Chuck Koplinski: Woodley shines in familiar 'Divergent'

Chuck Koplinski: Woodley shines in familiar 'Divergent'

Better than "Twilight" but not quite as good as "The Hunger Games," Neil Burger's "Divergent" is the latest foray into the arena of 'tween lit adaptations that's seen far more wannabe franchises vanquished than successful launches.

Film series based on teen fiction sensations have proven to be a hit or miss proposition — either they go through the roof or crash and burn under the weight of unrealized expectations and a sense of exaggerated quality.

While I don't think "Divergent" will go the way of the big-budget misfires "Beautiful Creatures" or "I Am Number Four," it should do well enough to warrant the two or three features that will come in its wake.

Credit a plucky lead actress and a story that has a more powerful subtext than you might expect for giving this film the opportunity to separate itself from the pack.

Set in Chicago in the near future, we're treated yet again to a dystopic society that's looked destruction in the face, having survived yet another cataclysmic war that's taken the world to the brink.

This time out, the powers that be in the Windy City have walled off the metropolis and separated its citizens into five different factions. The offspring of the adults in these groups are required to choose one of the groups to live in, once they've gone through an aptitude test while in their teens.

Our heroine Beatrice (Shailene Woodley, all peaches and cream with a streak of mean) is unsure which faction she will choose but having been born into the Abnegation tribe, who are a modest group dedicated to helping others and running the government, her parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd) expect her to follow in their footsteps.

Imagine their surprise when Beatrice, soon to go by the name of Tris, chooses Dauntless, the bloc charged with policing the city.

At first this seems like a dubious choice, as they appear to do nothing more than run about the streets and jump off moving trains and look like a bunch of hooligans. However, when you consider the alternative for our heroine is to feed stinky hobos, you can see the appeal.

These Dauntless are a rough group and Tris is required to show she has the spine to hang with them by going through a grueling training camp in which she needs to show her mettle.

This trial is hard enough; however, she soon hears that there's trouble a brewin' and that a coup is being planned to oust the Abnegation group from power, which could mean bad news for her folks.

However, Tris knows she's different — she's Divergent, a rebel who cannot adhere to the norm.

She and her kind are hunted down and exterminated at the bequest of the head elder Jeanine (Kate Winslet, looking utterly bored) as their existence is a threat to the system.

It's up to Tris to find others like her in order to stop this coup before innocents are killed.

The story from Veronica Roth's best-selling novel is a pastiche of elements we've been beaten over the head with since "Twilight" and its numerous imitators have assailed bookshelves and movie theaters across America.

The strong, misunderstood heroine goes through a trial of fire that transforms her into a woman to be reckoned with and a symbol of inspiration and all the while her love life ends up being more complicated than it should be.

Thankfully Woodley is on hand. She has a feistiness about her that's appealing and her transformation from wallflower to butt-kicker is not only convincing but also compelling. That she and Theo James as her love interest Four have chemistry and generate a bit of a spark means they're one up on the couples from "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games."

The production design of the film is noteworthy as Chicago is transformed into a city with one foot in the wasteland, struggling to maintain its urban identity. Its distinctive skyscrapers are festooned with wind turbines to generate energy, its river beds are dry and overrun with moss while the barrens along Lake Michigan have been transformed into farmland vital to the survival of her citizens.

It's an effective amalgam of real landmarks and computer wizardry that makes it distinctive amidst the cinema's cluttered futuristic landscape.

In the end, its lack of originality prevents "Divergent" from putting a distinctive stamp on the science fiction genre. Still, a surprising plot twist where Four's identity is concerned, an effective warning concerning the vagaries of ethnic cleansing and a winning turn from Woodley has me, while not necessarily anxious for, at least not dreading the next entry in the series.

'Divergent' (3 stars out of 4)

Cast: Shailene Woodley, Kate Winslet, Theo James, Miles Teller, Jai Courtney, Zoe Kravitz, Ansel Elgort, Ray Stevenson, Maggie Q, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn and Mekhi Phifer.

Directed by Neil Burger; produced by Lucy Fisher, Pouya Shabazian, Douglas Wick; screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor (based on the novel by Veronica Roth).

A Summit Entertainment Release. 139 minutes. Rated PG-13 (intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality) At the AMC Village Mall 6, Carmike 13 and Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

"Rises" a fitting swan song for Miyazaki (3-1/2 stars). Reportedly the final film from Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (he's announced his retirement many times before), "The Wind Rises" proves to be a fitting film to go out on as it is the most grounded of the animator's movies, a project that employs his distinctive visual flair in order to tell the story of Jiro Horikoshi, a near-sighted, frail engineer who was not allowed to fly but who went on to design the fighter planes used by Japan during World War II.

