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Unopinionated: ‘Divergent’ Isn’t Terrible, But that Doesn’t Mean It’s Good.

Divergent terrible good

You’re different. You don’t fit into a category. They can’t control you. They call it Divergent. You can’t let them find out about you. (Tori speaking to Tris).

Every week, readers send me their unpopular opinions, and on Unopinionated, I explain why they’re unpopular in the first place.

From my inbox: “Here’s an unpopular opinion. Divergent is better than Hunger Games. There, I said it.” – Katie

Comparing these two films is obvious, mostly because Lions Gate Entertainment practically begged fans of Hunger Games to show up for their next young adult dystopia franchise in 2014. Based on a best-selling trilogy by Veronica Roth, Divergent is arguably better than the source material, but that’s not saying much.

The premise of Divergent is pretty much where the trouble starts. Years after an apocalyptic event nearly levels the world, a somewhat rebuilt Chicago has become home to a new, simplified caste system unapologetically inconsistent with nouns and adjectives.

The Amity faction is made up of happy farmers who live outside the city, Erudite holds the city’s intellectuals, Candor are honest and determine the law, Abnegation are selfless and drive the government, and Dauntless are the brave soldiers who protect everyone.

The future belongs to those who know where they belong. -Jeanine

Divergent terrible good

All people are born into a faction that characterizes one of these personality traits in which they’re most dominant, and when they come of age, these adolescents can choose to join another faction after taking what amounts to a personality test.

This is all fairly reminiscent of the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter, but while that more mystical and even mysterious element of the Hogwarts house system was more of an aside to the central plot, Divergentattempts to build an entire narrative around how our personalities divide us. While not a bad concept in theory, it’s immediately overwrought by a plot that never moves on from its initial principle, which isn’t even that interesting to begin with.

The main character, Tris (played by Shailene Woodley in her breakout role), craves a life beyond the plain Abnegation, the faction she was born into. She gets her wish when she discovers she’s “divergent,” meaning she fits into too many factions.

In other words, she’s too special because no one gets her. As if.

Don’t try and define me. – Tris

Tris joins Dauntless, much to everyone’s surprise, fueling the only narrative within Divergent that has some meaningful entertainment. A step up from typical High School movies, Tris has to overcome her literal fears in order to survive fitting into a group of young adults she previously had nothing in common with. All while dodging the inconvenience of her status as a divergent, making her a target if the secret gets out.

There are genuine thrills and absorbing moments to be had while watching Tris bond with the recruits and mainstays of the more free-wheeling Dauntless, especially within the commentary of a city trying to rebuild itself with harsher rules and regulations.

Divergent terrible good

But the payoff is too familiar and derivative to contribute anything meaningful to dystopian epics for this age range. Rather than provide something novel to Tris’s character and how she fits into a new world, the film jerks backward to make this about oppressive, authoritarian adults messing up everything.

Having a “chosen one” in any given story is a quick way to ramp up the mediocrity in storytelling. Harry Potter cleverly sidesteps this by shifting focus to how special the villain is, making him an equally important shade of the titular boy wizard. Hunger Games turns this trope on its head by making the “chosen one” special only in the eyes of the masses being manipulated into war, a far more interesting culture point.

Fear does something strange to people like Al. But not you. Fear doesn’t shut you down, it wakes you up. – Four

But Divergent has nothing interesting to give its “chosen one” except that she has too many dominant personality traits. There’s nothing else to Tris’s character that shapes her decisions and struggles to move through the plot. She’s simply special because the script demands it, and this is too obvious for most moviegoers.

On the other hand, it’s not clear that denser lore would have improved anything. The world of Divergent is already stuffed with uninspired naming conventions and quirks that beat the moviegoer over the head with reminders that they’re watching a movie created for kids.

Grade: C+

Fans of the books have plenty to love in Divergent, as it’s a streamlined improvement over the schlock writing that inspired it. And it certainly has some entertaining moments that keep the story moving. But at this point, fans of the genre have plenty of options superior to an empty psychology lecture.


