fun, not knowing that there is a killer housed on the land. Nothing much happens for the first half hour, but as soon as one couple has sex, the guy is killed. The characters are merely sketches, and kind of cliché, but the photography is actually quite good, and one killing is quite inventive. Note that this was made without the use of a Steadicam, as they were not in wide use yet, making the rapids sequence impressive.

Where this release really shines is in the extras, which include a feature on "finishing the film" (22:49), with interviews with post production supervisor Allan Holzman (he basically did a new cut of the film, including the two opening deaths that really have nothing to do with the rest of the film) and composer Susan Justin, whose music is quite interesting, as she used both synthesizers and her voice as a Theremin-type sound. There also are alternating interviews with actors Zmed ("T.J. Hooker") and Lewis Smith ("Southern Comfort") about making the film at the start of their careers (16:22); audio commentary by director Davis; and a behind-the-scenes stills gallery (8:59). Grade: film 2.5 stars; extras 3.25 stars

Southern Comfort (1981, Shout! Factory, Blu-ray plus standard DVD, R, 117 min.). Think of this as "Deliverance" remade as a Vietnam War allegory, although in their supplemental interviews, both director Walter Hill  and his co-writer/producer David Giler insist the war allegory was not their intent. Nonetheless, it is a sometimes gritty, very well made movie about a group of weekend National Guardsman who first get lost and then become the subject of retaliatory attacks in a Louisiana swamp. Make them ill-prepared soldiers -- only one has any real ammunition -- facing an unknown enemy in totally unfamiliar circumstances.

Through their own stupidity -- the soldiers "borrow" two canoes without asking and then one fires his blank-filled machine gun at the four Cajun owners, which leads to Sgt. Poole (Peter Coyote), the soldiers' leader, being killed -- the remaining eight men are pursued and picked off one by one as they stumble through the swampy bayou. At this point, it should be noted that his release has remarkable sound (listen to the soldiers splashing through the water) and a wonderful score by Ry Cooder. Among the soldiers is newcomer Charlie Hardin (Powers Boothe), who basically does not want to fit in; Spencer (Keith Carradine), who has arranged for some female company at the end of the exercise); hothead Reece (Fred Ward); and others played by T.K. Carter, Lewis Smith and Les Lammon (the clueless sergeant who takes over after Poole's death). Brion James plays their Cajun captive.

The bonus features include a new documentary (27:12), with separate interviews of Carradine, Booth, Coyote and Smith, as well as Giler and Hill (via Skype). They discuss whether or not each feels the film is a Vietnam allegory, as well as the cold February shooting in the swamp (to avoid warmer weather predators) and getting the dog attack right (the local dogs they first used were too friendly). There also is a stills gallery (5:39). Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.5 stars

The Suspect (South Korea, Well Go USA Blu-ray disc, NR, 137 min.). It took about a half hour to get into this movie, as I really do not know enough about the ins and outs of the conflict between the two Koreas and director Won Shin-yun tends to jump around a bit. The basics are that a former North Korean Special Forces agent (rising Korean star Gong Yoo as Ji Dong-chul), who has defected to the South, is been framed for the murder of the chairman of a big corporation, the person Dong-chul was the hired driver for, and a huge manhunt is underway, headed by Col. Min Se-hoon (Park Hee-soon), who has had past interaction with Dong-chul. However, Dong-chul is actually only hunting for a man named Lee, the killer of Dong-chul's wife and daughter. Jo Sung-ha plays the duplicitous South Korean intelligence officer who assigned Se-hoon to track down Dong-chul, and Yoo Da-in plays a documentary filmmaker who has more on her mind than just doing a piece on North Korean defectors.