Surprisingly, the movie was greeted with the kind of backlash one would expect in America — if the common filmgoer here knew about Miyazaki and his films, that is — as many liberal Japanese criticized the director for praising the inventor of "killing machines," while others accused him of looking at Horikoshi through rose-colored glasses.

Nonetheless, "Rises" was the most successful Japanese film of 2013 due to Miyazaki's popularity.

To be sure, the movie is beautiful as are all of the director's movies and the approach he takes is in keeping with his past work, where a distinction is made between reality and what occurs in his subjects' imagination.

Here, Horikoshi meets his hero, Giovanni Battista Caproni, the progressive Italian aeronautical engineer whose work he admires in his dreams. He continues to have reveries during which he converse with him as he rises through the Mitsubishi Corporation where his designs are built and modified for the purpose of national defense.

What's interesting about these conversations is how they progress, from the mentor encouraging his protege to develop his ideas to talks in which Horikoshi attempts to justify how his inventions are being used.

More than anything, the film is an interesting study in denial and delusion, as the inventor is seen outwardly as bit of a wide-eyed idealist yet we know that he's battling great inner turmoil in a disturbingly innocent way.

Not all of the film is internal. Romance springs up between Horikoshi and a young girl named Naoka, whom he meets during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, one of the film's most spectacular and horrible sequences. They meet each other again a decade later and embark on a romance that's doomed from the start.

That this section of Horikoshi's life is fabricated as well only supports charges that Miyazaki went out of his way to put his hero in a better light.

Though there are many complex issues at play here, what the viewer is left with is a portrait of a man in turmoil, an inventor whose dreams of making beautiful flying machines that will bring him and others closer to nature have been perverted into instruments of destruction.

All of this is reflected through Miyazaki's sure eye, his hand-drawn images casting each environment in a way that reflects how his antagonist views them.

The scenes that take place in nature — lush forests, sparkling water, and clear skies — are in stark contrast to those set in the world of industry where Horikoshi's dream machines are manufactured.

A cruel sense of irony runs beneath Miyazaki's incredible imagery and this juxtaposition makes the news of his retirement all the more upsetting, as rarely has an animator infused his films with the sort of meaning that he has.

"Mars" Movie for Fans Only (2 stars). The release of "Veronica Mars," the big screen continuation of the cult television show, will be remembered for being a watershed moment in the history of film distribution.

Financed by fans through a Kickstarter campaign, it's the first studio-sponsored feature to be released in theaters the same day that it was available through pay-per-view services. The success of this venture was mixed at best. While showing in only 291 theaters, the film brought in a respectable $2 million.

However, with a $6 million budget, some are calling it a failure, which is a premature judgment as the final numbers are not yet in regarding how many fans shelled out $10 to watch the movie in the comfort of their homes.

That many had trouble downloading it and getting refunds for their trouble is another issue altogether, but it points to the fact that digital platforms may not be ready to handle a wide day-and-date release of a major Hollywood feature.

In the end, how the film fares under this release model is far more interesting than the film itself as it plays like nothing more than an extended episode of the series with nothing visually distinctive about it to warrant seeing it on a big screen.

For that matter, the story itself is nothing to write home about, as the mystery that the comely Miss Mars gets involved with is standard fare.

When one character makes a comparison to her adventures and those that took place on "Murder, She Wrote," I couldn't help but think that a more accurate comparison had never been made before.

Though having vowed never to return to her hometown of Neptune, Calif., for her 10-year high school reunion, Veronica (Kristin Bell) finds herself doing just that as she flies cross-country from New York City when she finds out her old beau Logan (Jason Dohring) has been accused of murder.

Before she knows it, our Nancy Drew is sucked back into the vacuous lives of her former high school peers, dealing with past grudges and petty behavior as she attempts to solve the murder of a pop singer with ties to those at Neptune High.

Even though writer/director Rob Thomas does a nice job of trying to get everyone up to speed with all things "Mars" during a slick opening credits sequence that provides outsiders with the nuts and bolts of the show, there's no question that devotees of the program are the only ones who will catch all of the inside jokes and understand the import of the relationships at play.

And that's fine — after all, they're the ones who donated money to get the film made, so it should be made to please them.

However, from this small sampling, I was left scratching my head. After seeing Veronica leave her sweet fiance in New York and cheat on him, after seeing her and Logan struggle to create any sort of chemistry and having to witness a mystery that would be more at home on "Scooby-Doo" than in a feature film, I couldn't help but wonder what all the fuss is about where "Mars" is concerned.

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