Do you have an unpopular opinion you want challenged? Let me know in the comments and I’ll take it on in a future Unopinionated article. Or you can email nowconspiring@gmail.com

I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni

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Unopinionated: ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ Is Disney’s Best Computer Animated Film

wreck-it ralph best disney

In last week’s podcast, my cohosts and I discussed which recent Disney movie is the best, and I’ve gotten a lot of questions about my decision, Wreck-It Ralph, since. In an effort to make my case, here’s why the movie transcends many of its peers by the same studio.

Legendary animator Glen Keane was the original mind behind the story of Tangled, about 14 years before it was actually released.

At this point, it was still called Rapunzel, and what was about to be Disney’s first computer animated fairy tale was shut down before being rebirthed by Disney’s new hire, John Lasseter, who triumphantly returned as their chief creative officer after being fired decades earlier. The rest, including Tangled‘s massive success despite being the most expensive animated film ever made, is history.

With Tangled, Disney learned that a big gamble could pay off as long as the right creative minds were in charge of the vision. And that’s probably why they went ahead with their next risky release, Wreck-It Ralph, an animated video game movie that Disney had been trying to get off the ground since the late 80s (it was originally called Joe Jump, and then Reboot Ralph).

In fact, if any comparisons are to be made between Wreck-It Ralph and Toy Story, one can reasonably argue that this is because the concept for both films was being formulated at around the same time. It just took Wreck-It Ralph, a film about what video game characters in an arcade are doing when humans aren’t around, well over a decade to be released.

The comparisons between Wreck-It Ralph and Pixar don’t end there, as it is certainly the closest Walt Disney Animation (the studio) has ever come to delivering a computer animated movie that rivals its most prestigious studio. In fact, it’s not outrageous to say that Wreck-It Ralph surpasses some of the best animated movies in all of Disney’s pantheon.

wreck-it ralph best disney

There’s a lot to be said about how enticing the idea is that our video games (much like our toys) have worlds of their own, the way we like to imagine them. What Wreck-It Ralph does with this concept is dense, as it focuses on the inner turmoil and outer exploits of a villain programmed to be a villain, rather than the flawed hero archetype Pixar has done so well exploring with their Toy Story franchise.

Warning: spoilers for Wreck-It Ralph follow.

In a way, Ralph himself is not a villain, really. He’s nothing more than code, and the film goes out of its way to promote the concept of a “Code” that dictates much of what is out of our control. In Ralph’s case, he’s a video game villain who gets no respect (or love for that matter) from the denizens within his very own game. It’s only when he attempts a pilgrimage outside of his narrow limitations that he’s able to find a kindred spirit in a “glitch” character named Vanellope, who is also ostracized for reasons beyond her own actions.

The two of them eventually learn to live with their inherent burdens without having to escape their responsibilities, a very practical lesson for children and especially young adults confused by the collateral damage that comes with wanderlust. Rather than abandon the people who rely on you, Disney propositions that maturity and respect come from a healthy understanding of who you are in the world.

That doesn’t mean you can’t change your circumstances — Ralph certainly does this in the end by fulfilling his duties without being hated by everyone. But it does mean that your preconceived solution to problems like discontentment and loneliness may be terribly incorrect.

wreck-it ralph disney best

For Ralph, the solution to his problem wasn’t to earn someone else’s medal, it was to understand that being a villain doesn’t have to mean that people will hate him for doing his job. Vanellope assumed that winning the race would solve her problems, but it was revealed that she was, in fact, a victim of a much larger threat. Disney’s parallels here illustrate how some people are “losers” (which I don’t mean in a nerdy connotation), while others have more liberty to change their life for the better as winners. There’s no easy solution to fractured environments, but more often than not, it comes down to liking who you are in spite of how others see you

This is a tricky message, and one of Disney’s boldest, simply because it’s easy to misread the message as approval in the idea that people are free to do what they want recklessly, despite how this behavior turns out badly for Ralph. At the same time, everything works out for Ralph and his friends because he initially made mistakes, putting forth another message that bad things with good intentions can sometimes have good consequences (a clever parallel for the movie’s plot).

