Blu Tuesday: Divergent, Need for Speed and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Divergent”

WHAT: In a dystopian future where society has been divided into five factions – Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Amity and Candor – 16-year-old Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) discovers that she’s Divergent, one of the rare few with an aptitude for multiple factions. But there are those that feel threatened by her kind, so Beatrice joins Dauntless in an attempt to hide her secret, finding an unlikely ally in trainer Four (Theo James).

WHY: Yet another young adult book series adapted for the big screen, “Divergent” spends so much time trying to educate the audience on all the nuts and bolts of author Veronica Roth’s complex universe that it never quite gets off the ground. The mythology itself is pretty sketchy, with so many unanswered questions about how the faction system operates and the motivation behind certain characters’ actions that it’s difficult to fully invest in the story. Though there’s an interesting concept regarding government and societal classes at its core, “Divergent” ultimately feels like two and a half hours of (mostly boring) exposition – the setup to the bigger story that is seemingly explored in the other books. The problem, however, is that despite assembling a stellar cast of young up-and-comers, Oscar winners and veteran character actors, director Neil Burger fails to make you care enough to want to see those future installments. “Divergent” is apparently very faithful to the source material, and in that regard, fans won’t have much to complain about, but as a potential franchise-starter, it falls disappointingly short.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a pair of audio commentaries (one with director Neil Burger and another with producers Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher), a making-of documentary, a featurette on the five factions and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Need for Speed”

WHAT: After an illegal racing accident lands small-town mechanic Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) in prison, he emerges determined to exact revenge on the man responsible, former rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), by competing in a top secret, invite-only race called the DeLeon. But before he can get justice, Tobey must race against the clock to get from New York to San Francisco in time for the event, all while evading the various law enforcement authorities hot on his trail.

WHY: It’s amazing that it’s taken this long for another studio to exploit the success of the “Fast and Furious” franchise with a racing movie of its own, but considering that Electronic Arts’ “Need for Speed” video game series predates the adventures of Dominic Toretto and Brian O’Connor by several years, you can hardly blame DreamWorks for wanting a piece of the pie. Unfortunately, apart from casting Aaron Paul in the lead role, there’s not much to like about Scott Walsh’s racing flick, which takes itself a little too seriously compared to the winking self-awareness of the “Fast and Furious” movies. “Need for Speed” is in desperate need of a lot of things – a better script, stronger direction, better pacing – but one thing you wouldn’t think it’d be lacking is excitement, and although the film has more its share of piston-pumping driving sequences, most of them are pretty tame, often dragging on for too long or cutting away to needless reactions from other characters. Gearheads will get some joy out of watching the assortment of beautiful cars speeding around the screen, but “Need for Speed” fails to be a worthy competitor to the “Fast and Furious” series, let alone a potential heir to the grease-streaked throne.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes an audio commentary by director Scott Walsh and actor Aaron Paul, four production featurettes covering things like the car race sequences and sound production, a handful of deleted scenes and a short outtakes reel.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Movie Review: “Divergent”

Starring
Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Zoe Kravitz, Maggie Q, Miles Teller, Ray Stevenson, Tony Goldwyn
Director
Neil Burger

The young adult craze (“Twilight,” “The Hunger Games”) has recently crashed (“Beautiful Creatures,” “Vampire Academy,” “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones”), and the media has decided that the fate of future young adult film adaptations will live and die on the box office returns of “Divergent.” This is patently unfair, of course; “The Hunger Games” sold 14 times as many books as “Vampire Academy,” so why should anyone expect anything less with their film adaptations? Answer: they shouldn’t, but somehow this is now “Divergent’s” problem. The good news is that “Divergent” should fare much better than the three ‘crashed’ movies. It’s intriguing, and asks valid questions about when we can reasonably expect a young adult to know who they truly are, and why we tend to punish people who prefer to think for themselves, but it has some issues as well, namely an absurd amount of exposition, a rigid story structure, and a lack of emotional impact.