What makes the film worthwhile is its slightly manic approach (the director enjoys sudden flashbacks) and some good action pieces that suddenly pop up. There is an interesting set piece in which the film follows Dong-chul's chase of Lee through a mall via surveillance cameras and then fighting off an attacker on stairs. Two car chases also stand out. The first is an extended one with lots of crashing into things and even driving one of the cars backwards down a flight of stairs. The second high adrenalin car chase ends with a terrific crash. There are  no bonus features. Grade: film 3.25 stars

Update on TV sets:

Henning Mankell's Wallander 3 (Sweden, MHz, 4 DVDs, NR, 549 min.). Krister Henriksson returns as Detective Kurt Wallander in six more telefilms. "The Trobled Man" is based on the novel of the same name by best-selling Swedish crime auther Mankell, while the other five are based on stories by Mankell. Wallander is a veteran detective with the Ystad police, but these days he enjoys more staying home on the beach with his dog Jussi, or playing with his granddaughter Klara. In the first film, "The Troubled Man," he again is on the outs at work -- suspended four weeks without pay for leaving his gun at a bar, after having a couple of drinks. By the sixth episode, "The Man Who Wept," he is considering retirement due to his deteriorating health. (And in "The Loss," Wallander gets thrown off a case after he questions a respectable doctor a little too vigorously.)

"The Troubled Man" is very much a family affair, yet its roots go back to a 1982 Cold War incident, when a foreign submarine was being forced out of the Swedish harbor of Harsfjardin. Now, 30 years later, the fisherman father of the sole diver to disappear during the incident, finds his son's body, setting off an ultimately deadly chain of events. Those events involve Wallander's daughter Linda, because her father-in-law, Hakan von Enke, is a retired naval commander who was involved in the failed mission to capture the submarine, suddenly goes missing, and von Enke's wife is killed in a car accident while apparently transporting secret military documents.

The other episodes include: "The Missing," the case of a missing girl is similar to one Wallander worked on 10 years previously; "The Betrayal," after a young woman reports her mother is missing, the girl is brutally murdered and her father, a motivational speaker, is the prime suspect; "The Loss," a woman is found dead at a construction site; "The Arsonist," a convicted arsonist returns home after serving his time, only to be accused when a kiosk burns down and the owner is killed; and "The Man Who Wept," a restaurateur is kidnapped and Wallander believes some of the police may be involved in the crime. Bonus features include a look at "Wallander's World" and an interview with Henriksson. My understanding is this is the end of this series; another Wallander series stars Kenneth Branaugh. Grade: season 3.5 stars

The Killing: The Complete Third Season (Fox, 3 DVDs, NR, 528 min.). The show that has had more resurrections than James Brown used to get up from collapsing under his cape during shows -- a fourth and yet again "final" series currently is airing on Netflix -- set off on a new case in its third season, as it takes place a year after the Rosie Larsen investigation. In fact, Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) no longer works as a Seattle homicide detective. However, ex-partner Stephen Holder's (Joel Kinnaman) search for a runaway girl leads him to discover a string of gruesome murders that may connect to a previous murder investigated by Linden, and she is drawn back into the life she thought she had left behind. This was a very enjoyable season, with a controversial ending that demands a follow-up, which, thankfully, the show is now getting. Grade: season 3.5 stars

Beyond Westworld: The Complete Series (1980, Warner Archive, 2 DVDs, NR, 243 min.). A year ago, HBO announced it would broadcast a TV series from JJ Abrams based on Michael Crichton's "Westworld" film (and just announced Anthony Hopkins will star in it); however, there already has been a TV series serving as a follow-up to "Westworld" and its sequel film, "Futureworld." "Beyond Westworld," however did not catch on and was cancelled after only a two-hour pilot and four hour-long episodes. In the series, John Moore (Jim McMullan), security chief of the Delos Corporation, the company that created the killer robots seen in the films, has to deal with deal an evil scientist named Simon Quaid (James Wainwright), who has taken control of the lifelike Delos robots, and plans to use them in his plot to conquer the world. Moore is helped by fellow agent Pam Williams (Connie Selleca) and computer genius Joseph Oppenheimer (William Jordan). The producer was Lou Shaw, who helped create "Quincy, ME." Two of the episodes never aired on TV, so it is good to have the complete series in this collection, which is manufactured on demand by Warner Archive (www.warnerarchive.com).