All of this gets to the heart of why Wreck-It Ralph is one of Disney’s most powerful films yet, but it’s accompanied by the same masterful production value that comes with the brand. It’s visually gorgeous. The action is quick and memorable. But its most impressive feat might be how well every subplot is tied together with the main story without losing the viewer’s attention. When everything comes together in Wreck-It Ralph, not a single character, detail, or even joke seems wasted.

And of course the movie is a treasure trove for video game lovers, years before Pixels would attempt the same nostalgia trick. Wreck-It Ralph graciously keeps the attention off of these jokes and references, however, in order to preserve the strength of the core characters.

wreck-it ralph best disney

Little touches throughout the movie contribute even more to the overall quality of the film. It’s amusing (and welcome) to see a young girl playing the violent Hero’s Duty while two boys aggressively fight over playing Sugar Rush. It’s a subtle reminder that some stereotypes certainly exist, and others exist to be defied. There’s nothing wrong with a young girl wearing pink, and the same goes for that girl also wanting to play a first person shooter. It coincides nicely with Vanellope stating she’d rather be a president than a princess.

Wouldn’t we all?

Grade: A

Wreck-It Ralph is one of my favorite Disney movies, and I enjoy how its spiritual successor, Zootopia, pushes this type of meaningful storytelling forward with similar thoughts on racism and bigotry. Frozen, too, upends a lot of superficial tropes, though that movie’s true strength comes in the trappings, not the actual gift.

For that reason, Wreck-It Ralph is Disney’s best computer animated film yet, and that probably won’t change anytime soon. Unless the upcoming sequel is somehow even better.


Do you have an unpopular opinion you want challenged? Let me know and I’ll take it on in a future Unopinionated article.

I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni

Unopinionated: ‘Inception’ is Leonardo DiCaprio’s Best Movie

inception best movie leonardo dicaprio

At the 88th Academy Awards, Leonardo DiCaprio won his first Oscar for Best Actor. Sadly, he received the long-awaited award for the wrong film.

I’ve written in length about how The Revenant is an achievement in little beyond the uncompromising vision of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. And DiCaprio has deserved this award for superior films, which include Catch Me If You CanThe AviatorInception, and The Wolf of Wall Street.

(I leave out The Departed only because that film, while mostly flawless, lacks a clear lead actor who carries the film.)

We can have a lengthy debate about which of these films are his best, but for the sake of time, I’ll submit that Inception is the clear standout.

Warning: mild spoilers follow for Inception.

Directed by Christopher Nolan, Inception is successful for bringing high-minded ideas to a movie big enough for the big screen. Taking place in a dreamscape where anything can happen, the movie has a unique restraint that is tossed aside at enough moments to make us yearn for it (the line “Dream bigger” uttered by Tom Hardy comes to mind).

inception best movie leonardo dicaprio

The set up for Inception is a slow build, as Nolan masterfully placed thrilling set pieces in a conceivable order that could come tumbling down for an ultimately satisfying final act. Only to finish the movie with a cliffhanger that begs every viewer of the movie to lend their take on what actually took place.

What enticed viewers about Inception in the first place was the promise that they’d see a unique sci-fi heist on par with accessible movies like Ocean’s 11. Yet audiences left feeling more challenged than anticipated, rivaled in part by the philosophical ripple effect The Matrix had on popular culture in 1999.

For that reason, Inception is one of those rare event movies that can be embraced by all matter of movie fans. Lovers of action and spectacle got their fill. Auteurs craving a brilliant performance received DiCaprio and Cotillard’s rush of a tragic romance, and over thinkers (such as myself) were allowed to pick apart the realities of a brand new world with fresh possibilities.

inception best movie leonardo dicaprio

For DiCaprio, Inception is one of his best performances, as he juggles his immoral occupation as a metaphysical master thief with the sympathetic yearning of a dreamer separated from his children. The audience, characterized beautifully by Ellen Paige, is able to uncover DiCaprio’s moral quandaries within the backdrop of the only environments where the actor’s motivations would make clear sense, trading flashbacks for interactive memories.