Set in dystopian post-war Chicago at an undetermined time, all residents of the city are divided into five factions. Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is a member of the selfless Abnegation faction, but she faces a big decision in the next few days. As a 16-year-old, she, along with her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and all other 16-year-olds, will choose whether to remain in their current faction or join a new one. Both Beatrice and her brother defect to other factions, with Caleb choosing Erudite (smart, fact-driven) and Beatrice choosing Dauntless (brave, fearless). As a “stiff” (A derogatory term for Abnegation), Beatrice has her work cut out for her, but she proves to be more resilient than most had expected, and a lot of that has to do with the results of her pre-ceremony exam, where she was found to be Divergent, meaning that she exhibited the qualities of more than one faction. Her examiner (Maggie Q) warns her against telling anyone that she was Divergent, and Beatrice (who rechristens herself Tris in Dauntless) quickly discovers why: the fluid (read: non-conformist) tendencies of Divergents have branded them as the enemy of Chicago’s faction world, and they are hunted and killed when exposed.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to March

march

After what can only be described as a fairly lackluster start to 2014, moviegoers will be happy to discover that there are several promising titles scheduled for release throughout March. In addition to new films from Wes Anderson and Darren Aronofsky, this month marks the return of Veronica Mars, the debut of Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series and the arrival of a new challenger to the “Fast and Furious” franchise.

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”

Who: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Edward Norton, Adrian Brody and Saoirse Ronan
What: The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.
When: March 7th
Why: At this point in Wes Anderson’s career, you either like his movies or you don’t, which is good news for fans of the eccentric director, because “The Grand Budapest Hotel” looks very much like more of the same. While not every one of his films is an instant classic (“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” remains his worst effort), audiences usually have a pretty good idea of what to expect from a typical Anderson project, and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is no different. Quirky dialogue? Check. Even quirkier characters? Check. Whimsical production design painted in vibrant colors? Check and check. And if that’s not enough to get you on board, the director’s ever-expanding pool of talent adds a few new faces to the mix with Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law and Saoirse Ronan, making this perhaps his most impressive ensemble to date.

“300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE”

Who: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Rodrigo Santoro and Lena Headey
What: Greek general Themistokles leads the charge against invading Persian forces led by mortal-turned-god Xerxes and his vengeful commander Artemisia.
When: March 7th
Why: It’s been so long since the original “300” hit theaters that it’s hard to imagine many people still care about this prequel/sequel, even if the very idea of a spinoff was ridiculous from the start. With that said, credit to Frank Miller for coming up with an idea that complements the first film instead of feeling like a silly cash grab. Though Sullivan Stapleton will have a tough time living up to Gerard Butler’s Leonidas (especially if you’ve seen his work on “Strike Back”), he fulfills the beefcake quotient, while Eva Green is already earning positive reviews for her turn as the female baddie. Seeing Noam Murro behind the camera of a big action movie like “Rise of an Empire” may be a little perplexing considering his only other credit is the indie dramedy “Smart People,” but judging from the trailers, he’s nailed the look and feel of Zack Snyder’s universe.

“NEED FOR SPEED”

Who: Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, Scott Mescudi and Michael Keaton
What: Fresh from prison, a street racer who was framed by a wealthy business associate joins a cross-country race with revenge in mind.
When: March 14th
Why: It’s amazing that it took this long for another studio to exploit the success of the “Fast and Furious” franchise with a racing movie of its own, but considering that Electronic Arts’ “Need for Speed” video game series (from which the film gets its name) predates the original “The Fast and the Furious” by several years, you can hardly blame DreamWorks for wanting a piece of the pie. Casting Aaron Paul, hot off his Emmy-winning role on “Breaking Bad,” as the leading man is a surefire way to win support, though the involvement of director Scott Waugh (“Act of Valor”) is certainly cause for concern. One of the things that make the “Fast and Furious” movies so entertaining is that they don’t take themselves seriously, and if “Need for Speed” is unable to tap into that childish sense of fun, then it’s already lost before the race has begun.

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