Bronco: The Complete First Season (1958-59, Warner Archive, 5 DVDs, NR, 1029 min.). This western series aired as part of "The Cheyenne Show" in tandem with "Sugarfoot." Ty Hardin plays ex-Confederate officer Bronco Layne, who returns to the Texas Panhandle to discover his home -- and his honor -- lost to him. That sets him wandering the West, fighting for the justice he was denied. Initially, Bronco filled in for Clint Walker on "Cheyenne," but then became its own series, complete with catchy theme song. There are 20 episodes, which include Bronco defending besieged settlers, uncovering fatal locomotive sabotage, figuring out the mystery of a man frozen in a glacier and "sailing" the prairie with a landlocked Navy officer (Lorne Greene). Other guest stars include Wayne Morris, Jack Elam, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn and Troy Donahue. The set is manufactured on demand by Warner Archive (www.warnerarchive.com).

Wizards and Warriors: The Complete Series (1983, Warner Archive, 2 DVDs, NR, 387 min.). One of television's first forays into the realm of high fantasy, complete with adventure and witty self-awareness, came from prolific sitcom writer Don Reo ("The John Larroquette Show," "Two and a Half Men"). It stars Jeff Conaway ("Taxi," "Babylon 5") as Prince Erik Greystone, who battles evil Prince Dirk Blackpool (Duncan Regehr of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine") and magician Vector (Clive Revill) for control of the continent of Aperans and his country of Camarand. Greystone is aided by strongman Marko (Walter Olkewicz). Also at stake is the hand of fair and spoiled Princess Ariel (Julia Duffy of "Newhart"). Only eight episodes were made of the mid-season replacement series, and most were directed by actor Bill Bixby. The show did win an Emmy for its costumes and was nominated for hairstyling as well. It is manufactured on demand by Warner Archive (www.warnerarchive.com).

The Glades: The Complete Fourth Season (Fox, 3 DVDs, NR, 572 min.). Fans of the show may not have liked how it ended -- basically unresolved -- but at least they now have the final season on DVD. Matt Passmore stars as charming Detective Jim Longworth, a Florida homicide investigator whose final 13 cases bring him to haunted plantations, rum-soaked shot girls and a zombie apocalypse. Meanwhile, Longworth waits to see whether Callie accepts his marriage proposal.

Wilfred: The Complete Third Season (Fox, 2 DVDs, NR, 286 min.). Currently airing its fourth and final season, this is a continuation of the adaptation of an Austrian TV series. Ryan (Elijah Wood) starts to doubt his own sanity, after the events in the finale of season two, when Ryan found a childhood drawing of him and his family and discovered that Wilfred also is in the drawing, hiding behind a tree. Is Wilfred (co-creator Jason Gann) really just a simple dog and not the talking dog he has been hanging out and sparring with for two seasons? Whatever. Wilfred is still playing mind games that do drive Ryan crazy. On a personal level, Wilfred falls in love and the sexual tension between Ryan and neighbor Jenna ramps up. There are 13 episodes in all.

American Dad Vol. 9 (Fox, 3 DVDs, NR, 418 min.). This animated series was created by Mike Barker, Matt Weitzman and "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane. Among the high jinks here, Stan and Klaus switch bodies, Steve joins a boy band, Jeff is held prisoner in space and Roger falls hard for Hayley. Note that the language is not suitable for all ages.

The New Normal: The Complete First Season (Fox, 3 DVDs, NR, 484 min.). This series, from Ryan Murphy (co-creator of "Glee"), is about California gay couple Bryan (Andrew Rannells) and David (Justin Bartha) who really want a child to complete their life together. They find a surrogate in Goldie (Georgia King),who moves in with them with her 9-year-old daughter, but Goldie's slacker ex is fighting for custody of their daughter (Bebe Wood) and her grandmother (Ellen Barkin) is a wise-cracking bigot. Guest stars include Matt Bomer and John Stramos. Even though the show won the 2013 People's Choice Award for Favorite New TV Comedy, it was cancelled in May 2013.

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