What makes his character (Cobb) shine is his parallel battle with the rational and irrational, which comes to a head by the final act. Cobb thinks quickly and lives by the logic that has helped him survive fugitive life, but he’s just as vulnerable to the emotional impulses (plagued by his inner ghosts and demons) that undermine every plan he makes.

Much like the gaping businessmen Cobb is infiltrating for hidden secrets, Cobb himself is more or less a character we’re unwrapping as well, and the idea that he must let go of his wife is where the movie’s grandest inception actually takes place, begging the question: could Cobb have really been dreaming the entire time? The answer is up to whoever is asking the question.

(I unpack this entire exercise in length via my What You Missed About Inception article from 2013).

Inception is imaginative, massively entertaining, and hard to stop talking about. It has the dialogue of a visionary who spent a decade writing the script, characters who make the audience feel intelligent and moronic all at once, and an ending that is likely impossible to spoil in a few sentences. It’s a wholly original work of art that is harder to browse for imperfections than nearly anything else, and it is the best film yet of Leo’s career.

Grade: A+


 

Do you have an unpopular opinion you want challenged? Let me know and I’ll take it on in a future Unopinionated article.

I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni

Unopinionated: There’s a Reason You Think ‘Avatar’ Is Generic

avatar opinion

Unopinionated is a brand new editorial series where I explore “unpopular opinions” and why they’re unpopular in the first place. This week: loving Avatar is a hard thing to do now more than ever. 

In October, I made a friendly bet with a fellow movie buff who was convinced Star Wars: The Force Awakens would dethrone Avatar as the highest grossing movie of all time. It’s now February and my friend has conceded, seeing as how Star Wars is still roughly $800 million short of the 2009 3D epic and hasn’t even surpassed the #2 spot, Titanic.

Not even adjusting for inflation.

How did I know The Force Awakens would fall short? It wasn’t with all the confidence in the world, just a simple memory of how Avatar took the entire world (namely China) by storm with the introduction of 3D to the mainstream. It was the movie that spurred the release of worldwide theaters just to house the IMAX technology necessary to watch it. For that reason, this was a global movie in which people saw 3D and IMAX for the very first time, hence all of the rereleases that would drive Avatar to an impressive box office take of well over $2.7 billion.

It was obvious to many people like myself that The Force Awakens wouldn’t draw in those same numbers worldwide, but I find it hard to blame anyone for believing a movie as hyped up as the new Star Wars film deserves to perform better than one of the most generic science fiction films in recent memory. Who wouldn’t want such a fun movie starring Han Solo again to do better than a dated rehash of Dances with Wolves?

avatar opinion

That said, an “unpopular opinion” held by many is that Avatar isn’t just an average movie. It’s a terrible film that doesn’t deserve its box office throne. This unpopular opinion was brought to me by fans of The Force Awakens who are simply frustrated with how the numbers turned out, but for my first Unopinionated, I’ve decided to address the fact that Avatar is an average movie, not a bad one.

And to do that, I’ll be addressing three key aspects of the film: the Good, the Bad, and the Meh.

The Good

On a visual level, Avatar truly was a remarkable film when most of us saw it in late 2009/early 2010. What the movie does with color depth and digital effects is something 3D movies are still imitating today (and poorly most of the time). While you can’t judge a movie solely on how it looks, you can certainly credit effort where it’s due, and Director James Cameron offered something truly beautiful that pushed the needle forward for how CGI can transcend the “uncanny valley.”

The movie also boasts a wacky creativity for its  fantasy sci-fi setting. The character designs are inspired, the environments are as vibrant as they are subtle, and every application of CGI fits naturally, from the action scenes to the computer animated characters.

This fusion of live-action with computer animation is nothing to scoff at, and for many moviegoers, a by-the-numbers plot is all the film really needed to impress. What Avatar excels at is scope, in that it uses its effects for an impressive feat of world-building that makes its plot far more accessible than it deserves to be.

The Meh

It’s telling that Sam Worthington (the lead actor) has less animation than the characters made by a computer. He’s meant to be a straight man to the wonders of Pandora, but he’s severely lacking of any charisma that compels our interest.

avatar opinion

He’s not terrible, but he’s also not very good. And the same can be said for most of the characters meandering Pandora with their simplistic motivations that don’t boil down to much more than anti-war propaganda even our college professors would fine overbearing.

Which brings us to the main complaint lobbied at Avatar: its plot is too familiar and undemanding when you hold it against the beauty of the movie itself. Like one of the early IMAX offerings that felt more like a test run of what the technology could do, Avatar comes across as if it was purposefully written by amateurs, which is a startling contrast to the detail put into pretty much everything else this movie has to offer.

Cameron remixes many techniques from his previous films in Avatar, such as the forbidden love dynamic of Titanic, the droll narration from Terminator, the space marine aesthetic from Alien, and so on. Any other director would get a pass for this, but because Cameron’s work is so iconic, this mixing and matching is too obvious to be appreciated.

And of course there’s no avoiding how reminiscent Avatar is to Dances with WolvesPocahontas, and pretty much any other film featuring the story of a white man learning the ways of an indigenous tribe.

When it comes to plot and interesting ideas, Avatar doesn’t try anything new, but to the film’s credit, it doesn’t fail outright. We just hated it more at the time because we were disappointed at how close Avatar stuck to a formula, rather than provide the sort of genre twist worthy of such an ambitious film.

The Bad

Honestly, there isn’t much. You can complain that the dialogue and cartoonishly evil villain are draining, but they aren’t atrocious qualities. Avatar mostly plays it safe as a predictable romp on an alien planet, which makes it regrettably average, not bad.

avatar opinion

Yes, the film has its share of haters, and their criticisms are usually valid. But analyzing Avatar as a piece of film requires an honest look at everything it offers, not just the parts that distracted you. Pandora is a well-made paradise of science fiction. The 3D is expertly used to create a sense of immersion that no other movie had yet accomplished in the same way. The entirety of the film’s experience created a sense of awe for its many viewers…dragged down by some unfortunate compromises.

When this movie came out, many people likened it to the first Star Wars, convinced it would capture the imagination of the next generation. I think it’s safe to say that never fully came to pass, mostly because Avatar‘s story was too formulaic to grab viewers at every level. While Star Wars was also a bit cheesy, its rich and interesting characters managed to make up for it. Avatar, on the other hand, only has what will soon be dated visuals and an accompanying footnote to hold itself up as an accomplishment.

Grade: C 

Is there an unpopular opinion you think deserves the Unopinionated treatment? Shoot me your suggestion in the comments.

I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni

Why Inception Is One of the Best Movies of Our Generation

 

 

inception

What You Missed About Inception:

For me, a truly great film isn’t really like a masterpiece. A masterpiece, after all, is more about critical praise and the apex of one’s career. Inception is great in a different way. It’s just smart. It didn’t receive universal, critical praise (though it got some) because it completely went over the heads of almost everyone.

For all of you who think you “get” the movie, I sincerely doubt that more than a handful actually caught everything that was going on in the story.

Here’s a test to see if you did: do you think the ending was a cliffhanger? Because if you did, you are dead wrong.

With Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar coming out this week, I thought it would be fun to revisit one of the first fan theories I ever wrote. I wrote this piece about Inception and it’s myriad secrets back in 2013, and I’m still finding more reasons for why it’s one of the best films, period. And why most people don’t seem to fully grasp how important it was.

Check it out here in case you haven’t had a chance to read it.

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